Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom




A Witch In Time

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom
2014  China
Directed by Zhang Zhiliang
Seen as part of the London Film Festival 
on Sunday 19th October 2014

I kinda knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom was not the only film dealing with this character before I booked my ticket to see this at the London Film Festival... I remember seeing the old Tartan DVDs (now quite scarce) on the shelves for titles like The Bride With White Hair. In fact, this story has been adapted for the screen many times over the years since its first publication as a serialised novel, Baifa Monü Zhuan by Liang Yusheng, between August 1957 and December 1958.

I still wanted to see this one, though, because it looked like it was going to be really colourful and, since I’ve not seen any of the previous attempts at turning this into a movie or TV show, I at least wouldn’t have anything to compare it to in a negative light. I have to say, I think I made the right choice with this one because, if nothing else, this is probably one of the most spectacular films to be screened at the LFF this year and, in the words of one of the organisers, “not like anything else we’ve got playing here”.

I get the idea from what I’ve read of a basic synopsis of the novel that, clearly, some liberties were taken with the overall story but, quite honestly, I’m not too worried about it with this particular work as I suspect it’s been treated quite differently, in terms of details, in all of the on-screen incarnations that it’s had. I’ve no real way of telling you if it’s in any way a good adaptation of the original source novel, either in accuracy or in spirit, so please bear that in mind when you read this.

The film is amazingly put together, right from the start, with a blisteringly beautiful opening title sequence which has a lot going on in it. I’ll jump back to a certain aspect of that opening towards the end of this review but, after this sequence is played out, the style of the camera work very much favours the long, slow camera pan and the wide reveal... with the editing between shots at a minimum. It’s visual pacing may be leisurely but, it has to be said, it moves pretty fast. There’s an awful lot of ground being covered in this movie and, considering the film is only an hour and three quarters in length, the director has managed to pack an amazing amount of story into it. Someone like Peter Jackson would probably have filmed it as nine hours and released it as three separate movies.

If you’ve not seen a lot of these kinds of Chinese martial arts films, the modern examples of films of this nature being such gems as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you will probably need to get used to the fact that a lot of the characters in this have honed their skills so that they can jump and leap about at great heights and, as in this one, bounce back off of the surface of water by merely touching it with a sword in the right way (a tactic the main male protagonist Zhuo, played by Xiaoming Huang, uses to retrieve a veil he has knocked off of the main female protagonist and title character). If you are still trying to get used to that kind of stuff after a few minutes of the film then this may not be your thing but, if anything, this film did remind me of those old Shaw Brothers films of the 50s, 60s and 70s... where such leaps from reality are quite normal.

What especially made me think of that direct lineage from the Shaw Brothers to this movie is found in the style used to introduce characters... by putting little captions up by the side of them throughout the movie every time a new character was introduced. The Shaw Brothers did a similar thing in their film The Water Margin (later made into a famous Japanese TV series, which was one of the few to penetrate the West via BBC broadcasts in the 1970s and 1980s). I seem to remember the actors and actresses playing the roles were also flashed up in relation to their characters as you went through the movie, something which The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom stops short at when it comes to the performers behind the characters.

The colours, as I expected, are absolutely spectacular and often very bright, as you would associate with some of the examples of the wuxia genre in more recent years. It's a very controlled use of colour and the director does have certain palette sets into which hues from other kinds of scenes rarely intrude or bleed into (apart from in the incredible juxtaposition of colours in one specific scene, that is, which I won’t spoil for you by elaborating on here). Overall, the film looks truly beautiful, even in its more frosty colour sets, which also complement the “White Haired Witch”, played beautifully by Bingbing Fan (who played Blink in X-Men Days Of Future Past and also appeared in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3), when she actually does reach the point where her hair turns white.

The story is incredibly convoluted and, every time you think you’re coming to some kind of closure or end game, a new part of the adventure starts. It’s almost like we’ve got three or four stories in one, with running characters, in the space of what is a very limited running time. The film, I’ll grant you, does have an episodic quality to it in certain places, but for all its jumps and slight narrative gaps, it all supports the central character arc and fits together beautifully as a single follow through in the end.

Asides from strong cinematography, some amazing performances from the various leads and a beautiful score (which I suspect I might have trouble getting hold of at the moment)... the film also has some stunning fight choreography which doesn’t suffer, like many Western made action movies these days, from an overabundance of cuts. The first meeting/fight between the male hero and the title heroine, takes place in a little cove on rocks in water and the ways it’s done is just beautiful It’s not about two people fighting, it’s about two people getting to know each other’s limits and introduce themselves... if anything, in fact, the whole fight reminded me of two lovers trading caresses for the first time. This fight isn’t about injury or about death, it’s a courting ritual and it’s very much like a conversation two people might have as they try to get in touch with how they feel about the person opposite them. It’s a great sequence and it made me realise there was more to the director, Zhang Zhiliang, than at first meets the eye...

And meet my eye he did because the director was present for the screening, with his translator, and had some interesting things to say.

One thing he did make a point of saying was that the story very much follows a Taoist philosophy, with the path of life being guided by dark and light. This manifests itself very early on in the film, in fact, in that opening title sequence I mentioned. One of the things that happens in this sequence is that two fighting fish spin around and come together and are morphed into the Taoist symbol of ying and yang... so that’s a very quick way of the director giving us a visual pointer right there. However, the director then went on to say that the reason why this particular story appealed to him, in contrast to a lot of the wuxia in the history of the genre, is precisely because the heroes and villains in this one are not approaching their path through a specific ying/yang philosophy... they are seeing and reacting to things in shades of grey and he finds this much more reflective of real life as we experience it these days, with all the governments and corporations, and even individuals, acting in a very “shades of grey”manner, where it’s hard to distinguish the villains from the heroes and vice versa. This is what attracted this director to the characters in this specific story.

Now, as a comment on that, I’d have to say that, contrary to that statement in one way, there clearly are very much honourable heroes and despicable villains in this piece and they are extremely clear cut. However, that being said... and in direct correlation with what Zhang Zhiliang said in the Q and A, you do have passages of the film when the villains have sympathetic moments and there is, very much, a period in this story where the main male protagonist seems to switch allegiances and makes a choice which leads him away from the path of light... although, as you’ll see if you get an opportunity to see this one, there are reasons why he does this. Sometimes you have to make a decision to come down on the wrong side to achieve a position where the overall stakes can be turned to a greater good.

Shades of grey can be hard to read, sometimes, but what isn’t hard to comprehend is that The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is an amazing and gob-smacking movie full of spectacle and excitement. My only real problem with it was right at the end in the final moments of the movie. A closure, of some sort, is visited on the main protagonists but, when that closure comes (and I’m so not saying what kind of denouement this film has, it’s got a great ending) the film makers have seen fit to add a horrendously cheesy sounding Chinese pop ballad over the top of it... I could really have done without that after a near perfect movie.

Now, I’m really not sure if this film is going to get any kind of release in either the US or the UK. I know that the director has prepped a 3D conversion of it and that he sought advice on how to shoot it to best effect to allow for that, so maybe the combination of 3D and spectacle may be enough to garner it a release for Western audiences. I hope so as I would love to see this again and would desperately like a Blu Ray transfer of the movie. That being said, there’s a scene where a wooden bridge is destroyed which results in two horse falls so I’m guessing that, even if a release is planned in the UK, the BBFC won’t let it through uncut (they don’t allow horse falls). So it’ll be interesting to see if this movie gets any kind of release over here in the near future. It certainly deserves one because it’s a fantastic movie, a wonderful character piece (as well as an action piece) and it’s a work of art that deserves a big marketing push when the time comes. Outstanding movie... don’t miss it if you get the chance to take a look.

Monday, 20 October 2014

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts)




Internal Affairs

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts) 
2014  France/Germany/Belgium
Directed by Benoît Jacquot
Seen as part of the London Film Festival 
on Saturday 18th October 2014

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts) is a film I picked to see as part of this year’s London Film Festival mainly because of the calibre of the three main actresses involved... Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve... although Deneuve is not actually one of the main protagonists of this film, like the first two I mention here.

One of the people I hadn’t bargained for being thrown into the mix is Benoit Poelvoorde, the guy who played the serial killer and co-wrote and co-directed the excellent 1992 Belgium fake documentary Man Bites Dog. It took me a while to place him because he is playing such a charming and unassuming fellow who also happens to be the male romantic lead of this movie. I’m not familiar with the director of this one, Benoît Jacquot, and he’s not a name I  would have recognised although, on the strength of this film, I have to say I should probably seek out some more of this guys work because 3 Coeurs is a really interesting movie.

Now this is not the film I was expecting it to be... which was something along the lines of a long treatise on the way people coincidentally shift in and out of each other’s lives with characters agonising over lost chances and philosophising over the breakfast table. Turns out it doesn’t really get into that territory at all and, though I would have been happy to settle for that, this film is a much more interesting affair because of the way it’s both shot and presented. Let me tell you a little about the opening quarter of an hour or so of the movie because a brief flavour of where the plot starts off will enable me to explain why this film is so different in the way it attacks the heart and mind.

Benoit Poelvoorde plays Marc, a man with a very acute heart condition. The film begins with him missing the last train home back to Paris from a job he is involved with for his work as a tax inspector. Not knowing what to do he has a coffee in a nearby cafe and then spies a good looking girl who he asks about finding a hotel room for the night. On their way to a hotel, he and Sylvie, played beautifully (as always) by the incomparable Charlotte Gainsbourg, start getting on together really well and instead of him staying overnight in a hotel, the two instead just talk and walk around the city, beginning the start of what they think will be a romantic relationship (it is and it isn’t, don’t want to say too much about that). Just like the main protagonists of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the two plan to meet up later without exchanging numbers. Sylvie offers to travel on the train to Paris where the two will rendezvous at 6pm on the following Friday, at a specific place.

And this is where things get interesting... not on the level of what is actually happening in the movie, but in terms of the way the information is presented. It’s possibly a bit obvious to say that Sylvie and Marc don’t manage to meet up. Sylvie is on time but due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, including Marc feinting in his car due to his heart condition, while racing to the agreed spot, Sylvie eventually leaves before the, very late, Marc can keep the appointment. Now the reason why this particular sequence is good, and the way it informs the film in general, is because it’s done almost as a suspense sequence. You actually do feel, right from this early on the film, that something is at stake here. And one of the main reasons for that is the outstanding choice which has been made in regard to the direction that veteran composer Bruno Coulais takes his score in...

Do you know that sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt), near the start of the movie where Brigitte Bardot is sitting on a bed telling a story. The music is suddenly pulled in and it’s overpowering and sinister as heck... at odds with the actual images on screen which, in turn, pops you out of the movie and makes you question it in exactly the way Godard wanted you to do... using it as a distancing device so you don’t get too immersed in the narrative. Well the score on 3 Coeurs is somewhat like that. It’s very powerful on the soundtrack and it’s very, very sinister. It doesn’t quite pop you out of things like the Godard but it is extremely strong and it’s immediately telling you something is going to happen here... something is very wrong... this is more dangerous than you may think. So right from the start you do not want these two to miss their rendezvous but, almost inevitably they do. Now bear with me while I go back to the plot set up for a bit.

Sylvie goes back to the relationship she was about to leave. She runs an antique shop with her sister Sophie, played by Chiara Mastroianni but going back to her current boyfriend who she doesn’t, in all honesty, seem that happy with, means she now leaves the country to go with him at his new work place in Minneapolis, in the USA. Both Sophie and their mother, played by Catherine Deneuve are sad at this turn of events but there’s nothing to be done. However, not long after Sylvie has gone, the antique shop is in trouble for some accidentally undeclared taxes and Marc, finds Sophie in "a state" in the corridor in his workplace. At this point he has no idea that this woman has any connection to Sylvie and the missed meeting, and vice versa, and so he courteously offers to travel to Sophie’s home town and go through her books. The two become involved and...

And that’s where I am leaving the story set up I think. You really don’t want to know much more about the main plot line and it’s not necessary. But what telling you the set up allows me to do is talk a little more about the treatment of the film. All the way through, when things twist and turn in the hearts of the characters, we always have that sinister scoring coming back to haunt us and tell us... yes, this is really dangerous. And since we are talking about “love affairs” here... I have to hand it to the French again, cliché or not, and say that they really know how to treat their romantic plotting seriously. I’m not a stranger to having an affair (don’t even begin to judge me as you’ve no idea of the circumstances and I’m not going to go into them here... other than to say it was the absolute right path to take at the time) and what the addition of the creepy music and the way in which this film is shot (I’ll come to that in a minute) does is to not make light of the people in question. When you are engaged in that kind of activity it can feel dangerous, it can make one of you feel anxious (I’m told) and the way it’s handled in this movie absolutely makes you feel it. So really good work all around there.

The shooting is interesting because you have a lot of long shots of the characters as you gaze at them through restaurant windows or watch them go on walks but, this is contrasted with the emotional weight of some of their conversations being filmed right up close and personal. The director here isn’t doing a Sergio Leone but we do get some pretty hefty close ups of the characters when they are talking about important stuff. More so than I’ve noticed in a lot of other movies and it really helps the spectator focus the mind and listen carefully to what is being said, in words or in body language, throughout the course of the film.

There was a Q&A with the director of this after the screening, with a translator who was trying to keep up with a director going way to fast and saying far too much before pausing, and consequently some of the director’s words may have been, shall we say, lost in translation. However, one of the things I did glean from his words of wisdom was that he wanted to shoot a romantic film in the style of a crime drama. He wanted to try it out and I have to say, when he said that, the sinister, almost overkill, on the music and the way in which the camera follows people around voyeuristically in contrast to the scenes where important information is being exchanged between two characters, all fell into place...

There’s a point in the movie where the family, including the three main protagonists, have all gone for a walk in the woods and have all gone their own ways, split into little groups. Marc is in pursuit of Sylvie who seems to be trying to avoid him, for the sake of Sophie. Marc stops at the edge of a ravine and the tension at this point is so extreme that I was wondering if he was going to kill himself by hurling himself from the top. Then, when Sylvie comes into shot behind him, I wasn’t sure if she was going to go over and kiss him or push him over the edge... it had me guessing and, I have to say, neither of these things happened. But the music and camerawork had come together so effectively that I was obviously worried about the characters big time. And that’s a rarity with me in cinema these days, it has to be said. So the director's approach to the unusual treatment of the material, mixing one genre with the cinematic syntax of another, really paid off.

What more can I say. Brilliant performances, acting, writing, cinematography, direction and composition. 3 Coeurs is an absolute corker of a movie which will apparently be getting some kind of cinematic UK release in May 2015. If you get an opportunity to see this one, I’d definitely recommend that you take it.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline




2D, Or Not 2D?

Doctor Who: Flatline
UK Airdate: 18th October 2014
BBC 1

Now this was an interesting episode for Doctor Who although, for me, I have to say it was also a little dull.

With The Doctor trapped in a shrunken TARDIS, it’s up to Clara to save the day in modern day Bristol as she investigates a series of strange disappearances, carrying the TARDIS around in her hand bag and talking to The Doctor through an ear piece with which he’s also hacked her optic nerve, so he can see what’s going on... nice idea that.

Another nice idea is that the “monsters of the week” dissect their victims and leave 2D versions of bits of them around as tell tale scene of the crime stuff. For example, when a police woman is sucked into oblivion through the carpet, a flattened version of her nervous system is placed on the wall. All good stuff and I’ve always had a strange fascination overtake me whenever I look at old illustrations of the human nervous system so... this was all good stuff. And, indeed, so was the old but rarely used idea of beings that exist in only 2 dimensions. Yeah, okay, some of us may find it a little clichéd but it’s not been done that often in Doctor Who and it’s never really been made “a thing” of before, so brownie points to the writer for that.

We also had the wonderful Jenna Louise Coleman taking over as a stand in for The Doctor while the always excellent Peter Capaldi could only give advice from his tiny environment. Although, to be fair, the scale issue had some problems in some of the shots, which seemed to be having some continuity issues and, frankly, issues with what could and couldn’t fit through the doors at various times, to a certain extent, I thought.

So, anyway, Clara takes over and saves the day in the end, kind of, when she does something jolly clever, with the help of a graffiti artist and the almost blind hindrance of one of the guys who was also on the rooftop at the start of Tim Burton’s Batman. So that was all very nice and it was interesting hearing the distinction made by Capaldi’s more grown up incarnation of The Doctor between doing something good and doing something very well... implying that he’s becoming more conscious these days of all the harm he sometimes has to do in the hard choices he makes when vanquishing his foes... so all that was very interesting and clever and I think I should probably have appreciated it more.

One of the things which made me appreciate it less was the execution of some of the special effects. I don't mind stop motion animation at all... I think it’s quaint and charming and it certainly has it’s place, even in todays CGI world... but the use of it here (or something which looked very much like it, no matter how the effects were done), just looked cheap and child like. As did the 3D renditions of the 2D monsters in their final form, to be honest. It just looked a bit rubbish. Not as rubbish as the miniature train speeding through the tunnel model used in a couple of shots, to be sure, but when you combine all these different things the effect seemed to me to be the rare occasion when the lack of good visual effects actually does impact on the telling of the story... not something I’d thought I’d ever hear myself say, to be honest. I usually don’t care about such irrelevant issues as the special effects.

However, to counter that, lots of nice things too... such as the idea that some of the victims have bee placed, backs towards us, in the graffiti in a tunnel... that was cool. And the groovy bit where The Doctor uses his hand to move the TARDIS, almost, out of peril and resembling a snail... highly entertaining stuff. We also have a very sinister and threatening epilogue with the frequently appearing Missy, this week, which reveals that Clara is being used for some kind of sinister plot. That’s worrying... I wonder if Clara will be replaced by “Missy in Clara’s incarnation clothing” at some point. That would be kinda horrible and outrageously cool all at the same time.

All in all this is not my favourite episode of the season although, it has to be said, it was better than the majority of them. Still wondering what’s happened to the music in this series. Seems to be very underpowering, to say the least, although a James Bond like bass line was definitely prominent in a certain scene this episode. It’s all, certainly, still enough to keep me watching the show and I am definitely intrigued as to where this will all be going by Christmas, for sure. So... a short review but not much more to say on this one, to be honest. A solid script, poorly handled in places but not without a lot of charm. Looking forward to next week’s one now.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Ecko Burning




More Ecko Bound

Ecko Burning
by Danie Ware
Titan Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781781169087

Warning: Slight spoiler for the previous book
 in order to talk about this one on a surer footing.

Okay, here we go.

Ecko Burning is the second of Danie Ware’s trilogy which started with Ecko Rising, reviewed here. I liked that first novel quite a lot and, as it turns out, I like this follow up just as much but it’s not a case of “all more of the same” this time around, I’m happy to confirm.

There are two things about the title character which I find interesting. One is that he’s not really the central character of the books. I think I said that in my last review and Ecko Burning reconfirms that attitude that these books are very much an ensemble piece as far as the cast of characters in these novels go. He might well be a very important guy in the overall scheme of things but I still haven’t figured that out yet. Like the first novel, Ware does the job of locking in the mystery of the two worlds depicted in the Ecko books (at least two, but we still haven’t got to the point in these stories where my natural suspicions are allayed on world counts either) and makes sure that she still doesn’t spill any beans as far as the end game goes... certainly not in this novel, at any rate.

The other thing about Ecko which is kind of interesting is that, central character or not, although he may still be the most important character in, what will soon be, the trilogy... he never seems to change or learn too much about his situation. He’s dogged by his own ego (which may or may not be a correct response, actually, time will tell) and he’s always certain that the future version of London that we know him from (kind of) is the correct template for reality and he’s playing somebody else’s game. He wants his ‘level ups’, to quote him in the gamers jargon that the writer uses so fondly at certain points. This doesn’t always help him and nor does it help his companions much either, when certain events unfold.

After the cliffhanger of the last novel, which had my favourite teleporting pub smashing through the barriers between worlds and leaving the mythical land of the majority of the book, quite literally penetrating Luger’s offices in the cyberpunk vision of future London... we are left out on a limb for a while about that particular puzzle piece of the story and the start of this one sees us back to a new adventure in the world where Ecko is currently trapped. It’s a world where two important things are happening simultaneously, which may or may not be part of the same plot. One is a big ‘political coup’ which throws the streets of the world into chaos as martial law and wholesale slaughter at the hands of a take over bid on the state are used to wield power. The other thing is perhaps best described as a plague of decay, overrunning both the people of the land and, as importantly, their crops etc. The fact that this is an almost viral infection, which transforms anything it touches, is not lost on me as I believe the author’s gaming sensibilities that I mentioned in the last review means she’s not unaware of computer games and the lethal path cut by a computer virus. Which is an interesting thing to consider actually because I think I came to a realisation about one of the writer’s current pet obsessions while I was reading this one... asides from all the gaming stuff that is.

When you have a successful artist in whatever medium, be it film, painting, writing, photography etc, you can often spot that artist’s signature in their work... one or more of those tell-tale contextual or stylistic flourishes which are common links between a number of their pieces. The majority of the early work of David Cronenberg is best described as having an emphasis on body horror, for instance, and I think Ware has a similar obsession to him actually. Or not so much body horror but with the transformation of one state of being into something else. All through these two novels we have people being transformed. In this one we have people going out of their mind or decaying as a result of whatever viral phenomenon is plaguing this land, we have one of the heroines who was accelerated/aged beyond her years in the last book, we have a heroic champion who finds himself quite drastically altered into something terrifying by the end of the novel and, of course we have Ecko. Both he and, in this book, another character from the last novel, have undergone some severe upgrades to their basic human template and are, themselves, both transformed men. It seems to me that this is very much a theme of Ware’s work at the moment.

Evolution, malignant or natural, aside... people who loved the first novel will find a lot that’s familiar  intermingled with the new flavours. The postmodernistic cross cultural references are still very much in abundance, especially through the first half of the book. Fun references like “Not the zombies I was looking for...”, “Lugan stood in the front garden of a quasi-medieval pub that had just beamed-the-fuck-down-Scotty in the middle of his chop shop” and “The bloke was a fucking loony - but he had more guts than Mr. Creosote” are planted at key times when Ware needs a moment to increase empathy in her readers by grounding her fantasy with allusions to phenomena in our own world. I found it particularly startling to find a Joseph Heller reference in the middle of a heroic fantasy setting, I have to say, but it all works pretty well.

Our scribe on Ecko’s journey does return to the cliffhanger ending of the last novel at some point in the proceedings and starts to set up a convoluted narrative in “future London” which, whenever she briefly returns to it, gives us little half glimpses of what may or may not be going on but without giving us a definitive answer on the seemingly flexible fabric of not just one, but two worlds. At first I was sure she was just going to return to London at the end of the book with a reiteration of that incident but she doesn’t ignore all that stuff and what goes on in London has consequences for those inhabitants ‘cross platform’... so to speak. I’d possibly be giving stuff away to speak more of such things (and probably get it all wrong anyhow) but, as usual, the techniques Ware uses to weave her story are quite masterful and I’m sure I couldn’t even begin to comment on the world of subtleties found in her writing.

That being said... a couple of things really stayed with me from this book.

One thing she does which is very nice is to continue to shout out details of a fight sequence when two or more protagonists are engaged in their own sections of a fight, so they can be cross referenced in the minds eye while reading... thus allowing you to keep track of where everybody is in relation to each other and where they are in the timeframe of a battle. However, an additional thing she’s done here... something I’ve seen done many times in the movies but don’t quite remember reading it in a book before (although that’s probably a case of bad “remembery” on my part)... is to have the confidence in her audience to be able to cut out a battle scene altogether. About 140 pages in, by way of example, there’s a fight involving a character called Rhan. Ware’s built both the stakes and the drama up at the beginning of the opening of the fight to the point where we can guess the outcome... we know that the Rhan character is a very powerful warrior so, rather than take us through the entire fight, Ware just skips to the end and describes the aftermath of the character contemplating victory. Neat idea and it doesn’t get bogged down in an action piece which might have been nice to read but would have ultimately, maybe, slowed down the narrative pace at this point. There’s obviously a reason for doing this but, whatever that reason is, the writer’s solution is a pretty good one and doesn’t insult the intelligence of her army of readers either... so that’s all good.

There’s another point which was cool because I was fooled completely for a few pages into thinking Echo had finally woken up to whatever his real reality is... which may or may not be the reality he is living in the book. As it turns out there’s something else going on here, not just for him but for a few of the characters, but the writer did some effective wool pulling in this sequence... so that made me smile.

I also got myself a little bit more educated this time around with my Ecko experience. Noticing what I thought was a peculiar quirk of the writer’s possible tendency to anthropomorphism in referring to all towns and villages as feminine, as in the line early in the novel “Celebration danced drunken through her zig zag streets.” made me check out if this was a Danie-ism or an actual correct term for such things. Turns out this is a known way of referring to cities etc and dates back to the gender of the term in latin so... how did I go through my life not knowing that one?

And that’s more or less all I’ve got to say about this one. It’s not a good jumping on book if you were thinking of skipping the first (and why would you?). So go back and read that one before gulping this one down. If you are already a fan of Ecko Rising then I’m pretty sure you’ll have a blast with this second one too. Ware is a writer who knows how to pace drama and string out the suspense to the maximum. Also, if you’ve not read any of her books before, you should probably not get too attached to some of the characters you meet in your journey through the pages. She’s not in the habit of giving all her characters happy endings and often you’ll lose a regular character or two, sometimes before you even know it. There's a really poignant bit towards the end of Ecko Burning where, after a terrifying beast is killed in battle, you realise the beast was not what you thought it was and that someone very interesting had just become a mere statistic in battle, his death unheralded. So there’s that... it made me think of a non-character called Glyph in Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s The Ballad Of Halo Jones... and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

So there you go. Another excellent adventure in an uncertain realm with uncertain characters, some of whom have a decidedly shaky grip on their moral compass. Now I just have to wait until the third and possibly concluding book of the trilogy gets published... sometime soon I hope. I need some closure... and I’m not at all certain that the kind of closure I want will be readily forthcoming for Ecko and his crew without a hard won fight. Something to look forward to, then.

Danie Ware's website can be found here... http://danieware.com/

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Annabelle




Adoradoll

Annabelle
2014  USA
Directed by John R. Leonetti
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Ever so slight spoilers on some of 
the scares but not really story spoilers as such.

Annabelle is a prequel made in the wake of the popularity of the film, based on a real life tale of demonic possession investigated by The Warrens, Ed and Lorraine, called The Conjuring (reviewed here). Although the doll, known as Annabelle, does have some part to play in the opening of The Conjuring (as a scene setter for the central characters) and final parts of the former movie, Annabelle is never really anything than a scary bonus which has nothing to do with the basic plot of that film.

While the makers of The Conjuring are in the midst of trying to get a sequel churned out, possibly involving the Enfield Poltergeist (although I’m told The Warrens didn’t have a heck of a lot to do with that particular case), New Line have decided to throw this film out in the meantime to strike the box office coffers while the iron is hot, so to speak. So this film is based on the story of Annabelle before she came into the final possession of Ed and Lorraine, although the producers have gone to some lengths to connect it to The Conjuring by using Ed’s voice and a replay of some of the early scenes from the first film pertaining to the misadventures of the doll... again, to set the tone at the start of this new movie.

Now, if you’ve read my review of The Conjuring, you’ll know I absolutely loved it and proclaimed it among the best horror movies ever made.. for a number of reasons. So I was kinda looking forward to seeing Annabelle until I started hearing very low key things about it not being very good. In fact, all the tweets and reviews I read on it, bar one, said that it was a pretty dreadful film. The one good review I read started with the admission that the reviewer in question never really like The Conjuring all that much and so I figured I might be setting myself up for a fall looking forward to this prequel.

As it turns out, Annabelle isn’t a terrible film, on the face of it. It’s clichéd, for sure, but then again so are most horror movies that are all playing with a similar set of rules and this movie certainly had a fair few scenes which are going to make viewers, at the very least, a little anxious.

One of the strengths of the first movie is that pretty much all the cast were likeable and someone you felt you could hang out with. Certainly, the lead protagonists of Annabelle, a newly pregnant wife called Mia (played by Annabelle Wallis) and her husband John (played by Ward Horton) are pictured as very nice people to be with... although they don’t seem to have the same kind of appeal as the characters in the first movie and the film possibly doesn’t take enough time to explore their personalities. Things start to go wrong for them not so much later after John buys Mia, a doll collector, a hard to get piece for her collection... yeah, that’s right, the Annabelle of the title. Pretty soon after that, Mia and John’s nice n’ comfy next door neighbours get a visitation from a formerly missing daughter and her culty boyfriend. They’ve come home to slash her mum and dad to tiny pieces and then, once they’ve seen to that, they come for Mia and John. The daughter is from a satanic cult (we know as much because of the news broadcast in the background in a scene prior to these events which is pushing the Manson Murders as being a current thing) and she dies at the hands of the police but, not before she’s dripped some of her blood into the eyes of the Annabelle doll. Our heroes don’t escape unscathed but, after enough bizarre visitations by scary occurrences, our two main protagonists move to another town and start again, leaving the troublesome doll behind in a trash can.

Things start to happen not long after the Annabelle doll turns up in their new house again and Mia, and her new daughter, ar both targeted by the usual manifestations you get in these kinds of movies. It’s all done very competently and some sequences will make you jump, I suspect. That being said, there doesn’ seem to be much new on offer here and there are a lot of big scripting signposts which point to future events in the movie in several places. Like the family befriending both the local priest with an expertise on evil (evil, I tells ya) and the lady who runs the second hand bookshop... who also happens to be knowledgable about demonology etc. Most of the time it’s pretty obvious what roles these people are going to play in the movie so I can understand why people have been expecting more from this one. That being said, from the swooping and luxurious camerawork and the jump/cut/scare editing (which does need split second timing, to be fair) to Joseph Bishara’s usual sound design versus melody scoring style, in which he already seems to be getting an old hand but which does what it does when it needs to... this film is, at the very least, competently put together and should give a fair few of you something like a good time at the cinema.

There’s some really nice stuff going on too.

Annabelle herself, for example, is a classic piece of audience driven suspense in that, apart from when she’s being manipulated by someone or something else, she doesn’t once move by herself. The camera quite often holds shot on her in a close up of her face because the director knows you are waiting for the doll to either move her eyes or perhaps just blink at some point. But that jump scare never comes and this means the director can keep delivering certain, suspenseful close ups of the doll (and don’t worry, he does) while simultaneously playing on our imagination to provide the scares and, like most directors working in this genre, Leonetti knows that our imagination is often stronger than anything he can conjure up for a movie like this.

There’s a brilliant sequence about two thirds of the way through where the writer and director appear to break their own rules about the doll, which you may have already twigged isn’t going to be doing anything on her own, by now. As Mia is in deep focus and facing out to the audience in the foreground of a shot, we notice the Annabelle doll getting up on her own as Mia then turns to stare at it. The doll begins to appear to levitate and it’s only after a little more of this that both the audience and Mia come to realise that, through the sheer chicanery of movie effects and editing, something is actually holding the doll up, back there in the darkness. Scary stuff.

There’s a nice Rosemary’s Baby kind of vibe going through the movie too. Not in terms of Mia and John’s child so much, although Mia is an obvious reference by the writer, Gary Dauberman, name checking the actress who portrayed Rosemary in the movie version of Ira Levin’s famous novel... Mia Farrow. The similarity is more in terms of atmosphere and the apartment block that Mia finds herself inhabiting mostly on her own when John is away at work. You also get the feeling that many of her acquaintances, perhaps even her husband, are in on whatever is haunting Mia... although we all know that it’s Annabelle, the daughter of the dead neighbours, who is inhabiting the doll. Or is it, exactly? There’s something of a mixed story idea, I think, because there’s also a demon coming visiting at odd hours that also seems to be using Annabelle as a conduit to our world.

The last act of the movie lets the film down somewhat, for my money. The obvious characters who our main protagonists have met over the course of the film both fulfil their very obvious roles and the ending is somewhat of a comedown given that there was a lot of subtle work throughout the majority of the rest of the movie. There’s another nice nod to The Conjuring at the end and, though there could be room for a sequel to get squeezed in here if the box office on this spin off is big enough, I suspect this is probably the last we’ll be seeing of Annabelle, descended from both real life and a series of cinematic and television “sinister dolls with minds of their own”.

If you loved The Conjuring as much as I did, then you’re certainly going ot want to watch this just to see how it fits in with things. If you are a horror fan in general then just remember that Annabelle is not exactly the greatest horror movie ever made. This is an okay and competent attempt at a fairly jumpy but ultimately slightly less than satisfying genre film and, if that’s enough for you, and for most of us that would be, then this one is definitely worth a gander. However, like I said before... it’s not The Conjuring.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy On The Orient Express




Orient Excess

Doctor Who: Mummy On The Orient Express
UK Airdate: 11th October 2014
BBC 1

Oh yes. Much better.

This episode is probably the best one I’ve had the pleasure to watch this season which, given my fairly negative comments on the majority of the current series so far, might not seem like much of a comment but all I can say to that is... when Doctor Who is good, it’s really good... and this was great Doctor Who.

Mummy On The Orient Express jump starts with the Doctor and Clara arriving on a perfect... almost perfect... replica of the Orient Express running through space. It’s their kinda farewell trip after Clare’s revelation of leaving The Doctor last week and I still find it hard that, for someone who has been around for every incarnation of The Doctor (Yeah, remember that stuff? It was only last season.) that she is still in the least surprised by any twist of his character that comes to light. However, this all seems to be frequently forgotten and the dialogue here is based on this being their last hoorah and it works really well as an extended audience tease while giving the interplay between the characters a slightly different tone to riff around.

And then the screaming starts. Well, it started in the pre-credits actually but it starts up again soon enough with a really ingenious nod to the artistry of the old school monster, B-movie style gimmick. There’s a mummy loose on the train at various intervals who can only be seen by his victims before it kills them... and only for exactly 66 seconds. Now here’s the thing... not only is the 66 seconds thing a neat little device to create suspense in the audience but it allows the makers of this episode the chance to indulge in a bit of old William Castle style chicanery. You know those old gimmicks in movies where the film would stop and you’d have “one minute to guess the identity of the werewolf” or “30 seconds to guess the name of the killer” etc... well they’ve done a similar bit of jiggery pokery here by putting up a stop watch countdown every time the mummy appears... so you know when it starts ticking down The Doctor only has that long to beat it each time. It works really well too... lending itself to the style and format of this particular Doctor Who adventure and fitting the spirit of it like a well worn glove.

Now, in among all my negative comments I’ve made over the last few weeks about the general lack of good story writing (as opposed to ideas) there have been a fair few positive comments too, focussing on the fact that I think Peter Capaldi is brilliant as The Doctor, Jenna Coleman’s Clara is as cool n’ groovy as she ever was and, of course, that the dialogue and chemistry between them has been excellent. All that, and it kinda goes without saying, also applies to this weeks episode as well but, here you also have a story that works too... simplistic in some ways but with a tough enough edge that The Doctor has to work stuff out and we get to see him doing it... less quicker than he’d like.

Luckily he has a new friend in the form of an engineer, played by Frank Skinner (no, not the famous soundtrack composer... some kind of modern comedian, apparently) and the scriptwriters have gifted him with enough Shakespearean “lowest character is actually the smartest one in the room” kind of intelligence that he’s able to assist The Doctor very well for most of the episode... which is fine because Clara is trapped in another compartment of the train for the majority of it. Not that she doesn’t do some very capable “assisting” of her own, it has to be said.

All this means that we have a story which is well put together, has fantastic dialogue and also has a genuine problem solving focus as we get to watch The Doctor use each new fact as it is uncovered to finally work things out so that when he finally fixes it so that he’s the one who can see the mummy... he knows just what to do. And, frankly, the little detail which vanquishes the “monster of the week” in this one is a really neat little touch, I have to say. Didn’t quite see it coming but am blaming the unusual grooviness of the episode as a distraction to my own mental cognisance on this occasion. And it was brilliant. If they can keep up the writing on this level for the rest of the season then we’re in for a good second half. I don’t believe that for a minute given the up and downess of the show lately but, hey, what the heck. This episode has certainly reminded me that the ups are often worth putting up with a number of downs for. The only real thing I’m missing now from the show is a strong sub-theme for the Capaldi era from Murray Gold. Tennant and Smith both had a very strong, slightly different, action melody... Capaldi doesn’t really seem to have one yet and that’s something the show is sorely missing at this point I think.

So, anyway... looking forward to the next episode even more now. Mummy On The Orient Express... brilliant Doctor, brilliant Clara, brilliant episode. Definitely, as I said at the start, the best of the Capaldi episodes so far and a real fan pleaser for lovers of the fourth Doctor too, I suspect, who Capaldi seems to be channeling a little in this one.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Electric Boogaloo - The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films




Semi Golan

Electric Boogaloo - 
The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
2014  Australia/USA/Israel/UK
Directed by Mark Hartley
Seen as part of the London Film Festival on Saturday 11th October

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It’s really unusual to find a documentary film which hasn’t got a very specific agenda being pushed through the movie. Music or a one sided kind of attitude to the selection of footage to fit in with the film makers' ideas of what he or she wants to say is usually the standard for these kinds of affairs. I’m not saying that it’s a particularly bad thing to push an idea through a study of specific angles to push you own ideas, and there’s certainly an art to that, but it’s refreshing to come across the odd one which doesn’t seem to have too much of a personal agenda and so it is with Mark Hartley’s new film Electric Boogaloo - The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. 

The film tells the story of Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus and the meteoric rise and eventual fall of their famous Cannon company, which it seems they bought rather than started from scratch with (something I didn’t realise). I was pleased to see the first screening of this movie in this country (to my knowledge) and there was an introduction followed by a post-screening Q and A with the director which is interesting in light of the seeming lack of specific bias in the movie.

The director told us that, while the project started off as a kind of “hero” project, as he began to delve deeper and uncover more alarming professional behaviour (for want of a better term) from the dynamic duo who were mainly known for trash movies... the film took on a very different shape. That being said, I think the tone is less negative than fun and he does show many a “talking head” real life personality with conflicting reviews. I didn’t personally find the movie that negative and one of the pair’s personal assistants from that time, who happened to be an audience member but who participated a little in the Q & A, took pains to point out that, while a lot of the people who had worked with the pair in the film were quite unflattering in their comments and judgement of the two... Golan rarely, if ever, said something that negative about the people working for them.

The film starts off with a really fun filled opening credits sequence which does set the tone for the piece quite nicely and while there are many a conflicting comment on show in the film, if it could be said that the director had any kind of personal agenda on this film at all, then that would probably be to make a fun film and, given the amount of really terrible movies that got made under the Canon brand, he certainly had a lot of good, laugh inducing material to work with, it has to be said.

The film is basically just put together as talking heads intercut with clips which often support the particular agenda of the person speaking at the time but, as I said, rarely... if ever... takes sides. The talking heads include some great people too, such as Lucinda Dickey, Shabba Doo Quinones, The Boogaloo Shrimp, Franco Nero, Cassandra Peterson, Richard Chamberlain, Martine Beswick, Sybil Danning, Bo Derek, Dolph Lundgren and Alex Winter (I could go on here but it would quickly turn into a list article... and you know I rarely do those).

There are some fascinating stories on hand such as one of my personal favourite Cannon movies Breakdance (aka Breakin’ in pretty much all other countries apart from the UK) but I was very disappointed that Lucinda Dickey and her male leads really didn’t get along in real life. Which is a shame. Now I’ve always loved that first movie but never really took to the second movie, which the title of this movie obviously cribs from... Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo (aka Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). That being said I was kinda pleased that the main stars of the two films also hated the second one... so that makes me feel validated somewhat. It was also good to hear Cassandra Peterson (yeah, that’s right, Elvira -Mistress Of The Dark herself) talk about her complete lack of stunt double when she was working on the King Solomon’s Mines sequel Alan Quatermain And The Lost City Of Gold. It’s not a film I’ve gotten around to seeing yet (it’s on the to watch pile, I bought them both when I found out Elvira was in one of them) but when I do I’ll definitely be watching a particular sequence with a certain amount of insight into safety issues.

There was also a lot of stuff I’d have liked to have heard more of. There were a lot of actors mentioned, for instance, who didn’t have any input into the documentary. Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and Gene Hackman (for the Superman IV: The Quest For Peace debacle) spring to mind and, when somebody in the audience asked the director who he’d tried to get a hold of during the production of this film to talk about the Golan and Globus partnership, he did say that he’d contacted everyone and pretty much anyone who we don’t see speaking in this documentary declined. Which I think is a little telling?

I personally would have liked to have had a little window onto the nefarious financial practices the two are supposed to have indulged in to keep their company afloat and their productions going... but the director also answered another question fielding this in which he said that there was a lot more on this stuff in the original cut but that he's had to remove it for legal reasons. Which I think also says a lot.

However, there was some pretty great stuff in here and I loved the fact that the director spent some time on Lifeforce (which Hartley admitted to loving himself... something which I heartily approve) and was pleased that, to counter all the negative things people were saying about the two (and with good reason, from what I can understand... somebody I know was afraid this film might lionise Golam and Globus but it certainly doesn’t do that), he also included acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli saying, whole heartedly, that Golam was the best producer he’d ever had. So that was kind of nice.

At the end of the day, while this film doesn’t penetrate quite as far as I would have liked (which is understandable given some of the comments of the director after the screening) it is one of those kinds of documentary films which makes up for it in sheer entertainment value. The audience I was with were absolutely lapping it up and there was a lot of laughter throughout the screening. According to the director the film is hopefully getting some kind of theatrical release from Metrodome next year and that, of course, will hopefully be followed by a home video version where some of the 45 minutes plus of deleted scenes from the movie might find a place in. If there is I’m hoping there’ll be a section on my other favourite Cannon movie, Cobra, somewhere in there. Either way though, if you’re interested in the history of film, then Electric Boogaloo - The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is another one of those compelling documentaries about a small slice of our cinematic heritage that you should definitely put on your "to watch" list. Great movie.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Box




Button Dressed As Lamb

The Box
2009 USA 
Directed by Richard Kelly
Icon UK DVD Blu Ray B

Warning: Spoilers for the source novel and previous TV adaptation.

The Box is a movie that I meant to see at the cinema at the time of its release due to the intriguing premise presented in the trailer. Unfortunately, I don’t think it played around my local cinema long enough for me to be able to physically get there while it was on but a cheap, second hand Blu Ray made its way into my possession recently and so... here we are.

The premise, which had so intrigued from the trailer and which, I might add, doesn’t even begin to give you the true flavour of this movie, is very simple and it’s based on a short story called Button, Button. This was written by famous science fiction writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend) and it’s now been filmed twice, once here and once as one of the 1980s run of new Twilight Zone episodes. However, by all accounts, all three versions differ somewhat and so I feel it’s okay to give away the endings of those first two versions here in order to talk about the way this movie makes use of Matheson’s material and the way the director, very much an auteur after his breakthrough hit Donnie Darko, has chosen to extend the premise beyond Matheson’s original source.

The central hook of all three is a parcel which arrives one morning at the front door of a husband and wife. They open it to find a box with a button under a glass dome and a note that Mr. Steward will be coming to see them at 5pm. When Mr. Steward does arrive, he has with him an envelope which holds the key to release the dome with the button. He tells them that they have 24 hours to choose to use the key to open the glass dome and press the button. If they choose to press the button, two things will happen. Number one is that someone they don’t know will die. Number two is that, when Mr. Steward comes to retrieve and reset the box the next day, he will bring with him a million dollars in cash, tax free. So there’s your moral dilemma right there... do you ease the pain and struggle of your life with a big cash injection and not care that someone you don’t know will die for it?

Now, of course, this wouldn’t be a story unless somebody presses the button and the wife in each case does so. Now this is where the short story and the Twilight Zone episode apparently differ in their conclusion and, I have to admit, I kinda prefer the Twilight Zone ending myself, although Matheson himself apparently didn’t like it so much.

In the original story, the wife has pressed the button and her husband is found dead on train tracks. Mr. Steward’s words to the wife are something along the lines of... “Do you ever really know your husband?” In the Twilight Zone episode the husband is fine but, as Mr. Steward leaves the couple to reset the box and pass it on, he makes the point that he will, of course, be passing it on to someone who, he assures them... doesn’t know them.

Now for me the implied threat of that version is much stronger and, in fact, it’s the option that Richard Kelly goes for in this movie but, the thing is, we get to this point fairly quickly in the running time, it has to be said. Probably no later than half way through the film. What the director/writer then does is take the premise further and start exploring both the reasons why such an interesting proposition has taken place in the first place and also what the aftermath is for the various people who find themselves unwillingly participating in this deadly game.

Now, a strong opener like that was probably better off with no meaning behind it because, after the initial trauma of the idea, nothing you say is going to explain it adequately enough to match the simplicity of the initial proposition. I’m sure Richard Matheson understood this and I’m guessing so did Richard Kelly. However, it does give Kelly a chance to explore what could possibly happen next and, I really don’t want to give away too much here except to say...

The film does get a whole lot bleaker as the narrative continues on towards the ending. This is not a feel good film and the intensity and dark places that it goes to reminded me, at least in terms of atmosphere and the kind of way in which the nagging claustrophobia of the main protagonists’ daily milieu is presented on screen, of Alex Proyas’ Dark City. Fans of that movie wil probably like the trip that this director takes them on here.

Like I said, I don’t want to put any spoilers into play here but there is a certain significance in the fact that Cameron Diaz’ character Norma is married to James Marsden’s character Arthur, who is part of NASA and worked on a project involving a probe which was sent to Mars. They, like many families inadvertently taking part in this chain of events, have a young child. There is a lot of conspiracy happening in this movie and, like the old TV show The Invaders, there’s also a tell for the audience, and the central characters, as to whether or not someone in the movie is already taking part in this particular “programme”.

What I will say is that, if you’re expecting a movie which is a set up to a thriller with an upbeat sense of closure, then you’re in the wrong genre. It’s both more and, to some people, probably less. This is a science fiction film, it turns out, and it’s very much tapped in to the old school 1950s style sci-fi movies and this one comes across as almost a mish mash of The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in some respects. It takes the initial concept and takes it into new areas and, near the end, to a new moral decision on the part of the one of the characters. A decision that we realise, at this point, has been asked of people a lot of times before the involvement of Norma and Arthur.

In some ways I can understand why The Box apparently bombed at the box office. I do think, however, that this movie has got a lot going for it and fans of science fiction will really enjoy it. There are a few nice genre nods, the perpetual sense of impending bleakness is coolly maintained throughout the running time and it really doesn’t cop out at the end. Certainly, a movie I think is worth a watch and something I feel should have had a lot more success at the time of its release... when it was sold as more of a thriller in the trailer, than as a science fiction/horror movie. Definitely one to watch out for if you’ve not come across it before.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Incompresa (aka Misunderstood)





















Aria Pigeon

Incompresa (aka Misunderstood)
2014  Italy/France
Directed by Asia Argento.
Seen as part of the Raindance Film Festival on Saturday 4th October

I’ve been aware of Asia Argento as an artist to be reckoned with for a decade or two now. Ever since getting interested in her famous father’s various gialli and horror films and seeing her pop up in a few roles in both his and his contemporaries’ movies such as her feature film debut as an actress in Demons 2 and through to such classic Dario Argento films as Trauma and The Stendahl Syndrome (amongst others).

She’s also, of course, a very beautiful model, on top of being a talented actress, but the thing that pleased me most about this woman was about ten years ago when I finally got around to seeing her debut as a feature film director, Scarlet Diva. There were some really great things going on in this film and the camerawork was both inventive and unintrusive, when it needed to be, in equal measure. I remember saying to a friend of mine at the time that I thought she was maybe an even better director than her father.

She hasn’t directed that many features over the last 14 years since Scarlet Diva and I’ve never understood why. In fact, despite working behind the camera on a lot of shorts, Incompresa is only her third feature, following on from The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (a film I’ve not gotten around to seeing, I have to admit). So when I saw her tweeting over the last year or so about the film she was making (Yeah, I follow her on twitter, what can I say?) I was getting kinda interested in seeing this thing and when she announced that there would be a couple of screenings in the UK, as part of the 22nd Raindance Film Festival in London, I was straight on the phone to my friends to see who wanted to go with me.

Incompresa is the story of a young girl growing up in a troublesome family environment, split between an artistic father, who is an actor, and a pianist mother who are at each others throats whenever they are occupying the same homes... which is rarely. The whole scenario is seen through the eyes of the daughter, Aria, who also has a sister (who is her mother’s favourite) and a loathsome step sister (who is her father’s favourite). Aria is just trying to lead a normal life in a world where the sting of disappointment and unfair peer pressure is taking its toll just a little more than usual.

It would perhaps be a little too easy to say that Incompresa is an autobiographical film. There are some striking resemblances that could easily appear to an outside observer, aka the audience, to be indications that the director is what this film is all about. The young protagonist’s name Aria is only one letter out from Asia, for instance. The always fantastic and watchable Charlotte Gainsbourg here plays Aria’s troublesome mother, a self confessed “love witch” and the way she is made up in the movie strongly calls to mind the presence of Asia’s real life mother, the equally wonderful Daria Nicolodi. Anyone who knows anything about some of the stories about how Suspiria and the Three Mothers trilogy came into being will know that there’s a strong connection to witchery there too. Similarly, I’ve no idea if Dario Argento is superstitious or not but the “actor” father of Aria could easily be a surrogate Dario for all I know.

So yes, a little tempting and, as I said, too easy a target for accusations of biographical intent, especially since Asia Argento has maintained that the movie is not intended to be. That being said, however, she is very much an artist and artists do tend to take what they know and plough it back into their works... so I don’t think it would be too unfair to say that there’s also an element of the finished product which takes bits of her life and reshapes them to fit the overall drama. Or so it seems to me, anyway. That's pretty much how everyone working in a creative medium uses personal experience to shape and inform their art.

The structure of the film is not what I was expecting. Rather than take a specific arc from one starting point to a place where a sense of closure is maintained, the story is episodic in nature and presents dramatic sequences which build up a gradual picture of the main protagonist, through the observations of both the problems and the good times piled onto little Aria, played so assuredly by Giulia Salerno. In fact, the constant traipsing between the houses of both her father and her mother as she commits some new wrong and is expelled from each of her father’s or mother’s house in turn, time after time, make this seem to be something of a road movie at heart. Aria certainly wears out a lot of shoe leather in her to-ing and fro-ing and, it has to be said, the sequences where she is seen journeying from one house to another is used as a form of punctuation or grammar for the piece... sometimes invoking a comical reaction and, at other times, underlining the drama of a situation in the most moving way.

In a way, it’s the journey that’s always the important bit in this movie, rather than the destination, and as Aria stirs up trouble with black cats and pigeons (her father is depicted as a victim to superstition), stolen letters and various other attempts to explore her life and gain the attention of the kid she likes in school, the more we become aware of something that maybe some of us have forgotten over the years... how hard it is to be a kid.

Of course, Argento frames the various adventures of her young characters with some of the best compositions she can find in the various locations... the vision of Aria walking away from the camera at a three quarter angle against a vertical slatted fence which perfectly frames the perspective is a shot that springs to mind... and I wouldn’t expect anything less from her. What is more telling is how close I think she must be to the heart of the story she is trying to shape. She manages to coax some amazing performances out of all the kids in this film, with the aforementioned Giulia Salerno absolutely knocking it out of the park in terms of conjuring up a little girl who I totally believed in throughout the running time.

My favourite part of the film, for instance, is when Aria stumbles across a group of homeless people and stays with them for the night, making a connection based on the spirit of movement and exploration that captures the hearts of her new, adult companions. The relationship she creates with the young rock star boyfriend (one of many boyfriends her mother courts throughout the film) is also a great series of moments in the film and also shows that Asia Argento hasn’t forgotten to show the good things about being a kid too. Which is refreshing in a film which seems to court tragedy as a friend.

Now I’m not sure if Incompresa is going to get a general release over here in the UK but, even if it doesn’t, I’m pretty sure something this well made should hit DVD or Blu Ray over here at some point. It’s one of the more entertaining and moving motion pictures I’ve seen dealing with this kind of subject matter (yeah, alright, I admit to tearing up in two places, okay... but only for a minute, honest) so I’m hoping it gets some kind of release soon. If you like films which try to find the truth through the journey of a child’s heart then this one is definitely worth some of your time. And like I said, both Giulia Salerno and Charlotte Gainsbourg give some terrific performances here so you don't really want to miss that. Once again, Asia Argento flexes her movie making muscles and shows the general public a side to her they never knew before. And, of course, she also reiterates that she is a film-maker to be taken very seriously.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Doctor Who: Kill The Moon




Moon Zero Who

Doctor Who: Kill The Moon
UK Airdate: 4th October 2014
BBC 1

Warning: Very slight spoilers here but... honestly... it’s not worth worrying about, I reckon.

Oh dear.

You know, when I saw the trailer for this one last week I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. Not so much by the cheap lack of location shooting... Doctor Who has always been about doing things cheaply... but by the possible lack of story we might get in a setting like the moon once again. But, I’m always game to see what they come up with next...

Now I’ll say up front that there were some very good things about this episode and I’ll get to those a little later but I must say that my fears were somewhat justified because, after a damned good lead in for the first twenty minutes or so, with the TARDIS materialising on a space shuttle that’s crash landing on the moon, the atmosphere was quite chilling and that’s, in my opinion anyway, pretty much how a lot of Doctor Who should be... allowing for a little diversity here and there. However, what we were presented with this week was not so much of a story as a moral dilemma. Which in itself isn’t a bad thing but the way it was explored seemed less interesting to me and, for the majority of the second half of the show, I didn’t care about it one way or another and I would have been just as happy if every one of the characters had met an untimely end.

One of the reasons is that I can’t believe The Doctor hasn’t been on the moon later than the year 2049 before. In fact, as I just wrote that sentence I decided to check by randomly doing a search on the first moon based Doctor Who story that came to mind, The Moonbase. Yep, sure enough, Patrick Troughton took on the cybermen on the moon in the year 2070... so I think if what had happened at the end of this story, prior to that one, had indeed happened in the continuity of the series, then I think The Doctor might have noticed something not quite right about the moon’s chemical make up about then... I’m sure no two moons are identical, after all.

Another big problem for me was the science of the thing. Now I’m not a scientist by any means but I threw the question out on twitter last night and, asides from being completely off about the age of our beloved and cherished celestial body, the shockwave and other things like, for instance, the fact that there are clearly still tides visible on Earth when the moon has parted company, makes the story seem more like a fairytale for kids and not something you’d schedule in your programming at 8.30pm on a Saturday night. This kind of stuff kept bothering me all through the episode and since none of it was explored in any great detail, I stopped caring about what was going to happen half way through this one. It lost all credibility for me.

There were some positive things about the episode, however.

Capaldi was great as The Doctor and so was Jenna Coleman as a much toughened up version of Clara. There was a hard moral dilemma in the story and although the dialogue pertaining to it left me a bit cold, the dialogue dealing with the relationship between The Doctor and the people who he is surrounded by was very “on the nose”. We had Clara getting very angry at him too and giving the impression that she’s left The Doctor behind for good... although she obviously hasn’t. And it’s not surprising actually because, and I think some people might have missed this because she didn’t address it in her tirade against The Doctor, the TARDIS only rematerialised to pick up Clara and the others after she had stopped the countdown with only one second to spare. Which means, if she hadn’t have stopped the countdown, there would have been no way for The Doctor to jump in and rescue them, he wouldn’t have had the time... they’d be dead.

Which sounds like a grim option for a time traveller but there are precedents for why he couldn’t have looked ahead and gone back earlier scattered throughout the series over many decades. Now that is a good reason for Clara to have a very adverse reaction to what’s happened to her and I think her outburst and decision was a good one. Capaldi’s Doctor was being as coldly ruthless as he could get back in the William Hartnell days on this one and that’s no bad thing. That being said, however, I do think the Danny Pink character now bears watching a little closer. There’s a chance he might have been “got to” and could be the enemy of both The Doctor and Clara for all I know, judging from his advice to her at the end of last night’s episode... sound advice or not. Keeping my eye on him for a little while because he might not actually be who he at first seems, I suspect.

The other positives were that the sets didn’t look that cheap, they were well shot and used, the costumes didn’t look tacky as you would expect and the first twenty minutes or so had, as I said, a great atmosphere. The downside of that, of course, was that the “giant spiders” were a bit, well, a bit unthreatening and just didn’t seem like anything I should need to be frightened of... and I say this as a confirmed arachnaphobe, I assure you. So there’s that.

All in all, although I appreciate the huge amount of work that’s obviously gone into this episode and quite like the darkened tone, somewhat, I have to put this one down as truly an episode I would like to forget about as quickly as possible. When science fiction ignores science then it becomes something far less interesting, as far as I’m concerned.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Tunnel: Gaza-Israel War Border




Tunnel Vision

The Tunnel: Gaza-Israel War Border
2008 Israel 
Directed by Gennady Kuchuk
Viewed on the internet at the invitation of the director.

You know, one of the perks of writing a movie review blog on the internet is that sometimes, more often than you’d think, you get directors emailing or DMing you on twitter (it’s mostly through twitter) who want you to see their film. It’s a nice compliment because, presumably, it means they’ve read something that you’ve written somewhere (or one of their friends has) and it’s been appreciated by someone at some point. Sometimes it can turn out to be a bit of a bugbear too because, occasionally the films turn out to be not that great and you wonder if you really would be doing them a disservice if you wrote an honest review of the work in question. Then it can get a bit tricky.

However, I’m happy to say that, right from the first, beautifully coloured, 2.35:1 aspect ratio opening shot of Gennady Kuchuk’s The Tunnel - Gaza-Israel War Border, I knew that I was glad this guy had asked me to take a look. To be honest, I found the first few shots of this movie quite astonishing, not just because of the striking clarity of the detail but because of the richness in colour of an opening sequece which is capturing an external location. I could understand it later on, when most of the action takes place in the tunnel of the title, because it must be a lot easier to control the look of interior shots but, seriously, I was really into this movie from the first frame and, anyone who’s read my blog for as long as I’ve been writing it, knows that I’m not that often into viewing shorts (although I’ve seen a fair few good ones over the last few years so I’m really going to have to stop saying stuff like that). Special shout out to cinematographer Asaf Korman for his work here. He also edited this thing and it gets quite inventive in that regard, which I’ll talk about in regards to a montage shot a little later.

Anyway, this movie is essentially a two hander and it follows a patrolling soldier who, after the brief establishing of his character using a couple of props (inhaler, musical photo card of his girlfriend back home), all of which are reused at key moments later in the film, is shown on patrol but then finds himself falling through a hole in the ground and winding up in a tunnel. He can’t go back up and, as he explores his new environment, he finds one of the enemy in there. As they are fighting, an explosion goes off and closes off the rest of the tunnel, trapping the two of them in there.

Have you ever seen Hell In The Pacific. It’s another two hander directed by John Boorman, starring Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin as rival soldiers in World War II who are shot down on a deserted island. At first they play military games with each other, each trying to get the upper hand, and then eventually they start to cooperate to get off the island. I don’t want to say too much about that particular film but I wouldn’t be too surprised if I found out that Kuchuk was a fan of that one because he essentially captures the same kind of values and explorations of the human spirit that Boorman did in his feature... except Kuchuk does it in just under 20 minutes.*

Kuchuk doesn’t have Mifune and Lee but he does have two, very capable young actors playing the two lead soldiers in this one called Artur Marchenco and Joelal Msarva. These two do a wonderful job in playing people who start off as rivals and then, when compassion comes into play, they cooperate to try to dig their way out of the tunnel and back into their respective parts of the conflict. There’s some really nice things going on in the performance as the two grudgingly earn a healthy respect from each other as their confinement continues and the director captures the reddy brown hues of the tunnel’s walls, perfectly creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia almost palpable in its illusory intensity.

There are some good things happening in the edit too, especially with a time montage sequence where shots of the two soldiers digging are rotated around as slow moving, 360 degree inserts on a black frame to indicate the passing of the hours and the progress they have made. That's kinda new to me, I think. I don't remember seeing a film that expresses the passage of time in exactly this manner before... so that was a nice surprise. Especially with Dimitri Lifshitz’ deceptively simple score gluing it all together with a melody that adds weight to the almost hypnotic circular motion of the sequence. This is good stuff.

At last knockings, I don’t want to give too much away about this film because it’s worth you taking a look at it some time. I will say that the ending is a little bit clichéd but, at the same time, if it hadn’t have ended in the way it does, you might have felt a little bit cheated by it and, besides, the final pan shot across the desert sand and the quick glimpse of something else you get is such a nicely understated gesture to the gravitas of what’s just occured that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that final and subtle, visual moment.

The Tunnel: Gaza-Israel War Border is available to rent or buy from Indie Reign here. The film is also available on demand at Distrify  here and if you want some more information about the film, including a trailer for it, it can all be found here. A nice little movie about the nature of conflict and the way in which your personal politics evaporate in light of the chance of survival, the enlightenment of empathising with your enemy... and the ultimate price you pay for your peace. Check it out when you can.

*Between writing this review and publishing it on my blog, the director contacted me again and told me he’s never seen John Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific. Which is great because it means he’s got a great movie to add to his “to watch” list and I think he’ll like it as the two directors both tackle the same kind of themes in a very similar, head on manner. Hope he likes it.