Thursday, 31 March 2011

Hourglass... In The Middle Of Hourstreet

The Hourglass Sanitorium
1973 Poland
Directed by Wojciech Has
Mr. Bongo Region 0

Slight Warning: There are, kind of, spoilers in here but, frankly, with a movie like this... events that appear to be happening on screen are all open to interpretation anyway.

The Hourglass Sanitorium is a film by Wojciech Has, the director of The Saragossa Manuscript, which so captivated me a week or so ago (see here). Based, if not completely adapted on a collection of stories by Bruno Schulz's called Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (plus a few others of his works, it seems - yes, I actually looked something up!) this film, like the former film, presents a series of surreal and sometimes challenging vignettes which seem to easily interlink but which defy, perhaps, anything other than a subjective conclusion from its audience.

I actually found this one quite mind-numbing and challenging in a few places, although much of it is also quite inspiring in equal measure.

Starting off with a shot of some sky swirling around as the credits start to play out, the shot pulls back to reveal that this is a view through the window of a train in back projection which, as this kind of view and movement is completely unnatural and, frankly, uneasy... immediately sets up the audience for a ride into a dreamlike state. It’s a very strange set of passengers in this train, full of wretches and drop outs and... well you know the opening of Stardust Memories where Woody Allen gets on the train filled with strange people instead of taking the train with Sharon Stone and various other beautiful people on it? Well I’d rather be on that train than this one!

The conductor turns up to let the person who turns out to be our main protagonist off the train and, although I hadn’t twigged it yet on his first appearance, it’s pretty clear to me now - at least as I interpret the film - that this is the locomotive equivalent of the ferry across the River Styx and the conductor is definitely the Charon figure in this movie.

Our “hero” gets off the train and finds a ruined but still used sanitorium which at first seems to be completely deserted and when he finally finds a nurse she is straightening her clothes out like she’s just been caught having sex. She pretty much acts like this whenever she turns up in the film. Our main protagonist, whose name is Józef, is here to visit his father and so he goes first to see the doctor who is in charge of his parent. It’s made clear that his father has already died somewhere else, but here at the sanitorium the clocks are put back so that, at the sanitorium, he hasn’t died as yet. He is, however, sleeping. Okay... things are starting to get a little surreal and it’s probably easy to see how someone like me can get hooked on this movie so quickly.

Our protagonist starts to wander from room to room in the sanitorium but each time he goes through a door it seems to be to a new scenario or location (some of them big, external locations) and each one seems set in a different part of Józef’s childhood. He soon discovers that he can shift from one “scenario” or room to the next by crawling under the bed and coming out the other end in a different world... or sometimes by crawling under the table.

This is a strange but mostly rewarding film. However, the nonsensical philosophy spouted by Józef throughout the film did start to wear through my patience after a while and there were definitely some sequences that were a quite gruelling watch for me. But I really didn’t mind that much because there was so much great imagery on offer to distract me when the going got tough... or at least mildly intolerable. Things like...

A beautiful and often naked or topless woman with a very enthusiastic Barbara Windsor giggle (who I recognised, by her giggle, from a part she plays in The Saragossa Manuscript). A series of “live” mannequins/automatons, one of which is knocked over so part of the front of its head is knocked open over one eyeball (revealing a load of wiring and automatic workings which then begin to bleed red and bloody. Józef’s father self-administering an enema in his bed while in rapt conversation with his son... and so on. This film has little treasures in it if you are willing to put up with the monotony of nonsense spilling from Józef’s mouth. Unfortunately, I found it hard to sympathise with a character who seems increasingly näive and idiotic as the movie progresses.

By around the half way mark I began to realise that Józef was actually, probably dead... at least thats my interpretation which was reenforced by an ending that sees Józef take on the mantle of conductor of the train... presumably he is the new Charon figure for this particular corner of heaven or hell.

This film is a bit of a mixed bag but I’m really glad I’ve seen it. The sometimes over-talky dialogue is tempered by the variety of lovely bosoms on offer... hey, look, I’m a guy okay. This movie was an even more blatantly sexualised film than The Saragossa Manuscript and I liked this aspect of the movie.

I’d certainly recommend this movie to all lovers of the bizarre and surreal (of which I include myself) but with a word of caution... the rich visuals are tempered with unwelcome bouts of aggravated verbal assault which occasionally lapse the film back into a miasma of tedium. Enter this sanitorium freely but at your peril.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Liam Nesia

Unknown 2011
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Now playing
at UK cinemas.

Warning! Spoilers? Oh yes, big ones. Not really spoilers as such if you’ve seen the trailer because... well, you’ll see. If you really want to know nothing more than you can already figure out from the trailer then stay away from reading any of this review.

Hmmm... I remember watching the trailer for this movie at the cinema and as the first thought popped into my head “Woah... they’ve done another Taken or, at the very least, a new Taken rip-off”... the rest of the trailer played out and that rather hopeful thought process had unfortunately changed to... “Blimey, that’s an old plot they’re digging up again. Have people really never seen this hook before?” Still, regardless of the old 1940s-nobody-remembers-who-I-am-not-even-my-wife plot line, it did still look like it was trying to mine the same vein of “thrillcium” that Taken had opened up and, since I’d really liked that movie... there was no way I was wanting to miss this movie at the cinema.

Besides, I’d already seen Rango earlier that day and was singularly unimpressed... so I figured a big, shouty-jumpy-punchy action movie with lots of pulse-pounding percussion effects could not even begin to disappoint me... how wrong I was.

Unknown, it turns out, is a classic case of a movie trailer giving you all the answers you need to work out, within the first few minutes of the film, that movie’s final solution. You know, from the trailer, that there’s a twist... the trailer shows you Liam Neeson having an accident, not remembering stuff and then, when he does remember who he is, his wife doesn’t recognise him and he has been replaced by another man. That much is simple and very much like those old black and white movies from the 40s that I used to watch as a growing lad.

They really shouldn’t have given this much away because, frankly, the movie already has a transparent plot leading to one inevitable conclusion, which I will reveal in just a minute (you have been warned). Letting you know all the set up in the trailer before it’s even played out in the movie quite easily leads you to deduce the correct conclusions just from the way the characters behave (more pertinently, what they don’t say to each other that a normal couple might) and the way their body language works... something I’m sure the actors were very careful about, trying to pull the wool over the audiences eyes while at the same time trying to stay true to their character’s backstory... something that can’t be that easy to do without actually lying to the audience (well at least they can’t be accused of that).

But because you “know the score” you really do know what’s going on before even the opening credits are finished and the accident which sets up the film has even taken place. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s films The Village and The Sixth Sense, this is a movie which really wears it’s ending on its sleeve.

Okay, here we go then. Car crash. Neesons mind wiped but then he remembers he’s Dr. Martin Harris who’s about to give an important lecture on... oh, I don’t remember, something scientific. But his wife doesn’t remember him and she’s already got another replacement Dr. Martin Harris with her to deliver the all important lecture... not to mention that Neeson’s website has photos of this other guy and there are, wait for it, family photos. Conspiracy signals right here, yeah? They even have family photos. And most of this is information you can get easily enough by just watching the trailer - marketing dilemma... unfortunately you can’t sell the hook because the hook doesn’t hold up under scrutiny for longer than 5 minutes without giving itself away... but without trailering your hook then you don’t have anything unique to say about your movie other than “Ooh. You all went to see Taken and The Bourne Identity. We’d like similar amounts of money chucked at us too please. Come see our wannabe!”... so unfortunately... you have to trailer your flimsy hook!

And to ram the obvious final solution down your throats just that little bit harder, the “flashbacks” are treated with some very dreamlike effects to them. Seriously, this goes beyond the normal semiotics of cinema with the treatment of the film stock in these sections. Now, okay, this could be a stylistic flourish of the director but, frankly, my suspicions have already been more than aroused by the trailer. And when I say my suspicions have been aroused I mean the trailer is dancing naked around me talking dirty and tickling me under the chin aroused. I know these aren’t normal flashbacks we’ve got here, they’re fake memories and, even in the unlikely instance that they had indeed been flashbacks... then why the heck is Mr. Liam-I’m-a-simple-married-doctor-giving-a-lecture-here-folks-Neeson so good at keeping the enemy at bay with his jumpy, shouty, fighty stuff and his stunty-drivey-crashy stuff? Give me a break.

Okay... so I hope by now anyone still reading this will have cracked the so-called spoiler for this movie but, just in case you havent, I’ll spell it out for you. Yes, Liam Neeson is a bad guy assassin on a mission with his “wife” under cover. Yes the accident has wiped his memory and he’s taken on the fake memories of his own cover story and yes, the film then takes a terrible turn for the worse because once Liam figures out who he is and why he’s there, he then tries to stop it taking place. What? Honestly, half an hour with Diane Kruger warding off danger (so good in Inglourious Basterds but, like Neeson, wasted here) and he’s ready to switch sides and do the right thing? Why? What epiphany happened here that the audience wasn’t privy too? Talk about writing yourself into a corner and then running through the wet paint quickly in the hopes that nobody will notice your clumsy, writerly footprints.

Ok... let’s try to focus on anything good here. Ok... Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and Frank Langella are all stand out here, although Langella’s a little bit over the top, if truth be told. But the one who really comes out on top here is... Bruno Ganz! Yep, that’s right. You read correctly. They somehow managed to convince the great German actor Bruno Ganz to be in this poor-man’s Bourne rip-off. And, once I’d gotten over the shock of how old he’s looking now (was half expecting that angel from Wings of Desire and its sequel to fall to earth on screen again, clutching his suit of armour) I realised that he is the only character I can respect in this mess of a movie. A seriously well-written and intelligent, considered performance from Ganz here and almost (almost) worth the price of the ticket... if only he’d had more screen time.

And that’s about it, I think, for both the good stuff and the bad stuff when it comes to this particular movie. Unknown is an okayish, no brainer actioner which will probably leave you fairly unsatisfied because it’s so easy to figure out what’s going on so quickly in the movie. A third rate version of The Bourne Identity... which makes it a second rate Salt in my book! If you like seeing the slow transformation of solid actor Neeson into Mr. Mature Action Hero... then you’d be better off staying away from this one and waiting until they’ve got Taken 2 in the can. And, yes, that movie is already in pre-production and awaiting shooting. Lotsa shooting is my guess ;-)

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Home, Home on the Rango

Rango 2011 USA
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Now playing
at UK cinemas.

Warning! Yeah... there are probably spoilers in here. If you haven’t seen it by now though you needn’t bother, I reckon.

Unwarning! Ooh, no. You’re okay. Just re-read it and it’s curiously spoiler free. Drive through at your leisure.

Ok... so as I type these words it’s a little under one week since I saw Rango at the cinema (by the time this goes up on my blog it will probably be closer to two because I have a bit of a backlog here at the moment... normal service will be resumed as soon as probable). Now my friend who I went with was laughing away at it and having hysterics but I’m sad to say that it didn’t have anywhere near the same reaction with me (I honestly don’t remember cracking a smile... but then again, I rarely do these days) and the really worrying thing for me, having to write up the film one week later, is that I couldn’t remember anything about it and I just had to watch the two trailers to kinda jog my memory... oh, yeah. It was that one.

Now I don’t see a whole lot of animated fayre these days... I’m more an old school Tom & Jerry or Bugs Bunny kinda person if truth be told (can someone please tell me if my suspicions that carrot chomping Bugs Bunny was based on cigar smoking Grouch Marx are correct?) but I have seen a few and I don’t dislike all of them. I quite liked the first two Toy Story films and I also quite liked the first and third Shrek movies (havent seen number 4 yet). And I absolutely loved Monsters Vs Aliens so, since the movie in question is called Rango... well, I was already to see a brilliant parody of the Django films. Since I knew this was a Western remake of Chinatown starring Johnny Depp as a chameleon lizard, I was waiting to see him drag a coffin around in cavalry uniform and do all sorts of Django-like things.

Sadly, this was not to be. Even though Rango director Gore Verbinski and composer Hans Zimmer both collaborated in a sequence in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie that parodied the Spaghetti Western quite blatantly and which was, musically speaking, just a little too close to comfort to Ennio Morricone’s scoring for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Seriously people... I know temp-trackitus is a modern and seemingly incurable disease but I’m surprised Morricone didn’t sue their asses, the music is that close in structure. Have a listen to “As A Judgement” on any of the Once Upon A Time In The West albums and then listen to “Parlay” on the album release for Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End if you don’t believe me. Astonishing! Did money change hands here?

Anyway... back to my review proper. You’d think Verbinski and Zimmer would do a more than passable parody of those same Western shadings in Rango but, while the tropes and genre markers of various American and Italian Westerns are all present and correct, the film doesn’t quite fall into the usual postmodern trap of eclectic appropriation for the sake of hitting the mark for a certain kind of audience (probably people like me, I’m ashamed to admit) and, while it is to be applauded that story and characterisation are pushed to the fore (as they should be) I personally found myself missing the blatant and, more specific, style of parody which the cinema going audience has become accustomed to in the last twenty or so years.

Now for anyone else these strong points of the movie, and there are many strong points on offer here, would be a sign of how good this movie is... and it is a good movie, whether I liked it or not. A solid piece of movie-making which, if the reaction of my friend and the judgement of other reviewers are anything to go by, is also fortunate enough to be a popular cinema movie and, therefore, a money spinner.

Let’s check the boxes then... Great animation. Check. A microcosmos of a world created for these characters that holds itself together by its own logic and doesn’t fall over when you tug at the strings. Check. A good selection of voice performances. Yes, it has that too. An actual story. Surprisingly another affirmative... so yeah, there’s obviously a lot of good things on offer here. And I obviously should have been really happy with this movie... but I wasn’t. And I can’t quite figure out why, to be honest.

Maybe it’s that I saw it as a movie with an over-reliance on slapstick humour that’s possibly the problem (Ooh. Look at the funny lizard running all over the place arms akimbo and making funny noises!). Or maybe it’s the fact that I found the whole thing emotionally cold and a turn off to the point that... even after the brilliant emotional set-up of the opening sequence with Rango and his, err, companions... I still didn’t care about what happened to any of the characters in this movie. I know... I’m being harsh.

Ok... so I’m going to try and play it fair here. If you want a recommendation from me to go see Rango then you’re not going to get it. But... well this movie seems so well loved by people that I’m going to do something I’ve only ever done here once before and point you in the direction of somebody else’s review so you can see the flip side of my scarred face of the Rango coin. Check out @SquidyUK’s review of Rango here if you want a more enthusiastic and more in-depth look about the various strong points of this movie. Because you won’t find me taking a second look at this movie again on here.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Dead Residents

The Resident 2011
Directed by Antti Jokinen
Still playing at UK cinemas.

Beware... I might just Hammer home those spoilers on this one.

I was really keeping my fingers crossed that I’d have a good time with The Resident because it’s Hammer’s second theatrical release after their rebirth and... well I really wasn’t as impressed as I'd hoped I’d be by their first “new era” movie. Let Me In, their vibrant but ultimately dumbed down adaptation of Let The Right One In played more like an action-packed remake of the superior Swedish movie version than as an attempt to address
any of the shortcomings that the Swedish version
had in adaptation.

And... for a while there... I really thought The Resident might just live up to my hopes.

For starters... it’s got a pretty good cast of actors... and they’re all giving great performances and acting their socks off. There’s Hilary Swank who, it must be said, I only ever saw in Brian De Palma's unsatisfying buy enjoyable adaptation of James Ellroy’s brilliant novel, The Black Dahlia... she was pretty convincing for the most part.

Then there’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan who I loved as both The Comedian in Zack Snyder’s brave attempt to bring Watchmen to life and as the leader of The Losers. He plays someone who seems to be a genuinely nice guy until... aw heck. They show you themselves what’s really going on very early in the movie... you can figure it out.

And then, the really fabulous piece of casting on this one is the legendary Christopher Lee, returning to the company (or at least a bought version of it) that made him a star name back in the 50s and the decades that followed. Now this really is a coup for Hammer, which is why it’s so disappointing to have to report that, although he does his usual, great acting job... his part is fairly slim in this one and his whole character comes across as criminally underused, it must be said. You get the feeling he’s been wasted in this part which, considering the debt Hammer also owe to him, is a bit of a blow for fans of the “old Hammer”.

Still, all three of these actors do a really good job and, on top of this, the film starts off really well with a brilliant and aggressively kinetic title sequence which, for a while at least, is matched by a similarly aggressive and fast paced editing style with exactly the kinds of “cut on movement” that people pre-Bond films used to decry as one of the ultimate editing no-nos.

The film tells the story of a nurse, played by Swank, who goes to live in a new apartment following her split up with her last boyfriend. Unfortunately, someone is spying on her... and as it turns out, drugging her and doing naughty things to her while she is knocked out... and the film comes a little unstuck very early on when the silhouette of the stalker in her apartment appears on screen and it’s fairly obvious from the actor’s build and posture that it’s the aforementioned Jeffrey Dean Wright who’s playing the psycho in this movie.

Even so, though, the whole atmosphere and setting up of the film is expertly handled for the first half an hour and everything is going great guns until... it gets to the point very quickly which I shall call The Resident’s “Vertigo” moment. That is to say...

You know that scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where Hitch has Kim Novak’s character deliberately give the game away to the audience as to her identity about twenty minutes before the end of the movie so that everyone knows what's going on? I believe there’s still a lot of debate to this day as to whether revealing everything so early on denied the movie a better twist ending and if, maybe, that revelation should have been held back until the last five minutes. Whether or not that was the right time to reveal that twist to tweak audience attention in the last reel of Vertigo or not is something I’m sure everyone who watches it has an opinion about... but whether it’s too early or not isn’t something anyone can really have an answer for.

One thing I do know, though, is that The Resident has a very similar Vertigo juncture where earlier scenes in the film are played out from a different character’s viewpoint but that, after about only a half an hour of the film has played out before it deliberately tips it’s hat to the audience... not that the audience had much trouble deducing who the identity of the “resident psycho” was after that earlier silhouette shot, of course.

I’m sure there must have ben some debate as to whether or not to allow that revelation that quickly in this movie but it doesn’t really matter ultimately because unfortunately, once this movie has tipped it’s hat... the film seems to transform into a fast-paced but curiously ineffective entry into the teenage slasher cycle... or to be more accurate in the case of The Resident, like an extraordinarily badly written teen slasher movie.

And after it does that, of course, there’s no going back with it. The film deteriorates quite rapidly into badly reconstituted stalk and slash cliché and ultimately you may well, like me, find yourself looking at your watch and trying to work out if you can survive the genuinely mind-numbing tedium that this movie has seen fit to turn into.

Oh, it’s not too bad. It probably does okay for the teenage market that this and most other modern movie behemoths are squarely aimed at... and 40 somethings like myself should probably know better than to go and see stuff like this in the first place, to be honest.

I think the real test of this movie can possibly be best summed up in a piece of “overheard” conversation from one talkative lager lout to his beer swilling mate as I was leaving at the end of the movie... “Blimey!” he said, as he walked down the corridor displaying up and coming events in the cinema’s future... “I could have written a better movie than that”. The sad thing about that statement, though, on giving a little further thought to the film in question is... I’d have to say the lad in the main foyer was right. He probably could write a better movie and therein lies one of the undeniable conclusions that this particular piece of popcorn fodder inadvertently pushes home to cinema goers everywhere, no doubt.. that a superb cast and a visually interesting director and cinematographer are, in themselves, not a convincing crutch to hide behind when the quality of the writing suffers. This movie would have gone down really great in the 80s but these days it just seems old fashioned and contextually an unsound base from which to start building your writing blocks on.

Not an essential viewing but certainly an exciting starting point to see if Hammer can learn how to play the game and revitalise what was once a great British studio and turn things around for themselves (given their previous track record for being a leader, of sorts, in British Horror through the decades). Their new movie Wake Wood gets a release on DVD today... lets see if they can do a little better with that one.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Daughter Door Living

What Have They Done To Your Daughters?
(aka La polizia chiede aiuto) Italy 1974
Directed by Massimo Dallamano
Shameless Screen Entertainment Region 0

Warning: Slight spoilers as to the final outcome reside in this review.

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is a police-procedural/giallo cross polination and return to familiar territory by the director Massimo Dallamano who, like his earlier and better known giallo What Have They Done To Solange?, uses the milieu of “organised” schoolgirls to explore themes of sexuality, corruption and exploitation where they hit home the most.

The main protagonists are a likeable but tough policeman named Inspector Silvesttri played by Claudio Cassinelli, taking on a very similar character to the one he plays in Suspected Death of A Minor (reviewed here... indeed, for a little while I thought he was playing the same character but that proves not to be the case) and a new kid on the block, female District Attorney Vittoria Storri, played by Giovanna Ralli. Unlike Suspected Death of a Minor, however, any humour from this one is mostly of the unintentional kind... and fortunately this one doesn’t suffer too much from that.

Not too much to say about this one other than it’s a fairly solid giallo which has a lot better acting than most gialli of the period while also involving elements of the standard Italian cop movies like car chases, foot chases and suspect interrogations. It’s all very solidly handled and there’s even that old chestnut the “dark multi-level car park hide and chase scene” thrown in when the DA finds herself targeted and pursued by the knife weilding, motor-cycle helmeted villain and hiding stealthily behind cars in a sequence that was a lot fresher in its day than it might seem to be nowadays.

The film deals with a ring of schoolgirl prostitution and Silvestri’s investigation goes all guns blazing to try to find out the people in high places who have set up this tawdry entertainment for consenting adults and not always so consenting teenage girls. Things take a turn for the better in the clues department when one of Silvestri’s collegues daughters turns out to be involved but the nearer Silvestri and the DA get to the top, the more they find their investigation somewhat hobbled and by the end of the film they realise that the corruption goes right back to the police department and way beyond.

It’s a curious film in a way because the “giallo killer” of this movie is just a typical henchman for powerful masters who tell him who they want killed next. As such, and this is very much against the standard giallo formula, his identity is not important... he’s just another faceless drone doing his job. I can’t even remember now if the audience ever sees the guy without his helmet on but it really makes little difference if he is exposed... he’s no one worth knowing and there will be no shock revelation about the killer's identity in this movie... and as such, in some ways, the ending is a bit emotionless.

And the ending is another thing about this movie which is just not your typical giallo. For, while the motorcycle killer is killed by police fire at the end, Silvestri, the DA and the father of one of the victimised prostitutes are ordered off of pursuing the case any higher up the corrupt food chain and so in the final scene we have the three of them together and making it pretty clear to the audience that, even though it may lose them their jobs, they’ll pursue this thing to the end. So crime goes unpunished with the possibility of retribution coming sometime later on down the line... but that’s another story (I would guess). Still, this kind of downbeat ending makes for a nice change in pace from the norm and so this movie has to be applauded for taking this path.

There are, however, some sequences in this movie which provide the wrong kind of entertainment in that there is some unintentional humour, especially in what would normally be a very stark opening where a schoolgirl is discovered hanging naked in a flat. Anyone else, I’m sure, would have rigged up a special harness (even in the early seventies) and had a real person play the hanging corpse. But in this opening sequence, a mannequin is used and, unfortunately for the film-makers, it’s actually a really unconvincing one and the more the camera likes to wallow on the face and body of the dead girl, the more unconvincing and risible it becomes. This is unfortunately compounded by the fact that a newspaper article depicting a photograph of aorementioned naked, hanging schoolgirl shows up the terrible automoaton of a stand-in even more... but then again, you have to ask yourself what the press are doing putting a hanged, naked dead body on the front of their newspapers... is that even legal? And no, Mr. Writer, having one of the characters comment on just how shocking it is that the press are putting such stuff in their papers doesn’t really hold water. It wouldn’t happen... period.

I sound a bit like I’m detracting, however, from the really positive things about this movie, like the out of kilter ending I’ve already mentioned and having an editor who knows how to edit action sequences together and give the eye time enough to work out what’s going on (something that seems to be a dead art in action cinema right now).

And I’ve as yet failed to mention the one truly spectacular element of this movie, Stelvio Cipriani’s awesome score which kicks ass on almost every level and which, bafflingly, doesn’t seem to have had a full CD release as yet (at least as far as I can find). Some of the cuts from this movie have ended up on compilation albums over the years and this would explain why two of the pieces of music that make What Have They Done To Your Daughters? such a dynamic listening experience as much as it is a visual experience, wound up in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s surreal giallo homage Amer (reviewed here).

All in all, this is another solid watch and a definite purchase for all giallo fans from the always excellent Shameless Screen Entertainment label. Watch this movie and take your ears for a spin.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Ripping Yarn

The New York Ripper
(uncut and restored)
Italy 1982
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Another World Entertainment
Giallo Serien
Region 2

Warning: This article contains
slight descriptions of
nasty sexualised mutilation
crimes against women...
read at your peril!

And so the time comes to write up what will probably be my most controversial... or at the very least the most negatively received review of my blog... Lucio Fulci’s somewhat infamous (in this country at least) film The New York Ripper.

Regular readers will no doubt have made note that I’m exploring Fulci’s work a little more just recently after always having had something of a tepid or mixed-reaction to his body of work. Well this is another in that series of explorations... it won’t be my last.

The New York Ripper is pretty much banned over here in Great Britain in it’s uncut form. I would like to have reviewed the UK Shameless Screen Entertainment release of this movie but both their earlier DVD and their new Blu-Ray (and Blu-Ray is really not a band wagon I’m expecting to jump on anytime before its short demise) edition of this film suffer from BBFC cuts. So I’ve gone and bought the Scandinavian edition because, if I understand the law correctly, it may be technically illegal for a person to sell me this DVD in this country... but it’s not illegal for me to purchase it from them. Think I’ve got that right... anyway, uncut version is what I watched because I really wouldn’t knowingly like to watch a sliced up movie (which is why I’ve got American editions of movies like Tomb Raider, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom scattered around my DVD shelves... don’t want to see the UK truncated versions anymore, thank you very much).

The New York Ripper is a Fulci film where, frankly, I was expecting the worst but instead found myself being pleasantly surprised. This is a very stylish and competently made giallo... which is not what I’d set myself up for. The scenes of violence, predominantly towards women, are quite visceral but also suffer in some places from easy to spot prosthetics which kind of detract some of the gruesomeness from these shots. The crimes in question though are quite brutal and go from unconvincing eye-splitting and nipple slashing to (and it’s all in the sound design) a murder which involves inserting a knife into the vaginal cavity and pulling straight up towards the chest.

Now this is a fairly brutal act and is depicted as such but, really, I don’t think this movie quite deserved the abhorrent reputation it’s received over the years... at least not from the stance of it’s brutal murders (I’ll come back to a more substantial criticism of this film a bit later but bear with me on this stuff first). Let’s not forget, after all, that Dario Argento’s big splash in 1969, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, features an identical, genital focused female murder which I don’t believe has caused anything like the same amount of criticism as Fulci’s film and I suspect that this is because Fulci’s treatment of the same matter is brutal and ugly... whereas Argento can’t help but film everything in a beautiful, almost expressionistic manner... vaginal stabbing or not! Perhaps the honesty (on one sense it could be perceived as such) in Fulci’s imagery during these kinds of sequences are what has led to his criticism... but he, too, has some beautiful imagery in this film.

Make no mistake... this here’s a giallo and a half with some of Fulci’s most colourful lighting outside of Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. The typical style of lighting sequences with intense washes of green or red or purple bring him strictly in line with his contemporaries and this is probably the film where he could be most considered to be playing around with the kind of cinematography made famous by Mario Bava and subsequently repopularised by Dario Argento. Whether you can stomach this film or not, The New York Ripper has moments of intense beauty juxtaposed with it’s ugliness.

Also... I should point out that of all the Fulci movies I’ve seen, with all their wooden acting and heavy handed screenplays (as is typical of the Italian giallo format), this is the most successfully and convincingly acted one of the lot. Jack Hedley manages to make the portrayal of the detective assigned to tracking down the killer really naturalistic and off-the-cuff... which possibly makes the scenes of gruesome carnage all the harder to take.

The movie also has the usual pantheon of multiple suspects typical of the genre, where each and every one of them could at some stage be the killer. It also has a very strong and liberated female character for, well, about the first third of the movie. She’s a sexed up wife who goes out looking for sexual adventures and gets them in some highly charged and sometimes uncomfortable scenes. She was actually my strongest suspect for the person doing the killings in this movie... until she becomes the killer’s next victim herself (in no uncertain terms).

Actually, by the last half an hour you’ll have no trouble guessing who the killer is, it’s quite obvious despite of all the trickery to divert your reasoning elsewhere... like holding one of the red herring characters in freeze frame for a few seconds at the end of a scene. Yes... this movie features a wretched seventies style freeze frame in the middle of the damned movie! How bizarre is that?

So... let’s see what we’ve got here so far. Brutal murders, female nudity, impressive acting, brilliant lighting and some pretty cool shot compositions including a return to the compartmentalising and vertical splitting of the frames similar to the same director’s work on Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2) and which led me some years back to arrive at the conclusion that Zombie Flesh Eaters is the visual soul mate to Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Ok... what I’m missing out here is the quite strong taint of misogyny that seems to be a subtext to the very male world depicted in this movie. Now directors like Bava, Argento and, indeed, Fulci have come under fire for being misogynistic in their movies before but it’s never really been an argument that holds any water for me up until now. I think these kinds of films are easily defendable because, more often than not, just as many men are as brutally and violently killed in these movies as women and, frankly, the whole “final girl” syndrome of having a lone, female survivor facing the final peril in these kinds of movies and in their less palatable cousin, the American slasher horror movie, single these films out as having the strongest and most interesting female characters in films... much more positive roles for women than in their non-giallo, non-horror counterparts. Strong roles for women are hard to come across... unless you start looking in the horror and giallo genres.

Nevertheless, I got a real sense of objectification and “women as meat” right from the bat in this movie. Not from the titular killer, who talks like a deranged Donald Duck and has his/her own twisted but semi-understandable motivations for his/her horrendous crimes but from pretty much all the other male characters in the movie. Even the detective sees a hooker for her services but treats her in almost a derogatory manner (that is until she is sliced and diced by the killer)... and I was quite surprised at the level of male chauvinistic attitude on display in this movie. Out of all of these kinds of films, I find this to be the least defensible and most deserving of the accusations of misogyny that it’s garnered over the years.. although I suspect the argument for that case has probably been so blinkered and tarnished by the brutality of the killing on display in this one for me to take that argument too seriously on its own terms.

Nevertheless the accusation stands... and I’d have to, surprisingly, add my voice to that accusation (something I never thought I’d have to hear myself doing) or at least acknowledge the presence of it in this movie.

Asides from that one flaw though... and I’m not even sure we can call it a flaw without hearing the direct intentions of the artist who directed this work... The New York Ripper is truly one of the great gialli and while not as great as some of his own entries in the genre, Fulci can hold his head up high with the likes of Bava, Argento, Martino, Cozzi etc on this one.

An enjoyable and interesting movie and definitely a must-see for giallo buffs everywhere.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Blogarhythm... One Year On!

Well now... two days ago it seems it was my NUTS4R2 Blog’s One Year Anniversary.

It’s also the One Year Anniversary of when I really got into Twitter properly, as NUTS4R2, and started promoting that blog on there to all and sundry... well, not all... some and sundry I guess. I’ll get back to Twitter later.

I wanted to mark the occasion somehow... and to be honest it would have been a lot better and certainly less slapdash if I’d done so a couple of days ago but I’m going to have to claim extenuating circumstances on that one... I’m not going to tell you what those extenuating circumstances are (hey, I’m still a pretty private person one year on from when I wrote this) so you’ll just have to trust me on this one... if I missed the One Year Anniversary of my own blog because of aforementioned circumstances, or in this case aforementioned extenuating circumstance, then it must have been due to something pretty special and very personal... and it was as it happens.

I didn’t know what to write when I started writing this article... just did my normal thing of “Hey, I’ve got a post to write, better start laying some considered words down and seeing if they have meaning” but now as I get further into it, I realise that I should probably write about the two good things and the one bad thing which writing this blog has brought me over the last year.

I’ll start with the bad thing first because, well you know, I’m kinda a negative person anyway and at least it gets it out of the way.

So firstly... I quite like films and used to watch them whenever possible. As such I could get through somewhere between 300 and 450 movies a year and I used to just eat film like candy and wash it down with the light and shade forever captured in whatever celluloid meal I was devouring. However, now I have to write it up after every movie, TV episode or book, it seems that over the last year I saw just under 200 movies... this is bad and so spending time on here sharing has obviously immensely slowed my viewing habits. Writing about this stuff takes time and, since I work a full-time job it’s not always been easy to keep on top of the blog writing as much as I’d have liked to.

At first, when I realised that my life-long viewing odyssey was slowing I almost began to resent the blog a little bit but then I remembered the two good things... and they far outweigh the slight downer I mentioned above.

Thing 1: I didn’t realise I could write for a very long period and I certainly didn’t realise I could go for as long as this without quitting. I’ve proved to myself that I can write about stuff I love and share that with readers over a sustained period of time and it’s given me a huge confidence boost which, frankly, I needed because I was in a sorry state when I started writing this thing. But more of a confidence boost for me was thing number 2...

Thing 2: Okay, I’ve said this way too many times before possibly but... I’m really grateful to my readers for choosing to spend 5 minutes of their time reading one of my articles... so if you’re reading this... “That means you, stupid!” I’m really touched that you are on here reading this. When I joined up on Twitter to promote this blog I suddenly discovered a whole virtual world of bright souls and the sense of support by the people I’ve found on Twitter is amazing. If you’re reading all of this and you’re also one of my Twitter followers... well thank you again. Thank you to bits! It’s very much appreciated.

So there’s my one slight negative and my two shiny positives but to finish this little epistle to you readers off I’d just like to say that I reread my first ever blog post again tonight and there’s one sentence that hit home and is something that I wish every person who reads this blog might come to experience from here at least once... and here’s the sentence which stuck out for me in terms of my intentions for this little hovel in a corner of cyberspace...

“And I hope... if you decide to continue reading this thing as it progresses, that you find at least a few things of interest to explore yourself.”

And that would be a good thing if some of you take a look at stuff you might never have thought of looking at or allowed yourself to look at before you read a review of it here. If any of you ever have that experience... please share it with me here... I’d love to hear about it.

Normal service will resume soonest with what might be my most negatively received review ever if I’m not careful with my words,

All the best,


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Fright Said Dead

City of the Living Dead
(aka The Gates of Hell)
Italy 1980
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Arrow Films
Region 0

Right... regular readers of my blog, or at least recent ones, will know of my problematic relationship with one of the best loved maestro’s of Spaghetti Horror, Lucio Fulci. Sometimes he does the odd great film but mostly I find his work passable at best and dull at worst. Just lately, though, I treated myself to a double bill of Fulci movies - one horror movie (this one) and one giallo (The New York Ripper) and was suprised by just how much I enjoyed these two films. Here’s my review of the first one...

I remember when I was in my early teens, that the cinema I had to walk past to get to school always had some really great and lurid posters to check out and incite my young, schoolboy mind with visions of sex and death... stuff like The Playbirds and The Opening of Misty Beethoven and whatever bizarre, destined-to-be-classified-video-nasty gorefest the owners of the cinema thought would get in the most business (and I don’t think there’s any chance these cinemas would get away with displaying the majority of these posters today... there would be strong, parental outrage these days... the times, they are a changed). One of those posters that caught my attention on my way to thoughtlessly ruining my education was the heads popping up from the ground in a graveyard poster for Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and, to be honest, I never in a million years would have guessed that this grubby looking zombie flick would ever, someday, be something I’d be watching myself.

But here I am so where to start...

Well, this movie is strong on atmosphere as created by camera movement and one of those incessant pulse drumbeat scores by Fabio Frizzi which horror movie makers use to hopefully get yourself to synch up subconsciously to your heartbeat so they can control your emotions (jumpiness) by speeding and slowing the rhythm down and the main theme in this is very much like Frizzi’s main them for another Fulci classic, Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2).

Like most Italian movies of this kind... it’s good that the movie is strong on atmosphere because frankly, as you will instantly see from the seance scene which opens the movie, the acting is pretty work-a-day but ultimately inappropriate and that curious mixture of dead-pan and “stagey” which makes for an unconvincing and mostly jarring experience for the viewer.

No matter... like I said, this movie has bags of atmosphere to go around and it’s probably just as well because the story is simplistic to say the least. The survivor of a seance and a newspaper reporter from New York go to the sleepy village of Dunwich (yeah, okay, so Fulci’s obviously an H. P. Lovecraft fan) to stop the priest who committed suicide by hanging himself at the start of the film (as seen in the seance) from opening the portal to Hell on All Saint’s Day. When they arrive at said village, however, the killing has already started and the people killed in humorous but often gruesome ways then become “living-dead” killer zombies with corpsified faces... even though they’re freshly dead and are suddenly looking a whole lot worse than they did when they were killed.

Ok... this is one of those turn-your-brain-off-and-drink-some-alcohol-and-just-let-the-movie-coast-by kind of affairs... but it’s a really good one if that’s the kind of passive spectator-sport kind of movie watching you might be up for one night, depending on what mood you’re in. It’s also got some laughable, probably unintentionally so, moments... and did I mention it also has some truly gruesome moments.

Ok... let me address those two qualities for you...

Remember when I reviewed Fulci’s The Black Cat and I said everything was going great guns atmosphere-wise until the cat in question suddenly winked out of existence from the shot and teleported somewhere else in the blink of an eye? Well this film certainly follows up on that little bizarre moment because in this film we have... hilariously teleporting zombies! Yep...if you’re a character in this movie-world then don’t worry about running away from these guys because if you do that and then suddenly look around the chances are they’ll just pop into existence behind you and squeeze the back of your head off and crush your brains in their fist (in one of the more unconvincing and quite overused gore effects in this movie). Apparently... said brain crushing effect at the back of your head will then... on your zombie resurrection.... cause you to have a scabbed up “zombie-face” so you can strike fear and terror into the hearts of the few remaining survivors of Dunwich while you’re practicing your magical teleporting powers.

Also... if you run a pub in Dunwich and the room starts to rumble and giant cracks suddenly appear in the wall and mirrors smash themselves... just straighten out the pictures and pour some more pints. After all... what’s the worst that can happen, right? Well the worst that can happen, apparently, is that you can have your brains squeezed out through the back of your head. So... nothing new there then.

And what about those gore effects... okay the brain squidging scenes are pretty laughable but that’s always been one of my arguments against censorship in this country. For example, almost every release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in this country have had the actual penetration moment of the notorious “eye gouged out with wooden splinter” sequence removed. Since the effect of this shot in the movie is blindingly unconvincing and, frankly, quite amateur... my argument has always been that what you imagine in your minds eye when you watch a censored version is far worse than what you actually see on an uncensored cut. But in City of the Living Dead there are two quite gruesome death/gore scenes and, although I’m not exactly a fan of gore for gore’s sake in movies, I have to admit that these two little sequences are pretty impressive.

In the first of these sequences a minor female character (like a lot of these films she is only in it for 5 minutes to become zombie fodder) is confronted through the window of her car by the hanged priest who uses his mental powers to make the girls eyes bleed profusely while she proceeds, in fairly lengthy detail, to retch up her own bloody internal organs. This is fine until you remember that this movie was made before CGI effects and the reason the internal organs look so real is because the poor actresses mouth was filled with animal intestines to retch out on command. Just another days work on a Fulci movie I guess.

And of course, all this eye bleeding and intestine vomiting causes her to reach around to her boyfriend’s head (as played by future director Michele Soavi who was working in the film crew at the time) and unconvincingly squeeze his brains out through the back of his head... oh, not that old chestnut again.

The other quite successful sequence of goriness is when the generic “I’m not like Lenny from Of Mice And Men but I’m, you know, slow and outcast because of my learning difficulties” guy gets drilled through the head by the father of the girl he’s hiding out with. No zombies involved here folks... no real threat either... the father just obviously thinks it’s the right thing to do... “Hey... talk to my daughter, get your head drilled!” Yeah... I guess those are easy rules to learn. Thing is though, apart from the actual act of fast spinning but slow and protracted, drill going clean through someone’s head effect itself... this sequence is actually quite masterfully directed and edited with all the emphasis and tension placed on the spinning drill coming towards camera. It really is almost Hitchcockian how Fulci can build the suspense and ratchet it up yet another notch merely by shifting the focus so that the fast spinning drill head suddenly comes into sharp contrast with the rest of the machinery. Really great stuff.

And then there’s the ending... and this is kind of a spoiler in that I shall hereby describe what happens in the ending... even though I don’t actually comprehend it. Evil is vanquished, the dead priest is further made even deader by being impaled Dracula-like by a strangely bearded protagonist... and the evil, or possibly just confused and misunderstood magic zombies, have all teleported away. Our two surviving heroes come out from a tomb and their friend, a little boy starts running towards them (and towards camera) to greet them. However, as our heroes cries of welcome are heard on the soundtrack to the running boy, they soon turn to shouts of “No. Keep away!” type sound bites and then the running boy gets hit by 80s movie freeze-frame hell as the credits roll... WHAT? What the heck? What’s all that about? What’s up with the little boy? He’s not a zombie and neither are the protagonists. If any of my readers know what the f*ck was going through Fulci’s mind in this scene, please share your knowledge with me so I can learn how the heck this film ended... because I have no idea what’s going on at this point.

Oh... and by the way... although I’m having a good time here making fun of some of this film's more entertaining qualities... I want you to know that I actually really enjoyed it and that, if you’re a fan of Fulci’s work then this is definitely one of his more watchable and entertaining efforts. And it does have an uneasy atmosphere all its own... even if it does have teleporting zombies in it.

The 30th Anniversary Arrow UK Region 0 DVD is both uncut and very impressive. Featuring a slip case, 4 variant covers, a big fold-out poster, a booklet, some postcard reproductions of the various posters used around the world and two discs with the second disc loaded with some really great extras, some of which have some amazing, animated cartoon title sequences based on various bits of the film (including the aforementioned gut-vomiting scene). This is definitely the edition to get and can be found in your local HMV and possibly other good retail outlets (if you can find any retail outlets other than HMV in Britain these days still standing during the recession). You might have to shop around online for the best price but it’s a real treat for both Fulci fans and fans of Spaghetti Horror in general.

You might want to shield the back of your head from any possible brain squeezing while you’re watching though.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Profondo Saragossa

The Saragossa Manuscript
1965 Poland
Directed by Wojciech Has
Mr. Bongo Region 0

The Saragossa Manuscript has got to be one of the oddest and most engaging movies I’ve seen in a while. It’s a hard one to describe and it’s based on a novel (The Manuscript found in Saragossa) which wasn’t quite completed by the time the writer committed suicide. Now that I know that... the lack of a return to the principle narrative at the end of the movie makes more sense to me... I think. Or at least a lot more sense than the similarly blasé and non-logical ending of RoboGeisha (reviewed here).

Golly. Where to start... the opening of the movie is set in the Napoleonic Wars with two sides fighting over the warzone of a city. One of the soldiers enters a house or tavern of some sort and finds a book filled with magical pictures and narrative - which is presumably The Saragossa Manuscript of the title. Some enemy soldiers rush in and take him prisoner... although he barely acknowledges this or notices it because he is too engrossed in the tome in front of him. A soldier is left to guard him but he, too, seems fairly indifferent as he joins his prisoner at the table and they begin to read the book together. The enemy soldier makes some comment about the narrative seeming to be about one of his ancestors... the movie then goes into the story of the book, set many years before... and of course, with an intriguing opening like that, I was hooked.

And so this second narrative begins and tells the story of a man who, unbeknownst to him, is the last surviving member of a demonic or ghostly family who accost him in his dreams as he sleeps a night beneath a hanged man... these spirits taking the form of scantily clad (and sometimes pretty much topless) women, two of whom both wish to marry him and then...

Okay... you know how some people reviewing novels will sometimes come out with the old cliché that the story is like a set of Russian dolls opening one after the other... well in the rare case of The Saragossa Manuscript, that's exactly what seems to be happening. The narrative springs into one direction and then a second narrative springs from that, as told by someone else without actually concluding the last... and that in turn leads to yet another narrative as told by yet another person... and so on for the almost 3 hour running time of this film. It’s quite strange how a lot of the film is not resolved as such until the last 20 minutes or so... as the metaphorical Russian dolls of the narrative get refolded back inside themselves.

Each time a major character is introduced into the plot of one story... more often than not... that character will then start to recollect his own story in which he meets another character who starts telling him about his own story and so on and so forth until the original story becomes hazy and obscured from view by the vast narrative distance covered in the unfolding of events.

As a narrative, it’s on a par, somewhat, with an elderly family relative who starts telling you a story and then keeps going with it and it keeps shifting and leads to other things and never seems to be quite going anywhere... but it keeps going on and on... and on. The difference with this movie is that all of the little stories which keep being teased out of each other with no real resolution are all quite engaging and certainly entertaining. One of the stories is charged with an air of the supernatural and this allows for a deeply surreal atmosphere permeating the core of the movie. There is also, I have to point out, a fair amount of big, bosomy cleavage to be found in the film and this, coupled with the almost Bunuelian atmosphere created in some of the scenes makes an irresistible combination for this viewer.

The many unfolding narratives do eventually come together on a collision course with different people's stories shifting around a multiple viewpoint in one instance. But my one disappointment with the movie is that it never once gives any closure for the actual readers of the book in Napoleonic times. It’s almost like they’ve been forgotten (or more likely abandoned perhaps by the original writer in his suicide). But even this absence of closure helps to push the downright strangeness of the film and I wonder what would have been the effect of any solid ending on the tail end of the film. I can’t help but think that the power of the movie would have been somehow diminished with an ending that tried to tie up all the issues too neatly... although to be fair this film does have a stab at this with the interpenetration of various narrators storylines over the course of the last 20 minutes or so.

But I’m not even going to attempt to explain the intricacies of the various plot lines to be followed in this movie with any kind of confidence but I will say that there are some periods of this movie where the relationships between the characters and their environments do veer towards bedroom farce than anything more intellectually vigorous... although there’s obviously, bearing in mind the use of a transparent narrative scheme, a lot of talking in this movie.

The Saragossa Manuscript is, then, a vaguely surreal and genuinely amusing period drama with the sometimes quite irritating twist of its perpetual narrative to lead you astray on your journey through the immense running time of the film. It’s a little bit like Last Year In Marienbad in a way...but a little more epic in its scope.

Definitely a film to watch at least once but be prepared to be sitting for the full length of its running time in one hit... I can’t imagine this being a very rewarding experience seen in small doses. Nevertheless... a hearty recommendation from this viewer. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, another movie by this director, later in the month.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Things Ain’t What They Rooster Be

True Grit US 2010
Directed by
The Coen Brothers
Still just about playing
at UK cinemas if you
can find one...

Warning! OK, this article will probably contain spoilers in it... even for people who have seen the original 1969 version of True Grit. I’m not sure about people who have read the book because, frankly, I haven’t.

I should also warn potential readers that this will probably be, like my previous post, somewhat short, because I find myself at somewhat of a loss of interesting things to say about this movie... even though I liked it a great deal.

The Coen Brothers have always been a bit hit and miss for me. I remember going to see stuff like Blood Simple, Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing at the cinema at the time of their release and thinking... yeah, technically brilliant but there’s no real emotion in these movies is there? Then they hit a phase with me where they could do no wrong and brought three movies out in a row which were all pretty good... The Big Liebowski (basically one of the great pieces of cinema of our time), The Man Who Wasn’t There and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Then I kinda lost my way with them and didn’t like a lot of their choices for material and, worse, when I did get to see their later output... didn’t find myself enthralled or entertained as I had been by earlier efforts (even as much as their initial stuff). As a result I didn’t bother with their movie No Country For Old Men and now I wish I had because everybody keeps telling me how brilliant it is.

Now I don’t like it when the Coen Brothers do remakes and stayed well clear of The Ladykillers when they turned their collective eye to that because... well come on? Remake The Ladykillers? Why not just remake Citizen Kane or Star Wars while you’re at it. I initially felt the same about True Grit but then somebody said that it’s more an adaptation of the original novel than a remake and so... well I let the film slip back onto my radar.

Now it’s been a long time since I saw the original version of True Grit... maybe a couple of decades... and so I really don’t remember it all that well. However, one thing that I did remember about the original was Kim Darby in the role of Mattie Ross being absolutely sensational and how the relationship between her and John Wayne’s portrayal of Rooster Cogburn kinda carried the film. I was therefore really annoyed when the Coens’ cast someone other than Ellen Page (from Juno) in the role of Mattie Ross... after all, Ellen Page is pretty much channelling Kim Darby in every film anyway isn’t she? She would have been perfect. If they ever want to do a remake of The Karate Killers then they need to get Page into the picture.

Anyway, I was kinda wounded when I learned Page wasn’t in it but I went along anyway and I have to say... I had a pretty good time with it.

It’s not a remake as such but considering I could hardly remember a thing about the original it was surprising how much of the original was coming back to me when I saw this movie. Seriously... either the original was really faithful to the novel other than the prologue and epilogue book ends or this was more a remake than people would have led me to believe. I hope it’s a case of the former because I don’t see the point of a remake to be honest... and even though I didn’t remember much of the original, this felt pretty much scene by scene to me.

Hailee Steinfeld is pretty darn good, actually, as Mattie Ross. Jeff Bridges is always good but there’s not a heck of a lot of difference (to these nostalgic eyes) between his performance and John Wayne’s original and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is perhaps, if anything, a little less sympathetic than the way Glen Campbell played him in the original.

Actually, that’s an interesting point to note. The characters in this version are all a lot less sympathetic than in the original and the only ones I really felt sorry for, perhaps perversely, were some of the villains. I just don’t care about the main protagonists in this version enough to root for them all that much and the final death blow on my sympathies lies in the one-armed version of Mattie Ross at the end of the film and how hardened and unlikeable she turned out to be. I think the only one in this picture who I really felt sorry for was the horse, Little Blackie, who Rooster rides to his death to get Mattie to a doctor (securing that death with a bullet to the brain of the horse in question).

But for all this I found myself still quite gripped by the action on screen and caught up in it to a point I didn’t expect. I think it might be just because there are so few Westerns made these days... I even liked Jonah Hex whose titular character was played by Josh Brolin and who winds up here playing Tom Chaney, the man Mattie Ross has sworn revenge to bring to justice as the killer of her father.

A lot as been made of Carter Burwell’s score and he’s certainly a fine composer but I found this one lacking. Listen to Elmer Bernstein’s original and you know the kind of scoring you’ll get on the action sequences... the scoring on this one is quite laid back and more atmosphere based than blistering leitmotif. Nothing wrong with that, of course. That was the late, great Bernard Herrmanns approach to most of his scores too and that worked like gangbusters... I just felt like the music on this one was a little underwhelming at times. Not necessarily blaming Burwell for this though... might have just had his score dialled down too low in the final mix for all I know.

At the end of the day, True Grit is a solid piece of Western filmmaking but, you know what? It seems totally unnecessary to have remade it. It really doesn’t do a whole lot different from its predecessor and one wonders if the Coens’ didn’t just take the money and rune on this one... we all know how much Hollywood loves commissioning remakes these days.

If you like a good Western yarn told in a convincing manner then the new version of True Grit is definitely worth checking out... just don’t go expecting anything earth-shattering or groundbreaking on this one.

Fill your hands you sunnuva -!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Bringing Up Fulci

Manhattan Baby Italy 1982
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Shameless Screen Entertainment
Region 0

In lieu of a spoiler warning for this, probably quite short, review... I thought I’d quote you from the back cover of the DVD itself by way of an explanation. And I quote from the uncut Shameless edition that I watched this on... “Most DVD sleeves will give you a succinct plot synopsis but we’re still struggling to understand what the hell goes on in this movie.” And: “... makes up in classic set pieces and pierced eyeballs what it lacks in coherence.” So I don’t think spoilers are really an issue with this movie, to be honest.

I rarely find myself bringing up the name of Lucio Fulci in conversation about film because, as I’ve probably said before, Lucio Fulci is a director with whom, in regard to his work, I have an unsatisfying relationship with. He’s done some fair to goodish movies, like Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2) and City of the Living Dead (which I only just saw and shall “blog up good” as soon as I can). He’s done his fair share of real clunkers like, in my humble opinion, the Spaghetti Western Four of the Apocalypse and the movie I’m looking at here on this article, Manhattan Baby. But he’s also done some really great movies which contribute to whatever genre they happen belong to, like my favourite one of his, the giallo Lizard In A Woman’s Skin.

This one, however, is not a great movie.

To be fair to it though, the spiel on the box is not something I’d be entirely in agreement with. It’s certainly not the incoherent mess that it’s perceived as... at least it didn’t seem that way to me. But, also to be fair, I don’t recall seeing any blatantly pierced eyeballs either... but I understand from the sticker on the packaging that this Shameless version is completely uncut.

No matter. Let me tell you what I thought of it.

This is Fulci’s go at taking popular Egyptology as a starting inspiration and, like so many films before and after it, blending it with formulaic horror methodology and using it to create the trappings of a horror movie. This film felt, to me anyway, to be doing for Fulci’s body of work what the original 1932 version of The Mummy did for the Universal Classic Monster series of yesteryear. That is to say, there is no actual blatant mummy figure in it (Karloff’s Imhotep was only seen in bandages for a few seconds in the original before “transforming” into Ardeth Bey) and instead it relies on Egyptian mysticism and abstract forces of power directed at our protagonists to bring home the scares (although scares would be a bit of an overstatement in the case of both the Universal movie and Fulci’s Manhattan Baby).

It’s not a particularly hard plot and turn of events to crack... perhaps it’s just a bit simplistic for most audiences cultured in a more sophisticated focus on plot development and perhaps that’s why it’s perceived as it is. The script, after all, is not particularly good and is not a million miles away from the early Egyptology-obsessed films which perhaps inspired it. Perhaps less so, in fact.

Still, that doesn’t matter too much either because, frankly, it’s got some great photography and lighting effects and these would normally be more than enough to at least distract this viewer from the weaknesses of the writing and performances (at least in the looping) and give me something I can still really sink my teeth into.

Alas, with this movie that’s just not the case. All in all I’d say that Manhattan Baby’s one, truly unforgivable trait is that it’s really kind of dull and boring and... well it does drag somewhat. Which is a shame because I’ve not seen many of Fulci’s movies and I’d like to get more of a handle on this guy. Admittedly a nice solid atmosphere of bleakness is built up over the first 10 or 20 minutes but this all too soon gets thrown away when the action switches from Egypt to the United States.

Shameless Screen Entertainment do their usual wonderful job with this title (which is a Fulci title that some, to be fair, really love and are happy to watch over and over) with a nice transfer, a load of trailers for their other essential releases and a nice reversible sleeve. And I’m glad that it’s out there on release because that’s what great companies like Shameless are there for... to give us releases we might not otherwise easily get the opportunity to dip our toes in.

And that’s about all I can say about this particular movie I think. I’ll have more to say at some point soon on his movie City of the Living Dead which I found to be a very positive experience (even though it had teleporting zombies in it... I’ll save that for another blog review). For the time being though I’d have to say that Manhattan Baby is not one I’d recommend to any passer by on the street but is a film I believe that some who have acquired a taste for Fulci movies should definitely take a look at if they can.

Friday, 11 March 2011

On The Paul

Paul US 2011
Directed by Greg Mottola
Playing at selected good and marginally
tolerable cinemas across the UK now!

Warning! The article doesn’t this time include any really aPauling spoilers in it... but I had to go ahead with a spoiler warning anyway so I didn’t waste that aPauling pun!

It’s strange. I might have said this before but when I go and see a movie directed by Edgar Wright and which has Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in it then I tend to have a bizarre delayed reaction to said movie. Usually my first viewing ends up a little “meh” and then I feel sufficiently haunted by the odd memorable scene or two to go back to the cinema again and then it all hits me properly the second time around and I find myself having a really good time with it. That’s exactly what happened to me with both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz... it didn’t happen with Spaced (I liked that straight off although I was a post-Shaun watcher) but then again... that was a TV show, not a movie.

So anyway... when Scott Pilgrim VS The World came out I thought this curse of the delayed whammy and necessity to double dip into my cinema entrance budget would be broken and future generations of my family line would be able to go and see movies by “The Wrightster” free from the threat of the insidious “meh but interesting” response and it’s debilitating effects on the family coffers. However, as I probably mentioned in this review “right here”, I had exactly the same kind of delayed response to a Wright movie without the presence of “The Peggster” and “The Frostier” in it and so, by this point, I was pretty sure that it was a reaction to Edgar Wright as opposed to the two starry stars who populated his first two features.

But then I went to see Paul. Which I was quite looking forward to because I like Pegg and Frost together, think they have great onscreen chemistry and I really needed a laugh as I was, and have been, feeling pretty downhearted of late (please leave sympathy or possible promises of money in the comments section below this article).

And that was two weeks ago. And I’ve only got around to writing up this review now.

“Why have you only got around to writing up this review now?”, I hear you ask inside my head in something resembling faint interest but which doesn’t try too hard to disguise the element of mock enthusiasm in your tone.

Well I’m glad you ask. Basically because I had exactly the same delayed effect to Paul, a film which stars these two actors but, in this instance, was not directed by Edgar Wright. And so I’m kinda wondering what’s going on now. The film is loaded, absolutely choc full o’ science-fiction and fantasy references and so, of course, I’ve now had to come to the conclusion that films by these kinds of people are so jam packed with eclectic, postmodern allusions that my poor mind needs to take it all in on the first sitting before it can begin to relax and take in the bigger “surface details” of these kinds of films on their own merit. That’s my latest theory anyway.

So I wanted to give Paul a fair crack is what happened and so I went back to see it again but, this time, instead of going by myself and sitting somewhere out of the way where I could hide in my little, black leather raincoat, I took a girl with me who I knew would laugh (and jump) at anything she saw on screen and that way, if I didn’t have a good time with it, I could always use her to gauge what my reactions should possibly have been during certain scenes (and maybe ask her to explain some of the more “young peoples” references should I have not gotten them).

So there I was, armed with my double scoop of Cherry Garcia/Cookie Dough Mix ice cream in one hand and a young, enthusiastic (okay, possibly giggly) girl in the other (metaphorically). True the girl in question is married and, true, ‘tis not to me, but I still trust her enough as a gauge for “what normal people like” and by that point the ice cream had frozen my few remaining brain cells anyway.

As it turned out... I needn’t have worried. On my second viewing, free from the strain of trying to spot as many sci-fi references as possible, I found that Paul was not the mere amalgam of overwrought set pieces I’d first perceived it as and that it’s actually a movie with a guiding and warm heart and it actually hangs together quite well on it’s own and ends up being a movie much more than the sum of it’s parts.

There’s a lot of good things going on in Paul... there’s some nice comic acting and some more than competent comic timing in the movie (not least from the film’s titular CGI alien character voiced by Seth Rogen) and a nice little twist from one of the characters that some people may not actually see coming... all wrapped up with a romantic subplot which may feel a little tagged on but sentimental old fools like myself are a sucker for that kind of stuff. There’s also a nice sense of set up/follow up throughout which I hadn’t noticed the first time around and which helps give the movie a sense of cohesion and self-containedness (despite the numerous references). For example, the scene where Paul resurrects a bird from death and the subsequent fate of that bird (which had my friend in hysterics in the chair next to me) is used to establish certain traits of the main character so it can be used to set up a scene towards the end of the movie.

I think, if I’d have stayed with my first impression of this movie I would have basically reported that it’s an entertaining enough, geeky movie made by geeks for geeks. As it happens, it is, but my friend who I took with me, Orange Monkey, also got a lot out of it and I know most of the gazillion or so Star Trek references would have meant nothing to her. It’s a testament to the writing and directing on this picture that the movie manages to successfully straddle a thin line between geekery incoherence and warm-hearted fun without straying too far into either territory to begin alienating any of the possible audiences that this film may find. A nimble trick and one which a few modern filmakers might do well to learn from.

And for those people who regularly read my blog reviews (and thanks for that, it means a lot to me), yes I will be getting this one on DVD when it gets a release... so that’s a big thumbs up right there then. For people who don’t regularly read my blog... go check out Paul. It’s a nice little movie with a fair few inventive homages to science-fiction classics and it has its heart very much in the right place.

Oh... and, yeah, I almost forgot... it’s kinda funny too. Especially when you see how Simon Pegg dances!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Manic Minor

Suspected Death of a Minor
(Morte Sospetta
Di Una Minorenne)
1975 Italy
Directed by Sergio Martino
Sazuma Region 2

Warning! I suspect this blog
post will contain minor spoilers! :D

I’ve always really liked the films of Sergio Martino.

He’s done some of the better giallo’s of the early 70s which certainly gave Argento’s films in the genre a run for their money and the sense of sheer artistic “oomph” in his works when it comes to the way they are framed and lit help (along with people such as Bava, Lado and the aforementioned Argento) to raise the giallo genre up from its appallingly acted and dubiously scripted surface detail into examples of great visual and audio art masterpieces. Films of his like Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key, The Case of The Scorpions Tail and, one of my special favourites, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh are milestones in the genre and amongst a number of good examples one can reference in an argument of the giallo film as art. Plus, quite often, his movies have Edwige Feneche in them and... well, she’s frankly hot!

I won’t mention his horror movie Island of the Fishmen... besides, I already reviewed that one here!

Suspected Death of a Minor is a film I splashed out more than my usual, miserly film buying budget for because it’s on a German DVD label which do some great giallos and the packaging and blurb on the back made it look like it was itself one anyway. When I asked the stallholder who sold me this DVD if it was a giallo... I got the reply that there’s certainly a giallo style murder in it. This didn’t fill me with much enthusiasm until he added... "it’s a bit sleazy."

Hmmm... well that did it. Sergio Martino and sleaziness... a winning combination if ever thre was one!

Well I finally got around to watching it and, it has to be said, that although the opening sequence does start off with a stalk and slash, very much in the style of a giallo, that’s where the similarities between this film and that particular entertainment genre end. Also, although the film does deal with crime and prostitution, Sergio shoots it all too nicely and perfectly for this movie to really get itself worked up into full sleaze mode.

So what have we got here.

Well it’s kinda interesting actually. It starts off with a man stalking a woman who tries to lose her stalker by dancing with a man who has glasses and long hair and looks a little like a badly watered down version of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Aha, thinks the audience... this guy is obviously generic dodgy giallo loser creep number one! Why? Because we’ve seen this kind of throwaway character loads of times before in various giallo movies to the point where we’ve almost become used to them.

However, Martino is smarter than this. The girl runs off and gets her throat slit by dodgy mirrorshaded stabby up geezah and it is not until this point that “loser creep number one”, Paolo Germi as played by Claudio Cassinelli (who died in a helicopter crash on another Martino movie), returns to the screen quite unexpectedly. He seems to be playing a crook.. or at least that’s what Martino wants you to believe for a while but it will be readily apparent to most audience members within the first five minutes of screentime that Paolo is actually an undercover cop and it’s not long before he acquires a criminal sidekick to help him smash a ring of kidnappers who are abducting the “minors” of the title and ransoming them back to their rich parents.

This is where things take a bizarre turn which place this film very much within a strange realm of Italian cinema which tends to juxtapose brutal violence and on-screen murder and a general malaise of depression with... unbelievable amounts of over-the-top and completely inappropriate slapstick comedy.

I first became aware of this bizarre juxtaposition of inappropriate elements in certain genre films in 70s Italian cinema in the Ursula Andress retread of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Loaded Guns... which evolved (or possibly devolved) from scenes of hard crime and brutality (like Ursula Andress getting punched unconscious in the stomach) to a blisteringly stupid, over the top, climactic fist fight bonanza with people like Woody Strode emulating the popular fight scenes of those Italian comic legends Bud Spencer and Terence Hill but going so far wrong in the subtlety department that it makes Bud and Terry’s efforts seem like a gentle contest of witty one-liners as opposed to the high octane slap-fests they really are. Bud and Terry’s films were obviously hugely influential because Martino’s Suspected Death of a Minor also features less than subtle comedy scenes between the hardcore shocks and unexpected twists and turns to be found in this movie. Such as a dodgy car chase where “innocent generic road-crossing citizen” is swiped by a car as it goes past... only to land on one shoulder and spin around on it like a manic breakdancer in a grotesquely comic manner before finding his feet to get side-swiped by another car and spin around on his shoulder again like some mime artist on acid.

Stuff like this and the facial expressions of ignorance from Paolo’s preposterous but endearing comic sidekick all seems very weird in close proximity to teenage hookers being shot in the stomach and death of said “endearing comic sidekick” along with his teenage girlfriend from a parcel bomb... milked with prolonged scenes of lingering on death of ignorant sidekick as he’s hooked up to life support machines in hospital... Oops! Time for Paolo to step up the pressure for the final act and kick some kidnapping arse... this time it’s personal.

Ok... I’m possibly making this out to be a film with some seriously bad artistic choices and if I am... well then I’ve done my job because it is. But... you have to remember to put this movie into context with a lot of the stuff coming out at the time in Italy... this highly comic slant was nothing new. One only has to remember back to classic Argento gialli like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red to see a fair share of overly comic scenes in awkward juxtaposition with the rest of the movie. And this movie does have some strong points... it never quite plays out like you expect it’s going to and the mise-en-scene is typical of a Sergio Martino movie... that is to say, it’s excellent.

At the end of the day, Suspected Death of a Minor is a fairly minor work but Martino’s flair for pacing and an eye for beauty make it very watchable and if you’re a fan of either Martino or the Undercover Cop sub-genre of the Italian Cop thriller which was popular at the time then this is definitely a worthwhile entry and worth pursuing. If you’re not then you’re probably better off giving it a miss as it won’t really add anything to your life.