Wednesday, 17 September 2014

She Cat

What A Feline...

She Cat (aka Meneko)
1983 Japan 
Directed by Shingo Yamashiro
Nikkatsu/Impulse Pictures 
DVD Region 1 

Warning: There will be slight spoilers... but it's not really the kind of movie where you'd worry about them, to be honest.

Hmmm... you know it’s not very often I bother looking up information on a film before I review it but, in this case, I really wanted to because I suspect there’s a rich, historical legacy lurking behind this movie... however, it turns out I could find out pretty much nothing about this one on the internet. I even had trouble finding it from the title on the DVD at the IMDB and, when I did find it under its alternate name of Meneko, there was absolutely no information whatsoever about it on there other than to give some of the cast and crew. So please bear with me and forgive me if I miss some important points out.

This is not the first Pinku movie I’ve seen but it’s certainly the first one I’ve seen in the Roman Porno (romantic porn) sub category of Pinku Eiga. Most of the films in this genre which I’ve personally watched have been either the various teenage delinquent movies (such as the Stray Cat Rock series, amongst others) or films like Sex & Fury and its sequel, the Female Convict Scorpion movies, the Rica movies, the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series (and a load of others with similar names which I’ve forgotten). None of those really stray that much into the Roman Porno category though.

I was primarily lured into ordering this one because the cover showed a naked lady showering with a big “gun logo” stamped over her on the artwork. All I need is a girl and a gun... Godard would approve, I think.

So this isn’t quite what I was expecting because this film has a very intriguing premise, about an ex-killer, the She-Cat of the title, who now runs a “clinic for abused women” with her lesbian lover. She then becomes embroiled in the affairs of an ex-acquaintance from her shady past who has sought her out because she is being followed to be silenced by the people who she thinks killed her sister. Her sister, it turns out, has been missing for a while but her own job involves reconstructing faces of recovered human skulls and she soon realises that the one she is working on used to be her sister. All kinds of mayhem then ensues... as she and She-Cat try to solve the mystery. But does She-Cat really know the difference between her friends and enemies in this convoluted plot?

Well she may not get the chance to because pretty much every time the plot seems to get really interesting, everyone stops to have sex with somebody. It’s the kind of soft core eroticism you would expect from Japanese cinema, especially with such a well endowed female lead who is the epitome of buxom, but I have to say that all this rampant lovemaking at the drop of a kimono means the story and action of the film really suffers. It also suffers, of course, from that well know Japanese trait of erotic and pornographic cinema... the curse of the hidden genitals. That’s right... these days it’s a strange mosaic effect and, back then, it’s all blurring of male and female “below the belt” parts with an effect that looks like somebody has gone overkill with a digital vaseline resembling a lens flair on acid in some scenes. I’ve never understood why Japanese films of this nature are happy to depict some of the most gruelling and transgressive acts of a sexual nature ever captured on camera but almost always fall shy of showing someone’s genitalia. This seems an odd cultural trait but, hey, when in Rome... or when in Roman Porno in any case.

So there’s that.

However, the plot is kind of interesting and features a slow build, some gun play and some chase scenes. What’s surprising, however, is that some of the acting, especially from lead actress Ai Saotome, who plays the clearly bisexual (it turns out) She-Cat and her male lover (who could be anyone for all the help the IMDB is here), is absolutely brilliant and that they are almost kind of wasted in the Roman Porno genre... although the leading lady is stunningly attractive so that definitely helps her in this case too.

The film is competently shot, well edited and with a soundtrack which I totally forgot but which means it’s probably more than appropriate to the on screen antics and shenanigans of the cast. There’s less sex on offer than you might expect from a film of this type but, when those scenes do come, they are fairly long and, well, like I said... they tend to stop the action dead for a while.

The film also includes a betrayal of sorts from one of the lead protagonists who you thought was on She-Cat's side... well no I didn’t actually, I saw it coming from a mile off, but lets pretend I didn’t because I’m being charitable here. The ending scene, however, feels really tacked on and out of place. It’s very strange because the film takes you to a logical conclusion and point of closure with the characters and then, from out of the blue, the main male romantic interest is shot down in the streets in front of She-Cat for... well, for no apparent reason. Why the hell is there any kind of revenge payback from the bad guys... all of whom I thought had been taken care of? I love bleak endings as much as the next person but this one really felt kinda added on just for the sake of giving it a downer at the end. It has no real logic in terms of the story, as far as I could see, and so I was somewhat puzzled by the abrupt end credit immediately after this had happened. What was that all about?

So there you go. My first movie in the Roman Porno category was not a great success but I did appreciate it one some levels... although certain things left a lot to be desired. Not sure if I’d recommend it over the more action packed and exploitational Pinku Violence movies that I have enjoyed in the past but it’s certainly a starting point. Not sure if I’d watch any more although, now I come to think of it, some cheapies I bought from Fopp because they looked interesting might very well belong to the same category for all I know. So I’ll let you know on that one. She-Cat is not exactly the best Pinku I’ve seen... but I have to say it’s certainly not the dullest either. Give it a go if you like large bosomed Japanese women in showers, would be my best advice on this one.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Before I Go To Sleep

Sleeping Pill

Before I Go To Sleep
2014  USA/UK/France/Sweden
Directed by Rowan Joffe
UK cinema release print.

I’ve got two minor observations about this movie, based on a best selling novel by S. J. Watson, that you might find worthy of me mentioning here.

Number one is that I’ve seen the overly long trailer for this film so many times now at the front of other movies at my local cinema... so you would think that, after suffering it so often, I should be able to at least remember the title of this movie, right? However, every time someone asked me what movie I was going to see, I had to describe the main premise, “Nicole Kidman can’t go to sleep without losing her memory”, because the title is just not interesting enough to stick in my mind.

Every time.

My friend and I even had to order our tickets at the box office when we got there with a description of the movie because, in the few seconds between spotting the poster outside the cinema and walking in to buy the ticket... we’d forgotten the name of the movie again. And, even now, as I sat down to write this review, I had to look at the IMDB page for Nicole Kidman to find out the title of the movie I was writing about. So I think my main conclusion here is... the title may (or may not) have been right for the novel but as a movie title it’s so unbelievably generic that it just doesn’t stick in the mind, to be honest. It could have done with being called something a little more poetic or imaginative, I think, as a film you aspire to go to see at the cinema.

My other point is that, when I told a few different people the basic premise, because I couldn’t remember the title, they all responded passionately with the same message... “not that old plot again?”. And then trotted out a few movie titles which have used similar plots. Of course, I tried to defend my choice by saying that there would be some kind of extra spin on this concept somewhere down the line because, after all, it was based on a best seller so there must be something more to it than what appears on the surface. Imagine my disappointment after having seen the movie, then, and realising that... no, they were right. It is the same old plot we have seen so many times.

However, this doesn’t make it a bad film and I’m pleased to report that for a lot of the time I was kept mildly curious and interested, waiting for some kind of unguessable twist to arrive in the narrative. It’s hard to not be able to take some pleasure in a film which, for example, stars three very strong actors - Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong - who you know are going to deliver a compelling performance. Which they obviously do and, coupled with a very slow and almost voyeuristic shooting style for most of the movie, it does have a certain fascination as you watch the drama slowly unfold... up until a point.

Now I’m really going to try to keep this spoiler free but the basic plot concept is that somebody has bashed up Nicole Kidman to the point that she has a very special kind of amnesia that wipes the last 20 or so years of her memory out after she goes to sleep at night. She has to catch up each day making use of a secret diary she is currently filming on a camera. Why is it a secret diary? Well, because the story works as one of those “trust no one” kind of tales of paranoia where either of the two male protagonists in her life, her husband Ben or her psychiatrist Dr. Nash, may not be what they seem. She has to slowly try to solve the mystery of why she is in this state and who she can and can’t trust. Which is fine up until a point.

That point, for me, was about the last 20 minutes of the movie which are less than clumsily handled. I wish Nicole had spent more time trying to unravel the absolutely ludicrous plot holes in the film version of this story, which render the entire scenario unworkable as a real life occurrence... but don’t even get me started on tearing down some of the anti-logic in this one.

Now, all the way through the director has been using everyday objects and vehicles (cars and planes etc) to rush out from nowhere to give the audience a jump scare and I found this cheap and unnecessary for the kind of drama that was playing out. My friend observed that the director needed to feel he had to keep doing that because nothing much happens in the film. I think I’ll be a little more charitable than that and say that stuff does kind of happen from time to time... but you certainly don’t need these jump scares, which add nothing to this particular narrative, inserted at random intervals throughout the film.

I was mostly able to let this fly because of the voyeuristic way in which the drama was unfolding. I don’t know if many people will notice this but the camera is with Nicole Kidman’s character Christine for almost the entire movie, choosing to tell things about the events from how she perceives them... and this is great. However, in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, when one of the characters is indeed found to be not who they say they were (and I’m not telling you which one, or even if it is just one of them, and this isn’t a spoiler because the movie works by making you suspect either or both of them), the camera then suddenly darts off with that person for a scene or two and we are no longer seeing events purely depicted from Christine’s viewpoint. Now, I don’t know if the decision to do that at this point was coincidental with when I stopped enjoying the movie or not... but I do know that there’s an intense fight scene which seemed a bit over the top, in some ways, to everything that had gone before and, when I saw an iron appear in shot during the fight... that’s when I started giggling at a point the director would probably have considered inappropriate.

This, coupled with a post-denouement sequence which is full of sentiment and utilising two characters we haven’t even met before in the film (although we have heard about them often) seems just really wrong for the tone of this one... at least to me. Now it may have been following the ending from the book, I don’t know because I haven’t read it, but due to the brilliant way the director had been setting up the shots of Nicole Kidman’s character waking up to each new day, I’m pretty sure there was a much better way to end this movie in a more cinematic fashion, possibly involving one of the other characters we’ve gotten to know through the course of the film. Alas, it was not to be and I can’t tell you what my ending to this one would have been because I don’t want any spoilers in this particular review... but it would have certainly have started with an arm moving off a bed sheet and a post diary watch reveal as the last shot.

So is the movie any good?

Well, for me it’s not something I could watch again. It’s the kind of cinema which places great stock in story content and, as far as I’m concerned, it lives and breathes until the revelation of its secrets... and I’m sure I’ve seen all this done before on TV and film anyway. However, if you’re fairly young, and your experience of movies is not so large, then you may well really like this film. After all, it still kept me fascinated and watching with a certain curiosity throughout the majority of its running time. Not one I’d recommend but certainly some people will clearly get something out of this one, I feel. Coupled with the fact that one of the more striking, Herrmannesque pieces of music used in the trailer is not from the actual film, it turns out, means I had a more disappointing time with this one than I was hoping for... but the lead actors are all very strong in this and if you are a big fan of any of them then you’ll probably love their performances here. Not much else to say on this one other than... I still have about as much success at remembering the title of this one as the central character does of remembering what she had for breakfast the day before. I might need to write it down somewhere.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Doctor Who: Listen

Listen In Action 

Doctor Who: Listen
UK Airdate: 13th September 2014

Warning: Yeah, they’ll be some basic spoilers in this one.

Okay, so this is good.

Best episode out of what has been a mostly mediocre bunch for this latest series of Doctor Who, I reckon. And saying that, we’re only four episodes in so there’s plenty of room for them to dazzle us further but this one goes into the category of the most genuinely nicely done Doctor Who episodes in a while.

Starting out with the age old “there’s something lurking under the bed” premise which has been with us as a kind of mutual “race fear” since before we can remember, the episode builds on this basic fear and takes us into some very interesting territory. It also does what most of the best of the Moffat-era episodes do... which is, of course, build us some nice set ups while simultaneously pulling on the strings of old threads and letting the mystery inherent in the show come into the foreground.

The basic premise is that The Doctor is playing games with himself and wondering just what kind of creature has perfected itself to be the best at hiding. Answer... he doesn’t know, but he’s about to do some research involving Clara, as he intercepts her half way (as it  turns out... gets a bit timey-wimey) through a disastrous first date with the possible future companion who we met a couple of weeks ago as a teacher at Coal Hill school... Danny Pink. However, when The Doctor hooks her into a psychic link with the TARDIS so it can take them to a destination feeding off a specific “under the bed” incident she gets distracted by what she thinks is a phone call from Danny.

Let me pause here and say that it couldn’t have been a phone call from Danny, as we all assumed it was, because she rejoins him later before he would have had the chance to make that call... remember. So who was it on the phone then? Possibly the same personality that keeps trying to bring Clara and The Doctor together at important points? Maybe. Probably. We’ll see when they try and tie some of these things up later, I guess. At the moment, though, it doesn't matter because that's who she was expecting to be on the phone.

So anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. It starts with the “thing under the bed” premise and, for a good ten minutes or so, is a genuinely scary episode which is bound to give the kiddies nightmares I suspect... however, it kind of loses its scary bits pretty quickly, which is a shame, and jettisons them in favour of being really interesting and building up the mystery which starts here as...

... so Clara gets distracted by the phone call and instead goes to a “thing under the bed” incident with her date as a young boy. After she and The Doctor vanquish the thing and The Doctor inadvertently sets ex-soldier Danny on his future course to being a soldier... well they both kind of screw him up by accident as a kid actually... Clara then goes and has another disastrous part of her date before being brought into the TARDIS again by... Orson Pink. A time traveller found by The Doctor at the end of time who might even possibly be one of her future grandchildren... at least that’s what the mystery wants us to think right now, I think it all might be a trap... and the next stop is... the end of time. Where The Doctor lets the creatures into the spaceship Danny was in and almost lets them into the TARDIS. Not that it matters, of course, because there's already one of them in the TARDIS since the start of the episode but everyone, audience and writer alike, seems to have forgotten about that little fact. But anyway, moving swiftly one, Clara takes another stab at psychic piloting while The Doctor is unconscious.

Bringing her to a place which we can only assume is Gallifrey in the past... and I’m really hoping that the writers are allowing for the fact that Gallifrey can’t be gotten to because it’s been temporarily erased from time so, you know, hopefully we’ll find out it wasn’t actually Gallifrey... where a The Doctor as a young boy (or possibly The Master, we don’t know yet) is hanging out in an old barn. Here we have a flashback to John Hurt walking into exactly the same barn on Gallifrey from The Day Of The Doctor... which can’t be right, right? Being as it’s hidden from time? This is the place,  we're told, where he went to open the ultimate weapon. And it’s here that Clara inadvertently becomes The Doctor’s “thing under the bed” and it all gets a bit... well kind of boring actually but I think they’re going to come back to this at a certain point. I hope not because... one of the key things about Doctor Who is you don’t want to know too much information. The man’s a mystery... let that stand please.

Never mind, though. I loved most of this one. The new guy played by Samuel Anderson as both Danny Pink and Orson Pink is holding his own very well opposite a strong actress like Jenna Coleman and the chemistry between Clara and Capaldi’s new take on The Doctor is getting better and better as the show progresses. If there’s one thing Moffat has got an ear for it’s dialogue and the relationship between Clara and The Doctor is at once totally different while still being old and familiar at the same time. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off and Moffat and his actors are doing a pretty good job of pulling it off here for sure.

There’s some nice direction and camera work on this one and some nice lighting coming into play in certain scenes which make certain sequences seem fresh in comparison to others. This lends a certain variety and bizarrely overt, ramped up pacing when used in contrast like this. It really held my attention when my mind was in danger of wandering for a lot of it.

Now the really interesting set up here is the relationship between Clara, the impossible girl who has seen all The Doctor’s past incarnations (and now his boyhood if we are to take the clues we are given in this episode at face value... which I refuse to do with Moffat) and the Pink family through history. Now my big problem here is I never really like Moffat’s endings. He always sets things up marvellously but the endings always seem to leave a lot to be desired and don’t always make the fullest sense, it seems to me (especially if you’re having the TARDIS go back in time to a planet which no longer exists in time... ahem).

Still, all I can do is trust Moffat knows what he’s doing here and see it through to the end... and quite probably grumble about it when it doesn’t make any sense but that’s the chance you take when you watch this show in a weekly basis these days, I’m afraid.

So there you go.

That was Listen. 

Nicely shot, nicely designed, nicely acted and with lots of little manifestations of Murray Gold’s Clara Theme coming in to tug at your heart at the most appropriate moments. Very strong episode but... hopefully not the best of the bunch for this series.

Time will tell... and will hopefully be rewritten.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Doll Squad


The Doll Squad
1973 USA 
Directed by Ted V. Mikels
Vinegar Syndrome Blu Ray A/B/C

Warning: Spoilers but, meh, not really that kind of movie.

This movie is terrible.

It’s brilliantly terrible.

Like... just the kind of “OMG WTF? terrible” all good movie enthusiasts should be exposed to every once in a while.

In fact, it’s so terrible, I’m going to show it to loads of people so they can share my joy in discovering it.

The Doll Squad is not a movie I’d heard of until the very recent release, by the Monstrous Movie Music label, of a limited edition CD of the score (buy it from them here). I listened to the samples, which are in the amazingly groovy and typical 60s/70s spy jazz mode, and knew I had to get the score. And as usual, as an after thought, I then looked the film up on Amazon and saw there was a relatively inexpensive double bill of this and another Ted V. Mikels film called Mission: Killfast on Blu Ray. So I had to check it out.

It’s been said that this brilliant but awful movie was the inspiration for the hit TV show Charlie’s Angels from a few years later and, watching this, I can well believe it. Even the leader of The Doll Squad is named Sabrina. Sabrina Kincaid to give her the full name, as played by Francine York. There are a few memorable “Doll names” scattered throughout the movie with that kind of vibe to them... like Kim Luval, as played by Jean London and Lavelle Sumara, as played by the legendary Tura Satana of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! fame (reviewed here). She also appeared in some of this director’s Astro Zombie movies, including this one reviewed here. 

The film starts off as it means to go on... with some ludicrously bad acting, for the most part. They even have the main villain in this, called Eammon (yeah, ‘cause villains called Eammon sound really threatening, right?) played by Michael Ansara and, with apologies to Mr. Ansara... even his acting seems quite bad and hammily overplayed in this.

Anyway, in the first scene of the film, leading into some not so hot, psychedelic, posterised credits, we are presented with two government officials watching their latest space rocket take off. Unfortunately, a badly superimposed explosion over the TV image shows the rocket destroyed (fairly unconvincingly, it has to be said) and a voice on their TV warns them they should have given the bad guy (that would be Eammon, then) the “nuclear device” he has asked for. This is obviously only the beginning of a reign of terror, curiously and unexplainedly targetting rocketship launches, which will not be stopped until our unlikely government representatives have given evil Eammon his nuclear device. What can be done?

Well, what is done is that, just like at the start of Our Man Flint, but without the budget or resources of a film like that, the “facts” are fed into a computer in the office to find the best people to end this reign of secret terror. And, of course, the name that comes up is... Sabrina Kincaid of The Doll Squad, an all female group that one of these two guys just happens to be the boss of.

Sabrina, who is at least a better actor than these two and, certainly, one of the least wooden performers in a film filled with arboreal talent, then goes to contact the two of her secret squad that the computer has recommended. However, it soon turns out there is a mole in the government agency... although this mole is not too hard to spot due to the dearth of possible suspects who we’ve met in the film so far. Anyway, Sabrina recruits two of her brightest and bestest, a scientist and a martial arts expert and it’s here that we find ourselves in the realms of a 1970s movie which seems, in some ways, to be totally sexist but, in reality, if you look beneath the surface, is actually a really great movie for depicting women in a variety of roles which are anything but those normally associated with the “so called” fairer sex. So that’s good, right?

However, after Sabrina has recruited these two, it then becomes obvious there is that aforementioned mole in the office because the two girls are bumped off by the bad guys. And here’s another interesting curiosity about this film, which may or may not be a Ted V. Mikels stylistic hallmark. Midst the almost Batman-camp atmosphere (on a clay pigeon shoot, Sabrina casually uses her gynormous cleavage to keep spare rounds of ammunition in), when someone is killed or injured in this movie... it tends to happen in the most brutal fashion. These two girls, for example, are both shot in the head and there is some bloodiness in here... one of them, as others later in the movie do, even has an exploding blood/flesh squib going off on the back of her noggin. So it’s a curious blend of fun with enormously sexy, eye candy women pitched against a level of violence which would earn this movie either a 15 or 18 rating these days. Very odd.

When one of the bad guys goes to take out Sabrina, she uses one of her secret agent box of tricks gadgets we have already seen her alluding to in an earlier, kind of “reverse Q briefing” scene. That means she uses her handy flame thrower cigarette lighter to burn the said bad guys face off in a restaurant full of people. Actually, it turns out later in the film that he only got away with a half burned up face and an eye popped out but, in a scene near the end which I would imagine was a big influence on Tarantino and something he did with his Kill Bill movies, Sabrina stabs out his other eye too, for good measure.

Soon after dealing with an undercover “bad girl” who has infiltrated The Doll Squad, Sabrina gets a new team and, after quickly finding out where the villain keeps his secret, desert island lair, she... and a load of deadly agents (including the aforementioned and quite watchable Tura Satana)... land on the island, split up and then find various ways to either infiltrate the villain’s lair or become prisoners there (which more or less amounts to the same thing when you’re watching spy movies... especially ones of this kind of pedigree).

Lots of spy gal hijinks ensue such as kicking, stabbing and shooting at people. One of the more ingenious being that the girls have their secret agent exploding spy drink, which they feed to two guards in a laced bottle of vodka... two guards who obviously don’t have enough sense to be too suspicious that they can’t be tempted by the ladies’ gorgeous bodies and, more importantly, their impressive picnic hamper. However, the ladies back off when the guards start rubbing their tummys in pain and, before you can say spontaneous human combustion, our easily duped guards both explode.

Except, when I say explode, they seem to have the exact same stock footage shot of an explosion superimposed over them, then the film is stopped on the footage in the layer behind so the guards can quickly walk out of frame, and then when the explosion is faded back out, the guards have mysteriously gone, leaving no messy aftermath or human debris behind after them. And if that sounds like an excessively cheap ass way of doing things then a) it is and b) it’s the way every explosion in this film seems to be handled... building, rocket or human being alike. In fact, I think it’s the exact same stock footage explosion used every time, too. At the end, one of the girls pulls out a fortuitously stashed bazooka to take out a man with a flame thrower and, although the end of said bazooka is conveniently placed off the side of the shot so we can’t see anything actually being fired from the muzzle, the exploding man who is victim to this handy, dandy, portable instrument of mayhem seems to be suffering from the exact same stock footage demise as everything else. How bizarre?

The film continues in this vein for a while and never gets boring. The villain's plot, it is revealed, is to unleash the bubonic plague on the rest of the world by infecting them... I wasn’t quite sure how (or even if) that related to the nuclear device bandied about as the plot set up at the start of the movie but I’m sure it must make some kind of sense somewhere (no, actually, I’m really not sure of that at all... this thing seems to be veering in all directions at once). The acting ranges mostly from bad to... um... worse and I noticed that occasionally someone will stumble a line and there was no reshoot... I’ve no idea why, unless the film stock was really that expensive.

More of the strange tone of the movie comes out when the “new girl” agent, who the other members of The Doll Squad are trying to protect, gets shot through the head while being rescued and is then barely mourned (or even remembered) by her hardened colleagues. Curious stuff.

This is partially made up for by a flirtatious game of cat and mouse between Eamon and Sabrina which soon turns into them trying to kill each other. Sabrina throws a bottle full of Martini over Eamon and then throws the end of a lamp cable on him in an attempt to electrocute him... which, as you may imagine, isn’t really something which works a whole lot. In retaliation, Eamon then starts to strangle Sabrina from behind and, it has to be said, the sounds and reactions Sabrina makes in this near death portrayal are... not going ot win anyone any oscars. Luckily, however, Sabrina has her special Doll Squad ring which she uses to spray mace into Eamons face and, while he’s rolling around, trying to recover, Sabrina pulls what looks like an ancient Greek sword from the wall and stabs Eamon to death. I did notice that she then picks up her pistol and I thought she was going to further put a few rounds of ammo in him just to make sure but sanity prevails here... for a good few minutes.

After this, we just have the escape from the island compound and the usual, debriefing scene at the end to sort out before going into what can only be described as one of the worst “spy songs” I’ve ever heard in my life. Now I usually love cheesy spy songs... I even use them on Valentines Day compilations for people I really like (Your Zowie Face from In Like Flint is a natural for Valentines... and also explains, maybe, why I hardly ever get the gal)... but even my eyebrows were raised when I heard this one. Shockingly bad end title music which I can only say I was deliriously happy  to hear again, as it’s on the new CD together with the score.

So there you have it. The Doll Squad... an all girl team of sexy(ish) secret agents done on a considerably low budget, with some outrageously fun stuff going on and a nice, jazzy spy score by Nicholas Carras. Definitely something which can only be appreciated these days as part of the “so bad it’s good” category but that’s okay, I can get behind that. Definitely one to watch if you have a passion for the camp and terrible.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Final Bespination

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
1980 plus subsequent ruinations USA 
Directed by Irvin Kershner
20th Century Fox BluRay Region A/B 

So the first Star Wars had a considerable impact on the Western world. Adults and children alike were seemingly talking about nothing else for the three years we had to wait for the sequel. I remember I must have read those two volumes of Marvel Treasury adaptations of the first film about 50 times in the intervening years... along with starting my big ring binders full of Star Wars sketches, articles and notes. I even “published” a single issue of a science fiction magazine for some of the kids at school... armed with my mum’s typewriter, some scissors to cut photos out of the newspapers, some glue to stick them down on the page next to the type and, with the help of the photocopier in my dad’s office... I put out something that would look amateurish by today's standards but was looking pretty good to me as a kid. I think it would be safe to say, and this may have even been a tag line on one of the posters, that The Empire Strikes Back was “the most eagerly awaited sequel of all time”. This in a time when sequels were no longer a standard thing in Hollywood.

It’s interesting but, in those days, the notion of having spoilers was not really an issue. I think Hitchcock had started a publicity campaign for not spoiling the ending of Psycho when it was released in 1960 but this was not really “a thing” for movies or TV shows in 1980. At least, that’s not how I remember it. So there was a lot of pre-publicity for this film and also a lot of knowledge about the content. Full disclosure in fact.

I remember reading Alan Dean Foster’s excellent Star Wars spin off novel, Splinter Of A Mind’s Eye, at least a year before the second movie hit our screens. If you’ve ever read it, it seems a pretty obvious conclusion that Leia has Jedi powers. In fact, it always puzzled me why so many people were speculating so hard about the line in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda turns to the ghost version of Obi Wan Kenobi and says... “No, there is another.” Had they not read Splinter Of A Mind’s Eye? I thought it was pretty obvious who “the other hope” was.

At least three months before Empire opened over here (and my brain is telling me that it was at least 6 months before but I have no conclusive dates to work from), there was a big exhibition of costumes, models and drawings from The Empire Strikes Back in Selfridges. I went three times at least (I tended to be in London a lot during school holidays) and it blew me away. This was the only way, at the time, to see a playback of the trailer for the movie which hadn’t hit British cinemas yet. It was amazing.

Both the novelisation and the paperback reprint of the US comic book came out over here many weeks (possibly months) before the movie was released and I remember reading the comic strip and being in awe that Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker’s father. These days, if you watch the entire saga in chronological order, it’s no longer a “surprise reveal” and so I guess even this information doesn’t count as a spoiler in any way these days. I was also quite intrigued, that the movie left the story on a cliffhanger. I kept my silence about this stuff because I didn’t want my mum and dad to know what was going to happen before they saw it but I remember my father, before we saw Empire, wondering out aloud if they would bother doing another sequel. I remember answering that they would be in real trouble if they didn’t.

When I finally saw the finished film it was in no way really spoiled by reading the comic strip adaptation (which in those days were often quite different in detail and expression than the work they were adapting anyway) and it surpassed, as far as I was concerned, the absolute brilliance of the first Star Wars movie (reviewed here). I was already pumped up by the comic strip, a couple of clips on clapperboard and a recently aired TV documentary on John Williams by that time but the movie certainly lived up to my, frankly, giant sized expectations.

To say it’s the darkest of the Star Wars saga is an understatement. The only film in the series that comes close in its portrayal of some pretty bleak events is The Phantom Menace (and many people would argue with me on that point I expect... it’s reviewed here if you want to take a look) and The Empire Strikes Back certainly lives up to the implication of its title. The heroes are basically on the run all the way through this movie, Han gets frozen and taken away for bounty after being betrayed by his friend in a less than black and white moral dilemma, Luke loses his hand and ends up becoming closer to Darth Vader in spirit when it is replaced by a mechanical version and... basically... the rebels who are the main protagonists lose at the end. A good dramatic answering call to the previous movie and a perfect set up for an upbeat, good triumphs over evil resolution for the next... something which I remember George Lucas was very aware of when interviewed about it a while later.

It’s also got some truly impressive set pieces such as the fantastic Battle Of Hoth (although I don’t like the “revised” snowspeeder details on the overhauled versions of the film) and the Millennium Falcon’s chase through the asteroid field. It’s also the feature film introduction of Bobba Fett, although he has now been retroactively “inserted” into the previous movie too. I remember sporting a very trendy Bobba Fett T-shirt the year the film was first released. His first appearance was actually 1978, of course, in the much ridiculed Star Wars TV Summer Special... something which I’ve still not quite brought myself to watch, over the years.

And, of course, the music by Johnny Williams is absolutely fantastic... even surpassing the excellent score he did for the first movie, for some listeners. Certainly, The Battle of Hoth gives us some of the most intricate and exciting action music of all time and his scoring for The Asteroid Field is one of his greatest cues. A slightly watered down version was used by him for years in concerts (the first time I saw him perform this live was in either 1981 or 1982 at the Barbican Centre in London) but even that version is great... although the less symmetrical version used in the movie is very powerful.

The use of leitmotif in the score gets a bit screwy unless you’re really concentrating. For instance, when Luke lands on Cloud City (Lucas’ echo of the city of the Hawkmen from the original Flash Gordon strip and serial... as we all recognised straight away) to rescue his friends, an action fanfare version of Yoda’s Theme is used in quite a striking way... even though Yoda has left the film by this point. I guess the justification here is Luke is going into battle fresh from the teachings of Yoda but... I don’t know. It always seemed a bit out of place though, frankly, too wonderful and powerful to really care about in terms of musical continuity at the time.

Unfortunately, this movie now also suffers from the curse of Star Wars revisionism. Lucas has added and subtracted bits over the years and made replacements to fit in with his extended continuity. Both the Emperor and his voice, for instance, now match with the later Ian McDiarmid version and there’s even an entirely new scene composed of using shots from a few sources, including Return Of The Jedi, where Luke and his father have a Jedi “mind conversation”. This last bit wasn’t in the movie before and, frankly, detracts rather than adds to the power of the final, rebels running away in defeat, wind down of the film.

All in all, though, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is still the greatest movie in the Star Wars saga. It kept people talking and speculating for the next three years while they were waiting for the third one and, as you would know if you spend any time on the internet at all, people are still talking and speculating about the continuing franchise to this day. The Star Wars series of films is probably the most powerful and popular series of films ever released in cinemas... and the initial strength of The Empire Strikes Back is one of the reasons why.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Guest

Guest In Peace

The Guest
2014  USA
Directed by Adam Wingard
UK cinema release print.

I saw the trailer to this movie in cinemas a few weeks ago and remember being curious as to whether the title character of this movie was supposed to be a hero or a villain... or something in between an anti-hero and a villain... but decidedly unintrigued enough to bother finding out either way. It was not a movie I’d planned on seeing.

However, fate had other things in store for me as I was going to work one day and I was passed by a red, double decker bus stopping opposite where I was awaiting my similar ride into work. The bus side advert was a poster design for The Guest and, it has to be said, this was instantly appealing. It looked like someone with the psychedelic sensibility of a budding Mario Bava had got the purple paint out and swirled it around and used it as window dressing for a completely different movie to the one I had been expecting from the trailer. This poster was beautiful and I decided then and there that any director or studio who had let this brilliant throwback design out of the gate to sell their movie deserved my backside on a seat in front of their work at the very least. Some good “tweet of mouth” on the internet over the next few days solidified that idea for me.

Now, I’ve not had great times with the director, Adam Wingard, just lately from my experience of his framing film for V/H/S (review will be coming either September or October), although his short for the original The ABCs Of Death was quite cute (again, review to follow). I might have decided against going to see it if I’d have taken careful note of the director’s name and all I can say about that is... thank goodness I didn’t take note of the director’s name.

Adam Wingard’s The Guest is a really nice little movie which has a kind of upending of audience expectations of the characters they are watching. Or maybe upending is the wrong word because, frankly, you are on your guard right from the word go that not all is what it seems and then, rather than overturn your perception of events just the once, the director kind of plays with the tropes of what is, essentially, the set up of an old style American Western and keeps the audience guessing as to both the motivations and integrity of the character all the way through.

And it’s quite a neat trick to do too because those two qualities, which are usually perceived as being mutually inclusive good things in a character, are what gives this movie its edge and they actually play against each other to get to a point where you, the audience, have to make your own judgement call on both the intentions of David, played very impressively by Dan Stevens, and the ultimate consequences of the collateral damage in the movie by that character’s direct actions.

The basic set up is an ex-soldier returning from service in the Middle East, who goes to keep an eye on/help the family of his best mate over there, who was recently deceased in service. He stays on at their house for a few days and slowly goes about fixing, in his unique way, the various problems of the remaining members of his friend’s immediate family... the mother, the father, the other son and the daughter. But there are signs, mostly conveyed through Dan Stevens' reflective facial expressions and, sometimes less than subtlely, with a sinister barrage of musical sting, that all is not right behind the brain of The Guest. 

In a way, it’s kinds like Shane filtered through the government shadow group paranoia of something like The Bourne Identity and then, when it gets to the last act, just going off the rails a bit. To say more would be to give away the main hook of watching the movie and I really do want to make this review as “spoiler free” as I can. What I will say though is, it’s not a cut and dried situation and I’d hazard a guess that if you asked a hundred people who had just watched the movie whether or not the title character was a hero or a villain, you’d probably have something like a quarter to a third of them answering in direct opposition to the remaining percentage of the sample.

The film seems quite low budget. It’s not wall to wall action, which is maybe what an audience may expect form the trailer but which is, frankly, all the better for not being that kind of Hollywood style concoction. And it also turns out that Wingard and the writer, Simon Barrett, have that sense of timing that a lot of the current talent in big budget action movie making has kind of lost... the ability to pace the movie and lead up to the set action pieces with a certain amount of the tension/release/build and then build some more aspect which make certain films with an action/thriller prospect in them so good to watch when they combine all the ingredients in the right way. Simon Barret obviously recognises just what the ingredients should be here and Adam Wingard, it turns out, is a remarkably good cook with this kind of recipe.

The other ingredients are a cast who all know their game very well and play their, sometimes stereotypical characters, with the kind of enthusiasm for the “quick character sketch” that helps you both understand the characters and sympathise with (or hate) them speedily. Which is handy in a movie like this. There’s also a nice score which mixes electronica with the occasional pop song (less keen on the songs but they certainly aren’t inappropriate) and helps heighten the tension and action expectations in key areas of the movie... and, yes, I am annoyed I couldn’t find a CD release of it on Amazon.

My one slight criticism is the gun selling sequence in the film... which has very minor shades of Taxi Driver and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in it and which, for me, becomes the one on-screen sequence which doesn’t quite glue together with the rest of the narrative in terms of a central character who wants to never be a blip on anyone’s radar. It does, however, get the story chugging into high gear for the last third of the movie and there could be justification for this if we knew a little more about the background of the character than the “absolutely essential minimum” that we are given here (which means that it can all be further explored should any sequel, arise, of course).

And that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go in terms of talking about The Guest if I want to keep it spoiler free. The film will probably be seen as a bit of a genre bender for some audience members and there will probably be another section of the audience who won’t see it like that at all... which is pretty good because it gets people talking and exploring the ideas presented here, the chief one for me being the military mind of doing what you are told you are supposed to be doing in any given situation as opposed to making moral judgements on a set of situations... which is not something that’s explored in movies often enough, it seems to me.

So, yeah, The Guest. If you like slow burn thriller and/or early American Westerns and want a good night out at the movies with a low budget entertainment that resembles those rare times when you rented a “straight to VHS” tape in the 1980s and actually discovered a bona fide, underrated classic as opposed to the usual tape fodder you would get in your local off licence or newsagent, then The Guest is definitely something you should consider inviting into your life for a couple of hours. It’s good fun.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Doctor Who: Robot Of Sherwood

The Brave And The Gold

Doctor Who: Robot Of Sherwood
UK Airdate: 6th September 2014

You know, I’ve never had much of a good time with Doctor Who when he goes back to a medieval setting and gets involved with androids. I remember the classic but, for me, boring Tom Baker story called The Androids Of Tara which, while technically not set on Earth, was at a point in the planet in the story's development where it was a dead spit of those kinds of times but cross pollinated with a futuristic, nowadays we might call it steam punk, sensibility. What it actually was, of course, was a remake of The Prisoner Of Zenda but, whatever it was, it didn’t sit well with this particular audience member at the time.

And continuing on that theme, don’t get me started on the wretched Fifth Doctor companion Kamelion, who was first introduced in the court of King John in 1215 and who was one of the most hideous ideas for a companion ever conceived... no, really don’t get me started.

About the only “androids in history” plot I’ve really taken to in recent years, I would guess, is the David Tennant story The Girl In The Fireplace, which was a real corker. Now Robot of Sherwood is, alas, nowhere near as something as good as that but, contrary to my misgivings about this one, it’s actually not a bad little episode, considering it’s all rather silly... but when did silly stop being anything other than good fun in Doctor Who.

The episode is written by Mark Gattis, who I have been mellowing to a lot in recent years, especially after his absolutely essential Doctor Who 50th year anniversary docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time (reviewed here). Here he delivers a particularly entertaining romp where we get a little more of the flavour of Peter Capaldi’s take on The Doctor as he tries to prove to Clara that Robin Of Loxley didn’t exist... something Robin himself is none too sure of.

The episode includes much homage to Robin Hood stories from the past with more than an emphasis on Errol Flynn’s classic portrayal of the character in The Adventures Of Robin Hood and also with regards to a stunt or two performed by Douglas Fairbanks and recreated here, to an extent. But all this pales in comparison to both Capaldi’s shining moment where he defeats Robin’s sword with a spoon (nice scene that) and in regards to the chemistry between Tom Riley (as Robin Hood), Clara and The Doctor. There are some great scripted moments which highlight the banter between these three, with Clara definitely getting all the points for being the cleverest one in the show, for most of the story, so that’s good. Ben Miller’s turn as the inevitable Sheriff Of Nottingham is also a good one and he matches the congenial lack of gravitas within the script with all the enthusiasm of the others. Cracking dialogue, for the most part, which mostly made up for the story being so... well... a bit rubbish.

The story, such as it is, goes with the idea that a bunch of robots are harvesting gold via the Sherif’s taxes to be able to repair their damaged spaceship, handily disguised as part of an English castle. The reality is, though, that it doesn’t have much substance or make any real pretence to have any, other than to be a story which one can hang on examples of the growing nature of Clara and The Doctor’s current relationship and a few light and fluffy action pieces.

That being said, however, it does manage to hit high in the “entertainment” stakes and deliver the kind of light and fluffy that Doctor Who has always been good at over the years, when it wants to do that kind of thing. So well done to Gatiss for writing such a good ‘un... even if the climax did seem a little pointless and... um... yeah, I said it was silly, right?

Other than that though, nice music which once again gave us some nice versions of Clara’s theme, got us a little closer to the new version of The Doctor in terms of leitmotif elements plundered from the last few years and even did the obvious, though very welcome, Korngold as filtered by Zimmer kind of grooves that everyone was probably expecting, to be fair. Still, not to be sneezed at and it’s hard enough doing stuff like this on a small scale budget and with the kind of deadline demands top shows like this probably incur. So big thumbs up for me on that front too, I must say, and I look forward to cues from this on the inevitable Siva Screen CD to tie in with this series at some point in the near future. Some nice stuff here.

The trailer for next weeks episode looks like it’s the good Doctor going back to dark and scary stuff and I have to say, I definitely approve of that kind of direction, especially for Capaldi’s incarnation. Now that is an episode I am looking forward to... so I’ll hopefully see you here again next week as I pull that one apart, if you can make it. Good bye for now.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Zatoichi The Fugitive (Zatôichi Kyôjô-Tabi)

Dice, Dice, Baby.

Zatoichi The Fugitive (Zatôichi Kyôjô-Tabi)
1963 Japan
Directed by Tokuzô Tanaka
Daiei/Criterion Collection 
DVD Region 1/BluRay Region A

Warning: Yeah, some spoilers on this one too.

Here we are on the fourth of the Zatoichi films already, crammed into the same year and shot by the same director who did the previous movie, New Tale Of Zatoichi (reviewed here). Curiously enough, the way the shots are designed and function appeared, at least to me as I was watching it, to be the work of another director entirely... or perhaps a different cinematographer? It’s certainly not the same kind of approach this director took previously, although he does still exhibit a fondness for slicing up the scope frame into sections.

The film starts boldly with a shot of the sky which is quite peaceful looking, until Zatoichi walks straight into the frame from the side. This is not long shot, either, it’s quite up close and “in your face” with the character, so the effect is quite unsettling and must have been terrific when shown at cinemas.

We then have a nice change of pace for a Zatoichi movie in that, instead of gambling his way into some money to keep himself going, he here volunteers to be next challenger in a “who can beat the current champion” style wrestling match. Of course, his enhanced senses never fail him and he leaves heavier and more energetic victims in the dust of their defeat while he collects his cut of the money.

Then something happens.

As Zatoichi is enjoying a quiet, riverside siesta, a man who is obviously ignorant of his swordsmanship skills... attacks Zatoichi. Our hero tries to not get into a fight and offers ample chances for the man to back down but, in the end, Zatoichi slays his antagonist. As the man lays dying, Zatoichi finds out the name of his mother and takes her the reward money he finds has been offered on his own head. So here we see a trend beginning in the movie which relays to us that Zatoichi has now become both famous and infamous, depending on the side of the coin you are looking at. Dealing, as it does, with the idea of the tales of Zatoichi's exploits being retold in taverns and making him a kind of working class hero to various villagers. And, of course, his reputation with his sword also brings unwanted trouble from the constant amount of people who want to pit their own mettle against his.

What’s interesting is that the story cunningly sets up a constant threat to the lead character by putting a price on Zatoichi’s head, so that an action sequence can pop up at any time to change the pacing of the movie when required... but then doesn’t rely on this as the sole cause of conflict in the narrative. Instead, it shows us the side of the hero who is left, once gain, dealing with the consequences of the people he’s slain and the guilt he feels over that, especially when he was obviously attacked by someone who had no idea of the measure of the adversary he faced.

All this is done to some mighty fine camera work and shot design, it has to be said... the director splitting the shots quite strikingly in a horizontal manner. Indeed, most of the time, he deliberately subdues the vertical parts of the shots, strangely enough. Knowing the standard construction of the building interiors in this kind of cinema, this couldn’t have been the easiest task but he does this again and again throughout the movie by putting groupings of people across the obvious vertical patterns, in order to neutralise them somewhat, it seems to me. He also splits this into diagonals but, again, long horizontal oriented angles which cut nearly the entire widescreen frame into two sectors... top and bottom Often, one of the sectors, horizontal or diagonal, is deliberately just a large block of space to focus you on the area of the screen where something is happening and to highlight the importance of certain conversations or key bits of information etc.

Another interesting thing the director does, and this is even true at the very start of the film in the description I gave in the second paragraph, to some extent, is to have some pretty short establishing shots and then either force a different perspective into the shot, like in that opening sequence, or just cutting away immediately to extreme close ups of the characters within the scene. This can be extremely disorienting at times but... also, fun.

This director certainly loves playing with the juxtaposition of shapes and elements within a frame. There’s a beautiful shot where Zatoichi passes someone going up a flight of stairs and they both stop for a moment, directly next to each other, without looking around. Seen in close up of their profile, their bodies form a single mass as though a single trunk is sprouting two heads, each head looking outwards towards the opposite edges of the screen... before it cuts to a perfect reverse shot of exactly the same thing. Ingmar Bergman often used to play with bodies and faces within frame space in his films in this manner and he would have appreciated this particular composition, I’m sure.

Camerawork aside, this film has some classic moments of interest in it.

There’s a nice little moment where our blind protagonist throws a dice into a man’s saki bottle. He then flicks his sword and the bottle slowly falls apart from a vertical slice which splits the bottle into two halves and splits the dice in the bottle in half, all without hurting the man, who is still holding the bottle. This is where the Zatoichi films start to get a little over the top with their depictions of the lead character’s mystical sword skills... and why not? It's all great stuff and a welcome change of pace to some of the more poe faced characters inhabiting some of the more traditional chanbara movies.

The fight sequence at the end really piles on the sword fodder as a trapped Zatoichi begins a brilliant fight that starts in a deserted house, then continues outside, then into some water (a nice bit of sword and splashery here), then into some long grass and then back into some sand before Zatoichi takes on the lead strongman (which most of these movies seem to have). Actually, the samurai in question bears a remarkable resemblance, to these Western eyes, to a young Toshiro Mifune when he was appearing in films like Yojimbo and Sanjuro, although it would of course be several years before Mifune would guest star in this series of films to go head to head with Shintarô Katsu’s beloved blind swordsman.

In the final fight, the new guy is almost a match for Zatoichi and, in a rare display of mortality for the Zatoichi character, nearly defeats him. In fact, he even breaks Zatoichi’s sword cane so it’s useless, something which I still think contradicts the continuity of a later film in the series (I’ll let you know and shout it out in no uncertain terms when I get there again). However, Zatoichi isn’t finished yet and, as the big guy comes in for the kill, Zatoichi strikes with a small dagger he has as a hidden extra in the top of his cane... something which I don’t seem to remember seeing in Ichi’s arsenal either before or after this film, to be honest. The film is a little more graphic in a way, at this point, as the up-close-and-personal killer thrust leaves Zatoichi’s brow spattered with his adversary’s blood. The films kinda leap between graphic goriness and more subtle approaches, almost randomly, throughout the entire run of films if I remember, and this certainly isn’t the most graphically violent of the Zatoichi movies by a long shot (Takeshi Kitano even stole a most memorable piece of violence from one of the later films for his own take on the character, decades later, if I’m remembering correctly).

The film is well scored by series semi-regular Akira Ifikube and also very leanly spotted*, like a lot of Ifikube’s scores. This allows him to really emphasise certain points in the movie, such as this end fight where Zatoichi is wounded in the arm to a flurry of Ifikube bombast on the score. A kind of protracted musical sting that works very well. And, of course, that means the four note Zatoichi theme, in a slightly different variation, gets a work out too, throughout the course of the picture.

What more can I say? Zatoichi The Fugitive is a classic Zatoichi movie and we even get to hear some of his one-line wisdom... “Life's dirt sticks to everyone” although, to be fair, it really doesn’t go down too well in the context of who he says this to in the film. Definitely a great watch for Zatoichi and chanbara fans alike. One of the best in the series.

*Spotting is where a composer will sit down with someone, usually the director, and work out which parts of the movie will be scored, where and when the various cues for each section will start and finish, and discuss other things like the intensity of the music and its purpose in a scene. Quite often, and Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith was a master of this, it’s as much about working out where you don’t put music, as where you do.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Keeper Of Lost Causes (Kvinden I Buret)

Jeepers Keepers

The Keeper Of Lost Causes (Kvinden I Buret)
2012  Denmark/Germany/Sweden
Directed by Mikkel Nørgaard
UK cinema release print.

Okay, I’ll come clean and confess that the main reason that I went and saw this film is because my local cinema rarely ever gets films which aren’t made in either the US or, at a push, the UK. Since this was a rare exception to the normal programming habits of my local multiplex... and since films with subtitles barely even last a week around my local... I thought I’d get myself down there and check this one out while I had the chance.

I would be lying if I said that the marketing spiel revealing that the screenplay was written by the person who did similar duties on the first movie version of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in any way drew me in. I’ve seen (and reviewed on this very blog) the various adaptations of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and found them all lacking and pale when compared to the original novels. The only plus side of that, in regards to this particular film, is the fact that I’ve not actually read the book this movie is based on, coming as it does from a series of novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen about a police detective and his assistant who work in “Department Q”. I’ll get to just what Department Q is in a minute.

The Keeper Of Lost Causes is a great little thriller with a strong opening involving an incident that, when all is said and done, relegates our main protagonist, Karl played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, to being assigned a quiet basement job in the newly formed Department Q. Said department being just Karl and his new Arabian assistant Assad, played by Fares Fares, who makes his coffee far too strong for Karl to stomach. Their job is to go through every old, desperate cold case on the books, at a rate of three a week, read through them, write a two page report and then close the case. However, Karl is actually a very smart detective and it soon becomes apparent that he and Assad are on the trail of a killer and start to seriously investigate the case of a missing girl who supposedly threw herself from a ferry, with a suicide verdict on the record. But like Karl says... who takes their brain damaged brother on a ferry with them if they’re just going to kill themselves?

If this plot seems a little clichéd and run of the mill... well, alright it kinda is. But it’s the artistry and entertainment value of the film which puts it squarely at the top of it’s game compared to many other TV shows and films going down the same route. Couple of things to point out here.

The characters are great. They’re not too thinly drawn and Karl and Assad have kind of a chemistry between them which makes the journey with them an enjoyable one. I particularly found myself identifying with Karl since he never smiles and is often perceived as being miserable around his colleagues, none of whom want to work with him other than Assad (and I’m not all that sure about Assad either, at least at the start of the movie). The brain damaged brother of the missing girl is also a triumph in acting and his presence and the way he interacts with those around him, gives further insight into the personalities of our main protagonists.

Another thing is the way the story is presented. We have the present, which is Karl and Assad investigating the cold case which they have unofficially opened and we have the back story of the missing victim, as we slowly being to unravel what really happened to her and it’s the crosscutting between the two different ends of the story that makes things interesting. Because of the passage of time, it doesn’t take long for the back story of the crime to start catching up to present day and as the two time zones get closer and closer, we begin to be uncertain as to whether the girl in question actually did eventually die or whether the events we are seeing transpiring in some sections are up to date... and the only way the audience knows this is as both parts of the story climax at the end of the film... so it’s a pretty suspenseful piece of film making because, after you see what the girl goes through in the course of her story, you really want her to still be alive by the time our much maligned (by their own people) detectives come onto the scene. And I’m certainly not going to tell you what happens here because I’m trying to make this review as spoiler free as I can.

The other thing which sparked my interest as I watched the film was the fact that the film has a certain grittiness and hard edge to it in content, but it doesn’t match that rough texture in either its art design or the way in which shots are filmed and edited (other than for a layer or two of designer grime where appropriate). Everything is very precise and fluid in the world of this movie. Compositions are nice to look at and there’s no hand-held shaky cam to emphasise the harrowing nature of some of the scenes. This is, of course, as valid an artistic choice as any other and it certainly pays off here. The shots have a very clean feel to them and it’s perhaps the contrast between the nature of the content of some of the story and the sturdy, even conservative, mise en scene that ensures the story packs such a wallop in a few scenes.

Whatever the reason, the film works for me.

It’s technically a part of a sub-genre of cinema which has been labelled by the current crop of cinephiles as Nordic Noir. Now I don’t really like labels such as these. I find standard genre labels problematic for the most part so sub-genres such as this are not my favourite thing. That being said, there is a steady movement of loyal and passionate people watching this stuff and I have to say that the few I have seen/read which could be compartmentalised with this kind of stuff has been pretty good. The cynic in me says that’s because the UK and US companies are only willing to buy the cream of the crop from these countries, and I guess there’s something in that, to be sure. Whichever way you cut it, though, it’s very much a popular flavour of literature/cinema and TV culture at the moment and worth exploring if you get a chance. Certainly, The Keeper Of Lost Causes is a great police procedural thriller and I’m pleased to say, since this movie is already two years old before it even got a cinema release in this country, that the first sequel starring the same two actors in the lead roles is already being filmed this year. Hopefully we’ll get that one released over here a lot quicker than we got this one.

So there you have it. A strong movie which might even make me go and seek out the novels, if I can find a decent English translation of them. Certainly something lovers of mystery and detective movies will want to see, so its a hard recommendation from me. And if your love of the mysteries of Nordic Noir are not sated by this movie, look at Andy Lawrence’s website Eurodrama (Nordic Noir and Beyond) here for loads of information about the kinds of stuff you should be checking out if you like stuff such as this.

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

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...