Tuesday, 23 July 2019
Directed by Tim Story
So... earlier this year my best friend unexpectedly died. He was only a few weeks older than me and we had a whole host of things already earmarked to see in the coming months but one of the two most anticipated things was to go to the cinema to see the new Shaft movie, since we’d both been talking about the Shaft films together since we first met. As it turns out, this didn’t get a cinema release in this country but I’ve managed to find a way to watch it anyway and, although I have mixed feelings about the final product, I’m pretty sure that my friend would probably... mostly... have liked this one.
Shaft is the fifth film of a franchise which started with the original movie, Shaft, back in 1971 and which was followed by two direct sequels in 1972 and 1973, Shaft’s Big Score (my favourite) and Shaft In Africa with Richard Roundtree playing the titular role based on Ernest Tidyman’s novels. This was followed by Roundtree continuing the character for a TV series and then, decades later, a fourth film starring Samuel L. Jackson was made in 2000, originally to be called Shaft Returns but eventually just called Shaft, also... which was confusing enough at the time. That one had Richard Roundtree back as the original John Shaft in what amounted to a couple of long cameos and with Jackson playing his nephew. It was a quite good movie. Now we have a fifth installment in the franchise where the Shaft family tree has been convincingly retconned to make Jackson the son of Roundtree’s character, even though in real life he’s only 6 years younger than the actor himself.
And, yes, if you can believe this stuff... they’ve called this fifth film Shaft. Which is totally ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever. At least the Star Wars films have subtitles but why have a franchise where over half the movies have the exact same name as the other ones. That’s not going to get confusing at all in years to come, is it?
So, anyway, this movie deals with the next generation of Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher and is a humourously intentioned script dealing with his problematic relationship with his dad, his potential girlfriend Sasha, played by Alexandra Shipp.... and his mother Maya, played by Regina Hall.
So this starts off with a set up of Jackson’s Shaft and Maya and their baby son in a scene set over a decade before the events in the previous movie, where some motivation for barely seen villain of this film is provided and the film then gives us a montage catch up of the intervening years which briefly replays some scenes from Shaft (2000) and maps out Usher’s Shaft’s troubled non-relationship with his father. Then, when the latest family member’s best friend gets mixed up with drugs and is murdered, Shaft Jr, who works for the FBI but doesn’t exactly have much clout, gets his father involved with the case and the two bond as they try and catch the ruthless killers and even, in the last 20 minutes of the movie, have some nice scenes where the original ‘grandad’ Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, gets involved in all the action.
So... okay. There’s good and there’s bad. The good being that there’s some nice and cleverly handled shot transitions throughout the movie and even a split screen section at the beginning of the film. It’s also a blast seeing both Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree doing their thing throughout and, even though he’s mostly played as a joke, Shaft Jr is also not terrible in this either although, to be fair, he does get irritating quite quickly. Especially where a perfect reference to the very first Shaft movie... the scene where Roundtree crashes through the window on a rope, is payed homage to but, alas, in a very jokey way because Jr can’t get through his window.
There’s a lot of bad in this too though.
For instance, despite some nice shot set ups, there’s a scene fairly early on where Shaft Jr is talking to a teenager on the street and the shot design, or lack of it in terms of consideration as to how the scene would be edited, is just all over the place and completely popped me out of the movie. I couldn’t believe how amateur this series of shots was in terms of cutting back and forth between characters on completely different and seemingly random areas of the screen. It didn’t make any sense and it’s like the scene wasn’t filmed to be cut that way at all.
Another problem... despite not being that funny, which is an objective thing anyway... is the fact that it was trying to be a comedy of sorts. The previous Shaft movies all took themselves very seriously in terms of the way the characters, for the most part, interacted and this just feels like it belongs in a different world, despite an attempt at least to give certain elements of the plot some social context. It just felt wrong. And don’t get me started on the running gag of three generations of jay-walkers who will almost get hit by a passing car whenever they walk into the road. This is just a mockery of the title sequence of the very first film.
Also, the pacing on the movie in terms of the actual story and the way it’s being driven is way too slow to fit in with the others (even the 2009 movie). I was at a point maybe 20 minutes or half an hour into the movie and I thought to myself... if this had been made in the 1970s you would have got all those story beats over and done with in the first 5 minutes. It really needed to movie faster than this and, again, this didn’t do anything to make it feel close to the franchise.
And then there’s the music.
I’m not all that familiar with Christopher Lennertz outside of his score for the TV remake of Humanoids From The Deep but he has done his best here. The music feels, for at least some of the time, like it belongs in a Shaft movie. There are some nice references to Isaac Hayes’ original Theme From Shaft although, tragically and inappropriately, the lyrics aren’t heard and the only vocal version, at the end of the movie, is just as part of some weak, sampled up rap version which, great idea as that could have been... just leaves a bad taste in the mouth (and ears, I guess). However, I was pleasantly surprised, when the two younger Shaft’s first go and revisit the original Shaft in his apartment, that he used part of Isaac Hayes original Shaft score which wasn’t part of the main theme and, I suspect, this is the first time this has been done in the franchise since its appearance in the first movie (with this particular cue... there are a few instances of similar Hayes’ references in the TV show).
Ultimately, I think fans of the original films are going to be less happy about what they’ve done with this than people who are coming into the franchise cold. True, there are some great one liners and gags scattered throughout but this honestly feels nothing like a continuation of the films although Roundtree is worth watching this for, if you do like the originals. Not the sequel I was hoping for and it took long enough getting made. I didn’t think I’d end up saying this but I kinda hope they leave this alone now. I think they’ve proven they can’t recapture the original magic which made the 1970s movies... and even the 2000 movie... such great pieces of cinema. Shut yo’ mouth!
Sunday, 21 July 2019
Dress To Kill
UK 2019 Directed Peter Strickland
UK cinema release print
In Fabric is the new film by Peter Strickland, a director whose previous two works, Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here) and The Duke Of Burgundy (reviewed here), I totally failed to get on with. The former because it was misrepresented as using a giallo sensibility when it clearly didn’t (more a mixture of British exploitation filtered through Lynchian surrealism) and the latter because it managed to make completely tame the cinematic representation of a BDSM relationship (even given it was trying to channel films like Check To The Queen... which I reviewed here).
I’m very pleased to say, therefore, that I quite enjoyed In Fabric although, truth be told, it’s still a little tame around the edges in what the camera declines to accurately portray. This is, kind of, a horror film mixed with some light comedy and it’s a little bit like The Yellow Rolls Royce in that it’s a film about a specific object... in this case a kind of demonically cursed object channelling a spirit, in some ways... and what happens to it over the course of a number of owners. Alas, in this film we only focus on two of those owners... main protagonists played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill in separate segments which are interconnected between the red dress of the title, the cursed object I mentioned earlier... and the department store/manufacturer of this specific dress where, at the very least, one can deduce that some of the fashion mannequins work in human form.
The film is vaguely surreal and quite sparklingly witty in places, with some nice performances from everyone involved with a special shout out to Steve Oram and Julian Barratt as a gay couple of bank managers who happen to be the boss of one of the main characters (and they were so good together in Aaaaaaaah! which I reviewed here that I was just pleased to see them together again). Captain Phasma herself, Gwendoline Christie also has some nice, sexually antagonistic moments on screen and Hayley Squires acquits herself well here and also shows a lovely comic side to her personality, such as when the somewhat weedy Leo Bill accidentally demonstrates his unknown ‘super-power’ in her presence.
The film is quite in your face and features much more of the ‘cut away to a visual montage’ moments than the director has manifested in one film before. Here, they usually take the form of either TV adverts for the shop which spawned the accursed dress or, quite often, flat print fashion advertising that give these sequences more of a ‘mood board’ element to them in the film rather than, I think, pretending to be anything that either forwards the plot of the piece (such as it is) or comments overtly on the nature of the narrative.
It’s also looking very 1970s, not just in terms of the period represented on screen (there’s a lot of equipment I remember from growing up through that time here) but also in terms of the style of the film-making and the way in which the shots are put together... which are very much Strickland but also very retro in feel and, I honestly don’t think that’s unusual for this director. The wonderful score by Cavern Of Anti-Matter which, alas, I can’t find on CD, is very much another element of the movie which highlights the pull back to the cinema of yesteryear and I was quite impressed by the audio soundscape of this film, to be sure (as I was by The Duke Of Burgundy score but, alas, that one couldn’t save the picture for me).
Once again, though, if you’re looking out for possible future signature devices from this director (like Ari Aster, I don’t think we’ve seen this guy’s masterpiece yet), it does kind of blend the subtle surrealism of a David Lynch movie still with the jolting, anti-immersive, almost tangental doses of surrealistic inventiveness reminiscent of someone like Jan Svankmajer.
In terms of story, though, it does make a lot more sense than something like, for instance, the director’s own Berberian Sound Studio. There’s no real impenetrable mystery at the heart of the movie which isn’t revealed in such a way that the audience can’t piece together a rough structural chain of cause and effect of the way in which the dress fulfils its purpose. In some ways, this does make the film somewhat predictable... I was kinda waiting for a sequence that showed two or three of the dead characters, from each section, revealing what their final fate would be... but, at the same time, Strickland leaves the ‘t’s uncrossed and the ‘i’s undotted so the audience is free to build on the rough narrative framework that is revealed in any way in which they please. Or at least, that’s the way it seems to me.
If anything, the film just doesn’t quite go far enough for me in terms of what’s depicted on screen. There are some violent moments, some of them bloody but... they never feel as impactful as they could be and that’s maybe because they are less surprising in the half nightmare, half candy factory world the director has managed to weave for us here. Similarly, the sexuality depicted on screen is all pretty much implied with nothing shown in camera as such and it kinda felt bereft of an edge to the ‘on screen shenanigans’ of various characters. So, I guess what I’m exploring here is why I felt the film was somewhat tame like his previous picture... so I should probably focus on something else, perhaps, such as the sparkling and flowery dialogue of the ‘people’ who work at the store or the absolute camp madness of the shop manager but, I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises 'in store' for you here.
In Fabric is... as I said... the first film I’ve actually liked by this director (or at least not hated) and so I’m happy to say that I can now look forward to his next one with a sense of excitement rather than what my expectations were when I dragged myself into central London to see this one. Films like this are, I should say, made for a big screen so if you want the full impact... especially in terms of the deliberately degraded stock effects he’s used in some sequences... then you really need to get yourself to a cinema to see this one. Not a film I would say would strike it big with horror fans but fans of comedy and things which are just a little, subtly unusual should get a kick out of this one.
Thursday, 18 July 2019
Dolly Go Lightly
Annabelle Comes Home
USA 2019 Directed by Gary Dauberman
UK cinema release print
Annabelle Comes Home is the seventh of the movies set in The Conjuring universe and for the most part, these have been successful films (I’m not talking about box office here, although that’s been good for them too on most of these, is my understanding). This one is the third of what had been a series of stand alone spin offs featuring the Annabelle doll from The Conjuring but this one also has the added bonus of having opening and closing sequences featuring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren. Lorraine Warren passed away earlier in the year and there’s a nice little ‘In Memorium’ type statement at the end of the film before the end credits roll.
In terms of the doll centred films in general, I’m going to start off by saying that this is not as bad as the first prequel, Annabelle (reviewed here) but by no means as good as the second prequel to that prequel, Anabelle Creation (reviewed here). This one, though, is set after both of those films and starts off with the Warrens bringing the doll back to their house so they can put it in a glass case and keep the evil contained. So it’s kind of set before the bits of The Conjuring where the Annabelle doll gets out near the end and this is a whole ‘adventure’ involving the doll that somehow wasn’t mentioned in those earlier movies. So wedged in between the various installments, it kinda doesn’t help that the main protagonist of this film, Lorraine Warren’s young daughter Judy, is played by somebody totally different... a young actress called Mckenna Grace. Not that she doesn’t do a great job... it’s just confusing but, with the way child actors' faces change so quickly, probably a necessity of setting this one back a bit before the events of some of the other films.
Grace is ably supported by two other teenage antagonists played by Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife as Judy’s babysitters while the Warrens are away for an evening and if you’re thinking that this movie seems overly teenage oriented for a franchise that has, with the two main movies at least, proved to be a mature, well made series of horror films... you’d be right. This is kind of a ‘Conjuring light’ movie and the plot revolves around something which we’ve seen since the opening of the very first movie in the sequence, the Warren’s ‘trophy room’. The writers have always made it clear that the things in this room should not be disturbed in any way lest the 'evil spirits' within return to their demonic ways so, of course, this is a film about what happens when one of the three protagonists goes on a rampage of curiosity within the forbidden room and lets out, not just the Annabelle doll but a load of other nasty characters too... since the Annabelle is known for being a conduit for all things demonic.
So, yeah, spooky things are afoot and it would be remiss of me not to mention that this movie does feel a lot less like an Annabelle movie and more like Nancy Drew Meets The Conjuring. However, saying that, it’s still very good at laying on the unbearable suspense and not always so obvious jump scares which, frankly, makes it a lot more scarier than some of the other movies I’ve seen at the cinema lately (cough... Midsommar... cough... In Fabric).
In fact, right from the opening ‘mini-adventure’ involving Ed and Lorraine Warren trying to drive the Annabelle doll home before she can kill them, we have the director deliberately playing with the conventions of the horror movie format by setting up not one but two view obscuring moments which he completely doesn’t use to deliver the obvious shock moments. They follow on from each other very quickly and the first of these is when Ed pops the bonnet of his car, thus obscuring what’s going on behind the windscreen from inside, where Lorraine is seated. Straight after, Lorraine opens up a large map of the area which completely blocks out our view of her side window. So, the director already knows we are expecting at least one of these two things to be hiding a jump scare and cleverly skips these... only revealing a cast of spirits from one of the views when we already know what’s happening out there.
Later on, when the film gets into full flow, the usual horror movie rules apply, where things are consistently obscured from the camera or deliberately used to foreshadow action which doesn’t actually come from the usual, on screen sources... and it’s a nice touch which shows that the film makers are at least thinking about the way an audience can second guess where the scares are coming from and, in this way at least, the film is consistent with the two main Conjuring titled movies. So yeah, one of the strong points of these films is that they respect the audience’s knowledge of the visual and audio semantics of the horror movie enough to be able to play around with things from time to time.
Another nice thing was the appearance of the brand of rag doll which was the actual Annabelle doll from the real life case make another minor cameo in this film. I think this has happened at least twice now.
Joseph Bishara’s score is, of course, another strong element of the film and it’s another case of a modern horror film giving us some effective and listenable scoring which isn’t just about extensions of the sound design. Alas, so far there’s only a stupid electronic download of the thing but if ever a CD comes out, I’ll be first in line to buy it. In fact, if a CD doesn’t come out then it will be the first movie in The Conjuring universe to not have one... so I really hope they don’t go the Marvel route with this by not releasing ‘much wanted’ CDs for some of the films.
Ultimately, as I’ve possibly oversold here earlier, the film is like a crazy fun house ride for kids in terms of the mix of teenagers with a whole load of different demonic entities after them but it does, at least, introduce us to some characters which I feel would be nicely explored in other spin offs. The spirit from the last movie in the series, The Curse Of La Llorona (which I reviewed here) makes a brief, fleeting appearance near the very start of the movie but, alas, there’s no reference to The Nun that I could easily spot. However, I think promising characters like a spooky ferryman demon, a killer bride and a big, ferocious werewolf spirit could be happily explored in future spin offs and, I suspect, be more effectively used than they were able to be in a movie which was trying to cram them all in together before we’ve already met them all properly.
At the end of the day, if you loved The Conjuring movies and the Annabelle spin offs then you should have a good time with Annabelle Comes Home. It’s not exactly intense horror but it did procure some screams from the audience I saw it with and fans of the genre in general shouldn’t have too much of a bad time with it. Not an essential watch but if you’re a fan of the cinematic incarnation of The Warrens then you should probably give this one some of your time.
Tuesday, 16 July 2019
USA 2019 Directed by Michael Dowse
UK cinema release print
Warning: Slight spoilers about the opening sequence.
Stuber is probably best described as a modern variant on those action comedy team ups which were popular in the 1980s like Running Scared. It’s also not a movie I would normally bother to go and see at a cinema (or any home format either, to be honest) but this one appealed to me because I have got a lot of time for one of the two main stars of the movie, David Bautista, who I think is a very good but underused actor who deserves much more from Hollywood casting agencies, as far as I’m concerned (check him out in Hotel Artemis, reviewed here, if you don’t believe me).
Here he co-stars with comic actor Kumail Nanjiani playing an Uber driver called Stu who has to ferry Bautista’s tough guy cop character Vic around because he’s just recovering from an operation on his eyes and can’t see very well... but it happens to coincide with a hot lead on a villain he’s been chasing for the last two years. Not to mention the opening of his daughter’s art gallery show and an opportunity for Stu to get together with the girl of his dreams, if only he can get away from driving Vic around and becoming embroiled in a web of crime and violence.
And... it’s not bad actually. Nanjiani is great as the put upon Uber driver who has to kill and kick bad guy ass due to being placed in life threatening situations when all he really needs to be is... somewhere else. And Bautista gets to show off his comic side (which he did very well as Drax The Destroyer in the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies) and basically does an all round good job with his character. Also, although it’s essentially a ‘comedy thriller’, the director doesn’t skimp on the action sequences and delivers, along with the writers and performers (yeah... and everyone else), a movie with some hard hitting, at times almost brutal, action sequences which, although the stakes are more personal, don’t dilute the emotional pull of the characters.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in a wonderful, extended opening action flashback sequence where Bautista and his then partner, played by his Guardians Of The Galaxy co-star, Amy Pond herself, the mighty Karen Gillan, are after the main villain of the piece, Oka, played by Iko Uwais of The Raid movies (reviewed here and here). Now, yes, it was a bit obvious right from the start that the fate of Gillan’s character was that she was going to get fridged to give Bautista’s character extra motivation for the rest of the movie but, even so, she does get some good screen time in this opening section and I would love to see her taking a starring role in this kind of action mayhem movie soon. Like Bautista, Hollywood needs to be putting her in more stuff.
The film takes its time to build up on the love/hate relationship between Stu and Vic and there’s some nice moments of the old but well loved cliché of ‘character building under duress’ scenes that are a staple of these kinds of ‘grudging buddy’ movies. There are also times when you feel that the death of one or other of the main characters seems almost inevitable and I appreciated that the director was able to ratchet up that kind of tension within the framework of a movie like this. It’s rare in movies these days that you actually get to the point where you genuinely think you may be about to lose one of the main protagonists.
I also appreciated that, staggeringly, the director was actually able to surprise me a couple of times too. For example, a main ‘bad guy’ who is revealed near the end is someone I would normally have seen coming a mile off so... goodness knows how this film managed to distract me enough that I didn’t see it coming. Ditto for a minor revelation in the last scene of the movie too... not that I’m going to say anything about that here.
Another thing that impressed me was the exploration and long term relevance of a scene which could have been just another throw away moment but which was given a heck of a lot more gravitas than it would in pretty much any other movie out there. This is a scene where a roomful of minor criminals, finding Vic at their door, have gotten rid of their drug evidence by feeding a load of packets of drugs to their dog. When Vic figures this out, he’s as much concerned about getting the dog to a vet and making sure it’s okay as he is with getting the information he’s after and I appreciated this and was also pleased with a follow on with the dog in the closing scenes of the movie too. This was a classy thing to do and certainly, in terms of effective movie making, endeared me to Vic even more.
And... okay, a short review for this one but that’s because I couldn’t find anything really bad to say about it, in all honesty (plus I had a terrible accident walking home from the cinema and the whole of my face and body is just one big bruise and I can barely move... which kinda takes some of the fun out of the writing process to be fair). Stuber is a pretty nice but, perhaps, not so significant action comedy with some marvellous performances from a director who, I’m pretty sure judging from some sequences in this, would be good as an all out action director too. Not something I’d probably bother with again but I think that this one should hit well with audiences, if the publicity machine does its job and people turn out for it. I had a good time with this one and am happy to recommend it to people who like these kinds of escapades. It’s a fun little film and I’d probably be happy to watch a sequel to it... although I don’t expect that to happen, in all honesty.
Sunday, 14 July 2019
Fourth Wall Of The Dead
The Dead Don't Die
USA/Sweden 2019 Directed by Jim Jarmusch
UK cinema release print
Warning: Some very slight spoilerage.
I’ve always liked Jim Jarmusch as a writer/director, since first seeing his early masterpiece Down By Law in the late 1980s. I’ve not seen all of his movies... there are a few gaps... but I have seen and enjoyed most of them. Every now and again he will make a movie that seems to be a complete side step from his usual fayre. The first time I noticed this was in his truly excellent Ghost Dog - The Way Of The Samurai but he also took me by surprise by making a ‘vampire movie’ a few years back called Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed by me here). Both of those films were much more commercially minded, it seems to me (either by design or by fluke) but each still transcended their genre trappings and held the key elements that I tend to associate with Jarmusch’s work over the years...
Those being: They were funny, poignant and highlighted the alienation of people sharing different languages and cultures even as they drew together.
So when it was announced that Jarmusch had made a zombie movie, I was interested... not just because I happen to like that sub-genre of horror movie anyway but because I knew, coming from Jarmusch, that it would be like no other zombie movie that ever came before it. Well... I got that right.
The film stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver, both regular collaborators with the director (check out Driver’s role in the directors last non-documentary movie Paterson, which I reviewed here) as two cops who are the main police presence in their small town of Centerville, along with the only other cop in town played by Chloë Sevigny. And they are all supported by a star studded cast, many of whom have worked with the director before, including Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop and Caleb Landry Jones (in a wonderful turn as a petrol and film/comic book merchandise dealer who wears a Nosferatu t-shirt). And, as you would expect from a cast like this (or pretty much any cast under this director, actually), they are all pretty amazing. Between them, Murray and Driver keep the mood sombre with their perpetually downbeat expressions and this helps maintain the minimalistic, gloomy atmosphere of a town, one of many, which has suddenly been overrun with a plague of zombies.
Now, I think this film is going to really divide people and there’s an element that even I, while laughing out loud at a lot of the wonderful humour on display here, found somewhat annoying. I’ll get to just what that is in a minute but let me first look at what this film both shares and, often, doesn’t share with the zombie genre in general.
Well, the common traits are a marked goriness when the humans are attacked although, conversely, when older zombies are out walking there is just dust instead of blood, which is possibly more accurate (I’m not sure, not being an expert on the undead myself). There’s also... and this is quite blatant here and almost being done just to check off boxes, it seems... the comparison of zombies who, like their nearest on-screen antecedents in the George A. Romero zombie flicks, are a satire of various aspects of our culture. Indeed, Jarmusch almost goes over the top to prove a point here by comparing some of the zombies to mobile phone/social media users and demonstrating this while it’s already been established earlier on in the text of the film what the ‘wifi’ so desired by the walking dead has already failed in the town.
However, it does do a lot which the modern, post-Romero zombie movie doesn’t often do. For example, it gives us a pseudo-scientific reason for the outbreak of the undead (which somehow comes in two stages in its ressurectional properties and thus renders the narrative nonsensical anyway... possibly what Jarmusch wants here) whereas most modern zombie films don’t try to find a rationale behind the undead shenanigans, they just deliberately side step it and cut to the chase. Here, Jarmusch has introduced the concept of polar fracking throwing the earth off its axis and this somehow raising the dead. Honestly, though... I think this is just another excuse to heavy hand the various metaphors used within the genre and, in some ways poke fun of it.
And that’s where I have my main problem with this film... the lack of respect for the genre. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a director like Jarmusch seeming to say that films made in these kinds of genres are dumb and I’m more than happy for him to have a pop at them. However, the way in which he does it, with a blatant disregard for his own story mechanics where its later shown that... quite literally... anything goes (and if you’ve seen the movie I’m talking about both the final exit scene of Tilda Swinton’s character and the awareness of its non-feasibility in the script by Adam Driver’s character). And this is a big problem for me because, as I’ll get to in a minute, this kinda feels like the director is insulting the intelligence of the kinds of people who would turn out for a film like this... or at least that’s the way it felt to me, anyway.
Also, there’s a lot of referential, postmodernistic jokes in the main body of the film and while the director has done this just a little in the past, usually with a lot more of a story impact than the ‘thrown off’, almost Tarantino-esque way he does it here, I think this dumbs down the movie somewhat too. Again, don’t get me wrong because I had a little chuckle when I saw the late, great director Sam Fuller’s name on a tombstone but this film seems to be loaded with this sort of stuff and, outside of the obvious and loving references to Pittsburgh (where Romero plied his zombie trade), there seemed to be to be way too much of this kind of thing and it felt like the high calibre director was kind of slumming it, to some extent. Jarmusch is better than this, is what I kept thinking... it just seemed a little out of character for him.
Okay, so there were a few walk outs in the audience when I saw this (I’m pleased to say because, if someone like Jarmusch doesn’t get some walk outs then he’s almost failed) and I think this may be due to the quite blatant self awareness of some of the characters, Adam Driver’s in particular... and their inability or disinterest in helping themselves out in terms of where the script is taking them. So, yes, Adam Driver and Bill Murray’s characters both show, from very early in the film, that they are characters in a film and this kinda grates in the way it’s done. We’re not being asked to share in any peril or the particularly humourous modes of speech that the various characters explore (including cycles of repeat phrases which got me smiling quite a lot, it has to be said) because we can’t invest with them in any way as characters. In fact, we are being asked to interact with them on a more metatextual level, it seems but... only when it doesn’t get in the way of the on-screen action... which is a bit like the director is trying to ‘eat all the pies’ and not helpful in creating a film which holds together tonally, despite the minimalistic air of cynicism and acceptance that Jarmusch pulls from the air almost effortlessly.
Despite all these criticisms though, I personally really enjoyed The Dead Don't Die. It’s not ever going to make the top of my list in terms of favourite Jarmusch movies but it’s an entertaining piece and I think long time fans of the director shouldn’t have as much of a problem with it as a more commercially minded audience expecting to see a ‘cool zombie movie’ might have. Recommended to cineastes who are not worried about seeing what I think is personally too many directorial experiments thrown together into the same film. It’s interesting, funny and entertaining so, honestly, what more could you want from a night out at your local cinema?
Thursday, 11 July 2019
USA 2019 Directed by Ari Aster
UK cinema release print
Regular readers of this site may remember that I was kinda torn in my opinion of Ari Aster’s horror movie Hereditary last year (reviewed by me here). There was some very good film making on display there but the tonal shift at the end of the movie plunging straight into supernatural shenanigans with no real slow burn build up to them caused a lot of the rest of the audience I saw it with to laugh while I found myself tutting at the way the spell of the rest of the film was sacrificed to an almost atmospherically non-sequitur of an ending.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Midsommar, Aster’s follow up feature which is pretty much an homage in spirit to films like The Blood On Satan’s Claw (reviewed here) and The Wicker Man is certainly much more on the ball in terms of it being tonally consistent. It also showcases, once more, some very strong cinematic manipulation which certainly makes it a joy to watch on a purely technical level. It also, alas, suffers from one of the main weaknesses that Hereditary had, in terms of its almost deliberate predictability and, ultimately, feels more like a piece of fluff in terms of actual content... although it’s dressed up beautifully, it has to be said.
It’s also, funnily enough, not a horror movie as I was expecting it to be, which was a little disappointing. If anything, I’d say its nearest cousin, asides from those films I mentioned above (especially The Wicker Man which also isn’t a horror movie), would be the American slasher movies predominant in the 1970s and 80s. I can’t, in all conscience, describe this one as a thriller either since it’s mostly obvious what’s going to happen and it’s so slow moving (and that in itself isn’t a bad quality to have) that it feels more like a somewhat flat drama with the odd piece of surrealism thrown in.
Okay, so positive things about the movie... well, the acting is great, especially from the likes of Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (who has a bizarrely striking screen presence here).
And then there’s the camera work and editing which really highlight a great auteur at work (even if I don’t think we’ve seen this guy’s masterpiece yet). For example, the opening sequence is truly amazing. It starts off with a series of static shots of snowy landscapes at twilight with a haunting soundtrack, one after the other. Once the director has lulled you into being comfortable with the rhythm of the shots, the shrill ring of a phone penetrates through the soundtrack and keeps going in time with various cuts which, at this point in the sequence, zoom in (via a sequence of static shots still) on a specific dwelling, acting as an establishing sequence which carries on into a scene which starts with that phone call. This is great stuff and there’s a lot of this kind of the editing of the shots mixed with sound as the film goes on, although there’s also a great deal of slow, moving camera work too.
This general mise-en-scene coupled with some truly beautifully designed shots where the director will section people off into different geometric shapes on screen deliver a film which, whatever its sins, never gets boring. Not only this but there’s some truly startling pieces of surrealistic imagery where one of the main characters seems to almost randomly fuse with the very landscape she is a part of.
Also, while the level of goriness is fairly high, there’s also some quite poetic, if fairly unpleasant moments in the film which are equally surreal (a vivisected person with daisies for eyes suspended and breathing still, through lungs which have been raised out of the back of a rib cage, comes to mind). Alas, far from being the supernatural stuff of horror movies, it’s all explained away within the text of the movies as the somewhat psychedelic properties of the ‘potions’ given to various people or, as the violence mentioned above, the work of a person or group of people. Which is why it’s closer to a slasher than a horror movie, in some respects.
The big problem, though, as I touched on above, is that Midsommar is nothing if not predictable. And it really doesn’t have to be. At some point you will even figure out just who of our main protagonists will be the last person standing, even if it does somewhat fly in the face of the convention of such tales in cinematic history. And it doesn’t help that there’s an awful lot of telegraphing going on in the film. The director likes to dwell on particularly prophetic drawings and paintings throughout the movie and it really is, as you’ll quickly realise, something of a guidebook to the way the story is going to unfold.
However, Bobby Krlic’s (aka The Haxan Cloak, in the few days since writing the first draft of this review) almost hypnotic score is a match for the sometimes off kilter imagery and I’m hoping this will get an easily importable CD release soon.* Its somewhat micropolyphonic texturing is sometimes subtle and sometimes booming and is a big help in certain places in the movie to ramp up the intensity of the imagery being explored. This is one I’d listen to away from the film, for sure.
Other than that, though... again, I’m somewhat torn. Tonally the director has this film licked and Midsommar works so much better as a ‘whole piece’ than his previous movie did but, alas, he still hasn’t worked out how to surprise his audience in terms of the story line and the simple, clean style of the somewhat effective imagery doesn’t add much in terms of substance to the content, it has to be said. Not one I’d recommend to people expecting to see a horror movie but certainly you can learn a lot about the way you can manipulate audience emotion through the editing and sound on this one... so students of moving image may well be advised to check this one out. Personally I don’t ever need to watch this movie again in my lifetime but... I’m sure some people will love it.
*Milan records have recently contacted me on Twitter to confim that they are releasing this on CD at some point in the future... gone are the days when you could buy the CD months before the movie came out, I guess
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Directed by Luc Besson
UK cinema release print
Anna is a new action picture written and directed by Luc Besson. Someone who I used to trust a fair amount to get stuff like this mostly right although I have, it has to be said, been disappointed by a lot of his output of recent years.
I remember seeing his film Nikita with my best friend (no longer with me, alas) at the once great Lumiere cinema (also no longer with us) back in 1990. I think we went back more or less every week it was playing there to have another look at it. I saw it five times on their massive screen, if memory serves. The trailer for Anna looked very much like it was a differently dressed up revisiting of the themes and style of action of Nikita and, now I’ve got a look at it in my local, it has to be said, that’s exactly what it is... more or less.
It also has a lot less of an edge to it, it seems to me, than not only the glowingly brilliant original film but also of many of the retreads of the same material, some self-admittedly remakes and some not, by other director and writing teams. Films like The Villainess (reviewed here) have a lot more going for them than this. I don’t know why but the action sequences in this are just... okay... and the pauses between them seem a little less interesting than they could be. Films like Atomic Blonde and the John Wick series, for example, have a lot more kinetic brutality to their set sequences and, although Besson almost invented this hyper-stylised action world himself... by way of influence on other film-makers at the very least... you get the feeling that the action in this could be a lot more in your face than what we have here.
Besson has tried to compensate, somewhat, for the clichés inherent in this tale of a government created assassin in the way he’s given her a background incorporating a love of Matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, which in turn defines the narrative structure of the piece (which almost lost me at the start because one of the timeline placements didn’t quite make sense to me as I was trying to do the maths in my brain). So what he does is he will have a sequence with what I am assuming is supposed to be a surprising ending, followed by a flashback from some years earlier which shows you how you got to that point in the narrative. And he keeps doing this all the way through and, although it’s a clever way of presenting the story, it does get quite old rather quickly and, much worse, tips you off before any real surprises or revelations about the state or allegiances of various characters are revealed. There’s a bit near the end, for example, when I couldn’t believe that Besson was being arrogant enough to try and fool his audience with the death of one of the characters when it was obvious it was going to be revealed as a staged moment a little later on in the narrative. I did feel quite insulted, in a way, that the director would think people would fall for this stuff.
Okay, so there are some nice things in this film too and a big plus is the strength of the performances. Sasha Luss is brilliant in the title role and she is doing very well holding her own against such strong actors as Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy and Luke Evans. Actually, this really is a good role for Murphy and I’m convinced, by the way he plays this one here, that he would be an absolutely perfect fit for the straw haired Felix Leiter of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, next time they need to change the current actor portraying him in the movies. There’s also a wonderful performance by first time actress Lera Abova as one of Anna’s many lovers but, alas, as wonderful as she is in this movie, the character is somewhat poorly treated throughout and definitely underused, it has to be said. An epilogue to the main narrative giving us some closure about her would have helped, I think.
The other good thing here is the return of Eric Serra as the composer of the film’s score. This is a nicely appropriate piece of scoring with the exact same kind of soundscape you would expect from him... which is handy if you’re doing a ‘less than honest’ remake of Nikita, I guess. I hope this score gets a proper CD release at some point rather than just a stupidly flattened out electronic download affair as I really want to hear this one away from the visuals. This composer certainly hasn’t lost his touch over the decades, that’s for sure.
Ultimately, Anna is a fairly fun time at the pictures but it's hampered by a clever but somewhat impractical structure which, I suspect, dictated how some of the dramatic beats were allowed to fall and sacrificed a possibly more fulfilling experience in the pursuit of its own narrative experiment. It’s still, however, a very competent, polished piece of action cinema but I can’t help but be reminded of one of the earliest and most commonly found pieces of negative criticism of Luc Besson’s work back in the 1980s and 90s when his masterpieces such as Subway, The Big Blue and Nikita were first doing the rounds. It was said that he was a champion of ‘style over substance’ in his movies and, although none of us teenage kids saw this as a problem at the time... and in hindsight I’d still reject that proposition of a summation of his early works... I would say that his recent films such as the terrible Lucy (reviewed here), the so so Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (reviewed here) and this one are seeming to me more like films that totally justify that criticism but, in the worst way. Style over substance can be fine in my book but it needs to show us something either very beautiful or very different to make an impression in these media heavy, visually saturated times and, although Anna feels like it’s almost getting there, it wouldn’t be one I’d recommend to fans of Besson’s earlier works, I’m sad to say.
Sunday, 7 July 2019
Spider-Man - Far From Home
USA 2019 Directed by Jon Watts
UK cinema release print
Warning: Slight spoilers.
Well, Spider-Man - Far From Home is an okay follow up to the various Tom Holland starring Spider-Man movies of recent years. It’s not without its problems though and while various critics have claimed that this film is the first of what many people are calling ‘superhero fatigue’ at the box office... I think we have a while to go before that sets in yet. I think the somewhat muted response to this film is possibly because of the stealth approach to the title character but I’ll get onto that in a minute.
Of the superhero movies released by Marvel so far this year, I’d say this runs second place behind X-Men - Dark Phoenix (reviewed here) but way in front of the ‘so-so but not terrible’ Captain Marvel (reviewed here) and the terribly disappointing Avengers - Endgame (reviewed here)... so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, for this year at least, DC wins the best superhero movie prize with their inappropriately unfaithful (to the original comics) but immensely fun SHAZAM! movie (which I reviewed here).
So... the new Spider-Man has a lot of the stuff which worked from Spider-Man Homecoming (reviewed by me here) tossed in with some excellent performances from Tom Holland as Peter Parker, Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds and the truly wonderful Zendaya as MJ. There are a lot of old Spider-Man character references in these movies but they’re so changed from the versions of them found in the original source material that, once again, characters are given the names of their comic counterparts only and have nothing of the look and feel of them. It’s a shame but it kinda works if you can forget these were comic book characters.
It looks spectacular but it kinda drags a lot, to be honest and I think the real problem with this for me is that you never really get to see Spider-Man in one of his regular costumes until near the end of the movie. He’s either winging it with a stolen half mask or wearing a ridiculous ‘Night Monkey’ costume and none of it really gives you that Spider-Man vibe that fans of the character may want. This is not to say there’s not a lot of action but it just doesn’t feel like anything great and I also think the lack of human, villanous henchmen during the fight scenes, instead of fighting big monsters which, anyone who knows who Mysterio is from the comics anyway, will know are just smoke and mirrors, just takes things away from having any stake in the characters.
Some good stuff though... Jake Gyllenhaal is great as Mysterio and when you see him finally from a different viewpoint, he switches into Spidey nemesis mode subtly and it’s very well played. Also, bringing back Happy played by Jon Favreau and having him dating Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is great. Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders are back too and they do some nice stuff between them.
The main meat of the story though, for my money, is the blossoming relationship between Petey and MJ, which really is what this film is all about as far as I’m concerned, along with MJ ‘discovering’ Peter’s secret identity. Alas, once more this doesn’t happen in the same way as the comics, where it turns out that Mary Jane knew he was Spider-Man even before they’d first met... but they at least let MJ figure it out for herself here so, that’s kind of cool.
Now then, there are two post credits scenes here and, unusually for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, they’re both kinda important in terms of story beats. The first one sees a famous Spider-Man character from a previous version of the franchise (the Sam Raimi series of films) return. Interestingly, since the person playing this character was so good doing it before, they’ve got the same actor back from that earlier franchise. Now, I did kinda thought this was going to happen with the same actor actually... but I thought they might take another couple of films to do it so everybody could forget this person was in it before. Nope, they’ve really gone for it here although, it has to be said, the revelations of this mid-credits cameo may mean that he really can’t be in it a lot in future movies (although he’ll have to be in the next one, for sure). Also, they cut out a nicely done scene which was shown in the trailer for this movie and, with the consequences implied by this first post-credits scene on the future direction of the franchise, it would have made a lot of sense to keep it.
The second and final post credits scene is also something of an eye opener although, it has to be said, I was a little disappointed in the direction Marvel chose to take this. All I’ll say about this one is... you really need to have seen Captain Marvel to really understand what’s going on here.
And... that’s me more or less done on Spider-Man - Far From Home, I think. It’s an okay movie with a nice score by Michael Giacchino which does ‘more of the same’ as the previous Spiderman - Homecoming although, sadly it doesn’t use the old cartoon series music this time around. There are some cleverly thought out, retrofitting link-ins with the various sub-villains here too, with flashbacks to previous MCU movies like Iron Man and Captain America - Civil War. Ultimately, though, this is not enough to elevate it to being a ‘great’ superhero movie... it’s just a nice addition which has its problems but I suspect it will still do some box office (although possibly not as much on repeat performance as the company might be expecting from it... I certainly have no desire to rush back and see it again). I do look forward to seeing how they go about dealing with the challenge they’ve set themselves here in any sequel, though but... I also feel like Marvel really need to raise their game to continue with the unprecedented box office dominance which they’ve managed to hold for over ten years now. Great writing would surely fix this issue. This movie feels like the franchise is getting a little lethargic and, while I had fun, I was certainly underwhelmed too. It’s still worth a watch though... especially if you’re not too hung up on the comic book versions of the characters who are, mostly, not in evidence here.
Friday, 5 July 2019
USA 1992 Directed by Albert Band, Charles Band
Full Moon/88 FIlms Blu Ray Zone B
Oh wow. This is a film and a half.
I only have two scores by B-movie composer Richard Band on CD. One is Trancers III (a film I’ve not seen) and the other is to one of the great 1980s attempts to revive the 3D format in theatres, Metalstorm - The Destruction of Jared-Syn. However, I was sitting reading my Twitter timeline one morning and there was an excerpt from an interview with the composer and he mentioned Doctor Mordrid, a film co-directed by his father and brother and of which he seemed to make no bones about being a rip off of the Marvel comics character Doctor Strange (who is currently being played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the second on-screen iteration of the character). It seemed the production company did, at some point, have the rights to make a movie about the character but, by the time the production came together, they didn’t have enough money to renew the rights so... they didn’t and just changed the names of various characters and shaved off Doctor Strange’s moustache, leaving the rest of his costume pretty much as it is in the early comics, to get around copyright (allegedly... and it does seem to be the case if you read between the lines as well as use the evidence of your own eyes when you let this amazing little movie burn its delightful path onto your retinas).
I was interested in seeing this straight away, of course, but... well I highly doubted there would ever have been an official, commercial release of this movie in the UK. Cut to two or three hours later and there I was standing in Fopp records looking at a fairly new, cleaned up Blu Ray transfer of Doctor Mordrid for the less than princely sum of £6. This was too good to be true and, when I finally got around to watching the movie a couple of weeks later... I found that, not only was it too good to be true... it was also too bad to be true but, in the best way ever.
Seriously, Doctor Mordrid is a amazing and wonderous film and a bit of a strange conundrum of a picture in the sense that... it’s both one of the best ‘so hilariously bad it’s good’ movie’s I’ve seen in a good long time but, also, it’s actually got a bizarre kind of coolness to it. This last element is provided quite definitively by Jeffrey Combs in the title role, who absolutely plays all of the unfolding nonsense with, not just a sense of seriousness and gravitas which this kind of character needs to thrive but also with a lot of charm and on screen presence, it has to be said. Of course, he’s not Doctor Strange, Master Of The Mystic Arts he’s... Doctor Mordrid, Master Of The Unknown which would, I dunno, imply that if he’s a master of unknown things then he must know about them and thus negate the veracity of this contradiction of a title but... well, you get the picture.
And I don’t know if my words can fully do justice to the sheer brilliance of the stupidity of the film but... I’ll give it my best shot.
The film opens with a credit sequence which is a slow pan around Doctor Mordrid’s inner sanctum, the mysterious books and artefacts he has in his collection very slowly examined by the camera as... Richard Band’s opening title music goes completely over the top in a full on gallop of a heroic march which is both completely inappropriate to the style and pacing of the visuals while still being a great melody and piece of music in its own right and which would ably support some of the most heroic title sequences in the history of cinema... just not this one (although I am pleased to say that I did manage to find a reasonably priced second hand CD of the score which arrived in the post a week later). Amongst the credits we also have the legendary caption which says the film is ‘Based on an original idea by Charles Band’ so... yeah, you know what? Let’s not even go there. Unless you want to get into an argument about the meaning of the word ‘original’.
We then get the first scene which gave me pause for thought and made me think straight away of the mighty Marvel artist Jack Kirby... Doctor Mordrid consulting with ‘The Monitor’ (maybe that’s a non-Marvel version of The Watcher) who appears to him as a pair of giant, floating eyeballs in space. Oh yeah, this is something which seems just like Jack Kirby would have been doing in the late 1960s and mid 1970s and it all just felt somehow familiar. As it turns out, what I didn’t know until I looked it up after, is that Jack Kirby actually had been on board with the project at some point in the early stages of the film (presumably, before the money ran out) and so I’m guessing this was one of his contributions.
Anyway, The Monitor warns Mordrid that things are happening and elements are coming together towards the final showdown between Doctor Mordrid and his childhood enemy, a dark sorcerer called Kabal, who Mordrid has locked away in his castle dungeon which is a bit like his own personal Arkham Asylum for demonic villains, watched over by a big prison warden, Gunner. Oh... and another possible Kirbyism is that this castle is solitary in that it’s floating on a big rock in space.
But, back on planet Earth, we find ourselves in Rio De Janeiro... I know it must be there because the establishing shot is a still photograph of that big Christ The Redeemer statue and, should we be suspicious that they are just going to cut back to some footage taken nearer to the studio, it also tells us that in big letters to re-enforce that idea. Now then, wherever we are, we have a truly great moment in the film... perhaps greater than some of the sorcery we shall see later in the way it truly defies the physics of the situation. A guy with a truck load of... can’t remember, maybe diamonds... shoots the guy in front who is driving. So... where you might be correct in thinking this would cause the van to veer around the road in an ‘out of control’ manner and hurtle to destruction, this film tells us this is just not would happen in this situation. Instead, after he is shot dead, the driver would slump over the steering wheel and the van would suddenly slow down and stop because... um... what the heck? What are we being asked to believe here? This is completely ludicrous.
However, this complete lack of a coherent adherence to the laws of physics is soon forgotten as the villain of the piece, Kabal, makes his first appearance. And, it has to be said, he looks like an elaborately comical, long haired, blonde viking with sunglasses trying to find the nearest surf board. Wow. This guy is certainly striking and, a closer look reveals that he is... in fact... Brian Thompson, the lead villain of the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra. Except here, instead of quite literally spitting the word ‘Pig’ at all and sundry, he says a lot of mystical things, fondles a naked woman, enslaves willing servants to do his every bidding and casts some really cool but probably silly spells.
We then get a proper introduction to Jeffrey Combs and also to his pet raven called Edgar. And, just in case you really didn’t get that comical allusion... he later refers to him as Edgar Allan, just to be sure the audience can appreciate the level of referencing on display here. What this raven can’t explain, though, is why several books catch on fire when Doctor Mordrid crosses through his handy portal to visit his castle. When he gets there, he meets up with Gunner, who walks around with two big holes where his eyes would normally be. Turns out Kabal has escaped, melting out Gunner’s eyes in the process (although, to be fair, this doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any). Mordrid restores Gunner’s eyeballs and goes back to Earth to make friends with a lady lawyer with a passion for mystical and spiritual phenomena, who happens to be his next door neighbour and who will help him out later in the film (charmingly played by Yvette Nipar).
Now, when I started watching this movie I’d figured it was made for a TV audience because the obvious cut away shot of blood spraying onto a statue was done without actually having any blood after someone was shot... therefore I just assumed it was being made to get around certain potential censorship problems. So I was pretty surprised when various characters actually start swearing and, on top of that, we have female nudity on screen. Not complaining, mind you but... it did manifest a certain tonal shift which doesn’t, in all honesty, do much harm to the movie.
After a while, the battle between the forces of good and evil is on and things are kinda predictable but always pretty fun and, not once, do the actors suggest that there’s anything wrong with the preposterous dialogue they are having to recite... which can be a lot of the battle on the credibility of these things, to be honest. Not that I’m suggesting the movie has any credibility but, you know, at least people aren’t laughing at themselves here. Even when either Mordrid or Kabal are walking around in their astral forms.
Now then, about the astral projection in this movie. When either Mordrid or Kabal appear before the other in their 'astral form', the budget of this movie does nothing to help portray this fact. They don’t in any way appear to shimmer or change colour and... it’s just the actors walking around like normal, proclaiming their status as such. Luckily, one or the other will usually either throw something or shoot bullets at the ‘astral person’ which will pass through them and then this will be followed with a handy piece of revealing dialogue which is not entirely dissimilar to one or other of them saying... “Ha! Your rocks/bullets/throwy object cannot hurt me, as I am in my astral form.” So there you have it.
And then everything stacks up and we get to the finale of the movie and... it’s a bit of a quick denouement, to be honest. Kabal and the astral form of Doctor Mordrid go toe to toe in some kind of American equivalent of the natural history museum and, to my delight, Kabal brings to life the skeleton of a dinosaur which then rampages around menacing people. And, considering this film was made in the 1990s, it’s actually proper old school Ray Harryhausen style stop motion animation as said dinosaur skeleton, not to mention the woolly mammoth skeleton Doctor Mordrid reanimates to fight the dinosaur, picks up a museum guard and proceeds to eat him. And it’s brilliantly naive and charming because, just like those old Harryhausen adventures, the guard suddenly turns into a stop motion puppet of the guard waving his arms and legs about. Of course, logically I couldn’t work out where this skeleton’s digestive system is supposed to be found or what good masticating on a guard would do it but, hey, I’m no palaeontologist. What do I know?
As Kabal gets quickly defeated by means so alarmingly underwhelming that after only a week since viewing this I have forgotten what they are, Gunner is using some kind of bizarre, laser shotgun to ensure no demons in the castle prison place can escape, as was Kabal’s plan. And then that’s it, the end... apart from fulfilling some romantic obligations between Mordrid and his lawyer friend.
As soon as the film had finished, I realised I could quite easily watch it over again and for multiple viewings. Doctor Mordrid is the perfect ‘night in with drunken friends’ kind of movie that can be enjoyed on all kinds of levels and which owns a certain sense of coolness at odds with the silliness of the story, the banality of the dialogue and the cheapness of its budget. A mini masterpiece of, possibly, inadvertent comedy which still maintains a certain gravitas and commands a certain amount of respect in spite of this. One of my new ‘to be recommended to friends of a certain disposition’ movies to be sure.
Wednesday, 3 July 2019
A Dog Out On A Dark Knight
Scooby Doo and Batman
The Brave And The Bold
USA 2018 Directed by Jake Castorena
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2
Warning: Slight spoilers.
The Brave And The Bold was a comic book series which ran from 1955 to somewhere in the 1980s. It was originally an adventure story orientated comic book but, after a few transformations, got injected with some of the superheroes that DC had in their catalogue and became something more like their World’s Finest comic book (which basically teamed up DC’s two biggest A list characters, Superman and Batman, on a regular basis). The Brave And The Bold, before long, became a revolving team up anthology which would feature The Batman plus any one DC hero or group of collective heroes within the pages. The series has been revived a number of times since the 1980s and is currently, I believe, a regular series once again.
This new animation, Scooby-Doo And Batman - The Brave And The Bold, teams up (for the third time, for the record) Batman and the Scooby Doo gang. This one being made some 47 years after the last two shorter episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies TV series which also featured the dynamic duo. Although this feature length production from last year was apparently inspired by those earlier team ups, this is a fairly different kind of beast with a much more self aware attitude to the main, stylistic components of its own DNA. And it’s actually quite good, if a little more juvenile in places than I had expected... mainly with the treatment of Aquaman who looks more like the 1970s incarnation of Oliver Queen (aka Green Arrow) and seems to shout “Outrageous!” whenever he gets the chance to say much of anything.
The plot starts off with Mystery Incorporated... that’s Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby Doo, to the uninitiated... as they finish up an adventure. However, when the spooky foes are unmasked it turns out to be Jon Jonz (aka Martian Manhunter) and a talking ape wearing a Sherlock Holmes style deerstalker called Detective Chimp (I really have no idea who this is and would just like to blot him out from my memory as quickly as possible, to be honest). It turns out Batman has cast this mystery as a test to see if Mystery Incorporated are worthy to join what is, more or less, a lightweight version of the Justice League of America (as it was always known when I was a kid) called Mystery Analysts of Gotham. The group comprises Batman, Martian Manhunter, Detective Chimp, The Question (a hero who has no face), Plastic Man (one of my favourite super heroes, although his sidekick Woozy Winks is nowhere to be seen) and Black Canary.
So the plot thickens when, while Scooby and the gang are helping these heroes solve an old crime, it dovetails into Batman’s one unsolved, old cold case where he failed to save the day and this new adventure sees his past coming back to haunt him. Just as bad, both Batman and Mystery Inc are framed for a crime and so are trying to finish the case while also evading both the police and the other superheroes... not to mention the lethal villain of the piece.
So, yeah, this is a nice enough, if quite childishly written (in places) caper and it makes for a diverting enough animation. There’s some nice dialogue in here too... for instance when Fred makes a device for trapping life-sized puppets, really consisting of just a net, he calls it a ‘mario-net’. Another great moment is when one of the other characters makes a terrible joke and The Question, who is featureless, says... “Just so you know, I’m rolling my eyes.”
Another nice thing about this movie is that the Batman character, while a bit angularly designed and looking like he has half of his face missing at some angles, is quite obviously an homage to the old Batman TV show in design (if not manner) and I can’t help but think that if Adam West himself had lived for just a few more years then he would have been providing the voice for this movie. As it is though, the costume with its pale eyebrows and yellow ellipse around the bat symbol on his chest (something which actually didn’t start in the comics until the TV series first aired in the 1960s) disappear when the character flashes back to his previous, historically unsolved case in the nicest way. For this sequence the suit is replaced with the old style costume from his earliest comic book issues, with the extra long ears and the black bat symbol directly drawn onto the chest. This was a great little touch for longtime followers of the character and I really appreciate stuff like this. Also, the Batmobile in this section is one of those old, closed top versions with the big fin on the roof. Whereas in the main body of the film it’s the sixties one and it has the moving sign entry approach to the Bat Cave which people will remember from the old TV show.
Another nice stylistic touch is the little ‘highlight’ sections which pull out one of the characters such as Batman in mid punch to give a slow moving, not quite static splash page effect of the violent moments with a big musical sting behind each which is, almost, reminiscent of the old TV show and I’m pretty sure this is why this was done. The visuals aren’t quite the same but the stylistic punctuation of the fight scenes serves exactly the same effect. Also, the first time in the movie we see this done is when Shaggy and Scooby have to ‘eat their way out’ of a room full of super-villains such as Harley Quin and Poison Ivy in Arkham Asylum... with little staged moments of them chowing down on food as they evade the bad guys running. It’s nicely done, chum.
There are some problems too... like I implied, there’s no real ‘adult level’ to the scripting here and that’s a problem when it runs for an hour and a quarter. But my real problem was with Black Canary. Now, I love Black Canary but she always, almost without fail, wears fishnet stockings and that pretty much helps define her look as much as Superman’s red cloak or Green Lantern’s power ring. However, here there are no fishnets to be seen and I almost didn’t recognise her. She has pale, grey, lifeless stockings and... I’m sorry, that’s just not Black Canary. Heck, even the Lego version of her character has the iconic fishnets. Secondly... she has a super power of some kind of canary voice. What? Since when? Well, I think since sometime in only the last 30 years or so which, frankly, is a bizarre gimmick and certainly the Black Canary I know, from the 1970s (and earlier) never had any kind of canary howl. This is a pretty lame addition.
All in all though, it’s not a bad movie and the kids among you should definitely like it.
There are a couple of extra movies on the disc too, those being the two original episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies which featured Batman and Robin from 1972. Now, I tried to watch these on DVD a few years ago and was disgusted because, not only were they both ‘top and tailed’, as in the opening and closing credits were not present... they also had a dire, canned laughter track which made them pretty unwatchable. Indeed, the last time I tried to watch these I had to give up after about three minutes because I just can’t stand laughter tracks. Their treatment on this disc is a little bit better but it really is a mixed bag...
On the plus side, both cartoons have had their opening and end credits restored so... that’s pretty good. Also and, quite surprisingly, the first of the two episodes, The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair, has had it’s laughter track completely removed. Yes! High five to Warners for being able to get hold of the isolated elements and wipe the horrible laughter track from this one. Hoyt Curtin’s musical shenanigans certainly benefit from it. Alas, for the second of the two shows, The Caped Crusader Caper, it seems they’ve been unable to do this but I suspect there’s a lot less than there was on there originally and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a sweetener laughter track which intruded onto the sound effects tape and they were just left with that one when they stripped it off. It certainly doesn’t seem as distracting as it could have done though so, I definitely think some work has been done on it. That being said, the visual quality isn’t great and these two look a little pixilated, to be honest. Although, I guess they always would seem like that when you compare them to the modern main feature on here.
Okay so... the content of these two films are... terrible. In both cases we have The Joker and The Penguin teaming up and acting completely out of character to have fun scaring those ‘meddling kids’. The 1960s Batman vibe is still definitely something which certain elements have been borrowed from though... like the same approach to the Bat Cave that the modern cartoon used and also the speech patterns of The Penguin being very much in the style of Burgess Meredith’s outstanding performance of him in the sixties. The Joker’s voice though... the less said about it the better, believe me. There is the odd good pun though, such as when the fiendish villains drop Batman and Robin into an inescapable pit in the ground. “Our pit is full... how pitiful!” quips The Joker and I have to say this high quality punning surprised me at this point compared to much of the rest on offer in these cartoons. I still haven’t figured out, though, how Batman can look through his binoculars and see the same footage we saw earlier, from different angles into the shot even, though Batman is still observing from the same viewpoint. What the heck?
Ultimately, Scooby-Doo And Batman - The Brave And The Bold is a fairly fun time and with all three crossovers to date of the title characters included, this DVD (and also Blu Ray in the US, apparently) is a nice little package. It’s a shame there weren’t any documentary extras on here too as I was curious about the history of this team up and the decisions that brought the original TV productions to life but, alas, the two episodes are the only bonus features present. Still, if you are on the lookout for unusual team ups then this one definitely fits the bill and the main movie, at least, should give you something interesting to look at. More ‘Zoinks!’ and ‘Jinkies!’ than you can shake a stick at in this one.
Monday, 1 July 2019
Rail Of A Tale
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B boxed edition
It’s been quite a while since I sat down and watched a silent movie and even longer since I last had a look at The General. For some reason I’ve always preferred, in terms of early silent movie US comics, people like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd over people like Charlie Chaplin and Keaton especially appeals to me, perhaps, because of the stony faced visage which he constantly presents throughout the course of his pictures. I don’t remember if he ever smiled during one of his movies and this reminds me of myself, to a certain extent.
Now, I’ve never really been much into laughing at comedy movies. My absolute favourite writers and performers of the genre would be Woody Allen and The Marx Brothers but even when I am watching their films I tend to not really laugh so much as watch all the details intently and analyse the way in which the comedy works. Therefore, honestly, I’m not a fun person to take to a comedy because, at least when I’m looking at something like a horror movie in a similar fashion, it doesn’t matter too much to others that I don’t laugh (although, truth be told, I might be more likely to laugh during a really bad exploitation picture or modern horror tale).
The General is based, I’m guessing quite loosely, on events during the American Civil War when a similar incident involving a soldier stealing said train (The General) to further their own, nefarious ends took place (depending on whether you are rooting for the blues or the greys... I never know the difference). In this version of events, Keaton plays the driver, Johnnie Gray, who ends up going after the stolen locomotive, with all the expected and often unexpected comedy shenanigans and, more importantly for lovers of Keaton’s work, I suspect, all the ingenuity that his particularly clever brand of visual comedy brought to the story.
The set up is of Keaton courting girlfriend Annebelle Lee, played quite resiliently given some of the things that happen to her, by Marion Mack. However, war breaks out and when Lee’s father and brother go to enlist, she urges Keaton to do the same. Alas, when he gives his profession as railway engineer, he is deemed too important to be allowed to go and fight. Although he doesn’t quite know this yet because the reveal of that info is only for the audience and the stigma of him not being able to enlist is enough to keep his sweetheart from ever talking to him again until he is in uniform.
Time passes and the train is stolen by the Union army. However, due to unforseen circumstances, Keaton’s girlfriend Annabelle is also along for the ride as a prisoner of the soldiers. The movie then turns into a ‘chase, rescue, escape and tell the confederates of the upcoming attack before the union soldiers can stop us’ kind of affair... filled with all your favourite gags and cleverness that you expect from Keaton.
There’s also a lot of danger involved in some of these films and you have to wonder sometimes how these things ever got made at all. There’s no way a studio would let some of the things Keaton does in this be performed by any of the actors these days... you’d be liable to lose your leads. The amount of running and climbing along the speeding train Keaton does, for example. Or the wonderful moment where he is sitting on the crossbeam by the side of the wheels and the train chugs into motion, taking him with it. Or the time when he jumps out the train, clears a bit of wood out of the way, keeps it in his hands as he sits on the cow catcher and then throws it at another bit of wood, catapulting it off the track just in time. There’s some good stuff here and, of course, a lot of the actors get caught up in the ‘spirit’ of these films. For example, when the pipe to fill up with water comes off at the other end and Marion Mack is suddenly knocked over by the force of gallons of water, she was kept in the dark as to what was about to happen to ensure a more lifelike reaction to the proceedings.
The newish Blu Ray restoration from Eureka Masters of Cinema is the absolutely best presentation I’ve seen of this movie. The running time is a little longer than that listed on the IMDB but I suspect that’s because the film is actually running at something approaching the correct speed for this presentation. Which I’m guessing is a really hard thing to do because, if memory serves, a lot of these silent films were hand cranked and so the speed was kinda up and down depending on how good the camera operators were at keeping a certain rhythm going and also how tired they were at the time of the shot. The presentation of the movie on here uses the Carl Davis score for those of you who are interested in such things. So, yeah, this new one is pretty much the definitive version to own, from what I can see (although it’s taken me so long to get this particular review up that I believe the same company are already bringing out another reissue very soon... so that’s possibly the one to get).
A bit of a short review but The General is definitely a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the work of Buster Keaton and I really wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of modern stuntmen weren’t still getting inspired by this guy now. Whether they would have been allowed to do some of them, however... or even if they’d need to now, in the ago of CGI... is another question.
Thursday, 27 June 2019
Bubble Mum and
the Beautiful Dreamers
Wild Cards - Texas Hold 'Em
Edited by George R. R. Martin
So here we are at the 26th of the George R. R. Martin edited Wild Cards mosaic novels, Texas Hold ‘Em. Now, I’m usually quite positive and enthusiastic about pretty much all of the Wild Cards novels, which I’ve been reading since they first started in the 1980s and, this time too, I’m going to be just as enthusiastic. I do though... and this is quite unusual for me in terms of the series in general... have one, possibly three, slight criticisms. I’ll get to the other ones in due course but the first one is based purely on my expectations and it is this...
Since, I think, Tor Books have been publishing the later novels (and, I think, reprints of some of the earlier novels), they have kind of retroactively bunched both these and all the old ones into clusters of named story arcs. Now the previous ‘trilogy’ was called The Fort Freak Triad and it was pretty heavy and dramatic for all the active players in the contemporary Wild Card universe (and you can read my reviews of it here, here and here). It started off soft and then got really heavy, very quickly by the end of the second volume. This current trilogy, which is the last of a trilogy called The America Triad, started off with a very dramatic and moving story promising lots of future consequences for some of the characters, called Mississippi Roll (reviewed here) and then went full steam ahead to a completely unrelated time travel story for the next volume, called Low Chicago (reviewed by me here). Now, I commented at the time that I was going to assume that, like the last trilogy, the final tome in that sequence would bring all the loose ends from these two together and close out the trilogy as recognisably a single arc. Well... I’m wondering just who is it is imposing these collective cluster titles on the books now because, frankly, this third volume really has nothing much to do with either of the previous two novels. So, there you go... that’s one grumble.
Okay, so the plot set up is very simple for this one. The Amazing Bubbles, who went through such a hard time at the end of the last trilogy, has been talked by her Deuce daughter Adesina, into being one of her high school joker jazz band’s chaperones for the national jazz band competition finals in Texas. This book covers just under a week of the incidents that happen to the kids and the competing bands while they are staying at the hotel for the competition and, perhaps somewhat predictably, deals almost solely with the issues surrounding ‘joker prejudice’ and is pretty much, in some ways, dealing with exactly the same kind of not-so-much-of-a-stretch metaphors that the original 1960s The Uncanny X-Men comics were dealing with when Stan Lee first created them. And... well I have to say that it’s a very light and frothy, for the most part, mosaic tale with the various writers concentrating on certain characters in mostly short bursts and then handing over the next crossover of characters to the next person before returning back to them... and most of the writers span the whole length of the novel with just a couple of exceptions.
Now, I usually like the lighter, whimsical stories in the Wild Cards universe and they are often a refreshing and welcome respite from some of the heavier issues but, in all honesty, this does somehow give this particular tome a kind of ‘young adult’ vibe and, well, I normally wouldn’t be caught dead reading something written especially for such a dubiously titled section of the audience. This novel is great fun and that’s fine but... it just feels like there’s absolutely nothing at stake. In the last ‘trilogy’ the whole world was almost obliterated and even in the previous volume in this trilogy, the whole world was at risk of being completely rewritten. Heck, even Mississippi Roll, which was much more a lighter tale, was extremely moving and you cared about the characters because the stakes to them personally were quite high. Here, the stakes are... I dunno... maybe trying to win a competition and trying to figure out teenage hormones, I guess. Which, frankly, makes the big finale, set piece battle of the novel seem kinda superfluous.
I did enjoy the inclusion of Creighton, the shape shifting detective who is ‘popped’ over by Popinjay to help clear up the ‘behind the scenes’ sabotage at the competition. I love the fact that he often uses old movie stars to base his character on so when he changes to Dwight Frye, the James Arness incarnation of The Thing (From Another World) and the William Powell version of Nick Charles from The Thin Man films, it’s always a pleasure to read his antics. And there are some great comic moments too when he has to impersonate Bubbles and babysit her grounded daughter while she has to go and take care of some business herself. This is not a bad novel by any stretch and, certainly, there are no really bad Wild Cards novels... but it’s possibly the most trivial of the series for sure.
So, as I said before, the story has a big action set piece at the end of it and, don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasure to read. It involves Creighton who has gotten so drunk in his impersonation of The Thin Man that he has morphed into Mighty Joe Young and is rampaging his way towards The Alamo and, well, the way he’s stopped from obliterating this historical landmark is something that I’ll just say that anyone who is a fan of the original version of that particular movie (I’ve not seen the remake and don’t even talk to me about that) will absolutely love and applaud. And I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming even sooner than I did because it’s frankly the only solution that would do in this case. I have the original movie on Blu Ray now so I’ll probably revisit it sometime later this year and do a review here.
However, although this sequence is, again, a joy to read... the whole thing felt like it was just tacked on because the writers or possibly editor felt like they needed to have some kind of big ‘potential carnage’ scene at the end and, it doesn’t really have any consequences to do with the rest of the novel at all. It’s just a piece of spectacle similar to what Hollywood might add on to the end of a film to make it seem a little more punchy. However, brilliant as it is... it really doesn’t add anything to the book and, in all fairness, with so little at stake, there doesn’t seem to be much point to any of it.
So there you have it. Texas Hold ‘Em is another, hugely entertaining tome in the Wild Cards shared universe but, in all honesty, it’s also one of the worst and, almost certainly the least relevant of the series. Regular readers may like to know that there are no new Croyd Crenson sightings in this book but the character is referred to at least twice over the course of the story. However, with only a few Aces in sight and mostly just a bunch of jokers and the odd deuce, there’s not really a lot going on in this one. However, if you are a regular reader of the series, like me, then of course you will love it and want to read it for sure. So that’s me done and I’ll hopefully get around to reading the next novel in the series - which jumps back right to the beginning of the series but taken from a British viewpoint - sometime fairly soon.