Thursday, 24 May 2018

The Escapees

Rockin’ n’ Rollin

The Escapees (aka Les Paumées du Petit Matin aka The Runaways)
France 1981 Directed by Jean Rollin
US Redemption Blu Ray Region A

Warning: Some spoilers.

Okay... so I seem to be getting really unlucky when it comes to this review site and the films of Jean Rollin. Believe it or not, I am very much an admirer/supporter of this director and love the surreal beauty of his images coupled with the female nudity, twins/duos and vampirism which are some of his trademark themes when he was shooting his low budget personal projects (and not making porn for a fast buck). I own maybe 12 - 15 of his movies (in various editions including the latest uncut, US Region A Blu Rays and those gorgeous DVD Encore boxed editions from a number of years ago) and, I promise you, I love the majority of these.

Why is it then, whenever I come to acquire a Rollin film I’ve not seen before for the purposes of reviewing it here, that I always seem to find the not very good ones? Don’t worry, I’ve got some classics freshly upgraded to Blu Ray to rewatch and write up over the next year or two but, as it happens, this is another of the ‘not quite there’ Rollin films for me... although I’m sure lots of other people must like this one.

The Escapees starts off in an old, mansion type house (it could maybe have been a private boarding school in real life... it has that look) we are asked to believe that this is an insane asylum. The bizarre and not very realistic looking padding added to the walls like soft wallpaper tries to uphold that illusion but really isn’t all that convincing. As the credits roll we see two girls looking out of one of the windows before being ushered off by one of the staff. We then cut to a shot of a beautiful girl in a lone rocking chair in the field outside the house. After a shot looking at a window focusing on a conversation between the lead psychiatrist and one of the assistants, we see a reverse shot a little closer in and looking out, again, at the rocking chair girl. The rocking chair girl is called Marie, as played by Christiane Coppé and she is framed perfectly in one of the six panels of the window as the camera looks out at her. Which is the kind of perfect composition one half watches Rollin for anyway, to be fair.

We then meet the other of the two main protagonists of the film, Michelle, as played by Laurence Dubas. We first see her being hosed down by attendants before being straightjacketed and locked in her room with the aforementioned ‘padded walls’. Even though she is straightjacketed, it seems no problem for her to just nudge the window open because, not only is it unlocked, it’s already partially ajar. What the heck? There’s good security for you. She tries to attract the attention of rocking chair girl to help her escape but Marie is in her own headspace for a little while and we see Michelle from outside the window shouting out at her. She then goes off to get something in her teeth to throw out the window to get Marie’s attention. When she comes back we see she is only one floor up which, honestly, makes you wonder why she doesn’t jut make a jump for it. Also... it’s a different, much bigger window the outside shot of her is on this time... in a slightly different part of the house. The continuity on this film just leapt out of that window itself, hurtling both to oblivion and the great, anti-consistency resting ground in the sky.

After a little while the two hook up (and for some reason, Marie has absolutely no trouble just pushing open Michelle’s ‘locked’ door... what is going on here?) and escape together where they have interesting encounters - first meeting a lady playing a bongo drum in the forest for no apparent reason and then joining her ‘performance’ troupe before deserting on them with their new found friend, Sophie the pickpocket, played by Marianne Valiot.

There are quite a lot of familiar, Rollin haunts in the movie (and also quite a lot of handheld camera used to capture them in this one, for some reason) such as a junkyard, a disused train yard, a beach (possibly the same one he uses in most of his films but, if it is, it’s not the same stretch used here... or it’s taken from a completely different angle) and, later on, a dock. One place where I’ve not seen Rollin shoot before is at an ice rink. After getting in trouble and lashing out with a bottle, Marie runs off to hide in said ice rink for the night while Michelle is out looking for her. Of course, seeing as it’s a Rollin film and it quite naturally defies logic as part of its overall DNA, Marie ‘borrows’ a handy nearby costume and starts skating and dancing on the ice rink. However, even though the rink is completely abandoned at night, a spotlight still follows her around so we can see her ice dancing skills (which brought memories of when I used to have to dance on ice for people when I was 6 or 7 years old... not sure that’s a good memory though). Perhaps the spotlight is just supposed to be in her mind like the cheers of her imaginary audience... who can tell? Apparently, the actress’ ice skating talents here was one of the reasons Rolllin picked her for this role.

When Michelle finally catches up with Marie the two stay with Sophie in a sailor bar near the dock. Sophie’s plan is for them to all stowaway on a ship with her sailor-boy lover but things don’t go smoothly for any of our main characters (they never do in a Rollin film) and death or desperation await all three of these friends in some form or another. 

The film is not, as I said, at the upper end of my Jean Rollin experiences and, although production values have never been his strong point, probably because of the small budgets with which he works, he usually makes up for that with some incredibly beautiful, often erotic, often surreal imagery which make the films much more interesting propositions than those of a lot of directors, especially those who work within the same kind of genres. However, I found this one to be really distracting. I’m perfectly used to incredibly bad acting in some (although, actually, not all of his films) but there didn’t even seem to be a budget for retakes here. There are some scenes when it looks like one or another of the characters have been waiting for their cue and another one might repeat or stress a word to remind them it’s their turn to jump in, it seemed to me. Also, although the lack of story follow through is almost a necessity in this director’s work, the film did look like it was being reshaped in the editing room from whatever material the director managed to get. Certain reactions from characters to things they were already supposed to know, for example, made the film seem like it had been put together in a different order than originally intended.

Famous porn star and Jean Rollin regular Brigitte LaHaie, who I have a lot of time for as an actress, turns up towards the end in some sequences which spell doom for certain people and it’s almost like a sigh of relief when she appears and makes at least one of the characters seem a little more credible. Taking her clothes off and making love to another woman also helped, of course but I was just grateful to see LaHaie arriving like the 'acting cavalry' as almost a trademark of quality in a kind of ‘Rollin muse’ way at this point, although her role here is even less of one than her turn in Rollin’s Grapes Of Death (reviewed here).

And that really is all I’m going to say about The Escapees, I think. In some ways the movie seems like a partial, spiritual cousin to Rollin’s earlier The Demoniaques, with its depiction of stripey shirted sailors and the death of one of the characters in a raft floating in the dock but I didn’t find the film nearly as entertaining or as striking in its imagery as that earlier movie. If you are a die hard fan of the director and appreciate his fine eye for the juxtaposition of feminism, nudity and surrealism then The Escapees is always going to be a film you’ll want to take a look at, regardless of the end quality of the piece and, as I said earlier, I’m sure this one must have its fans. If you have never seen a Rollin film and want to get a taste for the director, I’d suggest you stay away from this one for a bit and start somewhere in the late 1960s or early 1970s with his work, which is much more poetic without seeming as pretentious and forced as certain moments in this film do. So, done with that one and I hope to bring you some much more positive reviews of this marvellous director’s work sometime soon.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Murder On The Orient Express

Get Christie Love

Murder On The Orient Express
Malta/USA 2017 Directed by Kenneth Branagh
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B

So here we go again with another movie version continuing the exploits of famed crime writer Agatha Christie’s “world’s greatest detective”... no, not Batman... Hercule Poirot. I remember seeing the old Albert Finney version of Murder On The Orient Express back in the mid 1970s (possibly on a re-release) and I kinda half liked it at the time. I remember the solution to the mystery being somewhat unexpected (well, I would only have been 6 or 7 years old, maybe) and it interested me enough that I went on to see the Peter Ustinov Poirot movies at my local cinema when they were released.

Kenneth Branagh is here with this new reboot and, honestly, it’s not a terrible film although it’s not quite as 'refreshed' as I was expecting it to be. There are, however, some brave attempts to liven things up throughout the film. To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t bother with this one at the cinema last year is because I couldn’t imagine it translating that well for the younger generation of movie goers the film needed to set in its sights to guarantee a bankable interest. Especially since, once you know the final solution to the whodunnit at the heart of the story, you probably don’t need to see another version of it.

Branagh puts himself front and centre here as Christie’s much loved (except by her) character and, when I say ‘front and centre’, I really do mean it. It’s a film which seems to be top loaded with medium/long shots except for quite a number of close ups on the directing/acting force of nature who is top lining the film. To be fair, though, he does have quite entrancing blue eyes and it doesn’t seem too out of place to expect that kind of camera attention given to Poirot.

Like the 1974 version, Murder On The Orient Express boasts a star studded cast with the likes of Johnny Depp as the murder victim (who seems to have fallen out of favour with audiences at the moment, for some reason but allow me to still make that Poirots Of The Caribbean pun), Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Derek Jacobi. However, as I said, a lot of the film is medium and long shots and though a few characters do get to shine for a few minutes at a time, the ensemble of these people sharing screen time is what’s more important here and Branagh doesn’t let himself be intimidated by the number of famous film stars who have climbed aboard for the journey.

There are a few attempts to liven up the story with a sense of dynamism... the opening ‘end of mission’ scene were Poirot’s perfectly placed walking stick ends up to be the undoing of the villain of the hour, the punch up after Poirot has been shot, the chase outside the train in the snow after it has been derailed by an avalanche... but these things don’t really make much difference to the general scheme of things, it has to be said.

What does make a huge difference to the tone and watchability of the film is the beautiful way in which Branagh, with his director’s head on, composes the shots with his cinematographer and there’s some truly stunning stuff here where he uses the 65mm format film to highlight some great designs (which is now making me regret not seeing this one at the cinema). He expertly uses various chunks of different texture such as the walls of a carriage against the glass windows, for instance, to section his actors off and highlight their place in the screen space. Indeed, he quite often replaces the naturally occurring verticals found in a variety of situations with various actors standing in front of them. So, for instance, the two vertical strips separating train carriage windows would have various characters standing or sitting in front of them with their positions on screen allowing the composition to still work without it jarring.

One of my favourite instances of these kinds of set ups in the film is where he has a shot of Branagh aligned against a vertical wall with the landscape to his right but with him firmly positioned in the vertical block. When the camera cuts to a closer shot of him from a different angle, he is still placed within the same vertical block (presumably he’s moved position slightly to accommodate this flow from one shot to the next) and I was impressed by this.

Another thing the director uses is a lot of those kind of Hitchcockian overhead shots where various characters can be seen from above and where you may, or may not, wish that some of the actors had a larger cleavage. Hitchcock used it maybe only once or twice in a film (if that) but Branagh really likes cutting to these kinds of views at various points in the story.

One other thing which was kind of interesting but possibly just a little distracting was the use of different glass planes next to each other to create a deliberately double image of this or that character. He does this fairly regularly (although I think Poirot himself is only seen as a single image) and I suspect it comes at points when the great detective realises that the particular person (or persons) are lying to him (although I’d have to check it again to see if I’m right). Thus, their duplicity is revealed on a less conscious level in the visual design of certain shots.

Not much more to say about this one, I think. A nice score by Branagh's regular collaborator Patrick Doyle in no way goes the same route as the famous Richard Rodney Bennet music for the 1974 version but it’s a nice one full of interesting orchestration and I might give this one a go as a stand alone listen if it’s available as a proper CD (rather than a stupid download).

Sure, there are some errors in the movie like the section of track where the train is derailed by an avalanche not actually having any mountains on it in real life but, on the whole, I quite enjoyed Branagh’s very self aware revitalisation of the character’s exploits. The end of this one kinda half contradicts Poirot’s original reason for being on the train in the first place, as he is met by someone who needs him to look into a murder on the Nile. So, yeah, the next movie along, if they get the green light to make one, will be Death On The Nile, I guess. I would quite like to see that if Branagh is still on board because I think what he’s done here is take a quite old school story and made it, not exactly relevant but certainly something which has a place in the pantheon of modern cinema. So maybe give Murder On The Orient Express a go if you’re not too precious about the way in which Christie’s famous character is handled.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Twin Peaks - The Limited Event Series 3

A Prayer For The Diane

Twin Peaks - The Limited Event Series 3
2017 USA Directed by David Lynch
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: I guess there are spoilers.

So finally... finally... we come to the part of the process that my Twin Peaks rewatch has been leading up to. Namely, I get to see the latest series that aired last year for the first time.

Now, I’m not sure quite what I was expecting here but the one thing I do know for sure is... it wasn’t this.

I remember a couple of years ago that David Lynch and co-writer/co-producer Mark Frost started tweet hinting that the new series of Twin Peaks was on the cards. I also remember Showtime putting the money up for it and then, all of a sudden, David Lynch backed away because he wasn’t being given final cut (if memory serves). Well, I don’t believe he totally had that on the first two series but I couldn’t imagine him doing anything these days unless he has the final say on it and I suspect a lot of people are of a similar opinion because... well, I remember the supporting tweets flying around fast and furious.

However, in the end, Showtime somehow managed to do the right thing and granted Lynch final say and it was all back on again... with twice the number of episodes than originally planned, too.

Honestly, I believe it was absolutely the right thing for Lynch to dig his heels in like that because, having now watched all 18 episodes of this new television odyssey, I can say that I personally don’t believe he would have gotten away with doing a fair amount of what he’s accomplished here on commercial television if he hadn’t stuck to his guns in those early negotiations. Although the ‘brand’ of Twin Peaks has always been synonymous with the auteur David Lynch, I’d have to say that this new incarnation of the show is, if anything, more Lynch-like than anything else we’ve seen made for television... and that includes both his original seasons of the show and another programme I used to like by him called On The Air.

This version of the series feels like an artist at the peak of his powers (which is no mean feat for someone of Lynch’s age) but it also, in many ways, harkens back to his much earlier work and I personally felt that this series was a lot more like the first thing I saw by him many years ago and which has, throughout his interesting career, always been my favourite work of his... Eraserhead.

Certainly the timing and pacing of Eraserhead is all over this thing. People will walk around or sit around and sometimes they will say something and sometimes they won’t say anything but they will, without fail, take their own time about anything they do and this laid back sense of ‘not getting on with things’ permeates the new show in every episode... which is kinda refreshing, actually. When I said, you’d never get away with something like this on television normally I wasn’t referring to the occasional nudity and quite hard violence on display in some of the episodes... the pacing is beyond leisurely but that’s no bad thing.

I mentioned in a previous review that the last time the dead Laura Palmer saw Agent Cooper in the The Black Lodge, where he too was trapped, she told him that the next time she would see him would be in 25 years time and... that’s more or less what it turned out to be, both in real time and also in the time that has passed in the chronology of various characters in the show. This carries on some quarter of a century later and we are reunited, over the weeks, with many of the old cast members (some of them didn’t return)... a number of whom died after finishing their filming. So  characters like Catherine E. Coulson’s The Log Lady, Miguel Ferrer’s FBI agent Albert and Harry Dean Stanton (reprising his role from Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me) are all in here but, alas, the actors playing them are sadly no longer with us. Many of the old cast returned though, with some notable exceptions. However, there’s also another generation of the families inhabiting the town highlighted in one or two cases so... lots of characters turn up and there are also a fair number of A list movie stars who seemed to have just turned up for the odd episode or two. Some of them, like Michael Cera, are quite unusual and just one offs. Monica Bellucci, for example, turns up as herself in FBI Director Gordon Cole’s dream about her. Others, like Amanda Seyfried, Caleb Landry Jones, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Belushi and Tom Sizemore have more substantial roles.

The old gang that do return are, in some cases, significantly moved on from their previous characters. For example, Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby Briggs character, who was a real hooliganistic, murdering brat in the original show, has made good and joined the police force. He’s actually, along with Michael Horse’s good old Deputy Hawk, one of the most trusty and reliable characters in the whole town now... which surprised me. Other returners, like Andy and Lucy, haven’t changed that much... they are still as entertaining to watch as they always were, though.

We also have some replacements for characters who Lynch obviously needed back to make his story work where they’ve passed on in the years between series. So the late Don S. Davis character Major Garland Briggs is found as a non-aged headless corpse (with someone else’s head placed above his in the aftermath of a murder) but that doesn’t stop his head from floating around an alternative dimension and speaking to Agent Cooper, courtesy of CGI effects. Similarly, David Bowie’s character from the prequel film has been replaced by what I can only describe as a sort of giant tea pot that speaks and spells out things with its steam.Didn't see that one coming.

Then there’s Agent Cooper himself, played once more by Kyle MacLachlan. This gets complicated...

There are at least three versions of Cooper to start with. We have the evil version of him who replaced him from The Black Lodge at the end of the last series and he’s the villainous Cooper who has been active in the last 25 years in our world. We also have a kind of stand in duplicate of Cooper called Dougie Jones, made by Bob as a dupe to replace him when he is supposed to return to The Black Lodge. When Bob fools the people in the other dimension by sending Dougie back... Dougie’s arm shrinks and his head explodes into black fire. However, the real Agent Cooper, after a bit of a surrealistic odyssey, manages to get out of the other dimension, escaping back into our world via an electrical socket. Alas, although he is mistaken for Dougie by all... including Dougie’s wife, son and employer... it would be true that he’s not in charge of his faculties and for most of the entire series he pretty much gets handed around by people in the same kind of way that Peter Sellers’ character did in the movie Being There. He’s operating at just one stage past vegetable but, somehow, he accomplishes so much by accident while he’s in this state. It’s actually not until a couple of episodes towards the end until Coop finally returns to us properly.

A significant new cast member is Robert Forster... who was supposed to play Sherif Harry Truman the first time around but had scheduling conflicts. So instead, he’s now playing Truman’s brother and is the sheriff in Harry’s absence (the character is off sick and, apparently, the actor wasn’t asked to return this time around... which is kind of a shame, actually).

Another interesting cast member is Lynch regular Laura Dern as... wait for it... Cooper’s faceless secretary Diane. We’ve heard ‘of’ her so many times over the years but now we get to meet what is actually a quite iconic feeling character in the flesh. Or do we? Well, it’s complicated but... let’s just say that there’s at least as many Dianes running around as there are Agent Coopers in this series and leave it at that. It was just a pleasure to see her interacting with Lynch, Ferrer and newcomer Chrysta Bell as Special Agent Tammy Preston.

What can I say more about this?

Well, it’s a long series and quite a lot of it doesn’t even take place in Twin Peaks but one strand of the story does and it all leads back there and comes together for the end. My favourite installment was episode eight where the second half of the episode goes ‘full tilt Lynch’ as we hurtle back to the first atomic bomb test and a load of surrealist imagery, much of it in monochrome, much of it set to Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. This includes lots of groovy imagery including a kind of flying frog thing which crawls into the mouth of a girl at the end of the episode. Personally, although we’re given absolutely no context or answers to a lot of the things we see on screen, I believe the girl might have been a young Sarah Palmer (Laura’s mother) and that would maybe explain why, in a later episode when Grace Zabriskie’s character is being harassed by someone in a bar, she is able to unhinge her face to reveal a monster on a screen which then lashes out to bite a guy's neck off. At least, that’s the way I figured it.

The series is chock full of cool stuff and, although slow, the experience of watching and wondering how it’s all going to end up is quite an addictive process to be fair. It’s interesting because Lynch does kind of tie most of the things together in the penultimate episode, to the point where I was able to predict a lot of what was going to happen in it and... I did wonder where the heck else he could go in the final episode. Well, after bringing things to a mostly natural conclusion, he then goes one further and messes things up good and proper... at least as far as the clarity of the story goes. I’m not 100% sure of what went down at the end of the final one, although I do have my theories and it’s clear that, although Cooper is put in a bad spot, he also knew most of what was going to happen (if, indeed, it was Cooper). The universe is pretty much reset slightly differently but that doesn’t stop the forces of evil coming for Laura Palmer... or at least the person she has ended up kinda being (or not, depending on your point of view).

A couple of things I didn’t understand were... and if you have seen this series and have any answers then please feel free to leave a comment... just who the heck the ‘glass box’ killer entity was supposed to be. Also, since Audrey’s vision of dancing at the Bang Bang Bar was clearly an illusion from her coma induced insanity (or some such), does that mean the interminable episode endings, where almost every installment finishes with a group performing a song in the bar, are also just a part of Audrey’s nightmare? I don’t know but, in some ways I’m kinda glad I don’t know too... after all, it’s David Lynch we’re talking about here.

Now, I can’t see us returning to the sleepy town of Twin Peaks anytime soon but the possibility is certainly there and, though he seems somewhat less interested than co-creator Mark Frost, Lynch hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a fourth series entirely, so, you never know. Either way, I really enjoyed this third season and would definitely recommend it if you liked the first two series and the movie, with the caveat that it all feels a little less diluted than you’ve seen it before. Approach with a delightful shiver of apprehension.

Twin Peaks at NUTS4R2

Twin Peaks Series One
Twin Peaks Series Two
Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks Series Three - Limited Event Series

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Deadpool 2

Pool Runnings

Deadpool 2
2018 USA Directed by David Leitch
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum but... slight spoilers.

Okay so, just over two years since the fairly awesome Deadpool movie (reviewed here) hit our cinemas we finally have Deadpool 2 and it’s... err... okay, well it’s really not bad, I suppose... ish.

Actually, I did find this sequel kinda disappointing to be honest... I just can’t put my finger on why that was because the performances by the likes of Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand and Zazie Beetz were all pretty cool. Likewise, the script wasn’t too bad and although I found it a little bit more dense in terms of semi-obscure Marvel Comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe references (I suspect some people will not have a clue that there are certain jokes here) it was pretty “full on” and moved a mile a minute. Added to that, the direction and action editing wasn’t bad, with David Leitch, who directed Atomic Blonde (reviewed here) jumping into the main chair on this one... at least you could understand what was going on most of the time.

Why, then, did I feel this movie was fun but not all that engaging?

Well, it doesn’t help that one of my favourite characters from the first film is basically killed off in the first five or ten minutes. Now, it has to be said, since this film’s big new character, Cable, is a time traveller, it kinda felt this was an easy set up for the first major casualty of the film to return at the end. The strange thing was, the film-makers didn’t take the easy way around to this (nor one which made any sense in terms of how we’ve seen the way their version of time travel works earlier in the film... temporal logic flies completely out the window by this point) and have saved it for one of the mid-closing credits sequences in the movie. Which is fine but, since the jokey and metatextual nature of the majority of those extras could possibly be taken as a separate thing apart from the movie, I and a couple of people I spoke to, couldn’t quite work out if the character was supposed to be alive for the next movie or not (if there is one). So, yeah, it’s kind of puzzling. Either way, though, there’s not too much of the particular character in question (who I won’t reveal here) in this and so I was not happy about it.

I was even less happy when I watched a somewhat James Bondian opening title sequence which kinda commented on what the audience’s state of mind must have been in after the pre-credits sequence in which said character died. I really didn’t need to be told how I was supposed to be feeling and, like I said, I was already expecting time travel shenanigans by this point.

Another thing which niggled a little is that another of my favourite characters from the first film... didn’t have a heck of a lot to do in this one either, it has to be said. I wanted to see more of a particular person in this and that just didn’t happen for me... although that character's arc since the first movie is kinda cute, at least.

There were, of course, loads of good things about the movie too and, like I said, it’s really not a bad experience at all... I just didn’t love it like I did the first one.

Okay so, good things...

Well there are a couple of nice new characters. One of them didn’t last that long (although, again, time travel to wipe out past incidents people!) but the one who did, Domino (played really well by Zaxie Beetz) was a pretty cool one. Domino’s super power is good luck which Deadpool argues is not cinematic. Then the cast and crew spend time demonstrating just how visually interesting and comedic it is throughout the rest of the film, of course. I loved the way how sometimes things would just fall into place for her and at other times, the action would pre-empt and set things up to her advantage. For example, we see some stuff happening with a bus heading towards the walls of the building she’s in just before we hear her say something along the lines of “We could really use a bus right now”. Said transport crashes through the walls for her to use a half a second later.

Also, Cable’s character does go through kind of an emotional arc and Brolin plays him really well... I’m really beginning to get the hang of this actor now. He brought a lot of depth and emotion to Thanos in Avengers - Infinity War (reviewed here) and he’s similarly interesting and three dimensional here.

Other good stuff includes a battle between Deadpool and Cable in prison where our hero tries to stop Cable from killing a young boy before he has the chance to do horrifying things in the future. The problem here, though, is that probably nothing else in the film really tops this sequence, which must be about half the way through the movie and the rest of the film felt a little like an anticlimax in comparison. However, it’s a very nice sequence and, like I said, the film really isn’t a bad one.

Another great thing is the quality of the jokes. I said that a lot of them are going to go over some people’s heads but there’s a lovely moment where the character bridges the gap, so to speak, of the various Marvel franchises by cracking a line made famous in some of the MCU movies which I really appreciated. Plus, the very first thing you see on screen of a certain musical paperweight is going to get some wide grins I’m sure. Not to mention some of the franchise crossing and even, in a weird way, comic book company crossing in some of the post-credits scenes. In fact, there are a fair few jokes at the expense of the DC universe in this movie too, which got some laughs from the audience I was with (despite having to wait 40 minutes for a broken projector at Cineworld to be repaired before the movie started).

All in all, I find I don’t have too much to say about this one, to be honest. My hope is that there was just so much going on with it that I need to see it again to process it properly and then I’ll maybe enjoy it more then. I usually refer to the Ryan Reynolds character as being similar to Groucho Marx crossed with the superhero genre and, if I were to push the analogy, I might say that the original Deadpool felt a little like one of the early, Marx Brothers masterpieces of the late 1920s and early 1930s whereas, Deadpool 2 is more like one of their later, not so outrageously funny but still fairly entertaining efforts. If you’re a Deadpool fan you may find yourself a little less enamoured with this one but, saying that, I seem to be pretty much in the minority on this one. Not the best Marvel movie I’ve seen but, absolutely nowhere near the bad ones either. Hopefully the third one, if there is one, will recapture the spirit of the first.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

2001 - A Space Odyssey

Jupiter As Ending

2001 - A Space Odyssey
UK/USA 1968 Directed by Stanley Kubrick
MGM Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers, I guess, if you’ve 
never seen this masterpiece before.

I always find Stanley Kubrick a bit hit and miss as a director to be fair. Some of his movies are sheer genius while... certain others leave me cold. I’ve always had a soft spot for 2001 - A Space Odyssey but it’s been a while since I last saw it. However, as my father pointed out, now we have a high definition TV and a remastered blu ray release on the market, now would be the perfect time to catch up to this classic slice of cinematic science fiction again. So we did.

The film is one of those ‘fake Cinerama’ films where the process of shooting on three cameras for three screens joined together was dropped after being used for such features as The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm and the quite extraordinary How The West Was Won. Instead, a single camera widescreen process designed to be projected on a curved screen was used and there were a number of films using this ‘in name only’ substitution for the real Cinerama process at the time (although it’s only referred to as Super Panavision on some posters). I’ve seen it a number of times on a large screen but I think I only ever saw it projected onto a massive, curved screen once, though. That was a great screening, however.

The film was somewhat divisive in its critical reception, it seems to me but the popularity and growing audiences due to the amount of hippies doing drugs and watching the famous star gate journey at the end is what kept it in cinemas longer than originally hoped for and helped make it a hit. At least, that’s the story. Nowadays, of course, it usually places quite highly in lists of the greatest movies ever made and, in my opinion, it’s certainly worthy of that honour.

The film is split into four sections and there are jumps in time or space between them so that only the final two sections share the same protagonist (although the main protagonist from the second section also gets a few minutes on a television screen towards the end of the third section). The four sections are The Dawn of Man, TMA-1, Jupiter Mission and finally, Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite. That being said, the title of the second section is the only one which isn’t introduced typographically on screen, instead relying on the cut from one element in The Dawn Of Man to another element as a way to throw the audience into the next section of the picture.

Based on the short story The Sentinel by co-writer (for the screen) Arthur C. Clarke, the film tells the story about the manipulated growth and development of mankind as precipitated by the mystery at the heart of the movie - the black, rectangular, alien slab known only as The Monolith. This mystery element is enhanced by some fairly minimalistic, or perhaps naturalistic would be a better word, acting from various cast members and some spectacular yet often quite clinical cinematography. It’s also enhanced greatly by a score of needle dropped music such as Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Blue Danube waltz but the real stars of the show, musically speaking, are the tracked in cues by one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti... who I discovered from listening to the old vinyl soundtrack of this back in the sixties and early seventies (when I was between one and five years of age, I guess). Actually, it wasn’t until Ligeti saw the film in cinemas that he was able to successfully sue Kubrick since, for some reason, Kubrick had assumed Ligeti’s quite startling works were the work of a long dead classical composer rather than a contemporary artist (the composer actually didn’t die until 2006, almost 40 years later). It is Ligeti’s music which gives full weight to the scary mystery which is the heart of the film and, although I absolutely love what survives of composer Alex North’s rejected score to this, I think Kubrick possibly made the right call here. Nobody can out-Ligeti Ligeti!

The Dawn Of Man sequence is an amazing thing with ape men in rival clans living through their daily routine. Actually, I’d never realised before this Blu Ray screening (or even after I’d seen it at the big old curved screen of the old Empire Cinema a couple of decades ago) that this sequence was shot in a studio with rear projection. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view point) there’s a kind of moiré pattern on the backdrop visible on this new transfer and it kind of gives the game away. That being said, the picture is pretty stunning and I also noticed something else for the first time during this sequence... but I’ll get to that in a bit. After the appearance of the monolith, one bright ape gets an idea and weaponises himself and his fellow clan with bones with which they kill animals to eat and, of course, rival ape men. So the monolith is a catalyst for technology (which brings murder and violence with it, naturally).

The second sequence, known by some as TMA-1, follows Doctor Haywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester... who was replaced in the sequel by Roy Scheider) as he journeys to the moon and gives a briefing there. There is a cover story that a quarantine has broken out on the moon base but the true story is, as revealed at the end of the section, that a second monolith (although these characters aren’t to know it’s the second time mankind has had an encounter with a monolith) has been found buried under the lunar surface... and it’s been there for quite some many millions of years. The climax of this section is when the monolith lets out an ear splitting sound which, we later find out, is it beaming out a signal to... something... near Jupiter.

The third sequence, Jupiter Mission, is where the lead Protagonist David Bowman (Kier Dullea), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and three other hybernating crew members, are on their way to Jupiter... although they don’t know the true nature of thier mission yet. Accompanying them is their shipboard computer HAL900. Now, the reasons for HAL’s malfunction and attempt to kill all the crew members is not really blatantly touched upon here (and it wouldn’t be until the movie adaptation of the first of Clarke’s sequel novels, 2010) but he almost succeeds in wiping them all out during some intense sequences before the one surviving astronaut, David Bowman, manages to get himself back on their spaceship and disconnect HAL. After a nice little nod to the first song that a computer in real life ever sang, the disconnection of HAL’s higher brain functions triggers a video of Dr. Floyd’s deliberately delayed secret briefing to the astronauts, revealing the true nature of the mission to Bowman. To explore the area around Jupiter where the Monolith’s signal went and ‘make contact’ with whatever alien intelligence is behind it.

And then we come to the last sequence, Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite. Some time has passed again between sections and David Bowman is already out of the ship and in a small pod to investigate a floating monolith he’s discovered in the vicinity of Jupiter. Then comes the famous "star gate" sequence of special effects which is absolutely beautiful and fearsome at the same time... especially with Ligeti’s terrifying and awe inspiring music over it. Occasionally, frames of Bowman's face reacting to what he’s seeing as little half a second shots that pretty much amount to stills are intercut with this and... well it still, after all these decades, gives off a very uneasy atmosphere. And then, as if to compete with the quite long special effects sequences of Bowman’s ‘journey’, we have an extended sequence where Bowman is ‘a guest’ of the alien intelligence and we see him in an Escher-like existence as he intrudes on himself at different stages of his life as he ages to death in the space of five to ten minutes (in screen time). It’s a truly great artistic achievement and then, of course, with the return of the Thus Spake Zarathustra music which has become synonymous with this movie, he is reborn as The Star Child... a giant fetus in space. It’s interesting because you can see just how comic book artists like Jack Kirby were influenced by the film. Not only did Kirby do the Giant-Sized Marvel Treasury adaptation of the movie, which I still have... but also a continuation series which, after ten or so issues, mutated into a vehicle for his Machine Man character. But if you think of classic Kirby creations like The Watchers... you can see how this film must have been a tremendous inspiration for him.

2001 - A Space Odyssey is absolutely deserving of its reputation in the film community these days. The poetic and deliberate manner in which Kubrick moves his camera around the sets... and it’s not all just clinical whites, there are great bursts of colour in the set design too at regular intervals... is an absolute treat and its definitely a movie which stands up to many repeat viewings. It’s also a movie where it’s fun trying to figure out how they did some of those amazing, zero gravity effects sequences too. Some of these are as mind boggling as the open ‘space striptease’ sequence in Barbarella.

And talking about the camera work...

The thing I noticed this time around when I was watching The Dawn Of Man sequence is that the whole thing was done with static shots and cuts. There’s no discernible camera movement at all until you get to that one last, famous shot of the bone flying up to the air which Kubrick then cuts (on motion) to a nuclear satellite (as a grim reminder that we’ve gone from bone as weapon to full on nuclear capability). It’s at this moment that the camera then becomes free to roam as it does in the rest of the picture and this must have been a very deliberate and conscious decision on Kubricks part, I think. And an interesting one in a metatextual sense because it basically implies that the catalyst of the monolith in mankind’s progress has also freed the camera along with it... if you see what I mean. Technology plus violence equals camera motion as an unconscious enabler on the audience to absorb the implications on a level in which they’re partly complicit. And that’s a powerful cinematic tool which Kubrick really goes with here.

Other than that... not too much to say here. 2001 - A Space Odyssey has always been known as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made and it’s easy to see why. If you are already a fan of the genre and you haven’t seen this one then... seriously... what are you waiting for? A true spectacle of the cinema as art and an absolutely brilliant Blu Ray presentation loaded with a fair few extras too. It belongs on every cinephile’s movie shelf.

Sunday, 13 May 2018


Blood And Sand

2017 France Directed by Coralie Fargeat  
UK cinema release print.

Wow... what a great movie. I really wanted to see Revenge and I was hoping/assuming it would get a wider release to one of my local cinemas or, at the very least, play to full houses in all the London venues. Alas, it was a real problem to track the film down, taking me out of my safety zone and trying to find a cinema near a train station in order to catch the last one home in the unusually small amount of screens showing this at, it has to be said, way too inconvenient times to be doing this film any favours.

However, even as the first moment of the film came up on the screen and the dot above the vast, static shot of a desert landscape grew to show a helicopter zooming at us dead centre of the frame, masterfully anticipated by the thwup thwup thwup of ROB’s (aka Robin Coudert) truly outstanding electronic score, I knew it had been worth tracking this film down and getting to look at this thing in the cinema.

The film is, as the title suggests, an old cliché of a revenge plot but the actual execution of the story is a lot less ‘held back’ by the way the genre tropes are usually represented in these... in some ways at least.

So we have the main protagonist, Jen (played by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), who is... and I’m almost sorry to say this... a vacuous airhead of a character and, I think this is a deliberate ploy by the writer/director (I’ll touch on this again in a minute). She is brought along to the desert retreat of her married lover, Michael (played by Kevin Janssens) for a couple of days of sex and sun before his two friends arrive for their annual hunting trip. However, after Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive a day early, Jen finds herself left alone with the two while Michael has to go out for a couple of hours. When he returns, Jen has been raped by Stan and when they all try to appease the tearful girlfriend, she resists the idea and tries to escape into the desert. At this point, Michael shows his true colours and pushes her over the edge of a cliff, impaling her on a tree.

The next part of the film is Jen’s return to conciousness as she ‘goes feral’ and seeks to kill the three men who are hunting her after realising she somehow survived the incident. And, yeah, that’s a pretty standard revenge movie plot, to be sure, but the thing I was most impressed with here, in terms of the way the character of Jen, brilliantly portrayed by Lutz, is presented is... even though she becomes a dangerous predator herself who actually learns how to survive as she goes (such as an incident with an abruptly ending trail of blood used as a trap which gives her pause for thought when a similar tactic is used later in the film)... she still seems to retain the ‘vacuous airhead’ part of her character. She has instinctual intelligence but in no way seems to demonstrate the intellectual lift that one usually associates with the ‘woman goes savage’ trope in these kinds of affairs and that’s really refreshing, in some ways. Of course, I could just be misinterpreting that because, I believe, after the character returns to the story I don’t think she has any lines of dialogue but... well, that’s the way it came off to me.

The direction and shot design on this are superb, too.

Take the house interior, which is used in the first and last quarters of the movie, before and after the narrative has turned into a variant of The Most Dangerous Game (an exploitation remake of which is reviewed by me here). These are shot with a kind of ‘giallo filter’ to them in that the colours juxtaposed such as different full length windows in pink and blue glass and the way the verticals within the shots are used to split and delineate characters quite rigidly in different segments of the screen, are more than reminiscent of the kinds of colourful theatricality inherent in the gialli which prospered mostly in late 1960s to late 1970s Italian cinema. I suspect Fargeat is a fan of this kind of cinema and she does this kind of thing so beautifully throughout the movie.

Another thing she likes to do is focus on little details of a shot or situation and extend or slow them down with an exaggerated sound volume to dwell on things such as a man’s teeth tearing into a snack or drops of blood landing next to an ant. She sometimes does this simply by allowing her characters to walk out of shot and then not following them, electing instead to linger on the leftovers of a scene rather than rush to capture the next. Which is a nice way of doing things, I thought.

Everything in the movie seems to be enhanced in a similar way and the richness of the colours throughout, together with the augmented audio experience reminded me a lot, actually, of the fantastic films of husband and wife team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, with such works as Amer (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here) and I mean this absolutely as a compliment to the slightly off kilter genius of this director... this is Coralie Fargeat’s first feature length film but she’s obviously one to watch.

It’s to her credit also that in a film which is so ‘dialled up’ both visually and aurally, that a scene where the mescaline from some peyote kicks in with one of the characters feels like its been ‘turned up’ even more. There’s something about the way this director isolates and distracts by normalising the audience’s expectations which make even this scene a contrast to what has gone before.

A similar visual ‘stylistic push’ seems to come from the look of the actors. I don’t know whether this was conscious or not but, for instance, Guillaume Bouchède has the kind of ‘Italian Peter Lorre’ look one might associate with Luciano Pigozzi and Vincent Colombe could almost be a young Eli Wallach at times here. As for Kevin Janssens, his angular and expressively dead yet somehow flattened face looks nothing less than something Hergé might have drawn as one of his antagonistic thugs in The Adventures Of Tin Tin. The whole look of the movie, even it’s visually giallo-like similarities, almost feels like it was destined for the pages of a 1970s issue of Metal Hurlant (aka Heavy Metal) and it’s a nice fusion of styles, rather than clash, which helps give the film its heightened sense of intensity.

The director also seems to like a lot of violence... well maybe not violence but more the goriness and aftermath of violence. In fact, one of the things I noticed mostly was not the abundance of violence, since there are only three antagonists to hunt down and present with ‘pay back’ in the entire movie... it was more the way in which the lead in to each violent act was similarly extended to give both the most apprehension as to what will happen next and also the most appreciation (if that’s the right word) of the levels of gory detail which Fargeat's lens lovingly lingers on. I think I would most liken it to sexual foreplay as the director teases and slowly brings the violent elements to a boil before each orgasmic character denouement in the story.

Also, I noticed an almost fetishistic obsession with wounds and their post-trauma penetration while the recipients of said conflict are still alive. So pointy branches are cut out of wounds, deeply assimilated shards of glass are fished around for in a foot (in a scene of intense grimness that becomes almost deliberately comical when reflected in the face of the person in question... I wasn’t the only one in the audience laughing at this moment) and I have to say that by the end of the film I was waiting for it to happen with every scrape or bodily penetration depicted. It became very much a case of... “Oh, that person’s just received a very nasty wound... I guess someone will be sticking their fingers in that in a few minutes then.”... and, sure enough, there weren’t too many opportunities missed in the ‘wound invasion’ department.

One odd thing about the violence presented in the film is that, even though it’s not really a ‘first person point of view’ kind of affair, whenever Jen gets hit on the head and loses consciousness for a few seconds, the screen goes dark for a moment. Which I found interesting. Kind of a ‘first person by proxy’ implication, in a way.

Another nice thing involving the violence and goriness in one scene is the way the director turns up a ‘shopping channel’ on a TV to provide a kind of ‘consumer counterpoint’ to the grimness of what is going on in the rest of the scenario. I haven’t seen this much blood since Argento’s Tenebrae (aka Tenebre reviewed here) and the walls and floor of the house are literally painted red by the end of the film with the characters slipping in their own blood in an effort to escape or pursue one another (the film had one walk out about a third of the way through with the audience I saw it with).

And that’s about all I’m saying about this one other than... I can’t wait to grab a Blu Ray transfer of this at some point in the near future. There were a couple of moments where I didn’t understand how they could work technically in real life... including a brilliant ‘branded tattoo’ moment which I won’t go into in case it’s considered a spoiler but, ultimately artistic licence will always win out for me when the films being made are as skillfully crafted as this. Coralie Fargeat is definitely a director I need to keep my eyes open for in the future and Revenge is a brilliantly stunning debut feature. I can’t wait to see this one again.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

Mostly Armless

The Cloverfield Paradox
USA 2018 Directed by Julius Onah
Paramount Pictures

Warning: Yeah... this one’s going to go right into
spoiler territory very quickly. You have been warned.

Okay, so... originally entitled God Particle, The Cloverfield Paradox is another ‘Clovered up’ movie which fits around the previous two Cloverfield pieces to give us a tale which actually, in some ways, goes a good deal of the way to explaining the cause of the events in them... and probably any others that come after it too. Although, with the information gleaned from this one, there probably doesn't need to be any further movies made in the cycle, to be honest as, well... this one seems to wrap it all up.

The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw (so brilliant in Miss Sloane, reviewed here) as Hamilton, a physicist who specialises in all that large Hadron Collider stuff you hear about from CERN. The film starts off in the not too far future with her making the decision to leave her husband on Earth, for what they hope will only be 6 months, in order to conduct experiments in smashing particles together on a space station orbiting the planet, where that is perceived as being less dangerous for everyone else. This is hastily undertaken with the object of creating a new energy source as various countries are in ‘oil wars’ with each other to take ownership of this rapidly diminishing resource.

So, yeah, from there we jump via the opening credits, ushering in Bear McCreary’s cool new score and with a similar typographic design to 10 Cloverfield Lane, to two years later when Hamilton and her fellow astronauts, played by a cast which includes such luminaries as Daniel Brühl, Chris O'Dowd and Ziyi Zhang, are still up in space trying to end the world’s escalating problems. And then, of course, everyone's worst nightmare is realised when the thing that they've has been trying to get right for the previous couple of years actually works. Particles collide and the Cloverfield space station is victim to what a pop culture scientist scaremonger on Earth has been referring to as The Cloverfield Paradox... not that there actually seems to be much of a paradox in this move but, you know, you can’t have everything.

From here on out the film starts getting both interesting and plain B-movie cream crackers, depending on whether you find yourself buying into the suspense of the situation or laughing uncontrollably at some of the 'bug nuts craziness' on show here. Or possibly, you know, a mixture of the two... which is how I reacted.

Okay so, for example, a scene where a hitherto unknown character just materialises inside the walls and wiring of the space station and has to be cut free of the all the various wires and pipes that are penetrating her body is pretty cool. Especially when we find out that she knows the crew but they don’t know her.

On the other hand, a wall metamorphosing itself and trying to pull Chris O’Dowd into it and then slicing off his arm perfectly, with absolutely no pain, no blood and no need for cauterising... that was pretty unique and just the silly side of funny, I have to confess. Especially when the crew later capture the arm wandering around on its own, put it in a box, realise it’s trying to communicate with them and then throw it a pen so it can write them a note. Yes, this happens, I’m not making it up... you aren’t in a 1930s Hollywood B-movie here... this is bang up-to-date movie making on display, not The Beast With Five Fingers, apparently. What’s even better is that it writes that they should cut open one of their fellow crew members. That’s okay because, when all the worms from the lab went missing, they took over the body of one of the team somehow and then exploded out from him in a little homage, in some ways, to the original ALIEN movie. So... hmm, yeah. Luckily for them, their essential missing giro which helped run their particle collider happens to have somehow materialised inside this guy’s body too... so, good for them.

Yeah, okay the film is quite ludicrous and you will probably point and ridicule it at some point in your viewing experience but it’s never boring and it did keep me guessing/entertained for a while. There are a fair few problems with it though...

One of these is with the fact that none of these shenanigans where the crew are getting attacked by their own ship in various ways make a lick of sense, even when you throw the Large Hadron Collider into the equation. How did Chris O’ Dowd’s arm know what to write, for instance. This is probably my biggest obstacle within the film, to be honest.

The other big problem is that this is set in the Earth’s future, whereas it’s implied that the previous movies weren’t in that time shift at all. That being said, though, it is kinda implied that the particle experimentation also effects time as well as various multiversal dimensions and so it’s conceivable (and highly probable, I suspect) that this event set up a similar set of various parallel worlds, one of which is our Earth as it was in the past, allowing ‘things’ that go slither in the night to touch down on our increasingly unstable planet... one of which is presumably our world as it was in the time of the first two movies.

So yeah, in those terms at least, the film finally answers the questions, albeit in no real detail (but who needs that?) as to where the monsters from Cloverfield (reviewed here) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (reviewed here) came from (or rather, how they came to be here in the first place). Which is good enough from me.

Amid all this cheesiness, though, we have some genuinely nice performances, some interesting shot set ups, nicely choreographed sequences and it’s all held together quite well by McCreary’s intense and never knowingly winking score, adding a much needed sense of gravitas (and indeed, gravity) to the film to stop it becoming too comedic when the script really is not doing itself any favours. Probably the least effective of the Cloverfield series of movies but certainly not without relevance and definitely something which, mostly, doesn’t let the side down. Probably only watch this one if you’ve seen the previous two, though. Or you might not want to watch the others.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Score - A Film Music Documentary + Score - A Film Music Documentary... The Interviews

The Winds Of Score

Score - A Film Music Documentary
USA 2016 Directed by Matt Schrader
Epicleff Media Blu Ray Zone A


Score - A Film Music Documentary
The Interviews - Educational Edition

by Matt Schrader
ISBN: 978-1974367412


“… the really simple brass ‘brahms’ of Inception. Now, when Chris (Nolan) and I did those, they were a story point, an absolute story point. They were in the script. And then they sort of became ubiquitous, in a funny way, in trailer music. People were just sort of using them as transitional pieces. So the idea that they actually tell a story got lost. They’re just a sound effect. So their meaning got distorted and so there’s a sort of misuse of that.”
Hans Zimmer.

Score - A Film Music Documentary is something I didn’t think I’d get to see over here. I’d just assumed it would be one of those films that didn’t get a UK release and would sink without a trace with no other venue to watch it on other than the slight possibility of a dodgy download somewhere. However, I was very pleased to find that there is this Blu Ray release in the US (it’s also been released in the UK but only as a DVD release for some strange reason). I was also surprised to learn that there is an accompanying educational edition, book companion to the film with full length transcripts of the many interviews conducted for this... about 90% of which doesn’t seem to have actually made it into the film so, actually, it’s a very valuable resource independent of the actual documentary itself. I was delighted to be presented with this on my 50th birthday by a friend earlier in the year, before I even knew this tome existed.

There is also, as it happens, a release of Ryan Taubert’s score for this film but, alas, it’s only available as an electronic download and not as a proper CD edition so I probably won’t get to hear it away from the movie. I really do fail to see how a movie about film scores would ignore a segment of the fan base for such things and not release it in a high quality presentation on the best available media. I guess it says something about the studios who control these properties that they’re a little out of touch, I guess.

So, anyway, this really is not a bad documentary and, although it deals primarily with the state of scoring or the film industry now, it’s actually quite unique in its own way because it interviews a lot of the ‘now’ composers who are the ‘new guard’ including some of my absolute favourites like Bear McCreary, Brian Tyler Hans Zimmer and Marco Beltrami. I mean, there’s a whole host of names in here and chances are that, even if movie music isn’t your thing, you’ve heard at least a few scores by each of the many interviewees here. And it was certainly nice to finally be able to put faces to the names I have adorning the, literally thousands, of film score discs I have lining every wall and alcove of my immediate environment.

Although it’s been said by some people that the film only deals with modern scoring from the 1960s and onwards, I think that’s a little unfair as the documentary is only an hour and a half long (personally, I would have liked it to be at least four hours) and there are some deliberate nods to many of the composers who have made landmark scores in the past. Admittedly, there are less golden age composers than I thought would have made the grade (where are Korngold and Tiomkin?) but the film does acknowledge certain aspects of the past with dedicated segments to composers such as Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams although, of those, the only one still living, Johnny Williams, is not actually interviewed for this movie. That being said, I’m kind of glad that the overall focus of this one is a little slanted to modern composers and their methods/practices because, frankly, we’ve already seen a lot of the other stuff countless times... I think interviews with people like Christopher Young, Junkie XL and the great Hans Zimmer are far more valuable at the moment.

The movie opens with... I think it was Marco Beltrami... demonstrating a dying piano way up on a deserted hill which is connected to a studio by loads of wires which react to the wind. So the wind and environment are helping create the musical texture and, as he says, the notes travel through the wire faster than the wind carries them so you kind of hear the echo of the notes first. This is a great opening hook to start the film off with. It then shows the importance of score by using snippets of the Rocky films under Bill Conti’s famous ‘getting stronger’ theme and really gets the message home for an audience who are perhaps unused to contemplating such things (although whether any of them would sit still for a movie about film scores is anybody’s guess).

The documentary has a number of interview snippets with various composers, mostly new guys although there are some people like Quincy Jones also added into the mix and it’s an extremely valuable bunch of excerpts for the modern film score afficionado, it has to be said. There are also numerous, valuable clips of the various composers either conducting or overseeing the recordings of the films from various scoring sessions, which makes for some interesting watching. Especially when they show the cues being performed in one half of the screen and the accompanying visuals for such movies as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (scored by Joe Kraemer) and Casino Royale (scored by David Arnold) in the other half.

It’s also nice that you have legends like Hans Zimmer and his contemporaries paying their respects and expressing their admiration of some of the past ‘greats’ of film score composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. It’s just nice to see that the importance of these people is so well appreciated still. Plus, a good visual representation of how leitmotif works, as seen when notes of recurring motifs are highlighted during sections of Howard Shore’s score to The Fellowship Of The Ring.

There are also some very interesting choices of interviewee such as a music psychologist, Siu-Lan Tan, who talks about the way music effects us. How music can be delivered directly into the specific reward centre of the brain, the same place where sensations such as chocolate and sex are processed (ha, I knew it). Actually, I found her the most fascinating of the subjects in a way and I am now on a mission to seek out and read her books about this specific subject.

It’s also nice that there’s a lot of fun stuff in here too and if you want to see Bear McCreary rocking the Hurdy Gurdy and talking about the history of the instrument and why he used it on the TV show Black Sails, this is the place to do that. Indeed, a longer take of him playing the instrument and talking about it is one of the very nice extras accompanying the film on the Blu Ray and DVD release of Score - A Film Music Documentary.

The book, Score - A Film Music Documentary: The Interviews, is available separately and, rather than just reiterating all the great stuff found in the movie, it actually gives you way more information when it comes to each composer and their attitude and approach to the art and craft of scoring. There are a couple of slight niggles with this volume though.

One is found in the very first words of the first chapter. Each chapter comprises an interview with a specific composer and starts off by listing a few of the scores they are known for plus a list of awards, nominations and other musical affiliations but I was quite annoyed to see that the first score listed for David Arnold was for Independence Day - Resurgence, the sequel to a film Arnold actually did write the score for. Alas, as I’m sure most fans of film music will be able to tell you, the score for this sequel was actually by Thomas Wander and Howard Kloser. Now, I don’t know if maybe Arnold did actually do some work on this and his score was rejected but I’m guessing that this would surely have been known before this book went to print. So, yeah, that’s a problem. When the same kind of error occurs later in the book for Tom Holkenborg, it’s at least understandable as I think the book may have already been published before he was taken off of Justice League and Danny Elfman took over scoring duties on that one.

The other slight problem I have with this book is the amount of typos. There are absolutely loads of sentences which start off with a lower case letter dotted around the book. At least, I hope these are typos and not some bizarre attempt to change the way English grammar works, at any rate.

In spite of all that though, the volume is something which I think most film score junkies will appreciate. It’s true there are some things you expect certain composers to talk about... so included in David Arnold’s section is his enthusiasm for using Monty Norman’s James Bond theme at various points in a Bond movie and director James Cameron talks about the importance of the temp score and working with James Horner. However, there’s also a lot of stuff which people may find less familiar and it’s in these words by the people in the front line that you gain the real knowledge from.

For instance, Quincy Jones starts off talking about how hard it was to be a black composer in 1960s Hollywood. But it’s interesting to learn how he'd make a conscious effort to get away from representational music (what we would call ‘Mickey Mousing’) and to score something more in touch with mood and feeling/setting (something which Bernard Herrmann used to do, I believe). Similarly, the composing team of Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross talk about completely coming at the score from a soundscape kind of sensibility to ensure that each section is appropriate for the mood and tone of a picture and scene. Being an admirer of their score for the US version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I found their interview section very refreshing and informative.

It’s also interesting to read about the contradictions between composers talking about their work too. Some think the sole job of the score is to just illustrate what’s already on the screen but others, such as Hans Zimmer, more correctly talk about the music enhancing rather than supporting the film. Filling in bits to give the audience emotional direction, for example.

Another interesting point is when the great Bear McCreary makes a really good case for why composers have to use orchestrators and why it’s actually, in the long run, more preferable to the lifestyle than doing it on your own. It’s something I’ve never been quite comfortable with in terms of the artistry of the profession but Bear more than justifies this practice here. He also talks about how you should put the directors in a very comfortable state of mind and connect with them to have the most productive dialogue in the first place.

On the other hand another of my favourite modern film score composers, Brian Tyler, is not a fan of letting what he writes go to orchestrators and mixers and, although he kinda admits it’s a necessity, he will sometimes go and remix it all again afterwords anyway. He also cherishes the imperfections of timing and performance because that's how the music feels "alive and original" which is nice. When you see a concert I’ve always been conscious that this is the only way you will ever see it performed exactly a certain way... no repeats, it’s always going to sound different every time. It’s interesting to see Tyler celebrating this natural phenomenon as being extremely beneficial to the final performance recording of the art form.

And then there’s Garry Marshall. Now, it could be that I was reading his section with the wrong tone but he seemed to come across, at least to me, as either a complete nutter or a total idiot. For example, if he wants a sequence in a film to seem like something is important... he’ll just put in a song by U2. I don’t know, maybe he’s just got a really great sense of humour and I was reading it incorrectly but... yeah... if I were a composer I might have second thoughts about collaborating with him on the strength of his words here, that’s for sure.

However, the book is, as I said, a really useful and insightful tome, in spite of the occasional piece of misinformation and rampant typos . An excellent companion piece to Score - A Film Music Documentary. If you’re a fan of the art of motion picture music then chances are you would have already seen/read this one or added it to your list. If not, then you really should and both the book and the film are certainly good for people who have no idea about the art and want to get up to speed. I’m really happy to have both the Blu Ray and the paperback and these get a big, raised conductor’s baton thumbs up from me. They’re certainly noteworthy.

You can read my review of a Hans Zimmer concert here and a review of a Brian Tyler concert here.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Daimajin Strikes Again

Collateral Daimajin

Daimajin Strikes Again
(aka Daimajin gyakushû)

1966 Japan Directed by Kazuo Mori
Daiei Studios/Mill Creek Entertainment Blu Ray Zone A

Well, here we have the third and final entry in the series of Daimajin movies which were released three months apart in Japan in 1966, with this final one at cinemas in December of that year. However, as far as the titles go on the US releases... it’s a mess. This one never got released in the cinema in the US but the English title was originally called Wrath Of Daimajin (and is listed as such on the IMDB) but that was the Japanese translation of the second film. The Japanese translation of the third film was Return of Daimajin... except that title is what the US market called the second film so... I’m going to go with Mill Creek’s release title for this one, Daimajin Strikes Again.

The opening title card is a thing of beauty with loads of birds being released behind the cool Japanese font followed by sparkly, glittery things which I am assuming is supposed to be gunpowder... I’ll get to why a little later. However, the sequence immediately following the title card makes absolutely no sense with the rest of the movie and I can only assume it was included by the film’s producers because they felt there wasn’t enough of Daimajin in the movie (something which I would argue is the case for all three films, actually).

In this opening, Daimajin in already up and about from the start and we see bits of him such as his arm or maybe a leg (no full body shots or face until the last little bit of the film) as he wanders around causing avalanches, floods and various other ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes and we see various people huddling in terror and proclaiming that “God must be furious!” as their dwellings are wrecked and they are made homeless. This is followed by a voice over narrative moment saying that these stories take place in a time when people thought their mountain Gods caused such natural disasters. This is curious for three reasons... 1. We have just seen that Daimajin, their mountain God, did indeed cause these disasters... 2. This behaviour is completely at odds with the avenging spirit we know him to be from the previous two movies (and this one, as it turns out) and... 3. This sequence and its consequences play absolutely no part in the subsequent film. It’s a complete non-sequitur and this makes me assume it was placed here to start the film off with a bit of spectacle since, in all honesty, there’s not much action in this movie, which seems to be aimed squarely at a young, family audience (which makes the final, bloody denouement all the more curious, to be honest).

So then we get into the main story, such as it is, with a dying man returning to his village from the mountains. He tells a story of all the men folk being attacked and abducted by a bunch of evil samurais to be used as slave labour in Hell Valley. The remaining villagers want to go and rescue their people but the only way through to Hell Valley is across the God’s home, Majin Mountain and, if it snows, then anyone stuck up there is not expected to survive.

Meanwhile, while the adults are procrastinating, a trio of young children leave the village and decide to go up Majin Mountain to Hell Valley and rescue their fathers from the evil samurai. Now, the fathers in Hell Valley seem to be involved in carrying dry sulphur from the region and are said to be aiding their captors to build ‘a construction’ which will help them invade and conquer any surrounding villages. However, it’s really not very clear at all, throughout the entire movie, just what the heck it is they are supposed to be constructing but, since there are lots of explosions when things get knocked over in the final sequence of this movie, I can only assume it’s something to do with gunpowder manufacture but... it’s not made clear in the movie to be honest. At least not in the subtitling.

Much of the rest of the movie is taken up with some great shots of the trio of kids climbing up and around the mountain and some gorgeous compositions and atmospheres are created with the three kids in the foregrounds pitched against the angles made by the natural landscape behind them. It reminded me a little of the astronaut walk seen the year after in the original Planet Of The Apes, in some parts. After a while, a fourth kid who wanted to come also joins them and we get more of the same. At one point, where the kids have to sneak past an old lady who says they can’t go up the mountain, we are reminded that folk in this film think that Daimajin is a “scary, wild mountain God”. When the kids come to the giant stone God, the atmosphere gets dark and windy for a little while and we are then told that Daimajin’s ‘avatar’ is a hawk, with which he listens in and watches the progress of the kids throughout the movie.

Then we get three of the evil samurai who go onto the mountain to try and find the villager who escaped at the start of the movie and they then start to go after the kids... who seem to outsmart them at every turn. For a while there, it all gets a bit ‘Home Alone on a mountain’ to be honest. However, things get hairy for the kids after one of them hurts his leg and so they construct a raft (somehow) and try and float it down to Hell Valley... but of course it cracks up on rocks and, with all the finality that Japanese movies of the time seemed to never lack, the kid with the dodgy leg dies and floats off down the river.

Then one of the kids has a dream about being lost in the snow with Daimajin’s hawk avatar tracking him. Sure enough, it starts snowing on their second night on the mountain and they get into all kinds of trouble. Then the three samurai find them and are about to shoot them all when the hawk avatar kills the three samurai by clawing up their faces but... not before the hawk is shot. After it dies, one of the kids buries its bleeding body, says a prayer to Daimajin and jumps into the thick, snowy ice as a self sacrifice to the mountain God’s spirit. At this point, the titular giant statue starts bleeding down its visage and then does that thing with its hands in front of its face as a travelling matt, which it always does to reveal its usual, “angry as f*ck, I’m so pi**ed off I’m going to kill all the villains in ways so not fit for the general family audience movie this is supposed to be” face.

And then we’re in the final 10 - 15 minutes of the movie as Daimajin goes on his angry rampage, first turning golden and rescuing the kid who just sacrificed himself, not to mention resurrecting his hawk, before stomping around in the evil samurai’s valley and killing all the villains as they are about to throw the peaceful villagers into a lake of sulphur. And it gets pretty violent. Explosions of sparkly bits light up as he knocks over buildings (for some reason so... gunpowder, I guess?) and he steps on one guy so hard that blood comes out of his mouth. He then takes the main villain in his hand, grabs his giant stone sword and runs the guy through with it against a rock... before pulling the sword out so the victim can fall into his own sulphur lake. And that’s pretty much where the movie ends, as the grateful villagers prey to him and he returns to his stony face form before a nice effect has him dissipating in the wind as snow. It’s a nice end to a pretty enjoyable trilogy and, like the previous two (each by a different director), I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Just a shame no more Daimajin movies were made after this although I believe a TV show was released in 2010. Who knows, maybe we’ll get to see a subtitled release of that over here someday. In the meantime, Mill Creeks stunning US zoned Blu Ray of the trilogy is the absolutely best way to go if you want to catch these great movies. Highly recommended.

Daimajin at NUTS4R2


Return Of Daimajin   

Daimajin Strikes Again

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Wonder Woman Unbound

Lost And Bound

Wonder Woman Unbound
by Tim Hanley Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 978-1-61374-9098

Wonder Woman Unbound is the first of what will be, I’m sure, many books I’ll be reading for this site dealing with various aspects of, to quote this book’s subtitle, ‘The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine’, in the wake of last years truly great cinematic incarnation of the title character. I was given this at Christmas and, despite the bold cover, it looked a slight thing in terms of how much value it could bring to my understanding of the Amazon Diana and her heroic persona. However, looks can be deceiving and are not the best things to rush to judgement on and so it proved to be with this.

Tim Hanley’s book is a knockout and a gold mine of great information, much of which could only be researched in the wake of the availability of expensive duplicates of the early comics which were reprinted for the general public more recently than when some of the other tomes which have tried to look into Diana’s background were written. I truly learned a lot from this valuable book, which doesn’t just limit itself to looking at creator William Moulton Marston’s original take on the character but also brings us right up to date... or at least as up to date as 2014 when it was written.

After an introduction which touches upon some of the issues Hanley wants to cover in the book, he gets right into things with the first section, entitled The Golden Age. In this he recaps, for the less comic literate, the history of the medium and the various things that happened to the strips... such as a, surprisingly, balanced view of what Wertham was really saying when he sparked those comic book witch hunts with their grim fallout involving the creation of the Comics Code. Not to mention the slumps in sales and how the various strips and characters weathered these things through this and certain other periods of modern history.

Diana’s origins were slightly different from the current version of the character as portrayed in the movies.... with the amazons imprisoned by Hercules before escaping to Paradise Island where they fashioned bracelets from their chains to remind them of the world of men... although the idea that Diana was sculpted from clay by her mother and given life from the Gods was there too. However, the origin was revisited and changed a few times over the years... as it has been for a lot of comic book characters over the decades (especially DC characters) and this is perhaps due to the longevity of the Golden Age characters... when many other of the superpowered giants were refashioned (with some notable and legendary exceptions) as brand new characters with different origins... I might mention the Golden to Silver and Platinum Age transformations of such characters as Green Lantern, The Flash or The Human Torch (who originally wasn’t human at all), for example.

Another very good point that the author makes, and it’s not something I’d even thought of before, was that many of those Golden Age heroes were born from personal tragedy... Superman fleeing the destruction of his race, Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in front of him etc... whereas Wonder Woman was not. Her origins seem way more upbeat and optimistic in comparison and perhaps that’s why she tries to solve all the problems she faces from various villains with a sense of love and reformation rather than with overt antagonism (something which came over very well in the recent movie version of her character, reviewed by me here).

So, for example, it talks about how she would recognise the good traits of her enemies and use those to suggest alternate career paths and how she had set up ‘Reform Island’ to rehabilitate those foes who survived her attentions (something which I’m guessing may have been purloined from either Doc Savage’s Crime College or The Shadow’s similar reforming island.

It also talks about the gender role swap and compares Steve Trevor to Lois Lane in terms of being a 'damsel' to rescue. Batman’s Robin fulfilled a similar role but was, also, always quite useful to Batman whereas Steve Trevor seemed to be completely ineffectual against his enemies and would have to be bailed out by Wonder Woman time and time again. Hanley then looks at how alter ego Diana Prince fulfilled the same weak role in comparison to Steve Trevor, before transforming herself into Wonder Woman to save the day.

The author is also not afraid to take on all the issues of Marston’s personal psychology and how his much celebrated and still used to this day (if my understanding is correct) DISC theory was the underlying message of the propaganda living inside the strip and also points out the difference between this and the undeniable sexual kinks depicted metaphorically in the book... which are problematic not by their nature but by being somewhat contradictory in their gender representation to the underlying tenets of DISC.

He goes on to show various charts of his research to point out the high percentage of her time Wonder Woman spent in bondage or, most importantly, binding others compared to her nearest male rival in terms of ‘getting tied up’, Captain Marvel. Of course, the big red cheese’s* bondage content was often a necessity of the writers finding ways of incapacitating his alter ego, Billy Batson, so he could be gagged and unable to say the magic word SHAZAM!, which would bring Captain Marvel into the world... so it has the highest amount of bondage in any male oriented comic book. Wonder Woman had stacks more and the writer also looks at the different ways it was shown in relation to who was getting tied up (male or female) and if it was, perhaps, a disservice to Marston’s own theories of female dominance being depicted.

Hanley also talks about Marston's theory about the positivity of submission being at odds with the way it was portrayed in the strip but shows that other elements of the stories also supported the strong feminist ideal that the character was meant to represent. Also, that the strip was very much aimed at a male readership, as well as female readership and that, for the most part, the male readership was much higher. He does this very impressively by gleaning the amount of data to be found in the letters pages of the comic over the years and also by looking at the kinds of ads which were being pitched (mostly to boys) in the Wonder Woman comics.

The book goes on to cover the character in the wake of Marston’s death, looks at the various other important writers contributing to the strip (including other, very interesting features in the pages of the various comics starring Wonder Woman) and gives an overview of how ‘in touch’ they were with Marston’s principles... including the use of the phrase ‘Suffering Sappho’ and how the evidence from a lot of the comics is undeniable that Diana was, especially at the start, a lesbian... although I suspect what she became very quickly, in terms of her alter ego, was at least bisexual (something which I think is another element which the recent film makes as overt as possible for a family audience). Although the Amazons, as they stand in the movie, surely must have been created as bisexual because their original mission was to appease/calm down and ‘sexy up’ mankind, if I’m interpreting the movie version correctly.

Hanley explores the differences between the character and the silly plots of the Silver Age in the wake of the shake up after the EC comics years and the ‘Wertham effect’. How the women in the comics, including Diana, were injected with ideals of ‘female domesticity’ propaganda after the death of her creator (something which I don’t think would have necessarily have happened if he had lived longer).

It investigates and demonstrates these things by giving us a very welcome potted history and summary of various other characters in comics at the time... including the female characters. This shows that, in many ways, Diana at this time was even less independent than the title character of the ‘Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane’ comic book. Other DC female characters were far stronger in terms of their identities and roles in the DC line.

Thus, it shows how the women's liberation movement of the fifties and sixties totally passed Diana by. In fact, in a very interesting run of the comics, her superpowers were taken away from her, as was Steve Trevor, who dies as her motivation to become a kind of mentored, kung fu killing machine spy who was falling in love with every man she came across and who was as interested in wearing the right fashions as she was anything else. Actually, this run of the comics sounds fascinating and, although they completely destroyed Diana’s character, I would truly love to read these ones. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve been reprinted so it would take a lot of time scouring comic book shops for expensive back issues if I were to ever get that opportunity, methinks.

So after making the point that while women were rising up and claiming independence in real life, Wonder Woman was doing the exact opposite... it shows how Gloria Steinem reclaimed Wonder Woman in the 1970s by putting her front and centre on the cover of the first issue of her phenomenally successful Ms magazine - celebrating her inside the covers and engineering the restoration of her superpowers with a powerful friend at DC to tie in with this.

As Hanley covers the next four decades, bringing us to the somewhat sorry state of the character in 2014 (in terms of sales at least) it becomes increasingly clear that he knows a lot about the history of feminism in its many incarnations (many of them opposing)... including one based on theories of an all female genesis for our species through a process called parthenogenesis which, in all honesty, does nothing to make me take certain somewhat respected splinter groups of feminism in any way seriously. I mean... oops.

It’s a shame, in a way, Hanley didn’t wait another three or four years before he published this so he could see what a successful phenomenon Wonder Woman has become again, especially in terms of the film which has become probably one of the most successful DC superhero movies of all time (deservedly... it’s one of the great works of art in modern cinema). I suspect he might want to revisit the book at some point and revise it in light of what Diana has become to modern audiences and I would love to read what he makes of this recent chapter in her ongoing history.

That being said, though, Wonder Woman Unbound is a truly wonderful tome to have in one’s personal library and it certainly armoured me up with a lot more knowledge about the character than I was previously aware of. It’s concise but thorough and extremely well written... it also includes a number of interesting photos of key covers, adverts and other items of note from her history in a section about two thirds of the way through the book. Now, admittedly, I am a novice when it comes to this character so don’t know how this holds up to more knowledgable fans of Diana and her story but I can certainly recommend this as required reading for anyone who is a little in the dark about Wonder Woman’s place in comic book history. I had a really good time with this one... perhaps you will too.

* Arch enemy Dr. Sivana's name for Captain Marvel (played by Mark Strong in next year's movie version).