Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Brian Tyler Live

The Brian’ Mighty

Brian Tyler Live -
Film Music for Stars,
Cars and Superheroes.

7th May - Royal Festival Hall, London

So again I found myself with the same dilemma as when I covered the Hans Zimmer concert (right here). I rarely do concert reviews and, a few weeks now after the fact seemed probably a little late. However, this was a truly great evening and, since it turns out that this was the great man’s debut concert, I figured I’d write a little appreciation of it here... plus a few minor criticisms thrown in for good measure.

Okay, so while I had a couple of Brian Tyler’s scores from before the end of the last decade, I really started to sit up, take note, and begin to enjoy the music of Brian Tyler when he scored the fourth Rambo movie, back in 2008.  I was impressed by what he did with that score and... a fair number of them after that. I’ve been steadily amassing a selection of this guy's albums since then because I feel he’s one of the truly genuine blockbuster talents of his generation. One of the relatively ‘new crowd’ like Michael Giacchino and Alexandre Desplat who are the modern day equivalents of such composers with the stature of the Herrmanns, Goldsmiths and Williams of this world.

The concert was pretty packed out and, when he came on stage and addressed the audience, I was amazed by how young he looks. He’s actually only a few years younger than myself but, trust me, he looks maybe 20 years younger than that, as I’m sure people must tell him all the time. More importantly, he seemed very laid back and friendly and he seemed to have a nice, fun working relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Choral Society, not to mention two outstanding vocalists called Tori Letzler and Yael Shoshana Cohen.

He also seemed very energetic and enthusiastic with his players, moving around a lot (almost dancing as he conducted) and generally feeling the music as he went. I usually find his music quite orchestrally dense or layered but, unlike a few of his contemporaries who tend to deviate to cacophony when using a similarly crowded palette, his works are often quite beautiful and tend towards melody in surprising ways, sometimes. He really is a great composer and I’m happy to say that he managed to get his exact ‘Brian Tyler sound’ out of his performers that night. I was sitting not far from the front and I could feel the bass notes hitting me as the band played on. I was surprised to see him wearing headphones during the conducting and what he had playing on them was clearly audible from where I was sitting... he’s the first composer I know who has taken along his own ‘click track’ to conduct to, while in concert, which I found fascinating.

In between tracks, he would take the time to regale the audience with stories of his career experiences such as the time he got the call from Sylvester Stallone and he hung up on him, thinking it was a director friend doing a bad imitation. When he told of how his agent rang up to tell him he’d just hung up on Sylvester Stallone, he got a big laugh from the audience. Of course, that phone call got him the score to Rambo IV (reviewed here) and the three movies, to date, in The Expendables franchise (Reviewed here, here and here). He also confirmed my suspicions that this was his big concert debut, and pointed out his mum and dad who were in the audience to see him. So that was pretty cool and heart warming, I have to say.

He got through a vast array of stuff and packed in quite a lot, with gallons of music from his career including Children Of Dune, Thor - The Dark World (reviewed here), Iron Man 3 (reviewed here), The Fast And The Furious, Now You See Me (reviewed here and which still, criminally, has not had a CD release), Constantine and Aliens VS Predator: Requiem... along with a whole host of others including some excerpts from his video game scores. I was annoyed that he didn’t play anything from Battle: Los Angeles (reviewed here), Bubba Ho Tep or John Dies At The End (reviewed here) but he covered a lot of ground in one sitting. He even ‘world premiered’ three tracks, two from upcoming movies... which included the stupidly titled Now You See Me 2 (Seriously? This needed to be called Now You Don’t) and a lengthy suite based on his Marvel Studios Fanfare music, which I’m really hoping he makes available on CD at some point.

Now it wouldn’t really be one of my reviews if I didn’t have a few little grumbles and so, here we are...

When it was announced that he would also be playing a ‘Tribute to John Williams’, a composer I’d seen conduct his own stuff a fair few times, I thought it was pretty unnecessary, to be honest. We were there for Brian’s music, not Johnny’s, and I would have rather he’d played just his own stuff but... well that’s his choice. As it turns out the tribute was only one track long and it was the concert version of William’s opening title march from Superman The Movie. So my first proper grumble was that I think he took the track just a little too fast and, also, that he didn’t seem to be bringing out the detail of the music like he did in his own stuff. Which was interesting but, hey, people were happy with this so I’m pretty sure I’m in a minority here.

My second criticism was the playing order of one of the pieces. He opened the concert with the main theme to Thor - The Dark World but, during the second half, he played one of the slower, more emotionally charged pieces from the film, with vocals performed, so beautifully, by the lovely Yael Shoshana Cohen. Since the track was so far removed in placement order in the concert, I wondered how many people in the audience who were less than familiar with the composers score on this one would have realised that she was singing a kind of slowed down variant of that opening melody. I know the two friends I was with had no idea that this is what she was singing so it’s a shame that this didn’t follow that opening piece, I think.

My third grumble relates to the titling of a piece. When each cue was played, the title of the film in the original typography of that movie was displayed on a big screen above the orchestra... but when Brian played his opening from Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem... the second of the two AVP movies, it was titled only Aliens Vs Predator, which is the name of the first movie with a score by someone completely different. Nothing wrong with the music, however. Tyler’s score is pretty much the only saving grace of that film, which itself plays like Aliens and Predators have been somehow caught up in a bad teenage slasher flick. Lovely, Holstian piece though and, as usual in this concert, Tyler knocked it out of the park.

My fourth grumble was the encore... there wasn’t one. Which is almost a criminal act in a UK concert venue (I don’t know what they do in the United States and, I don’t care). I know it was Tyler’s debut but we clapped an clapped and clapped while he came out four times midst standing ovations. The audience were really working hard wearing their hands out for that encore but they didn’t get one. Alas, that wasn’t great but... well the rest of the evening more than made up for that, I have to say.

All in all, I’ve seen a great number of movie concerts over the years by a great number of maestros such as Williams, Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Nyman, Glass, Morricone, Zimmer and a whole host of others I’m not going to list here. These people were/are giants and their music will enrich the minds of many generations to come. Brian Tyler came to England in his debut concert and he conquered the hearts and ears of the audience at the Royal Festival Hall (a venue I prefer much more, acoustically, to the Royal Albert Hall) and, as far as I’m concerned, he stood with the memories of these giants and more than held his own. An absolutely brilliant concert experience and all I can say is... if you get the chance to see him anytime, definitely get yourself a ticket, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Monday, 23 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

Mystique’s Roadshow

X-Men: Apocalypse
2016 USA Directed by Bryan Singer
UK cinema release print.

Partial Warning: The only spoilers in here
are already revealed in the trailers for the film.

I was fulling expecting to have to title this review Apocalypse, No! and to really give this movie some stick. Well, as it turns out, X-Men Apocalypse, the 12th X-Men movie in the series, is actually one of the more entertaining, technically competent and dramatic of the movies in the franchise. What a shame, then, that the writers still find themselves unable to correct the glaring continuity errors thrown up by the movies following the third film in the series, X-Men - Last Stand... something which everyone was pretty much hoping they would have been able to finally put to rest with the ‘time fixing’ previous, mostly awful installment in the franchise, X-Men - Days Of Future Past (reviewed by me here).

The way I see it we’ve got two main problems in the cinematic narrative that really aren’t taken care of. One is the previous movie starting out from a point where the original timeline version of Professor X, played by Patrick Stewart, is alive and well and somehow still inhabiting a body with the same physical appearance and vocal chords, even though he was killed before Jean Grey died, which Wolverine from that timeline clearly remembers happening. So they shot themselves in the foot straight away as far as I can tell.

Next we have them journeying back to a time after the Cerebro machine was already built in the X-Men First Class timeline, therefore not correcting the fact that Professor X and Magneto were supposed to have built it together.

Thirdly, we have the X-Men Origins - Wolverine movie (reviewed by me here) fairly compromised in various ways and... I’m not even going to attempt to go there and unravel the fallout on that.

Most of the other ‘seeming’ continuity errors are, for the most part, explainable but it’s really a shame that the same writers who have given us a script as interesting and entertaining as this one can’t be bothered to solve these issues properly. This is what happens when you don’t properly follow the franchise bible folks... this is pretty much the ‘George Lucas’ way of ‘ignoring stuff writing’ that’s going on here... and it’s only twelve films in!

Alas, not only does it not correct these errors... it seems to compound them further in some sequences. Also... what gives with the actors in this trilogy (this film and the previous two X-Men badged movies) being set in three different decades of the timeline? The 1960s (X-Men - First Class... reviewed by me here), the 1970s (X-Men - Days Of Future Past) and the 1980s (X-Men - Apocalypse) are all covered by the same actors playing mutants and humans alike who... somehow... don’t seem to age at all in the movies between decades. Okay, so in the case of Wolverine and Mystique you can kinda understand it but everyone else? This is not good time-lining, people? I guess that’s why Magneto’s son is revealed as Quicksilver perhaps (no spoilers here folks... it’s in the trailer) but a certain other mother/son relationship is kept under wraps still (as it was in X-Men 2). Michael Fassbender still looks a little too young but can maybe get away with it. The other two... people might not find it all that credible, methinks.

Also... it’s interesting that we have Quicksilver’s sister absent here but, she’s all over the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ Avengers franchise... with her origins somewhat different to the comic and with Quicksilver already killed off in that franchise. I’m wondering why more casual viewers to these films aren’t questioning this, to be honest. Or maybe people just don’t care?

Anyway, I suppose I’d better mention some of the good stuff about this movie now, right? Since I liked it so much.

Apocalypse is played absolutely brilliantly by Oscar Isaac, who manages to play a pretty shallowly written character with the amount of conviction necessary to make these cardboard bad guys stand out and seem way more interesting and vital than they perhaps usually are. You believe in him and his power to galvanise his ‘four horsemen’ and I really appreciated the Egyptian tint to the proceedings in the earlier part of the film. A very strong opening set in ancient Egypt satisfied my own penchant for the iconography of the time and place and, amazingly, the rest of the film lives up to the amazing opening sequence... not just in spectacle but in the way the characters interact. And that includes a lovely opening title design which matches the style of a lot of the previous films but with a load of entertaining ‘historical colour’ thrown in for good measure.

Michael Fassbender,  James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence all do a bang up job and they are ably supported by new and old cast members alike. The continuing drama of Magneto’s back story is extremely moving and takes us right back to reminders of the opening sequences of both X-Men and X-Men - First Class, building on the inherent, rich material of the character’s troubled legacy and adding to the psychological motivation of the character, explaining why he is who he is, still, and why he does what he does. It doesn’t quite explain the way in which the character veers towards the end of the movie, I think, but the choice he makes doesn’t break the boundaries of credibility too far and I think they just about get away with it without compromising Magneto too much, to be fair.

Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is great again in this one. He’s written well and his big set piece, which took some months to shoot and which involved him being on the set longer than any of the other cast members, by all accounts, is another triumphant one... with the quirky humour of the character coming out in a high pressure situation. Singer catches a repeat trick stylistically too, with composer John Ottman’s magnificent score stopping dead as the character is backed up again with a famous pop song for the entire sequence. Which is something which I suspect audiences will subconsciously get a lot of enjoyment out of... even if the sequence isn’t quite up to the calibre of the previous movie (which was one of the few good things about X-Men - Days Of Future Past).

And that’s about it for this one. If you like X-Men movies then this is certainly a good one... I’d say it’s my seventh favourite in the series so far. So don’t miss out on this one unless, like me, the screaming continuity problems of these films drives you absolutely mad. Then you might have a problem.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Green Room

Clubbed To Death

Green Room
2016 USA Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
UK cinema release print.

Green Room is one of those movies that both looks, and feels, quite raw. I was expecting nothing less, to be honest, from the director whose last film was the fairly uncompromising but emotionally harrowing Blue Ruin (which I reviewed here). The two films both feel like low budget, independent features... which I guess they are. Green Room, however, also has a couple of well known faces who I was not expecting to turn up in the cast, one of whom, I have to confess, I had to look up after the film had finished playing to realise who I had been watching.

The person I had to look up is Anton Yelchin, who I had already seen do an excellent job in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here) but who is perhaps better known to many as the new face of Lieutenant Pavel Chekov in the recent Star Trek films. Here he plays one of a group of four 'heavy rock' musicians who are touring around the country as best they can, trying to get paid gigs and going from town to town by siphoning off petrol from parked cars. When their latest gig doesn’t quite go as planned, however, the four are offered another from the cousin of the guy who got them their current date.

They end up in a night club, waiting in the Green Room, a show business term for a room that an act waits in until they go on stage, and they really don’t like the crowd... a large amount of whom are skinheads. However, after riling the audience with a song guaranteed to do just that (rather like the scene in Breaking Glass, where Hazel O’ Connor gets the crowd worked up singing Black Man to a racist audience), they play through their set and make a good job of it. They are just about to be on their way when one of the four realises they left their mobile phone in the ‘green room’ and... this is where their problems begin as they find a group of ‘skins’ standing over a dead girl who has been stabbed in the head, with another girl being held prisoner... a predicament they quickly find themselves in.

The film then becomes about the owner of the club, who is called in to assist when matters get out of hand, finding a way to restage the situation for the police by attempting to kill the group and taking them to another scene where things will look like everything is the dead band’s fault. The band of ‘in way over their heads’ teens obviously have other ideas and when they manage to take an unlikely hostage in the green room in which they’ve locked themselves... and then things start to get even more ugly.

From here on out the film becomes a game of cat and mouse survival as the group, or what remains of them after a short while, attempt to find a way to escape their confines and the gang of thugs, who wear red laces in their shoes to secretly signify they’ve killed people and can be relied on to do the same in a situation such as this. Things get violent and nasty from the outset and, although the majority of the ‘heavies’ in this movie are blunt and unthinking instruments, you do have a couple of standout people in here who match the brutality of their ‘gang’ in both brains and empathy... which is one of the things which makes this movie so frightening, in some respects... the human face of the enemy.

The one of these ‘bad guys’ who has the most empathy in terms of their character, I think, and possibly the ‘weak link’ in the organisation, to some degree, is played by Macon Blair, who played the main protagonist in this director’s previous film, Blue Ruin.

It’s the brains of the organisation, however, who helps keep things really scary... because he’s a pretty well known actor who you really wouldn’t, at this stage of his career as a household name, expect to be turning up as a main character in such a gritty and violent film. His introduction is beautifully done too... if, like me, you weren’t expecting to see him in this. You just see him from behind in his first shot, where you see his balding head which fits right in with the gang of skins he leads... for it is him who we see dishing out the ‘red laces’ at one point in the picture (I don’t want to put any spoilers in this so I won't be saying more about that). It’s only a little while later that we see this main villain of the piece is played by another Star Trek regular, Patrick Stewart. And it’s actually a little genius piece of casting, to be honest. Bearing in mind the edgy feel of the script and the way the camera works to make everything seem more threatening than it normally might, Stewart brings an air of gravitas which matches and probably elevates the sense of impending doom for the rock group who have become embroiled in the murderous actions of this gang. It’s good stuff.

The film is quite gory and violent... one might go as far as to say it’s quite excessive in pushing the grizzly details of the plethora of violent acts on display here... including a penchant for head injuries which really gave me something I wasn’t expecting in the case of one of the actors near the end of the film. However, no matter how violent it gets... and it does get pretty heavy from very early on in the film, including a hand half falling off an arm while people frantically scrabble to keep it stuck on 'in situ' and a person having his torso slit open from the belly with a box cutter... the violence never seems to be less intense or gratuitous than you would expect from this kind of situation populated by these kinds of people. So... excessive but reflective, to a certain extent, I would say.

Luckily, the director manages to inject a certain amount of emotional bonding and poetic handling of most of the scenarios as they present themselves... wit the whole thing making for a very interesting movie and, at the very least, one which will keep the majority of people on the edge of their seat. I was certainly very pleased with it when I came out of the cinema and, although it’s like Blue Ruin for me in that it’s probably not a film I could sit through a second time, it’s certainly another minor classic of modern cinema from the director and people who love film will probably want to get a look at this one while it’s doing the rounds. It won’t be for absolutely everyone... especially those of a nervous disposition... but it’s definitely good cinema and a strong recommendation from me. Catch it while you can.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor

Le Carré On Up The Spy Bar

Our Kind Of Traitor
2016 UK Directed by Susanna White 
UK cinema release print.

I’ve not seen all of the Le Carré movie adaptations but, of the ones I have seen, I’ve only thought three of them were really worth watching... The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Russia House and The Constant Gardener. The last one I remember seeing was a very popular but, as far as I’m concerned, not so hot adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (reviewed here). However, I wasn’t going to be put off by one bad experience and, when I saw the trailer to director Susanna White’s new adaptation of Our Kind Of Traitor... well, it looked pretty similar to The Russia House to me and, since it had a stellar cast, to boot, I thought I’d give it a go.

The film is, it turns out, very similar to The Russia House in terms of the plot set up. In this one, Stellan Skarsgård plays Dima, a Russian employed money launderer who needs to get himself and, more importantly, his family, out of Russia fast, before they are all ‘executed’ by the Russian mafia. Fortunately, he has a bargaining chip, a list of names and numbers of bank accounts of prominent members of the British aristocracy who are taking backhanders in order to let the Russian mafia launder their money in a new bank in London. So, yeah... it’s pretty much a documentary of the current British political regime, it would seem to me. Anyway, he needs someone he can trust to act as his liaison with the British secret service and so he picks on a civilian and his wife, who he meets in a bar, to deliver a memory stick and to be an unbiased outsider to the process. The husband and wife he picks are Perry and Gail, who are going through a rough spot in their marriage and who are brought to life on screen, rather well I might add, by Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris.

When you have Skarsgard in the cast, you know you’ve probably got a quality product in the works... he’s come a long way since he was appearing in stuff like the Swedish sexploitation movie Anita: Swedish Nymphet (aka Anita - The Shocking Account Of A Young Nymphomaniac) opposite Christina Lindberg. I first came across him as an actor myself in the movie The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and, frankly, he’s got to be one of the best living actors in the world. Ewan McGregor is almost always good to watch... I say almost because I’ve still not gotten over how bad Mortdecai was, my new gold standard in the “At least it can’t be as bad as...” sentence finisher... but, yeah, he’s a pretty amazing actor. And Naomie Harris, who is perhaps best known as the new Miss Moneypenny? Well I’ve liked her ever since I first saw her in 28 Days Later and, personally, I think she should headline a load of films. Add to this mix a brilliant supporting cast with such modern day ‘character actor’ giants such as Damian Lewis, Mark Gatiss (doing extremely well here) and Jeremy Northam (the latter being somewhat wasted in screen time, it seemed to me) and you have a film which you’d think would be hard to mess up.

And director Sussana White certainly doesn’t mess it up, it has to be said. Turning in a film in which she manages to maintain the cold war suspense that is the lifeblood of these kind of low key spy thrillers... injecting the deliberate slow pacing with a shot of tension that does just the trick. And it’s a good job she does too because, in terms of the storyline on this one, it seems a very simplistic kind of affair and certainly not the convoluted, twisty turny thriller that one might expect of a novel by John Le Carre. In fact, some of the film’s key sequences are telegraphed far ahead of when the incidents in question actually happen. Now, I’ve not read Le Carré’s novel on which this is based and so, while it’s certainly a temptation to say that this big screen version of it has been somewhat dumbed down for a film audience, I don’t think this is necessarily the case. It could be, of course, but when you have someone like Le Carré and the kind of audience he attracts... why bother.

Luckily for everyone, White has a certain visual panache on display here. She often adds the nice touch of shooting a lead in to the main scene in a voyeuristic, fly on the wall, manner such as viewing her actors and actresses through a foreground frame, like an architectural detail or a window, the frame within a frame allowing us to approach the scene with caution at first, before plunging into the fray. Also, she does some lovely establishing shots which are way longer than they need to be but which give the film a certain leisurely pacing to match the building plot, such as a helicopter shot of a train which stays with the external view and follows it for a while, before taking us into the carriage with the central cast.

The musical score, by Marcelo Zarvos, matches the mood and pacing of the movie perfectly. Although I could have done without the Spanish guitar style moments, the music naturally owes some small debt to the kind of instrumentation shorthand invented, pretty much, by John Barry for the spy genre with films like The IPCRESS File (reviewed here) although, to my tin ear, it sounded even more stylistically closer to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the aforementioned Le Carré thriller The Russia House. Especially in terms of the baseline rhythms used in certain sections of the movie. Either way, I’ll definitely be putting in an order for the score from Quartet Records, who are just about put this one out on CD. Looking forward to giving that one a few spins as a stand alone listen.

And that’s pretty much it, in terms of Our Kind Of Traitor, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the greatest of the Le Carré screen adaptations, for sure, but it’s certainly one of the better ones to give a nice atmosphere reminiscent of the kind of spirit found in his books and, despite its simplicity and over obviousness in a few places, I was pretty impressed by this movie, over all. If you’re looking for something more sparingly paced and with much less explosions or car chases than the regular pictures playing in movie houses at the moment, you could do a lot worse than spend an evening in the company of this film. A strong recommendation from me for a film with characters that have a sturdy moral code by which they live their life... something not always found in the murky world of espionage, to be honest.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Darkness

Five Little Indians

The Darkness
2016 USA Directed by Greg McLean
UK cinema release print.

Okay. Yeah... kinda liked this one.

The Darkness is one of those entertainments that you can add to the recent list of horror films which are not absolutely great movies or classics of the genre but, at the same time, are skilled enough with the clichés and shorthand of their archetype to be able to deliver an enjoyable and competent addition to the list of similar films being made. Where The Darkness really wins some respect from me is with the addition of the Native American demons and their hostile attempt to return from the dimension that they were trapped in many years ago by their own people. Don’t quite remember that kind of mythology being tapped before (although I’m sure somebody must have already covered it at some point).

The film starts off with Peter and Bonny, played as well as you would expect by Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell, and their two children, on a vacation with their friends near the Grand Canyon. The youngest of the two, the boy, is autistic and, when he’s left alone for a minute by his sister who’s supposed to be watching him, he falls through into a cavern and finds five pebbles inscribed with icons and which he removes from their specific, ritualistic place in the cave, taking them home in his ruck sack. This, of course, opens the household up to various ‘haunting’ phenomena, which the boy is usually blamed for, as this has allowed the all powerful demons something to anchor themselves onto, so they can begin to free themselves from the confines of their prison. Of course, because the boy Michael (played by Gotham’s young Bruce Wayne, David Mazouz), is autistic, he can see what ‘the sky people’ are doing and even tries to help them for most of the picture.

It’s nothing particularly special as a movie, for sure, but it does have that mythological edge to it in the Indian legend. In terms of the story and the eventual ‘final solution’ of the movie, it does at least stick with the rules and back story it sets up for itself... something which some horror movies seem to have trouble doing, these days, for some reason. So I was pretty glad when we had some follow through on this stuff beyond the point of... this is how the spooky, sinister force came to be here and now we’re just going to do our own thing with it, without referring to the origins again.

The film is fairly well shot and, though it doesn’t exactly go nuts on the intensity of the scares along the way, it does get quite suspenseful at some points in the movie. The use of black dirt handprints as a signature that a ghostly and demonic presence is at work is used quite well a lot of the time and these are used to build tension throughout as they are manifested in various places, including being imprinted on a couple of the characters themselves, when they face their supernatural opposition.

The performances in this are all pretty good, too. Bacon is always cool, as is Radha Mitchell... who really needs to get more lead roles. David Mazouz is very good as the autistic son and his character’s sister, Stephanie, played by Lucy Fry, also does well at portraying an angry and troubled teenager. It was nice seeing Paul Reiser back on the big screen, playing an even bigger and annoying idiot than he did in ALIENS but it was the character of his wife who I really sat up and took note of. She’s not in it that much but it was nice seeing the beautiful Ming-Na Wen, aka Agent May from Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD on the big screen. We need more of her in Hollywoodland too, me thinks.

So not much more to say about this one except we have another nice touch in the fact that the person (or people) who the family go to in order to fight back against their supernatural threat are actually of some help in this case (as those kinds of ‘Van Helsing’ figures were in the Insidious series too, I guess)... although, at the end of the day, any salvation in the final act comes from a different avenue. In fact that, for me, was the one weak point of the film... in the last ten minutes I was at a place where I started thinking... “Oh, really. They’re going to do that, now?” However, it does at least fit in with the stuff we know about the antagonist demons from their back story so, I wasn’t too upset by the place the ending went to. Although, it did feel a little anti-climactic, if truth be told.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say on this one. The score by Johnny Klimek was pretty good and perhaps just a little more subtle and less ‘stinger led’ than a lot of modern horrors have been. I’d probably buy the score if it was available but... so far, there seems to be nothing released on CD for this one. Maybe we’ll get something released later, though, if the film does well enough at the box office?

So there you have it. A pretty short review and, for some reason, I don’t have much to say about this one. If you’re into horror movies then you probably won’t be blown away by The Darkness but it’s certainly well put together and good enough to go on your ‘to watch’ list, I would have thought. If you’re not that used to horror movies then this will probably scare you enough into watching some more of them... or avoiding them. Not sure which but it is fairly effective in certain sequences, at any rate. Not one I’d go out of my way for but certainly worth spending a little time with, I think. So maybe give this one a go.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Star Trek - Generations

Buying The Farm

Star Trek - Generations
(aka Star Trek VII)

USA 1994 Directed by David Carson
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers, of course.

Star Trek - Generations is not a great film.

Unfortunately, neither is it a very good film, either. At least it isn’t a bad film, which is I think the best you can say about this one... and providing you are able to suspend your disbelief at some pretty major plot holes.

Star Trek - The Next Generation had finally been cancelled and this was the year of its final season. So the number crunchers at Paramount obviously decided it was time for a next generation crew movie... something everyone wanted, to be fair... and decided to bring some of the 'classic series' cast back to bridge the gap and do a handover. Of course, the problem with that is that the two series’ take place over 70 years apart from each other so there was always going to have to be some way of bridging the time gap with a sci-fi concept. Whether that works in the film’s favour or not is best left to your personal response to the movie.

The film was originally supposed to have William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley returning as Kirk, Spock and McCoy for the opening sections of the movie but, alas, Kirk is the only one who returned along with a couple of other high profile, classic series crew members... who all did a grand job. Nimoy had apparently declined because he felt the script was not up to scratch and, it’s said, the majority of his lines were given to James Doohan as Scotty. DeForest Kelly was in such ill health by this point that, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to acquire the necessary insurance required to be on set... so his lines were given to Walter Koenig as Chekhov. Although some of these lines and actions don’t make sense coming from Chekhov, due to their medical orientation, Koenig does a terrific job of selling it to the audience and I suspect most people didn’t notice the tell tale signs that he and Doohan were delivering lines which weren’t, necessarily, originally written for them.

Now there are a lot of bad things about this movie, to be fair, but the spirit of Star Trek is still intact. Before I get to the bad stuff, though, I’d like to highlight the good stuff first.

Okay, so we have the opening title sequence which focuses on a bottle tumbling through space in slow motion. It looks pretty great and when it finally breaks on the side of the new Enterprise (that’s NCC1701 - B for anyone who’s keeping count) we realise that we have just witnessed the journey to a ship's christening. It’s a really nice sequence and not what you are expecting from a Star Trek movie. The other good thing about the movie is... the entire next twenty minutes. The antics of Kirk, Scotty and Chekhov leading up to Kirk sacrificing himself so that the crew of the new Enterprise can survive is absolutely great Star Trek. We then jump totally unexpectedly to 78 years later on board a different Enterprise... a version of it which is an old galleon at sea, in the holodeck of the Enterprise NCC1701 - D, getting us up to speed with the next generation crew who bowed out on TV the same year this movie was released.

And... that’s it for the good stuff.

No really. The movie gets pretty terrible from hereon in but with likeable performances from the majority of the new crew and a standout one from Malcolm McDowell as Professor Sauron, who gets to quote a piece of poetry with the best line of the movie: ““They say time is the fire in which we burn.” And, apart from Marina Sirtis as Counsellor Troi, who is easily the loveliest and sexiest person in the Star Trek universe... the rest of the movie is pretty... watchable but average.

And there’s a load of bad stuff to even out the good stuff, I’m afraid.

When Spock’s death was bound to be widely publicised back in 1982 for Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan, the directors gave him a kind of fake death at the start of the movie so that audiences could possibly be more hopeful when he’s back on his feet and deliver the killer blow at the end of the film, to try and get as much dramatic weight out of it as they could. Here, the writers try the same trick with the death of Kirk, killing him off early in the film so that, when they bring him back after he has been transported in time, the audience can be hopeful he’ll live after all. Unfortunately for the studio, the trailers clearly showed Kirk in later segments of the film so the early scenes were robbed somewhat of this dramatic weight and the later scenes were pretty much what you would expect. In fact, Kirk’s demise at the end of the movie was reshot after test screenings because the audience didn’t consider it dramatic enough.

There’s another reason why Kirk’s initial demise in this movie is quite badly approached, too. Before this movie, James Doohan had already appeared in a Star Trek The Next Generation episode called Relics, in which he had been trapped as a transporter pattern for many decades and is re-energised into the next generation timeline. When he is ‘brought back to life’, so to speak, he mentions something to the effect that he thought James Kirk himself would be leading the rescue party, as it were. However, in this movie, which can only be set earlier than when Scotty was trapped in the transporter, he cleary sees that Captain Kirk has died, from his point of view in history. So how would he not remember this incident years later when he is returned from limbo? This is a terrible continuity glitch and I remember getting really annoyed in the cinema when I saw this movie because it’s such an obvious, glaring fault. Absolute rubbish.

Another thing the writers/producers do in this to give the public a grand spectacle of 'the first next generation movie' is... destroy the Enterprise... again. Even though we’d already seen that happen in Star Trek III - The Search For Spock (reviewed here). This time it’s the NCC1701-D that gets the treatment of being irreparably damaged, with the separated saucer section crashing on a nearby planet. For an encore, they blow the planet it landed on up and kill everyone on board... but that loses any dramatic weight when you realise there’s time travelling shenanigans going on, to be honest. You know the crashed saucer section and her crew will be back before long.

Okay, thing number three. About that time travelling Nexus Ribbon, as it’s called, which has an ‘echo’ of Whoopi Goldberg’s regular series character, Guinan, in it. Once Captain Pickard stumbles upon Captain Kirk at his farm house (in real life, William Shatner’s farm house) he talks him into coming out of the ribbon and helping him. He’s told by fake pseudo-Guinan that he can go back to whatever time he likes so they choose... um... just before everything was really going down hill and which caused a lot of everybody’s problems anyway. A point where the Enterprise saucer has crashed but the planet has not yet blown up. But at no point does anyone stop to say how this can be done... the ribbon has already moved on. How in heck do you leave it and come out at a time and space specific to where you want to be on the planet you left earlier? Also, since Sauron’s plot is partially a reaction to not being able to just fly a ship near the ribbon and get picked up by it without being destroyed... how the heck did Captain Kirk manage it? Well... the writers ‘get around’ this point by way of some creative editing which doesn’t actually show Kirk and Pickard leaving the ribbon and... um... just not talking about it very much again afterwards. So much for the ‘science’ of science fiction. This movie makes no sense.

Right... thing number four. Most people’s favourite character in Star Trek The Next Generation is Data, the android who wants to be human (think Pinocchio in outer space) and he is a brilliant character, lovingly portrayed by Brent Spiner. I’d personally still rather spend all my time with Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi but... lets get back to my point here. One of the appealing things about Data is his constant, level headed demeanour coupled with, often unintentional, dead pan humour. However, the writers decide to ‘up the game’ in this movie and he installs the emotion chip that he acquired during an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. So in this movie, we have a Data who is trying to grow and learn how to deal with fear, humour, anger etc and... it’s just not Data. Worse... he’s irritating in it. Yes, before you all start waving your arms about at me, I know he’s certainly supposed to be really annoying in all the obvious scenes here but... well, Brent Spiner’s really good at it, as he always is with the character. Which means I just didn’t want to spend anymore screen time with him than I had to, in this movie. This film is a waste of a really good character due to the decision to progress that character emotionally, which I suspect Spiner might also have had a hand in when negotiating his appearance in the movie (although that’s honestly just me speculating here).

And one last nail in the coffin for this movie, as far as I’m concerned... Dennis McCarthy’s score. Gone is Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek The Motion Picture theme, which was re-acquired specifically for the TV series Star Trek The Next Generation. Instead the only linking things with previous episodes here is Alexander Courage’s original TV show them from the 1960s referenced in the score and the fact that a regular composer from the contemporary TV show, McCarthy, was brought in. Now I’m not saying McCarthy isn’t a good composer... I suspect he’s excellent. However, I never really got on with the Next Generation scores on TV and, years later, I found out it was alleged that the instructions from the producer of the show (and this movie) were for his composers to basically write wallpaper music without any strong content which could detract from, or lift, the visuals. They may have gotten away with that, to an extent, on the TV show but, as far as I’m concerned, they didn’t get away with it here. This is a bland and mostly unmemorable score. Not inappropriate, for sure, just not something that really catches the emotions and gets the pulse thumping like some of the other composers in the franchise had managed to do, to be honest. At least not for me... I know there are some fans out there who like this score a lot... I’m just not one of them.

So there you have it. Star Trek - Generations is a handover film which really, in all honesty, wasn’t necessary. I know a fair few were disappointed with this movie and I personally thought it was a shame to see Kirk go out like this. Not one I’d recommend anybody start on as it’s a bit tepid but, like I said in my opening, it’s not a bad movie... it’s just not a good one either. However, the crew of the NCC1701-D weren’t down yet... even if their ship was beyond repair. As it happens, when they returned to our screens in their next adventure, they did so in one of the best of the Star Trek adventures ever put on film. So I’ll be rewatching that one again sometime soon and you can be sure I’ll be putting the review up fairly promptly after that.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Lowball - Wild Cards 22

Queen Of Clubs 

Lowball - Wild Cards 22
Edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass
Tor Books ISBN: 9780765331953

Warning: Very slight spoilers if you are
a regular reader of the Wild Cards series.

Wow. 28 years since I first started reading them and 22 novels in, the Wild Cards series of mosaic novels are still continuing to be published and this one, released towards the end of 2014 in its original hardback form, once again demonstrates that, despite the changing characters and scenarios inherent in a lot of different writers of different lengths of association with the series, there’s certainly no drop in quality. Lowball is a real page turner which has left me clamouring for the next novel in the series to find out what happens next... released sometime this year, or so it seems.

This one picks up with a lot of the same crew from the police station at the heart of Jokertown and from which the title of the previous book in the series, Fort Freak, was taken (and reviewed by me here). Like the majority of the volumes in the series, this one comprises lots of short story episodes by various writers but, once again, they are all working towards the same climax. Four of the narratives - Those About To Die, Galahad In Blue, Ties That Bind and The Big Bleed, are much longer stretches but they are all split into multiple installments and dotted between the other sections, used as both connective tissue and the main narrative path to the final showdown of the book between... oh, I’ll kinda get to that in a while... and as a kind of gathering of all the clues and adventures which are leading the book to its dark conclusion. Or lack of one, depending on your viewpoint.

This one is a deadly game and has real life parallels. Remember those awful ‘bum fights’ videos which were being sold illegally a few years back? Where tramps were made to fight for the purposes of gambling and selling dodgy videos? Well the plot line of the story is a parallel hooked right into that. Various Jokers are going missing from the streets of Jokertown and it’s up to the newly promoted Detective Frank ‘Franny’ Black to figure out what’s going on when the troubles are brought to his attention by Wild Cards regular Father Squid, the priest whose character dates all the way back to the third Wild Cards novel Joker’s Wild. Father Squid has enlisted the aid of Black Tongue, the deadly Joker hero from the previous novel but, by the time anyone in Fort Freak are taking the crimes that seriously, Father Squid and Black Tongue are also victims of the kidnappers, who are forcing Jokers to fight in gladiatorial combat for high stakes bets and for bootleg videos.

As usual, the novel features a whole load of characters from the entire history of the Wild Cards series, either as full on inclusions in the plot line...  such as Rusty, Drummer Boy, fan favourite Croyd Crenson (aka The Sleeper) and the aforementioned Father Squid... cameo appearances such as Dr. Finn the Centaur or Jube, the alien posing as a Walrus faced joker on Earth (Goo Goo Ga Jube... get it?)... or just as mentions/references by other characters... like Fortunato, Dr. Tachyon or The Great And Powerful Turtle. If you’re picking up one of the Wild Cards books for the first time on this one then, obviously, all these little nods to the past won’t mean a heck of a lot to you but, to long term readers of the series, it’s like catching up with an old friend and hearing about acquaintances long lost again... bound to bring a smile to the face.

While the novel is a lot of the usual fun and full-on barrage of beautiful little ideas that this series is best known for by its fans, there’s also a sense of urgency and almost desperation to the tale as it hurtles full throttle to its painful conclusion. A couple of regular characters from the series are... well, presumed lost (not necessarily dead... it’s a bit complicated to explain without giving away spoilers) and, given the series’ propensity to hemorrhage main characters on a regular basis, I’m already very much mourning their loss in the Wild Cards universe.

That being said, I was still expecting something of a wrap up to the story and, while it’s true, the climax of the novel when a very, very small cavalry rush to the aid of the Jokers, is absolutely taut and full of blood n' thunder, nothing prepared me for the ending of this tome which suckered me right into an epilogue which I thought was going to bring closure but, instead, put me on one of the most horrible cliff hangers since reading Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta book Flesh And Blood at the end of 2014 (reviewed here). Now the cliffhanger is taut enough but what it implies to me is that, the next book in the series is going to be positively dripping with the blood of the regular characters before I even open it up... soaked into every page if what I’m guessing is happening comes to pass. Now, it may not be true that I perceived the ending quite right because it’s been a very long time since I read the books in the series dealing with a specific character but, if I’m right, regular readers of the series who haven’t read this yet will want to look away from the next line after this...

... possible spoiler warning...

... I might be wrong or misinterpreting the last paragraph or so but it looks to me like The Astrologer might be back... which will be the biggest single threat to the world of the Wild Cards universe - Aces, Jokers and Nats alike - for a good few decades.

End of spoiler...

So yeah, I absolutely cannot wait to find out just what happens next in the volume scheduled for 2016 called High Stakes. Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of the books then Lowball is another absolute classic. Like the others in the series, the fragmented nature of the contributions in no way diminishes the flow of the story and absolutely every segment feels like it belongs as just the next part of the story and, as usual, every chapter is a winner. So if you like the Wild Cards universe then you need to grab this one while it’s still around (given the fragmented nature of the series’ release from various publishing houses over the years). If you’re not a regular reader... well you’ll still love the Wild Cards universe but I’d advise you to start from the very first ones and work your way through. The rewards for long term readers in terms of post modernistic referencing and the entertainment gleaned from that are... not something you'd want to miss out on.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Penny Dreadful Series 2

Judged Dread

Penny Dreadful Series 2
2015 USA Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, okay. So this review of
Season 2 will go the ‘spoiler route’.

The second series of Penny Dreadful is something I was especially interested in seeing because, although the little sub-plots involving the Frankenstein monster (played by Rory Kinnear), Dorian Gray (played by Reeve Carny) and Ethan Chandler (as played by Josh Hartnett) all obviously have a much longer course to run, the main story which brings together Chandler, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Sembene (Danny Sapani) and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) was pretty much finished with in the first series.

Now I was told that this second season is much stronger than the first but, although there is much to recommend in this one, I found it to be a little less compelling in places. Certainly the pacing, especially in the last few episodes, seems more than a little sluggish when compared to the previous series and although there is the sex, gore and action which helped make the first run so watchable, there seems to be less of this happening in this one and much more plotting and talking. Not that I mind this at all but I did find it a little duller than the first year, if truth be told.

One of the problems I had was the way in which the writers forged a new plot/danger to ensure our heroes stay together, for the most part, to defeat the latest menace together. After a strong opening which sees Miss Ives and Mr. Chandler attacked in a coach by naked witch creatures, we are eventually treated to a whole load of extra back story about Miss Ives which establishes that she is a practitioner of ‘witchery’ and which gives her a new enemy acting as a representative of ‘the devil’ who is already trying to claim her soul. It seems somehow clumsy to me that this is all brought into play only now, when so little of this has been mentioned after the lengthy examination of her back story in the first series. However, it does at least make use of Helen McCrory as Evelyn Poole, reprising her role from the first series and being given a more personal history with Miss Ives.

A couple of things which were pretty predictable in the first season do come to pass in this...

First and foremost of those being Billie Piper reincarnated from her previous dead character to become Lily... the latest iteration for the Bride Of Frankenstein (or at least the Bride Of Frankenstein’s monster... although not quite). With this performance, her character appears to be one thing but, as we learn later in the season, looks can be deceptive and Lily has a far less passive role in the impact of her life on others than you might at first suspect. The real problem with this character though is that although Billie Piper does an amazing job with her (I wouldn’t expect anything less from the lady in question), she does seem to be suffering from Clark Kent/Superman syndrome throughout the whole production. That is to say, in the DC comics involving Superman we are asked, for some strange reason, to assume that when he is wearing glasses, he is somehow disguised from being mistaken for Superman. This makes no sense, of course...

Similarly, in this incarnation as Lily, the previous version of the character, Brona Croft, is not in any way recognised by anyone other than, perhaps, that there is a strong probability that Dorian Gray does and can see something has happened to her. But only Dorian. Why? Because she’s had her hair dyed blonde... um. What? So, for instance, after having picked out dresses for her, when Miss Ives is asked by Frankenstein to meet his ‘cousin’, she doesn’t immediately say... “Oh, I remember you. You were my current love interest’s girlfriend I met outside the theatre in the first season... how come you’re not still dead?” Instead, she has no idea and goes about her business, Lilly’s golden tresses fooling even this cunning character. Um... yeah, okay.... moving on.

I said in the last interview that Ethan Chandler looked like he was well on the way to becoming another staple of Universal Horror after his werewolvery was finally revealed (or rather confirmed) at the end of the last series. I was, in fact, referring to the character that Lon Chaney Jr made famous as The Wolfman... Lawrence Talbot. Well, in this one the connection is tracked down by an interesting, one armed detective character, who himself seems to be a quick, half hearted nod to Lionel Atwill’s character in the 1939 film Son Of Frankenstein. Turns out Ethan’s Chandler’s real name is 'Ethan Lawrence Talbot'... so, yeah, as far as I know, Hartnett’s only the third person to play this role which, for most of film history, was played almost exclusively by Chaney Jr. Josh Hartnett’s role is more developed as a character in this one, where he’s shifted over from being the ‘hired hand’ to being a friend and protector to Miss Ives. He also makes friends with Sembene... a friendship which has tragic results in a much more traditional kind of problematic manifestation for the Lawrence Talbot character.

So yeah, we have intrigue and mayhem and we finally get to see ‘the portrait’ of Dorian Gray. Only a fleeting glimpse but it’s not done too badly although the character is almost something you feel the writers don’t quite know what to do with yet. He’s been pretty much at the periphery of the other character’s lives for two series now but you at least, at the end of this one, get the impression that he’s going to be thrown into the mix more when the next series hits, due to his unholy alliance with Billie Piper’s Bride of Frankenstein character.

All in all, there was enough to keep me interested in continuing to watch this second series and, once again, I really don’t know where they are going to go from here, being that each set of characters seems to have split up and gone to different parts of the world. The first trailer to the third season looks like none of them are together and I just hope that the series manages to find a credible way to reunite them all again at some point and, hopefully, fairly early on in the season... it’s the chemistry of having all these strong actors and actresses integrating with each other and also having to deal with their own subplots, in my opinion, that is one of the main strengths of the show.

Since I don’t have the fancy channels where programmes like this are broadcast, and I certainly don’t want to be left a the mercy of commercial breaks anyway, it looks like I’ll have to wait until near the end of the year before I’ll be able to catch up with Series 3 of Penny Dreadful but, certainly, this previous season was, at the very least, good enough so that I still want to. Although I think they could have done a little more with the creepy little dolls than they managed here.

My review of Series One can be found here.

Friday, 6 May 2016


Hairless Whisper

UK 2015 Directed by Paul Hyett
Metrodome Blu Ray Zone B

This is one of those movies I bought a few months back on a cheap Blu Ray because someone had tweeted about it and the premise looked pretty good. I was going to get around to watching it soon anyway but recently, when I skyped my cousin in Australia, he told me he and his girlfriend had rented it from their local shop (yeah, that rental thing still happens in Australia... cool) and that it was a fantastic film. So I moved it up the list, past all the other backlogged movies.

Howl is one of those British made, low budget horror films that you really hope is going to succeed and overcome both the budgetary restraints and the working conditions caused by those limitations. More often than not, and this applies for all realms of art, the more limited you are, the more creative you become to compensate and find new ways around problems that having an unlimited palette would solve easier... but in a less interesting fashion.

Now, sometimes, that idea can go wrong with films because when money becomes one of those restraints, it can be hard to creatively solve certain issues when, for instance, you can’t pay the actors and you can’t lock down a location. However, it’s good to see that with Howl, that’s not an issue and, although it has its problems in places, I found I could forgive it a lot because of it’s basic idea, good performances, mostly shrewd structure and, ultimately, it’s really good to see something small but quietly ambitious pulled off really well.

The film follows the exploits of a train guard called Joe, played by Ed Speelers, on the final ‘red eye’ train out from Waterloo Station. He’s pulling a double shift and the only reason he’s been talked into it is because a woman he likes, Ellen (played by Holly Weston), is ‘doing the food trolley’ for the journey... it’s one of those long journeys where the trains have toilets and a person walks the length of the train selling food and drink to the customers. I used to have to get the train to Ipswich out of Liverpool Street a number of years ago and it was exactly this kind of train journey that I used to have to take... which is one of the appealing things to me about this movie... that it’s set relatively close to home.

As Ed does his round of checking the tickets of all the passengers, we start to meet the usual character types that make up these kinds of small, ensemble pieces... where personalities clash and people bond in the short time they know each other. This film is no different and has a great cast including some more famous and reliable character actors such as Shauna McDonald (so good in The Descent), Duncan Oreston and, in a relatively small role, Sean Pertwee. And, of course once we’re just getting to know the characters and how they start to relate to each other... the train comes to a crashing halt in the country, miles from anywhere because... werewolves on the line!

Yep. That’s the concept. We have a bunch of werewolves (I’ll get back to those properly a little later) who are preying on the passengers of this damaged train. So the guard and his sometimes hostile customers have to try and barricade themselves in and survive for as long as they can. And yeah, it’s mostly done pretty well and with the kind of atmosphere and great performances you’d expect from a low budget British movie. However, there are some problems too.

I think the main problem for me was the absolute sloppiness of the long term set up for one of the scares. It telegraphs itself a good 20 or more minutes before it actually happens because, when the director is introducing the various passengers in the early stages of the film. He deliberately hangs around with Joe and Ellen having a conversation in front of one of the passengers who is, himself, pretty memorable and unique to the film in terms of his physical type. The director and writers obviously want him to stick in your mind a bit and I think, possibly because of his looks, this whole sequence is a little overplayed. So then he just drops out of the narrative for a while and, after having made so sure we remember him, it’s obvious the director wants us to just overlook his absence. However, as soon as he’s not on screen, when the passengers decide to ‘walk the line’, you know he’s being held back as a character to be a ‘bluff scare’ at some point and this, unfortunately, is exactly how this character is used. He’s the basic equivalent of a cat in a horror movie (think ALIEN, among others). So the audience is supposed to be frightened by what we’re supposed to think is a werewolf in the toilet when it’s really this character in there instead. But, of course, because he’s been rendered so memorable, the scare isn’t there and you instead spend your time waiting for the passengers to wise up.

However, although this movie hits all the clichés you’d expect from a character led movie of this kind... the guy who everybody hates, the nice old lady who’s been infected and is a ticking time bomb, the teenage brat who needs to wise up and calm down and the older man with the high blood pressure who needs to get back home for his pills... I have to say that, for the most part, the director pulls off everything pretty well, actually.

One of the tricks he starts off with to maintain a sense of credibility is the tried and true method of obscuring your monsters in the dark and only showing bits of them. Compounded with the old chestnut of using a ‘first person point of view’ from the monster’s eyes whenever they are near, voyeuristically scoping out their human prey. This method is used quite well a lot of the time and... I kinda wished he’d left things like this. Later on, when we get to see more of the ‘werewolves’, things become a bit questionable and I could understand if, for some people, the illusion of reality is stretched beyond the point they’d want it to go. The werewolves themselves are, in fact, pretty hairless apart from the main parts of a human body where you would expect hair to be growing from, like the top of the head. And because they’re less covered, the man in suit (or at least man with many prosthetics and make-up enhancements) nature of the practical effects is maybe highlighted a little more than it should be. Personally, I had no problem with the make-up effects and, to me, the creatures here more closely resembled the Morlocks as they were depicted in the 1960 Rod Taylor version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine... which I always found kinda scary anyway.

And, frankly, I guess there’s no written law or consistent myth that shapeshifters such as werewolves (a relatively new creation in the history of monsters, from what I recall) have to necessarily be covered in hair... so it’s really not an issue. They are never specifically named as such and the howling they make during the full moon implies the nature of the creatures, rather than spells it out, I think. So, yeah, even though I liked the monsters here... I still think it may have been better to keep them fairly obscured during the full running time of the movie. Things such as the quick flash of a claw or the full on homage in the first third of the movie to the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (reviewed here), only done with a person being dragged up and down a set of train doors instead of the gate and cage set up, are more than enough, I suspect, to give the full illusion and add in a significant amount of approaching menace to the proceedings.

But, other than that, I can only recommend Howl as being one of those great little British B-movies that we seem to have refound our footing with in recent years. It’s no The Descent, for sure, but it is significantly better than a lot of other low budget fair coming out of this country lately and, if you’re a horror movie fan, then this is probably something you can add to your list of ‘movies where they got it right’. Looking forward to seeing more from this director in the future but, in the meantime, take a look at this one next time you’ve got a hankering for watching a claustrophobic ensemble piece with just the right mix of goriness and suspense. Not one to ignore, for sure.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ratchet And Clank

Clanks A Million

Ratchet And Clank
2016 Hong Kong/Canada/USA
Directed by  Kevin Munroe and Jericca Cleland
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... well this is going to be a painful one to try and review.

Regular readers of this column might wonder why I chose to go and see this one. Well, it’s like this...

Back when I had time to do such things, before I started writing this blog, I used to play computer and video games. Starting from 1982 when I got my ZX Spectrum computer and, years later, when I graduated onto the Playstation, and then Playstation 2, games consoles. Being as I was brought up in a time when the highest tech computer game was two lines and a pixel representing a ball, in the mid 1970s, before the even more jaw dropping Space Invaders came out, I think many game players today might describe my taste as ‘old school’ at best (or maybe just ‘old’, I dunno).

So it would be true to say I prefer the simpler games and the old 2D platform games were something I definitely liked playing. So when everything got into something a little closer to what is now considered cutting edge, my favourite games on the Playstation were probably those aimed at the younger end of the market, because the sheer addiction and playability of those reminded me of the great times I had playing stuff like Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg back in the 1980s. So games like 40 Winks, Ape Escape and Spyro The Dragon were the order of the day. And, of course, Ratchet & Clank... which was pretty much just another variant on those ones I just mentioned. So, when I found out, literally a week before its release into cinemas, that a movie version of Ratchet & Clank was coming out, I leapt into action and asked my friend if he could bring his young ‘un with us to the cinema so I had a legitimate excuse to go and see this thing.

And I’d like to say, “A good time was had by all!”... but I can’t because it’s neither a great movie nor, as it turns out, the most interesting or faithful adaptation, from what I can remember of the original game. Furthermore, the young ‘un was so interested in the on screen antics of the much loved duo that he spent a lot of the time asleep... as did his father, it turns out. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t drifting off in places too, as it happens.

So, anyway, what we have here is a partial remake, to some extent, of the original game. However, things seem to be less exciting and interesting in the movie version than I would have expected them to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination... it’s just not a good one and I’ve been trying to figure out why it failed, in my eyes, to hold much interest.

Well, you know how some movies are just set ups for various set pieces and the story moves through the action, peaking and troughing to give you a build up between sections? Well this movie just doesn’t seem to have that kind of 'up and downtime' structure, it seemed to me. It was almost all just peak (or trough, take your pick), with no real uplift or build up to give the action any meaning. I mean, sure I was rooting for the good guys as they tried to foil the evil villain’s plans but somehow it all just felt kind of flat. Like the film was trying really hard to just offer up constant dessert without letting you appreciate that dessert in the context of a main meal. It just seemed really ‘even’ and, consequently, any emotional context was kind of lost in translation.

Also, in terms of adaptation, there are a couple of things which stood out for me when I used to play the old video game on my games console. One is Ratchet’s trusty hydro spanner (or wrench, or whatever you want to call it) which he would fling at various objects and which would return to him like a boomerang. Well, since that weapon is such a basic constant in the game, I could have done with it not being stripped down to a single token appearance near the end of the movie, where Ratchet just hits somebody over the head with it. Especially given its prominence in the posters. It was a bit of a letdown, to be honest. The other thing which I used to like about the game was when Ratchet would don special boots and ‘ride the grind rails’ found on various worlds as the game unfolds. Alas, there’s no grind rail chase or even a nod to them in this version.

There was one bright spot with a movie ‘in joke’ which highlights, in no uncertain terms, the use of the old ‘Wilhelm scream’... a specific sound sample which has been used in movies for many decades. This time it actually gets a shout out on screen and, if you’re in the know about this one, it’s quite a funny moment... at least I thought so. Although, I think most people in the screening I went to didn’t realise why one of the characters name checked someone as ‘Wilhelm’ after he’d fallen screaming from a structure. But, hey, I liked it... and by that point in the film I was ready to laugh at anything funny, should it decide to turn up on screen.

The film has an impressive voice cast. Among them are Paul Giamatti, Armin Shimerman, Rosario Dawson, John Goodman and Sylvester Stallone... but it’s a shame that such talent was held back somewhat on a script that, while it does have it’s moments, just doesn’t have enough emotional weight to pull the audience in, so much. They all, of course, do a wonderful job, but they really could have been anybody saying the lines, I felt.

The film’s score, by Evan Wise, was a competent and appropriate job but, I have to say, it didn’t really stand out as much as I would have liked. It certainly supported what was there on the screen but, again, when the score is supporting much the same kinds of scenes over and over throughout the movie, it gets a bit ‘bland’ after a while. That being said, it does what it does quite well and I think this may well be a composer to watch in the future, if he manages to get some bigger and better projects under his belt. I’m toying with the idea of buying the stand alone CD when it’s released in a couple of days because it’s a very competent set of compositions, it seemed to me, and I suspect a lot of it got buried under the noisy sound mix in the movie itself. So yeah, I’ll probably give that one a go sometime soon.

Other than that, though, I’d have to say that the movie version of Ratchet & Clank definitely doesn’t live up to its potential. However, saying that, not all the kids in the audience were asleep through it... although some of them seemed rather restless. Probably something which is more appreciated by youngsters, though, I would imagine, rather than adult game players of years gone by. One of my least favourite movies of the year so far but, again, not a completely terrible one.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Captain America - Civil War

The Stark Knight Rises

Captain America - Civil War
2016 USA Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo.
UK cinema release print.

Okay... trying to make this one spoiler free is hard because I can’t talk about specific things which are significant firsts in the cinematic iteration of the Marvel Universe but... I’ll give it a go.

First up, though, I’d like to throw up the familiar caveat on this one that I’ve never read the Civil War storyline in the comics. I think that’s only about ten years old and, frankly, most of the Marvel comics I’ve read date from the very late 1930s (October 1939) through to the 1980s. That being said, my understanding is that this movie is not exactly an adaptation of that storyline anyway. It would need a heck of a lot more characters from the Marvel Universe in it, for example, and the company producing this film doesn’t have the rights to use all of them. So any fans of the comic book which this is ‘inspired by’ may well be a bit angry at the way it’s been approached, is my understanding.

I’m feeling a little conflicted in reviewing this one, to be honest, because my recent reviews of Avengers - Age of Ultron (reviewed by me here) and Ant Man (reviewed by me here) were not all that enthusiastic about the product but I did find that on subsequent viewings I enjoyed them a heck of a lot more and I think, maybe, my brain needs more than one showing to process what’s going on in these and be able to appreciate the finer points of them. So, although I don’t exactly feel like going back for a repeat viewing of this one right now, I won’t be too hard on it here. Although I wasn’t exactly blown away by it, I can tell you that much.

That being said, Captain America - Civil War is far from being a terrible movie and, to be honest, any problems I have with it probably stem from the fact that I was expecting a really great movie and... it really isn’t. What it is, however, is a very good superhero movie which takes the subject seriously, possibly a little too seriously at some points, and therefore doesn’t let the side down when it comes to both credibility in its approach to the sci-fi/fantasy elements and it support and progression of the overall story arc that is unfolding in what has now become known, it seems, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) in terms of the Phase One, Phase Two and Phase Three movies.

This film deals with a serious issue which is the United Nations trying to put a stop to the vigilante attitude of the super beings who have made themselves the unofficial police of the world, and the thin line between saving as many lives as possible or waiting for a committee to make decisions before you go out and do that... more often than not, a decision which is going to be made way too late to save the lives that needed it. So it’s about Law Vs Justice/doing the right thing with Iron Man, The Vision, Black Widow, Black Panther, War Machine and Spider-Man being hastily recruited to stand for the Law... while Captain America, The Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Ant-Man and, by default, The Winter Soldier... are on the side of the latter. I’d have to say my personal choice would be for doing the right thing over the Law any day but I can appreciate that some strange individuals might not see it the same way. I think the film kinda takes that tack too, actually, because the issue is quickly ignored by Iron Man when the true villain of the movie is revealed (or one of them... I think they’re holding back on revealing the motivations of a couple of characters who are in this movie, as yet).

Actually, the main issue which is the heart of the film, the ‘vigilante mentality’, is something I’ve only personally experienced in comics from DC, in Watchmen (which had a pretty sound movie version) and The Dark Knight Returns (maybe one day somebody will be brave enough to greenlight a movie version of that) so I was surprised that the dialogue and emotional beats of this movie were so well done in the Marvel Universe. And its these quieter scenes which are the best ones of this movie. A lot is revealed in the sub-plot which is actually behind the scenes on the big issue in this film... although I was surprised that it wasn’t spelled out here (maybe they’re waiting for a twist revelation later on down the line). However, we see certain life defining events from the history of one of the Marvel movies’ best loved characters and how it all impacts on modern day events. We also have a nice little scene with a CGI recreation (presumably) of a young version of one of the actors as he shares screen time with his parents... which was a nice touch.

Other nice continuity things are the second appearance of William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross, after his original appearance in The Incredible Hulk. I think he might well be set up as a super villain at some point in these films... and maybe they’ll go with the comics and he’ll eventually become Red Hulk, who knows? This, along with numerous references and a certain kind of closure on one of the characters make for some compelling viewing.

However, it’ the action scenes which, in some cases (not all), suffer quite a bit. There’s lots of hand held, in your face stuff with a quite aggressive editing style but, in certain scenes, there was way too much to take in and the editing was such that, at some points, I was completely unsure of what was going on and what I was looking at. Which is a shame because I think the action scenes on these films are often big draws. And, also, although there was a fair amount of humour in the movie, I felt that it was just a little too sobering and somber as a whole. Granted, the issues being explored in both the converging plots don’t exactly allow for a lot of laughs but I think the scripting for this was... well... it wasn’t having a lot of fun, put it that way.

Black Panther was a lot more successful as a character than I thought he would be, although I did struggle to understand him a lot of the time... the accent was just getting in the way too much for me, I found. That being said, although I’m not particularly looking forward to it, I suspect the idea of giving him a stand alone movie may not be doomed to failure, as I at first thought, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens on that one.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, left me quite torn. All the cast regulars on this... Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr and all the rest of them, are all absolutely brilliant in their roles, as you would expect, As is Daniel Brühl as, a version, of Baron Zemo. He’s always good to watch. Martin Freeman seems completely underused and has a ridiculous American accent but... I think his role hints at more to follow so... maybe this is just a set up. And Tom Holland’s new version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is equally at home in the mix, displaying great chemistry with the other actors and working well in the situations he finds himself in. He’s great in the role but unfortunately, to my mind at least, that role is not The Amazing Spider-Man.

That is to say, the way this new version is written seems a little too at odds with the character as it was in the early 1960s and, for some reason, the writers seemed to have replaced humourous wise cracks with inquisitive geekiness. Also, as great as Tom Holland is in this, he’s the first version of Peter Parker in cinema that, really, doesn’t look like any of the comic book versions of Peter Parker that I’ve known through the years. Still, hopefully they’re still finding their feet with the character and the writing will evolve a little in his next cinematic outing. That being said, they do introduce a concept in one scene which is something which was very much used in those early days of the comic book and which, I believe, is the first time it’s been used in a cinema version of the character... I won’t say too much about that but, stick around for the post credits scene folks. There are two again on this movie... one in the middle of the end credits and one right at the end.

My other main complaint on this one was Henry Jackman’s score. It’s fine and does what it needs to do and... it’s probably a good stand alone listen too. However, it also highlights one of the continuing failures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe... that of a cohesive musical support via leitmotif. Yeah, I know, different artists and different people doing the inking might be a nice comic book analogy you could use to justify the use of music in these but, honestly, that really doesn’t cut it with me. I thought the last few Brian Tyler scores for the series had some nice work in trying to bring everything under one banner, especially his score with Danny Elfman for Avengers - Age Of Ultron, which I thought really did a lot to weave some of the recent movie’s musical identities together. In this one though, unless I missed, it, there are no straight quotes of the Avengers or Iron Man sub themes and I felt this movie really needed it. As the film progressed, I was more and more missing the familiar musical glue which would have brought me closer to the characters emotionally through the emphasis of their themes but... unless it was buried under the sound mix (and that’s entirely possible), I wasn’t aware of anything that relevant happening with the scoring on this one. And that’s a great shame... it’s a bit of a step backwards, for Marvel, I think. The music to these (and all) movies is pretty important and I wish the producers at Marvel would finally start to take the musical contribution a little more seriously.

Other than all that, though, it’s a fine film. Not great but, as I said, one which will probably get better and have more resonance on subsequent viewings, especially by the time the Avengers Infinity Wars films have both hit the screens. Not quite a classic Marvel movie and not in my top five of this series but, still, a nice time at the cinema. If you’re already into Marvel films then you’ll know you won’t want to miss this one anyway but, to be honest, if you’re not into these films and the way they interlock, you might find yourself having a harder task jumping into them blindly without having seen the previous films, at this stage in the game. Still, looking forward to the next one in the series, Doctor Strange, which should be out in cinemas in the Autumn. That should bring in a whole new element to these films, that’s for sure.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Zombi Holocaust (aka Zombie Holocaust)

The Eat Is On

Zombi Holocaust (aka Zombie Holocaust)
Italy 1980 Directed by Marino Girolami  
88 Films Zone B Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilers in here.

So here we have the problematic “not quite made it onto the Video Nasty list back in the day but we’re going to seize your copy and take you to court for having it anyway” movie Zombi Holocaust... in a Blu Ray transfer from 88 Films. Now my first problem with this is that it’s Region locked... so big bad mark for 88 Films to giving in to the whims of the copyright holders (at a guess) and withholding the accessibility of art from various global markets... something that borders on the political definition of discrimination, as far as I can make out. Not a problem for me as I live in that zone anyway and I was just prompted to switch back to my own region on the player but.... big problem for 88 Films, I would say, due to their initial player rejection screen, which reads as follows...


Really? Are yor sure? Yor blu-ray player?* Really? This statement is quite wrong on a couple of levels but they really ought to at least proof read these for spelling before they just throw them onto the discs like that. Perhaps they think people in multiple zones wouldn’t be trying to play these discs and therefore wouldn’t see the warnings but... honestly? If you’re even remotely into movies and, especially with a title like this where you might have to shop around globally for an uncut version, then why wouldn’t you have a multizone/multiregion player? Movies are for everyone.

Okay, so one of the reasons I wanted to see this is because Ian McCulloch, the British male lead of Zombi (aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters - reviewed here) and Contamination is in this and it’s the only one of his “Italian horror trio” which I hadn’t previously seen. Since those films all date from 1979 and 1980, I’m pretty sure he must have shot these more or less back to back and, certainly, this film seems to share the same locations/sets as the 1979 Zombi. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the scenes shot for this, especially the locations in New York, were filmed on the same days too but... maybe not, since the directors aren’t the same. But I wouldn’t completely rule that out. Dakar from Zombi is also in this one.

The other reason I wanted to see this, naturally, is because I already had the Nico Fidenco score on CD and so I wanted to see, as I usually do, how the music fits the picture. Well, on that count, it’s mostly appropriate... not the most outstanding score I’ve heard but it’s perhaps a little more subtle than you might expect from such movies in places and, although it’s not as cool as the music from those other two I mentioned (by Fabio Frizzi and Goblin respectively), it fits right in with the kind of soundscape you would expect from these kinds of pictures.

The film starts off with a static shot of a New York skyline held for the entire credits followed by an unknown, shadowy figure entering a hospital morgue, performing a hasty amputation on a dead man and then stealing the hand. Another such gory ‘theft’ involves the must be heard to be believed, truly most amazing dubbed fake scream that I’ve come across in a long time, from one of the nurses. This scream must be able to literally raise the dead because, although the innards of the cadaver are all scooped out and stuff, the guy playing said cadaver still manages to blink a couple of times when he imagines the camera has stopped shooting the scene.

Later on, Lori Ridgeway (played by Alexandra Delli Colli), who is an expert on natives in a certain Caribbean island, is suspected by a reporter called Susan Kelly (played by Sherry Buchanan) to be the person behind what has quickly become a whole series of body parts gone missing from the hospital. However, we suddenly learn the culprit is a hospital assistant... who is eating the bits he stole to maintain his homesick cannibal lusts. The doctors and other hospital staff try and corner the guy but he decides it’s better to hurl himself out of the window, many stories up. We then get a shot looking down as he falls but... he seems to have been magically transformed into a plastic dummy. I know this because, when he falls, his arm flies off to the right of the screen due to the impact. All is saved, though, when we get a close up of the actor, post fall, and his arm is once more firmly attached at the shoulder. These cannibals must, indeed, have mystical talents.

Anyway, along comes Ian McCulloch, playing Dr. Peter Chandler, and his assistant, who are some kind of health inspectors with government sanction (and firepower to back it up). After Lori’s house is broken into, to steal a native symbol with some kind of connection to the cannibal thefts which are just one crime in a series of similar cannibal related cases on Chandler’s files, both Lori and Kelly are recruited to accompany Dr. Chandler and his team to find the island of the cannibal tribe and see what’s up... for some reason. I don’t quite know what they think they’re going to do when they get there but... hey, I guess you just have to suspend your sense of logic along with your disbelief when you’re watching this kind of stuff.

When they get to the island, of course, they are met with friendlies who turn out to be not so friendly, cannibals, treachery and... the odd zombie or two. Yeah, there are some creatures who are technical zombies in this, although they’ve actually been “Frankensteined up” to get them into that state... one of the alternate titles of this movie is Doctor Butcher, in reference to the “mad scientist” played by Donald O'Brien. The film is quite gory and, it’s no wonder it nearly made ‘the list’ in the absurd Video Nasty scare of the 1980s... but there’s not a great deal going on with this film, especially in comparison to Fulci’s Zombi, which looks like the absolute classic it’s often lauded as, in comparison to this one.

That being said, they do try their best with some of the camera set ups and the set dressing on Lori’s boudoir in one of the pre-requisite “get yer kit off” scenes has ‘horribly matching everything’ in it... wallpaper, sofa and pillows on the bed all done in exactly the same pattern design... I’m not sure I’d be able to live with that character if that’s her best sense of interior decoration.

The other thing that lifts this film, just a little, is the slightly unexpected nature of the end sequence... when you think everyone is done for. Dr. Chandler is trying to get himself free from the straps on Donald O'Brien’s ‘operating table’ and he does so but gets in a fight and doesn’t look like he’s going to make it to the end of the movie after all. However, in an earlier scene, Lori was snatched by the cannibals and painted up by them... similar to the way Ursula Andress is painted up in Mountain Of The Cannibal God (reviewed here) but with a nicer sense of design as her naked form gets only slightly adorned with graphical flowers. As she is about to have a dagger plunged into her on the sacrificial table, the table shifts weight and the natives see this as a sign that she is to be spared and, presumably, worshipped as some kind of naked, blonde Godess because, when we next see her, she is rushing in to the mad Doctor’s shack with her cannibal allies to rescue Ian McCulloch so he can survive the picture after all. Not much happens after this and the film very quickly comes to an abrupt end... leaving you wondering just what the hell could possibly happen next... but that’s okay, I think I’d spent enough time in the jungle with this one and was happy to come out of it.

This film is watchable but it’s certainly no classic. If you’re into Italian zombie or cannibal films (the latter of which this one seems closer to in terms of content) then this one shouldn’t let you down... but I must say I prefer films like Zombi or even Nightmare City (reviewed here) to the likes of this. Still, an essential watch if this era and genre are your thing... just don’t expect to be as entertained as you would in other, similar movies... there are a few better ones out there, I think.

*Or possibly Yor, The Hunter From The Future