Thursday, 18 October 2018
More Questions Than Afters
Directed by Gez Medinger and Robin Schmidt
FrightFest presents.../Icon DVD Region 2
AfterDeath is an interesting movie and, for the most part, a quite effective one. It starts where another film’s twist ending might actually be the big reveal but here it’s the set up. We begin the movie with the realisation that the five central protagonists (the entire cast not counting the ‘voice’ of a demon) are actually all dead.
The movie kicks off with Robyn (played by Miranda Raison) waking at night to find herself washed up on a beach. She flees the sands because she is chased by some fairly aggressive smoke monster thingies and arrives in a cottage. Inside she finds three of the other five actors in the film engaged in a ménage à trois on the couch. They are Sam Keely as the truly unlikeable Seb, Elarica Johnson as Patricia and Lorna Nickson Brown as Livvy. After an exchange, of sorts, she finds the fifth of this group (including herself), Onie, played by Daniella Kertesz, trying to slice up her own wrists but, alas, no blood and no death. She is informed that they are all dead and this leads to Robyn throwing out the most hilarious and sardonic line of the film about what the others did when they discovered they were dead and in some kind of afterlife limbo... “so you thought... threesome”.
It’s an ‘afterlife’ then, which we have here but, it’s not the ‘afterlife’ our main protagonists, all of whom perished in a fire at a night club, were expecting. As the movie goes on, they try to discover the rules of their predicament, as they are obviously not in heaven and they are not entirely certain they are in hell. It’s interesting because, last year I saw a film at the cinema called A Ghost Story (reviewed here) where the audience can slowly put together the rules and vocabulary of the haunted limbo world from observing the environment of one of the main characters. Here, though, it’s a slightly different kettle of fish because these five people need to find out what’s going on and why they are in a cottage which is familiar to each of them (not saying any more than that, don’t want to post any spoilers) and how they get out of there. Especially since, at regular intervals, the unreachable lighthouse in the distance shines on them and brings a burst of pain into their lives. Also, why does one of their number keep disappearing at the drop of a hat, only to reappear again a little later. And what are these wretched smoke monsters all about?
Robyn is the most determined to find out what the hell is going on and tries to steer the rag tag group towards some kind of logical escape plan... leading us through the usual antagonistic response scenes, the bonding scenes... and so forth. All the leads are pretty cool in this and as the film goes on, a little more is revealed about each character and things start to make a little more sense.
It is, it has to be said, a one trick pony of an idea (which I suspect I also might have said about A Ghost Story and that was awesome)... but the writing, direction and performances are such that the mystery behind the shrinking universe they find themselves inhabiting (without giving anything relevant away there) doesn’t get too old and the premise never really begins to flag until the last quarter of an hour or so of the film. By this point, perhaps, the ending is fairly obvious in terms of the various paths it could take but even by then the dialogue is still quite spiky and the last line of the film is especially irreverent and bound to wind up, I suspect, a certain cross-section of the audience.
Also, for a cheaply budgeted British horror film, I was surprised at just how effective and realistic the moving smoke demons in this one were. I tend to hate a lot of the more obvious CGI moments in movies and am always the first to criticise them but the special effects here seemed really good to me so... yeah, congratulations to a horror film for even getting me to mention them.
Not much else to say about Afterdeath but, like a lot of the FrightFest presents movies put out by Icon, I would say this one would work best as one film out of a screening of many (which is how it would have originally been seen at FrightFest, I guess) rather than something you watch on its own. Definitely a good movie for one of the middle ingredients of a private horror all-nighter and with the cheap price of the FrightFest DVDs at the moment, definitely worth a purchase if you are a fan of theologically themed horror movies. I’ve seen similar ‘people trapped in a puzzle’ stories filmed with far less panache and imagination over the years than this one.
Monday, 15 October 2018
Doctor Who - The Ghost Monument
Airdate: 14th October 2018
Last week, the new series of Doctor Who did something which it hadn’t done for a very long time... it ended on a cliffhanger. Well, hold on, bold claim that... there have been a few cliffhanger endings over the last few years so let me rephrase that. The last episode finished the story off by going straight into the next story with a cliffhanger to be continued in the brand new story the next week. That is to say, The Doctor transported herself and, accidentally, her companions out into the vacuum of space. Now this is something which the show used to do all the time. The first serial, nowadays known as An Unearthly Child, finished its last episode by showing the TARDIS landing and, unseen by everyone else but the audience, the radiation counter rising rapidly into danger levels. This was to then continue the week after in the story that would be the main factor in the show’s early success and which stopped it from dying an early death... the introduction of The Daleks.
And this practice of having each serial apart form the very last of each series bookending on to the next story is something which pretty much happened throughout the time that both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton played The Doctor, before it was dropped, mostly for good after the occasional, brief, resurrection, when Jon Pertwee played The Third Doctor in the early 1970s. But new show runner Chris Chibnall brought it back for the last story (including the multi companion format which would be a staple of the First, Second and Fifth Doctors’ time on the show) and I guess it’s not a bad idea to give it another go. It kinda makes sense in this day and age where cliffhanger season finales and even... um... mid season finales (don’t even try to make sense of that phenomena) are a fixed feature of many TV shows. That being said, this week’s new story hasn’t continued that trend at all but it’s at least nice to have the possibility that this kind of thing could randomly happen at any given moment.
So how did new Doctor Jodie Whittaker do on her second full length outing in the role?
Well... mostly not bad I guess. I think she and her excellent co-stars did really well with a script from Chibnall which was... well, I think it must have looked fine on paper but I’m really not sure of the execution of it here. That being said, there was one clever thing in the script. When the main villain of the week started talking about The Ghost Monument of the title, I was pretty sure it would turn out to be The Doctor’s TARDIS in reality and... yeah, it was. The nice thing about that, though, is that rather than save it for a final punchline, which must have been a temptation and wouldn’t have worked because... well, because it’s pretty obvious... he immediately then confirmed it was the TARDIS there and then so that was a nice touch.
So... well we have the welcome return of an opening title sequence. So "Yay!" for that. Unfortunately it’s... well... it’s a bit rubbish. The second half of it reminded me of the worst of Sylvester McCoy’s opening titles and the start of it reminded me of... I dunno... some kinda disturbing liquid going around in a washing machine. Add in a really wrong sounding (yeah, I know it must be deliberate) arrangement of Ron Grainer’s original title music and we have something that, really doesn’t make me look forward to it, in all honesty. My one hope here is that it will grow on me.
We also have a redesigned TARDIS interior which is... also going to take some time to grow on me I suspect. Maybe it’s a good idea, though, in terms of it being quite roomy and easier to handle four inhabitants in the main console room at any one time. Who knows? Well... hopefully Who knows.
The main story itself, about The Doctor and her companions helping the final two surviving contestants in a cross galaxy race to find The Ghost Monument and win enough money to keep them and their families safe for the rest of their lives was... a bit action packed with a budget that was somewhat less than action packed, I felt. The planet of Desolation is a deathtrap world designed to kill all who set down in it but the way the various characters managed to escape death each time really wasn’t all that convincing. Seriously, if you’re going to have highly skilled sniper robots chasing after you with their weapons, it’s really not that credible that they are going to miss hitting you repeatedly. This didn’t look good and this and certain other death defying exploits just didn’t seem all that plausible, truth be told.
As for The Doctor? S/he is starting to change a little. I can’t remember The Doctor questioning herself for quite some time to this degree (since Tennant?) and the end where, frankly, we all knew the TARDIS would have to rematerialise anyway, really wasn’t all that convincing or, welcome, I reckon. However, like I said before, I like the idea of a female Doctor and it’s early days yet. New regenerations rarely come across as the definitive version of their characters until they’ve got a series or two under their belt and this counts as much for the writing team as it does with the actors and actresses involved.
So... yeah, really not a great episode for me and I really don’t like the idea that an underlying threat for the motivation of a couple of the characters in this one is the alien race of Stenza, one of whom we saw in the last episode. Because that means they’re probably going to come back again at some point and, truthfully, that was a really awful, unthreatening villain.
However, every series of Doctor Who has at least one or two weak episodes (or many more in the case of Steven Moffat’s run on the series) so I’m not going to let this one phase me. I’m just going to try and forget about it for a bit and hope next week’s episode has a little more going for it than this one. We shall see.
Sunday, 14 October 2018
Royale, No Cheese
Bad Times At The El Royale
2018 USA Directed by Drew Goddard
UK cinema release print.
So this one surprised me a little.
I took a punt on Bad Times At El Royale and kept my fingers crossed that Drew Goddard, who directed The Cabin In The Woods (reviewed here) would deliver something greater than the dreadful, slickly edited gangster film that the trailer kinda half made it out to be. I’d recently said to somebody that, more often than not these days, trailers really put one off going to see the movie and reflect the tone of said movie in a completely inaccurate manner and... I’m happy to say that this is the case with Bad Times At The El Royale.
Now, the film is about criminally inspired shenanigans at a famous hotel (once owned by Frank Sinatra) which is split in half by the state line which separates Nevada from California (the rooms on the California side are a buck more expensive). It’s also got a rollicking good ensemble cast including Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth... who are all truly excellent and it’s nice to see this cast interacting in ways you wouldn’t expect them to here.
I say ways you wouldn’t expect because, although I quite liked The Cabin In The Woods, I did find it incredibly predictable. However, this new film surprised me a number of times when I was sure I knew what was coming next. For example the film has a pre-credits sequence which consists of a static camera watching a room in the El Royale. After a while the action within the shot keeps cutting to different parts of the day in the same shot placement, rapidly, in a montage which shows us the set up one of the film’s main plot points. I don’t want to ruin this sequence for anyone but this set up includes buried treasure (of a sort) and a man with a shotgun. Now, after the sequence ends and the title goes up, the rest of the film takes place ten years later, in 1969 and tells the story of what happens when seven characters converge on the place over the course of the fairly long running time. My point is, though, that I was pretty sure I could figure out the identity of the man with the shotgun within the opening minute of the post opening credits shot but, as it happens, I’m glad to say I was wrong. On the other hand, certain things about this opening set up do go unanswered still by the time the end credits start to roll but, you can take an educated guess at certain things and it’s nice to at least leave a movie with something to think about.
Now, the film has an excellent script, good acting, a nice fluid camera style which alternates between static shots and slow pans when required and it gets you interested in the various characters in a number of chapters which give you a little of the back story of each person and how they came to be here as the movie progresses. It’s an old cliché of a way of giving you the information in the most suspenseful way, to be sure and certain things are deliberately left unsaid (as in that pre-title sequence) so you can draw your own conclusions about them but, for the most part, it’s a very smart movie and it keeps you interested in the way things are going to turn out all the way through. It also feels dangerous a lot of the time, so you fear for the way things are going to go down when you see someone who’s got a gun, for example. Especially when not all the characters are as stable or predictable as you might think... Dakota Johnson’s character, for example, or Chris Hemsworth, who seems to be playing some kind of evil cult leader in the same vein as Charlie Manson.
I guess if I was going to compare it to something else, I might say it’s put together in the same way and with the same intensity as a Quentin Tarantino movie... just with less flowery dialogue (not knocking Tarantino’s dialogue, it’s usually very good, just saying that the speech here doesn’t match expectations of his particular work). Less sonorous dialogue is no bad thing though and I have to say I found the, relatively, smaller amount of ironic, post modernistic references in the movie to be a refreshing change in a film set in this kind of era, to be honest. That being said, Jeff Bridges does sign his name in the hotel register as Father Daniel Flynn, Flynn being the name of his character in the two Tron movies (reviewed here and here)... but I can forgive them that one, I think.
My main criticism of the movie is actually found within that dialogue, however. That being the use of very similar phrases coming out of different character’s mouths, rather then getting them all to speak about things in different ways. For instance, at least two different characters from different backgrounds use the phrase “all the bad” when such a distinctive phrase is not probably something two different protagonists are going to share. So the voice of the writer/director is very much present in the dialogue and... like a lot of writers tend to do and should really think about not doing... all the characters are thus easily perceived to be a version of how he speaks/writes. Which is a shame if you ask me.
The only other thing I didn't like so much was the constant use of songs in the film. They play an important role in terms of both atmosphere and, in at least one scene, commentary on the action but the rest of the music in the film is handled by Michael Giacchino and is less prominent. Maybe if I’d known more than a couple of the songs I would have had a better response to the musical side of the film but, as it stands, I’m not sure it’s quite my cup o’ tea.
All that being said, though, these are really minor criticisms and I have to say I enjoyed Bad Times at The El Royale from end to end. Which is especially impressive because the film has a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes but it really doesn’t feel that long and the pacing is such, with a cliff hanger seemingly at the end of every chapter stop, that you certainly won’t realise where the time has gone. At least I didn’t so, yeah... pretty impressed with this one. It’s not something I think I could watch again but it certainly holds the attention and I’d definitely recommend you catch this one while it’s at cinemas. There’s a lot of rubbish out there at the moment in movieland but this film certainly doesn’t add to that pile and is worth your time, I’d say. You’ll find yourself caring for characters who probably make a bad first impression on you when you first meet them, which is no mean feat in itself... so give this one a go.
Friday, 12 October 2018
The Queen Of Fear
(aka La Reina Del Miedo)
Directed by Valeria Bertuccelli & Fabiana Tiscornia
Screened at the London Film Festival Wednesday 10th October 2018.
The Queen Of Fear is the first of my very slim selection of films to see at this year’s London Film Festival and it was a bit of a quickie choice for me. That is to say, a good friend of mine was flying in for a few days, she’d never been to the LFF before and, of the movies which were showing at times we could manage, this is the one I thought looked the most interesting (of those not already sold out). As it is, it might well be the best thing I see at the 2018 Festival, it turns out.
The film explores a week or so in the life of a famous actress called Robertina, as she tries to deal with a one woman show she is writing and starring in, while trying to juggle certain other things in her life and maintain her sanity in a lifestyle of people who demand her time and attention and while she’s also working through her paranoia and fear associated with various sections of her life. As a nice parallel to that, The Queen Of Fear is not only written by and starring Valeria Bertuccelli as the main protagonist and focus of the film... she’s also co-directed it, thus making the movie a kind of counterpart to certain plot elements as her character's life plays out.
Robertina is, as the title of the movie suggests, a woman who carries her daily fears with her like a shroud and keeps her anxieties locked up inside her all the time while she tries to portray a kindly and helpful person at ease with her surroundings. There are a fair few things which are cumulatively adding to her anxieties... primarily the fact that she is not present (and doesn’t even have the content figured out yet) for the rehearsals of her one woman show as she is trying to deal with an old friend called Lisandro, played here by Diego Velazquez, who is probably going to be dying of cancer any time now and who she is trying to help in person in Denmark, when she should be figuring out the form and content of her show in Argentina. Added to this we have mysterious power outages in her home which may (or may not) be caused by some kind of stalker, we have her deliberately irritating and histrionic maid not getting on with her other household staff and we have a recent husband who has just, ‘probably’ (as far as she can tell) left her life after a few weeks/months of marriage and who is also just at the periphery of her day to day.
Actually, it’s the power cuts which provide the strongest visual metaphor of Robertina’s constant flight into fear and it’s with one of these that the movie opens with... and returns to... time and time again, before bringing a resolution, of sorts, in the final scene. It’s also an interesting opening which clearly shows the striking visual design of the film, which is evident in almost every scene. Bertuccelli has a quite obvious penchant for building her shots up from vertical and horizontal lines and this first set of interior shots demonstrates it in no uncertain terms. Like many directors in the past, she uses these patterns to split and redefine the visual planes on her screen and this is particularly evident in the shot where, after spending some time with her ‘ex’ husband who she catches in her house one night, she frames both characters in a small, vertical rectangle in the centre of the screen from inside the house, looking out as they are talking outside by his car.
And did I mention that she has a very white house?
A white house of primarily vertical lines which are prominent when she walks through it, often dressed in pale colours or white herself, like a fortress of light to protect her from the sometimes less perfectly composed but still fairly anemic colouring of the outside world as she moves her cautious way through it. Even her dog, Jimmy, is completely white, it seems, to enhance the effect.
My favourite part of the movie, which made me laugh out loud for a second, was when the heightened sense of vertical and horizontal lines are completely overplayed in one scene and, judging by the carefree nature of the film, this is a deliberate moment of toying with the audience on a visual level. It’s a short sequence where Robertina is seen in a medium shot in foreground wearing a cream and white top consisting of sections of both vertical and horizontal slabs and, as the camera is tracking her, she passes by a zebra crossing of white vertical lines and the collision of the large, looming road surface with her costume seemed like movie makers having fun with the mise en scène to show the audience that they are quite aware of the elaborate, possibly overwrought but certainly charming frame designs they are running with here. Which is fine by me... like I said, I laughed out loud (which is fairly unusual for me, I guess).
This heightened sense of artifice is ably aided by a central and dominant, tour de force performance by Valeria Bertuccelli which is both very funny but also extremely emotionally charged and moving at times, especially in the wonderful relationship she has with her dying friend Lisandro... Velazquez is just amazing here too and I’d happily watch a movie just of the two of them talking in a room for a couple of hours. The on-screen chemistry and the way Lisandro kind of takes care of her when it should be the other way around, even as it’s made clear to the audience that, despite her intentions, she’s not the best or most attentive of friends to those of her who she chooses to call as such, is just brilliant.
Another brilliant thing about this movie is when the rug is pulled out from under the audience toward the end. When we see the opening of her first (and possibly last) performance of the play which she has been trying and mostly failing to commit her time to, we have a moment when we think the downward spiral of the events of the last few days has finally gotten to her and finished the character off for good. Instead, audience expectations are nicely and cleverly upended when we find out her character is a lot stronger than we thought in the most brilliant way... but I don’t want to give it away to readers of this review so I won’t elaborate here.
What I will say, though, is the film has a heightened sense of drama in certain key sequences due to the way the score by composer Vicentico is written and spotted. And by spotted I mean the all important way in which sections of a motion picture are chosen to either be accompanied by an underscore (or song)... or not. Jerry Goldsmith, for example, was an absolute master of spotting movies in preliminary discussions with his directors, often going with a ‘less is more’ kind of approach to the project at hand which wasn’t always a fashionable stance. However, this movie demonstrates how useful these kinds of decisions can be because the music on this is very sparse with only certain key moments running with underscore (or at least that’s what it felt like to me). Of course, in contrast to the absence of the score in certain parts of the movie, the emotion for the moments where music is brought into play means that it heightens the mood required for the viewing and decoding of the sounds and images in these sections, where the most important events may have seemed a little less potent without it. This film is a good example of how spotting and scoring can make or break a project, I reckon.
So there you have it. The Queen Of Fear is an absolutely stunning, emotionally charged good time at the movies and I have no idea, like a lot of these things that get screened at these kinds of festivals, whether this will be getting any future kind of English friendly release either here in the UK or in the US. I know if it gets a Blu Ray release it’s one I’d definitely pick up to watch again and I can only hope various key distributors are looking at something like this for the near future. A true gem of a movie and a good start for me to this year’s London Film Festival.
Sunday, 7 October 2018
Fall From Grace
The Girl Who Fell To Earth
Airdate: 7th October 2018
Warning: One spoiler in here... though I expect you’ll see that dramatic moment coming a mile off due to pre-publicity reveals mixed with the way the characters are written.
So back in the early 1980s, when Tom Baker finally made good on some of his previous threats and quit Doctor Who for good (almost), there was real possibility that the new incarnation of The Doctor might be a lady. And the same rumours persisted in the British tabloids when Peter Davison finally decided to leave. And I remember, when those rumours first started flying, 14 year old me was terrified at the prospect. How can a lady be the male character The Doctor. Nobody had really thought of the idea that a Timelord, although able to change their appearance and, quite obviously, certain parts of their personality... could possibly change their sex. There just wasn’t a precedent for it. Sure, there were lady Timelords and we all, in those days, assumed that they always were ladies from birth to death and birth again.
Switch to modern times and I actually welcome the idea. There have been examples in the last few years of Timelords regenerating and changing their sex at least twice (and don’t think I didn’t know where you were going to be going with that idea Moffat) and I’d like to think attitudes have changed with the youngsters along with a lot of things involving female inclusion in film and TV. Although, it has to be said, when Jodie Whittaker was first announced last year, a lot of kids (including the kids well into their 30s, 40s and 50s) were not accepting of the idea. Equally, there were also a lot of happier, supportive people too and I’m hoping the new series will really hit the ground running.
That being said, I do have my reservations about this series now but they are much more to do with things which have been said by the new show runner Chris Chibnall rather than anything else and, at the end of the day, I reckon his show direction can’t be any worse than the Steven Moffat years. Nothing against Mr. Moffat mind... he’s always been on my radar as a brilliant writer since I first saw the Doctor Who episode Blink but, he always struck me as someone who would have brilliant openings and terrible finishes...often waving some nonsensical made up scientific sounding tosh and wielding it like a magic wand for a quick fix.
So here we have the 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker headlining, although she’s technically the 14th since the addition of John Hurt (and don’t even get me started on things established in the Tom Baker story The Brain Of Morbius). She’s also been given a whole load of companions which is something the early shows in the 1960s used to do a lot and which is a trend that came back into fashion a bit during the Peter Davison years. So we have a new Doctor, three new companions... Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan and the one and only Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien... a new format with hour long episodes (but a shorter series), a new composer in the form of Segun Akinola and, oh yeah, everything’s new.
And it’s also not a bad episode, as it happens.. although I have to say I was the only one in the house who actually liked it. Then again, my folks always take a couple of seasons to get used to the new Doctor.
Right. Where to start.
Well Jodie Whittaker is almost spot on. She’s a bundle of energy and I certainly felt confident she can succeed as The Doctor. I say ‘almost’ because at the moment she seems to be playing it a little like Peter Capaldi’s version in some ways... I could almost hear him saying the lines in my head but I suspect this is more to do with the way the dialogue has been written. The writers maybe haven’t found their feet with the new personality as yet and I’m sure, just like Capaldi did, the character will be more evolved by the time we get around to Jodie’s second series. Anyway, the important thing is... she’s pretty great in the role. Of course, no Doctor has ever proven themselves before they go up against the Daleks but, until we get to see that for ourselves (and we really do need to see that at some point) then I’m confident Whittaker can do a good job of protecting people from alien invasions and such like. And, as it was, the dialogue was pretty great at any rate.
All really good. I was worried the larger ensemble would not give Jodie room to shine but she easily holds her own with what is a fantastic supporting cast, all with certain quirks which lend themselves to a, perhaps somewhat obvious but ultimately refreshing (for this show), set of dramatic character developments.
Okay, another plus is that the incidental music was actually quite good. I was really worried when Murray Gold left that the glue of the show would melt a little and things wouldn’t hang together but the new composer is doing okay so far. I couldn’t detect any leitmotif for the new Doctor yet other than riffs on Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s original title theme but it’s early days yet.
If I had to be a little critical I would say the actual storyline and plotting wasn’t up to much and was a little bit obvious in a lot of places. That being said though, the consequences of people’s actions shown was good with a fair few deaths including one important character called Grace who dies while helping save the others. However, the dialogue saved things a lot of the time and I even liked the cheesy way the writers thought to address the growing incidents of knife crime in the UK at the moment.
That being said, there were a few things I didn’t like.
First thing is... no TARDIS. We know it’s waiting for The Doctor somewhere but we don’t know where. Chibnall said there would be no multi-episode story arcs in this show but finding the TARDIS is a pretty big set up if you ask me.
Secondly... no opening titles. Something tells me this is going to be a regular feature of the new show and I really hope I’m wrong about that. We need that familiar theme and set of graphics welcoming us in each week. This seems a bit of a no brainer to me.
Thirdly... there were a few little moments which reminded me that the show is as cheap as it ever was. One thing in particular, where a hand smashes through a glass window but the edit takes us away just as the impact is about to happen makes me believe the sugar glass, or whatever it is they’re using these days, didn’t break all that convincingly and they couldn’t afford to do another take. I may be wrong about that but that’s what that creative edit felt like to me. That last criticism is only a minor thing though. Doctor Who was always cheap and that was sometimes part of the charm. It’s never harmed it too much over the years. Occasionally, maybe... but not for long.
And that’s me done on the first episode of the new series. Too early to tell what kind of shape and style the current incarnation of the show will take but I think we’re off to a fairly good start here. And even if all the other scripts turn out to be lousy... Jodie Whittaker is going to be a good version of The Doctor. I’m pretty sure about that.
So, looking forward to seeing what the timey wimey future will bring to this series. It’s a shame it’s on a Sunday night but what can you do?
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very slight spoiler in here.
Well this was a bit of a surprise.
I saw the trailer to Venom and it looked awful. This was followed up with a lot of negative, bad word of mouth comments on Twitter on the first couple of days of its release. However, I wanted to keep abreast of things because the Fox Marvel Universe looks like it will be properly merging with the Disney owned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) any time now and so there’s a possibility that the character could be crossing over into that world at some point, possibly with the same actors attached.
What can I say? I may be out of step with the zeitgeist again because I had a really good time with it. There are a few issues (not as many as you might think from people’s reactions) but overall it’s a pretty great Marvel movie and I hope they make good on the promise of the first of the two extended post credits scenes (so that’ll be the mid-end credits scene then) at some point. So hoping for some good box office on this one but, judging from people’s reactions, it might not get it.
I’m not that up on Venom as a character, to be honest. He’s only about 30 years old and I think I’ve only ever read the first ten or twelve years of Spider-Man in the comics. But this highlights one of the biggest problems of this movie right there, in relation to this source material and its pretence to be an adaptation of it because, although there are Spider-Man universe references in it, the primary one being that J. Jonah Jameson’s son, the astronaut, gets a few brief shots at the start of the movie and the other being mention of Eddie Brock’s New York problems (I’ll get to the final post-credits scene soon), this incarnation of Venom has nothing to do with Spider-Man at all which is odd here because... well okay here’s why.
Venom first appeared as an alien symbiont in a Spider -Man story called Homecoming... which is what the last solo(ish) Spider-Man movie was called, right? The story was part of a big Marvel event called Secret Wars in the comic, which featured all the Marvel characters battling each other on an alien world. It’s here where Spidey picked up the black, alien symbiotic costume and, many issues later, got rid of it when it became the villainous Venom and bonded with, among others, reporter Eddie Brock. Now, we saw some of this story already on screen when it was used, alas minus the Secret Wars part, for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. So I can half understand why they didn’t want to go down that route here and instead give him a new origin again (kind of, not really but I’m not going to condemn them for it) but we still have the problem that Venom still totally looks like Spider-Man.... because that’s who he first bonded with.
And that’s my biggest problem with the new movie. Venom bonds with Eddie Brock, played here quite comically by Tom Hardy who portrays him as a much more sympathetic character than I recall. And for the first twenty or so minutes after he bonds with Eddie, which in itself is a fair way into the movie... which is fine, it’s a slow burn... we don’t ever see him manifest as a full character and all the while I was thinking... oh, they’re doing this right. Soon he’ll see some footage or a picture of Spider-Man and that will justify him looking like the character. And that’s where they slipped up because, when Venom does manifest to Eddie and various others, he looks just like Spider-Man but with absolutely no justification for that. Which is what I was worried about when I first heard they were doing a stand alone Venom movie and, yeah, they really dropped the ball here.
Most everything else is great though. The movie takes time to build up the characters like Eddie, his former girlfriend Anne (played by Michelle Williams) and the movie’s main villain Carlton Drake (played really well by Riz Ahmed). And there’s even another symbiont (there’s a few actually but one other main one) which starts the movie as kind of a red herring because you assume it’s Venom but then it turns out... oh no it’s not. This character is useful in the early parts of the movie (and works much better then than in the end third of the film) because it allows the writers and director to play with the idea of the alien symbionts in almost a horror movie kind of way. This is something that’s further enhanced by Ludwig Göransson’s rather appropriate, almost cheesy riffs on a kind of 1950s style scary sci-fi approach to the scoring... which surprised me from this composer and is spot on for this. Well done to Sony for giving it a CD release at the end of next week. Much appreciated.
The musical style also changes when it needs to, especially when, somewhere in the last third or so of the movie, the tone shifts and it becomes an all out adventure Super Symbiont style action fest in the Mighty Marvel Manner (as they used to say in the comics). And this kind of works for the film too... it’s a fun watch with some nice, fast pacing and there’s even a brief appearance of a sexy Lady Venom at one point (or She-Venom as she was known in the comics, apparently). The point is, everyone is good and everything, more or less, follows through on story logic. I don’t know why people are saying it’s a mess and doesn’t make sense because, it clearly does... even if it does come off as a bit of a cross between the plotting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here) and Rampage (reviewed here) at certain points.
I have only two other problems with it.
One is the time continuity. At the start of the picture we have a rocket crashing on Earth and then Eddie Brock brought in to to do a puff piece interview with Carlton Drake as damage control on that event. Soon after, we have a caption that reads “Six months later” and Eddie is in a bar watching a news item. All well and good except the news announcer is talking about that same rocket crash which happened... one month ago. I appreciate that the timing relocated to a longer period makes more sense with what’s happened in the progression of the characters in the intervening months... but if you’re going to slap a caption on there then make sure the dubbing on the news cast synchs up with it. Mind you, it’s not as bad as the appalling time continuity error made at the start of Spider-Man Homecoming (reviewed here) with it’s proximity to the events of The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, reviewed here) so I think we can let these guys off the hook on this a little.
What really made no sense however, especially after a quite cool, extended mid end credits sequence, was an extended post-credits end sequence which is an action scene from the new Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse movie released in December... especially as it seems to have absolutely nothing to do with Venom or the rest of the film. So that was a bit strange but not especially damaging to the rest of the picture, I guess.
So what else can I say? Despite the unbelievably bad word of mouth the movie has been getting, I thought this one was a really fun ride and there are a lot worse things you could be seeing at your cinema at the moment. It’s not super great but it’s certainly not a dud and it’s also got a memorable cameo from Stan Lee near the end of the picture. So if you are one of those fans who are fond of the old phrase “Make Mine Marvel”, I think you’ll find Venom is at least worth a look. I was pleasantly surprised by this one.
Thursday, 4 October 2018
How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember
by Nicholas Carr
In his astonishingly interesting book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, writer Nicholas Carr starts off by reminding us of some of the things Marshall McLuhan said in his 1960s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. How he pointed out that the radio, movies and television were pulling us all back out of our solitary experience of reading and into a more tribal collective state. However, something Carr reminds us about here is that McLuhan was possibly more aware of the double edged nature of his findings than the memory of popular culture may have us believe. His famous quote “The medium is the message”, Carr confirms, is as much a cautionary warning of that fact as it is an acknowledgement of it.
Because there’s something wrong here, isn’t there?
And if you’re bothering to read this review I’m guessing you are probably more than just a little aware of this too. The way your brain can’t always seem to focus as well as it used to when you were younger (and that’s not necessarily because you were younger, as we’ll find out). The way you can’t seem to concentrate on reading like you used to. Or the way your brain is perhaps becoming more and more distracted every day?
Well, Carr has done the research and he’s here to throw the gauntlet at our feet and tell us exactly why our brains are getting so messed up by modern life... and it’s not just restricted to the technology of modern times such as the internet mentioned so prominently in the subtitle of this book. The internet merely presents a speeding up of a technological process at work on our brains which is, perhaps, as much a natural progression as it is digression or devolvement. Except, there’s way too much at stake here to continue to embrace the fiery call of the digital technologies which are part and parcel of our everyday life. Alas, it’s also seemingly far too late to pick up that gauntlet and run away from the catastrophe that is eating up our brains on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. What we can do, however, is listen to the warnings and decide if we can afford to slow down, just a little... and take a small step back from the way we are, constantly, rewiring our brains. Although, that last imagined call to action, based on what I’ve been reading here, may be just a little spurt of optimism too far on my part.
Okay, so this isn’t a book primarily about the internet... it’s about a long line of things literally dumbing down the species as a whole from century to century and how we are collectively always advancing to worse versions of this behaviour as the years go by.
In this book, Carr asks us to try and think about what it is about the internet, for example, which is being seen by some as an enemy to thinking and defended by some for, what appear to be all the obvious reasons. Yes, the internet can deliver so much content in many different ways... more than we’ve ever been able to access before in the history of our species... but that’s not what Carr is arguing against at all. Instead, taking McLuhan as a brief starting point, he asks us to look at the effects of the media itself, as opposed to the content it delivers. Carr was moved to write this because the internet had dumbed down his capacity to “lose himself in a book” or, frankly, concentrate on much of anything for very long (I’ll get back to how he’s even able to convey this in a well written book towards the end of this review).
And although I, myself, have been feeling the effects of technological overload on my brain for a number of years now (and I’m so glad to find it’s not just me)... I can understand how, for the majority of people, this idea would be a very hard sell.
After all, quick and almost instant access to any knowledge you want at a few key strokes as opposed to flicking through the pages of a book you’ve located which might have what you’re looking for in it? That is to say, the ‘internet way’ of getting information as opposed to the way we’ve always gone to a paper reference or pulled out a memory from within ourselves... that’s good isn’t it? Who is to say the old way of thinking is any better than the new ways? Some people, it seems, think books are totally superfluous now and who is to say they are wrong?
Well... Nicholas Carr and our own brains actually... although Carr has a fairly open mind about the claims on our mental real estate the internet and other associated digital media are making on our minds as a force to be very cautious about, as opposed to a force of ‘difference’. That being said, you can clearly see which side of the fence he has fallen on by the end of the last chapter of The Shallows. And he, like most people, admits he is a heavy user of the internet and all the other technological marvels that make up our modern environment... as reliant on it, as much as anyone else.
And the way he shows us just what is happening is by constantly going back in time and looking at, not just the way things have developed but how various inventions such as written language was having a marked affect on the users that embraced these things. For instance, let’s look at the case of the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was always pretty ill and he’d got to the point with his illness where he could no longer write or even concentrate on reading due to some historical problems. He was ready to give up when, instead, he bought an early and unusual, if beautiful version of a typewriter and, suddenly, he could not only write again but he became prolific. However, his style of prose changed too. It was noted by many and Nietzsche himself realised this. He blamed, or praised perhaps, the typewriter which had given him a new lease of life but simultaneously changed his thought patterns.
Carr also goes on to talk about various other historical examples of brain altering culture such as the written word. When mankind replaced pictures with words and was able to write things down and store things, there were big warnings about this dangerous new technology formed of an alphabet because men would grow shallow in thought, since they no longer had to pluck the information from their brains. And this is exactly what’s happening to us at the moment at a later stage of this problem where our ability to pull facts from the internet has weakened our ability to work at recalling things on our own. Big time, if my tired brain is anything to go by. How many times have you thought... oh, I can’t quite remember... it’s on the tip of my brain... and then just looked it up online rather than struggle a bit to open the right mental link to get the answer. It’s getting dangerous out there in cyberspace people!
What’s actually going on here is something which has come to light in only the last few decades... neuroplasticity.
It turns out the brain is constantly diverting and forming new physical links to different things we’re doing but, as one kind of cognitive function is exercised over another (even if only for an hour a day for a week, it seems) then new pathways are opened to make you good at that kind of behaviour but you sacrifice other things. For example, it turns out that London taxi drivers who have ‘The Knowledge’, the complete map of all the roads in London stored into their mind, are absolutely dreadful at remembering anything else you ask them to recall. Because the stuff in the brain used for ‘The Knowledge’ has grown and the stuff for other kinds of memory functions has died off... until it starts getting regularly exercised again. Turns out our brains are rewiring themselves to new functions all the time and this might, I suppose (I’m speculating here) also explain why lovers or good friends tend to pick up a lot of each others mannerisms once they spend a little bit of time together.
Carr’s book is an absolute delight as he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of history, throwing up loads of interesting stuff I never knew and then weaving it altogether to build a very interesting case as to why the technological age we have reached now is even more dangerous to the way we lose the ability to ‘deep think’ about things... not to mention ‘deep read’ a book (as he refers to it in a few places).
So he talks about the development of the written word such as the clay tablets favoured by the Sumerians and the codex (or bound book) which replaced the scroll in popularity for a number of reasons. And the form various written versions of languages took in various times. For example, when it came to words, no blank spaces separated them back in the old days. ‘Scriptura continua’ as it is now called. There was no punctuation and words in ‘sentences’ weren't necessarily in the right order. So the amount of concentration a person had to put into deciphering the text and drawing meaning from it was a lot more of an involved process than it is these days. So we invented grammar and sentence structure and things got easy for us (and I’d personally be lost without these things) but we sacrificed one part of our brain for another.
Another interesting thing I learned from this book is that, even by as late as AD 380, it was considered very strange if somebody read a book to themselves in their head, as opposed to reading the text out loud. I’m not going to spoil here how we know this though because, well I can’t tell this stuff like Carr and it is all very entertainingly written. It’s also quite something to learn about an invention by somebody called Lee De Forest which he named the Audion... it was a game changer for a lot of technological progress and paved the way for a lot of advancement. And wait until you find out what Google are really doing!
Now then... back to the medium and the message and just why Carr and many others are seeing the internet as the enemy, to a certain extent.
The way we navigate a piece of writing influences the degree of attention we pay to it. The touch and experience of paper can immerse us into the experience in a way reading something on screen with a scroll bar can't. And the influence of the web is huge. As it’s grip became more apparent, printed magazine layouts were even tweaked to look like their online counterpart.
The use of tools like the internet is not without significant neurological consequence, Carr argues. The act of 'deep reading' becomes impossible online because every time you are faced with a link or pop up etc. your brain is distracted by it and has to make a decision on whether to remain or click it and go and look at something else instead. Yes, often related content but you didn’t even finish what you were just reading. And the links keep coming as do the distractions (I’d possibly hesitate to point out to the author that this book has lots of numbered sections which send you to various appendixes... a distraction to reading if ever there was one). And this would explain why a fair few of my younger co-workers aren’t even able to sit down and read a book or work on something for longer than five minutes before looking at their phone. The culture of distraction has become in-built to our systems very quickly... so quickly it’s frightening. We basically get cognitive overload which distracts our brains and possible sources for this are 'extraneous problem solving' and 'divided attention'... the two central features of the experience of surfing the internet. And it’s not just this either... it’s the way we read online, often vertically and skimming the text randomly, which is a big hindrance and is another thing we are evolving our brains to do, very quickly, at the expense of other things.
In fact, various results of researching the way we read online prompted one prominent and respected researcher to propose the question "How do users read on the web?" His answer... "They don't."
And, yes, there are arguments to be made that humanity is just branching off into another direction... another stage of neurological evolution if you like. However, as much as Carr keeps an open mind about things in his book, the more he is brought back to the fact that the cost... in what we are losing in terms of our ability to think, contemplate and ponder things... is far too high. Disastrously high, in fact and I suspect we’ll really be seeing the signs of this in just a few more years down the road. I work in an educational environment myself (although I’m thankfully not a teacher) but I’ve more than noticed the consequences of digital technology on the minds of the younger generation in the last five or so years and, seriously, it is quite frightening. All the more so when I realise it is happening to me too.
One last thing... Carr mentions how impossible it was to try and concentrate on the writing of this book for all the reasons he explores in it. It was a long time coming but what he had to do in order to get the thing done was move himself and his family to a much quieter, rural area and deliberately limit his internet and email access. After a while he found himself able to concentrate on things again and the clarity of thought he used to have returned to him... at least until he finished the thing and then had to go back to technology’s dark embrace. It’s very much like the story Julie Delpy tells in Richard Linklatter’s Before Sunrise about being in a situation which forced her to go without television and similar distractions for a long time... after a short while she found the clarity of thought she used to posses returning to her. This is obviously just another version of this reaction to the neuroplasticity of the brain, possibly even before researchers had identified it and given it a name.
All in all, I’m glad I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember... and I would recommend it to pretty much anybody who has a heart that beats. Not exactly a survival kit to modern life but certainly something which is, at least, a cautionary warning which you may want to revisit at some point when you realise how ‘woolly’ your brain is becoming as a consequence of what you are inadvertently training it to do. It’s an entertaining, if sobering read but... it never hurt anyone to spend a little time sober, as far as I can remember. Definitely give this one a go before your brain drowns.
Tuesday, 2 October 2018
Directed by Dario Argento
Synapse Blu Ray Zone A
My revisitation of the early works of Dario Argento for this blog continues with a welcome US 4K restoration, limited edition steelbook Blu Ray of Suspiria. This is the edition approved by the cinematographer, which I spent far too much money on but which is worth it for the absolute crystal clarity of the transfer (which is important with this film in particular), not to mention the beautiful front and back cover artwork on the tin itself, initially hidden behind an equally gorgeous cardboard slipcase featuring the original, iconic ballet dancer artwork from the first release poster. Asides from the booklet, when you delve into the tin you get three discs... one of the film itself with the option of different opening credits sequences (not to mention two different commentary tracks), another disc full of extras and, on a third disc, a CD containing the famous Goblin soundtrack for the film.
I don’t know how you’d describe Suspiria to someone who has never seen it before. And, when I say ‘seen’ I mean experienced it... this is not like watching any other movie you’ve looked at so try and make sure you see it in the best conditions you can. Dim the lights and maybe pour yourself a drink... and don’t blame the almost hypnagogic visuals on the alcohol you’re casually sipping as your jaw drops at the attractive visuals. I’ve heard the film described as a few things in various documentary films on director Dario Argento over the years and, the two best ones I can remember are ‘fever dream’ and ‘fairy tale’. These two descriptions combined fit the visual aesthetic and atmosphere of watching the movie perfectly well so I’m not going to try and come up with something which is any more appropriate here.
The film was co-written by Dario Argento and his then partner Daria Nicolodi (father and mother of Asia Argento) and it was partly inspired by Nicolodi’s recollections of her grandmother’s stories of having attended such an academy and then fleeing when she found out it was a front for the study of witchcraft. Another influence is Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria De Profundis, which is often bundled together with his more well known Confessions Of An English Opium Eater... although it only relates to a couple of pages (from what I can remember, it’s a fair number of years since I read it) which outline the Three Mothers... the witches at the heart of Argento’s eventual trilogy of films Suspiria, Inferno and Mother Of Tears (aka The Third Mother).
The film is typical Argento and really establishes, more than any other, his similarity to the great Mario Bava in terms of the way he uses colour. It’s actually shot on Eastman colour but it was printed on one of the last surviving three strip technicolour machines in Italy. This allowed Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli much more control over the bright colours used here for the release prints (I won’t call them primary colours as everyone else seems to because, frankly, colours like purple and green which are in the film in abundance aren’t primary colours at all... unless you count RGB as primary and... I don’t).
During some quite sinister music going up as the opening credits roll, the scene is set by some voice over narrative telling about how Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper here) went to Freiberg to attend the dance academy there. As the credits finish we see her leaving an airport, which already shows us the kind of strong and often quite nonsensical use of bright colours which will become the glue that holds the movie together. There is a certain sense of calm as the camera tracks us out (a series of shots which include a couple of glimpses of Daria Nicolodi herself, who walks out of frame and leaves the film for good) and, when Suzy leaves through the sliding doors at the front, Argento’s almost obsessional preoccupation with showing the visual mechanics of things already gets a highlight here as we observe the mechanism of the sliding doors filling the screen in two shots. When Suzy gets outside, the iconic Goblin Suspiria theme kicks in as her scarf whips up in the wind and she is pitched into a chaotic world of rain which assails the senses of the audience as much as it gets in the face of the lead actress. Eventually she is picked up by a taxi driver (a character and actor who we will see again in the second film of the Three Mothers trilogy) and she is driven through the Black Forest... since most of the film is shot in places which aren’t where it actually takes place fictionally. There is a truly amazing piece of film stitched into this sequence with the majority of the bottom of the shot just black, depicting the side of the cab and all we can see in the top sliver of the screen still visible is the rain pounding and rebounding on the roof of the cab as it goes past various brightly lit buildings... the effect being that we get different coloured washes of bright rain hitting the cab in greens, yellows, purples and reds etc as it passes by. Just really gorgeous, visually sophisticated film-making here.
When Suzy finally reaches her destination and she tries to get in to the academy, she sees but - mostly due to the thunder storm - doesn’t hear the majority of the words of the anxiety filled student who then runs off while simultaneously locking out Suzy who, after a brief pause where an equally hysterical person on the door intercom won’t let her in, is forced to return to the taxi and seek accommodation elsewhere for the night. The mechanics of this sequence are purely so we can see her on a return journey through the Black Forest where she can witness the plight of the girl who fled the academy as a transition scene, it seems.
We then join that girl as she pitches up at a friends house, which is equally resplendent in its design using colourful, geometrical shapes and patterns and an almost surreal sense of architectural detail... which Argento obviously lingers on as much as he can. We then witness what is probably the most violent scene in the movie, with a double murder as some non-human creature stabs the girl repeatedly until a hole is carved through her torso... a hole through which we can see a close up of her beating heart which is also stabbed in gory detail. She is then simultaneously dropped through a stained glass window ceiling which shatters while a strip of wire which the murderer has stabbed into her body pulls tight and acts as a noose for her hanging, lifeless corpse. The punchline of the sequence comes as Argento moves his camera along the floor underneath her, so we can see how the carefully arranged and shaped blood puddle integrates with the patterned floor before we stumble across the body of her friend, who has been impaled and also had her head split open by large chunks of the falling, stained glass. This is probably the most violent set piece in the movie (at least in terms of credibility, to a certain extent) so if you happen to be squeamish and you can make it through this point of the opening ten minutes, you don’t need to worry about the rest of the film, where the violence is more felt than observed in detail... although the walking corpse of one of the characters with big pins stuck through the front of her eyeballs might unnerve some, I suppose.
The rest of the film deals with how Jessica Harper’s character integrates with the other students, including actresses Stefania Casini and Barbara Magnolfi... the teachers and directors of the school, played by legendary 1940s actresses Alida Valli and Joan Bennet... and how she tries to solve the problem of a dance academy where ‘things happen’ due to it being run by a coven of witches led by the long though dead witch Eleanor Markos. There’s even a brief cameo by a young Udo Kier which people will want to look out for, playing a psychologist who says the line... "Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but by broken minds". Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds was also the name of a quite good book on Argento by Maitland McDonagh in the early 1990s but it’s presumably a reference here to the fact that an awful lot of the shots in this film use mirrors to highlight the characters in unusual ways.
Indeed, there’s an almost unbelievable shot set up where two characters are on opposite sections of the wide screen but because of the way the mirror in the first third of screen is angled against the wall in relation to the camera, they're also talking placed right next to each other when they’re simultaneously seen in the reflection. Broken mirrors might also be a reference to a bit of reflective glass which looks broken and which is being ‘polished’ as Suzy walks through one of the corridors. The plump woman who is polishing it is accompanied throughout the film by a young boy, dressed suspiciously like the young boy seen in the opening credits of Argento’s previous film Deep Red (reviewed by me here) and, as our heroine gets nearer, the piece is angled and the already sinister soundtrack gives us a sting as the blinding light hits Suzy and does... something... to her which causes her to be taken ill and essentially moved into the academy where the powers in charge can keep an eye on her under the guise of medical reasons (which involve feeding her wine and other food that keep her weak whenever she imbibes). The shot is a beauty, though, because as the light from the object bathes the camera, the lights on the rest of the shot are dimmed down, only to be brought up again as the piece angles away again. The first time you see this, however, you might not notice the artifice of having to coordinate the lighting to accommodate the effect of the shiny object in question.
Okay, let’s talk about those bright colours. All through the film the director borrows from Mario Bava’s lighting style and we are shown highly saturated reds, purples, greens, yellows and blues bathing various objects or people, sometimes simultaneously in the same shot. For instance there’s a shot of Suzy in bed with everything in the room lit normally except her friend who is bathed in green and apart from a table at the side and all the objects on it, which are bathed in red. A lot of this stuff goes on and you get things happening like, in a makeshift dormitory built with hanging white sheets after a maggot infestation renders a floor of the school temporarily unuseable, somebody turns the lights off and the whole room is bathed in red for no apparent reason. And the sheets are now showing the silhouettes of what is going on behind them as shadows against the red (one of the shadows in this scene is a deliberate foreshadowing of a confrontation scene near the end of the movie). Or, when a character turns a light off in a room to make it dark, instead of being in pitch blackness, everything is miraculously lit up in a neon green. And when a character later smashes into the glass doors of a cabinet, the interior of the cabinet lights up red against her for a brief second.
The colours make absolutely no sense in this film but they look amazing. I’ve heard it said that they are supposed to be symbolic of the internal psychological state of the characters but I’m not sure that level of synaesthetic response was truly what Argento was going for, to be honest... because if you try and follow along with the colours like this and assign them some meaning then you may find yourself coming up short. I would concede, however, that they do play a psychological role in the way they are used to affect the mental state of the audience when they watch it. But, like I said earlier... fever dream meets fairy tale and the film truly immerses you in an experience while you subconsciously watch the colours do their thing on an entirely different level to what would have been written in the script.
Also pushing that fairy tale analogy is the fact that Argento originally wanted to shoot the film with young, teen girls but was told that it would not be a good commercial decision to have a violent horror movie utilising 12 and 13 years olds. To get around that, he has the camera placed just a little lower than he might usually shoot (so the audience is, more often than not in this movie, looking slightly up at the other characters) and he also has made the sets rather looming in comparison to the actors, with door knobs much higher than they would be in real life, for example, so the women have to reach up to open the doors in the rooms. The script wasn’t rewritten either so the child like and naive attitudes of a lot of the characters isn’t down to the bad acting of the majority of the actors like it is in a lot of Argento’s films (although there is a small amount of that here) but because the women are all written as children, so to speak.
But it’s not just the colours and height of the doorknobs that make this a typically Argento horror film (his first horror film, in fact, after a successful string of gialli and one failed comedy). The shot designs are the usual exquisite and meticulous works of beauty you would expect from the director. Geometrical patterns collide with walls and rooms adorned with 'trompe l'oeil' effects disguising hidden rooms and recesses and camouflaged with designs reminiscent of (and perhaps even the same designs in some cases) of the works of M. C. Escher. Indeed, the academy is in a street called Escher Straße so clearly Argento was not above wearing some of his artistic influences on his sleeve.
Other Argento-isms include the strange looking use of foreground objects seen attached to the camera and moving as the camera moves, such as a glass of red wine of a tray here in two shots, which are just like the shots he used of some of the murder weapons in Four Flies On Grey Velvet (which I reviewed here). Then there’s the moment when some items are dropped out of a bag and where they have fallen they are arranged meticulously so the camera can concentrate on them as they are picked up (even though they seem to have no narrative significance in the film, from what I can remember). There’s also a literal peacock made of glass and beads, which is presumably a visual reference to his first feature film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here), featured prominently in the final confrontation scene.
There’s a masterful, quite protracted scene comprising both static and moving camera shots where we know a character is going to be horribly killed but, as this blind character with his seeing eye dog are standing alone in the middle of a huge, deserted square (which Hitler used for his book burning rally in real life), we can feel the supernatural lurking in the shadows as we wait for the inevitably bloody denouement. When it does come it’s... well it’s surprising in terms of its origin is all I’m going to say about that one. Well, that and the fact that it’s quite brilliantly unexpected.
The thing which most of Argento’s films of this period have is also present here. That being the memory of an ‘escaped detail’ of something the main protagonist knows is there but can’t quite put their finger on until the end of the movie. In The Bird With The Crystal Plumage it was the struggle for the knife in the gallery. In The Cat O’ Nine Tails it was something Karl Malden’s character heard in passing. In Four Flies On Grey Velvet it was the masked killer, to an extent, and much later the mystery of the images of the four flies pulled from a dead woman’s retinas. In Deep Red it was Hemming’s niggling thought that there was something wrong with one of the paintings in the flat where he discovered the corpse of the woman he tried to save at the start of the film. In Suspiria, the thing haunting Suzy Bannion’s character are the fragments of the conversation she heard through the thunder storm as the girl who fled the academy at the start was talking to somebody just inside the door... primarily the words ‘secret’ and ‘iris’. In terms of this particular character in this particular film, you’ll be glad to know that she works out the significance of these words just when she needs to in order to move the narrative forward, quite near the end of the movie.
And that’s me done on Suspiria for now. I am curious about the new version hitting the UK in November although the audacity of someone trying to remake this masterpiece is something I find to be extraordinary. Suspiria is a truly beautiful film which is elevated greatly by its heightened colour schemes and unnerving musical score by Goblin, which Argento used to play at the actors on set to get them on edge (remember that most of these kinds of Italian movies are not shot with live sound and are dubbed into various languages for respective country's releases... so on set noise was not unusual). If you’re into horror films and you’ve not seen Argento’s Suspiria then you really need to fix that because it’s one of the most expressionistic and unique horror movies you’ll ever see, I suspect. Certainly nothing in the last 41 years of the genre since its release has come along to challenge it. Definitely a movie to be experienced, rather than watched and the limited Synapse US Zone A Blu Ray edition is pretty much the best I’ve ever seen it looking. Not much more to say on this one... an essential purchase for any fan of the horror film and... I’ll leave it at that.
Sunday, 30 September 2018
A Pip Off The Old Block
The Greenaway Alphabet
Directed by Saskia Boddeke
Raindance Festival Screening 29th September 2018.
Wow... what an utterly charming film.
The Greenaway Alphabet is a documentary, it is said, about the film-maker/artist Peter Greenaway... although I’m sure that it’s designated as such merely for the convenience of cataloguing the type of film it purports to be (something I suspect, with his affinity for lists and categorisation, Peter Greenaway himself would approve of). What it actually is, in fact, is more an exploration of the artist in relation to his 13-16 year old daughter Pip Greenaway (depending on when various parts of the film were presumably shot or... possibly... when Peter remembers the age of his daughter with any degree of accuracy).
Now, I always liked Greenaway in my teenage years and, very specifically, three films he made in relatively quick succession, all of which will eventually get reviewed on this blog (I have the Blu Ray upgrades, just not a large measure of that man-made phenomenon mistakenly known as time), those being A Zed And Two Noughts, The Belly Of An Architect (my favourite) and Drowning By Numbers (which I well remember seeing at the now defunct but always splendid Lumiere cinema in St. Martin’s Lane, when it was released into the wild back in 1988). I remember the soundtracks CDs to those films were a common musical background whenever I was working on various art and design projects at College.
Later on, the director’s work slowly disappeared from my life as I didn’t have time to keep up with him but those three films in particular were very much a part of me by then. Interviews with other people and first hand accounts from various collaborators made me begin to think of Greenaway as “a bit of a nutter” in later years but, what this ‘documentary’ does is show us that the man/artist is far from the awkward behemoth some of those collaborators made him out to be and is, instead, a quite interesting and warm human being... as is his daughter Pip, who is seen interacting with him and asking all the right questions to allow her father to reveal himself without the barriers perpetually going up. That is to say... all the wrong questions, which is what makes them so right.
The film is shot, with a lot of love evident in every frame, by his wife and mother of Pip, Saskia Boddeke. She is a multimedia artist in her own right and has collaborated with Mr. Greenaway a fair amount too. The documentary is partially shot, it seemed to me, in a way which might have... only at times... been reminiscent of Peter’s moviemaking with things a bit like the multimedia paintbox of delights movie that is Prospero’s Books. And, of course, the greatest result of their collaboration, their wonderful daughter Pip, is evident in most of the film too.
The film starts off by going through the words and concepts associated with Peter Greenaway as explored by him and his daughter as an alphabet, starting at A, going through to B and, a little way in, deviating from the expectations of the order of the piece by going to a later letter before coming back to one which we covered earlier and then missing out a whole bunch of others. It actually reminded me of the infuriating... but fun... red herring style appearances of some of the 1-100 numbers hidden throughout the frames of Drowning By Numbers but the lovely director Saskia was there at the screening (with Pip in the audience to answer the odd question too) and she explained that it was never her intention to shoot every letter but merely to use this as a starting point, so to speak, to the journey of the film. The title was always going to be The Greenaway Alphabet, however, in memory of the this being ‘a thing’ in the Greenaway household when Pip was growing up.
And I have to say that the film completely surprised me. Not only is it warm and engaging (far more emotionally warm than a typical work by her husband, I would say) but it’s also a lively, visual spectacle too, as the director juxtaposes various images and situations against each other to make sometimes startling visual metaphors, utilising drawing over the images and moving split screen segments to enfold the viewer in an experience which feels, by the end of the movie, something much more than the sum of its parts.
The Q & A at the end of the session was quite interesting and informative about the way different countries reacted to the various screenings. For instance, Saskia pointed out that the mostly British audience for this screening was much more staid and serious than in some countries where the quite wonderful humour of the piece elicited much more emotive reactions... but I guess the sourness of our self expression here is what makes a British audience what it is. So the Q & A was certainly illuminating, although there was an awful moment when one person in the audience suggested that the film was coming from a perspective of white privilege in the arts. Well, when you have a cast, effectively, of two people... there’s not really much you could do about the racial mix, which I think is what that particular audience member was trying to relate, much to the bafflement of the director (and disenchantment of the rest of the audience, most of whom were probably equally perplexed by this odd question, which seemed almost a non-sequitur in the context of the film we had just watched).
And I don’t have much more to say about The Greenaway Alphabet... not anything I could think of as a valuable criticism, in any case, since the film is just perfect the way it is. I honestly hope this film gets the critical attention and monetary awards it so readily deserves. I would love to have this thing on a nice Blu Ray disc and would hope to watch it again if I ever got an opportunity. It’s almost certainly going to be one of this year’s top ten movies in my end of year list and I would urge any fan of Peter Greenaway... or of art and its importance to the warmth of the family unit... to try and hunt down this film and take a look. A short review for a truly wonderful piece of cinema. This is the only film I saw at this year’s Raindance festival but, honestly, I’m so glad I chose this one. I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did... truly remarkable.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
A Simple Favour
2018 USA Directed by Paul Feig
UK cinema release print.
This film is a strange blend of two different genres and one of those genres, the girly comedy flick, is not one I would normally be caught dead watching, in all honesty. However, I saw the trailer to this one and it’s been billed as the 'darker side' of the director in question and, I have to say, it's a curious mix in that it starts off like... and is also populated by characters in... one of those typical chick flicks (in the common, popular vernacular of our time) but then turns out to be a fairly dark thriller in disguise. And it’s quite a delicate balancing act to bring those two things together but I can only applaud the people behind this for pulling that mix off so well and, as far as this audience member goes, quite successfully.
Now, to be fair, I’ve seen some very negative comments about A Simple Favour and it seems to me they’re rooted in perceptions of the collision of genres as presented here with terms such as ‘tonally all over the place’ being used and, while I can see that point to some extent, I think they’re missing the bigger picture because it’s exactly that kind of comic genre camouflage that turns what could have ended up being a fairly run of the mill thriller into something a little more interesting than what other writers and directors would have done with the material.
So, yes, it does come off as a somewhat nicey nicey cover version of Brian DePalma regurgitating Alfred Hitchcock as a girls’ night out event movie but... it’s precisely because it has that veneer of made for TV audience dramedy that it’s able to shine and give us an entertaining and somewhat satisfying ride. For example, the main protagonist Stephanie Smothers, played by Anna Kendrick, as a single mother who runs a somewhat successful vlog and who tries to help all and sundry, is so frustratingly the ‘someone I would never want to be within ten feet of’ kind of ‘nice girl next door’ that I would just not be able to stomach this kind of character in most movies (and even less so in real life). Here, though, as the story progresses, we discover a certain darkness in the character’s background and I found myself totally involved in her shenanigans because the veneer of charm hides a more than capable person underneath.
The plot centres on her new relationship with the mother of one the other kids, Emily, played by Blake Lively... and Emily’s husband Sean, played by Henry Golding. The two characters are worlds apart but as Stephanie gets drunk on Martinis and shares secrets with Emily, she becomes the only decent substitute Emily has for a passing friendship but, one day Emily calls Stephanie to pick up her kid from school before disappearing. A week or two later she turns up dead, her body washed up from a lake with signs of a large amount of heroin abuse. After a somewhat inappropriately small mourning period, Stephanie jumps into Emily’s life when she hooks up with Sean and she moves in. However, it’s not long before she begins to smell something fishy when she learns from the police that Sean took out a big life insurance policy on his wife only weeks before. Is there more going on than meets the eye here?
Well yes. I’d have to say that my one disappointment with the film was that it’s easy to figure out, about a third of the way in, that it’s a partial remake, in terms of the main part of the obvious twist, of a famous Hitchcock movie and, as such, I was waiting for certain other character revelations to be revealed at some point. A Simple Favour is based on a novel by Darcey Bell but, according to my sources (thanks IMDB) there are quite a few changes to the shape and details of the original novel so I don’t know if I can lay the Hitchcockian similarities at her door or at Jessica Sharzer’s, who wrote the screenplay. Certainly, with the absence of certain character details in the novel and a denouement much different to this adaptation, I’m guessing a lot of the ‘homage’ came from the struggle to make it more cinematic. There are certainly references to Hitchcock and also a nod to Henri-Georges Clouzot in the dialogue.
Now normally I would be very disappointed with figuring out the basic twist that early on in the film but, as I said, the shifting tone which darts between comedy and thriller really adds an entertaining element to the film because, in spite of this less than ambiguous reveal, you do get the feeling on occasion that anything could happen. It’s not 100% new territory but it is fairly uncharted and when Stephanie starts to Nancy Drew her way into finding out what’s been going on, it reminded me a little of the excellent, original Fletch movie (let’s forget the sequel, shall we?) and the wonderful series of books that was based on. There are some similarities in the way the main protagonist starts to research the death of her friend, although in Fletch the intelligence of the character was much more overt than the hidden machinations of Stephanie that Anna Kendrick really makes work in the role here.
More icing on the cake is a songtrack which involves a lot of French language pop (including Serge Gainsbourg and Bridget Bardot’s Bonnie And Clyde) and a score by Theodore Shapiro which manages to walk that tonal tightrope on which the director is balanced and provide some good support and enhancements to the movie. The French songs especially come into their own in the gorgeous looking opening and closing title sequences, which mix the kind of moving split screen style montages cribbed from certain sections of the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair with some nice, dynamic typography against the French pop-ness. It’s a heady mix and helps give the film a sense of visual/sonic branding to support the fact that, in terms of genre mixes, this kind of thing doesn’t often get done like this in contemporary cinema.
Also, the cinematographer is no slouch here and there are some great little compositions throughout. All of the houses that people are living in are beautiful and seem to be several pay grades above what certain characters could afford but the internal architecture of these ‘rich people dwellings’ is used nicely to highlight and compartmentalise the people who travel through the space in a way that can set them psychologically apart from each other in certain scenes before bringing them closer in others. There’s some good stuff going on here and it’s another thing which helps glue the two different styles of movie making going on here together and helps the audience accept this for what it is.
And that’s me done with this one. I wasn’t really expecting A Simple Favour to be any good and, given the ambition of what the writer and director have tried to do with this cross-pollination of styles, it really shouldn’t have been. I found it really entertaining, though and I’d actually see this one again at some point in the future. There are a lot worse things playing at the cinema at the moment so maybe catch up to this one if you like thrillers or female centric comedies... this one gives you the best of both worlds.
Tuesday, 25 September 2018
2018 France Directed by Gaspar Noé
UK cinema release print.
I’ve now seen four out of the five full length feature films that Gaspar Noé has made and, I have to say, I wouldn’t really call myself a great admirer of his work. While I quite enjoyed his Enter The Void (reviewed here) I was not a fan of either Irreversible or Love (reviewed here). However, since this movie has been getting such good word of mouth and also played at FrightFest this year, I really wanted to catch this one. Especially since one of my favourite emerging actresses, Sofia Boutella, is in it. I’d not heard a single bad thing about it on Twitter... alas, now I’ve seen this thing myself I’m wondering if the huge clamour of people falling over themselves to be seen proclaiming the brilliance of this movie is just a case of The Emporer’s New Clothes syndrome more than anything else. Well perhaps not because I did, frankly, see something which made me feel out of touch a little at the end of the screening but... hmm, I’ll talk about that at the end of this review.
So Climax starts off quite strongly with a shot of snow and one of the characters - I couldn’t tell which one - dragging her blood stained body down the screen. Then the end credits roll and I was immediately hoping this wasn’t going to be another case of Irreversible, where each segment precedes the one you just saw. Luckily for me, this wasn’t the case and this end sequence is followed by a long, static shot of a TV screen showing you talking heads of the various dancer characters being interviewed for the show which they are seen rehearsing at the start of... ‘the rest of the movie”. Now, I have to say I did miss out a little on some of this dialogue because, one the left hand side of the TV screen there’s a pile of books and on the right there is a pile of old VHS cassettes. So I was busy trying to identify titles such as Zombie and a book on Fritz Lang as much as I was trying to concentrate on the subtitled dialogue here, it has to be said.
Now, after this we get our first scene in the main hall of the building where all of the rest of the movie is set... the camera travels back and forth between various rooms and corridors for the rest of the running time. This first sequence here is of the dance troop, who are the ensemble of characters, showing the choreography they have been learning and it’s... it has to be said... fairly spectacular and captured with some swooping camera movements which, as you might expect, do go full ‘Busby Berkeley’ to a certain extent, at least in the way the cinematographer captures the footage. I was quite impressed and was ready to be further gobsmacked as a ‘party’ in the hall gets underway but, alas, things got dull very quickly after that. The plot point, such as it is, is that somebody has spiked the Sangria with LSD and, as things go on, people fall under the influence of said substance and paranoia, some mild sex, mutilation and death happen as the whole thing becomes a drug fuelled Lord Of The Flies session within the building... as things get out of hand fairly quickly.
And I’m fine with that in theory. The long takes, both static and moving camera (for quite a lot of it) is something I have no problem with but... it just needed to engage me a little more. Nothing you see in the movie is particularly new or really even shocking or horrific and I just started clock watching after a while (and it’s not a long film, clocking in at a little over an hour and a half). It reminded me a little of another film which had a deliberately chaotic mise en scene this year, Darren Aranofsky’s Mother! and, I have to say, I wasn’t impressed with that one either. And, really, I’ve got nothing against a ‘cinema of chaos’ piece and I especially embrace movies that have no story or don’t feel the need to justify themselves to their audience... but they have to at least be interesting or I’m not going to be that bothered about anything that’s happening on screen, to tell the truth.
Now that I’ve said that, the film does have a few good things going for it...
The acting is first rate and, since I’ve now learned the script was only five pages long, it doesn’t surprise me that the performances were so great since I’m guessing it was mostly improvised in the 15 days it took to shoot it and, frankly, you have to be good as an actor if you can handle that level of creative input. Also, since it’s quite complex in terms of camera movement and tying things together visually, I’m very impressed with the director... at least in as much as he was able to capture the footage in a way that, for most of the film, makes sense (although it does get confusing for the last twenty minutes or so when the camera is deliberately tilted upside down).
There’s also a nice little incident which takes place in the kitchen area of the building about half way through which was so sudden I wasn’t expecting it and this did kind of lift my hopes up for the movie a bit... before slowly destroying my expectations again. Alas, there were no more surprises once this moment is passed and by about three quarters of the way through I was just wanting it to end because my jaw was threatening to dislocate itself with all the yawning.
There’s even a bit of dialogue from those opening talking heads that might come back to haunt you when you watch the last shot of the movie, which I suspect might have been partially inspired by Man Ray’s 1932 photograph Glass Tears. Alas, when this shot finishes, that’s also the end of the movie and it’s a movie where you never quite see a lot of the really unpleasant stuff going on... just its aftermath which, would be fine if it was presented in a more engaging manner.
Now, the interesting thing was... once that last shot was done the screen went dark and the house lights came up. I was bored silly by this point and stood up to leave when I noticed the other audience members in the cinema (which could only have been a quarter full), were all just sat in stony silence and contemplating what they just saw. I thought then that maybe I was missing something because, frankly, the only other time I ever saw something similar in audience reaction was with Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream when it previewed at the London Film Festival the year before it was released... except that Aranofsky’s film had been definitely worthy of this kind of reaction, it has to be said. I just couldn’t work out why people were responding like this to Climax because, after all, it was a very mild and kinda dull movie... at least that’s how I experienced it.
My puzzlement was further exacerbated when I went to the loo and various audience members were in there and talking heatedly about the brilliant movie they’d just seen and I really did feel a little out of step. What the heck was I missing? My first thoughts were that these were just people who didn’t get out and go to enough movies but maybe I’m just a little out of touch when it comes to Gaspar Noé... I just don’t think I’m impressionable enough to be his target audience. I remember a similar thing when the original Trainspotting came out at the cinema and it just felt kinda ‘old hat’ to me. This particular brand of movie making representing a loss of control rendered as visual chaos has been done numerous times before by the likes of Federico Fellini in Eight And A Half and even the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup so... yeah... this one just felt very muffled to me, I guess. It won’t be making my top ten this year, for sure.
However, I hope Noé continues to make plotless films because he is, at least, one of the very few auteurs (and he is an auteur, whether you like his films or not) who is willing to try his hand at something like this. I’m still hoping he’ll make something I’ll absolutely click with in future years so... yeah... I shall continue to keep my fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I don’t feel like I could really recommend Climax, in all honesty but it obviously has a lot of fans out there so maybe give it a go anyway. At the very least, if you don’t find it to your taste, it’s a relatively short movie... it just doesn’t feel like it.