Monday, 24 November 2014

The X From Outer Space




Guilala Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Another Earth




Sphere Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Curse Of The Crimson Altar




Altar-ed States

Curse Of The Crimson Altar
1968 UK
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Odeon (originally Tigon) 
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very light spoilers in this one.

Curse Of The Crimson Altar is one of those movies I’ve been wanting to catch up with for a while now. I never quite got around to doing the research to find out which country had the best DVD edition but, thankfully, I recently came across a nice new blu ray transfer by Odeon which looks absolutely brilliant and which was relatively cheap in Fopp records (who somehow managed to be selling it for £8 as opposed to the £15.50 that Amazon seem to be charging for it at time of writing). It’s not the film I was expecting it to be but it was just the film I needed to be watching when I found myself with a day off work recently. That is to say... it’s not too taxing or challenging at any level and very much a film that you can get absorbed in without thinking about things too much.

Now, there were a lot of things that surprised me about this but one of them was the fact that, all the way through, I was uncertain if the movie was actually a horror film or not. The ending of the movie, literally the last few seconds, suggests that it may have been of the horror genre after all but, to be honest, I’m still not sure if that’s the case and the only way we, as an audience, would have known for sure would have been to get some reaction shots from other characters in the last scene but... alas, this doesn’t happen. So I’ve got no idea as to whether the reappearance of one of the little seen characters in this is a delusion of one specific character, as shown to the audience, or something which is actually happening within the context of the reality of the story... giving it a supernatural element which then shouts it out as a horror movie. And in the case of this one, just like the giallo All The Colours Of The Dark, the ending is what defines it genre... or not in this case. It’s left quite ambiguously, I have to say.

The uncredited story source, of course, H. P Lovecraft’s The Dreams In The Witch House, certainly is a horror piece... one of my favourite Lovecraft tales in fact, although I wasn’t aware of the similarities between the two and the intent of the writers pitch it in line with that little masterpiece until after I’d seen the film. That being said, it’s not the best adaptation, mostly just bearing a few similarities in terms of the dreams/trips of the main protagonist, so the iconic rat with a human face, Brown Jenkin, never makes an appearance, alas (and would have probably looked really silly too, if they’d tried to render him with special effects in 1968).

The film, however, is quick to point out all the alternatives to a supernatural element at work in the film, even from the opening quote about the hypnagogic states of the human mind. So I did feel, at the end of it, that the people making the film were probably changing their mind while shooting the movie and didn’t want to make a firm decision about these elements either way.

Personally, I don’t care because the cast are wonderful and the film is immensely enjoyable, especially since the “dream” sequences in the movie are all done with an eye for the most Bava-esque psychedelia they could throw at the camera. In fact those dream sequences all feature the iconic horror maiden Barbara Steele... painted blue and with a dodgy, echoey voice. It’s a shame that it’s pretty much, apart from a shot near the end, the only times you see her in this one, and that she’s never really seen on screen with the other two iconic co-stars of this movie, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.

While the film is very clean looking and pleasingly uncomplicated in its cinematography in general, the dream sequences are little masterpieces of style. Shot, as I said above, like a Mario Bava movie, matching his over the top colour schemes and even, in some cases, managing to light different parts of the shot - foreground and background - by using different colours to differentiate the two. It’s really nice stuff and makes you wonder if the director or cinematographer was in any way influenced by the Italian maestro and his work.

It’s been said by many on the documentary extras on this edition that this was the last film Boris Karloff shot. I’m not so sure because I think he may have worked on some Mexican productions, all of which were released after his death, shortly after he worked on Curse Of The Crimson Altar... although, that being said, he did die very soon after this one was shot.

It’s funny. He died in February 1969, which means I was a little over one year old when he passed away. Now I used to be a child model so I was up in Central and the West End of London a lot when I was a kid, even at that age... but I still have a memory of being carried by either my mum or my dad and coming out of a tube station one evening... it was dark, so February would be quite right... and seeing a front page of a newspaper with Karloff’s photo and headline of his death. I don’t know how it’s possible I could have remembered that... or even how I would have known who that was, to be fair, and you can doubt me if you like... but I do remember it and, for some reason, it’s stuck in my memory for years.

It goes without saying that Karloff and Lee are both utterly fascinating to watch in their roles. Truly hypnotic in some cases... but the two leads, played by Mark Eden as Robert Manning and Virginia Wetherell as Eve, are also quite easy to watch and I found myself slowly sinking into this film the more I watched it. Michael Gough pops up too but, while his performance as a raving and conflicted servant to Barbara Steele is fun to watch, it seems a little out of place when you pitch it against Eden and Wetherell, both of whom I would love to see in some other stuff when I get some time and access.

There are some other elements about the film that are really worth mentioning as being rather special and one is the pre-preoccupation, almost obsession, with illusion and fake theatricality...

The plot is that Robert, who is in the antiques business, goes looking for his missing brother and ends up at a party in Christopher Lee’s manor house where he meets Eve and various clues which may or may not come in handy when it comes to wading through the local legend of the curse of a witch who was burnt at the stake hundreds of years before. Actually... about that party. I don’t know what drugs the writers were on but this is the kind of party you really never want to attend. It’s trying way hard to be decadent but, really, all it’s actually being is just really odd... what with women pouring champagne all over themselves and two half naked women riding blokes piggy back so they can joust with, um, paint brushes and paint intimidatingly and enthusiastically at each other. No, I’ve got no idea either.

Anyway, as I said, Robert is into antiques and one of the last things his brother sent him was a bodkin (which at the time was still being used as another name for a small knife, although I think that terminology has slipped out of usage of late... with everyone except me) and, along with a candle holder, it’s one of Mark's last links with where his brother might have last been seen. Thing is... it’s a prop bodkin with a retracting blade, one that extra enthusiastic witch hunters of earlier time periods could use to frame their victims by stabbing them without pain or blood... thus identifying them as a witch. So already the film is looking at the way fakes and illusions are created and, together with the opening quotation in the film, it leads you on to expect the use of this trickery at some point...

Later on in the film, when the story is well under way, Robert finds the secret room from his dreams but everything is covered with cobwebs and seems not to have been disturbed for centuries so, once again, doubt is put in the viewers mind as to the nature of the threat in the film... is it a supernatural menace we are dealing with here? Later on, when our hero returns to the room with Eve, he realises the cobwebs are fake, put on instantly like a theatrical set dressing. He even goes so far as to give us a demonstration of the gun he finds which sprays fake cobwebs onto objects... which I have to admit, I found absolutely fascinating. As is the amount of interest the film generates in demonstrating its own sense of the ersatz. It seems that nobody minded that it was also showing the audience how parts of the film they are watching was actually made, simultaneous to watching it. This, of course, feeds right into the plot being a supernatural or non-supernatural piece and helps blur the lines while showing you how easily the story might not be supernatural in intent.

Another really interesting thing about this one is that it has a postmodernistic, metatextual reference... used in the form of a line of dialogue. Eve says something about the house looking like it’s out of an old horror film, to which Robert then replies “It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.” And, of course, within 20 minutes of this scene, Boris Karloff does indeed pop up... playing a main character in the movie. This, from my own experience of such things, seems almost incredible for a film from 1968 to be making a critical content on its own text within itself. Quite amazing that the venue for this expression is in the form of a horror film... or pseudo-horror film, depending on how you decode the last few seconds of the movie.

The other thing which is really nice about Curse Of The Crimson Altar is that there is a blurring of the lines between who is a good guy and who is a villain. I don’t want to say too much here because I don’t want to spoil any potential surprises for you but two of the actors are painted quite obviously as the possible villain of the piece (or it could be both of them working together) but actually, the way one of these characters is written is a deliberate red herring and that person will rush in and help good conquer evil at the eleventh hour. I had my suspicions about this particular character all the way through, I must confess, but I was still surprised when he actually turned out to be one of the good guys... so that was pretty well done and a testament to how good that particular actor was at delivering his lines and making the dry words on the page come to life for the audience. Clever stuff and quite refreshing, it has to be said.

So there you have it, the new blu ray of Curse Of The Crimson Altar is a truly vibrant and good looking transfer and has a few nice extras along for the digital ride. This new version is supposed to be completely uncut but I did notice in the stills gallery there was a lot more nudity in certain parts of the dream sequences than there actually was in the print I saw. It could, of course, just have been alternate shots snapped between takes but, this and something one of the actors says in the documentary, leads me to believe that there may have been a more risqué international version for distribution in certain countries... a tactic that Hammer films also used to employ on some of their films. Alas, I just don’t know enough about the history of this movie to be able to make a judgement on whether this is fully uncut or not and, I suspect, it’s something that we’ll never know unless some alternate footage turns up out of the blue someday... it might happen. I’ve seen stranger things happening the last few years or so (can I hear you say Metropolis?).

All I do know is that I thoroughly enjoyed this new transfer of Curse Of The Crimson Altar and I would certainly recommend it to any of my readers who like the classic, not that scary, genre movies of yesteryear. Definitely one to check out.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Liquid Sky





High Society

Liquid Sky
1982  USA
Directed by Slava Tsukerman
Seen at the National Film Theatre on 
Saturday 15th November 2014

Liquid Sky is a movie I’ve been wanting to see for over three decades. I remember being desperate to see it when I was a teenager, still riding the Star Wars bandwagon of cinema releases at the tricky age of 14. There was very little said about it on the radio, where I think I first heard about it, but it sounded like it was combining two of my favourite things, science fiction and sex (hey, nothing ever changes much) and I couldn’t wait to see it. So I puttered about my daily business in gleeful anticipation of it turning up one week at my local ABC Cinema sometime soon.

And I waited and I waited and I waited.

And it never turned up and became one of the few movies that got away... that is, until now.

Of course, now I’ve seen it, I can see exacly why it didn’t make an appearance at my local. Even though the ABC chain was quite happy playing 1970s softcore sex movies and horror film double bills as regular features some weeks, Liquid Sky would have tested the patience of a lot of their clientele at the time, I suspect.

My understanding is that my old friend, @cultofthecinema, had a similar experience to me so, when I found out that the NFT would be playing it as part of their sci-fi season, we were both delighted and tickets were promptly booked. He even brought his wife to the screening and, as I leant over to him half way through this performance, I whispered in his ear... “You’re wife’s never going to want to come and see another movie with us ever again, dude.”

Liquid Sky is not, I’m afraid, the blend of surrealism and European “arthouse” (for want of a less insulting term) movie making I had imagined it to be. It concentrates more on the “alternative” night life of New York city in the early 1980s and pretty much captures the people and mood of that specific time, it seems to me. The lead actress, Anne Carlisle, who was an alternative theatre performer, as are both of the parts she plays here (she stars as both a male and female character) is apparently channeling her real life experiences... like most of the cast are, from what I gather.

The science fiction element comprises of a tiny flying saucer which lands on her apartment after a fantastic opening credits sequence with some, it has to be said, quite striking electronic music and a kind of “Clockwork Orange on acid” zoom pull back cut into the mix. The flying saucer, or the permanently unseen inhabitant of said saucer, then proceeds to extract certain nourishing elements in the human brain as people have sex... when they reach orgasm, the brain secretes a chemical akin to an opiate (hence the name of the film... Liquid Sky is street slang for heroin... at least it was at the time this was made) and through the wonders of some quite tacky animation and posterisation effects on the film stock, the aliens extract the bits they need and the humans in question are vapourised as a result of the extraction.

It sounds better than it is though and that’s the whole story right there. It’s just a frame for the writer and director to capture what often looks like a mostly improvised series of lines although, saying that, I’m sure this thing had a script... but I suspect some of the actors involved were probably offering alternate readings and additions each take (I may be wrong here so if anyone wants to chime in, please leave a comment below). What it does do... and does well, I suspect... is show a certain section of the avant garde at the time and, to be honest, it’s not a pretty sight. It’s all about finding where the next high is coming from, trying to rip people off for their drugs and inhabiting a sexual culture that seems to rely on a lack of mutual consent as often as not. These people seem to get off insulting each other and squabbling over petty issues repeatedly and it usually ends up in a struggle, a fight or a rape... usually, in that last instance, of the Margaret character (the female role played by Anne Carlisle), who the alien is hanging around because sex, consensual or otherwise, and drugs seem to follow her around wherever she goes. It’s a bit like watching kids constantly arguing with each other... not that fun.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes involving Margaret and the taunting  insults fly thick and fast around the lethal apartment she lives in with her, frankly, antagonistic girlfriend. At one point you wonder why she doesn’t just tell her colleagues to go f*** themselves and, within a short space of time, she is indeed, f***ing herself, as the male character she plays, Jimmy, ends up passively/aggressively forcing himself on Margaret.

In many ways, Margaret can be seen as a victim of the lifestyle she leads although, it has to be said, not as much as some of the more aggressive losers who populate this film and she does start to take back the power when she realises that the people she’s having sex with are being vapourised as they cum. In a way, she’s a prototype for the character that Jess Weixler plays in Teeth, although she doesn’t take nearly as much pushing to become and avenging angel and she has the advantage that, once the deed is done, there are no bodies to be taken care of.

Except in one case...

One of the things about this movie is that the internal logic of the story seems a little screwed up... at least at first. The first person to die from what I can only describe as “alien orgasm extraction” actually does leave a corpse behind and much is made of this as Margaret and her girlfriend try to get rid of it... after her girlfriend tries to have sex with the corpse. After this first one though, people are getting vapourised left, right and centre... so it seems a bit of a strange one in terms of the consistency of the writing, that’s for sure.

The film is not without its charm but mostly that comes in the way of some of the less intentional comedy and the line readings. There’s a kind of charmingly ineffectual Van Helsing style UFO hunter who arrives to give advice and his character was giving me a lot of laughs... although I’m not 100% sure whether I was supposed to be laughing at that point. When the film had finished I said to my friend... “I bet Andy Warhol would have loved that.” Well, I didn’t know it then but, when I looked up this film in the IMDB afterwards, I found that it’s considered by some to be an update of Paul Morrisey’s film, Andy Warhol presents... Trash. So that kinda figures actually because I definitely picked up on that whole "factory" vibe as I was watching it.

Plus, that “in your face” musical score from the start of the movie really gets to you as you get through the running time. It seems almost inappropriately overscored in most places and that score is definitely, at the very least, striking in its tone... especially when pitched against the images. I’d love to pick up a copy of that on CD but I think it’s pretty much extinct in any form other than vinyl, at time of writing this, so I might have to put that one on hold.

Now if I was reading this review back, I’d say that this sounds like a fun film but, honestly, as far as I’m concerned... it’s not. A lot of people really like this one and it’s got a lot of positive reviews so, I feel a bit like an outsider for saying this but, for me, Liquid Sky is purely a social document, of interest in capturing the zeitgeist of a certain part of the New York scene around that time. As an entertainment it mostly just irritated me, I’m afraid. It wasn’t that the movie is in any way challenging... it really isn’t. Maybe it’s the way the whole thing looks like it’s being held together with spit and sticky tape in regards to editing although, I have to say, the editing is at least competent in terms of allowing a clear decoding of the shots. The footage and fashions have a kind of Blade Runner feel to them, which makes sense as they were being shot around the same time, but you get the impression that Scott’s movie took the fashion and accented the bits he needed to make it work as a unifying feature of his movie whereas, in this one, you kinda get the feeling everyone just maybe turned up in their own clothes.

At the end of play, I have to say that it’s not a movie I would recommend to many, if any, of my friends and it’s not something I have a sudden blinding urge to watch again. It was nice scratching the itch and ticking the box from my teenage years but, despite its continued popular following, Liquid Sky just doesn’t work very well for me, I’m afraid. Which is a great shame because, I have to say, I was really looking forward to finally seeing it.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Interstellar




Before The Paradox Passes By

Interstellar
2014  USA/UK
Directed by Christopher Nolan
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... yeah, okay. I’ll say up front, for any readers who might not make it to the end of this one, that I actually quite liked this movie... but I also have issues with it too.

The thing about the director, Christopher Nolan, is that I don’t usually like his movies, even though I somehow seem to have seen most of them at the cinema. The two I really liked were his second and third Batman films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and, though I really hated Batman Begins when it first came out, I’ve learned to have a grudging respect for that one too... mostly only as a “set up” movie, though, because I find it tonally wrong for Batman.

The main problem I always have with Nolan is in his role as a story teller. To me it seems he either dresses up a really simplistic plot and tries to pretend it’s in some way “more” than it actually is (Inception anyone?) or, he’ll make the plot line and ending of his pieces really, very obvious and telegraph it all ahead, more or less, within the very early parts of a particular movie so you’re sitting there wondering why all the characters are left playing catch up for the rest of the, often considerably long, running times (The Prestige, for example). Quite often this annoys the pants off me and I really have a hard time dealing with the way in which everything is so decodable right from the outset and can’t seem to see why people like this, obviously very popular, director so much.

Now, it has to be said, that Interstellar is guilty, to a large degree, of both of these major problems I just identified in Nolan’s work. The difference here though, is that he somehow made me not mind about it so much because he’s also managed to make the obvious seem much more entertaining in this movie. Corny, perhaps, but definitely entertaining.

So let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first, preferably without any spoilerage.

The film does, indeed, telegraph itself way too much. Right from the start we have trouble with a poltergeist in Murph’s room. Murph is the daughter of lead protagonist Cooper, played by the always watchable Matthew McConaughey. The first thing I suspect most of the audience are going to do is draw a very specific conclusion as to Murph’s “ghost” and, by the time you get to the end of the film, the audience may find themselves a bit disappointed that they were right all along.

It doesn’t help when a specific “gravitational message” is kinda “skipped over” and discarded during the opening narrative set ups, once the thing has served its purpose and got Cooper in touch with the people he needs to be in touch with to ignite the plot. The writing and misdirection during these sequences is almost, it has to be said, like watching the film crew realising they’ve painted themselves into a corner and about to reveal the ending of the movie, so they quickly run through the wet paint and hope nobody in the audience notices. However, I’m willing to bet maybe at least half the audience notice this sloppy sleight of hand so... there’s that.

A third ingredient you’ll get which allows you to quickly solve the “riddle” element of the movie is probably something you’ll get just from the marketing for the movie, to be honest. As soon as anyone starts talking about wormholes or black holes, there's a specific phenomenon associated with those that most people will probably think about. Which is, also, kind of a shame. But there’s no escaping that... just like there’s no way of escaping a black hole, right?

One last negative, before I get onto the good stuff... the movie starts off with cross cutting talking heads that speak about a time in Earth’s past when the dust started. Anybody will be able to gauge, right away, the success, or lack of success, of the central mission of this movie from these little clips. You need to contextualise them and, as soon as you do that, you realise just what’s going on there.

Okay... sorry about all that. There’s one more big negative but I’ll get to it in time. Now for all the good stuff, okay?

Interstellar is a pretty good movie. It deals with big issues of a doomed planet Earth and a mission launched to go through a wormhole which has been suddenly “left” by us by “others” and the search for a planet which the population of Earth can either be moved to or colonised with. There’s actually a little twist to that which you’ll probably half guess but which turns out to be false anyway, so that’s quite nice and, without mentioning what it is, serves to increase the dramatic tension and turn a scene of grief into a scene of almost conflict... so there’s that. The film concentrates on Cooper’s mission with his companions and the disaster that’s hitting his home world while he goes about his business trying to save mankind. It has a whole host of really good actors on board for this film in addition to McConaughey, including John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon and they’re all, as you would expect from such a top notch bunch, absolutely believable and convincing in their performances.

There’s also a nice structure to the first third of the movie in that, during the end of a message transmission from Earth to Cooper’s spaceship, we finish with the Earth part of it and we are left to pick up the story back on Earth. We only get back into Cooper’s mission when a similar message is sent and we end back up on the Cooper side of the message as it closes. So that’s a really nice structural thing and, when the director later discards this technique in favour of dramatic and metaphorical cross-cutting between the Earth and the mission, I couldn’t help but think that he was using the nature of the final solution of the movie to move away from that neat style of presentaiton to match this more, seemingly chaotic presentation of the footage. Possibly not but I’d love it if they actually thought about that while they were editing this movie... hopefully that will be addressed some day in future retrospective interviews about this movie.

The film has been compared to Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey by a lot of people at the time I’m writing this but, I have to say, Nolan’s no Kubrick. I say this not to diminish all his good work on this movie but to point out that the use of camera (there’s a surprising amount of hand held work in this) and editing style (often quite jarring) seem to me to be less close to Kubrick than most people have been saying. So, yeah, not actually a good comparison to make, people. In terms of the epic feel and the subject matter, however, then I can see why people are all jumping on and making that comparison, in some way. Certainly, the absence of sound in space is something to be celebrated as making a return to the art of cinema, in my book, anyway.

Actually, the film reminded me more, in one of it’s early sequences, of the great director Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris... in that it jettisons the bits which can be best used in indirect metaphor and discards them in such a way that it gets you to your narrative destinations quicker. For instance, in Solaris, you have a view of a road from a car windscreen as a car goes on a journey and it lasts for many, many minutes without doing much else than look at a moving road. The first time you see the movie, in fact, it seems like maybe a half an hour of nothing happening although, I can assure you, it’s a lot less time than that. After this, we see the main protagonist of Tarkovsky’s film already arriving at his destination at a space station and it’s as though the feel of the previous scene of a car journey was a metaphor for the journey across space. In Interstellar we have a much quicker scene of Matthew McConaughey leaving his daughter on bad terms and then, as we cut from that scene, he is already in space. This works because of the emotional weight of the previous scene and its effect on the lead protagonist as a sense of going on a journey. It’s enough and it also gets us quickly to where we want to be with no unnecessary build up of pencil pushing theories and spaceship construction, training etc. So this approach really works well for Nolan.

Another great thing about the movie is the robots used by NASA that accompany Cooper and co on their mission. When you first see them they are very much presented as a sinister, threatening creation and, I suspect, this is Nolan’s way of trying to deal with the inevitable 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons he knows would be a pre-conception in the audience and use the plot of that movie as misdirection here. All the way through you’re wondering when one of the robots is going to get all “psychotic HAL 9000” on everybody’s collective ass and Nolan fans these flames by letting you know the robots in question are programmed for 90% honesty. All I will say about that preconception is that there’s certainly an element of  an antagonist in the movie but, it doesn’t necessarily come from where you think it will... well, until you actually come in to contact with a specific character and Nolan starts telegraphing it like crazy on first contact with that character but, hey, that’s maybe one of the least successful but strangely entertaining bits of the movie so... not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be honest.

In terms of these robots, though, all I will say is that I suspect they’ll be remembered for a long time in the future history of science fiction cinema... long after Nolan is dead, I’m sure. They are very simply designed and as easily iconic as Huey, Duey and Lewey in Silent Running, Brigitte Helm in Metropolis, Robby The Robot in Forbidden Planet (and many other appearances over the years) and the droids in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. You are certainly not going to forget these robots in a hurry... that’s for sure.

Interstellar works best, for me at any rate, because it delivers a hugely optimistic message about the final fate of humanity. Admittedly, it’s one a lot of people will figure out from the first ten minutes or so of the movie but, hey, it’s still a breath of fresh air in its broad strokes and, although obvious, the twists and turns of this movie are, at least, honed to a very fine and over-the-top level which you maybe won’t be expecting in terms of the details of the film’s final destination. So there’s that too.

Frankly, despite a whole spaceship cargo full of faults, I really quite liked this movie and even though I found Hans Zimmer’s score to be a little too reminiscent of certain sections of the Philip Glass score for Koyaanisqaatsi in a lot of places, even that was quite listenable (I love Philip Glass anyway) and I look forward to hearing the score CD sometime on Christmas day (I suspect)... although I’m apparently not allowed to buy the 2 disc super duper version of the score unless I happen to live in America, which I find to be hugely discriminating and insulting of the publishers, Watertower Music, in terms of omitting people who would love to import and hear this version for themselves. That’s inexcusable in my book.

There is one more big problem with the movie, for me, and I’ve been putting off writing about it because I wanted to make this review spoiler free and... it’s hard to talk about without being specific. As a result the next paragraph is going to seem extremely and unnecessarily cryptic to people who haven’t seen the film (possibly even to those who have) and, frankly, if you’ve not seen it you might want to skip this next paragraph anyway, in case there are inadvertent spoilers in my words. I’ll do my best to sum it up though.

The identity of the “helping hand” and the placement of the wormhole and the so called twist ending of the movie creates an awful paradox. The entire narrative could never have happened without the main events of that narrative already having taken place. Since the advanced and evolved nature of a certain collective identity can justify that paradox by actually bypassing the physics that such a paradox is created by, then there was no need to actually go back and do that stuff anyway. So if you look at the problem from one end of the equation you have a massive paradox which can’t happen or, from the other end, you have a completely irrational event taking place because, frankly, this stuff doesn’t need to have happened to create the series of events that gets us to that paradox in the first place. So it’s a bit rubbish in terms of the whole film really meaning nothing and is a completely pointless exercise, if you choose to look at it in those terms.

There you go... that paragraph will hopefully make a lot more sense once you’ve seen the movie and, that being said, the level of the art and craft of this particular movie outweighs, as far as I'm concerned, this same old mistake as it is made time and again by movie folk. So, yeah, it’s guilty of the same crimes a lot of science fiction movies in the last 20 years or so have been guilty of... and I won’t name them because the titles could constitute spoilerage of this movie for a lot of people... but I would normally condemn a movie hard for making just this kind of mistake (and have done so this past year with a very popular franchise movie) but I’m gong to let Interstellar off the hook because the message is one of hope and there’s always a justification for this kind of mistake somewhere along the line when the broad strokes are this big, I suspect.

And that's that, I think, for my review of Interstallar. A more or less spoiler free look at a movie which relies relatively heavily on relativity and uses it for both dramatic tension and resolution. It’s almost three hours with no interval, so that’s a problem in itself... but ultimately it’s worth the butt numbing trial to take a look at this one on a big screen. It definitely needs to be seen large, that’s for sure. Although I suspect I’m still going to find Nolan a bit hit and miss on future films because his modus operandi seems to be the same as it always was. Here’s to hoping he proves me wrong... I like to see good movies as much as the next person.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Feed




Amazons Who Swallow

Feed 
2005 Australia
Directed by Brett Leonard
Showbox DVD Region 2

Well Feed is a curious little film.

I bought this, bargain bucket price, because it was one of many recommended to me by Kier La Janisse via her amazing book House Of Psychotic Women (reviewed here).

To be honest, because of the venue I read about it in and the nature of a lot of the films mentioned in it, i was expecting Feed to be a lot more extreme and exploitative than it actually turned out to be. In fact, it’s not really either. In terms of the potential shock of the subject matter... a serial killer who literally, over the course of time, feeds women to death for his web site and then lets people gamble on the odds... well, their have been feeder sites around for years so, unless you have been very naive on your internet wanderings, I suspect most people are not going to be shocked by either the subject matter or the way in which it is presented now. I remember accidentally stumbling onto one of those kinds of sites over twenty years ago on the internet, so I’d be really surprised if there are too many people out there who are going to be grossed out by the content.

The real eye opener for me on this one, however, is the fact that I was expecting a more exploitative, shocker of a movie and got instead, something which is very well shot and imaginatively put together on the technical/artistic front.

For example, the film starts off with a driver in a car and his view through the windscreen, in much the same kind of POV route that Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and a load of 1970s gialli went for. However, when the colour palettes suddenly shift and you realise that you are not always looking at the same driver, you start to grasp that something else is going on here. The film, as it turns out, is set in three International locations which include Germany and Australia, with the main action taking place in the USA. The director pushes the location switches, as scenes are crosscut between each other, with the use of different colour filters for different countries... so one set of scenes will have a predominantly blue colour palette, for example, and another would have yellow as the dominating hue.

It’s all about contrast and the director uses these contrasts to also highlight the, initial, differences between the main antagonist, Michael Carter (played by Alex O’ Loughlin), and the Australian cyber-crime investigator, Philip Jackson (played by Patrick Thompson), who follows his trail to America in an effort to stop this killer's curious brand of slow death. For instance, Carter is mostly seen performing sexual acts involving food with various women five times his size whereas Jackson has a very restrained woman who is on the skinny side in comparison. Carter is very confident and upbeat with women while Jackson, the alleged hero of the piece, is actually in a very strained relationship where he lashes out rather than talk out problems which arise... and that’s kinda interesting actually.

I think the fact that the “psycho” villain of the piece is actually the one portrayed as intelligent and articulate in comparison to the protagonist is an interesting switch and Nietzsche’s much misquoted old chestnut about a man hunting monsters first having to become that monster/gaze into the abyss etc... is almost too relevant for both the path and confrontational relationship these men have over the course of the film. Despite the final sucker punch before the credits roll, it almost seems that the “hero” character starts off as a bit of a monster before he even finds himself getting involved in Carter’s crimes.

The film has a lot to offer it in terms of very fluid, smooth camera work and some nice colourful shot compositions. Pretty much all the performances are wonderfully credible, including the latest victim of the piece, Dierdre, played by Gabby Millgate, who was actually wearing a specially designed “fat suit” for the role... which I find incredible. Since she’s pretty much naked in bed for the entire movie... I have to say they had me completely fooled. I’d just assumed they’d used a real life feeder or SSBBW*  for the role but, nope... so you can also add here that the special effects are really convincing.

There’s a downside, however, in that the film seems a little too stretched out and drags a little at times, especially when the two male leads are in confrontational conversation. The theory behind why Carter has embarked on his “slow serial  killing spree” becomes somewhat over done and, for all the eloquence of the delivery of the lines, somewhat clichéd and pretentious. I think the movie may have worked a little better if some of the dialogue sequences between Carter and Jackson were pruned a bit.

Another thing which let me down a bit was the “quick n’ easy” join-the-dots nature of Jackson’s investigation and the oft used revelation that the lead villain has a childhood motivation for this crimes as an adult... crimes which keep flashing back to us as an audience when the writer thinks we need reminding that behind the seductive dialogue of the lead antagonist, he's actually a bit... you know... mentally disturbed. Frankly, since the main protagonist is equally flawed in his pursuit of the villain of the piece, I would have at least liked to know of any similar background to his character to drive him so obsessively into a personal manhunt against the killer. For a film which admirably attempts to grey the areas of the “good cop” versus “bad guy” formula, I think this was a bit of a missed trick in terms of character motivation.

That being said, though, the film is not a bad one to watch. In terms of cinematography and art direction, it’s really very good... especially during the first half of the movie and it certainly held my attention for a while before I found myself drifting in some of the confrontation scenes. It also has a nice kicker of an ending which, although it’s not a “saw that one coming” kind of ending, still is quite a nice touch and I’m really glad that the director chose to dump the extended, alternate ending to the film, which is included as an extra on the DVD and which, in my opinion, starts to push at the edges of the credibility of the story.

So then... Feed. Is it a horror movie? No. Is it an exploitation movie? Well, to an extent but the care and detail in the way it is shot, written and performed undercuts any visceral level of entertainment, I suspect. It’s not going to deliver an extreme experience, if that’s what you are after, but it is a nice little watch and, if you’ve not actually pondered the nature of beauty and the way it’s portrayed in the media before you see this, then you may find it quite interesting. Personally, I don’t think Feed is a particularly great movie but it’s certainly no dud. I probably won’t watch this one again anytime soon but I do think there is a certain audience out there for this movie and I suspect a lot of fans of serial killer type thrillers, especially the youngsters, will find a lot to like in this one. And like I said, it’s technically very well put together so, you know, if you’re not doing anything better one night... you might want to add this one to your list.

*Super Size Big Beautiful Woman

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Doctor Who: Death In Heaven




Carry On Up The Cyber

Doctor Who: Death In Heaven
UK Airdate: 8th November 2014
BBC 1

Warning: Yeah, I suppose there will be spoilers here, if anyone’s still holding out for a good season finale.

Not sure I have too much to say about this episode, following on, as it does, from last week’s overplayed Missy as The Master subplot which, to be fair, didn’t leave much breathing space for anything else. That being said, there were some excellent ideas and concepts which were, mostly, nice additions to the world of Doctor Who. My real gripe about this is that, for all its many parts, many of them good but equally tempered with things which were either dreary or compromising to good drama, this episode, like this year’s series, never seemed to become anything greater than the sum of its parts. Which is a shame because when some of those parts are somewhat broken or ill-advised, you’re left with a vehicle which will get you from A to B without too much trouble... just not in style.

There were some really great things about last nights episode. For example, the addition of the Cybermen coming back from the dead. The iconic idea of Cybermen literally rising from their own tombs and the symbolism of resurrection from the dead has always been a part of the show. When Troughton’s Doctor saw them rising from their tombs in spectacular fashion in Tomb Of The Cybermen, it was a much loved and remembered part of that generation’s audience for the show and I remember myself the impression the similar scenes in the Peter Davison story Earthshock had on me when I was in my teens. So even the title of this week’s show, Death In Heaven, carries on a long legacy of the Cybermen being associated with the imagery and terminology of death. This episode we had an excellent addition to that established continuity with the writer combining the cybermen with the classic imagery of films like George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and subsequent movies in the “modern zombie” cycle (although perhaps it’s best to go back even further than Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies, to the 1940s Universal Mummy franchise, to find where the idea of the undead rising from the earth first started on film). So the Time Lord hard drive returning the downloaded “souls” back into the dead as Cybermen and then having them burst out of graveyards was one of a few welcome additions.

Another was the appearance of an old Cyberman helmet from the Patrick Troughton/Tom Baker days... that was good. A bit of a throwaway reference but, so too, was another nice little highlight... the "painted" portrait of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, as played by the late actor Nicholas Courtney, on prominent display in a U.N.I.T aircraft.

There were, however, a lot of mis-steps.

Michelle Gomez incarnation of The Master was a little better but ultimately too little too late and, killing her off (allegedly) like that was a terrible thing. Although, I’m not 100% sure that when the Cyberman incarnation of The Brigadier vapourised her, it was simultaneous to The Doctor saying a set of co-ordinates that could have been a signal for someone to teleport her to safety... or at least get zapped into a... well.. a Time Lord hard drive, for instance? A case of “spoilers, sweetie” perhaps?

And also, as much as I like the homage to the memory of The Brigadier, I’m not sure the character would have chosen to be reincarnated as something he’d spent so much time fighting in the 1960s. I was kinda unsure how to react to the scene at his deus ex machina return at so opportune a moment. I guess we’ll never know what the late Nicholas Courtney would have made of it... I hope he would have at least liked the acknowledgment that the part he played, on and off, for so many decades and opposite so many Doctors, was so well loved and cherished in the series.

I do think The Master’s demise in this manner was preposterous in terms of making it hard for the writers when that character next returns. In the 1930s, the Flash Gordon serials kept killing off Ming The Merciless in the last episode and then had to skate around the issue each time they brought him back in the next serial because they’d kinda wrote themselves into a corner. You’d think that writers these days would learn from the mistakes of the past but, in this case, I think not.

The also killed off a very promising character who, by all rights, should have actually been a Zygon (since the storyline in The Day Of The Doctor - reviewed here - was never actually cleared up or properly concluded, if you’ll recall). I think this was a bit of a mistake but then, there’s always the Christmas special to undo things, it seems to me. I’ll get on to that in a moment.

There was a sense of real loss at the end of the episode and I was really congratulating the writers near the end of the show which saw a bitter Clara and a bitter Doctor both putting on a brave face for the other and both lying about what had just happened to each other... both thinking they were sacrificing a part of themselves for the other. They said goodbye and then that was it... a dramatic ending. Unfortunately, they couldn’t even do that right because we had a mid-end credits sequence where Nick Frost suddenly appears to The Doctor as Santa Claus and basically says this is not how it should be. Now, alright if they want to bring everyone back from the dead (Danny Pink’s great great grandson, or whoever he was, couldn’t have existed in this timeline, or MIssy’s, if these events were irreversible), but this was a seriously dramatic ending ruined by the fact that the BBC couldn’t wait to give us a hint. It’s only seven weeks until Christmas people. It’ll keep. Why pre-warn us in advance? That’s just dumb. And it also ruined the drama of the moment... no matter how much I want to see Nick Frost playing Santa Claus. It’s like the BBC saw a moment of real pathos unfolding in their drama and said... “Oh, we can’t have that. Let’s put in a jolly fat man to lighten the mood.” Pathetic.

Overall, this was not my favourite episode and nor was it my favourite season. Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson have all been outstanding in their roles and are always watchable... but the stories and plot devices they were left to perform seems to me to have left them bereft of something really great to make a contribution to. Still, if there is another season commissioned, and I sincerely hope there is because Capaldi is really right for the role and is knocking it out the park in terms of inhabiting te character and making it his own, then I look forward to it with interest. Despite my grumbles, it’s still one of the best and most well loved TV shows in British television history.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Ouija




Ouija Look At That

Ouija
2014  USA
Directed by Stiles White
UK cinema release print.

Okay... so this is one of many, many films called Ouija including, notably, a Filipino one which has an alternate title in English speaking countries, Seance, and which has exactly the same kind of set up and plot details as this one. On the IMDB this new one is listed as being a remake of that earlier film although, it has to be said, the film-makers don’t seem to be owning up to this right now. I’d have to say that, if I’d have known this was a remake of another movie, I’d have almost certainly not bothered to go and see this version of it.

Hasbro seem intent to brand it as a movie about their “board game” but, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, Hasbro’s claim to the whole Ouija Board thing is more than a little shaky. Spirit Boards used to contact dead souls date way back to around 1100AD (which was their first recorded use) and finally, after many years, as a commercial item for sale to the general public back in the 1890s. It was then rebranded as a Ouija Board in 1901 before the rights to make the boards were sold to Parker Brothers in the 1960s. The rights were then bought by Hasbro in the 1990s so, why Hasbro are gung ho that this movie is about their board game is a mystery to me. I guess they can kinda claim ownership of the legal rights but, certainly not the concept or the fact that there have been so many Ouija boards over the years. Maybe they’ll try to claim Chess and Backgammon at some point soon too. Who knows?

MIchael Caine once famously said something along the lines of, “Nobody sets out trying to make a bad movie.” He was talking about The Swarm, one of the most ridiculed films in cinema history (although Goldsmith’s score rocks it). I guess you’d have to give the cast and crew of Ouija a shout out for also trying hard not to fail at this lark and in certain areas they do seem to get things right... but only in certain areas. Let me shout out the positives on this one first because, I suspect this is going to be a fairly short review and I want to get out the fact that there are some good things in this movie.

Okay. So number one is that the actors and actresses playing the teenage protagonists of this movie are all pretty acceptable in their roles although, it has to be said, the dialogue they’ve been given would challenge even the most gifted actors in the world. The dialogue maybe would have worked better if their had been a camp element to the way it was played but I’m guessing this is not what the movie makers would have wanted. The only saving grace, perhaps, is that the characters all seem like nice people, at least. Saying that, though, this particular tactic didn’t make me miss any of them as they go to meet their various appointments with death throughout the movie.

Positive thing number two is the fact that the special effects and design of the ghost creatures works very well. There’s a creepy aspect to a ghost with her lips sewn shut anyway but when it comes to the final version of this particular creature, she comes across as, kind of, a spirit version of Gollum from Lord Of The Rings and she’s quite effective in being an intimidating and malevolent spirit. So that’s a big plus right there.

The third good thing about this movie is the score by Anton Sanko which, to be fair, does use all the modern horror scoring tricks you would expect (because that’s what’s appropriate to the visuals the composer has been given to work with) but also manages to bring in a strong melodic content and throw that into the mix. That’s something that a lot of horror scores seem to lack these days so it made for a refreshing change to hear the scary stingers augmented by some cues with a tune. Works quite well.

Okay... so now for the reasons why I really never want to see this film again.

There are some big problems with this movie and the first one is that it tries, like all horror films do, to scare the life out of an audience using all the old tricks that you can think of. Nothing wrong with that and, I have to admit, on the few occasions they got it right I did jump out of my skin. However... there were only a few times they did get it right, to be honest. You will know where every scare is coming from, which isn’t in itself a disaster at all, but the timing is way off for most of these moments to be effective anyway. It seems somehow sluggish... I don’t know if the way they’ve shot it is telegraphing things too much but the editing didn’t seem to be doing it any favours in many of the scary scenes, it seems to me. Everything seems to play for just a little longer than you need it to in order to jump to those scares effectively and, if anything, I thought there was a certain clumsiness to it when it comes to executing the technical make up of a horror film in this one... so there’s that.

As I touched on before, the script is also pretty bad. You can see the wheels turning behind the writing all the time and it’s a very teen oriented flick. You can also hear the writers thinking, “Okay, time to find a reason to clear out all the adults from the film” after about ten minutes into the movie and that’s exactly what happens... barring a couple of key scenes regarding two older women that are the minimum absolutely necessary to keep the plot going. And added to this, the crimes of the script are compounded by the fact that the dialogue coming out of the mouths of these teens sound antiseptic and lame. I don’t remember any teens ever talking like this outside of a film before... these are definitely “movie teens” and their credibility is blown right from the start, I’m afraid. This is another element, as above, that makes sure I don’t care what happens to any of them and it’s such a shame because the actors and actresses involved seem to be doing the best with the lines they’ve been given, to be honest... at risk of repeating myself.

And that’s as far as I’m going on this one. Ouija could have been a really great scare movie, as it has a lot of the right ingredients going for it but... it’s not. If you are a fan of scary movies in general then you’ll probably have an okay time at the cinema watching this one... but that’s all it’s likely to be, I suspect. An okay time. If that’s what you’re going to the cinema for then it’s fine to make do with that but, with films like The Babadook (reviewed here) and, especially, The Conjuring (reviewed here) raising the bar so much, then it’s safe to say that there are a lot better horror films out there that you could be spending your time with rather than this thing. Let me know what you think, though, because I suspect this movie might polarise its audience a little... possibly dependent on your age.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Fury




Cantankerous

Fury
2014  UK/China/USA
Directed by David Ayer
UK cinema release print.

Fury is the name of a tank.

This film follows the war time exploits of that tank and it’s crew, commanded by Brad Pitt as Don Collier, during the last year of the Second World War.

As such, it hasn’t got a standard story, or traditional plot line. It’s a very basic, drive your tank here, point it over there and shoot but, of course, that’s a very simple minded appreciation of what we have here which is a very tight and gripping war movie, trying very hard to be as authentic as it can be to what it was like to be in one of those tanks at that point in time. War didn’t have stories as we know them but it also had thousands of stories every day, depending on your view of the term. So in some ways, I guess this does have a story of sorts... the story which is the arc of the personal histories of the men who are driving the tank.

Now with a bunch of actors like Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal... who are all beyond excellent in this and stuck in close proximity in the claustrophobia inducing, cramped conditions of one of these things... you’d expect this to be a character piece and, certainly, you do get a measure of the men these actors are bringing to life in front of you. However, it’s interesting in that it’s not a character piece in terms of the history of any of the men. There are occasional little hints or flourishes which allow you to make shrewd guesses about the back story of some of the main characters but, ultimately, you are in the same position as someone who would be taking Brad Pitt’s advice to his new gunner, Logan Lerman, for the first time... don’t get too close to anyone. So this film is very much a study of the way that men who are none too palatable, in some cases, bond through war and have become a crack fighting team in spite of their differences.

And I have to say the film works really well in this.

For instance, when you are first introduced, pre-credits, to the majority of the crew, they don’t exactly seem to be a well oiled machine in terms of their ability to gel as a team. There are some points in the film where people take a swipe at each other and generally don’t get on with their fellow men, thrust into the mix inside a ticking time bomb of metal carnage... but this film, after deliberately setting up that inconsistency with the way the characters act and react to each other, shows that beneath the surface of these men, there is an overreaching spirit to complete their mission for their country or go down fighting. It’s in this way that the true character of the people involved comes out. The hooligan of the group, who often starts trouble, has a telling scene in which he tells the new recruit that he believes him to be a good man. Everyone has a heart, it seems. They just don’t let it show.

Pitt’s commander is very much a man who is holding together a unit while trying to hold himself together at the same time. There are more than hints that he’s already suffering from some kind of combat fatigue but, unlike a similar condition displayed by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, he keeps it in check with a minimum of fuss and Pitt’s performance here is such that it becomes very easy to see the sympathetic and extremely empathic man underneath the fierce veneer... and it is a very fierce and challenging veneer as he forces his new recruit, quite physically, into shooting a captured nazi, for example.

Logan Lerman plays Norman Ellison, the new boy, and he also has his own journey/story... as he goes from pacificistic Christian to out and out nazi killer over the course of the film... a journey that Brad Pitt facilitates due to the necessity of having to survive in this kind of conflict. There’s a certain irony to Norman’s attitude by the end of the film when he comes face to face with a nazi searching for survivors but, since I don’t want to spoil the ending of the movie for you, I’ll hold off pointing it out in this review and just urge you to go see it and think about it for yourself.

I’ve not seen any other movies by writer/director David Ayer but he does a fine job here and makes some very interesting, almost puzzling choices in the way he shoots certain kinds of scenes. Specifically the battle scenes.

He goes with hand held camera reacting to things, as you might expect for a modern film about conflict, but he tempers that with absolute static shots of whats going on, in terms of camera movement, every two or three shots in the combat sections. It’s actually curious but quite grounding... like a series of mini establishing shots cut into the battle. The editing is quite pacey but it’s not too fast like a fair number of modern action movies and I think it might be due to the static nature of some of those shots which helps the audience not lose sight of the geography of the action a lot of the time. You really feel those fraught and suspenseful battle scenes too so it’s not something which lessens the emotional pull and drain you get when this kind of stuff is going on.

The other really phenomenal thing about this movie is the score by Steven Price. It’s interesting because it’s quite unlike a traditional war score, bringing a very contemporary style of beats and electronica into the mix. At the same time, possibly due to the mixing but probably due to the spotting, because it does have a chance to shine within the mix, it feels very appropriately scored throughout and you never really question the decisions made with the make up of the music... so it’s another good one from him. I have to say, the CD has gone straight to the top of my Christmas list this year.

Not much else to say on this one. The ending has divided some people and I think the irony of it at a certain point is a bit much to swallow, but overall I think it caps things off quite nicely and I’m not going to be too critical of that because, one of the things I know about trying to get by in a chaotic world, is you don’t always make decisions that make sense. It works well enough and, overall, Fury is a movie which pulls no punches and reminds you of the heroes who died for their countries during conflicts ike these. A good, solid war movie if that’s the kind of thing that floats your DUKW or tracks your tank. Take a look at this one on a big screen if you get a chance.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Doctor Who: Dark Water




Water Palaver

Doctor Who: Dark Water
UK Airdate: 1st November 2014
BBC 1

Warning: All the spoilers will be in here... although you might not think much of them once they are revealed.

You know, I really hate it when works of art like books, films, TV shows etc have the same title as another work... it just confuses things. So, the first episode of the two part season finale is upon us and it’s called Dark Water. Not to be confused with the many, many other instances of movies, TV shows and books also called Dark Water... okay?

This episode was a real humdinger of disappointment... not because the episode was consistently bad, it wasn’t... most of it was quite good... but because the big reveal turned out to be something that I personally thought that if Steven Moffat had gone with that option, then he would have been run out of town on a rail for trying something so obvious and anticlimactic... I’ll get to that in a minute.

The show opens strongly with the death of new series regular Danny Pink. Now while this was somewhat tempered with the “I’ve seen this all before” factor (Moffat did this at least once with Rory, from what I remember) and the fact that we’ve been seeing people dying and then returning to something of a life as a part of this season’s running story arc, it still had a certain dramatic weight which gave Jenna Coleman something good to work with and an impetus to threaten The Doctor... so that was good. Yes, you kinda knew the character would be back from the dead in two shakes of a lambs tail but, still, it kinda worked and drove the plot forward to Clara’s confrontation with The Doctor (even though there’s no way she would have done that when she’s, after all, lived many lives through The Doctors various incarnations). 

Then we had some great stuff with the novel concept of X-Ray water (presumably the Dark Water of the title) and, even though you knew it was the cybermen sitting in those tanks because, heck, the BBC had trailered it as such, it was still quite novel to see the moving skeletons and it made for some nice imagery and some nice gobbledy gook sci-fi talk with The Doctor and Clara. After this though, everything went a bit pear shaped, to be honest so... excuse me if this is a short review but I don’t have much interesting to write about beyond this point.

The thing is... I don’t mind seeing the cybermen again, even if they’ve been overused to death since they first reappeared in the Peter Davison years. I even liked the homage to The Invasion, as this episode gave a little nod to the cybermen coming down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral like they did in the Patrick Troughton serial. No, the whole thing wrong with this was the reveal on Missy.

Now, the first reveal which came up early on in the episode... that she was an android software thingy... was an obvious blind put there to pad the running time, is my guess. Nobody was going to be fooled by that. However, it’s the actual reveal at the end of the episode which I really wish I was saying exactly the same thing about. It's like they deliberately put in a rubbish reveal to distract from the fact that the real answer to the mystery is equally lame. I really wish it was a red herring, to be honest...

To explain. The first thing everybody thinks of when they hear that there’s a character in the series called Missy is... “Oh, that’s Missy short for Mistress. So she’s a regenerated incarnation of The Master then?” And then you think to yourself and realise... no way can anybody be that obvious. It’s got to be a red herring because, frankly, it requires no thought at all and it’s a bit dull. All that does is set up that timelords can change sexes in the minds of the viewers to pave the way for a female Doctor at some point. There’s no way an adult is going to look at that for more than five minutes and think it’s anything but a bit of rubbish.

As I was reminded only last week on twitter, Doctor Who is a children’s show. Well, no it’s not actually... I think you’ll find it was always aimed at being a “family” show and, when you start putting it on after 8pm at night, that pushes that idea of its target audience even further. But you know what? Even a five year old these days would have no problem jumping to the conclusion of Missy = Mistress = Master in 5 minutes flat and would be equally dismissive, I suspect. Look at the sophisticated storyline twists on our cinema screens these days and compare them to what happened in last night's episode. This is not up to the calibre I expect from this show and it’s a pity because Peter Capaldi makes an excellent Doctor and Clara and Danny are more than up to the task too. There’s some great performances here and they’re being wasted on the whole Missy thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Michelle Gomez, who plays Missy, in anything else but she seems pretty good as an actress too.. but the writing on this doesn’t give her much to work with, to be fair. 

And it’s such a shame because this could have gone to some very dark and interesting places... just like the promising opening of the episode was showing. So, a recap... 

Danny Pink dying = good, although not expected to be that lasting. Especially with his great grandchild or whatever roaming the universe in an earlier episode.

Clara VS The Doctor = good stuff (shame it was just a dream state illusion).

X-Ray water = a really nice idea befitting good science fiction.

Again with the Cybermen = tolerable, just.

Again with the Cybermen at St. Paul’s Cathedral = somewhat more tolerable.

Missy = total waste of time, doesn’t all quite make sense in terms of dead people actually dying... must do better. And I’m not even going to mention the incest implied in one scene by this so called revelation.

My one slim chance at a satisfying conclusion to next weeks episode has to be the twitter buzz that there’s more revelation on the characters to come. I hope so but I somehow doubt it. I would expect a failed suicide attempt from Clara (so she can join Danny and be talked down by The Doctor), a possible rescue on Danny Pink, some rubbishy loose ended timelord stuff which makes no sense, even in current revisionist continuity, The Doctor and Clara parting ways for good (until Christmas)... and a punchline of Missy being around for next year’s season, if the BBC doesn’t cancel the series in the meantime.

To be fair, I really hope I’m wrong on all the above points. I would be really happy about that. So let’s see what happens next, shall we?