Sunday, 17 June 2018
2018 USA Directed by Ari Aster
UK cinema release print.
You know, this has been trailering at my local cinema for months now and my interest in seeing this was growing every time I saw the promo... which in itself is cut together in a slightly misleading way. Well, nothing wrong with that and I will say that I don’t intend to be posting too much in the way of spoilers about this other than what you can glean or speculate on from that initial trailer.
Hereditary is a film which I suspect is going to split most audiences passionately down the middle... divided between those who write the movie off as completely ridiculous due to the last five or ten minutes of the movie and those who can, despite the absurdity of that sequence, recognise that the build up to this point in the movie is actually really well put together. And therein lays the problem with this particular beast but... before I highlight the negative stuff, let me tell you about the huge amount of positive things this film has to offer.
Now I’m sure most of you have seen the trailer dealing with a family... mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and his small and somewhat sinister, little sister Charlie... played by Milly Shapiro who makes those disturbing clicking sounds you’ve probably seen in the film’s promotions. After Annie’s mother dies, she continues working as an artist building her miniature scenes based on real chapters of her life and tries to continue on with her family. Indeed, the first long shot of the movie includes a slow track into a dolls house she is working on that becomes the set of one of the rooms in the house. And then ‘things happen’ and that’s as much as I’m going to try to tell you about the plot here because it does get a little predictable in places and I don’t want to be responsible for leading you to the right conclusions about the movie.
Horror enthusiasts might have already figured out that the distinctive clicking sound that Charlie makes is an aid to the filmmaker to have something strong and identifiable so that it can become linked to something in your mind and create tension when it sounds the alarm bells. Well, yeah, if this is what you were thinking you’d be absolutely right. The sound is not functionally unlike the sound of the hostile plants approaching in the 1963 version of The Day Of The Triffids or the sound that the giant ants make when they are around in the 1954 movie THEM! It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché but it works well enough here and honestly I didn’t mind it.
The main reason I didn’t mind it is because this film isn’t one of those immensely fun but sometimes a bit ‘samey’ modern horror films which rely too often on cheap jump scares to rattle your nerves. There are a few times when the film gets kinda scary in places but it rarely relies on the sudden surprise that seems to be the currency of contemporary genre film making. Instead it utilises a kind of creeping fear which plays on the mind and sends the odd prickle up the back of the neck. Such as three or four intense scenes where the director plays on the universal fear brought on by thinking you can see someone in your bedroom at night in the darkness, only to find out that various furniture or possessions bundled up together are just giving that illusion. There’s a lovely denouement to one of these scenes which I think a lot of audiences will go for. Unfortunately, this film is so good at this sort of stuff that, when the final act of the picture finally comes, things seem a little foolish in comparison to such a well prepared lead in.
However, the cast and crew do a lot of good work and there are some lovely shot compositions here as well as some wonderful foreshadowing of certain themes.
For instance... and if you’ve seen the trailer you will probably remember this moment... after a pigeon flies into the window of her school, Charlie is later to be found snipping off the dead bird’s head with a pair of scissors as a keepsake. This not only heightens the strangeness of the character (which actually might be a piece of deliberate misdirection by the director) but also echoes a lot of... hmmm... shall we call it head play? There’s a certain morbid obsession with decapitations in this movie and so the scene where Charlie performs her makeshift surgery on the dead bird actually does have a point to it and there’s even a certain amount of story logic to it too, when one looks closely enough. Like I said... this film has foreshadowing coming out of its ears.
Perhaps my favourite piece of foreshadowing in the whole movie, however, was during a family car ride home. We have a long shot of the car speeding down the road going left of screen and the car is kept squarely in the middle of the camera until it goes past a telephone post and then the shot stops dead with the telephone post splitting the screen vertically in the centre of the shot while the car quickly speeds off of the left of the screen. So we are left with just the post and nothing happening in the static view of the road which it holds for a good few seconds. It might have been punctuated by a musical beat here, I don’t quite remember. I didn’t even realise what this was about but I acknowledged it as a really nice cinematic moment and it wasn’t until much later in the film, a fair way after another memorable sequence involving what I assume is the same telephone pole, that I realised what a brilliant piece of highlighting this was. Although I can’t tell you why at this point because... you know... spoiler free.
Talking about the music... Colin Stetson’s score is quite restrained and brooding and just what you need for a film which doesn’t employ shock tactics to slowly build its tale. There was one scene where the music seems to be ‘mickey mousing’ what’s on screen but, interestingly enough, it’s not actually mickey mousing the action itself... more adding rhythm to a piece of the sound design and giving it a more insidious hook into the ear. It’s a shame the movie didn’t do more of this stuff on occasion because the way it’s done here is quite effective and I don’t remember seeing/hearing it done quite in this kind of way before. It suspect it will be a fairly interesting listen away from the movie and... yeah, I just ordered a CD of this thing from Amazon before typing the rest of that sentence. Luckily it has an appropriate physical release.
So yeah all of this is great but... like I said.. the film has a few problems.
The least problem this film has is that it’s a mite predictable. I’ve seen some posters with ‘critic’s copy’ on them describing it as this generation’s The Exorcist. Well... nope, it’s not and if there’s a big film from the past I might be more tempted to compare it to, that would possibly be Rosemary’s Baby. Indeed, there’s a moment in the film where you first meet a character and right away I thought to myself that she might as well have introduced herself to the audience and another character with the words... “Hello, I’m your friendly support lady and I’ll be your Ruth Gordon for the evening.” I think most people will, like me, work out what this lady's overall function is in the main narrative as soon as she comes into the story but, again, I didn’t mind it so much because the artistry, not to mention the quality of the central performances in the film (especially by Collette and Shapiro), is absolutely first rate.
The biggest stumbling block of the movie for me is... well, let me tell you what happened in the screening I saw. About 5 or 10 minutes from the end of the film the audience started chuckling and, as things escalated, laughing the film off the screen, almost. I can’t say I entirely blame them either. There’s a point just after one of the lead characters starts getting chased around the house that the film switches tonally very quickly from creeping terror to the downright silly and unsubtle. The imagery in this last section wouldn’t have looked out of place in old movies like Tom Thumb or Jack The Giant Killer and although it was all valid in terms of finishing off the story in a logical way it was really a case of too much too quickly. After the long and slow build up it switched totally into the “well, that escalated quickly” stage and lost all credibility, I felt. Obviously I didn’t feel that quite as strongly as the rest of the audience, however, who were openly giggling by the end.
One last thing though. There’s a nice touch where the final shot kind has the camera tracking away from a scene in the same way that the first scene was tracked in from a shot of a dolls house. Now, one of the nice things this director does... and it’s not the first time I’ve seen this done but I haven’t seen it done in a single movie quite as frequently as it happens here... is that he transitions from day to night and back again in the outside world just like he’s flicking a light switch on or off. Everything just switches to daylight or night time, eschewing any sunrise or sunset. Now, given the whole ‘doll house’ framing device, one wonders if this is part of one final comment as to the reality of the world in which the film’s central narrative takes place. Are all these characters just figures being moved around in a miniature form? It’s food for thought but I’m not going to get too bogged down in that one. Sometimes when you think about the mechanics of a story too much the whole thing just falls apart.
So there you have it. I actually quite enjoyed Hereditary for what it was but ultimately it felt like it really dropped the ball in the final act. I do, however, think it’s worth a look... not for the horror fans exclusively but for a general audience because some of the film making on display here and, especially, the craft of slowly weaving a tale is pretty well done. Whether or not you think the ending lacks a certain amount of credibility is another matter but don’t let this stop you from enjoying the rest of the movie. It’s certainly not without its charm.
Thursday, 14 June 2018
Debbie Does Zombies
Night of the Living Deb
USA 2015 Directed by Kyle Rankin
Icon/FrightFest Presents... DVD Region 2
I may have mentioned it a few times on here that I don’t usually respond that well to comedy shenanigans unless it’s written by Woody Allen or stars The Marx Brothers but, every now and then a movie comes out which will tickle my funny bone in just the right way (not the way that leaves the whole arm paralysed and makes you grimace in pain while you wait for circulation to return). Night Of The Living Deb is just such a movie and it really breathes new life (and death) into the not that old ZomRomCom sub-genre of flesh eating zombie movies.
The movie stars this little whirlwind of an actress called Maria Thayer as the title character, Deb Carrington, beginning with her being egged on to talk to the “50 shades of heeey” guy at the bar they are having their 4th of July eve celebrations in. The guy's name is Michael Cassidy and, playing Ryan Waverly, he makes an excellent foil for Deb’s amazing one liners. The chemistry between them is wonderful as they suddenly, on their ‘morning after’, find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse with Ryan, at first, not all that enthused about what might have happened the night before they woke up in bed together.
However, this particular ‘day after’ is an onslaught of zombie carnage as the two try to pick up friends and relatives to save from destruction, including famous genre actor Ray Wise as Ryan’s dad, the head of the water company responsible for accidentally turning the majority of the town’s population into flesh devouring monsters. On the way through this trip of a movie, various genre tropes are discussed, movies quoted and there are so many funny gags coming at you all over the place that for a moment there I actually did have a Groucho flashback because Thayer’s delivery is that good as the love struck, over enthusiastic survivor with a heart of gold. Indeed, although the film isn’t a 1930s screwball, romantic comedy in name, it certainly does have a lot of moments that viewers might notice as Deb’s character is as persistent and unflappable in the pursuit of Mr. Waverly as Katherine Hepburn was with Cary Grant in some of those classic movies like Bringing Up Baby so, you know, you can probably tell I thought a lot of this movie on first viewing.
The film is full of the necessary ‘zombie splatter’ scenes with many classic moments from the history of zombie cinema being referenced here but there’s also some nice commentary on the genre too. For instance, there's a nice little scene when Deb slows them down to a halt as a zombie slowly shuffles towards them and she makes a comment about not worrying too much because these are obviously the old style, classic zombies which shuffle about like they’ve got cerebral palsy. Only to be told by Ryan that the zombie in question is someone he knows and he really does have CP... and then the fast running zombies suddenly appear to continue the pursuit.
In regards to this kind of zombie tribute, there’s also the much hackneyed scene where the characters identify that they have two shots in their revolver and so Deb says they can ‘tap out’ if it comes to it. Quite besides the fact that Ryan stresses his displeasure at the idea of being shot in the head if he’s about to become a zombie, he points out that when Deb is making the ‘tapping out’ motions, the order she does it in has her killing herself before shooting him... which really isn’t going to happen. And it’s great little moments like this that really liven up what could have been a not so good film and turn it into a truly fun and entertainingly great one.
There are also some great gags in the details too and I particularly loved the comment on the mentality of the people of Maine (which looks like it kinda matches my own in this regard) when the camera pans past some graffiti on a wall which says, “Your all going to die” but with the correction added where someone has crossed out the word ‘your’ and replaced it with the grammatically correct “you’re”. I love stuff like this and this movie could probably have gone on for another hour before I got bored with it. I also especially liked the throw away stuff near the end about the sanity of the way in which ‘zombie begets zombie’ (which is how I say this without putting spoilers in to give the game away) is something which defies logic in the wide variety of zombie movies. It’s a nice little moment and it gives rise to hope at the climax of the movie.
The film is not all that predictable... well, okay, it kind of is in terms of where the story might be heading but it takes the least predictable route there, for the most part. It also isn’t without its problems... well... only one problem that I could detect actually (apart from not having a sequel made). When a broadcast is made from a TV station towards the end (presumably, at least partially, in homage to Romero’s original version of Dawn Of The Dead), the consequences of that broadcast are shown and they are the kinds of things which would take a day or two to be happening in the world outside the small town which this feature uses as its setting. However, we then cut back to the main action and it could only have been 5 minutes or so, at best, in terms of the chronology of the narrative so... yeah. I suspect the director realised that though but just relied on the great God of artistic licence to make the scene work which is... well, I’m a little pernickety about such things but this is such a joy to watch that I can forgive it that little slip up easily.
And that’s really all I can say about this one. Night Of The Living Deb is absolute gem of a movie and, like Alan Jones says in the introduction to this ‘FrightFest presents...’ DVD... they get everything right. The DVD also has a ‘Making of featurette’, which I didn’t watch... and a Blooper Reel which, contrary to the majority of blooper reels I’ve seen, is actually quite funny, for the most part and doesn’t outstay its welcome. If you are a fan of either zombie movies or comedy/horror films then you could do a hell of a lot worse than to watch this truly genius little film. All I can say is, please, can we have Dawn Of The Deb now?
Tuesday, 12 June 2018
Her Cool Pirate
Pirates Of The Caribbean -
The Curse Of The Black Pearl
USA 2003 Directed by Gore Verbinski
Disney Blu Ray Zone 2
Here we go then. It so happens that it’s finally time to watch the Pirates Of The Caribbean films again from the start, since I’ve not really watched these since their cinematic release. My impression of these at the time was similar to what I later thought of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies... that being that the first one in the franchise is a pretty good film and that it’s been followed up with some truly dreadful sequels, none of which has managed to disprove the old adage that, in terms of the quality of both series’ of movies, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
This first one is, in retrospect and as I look at it now, just a little too long in terms of its total running time of almost two and a half hours. That being said there’s very much a case to be made, in my mind, that the movie is made watchable by one particular actor and, coupled with a pretty cool score, he’s the thing which makes this one worth watching at all... although that’s not to dim the light of the other very good performances in this.
The film is based on the 1967 Disneyland attraction of the same name (minus the subtitle). It was the last such attraction to have been steered by Walt Disney himself, although he died a few months before it opened and it’s kind of ironic that, since this film was so financially successful and popularly received, the ride was closed down for a while to make it even more like the movie version... although there are apparently plenty of references to the original ride in this film.
The opening of the movie is a prologue chapter on a ship under the command of a character called Norrington, played by Jack Davenport. Here we see the younger versions of Elisabeth Swan and Will Turner before they grow up, by the next sequence, to be played by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Elisabeth’s father, played by Jonathan Pryce, is quite keen that Elisabeth marry Norrington, even though there are obviously years between them (although Jack Davenport doesn’t seem to age at all in the time between the sequences). Of course, she is in love with the village blacksmith, the aforementioned Will Turner, who she knows to have something to do with piracy from the opening sequence, although she’s doesn’t reveal this information to Will. I remember sitting in the cinema and watching this first ten or so minutes of the film and looking at my watch and thinking... please don’t let the entire film be this dull and boring all the way through. Luckily, it’s just at this moment that we get the opening salvo of shots of Johnny Depp’s entry in the story. The music swells as the camera holds back from an establishing shot and we see Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in command of his vast ship and the score gives wind to his sails. It’s only then that it’s revealed that Sparrow’s ship is, in fact, a tiny boat with one smallish sail and a reliance on how the camera can change the perspective of a shot and flatten it out. A nice little punchline as the boat is obviously sinking and Jack starts trying to bail it out as he nears port. A follow up shot not so long later sees Jack gliding confidently into port with a pullback to reveal he’s standing on top of the still sinking mast which just manages to get him to port so he can gracefully step off as the boat goes under. Nice stuff and this has got to be one of the best and most elaborately shot entrances for a character in modern Hollywood.
And then the writers throw a plot and some action at everything of varying quality but the film is, frankly, completely reliant on Johnny Depp’s exaggerated performance of Captain Jack Sparrow as the very heart and soul of the entertainment. Without Depp, in this case, the film would be nothing but here he really adds the ingredients so sorely missing from the sequences which find themselves "Deppless" and some nice concoctions of skeletal pirates, blood sacrifices to Aztec gold, coupled with some great swordplay and chase choreography make the film a pleasure to behold. Admittedly, it’s a slow trundling pleasure but there are some nice little movie references too, to keep the weary audience afloat and there are a lot more doubloons than duds in this one... something which sadly can’t be said for the other films in the series, if memory serves.
There’s a nice moment, for instance, where Jack Sparrow and Will Turner decide to team up and use an overturned rowing boat to walk beneath the surface of the sea, like a miniature submarine, using the naturally formed pocket of air left in the top of the boat to breathe. This is, of course, a nice little shout out to the exact same submersible solution created by James Hayter in The Crimson Pirate, as he uses the idea to transport himself, Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat out of trouble (if you’ve never seen this marvellous movie, make a point of doing so... not only does Hayter’s character invent this submersible when called for... he also invents gun powder and the hot air ballon throughout the course of the story). Similarly, a well choreographed bit of ‘rescue nonsense’ at the end of the movie where Turner tries to get Jack Sparrow away from his impending execution is similarly choreographed almost like a dance routine and recalls the acrobatic antics of Lancaster and Cravat in certain scenes in The Crimson Pirate.
And then there’s the score. Although it’s composed and credited to Klaus Badelt (who also did a marvellous score for the reboot of The Time Machine), he also had a lot of help, primarily from Hans Zimmer who wrote the themes and, according to the original soundtrack album credits, ‘over produced’ the CD release. When you start digging deeper, however, you start to realise that there were a few composers working on the movie but, be that as it may, it’s a great score. There have been some marvellous scores over the years for pirate movies... the as yet unreleased score for The Crimson Pirate by William Alwyn and the much re-issued John Debney score to Cutthroat Island, to name but two... and The Curse Of The Black Pearl certainly joins them in having a rousing and much loved score. It does the job admirably and the strong Jack Sparrow action theme, albeit somewhat similar to something which originally appeared in Zimmer’s score for Gladiator, is one of those cues which people will be humming through the ages. It’s mixed quite heavily into the foreground in this movie and, frankly, it’s all the better for it. More movies these days, where the sound designers are in love with their own miasma of audio bombast and submersion, should give the music greater room to breathe, in my opinion. The films would certainly reap the benefits.
So there you have it. Well before Pirates Of The Caribbean came out, I was an admirer of Johnny Depp as a great actor and on screen personality and, although I’ve learnt in recent years that a good Johnny Depp performance isn’t always enough to save the day (Secret Window, The Tourist, Mortdecai etc.) this is definitely a film where he shines enough to carry the action and weight of the movie on himself and turn it into something quite watchable. There’s much buckling of swashes to be had in this first installment of Pirates Of The Caribbean - The Curse Of The Black Pearl and, though I couldn’t watch it every decade, I feel like there’s still a few viewings of this one left for me. If you like big adventure movies and you’ve never seen this one before... you’re in for a good time.
Sunday, 10 June 2018
Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom
2018 USA Directed by J.A. Bayona
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very minor spoilers.
Hmm... yeah. Okay this is not that great people. In fact... it’s far from good. I gave the previous entry of the five Jurassic Park films, Jurassic World, an okayish review (just here) but you can tell I was trying to be really kind to it and I said it was my fourth favourite of the bunch. This one... well, it’s not exactly terrible but, yeah, I guess this is my fifth favourite and it seems to be one of those franchises like Transformers or, to an extent, Pirates Of The Caribbean, which gets just a little bit worse each time around.
It’s pretty hard, I would have thought, to screw up a movie where giant dinosaurs run around eating people and, to be fair, this still holds true for this movie... kinda. Except there must be some real problems, it seems to me, when I find myself struggling to stop myself from looking at my watch during the movie.
Okay... so let me focus on the stuff they got right for a minute...
Well, the performances from returning actors Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are top notch and, even when they haven’t got great dialogue... and this is a film of a lot of scenes which don’t have great dialogue... they do an admirable performance in their roles here. As do co-stars Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith. Jeff Goldblum is, of course, always watchable but, as I suspected when I saw the trailer, he’s only in it for a couple of minutes at the start and a couple of minutes at the end so... not a great return for his character Ian Malcolm, to be honest. I was quite pleased when Toby Jones turns up as a nasty business man because the first thought you have is.. this guy is just here to get eaten. That’s almost his sole purpose in this movie... so that was another box ticked off.
Another positive is that the director seems to be making a concerted effort to design some nicely composed shots some of the time. There are cool examples of emphasising things by shifting focus and using sections at the edges of the screen in a few instances. So some nice, cinematic moments scattered throughout.
Okay so... that’s pretty much all the good stuff there.
Frankly, this film dragged quite a bit... even though it was full of action. Well, I say that... nothing much happens for the first twenty minutes or so but, once we get to the island, things go wrong for the main protagonists very quickly and heroes and villains are speedily identified. Everything is clearly marked but even the main characters seem to be acting like they have labels rather than names. Like many films, each character has their function but this movie makes it seem so obvious as to what role the characters are supposed to fulfil that you might as well just label them up... ‘velociraptor whisperer’, ‘high heel in peril girl’, ‘vet girl’, ‘button gal’, ‘computer guy’ etc. Everything slotted into place so obviously that there was nothing much to surprise you except... oh yeah... that one thing.
There’s a sleeper of a twist reveal which you kinda know is coming for the little girl played by Isabella Sermon as they keep dropping visual hints but... and this is a problem with a lot of things throughout the whole film... nobody, including the audience, really gets time to digest it when the big reveal is finally... um... revealed. And that’s a typical thing happening with this movie because, once the movie ramps up about 20 minutes or more in, there aren’t really that many pauses or time for reflection and suspense to build up before the next bus load of dino madness is upon us. So there’s no real weight or sense of terror lurking in the background and the suspense sequences feel just a little bit samey and anemic. Not something which has bothered me before when I see these things but it is a big problem here because this story really doesn’t have too much going for it. It really can’t afford to rollercoaster over those few good dramatic beats here and there in the way it does.
It’s interesting because this movie is much more graphic in its depiction of violence compared to the other Jurassic Park movies... it seems to me. Bearing in mind it’s a 12A rating in the UK, there’s a scene where half a guys arm gets pulled off while a dinosaur ‘toys with its food’ and another scene where you see a man ripped in half, Darth Maul style, between two dinosaur’s mouths. Now I’m not specifically blaming the director for what I’m about to say here but... you never really feel the violence and it shows just how beautifully crafted Steven Spielberg’s first two films in the franchise were because, with a minimum level of on screen goriness, you somehow feel the grizzly nature of violent death more in the way those are shot, edited and scored. Here, you see more but feel way less. Maybe a good demonstration of that old cliché ‘less is more’ in reverse here, it seems to me.
And talking of scoring. I love the majority of Michael Giacchino’s film music... heck, I even went to his birthday concert last year... but the music in this really is an unstoppable force and has a heck of a time trying to compete with the sound effects on this one. It seems simplistic and overpowering and, given the composers knack for weaving in other composers styles and melodies, the John Williams source material is barely referenced. In fact, there was probably more of it in the trailers than you got here and that’s just crazy because there are some real moments where the audience could benefit from the identification of those Williams themes to lift the emotions and, it just doesn’t really happen.
My one big, unforgivable mistake on this whole movie, however, happens within the first ten minutes or so and I was so angry about this that I could barely watch the next scene because my outrage was persistent. In the early scenes they use a lot of BBC ‘newscast’ footage to recap the audience on what happened at certain points in the last movie as well as bring them up to speed as to what has happened in the couple of years chronologically between the two films. There were even scenes of people watching these broadcasts with their naked eyes and no special glasses... you know what’s coming don’t you? How in the heck are we supposed to believe that the BBC or whoever is broadcasting in 3D? Seriously, the TV footage stuff was all in 3D too and there’s absolutely no way that would happen. Popped me straight out of the movie. Just completely dumb. How is this stuff allowed to happen? I don’t even have the words to express my anger as to how a flat screen is suddenly able to magically broadcast in 3D. What were they thinking?
Also, while I’m at it... is it even possible for amber to break, let alone shatter from such a small distance? I think not, somehow.
So, yeah, I’ll just try and calm down now and say that... if you like the other Jurassic Park films then Jurassic World - Falllen Kingdom is probably going to hit some of the right buttons although, honestly, I’m getting really fed up with these now. There’s a post credit sequence which just underlines what you already know, which is that the producers obviously have a clear goal for the next movie in the series but, honestly, I’m just not sure I care what happens after this. A bit of a misfire but the kid inside you might like it. Or not. Who can tell? Give it a go and see what you think.
Thursday, 7 June 2018
Ladies Of The Night
by Maggie McNeill
Okay so this is a book I had as a recommendation from Twitter. Not that anyone actually recommended it to me personally but I saw someone or other talking about how good it is (they were right about that) and I looked at it and thought that the cover was really cool. Added to that the fact that the writer, Maggie McNeill is/was a sex worker and that all the stories, more or less, feature characters from a world where sex is sold or bartered as a service was just the icing on the cake. I’ve always thought that working girls were criminally underrated and persecuted in terms of the attitude towards service they provide to the general public at large so, whenever one sticks their head up from behind the parapet and does something additional with their talents, I’m always interested.
Now, I was a little wary about this volume called Ladies Of The Night because, for the last few years, I’ve not been getting on with the short story format as much as I used to as a kid. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the short stories of, say, Philip K. Dick are almost always absolutely amazing but some of the ghost story anthologies I’ve read lately (and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know my December habits by now) have been pretty underwhelming.... especially when they purport to have some kind of Twilight Zone style twist but rarely end up delivering anything either a) surprising or, b) remotely thought provoking. Then again, I really wanted to own a copy of a book with that printed cover so... yeah, I gave it a go.
As it happens, though, I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and content of McNeill’s short fiction. She can spin a yarn or, in most cases here, a nicely realised sketch of a concept and, although the majority of the stories hosted here which are, for the most part, taken from the writer’s blog The Honest Courtesan (which you can go to by clicking here) are only a few pages in length, she manages to invoke and weave together some pretty cool ideas and atmospheres in this tome.
I say hosted because a really nice touch with this collection is that McNeill’s written a short introductory passage to each story which gives a little context as to why it came to be written or in what kind of time period it is set. And there are some real corkers in here too with different writing strengths coming through in various stories. For example, the extra long opening tale Pandora is all about the atmosphere of dreams and the ways that the curious world of sleep can dominate and bleed into the everyday. Whereas another tale may be more about the way in which the attitudes and perceptions of the professional choice of the central protagonist are highlighted with, often, a much more idealistic conclusion in the understanding of some of the heroine’s decisions portrayed than comes about in a real life scenario.
Now, while the stories mostly involve ‘ladies of the night’ in various incarnations, it would be true to say that this collection isn’t exactly erotic in nature. Instead, like good science fiction, the writer uses that milieu to explore ideas which are not necessarily specifically about that... it’s just a useful metaphor to be able to tinker with certain themes.
Indeed, almost all of the tales here could also be labelled as either science fiction, fantasy or supernatural in content. There’s even a brilliant, recurring character in three of the tales called Aella, who is an amazonian heroine in the style of the kinds of characters you’d find in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian tales such as the likes of Conan of Cimmeria and Red Sonja.
In the first of these three Aella shorts, A Decent Boldness, Aella finds herself far from home and her actions to rescue a girl find her offered a hefty wage to be security in a brothel. She learns the ropes and it makes the point, quite succinctly, that a more than decent wage can be made from the encouragement of the sins of the punter.
The second tale, A Haughty Spirit, is set four years later as she and her friend/lover are on a long journey back to her tribe of Amazons and I loved the tactics that she uses to rescue her friend from the chieftain of a hostile tribe.
The third of the Aella tales. Glorious Gifts, offers a more practical approach to things perceived by others as affairs of the heart. This places our heroine in a possible dilemma that is, in some ways, a metaphor for how our stupid governments treat the idea of sex work (if I read it right).
These are all great as, indeed, the majority of the stories in this volume are and I found it refreshing that, asides from the theme of sex as an item of transaction, the events and situations are from a wide variety of fictional times and places. In here you will meet sex robots, vampire hunters (and, of course, vampires), detectives, superheroes, aliens, ghosts, mirror portals, Gods, faeries and even, in one memorable instance, a tale which examines an underlying problem of a certain, unnamed, time travelling Gallifreyan in a very interesting manner. So, yeah, as a longtime watcher of Doctor Who, I was very pleased with this one.
The other thing about this collection is that... for the most part... the little twists at the end of each tale are actually something which you might well not see coming. I was surprised, in a good way, a few times and, as my regular readers will know, this is a talent that I value highly. I’m very rarely surprised but this collection has some nice little ‘stings in the tales’, so to speak. They more often than not come in the very last paragraph or line of the story too... which is maybe even harder to do. My absolute favourite one in this collection is called The Specialist and it is a tale told by a working girl who has developed a service where she caters for a very specific kind of client. I’m not going to spoil that for you here though but, you know, worth a read. Like a number of the stories in the book, this one starts off with a character looking backwards at certain events until we catch up to the present, usually right at the end of the story.
And that’s all that I have to say about this one, I think. Maggie McNeill’s Ladies Of The Night is a truly interesting, entertaining and thought provoking collection of short stories. Well written and none of them outstay their welcome. Really enjoyed this one and am very much looking forward to purchasing and reading her second collection of short stories, Forms Of Things Unknown, when I am able to. In the meantime, if you are a fan of short fiction, this one might be right up your street.
Tuesday, 5 June 2018
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
When J. J. Abrams produced and directed the first of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, the chrome look of one of the character costumes reminded him of the iconic chrome/silver ball in the Phantasm series of movies and so he named that character Captain Phasma. I’m just recounting this story by way of demonstrating how well loved and how far reaching these particular low budget horror movies are. When you watch the first one nowadays it maybe seems a bit dated but still retains its quirkiness and I think, if I were truly watching this for the first time now, then I would possibly be wondering what all the fuss was about. However, Phantasm has been with me for a not inconsiderable chunk of my life and its something I like to come back to every now and again and, this newish Blu Ray box set from Arrow Films was a good excuse to do that. Not only does it have another model sphere, smaller and closer in size to the real thing than the excellent DVD box set of some years ago, plus a little book full of photos and information... it also has the long awaited fifth movie from the end of 2016, Phantasm Ravager, making it’s UK premier here. So I was very excited for this new, restored boxed set.
My first experience with Phantasm in the UK was the TV spot used to advertise its first cinema run back in 1979, contrary to what the IMDb is now telling me in that it says this movie didn’t even get a release over here until 2016. But I clearly remember the TV spot at the time with the main teen protagonist running from one of the lethal chrome balls, flattening to the ground and letting it pass over his head. I also remember the tag line in that advert, with the voice saying at the end... “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” I just confirmed my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me by phoning my friend @cultofthecinema, who remembered the posters being out on the tube at the same time and I remember them front of house at my local cinema. So, yeah... sometimes the IMDB can get it very wrong.
Of course, I was only 11 years old in 1979 so it wasn’t a movie that I would have been allowed to see at the cinema. It was an 'X' movie anyway but I remember that, by then, my head was perpetually filled up with lots of science fiction stuff such as Doc Savage, the Flash Gordon serials, Doctor Who, Space 1999, Star Trek, Sinbad, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run comics (the actual movie was a 'AA' when it came out in 1976 so I was too young but, again, in addition to the comics there was the short lived TV show), Star Wars, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica and... well, you get the picture. I mention this in passing to indicate that, even though my mind was on other things, the TV advertising for this was very much a ‘thing’ and the imagery found in even those short ads was quite haunting.
I don’t think I came into contact with the movie itself until the late 1980s or early 1990s and it would have almost certainly been a TV print. Probably uncut but maybe not. I’ve seen this movie maybe another three or four times since then and, every time I watch this one, I am always surprised by the ‘just about hanging together’ and surreal nature of the experience. The film stars A. Michael Baldwin as the teenage Mike and the plot deals with how he and his brother Jody, played by Bill Thornbury, team up with their friend Reggie (played by Reggie Bannister) to investigate the local funeral home Morningside after their mate has died and strange, inexplicable stuff is happening around town. In fact, Mike and Jody’s friend is stabbed by The Lady In Lavender (played by Kathy Lester) in the opening sequence of the film and it’s then that we also get our first flash of a shot of one of the film’s longstanding icons.
That icon being one Angus Scrimm, who is probably best known for playing The Tall Man in all the Phantasm films and who is recognisable in costume and saying his catch line “Booooooy!” in a way transcendent from the films which made him such a famous figure in low budget horror. Scrimm died in January 2016 and his last two films were Phantasm Ravager and Dances With Werewolves. It’s always good to see Scrimm turn up in stuff unannounced (like this director’s film John Dies At The End, which I reviewed here) but it’s in this film where it all begins for him as far as being a larger than life horror personality is concerned. Seeing him strutting his way through the beautiful, vertical shapes and tones of the Morningside Funeral Home is still something special... probably more so when you’re seeing it in the context of the larger body of work that is the Phantasm series.
Phantasm is a great film and, sure, it has its other great icon the flying spheres. We only see it in two scenes in this original. The first being the scene which was used for the trailers and TV spots where Mike is being held by a guy with the sphere flying towards him... the blades come out but Mike bites through the other guys hand and wriggles out from his grasp just in time for the ball to land on the other guy’s forehead, fixing itself by its twin bayonet blades before unleashing a high powered drill to burrow into the victim’s head while a hole opens out in the back to eject the blood. One might possibly, the second time you see it, be asking yourself why such a bizarre and elaborate method of killing is required in the first place but the first time you see it, you’re probably too distracted by the novelty to care. The only other time we see the ball is in a much later scene where... oh, okay, I don’t want to give away everything.
Quite apart from these two great icons of modern horror... The Tall Man and his silver spheres... we have a movie which, in all honesty, jumps about a bit, doesn’t make a lot of sense, has tuning fork portals, shrunken slave midgets which look like Jawas (but which were conceived well before the Star Wars lookalikes made it to the screen... the film shoot was lengthy and even the principal photography took a year of weekend filming to finish), a black box of mind pain and a possibly even more painful guitar duet played by Reggie and Jody. it’s disjointed and surreal in places but, for most of the time, manages to maintain a semblance of holding itself together... although every time I get to the ‘double ending’ of the first movie, I’m reminded how this doesn’t seem to make any coherent sense and am baffled how they managed to pull off even one sequel... let alone another four.
Oh... and it’s also kind of brilliant in its own, low budget way. Conjuring up an atmosphere fairly unique to this franchise and managing to inextricably be both dated and timeless at exactly the same moment. We also have Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s haunting and fairly minimally spotted score which seems to be almost trying to catch the same kind of progressive and relentlessly driven tone of things like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from The Exorcist, Goblin’s score for Suspiria and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme... although it’s a more laid back version of ‘relentlessly driven’, to be sure. And yes, I know that makes no sense but it’s also a good term for the movie itself, with it’s slow and rambly but ultimately eventful pacing... driven but also laid back.
Arrow’s new Blu Ray transfer is the best I’ve ever seen the film looking and, as it’s Arrow, you get a package with gazillions of extras on each of the five discs... not to mention a sixth bonus disc with even more extras on it. If you are into horror movies or even if you are into weird or off-key tales of science fiction, which this movie is as much as it’s a scary movie, then you should definitely check Phantasm out if you’ve never seen it before. It’s strangely addictive and it’s something you can go back and have a look at every few years and probably see something new or, at the very least, something you’ve forgotten, in it. Am really looking forward to continuing my revisitation of the Phantasm universe as I delve deeper and put my hand back into the Arrow box of fear. Keep your forks tuned.
Sunday, 3 June 2018
Womb With A View
L'Amant Double (Double Lover)
2017 France/Belgium Directed by François Ozon
UK cinema release print.
I’m glad that François Ozon’s latest movie, L’Amant Double has finally got a release in the UK. I sadly missed this at last year’s London Film Festival because... well I can only fit in so many films and it was probably either clashing with something else I saw or just on at a ridiculous time. I’m really glad I’ve finally got to see this, though, because it’s a bit of a corker.
I tend to find Ozon a little hit and miss but I did like his version of 8 Women and I absolutely adored his movie Swimming Pool. In fact, the latter film has a special place in my heart because it marks Ozon out as one of the very few directors who has made a film with such a brilliant twist ending that it completely took me by surprise. If you’ve not seen Swimming Pool then I’d recommend it because the very last shot of the movie completely upends everything you thought you knew about the story and... well... it’s just brilliant.
L’Amant Double is his new psychological thriller which is (quite loosely, I suspect) based on Joyce Carol Oates novel Lives Of The Twins. It stars Marine Vacth as Chloé, a ex model who when she goes to get her persistent stomach pains checked out, is recommended to psychiatrist Paul, played by Jérémie Renier, on the off chance it might be a psychosomatic condition. Of course, being as this is movieland, it’s not long before Paul has ‘cured’ Chloé and the two are madly in love with each other. Problems start to happen soon after they move in together, though, as Chloé discovers... and starts to have a torrid affair with... Paul’s twin brother, who Paul doesn’t even acknowledge. And from there on, things start to get stranger as Chloé is pulled into the twisted world of Paul’s manipulative brother, which gets even darker once Chloé discovers she is pregnant by one of them.
Okay, don’t want to say too much more here in terms of plot because, although the director didn’t quit take me by surprise with the ending on this one, it doesn’t quite go to where you might at first think things are going to lead and I don’t want to give away any spoilers. The different possible scenarios suggested by the set up are piled on in much the same way as an adept giallo writer might give way too many potential solutions to the mystery at the heart of a movie. What I will say, though, is that I suspect a lot of reviewers are going to be comparing this one to a kind of cross pollination of David Cronenberg’s excellent movie Dead Ringers and my personal favourite of Brian De Palma’s early films, Sisters.
The film opens strongly with a boldly masked shot within a circular shape as we see the lead actress looking into camera, framed in the circle, as she is getting her long, flowing hair cut short. After these opening credits, we switch to a shot of the inside of her vagina through the end of a speculum as she is at the gynecologist’s office. As the speculum is removed we see the elongated ‘iris’ of her vulva in close up before we cut to a shot of an eye which reflects the circular motif and, indeed, the idea of circles, eyes and eyeballs are a recurring motif throughout the film. It’s all alluded to very strongly as the next scene features her going up an elaborate spiral staircase punctuated by shots looking both down and up the middle of it which, again, pushes this particular, ‘watching’ visual element. It’s almost like the womb is observing from the mise en scène and I think that’s exactly the metaphor the director is trying to make here.
The beauty of the shot set ups, which utilise both superimposed images of the actors plus reflections in mirrors, takes on an almost hallucinatory feeling in the first ten minutes or so and, again, having seen the conclusion of this film, I can see why the director does this and I can also see why the style settles down after a while and the shots become more conventional at certain points. There’s some great stuff used in here though, including a spectacular, enhanced frame where Chloé and Paul are sitting on opposite sides of the room facing each other and then, when the shot switches to a more close up shot of their profiles, one is superimposed on the opposite side of the screen directly next to the other seamlessly, as the director uses this technique to bridge the physical space between the characters by just moving them closer artificially. Brilliant stuff.
I say the style settles down but, you do still get lots of flashes of visual genius at various points and, after a while, you may start noticing the eye/circle motif in various places you wouldn’t expect to see it... such as carved into the door of a house that Chloé visits towards the end of the movie or as a feature of a headboard on a neighbour's bed that Chloé sleeps in.
There will come a point when you will realise that, almost as a necessity, the audience’s perception of what is actually going on is going to be thrown into doubt and uncertainty. I alluded earlier that the film could be seen as something of, possibly, an homage to the cinema of Cronenberg and De Palma but let’s not forget one of De Palma’s chief influences too... Hitchcock. You will see a scene in this film somewhere that serves exactly the same purpose as the scene in Psycho where actor Simon Oakland describes what was really going on in the mind of Norman Bates (as played by Anthony Perkins). Which is nice because Philippe Rombi’s score for the movie is also pretty great and, in some ways, slightly reminiscent of what composers like Bernard Hermman and Pino Donnagio were doing in some of the thrillers they scored (and thankfully, there’s a CD of this one available). I’m not, however, about to tell you just which of the characters in this movie needs a little more audience explanation than the others though... you can work it out/discover it for yourself as you watch it.
Now, like I said, I wasn’t completely surprised by the ending of this movie and, quite often, that’s a real turn off. However, like Swimming Pool, the very last shot of this film is a really great moment... although for different reasons. And, even though you know where that last shot is going, the sound design on this moment makes you really sit up and take notice (so see it in a decent cinema if possible).
L’Amant Double is a pretty great movie and definitely one I’d recommend. The cinematography is ostentatious, the performances by the actors are brilliant and fairly brave (there’s a fair amount of nudity in this one and it also includes a pegging scene, where Chloé makes love to Paul with a strap-on) and, even if the ending doesn’t quite take you by surprise, it will certainly keep you guessing until very late in the running time as to just what the heck is going on. A strong recommendation from me. Go see it while it’s still in cinemas.
Thursday, 31 May 2018
The Phantom Menagerie
Ireland 2018 Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Experimental Film Society
"And saw the island rising in the distant sheen,
white and filmy; a phantom island."
Sheridan Le Fanu
Thus starts Rouzbeh Rashidi’s latest work of cinematic art - Phantom Islands - with this quote by Sheridan Le Fanu, who is perhaps best known to lovers of film as the writer of Carmilla, on which a fair number of vampire movies over the years have been based. This quote followed by the legend “A Pictorial Film by Rouzbeh Rashidi” and the title of the movie appears, superimposed over an abstract, stylised liquid background before the tranquility of this opening is violently disturbed by a sped up, crashing and extremely colourful thunderstorm... slicing the peace, quiet and passivity of the viewer with a shock to the system which is something which the director here obviously has as one of his objectives; to raise the stakes on the audience from the passive to the interactive... but I’ll get to that in a little while.
It’s been a long time since I reviewed one of Rashidi’s films on this blog and I was lucky enough to be sent a private screener of this latest by the director himself. I guess he must like some of my past reviews and, phew, luckily I liked this one enough that I can at least give him something honestly positive by way of feedback here.
If you’ve never seen a Rashidi film then you will probably be taken unawares by the way his particular brand of visual art plays out. This movie offers absolutely no dialogue whatsoever, for example, and any connections to a coherent and correct interpretation of the events you see taking shape before your eyes are constantly dashed and reshaped by the director to make you work and bring a sense of yourself to what you see before you. Something which not many films out there are doing yet... think of it as a beautifully shot, immersive video game where the rules are unclear and the images before you seem to relate but, not necessarily in a linear order.
From very early on, Rashidi sets up some ground rules to get your brain responding to what you see in front of you in a very specific way. For instance, certain lead-ins to scenes go through a series of, definitely not traditional, establishing shots which are short montages with slow drops of black (which last about a second) between each little shot before slipping into a longer scene. We meet the two main protagonists/lovers played by Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais and we watch as they explore an island (possibly more than one) in Ireland and become somewhat dislodged by the proceedings as they fight or make love in a series of vignettes which, it seems to me, deliberately defy any meaningful scrutiny when placed together in the edit in this way. However, I believe the point here, like many of this director’s films, from what I remember, is that you do try to rub these little pebbles of story ideas together and bring the coherence to the narrative, as much as there is one, yourself.
The director uses various tactics to deliver that kind of vaguely surreal experience by using deliberate blurs and refocussed visuals. There seems to be a lot of post-production enhancements and effects to the footage captured here, actually... more than I remember seeing in his previous works... and so you will get things like radial blurs or even sharp verticals of crisp image when the rest is much more blurry. One shot shows just the two protagonists standing side by side in front of a field looking at the camera but they are completely out of focus in the foreground. Then, of course, Rashidi uses another completely different shot of the field itself as a midway stage to a similar shot of the same composition but with the focus reversed.
I tend to think of the director as a bit of a surrealist but, at the same time, his surrealism doesn’t necessarily come from the worlds which he captures in camera... which are usually quite naturalistic (albeit somewhat ‘manipulated’). Instead the editing of various shots and the way they interact... or don’t, they sometimes just imply a connection for you to find yourself... is what gives these films, at least this one, a definite surrealistic tinge to proceedings. Indeed, the director’s dedication at the end to Marguerite Duras, Jean Epstein and Andrzej Zulawski might tip you off to the kind of atmosphere he is trying to invoke here.
So yeah... disparate visual elements such as a coruscating sea, an old polaroid camera, fish in an aquarium, or a wonderful exploitation style moment involving the lead actress, naked and being covered in red paint (presumably as a stand in for blood) are punctuated by both different colour schemes and sound/musical elements. Stretches with a very subdued colour palette and tranquil, hypnotic music, for example, may suddenly be jarringly juxtaposed with shots of strong colour and a more energetic scoring method, courtesy of composer Amanda Feery or, in some sequences, Cinema Cyanide.
And sometimes they won't be...
For example, rhythmic sound cues such as a kind of sonar sound familiar from submarine movies may play in time to the blackout cuts I described earlier, setting up a audio pattern that is suddenly continued into a single languid shot to not jar you out of the action completely. Other times that won’t happen and the opposite might seem to be the desired effect... such as the use of record crackle or whale song added to the soundtrack.
At one point I thought I’d spotted a mistake as the couple are laying half naked in bed for what one can possibly assume is a long time... however, the marks on Clara Pais’ back from the recent removal of her bra seem to contradict the passage of time which I gave to the image order and, rather than a mistake, that’s probably the point. Time, or the illusion of it which many people cling to so dearly in their daily lives, is not a constant or required element in a Rouzbeh Rashidi film, for sure, and the way in which his films are constructed are definitely flying in the face in such a standard perception of temporal stability.
One thing which I don’t recall seeing in some of the director’s earlier films is a sense of direct interaction with the audience from both the actors directly, as they frequently look into camera and take snaps of the crew in the background (Rashidi has more than one cameo in this movie). These moments become more frequent as the running time plays out and this pretty much encourages an almost Brechtian reading of the subject matter. Or, if you prefer a more cinematic allusion, as I would, then a somewhat Godardian approach to the way in which the film is constructed.
Now, I don’t pretend to be clever enough to decode these films by Rashidi but I am optimistic (or even ignorantly arrogant) enough to suggest that they aren’t necessarily meant to be understood at a narrative level and, like all his films, there is no spoon feeding of the audience for an objective explanation to his art. That being said, I might suggest that the frequent insert shots of sea creatures in an aquarium, horses in a field or lizards in an equally man made environment may suggest a sense of voyeurism or even captivity and I couldn’t help but think that this might be a visual metaphor for the way in which the audience are receiving the images in, hopefully, a less passive way than they might another directors work (although David Lynch might come close, at some points).
Or maybe it doesn’t.
One never knows with Rashidi but, maybe the point for me is... whatever he does, if you relax the way in which you tend to perceive and decode images in commercial cinema, then you are going to see something which is, at the very least, extremely interesting... when it comes to this director at any rate.
And that’s all I have to offer on Phantom Islands, I think. If you want to catch this and perhaps some of this director’s other films then you may be lucky enough to either find it at a festival or access it via the internet at a later date. This one is definitely worth a watch if you’re fed up with what you’re seeing at your local multiplex, it seems to me. So maybe give it a go.
For more information about this one you can go to the following link... http://rouzbehrashidi.com/phantomislands/ and if you want to know more about the Experimental Film Society and watch some of their videos ‘on demand’, then you can check them out here... http://www.experimentalfilmsociety.com/
Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Safe As Houses
2018 USA Directed by James McTeigue
UK cinema release print.
Well this is a shame. Breaking In had a lot of potential to be another great entry into the ‘fired up woman gets feral and tears through the bad guys’ style of thriller but, alas, it fails to live up to that promise for a number of reasons... despite some nice performances from all the key members of the cast.
The story set up is very simple.
After the death of her father, Shaun Russell, played with a lot of style and screen presence by Gabrielle Union, has to return to her ‘once family home’ for the weekend with her two children to settle up some ‘random Hollywood estate agent business’. Except, her father was some kind of criminal mastermind and the house, built like a fortress in terms of security, is on several acres of land. However, what she doesn’t bank on is a gang of four, fairly ruthless criminals who have broken in to try and find the safe which they know contains four million dollars of her fathers money. After some initial violence which leads Shaun outside, the thugs in question take control of the house, along with her kids and it then becomes about her breaking into the house to try and rescue her sprogs before the criminals can kill them and gain access to the loot.
And you’d think that was an okay set up for an entertaining action thriller and, well alright, it is. However, this thing has a fair few problems and I guess I’ll highlight those now.
Okay, so the first thing is... everyone in the script seems to be a walking cliché. Just take the criminals, for instance... we have the guy just doing his job, we have the psychotic one who wants to kills everybody, we have the obvious weak link who wants to just get out without anyone getting hurt and lastly, we have the leader of the pack, who is quite sophisticated and trying to hold everything together so the job can go as smoothly as possible. This last character is called Eddie and he’s played extremely well by Billy Burke. It’s a huge shame he and Gabrielle Union didn’t have a better script to work with here because they both do some good stuff in this and you feel like they just needed a much better role to shine in rather than what they both get landed with in this thing.
The other big problem is that the writers and director telegraph everything so obviously... again, sometimes to the point of cliché. For instance, we have the character who we know from a telephone call is going to be visiting the house later on the evening (two characters who do that, in fact). We have bits of glass that get broken with the director making sure we know there’s lots of glass there which can be used as a makeshift weapon or, you know, a cell phone will be left in an awkward position where you know somebody is going to try and retrieve it before long. There’s a lot of this kind of stuff going on and it just seems like the director is deliberately pushing all the buttons in turn to make the expected conclusion to a scene work with no regard for the intelligence of the audience... which is a great shame. I mean... there’s even a 1970s style, percussive heartbeat used in at least one scene while the film-makers attempt to ratchet up the tension. Seriously?
Oh, and for the record, I know James Bond did it in Thunderball (reviewed here) but I’m not sure hiding behind a dead body is going to shield you from the guns of your enemies. Also, if you’re going to cut someone’s throat, I suspect it’s going to be much more bloodier than a few drops of blood spilled onto your sleeve seen after the fact... and absolutely nowhere else. I don’t think that’s going to cut it these days... especially when you have a 15 rated film which doesn’t seem to have much more ‘adult content’ than you would expect to see in a 12. This is all very strange.
I guess what I’m trying to say there is that, after a very strong opening scene which actually did make me jump, this is not really treating the material in an edgy or gutsy way for a modern audience. It might have gone down really well in the 1950s but... yeah, not now. The new French movie Revenge (reviewed here), for instance, has a much more potent ‘wild woman on the loose’ dynamic to it than this thing. This one just seems to be a little bit of a sanitised let down, to be honest.
So there you go... all in all, Breaking In is not going to be winning any awards and I felt sorry for the main leads since they were doing some really nice stuff in this. This is a fairly short review and for that I apologise. There has got to be a good movie dealing with breaking into your own place and protecting the children out there but, unfortunately, this is not it. I won’t be seeing this one again.
Sunday, 27 May 2018
Solo - A Star Wars Story
2018 USA Directed by Ron Howard
UK cinema release print.
Warning: At some point near the end of this review there will
be a big spoiler. I’ll warn you about it again as it approaches.
Okay, so I’ll be honest and say I really wasn’t expecting the new Star Wars spin off, Solo, to be any good. In fact, after hearing about the troubled production history of this particular film and adding in the fact that I didn’t think much of either Rogue One or The Last Jedi, I was pretty much expecting this movie to be almost unwatchable. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that this was one of the very few of the new wave of Star Wars movies I actually quite liked.
Alden Ehrenreich stars as the young Han Solo and I have to admit that, when I first heard this casting news I was really happy about it because I’d recently seen him in the wonderful Cohen Brothers movie Hail Caesar! (reviewed here) playing a singing cowboy and I thought he might be able to pull this kind of role off... would that it were so simple. However, as more damaging ‘on set’ stories emerged about him needing acting lessons and a, frankly, not so great couple of trailers where he looks and acts nothing like Han Solo (I noticed some of those moments were thankfully absent in the final cut off the movie), I was beginning to get very down about the whole thing.
As it happens, I needn’t have worried. Ehrenreich is superb as the young Corellian and he really does look... and act... exactly right in a lot of the scenes here. Everyone is saying that Donald Glover’s portrayal of a young Lando Calrissian (one of my favourite characters in the original trilogy) is the one to watch and, although he’s kinda okay (if somewhat more of a caricature of the original rather than something that convinces me it’s really the same character), I thought Han was definitely the scene stealer in this.
And Chewbacca, played in this one by Joonas Suotamo, is even cooler.
I have to say that when a certain scene comes up and Han is in peril, I realised about 30 seconds before Chewie entered the movie what was going to happen. It doesn’t matter though because he knocks it out the park here. Of course, in terms of the chronology of the characters, this is Chewbacca’s second appearance in the saga, after helping Yoda escape from Chewie’s homeworld Kashyyk in Revenge Of The Sith. The version of Chewbacca here seems strangely skinnier but maybe that’s because the situation he finds himself in is not an ideal one. He’s great in this movie, though, and it’s nice to see him forming a bond with the young Han Solo as the running time progresses.
There is also a wide range of new characters who all work very well in the film and have good chemistry with the lead, including Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany as the villain of the piece and Han’s lost love Qi’ra, as played brilliantly by Emilia Clarke.
And... it’s an okay movie. It’s not great Star Wars in terms of feeling but it is close and even when I had pause for thought during the first sequence, I remembered the prequel trilogy’s opening chase scene from Attack Of The Clones and realised the high tech Blade Runnerish feel of this moment was acceptable, at least in terms of staying near to the spirit of what has gone before. There are also a lot of fan moments where various parts of the mythology pop up, including two returning characters from another film in the series, one of whom I will most definitely... and in the most spoilery way... get to soon. But, yeah... stuff like the dice, the mention of bounty hunter Bossk, the spice mines of Kessel and various other things are all touched upon here (although I was sad that this is the first ‘Star Wars’ film not to include C3P0 and R2D2 in it... they could have easily had them appearing in this one). It also doesn’t make the mistake, at least in this particular film, of ruining the exact line reading of Han and Lando’s past relationship from The Empire Strikes Back. It come close to getting it wrong but the lines in Empire will still, just about, read right... at least in this movie, as it stands.
Some of the stuff in this film is absolutely brilliant, like the train heist scene (why the heck would a light spacecraft owning civilisation be using trains?) and the way in which Han is portrayed as the ultimate good guy who thinks he’s the bad guy but... there’s also some bad stuff too. The structure of the film seems somewhat loose and doesn’t feel like it’s leading up to anything in terms of the way the action works. Also, the celebrated (by some viewers) Kessel Run scene, which we’ve been hearing about since the first movie in 1977, was really confusing and anticlimactic for me. Even the music in this scene sounds a little like warmed over John Williams... which it kinda is. John Powell’s score at this point starts quoting various Star Wars action motifs all muddled together (including one of my favourite John Williams cues, The Asteroid Field) but it somehow seems somewhat diluted here. I don’t know if this was because it’s deliberately dialled down in the mix, played by a smaller orchestra or even if it was the sound set up in the screen I saw it on that was amiss but, this scene felt like it could be a little punchier than it is here, that’s for sure. That didn’t detract so much from my appreciation of the movie though so, yeah, nearing the end of the movie I was in the state of mind that I was having a fun, relatively Star Warsish feeling, kind of good time and that it was one of the better of the late entries in the saga.
And then the thing happened...
And this is your big spoiler warning folks. If you haven’t seen this movie, do not read past this point.
So we already know the person who the lead villain of the piece is answering to is the ‘real’ villain and, after a not so surprising twist in terms of the allegiance of one of the characters in the movie, we finally get to see who the real 'menace' behind the scheme was and... my jaw totally dropped. There are few movies that manage to surprise me like this one did because there, on the hologram talking to one of the other characters in the film was... Darth Maul. Yep... the same Darth Maul we saw young Obi Wan slice in half with a lightsaber decades before in The Phantom Menace. He’s got robotic legs so it’s shown he’s survived somehow and, apparently, if I’d watched the Star Wars cartoon shows The Clone Wars and Rebels, then I would know how that character managed to survive his seemingly mortal wounds. I did get very excited for a minute because I realised this could maybe explain the lineage towards the villain of the first two films of the latest trilogy, Snoke. However, I then also realised that Maul couldn’t possibly have retained his woggly, baby making equipment after the wounds he received so I’m somewhat less excited about this reveal now. It is an interesting turn of events though but, alas, I can’t quite see how they can follow through with a final showdown between this character and our heroes in any future sequels because he’s already been killed off again by Obi Wan on Tatooine in the cartoons, apparently. Nice idea though and it certainly surprised me.
End of spoiler zone!
And that’s me done on this one. John Powell’s score seems a little less Star Wars than I thought it would be but certainly seems consistent with a lot of this composer's other work. I like this guy a lot but he’s not who I would have picked to score a Star Wars movie, that’s for sure... the score is still nicely done though and maybe giving it a different feel was kinda the point (it certainly plays better as a stand alone listen than The Last Jedi CD... asides from the awful song... but, for goodness sakes, why do they keep missing off the end title music on these things... oh, right, they want us all to double dip an expanded CD edition in five to ten years time. Got it.). Who knows what’s in the minds of the people bankrolling these things at any given moment? All in all, though, Solo is an enjoyable bit of light space opera and, like I said, probably the best of the series we’ve seen since the release of The Force Awakens. I’ll probably revisit this one again before it leaves the cinemas.
Star Wars at NUTS4R2
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones
Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith
Episode 4: A New Hope
Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi
Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Episode 8: The Last Jedi
Thursday, 24 May 2018
Rockin’ n’ Rollin
The Escapees (aka Les Paumées du Petit Matin aka The Runaways)
France 1981 Directed by Jean Rollin
US Redemption Blu Ray Region A
Warning: Some spoilers.
Okay... so I seem to be getting really unlucky when it comes to this review site and the films of Jean Rollin. Believe it or not, I am very much an admirer/supporter of this director and love the surreal beauty of his images coupled with the female nudity, twins/duos and vampirism which are some of his trademark themes when he was shooting his low budget personal projects (and not making porn for a fast buck). I own maybe 12 - 15 of his movies (in various editions including the latest uncut, US Region A Blu Rays and those gorgeous DVD Encore boxed editions from a number of years ago) and, I promise you, I love the majority of these.
Why is it then, whenever I come to acquire a Rollin film I’ve not seen before for the purposes of reviewing it here, that I always seem to find the not very good ones? Don’t worry, I’ve got some classics freshly upgraded to Blu Ray to rewatch and write up over the next year or two but, as it happens, this is another of the ‘not quite there’ Rollin films for me... although I’m sure lots of other people must like this one.
The Escapees starts off in an old, mansion type house (it could maybe have been a private boarding school in real life... it has that look) we are asked to believe that this is an insane asylum. The bizarre and not very realistic looking padding added to the walls like soft wallpaper tries to uphold that illusion but really isn’t all that convincing. As the credits roll we see two girls looking out of one of the windows before being ushered off by one of the staff. We then cut to a shot of a beautiful girl in a lone rocking chair in the field outside the house. After a shot looking at a window focusing on a conversation between the lead psychiatrist and one of the assistants, we see a reverse shot a little closer in and looking out, again, at the rocking chair girl. The rocking chair girl is called Marie, as played by Christiane Coppé and she is framed perfectly in one of the six panels of the window as the camera looks out at her. Which is the kind of perfect composition one half watches Rollin for anyway, to be fair.
We then meet the other of the two main protagonists of the film, Michelle, as played by Laurence Dubas. We first see her being hosed down by attendants before being straightjacketed and locked in her room with the aforementioned ‘padded walls’. Even though she is straightjacketed, it seems no problem for her to just nudge the window open because, not only is it unlocked, it’s already partially ajar. What the heck? There’s good security for you. She tries to attract the attention of rocking chair girl to help her escape but Marie is in her own headspace for a little while and we see Michelle from outside the window shouting out at her. She then goes off to get something in her teeth to throw out the window to get Marie’s attention. When she comes back we see she is only one floor up which, honestly, makes you wonder why she doesn’t jut make a jump for it. Also... it’s a different, much bigger window the outside shot of her is on this time... in a slightly different part of the house. The continuity on this film just leapt out of that window itself, hurtling both to oblivion and the great, anti-consistency resting ground in the sky.
After a little while the two hook up (and for some reason, Marie has absolutely no trouble just pushing open Michelle’s ‘locked’ door... what is going on here?) and escape together where they have interesting encounters - first meeting a lady playing a bongo drum in the forest for no apparent reason and then joining her ‘performance’ troupe before deserting on them with their new found friend, Sophie the pickpocket, played by Marianne Valiot.
There are quite a lot of familiar, Rollin haunts in the movie (and also quite a lot of handheld camera used to capture them in this one, for some reason) such as a junkyard, a disused train yard, a beach (possibly the same one he uses in most of his films but, if it is, it’s not the same stretch used here... or it’s taken from a completely different angle) and, later on, a dock. One place where I’ve not seen Rollin shoot before is at an ice rink. After getting in trouble and lashing out with a bottle, Marie runs off to hide in said ice rink for the night while Michelle is out looking for her. Of course, seeing as it’s a Rollin film and it quite naturally defies logic as part of its overall DNA, Marie ‘borrows’ a handy nearby costume and starts skating and dancing on the ice rink. However, even though the rink is completely abandoned at night, a spotlight still follows her around so we can see her ice dancing skills (which brought memories of when I used to have to dance on ice for people when I was 6 or 7 years old... not sure that’s a good memory though). Perhaps the spotlight is just supposed to be in her mind like the cheers of her imaginary audience... who can tell? Apparently, the actress’ ice skating talents here was one of the reasons Rolllin picked her for this role.
When Michelle finally catches up with Marie the two stay with Sophie in a sailor bar near the dock. Sophie’s plan is for them to all stowaway on a ship with her sailor-boy lover but things don’t go smoothly for any of our main characters (they never do in a Rollin film) and death or desperation await all three of these friends in some form or another.
The film is not, as I said, at the upper end of my Jean Rollin experiences and, although production values have never been his strong point, probably because of the small budgets with which he works, he usually makes up for that with some incredibly beautiful, often erotic, often surreal imagery which make the films much more interesting propositions than those of a lot of directors, especially those who work within the same kind of genres. However, I found this one to be really distracting. I’m perfectly used to incredibly bad acting in some (although, actually, not all of his films) but there didn’t even seem to be a budget for retakes here. There are some scenes when it looks like one or another of the characters have been waiting for their cue and another one might repeat or stress a word to remind them it’s their turn to jump in, it seemed to me. Also, although the lack of story follow through is almost a necessity in this director’s work, the film did look like it was being reshaped in the editing room from whatever material the director managed to get. Certain reactions from characters to things they were already supposed to know, for example, made the film seem like it had been put together in a different order than originally intended.
Famous porn star and Jean Rollin regular Brigitte LaHaie, who I have a lot of time for as an actress, turns up towards the end in some sequences which spell doom for certain people and it’s almost like a sigh of relief when she appears and makes at least one of the characters seem a little more credible. Taking her clothes off and making love to another woman also helped, of course but I was just grateful to see LaHaie arriving like the 'acting cavalry' as almost a trademark of quality in a kind of ‘Rollin muse’ way at this point, although her role here is even less of one than her turn in Rollin’s Grapes Of Death (reviewed here).
And that really is all I’m going to say about The Escapees, I think. In some ways the movie seems like a partial, spiritual cousin to Rollin’s earlier The Demoniaques, with its depiction of stripey shirted sailors and the death of one of the characters in a raft floating in the dock but I didn’t find the film nearly as entertaining or as striking in its imagery as that earlier movie. If you are a die hard fan of the director and appreciate his fine eye for the juxtaposition of feminism, nudity and surrealism then The Escapees is always going to be a film you’ll want to take a look at, regardless of the end quality of the piece and, as I said earlier, I’m sure this one must have its fans. If you have never seen a Rollin film and want to get a taste for the director, I’d suggest you stay away from this one for a bit and start somewhere in the late 1960s or early 1970s with his work, which is much more poetic without seeming as pretentious and forced as certain moments in this film do. So, done with that one and I hope to bring you some much more positive reviews of this marvellous director’s work sometime soon.
Tuesday, 22 May 2018
Get Christie Love
Murder On The Orient Express
Malta/USA 2017 Directed by Kenneth Branagh
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B
So here we go again with another movie version continuing the exploits of famed crime writer Agatha Christie’s “world’s greatest detective”... no, not Batman... Hercule Poirot. I remember seeing the old Albert Finney version of Murder On The Orient Express back in the mid 1970s (possibly on a re-release) and I kinda half liked it at the time. I remember the solution to the mystery being somewhat unexpected (well, I would only have been 6 or 7 years old, maybe) and it interested me enough that I went on to see the Peter Ustinov Poirot movies at my local cinema when they were released.
Kenneth Branagh is here with this new reboot and, honestly, it’s not a terrible film although it’s not quite as 'refreshed' as I was expecting it to be. There are, however, some brave attempts to liven things up throughout the film. To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t bother with this one at the cinema last year is because I couldn’t imagine it translating that well for the younger generation of movie goers the film needed to set in its sights to guarantee a bankable interest. Especially since, once you know the final solution to the whodunnit at the heart of the story, you probably don’t need to see another version of it.
Branagh puts himself front and centre here as Christie’s much loved (except by her) character and, when I say ‘front and centre’, I really do mean it. It’s a film which seems to be top loaded with medium/long shots except for quite a number of close ups on the directing/acting force of nature who is top lining the film. To be fair, though, he does have quite entrancing blue eyes and it doesn’t seem too out of place to expect that kind of camera attention given to Poirot.
Like the 1974 version, Murder On The Orient Express boasts a star studded cast with the likes of Johnny Depp as the murder victim (who seems to have fallen out of favour with audiences at the moment, for some reason but allow me to still make that Poirots Of The Caribbean pun), Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Derek Jacobi. However, as I said, a lot of the film is medium and long shots and though a few characters do get to shine for a few minutes at a time, the ensemble of these people sharing screen time is what’s more important here and Branagh doesn’t let himself be intimidated by the number of famous film stars who have climbed aboard for the journey.
There are a few attempts to liven up the story with a sense of dynamism... the opening ‘end of mission’ scene were Poirot’s perfectly placed walking stick ends up to be the undoing of the villain of the hour, the punch up after Poirot has been shot, the chase outside the train in the snow after it has been derailed by an avalanche... but these things don’t really make much difference to the general scheme of things, it has to be said.
What does make a huge difference to the tone and watchability of the film is the beautiful way in which Branagh, with his director’s head on, composes the shots with his cinematographer and there’s some truly stunning stuff here where he uses the 65mm format film to highlight some great designs (which is now making me regret not seeing this one at the cinema). He expertly uses various chunks of different texture such as the walls of a carriage against the glass windows, for instance, to section his actors off and highlight their place in the screen space. Indeed, he quite often replaces the naturally occurring verticals found in a variety of situations with various actors standing in front of them. So, for instance, the two vertical strips separating train carriage windows would have various characters standing or sitting in front of them with their positions on screen allowing the composition to still work without it jarring.
One of my favourite instances of these kinds of set ups in the film is where he has a shot of Branagh aligned against a vertical wall with the landscape to his right but with him firmly positioned in the vertical block. When the camera cuts to a closer shot of him from a different angle, he is still placed within the same vertical block (presumably he’s moved position slightly to accommodate this flow from one shot to the next) and I was impressed by this.
Another thing the director uses is a lot of those kind of Hitchcockian overhead shots where various characters can be seen from above and where you may, or may not, wish that some of the actors had a larger cleavage. Hitchcock used it maybe only once or twice in a film (if that) but Branagh really likes cutting to these kinds of views at various points in the story.
One other thing which was kind of interesting but possibly just a little distracting was the use of different glass planes next to each other to create a deliberately double image of this or that character. He does this fairly regularly (although I think Poirot himself is only seen as a single image) and I suspect it comes at points when the great detective realises that the particular person (or persons) are lying to him (although I’d have to check it again to see if I’m right). Thus, their duplicity is revealed on a less conscious level in the visual design of certain shots.
Not much more to say about this one, I think. A nice score by Branagh's regular collaborator Patrick Doyle in no way goes the same route as the famous Richard Rodney Bennet music for the 1974 version but it’s a nice one full of interesting orchestration and I might give this one a go as a stand alone listen if it’s available as a proper CD (rather than a stupid download).
Sure, there are some errors in the movie like the section of track where the train is derailed by an avalanche not actually having any mountains on it in real life but, on the whole, I quite enjoyed Branagh’s very self aware revitalisation of the character’s exploits. The end of this one kinda half contradicts Poirot’s original reason for being on the train in the first place, as he is met by someone who needs him to look into a murder on the Nile. So, yeah, the next movie along, if they get the green light to make one, will be Death On The Nile, I guess. I would quite like to see that if Branagh is still on board because I think what he’s done here is take a quite old school story and made it, not exactly relevant but certainly something which has a place in the pantheon of modern cinema. So maybe give Murder On The Orient Express a go if you’re not too precious about the way in which Christie’s famous character is handled.