Friday, 22 May 2015

Island Of Terror




Confounded? Try Silicate!

Island Of Terror (aka Night Of The Silicates)
UK 1966
Directed by Terence Fisher
Odeon Entertainment (for Planet Films) 
Blu Ray Region B

Warning: Slight spoilers but nothing which 
should really diminish your enjoyment of this movie.

One of the things I love about the current Blu Ray and DVD release landscape in the UK is the discovery of movies I really should have been tuned into as a kid but which, somehow, managed to escape me. Such a release is the new UK Blu Ray of the 1966 Terence Fisher movie Island Of Terror. Now Fisher is a director who is probably on the radar of pretty much anyone who’s interested in British movies made in the Science Fiction and Horror genres... most famously for the movies he shot for Hammer films such as Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula and reviewed by me here) and the excellent Four Sided Triangle (reviewed by me here). He also directed one of my all time favourite British sci-fi/horror tales, The Earth Dies Screaming, which I would recommend to all of my readers and which definitely falls into the realm of what I have often called on here, my much loved ‘comfort horror’ films.

Island Of Terror is, from now on, also one of these much loved comfort horror films I will occasionally reach for but, I should probably warn the faint of heart when it comes to certain people who like to take their horror straight up and as it comes, that it’s also badly written and falls quite comfortably into that realm of cinematic entertainment known as... the unintentionally hilarious movie.

The film starts off with some amazing script outbursts which show the inhabitants of an island village at their harbour, each second passing including samples of dialogue which absolutely highlights how cut off from the world they are, even to the point where ‘the company’ hasn’t even bothered to put phones on the island for the last two years. It’s a smallish community and even the local police force seems to be a force of one - Constable John Harris played by Sam Kydd. We then cut to a scene of some of the most incomprehensible sci-fi techno babble I've heard committed to celluloid, which I’m sure even the scriptwriters probably didn’t understand and made up without any kind of research, as a team of scientists in a secluded manor house on the island start their next experiment involving Strontium 90 and a load of lab equipment. All in a quest to discover the cure for cancer. The pseudo-science dialogue is quite outrageously bad, even for a movie like this, and would have took some rehearsing to get it to roll off the tongue like that, I’ll bet.

We then get a credit sequence where my ears stood up and took note. I’d not consciously heard any other movies scored by this composer except one and, as they music played out, I just had time enough to say to somebody in the room that... this sounds a little like the music to the first Dr. Who And The Daleks movie... before the music credits came up. Music by Malcolm Lockyear with sound effects by Barry Gray, who people will know as the musical team behind that first Dalek movie and, in Barry Gray’s case, the composer of many of the Gerry Anderson TV shows such as Joe 90, Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds, Space 1999 (Season 1) and the like. So I was quite pleased to be able to identify Lockyear’s trademark style when I’d only ever heard his stuff on that first Dalek film, to my knowledge. That being said, when the music was playing on the menu screen, the other person in the room with me suggested the film must be a comedy, from the sound of the score. Nope, it’s not a comedy... well, not intentionally, anyway, but I’ll come back to this point with the music a little later, I think.

Pretty soon, a man goes into a cave and we hear his screams. When he’s discovered by Sam Kydd and taken to one of the three male main protagonists of the film, Dr. Landers (played by Eddie Byrne), it becomes apparent that the rubbery husk of the remains has somehow had the bones stripped from the body. Oh no! Is it a virus? Landers takes advantage of the only boat a week that leaves (or some such, they really do keep emphasising how cut off the population of the island is at any opportunity) to go to London to enlist the aide of his friend Dr. Stanley, played by the legendary Peter Cushing. Stanly takes Landers to meet the lothario Dr. West (played by Edward Judd) who agrees, along with Dr. Stanley to accompany Dr. Landers back to the island to investigate the body.

But how to get there?

Well, West’s girlfriend Toni (played by the lovely Carole Gray) has a rich father and she secures a helicopter ride back to the island... on condition that she can accompany them. Unfortunately, she only accompanies them to be a paper thin character frequently put in peril, assist exposition and help out with the villagers while the men do all the interesting stuff but... hey ho... that’s what you expect from this kind of movie, I guess. Of course, it then transpires that her father will need the helicopter again the very next morning... so the four of them are dropped off on the island and the helicopter agrees to return in a few days... because it’s really important to the plot that everyone in the audience knows they are cut of from the rest of the world on this island for a number of days, right?

And then, amost immediately, the whole film gets really great and when our intrepid heroes go to investigate the Manor House containing the island’s experimental scientific community... they find them all in an equally dead and rubbery state, their bones sucked from their bodies. It doesn’t take long for our heroes to discover that the scientific experiments to cure cancer inadvertently brought forth a rock based, amoeba like creature with a long tentacle that can sting you and suck the very skeleton from you in a very small amount of time. Oh... so it wasn’t a virus after all then? Okay that’s good.

From here on the film turns into a standard monster combat situation, as our heroes learn in no uncertain terms that the silicates (as they call them) split after they’ve eaten some bones (belonging to the odd horse or human, for instance) and multiply with great rapidity. Our three scientists, aided only by West’s girlfriend, the short lived constable and a bunch of “Oh, arrr” local villagers, have only a day at most to stop the total annihilation of the population of the island by the increasing numbers of silicates. As one of the villagers said to another, in a piece of dialogue that says everything about this movie in terms of its scripting... “There’s some peculiar goings on, going on, on this island.” Not sure if that’s the right punctuation  for that sentence or not but... no, I’m not making this stuff up.

Oh wait. Did I say ‘standard’ monster combat situation. Well, this movie is anything but standard and although the script is quite bad and giggle inducing at regular intervals, it’s... well, it’s pretty well made for starters. There’s some really nice things happening with the composition of the shots and the director uses the varied heights of people to make diagonal patterns and pyramid shapes within the set ups... which works really well and might well be a signature trait of the director since I’m sure I’ve picked up on that element of his films before.

The other thing this movie has got going for it, apart from some brilliant actors and actresses in it who you wouldn’t believe would ever want to attempt to bring these almost unsayable lines to life, is a certain unpredictable quality to it. It’s not a film which sticks completely to a formula and, though the elements of peril and much laboured sense of jeopardy are hitting pretty standard riffs, things suddenly happen in this film that you just don’t expect to see... like the unexpected death of one of the three doctor heroes about half way through the movie (and no, I’m not going to tell you which one that is).

There’s another quite amazing moment which completely contradicts what we know about the physiology of the silicate monsters but is a nice scene, nevertheless... where Peter Cushing’s character gets a tentacle around his wrist and is being pulled towards a silicate. Edward Judd’s character reacts as quickly as he feels the audience can keep up with and grabs an axe, moving towards the silicate... and, just when you expect him to cut the tentacle off the creature, he chops off Cushing’s hand instead. Apparently this particular scene was trimmed in a few countries, including here in the UK, to delete the spurting of blood from Cushing’s stump. However, I’m happy to confirm that this Blu Ray reinstates the second or two shot... which was previously only available in a German DVD release of the movie, from what I can make out.

Even the possible cure to the silicate problem, which I won’t go into here, involves the heroes sacrificing all the cattle on the island to the creatures in order for their mad scheme to work... which is kinda brutal and ruthless even for a modern horror film, when you stop and think about it, let alone something which hit the cinemas in 1966. So all in all, the less than predictable way in which a lot of the plot unfolds is quite stand out and it certainly had me scratching my head, in a good way, at times.

Less good is the amount of padding in this movie. It’s not  long affair but a lot of the film seems like it’s lingering unnecessarily in scenes to fill out the running time. For instance, when the helicopter leaves our heroes on the island we are treated to a long, held shot as it flies off into the distance for a while. The music tries hard to make this long, drawn out static shot sound a bit more exciting but, sad to say, and going back to the comment made about the film looking like it was a comedy, the soundtrack does seem like inappropriate scoring for the majority of the movie. it would be great as a stand alone listen, I’m sure (although I’m also sure we’ll never get the chance) but as support to the movie, it’s heavy rather than robust a lot of the time.

Similar scene padding comes when Cushing and Judd go to collect a load of Strontium 90 from the Manor House. We are treated to a long scene of them putting on their protective radiation suits which takes far longer than it should and, sad to say, looks like each actor is wearing a giant condom over their head. I know the characters want to stay safe but that’s not the kind of safe I was expecting from them, to be honest.

While I’m at it though, I noticed a probable cut scene too, that doesn’t seem to have made the final version of the film. In once scene, where Judd is addressing the village community, he talks about running one of the creatures over... well I can probably hazard a guess as to where this scene would have been but it’s certainly not referring to anything that happens in the movie as it was released... so that’s a bit of a worry. Also, a quick note to anybody fighting monsters... if you’re going to throw Molotov cocktails at rock creatures, don’t stand directly under a tree which happens to have one in it. Just a little word of advice there.

And that’s all I got on this one. The ending is... well it’s a bit more predictable than some films I’ve seen Fisher work on but there's a little punchline of an ending, where one of the characters says the truly groan inducing line... “We’re lucky this was an island. If it had happened anywhere else I don't think we could have destroyed them.”... takes us to a scientific research team in Japan,  obviously working on a similar problem and getting killed offscreen by a similar ‘accidental creature.’ It’s all happening in this movie but it makes for an incredibly corny ending, I must say.

All that being said, though, I absolutely loved Island Of Terror and have no hesitation in recommending it to pretty much anyone who loves these old British B movies and it’s one I’ll no doubt watch a fair few times in my life, now I know it exists. Not a hard release to love and I certainly hope there are a lot more of those kinds of movie coming from wherever they dug this one up from. I’ll be happy to stand in line for them.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Blood for Irina




Rising Vamp

Blood for Irina
USA 2012
Directed by Chris Alexander
Autonomy Pictures 
DVD Region 2

Wow. You know, that old adage advising that, if you don’t have anything good to say about something, you should probably not say it at all? It's one I do tend to subscribe to as a general rule... although there are occasional exceptions. It’s an attitude I support but, due to me having a review blog for the last five years, it’s something I’ve had to wrestle with sometimes. When a film doesn’t have much good in it that I can find to shout out as a positive then the decision, in those kinds of cases, has to be, really, just tell it like it is. There’s no sense in trying to hold yourself to a certain standard of critical insight or viewpoint if you’re going to run away at the first sign of anything bad you have to say and so... it’s in that spirit that I intend to write a short review for this film. Even though I was tempted to just walk away and forget about it.

This one first came to my attention when I saw it on the shelf at Fopp records earlier in the year. Blood For Irina is a brilliant sounding title and this was coupled with a cover showing the lower face of a vampire lady with blood dripping down it. It piqued my curiosity somewhat but it was the price tag of being only £4 which was the real clincher in the deal. So obviously I stacked it on the small pile of visual treasures I was already planning to purchase because, hey, at £4 you can’t really go wrong, right?

Wrong.

If I’ve learnt one lesson from this experience it’s that, even the most seductive looking packaging and lack of expense in a product can sometimes add up to a bad buy. I can’t say I regret purchasing this movie because, if I didn’t, I’ll always be looking out to grab a copy sometime but, honestly, it was a hard film to concentrate on and sit still for.

It opens okay, though, with a shot of blood dripping into water and ultimately, after a while, turning the screen a kind of orange colour. Actually, the director seems obsessed with any shots he can get of various fluids... be they blood or water... dripping into, onto or off of something throughout the entire length of the film,. Then we get the title of the movie followed by a shot of a child’s plastic toddler doll on some pebbles with, I think, a slight and almost imperceptible slow zoom out ... presumably taken on a beach somewhere. We then find ourselves with the vampire lady of the title but... it has to be said, she really isn’t doing much. And she doesn’t do much quite frequently, at the expense of pretty much all else, throughout the film’s short running time of 70 minutes. Irina seems to be a creature existing in two modes... one in where she’s constantly bending over her sink and vomiting up blood, indicating that she’s definitely on her way out as a vampire... and the other where she’s kind of walking around looking for prey and just generally posing in slow motion for her unseen audience.

There’s hardly any dialogue in this film with the only words spoken being occasional voice over; muffled and distorted sound bites from Irina to try and inform the audience... but inform us of what? The rest is, as I've said, mostly just shots of the main character as she walks around a bit. To be fair, the film is trying to convey a certain mood and a lot of it is handled with long, slow, static master shots with cuts to the next set up... there’s hardly any camera movement at all in the opening section of the movie, for example. Then we start getting more slow zooms and some of the shots do have interesting lightning schemes but, almost to counter that, either the stock the film has been shot on (maybe digital video?) or the way the images have been processed really do not help with the overall look the DP might have got with this stuff and ultimately, it has to be said, it just looks fairly cheap, nasty and way too “high definition” for the kind of moodiness they’re going for. At least it seems that way to me.

And, as I said... nothing much happens...

A dead body is found and stabbed with a pole by someone who doesn’t make much sense in the narrative as it stands... possibly a guardian-like figure for the title character? I couldn’t really tell, since there’s no dialogue except the odd, distorted monologue from Irina, as I mentioned above. She might say, for instance... “I remember...” and that’s the way we’re supposed to tell that a particular sequence is supposed to be a flashback... I think. Then it’s the odd shot of the doll on the pebbles again and then more throwing up of blood in the sink. It’s not that the images don’t flow into a linear whole, I think... it’s just that they don’t really say anything or have much meaning, it seems to me, than a bunch of actors posing for a camera because everyone thinks it looks good.

The “deleted footage” which comes as an extra on the disc perhaps provides a clue to why this film is as it is... because the out-takes I’m thinking of are a standard dialogue kind of scene between the main character Irina (played by Shauna Henry) and another actor and... it’s not particularly good. I’m wondering if the director went with the idea of just doing the film as a bunch of wandering visuals that don’t do much because he maybe sensed he was losing the battle in the dialogue sequences and maybe felt he needed to drastically change the shape of the way the movie worked rather than piece together some not so greatly acted scenes.. and then altered the way he was shooting the movie to adapt to this decision. I don’t know if that’s at all true, I might be completely wrong, but that’s my best guess.

And I really don’t have much else to say about the movie. It’s been compared to the cinematic styles of both Jean Rollin and Jess Franco but, seriously, it’s nothing like able to capture any of their occasional magic and if I hadn’t been clued into that then I would never had any way of knowing that this is the kind of thing the director was going for... if, indeed, that is what he was going for.  It’s a bit of a mess, to be honest, which makes me wonder how there’s actually a sequel to this movie been made somehow. I’m curious to see how it could possibly follow on from anything much in this one and, all I can say is, given the strength of this one, I suspect my curiosity will probably roll over and die before I get anywhere near to purchasing said sequel.

Another thing which detracts from this movie, big time, is the musical score by the director himself, which is certainly competent enough as music but it seems to be holding its own against the visuals rather than either working with them or giving them emotional shape... so it doesn’t do the movie any favours.

Ultimately, I can’t honestly recommend this movie to even lovers of vampire cinema. I love the idea of a beautiful vampire lady wandering the streets with no dialogue and savouring the richness of the shot compositions but, honestly, this is not a great attempt at trying to capture the sublime emotional ennui that this style of cinema can, and sometimes does, achieve. I’m sorry this review is so damning... more sorry than I was writing this than having to sit through the thing... so my apologies to all involved because I know how hard these things must be to make. Vampire movies can be a hard thing to get right and this one looks like an honourable try which had some production issues along the way... at least, it looks that way to me. Like I said at the start of this review though, I have to call things as I see them and that’s about all I can do with this one. Move right along... nothing to see here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Mad Max - Fury Road




Furioser and Furiosa

Mad Max - Fury Road
2015  Australia/USA
Directed by George Miller 
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so the reason I just spent some time over the last few weeks watching the Mad Max Trilogy (reviewed here, here and here) was so that I could bring myself up to speed on the latest installment, Mad Max: Fury Road. Now there has been a lot of good word of mouth on this film with some people even suggesting that it’s similar to the cinema of Kurosawa in its execution and influence... well, it’s really not ‘Kurosawa good’ and I wish people wouldn’t evoke my favourite director every time they want to say they really quite like something.

On the other hand, this is certainly an okay film and, for the most part, it follows through in the spirit of the first two films of the original trilogy... so there’s that. Also, I needed to see this one in IMAX 3D... not because I was particularly bothered about seeing the spectacle on an extra large screen, but because there was no way I could pass up the chance to ask the person in the box office for a ticket to IMAX MAD MAX... it had to be done and it was worth the six quid extra on top of the Unlimited card to be able to say that phrase out loud to someone.

The film does, however, truly look quite spectacular, even using the cliched orange/blue colour scheme that the director plumped for in this one. And it’s full of action.... perhaps a little too much for many people’s tastes. I know one lady, for instance, who labelled it a kids movie due to the lack of both emotional content and story. Personally, I didn’t think the movie lacked a strong emotional element at all... and it had a heck of a lot more of that than in the original trilogy, especially in terms of the chemistry between Max, played in this one by popular actor Tom Hardy, and the new female action hero Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It helps the ‘action movie shorthand’ if you have two really good actors doing these things, of course.

Yes, there is a lack of anything but the simplest mission objective of a plot but, although I can understand the irritation of that to some people, it’s certainly one of the strongest links between this and the first two movies... which also shared a common lack of vision when it came to the story telling, although not to the detriment of either film. If you read my review of the third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, in fact, you’ll find I was citing the more complicated plotting as one of the reasons why that film didn’t really work too well in terms of spiritual continuity with the others. This new film is a lot more like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in terms of content...although the visual style is a world apart. I’ll get to that in a minute.

What we basically have in this film, and why it fits right into the Mad Max universe that Miller has created and maintained all these years, is the last 20 minutes or so of that second movie stretched out to make one, long car chase of a movie. There’s hardly any let up or pause between set pieces and this does make it a little more weaker as a film in some respects, than one or two of its predecessors. That being said, I got a real feel that this is where Miller wanted to take the Mad Max films all along and you have to remember that modern cinema has changed a lot in the intervening years since the original trilogy. Back in the day it was probably cinematic suicide to make one long movie which was just, basically, a big chase scene. These days, when action films just keep getting more and more over the top in their execution and with audiences demanding the kind of visual overload that goes with this style of presentation, I suspect the director finally felt like he could make the kind of movies that he always wanted to and...  in the way he wanted to. So...

The good
Well, the colours are fantastic, despite the aforementioned predominant hues... and it’s a real eye candy movie in terms of both the colours and the inventiveness of Miller’s post apocalyptic vision. There’s some beautiful lightning in a scene where Max, Furiosa and their cargo of beauties (I won’t bother to explain that, go see the film) are driving at night  and so everything is washed in blue light, even Max and Furiosa in the front two seats. In the back seats, however, the ladies who are accompanying them, have a lamp on and that creates a contrasting set of colours in the back seat of the vehicle... all pitched against the other colour scheme within the same frame. So that’s really good. And the surrealistic element of the landscapes and the kinds of Daliesque people who inhabit them are pretty interesting too.

Actually, I say it’s MIller’s post apocalyptic vision but one of the people who wrote it and drew concepts for it, back in the 1990s as it turns out... but still with his story and ideas being retained now due to production problems in the long road to... err... Fury Road, is comic book artist Brendan McCarthy. I used to read his work in popular British comic 2000AD and, although he didn’t create the comic book character I am about to cite, it has to be said that the look of the Charlize Theron character Imperator Furiosa does owe a visual debt to Mean Machine Angel from the Judge Dredd strip in the 1980s. In fact, the film is so action packed (at the expense of everything else) and colourful that I believe it would be fair to say the whole movie is infused with a comic book sensibility and so McCarthy’s involvement in the project does explain certain things, in that sense. In terms of design and colour, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Max.

There’s a scene in this where Max has to give Furiosa a makeshift blood transfusion with a needle and so, at one point in the proceedings, it gets to a point which I can only describe as having a Fury With A Syringe On Top moment. Yay! I nearly used that for the title of this review but I didn't so, forgive me, I had to work it into the text somehow.

The Bad
Well, when I reviewed Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome I moaned that the cinematography in that one, utilising lots of camera movement, was out of keeping with the often static shot set ups of the original two films. Alas, this film embraces that kind of moving camera vibe to it all the way through... but I think I can forgive it somewhat because, for one thing, it’s more or less just one long action sequence and so moving camera is appropriate. Also, like I said, modern action cinema is a different beast to the celluloid milieu that Miller was filming in back in the 1970s and 1980s and, though I prefer that slower approach to film, I can’t fault Miller’s choice to go with what he’s done here.

The Ugly
Okay... so there’s been a lot of talk about where this film fits into the original chronology, with even George Miller citing it as a reboot. That being said, I think it’s obvious, to me anyway, that it’s a natural sequel to the third movie and takes place after that. More or less the same opening explanation (and footage) of the current state of the post-apocalyptic future our main hero finds himself in that graced the opening of the second movie, in most prints, is used here. But the character still has his leg brace due to wounds received in the first movie, he still has the iconic jacket with the left arm now stitched up where it was torn and he has long hair like he did in the third movie at the start of this one... so I reckon it’s just a natural sequel, The thing that did confuse me were the constant, dream-state flashbacks to people in his past, his family apparently, who didn’t look or sound anything like that in the original movie. So that’s kind of confusing.

All said and done, Miller carries on the films with what is, ostensibly, a wagon train Western that has various nasty bad guy elements representing the chasing Indians and Max, Furiosa and their crew as the good old cowboys of the piece. Junkie XL’s score is noisy but serviceable, even though it’s not in keeping with either of the composers who scored the original trilogy, and there’s also a character relationship between Max and a ‘bad guy turns good guy’ which holds a similar dynamic as that between Max and the Gyro Captain in the second movie... so that’s a nice bit of character building stylistic continuity for you, if you are looking out for that kind of stuff... and much more convincing than the cheap audio/visual echo of the music box from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which has been almost half heartedly, it seemed to me, inserted into the film to check a box.

All in all, it’s not the best of the Mad Max movies (I’d rate it second or third best, although I can’t quite figure out my preferred order of that one just yet) but it’s certainly not a bad film and it’s way better than Mad Max: Bungee Jump Dome... so there’s that. I was certainly entertained by it a fair bit, even if I was a tad disappointed in the overwhelming emphasis on the spectacle of modern action cinema. However, I’m really glad it’s getting such rave, if somewhat baffling to me, reviews and I think it’s a nice pay off for Miller who really deserves this success. It’s certainly a film I’ll be revisiting again on Blu Ray in the next year or two and I think most people will be behind this one. And they’ll get no arguments from me.

Mad Max @ NUTS4R2
Mad Max
Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Mad Max: Fury Road

Friday, 15 May 2015

Camille 2000




Camille Toed

Camille 2000
Italy 1969
Directed by Radley Metzger
Arrow Films Blu Ray Region B

Camille 2000 is only the second film I’ve seen directed by Radley Metzger but, like The Lickerish Quartet, which I reviewed here, I was totally blown away by it and I’m absolutely appalled by the lack of response and interest in this film that both the IMDB and certain influential critical web sites have seen fit to let stand. I only knew Metzger before I saw The Lickerish Quartet, by reputation, as a man who made cheesy sexploitation and porn films but, frankly, this is the second time I’ve been both mesmerised and enthused by the way he handles his art and I think this director is worth a lot more of any cineaste’s time... whether that’s an unpopular statement to make or not.

Camille 2000 is Metzger’s, then, contemporary reworking of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camélias but, sad to say, I only know the original work through a reference in Woody Allen’s old stand up routines of the 1960s... so I can’t compare this movie in terms of adaptation although, in all fairness, I don’t think it’s trying to be anything other than slightly inspired by what I’ll grudgingly call the ‘source material’ here. The Allen routine, with the one throwaway line about the original, did tip me off to how the movie was going to end, though, it has to be said.

When I saw The Lickerish Quartet, I’m sure I probably made reference in some way to the metatextual nature of the narrative and the way in which Metzger pulls the objective rug out from the viewer half way through and makes you think about... and question... everything you are seeing. There’s not a heck of a lot of that going on in this movie but he does include a bookending device which plunges you into a similar dilemma of how you might, or might not, read the images differently in context of the whole story and this bookend starts with the title of the movie shouted out by a crew member, possibly Metzger himself, as it is seen in the context of a clapperboard announcing the unfolding film as a specific take. So that’s all quite interesting and I’m wondering if this kind of implied versus perceived reality is a particular fetish or obsession for Metzger and whether it crops up as a signature gesture in many of his other works.

What I do know for sure is that he takes a simplistic plot of a man falling for a woman... a lady who is used to a less morally inclined lifestyle... and explores their relationship, break up and the true nature of their wounded love for each other while embellishing it with a sense of beauty and 'aesthetic wow' which makes the whole thing worth watching. Margueritte, played by the gorgeous Danièle Gaubert, the Carmille character in the film (it’s her nickname because of the flowers she always has around and the ties to the Dumas character it conjures up in people’s minds... oh wait, there’s that metatextuality again) sacrifices her own happiness and breaks up with her naive new lover Armand, played by Nino Castelnuov. Armand is one of many lovers she has and she ditches him because she believes the words of his father that they can never be happy together due to certain aspects of their basic nature. And therein lays the tragedy, of course.

In anyone else’s hands this story might seem dull and pointless but Metzger’s artistry is pushed to the fore and he shows us various encounters between the lovers and their friends (many sexual or filled with nudity) and every scene seemed to me to be a toolbox of new visual treasures... both in style and also, of course, in content. One lady wears a beautiful string vest style dress which hugs her in all the right, revealing  places and it would be true to say that there’s a lot of fascination in this particular movie with see-through costumes... but it’s not just in the costuming that this interest manifests itself.

Yes, there’s a whole lot of transparent or semi transparent costumes in the movie but the director also shows an interest in shooting through or against similar textures made from glass or mirrors and he uses this often to make multiple planes or sections in a screen to position his actresses and actors in, giving us beautiful compositions worthy of some of the most celebrated cinematic artists of our time. This is especially true of the sex scenes and there aren’t many, maybe one or possibly not even that, which aren’t shot through some kind of third party texture or substance.

For instance the first sex scene of the movie, which includes off-screen fellatio, is rendered as various shots through mirrors. Later on, the ‘love making’ utilises the reflections in a whole bank of mirrored panels used to show multiple views of the coupling. Starting off with five panels we, after a while, cut to a close up shot of two of the panels and then we pan along the small bank of mirrors before cutting back to the master shot and repeating the same movement in a larger view of what turns out to be many, multiple mirrors which make up one of the walls of Margeurite’s bed chamber.

In fact, all the sex scenes are equally inventively and tastefully shot, with one specific part of one of the sex scenes being pretty much the only one not executed through some kind of artifically occurring, reflecting or refracting viewpoint. The specific shot I’m thinking of is quite amazing and I want to try to describe it for you here...

Marguerite is lying naked on her back on a bed with only her head and shoulders shown, filling half of the frame coming in from the left of the shot, while Armand performs, presumably, an act of cunnilingus on her. So her head and shoulders are forming a horizontal profile within half of the landscape ratio of the shot. There is a bowl of white flowers, presumably Carmelias, filling up the foreground, in front of her, in the right hand side of the shot. As Margeurite’s pleasure mounts, her breathing becomes heavier on the soundtrack and this is when Metzger (and I believe he went to  lot of trouble to get this set up to work) starts changing the rack focussing of the shot to bring the flowers into deep focus and blur Marguerite’s head and upper body. As she sighs and breathes in and out on her approach to orgasm, Metzger starts refocussing the shot , alternating between her and the flowers, as she breathes in or out... giving us a pulsing and very visual representation of Marguerite’s head space by illustrating it with the rhythm of the constantly shifting differential focussing.

So that’s orgasm through rack focussing... and it’s pretty amazing to watch. Worth the price of admission alone, I would say.

It’s a movie with a lot of visual and conceptual inventiveness throughout and this sets it apart from others. There’s lots of big, inflatable furniture, some completely transparent (just to follow a visual theme, I guess) and the set design when the two ex-lovers separately attend a BDSM themed sex party is quite gob smacking in its execution... what with big dangly chains, gold sparkly stocks and bright colours... not to mention the cage for having sex in the corner, for all to see (and you can bet that Metzger takes full cinematic advantage of his compositional eye with all the vertical sections thrown up by those bars). It’s like ‘nobody in real life’s’ idea of good taste BDSM or in any way realistic to 'the scene' but... it’s quite an eye opener and has a certain sense of charm and fun to it that, perhaps, is something that should be brought back to current BDSM lifestyle trends in some ways. It’s just the kind of party I’d love to attend and... well, I don’t even do parties.

The film is peppered with cool and witty little touches too like, for example, a lady exhaling from the joint she’s been smoking into a balloon, thus inflating it, before passing it on to the next person, who deflates the ballon in his mouth... which is kind of a nice visual way to show this whole kind of drug sharing routine. Or there’s the moment when Armand realises that Camille has not turned up for their date because she is sleeping with another man, so the next day he sends her a personal message of a woman turning up at her door. The messenger turns her back on Marguerite and steps out of her clothes, revealing a written note on her back from Armand, scrawled in lipstick or some other media, which says “You are a whore. I was an idiot.” The implication of how Armand got the message on the gal is plain but also one which Marguerite finds amusing and not in any way troubling... perhaps even a little endearing and this, perhaps, highlights the difference between the inner worlds the two inhabit.

Another interesting scene comes up towards the end of the film, where Armand and the current 'successor' to Marguerite’s charms play a James Bondesque duel of Chemin De Fer, both trading insults about the other’s character and, perhaps unfairly, about Marguerite’s value as a human being too. This was a little hard to watch because, frankly, the tragic character of Marguerite was very much the hero of the story, for me.

There are a load of, pretty much soft core in this case, sex scenes scattered throughout the movie and I have to say they were less than erotic but much more interesting to watch on a visual level... which is one of the key things I personally respond to in terms of cinematic aesthetics. It wasn't the sex scenes that kept me hard, it was the way in which the director used the camera which kept my enthusiasm at much more than half mast. It’s also quite striking that a scene towards the end of the movie, set in a hospital, has the two main characters separated by a plastic, transparent, life support tent... which is kind of an interesting sense of synchronisation with the tone of the characters when you consider that the majority of the sex scenes in the movie between these two are shot via either a reflective or transparent surface... or a groan inducing combination of the two.

Piero Piccioni’s score is, unsurprisingly for a composer of his character, utterly fantastic too. Unfortunately, the soundtrack was issued ages ago by the now, pretty much defunct, Right Tempo label and so it’s quite rare and expensive in a physical edition these days (and if I want to get into the spirit of Camille 2000, then I definitely want to get physical with it). As I was watching, I realised that I had probably already got at least half the musical cues on this because it’s one of those scores which always tends to get represented, by some track or another, on many of the Italian exploitation score compilations I have in the racks... but I’d still like to get my hands on the full version at some point (there’s a download available but... who has room on their computer for downloads?).

And that’s pretty much it, in terms of Camille 2000. I was completely bowled over by the technical artistry in this film and I really need to see more of Radley Metzger’s work now. Unfortunately, a lot of his stuff is quite badly censored in the UK so I’m going to have to do my research and look farther afield than what can be found on these Victorian shores (actually, with the state of censorship in this country as it is, this statement is quite insulting to Victorian values... we’re far worse off in the United Kingdom now than the Victorians ever were). As far as this movie goes, though, the Arrow Blu Ray restoration and remaster is a thing of beauty and it’s got a few nice extras on it too. Definitely something I’d recommend to most lovers of cinema, I think... regardless of the reputation it seems to have garnered over the years. Grab this one while you can.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films And Animation




Living On Borowczyk Time

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films And Animation
France - various years
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk 
Arrow Dual Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2

I’ve not seen a heck of a lot of films, over the years, by the famous and, quite possibly notorious, director Walerian Borowczyk because a lot of the material he turns his attention to is kind of edgy and it’s usually handled in the kind of matter-of-fact but playful way that drives British film censors wild and reaching for their loathsome, art defacing scissors. That being said, he was always on my mind when I was going through College in the late 1980s/early 1990s because his films often seemed to be playing at the equally famous Scala cinema... and I usually had one of their incredible “picture timetable” posters pinned above the desk while I worked, more often than not featuring shots of scantily clad ladies as illustrations for films by this director (and usually a few Russ Meyer ladies would be on there somewhere too).

I remember, when I was studying my Graphic Design Degree at the London College Of Printing, my old screen printing teacher, with whom I used to occasionally play badminton, telling me that she was off to a screening of Borowczyk shorts at the Scala one evening. I’m guessing the contents of this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition, which has been put out by Arrow films and which I got cheap... err... at a value for money price at Fopp is, probably, fairly near to what she saw that evening.

I’d have to say that this disc is really not what I was expecting from this Polish born director who worked in France and has a reputation of making erotic, probably pornographic to a large extent, movies of a certain level of acceptability for cineastes in this country. The vast majority of the content on here comprises animations with, I think, just a couple of live action films and I found it surprising that there was practically no erotic content of the kind you might expect to see from a man of Borowczyk’s particular interests and obsessions. That being said, having seen another of his feature length films since watching this collection, I can see that there is a little bit of correlation between the techniques used here and those deployed on his more famous works. I’ll hopefully get to say just a little more on that sense of continuity when I come to write a review of his Immoral Tales... coming soon to this blog!

All in all, the style of a lot of the films on this disc are something that I might expect to have come from the mind of modern surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer and both he and Borowczyk seem to share a passion for exploring what I am about to call... a cinema of textures. Investigating, through animation in this case, the way both animate and inanimate objects can be exploited as a celebration of flat surfaces and their juxtaposition with contrasting shades, colours and textures. And also, another similarity to Svankmajer’s work, things will often move around by themselves with no visible hand at work to explain the motivation and spirit of various paraphernalia.

The films show off a wealth of both visual and aural ideas as you go through the body of work, perhaps more obvious and less tempered than when they are restricted by the credibility expected from an audience when using live actors... especially made, as most of Borowczyk’s films were, in an era bereft of the CGI trickery modern audiences take for granted. There are around eleven shorts on here and one feature length animation, The Theatre Of Mr And Mrs Kabal, which is a sequel of sorts to an earlier short found on this disc, The Concert. 

Out of these, there are certain films which struck a chord with me more than others and I found myself admiring the minutia of an inner Borowczyk world unfiltered by the constraints which might leave his live action work bereft of the majority of such overt observations. I liked the way, for instance, his short film Les Astronautes is mostly animated by rapidly cutting stills together... well, yeah, that’s all film, actually, but what I mean to say is... doing it so that the eye can easily perceive the cuts. Like a lot of his shorts, the film pulls us straight into a world of abstraction but in this case, it does have at least a basic, easier to conceive, linear framework to hang things on to... the journey of an astronaut in his spaceship. It’s a cornucopia of absurdities which possibly wears a little thin by the time it’s played out but there are nice little touches like a periscope the main protagonist uses when he’s flying around the earth which shows his eyes visible in the top part as he watches a lady in her underwear from inside his perpetually morphing spacecraft. There’s another nice little touch when he is flying along upside down in space and his hat drops to the ceiling of his craft. Every time he reaches up/down and puts it on so he can be wearing it whilst driving, it just drops to the bottom/top of the ship again... so instead he sits on some books to make himself tall enough to wear it. It is somewhat whimsical and I might be tempted to say that the whole thing was influenced by The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine... except that it dates from 1959, long before that particular animated feature and long before space travel was a reality too, of course. So maybe the creators of Yellow Submarine saw this at some point.... it’s quite possible I would imagine.

His short work Renaissance features, more overtly, another device which I’ve also often seen Jan Svankmajer use, that of the self constructing or deconstructing ‘entity’... be that entity an animate or inanimate object or character. This one starts off, for instance, with an owl constructing itself from its basic components, the feathers growing thicker as time passes. After he’s done with the owl, Borowczyk focuses on various other objects in a room constructing themselves... trumpet, photograph, wicker basket, scary children’s doll etc. A bunch of grapes appear to the sound of a typewriter clunking away with added carriage return (not sure if any of my younger readers will be familiar with the expression ‘carriage return’ actually... which is a sobering thought about the rapidity of technological change in the scary world we’re living in these days, I think). The short ends with a hand grenade being constructed and then, quite rapidly, deconstructing the whole room again when it blows up.

Another of the many shorts on here which I took a shine to was Joachim’s Dictionary, which consists of a line drawing of a man with slightly different things happening to him as a new dictionary definition is applied to each mini vignette. There was a nice little two part joke which highlighted, in different definitions, the difference between Man and Boy by showing how each would eat a cherry and then just spit out the stone... that is to say, man and boy: no difference between the two. So that was cool although, the majority of the shorts aside from these three and another interesting one called Scherzo Infernale, detailing briefly the story of an angel who wants to be a prostitute, really didn’t do much for me. I had, very much, a feeling of ‘seen it all before’.

The feature length animation The Theatre of Mr and Mrs. Kabal, a sequel to the less interesting short The Concert (aka Le concert de M. et Mme. Kabal) held my interest a little better. The film starts off with the animator, possibly Borowczyk, entering the frames and conversing with Mrs. Kabal, who communicates with him in an electronic gibberish on the soundtrack which is subtitled in three different languages as she speaks. This one explores another surrealist environment and also hangs a somewhat linear, if hard to fathom, thread through the whole thing. Mrs. Kabal seems, I think, to have an aversion to butterflies but, when she ‘consumes’ too many, her husband has to find a way to help. Inspired by ‘a film within a film’ about the human body at his local cinema, he blows his wife up in size and goes to work on her, entering her insides in a manner similar to the protagonists in the movie Fantastic Voyage, but with the size difference achieved through reverse means. Turns out the butterflies have caused quite a lot of trouble in Mrs. Kabal’s body and it was interesting to see what I can only presume was the ghost of Mrs. Kabul, herself, wandering around inside her for a bit, too.

A well animated feature but, as I said, one out of many which held my attention much less than I was expecting. That being said, it is a very creative set of shorts in many ways and, if youre not too long in the tooth and were not inundated by completely incomprehensible Polish and Czechoslovakian surrealist cartoons playing as fillers between TV programmes in the early 1970s, then you may find that you’ve not seen stuff like this before. At the small amount of money I payed for this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition at Fopp, it’s definitely something I would advise any cinephiles to avail themselves of in the near future. As for me, I think I prefer Borowczyk’s live action features, what little I’ve seen of them, to his animated shorts but, even so, I can appreciate the hand of a genuine artist when I see one. Certainly, I’m glad I’ve seen these now and it’s not inconceivable that I’ll give them another watch in years to come. Put this one on your list if you are a fan of shorter works of cinematic art, is my advice.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes




The Great [esc]Ape

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
USA 1971
Directed by Don Taylor
20TH Century Fox
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, there’s an ending spoiler on this one too. Sorry. 

So the first sequel to the original film, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed by me here), was a guaranteed franchise ender... or so the film makers thought. What with them blowing up the entire world at the climax and all. What they hadn’t banked on, I guess, was that (terrible or not) the second film was a roaring success with the general public and a sequel was required. So how do you go about fixing that?

Well, quite creatively, as it happens.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is, for my money, the very best of the original sequels (just slightly better than then next movie in the series, which is also quite excellent). There was no way that the storyline could be continued any further forward in the future so the writers took the other direction and sent three apes, Cornelius, Zira and a character called Milo, back in time. This was Roddy McDowell’s second time playing Cornelius after having to stand out of the last film due to directing commitments (having somebody else copying his delivery in the role) and Kim Hunter’s third and final performance as Zira.

The film opens strongly with a brilliant sequence that would have been a whole lot stronger if people didn’t know this was supposed to be a Planet Of The Apes movie but... how do you get an audience to go to a movie without telling them what it is? So the really nice thing about the opening is that it starts off with a shot of a beach not dissimilar to the one on which Charlton Heston has his big, final moment in the original movie. It keys into the expectations of the paying customers that they are watching a scene about to unfold in Earth’s far future... like the previous two movies. Then the film nicely crashes that expectation when we realise we’ve got the noisy uproar of a helicopter on the soundtrack before seeing it come out from behind a cliff. We are in contemporary times, it seems. Well not really because the film was released in 1971 and I believe the time frame in which the film is set is two years later so, to offer up a cliche, we are in the 'near future'.

A space ship which we all recognise from the first two films is floating in the sea near the beach and the military have recovery operations well in hand... although I still don’t see how the insides of the craft as seen in the first film can even be possible, bearing in mind that the scale of the outside of the ship looks incredibly small in comparison and certainly not enough for one, let alone three passengers. As the astronauts, in full spacesuits, emerge from the capsule they are lined up on the beach and a military emissary from the US government offers his hand in friendship. It’s then that all the humans on the beach find out, by way of a sting, what we in the audience presumably knew all along... bearing in mind the title of the movie. The three apes, Cornelius, Zira and Milo, are revealed inside the space suits and Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome main title music kicks in as we see the apes escorted by the military as the credits play out.

It’s a bold move for the writing team as they try and do a reversal of the 'fish out of water' aspect of the original apes film, this time with the apes being treated as dumb and locked up... until they finally reveal their powers of speech and make obvious their already apparent intellect. It does so, however, with a lot of humour which is undercut by a quiet sense of menace as the human “bad guy” of the story, Dr. Hasslein, played by Eric Braeden (a character which is mentioned by both sets of humans in the previous two movies) tries to find out the facts about the apes' future civilisation that they are keeping to themselves while the 'good' Doctors Dixon and Brantan, played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy, try to make sure the apes are protected and not exploited, or worse, at the hands of contemporary, human society. Interestingly, like McDowell, Natalie Trundy was in four of the five original apes movies (all the sequels) but she played both apes and humans in different movies.

The film makes a lot of the natural comedy hijinks which ensue when, for example, the apes dress themselves in front of the unknowing humans and, when being presented with three oranges, set the table with plates and use knives and forks. Other comedy moments come from Zira outwitting all the ‘pet psychiatrist’s’ intelligence tests in a few minutes, leading into her solving a way to reach the banana which is being dangled for her as a reward. When she just sits on the steps and ignores the food offered, she becomes annoyed by her captors’ lack of ability to understand why she is leaving the morsel and exasperatingly shouts at them... “Because I loathe bananas!” The effect of the apes first words in the presence of humans is priceless and a nice comical counterpoint to Heston’s own speech revelation, “Take your hands off me you damn, dirty ape!” of the first movie.

The film plays the comedy route for quite a while with the apes becoming celebrity figures and using their reactions to the segments of human society they are exposed to in a critical, satirical  and often truthful way... such as Cornelius’ shock at the exploited barbarism of a boxing match or Zira’s strong, guest speech on the liberation of women. There’s nothing particularly innovative in the movie but it is immensely entertaining and a lot frothier than any of the other entries in the series. That being said, when Dr. Hasslein gets the now pregnant Zira drunk on “grapejuice plus” aka champagne, he begins to uncover the truth about life in the future and aims to get more information.

Its then that the film’s dark heart comes into play and the last act of the movie is much bleaker and distressing in tone. Under sodium pentathol, Zira spills all the beans about dissecting humans, using them for target practice and the war which destroys the planet... which has the government running scared. Meanwhile, the back story that Cornelius gives of apekind’s rise to humanity is, frankly preposterous in terms of continuity of the series. In the first film, set a very short time after the previous and, again, hardly any time at all in terms of ape chronology, from this installment, it’s made clear that the apes mostly know nothing at all of their evolution from man. What limited knowledge there is in that direction is kept secret and repressed by such officials as Dr. Zaius. So when Cornelius starts telling the story of the day the talking ape Aldo stood up to his human masters and said “No”... it’s a great story. However, when he says te day is celebrated by all ape kind it makes no sense because, frankly, the apes of the future depicted in the first and second installments have absolutely no idea that mankind was ever a thinking, intelligent animal.

However, the consequences of Zira’s revelations about ape/human interaction in her time and the ultimate destruction of Earth is what the last part of the film are about. It’s ordered that Zira’s pregnancy is to be officially terminated by the government and the apes sterilised. Meanwhile, Cornelius accidentally kills one of their captors and so the manhunt... err... ape hunt begins. Doctors Dixon and Brantan hide Cornelius, Zira and their new young son named after the doctor who landed with them (and who didn’t survive to this point in the film) in the circus with their friend Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! Sorry, I meant their friend Armando, played by Ricardo Montalban. However, it’s not long before our family of three have to move out again, to an abandoned ship in a disused harbour.

And then the bleakness engulfs the movie with a grim finale full of death which is actually extraordinarily downbeat. It’s another great ending but it’s the post finale scene back at the circus with Armando which really hits home. I’m pretty sure I saw this in a cinema as a double bill with the next film in the series at some point in my childhood and the end was certainly one which stays with you. Armando and the circus are preparing to move on to the next location and we see the young ape who was the offspring of another ape in the circus... but it’s wearing the amulet that Armando gave Zira and Cornelius’ son. We realise that Zira pulled a switch with the child, before leaving the circus, leaving Armando with the care of her offspring This is made more implicit as the ape starts yelling “Mama. Mama. Mama” over again as the film finishes. The delivery of it and the way it’s treated in the sound design, even when backed up with a crude visual loop of a real young chimpanzee mouthing the line, is quite chilling and the writers and producers were obviously not thinking they were going to make the same mistake as last time... leaving a pretty big sequel thread hanging for the scriptwriters to tug on next time around.

The film is entertaining but, for the most part, not very innovative in either its content or in terms of the 'work a day' practical nature of the competent but not overly creative cinematography. It zooms along though and it also has what is a classic and extremely fun Jerry Goldsmith score. The composer skillfully does his thing and delivers a score which is completely different to what he was doing in the first movie but, at the same time, keeping the orchestration within the same basic arena as the musical syntax he developed for that first outing and which was, it could be argued, supported stylistically, somewhat, by Leonard Rosenman’s score for the second. It also has some nice sequences where the composer pitches a very strong, jaunty melody line which is not unlike something he might have composed for the Flint movies and throws in kettle drums and sitars all playing together in the mix. It’s quite a phenomenal set of cues. My one criticism of this particular movie score... and it’s very rare that I would ever criticise the great Jerry... is that there seems to be room for a lot more in the movie. Goldsmith was a master of working out where music should and shouldn’t go and this score has around a half an hour of music for the whole 98 minute movie... which is fine. However, watching the movie again, I felt it was devoid of some good sequences which would have been lifted a little more by having some scoring in them... it would have been nice to hear what the composer would have done with certain situations. Still, Jerry knows best and it is what it is... a very enjoyable score absolutely on a level with the longer score he composed for the first movie. It doesn’t really break any new ground but it is appropriate to the film that’s been made.

And that is pretty much it. Although it lacks a certain panache I thought the first movie had in spades, it still easily the best of the Ape sequels and it wouldn’t take long before the writers would be tugging on those deliberately left sequel threads and bringing out another, very interesting entry in the series. So watch this space for my review of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. Coming soon to a review blog near you.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome




Thunder Woman

Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome
Australia 1985
Directed by George Miller & George Ogilvie
MGM Blu Ray Region B

So I finally watched the last movie in the original Mad Max trilogy... but this seemed like something completely different to what had gone before and, frankly, didn't seem nearly as sympathetic to the style of the previous two movies as it perhaps might have been. Turns out there’s a couple of good reasons for this which I was unaware of when I was watching this thing.

The first being that this was initially conceived as the story of a group of children in a post apocalyptic environment who would be found by an adult... which is pretty much the second half of the movie as it currently is. It wasn’t until a later stage of the script writing, however, that it was decided that the adult who finds them would turn out to be Mel Gibson’s, somehow strangely iconic, Mad Max character. So the pitch of the original story was never, in its original version, intended to follow on from the style of the first two films or even have Max in it... until it later took that direction.

Secondly, the producer of the first two films and friend of George Miller, Byron Kennedy, died in a helicopter crash scouting locations for this one. I guess this obviously had an effect on Miller and so he only handled the action scenes in this movie (and I can hazard a guess as to exactly which big sequence he did get involved with but I’ll get to that a little later)... the bulk of the film being directed by George Ogilvie.

Now, I don’t know for sure whether the film would have turned out radically different in style had Miller been directing the whole thing but, what I do know is that it noticeably doesn’t match the feel of the first two. Maybe because there was a bigger budget with American money in it... I don’t know... but it feels a heck of a lot more polished and, strangely and perhaps because of it, feels the most dated of the three films. You can tell just by looking at this one which decade of cinematic history it comes from.

The film feels different from it’s predecessors straight away because, as a standard credit roll starts, we have the first of two Tina Turner songs written for the film playing over these credits... which completely shifts the tone of this installment and pushes it into 'magical 1980s land' straight away... I’m surprised there wasn’t a load of break dancing inserted into this film somewhere, too.

After the credits we have another thing which took me out of the whole Mad Max feel of the saga... sweeping panoramic helicopter/plane POV style shots... this just seems totally out of place here. This is then followed by what is probably the strongest sequence of the movie, bar the final, obligatory chase scene and it’s a little scene of a vehicle being driven by camels followed by a pilot and his son disabling the driver with a dropped rock, stealing the vehicle and then heading into one of the two main locations of this film, Bartertown... where the Thunderdome of the title resides. When the driver of the camel towed vehicle wakes up he is revealed as Mel Gibson’s Max and he goes to the post apocalyptic town in search of the people who took his car.

Max now looks completely like the “star” version of Mel Gibson we all know and recognise but they’ve still kept certain elements of his look relating to injuries received in previous installments... they’ve also gone and given him the “full Elsa Lanchester” make over when it comes to a less toned down version of the double white hair streak in this one... as opposed to the single streak he had in the second movie. Gibson also carries a mauser for a few shots, which would have added greatly  to the whole iconic look of the character if he'd kept it all the way through but... this leaves his possession pretty early in the film. Which is a shame, really, because it’s a definite wink to Westerns like The Great Silence, which I suspect Miller would probably, judging from his directorial output in the trilogy, have been a big fan of.

Bartertown is a tough place to get into and looks vaguely like it belongs in a Conan movie but Max manages to cut a deal with the main leader of the town, Auntie (played by Tina Turner), so that he can get all the transport and gasoline he wants in return for killing half of a two man team that make up, together, the more powerful leader (although not in name) of Bartertown. The two in question are the midget Master (who runs the power in the community) and the giant henchman whose back he rides, Blaster (the two together make up... Master Blaster... this film is so 1980s).

Tina Turner is pretty iconic in herself, thanks to her costume, which hastwo  additional series’ of hoops circling through each ear.What this means is that, every time you see her looking straight on at the camera, the two sets of hoops on either side of her face form these striking, vertical patterns which are totally reminiscent of the headdress of an Egyptian queen or Pharaoh... which I thought was a nice touch with the costuming carrying an almost subconscious echo of her status as the official leader of Bartertown.

Max’s deal ultimately leads to a big fight scene, halfway through the movie, which may have looked good in the 1980s but really is just two geezahs in a big dome/cage (sorry... I meant the Thunderdome) trying to catch, punch, cut and mutilate each other while hanging from big bungee wires... this is so camp and laughable it’s unbelievable and I can’t imagine Gibson sitting still for this kind of thing these days but... hey... the 1980s.

All well and good but when Max holds back from killing Blaster, once he sees his face and understands a basic home truth about him, Max is thrown out of Bartertown into the desert with no food or water, to die... wearing something which largely resembles the exact same head masks that the Autons used in certain scenes of Doctor Who: Terror Of The Autons actually (reviewed here) ... so I’m guessing it must be a traditional mask design which has passed me by and not hit my radar anytime over my life (either that or George Miller is a closet Doctor Who fan).

And then the story goes somewhere completely different and this is another tonal jump for the saga because, in the second film which ties into the first, everybody is after the gasoline as a resource they need to survive and, although that particular carrot still holds true in this one... in this film it’s just a secondary driver to a more complex plot. That is to say, it’s not a single “do this to get that” mission kind of story... it goes all over the place. So when Max is rescued by a bunch of children who think he is the second coming, in the next half of the movie, the story almost splits into two separate things which the writers then try and tie back up in the end with an almost “tacked on” sequence where Max has to take a small group of them back to Thunderdome and then escape all over again, this time with various custom vehicles in hot pursuit. So the single mindedness and purity of the first two installments is jettisoned for something which is overly complicated and flashy... at least comparitively, in terms of being a Mad Max movie. It’s also a whole sequence of film which has a heck of a lot in common, both visually as well as in terms of the attitude of the content, with The Lost Boys from J. M Barrie’s famous story Peter Pan. I can’t help remembering an interview which Tina Turner gave at the time this movie was released. I probably saw this interview on something like Film '85 (as it would have been then) and Ms. Turner was asked what it was like working with Mel Gibson. I think the answer at the time was something along the lines of “Mel Gibson is a little boy/captures his inner child” etc and now, having seen the film, I wonder if she was latching onto the bizarre thematic element of the second half of the movie when she was contemplating her answer.

It’s during the last 20 minutes that the film finally starts looking, and feeling, like a Mad Max film again.... with the inevitable chase sequence involving a load of custom, weaponised and armoured cars chasing Max and whoever he happens to be with, this time escaping in a train which suddenly seems to have a bizarre track stretching out into the desert. I’ve got no idea what’s going on here or why this track would even exist but I’m not going to let logic get in the way when this is the only half decent part of the movie. I’m guessing, and it is only a guess so please let me know if I’m completely wrong here, that this is the sequence of the film which is well and truly directed by George Miller. The stunts and high speed shenanigans are reminiscent of the similar scenes in both Mad Max (reviewed here) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (reviewed here) and the ending to the chase is typical in that it leaves Max more or less exactly where the endings of the previous two had left him... a lone cowboy wandering the prairie plains to fend for himself and be a force of righteousness in a lawless land. Actually, as if the Western metaphors aren’t enough in this one, there’s even a scene in the first half of the movie, in the Thunderdome, where Max is announced as... The Man With No Name... so the writers of this are still, very much, wearing their influences on their sleeve, it seems.

One other thing that keeps the tone of the movie straying too far into proper Mad Max territory is a change of composer. This one isn’t scored by Brian May as the previous two were and, of course, it therefore has a different feel. This one is, in fact, scored by Maurice Jarre and it’s very hit and miss, at least in the sound mix in the movie, but contains some nice “metal percussion” elements and it’s quite appropriate to the images it’s supporting... it just feels a little too polished, again, for a Mad Max production but, definitely, works for what it was written for... so that’s a good thing, at least.

And that’s about as far as I’m riding with this one. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome really didn’t feel like it was a Mad Max movie at all for most of it’s running time and certain scenes, like the silly bungee jump fight scene, really shouldn’t be seen on anything outside of old TV episodes of It’s A Knockout, as far as I’m concerned. A competently put together movie, for the most part, but nothing too special and certainly not up to the level of the first two in the series. The fourth installment, sans Gibson in the title role, hits British cinemas in less than a week, at time of writing, and from the trailers, it looks closer in tone to the spirit of the first two movies while, at the same time, also looking terrifically overpolished for something to sit comfortably, shoulder to shoulder, with any of the movies in the original trilogy. Still, time will tell on that and you can be sure I’ll be reviewing it on here as soon as I’ve seen it. Please come back and have a read... if you’ve got a few minutes.


Mad Max @ NUTS4R2

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Unfriended



Skype Casting

Unfriended (aka Cybernatural)
2014  Russia/USA/Poland/Germany/Puerto Rico
Directed by Levan Gabriadze 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Possible slight spoiler in the third paragraph, 
depending on how well you know my genre definitions.

So this is a film I saw the trailer to at the cinema a few weeks back but which wasn’t really tempting me to take the plunge, to be honest. Also weighing against it was the fact that it looked like it was another teen slasher movie and they really are not my favourite genre, often mistaken by many as passing for horror films. However, I then started reading some enthusiastic word-of-mouth on Twitter and so, although I didn’t think I was really the intended audience for this picture, I decided to give it a go anyway. I have to say that, if the movie had been released over here with the first (of two) titles it was released with in the USA, Cybernatural, then I would definitely not have bothered... much as I love the occasional pun, that’s a real turn-off of a title. So it's definitely congratulations to the marketing team for at least giving the movie a moniker that was halfway appealing (I don’t belong on Facebook but I at least have a concept of “unfriending”... it’s like “unfollowing on Twitter, right?).

The film is almost, but not quite, unique in that the whole of the running time, apart from one shot I won’t shout out to here, takes place on the computer screen of one of seven characters... six of whom are friends and the seventh of whom... well... isn’t. Most of the action takes place as a Skype conference call with an unwanted person who is, in reality, controlling the situation and manipulating the other characters... and this is why I say this concept is not entirely unique. There’s a short film in part of the movie V/H/S (reviewed here) which plays with the same medium, although it uses it for a slightly different end result than what the final solution here turns out to be. That being said, it doesn’t stick to Skype completely and the lead character, Blaire (played by Shelley Hennig and with a character name that may possibly be a deliberate echo of one of the most famous “found footage” movies of all time, The Blair Witch Project), uses all kinds of cyber media to try and find out just what is going on and who is playing an elabourate game of death with her and her friends... including such online tools as internet messenger, facebook and a few others. That is to say, if I had to pick one of the six lead players as the main protagonist, it would be her... not least of all because it’s her screen and her actions we see play out before us. 

The film itself is, actually, a teenage slasher movie but, it turns out, it’s also a film that I would personally class as a horror movie too... and if you know my criteria as to what constitutes a horror movie then I guess that might be considered a spoiler of sorts... but by about half way through the film, if you’re watching carefully, you’ll figure out the exact nature of the “ghost in the machine”, so to speak, due to a logical deconstruction of what’s happening before your eyes.

Now, as I was watching the movie, the most interesting thing I found about it was the technique with which the director had allowed something which is supposed to be set in real time to be able to cut away from everybody at certain points so he can insert different takes, etc... and also allow himself places where he can either cut from one take to another and, in the case of the many “murder/suicide” sequences in the movie, allow himself time to change over to the mechanics of doing a practical effects shot. So there are moments where our main protagonist will fill her screen, accidentally, or on purpose, at different points with other tab views so that the takes of various actors being pieced together can be refreshed or whatever. I found this clever but, ultimately, a bit of a let down because, as I supposed, you could see the wet footprints of this particular technique hidden in the way the action was choreographed. No big deal but dissapointing for a movie which is supposed to be taking place in real time before our very eyes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the film had been shot in the space of just twelve days with different takes of the actors, all Skyping from separate rooms in a house, and that just a single one of these 'live' long takes of the film’s total running time were used for the final movie. Seriously? I already loved what the actors were doing. Nailing their “really annoying teens you wouldn’t ever want to hang out with” roles quite skillfully but... this was all done as one take? Phenomenal. They must have had a lot of dry run rehearsals I reckon. Still not fully convinced but happy to take them at their word on that, for now.

There are some seriously negative aspects to the movie... annoying teens I have no sympathy for being one of them. There’s also the fact that the film makers have a tendency to put... let’s call it “audio/visual intereference” over certain bits... just like you would normally get over a Skype connection (actually, if I were a head honcho at Skype I’d be dead annoyed at the amount of internet signal drop out shown in this film), even doing this to the Universal logo at the start of the movie. The fact is, though, it won’t take you long to figure out that when this happens, something is soon going to happen to one of the people on one of the Skype screens and the director is using the 'digital interference' to ratchet up the tension and suspense. Now, to be fair, and given the nature of the “slasher/stalker” in this picture, it could be something which also has a basis in the physics of how a particular character works but, ultimately, it’s an emotional tool to squeeze more hysteria from the audience, I think, and the trick kind of wears thin quite quickly... at least it did for me.

That being said, there are also some cool positives to the movie, especially over what you would get in a standard teen slasher picture, which do make it worth a watch. The obvious one being the uncanny and skillful 'Nancy Drew Investigates' tone of Blaire as you see her using all her technical skills to either vanquish their attacker or find out who it really us... which gives the audience a direct link to the mind set and progress of the character in a very visual way which rarely, though sometimes, devolves into backing it all up with explanatory dialogue. A kind of visual opening into a mental link, as it were. That’s pretty neat, actually, and could probably be used to take the action into another kind of place in the inevitable sequel, if the film makers decide to pull on that specific kind of thread. 

Another positive is that the film doesn’t try and cheat you in any way. It has a simple logic to the main premise and identity of the attacker and it sticks to the parameters it’s set up for itself... which is more than can be said for a few horror movies in recent years. The final solution to the mystery of the six friend’s attacker may be seen, by some, as less than credible but, ultimately, it doesn’t try and trick the viewer into another direction half way through. It sticks to its guns and, although I didn’t particularly find the final reveal to be all that interesting (because I love playing whodunnit games), you certainly can’t argue about the ultimate, blink and you almost miss it, last shot reveal. So it all makes sense and that’s a good thing.

Ultimately, the way I feel about this movie is a little like how I felt about Monsters: Dark Continent (reviewed here). It’s a very competently made film with convincing actors and actresses all doing their best to make you believe in what you’re seeing... the downside being, for me personally, that I would never want to be hanging out with any of these people anyway and, therefore, didn't really care all that much if any or all of them got killed. All that being said, however, I do think this movie could score well with teenage audiences and I think this is definitely a franchise spawner if the movie makers wanted to go that way. Horror addicts will probably enjoy it and I certainly would take a look at a sequel myself, if one ever came along. Not a big hitter like It Follows was earlier in the year (my review of that beautiful movie is here) but much more competent than a lot of teen horror in the overcrowded marketplace. If you like these kinds of films then you’ll proabably have a reasonably good time with this one, I reckon.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Monsters - Dark Continent




Continental Drift

Monsters - Dark Continent
2014  UK
Directed by Tom Green
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Slight spoilers in here.

Monsters: Dark Continent is a sequel to the Gareth Edwards movie, Monsters, from a couple of years ago and which I reviewed here and which, like this one, had big, Cthulhu-like monsters as part of its main narrative thrust. It’s not to be confused with the upcoming movie Dark Continents which, I understand, is based on five stories by Cthulhu creator H. P Lovecraft and which, I suspect, may also have Cthulhu-like Monsters in it. Hmmm... so I guess the point I’m making here is... why release this movie with that title if there’s a much more famous, because of the directors involved, movie coming out with more or less the same title a year or so down the road? That makes no sense.

Now, this film can’t have had too much pre-publicity, I’m guessing, because the first I’d heard that they’d actually gone ahead and made a sequel was when I saw this included in the listings for my local cinema this week... and even then I had to look it up to find out that it was a sequel to Monsters (the original director is listed as a producer but I’ve really got no idea how much involvement he had on this one). To make things worse, I went to see this on the first Saturday, early evening, screening of its opening in my local multiplex cinema, a night and time when it should have been packed out, and found that there were only two or three other audience members in there watching it along with me. So, sad to say, I predict that the box office on this film isn’t exactly going to be great... especially since it was released a few weeks earlier in the USA and, as a dedicated Twitter user and follower of people interested in film, I still hadn’t heard of it until it was in the listings for my local cinema a couple of days before I went and saw it. That doesn’t bode well for it.

Which is unfortunate in some ways because, although I wasn’t personally happy with it for reasons I will elaborate, it turned out to be a highly competently made movie with a certain edge to it and, whether I personally liked it or not, it certainly holds the attention of the viewer and you will probably be as gripped by some of the sequences as I was.

The film follows on from the first film only by the inclusion of the titular characters. It’s ten years on and the world is fighting a losing war against the Monsters who have left “the zone”. This film follows a bunch of new recruits in the army who join up and go to the Middle-East to fight the Monsters, which are not evil and are just following their alien nature. However, because the US army have ben bombing hell out of the titular creatures in various areas of that region, they also have to deal with a population of hostile insurgents who would much rather the army were driven from their land than the monsters. When the new recruits are sent on a rescue mission to find some of their unit who didn’t come back from an operation, they are forced to fight their way through hostiles in order to try and locate them and tensions and frustrations soar.

Now, I had three main problems with it and I’ll get those out of the way before I get to the positive stuff.

My first issue is that the film is much more a “horrors of war” kind of story with the monsters acting only as a catalyst and background decoration to the conflict of the stupidity/violence men do to each other... which is kind of an interesting tack but, ultimately, it felt like the film was way too busy pushing the writer’s own political agenda with not enough of the monster focussed mayhem I would have liked to have seen. Sure, there’s a heck of a lot more of the monsters in this movie than their brief appearances in the first but, still, they really were only there as a plot device more than anything else... at least that’s how I felt.

Secondly, none of the main protagonists had my sympathies as people at all... they were all portrayed as, pretty much, young thugs who’d joined the army to have a better life than dealing drugs in their ghetto and the first quarter of an hour where, I believe, the director was trying to get me to identify with these characters, was absolutely doing the opposite of what was required. I didn’t like these people who used harsh language and demonstrated really crude, almost violent, male bonding rituals. They alienated me right from the start. But the flip side of that is, of course, whether the language and attitude of these people are accurate to those of modern, young soldiers or not... the actors were all really great at convincing me these were real people. I might have hated them all but, at least, I could suspend my disbelief to the point where I couldn’t sympathise with them. So... great acting job here by a lot of the people who are in this movie.

The third problem in this is the fact that it’s a conflict movie which does tend to fall back on the crutch of constant, war movie clichés throughout. For example, in the opening montage of the buddies who have “joined up”, the writers and director (not to mention the cast) are working hard to get across the importance of one of these friends returning home from duty by showing him helping his girlfriend give birth and all his friends promising they’ve got his back while they’re on his tour of duty. For anyone who watches these kinds of films, of course, that’s an instant telegraph that something bad is going to happen to this character and, I have to say, I was quite disappointed when exactly that happens and this character is the first of the group to meet his maker in an extended scene while his friends are under fire and trying to save his life. It doesn’t get much more predictable than this.

Other clichés include the group leader and authority figure whose responsibility it is to keep his soldiers safe, losing nearly all of them and then suddenly going a bit ‘Captain Ahab’ about things and getting obsessed by his mission at the cost of his humanity and sanity. Well acted but... nah, seen it all before. And the one about the lone soldier who grows to a state of enlightenment and understanding about things, to a certain extent, because of what he’s been subjected to in his own personal battle and his ability to see the good in his fellow man? There’s that one in there too. But, of course, clichés like these work and I suspect people who haven’t seen a lot of war movies, or that kind of thing, might be sucked into the narrative a whole lot better than I was... so I cant really condemn it for this. It might be old school but it does its job and, it has to be said, it does its job quite effectively.

Everything else about this movie is great. The special effects are cool, the tension and suspense in the combat scenes is almost unbearably intense in certain places and, while not as harrowing as some of the great war films, it can still be a gruelling watch in some moments and the combination of constantly moving, hand held camera combined with some extremely competent editing really pays off for it. Once you can get over the ridiculously low values of the characters, it’s a joy to see a well oiled machine of a movie like this one at the local cinema. It also has an interesting correlation in a “dog fighting sequence”, something I really don’t approve of or condone (we all love dogs, right?) but switched out to be a dog fighting an infant alien, and using that to show us both the changes and commonality in the attitudes of the cultural backdrop of the world depicted in the movie. Nasty to watch but, nevertheless, good stuff to get certain points across in short hand.

And the surprising thing for a movie which is using a lot of “camera reaction” style photography is the fact that it has a very striking and entertaining score by composer Neil Davidge which, alas, is only available as a stupid download. When will record companies get it in their heads that we want these things on CDs please? A download is next to useless to me, frankly. They might as well just put it on vinyl... which is equally useless to me. Such a shame because I actually wanted to buy this score since it is so strong in the context of the movie and sounds like it would be a really great thing to listen to away from the venue it was created for. Such a shame.

All in all, the film is quite gritty and if you are able to sympathise with the main characters, then you should have a really good time at the cinema with it. Even though I can’t relate to characters who seem happy to behave like football hooligans rather than somebody I would personally like to hang out with, it can’t be denied that this is well put together, well acted and is quite compelling... even though it’s also quite predictable and there are not too many surprises in store, to be sure. Its a shame that a movie like this has been released into cinemas at this time of year when it’s going toe to toe with stuff like the new Avengers movie (my review of that one here) which will inevitably suck all the audience away from films like this... it perhaps deserves a better fate than I suspect it might have in store for it. Saying that, though, it’s a good bet it will do reasonably well on DVD and Blu Ray rentals through word of mouth with a young audience, I reckon... so good luck to it and if gritty, gruelling action movies are your thing... you might want to give Monsters: Dark Continent a look.