Monday, 1 September 2014

As Above, So Below




Hell Low There

As Above, So Below
2014 USA
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
UK Cinema release print.

As Above, So Below is a found footage horror film that... woah, wait... don’t go away.

Look I know these “found footage” horror movies are all a bit cliché and done to death at the moment but, you know, you don’t see people complaining about other kinds of cinematic techniques in relation to a specific genre, do you?

The fact is, found footage horror is as legitimate a sub-genre as any other, you are going to get good ones and bad ones and you’ll just have to do what you always do with every other movie you’re faced with in the course of your life... just give it a try.

Now I went to this film knowing it was already getting bad word of mouth on my timeline on twitter but I wanted to persevere with it anyway, since I’d kinda liked the trailer and it looked like a new spin of the old “Gate to Hell” plot which used to get a lot of play in movies, especially in the 1980s if I recall correctly.

So I went and sat down in my allocated seat in the cinema, only to find that the only other person in the cinema had chosen the seat right next to mine to be allocated. Which was interesting actually because the guy was a lot younger than me and had a passion for horror and action movies. It gave me another perspective to look at when I was chatting to him about recent movies he’d seen down my local. Kinda interesting and he seemed pretty cool and genuinely enthusiastic about film, which was a good thing.

Okay... so back to where you came in then...

As Above, So Below is a found footage horror film that follows the exploits of a young, amateur (or at least roguish) archeologist who has recently just gotten over the death of her father. She illegally enters some underground cave systems in Iran, just as the government there is about to bomb them to bits, to explore the archaeological findings there and, within the first five or ten minutes of the film, she already discovers a kind of occult version of the Rosetta Stone, which gives her a clue of where to find the Philosopher’s Stone which she is looking for. Already within these early sequences the director, who also directed Devil (reviewed here), is piling on the tension and suspension. Throughout the sequence, a siren is constantly sounding, which seems quite clear is a countdown to the detonation of the cave system our young protagonist finds herself in and, as she tries to flee and survive the explosion, she catches a glimpse of something which, if you’re paying attention as an audience member, you will immediately figure out will be used as repeat imagery in the later parts of the movie.

After this, we are introduced to our main protagonist formally and are with her as she gather’s her former friend (and reader of Aramaic) and then garners the service of some “guides” as she embarks on a journey through (and beneath) the tunnels of Paris in her quest to find knowledge and truth. And its in these early scenes that the director/writer gets two very important things right.

Number one is... pretty much all the main protagonists are likeable people who you wouldn’t mind spending time at a bar with. This makes a change to various recent movies such as V/H/S and Into The Storm (reviewed here), where you don’t care about being around the characters at all and wouldn’t fear for them when they get into the kinds of situations our heros here find themselves in. So it’s a big bonus, especially in a horror movie, when you find yourselves in the company of people who you care about enough that you don’t want to see them die.

The other big plus here is that you see that every member of the “expedition” is fitted with their own headgear which is a torch/video camera... so we can happily follow different people around via head-cam without worrying about the source of the shifting POV shots used to build the movie. Neither do we, in fact, have to worry about the fact that the various shots have been edited together but... I don’t really want to highlight why because that might constitute a spoiler later on down the line.

Of course, from here on in it all becomes one big, claustrophobic, shaky cam romp through darkly lit tunnels and grim, uneasy and sometimes even fairytale-like horror imagery. There’s a slightly false note early on in the “run around in fear” shenanigans where I believe the director was trying to pay homage to the famous “phone ringing” moment from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker but, because he doesn’t have the same kind of slow pacing to build it up (as you would expect from this kind of movie), it doesn’t have anything like the same kind of impact this early on in the proceedings and it does kinda fall flat at that point, for a few heartbeats.

However, this doesn’t stop the rest of the movie from being a scary and suspense filled prospect as the characters slowly descend to, and then take a tour of, some kind of low budget rendering of Hell. The film isn’t as jump scary as something like, say, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, although I’m pretty sure there is a definite homage scene to this film in here too, but it is still quite expertly handled and certain moments even made me jump... I’m happy to say. There was even a moment where the director deliberately sets up your expectation of where a certain scare is going to come from and just basically uses your awareness of a very vivid presence in a room to distract you from seeing where the real scare is going to come from.This is impressive in itself but, when some of our surviving protagonists come across a similar place later in the movie, with exactly the same visual set up (a dead knight that looks like he’s stepped off the set of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade), Dowdle manages to repeat the exact same trick and sucker you into checking out the wrong parts of the screen again. So I was really pleased about that.

One of the reasons this movie works so well is that the main cast are... all of them, every man and woman of them... giving fantastic and naturalistic performances. I already said that the characters are all quite likeable but they’ve also got a kind of innocent, naiveté about them, which is of course a good thing to exploit in a horror movie, and they can all make a really credible job of “losing it” when the tension gets too unbearable for the characters...  and possibly some of the audience members too.

The other reason is because the sets and sequences are littered with little details and almost dream/nightmare-like flourishes which are pitched in the backgrounds or sides of a shot. Little things which are tailored to catch the eye and dwell on the scary part of your brain while you watch our motley crew either miss them completely or spend time reacting to what they thought they saw. It’s good stuff and it all pulls together well, with some good editing, into a neat little “found footage” horror opus which I was very happy to be watching and which delivers some nice little twists and touches, not all of which are as easy to see coming as you might at first think (although some of them obviously were).

This is all supported with some really fear inducing sound design in subtle and, lets face it, some far less subtle but chillingly effective passages throughout the movie... more so than in a lot of horror movies which tend to employ the same tactics these days. It’s got some nice audio self referencing in it too... for instance in the constant soundings of “the trumpets” in Hell which become a regular pulse in an echo of the siren countdown in the tunnels in Iran at the start of the movie.

There’s a shot right near the end, it’s the second from last shot of the movie in fact, where it could be said the director fumbles the ball and we are confronted with a trick shot that, while giving the UK movie poster its relevance, also manages to negate the logic that it’s a found footage film. However, by this point I was happy to forgive the director for this because the lead up to this sequence was pretty amazing and there have been a lot worse mistakes recently in films of this nature and this one pretty much misses all of the traps it could have fallen into. I was also pleased that the movie didn’t just end in the way I’d expected it to. Instead, taking me to a place which I certainly didn’t see coming and this, if you are familiar with my writings here, is no easy thing to pull off.

Now I don’t know why this film has had such a lacklustre response, although I know people do seem to be having a kind of knee-jerk backlash kind of reaction to horror films using found footage as a method of delivery at the moment. All I can do though is call them like I see them and this is a movie I will be picking up on blu ray (when it hits the sales) and which I would recommend to any of my friends who like horror movies. It’s not a “scary as hell” kind of movie, although it does have its moments, and I suspect one or two people might want to put this on their “comfort-horror” list... but all I can say is that I really enjoyed my time with this one and it’s something I would love to see a sequel to at some point in the future. Not that I expect there to be one, to be honest.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Doctor Who: Into The Dalek




Soldier Who

Doctor Who: Into The Dalek
UK Airdate: 30th August 2014
BBC 2

Okay, so after last week’s episode, reviewed here, I have to admit to being a little less than enthusiastic about watching the next episode in the show. Especially considering it stars The Doctor’s oldest and much loved foes The Daleks. You know, Tom Baker only went up against the Daleks twice and he was the longest running Doctor, to date, both in terms of years, number of episodes and screen time. Nowadays, the Daleks (not to mention the Cybermen, Silurians and Sontarans) are way over used as villains in the show. When someone like Tom Baker went up against the Daleks you knew it was a special event. Nowadays they’re everywhere. So that’s two reasons why I wasn’t really looking forward to tonight’s episode.

But you know what? I’m happy to report that tonights episode was a real corker. Not only did it give us something we hadn’t quite seen before but it also gave us a proper look at the way Capaldi’s version of The Doctor interacts with Clara without having all the usual regeneration angst getting in the way like it did last time.

Now, to be fair, the plot of this one was a little... well, it was a bit old hat. We basically had the lone, good Dalek concept which first raised it’s head in the first ever of Christopher Ecclestone’s encounters with the creatures when the show was initially rebooted (but in reality just re-continued) back at the dawn of the Russel T. Davies era of the show. This was then cross pollinated with a revisiting of the concept of the movie Fantastic Voyage (which was later novelised by renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov). The concept, where people are miniaturised down to enter the body of a person, in this case a Dalek, to make repairs from the inside of the host body is a popular one and this certainly isn’t the first Doctor Who story to revisit this concept. However, because it’s been used as a concept and fused with the aforementioned exploration of Dalek morality, asking some interesting questions and then making the answers to those questions relevant to the soul of The Doctor, the episode had a certain buzz about it that I really wasn’t expecting based on last weeks opening episode and, frankly, the last few years of the show.

The more interesting stuff was The Doctor’s new relationship with Clara which has turned from the flirting, flaunting of a younger looking Doctor trying to impress his travelling companion into a matured relationship where affectionate barbs are traded, Clara shows herself to catch onto things quicker than The Doctor and, in one nice moment, where Clara gives The Doctor a hefty slap around the chops. There are touches of River Song in her dialogue now because, presumably, since she’s met every incarnation of The Doctor in his past, her tone has changed to one of someone who knows the inner workings of somebody very well. So that was pretty entertaining stuff.

Equally entertaining is the introduction of someone who looks to be a new regular on the show, a soldier by the name of Mr. Pink, who is possibly the new love interest for Clara although, I don’t think this set up is really heading towards that, in all honesty. At least I hope it isn’t because, pleasant as that might be, it also seems a bit plain and simple for a show like Doctor Who and so I hope this is part of the beginning of a strange new twist to come. I hope I wasn’t the only one to notice that both Clara and said Mr. Pink are both teachers at Coal Hill School. I don’t think this is the first time it’s been mentioned that this is where Clara works now but the significance of that particular school, for those who didn’t catch it, is that it’s the school where Susan, The Doctor’s grand-daughter in the first ever episode of the show, was a student. It’s also the work place of his other two companions from that first series of the Hartnell years, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. So this is all very interesting but I doubt if that particular one is going to be a sleeper plot element anytime soon. But again, we’ll see what happens.

Now, there were some bad things about this one in terms of continuity, I thought. It really doesn’t take a group of Daleks that long to wipe out a group of humans on a spaceship, for starters. Nor is it all that credible that a single, lone Dalek can take out eight or nine of its colleagues without being taken out itself. And as for the Dalek antibodies in the episode, another nod to the movie Fantastic Voyage, well the logic of the way they behaved didn’t really make a lot of sense in some scenes. It’s like they behaved in one fashion when it suited the script and then in a completely different way when it was needed that they should. Now I may have been distracted and am missing something there but... that was my initial impression of it but, really, these criticisms are only minor quibbles in what was an otherwise brilliant episode.

And we still have the more obvious set up scene, continuing on from last week, where the mysterious Missy is collecting the souls, bodies, after images or whatever of the people who find themselves dying around The Doctor. Now there has been some speculation that Missy is a female incarnation of The Master. Maybe, I’m not so sure, to be honest. I’m still wondering if we’re seeing the beginnings now of the woman who we came to know in later life in the Matt Smith era of the show as “the eyepatch lady”. So we’ll have to see what happens there... kind of too early to tell right now. I don’t think she’s going to turn out to be a version of River, after she was saved in The Library Of The Dead but, then again, who knows?

What I do know is that it was a brilliant episode, Capaldi has really found his feet very fast, Clara has great chemistry with him and the music on this one was pretty cool too. So that’s really good news as far as I’m concerned on this one because, frankly, I was kinda expecting really bad things from this series. But... quite the opposite. I’ve not been looking forward to next weeks episode, Robots Of Sherwood, with any amount of enthusiasm but maybe now I am willing to approach it with a little more of an upbeat twinkle in my eye. We shall see what we shall see. Until next time...

Friday, 29 August 2014

Into The Storm




Dumb With The Wind

Into The Storm
2014 USA
Directed by Steven Quale
Cinema release print.

You know, I rarely ever go and see disaster movies. They’re just not my cup of tea.

I might occasionally get a hankering to watch something like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno again but... that’s usually just so I can remind myself how Johnny Williams’ scores work within the context of those movies. And not even that justification can bring me to look at Earthquake again... although, I have to say, now I contemplate that thought, I realise I’ve not seen that since I was, like, five years old. So maybe I should remind myself about how awful that is again sometime.

The only disaster movies I’ve seen at the cinema in later years have been 2012, which I thought was a bit rubbish and The Day After Tomorrow, which I found curiously watchable. I’ve certainly not seen any of the big “windy” movies of our time like Twister or... I don’t even remember the names of the other ones to be honest. The last film I saw which had a tornado in it was when I was in my pre-teens and Judy Garland was whisked away to Oz inside it.

So, having now sited my credentials as being the absolute worst person to have any kind of perspective on whether or not this is a good disaster movie, let me try and win you back in the hopes that sheer common sense will carry me through as to my evaluation of this film. I don’t know why I wanted to go and see this one but I think it was just because the trailer managed to appeal to me for some reason. Those big passenger aircraft being picked up by the wind and the noise and fury of the hurricanes in the trailer looked like it was the kind of escapist fare I could get behind every once in a while.

Alas, although the film isn’t actually a disaster of a movie, as opposed to being very much a disaster movie, it also isn’t that great on certain things... so let me try and get the balance right here.

Okay, so the film seems like it’s 95% consisting of various camera records of the “events that take place” in almost the kind of “found footage” format that plays so well in popular horror movies at the moment. I say “almost” because there are shots and points of view in here which are... in no way... a found footage thing. Also, everything is edited together into a neat bundle and there is Brian Tyler’s excellent, but barely heard above the windy din, score playing throughout. Now I have to say, to their credit, at no time in the proceedings do the film-makers ever once say that this is a found footage movie... but most of the time it’s clear that the source of the shots used is either coming from any of a number of camera sources that one or more of the characters is holding or from surveillance footage.

It’s certainly not trying to be a blatant found footage movie, to be sure... but it does mean there’s almost 100% hand held shaky cam present as the main style of this movie and it does give a certain voyeuristic feel to the way the footage is captured and presented. On the few occasions the film shifts perspective from being filtered through a story-based source, it still keeps the style of filming and doesn’t jar with anything else before or after it. So that’s quite technically competent at the very least.

Now one of the reasons I did not have a good time with this film for something like the first 20 - 30 minutes of the running time, where all the situations are being set up for the audience, is because most of the characters here are totally unsympathetic. It’s like the accountants are trying to pitch the film at the “youngest audience with wallets” possible and, since they see young people behaving so recklessly and pointlessly through their daily routine, they maybe think we are able to sympathise with brats or thrill seeking, unemployed hoodlums. So for a while there, I was having a hard time finding anyone in the movie who I didn’t want to see sucked up into a violent and disorientating inferno of windy death... I certainly didn’t care if they all died.

That being said, there are moments in the film where certain characters do get your sympathies and it is, in some cases, almost like you go on a journey to find out what various people’s personal redemption story is. So there is some subtlety in places and the film does work as an ensemble piece as far as the acting goes... but it takes a while to get to the point where you are fearful for the characters and, for the most part, it’s kinda dumb and flimsily handled. Some people would argue that it’s necessary to go through the long and winding set up to be able to get to the point when the various character gears shift but, personally, I think I needed to be nearer to these people from the outset. Although the dumb hoodlum thrill seekers I could really have done without all the way through.

On the other hand, the special effects of the various hurricanes depicted in this movie are absolutely stunning and it's made even more astonishing when you realise that this is all that much harder to do when you’re filming with a “shaky cam” approach. I guess you have to track each frame’s displacement into the camera somehow and then allow for that as you’re putting the special effects on. That must be a fairly gruelling process, methinks. However, the spectacle is more than worth the time it takes (especially if the box office hits big numbers for the studio involved) and I was quite fascinated by the awesome sense of raw power you get from the artificially rendered “mother nature has a tantrum” in this film.

As a result of these effects and some of the characters beginning to grate a little less on the nerves (and common sense), there are some genuine moments of suspense and tension, especially in the last third of the film, which becomes all about rescuing two people who are trapped in a hole under a fallen building which is slowly filling up with water. There is a real sense of camaraderie from most of the players towards the end, as everyone (apart from the two hoodlum thrill seekers) pulls together and braves the danger of the multiple “tornadoes of terror” which are being constantly generated before they merge into one giant hurricane thingy, bigger than anything ever seen before (well this is Hollywood, after all).

Then, once it’s over, it’s over. There’s no sense, at the end of Into The Storm, that either of the possible girl/boy relationships hinted at and exploited to get your emotional invovement in the movie come to any fruition and you don’t feel like anyone’s really learned anything from the events they found they had to endure. At least I don’t anyway. It seemed kinda like a quick wind up for me. So as far as recommending this movie, I’m not sure what to say. I know many of my friends would not thank me for pointing them in the direction of Into The Storm and that’s probably about right. However, if your'e a fan of special effects and how these kinds of disaster movies can work in a cinema then you might find yourself having an okay time with it. Either way, the choice is yours. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Deliver Us From Evil




Performance Evil-uation

Deliver Us From Evil
2014 USA
Directed by Scott Derrickson
UK Cinema release print.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Scott Derrickson as a director. On the one hand he directed Sinister (reviewed here), which is not a film I had a great deal of good things to say about, although I did try and defend certain aspects of it as well as I could, considering some of the negative points I mentioned in that review. However, you’ve also got to remember that this is the same director who gave us, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, one of the better of the “exorcism” films made in recent years. A very well made piece of horror/courtroom cinema, if you ever get the chance to take a look at it.

I had no preconceptions about Deliver Us From Evil going in. I can’t remember if I’d seen a trailer for it or not, it could be any of a number of horror movie trailers doing the rounds in the last couple of months, but I figured I would go and take a look at it because it didn’t look like it was a remake of anything and so it scored points with me straight away on that count.

The film is based on the true life account of a cop, Ralph Sarchie, who is played by Eric Bana in the movie and it details his encounters with supernatural forces dealing with demonic possession. He is at the start of the movie, of course, cynical of such things himself but when the things he sees and encounters as a cop on the beat become less and less explainable, he “teams up”, so to speak, with a priest, Mendoza, played by Édgar Ramírez, who is able to guide him and help him in a series of connected cases which involve demonic possession and which ultimately lead straight back to Sarchie and his family. Sarchie’s “radar” at finding troubling incidents on the beat is revealed as a possible “gift” of the supernatural... but it also acts like a magnet to demonic entities who are attracted to this talent.

The film starts off pretty strong, with an opening sequence which takes place in Iraq and which is relevant to pretty much all the events that happen later in the movie. I’m happy to say it keeps up the pacing and is an interesting movie throughout. Now how successful it is depends on your definition of what you look for in a good movie as opposed to a good horror movie. Let me explain that a little...

You’ve got two very strong male leads, A list stars, with Eric Bana and Édgar Ramírez and they’re not really actors you would associate with the horror genre. They both do an excellent job in this, as do all the supporting cast and, although there’s a hell of a lot of hand held shaky camera throughout the film, it actually in some ways feels like a 1970s movie and, frankly, that’s a strength. Yes, I know it’s actually set in 2013 but what I mean to say is the acting style and delivery of the lines feels like something made in Hollywood back when great American movies were being made and this is a pretty good compliment to pay to any movie in my book.

However... the flip side of that is that, although the film does maintain a certain amount of tension and suspense throughout the picture, I wouldn’t actually call this a scary movie... so in regards to certain ingredients of this kind of entertainment I would say it downplays one of the elements somewhat. But this is not a bad thing either.... some of the classic horror films of all time, such as Bride Of Frankenstein or Creature From The Black Lagoon are not , in actual fact, scary and so this shouldn’t necessarily be the barometer by which you judge this movie, in all honesty. Part of that, I think, is to do with the way the camera cuts to different points of view in various sequences... the ones which are trying to be scary... when it maybe needed to stick to something resembling point of view in those moments.

However, although it may not be a scary film it is, certainly, a pretty great one and I, like all people, truly appreciate a well made movie. I think this movie is one of the ones I would like to nominate as one of my “comfort horror movies”... that is to say, horror films you can relax with and have on when you want to do some thinking with a little bit of distraction coming from the screen. It is something I would like to watch again on a number of occasions and I’ll certainly be grabbing the blu ray of it when it comes down in the sales.

Of course, I may be a bit harsh in regards to the amount of scares and sustainable tension packed within the film... which felt a little more like a police procedural movie at times (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Different things scare different people and you really can’t go that wrong when you’ve got one of the great modern composers, Christopher Young, turning in one of his trademark horror scores. So the best, sure fire way to find out if this is your kind of horror movie is, of course, to go see it for yourself. I’ve certainly got no doubts about recommending it to anyone because it’s a well made, entertaining piece of cinema which should hold your interest throughout. Whether you happen to find it scary or not is just an extra cherry on an already tasty cake. Miss this one at your peril.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Sin City - A Dame To Kill For




Miller’s Kiss

Sin City - A Dame To Kill For
2014 USA
Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
UK Cinema release print.

Warning: One slight spoiler to kill for here... although if you’ve not read the original comic then you may not even realise there was a twist reveal in this movie at all.

Okay, so I’ve not been to Frightfest much since it first started to be “a thing”.. I think I’ve been maybe four or five times only and two of those were for UK premieres of Dario Argento movies The Card Player and Giallo. The other one that sticks in my mind was back in 2005 and it was the first and last time, to date, I’d ever booked a ticket for a “surprise movie” at any festival. I hate the uncertainty of those kinds of screenings and on that one time I took a gamble that the surprise movie would be some kind of UK premiere of Sin City and... I’m happy to say I was right. It blew me away too. Sin City was a great movie and a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s original source material. A film I can watch over and over again throughout my life without getting bored.

I was kinda worried about the new film for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it’s now nine years since the last one and audiences seem to have short memories these days. I was also aware that some of the original cast had died, far too young (Michael Clarke Duncan, Brittany Murphy), and that it would be a shame having to see their characters played by different people. As it happens, that wasn’t as distracting as the one character I wasn’t’ that worried about having a change of actor for... basically because the original Frank Miller comic book it’s based on kinda dictated it. However, the way the “reveal” in the comic book is dealt with here is one of the very few false notes in an otherwise perfect second helping of the beautiful union between the semiotics of comics and movies that is the Sin City franchise.

Yeah, that’s right. Near perfect. I know this has done really badly at the box office already and I’ve astonishingly seen some bad word of mouth tweets on the film by people whose verdict on all things cinema I would normally trust. I really don’t know why this incredible wave of negativity is happening with this film though because, frankly, I had a blast with it.

It’s been said that the language of cinema and the language of comics are very similar. Both deal with the telling of events and incidents in a fashion perceived as linear, with comics using a series of static panels to do the same thing as films... but personally I think that’s a little too cut and dried. After all, what is film other than a series of static images projected at a rate the human eye can perceive as motion? It’s not a great leap from 24 frames a second to 24 panels a second. I think, for me, the rich visual language of comic books, much like the edgy subject matter they can sometimes tackle head on in a way that a commercially conscientious movie cannot, is far superior to the visual styles used in the majority of movies. You think it’s a case of film being like a comic book but actually it’s more a case of comics being visually closely allied to film... and then pushing that collision into other realms which aren’t necessarily the most expressive or appropriate ways to explore the territory they are trying to understand. Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, for example, is a perfect example of a film trying to be more like a comic book in the way that it encompasses a very similar visual language by using the background organisation of the printed comic page being split into panels and then finding a way to, sometimes very cleverly, use those panels to make a narrative which can speed up or slow down your perception of time as required by the confines of the story.

The first Sin City film followed the stark black and white colouring shot through with odd, bright colours highlighting various characters and objects which was used in some of the issues... although I seem to remember the original A Dame To Kill didn’t actually use any colour in it (if memory serves me correctly). Like the first movie, though, it serves to enhance the overall look of the Sin City branding and it’s certainly used very effectively. This film looks every bit as spectacular as the first movie in the franchise and, once again, Rodriguez and Miller have done a fine job of adapting this masterwork, even going as far as to graphically bring many of the comic book panels to life as almost “animated moments” like they were in the first movie.

I have very few complaints but one of them would be Jessica Alba in the role of Nancy. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an incredible actress and does a fine job here but... again, in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, we see her obviously reluctant to take her clothes off like the character does in the comics and this really does kinda blow the credibility of Nancy on film in terms of someone who is an infamous stripper dancing in one of the sleaziest bars in Sin City. I love Jessica Alba as much as the next warm blooded guy or gal but, for such a crucial part, there really needs to be a lack of clothes, I feel.

My other complaint would be the character of Dwight, as played by Josh Brolin, who does very well in the part and bounces off of Mickey Rourke’s exquisite return engagement as “the tough guy’s tough guy” Marv in just the way you need him too. I wasn’t too worried about Brolin replacing the already excellent Clive Owen in the role of Dwight for the simple reason that, if you’ve ever read A Dame To Kill For, you’ll know that they would have had to have used a different actor for the majority of it. The story is set before most of the events that took place in the previous movie and so you get to find out why Manute has a bright yellow eyepiece and why Marv, and Goldie and her sister, of course, are all alive in this one. In the original A Dame To Kill For, Dwight gets his face changed after sustaining some fairly fearsome injuries and, when the bandages come off, he is revealed as the later version of the character which he was portrayed as in the previous comics/films. This is a great reveal and I was really looking forward to Clive Owen coming back for the last part of this movie as the Dwight we knew and loved in the first film.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Apparently Owen’s schedule would not let him return for his part of the role in this one. Now, personally, I would have waited him out because, although they’ve tried their best with prosthetics to make Brolin look like the version of the character Owen played earlier, when the bandages come off in the movie it kinda just looks like Brolin with a haircut that... really doesn’t suit him. This is the one thing that fails the movie big time, I reckon, because... if you haven’t read the comic, and most of the audience wouldn’t have... it doesn’t come across that Dwight’s face is supposed to be as it was in the first movie. Without Owen there to sell the illusion, the fact that there is even supposed to be a reveal here... rather than just Brolin with a scruffy mop top... is probably not something most people are going to pick up on. So that’s a real shame and, like I said, I wish they would have just delayed the film again and waited for Owen’s schedule to clear up. It wasn’t, after all, the first time this particular sequel had been delayed.

Aside from that though, Miller’s beautifully written noir dialogue and the heavy blacks and bleached out whites colliding with the reds, blues and yellows makes for another Sin City film which is pure visual poetry. And added to that you’ve got Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a brand new character to the Sin City universe, Rosario Dawson back as Gail (although not nearly enough of this gorgeous actress as I would have liked to see... she’s always fun to watch and listen to) and the always stunning Eva Green playing the title character Ava, literally A Dame To Kill For. And I’ll tell you people who have an interest in this kind of thing up front... Eva as Ava goes through most of the picture not wearing much of any clothes at all, for the most part... so in terms of the celebration of naked femininity on screen, she more than makes up for the lack of Nancy strutting her stuff like she does in the comics... although I still think it’s a bit of a heavy credibility issue to have a stripper who doesn’t strip, to be honest.

The music to the first film was supplied by Rodriguez himself, working with composers John Debney and Graeme Revell. For this one, however, he’s working with a composer called Carl Thiel but, honestly, you wouldn’t notice any change because the music uses themes and orchestration which are the dead spit of the style of the first movie in the series and the continuity between the two of them is completely copacetic, I’m happy to say. I can’t wait for the release of the CD of the score in September so I can give it some play.

One last thing I will say though is this... I don’t know why this movie has had such a disappointing weekend but I do know that the Sin City films are absolutely the kinds of films that are meant to be seen at the cinema. They are what film is all about and they are little masterpieces of modern art that, if ignored now, will resurface and be reappraised in decades to come and your support for films like this is badly needed so future generations don’t turn around and ask us all, through the mists of time, why only two of these movies were made. Minor gripes aside, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is an absolute corker of a movie and should appeal to true cinephiles the world over. Go and soak it up in all its 3D goodness on a big screen while you still can.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Lucy




Every Which Way But Lucy

Lucy
2014 France
Directed by Luc Besson
UK Cinema release print.

Warning: There are some spoilers here but I’d be very surprised if you hadn’t already worked everything out just from the trailer, to be honest.

I’ve always held the films of Luc Besson in high regard. Ever since I first saw Subway on TV many decades ago and had a look at whatever other films he’d done at the time. I remember introducing my friends to his work... The Big Blue was a big hit with them. I also remember seeing Nikita on the weekend of its release at the Lumiere cinema in London and going back another four times because I was so blown away by it. Besson still wasn’t that well known in this country but for us he was one of the big stars of the directing scene back then.

Besson doesn’t direct as much as he used to. He produces some very exciting action films and keeps his hand in now and again so... the prospect of seeing a brand new movie directed by him and scored by his old collaborator, Eric Serra, was an exciting one.

Alas, I have to say that I really wasn’t as impressed as I hoped I would be. The film tends to take up the naivety of some of his later projects (The Fifth Element springs to mind) and throws it up in the screen in such a way that the innocence of the content almost feels offensive. I’ll get to that in a little while but, from what I can see, the high octane action film promised by the trailer delivers at a certain level but is full of disappointment... at least for this viewer. There are three very serious problems to it, at least to me, and I’ll address those right now.

Number one is the trailer itself.

It’s a great trailer, actually, promising a story of a girl, played beautifully by the always gorgeous Scarlett Johannson, who accidentally accelerates her brain power beyond the 10% humans are mythically supposed to use (I think that’s actually an error by current thinking) and this gives her special, evolutionary powers. She goes to give her knowledge to a professor studying such things played by Morgan Freeman and all kinds of action hijinks ensue. Freeman, of course, has already been in a film which similarly covers the high speed evolution of human kind earlier this year and you can find my review of that film, Transendence, right here.

Unfortunately, the trailer pretty much shows the entire essence of the movie as, like the film itself, it counts up to the point where Lucy gets in touch with 100% of her brain capacity, and it’s pretty obvious to see exactly what the ending of this movie is going to be... just from the trailer. In fact, my cousin in Australia, where it had an earlier cinematic release, saw it a few weeks ago and I told him how I thought it would end based on the trailer and he basically said I didn’t need to watch it now. So, yeah, if you’ve seen the trailer you can pretty much predict how it’s going to end.

However, figuring stuff like that out doesn’t put me off seeing a movie because it can still be darned entertaining and, to be honest, a lot of movies are so predictable these days.

And in some ways, the movie does live up to the trailer in terms of the brilliant action and the superb performances all round. Eric Serra’s score is another great work and exactly what you would expect from him for a movie like this... although unless you like downloads (and I don’t have enough room on my computer for downloads) it has to be said that the only place you can buy the score CD at time of writing this review is from France... although, when I ordered it from French Amazon yesterday, it seemed to be a lot cheaper than it would have cost to purchase it over here so it’s maybe worth going on there if you like the score to this movie. I always enjoy Serra’s scores to Besson’s films... even if I don’t always like the film.

There are other problems with this, though, which I found far more problematic.

I said about the movie being naive but, perhaps, childish may be a better word. What it really is, however, is damned patronising. I thought I was probably alone in feeling that the delivery of the plot points was condescending but it turns out my friend who saw the film with me was made even more angry about it. Basically, every time somebody seems to make the slightest plot point in this film, we directly cut to a visual metaphor of what they are talking about. Talk about being spoon fed. It’s like even the most simple plot point is capitalised, emboldened and underlined in red pen and the director seems to be taking this tack all the way through. It doesn’t take long for it to become a truly insufferable technique.

At least when a director like Nicholas Roeg cross cuts to a relevant visual, it’s not a straight demonstration of the point that’s already been made... in fact, with Roeg, you often have to work hard to establish what metaphor he is trying to make and what consequences the disclosure of the little flashes of information will have on his characters. But in Lucy it’s just like somebody drawing an illustration after the fact. It really does insult the intelligence of the audience to the point where it very quickly became a distracting tactic. Not a fan of this “beyond dumbed down” approach at all, I’m afraid. It’s not like the central concept of the movie is in any way challenging so this really is just too much decoration of the cake, so to speak. So it would be safe to say that the editing style really grated with my mindset throughout the entire running time.

My final problem with the movie was in the ability, or lack of, in making me worry about the final fate of the characters. There’s no suspense there, partially because it’s pretty obvious what is going to happen to Lucy at the end of the movie but, mostly because Besson makes a mistake which has been the bane of some comic book writers for years. When you have a character who’s pretty much omnipotent, like Superman for example, you don’t worry about him being in peril and, therefore, don’t really care about what or who he goes up against in the course of a story. You know he’s going to be fine by the end of it. This is why the writers have to invent clauses to their original character set ups, such as Kryptonite, to have something which they can then bring in to put the hero under actual jeopardy. In Lucy, Besson makes the mistake of having a character who becomes completely able to handle herself and pretty much any situation within the space of the first half of the movie.

Consequently, when Lucy is facing down loads of mobsters and getting into car chases and gun fights, you have no worries that her life is in any way in peril. And so, of course, you don’t care what the writers throw at her... you know she’s going to be able to handle it without even trying. And so the film lacks a certain amount of suspense needed to give the action sequences the edge they really needed. This is not an easy problem to solve but I’m sure they could have had a stab which would have made sense within the confines of the story set-up if they’d have given it a try.

And so, my final thoughts on Lucy are that, while it is a pretty slick entertainment with good performances all around, excellent music and an interesting concept to play around with, the maddening, patronising execution of said concept is quite jarring and you will find yourself seething with anger and popping out of the spell of the movie at certain points throughout, I suspect. Not my favourite Besson by a long chalk but it certainly tries hard (perhaps too hard) to give us something we’ve not quite seen before in this particular wrapping paper and I just wish I could recommend it more. However, all this is swept aside when it’s got Scarlett Johansson shooting people and causing carnage... so if you are happy with that kind of level, then maybe go for it.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath




Breath Control

Doctor Who: Deep Breath
UK Airdate: 23rd August 2014
BBC 1

Warning: Take a deep breath as there are a few small spoilers.

Okay, so I‘ve had this blog for almost four and a half years now and I’ve been reviewing every new episode of Doctor Who that’s aired since this page existed. I think it was Matt Smith’s first episode which was the first one I reviewed on here and, of course, I’ve also reviewed various classic Doctor Who stories and the latest episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood over my short reviewing lifespan (you can find them all by scrolling down past the movies and on to the TV show section of my general site index here).

I think I really began to get disillusioned with the show during the last two episodes of Tennant’s brilliant run on the series and when one of my favourite writers of the Eccleston/Tennant years, Steven Moffat, took over as show runner, I have to say the whole series suddenly became rather hit and miss as opposed to the almost consistent brilliance of Russel T. Davies’ regenerating stint on the show.

When I heard Peter Capaldi was going to be the new Doctor I have to confess... I’d never heard of him. In fact, other than seeing the movie Local Hero on rental video many decades ago, my only experiences of him as an actor was of his appearance in a Tennant episode of Doctor Who and, also, his character in the third series of Torchwood. So I had a certain regard for him as an okay actor... but he isn’t familiar to me from any other roles, I have to say.

So how did Capaldi do in his first full episode as the Doctor (he actually played him twice before, last year, in brief appearances in Day Of The Doctor and Time Of The Doctor, of course)?

Well... I was a bit underwhelmed by the episode in some ways, although not by Capaldi, not by the screenplay and not by the direction. Everyone, cast and crew, seemed pretty spot on in this. But it did seem to be a little slow moving at times and I think that’s more to do with me having unrealistic expectations rather than anything else. Much as I love, always have loved and always will love the classic Doctor Who stories, truth be told I’ve got kinda used to the young guys dashing around and delivering impossibly grander and grander monologues while running, jumping and saving the day in a mad rush of enthusiasm. Here, we have a much more settled and, somewhat, leisurely approach to the usual, “first time around in a new body” shenanigans from The Doctor and, more interestingly, we have the way in which the old companion deals with the new regeneration maybe held up to a spotlight and examined a little more closely than before.

The Doctor’s personality is a lot dryer than he has been of recent years so... that’s going to take some getting used to. This coupled with the pacing on this one is probably what I’m reacting to here when I say I was underwhelmed. He’s also a little darker and more ruthless in tone, I noticed, which certainly ties him into the original William Hartnell incarnation of The Doctor in some ways... so I’m cynical but hopeful that this less sympathetic version of the character will work out okay.

That being said, there was a lot of really nice spectacle, too, in this episode, not least of which is the incongruous but welcome “dinosaur in Victorian London” imagery... which worked rather well and, certainly, the giant reptile in question was a lot better produced than anything Jon Pertwee went up against in The Dinosaur Invasion. Although, it has to be said that the dinosaur’s final fate was wholly expected because of the way the script was written. When The Doctor goes into a monologue about seeing the dinosaur back to its own time safely you just know something bad is going to happen to it for comical effect. I was expecting it to just damn well explode as he was shouting at it and, to be fair, when it burst into flames, it turned out I wasn’t that far off in my assumption here.

The Paternoster Gang... Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax... were all back and that pleased me a lot. They are some of my favourite characters and I love the comedy writing that Moffat usually provides for this trio of infectious companions. I would still love to see a spin off series but, whatever the venue, it’s always good to see them in the show. I especially liked that the relationship between Vastra and Jenny was pushed a little into the foreground and I would like to see more of this in episodes to come.

We also had some other nice references to the show's past including links to Tom Baker’s era and a link back to Capaldi’s previous character in the show... including some implications which may tie in to the behaviour of the second incarnation of Romana, again from the Baker years, and a link back to the much loved The Girl In The Fireplace show from the Tennant era.

There’s also a nice, totally unexpected cameo from Matt Smith’s Doctor and a thread which I thought was important but forgotten about has also been revisited from a previous episode, which also featured the same time period and place as this episode. There was also a kind of trick ending which I’m not sure is supposed to be an almost rhetorical sense of closure or, if not, another of Moffat’s Russian Doll mysteries to unlock over the course of the show. Time will tell on that one I guess.

The one thing I’m not sure about yet is the new Doctor sub-theme by long standing composer Murray Gold. Both the David Tennant and Matt Smith Doctors had a very strong action theme which was often delved into as leitmotif and which really helped lift the show. The new Capaldi theme seems not as impactful or, at least, as easy to decode as his predecessors so, again, it’s something I’m hoping to get used to in time.

So... all in all this was a nice debut but really not one of my favourite episodes... although director Ben Wheatley did his usual excellent job with the material he was given. There’s a reason why he’s one of the countries most important movie directors at the moment.

In conclusion, all I can say about this new version of Doctor Who is... you can’t tell from just one episode and, with Capaldi being a great actor, or so it seems, I’ll just have to trust/hope we’re in good hands with this season and wait a bit and see how the rest of it plays out. So I’ll definitely be tuning in next week, of course, to see how that goes. Until then... alonzy.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Cloud Atlas




Cloud Control

Cloud Atlas
2012 Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore
Directed by Tom Tykwer & The Wachowski Siblings
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Region B

I remember wanting to see this, kind of, at the cinema when it came out in the UK in February of 2103 but there were too many demands being made on my time around then so I was forced to give it a miss. That’s okay though... this is why we have Computer Exchange stores across the land. So we can buy Blu Rays of the movies we missed at dirt cheap prices many months after the initial home video release has passed us by.

Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that is extremely impressive and full of mystery when you watch it. It’s a long film, nearly three hours, and it managed to hold my interest throughout the running time in a way which subsequent viewings possibly wouldn’t. That is to say that the intrigue generated from the initial conceptual set up is the driving force behind the narrative path, if it can be said to indeed have a narrative path, and once the intricacies of the connective tissue turn out to be, maybe, a little bit like the Emporer’s New Clothes in terms of its ultimate message... the film ends up being a little flat and without any real meaning to it by the finish of things.

On the other hand, a similar case could be made for such masterpieces as Citizen Kane, among others, so let’s not count this one out of the running either.

The film walks a very delicate and difficult path in that it maintains a cross cutting narrative that spans at least five, by my count, separate time zones in Earth’s history... past, present and future. How it does this is a remarkable achievement in terms of allowing the audience to keep everything in their heads without losing the plot and the film makers should be congratulated in this task. This couldn’t have been an easy film to shoot and, frankly, probably even less easy to edit.

It helps though that the colour palette on each segment is just a little different without being too at odds with the prevailing style (there’s a heck of a lot of deep focus photography in this thing) and the various directors use every visual and aural trick in the book to guide the audience into a cross cut jump from one time zone to another while trying to assure said audience don't, at first, notice that transition.

One of the most helpful things is that the ridiculous idea of having a heck of a lot of characters with several members of the cast playing several roles in different time zones, helps with familiarity through the actors, becoming a kind of visual cement to enhance the idea that life is all about ripples in time and connections between eras.

It helps the various directors in their visual chicanery quite well, in fact. For example, the director might use a cut on a shot, bringing to the main part of the screen a specific visual key point like an actress’ hand, with the camera panning around and holding it at the centre of one’s focus. The following shot might, for instance, mirror the speed and direction of the shot and continue with highlighting the same thing, sometimes with even the same actor, but after a while your brain catches up and you realise the transition has gone from the hand belonging to one character in the future to the same artist portraying someone in the past. It’s disorienting but, because there’s a lot of detail and visual indicators kicking in as a kind of aftershock on the consciousness, the transitions become seamless while your head catches up to the on screen action.

Similarly, the sound design is used in a manner which will help the brain cope with the various interpenetrating story transitions, such as the sound of horses hooves pounding against the ground metamorphosing into the rhythmic rumble of a steam train as it continues on its journey in a different chronological setting. These are all good tricks to use and the technical aspects of the film are all pulled off brilliantly.

What this does, of course, is allow the viewer to seamlessly cut between, not just different scenarios in time but, also, different shifts in tone. For instance, while most of the stories that play out in this movie are all quite serious and, for the most part, quite downbeat, the screenplay manages to juggle a kind of modern comedy routine of a setting and integrate it into the rest of the scenarios without shifting the tone of the various individual narrative threads, perhaps even enhancing those by contrast and their place within the overall structure of the film.

Asides from the tremendous acting performances and the amazing editing which often cuts on movement, the set design and overall art direction is absolutely brilliant. I found this especially noticeable in one of the “realms” dealing with earth in the future, where animated, interactive, desktop-style background wallpapers are used in the interior of buildings on the walls and floors. Animated fish can swim under foot, for example, and when a foot is put down a virtual splash of water accompanies this action. This is all great stuff and another impressive layer to the movie.

What wasn’t so impressive to me, in the context of the film itself, was the score by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer... at least not as it is used and lost in the mix. And while the score is probably stronger than I at first perceived, from what I hear of the on-line samples, it seems a pity to me that, for a film where a specific musical piece is used as a major thematic and transitional glue, the score should be so buried under the sound mix for a lot of the time. So that’s a bit of a shame (I'm actually listening to the freshly arrived CD soundtrack as I ready this review and can confirm that the score works very well as a stand alone listen).

My other main problem with the film, and I touched upon this in my opening remarks, is that it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. Okay, so we’re hooked in on the fact that various characters from different time zones are played by the same actors from the other parts of the movie and that certainly gets one’s attention. Similarly the concept of a running, comet shaped birth mark through the decades is also an interesting hook. However, at the end, there’s no prevailing explanation as to why any of these things are actually put in place in the first place. Some characters do share a certain connection but not enough to warrant the exploration of these ideas in the first place, it seems to me. The film doesn’t seem to have any real, underlying, central idea it’s trying to convey other than, maybe, everybody should love each other and all start trying to get along. There’s no attempt at anything like closure in the movie in terms of anything other than the conclusion of each, individual story within the narrative... no real effort is made to tie everything in other than by the use of random chance... at least that’s the way it seemed to me.

As an answer to that particular expectation of mine, which was the reason for my investment in the narrative in the first place, you might want to take the tack that a big screen entertainment is just that.. a big screen entertainment. I couldn’t really argue about that myself, other than to recall that the movie had maybe set up my expectations to expect something which had a specific point to make by the end of it. Now I’ve not read the original novel on which this movie was based (as yet), so I’ve no idea if the source story had a more concrete narrative goal and this maybe got lost in translation when it came to the movie adaptation of it. However, in terms of investing my time for almost three hours... I felt the film was a little flat and unsatisfying towards the end. Again, though, whether a movie is required to give this level of closure or whether it should be merely an empty spectacle is an argument for another time. I think there’s room in the world for both types, personally.

So there you have it. Cloud Atlas is a spectacular, attention grabbing film which manages to give a great deal of emotional empathy to the various characters and their situations, while still seeming a little bereft of anything really concrete to say about any of the issues it brings up, it seems to me. That being said, it is a great movie and if you can forget about the “puzzle solving” and reward aspect of the particular journey the filmmakers lead you on with, it’s a stunning piece of cinematic art, worthy of your time.  One thing’s for sure... you won’t find it boring.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In The Nick Of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials




Image Chapter

In The Nick Of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials
by William C. Cline 
McFarland Classics 
ISBN: 978-0786404711

I was really looking forward to reading this book when I initially bought it. I’d already read one pretty good book on serials, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound And Fury (reviewed here), and, although I enjoyed it greatly, I felt it was lacking in some areas for a number of reasons, not least of which because the serials which are available to us now on home video systems were not readily available to the writers of that book in 1973. It was still a great read, however, and I was looking forward to reading what I thought would be a, relatively, modern take on the genre, looking at the components and key themes of these chapter plays in a more critical and enlightening manner.

However, what I didn’t realise is that this is actually a reprint of a book which was originally published in 1984, so although the writer would have possibly had a little more access to his subject matter, the book doesn’t really break down the form of the serial in a way which might have been more useful. To be fair, it does analyse aspects of the chapter plays to a certain degree, but I did find this one a hard and, in some ways, monotonous read for large sections of the book.

Now I fully comprehend that the author did, in fact, see pretty much all the serials he talks about and was in a unique position to do so for some of his time as a cinema programmer. This is not in question. However, I did find it hard to read that, according to the writer, serials were primarily aimed at the juvenile end of the market and that the reason they are neglected by many is because they are not sophisticated enoutgh to hold an adult audience. While I can tentatively object to the first accusation on the grounds that I’m pretty sure expensive serials like the Flash Gordon series were as much for adults as they were the children, I can certainly raise the issue that an adult appreciation of all art forms, whatever their primary market, is not without reward or interest and certainly I am able to enjoy the format, formulaic as it is, from a modern context as much as I can from pitching my viewing to a historical perspective... albeit with a different level of appreciation juxtaposed with the initial thrill of the action.

Nevertheless, the author may have got off to a bad start with me but at least he is passionate enough about the serials that he’s written at length about them. Like the earlier book I read on serials, In The Nick Of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials eschews any real glances at the early silent film serials, instead choosing to pitch its tent firmly within the era of the talkies... although the way the subject is organised, it could have easily been used to cover both forms, I suspect.

My main problem with the book is, although it is split into dedicated chapters on specific tropes of the serials such as heroes, sidekicks, leading ladies, villains etc, it mostly reads like a series of lists strung together to pass for sentences. Extremelely detailed lists, granted, but also not very interesting in that they seem to be saying such stuff as “actor x played this kind of character in serial A, serial B and Serical C, totalling y number of serials for this company and z number of serials for that company”... before just moving onto the next person in another paragraph and repeating this kind of exercise throughout. It doesn’t breakdown the serial formula to specific story arc styles so much, or refer to the psychological reasoning that brought certain kinds of serials to our screens and, much as some of this book was quite informative, it’s really not the critical study of the form I have been searching for so far (although, if anybody knows of one, please either tweet me or pop it in the comments section at the bottom of the page).

To be fair to it, some of the sections are quite valuable taking this kind of approach, such as the one on score composers, but when I did find something as interesting as this, I found it not going into enough detail on the subject... possibly for a lack of research resources in this kind of area (the composers were rarely credited and most of the serials recycled music from here, there and everywhere, including cannibalising their own past successes... although the part about why the Spy Smasher music was like it was is something I found very interesting).

And there, I think, lies the nub of why I just didn’t get as much joy from this tome as I thought I would. For the casual reader who is interested in these things, there’s probably way more irrelevant detail than required but, for the reader who wants to explore these in more depth and gain more of an understanding of just what made these chapter plays tick in the way they did, there’s maybe not enough focus in those areas... it has to be said.

However, you have to respect the author of this work because he certainly knows his stuff and, for the time in which this was written, this was probably an essential addition for any cinephile’s shelf. By no means a hard recommend from me but, since there’s not exactly a glut of books on this unique form of cinematic entertainment, it’s possibly one you might want to welcome into your hands at some point, if you have no others on the subject. An honourable attempt with, I hasten to add, a very valuable and lengthy reference appendix detailing every sound serial shot and released in any given year from 1930 to 1956... so if you need an essential checklist of sound era serials, this book has it.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Horrors Of Malformed Men




Mad Dogs And Malformed Men

Horrors Of Malformed Men
1969 Japan
Directed by Teruo Ishii
Synapse DVD Region 2

Well this is a bit of a strange movie for me to attempt to write a coherent review for... I think, mainly, because it really wasn’t the full-on, over the top, exploitation movie I’d expected and because it works at a more subtler level which, I confess, I was unprepared for on first viewing.

Horrors Of Malformed Men is a movie directed by Teruo Ishii, who also directed two of my favourite Japanese exploitation movies, Female Yakuza Tale (aka Story of a Wild Elder Sister: Widespread Lynch Law) and Boachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight. It is a tale of grotesque body transformations due to a mad man’s tinkering with an island full of women which is very much in The Island Of Doctor Moreau vein in its presentation and with the lead villain of the piece played by a controversial leader of the avant garde art/dance movement in Japan at the time, Tatsumi Hijikata.

Although H. G. Well’s novel and its subsequent cinematic translations, such as the much lionised Island Of Lost Souls, may seem to be a strong source and an easy mark to compare this to, the film was actually based on a number of stories by a prominent mystery and macabre writer who’s pseudonym, Edogawa Rampo, is an homage to the American writer, one of my favourites, Edgar Allan Poe. This film takes various parts of Rampo stories such as The Strange Tale Of Panorama Island, Ogre Of The Secluded Isle, The Human Chair (in a particularly surprising story reveal) and Walker In The Attic. Another of Rampo’s works was apparently taken as the source for the brilliant movie Blind Beast (which I reviewed here).

As I said, the film is not a full-on exploitation fest like I was expecting, especially from the director of the aforementioned Boachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, but it has a certain slow burn quality all it’s own which keeps you watching from the start of the movie, with a room full of threatening, half naked women intimidating the main protagonist in an asylum cell (complete with dodgy, rubber bars, it would seem), right through to the literally explosive end sequence which made me wonder, without giving too much away, if Brian De Palma had managed to somehow see a print of this (then banned) movie prior to making his movie version of The Fury.

The film is slow and the camera movements fluid and assured, with Ishii using various verticals, like those bendy prison bars, and horizontals to split some of the shots so you get the kind of frames within frames kind of effect which was often associated with the films of Sergio Leone. The colour schemes start off as fairly naturalistic or, perhaps, just very diluted compared to what comes later, as Ishii slowly suffuses the film with a sense of lurking horror and touches of surrealism as we slowly walk, not run, to the gradual revelation of the mystery that lies at the film's heart.

At a point when the lead character, who is the double of another deceased character who had the exact same birth mark, a swastika on the sole of the foot, comes to an island to meet someone who can really tell him what’s going on, all hell breaks loose as the human experiments, played by, often naked, dancers from Hijikata’s “butoh” movement, are brought into the light and the film switches its colours and hues and gets into a fully psychedelic palette which would have been heartily approved by such directors as Mario Bava or Dario Argento.

It’s interesting that, rather than relying on special effects, or even real life actors with deformities, Ishii goes about suggesting the “hell on Earth” of Hijikata’s character’s creations of the flesh as expressions of dance and colour. You don’t feel the need to look away from any of the creations on screen and I suspect some viewers may find these sequences fairly pedestrian in comparison to the collective heritage of our cinematic past such as, say, Tod Browning’s Freaks. However, as the beauty of the colourful expressionism passes by in a carnival-like procession of sideshow exhibits, the lurking horror beneath the intent of the main antagonist and the way in which the various protagonists find themselves sharing his personal history does give you a sense of a game being played for high stakes... which, of course, immediately puts you in the position of taking sides again and rooting for those who are, if this word if applicable in films of this nature, the good guys and gals.

There are also moments of a slightly more full-on horrifying nature such as a scene where a chained woman, who later comes to have some significance to the “hero” of the piece, is seen greedily devouring the crabs who are stripping the flesh from her dead lover, who is chained beside her. Moments like this also have a somewhat neutralising effect on the sheer beauty of the way such scenes are shot, edited and presented which does tend to set alarm bells of unease in the back of the brain as you find you can’t look away from the events taking place on screen... often accompanied by musical highlights played out as punctuation of a Jew’s harp which might, at times, put you in mind of a low key kind of Spaghetti Western score, if the images on screen weren’t such a far cry from that kind of cinematic iconography.

Horrors Of Malformed Men is a slow but no less disorienting assault on the senses and one which will probably stay with you for days to come after you’ve seen it. It’s a bit of a meandering masterpiece of exploitation rather than, as I said earlier, a more overt form of the genre, but that doesn’t rob it of any of its power, of course. Far from it, it becomes a more haunting evocation of the celebration of the lowlights of humanity and, perhaps, a more potent one for it. If you’re into these areas of Japanese cinema, then you probably shouldn’t let stuff like this pass you by. There’s a nice version out on American DVD by Synapse which is still around at the moment and the beautiful transfer of a very clean print and the accompanying extras are well worth the price of admission, I think. Put this one on your list, if you’ve not already seen it.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Expendables 3




The Uncanny X-pend

The Expendables 3
2014 USA/France
Directed by Patrick Hughes
Cinema release print.

Well... this one kinda works well.

If you’ve read my reviews for The Expendables (here) and The Expendables 2 (here) then you’ll already know that I have a soft spot for these movies and the sentiment behind them. I have to confess to being a little worried about the fact that this one’s gone for a much lower age rating than the previous installments and I’ll stand by that and raise some points about that lower on down in this review but... all in all, The Expendables 3 kicks ass if it’s a nice big dose of action you crave.

The cast is as solid as usual and has the usual, additional names added to the roster... this time in the shape of Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammar, Robert Davi and Mel Gibson (as the villain of the piece). However, there’s also a new, younger team of recruits and future Expendables in this and they were all pretty likeable in here too, with special mention going to the lady in the pack, Ronda Rousey, who has great screen presence in this and does the action scenes just as well as her colleagues. Imagine my surprise when I just looked her up and found out that this is her first feature film.

The story is about what you’d expect from an Expendables film. It’s simple, clichéd, not very challenging to your mental capacity and, basically, does what you’d expect it to do from the message on the tin, so to speak. And there’s nothing wrong with this. I think trying to graft a more intricate plot onto a movie which is basically trying to recapture some of the atmosphere of those late 1970s and early 1980s action movies would have been a delicate tightrope walk to pull off. This movie ditches any attempts to remake its original intentions in this manner and, frankly, the franchise doesn’t need to do that anyway. The film works well at its level and supplies pretty much most of the right ingredients needed to pull it off in style.

There are some casualties though.

Once again, Jet LI has what amounts to a cameo role in this, coming near the end instead of the beginning like the previous movie. Robert Davi is also underused as a minor villain, it has to be said, but it was at least nice to see him. I say this having always pretty much disliked the actor but I think that’s probably more because I identify him with some of the villainous roles he’s played in the past and so, if you’re paying attention here... that means he must be a pretty good actor. I’ve probably unfairly mis-judged him over the years and so, like I said, it would have been nice to see him as a more major villain in this one, I think. Gibson works well with the script he has, though, but I still preferred his turn as the villain in Machete Kills (reviewed here), to be honest.

It’s an entertaining movie, no question, but if I was asked to rank it compared to the others I think I’d struggle with its placing. I think it’s definitely better than the first one, for sure, but I think I can’t say it’s any better or worse than the second one. It’s kinda swings and roundabouts and here’s why...

Okay, there’s been much fuss made about it going for a toned down, lower rating to get more money in at the box office and, while I can’t blame the stupid accountants in Hollywoodland who are the enemy of art and all about making money, I think this was a bad idea on their part. The Expendables franchise has had a pretty hard edge to it in terms of the depiction of on-screen violence and, while the inclusion of the goriness and the exclusion of it in this movie neither, in all honesty, attracts or detracts from the overall experience of watching a fun, action move... it does have two big negatives for leaving the “blood and guts” factor out.

One of those negatives is that it’s almost an essential part of what has become The Expendables brand. It does run the risk of not quite seeming like a bona fide Expendables movie... almost like an A Team kind of romp instead. It’s one of the things that sets it apart from what most of the other films in a similar genre are doing and it’s a shame that it loses the roughness which highlighted it and gave it a certain style.

The other big negative about cutting out the gore, for me, is that in doing so the film does what a lot of big action movies do these days in that it pretty much glamourises violence. Frankly, when you show the goriness of, say, a man being literally cut in half by a barrage of machine gun bullets, with bits of his innards flying everywhere... you are showing a very real and horrible consequence of the act of violence. It’s not glossing over it in any way and it makes you think twice about the possibility of doing violence yourself. However, when you lose the bloody consequences of that violence and cow-tow to the censors, and there’s a certain irony here, then you actually end up making that violence look like a very attractive element of life. And while I enjoy action movies as much as the next guy or gal... I think it’s important that youngsters need to get a feel for the fact that violence is something a human being should use as a last resort and not go in all gung ho and guns blazing. Just my two pennies worth there but it’s another reason why I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the DVD and BluRay releases of this movie are released in a much harder cut.

On the other hand, this movie does work better in terms of the way the characters are, mostly, all interacting and, for the most part, getting a pretty equal amount of screen time. The ensemble nature of the first movie, which was one of its big strengths and which I thought got a little lost in the second one (even though I preferred the second overall) is back and it serves the delivery of the story very well. Stallone and Statham should definitely work together more and the team they’ve got here all seem to have pretty good chemistry which, in this script more than the last, comes more to the foreground. So that’s all good.

At the end of the day, I can’t decide if I liked The Expendables 2 or The Expendables 3 more and, frankly, I don’t care... because whichever way you cut it you’ve got a great little action movie which works well and, like the first two, has a marvellous score by Brian Tyler, a composer I’ve been really getting into the swing of lately, since hearing his scores for the fourth Rambo movie and Battle: Los Angeles. Bits of the score definitely sound like they’ve been recycled from the previous movies but that possibly means this one is pulling the leitmotif together in an exceptional way (I’ll be clearer about it when I get my hands on the CD, on that count). So, all in all, if you liked either of the first two movies in this franchise then, despite the ratings drop, The Expendables 3 really delivers the goods on what you are expecting from the trailer (even though my favourite Banderas line of dialogue from the trailer didn’t make it into the final cut, by the looks of it). Definitely one to go see if you like these kinds of movies. I’ll definitely be picking this one up again on the home video release, for sure.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Deep Rising




Rise Guys

Deep Rising
1998 USA
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Entertainment In Video 
DVD Region 2

This film had pretty much been off my radar up until a month or two ago. I'm almost afraid to admit, once again, that my route into this one was through the music but... what happened was that Intrada released a limited number of an expanded edition of the score and it was a Jerry Goldsmith score I didn't already have. Now I've always loved the music of Jerry Goldsmith (even as a kid when I hummed his stuff before I knew who wrote it) and I was lucky enough to see him in concert maybe six or seven times in his lifetime. I don't buy all his scores but I have a good deal of them and so, once I'd listened to the sound samples, I decided I'd have to get that one soonest as it's a fine score from his late period.

This, of course, meant I wanted to find out about the movie and, when I saw two specific things about this film, I ordered a cheap DVD copy off amazon for a couple of quid. So, the two things which had, more or less, decided me on an instant purchase, asides from Jerry's marvellous action score? They were the words "sea monsters" and "Stephen Sommers".

Now, before this, I'd only seen four Stephen Sommers Movies in my life but three of those I hold in very high regard and the fourth one, GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, was at least enjoyable enough, if somewhat silly. I really loved this director, though, for the three movies I'd seen him do which, in all respects, were basically fun, retro B-movies but made with fairly large budgets - The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and the much maligned but equally groovy Van Helsing.

So, as I started watching, I was pleased to notice that this starts off in B-movie territory right from the outset, with a bunch of heroes for hire, providing a boat and cargo shipping and headed up by Treat Williams. They have been retained by a crew of villainous hijackers (including Jason Flemyng and loads of modern character actors) and their target is a cruise ship captained by another villain who is working in cahoots with the hijackers. A villain who has just caught a cat burglar type lady, played by the always lovely Famke Janssen, trying to rip off his own haul.

This already sounds like a collision course for a boys own adventure, of course, but remember that other word I said made me want to take a look at this movie? The two ships/boats (whatever) are both completely crippled by... oh yeah... sea monsters.

Great, many tentacled sea monsters resembling, somewhat, a cthuhuian elder race best spoken of in hushed tones in an old H. P. Lovecraft story. And so the film goes all The Poseidon Adventure for a little while and then you're left with two or three quarreling factions constantly at each others throats while everybody is trying to find their best chance of escape while avoiding being swallowed and slowly digested by the "tentacle of the week", so to speak.

And the best thing about this movie... apart from pretty much everything I've mentioned up until now?

Benny is in it.

That is to say, the wonderful modern character actor Kevin J. O Connor, who payed the weaselly Benny in The Mummy and the weaselly Igor in Van Helsing... plays the weaselly grease monkey on the side of the good guys (for once) named Joey. And, as I predicted, Sommers gives him some of the best lines of the movie. My favourite being a moment when the good guys, bad guys and the lovely femme fatale are stuck inside an elevator playing "canned music". Suddenly, a sinister and ominous sound is heard from outside the lift. "What is it?" asks Treat Williams' character John Finnegan. "The Girl From Ipanema" says Joey, referring to the elevator music. I think I chuckled just a little too gleefully at that one... even though I kinda knew he was going to say it.

Actually, one of the strengths of the writing of the movie is the way Sommers uses stereotype characters who don't need a lot of explaining. He hits the ground running and gives you just enough quick character info so that you can work out the dynamics of the relationships without feeling, at any time, shortchanged by the fact that there’s no real character development in the movie. It's formulaic writing but it does its job well and it does it quick... this is the essence of pulp writing and this is essentially a pulp movie we have here... and that's not meant to be in any way a derogatory comment.

Deep Rising is beautifully filmed with lots of long, slow swooping camera shots and appropriately placed dutch angles. A lot of it is set in dark or dimly lit, claustrophobic spaces but you never really fail to notice everything in shot and, luckily, the editing is anything but confusing too, although I think there were a couple of little "sequential errors" with the continuity.

Unlike the aforementioned Sommers' Universal Monster reboots, this has a higher BBFC classification and so the director is able to play the horror elements a little more edgier than I was used to seeing him do... backing up some of the suspense scenes with a few well timed pieces of goriness thrown into the mix. The CGI work on the tentacle monsters themselves is pretty good but the few smatterings of assorted nastiness also has some great effects work, with the walking, groaning, half digested former crewman being a particularly interesting achievement... if you're into that kind of thing.

So... a great ensemble cast of actors, glorious B-movie writing with some cool one liners, good camerawork coupled with more than competent editing, some nice effects work and, also, a pace that never really lets up. The cherry on top of the cake is, of course, that late period Jerry Goldsmith score which captures his style of writing from films like The Mummy, The Thirteenth Warrior, LA Confidential, Star Trek: First Contact and dozens of others of his later works which shared the same kind of building, rhythmic drives and sweeping, melodic invention. In other words, one of the great composers giving a larger than life B-movie action/horror score for a work that celebrates that kind of stylistic influence and which is wholly relevant to the proceedings (not to mention being a darned good listen away from the movie too).

If you like old, pulpy B-movies with cliched but likeable characters and a predictable but enjoyable storyline, not to mention a wet bike being chased through the decks of a flooded ship by a giant sea monster thingy... then you should probably put Deep Rising on your "to watch" pile. I'm really glad I did.