Saturday, 30 April 2011

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

One Silent Step For Mankind

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon
Airdate: April 30th 2011. UK. BBC1

Warning:“Spoilers sweeties!”

There you go... this is all to be expected at this point. Episode two of the new series really didn’t resolve much from last week's episode, it has to be said. It also, and I’m really sorry to say this and I hope I get proved wrong, seems to be getting a bit too clever for its own good.

You know those Italian Gialli of the late Sixties and early Seventies where almost everyone in the film is a suspect for the killer’s identity - there are so many red herrings that it could be randomly anyone and that’s the way it’s been designed? Well tonight’s episode felt a little bit like that.

This is going to be a short review because a lot of the time I wasn’t sure what was going on... but this is not always a bad thing and it wasn’t such a bad episode... just one which required a lot of concentration and a strong grasp of your “it seemed random, let it go, you’ll find out in 7 months” head! Because that’s what this episode was, one giant set up of seemingly random events which are definitely all going to sink in and make sense somewhere down the line but which you don’t have all the necessary threads to unravel yourself yet.

No worries.

This episode started off about three months after Amy shot at the astronaut-girl at the end of last week's episode. New guy Delaware has been hunting down and killing off (yeah, right) the Doctor’s companions who have feigned death (it turns out) and gathering them to him to a special prison he’s building to hold the Doctor which is actually a way of keeping new series baddies The Silence out of earshot... all apart from River of course... she takes a dive in the Doctor’s swimming pool. No I’m really not going to elaborate here... if you’re actually reading this little autopsy of a blog post before seeing the episode then “Shame on you!” Go back and watch the episode and then come back here and finish this thing off when you're done, okay? I’ll wait for you!

Right... so where was I...

The Doctor plants nano-recorders in everyones hands so they can leave themselves messages when they’ve seen The Silence and also they’ve been decoratively marking notches on their faces when they’ve seen one (Good grief... I suppose the face looks prettier but, seriously guys... aren’t their easier places for you to mark? Oh well, I guess you can at least see each others faces).

The Silence are, in this episode, vanquished by mankind by posting a video of them ordering their destruction which will only be remembered by people when they’re “in the moment and face to face” with The Silence. Thus The Silence have poetically ordered their kulling from the planet and resolution and closure is achieved... isn’t it? No of course it isn’t... like we won’t be seeing these guys again.

Last week our real concerns were... a) The Future Death of the Doctor (although I know think he might have swapped bodies with a little girl and shot back in time to um... maybe not... not enough pieces of the jigsaw yet) and b) the Pregnancy of Amy Pond.

This week we still have the death of The Doctor to worry about... and something tells me we’ll be left worrying until the last episode of Series Seven unless that’s a red herring... and I’m also hoping that writer Steven Moffat uses this to finally get rid of that stupid “12 regenerations and yer out” rule that the show introduced back in the Eighties.

But things have also gotten a bit muddier... and here’s what we are left with.

The TARDIS seems to think that Amy Pond is both pregnant and not pregnant... and only The Doctor knows this at the moment... both Rory and Amy assume she’s now not. This is pretty much a Schrödinger's Cat kind of theoretical situation and I’m betting at some key point in the series (and we won’t necessarily know it when it happens until we’re told at some point later)... someones going to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak and she’ll either be locked in to a pregnancy or not.

Okay, what else... well there’s the little girl in the spacesuit who is dying back in 1969... except she’s just started to regenerate. Oops. A few theories to throw at you on this one... none of them probably correct but I am trying here people... very trying is my guess. Okay, so theories... The Doctor swapped places with the little girl when she killed him somehow... or maybe that regeneration stuff she possibly grabbed off of him at his death allowed her to regenerate and turn into a new Doctor who we can have time and space adventures with (well they did say it would be game changing) or maybe she’ll just turn into Matt Smith or maybe... just maybe... she’s either The Master or The Doctor already (well they can do that stuff naturally) or then again... she could be regenerating into River Song or Amy Pond I guess... or both... or the love chld of Amy and The Doctor who has timelord genes perhaps? Oh, golly, that was a long sentence wasn’t it. So sorry... had to get it all out.

Right... thing number three and this one is possibly important. At one point in the story a one eyed woman popped open a grate, looked at River and said something along the lines of... “It’s okay, I think she’s still dreaming.” She then winked out of the reality of that episode but... yeah, you know this will all catch up with us again some point down the line don’t you? It’s a throwaway little bit of “stuff” which they wanted to just put in and get past your radar by distracting you with something else later so they can re-surprise you with it several months from now. Even so... I still think this could be the most important clue we have to what’s going on right here.

Oh... and lastly... this is where it starts to get dark because... River Song has got her Doctors confused. She was all over him because she thought they were on more intimate terms by now... they weren’t and... well if she’s losing the plot then I think I can feel perfectly fine with the fact that I seem to be losing the plot too at this point.

Okay then... lets have one last little look at what we’ve got here...

This episode is probably going to annoy the buggery f*ck out of some people who were hoping for a little more closure on the events of last week... not a shakier set of card houses built on the foundations of last weeks little intrigues. But you know what... when all is said and done... it was quite an entertaining little episode... just a bit useless as a stand alone. It was definitely fast paced... just a tad discombobulated perhaps. Doesn’t matter... it may not make sense now but it certainly will do by the start of the 2012 series (I hope). The editing was jarring and choppy and that may not possibly have been just a stylistic decision... more an avoidance of “give aways” but that’s okay too. For the most part, what was actually happening on screen at any one time made sense mostly, apart from maybe the face at the grate, so I can cut them some slack there.

And thank goodness next weeks episode doesn’t look like it’s got anything to do with this storyline so we can all give our bamboozled brains a rest and enjoy some fresh, Doctor Who piratey goodness. Arrrrrr! Avast ye Crimson Gallifreyan!

So... my final verdict has to be.... not such a great episode but not an unnecessary one. After all, you can’t have the brilliance of Back To The Future Part 3 without having to watch the set up in the less than stellar Back To The Future Part 2 first. This episode doesn’t mean so much... yet. But it will do at some point this year. Miss it at your peril!

Friday, 29 April 2011

Vampire Circus

Blood and Circuses

Vampire Circus UK 1972
Directed by Robert Young
Screening as part of a double bill in a pub
as part of the Classic Horror Campaign.

OK, short entry here because I was less than enamoured of this particular film.

This is the second of the two films I saw projected on a big screen at the Roxy Bar in London as a presentation of the Classic Horror Campaign (a campaign to bring back the classic, late night BBC2 horror double bills from the 70s and 80s... check out their website right here). I reviewed the first part, the always excellent Night of the Demon yesterday (reviewed here) and now it’s the turn of an interesting little Hammer movie, Vampire Circus.

Now I’ve slowly been getting back into Hammer gradually over the last couple of years but this is one I’ve not seen recently, if at all. If I ever did see it then it would have been back in the 70s when I was about 9 years old... and probably in an edited version on TV. Little parts of it did ring vague bells as I was watching but that also might be to the familiar locations and plot devices which it shares with a load of other Hammer movies of the time.

It’s weird I didn’t take to this one because there were some "less than common for the genre" elements to the film and, also, the hosts for the show cybershizoid (his blog here) and scaresarah (her blog here) had promised “blood and boobies”... and I do confess to having a penchant (weakness) for bosoms besmirched with a touch of Kensington gore... so this film should have been a shoe-in for me.

The film started off well enough with a bosomy vampire sex scene and a torch and pitchfork wielding angry mob exacting their furious vengeance on said vampire and his young lady... and of course, at the denouement of this set-up we had the time-honoured “curse” placed upon the “mobbed-up” villagers in question which then sets the pace (somewhat slow and lethargic in places) for the rest of the movie which occurs some twenty years after the “death” of the vampire in the prologue.

While the quarantined villagers are busy dying from a plague which, we find out later, is carried by the bite of vampire bats, a circus (indeed, a vampire circus) rolls into the village to kill the folk from the start of the film... and their young offspring. Now, I know this was a Hammer production but when I say circus I use the term loosely. I saw exactly "two small coaches only" roll into the community but from this they manage to construct a modest show including three animal cages and a hall of mirrors. That’s pretty good for two coaches... where did they keep all the people (the ones that weren’t slumbering in their tiger or panther guise that is). That’s pretty good going... I guess since they do have a mirror which is a portal to a place under a spooky vampire castle so they can do their vampiric murdering in relative peace, then a decent case could be made that their coaches are in fact dimensionally transcendental. Although, if this is the case, I don’t know why the villagers don’t rumble them any sooner.

Actually, looking at said villagers... I think I do know why they don’t rumble them sooner. The community in the film, it has to be said, is not one where intelligence and common sense prevail in an atmosphere of reason and logic. I wouldn’t like to live there or possibly even spend a few weeks there... but what can you expect, I guess, from a place which makes Thorley Walters their burgomaster!

Vampire Circus is a bit of a strange one in the Hammer cycle of films, at least to me since I’ve probably only seen about 50 or 60 of them. There are exploding, squib blood effects from impact wounds which I don’t remember seeing in a Hammer film before and the predominance of naked flesh on show place this film squarely after the far superior (in terms of atmosphere and watchability) The Vampire Lovers. This would normally be enough to engage me with the movie, at least on some level :D but on this occasion, even the presence of a future Doctor Who babe (Lalla Ward before here double stint as the Princess Astra and then second incarnation of Romana) was not enough to keep me entertained for this one. This is one DVD which I won’t be buying when it gets released later in the year but I’d still urge all Hammer fans to pick this one up if you’ve not seen it. Worth a look at least once.

Again, thanks and appreciation to the Classic Horror Campaign for putting on an enjoyable double bill of this and Night Of The Demon... if they do any more of these events you should get yourself there. The atmosphere of watching these kinds of movies with like-minded individuals is worth the price of admission alone.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Night of the Demon

Name That Rune

Night of the Demon
(aka Curse of the Demon US) UK 1957
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screening as a double bill in a pub
as part of the Classic Horror Campaign.

I’m not much for big celebrations of Easter. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, for me personally, there’s only two really great things about Easter. Number One is I can stay away from work and be with family or friends and Number Two would be that it’s an excuse for my yearly ritualistic screening of It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown.

This year, however, my Good Friday wasn’t just that... it was actually a really great Friday. This is because the Classic Horror Campaign (a campaign to bring back the classic, late night BBC2 horror double bills from the 70s and 80s... check out their website right here) had organised a pub screening of one of my favourite British made horror movies Night of the Demon and also a classic Hammer Horror which I don’t think I’d seen before, Vampire Circus.

The venue and organisation of said event were great and the relaxed atmosphere, comfy sofas and knowledge that you were watching these classic movies with like-minded individuals did a lot to make this run-in to Easter truly one to remember.

Warning! Okay... so this review is only about Night of the Demon and, because I want to reiterate some points about it I probably already made in a review of another movie, this one will have some pretty big spoilerage in it... so desist from reading this right now if you’ve never seen this or the slightly truncated and alternate US version Curse of the Demon.

Night of the Demon is a 1957 movie made in Britain and based on the M. R. James short ghost story Casting the Runes. It was directed by the legendary Jacques Tourneur who was certainly no stranger to the horror genre as he had directed three of the best of producer Val Lewton’s famous and critically acclaimed RKO low-budget alternatives to the Universal Horror cycle in the 1940s... notably the original version of Cat People plus The Leopard Man and I Walked With A Zombie.

Now this isn’t actually, when you get right down to it, exactly a faithful adaptation of the short to be honest... but like other less than faithful movie adaptations (I might mention Jaws or Blade Runner) it plays around with concepts and ideas which are thrown up by the original source material and manages to be a movie that conjures up a chilling atmosphere which is reminiscent of the spirit of the original and, quite apart from this, is certainly one of the most watchable and entertaining British horror movies of all time.

Like the original short story, the movie takes up the idea of a demon coming to destroy the possessor of a piece of paper with a runic curse on it. Once the initially unknowing owner of said piece of runic scribble is aware of this, the movie becomes an exercise in a) the characters progression from “do I really believe this” to “bugger this I’m in trouble here” and b) how do I pass the curse back to the originator without him being aware that I’ve done it before the demon comes to take me.

The original story was a small character sketch on fear with the presence of an actual demon implied but not actually verified by the writer... a kind of “make your own mind up” conclusion as to whether the death of a character in the short story was down to a demonic force or whether it was a freakish and coincidental accident caused by the act of fleeing a suspected reality, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way.

The movie plays things a little less vaguely with a pre-credits sequence that includes a scene which shows the demon coming to kill the last victim of the runic symbols in a quite charming "Ray Harryhausen-style" stop motion animation. I understand that the director did not want to make the demon implicit himself and hated the scenes where the demon is actually shown and I guess this would in fact fit in with his modus operandi from when he was working for Lewton over at RKO in the decade before. Still, whether the director wanted it there or not, it’s there and it’s curiously effective for something which is so obviously a stop motion element to the movie. The demonic murder itself is called into question because the car of the victim is electrocuted trying to flee the monster in question.

The very real villain of the piece, however, is a black magician called Dr. Julian Karswell who may or may not have been based on the real-life Alesteir Crowley, played by Niall MacGinnis who really gives a brilliant performance in the role. An absolutely charming character who will be quite happy to provide you with some charming chit-chat over tea and cake before slipping you a runic scroll and setting a demon on you.

The main protagonist is Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews who was presumably cast to ensure the film’s distribution in the US. He plays a doctor who has journeyed from America to disprove Karswell’s claim of being a witch and thus finds himself, cynically, on the receiving end of one of Mr. Karswell’s nasty runes. His romantic interest is the daughter of the previous victim of one of Karswell’s demons played by Peggy Cummins... but she doesn’t really seem to do that much but provide a female Mulder to Dana Winter’s skeptical Scully.

By the way, if any of the plotline to this movie is starting to sound just a little too familiar to fans of modern horror cinema, that’s because this is basically the same storyline (with a few modern adjustments) of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell a few years ago... I haven’t actually come across anything where the makers of Drag Me To Hell have admitted that their movie is a direct remake of Night of the Demon... or even “inspired by” M. R. James Casting The Runes... but it does seem pretty obvious to me that this movie was just a thinly and inadequately disguised remake of Night of the Demon. Still, Drag Me To Hell was a pretty good horror movie too... my review of it is here.

Asides from the opening confrontation with Karswell and the aforementioned and subsequent death of victim number one at the hands of the demon, the movie keeps a brisk but discrete pace and keeps everything else under wraps while exploring the psychological effects of the events of a man’s death foretold on th characters. It’s only towards the last half an hour or so, after Last of the Summer Wine actor Brian Wilde throws himself to his death out of a window while reliving a demonic encounter in a hypnotically induced trance that things begin to kick back into high gear with a cat wrestling scene, a pursuit by a shiny bright demonic light through a forest (including brilliant Michael Bentine’s Potty Time invisible creature footsteps) and a race along some train tracks involving the runic paper and the death by one of the characters at the hands of the stop-motion demon. The railway track setting, of course, means the injuries sustained by this character can be explained by a train having rolled over him... something that Raimi used a couple of years ago as the scene of the final denouement of Drag Me To Hell. Hmmm... wonder where he got that idea from.

Shot in a stark black and white which perfectly evokes an eerie mood, Night of the Demon is the perfect film for fans and students of the Great British Horror Movie and I would heartily recommend this movie to people who fit that description. A shorter cut-down version of the film was released in the US as Curse Of The Demon and at one time I understood that this version was made from different takes of the same scenes... although I can’t seem to verify that claim at the present and I’ve never bothered to watch that version (as yet) so I can’t honestly say it is or it isn't.

The second half of this double bill, Vampire Circus, will be reviewed soonest!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Rainbow Kisses

Niagara US 1953
Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox Region 2

“There isn’t any other song!” - Rose Loomis, Niagara.

When I was in my early teens, in the late seventies/early eighties, it has to be admitted that I had something of a “thing” for Marilyn Monroe. I’ve not seen all her movies... a couple of them I even avoided, and I don’t always like the ones of hers that most people seem to respond to (Some Like It Hot is not a movie I can watch and actually get any real enjoyment out of for some reason) but I did like her and was deeply attracted to her physical charms... as well as her obvious and sometimes misunderstood skill as an actress.

It also has to be said that in those days, pictures of most of the people I had fleeting pangs of sexual desire for weren’t always easy to come by... if I wanted to find a photograph of my other main heart-throb (or any-other-part-of-my-body-throb for that matter) then I had to go through all my old issues of Starburst Magazine to find the gal of my dreams, Caroline Munro. Marilyn was easier to acquire pictures of, however, as you couldn’t but help see prints, posters and postcards of her plastered up all over every branch of the art shop Athena when I was a youth. I’d like to make something of the fact that my two main heartthrobs had names that rhymed... but I don’t think that really made much difference to the deep seated attractions I held for each of these talented individuals... one living and one dead.

Anyhow, after a few years when my Marilyn obsession reached fever pitch, it had suddenly and almost without any warning become almost a cliché for young men to “have a thing” for Marilyn Monroe and after a while I guess I just got bored of her and somewhere along the way I stopped watching her movies. I’ve never even, until now, owned one of her movies on DVD.

Something happened a few months back, however, which brought back the itch just a little... soundtrack company Intrada finally released the score to Niagara (as a double bill with another Marilyn Monroe film score, River of No Return) on CD and, since it had been one of my favourites as a “growing lad” I thought I’d purchase said item and give it a spin. Suitably impressed by both Sol Kaplan’s string heavy score and by the excellent qualities of the recording brought out by Intrada, I decided to purchase the film (at a mere few pounds from Amazon) and give it another watch... I was surprised at just how much started coming back to me as I watched it.

Niagara is a really interesting movie. It’s very much a noir but the bright coloured daylight settings of the majority of the movie almost betray that atmosphere... or at least allow the bitterness of the twisted characters that haunt this little movie to creep up on you and take you by stealth. Hathaway’s direction starts you off with a double-rainbow effect... first panning down from a spectacular shot of Niagara Falls to hit a rainbow and then, when this little sequence is done, recapturing that rainbow in some lawn sprinkler’s as Joseph Cotton’s character George Loomis continues his voice-over narration and walks back to his hired cabin to see his wife Rose, played by Marilyn Monroe.

This is very much the story of the Loomis family but it’s also the story of Polly Cutler (played by Jean Peters) as she starts a delayed honeymoon with her husband Ray, a knee-jerk, Pavlovian reactive, apple pie of a husband if ever there was one... seriously Polly, why the hell are you in a marriage and letting him make all those decisions and be acutely patronising to you in the first place?

Anyway... Polly is our “heroine” in this movie... if one were needed. She is the person who observes the world in which Rose Loomis embarks on a scheme to drive her husband stark, staring mad so her secret lover can kill him off at Niagara Falls and they can be rid of him forever. Things, as in most films with a noir sensibility, don’t go right for any of the parties involved. George’s mental decline is nicely highlighted throughout the movie by use of the song Kiss (sung along to briefly by Marilyn but she never gives it the full works as she did on a recording from the time)... and Rose and her lover use the church bells as a signal so that Rose knows George has been “done in” when the church bells play Kiss. Or has he?

I don’t want to give away anything on this one but there are some great little things in Niagara that I should probably highlight here. The lighting, although in a brightly lit and colourful film, is still very much “noir lighting” with deep shadows and the silhouettes of men... real men who wear hats. Little details like Joseph Cotton listening on a phone call are slightly revealed through use of reflections in mirrors and many of the scenes have strong, stylish compositions (although I will say that some of the photography in this movie is so spectacular that I wished the movie had been shot in a widescreen format rather than the 1.33:1 standard ratio in which it was produced). The music gives it some oomph and lift in places too... such as when one of the characters (I’m not saying which one) gets strangled in the bell tower and, just before the strangulation occurs in a shot looking directly down at some shadows cast, the music plays a menacing incarnation of the tune “Kiss” before going completely silent during the actual strangulation and then cutting to various shots of the church bells in their silent, unrung state... bleak stuff.

And then of course there’s Marilyn... she plays a temptress of men here so she wears lotsa stuff which highlights her ravishing sexuality (no complaints here) but people who are used to seeing her playing nicey-nicey may get a bit of a shock. Here she plays a devious co-conspirator and, as such, she really jams it home as to what a great and, surprisingly naturalistic, actress she could be when she was playing something a little less familiar to the characters she would soon become established with (which reminds me, I must see if her turn as a murderous, psychotic babysitter in the movie Don’t Bother To Knock is available on DVD)... it might be a bit of an eye opener for people who are less than familiar with the kinds of films she was making before she became The Big Star!

Niagara really is a fine film and, as noted, there are some fine things in it... but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a perfect film by any means. Towards the end, after the final curtain on one of the characters, it does tend to drag a bit as it ties up loose ends and, although the direction seems assured and confident... it can get a bit ploddy and make you almost wish that a certain Mr. Hitchcock had been at the helm instead. Still it’s probably my favourite Monroe film (until I maybe get around to watching Bus Stop again) and as such it resides in a warm place in my heart and earns itself a thorough recommendation.

If you like movies and you’re only familiar with the more comical or lighthearted side of Marilyn Monroe, you could do a lot worse than giving this one some of your time.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Horror - 333 Films To Scare You To Death

Half A

Horror! 333 Films To Scare You To Death
James Marriott,
Kim Newman
Carlton Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781847325204

And here we have a list book which, like all things that rely on personal choice to create a list, is always going to be seen as fairly contentious in it’s choices of inclusions. This is all fair enough and I am fully aware of the pitfalls of creating material based on lists but, at the same time, I had very high hopes for this book. The design and layout “looks” fantastic and was enough to sell me on it just from a few pictures on Amazon.

So I was expecting to be a little irritated by some of the choices on this list but, to be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting to be furious with them... but ultimately that’s how I felt on reading this particular tome. If I was feeling more charitable to the authors of this work after enduring their less than error free and sometimes blatantly contradictory entries in said attractive looking tome, I would perhaps be quick to point out that the definition of a horror movie can mean all things to all people... but after some of the inclusions and, frankly, the mini masterpieces which have been excluded, it’s hard for me to get anything other than horribly worked up about the whole affair, to be honest.

Now I personally don’t consider a movie a horror film unless it has either a definite supernatural force or an non-human monster present in the narrative at some point. That’s my, possibly childlike, definition of a horror fillm and it seems to be a strong acid test for me. I don’t hold with all this “human-monster” stuff and so the inclusion of serial killers and such like belong firmly to the realms of thrillers and gialli and my personal experience happens to be that people I know who will never allow themselves to even look at a horror film for five minutes are more than happy watching the likes of the Hannibal Lektor films and films of this kind of nature where serial killers are the central “attraction of fear”. Therefore, frankly, they’re not horror movies (anything which supports my definition of a horror movie is good I reckon so please forgive me if I labour this point a little).

What I don’t think anyone can rely on... and I have heard this defence when used in similar instances to defend the human killer as evidence of the manifestation of the silk purse of a horror movie spun from the sows ear of the serial killer flick... is that a horror film contains scenes that horrify. Nope, don’t buy it. What horrifies me may not horrify you and vice versa... too subjective to be useful as the sole criteria of an applied generic label, thank you very much.

This book, however, not only includes films like the horrendous adaptation (of a great book) of Silence of the Lambs but also various gialli and films by the likes of Fellini and Bergman. C’mon guys. I know we all like films by these directors but this seems more like a book about cramming as many “horror definition stretching inclusions” as you can get away with, just because you happen to like those movies. And seriously people... let me clarify it again, just in case you missed it the first time... A thriller is a thriller! A giallo is a giallo. These are not horror films and though a spare few Dario Argento movies could (and are) included... putting stuff like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in a book about horror movies just makes you look like idiots. And contrary to popular modern belief... Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up is not a giallo... there’s possibly not even a murder in the movie, depending on how you read it. So once again, inciting it as giallo turned art film is an absurd state of affairs.

You can probably get a good idea of as to my state of mind when I read this. But it’s not just the bizarre never-in-a-million-years-is-this-a-horror-movie inclusions which got to me in the end. It’s just as much about the exclusions. Seriously guys... you include movies like the above but you miss out some of the truly scary horror movies of recent years like the excellent [REC] series and, instead put in tired teenage slashers like Jeepers Creepers. This is not a quality choice.

Added to this I found a few factual errors and contradictory opinions in the text. One has to ask, if the reviewer finds occasion to give a movie a bad review, why the damned thing is in this book in the first place. If this is supposed to be only the 333 essential movies to see then surely you don’t include what you think are the clunkers.

Another gripe is that there are various “categories” reviews which try to dance around the possible silliness of some movies inclusions by giving a particular sub-genre (which for the most part isn’t a sub-genre) a highlighted section within the book in the hopes that the boldness of the inclusion will mislead readers into accepting the authors definitions of “Horror” as Gospel. But this is just not the case because... you know what? A giallo is not a horror film! Oh, hang on... I might have already said that one.

Adding insult to injury, at least one of these mini category reviews is not present in the actual finished book... even though the section is referred to on specific page numbers throughout the remainder of the tome. This seems to be in keeping with the books index which also seems to list appearances by various films on pages where they are nowhere to be seen. Seriously, what happened here?

And that’s about it for me and this book I’m afraid... nice to look at but ultimately it doesn’t deliver on content. Can’t bring myself to recommend this one and am now going to cast my nets further because there seems to be an abundance of these horror-movie lists type books doing the rounds at present. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, I can find a book called, something on the lines of, 200 Colours of Gialli You Should Profoundly Watch Before The Drops Of Blood In Your Body Go Velvetly Cold. Now that’s a book I’d really want to read!

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Book Of Eli

The Eli Bird
Catches The Worm

The Book of Eli US 2010
Directed by The Hughes Brothers
Entertainment In Video Region 2

I first saw The Book of Eli on its initial cinema release back in January 2010... which was about three months before I started writing this blog, so I’ve never had an opportunity to properly review it before. In the intervening year and a bit since that initial viewing... I’d kind of forgotten what a great movie it is. It’s especially perfect for people of a certain age (a little bit older than me) or people who have a fondness for a specific thread of cinema which was intertwined with actors like Yul Brinner or Charlton Heston in the early seventies.

Seriously people! Remember those gritty, widescreen, school-of-hard-knocks science fiction movies which were made in the early seventies... often dealing with a post-apocalyptic or dystopian future society with a lone protagonist out to beat the odds? I’m talking about those groovy flashes of celluloid scientifiction like The Omega Man, Rollerball, Planet of the Apes, Westworld, Soylent Green or The Ultimate Warrior? Well this movie is almost a direct throwback to those harsh sci-fi dreams of bitter pills and high ideals and although Denzel Washinton plays the lead in this movie, quite solidly and brilliantly I should add, this is seriously a film that Yul Brinner would have picked up and had a lot of fun with...

And just to up the stakes a little in the astonishing unlikeliness that such a film should exist coming from modern Hollywood, this film also pushes the “lonesome-gunslinger” element which would often be found in those kinds of narratives and really pushes the boundaries between post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the Western... and in this case it’s very clear that The Book of Eli is very much a spaghetti western in all but name and costume.

I’ll try not to give away too much here because, although the twist ending is something which is fairly easy to get near on your own, the variation on that twist (and the characterisation clues to that specific brand of that twist which I obviously didn’t pick up on) is actually a pretty good one and makes even more sense when you watch the film a second time.

The Book of Eli features Denzel Washington as Eli, roaming a dog-eat-dog future-got-f*cked-world carrying a book which he doesn’t let anyone else see or touch if he can help it. He is on a quest to head West, where he is seeking “a safe place” for the book. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman as Carnegie, the villain of this particular piece, is constantly sending his rapacious thugs, who work for him enforcing his laws in the one-horse town he has in his grip, to look for a specific book which is the ultimate weapon for reuniting humanity. And for reuniting... what we’re really talking about is controlling. The book in question has a cross on the cover and Oldman is very much aware of its power... and so desperately needs the book that it turns out Eli has in his possession... tension rises and the situation is exacerbated until Eli, and Mila Kunis, are forced to make a run for it to retain possession of the all important book.

The film is pitch perfect and never really puts a step wrong all the way through... even down to the casting of Flashdancer Jennifer Beals as Mila Kunis’ blind mother. And she’s in some really good company on this one... there are some great little actors in here... like musician extraordinaire Tom Waits as a shotgun-cautious shop owner. And Malcolm McDowell as... oh no, don’t want to spoil that crucial appearance for anyone. And a small turn by Michael Gambon and Frances De LaTour who turn out to be a little more than what they first present themselves as to “our heroes”. Yes... you read that right... Francis De LaTour. If you want to see Leonard Rossiter’s landlord Miss Jones from Rising Damp frenziedly wielding automatic weaponry then this movie is for you.

There’s really just good stuff to say about this movie. Like highlighting just how interesting the cinematography is, which ranges from orange and blue palettes (ok, maybe that colour scheme is getting a bit... um... popular these days but it works for me) dominating certain scenes to a very drained or desaturated look to some of the exteriors... so much so that some of the stuff almost, but not quite, looks like it’s shot in monochrome. This is presumably to give some of the exteriors the feel that “something bad for the planet” has taken place in the last decade or more and it really pushes the point home on a subconscious level methinks.

The images are accompanied by a quite beautiful score by composer Atticus Ross which, while it does nothing to push the obvious spaghetti western angle of the movie (and possibly rightly so since this film has such a solid, heart of a story beating inside it) has kind of an ethereal tint to it which sounds, to these ears anyway, like a cross between a mature blend of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas and Simon Boswell’s Hardware, and which helps push the atmosphere of desolation permeating the film at all levels. This is heady stuff. However, if you do want at least a musical concession to the films of Sergio Leone (albeit not one of his westerns), which perhaps helped inspire a certain styling to the way this film is shot, then you need look no further than Carnegie’s bald-headed right-hand man, who tends to whistle snatches of Ennio Morricone’s score to Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America at certain moments during the film. A nice little touch but a jingle I would personally have taken from one of Leone’s westerns... jus to help push the point home.

I don’t think there’s really much more I can say about this movie now other than I can’t recommend this film enough... but I will make one more comment because I don’t think this film did very well and I think it deserves a lot more support from audiences than it has so far received. There’s been a lot of talk in recent times about the emergence of an “intelligent science-fiction” and films that have been stuck with this label are quite often not very inspiring or... as it turns out... I any way intelligent. The Book Of Eli is definitely, however, one of the few films that really lives up to the expectations of the new “intelligent sci-fi” syndrome and its champions. The difference being that this movie is very much a film which centres on a kind of emotional intelligence... and perhaps the emotional heart of the proceedings without really worrying if audiences are going to “get it” or not. This film is a well written, well acted and well directed piece of “science-fiction road movie” and should definitely not be missed by anyone who loves such things.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Magician

The Sydow House Rules

The Magician (aka Ansiktet) Sweden 1958
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection Region 1

I’ve had a thing for Bergman for a while now... ever since I saw some early 40s films by him on BBC2 a couple of decades ago. That being said, however, I’ve not seen that many of his movies... probably less than 20... but each time I start watching one I am quickly reminded of why I enjoy his films so much. It’s always a combination of blindingly beautiful shot compositions mixed with a quite often stark or bleak attitude emanating from the characters... even when those characters are in a good mood.

Thus, The Magician when I watched it the other day, was an instant turn on as soon as the credits had finished rolling. Picture perfect shots involving dark shapes of horse, cart, tree and lone figures draw the eye in and it’s interesting just how different and magical each subsequent closer shot of the same set up is from a different angle. It may well be a case of moving the camera around and then moving the props, sets and actors slightly to maintain a balanced composition from shot to shot and hope the audience doesn’t notice... but either way it works quite well.

The film follows a travelling magician, played as brilliantly as ever by Bergman stalwart Max Von Sydow, and his entourage who must persuade censorious local government officials that their show can do no harm to anyone... by staging a performance for a select few who are in power. Most of the movie takes place under the confines of a kind of house arrest leading up to the performance and then dealing with it’s aftermath... but it’s not all doom and gloom as there are, as often with Bergman, sharp scenes based on tart humour (some of the verbal tussles such as the shifting who’s seducing who game between the magicians coach driver and a maid in the house reach almost slapstick proportions) and the lighter, or at least lightly perceived, sides of human relationships.

That Bergman is able to take these rather wild shots of humour and pitch them, especially towards the later parts of the movie, against scenes of bleak despair and the crushing weight of humanity such as the darkened workings of the magician’s psyche and his wife (played here by another cornerstone of what was then Bergman’s regular bunch of actors, Ingrid Thulin) without making them jar or feel like the pacing is in any way off... is just another sign of the absolute craftmanship that Bergman demonstrates in his theatrical features.

The Magician is seen in almost three guises in this movie as the character is revealed to us little by little, starting off with a fake bearded cypher of a man who exudes confidence and mystery... the actor is stripped bare later on when we see him with his wife (who is made up as a man as his young ward when travelling the roads) and we see how much he loathes what has become his profession and his lot in life. This image is further confounded right near the end of the movie when, before a moment of triumph which trumps and almost throws away the value of all that leads up to it, he is seen as a pitiable performer begging for his wage so that he and his wife can eat.

The Magician and his show are both a product of illusion and trickery and yet... it also becomes clear that he is able to genuinely mesmerise people which no amount of explaining can do. Further dimension is added to the film in the presence of a genuine witch who brews the various potions which the travellers sell to people and it is clear that she is blessed with magical powers including the power of prophecy. She plays in sharp contrast to the “manager” of the company who regrets her being with them and who insists that he do all the talking on behalf of everybody.

The film is quite stark and powerful and quite even toned throughout it’s running length, in spite of said juxtapositions of light humour and dark despair, but towards the end there is a scene which takes on an almost Bunuelian atmosphere as the film switches to one of the characters having what can only be described as, and attack of surrealism... courtesy of the combination of mesmerisation and chicanery brought to the table by Max Von Sydow. And then the end sequence, just as the motivation and plight of the characters has hit rock bottom, suddenly gets... well I don’t want to spoil the punch line to this little chamber piece but let me allude by mentioning the film’s musical score. What plays throughout the film as a very spare and "even" take on understated gloom suddenly turns into a fully fledged Nina Rota-like carnival score. Seriously, I was almost expecting the ending to be a forerunner of Fellini’s Eight and A Half when it suddenly changed tone.

This film is definitely Bergman on full form with a series of crisp black and white images of simple beauty enriched with the consummate acting talents of Sydow and his contemporaries and a lightness to counter-balance (but not to its detriment) the deft exploration of the depths of the human soul... peppered by the odd surprise which will keep the first time audience on its toes.

As is to be expected, the Criterion edition boasts an excellent transfer of an excellent print and a few extras which will be of some interesting to Bergman’s followers. Another great job by Criterion of another minor masterpiece by Bergman which is well worth your time if you are a lover of film in general.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

Space 1969

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut
Airdate: April 23rd 2011. UK. BBC1

Warning: If you’ve not seen this episode yet, well... as River Song would say herself... “Spoilers!”

Okay then people... here we are again. The first episode of a new series of Doctor Who is always a good feeling. You may remember that, after the blistering whirlwind of Christopher Ecclestons and David Tennant’s various series... I was kinda disappointed with the first season of Matt Smith’s tenure in the show.

I went on about the fact that all the actors were perfect in their roles and, although I love Karen Gillian’s Amy Pond with a passion, I still think she overshadows The Doctor somewhat... and that’s pretty hard to do because Matt Smith is no slouch in the “energised personality” stakes himself but that was one of my main grouches of “Series Five”... that and the fact that it wasn’t half as clever as it wanted to be.

Now then... I’ve heard some pretty good and completely unspoiler related feedback to the first two episodes of the current series which started today from the preview audiences... so I guess my excitement levels were well up when the episode actually started. How could it possibly live up to my impossible expectations though...

Well it did a pretty good job actually. It wasn’t the scary story that everyone said it was... at least not yet (it’s a two parter so maybe all the scariness comes in part two) but it did have a lot of the elements that I wanted to see plus a spooky, and frankly pretty much expected, reference back to the The Lodger episode in the last series. I wasn’t sure of that at first but I just went back to The Lodger and had a quick peek at the “ship” which was disguised as the second floor in that episode and it was the same ship and control panels which was using spooky electricity to power it that Rory and River discovered in tonight's episode... so it looks like we’re not quite done with last years storylines yet. Guess that’s why James Cordon’s coming back then?

But where was I? Oh, yes... elements in place. We have a post wedding Amy and Rory and Amy reveals near the end that she’s pregnant. That may or may not have some importance in the oncoming events is my guess... maybe she’ll name her daughter River, perhaps?

And speaking of River... Yep! Alex Kingston is back as one of the more intriguing and possibly controversial semi-regular companions of recent years and she’s as amazing as ever. There’s a wonderful bonding moment between her and Rory where she’s explaining her convoluted timey-wimey relationship with The Doctor and she tells him of her fear of meeting The Doctor when he’s never met her before and expecting that when she does she’ll die. And, of course, the audience watching have already seen that story a few years back... and she did indeed die when he first met her. Very touching and a nice reminder to get everyone back up to speed.

Other elements? Well you have time travelling anomalies all round... including a trip back to 1969 which is all related to the moon landings (or seems to be) and some very nice TARDIS-blue envelopes containing invitations from (presumably) The Doctor and sent to River, Amy and Rory, a new character who we meet both for the last time and then for the first time...

And one to The Doctor.

From himself.

From the future.

Which explains the big... not so much "shock" element but certainly the introduction of a big problem for our favourite time travellers companions. The problem is, you see, that not long after re-teaming with his trusty companions... the Doctor is killed by an astronaut rising from a lake. Killed and then properly killed again while he’s trying to regenerate and then cremated by his faithful travelling buddies.

Now of course this wasn’t exactly a surprise (did anyone really not think that was going to happen when he started talking to the astronaut... he knew what the outcome of that little meeting was going to be)... but surprise or not, it was a good move by writer Steven Moffat to use this as a punchy start off point for the series. Just keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t deteriorate as last year’s episodes did.

And of course, The Doctor then turns up alive and well, as you knew he would, in a younger incarnation of himself and the others are all supposed to act like they’ve not seen him killed a short while ago and yet still convince him to go to 1969 where his older self was positive they should go.

Nice little conundrum to start the series off in style... and then you had the monsters, known as The Silence I believe, although they’ve not actually been named in the series itself as yet... I’m pretty sure, as I said above, that we’ve seen them before in The Lodger. The Silence, as I will now continue to refer to them until I stand corrected by any unexpected surprises the rest of this series may throw up, are typical Steven Moffat creations. He likes the things which creep around where you can’t see them and they’re already there. Vashta Narada, Weeping Angels... he’s very good at it and has given a very memorable and lasting set of creations to add and enrich the fascinating tapestry of this show. The Silence have a brilliant defence mechanism... when you see these alien beings you can react and fear them and engage with them (whether that’s a good idea or not) and as soon as you turn your head and look away (much like our friends the Weeping Angels in a kind of inverted, filtered way) you’ve clean forgotten about them. You don’t remember them and you have no idea what you were just going on about in all probability... until you see them again. Or maybe some gut instinct in your tummy (possibly growing there) senses them perhaps... oh, bugger. I’m reaching there, arent I?

So yeah... not exactly scary monsters this time around (not like his past creations) but certainly an interesting foe and with some unique traits which make them hard to attack but also, I’m guessing, leaves them more open to being defended against... I just can’t be bothered to work out how you do that yet. I’ll wait until it comes up I guess! I'm a bit worried they've already played the "Oh my gosh they're on us"... looks around... "It's okay, the coast is clear" card one too many times than I care for myself but, hey, I can live with that as a plot device.

We also have everybody’s least favourite president, Mr. Nixon himself and a brilliant new character played by Mark Sheppard who I loved when he played the lawyer in the last few seasons of Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago.

Al the pieces of the puzzle are in play and I don’t know what happens next. We’ve been seeing an unshaven and presumably third version of Matt Smith’s incarnation of The Doctor for quite some time now on the trailers and it looks like next episode is where he comes in to play. And it seems like River Song is going to become very important to everybody at some point soon in the series... and hopefully that’s not just the usual Songian tease we keep on getting since the character first started appearing.

This was, I have to say, a pretty good episode and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that as the second part plays out it doesn’t let down the set up promise of the first... as these things are liable to do sometimes. I don’t know where they are going with this...

One thing I do know though and that is this. People would be mad to think that the set up from this episode, which in itself seems to be a continuation of events started in The Lodger episode from last season, are going to be neatly tied up in the next episode... I think the events that have taken place in this story are going to linger around for at least the rest of this series... or possibly for a few more years if Moffett and co aren’t feeling that kind.

Looking forward to the next one!

This episode started with a little dedication to the recently deceased but very much loved Elizabeth Sladen who sadly passed away a few days ago. This was very welcome and, perhaps the BBC might put a dedication to the, also fairly recently deceased, Nicholas Courtney up in a future episode? U.N.I.T members are dropping like flies these days and they’re all very much missed by fans and friends everywhere.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Eagle

Roman Road Movie

The Eagle US/UK 2011
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Playing at cinemas now.

The Ninth Legion was a highly commended Roman Legion who fought on many campaigns emerging from the majority of them triumphant and victorious, sometimes with special commendations, but who suddenly dropped off the map of history somewhere in the North of Britain sometime after the Briton’s were invaded. Speculation has been rife as to what actually happened to this “missing” legion and some have guessed that they were “wiped out” during the occupation of Britain by a group of wronged Brits. They have been used as a source for artistic inspiration for a while now and this, obviously, includes literature where in one case the legion were abducted by aliens and taken to another world... which is absolutely not what this movie speculates what happened to them.

The most recent movie to use them as a literary source was last year’s Neil Marshall film Centurion, where the legion were decimated by tribal Brits and the narrative was based on a handful of men trying to return home behind enemy lines, so to speak. It was a pretty good movie which is what I would expect from the director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent and you can find my review of Centurion here.

The Eagle, however, is based on a fifties children’s book, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and concerns itself with picking up the remnants of this story some twenty years after the speculated fate of the ninth. The main lead played by Channing Tatum is Marcus Aquila, the son of the commander of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared behind enemy lines (past Hadrian’s Wall) and hasn’t been heard of since the legion mysteriously vanished out there... missing, presumed dead. Much is made of the fact that Rome now assumes that one of their precious Eagle standards is now in the hands of the savage barbarians but the reliable British have a reputation for being a Roman Legionnaires worst nightmare so no attempts have been made to find out what actually happened to the Ninth or to try to find the missing standard and return it to Rome. However, when our main protagonist is invalided out of the army after a skirmish in the first 20 minutes of the film, he is sent to live with his uncle, played enthusiastically by Donald Sutherland in a role which could, sadly, best be described as “supporting”. After saving the life of a British barbarian, Esca, and taking him as his slave, and once his wounds are sufficiently healed up so he can do more than just hobble around a bit, Marcus takes Esca on a quest behind enemy lines to find the lost Eagle of the Ninth.

All in all this film has a nice set up and takes an unexpected turn after bedding you down in one scenario for twenty minutes before “refreshing” the pacing a bit and then going off in the direction you were expecting it to go off in earlier. The story is well written and it contains the expected little moments when characters who you assumed weren’t just what they appeared to be.. turned out not to be and so there’s nothing really unexpected in this one, it has to be said. But it is pretty solid and an actual story... like what so much on the silver screen isn’t these days.

Jamie Bell is brilliant as Esca... well that’s pretty true to form for Jamie Bell actually. Haven’t seen him in much but have noted him down as “one to watch” in the movies I have seen of his. Chaning Tatum is not completely acted off the screen by Bell so, in fact, he holds up quite well. Sutherland is great, as always, but as I intimated before... he’s hardly in it.

The direction is competently handled and comes into it’s own perhaps a little more exuberantly in some of the montage travel shots in what soon becomes a Roman Road movie... although the introduction of singing on the score on one of these sequences kinda destroys the atmosphere a bit. Some of the action sequences are a little hard to follow and aggressively edited and, though this is surely the style these days where enthusiastic action editing seems to have replaced understandable action editing, I was left wondering in most of the fight sequences whether the rapid editing style was actually intended to distract from a possible lack of coverage in the shots? I guess I’ll never know but it doesn’t quite hit the mark, for me, in these areas. There seems to be a general attitude that aggressive action editing gives a movie a certain sense of rawness... but I’d have to say that for all its bluster, Centurion’s sequences were handled a fair bit better than The Eagle and had a much rawer feel to them. If people in movies really want to go down this line then I suggest everyone look at Peter Hunt’s editing work on the Bond films prior to his debut as a director on the series and then looking at that directorial debut On Her Majesty’s Secret Service very closely if you want to see how to present fast-cut, fast-paced action sequences which still maintain a basic level of easily understandable action-narrative.

The Eagle is a solid film and certainly good enough for an intriguing and fairly enjoyable night at the cinema (although it’s not the Roman detective story I was hoping it would be). I don’t think it’s necessarily worthy of repeat viewings but as a one off hit at the cinema then it’s probably not going to offend anyone’s confidence in it... of course, it’s not the most enlightening viewing experience in the world either. If you have time then go and see it but don’t put off the other ones in your “to see” list unless you know they’re going to be around for a bit longer.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Source Code

Par for the Source

Source Code US/France 2011
Directed by Duncan Jones
Playing at cinemas now.

Aaaaw! I really didn’t want to write this review... but it’s holding me up so I guess I’d better get on with it.

I really liked Duncan Jones’ first movie Moon which, although it had what I saw as weak points on my first viewing, was interesting enough for me to repeat-view (and I’ll watch it again at some point too)... the stark and lonely setting of the piece really got to me I think. So I was kinda expecting a lot more quirky and possibly a touch of bleak thrown in for Jones’ follow up movie Source Code... but I have to say I was left a lot less impressed with this one than a lot of other people I know... Oh, and for the record... before I carry on writing this thing... Can people please stop telling me I watch too many movies? What kind of qualification do you want me to have here people? If a move is obvious and telegraphs itself then don’t blame me for being as familiar with the language of cinema as the next person. It’s not my fault I can sometimes see the endings coming a mile off... it’s the weakness of the films themselves!

Okay... having got that out of my system... lets move swiftly on. First of all let me tell you what Source Code, to my mind, is and isn’t based on some things I’ve heard said about the movie by various film critics...

What Source Code is, is a more than competently directed, nice to look at, turn your brain off movie which, unfortunately doesn’t really throw up any challenges plot wise. I’ve heard negatives that it’s very weak in the “science” area of this particular science-fiction and, yeah, the premise is, in a way I guess... well... “out there”! But, that being said, it’s not the job of science-fiction to be totally within the realms of science... unless you want to argue that this movie is a fantasy movie... in which case I’d be willing to listen. What it is the job of most science fiction to do is to sell the silliness of the concept in a way that will allow the audience to suspend its disbelief and escape into the picture as an immersive experience... and I have to say that Source Code definitely lives up to that one. It’s main problem though... is that it’s such an old plot device they’re using here that it’s certainly not hard to suspend your disbelief and, frankly, in the way it telegraphs its basic premise/twist in an early scene, the audience is way ahead of the main protagonist as to what’s really going on here... well ahead of him. Probably by about a quarter of an hour into the movie you’ll have figured everything out and the only thing left to do is watch it... but this is where the writer and the director win through a little on this one in terms of owning up and, in this way it’s similar to Moon in that... no wait. I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Let me tell you what Source Code isn’t. It isn’t intelligent science-fiction which is one of the main comments I’ve heard in its support. Maybe in terms of the main palette of movies on offer in today's increasingly dumbed down movie market it may seem that way to some people... and hopefully the people who are bandying about this kind of statement are all bright young things who haven’t become aware of the lack of originality in most modern movies yet. Certainly, though, I reckon if you were to have released this movie 50 years earlier it may well have been a big hit (undoubtedly it would have received outright critical claim and would probably have found an audience) but I don’t think it would have been much perceived as being particularly intelligent in any way. I’m not complaining, by the way. I just saw Battle: Los Angeles the other day and absolutely loved that... anyone claiming that particular noise-fest is in any way intelligent would get run out of town on a rail, wouldn’t they?

Now then... back to the twist, which I will try very hard not to spoil for you here if you haven’t already seen this film. About halfway through Moon, the director’s first movie, the twist was revealed so the rest of the story could play out from a different viewpoint. Which is fine and, on reflection, is probably the best option for that movie. Problem is, the audience are such that they are conditioned to expect the big twist revelation about a quarter of an hour before the end of the movie these days... so revealing that twist that early only puts the audience in a frame of mind where they’re still trying to figure out what the real twist is... and when something even more revelatory with bells on isn’t forthcoming, the audience is probably going to feel deflated and disappointed.

And what we have with Source Code is pretty much the same thing. Duncan Jones and the writer Ben Ripley obviously feel that their little twist in the basic set up is pretty much really obvious, which it is, and so they come clean with what’s really going on about half way through the movie so they can carry on exploring the emotional fallout and resolution of that story without being accused of overplaying their hand so much... which is absolutely a good call and probably the best thing they could have done with a storyline which, frankly, feels like it’s almost certainly been an old The Twilight Zone episode (and for the record, I love the old The Twilight Zone TV show) but, of course, the audience is still left wondering what the real twist is gonna be. Because that’s too obvious a plot set-up isn’t it?

Well yeah, it is and I’m surprised that movie producers are still greenlighting these old fifties sci-fi short story plots... but there’s been a lot of that kind of source material being used in US mainstream cinema in the last few years so this is just another example of that kind of movie. The good news is, though, that the direction is pretty cool, the performances are all pitch perfect and the music is great. I was expecting/hoping for another Clint Mansell score, especially since his work with Jones on his previous movie was so good, but this time the composing duties went to a guy called Chris Bacon, who I’d not heard of... but I have to say that it’s a really great score. Perhaps a little reminiscent of John Powell’s score for Paycheck at times but that’s certainly no bad thing. Will be interesting to see what this composer turns his hand to in the future. Good job.

That the movie is just a little more unchallenging than I’d been led to believe, is my only real gripe... and consequently I’d probably not bother watching this one again. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go and see it. It’s definitely worth a watch and certainly, this director needs your financial support so he can go on to greater and greater things. This guy is clearly an interesting creative figure and I suspect we’re going to get a few interesting masterpieces from him as his career progresses. Let’s see what happens.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Marine Haste, Repent At Leisure

Battle: Los Angeles US 2011
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Playing at cinemas now.

Given the fact that Battle: Los Angeles is fairly long, light on plot and character development, full of macho posturing, jam-packed with humongous explosions and possibly has more bullets flying around on-screen during the course of its running time than you could possibly attempt to keep track of or shake a stick at in a real life skirmish... I am very surprised to say that I really loved Battle: Los Angeles.

Shot with a 100% hand-held shaky cam sensibility, the feel of this movie is almost verity without going to the extreme first-person shenanigans of recent movie like Cloverfield and the REC series (all of which I liked, for the record). This film is in no way trying to claim that it’s found footage or archival footage and it uses multiple viewpoints where, frankly, no cameraman would risk his or her life if the events occurring on screen were to actually be taking place. Similarly, the director is not beyond using a pretty good, thundering soundtrack (courtesy of Brian Tyler) to help push home the emotional context of scenes and comment on the action as it would be used in most any other movie.

In short then, the language of the hand-held verity type shot has been brought back into the context of the semiotics of film in general (well yeah, it never actually left) on this movie and therefore it doesn’t get overburdened with the need to justify each and every change of pace or location with an eye to the source camera. Instead, this movie never loses sight of it’s intention to bring a rollicking boy’s own war story into the laps of the audience and most of the time it never really fails to live up to that promise with it’s Saving Private Ryan VS Aliens take on the subject material.

There’s not much in the way of character development other than a very clichéd script which sets everybody up at the start and then brings in some very trite bonding moments later on in the film. What both amazes and amuses me is that, considering the lack of well written dialogue in the picture, the director managed to assemble a cast that are all very good at their craft and even found room for a couple of very well know and superb performers to deliver some rather cringe worthy dialogue in some places. Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez and Bridget Moynahan are all excellent and surprisingly efficient in this movie... and seriously, hats off to Eckhart for genuinely getting me to believe in him as a marine... even if he’s a marine on “his last training detail before he retires”. Yeah, you heard that last bit right. See, I told you the film had terrible clichés in it. I know it wasn’t just me because some guy in the row behind started laughing in the middle of what was mostly trying to be a very “male-bonding” and touching moment. Great stuff.

But none of that really matters because the majority of the film is like all those battle scenes that you see in Saving Private Ryan. Not as fast film stock as it could have been but very choppy and chaotic in some places which makes you feel much more like you are actually there experiencing these things with the characters than you might if you were watching something else that claims to put you right in the picture but really, unless you’ve got your head tilted at the right angle, just gives you eye ache more often than not. Hmm... wonder what phenomenon I could be thinking of there then?

And the starling thing was, even though the characters are hollow and one dimensional and have, in some places, some quite laughable dialogue, the film is shot so intensely that I really cared about the fate of a lot of these characters. And it’s a very bleak film for the most part with ultra-tension creating sequences of suspense and high-octane nerve shredding as you wait for the enemy forces to slowly pick off “our team” one by one. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I had such a high investment in the characters as I was watching it... this film has a high mortality rate in terms of the poor human marines and civilians who are flung together in the face of adversity.

Battle: Los Angeles is about a tiny group of Marines sent to get a few suspected survivors out of an evacuated area of Los Angeles within the first hours of our planet being invaded by nasty aliens. The goals and mission objectives are set and we are told right from the start that we are losing on the ground but that the aliens have no proper air fleet and so the US rule the air... and once they’ve given you that little crutch, after a little while they take it away again and we are left feeling even more hopeless in the face of alien death and destruction. And then the guns really come out to play... this really is an intense little movie and about the only thing that spoils it... apart from the unbelievable dialogue in some of the calmer scenes, is the fact that after it’s been getting bleaker and bleaker for most of the film and you are expecting the credits to roll on a downer... after the mission is completed, a second mission is quickly taken on which has the potential to turn the tide of battle. I think the last 20 minutes or so of the movie where Eckhart, Rodriguez and a few of the others sort out a plan to kick some serious alien butt was probably tacked on to the end of the script to leave audiences with a sense of hope after the end credits roll... but it’s not really something that strengthens the film any.

Ultimately though, Battle: Los Angeles is a competent, if cliché ridden aliens VS marines movie and I liked it so much it’s definitely going to be a DVD purchase for me when the time comes. And besides... Eckhart’s always good to watch. Give it a go... you might surprise yourself.