Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Ghost Bus Tours



Who You Gonna Call?

The Ghost Bus Tours
The Necropolis Bus Company - London Branch


Just a quick shout out of a review to the guys and gals, actors and actresses of The Necropolis Bus Company...

Just recently, I found myself staying with a friend in the heart of our country’s capital and one of the escapades we were booked up for was the local tour of this spook themed sightseeing trip, The Ghost Bus Tours. The company in question also hosts similarly themed tours in both York and Edinburgh but I can only speak out for the London version of their spooky shenanigans.

The bus departs promptly at an agreed time in Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square and, to save disappointment, you may wish to visit their website and book your seat... you can click on the URL at the bottom of this review. The very bus on which my companion and I found ourselves seated was the lone survivor of a 19th Century Private Funeral Bus service. Due to some bizarre circumstances involving a fire in 1967, which I won’t spoil for you here but which you will find is the subject of a dramatisation on the bus itself, this vehicle itself has its own spooky history and its painted up in the original colours with railway like seating inside and with its own internal lamps and black curtains. Both lamps and curtains come into use at some point on the trip but... you know... I really don’t want to spoil this one for you.

The actor playing the conductor is there to give you a fascinating, guided tour of the haunted hotspots of our fair city and, along the way, he provides more than his fair share of horrible stories which is deftly countered by a comedic tone throughout.

Now, if you’re purely a fan of sophisticated humour and clever witticisms with your travels... this is probably not the tour for you. It has to be said that the majority of the jokes and quips which the conductor comes out with are... I’m delighted to say... real groaners. It makes the trip fun and, although there are some slight scares to be had along the way, these aren’t much that many people couldn’t handle and the emphasis is way more on the comic approach rather than scares. The spooky stuff, which happens as a dramatisation when the conductor is interrupted by the living or the dead, is communicated through a video screen in the top and bottom decks and, also, lighting and sound effects. This communication system also helps convey the drama/humour of the situation should you happen to notice... and it’s pretty hard not to... when the bus picks up the odd, unscheduled customer, for the evening.

As the bus makes its way through the traffic, the conductor points out the sights of London’s most haunted structures and, if you are a complete stranger to London, then you will probably find this extremely handy. A whole host of important buildings and landmarks such as New Scotland Yard, The Old Bailey, The Bank Of England, Lyceum Theatre, The Monument and even the statue of King Charles the First riding a horse which marks the very centre of London, are all pointed out on the trip... amongst many other fascinating and little known locations. Not to mention some beautiful views of London sights such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and The Tower Of London. So if you find yourself a complete stranger to our fair capital, it might be worth starting your holidays by taking this ghoulish but fun little trip to give yourself a quick overview of some of the more traditional places you could visit on your stay.

One thing I will say, which is not a criticism but a mild caution, is that some parents may find the graphic descriptions of death and torture mentioned... with a fairly comical delivery, to be sure... something the younger passengers might not be ready for. Similarly, there’s a lot of adult humour in the double entendres and such like used by the conductor - for instance, when referring to going down the rear passage or when talking about the ghost in Cock Lane. All that being said, though, there was a little girl who looked to be about seven or eight years old on the tour when me and my friend rode the bus and she seemed to be having the time of her life. I’m pretty sure the more ‘adult humour’ would have been going over her head and, as far as the morbidly graphic descriptions were concerned... well I guess some kids just like that sort of thing.

The tour finishes with a very mild but entertaining form of audience participation (no, don’t worry... you won’t be singled out to specifically do anything) and, although it’s a pretty cheesy and over-the-top ending to conclude the full, behind-the-scenes story of the bus itself... the tone and the skill of the actors who never once break character make the whole thing just about palatable and, I have to say, I and my companion had a thoroughly good time on the warped but highly entertaining Ghost Bus Tour, which lasts approximately an hour and a half, depending on the density of traffic (I would guess).

If you want to take a look at a promotion for the bus tour and book yourself a ticket, then look no further than this website, www.theghostbustours.com or ring them on 0844 5678 666. If you are of the personality type that enjoys a good laugh involving brushes with the grim reaper and the trail of spirits that walk the earth in search of eternal peace, then this is a nice alternate to the regular kinds of sightseeing bus tours you will find on offer in the City of London. So, who you gonna call?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick



Kubrick-A-Brac

Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick
6th July to 24th August
Somerset House, London, England


While I was on the way to stay with a friend for a London holiday over a few days, I noticed a tube train advert for an art exhibition called Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick. Now Kubrick has always been a bit hit and miss for me (although he did some films which I hold in very high regard), so I didn’t give it much of a second glance. However, on the last day of the holiday, me and my friend decided to go to the show at Somerset House, last minute, since it’s located only a few minutes walk from the hotel where we were both staying.

I have to say... I’m glad we did. I also wish we’d got there earlier as two hours was not enough and one of the exhibits shuts at 5pm, before we could get to that room (although I will most certainly be going back there to check that one out too).

The exhibition is a selection of works with the common theme of art inspired by Stanley Kubrick and, although it sounds like its going to be a bit derivative of the director’s work... nothing could be further from the truth and there are some great works of art on display here, along with the fair share of pretentious rubbish you also get at these things. There are paintings, installations and also some films with big names such as Michael Nyman, Joanna Lumley, Cate Blanchett, Samantha Morton and Philip Castle involved in one way or another. Not to mention a contribution by Stanley’s wife, Christiane Kubrick.

After seeing one of her paintings opposite the desk where you buy your tickets, you go into a room and are confronted with an art installation of a space helmet with a screen inside depicting a monkey. No guesses for which of Kubrick’s famous films inspired this one then. After that, a fair amount of the exhibition is floored with shiny tiles which sport the same pattern as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining. After pausing to look at a pile of electric fires over the carpet, you enter a room with lots of old radios and the Dies Irae playing loudly in the background. It’s amazing stuff but it just keeps getting better and better as you make your way through this astonishing exhibition.

There were two works in particular which invoked the ‘wow’ factor in me when I saw them. One is a room you enter to watch a short film play out on each of the four walls. The piece is called The Corridor and it’s by Toby Dye. Each wall's film is shot in the same corridor but... stick around and look at all the screens as much as you can, constantly shifting your head, as the looping movies with no actual end or beginning (and starring Joanna Lumley, amongst others) start to interpenetrate and invade each other’s narrative space in a truly amazing way. I’ve got no idea how the artist was able to plan this one all out in his head but it’s worth standing in the centre of that room and just watching what is going on, constantly changing your viewpoint, as it plays out. Just mind blowing.

The other mind blower, for me, is a long, thin, flashing light situated near the end of the exhibition on the far wall of a lighted corridor. It’s stroboscopic and looks a bit pretentious until you... well... until you see the brilliance of it for yourself. The piece is by Chris Levine and it’s called Mr. Kubrick is Looking. I’ll quote the free booklet you get when you buy a ticket here, I think.

“A self-portrait by Kubrick is projected into the viewers peripheral vision using LED light technology. This ‘visual echo’ appears and disappears in a moment like a phantom. Levine is fascinated by the ‘sensory energy’ and ‘spiritual dimension’ of light.”

So, yeah, what happens here is quite uncanny and, being as I’m not technically minded, I am at a loss to explain exactly how it does this but... look at it full on and it’s a thin column of flashing light... look away from it and immediately, for half a second or so, you’ll get a photograph of Stanley Kubricks face as a fading ghost impression on your eyeball. As your eyes flash back and forth between the light and anywhere else in the room, the image briefly appears and reappears in your vision. Just incredible, amazing stuff. I was absolutely gobsmacked by the scientific alchemy on display here and will need to look into this at some point soon.

There are, of course, some not so hot pieces with fairly tenuous links in the show too. For me the two similar Scottish churches made of cardboard as a ‘tribute’ to the twin girls in The Shining seemed nicely constructed although a bit ludicrous but... you know... one person’s disappointment is another’s true art. I would certainly say the exhibition was way more positive than the few negatives I found and with 45 exhibits of varying shapes, sizes and media dotted about the ersatz Overlook, you’d be hard pushed, I think, not to find something to your liking here. Definitely a big recommendation for me and something which I’m still thinking about a week on from having first seen it. A repeat visit is certainly on the cards and you can find out more about Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick at the website somersethouse.org.uk/dreamkubrick and photography is, apparently, allowed... although ‘flash photography’ is forbidden.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)



My Scare Ladies

Ghostbusters (2016)
2016 USA Directed by Paul Feig
UK cinema release print.


Hmmm... so where to start with this thing?

Maybe at the very beginning...

I remember when I was a 16 year old back in 1984 when the original Ghostbusters movie came out. I think it was true to say everyone went to have a look at it and that it very quickly became a cultural phenomenon. I remember I went to see it, not because of the articles about the production in magazines such as Starburst and Starlog, but because of Ray Parker Jr’s hit pop song written for the movie. It captured everyone’s toe tapping molecules and it was the first actual pop single, albeit in 12” remix form, that I ever bought. Even as a young ‘un I was more into orchestral scores than I was dumb pop songs but the instrumentation build up on the Ghostbusters song was pretty good and it was even infectious enough for my parents to come and see the movie with me.

As it was... the original Ghostbusters movie was... well, it was okay. An entertaining enough time but certainly not good enough for me to repeat view it at an age when repeat viewing was what I did when the movies were good enough to warrant it. I also remember how everyone was stoked for the inevitable sequel, the imaginatively titled Ghostbusters II, a few years later and... you know... how amazingly terrible that second movie was. So no matter what my criticisms about this movie are, just remember one thing... it’s not as bad as Ghostbusters II.

The new Ghostbusters movie is a gender swap affair, much like the 2007 film The Invasion, which was a gender swap remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. In this movie, the role of the four Ghostbusters are replaced by actresses Melissa McArthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones while the ditzy secretary is played, with a genius amount of stupidity, by Chris Hemsworth. Now, for some reason, this provoked a lot of outrage from various quarters who seemed to think this was some kind of new or bizarre thing to do but, seriously, it’s not really a problem. That being said, the movie certainly does have a big problem which I’ll come to in a minute.

The film is actually not a sequel to the original movies, which is kind of a missed opportunity as far as I am concerned although I do take the director’s point that it works better as an introduction to the characters if the people of the world depicted in this one don’t actually know of the proven existence of ghosts. So I’m coming around to the idea. But this isn’t my big problem with it and... oh heck. I can’t keep skirting the issue here so I’m going to come right out and say it.

The biggest problem that this movie has is that... it’s just not funny.

Which is a huge hurdle for me... especially when, on every other level, it seems to succeed brilliantly in bringing all the coolest ingredients together.

For instance, the pacing and the little, inventive surprises, such as the origins of the Ghostbusters logo in the subway (which you kind of see coming but it’s a fun moment when it happens), are everything you could hope for in the inaugural movie of a renewed franchise... and I really wanted to like this film. The way the whole thing is structured and the way it leads the audience along, one step at time, until you get all the right elements in place, to say nothing of the many cameos from almost all of the main 1984 cast members (stick around for the various mid-end credits and post credits scenes folks), is nothing short of brilliant and things keep moving in a way that gives you so much more than just an empty frame of a script with a few set pieces hanging on it.

And the actors playing the main leads are great. McArthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Jones and Hemsworth are all perfect, with a special shout out to the amazing job Kate McKinnon does in her role. And the chemistry between the actors is just awesome with their ability to deliver quickfire dialogue in perfect timing almost reminiscent of The Marx Brothers back in their day. However, like I said, it’s just not that funny.

It’s the dialogue itself which is the real culprit here because, as I said, the structure, pacing and everything else is just perfect (and, for the record... my parents loved this reboot too). The dialogue just rarely had anything resembling a joke in it which was even good enough to make me smile a little. I occasionally cracked a half grin at the odd in-joke or reference but... yeah... this was not the mirth making experience I was expecting it to be. Which is a shame because I was really hoping this new movie would be good, if purely because the idea of making the central cast four females was so criticised by a large proportion of the male population. That being said, of course, I’m already getting a feel that the box office on this thing is going to be huge and I’m guessing that, just because I didn’t personally find it funny (much like I didn’t find the original all that funny, to be fair), it doesn’t mean a lot of the cinema going audience are of a similar opinion. There were three young ladies in the same audience as me who were absolutely lapping it up in the most vocal way possible (making me wonder just what the hell I was missing, to be honest). So I think there’s a lot of scope for a franchise here and I’m pretty up for seeing a second movie because, like I said, the chemistry between the main cast was awesome and they just need to get to perform some funnier dialogue and they’ll be away.

So would I recommend the new Ghostbusters? Tough one. All I can say is that I really didn’t think much of it as an entertaining time at the movies but I suspect I’m probably in a minority on this one. So if you like the idea of the main premise then I think you should seriously consider plonking some money down for this one. It’s got a lot going for it, even if I personally found it to be not quite to my taste. So maybe it has more than a ghost of a chance, at least, with the target audience.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Neon Demon



Eye Candy

The Neon Demon
2016 France/Denmark/USA
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
UK cinema release print.


Okay... so I was not too impressed with the other Nicolas Winding Refn movie which I saw a few years ago called Drive (which I reviewed here). I haven’t been too keen on reuniting my acquaintance with the work of this director but the publicity surrounding this latest movie by him, the references to the influence of Mario Bava in his work and the fact that this one was “Booed!” out of Cannes sounded like this might be a promising movie. Well, in some ways I suppose it is but, like my previous experience with his work, it seemed like this one was a visual feast of a candy shell, protecting an empty centre of absolutely no substance whatsoever.

The film is a hard look at one young model’s rapid ascent in the modern fashion photography industry and the consequences of that astonishing progress on her as the film plays out towards its, almost inevitable, conclusion. I say inevitable because once you meet the various characters in this film, one of the things you will notice is that they all stay perfectly on track to fulfil the kind of single minded stereotypes they already inhabit at the start of the movie. There is no real character progression, it seemed to me, and although the conclusion is a slightly different presentation of the logical destiny of the central character Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, it’s certainly nothing new and I think the influences the director so blatantly likes to wear on his sleeve are a fair match for the nature of the ending.

The film has been promoted as some kind of horror/thriller film and the title of The Neon Demon certainly does a lot to support this kind of perception of it but I think, at the end of the day, this is quite misleading and if you are expecting that kind of movie (which I wasn’t, as it happens), then you may be a little disappointed with it. I’ve already mentioned Mario Bava being cited as a key influence but I think Refn is very much influenced by the Italian giallo genre as a whole, on this one (my personal take on the Italian Giallo movie can be found here), and the stupendous shot compositions on display here, with washes of intense colour pitched against each other with very meticulously crafted designs, certainly owes more than a little to various gialli over the years. That being said, in terms of the actual story content, it is in no way a parallel for the highly saturated mystery thrillers that defined that genre and, again, I really don’t think people will be that impressed with the lack of plot on show here.

The way Refn splits the screen off into vertical slabs of colour and space to highlight his players within the frames and leaves large areas of the shot without any people in it, sometimes focusing on empty space completely, rather than following the actors when they walk off the screen, certainly hits some of the stylistic traits of both ‘the cinematic giallo’ and a European sensibility to film-making in general. And, of course, combined with the deep reds, purples and greens which pop out of the screen at you, even from the fantastic opening credits, the whole effect seems to be borrowed or copied from a mid 1960’s to mid 1980s Italian mindset. Contrasted with the almost 1950s pastel colours he uses when the main protagonist leaves her professional environment and returns to the shabby motel run by Keanu Reeves’ character.

Even the actor who plays Jesse’s ‘boyfriend’, Karl Glusman, bears a striking physical resemblance, in my mind at least, to Antoine Saint-John who played the title character in the splendid giallo movie The Killer Must Kill Again. And without trying to give away too much about what happens in this one, the content could be likened to the conclusion of a movie which is very often mistaken for being an Italian giallo, but which isn’t really one itself. That film being The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (aka Il Profumo Della Signora In Nero... which I reviewed here).

Of course, given the somewhat plotless subject matter on display here, I would imagine the director could quite easily defend his art here (and it certainly is ‘fine art’ the way the camera and cinematic palette is wielded on this one) by pointing out his product is as shallow and vapid as the profession he is focusing his lens on but... nah! I don’t think I’d personally want to let him off the hook with that one. What he does shoot, though, is astonishingly beautiful and he has particular visual fetishes on display here which take on an almost obsessive quality throughout the film. For instance, he uses a lot of mirrors and reflective surfaces which allow him to further craft clever compositions involving those split sections while simultaneously enhancing the agenda of vanity and obsession with physical beauty in the world of fashion photography.

Another thing he does is that he seems to be able to intensify and capture a bizarrely drugged out quality with the majority of the character’s eyeballs, specifically of the actresses playing the fashion models, which drove me crazy trying to figure out how he lit his subjects so brightly while still having their peepers fixed and dilated... contrary to the laws of physics. One wonders if a lot of the actresses were wearing contact lenses. One also wonders if this signifies certain potential supernatural properties to some of the characters. Again, I don’t want to get too literal here because I’m trying not to post spoilers on this but, the relationship that make-up artist Ruby, played absolutely brilliantly by Jena Malone, and a few of the models have with Elle Fanning’s Jesse character make you wonder if the central protagonist’s final fate is pre-ordained from the first time Jesse meets Jenna, or if her ultimate expulsion from her safety net was prompted merely by a knee-jerk response to something she does near the end of the movie.

One also wonders if any of the characters in this movie are a direct metaphor for Elizabeth Bathory, perhaps, who has been portrayed in many ways in many movies over the years.

However, one of the things I will credit the director for is his willingness to create an open ended atmosphere, especially in the aftermath of a certain scene near the finish, which neither confirms or denies the potential for an almost supernatural taint to the proceedings on show. My personal conviction is that the very last few minutes of the movie, while pushing the potential of an other-wordly enhancement to some of the characters, almost immediately frustrates it again by the actions of another character, after one of the central antagonist’s self inflicted demise. However, I’m sure it’s something people will have a mixed response to.

As for me... well, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous and, due to the score provided by Cliff Martinez, sounds gorgeous too. The lack of a real plot or story to the movie, especially when the central characters are so wonderfully brought to life by the main actors (including the wonderful Keanu Reeves in a what I thought was a fairly brave role for him), is not usually anywhere near a problem with me and I often prefer those kinds of films which don’t have a real tale to tell... but this one, for some reason, did feel quite empty and I found that, although I was certainly entertained by the look and feel of the movie, I was less than happy with the resonance of the final product, haunting as it is, in some respects. It’s not one I’d particularly recommend to people and I’d have to say the outrage it’s provoked in some quarters seems bizarrely out of kilter with the ‘nothing new here, move along’ quality of this film and just forces me to conclude that the people who express such notions are sorely lacking in their appreciation of cinematic history. At the end of the day, there’s nothing really surprising or eye opening about The Neon Demon and I would only go to see this one if you are an ardent fan of style over substance.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Zeta One



Zeta Max

Zeta One (aka The Love Factor)
UK 1969 Directed by Michael Cort
Tigon/Jezebel Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: I guess this technically
has spoilers in it all the way through.


Wow, this is terrible. Almost entertainingly bad to an extent, sure, but... terrible nonetheless.

I bought this on US Blu Ray a few years ago and have only now just gotten around to watching it. All I can say is that I’m really glad I got this one as it’s a great example of something that you just couldn’t imagine getting green lit today. Very much a product of its time... although I don’t think it was very well received back in its day either. Not surprisingly.

It was conceived as being a companion piece to the sadomasochistic imagery of a science fiction based, regularly running photo spread in Zeta fashion magazine but the film is trying really hard to be a Bond parody, mixing it up with a sci-fi plot line... if it can be seen as having a plot line (or at least one that makes any sense whatsoever). It starts off with a Bondian ‘almost song’, Zeta, playing over some distinctly non-Bond like credits employing some nice, static stills from the production. This is probably the best part of the movie.

We then go into the opening sequence where we see James Word (I guess his word is his Bond?) arriving home at his apartment, played by actor Robin Hawdon. In an entirely unsuccessful parody of a sequence in Doctor No (reviewed here), when Bond realises there is an intruder in his rooms. Here we watch as the moustached Word creeps around his apartment before opening the kitchen door and stumbling over some cleaning equipment, falling at the feet of this film’s equivalent of a sexy Miss Moneypenny substitute, who is there to cook for him and seduce him. It won’t take you very long to figure out why, either... but they unbelievably leave it until the end of the movie as some kind of ‘surprise moment’, I guess.

Anyway, when he falls at the feet of this starlet, his moustache is left hanging half off and it’s half revealed that he was wearing it as, I dunno, some kind of a disguise. Or, I suspect, he was wearing it so that all this footage which forms a bookend to the main ‘story’ in flashback, and which I’m guessing was shot sometime after the main production in order to pad out the running time, would match up to earlier footage of the actor when he had a real moustache... perhaps.

This James Word character seems totally inept when it comes to walking around in the film, often stumbling over things. However, other than constantly picking himself up, he doesn’t play the role with any comedic air at all and so his constant, gravity challenged shenanigans seem a bit strange and disconcerting on a character who is supposed to be the hero. Not that he actually leaves his apartment for the entire first half of the film, believe it or not.

So, anyway, the girl is in his flat and they talk and then play an interminably long game of strip poker, with inappropriate comedy scoring and a complete lack of sexual intrigue, despite the nudity content of this and many other scenes in the movie. She wins the game (but not before stripping off) and therefore gets to ask James about his recent mission, while they are cuddling in bed. Cue the actual film... after this opening scene has gone on for, believe it or not, over 20 minutes. Over 20 minutes of the first bit of padding. I believe the original director may have been ‘removed’ from the production half way through the shoot and, if that’s the case, this could explain a lot.

Word starts telling his story and then we finally get to something which very vaguely resembles a plot. Word’s boss W (which I guess is an inverted M... more Bond games) tells him about a place called Angvia (guess that’s another less than subtle anagram, then) populated by a race of only women, who kidnap worthy ladies from Earth society and brainwash them to fit in with the Angvian way. However, nobody seems to know whether they are from another planet or another dimension or what? All I can tell you is they live in some kind of impractical, psychedelic studio set and they can pop up in our streets out of thin air at the touch of a button. As can their big lorry which kinda phases in and out of reality in a country lane, presumably to load up their kidnapped lady folk. Strangely enough, their ability to materialise and dematerialise seems to desert them at any time they find themselves in trouble... I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Okay... so now we have the main villains of the film. When I tell you the villainous Major Boudon and his favourite henchman Swyne are played by ‘Carry On...’ veterans James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtrey, I could totally understand that you’d think this movie was a comedy of some sorts but, if that is what it’s also trying to be, it’s a very poor one, it has to be said. Nobody actually does or says anything funny, that’s for sure and seeing the glee in which Boudon and Swyne want to torture any captured Angvians is really not what people are going to want to remember these two beloved National Treasures for. Especially with James Robertson Justice coming out with appalling lines, on discovering an Angvian spying on his house, like “Swyne. There's a bitch in the bushes. Go and see what she wants.” Major B wants to conquer the Angvians and take over their kingdom... but there seems to be absolutely no motivation or reason given as to why that would be during the entire running time of the film... along with lots of other absent details.

Meanwhile, back in the other part of the plot which actually never meets up with these villains, James has lost the woman he’s supposed to be meeting as she’s been kidnapped by Angvians. So he goes to see his boss on the 13th floor of his offices, finally getting him out of his apartment after 45 minutes into the film. He goes up to see him in an automated, talking lift that is a real jobsworth of an elevator and is, presumably, an attempt to ‘comedy up’ the general proceedings. The lift won’t take him up to the 13th floor as it’s superstitious but, when the doors open, James seems to have reached his destination anyway... as he’s sent to Scotland to try and rescue an Angvian from the clutches of Boudon for... oh, the plot points really escape me on this one. Don’t judge me too harshly, I believe I’m not the only person who can’t find a coherent way through this movie.

In the meantime the kidnapped girl is taken to the Angvian headquarters, allowing the audience a splendid view of quarter naked,  half naked and fully naked women in baths, eating fruit and in combat training. It is a colony of bizarre decorative shapes and kaleidoscopic effects. The ‘fighting corp’ exercises look very silly, however. Although it’s nice to see one of my favourite Hammer icons, Valerie Leon, wandering around in almost nothing.

We find that the Angvians use those stupid 1960s movie magical tele-screens which allows them to see anything that’s happening in ‘our’ world and that they employ left over sound effects from episodes of my favourite TV show The Prisoner. The kidnapped lady in question is pushed into a mechanical machine and she comes out in a chamber, laying face down but somehow naked on an invisible board in a black room with psychedelic wax lamp style designs swirling around her, badly superimposed into the foreground. We watch her spinning around and upside down for a while but it seems that when she comes out of this chamber she is not, in any way, reconditioned.

Elsewhere, a rescue mission has gone wrong and one of the Angvians is in trouble, so another prominent Angvian, who has been pumping James Word for information (not the person in the framing story), goes to Scotland at the pop of a button to rescue her. For some reason the girls can materialise and dematerialise anywhere, when and where they please... unless they’re in trouble. Then the cavalry arrive with their special powers which the same girls also seem to posses so... you know, they had many easy ways to escape if they wanted to. James also runs around the Scottish forests... or should I say ‘stumbles’ through them... but doesn’t actually arrive until the end of the story and once the two main villains have somehow just completely dropped out from the narrative of the movie, after a gang of henchmen have been taken out by Angvians... I’ll get there in a minute, people.

Meanwhile, our original kidnapped gal tries to escape by opening a pointless tube, much like a ventilation shaft but with no apparent purpose to it, and crawling down miles of twisty, turney tubes, rubbing her clothes against the edges at all angles and constantly revealing anatomical features of her body as the clothes get caught in the pipes. However, one of the trained elite also spots she is gone and gives chase by entering the same series of tubes and... doing exactly the same thing.

When the escapee gets loose, she takes on some of the trained military finest by karate chopping one of them and grabbing one of their belts which she flings at another two, the belt wrapping around their torsos, trapping them together. Except... hold on a minute. For a planet or, you know, possibly a strange dimension, that has no male population, the reverse shot of the throwing seems to show a man’s hand guiding the belt to the correct destination, flashing in from the left of the screen. Hmmm.... good production values on this one then... and all lovingly restored in the high definition Blu Ray format that films like this so obviously deserve.

Meanwhile, again, the head of the Angvians, Zeta, played fleetingly in scenes by Dawn Addams, sends her military unit to the rescue in Scotland using the Anglian intelligence codes for their rigorous strategies... in this case she orders... “Action 69, fast”. Um... which apparently means a lot of scantily clad dominatrix types come to the rescue by using what I can only describe as ‘air karate’ on a load of endless henchmen. And when I say ‘air karate’ I mean just that. They point their hands in anyone’s direction and a manipulated thunderclap peels on the soundtrack as their victims go flying. Which make you wonder why the Angvian they’re coming to save didn’t do that to her captors in the first place... or... you know.... just teleport herself somewhere else, as we know they can do.

And that’s nearly the end. There’s a pile of henchmen laying in the forest but no James Robertson Justice or Charles Hawtrey among them and, bizarrely, nobody asking questions about where they are either. So much for the bizarrely convoluted nothing of a plot. We then jump back to the book end scenes where, big surprise, it’s revealed the Moneypenny character is also, secretly, an Angvian and she kidnaps James Word, taking him to her realm to breed with the population in the ‘inseminating room’ so that they can perpetuate their species. Why they’re only now realising they’re short of men is anybody’s guess. In the insemination room we see various naked women lounging around James between his inseminating duties... apart from one strange lady who is doing the most bizarre and energetically out of place dance you’ve ever seen in the left of the shot. Here, James is constantly fed a diet of champagne and raw oysters to keep him up to his new job, between girls. And that’s that... the end.

Okay... so this is one of the most ludicrously plotless films you’ve ever seen. You may think the 1960s Casino Royale movie or the Dr. Goldfoot films are inanely insane but this movie makes those look like absolute masterpieces in comparison. It sounds fun, on paper but... it really isn’t. I’m not quite sure why this has had a US Blu Ray release but I am at least grateful that Jezebel have put this out... if only so people who watch it can warn others about it. If you’re a seasoned veteran of watching 1960s tosh that possibly should never have gotten out of the script stage, then you’d certainly want to add Zeta One to your library. For anyone else, however, this movie will probably seem like a colossal waste of time. This kind of movie is exactly my cup of tea and even I had some problems with it. This movie gets an A for enthusiasm but an E for effort, I think.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Skyline



Lack Brain

Skyline
USA 2010 Directed by The Brothers Strause
Momentum Pictures Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: I really feel I need to talk about the end of this movie so... yeah, some obvious spoilerage in this one. There will be another warning before it happens, though.

Well this is a bit of an interesting one. I missed this movie at the cinema and I think it got into trouble from having a similar theme to Battle: Los Angeles (which I loved and reviewed here) when it was released, because one of the directors worked on the effects for the other film.  That being said, I can see why they maybe didn’t get too far with that legal action because, apart from the 'aliens in a city' commonality, it’s a very different kind of movie, especially when you get to the end.

It’s actually a very low budget movie but you wouldn’t at first, know it to look at it. It had, at the time, more visual effects shots than most Hollywood blockbuster movies of that period and it’s not bad effects work... very good, in fact. However, although I knew next to nothing about the film before I watched it, as the movie wore on I began to figure out that the budget must have been quite small because, for the most part, it’s all filmed in one building... comprising two apartments, some stairs and corridors, the rooftop and a parking bay. There are a few other very brief scenes which take place in a pool (of the same building and the interior of a plane but... that’s about it). Oh... and the special effects shots of aliens and so forth riddling the skies of LA... which is pretty great looking in terms of that kind of thing, I have to admit.

The film starts off with a teaser of the main male antagonist Jarrod, played by Eric Balfour, about to get ‘snatched’ by an alien creature before jumping to fifteen hours earlier, showing him and his wife Elaine, played by Scottie Thompson, arriving in LA to visit Jarrod’s rich and successful friend Terry (played by Donald Faison) on his birthday. They go to a party and they are all sleeping in the same apartment suite when... we catch up to the pre-credits teaser and the aliens arrive and start snatching up loads of people in order to carry out their nefarious plans.

Pretty much right from hereon in, the film becomes about a small group of people trying to survive without being discovered by the aliens who, it would be fair to point out, seem fairly invincible throughout the movie. This includes, of course, all the stupid ‘shall we stay or risk making a break for it’ kind of arguments with the usual male ego stuff getting in the way of the more rational plans. So, yeah, the usual minor friction punctuated by some suspenseful scenes and some pretty cool special effects sequences throughout.

Now, I have to say that, for the first half of the movie, I found this film to be quite gripping. I was on the edge of my seat more than once and, although another person watching this with me found it irritating from the get go and opted to stop watching, I thought the build up in ‘alien invasion terror’ was quite well done and maybe suspect that the film-makers really didn’t need to opt for having the teaser scene in at the start at all... seeing how it automatically negates the usual dramas going on with the character development because, as an audience privy to what’s going to occur, you know that in 15 hours time in the character’s lives... none of that will matter.

So yeah, pretty well cobbled together for the most part and there was even a parody of the old War Of The Worlds scene with the tentacles groping around and looking for the bothersome humans which, I actually found to be far more worrying than I expected it to be... even though I knew there would have to be a scene like this in the movie at some point.

After a while though, it has to be acknowledged that I stopped liking the way the story progressed, or rather didn’t progress, during the second half of the movie. The characters are mostly making stupid decisions throughout, which didn’t help, but the lack of a budget for a larger scale story really begins to wear on the viewer after a while, I think. Everything that is seen involves one or other of the initial set of characters and we never really leave them. What this means is that when the US military is sent in to try and stop this new and fantastic alien menace, we don’t get any military point of view on what is going on as the story never goes outside the realm of what the main protagonists see. So we see battles happening from a distance without ever really getting close enough to the main action to know what the tactics being employed are. Even when we have a scene with a couple of soldiers on a roof, we’re never really told anything about what is going on.

So, yeah, the movie has a strong first half with an equally competent but increasingly dull second act, to be honest. It just gets a bit ‘samey’ after a while and I guess the budget wasn’t there to get the story onto another level when it needs to pick up at certain points although, as I said earlier, the effects sequences are astonishing. As are the aliens themselves, who seem to be half machine and half organic creatures that really probably shouldn’t have been as convincing as the special effects team are able to render them here. I’m not even 100% sure that the big motherships that come and start all the trouble are not living creatures themselves, to be honest. It’s not made clear and left for the viewer to figure out... which is okay in my book.

Okay... so now I talk about the ending so... spoiler warning... do not read the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know.

The film does seem to be going on a bit and outstaying its welcome towards the end. It’s a bleak proposition for any survivors because, as I said, the aliens seem to be fairly invincible. The creatures have been luring humans towards them, like the sirens of mythology, with hypnagogic light shows which pacify them before they ‘eat them’ metaphorically and take them inside... where their brains are scooped out and used to install into more new aliens. Which kind of makes no sense as a way of propagating your species I reckon...

Lots of pitfalls but, then again, I don’t think like an alien, I guess. However, when the last two surviving protagonists, Jared and Elaine, are snatched, Jared’s brain is scooped out and he’s put into a new alien. Elaine is discovered to be pregnant and so she is taken ‘somewhere else’ to have some kind of other thing done to her...but here’s the thing. Jared’s brain is still thinking like he was before, so the new alien comes to the rescue of Elaine and is about to take on all the other aliens (probably unsuccessfully) as the movie ends. It’s a bizarrely interesting movie in terms of pushing the follow through of just where you can take your main male protagonist but, alas, it also doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jared’s former mentality kick in? When no other human’s does? And if that were at all possible... why would the aliens be doing this in the first place.

End of spoiler.

There’s not much logic here, it’s true but, at the end of the day, hats off to the film makers for trying something different in terms of where the story can go... even if I had lost faith in the characters by this point. The interesting but ultimately unsatisfying ending, coupled with a fairly solid first half to the movie, are enough to at least ensure I can recommend this movie to the kinds of people who like science fiction movies and alien invasion scenarios in particular. There’s a lot wrong with this movie and also a lot right. There was a sequel made which was supposed to come out last year (if the teaser posters are anything to go by) called Beyond Skyline and starring Frank Grillo but, as far as I can tell, although it’s completed, it hasn’t actually been screened as yet. I quite like Grillo, though, so I’m hoping this won’t be consigned to being on a shelf without ever seeing the light of day. That would be a shame (or possibly not, if it’s that bad).

Either way, Skyline is at least an interesting film and, though it might not have the same rewards and pleasures that other films in this kind of genre have, it’s certainly not a terrible movie and I think sci-fi fans would be wrong to ignore it. I’m not saying they’d necessarily like it but, you know, it does have some minor things to say at the end. Not one I’d watch again (the Blu Ray cost £3, brand new) but certainly good enough for one shot.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Now You See Me 2



Now You Don’t

Now You See Me 2
2016 USA Directed by Jon M. Chu
UK cinema release print.


Okay then. I was quite harsh on the first film in this series, Now You See Me, when I reviewed it (right here) because of the usual “I saw that coming” predictable nature of the movie. That being said, I was also pretty positive about it, called it for what it was... an extremely entertaining movie... and was happy to watch it a second time. The sequel is a similar affair, in some respects... except it more than lives up to the high standard of the first movie. I won’t go so far as to call it a better movie than the first... but I will say it is at least its equal in many respects. If ever there was a sequel that truly follows the first movie, continues the main themes and builds on that story arc to a certain extent, this movie is it.

However, now I’ve said all that, there’s a real problem with this film before you even go to the cinema to see it... the title.

I remember I was at Brian Tyler’s debut concert in London, earlier in the year (reviewed by me here) and I saw/heard him premiere a suite of music from his score to this movie. As he started playing, the title of the movie was revealed to be... something other than Now You Don’t. Seriously people? You have the perfect title for a sequel implied by the opening half of a well known phrase used for the first movie and, instead of following it up with the expectation of a movie called Now You Don’t, you call it Now You See Me 2? I mean, c’mon? How dumb is that? It niggles me but I know some people who are really angry that the studios let it go out under this title. It really insults the audience too but... well, I guess the suits at Hollywood have a pretty good track record for insulting their audience, as they always have had.

Okay, so before I go on to point out why, even with a completely different director than the first magical confection, this film is another little slice of genius... let me get to the bad or slightly disappointing stuff first. Number one of which is a repeat of the main flaw of the first movie in that, certain elements of the story are actually quite obvious and predictable. There’s a major figure in the first movie, and I won’t say who because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, who turns out to be not what he seemed in the previous one. It’s kind of a twist reveal near the end of the picture, once the main plot is all wrapped up, and the problem is that most people will probably see that coming a mile off. Also, like the first film, the very nature of the illusion (both real and created by the camera to con you it’s plausible), is such that, as an audience, you don’t take anything you see for granted and so, the tension and suspense I suspect you’re supposed to feel as the main plot comes to its conclusion, isn’t in any way unexpected... it’s sad to say.

My third disappointment with the film is that the two female leads from the previous movie, Mélanie Laurent and Isla Fisher (the lady horseman), are not present in this one. Which is a shame as they were both so fantastic in the first one. So there’s that. However, we have the brilliant Lizzy Caplan, who I loved in Cloverfield, playing Lula (the new lady horseman) and she’s just as amazing in this. Also, we have Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, playing the main villain of the piece along with another character from the first film. So there’s also that.

And the cast is great. I’ve already shouted out Caplan and Radcliffe but they’re joined by the main regulars of the previous movie in the form of Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman... who are all as brilliant as you would imagine them to be. We also have new cast members Tsai Chin (who was a regular in some of those old Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies), Jay Chou and the lovely Sanaa Lathan... all thrown into the mix with them and who are all, also, just as great in this. So there’s even that, too.

It’s not just this stuff that makes the movie so brilliant, though. There’s that same, very fast moving camerawork that was a stylistic trait of the first movie, coupled with some really sharp dialogue writing, spectacular set pieces, lots of hokum and, for the most part, action sequences which don’t involve car chases and shooting at people. It’s all good and it ties itself to the original movie straight away by giving us a very strong opening sequence, which is a closer look at the back story of Mark Ruffalo’s character, on the fateful day which set his original 30 year plan of revenge in motion. So, yeah, this film really works right from the opening shots and Brian Tyler’s incredible score.

And talking of Brian Tyler and his toe tapping, amazing score for this movie... I was pretty sure I spotted Mr. Tyler himself in a 'blink and you’ll miss him' cameo as a guy who checks and straightens Jesse Eisenberg’s tray in an early scene in the film... it’s only for a few seconds of screen time but... yeah. He’s not listed as being in it, in either the credits or the IMDB, but... pretty sure that’s him.

The really brilliant bit for me, though, is that the writers and director managed to completely misdirect my attention for a lot of the movie... which is quite appropriate but completely surprising to me for a film which is about nothing but misdirection. Again, I don’t want to say too much but one of the actors playing one of the horsemen has a certain element to his character which turns up in the film fairly early on in the proceedings and it’s like this thing is deliberately put there to make people like me realise it’s a set up and wait throughout the whole movie, and I did, for the writers to yank that string and use his character to bring in a twist. And the joke's on us because, with such an obvious and stupid set up for a character... the string is never pulled. It’s just a distraction to get you thinking about other things while the writers try to surprise you (mostly unsuccessfully, granted) with other stuff happening in the script. However, the fact that they got me thinking deliberately in another direction wins the writers a lot of brownie points here, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a brilliant and, possibly far too obvious, set up and the film is a lot smarter than that, it turns out. Not smart enough to be called Now You Don’t but, yeah, at least smart enough to fool me for a good long while. So well done on that score people... I was totally expecting ‘that’ character to be used as a switch later on.

And that’s it for Now You See Me 2. If you liked the first movie in this franchise, all I can say is that it certainly doesn’t let the first one down and, I suspect, a lot of people may like this one even more. There are some stupidly impossible illusions and real clichés of things magicians do here but, ultimately, it’s a really well oiled machine that is a joy to watch and it kept me thoroughly entertained the whole way through. Also, I loved the ending and the return of a trend to cinema of a secret organisation working behind the scenes that the law is unable to touch. The Eye, who we heard about in the first film, is not exactly Fantomas or Diabolik... but it’s similar in style to the spirit of Judex and, well... that can’t be a bad thing, I think.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Tokyo Decadence



Lost And Bound

Tokyo Decadence
Japan 1992 Directed by  Ryû Murakami
Region 2 DVD


Warning: Slight spoilers in here...
or at least an indication of a lack of them.

Tokyo Decadence is written and directed by Japanese novelist  Ryû Murakami and based on some of the short stories from one of his collections. I’ve not read any of this guys books (who I believe is no relation to famous novelist Haruki Murakami, who I like a lot) other than one by him called In The Miso Soup. I remember that book being quite raw in terms of its subject matter and, because of this, I guess I was expecting a little more edge to Tokyo Decadence than I found.

My prime reason for wanting to see this movie... asides from the obviously raunchy sexual content implied by both the title and the cover art... is because the film stars Miho Nikaido as the main protagonist. Miho Nikaido is, or possibly was (I’m never quite sure) the wife, or possibly just long term girlfriend, of my favourite living director Hal Hartley. I used to watch her in Hartley films such as Flirt (the first one I saw her in at a London Film Festival screening some years ago), The Book Of Life and Henry Fool (among others). She’s always been an actress whose work I respect, admittedly due to her being in films I love so much, and I knew that, if nothing else, she would certainly be able to carry whatever film she starred in, if necessary.

Here she plays Ai, a prostitute who specialises in aspects of BDSM... what used to be called good old S and M when I was a kid. Indeed, the madam who arranges her clients, along with the other girls working the same profession, refers to their clients as either wanting an S person or an M person... meaning they want to hire a sadist or a masochist (or top or bottom as they are known over here). All the girls switch between either role and the very first pre-credits scene of the movie is, in fact, the most intriguing...

We see Ai tied to a leather, adjustable chair. She is then, much to her anxiety, injected with something by her client. Once that is done she is blindfolded and gagged and then the man she is with does something to her off-camera, after taking his upthrust foot in his hand. We cut to a close up of Nikaido’s face as the blindfold and gag are taken away from her and we see her glazed and possibly uncomprehending expression as the shot is held and she discovers the reality of her situation, which is...

Okay, this is where it gets kinda strange as far as I’m concerned because the film then cuts to the opening credits sequence of Ai travelling the Tokyo streets. Since the tension created so skillfully in that first sequence was ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level, my immediate reaction to this was... oh, okay, so the rest of the film must be in flashback leading up to this moment and they’re going to reveal what happened at the end of the picture. Which is one of the main things that kept me interested in the film, to be honest.

Okay... I’ll come back to this a little later.

The shots of Ai travelling the streets of Tokyo at night in this are little visual gems of clinical menace, it has to be said. Everything seems blue lit and claustrophobic, the camera taking in the panorama as Ai silently observes the oppressive urban culture around her. It actually got me thinking, as I was watching, of the early cinema of David Cronenberg in the way it evokes a blue and washed out sense of hopelessness and, I have to say, that whatever else you might conclude about this film, you’d have to admit that it is, at least, deeply expressionistic in places.

For the rest of the film we follow little episodes of Ai’s daily life, mostly her encounters with various BDSM clients and I can only assume that each little vignette is culled from a different short story in Murakami’s source book. A really charming starting story, however, has Ai visiting a fortune teller who tells her she must do three things to avoid harm. 1. Place a telephone book under her television set, 2. Avoid any art galleries in the East and 3. Buy a pink, precious stone and have it made into a ring which she must wear on her middle finger. Of course, this scene is useful in two ways... primarily as an indication of Ai’s superstitious and wide-eyed innocent nature but, secondly, as a small plot device to almost get her into trouble when she goes back to a hotel room after leaving it behind... following an encounter with a particularly taxing and stern client and his girlfriend.

Actually, there’s a wonderful shot in this long sequence with her first post-credits client. She is on all fours in front of a mirror with a vibrator tied between her legs and her client is plunging in and out of his girlfriend, who is in a similar position behind Ai, playing with her as he does this. However, the reflection on the mirror is angled perfectly so that the client’s girlfriend is hidden by certain foreground elements and so, while we see this on our side of the mirror, the reflection makes it look like the gentleman in question is fucking Ai himself... which is a pretty impressive bit of camerawork, as far as I’m concerned.

The film is quite tame in its pervery, for the most part, but the way it's shot and the protracted nature of the sequences, much without dialogue, gives it a certain dark weight in places that you wouldn’t expect from this particular aspect of the modern BDSM scene. A lot of the shots are static set ups which also give it a more voyeuristic feel in certain scenes, although this is not an exclusive set of artistic decisions and there are plenty of shots where the camera roams a bit more freely. There’s also a lightness to certain sequences too, including a scene where Ai and another woman are doing a double domme session with a guy who likes to be strangled and they think they have accidentally killed him... until he regains consciousness and scares them both.

There’s a big tour-de-force acting sequence near the end of the movie where Miho Nikaido’s character takes a pill that a rich dominatrix gifts to her to give her Dutch courage as she goes through the streets under the influence of the drug, bottle in hand, and searches around for the address of her ex-celebrity boyfriend. Nikaido is pretty amazing in this, as she always is, and the whole sequence kind of reminded me, a little, of a kind of modernistic turning point in her life, similar to the less volatile but probably more potent ‘man with a sack’ sequence from Fellini’s excellent movie Nights Of Cabiria (reviewed here). It’s an interesting part of the narrative to end on and, frankly, the fact that the film does end on this sequence is what annoys me the most about this film...

At no time do we return to the truly powerful opening scene of the movie. Was this scene in Ai’s future or past? We don’t know. Do we know what her client did to her? We do not. It doesn’t come up again and I found this almost artistically criminal, in some ways, that the writer/director never returns to bring closure on this powerful opening set up. I could understand it if he’d given us a reminder of the scene and then refused to disclose what actually happened... that would have been a valid aesthetic choice and I could respect it. Here, though, we are just distracted away from the memory of the sequence all the way through the film and, in the end, it just wanders off into the closing credits. Very disappointing, as far as I’m concerned.

Ultimately, for all its good acting by the lead protagonist and some interesting shot designs and slick atmospheres evoked by the director, I wouldn’t be prepared to recommend Tokyo Decadence to a friend. It’s not something I feel I could revisit anytime soon but I am, at least, glad that I saw it. Another good thing is that it at least treats the BDSM scene in a, mostly, respectable fashion so there’s that but... no, not nearly as entertaining enough as indulging in the real thing. Maybe give this one a miss and use the cash you save to try something new instead.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Star Trek - Nemesis



Data Day Living

Star Trek - Nemesis
USA 2002 Directed by Stuart Baird
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: This one has spoilers.

And here we have the franchise killer.

Star Trek Nemesis is the last hurrah for the Star Trek - The Next Generation crew in the film series... so it’s kind of a pity it’s such a terrible movie. I remember when this came out and having high hopes for it... then walking out of the cinema kind of numb and indifferent to it. More like Star Trek Numbesis. Certainly with no desire to go back and watch it again.

I can’t totally pin down why this movie is so ultimately dreary because the story certainly feels like a Star Trek story, although the addition of a supervillain who is a partial clone of Captain Picard thrown into the mix is really something I could have done without, to be honest. It’s a shame because I really paid no attention to that particular character, Shinzon, when the movie was first released. I just didn’t like him and it’s only now that I’ve rewatched the movie that I realise it’s an early appearance, in a very prominent role, for Tom Hardy, who now, pretty much, has superstar status in Hollywoodland. I have to say that, looking at what he did here, he certainly gave it his all and gives the kind of performance I would expect him to be able to give but... it’s just a badly conceived and written role. That’s the real problem, I think, with this character.

Another problem with the movie, and I think I might have touched upon this in my review of Star Trek Insurrection (reviewed here) but it’s even more noticeable here, is that for a television show that invested a lot in being more of an ensemble collaboration with the various actors portraying the Next Generation crew members in equal amounts, this movie really does become the ‘Picard and Data Show’ for the majority of the running time. Most of the other characters don’t have a heck of a lot to do in this one, with the exception of a brief sense of closure in that Deanna Troi and Commander Riker (Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes) finally get to tie the knot and are heading for another marriage ceremony on Betazoid... Troi’s home planet. Of course, regular viewers will know that marriage rites on Betazoid involve the entire congregation being naked and, to be honest, I think I would have much rather seen a movie about that than what we’ve got here.

The story is pretty much centred around Picard and a plot by the Remans (the brother race to the Romulans... oh, right, a Romulus and Remus joke, finally) to destroy various... um, blimey. This is how good this film is... I only watched it a few days ago and I’ve already forgotten the actual details of the villain’s fiendish plan, other than he needs Pickard’s blood to prolong his own life. However, the plot starts off early with Picard, Worf and Data looking for the scattered pieces of an android with a similar positronic brain to Data. They find an identical version of him, a prototype double played by the same actor, Brent Spiner, and they start rebuilding him on the Enterprise. For some reason, the producers chose not to use the already established identical android Lore from the TV show in the plot, which would have made more sense but which might have been too complicated and involved to sum up quickly for a stand alone audience.

However, anyone who had already heard the rumours would have realised at this early stage in the film that the producers of the film series are hedging their bets, trying to have their cake and eat it at the same time because, just like Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Kahn saw the death of a popular character (only to have him brought back in the very next film - my review of that one is here), so too, does Star Trek Nemesis. Namely the death of the very popular Lt. Commander Data. Spiner had already wanted to die in the previous Star Trek film, Insurrection, but this time he gets to go. However, presumably because the wiley producers wanted to ensure a way to get the character back after waving a big enough pay cheque, they have introduced here a duplicate in every way, apart from in memory. Since Data’s memory is downloaded into said android in this one (as a mask to the audience of finding a way of turning around a plot predicament posed in this film), it would be easy to have the former personality take over in the next movie, I’m sure, if this film proved popular. My understanding is that, this indeed was more or less the plan for the proposed sequel but, since this one badly flopped at the box office (in comparison to any of the previous films), that sequel never materialised on our screens.

Having said all this, though, there are a couple of nice things about the movie. Such as the Troi/Riker scenario, for example. And the fact that when the ‘away team’ go to the alien world to put together the android left to them as bait, the director plumps for using a different kind of film stock (presumably) and filters to give that whole section of the movie a much different feel to the rest. Also, the two handers between Tom Hardy as Shinzon and Patrick Stewart as Picard are kind of interesting... just not really something that does the pacing any favours when you put the thing together. Good, interesting acting doesn’t necessarily mean you get a good final product.

But other than those things... yeah, not much going for it. And that extends to the scoring too, I’m afraid...

This was Jerry Goldsmith’s final score written for a movie (although I believe the film didn’t materialise as his last at the cinema... just the last one he actually wrote). I remember the press release at the time from Varese Sarabande records, the label that has put out the majority of the Star Trek movie scores in recent years. They promised a Jerry Goldsmith score that harkened back to the days when he was at the height of his powers (some of us believe he never really left those days... styles change and that’s not a bad thing), comparing this score to his original compositions for Star Trek The Motion Picture (reviewed here). So everybody was pretty ramped up to hear this thing and, when we finally got it, well... it’s a drab score, to be honest. At least the presentation of it on the album at the time of the film’s release certainly was. There was an expanded edition released a few years ago and this is somewhat better but it doesn’t mask the fact that this is definitely the least interesting or engaging Star Trek score that Goldsmith wrote for the franchise. Not a good one to go out on and I’m always saddened that this was the last thing he wrote. But, as always with a Goldsmith score, very appropriate to the movie on screen and supporting it the best way that a composer of Goldsmith’s status could support it. So maybe the drab film spawned an appropriate score... is my guess. We don’t even get to hear Goldsmith’s Klingon theme quoted in this because, frankly, Worf doesn’t have much to do here... which kind of says it all, I think.

What with this and the fact that the writers nearly destroy the Enterprise, once again, (that old crutch) this feels like a Star Trek movie that’s constructed from dramatic moments of its past. Very formulaic and lacking any real substance to the story, such as it is. They even give Captain Janeway from the TV series Star Trek Voyager a cameo (guess that means they all got back to their own universe then... never did see the later seasons of that show), after Jerri Ryan, who played the partial Borg character Seven Of Nine, twice refused a cameo in this movie.

It’s kind of remarkable, then, that after seven years had passed, J J Abrams was able to reboot the franchise, following on from the same timeline but going back to the past and changing the future via the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Those movies are both the past and future of the Star Trek franchise as we know it now... and they seem to be doing a pretty good job so far, although the trailer to the new one, Star Trek Beyond, doesn’t look great, to be honest. You can find my reviews of Star Trek 11 (one of my early ones so please be lenient) and Star Trek Into Darkness here  and here. As for Star Trek Nemesis... not a great film for the Next Generation crew to end on and not a good jumping on point, either, if you’ve never seen a Star Trek movie before. This movie really isn’t a whole lot of fun... you have been warned.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Jennifer's Body



Body Of Every Dense

Jennifer's Body
USA 2009 Directed by Karyn Kusama
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B/C


Yeah, okay. This is a much unsung gem of a movie as far as I’m concerned. I literally put this on because I didn’t need to watch anything further for a while where I’d have to write another review of it... the list is long enough at the moment. I just wanted to put on something to relax with and I remembered unexpectedly liking this a lot when I saw it on its initial cinema run. However... this is what happens when you get old and cranky, folks. After I finished the movie I went to have a look at what I had to say about it at the time and... it turns out it’s actually older than my blog and I hadn’t actually reviewed it before, after all. Since this is such a great little movie though, and something you don’t hear much of from people at present, I figured I should at least try and do it some justice on this column so... here we all are.

Jennifer's Body is writer Diabolo Cody’s next script to be filmed and released after her breakthrough script for Juno and... I have to wonder why it’s not more well shouted out by enthusiasts of the horror genre. It stars Megan Fox as the titular character, coming out soon after her second and final Transformers movie and, although she plays exactly the kind of ‘high school prom queen’ stereotype you almost expect her to be playing, she’s actually not the main protagonist of the film... that part is played by the amazing Amanda Seyfried as Jennifer’s ‘best friend forever’, Needy. The story starts with a framing device of Needy telling us her sad story as to why she is locked in a mental hospital with a reputation of being a violent ‘patient/prisoner’. Megan Fox is actually the main ‘antagonist’ of the movie and, frankly, she also does a great job of hitting all the beats you’d possibly expect her to as a credible movie villain and, although she is kinda overshadowed by Seyfried’s absolutely blistering performance as the cute nerd turned psycho avenger... Fox deserves a lot of credit for her turn here too and the chemistry between the two of them here is a testament to both them, I think.

The story tells of a small time rock band who play a concert at Jennifer and Needy’s hometown of Devil’s Kettle, with the real agenda of making off with one of the local virgins and sacrificing her in a bloody ritual to Satan as an exchange for rock n’ roll fame and fortune. However, when they burn the place down and make off with Jennifer, thinking she’s a virgin, they make a big mistake because, it turns out, if you sacrifice a non-virgin to the Devil, then the corpse later returns to life hosting the powers of a succubus but retaining the basic personality of the original host. That means she becomes a superpowered demon who has to seduce and kill men in order to keep her vitality. That being said, this version is a little toned down from the traditional succubus of legends in that, instead of killing men by taking their sexual energy (constantly draining them of semen etc), it’s more of a Hollywood demon style of deal, with lots of vampiric goriness, gut ripping and innards munching, on the part of Jennifer.

So of course, when Needy finally figures out what’s going on, thanks to a mostly unexplained, semi-psychic link she seems to have with Jennifer (as a lot of best friends seem to have, methinks),  she then has to read up on the occult and become a kick ass femme fatale in order to stop the evil that Jennifer has become. However, will she have worked it out in time to save her own boyfriend from becoming the next in Jennifer’s long list of tasty morsels?

The film is a great character piece with some wonderfully self aware dialogue and a strong shot of black humour running through it. If you want to see deadpan comedy masquerading as one of the many community victims of tragedy, then you have to see J. K Simmon’s performance as Mr. Wroblewski, which becomes even funnier when you realise that he has a hook for a hand at the end of his first scene. I don’t know why this detail amuses but the timing is impeccable and the irony of the reactions to the situations some of the teacher and parental figures in this movie find themselves in are bound to bring a smile to the face of even the most humourless audience members. I’ve said it about just a few films over the last 5 years on this blog but this movie is very much a Heathers or even Harold And Maude for the generation of moviegoers it’s aimed at. A smart and ironic black comedy which doesn’t back down from being just a little edgy in the majority of the places where that would matter. I think Diablo Cody’s screenplay is hitting the cross genre high school/horror/comedy nail right on the head with this one and, thankfully, the performances and direction on it really live up to the quality of the script.

And I don’t really have much else to say about Jennifer’s Body, I’m afraid. Can’t think of any real problems to highlight here and, although the shot design isn’t all that flashy, it’s very clean and leads the eye in nicely to where the director wants you to focus in the film. Definitely one for fans of horror and/or the teen comedy genre (which is a genre I usually like to stay away from, truth be told). Despite it’s sharp dialogue, it’s a bit of a switch your brain off and relax movie, really... but that does nothing to diminish the fact that it’s a tremendous amount of fun and well worth your time if your fun quotient isn’t already in overload. This is not the film it looks like it's going to be if you're one to judge a book by its cover (or a film by its advertising promotion) but you won’t go too far wrong with this one, it has to be said, and most people will find themselves ‘in’ on the joke for the running time of this movie, I would suspect. Definitely worth some time.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Playbirds



Softcore Giallography

The Playbirds
UK 1978 Directed by Willy Roe
Odeon Region 2 DVD


Warning: Yeah, this is going to have spoilers for those
of you who care about such things in these kinds of films.


Okay. So you may remember I reviewed the Mary Millington sex comedy Come Play With Me on here a little while ago (click here for my review). I remember being rather surprised by the lack of actual soft core pornography in it and amazed about the general tone of it which is, pretty much, the same as a Carry On movie. So... populated by loads of British character actors of the time but with sex and nudity inserted into the story. If you can call it a story.

Well, I thought that experience would have at least prepared me a little bit for watching Mary’s second big breakthrough movie, The Playbirds, which takes its name from The Playbirds magazines which were one of the cornerstones of producer David Sullivan’s porn empire, and which featured Mary as the regular figurehead/mascot. However, although the movie does have some sex and nudity scattered at intervals throughout the picture, this one is a complete sea change from the previous picture and it’s a much more sombre affair. In fact, given the small part that nudity and sex play in the finished product and it’s preoccupation with a police procedural plot as a serial killer murders centre spread girls from the magazine, I’m going to go right ahead and call it right here...

The Playbirds is, pretty much, the British equivalent of a giallo movie.

It really isn’t about sex... although that is the currency which it uses to forward the story. Instead, it follows a police investigation which becomes a giallo style whodunnit in exactly the same way that the Italian movies would fix it so it’s almost impossible to guess the identity of the killer... implausible jumps in logic included. Like The Playbirds, though, it stars a wealth of British characters who you wouldn’t expect to see playing in a movie of this... um... calibre.

The film follows the exploits of Chief Superintendent Holborne and his partner, Inspector Harry Morgan. Holborne is played by Glynn Edwards and, if that name is not familiar with you, he played the pub landlord on the TV show Minder for many years, as well as starring as one of the title roles in Burke and Hare (reviewed here) along with Derren Nesbitt (who also has a small role in this movie as one of the pornographers responsible for printing the titular magazine). And if you think that piece of casting is extraordinary, his partner Morgan in this is played by none other than Gavin Campbell and, for anyone who used to watch the TV show That’s Life with Esther Rantzen... oh yeah, that Gavin!

The two go around trying to patiently solve the murder of various girls who have all been strangled (mostly with no clothes on... it’s a Mary Millington movie, after all) by a man in a Sherlock Holmes style Deerstalker... and then numbered with lipstick on their foreheads by someone who presumably doesn’t like their involvement with The Playbirds magazine. The magazine, of course, is highlighted constantly in the movie and I’m sure Mary Millington can be seen in some posters in the background of the printworks in some shots, even though the character she is playing is not in any way associated with the magazine until the end of the movie. I’m not sure how early metatextual references like this started appearing in what are considered, technically, British softcore movies but I’m guessing this was one of the first.

So who is Mary actually playing in this movie? Well, the film starts off with a model in a naked photo shoot and then, after a brief scene highlighting a racehorse which Holborne keeps betting against and which serves absolutely no purpose as a subplot of any relevance at all, although its referred to all the way through the movie, we first meet Mary walking the beat on the streets of London as Sgt. Lucy Sheridan. Yep, she’s a copper although, given her attitude and opinion of her majesty’s constabulary in real life, it seems a bit of an ironic role for her to have taken on. She’s also accompanied by a truly terrible theme song which is a shame since the movie was scored by David Whittaker, who worked on a couple of Hammer films and who also provided a pretty good score for The Sword And The Sorcerer. Mary keeps cropping up throughout the movie and even has an attempt at a foot chase at one point in the film but, for the first three quarters of the movie, she has more of a peripheral role until her unique talents are required to further the plot, such as it is, by the end of the movie.

And what we have is a movie set on the streets of 1970s London (which is always lovely to see, as I best remember it, back in the day) with character actors like the aforementioned cropping up. Also on the police force are Kenny Lynch (remember him?) and Holborne’s boss is played by none other than Windsor Davies (who you may remember as the Sergeant in the TV show It Ain’t Half Hot Mum). We also have Dudley Sutton in here, looking exactly the same age as he has for decades, playing some kind of bizarre and religious fanatic.

In between the police procedural scenes we have various Playbirds photo shoots going on as, presumably, an essential part of the plot. For instance, an occult theme is brought into the spreads and a shoot based, quite loosely I suspect, on shenanigans at The Hellfire Club is shown as one big orgy including a lady having sex with the underside of a rocking horse... surprised the BBFC let that through, actually. There’s also a witch being burned at the cross naked in a photo shoot scene too, which goes horribly wrong when the killer somehow manages to turn it into a real burning... although the way the special effects, such as they are, have been shot here may well mean you take a while to realise that this is actually what’s happened, it has to be said.

And we also have another nice tie in to the Italian giallo movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s in that one of the victims is found, by Gavin, in a room lit with both red and green lights. The effect of this, of course, is like a poor man’s Mario Bava has been on set so, yeah, I’m still sticking with this giallo parallel because it makes me wonder what kind of movies the director and cinematographer had been watching at the time. It does kind of compliment that style of shooting very well, especially in this scene.

And then we have Mary herself. The police get the idea to plant a girl working for Playbirds who will start at the massage parlours and then work her way into being the cover girl of the month so she can be bait for the killer. What this means for the audience, of course, is that we have Holborne and Morgan ‘interviewing’ hitherto unseen lady members of the police force by having them do a sexy strip routine so they can give the job to the most likeliest person to succeed. It’s almost like the film suddenly stops for a while so the director can showcase various ladies stripping for the audience... well... um... yeah. And, of course, Mary’s character wins hands down and it’s not long before she’s the magazine owners girlfriend... which I understand she more or less was in real life for a while, despite being married to someone else.

The really hilarious thing about this movie, bearing in mind the age of the film, is the police relying constantly on getting their leads by punching in information to be analysed in the ‘computer room’. And, yes, it’s a room full of cheap computers where nobody really looks like they know what they’re doing and with a printer which gives our heroes leads when the correct information is, somehow, or other, fed in. Let me tell you, though, those computers back in those days must have been absolutely miraculous. The police learn the identity of the killer thusly: They see a head looking out of a window on a photo and they get the computer to enhance and blow this up (not that you see any of this, of course). Once the shape is blown up they get the computer to take ‘x-rays’ of the face on the photo so they will reveal the bone structure of the person and then they compare it to the bone structures of x-rays of suspects in their computer records. What the f***? Quick, someone alert Microsoft and Apple now that someone has managed to figure out a way to take ‘x rays’ of a person from a still photograph. They need to get that patented fast.

The ending of the movie is almost as equally astonishing and certainly way more downbeat than you would expect from this kind of sub-genre. The killer is unmasked by the police and taken into custody. In the last scene of the movie we see Mary Millington answer a phone call from her police colleagues and receive the news that he’s just been locked up. How then, can he suddenly crash into her apartment and strangle her in a really downbeat ending, leaving her naked body floating in the bath. Does he have some kind of supernatural powers that we’ve previously not been made aware of over the course of the film? Seriously, this is just the kind of twisted, deranged anti-logic that lets a lot of gialli down and, sadly, this film does exactly the same thing. I have no idea how this ending can even work within the context of everything else we’ve been told but... well, there you have it.

So, yeah, the movie is mostly a load of old cobblers, to be honest, but it’s certainly also entertaining to be watching all these distinguished character actors prop up a soft core porn film which, in itself, seems to be less about porn and more about being a thriller. Certainly a curio in both cinema in general and also, I suspect, in the soft porn genre. As such, I would kind of tentatively recommend it to film goers who have seen just about every kind of movie and want to see something just a little bit different to what they would comfortably expect a producer and director to be able to get away with. Certainly, it’s not a rerun, by any means, of Come Play With Me... the two are like chalk and cheese. So whatever you say about The Playbirds, it certainly isn’t cashing in on the success of the former film.  One to... possibly... look out for.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Manji



Internal Affairs

Manji
Japan 1964
Directed by Yasuzô Masumura
Region 2 DVD


Warning: Spoilers in here.

Manji is not a film I’d heard of but I was drawn to the promise of the cover of the DVD, the most obviously outstanding thing being, asides from the promise of some hot girl on girl action, the extremely cheap £3 asking price... this being a quality that I always find the most attractive point of my movie purchasing escapades.

It turns out this is the first of four movies which were made of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s novel, Quicksand, which I haven’t read myself. This particular version boasts a screenplay by writer and director Kaneto Shindo, who wrote two of my favourite Japanese movies, Kuroneko and Onibaba. This version is also known in some countries as Swastika, in reference to the Buddhist symbol (later appropriated by the Nazi party) as a metaphor for the four lovers in this movie.

The film starts with a rich woman, financially independent, who has helped her husband set up his business through family money. She is telling an author her story with the suggestion that he will do a better job of committing it to paper than she. Although we occasionally come back to this framing device throughout the movie, the majority of the film is seen as a series of flashbacks as she charts the various delights and anxieties of her relationship with another woman and, ultimately, the two men in their lives.

The story starts off when the lady in question, Sonoko (played by Kyôko Kishida) takes some art classes to relieve the boredom of her life. She becomes obsessed with another woman at the school to the point that she puts her face in place of the model's on the painting she is currently doing. The other woman, Mitsuko (played by Ayako Wakao) is delighted and, as we find out later in the film, is possibly already manipulating the situation as she allows herself to slowly be seduced by Sonoko... in a scene which is almost too uncomfortable to watch as Sonoko rips away her clothes on the excuse of doing a more accurate painting. Things go on from here and it’s not long before Mitsiuko’s male lover and, eventually, Sonoko’s husband, get in on the act. Before you know it, we are in a story where all four are somehow involved with at least... at the very least... one of the others.

Sonoko’s story begins to spiral out of control as she is manipulated by both Mitsuko and her male lover and, quite unexpectedly, her husband also ends up sleeping with Mitsuko while Sonoko is recovering from a sleeping potion both she and Mitsuko take to make their respective male lovers think they’ve tried to commit suicide. Pretty soon everybody is sharing their love with everybody and the edges around who is manipulating who get very blurry. There seems to be an over reliance on people making blood pacts with each other and signing contracts... I don’t know if this is a very Japanese way of dealing with issues at the time or not but it seems to be a dominant feature in the lives of the four central protagonists/antagonists so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a cultural marker.

In many ways the film made me think of the fairly recent movie Side Effects (reviewed here) and its legacy such as the big screen adaptations of the two James M. Cain novels of the 1930s, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Everything seems deeply conspiratorial in tone, like it would be in a 1940s Hollywood film noir thriller adapation of those novels and, although this film is quite colourful in its overall visual composition, it certainly felt like I was watching an old film noir, in some ways. I wouldnt be surprised if various modern directors of noirish themed films have looked at this movie for inspiration at some point, as much as they have the chiaroscuro masterpieces of the post-German Expressionist invasion of wartime Hollywood.

Now I have to say that I wasn’t completely taken by the film in this first watch, to be fair. That being said, there was a strong element in this which kept me intrigued and entertained on a visually aesthetic level throughout the length of the piece. There’s some nice stuff here and the director quite often places large, foreground focused faces looking one way while a smaller figure to their right or left will be seen in perspective looking in another direction... conjuring up the cinematic spectre of Ingmar Bergman in my mind as I was watching. The director also likes to leave big patches of texture or colour on the screen and then separate this from a very small part of the screen where the action is taking place. He often does this using vertical splits but also, he does use quite a lot of diagonal splits to separate the different visual areas too. In a shot very early on in the film, for example, as Sonoko and Mitsuko wander off for a stroll through a forest, the establishing shot is just one big diagonal of the texture of the forest floor and roots covering somewhere between 70% - 80% of the frame, while the two ladies are walking and talking in the small triangle left in the top left hand corner of the shot. And it’s amazing, beautifully captured and designed sequences like this which kept me riveted in certain places, it has to be said.

Another thing the director does in one sequence, which is a nice cinematic flourish and which helps establish the visual syntax of the film for later on in similar scenes where contracts are being contemplated and read, is when Sonoko gives the love letters that she and Mitsuko sent to each other to the ‘writer’ she is narrating the story to. The letters are then depicted flat out and overlapping each other in a nice composition as the camera wanders over them and the voices of the two actresses are heard reading certain sections as the camera brings each particular letter into the prominent part of the shot. It’s pretty cool stuff and keeps what, for me, is a fairly slow burn of what might be seen by some as a suicidal thriller, a little fresher than it might have been in the hands of another director.

Ultimately, for me, this is not a classic Japanese movie that I will watch frequently, purely because the subject matter is not 100% to my taste and I always find it hard to believe that people will get themselves into, quite, these intricate messes without solving them in a more logical manner. That being said, if you’re interested in composition and the way various, quite bold shot designs can be used and edited together without disturbing the viewers flow of the material, then Manji is probably one you’re going to want to see at least once in your life. Certainly not the most entertaining for myself but I absolutely don’t regret buying this one and I’m glad I’ve seen it. I suspect if you are into doomed love affairs which go against the suppression of what society suspects of people, then you will probably get a lot more out of this one and, like I said, the visual design of it is fantastic. Maybe give this one a spin while it can still be picked up so cheaply, would be my advice.