Saturday, 31 March 2012

Chanbara Striptease

The Art Of Jiggling

Chanbara Striptease
aka Oppai Chanbara Japan 2008
Directed by Akira Hirose
Manga Entertainment Region 2

Warning: This is a truly dumb film and this review is going to
be choc full o’ spoilers, jiggling and bouncing before your very eyes.

I’m not really sure I can adequately sum up in words how disappointing the movie Chanbara Striptease was to me... but let me give you the basic flavour of the film and then I’ll try. Here’s the initial proposition...

A teenage girl, on her birthday, undergoes the family ritual to hand down the “power” of the special martial arts style she is studying. The ritualistic power is passed down from mother to mother when they come of age but, unfortunately, her own mother died during her ritual so the girls grandmother is handing down to her. When our heroine drinks the special green tea to finish the ritual, she opens her eyes and realises she’s been transported back in time (naked, obviously... tsk) to ancient Japan where she must single-handedly help save a village from a dilemma not unlike that of the village featured in Seven Samurai... but it pains me to mention one of Kurosawa’s obviously superior movies in the context of a review of Chanbara Striptease.

So anyway, it soon becomes apparent that she draws her newly gained samurai and martial arts powers from her well shaped bosom and, to this end, every time she has to fight a villain she has to, in the parlance of our time... get her baps out! This means a movie full of topless fighting and glowing, magical nipple jiggling for “our heroine” and, I have to say, that although this basic premise sounds pretty good to probably all good red blooded males (and a fair few females I personally know too, I suspect), this film manages to turn this highly specialised prospect into a quite terrible and mostly boring movie.

The movie runs for just over an hour and the video stock, or whatever it’s been shot on, looks cheap and nasty... in fact the whole thing looks like a very low budget affair, it has to be said. The level of the acting seems to me to be quite competent but there’s nothing truly outstanding to really sell the premise from the actors and overall I felt the movie was just being put together by the numbers. There’s a few fights and some bonding between our heroine and the people of the village, including a pregnant woman whose baby is obviously going to turn out to be one of our main lady’s ancestors... but it’s really grating a lot of the time when it should be more heartwarming I think.

Things do try to get a bit more heartwarming when one of the main villagers starts playing “There’s no place like home” on his harmonica but... IT”S 18th CENTURY BLOODY JAPAN YOU NUTTERS! I’ll rephrase and repeat that last bit right there to let the full gravitas of the stupidity of the filmmakers sink in on this one... in 18TH CENTURY JAPAN, one of the villagers is playing THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME on his HARMONICA. That’s just so wrong in all kinds of ways. Both the song and the instrument are less than 200 years old! What’s going on?

And then comes... the “tender” sex scene between our heroine and her new lover... and I have to say it’s got to be one of the longest and least erotic or moving sex scenes I’ve ever seen put on film. It goes on forever and it’s presumably supposed to be romantic... let me tell you Mr. Director... after 5 or 6 minutes of these two banging away in fake ecstacy, I take exception to then have to see the gentleman in question next taking our main protagonist “doggy-style” against a tree! Seriously... it may be fun (for the participants) but it does nothing to help create the bond of loving that you are so obviously wanting to go for in this scene.

After this weighty and fleshy declaration of romance, our heroine goes off to single handedly take down the group of samurai who are threatening the village, headed up by the boss lady who is the originator of the “naked magic breast” style of fighting that has been handed down from generation to generation to our time travelling heroine. Much fighting ensures... but it’s not particularly entertaining, I’d have to say. The only really amusing part of the final battle is when our heroine is unarmed and her enemy is delivering a final, killer downward cut with her samurai sword. I absolutely promise that our main protagonist survives this by stopping and catching the sword in her naked cleavage and then, uses said bosom to wrestle the sword from her opponents grip. It may not be necessary for me to add that there is a certain lack of credibility and a definitive lack of respect on the film-makers part to the laws of physics inherent in the action content of this scene.

At the end of the film, the main heroine is transported back to her own time zone but ends up wondering if she’s pregnant from the villager who turned out to be the refiner and main impetus of the martial arts style and its handing down through the ages. Personally, by this point, I was just glad the movie (no matter how short) was over.

I don’t think there’s much more I can say about this one, to be honest. Other than it sounds a lot better in writing than it actually is. There are some movies that are so bad that they kind of hold that awfulness up and wear it like a badge and the movie becomes “so bad it’s good.” Chanbara Striptease doesn’t do that, in my humble opinion. It’s just bad and it stays quite bad throughout its scant running time. Only watch this one if you have nothing better to do with your time.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword Of Satan

Devilled Edge

Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword Of Satan
aka Nemuri Kyôshirô 6: Masho-ken Japan 1965
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Anime Eigo Region 1

Warning: Spoilers slicing satanically into your brain!

Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda follows on from directing the ninth of the Zatoichi movies, Adventures Of Zatoichi, with this quite strong entry in the Nemuri Kyôshirô cycle and, I have to admit I was surprised I enjoyed this one so much because I thought the same director’s work on the third movie in the series was less than stellar (reviewed here...).

Visually, this one seems to be a lot more engaging than his previous Nemuri Kyôshirô movie, Full Circle Killing but it also retains the strong story element which many of the earlier movies were a little lacking in. This one starts off very well in the pouring rain and for quite a while there, it does maintain its own unique and sinister little atmosphere when compared to previous installments.

In this story, a mysterious masked lady begs Nemuri to sleep with her for money but all he does is listen to her story (after paying her) and casts scorn on her misfortune. The next day she has killed herself, leaving behind a young son who a clan have been trying to kill as an heir to the shogunate but who now want the boy to stay with their clan and be th next shogun in line... or their clan is doomed. This is the first film in the series where Nemuri Kyôshirô actually develops a real conscience and is actually regretful of his earlier words which were, ultimately, the words which convinced the boys mother to end her own life.

As the clan comes to take the boy, he leaves him in hiding while he pursues a few other things, including a black mass to which the boys appointed guardian is kidnapped to for ritualistic, naked slaughter. This movie is “all about the boy” as they say, and with Nemuri as his protector, you can be sure various factions in this movie want Nemuri dead and the boy for themselves.

And if that wasn’t enough, Nemuri is also being pursued by a vengeful lady assassin who was related to somebody he killed in an earlier picture. She is easily stoppable but relentless and tries varying methods to bring down our hero, such as having a bald headed nun seducing him and trying to sleep with him, which really doesn’t work out that well for all parties concerned, as you can imagine.

There’s also the old “small deadly creature let loose in the room” ploy (a snake in this case) which, to be fair, has always been a requisite ingredient in pulp fiction (I personally tend to associate Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes with being experts in this field). Given the timing of the movie in close proximity to the first cinema-released James Bond film, I suspect this element owes more to the box office success in Japan of Dr. No and its tarantula scene than it does to anything else. It’s not a very good snake scene, I should probably add, and it’s over very quickly and without any real menace or worry on the part of both our main protagonist or the audience, is my guess.

The assassin is quite fixated on her revenge against our angst-ridden hero, even trying to kill him after saving her life from a bunch of samurai who want her dead. And she’s not the only one to hate Nemuri. The little boy who he has sworn to protect hates samurai and would much rather grow up to be a carpenter. What’s more, and this is quite understandable since Nemuri is kinda responsible for his mother’s death, the kid does not want Nemuri’s protection and shuns and rejects our main protagonists noble intentions towards him as much as he possibly can.

This is a Sleepy Eyes of Death movie like no others before it in that the hero is not just on a journey as typified by the traditional “road chanbara” of the time, but also a journey within himself as he realises the way his actions have affected others and is given, in some cases, physical manifestations of these consequences... such as the orphaned boy and the vengeance filled assassin. And the most haunting and taunting of these manifestations is the mask of the boys mother who killed herself after her scornful rejection by Nemuri, which he carries around with him on his belt as a reminder of the harm he has caused due to just a few unkind words.

This is a film which is as much about a small journey of redemption for our lead character as it is about the numerous action sequences which pepper the movie. One of the more satisfying entries in the Sleepy Eyes Of Death movie series and one which has left me looking forward to the next one. Only two more left to watch out of what’s been released so far, though. I hope Anime Eigo get around to bringing out a third box soon.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Devil Inside

In The Details

The Devil Inside US 2012
Directed by William Brent Bell
Playing at UK cinemas now

See? I told you they were popular now.

Found footage, first person shooters are getting released all the time, as of late.

I’ve been doing this blog for just a week over two years and I’ve already had to watch and review eight of these before this one. That’s an average of four of these kinds of movies a year and so you maybe think the directors of these things ought to take a break for a while but, occasionally, you get something really special from a creative director who is willing to push the boundaries and bring you a movie which is quite fresh and phenomenal within this relatively new genre (like Chronicle).

Unfortunately, this movie isn’t it.

It’s kinda interesting because the film is far from terrible, though, and I’ve seen some outrageously bad word of mouth on it which kinda surprised me a little. I’m thinking the ending of the movie may have been a major effect on audience reaction, in this case, but while obvious in some places, the film did deliver the “jump scares” when it needed to.

So... right from the start and the caption that the edited together filmed footage is not being shown with the blessings of the Church, the audience will realise that this isn’t a found footage film which is meant to “exactly” represent that footage as being a complete window into “reality”. Not that it’s an option anyway, of course. Pseudo-reality is always artifice and so nothing is really lost.

I guess what I’m driving at is that I was noticing jump cuts right from the start of this movie, while the dialogue of a woman narrating was kept running smoothly over the top. So the audio and visual elements have obviously been edited together by an unseen hand (definitely not edited by a character in the film) at some point in the future... and not just allowed to play out as found footage. This is further compounded by having a subtle but oft present musical score behind some of the scenes... which is where the credibility really goes out the window and down the long Friedkin flight of steps for me. If you’re trying to enhance the mood of sinister and scary then you’re not really doing your job at presenting “facts” without any bias are you... even when they’re “make believe” facts.

Okay... now asides from this little bugbear, I’d have to say that this is a fairly scary film... and we’re mainly talking about jump-scares here but that’s not a problem, there’s still a certain amount of skill involved in getting the timing of those things right and when you’re shooting long takes of rehearsed “found footage”... well if you can get these things right then you’re halfway there.

Something’s a little flat here though, to be sure. And it’s a shame because the premise is fantastic. A young woman goes to Rome to visit her incarcerated mother who, twenty years before, killed three people who were trying to exorcise a demon (or series of demons as it transpires) from inside her. The church no longer really permits exorcism but, in a lucky twist of fate, two of the students she meets in Rome taking classes in “exorcism theory” are actually a maverick duo of covert exorcists... they basically roam around Rome having a go at all the cases the church rejects from their secret "exorcism base." Great idea for a set of characters but... dunno, somehow I felt a little underwhelmed about it all... but that’s certainly not down to the acting.

The acting and (shaky) camerawork are all impeccable on this production, as you’d expect when you try to make a movie where you have to trust your actors with such large chunks of time. With films like this and, for example, the Paranormal Activity films, you need to get yourself some decent actors who are willing to explore that kind of territory and let the characters embed themselves for the long haul, is my guess. However the script does tend to overplay it’s hand a little too much and it’s pretty obvious for most of the film, what exactly is going to transpire from scene to scene. The script just seems a little too heavy handed in that regard... or should I just say ham-fisted?

Like near the start of the movie where the girl is confessing her innermost fears to the cameraman (yeah, we all know what happens to cameramen in these kinds of films, right?) and she worries that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and inherit her mental condition. I felt like saying “Stop right there dearie. You just told us exactly what’s going to happen to your character by the end of the movie.” Or another sequence where one of the priests in the “maverick exorcists splinter group” seems to be acting a little troubled and you think... okay they’ve been talking about both demonic transference and multiple possession a little earlier in the film... so we know what that’s all about then, don’t we? Sure enough, when the priest in question goes to perform a baptism, you just know something bad is going to happen... and happen it does.

Now this is not too bad because at least those sequences, indeed the whole movie, play out quite credibly and do make you jump and feel anxious at just the right moments... but I felt like I was watching a perfectly executed exercise in overstating the obvious a lot of the time. This film has some superb characters and personalities, and some scary stuff happens, but it’s also got to be one of the dumbest “found footage” movies I’ve seen in some time.

The ending, again, is fairly obvious. You know the characters are rushing in a car to get the aid of some kind of extra-special super exorcist but you also know that any such showdown will cost even more money to produce on film. And it would have to be some kind major showdown after witnessing the intense power of... um... The Devil Inside one of the characters at this point. So then you realise, well actually the movie is going to end in a couple of minutes probably, and here’s how. And again, yes it’s pretty obvious how this film is going to finish. And, since the characters are going somewhere specific that the audience wants to see before that happens... well, I think that’s where a lot of the negative word-of-mouth on this one is coming from. The ending is sudden but predictable and, though it’s a perfectly valid way of ending the film, I think a fair few people are going to be left really unsatisfied by the finish of this one. If it’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that people do tend to judge a film, nine times out of ten, by the strength of the ending.

So that’s about it for me but I should take one little sideswipe before I go, this time at the marketing of the movie. The main image I’ve seen used on the posters for this one is a head and shoulders shot of a sinister and demonic looking, blind nun. I’ll tell you now that this shot has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie (maybe a slight subtext if you’re talking in-movie logic for some of the demonic possession effects) and is in a two or three second shot at most. This image in no way represents the movie in anything other than tone... and frankly I’d argue that it doesn’t match the tone of the film either, in my opinion. Not a good image, I’d say, to market this movie with.

All in all, though, it’s a nicely executed, low budget horror which will skillfully cause more than its fair share of scares and anxiety to the audiences who crave such cheap, sensational thrills (happy to count myself in that audience thank you very much). If you’re a fan of the found-footage, first person shooter genre or are a big fan of low budget horror, then you could do a lot worse than to check this one out. Certainly not the most intelligent movie on the block but it tries hard (sometimes a little too hard for its own good) and if you can get past the obvious ending then you might find yourself having a good time. I’ll certainly get this one on DVD to look at again, just because I liked the idea of some of the characters.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Perfume of the Lady In Black

From Giallo To Noir

The Perfume Of The Lady In Black
aka Il Profumo Della Signora In Nero
Italy 1974
Directed by Francesco Barilli
Raro Video Region 0 or 1 (?)

Barilli’s The Perfume Of The Lady In Black is not, as it’s often touted, an Italian horror film. Nor is it, I’m afraid, a giallo either... no matter how much the DVD companies want you to believe it is, now that this particular film genre has become so popular again... in fact I’m not really sure what it is in terms of a single movie genre, although there are other movies which follow a similar template to this one.

What it is, though, is definitely a movie which is completely shot through with a certain giallo sensibility: the lightning, writing and direction are all assuredly within the realm of the Italian giallo of this period. Although much of this stylistic leaning probably owes no small amount to the film crews which were used to churning out a lot of movies in that particular genre, and I say churning out without any derogatory intent or slight to the fine works of art which were often committed to celluloid in the giallo’s name, it’s also perhaps a style of shooting which was the best to highlight Barilli’s script. Barilli himself, after all, had contributed to the scripting of Aldo Lado’s great contribution to the genre, Who Saw Her Die? only two years earlier.

To further enhance the giallo connections, it stars Mimsy Farmer as the main protagonist, a lady who had already famously worked with giallo master Dario Argento for his film Four Flies On Grey Velvet and who would star, just a year after this film, in another giallo called Autopsy (aka Sun Spots). I’ve gathered from various DVD extras over the years that she could sometimes be a bit of a pain to work with but she is great in classic “woman in peril” kind of roles and she is also always able to imbue her performances in these kinds of films with a certain inner strength which eventually starts informing her characters by the final reel of the movie, perhaps the most extreme example of this would be her character in the aforementioned Dario Argento movie, but I don’t want to spoil the ending of that one for anybody who’s not yet seen it.

The Perfume Of The Lady In Black is a beautiful little movie which involves a heroine who comes into contact with a group of people who are into voodoo... although the incidents in this film are carefully depicted so that there is a scientific possibility for all the hallucinogenic manifestations which appear to our main protagonist in the film... such as being cut with a nail sticking through a tennis racket, for example, which could have easily been laced with something potent. When her boyfriend’s mate tries to suck the blood from the wound on her hand there is an implicit indication of where this movie is really going right at the end... but I don’t want to give too much away if you’ve never seen this one.

The film is deliberately ambiguous in setting up certain scenes and it became clear to me after a while that, while some scenes seemed to be flashbacks of Mimsy Farmer’s character Silvia which she watches past events... other interactions from her “past” are actually “really” happening in her present and are quite possibly taking place in her head. She spends a lot of time interacting with herself as a child (in a nod to the look of Lewis Carroll’s Alice character) for instance, but these scenes are happening in the “now” and in Silvia’s apartment block... not in her past. Again, the end of the film leaves you in no doubt as to what is really happening... but only in the last couple of minutes. You have to stay right until the end to get a handle on what is really going on.

There are some fairly violent deaths towards the end of this movie... some of which may or may not be taking place. I’ll leave you to discover which but I would point out that the very final sequence includes some gore which really wouldn’t look out of place in a George A. Romero zombie movie.

Regardless of all this, however, the film is so vibrant, like a typical giallo, that it’s very hard not to be impressed with it. The colours and sweeping pre-emptive camera movements are what I live for when watching giallo cinema and this, coupled with the beautiful music of Nicola Piovani (buggered if I can get ahold of it though... anybody tell me where I can get a relatively inexpensive CD of this?) and the inclusion of a minor giallo icon, make this a heady and thoroughly entertaining cocktail of female paranoia and suspense which could give many of the prominent giallo directors of its day a fierce run for their money.

I was really impressed by this little movie and if you’re a giallo fan, although again I must stress that this certainly isn’t actually a giallo, then you’ll probably already be keyed in to the mindset of how this movie has been put together and I expect you’ll not want to miss this one. An absolute pleasure from start to finish.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Beauty’s Leap
Sleeping Beauty
Australia 2011
Directed by Julia Leigh
Revolver Entertainment Region 2

Julia Leigh’s debut feature Sleeping Beauty is, frankly, an absolutely delightful gem of a film and, quite possibly, a bit of a masterpiece too... though I probably misuse that word too much in the context of movies I really like and so am somewhat reticent about committing to that last conclusion.

The film tells the story of Lucy, played by the excellent Emily Browning (who was brilliant in both things I’d previously seen her in... as the little girl in Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events and as Baby Doll in Sucker Punch), who is a bit of an enigma of a character. She is both passive and assertive in equal measure... studying a course at university while struggling to pay the rent by simultaneously: waitressing at a cafe, working in an office, prostituting herself out to various men and woman, volunteering on a regular basis to have a camera shoved down her throat to take pictures from (I think that’s what was going on in those sequences) and then, as the film progresses, getting involved with an almost sinister form of organised sexual services.

As the film starts, she is seen having a tube put down her throat, which is kinda hard to watch, and all I can say is... if this is purely acting then Emily Browning is an acting genius (but I already kinda knew that) and if it’s not acting and she actually is enduring this stuff for her art... then she’s a pretty brave actress (and I already kinda knew that too... just the subject matter of this movie is enough to demonstrate her unflinching bravery to take on a certain kind of role). This, and another reminder sequence later in the picture, is intended to do two things and I have to give the writer/director absolute respect here that she managed to set up something about the character without me even realising it. One thing it does is to highlight that this girl needs money and will do absolutely anything to obtain it and the other thing, which was the covert one for me, is that she is used to holding tubing down her throat and can, therefore, hide things of a similar constituency there if the need arises.

After a while, Lucy joins an organisation, headed up by actress Rachael Blake, to take part in highly sexualised “parties” which, in the least invasive role in these beautifully decadent arrangements (which brought to my mind scenes involving Mr. Reindeer in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart), she has to very correctly serve drinks at a dinner party in her lingerie. There are some great little moments in the way she is prepared by the organisation to look exactly right for the, presumably strict, requirements of the aged male and female clientele of these sexual parties... such as having to have the shade of her lipstick exactly match the shade of her labia (which, of course, is what lipstick is all about anyway, when you go back to it’s original intention in ancient Egyptian applications and pretty much what it’s all about nowadays, in fact).

The job is extremely well payed, as is the next series of jobs she gets involved in for the organisation, where she is basically given a sleeping draft and is a sleeping, living sex doll (although the organisation allows no vaginal penetration or any marks from the clients) for pretty much the same ageing entourage from the sex parties (for want of a better description) we see earlier. The money is extremely welcome and needed (we see her celebration of the huge amount she is given for her first job when she burns a hundred dollar bill with a lighted match) but after she is marked by a cigarette burn, which I think she notices subconsciously in the back of her mind rather than by finding it implicitly, she begins to get a nagging curiosity as to what is happening to her when she... well... sleeps on company time.

I think that’s all I’m prepared to say about the story in this review because it’s the kind of film you absolutely have to discover and watch unfold for yourselves... but I will say that the direction it takes as it works its way towards the end of the film is very much set up by the lack of Lucy’s emotional reaction to the world going on around her. Not to say that she’s unemotional... her attachment to a character known only as the Birdman is established, I suspect, to show her emotional side so the audience can see her vulnerability as much as the strength of character she wears so eloquently on her sleeve. She is very much a character who suppresses these emotions, I believe, and reacts very calmly to the world around her as things which might pull the rug out from many are just seen by her as things she needs to quickly overcome.

The film is an absolute joy to behold, I have to say. Long, slow takes which are... well, they’re certainly not static, there is still a lot of camera movement in there but it’s very unassuming and all about following the characters movements or slow zooming in on them. There’s not very much in the way of projecting ahead with the camera to set up a specific establishing shot (most shots start in a cut to the main content of a scene without pre-amble) apart from in one great reveal shot (again starting off from shadowing the central character) in which there is a long slow pan to what she is witnessing, as a groggy and possibly damaged girl is helped into a car as she leaves the house where our main protagonist is about to enter... this works very effectively, I have to say, as it puts out danger signals to both Lucy and us, her audience, as it were.

The camerawork is almost, actually, voyeuristic in its window into slow digestion of the events as they happen, which of course really effectively pulls you in to an emotional investment in some of the characters and it’s coupled with a really passive lighting style, it seems to me. There’s no bright contrast in the colouration for a lot of the movie and... it’s difficult to put my finger on it here but there’s something about it which is not quite pastel tones and not quite neutral either. It would be wrong to say that it’s not in any way stylised, because it clearly is, but the whole thing is perhaps, after all, just a little more subtle than my primitive mind is able to digest in one sitting. One thing’s for sure though... if you like the visual aesthetics of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders, you’ll probably find it very easy to get into the beautifully laid back pacing of the movie and the clean compositions are just another reason to go seek out this film.

I should probably try to find some kind of fault in this film so I have something to actually criticise but, truth be told, I couldn’t find a single one. Even the ending, which reminded me almost of primal scream therapy for an emotionally repressed person, is absolutely perfect and the very last shot of the movie has implications for the main players which will resonate in your mind for a tiny while after you’ve finished watching. An absolutely hands down recommendation for me on this one. It’s hard to imagine anyone really having much of a problem with a film which, I’ve now decided having reached the end of this review... is definitely a bit of a masterpiece after all.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel UK 2012
Directed by John Madden
Playing at UK cinemas now

This is not really a movie I was that interested in going to see, if truth be told.

I’d seen the trailer and marvelled at the obviously very strong and excellent cast of British National Treasures involved and, though a movie starring such stalwarts would, inevitably, be well performed... well, the trailer was just cut together with so many humorous clichés that, I have to say, the movie didn’t really hold any real interest for me.


Two young ladies of my acquaintance took it upon themselves to invite me to go with them on a cinema trip and so I found myself traipsing off to my local fleapit in pursuit of the treasures of India with some charming company and never once a grumble for me. I’m glad I did because, although the movie is certainly both well performed and cliché ridden, as expected, the whole thing is put together with a certain underlying intelligence that ultimately makes such things not just bearable but a pleasure to watch. There is a certain amount of sheer artistry in this movie... and not just in front of the camera either.

Based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, it’s not a film I can hold up in comparison with that original novel because, I’m sorry to say, I’ve not actually read it. So whether or not this movie retains something of the spirit of the source material in any way, shape or form is not something you’ll be able to glean from this review I’m afraid.

I’ve also not seen any previous films by director John Madden either (although I think his wife used to teach me graphic design at one point), so I’ve got no frame of reference to be able to tell you whether any key stylistic elements of his previous body of work are on hand in a blatant manner to add weight to this work in the context of a larger strand of cinematic art. I can only look at this movie in the context of a pleasant night at the cinema and leave it there.

So, okay then, the film deals with a group of older, but not in all cases wiser, people who I might, in all political correctness, refer to as either “Senior Citizens” or “ladies and gentlemen in their twilight years”. The main characters are introduced singly (with the exception of one “couple”), via subtitled names on the screen, in individual scenes which give the audience a quick flavour of their character and the reasons why they have all decided to travel to the place named in the title, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India. Yes, this visual dramatis personae is composed of a mixture of movie stereotypes of older people we’ve all seen before, but there’s really nothing wrong with that and although these characters all stand on these stereotypes for a little way into their personal “inner journeys” in this movie, the majority (but not all of them) do manage to shake off the shackles of their well worn and familiarly written character crutches and develop and grow into a group of people that you do feel for and take interest in through the course of the running time.

The actual movie credits don’t kick in until our characters are first seen assembling together, in a line of chairs awaiting their flight to India, at the airport. Tom Wilkinson’s character, who is returning to India after an absence of 40 years and who has a corker of a back story I won’t reveal here, is the self-assured, confident one of the group who, since he at least can speak the language, kind of becomes the leader of this less than close knit community. A community which includes amongst its members... a hen pecked but loyal man and his “dragon by stealth” wife, a sex hunting gentleman and a bigoted xenophobe who makes good in the end (this last character played by Maggie Smith is a bit of a surprise turnaround and becomes almost the most influential character in the whole piece)... a bunch of hackneyed stereotypes to be sure but with such fine actors as Judy Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and so on in the cast, and with a screenplay that never really manages to put a foot wrong, life is breathed into these templates which will, as I pointed out before, leave you caring, crying and laughing with the characters as their stories play out.

I won’t give away too much of the plot as a) there really isn’t much of one and b) it’s not really a film about plot anyway... it’s about the little moments shared between people that become bigger things. What I will say, though, is that the framing of the shots and especially the movement of the camera are extremely well paced, edited and, dare I say, designed to both not show their hand, unless under scrutiny, or in any way jolt the viewer from being totally encapsulated in the film.

Long motion shots (often establishing shots) blend fluidly with static frames or slower shots, which in turn are intercut occasionally with hand held camera shots which perfectly pitch the hustle and bustle of the streets of India without actually dropping you out of the movie. I especially enjoyed a long sideways panning establishing shot at a fair speed which then cut into a static shot of a mobile phone jumping around on a desk (in vibration mode) which was, as a result of this, travelling from the right to the left of the shot at a similar speed to the previous shot, thus blending almost seamlessly with the design of the sequence without, I would guess, much viewer awareness (yeah, alright, I was aware of it but the person I was sitting next to wasn’t... I checked afterwards). There was some good “working director” stuff here, but so well polished at a technical level that everything melded to make an almost perfect viewing experience... and that probably helped a lot when it came to smoothing over some of the edits and retaining believability of the characters, especially in the opening 20 minutes or so.

So that’s about it then... if truth be told, this is probably not a DVD I’d buy for myself to watch again (although I might pick up a copy for a close family member when it gets released), but I would still thoroughly recommend this one if you want a priceless and moving experience at the cinema. There’s not a great deal of truly “nice” movies being made right now but this one is so slickly “nice” that it really does deserve to be seen. There’s a good, moral heart beating at the centre of this movie... and you can’t really ask a whole lot more than that.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Two Year Anniversary - Fictional Calling Cards

Hi all.

Today is the two year anniversary of my blog, since my first post here and I thought, rather than write another lengthy epistle to my readers to tell them how great the Twitter community is and how much my blog and Twitter followers mean to me (it is and they do), I’d try to do something a bit lighter and fluffier.

So above is my light and fluffy stab at calling cards for some famous fictional characters. Click to “embiggen” and hope you like them.

All the best,


Sunday, 18 March 2012


Mastering Visual Ostinato

HE Ireland 2012
Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Experimental Film Society

I’ve been kind of looking forward to seeing HE because it’s the second feature length collaboration between two people I follow on twitter, director Rouzbeh Rashidi and the actor James Devereaux. I know I’ve reviewed films by the prolific and mercurial Rouzbeh Rashidi before on here (as I have Devereaux’s) but I’m beginning to get more of a handle on his creative signature now, I think (not that he’d neccessarily want a creative signature).

HE has a really strong opening... especially for people of my age and maybe just a little older. A man who may or may not be Devereaux, wearing some kind of white environment suit, is exploring an abandoned and run down office corridor in long shot with film colouring somewhat reminiscent of sepia tone. There is a grating, scratching sound causing tension on the audio track and visual cycling on the picture indicates that we might be watching a surveillance recording, as the man makes his way slowly, over the course of a few minutes, to the front of the shot, armed with his torch, carefully exploring the debris he finds on the way.

It’s a really, really strong opening and most of the films I’ve seen by Rashidi so far have a knack of opening with a really arresting sequence. This one, for me, had a very obvious early to late 70s Hollywood science-fiction vibe to it. The white environment suit giving the visuals a definitive and provocative sense of the sinister and unknown. The sound design is fantastically effective and reflects this sense of unease... coupled with this one long take of a shot, it contributes to a tonal pitch of almost fear and paranoia. Was really impressed with this opening again.

This is followed with a bit of a mood changer as Devereaux delivers a monologue in black and white, intercut with initially sepia footage of him exploring the odd contents of what looks like the same abandoned building (in terms of budgetary influences, I’m guessing it’s the same place anyway). In these sequences, however, the environment suit is not present... which puts this footage in another timeframe, if you want to stick with a conventional reading of a less than conventional film maker.

The actual monologue is very starkly shot but not to the point that any excessive tonal contrast pops out at you immediately. In this sequence the acting tour-de-force that is Devereaux, details his dissatisfaction with a recent lover, Mary, with whom he's presumably broken up. Devereaux's pacing is deliberately slow, like a man trying to find the words he wants to say... and having an inkling of how Rashidi does things, this may be a very accurate description because it might even all be improvised on the spot. Even so, this is not to suggest that Devereaux is making his character up as he goes along... more that he’s already in the character (to the extent that you can be to create that illusion for an audience), and that character is exploring his words with a sense of slow precision, because they are important to him.

As Devereaux continues what is the first in a series of extremely long, one take scenes and the first of two, quite lengthy, monologues... the shot starts cutting backwards and forwards between the footage of him exploring the building. Sometimes the two bits of footage are cut to a very fast rhythm of roughly a second as shot. Setting up an almost hypnotic sense of pacing, as the fast cuts set up a new mood in your brain. Things settle down a bit then and the cuts to and from the juxtaposed footage come slower as new layers are added to what are presumably memories... which is what the human brain will pick up from the language of cinema as the correct interpretation of the same person being cut against footage of himself (whether this is a correct interpretation or not). Rashedi knows this and exploits that basic self-taught human response to his own uses... I was very much expecting him to pull the rug from under me in this sequence to be honest.

After a while, the director/editor sets up another intense sequence of similar rhythmic cutting within the same monologue. So what we now have is a secondary layer of different rhythms creating a larger, slower rhythm which is being received directly into the mind as a fast series of rhythmic cuts... when what is actually happening at a deeper, and probably subconscious level for the majority of the audience, is that a larger and more serene rhythmic response is being set up... much like the way the music of Philip Glass can play out in the ear as speedy repeat phrases when they are actually piecing together a slower melody inside your head. So what we have is a very striking and initially grating visual ostinato making up a slower piece, which owes as much to Dennis Hopper’s similar cross-cutting effects in his directorial debut Easy Rider as it does to anything else.

The quality of the intercut footage starts to get more colourful and dreamlike in some places and then knocks back down to a state of distress in others. In this second tier of footage, Devereaux continues to wander a rundown building interior, randomly exploring and interacting (passively at first) with his immediate environment on a purely physical level. After a good long while he picks up a load of big Garrick Glen bottles of still water (product placement in a Rashidi movie?) and places them on a ramshackle table he finds. This is a red herring that something pivotal is about to happen because, after undoing the tops of each one and sniffing them in turn before putting the tops back on, he knocks them off the table with a walking stick he's been carrying and carries on exploring his environment. As I write these words now and revisit the movie in my head... I suddenly realise I’ve got a very strong idea of what he is looking for, but to reveal that here would possibly spoil things a little for potential viewers.

Towards the end of this first monologue section, Devereaux’s HE reveals that he is recording his monologue to send to Mary, because he is going to kill himself. It's an audio suicide note.

We then have a scene change with a more colourful and sharper picture, as we cut to what can only be Mary herself. She is talking with someone (possibly her latest lover) in a room as they both gaze out of large windows. We cannot hear the actual conversation they are having, however.

At first Mary is occupying the same basic space to the left of the screen that Devereaux was visually filling during his monologue... so this scene cuts very naturally into this segment before quickly cutting to a long shot of Mary and the other guy in profile... Mary still occupying the left of screen so this is already not nearly as jarring as the sequence with Devereaux in it... until the intercut footage of Devereaux wandering the building continues to be intercut into this sequence, enabling a more intense rhythm mixed with a more aggressive, almost musical sound design... we are now entering the realms of pure visual poetry, ladies and gentlemen, which makes Rashidi something akin to a direct descendant, mutant love child of the cinematic poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky cross pollinated with late 50s beat generation writing (somebody needs to give this guy a big budget and see if he can handle it without losing creative impetus... come on all you slap dash producers!).

We cut to a single shot of the guy which holds for a longer time, like the first shot in this section of the female lead and, yes, he's occupying the opposite space within the frame of the shot to what she and Devereaux did. Is this sequence a mirror image of itself developed through the rhythm of the shots? Well yeah and that’s obviously the intent but it’s almost here as a visual bookend to bring us into a second monologue while still retaining continuity of the cross-cut footage, because as this shot sequence ends we cut to a new scene of Deveraux in a standard colour shot with a new monologue delivery... but intercut with more footage of Deveraux wandering the building, this time (at first) without any deterioration to the quality of the film stock... perhaps symbolic of less mental deterioration as this monologue seems a little faster and more confident... it being another recording, this time to the parents of the character.

The intercut footage grows more angry and destructive and is perhaps a visual echo of the anger that the central character feels to his parents. The content of these shots calms down for a while but the monologue drops out with aggressive audio phase shifting (or some such technique) in what seems like a key place, to deliberately restrict the viewer from being spoonfed certain information and to instead fire the potent imagination, I would imagine... before dropping back into the natural sound of the monologue. It could also, of course, be a way of cutting out material which didn’t, in the final analysis, gel with the tone of the piece... but if so it’s a valid and creative solution to that particular kind of problem and so not to be seen as an invalidation of a piece of work. I suspect half of what happens on a film set is accidental anyway (even with Hitchcock, but I’m not going to try to defend that statement here).

This monologue also becomes an aggressive diatribe against the evils of television and the lack of a role model in the character’s parents which is actually quite heartfelt and somewhat amusing (I can really identify with certain parts of this stuff and believe I’ve said similar about the evils of daytime television to various friends over the years).

We then have another break from the format after a while and various experimental techniques are applied to crosscut footage intertwining with contemplative shots of other characters. Devereaux continues his explorations and antics within the building, this time back in the environmental suit, while sound and atonal music dictates the intensity that these shots are informed by... or at least a retrofitted sense of the informed, if such a thing is possible (and of course it is in cinema).

A sequence intercut to this with the couple from earlier in bed with the guy not being in any way responsive to the world about him, even when aggressively shaken, is cut against a new and hard to digest rhythm.

This is followed by a sequence where Devereaux’s character discusses his impending suicide with a friend, which is a great sequence of two really masterful actors who seem to work pretty well together, juxtaposed against footage featuring a character played by director Maximilian Le Cain, who meets with Devereaux as he assists him by providing him with the means to take his suicide objective a step closer. Le Cain isn’t in it much but adds a little more intensity in his static performance. I once wrote of him in my blog review here that he seems like someone who would “be chasing me down a street brandishing a big board with a nail in it” but in these short scenes he seems somehow less physically aggressive... perhaps more like someone who would be “paying and organising subordinates” to be chasing me down a street brandishing a big board with a nail in it, instead. Either way he has an intensity in this that’s hard to ignore.

Devereaux and his friend explore the motivation and reasoning behind his decision to kill himself and it’s a very rational and almost calm conversation, one that perhaps contradicts the inherent struggle of Devereaux’s first monologue and naked aggression of his second. This gives a sense of depth to the character because it’s clear that he is not telling his friend everything... or at least that’s the way I interpreted it and I’m really not going to say anymore about the content of the film because I think this seemingly inherent but unhighlighted contradiction pretty much sums up Rashidi’s directorial style, which I touched upon somewhat in my review of his movie Bipedality.

That is to say...

In terms of visual aesthetic, this is very much a film which pits beautifully framed, static and crisp shots against more downgraded and less palatable textures and moving camera work. But no answers are provided and visual touchstones are deliberately (I believe) set up to create a “story space” to make up your own ways of reading and interpreting the text. Is the environment suit needed, for instance, because the building is radioactive and Devereaux’s character didn’t know and now he has cancer? Is that the reason why he’s decided to take this course and reexamine his life? Or is he a ghost from the future in a post apocalyptic time period. I don’t know and neither, do I think, am I supposed to.

Rashidi doesn’t tell stories, he sets them up and then leaves them absolutely to the audience's own struggle to provide a shape to house the visual and aural ideas prevalent in his movies. He doesn’t leave it completely without structure and, as we have seen, there is plenty of structure and rhythm within the editing of his sequences... but he does provide a rough guide to an exploration of the narrative and not the key to a fixed narrative conclusion itself. This is the strength of this director’s films and, I suspect, one of the reasons why they have interest independent of their obvious visual beauty. I won’t say more on this because I don’t want to over think this guys working method but I will say that, while some audiences for this kind of, almost challenging but certainly not passively consumed, cinematic dish may find this kind of meal less palatable than others, I would have to say that I quite enjoyed HE and think it’s an another fine example of a director who is making really unique films which unfold on the director’s own terms and which don’t cowtow to commercial pressures. Seek this one out, if you can, if you are into watching a purer (I hesitate to say rawer given the obvious craftsmanship which goes into these kinds of films) and more demanding form of cinema.

For more information on Rashidi and Devereaux, go here and then follow the links...

Thursday, 15 March 2012

John Carter

Strictly Barsoom

John Carter USA 2012
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: To tackle this film properly, because the
subject matter really means a lot to me, there are
going to be a few minor spoilers in this one.

Hmmm... this is going to be a more problematic review to write than I thought it would. You see, I’ve been reading John Carter stories in one form or another since my teens, I know the character well and am not really prepared to accept any stumbling, bumbling deviations from that character and I can tell you now, this movie really does take some liberties, not just with the story but also with the basic characterisation of John Carter... but I’ll get to that soon enough.

But that’s not the reason this is going to be a hard review to write... heavy criticism is a lot easier to fall back on than what I have to take into account here.

It’s problematic for me because, frankly, I was expecting to really hate this movie. Even the littlest deviations I’d picked up on from accidentally reading a few lines about the film here and there was literally leaving me enraged and spitting blood and bile in the direction of Hollywood in general... but the funny thing is, that even though there are some real basic problems with the kind of attention to the broad strokes that the movie really needed to get into play... after seeing this film last night, I was surprised to find that... I really didn’t hate it.

It’s curious, but many of the decisions made which deviate from the original source material don’t leave too much of an unwelcome mark on proceedings and, for everything the director or producers or writers have got wrong about their new John Carter movie (including the stupid title which means nothing to anyone unless you already know the legend who is John Carter... what a stupid title to put the movie out under. No wonder people are staying away!), there’s also something that this production has really got right.

Visually, the film is stunning... the director obviously does have a love and respect for the original material* (that helps) and you can see it because the production has really paid attention to the look of a lot of those old paintings from the 1970s when John Carter was making a bit of a comeback in popular culture. If you know the original material I’m talking about, just look at an image of a thark riding a thoat from the new movie and you’ll see how well they’ve nailed it. Okay, so the Martian sand isn’t as red as it could be and neither, really, is the skin of the red men of Mars... but a lot of the visual reference from the history of the character since his first appearance in Under The Moons Of Mars in the pulp magazines (and subsequently changed for the first hardback printing of this story to A Princess Of Mars) has been expertly mined and referenced throughout this film... especially the stuff from that “hot” period in the mid to late seventies methinks.

So okay... the film is well directed, well edited, well performed (I don’t believe that the problems I had with the title character in any way stem from the performance of the lead actor Taylor Kitsch) and the special effects and art direction are all simply marvellous. I had a few issues which were pretty basic to the tone of John Carter and I’ll tell you what those are right now.

In the original novel, John Carter is chased into a cave and left to die, which frightens the Indians as it is a cave to be feared in their culture. He is just laying there when he can bizarrely hear and feel the red planet of Mars calling to him. Some kind of astral chord in him snaps and he suddenly finds he’s been transported across the gulf of space to Mars (known to the local inhabitants as Barsoom) and there’s no explanation given other than that. You might, at first, think as a reader that Carter has died and when you find he hasn’t, due to his constant book-to-book communications with his nephew Edgar Rice Burrough’s (who is a character in his own books in the John Carter series), you might find yourself uncomfortable with the lack of a proper scientific explanation for his journeys both to and from Barsoom as the series progresses... but once you’ve gotten used to the idea that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth. Horatio...” then you’d probably, like I did when I was a teenager devouring these stories, find the magical ambiguity of Carter’s journeys to hold a certain amount of charm.

It’s a shame, then, that the movie has gutlessly taken the decision to give a “scientifiction” explanation for the character’s “Barsoomian summons”. It’s also a shame because the people who live on Mars in the books just don’t have that technology and they’ve brought in some of the elements of the second book, The Gods Of Mars, into the mix and tied it in with this misplaced technology. The film is also, therefore, filled with laser-gun like technology when, seriously, all it needed were the radium pistols and shell weaponry from the books... especially when the Martian artillery is so terrifying. One of the things that still sticks in my mind from the books was the fact that, when you were shot in a night battle and a bullet lodged in you, you would only have a limited amount of hours to get that shell out of you because they exploded in sunlight. That means, not only will you be in serious trouble if you’re around when the sun comes up... you also can’t have a surgeon operating on you at night with the aid of any artificial light whatsoever. They would need to be operating on you in the pitch black, if they could, or risk not only losing a patient, but also a limb or two of their own.

Asides from the liberties taken with the story, a major problem is the character of John Carter. A gentleman of virginia in the US Cavalry, he goes to rescue his friends who have been captured and are being tortured by Apache Indians, who do unspeakable things to their prisoners (prisoners who would be better off dead). Think of the scene in the Firefly movie Serenity, when the guy at the start trying to hitch a lift with Captain Mal and the gang gets taken by reivers and Mal puts a bullet in him out of kindness. That’s pure John Carter right there. Now the movie version of John Carter is an ex-cavalryman and rather than being the noble gentleman portrayed in the books, in the movie they’ve turned him into a bit of a treasure-hunting rogue who’s out for himself unless he can see you’re really in trouble. Nothing wrong with that... good strong lead and Taylor Kitsch** does it very well... but it’s just not John Carter. Which is a shame really because he seriously looks the dead spitting image of John Carter. The visual faithfulness to the source is extremely potent on this movie.

Also, he’s not going on about Deja Thoris being the most beautiful woman of two worlds and the love of his life all through the movie... whereas in the books that’s all he talks about when he’s not describing the action of a scene. Everything is done for his love of Dejah Thoris, ever since he first lays eyes on her when they are both slaves and she ignores his advances due to each other’s unfamiliarity with cultural traits (an attitude which was nicely worked into the movie version of At The Earth’s Core, another Edgar Rice Burroughs creation and the first in his Pellucidar series)... he certainly wouldn’t treat her with the casual attitude he displays in some of the scenes in this movie... throwing her off her thoat etc (in Star Wars, George Lucas called thoats Banthas). He would rather lay down his life at her feet.

So that noble, bordering on submissive, side of the character is gone from the movie and instead we have an updated version of the character which is perhaps more identifiable to kids these days... but not necessarily as good a role model.

Also, there’s no way his opponents in the movie would last very long against him in the combat scenes if they’d have gone with the books once again. John Carter is known as the greatest swordsman of two worlds and, frankly, in the books which are mostly written in first person prose, he doesn’t let you forget about that little fact. He regularly makes mincemeat of his enemies in seconds due to his prowess with a sword and when he’s not declaring his love for Dejah Thoris, he’s bragging to the reader of his excellent swordsmanship... so it seemed kind of strange to me that his enemies were putting up that much of a fight in the movie version.

The other big thing they missed a trick with in the movie was the red indians of the book. Burroughs was once a cavalryman himself in his adventurous life before he became a writer (out of having a wife and child to support) and Carter’s racist but initially understandable attitude to the indians at the start of the book is made a big deal of... basically to show later that Carter is a fair man who is able to overcome these prejudices by bringing peace between the green Tharks and the Red Men of Mars. The Tharks themselves, of course, being a huge metaphor for the indians on Carter's home planet. There are indians in the film but Carter is seen trying to talk peace to them early in the film and there’s just not enough of those indians showing a presence in the movie to make the metaphor shine through from under the surface in this version. Which is a shame because I could have done without the Martian battle prelude at the start of the movie and instead would personally have spent more time setting the character up on earth to bring the message home later. But since they already messed with Carter’s character... it’s kind of screwed up anyway.

Now I could mention some stuff here about the huge debt a gazillion other sci-fi films over the years owe to these initial novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs... the arena scenes from Star Wars II: Attack Of The Clones for example... or pretty much the whole of that terrible Avatar movie, to name just a couple... but I think probably everyone’s realised by now just what’s been going on here in the one hundred years since A Princess Of Mars was first published. But I will just say that the sail barges in Star Wars VI: Return Of The Jedi are what the sail barges in the movie version of John Carter should have looked like... ‘nuff said.

Okay, so while that all sounds pretty negative and, I dunno, a big deal to me (and yeah it is) please realise that even after all those terrible liberties, which to my mind are less to do with the art of adaptation and more to do with “mucking around irresponsibly with a character who needed to be portrayed correctly”, I still was moved enough by the movie, not to mention entertained by it, that I’ll definitely be buying this one as soon as it comes out on DVD... even looking forward to seeing it again.

So let me leave you with one last double verdict above and beyond the film's inherent faults, just in case you’ve been taking the films multimillion dollar flop status and the rantings of some of the critics with anything less than a pinch of salt...

If you’re already a fan of Edgar Rice Burrough’s greatest, in my humble opinion, creation then you’ll certainly see some of the essence of the world and culture of Barsoom reflected back at you in this movie... so give it a watch.

If, however, you’ve never heard of John Carter and are unsure what it’s all about then definitely go and see this movie. It’s heart warming, if not completely intelligent, science fiction cinema at its best... but then, please read at least one of the books to get the real story and flavour of Burrough’s characters... you wont regret it.***

* Saying that though... the characters in the movie are all wearing clothes and that’s not something they really do in the books. A shame they couldn’t have just gone for an 18 certificate!

** Yes @momentsoffilm, he’s pretty much topless throughout the whole movie, young lady, if that’s what you’re getting at. See his chest in shoddy multiplex 3D now!

*** This is, of course, not a guarantee... if you do see it and regret it, don’t come whining to me.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Raven (2012)


The Raven USA/Hungary/Spain 2012
Directed by James McTeigue
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Beware the spoilers scratching at
the wood and masonry with their fingertips!

The Raven is the latest in a long line of many things...

Firstly, it’s the latest of about a gazillion and one* movies to be called The Raven. Hollywood studios do really seem to believe that people watching these films have blindingly short memories or, I dunno, never pick up a book or turn on the TV. That the audiences are somehow, to quote Woody Allen completely out of context (as is my right as a blogger I reckon)... “unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney”. Except... maybe insert Lady Gaga or someone in place of McCartney. That’s the kind of people these film studio’s think are watching their movies... and if they’re right then we’re all really in trouble as a worldwide collective audience.

Secondly, this is also the latest in a long line of movies to be, or in some famous cases claiming to be, somehow inspired by the works of that literary genius Edgar Allan Poe** (a quote from the poem from which this very film takes it’s title has always been visible in the right hand column of my blog if you’ve ever scrolled down the sidebar). Edgar Allan Poe movies have been with us since the dawn of cinema but, the trouble is, the majority of his short stories aren’t really stories as such, at least not in the sense of the word as we come to use it today. They are short sketches of incidents really and so, with even the most skillful directors and writers, Poe movies tend to go off and do their own thing and make reference to the source material in a scene or two during the length of a feature... but you can’t really blame the movie makers for that, what else could they do? This one does pretty much what Dario Argento’s adaptation of The Black Cat does in Two Evil Eyes, in that it references a few Poe stories and successfully, at least to a point, manages to get away with it.

Thirdly... this is yet another movie to feature an actor portraying Poe as a main character... this has been done quite a bit more than you might imagine throughout the history of cinema and the last time I remember seeing it done was when Jeffrey Combs played him a few years back in yet another homage to The Black Cat, this time as a TV episode in the Masters Of Horror anthology series.

Okay... so this particular movie starts off in a most off-putting manner, following a brief opening sequence depicting Poe dying, as a police carriage rushes to the scene of a murder. I say it was off putting because I found myself already counting the number of seconds that each shot in this sequence was held... there can’t have been many shots in this opening that went on for more than 3 seconds tops I reckon. Fortunately the pacing settles down a little later but, it has to be said, this opening seemed to me to be very much trying to capture the same “lightning in a bottle” that the opening of Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie captured.

The police come in to a murder scene which has so obviously been inspired by Poe’s The Murders In The Rue Morgue that it was interminable waiting for the characters on screen to catch up with me. I believe The Murders In The Rue Morgue was the first ever detective story (please correct me if I’m wrong), the main protagonist of which was referenced in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, again if my memory is serving me correctly... it’s been a while since I read it either of them.

Anyway, when a second, gruesomely depicted murder (more so than even Argento’s own homage to this particular story... so can’t think why this one was unleashed on the general public in the UK as a 15 certificate, unless money changed hands), based on the swinging axe of Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum is discovered, this leads the police into strong-arming Poe into... how does the saying go? Helping the police with their enquiries?

Soon the game is afoot and we are awash with murders, kidnapping and intrigue as Poe must write some last stories for daily publication inspired by each day’s events or lose the life of the woman who he loves, held hostage by the killer. Turns out... threat of death of a loved one can be a good motivator. Out of the bottom of a bottle of alcohol and back into the swing of producing great literature.

That’s as much as I’m saying about the plot. The pacing just about works and the film engages the eye, if not the brain, for most of the time. John Cusack as Poe is absolutely outstanding and his version of the gothic genius is empowered with a sense of energy which lends able support to the frantic journey of what is almost an action movie. However, it has to be said that there are some problems on the way... one of which is the fact that when the killer asks Poe a question near the end of the picture, Poe dismisses the question and just says “Pass”. Now I may be wrong (and again correct me if am please, as I’d like to know), but I don’t think that particular one word phrase, especially in that particular context, was around in Poe’s day now, was it? I understand the need to make it at least in some ways relevant to a young audience (it’s called keeping your eye on the money) but I think injecting a period piece with this kind of controlled (presumably, if the writers caught it) anachronism is not necessarily a good way to do it. In fact, I’m sure it’s not.

Another thing I felt about this movie was that, since it was trying to pitch itself as a kind of serial killer action fest, we could have done with a little less preamble and characterisation than what’s up there on the screen in this one and maybe jumped into the actual pursuit of the killer a little more quickly. Either that or give the movie another half an hour on the run time because, by the time they get up to pursuing the killer, the whole thing felt too short and almost like it was just a frame of a script to hang set pieces on... granted, that’s what most modern US movies are these days but, this doesn’t make this kind of “script construction” any less boring than it actually is... and it really can be boring sometimes.

And the bit that really enraged me and left me foaming at the mouth is what is literally the last minute of the movie. I don’t want to give the game away here but it felt really tagged on, cowardly in every way and like it was pandering to some stupid preview audience. It seriously made my blood boil and I’d hoped we were above needing such endings these days. Never mind... I guess it could have been worse.

That being said, The Raven is a fun little movie and is a lot better than some of the junk they’ve got playing at your local cinema at the moment. I’d personally rather be watching either of the two Boris Karloff starring movies of The Raven (from both 1935 and 1963) but this doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this little romp for what it is on its own terms. It’s an enjoyable enough ride if you want a pseudo-gothic night out at the cinema to soak up a movie with, at the very least, a nicely chilling atmosphere to it. It’s no “From Hell” but it’s definitely worth a look if you’ve got nothing else on and I’ll certainly be picking up the DVD for another watch when it hits the shelves.

* approximate number of movies only, not an exact amount but close enough. ;-)

** There’s a pretty cool book which is just about still obtainable called The Poe Cinema: A Critical Filmography of Theatrical Releases Based on the Works of Edgar Allan Poe by Don G. Smith which is worth a read if you are interested in the subject.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Horror Express

Quake Xpress

Horror Express
aka Pánico en el Transiberiano
aka Panic In The Trans-Siberian Train
UK/Spain 1972
Directed by Eugenio Martín
Severin Region 1

Warning: Yeah, there’s gonna be some spoilers in here alright!

Horror Express is a dreadful, dreadful movie... and all the more fun for it.

It’s a film I’ve had to stay away from for all of my life because, frankly, the only prints that have been available in a home video format up until now have been terrible pan-and-scan “public domain” prints. I won’t knowingly buy a film in the wrong aspect ratio if I can help it... as that then ceases to be the actual film. Severin’s new restored version of this movie sets this crime against filmanity right by issuing it in its correct theatrical aspect ratio... and with a few extras to boot!

Now then, this film toplines both of the top two “British Horror” icons of their day and probably of all time, I’m guessing, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The film also features what I can only refer to as an extended cameo, in the last 20 minutes or so, by Telly Savalas, who plays kind of a crazed cossack... and when I say crazed, I suspect the man’s demeanour was not like that on the printed page of the script. Telly Savalas seems to be suffering from an affliction in this movie known as “over-the-top-hamitus” and, while it certainly served him well in claiming the part of Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and making it his own, it does little but distract from an already daft plot when it comes to Horror Express.

Horror Express is, I have to say, a real mish-mash of the good and the bad. The acting from all the cast seems a little disjointed and out of kilter even when there are some good lines for them to say... and there are some great “ooh-err-missus” one liners in this film which, if placed in a Carry On film for instance, might have had fans of that broad genre comedy rolling in the aisles. Here, these particular pieces of dialogue are standout and witty and not terribly badly performed... but they seem to just hang there after they’ve been spoken with no real flow to the dialogue... at least that’s the way it seems to me.

The film tells the story of Professor Saxton (played by Christopher Lee) who starts the movie off in voice-over narration, which is stupidly not picked up again at the end of the film. Saxton digs up a fossilised missing link creature from the ice in Manchuria and, eventually, loads it on board the Trans-Siberian Express under lock and key while fending off enquiries from several concerned or curious individuals such as a professional rival Dr. Wells (played by Peter Cushing, who had just lost his wife in real life and really didn’t want to shoot this movie, but who does a wonderful job in it).

One such concerned party is a mad monk, played by Alberto de Mendoza, who tries drawing a cross on the crate holding the creature with white chalk. When the chalk doesn’t work on the crate, this obviously means there is evil within and he continues to ramble on about the evil of Satan and saving people’s souls from eternal damnation until... well I’ll get to that soon.

Of course, if you haven’t guessed it by now, the creature in the box soon becomes a “creature on the loose” although, and this is a little unusual for a movie featuring a hairy missing link creature, it’s not lacking in intelligence in any way shape or form and it soon becomes apparent why when the said monster starts killing off the passengers in the train. The way it does this is not by strangling or mauling them, you see, but by giving them what can best be described as... “a good staring”. Looking into the eyes of his victims with his glowy red eyes causes people to literally start leaking blood from every facial orifice as the creature downloads the victim’s knowledge into it’s own mind and wipes said victim’s brains clean. Now I know these poor, unfortunate soul’s brains were wiped clean because when Peter Cushing performs a “weird science autopsy” on one of the victims by sawing through the cranium and opening up the old brain box, the brain is completely smooth and ridgeless and looks like nothing less than a giant stress toy or a rugby ball. In fact, I was half hoping Cushing would grab onto the brain and start throwing it around the carriage with Christopher Lee in some kind of internal organ rugby league game but, alas, it was not to be... although it has to be said the general tone of this movie would not have ruled that incident out.

Now, you know something is not completely what it seems in this movie when a detective on the train shoots the monster dead with his revolver only halfway through the film... the monster giving him a good, sound staring from a distance. However, it soon becomes clear that, although this particular host shell of the monster is dead, the creature survived by downloading itself through its mesmerising stare into the body of the detective. There are two dead giveaways for this which I’m sure you will pick up straight away... one is the detective keeps hiding his left arm because it’s gone all hairy, although subsequent incidents in the film refute any scientific rationale or consistency for this unfortunate condition as anything other than to give the audience a less than subtle clue that the detective has not been left unchanged by his experiences... and the other tell-tale sign is that when the detective turns the lights out on people his eyes glow red from a not-so-great make-up application to the front of his face and he stares people dead with all the facial bleeding and the brain wiping that we know to be the creatures main modus operandi.

Okay... now while everybody on the train is being a bit thick and not realising why the detective is keeping his left arm in his pocket and going for “intimate chats” in soon-to-be darkened rooms for the duration of the picture, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee start making like the scientists they are and begin pooling their knowledge and studying the creature, in what is probably the most implausible affront to both human logic and audience intelligence ever to be attempted in seventies cinema.

For instance, after extracting the original creature’s eyeball and drawing some blood from it, they look at it under a microscope and are astonished (as are any credible members of the audience left with this movie at this point) to find the last moments of the detective shooting the creature playing out as a kind of moving image in the blood. Another drop of blood and they can see various images of prehistoric monsters in the creature's precious bodily fluids... leading them to believe that the creature has lived a long time... long enough to be witnessing all these monsters. A third drop of blood shows us the creature's view of the earth from space, as it was millions of years ago... thus leading our coldly logical scientists into surmising that the creature is an alien who landed on earth many moons ago... or I guess an agent of satan gazing at the earth from heaven/hell, if the mad priest is to be listened to at this point.

Interestingly and bizarrely enough, at this point, when the mad priest accidentally discovers the detective is now the creature, he just up and renounces his loyalty to God and offers himself, repeatedly and whether he’s wanted or not, to become the servant of said creature... who mostly appears to be less interested in him because he just doesn’t rate the priests IQ as something as fitting enough for a decent meal.

All continues in this vein now until Telly Savalas’ aforementioned, over zealous cossack boards the train with his soldiers to see what’s going on and who’s been killing the passengers. He pretty much becomes the human villain of the piece here because he’s quite happy to throw his weight around with people and brutalise his way to an answer. He doesn’t have to wait too long before the detective’s hand is revealed... or detectives paw perhaps but, either way, the detective’s red eye problem soon gives him away and the cossack shoots him dead...

... but not before the creature downloads itself into the body of the mad priest and runs off to the front of the train. Not that the priest has any hairy arm problems like his predecessor, of course, so I don’t know what that’s all about, to be honest. The cossacks all give chase and it’s at this point that the priest/creature goes into what can only be described as a “stare frenzy” and kills a carriage full of attacking soldiers with his “mental blood eye” thingy. Telly Savalas takes rather longer to have his brain wiped clean and makes much more of a fight of it... apparently the curse of ham acting can do that to a character.

Meanwhile, our heroes Lee and Cushing have got all the remaining passengers to the back of the train and proceed to uncouple the carriage and leave the creature in the train. Suspense is maintained in this scene, of a sorts, because we now know the signalmen at the next set of points have been asked to throw the switch and send the train off onto a side track... a side track which implausibly ends at the edge of a cliff top... because where else would you build your train line to if it isn’t leading to a gazillion and a half feet drop to certain death? Best way to deal with the passengers I guess.

Anyway, the train is uncoupled and the creature rides the train to his death while the carriage uncoupled with all the passengers looking out the end slowly comes to a stop right at the edge of the drop, thus allowing all on board to witness the explosion of the train as it lands in the canyon below.

Wait a minute! Did I say explosion?

On a train in a film set in the nineteenth century there seems to be a way for this carriage to catch alight and literally explode on impact? And not just once, mind you, but to repeatedly explode with all the gravitas that a good solid series of explosions can conjure up to ensure the audience knows that the creature is definitely dead this time thank you very much.

Yes, that’s right. Just when you thought the film couldn’t get any dumber, the train actually explodes like a 1970s TV cops and robbers show. This is probably not the best way to end the film but there you have it... it’s an ending of sorts.

To conclude this review I would have to point out that, although the movie doesn’t hang together too well, it’s certainly an enjoyable movie to relax to. Yes it has it’s flaws, as detailed here, but many audiences for these kinds of movies (myself included) would see these characteristics as traits rather than flaws... and so I’d have to give this one a recommendation to anyone who loves watching this kind of silliness... it truly does stretch the whole suspension-of-disbelief issue and takes it into previously uncharted territory. Anyone who loves watching schlocky movies of this type will be happy with this little euro-concoction and the “dead glowing red eyes” of the various “beastiefied” characters are certainly worth the price of admission alone. Long term fans of the movie will doubtless also benefit from picking up the new Severin edition of the film as the restored print and transfer is excellent and there are a few interesting extras on there too. If you’re a monster addict, seek out and watch!