Thursday, 29 January 2015


Palmer, Sans Cheese

1965 UK 
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
UK BluRay Zone B

When this well loved and hugely popular British spy film was released into cinemas back in 1965, one of the criticisms of it was that it was “over directed”... whatever that means.

I don’t think it’s over directed.

I think it’s... not only one of the greatest pieces of technically brilliant film making ever committed to celluloid, able to get away with so many innovative things within its modest running time... it also does all these amazing things without ever once losing the fiery, burning, emotive heart at its centre. You do care for and relate to the various characters as you meet them throughout the course of the film... and that’s just the icing on the cake.

Based on the first of Len Deighton’s four novels about a nameless (in the books) spy - The IPCRESS File, Horse Under Water, Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain (the last two were also made into sequels to this film) - it was pretty much a conscious decision that the central spy role, called Harry Palmer in the films, a role which pretty much shot Michael Caine to international stardom, would be an antidote to the kind of 'secret agent' stereotypes running in the wake of the hugely successful James Bond films produced, at that time, by Saltzman and Broccoli. Indeed, Harry Saltzman also produced this movie, although he hated the director, which is a shame because Furie is a veritable magician of the silver screen when it comes to what he did with this movie.

I’ve been watching this series of films for over three decades by now and my friend bought me the new Blu Ray edition from the Network label for Christmas. It’s an absolutely brilliant print/transfer and, watching it once more, I am falling in love with the movie all over again as the spellbinding technical innovation, combined with the beautifully written, sharply witty script and the unbelievably cool musical score from John Barry... all work their magic.

The film starts off with almost a double pre-credits sequence, first starting with the kidnapping of a scientist and the death of a British Secret Service agent before introducing us to Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer character waking up in bed to his alarm clock. The credits start running as he goes about his business making coffee, dressing and various other things in a dull routine, with the finding of a misplaced gun in bed to juxtapose the concept that the life of a secret agent is often as humdrum as any other job.

However, even getting to the point where the credits start running over this sequence, the visual and audio artistry already comprises a brilliant few minutes of film, full of beautiful ideas. For instance, as the scientist Radcliffe and his bodyguard, an unnamed secret agent, are walking down Marylebone Station, Furie and his editor Peter Hunt (who edited the early James Bond films and who would later go on to direct the greatest Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - reviewed here) use shots of the two of them walking towards the camera. The camera then cuts (on movement, which is an innovation Hunt first brought into play in Dr. No - reviewed here) away to something else before cutting back on the same scene at a slightly different angle and with the figures closer to the camera, still moving towards us. This is pretty amazing because I reckon the first time you see this movie, you don’t even notice Furie doing little dynamic things like this. But this is not the only thing in just this opening sequence...

As the agent discovers the villain’s henchman and the disappearance of Radcliffe, we cut away outside to the disturbing sound of a train whistle heralding death... we then pan over to where the agent’s corpse has been left in a mail trolley. As the camera cuts to a closer shot of the dead agent, with his eyes almost filling the screen in a face tipped on its side, we hear a very cool and extended, mounting John Barry musical sting... followed by the sound of an alarm clock and the replacement of the dead agent’s eye with Harry Palmer’s eye, which we then slowly pan back from to see him at the same kind of angle.

And then... on top of all that... we have a point of view shot from Harry Palmer’s perspective as we look around his apartment and can’t see very much at all... why is it all a blur and out of focus? Because Furie is using this technique as a way of, almost subconsciously, introducing the concept of Harry Palmer’s (soon to be Michael Caine’s) trademark glasses. He puts his glasses on and then the point of view shot of Harry’s apartment is repeated... this time in clear focus. We then see Harry himself from the other side of the room as he gets out of bed and opens the curtains, with the alarm clock in foreground, which has been continuing on the soundtrack all this time. Then he comes towards the screen to hit the alarm clock off and as it stops... that’s when John Barry’s opening title music suddenly thunders in... absolutely gobsmacking stuff and we’re only a few minutes into the film.

And it doesn’t stop there... the whole film is loaded with absolutely clever stuff... including a repeat of the point of view/blurred focus shot much later on, but this time used in reverse as Harry cleans his glasses at a lecture, to highlight the fact that he is still being tailed by the Americans.

Another thing the director does, and somehow makes work brilliantly, occurs when Palmer first goes to see his boss, Colonel Ross (played brilliantly by Guy Doleman).

The scene starts out with Ross looking out of his office windows, feeding the pigeons, and not looking at Palmer, in order to establish his status within the conversation. We see some of the action of this sequence from the other side of the windows which Furie, brilliantly, uses to split portions of the screen so that when Palmer comes in on the other side of the room, he can interact with Ross and both are in the same shot at massively different sizes and each highlighted by different sets of rectangles... marvellous stuff. The scene goes on as Ross makes Palmer go back to shut the door and keep him waiting as much as possible... never once asking him to sit down. When the two characters talk, they are sometimes seen in reverse of each other on opposite parts of the screen as a small head, for example, on bottom left while the entire rest of the screen is black from being masked by the other character’s body. As the characters move about the room, they are seen talking from individual shots in contrasting sizes and angles but, because they are always speaking and looking towards the opposite side of the screen, the eye lines somehow still manage to match between shots and, with Hunt’s deft editing, it all works seamlessly as a conversation. Seriously, you may not notice it the first time around but, try watching it with the sound turned off on just a visual level (something I probably ought to do with it sometime) and you will probably fall off your seat with what the director is getting away with here. It’s just perfect.

He’s also setting the scene for some continuity later in the film - when Ross is seen at one point he is feeding ducks from the side of a bridge which is a nice character echo of him feeding the pigeons earlier in his office. More relevantly, when Ross takes Palmer over to meet his new boss “Dalby” (played so well by Nigel Greene), Dalby plays exactly the same 'office politics' games with Palmer, to the extent that some of the dialogue and shots are pretty much the same, to both show what’s going on and also to offer, perhaps, a slight criticism of the silly suits in power and their stupid games which, frankly, Palmer obviously has no respect or love of.

And later, when Furie shows another of a few meetings between Ross and Dalby, when Ross goes into Dalby’s office, he does so aggressively, taking the upper hand, not playing any of the same games and offering up one of the ultimate insults in office politics... invading the other man’s desk space with his hat, briefcase and umbrella. That probably doesn’t mean a lot to people in some countries and cultures, and perhaps not to the younger generation here in the UK, I shouldn’t wonder, but certainly British people of a certain generation (and definitely back then) will know what all those shenanigans are about.

There’s a lot in the details and focus of the movie and its probably quite rightly been said somewhere along the line, and certainly by me, that the film is fresh and believable because it takes the fantastic plots and chooses to highlight the little details of the hum drum and ‘everyman’ in a secret agent’s life... like always signing forms for a piece of equipment such as a firearm or a car... and making sure the report forms are filled in for each different action in an investigation. Stuff like that. However, even though we are looking at actors playing characters in a very believable and naturalistic manner... you can’t ignore the brilliance and dynamism of the way the shots and sounds... and even some of the dialogue... is put together.

More visual wonders would include things like highlighting an American agent who is tailing Palmer by giving him an even more ridiculous pair of glasses than the main lead (I had a pair of glasses like Palmer's for years, specifically because of this film, and haven’t really strayed too far from the style ever since) and someone has the bright idea of adding a white piece of tape down the middle of the bridge to suggest that they’ve been broken at sometime. However, what that trick with the piece of tape is really about is to make absolutely sure the audience establishes in their mind what the character in question is wearing on his face. Why? Because later, when Palmer accidentally shoots the American agent dead, Furie can shoot the aftermath in a much more creative manner. Once the agent is dead, we don’t see his face again, we see just his distinctive glasses lying on the floor to let us know who Palmer has really shot. This is followed by an absolute humdinger of a shot which is a shot from the ground, looking up through the lenses of those same glasses, to catch the reactions of Dalby and Palmer as they come into focus through the glasses. I’ll say it again... this stuff is absolutely amazing.

All the way through the film, Furie is doing stuff like this shot after visually rich shot. He uses Dutch angles constantly, uses surface colours and textures to split up frames within frames and a load of other clever things while, unbelievably, the footage all cuts together amazingly well and isn’t jarring and certainly never works against the naturalistic tone of the acting. And there’s more...

A shot down through a light fitting on the ceiling of Palmer’s apartment reveals, when the light is turned on, another dead American agent’s body. A fight between Grantby’s henchman and Palmer is filmed from a distance and from inside a classic, red British telephone box, the camera looking through the windows and into the distance as the fight between the protagonist and antagonist is split by the red verticals and horizontals of the booth. This is a far cry from some of the stuff which you see in, say, the average James Bond movie.

Also a far cry from James Bond is the prelude to an unseen sex scene between Jean, Ross’s agent working undercover in Dalby’s team and played by the wonderful Sue Lloyd, and Harry Palmer. It’s all brilliantly done by razor sharp dialogue and body language. After a meal that Harry Palmer has cooked for them, Sue Lloyd asks Caine “Do you always wear your glasses?” To which Caine replies, “Yes, except in bed.” With that, Sue Lloyd slowly removes Caines glasses and the suggestion of what’s about to happen, off camera, is pretty implicit and also very effective. This is pretty good stuff.

One thing I did catch on the dialogue on this viewing, though, was in a scene where Palmer is telling Dalby about another American agent. The sound looping is quite bad in that the words “American agent” suddenly don’t lip synch in on that portion of the sentence. I reckon the dialogue, recorded wild sound on the day, was replaced with a slightly different line, possibly due to some kind of censorship issue, and was fixed later on in the dub. Of course, I doubt if I’ll ever know the truth or not of that guess... but that’s my belief at any rate.

One more important thing to talk about here before I’m done with this review though and that is, of course, John Barry’s tremendous score. He’d already made a huge hit with the sound of spy music with the Bond films, when he reorchestrated Monty Norman’s original Bond theme (subsequently used all over Dr. No in places it wasn’t even rearranged for) and had gone on to build on that success with From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and, from the same year as The IPCRESS File, Thunderball. For this film he uses some of the same musical language but he makes it colder, edgier and also uses a cymbalom, which is similar in some respects to the zither played by Anton Karas in the score which inspired Barry for this one, The Third Man. What we get with The IPCRESS File, of course, is another heavily influential kind of more serious, cold war “spy sound” which would be copied stylistically time and time again.

Barry would build on this himself the following year when he scored the film adaptation of Adam Hall’s (Elleston Trevor’s pen name) novel The Berlin Memorandum. The first of the Quiller novels, this one would soon be retitled after the film adaptation and forever be known, in successive printings, as The Quiller Memorandum (review of this movie in a new Blu Ray transfer, coming soon to this blog). Both IPCRESS and Quiller have wonderful music and represent Barry at the absolute best of his flip side to Bond scoring... truly memorable (and immensely hummable) music.

And that’s about it for this review, I think. I’ve never had the opportunity to take any kind of film studies class in my life (hey, when I was a kid, if you wanted to be 'creative' you had the options of Woodwork, Metalwork or Art and that was it) but I would hope that tutors instructing future, inspired students these days make a point of putting The IPCRESS File on their syllabus. There is so much innovation and inventiveness in pretty much every minute of footage that a proper study of it would surely arm people with an inspired approach to the syntax of the motion picture. But the heck with that... it’s also one of the most enjoyable spy films of the mid-1960s and is an absolute classic that anyone worth their salt, who appreciates movies, will want to look at and enjoy. It deserves it’s status as one of the great British movies... which I assume it surely has... and people should not forget or underestimate this great film. If you’ve never seen it, the new Blu Ray transfer from Network is right up your street, loaded with the same extras as the old Anchor Bay US DVD and with a whole heap of other extras on top of that. Just buy it... you surely won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

NUTS4R2 @ FilmsOnWax

Hi there,

Just a quick shout out to some of my off site articles on film music, a subject I love but am less confident when it comes to writing about it. The FilmsOnWax links have all now been added to my music section in the clickable Index near the top right of this page. Just click on ther and scroll on down past the Books and Films before coming to the Music section, just before the TV Shows and Miscellaneous Articles sections.

Alternatively, you can click on the titles below to take you straight to the articles. I hope you like them all and give FilmsOnWax your support...

Best Scores of 2014

Deep Note: The Foundations of a Good Giallo Score Library

Eerie Listening: 31 Great Euro Horror Scores Part 1

Eerie Listening: 31 Great Euro Horror Scores Part 2

Eerie Listening: 31 Great Euro Horror Scores Part 3

Twang! Twang! You’re Dead: The Foundations of a Spaghetti Western Score Library Part 1

Twang! Twang! You’re Dead: The Foundations of a Spaghetti Western Score Library Part 2

Tuesday, 27 January 2015



2015  US
Directed by David Koepp 
UK cinema release print.

Okay... I feel I need to do two things here right off the bat. One is to explain my reasons for actually voluntarily going to the cinema to see this tragic misfire of a movie and the other is to point out that there were actually one or two good things to be found in it... just not enough to save the picture, I think.

Also, let me point out straight away, in case you were in any doubt, I really hate trashing a movie where a lot of obviously talented people have worked a long time on something. It’s not the best thing to do... just the most truthful. I said something along the lines of my personal stakes in being honest on the last review I posted (see my review of Ex Machina here) and so I have to be as straight with my readers as I can. Sometimes that means saying things which might hurt some people’s feelings so... I apologise for that now.

Shooting from the hip then, I should perhaps share the story of how I once used to say that Johnny Depp was such a talented actor (and he certainly is a genius of the profession) and builder of characters that there was pretty much no movie he couldn’t save just by being in it. Look at the three sequels to the original Pirates Of The Caribbean movie if you need proof of that. Awful films but still fairly watchable because Depp is such a pleasure to observe. All that changed when I saw a movie he was in back in 2004 called Secret Window, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel he was top lining. All I can say is... not even Johnny Depp could save that movie. It was just awful.

Flash forward to the screening of Depp’s new film Mortdecai and I am once again shown that, even though Depp is obviously doing his best and probably loving it, by the looks of it, he and his fellow talented actors and actresses are unable to pull this through and make it anything more than... hard to watch without constantly checking the nearest time piece. Imagine my surprise, then, when I later discovered that David Keopp, the film’s director, had actually also directed Secret Window back in 2004. I dunno... maybe it’s just Keopp’s movies that Johnny Depp can’t save, who knows? Although some of Depp’s more recent stints for Tim Burton have been hovering into that category, methinks.

Now one of the reasons for me going to see this movie was because the trailer showed a variety of well known actors in a promotion which was, honestly, absolutely terrible looking... but that’s not always a problem. You see, I remember seeing the trailer for the Terry Gilliam remake of The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen back in the late 1980s and it being an absolutely abysmal advert for the film. I certainly didn’t want to go and see it but, after being almost pressured into it by a bunch of friends who wanted me to go with them, it turned out to be an absolutely marvellous movie and nothing like the terrible trailer, presumably put together by people who just didn’t know how to market this kind of stuff, had made it out to be. I thought this might well be the case with Mortdecai since so many great actors such as Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Paul Bettany were all involved. After all, why would such people lend thier time and talent to something if they didn’t have a heck of a lot of faith in the product... they’d obviously read the script hadn’t they?

Alas, it’s an old cliché about film making at best but, like a few films before it in the history of cinema, Mortdecai appears to be a classic case of the movie makers actually having a much better time filming this half-baked monstrosity than the potential audience would ever have watching it. The script seems to be the main problem here too, in my opinion, having not read Kyril Bonfiglioli’s novel Don’t Point That Thing At Me on which this movie is purported to be based. The cast are all absolutely marvellous and invested in these neat little characters they’ve all obviously had fun putting together but the problem with the script is that... well, for the most part it’s just not even remotely funny. Or at least it’s not funny during the crucial first half an hour or so to help elevate the audience into a lighter mood. Indeed, a fair few of the audience actually started talking to each other after a while, in their restlessness, and continued on throughout the course of the movie. I’ve rarely seen such a talkative audience behaving this badly in a cinema except for once that I can recall, back in 2004. I wonder what that film was called? Hint: I mention it by title in the third and fourth paragraphs here?

The other problem I have with the script is that there are hardly any likeable or redeemable (to a point) characters in this. I can’t relate to any of these super rich, cowardly fops and I think it proves that point when I say that the only one I was really invested in throughout the movie was Paul Bettany’s character Jock Strap (yeah, this movie really is pitching at that level, folks) in that he seemed to be the only character in the film with his head half screwed on the right way round, to be honest.

There are, as I said, two really decent things about the movie, asides from the talented but mostly wasted acting abilities of a number of amazing people, and I’m not forgetting that...

The first thing is the transition sequences from country to country. Mortdecai is an art dealer on a globe hopping, secret agent style mission and the film makers have really done a terrific update on the travel sequences, harkening back to the times in old movies (and films like the Indiana Jones franchise, which were also looking back with nostalgia to those same old movies) of the plane graphic travelling over the map of the world. This time the plane is three quarters on and jetting through easily identifiable and zoomed in landmarks of the various countries including large, two dimensional letterforms standing up in three dimensional space. The various planes swoop past or through the letters of the country to get to their destination, in one memorable moment smashing through the typography for Los Angeles. This is all very nice.

The other pretty good thing about the movie is the score by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli. It’s mixed well into the foreground and sounds like a funky, mid sixties spy movie on acid in certain sections which, to be fair, is not quite appropriate to the visuals but I think that’s not the issue here. I think what’s happening here is that the producers kinda guessed they had a dud on their hands and were looking to the score to save the movie somehow (I’d heard a few tracks from the score before the film opened and that was another reason I’d allowed myself to be lured into the cinema to see it). My suspicion is that the composers were scoring the film that the crew wanted to make, rather than come up with something appropriate to reflect the final product. Either way, whether they were instructed to try and save the movie in this way or not, the score pretty much rocks and if the planned CD release still goes ahead in February, I’ll probably pick this one up, I think.

Not so, the film though, which I’ll hopefully never have to sit down to watch again in my life. From the terrible Temple Of Doom parody at the start of the movie and right on through to the end credits, Mortdecai proved to be a well played, well crafted but terribly written and unfunny attempt at an adventure flavoured comedy. Very young children might, perhaps, quite like it but for anybody with a better developed sense of fun, well... even big kids like myself will probably find it less than enjoyable. A bit of a cinematic disaster, I’m afraid, would be my sad conclusion.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ex Machina

Blues Ex Machina

Ex Machina
2014 USA/UK
Directed by Alex Garland 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some light spoilers on this one, I guess. 

Right. Been worrying about how to approach this review because, frankly, I know that one of my twitter followers really liked this movie and I suspect she’d be very disappointed with my response to it if she ever read this. However, I’ve always kept the reviews on the blog honest as to my reactions to the films and it would be irresponsible to my readers to be anything less than that now... so should Becky Grace Lea of the nethersphere known as Twitter ever stumble on this review... and I sincerely hope she doesn’t... turn back now and don’t read this one would be my best advice to her.

Also, anyone who reads on from here and hates this review should probably go and check out Becky’s review of this which, I’m sure, will probably be up at some time within the next day or two of this review going live and which can almost certainly be found somewhere on the Assorted Buffery website here. She’ll have a much more positive spin on it for you, I’m sure. As for me... well you were all warned.

Okay, so Ex Machina is the first film to be directed by the famous novelist Alex Garland and, I have to say, it kinda feels like it’s a first film and somebody trying to get something out of their system, in some respects. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to this one since, after seeing the trailer, I was pretty sure I knew exactly where it was going to be going with the ending of the movie. Well, the good news is... the film doesn’t quite go exactly where you assume it will be going from the set up in the trailer. Another piece of good news is that the implications of Deus Ex Machina being used as a literary device to give the film a cop out, miracle ending is not the usage the title of the film is embracing. It’s merely a metaphorical identifier of the origins of the phrase and not the modern, more common usage of the term.

And those are the two bits of really good news I have about the film. Now for the mostly bad stuff...

The ending of the movie and attempted sleight of hand used as a general progression towards that idea doesn’t really work because we are already expecting something almost clever to happen and, when it just starts telegraphing the ending of the movie to us within, literally, the first ten minutes of the opening sequence, we are pretty much there at the end already, and you have the rest of the running time to start wondering when one of the other characters will stop being an idiot and see what’s really going on. Once the power cuts start, and we really know they’re not power cuts right from the very first one, then the audience will sense straight away the degree of manipulation at work within the main narrative strand and it doesn’t take much of a push to realise where this will all be leading to. Indeed, by the time one of the lead characters cuts his arm open to reveal certain information to the audience, it’s already too late... we’ve started ditching those preconceptions based on the trailer already within the first ten minutes... so that surprise at the evidence of actual humanity within the film is somewhat stingless and antiseptic by that point.

But, you know what? There’s good stuff in this movie too. It’s just always tempered with the bad stuff.

Some of the acting, for instance, is very good... although the dialogue does seem to be a bit streamlined and non naturalistic at times. Are the sometimes less convincing moments, then, the fault of the actors or the writing of the lines? I’m not sure. Hard to call. It maybe explains why the one character in this film without any lines coming out of her mouth was, for me at least, the most interesting and watchable presence in the film. That is to say, while I found the main robot creation played by Alicia Vikander to be interesting and, due to her android nature, kind of spot on... it was the character played by another actress I’d not heard of before, Kyoko played by Sonoya Mizuno, who grabbed all my attention in this. As an actress and presence on the screen, she was absolutely stunning in this and the one reason why I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my Saturday evening at the cinema. I’d definitely like to see more films with her in and, possibly because she didn’t have some very basic and clunky dialogue coming out of her lips, I found her to be the best thing about Ex Machina.

The story itself seems to be guilty of the thing I’ve been accusing most US made science fiction films of doing in the last ten years or so... playing catch up with the 1950s. These are exactly the same kinds of stories that people like Philip K. Dick were writing as shorts in the 50s and 60s and for someone to be claiming this is an original idea, or even that it’s executed as well or with at least an element of surprise being retained, is something I find to be really poor behaviour. But, like I said, there’s good with the bad.

Alex Garland can direct quite well.

That’s an established fact, now. The opening montage is, perhaps, a little aggresively edited and some of the shots are maybe not as creative as they could be given the artificial nature of sets which can be controlled to the nth degree. Nothing hugely, visually creative springs to mind when I think back on the film now. However, when edited together, the footage cuts together in a way that was neither confusing or in any way inhibiting you seeing what the director wants you to see... well, apart from accidentally telegraphing the ending, that is. What that means is that, while this does indeed feel like a first film... it’s one where the director has proven his confidence and, frankly, means that people should maybe give him a load more money so he can grow and become the directorial artist that’s obviously lurking within the best selling novelist. I think this guy has proven, with the clean look and feel of this one, that he definitely has the potential.

As a film which is entertaining... it had its moments but most of those, as I’ve indicated already, featured Sonoya Mizuno’s turn as Kyoko. A role not bound by any lines the actress might have been required to speak. In fact, I would say that both Kyoko and Vikander’s Ava were the most watchable aspects of this movie. The two main male protagonists, played by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, both bring a lot of enthusiasm but it seemed, to me, that they were much more hampered by the script. Real people don’t talk like this and, if you’re someone with the genius of a director like, say, Hal Hartley, then the warmth and emotional intent will always come through the stylistic stripping down of the sometimes clinical dialogue but, with this film, the performances seem to add up to being less than the sum of their combined parts, it seemed to me.

The ending, also, or should I say the epilogue to the film, seemed like something we don’t need. The final fate of Domhnall Gleeson’s character was already fairly eloquently sealed at one point and the last series of shots of both him and Ava, after their last scene together, were completely unnecessary. The points about whether Ava has managed to pass a specific kind of test had all been made, perhaps a lot sooner than the director intended, and the final scenes shown are not giving us any new information... I think that stuff could have been pared back right down and, perhaps, if the director had even lead us to the point where he’d cut to the credits before the last scene between Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson took place, maybe with the final moments having Ava looking over Gleeson's unconscious body, Garland would at least have given us a film with a little more enticing ambiguity at the conclusion as opposed to what we have here. That being said, the totally superfluous last 6 or so minutes might well have been a studio addition as opposed to Garland’s own natural conclusion to the narrative and so it might not be his fault. As it is, the ending is overcooked and it’s a shame because giving us a lot less of a conclusion would have at least encouraged the audience to think around some of the key issues more than they will now, I expect.

The only other possible saving grace to this film might well have been the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury but, while I found it effective in some parts of the movie, I found it to be more wallpapery in other parts and I wonder if that’s the fault of the way the score has been mixed into the foley or if it’s within the composition. I’m not sure how it will play as a stand alone listen on a CD but I think it was a bit of a hit and miss affair in the body of the movie itself. Not sure if I’m going to give it a try away from the movie or not, truth be told. I’ll have to see how much the album is if it ever gets a proper, non-downloadable, physical release.

The film itself, though, seemed a bit less special than a lot of the buzz going around on twitter had lead me to believe. It seems popular, which is good news for Garland and hopefully he’ll get another go to grow as a director. As for me and judging it still in terms of someone who had seen the trailer for the movie first, I’d have to say that Ex Machina certainly wasn’t a terrible movie but, neither was it a particularly good one. That is to say, it’s not nearly as bad as the movie I was expecting it to be... but not nearly as good as the movie I was hoping it would be. It’s not a film which many will find all that challenging, I expect, but some will possibly like the “popcorn” fodder aspect to it and the CGI is done quite well for special effects enthusiasts. I think future generations will probably respond to it better because of the lack of historical journey to the concept when they’re youngsters, perhaps. I just hope there won’t be a Deus Ex Machina Part Deux.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Oily Maniac

Oil Be Back

The Oily Maniac
1976 Hong Kong 
Directed by Meng Hua Ho
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures 
Hong Kong DVD Region 3

It was just about ten years ago that I first saw The Oily Maniac at the cinema. I can date it fairly accurately because I went with my friends Teresa and @cultofthecinema and the former was pregnant with her first child at the time. However, her “mum to be” status didn’t stop her going to see a Shaw Brothers all nighter at the Curzon Soho consisting of these four films playing throughout the night - The Monkey Goes West (also directed by Meng Hua Ho and the first of the four Shaw Brothers Monkey movies), The Mighty Peking Man (a fun antidote to anyone with a love of King Kong), The Super Infra Man (aw, don’t even ask... but it’s awesome) and this one... The Oily Maniac.

I’d managed to grab the other three movies on Region 3, from the wonderful Hong Kong Shaw Brothers label Celestial Pictures, not long after I first saw them (along with a few other Shaw Brothers classics) but, for some reason, The Oily Maniac had always managed to elude me as a purchase and, sadly, the huge back catalogue put out by the label on R3 is now almost entirely extinct. Then, for Christmas 2014, my cousin Steve came to the rescue as he managed to source a second hand copy of the film from ebay, again on the Celestial Pictures DVD label. This company is renowned, at least with me and a small bunch of my friends, for treating these movies with absolute love and releasing them in pristine transfers, uncut, in their original language and with optional English subtitles that don’t, as some Hong Kong labels are guilty of, look like they’ve been translated by someone who managed to glance briefly at a UK Dictionary at some point in their life.

The movie has a simple plot and stars Tien Lung Chen (of the original Shaw Brothers movie of The Water Margin and the Shaw Brothers/Hammer produced movie The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires, amongst others) as a man crippled by having polio in his youth and who works as a put upon young legal assistant for a bunch of less than scrupulous lawyers. However, when his Uncle is scheduled to be executed for accidentally killing one of a gang of villains who are threatening the local Coconut Oil Factory where his childhood lady friend works... things get complicated, in a kind of B-movie 1950s Western kind of plotting way. Just before his Uncle is executed, he reveals to our hero a big set of drawn and written instructions tattooed on his back on how to use a magic spell which will transform our mild mannered polio victim into a defender of justice. Tien copies down the instructions and follows them, digging a big hole in the middle of his living room, which he then jumps in, sinking into the seeping oil beneath. When he comes back up out of the hole he is transformed into... The Oily Maniac.

If this kind of oily plotting sounds kinda crude, well yeah.. it’s not very good. In fact it’s dire... so dire that I love it and can probably stand to watch it a few more times in my life, truth be told. The Oily Maniac goes on an oily rampage and tracks down, over the course of the film, the various villains and, in one case, villainess, who are all tied in with the back handed deals taking place around the Coconut Oil Factory.

Funnily enough, pretty much all the people in this film who end up on the slick end of The Oily Maniac’s wrath all seem to be either an inherent rapist or a woman who is seducing men to her advantage (and other bad things) as well as all being involved in the whole Coconut Oil fiasco. And when I say raping and seducing, there’s a handy guide to telling who is doing what to whom, subtly hidden within the genetic make-up of the film. That is to say, pretty much every woman in the film has her breasts bared at some point... mostly against her will. The ladies in question either have their bodices ripped away from them before being raped - and aggressive breast revealing does seem to be the most common form of communication between men and women in this movie, it has to be said - or they rip their own dresses off to get the attention of the men in their lives. Or men about to be in their lives, I guess.

Not to worry though because, when Tien Lung Chen is lurking nearby and senses this heavy handed nude injustice, he oils himself up to kill anyone with a penchant for revealing female flesh. That’s right... he finds the nearest funnel spewing oil... or can of oil... or some other kind of bizarrely handy receptacle of oil... just lying about on the street... and slathers himself up in it until his transformation takes place and, once more, he is... The Oily Maniac! A creature that looks like a badly latex shrouded, black monster with a glowing red heart and who destroys his enemies while making moans and wailing noises which, to be honest, sound like Lou Ferringo with a bad hangover rather than anything else I can think of right now.

Here he is... a creature who can suddenly turn himself into a badly superimposed oil slick so he can follow cars or appear halfway up someone’s wall before rearing up again in all his well oiled glory. Cut a limb off and he grows it back. Cut his head off and he grows it back. Pearce his glowing, pulsating red heart and... oh, wait a  minute. Nobody thinks of that. Why the heck has he got a flashing, pulsing, glowing red heart in the middle of all that oily skin? I’m sure it might have been scripted as being a weak spot at some stage in the game but... nope, it seems it’s completely superfluous in the final version of the movie as released. Instead, when The Oily Maniac starts becoming a bit of a nuisance and wanted by the police for his dastardly crimes against very bad people... the woman who once loved him finds another, not too complicated to work out, way of ending his black oily reign. I guess it’s what you would call standard oil procedure, in this case.

Standard oil procedure also seems to include plugging in a Johnny Williams score whenever the title creature comes out to play. At first, when the musical alarm bells start sounding (in this original presentation of the film, at least... it might have been “copyright censored” in any US releases), it sounds like composer Yung-Yu Chen is just nicking and rerecording Johhny Williams famous two note ostinato shark theme from Jaws. However, it’s not long before every time our black, leaky avenger roars onto the screen, the film makers just needle drop the famous melody straight from the original 1975 vinyl album of Jaws wholesale, in its original orchestration. This kind of thing goes on a lot in certain kinds of movies from countries where the copyright laws are... well... different to what they would be in any sensible usage. Hong Kong and Turkish cinema are hotbeds of musical lawsuits waiting to happen... don’t get me started. Anyway...

As I said, the story and dialogue in this one are pretty terrible and, it would be remiss of me not to point out that the quality of the acting performances are of an equal calibre in this case. Of course, with lines like the ones they’ve been given, I can only sympathise with the actors and actresses in this tale when it comes to the dim witted sentences they are asked to say out loud but at least the director tries to keep things interesting. The shot design is not the greatest in the world by anybody’s standards but it’s not horrible and there are some nice stylistic flourishes, such as when Tien Lung Chen “accidentally” catches the light fitting in his living room as he is pick axing his way through the floor to make his magic oil hole... the light then swings this way and that, making the lighting and movement in the subsequent shots of that scene quite interesting to look at.

However, as good as the camerawork is in certain sections of the movie, it doesn’t do anything to boost the quality of the film in this case. This doesn’t, however, stop the movie the director has “rigged up” from being a whole can of fun and if you are a fan of inept and, frankly, ridiculous looking monsters  surrounded by scenes of scantily clad, big bosomed ladies and bad acting, all supported by bits of a world famous Johnny Williams score, then you’re certainly in for a treat. As far as my involvement with the film goes and my viewing habits regarding it... well, all I can say is... oil be back.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

And All Who Salander

The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Edited by Robin S Rosenberg
Benbella Books
ISBN: 978-1936661343

The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a collection of essays written by various psychologists who are generally specialists in their chosen areas of interests. I was at first put off from buying this tome, it has to be said, because it is from a range of publications branded as “pop psychology” books and, frankly, it sounded a bit amateurish to me. However, I also ultimately found myself compelled to buy it because I am a big fan of Stieg Larrson’s Millenium Trilogy of novels (the films and comic books... not so much) and I haven’t come across any literary, or any other form of, analysis of the characters therein, to date.

That being said and much to my surprise, this is not an amateurish take on pitching a bunch of pretentious ideas and applying them to a literary character to make them fit. It is, in fact, a genuinely enlightening and, for the most part, interesting series of essays about various facets of human psychology and, though the Lisbeth Salander character does, on occasion, just seem like she’s plugged into the central ideas expounded on in a lot of the pieces in here, she is treated as such in a relevant fashion and it’s almost always a fascinating reading experience as you weave your way through various ideas and character types which are relevant to those depicted in the Millennium Trilogy, as they are brought out and explored in a little more depth.

The book starts out a little shakily at first, with an essay on the archetype of the “Goth” subculture. It’s an interesting read alright but the paper starts off with a couple of things which didn’t sit well with me. Firstly, the evidence that Salander is, indeed, part of the unofficial Gothic tribal culture is a bit annoying. I have read the books, seen the four (to date) movies and read the comic books and there’s nothing in there that would have tipped me off to the fact that Salander is an avid follower of Goth fashions or attitudes, to be honest. Secondly, the essay starts off by defining what the stereotypical response of the general public is to a “Goth” and uses that as a basis to argue for and against, in terms of details of the “general” Goth personality. Again, the writers’ conclusions as to how I would stereotype a Goth are far from what I would actually make assumptions about... so are they saying I’m not a member of the general public? That being said, the things it does reveal about the typical Goth personality are very interesting and so I have to say I got more out of it than I was annoyed by, if truth be told.

One stereotype that was definitely shattered for me, as I went through the book, is that I found the tome in question really wasn’t a pretentious and dry load of old techno-babble at all. The book challenged me a number of times and I was extremely grateful for that. For instance, in the essay which is talking about gender, I learnt that a) gender is not another term for a person’s sex, there’s a specific distinction and b) there are actually five sexes (or do I mean genders... I’m now not quite sure) - one male, one female and then three other variations of sex that can be easily hidden and confused within either one or the other, or both. This was an eye opener and something I found fairly compelling.

The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was full of engaging and intriguing nuggets of information on a whole host of things and I whizzed through the book very quickly, I have to say. Mesmerising topics such as the various methods or approaches a counsellor or psychologist can use when a patient refuses to discuss anything and just remain silent, for instance. Or gems like the ingredients of a person who can develop (or naturally has) a “resilient” personality and why they become like this. Another essay talks about feminism and the way in which sexism manifests itself in various forms and there’s even one section which is a kind of psychological profile of the “hacker” personality and how that fits in with Larsonn’s depiction of his central character. All of these are, of course, interpolated within Salander’s personality and each of the various writers (most of them are writing teams of colleagues) make cases for their specific diagnosis of Salander’s personality or, in some cases, set out to disprove a basic assumption about the character, by juxtaposing various ideas and findings about specific issues and relating them back to Larrson’s work.

Now, there are some less interesting flights of fancy in the book, I would have to say, but most of the essays in here are well worth the price of admission, so to speak, and the various pieces put forward in here all have at least two things in common. One is that they all seem to think, or perhaps the word should be acknowledge, that Stieg Larrson is some kind of genius and a most empathic individual. I would have to agree with that conclusion, at least, I guess. The other thing they all have in common, and this was very important to me as someone who is not, in any way, knowledgable about psychology, is that the essays are all written in a very straight forward and elementary way. I was never once lost in the exploration of what, in some cases, might have been quite challenging concepts if they were written in a less user friendly manner. This is a very easy read and although the ideas on offer here will certainly have you thinking into the night, and possibly wanting to do more research on the subjects yourself, there are no barriers to understanding in the way these are written and... well... someone like myself certainly appreciates the simplicity which complex ideas can sometimes be couched in. So full marks to all the writers for that.

In concluding then, I'd have to say The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an excellent study, not so much of the central character of Larrson’s books but of various character types which, in most cases, are all facets of the character that he worked into the fictional personae of Lisbeth Salander. Yeah, it’s hit and miss in some places but, ultimately, my misses and hits are not going to be the same as yours and the book does its job. That is to say, it stimulates the mind and allows you to explore very real issues which you might not have known about were it not for the fact that they are being applied to one of modern literature’s most popular heroines in a long time. Anybody who wants to know what kinds of personality types make Salander tick or with an interest in these kinds of issues will most likely enjoy this book. It was, after all, a good buy and something I’m very pleased to have read. This one’s definitely worth your consideration.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Doctor Who - The Tenth Planet

I Don’t Like Mondas

Doctor Who - The Tenth Planet
UK Airdate 8th - 29th October 1966
BBC Region 2

The Tenth Planet is one of those Doctor Who stories I’d not seen before (I started consciously watching the show, at the age of three, from Jon Pertwee’s first episodes in 1971) but it’s been something I’ve wanted to get around to seeing for a while. Unfortunately, the all important last episode of this story has been missing for quite some time and it’s a shame because it contains the sequence (which the BBC still have, albeit in truncated form) that is one of the reasons why this episode is still so sought after and near the top of everyone’s “missing presumed wiped” wanted list.

I’m talking, of course, about the regeneration sequence at the end of episode four. This story is the very last of Hartnell’s stories as The First Doctor in his original run, although he did briefly reprise the role for the 1973 tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors. When Hartnell was just too ill to be allowed to continue in the role, the people behind the show found a way to keep their extremely popular series running with a change of cast... thus the first regeneration scene, to allow the writers to change actor, and it was a bit of a clever idea for its time. The Doctor could be replaced any number of times and have a brand new personality to go with the new face and outfit each regeneration. So this really is a story which is a piece of television history.

The other reason I wanted to see it is because it’s the very first story in the show to feature The Doctor’s second best known enemy, the Cybermen. I’ve been seeing pictures of the original costume designs for years, which are a lot clunkier and primitive, and always thought they had a charm above and beyond the later designs of them (although the ones used for the Patrick Troughton story Tomb Of The Cybermen are also astonishingly good). Now that I’ve finally seen them in the flesh, so to speak, and heard the almost sing song voices and witnessed the unearthly, uneasy visual of them opening their mouths to speak and then their lips not moving as they talk, I have to say that it’s pretty much my favourite Cyberman design of all time.

The story in this one is pretty simplistic and features the return to our solar system of the Cybermen’s home world Mondas, the Tenth Planet of the title. Here they plan to drain the Earth of all its energy, leaving it a dead husk of a world, and take all of the humans back to Mondas, to delete their emotions and convert them into Cybermen. It’s up to the group of military people at the South Pole, in the far future year of... um... 1986... to stop them, with a little help from The Doctor and his two travelling companions at this point in time, Ben and Polly.

And when I say, a “little” help from The Doctor, I really mean it. Hartnell is hardly in this story. He’s around for the first two episodes but, for the most part, just stands on the sidelines of the action and watches things develop, offering the odd bit of advice or two. By the time the third episode has come around, Hartnell was too ill to work for a while and so a body double collapses to the floor in a weakened state and he’s out of it for the entire episode. Sadly, when Hartnell does have a little more to do, in episode four, it’s the one episode that hasn’t survived and we are left with a quite nicely animated episode, pitched as visuals against the original sound recordings. Which is unfortunate but, it’s the best we can get until a miracle unearthing of the lost episode in future years, perhaps.

I’d have to say that, The Doctor has more to do in the old Target novelisation, in which the various things he had to do which were hastily reassigned to other actors for Episode 3, are still in tact in the book. It’s not the best Doctor Who story I’ve seen, I have to say, but it was completely worth it for the chance to see, and hear, the original Cybermen and to finally watch one of the most iconic serials in the show’s, to date, 51 year old history (it will be 52 years in November 2015). If you want to get a taste of William Hartnell in the role of The First Doctor then, sad to say it, but this probably isn’t the one to watch. However, any fan of Doctor Who would probably want to see this because of its place in the history of the show and due to it being the genesis of the Cybermen. I have to say, it’s whet my appetite for seeing more of the Hartnell stories, so I will hopefully be pursuing a few more of those on this blog, over the next couple of years (along with some more, incomplete Troughton stories). The Tenth Planet is probably not one for the casual viewer but to genuine fans of the show it’s something of a “must see”.  So if you count yourself a such... maybe give it a go sometime.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Bones Never Lie

Anique Roadshow

Bones Never Lie
by Kathy Reichs
William Heinemann Publishing
ISBN: 978-0434021178

Anique Pomerlau was her name.

And she was one of the few.

One of the ones who got away and escaped both justice and the clutches of Kathy Reichs’ bone expert extraordinaire and heroine of, now, seventeen original books, Dr. Temperance Brennan. However... there are more bodies turning up with the same MO and Brennan and her regular co-stars are hot on the trail of the killer... or as least as hot as they can be with various cold case murders committed around a year apart. Is Pomerlau back?

And so the questions started pouring in on the second of my annual Christmas holiday rituals... the reading of the latest Tempe Brennan novel.

Now, you have to understand that this is not the same Temperance Brennan as she appears on the TV show Bones. That Temperance, riding the coat tails of this successful series of novels by Kathy Reichs, is based on both a younger version of the character in these books and, also, the real life Reichs herself. I am sure, as I know from reading these novels pretty much every year since I first discovered them (a few years after I started reading Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series), that Reichs is a fantastic person but, it has to be said, I really couldn’t get on with the incarnation of her in Bones and, based on the few episodes I did see of the TV show, I’ve stayed away from that particular modern TV phenomenon since. It seems to me such a watered down version of both the events and regular cast of characters found in the series of books.

There’s a reference to the TV show late in the novel and, I have to say, at first glance I thought it might be a way of the writer distancing the character in the books from the one in the TV show. That is, however, unfortunately offset by the full page advert for the DVDs of the show in the back of the book so... any recognition of the art of breaking the fourth wall and the metatextual world of fiction, got blown away by it being just another form of selling the brand, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’m being cynical... I don’t know.

That being said, and I may have mentioned this before (I can’t remember), Reichs seems to have gone through a bit of a bad patch... at least in terms of the stories she is telling about Tempe these days. They really are quite predictable and it makes me wonder if Reichs’ involvement with the inner workings of the Bones TV show has rubbed off on her the wrong way and maybe dumbed down the story content somewhat. There’s a twist, for example, about two thirds of the way through this novel and, frankly, I saw it coming as soon as a specific character other than Pomerlau, from the earlier Temperance Brennan novel Monday Mourning, which this is a sequel to, was first mentioned in the text.

Unfortunately, and I curse my brain often for working like this, I know that as soon as I’m onto what might be the answer to the specific mystery in a given novel, a writer is going to start throwing in as many red herrings as she can and begin playing a misdirection game with the reader as soon as she or he has planted all the threads leading to the actual solution in the text. Kathy Reichs, at this point in her brilliant career, is no exception to the rule and, once a certain piece of evidence came in which put all the characters in the book onto a specific type of search, I was pretty sure something was going to come up at some point towards the end to bring that evidence in question. It didn’t hurt that I read something in December about the specifics of genre and sex, in a book called The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (review coming soon), that allowed me to keep an open mind about things. So there’s that.

The other slightly irritating thing about this novel is that my analogy of modern writers of genre characters being the 21st Century equivalent of the old pulp writers of the 1920s and 1930s is more than maintained, still, by Reichs formulaic chapter endings... every one of which ends on a mini cliff hanger of a statement designed to have you guzzling down the next chapter as soon as possible. Yeah, okay, there’s a strong case to be made that this is a very good writing trick, and it certainly worked for writers like Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson) in their day, but the fact that Reichs does it pretty much every chapter but with less of a dramatic event happening at these specific places... does get a bit much after a while. For instance, the first five chapters end with the following little jabs...

“Read a name. Felt the flutter of adrenalin hitting my gut.”

“We want you to find him.”

“The voice blindsided my overwrought, over medicated brain.”

“Mama couldn’t be dying. Yet Luna Finch said it was so.”

“Slapping colones on the table, I bolted for the door.”

And so on, throughout every chapter of the book. The technique does its job, I guess, but since I became conscious she started doing this, a fair few books ago, it’s kind of become a bit of a cliché for me.

However, there’s a lot to recommend in the latest Tempe novel too...

Her regular cast of characters return with her and the dialogue, something Reichs always has an imaginative ear for, is first class... sometimes reaching 1930s screwball comedy levels of wit and irony. Regular readers may like to know that Tempe’s main romantic interest, Detective Andrew Ryan, is back in the novels... although he’s not the Ryan you used to know... at least not at the start of the novel. Actually, the character development with Ryan starts off fine in this book but, I have to say, it felt somewhat clumsy at the end. As though the choices Ryan makes about returning from his “drop out lifestyle”, inspired by the death of his daughter in the last novel, are somewhat quick and easy. I guess, what with the narrative being the usual first person from Temperance Brennan herself, we aren’t able to get inside Ryan’s head like we would like but, honestly, I would preffered just a little more detail and a little bit more cat and mouse with the character, I think. It seems, for a lot of the novel, that there isn’t that much work for Tempe to do in relation to mending the hardened, almost broken man that Ryan has become and it’s almost a shame that the character sub plot was overshadowed by the main mystery in this one... but maybe that part of the story isn’t finished just yet. I guess I’ll find out next December.

For all my criticisms and the fact that I don’t think this particular Reichs novel is in any way a shadow of her early work, I have to admit the book is damned entertaining and, if you can focus less on the things I’ve grumbled about here, you should find yourself with an easy read and a thrilling ride if you choose to find out the truth behind the old saying, Bones Never Lie. Fans of the character would obviously welcome the return to themes and characters from an earlier book but, similarly, it doesn’t make this one the best jumping on point if you’re unfamiliar with the previous novels. One thing is for sure though... this book is as gripping as a crazy eyed arm wrestler and if Kathy Reichs is, like she is for me, one of your favourite modern writers, then you won’t want to be missing out on this one. Who knows... it could be bringing up important stuff for future novels to come.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

TAK3N (aka Taken 3)

Mills And Boom

TAK3N (aka Taken 3)
2014  France
Directed by Olivier Megaton 
UK cinema release print.

Liam Neeson explodes back on the screen as Bryan Mills...


Don’t get me wrong. I love Liam Neeson, I think he’s a great actor and, funnily enough, I also loved the first Taken movie... otherwise I wouldn’t have subjected myself to seeing the third installment in the franchise. I love producer Luc Besson too, of course, and as for Olivier Megaton... well, I liked Transporter 3 and Columbiana (reviewed here).

That being said, while not a complete disaster, Taken 2 (reviewed here) had some big shoes to fill and it was not the greatest sequel, by any stretch. I think the problem with the franchise, in terms of my expectations of it, is that it opened so strongly. Asides from his more swashbuckling role in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (reviewed here), Taken was pretty much the first time we’d seen Liam neeson play a “hard as nails” action hero and he did so credibly in a film which made good on the promise of its trailer. Neeson is always believable at the very least, of course, but the script in the first one was very strong for the kind of movie it was and, alas, neither Taken 2 or Taken 3 live up to it, to be fair.

This one starts off by setting up the majority of the bad guys by showing them doing some nasty stuff at the start of the film... which is pretty standard and almost a basic requirement of a movie like this. However, it has to be said that the drastic things they do at this point really don’t help the credibility of the rest of the storyline. The absolute seeming lack of interest by the police in terms of the impact of this opening on the rest of the story (aka, the police would have been keeping a closer eye on someone who they are not all that worried about in this movie because it would spoil the so called “surprise twist” for the audience) really compromises the logic and any chance of realism for the progression later on in the film.

Once this sequence is done we are onto an opening credits section of “the urban landscape from above, at night” but, before you reach for the panic button, I’d have to say that the opening titles are really well handled and the cityscapes on view are treated in a much more interesting way - by using fast dissolves and fast zooms to highlight certain areas and accentuate the links between various shots in the urban sprawl. This, coupled with typography which doesn’t stay in any one place for too long and leads your eye on to different parts of the screen, works really well and I was quite impressed with the overall treatment of what could have been another big opening movie yawn.

The downside to that is, of course, the rest of the movie is never really as good as the title sequence. Everybody, at least in terms of the actual actors performing their roles, is all very good - heroes, villains and supporting characters alike. There just doesn’t seem to be much happening with the story line and, worse, some of the bits in the movie don’t even make any sense other than it gives the writers something to hang another dumb and, in some cases, confusingly edited, action sequence on to. Why, for instance, does Bryan go to all of that trouble and place himself in an extreme danger situation which might be impossible for him to get out of, just so he can go say “Hi” to his kid without actually telling her anything more or giving her anything useful to do. It makes no sense.

In addition to Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace and the “totally wasted in minor roles these days but truly cool actress” who is Famke Janssen, we have Forest Whitaker who is basically there to serve the same function as he did in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Last Stand (reviewed here) and, like in that movie, he does a really excellent job in this picture... even going so far as to give his character a knight from a game of chess and arming himself with the elastic band from his “Bryan Mills” file and adding little gestures involving these props. It just seems though, unless there’s a much longer cut of this movie struggling to get out from somewhere, that these are distractions to stop the actor from getting bored because he seems to not have all that much function in the story in terms of his character, truth be told. He senses the dangerous and righteousness of Neeson’s personality but, for the whole movie, he still remains one step behind. It would have been more interesting if he at least contributed more to the plot and maybe teamed up and helped save Liam Neeson and the token person who gets tak3n towards the end to justify the title... but nothing like that actually happens and his character, while beautifully played, seems to be nothing more than superfluous throughout the whole movie, I’m afraid.

I know this is a fairly short review from me on this one but, alas, I really don’t have too much more to say about this movie. The original Taken was a remarkable debut in the series but, so far, the sequels have been just okay... certainly nothing capturing the special spirit of the first movie in the series. Because that first one was truly great I was hoping that the third one would be a heck of a lot better than the lacklustre second movie but, it seems, I was sadly mistak3n.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

Look Who’s Hawking

The Theory of Everything
2014  UK
Directed by James Marsh 
UK cinema release print.

Almost every year these days, on my birthday, I take my parents out to see a movie at our local cinema. It’s rare they go to the cinema and probably only go with me between 2 and 4 times a year. Usually, to be honest, it’s to a film that I know one of them would like, rather than something I would be happiest seeing myself and, this year, I decided on the new biopic of Stephen Hawking, The Theory Of Everything, because I knew my father would probably really like this one (and I can always buy my mum Paddington on Blu Ray for Mother’s Day, after all).

Now, I’m really not a religious person and I don’t understand the willingness of anybody to believe or support any of the organised religions of the world... which seem to be crafted by the hand of man as a tool for control at the best of times. However, just because I have that view, it doesn’t mean I rule out the existence of God, or a God-like being or, possibly, a God-like energy in the universe. I like to keep an open mind about such things. Many people seem to think that Hawking’s scientific theories preclude God or a God-like entity in the mix and that seems to be the same tack that this film takes. One thing I will say on this subject, however, is this... Hawking’s has got motor neuron disease. When it was first properly diagnosed in the early to mid-sixties (going by the film here) he was given just two years to live. It’s now over fifty years since then and he is still with us. If ever someone wanted to try and show some evidence that there is a deity watching out for certain people on Earth or the possibility of a grand scheme of things then the survival of Stephen Hawking, the greatest scientific mind of our generation, would definitely be considered by most people... well... a bit of a miracle.

The film is based on the memoirs of Hawking as told by his once and longtime wife, Jane Hawking, brilliantly portrayed by Felicity Jones. Hawking himself is a tour-de-force of a performance by Eddie Redmayne, who I first saw when he was playing Colin Clark in My Week With Marilyn (reviewed here). He was pretty good in the former film but he really does turn in a gobsmacking performance here. If he was just portraying Hawking in one specific phase of his battle with motor neuron disease then it would be no less brilliant but certainly understandable. However, with the timing of the film spanning from around 1962 to the present day, with Hawking seen in various stages of the disease... when you take into account that these thing are not shot in chronological order... well, this performance must get some kind of recognition when it comes to award season, I reckon.

Felicity Jones has an easier time of it, I would guess, but her performance here is no less subtle...

I once had a really good friend. I’ve somehow managed to fall out with her now but, in fact, the lady I’m thinking of was almost certainly the best friend I’ll ever have and I can’t imagine that ever not being true, regardless of the fact that I don’t see her any more. When we first started talking, years ago, in a pub rendezvous, I became aware that she was looking after someone very sick and, my reaction to that news was honest and it’s probably something that someone in the position of caring for someone above and beyond the call of duty is used to, coming from that kind of situation... I immediately started trying to think of ways in which the person she was caring for could be helped and try to understand what the sick person was going through. However, it was made clear to me, as that particular conversation wore on, that the person who is actually caring for someone and having to do a lot more than a standard workload in their relationship (this on top of a full time job, no less) is a person who also needs the understanding and support of those around her/him. That role gets taken for granted a lot but it is exhausting and it’s something that the one being cared for is too wrapped up in illness to appreciate that often... and that can be a wearing, grueling, big deal of an issue sometimes. And it’s something I tend to consider more (I hope) when I meet people in a similar situation (as I have on occasion).

All of this kind of responsibility was brilliantly performed by Felicity Jones’ performance as Jane and, again, like Eddie Redmayne’s performance, it’s a slow burn where the actress has had to cope with playing the gradual build up from doing all the extra work caring for her on-screen husband to not coping with all that life is flinging at her. And again, it’s something she’s had to film out of sequence but with a degree of subtlety so that, when it’s all put together in linear fashion... and it’s a, mostly, surprisingly linear film, to be fair... then we see the gradual build up as all the elements line up against her and wear her down over time.

So... cracking performances by both the male and female leads, in this one.

It has to be said, though, that the film relies almost purely on these performances to the exclusion of much else. Sure, there are some nicely elegant set pieces and some lovely shot designs but there seems to be a lack of interest in experimentation in the way the movie is put together so that, even when a specific moment comes up at a Q & A scene near the end of the movie and the on-screen Hawking appears to do something he would never be able to do in real life, it never really takes you by surprise and I thought that where the director did try and use the language of cinema a little by running the film backwards as a metaphor, perhaps, for Hawking’s theories, it wasn’t really all that successful or as interesting as it might have been... at least not to this audience member.

However, one thing the film certainly is, is it’s a more than competent, British-made biopic with a very well written script and very strong performances so, frankly, anything else would have just been extra icing on the cake anyway. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score was appropriate and certainly easy on the ear but, I couldn’t help but wondering what it might have been if they had maybe employed the services of a composer like Alexandre Desplat, to be honest, but again... it was still pretty good and too much icing can be fattening at the best of times.

At the end of the day, The Theory Of Everything is a really neatly put together and powerful dramatisation of the majority of the life of one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. It’s something that British cinema and television seem to do extraordinarily well and this entertaining and moving film is certainly no exception. Definitely worth a look if you don’t go in expecting too much from it structurally or are anticipating semiotic acrobatics. Certainly something which will hook you in from the start, though, and the performances are well worth the watch. Don’t waste any time contemplating not seeing this one... you never know what time is going to do to you next.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Flesh And Blood

Bullet Time

Flesh And Blood
by Patricia Cornwell
Harper Collins ISBN: 978-0007552429

Dr. Kay Scarpetta...

One of the most popular names in modern literary crime fiction. A pulp hero of almost superhuman prowess for the late 20th and early 21st Century.

One of the greats.

I’ve been reading her exploits, courtesy of her writer Patricia Cornwell, for around 20 years now. Ever since a long departed colleague lent me a copy of The Body Farm, her fifth Scarpetta novel. I quickly brought myself up to speed on the prior novels, once I’d read that one, and have been buying or, as of the last 15 years or so... receiving as gifts, each year’s new Patricia Cornwell novel, the majority of which have been focussed on Scarpetta and her surrounding family of characters Marino, Benton and, another one of the great heroes of what I like to think of as modern day pulp fiction, Lucy Farinelli.

Regular readers of this blog, and this yearly post, will know by now that it’s been my Christmas ritual for at least a decade, probably more, to read the first chapter or two of the new Scarpetta novel after receiving it as a gift every 25th December. Preferably washed down with a glass of Baileys or, depending on the time of day, a good old cup o’ tea. It’s always the first Christmas book I read and, due to the amount of rushing around I usually have to do at this time of year, it’s usually the last book I finish in any given year.

This year was no exception and, as I have for the last few years, I’m able to read the results of a writer who I now follow on Twitter and can see where the research she tweets about comes into the book I read at year’s end. So I was wondering, right the way through this book, how scuba diving would find its way into this one. And I’m also pleased to see that she’s continued to embrace Twitter, a social media I once wouldn’t have a kind word for if it wasn’t for the wonderful people I’ve connected with on there over the years, by making certain factors in Scarpetta’s latest case Twitter related. This is good, if somewhat scary, stuff.

The novel is, as you would expect from an author of Cornwell’s high calibre, an absolutely enthralling, page turning, thriller which will keep you guessing until the end. The style is matter of fact but not without the character’s/writer’s joyous personality informing the reader and letting the audience see past the facts and into the heart of the matter... be that good or, as it usually is when death is the order of the day, tragic. It’s all in here and up to the usual high standard of Cornwell’s best work and fans of Scarpetta will, I’m sure, love this one.

Like a lot of her later works, the book tends to compress a small time scale into a lot of pages but, in this case, it takes three small periods of time so, it’s true to say that this one shows a longer period of time taken to solve the case or, in this case, reach a logical conclusion. I really don’t want to give too much away on this but I will say that “long time fans” of the characters in this story will be more than happy with the identity of this year’s trouble maker. So I’ll keep fairly tight lipped (tight fingered?) on that particular facet of this red hot thriller.

Now there was a time when Cornwell was, almost, quite blasé with the final fates of her characters and, in her early works, people you had grown to love would get killed off. She tried this again a number of years ago but, after a couple of books, a certain character she’d killed off made a return to the pages, with a justification which, to be fair, fits right into the dark and shadowy world that some of these characters have to inhabit sometimes but, to be honest, would probably be seen as a bit of a push if you weren’t that familiar with the way she weaves her stories. Like most people, I suspect, at least the ones who read the books in order (an absolute must as the characters change, adapt and grow from tome to tome), I’d got kind of comfortable with the tight knit group she places around her lead character and I wasn’t expecting any fatalities this time around. Was I right to be lulled into that trap?

Well, I wish I could tell you but, honestly, without saying too much about the ending and then the epilogue/wrap up to the novel (something she usually includes, where things are explained/clarified and usually made right again)... all I can say is... I don’t know. Truly, don’t know. Cornwell is a master (or mistress?) of her craft and her writing style is often considerably clinical although, frankly, she does turn a phrase like some of the best poets when the style suits the situation and, in Flesh And Blood, she does something which I can’t recall her quite doing before... well maybe once but certainly not in the way she handles it here.

I said that she is a master of her craft and the ending of this book and the way the reader will react to it hinges on one word. It’s a certain kind of word in the English language and it even has a name... but I’m not going to tell you what that name is because that may give the game away... to the extent that the game could be given away... which is pretty much not giving anything away to be honest. However, what I’m trying to say here is this...

With one word.

Just one word.

The very last word of the novel, in fact... she changes the game and leaves the reader in a very bad place. Bad because... we need the next book in the series to find out what the heck just happened. Which means waiting another year, at least, for the next one to come out. I don’t expect the action to take up from where we leave it here... Cornwell tends to move the time along between books. I suspect we’ll find out what happened as a flashback reference a chapter or two into the next one. But lives are on the line here... I think...

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ll have to wait and see.

All I can honestly say I know is... Flesh And Blood is another brilliant piece of crime fiction from the razor sharp, dissecting mind of Patricia Cornwell and fans, old and new, should have a blast with it. And now I’m in something of a quandary because, frankly, I need to wait until next year’s Christmas ritual to find out what just happened. I’m hoping to still be around to read and write about it and, hopefully, so will some of the regular readers of this blog... I just hope you don’t leave it until next Christmas before returning to my reviews. Have a good read.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Look Who’s Tolkien

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
2014 USA/New Zealand
Directed by Peter Jackson
Playing now at cinemas in the UK.

Well then.

I come to what is hopefully my last, somewhat samey review of another film in the completely superfluous Hobbit trilogy. Why you need a trilogy of overlong movies for a book with a relatively low page count, I’ll never know.

Oh, wait. Yes I will... they can charge you a minimum of three times to see the movies and a minimum of three times if you like them enough to buy the three DVDs or Blu Rays. And then, as an extra special bonus, they can gouge you for the three extended cuts the following November.

What a cynical money making exercise this has become. And all in the name of adapting Tolkien who, to be honest, doesn’t really have much to do with this second, prequel trilogy of films. Much less, even, than the botched attempt at “adapting” Lord Of The Rings a while ago. You guys know The Battle Of The Five Armies lasts just about one chapter in the book, right?

Okay, so, all that being said...

The Battle Of The Five Armies is not a bad little entertainment. It’s certainly not terrible... at least not in terms of the kinds of values placed on movies by Hollywood these days... possibly it’s morally terrible but, I think I’ve already covered that ground just now and in my two previous reviews here and here.  What it does have going for it, perhaps, in comparison with the other chapters in the trilogy, is its pacing.

It’s a speedy movie and the reason for this is it’s really, in some ways, just like the last third of Return Of The Jedi (reviewed on this blog soon). That is to say, it’s just pretty much one, big, long action scene taking up the whole movie with only a few bits of talking to break it up at odd intervals. And because the special effects in this installment are, mostly, pretty well done... it’s pretty impressive eye candy for a lot of the time. It doesn’t hurt that the performances of all the actors, stars and character parts alike, are all extremely good. You will believe in the people who are fighting their battles and you will, I’m delighted to say, feel for them to some small extent too. There’s a fair crack at an emotional hook between two of the characters in this segment... not a great one, to be fair, but it is present and so there’s a humanistic context to be had here... even if the two characters I’m talking about are a) an elf and a dwarf and the fact that b) one of the characters, the elf, isn’t a character from any of Tolkien’s works and made up for a specific actress to play.

The battles are exciting and, surprisingly, Jackson and co have managed to edit them, while using a lot of cross cutting from scene to scene and character to character, in such a way that it all makes sense in your head and it’s unlikely that you’ll get confused during the action scenes. Which, being as the film is pretty much just one giant action scene, as I said before, is an obvious bonus here.

Howard Shore’s score, though, is still the real star of the picture. I might never watch the movies again in my life but I’ll certainly give the soundtrack albums a spin or two over the years. The final song isn’t exactly great but the music throughout the movie is another mini masterpiece written by a genuinely great modern composer and... I suspect... they’ll be playing in concert versions and classical album selections for many decades after he, and I for that matter, are long dust in the ground.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one, I’m afraid. This is an extremely short review, for me, and I apologise for that but, asides from keeping me entertained for a few hours, I really can’t find myself inspired by it enough to be able to dredge up anything else about either the technical merits of the movie or the way the story works. It is what it is, a Hollywood style cash in trading on the name of a much loved writer. If you’re a fan of heroic fantasy action cinema and have no interest in the source, then you should be fine with this latest pseudo-adaptation of The Hobbit. If, however, you’re not someone who can divorce the movie from its original source, and I am almost certainly guilty of doing this myself, to an extent (but at least I am trying to be objective about it), then this probably isn’t going to fill your heart with too much of anything except maybe rage. So see this one or don’t and you may, or may not, have a good time with it but... there are much better movies out there worth your time, I’m sure.