Monday, 29 June 2015

Night Of The Comet




Dusty Sting Yield

Night Of The Comet
USA 1984
Directed by Thom Eberhardt
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B/
DVD Region 2 Dual Edition

Well this is a real time capsule of a movie that I’d somehow completely forgotten about.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a really great TV show on BBC2 called Moviedrome. It was basically a format for showing interesting films which were picked and presented by director Alex Cox (who directed films like Repo Man). Due to, I think, some problems Cox ran into with the BBC, the programme stopped for a while and resurfaced later, curated by Mark Cousins, but it was the various Alex Cox seasons that people of my generation really remember as portals into the world of the art of film. Admittedly, I’d seen a good deal of the stuff he showed way before Moviedrome but it was also the virtual venue where I first saw such amazing movies as The Great Silence, A Bullet For the General and, a really big one for me, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 

And one of the films he showed was Night Of The Comet... on Sunday 9th July 1989. So I would have probably seen it within a week of broadcast on an off air recording because... some of those movies were on late at night. Catching up with it now on a new HD transfer from Arrow as a Blu Ray/DVD dual edition, it’s very clear that I had forgotten most of it and it was just like watching the movie for the very first time again. It’s also, I have to say, dated quite a bit too. Nothing like a movie made in the 1980s for quickly looking out of date although, to be fair, since the world more or less ends in a period contemporary to the movie, it was always going to date very quickly anyway.

The film starts off with some terrible, cheesy narrative about a strange comet passing by the Earth that actually makes the introductory narration on a load of 1950s B movies, such as Creature From The Black Lagoon, look like highly articulate, lyrical masterpieces of philosophical theory in comparison to this highly disasterous opening spiel. However, all is not lost because, as soon as the voice-over stops, the film perks up a little, setting up the last few hours or so before the comet passes by... establishing the two central roles of Regina, played by Catherine Mary Stewart, a cinema employee who is much more interested in achieving the high score on the arcade machine Tempest (remember that?) than getting her work done and her younger sister Sam, played by Kelli Maroney. In this opening we find out why they are both not around to actually watch the comet like most people in the world are doing that night.

The film then follows a set up pretty much in the vein of the kind of apocalyptic science fiction opus that we got in such tales as John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids (and its various movie and TV adaptations) or the brilliant low budget British sci-fi movie The Earth Dies Screaming, in that it pretty much wipes out the majority of the planet, in some fashion, apart from the few survivors who were lucky enough to fulfil a certain specific set of circumstances which have kept them out of harm’s way. In this case, it soon becomes apparent to the majority of the survivors living in some kind of global, land based Marie Celeste mystery, that almost the entire population of the planet have been turned into piles of red dust, with the exception of a few who are slower to turn into said piles of red dust and are now some kind of 'half way stage' zombie creatures out for your blood. Indeed, one of the early titles for the production was actually Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies... although, as much as that title should be celebrated, I think I prefer Night Of The Comet in some ways... perhaps mainly because, presumably due to budgetary reasons, the zombies in this are few and far between.

Now this is mostly a female led sci fi movie, which is nice, but there’s a cool little thing that happens fairly early on when Regina’s boyfriend, who actually survives the night, unwittingly leaves the cinema they’ve been sleeping in and gets immediately killed by a zombie. It’s the Marion Crane moment of the movie for this character but there is one main male protagonist, who the girls run into at the local radio station, called Hector. He’s not bad as a cavalry type rescue figure later on in the movie, when they run foul of a bunch of scientists trying to stop their own collective decline into zombiehood by stealing the cleaner survivor’s blood, but he’s not the typical male crutch of a character that these kinds of movies often fall back on and a lot of the gun play etc is just the main ladies doing all the heroics... which is a refreshing change, especially back when this movie got released.

All the way through the first half of the movie I was trying to place the face of the actor who is playing Hector, until I finally twigged it was a very young version of Robert Beltran, who later went on to become the regular character Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager. It also has a nice appearance by cult actress Mary Woronov in here, playing one of “the scientists” along with famous character actor, the recently departed Geoffrey Lewis.

The film is a basic survival story but shot through with a lot of humour and, presumably due to the budget, less zombie antagonists and more human antagonists being brought into play. The humour is set up right from the start with Regina’s boss doing a full on sales pitch, discussing with his customers the benefits of different types of Comet Night souvenir beeny boppers. Remember those? I think they were called Deely Boppers in the states and, as a kid, I think I had a set with Pac man on the antennae... if I’m remembering correctly. There are lots of scenes in this with throwaway comic humour and, because it’s that type of movie, there aren’t many tears shed about the various friends and relatives left for dead in the wake of the comet... it moves along at a fair pace and there’s no time for people to really stop to measure the cost of everything they’ve lost, to be sure.

Some of the other humour in the film stems from movie reference and homage. For instance, when Regina’s boyfriend gets killed early on in the narrative, he is grabbed next to a movie poster for a film called Red Dust... which is, of course, what Regina and Sam soon find out the majority of the rest of the population have been turned into. There’s also a nice parody of the post-apocalyptic shopping scene in George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, only this time it’s set to a cover version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and it ends with gun play and confrontation.

The movie also has some nice visual elements. The sequence of scenes of the lack of life left in the wake of the comet is done with a number of static shots of the devastation, leading up to a pan on the red powder which represents the passing of humanity. Everything post apocalypse that is external and set during the day time is pretty much done so with red, graduated filters coming down from the tops of the lens, to signify that the red dust is still in the air and this gives everything a striking look. It’s only the very end scene, when the aftermath of the comet has finally faded, that the filters come off the cameras.

Not much else to say about the movie other than it’s a real trip for people who grew up in the 1980s. There’s nothing too clever with a lot of the shot set ups, or at least nothing overtly interesting visually (other than the use of the coloured filters) but it’s very competently put together and, with it’s references to arcade games, teenage head gear, audio technics and the like, there’s a certain nostalgia value added to the film for people of my age... and that’s something the movie obviously didn’t have when it first came out. Time sometimes makes things seem better with age, although I have to say I remember really thinking a lot of this film the very first time I saw it, all those decades ago.

And that’s everything I have to say about Night Of The Comet apart from, it’s got a very strong end sequence with a great joke about always respecting the rules of the traffic sign, even if you are one of the last people on earth, and a last little humourous stinger involving the owner of the DMK initials... who is the mystery nemesis and challenger of Regina’s high scores list of Tempest on the machine in the cinema. It’s not the greatest piece of science fiction art in the world, in all honesty, and I think many people will probably just write this off as a piece of fluff now... but it does have a certain amount of heart and charm to it and, above all, it’s a fun film to watch. Recommended if you want to watch it as part of a triple bill with other, themed apocalypse movies... it’s not exactly demanding and it has some nice moments in it. Plus, you know, if it’s good enough for Alex Cox to show on Moviedrome... it’s good enough for me.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy




Lagoon But Not Forgotten

The Creature Chronicles:
Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy
by Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg 
McFarland & Co Inc
ISBN: 978-0786494187

You know, I don’t read that many books on movies these days. Heck, with this busy blog to write and maintain I barely have enough time to read maybe more than 30 books a year, period. I usually manage to get to read 5 or 6 books about some aspect of movie production in a year but I have to say I’ve mostly been less than enamoured with the style of writing on most of them, these days. A lot of them somehow seem to get their facts wrong or completely muddled and I, as a casually interested party, am left wondering why I know more about certain aspects of a subject than a person who’s spent three or more years of their life researching a subject thoroughly. How do these little errors sneak in? I remember 20 odd years ago having to complain a few times at the old Museum Of Moving Image in London (MOMI - now sadly deceased) because some of their stuff was labelled up incorrectly... and that was just on the little bits about their displays that I personally knew about. There seems to be a curious carelessness in some of the research done on film over the past 20 or more years and I think that’s crazy.

Of course, the flip side of this is that, every now and again, there’s a release on the market waiting to be discovered which is a real gem of a book about movies where the writer gets pretty much everything right. These tomes are a real help to anyone with an interest in studying the subject, if you happen to luck into reading any of them. Tim Lucas’ epic work on Mario Bava, All The Colours Of The Dark, for instance, is the first and last word on that director, as far as I’m concerned. Or Kier-La Janisse’s invaluable book House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (reviewed by me here), which is a wonderful book to have and sparks the imagination to such an extent, movie wise, that it... you know... it leads to harder stuff (you will be trying to track down movies which really are hard to get hold of once you’ve read that particular book).

I’m pleased to say that Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg’s late 2014 publication The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy is just such a book. It’s well researched, engagingly written and, although you might at first think it’s fairly pricey (ok, yeah, it is), it’s more than value for money and there’s a deceptively large amount of information squeezed into its pages because, although generously illustrated with lots of rare stills from the production of the original trilogy - Creature From The Black Lagoon, Revenge Of The Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us - the type size is fairly economical and there’s absolutely loads of good stuff crammed in here.

The bulk of the book is written by Tom Weaver as he diligently takes you through the pre-production, production and post-production of each film. There are also contributions by Kronenberg, as various little factoids compiled into a chapter at the end of each film’s section and, between the two of them, Weaver and Kronenberg also give a good indication of how the movies were marketed and received by the general public at large. And then there’s David Schechter’s magnificent contributions. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Schecter but... I’ll get back on about him a little way further down in this review.

So, after a forward by actress Julia Adams, an actress who most fans of the first movie will certainly know of, unless they’ve been overdosing on rotenone for any length of time, The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy starts right at the beginning with the genesis of the idea that William Alland, the producer who most people will recognise as the faceless, camera eye actor in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, used to get the ball rolling. Weaver then introduces us to fairly lengthy summaries of various different incarnations and drafts of the script until we get something a lot closer to the final movie. When he does this for the first film, it does start to get a little lengthy but it’s worth persisting with because the research is backed up by evidence and, where he’s had to piece together clues on certain aspects of the screenplays, he lets you know about it so you are absolutely sure that everything he has researched is 100% accurate. What helps all the way through with this is his brilliant, conversational writing style, with lots of asides for jokes and slanted observations... which is what I would more expect from Schecter (and we’ll get that too). So it’s all very easy to read and digest and the research informing it is fantastic.

He then follows up by taking you through the casting process for each film with lengthy information about the cast members, including the titular creature and its design, of course... then, as I said earlier, into production and finally through to post-production. Followed by the same method of presentation for the other two movies too.  All of it, of course, embellished with wonderful stories which have come straight from the mouths of the people he’s been talking to and interviewing for decades... and which he’s used for this book. Now, like anyone you are interviewing many decades after the fact, various people are going to contradict each other’s accounts of the situations that arise at times but, where that’s happened, he flags it up, shows all the angles and then takes his best and, I suspect very educated, guess at the truth behind some of the trickier issues.

And then there’s Schecter.

I’ve been reading David Schecter’s lengthy sleeve notes for years on the wonderful soundtracks he puts out for his label Monstrous Movie Music. He is an absolute expert at talking about the scores for these films, which he does in a chapter for each movie in this book, and he really should know... after all, his reconstruction and recording of some of the music of Creature From The Black Lagoon is easily the finest and most authentic on the market and his skill in researching and identifying various reused cues by various composers and also flagging up where certain cues had been reused in other films, is phenomenal. Not to mention his jokey humour, in the same kind of vein as Weaver’s... oh, wait, I said I’m not mentioning it. It was a real joy to read about the various contributions by composers such as Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, Henry Mancini etc and how they all fit into the mix with one or all of the films in the trilogy. This is fantastic stuff and, to be honest, the main reason why I wanted to grab a copy of this lengthy volume.

That being said, the whole book is a joy to read from cover to cover and I can’t imagine a more informed and thorough tome on the subject than the one we have here, written by people who obviously love their subject and are not afraid to show it. The wealth of material is absolutely amazing and a lot of it was new to me. I was getting really angry about some of the actors in the movies who had conducted themselves with less than stellar behaviour over the course of their lives but... well it was all a bit of an eye opener for me, I must say. There’s even a section in the book dealing with various attempted remakes of the film over the years, which were nipped in the bud before they got green lit. This involves a look at the scripts for various ventures including one written by the creator of Professor Bernard Quatermass himself, Nigel Kneale. It also shows you where and in what form these remakes ended up as when elements were recycled or evolved into other movies, which is very interesting to say the least.

And there you have it. The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy is easily one of the most valuable books on film I have in my library and an absolute treasure trove for people who, like me, have a special fondness for the Universal horror films of yesteryear. Particularly, for those who like the titular creature, who is pretty much the last of the studio’s big, mascot monsters (along with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and The Mummy). If you read just one new book on film this year, and you have a passion for the particular period being covered, then make it this one. It’s almost unputdownable (yeah, I just made that word up but it’s cool... deal with it) and it very much seems to be a labour of love for the three writers involved. Don’t let this one pass you by.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues




Beast And Desist

The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues
USA 1955
Directed by Dan Milner
MGM Midnite Movies DVD Region 1

Warning: This has spoilers I guess but... it's not that kind of movie.

I’m sure my regular readers all know that I enjoy a pretty bad B-movie as much as any A list picture... so I felt pretty sure I was going to have some fun with this one. Well, maybe I did a little but, I think I’d have to stress that in terms of letters of the alphabet denoting the quality of a movie (something which isn’t strictly true of B movies at all, in fact) then I’d have to say that The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues is pretty much a Z movie.

The first big mistake of the film is to have a guy rowing out to sea and diving below the surface. We know we are definitely in an underwater part of the movie at this point as composer Ronald Stein’s music suddenly goes into the old Hollywood cliché of using harps on the score as soon as our quick to be dead diver penetrates the surface... which isn’t a bad thing actually. It’s a musical crutch that a lot of famous film composers have deferred to over the years. However, rather than hold back on what shape or form our terrifying monster will take, director Milner hits us with a sighting straight away... and it looks just terrible.

Seriously people. Any credibility the film might have retained past the first couple of minutes is immediately harpooned in the foot as the monster appears and wrestles with his human opponent. You remember those little old rubber finger-topper puppets of monster’s heads with the popping eyes and arms which would wiggle up and down when you moved your finger? This thing looks just like that but with absolutely zero flexibility (it just a rigid mess) and it looks like a giant version of one of those puppets has been plonked on top of a hastily “monsterised” diving suit and, yes, sometimes you can see the arms of the guy in the suit as he grabs people in his vicinity. This is the worst, sorriest excuse for a monster I’ve yet seen in a movie of this nature and, believe me, I’ve seen some real humdingers in my time.

So anyway, the guy washes face-down on the shore and we come across several people who discover his corpse, one after the other, including Professor King played by Michael Whalen and a less than enthusiastic... or even interested in much of anything throughout the film by the looks of him... government agent called William, played by Rodney Bell. Also our main male protagonist Dr. Ted Stevens, played by Kent Taylor, aided and abetted by an astonishing 1950s B-movie widows peak style hair cut makes his appearance here. We take Taylor’s word that both this corpse, and others found later face-down in more or less the same spot, have bad radiation burns to them. Hmmm... couldn’t see any evidence of that myself but, well, all I can say is it’s lucky they all were dumped face down so the make-up department didn’t have to spend time and money on the unusually specific, front sided burns these victims of the undersea beast were left with.

Actually, this first, post death sequence is all very interesting because, although all the acting in this sequence and pretty much all the movie for that matter, is the epitome of the term wooden, there is potentially a certain slow burn atmosphere in this sequence, as it plays out at a very leisurely pace. Unfortunately, of course, that atmosphere is completely killed before it’s even begun by having an opening scene which revealed that the monster is not a thing of terror, best left to man’s darkest nightmares but, instead... an abominably cobbled together, soulless puppet that looks about as threatening as a packet of chewing gum. So they kinda lost me on atmosphere before they even got to it on this one, I’m afraid.

Actually, the slowness of the pacing, which can work quite well in horror films which don’t have monsters that resemble something made out of papier mache with a guy in it as their main fear factor, is something which is kept going throughout most of the movie. There’s no real drama in this film... just very slow walking from one scene to the next with not much thought to bothering to say the lines in a way that would make them sound even vaguely interesting. For example... the professor studies a tortoise on the beach for a while... then we see a bad guy who’s spying on him for money, George, intently watching the Professor studying his tortoise from the safety of some handy, beach side plant growth. This goes on for a while.

So not much happens in terms of stimulating the audience’s mind except for, maybe, putting George’s contact to a foreign power Wanda, played by Helene Stanton in a bathing suit at one point and the delivery of some truly awful lines in the script such as Professor King, who is responsible for the whole underwater creature malarkey in the first place, talking about his secretary Ethel in such terms as... “A sneaking, prying female.” Yep, he’s not holding back at all when it comes to Ethel in this story. They even have his daughter Lois, played by Cathy Downs, use the old “would you mind helping me with this zipper” routine when it comes time to further establish that she is the romantic interest to Kent Taylors oceanographer here. We know he’s a red hot scientist because his famous scientific text books are quoted by one of the other characters... “Biological Effects Of Radiation On Marine Life” and “Nature’s Own Death Ray”. Yep, they sure sound like text books that would be on the reading list of any proud student of science if you ask me.

Yes. The writers have really gone to town in this one, cleverly enhancing the psychological depths of their characters by giving them lines that underpin their subtle affection of each other... like bad guy George’s appreciation of ex-girlfriend and link to the mysterious foreign powers who yank his chain, Wanda. "I didn't know then that they could put beauty and poison so cleverly together  into one package." he says, and we believe him. The writers also are good at establishing the motivations of their characters and filling in their background with subtle, poetic words like Professor King’s aside to his daughter... “You know, science is a devouring mistress. She devours all who seek to fathom her mysteries." Yes... I think we get the picture.

With all these terrible lines flying around, it’s easy to miss that the plot of the film really revolves around an underwater shaft of plutonium powered light which foreign powers want as a weapon and with the titular monster being, somehow, a kind of guardian of that strange and, frankly, incredulously vague phenomenon. Things get out of hand when Kent is revealed as being on a secret government mission, independent of the less than wildly enthusiastic William’s own sluggish investigation of the case, instigated by stories of a “phantom killer” roaming the area. As opposed to stories of a pop eyed, rigid, unthreatening puppet roaming the area, I guess. The two join forces and after being almost poisoned when bad guy George puts pills in their diving equipment... pills that don’t even dissolve and which can be quickly retrieved from the breathing tubes (no don’t ask me, I honestly don’t think any research went into the writing of this movie at all)... our two intrepid and mostly lethargic heroes go look for the monster themselves, narrowly escaping the man in the monster suit’s naked arms poking out of the costume as he tries to... I dunno... “huddle” William to death, somehow.

Meanwhile, bad guy George kills Professor King’s busy body secretary, shooting her from his hiding place in the bushes with his harpoon gun. She runs straight down the beach to the camera, does a kind of surprised exclamation of swiftly striking death... which is about a believable as telling a dog to roll over... and reveals the harpoon sticking squarely out of her back, as though shot from behind... where the empty beach is. What? This makes no sense at all. George is lurking in the bushes somewhere way over to her right, shoots her and, from that angle of trajectory, she gets a harpoon squarely in the back? C’mon guys. With sight lines like these, maybe the filmmakers should have been called in on the investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination because... this stuff makes no sense whatsoever.

And then we have the end of the film where Professor King destroys what he’s has created and then, because he is busy wrestling with The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues, accidentally blows himself up with his time bomb, as well as the creature and, presumably, the shaft of unspecified plutonium light which destroyed an entire ship a little while earlier, just because it sailed over it. His daughter is naturally upset... well, a bit upset, I think... it’s kinda hard to tell. She looks a bit sad, I guess, but she has the arms of the dashing Ted to fall back in, with his widows peak and scientific know how... presumably the man who unwittingly hastened the death of Lois’ father in the first place, with his pondering looks, inquisitive nature and that ostentatious hairstyle that really ought to have had a cast credit of its own.

And that’s about it.

Ronald Stein’s musical score is sparse and, for this kind of movie, extremely subtle. A stand alone release was issued commercially for a week or two, before it was withdrawn due to legal issues, on the 5 disc set of 11 Stein Soundtracks called Mad, Mod and Macabre... which I will happily recommend to anyone who is able to obtain a copy. There are some interesting scores on that one and, in the case of this film at least, they are certainly better as a stand alone listen than having to endure this tosh for repeat watchings. I would recommend The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues to only those who have seen all “the good” B-movies and are running dry of black and white monster movies to watch... and only then if you have a lot of movie stamina. Mostly a dull affair which delivers gold if you are one of those people who can be appreciative of the levels of incompetency and unintentional comedy to be found in films of this ilk. There are a lot of better ones out there which can tick the same boxes and be a much more fun watch, however.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Mr. Holmes




Where The Heart Is

Mr. Holmes
2015  UK/USA
Directed by Bill Condon
UK cinema release print.

“Well... if it isn’t Mister ‘Olmes.” as Dennis Hoey would often exclaim a variant of, in his larger than life portrayal of Inspector Lestrade opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s Holmes and Watson. Lestrade himself is absent from this movie, based on the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, with rightfully popular thespian Ian McKellen taking on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes character, as filtered through Cullin’s particular spin and director Condon’s sensitive eye.

This film is not the Holmes film I was quite expecting given the pre-publicity, although it’s not a million miles away in tone, that’s for sure. It’s at once a more complexly structured yet simply told tale which deals with Holmes in three different timelines, two very close together and one from his past, all running simultaneously as his new friendship for the young son of his latest housekeeper blossoms and  he recalls his final case. In one of the Conan Doyle stories, he makes mention that Holmes would like to eventually retire to be a bee keeper and that’s exactly where Cullin and Condon take him in this story. It’s here, from this vantage point in extreme old age, that he looks back and records in his journal for the boy, as well as for the audience, the fragments that are slowly beginning to emerge of the past in his memory.

I have to say I’ve never read Mitch Cullin’s novel so I can’t vouch for just how good or bad a translation of the source material this particular cinematic confection is, but I can say with some certainty that the movie version is an absolute joy to watch unfold and it’s one of these occasional forays in cinematic history which deals with the almost physical presence of memory. Now, sure there have been a lot of movies in the past which have used flashbacks to fill in the gaps and necessary information, used as a dynamic way of letting the movie maker go straight into the action of a piece and then reference the cause and effect of a certain character’s placement in the narrative in a way which informs at the right time... so as not to distract from the main blocks of the story. Indeed, without the importance of memory as a narrative device in literature and any other arts that use a linear timescale as a basis for the work, I’m sure we wouldn’t even have the term “flashback” in our language.

However, this film doesn’t treat the humble flashback in such a simple manner and I think that it belongs more, I think, to that rarer breed of on-screen yarn spinning that I personally tend to call “the cinema of memory”. There are a few directors who sometimes choose to use the visual memories of the characters in a more subtle way which, in somewhat of a contradiction, makes blatant the intrusion of the past but, in so doing so, uses it in a manner which changes the audiences perceptions of what the character is going through. Indeed, not just the character, but the whole direction in which the audience thought they were going, as things are revealed which change even the narrative structure to a certain extent.

Directors such as Tarkovsky (in Solaris and Mirror, for example), Steven Soderbergh (in The Limey and Haywire) and even the great Sergio Leone (For A Few Dollars More, A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon A Time In America) all trade on the way the memories of the past shape the future narrative of the film that is unfolding before our eyes  and Condon’s Mr. Holmes is another example of this kind of technique, as we follow three timelines (including a couple of other deviations, too) as we see a younger but still quite old Holmes unravelling his last case, the Holmes who went to Japan very recently in search of a root which he hopes will untangle his slow to come memories of the past (solving another conundrum in the process) and the present narrative of the film’s current timeframe... set as Holmes returns from Japan.

Needless to say, with the high calibre of the actors in this, including the main leads of McKellen, Laura Linney as Holmes housekeeper and the outstanding Milo Parker as her young son Roger, the trick of the narrative is rendered both simple and compelling, as Holmes and Roger also set about to solve the mystery of a steadily declining population of bees, and the dangers that this also brings to one of them. There’s also some outstanding support from the likes of Frances De La Tour, who seems to be getting in everything again these days, and Nicholas Rowe in a very special cameo as an on-screen version of Sherlock Holmes that McKellen’s “real Holmes” goes to see at the cinema. This last cameo being very special because, at 47 years of age, Rowe is basically returning to the role for which he is best known, as the titular character in the 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes (known over her by the title Young Sherlock Holmes And The Pyramid Of Fear). I was half expecting Carter Burwell's small, intimate score for this movie to make some small reference to Bruce Broughton’s much loved score in the melody or orchestration of this scene, or even perhaps to pay musical homage to the likes of such Hollywood composers as Hans Salter and Frank Skinner, as a tribute to the Basil Rathbone thrillers their library music would have been tracked into and which this “film within a film” is obviously trying to evoke in the mind. Alas, it was not to be and that’s one slight trick that I think this film could have maybe done without missing... just to make it perfect.

However, the film is near perfection in many ways and, although I worked out fairly early on why the case Holmes is trying to recollect ended up being his last, and the inevitability of its conclusion, the deft sleight of hand in which the director and editor juggled the various different fragments of footage into something that distracted from some of the other on screen puzzles, like a conjurer allowing you to concentrate on one aspect while blinding you to another, meant that the mystery of a certain aspect of what, in the film, is a dilemma for Holmes and Roger, was unexpected and, although obvious in its reveal and from foreshadowing in Holmes early dialogue in the film, it actually took me by surprise for once... I’m both ashamed and delighted to confess.

Not much more to be said about this one, I think, other than the writer and director have both left Holmes’ dignity in tact and have managed to pull off a variation of the character which in no way detracts from Conan Doyle’s own version and which doesn’t mess, as far as I could tell, with any of the original stories. Particular note must be made again, I feel, of Ian McKellen’s outstanding and subtle acting job with Holmes, playing him as a cold, emotionless, almost grumpy machine until coaxed from this state and allowing the cracks in the character to show... while still indicating that his mind can be as nimble as it ever was. Holmes fondness for fact over fiction is emphasised but the warmth of the story and the development, even at this late stage of his life, means that Holmes, without giving away too much, also gets to indulge in the speciality of his former scribe Dr. Watson when he, against all odds, finds a use for fiction in his world after all.

Mr. Holmes is a mostly gentle, well plotted and executed film which gives the characters all the time to breathe they need. It also manages to inject a certain amount of heart and soul into Holmes’ life at just the time when he might, after all, need it the most. It’s a thoroughly recommended movie experience from me and you should all go see this warming and also tragic, in some places, story while it’s on its first run at the cinema. After all... Holmes is where the heart is.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Ned Rifle




To Hal And Back

Ned Rifle
USA 2015
Directed by Hal Hartley
DVD Region 2

You know, it’s always quite hard to review perfect films like the ones Hal Hartley tends to make. For many years now I’ve been citing him as my favourite living writer/director and, though I found a couple of his later shorts and one feature of his that I didn’t like as much as the others... it has to be said that he rarely disappoints and is the last word in US independent film making as far as I’m concerned. So much so that this particular movie was even funded by a Kickstarter campaign and, since I’m unaware of any screenings in this country, I had to wait for a DVD to become available from his website before I was able to see this.

Ned Rifle is a very interesting name for a feature from Hartley as many fans will know the name. He’s more often than not written the musical scores for the majority of the movies he’s directed and, again, more often than not, they’ve always been absolutely appropriate to his subject as well as being pretty good listens away from the movie... if one is actually fortunate enough to come across a release of any of them. The point is, before everybody caught on and realised it was Hartley “pulling a Carpenter” and doing the scores for his own movies, he used to use the name Ned Rifle as his compositional pseudonym... sometimes playing as part of a group with the further deviation of the name, called Ryful. Of course, everyone’s wise to all that nowadays but it was truly a full circle kind of feeling watching the opening credits of a movie called Ned Rifle with Music by Hal Hartley. Kinda made me chuckle.

Ned Rifle is a bit of a miracle for an independent movie maker because it’s actually the final part of a trilogy which he started back in 1997 with his most popular feature Henry Fool, which I saw and loved at the time of its release, either at the Lumiere Cinema in London (if it was still just about open by then) or maybe at the London Film Festival one year... I can’t remember. It was pretty self contained and had a lovely, ambiguous ending which really didn’t need any closure heaped on it. So it was pretty unusual to find that, indeed, closure did come nine years later in the form of a follow up focusing on the further adventures of Henry Fool’s wife, Fay Grim, in the movie... um... Fay Grim, in 2006.

Now, going back to my first paragraph here, it has to be said that Fay Grim was about the only feature film by Hal Hartley that I didn’t really like as much as his others. It was, as I would expect from “the greatest living director”, well made but I didn’t chuckle as much as I usually do during Hartley’s movies and I was less impressed than I’d hoped I would be. By then, though, I believe some people were saying that Fay Grim was Hal Hartley’s The Empire Strikes Back... in that there would hopefully be a ‘concluding’ part to what was shaping up to be the Henry Fool trilogy. And here it is now, in the form of Ned Rifle... another nine years after the last one.

One of the things which had impressed me about Fay Grim was the casting. In the original Henry Fool, a film where the titular character played by Thomas Jay Ryan is, maybe, a modern philosophical genius or a perverted degenerate... probably a compelling cross between the two... Fool is a catalyst for change on those about him. He eventually marries Fay Grim (played by Parker Posey), the sister of the film’s other main protagonist Simon Grim, played by James Urbaniak (you might also remember him playing comic book artist Robert Crumb in the excellent American Splendour). About three quarters of the way through that first movie they have a son, Ned, and he’s played for the last bit by a then 7 year old actor called Liam Aiken. Startingly, he returned as the 16 year old version of the same character for Fay Grim and, oh yeah... with the character’s second name changed to Rifle as part of his witness protection programme after events in that second movie, he’s back here playing the same character at 25 years of age (I guess, although he may be playing slightly younger in story years... couldn’t really tell). So he, and a lot of the regular cast from the other two, are all back for this one. Which is no mean feat.

Aiken has, of course, always been a pretty good supporting actor and he easily handles the main protagonist role in this movie, aided by Hartley’s often criticised but much loved (by this humble movie watcher), less than naturalistic dialogue. And as usual, Hartley’s writing is wonderfully performed by the various actors who, this time around, include a much loved and frequent Hartley collaborator from his early days, appearing for the first time in one of the Henry Fool films, the always watchable Martin Donovan. Here he plays a priest, which is kind of a step down in religious terms, I guess, after playing Jesus opposite Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance as the devil in Hartley’s amazing millennial movie The Book Of Life.

So this film is Ned’s story and it starts off with the revelation that he’s “found God” and so, being an unshakingly religious person, he decides to seek out the man responsible for the incarceration of his mother... his father Henry Fool... and kill him. Yeah... I guess that’s the problem with religious types, isn’t it?

Of course, this then becomes a little bit like a road movie as Ned follows the clues given to him by various old characters (and actors) from the previous movies in the trilogy, such as his mother Fay and his Uncle Simon. He’s also simultaneously aided and abetted by a character called Susan Weber, played by an actress called Aubrey Plaza, who is new to the Hal Hartley universe and seems pretty suited as a typical Hartley character... reeling off long and overtly complicated passages of his brilliant dialogue and still managing to make it all sound just about acceptable and highly comical, just the way it’s written. Actually, this character has a surprise twist revelation which, and this is my one slight criticism of this film, I feel Hartley reveals too early on in the storyline. I’m obviously not going to spoil this and tell you what it is here but what I will say is that, fans of the character Henry Fool will get a little surprise about a story element from his past turning up to haunt him... it’s a really nice touch and explores the kinds of problematic issues which are less talked about in mainstream cinema... if one can exactly call Hartley a representative of mainstream cinema these days. Though goodness knows he should be... I’ve never understood why this guy isn’t a more lionised and celebrated writer/director in his own country. The man is such a vital artist.

The film itself is typical Hartley, with crisp, witty images and the kind of strong, clean compositions you would expect from this man’s work. Beautiful, even colours create their own blocks and shapes and the director and cinematographer tend to section parts of the images off using these various shapes so that everybody gets their own little section of the screen to cleanly fit into. There’s an absolutely amazing and extreme, almost audacious culmination of this visual style at one point where the amazing Martin Donovan is sitting in the foreground of a shot in sharp focus next to a ladder. As his daughter is talking to him in the background, she moves to fill a square formed by the rungs and sides of the ladder as she does so, also in deep focus. Wow. Visual orgasm or what?

Another example is where Ned Rifle is sitting on a bed on the right of screen and Weber is lying at the other end talking to him, the shot split in half by a lampshade dividing them visually in the centre of the frame. This is great stuff and also, of course, can be seen as a visual metaphor for the divide between the lives of the two characters. The dialogue is less clever here but certainly tugs the heart somewhat as Ned says, “I have to...”. Weber finishes the sentence for him, “Pray?” “Yeah.” says Ned. Weber continues, “You have to tell me about that one day.” “What’s to tell?” asks Ned. Weber concludes the scene by responding, “How it feels to have someone listening.” The almost split screen created by the lampshade is a nice touch to augment that dialogue and it’s little moments like this which allow me to conclude, with this movie, that Hal Hartley is still a cinematic genius or, to put it another way... yeah, he’s still “got it”.

Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle is available on iTunes and you can watch, stream and grab the DVD from the director’s website www.halhartley.com If you’ve never seen a Hal Hartley film before then this may not be the absolute best one to jump on with, being as it’s technically a sequel to two of his other movies... but you can check out a load of his other films at the website and others are available from the usual channels. If you are already a fan of Hartley you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of Ned Rifle in whatever format is your poison... if you’ve never seen a Hal Hartley movie before but are a fan of cinema in general... well, just pick any one and get to it. I’m sure you’ll soon want to watch them all.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

San Andreas




Shaken Not Stirred

San Andreas
2015  USA/Australia
Directed by Brad Peyton
UK cinema release print.

I’m sure I probably mentioned this before, last year, in my review of Into The Storm (reviewed here) but I’m not much of a person for disaster movies. I saw some of the John Williams scored classics when I was a kid... such as Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (the building of which features in a scene in the film I’m reviewing here now)... and so I am trying to see more of these things because the specific kind of mass destruction which isn’t instigated by hordes of invading alien armies is something I’ve never really paid much attention to in the cinematic landscape.

I was in two minds whether to go and see this movie or not but the reviews saying this was the dumbest thing on screens in a long time kinda sealed the deal for me... I was hoping for, at the very least, an entertaining review. And I have to say that, surprising me in the process, I actually had a better time at the movies with San Andreas than I had the night before when I saw Jurassic World (reviewed here). Sure the science is completely buggered up (as it is with the dinosaur films, obviously) and it’s full of characters doing insanely stupid things (just like that dino movie) but I guess, even though it’s a festival of disaster movie clichés stuck together with some pretty blatantly silly and familiar script points to give it some kind of story arc, I was just expecting a lot less of this film than I was of the higher concept Jurassic Park sequel... so without my expectations raised above a point any higher than hilariously bad, I actually saw... yeah, kind of a mess of a movie, to be sure... but a really fun mess with a nice heart to it plus some nice performances midst the terrible dialogue.

Okay, so the plot involves Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson as Ray, who is handily, considering the subject of this thing, some kind of rescue helicopter pilot who specialises in getting people out of near death situations. This is set up in the first ten minutes of the film with a daring escapade where Ray and his team go to rescue a woman who has been ‘quaked’ in her car so that she is stuck inside said vehicle, perched vertically on the side of a cliff. As Ray’s helicopter views the situation, it’s clear from the constant creaking and slight movements of the car that the down draft from the rotor blades are making the vehicle even more unstable. So Ray does what any good, gung ho rescue guy does in a summer blockbuster kind of movie... he takes the helicopter even closer... because, you know, we need the suspense of the vehicle slipping as his team try and rescue the lady while her predicament becomes less and less stable. Hmmm. Anyway, when one of Ray’s crew gets himself into just as much trouble as the person they are trying to rescue, we get to see Ray become a one man International Rescue and save the day with his bravery and derring do. Hey, it worked for me and I’m really not knocking Dwayne Johnson here... I think The Rock is a solid and watchable personality and he gives a credible performance saying even the cheesiest of lines in some films. He always takes it all very seriously and he always delivers his best. It also helps a lot that he actually looks like he could do some of the ludicrously dangerous things he gets into in the movies. So, yeah, dumb character but... well played and he still has my admiration for rescuing the credibility in some of the roles he finds himself in.

So, anyway, Ray is on his way to see his daughter Blake (played by Alexandra Daddario who is someone with a figure who, trust me, you really need to see in an earthquake movie... for reasons that may become obvious to some of my readers) and his wife Emma, played by the lovely Carla Gugino. Emma is divorcing Ray because of certain emotional communication problems Mr. Rock’s character has. However due to the various upcoming quakes predicted by scientist Lawrence, played by the always amazing Paul Giamatti, mother goes off to see a completely strange and irritating non-character played by... of all people... the lovely Kylie Minogue, while her daughter hangs out with new Dad Number 2, architect Daniel Riddick, played by “the real Reed Richards” himself, Mr. Ioan Gruffudd... the films token human bad guy who, it has to be said, doesn’t have too much time to make the transition from reasonable husband material to less than trustworthy, not very nice person before getting himself killed by having a big, heavy object landing on him.

And that’s one of the main problems with this film actually. The characters are all set up in a way that they seem to just be paying a token service to famous character clichés of movies of the past without actually getting a chance to really inhabit the role before the story function of their character’s plot device is fulfilled and we’re onto the next thing. So when Blake is rescued by two English brothers, one of whom is her new love interest, the film focuses on the daughter and her two new found fiends surviving and trying to get to higher ground in the hopes that her dad will find them... seeing as he’s Mr/ Rescue and all. This is cross cut with the other story arc in which we see Ray rescue his wife from the roof of a crumbling building and then having a bit of a disaster punctuated road movie journey to find their daughter... via helicopter, plane, truck and boat... while at the same time rekindling their own romance due to Ray suddenly feeling he’s able to express his emotions about the daughter they had who died years ago... just in time to use that set up as an ironic, “oh my gosh my other daughter is going to die and I failed to save her too” scene which turns out... in the end... exactly the way you know it’s going to turn out.

So... no surprises here and the stupidity of the people and science in some scenes is, to be fair, quite hard to swallow. However, that being said, there’s also some really nice stuff in here.

For instance, the characters may all be stereotypes but the performers are all doing their best and, although the actors in question aren’t quite able to render their characters anymore 3D than what’s been written on the page for them, they are all doing a really good job in at least keeping them likeable (or unlikable if that is the intention). So there’s that. Added to this, the things these people have to go through in this movie says a lot about the quality of the cast. It seems that a lot of the acting team were doing a fair amount of their own stunts in this one and you do see it on the screen in a lot of the shots. I remember sitting watching an underwater scene near the end of the movie thinking... wow, these people are really putting themselves through this for their craft. I suspect that certain sections of the production of this probably come well under the category of “gruelling film shoot” and so more power to the team of actors in this one... especially The Rock and Alexandra Daddario.

There’s some nice camera work in this movie, too. One brief shot from above a wrecked city looking down through the clouds took my breath away and I wish they’d have just let that one play out for a little longer than the couple of seconds needed for it to fulfil its function as a transitional establishing shot. Also, in regards to the photography, special effects and editing all working together in harmony... job well done. There is a lot of disaster strewn chaos and stuff happening through a lot of the scenes as earthquake after semi-unexpected earthquake assail our heroes but, and this is quite an amazing feat, it’s all choreographed in such a manner that you can see everything that is happening without getting confused and, because of the way it is shot, everything leads into something else in a logical fashion without causing you to lose your bearings amid all the madness. So, really, congratulations to all involved in this production.

One last thing... Andrew Lockington’s score for this one deserves a special mention. Now, I didn’t get to hear a heck of a lot of it, for sure, because the sound effects and design are pretty overpowering (which is one of the reasons why I’ve ordered a copy of the CD... so I can explore it way from the film) but there was definitely something interesting going on here and there were a couple of moments where the sound design and musical score kinda met each other, which really stood out for me. There’s a whole lot of rumbling, crashing and so on in this film’s audio track and, one of the key things they seem to be doing here is to put a lot of creaking in to indicate structural damage which is about to kick off again... as a way of ramping up tension. However, there were certain times in the movie where things were a little bit quieter... and this is where Lockington uses big drumrolls which kind of sound like a musical way of indicating that same instability. There were points where I couldn’t tell where the rumbling was starting and ending as the score took over. In fact, I began to get uneasy when I heard the drum rolls in case it meant something else was going to come crashing down on the main protagonists any moment. So, again, job well done on that and I’m looking forward to hearing the score unencumbered by the movie.

And that’s about it for San Andreas. The dialogue is lousy and there’s a visual moment right at the end of the movie, when the dust has settled, so to speak, which is really unbearably cheesy and it involves the American flag. It’s a terrible, terrible, over the top moment but, I guess that’s in keeping with the nature of the film and so I can kind of forgive it. Now, I’m aware that this film shares a lot of things which I was less than happy about in the new Jurassic World movie but, I’ll say it again here... I wasn’t expecting anything too high concept on this one so I really didn’t stumble out of this one disappointed. It may not be the best disaster movie around but it certainly had some nice things about it that other, more accepted movies of this nature could have done with and, at the end of the day, what with all the clichés attacking the audience left, right and centre, it had its heart in the right place. Not exactly the best movie your going to see here but if you like to see big structures toppling and lots of running about... well, you could spend your money on a lot worse at the cinema right now.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Jurassic World




Dinos ‘R’ Us

Jurassic World
2015  USA/China
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
UK cinema release print.

I remember absolutely loving the first Jurassic Park film when I saw it in 1993 (reviewed by me here). That was definitely the year of the dinosaur with every conceivable merchandise item you can think of, officially or not, being turned into some kind of prehistoric monster. It also tapped into a long forgotten and never properly developed passion for paleontology I had as a kid, which kinda kicked off with a knack I seemed to have for finding prehistoric fossils in even the most unlikeliest of places (I once even stumbled on a small ammonite in a stone which had been chopped up for gravel in a car park... something which still blows my mind today). Alas, like the dinosaurs that we all know and love, my enthusiasm for looking at, cleaning and dating bits of animal/vegetable impressed or incarcerating rocks soon became extinct... although I still have a soft spot for movies which feature dinosaurs and such.

That’s why, even though this movie isn’t a shadow of the original Spielberg opus, I still found it to be an entertaining film, to a certain point, although it really does seem a little unnecessary when you compare it to previous installments. As I said, I loved the original movie and even liked the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which I remember coming in as a bit of a disappointment for a lot of people, although it was in some ways a partial remake using the old King Kong formula... even to the point of composer John Williams kind of referencing just a little of Max Steiner’s original 1933 score in one section. For the record, by the way, I love King Kong movies too... and a lot of the bizarre rip offs that followed in the giant ape’s footsteps over the decades. By the time that Jurassic Park III was upon us, I’d lost a lot of interest in the films and Spielberg was no longer in the director’s seat for this third installment. Still, it was entertaining enough because, even if there was no longer anything really new to show the audience, you really can’t go wrong with a dose of giant dinosaur action and it was still quite watchable.

I think the one thing you can accuse the movies of is that they’re definitely following a standard formula of throwing dinosaurs and humans together into the mix, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character from the first movie, and seeing who the heck is going to come out better off. The various films all pretty much deal with either kids or teenagers in peril, needing some kind of rescue, thus placing everyone in danger and fair prey to big, scary beasts with ferocious looking teeth. They’re usually a lot of fun with such a simple and robust formula and this latest incarnation, Jurassic World, also follows the same mix of ingredients, reataining that fun factor. It’s definitely a switch your brain’s higher functions off and sit back for the ride kinda movie but, there’s nothing really wrong with that, I think.

It does have it’s problems though.

The main problem with this one is, I’m afraid, that we’ve seen it all before and, really, nothing much has changed... it’s just got bigger and, arguably in some points, better rendered. This kind of gives it a bit of an uninspired feel and I find it interesting that the writers of the movie seem to have identified their own problem and made it a plot point, while still suffering from a lack of coherent solution to the issue. By this I mean that the plot involves a new “super dinosaur predator” which has been cross-bred and genetically enhanced by the only character/actor in the film from any of the original movies (B D Wong as Dr. Henry Wu, from Jurassic Park) because the audience for the theme park requires bigger and better dinosaurs to hold the interest for repeat visits. This, of course, follows the same mentality of a movie which feels it needs a bigger and better dinosaur to gain box office this time around and one wonders if this wasn’t a laconic in-joke snuck in by the writers to the point that it got past the producers of the movie. The thing is, the new dinosaur isn’t really that special in terms of look and so... it’s just really a bit bigger. Chris Pratt’s “velociraptor-whisperer” character Owen comments, “They’re dinosaurs. Wow, enough.” but, alas, my own reaction to these usually terrifying beasts in this movie was more... “They’re dinosaurs. Meh! Enough.”

Actually, although the acting and stereotypical characters by the likes of Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard have been fairly heavily criticised (it seems to me), I had absolutely no problems with this reverting to stereotypes business. It’s not any more or less offensive, I feel, than a profusion of violence , for instance... something I can’t condone in real life but am more than happy to enjoy at the level of being entertained by it in the movies. Actually, I thought Howard’s character Claire is actually a stronger person than people are giving her credit for but... I’ll let everybody else make their own judgements on that and am happy to leave my comments on her in the shadows. She did the job just fine, as did Pratt, and I was entertained by them probably more so than the dinosaurs... if truth be told. The two “kids in peril” figures, Gray and Zach, were also brilliantly played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson so, really, no problem with the performances at all. Or even the script in terms of the dialogue to a large extent. Mostly it’s the story direction and lack of scares from the dinosaurs which was a little disappointing for me this time around. I remember the first time I saw Jurassic Park in 1993 there was a moment where I kicked the back of the seat in front of me inadvertently because my brain was kicking a velociraptor away... this time around that visceral vibe really wasn’t a factor in this, I’m afraid.

One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is the fact that we don’t, in this one, have an opening like the other three... which all begin with quite ferocious dinosaur attacks and which deliberately shock/warn the viewer to be really wary because these things are dangerous. The most successful of these openings, of course, being the Trex attack at the start of the original Jurassic Park. Now I can totally understand the film makers choice not to go with this kind of set up again... especially after doing something similar in each film... but I think they’ve failed to take into account that it’s been 14 years since the majority of their audience have seen one of these things on the big screen and, in the case of some of their potential viewers, this is their first experience of one of these at a cinema... on a giant window into their fantasy land with a soundtrack dominating the experience over all the normal household sounds which can mar any home viewing. I really think the filmmakers missed a trick not giving us a truly terrifying opening to set up just how dangerous these things can be on this one and, for the record, a quite badly CGI’d crow does not provide the kinds of scares you’re looking for... nor does it serve a purpose unless you are going to bring crows back later on in the story. Any inherent metaphor is lost by the time you get to flying reptiles in this one. It just doesn’t really work other than for the laugh factor the director was presumably going for.

Another thing which really doesn’t help this particular film is that the trailers showed so much from it that you can completely piece together what’s going to happen before you even see the movie and... they really didn’t hold anything good back to save for just the main viewing experience, to give it the “wow factor” that the people running the island in the film are so obviously looking for, too. A bigger dinosaur doesn’t really cut it and, though they do tease what it looks like for a little while in the film, when you do see it it’s just... well... it’s just a big dinosaur. What’s next? So I think my personal experience of the movie would have been a little better if they’d have just stuck to more teasery trailers and not given us everything there is in one hit. Not a very smart move, I would have to say.

That being said, though, there are some nice things in it. The references to the first film such as it being set on the original island and a pretty big, not quite logical, reference to that first movie involving the teens that I won’t spoil here, are nice little touches. As is Michael Giacchino’s score which, given his past credentials and services to sequels over the years, I wouldn’t expect to be any less than excellent and that’s exactly what it is... riffing on John Williams’ original themes when required and hitting key points in the film. The score is a definite purchase from me but, honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering to pick up a home viewing version of the film on Blu Ray for a repeat watch anytime soon.

One of the things the director here has to be applauded for, although I don’t think it’s done all that successfully, is trying to capture some of the "little details leading onto larger revelations" mentality  that Spielberg utilised in his original two movies. In Jurassic Park, for example, we had that lovely moment, pretty much stolen from the scene when the tanks invade in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, where the vibrations caused by the footsteps of the Tyrannosaurus Rex make visible ripples in a glass of water. Or the lovely moment where the canvass diorama illustration of a velociraptor turns into the visible presence of a real one when you least expect it, heralded by one of the characters shaking in fright so much the jelly on her spoon is wobbling. In The Lost World, we had two nice moments, one involving slowly cracking glass and another of velociraptor’s trails through tall grass. Those sequences really elevated the film from being just another dinosaur movie for this audience member. Jurassic World tries to use the same kind of visual philosophy, most notable when droplets of blood start dripping onto a throwaway character’s hand. Also, it highlights objects in the visual plane, such as a misplaced firearm, to ramp up the suspense and let the audience know, in a shorthand way, that the characters are in more danger than they at first maybe had realised. I actually don’t think any of these things are done that successfully, or with the flair that Spielberg achieved using similar techniques in the first two movies, but a big thank you and well done to Colin Trevorrow here for at least trying to hit the same kind of beats... even if they arent always effective on an adult audience (I’m sure it terrifies the kids though so... that’s two thirds of the job done, surely?).

At the end of the day, Jurassic World is a fairly entertaining movie and a guaranteed okay time at the cinema. It’s not a great movie and I think either something a lot more clever or, possibly, a lot more ‘over the top’ in terms of execution might well have lifted it above the status of being... just another fun watch. However, that being said, since I’m pretty sure that being a fun watch was probably the largest concern of all those behind the camera, I think it certainly succeeds in that. My fourth favourite of the four movies but certainly something which I think will be regularly showing on television screens for the next twenty years or so and, since it’s had a really big opening weekend, I don’t think this will be the last one in the series. If you like big dino movies, then you’re not going to go too far wrong by seeing this one, that’s for sure.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes




Gorillas In Their Midst

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes
USA 1973
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
20TH Century Fox
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight spoilers but, with this particular movie, you might not really worry about that.

Wow, this is a terrible movie. The swan song of the original Apes movies (although it was followed by two TV different shows - one live action and one cartoon), it’s such a shame that the same director who turned in such a wonderful job on the previous film, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here), followed it up with such a hollow shell of a movie.  To be fair to Thompson, from what I understand, he was forced to sign on as director before the script of this one was completed... maybe if he’d had seen how the final thing read before he signed then, who knows, he may not have decided to return to the franchise.

This film is the one I mentioned in my review of the first movie in the series here. I saw it at a very young age on a double bill with a movie called The Neptune Factor and, frankly, as a kid it somehow left an impression. At least the one specific scene where all the apes appear dead before Caeser yells “Fight like Apes!” and they all miraculously stand up and kill all the human mutants did... but it wasn’t more than a decade, I think, before I saw it again on television and realised just how bad this one is in comparison with the other films in the series... it even makes Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) look kinda good. I was hoping to see a little more in it this time around, watching the new Blu Ray set but... no... this film is just as dreadful as it always was, I’m afraid.

It starts off a bit hopeful in terms of the “have the studio wised up to their previous continuity errors” factor with a prologue, the first of two bookend scenes, set in the very far future... a bookend scene featuring John Huston as The Lawgiver, a character referred to by Dr. Zaius and others in previous movies. He then starts telling the story of the events of this film and the movie makers wisely don’t put a specific time on the things that take place in the main body of the story. That could have worked, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that Caeser and Lisa, played once again by Roddy McDowell and Natalie Trundy, don’t really seemed to have aged much.

The film, it can be deduced, is set about 12 years after the events of the previous film and, in the interim, we have a post-war Earth where the apes and humans are living, relatively, peacefully together. However, this must make Austin Stoker, playing the brother of Mcdonald in the previous film (the original actor refused to return for this movie and, really, who can blame him?), a very young kid brother to the original character and so, when he and another new character, a smart Orangutan called Virgil, agree to accompany Caeser to the old, bombed out and irradiated city where the ‘other’ McDonald worked in the last film, it makes you wonder how Stoker’s character knows his way around the facilities so well.

As it happens, the journey to find tapes of Caeser’s mother and father is just a plot device to alert the radiation mutated humans living beneath the city to the presence of the apes and humans... so they can mount an army against them. It’s not specifically said but it’s definitely implied (and verified with a ‘lost scene’ involving the origins of the worship of a nuclear bomb) that these people are the ancestors of the future mutant race we learned about in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. Also, during this scene, the audio tapes of Caeser’s explanation about the rise of the apes, that really dreadful one that made no sense in the otherwise fantastic Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here), is severely and conveniently edited to omit the contradictions raised by Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes... although the producers still seem to have forgotten that even this new, truncated version also massively contradicts everything we know of the future ape culture we learn of in the very first movie. So it’s pretty bad news whichever way you look at it.

In this film we have two villains... the human mutant villain who leads an attack on the village of the apes and also the gorilla, Aldo, played by veteran actor Claude Akins. We have a whole subplot where Aldo tries to enslave and, if he had his way, kill all the humans living with the apes and he also kills Caeser and Lisa’s son Cornelius, named after Caeser’s father who was also played by McDowell in the franchise. Everybody has a big fight with the mutants and then there’s a another fight between Caeser and Aldo and then... that’s all folks. We jump to the epilogue bookend where human and ape children in the far, far future are being taught side by side... showing that the events in the last few films have split the timeline off into a different set of future events. Yeah, whatever. I’m less than impressed by this one. You can tell, can’t you?

The thing which disappoints so much with Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is not the fact that the violence was deliberately toned down to nothing so kids could see it... I’ve got absolutely no problem with that if it’s appropriate to the story. It’s not even the fact that the producers were already eyeing the demise of the film series to make way for a dumbed down TV show of the franchise. My real problem is that it already feels like it could be an episode of that show. It’s like a shoot ‘em up, cowboys and indians movie with the apes and humans as two factions of cowboys teaming up against the invading indians as represented by the mutants. There’s nothing truly remarkable or notable in this film that makes it stand out in any way, like every other ape film previous to this one did (even the second one with that quite harsh ending). It all feels so run of the mill and even on a visual level, bearing in mind it has the same director to the previous entry, it lacks a lot and scenes end and transition like they are just stopping and starting around advertising breaks... it’s a bit of a mess. The only time the visual element of the film becomes interesting is in the brief interlude in the bombed out city when Caeser, McDonald and Virgil are being chased by mutants in long, sewer-like tunnels... but it’s just an interlude to throw in a plot element and it doesn’t stay this interesting for very long.

Just to add insult to injury, we have the return of Leonard Rosenman on the score and it’s not in any way resembling what you would normally get, in terms of orchestration, in a Planet Of The Apes movie... it’s just a bit, in modern parlance... meh. Except of course for when Rosenman keeps repeating those blasted tone pyramids at regular intervals... then it just gets really irritating (for more info on my response to Rosenman’s technical bag of tricks, read my review of The Car here). It’s just not, in any way, an interesting or striking movie and, given the mostly high standards and twisty plots of the previous four entries in the series... well it’s just not a fitting end to the original apes series, as far as I’m concerned. And unforgiveably again, for an apes movie, it also has a pretty weak ending. This one’s nothing to write home about and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, it has to be said. See this one at your peril.

Planet Of The Apes @ NUTS4R2
Click on title for review, where available.

Planet Of The Apes 
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes
Planet Of The Apes TV Show (live action) - to be reviewed
Time Of The Apes - to be reviewed
Planet Of The Apes (Tim Burton) - to be reviewed
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes  
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
War Of The Planet Of The Apes - to be reviewed

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Survivor




Boom Watch

Survivor
2015  UK/USA
Directed by James McTeigue
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so Survivor is a film I knew nothing about going in other than what I saw in a trailer at the cinema the week before. That much being that it had Pierce Brosnan and Mila Jovovich in it, two very competent actors, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the pre-requisite mix of explosions plus running, jumping and shooting that seems to be part and parcel of all modern cinema these days. Fine, no complaints, I like the two leads and so I figured I’d give it a go.

As I watched the movie, it slowly began to dawn on me that this was the same film that I’d heard Brosnan was making about a hit man which was originally going to be called The Watchmaker. Now let’s face it, The Watchmaker is a way better title than the assuredly bland Survivor and how many films are they going to release with this title in the history of the cinema anyway?

So, anyway, this is the story of an American security agent, Kate Abbott (played by Jovovich), who has been relocated to London’s American Embassy to handle security on passport control and, when she gets wind that something is afoot, including a corrupt element on the staff, she is targeted for assassination by someone who calls in Brosnan’s watchmaker character... a highly paid assassin who is also doing another job for the same boss with a tryout in London for a terrorist attack in New York, set for a slightly later date.

And, of course, since Kate has a narrow escape when several colleagues die in an attempt on her life, not to mention being caught with a smoking pistol on the corrupt official who has not been actually revealed to her bosses yet, she has to stay alive while being hunted by both her own people and Brosnan’s ruthless assassin... while finding out what it’s all about and averting the terrorist act Brosnan will try to get away with at the end of the film. Standard set up and a pretty standard action movie, to be fair, but with a nice level of performance from all of the cast, including veterans like Robert Forster and, um, Frances De La Tour (funny how she’s started popping up in everything again these days).

So it’s kind of like a Jason Bourne film but with maybe a bit less intelligence on the part of the main heroine... for some reason she’s been written to not be that much ahead of the game which, I guess, makes things easier for the scripting to keep getting her into hot water with the killer but makes her a slightly less credible security figure in some ways... not Jovovich’s fault though, who does an excellent job. As does Brosnan playing a basic riff on the “hard man” side of his old James Bond character, only with less charm and more ruthlessness than audiences might associate this actor with... although it’s always been something he’s brought to the table in his performances in these kinds of action roles, to be honest.

The direction is very ‘work a day’ with nothing too flashy and a variety of different styles of shooting scenes that bring to mind no immediate signature. Sometimes he’ll go with long swooping shots, other times he’ll go with static shots with various cuts and still other times he’ll switch to hand held camera when it makes sense to do that dramatically or as an echo of the pacing and mental state of the main characters being shown on screen. There’s some nice framing in certain scenes and less obvious, less aesthetically pleasing frame designs in others.

 For instance, the bulk of the action takes place in the heart of London, on streets I know fairly well, and there was a nice piece of framing where Milla Jovovich is walking through Chinatown and the director has taken the shot from a point of view where the vertical posts are all cluttered together and truncating the screen in a whole bunch of sections. This then transitions to a different character coming out of a flat where the fences on the right hand side of the screen echo the verticals thrown up by the previous shot. Then, the main part of where those verticals lead is again echoed as a single vertical splitter in the cut back to the previous character, by now at a different location.

So yeah, there’s some nice stuff going on in certain scenes but, for the most part, it’s a fairly straight, run of the mill action fest and... it’s no worse than a lot of the ones out lately and certainly has some good performances in it, as I said earlier. However, it seems to be set around the Christmas and New Year period and, what with the title change too, I’m guessing this film has had a somewhat delayed release... possibly due to a lack of confidence in it by the producers, I would guess. There would have been no need to worry though.. it holds its own pretty well and I think it would have been better if the studio would have gotten behind it a little more with the marketing, in all fairness. I wasn't aware of any real push on this and it was a surprise release for me.

One thing which they may be worried about is the baggage that Brosnan brings with him to the role. To be fair, both Brosnan and Jovovich have proven very capable of heading up their own franchises (Jovovich has the Resident Evil series) but I can see how the producers might be wary of having the former James Bond playing a villainous role. As it happens, Brosnan is absolutely fine playing against type but there was one moment, I have to admit, where I think his past role got in there to haunt him... although it’s absolutely not his fault, it was written that way. The thing is, Brosnan goes all the way through the film showing that he’s a) a ruthless killing machine who would end your life rather than leave a witness and b) that he’s not a superman and he does, in fact, fail to kill his prey many times throughout the movie... and it’s not for want of trying. Which is all very well and good except for one little scene involving a stairwell where, I have to say, Brosnan’s character pulls off a stunt which is much more worthy of his earlier, super spy roles and... while nice to watch... I think seems totally out of character for the role and I have to wonder if that particular sequence would have been tooled like that if it had been anyone other than Brosnan doing it. A slight mis-step there, I feel, but a forgivable one seeing as the rest of the film brings it back down to earth in terms of the action sequences fairly well.

Another good thing about this movie is the score by Ilan Eshkeri. He’s not a composer I’m that familiar with and I’m not the biggest fan of electronic, synthesiser scores either... which is what this one is. That being said, this is one of the more effective scores I’ve heard of that nature and it never seems inappropriate to the various on screen antics of the characters, helping to fuel some of the action scenes for sure... giving them a little extra as the baseline and percussion elements kick into overdrive. Such a pity this particular score doesn’t seem to have had a soundtrack release as I would definitely have liked to pick up a CD of this at some point. I’m beginning to come round to the electronic score as a viable alternative to orchestra a little more in later years, I have to say.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Survivor. There’s some really clunky dialogue in here, especially at the end of the movie, but the performances are strong, the action is well staged and the editing doesn’t get so confusing that you don’t know what’s going on... which is half the battle these days, it seems to me. Definitely should be a hit with those of you who like action spy thrillers and certainly not the worst work either Brosnan or Jovovich have done. By no means is it a terrible time at the cinema so, if you find yourself at a loose end anytime soon, this movie could be one to go on your “to watch” list, I reckon.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Insidious Chapter 3




Insidious Elf, 
One of the Family

Insidious Chapter 3
2015  Canada/USA
Directed by Leigh Whannell
UK cinema release print.

My personal reactions to the Insidious films have been documented on this blog as each movie has been released. Regular readers may remember that I really didn’t think a whole lot of the first Insidious movie (reviewed here), dismissing it as mostly being a remake of the old Little Girl Lost episode of the original series of The Twilight Zone, filtered by way of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s big budget reworking of elements of that story, Poltergeist, in 1982. Well put together but nothing we hadn’t seen done a fair few times before and with a disappointing last quarter of an hour or so which plunged it into teen slasher horror of the worst kind. Why I bothered seeing the sequel to this one is purely because I was curious as to how the ending of that movie could be used as a way in to the second. When I saw Insidious 2 (reviewed here) I found it to be a lot more interesting because of where the story had been left and a much stronger entry in the series.

Also, and I’m trying not to be spoilery for either that movie or this third part here, one of the more interesting characters in that second film was in a place right at the end where a sequel including this character in the circumstances she finds herself in at the end of that film would be most interesting and certainly something you wouldn’t normally see in a modern movie for a main character in a story.

As it happens, I kinda half got my wish but was initially somewhat sceptical when I found out that the third movie is, in fact, a prequel and, also, it wasn’t directed by James Wan, director of the first two films (and also the magnificent modern horror classic The Conjuring - reviewed here). However, having now seen it, I am actually grateful on a couple of counts that we’ve gone back in time a little for this one. Also, seeing that one of the producers is Oren Peli, whose Paranormal Activities franchise also time leaped back for the third movie (reviewed here) and strengthened the future films by doing so, meant that I’m not against the idea. This film might well be used for taking the franchise in a more coordinated direction in the future, I suspect. It’s also being directed by the writer of all three installments, his debut in this function, Leigh Whannel. Whannel also has a recurring role in all three films... but I’ll get to that soon enough.

So what we have here is a completely different set of characters and it involves a young girl, Quinn Brenner played by actress Stefanie Scott, who is trying to help hold everyone together in a small family unit comprising of her brother (played by Tate Berney) and her father Sean, played by Dermot Mulroney, after the death of her mother. She is quite distressed by her mother’s death (as anyone would be) and she still thinks she feels her presence trying to make contact. Desperately needing to talk to her departed parent, she seeks out the psychic investigator/medium from the first two films, Elise Rainier played by veteran actress (of 180 movies at time of writing) Lin Shaye. Now, the film is set only two years before the events in the first movie but, here, Elise has given up offering her unique services to people because of a dark phantom who tries to kill her every time she does. This is not what you would expect from the character only a short number of years before we initially met her in the first chapter and, as she slowly gets involved with trying to stop the demon who is terrorising young Quinn in a series of the usual, exploitative scare tactics inflicted on audiences in these kinds of spectacles, we are slowly revealed to the elements of her back story that initially got her there in the first place.

And this is why the film gets interesting and, frankly, does what all good genre cinema does... influencing mainstream thinking by going through the back door, hopefully. In this film, Elise is pretty much the main protagonist or, at the very least, as much of a main protagonist as Quinn Brenner, getting at least equal, probably more actually, screen time. It’s a strong, female role in a genre which has always promoted strong female roles, even as far back as some of the early 'Hammer Horrors' and it goes so much further beyond just the general whittling away of characters until you’re left with the one, final girl who becomes the strong survivor by default (a pattern even followed by Sigourney Weaver’s much celebrated character in the first Alien movie, of course). Now, on it’s own as a strong element of "gender in your genre", that’s all well and good and is probably a cause for congratulation... but that’s not the sole reason why I think this film is just a little more ready to indulge in some, almost subversive, shenanigans and why I hope the effect of this film might be able to have some slow but sure widespread influence, not just on the horror genre in general but in, hopefully, mainstream cinematic culture.

The thing is... I hope Lin Shaye doesn’t mind me saying that she’s no spring chicken. She’s 72 years old in fact. The role she is playing and how it develops and builds over the course of this film is kind of, by the end game, a psychic female action hero. When terrified by a demon in an other wordly zone (The Further), for instance, she breaks it’s grip with a head butt to the face and a bring it on kind of attitude which causes it to back down. She then proceeds to find her inner strength with a display of psychic carnage in this other plane and, mostly, wreaks havoc on her ghostly enemies like a modern, female Dr. Strange. How many other movies out there at the moment, or in a very long time for that matter, have 72 year old lady action hero’s kicking the villain’s butts? This is terrific stuff and unheard of for mainstream cinema these days... so I’m hoping that this will gradually be an influence on other horror movies, little by little, until it slips into main blockbuster cinematic syntax by a process of casual familiarity.

It’s okay to have very old, female heroes, folks... and guess what the average age of the target audience that a horror movie like the ones in the Insidious franchise are being aimed at is? Well, I don’t know but I’m pretty sure these things are being made for late teens/early twenties audiences primarily to be able to get the money back... so there’s that. Low budget horror movies usually turn a profit and this is the kind of genre where you can sneakily make this kind of change first... so something to think about there and I’m pleased with the writer for doing this.

Of course, another thing the horror genre does, by its very nature and due to an easy recognition of the visual language of the horror film, is to try and concentrate your attention away from where the scare is coming but, in a lot of cases and including this film, that also means turning the camera to places where the action is not happening and concentrating on different areas of the shot to give your mind a build up to the scare. Now, when you think about it, allowing other things in a frame to dominate over the actual action that’s going on in the rest of the shot is more of a European way of shooting a movie than something that would normally be accepted in a mainstream American piece. It’s a specific way of doing things and it’s no better or worse than any other kind of strategic visual aesthetic but I find it intriguing where the one kind of US mainstream cinema where that is encouraged is in the horror genre. I’m not saying it’s in any way a deliberate nod to a less native approach to shooting movies (and it wouldn’t have been seen to be either, up until around the late 1970s in US movie production)... it’s more just a symptom of the approach to being creative with some overly familiar genre rules at this point in the game... but it’s certainly something else which separates what you can get happening in a low budget horror movie at this time which wouldn’t be acceptable in a lot of other current commercial product.

The other nice thing about this film is the return, in the last third of the movie, of Tucker and Specs, played by Angus Simpson and the writer/director of this movie, Leigh Whannell - the two nerdy psychic investigators with their blog, 'Spectral Sightings'. It’s here we see them meet Elise for the first time and, due to events in this film, forge an alliance that will see them through to the team they have become in the first two movies and, hopefully, the quite unique team they will be in any subsequent chapters. There are some nice touches in here and, although I found some of the transition jumps in this movie a bit out of kilter with what I would have expected (and I don’t think that this was necessarily done on purpose but possibly from a lack of shots designed to be edited into a workable transition?), I think Whannell does a competent job as a director. It's maybe not quite up to the same standard as the second movie, to be sure, but it’s certainly a whole lot better than the first installment and, coupled with another winning score for the series by Joseph Bishara, with more melody being allowed to bleed into the atonality in this set of compositions than usual, then you have a pretty solid time at your local cinema if supernatural chills are your kinda thing. Still happy to go and see what they do with a fourth one on the strength of this and, frankly, the inclusion of a 72 year old lady action hero is something to be celebrated, no matter what genre it’s happening in. So maybe check this one out if horror movies are your kind of thing and, due to the chronological setting of this one, you don’t even really need to have seen the first two movies to give this one a shot. Enjoy.