Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Soror




Soror Express

Soror
2014 UK
Directed by James Webber

Soror is a short film by James Webber, a talented young director who I follow on twitter. I reviewed an earlier short film by him, Driftwood, on this blog here and I reckon I must have done an okayish job on that one because, after having seen a trailer for Soror on the internet and being pumped up to see it, the director allowed me to get a sneak preview of this one before it’s released. Hopefully he won’t mind me reviewing it here if I promise not to give too much away.

The film opens with a young girl asleep in a tracking shot which is replaced by an angle closer to her via crosscutting through white on black opening credits.This is set to a haunting piece of piano music by Richard Keyworth which shifts gear, directly after the title of the film comes up, to a more richly textured version of this, as a guitar spills into the orchestration to lift you into the experience of two half-sisters sharing a bond. It shows a good understanding of the way music can be used to support and add tone to a piece when used in this manner.

Visually the film is absolutely brilliant… which is what I'd expected from this guy, actually. There's a sequence near the start where the younger of the two daughters is being pushed around in a shopping trolley by her half-sister. The film is played back in slow motion, demonstrating a perfect marriage of camera movement going almost counter to the motion already created within the shot and highlighted by the passing verticals of a fence which this sequence is being shot through, to emphasise that counter motion. It's then edited perfectly and marries up with a continuation of that shot at a different angle. This, again with the addition of music for this part, gives the look and feel of the film an almost fairytale-like quality, which is a tone the movie manages to retain throughout, even when there is a large amount of tension within a scene. It's also a visual style which echoes throughout the length of the short and may well be a future sign of one of this director's visual fingerprints, I suspect. Bit too early to tell possibly but... take another look in ten years time and I reckon this may be a typical approach for this artist.

These slower, graceful pieces of motion are then pitched against hand-held, almost-but-not-quite- static shots which are little mini montages of a very short duration, building up glimpses of, say, a character revealing an attitude through the performance… rather than jarring against what has come before or after it. The editing is such that the flow of the film is left undisturbed during the transitions to and from these sections. Amazingly.

And the performances here by the main actors are amazing. Kate Dickie plays the mother of one of them and I already knew her through her outstanding work in a film called Outcast (reviewed here) but the two other leads, played by Rosie Day as the younger and Sian Breckin as the older of the two half-sisters respectively, are also quite amazing and do an absolutely fantastic job in this. A great deal of the acting and emoting is heart rending and raw which, pitched against the visual style... oh, wait, I’ll get back to that again in a minute.

The director also utilises a spin on an old trick favoured by directors since talkies began. One which I personally mostly associate with people like Akira Kurosawa or William Friedkin. This is to have the soundscape change dramatically from scene to scene… such as the almost silent shots of Kate Dickie looking at herself in a mirror cutting to a babble of background conversation in a dressing room at the younger daughter’s dance school. Amazingly, though, the sharp contrast between sound doesn't actually jump you into the next section of the movie with any kind of aftershock. Webber, in association with his talented sound designer Helen Miles (this guy seems to have a knack for picking outstanding collaborators), use the contrasting elements in a different way to those film-makers I mentioned… and this demonstrates a degree of subtlety I wouldn't have expected from a lot of people these days, to be honest.

However, the director does use the contrast of sped up and slowed down film and slowed down sound to produce a sharper contrast within certain scenes. It's like the audience is thrust into a surreal hyper-vision of the reality surrounding the characters but from a dream-like point of view… so it's like you're given a new primer to translate the visual and audio language of the film as you're going along. Which takes you into an understanding of the way you decode the shot information on the director’s terms a lot quicker and easier than you might imagine from my description here.

I don't want to spoil the story for you but it's a tale of the way the mother and the two sisters relate to each other and it's quite an intensely sad character sketch, in some ways. But, because of the beauty of the way in which it's told, the film is also quite uplifting in some moments too. For example, the younger of the two performs a brief dance solo and, when she goes through her choreography, this is pitched for the camera in two alternating, cross cut realities of that set of rhythm and movement. It’s actually a very uplifting glimpse into the way the mind’s eye sees something and how that beauty can be equally captured in real life. And as you can probably guess by the tone of this review, I was quite impressed by it.

In conclusion, Soror is a story of the very real and everyday moments of the, often, horrible weight of living… but it's not kitchen sink drama or, say, something that someone like Mike Leigh would do with the same material. It's looked at in an almost voyeuristic fashion with a camera which focuses on the beauty of the passing of time, as opposed to the details of the misery you would see if you were living through these experiences yourself… and that's why film is an art and it's why this film is a very good example of why film is considered an art… at least for this enthusiastic member of this film's audience. It shows reality through an almost dream-like visual and aural language which renders even the most tragic scenarios into a reflective beauty of their own. And that takes a heck of a lot of skill and dedication from the director, the producers, the cast and crew. I’m hoping that this guy and his team graduate into shooting commercially released feature films soon because, frankly, I think this director could well be one of the future greats of British movie making. Somebody needs to throw money and distribution deals at this guy soonest. If you get a chance, then this short film Soror is definitely one you should get a look at. It’s sheer poetry from start to finish and it’s something that people should know about.

You can read more about the production details of this film and see the trailer here at www.sororfilm.com

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Purge: Anarchy




Unexpurgated

The Purge: Anarchy
2014 USA/France
Directed by James DeMonaco
Cinema release print.

It’s funny. Although it was only last year, I thought I'd remembered not really being overly fond of The Purge, the first movie in this series. However, I just looked back at the review I wrote of that one (which you can find here) and I actually didn’t give it a bad write up. I was quite defensive about it on some points and, interestingly, one of the points I was going to push in my review of this film, also is pre-empted by me in that initial review. I also picked up on a fair few problems with that first movie and, I have to say, at least one of those problems is repeated in this one too.

The Purge: Anarchy retains none of the characters of the first film and is set one year after the events of that first installment, in the year 2023. It takes the central premise from the original, a twelve hour Government sanctioned period where any crime, including murder, is legal... to keep the crime rate down for the rest of the year... and runs with it. Now it doesn’t expand a great deal on the initial idea but, what it does do, is it explores the obvious symptoms of The Purge and also enhances the, perhaps somewhat obvious, hidden agenda as to why the government wants these annual purges happening.

While the first movie was pretty much a siege turns into a home invasion movie... this installment plays out as the absolute opposite of that tactic. It concerns multiple sets of characters who are, for whatever reason, out on the streets and trying to get to shelter while trying to survive the animalistic death orgy that is the annual “purge”. This surprised me somewhat because I thought it was going to just be a slightly altered re-tread of the first one and, while I had obvious reservations about that, this one really appealed to me and I enjoyed this a whole lot better than the original... despite the fact that Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey weren’t in this one.

It’s an ensemble piece, of course, and the various protagonists are all pretty strong in this. My particular favourite was the main antihero character “Sergeant”... played with great presence by Frank Grillo, who played one of the main "H.Y.D.R.A inside S.H.I.E.L.D" bad guys in the last Captain America movie (reviewed here). He does an absolutely bang up job as a tight lipped, no nonsense, knight in tainted armour killing machine and I read just today that the majority of his dialogue, including his back story, was cut from the movie. Now this is interesting because I bet he wouldn’t have been as half an interesting or compelling character if he’d been talking all the way through so I find it interesting that an already good performance can be strengthened via the “less is more” route in the editing.

I was thinking all the way through the film that, if this had been shot in the late 1960s or early 1970s, this central character would have been played by either Charlton Heston or Yul Brinner... because this is exactly the sort of violent, dystopian science fiction thriller that they would have both had lent their talents to... although I’m not sure Heston would have liked the underlying message of the movie. I touched on this in my review of the first movie but The Purge: Anarchy is very much in synch with the story and attitude to specific films like Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Rollerball, Soylent Green, Westworld and The Ultimate Warrior... almost all of which starred either Heston or Brinner, of course (the exception being Rollerball). I guess a late 1970s/early 1980s comparison could also be made via films like The Warriors and Escape From New York. Just a small bunch of individuals trying to survive a night in the city. Always good for a “hang any action stealth/chase sequence you like on it” kind of plot and these kinds of films can be kind of entertaining (although I seem to remember not thinking much of The Warriors when I saw it back in the heady days of “the video rental age”).

While the film is violent, the concept is pushed out just a little bit to include an anti-Purge faction and what I can only describe as a Government “enhancement” group... in that the government are found to be slaughtering citizens wholesale as an augmentation to the purge because they are required to keep the population down. There’s always a reason that Governments pass these stupidly Draconian laws and, while the reasons are left pretty much to your own speculation in the first movie, this one blatantly comes out with the idea near the end of the movie.

The class structure is once again explored, in this one. There’s even a big tip of the hat to The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff) in that a whole load of people are captured and taken to a wealthy mansion and courtyard area where rich people bid vast sums to hunt and purge on the poor, huddled and, obviously, unarmed masses in a controlled area with the added advantage of the latest state of the art weaponry. Of course, if this sounds too much like shooting fish in a barrel well... don’t worry, it is... but it’s Hollywoodland time here so, you know, I don’t want to say too much about what happens in this scene but it certainly relates to my next paragraph.

The one problematic thing about this movie, which is also very much a hang over from the first film, as far as I remember, is the number of “deux ex machina” style moments where someone is saved from certain death by the intervention of another character or group of characters the audience had temporarily forgotten about. Like the first film, there’s just way too many of these moments in this one but I have to cut it a little slack because I guess there’s more chance of that kind of thing happening when you’re working on a bigger canvas and not confined to fighting your battles inside a small home. I do, though, think these moments do become quite tiresome, repetitive and increasingly unbelievable as the movie progresses to its final conclusion.

However, this is small price to pay for a film which holds, as its central idea, the concept that guns and violence are a bad thing and I am once again amazed that a film which is so blatantly anti-gun law and opposed to “the right to bear arms” is not heavily snipped by the American censors. Sure, the film revels in violence (well, violence in art is quite often very watchable, to be fair) and it does the obvious thing of trying to have it’s cake and eat it in terms of the play off between the violent nature of the film and the underlying message of anti-violence but, as far as I’m concerned, the subtext of the movie, which is reenforced by the action, or should that be inaction, of one of the lead characters near the films denouement, kind of wins my heart over on this one. As far as I’m concerned, this can only be a good thing and I just hope that all this doesn’t go over the heads of a the teenage audience that these kinds of entertainments are primarily aimed at.

The Purge: Anarchy is a nice bit of violent science-fiction that preserves the lineage I outlined earlier in this review without missing the point of some of those films. It’s a much more entertaining and thoughtful, if not overly subtle, tale than its predecessor and if you are into these kinds of action fests then you will probably be into this one. Definitely something I will catch again in the next couple of years.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope




Cool Han, Luke

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
1977 plus subsequent ruinations USA 
Directed by George Lucas
20th Century Fox BluRay Region A/B 

So this film was pretty much my life for 6 and a bit years.

When I first saw it, back at the very end of 1977 when it was released in the UK, I was two weeks shy of my tenth birthday. It was just called Star Wars back then. Lucas had no real thoughts of it making enough money to do a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1978 thetrical re-release that he retroactively redid the opening to reflect the Episode IV: A New Hope title (many people say it was later but I remember going to see it again in 1978 with that title). I went and saw the original version at the Dominion cinema in London (now a theatre which shows musicals) and the crowd scrabbling for entry beneath the massive, giant, illuminated signage poster artwork was a leviathan of chaos.

The Dominion cinema was pretty much one of the bigger cinemas, the likes of which you just don’t get in London today. It was an ideal venue for a film which pretty much blew away most people who went and saw it. It was the biggest cinematic event I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much the hype and the pre-marketing of this film, after it had already premiered in the US, dwarfed pretty much any modern blockbuster to this day. The only thing which came near it was when I had to queue around the block for a midnight screening (at least a day after the release) of Tim Burton’s Batman back in 1989... but as big as that was in terms of media saturation, the original 1977 Star Wars was like a bomb going off in everyone’s collective consciousness. I don’t remember it playing for less than three months at my local cinema and this was in the days when cinemas had one screen only, remember.

The film is simplistic in theme and content while still retaining a gritty, lived in look for the setting. The effects were so groundbreaking that Lucas even had to set up Industrial Light and Magic part of the way into production and invent new ways of doing things, just to cope with the demands of what was required. It payed off big time... people had never seen anything as slick as this in the space opera genre on the big screen (or small, come to that) before. An homage to those old theatrical serials that Lucas loved as a kid (who doesn’t love those serials?), Star Wars was shopped around through a lot of studios before 20th Century Fox agreed to pick it up. This was after Lucas had already tried to acquire the screen rights to his beloved Flash Gordon, of course. Once he was refused, he made his own homage to Flash Gordon with his own characters... who later became Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Obi Wan Kenobi etc... after a fair few rewrites.

The way it affected me personally was to engulf almost the whole of my life at the time.

I read the Marvel Comics, listened to the double vinyl LP record on almost constant replay, collected and swapped the two sets of blue and red bubble gum cards that came out in the UK (not knowing that the Americans had three other sets released after these until over a decade later), played with the action figures when they, eventually, hit the shelves and kept two or three ring binders full of my own sketches, notes and articles based on the first two Star Wars films. It was all I, and many of my friends, ate, breathed and slept apart from when we were eating, breathing and sleeping the various bandwagon spin off movies that followed hot on the heels of Lucas’ magnum opus (Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Trek The Motion Picture etc.). It was a phenomenon which I don’t expect to see repeated in my lifetime.

On BluRay we have to live with the “revised through various versions to buggery” editions. So, I think it would be fair to say, the film has never looked as bad as it does now but, even with the annoying additions and alterations, you can still see a lot of the sheer genius and panache coming through which marked this film as the real deal back in the day. It’s a shame that it’s been so tinkered with on subsequent editions, where backdrops now come alive with moving CGI creatures and ships which kinda fill the screen more... but somehow leave you with less of an experience.

There are, of course, some big problems with the prequels to this film not tying up too well. I mentioned in my review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (which you can read here) that there’s no way Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru wouldn’t recognise C3PO, who is effectively the mechanical son of Darth Vader, when they saw him because he’d been living with them for a long period of time not even two decades before. Similarly the ageing process of both Obi Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin, not to mention the significant amount of time it takes to construct the first Death Star in relation to the time it takes to knock up the second one for Return Of The Jedi, really doesn’t hold water when you inspect it all closely.

Now this is further nitpicking, I’m sure (nitpicking is the path to strong continuity decisions my friends) but in the scene where Obi Wan Kenobi is blatantly lying to Luke about his father... certain point of view my ass, lying is lying... he also compounds his lie with the completely unnecessary fib that his father wanted him to have his lightsabre when Luke was old enough to have it. Well excuse me but Vader assumes his one child (he doesn't know they are 'twins' in Revenge Of The Sith) died with his wife... presumably until he learns different somewhere in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Also, although Lucas was smart enough to add a shot of Obi Wan retrieving Anakin's lightsabre, post duel, this could hardly be, by any stretch of the imagination, representative of the specific sentiment that Obi Wan expresses to Luke in this specific scene.

Another thing Obi Wan says, and you may want to attribute (aka stupidly retroactively attempt to justify) this to the effects of old age, is that he has 't gone by the name of Obi Wan since before Luke was born. Nope mate. Completely wrong. Just saw it in the last movie... you were still going by the name Obi Wan until shortly after Luke was born. So this really is not good attention to detail and both this and the previous problem of Anakin's lightsabre are both examples of many foolish mis-steps which the prequel trilogy has created where none existed before.

The film was, of course, not without it's problems when it first came out as a stand alone experience. Many of these, such as the stormtrooper who bumps his head on a door, are remembered affectionately by fans of the series but I, lunkheaded viewer that I am, only now noticed one particular one on this last viewing (even though I've probably seen the film close to 50 times since 1977). The particular case in point is when Luke and Han steal the stormtroopers' uniforms. One of the more spectacular things found in this first Star Wars movie was that "laser guns" had real, visible consequences. They were just like regular, bullet firing guns... only prettier. They ricocheted, they left scorch holes in their wake and the guns had a recoil to them. It was details like this that set Star Wars apart from many of its predecessors and, sadly, many of its successors. Why then, I ask you, after you hear the laser blasts as Luke and Han incapacitate two stormtroopers to steal their uniforms, are their costumes all squeaky clean and free from blast holes? This enquiring mind wants to know.

Asides from all the little niggling negatives, though, the original Star Wars still holds up as a really decent movie. The device that Lucas attributes as a steal from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, that of telling an extraordinary story from the viewpoint of the two lowliest characters (in this case the droids R2D2 and C3PO) works very well in dragging you right into the story straight away and engages you in a way that other films with a different starting point are not always able to do.  The plotting is simplistic but ferociously paced and doesn't let up until the end credits.  much like those old 1930s and 1940s serials that George Lucas was trying to emulate. Heck, even the opening title pyramid crawl was a particular gimmick used in a lot of the serials specific to the Universal studio... and in this particular instance it might be worth pointing out that this style of recap was used in the third of the Flash Gordon serials... Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe.

There's one last thing I want to properly mention before bringing this little review to a close because I think it's important in that this was another way in which the film has had, still to this day, a lasting impact on the way many films are made... and it was all down to John Williams', frankly, outstanding score.

Before this film, the age old way of scoring a Hollywood film with a lush, orchestral score the likes of which the Steiners, Korngolds and Newmans of this world used to provide, had gone way out of style somewhere around the late 1950s/early 1960s. Directors wanted more jazzy, funkier and transparent soundscapes for their films. The music had to be hip. It had to be cool and, mostly, it had to have a hit title song if at all possible. Now Johnny Williams (soon to be listed with the shortened, more respectable form of his first name) had already bucked that trend a little a couple of years before this movie... when he provided an absolutely brilliant score for Steven Spielberg's first film Jaws. For this film, rather than take the space aged, modernistic, computerised tones most associated with sci-fi pictures, Lucas wanted a proper, full Golden Aged Hollywood, wall to wall score for his movie and this is exactly what Williams gave him... he gave him "the full Korngold", so to speak. When the record sales for the film were in, not to mention John Williams winning his third Oscar for this score, the studios realised that, not only could romantic, classical music still work as a viable option for a film score... It was also still incredibly popular. Popular enough to get some serious cash back from the record sales. And that's why many film scores to this day still use this Golden Age approach to the scoring... because Johnny Williams proved it could still work wonders in support of a movie.

So that's all I have to say, in this particular kind of venue, about the first Star Wars movie. Still a good film and although it has many added revisions, on the Blu Ray version Lucas has at least softened the much criticised ( and rightly so) Greedo shoots first revision. On the Blu Ray the two gun shots happen faster, pretty much simultaneously, and you can kind of justify to yourself that Greedo’s blaster just went off as a muscle spasm reaction to Han's killing shot. It was kind of impossible for either of them to miss at that close range anyway.

So, yes, a marred film now but still a classic. I still have the “untampered with” versions of the original trilogy on a special DVD release from around 6 or 7 years ago and I won't be parting with those versions anytime soon.  An elegant movie from a more civilised time... not as clumsy or random as a director's cut. The greatest Star Wars movie, however, was just three years away...

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli (aka Ms. Stiletto)



Blade In Full 

Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli (aka Ms. Stiletto)
1969 Italy/ West Germany
Directed by Bruno Corbucci
WFF Productions DVD Region 0

A quick word to the wise: By a bizarre coincidence, the same day I had planned to watch this film, I discovered that there was also a so called “full version” of it posted on YouTube. I was surprised at this due to the nature and content of some of the scenes depicted on the back of the box and, sure enough, when I had a quick look at the YouTube version, it’s been censorially butchered by as much as ten minutes, with many sexy sequences gone, giving the film a completely different and, somewhat tame, feel. So my advice is... don’t watch the stupid version on You Tube and try to source a copy from somewhere else if you want to see this one. Oh... and I guess there’s kind of a spoiler in this review but, honestly, it’s not that kind of movie.

Well this is a bit of a fun romp!

Directed by Sergio Corbucci’s brother Bruno... Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli is based on one of the first of the adult themed, erotic fumettis (Italian comics, not fotonovels... which is an English bastardisation of the term) from 1966 and onwards by Sandro Angiolini. Set in 17th Century France (think Dumas’ Musketeer kinda times), it tells of a young girl’s survival after seeing her family castle stormed and her parents and friends butchered, which all takes place in cracking pace before the swirling, “of their time”, psychedelic opening credits. The film then jumps to a grown up Isabella (played by the lovely Brigitte Skay) who has been living with her “new” family, a bunch of gypsies, by whom she has been trained, since that fateful day, to be able to handle herself in a fair fight. We know this much because the introduction of our fully grown protagonist shows Isabella beating her friend in a contest which involves her throwing two knives simultaneously and splitting apples with them... which have been propped up on the horns of an animal skull. All good stuff.

However, when nobility comes knocking, she leaves her new, good, honest, thieving family and starts living with her peers... using herself as bait to lure out the various assassins who have been sent to finish the job from all those years ago.

And that’s about it as far as the plot goes. The film is foremost an exploitation movie which is intent on giving you lots of sex, action, broad comedy and heaps of unnecessary but mostly appreciated nudity. Which, frankly, I am assuming reflects the original comic book rather well... can’t say for sure since I’ve never read an issue of this one but the film is suitably lurid enough to capture the essence of similar products I have read.

For example, Isabella tends to wear her swordfighting clothes (typical “three musketeers” style costuming) with quite a few of the top half buttons undone, which means her cute bosoms are threatening to burst out at every shot, of course. This means that shots of her running up and down castle ramparts and engaging in what can only be described as energetic swordfights with lots of lunging and thrusting, are all made even more spectacular by the anticipation of a costume malfunction at any moment and, being as this is a film which is happy to cater for popular tastes, her costume does exactly that on more than one occasion... with things popping out at opportune occasions.

The direction and camerawork are all quite beautiful and Bruno Corbucci obviously has as fine an eye for "the elegant shot" as his brother. Lots of shots are taken from low angles, which I found most interesting, and the screen does tend to get split up into vertical rectangles on occasions in terms of the placement of people against foreground or background objects.

The style of some of the camerawork is of particular note in that many times we will be moving around and following a character or group of characters with a handheld camera but, then, the shot will suddenly stop moving and we will find that we have been lead to a place where we can observe a static and nicely composed composition as the characters go into the shot and we are left behind observing. It’s a curious way of filming things but it works quite well and we are given the impression of following along and being lead to some observation point where we can step back and take a breather. Cracking stuff.

The handheld camera also comes into play during most of the sword fights, where we tend to get right in on the action with a few of the characters while the battle rages around us out of shot, before we cut to an establishing shot after each set of ferocious engagements.

Some of the dialogue writing is laughable and maybe that’s quite faithful, coming from a comic, but I similarly enjoyed it immensely. Some of the throwaway lines, such as when Isabella first parts ways with her makeshift family and says "I'll write you a letter as soon as I learn how.", were quite telling in terms of filling in the characters and their varied skill sets. And of course, amongst ripping lines of dialogue such as "The idea that she is still alive is anathema to me." and the nonsensical but wonderful "Don't worry child. We have secret medicines to revive the dead.", we are also reminded of the exploitational quality of the film at every turn, such as with the following exchange between the German bad guy Baron Von Nutter and a lady acquaintance which goes thusly...

Baron: "I assure you my dear, among the German nobility, the greatest art is the art of love."
Lady friend: "Your younger brother is altogether too artistic."

Just how much of an exploitational romp is this movie?

Well some of the wonderful, stand out moments in the film includes the following: a lesbian bath scene that turns into a murder attempt, the aforementioned swordfighting with Isabella’s breasts threatening to pop out of her shirt at every sword thrust which leads to a scene near the end where she gets into topless swordplay, a bizarre contest to sexually stimulate a man into moving for reward or penalty, a woman fresh out of her bath barrel wrestling a man naked in spilt flour, an aphrodisiac cream which, when rubbed into Isabellas bottom, produces white hot passion and desire in her and, of course, the obligatory topless whipping scene which seems to be a staple of eurotrash films dating from around this kind of period (honestly... not... complaining... here).

The film then resolves itself with a bizarre, extended love scene between Isabella and her leading man in slow motion just before a final scene where the wrong man is publicly beheaded, allowing the now “masked villain” Baron Von Nutter to escape and live for another film... a film which sadly, to this day, goes unmade. I say sadly because, seriously, I’d love to have seen a sequel to this one.

I hadn’t even heard of this movie before I picked it up from a stall at one of the major UK film fairs earlier this year but, as far as exploitation films go, it’s certainly one of the more entertaining and elegant breed of the species which I’ve had the pleasure to watch and I have to admit to thoroughly enjoying this one. A 500 piece limited edition of the score from the film was released, again coincidentally, on the day I watched this... so I’m looking forward to sampling Sante Maria Romitelli’s lush tones away from the movie and I just hope enough interest becomes apparent at some point for a proper, commercial release of this film sometime with a good looking transfer so I can see it under better conditions. One of the stronger of the comic book movies made in the 1960s as far as I’m concerned and I’d definitely recommend it to anybody who is interested in a little nudity mixed in with their swordplay. And with the gorgeous Brigitte Skay playing Isabella... well... she can swash my buckle anytime.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Transformers - Age Of Extinction




Basic Extinct

Transformers - Age Of Extinction
2014 USA/China
Directed by Michael Bay
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Transformers weren’t even invented yet when I was a kid... so I missed out on the whole toys and comics thing with them. However, after being grudgingly dragged along to the first movie in this series, I was more than delighted that the original was such a great film. Pretty much a modern classic.

It’s been painful and frustrating, therefore, to have to watch movie after movie of, frankly, badly written and badly paced sequels to that original bright light of an opening shot. Considering it’s the same director all the way through the series, I find it difficult to believe that these sequels can be so atrocious. And, I am very sad to report, that I believe that extends to this latest venture, Transformers: Age Of Extinction when, in direct opposition to my hopes and well wishes for the movie (which it doesn’t need anyway, it’s made a ton of money ensuring further dire exploits in our collective near future), I found myself constantly looking at the time and wishing the damn thing would be over soon.

The problem is not necessarily the story, I think... it is what it is.

Neither is all of the dialogue that ropey either and, even if it wasn’t quite up to scratch, you have a bunch of actors like Mark Wahlburg and Sophia Myles (the original Girl In The Fireplace... wasted in this but shining briefly) giving it their all and so it never sounds too bad. I think what we have here that screws things up a little is break neck direction and action choreography that is practically wall to wall, once it starts... and, in the odd moment when it does give you time to breath, which is barely, doesn’t give enough of a space in the onslaught to actually allow you to invest in the characters and the stakes enough to care about what happens next... and that’s really a shame because the director is more than capable of giving us a well put together, heartfelt film when he wants to.

When a movie written by the likes of Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone is made, it becomes clear that the pauses and, really quite long stretches of character establishment, character build up and dramatic tension, are all a very important part of a movie. You need it there so when you contrast it with a well placed action sequence, that sequence becomes more vibrant and dynamic in contrast to anything else that directly surrounds it. Tension and release. It’s all part of the game.

Or... put it another way.

My daytime job is as a graphic designer. Occasionally you’ll get a really clueless client who insists on one or both of the following classic design mistakes.

Number one is they’ll try to fill every gap or piece of negative (or white) space with some kind of textual or design element. Absolutely the wrong thing to do with a design, people. You need the space there to help lead the eye in to where you want it to focus. If you fill the page the eye will just take it’s natural (and standard to all human beings as far as I know) journey across the page/screen without being particularly caught by anything in particular.

Secondly, another thing they’ll do is try to make three or more bits of information stand out and be more important from everything else by asking for this, that and the other to be in bold type, usually quite close to each other. Of course, all that achieves is all the emboldened words dilute each other’s strength and basically cancel each other out. Instead of one clear message you're scatter-shotting a plethora of them and they all fight against each other causing chaos to the eye. Most people, unless they already have a specific agenda that they have to wade through the content of the design for, will not bother to read something like this. The client has just lost the potential customer by ignoring the key message and bombarding the eye with fighting headers.

And I think that’s why Transformers: Age Of Extinction kind of loses it’s way in much the same way as the previous two sequels did. Instead of highlighting things with the occasional action scene, it’s just non-stop action. The kinetic equivalent of overcrowding the page with too many headers and not allowing any white space to lead you to where you need to be. Relentless and pounding set pieces are the order of the day in this movie and, while there are admittedly rest room breaks to ease the monotony, they needed to have a lot more of an emotional hook to them (and they do try, the scripting isn’t completely terrible... clichéd but not terrible) and be a lot longer so the action scenes felt like something when they kick back in gear here. There’s no real sense of that tension and release I was talking about in this one... just noisy motion and explosions. Which personally I find pretty dull, to be honest.

One of the tings that gets me coming back for these disappointments time and time again is that Steve Jablonsky’s score for the first movie is one of the great movie scores of all time. At least, it is to me. Unfortunately, although all the films have been scored by this composer, the sequels never really come close to recapturing the genius of that first score and, sad to say, that I include the score to this movie in that statement. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some nice music in it, what I could hear of it above the explosions, and it all seems appropriate but, again, it’s not got nearly the “hairs raising on the arms” beauty of the original score and that’s a bit of a pity. It does it’s job but, for the most part, you aren’t tapping your toes in time to the music as you are watching this one.

A big change with this one is that none of the human characters from the previous films are back in this one. That’s understandable given some of the politics and comments that have been made around the previous films in the series, but there were one or two I missed. The real loss in all that, though, is that of John Turturro, who always seems to traditionally turn up in the movies when you least expect him to. Alas... he’s not here.

The actors who are in this one, as I said, do a fine job but another reason they’re hampered is that of the regular characters that do make an appearance in this one, and I’m talking about the autobots themselves. They’re really not that sympathetic this time around. Bumblebee is underused, Optimus Prime is a lot more judgemental of humans than we’re used to and as for the other transformers... I just didn’t like them, period. These are not the robots I was looking for... and I really wanted to move on out of the cinema very quickly.

So that’s all I’ve got for you on that one. Special effects are all spectacular but somebody on the payroll really needs to realise that the biggest special effect is when you slow the pacing down and let the spell of the characters overtake you. That’s when you have a film. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is more of a big budget, travelling carny show. Alright as a curiosity but not somewhere you’d want to explore very often. It seems to have made a lot of cash already in the USA though, so “Yay!” and “good for them” to the people reaping those rewards. However, the downside for me to that is that this probably means there’ll be another sequel at some point. I really don’t want one.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes




Gorillas In Our Midst

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
2014 USA
Directed by Matt Reeves
Playing at UK cinemas now.

I’ve always quite liked the Planet Of The Apes franchise. I remember, when I was a lad of about five years of age, going to the Florida cinema in Enfield Town (long since redeveloped and ultimately demolished) and seeing a double bill of a sci-fi submarine movie, the name of which escapes me, and the fifth and final entry in the original run of films, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes... which was pretty cool to a five year old (although that fifth one doesn't stand the test of time, from what I recall). Caesar yelling “Fight like apes!” stuck in my mind for a very long time as a child.

Then, of course, there was the TV series, followed by the cartoon series, and the Mego action figures of various characters in the TV show, some of which I used to have. I remember the girl ape action figure, Zira, had very visible plastic breasts under her tunic which became a fascination for me when I entered my teens. I’d never had a female action figure before and was consistently amazed by her impressively rendered boobage... so Planet Of The Apes also provided me with some of my earliest sexual exploratory enquiries too... in a strange way. Yeah, I know... don’t think about it too much, it’s cool.

The original five films were a bit hit and miss, especially when compared to the original novel, but my favourites were definitely the first, third and fourth movies. When Tim Burton put his own spin on the series, it was different and very watchable but, ultimately, a less satisfying experience than I was hoping  for. Then, a couple of years ago, Fox released Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here), which featured the early years, albeit with a slightly different origin, of Caesar, the ape character who featured in the last three films of the original franchise entries (as played by Roddy McDowell in the fourth and fifth movies... an actor who also played Caesar’s father in the first and third installments). Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was actually a pretty good movie and hit all the right spots. It’s right up there with the best in the original franchise and I was pretty much impressed with it on many levels.

So I recently saw the new sequel to that opening shot, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and I have to say that I am equally impressed with this one. The story, such as it is, kind of treads a middle ground tonally in terms of comparison to the original franchise, being a kind of midway mark between the last two movies in that sequence, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. This film is a direct sequel to Rise but none of the human characters in that movie make it into this sequel... which is a shame because that means the only connection to James Franco’s character in Rise is through the main ape protagonist here, and again it’s Caesar, who looks at a photograph and video footage during the course of this movie.

The last film left a couple of decent threads dangling in case it was popular enough to warrant a sequel and, for this one, the writers have ignored the space mission mentioned in a news report in the background of a scene in Rise and have instead chosen to take up the, perhaps more obvious, thread of the so called “simian flu” which was accidentally created in the lab in the last movie. So Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes starts off with a sequence which is basically a moving infographic showing the human population of Earth mostly dying from either flu or the violent conflict brought on by that situation, and lets us know that there are only a few surviving pockets of humanity left in this world, which has moved on a full ten years since Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. From there on we see some images of the intelligent apes in the home in the forest that they have built from themselves. There’s a lovely little moment in these opening sequences from composer Michael Giacchino when the apes are glimpsed in silhouette and gently introduced, which is a nod to some of the György Ligeti compositions “acquired” for Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Oddysey. I think the tone of these opening shots is deliberate and Giacchino adds to the joke musically for people who are already reminded of the Dawn Of Man opening in 2001 during this sequence. So that was pretty cool.

Then we have the plot started which I won’t say too much about, other than it brings man and ape into both conflict and mutual trust and puts them in a position where a few of the apes and humans can learn to co-exist but are hampered by the bigger picture of xenophobic treachery within both their own ranks. It’s a nice idea and it works very well... pulling you into the story emotionally and taking its time to make the points it wants without jamming everything down your throat in a hurry... while still cramming in various action scenes and intrigues along the way. Which is one of the definitions of a pretty good night out at the movies, if you ask me.

There’ also some nice little nods again to the original apes franchise... my favourite being that the intelligent and philosophical orangutan is called Maurice... which is a nod towards Maurice Evans, who played the intelligent orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original 1968 movie. That was a nice touch.

The film is well acted and the “actors” and special effects team do an excellent job of giving the apes emotional subtleties and nuances which allow the audience to fully empathise with the plight of some of them, in the same way that not all the human characters are as easy to empathise with at certain points. We have a would-be human villain in Gary Oldman who we can totally sympathise with and ultimately is just seen as being a person making the wrong choices for the right reasons... and nowhere near as much of a villain as one of the humans who causes so much trouble for his colleagues when they are staying with the apes in their forest village. Similarly, we have the heroic Caesar in this movie contrasted against the “villain” ape Koba, who you will learn to hate more intensely than any of the human characters in the film by the end of this one.

This is all wrapped up in a neat bundle by Giacchino’s great scoring, which also has a few nods to the scoring of the original franchise movies, and which matches the action and pacing of the movie perfectly. I was lucky enough to see the last two Star Trek movies projected to the live soundtracks earlier in the year and, at the encores from both of these concerts, Giacchino got up on the stage and conducted suites of music from his up and coming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes score... so I already had the soundtrack on pre-order just on the strength of what I heard in those concerts. I’m looking forward to the disc arriving even more now that I’ve heard what he’s done throughout the course of the running time. So I’m hoping it’ll be good as a stand alone listen too.

If I had one criticism of the movie, it would simply be that the story here seems mostly superfluous, in all honesty. It feels like a bridge between one part of a story and the next and, to boot, it feels like this whole narrative could be cut out of the timeline and we could have gone straight to the next destination in the saga without bothering to explore the incidents and events pictured in this movie. But, having said that... honestly? Who cares? It’s entertaining as hell and I, for one, am really glad they made this movie. It stands head and shoulders with some of the best movies in the franchise and, considering that you’re looking at a bunch of hairy, animated individuals for a lot of the time, that says a lot.

If you like the ape movies then you certainly won’t be disappointed with this one. It’s a mini epic, rather than a major journey, for sure... but it’s a brilliant one which will pull you in and won’t let you go until the end credits start rolling. A film which plays around with family values, politics, racism and the ability to see past the status quo and follow paths which may lead to sacrifice and regret (as they do in this movie). Definitely take a look at this one... you’ll go ape for it.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Cat Girl




Lost That Loving Feline

Cat Girl
1957 UK
Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy
Insignia Films
Network DVD Region 2 

Okay. So Cat Girl is a movie I’d not heard of before it came up in one of Network’s regular DVD sales. I wanted this one because, for all intents and purposes, it looked like a 1950s British remake of Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s Cat People (a very tiny “pocket review” of which can be found here). Also, it starred Barbara Shelley, who is an actress I loved, mainly due to her role as the extremely strong female character she played as an assistant to the two male protagonists in Hammer Films' movie adaptation of Quatermass And The Pit (which is a film you can find reviewed here and, if you so desire, you can see my small visual tribute to Barbara Shelley in that role included in my 800th Blog illustration here).

As it turns out, even though it emphasises that the film is an update of Cat People on the back cover notes of the DVD, Cat Girl is really not, in any way, a translation of the aforementioned feline themed adventure. It may well have started off to be so, for all I know, but if it was... well, so much was changed in the writing, which is not credited as being based on anything in the opening titles, that the result really is unrecognisable as anything but the very vaguest of conceptual descendants of the 1940s RKO classic.

The films both have large cats in them... that’s it. They’re not even the same cat as far as I can recall. I’m pretty sure the species in question in Cat People is a black panther where, in Cat Girl, the large cat is a standard leopard.

In Cat People, the character Irene is the victim of a Serbian family curse which threatens to transform her into a hostile panther when she loses her virginity. A large chunk of the opening is taken up with the courtship of Irene, followed by her marriage and the breakdown of that marriage for fear that her character cannot consummate said marriage without turning into a wild, jungle beast. The rest of the film then deals with her psychotherapy and her husband's affair with another woman which, after a film which is totally psychological in tone (as opposed to the actual “make-up monsters” of rival studio Universal, who RKO were competing with in their most budget conscious, creative fashion), sees Irene finally transforming into one of the titular Cat People and, when her life is taken, reverting to the corpse of the woman she once was.

Cat Girl, on the other hand, features none of the sexual hang ups of the main character in Cat People. Barbara Shelley’s character Leonora Johnson is already married at the start of the movie and her virginity a long lost feature of her past. Instead, this film deals with her inheritance, where a family curse is passed onto her and she becomes, for want of a better word, psychologically linked with the family’s pet, killer leopard. The cat comes out at night and, when it does so, some shot cuts and reveals are used to show a distinct change in Shelley’s make up... but in no time does she ever actually transform into a cat herself... although she shares the same final fate as the leopard in this film due to her psychic bond. Naturally everyone thinks she’s totally crazy because... well, you know... she thinks she’s channeling a leopard... and so she is placed in a sanitarium and, in some of the worst and hilarious movie psychiatry I’ve ever seen, released to spend time with the object of her sexual jealousy and hate, the wife of her psychologist, who was himself once her childhood crush.

So... nothing like Cat People. 

Quite the opposite, in fact, when you consider that the sexual subtext of the first film is not present in this one other than as a complete reversal. Indeed, the sexuality in Cat Girl is pretty blatant and strong, especially in a scene where we see Leonora’s shadow undressing against the wall and, certainly, given the “costume” she wears in the final act of the film... a shiny, black leather coat which seems to be her solitary piece of clothing in this section and which seems to be almost deliberately encoded as a sexual fetish. I’m guessing it was a deliberate choice in terms of the designers of the look of the film too... although there’s always a chance the actors and actresses didn’t realise it at the time.

The lighting is beautiful throughout, often creating a halo around the hair of the central characters and showing off the black and white cinematography nicely... which is lucky since there’s very little camera movement in the majority of the shots in the film and most of the movie is assembled as edits from static set ups. So the lighting does help to offset the often lack of dynamic visual motion. Thankfully, the editing is not too uninteresting in places and everything keeps ticking along at a fairly solid rate. Having said that, the film came out just a few months after Hammer’s colourful The Curse Of Frankenstein, so I’m guessing that the success of the former and the expectations it created for horror films in its wake possibly meant this particular gem had a more lukewarm reception in the year of its release, both here in the UK and stateside.

But I say “gem” because it really is.

Cat Girl is a film which is definitely “of its time” but it’s quite charming in its own way and, frankly, Barbara Shelley’s performance in this is brilliant in both its intensity and, perhaps, its bravery at the time. This is definitely another strong female role for this actress and I suspect she probably relished this part when she won it. Whether she did or didn’t, though, she certainly sank her teeth into the part, so to speak, and although a lot of the on screen shenanigans by her and the rest of the cast isn’t exactly subtle, it is passionate and, more importantly, interesting to watch. Shelley certainly has a lot of presence in this role.

The one area where I think this movie does slip up big time, however, is in the musical scoring. I was wondering who was murdering the film with all the heavy handed compositions while I was watching but, as it turns out, it’s not the work of one composer but a range of different composers’ stock music tracked in and used here. All I can say is that, though these pieces may have been useful in their own right and in certain situations, as a score for this movie they are a fair degree less than subtle and it’s such a shame because, with some more appropriate cues, or even some of the same ones knocked down a little bit in the mix, they might well have given the film a little more lift and support in certain scenes. So that’s a pity.

Other than that, though, I would well recommend this movie for audiences who have a taste for old school British horror curios and I’m well pleased that Network have put this little beauty out in a digital format. Not one for all modern horror audiences, for sure, especially as there are no real scares to be had, but certainly something which does its own thing and, perhaps, even pushes the sexual envelope a little for its time, at least in terms of the overt references you could get away with in a commercial release of the period, I suspect. Definitely a movie I plan to be returning to at some point.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Upstream Colour




















The Pig Sleep

Upstream Colour
2013 USA
Directed by Shane Carruth
Metrodome Blu Ray Zone B 

Sort of Warning: This review may or may not contain spoilers... probably not because I suspect everyone is going to have their own interpretation and relation to the events that take place on screen... but still, putting this warning here just in case.

Upstream Colour is the second feature directed by Shane Carruth, who also writes, produces, does the cinematography, co-edits, stars in and composes the soundtrack for the film. Like his absolutely brilliant first movie Primer, it takes a science fiction base but grounds it absolutely in a very matter-of-fact contemporary setting, exploring a very basic premise but in the most clever, non-linear and almost impenetrable way.

The editing choices in this movie allow for some almost random placements which don’t adhere to a strictly linear presentation of the narrative (if you’re happy to call it a narrative) and which is best received by an audience member as a jumble of puzzle pieces which are there to decode but which will not necessarily lead to an ultimate rendering of a specifically correct conclusion. So while Primer shares a certain style and atmosphere with this movie, the place the content leads you to in this one is more along the lines of something like, for instance, Ben Wheatley’s brilliant Kill List (reviewed here), in terms of it not taking where you think the destination might be or, if you did get there first, taking you there for no specific reason.

However, I think in the case of Kill List, the clues and provocative moments are deliberately inserted to lead you to a place which has no real solution to it (and if I’m wrong about that, please tell me so) whereas I’m pretty sure this film has a very specific linear narrative hiding behind the frames, as it were, and which still holds up solidly, no matter what the common or popular interpretation of it is. For instance, I didn’t feel I was totally getting it so I read a synopsis of the film on Wikipedia afterwards and I have to say that, after reading that quite detailed synopsis... I ended up thinking, “Hey, they didn’t get it.” Like in the case where a dream sequence is mentioned to explain the presence of a specific character (played in the most passively haunting but somehow sinister way by Andrew Sensenig) who can be quite often seen watching other characters in the movie. I don’t think these were supposed to be dream sequences at all, to be honest. More like visual metaphors to define the presence of a person watching his pigs/experiments... if that makes any sense and, unless you’ve seen the movie, it almost certainly won’t.

Here’s what I could piece together.

A woman’s life is completely destroyed by a man who uses a specific kind of maggot, which he hides in a pill capsule and gives her as drugs. It has already been demonstrated that the maggot can form a very strong bond between minds which even allows two people to synchronise their movements via their thoughts. This maggot gets into Amy Seimetz character Kris and, once it’s in her system, the man has total hypnotic dominance over her mind. In the aftermath of her lengthy encounter as his slave, for all intents and purposes, she is left without money, a job and brutally scarred from when she was trying to get the maggot out of herself. In the middle of this all she is lured to a man to remove them who actually pulls it from her body and implants it into a pig. She then forgets everything and has to rebuild her ruined life with no knowledge of how she got like this.

A year later, Kris meets a man who seems to share a common empathy, even though they seem to have no interest in each other initially. The man is called Jeff and is played by Shane Carruth. As their relationship develops, certain things slowly come to light, as much as the editing style and placement of the narrative allows it to do so in your mind, and it becomes very clear that Kris is not the only person who has been through this devastating experience. What’s more, Jeff is also a victim of this process and it appears that maybe this is why the two of them seem so dependent on each other... something that gets more acute as they begin to share the same thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and even perceive childhood anecdotes of each other as their own. Things come to a head and, with the help of their shared identity with various pigs, orchids (I think, don’t ask) and the published musical compositions/sound scapes of the pig man, they end up taking their personal thread, joining it up with many other individuals (who presuambly form a connective identity), and basically take over the pig farming business by giving them a much better life.

If that sounds kinda skewed and unlikely then... yeah, it probably is. That’s my interpretation of the movie at my level (it’s true, I may be stupid) and I suspect everyone is going to come up with something different. Is the pig farmer genuinely observing the plight of the various victims of the process started by the man with the maggots, for instance? I don’t know but I’m willing to assume he’s tapping into their heads somehow and maybe shares a link from the same process as them... maybe that’s how Kris comes to get the upper hand near the end of the film and, in some ways, take over the process while bringing an end to the potential ruin and devastation of people’s lives.

What I can tell you for sure is that Upstream Colour is absolutely gripping throughout, just like Primer was, and it seems to me to be artistically successful in all that it tries to do. The performances are electrical and about as naturalistic as you can imagine. The cinematography is superb, giving us drab and neutral tones pitched against some beautiful, almost luminous colouring for certain sequences. The editing is both easy to follow... even if it does feel like Nicholas Roeg on acid, but without the fanfare... and that editing serves to provoke an atmosphere of puzzle solving which leads to your full engagement with the material on offer. The soundtrack, while a little clichéd, perhaps, for a film of this nature, serves the onslaught of images very well and never once outstays its welcome.

If I’d have seen this film at a cinema last year as I’d wanted to (Seriously UK film distributors... what happened to it? It didn’t play in my local Cineworld once!) then it would easily have made my top five movies from last year. As it happens, I’ll have to be content with saying that this movie is a very definite and hard recommend from me. Shane Carruth is an artistic force to be reckoned with (he’s even pretty watchable as an actor, as it happens) and this movie is a great work of art all lovers of cinema should see at least once in their lives. Very much a blu-ray I suspect I’ll be lending to a lot of people who wouldn’t normally see a movie like this and it’ll likely get a return visit from me sometime in the near future too. Take a look when you get the chance.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

London Film and Comic Con 2014




The Geek Shall 
Inherit The Earth*

London Film and Comic Con 2014

It was about four years ago, not long after I started writing this blog of reviews, that I first mentioned my affection for the annual London Film and Comic Convention (and you can read that review here). Although I’m sure many of you will call me sad for saying so... it’s basically the highlight of my year. The one Saturday out of the 52 per annum which I plan my summer holidays around so I can make sure I am in London to attend. I’ve been going to this one for something like 8 - 10 years and, without fail, I always manage to do it.

Not this year though, although it wasn’t for want of trying.

Every year I get to the venue about an hour early (the show opens for regular “on the door” tickets at 11am) and either start or join the queue to buy tickets. Usually there’s around 3 - 50 people in front of me and, once they open the doors at 11am, I’m usually in and looking around my favourite stalls of knick knacks. And that’s another point I want to mention, by the way, before I go on to describe what a total fiasco this was this year... I’m not there for the celebrities. The queues for them, once you’ve bought a ticket for their own specific queue, are usually fairly lengthy and take a long time to get through... much too much time for me to be wasting queueing when there are such interesting fantasy themed goods on offer such as replica samurai swords or Buffy The Vampire Slayer knickers. In fact, the only time I queued for a celebrity at the London Film And Comic Con was the first year I started attending the event more regularly... so 8 - 10 years ago... and that was for Elvira herself, Cassandra Peterson. But that was in a time when the individual queues moved pretty fast and I was only waiting for her for about a quarter of an hour.

Last year was no exception to my usual routine but I did notice, after an hour or so, that it was getting very difficult to move around in there. I took a photo from a lounge above the cafe last year and I remember tweeting something along the lines that the organisers really did need to address the fact that the event had kind of outgrown it’s venue. It was never as popular as it was last year and it made the show less enjoyable because the geeks, who shall inherit the earth, no doubt, were out in force. You couldn’t count the number of fezzes, stormtroopers and superheroes on the fingers of any number of hands you and your friends brought with you. The sheer number of people coming to this thing and being crammed into an increasingly inadequate space, in costume or just in civvies like me, was a real problem.

This year, I did my usual thing and got up at a time best left unmentioned to arrive for the queue at Earls Court at 10am. I wasn’t expecting to have literally thousands of people in front of me. The queue, usually a relatively small number of people at best, went right around the building and also did about eight zig zags around the front area... before even getting to the back of the buildings where the main entrance to Earls Court 2 is. It was staggering. The last two times I’d seen anything like this was when I was a young boy in the early 1970s. I remember queuing for many hours to see both a Salvador Dali exhibition at the Tate Gallery (when there was only one Tate Gallery and not a whole fistful ilke there is today) and the Treasures Of Tutankhamen at the British Museum (the real ones, not the replicas which were on show over here lesss than a decade ago).

But, it was still only ten o’clock so I figured I’d still be able to get in by 11am, right? How wrong I was. To say the queue was slow moving would be an understatement. And it only got bigger and bigger after I arrived... snaking back on itself so many times that it was soon literally cascading out into the High Street. This was not good. As the day wore on, many queue companions, people I’d met there that day, had dropped out. Things were getting pretty ugly by 1pm. There was one guy dressed up as Doctor Who and he was shouting at the top of his voice to anyone that would listen that his day had been ruined. Well yeah, we were all victims here, actually, mate. All our days had been ruined and none of us, it would seem, are going to be offered any compensation by the organisers for the £6 - £30 travel costs, depending on where you were coming from, to basically go and stand in a queue all day.

The various queue stewards were bearing the brunt of the complaints quite admirably and they were clearly not to blame for the lack of organisation from the people running the show... but they were really left in the dark, it seems to me, on how to handle the sheer numbers of people out in force this year and, I can hardly blame them for not having an organised response.

I blame the organisers.

If I could see this coming last year... why couldn’t they?

After a while the building became over capacity... that is to say, it was pretty much illegal to let any more people into the place until various people had left. So they just kept closing the doors. Things were getting ugly. It was looking like it would be an unruly but immaculately costumed mob bearing pitchforks and lightsabres at some point. I chatted with various people, some of them cosplayers, some of whom you can see in the photos at the top of this post, and many of them were very patient people and, like me, most of them gave up at some point in the day.

Now the day wasn’t a total loss for me in that I usually get one of the guys who runs a stall at the Camden and Westminster Film Fairs to order in a load of fairly unusual stuff for me, so it’s worth my while going. Halfway through the day he managed to get a break and brought the stuff he’d got in for me out to the queue so I could buy it from him there... so that was really good of him. However, the reports of what was going on in the building were less than encouraging. Apparently, the place was packed to bursting with nobody being able to really get to look at the stalls they wanted to because everywhere it was all at something of a standstill... human traffic jams were all over the place, it seemed. And, when I inquired if business for that day was fairly good for his stall, he basically said that it was terrible. Everyone was there, it would seem, for the celebrities and those that could manage to claw their ways through to the stalls were not buying, by the sound of it. They were blowing all their money on the celebrity photo shoots. Not too encouraging.

So there we all were. An angry bunch of, mostly, humans. To paraphrase a popular sci-fi TV show of the 1970s, we were “a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest... searching for the entry tills of London Film & Comic Con."

I stuck it out for as long as I felt I was able to in that queue. I’ve had a terrible cold all week and, on top of that, I’ve been getting some problems with my feet which means I can’t be on them for too many hours without getting some chronic pain. So I had someone save my place and I scoped out the rest of the queue. Well it looked like there was at least another couple of hours to go and I wasn’t going to be getting in any time soon... let alone the thousands behind me, poor things. My heart went out to an old lady with a walking stick who must have been in her sixties at the very least. She was on her own and must have been in the queue longer than I had been. Ditto for a blind guy in the queue who only had his guide dog to keep him company... I couldn’t believe they were letting these people queue. These people needed to be fast tracked inside somehow, I think. That was just plain wrong.

At 2.30pm, after I had been queueing for around four and a half hours, I called it a day. Things weren’t getting any better and the human bladder can only last so long in the sweltering heat. I’d not eaten since my breakfast at about 6am and my stomach felt like it was folding in on itself. So I left the queue and gave up this year. I was not best pleased about wasting my entire day on this exercise with no real updates or organisational set up to be able to cope with these numbers. This was a really bad idea.

When I got home I jumped on the message board for the London Film & Comic Con to see what people were saying. It wasn’t exactly a love fest on there and there were some echoes about the bad organisation of the event which pretty much mirrored what I’d been hearing from people in the queue all day. One person on the board tried to defend various issues by saying that people who were in the queue should have planned to bring water with them etc but, seriously, if we knew that it was going to be packed out with at least ten to fifteen times the amount of people who usually show up for these things, then we certainly would have.

Frankly, to end this post with the kind of sentiments that I was hearing from everyone’s mouth in the queues.... the organisation of this event and the lack of a viable, or at least visible, “reflex action” contingency plan to what was, from very early on in the day, a big problem with overcrowding, was a complete joke. This is not how you react to an event like this if more people turn up than you were expecting. It was a travesty and I bet half of the geeks in the queues could have done a much better job at identifying these kinds of problems months before they happened. I’m not at all happy about the way things were handled here... and this definitely wasn’t the highlight of my year in 2014. Which is a real shame.

*I use the term geek in the modern accepted parlance, which I personally don’t accept but am doing so because it suits my title pun. Please remember that the term geek is actually a reference to a carny act of a particular style of performer who would bite the heads off of live chickens. That’s what geek really means. But I’ll let it slide for this post only.




Friday, 11 July 2014

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)




De Palma, Sans Cheese

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)
1973 USA 
Directed by Brian De Palma
Arrow BluRay Region B/DVD Region 2 Dual Edition

Warning: Spoilers stabbing you 
repeatedly as you bleed out on the floor...

The early part of the 1970s was the last big hurrah for American movies. You had Brian DePalma’s contemporaries, The New Hollywood Mavericks (as I think they were labelled back then) making their important, breakthrough films around this kind of time, give or take a few years. Directors such as Scorcese (Mean Streets), Spielberg (Jaws), Lucas (American Graffiti) and Coppola (The Godfather)... this was a big creative push which ushered in a brief but potent renaissance in American film making with lots of works by these directors having a lasting impact and influence on both American and International film. A legacy which is still being plundered to this day.

DePalma was no exception, of course, making great movies like this and Dressed To Kill, both of which owe a huge debt to Hitchcock’s Psycho and, of course, De Palma’s Obsession (a film which is quite reminiscent of Vertigo in some ways). Sisters is pretty much my favourite Brian De Palma movie. It comes from that great point in his career when he was experimenting with recycling Hitchcock tropes and motifs and then mixing them in with the kind of visual sensibility found in Italian giallo movies of that era.

Sisters tells the story of Dominique and Danielle (one living, one dead and both played by Margot Kidder) and it’s very much like Psycho in the fact that it starts out with a main protagonist, Philip (played by Lisle Wilson) who, like Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s seminal slasher, disappears from the narrative in a very sudden and brutal manner, once he’s been established for a while as the main lead. Philip is introduced, along with Danielle, as an unknowing participant in a TV game show called Peeping Toms. De Palma has always been considered a bit of a voyeuristic director due, I suspect, to the laid back and casual observational style of the kind of camerawork he employs in his movies. Slow, static or sometimes swooping along a track, it takes in everything and doesn’t necessarily stay with any one character for the bulk of his movies and Sisters is certainly no exception. So when we start off with a scene which is a “set up” for a voyeuristic dilemma, followed by the audience in the studio watching that, followed by us, the audience, watching that TV show presenting that footage... we get a whole voyeurism within voyeurism within voyeurism thing in the very first few minutes of this movie... just in case anybody was maybe missing one of De Palma’s key preoccupations at this point.

So let’s talk about blood and death.

The infamous “Birthday Cake” stab scene, where Philip has brought a cake back to Danielle’s apartment for her and her “sister”, who he heard talking through the wall earlier (not realising that Margot Kidder’s character was, without her even knowing it, talking to herself), is both shocking in its sudden opening slash (even if you are savvy enough to be expecting it on your first viewing) and, even by today’s standards, quite shockingly intense in both its brutality and its duration. After Philip is initially stabbed twice in a crossing blow at the top of one of his legs, near the groin, this is followed by a stab through the mouth which takes most of his left cheek out. As Dominique, brought into play in Danielle’s mind from the trauma of her sexual encounter with Philip from the night before,  drops the knife, which is sent spinning... she is clearly suffering from some kind of schizophrenic fit. All the while, Philip is very slowly crawling across the apartment floor towards the knife, expending all his energy on just trying to stay alive and not “bleed out” without a fight. When Dominique/Danielle notices this, though, she flings herself on him and starts stabbing him repeatedly in the back before spinning the knife away again. The twitching Phillip finally dies trying to write help on the window in his own blood... a murder which is witnessed, Rear Window style, by Jennifer Salt playing Grace Collier, the person who will take over the rest of the movie as the lead protagonist.

As we see the end and then aftermath and clean up of the murder from both her point of view and from the viewpoint of Danielle and her ex-husband, Emil, played by William Finley, we are introduced to what is a very early example of De Palma’s split screen technique. Of course, split screen was nothing new, but DePalma does use it a lot in his films to do things like, in this case, totally set up the character of Grace Collier via a feed of her newspaper columns, summing up her stance on life, while also getting the murder clean up out of the way simultaneously. He also uses it to build suspense, such as when Grace and the police narrowly miss Emil in a series of corridors, shown from two angles, as he escapes with the murder weapon and the bloody rags. Even at this early stage of his career, De Palma showed himself to be a master at this kind of thing.

Actually, the use of the split screen technique in this movie is very apt to push the concept of “doubling” and schizophrenia here and De Palma makes full use of this throughout. For instance, in one shot during this sequence, Danielle is looking at herself in a bathroom cabinet mirror on the left hand half of the screen... but the cabinet is made up of two doors and there is a split right down the centre of her face, which is a big visual clue thrown in the face of the audience about what is really going on here... the two characters inhabiting the mind of one body. Also, this means you basically have a split screen (the double doors) within a split screen, which is also visually interesting... this is all good stuff.

The other notable thing about the first murder sequence and, indeed, the whole movie, is Bernard Herrmanns absolute powerhouse scoring. The stab scene has already been visually pre-empted when Philip is getting the writing on the cake iced in a bakery and the angle at which the hands doing the icing makes it look very much like a knife stabbing downwards, as the lady behind the counter oozes the pinky red icing onto the white surface. It’s a phenomenal shot and Herrmann scores this with a child like motif which is reused in the immediate prelude to Margot Kidders stab-frenzy freak out, just before Herrmann segues into full on, in yer face, stab music mixed with weird moog synthesiser sounds, rivalling his earlier, more famous stab music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. I remember musicologist Royal S. Brown noting in an interview once, on a documentary about Herrmann, that the child like melody of the cake theme is replaced with an antagonistic childrens game melody “Nyah nyah nah, nyah nyah!” and this becomes very clear when you think about it. And, of course, this links in perfectly with the tone of the naive and child-like Danielle as compared to the aggressive mindset of the Dominique half of her brain.

There’s a lot going on in this movie and there are some great scenes which all involve the fact that Dominique and Danielle were siamese twins... until something happened and they had to be separated. There’s a very potentially confusing flashback scene which echoes the history of Margot Kidder’s role but it also doubles as a dream sequence for the Grace Collier character, who projects herself into the sequence by being Dominique in the shots. This is because Collier’s mind has, by this point, been rendered easy to manipulate and also provides De Palma with a great sequence, as well as a good conclusion for the camera in that she carries a certain memento of her experiences locked in her brain once the film is concluded. After the flashback/dream sequence plays out, we are then treated to a scene where Emil explains verbally the real history of the characters, in case there’s any confusion with the fact that Daniellle was indeed becoming Dominique at certain parts of the movie. This helps things considerably if you are still wondering how she can’t be two people and how she changed from one set of clothes from another and back again without changing her original “laying on the floor” position during the transition. I’m wondering if Emil’s explanation was either added on after the preview (or at studio insistence) or, maybe if the script originally concluded differently from the version presented in the final cut.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The film kind of has three end scenes which give closure and conclusion to Emil, Danielle and Dominique but which also leaves things quite potently inconclusive in terms of both Grace Collier and the private detective she hired, who has “followed the sofa” in which Philip’s body has been stashed. It’s one of De Palma’s better endings, I feel, and Herrmann’s music is a considerable aid to getting the sinister sense of things “not quite at rest” across to the audience by this point.

There’s another story I remember about Herrmann’s score for this film, again from a documentary of some kind, or possibly a biography, and it revolves around his amazing Main Title cue, which is a variation of the stab music which later surfaces in the movie. I think I recall hearing that De Palma had originally asked for a quieter prelude rather than the blood and thunder that Herrmann delivered here. Herrmann said to him something along the lines of... “Hitchcock can get away with nothing really happening in the first half an hour or so because the audience knows something terrible is going to happen. You are not yet as famous as Hitchcock, so they need to know something terrible is going to happen from the opening title music.” That’s not the exact words, I couldn’t find it on the internet... but that’s the gist of it and, for that particular stage of De Palma’s career... I reckon Herrmann was right. The opening titles/stab music in Sisters is one of the most blistering score cues in the history of film music. It’s kinda funny because I use it for the ring tone on my iPhone and my dog always barks when he hears a phone ringing... the upshot of that in terms of watching this excellent new blu-ray version from Arrow was that, every time someone gets stabbed in Sisters, my dog barks at me. Oh well.

There was apparently a remake of this film a few years ago but I can’t bring myself to watch a retread of something which holds such a high place of esteem in my celluloid loving heart. The original Sisters is an absolutely classic example of one of the best American thrillers, before the hack and slash craze had quite got going in the US and, certainly, far more superior to some of the slashers that came after it. If you like this period in American cinema history and you want to see a really entertaining movie with some smart camerawork and some really excellent music, then you probably should add this new dual blu-ray/dvd edition from Arrow to your list. I haven’t watched any of the extras yet but, like the Criterion edition before it, it looks like it’s got some nice stuff on there and it’s not all just recycled from the Criterion DVD, from what I could tell. Definitely have a stab at this one, if you have the inclination.