Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Cruel Gun Story

The Heist Is Right

Cruel Gun Story 
(Kenjû Zankoku Monogatari)
1964 Japan
Directed by Takumi Furukawa
Nikkatsu/Criterion Eclipse DVD Region 1 
(as part of the Nikkatsu Noir boxed edition). 

Warning: Cruel but minor spoilers within.

A darkened garage by night. An overturned car with a fountain of water from the burst hydrant it knocked over after ramming its way through the doors, hitting the car trying to break out of the garage going the other way. Shots ring out. Muzzle flashes flaring in the dark as the sound of hurtling bullets punctuate the pitched gun battle between one group of criminals and their former leg men.

This is the typical audio/visual currency of a mid to late sixties Nikkatsu crime picture but the fact that it’s not unique in the canon of this particular sub-genre of kinetic Japanese action cinema makes it no less special.

The film headlines Jô Shishido, known as “the chipmunk” due to the surgery he had to enhance his cheeks and perhaps best known to a Western audience for his association with master director Seijun Suzuki on a number of films, including Youth Of The Beast (filmed the year before this one), Gate Of Flesh (filmed the same year as this one) and, of course, the infamous Branded To Kill. In this movie Shishido is “retrieved” from jail two years early (he’s in there for crippling a guy who had crippled his sister in a hit and run road accident) by a gang of criminals who are recruiting him for a security van robbery as it leaves a racetrack. A team is put together for him and, after rejecting one guy after getting him to talk about the secret job, the film heads in the direction of a standard caper movie and, if anything, it conjures up images of Richard Stark’s character Parker more than anything else in tone and style.

And it’s a really great “caper gone bad” genre offering, as it happens.

Shishido plays a tough cookie, but one who agrees to do the job to be able to afford an operation to try to help his sister walk again... which at least gives the audience a sympathetic response to his character and leaves us no doubt as to who we’re supposed to be rooting for. As he runs down the specifics of the job, involving re-routed traffic, a tampered security radio, the death of four security guards, the disposal of the van and bodies etc, we see the job play out under his narration as it’s supposed to go... that is, according to plan.

But it doesn’t take much to figure out this kind of movie heist never goes to plan and it’s not long before the gang are back at a garage lair trying to pry two security guards from behind their bullet proof glass in their locked in van. While Shishido goes to report the limited success to his boss, he is double crossed and legs it back to find that his friend, one of the gang, has been nobbled and the rest of the gang trying to double cross him, to boot. It doesn’t take much to 'take care' of the two gang members but it also takes no time for the main gang, for whom the job is being carried out, to follow him back and get into the pitched gun battle I described in my opening paragraph.

From then on things get a little less typical since the gang recovers the money but not Shishido, who responds by working for a rival gang and kidnapping the former bosses son. Add in the seasoning of a few other characters... Shishido’s good hearted friend, Shishido’s new “gal” who also becomes an unofficial part of the gang, and Shishido’s direct controller on the job who is working both for and against the gang’s boss... and you have a bleak concoction shot in striking black and white which, by the final scene, turns into a bit of a bloodbath in that special kind of “nobody gets out of this job alive” kind of way. It’s no fun to be a character in this movie.

The writing is almost as crisp as the shots which are composed within a 2.45:1 (really?) aspect ratio and those compositions are pretty darned crispy. Beautiful designs flow across the screen using a trick I’ve seen used dozens of times in Japanese (and often Italian exploitation cinema) over the years, that of using vertical set decoration to chop the screen up into separate frames and use these frames to highlight the characters and sometimes pitch different spacial relations against each other. It’s good stuff and makes a cracking paced film even better.

The music by composer Masayoshi Ikeda is also quite brilliant and propulsive, using various sounds to punctuate accents of the on-screen action in the quieter scenes and just generally getting very loud and taking the lead whenever it really needs to comes out to play. The opening title music, for example, is big and audacious and, if I were listening to it without the context of knowing what the movie was about, I’d have to guess that it would be more appropriate for scoring a mid 60s Gojira/Godzilla monster mash up than a bleak crime drama.

It’s all pretty cool and the plot line goes the extra mile when it could have been wrapped up a little more quickly and takes you into a series of gun battles which almost leaves the film bereft of any characters... I can think of only one, but I’m not going to tell you who it is.

Cruel Gun Story is a film which has clearly defined heroes and villains... but none of them are really any good when it comes right down to it. Almost everybody is bad and the characters’ status as to which side of the light and dark they are on becomes more a question of which shade of grey they are at in their lives. A wildly entertaining movie and definitely another strong recommendation from me... this is part of Criterion Eclipse’s Nikkatsu Noir collection, which I would urge all lovers of cinematic brilliance to pick up. I’ve seen four out of five of the movies in this set now... and they’ve all been pretty amazing.

Monday, 29 July 2013

A View To A Kill

Keeping Up With The Jones

A View To A Kill 
1985 UK/USA 
Directed by John Glenn
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

After the dire spectacle of the previous EON film Octopussy, I had definitely had enough of the Bond franchise. A View To A Kill was released at cinemas when I was 17 years of age and, frankly, I wasn’t going to sit through another film which had the potential to be as bad as that last one. I’d had way too much Moore in the role of a “softened” James Bond anyway. So A View To A Kill is, as far as I can tell, the only Bond movie I’ve still not seen screened at a cinema (although, to be fair, when I did catch it years later, I did at least see it projected as film onto a screen, at a film club).

When I did eventually catch it, probably a couple of years after the next movie in the franchise, I actually didn’t think it was all that bad, for a Roger Moore film and even decided that I liked it almost as much as Live And Let Die at some point. I think, looking back at that initial screening now, I was probably responding to two main things about it almost exclusively... one being that, once you get the “submarine shag pad disguised as floating ice” thing out of the way, along with the truly dreadful opening titles design that followed it, you have a film which is not reliant on any real gadgetry and, the second thing being a script where the detective work, while still just following link by link, is a little less infantile and reliant on the “bad guy” tipping his hand than a few of the previous Moore movies in the series. So I responded quite well.

However, time has not been kind to the movie and looking at it again, I find that it is actually, in fact, quite dire in places and, although director John Glen is as solid and reliable as he always is, I think it’s overall not that much better than the likes of stuff like the dreaded Octopussy. This was also Lois Maxwell’s last film in the Moneypenny role so that’s a bit of a shame. It’s nice, though, that she got out of the office for a bit and even indulged in a mini-tribute to My Fair Lady in an infamous Eliza Doolittle quote when she’s at the racetrack (and no, before you ask, I’m not sure if that line is in Shaw’s original Pygmalion... you tell me).

There’s some nice stuff thrown into the mix in this film but it all seems so tempered with the bad stuff that it comes out as a bit of a non-entity as a Bond entry, to be honest.

You have Christopher Walken really going for it as the main villain, Max Zorin, and he’s almost over the top in his enthusiasm with this larger than life Bond villain. Never mind listening to the dialogue he is asked to deliver (it’s really quite bad in some sequences) and look at the way he uses his body language and the inflection of his words to play what is essentially a “test tube psychopath”... it’s pretty interesting. He really seems to get into it with his plot which, quite frankly, is a little similar to Goldfinger, in concept if not execution. But he’s very watchable and one wishes he had more scenes in the film.

Grace Jones, also, adds an interesting texture to the movie... possibly due to the fact that Moore, among others, allegedly couldn’t get on with her very well. Her villainess is interesting and they play the “Jaws” card from Moonraker with her because, at the end, she sacrifices herself to foil her former lover Zorin’s plan... admittedly due to the fact that he’s double crossed her more than any real change of heart but, since she does deliberately blow herself up, the act can seem to be at least a little like an act of redemption.

Of note, also, is another appearance by running character General Gogol, who appears to be almost shoehorned into the plot this time by being Zorin’s former boss at the KGB. And in the role of Jenny Flex, we have an early appearance by Alison Doody, predating her Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade “Jones-girl” role by four years. The main Bond girl of the piece is Tanya Roberts, who does a more than serviceable job with her role (people may remember her from The Beastmaster and Sheena) but the real find in terms of on-screen Bond girl sexiness is a turn from Fiona Fullerton, all grown up now from the role people might remember her from in the 1972, John Barry scored movie of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. She is seriously steamy in her brief appearance in this film and makes for some good eye candy, if you are that way inclined.

There’s also some really strange stuff happening here. Patrick McNee has a turn in the movie but comes across more as irritating in this than anything else... a far cry from his more famous John Steed personae which, given the usual campy writing associated with the Moore era of Bond films, might have been a better role for the producers to cross over into this film. Steed helping out Bond in a few scenes would have been much more interesting.

There’s also a very bizarre scene where Bond tells a police officer he’s James Bond and the police officer replies that, if he’s James Bond, then the police officer is Dick Tracy.

What the @&$*£!? Really? Let me get this straight in my head. He’s responding to Bond’s identity like Bond is either a) a fictional character or b) so famously well known that he’d be useless as a spy to any government. What kind of metatextual mind buggery is this? It makes no sense unless the director wants to play some Godardian mind game in order to get an odd joke in. I think I’ll just leave that where it lies.

John Barry’s score is, of course, one of the highlights of A View To A Kill. Quite apart from having a title song which is actually pretty energetic and addictive, his score is classic Bond although, to be fair, the action music is very repetitive in this one. I tend to see the main action theme as an homage to his work in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service because it kinda reiterates, although not as blatantly, that same descending base line and we first hear it while Bond is on a snowbound, pre-titles mission.

At the film’s close, the card “James Bond will return” comes up, with no hint at what the title will be. This is the first of many times (every Bond film since) where this phrase doesn’t set up the next title. I guess the film’s producers had had enough of getting the title of the next film wrong. It had happened twice in the sixties movies and at the end of Octopussy, they had put the full title of the short story from which this film takes it’s title (and pretty much nothing else from the pages)... From A View To A Kill. So a smart but admittedly disappointing first here. Grace Jones and Christopher Walken do say half of the original title each to make up a mention in the film (reportedly changed to “...from a view”... “to Tokyo” on some Asian prints of the film... which makes absolutely no sense given they’re flying over San Francisco at the time) but, again, this comes across as really lame, it has to be said, and that’s another line of dialogue I wish wasn’t in the film. You can almost see Walken cringe in embarrassment.

All in all... this isn’t a terrible Roger Moore as James Bond film... it just isn’t particularly good either, it has to be said. Lovers of Moore’s Bond probably won’t have a hard time with it (although Moore apparently doesn’t think much of this one at all) and if you’re not that fussed about how your action is delivered, you’ve certainly got a director who can at least deliver it well and keep the pace moving. Not as good as Moore’s Live And Let Die or For Your Eyes Only, though. Duly warned.

EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Wolverine 3D (X-Men 6)

Ronin Around

The Wolverine 3D (X-Men 6)
2013 USA
Directed by James Mangold
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: There will be some big spoilers slicing 
away at you in this one. Approach with caution.

You know, I really quite like the X-Men movie franchise, even though it’s nothing like The Uncanny X-Men I used to read very occasionally as a kid. I used to read the odd British reprint in the very early 70s, harking back to the early 60s (in fact, I think I read the first few issues of the original series) which was many years before the creation of the super-group’s most popular member, Wolverine (or Weapon X as I believe he used to be known, back in the days when he was kind of a villain?). To me the characters were Professor X, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Marvel Girl (now better known by her civilian moniker of Jean Grey). They were the X-Men I wanted to see back when they brought the first movie out 13 years ago.

However, I really liked that movie and, of the five previous films in the franchise, the only one which let me down big time and made me curse the internal politics of the Hollywood suits who, by all accounts, deliberately waited for the original director of the first two to leave the production, was X-Men: The Last Stand (X-Men 3). That particular entry into the franchise was a) not their last stand, clearly and b) really quite rubbish. Especially since the original film's writing/directing team had beautifully set up the Dark Phoenix plot from the comics so brilliantly with the death of Jean Grey at the end of the second film... hinting at the continuation with a “held” camera shot panning across a lake. Everybody knew Marvel Girl would be resurrected as a dark villainess destroyer like she was in the comics and everyone was so psyched to see what would happen next. Unfortunately the change of director meant that the Dark Phoenix fulfillment story became relegated to a minor plot point in the third movie... which was a real mis-step for the franchise (but don’t worry, I’m reminding you of all this for a reason pertinent to this review).

When X-Men Origins: Wolverine burst onto our screen, my impression was that nobody was that interested in the X-Men anymore. The disappointment of that previous movie had kind of killed off the audience it seems to me. However, I went to see it and really quite liked it (my review of it is here). It wasn’t a perfect movie but it did feel like a modernish b-movie in terms of the fun of the way it was put together. Kind of like an early to mid 80s straight-to-home-video release but with a bigger budget thrown at it. It kinda worked on the level it was going for and, like I said, it had some fun in it.

The fifth X-Men movie, X-Men:First Class (reviewed here) was a bit of a strange prequel. It had stuff happening in it which totally contradicted the events which were flashed back to in the third X-Men film, as though the powers that be wanted to completely forget that third mis-step and reboot the series. Except it couldn’t be a reboot because there were a couple of interesting actor/character cameos in that film and... to be honest... this movie totally screws any continuity with the previous installments in the series. That it was so successful at the box office is because of one thing alone... it’s a completely brilliant, kick ass movie which succeeds on nearly every level and rivals the first two movies in every way. Such a brilliant, if continuity challenged movie.

Now, stick with me if you’re finding all this continuity stuff interesting because there’s a sequence at the end of The Wolverine which directly links it into the other parts of the franchise and sets up the new movie, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, currently filming, which combines the casts from the original X-Men movies and X-Men: First Class... I’ll come back to all this towards the end of this review.

And so, here we have Hugh Jackman’s sixth time playing Logan (Wolverine) on film. He’s a character who, as we know from previous movies, can heal himself very quickly and, because of this, has lived many hundreds of years (along with his brother who was cursed with the same talent/misfortune). We also know about his adamantium skeleton and we know that even before he had this technology thrust upon him, he had bone claws which would emerge at will from his knuckles. We also know that Hugh Jackman, a fan of the character, turned out to be completely perfect casting and plays him with the seriousness and gravitas that a fan-favourite character of this magnitude requires. So we know nothing is going to be wrong about his performance here and, what do you know, he’s still perfect in the role. And from hereon in, this review gets spoilery people!

This film is an adaptation of the 1982 comic-book 4 issue mini series The Wolverine, by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. I’ve not read that and can’t tell you whether it’s a completely faithful adaptation or not but this film certainly feels like it was adapted from something. It’s got a lot of substance to it and is not, contrary to what the trailers will have you believe, just a load of action sequences strung together. In fact, the action sequences in this were the ones which left me a little disappointed, to be honest. I found them a trifle long winded at times but, frankly, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a beautifully put together movie. Logan’s relationship with the two lead Asian actresses in the film is really quite wonderful and, as always, Jackman makes you believe in the character through his sheer lack of sociability and resignedness and the way that vibe bounces off of friend and foe alike is a sheer delight to watch.

There are also some nice shot compositions, especially the first shot where the World War II Japanese concentration camp is established, which works particularly well in 3D when it pans to the right of the shot. And really nice set ups during the period when Logan is staying with a character called Mariko at her private hideaway, which play with size and perspective in a really nice way, pitching extremes of size directly against each other in the same shot for some nice angular and sometimes, triangular designs.

There's a really silly slip up, though, during that last mentioned set of sequences. There's a scene at a dinner table where much attention is drawn to the positioning of chopsticks and, well, all I can say is it's the mystery of the bizarrely moving chopsticks from horizontal position to vertical position again. Now this can have happened in two ways. One is that the dinner conversation was originally much longer and the chopsticks were "reset" during that conversation but then the sequence was shortened in the editing and that part cut out. Frankly though, because your attention is drawn towards the offending culinary objects, the slip up is quite blatant. I think what might have happened is the final shot which finishes the sequence off, a shot which has no conversation in it and which includes the problem, may have been spliced onto the end from an alternate take of an earlier shot to have something in medium shot to finish the sequence off... either way, the effect is quite comical and perhaps a little unwanted.

Plus some interesting choices in continuity with the rest of the franchise and this is where it gets interesting since The Wolverine is also, it turns out, a direct sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand. Haunted by the spirit of Jean Grey, who he had to kill in her Dark Phoenix incarnation in that film, Logan has a fair few dream-like conversations with her throughout this movie (Jean Grey again played remarkably charismatically by Famke Janssen) in a sort of The Ghost And Mrs. Muir kind of existence (or younger readers might take the analogy of Six and Baltar in the modern incarnation of the Battlestar Galactica TV series, if they prefer). This works pretty well to add a certain amount of depth to the character and explains the almost nomadic existence he has been living since the events in that third film. Also, it makes sense to link it with that movie in some ways because the events in X-Men Origins: Wolverine were clearly taking place at a point before the first X-Men movie and don’t require this film to tie up any loose “character” ends from that film.

This movie plays out really well though and, all in all, it’s quite extreme and raw for the rating... although nowhere near as extreme as I would have liked and had hoped for when director Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to the project in its early days. Well, okay, it’s raw for “modern” Hollywood anyway, and we can’t help but be trapped in the censorially worse-than-Victorian culture we are living in at the moment, I guess.

The score by Marco Beltrami, who is the 6th composer to work on an X-Men film (so much for musical continuity between films, you idiot producers) is actually quite mellow but not as pseudo-Japanese style as I was expecting. Perhaps that would, to be honest, have been a wrong move and this score supports the drama quite well. I’ve no idea as yet whether it works as well as a stand alone listen because I was only able to sneak enough time in to listen to the first third of the album over the week before I saw the movie, but I’m guessing it’s a nice enough listen and Beltrami’s a solid composer.

Now then... you will have hopefully seen this movie by now and if you did, I sincerely hope you stayed for the mid-credits epilogue sequence. If you didn’t, well, maybe you should try to see it. There’s been a lot of complaints, including from myself, that the last X-Men film brought about so many impossible continuity errors that it just made a mockery of the series. Now Bryan Singer, the original director of the first two movies in the franchise, who is making the next one, has said that he has recognised this and will try to do something about it. Now, they’re doing Days Of Future Past and all the actors who played the characters in both sets of movies, are reuniting to play the same characters at different points in time, presumably at the same time - Professor X meet young Professor X etc... but I don’t see how any of that can reunite the two timelines unless, one of the timelines is significantly altered. Now, the post end credits sequence on the third movie implied that the mind of Professor X had somehow survived in someone else’s body but, if I recall correctly, both Professor X and Magneto, played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, were destroyed. With me so far? Okay...

The mid end credits sequence in The Wolverine is set two years after the events that take place in the main body of the movie. There, at an airport, an uncredited Ian McKellan as Magneto and an uncredited Patrick Stewart as Professor X try to enlist Logan’s aid. Logan is suitably baffled by their presence, and so are the audience. Also, the implication could be that even Jean Grey somehow survived and that’s why she is always in Logan’s head throughout this movie (okay, so that last might just be wishful thinking on my part but, what the heck?). However, this does give me hope for the future of the franchise because, if Singer is able to come up with a good reason for Magneto and Professor X to still be walking the earth, then surely the continuity errors from the last movie should be small enough in comparison for him to take care of. Let’s hope so anyway. I guess we’ll find out during May 2014, which is when X-Men: Days Of Future Past is due to be released.

Until then, enjoy The Wolverine. It’s not as fun as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, to be sure, but it’s certainly got a more mature feel to it and a lot more narrative and character development to get your head around. And Jackman is always good to watch as Logan, bringing a lot to the role and embedding it with a continuity in character attitude that elevates the role to being one of the great on-screen characters of our time. He even gets away with doing a quite blatant homage to James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever... and if you've seen that film then you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Don’t miss out, bub!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Now You See Me

Directing Misdirection

Now You See Me
2013 France/USA
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: There are spoilers here if you haven’t seen the trailer...

There are four horseman... this is the name of four magicians who were once solo acts but who have now teamed up together for a special series of illusions. The apocalypse analogy isn’t really pushed and, I think, is merely being used because the writers thought it was a cool name.

Now then... I liked this movie quite a bit in many ways. It’s certainly a fun romp and the director over-directs it to the point where you’re just sucked into his vertiginous camerawork right from the start. Seriously, even when nothing much is happening, the camera is performing all sorts of Herculean motions to just constantly keep things moving along... and it does this really well. It works. 

However, the film is not without it’s problems and, although I was happy to be mollified and entertained by the shiny manifestations of celluloidal hocus pocus on screen, truth be told, it’s all a rather predictable affair. And that part of it starts with the script and continues, for a lot of us people who happened to catch it, into the trailer material for the film... they give too much away. To be fair, they also throw it at you on a plate in the movie too but... well, okay, look...

When you watch the trailer you get a sense that, unless the movie is actually entering into a realm of supernatural magical manifestations, you are seeing staged illusions. You also, presumably, know that the sheer impossibility of the tricks would involve at least one “undercover operator” blended into the mix and, when you watch the trailer, I think you pretty much get a sense of who that is. This is further emphasised in the film although, to be fair, the movie is a tad contradictory in its attitude too.

The pre-credits set up, like pretty much all of the rest of the film, is vastly entertaining and sucks you right in... to a tale of four lone “magicians” and the way they are recruited together by an unseen (mostly) presence... before reappearing a year later as a team, ready to wow the world by teleporting a man into a bank and stealing vast quantities of money before redistributing it back to their audience. Two things here... one is you have the idea that there is an unseen mastermind behind all the “magical” shenanigans that go on in the movie but, secondly, you get to figure out roughly the way the first big illusion is done, which turns out to be pretty much the only way you could do it (so it’s easy to figure out people!).

Once we’ve met the four horsemen, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, we’ve got some measure of the way they all work together as a team and it’s time to take note of the other major players. You have the FBI agent played by the always excellent Mark Ruffallo, who is on the case but constantly being ridiculed by his inability to figure things out. He is aided and abetted by a stand out performance by Mélanie Laurent as his new “across the seas” partner for the case. The film, being about magic tricks, is all about misdirection and, at one point, the director tries to misdirect the audience into thinking this character isn’t all she seems... but the problem with that is, you’ve already figured something out by then, I’m guessing. You also have the team’s agent, played by the always reliable Michael Caine, who has his own reasons for being in on promoting The Four Horsemen (one of whom is a Horsewoman, by the way) and, lastly, you have Morgan Freeman as a professional debunker, brought in by the FBI to help crack the case.

The set up is fine and, as I’ve said, it’s all vastly entertaining. 

There’s also some really good chemistry between the actors. I already knew Eisenberg and Harrelson worked well together due to their brilliant double act in Zombieland but Isla Fisher is especially good as Eisenberg’s “ex assistant made good” and the way the dialogue uses the rivalry between her and her fellow horsemen works really well. Franco’s pretty cool too, but he does have less to do than the others, apart from one key sequence in which, to be fair, his character is highlighted a lot more than his fellow magicians. So yeah, the actual dialogue in the movie is the one element of the writing which really is quite sharp and a pleasure to hear, especially when you hear it from the lips of such marvellous performers.

The film does fall down in it’s “big reveal” near the end though. If, by some chance, you haven’t figured it out by that point then all well and good... although I doubt you’ll get all the way through without twigging just where the misdirection is being aimed. However, a big problem is that The Four Horsemen don’t seem to know who is running the show until the end either, and that means that the person you have been suspecting all along wasn’t helping them with some of their tricks. Further, it means that the person manipulating events in the movie, for reasons you’ll discover fairly early on and then forget about, actually braves significant danger at a few points when, in reality, this person would not have needed to do any of that to ensure that the illusions played out the way they are supposed to. So it’s a shame that the final solution to this movie relies on a good old bit of Hollywood hokum itself to try to give weight to its own end game. It kind of falls short in regards to this and makes you wonder just why the person pulling the strings acted the way he did when he really didn’t need to make so much effort... still, it adds some nicely shot action sequences into the mix, so there’s that.

Another thing which left me wanting, or at least puzzled, was what the Woody Harrelson character refers to as “the pot of gold at the end”. When we find out what the so called pot of gold is... well I just didn’t understand why anyone would be interested. I might have missed something, I’m thinking, because the second to last sequence of the film, which signals the last scene for the four magicians, is in fact not unlike the ending of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up in some respects. It hints at more beneath the surface... but then again, that takes away the motivation for the person behind all the shenanigans to bother at all, to be honest. It might have, kinda, held up if it wasn’t immediately followed by a bizarre and unwanted little romantic scene at the end... or would have at least been a little stronger as a statement about the nature of what you have been watching... but as it is it just didn’t work for me. There was no motivation for the four characters to be doing what they were doing and so it lost the sense a bit for me. One wonders if the original script started out as one thing and then kept getting changed and lost sense on the way. If just feels wrong.

A quick shout out, though, to Brian Tyler’s excellent score which is noticeable even among all the ballyhoo and the extra energetic camerawork. It’s a shame that this doesn’t look like getting a score release anytime soon as I would have liked to have grabbed a CD of this one at some point. It serves the film well and emphasises the staginess of the profession of The Four Horsemen well, it has to be said. 

At the end of the day, sense or no sense, Now You See Me is an entertaining diversion and it won’t disappoint, at least in terms of never being boring and always speeding along and being up to something. It trades in good old movie magic, even if it does outweigh the on-screen magic which is supposed to be carrying the story along. Certainly a good night out at the cinema... provided you don’t think about the end game too much.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The World’s End

Kind Hearts And Cornettos

The Worlds End
2013 UK
Directed by Edgar Wright
Playing at cinemas now.

So here we have what has been loosely termed by it’s creators, depending on your source, as either the “blood and ice cream” trilogy or, making more sense after having seen the third one, “the Cornetto trilogy”... in much the same way that Sergio Leone’s first three totally unrelated spaghetti westerns were dubbed “the Dollars trilogy” when they promoted those films in the US, perhaps.

Now I seem to have a track record with products written by the director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg in that, I usually “quite like” them the first time around but, when seeing them for the second time, I usually get more into it and embrace the thing wholeheartedly. This was the case of, in the order I watched them in, Shaun Of The Dead, Spaced (the TV show which ran for two series’ and pre-dated Shaun Of The Dead) and Hot Fuzz. I have to say that, given this puzzling relationship with their past work, I was a little trepidatious about seeing this one for the first time... although, of course, I knew I’d probably love it the second time around.

Well, I have to say, that pattern has finally been broken by their new movie, The Worlds End. While I’m sure I’ll still love it the second time around, I am happy to say that I was also was quite fond of it the first time around too, and had a thoroughly good time with it at the cinema last night... although I didn’t bring it flowers or take it to dinner before it manifested itself before my eyes in my local flea pit, to be sure.

The Worlds End tells the story of a larger than life character, Gary King, played by Simon Pegg, who gets his old school buddies together for a reunion 20 years or so later, to have another crack at “the golden mile”... the epic crawl of 12 pubs culminating in the final one, The World’s End... a task at which they’d failed at miserably “back in the day”. Unfortunately, Gary’s comrades in arms, played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine respectively... with the added touch of glam and sprinkle from Rosamund Pike as the film’s leading lady... are not exactly big supporters of Gary anymore. But, as you know they will, they go with Gary to start their epic journey and, as it turns out, instead find themselves in jeopardy fighting most of the town who have been replaced with alien simulucra.

What can I say? Wright and Pegg basically take the classic plot of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, add in a classic British obsession (pubbing) and riff on the collision of these two ingredients throughout the whole movie while not forgetting that all important element that makes you feel and root for all the characters... a touch of heart.

And not only that... they don’t really drop the ball throughout the whole thing and they do it all very smartly.

It maybe takes a little while to get going on the set up but only because the characters are slightly more complex than usual for these writers and you want to understand how they’ll come to work together (which is why I suspect my second viewing will be even more enjoyable), but all the way through the wittiness of the dialogue is crisp and even (if not always especially deep*) and although my main comedy enjoyment usually comes, almost exclusively, from either The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen, I have to say that when you get Wright and Pegg together, they continue that kind of cool cleverness with syntax and terminology that lights my fire when it comes to this kind of word play.

There are also some good fights in it.

No joke, there’s some great set-piece, full-on, blue-blooded alien gore, pub brawls in this which will knock your socks off. And with blue being the colour of the blood on the menu, they manage to do it all behind the censor’s backs, as it were, who must have been too conditioned to looking for signs of crimson to notice the huge amounts of violence contained within a 15 rated movie... but that’s okay by me. Although I was disappointed that Wright and Pegg didn’t put a paraphrase of one of their famous Shaun Of The Dead recurring jokes in it... I was just waiting for the line... “You’ve got blue on you” but, unless I missed it somewhere, it didn’t happen. And like their last collaboration, Hot Fuzz, it’s even got an unexpected, for me at least, Bond villain... and I mean, Bond/villain. You’ll see what I mean.

My one real complaint though is, after finishing the film off with an almost perfect ending with Nick Frost’s character telling the tale of what happened next (which also includes this film’s nod to Cornetto), they elected to put one final scene in with one of the main characters which, while it was okay as a set up for something else, could have left a much stronger ending without it. But that might not have been commercially the best ending, especially in other countries, so I can understand why they did this.

So that’s all I got to say then, I think. Other than the sound design and choice of music is incredible (and relevant to the on screen shenanigans in a rather integral manner at one point near the end) and it was also nice to see modern art getting some legs on it, which I’m not going to spoil for you here, you’ll just have to live with my mundane attempt at being cryptic and go and see the thing for yourself. All in all, a good night at the movies and certainly a lot more fun, I suspect, than attempting to get through “the golden mile” in real life. Go drink your celluloid fill.

* I hate the word deep, but it was the only way I could make my lame pun work and still convey my exact meaning... so cut me some slack, okay?

Friday, 19 July 2013

The New Watch

Watch New Pussycat

The New Watch 
by Sergei Lukyanenko
William Heinemann Publishing
ISBN: 978-0434022311

Back in 2004, director Timur Bekmambetov made a movie called Night Watch which caused a bit of a splash at the time, seeing as it was a big budget Russian fantasy movie which was kind of beating Hollywood at it’s own game. It was, to be fair, quite an impressive movie but a little flimsy in story line in places. I found the sequel that the same director made, which was released a couple of years later, called Day Watch, to be a lot better but some of it still didn’t really hang together in the way I would have liked... when I read the novels on which these two movies were allegedly based, I found out why. There’s certainly a little more of the original works, although by no means all, showing through in the sequel movie.

When I finally got around to reading these stories from about 2006 onwards, I finally realised that the movie adaptations were not just competing with Hollywood in the “budget spectacular” stakes. They were also very much competing in the “how a major budget motion picture can completely screw up the process of adaptation and change it so much that the storyline becomes almost completely unrecognisable” stakes too. Which is a shame, actually, because the casting of the main characters was pretty good. However, Bekmambetov and his team seem to have grafted their own story onto the whole thing, to do with the lead protagonist Anton Gorodetsky’s son and the way it will effect the future of the world. To give you some idea... Anton Goredetsky doesn’t even have a son in the novels... that whole plot line was an invention for the movie versions.

The other big revelation I had when I read the first four novels... slowly, as they finally got released in English translations year by year... is that the movies pale into insignificance next the sheer brilliance of the source material. The five novels in the series so far are... The Night Watch, The Day Watch, The Twilight Watch, The Last Watch (which I think everyone thought would be the last in the series as it concludes a fair few strands of storyline in the final few chapters) and now the latest in the saga, released a couple of months ago... The New Watch. And I have to say that my fears that this would be a hastily written tag on to the series to make money were thrown out the window as soon as I got involved in the plot.

The Night Watch series of books is a very special series. I’ve not read anything with quite the atmosphere created here in the whole of fantasy or science fiction. They are each divided into three stand alone stories, usually told in first person narrative by the cynical hero of the series, the aforementioned Anton Gorodetsky (but not always, although that character appears in nearly all of the segments in one way or another). By the end of the first book the stories are brought together and reveal themselves to be one, very cohesive arc and the subsequent books conform to this pattern and also, of course, add the previous book’s main arc as part of one continuing arc. The hero is usually manipulated into situations and decision processes which usually end up with him turning out to be a pawn between his boss in the Night Watch (the light other magicians) and the head of the Day Watch (comprising the dark magicians who are more inclined to evil, although the wafer thin line between good and evil is furiously emphasised and discussed the more the series continues).

To my mind, they have the feel of both something magical and child like, like I imagine the Harry Potter books to be, but advanced into an adult state and mixed up with something like Adam Hall’s excellent Quiller series of books in terms of bleak, depressing, no nonsense story telling. It’s a very curious blend but it just works so perfectly. Another easy analogy might be John LeCarre meets J. R. R. Tolkien but... well, you get where I’m coming from.

In the novels, Anton and his co-workers are all magicians ranging from 7th to 1st level practitioners, their status depending on how far they can travel into the “twilight”... a series of magical reflections of the world connected to each other like Russian Matryoshka dolls, with sinister blue moss growing everywhere and which provides the magicians with their powers on all the versions of the world, including the one we live in (although in our level of the world, the blue moss is invisible). In The Last Watch, the twilight itself was under question and the fate of the world was again in the balance... but one of the characters, and I’m not telling you which, found a way to climb past the accessible levels of the twilight and into a revelation which I surely won’t reveal here.

In The New Watch, we again follow the day to day adventures of Anton, along with his wife and daughter (one of whom plays a special role within the narrative outcome, once more) and we also have the return of a character which has become, by the end of the novel, Anton’s personal Moriarty kind of character... or at the very least, his Irene Adler substitute. And that’s all I can tell you of the plot and what happens. These books are so good you are going to want to read them yourself to find out what the fuss is and I’m certainly not going to spoil them for you.

What I will say though is that this book has started in with even more references to contemporary pop fiction (not to mention Russian pop music) than the previous one. To give you some idea... one of the previous books had one of the characters dreaming about an alternative reality which was, in fact, a dream of an iconic scene from the movie version of The Night Watch. Which in itself shows you just how different these books are from the so-called adaptations of them... the sequence never even took place in the original novel.

Due to the prominence now of books and especially mainstream movies dealing with magical themes, I think it’s far to say that The New Watch has an abundance of appropriate and not quite irritating postmodernistic references to literary phenomenon like the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings series. There’s even a really nice reference to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s seminal sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, which was itself made into a masterpiece of cinema by director Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker. On the whole though this doesn’t go too far and doesn’t slow things down too much and the writer certainly appropriates his references with care, usually to either illustrate a plot point or to give you insight into a character or group of characters. So this really didn’t bother me.

One thing I will say is, after a pitched battle sequence concluding the first of the three interconnecting stories which make up this latest volume, there’s a lot less action in the book and more of Lukyanenko’s, almost trademark, philosophical discussion... which is okay. This is what good speculative science fiction does best and here he uses the metaphor of both the light and dark magicians possibly feeling they are superior to human beings as a comparison to the way the upper class treat the lower classes in Russia (and the world). Which is pretty good and though it might be considered that this slows the action down a little in some places... it’s also really compelling and the book never once gets boring and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be speeding through it at a very fast rate.

Once again, the stakes are very high in this one and the very future of both humankind and the twilight is in balance. A sense of danger and the realisation that nothing is going to be resolved without some kind of major sacrifice permeates the second half of the novel, as more revelations of a creature dubbed “The Tiger”, which is created by the very twilight itself, are revealed... and once again the weight of the world rests on the shoulders and actions of just one man... Anton Goredetsky.

If you’re a fan of the previous novels in the series then you are going to love how this one turns out (especially since there’s at least one loose thread deliberately left dangling which cries out for another sequel) and you should grab a copy as soon as you can. On the other hand, if you’ve not read any of these, then don’t start with this one. Like all the best fiction containing running characters, the characters grow and mature as the novels continue and you will want to watch them grow as you read... so read them in the order highlighted above if you’re a stranger to the series. Either way, whichever one of these books you make a bee line for, you’re bound to have a good time. Another masterful entry into one of the best series of contemporary fantasy novels. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Passion Demand

2012 Germany/France
Directed by Brian De Palma

When I first heard about Brian De Palma’s new film Passion, I was positively chomping at the bit to see it. I waited and waited for a cinema release in this country. Then I bought the soundtrack, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Then more waiting and waiting.

A year later... I decided to take the opportunity a friend gave to me of watching the thing because, frankly, I’m still waiting for it to get a release in this country.

Unfortunately... it turns out I’m not in the best of shape to be able to properly review it for you... but I’ll do my best. The problem, you see, is that once I was half way through the opening credits to the movie, I found out the film is a remake of another film from 2010 which I'd not seen, Crime D’Amour (aka Love Crime) and I really don’t like to see remakes of other movies, especially when the source material usually turns out to be way superior these days to the remake.

But, since I’d waited so long to see it, I pressed on and I will do my best to give you a flavour of it, even though I can’t make the comparisons which need to be made.

The film stars Rachel MacAdams as Christine, an advertising executive... and Noomi Rapace (the original version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as Isabella, one of her team. Christine likes to be the centre of attention and rule the roost and she takes credit for people’s ideas and uses them as stepping stones for her career, even the victimised Isabella who she wants to also be her lover. She is played, pretty well, as a completely unlikeable bitch by MacAdams and, though I just wanted to punch her throughout the course of the movie, credit to the actress in question for making me feel this way about her. Special praise also for the marvellous Rapace who plays the top/bottom/top/bottom character in this relationship, as various elements in the convoluted plot unfold.. and also to the actress playing Isabella’s personal assistant, Danni, performed by Karoline Herfurth who was so good in the vampire movie We Are The Night (reviewed here).

The convoluted-to-the-point-nobody-cares-anymore plot is, to be honest, very typical of De Palma’s early work, back when he was making vital and brilliant, highly personalised Hitchcock variations like Sisters, Dressed To Kill, Body Double and the like and I can certainly see what attracted him to this material. If anyone is going to get the most out of this kind of subject matter it’s De Palma... I just cant tell you whether he did a better job on it or not because, again, I haven’t seen the original version of the film (yet).

What I can say is that it is very well directed by De Palma, who shows his natural flair for mise en scene (the room to room colour palette changes are great) and gets some good sequences from his actors. The whole ting looks very smooth and, as usual with De Palma, there isn’t complete resolution at the end of the movie. He, once again, delves into dream sequences with some of the characters and by the end of the movie you’re not always sure, at least I wasn’t, where the dividing line between the dream space and reality is and which version you are currently in. For example, when he reintroduces the concept of one of the characters having a twin sister I thought we were immediately going to be pushed back into the same kind of world as his absolute masterpiece Sisters from 1973. Instead we are taken somewhere else as far as that character is concerned... I just wasn’t sure, by the end of the film, where exactly.

This is not a weakness of the movie, though, it is a strength and it will be interesting to see if the original version of the movie makes use of a twin sister within its plot line too.

The very important thing about this film, and the reason why I gobbled up the soundtrack so quickly, is because this film marks the return to collaboration of one of the most enjoyable composer/director partnerships in screen history, with the score to this one being composed by Pino Donnagio and, although not totally what I would expect, it does in very many places capture that old, early 70s neo-giallo style of movie making that DePalma and Donnagio used to be so good at. In terms of the music, if you’re a fan of this composer and director working together, then you should probably take a look at this one so you can hear the score in context.

At the end of the day, the performances, direction, editing and music are all up to scratch here... I just somehow felt underwhelmed by it. I would, however, firmly place it within the realm of De Palma’s other work in this genre and so, if you like stuff like Raising Cain, Femme Fatale and the other movies I mentioned earlier, then you’ll probably want to take a look at this one also... although I feel it’s probably the least compulsive of these particular films. Not a terrible film by any means.... stylishly shot and expertly handled... I just felt a little bit bored by a lot of it and felt that Soderbergh’s Side Effects (reviewed here) tackled a similar area of betrayal and intrigue in a much more effective manner. That being said, however, I wish De Palma would make more films in this mould as I think this is definitely the genre in which he can work his best miracles of movie magic. Hopefully more people will get the opportunity to see this sometime soon.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dario Argento's DRACULA

Tooth High To A Grasshopper

Dario Argento's Dracula
2012 USA
Directed by Dario Argento
Sony Italian BluRay Region A,B & C 

Dario Argento is a bit of a legend of a movie director these days... and rightly so, having stolen Mario Bava’s thunder somewhat when, in 1969, he repopularised (and how) the Italian giallo thriller single handedly with the first of many spectacular gialli which he made over the decades, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. The director is mostly a practitioner of this form of cinema although, since people often find themselves confused between movies depicting serial killers and movies depicting monsters, he is often misconceived as being primarily a director of horror films.

It’s true, of course, that Argento has directed both films and TV episodes which fall into the horror genre, including one of his most famous films, Suspiria. However, his horror direction is only a small body of work compared to his giallo output and should never, I believe, be considered his primary voice... although he is obviously inspired by both a sense of the gothic (instilled in him by some of the writers he used to read when he was ill in bed as a child, if memory serves) and the famous cinematic forays of the past which encapsulated that very atmosphere as their primary focus (with offerings from Universal, RKO, Hammer and the like).

I first got into Argento at the dawn of DVDs when, after about a year or two of the machines being on the market, I finally bit the bullet and bought a player primarily because I found out you could get American DVDs of the Flash Gordon serials. This was important stuff. Of course, owning a multi-region DVD player, like pretty much anybody who is serious about film in my country would, opened up a wealth of possibilities and suddenly more controversial directors who were either not allowed to have films released in my country or were heavily censored over here (which amounts to the same thing... who wants to see a censored version of a movie?) were now instantly accessible to people in the UK properly for the first time. Which is why, I think, genres such as the giallo, the spaghetti western, sexploitaiton, blaxploitation, nunsploitation and pretty much every other kind of interesting genre around have found a big resurgence in popularity... people now have relatively easy access to these kinds of movies.

Argento, it has to be said, has been producing films which have been less than popular with his fans of recent years, although I have no problem with most of them... my one caveat being his awful version of The Phantom Of The Opera (which isn’t a recent one, as it happens). I remember being in a packed Fright Fest screening of his previous film Giallo and the audience, in which there were undoubtedly a lot of Argento fans, was howling with collective laughter at some of the execution of the movie. Now I saw no real problem with, most, of it... but I’ve always thought of Argento as primarily a visual and aural stylist, which makes sense seeing as he comes from a background of churning out very successful gialli. These films are not about acting or their ludicrous scripts... they’re about visual style and great music. So I really don’t have the same kinds of issues as some people do with his later stuff (like The Card Player, for example, which I loved).

His version of Dracula, of course, is obviously a horror story but, although it has a certain sense of a thread of adaptation running through it, it changes things around sufficiently from both Stoker’s original novel and stage play versions (and, of course, the later stage adaptations which Universal studios culled their original version from) to be different enough for even the most jaded fans to find something fresh in the story. I suspect the location budget also had something to do with that (it’s all set in one village) but even so, there are some interesting things going on here. Carfax Abbey is mentioned as Carfax Sanitorium, for example, which was formerly run by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Dr. Seward is completely written out).

Does this make for a good movie then?

Well... yes and no. I think it’s all down to how much certain outrageous ingredients spoil the main course for you. There was one point about a quarter of an hour before the end, for example, when I started laughing out loud.

Now then, the acting by a lot of the cast is not up to scratch. You expect that from an Argento movie and it shouldn’t, in itself, be a problem if you are already used to this director’s work. However, surprisingly, there is also some pretty good acting in this one too. The director’s daughter, Asia Argento, can always be relied on to give a great performance (and on the strength of the one movie I saw that she directed, I suspect she might even be a better director than her old man... the talent runs in the family) but we also have Thomas Kretschmann giving a really great performance as Dracula and Rutger Hauer making a more than competent Van Helsing... although Dracula’s nemesis doesn’t actually turn up until the last part of the film.

Added to this you have Dario Argento’s trademark visual splendour and the shot design and camera motion through those shots is absolutely superb in this one. The striking use of Bavaesque colour is again pushed to the fore and the outrageously saturated pools of red and yellow light sharing the same frame and the greener than green forest in the moonlight are all things of beauty. If nothing else... this film is quite spectacular. There are also a few good doses of female nudity too, which is unusual for this director and, I think, is probably more on show here (albeit briefly) than all of his other movies combined. That, of course, adds its own kind of spectacle into the proceedings... especially lit and shot as well as it is.

That being said... there’s quite a lot of bad stuff here too. One of which is Argento’s fascination with style over substance. I remember, decades ago, Argento was asked in a documentary if, when faced with the insertion of a cool and beautiful shot in his movie as opposed to a shot which would be more appropriate and make total sense within a story, which he would choose. Argento said he would always take the cool shot over logic any day. Dracula is full of “the cool shot” which is a trademark of Argento, to be sure, including one where you see the course of a bullet as it travels from the base of a man’s jaw and up and out through the top of his head... not as audacious as the notorious “bullet scene” from Argento’s movie Opera but certainly an echo throughout the years. However, you also have one scene near the end, the one I started laughing at, where the movie totally “jumps-the-shark” as it were, in modern pop culture parlance...

Dracula, it seems, can transform himself into any kind of beast he wants. One would think he would be fairly subtle in his choice perhaps but, no, he decides to go and kidnap Mina Harker transformed as a giant sized, bright green CGI grasshopper which, while certainly giving the movie a sudden and fierce injection of 1950s B-movie atmosphere... seemed perhaps a fair bit inappropriate given the sombre tone of the rest of the movie and its leanings towards the gothic. This was a fairly unfortunate choice, it has to be said, but taken out of context it looks pretty cool, at least.

But there’s more.

The various “myths” of the vampire are neither adhered to faithfully nor ignored. One or the other or the popular tactic of establishing which of the various trappings are being used would have been a way to go. Set up your ground rules for the audience first. Here, it’s contradictory and, well... all over the shop to be honest. One minute, Jonathan Harker (very much tapping into the pretty boy Keanu Reeves vibe of Coppola’s version of the story) is bitten and is instantly allergic to deadly sunlight... the next we are introduced to the “Renfield” character stand-in, who is also obviously a vampire, but who has no problem with strolling around in sunlight at all. Similarly, Lucy (beautifully played by Asia) is committing her undead crimes at night and sleeping in her tomb by day (just as her master Dracula is sleeping in his protective coffin) but why then is it, when the count himself turns into another creature, he’s perfectly fine running around in the sunlight? None of this makes much sense and neither does the fact that a bitten Jonathan Harker needs to feel the sharp end of Van Helsing’s stake but the equally vamped up Mina Harker doesn’t. None of it makes much sense... which is a big shame, to be honest.

Also, there is a dreadful reliance on CGI blood effects for the trademark Argento gore in this movie and, to me, this just looks awful when compared to a plain, in camera, practical effect. Maybe Argento’s resorted to this finally because of something to do with the 3D process... I don’t know. However, it looks very fake and unsatisfying and I hope he doesn’t continue to go down this route.

However, I let none of this detract from my enjoyment of the film, to be sure. And there are some nice nods both to the original Stoker novel (Kretschmann crawling up the outside of the castle wall) and to Todd Browning’s 1931 version, with both a large spider’s web and the full Lugosi treatment as Kretschmann digs in to the well worn “children of the night" dialogue. And, of course, Rutger Hauer’s impromtu holy cross assembly will bring back fond memories of Peter Cushing’s more succesful attempt in the old Hammer version. So some nice stuff too, including the music...

After the problems Argento had convincing the studio to retain his regularly composer, and once figurehead of Goblin, Claudio Simonetti on the previous project (the final score to Giallo was by Marco Werba), Simonetti has returned to Argento’s side with a brilliant, theremin tinged score which is quite remarkable in tone, although one of the sub-themes did remind me a little of the theme which the group Toto allegedly pilfered for their score for Dune, namely Ronald Stein’s score for Roger Corman’s Haunted Palace. That minor gripe aside though, I’ve been enjoying the score for a year or so now on CD and am pleased to finally be able to hear it in the context of the movie for which it was written. This includes the end title song which is performed by Simonetti’s current progressive rock group Daemonia.

Dario Argento’s Dracula, when all is said and done, is a film which I am more than happy to have in my possession and will definitely get a few spins as the years go by. Perhaps it may be a bit anticlimactic for some to realise that such a legendary director tackling such a legendary story is not without its problems but I, for one, am happy with the result (grasshopper aside) and, to be honest, it’s a lot better than I’d hoped it would be after the feedback I got from some. It looks, like usual for this country, I won’t get a chance to see it in any kind of cinema release over here in its 3D version but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh yeah. About the 3D. If you are buying the Italian Blu Ray of the film (which is shot and presented in the English language anyway, by the way) then you will be shelling out a lot more for the 3D version of the movie than the 2D version, if you have a 3D player. Not to worry though... as the stall holder who I bought this from pointed out to me, the 3D print of the movie is also on the 2D disc, they’ve just repackaged the same disc for the more expensive version to get some extra cash. So if you buy the Blu Ray standard edition, at least on the version I have, you’ll get both versions. Watch out for those large, heaving bosoms in the 3D version though! You might get a wallop.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Pacific Rim

Apocalypse, No!

Pacific Rim
2013 USA
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Playing at cinemas now.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is basically a giant monster VS giant robot “bash ‘em up” of the specific kind which started out life in the 1954 movie Gojira (aka Godzilla) but which, in fact, became more into its own in this form in the series of movies which followed on from that initial Big G outing from the 60s through to the early 70s and then again for the next two waves of related films (plus in every kind of official and unofficial spin off from those ever since). Del Toro is quick to play up that analogy, not that we needed it, in the first few seconds of this film.

Kaiju, it tells us, is a Japanese word for monster and Jaeger is the German name for hunter.

Of course, what we have here, right away, is a double pun from Del Toro.

The actual genre of Japanese film which encompasses all these giant beasts is Kaiju Eiga, a term I expect most of my readers are not unfamiliar with and which is literally translated as “monster movie”. The Jaegers which are the giant robot machines of this movie are apparently pronounced with a silent J, giving them a 'y' sound. So, kaiju jaeger = kaiju eiga. That’s the first bit of fun in the film.

The other little side swipe of a joke within that, of course, is that Jaeger also looks like Jaguar, as in Jet Jaguar, who was probably the most influential (if not the first, although I suspect probably the first too?) of the giant monster fighting robots, making his debut in the 1972 film Godzilla Vs Megalon and much copied since then (you wouldn’t have stuff like Shogun Warriors, Transformers or even The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers without him... although I’m not sure that’s a good thing, to be honest). So that’s what all these giant robots are stand-ins for... they’re all Jet Jaguars. Hence there you go, fun pun number 2.

Now I find Del Toro a bit hit and miss as a rule and tend to like his big commercial movies such as the Hellboy series rather than his smaller stuff, like Pan’s Labyrinth (goodness knows why I couldn’t appreciate that film... it had everything I’d want in a movie in it except, perhaps, for something which could trigger an emotional response in me) and so Pacific Rim should have been right up my street... and it kinda was. I just didn’t have as much fun as I was expecting from it... and certainly not as much fun as other people have, by the sounds of it.

Looking at it, it might be my response to Del Toro building an absolutely credible world from his ridiculous premise and then further populating it with a cast of actors who are absolutely convincing and, with the exception of Charlie Day, Torchwood’s Burn Gorman and the ever watchable Ron Perlman, totally serious and in no way tongue-in-cheek when it comes to playing their parts. This means I was totally watching it with my serious head on for a lot of the time, except when the three actors above were hamming it up beautifully in their scenes. I was thoroughly invested in the characters in this film and also the stakes they were playing for (the end of humanity) and that’s certainly not a bad thing... it just didn’t feel like fun, is all.

This is not, of course, to say that Pacific Rim is a bad movie. It’s certainly not a terrible film and it is a thing of spectacle and, to a certain extent, wonder. The fight scenes with the jaegers left a lot to be desired in that I couldn’t figure out what was going on half the time, though. The editing was just too... um... choppy for me. But I could get a sense of it and it all looked mighty impressive. Also, the relationship between the two main protagonists played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi was good but I would have liked to have seen a lot more of it and developed the underlying romance that was obviously there between them. I would also have liked a lot more fleshing out (there was a little of that but not enough) of Idris Elba’s character, who is another actor who tends to dominate whatever movie he’s in.

I think this highlights my main problem with the movie actually. Everything was just not quite enough. Especially since the story I thought the film was going to tell was completely dealt with within the first ten minutes of the movie as a pseudo recap to get you up to speed with the world these characters live in. However... after doing that the first time, the film then did proceed to tell me exactly the same story again, but with more urgency to it. I wish, in fact, the film could have been the story which is described as it was in the first ten minutes, because then we could have had the appearance of the initial kaiju monsters and the move towards the construction of the jaegers to deal with them and, from them, a champion set of pilots could arise... and this film we have now could have been the inferior sequel.

But... I don’t want to stomp all over this movie Tokyo-style because Del Toro has realised a great achievement here and he’s got something which could re-trigger a resurgence of kaiju movies, if we’re lucky. Also, Perlman’s performance as Hannibal Chau is pitch perfect and as over-the-top as you’d like. It’s worth the price of admission on its own, never mind the monster robot carnage... which is at least better handled than the action sequences in the confusing Man Of Steel from earlier in the year. Saying that, there’s a big underwater battle towards the end which had me totally baffled as to 1) how the things taking place could be happening under water and 2) how the sound design for the under water sequences made any sense whatsoever. Seriously, the lack of “physics logic” kept popping me right out of the movie during these sequences.

On the other hand, the musical score by Ramin Djawadi (no stranger to composing music for characters in metal suits) was one of his best scores to date and will be an interesting listen as a stand alone element, I suspect. It held its own fairly well when pitched against the “noisy as hell” sound design in most places, so that’s definitely doing its job as well as it could under such circumstances, I would say.

Pacific Rim succeeds as a film, I think, but I’m not sure its the kind of film which would bear much repeat viewings. All in all, I’d personally be watching classic stuff like Invasion Of The Astro Monsters or the original version of Terror Of Mehagodzilla, truth be told, but I think Pacific Rim will certainly find an audience that loves it and may even become a classic itself for future generations. Not a bad movie to spend time with on a weekend I think although, if you are going to go see it, make sure you stay sitting tight until halfway through the end credits for a great little reveal scene. It might be important if they get around to making a sequel.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The East

Eastern Promise

The East
2013 USA/UK
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Light spoilers in this one.

Okay. So I’m gonna find it hard going constructing a review for this particular film because The East, as it turns out, is almost a perfect movie going experience. A film of some small but not insubstantial power and put together with a kind of European sensitivity, applied to an almost Hollywood package.

Now I’ve seen this movie described as a thriller or an eco thriller by a number of people but, to be honest, although there are a few sequences of tension scattered throughout the whole shenanigans, it has to be said that it’s more of an environmental awareness and bonding movie which just happens to use some of the trappings of the post-forties thriller movie within its chemical make-up, to hang a narrative around the central idea of a main protagonist whose world view changes when she comes into close contact with, for want of a better terminology, a bunch of eco terrorists.

The main protagonist, Sarah (played by Brit Marling), is an undercover spy for a big private security firm (the type of firm who are kind of on a level with the FBI etc) and her job is to find a new eco terrorist threat group called The East and penetrate them to a level where she can gain intelligence (and possibly avert disaster) for some of her boss’ high level clients. As such, all the common spy gimmicks like false cover phone numbers, hidden shoe phones and the like are employed, quite neatly and pretty much unobtrusively, as it happens, throughout the main narrative thrust of the movie. I can see why these kinds of tropes were used, to be honest. Modern audiences are more likely to go see a movie which claims to be a thriller rather than a huggy, clean environment cult movie... so that kind of misdirection gets my vote. I only saw the movie, to be honest, because I’d actually seen the trailer for it (for once) and I loved what I was seeing... though again, the trailer is pretty much mostly culled from the first five minutes of the movie and makes it look much more of a documentary than it actually is.

The direction is assured and the editing superb. Combining a variety of styles to give it the cinema verite feel it lacks in actual content, ranging from slow but hand held camera work to fast cuts and a series of montage sequences comprising still photographs taking relevant points to tell its... well story is probably not the right word here, but certainly it gives you a sense of what the director wants you to get into your head.

The performances are also absolutely amazing, with Brit Marling being outstanding and ably backed up by Alexander Skarsgard (who really is becoming as much of a name as his famous dad), Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell and, my real main reason for seeing this film, Patricia Clarkson, who does an excellent job in, sadly, only a few scenes scattered throughout the movie, as Sarah’s unflinching boss.

My two slight criticisms are as follows.

The movie at one point plays out the old “Parable Of The Long Spoons”... that’s the one where the people in Hell starve because they can’t work out what the people in Heaven, in exactly the same circumstances, have worked out... you can feed each other and get to the food. I’d be really surprised in this day and age if people are not familiar with this old story, which used to do the rounds everywhere, and so I found it odd that the drawn out sequence (which is a kind of task set as an initial indoctrination into The East) is kinda played for tension and surprise... when the solution is so obvious. Also, since the solution is so obvious, one wonders why a sophisticated employee of a security firm such as Sarah would not already know the solution to her predicament. This kind of stretched the plausibility of the character a little for me, it has to be said.

My only other gripe is with the narrative element of the film. It uses this thriller narrative to hook people into the real issues and that’s fair enough... but did it have to be so obvious a narrative? Honestly, as soon as the leader of the cult said that their would be three jams (aka terrorist hits) involving big companies, it seemed pretty obvious to me what the identity of the third company would turn out to be and the moral dilemma it would place on one of the central characters in the movie. However, the nice thing about the ending of the movie... the very ending after the leader of The East has fled the clutches of the FBI, is that the main protagonist presents you with a third narrative option that I didn’t really figure out. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no mind blowing twist or reveal... that’s not what this movie is about. But it is a nice option and makes for a slightly under-the-radar ending and certainly it helps elevate the movie to something I found really solid as opposed to relying on yet another structural cliché.

The East is a youth movie about the kinds of concerns that probably should be important to people. It’s message is sound and, if the character dynamics are a bit hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter because the execution of these clichés is, for the most part, impeccable. Definitely a solid watch and a strong recommendation from me. Head east if you want a slice of morality served up with your entertainment.

Friday, 12 July 2013

IT! The Terror From Beyond Space

It!’s Alive

IT! The Terror From Beyond Space
1958 USA
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
MGM Midnite Movies DVD Region 1 

A manned mission to Mars meets with tragedy at the hands of... well, a martian. The only survivor from the initial mission is under suspicion and another spaceship, crewed by seven people, is sent to Mars to bring him home to Earth for a court martial and a firing squad. Nobody believes his story and thinks the man killed his entire crew... until they realise a murderous alien creature has stowed away on their spaceship for the return flight back to Earth and has started picking off the crew one by one and then pulling them into the ventilation shafts where it’s been hiding. Hmm... yeah, this does sound familiar doesn’t it.

You know, I really do like Ridley Scotts ALIEN but, like other famous scientifiction extravaganzas such as Star Wars, it’s really easy to see where he, or at least his writers, got the basic story ideas to glue together in their own inimitable fashion... pulled right from science fiction short story writer Jerome Bixby’s own screenplay for this movie. And, just as famously, from Mario Bava’s excellent sci-fi horror movie Planet Of The Vampires... in which the crew of a ship take a look around a starship stranded on a planet and find a large, dead skeletal alien pilot still on board. That the ship in Bava’s film used music as a control device would not resurface in the movies of Ridley Scott until Prometheus, of course.

Anyway, IT! The Terror From Beyond Space is a movie I’ve been waiting to get around to watching for over 30 years, and I’m finally glad I got to see it because it’s actually a lot less unintentionally funny than I thought it would be and is a nicely crafted sci-fi, “creature on the loose” style thriller, actually. Writer Bixby’s work was of the calibre that he even wrote a few episodes of the original Star Trek TV show and I think that’s kind of pertinent here because this does work as much as an ensemble piece of sorts as anything else and it does, to some extent, have the feel of one of those classic 1960s Star Trek episodes.

The acting is pretty solid for the time and, looking at the cast, I couldn’t tell you any of their names (except one which I’ll get to in a minute because I hadn’t realised he was in it until the end credits) but these are all faces you’ve seen dozens of times in movies and in gazillions of episodes of old TV shows over the years. The kind of relied upon actors who get called in to pretty much all the TV shows of their day and play a different character in one episode a year for them (once everyone’s forgotten them from the last time around). So no star names but all solid, reliable and confident performances from jobbing actors who were rarely out of work. Confident enough that they will have you fearful of a “not so realistic” man in an alien monster suit who is rampaging a few floors down from them.

And it turns out that the “man in a suit” alien is none other than Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, old Western hand and star of one of my favourite serials of the 30s, Undersea Kingdom! Which is basically a Flash Gordon serial rip off but, hey, it’s one of the better ones (asides from a few little factors... hmmm, I should review that serial some day). It’s nice to see the guy working but I felt a bit disappointed that the Atlantean robot busting Corrigan had been relegated to such a role, where you don’t even know it’s him unless you are told. Bit of a come down. Mind you, one of his early roles was as the orangapoid Buster Crabbe fought in the original Flash Gordon serial... so at least he had some kind of grounding in his kind of “acting”.

There’s some unintentional comedy in the form of some massive 1950s sexism near the start of the movie in a scene reminiscent of the dining sequence in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, where the crew of the ship are all eating together. It’s kind of telling of the times that the only two of the crew who aren’t having their supper are the two female crew members. Why? Because they’re busy clearing the plates away and making meals for the men. This stuff is comedy gold but I’d better not say too much about it. It is, however, an interesting indication of the prevalent attitudes of the time.

The film itself is very short and comprises scenes of the crew slowly being chased up, level by level, in their rocket ship by the titular monster, who wants to eat them. The monster is kinda done quite well in the earlier scenes, mostly stalking and killing as silhouette shadows on the wall in the way that films did so well then... however, the director certainly doesn’t balk at showing the monster as often as required and when you get a closer look at it, well it’s nice but not in any way impressive as something that could really be alive and is, perhaps, a little less skillfully designed than the kind of monsters that were coming out of studios like Universal at the time. The Creature From The Black Lagoon make-up, for example, would have been hard to top even from the company that spawned him... and that certainly proves to be the case here, I’m afraid. The monster in this one’s expression of savage anger can easily turn to comedy if you are not in the mood for it, to be honest.

It’s also an interesting film in that it leaves a few plot threads dangling at the end. One of the crew members is trapped on a level with the creature and is asked to hide in the airlock at one point while the crew attempt to extract all the air from the ship... however, the guys face plate on his helmet is broken and we’re not enlightened as to whether he survived at the end of the movie or not. Also, at least one of the crew members, probably two, is infected by the creature with a condition which is very much like leukemia, which needs treating with blood (which you just know is going to be stored on the same level as the creature) and, although he gets the blood, you don’t really know if he and his sick companion are going to make it to earth or, whether the leukemia is in any way treatable or not. It’s something which is just ignored after its usefulness as a dramatic device to throw the humans back into the mix again with the creature has been fulfilled, but glossing over it as a minor detail didn’t really leave me satisfied as to the outcome, to be honest. Then again, of course, this movie is set in the far, far, far future of... um... 1973. So maybe by the time we get to that far flung year they’ll have developed a cure for leukemia. Who knows? Oh, wait.

But the film is effective enough and also has a charming B-movie style score to it by iconic composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter (which is available from Monstrous Movie Music here). It all adds to the fun of the piece and the score CD is well recommended by me, as is the movie which is one I’ll definitely pick up to watch again in a couple of years. Maybe as a Christmas holiday double bill movie or something. Anyway, for any fans of fifties horror/sci-fi movies, this movie is grade A fun and you won’t want to miss out on it. So sit back, relax and watch it while the women folk do the dishes (as the film tells us this is obviously the way things are meant to be).