Tuesday, 29 April 2014
WiFi Art Thou?
Directed by Wally Pfister
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Warning: Some slight spoilers here...
most of which are in the trailer anyway, to be honest.
It strange the way things work out sometimes.
I saw the trailer for Transcendence a fair number of times at the cinema, for at least a month before its release over here. My desire to see one of the better actors of our time, Johnny Depp, in something that looked like a film rooted in fairly hard science fiction concepts, albeit probably recycled via 1950s and 1960s short stories, was so tempered by the fact that the trailer made the film look about as exciting and as intriguing as an unused tea bag, that I’d pretty much decided to just give the movie a miss. Or at least, ignore it for long enough so that the choice of whether I really had to go and see this thing or not was taken away from me by default.
However, since my internet connection at home had been out for something like a month, which is ironic given the subject matter of this film, and since it was a Sunday afternoon and the sun wasn’t completely covered up by black clouds, I found myself bored enough that I decided a walk down to my local Cineworld wouldn’t be too terrible a waste of my time. And so I went and saw it anyway... and I’m rather glad I did.
Transcendence is a movie that has a celluloid heritage which is perhaps best identified as it being a descendant of various “computer consciousness takes over” sci-fi films of the early 1970s such as The Forbin Project and Demon Seed. While it would certainly be true to say that it is, as I’d suspected, one of those modern 50s/60s recycled concept movies we’ve been getting so much of lately, it has to also be said that this movie carries off its recycling with a certain amount of panache and technical competency from all the cast and crew.
Johnny Depp plays a clever science type, called Will Caster, who has ben experimenting with computers to the point that he now has what he’s pretty sure is a self aware machine. He dreams of ultimately finding a way to transcend the human creatures populating the planet and upgrade them as a next stage of human evolution... conquering death in a brief nod to Frankenstein, perhaps. At a conference with his equally clever science type wife, Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (who I’ve loved since I saw her as the lead protagonist in The Awakening, reviewed here) and his friend Max, played by Paul Bettany, Will gets shot by a member of a group of anti-AI nutters... although he initially survives the shooting. As an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy tells him, various of his science buddy colleagues aren’t so lucky with, in one particular set of offices, a professor played by Morgan Freeman being the only survivor... due to blind luck more than anything else.
However, it turns out Will isn’t as lucky as he thought, as the bullet he was shot with was laced with a radioactive chemical which will slowly kill him over the course of the month. Before that happens, however, Evelyn turns him and Paul Bettany’s character Max onto the idea of uploading Will's consciousness into an AI.
Now you all know this is obviously going to work otherwise you wouldn't have a movie and the film soon becomes a cat and mouse game between Will’s enhanced consciousness, which has been downloaded into the internet and controls the entire world, and the group of ludites who shot him in the first place and who recruit various of the characters to their cause. As the situation seems both threatening and also wonderful simultaneously, the stakes are raised and pretty soon Will is enhancing humans into super beings and even, at one point (and this is in the trailer so I’m hopefully not giving anything away here... although if you don’t see this one coming you must be very young), building a new body identical in looks and feel to his old one for himself.
By the last part of the film, where all out war between the AI and our brave cell of misguided and not so misguided idiots is reaching some explosive moments, the film turns out to be a film about love and sacrifice... but with Will anticipating every move made against him, just who is going to be doing the sacrificing?
Like all good sci-fi, even the warmed up leftovers from decades gone by, Transcendence explores concepts such as “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” and also gets into the old chestnut of “What is a human soul?” and "How does one define the state of self awareness?". Questions which can’t be answered, perhaps, in the real world but, to this movie’s credit above other stories of a similar nature, one of these questions does get answered in terms of the main protagonists in this movie and I was really pleased with the ending of this one, which turns out to be not the one you’re necessarily expecting. Thank goodness.
It’s not a perfect movie by any means. Some of the sequences seem a bit wrong in terms of their placement in the movie. For instance, only a couple of hours after being shot in the torso, Johnny Depp is out and about and talking to his friends, and the FBI, in his office, while showing off his AI programme. Similarly, a cut from a perceived danger to one of the protagonists is suddenly shown to be something the character in question is expecting and able to act on straight away with no questions asked... which could be explained within the context of the story just about, if you want to make excuses for it, but which ultimately is not something the audience has any knowledge of and which kinda grates when you see it happen. Similarly, a series of sequences which you assume to take place over a number of months given the amount of screen time allocated, are followed at one point by a scene which takes place only two days after the start of the events in one of the sections of the film... which doesn’t make sense and which I suspect has been re-edited to the place where it ended up to remind audiences of the FBI character... rather than have it play out as a slow build, which would have been preferable. I don’t mind a movie about artifical intelligence as long as it doesn’t try to insult what little intelligence I myself possess, is my feelings about that.
The last 20 or so minutes, truth be told, feel a little dragged out, basically in terms of the story of the two main leads, the husband and wife, of the film... but it doesn’t ruin it and it does have a certain sense of beauty and melancholy about it which is worth the wait. Also, the film is bookended at start and finish by a sequence showing the aftermath of the event in the main body of the movie. Personally, although there is a twinge of possibility in the last shot, I would have preferred to go into the epilogue without seeing the set up at the start of the film because, basically, it tells you something of the outcome of the story before it’s even properly been started.
However, the cast are all amazing, there are some lovely shots, it has an incredibly fine score by composer Mychael Danna (the US Amazon CD-R is hopefully in the post to me soon) and, all in all, I was impressed at how a movie with such a tired old concept could be told so well, shot and edited so beautifully and, also, take me to a place where I wasn’t quite expecting the ending to go. It was always an option but it’s a bold writer, in this day and age, to outright tackle the issue of the soul of a man in a computer in such a definite and conclusive manner. So yeah, this one is, frankly, a well made and nice little sci-fi thriller with a little more action than I was expecting and which is certainly not the boring yawn-fest the trailer made it out to be. If you like computer oriented science fiction stories, then this one is definitely something worth checking out. I’ll be catching up with this again on blu-ray, no doubt.
Monday, 28 April 2014
There Will Be Flood
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Warning of sorts: If you don’t already know the basic story of Noah And The Ark then there may, indeed, possibly be some kind of spoilers in here. Probably not though.
I’m not exactly the most religious person in the world... to tell the truth.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t deny the possibility of the existence of a God or some other kind of creator-like being or collective form of energy or whatever else one wants to believe in. And I would staunchly defend any man or woman’s right to believe in that kind of power and symbol of that power in their life. I just don’t know what to think or how to contemplate anything as alien as that which functions in a similar manner to that might be. If it either was or even is recognisable as a practical or spiritual reality is not something I can either judge as having a basis in our collective experience of life or not.
What I don’t personally believe in, however, is organised religion. It seems to me that this is just a tool used to control the masses through a sense of blind faith to a specific set of man made instructions or preferences to living. Without being any kind of expert on it, it seems to me the texts being used to progress these “clubs” or “societies” are questionable in the utmost and are as much about censorship and decisions made on our collective behalf for the good of those in power, as much as they are about anything they claim to be.
So although my initial reaction while I was watching Aronofsky’s version of Noah And The Ark was... “Hey, I don’t remember the bit in The Bible when the giant rock creatures help defend the ark against the evil humans while Noah gathered up his family.”... it has to be acknowledged that this is a much more forgivable form of artistic licence than, say, a James Bond film deviating 99% from the novel it was alleged to have been based on. At least I can be fairly certain that Ian Fleming wrote Moonraker, for example, and that the text he wrote is exactly what he imagined and, therefore, any liberties taken with it for the terrible movie adaptation of this were being committed in a much more culpable fashion than Noah which, obviously, was written by multiple authors, censored to the point that only a few of the author's versions are known to us and, ultimately, is questionable both in its intent and credibility.
Similarly, when Quentin Tarantino kills off Adolf Hitler by having him machine gunned to death in a cinema before that same cinema is blown to pieces in Inglourious Basterds, thus ending World War Two, I’m finding the admittedly brilliant denouement of this film far more questionable morally, in the context of education, than I do with Noah having giant rock creatures with angels inside them helping him build his ark.
Having got that out of the way, my experience as a paying member of the audience to Aronosfky’s movies is also something which is less than clear cut for me.
His first three feature length films... Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain... are all works of artistic genius, as far as I’m concerned. Not only are they completely brilliant, they are films which I could watch over and over again, every couple of years, without failing to be blown away by their incredible resonance and artistry. His fourth feature, The Wrestler, was also an incredible film but, for me, lacks that desire for repeat viewing which the films he made prior to that spoke to me with. It’s still a great film, mind you... just not one I’d want to revisit anytime soon.
But then came Black Swan (reviewed here)and he just lost me.
That movie had all the makings of another great work of art, with a wonderful concept. However, despite great performances by all the leads and a certainly competent standard of directing, it wasted its material. The intensity and ferocity with which the subject matter could have been shown just seemed heavily compromised and overly commercial, especially from someone with Aronofsky’s credentials. Without making too much of a meal out of it I’d have to sum it up, in the common vernacular of generations much younger than me, by saying it was... well... it was pretty “meh.”
Noah, if not a complete return to form by Aronofsky, and by that I possibly mean a return to the stylistic indulgences of my preferred earlier stage of his career, is an entertaining picture, if nothing else. It tells the story of Noah played quite credibly, perhaps even brilliantly, by an actor I have no special love of, Russel Crowe. His performance is by far the defining anchor of this movie and, as he is what the story is all about, that’s as it should be... although Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah does come close to stealing his thunder in a few scenes. Crowe is ably supported by performances from Emma Watson, Logan Leman, Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone (playing the ancient historical version of the local mafia gang leader, it seems to me) and the truly great actress Jennifer Connelly, who did such a brilliant, stand out performance for Aronofsky once before, in Requiem For A Dream.
The actors though, do tend to take second place to the brilliance of the sweeping landscapes and the special effects as used in such sequences as Noah’s apocalyptic visions of the future “death by water” and the aforementioned giant rock people. The rock giants are in the film for quite a lot of the running time and so are a constant fantasy element to something which many would regard as being based purely on a fantasy novel anyway. Or at least a source text which has been so tainted by years of history in a far more corrupt and virulent way than a series of Chinese whispers that any truths the original text or word of mouth, in actual fact, might have had to them are now absolutely impossible to fathom.
I can’t say I was blown away by Aronofsky’s take on the story of Noah, but I wasn’t bored by it either. The quick cut montages of his earlier work to impact certain ritualistic and repetitive actions are still not returned to here, although there are moments where montages of hundreds of cuts work in a different way, as a kind of clunky version of time lapse almost, indicating quite soundly that the creative roots of Aronofsky as an artist in control of his own vision, rather than just doing what a studio would tell him to do, is still very much present. It’s therefore not right for me to criticise this movie in any other way than by what I personally do or don’t like, therefore. Aronofsky is an artist on his own terms still... and that’s to be respected in the utmost.
The film is quite long but the pacing is quite leisurely and probably seems to be a lot faster than it actually is. I in no way felt the running time myself... if asked I would have said it was an hour and a half movie, not a two hours plus epic. That’s a good thing and shows that my attention was held during the narrative, although I think the epilogue of the years after the great flood was a little unnecessary to the text as a whole.
Is Noah a film I’d recommend? Well, possibly for Clint Mansell’s quite lovely score but probably not for those with a strong religious conviction, that’s for sure. At least, my expectations are such that an audience composed of a belief system based on the legacy of a specific set of ideas presented as fact would find this movie unpalatable in some ways. As a fantasy movie, it’s not the most exciting I’ve seen but, like I said, it held my attention and I think most audiences without a specific skewed interest in adhering to a supposedly “set in stone” source text would be hard pressed to bear it any grudge and, possibly, get a morally uplifting message from it, by the end of the film. It’s not one I’m ever going to return to, I suspect, but it’s a pretty competent piece of cinema and I can only hope that Aronofsky will return to the style of direction and choice of subject matter that I so loved from him in the early part of his career. So not particularly hit or miss and, yeah, not even particularly “Meh” either. Just a nice solid film which you can either take or leave on its own terms and that’s the last I need to say about it.
Friday, 25 April 2014
You may have noticed a distinct drop in frequency and then lack of updates over the past few of weeks. This is due to some problems I am experiencing at home with my lack of internet. BT have still not looked into the problem properly. I am hoping to be able to get back to posting my reviews at more regular intervals very soon (I haven’t stopped writing them, just rarely had an opportunity to post) and I hope in a few days I’ll be able to put up more updates. In the meantime, my review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has just gone up and please check back fro more updates soon.
Thanks again to all you who read and support this blog. The reviews will be coming back soonest.
All the best,
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Warning: Big spoilers in this one.
Well, I think this is going to be a short review. Let me try to figure out what went wrong here.
The Amazing Spider-Man was called that from its first issue because of that character’s initial appearance in a successful issue of the comic Amazing Fantasy in 1962. However, the version of this and various other characters that appear in this current movie bear little resemblance to those running around in the first 100 or so issues of the comic (which is about as far as I read). It’s like the company has bought the rights to the characters and just done their own thing with them... which tells me they’re not aiming for a target audience consisting of fans of the original comics, that’s for sure. That’s a shame because, believe me, those early comics are cinematic enough that they would make great movies if adapted properly for the screen.
Now this film follows a fairly good opening movie, although it’s guilty of similar problems in translating the characters and situations to the screen. My review of the first in this series, The Amazing Spider-Man, is here and it also details the impact this character has had on me over the years. This sequel is pretty awful in many ways but, before I start pulling it apart, let me find the positives first.
The casting decision on the Harry Osbourne character is awesome. Dane DeHann looks nothing like the Harry from the comics but he is credibly able to go nuts in a sympathetic manner as he did when he played the central antagonist in the excellent teen superhero movie Chronicle (reviewed here), from a couple of years ago. Unfortunately he looks nothing like the Green Goblin either, not even being green, and his father has not yet, in this version of the story, been the former incarnation of the Green Goblin.
I don’t really know lead actor Andrew Garfield but he’s a very likeable personality and does what he’s doing here very well. He’s absolutely nothing like Peter Parker but the way his character behaves and is written is very much like the way Spider-Man is when he puts on his suit. He also has good chemistry with his on screen lover Emma Stone, who is equally likeable as Gwen Stacy. So these two are probably reason enough in themselves to watch this movie.
Okay, so other reasons why you should consider taking a look at this... um... okay. Well... no. Can’t say I can think of anything else. Let me now list the other bad things about this adaptation...
We all knew they’d be doing the death of Gwen Stacy storyline (or why have this character in there in the first place) but, Sam Raimi had already done that in his first Spider-Man movie... except he didn’t, did he? He took the exact situation of Gwen Stacy’s death, the original incarnation of the Green Goblin throwing her off a bridge and forcing Spider-Man to chose between who he saved, but Raimi substituted Mary Jane Watson in her place and, instead of dying from a whiplashed broken neck like Gwen did in the comics, caused by Spidey webbing her in an attempt to break her fall and save her, Mary Jane survived her onscreen version of this issue. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, director Webb loses the specifics of the situation but keeps the whiplash element and Gwen does die... but it seems a cheaply won death after such a mess of a movie... at least to me it did.
Electro was my favourite villain in the original Spider-Man universe and I’ve always wanted to see him done right on screen. Looks like I’ll be waiting another good long while for that then. The white dude with the yellow and green costume culminating in a kind of starfish-electricity hat has been replaced with... Jamie Foxx playing him like a meek Spidey fanboy who suddenly goes mental, acts tough and can even convert himself into raw electricity. What a load of rubbish. I was heartbroken when it came to this aspect of the character... but they’ve also taken some pretty bad liberties with The Green Goblin so, I was getting distracted left, right and centre here.
Paul Giamatti, one of the great actors of our time, is just wasted here. The Rhino is not the mutated strongman of the comics wearing a latex rhino suit. He is an exoskeleton piloted by a Russian mobster. He plays a small role at the start of the film and then is ignored for the rest of the movie, despite the marketing campaign being heavily weighted by his presence, to be brought back as a kinda cheap punchline at the end of the movie. Admittedly, the scene where Spider-Man returns from retirement following the death of Gwendy to take on The Rhino is somewhat moving and will have the audience cheering but... seriously, it was underwhelming.
And I don’t know how this scene could have possibly been underwhelming when the movie was so slow and the villains, for the most part, so weak. The pre-amble to the creation of Electro was too long and, frankly, all the scenes with him in it, before and after his elevation to the status of super-villain, just seemed slow and boring to me. I took my parents to this one and they got so bored with it I had to keep nudging them awake. The action scenes with Electro were far from spectacular and, since you pretty much knew The Not-So-Green Goblin was going to kill Gwendoline Stacy in this, his scenes also felt like they lacked the necessary danger element.
Also, no J. Jonah Jameson (though he is alluded to), no Betty Brant, no Liz Allen and no Mary Jane Watson (although she would have been around in the same timeline in the stories as Gwen Stacy... they even resembled each other quite a lot). We have been teased with a character called Felicia who is quite possibly the same Felicia who will turn into The Black Cat... although she is lacking the white/silver hair here.
Even Has Zimmer’s music seemed to be all wrong for this picture. Jimmy Horner, who has a certain negative reputation with a certain segment of film score fans (including myself) did a credible and exciting score for the first movie. Zimmer, who is a composer I’ve really gotten into in recent years, delivered something that, on the few occasions I could actually hear it... since it was so buried in the sound mix beneath the various sound effects... seemed out of place. Now, I’m going to buy the album if it gets a release because I would like to actually hear what he did for this without the competing noise, but my judgement on it in the context of the accompaniment of the film was... not such a hot score. Which is kind of a shame because I really wanted to like this one. Maybe I still will, if the score album makes it into my player anytime soon.
And that’s pretty much me done with this movie. It was slow and boring, for the most part, and the only sequences which held any interest for me were the two handers between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy and, again, Peter Parker and Harry Osborne. Oh, and the one other good thing was the ghost of Captain Stacy haunting Peter and flooding him with guilt every now and again... that was a nice touch. But, seriously, this is not a movie I would recommend to anyone with an interest or love of the main title character. I think I’d probably rather be watching something like Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge from 1979 than this thing. Plaudits to some of the cast and some of the dialogue writing in certain scenes but, ultimately, I’d say don’t bother with this one and go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier (my review here) instead... it’s much, much better.
Wednesday, 16 April 2014
Liev On Mars
The Last Days On Mars
Directed by Ruairi Robinson
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Warning: Slight spoilers discussing the nature of this particular beast.
The Last Days On Mars was not a film I’d even heard of, or known was in production, until I looked at an app on my phone and found out it was playing at my local fleapit. I read a few words of synopsis about it being a horror film set on Mars but, since I have had an unfortunate internet black out for a week or so now, I have not been able to even watch a trailer for it. So I went in completely blind other than a few IMDB comments from people who were, to put it mildly, less than impressed with the film.
I’m happy to say that I don’t agree with those naysayers and that I found the film to be quite gripping in general. A taut little sci-fi thriller that borders on/strays into the realm of the horror movie.
Now I don’t usually like Liev Schreiber and Elias Koteas as a rule... except, when I think back to the films I’ve seen them in, they’ve actually always been pretty good. So I don’t really know why their names started sounding alarm bells but, all I can say is that they are both terrific in this movie... as are all the other actors and actresses involved in this project.
The film has that nice kind of “claustrophobia while roaming wide open spaces” kind of feel which you can probably only get from movies where the landscape is poisonous to you if you take off your oxygen helmet and, in some ways, the film felt a little bit like the old Hammer fun fest Moon Zero Two (reviewed here) in terms of the sense of the “humans versus the environment” kind of atmosphere created in this one... or should that be “lack of atmosphere” created in this one? Given that, you know, it’s set on a planet which doesn’t actually have a breathable one.
The Martian landscape is depicted throughout as quite yellow itself and I’m guessing they did their research enough to know something I didn’t know about the surface of the planet when you are actually situated within its atmosphere. People who like red, though, need not worry. There are some amazing sequences where control rooms are bathed in red light at various points in the running time... not to mention a certain amount of blood spilled at key moments.
The story set-up itself is extremely simple and not exactly original...
On their last day or so on Mars, a crew who have been stationed there for six months find a bacterial/viral life form. Of course, as soon as they do, one of them gets himself in trouble and gets infected by it and this has the effect of... well... turning them into crazy mixed up zombies. Except only in appearance because, unlike the zombies they resemble facially... as each one’s visage is turned into a nightmarish vision synonymous with zombie films over the last fifty years or so... these ones are faster (much like the pseudo-zombies of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later) and they retain the intelligence and reasoning of any sentient life form. Even so, they still want to, well... “kill all the humans” and that is what they start to do, by violence and then infection as our heroes and heroines are pitted against both the rudimentary problems of staying alive on Mars without an abundance of air while simultaneously avoiding violent encounters, and fending off each other from all manner of arguments and personality clashes in the process. You need a good ensemble cast to be able to pull off something like this well and, thankfully, the director Ruairi Robinson got one.
As I said, it’s really nothing special in terms of either originality or in terms of finding ways to surprise or interest the audience, in most respects. Thankfully, though, it really doesn’t have to be as, even though we think we know the probable outcome of the movie, it’s really well executed and the intensity of some of the scenes is spot on. The mise en scene is, again, not particularly attention grabbing, but it’s certainly very competently handled and, despite a lot of hand held camera work, there is a certain sense of beauty and simplicity within the way some shots are framed and edited together.
The musical score by Max Richter, too, is very good... treading a fine line between minimal space atmospheres, high pitched noodlings that act in the subconscious like certain elements of the Blade Runner score, and some full on majestic melodies at key points. I’d love to get a CD of this to have a proper listen but, so far, all I can see is an MP3 album knocking around.... which frankly isn’t good enough. The companies should be investing in their scores and putting these out in shops on CDs for people. Not making them take up valuable real estate on their potential customer’s computers. This score needs a decent release!
So there you have it... a nice film set in base camps, surface buggys and the Martian landscape, which uses the mystery of the possibility of some kind of life on Mars as a lead in to a quite claustrophobic and relatively edgy sci-fi thriller. It’s not new but it is neat and I thought the director, cast and crew did a wonderful job on it. If you’re into old school science fiction concepts, ripped from a plethora of old 1950s science fiction short stories, then you’ll probably have a great time with what is, basically, a zombies in space movie. I know I’ll be grabbing the Blu Ray of this one fairly soon after it gets released.
Tuesday, 15 April 2014
The Raid 2 - Berandal
(aka The Raid - Berandal aka
The Raid 2 aka The Raid: Retaliation)
Directed by Gareth Evans
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Warning: Very slight spoilers concerning the nature of some of the action choreography... if you count that as a spoiler... and the set up of the movie.
There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with Gareth Evans follow up to his hugely successful action move The Raid (reviewed here). One would have been the idea that you had to top the action sequences of the first movie to give the audiences all even more of the same multiplied by ten. The second would be to continue the structure of the first film in that you have it set in one location over a small number of hours.
I’m happy to say that, with The Raid 2 - Berandal, Evans not only doesn’t fall into either of those traps... but he also delivers another adrenalin fuelled, kick ass action movie which holds up on its own with its own agenda. Actually, that’s a bit of a double edged sword in some ways because there are certain characters from the first film you want to know about... but maybe they’ll get to that in a future installment.
And, to get any raised eyebrows out of the way on that last paragraph... yes, the action sequence choreography and editing in this movie is absolutely spectacular... but it stands up as being equal, not necessarily better than the sequences in the first movie. It does its own thing and as I sat watching this in the Cineworld Haymarket at the weekend, I could feel the collective pulse of the audience speeding up at the sheer, gruelling intensity of the combat sequences in this one.
Starting a mere two hours after the events of the first film, rather than continue the thread which that film left open, the fate of Rama’s brother and the family bond that tied them together on separate sides of the law, this story absolutely ignores that and uses the fallout of the events of the first movie to kick start a different plot involving the main protagonist Rama (again played with huge amounts of energy by Iko Uwais) deliberately serving time in prison to set himself up in an undercover operation. And, of course, as soon as this is fully explained, through use of cross cutting to flashbacks and the camera recording Rama’s current prison environment, the action starts to take over... with a beautiful sequence set in a prison toilet cubicle, where Rama takes on a larger number of people then could effectively fit in such a place. We’ve seen these claustrophobic kinds of fight scenes before (most notably in Danny The Dog aka Unleashed with Jet Li) and it kind of harkens back in terms of film history to the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in the train compartment in From Russia With Love... but this is a truly dynamic sequence and it's only the first action piece in the film.
This opening punch up is followed up with another, truly memorable fight sequence, which is set in the muddy prison courtyard, straight away recalling to mind, at least to this member of the audience, the final rain and mud soaked battle in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Then the film jumps ahead two years and the hero is propelled into the outside world, having infiltrated the criminal organisation which puts him right where the chief of the special police unit in charge of such matters wants him.
The film is impressive in many ways and it’s not just the action sequences which require your appreciation. The style of the camera work, with long, slow zooms and pans as the intent of the major players are revealed in scenes involving dialogue, rather than lots of punching and kicking, are quite sedately paced and this is a smart move by a director who values the effect of having long gaps and moments of rest between the action. It’s a good thing to do if you want the raw energy of those sequences to stand out even more and it’s something a lot of masters of cinema have realised over the years. Evans has got this clocked and the way he utilises the tension and release of the frenetically paced action rubbing visual styles with the serene moments of potential energy, before they become kinetic energy unleashed in some of the most painful and bone crunching ways, is surely a sign that this director is not just a flash in the pan and an artist worthy of your time.
And talking about tension and release... there’s a really clever piece of playing around with the audiences expectations and the moment of visceral, shock imagery when its least expected. It’s become, very much, a cliché in horror movies to make the audience think that something is about to happen and then giving them the old double bluff relief when a character goes to investigate something potentially scary and it turns out to be a false alarm (more often than not in the form of an errant cat)... before the main protagonist turns around, slap bang into the scary thing that the audience was hyped about seeing before it turned out to be a false alarm. It’s an old trick but it’s still used because it takes people unawares.
What Gareth Evans does is to take the same basic principal, but use it as a sucker punch to the suspense of a specifically nasty piece of violence unfolding before your eyes. To explain... like the first movie, The Raid 2 has a lot of violence which is implied by cutting away at the exact moment it happens and allowing the audience to imagine the worst. To be fair, it also has loads of violence which is full on bloody and brutal and witnessed in full, but in certain sequences Evans pulls away and lets the imagination take over. Now then, there’s a scene in this movie where three “specialists” in one criminal organisation, are taking out key players in a rival gang’s organisation and the three action sequences are cross cut with each other to make a lengthy action montage...
And this is where Evans does something really special...
In one sequence, a major villain has got his victim held down by two of his men and he is about to burrow down hard into a man’s head with a pick axe or some sharp object. You know it’s coming and you know it’s gonna be nasty. We see the object come down and... the director cuts away. But this is the beauty of it... he cuts back to a continuing sequence where a specialist martial artist who should perhaps best be known as ‘hammer girl’ is bashing and clawing her way through a load of men and, a second or two after he has cut away from the head shot, we see her bring a claw hammer down through a man’s head in exactly the way we were threatened with in the previous shot. So we get, tension, release as in the “oh good, we didn’t actually see it” and then we see the act itself after all, but via a different set of characters and a different instrument of ‘head bashery’.... which is then itself numbed out because the sequence is continuing on with more unstoppable and driven action fighting which forces us to pay attention and file away the moment in the back of our minds as we look at everything else that’s going on. This was pretty clever and I don’t remember it being done quite this way in a movie before. I almost clapped out loud at the arrogance of it. All good stuff.
The film is quite good looking and, when you’re not being edited to death at a ferocious pace (which is in no way incomprehensible at any point, in case you were worried about that aspect), there are some quite nice sets...many of which are decorated in red, I noticed. They catch the eye and hold the attention as the actors do their thing.
My only real puzzlement is that there are a couple of spectacular action sequences starring actor Yayan Ruhian, who played such a major bad guy role in the first film, which ended with his character’s death at the hands of Rama and his brother. Here, he plays a different character but, for some reason, he looks almost exactly the same as he did in the first film. He’s got such a recognisable face that I wondered why he’s in this one. It actually pulled both my friend and I out of the action for a few seconds as we tried to work out if he was playing a twin brother to the previous character or some such thing. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why a martial artist of such skill could only be beneficial to have as a person on set... but it was a strange move, I thought.
All in all, though, this in no way detracts from the basic scenario and I’m happy that The Raid 2 - Berandal differs so much from the first film in terms of the wealth of changing locations, the amount of time the story takes place in and the fact that there is generally more story to it, as opposed to the very simple set up of the first one. Bearing in mind the way this film ends... which I’m not going to reveal or spoil here... I’m now very much looking forward to seeing where the director takes us from here. It’s quite obvious that he’s not done with these characters yet and I truly can’t wait to see the next installment. For fans of action movies, I can only recommend this as being a definite must see to add to your list. There is much kickassery in this movie.
Monday, 14 April 2014
Sugar Free Quiet
The Quiet Ones
Directed by John Pogue
Playing at UK cinemas now.
The Quiet Ones is the latest British horror movie from the company who bought up, and have been trying to resurrect, the brand name recognition of Hammer Studios, best known worldwide for their cheesy but influential and, often, ‘rollicking good fun’ films in the horror genre. The new version of Hammer have either put together or distributed a number of productions over the past few years but inevitably, as with all film companies, their product has been a bit hit and miss, at least for this particular audience member.
The Quiet Ones is one of their more self aware and smarter movies of recent years and, although the last 25 minutes or so of the movie stray into the “decidedly cheesy” area of the genre, this does at least harken back to their days from their 20th Century incarnation and, overall, I’d have to say that this movie definitely falls into their ‘hit’ camp.
The film purports to be a true story (which I don’t think it is) of events which took place in Oxford in 1974, even going so far as to show still photographs of the original participants in the events to get people thinking over the end credits... which is good showmanship, to say the least.
The story follows a small cell of people conducting an ‘experiment’. They consist of a Professor, played by Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) and some volunteer students, headed up by new cameraman Brian, played by Sam Claflin, who is called in to continue documenting their work after the last cameraman got cold feet (aka got scared off by spooky events). Their research, which they continue as a kind of outlaw band, moving to a new and, frankly, scary location after their funding is cut, involves the study and hopeful cure of a ‘possessed’ young lady called Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke). It is the Professor’s belief that the various, terrifying manifestations which plague the characters and which come from a malevolent child spirit called Evie are, in fact, nothing more than Jane Harper’s externalisation of her own personal trauma. The theory is to force her to manifest the ghost-like shenanigans to a point where the externalisation of these things can be yanked from Jane’s body, thus curing her.
Yeah, okay, it’s a shaky theory but, you know... go with it. We all know there’s something much less internal to Jane going on, right? It’s an interesting entry hook into a story of thumps, knocks, bruises, bites, fire, strange ectoplasmic manifestations and all the other things a good ghost story/demonic possession movie needs to start scaring the pants off the audience. And... up to a point, it’s quite successful in evoking that gold mine, pants free environment in your local dodgyplex.
One of the reasons that this is so successful, in fact, is because the film attempts something that a couple of horror movies have attempted in the last few years, usually unsuccessfully. That is, they try to maintain a “have your cake and eat it” approach to combining standard third person storytelling and mixing it up with “found footage” style first person shooting. Normally this really doesn’t work but, with a movie such as this, which makes no pretension at being a “found footage movie”, the two different techniques being utilised, when cut together, succeed admirably where most others fail. When used properly like this, and knowing how far to push the “camera eye” footage before they need to ground it in the external context again, it adds an extra kick to the film and definitely an extra appreciation of the scares which the production team cook up for us. Yes, this does use every tried and true, hackneyed technique in ‘horror movie syntax 101’ to achieve its purpose, of scaring you silly at certain points, but its done just right and with such a deft hand in most places that, when it does go a little wrong and into full cheesy mode for the over-the-top end set pieces, you can kind of forgive it that indulgence... especially when it fits in with the classic old Hammer modus operandi so neatly.
The film has a curious double ending, before the credits roll, and one almost brings to mind the very last shot of Hammer’s runaway smash version of The Woman In Black (reviewed here). I don’t want to spoil it but it leads very nicely into a second ending which is, in some ways, a little more uncomfortable and which references something which has been used as a shot transition, punctuation mark throughout the movie... that of a hand clapping against another, used as an impromptu human clapperboard. I won’t tell you the context of the last time this is used, because I really don’t want to give anything away, but it does make a nice little coda to the film, at least in terms of the cinematic language used throughout, and the consequences of the arrival to that particular scenario is something you are left to ponder at the end of the film. A haunting aftermath, so to speak.
The performances are all pretty cool, which I would expect from somebody like Jared Harris but which extends to the entire main cast in terms of excellence. Also nice is the evocation of the style of the time with the make-up, hair style and clothing which lend the film a certain air of authenticity for any claims that it’s based on a true story, by layering it with a sheen of yesteryear... which gives it a certain charming historical credence, so to speak. It certainly reminded me of my childhood, in some ways.
The music, too, does its bit. And I’m not talking about the song choice for certain scenes but of the underscore... which manages to walk that common but effective modern day horror music tightrope of sound design metamorphosing into something which operates on an almost subliminal level, walloping into atonal shifts of all the colours of the dark when required. Good stuff and I look forward to picking up the soundtrack CD if there is one.
All in all, The Quiet Ones does get a bit ridiculous in the end but, it’s carried across with such style and conviction by the time it reaches its denouement, that you can certainly have a good time with this one if horror movies are your thing. Definitely one of the better horror movies of recent years... not the best but certainly beyond the competent and into something a lot more effective than much of the lesser product on the market. I’ll certainly be watching this one again when it comes out on Blu-Ray.
Friday, 11 April 2014
Naschy Come Home
Vengeance Of The Mummy
(aka La Venganza De La Momia)
Directed by Carlos Aured
Camden Collection DVD Region 0
Vengeance Of The Mummy is one of Paul Naschy’s loving homages to the classic Universal horror movies of old. Naschy, best known for his portrayal of the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in many films, also wrote this one. Like the 1959 Hammer update of The Mummy (reviewed here), this mixes elements from the 1932 classic version of The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff in the titular role, with ingredients from the 1940s pseudo-sequel series, which followed the bandage-wrapped exploits of Kharis, as played by both Tom Tyler (The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, The Phantom) and by the legendary Lon Chaney Jr (who had the privilege of playing all four of the top tier Universal monsters in his time).
In this interpretation, Naschy plays a dual role in that he plays both Amenhotep (which is obviously a name check reference to Imhotep) and also a devoted, Victorian follower of the same tyrant, Assed Bay. Unlike the Karloff “dual role”, where he played the bandaged wrapped version and the modern Egyptian version of the same character using an assumed name, the roles in this version are actually two different characters, with Amenhotep prowling around in bandages while Assed Bay seeks to reunite him with the spirit reincarnation of his former lover (which is a concept with direct lineage from the Karloff version, of course). A concoction very similar to the “tana leaves” of the Kharis series of Mummy films is also used in this version, although Amanhotep only needs to drink this the once.
In Vengeance Of The Mummy, the main male protagonist who, with his wife, discovers the accursed tomb of Amenhotep, is Jack Taylor (start of such genre movies as The Ghost Galleon aka Tombs Of The Blind Dead 3, Female Vampire, Vampyros Lesbos etc) who I also liked in what I consider to be the best of the Naschy/Daninsky films I’ve seen to date, Dr. Jekyll And The Wolfman. Interestingly, it’s not this character’s wife who is the love object of Amenhotep’s curse in this version, but the daughter of his professor friend and, I’m guessing because of certain gender and genre expectations at the time this was made, she is played as a single lady... I just can’t tell you why because I don’t want to spoil the end of the movie for you.
The film has a prelude set in Egypt (this one doesn’t make extensive use of flashbacks as did the 1932 version of The Mummy and various other incarnations of it over the years) but the majority of the movie is set in London, England and in this way it plugs into the same feeling of nostalgia (I used to go into London a lot as a kid) that I got from Taylor and Naschy’s collaboration from the year before, the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll And The Wolfman. I don’t quite remember the Natural History Museum having a big sign out in front of it saying British Museum (Natural History) but... I guess it could have done and I just wasn’t paying attention as a kid. The montage of establishing shots to tell us we’re in London is bizarrely long, though. Clocking in as a few minutes and outstaying its welcome somewhat as a “short” intro to a scene.
Even so, this film is one of the best of the Naschy productions I’ve seen. The set design is a little simplistic, especially the stuff in the Egyptian setting at the start of the movie, but it’s also very colourful and lively and I loved it. Similarly, the shot design and the way things are dollied through or edited together is all excellent with some really nice, Hitchcockian moments which are almost birds eye views of the characters as they go about their business in a few sections. Really nice stuff.
The musical score, by a guy named Alfonso Santisteban, is pretty good too. It’s not exactly as subtle as you might hear in a lot of horror films but that doesn’t count against it and the melodies and elements of the orchestration are all quite toe tapping and listenable throughout, certainly defending its honour against such brilliant scores as Franz Reizenstein’s score to the Hammer version of The Mummy, for instance. I’d love to get my hands on a recording of this score but, unless a boutique label like Quartet decide to give it a go (they released two Naschy scores but I think they were slow sellers and possibly underperformed for them), then I’m not holding out much hope.
What we have in this movie is one for all fans of the always familiar and iconic movie monsters which have stood the test of time throughout the years from the early talkies (and sometimes before) and if you are into these kinds of films, or even if you like Paul Naschy movies in general, then this one is a definite must-see. For people expecting something a little more sophisticated... well, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed, to be honest... but fans of 50s and 60s Hammer/Amicus style productions will surely love it. As did I. Hope I get to it again sometime soon before I die.
Monday, 7 April 2014
Road To More Ecko
by Danie Ware
Titan Books Ltd
This hardly ever happens to me.
I had just finished a day out with a friend in London and was riding the tube back, homeward bound, to make my next connection at Finsbury Park. It must have been about 6pm and my nose was stuck in a book, surfacing every couple of minutes to check the station name as the tube pulled in at each and every stop. Or so I thought.
All well and good but, as I looked up for the gazillionth time, I realised I was at Manor House. “What the-?” I’d overshot my station by one stop because I’d been distracted by what was turning out to be a pretty good book.
This would have consequences.
The downside was, of course, that when I finally got to Seven Sisters to get the overground train, I’d missed it by a minute and I had 29 more to wait on the platform until the next one came along. On the other hand... this also meant I’d have another 29 uninterrupted minutes of the book in question... Ecko Rising... so that was all cool then.
But, like I said... that hardly ever happens. Sure, I sleep past a stop on the bus some evenings (I’m getting old, methinks) but, mostly, I never let something distract me to the point that I miss a vital connection on the tube. So this is how I knew I was reading a good book, you see?
Readers of this blog will know that I still read the occasional novel which could credibly be termed science fiction or fantasy... but it’s mostly limited to the latest Wild Cards novel or something with Doc Savage in it. In a former lifetime, however, I was into fantasy and sci-fi a lot more than I am now and so I knew I could probably hack something like Danie Ware’s debut novel okay... which looked to be a curious blend of English cyberpunk mixing it up with heroic fantasy. But that’s not the full reason I decided to read this devilish, journey delaying tome.
I’m on Twitter, you see.
Most of my friends and acquaintances don’t understand the appeal of this particular social media thingummy jig and, truth be told, I never understood it either until I joined up specifically to try and promote this web page. But I got a whole lot more out of it when I started chatting to people and, in some ways, it’s like a voyeuristic form of reality TV for folks like me who wouldn’t touch reality shows with a rusty barge pole. One of the people I followed was Danie Ware and, I think, she’d just commenced writing her first Ecko when I started reading her tweets in my stream. I was fascinated with her raw and edgy way of battling through life, one cynicism at a time but, what really made me sit up and take notice was her analogy for the process of writing. “Back to the wordface” she would always tweet and I used to think, yeah, sometimes getting those words right can be at least as exhausting as climbing a mountain. I knew exactly what she meant and I’m not even a proper writer (although I think I’ve written enough reviews on here over the last few years to fill a few books, by the looks of it).
I also knew I was eventually going to have to read at least one of her Ecko books because, like I said, I was one of many who were the tweet witnesses of its long and joyous birthing. She seemed like a nice gal so... maybe I should give the book a go. It might be cool.
And, yeah, I have to say right up front here, the book is, indeed... decidedly cool and, possibly, entering into the realms of “groovy.”
Ecko Rising is, as I mentioned earlier, a book which very much strides two worlds (at least two) - one of which is a futuristic London where the enhanced title character Ecko, for all intents and purposes a cybernetically modified killing machine with a smug attitude, is doing some kind of wetwork and demolition job for a private company. “There's a Fifth 'orseman an’ his names Apathy.” says Luger, Ecko’s current boss, and it sums up nicely a world which is sleeping its way into oblivion with a broad analogy which really isn’t a million miles away from where we are at now in society... soberingly.
However, when a job goes wrong, Ecko finds himself transported into a Dungeons & Dragons style realm where he has to leave behind his expectations of the way his environment behaves and try to find his purpose in a world of prophecy, myth, centaurs, failed cyberpunk experiments, stone magic and, my favourite thing about this novel, a teleporting pub which materialises in a different town every morning.
There’s lots to recommend about this novel and, also, a lot for the writer to get through in terms of setting up a basic but credible world view not just once, but twice... one for London of the future and one for the fantasy land. One of the things she does neatly, however, is pre-empt any guesswork as to what is actually going on by putting all your assumptions about it in the forefront of the thoughts of Ecko, who is not so much the main protagonist as he is one of many strong and fascinating characters sprinkled throughout the book. He is flawed and arrogant and, therefore, as real as any character you see created in fiction.. so he does stand out a bit more when he’s on but, truly, the many passages when he’s not around have so many cool characters you would be happy to hang out with in, say, a teleporting pub, that you don’t always miss him when he’s gone.
He also has a nice line of postmodernistic, eclectic pop-culture references which are peppered liberally throughout the novel and it seems very clear to me that Danie Ware has a full-on, take no prisoners, gamer’s mentality mixed in with a good appreciation of all things sci-fi and fantasy and it makes for some lovely nods to various genre classics that will have fans of such things (who are probably the core target audience of books like this) lapping it up and in her pocket from the word go. “A connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s Arms” for example or “The Magic Faraway Pub” and... “Ain’t exactly Minas fucking Tirith, is it?”. Neat little throwaway lines like this give something for the fanbase to look out for but, perhaps more importantly, they anchor the character of Ecko by giving him cultural references to a reality which the reader understands historically but which most of the characters in this book don’t comprehend in the slightest... and this is a great way of aligning Ecko with the reader and getting you on his side, of course. There are even references to things like Star Trek and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion (a personal favourite) in here... and probably loads more that, as a not quite hard core fantasy fan, I was undoubtedly missing.
I say it’s obvious (and she’ll probably tell me I’m wrong now) that Danie Ware is a gamer from her writing and she seems to playfully embrace all the different forms of such in her yarn-spinning vocabulary - video games, role playing games, Steve Jackson style “turn to page x” adventure books etc - within the worlds she is, quite convincingly, charting in this novel. She also makes use of some of the structure of those kinds of entertainments to play with the reader as to just what the heck is going on at certain points in the novel. There’s a certain amount of mystery with the difference between interpenetrating realities, or possibly unrealities, as they bleed and rub against each other within the book and the ending really hammers home the point that, whatever you or, indeed, the title character thought was going on... well it may not quite be that simple. Think again, dear reader. I appreciated this because, if you’ve read my reviews of movies and books on here before, you know that I usually figure out the ending within the first ten minutes or so. Not so here. She’s on the ball about how to best mislead you on and that’s really cool.
There’s a couple of other things I thought were pretty good about this novel. One is that, when you get to a group battle scene which is then cross cut between three or more sets of protagonists/antagonists, she smartly uses an incident or, more specifically, a detail about an incident, to anchor you into the chronology of the fighting... no matter which set of protagonists you are following from section to section. So, for instance, a horse or similar creature may let out a scream specific to one particular incident and then, when you are following a different set of characters, there’ll be mention of that same scream coming from behind them, or whatever, and that will give you a reference to get everything that everyone is doing straight in your head as you read. I have to say, I’ve not consciously noticed this technique in novels before and it’s something I thought was a really great idea.
The other thing I noticed, and this is one of my pet hates with a lot of writers, is that the Danie Ware’s writing style, while clearly distinguishable in every character (as it should be and you kinda expect the fingerprints to show) is not infecting the characters to the point where they all sound like each other. I really hate when you enter the world of a book and the characters, all from different walks of life, all sound exactly the same... and almost every writer I’ve ever read makes this mistake of extending their personal style to the point that their characters become just cyphers. What doubly impressed me about this one is that Danie Ware has reeled in that tendency quite a bit. Some of the characters will always inevitably share a common style of thought and dialogue (just as friends and lovers seem to catch each other's speech and thought patterns off each other in real life) but here you have characters who are different enough from each other that they are allowed to become more flesh and blood to you by that differentiation. Now, you may argue that’s because Ware is dealing with characters that come from vastly different milieus and that it’s a natural, serendipitous symptom of that... but I don’t think so. I think there’s some very smart writing going on in this book and, when she’s done with Ecko for a while, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more greatness from her in novels to come.
So there you go. Pretty easy review to decode, I think. If you’re into fantasy, science fiction or game playing (and probably all three), then Ecko Rising is a good, healthy climb up the ‘wordface’. If you’re not into any of those three things... well it’s also not a bad jumping on point for fantasy and sci-fi in general, either. The characters are great, the ideas interesting and you’ll definitely be having some people in these pages you’ll be rooting for. Also, I mentioned it has a teleporting pub, right?
So my main advice would be... yeah. Give Ecko Rising a try.
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve already bought the second volume of the trilogy, Ecko Burning, and have it lined up for my summer holiday reading. So, I guess, like Webster’s dictionary... I’m more-Ecko bound!
Danie Ware's website can be found here... http://danieware.com/
Saturday, 5 April 2014
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Playing at UK cinemas now.
I know I’m probably going to come off as being really stupid when I say this but, for someone who hasn’t read the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel that inspired and informed this movie, The Double is quite frighteningly Kafkaesque.
Kafkaesque in the sense that it shows the little guy trapped in a world of corporate red tape and misunderstanding... a victim of the society that he lives in. To be fair, the original Dostoevsky novel apparently shares that common stance but, honestly, I invoke Kafka because it’s the only thing I personally have that I can compare to the experience of watching this quite brilliant, as it happens, movie version.
The film is vaguely surreal and, I have to admit, I was surprised when I found out the identity of the author of the original source. When I saw the trailer for this I was pretty sure that it was a modern reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelgänger story William Wilson and, it turns out, that Poe’s own exploration of this theme predated Dostoevsky’s version by seven years. In fact, Thomas Mann compared the original 1846 novel unfavourably to Poe’s earlier endeavours on this proposition.
All of which means absolutely nothing here because, frankly, the movie is entertaining as hell.
It’s been promoted, perhaps lazily, as a comedy and, certainly, many of the cast play it as such. Jesse Eisenberg’s favourable take on the shlemiel type of character often found in early Woody Allen comedies is perfectly backed up by the often astonishing Mia Wasikowska and such inconceivable luminaries as Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine. But for all of the laughs and moments of humour that this movie delivers by the bucketful... it’s also really, unbelievably depressing. Which I guess also fits with Dostoevsky’s modus operandi... unless Hal Hartley movies have been lying to me all these years.
It’s a movie which seems to have had very little publicity. I only first heard of it after I saw a trailer for it with Under The Skin a couple of weeks ago. Which is a shame really since, in addition to the wonderful performances which bring it to life, the film is a tour de force of brilliant set design, lighting, music (with some interesting needle-drop choices) and some really amazing sound design to it which brought to mind, nothing less than Alan Splet’s work on David Lynch’s Eraserhead. There are also some nice things going on in the editing which startled me at first, as the film will do things like cut between a mid shot of someone, then a long shot of something else, and then back to a close up of the original person which is kinda unsettling and jars you out of your comfort zone in certain places. Which is just excellent.
The film deals with a character who has his life invaded by a person who is an exact physical duplicate of himself and who is, for all intents and purposes, a much more extroverted and successful version. This double slowly and meticulously invades the main protagonist’s life by befriending him, then using him and ultimately usurping him and stealing the objects and goals of his desire until he becomes a bitter rival... this much you can get from just the trailer. It’s almost like he’s an evil version of Eisenberg’s character... like that episode of Star Trek, The Enemy Within, where Kirk gets split into two different versions of himself by the malfunctioning transporter. And it’s great that a film like this can be done now in a way that the illusion of having two Eisenbergs on screen is totally believable. I guess that we have David Cronenberg’s pioneering work on Dead Ringers to thank for that but it’s not the kind of movie where you’re always looking for the split in the screen like movies of yesteryear... although I’m aware that, to some of my younger readers at least, Cronenberg’s work on that movie probably does belong in the “yesteryear” category. But there’s definitely no seams showing here and, although the occasional “cheat shot” may be observed if your looking for it (the very first scene on a rickety, almost deserted train, for example... if I’m reading the meaning of that sequence correctly), the illusion is impressively maintained throughout the whole of the movie.
I mentioned earlier that the movie was somewhat Kafkaesque and there’s certainly a parallel with another great work of motion picture art that would share the same label, that of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This film is almost as detailed in the environmental design like that one was and also similarly surreal in places. It also pulls off a trick that is common to both the Gilliam movie, Tim Burton’s two Batman movies and a whole range of 1930s and 1940s Universal Horror movies in that it is deliberately, or so it seems to me, shot out of period. There are significant props and design decisions from past, present and future references found in various guises throughout the film’s running time which all blend together to make trying to place this in a specific time zone absolutely impossible. Which is kinda cool and puts you in a self contained fantasy world right from the outset.
The films is quite dark (and I’m not talking about the lighting here) but it’s never dull and I found myself absolutely engrossed in the narrative twists and turns waiting to be discovered in this one. I think there’s a lot on offer here to entertain the visually jaded modern film-goer and I even think I’ll get around to revisiting this one again a couple more times in years to come. Whether I do that or not, though, I think this film is something which deserves to be seen and I wish that it could have had a greater marketing push levelled at it than I’ve seen so far. If you’re into cinema then you’ll probably be into the cleverness and bleak charm of this movie. It put me in a bit of a dark place... but that’s not always a bad thing. This one will haunt you a little, I think. Go check it out before it disappears.
Friday, 4 April 2014
2014 Dark Art Films
Directed by Adam Stephen Kelly
If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time, you may remember that I’m not the best watcher of short movies. I appreciate the form has a valid place in movie making but they’re not often my cup of tea. When a director or film company asks me to look at their work, especially if it’s a very short film, I always stick to my guns and only write a review of the film in question if I think it’s a particularly good work. I don’t tend to write negative reviews of these because, if the people involved came to me in the first place, it would be doing them a dis-service to write a bad review. In those cases, I usually tell the person in question that I won’t review their film rather than pan it publicly.
But then, there’s always the odd exception... which you’ll also know if you’re a long term reader of my stuff. There’s a handful of shorts I’ve reviewed here in my time and those ones are on here usually because there’s been something special or particularly stand out with the film in question. Some might be because they have a wealth of ideas but with less technical merit... others may be because they are entertaining for other reasons.
Adam Stephen Kelly’s new short Done In is here because it's both technically brilliant and, also, is quite entertaining in its own right.
The film is one of perception and it would be an injustice to give away too much of the content here... other than to say it is a beautifully shot account of a man writing a suicide note. The film is very fluid and laid back in its pacing, but with a certain rigour showing in the dedication to the capturing of the subtle emotional presence of the lead actor Guy Henry.
After a series of establishing shots of a house and it’s beautiful interior, all lit in a kind of brown, almost sepia, warm kind of lighting style but with nothing too in your face about the colour choice, Guy Henry sits down to write the said letter and delivers a voice over narrative of the contents of that letter. Although the shots are all very clean and the editing first rate, the movie manages to be completely focused on the performance and the sheer beauty of the shot compositions isn’t over-indulged by the director in the sense that it distracts you from the core of the emotional sentiment of the short.
Imran Ahmad’s subtle scoring matches the fluidity and the wistful, almost nostalgic state of mind of the main character as he reflects on the words of a husband’s final letter to the world. A love letter to a dead wife and a testament to the continuation of that love after the death of a powerful presence in ones life.
Now, I knew by a certain point in this narrative that there was going to be just a little more to what was being captured here than this set up and, I think it was just before Ahmad’s score started to turn a little more sinister that I twigged the writer’s intent here... which is pretty good actually, since I usually figure out the ending of a move within the first few minutes. Doesn’t matter though as the film itself is a beautiful reflection on the power of loss and where that loss can sometimes take you. It also, as it happens, raises a few questions about the precise nature of that loss at the film’s denouement but, like all good movies, these questions set to haunt you after the thing is done are as good as anything they could have made frustratingly clear within a physical representation within the film and this kinda ties in with my thoughts on a good movie being able to stand up to several interpretations, depending on the psychological make up of the audience... above and beyond the intentions of the writers, directors, producers and actors etc.
So there you have it. A short review for a short film because, although I’d love to say more about the last minute or two of this one... I really don’t want to spoil it for you and so, all I will say is, if you’re into short films (and maybe even if you’re not), then Done In is definitely one I’d recommend you sink your teeth into, if you get the opportunity to anytime soon.
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
On Dangerous Ground
Directed by Nicholas Ray and Ida Lupino (uncredited)
RKO/Warner Brothers DVD Region 1
This is a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a long time now, mainly because I love the score by my favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his best works. When the opening titles start, Herrmann’s frenetic musical prelude wallops you in the ear drums like a repeat offender high on acid and wanting to cave your skull in. But more on Herrmann’s scoring later.
This movie is very much the epitome of film noir, as far as I’m concerned, dealing with a gloomy and not clear cut subject and shot through with an almost perfect design sensibility which really pushes the dark and light tones to a high level of contrast and highlights the characters and their place in the plot with a less murkier edge than the manifestation of their inner world would suggest. In other words... Wow, baby! Dig the chiaroscuro in this picture!
The story follows a well intentioned, well respected but ultimately violent cop called Jim Wilson, played with amazing screen presence by Robert Ryan. His inappropriately heavy handed response to the criminal element impeding his investigations has not gone unnoticed by his fellow cops and he is getting a reputation for being harder to work with over time. To be sure, though, although there is a lot of grey tone in the character, Jim Wilson is the hero of the film... his intentions are honourable all the way through and he does seem to be following, or perhaps even starting out for all I know, a trajectory which movie cops have been tracing for many years. Perhaps the most notable example, and pertinent to this film, would be Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Dirty Harry Callahan in a number of movies. The scene in On Dangerous Ground where Jim’s boss is remonstrating with him for his heavy handed techniques seems to me to be something which is very similar to the same kinds of scenes you’d see in those later Eastwood movies (not to mention various other famous vigilante cop movies).
After a scene where, once again, Jim goes nuts on a villain after the woman who gave him information is murdered for talking to him, he is ordered out of town into a snowy wasteland of a community to keep him out of trouble and assist in the hunting down of a suspect who has killed a man’s daughter. Before long, the victim’s father Walter (played by Ward Bond... Bert of Bert & Ernie fame in Frank Capra’s beautiful movie It’s A Wonderful Life) are thrown together and are hunting the suspect as a mis-matched team. Walter makes it no secret that he doesn’t want the big city cop around and that the shotgun he is carrying is going to be emptied unceremoniously into the killer’s stomach when he catches him. So it’s up to Jim to both try to catch the killer and also stop Walter from murdering him before he can stand trial.
After crashing a car they commandeer from a lady midway through the movie, they come across a cabin in the wilderness where they find the other main character of the movie, Mary, played by the late, great Ida Lupino. Lupino was one of the few female directors working in Hollywood, when she wasn’t in front of the camera, and she even helped out with directorial duties, uncredited, for a few days on this one when Nicholas Ray was taken ill.
The thing is, Mary is blind and, what we don’t realise at first, is that she’s also hiding the killer, her screwed up younger brother (himself only a teen). As Jim gets to know her she easily gets the measure of Jim and senses his loneliness and the film turns into a bitter-sweet romance with two very different but kindred spirits finding their way slowly to each other.
But enough of the plot... there’s some really great things happening here which lead up to... a really lousy ending. But, having now done the tiniest bit of research on the movie (see, no expense spared for my readers... oh, alright, I checked the IMDB) I now realise why I was so dissatisfied with the film’s conclusion. But I’ll get to that in a bit, too.
Okay, so first thing I noticed about the scenes in the first half of the film, which are all set in the city, is that is all seems to have an atmosphere very reminiscent of Blade Runner. I was trying to figure out why and I reckon, and this is just a guess so if I’m wrong please drop me a line in the comments section, that the external street scenes at the start of the movie were shot on a big indoor set. In fact, although it’s an RKO film, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was shot on exactly the same street sets which Warner Bros used to use for their gangster and film noir pictures... which of course were the same ones redressed and used for Ridley Scott’s epic sci-fi opus of 1982.
So that’s one thing about the atmosphere I liked.
The other thing about this is that the attitude of the cops on the beat, the low life they have to deal with and their tendency towards corruption and violence, felt to me like exactly the same kind of “vibe” I would get from reading a James Ellroy novel. The characters almost felt like they’d jumped out of the pages of something like The Big Nowhere or White Jazz. Now I know Ellroy was dealing with similar subject matter in his LA Quartet but, seriously, I wouldn’t have expected to find that kind of stylistic flourish accented in the films of this time period. Which makes me think Ellroy may be a big fan of these kinds of movies... which is really no surprise, if true, I guess. But I really enjoyed the heck out of the bleak, pessimistic heart of this movie.
Another thing which popped me right out of my seat during the first chase scene, and which is also true for a couple of other sequences in the movie, was that the director had used hand held camera for certain moments to make the action look chaotic and give it a jangled point of view appropriate to the on screen action. Now I thought this “raggedy up the shot” kind of experimentation for this specific effect had started some time around the 1980s but here it was being used in the early fifties and in monochrome. I checked the IMDB the next day and found that, indeed, this film is considered to be one of the earliest uses of this technique committed to film... so that’s kinda interesting (not counting Abel Gance, I guess?).
The shot set ups are quite stunning and, considering it’s filmed, more or less, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, not what I would expect to see in a film like this either... with the screen split into sections at some points and, in one unforgettable moment with Ida Lupino in her home, sliced in half, mid-screen, by a giant piece of tree which is stood there so that Mary can use it to help guide her way through the house.
The performances are all pretty much fantastic, as you’d expect from a film of this era, but the ending felt rushed and unsatisfactory. I won’t spoil that ending for you but I will say that, since watching the movie, I’ve found out that the sequence where the witness is murdered was originally supposed to have been held off until the scene just before the very last little sequence of the film and, frankly, it would have made a whole lot more sense, for both of the main protagonists, if it had been left in that chronology. It would have certainly given the ending a little more credibility... at least in my book.
And then we come, as I inevitably do with movies like this, to the music.
Bernard Herrmanns score knocks it out the park... knocks it out the park so much that it flies all the way around the world and hits you round the back of the neck. At times frenetic, at times extremely slow paced and romantic, the score comes across as a more furious take on his action style scoring for a Hitchcock movie, contrasted with long stretches of the kind of romantic and tender sound you’d find in his scores for movies like The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. There are some definite bits of score he kinda, erm, reworked for later scores in this film, including two passages which would later be used in Hitchcock films... one in Vertigo and one in North By Northwest (he’d be enraged with me for saying that but... it’s all there in the music, I’m afraid).
One other little studio story for you about this movie, this time regarding the generosity of the composer.
Herrmann was so enamoured of the quality of Virginia Majewski’s performance on the Viola D’Amour that he asked she be given a separate credit in the opening titles. The studio’s excuse at refusing this request was that they told him there were no more title cards left for the timing of the credits... to which Herrmann famously replied, “Put it on my card.” And there it is now in the opening credits... “Music by Bernard Herrmann, Viola D’Amour by Virginia Majewski.” You can buy Film Score Monthly’s brilliant restoration of the score here and listen out for the bonus track of outtakes at the end, where you can hear Herrmann’s heavy Brooklyn accent in a compilation of moments of his chewing out the orchestra for screwing up the various takes.
On Dangerous Ground, a very slightly flawed but still damn near perfect film noir, in my book... with a simple story that lets the actors breathe and allows the visual design to gather you up in its atmosphere. Definitely one to watch, I would say.