Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Four Sided Triangle

Truth Or Square?

Four Sided Triangle 
UK 1953 
Directed by Terence Fisher
Anchor Bay Region 1

I took a look at a movie called Four Sided Triangle the other week. I was surprised to find that it’s an utterly charming film and not at all what I was expecting from an early Hammer experiment in science fiction with shades of horror. I’d heard, after all, that the film can be considered a dry run for the same director’s breakthrough Hammer hit The Curse Of Frankenstein but, asides from a few of the normal references about man tampering with God’s work, I found the comparison to be a rather forced one myself.

It’s also very English.

Indeed, it wears its Englishness proudly on its sleeve and feels almost like something my country’s movie makers might have turned out in the war-torn mid-forties rather than a film made in 1953. It seems out of its time in many ways but you can see that there wouldn’t be that many more movies made with this kind of flavour to them around this era. The days of this kind of “cosy” film-making were definitely coming to an end around this time, methinks.

So, in much the same way that Dr. No is a James Bond film which is not quite a James Bond film... Four Sided Triangle is a Hammer horror which isn’t really quite a horror movie as yet. It has elements which, if the director had exploited them in a specific way, would have pushed the movie’s atmosphere well into the kind of territory which is more familiar to modern Hammer fans. I’ve not read the novel this movie was based on myself (yet... I’v recently managed to pick up a first edition for cheap, which wasn’t absolutely falling to pieces, from Abe Books) but my understanding is that the final sections of the novel are a lot more sharp and acidic than the scenes that are played out in the screen version. I don’t really care, though, because this movie is a wonderful little film to spend an hour or so of a peaceful afternoon with.

The film starts off in a very English manner by having the venerable James Hayter breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience by way of narrating the story. I’ve liked James Hayter since seeing him play Friar Tuck in The Adventures Of Robin Hood and especially when he was helping out Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat’s pirating shenanigans with his scientific skills in The Crimson Pirate (I even seem to remember him playing the rotund Mr. Pickwick at some point in his career). Here he tells the tale of three young companions (Bill, Robin and Lena) who he becomes friends with and who grow into three work colleagues working on a unique science project... as Hayter’s address to the camera continues into the film as voice-over narrative.

The classic love triangle of two guys who both love the same girl is played out here but the fourth side of the titular triangle is a mystery until later, a while after the invention these three are working on is revealed. What this mysterious invention is, you see, is basically a pair of “cabinets” which go through a brief process of on-screen “scientification” which allows for an object placed in Cabinet 1 to be completely copied out of nothing in the second cabinet, in exact detail (a cheque for an order of money would have exactly the same serial numbers as the original placed in cabinet A, for example). So, basically, this machine can copy anything in a matter of minutes... rare medicines, gold, jewellery etc. Obviously, this invention would change the world but, as luck would have it, while the British Government are negotiating the use of the machine with Robin, after his wedding to Lena, the tortured and lovesick Bill reveals to Lena that he also desires her as his lifelong companion and persuades her and Dr. Harvey (the character played by James Hayter) to help him to conclude his experiments of copying “living matter” by making a perfect copy of Lena so he can have a Lena too. Grudgingly his two friends help him with this while Robin is still staying in London, continuing negotiations with the British government.

It’s not long before Bill has himself a Lena to call his own (well, actually he calls her Helen) who he takes off for a romantic holiday but, as most viewers will realise a bit before Bill does, being a perfect copy of Lena means Helen is also in love with Robin... which is bad news for both Bill and Helen, since neither of them can have what they want. Bill’s realisation of this simple truth is triggered when Helen tries to commit suicide... so Bill formulates a plan to wipe Helen’s memories.

Will he succeed or will something happen to cast a spell of death and depression in the sleepy village in which this story takes place?

Well, yeah, you can probably guess that one for yourself but I have to admit that I was thoroughly entertained by this brilliant little gem of a movie. It really doesn’t play out like a horror movie at all and, though it does slightly touch upon themes of dark obsession, it probably wouldn’t even make it as far as a PG rating these days.There’s some nice black and white photography throughout and the characters, and performances of those characters, are all really great. You may not be horrified by this movie and you may even find it sentimental and corny, but you may also find yourself a little moved or at least touched by the innocence of the characters portrayed on screen. Definitely an unsung classic and certainly a film that deserves to be a little more well known in the great scheme of things. Four Sided Triangle is now one of my favourite Hammer movies and definitely worth tracking down if you’re into gentle, less complicated films and have a passion for post-war British sci-fi movies.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Men In Black 3

Spare MIBs

Men In Black 3 USA  2012
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Playing at UK cinemas now

Men In Black 3 is not a roller-coaster ride of a movie.

Nor is it high octane, pulse pounding, thrilling adrenalin rush of a cinematic experience... and if that’s what you’re hoping for I think you may find yourself a little disappointed. And I think that may be the case with much of what the studio thinks is its target audience.

On the other hand, Men In Black 3 is exactly what I was hoping to get from another installment in the franchise...

A decent movie.

A film.

Something with a little story and a warm heart rather than just a whole flying saucer load of mind-numbing set pieces fused together with a storyline tagged on around it. In other words... it’s a nice, pleasant time at the cinema and not a confusing one.

Now I loved the original Men In Black movie when it hit cinemas back in 1997. It had a darkness and a downside to it that gave the movie a certain amount of warm fuzziness while still being a nice bit of a sci-fi adventure yarn. I even watched it once again when it was released on video tape. Men In Black 2, however, was a whole different ball game. It was competent enough and had some nice bits in it but, ultimately, I felt like that one was just a load of set pieces shoved together and tied up with a bow. It wasn’t terrible, how could it be when Rosario Dawson was in it (she is hot!)? Ultimately though, it didn’t provide what I was looking for and I never was tempted enough to look at it again when it hit the home video market.

It’s been ten years since that misfire (I’m sorry, that’s just how I see the second one) but the trailer to MIB3 looked pretty good and I’m always a sucker for time travel stories so I decided to check this one out... besides, my mum loves Will Smith so it was a shoe in I’d have to take her along to it anyway. Like I had a choice.

As I said above, MIB3 has a solid storyline and some genuinely funny moments. The banter between the warm Agent J (Will Smith) and his dead-pan senior partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is all in fine form but after a major set piece or two at the start of the movie... yeah, okay, they put some major set pieces in, it’s not like they didn’t try to turn it into a roller coaster, they just didn’t succeed enough on that level to let it ruin the film okay? Anyway... as I was saying... after a major set piece or two at the start of the movie, Tommy Lee Jones goes missing in action. Quite literally missing. Missing from the present day time/space continuum, in fact, when a psychopathic alien (who reminded me a bit of Charlie Manson, it must be said) escapes from his lunar jail and goes back in time to the launch of the famous moon landing mission of 1969 at Cape Canavrel, killing Agent K and thus changing history. The only one who can remember K is Will Smith’s J... and with the world in peril from marauding alien invaders, J has to go back in time to 1969 to prevent the moon escapee, Boris The Animal, from killing Agent K and thus allowing the older Boris to succeed where he, in the past, failed.

And pretty much the rest of the movie’s short running time is spent with Agent J and a younger version of Agent K, played expertly by Josh Brolin in a performance which is a brilliant echo of Tommy Lee Jones own take on the role, as they do the whole “tracking down alien Men In Black” thing and we see some great moments in American history recreated to boot... including a nice series of moments in Andy Warhol’s factory (Andy Warhol, of course, turning out to be an undercover MIB). There were some nice little nods to the time and place the movie inhabits and I even, at one point, saw a blink and you’ll miss it cameo of a guy dressed up as a Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth. That one really made me smile.

There’s some stuff towards the end of the movie when the two agents and their friend, who can see all the possible future events of the universe, are put in a situation when you realise there’s a good chance that nobody is going to get a very happy ending out of this one. You already know that the reason Agent K has looked miserable all these years is because of what happened the day that the movie is working itself up to and with both agents taking on a different version of Boris from two crossing time streams at once, the chances of them both surviving don’t look very good... and I’m happy to say that my best guess on this one was wrong. I expected this to be an exit for one of the characters, and not necessarily the one who it’s all set up to be the last exit for... so I was really glad that the movie wasn’t as obvious as I’d expected it to be in this area... although that outcome would have been a pretty bleak proposition. There’s also a bit I didn’t really understand with a little bump/bounceback in time happening with no apparent explanation... can anybody who’s seen the movie please explain that one to me?

I can, however, reveal one tiny thing without actually spoiling your viewing experience of the film. All I’m going to say is that Boris isn’t the only person who shares some simultaneous timeline with a younger version of himself... and I’ll leave it at that. You might have a suspicion from that but I’m guessing you’ll be wrong. There’s a nice little surprise before Agent J returns back to his own time stream. And when I say nice I mean the moment is tragic and dark and explains just why K is not the most cheerful person whenever we see him... and I really can’t say anymore. Suffice it to say that the movie is quite moving towards the end and gives a nice understanding of certain things that happened in the first movie... although I’m going to have to check that first movie again now to ensure that the third movie hasn’t created some glaringly new, timey-wimey continuity errors in the trilogy.

This film is well shot, well acted, has some nice visual effects, some gentle comedy, a villain you really won’t like too much... plus music by Danny Elfman riffing on his original baseline for the series, so what’s not to like on that “score”? It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. I would have liked to see more of Tommy Lee Jones in the movie, since he gets kind of jettisoned from the film about 20 - 30 minutes of the way in and then only comes back for about a minute or two at the end... that was a shame... but it’s not about the cast it’s about the overall effect and Men In Black 3 is a nice, respectful companion piece to the previous two movies and certainly doesn’t let the high standard set in the first one drop any. The 3D in this one wasn’t nearly as distracting either, I would say. Completely pointless and unnecessary, of course, specifically because of that reason... but not distracting.

If Men In Black is your thing then you shouldn’t find yourself disappointed by the third installment... it’s a really solid piece of movie making. Go see it.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Pedro Almodovar Archives

The Reign In Spain

The Pedro Almodovar Archives
Taschen. ISBN: 3836502836

This is the second most expensive book I’ve ever owned (next to Tim Lucas’ lectern crushing All The Colours Of The Dark book on Mario Bava) and it was bought for me by my girlfriend as a Christmas present and is, therefore, an extremely precious possession of mine... the sentimental circumstances of my ownership being far greater in value than the mere monetary cost could ever be.

The book is one of those impressively put together coffee table books that Taschen obviously take great pride in putting out, presumably catering for a market that consists of people prosperous enough to own giant sized coffee tables. This book is so heavy and voluminous (yes, it’s a voluminous volume) that they have even manufactured its own cardboard box clamshell packaging to house it, which kinda folds up into a carrying case (it’s a heavy piece). The book is a sheer delight to pore through with eyes wide open at the impressive amount of colour plates from every Almodovar movie made from his first feature film Pepi, Luci, Bom... right the way through to his recent movie The Skin I Live In. It even includes a strip of film from Volver in the frontispiece, which is a really nice thing to have for itself too.

The book is divided into quite long chapters (one chapter per movie) with each chapter being split up into subsections. Some of these chapters start off with a review of the movie by a leading film critic, the majority of which are contemporaneous to the release of that movie. The sections then go on with interviews (conducted by Almodovar himself) and various other examinations of the characters and story inspirations from the director. Yeah, that’s right. Almodovar interviews himself because he reckons he’s the only one qualified to ask the right questions of his work... I guess he’s got a point.

He’s a pretty good writer too. As I started to read this I remembered why I loved the majority of his films so much. It took me right back to my earliest encounter with his work in my mind. I remember going to the Lumiere cinema in London in 1990, driven up there late one Saturday night by one of my bestest friends we watched Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and both loved the antics of the young Antonio Banderas (before the Americans had even heard of him) and the gorgeous and comical performance of Victoria Abril. After similar kinds of trips took me to see both High Heels and Kika on their release (Kika is very much an under-rated movie... I think it’s another masterpiece, personally) I was definitely hooked and started exploring his back catalogue whenever I could afford to on home video and TV broadcasts of such Almodovar classics as Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. I now have all his movies on DVD, of course, barring his last one... The Skin I Live In... which I didn’t rate as much as some of his others (I’ll maybe rewatch it when it hits the HMV sales for £3).

Almodovar’s movies are very much a unique viewing experience within the convoluted history of cinema, of course. The way his curious sensibilities translate both his own ideas and those of other writers (Live Flesh, The Skin I Live In) are quite brightly coloured affairs and light up the screen with a vivid intensity of emotion that others would express very differently. His written word on the page is also like that and it’s even evident on the “pull quotes” that Taschen have lifted to layer the overall great graphic design of the book. Everything about this tome is reflective of the spirit of Almadovar and it’s truly a joy to read from start to finish (not a quick read either, with over 400 giant pages to pour through and gawp at). My favourite bit was the tired and exhaustive account of one of Almodovar’s trips to America, peaking with his acceptance of the best director Oscar (I don’t remember which picture, to be honest). His enthusiasm for meeting all these Hollywood stars and directors is not dampened by the occasional judgement of some of them... it’s like listening to a kid on a walkie talkie giving a running commentary of all the kinds of sweets they have in his favourite candy store.

Because of the constant personal touch of Almodovar’s candid writing style, The Pedro Almodovar Archives is a book you’re not going to want to put down in a hurry (and for goodness sake don’t drop it on your toe or you’ll be in trouble) and, as I said, the writing style is very reflective of the artist behind all those movies bearing the director’s “brand name” that you know and love. This is a truly excellent and, above all, appropriate celebration of Pedro Almodovar’s cinematic adventures and, as such, is something that I’m sure every Almodovar fan will enjoy. It’s an expensive tome, to be sure, but if you can find the spare cash and want to invest in a truly great tribute (if not entirely comprehensive, like a book written by an outside researcher might have been... but that would have given the book a much duller flavour) to a true master of Spanish cinema, then it’s worth scraping the cash together and giving this one a read. I had a really good time with this book and can thoroughly recommend it.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword Of Villainy

Who Wants To Be A Villain Heir?

Sleepy Eyes of Death 8
aka Nemuri Kyôshirô 8: Burai-ken
Japan 1966
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Anime Eigo Region 1

Series regular Kenji Misumi returns to direct the eighth of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death movies but... it’s a curious beast of a film and I’m not convinced this quite convoluted tale of conspiracy against the government actually started out as a Nemuri Kyôshirô movie in the first place. Everything looks like its been written for something completely different and the main series protagonist has just been slotted in after the fact. I’d like to know more about the production history of this movie and, also, the events which take place on screen as they seem to be inspired by a true incident in Edo period Japan, including a great fire in Edo which I can’t find as taking place anywhere near the main timeline of this picture.

The film opens with slow harpsichords on a soundtrack by none other than the master composer of Japanese film Akira Ifikube (creator of the “voice” of Gojira  aka Godzilla and also the musical scores for many of the Gojira movies... a man known as the John Williams of Japan) and continues on throughout the running time of the movie in a fairly leisurely style in much the manner of the handful of scores he did for another series of successful chambara films which were around at the same time, the Zatoichi series. I think I would be hard pressed, especially after only one viewing, to hear any real difference in his scoring fo those Blind Swordsman movies and this one, to be honest.

The plot begins in a conspiratorial manner as rival factions are after the secrets to the method to distill “stink-water” (a natural oil found in swamps) to make a clean-burning energy.. and not something which is going to be useless and uncommercial in lamps because it gives of a sooty black smoke when burned if incorrectly distilled. This eventually hatches into a plot to destroy the whole of the Edo district in Japan (as it was formerly known before it came to be called Tokyo). It’s also the story of a villain who wants to do this while hiding it as a commercial opportunity to the people he needs to help him while at the same time trying to keep a promise to a little girl (which is the only thing which really gives this particular movie any real heart).

The thing is... it takes maybe a quarter of an hour before Nemuri Kyôshirô actually turns up in the narrative and even then they have to shoehorn him into the plot by making him a “coincidental double” of the dead man who managed to perfect the top secret distillation method to begin with. Nemuri really doesn’t do much in this movie and he seems to be really innefectual in the progression of the plot, too. Sure, he saves a few lives and slaughters a fair few more, but for the majority of the course of the movie, it just seems like the writers are finding ways in which they can have the character interact with a bunch load of other characters who are themselves, in reality, driving the story forward without his help. This really shows up towards the end of the movie where Nemuri falls into a trap and finds himself helpless to come to the rescue as explosions rock a few warehouses and Edo is set on a course to burn down completely. Again, although I know there have been some major fires in Edo, there’s nothing on the books that I can find which match the mid-19th Century kind of dating that this movie has. if you’re a reader with any knowledge of this historical incident, please leave it in the comments section at the bottom of this short review.

Nemuri then gets free at the end in order to deal with the main villain (and the pathos of his unfulfilled promise to the little girl) and to slaughter all his subordinates while the general battle around the convoluted and, I suspect, highly political plot, takes care of everything else.

Because of the lack of a cohesive, Nemuri Kyôshirô led plot, this is actually my least favourite of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death films so far. It is, however, one of the reasons why it is also one of the most interesting... coupled with the typical “lazy Chanbara” style Ifikube scoring and some absolutely stunningly designed frames. There’s some stuff in here where the director chops the single frame up artificially into about 8 sections, for example, so that a range of characters in a room can each have their own sectioned of area of space in relation to everybody else. Stunning stuff.

If you like the Sleepy Eyes Of Death movies then Sword Of Villainy is definitely a must-see, simply because it’s so different in tone and style to the previous seven in the series. If you’re looking for a film to jump onto the series with, though, this certainly isn’t it. I suspect (since I can find no information to either confirm or refute my suspicions) that this movie did not start off life as a Nemuri Kyôshirô movie. I reckon this one was probably being developed as something else and the studio needed another Nemuri Kyôshirô installment quick to keep the impetus going (this must have been quite a succesful film series for the studio). So probably not the best one to start on since it doesn’t really give you a flavour of what the series is really like.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Most Beautiful

Beautiful Dreamer

The Most Beautiful Japan 1944
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection Region 1

So here I go again. Reviewing a movie by one of my favourite directors. Reviewing a movie by my absolute “directing God”, in actual fact. Oh well... at least there’s absolutely no danger that he’s going to seek me out and come break my arms.

Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful was only his second gig at directing, after having worked his way up through the Toho Studio Apprentice System learning all aspects of film making. Since his first movie Sanshiro Sugata (reviewed here) had been a roaring success, so much so that he would soon be “persuaded” to make the sequel as his third film (one of only two sequels he ever made to any of his movies, the other being the Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro), it was inevitable that he would soon get dragged into making a war propaganda film.

Originally he was supposed to make a movie about Zero fighter pilots... but Japan was losing the war and he reportedly wanted to save on using planes which couldn’t be spared. So he concocted this story of women who work, live and sleep in a factory manufacturing lenses for the war effort.

The movie starts off with a very familiar face to fans of Kurosawa, as actor Takashi Shimura, playing the part of the director of the factory, announces via a loudspeaker system that the quota’s have been upped for the workers due to the increased demand for optical equipment in the war. There’s a 100% rise in targets for the male workforce and a 50% rise for the female workforce. The community of women we follow in this film are looked after by their... well den mother is a good a term as any, I guess... wonderfully played by actress Yôko Yaguchi. However, she has problems with “her girls” following this announcement because, well, the women are in an uproar about the quota hikes.

Now if this movie were set now or made today, you’d be able to see where this was going straight away... but this is wartime propaganda, and these were not the attitudes the government wanted to push. Turns out the women are upset because their new targets are only half of what the men have been asked to do. They want to do their bit and so they see the bosses and they let them up their targets to about three quarters of what the men are being asked to do.

The film is very much about a sense of community spirit, which is very much a Kurosawa concern as shown in later masterpieces like Red Beard, Dodes'ka-den and even Madadayo. It also, however, takes the traditional propaganda route and emphasises the value of the “group agenda” over the individual... something I suspect Kurosawa would have been very uneasy with given the concerns of a lot of his other films, which often value the diversity and prowess of the individual over the less interesting “hive mind”.

The shot design (in its original 4:3 pre-scope aspect ratio) is the usual Kurosawa brilliance combined with editing which is so perfect you won’t even notice it. It just flows along before your eyes dragging you in without you even realising it’s doing it. There are many who will argue that this is one of the main goals of film, to make you forget you’re watching it. Not me. I love looking at the way the shots work and seeing the way my emotions are being manipulated on-screen as I’m watching (possibly one of the reasons I have a soft spot for horror films). It’s odd then that I single out Kurosawa as being the epitome of his art when his movies never call any attention to the way they are put together... but something in me definitely responds to his genius in a way that I prize above the works of others. Go figure.

This film is filled with strong performances and, though it does have a few male Kurosawa regulars that fans of his work will surely enjoy seeing, it is the group of female workers who steal the show. Although Yôko Yaguchi is amazing as the woman who will not return home to her province even for the death of her mother because duty calls (she instead sheds her tears at her work bench while she continues to calibrate the next batch of lenses), this really is one of those films which benefits from the talents of the whole ensemble as opposed to focusing on individual performances... which is kind of a given in this type of military propaganda, I suppose. Interestingly, Kurosawa does manage to often single out Yaguchi’s character for praise from her bosses in the factory, not to mention her coworkers, but the emphasis is always on kind words to reward individual sacrifice. Maybe this was Kurosawa’s way of trying to inject a little of the individual” into his movie.

Either way, The Most Beautiful is not considered, to my knowledge, to be a key work of Kurosawa’s career... but as I mentioned earlier, it does share certain attitudes with some of his later work and it does this first. I believe he probably learnt a thing or two on this one and, while it’s not necessarily a good jumping on point for the Kurosawa novice, I’d certainly recommend it to any Kurosawa fan... as I probably would any of his work to be honest.

As for the talented Yôko Yaguchi... you might be wondering what happened to her after her impressive performance in this, which happened to be the last film she acted in. Well, apparently she rallied round her girls on set much like she does in the film... Kurosawa had, after all, got his cast living, staying, learning the lens making process and sleeping at the factory full-time so it probably wasn’t a problem for the actors and actresses to identify with their roles given these circumstances (Kurosawa was always pretty thorough). Apparently Yaguchi and Kurosawa had a lot of “on set” arguments during filming and developed a grudging respect as they got to know one another. Which is why Yaguchi never made another film and started up an altogether different kind of “production company” with her former director. What was Kurosawa to do when faced with a strong woman of artistic temperament? Dear reader, he married her.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Raid (aka The Raid: Redemption)

Raiding Places

The Raid 
aka The Raid: Redemption 
aka Serbuan Maut
Indonesia/USA 2011 Directed by Gareth Evans
Now showing in UK cinemas.


That’s the word I think I’d use to describe The Raid, if I had a choice. But I can’t really because... well you know... it’s not actually a word.

Okay I really did know what that last sentence was going to lead on to, I promise... there was going to be an open bracket at the end of word and then the sentence... “quickly checks the Urban Dictionary to make sure kickasstacular isn’t a word in common usage”. That’s where my opening paragraph fell down here folks... as I’m afraid I did just check the Urban Dictionary and it turns out “Kickasstacular” is already in common usage... see here.

Okay, so carrying on as if nothing has happened...

There are only a few films that I can think of, off of the top of my head, that I would consider to be in the kinetic realm of the kickasstacular. That is to say, action movies which are so fast and ferocious that you get almost an adrenalin rush just sitting and watching them from your seat. Of recent cinema history I can only think of the following: the first District 13 (Banlieue 13) movie, Danny The Dog (aka Unleashed) and the first Ong Bak movie. These are pretty much it in terms of the modern contemporaries of this movie... at least as far as I’m concerned.

Written and directed by a Welsh man living in Indonesia, The Raid has garnered solid reviews for being the absolute state-of-the-art in modern action movies and, after seeing it this weekend, I can see why. It’s not exactly non-stop and the action sequences are, quite competently, tempered with a few breathers from the blisteringly paced editing on show throughout the majority of this movie. What singles it out from the films I listed above, however, is not the discovery that the action sequences are in any way more spectacular than those films... because they’re not. The one thing The Raid has working both for and against it is the fact that the three films listed above had some definitive moments of humour to help balance the action sequences and to give the audience a bit of a rest... The Raid, however, is perfectly (or imperfectly, depending on your personal viewpoint) humourless. Instead of pacing the movie out with classic moments of comic relief, the movie fills in the non-action scenes with a grim, dark suspense that, in some cases, becomes almost too unbearable to watch.
Update: Please see the comment left below by Zanirma which explains the moments of humour in this film and highlights the issues of things getting lost in translation. Brilliant comment.

This does give it a less over-the-top feel for a little while but, after some time has passed, there’s a point about a third of the way into the film when you think, no men could take this kind of punishment this consistently and not get tired and, while there is a sequence after a major fight scene where the director has tried to address this “longevity” issue somewhat, it’s pretty obvious that, by this point, you’ve entered the unpredictable world of the OTT action-versus-science school of film-making. But, also by this point, the audience members are probably beginning to feel a little punch drunk themselves, so they’re possibly not going to notice too much.

The Raid concerns itself with a police raid on a block of flats filled with a criminal community and protected by various traps to stop such a thing happening in the first place. The police team need to get to the top and take out the “boss man” (I’m realising as I’m typing this that Bruce Lee might well approve, since this is a very similar concept to what he originally wanted Game Of Death to be). The plot is simple (and one of the policemen briefing his men in the van journey to The Raid also acknowledges this in a little dialogue nod to the audience)... but it’s not so simple that there aren’t a few, admittedly obvious, twists along the way. The character who turns out to be the real lead hero of the film, for example, has his own agenda for being there and, quite apart from that, there are questions also raised once the shooting starts as to whether The Raid has been officially sanctioned or not. I don’t want to give too much away here so that’s the last I’ll say about plot details... but there is a lightweight (admittedly) intelligence to the story which pulls this above most of the other big screen action fests doing the rounds these days. Not much, to be sure, but certainly enough to raise it above the heads of others.

Also, although the action is quite exhaustingly driven and paced, for the most part the editing does not work against the sequences it’s trying to portray. You will surely understand the geography and choreography of the combat sequences as they are happening and not as some kind of delayed, what-just-happened response which you will need to concentrate on to cobble together in your mind after the fact.

That being said, I did notice a few continuity errors throughout the film, the major one for me being when the main protagonist (such as he becomes) head butts one of the less deliberately cardboard of the villains so hard that the bad guys eyeball explodes with a bloody pop. In the rest of the fight, however, the guy just seems a bit squinty and there is no blood on his face. I’m completely forgiving this as an enthusiastic insert-shot-after-the-fact on what must have been some very hard to shoot action sequences, however, and the very fact that I could even comprehend what I just saw under these kinds of ultra-lightning cut sequences is probably a testimony to the strength of the editing on this one.

And that was it... my one and only negative piece of criticism of The Raid. 

I think it’s a really great little action movie and the success it’s receiving is very much deserved and ensures that this will now continue on as a franchise... the next two parts in a planned extension to a trilogy already being plotted out, it seems. This movie does leave a few questions hanging in the air as to the nature and origins of just went on, to be fair, and my one hope for continuing the series is that the second and third parts don’t try to repeat the formula too much and we don’t end up with more “blocks of flats” movies... they’ve already done that as good as it will get in this one.

So if you like a hefty dose of anxiety inducing, pulse pounding, action cinema... The Raid is a cinematic block of flats that’s right up your street. I’m not sure how long a subtitled movie from Indonesia is going to be staying around at the cinemas though, so you’d best get out and watch it while you can. You won’t be sorry.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

And Soon The Darkness (1970)

Darkness Fails

And Soon The Darkness UK 1970
Directed by Robert Fuest
Optimum Region 2

Hmmm... okay. I love director Robert Fuest’s adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme (reviewed here)... it’s one of my all-time favourite movies and I could watch it many times a year if I didn’t have such a tower of other movies to watch. But every time I see another movie he’s directed... well they always seem to leave me... not unimpressed, but certainly a little flat. I thought, with all the hype surrounding And Soon The Darkness on the “UK movies-in-a-pub” scene in the UK lately, that this would be the movie to reaffirm my, perhaps naive, belief that Robert Fuest is, in actual fact, an underrated directing God deserving of wider recognition. Alas, although this movie has little sparks of visual splendour hidden within its frames, I found this to be another slightly disappointing stab at movie making from Feust, although to be fair, I’m not sure whether I should be blaming him or the two writers.

I can see why Hollywoodland decided to remake this movie a few years ago. The storyline to this road movie (quite literally a “road” movie since a road is where the majority of the action is set) is pretty weak and obvious with vague pretensions to a whodunnit kind of twist that will fool exactly nobody for more than about 5 seconds... and therefore would reassure the younger teen audiences which comprise the majority of modern day cinemagoers that they are watching something which they are reasonably intelligent enough to comprehend. Perfect for a modern day/teen fodder blockbuster I would say. However, since this original version was shot for a 1970s audience, I’m afraid I can give the writers and director no such credit or justification in the weakness of the script. I was expecting a lot more from the two “giants of TV writing” who concocted this one... Brian Clemens and Terry Nation!

Now I’ve gone on record that storyline doesn’t matter much in cinema, and it doesn’t (otherwise this movie would be completely unwatchable)... but I do take an active dislike to stories which set themselves up to have a certain amount of intelligence and mystery at their heart and then turn out to have neither of those things. The story on this one tells of two teenage girls, Jane and Cathy, played by Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice (the second whom many would recognise as going on to play the put upon Betty to Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer in the popular UK TV sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em) who go on a cycling tour of the French countryside but, after an argument, then go their separate ways for a while as Jane leaves Cathy sunbathing next to a wood. When she returns to look for her, Cathy has gone missing. Something bad has happened to her and it’s probably that boy that’s been following the two girls since the last village they stopped at, right? Well no... and anyone who’s seen more than a handful of mysteries would recognise the obvious attempts at misdirection the writers/director engage in to make you think so.

Unfortunately for all concerned, especially the suffering audience, the real “killer” in this piece will be pretty obvious right from his first real appearance in the movie, about half way through. The script is written and clues are given in such a way that, once this character turns up, he really is the only person who will satisfy all the elements you know of “the previous murder from around these parts” and so it only remains for the audience to watch in stunned silence as the stupidity of the lead character bumbles her way around making things worse for herself... presumably cycling around the French countryside causes one to shed IQ points in direct proportion to the amount of pedal power you can muster, is my guess.

For all the weakness of the story, though, it has to be said that Fuest’s visual flair, when it begins to kick in (maybe he got more confident about certain scenes than others), almost makes up for the inadequacies of the storyline. Shots designed so that small heads can be seen amidst a density of texture and some, possible overuse, of differential focussing make some of the sequences stand out and I can only wonder what these compositions might have looked like on a full size cinema screen. Probably quite breathtaking in some scenes. And I’m guessing there were some issues during production so it’s not necessarily his fault as to the seemingly weak scripting. One of the characters Jane meets on her journey goes into great detail about the appearance of her house and it’s rough location... so I could be forgiven for thinking that this house would feature prominently at some point later when Jane is trying to get away from her potential killer. It doesn’t happen but it made me wonder, since the dialogue in that sequence turned out to be so detailed for something so superfluous when some of the other information was quite helpful, did a scene like that exist in the script at some point but then was jettisoned before filming was complete? I guess I’ll never know.

The music was mostly quite good but started off hitting a wrong note with me because the opening and end title music is so inappropriately banal and jaunty that you really wonder if you’ve accidentally found yourself watching a mid-seventies children’s show instead. The scoring on this one is handled by a composer who is best associated with TV shows like The Avengers, The New Avengers and The Professionals and once the title sequence is over with, it becomes a bit more interesting. The composer’s name is Laurie Johnson and I know he had a certain friendship with Hollywood legend Bernard Herrmann. He conducted a lot of Herrmann’s “own” re-recording of Psycho for the old Unicorn label release in the seventies uncredited when Herrmann found himself too frail to manage it all himself and you’ll find he is also the credited conductor for the old Unicorn re-recording of North By Northwest. He's also the guy they called in to score the sequel to It’s Alive, where he recycled lots of Herrmann’s own score to the first one for use in the second movie.

His score for And Soon The Darkness is actually quite similar to Herrmann's music in some ways. He uses short, repetitive motifs with soaring, bass brass punctuation in much the same way Herrmann might have if he’d been given the project. It’s not a score which has ever been commercially released (not even on one of Johnson’s compilations, to my knowledge) but it may be deserving of one. You can hardly blame the labels for not releasing it at the time, however, given the almost unlistenable quality of the title music on this one. The rest of the scoring is just fine though.

So, okay, this film is not a great movie by anyone’s standards in my humble opinion... but at least the camerawork and scoring are both above the average and give the film a certain lift which may help you forget about the script for a while. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend this one... it’s just not a remarkable movie... although it’s getting a bit of a revisionist reputation at the moment so, please, don’t take my word for it. But if you do feel the need to see this one... see it cheap, is my advice.

Saturday, 19 May 2012



Meanwhile US 2011
Directed by Hal Hartley
Possible Films Region 0

I’ve long held the belief that Hal Hartley is the greatest living director and generally taken every possible opportunity to herald that sentiment to anybody who a) likes movies enough to have heard of Mr. Hartley and b) will actually sit still and listen. This kind of overly positive attitude to people can sometimes make me nervous when I set myself the task of “reviewing” that person’s work... and it’s worse when the person has not, as yet, shuffled off this mortal coil.

That is to say... if I was writing a review about one of my other directing heroes like Akira Kurosawa or Andrei Tarkovsky, I would be pretty nervous, sure, in case my personal theories and feelings about their work ran contrary to what their intentions were (and I missed something really obvious, which is always a worry) but the ghost of Akira Kurosawa is not going to come and give me a good seeing to with Toshiro Mifune’s spare samurai sword. Similarly, Andrei Tarkovsky is not going to spring to life, zombie like, and shamble around after me trying to make me drink a good, unhealthy dose of liquid oxygen.

Hal Hartley is still alive. In the “extremely remote” chance that he actually might read something I wrote and disagreed with it or, you know, generally disliked it... he could possibly find out where I lived and break my arms.

So I guess I’m kinda nervous on this one... forgive me if I stumble.

Okay, so Meanwhile is Hartley’s latest feature and, by feature, I mean it in the good old Universal B-movie sense because, frankly, it’s only an hour long (boo, I wanted more). Even so, one hour of Hartley after his continued absences from the commercial cinema/movie scene is like a glass of cool water to a man stranded in the desert.

The quality of the... (insert pretty much all aspects of film-making here)... is absolutely everything you could hope for in a distinct return to form for Hartley (yeah, okay, I’ll admit I didn’t like Fay Grim so much... but I loved every other feature he’s made and most of the shorts too... can I be forgiven please? I’m going to give Fay another try sometime soon, I promise!). All of the action takes place in a roughly 24 hour time period in New York and D.J. Mendel, who is absolutely superb in this role (as I would expect), plays Joseph and follows him on his day as he tries to keep his head above water.

Joseph, it seems to me, is an eternal optimist. He has no money but he is always giving it away or promising it to people when he is struggling, quite cheerily, to make some money in the first place. He can pretty much fix anything (harkening back to Matthew Slaughter as played by Martin Donovan in Trust) but, although he does go around fixing things for people all day, he refuses to accept any money for his good work. He even fixes a Spanish housekeeper’s back in a scene which is very old school, obvious (almost slapstick) and broad comedy.

He continues this optimism all the way through the film, even though he has a crushing weight on him as he failed, to his knowledge, to prevent a woman from throwing herself to her death off the Brooklyn Bridge. This in some ways informs certain choices he makes through the picture... or at least gives his dogged determination in the face of rebuttal a sense of being justified if you don’t happen to share his kind of mindset... but ultimately, as I said before, he’s just the great optimist. At least that’s how I see him. This is nowhere more apparent in his ultimate fate and his last line in the movie. This is "the guy" you would always want to hang out with down your local pub. The talented everyman in pursuit of the break and gently nudging along with the mundane and “everyday” occurrences which make up a lot of people’s lives.

And, of course, he spouts those great Hartley lines. The real poetry of the way people interact with each other is a joy to listen to, as well as see perfectly and cleanly and, mostly, simply framed in this director’s awesome shot designs. Fans of this writer/director will love this movie anyway but more-so because this one has a distinct retro feel when it comes to this director’s back catalogue. I’ve already mentioned the slight character trait connection the main protagonist shares with an earlier Hartley hero but there are lots of little nods to the director’s early works in this movie. One girl’s initial dialogue/monologue came off sounding exactly like what Adrienne Shelley’s character Maria (also from Trust) might have said... heck, for all I know it could be one of the same speeches with just a few tweaks. There are lots of little moments in this which sent little blips of deja vu echoing through my Hartley movie memories and I really liked this stuff. Hell, even the title of the movie is a visual echo of the captioning in The Unbelievable Truth (I hate mentioning Godard in comparison to Hal Hartley’s stylistic distancing techniques but... I’m sorry... this movie shares a similarly Godardian device in that it uses a series of intertitles which make up chapter references).

This is not to be derogatory to the director, of course. The last thing he may want is to hear that this movie looks and sounds like something from his earlier period. Maybe I’m just responding to the directors style on this one... the rawness of the poetry being particularly potent in this maybe just means that the dialogue is, you know, kinda Hartleyesque... which I guess must be a compliment of some sort... or at least a truth, unbelievable or not.

This film is very self-referential too. We’ve seen Hartley playing himself before in the third segment of the feature-length version of Flirt and, once again, he’s mentioned in this movie... even though he doesn’t actually show up at all. His wife, a constant actress in Mr. Hartley’s work, does though. Playing herself for a change. Joseph borrows her apartment while she’s in Shanghai overseeing her fashion label and so he goes to pick up the key from Possible Film’s offices, where a woman borrows the novel of Meanwhile overnight. These days I think I’m supposed to describe this kind of element in a movie as “meta-textual”... but I’m really not sure I’m all that fond of the meta word to be honest and, a decade ago, I would have referred to this movie as having a postmodernistic attitude... which would have probably sounded a bit better but ultimately, still means the same thing. Either way, the movie takes place in a universe where the director, wife of the director, offices of the director and the template of the movie you are watching, exist as fictional elements that appear in the story (if you really want to call it a story... I’m not too fond of stories, as you may have figured out by now if you’ve been reading any of my other blog posts semi-regularly). Make of that what you will.

Personally, I just thought it was kinda fun.

The music is cool on this too, of course. It’s typical Hal Hartley music... which is to say, it’s catchy and works really well laid over the visual images (and probably works really well as a stand alone listen too... “Hartley the musician” has that knack about him). The director comes clean about having composed the music himself this time... none of this Ned Rifle or Ryful playfulnesss on this one. He’s got over that, I think.

So yeah, this is a fun movie and a fun listen and there are some little sections of this movie that might also make you think... and the main protagonist is somebody to aspire to be like in their attitude too. How cool is that?

I started off this review restating my belief that Hal Hartley is the greatest “living” director working in film. After having seen this movie, I can find no evidence pointing to the contrary... this is another mini-masterpiece made by an absolute genius on the cinematic landscape. It’s also a really great jumping on point for this director if you’ve never experienced his work before. A really solid intro to some of his recurring themes and his ways of expression. I’d give this movie (and this director, obviously) a Grade A recommendation to anyone. A perfect watch. Go to his website Possible Films and go buy a load of his stuff, including this movie. He deserves it and so does your mind!

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Rising Vamp

Vampyres (aka Daughters Of Dracula) UK 1975
Directed by José Ramón Larraz
Showing as part of the 6th May 2012 
Classic Horror Campaign double bill

Okay. Round two.

So after the interesting but, to my mind, mostly dull charms of Blood Of The Vampire (reviewed here), the second part of this particular Classic Horror Campaign  double bill was Vampyres (aka Daughters Of Dracula), which was much more to my taste but which also asks more questions than it answers in terms of the storyline.

Now I’d seen this movie years ago when a friend leant me the old VHS copy and I remember thinking... yeah, okay. Not terrible but not really a great film. But I couldn’t really remember it and my tastes have mellowed over the years. Also, if that tape was not in its original aspect ratio I would have probably “felt” the way it had been tampered with in terms of shot flow and design in a negative manner. I’m usually pretty sensitive to that kind of stuff.

This time around I really loved it but, while it is technically a British vampire movie, in that it was made with British money and is set and shot over here, I really wouldn’t go as far to count this as a British movie.

True, the acting in it is very "British", that is to say, the dialogue is very colloquial to our country while, at the same time, also being quite bad (in this case) and somewhat stilted in the acting style. Everything is delivered in a very proper but also very stiff manner which seems almost at an odds with the nature of the characters being portrayed. Why I say it’s not really a British movie is because of two reasons...

One is that the director, José Ramón Larraz, is Spanish... and one can see just by looking at the content of this movie that no British director would have turned this story in, in quite this manner (ironically, if the actors had been speaking Spanish and I’d been relying on subtitles, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the incredibly bad acting that goes on by the majority of the cast in this movie). The film deals with two female vampires who get picked up hitchhiking every night and lure their “good samaritans” back to their little stately home so they can have sex with them and kill them so they can drink their fill of life preserving blood (although that in itself is an impractical thing in that a fresh corpse a night would certainly have provoked more ballyhoo with the local police).

And that’s where my second point comes in. The film deals with two bisexual vampires who spend a lot of time naked and “getting it on” with both their victims and each other in fairly, for the time, graphic detail which most British directors then would have certainly shied away from. These are nothing less than “stylishly seventies” blood orgies... which are a bit of a rarity even now in this country (the film was somewhat cut on it’s initial cinema release and some of it’s subsequent home viewing editions over here) but the most interesting influence on this one must surely be that... well... I reckon the director may have been a bit of a Jean Rollin fan.

Jean Rollin, a French director, made badly acted, barely coherent but always sexy and surrealistically beautiful lesbian vampire movies. A lot of these are quite stunning, despite their obvious shortcomings in some areas, but one recurring piece of imagery which finds its way into a lot of Rollin’s movies (and literature) is that of always having two (sometimes twin) vampire girls/women who often drive the plot in some way. Now, to be fair, the two vampire girls are usually quite sweet an innocent in their outlook.... yeah, they can feast on peoples flesh, have loads of lesbian sex or practice sadistic tortures on each other, but for some reason they are always imbued with a certain sense of girlish naivete. Now Larraz doesn’t go that far in this movie... these vamps are definitely not, in any way, innocent... but he does take the theme of two vampire girls and puts them in a small scale setting where the action is always played out in a... well, let’s say cosy, space. This is no globe-trotting location movie like the large, visual orchestral symphony of a James Bond movie, for example. Like Jean Rollin’s own movies, this is a chamber concerto when it comes to the confines of its setting and, consequently, there’s not really a lot of variance over what goes on in the movie once the idea has been set up.

Once the visual ingredients are all laid out, the movie revels in its own “funky seventies” decadence for a while before coming to an abrupt end. Along the way there are some questions which hint at darker things but which never get answered. For instance, the movie starts with the two girls who become the vampires being shot to death mid-sexy romp by an unseen killer... but this in no way explains their vampire origins... or does it? The man who becomes their main and constant human snack bar throughout the course of the film (and surprisingly, he’s the only main human character who actually survives to the end of the movie) checks into a hotel in the area in which this film is set and one of the hotel clerks seems to recognise him from many years before... although the ages don’t match up. Hmmmm... are they setting this guy up to be the main vampire?

Well, the answer is... no. Not a bit of it. He seems just as confused as everybody else who ends up becoming bloody food for these female sexpots... which makes me wonder if there wasn’t a story change somewhere along the line and little moments which had already been shot to signify something else were just jettisoned later in the production as the story reshaped itself in to something else... due to either inventiveness, dried up funding or an inability to capture what was initially wanted. I guess I’ll never know if that’s what happened... but one of those things seems likely to me.

Not that this makes much difference. Vampyres is a really neat little “horror” film and, although the visual design and atmosphere are not a patch on what French lesbian vampire auteur Jean Rollin could create, this little movie certainly holds it’s own in the entertainment stakes and has a certain hypnotic spell all it’s own. I can imagine giving this one a spin when I’m next in need of a little mindless but sexy “vamping up”. Highly recommended for any fans of 70s euro-horror... and for fans of bare, heaving bosoms dripping with blood, of course.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Blood Of The Vampire

A Kind Of Blooding

Blood Of The Vampire UK 1958
Directed by Henry Cass
Showing as part of the 6th May 2012 
Classic Horror Campaign double bill

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Blood Of The Vampire so, when the Classic Horror Campaign decided to show it in one of their double bill screenings, along with the sex and blood fuelled Vampyres, my ears pricked up. Of course, when it comes to the second half of their double feature it wasn’t just my ears that were... um... pricking up... but I’ll review that separately on another blog post in the very near future.

I have to say that, while Blood Of The Vampire is, no doubt, a very interesting curio given it’s timing in British Horror History, it’s also, I’m almost afraid to say, not a film I enjoyed very much.

The title is very misleading in that a person who has been revived after death by a heart transplant and who drains his “experimental subjects” of blood by transfusing it into his own to continue living is the only character that passes for a vampire in this one... so I was a little disappointed that none of the traits or usual trappings of the screen vampire are brought into play here. This is probably due to the heavy influence of Hammer Studios’ breakout horror hit of the previous year, The Curse Of Frankenstein, in that this is not really a story of vampires, neck biting and crosses as you might expect, but more a tale of surgical experiments as live human beings are used as raw material for a mad doctor, the so-called vampire of the title, and his deformed laboratory assistant (a “quasimodo” if ever there was one, with a large unblinking eye prosthetically placed halfway down his right cheek). It’s also written by Jimmy Sangster who did the writing duties on The Curse Of Frankenstein and a plethora of other Hammer movies throughout the years.

The story is well crafted, to be fair, telling the tale of a young doctor falsely accused and sent to an “inescapable” prison which turns out to be a set-up so the mad “Doctor Callistratus” can use his special “blood-related” skills to further his own ends. When the set up is discovered, our hero is reported dead but the young man’s VIP girlfriend goes undercover in the prison to find out the truth. The usual shenanigans occur and the film very much plays like a cross between the Hammer Frankenstein movies, which I confess to not liking all that much anyway, and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe “adaptations”... which I like a good deal more than this warmed up pot boiler. For me this film just drags a little too much for its own good and I did catch myself trying to nod off on more than one occasion (maybe it was the combination of alcohol and good fun atmosphere that the Classic Horror Campaign events always engender). If the photography or shot design had been a little more remarkable I would possibly have perked up a little but, as it was, I can see why this movie got kinda buried in the wake of the Hammer Dracula of the same year... a film which does deal with vampires in a more head-on manner. Not to say that the direction and cinematography on this one aren’t competent... they’re fine. Nothing particularly breathtaking in this one though and, it has to be said, the miniature shots of locations coupled with painted backdrops for some scenes are a lot less effectively handled than they would have been in the hands of someone like, well, the great Mario Bava, to name but one.

And while I’m busy invoking a comparison to The Great Bava, I’d have to say that the one vampiric scene in the movie, which is a pre-credits sequence, shows a staking through the heart of an unseen vampire (Doctor Callistratus) with a big mallet which is done with all the timing and ritualistic trapping of the pre-credits sequence of Bava’s Black Sunday (aka Mask Of The Demon and reviewed here) and features more blood in this first little snippet than most Hammer films of this period put together. I wonder how this film fared with the censors? I know the US and International cuts are different from each other, each containing different scenes and cuts the other don’t have... but I don’t think this opening was under discussion or “on the table” with the censors for some strange reason. Would be interesting to find out a little more perhaps.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Blood Of The Vampire. I would suggest If you’re doing a study of British Horror or want to watch all the relevant stuff churned out in this period then this movie is essential viewing because of it’s obvious influences from other horror films of that period but, if you’re not that fussed, then I suspect this movie has nothing much to offer you.

Luckily, my afternoon was saved as I started to watch the second half of the Classic Horror Campaign double bill, Vampyres... which I will review in a blog post coming soon...

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Another Fine Messalina!

Demetrius and the Gladiators US 1954
Directed by Delmer Daves
20th Century Fox Region 2

This review is dedicated to @muttivon2 (Petra Cahill), one of my new twitter followers who has been patiently waiting for me to get on and watch and review this movie. Thanks for the prod! 

Warning: There are some spoilers in this one so tread cautiously. They do follow a standard Hollywood formula, though, so I suspect I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t already guess.

Demetrius And The Gladiators, made in Cinemascope, carries on from The Robe (reviewed here) just a few minutes before it left off and uses the last scene in that movie as its prologue... with a quick insert shot of some new, important characters, such as Claudius and Messalina, who are spliced in to watch the two lovers from the previous film, Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, walk towards their death sentence. This is only fair, of course, because... since The Robe was already assumed to be a sure-fire succes when it was to be released, this sequel actually started shooting only three weeks after the previous film was shot and, as a result, some of the establishing shots of the gladiator school used in the earlier sequences here were borrowed to use as establishing shots in the opening sequence of The Robe... which was presumably still being edited while the daily rushes from this movie were coming in.

Question to my readers: Is this the only film in cinema history to have footage from its sequel already in it (prequels don’t count)? Please enlighten me.

Okay, so once again in this movie, The Robe of Christ is still a prominent artefact in that it holds power in the minds of both the Christians and Emporer Caligula, once again played by Jay Robinson. Most of the important, original cast of The Robe are back for this one, including Michael Rennie as Peter, who is mostly in this one at the start and at the end of the movie as a framing character who pretty much comes to the rescue of the title character, again played by Victor Mature, when Demetrius has renounced his faith and principles. But I’m getting ahead of myself...

Caligula is getting more and more outrageous in this movie and wants to find The Robe for himself, since he is convinced by the comments of Messalina , Claudius’ wife (and future lover of Demetrius) who wants Caligula dead, that he is a God on earth, and therefore could use the supernatural powers which he believes are to be found in The Robe. Meanwhile Demetrius is captured and put in gladiator school when he punches out a Roman for mistreating his “girlfirend”. Messalina is fascinated by him and wants to see if, as a Christian, he’ll fight to the death. He doesn’t, at first, kill any of his human combatants but proves his mettle by killing off a lot of tigers (presumably tigers are less important than men in the Christian faith) and after he sees his girlfriend die (or so he thinks) at the hands of some of the gladiators, he renounces his Christianity and takes bloody vengeance in the collisseum against those responsible. He then takes Messalina as a lover and rises in the ranks.

However, when Caligula’s madness forces Demetrius to confront his former fellow Christians, including Peter, to retrieve The Robe, he discovers that his girlfriend was just in a coma and has been seeking comfort in this inmportant piece of cloth. With Demetrius’ arrival, she is made well. So Demetrius takes up his Christianity again, as suddenly and as unconvincingly as he renounced it earlier in the film, but is sentenced to more carnage in Caligula’s collisseum when the Emporer of Rome cannot get his head around the idea that The Robe does not do him any good and is only any use as a symbol of a lifestyle, and not the supernatural magic wand he’d hoped for.

Things are at the worst possible situation? Will Demetrius have his throat cut in the arena? Will Caligula’s madness never cease? Well, if you’re familiar with the standard Hollywood 50s movie then you’ll probably have already figured out the answer to that one but, just remember, the last movie ended with the death of the two lead protagonists so... well you may yet be surprised. Probably not but, after the last movie, anything could happen.

This was a pretty good and entertaining flick. A good, work-a-day director keeping everything on track and to the predictable Hollywood formula but, you know, that’s no bad thing and not always so easy to do, either. You’ll be rooting for Demetrius and his chums all the way through and shaking your fist at the antics of Caligula... and one scene right near the end may even have you cheering with anticipated blood lust... but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

The score for the former movie was handled by legendary 20th Century Fox studio composer Alfred Newman and it was considered at the time (and now too, I believe) to be one of the great, classic soundtracks. So it annoyed a lot of people that The Robe was one of the few Newman scored pictures to not receive an Academy Award nomination for that year (I believe Newman won another oscar that year anyway, for another film score, but his outstanding work on the score to The Robe was not officially recognised... although I understand the studio heads were well pleased with it).

One of the people who was particularly annoyed that Newman didn’t get an Oscar nod for The Robe was skilled composer Franz Waxman (The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Spirit Of St. Louis etc.) who was tapped to provide a score for Demetrius And The Gladiators. As a result, and since Waxman wanted to use some of Newman’s themes and work them into the lietmotif of this movie, Waxman insisted that Newman get a “themes” credit on his own credit card alongside him. Nice move and Waxman’s score certainly serves the film well, with Newman’s motiffs for The Robe worked in whenever the garment is being talked about or is seen on screen. In many ways, in fact, this is almost (but not quite) a better score than the original in that the music all works together more appropriately than it did a few times in the former picture where there were, at least in my opinion, some jarring musical choices during certain scenes which did not blend well in their juxtaposition to certain other scenes.

That being said, though, the music is more keyed into a more stable environment on this one because it’s not the globetrotting, Biblical road movie its predeccessor was... this one is pretty much all set in Rome (barring the odd reused footage flashback to the previous movie) and so, in some ways, perhaps the less cosmopolitan nature of the second movie informed the musical limitations to a less jarring result?

Demetrius And The Gladiators is a fine film. True, it’s 1950s Hollywood style Christian propoganda at best, but there’s really nothing wrong with enjoying that kind of movie and this one will certainly hold your interest while you’re waiting to see if Demetrius will let go of his passive nature long enough to take vengeance against those who would set themselves up as his enemies. It’s also got a very young, pre-Marty Ernest Borgnine in it as the tough, but kindly, head of the gladiator school. He doesn’t do much in this one but he’s always a comforting actor to watch on screen. A friendly face if ever there was one.

This one’s definitely worth a watch if you liked the first one and have never seen it before but, a word of caution. While it probably works just fine as a stand alone movie experience, you’ll get a much richer entertainment from it if you watch the The Robe first. Obviously, it’d make a heck of a good double bill.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Piranha 3DD

Storm In A DD-Cup

Piranha 3DD USA 2012
Directed by John Gulager
Now showing in UK cinemas.

Wow. I really don’t get it.

This movie is not the film it needed to be... and is not what I was expecting for a sequel to the previous successful franchise relaunch either, for that matter.

It’s funny... up until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen any of the Piranha movies and never really had any desire to either. But then I saw the cinema trailer to this one and it made this look like a really fun movie. I knew that the original movies had been kind of revered by legions of fans over the years (which is kind of understandable since they’ve got directors like Joe Dante and James Cameron involved with them) and I figured, what the heck, I might as well check these movies out sometime soon, especially if I want to catch the new one in cinemas.

So the last few weeks I’ve been watching the previous four movies Piranha, Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Piranhas and, finally, Piranha 3D and reviewed them here on this blog before the first movie hit the cinemas. Since these reviews have come out quicker than I’d anticipated releasing them, I’ve rushed to get the movie reviews for these ones up on my blog before I write this review on the weekend of this film’s release.

So now it comes to it, the first thing that I have to say about this is that it’s nowhere near as fun as the trailer makes it out to be. Nor is it, and I’m hesitant to say this because I really didn’t like the last one very much, a worthy or even lively sequel to the shenanigans going on in the previous movie, which is where a few of the troubles with this one begin.

Set in a completely different place to the previous film, this one has very few familiar faces back from Piranha 3D... just cameo roles, really, in the form of Ving Rhames' police man (who lost his legs fighting off piranhas in the last film), his beach friend from the last one, and, of course, Christopher Lloyd, again taking the role of the “fish expert” from the previous film (although his character’s wife doesn’t seem to have been asked to come back). Then, of course, there are the piranhas themselves. The previous film had a visual punchline to the movie which took place in literally the final second or two of the final shot of the movie... when Christopher Lloyd tells the main protagonist that the piranhas they’ve been fighting are just the babys and a giant piranha whizzes over the boat and takes one of the central characters into the water with it for a snack. With this ready made set up for a sequel, I was expecting this thread of parental, giant piranha to at least get a mention, but this movie just ignores it and settles for piranha that have got confused and used the drains and water system to migrate into another small town without being noticed... well okay, they are noticed as soon as they start eating people but, since a brand new water park which connects to these same water systems is about to have its opening ceremony, the usual “you’re not closing the park” kind of conversational clichés apply.

There are some major things wrong with this film though. I wonder if it had enough budget because, honestly, even the so-called set pieces happen, more often than not, when there just aren’t that many people around to take part in them. It’s like the film is always pausing to add a new piece of fish chaos without actually flowing along visually with the bigger picture. Sure these sequences make sense and contribute a little (very little) to the advancement of what passes for a story in this one... but they still seemed to be disjointed and confused as to their intention in some sequences... that is to say, many of these sequences seem quite superfluous in their contribution to main narrative and also, I have to say, seem quite unenthusiastic in their execution. I certainly wasn’t engulfed in a wave of energy and fun on this one.

Another terrible thing about this movie is that, after a pure genius title like this which plays around with women’s bust measurements as part of its promotional identity, there is really not much nudity in it compared, even, to other movies in the series. So I did feel a bit like the final product was unrealistically represented by the marketing.

One, small, ray of light is that The Hoff is in it. Yep, David Hasselhoff is in here playing himself and doing lots of riffs and jokes regarding his time served on Baywatch, and he was kinda amusing in this because he seems to be taking himself much less than seriously than you might expect. Personally I’ve never seen an episode so I didn’t really get a lot of the jokes but some people in the audience who saw this were laughing along with him so I’m not ruling out the allure of Hasselhoff. In fact, Hasselhoff fans would do well to stay considerably into the end credits as there are a lot of outtakes and general tom-foolery taking place while the final credits roll.

And there are a lot of “credit breaks” in this movie.

Another good thing about this is that there is a main female protagonist who positively shines in regards to any other players in the movie and this, coupled with a much less objectifying or misogynistic set of characters in their attitude towards women, means that you actually feel some sympathy, or at least empathy, with some of the characters.

There’s also some semi-inventive violence again... although it does, to be fair, seem more tacked on there in a rather more blatant and less subtle way than I found it to be in the previous movie... although it irks me to say the previous movie was, in any way, subtle about anything, to be perfectly honest with you. The majority of the carnage takes place in a small water park and when the camera finally cranes up to take in the dead on the final “field of battle”... I was quite surprised how unimpressive it all looked and, lets face it, seriously underwhelming... like the purse strings had been cut sometime after funding had been promised or something similar. I’d hate to think there was no reason for this blatant disregard for an impressive climax to the movie (despite a nice ending shot of fish-induced decapitation).

Out of the five Piranha movies I’ve watched over the last few weeks, I can honestly say that I can’t find much to recommend in any of them. This one is, especially, quite lame and I expect, if it didn’t have the gimmicky title and the gimmicky process to match it, that it would perhaps have wound up as a straight to DVD release under any other circumstances. This film was not a fun watch and I think I’ve had my fill of trashy fish-monsters for a while.* Time to get on to some better quality movies as a counter balance. I need more Kurosawa in my life... I’ll sort it out.

*Coming sometime soon.... my review of The Alligator People!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Piranha 3D

Fish, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll

Piranha 3D USA 2010
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Entertainment In Video Region 2

Okay... so Piranha 3D is one of the most non-politically correct, sexist pieces of cinematic trash committed to celluloid. The whole movie feels like it was written to be the worst ever, unsubtle “Carry On film on acid” there ever was... it objectifies women to a disturbing degree and contradicts all its own subtext just for the sake of extra violent gore.

Now... bearing in mind everything I just wrote then, I have to admit that I found this film to be, not only everything I was expecting from all of the previous Piranha films (they all failed to deliver) but also to be generally better made than all its predecessors too. I actually kind of enjoyed it somewhat... although everything inside me is telling me that’s probably wrong.

Now I have to confess here that, while the DVD has the 3D version and a couple of sets of (way too small for an average head wearing normal glasses) 3D glasses to watch it by... I only lasted a few minutes on this print. I just couldn’t get the 3D to work properly and I got tired of watching double images all over the movie. So I gave up for the sake of a speedier afternoon and switched discs to the 2D version. Sorry about this but it had to be done.

My first big criticism is that it does exactly the opposite of what the awful 90s TV remake did... in that it isn’t in any way a remake. Now what I would have liked to have seen was for this to be an alternative, improved version of the original material, with some characters and places still in the movie... but this one not only dispenses with all of the characters from the first movie... it also throws out the plot completely. This school of Piranhas are not the military engineered killers invented to put an end to the Vietnam war before the funding was withdrawn, as they were in the Joe Dante movie. In this one a completely unexplained tremor opens a rift under a lake which lets loose various prehistoric, baby piranha which are thought to have been extinct for, like, a gazillion years. These are the toothed killers that do all the fleshy damage in this movie and the plot of the original never, unfortunately, rears its head on this one at all.

The film starts a lot better than I thought it would with a fishing Richard Dreyfuss being the newly released fishies first victim. Not only that but, to boot, he’s singing “Show me the way to go home” just like he did in Jaws. So this movie starts off by smartly playing with a dead-on reference to the film the original Piranha movie from 1978 was trying to cash in on. Unfortunately, this standard of post-modernistic japery is not prevalent for most of the movie and very quickly this film becomes all about the cinematic worship of female breasts. Now as a spirited male individual I have to say that I did greatly enjoy the profusion of female flesh displayed in this movie, which is easily the most exploitational in the series so far, but I also found myself pretty much cringing at the male derogatory attitudes towards women to be found on display in this story. I have to admit that, by the end of the movie, my head and my groin were feeling fairly conflicted and confused by this experience.

The effects and goriness are mostly impressive... a lot of people come to horrendously nasty ends which gives this killer fish movie a bit more bite than its predecessors. Now I don’t usually like gore for gore’s sake but there were a couple of bits of bloody death in this one which weren’t completely fish related and had an edge because they were completely unexpected.

One sequence which was interesting is when an out-of-control electrical cable accidentally slices a woman diagonally in half through the cleavage. It takes a while for both the audience and the victim to realise what just happened, as the lady in question watches as her top bits gradually slide away from the rest of her body. Another inventive sequence of goriness is when a lady being bitten by lively fish gets her long hair caught in the outboard motor of a boat being driven by a fleeing teenage boy. When he finally gets the motor restarted it scalps the woman, tearing half of her skin from her head. 

Little touches like this are, it should be acknowledged, fairly grotesque but also somewhat satisfying when mixed in with the other fish related carnage. These sequences raised the bar a little on the expectations of what a movie like this could give it’s audience and you have to applaud it a little for not just relying on nibbly teeth to comply with the appetite of the gore-gore crowd. 

There’s a lot of humour in the film, especially the last few seconds following the revelations as to the nature of these particular predators by a fish expert played by Christopher Lloyd (it was also nice to see Christopher Lloyd and Elizabeth Shue working together again since their time on the second and third Back To The Future movies) but, for the most part, this movie relies too much on jokes relating to various bits of female anatomy to the point where it kinda wears you down a little. It works fine for the first couple of one-liners but after a while it just gets old really fast.

As a red blooded male I have to say that Piranha 3D has a lot of bosomy women on screen, so it’s not a film I found boring on any level. At the same time, I can’t bring myself to recommend a film that treats women as objects as much as this one does (even with Shue playing such a strong female lead). Ultimately, if you want to see a movie with loads of nudity (some of it quite stunning, it has to be acknowledged) and violence towards... um... anything human, then you’re probably going to end up watching this one whether you want to or not at some point. Either way, I’m almost looking forward to seeing the sequel when it comes to cinemas soon. Review to follow shortly.