Friday, 19 December 2014

Sint (aka Saint)

Sint-illating Santa

Sint (aka Saint)
2011 Netherlands 
Directed by Dick Maas
Metrodome UK DVD Region 2

Warning: Very slight spoilers in this one.

It was due to the phenomenon known as Hypnogoria on Twitter that I first heard, maybe a year ago, about Sint. When he tweeted about the movie again this year, I realised this could be my Christmas movie to rival Rare Exports (reviewed here). Well, while it’s not as whimsical or compelling as Rare Exports in certain respects, it’s still a Christmas themed movie with a fairly dark edge to it and I was kinda pleased to be watching it, I have to say.

The plot involves the original St. Nicholas and his motley crew of pirates (?) who were burned in their ship by villagers for horrendous “rape and pillagey” crimes against them. However, there is a curse connected with this event and so, every 42 years, when the moon is full on December 5th, St. Nicholas, his helper Black Pete (a Dutch part of their Santa Claus myth, apparently), and their bunch of friends, return as ghostly/zombie versions of themselves and kill various people while stealing their children... plundering the infants and lugging them away, after their chimney penetrations, in big sacks.

This is exactly what happens in a scene we see set in 1968, when a whole family is wiped out in a gory and violent manner (which is pretty much the tone throughout the whole film) but with the boy in the family escaping through his absence of checking out the pigs in the family barn. We then cut to present day Amsterdam, where the rest of the action of this movie takes place, and the young boy is now an older police inspector, still embittered by his experiences as a child and thought a bit of a loony for his strange beliefs in a St. Nicholas killer.

We are slowly introduced to younger cast members whose job it is, mostly, to die in various violent scenes throughout the course of the film, along with various other, much less zombie fodder, people. The movie is all about a College aged teenager and his dealings with the Santa Claus zombie and how he pitches up in the company of the not-so-deranged Police Inspector, helping him out on his hunt to destroy the zombie St. Nicholas and his merry horde.

Which all sounds fantastic and, though not the most addictively watchable of movies, it does have a certain something to it... I think, especially in the pacing. This film moves incredibly fast. The speed is often because the action cross cuts between various incidents happening at the same time but mostly, I think, due to the enthusiastic rush of the camera work in some sequences. This is not a hand held, jerky shake-fest... which is a route a lot of horror movies seem to be going down just recently. Instead we have some very smooth and fluid camera work which tends to stick with a character and follow him/her for a bit, before cutting to the odd establishing shot which are often taken from an unexpected angle and compositional choice than what you may be expecting. In fact, the shot design gets downright Hitchcockian in some sequences, it has to be said.

It’s probably been noted before but the plot of the film bears more than a passing resemblance to John Carpenter’s beautiful horror movie The Fog (reviewed here) but, alas, the execution and the end game are not anything like that one. It does have a very 1980s feel to it, however, with lots of old school practical gore effects coming into their own as the St. Nicholas reincarnation slices and dices his way through various people... at least, they seemed less CGI orientated to me, at any rate. It also features an interesting car chase where some policemen chase St. Nicholas from ground level as he rides across the various rooftops of Amsterdam. This is almost a parody of the famous car chase sequence in The French Connection but, well, you know... with a zombie version of Santa on horseback, as opposed to the train tracks from the Friedkin classic.

The film is kinda curious in the end in that it doesn’t actually tie up all the loose ends in the story. For starters, we have no idea what has happened to the kids in the film and can only assume they’re gone for good. In addition to this, one of the more important main characters seems to be treated in a more haphazard and unsympathetic way than you would have hoped for by the end of the story. There’s also an issue, which I think a few people have picked up on by the looks of it, that some of the story flow doesn’t quite make sense in an annoying contradictory manner... almost like scenes of dialogue were kept in after other scenes which were referenced by them were deleted or, in some cases, rewritten without thinking about the plot consequences at other parts of the movie. Unfortunately, that is something which tends to happen a lot in modern movies so this is pretty much par for the course for a film of this nature but... still a little bit sloppy, I believe.

This is a short review, I know, but I have nothing much more to say about Sint other than I was really pleased to find a more deranged Christmas movie than the normal fair on offer ot me in my “film archive” and, if anything, this movie is quite a bit of fun which, when all is said an done, is probably as much as you can ask from a Christmas movie in this day and age. I can’t say it’s my favourite seasonal movie by a long chalk but it does entertain in a, kind of, comfortable way and it’s not something you have to think about too much if you just want to switch your brain off after the wine and pudding on Christmas Day. It’s not one I’d go out of my way to recommend but, equally, it’s one that I think a lot of horror afficionados would enjoy to a certain extent so, maybe if you are into festive fantoms and seasonal shocks, it’s something you might like to check out. Come on in... the weather outside is frightful.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

900th Blog - Mega City Kids

900th Blog - Mega City Kids

You know, I’ve been umming and ahhing for a few weeks now about what I was going to do for my 900th blog post. Normally, when I hit each 100 posts, I like to do an entry to mark the moment which is sometimes a picture or design I’ve created, sometimes a reminiscence about some things which have happened to me in the last year or, occasionally, a run down of what I am expecting to do more of over the next few months/year (which is sometimes wildly inaccurate as other things often take priority). This year, my latest 100 is coinciding with the run down to Christmas and I knew I wouldn’t have time to do any new images on top the other stuff I’ve got to get done before the end of the week even (let alone by the 25th)... so I wanted to touch upon something quick and simple.

On the other hand, I didn’t just want to throw the post away on a quickie so I figured... there must be some kind of worthy cause or person out there who is doing something to help people out as best they can and who I can give a shout out to on my blog. So I had a bit of a think about this and I realised the one person who I do have to bring to your attention is Wendy Kravetz of Mega City Comics in Camden Town... and this is why...

My most loyal readers may remember my comments on how I learned to read as a kid. I think I’ve mentioned it a few times but, in case you don’t remember or, more likely, haven’t read it, here’s the introduction to my Man Of Steel review from June 2013...

“When I was two or three years old, I was encouraged to read via Superman and Batman comics which my dad or my uncle would pick up from the stand, long gone I imagine, at the Angel, Edmonton in the very early seventies (1970 in fact, I suspect). These comics, along with Green Arrow/Green Lantern, World’s Finest, Shazam!, Justice League Of America, Daredevil, The Amazing Spider-Man and also the annual “Christmas Time” reprints in such tomes as The Batman Bumper Book, The Superman Bumper Book and, wait for it, The Superman and Batman Bumper Book, were pretty much how I learned to read and by the time I got to junior school I was already out-reading all the other kids in the class (and writing epic length tales of imaginary spaceway heroes in some lessons too, from what I can recall). I particularly remember the cover to one specific Superman comic I read which, unfortunately, was the only comic which didn’t survive my childhood because I just read it too much and it finally fell apart. But the cover was so good to a kid my age... Superman VS The Electronic Ghost of Metropolis. It would probably cost an inappropriate amount of money these days if I were to track it down in the chance I could read it again but that cover will always live on in my memory.”

I think that paragraph there pretty much sums up my thoughts on how I learned to read and how much of an advantage it gave me over all the other kids at the time. The reason for this is quite simple... the characters and situations depicted in the panels of a comic book or, as they tend to sometimes call them these days, a graphic novel (although they often mean trade paperback reprint), tell of wonders and action and places and people that are so compelling that, at a very young age you actually want to read this stuff. It captures your imagination and you find yourself quickly learning how to decode the words and find out what your new found friends and heroes are up to... be it Captain Marvel teaming up with Tawky Tawny The Talking Tiger or Casper The Friendly Ghost trying hard not to scare anybody. It grips the mind of a child (and also an adult’s imagination... but that’s not what I’m here to discuss) and doesn’t let go.

Of course, once the flood gates are open, all kinds of reading materials which were somehow a locked room become fair game. I remember the tales of Enid Blyton’s various creations, the adventures in Richmal Crompton’s William books and, my favourite, Anthony Buckeridge’s mis-adventures of Jennings. And once you’re there... it’s only a very small step to entering the worlds of Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Ian Fleming, Philip K Dick, Kenneth Robeson, William F. Nolan etc. The point is... by reading comics from an early age, you don’t restrict your kids imagination or blinker them in any way... you actually give their thoughts room to soar and the reading skills tend to catch up with that real quick. Why? Simply because you’re giving your kids something that they want to read because, lets face it, whatever their age... the adventures of Janet & John or Peter & Jane just aren’t going to cut it.

And that’s why Wendy Kravetz at Mega City Comics is important to people right now. She hasn’t asked me to write this post... in fact, until it’s actually live it’s probably going to be a surprise that I have... but I wanted to shout her out here because I think she’s doing a terrific job with something that more people ought to cotton on to. She’s recognised the good her comics can do herself and she’s in charge of a scheme/brand called Mega City Kids, which enables her to hand pick suitable comics for various age groups... in an era when “suitable” comics really are something you need to watch out for (it’s very different territory now from when you and I were young whippersnappers). The scheme isn’t a charity, as far as I’m aware, but these people are recognising that the four coloured panels of certain comic books are going to help your kids fly through reading... and not hobble their expectations like, it has to be said, some teachers might.

But don’t take my word for it... check out Wendy and Mega City Kids for yourself if you think you know someone who is struggling with their reading and you want to watch them plough through their lesson materials faster than a speeding bullet and be able to leap tall spelling obstacles in a single bound. Her twitter account is here for you to see what she’s up to and the Mega City Kids facebook page is here... And if, like me, you have a passion for comics and like hanging out in places like Forbidden Planet, Gosh! and Orbital... and you don’t know about Mega City Comics... well add them to your list of favourite wallet torturers. They are based a couple of minutes walk from Camden Town tube station on the London Underground Northern Line and their website can be found here... Look them up next time you’re passing or surfing. Especially at this time of year because, hey, everybody likes to get a good comic at Christmas.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Silent Running

Earth Fiddles
While Bruce Derns

Silent Running
1972 USA
Directed by Douglas Trumbull
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B

Silent Running is a film I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s a film which was always a big hit in the playground chatter at school and I guess I would have been about 7 or 8 years old when it got its first TV screening in the UK. I remember watching it with my dad and lapping it up. I also remember the very sad ending and the “green is good” message that made us all cry back in the day. And the three robots, of course... I’ll come back to them a little later.

Although I’ve always held this movie in very high regard, it wasn’t a movie that I was really expecting to revisit anytime soon until a fellow student from my old graphic design course at the London College Of Printing found me on Twitter and, after reading a few of my reviews and having a few conversations, expressed an interest in hearing what I would have to say about this classic movie these days. So here I am and that’s a big shout out to Jez at Fizog Design (follow him on Twitter here) for getting me back to looking at this film again after so many decades.

Silent Running belongs as a kind of softer option alternative to the big powerful wave of brutal and philosophical sci-fi movies which Hollywood were churning out, such as those top lining actors like Charlton Heston and Yul Brinner, who were getting a new lease of life on the big screen with such classics as Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Westworld and The Ultimate Warrior. The film is directed by Douglas Trumbull, who is perhaps much better known as a special effects wizard and who had just come off of doing the effects work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I mention that he contributed to the effects work for both that film and such classics as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Star Trek The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, not to mention another film he directed called Brainstorm, then you’ll realise that he was quite a giant of a man in his chosen field.

This film is unique because it takes a traditional hippy approach to man’s decimation of our planet and, like all good science fiction, pushes it and filters it through a sci-fi concept to explore it in a more direct way. Man has used up a lot of his natural resources on earth to the extent that the last forests, filled as they are with trees, plants, rabbits, toads, snails and all manner of wildlife, have been bundled off into space, three a piece, on huge freighters under big domes which protect them in the hopes that mankind can one day bring them back to Earth. When a decision is made to destroy the domes and recall all of the crews of the freighters back to Earth, the chief “gardener” of the starship “Valley Forge”, who has been tending and growing the forests for something like 20 years, takes offence at the idea... he murders his three colleagues and manages to keep one of the domes, faking his misdeeds and feigning death by navigating a path through the rings of Saturn... in a special effects sequence that very much calls into mind the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey and which, it may come as no surprise, was originally intended to be included as a sequence in Kubrick’s movie.

The gardner, known as Lowell, is played by a young Bruce Dern and I think this was the first time I’d been aware of him as an actor as far as I can remember, although I would have certainly seen him in various American Westerns over the years before I saw this movie, I suspect. Once he’s killed off his crew in the first third of this story, after all the rules and ideas of the reality in which Lowell lives have been explored and established to build up a picture of the situation in the audience’s mind, the film becomes essentially a one hander showcase for Dern as he plays along side two of three drone robots which he calls Huey and Dewey (with Louis being named posthumously after it fails to survive the earlier sequences of the film).

In my review a short while ago for Interstellar (found here) I likened the robots in that movie to the classic robots of past science fiction films and specifically named the robots in this film, who they most resemble in some ways, in terms of the simplicity of their design. The three drones here are basically walking boxes with two legs and appendages which can come out of the front, robotically, so they can do things like hold cards when Lowell teaches them how to play at poker (a game in which Huey and Dewey cheat, although Lowell never really spots this). The drones are played by multiple amputee actors and it’s a real wonder how these, frankly simplistic designs, can suddenly become imbued with all the emotional warmth of humans as they perform and complete certain tasks, above and beyond their programming. Of course, a lot of this is due to the mental baggage that the audience brings to the table but Dern plays on the perception behind the action and reaction shenanigans to enhance this emotional depth in the robots and it’s a testament to his acting, and to the movements and gestures of those inside the droids themselves, at just how involved you get with them to the point where you are feeling really sorry for them as the film reaches its final solution, when Earth ships have found the Valley Forge and Lowell has to make one final decision to both save the forest and fix it so the forest is not pursued and destroyed.

It’s a tear jerker, to be sure, although I surprised myself by being less emotionally attached to the corker of a “save our forests” message inherent in the main text of the movie this time around. I think some of it has to do with the fact that, despite getting a lot of things absolutely right in this film, it’s getting just a little bit dated, truth be told. However, that being said, I think its the kind of film you have a much better response to when you’re young and can’t necessarily see all the shades of grey lurking around the edges of what is, after all, a very simple and clear message... boosted as it is by a score by composer Peter Schickele (aka P. D. Q. Bach) and with his songs for the movie being performed by Joan Baez. Actually, I can’t believe the soundtrack to this one has still not been issued on CD after all these years... I’m guessing there are some legal issues standing in the way with the publishing of the songs somewhere but I remain hopeful that it’ll someday get a release... preferably before I die (better get your skates on then, assorted record labels).

At the end of the day, though, I still thoroughly enjoyed what has since become, and rightly so, a genuine classic of 1970s science fiction. If you’ve never seen this movie and are a fan of the genre then you really do need to take a look at it, preferably before your heart gets too old and jaded to consider the central message in a less cynical way. The newish limited edition Blu Ray print on Eureka's The Masters Of Cinema label is pretty good and has a variety of extras including a commentary track by Trumbull and Dern which is definitely something I have to give a listen to in the near future. Still a strong movie after all these years and a film that, once seen, you’ll never really forget. It’s one of those movies that stays with you through the years and, if you can inhabit the wide open eyed hope of its central theme, then you’ll have a really great time with it, I think.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Doc Savage: Phantom Lagoon

Savage Creatures

Doc Savage: 
Phantom Lagoon
by Will Murray writing as Kenneth Robeson
Altus Press
ISBN: 978-1618271341

You know, it must be really hard to, not only write a continuation of the exploits of an already famous literary character, but to write it in the style and spirit of the original author. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off and, while I found a few of the latest batch of modern Doc Savage novels to be a little out of kilter with their 20th Century counterparts, I have to hand it to Murray and say that they are definitely more hit than miss and, even on the occasions when they do miss the mark a little in terms of authenticity of the characters and styles of situations in comparison to the original versions, they are nearly always entertaining.

One thing Murray definitely pulls off in his Doc Savage novels is the breakneck pacing which was often an obvious stylistic flourish of the pulps, especially within the work of Lester Dent (the original Kenneth Robeson) and his Doc Savage tales. However, I have to further congratulate Murray in that, with Phantom Lagoon, he also manages to not only get all the ingredients of a classic Doc Savage novel just about absolutely right, he also manages to push the edges a little bit in terms of some of the events which happen in this one (I don’t want to get too spoilery here) and you know that Dent would surely have approved of these exciting dramatic decisions. They are absolutely in the style of what Dent would have done... and he did sometimes stretch his own formula himself, on occasion, just to shake things up.

The events I am talking about in this particular volume are those kinds of incidents which threaten to somehow change the status quo of the tried and true formula of any future Doc Savage novels. They rarely do have any permanent after effects which last them for longer than the opening set up of the next novel, after the events have occurred in the previous story, but they are quite drastic alterations for the duration of the tale. Of course, with a character like Doc Savage, who has an unlimited reserve of money he can call on to fund his work at any time, it’s rare for anything really groundshaking to be irreparable, but certain “big things” often are written in such a way that they certainly seem like massive events at the time... again, without giving away spoilers here, it’s hard to go into.

Suffice it so say that there are some scenes of destruction and devastation which have an effect on the possible future of the narrative and also, of course, add to the dramatic impact and gravitas of the latest caper that Doc and his crew end up investigating. Now, it’s possible Murray may have decided to do what he’s done here to tie into a drop off in certain ingredients in the later World War 2 and post World War Doc Savage tales. I can’t quite remember (or find online now, either) specifics of just where Doc was at with various locations and equipment at certain stages of his crime fighting career, but I trust Murray enough to know that he wouldn’t be one to threaten the continuity of the chronological setting where this novel gets tucked into the original stories. And, like I said, the events portrayed in this novel are, as far as I’m concerned, things Lester Dent would have approved of himself.

For instance, the original Doc Savage story Fortress Of Solitude tale features an outrageous attack on Doc’s arctic retreat which would seem to have long reaching effects on the series (Murray even picks up some threads from this story himself in at least one of his previous Doc novels) but, ultimately, equilibrium is restored. Similarly, when people break out from Doc’s famous Crime College or the Mayans are embroiled in a plot, or even when various devastating attacks on Doc’s skyscraper headquarters have taken place in the past, they are really examples of Dent just having his cake and eating it at the same time. Big, dramatic events that are a threat to the easy, continued lifestyle of Doc and his crew are ultimately reversed and swept under the carpet with a quick sleight of hand... and it always works and makes sense within the realms of the fictional character because, after all... money talks.

So no worries on some of the incidents in this particular novel that might seem a tad overcooked or sensational to some readers. As far as I’m concerned, these are all valid approaches to the drama. No complaints here.

As for the rest of the novel?

Well, it’s a real humdinger of a tale, for sure. Starting out by almost immediately putting Doc and his crew in a reactive stance rather than being in an investigation they have chosen to take part in from the outset. It deals with watery backdrops and sea creatures who won’t rub up any of the traditional Doc Savage fans the wrong way... this novel sticks to the formula of always having a hard, scientific reason for the initial hook of the weird phenomenom that Doc encounters in his adventures. As with all of the writing I’ve read by Will Murray, it moves at a mile a minute, is stupendously well written and, like the majority of his other efforts under the Kenneth Robeson “brand name”... hugely entertaining.

If i had one criticism to make on this one, it’s the transparency of the misdirection Murray uses in a certain scene. A character drops into the narrative about a third of the way into the novel and my initial thoughts were, since I know both Murray and Dent’s plotting fairly well, that a very specific character was adopting a disguise. Then, to muddy the waters, Murray has one of the villains of the piece already wise to these kinds of shenanigans and clearly naming one of The Amazing Five as the person adopting the disguise. This would have maybe thrown first time readers off the track a little but, pretty much any fan of the exploits of Clark Savage Jr would be pretty sure of the real identity of the character in question, I would imagine. It’s not really a problem though... just a personal reaction to what I see as an obvious red herring for the reader.

Doc Savage: Phantom Lagoon is a pretty solid entry into the series of additional “Wild Adventures Of Doc Savage” and the sophisticated degree to which Murray is able to effectively “do a Robeson” never ceases to amaze me. Added to this we have “the war in Europe” which sets up slightly different rules that Doc and his crew can operate under... also an interesting addition to the atmosphere on this one. This is a definite good read for all fans of The Man Of Bronze and I would definitely urge those who have been sitting on the fence with the latest batch of novels to go out and grab a couple... and you could certainly use this one as a jumping on point. Although two of Doc’s crew are missing, you have the counter balance of his cousin Pat added into the mix so that’s a good bonus and, if I remember rightly, Doc’s aides did start slowly disappearing as the novels progressed towards the end of the series, with characters being whittled down until it was just Monk and Ham in on the adventures as the characters came towards the end of their original run... so once again, Murray’s adds another shot of authenticity into his work, by making sure the ingredients he puts into his verbose concoction are more specific to where this one fits into the chronology of the original pulps. Looking forward to catching up to the next two in the series as soon as I can. Hopefully over Christmas if Santa brings the next new volume in his sack.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Pyramid

Anubis-ness Like Showbusiness

The Pyramid
2014  USA
Directed by Grégory Levasseur 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoilers but... 
not really all that spoilery, if truth be told.

Back in 1972, when I was a mere four years of age, my parents took me into London to the British Museum for a special exhibition. I remember queuing up for hours in the cold in the courtyard (as it was then) and it was my first experience of queuing in a line stretching and winding back on itself a seemingly infinite number of times. Queues this long were rarely seen in the 1970s, methinks. After queuing for a few hours, we gained entrance to the touring Treasures Of Tutankahmen exhibition which, it has to be said, was a much more specific and wonderous exhibition than the diluted one which showed up in London about 6 years ago.

It was here that my fascination with Egyptian archaeology first began... as it sparked a casual interest in the mysterious historical culture which I still have, somewhat, to this day. This was further enhanced, at around the same time, by my first TV viewing of the original Boris Karloff version of The Mummy and, later, by both  the Tintin comic album Cigars Of The Pharaohs and a particular issue of the black and white Doc Savage comic which featured characters like Anubis and Horus running around and generally giving The Man Of Bronze a hard time.

Perhaps this is why I responded so well to the new horror movie The Pyramid when, it would seem, it’s been really panned by a lot of critics. However, a lot of the views I’ve seen expressed on it also describe it as a found footage movie... and it so isn’t. I’ll get back to that point in a minute but, first, let me tell you the basic set up of the movie.

The time is 2013. A father and daughter team of archeologists have discovered a new pyramid beneath the sand in an increasingly volatile Egypt. The apex is uncovered and the daughter doesn’t believe it’s the tomb of Akhenaten, which is what they had originally been looking for. Also, curiously, it’s a three sided pyramid, as opposed to the usual four sided pyramids you get in Egypt. So curiouser and curiouser. A two person documentary team are filming these intrepid, historical explorers and we then have the usual thing you often see when anyone opens a pyramid in a horror movie... the person opening it gets hit with toxic, gaseous spray which plays havoc with his nervous system and pretty much kills him. Yeah, this is just one cliché in a phenomenally cliché ridden film, it has to be said... but it does have other things going for it.

The main protagonists and their “documenters” are about to enter the tomb when the American government orders everyone to evacuate the area because of the mounting, violent political situation but, with only a few hours left before their “get out and go” deadline, the team decides to send in the cute robot camera machine of the daughter’s geeky boyfriend, on loan from NASA, to get a little look inside this rare find. This is when you expect things are going to go really wrong and when the camera is smashed and dragged further into the pyramid by what our team of scientific geniuses assume is a dog (yeah, right), they all go in and look for the camera equipment and get trapped inside the pyramid with a bunch of jackal-like, violent creatures and... a big as f*** version of Anubis who is pretty scary and wants to rip everyone’s heart out... before weighing it and devouring their soul.

Now there are some issues here with this film, to be sure, but for all the standard horror clichés which pop up in abundance during the running time, not to mention some of the awful dialogue, the film still manages to retain a certain “edge of your seat” sense of foreboding and, by the end of the flick, it does indeed get downright harrowing and terrifying... at least to this audience member. Which is a good thing, right? It’s like the people behind the direction, editing, lighting, set design, effects work and the level of credibility invoked by the lead actors are all working overtime to try to distract us from the plot and dialogue and a big round of applause is deserved for everyone managing to create something still quite credibly scary while using this screenplay as a starting out point.

The issue surrounding the misconception that the film is one of the many found footage horror films which have been inundating us with much more frequency for the last decade or so is easily understandable, in some ways, for those who really aren’t paying attention to the way in which the film is shot and instead are immersing themselves in the content of the fantasy. However, the opening establishing shots should have been a dead giveaway and, although a lot of the footage in the film is from a specific camera source, such as the documentary film-maker’s camera or the screen of the robot they initially send into the tomb to take a look around, there is a lot of stuff which is third person camerawork and encompasses everyone who could be a credible source in shot. And if all that doesn’t give it away that this is definitely a mixture of both, then Nima Fakhrara's nicely done underscore for the film should probably put paid to any idea that the film-makers are going for a more authentic route in terms of first person shooting.

So, yeah, the director and producers have obviously made the decision, somewhere down the line in pre-production, that they didn’t want to limit themselves to just the usual tools of the trade when it comes to a “found footage” style movie and gone for the best of both worlds. The only fly in the ointment in this particular approach, though, is that even the standard third person view shots are all done on handheld too. There’s a lot of camera shake and so, other than the lack of an identifiable source for those shots, they are almost indistinguishable from the first person footage unless you are really paying attention. Which is fine but, then you wonder, if they were going to make it that indistinguishable in the first place, why bother making parts of it first person at all? The documentary team could easily have fulfilled their “exposition monkey” roles by being students on work experience or some such and then there would be no need for them to be lugging stuff around and paying attention to the minutia of all that it entails, taking up time in the main narrative. So that’s a little puzzling, it has to be said.

Still, asides from these kinds of issues, the film is a real blast when it comes to suspense and even gets into the realms of having a good, strong gore element in it (like, for instance, the zombie movies of the early to mid 1980s) and I really appreciated this. In terms of structure it’s pretty much the same kind of film as the excellent As Above, So Below from a few months ago (and reviewed here) but it trades in the beautiful atmosphere of that film with a more gung ho approach to the horror of the situations. Personally I preferred the atmosphere of As Above, So Below a little more but I did appreciate the differences between them too and The Pyramid is a really nice little horror film as far as I’m concerned.

The performances by the likes of Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O'Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K and Faycal Attougui are all top notch, in spite of some of the terrible dialogue they have to say, with performances somewhat modified in terms of emotional impact of the events in real life to move the story forward and allow for the basic human survival instinct to take over, it seems to me. That is to say, the characters don’t completely fall apart when a real life person faced by the same challenges might just freeze up (and die) under the circumstances and the actors do a credible job of helping you suspend your disbelief in these sequences.

The main star of the thing is Anubis, however, who is absolutely terrifying. It’s funny, but when you see CGI effects combined with a hand held camera, they seem much more credible than the CGI work in films shot with a steadicam (for example) and the version of Anubis created for this film, who does some really nicely violent stuff, is very impressive indeed.

All in all then, despite its shortcomings (and there are a few), director Grégory Levasseur has managed to put together a really credible entry into the horror genre and, although it seems to have been quite brutally rejected by a number of reviewers, I’m proud to stand up to be counted and say that The Pyramid is a slice of B-movie Egyptsploitation that I am happy to recommend to anyone... and I will happily pick up a blu ray of it when the price comes down after its initial release. Now if only someone would release the score to this one on CD, I’d be much happier about it.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Grandmaster (Yi Dai Zong Shi)

The Hand Faster

The Grandmaster (Yi Dai Zong Shi)
2013  Hong Kong/China
Directed by Wong Kar Wai 
UK cinema release print.

So here we have Wong Kar Wai’s new film, The Grandmaster, finally on a UK cinema release but in a heavily (by all reports) truncated version. Perhaps the reason the narrative kinda jumps around a little is because of the various cuts made to it... a film which the director apparently spent a year editing to get it how he wanted it in the first place.

The film tells the story of Ip Man, the Kung Fu Master responsible for popularising the Wing Chun style of fighting and also, of course, known as the man who originally trained the fighting and acting legend we know over here as Bruce Lee. So he’s a pretty important character and Wong Kar Wai obviously wanted to do the person justice... the film has been in various stages of production over the years, to the point that since this project was started, a few other Ip Man movies have already beaten this one out to release by a large chunk of time.

Now I’m already a little familiar with this director’s work on films such as ChungKing Express, 2046 (the sequel to his own I’m In The Mood For Love) and My Blueberry Nights (which I’m actually planning on rewatching and reviewing for the blog sometime next year) and so I was expecting to be watching a movie with absolutely mind blowing cinematography and a heavily saturated colour palette. Well, my expectations were half right... the camera work is really superb in that the slow progress of the camera through the compositions ensures that you get time to appreciate a lot of the beautifully balanced frames the director has concocted for this one. This time around, however, the colours seemed to be quite muted throughout a lot of it... but it really doesn’t matter as the shot design makes it very easy on the eye, in spite of this.

The title character is played by Tony Leung, who is a regular in a number of Wai’s movies and he plays the role here very confidently. However, just like a lot of made up heroic characters do, you really need a few more cracks in the whole “invincible hero” personae to make your characters interesting and, as this is based on real life, it looks like Ip Man didn’t really have any ostentations chinks in his armour so, consequently, the character does seem a tad dull at times.

This isn’t completely helped by the director’s very sedate approach to the mise en scene, it has to be said. Although you do have time to take in the beauty of the sets and landscapes, there are huge amounts of this film where nothing much happens. Now in some ways that’s a good thing because it throws the fastly edited (and sometimes slowed down) fight scenes into sharp relief and makes them more dramatic in contrast... but at the same time I found it to be maybe just a little bit lazy in terms of the scripting. I don’t know why, I usually love this kind of stuff, but the film certainly has a slowed down, almost voyeuristic quality in the way people and scenes are viewed, almost from a distance, without saying much. Normally a quality I embrace a lot more wholeheartedly.

It’s funny, it’s not like it’s a dialogue free movie, far from it. There’s a lot of talk all over it... but in between the talking and the action, the director likes to step back so you can, perhaps, ponder and consider things in your own time and, though I usually am very happy with that style of movie making, something felt a little odd and out of sorts with this one. I didn’t feel like I was getting a complete movie... partially, I guesss, due to the truncated version of the film playing over here and perhaps also because... I’m not sure the amount of material they could have filmed about this guy was interesting enough, maybe? That being said, however, they do start the movie when the central character is already 40 years old. The first four decades of Ip’s life are explained away as a "well off" man living off his family’s wealth and indulging himself in studies of kung fu. It seems very glossed over and I wonder how much of the excised footage included more of the back story for a few of the main protagonists in this one.

Another reason the film has a very voyeuristic feel, a least for me, is that the director treats his extras in a similar way to how Sergei Eisenstein used to do it in the era of Soviet Propaganda films like Battleship Potemkin, October and Strike. That is to say, Eisenstein would pick out a few of the background characters and then (often reshooting them slightly out of the scene in question) highlight them and their reaction to whatever is going on in a particular sequence at a closer distance. This way, the audience feels they are watching events unfold in front of them with a common point of reference as to the effect the main characters and events are having on everyone. Wong Kar Wai does a similar thing here, either by cutting to various bystanders in a crowded bar, for example, or moving the camera so that a “non-character” will suddenly be filling or dominating a composition. We see the smoke rising from a lady's cigarette and the expression on her face as she contemplates the rest of the scene, for instance. There seems to be a lot of that going on which helped create the sense of a silent and laid back space for the actors and stories to breathe in... which is a bit of a trade off in terms of detail versus, as I said earlier, a sense of dullness pervading certain of the scenes.

That being said, you aren’t going to be too bored for long because the shot design is exquisite and a lot of it will hold your interest throughout. The fight scenes alone are well worth the price of admission on this one and the choreographer, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, and director take care to use natural elements and work with them, making the fights more interesting... such as shooting them in the pouring rain or during snowfall where the ground is a bit more beautiful and treacherous. However, the film doesn’t follow a formula of, "the further you go the bigger the fight", as it would do in a Western, formulaic brawl movie... in fact, the climactic fight scene in the film certainly isn’t trumpeted as such and doesn’t even feature the main protagonist the movie is about... Tony Leung is not even present during this sequence. Instead, it’s only after the film has finished during the last quarter of an hour or so, that you realise you were just watching the last big fight sequence of the movie.

The other thing I felt this film lacked to a certain degree was emotion. There is a beautiful fight scene between Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers etc), playing his “almost love interest” Gong Er but, when the pay off to these sequences comes at the end of the movie, the emotional impact that they should have seemed maybe a little muted to me. It didn’t help, of course, that by that point in the movie the director elected to have music from Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon A Time In America playing through the scenes, so I was immediately popped out of the narrative while I was trying to identify the music. Even so, I suspect the toned down emotion of these final sequences maybe comes from a lack of the two characters full investment in each other, for reasons which are not made clear or glossed over in the narrative. Ip Man’s wife, not present for much of the narrative, presumably survived the war (unlike his daughters) and one wonders why he doesn’t try to get back to her at some point... love usually finds a way.

So, yeah, this is not the Wong Kar Wai I’ve known and loved over the years but, with all that being said, you’d be absolutely silly not to invest some time in this one because, frankly, even if he’s not dialled up to eleven here (which is, of course, only my opinion), he’s still delivered a beautifully haunting and, somewhat, melancholic cinematic poem in which many film lovers will find a lot to marvel at. Definitely something you should see before it leaves the cinema... unless, of course, you’re saving yourself for a good transfer of the full cut. The Grandmaster could well be a contender for part of my top 20 films this year and I’ll definitely be seeking out an alternate print of this one sometime soon.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Post Tenebras Lux


Post Tenebras Lux
2012 Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany
Directed by Carlos Reygadas
Drakes Avenue Pictures 
Blu Ray Zone B

Post Tenebras Lux is not a movie I’d heard of until I caught it out the corner of my eye as part of an ongoing sales promotion in Fopp, where they were selling the Blu-Ray for about a fiver. The attractive cover design and title caught my eye but I was in a hurry and so I left it. However, it haunted me from the shelf every week I returned to Fopp and, one day, I went to buy it but was put off by the awful write up on the back cover. It did, indeed, sound like one of the dullest movies out there.

It was only, after about eight weeks of hemming and hawing at the title, that I got around to searching for the trailer on the internet and that’s when I realised that, after all, it was a film I should probably take a look at. So, not to be put off by the blurb on the back cover this time, which seemed to be designed to keep as many people from purchasing said item as possible, I returned to Fopp a week later and made my purchase. I’m really glad I did, as it happens.

Post Tenebras Lux is a film full of cruelty and misery with, despite the title, very little in the way of lightness that I could, myself, get my head around. The entire film is shot in an old 1.33:1 (aka 4:3) aspect ratio and it’s done so with an extremely annoying lens which seems to be there specifically to distort the picture. The sides, top and bottom of the main view is always presenting a ghosted, doubled or sometimes trebled image of what is being observed and, although this smacks of the ambitions of the introduction of a Godardian distancing technique, it thankfully doesn’t stop you from slipping into the action of the movie, the content of which is said to be semi-autobiographical, drawing from Carlos Reygadas own experiences.

I’d seen this director’s famous movie Battle In Heaven on its first run at the cinemas back in 2005 and had liked it well enough, though not enough to watch a second time. Post Tenebras Lux is a film that, I must say, I found both more accessible and something which I found held my interest over the entire length of the running time, although it has to be said that very few of the adult characters are in any way sympathetic or people you would want to know in real life... except maybe for Natalia, played so well by actress Nathalia Acevedo. This empathy does not extend to her husband Juan, played equally brilliantly by Adolfo Jiménez Castro in his first film. After we see him badly beat up his favourite dog and witness the privileged attitudes he displays to his employees, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him... until you juxtapose his character with others in the film and realise that, after all, he is actually at least attempting to be critical of himself and trying to move towards some kind of awareness and redemption for his sins throughout the movie.

The film starts off with a very potent series of tracking shots of a young girl of a few years in age, lost in a field with dogs, cows, bulls and horses. It is only later that we realise that this was a dream in the head of the daughter of the two main protagonists, Natalie and Juan, and that the director using the same lens and no distinction between the style of the shots means that it’s very hard to distinguish between dream and reality in this movie and, though I personally took everything else thrown at me as a part of the reality of the characters, I’m sure there are certain moments that some viewers will choose to see as a dream state because they depict things which can’t be seen in our reality. Perhaps the strength of using the specific, distorting lens that the director employs throughout the movie is that it makes everything real to the camera and doesn’t allow the standard cinematic syntax of dreams to get in the way of the illusion of a very specific reality.

There are three sequences which really stood out in my mind as being something which was well worth the price of admission, and certainly worth the five or six pounds that Fopp charged me for the blu ray. The first of these is an early sequence featuring an animated devil carrying a suitcase. The metaphor that he is at his work and meddling in the affairs of man, makes more sense, perhaps, when we flash back to the same sequence at the end, almost as if the director is addressing the audience and saying that the world is always going to be terrible but it’s demonic intervention that is the cause.

Another sequence, depicting Anita and Juan’s first time at a large scale “swingers” event, where Anita is to be penetrated by a room full of men, is surprisingly erotic in its appeal and the way it is shot, as a potential, casual female lover of Anita relaxes her and talks her through her expectations during her first time there. This is actually one of the more comfortable sequences to watch in a film where such things as the small talk at family parties are shown in all the pettiness and nastiness that you would expect from such family meetings.

The ultimate tragedy of Juan's personal expression of Post Tenebras Lux seems almost anticlimactic as he waxes lyrical from what may, ultimately, prove to be his death bed. However, there is a death scene for one of the characters at the end of the film which is quite an eye opener and which both welcomes and simultaneously rejects the attitude that there is a dream state at play in the movie. The scene is of note, not because of the specific style of violent death on display here (which is a dime a dozen in terms of cinematic deaths) but because of the way this specific brand of death is achieved and the identity of the person doing it. It makes it pretty much unique in the history of cinema, as far as I am aware of it (and please somebody leave a comment if you know of a specific film where this happens in commercial cinema) and the aftermath lingers in your mind, accompanied as it is by a violent change in the weather which washes away some of the bloody aftermath in a deluge of stormy rain.

These things are enough to recommend the movie to most cine-literate people, I suspect, but I’ll just add in that the film is also quite challenging because of the insistence of the director to occasionally intercut scenes of an English high school rugby game at certain points, which seem a complete non sequitur in terms of the narrative flow of the movie and which makes the whole experience both less penetrable and, as a result of that, doubly intriguing. I’m really glad I picked this one up and am going to be sharing this with a few friends who are avid film devotees at some point soon. Definitely one to take a look at if you are in the mood for something which is, being quite frank about it, not a passive watch.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

British Cult Cinema: Hammer Fantasy & Sci Fi

Nailing Hammer

British Cult Cinema: Hammer Fantasy & Sci Fi
by Bruce G. Hallenbeck 
Hemlock Books
ISBN: 9780955777448

There’s both good and bad things about Bruce Hallenbeck’s 2011 book looking at these specific genres of output from the old Hammer Horror studios. One of the obvious positives of a tome such as this being that it’s rare for any book to focus quite so specifically on a subsection of Hammer films for which they are not the best known. Asides from a few crossover gems which also, it could be argued, fall into the category of horror... such as The Quatermass Xperiment (reviewed here), X - The Unknown (reviewed here), Quatermass 2 and Quatermass And The Pit (reviewed here), this book is dedicated to films which perhaps only the casual Hammer fans might know of and which are, perhaps, not something the general public at large would necessarily have in their minds when they come to think of the output of one of Britain’s most fondly remembered studios.

That this work is well written and, perhaps as importantly, entertaining as well as at least a little informative, is not in question. Hallenbeck weaves words without beating around the bush and leaves you with a very clear idea of just how things were going down on these kinds of movies... at least in the broadest sense. And that’s one of my major problems with this particular volume and one which I know also troubled a friend of mine quite recently when we “compared notes”, so to speak, on this particular volume... the lack of detail and in depth information on the Hammer movies this book focuses on is not as exhaustive as one might have expected for a volume of this kind.

The book’s big strength, that of context, is a bit of a double edged sword because it’s also, at least it seems to me, something which maybe contributes to the lack of exhaustive information throughout the page count. By that I mean, the writer has done a very good job, an excellent job in fact, of contextualising the films he is talking about by giving a brief history of the genre in cinema terms and then continually looking at what else was happening in the realm of science fiction and fantasy cinema at the time of whatever film he is talking about. This is great because it lets the novice film goer understand how certain things fit in to their place in cinematic history... for instance, it’s always good to be reminded that one of my favourite Hammer movies, Moon Zero Two (reviewed here), was released into cinemas the year after Kubrick’s seminal work of science fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It helps one keep things in perspective.

However, this does have the effect, and I know I’m not the only person to feel this way about this particular volume, of diluting the actual emphasis on the Hammer content which the book is supposed to be about. I don’t know if the book had a specific page count limit it had to stay within but I would have liked a lot more detailed analysis of the experience of working on all these things than we have here. A chapter or two on each movie, along with notes about the way the actors interacted with the directors, more detailed history of the censor cuts required, set design information and a full coverage of the creation of the scores to each one would really not have gone down badly. I appreciate that this kind of detail takes a while to research and that, the older these films get, the less eye witnesses to the original events we have, but I really did feel a little short changed while I was reading this, it has to be said.

The structure of the book, where similar projects are lumped in together, rather than give you the chronological history of a specific series in context to the other Hammer titles in this volume, such as certain of their prehistoric and Quatermass movies, was a tad annoying, especially since the writer did such a good job contextualising everything else around these things so nicely. But... that’s an aesthetic decision and one which I am sure was made for good reasons.

Asides from that, though, you have to hand it to this writer for really knowing how to engage the reader’s interest and, also, hearty congratulations are due for not lumping the Hammer Frankenstein films in with the science fiction output like certain documentary pieces have over the years... presumably because the directors of these things don’t have enough faith in just the specific sci-fi and fantasy titles Hammer produced. That being said, another of my favourite Hammer films, Four Sided Triangle, is not that well emphasised in its being a kind of “dry run” for the Frankenstein series, although it does at least compare it to the original source novel of the film... but since I’ve never been a big fan of Hammer’s attempts to bring Mary Shelley’s classic creation to life, I’m not complaining about it too much.

The impression I get from having only a smattering of knowledge about Hammer, just enough from having seen a fair number of their movies and reading a few books on the subject, is that this book has been put together with the absolute novice in mind, as opposed to someone who already has an active interest in this particular branch of the Hammer Family Tree... however, bearing in mind the start of the Marketing conscious title (if you look in a proper dictionary which doesn’t include silly made up new-fangled words from the 20th Century and later, you’ll realise there’s no such thing as “cult” movies anyway), the supposed target audience is already going to be familiar with most of the information garnered in this book. So I did find myself developing a bit of a split personality while reading this one, it has to be said.

This is not a bad book by any means... but neither is it the kind of resource I suspect the target audience would have hoped for in this slim tome, it has to be said. Ultimately, if you know next to nothing about Hammer or are studying the films in this book for an academic subject, this will do fine and, like a lot of these kinds of books over the last few years, it’s still a pretty essential volume for fans to have on their bookshelves, until something more thorough comes along. Tim Lucas’ book on Mario Bava, All The Colours Of The Dark, was pretty exhaustive in it’s coverage of a specific subject and I think the industry can learn a lot from that specific book, truth be told. Still, British Cult Cinema: Hammer Fantasy & Sci Fi is a reasonably priced read which beginners can use as a starting block to expand their knowledge from... so that’s pretty good. One to be recommended.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Q (aka Q - The Winged Serpent)


Q (aka Q - The Winged Serpent)
1982 USA 
Directed by Larry Cohen
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2

Well this is a curious little film I’ve just finally gotten around to seeing... after it being on my “to watch” list for a couple of decades. I was an admirer of this director’s famous “babies with teeth” trilogy It’s Alive, It Lives Again and It’s Alive III: Island Of The Alive which is, to be fair, equally confounding in its structure and tone. That trilogy was also a bit of a romp and I’m a sucker for those stop motion killer babies, even though they never look real (in much the same way that Ray Harryhausen’s creations never looked that real but you always made allowances because they were just so much gosh darned fun).

Q, for me, is a little bit more problematic.

It’s interesting because it starts with a flourish of brilliance in terms of the camerawork but, when the film starts proper, my first impulse was... “This is terrible.” However, it’s also quite compelling from a performance point of view and, coupled with the basic “1950s monster movie in 1980s clothes” appearance (or is that vice versa?), it makes for an uneven but never dull, treat.

The film opens with credits which are very clichéd in that they’re a roaming view of the streets of Manhattan from above... but then, as the credits finish, instead of just cutting to a new establishing shot, the camera kind of side-swipes left and we slam straight into a man on a rig cleaning windows on the side of a skyscraper. That was a pretty cool moment.  For me, that opening sleight of hand, which slightly shifts your perceptions of where the camera was filming from, is the most brilliant thing about this movie. As far as I’m concerned, it was all downhill from there but, like I said, it is kinda interesting.

The story, such as it is, starts off with a flying Aztecian serpent going around biting the heads off of random people, including the aforementioned window cleaner, who becomes a victim of its first “on screen” attack... although when I say “on screen”, the creature isn’t actually revealed in full until a little later. The film seems to be an “ahead of its time” homage to the 1950s monster movies which probably inspired it but, it’s not too long before the director is also revelling in the exploitation genre too, as we watch a toplesss and friskily endowed young lady sunbathing on top of her building and rubbing lotion onto herself... before she’s promptly chomped down as reptilian bird chow.

The story then changes tone and we get two things going on. On the one hand we have the introduction of David “Grasshopper” Carradine and Richard “Shaft” Roundtree as two detectives working the murders... which they will soon find is caused by Quetzlcoatl, the flying snake lizard thing. Simultaneously, we have an actor I’m really not that familiar with, called Michael Moriarty, who plays a small time, washed up crook. He messes up an audition playing piano which his girlfriend, played by Candy Clark, has fixed up for him. As a consequence of this, he is hired as a getaway driver on a diamond robbery but then gets roped in on the actual caper. Due to complications, he runs off by himself with the haul of diamonds (which he promptly loses when he gets hit by a car in busy traffic). When he runs from both the police and his fellow criminals, his fear and paranoia take him to the top of a skyscraper where he finds the nest and unhatched egg of the flying reptile... information which he keeps to himself.

From here on in, the different plot threads start coming together... kinda.

I don’t know. Although the film all makes sense, I did find it feeling like various scenes didn’t connect like they maybe should do... even though they clearly did. It might be because the film was shot very quickly... but it feels like, I don’t know how to say this properly so I’ll use an analogy. Remember those old polaroid cameras where you’d take a shot and the photograph would start developing when exposed to the air before your very eyes. Well this felt like that somewhat... but like you only got halfway through the developing process. You could see all of the picture but it looked kinda faded and only half glimpsed... somewhat. That’s how the movie “felt” to me.

The acting seems very naturalistic from both Moriarty and Carradine and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of that stuff turned out to be ad libbed while the cameras were rolling. In that way, the disjointed, fragmentary nature of the various character’s encounters, such as I perceived them, seems more Altmanesque, in some respects. Certainly, Moriarty and Carradine both put in amazing performances in this... it just didn’t quite feel like either of them were particularly relating much to other characters they encountered the way they should be. Roundtree is also, of course, excellent in this but he doesn’t get much air time.

The monster effects are a real throwback to low budget 1950s shenanigans and appear to be a combination of stop motion and puppetry. For most of the build up into the early parts of the story, the monster pretty much is not in shot when it strikes, and this is probably a wise move by Cohen so he doesn’t alienate his audience right from the outset, I suspect. There’s never really a moment in the film when you become scared by the antics of the title creature... least of all when its gulping down on unsuspecting extras or protagonists. Frankly, I didn’t really care or believe in any of the people in this film enough to worry if they came to a sticky end but there were some little moments which make the film worth a look sometime... asides from the excellent acting.

One of these is when we cut to a shot of a stray human leg fallen onto the streets as the crowd panics. I couldn’t help but snort in laughter and it’s one of the things that makes me think that Cohen is very much “in” on the joke in terms of the amount of parody and homage in the movie.

The other thing is a jump scare moment which, although I didn’t really register, I would imagine must have been a quite spectacular adrenalin rush moment when this was shown in cinemas in front of a large, paying audience who would be concentrating on the action. In this scene, Richard Roundtree is standing on the roof of a building and you are maybe expecting a monster to attack him... as it happens, I wasn’t, but I’m guessing that’s why this sequence and the one soon to follow (which I won’t talk about) play out the way they do. In this one though, a kite suddenly lands in Roundtree’s face from the side of the screen... must have been a pretty big jump moment in cinemas, I’ll bet.

Other than this though, I can’t say there’s much to recommend Q - The Winged Serpent... especially if you break it down into little bits like I just did. I know this movie has a very passionate and dedicated following of people but it seems I’m not one of them. It’s not a film I would highlight to most people but it is an interesting watch, perhaps, if you’re into acting as an art form in and of itself and/or interested in B movie monster homage. I’m certainly more in tune with the latter and I’m certainly glad I saw it... but I can’t imagine I’ll be revisiting it that often again in my life unless I need to hook back into it for research purposes. Still... really don’t take my word for it because I know some people out there love this movie... and you may be one of them.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

Tooth Of The Matter

Dogtooth (Kynodontas)
2009 Greece 
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Verve Pictures UK Blu Ray B

Dogtooth is a film which my tutor from my old Graphic Design Degree course, “back in the day”, has been recommending to me for a while now and I finally, courtesy of a cheap Blu Ray edition from Fopp Records, got to see this little masterpiece for myself.

There are some films which do a really good job of taking you into another world and painting that world with brush strokes so boldy that you find yourself totally immersed in it. Of course, all films do this to an extent but the world of Dogtooth is such that it is both an alien world full of its own dangers and challenges while, at the same time, being totally credible as something which could easily be happening right now at the periphery of our current society. It’s set in contemporary Greece but the world it sets out to define, and which gives the movie its shape, is the physical and psychological world created by an overzealously protective mother and father. 

The film basically has three main protagonists, a brother and two sisters, who are all in their late teens, or possibly slightly past that, who have never set foot outside the walls of their fathers house and gardens. They know very little of the outside world and their knowledge of it derives from an almost fairytale world (if the reality of their situation wasn’t so frightening) of a dangerous land where the ground must not be walked on and where small cats roam the world looking to devour the flesh of children.

We are first introduced to the world these three inhabit... against their will if they were only familiar with the concept... by the latest tape of words their mother has given them to learn. Here we get our first glimpse of the idea that something really isn’t right because the words they are given are words associated with things they might pick up by accident should their existence be contaminated by “the land beyond”... but they are given completely false definitions and are contextualised for the “children” with sentences that use them in deliberately false ways. This is a theme which is a constant thread throughout the movie where we will see this “educational programme” used to both push the otherness and alienation of the main protagonists and also, on occasion... although it’s a pretty somber film... for comic effect. So when a specific word is used for, say, salt, we are grimly reminded of the draconian rule in which their father, the only household member to leave his compound, in his car, to go to his day job each day, has placed them. Similarly, when the son, who is cutting the lawn, tells his mum he’s just found two zombies, the comic tone of his finding two yellow flowers and using the hurried, cover up definition of the word his mother has given him in an earlier scene, is a constant reminder of the world in which he lives. 

There’s stranger stuff far above and beyond this specific symptom of the world which the writers and director have conjured up for the audience but... I don’t want to spoil all this for you. You’ll want to slowly piece it all together for yourself.

Problems start to occur, however, when the security guard the father brings in for the son’s sexual needs every week, starts to unwittingly contaminate the attitudes and vocabularies of the son and his sisters. When the security guard gets no real pleasure from their encounters herself, she starts to bring in the concept of cunnilingus to one of the sisters and the influence of her inadvertent challenges to their world spreads like a virus. She is only in a few scenes dotted throughout the movie but her destructive and liberating influence on the household takes effect in a subversive but most brutal manner.

There are moments of cold violence which come out and manifest themselves in the movie at odd times and which serve as a testament to the fact that the world the parents have constructed for their children is far more terrible than anything their kids would have growing up in a normal environment and, as the film continues, we also realise that things are just not quite right with the father, who’s own brand of punishment and sense of justice is also both surprising and violent in nature. In one scene where he is punishing his daughter for watching a “contraband” video of Rocky IV (the only films that are supposed to exist for entertainment in the world the parents have created are home movies of their past), I was certainly hoping that only one take of the shot was needed to get it because, frankly, you shouldn’t be treating your actresses this way.

This was especially disconcerting to me, although the actress was probably okay with it, when it comes to the fact that the movie would not look out of place if the director was trying to adhere to Lars Von Trier’s Dogme brand of film making. There’s no music other than source music and it’s all shot in mostly static set ups, from what I remember, apart from when “the kids” are in their garden where the camera tends to get the handheld treatment as this is often where the conflicts of the film take place. The film looks like it’s been shot practically with no CGI effects (that I could detect)... relying on cutting from cause to effect scenes of violence or using props which will generate their own blood spray if required. This, of course, adds to the stark brutality of the film in that the kind of effects used, also limits the violence in the movie to being those where it will look less over the top in relation to what the characters are doing to each other... which just makes it more potent. I was kind of numb towards a lot of it, truth be told, because of the “stealth ninja” mode the director uses when it comes to the outbursts of violence and conflict in its placement in certain scenes. However, I imagine if you see a movie like this in a darkened theatre, it would be a pretty intense experience.

It pleased me immensely that, while I could kind of see that the dystopia/perceived utopia that was artifically constructed by the parents would have to have a downfall or, at the very least, have some large cracks appearing... the movie didn’t quite end in the way it could have done and the director leaves the nature of any sense of closure in the movie in the hands of the audience. It’s one of those films that gives you all the elements and pointers of where the story is going and then stops it dead just before those events reach a point of culmination. You know, right from the start, that the story of the five inhabitants of this house (six if you count the imaginary brother who lives on the other side of the fence) is not going to end well. Tell tale signs like the children having no idea of a sense of distance and perspective (if a plane falls in the garden, the first one to reach it can have it and put it in their toy collection), a grandfather who sings to them (a Frank Sinatra record) and a dance scene which is, frankly, an absolutely amazing thing to watch (the actress doing this must have felt really silly but it’s one of the most captivating scenes of its kind in modern cinema history, I’ll wager) all indicate a reality which the parents won’t be able to completely cover up for... like the mother does when, for instance, a word on the sleeve of a pornographic video she has carelessly left out is brought into question. 

The performances by Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou and Mary Tsoni, the main protagonists of the film, are all excellent and go beyond what you would expect from what an actor would have to try and characterise in his or her daily job. They are ably supported by Christos Stergioglou as the father and Michele Valley as the mother, with a beautiful, almost deadpan performance by Anna Kalaitzidou as Christina, the security guard/prostitute who unwittingly sows the seeds of rebellion in one of the children. If you haven’t seen Dogtooth and you are a fan of cinema in general, then you really don’t want to miss this one which is, frankly, a bit of a modern masterpiece and it’s certainly no wonder it’s won so many prizes for the cast and crew in so many festivals, including the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Definitely make yourself an opportunity to see this one. It’s what cinema is all about... transporting us to different worlds, even when that world is a hidden world variant of the one we already live in.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The X From Outer Space

Guilala Land

The X From Outer Space
1967 Japan 
Directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu
Shôchiku/Criterion US DVD Region 1
As part of “When Horror Came To Shôchiku” box set.

Wow. What can I say to start off this review other than, from a film which is part of a boxed set of Criterion films called When Horror Came To Shôchiku... I was expecting more of a scary movie to be honest. At least in intent, if not in the final presentation. However, sitting through what, for a Japanese movie of this nature, is an unexpectedly silly and almost intolerable cheesy opening credits song, made me wonder just what it was I was letting myself in for here.

As I started watching, signs were good that this would be some kind of IT! The Terror From Beyond Space/Alien kind of variant... with a smallish monster at loose on a rocket ship eating its way through various crew members. Right from the start of the movie, the plot seems to be going in that kind of direction, to be sure. It starts off dealing with a Japanese rocket crew, plus token American babe (you always have a few American or British actors in your cast at this point in time if you want to try and distribute your product overseas), who are launched into space towards Mars. They even have a second ship which flies out of their initial rocket via a front opening into four pieces, just like the one in the previous year’s box office smash You Only Live Twice (reviewed here), which also owed a lot to the designer of the clutch pencil. The hope for our crew here is that their mission will finally be the one that will, this time, get past the pesky UFOs which patrol the route to Mars and which have caused all the Earth’s previous rockets to crash or fail in their missions.

No, I’m not making that bit up and, it has to be mentioned here that Japanese films of this kind at the time were always making assumptions that their audience would not find a casual belief in space aliens from their highest scientific minds and intrepid heroes in any way... credibility straining. It’s just something everybody seemed to accept back then... like, it’s no big deal. I guess if you’re not familiar with these kinds of kaiju eiga films, for that’s what this eventually turns out to be, then you may find this open admission of common UFO activity a little strange, to say the least. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself again.

Our intrepid crew do actually meet the dreaded UFO on the way to Mars and one of their number is injured. So they postpone their trip to Mars and spend a night at a handy, well populated space station on the Moon. Here they chat and meet up with various colleagues and friends and then, the next day, set off with a replacement crew member on their mission again. This time they fail more spectacularly when attacked by a UFO but are rescued by their friends on the moon who send out a rescue rocket. During the process they collect some kind of weird space fluff sample, taking it with them back to Earth for further analysis.

Now so far we are something like a third to a half of the way through the movie and the majority of the scenes that make up the running time have been scored with the most ludicrous and unbelievably inappropriate music I’ve possibly ever heard for a film score. It’s deliriously upbeat and loungy, even when it’s being used to score scenes of suspense. I honestly can’t find the words to explain just how ham fisted and clumsy the scoring sounds on this one. Very strange.

However, it’s at this point that the film shows its true colours for, when it’s left improperly supervised, the furry sample of space flotsam grows itself into what is, it has to be said, a quite improbably looking giant monster which then goes off on a giant Gojira-like stomping tour of Tokyo. And it’s a pretty tough, if silly looking beast, it has to be said. It’s in the scenes of common or garden monster stomping that the film’s soundtrack cuts to a much more  appropriate, if not particularly complex or changeable, stomp style ostinato, which is definitely inspired from similar melodies and rhythms found in the best kaiju eiga movies by the likes of Akira Ifikube and Masaru Sato. This musical phrasing is then repeated ad infinitum whenever the monster is on and doing typically monster-like things. However, when our heroes find a purpose once more, it’s crosscut between cues scored like the first half of the movie and then back again to the plodding, monster stomp motifs... so it does get a bit jarring in those transitions, it has to be said.

That purpose being to go up into space yet again (what is this, a serial?) and use the special equipment they have on the moon to make something to combat the monster in question... known as Guilala, for some unknown reason. However, although he looks quite silly, we know he must be the real deal because he has a grumbling signature sound when he’s out on a decent night’s stomping and he also has special, kaiju powers. One of those powers being that he can absorb energy and, when he has enough of it, he turns himself into some kind of floaty, flying egg of destruction before crashing into a body of water and reverting to the former of his three forms... a less floating, non flying, stomp monster of destruction.

It goes without saying that our heroes are going to win out and reduce Guilala into something which resembles an actor in monster suit who accidentally filled his costume with an abundance of shaving foam but, it has to be said, the situations our team of lively scientists put themselves through in this movie just keep getting sillier and sillier... almost as silly as the opening title song, in fact.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about The X From Outer Space, I’m afraid. A short review I know but I’m a big lover of these kinds of giant monster movies and, while this is not among the most boring or the worst of them it’s... well... it’s not among the best of them either, to be completely honest with you. Give me Invasion Of The Astro Monsters or King Kong Escapes any day of the week as far as I’m concerned. However, if you are as gung ho about your Japanese giant monster movies as I am then you’d probably have to count this as one of, I’m sure, many reasons for purchasing Criterion Eclipse’s When Horror Came To Shochiku DVD set. When all is said and done, though I’d not recommend this particular movie to the casual fan, I am very glad to have seen it, you can be sure of that.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Another Earth

Sphere Pressure

Another Earth
2011 USA 
Directed by Mike Cahill
Fox Searchlight UK DVD Blu Ray B

Warning: Slight spoilers on the set up, 
mostly found in the trailer anyway.

Another Earth is the previous feature made by the same guy who gave us the recent cinema release I raved about called I Origins (reviewed here). It stars Brit Marling, who also co-wrote this... just as she did another film with her in it, called The East (reviewed here). It’s a film I really wanted to see when it was originally released in the cinemas over here in the UK but, like a lot of US independents (the ones that get any kind of release over here at all) it only lasted a week at the cinema and I missed it. But I Origins reminded me about this film and with some extra prompting from @sawlady on twitter (the gal who plays the musical saw on this film’s soundtrack), I sought out a cheap Blu Ray and am really glad I decided to acquaint myself with this movie properly.

I’ve often mentioned this before in some of my reviews, I’m sure, but there are a lot of science fiction movies which are just an excuse for B movie Western shenanigans in a specific, conceptual reality...  and then there’s the really good science fiction which is more in line with what the best literary sci-fi does... which is to use a science fiction concept to explore something which is a magnification of a real life concern. If you want to explore an emotional issue like the spectre of loneliness or a human failing like a reliance on drugs or alcohol, or a world of other things, then you can use a sci-fi concept to push the analogy you’re exploring to a point where you couldn’t get to if you were just surrounded by the trappings of a normal drama.

That’s what Another Earth does. It’s the best kind of sci-fi. It takes a concept which is, to be fair, way more in your face on the trailer than it is in the movie. This is then used to inform the drama rather than exist as its own phenomenon, utilising the premise to expand where the characters can go with their emotions in a way a normal dramatic movie couldn’t.

The film starts off with a science major called Rhoda (played by the aforementioned Brit Marling) about to embark on a promising career (do all of Mike Cahill’s movies start off with a party scene?). As she drives home one night she hears the announcement that a new planet, what looks like an identical match for Earth, has appeared in the Universe and will be getting closer to our orbit over the next few years or so. She looks up out of the car window as she is speeding along to try and catch a glimpse of the new planet. Parked in another car is a composer, John (played by William Mapother), who is in his car with his wife and very young son. As Rhoda looks up at the heavens her car speeds straight into John’s in a head on collision. She escapes the wreck but there’s no signs of life from the anyone in the other car... nor from the dead toddler she stands over in the road.

Cut to a few years down the line. Rhoda gets released from prison where she has been doing time for manslaughter as a result of the crash. She is a depressed, guilty individual who lives at home and wanders about day by day as though she is a almost a zombie... her joy of life crushed by the horrible accident. She takes a job at a high school as a cleaner (although her employment adviser reminds her that she is so smart she could get a really good job) and that’s pretty much her life. Until she finds out that, although John’s wife and child were killed in the crash, John himself was just in a coma for a few months and is living not too far away. She goes to seek him out to apologise for wrecking his life (as well as her own) but ends up not telling him, posing as a cleaner, and getting an unpaid job (only she knows she is not getting paid) where she goes to clean his house every week. The two get to know each other and bond but Rhoda has not yet told him her terrible secret.

While all this is happening, the science fiction concept of a second Earth is gently playing in the background. When a lady at NASA finally gets through to the other planet, she is greeted by the equally startled same lady from NASA on the receiving end, who she quickly discovers has an identical life to her own, including small details of circumstance. A trip is planned to take a crew of explorers to the other Earth and Rhoda enters an essay competition to win a seat there. Presumably, the same thing is happening on the other version of the planet. Everybody is faced with the fact that they have a carbon copy who has lived exactly the same life on another planet except... and here’s the thing... the sudden appearance and awareness of each other’s planet changes things and, from the moment they became aware of each other, that’s when people’s timelines on each planet began to deviate from each other. So the question for Rhoda is... did the accident even happen on the other Earth? Did John’s wife and son survive on this other planet and, if so, how will all this impact on her new, developing romantic relationship with the man whose wife and son she inadvertently killed?

Another Earth is a beautifully shot film and it’s one of those pieces of cinematic art which understands very well that less dialogue and long periods of reflection without words can say so much more, sometimes, than the current popular style of "overly talky" cinema. It touches at both the heart and the mind of the audience at the same time and, as a result, it’s truly breathtaking and inspiring. There’s some real nice uses of colour and composition, especially in the early car sequence where the director utilises cool shots which are fractured through reflective and transparent surfaces. Truly lovely stuff.

This film, as you may have figured out by now, is a film about atonement and, with the dangling carrot of another world filled with identical people with identical personalities, there’s even a possibility of partial redemption for Rhoda’s character at some point down the line... which is, of course, an element to the drama the writers and actors would not be able to explore without the presence of a science fiction concept lurking at the heart of the story and, like I said... Another Earth is good science fiction. Soft science fiction like Philip K. Dick might have written, for sure, but that just means it’s the best kind of science fiction there is, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s also extremely well acted, well edited, has a nicely appropriate score (that goes on my Christmas list, I think) and, as I implied earlier, its very much a film which is a good example of the cinema of reflection. Quite frankly, if you want someone who is a fantastic actress but who can also just stand around looking thoughtful and be the one presence in a frame you just can’t take your eyes off, then I think Hollywood should be waking up to the fact at some point that Brit Marling is definitely your go-to girl for this kind of stuff. Absolutely astounding actress and someone who I shall definitely be looking out for in future movies... I usually just crush on following the directors and composers unless both the acting and screen presence of a performer is extra special and Marling has “that kind of special” in spades, if you ask me.

So there you go. Another Earth. Astonishing movie and a very strong and firm recommendation from this reviewer. One of the best movies I’ve seen all year and I really regret, now, missing it at cinemas on its first run release. Grab a look as soon as you get an opportunity.