Sunday, 5 April 2020
Stranger Things 3
2019 USA TV
Okay so... the kids are back. And so are some Russians.
This 3rd Series of Stranger Things takes place, for the most part, in 1985. Which totally throws things out the window when most of the kids, except Dustin who is on his way home from summer camp, sneak into a screening of Day Of The Dead on its opening night. It begs the question I have been asking myself all the way through these three series. How come none of the kids are accountable for being out and about, sometimes missing for days, with none of their parents wondering where the heck they are? You’d think after all the stuff that the kids went through in Series One (reviewed here) and Two (reviewed here), they would be closely watched and supervised by now.
Anyway, this third season is easily as good as the second and far superior to the first. It does kind of wear its influences loud and clear on its sleeve though... especially in terms of the plotting which sees the return of the mind flayer taking over host bodies and a group of Russians who have built a secret facility, underground near Hawkin’s new shopping mall, The Star Court... and who are foolishly trying to open the ‘big, portal of terror’ once closed by Eleven at the end of the second series. I’ll come back to the story influences, as I see them, in a minute.
This one sees Dustin return with his new, ‘super duper’ ham radio, which has truly unbelievable range and which he calls Cerebro (yeah, okay, we get it already) and a whole lot of loved up stuff. Right away though, things are thrown into turmoil in terms of people pairing off for relationships, dumping each other and, in the case of Will Byers, getting angry that his friends aren’t interested in playing Dungeons & Dragons anymore... just not so angry that he can’t feel the presence of a part of the mindflayer that escaped the last series in the back of his head.
And, it’s actually a proper, full on horror story kind of series this time. The plot, which has Dacre Montgomery’s Billy character from Season 2 taken over by the mind flayer so he can start converting other people in the local community into slave zombies for said creature, is pretty much a cross between Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Blob. And it really goes for it too... I rarely make a fuss over special effects (unless they’re really bad) but I was very impressed with the goriness of the exploding rats and people in this one. Especially a wonderful horror moment, unseen by the two people who have just left a scene, of a rat exploding into a splash of red gore and intestines, only for said innards to start oozing and crawling their way out of its cage. Beware of the blob, you guys!
The show is filled with the usual witty one liners... when Max, played again by Sadie Sink, takes over from the adults in sorting out a pretty ugly looking medical emergency, the line that seals the deal is “I skateboard. Trust me.” Someone who’s used to dealing with horrific injuries on a regular basis I guess. Or the wonderful moment where she refrains from answering herself, Millie Bobby Brown’s query as Eleven of... “What are happy screams?”
Alas, a couple of regular characters die in this season, including one of my favourites near the end of the last episode (at least, we think that persons’s dead.... there’s kind of a mention made of an “American” in the mid post-credit scene at the end of the last episode*). So that’s a shame. However, there’s a fantastic new ‘potential love interest’ character in the shape of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke playing Robin Buckley, who works at the Ice Cream parlour in the mall with Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington character, who’s certainly come a long way since his introduction as a possible villain in the first series. Actually, apart from being absolutely brilliant as a foil for Steve in this, Maya Hawke’s character demonstrates one of the things which impressed me the most about this series...
I just can’t tell you specifically why, in regards to her or it could be considered a spoiler.
What I can say, though, is that things play out a lot less predictably than they did in the previous two seasons. Things are set up, sometimes they have been set up from the previous year and... it does get pretty obvious how strings are going to be pulled but, for the majority of them (and excepting the death of two regular characters in the final episode, which you can kind of guess by the direction the script has gone in), the threads don’t pull together in quite the same way you thought they were going to... well, at least not yet, anyway. One or two things might still happen if there’s a fourth series but.. nope, things didn’t quite go as predictably as they did in the previous two shows... which I am very grateful for.
It also seems a lot darker... not just in the amount of blood and viscera in the majority of the episodes but also in terms of what’s at stake and the dramatic intensity of some of the scenes. There’s a beautiful ending to the sixth of the eight episodes where things get really dark for Eleven (and all of humanity) and the show's producers have decided to go 'full on' by using an extract from the Phillip Glass opera Satyagraha (probably my favourite opera, it’s on play at work all the time) and then allowed it to play out through the end credits too and, with the addition of this music, it really gives the visuals and dialogue a lift of ‘doom laden hell on Earth right around the corner’... which is just what this episode needed.
There are also the odd annoying things about the production. For example... and I can only assume this is in homage to the prolific nature of these same kinds of mistakes in many 1980s shows and movies, the kids penetrate a certain area of the Russian base by... crawling through air ducts. Dudes, this is such an awful cliché! My dad worked in the heating and building trade and he complains every time people do this in the media. Those things are filled with whacking great globs of machinery. You can’t be crawling through them. He also gets annoyed with the other thing the kids did in this one... look up to find a trap door in the lift so that they can escape discovery. Guys! When was the last time you ever saw a trap door in an elevator? Answer... never (or rarely). You don’t put them in otherwise you would have your passengers crawling out and making trouble when the lift gets stuck. This doesn’t happen!
Asides from that, though, Stranger Things 3 is probably the best of the three seasons so far but, honestly, after an ending like that where things seem to, despite the stupid mid-end credits sting, have come to a conclusion... well, I almost don’t want to see where they’d go with this one. I really don’t want another series after the way this one has finished so... yeah... loved it but not holding my breath for a fourth because, I suspect, unless the writers compromise themselves in ways I wouldn’t want them to, it wouldn’t be the same show. This season though... was a really nice slice of 1950s B Movie science fiction horror wearing 1985 clothes. So worth a look.
*Since I wrote this, that character is sighted alive and well in the trailer for Season Four, albeit in changed circumstances so, yeah, still in it I guess.
Wednesday, 1 April 2020
The Andromeda Strain
USA 1971 Directed by Robert Wise
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B
The Andromeda Strain is a movie made in 1970 which had a delayed release in 1971 and it’s one of those films which was always on television when I was a kid in the 1970s and which I’ve been meaning to catch up to now for years. It’s also a film which I confuse with another super-virus film I’ve not seen but which also played on 1970s television with alarming frequency, The Satan Bug. Now I have the scores from both these movies but I’ve never been able to give either of those scores context until now... with the release of Arrow’s Blu Ray restoration of The Andromeda Strain (I’ll have to pick up the other movie at a later date).
I hadn’t even realised it before picking this new version up but the film is directed by Robert Wise... one of the most famous and accomplished of American directors, in my opinion, who never really seems to have much of a signature style from project to project that I can detect. So he edited Citizen Kane and directed such famous films as The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek The Motion Picture and, of course, my favourite horror movie, The Haunting (which I reviewed here). So, by the time I had the disc in the machine, I was really looking forward to this one.
And... it’s a film that starts off strong but, although it has a lot of suspense built into it... does kinda run out of steam towards the end, I feel, for reasons I’ll try to make clear later.
It starts off with some textual information that the film is based on true information etc, which is completely false since Michael Crichton, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, freely admits to making it all up and the jargon written for the scientists to talk about in this is, it would seem, equally imaginative. Following this we have a very in-your-face opening title sequence where various bits of typography giving ‘document information’ is collaged with the various credits bombarding the audience while composer Gil Mellé’s melange of crashing electronic tonalities come hurtling in to create an equally violent but appropriate assault on the ears.
This is followed by a sequence in a desert where two men go to check out a small village (with a population of 62 people) where something is obviously very wrong. After they start heading towards the community, Robert Wise does a very smart thing and we then cut to the military outpost where the two are radioing in all that happens to them. We don’t see these two men again... just hear them as they encounter body after body before they die themselves, victim to an alien virus which has crashed down to Earth on one of our satellites. However, because it’s all done with the sound of their voices and we just observe the various men in the room receiving the broadcast and their reactions to it, the scene is rendered a lot more dramatic and scarier than if you had just seen two men collapsing.
Then, after a mad scramble as four crack scientists, all strangers to one another, are commandeered by the military, we see two of them, played by Arthur Hill and James Olson, go into the dead village in special suits and we see them explore the corpse ridden community. The director keeps splitting up bits of screen and has moving, fragmented images showing you what the two are seeing as you also follow them on separate, simultaneous windows... like a huge split screen sequence gone wrong with portions that slowly move around on their own... this is quite an experimental, expressionistic film on Robert Wise’s part, I would say.
After finding two survivors... a crying baby and an old, drunken man... the two bring them back to the base station which makes up the setting of the majority of the rest of the film (apart from the odd insert sequence). It’s here they are joined by the other two scientists played by David Wayne and Kate Reid. There’s another nice bit of expressionism as these two go down in an elevator and the screen splits to show each of them on either side of a diagram of the elevator tracking their progress.
The facility they are in takes the form of five big circular floors underground, each one at a different level of decontamination as the last. I’m surprised no mention of Dante’s five rings of hell is made in the script, to be honest. Especially since the next 15 to 20 minutes shows them spending almost a day going through five separate sets of decontamination procedures (including a six hour rest break) to ensure that, when they arrive on Level 5 (the deepest level) where they will do their job to determine the nature of the virus and just how to deal with it, they are as germ free as possible.
Now the film is interesting because it does its utmost, despite the quite expressive use of split screen and constant reference to diagrams and recorded images, to present the film as almost a fly on the wall documentary and... it’s a neat tightrope that Wise manages to walk to actually get the film to succeed on this level for so long. Indeed, it’s where the dramatic story set ups are introduced early on in the film that really let things down because, frankly, it just keeps telegraphing itself in the most obvious ways. For example, it establishes fairly early on that the character played by Kate Reid has trouble with red, flashing lights so you just know that, at some dramatic point in the film, she’s going to throw an epileptic fit.
Similarly, a lot of fuss is made about James Olsen’s character (who I last saw being similarly deadpan as the main hero of Moon Zero Two... reviewed here) being ‘single’ and so being the one entrusted with the special key which disarms the nuclear device when the base goes into self destruct mode to stop any virus from spreading (which in the case of this one, as it turns out, would only make the virus stronger). So you kinda know there will be a dramatic countdown chase as Olsen is trying to stop the self destruct sequence from running and, sure enough, this sequence serves as the climax of the movie. By this point, though, the transparency of these dramatic devices coupled with a lack of real tension in the last third of the story kinda makes for a dull movie by the end. Which is a shame because lots of this movie really works... it just doesn’t maintain the tension towards the finish line and seems somehow anti-climactic.
That being said, though, Gil Mellé’s score, which I mentioned earlier, is really great. There’s not much of it and it’s sparsely spotted, with the score kicking in to highlight the odd bit of drama or ‘information’ but it’s effective and also, as far as I’m concerned, a great listen away from the movie. As far as I know the original, full movie masters have been lost to time for this score but the short 10 inch, hexagonally shaped (as is the virus when magnified) vinyl release from 1971 must have pretty near to all of the music on it anyway and the limited edition Intrada CD from a few years ago uses this recording. It’s a wonderful example of synthesised abstraction with the occasional stab at melodic backing and rhythm... it’s pretty good away from the images (and is probably still my best take away from the movie).
Not much more to say about The Andromeda Strain other than Robert Wise certainly provides us with an interesting film and the use of extreme contrasts in sound and some interesting image choices still make for an enthralling experience for a lot of the running time. If you are a fan of this director’s work then I would certainly recommend you check this one out. Especially in this nice Arrow Blu Ray restoration which has the usual plethora of good extras (which, alas, I haven’t had time to watch) thrown in with it. Certainly if you are going to grab a copy of this film, the Arrow version is the route to go down so, if you have a hankering for an alien super virus movie in this time of government lockdown and self isolation, grab this one while it’s hot, would be my advice.
Monday, 30 March 2020
The Complete Peanuts
Volumes 1 - 26
by Charles M Schulz
The Peanuts Dell Archive
by Schulz and Various
Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is a Harry Potter fan.
I didn’t know that but it kinda makes sense since anybody who has done a lot for getting a new generation of children into reading would surely have appealed to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz... or Sparky, as his friends and family knew him.
The reason I didn’t know this is because I pretty much hadn’t read any of the Peanuts strips after around the mid-1980s. I’d read quite a few of them from the years before that but Schulz was knocking these things out for around 50 years, from 1950 - 2000, on a daily basis so, you know, there was a lot there I hadn’t read. So, sometime towards the end of last year, I decided to remedy that and started reading the entire run in the few spare minutes I had left over each day, getting through a year roughly every few days.
Peanuts has always been in my life in one form or another and it’s also one of the things me and my late best friend Kerry also bonded over quite often.
When I was a kid my parents had a subscription to the Sunday magazine edition of The Observer. I used to mostly only read one thing in this, the full colour Sunday edition of Peanuts which had extra panels than the usual three on the regular daily strips. Then, years later when I was in my mid to late teens at school, I discovered a weird little second hand bookshop off the beaten track about twenty minutes walk away. It was only open on a Thursday afternoon and on a Saturday morning. I used to go there almost every Thursday after school to spend my Saturday job money there (in the days when a second hand book would be priced somewhere between 20p and 30p). I read a lot of things which have stayed with me from this shop over the few years it was still open... almost the entire run of Philip K. Dick novels, around 60 or so of the original Doc Savage novels, the Bond books, the Quiller books, the Modesty Blaise novels, 60 or more Michael Moorcock novels... this shop was a magical gateway to fantasy worlds I still inhabit to this day.
And, of course, I grabbed around 40 or so of the paperback Charlie Brown/Peanuts collections from them. They reprinted the strips in chopped up vertical displays and I just adored them. And, yes, thank you... I was the kind of kid who kept a little book of lists of required titles on me to make sure I didn’t buy any doubles. I used to lend them to my friend Kerry too and my favourite Peanuts memory must be the time when I discovered some new reprint books which were slightly thinner but which were maybe an inch taller and wider than the other Peanuts books. So I took it to school the next day and showed my friend the cover of the one I’d bought the night before... Thompson Is In Trouble Charlie Brown! I knew my friend knew all the Peanuts characters as well as I did, possibly better, so I waited the second or so and then, sure enough, Kerry looked at me and said... “Thompson? Who’s Thompson?” I looked at him nonchalantly as I slowly turned the book around to reveal the back cover. This was a depiction of the character Woodstock holding up a sign and, on that sign it said... “Thompson? Who’s Thompson?” Kerry saw this, groaned to himself and started grinning. I don’t know why I still remember this incident but it was one of the few highlights of my school period.
I fondly remember our last collective run in with the Peanuts gang, as it was literally a few months before Kerry’s death. We went into London one Saturday for a big gallery show on the history of Charles Schulz and his iconic strip. We had a good time walking around those galleries and I am very grateful, in hindsight, that we took the time to go around that thing.
So The Complete Peanuts is a 26 volume collection of all of the Peanuts strips from 1950 to 2000 in chronological order, two years per tome. It also includes Schulz’s earliest versions of the characters from the Li'l Folks cartoons, both at the start and the end of the run here and, also, various comic book and advertisement appearances. These are all reprinted in black and white, as the majority of the strips were. They are handsome hardbacked volumes and each has an introduction from a different, famous personality... so Hal Hartley, Wes Anderson, Barack Obama, Garrison Keiller, Whoopi Goldberg... lots of people have been gathered to sing the praises of the man and talk about his influences on them. The Peanuts Dell Archive takes some (not all) of the various Dell Four Colour Comics from the 1950s and 60s and reproduces them in their original full colour. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t reprint just the few Schulz stories from these comics but also a huge amount of the other writers and artists who worked on these.
From the start, Schulz’s strip had something magical and was addressing things in ways which other newspaper strip characters couldn’t even get near. Schulz’s understated stabs of humour peppered with truisms are also often quite surreal at times and have an almost world weary feel to them at others... which is interesting when you are dealing with characters who are perpetually no older than about six years of age (of course, they always seem to know what year it is too... which is hard for continuity conscious people like myself, who can’t work out why these kids don’t grow up in these panels from year to year).
Although it sets a tone with its lead character Charlie Brown (although it’s true that his dog Snoopy could also be considered the lead character too), things are mostly unchanging for him over the years. For instance, one of the very early strips has Charlie Brown walking along towards a group of kids. One of the kids says... “Here comes Charlie Brown.” Then, when he has passed them by and is out of earshot, the same kid finishes off with... “How I hate him.” So yes, the eternal misfortunes of Charlie Brown start here but, especially in the early days, he’s not always the loser he’s sometime made out to be. A lot of the first few years, for instance, regularly has a strip where Charlie Brown ‘winds up’ one of the other kids and the last panel is often of him being chased away from a scene smiling as he says something along the lines of... “I get my kicks.” Much later in the run Charlie even gets a girlfriend, of sorts and does have some good things happening to him from time to time.
In November 1951, we have the first of what would be the annual tradition of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick and then pulling it away at the last moment. However, the first time this is done, it’s not Lucy who holds the ball at all but Violet...Lucy came into the strip as a toddler in early 1952. The same month as the first ball kick we get the first sighting of Snoopy’s kennel when a TV aerial is bought for it although, like pretty much all of the characters, Snoopy is drawn a little differently to the way he evolved... he’s not a million miles off from where he would later end up visually but, of all the characters, he’s probably the one who changed the most.
And then, in October of ‘52, a character breaks the fourth wall for the first time, although what with the surreal moments in the strip over the years, this is probably the least subtle it’s ever been done. After getting a stupid answer from Charlie Brown, Beethoven fanatic Schroeder walks off saying... “Sometimes I think I should put in for a transfer to a new comic strip.”
Getting back to Snoopy though, its hard to keep a track of just who owns him in the strip in the early days. It seems almost as if he lives with whichever kid seems to take Schulz’s fancy at the start. Somewhere around late 1955 though, he’s finally and positively identified as being Charlie Brown’s dog. In the early days, Snoopy’s kennel is rarely seen except for having that TV aerial installed and then, a little later, to show an air conditioning unit fitted to the side. After a while, though, we get into the iconic idea that he sleeps on top of his kennel. That being said, during his last few years working on the strip, Schulz began to depict him sleeping in bed with Charlie Brown on a number of occasions. In 1993, however, it’s revealed that Snoopy mostly sleeps on top of his kennel because he has claustrophobia... which is a shame but Peanuts does seem to get a little darker and more cynical as Schulz got older, I think. Lots of famous firsts for this character though, as the years go by including a 1964 reference to him as being a ‘Beagle’, which is something we hadn’t known for the 13 years prior to this. In March 1969 he was also ‘the first Beagle on the moon’ and I remember as a kid I used to have a Snoopy figure in his Apollo Mission outfit. At that exhibition last year, we saw a whole bunch of those in very slightly different variations from various manufacturing runs. In June 1970, as the punchline to a joke, Snoopy is seen wearing sunglasses for the first time, which would later become his Joe Cool alter ego’s signature trademark.
In an interesting use of composition and comic strip semiotics, which was something Schulz was continually experimenting with, in February 1961, Snoopy kicks his dog dish through three consecutive panels, thus exploring the idea of linear time over multiple static moments... something which is probably taken for granted in modern times. Another load of surreal turns include various gags of Snoopy interacting in various ways with the depiction of Schroeder's music, manifest in the air as notes on a set of staves but somehow also a tangible force once Snoopy is in a scene. There’s also a sequence in the strip where Snoopy is promoted to Head Beagle and it’s bizarre in that his whole inauguration is televised. And, of course, there are his various flights of fancy from the troubled First World War fighter pilot who is constantly being attacked by The Red Baron to a surreal version of the Foreign Legion as he leads a group of the bird Woodstock’s friends through the imagined desert.
Talking of Woodstock, this character was in it for quite a few years hanging out with Snoopy until he finally reveals his name in June 1970. Other firsts include the 1966 first appearance of Peppermint Patty and the August 1968 arrival of Franklin.
The strip is often whimsical and understated but it always feels right and you sometimes get the feeling that the worlds problems are being debated in this parallel universe of Schulz’s work. And, as I said, the strip does get quite surreal, quite a lot... and that’s not just used for Snoopy’s character. For instance, there’s a running joke starting in 1974, which carries on in subsequent years, of Sally developing a kind of conversational relationship with the bricks that make up the school building. Or there’s that time when Peppermint Patty is held back a year but her old desk in the other class is haunted by the sound of her snores. And, considering that the Peanuts gang were on practically every greetings card you could find in the 70s and 80s, it’s interesting that, when Snoopy wants to send The Red Baron a greetings card, he considers buying a Garfield Birthday card for him.
Another thing I like is the constant stream of movie references that make their way into the strip from time to time. There’s many a mention for Citizen Kane, for example but there are also some great throwaway lines like this one in reference to Alfred Hitchcock...”I don’t trust birds anymore since I saw that movie.”
As I read these beloved strips I realised that it was also a microcosm for the way the world has grown and the attitudes of people over the years. I mean, there’s something really jarring when you get a Harry Potter reference in a Peanuts cartoon and, frankly, realise that in 1993, Lucy is using a mobile phone. And the metatextual nature of the strips can sometimes creep up on you without you knowing it, such as the three daily strips in 1997 promoting a real life concert of Peanuts music at Carnegie Hall. And, considering my profession as a graphic designer, why did it take Schulz to clue me in with a very in-your-face reference, about Etaoin shrdlu? No... you google it the same as I had to.
The Dell Comic Archives are interesting in that they show people and artists who weren’t always 100% in step with Schulz’ style and even the one that Schulz worked on himself for the comic books were somewhat different to the meanderings of his daily strip. I don’t think it’s necessary the extended stories that brought about this change in this material... after all, Schulz had a lot of running stories going on for a few weeks when he got into an idea... I just think that a different version of the medium for a specific audience obviously had different needs and this changes the tone somewhat.
I’d never realised, for instance, that Schulz’ daily Peanuts newspaper strips also quite often delved into the realm of political satire like other newspaper cartoonists often do. My favourite one was a running strip in the... I think... 1970s where Charlie Brown is trying to get a dog license from his local post office for Snoopy. Each day he ends up being given the wrong thing like a fishing license until, on the last day, he gets the right one. On the last day he says something to an ‘out of frame’ Snoopy along the lines of... “No, she says you don’t need a license for that.” The last panel shows Snoopy walking out with some kind of assault rifle. I think that Schulz, who served in the Second World War, made pretty clear his sentiment on the foolish notion that anybody had the right to bear arms in his country and I’m really pleased he did this.
On February 13th 2000 a special strip appeared. The last one. Charlie Brown is seen talking on a phone with the phrase, “I think he’s writing.” Panel two is Snoopy on his kennel typing “Dear Friends...” The third panel is also him writing and a heartfelt message from Schulz which I’ll quote here fully...
I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost 50 years.
It has been the fulfilment of my childhood ambition.
Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip, therefore I am announcing my retirement.
I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.
Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy... how can I ever forget them...
Charles M. Schulz”
Charlie Schulz passed away the day before this strip ran... and if you’ve just spent months reading his entire run, well... trust me, it’s a very moving moment.
The last volume in the series of The Complete Peanuts contains a long afterword by his widow, Jean Schulz, which talks a lot about their time together and, as you can imagine, it’s very touching. I couldn’t think of a nicer way to finish up this series and I found the whole experience both joyful and sometimes very sad. The Complete Peanuts is, as far as I am concerned, worth its weight in gold and if anyone is a budding strip cartoonist, I think you can learn a lot from reading through some of these volumes... strong lines, brevity, not over reaching but teasing out an idea... this is all good stuff. An absolute recommendation from me to anyone who wants to read something often gentle but never unswerving or dodging the bullets... a strip that tackles issues head on and with the right balance to make sure some of these insights really stab home. As well, of course, as being a whole lot of fun. I’ll aim to read through these again in my remaining lifetime, for sure.
Sunday, 29 March 2020
Jay And Silent Bob Reboot
USA 2019 Written & Directed by Kevin Smith
View Askew HMV Exclusive Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Very mild spoilers.
I’ve been a big admirer of Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob movies for quite some time now (although apparently not as big an admirer that I only now find out there was a cartoon Jay And Silent Bob movie directed by somebody else about seven years ago). I tried to see this latest movie last year at the cinema in one of its very rare UK screenings in London. Heck, I even had my ticket booked but a real life situation arose so that I wasn’t able to get to the cinema and see it, sadly. So I’m really pleased that HMV have brought out a Blu Ray version of it this year, that’s for sure. I think this is now the third one, including the first two, that I didn’t get to see at the cinema.
Jay And Silent Bob Reboot is the seventh in the series of live action Jay & Bob movies, following on as a direct sequel to... let’s run the list in order... Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy (my favourite), Dogma, Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2.
This one is also a kind of reboot in a way because, even before the various characters in the movie have discussed how Hollywood reboots are just old movies where they take the good stuff and change it just enough to make a load more money off the reputation of the old ones (I think I got that right... it gets complicated but, as is Smith’s way, rings completely true), you will probably realise already that this is almost the exact same story as the fifth in the series, Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back. In that film you had Jay and Bob going to try and stop the production of a Bluntman And Chronic Movie, based on the fictional comic strip that Holden McNeil (played by Ben Affleck who played the character in Chasing Amy, Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back and this one) based on Jay and Silent Bob. They even beat up Harvey Weinstein at the end... that'll date it.
So, once again we have Kevin Smith reprising his role as Silent Bob, along with Jason Mewes as Jay. It’s really great seeing these two back as the titular characters again and lovers of the View Askewniverse will surely be delighted with this new movie. Now, for me, Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back was always the weakest link in the series of films but, honestly, Smith is a great writer/director and so even the weakest in the series was better than most comedy movies of the last 20 or so years.
Jay And Silent Bob Reboot is... well it’s kinda tying at the moment in my brain as least greatest of the films but... oh yeah... you can bet I got a lot out of it too and, since there’s so much going on in this one, I’m sure that once my head begins to unravel this properly, I’m going to love it even more the second time around.
Okay, so the film starts strong and reveals the exact same plot as the fifth in an unusual way. And I really don’t want to give away too many spoilers... at least not those unrevealed in the trailer but I will give you the heads up that, once again, Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith, is in this movie playing the daughter of Jay, who he didn’t know he had. There are also, as to be expected, a heck of a lot of cameos for both actors and characters from the previous six films, including Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach (as the manager of the branch of Mooby’s in this movie). Fans of the series will love seeing people like Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Lee, Joey Lauren Adams and Shannon Elizabeth reprising some key roles. Although, bizarrely, none of them are playing dual roles here... they are all limited to only one character call back each. It’s also great to see Chris Hemsworth playing himself here and getting in on the “f*ck me ‘til I’m Thor” jokes. There’s also one very special ‘’pre-cameo’ during the many scenes shown during the end credits and I don’t want to ruin it for people but, this guy’s last ‘real’ cameo was in Jason Mewes directorial debut Madness In The Method (reviewed here) and Marvel fans might take note.
Like all the Jay & Bob movies, the film is absolutely crammed full of jokes and references to other films, including many of Smith’s own and yes, you will hear a lot of familiar lines from the series turning up when you see this. As with any film which shoehorns so much in, some jokes will hit right with you and some won’t... this is not my favourite of the series by a long shot but there’s enough in here that it hit the right spots for me and there are even some quite touching moments in the ongoing character arc between Jay and his daughter Milly, short for her full name Millennium Falcon. Yeah, you get the usual Smith Star Wars references in this too... that stuff never gets old. Silent Bob also has a ‘37’ football shirt on at one point so, yeah, you all know what that means, right (if not, watch Clerks immediately, you’re missing out)?
Actually, Smith originally had a full role written for Stan Lee, who would have been a big presence in the third act but who died before filming. Lee famously played himself in Mallrats, of course, and his cameo in Captain Marvel (reviewed here) last year was of him learning his Mallrats lines on the way to the set. However, after Stan ‘The Man’ Lee’s death, Smith wrote himself into the movie again, playing himself directing the new Bluntman And Chronic Reboot movie... so Smith has a dual role in this film and it actually works out quite well.
And yes, if all this sounds a bit too metatextual then you’d be right. Like the fifth movie, this thing goes so far beyond metatextual that it goes right back around to textual again. In addition to the Smith family roles mentioned earlier, you also have Jason Mewe’s infant daughter turning up as Holden McNeil’s daughter... but that’s okay because Kevin Smith plays Kevin Smith here, telling his audience that he hates nepotism so... again, it works out okay in the end. In fact, he’s as ready to send himself up as anyone else so you gotta love the writing on this. For instance, there’s a scene where Smith’s real life daughter playing Jay’s daughter says she hates Kevin Smith for always forcing his daughter to be in his movies. There are very few writer directors who would be in a position where they could get into that level of irony, I suspect so, yeah, good stuff. There’s even a great running gag where Jay tells people that God looks just like Alanis Morrisette (who, of course, played God in two of these films).
Additional references to Smith’s heart attack a couple of years ago materialise as an explanation for both him and his fictional alter ego, Silent Bob, having lost so much weight. Mallrats fans may particularly like the “Fly, Low Fat Ass, Fly” line here.
And that’s me done with the Jay And Silent Bob Reboot one I think... it’s a shame they couldn’t get Mark Hamill back as Cock Knocker but there is a Cock Knocker Army here and also a villain which, yes, did actually take me by surprise. So there’s that. All in all, Jay And Silent Bob Reboot is not the best of the Jay & Bob movies but that really doesn’t matter... it’s still pretty good and should certainly keep the fans happy. And, heck, yes I want Smith to keep knocking these movies out (I say that being one of the few people on the planet who actually liked Jersey Girl so, you know, judge me by that). If you’re not a follower of the Jay and Silent Bob movies or just plain haven’t seen them then, sure, you’re not going to get many of the jokes here so go see the others first. If however, you love these movies as much as me and are interested in seeing just what Holden McNeil and Alyssa Jones have been up to... and just what the heck did happen to Bartleby and Loki after the events of Dogma, then you’ve come to the right place. Incidentally, for my money, Matt Damon gets the best punchline in the whole movie in his cameo scene so... it was worth me getting this just for that. Not the greatest of Smith’s oeuvre, for sure, but still an absolute hoot. Also, definitely check out Mewe’s movie Method In The Madness if you’re a fan of the Jay & Silent Bob films.
Thursday, 26 March 2020
Pin Tan Alley
Let The Corpses Tan
(aka Laissez bronzer les cadavres)
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Kino Lorber Blu Ray Zone A
I’ve waited too long to order a US edition of Let The Corpses Tan. I wasn’t able to get to go to the London Film Festival screening of this a few years ago but, since I assumed that a new film by husband and wife team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani is akin in audience excitement to waiting for another Star Wars movie in the 1970s, I just figured it would get some kind of hugely marketed cinema release over here. Nope... not even a DVD or Blu Ray, let alone a nationwide cinematic release.
I’m further puzzled about this after viewing it because, like their other two feature films... Amer (reviewed by me here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here)... this one is an absolute masterpiece of the art of film. No quibbling here, it’s a work of two genius directors at the absolute top of their game. Which, frankly, is what I’d expect from these two even on their worst day.
The film is based on a novel I’ve not read by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid and I’m assuming the simplistic story of a gold bar heist gone wrong when various parties, including the police, turn up at the gang’s ‘safe house’ a little after the robbery shown here was picked deliberately by the two auteur directors so they can layer it and infuse with their own artistic vision. The film then becomes one long gunfight referencing flashbacks/forwards (depending on your point of view I suppose), divided loyalties, art mixed with light BDSM elements and the usual potent and heady concoction of brightly lit, gialloesque visual syntax filtered through a surrealistic prism... which is not surprising when these two filmmakers are at the helm. This is what cinema is all about and, right from the opening moments through to the last shot, it’s just one brilliant sequence after another pushed forcibly through your retinas and gouging through your cerebral cortex like an unstoppable freight train.
The cast are fascinating too, with Stéphane Ferrara playing a typical ‘hard but fair’ gang leader and a brilliant turn from the always watchable Elina Löwensohn, who I haven’t seen in a movie for a while and who plays against type here as some kind of artist/dominatrix/masochist called Madame Luce, who owns the property in which the gang are holed up. Big shout out to whoever the person playing the often naked and younger ‘dream flashback’ of her too... she’s especially good tied to a cross and when she’s wearing a different hat well... she certainly puts the ‘gold’ into golden showers, quite literally as the directors seem to have a fetish for imagery involving gold powdered paint, wet gold paint and also as a stand in at one moment for... yeah, I think I’ve waded into that one enough here but I now, having seen the film, am more aware of just what is going on with the Blu Ray and DVD cover, that’s for sure.
A simple story is good, of course because, if you know the work of these two splendid film-makers, you’ll know that every single moment is magnified and expanded in terms of visual exploration and, asides from the immensely controlled frame designs and meticulous camera movement combined with rapid fire, percussive editing in places, there is also an element of the canvass which is about splitting up layers of time and presenting it with deviations from linearity including repeat moments from different points of view which might well perplex viewers if a more complex plot line was also involved. Like a Godard movie, the form and passage of the media telling the tale is as important... actually probably more important... than the story itself and the film calls attention to that constantly.
And there’s some really great stuff in this one, with a few of my personal favourites of sheer celluloid* delight highlighted here to whet your appetite.
Some great stuff where characters are shooting holes through Madame Luce’s latest canvass painting and we see those three characters, each taking up one of the blank holes from a view behind the canvass. This scene concludes (after cutting around to other strands and places) with Luce burning a hole on the canvass with one of her cigars as we cut to the reverse shot of the cigar coming through the back of the canvass as a big circle which then transitions to the circle of an egg cooking and then to the rather hard to decode circle of the moon with ants crawling all over it. It’s only much later in the film it is made apparent to the audience that this is a mirror on the ground reflecting the moon.
One sequence which really made me sit up is of Löwensohn and Ferrari both seated at opposite ends of a long table. A guy is sitting with his back to us in silhouette in the centre of the table and the reason for this is to make the mechanics of the next series of shots possible. So we have Löwensohn and her half of the table left of screen. She says something and the camera rushes over to Ferrari screen right... and so on back and forth to each other. However, each time the camera gets to the other person, they have zoomed in much closer to the foreground of the shot. By the time only half of Löwensohn’s face in profile is in shot, we finally get a shot where the next cut brings both of their faces in close up facing each other from each side of the screen, completely mocking the length of the table we have seen in the earlier shots. For a few seconds I was at a loss to know how they managed to zoom in so accurately on each person as the camera whizzed along until I realised I was watching a travelling matte shot each time, with the silhouette of the guy sitting in the centre of the table used as a mask to transition each section of the two shots being used for each camera movement. I think this is the only time I’ve seen this done but please let me know in the comments section if there are any other movies where this happens.
I also love how some of the action at the start goes into posterised, single colour washes of various characters (each with heir own different colour) like an old 1960s spaghetti western opening title sequence, before going into their own title sequence in a similar style. The needle drop style soundtrack features various iconic, found and reused score cuts by the likes of Morricone, Cipriani and Fidencio etc... as is these directors’ usual MO. This, of course, helps greatly to propel the nostalgic element of the opening titles. It's a little like one of the trailers for Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (aka Twitch Of The Death Nerve) in that respect.
Other delights include the cutting away of a foot kickstarting a motorcycle to edit out the journey by following up with the foot coming off the motorcycle which is now in a different location, a stealth dream sequence where one character is riddled with machine gun hits but instead of killing her they merely obliterate her clothing until she is naked and a beautiful piece of sound design where one of the characters drugs herself and time rewinds for her back to before the start of the film but, when she returns to normal time, the musical soundtrack is playing backwards for those scenes.
Actually, like their previous film, the two directors do tend to chop around with the audience’s perception of time, often referencing the same scene from different perspectives before jumping back before and then after it. Their genius comes from the fact that they do this while still maintaining a through line of coherency to the order of the shots which won’t confuse most people watching (although they do deliberately wrong foot the viewer’s perception on occasion).
All this and a Boris Karloff latex mask like the kinds they used to sell in the 1970s and we have a film which is both referential to the past while absolutely uncovering new territory in terms of advancing what I shouldn’t probably call ‘a narrative’ but will anyway, for the purposes of this review. There are some truly surprising moments and Let The Corpses Tan is, again like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s previous features, something that I could watch over and over without getting bored for a long time. Absolutely marvellous piece of heavily stylised and beautiful cinema that completely elevates the art form and pushes at its boundaries while simultaneously being completely entertaining. It doesn’t get much better than this.
*Yeah, I know. Watched it by digital means but if celluloid is a term we can still use nostalgically to symbolise the media of cinematic joy then it certainly beings to these two directors.
Tuesday, 24 March 2020
2019 USA Created by Jon Favreau
Series One. Eight episodes.
Warning: Some mild spoilers.
Okay, I finally got around to seeing the new Star Wars TV show The Mandalorian and... it’s not too bad. I think it’s weird that the Disney+ channel has only just started in the UK but almost everyone I know seems to have seen it already. I think it’s even stranger now, having seen it, that this is the big ‘blackmail you into signing up for a Disney + subscription’ bargaining chip at present because, frankly, I think people who are signing up just to see The Mandalorian are going to be angry they did so and want their money back. It’s quite good but not enough to warrant any subscription costs, I reckon.
Okay, so, set five years after the fall of the Empire at the Battle Of Endor in Return Of The Jedi, The Mandalorian is about a bounty hunter who is a Mandalorian (I’m not going to explain why he’s a Mandalorian when you may think he’s not in the early episodes because there’s a reveal coming in the last episode in terms of what ‘Mandalorian’ actually means)... so yeah, the same kind of armour as Bobba Fett with a certain ritualistic and almost spiritual adherence to the ‘faith’, for want of a better word, of his fellow Mandalorians (who are rarely seen and live ‘underground’ since certain incidents from their past took place).
And yes, it’s the Star Wars version of a weekly Western TV show we were all expecting it to be. I mean, there’s an argument that the ‘space opera’ genre of science fiction that encapsulates the Star Wars Saga is pretty much a Western to all intents and purposes anyway but this show is, it seems to me, deliberately trying to be like those old 50s, 60s and 70s TV Westerns like Bonanza, The High Chaparral and The Virginian. And it does feel very seventies and, well, despite the laser blasts and desert canyons, somewhat less epic and more a chamber version of the Star Wars universe we’ve come to know and, for the most part, love.
The plot all springboards from the specific piece of ‘live cargo’ that the titular bounty hunter is asked to retrieve in the first episode and, form then on, the tale becomes one of a fugitive who is trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities and fellow bounty hunters and keep said cargo free from harm. That’s the plot and it’s very much ‘mission of the week’ territory as The Mandalorian picks up a new job or task leading to the ultimate resolution of certain things in a final episode, where he gathers together the various people he’s met individually in former episodes to help him perform a specific mission.
And there’s good and there’s bad, to be honest.
There are some nice Japanese film culture and manga references in some episodes which, in a way, also contributes to the elevation of the Western flavour of the show. For instance, episode four is an absolutely blatant remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai which, of course, was remade as The Magnificent Seven... but let’s not forget that Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by the cinema of John Ford, one of the leading directors of the Western genre in his time. Also, in the shots where a certain fifty year old child (you may have heard about him referred to with a thoroughly inaccurate nick-name on the internet) is riding in a kind of ‘hover pram’ or floating crib, it immediately lends the episodes where he is doing this a kind of Lone Wolf And Cub vibe.
There’s also a heck of a lot of obvious but still fun Star Wars references littered throughout... with absolutely gazillions of previously seen alien species (including Nick Nolte as an Ugnaught) and I even think I caught a glimpse of a Rodean... except this time it was red? There are also some nice references leading back to the Star Wars Summer Special (I still need to get a contraband copy of that to watch at some point) and some great cracks, including an expanded joke about the legendary inaccuracy of a typical stormtrooper’s aim when handling firearms. I think my favourite thing about the show, though, was IG-11. When I was a kid, I was always tantalised by IG-88 in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here) and it was one of my favourite action figures (even though he literally just stands around in a few shots in that movie). In a few episodes here we finally get to see an IG unit in action and it’s really awesome. Hope they release a figure for that one at some point.
Another awesome thing is a toy which I refused to buy in the 1970s called an Imperial Troop Transporter or some such. My cousin had one but I didn’t want it because it wasn’t in any of the movies and was obviously just a needless accessory that either Palitoy or Kenner had dreamed up to a) part gullible kids from their pocket money and b) ensure those same kids would buy multiple stormtrooper figures to populate it with. Well... showrunner Favreau must have had some fond memories of his childhood toy because they’ve finally put one of these things in a Star Wars show and it looks just like the old toy. So this was nice.
Also, the acting is pretty great. Pedro Pascal does an amazing job considering he is only seen without his helmet for a few seconds in the last episode. And it’s great seeing Carl Weathers and Gina Carano again... not to mention 'surprising', seeing somebody like infamous German director Werner Herzog play a recurring villain. These are all solid, reliable people and you really can’t complain about the cast in this.
However, there are a lot of clunky things as well here... or in light of the recent re-edits to the original movies, maybe I should say MaClunkey things?
For example, the sound design brings back a lot of old favourites (I think the mouse robot is really getting a little overdone now guys) but while it’s nice to hear the carbon freezing sound again in the first episode... it seems completely inappropriate to hear the hyperdrive malfunction sound effect when The Mandalorian can’t start up his ship, the Razor Crest, at some point. Why would that even sound the same?
Another thing that gave me pause to think was a new kind of TIE Fighter which is the standard model that can fold it’s wings up when it comes in for a landing. Seriously? If they had these somehow (after the defeat of the Empire) just five years after Return Of The Jedi then why did they not still have them during The Force Awakens? That makes no sense.
My biggest problem with the show, though, is the musical score. Ludwig Göransson’s music is totally appropriate to the action and has some nice, catchy moments. It’s not sounding anything like a Star Wars score though... it’s a much more modern use of an orchestra and is missing that iconic, 'early German refugees invade Hollywood in the 1930s' sound that John Williams (and a couple of other composers) have used in the movies over the years. It’s something that really lets the side down, as far as I’m concerned and I just wish they’d have gone with a more traditional Star Wars sound here. Because as much as the show tries to assimilate itself in with the much loved saga, the soundtrack is working against it and throwing it all away most of the time. Which is unfortunate... especially since it is very nicely scored and could work on any other generic brand, I think.
And that’s me done on The Mandalorian. This is an okay series but not something, as I said earlier, that anybody is going to be that happy about paying expensive subscriptions for. I’d be quite happy to watch a second series but I’m not so sure I’d bother to rewatch the first, in all honesty. They should have taken my Blu Ray cash when they had the chance. Recommended to die hard Star Wars fans only... or those who don’t have to spend a wadge of cash to get this thing.
Sunday, 22 March 2020
The Last Vam-pair
Twins Of Evil
Directed by John Hough
Hammer/Network Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Slight spoiler on the death of
one of the villains at the end of the movie.
Twins Of Evil is the last of the Karnstein trilogy of films produced by Hammer in the space of about a year and a half, based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story Carmilla. Well... no... the first one in the sequence, The Vampire Lovers (reviewed by me here) was certainly using that story as a template, the second one... well, there wasn’t much more you could do with it but at least the main antagonist Carmilla, aka Mircalla Karnstein, was continued over into the next film (played by a different actress).
Here, the character’s appearance is very brief, maybe lasting five minutes in total, as she is resurrected from her tomb by accident... the blood pooled from a victim of this films main villain, Count Karnstein played by Damien Thomas, during a devil worshipping ritual... drips into Mircalla’s tomb below and brings her back to her undead state. This is yet a third actress, Katya Wyeth, in the role after, once again, the part had been offered to Indgrid Pitt (who played her in The Vampire Lovers), who turned it down. She exists in the narrative purely to vamp up Damien Thomas’ character before, bizarrely, just dropping out of the movie. So that’s about as close as being ‘inspired’ by Le Fanu that this third film gets.
I said in previous reviews of the other parts of the trilogy that, by this time, Hammer were trying to spice up their films to keep them popular by putting nudity and lesbian sex scenes in them. At first glance of the casting in this one, you might assume they were making an extra special effort here, as the twins from the title, Maria and Frieda, are played by the Collinson twins, Mary and Madeleine. The Collinson twins had been the October 1970 Playboy playmates of the month but, surprisingly, this third film in the trilogy, which seems to be a prequel to the previous films, doesn’t really capitalise on the notoriety of the two ladies in question. When they do strip off... or one of them does... it’s only for a second or two and, frankly, there’s very little nudity in this film and almost no sapphic shenanigans at all which, given the original story’s implied subtext of vampiric lesbianism, seems rather strange. If anything, the film is rather tasteful in this kind of stuff... which in a way makes it an odd fit with the previous two movies. Also, it turns out that only Frieda is the evil one here and Maria is actually ‘the good sister’... so I’ve no idea why the title of this movie is Twins Of Evil, to be honest.
The film is fairly bloody in places, though and it’s also interesting for a number of reasons. I was fascinated by Peter Cushing’s role in this film and the way the story is pitched. Right from the start, we see Cushing playing Gustav Weil, the head of a clan of witch-finders and they go around to find unsuspecting, single women who they think should be married by now (otherwise they must be an evil temptress of a witch, right?) and burn them at the stake. The horrible Witchfinder General film from a few years before must have been a vein Hammer were trying to tap with this and Cushing is not someone who I would normally associate with this kind of role. After all, when it comes to bible thumping Witchfinders, I can only seem them as dim-witted psychopaths or, you know, nutters and that’s not what this actor represents to me. However, Cushing plays it really straight, almost chilling, allowing absolutely no humour into his character whatsoever, spending most of the film as a villain, only to redeem himself at the end of the movie after the other leading man here, David ‘The Horror Man’ Warbeck, shows him that the supernatural force he is dealing with cannot be effectively vanquished by his preferred method of burning but, instead, needs to be either decapitated or staked. Both Warbeck and Cushing are great in this so, there’s another reason to watch this movie.
Another interesting thing this movie does, comes after Count Karnstein and Mircalla indulge in an outrageously chaste but camp sex scene. The sex scene itself is hilarious because, rather than focus on the action, we track up to Mircalla’s arm just above her head as she grabs hold of a candle and starts stroking it up and down... I wonder how the actors kept straight faces during these scenes. However, the cool thing is, just after she fangs up Karnstein, he looks in the mirror and we can see him as his reflection fades out, thus signifying he has joined the ranks of the undead. So that’s quite cool... I wonder if this was the first time this had been done in a movie before. I’m sure it probably wasn’t but I can’t think of an earlier example off the top of my head. Answers in the comments box below or on Twitter please.
There’s also a section at the end which had me scratching my head. Karnstein can only be in his twenties and the film takes place over, maybe, just a week. He’s only been a vampire that long so how is it possible, in the world of supernatural vampire physics that, at the end of the movie after he’s been staked and in a nicely done special effect, he ages before our eyes into a wizened old man and crumbles. I mean, seriously? He’s only in his twenties... he’s not an old vampire at all. This makes absolutely no sense!
One other thing of note is the score by Harry Robinson, one of only a handful of the Hammer film scores that got issued on CD. It’s pretty good but there’s a kind of riding/action theme which, in structure (not orchestration) is very much the kind of music you might get in a spaghetti western of the time. Lovely score and I need to go and listen to the disc again now that I’ve finally seen the movie it comes from.
And that’s me done with the Hammer Karnstein trilogy finally... but not yet done with all the films based on Le Fanu’s original story (I’ll hopefully get to those eventually). Twins Of Evil is less exploitational but much more interesting than the previous film in the series, Lust For A Vampire (which I reviewed here) and it’s definitely a film that fans of the original incarnation of Hammer should check out if they haven’t done so already. Peter Cushing playing against type, at least in terms of what I’ve seen him do... even in the Frankenstein films... is definitely worth a look.
Saturday, 21 March 2020
10 Years Of NUTS4R2
Well, here I am at 10 years of reviews then.
Over the years, when I’ve contemplated this ‘blog anniversary’ I’ve often wanted to do something special for it like, I dunno, a competition or something. Instead, I’ve just had the worst 15 months of my life with various tragedies and... well, the next installment seems to be a grim landscape ravaged by the walking dead of the Cora Nora virus (my name for it, I won’t let other names gain a negative power over my thinking, thanks very much).
So, yeah, not much for me to celebrate for sure but at least ten years is something positive done with my time, I guess. Or, you know, you might take the tack that it’s ten years of not having a life... it’s pretty time consuming trying to do something like this while also holding down a full time job I can tell you... but either way I’m happy to have stuck it out for so long. Hopefully I’ll still be in a position where I can continue with it... the way the world's changed in the last few weeks (and is going to change) seems pretty worrying. There’s always a chance I’ll be roaming around in a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to secure old film prints for trading with the mohawk-headed tribes that wander the decaying environment.
Or... you know... not.
Anyway, purely because I haven’t got a better idea right now and I’m trying to be both self isolating for another few days with a nasty cough while at the same time being the mad food shopper for the family, I thought maybe I’d celebrate this miniversary with some of the articles which keep me doing this from time to time. These are not necessarily my most entertaining blog entries but I think these ones I've picked out here are among my most informative or enlightening. That is to say... these are the ones that I hope I’ve either made some connections nobody else has spotted before or, at the very least, they bring a fair amount to the table. Or not... you decide. Just click the titles to take you to my review.
So first up we have three British spy movie reviews for The IPCRESS File, The Quiller Memorandum and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Next up I offer you my thoughts on three of the classic Universal Monster movies of the 1930s and 1950s... Dracula, Frankenstein and Creature From The Black Lagoon.
Here are some of my Dario Argento reviews for his Animal Trilogy gialli... The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet.
Here are a couple of reviews of two very different movies, both of which have central figures who are a huge influence on my 'adult' personality... The Final Programme and Doc Savage.
And finally, my all time favourite movie, Blade Runner.
And that’s my tenth anniversary post I guess. Sorry it’s not a little more spectacular but hopefully I can make that up for you on my 20th anniversary... if I get that far.
Anyway, thanks very much for reading, that’s always appreciated.
Stay safe and survive.
Thursday, 19 March 2020
Now You See Me Too
The Invisible Man (2020)
Directed by Leigh Whannell
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Mild spoilers.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s new version of Universal’s franchise based on The Invisible Man is, I’m sure surprising nobody and just like many of the Universal sequels, really nothing to do with H. G. Wells original novel. That being said, the two things which both Well’s source and this movie version have in common is a central antagonist that shares the same last name as the original, Griffin and, similarly, the idea that he is an antagonist rather than protagonist... unlike the majority of the six original Universal films, is also retained.
Given director Leigh Whannell’s track record, the man who made the absolutely brilliant but still prohibitedly expensive to buy on Blu Ray movie Upgrade (reviewed by me here but, honestly, nobody wants to be paying £24 for this) you would expect that this film would be pretty good and, I have to say... yes, it really is. If you’re happy that this isn’t the same character that you knew from the 1933 version, then you should have a good time with this.
This time around, the film has been pitched firmly, it seems to me, to support the ‘me too’ movement and, although the final scenes of the movie are as troubling as the overly black and white ‘your perceived judgement of a situation trumps the possible truth of the situation’ reality of real life at the moment, there’s enough at the climax to make the ambiguity of the end game of an abusive relationship feel very true and I think it’s an extra feather in the cap for Whannell that some of the audience are going to walk out of the film with conflicting ideas as to whether justice has been served here for any of the characters.
Elisabeth Moss is absolutely fantastic in the role of abused girlfriend Cecilia Kass and she does carry the film extraordinarily well, backed up by a good supporting cast of people like Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid. Also, the film is well shot and edited but where it really comes into its own is with the sound design. This combined with Benjamin Wallfisch’s terrifically jumpy score (alas, not available on CD, only as a stupid electronic download) are what provide the film with the most scares. The film in itself, has no really big ‘fright moments’ but, due to the use of sound and music, you still get some quite intense suspense sequences in this thing.
Okay, so two standout things for me.
That sound work I just mentioned really comes into its own when, after two weeks confined in her friend’s house, Cecilia tries to brave the outside world once more by walking outside for ten seconds or so. The tension of her inner intimidation by the big, scary outside is strengthened incredibly as she puts her first foot out the door and the sound design gets suddenly muted and echoey as it does things to her footsteps. A really nice touch.
The other thing I liked about this is the way they played with modern conventions of horror which, in a way, also mimicked things Universal were doing with the series back in the 1930s and 1940s, for different reasons. That is the modern horror movie thing of the camera turning around and looking at empty rooms as you wait to spot some little detail in the shot that you know is going to scare you. It’s certainly something they would, by necessity, do in the original films in order to show you the visible signs of an invisible person being in the room... as you wait to see a tell tale foot print or a breath of cold air or a door opening. Here, though, Whannell does this purely, it seemed to me, to have fun with the modern viewer expecting to see these things. He’ll similarly focus the camera on an empty room as Cecilia is trying to see if she’s alone or not but, brilliantly, quite often does nothing with it. In the most cases, there are no indications to show there is anyone there or not... and you certainly know about it when it all kicks off. This, of course, strengthens the mood of carefully prepared paranoia which perpetually permeates the movie and I think taking this approach, at this particular time in horror film history, was a good idea.
There are some small problems I had with the movie... apart from the UK print being censored by a few seconds, ensuring that any future Blu Ray purchase from me needs to be imported from the US.
One of those problems is it’s not really a horror film. The weird science aspect of the chemical potion which gave invisibility but turned ones brain against one as it stayed in your system is gone. Instead, the lead antagonist is an optical science specialist and he’s basically wearing a stealth suit... it’s not unlike the terribly stupid car in Pierce Brosnan’s sad misstep of a Bond movie Die Another Day (reviewed by me here).
The other thing was the way it telegraphs an obvious twist in the middle of the film, where Cecilia gets a visit from a certain attorney. It totally gives away a reveal from later in the movie and I was a little disappointed that this was so blatant. However, it does lead the way for the second ending of the story and the whole problematic issue of the ‘me too’ element of the film... so I guess it’s at least good that this ‘almost twist’ is still in here. The final scenes give the film an interesting lack of clarity which may spark of debate at some point in the future, I suspect. Certainly, by the end of the movie, I would be as scared of the main protagonist as I was of the main antagonist so... yeah, I’m sure I’ll get moaned at for suggesting the ending could be read in more than one way but I suspect this was the writer’s intention.
So yeah, the new version of The Invisible Man is a pretty great time at the cinema and something I would recommend to fans of well put together suspense thrillers. A good attempt to resurrect a part of the Universal franchise.
Tuesday, 17 March 2020
Girls’ Light Out
2020 UK Directed by David Creed
UK cinema release print.
Sacrilege is a UK horror movie which falls into that unfortunate subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, to an extent. This would include films such as Blood On Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man and the recent Midsommar and... I say unfortunate because, well, I’ve never really gotten on with folk horror movies, for the most part. That being said, Sacrilege is actually a pretty entertaining film, albeit with some problems, one of these being that, just occasionally, its low budget status is somewhat noticeable... but only in parts.
The film tells a tale of four girls... Kayla (played by Tamaryn Payne), Trish (Emily Wyatt), Blake (Sian Abrahams) and Stacey (Naomi Willow)... who decide to go on a ‘girl’s weekend’ in a cottage in the country but, alas, the local community invite them to their ritualistic festival where they are targeted by their protecting demon in exchange for ‘a good season’ and by the next morning, the supernatural shenanigans have already started.
Probably the best thing about this movie is the chemistry between the four lead characters. I’ve always been a bit confused about the conversations and body language I’ve observed from afar of ‘girls’ night out’ style get togethers and I was equally baffled by the way the ladies in question were acting around one another here... so this does ring kind of true to me that the film has a good handle on the dynamics of that kind of camaraderie.
Another good thing is that it moves along at a fair lick, not outstaying its welcome and getting into the typical horror movie shenanigans fairly quickly, once the ‘party’ night has played out. There is a small element of goriness to the proceedings but I’m not sure that it was enough to warrant the 15 rating it received here, I think.
Some of the film does look a little cheap in places but, that being said, the cinematography is quite stunning in some sections and everything is cut right so you’re never at a loss to know what’s going on from scene to scene.
One of the worst things about the movie is a lesbian sex scene between two of the lead characters (at least three of the girls are implied lesbians or bisexuals)... let’s just say that there’s nothing to see here. The extended scene of sexual hijinks between the two ex-lovers who are reunited is shot in such a way that, amazingly, you don’t get to see anything of the girls other than hands and backs covering the more interesting parts of the undisplayed anatomy. This is where the film really started to lose credibility with me, it has to be said. There’s nothing worse than a ‘bashful’ love scene which is fabricated in such a meticulous way that nothing is on show. Better to have left this out completely than to tease the audience in a pointless exercise of hidden virtues.
The other main bugbear for me was the ending. For one thing, it had a sloppily quick denouement which didn’t amount to much and which exploits the clues fed to two of the girls in the earlier parts of the movie to give us a fairly formulaic approach to the way in which they can weaken the forces of darkness. To make matters worse on this front though... the science of the supernatural heart of the film, so to speak, doesn’t really hold up in any logical fashion. At the start of the movie there is a pre-credits sequence where a guy is killed in a wholly ‘otherworldly’ manner. However, the deaths which follow in the later parts of the movie are bound by a certain set of laws which, frankly, this opening sequence blatantly ignores. I mean, yes it’s a cool effect at the start of the movie but the way in which this death is presented just plays at odds with the ‘accidental suicide’ incidents which all the later death scenes involve.
Also, having seen the bizarrely out of place ‘very pistol’ in the dashboard of the van that the girls are driving... you pretty much know that it must be there for a reason and it’s going to get some action later in the film. Alas, the use of this item in a somewhat fizzling end sequence really doesn’t help matters in terms of giving the thing an exciting finish and I’d have to say the build up throughout the film, which at least evokes a certain kind of ‘scareless’ atmosphere, is much more interesting and watchable than the ending, which doesn’t even leave much for anywhere to go in terms of loose ends, it has to be said.
So there you have it... Sacrilege is a not bad little British horror film which sadly wears its budget on its sleeve on occasion but which makes up for it with some interesting acting and a fast pace that will at least mean you won’t get bored. Definitely one to check out if you’re into this kind of thing but, perhaps not a recommendation for those who are not best friends with the genre.
Sunday, 15 March 2020
Thus Spake Zaroff’s Story
2020 USA Directed by Craig Zobel
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very slight spoilers.
The Hunt is yet another in a long line of cinematic ‘adaptations’ of The Hounds Of Zaroff (aka The Most Dangerous Game)... heck, even Jess Franco made a version of it at one point (reviewed by me here). It even turned up as a sub-plot in The Purge: Anarchy (reviewed here). The classic story is, of course, that ‘the most dangerous game’ for hunting are human beings. Single people are usually hunted for sport in a remote setting like an island in these adaptations. For this latest spin on the classic tale, we have multiple quarry and a setting in a remote country.
I’ve been wanting to see this movie since I saw a trailer for it last year, shortly before the film got rescheduled from an August 2019 release due to a mass shooting in America. It’s finally now in cinemas and, I have to say, coming from the Blumhouse studios, I was expecting a somewhat competent and maybe slightly edgy action thriller.... well, I have to say that I got so much more. This is a brilliantly entertaining film although, I should probably warn you that it’s also quite brutal and gory, which some of us might argue it kind of needs to be when treating this subject matter for modern times.
I knew I was going to be in for more than the average action flick when I realised the film includes a pig called Orwell and a character referred to as Snowball. There’s very much a satirical edge to this tale of a cadre of rich people hunting down ‘undesirables’... so much more than at first meets the eye here and it’s really not just a run, shoot kill movie, although on the surface that’s exactly what it is.
The opening sequence was a bit problematic for me since it was so obvious what was going to happen, when one of the drugged ‘targets’ wakes up before he is supposed to. I even knew the doctor was probably going to ask to borrow a pen to do what he does in this opening and... yeah, I was disappointed that you could see exactly where this was going.
After this, though, the film smartens itself up considerably and we have one of those situations where the main protagonist doesn’t even come into the film properly for a bit. The first 20 minutes or so is of the majority of the human fodder in the movie being killed in, it has to be said, some unexpectedly brutal ways and it reminded me of fixating on the Janet Leigh character in Hitchcock’s Psycho before she is killed off and you have no idea of who the main protagonist really is anymore. The start of this movie is just like that where, every time you are encouraged by the director to latch onto a ‘main character’, they’re taken out in some spectacularly bloody manner. It’s a nice way of playing it and it also gives the audience some impression of what to expect in terms of the efficiency of this rich bunch of killers. It also, of course, means you can never be sure just who is going to be next on the list of deaths.
And then, after a scene at a gas station where a particularly satirical and violent conflict has just played out, we get the real protagonist of the movie turning up... Crystal, played in an astonishingly hypnotic performance by an actress I’d not heard of before called Betty Gilpin. She’s the survivor of the group of targets having served time in the military at some point and she’s the one who pretty much does all the thinking throughout the movie, as she uncovers various ‘rich antagonists in disguise’ while the story progresses. Also, I really got behind this actress because the way she plays the character with some wildly exaggerated expressions is just perfect and, often, quite funny. The way she is written and performed as the ‘dumb redneck’ who turns out to be the smartest one in the room is pretty cool and a nice step up from some of the Hollywood stereotypes we’ve been living with for the last 100 or so years.
My only real problem with it was the final reveal of the villain. There’s an element of self fulfilling prophecy about the set up of the mechanics in motion to make The Hunt a thing in this world and I’m not going to say anything about that because this, perhaps unnecessary information, could be considered a bit of a spoiler for some. I will give away the bizarre villain reveal though because it’s totally stupid and pointless. All through the film there is a ‘mystery character’. She’s deliberately hidden from the camera and we only see the back of her head... it’s a bit like looking at Blofeld in the early bond movies where all you would see was the back of a head and some hands stroking a cat to denote the important status of this character. When we finally see her for the third act she’s revealed as... Hilary Swank. But we knew this already right? She has prominent billing doesn’t she? So... everybody knows Hilary Swank is in the movie and her face hasn’t been on screen for the first two thirds so... this reveal is not hard to guess now, is it?. That’s my one real... huh?... moment of the film. Why they bothered to hide her face when everyone knew she was in it.
Anyway, when Betty Gilpin’s character has killed pretty much everyone else off and she’s on her own, she finds the compound of Swank’s character and it’s not long before these two are indulging in a lethal, up close and personal fight. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers are going for a scene reminiscent of the opening fight between Uma Thurman and Vivica A Fox in Kill Bill Volume 1 in intensity and... well it doesn’t really top or match up to that scene to be fair but it does get a lot more in your face than most movies do these days, it has to be said.
And that’s me more or less done on The Hunt, other than to say I could stand watching this a few more times and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a Blu Ray release when the time comes. It’s a nice version of The Hounds Of Zaroff with a certain intelligence behind the characters and their perceptions of a certain ‘class’ of people, is beautifully acted (great seeing Ethan Suplee again), has some brilliantly choreographed and ferociously well edited action sequences, a stand-out turn from the person who does eventually turn out to be the main protagonist and, as it turns out, a really nice post-denouement end scene that also elevates the main character, in my opinion.
If you’re into action cinema, make sure you see this one... it’s a well put together and surprisingly rewarding stand out of the genre.
Wednesday, 11 March 2020
League Of Mental Men
Tales Of The Shadowmen 15
Edited by Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier
Black Coat Press ISBN: 978-1612278131
I previously reviewed the first 14 collections in the Tales Of The Shadowmen series here and explained about my annual ritual of receiving the next volume in the series either at Christmas or for my birthday a couple of weeks later. And, as I said before, since these things aren’t published until December each year I’m usually one year behind when I get to finally read these things. It’s a cycle I keep meaning to break (if I ever get time around all the other things I’ve got to read) but for now I will quickly... very quickly in this case... cover the December 2019 release which I read a little while ago, Tales Of The Shadowmen 15 - Trompe l'Oeil.
As usual, the gallery of stories by different authors on offer, all utilising two or more heroes, villains or supporting characters from known literary (and other) works and then mixing them together in the same stories, is a bit of a hit and miss affair. As is sometimes the case, actually knowing the characters that are being continually referenced in these stories is part of the fun. This is not to deny that, when a really good writer gives these tales a go, even if you are not acquainted with the character of choice, they will be gripping reads. Usually these books are, once you get the first few volumes out of the way, more hit than miss but occasionally you get a volume where it’s maybe not quite as engaging as previous volumes and, I think that’s definitely the case here.
The book starts off fairly strongly following a short, dimension hopping tale called The Vertigo by Daniel Alhadeff. Like many of the characters in this particular volume, I hadn’t heard of the central protagonist and the brief intro to this tale gave him the hint of an atmosphere which didn’t seem to tally up with what I was actually reading. Frankly, the style it had been written in reminded me of an entirely different flavour, that of the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock (I reviewed the movie version of one of them, The Final Programme, right here). So I was pleasantly surprised when a character from that series, Miss Brunner, turned up as one of the main characters a little later on... now it made sense as to why the writer was delving into this style.
Another stand out would be when the human-sized spider detective character, Spiridon, goes on a mission where the villain turns out to be another in a long line of Dr. Moreaus, who is also in this tale, responsible for the creation of the giant ants seen in the film THEM!
In other stories you will find the usual mash up of characters and ideas and, if you want to see what happens when Professor Challenger invents time travel, or when a very young Alfred Hitchcock gets involved in a plot involving Rouletabille and Harry Dickson, then this is a tome for you.
I particularly liked a tale by Travis Hiltz set around a time traveller marooned in Medieval France being assisted by the Wandering Jew to help rid the locals of Rotwang, from Metropolis, who was controlling not just Maria but the Volkites from the old Republic serial Undersea Kingdom. Another story has the Nyctalope and others trying to round up Edgar Allan Poe from 1940s America after he has been displaced by 'The Philadelphia Experiment'... a story in which a certain Ian Fleming spots James Bond’s name on a copy of the Field Guide To Birds Of The West Indies and notes how bland a sounding moniker it is (which parallels the real life creation of his famous character of course). They also refer to Edith Keeler in this story and how two other time travellers (which would be Kirk and Spock) allow her to die at her alloted time. You may remember this character played by Joan Collins in the Star Trek episode City On The Edge Of Forever, of course.
Other appearances of note might be the son of Bernard Quatermass, Indiana Jones, Doctor Omega, Liz Shaw, The Master and an interesting Carnacki tale where the Bachus is responsible, in a roundabout way, for the Whitechapel murders believed to have been committed by Jack The Ripper. Not to mention more than a few appearances in various stories for Les Vampires’ number one figurehead, Irma Vep. Another interesting story by Nigel Malcolm called Enemies Of The People is set in Paris in a future that is obviously an homage to the world created by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. In this, after a near fateful encounter with the being that may or may not be the original Fantomas, Judex joins forces with Michael Moorcock’s character Una Persson and the Nyctalope to try and survive the corrupt government that wants the ‘terrorist’ Judex dead.
Out of many of the Shadowmen collections, I wouldn’t say this particular one is a good jumping on point. Asides from taking on some tales originally written for an unpublished volume collecting stories about characters from the Hexagon Comics range (an imprint I’m not familiar with myself), there are also a lot of tales which are follow ups from various yarns told in other volumes... such as Brian Gallagher’s latest chapter in the ongoing history of Captain Vampire or the latest yarn in the continuing exploits of Felifax.
All in all, it’s not the best in the series but, honestly, some of these collections are so entertaining that they can afford to have a few misses every now and again. I’m not a hundred percent sure I was fully on board with the Madam Atomos, tale where it turns out she was responsible for the death of John Lennon... I dunno, it just felt a little in bad taste to me but that’s no excuse not to let any writer or artist do what they want so, yeah, no real complaints from me there.
Tales Of The Shadowmen 15 - Trompe l'Oeil is not one of the best entries in the series but regular readers should get something out of this, I think... especially if they are enjoying the specific tales which, in some ways, could be seen as multi-parters. As I said, though, I wouldn’t jump into this one if you’re new to the series. Best to start off with one of the earlier collections if this is the case. Check out the full range of these and many other interesting curios at https://www.blackcoatpress.com if you want to peruse a publisher who has some very interesting volumes on the market.