Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Last Days On Mars

Liev On Mars

The Last Days On Mars
2013 USA
Directed by Ruairi Robinson
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Slight spoilers discussing the nature of this particular beast.

The Last Days On Mars was not a film I’d even heard of, or known was in production, until I looked at an app on my phone and found out it was playing at my local fleapit. I read a few words of synopsis about it being a horror film set on Mars but, since I have had an unfortunate internet black out for a week or so now, I have not been able to even watch a trailer for it. So I went in completely blind other than a few IMDB comments from people who were, to put it mildly, less than impressed with the film.

I’m happy to say that I don’t agree with those naysayers and that I found the film to be quite gripping in general. A taut little sci-fi thriller that borders on/strays into the realm of the horror movie.

Now I don’t usually like Liev Schreiber and Elias Koteas as a rule... except, when I think back to the films I’ve seen them in, they’ve actually always been pretty good. So I don’t really know why their names started sounding alarm bells but, all I can say is that they are both terrific in this movie... as are all the other actors and actresses involved in this project.

The film has that nice kind of “claustrophobia while roaming wide open spaces” kind of feel which you can probably only get from movies where the landscape is poisonous to you if you take off your oxygen helmet and, in some ways, the film felt a little bit like the old Hammer fun fest Moon Zero Two (reviewed here) in terms of the sense of the “humans versus the environment” kind of atmosphere created in this one... or should that be “lack of atmosphere” created in this one? Given that, you know, it’s set on a planet which doesn’t actually have a breathable one.

The Martian landscape is depicted throughout as quite yellow itself and I’m guessing they did their research enough to know something I didn’t know about the surface of the planet when you are actually situated within its atmosphere. People who like red, though, need not worry. There are some amazing sequences where control rooms are bathed in red light at various points in the running time... not to mention a certain amount of blood spilled at key moments.

The story set-up itself is extremely simple and not exactly original...

On their last day or so on Mars, a crew who have been stationed there for six months find a bacterial/viral life form. Of course, as soon as they do, one of them gets himself in trouble and gets infected by it and this has the effect of... well... turning them into crazy mixed up zombies. Except only in appearance because, unlike the zombies they resemble facially... as each one’s visage is turned into a nightmarish vision synonymous with zombie films over the last fifty years or so... these ones are faster (much like the pseudo-zombies of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later) and they retain the intelligence and reasoning of any sentient life form. Even so, they still want to, well... “kill all the humans” and that is what they start to do, by violence and then infection as our heroes and heroines are pitted against both the rudimentary problems of staying alive on Mars without an abundance of air while simultaneously avoiding violent encounters, and fending off each other from all manner of arguments and personality clashes in the process. You need a good ensemble cast to be able to pull off something like this well and, thankfully, the director Ruairi Robinson got one.

As I said, it’s really nothing special in terms of either originality or in terms of finding ways to surprise or interest the audience, in most respects. Thankfully, though, it really doesn’t have to be as, even though we think we know the probable outcome of the movie, it’s really well executed and the intensity of some of the scenes is spot on. The mise en scene is, again, not particularly attention grabbing, but it’s certainly very competently handled and, despite a lot of hand held camera work, there is a certain sense of beauty and simplicity within the way some shots are framed and edited together.

The musical score by Max Richter, too, is very good... treading a fine line between minimal space atmospheres, high pitched noodlings that act in the subconscious like certain elements of the Blade Runner score, and some full on majestic melodies at key points. I’d love to get a CD of this to have a proper listen but, so far, all I can see is an MP3 album knocking around.... which frankly isn’t good enough. The companies should be investing in their scores and putting these out in shops on CDs for people. Not making them take up valuable real estate on their potential customer’s computers. This score needs a decent release!

So there you have it... a nice film set in base camps, surface buggys and the Martian landscape, which uses the mystery of the possibility of some kind of life on Mars as a lead in to a quite claustrophobic and relatively edgy sci-fi thriller. It’s not new but it is neat and I thought the director, cast and crew did a wonderful job on it. If you’re into old school science fiction concepts, ripped from a plethora of old 1950s science fiction short stories, then you’ll probably have a great time with what is, basically, a zombies in space movie. I know I’ll be grabbing the Blu Ray of this one fairly soon after it gets released.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Raid 2 - Berandal

Hammerer Shy

The Raid 2 - Berandal 
(aka The Raid - Berandal aka 
The Raid 2 aka The Raid: Retaliation)
2014 Indonesia
Directed by Gareth Evans
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Very slight spoilers concerning the nature of some of the action choreography... if you count that as a spoiler... and the set up of the movie.

There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with Gareth Evans follow up to his hugely successful action move The Raid (reviewed here). One would have been the idea that you had to top the action sequences of the first movie to give the audiences all even more of the same multiplied by ten. The second would be to continue the structure of the first film in that you have it set in one location over a small number of hours.

I’m happy to say that, with The Raid 2 - Berandal, Evans not only doesn’t fall into either of those traps... but he also delivers another adrenalin fuelled, kick ass action movie which holds up on its own with its own agenda. Actually, that’s a bit of a double edged sword in some ways because there are certain characters from the first film you want to know about... but maybe they’ll get to that in a future installment.

And, to get any raised eyebrows out of the way on that last paragraph... yes, the action sequence choreography and editing in this movie is absolutely spectacular... but it stands up as being equal, not necessarily better than the sequences in the first movie. It does its own thing and as I sat watching this in the Cineworld Haymarket at the weekend, I could feel the collective pulse of the audience speeding up at the sheer, gruelling intensity of the combat sequences in this one.

Starting a mere two hours after the events of the first film, rather than continue the thread which that film left open, the fate of Rama’s brother and the family bond that tied them together on separate sides of the law, this story absolutely ignores that and uses the fallout of the events of the first movie to kick start a different plot involving the main protagonist Rama (again played with huge amounts of energy by Iko Uwais) deliberately serving time in prison to set himself up in an undercover operation. And, of course, as soon as this is fully explained, through use of cross cutting to flashbacks and the camera recording Rama’s current prison environment, the action starts to take over... with a beautiful sequence set in a prison toilet cubicle, where Rama takes on a larger number of people then could effectively fit in such a place. We’ve seen these claustrophobic kinds of fight scenes before (most notably in Danny The Dog aka Unleashed with Jet Li) and it kind of harkens back in terms of film history to the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in the train compartment in From Russia With Love... but this is a truly dynamic sequence and it's only the first action piece in the film.

This opening punch up is followed up with another, truly memorable fight sequence, which is set in the muddy prison courtyard, straight away recalling to mind, at least to this member of the audience, the final rain and mud soaked battle in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Then the film jumps ahead two years and the hero is propelled into the outside world, having infiltrated the criminal organisation which puts him right where the chief of the special police unit in charge of such matters wants him.

The film is impressive in many ways and it’s not just the action sequences which require your appreciation. The style of the camera work, with long, slow zooms and pans as the intent of the major players are revealed in scenes involving dialogue, rather than lots of punching and kicking, are quite sedately paced and this is a smart move by a director who values the effect of having long gaps and moments of rest between the action. It’s a good thing to do if you want the raw energy of those sequences to stand out even more and it’s something a lot of masters of cinema have realised over the years.  Evans has got this clocked and the way he utilises the tension and release of the frenetically paced action rubbing visual styles with the serene moments of potential energy, before they become kinetic energy unleashed in some of the most painful and bone crunching ways, is surely a sign that this director is not just a flash in the pan and an artist worthy of your time.

And talking about tension and release... there’s a really clever piece of playing around with the audiences expectations and the moment of visceral, shock imagery when its least expected. It’s become, very much, a cliché in horror movies to make the audience think that something is about to happen and then giving them the old double bluff relief when a character goes to investigate something potentially scary and it turns out to be a false alarm (more often than not in the form of an errant cat)... before the main protagonist turns around, slap bang into the scary thing that the audience was hyped about seeing before it turned out to be a false alarm. It’s an old trick but it’s still used because it takes people unawares.

What Gareth Evans does is to take the same basic principal, but use it as a sucker punch to the suspense of a specifically nasty piece of violence unfolding before your eyes. To explain... like the first movie, The Raid 2 has a lot of violence which is implied by cutting away at the exact moment it happens and allowing the audience to imagine the worst. To be fair, it also has loads of violence which is full on bloody and brutal and witnessed in full, but in certain sequences Evans pulls away and lets the imagination take over. Now then, there’s a scene in this movie where three “specialists” in one criminal organisation, are taking out key players in a rival gang’s organisation and the three action sequences are cross cut with each other to make a lengthy action montage...

And this is where Evans does something really special...

In one sequence, a major villain has got his victim held down by two of his men and he is about to burrow down hard into a man’s head with a pick axe or some sharp object. You know it’s coming and you know it’s gonna be nasty. We see the object come down and... the director cuts away. But this is the beauty of it... he cuts back to a continuing sequence where a specialist martial artist who should perhaps best be known as ‘hammer girl’ is bashing and clawing her way through a load of men and, a second or two after he has cut away from the head shot, we see her bring a claw hammer down through a man’s head in exactly the way we were threatened with in the previous shot. So we get, tension, release as in the “oh good, we didn’t actually see it” and then we see the act itself after all, but via a different set of characters and a different instrument of ‘head bashery’.... which is then itself numbed out because the sequence is continuing on with more unstoppable and driven action fighting which forces us to pay attention and file away the moment in the back of our minds as we look at everything else that’s going on. This was pretty clever and I don’t remember it being done quite this way in a movie before. I almost clapped out loud at the arrogance of it. All good stuff.

The film is quite good looking and, when you’re not being edited to death at a ferocious pace (which is in no way incomprehensible at any point, in case you were worried about that aspect), there are some quite nice sets...many of which are decorated in red, I noticed. They catch the eye and hold the attention as the actors do their thing.

My only real puzzlement is that there are a couple of spectacular action sequences starring actor Yayan Ruhian, who played such a major bad guy role in the first film, which ended with his character’s death at the hands of Rama and his brother. Here, he plays a different character but, for some reason, he looks almost exactly the same as he did in the first film. He’s got such a recognisable face that I wondered why he’s in this one. It actually pulled both my friend and I out of the action for a few seconds as we tried to work out if he was playing a twin brother to the previous character or some such thing. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why a martial artist of such skill could only be beneficial to have as a person on set... but it was a strange move, I thought.

All in all, though, this in no way detracts from the basic scenario and I’m happy that The Raid 2 - Berandal differs so much from the first film in terms of the wealth of changing locations, the amount of time the story takes place in and the fact that there is generally more story to it, as opposed to the very simple set up of the first one. Bearing in mind the way this film ends... which I’m not going to reveal or spoil here... I’m now very much looking forward to seeing where the director takes us from here. It’s quite obvious that he’s not done with these characters yet and I truly can’t wait to see the next installment. For fans of action movies, I can only recommend this as being a definite must see to add to your list. There is much kickassery in this movie.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Quiet Ones

Sugar Free Quiet

The Quiet Ones
2014 USA/UK
Directed by John Pogue
Playing at UK cinemas now.

The Quiet Ones is the latest British horror movie from the company who bought up, and have been trying to resurrect, the brand name recognition of Hammer Studios, best known worldwide for their cheesy but influential and, often, ‘rollicking good fun’ films in the horror genre. The new version of Hammer have either put together or distributed a number of productions over the past few years but inevitably, as with all film companies, their product has been a bit hit and miss, at least for this particular audience member.

The Quiet Ones is one of their more self aware and smarter movies of recent years and, although the last 25 minutes or so of the movie stray into the “decidedly cheesy” area of the genre, this does at least harken back to their days from their 20th Century incarnation and, overall, I’d have to say that this movie definitely falls into their ‘hit’ camp.

The film purports to be a true story (which I don’t think it is) of events which took place in Oxford in 1974, even going so far as to show still photographs of the original participants in the events to get people thinking over the end credits... which is good showmanship, to say the least.

The story follows a small cell of people conducting an ‘experiment’. They consist of a Professor, played by Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) and some volunteer students, headed up by new cameraman Brian, played by Sam Claflin, who is called in to continue documenting their work after the last cameraman got cold feet (aka got scared off by spooky events). Their research, which they continue as a kind of outlaw band, moving to a new and, frankly, scary location after their funding is cut, involves the study and hopeful cure of a ‘possessed’ young lady called Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke). It is the Professor’s belief that the various, terrifying manifestations which plague the characters and which come from a malevolent child spirit called Evie are, in fact, nothing more than Jane Harper’s externalisation of her own personal trauma. The theory is to force her to manifest the ghost-like shenanigans to a point where the externalisation of these things can be yanked from Jane’s body, thus curing her.

Yeah, okay, it’s a shaky theory but, you know... go with it. We all know there’s something much less internal to Jane going on, right? It’s an interesting entry hook into a story of thumps, knocks, bruises, bites, fire, strange ectoplasmic manifestations and all the other things a good ghost story/demonic possession movie needs to start scaring the pants off the audience. And... up to a point, it’s quite successful in evoking that gold mine, pants free environment in your local dodgyplex.

One of the reasons that this is so successful, in fact, is because the film attempts something that a couple of horror movies have attempted in the last few years, usually unsuccessfully. That is, they try to maintain a “have your cake and eat it” approach to combining standard third person storytelling and mixing it up with “found footage” style first person shooting. Normally this really doesn’t work but, with a movie such as this, which makes no pretension at being a “found footage movie”, the two different techniques being utilised, when cut together, succeed admirably where most others fail. When used properly like this, and knowing how far to push the “camera eye” footage before they need to ground it in the external context again, it adds an extra kick to the film and definitely an extra appreciation of the scares which the production team cook up for us. Yes, this does use every tried and true, hackneyed technique in ‘horror movie syntax 101’ to achieve its purpose, of scaring you silly at certain points, but its done just right and with such a deft hand in most places that, when it does go a little wrong and into full cheesy mode for the over-the-top end set pieces, you can kind of forgive it that indulgence... especially when it fits in with the classic old Hammer modus operandi so neatly.

The film has a curious double ending, before the credits roll, and one almost brings to mind the very last shot of Hammer’s runaway smash version of The Woman In Black (reviewed here). I don’t want to spoil it but it leads very nicely into a second ending which is, in some ways, a little more uncomfortable and which references something which has been used as a shot transition, punctuation mark throughout the movie... that of a hand clapping against another, used as an impromptu human clapperboard. I won’t tell you the context of the last time this is used, because I really don’t want to give anything away, but it does make a nice little coda to the film, at least in terms of the cinematic language used throughout, and the consequences of the arrival to that particular scenario is something you are left to ponder at the end of the film. A haunting aftermath, so to speak.

The performances are all pretty cool, which I would expect from somebody like Jared Harris but which extends to the entire main cast in terms of excellence. Also nice is the evocation of the style of the time with the make-up, hair style and clothing which lend the film a certain air of authenticity for any claims that it’s based on a true story, by layering it with a sheen of yesteryear... which gives it a certain charming historical credence, so to speak. It certainly reminded me of my childhood, in some ways.

The music, too, does its bit. And I’m not talking about the song choice for certain scenes but of the underscore... which manages to walk that common but effective modern day horror music tightrope of sound design metamorphosing into something which operates on an almost subliminal level, walloping into atonal shifts of all the colours of the dark when required. Good stuff and I look forward to picking up the soundtrack CD if there is one.

All in all, The Quiet Ones does get a bit ridiculous in the end but, it’s carried across with such style and conviction by the time it reaches its denouement, that you can certainly have a good time with this one if horror movies are your thing. Definitely one of the better horror movies of recent years... not the best but certainly beyond the competent and into something a lot more effective than much of the lesser product on the market. I’ll certainly be watching this one again when it comes out on Blu-Ray.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Vengeance Of The Mummy

Naschy Come Home

Vengeance Of The Mummy 
(aka La Venganza De La Momia)
1973 Spain
Directed by Carlos Aured
Camden Collection DVD Region 0

Vengeance Of The Mummy is one of Paul Naschy’s loving homages to the classic Universal horror movies of old. Naschy, best known for his portrayal of the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in many films, also wrote this one. Like the 1959 Hammer update of The Mummy (reviewed here), this mixes elements from the 1932 classic version of The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff in the titular role, with ingredients from the 1940s pseudo-sequel series, which followed the bandage-wrapped exploits of Kharis, as played by both Tom Tyler (The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, The Phantom) and by the legendary Lon Chaney Jr (who had the privilege of playing all four of the top tier Universal monsters in his time). 

In this interpretation, Naschy plays a dual role in that he plays both Amenhotep (which is obviously a name check reference to Imhotep) and also a devoted, Victorian follower of the same tyrant, Assed Bay. Unlike the Karloff “dual role”, where he played the bandaged wrapped version and the modern Egyptian version of the same character using an assumed name, the roles  in this version are actually two different characters, with Amenhotep prowling around in bandages while Assed Bay seeks to reunite him with the spirit reincarnation of his former lover (which is a concept with direct lineage from the Karloff version, of course). A concoction very similar to the “tana leaves” of the Kharis series of Mummy films is also used in this version, although Amanhotep only needs to drink this the once.

In Vengeance Of The Mummy, the main male protagonist who, with his wife, discovers the accursed tomb of Amenhotep, is Jack Taylor (start of such genre movies as The Ghost Galleon aka Tombs Of The Blind Dead 3, Female Vampire, Vampyros Lesbos etc) who I also liked in what I consider to be the best of the Naschy/Daninsky films I’ve seen to date, Dr. Jekyll And The Wolfman. Interestingly, it’s not this character’s wife who is the love object of Amenhotep’s curse in this version, but the daughter of his professor friend and, I’m guessing because of certain gender and genre expectations at the time this was made, she is played as a single lady... I just can’t tell you why because I don’t want to spoil the end of the movie for you.

The film has a prelude set in Egypt (this one doesn’t make extensive use of flashbacks as did the 1932 version of The Mummy and various other incarnations of it over the years) but the majority of the movie is set in London, England and in this way it plugs into the same feeling of nostalgia (I used to go into London a lot as a kid) that I got from Taylor and Naschy’s collaboration from the year before, the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll And The Wolfman. I don’t quite remember the Natural History Museum having a big sign out in front of it saying British Museum (Natural History) but... I guess it could have done and I just wasn’t paying attention as a kid. The montage of establishing shots to tell us we’re in London is bizarrely long, though. Clocking in as a few minutes and outstaying its welcome somewhat as a “short” intro to a scene. 

Even so, this film is one of the best of the Naschy productions I’ve seen. The set design is a little simplistic, especially the stuff in the Egyptian setting at the start of the movie, but it’s also very colourful and lively and I loved it. Similarly, the shot design and the way things are dollied through or edited together is all excellent with some really nice, Hitchcockian moments which are almost birds eye views of the characters as they go about their business in a few sections. Really nice stuff.

The musical score, by a guy named Alfonso Santisteban, is pretty good too. It’s not exactly as subtle as you might hear in a lot of horror films but that doesn’t count against it and the melodies and elements of the orchestration are all quite toe tapping and listenable throughout, certainly defending its honour against such brilliant scores as Franz Reizenstein’s score to the Hammer version of The Mummy, for instance. I’d love to get my hands on a recording of this score but, unless a boutique label like Quartet decide to give it a go (they released two Naschy scores but I think they were slow sellers and possibly underperformed for them), then I’m not holding out much hope.

What we have in this movie is one for all fans of the always familiar and iconic movie monsters which have stood the test of time throughout the years from the early talkies (and sometimes before) and if you are into these kinds of films, or even if you like Paul Naschy movies in general, then this one is a definite must-see. For people expecting something a little more sophisticated... well, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed, to be honest... but fans of 50s and 60s Hammer/Amicus style productions will surely love it. As did I. Hope I get to it again sometime soon before I die.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Ecko Rising

Road To More Ecko

Ecko Rising
by Danie Ware
Titan Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0857687623

This hardly ever happens to me.

Like... ever.

I had just finished a day out with a friend in London and was riding the tube back, homeward bound, to make my next connection at Finsbury Park. It must have been about 6pm and my nose was stuck in a book, surfacing every couple of minutes to check the station name as the tube pulled in at each and every stop. Or so I thought. 

All well and good but, as I looked up for the gazillionth time, I realised I was at Manor House. “What the-?” I’d overshot my station by one stop because I’d been distracted by what was turning out to be a pretty good book.

This would have consequences. 

The downside was, of course, that when I finally got to Seven Sisters to get the overground train, I’d missed it by a minute and I had 29 more to wait on the platform until the next one came along. On the other hand... this also meant I’d have another 29 uninterrupted minutes of the book in question... Ecko Rising... so that was all cool then. 

But, like I said... that hardly ever happens. Sure, I sleep past a stop on the bus some evenings (I’m getting old, methinks) but, mostly, I never let something distract me to the point that I miss a vital connection on the tube. So this is how I knew I was reading a good book, you see?

Readers of this blog will know that I still read the occasional novel which could credibly be termed science fiction or fantasy... but it’s mostly limited to the latest Wild Cards novel or something with Doc Savage in it. In a former lifetime, however, I was into fantasy and sci-fi a lot more than I am now and so I knew I could probably hack something like Danie Ware’s debut novel okay... which looked to be a curious blend of English cyberpunk mixing it up with heroic fantasy. But that’s not the full reason I decided to read this devilish, journey delaying tome.

I’m on Twitter, you see. 

Most of my friends and acquaintances don’t understand the appeal of this particular social media thingummy jig and, truth be told, I never understood it either until I joined up specifically to try and promote this web page. But I got a whole lot more out of it when I started chatting to people and, in some ways, it’s like a voyeuristic form of reality TV for folks like me who wouldn’t touch reality shows with a rusty barge pole. One of the people I followed was Danie Ware and, I think, she’d just commenced writing her first Ecko when I started reading her tweets in my stream. I was fascinated with her raw and edgy way of battling through life, one cynicism at a time but, what really made me sit up and take notice was her analogy for the process of writing. “Back to the wordface” she would always tweet and I used to think, yeah, sometimes getting those words right can be at least as exhausting as climbing a mountain. I knew exactly what she meant and I’m not even a proper writer (although I think I’ve written enough reviews on here over the last few years to fill a few books, by the looks of it).

I also knew I was eventually going to have to read at least one of her Ecko books because, like I said, I was one of many who were the tweet witnesses of its long and joyous birthing. She seemed like a nice gal so... maybe I should give the book a go. It might be cool.

And, yeah, I have to say right up front here, the book is, indeed... decidedly cool and, possibly, entering into the realms of “groovy.”

Ecko Rising is, as I mentioned earlier, a book which very much strides two worlds (at least two) - one of which is a futuristic London where the enhanced title character Ecko, for all intents and purposes a cybernetically modified killing machine with a smug attitude, is doing some kind of wetwork and demolition job for a private company. “There's a Fifth 'orseman an’ his names Apathy.” says Luger, Ecko’s current boss, and it sums up nicely a world which is sleeping its way into oblivion with a broad analogy which really isn’t a million miles away from where we are at now in society... soberingly. 

However, when a job goes wrong, Ecko finds himself transported into a Dungeons & Dragons style realm where he has to leave behind his expectations of the way his environment behaves and try to find his purpose in a world of prophecy, myth, centaurs, failed cyberpunk experiments, stone magic and, my favourite thing about this novel, a teleporting pub which materialises in a different town every morning. 

There’s lots to recommend about this novel and, also, a lot for the writer to get through in terms of setting up a basic but credible world view not just once, but twice... one for London of the future and one for the fantasy land. One of the things she does neatly, however, is pre-empt any guesswork as to what is actually going on by putting all your assumptions about it in the forefront of the thoughts of Ecko, who is not so much the main protagonist as he is one of many strong and fascinating characters sprinkled throughout the book. He is flawed and arrogant and, therefore, as real as any character you see created in fiction.. so he does stand out a bit more when he’s on but, truly, the many passages when he’s not around have so many cool characters you would be happy to hang out with in, say, a teleporting pub, that you don’t always miss him when he’s gone. 

He also has a nice line of postmodernistic, eclectic pop-culture references which are peppered liberally throughout the novel and it seems very clear to me that Danie Ware has a full-on, take no prisoners, gamer’s mentality mixed in with a good appreciation of all things sci-fi and fantasy and it makes for some lovely nods to various genre classics that will have fans of such things (who are probably the core target audience of books like this) lapping it up and in her pocket from the word go. “A connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s Arms” for example or “The Magic Faraway Pub” and... “Ain’t exactly Minas fucking Tirith, is it?”. Neat little throwaway lines like this give something for the fanbase to look out for but, perhaps more importantly, they anchor the character of Ecko by giving him cultural references to a reality which the reader understands historically but which most of the characters in this book don’t comprehend in the slightest... and this is a great way of aligning Ecko with the reader and getting you on his side, of course. There are even references to things like Star Trek and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion (a personal favourite) in here... and probably loads more that, as a not quite hard core fantasy fan, I was undoubtedly missing.

I say it’s obvious (and she’ll probably tell me I’m wrong now) that Danie Ware is a gamer from her writing and she seems to playfully embrace all the different forms of such in her yarn-spinning vocabulary - video games, role playing games, Steve Jackson style “turn to page x” adventure books etc - within the worlds she is, quite convincingly, charting in this novel. She also makes use of some of the structure of those kinds of entertainments to play with the reader as to just what the heck is going on at certain points in the novel. There’s a certain amount of mystery with the difference between interpenetrating realities, or possibly unrealities, as they bleed and rub against each other within the book and the ending really hammers home the point that, whatever you or, indeed, the title character thought was going on... well it may not quite be that simple. Think again, dear reader. I appreciated this because, if you’ve read my reviews of movies and books on here before, you know that I usually figure out the ending within the first ten minutes or so. Not so here. She’s on the ball about how to best mislead you on and that’s really cool.

There’s a couple of other things I thought were pretty good about this novel. One is that, when you get to a group battle scene which is then cross cut between three or more sets of protagonists/antagonists, she smartly uses an incident or, more specifically, a detail about an incident, to anchor you into the chronology of the fighting... no matter which set of protagonists you are following from section to section. So, for instance, a horse or similar creature may let out a scream specific to one particular incident and then, when you are following a different set of characters, there’ll be mention of that same scream coming from behind them, or whatever, and that will give you a reference to get everything that everyone is doing straight in your head as you read. I have to say, I’ve not consciously noticed this technique in novels before and it’s something I thought was a really great idea. 

The other thing I noticed, and this is one of my pet hates with a lot of writers, is that the Danie Ware’s writing style, while clearly distinguishable in every character (as it should be and you kinda expect the fingerprints to show) is not infecting the characters to the point where they all sound like each other. I really hate when you enter the world of a book and the characters, all from different walks of life, all sound exactly the same... and almost every writer I’ve ever read makes this mistake of extending their personal style to the point that their characters become just cyphers. What doubly impressed me about this one is that Danie Ware has reeled in that tendency quite a bit. Some of the characters will always inevitably share a common style of thought and dialogue (just as friends and lovers seem to catch each other's speech and thought patterns off each other in real life) but here you have characters who are different enough from each other that they are allowed to become more flesh and blood to you by that differentiation. Now, you may argue that’s because Ware is dealing with characters that come from vastly different milieus and that it’s a natural, serendipitous symptom of that... but I don’t think so. I think there’s some very smart writing going on in this book and, when she’s done with Ecko for a while, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more greatness from her in novels to come.

So there you go. Pretty easy review to decode, I think. If you’re into fantasy, science fiction or game playing (and probably all three), then Ecko Rising is a good, healthy climb up the ‘wordface’. If you’re not into any of those three things... well it’s also not a bad jumping on point for fantasy and sci-fi in general, either. The characters are great, the ideas interesting and you’ll definitely be having some people in these pages you’ll be rooting for. Also, I mentioned it has a teleporting pub, right?

So my main advice would be... yeah. Give Ecko Rising a try. 

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve already bought the second volume of the trilogy, Ecko Burning, and have it lined up for my summer holiday reading. So, I guess, like Webster’s dictionary... I’m more-Ecko bound!

Danie Ware's website can be found here...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Double


The Double
2013 UK
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Playing at UK cinemas now.

I know I’m probably going to come off as being really stupid when I say this but, for someone who hasn’t read the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel that inspired and informed this movie, The Double is quite frighteningly Kafkaesque.

Kafkaesque in the sense that it shows the little guy trapped in a world of corporate red tape and misunderstanding... a victim of the society that he lives in. To be fair, the original Dostoevsky novel apparently shares that common stance but, honestly, I invoke Kafka because it’s the only thing I personally have that I can compare to the experience of watching this quite brilliant, as it happens, movie version.

The film is vaguely surreal and, I have to admit, I was surprised when I found out the identity of the author of the original source. When I saw the trailer for this I was pretty sure that it was a modern reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s  doppelgänger story William Wilson and, it turns out, that Poe’s own exploration of this theme predated Dostoevsky’s version by seven years. In fact, Thomas Mann compared the original 1846 novel unfavourably to Poe’s earlier endeavours on this proposition.

All of which means absolutely nothing here because, frankly, the movie is entertaining as hell.

It’s been promoted, perhaps lazily, as a comedy and, certainly, many of the cast play it as such. Jesse Eisenberg’s favourable take on the shlemiel type of character often found in early Woody Allen comedies is perfectly backed up by the often astonishing Mia Wasikowska and such inconceivable luminaries as Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine. But for all of the laughs and moments of humour that this movie delivers by the bucketful... it’s also really, unbelievably depressing. Which I guess also fits with Dostoevsky’s modus operandi... unless Hal Hartley movies have been lying to me all these years.

It’s a movie which seems to have had very little publicity. I only first heard of it after I saw a trailer for it with Under The Skin a couple of weeks ago. Which is a shame really since, in addition to the wonderful performances which bring it to life, the film is a tour de force of brilliant set design, lighting, music (with some interesting needle-drop choices) and some really amazing sound design to it which brought to mind, nothing less than Alan Splet’s work on David Lynch’s Eraserhead. There are also some nice things going on in the editing which startled me at first, as the film will do things like cut between a mid shot of someone, then a long shot of something else, and then back to a close up of the original person which is kinda unsettling and jars you out of your comfort zone in certain places. Which is just excellent.

The film deals with a character who has his life invaded by a person who is an exact physical duplicate of himself and who is, for all intents and purposes, a much more extroverted and successful version. This double slowly and meticulously invades the main protagonist’s life by befriending him, then using him and ultimately usurping him and stealing the objects and goals of his desire until he becomes a bitter rival... this much you can get from just the trailer. It’s almost like he’s an evil version of Eisenberg’s character... like that episode of Star Trek, The Enemy Within, where Kirk gets split into two different versions of himself by the malfunctioning transporter. And it’s great that a film like this can be done now in a way that the illusion of having two Eisenbergs on screen is totally believable. I guess that we have David Cronenberg’s pioneering work on Dead Ringers to thank for that but it’s not the kind of movie where you’re always looking for the split in the screen like movies of yesteryear... although I’m aware that, to some of my younger readers at least, Cronenberg’s work on that movie probably does belong in the “yesteryear” category. But there’s definitely no seams showing here and, although the occasional “cheat shot” may be observed if your looking for it (the very first scene on a rickety, almost deserted train, for example... if I’m reading the meaning of that sequence correctly), the illusion is impressively maintained throughout the whole of the movie.

I mentioned earlier that the movie was somewhat Kafkaesque and there’s certainly a parallel with another great work of motion picture art that would share the same label, that of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This film is almost as detailed in the environmental design like that one was and also similarly surreal in places. It also pulls off a trick that is common to both the Gilliam movie, Tim Burton’s two Batman movies and a whole range of 1930s and 1940s Universal Horror movies in that it is deliberately, or so it seems to me, shot out of period. There are significant props and design decisions from past, present and future references found in various guises throughout the film’s running time which all blend together to make trying to place this in a specific time zone absolutely impossible. Which is kinda cool and puts you in a self contained fantasy world right from the outset.

The films is quite dark (and I’m not talking about the lighting here) but it’s never dull and I found myself absolutely engrossed in the narrative twists and turns waiting to be discovered in this one. I think there’s a lot on offer here to entertain the visually jaded modern film-goer and I even think I’ll get around to revisiting this one again a couple more times in years to come. Whether I do that or not, though, I think this film is something which deserves to be seen and I wish that it could have had a greater marketing push levelled at it than I’ve seen so far. If you’re into cinema then you’ll probably be into the cleverness and bleak charm of this movie. It put me in a bit of a dark place... but that’s not always a bad thing. This one will haunt you a little, I think. Go check it out before it disappears.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Done In

Spruce Noose

Done In
2014 Dark Art Films
Directed by Adam Stephen Kelly

If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time, you may remember that I’m not the best watcher of short movies. I appreciate the form has a valid place in movie making but they’re not often my cup of tea. When a director or film company asks me to look at their work, especially if it’s a very short film, I always stick to my guns and only write a review of the film in question if I think it’s a particularly good work. I don’t tend to write negative reviews of these because, if the people involved came to me in the first place, it would be doing them a dis-service to write a bad review. In those cases, I usually tell the person in question that I won’t review their film rather than pan it publicly.

But then, there’s always the odd exception... which you’ll also know if you’re a long term reader of my stuff. There’s a handful of shorts I’ve reviewed here in my time and those ones are on here usually because there’s been something special or particularly stand out with the film in question. Some might be because they have a wealth of ideas but with less technical merit... others may be because they are entertaining for other reasons.

Adam Stephen Kelly’s new short Done In is here because it's both technically brilliant and, also, is quite entertaining in its own right. 

The film is one of perception and it would be an injustice to give away too much of the content here... other than to say it is a beautifully shot account of a man writing a suicide note. The film is very fluid and laid back in its pacing, but with a certain rigour showing in the dedication to the capturing of the subtle emotional presence of the lead actor Guy Henry.

After a series of establishing shots of a house and it’s beautiful interior, all lit in a kind of brown, almost sepia, warm kind of lighting style but with nothing too in your face about the colour choice, Guy Henry sits down to write the said letter and delivers a voice over narrative of the contents of that letter. Although the shots are all very clean and the editing first rate, the movie manages to be completely focused on the performance and the sheer beauty of the shot compositions isn’t over-indulged by the director in the sense that it distracts you from the core of the emotional sentiment of the short.

Imran Ahmad’s subtle scoring matches the fluidity and the wistful, almost nostalgic state of mind of the main character as he reflects on the words of a husband’s final letter to the world. A love letter to a dead wife and a testament to the continuation of that love after the death of a powerful presence in ones life. 

Now, I knew by a certain point in this narrative that there was going to be just a little more to what was being captured here than this set up and, I think it was just before Ahmad’s score started to turn a little more sinister that I twigged the writer’s intent here... which is pretty good actually, since I usually figure out the ending of a move within the first few minutes. Doesn’t matter though as the film itself is a beautiful reflection on the power of loss and where that loss can sometimes take you. It also, as it happens, raises a few questions about the precise nature of that loss at the film’s denouement but, like all good movies, these questions set to haunt you after the thing is done are as good as anything they could have made frustratingly clear within a physical representation within the film and this kinda ties in with my thoughts on a good movie being able to stand up to several interpretations, depending on the psychological make up of the audience... above and beyond the intentions of the writers, directors, producers and actors etc.

So there you have it. A short review for a short film because, although I’d love to say more about the last minute or two of this one... I really don’t want to spoil it for you and so, all I will say is, if you’re into short films (and maybe even if you’re not), then Done In is definitely one I’d recommend you sink your teeth into, if you get the opportunity to anytime soon.

For more information on the film, go here and here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

On Dangerous Ground


On Dangerous Ground
1951 USA
Directed by Nicholas Ray and Ida Lupino (uncredited)
RKO/Warner Brothers DVD Region 1

This is a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a long time now, mainly because I love the score by my favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his best works. When the opening titles start, Herrmann’s frenetic musical prelude wallops you in the ear drums like a repeat offender high on acid and wanting to cave your skull in. But more on Herrmann’s scoring later.

This movie is very much the epitome of film noir, as far as I’m concerned, dealing with a gloomy and not clear cut subject and shot through with an almost perfect design sensibility which really pushes the dark and light tones to a high level of contrast and highlights the characters and their place in the plot with a less murkier edge than the manifestation of their inner world would suggest. In other words... Wow, baby! Dig the chiaroscuro in this picture!

The story follows a well intentioned, well respected but ultimately violent cop called Jim Wilson, played with amazing screen presence by Robert Ryan. His inappropriately heavy handed response to the criminal element impeding his investigations has not gone unnoticed by his fellow cops and he is getting a reputation for being harder to work with over time. To be sure, though, although there is a lot of grey tone in the character, Jim Wilson is the hero of the film... his intentions are honourable all the way through and he does seem to be following, or perhaps even starting out for all I know, a trajectory which movie cops have been tracing for many years. Perhaps the most notable example, and pertinent to this film, would be Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Dirty Harry Callahan in a number of movies. The scene in On Dangerous Ground where Jim’s boss is remonstrating with him for his heavy handed techniques seems to me to be something which is very similar to the same kinds of scenes you’d see in those later Eastwood movies (not to mention various other famous vigilante cop movies).

After a scene where, once again, Jim goes nuts on a villain after the woman who gave him information is murdered for talking to him, he is ordered out of town into a snowy wasteland of a community to keep him out of trouble and assist in the hunting down of a suspect who has killed a man’s daughter. Before long, the victim’s father Walter (played by Ward Bond... Bert of Bert & Ernie fame in Frank Capra’s beautiful movie It’s A Wonderful Life) are thrown together and are hunting the suspect as a mis-matched team. Walter makes it no secret that he doesn’t want the big city cop around and that the shotgun he is carrying is going to be emptied unceremoniously into the killer’s stomach when he catches him. So it’s up to Jim to both try to catch the killer and also stop Walter from murdering him before he can stand trial.

After crashing a car they commandeer from a lady midway through the movie, they come across a cabin in the wilderness where they find the other main character of the movie, Mary, played by the late, great Ida Lupino. Lupino was one of the few female directors working in Hollywood, when she wasn’t in front of the camera, and she even helped out with directorial duties, uncredited, for a few days on this one when Nicholas Ray was taken ill.

The thing is, Mary is blind and, what we don’t realise at first, is that she’s also hiding the killer, her screwed up younger brother (himself only a teen). As Jim gets to know her she easily gets the measure of Jim and senses his loneliness and the film turns into a bitter-sweet romance with two very different but kindred spirits finding their way slowly to each other.

But enough of the plot... there’s some really great things happening here which lead up to... a really lousy ending. But, having now done the tiniest bit of research on the movie (see, no expense spared for my readers... oh, alright, I checked the IMDB) I now realise why I was so dissatisfied with the film’s conclusion. But I’ll get to that in a bit, too.

Okay, so first thing I noticed about the scenes in the first half of the film, which are all set in the city, is that is all seems to have an atmosphere very reminiscent of Blade Runner. I was trying to figure out why and I reckon, and this is just a guess so if I’m wrong please drop me a line in the comments section, that the external street scenes at the start of the movie were shot on a big indoor set. In fact, although it’s an RKO film, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was shot on exactly the same street sets which Warner Bros used to use for their gangster and film noir pictures... which of course were the same ones redressed and used for Ridley Scott’s epic sci-fi opus of 1982.

So that’s one thing about the atmosphere I liked.

The other thing about this is that the attitude of the cops on the beat, the low life they have to deal with and their tendency towards corruption and violence, felt to me like exactly the same kind of “vibe” I would get from reading a James Ellroy novel. The characters almost felt like they’d jumped out of the pages of something like The Big Nowhere or White Jazz. Now I know Ellroy was dealing with similar subject matter in his LA Quartet but, seriously, I wouldn’t have expected to find that kind of stylistic flourish accented in the films of this time period. Which makes me think Ellroy may be a big fan of these kinds of movies... which is really no surprise, if true, I guess. But I really enjoyed the heck out of the bleak, pessimistic heart of this movie.

Another thing which popped me right out of my seat during the first chase scene, and which is also true for a couple of other sequences in the movie, was that the director had used hand held camera for certain moments to make the action look chaotic and give it a jangled point of view appropriate to the on screen action. Now I thought this “raggedy up the shot” kind of experimentation for this specific effect had started some time around the 1980s but here it was being used in the early fifties and in monochrome. I checked the IMDB the next day and found that, indeed, this film is considered to be one of the earliest uses of this technique committed to film... so that’s kinda interesting (not counting Abel Gance, I guess?).

The shot set ups are quite stunning and, considering it’s filmed, more or less, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, not what I would expect to see in a film like this either... with the screen split into sections at some points and, in one unforgettable moment with Ida Lupino in her home, sliced in half, mid-screen, by a giant piece of tree which is stood there so that Mary can use it to help guide her way through the house.

The performances are all pretty much fantastic, as you’d expect from a film of this era, but the ending felt rushed and unsatisfactory. I won’t spoil that ending for you but I will say that, since watching the movie, I’ve found out that the sequence where the witness is murdered was originally supposed to have been held off until the scene just before the very last little sequence of the film and, frankly, it would have made a whole lot more sense, for both of the main protagonists, if it had been left in that chronology. It would have certainly given the ending a little more credibility... at least in my book.

And then we come, as I inevitably do with movies like this, to the music.

Bernard Herrmanns score knocks it out the park... knocks it out the park so much that it flies all the way around the world and hits you round the back of the neck. At times frenetic, at times extremely slow paced and romantic, the score comes across as a more furious take on his action style scoring for a Hitchcock movie, contrasted with long stretches of the kind of romantic and tender sound you’d find in his scores for movies like The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. There are some definite bits of score he kinda, erm, reworked for later scores in this film, including two passages which would later be used in Hitchcock films... one in Vertigo and one in North By Northwest (he’d be enraged with me for saying that but... it’s all there in the music, I’m afraid).

One other little studio story for you about this movie, this time regarding the generosity of the composer.

Herrmann was so enamoured of the quality of Virginia Majewski’s performance on the Viola D’Amour that he asked she be given a separate credit in the opening titles. The studio’s excuse at refusing this request was that they told him there were no more title cards left for the timing of the credits... to which Herrmann famously replied, “Put it on my card.” And there it is now in the opening credits... “Music by Bernard Herrmann, Viola D’Amour by Virginia Majewski.” You can buy Film Score Monthly’s brilliant restoration of the score here and listen out for the bonus track of outtakes at the end, where you can hear Herrmann’s heavy Brooklyn accent in a compilation of moments of his chewing out the orchestra for screwing up the various takes.

On Dangerous Ground, a very slightly flawed but still damn near perfect film noir, in my book... with a simple story that lets the actors breathe and allows the visual design to gather you up in its atmosphere. Definitely one to watch, I would say.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Captain America - The Winter Soldier

Signed, Shield & Delivered

Captain America - The Winter Soldier
2014 USA
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Joss Whedon
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Yeah, this one’s going to have some pretty big spoilers because of the things I want to discuss, I’m afraid. If you want to be in the dark when you see this movie... don’t read this.

So here we are back in the Marvel Universe produced version of, um, the Marvel Universe (as opposed to non-Marvel Marvel Universe franchises like Spider-Man and the X-Men). I have to say, this second outing for Captain America is a pretty good movie in the sequence. Probably my fourth favourite of the collected series which dovetails into the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and The Avengers arc.

The film does the usual thing of not keeping closely to some of the things in the Marvel series of comics on which these stories are, well, let’s call it “inspired by” shall we? However, this one doesn’t really stretch things too far (apart form maybe with a certain aspect of The Falcon... but I’ll get to that soon) and while it’s not nearly as bleak and pessimistic as some people have seemed to have made out, this is not the gung-ho burst of US patriotic bomb blast you might have been expecting from a super soldier named after his country. Overall, I liked the consistent tone of cold war betrayal going on with the plot line (something which began in The Avengers aka Marvel Avengers Assemble) and felt it a more interesting movie than, say, Captain America: The First Avenger (reviewed here)... although I still wish they hadn’t rushed Cap out of the 1940s and kept him in that time period for a few more movies (yes, I do want a 1940s set film version of The Invaders please!).

Now I’m not all that familiar with the storyline of the original comic book version of The Winter Soldier but I remember a friend filling me in on the basic plot line about 8 years or so ago. Marvel haven’t exactly been keeping the identity of The Winter Soldier a secret, with even the IMDB revealing who the character actually is, and it’s fair enough actually... after all, the comics were published a long time ago now. So, this movie sees the return of Sebastian Stan as the brainwashed and “returned to life” Bucky Barnes, reprising his role from the first Captain America movie ( although I still wish they’d have put Bucky in his original costume for that first outing). He plays the role of The Winter Soldier much better than he did the 1940s version of Bucky, in my opinion, but that’s because he didn’t play Bucky as the Marvel Universe equivalent of Robin, The Boy Wonder, as he was obviously modelled after. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the character, however, the combat scene where his identity is revealed to the audience in Captain America: The Winter Soldier probably made a nice surprise.

The film ditches and rewrites parts of his history of course, as it does with all the characters in the movies to fit them into a strong, unifying Marvel brand (which is about to be shot to pieces with the new X-Men movie, actually, but I’ll get to that later). So, when a scene where Steve Rogers is revisiting his past at an exhibit at the Smithsonian, this film compounds the lack of Nick Fury during World War 2 and so... much more officially in this version... Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos becomes Captain America And His Howling Commandos. Similarly, the character of The Falcon, who started out life in a 1969 issue of Captain America, is not wearing his traditional spandex red and white costume with accompanying mask, which infuriates me a little... but, at least, it’s replaced with a practical piece of technology which doesn’t look as out of place within the overall tone of this movie. Plus, well done to actor Anthony Mackie (who I really liked in The Adjustment Bureau, as I pointed out here), for turning in a really solid and likeable performance as one of the beloved heros of 1970s comics.

Chris Evans just gets better and better every time I see him in something and his portrayal of Captain America, is actually pretty competently delivered, considering the character is so righteous and star spangly that he could easily dip into boredom at any second. Evans manages to make him both believable as an actual person and to also deliver a no nonsense confidence within the prison of the character... so that’s pretty good. The film even includes the scenes deleted from The Avengers movie, with Steve Rogers visiting the aged Peggy Carter, his love interest from the first movie, and we see the pain of responsibility in Captain America’s life as his former flame slips into dementia. It was a shame they didn’t feel they could bring this character back, frozen in time like her star spangled boyfriend, but the whole thing works dramatically much better as an anchor in the title character’s life, I guess... so that was pretty good.

And then we have Scarlet Johansson’s take on Black Widow, who is finally beginning to look more and more like the comic book character she is based on. Granted, she doesn’t seem as troubled and tortured by her past as much as she needs to be just yet, and her former love affair with The Winter Soldier seems to have been completely bypassed for the sake of brevity in this movie, but she’s always good to watch and I feel that, if the writers and directors of these movies don’t cop out on us, they’re definitely moving the character in the right direction now.

The film is a heady blend of action and “spy hard” theatrics and the brilliant action sequences, when Captain America throws his mighty shield, are not edited too badly (only gets a little confusing in a few places) and, without a doubt, it has to be said, all those who choose to oppose his shield, must yield.  Samuel L. Jackson’s usual turn as Nick Fury is pretty cool too, although it’s really strange that the writers of this movie really expected us to think that they had killed the character off. Frankly, we know a faked death when we see it and there’s a lot of reasons why it just makes no sense to eliminate this character, just yet, from the franchise. So, yeah, I did feel like my intelligence was being way too insulted by that point.

The return of Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola was expected, to be sure, but not in the way they’ve brought him back (which kind of pre-empts a Johnny Depp movie coming out soon, it seems) and I’m glad he returned for this one, if just for Natasha Romanoff’s throwaway reference to the computer hacker movie War Games. Would’ve been nicer to see him in the flesh, maybe, but at least he got a look in.

Emily VanCamp, as Agent 13, is also absolutely brilliant in this, and held my attention for all the scenes she’s in. I’m assuming/hoping that she’ll be a regular in the film series as it develops but, well, let’s see where they go with that. Which leads me to the next big question...

How can we have an Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D TV show when S.H.I.E.L.D has been historically infiltrated by Hydra and all but destroyed, now, by the main protagonists of this movie? Why am I even watching that show, to be honest? It needs to get better really soon now... I’m the only one in my house still bothering to watch it. Maybe this is the way they kill off the show before, hopefully, moving some of the TV characters back into the main movie franchise?

Like all the Marvel Universe Phase One and Phase Two movies, the film has a post end credits scene and also, like Thor: The Dark World, a mid end credits scene and, this sequence, throws up the little rant I was going to get around to having when the new X-Men movie came out... but now I can do it here too. The original comic book characters of the brother and sister twins who were Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver started off, if my hazy memory serves me correctly, as villains... part of Magneto’s mutant army in the early 1960s X-Men comics, before they switched sides and became part of the superhero team known as The Avengers. So it makes sense for them to appear in continuity here... with an origin which seems to be involving some new villainous society. However, and here’s the problem, 20th Century Fox also have rights to the characters and they are using them in their upcoming movie X-Men: Days Of Future Past... played by different actors and, presumably, with a different movie origin story which doesn’t dovetail into this franchise. This is a bad idea all around, people. It’s surely going to confuse the heck out of audiences who a) don’t know the origin of the characters and b) who don’t realise the Marvel Universe has been strangely split between multiple studios. It’s basically like having two different Spider-Man movies out there starring different actors at the same time. It makes no sense but, lets reserve judgement until we’ve seen both X-Men: Days Of Future Past and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron first, I guess. Maybe the X-Men timeline will wipe them out of existence by the end of that movie.

And that’s about it, for this review, I guess. I used to have a Captain America action figure as a kid with a special toggle on the back which used to make his arms punch if you pulled the joint out of his socket (yeah, that was a deliberate thing you were supposed to do, people... I didn’t usually used to pull my action figures’ limbs out for fun) and it’s nice to see the character now knocking around on film in a credible manner (as opposed to the theatrical serial Captain America from 1944 and the various TV movie incarnations of the character over the years). And the film does have one last special trick up it’s sleeve if you really want to get pulled into your local cinema to see this movie... and it’s this...

 Jenny Agutter reprises her brief role from The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble and reviewed here) and takes out a roomful of bad guys with her kung fu kickassery (plus some extra help from those quick action edits). There’s a little extra twist to this sequence, shown moments later, but... seriously... go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and you will get to see Jenny Agutter stand up to Robert Redford’s goons and kick some Hydra butt. Which is as good a proposition as I’ll ever need to get me into cinemas, to be honest.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fun movie in a franchise which knows how to keep a serious level of gravitas and credibility to characters who are, by definition, the very antithesis of credible, while still remembering to keep the writing dialled up to “full on fun”... not the best entry in the Marvel franchise... but certainly a very good one.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Mutual Admiration Society

Great Aspectations

Mutual Admiration Society
2014 UK
Directed by James Devereaux & Rouzbeh Rashidi

When actor/director James Devereaux asked me to look at Rouzbeh Rashidi’s latest film, I hadn’t twigged it was directed by the both of them. Of course, I’ve reviewed work by both of these directors before and, sometimes, Devereaux stars in Rashidi’s movies... but I didn’t wake up to the collaborative nature of the project until after I’d seen it. I saw the fingerprints of both these artists within the film, of course, but it’s taken me this long to figure out that they are both moving in similar directions in the way they make their art, at the moment, and so I’m guessing that’s why their mutual alliance felt more focussed to me in its intent than I would expect from certain other cinematic partnerships over the years.

The film is presented in black and white and opens with a bearded Devereaux, the only character in the entire film, looking around him. As can be expected with an actor of Devereaux’s calibre, the performance, mostly improvised, is something that is always watchable and interesting. The aspect ratio is similar to that you would get from a mobile phone, which then expands to a wider ratio to see Devereaux in context and interacting with his environment, before switching back to the previous ratio.

In fact, the aspect ratio keeps switching it's location within the bounding frame (composed of white space) throughout the course of the movie.

The shapes used within the space, within the frame, are not to indicate different narrative or chronological points in the story (story is not necessarily what you would call a present element in a film made by either of these directors, to be honest). I suspect, they’re more presented that way to challenge one’s notions of a static ratio as the best way to frame a shot when a different one would specifically serve a different shot. A way of freeing the cinematic space and the constant switching between various planes of that space, very quickly trains the audience to adapt to this kind of acceptance of the art on its own terms.

We also, of course, get into multiple, smaller ratios showing different aspects of the same character in the same space and, because we're already used to the changing visual interface, by this point, we accept this in a less jarring and intrusive manner than we might if, say, it was someone like Brian DePalma suddenly switching to a split screen mode.

Later on, when Devereaux is clearly distressed, his mind in chaos, the ratio is tilted within the overall binding white space of the film frame to further enhance the jangled internal communication of the character within certain shots. The directors experiment with different ways of showing this kind of expression of being bound by the space. For instance, at one point, the ratio of the frame is opened out but Devereaux's head is jammed at the corner intersection of three walls within the bottom right hand corner of the screen. This instantly creates a dialogue between the space captured within the camera as an expression of the boundaries of both the physical form and the human spirit… and the way the stock itself, be it actual film stock or digital pixels, can be retooled to fit a similar embodiment of the same goals and tests the effectiveness and limits of each one as a set of co-existing, artistic techniques. To further push this exploration, the directors even use a strobing effect at one point.

Another key thing to that approach, of course, whether it’s an intentional construct or a serendipitous momentum created by the realisation of the art itself, is that you have the human body as an extension of the mind, exploring the limits of its physical space but, also, within an arena wherein the director (as God) controls the limits of that exploration at a place where the unaware and unnamed protagonist in a film can't know how he (or she) is being manipulated within their alternate reality.

Asides from the dialogue between the way space is used both internally and externally to the content of a shot, there are some really nice moments in the film which make it all worth the watch.

For instance, the contradiction inherent in Devereaux’s stern faced contemplation of his situation (whatever that actually is) and the external expression of the seriousness of his intent...  pitched against the absurdist action of taking a fully clothed shower while drinking a cup of tea. That’s a pretty nice moment right there.

His character, with a gammy leg, dragging himself up a hill just to have a quick look around, then coming down again, is probably a metaphor for something I'm not smart enough to pick up on but it did remind me of Greek tragedy somewhat, and the concept of a daily struggle, perhaps by way of Philip K. Dick's concept of the pseudo-religion of Mercerism in the novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? It seems to be, intentionally or not, a visual representation of a certain human attitude, or perhaps need or drive, which is a basic subconscious component of our species.

The struggle between the tortured mind, the physical confinement of such  and the sacrifice involved within such struggle, seems to be a constant concern of the movie, in fact.

What you have here, as you let the images wash over you, is a definite sense of fragments of a central narrative in a simultaneously existing before/after state. The gun, the limp which appears and disappears from shot to shot can be seen, if you choose to read the images this way, as two states on either side of a central event. Once again, Rashidi and Devereaux are inviting us to bring our own, unique narrative element to the film. For me this was a haunted, recovery period of a hit man after something went wrong on a job, followed by preparation for the next job… or is it the other way around. Of course, the beauty of these kind of visual stimulations is that everybody is going to see their own thing within it… which pushes and supports an idea I've had for a while, actually, that people's reaction to a movie is based purely on their own personal baggage that they bring to the experience with them, and how well that same personal agenda is reflected back at them. The almost inevitable refusal to show the actual event which creates the material for this structure is, I think, typical of the work of both these directors.

And all this is judiciously, but effectively, spotted with Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso n.1, per due violino, clavicembalo, pianoforte preparato e orchestra d'archi... the music used in a more traditional way to create emotion and unease at certain moments in the film and add a certain weight to some of the sequences. It’s been a couple of decades, at least, since I last listened to this composer’s work so I’m pleased to be reminded of him and I really ought to catch up with his work again sometime soon.

Devereaux’s own blog about the way this film was made can be found here and I’d say it’s well worth a read and, obviously, well worth a watch if you’re into the art of making movies. You can follow both directors on twitter on the links given below and, if you give them a shout, maybe they’ll give you a link to the movie for a free watch.

Rouzbeh Rashidi

James Deveraux

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Golden Eye

Miner Incursion

The Golden Eye
1948 USA
Directed by William Beaudine
Monogram - Warner Brothers 
DVD Region 1

Well it looks like this may be my last Charlie Chan movie review for a little while... until either Warners or some other interested party decide to commercially release the few missing movies I don’t have yet... or until I maybe go back to the start and watch them all over again.

This is the fourth of the six movies headlining Roland Winters in the role of Chan and, blimey, I’m finally starting to get used to the guy. Either he’s grown on me big time or the writing on this one is more able to play to the strengths of the actor and the way he performs the role. Either way, this movie is a pretty fun romp in the series and certainly the best of the Winters’ films I’ve seen to date.

One of the reasons for this may be because Chan is totally on the case in this one and has a lot more to do with the story than usual... not just leaving it to other characters to play out the running time. Don’t get me wrong, this film still has a lot of supporting players including the second of three regular appearances by Tim Ryan as police “Lt. Mike” as Chan calls him... who does a great job acting as a whacky,  undercover drunk (then immediately sobering when he visits Chan to exchange information). Some great and thoroughly entertaining acting going on here in this one. And, of course, the later Chan’s would be incomplete without the double act routines of Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son and Mantan Moreland as chauffeur Birmingham Brown. Their scenes are a little less frequent than usual, which allows Winters and Ryan to shine, but their presence is still very much felt and a wonderful bit of business takes place at the start where they are dressed in dodgy cowboy outfits, packing to go under cover in a resort Western town (the Lazy Y Ranch) which is situated near The Golden Eye gold mine... which gives this film its title.

The plot is pretty obvious in both its execution and denouement, with a mystery involving a non profitable gold mine which has suddenly become very profitable for absolutely no reason... you pretty much figure out what is going on there right from the bat. However, as with a lot of these kinds of formulaic films with running characters, the plots are merely a skeleton to hang some nice scenes on which show the characters you know and love in their best light and, like I said earlier, this one’s a fun old romp.

There’s kind of a “surprise” villain in this one too but, honestly, if you didn’t see that one coming then you’ve not been watching enough mystery movies during your life. There are no "real" surprises here but plenty of smiles and chuckles and I’m really glad to see Winters really getting into the part here... even if Chan’s days as a running, cinematic icon were, sadly, numbered.

There’s a very strange bit right at the end where, after Chan has revealed the solution to the mystery and the various bad guys have been captured or met with death, Mantan Moreland gets a last say in the movie. Birmingham Brown steps right out of the scene, walks over to the camera and breaks the “fourth wall” by talking to the audience in a little “wrap up” monologue all his own. I don’t recall ever seeing this happen in a Charlie Chan movie before and I’m wondering if this was something the director was trying out as a feature to use in forthcoming films in the series. Not having access to the final two stories, as yet, this isn’t something I am going to easily find out, I suspect.

As Chan films go, The Golden Eye goes a long way to capturing the magic in a bottle of some of the Warner Oland and Sydney Toler movies in the series and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Just hoping somebody will release the missing Chans to us sometime soon though. I need my opium fix.