Tuesday, 29 September 2015


Quantum Psychics

2015 USA
Directed by Afonso Poyart
UK cinema release print.

Well... there was some terrible, underplayed marketing put out for Solace but I was lucky enough to catch a trailer for it at the cinema, quite literally the week before it played. I say lucky because it piqued my interest enough for me to give it a go... which is great  because it’s actually a pretty cool film and I can’t quite comprehend how, or why, most critics - armchair or professional - seem to be giving this movie such a hard time. 

Neither can I understand why the production company has had the finished film languishing in a vault for, apparently, two years while they figure out if its getting some kind of a release or not. Seriously Hollywood types... did you not realise what you’ve got here? This is a smart and visually witty film that more people who are into these kind of dark thrillers should know about. 

Okay... so the set up to this movie is very simple. The often brilliant, always watchable Anthony Hopkins plays John Clancy... a gifted clairvoyant who used to help the FBI out with their cases before his daughter died of cancer and he left his wife, retreating into himself and away from the world at large. His friend in the FBI, Agent Joe Merriweather, played by the equally watchable Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages, with the help of his partner, criminal psychologist Agent Katherine Cowles, played by Abbie Cornish, to persuade Clancy to come out of retirement and help them out with a serial killer who is giving them some trouble. 

Clancy is hard to convince until he sees visions of the two of them in various states of, what he assumes to be, dying, and he jumps on board the case with them, very quickly using his psychic talents to lead them to places they never would have gone to without his help. However, after a little while, it becomes clear to Clancy that the man they are tracking also has the exact same, only much more powerful, talents that he does... and that their killer is leading them along, probably into a trap. 

And with a plot set up like that, you probably wouldn’t believe that, at some point in its development, the powers that be wanted to rewrite the script a little and turn it into a sequel to Se7en... with Brad Pitt’s character metamorphosing into the psychic protagonist, no less. I think that the fact that this idea didn’t go ahead is a pretty much on the money, to be honest. Bringing supernatural elements like unlocked areas of the human brain is probably not a good mix with the gritty, more realistic world view expounded in Fincher’s earlier film. Solace is quite definitely doing its own thing and wouldn’t, I suspect, gel too well with Se7en in its aesthetic make-up. This is not to say that Solace is any less of a good movie, of course.

This film has a lot going for it. You’ve got the combined performances of Hopkins, Morgan and Cornish, for starters, and they all, as you would expect, knock it out of the park. Hopkins, particularly, gives an amazing, matter of fact performance which I really found myself identifying with a lot. It’s not so much emotionless as much as it is ‘damaged’ in terms of his character’s background... and you will find the full extent of the reason for that right at the close of the movie, when the main plot line has thundered towards its fatal end game. We also have Colin Farrell playing the serial killer in this movie and he seems pretty good too. I never really get on all that well with Farrell as an actor, truth be told. Don’t know why... just don’t seem to like his personality much, even though I loved his version of Total Recall a lot more than the original (yeah, I know, but they’re both complete alterations of Philip K. Dick’s original story and I just prefer the latter... sorry). As it happens, although Farrell is obviously the main focus of the investigation of the movie, he really doesn’t come into it until the final third of the film and... since he’s playing a villain anyway... I really had no problem with him in this.

The direction, editing and cinematography in this one is also pretty cool. In fact it’s quite unique in some ways, being a completely strange combination of shooting styles including long held static shots with the occasional slow zoom, frequent use of long and slow swooping camera movements and also, in almost a direct clash to this, there’s also some of that slowly reactive, handheld stuff going on like an observer is just catching something out of the corner of the eye and has to readjust slightly to catch it. What’s more, that last style of shooting seems to be reserved for cutting into some of the slower, close up and intimate scenes and it’s almost like the camera movement is a reaction to the words spoken out of the mouths of the characters... like it’s finding somewhere on a person’s face or body too look. I did, I have to say, find this version of that technique quite refreshingly interesting and, in combination with all the other visual somersaults in the movie, including a fair few 360º camera pans, I found it a quite chaotic but, due to the remarkable sense of editing, quite easy to follow style and I think the crew have done a tremendous job on making this, presumably deliberate, hodge podge of shooting methods blend and work so well together. Seriously interesting stuff.

Now, the film deals with the nature of precognition and all that it implies... which means the audience is going to be on their guard in terms of the end game of the film and it is fairly easy to figure out just how the denouement scene will play out. The director does try and distract a little by giving you all the possible scenarios in the precog moments (not to mention the many, almost surreal, dream trance moments)... an it’s not dissimilar to the science fiction movie Next in that respect. However, as much as I was sure I knew how the last major confrontation scene would play out in this movie... and it turns out I did... what did impress me was that this isn’t the ultimate twist in the film and the end prologue/coda to the Anthony Hopkins character, which I really wasn’t expecting until it happened, is a really nice touch and explains a lot about why Hopkins’ character responds now to the world in the way in which he does. Now, I was completely kicking myself for not even twigging this little character detail as, really, it something that probably is a really obvious thing in hindsight... but somehow it took me by surprise and my only excuse for that is that Afonso Poyart managed to distract me so much with the ‘leading you on’ nature of the main plot that I failed to see what, personally, I feel is an all important part of the puzzle of the film. So he really impressed me with this.

The music for the film, by somebody called BT, is all over the place and possibly that’s meant as a reflection of the shooting style... but I have to say, I really enjoyed it a lot and it’s a crime against filmanity that the score of this film hasn’t gotten any kind of release from the studio. C’mon people, this stuff needs to be out there! BT has ample time to shine because the director does seem to have a penchant for going off into those musically charged montages that are a firm staple of American movie making these days. Almost at the drop of a hat, I would say and it’s my one criticism of the film that I think the director could maybe have just cut down a little on using this kind of cinematic shorthand a bit. Saying that, I didn’t find it too distracting and it’s probably one of the better put together movies I’ve seen this year... might even make my 2015 Top 20, I reckon.

So yeah. Great little movie. Solace is quite violent and unflinching as it shows you the uglier side of the life that the main characters have to negotiate on a daily basis and the world and its population are portrayed fairly frankly by the director. If you are more into hearts and flowers, topped off with an uplifting ending for your cinema fix, then you might find this movie a little outside of your tastes. If, however, you enjoy a good thriller then I think you’ll find that if you seek Solace at you local cinema then it will be just your cup o’ tea... or at least a quantum of it.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Doctor Who - The Witch's Familiar

Skaro Margin

Doctor Who - The Witch's Familiar
UK Airdate: 26th September 2015

Warning: Yeah, yeah. Still spoilers in this one.

Okay so... I haven’t got a heck of a lot to say about this second episode of the latest series. There’s good and there’s bad but... really nothing to refute the astonishingly good work set up last week and I’m sure most people will be fairly happy with this one.

The episode doesn’t quite pick up from the cliff hanger ending of last week’s installment... instead pushing it firmly into the background until it can be similarly revisited to bring back exactly the same kind of dramatic flourish towards the end of this show, slightly weakened in that we now understand more what is really at stake and with the people behind the camera, presumably, hoping the audience has really short memories. This tactic seems to work out okay and I can’t make up my mind whether it was edited into the end of last weeks show, when they already had a viable cliffhanger of the seeming death of Clara, in order to balance up the running time or whether the story really was structured this way. Not too sure and it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, I guess. In modern day film precedents it’s the equivalent of the end of the second of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne movies actually being placed chronologically towards the end of the third movie. Which can sometimes make things interesting.

In terms of the bad stuff I mentioned in this episode... bad being a euphemism for stuff I don’t personally like... there were two things which really bothered me here. One is Missy... who was really consistently well acted and well written throughout the episode except... the madness part of her character which I lamented at the end of the last series and which didn’t really bubble up to the surface last week, is back in a few scenes. I really don’t need to see her dancing around for no apparent reason with the Daleks... it just makes her seem overly dramatic for the sake of it. Still, I’m sure people will be into it. The other thing which bothers me is the apparent loss of The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and its replacement with a set of sunglasses. Now, hold on. There’s a few things wrong with this decision... if, indeed, it’s not just a decision being used to tease the audience and stir up viewer reaction with the pay off being a new look screwdriver at the end of the year or next year... which can then be reproduced as a toy to generate more cash.

They’ve tried this idea before. The sonic screwdriver has been a staple of the show since it was first introduced in the mid-1960s in various Patrick Troughton episodes, beginning with Fury From The Deep. Jon Pertwee’s redesigned one was a very popular contraption and I could never work out, as a child, why they didn’t make a toy of it in the 1970s. Had to make my own. The device was scrapped in the 1980s, destroyed by a Terilieptil in the Peter Davison story The Visitation, if my memory isn’t failing me. I think the idea was that the screwdriver had become an almost omnipotent device to get the writers of the show out of any situation and... yeah, maybe they had a point. Or, you know, maybe the writers could just have been a little more clever with their writing... there’s always that option open to them, I guess.

The thing is, though... the screwdriver is as iconic an ingredient of Doctor Who as the TARDIS looking like a Police Box and the theme tune. Get rid of that and you lose one of the key recognition factors of a show which sometimes really needs that if the key cast member turn over is as high as it’s been, by design, over the years. The Americans presumably realised this too because the sonic screwdriver reappeared in the Doctor Who TV movie with Paul McGann and has been reunited with The Doctor, in one design or another, ever since. Until now... where they’ve replaced it with a pair of sunglasses.


There’s absolutely no need to do this and there’s especially no need if you’re going to take away what is, effectively, The Doctor’s magic wand and replace it with something completely different which does the same thing. This smacks of either tinkering needlessly with the things that work or, as I said earlier, aggressive fan baiting... so I shall watch the online reaction to this elimination of a key element with great interest as the weeks go by.

So that’s the bad stuff. The good stuff? Mostly everything else.

Not much here in terms of postmodernistic referencing to the past this week but there are some really great scenes between Davros and The Doctor which, if I’m not mistaken (but, hey, I probably am), are trying to hit exactly the same kind of emotional beats as the famous Batman/Joker ‘character analysis and shared joke scene’ which closes Alan Moore’s much loved Batman one-shot, The Killing Joke. Still, whatever its inspiration, it works pretty effectively and the added 'twist' that Davros is up to no good all along may seem pretty obvious, as does The Doctor’s knowledge of this... but it doesn’t make it any less effective and both Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach do a fantastic job here.

As do Jenna Louise Coleman as Clara and Michelle Gomez as Missy... barring my caveat above. The comical chemistry between the two is pretty good and it’s quite well written. Not brilliant in some ways because you do always know what’s coming - Missy pushing Clara down a hole to test the length of the drop is beyond telegraphed in the dialogue, for instance - but this doesnt stop it being funny and the two seem to have an interesting dynamic between them.

As far as everything else in the story... it was sturdy. Nothing very “wow” but, again, nothing which let the side down in terms of the set up episode, as I was expecting it too... so pleasantly surprised there. This looks like an odd season we’ve got in store for us and I wonder just where show runner Steven Moffat wants to take us this time around. We’ve got to lose Clara at some point and, hopefully, restore Danny Pink to her to lend credibility to the Orson Pink timeline but... whether Clara will actually leave or whether she transforms into someone/something else, maybe a Dalek in Asylum Of The Daleks (reviewed here), is anybody’s guess. I also wonder about Missy (The Master) and the “tune out and you’ll miss it” comment that The Doctor gave a specific ring to her daughter... presumably a relation of The Doctor’s if he and Missy are... um... brothers. Time will tell, I guess.

And that’s as much as I can say about this one. Nice solid episode which didn’t have the wow factor of the opening episode but which concluded things in a way that it didn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth. Not a contender for a great episode as the first part was but... not a bad one either.

Thursday, 24 September 2015


Interview Kills? 

UK 2009
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
Sony Region Free Blu Ray

I’ve been wanting to catch up with Exam ever since my dad accidentally channel hopped onto an interview with Colin Salmon about it at the time of its cinema release. In the brief minute I saw before the next station was triggered on the remote controller’s cycling thumbs, Salmon (an actor I’ve always admired and thought should be heading up his own Hollywood action franchise) seemed really enthusiastic about this one and I could tell it was a movie with an intriguing enough set up that I would, at the very least, be interested in it until the end. However, I was unable to find any cinemas near me showing this at all and it kinda passed me by... but I didn’t quite forget about it.

Then, just recently, I was in my local Computer Exchange in Enfield Town and I came across a copy of the movie on Blu Ray for £2.50. I couldn’t wait to watch it. I’m really glad I got the opportunity because Exam is a pretty cool film, it turns out.

The set up is really interesting. Apart from a few very close up shots introducing each character over the opening credits, the whole film takes place in just a single set of one big room. Eight candidates are led into the room and each of them represents one of eight different racial, cultural or gender stereotypes. They are sat in two rows of desks and there is an armed security guard at the door. Colin Salmon enters. These are the final candidates for a job and this is the Exam which will whittle them down to one. Salmon tells them all ‘the rules’ and all the ways in which they can be disqualified and escorted out the door by the security guard, such as spoiling their paper or talking to said security guard. He then leaves, after setting a timer for 80 minutes... the film then proceeding in real time as the candidates turn their exam papers over and find them all... blank.

I guess what happens next is a little like 80 minutes worth of Lord Of The Flies in microcosm... as the candidates try to discover just what the heck they are supposed to be doing as they squabble, fight and accidentally or purposefully disqualify themselves from the running... and so on. It’s a hard drama of clashing, often disagreeable personalities coming into close contact as they take things way past the limit to try and gain a top salary job with amazing benefits and, also, try to eliminate each other from the short list as they attempt to discover just what the heck they are supposed to be doing during this time... the clock is ticking.

So that’s a neat set up, right? And that’s it as far as the candidates are concerned but, as an audience, you also have some other things to consider and figure out because, as the dialogue and rivalry continues, you begin to get a better picture of just what the world is like outside of that exam room. As it progresses, and without spoiling it too much, you begin to realise that the world outside is beginning to go through something fairly apocalyptic in nature and so there’s that to throw into the mix. There’s also the nature of the job the candidates have all applied for (or were head hunted for, in one case) and as the film continues you begin to discern that the events in the outside world which you never actually see... the whole film really does take place just in this one room... are in some way directly connected to the corporation which is looking to fill a fairly key position.

I love low budget movies and admire the fact that this one takes place all in one set. Smaller budgets somehow have a knack of bringing about more creativity to solve problems which other productions can just throw money at and it’s also where actors can best showcase their work and personalities, it seems to me. And this movie is no exception to that general rule. It’s a beautifully shot thing with the frame design using the lines and shapes of the interior of the room and highlighting the way different performers relate to each other in different planes and states of focus within that setting. It’s not something you’re going to get bored with in a hurry.

It’s also not something you’re going to find flagging in terms of performance either. All the actors in this are doing a great job and really, for the most part, getting a chance to shine and play off one another in some intense confrontations in that confined area. It’s some great work being done here, even by the ever silent security guard and, as things play out, it’s sometimes hard to figure out who are the good people and who are the villains in this little scenario... which is a good thing too. These are not black and white situations the people put themselves into in this movie... different aspects of their personalities come to light at different times and you have to admire, not just the performances, but the way the thing has been written. It’s obviously not dissimilar in intensity to other movies which take place with a group of actors in a confined space (I might mention Cube in this instance) but, as always, it’s powerful stuff and the writing really puts these performers in a headspace where they can all do some great work.

Also, the end almost took me a little by surprise, for once, in that my own personal response to Colin Salmon’s briefing at the start, turned out to be the right response but, because of the way it’s dressed up and muddied as the movie progresses, I’d eliminated it as the correct solution long before the ending came up. However, rather than be disappointed by this turn of events, I had to say well done to the writers and performers because it’s stylishly pulled off and, more importantly, leads to a very positive and morally uplifting conclusion to the movie... which is really not the tone I was expecting this film to be left in... a message of hope. You will probably find yourself happy with the final outcome and the candidate who gets the job, once you’re made aware of just what that job will entail and the mystery of just what the heck is going on is thrown into the light after the ‘exam’ is finished.

So... good job to all involved I would say. Exam was criminally neglected on its release... I’m assuming it must have played at some cinemas somewhere... and is very much a movie that deserves better recognition than it seems to have at the moment. A true modern classic with a lot to offer for the discerning cineaste... or even those regular, slobby movie watchers like myself. So definitely give this one some of your time, I would say. If you shop around at a few places right now you should be able to pick it up quite inexpensively and, if you do, believe me... it’s a bargain. Great little movie.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Image


The Image
USA 1975
Directed by Radley Metzger
Synapse Films All Region Blu Ray 

Recently I saw two really great sexploitation movies by director Radley Metzger which made a big impression on me with their rich visual compositions and impressive, innovative editing techniques. These were called The Lickerish Quartet (reviewed here) and Camille 2000 (reviewed here). Alas, I have to say that this next film I chose to watch by this director, while still interesting in terms of its technical aspects, is less compelling than the other two films I saw... although it’s certainly not a disaster by any means.

The Image starts off with sedate intertitles, like those you would expect on a silent movie, telling the audience just the name of the movie, the director, and the fact that it’s an ‘adaptation’ of a novel by Jean de Berg... which is a pseudonym for Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who was the wife of French director Alain Robbe-Grillet and whose sympathies were, from what I can understand, alligned with the subject she was writing about. You can find my reviews of her husband’s films Eden and After here and Gravida here. These credits are followed by chapter splits under the following headings as the movie runs its course: 1. An Evening at the X...'s, 2. The Roses in Bagatelle Gardens, 3. Too Much Water and Its Consequences, 4. False Starts, 5. The Photographs, 6. An Expiatory Sacrifice, 7. The Fitting Room, 8. In the Bathroom, 9. The Gothic Chamber and 10. Everything Resolves Itself.

The main character Jean, played by Carl Parker, is a writer and the film opens with him attending ‘a literary party’ hosted by his friend Claire, played by Marilyn Roberts. Here he spots an attractive young model who he becomes very interested in called Anne, played by Mary Mendum. Things get unusual very fast when he is introduced to Anne and he discovers that she is owned as a sexual slave by Claire... as in she’s her sub, if you are familiar with current BDSM terms. Claire invites Jean to join in with their games and the whole rest of the movie is pretty much about having sexy and exciting times as they humiliate the willing Anne via ritualistic sex and pain practices, culminating in heavy whippings and a tame form of needle play by the end of the film. 

Now... there’s not too much going on here, it has to be said, at least not from the point of view of a contemporary audience looking back to this and, I suspect, neither at the time either... S & M is nothing new. I can understand how people whose tastes are purely vanilla might be somewhat taken aback by some of the content in this film, not because of the graphic nature (it does, though, slip into hardcore pornography territory in a couple of places) but because of the psychology of the attitude of the 'seemingly' non-consensual Anne in this movie... although logic surely dictates that no sub would stay in any kind of destructive relationship if he or she weren’t into pushing into that kind of head space in the first place and it's certainly implied that her consensuality is a given here. However, if you are familiar with this kind of sexually tinted power play to begin with, the film does reach levels of dullness I really wasn’t expecting from a director of Metzger’s proven flair and ingenuity.

That being said, there is some nice stuff in here at the visual level... asides form the obvious erotic pleasures inspired by the nudity of the actors. For example, in the rose garden sequence there is a beautiful shot of a freshly picked rose seen in juxtaposition to Anne’s genitalia although this in itself, not to mention the thorns, may be too much of an obvious visual metaphor for some people. In another scene where a half naked Anne is told to go and choose an instrument for her punishment, we follow her back to her ‘owners’ viewing her beautiful backside, which is filling the frame, with the coiled whip held in front of her butt cheeks, echoing both the shape of her body and the tapering curves of her garter belt from behind. 

Stuff like this is absolutely what keeps me watching a Radley Metzger movie but, although there are many such nice compositions and artistic flourishes to be found in this film... well, like I said, it’s nowhere near as overt or outstanding as the previous two movies I saw by this director. That being said there was just enough to keep me concentrating on it and one of the things I’ve noticed about Metzger and the way the actors bring his scripts to life, is little details of character that another guy helming the project might not want in or allow... but which give even the most minor of the characters an intelligence all their own.

For instance, when a shop fitting girl is asked to adjust the lingerie of Anne as a prelude to including her in a threesome in the shop between her, Anne and Jean, the girl starts off towards the changing room as she is called to assist, then pauses to think for second before returning to where she was... she then removes her pearl necklace (no, not that kind) before she goes ahead to help, her character obviously thinking of convenience, in case she might be willingly seduced by her two customers. So, yeah, fascinating details like this are quite interesting to spot and so, although I didn’t love this movie as much as the others I’ve seen by Metzger... I’m certainly not ‘done’ with him yet.

After all, he gives us in this film such visuals as a blindfold with bejewelled eyes and eyebrows inset into it... this is a really posh blindfold and not like one I’ve seen before. That being said, it doesn’t detract from the poe faced seriousness with which the BDSM relationship in this movie is relentlessly pursued... it’s a long way from the fluffy, play S & M party shown in the director’s earlier Camille 2000, for example. I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing and depends purely on an active participant's own temperament, I suspect.

The film climaxes with an extended torture scene but towards the end of it the power balance between the three players shifts out of the dynamic the characters are expecting. I won’t spoil the ending of this movie for you here but in the epilogue scene, when one of the characters is ordered to undress, I noticed that the long shot and medium shot which the camera kept cutting between didn’t match up. I don’t know if the director was having a bad day here because my previous experiences of his films shows a meticulous attention to such detail but... well there was definitely a continuity error created here, for whatever reason... possibly the choice of performance in one of the takes as opposed to another which didn’t quite match with what it was being cut against... but I did find this a bit of a shame. 

Ultimately, and although I am a fervent admirer of the BDSM scene as it is today (and its historic background), The Image really is my least favourite of the director’s films that I’ve seen to date. I may find it grows on me a little if I watch it again in a few years... some films do have that power... but for now, if you are wanting to get into the wonderful world of Radley Metzger, I would say this is not a very good jumping on point for this particular director. Not a terrible film but... not a great one either.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice

A Man Kaled Davros

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice
UK Airdate: 19th September 2015

Warning: Oh yeah. You bet there are going to be all kinds of spoilers in this one... otherwise there’s not a heck of a lot left to talk about.

Yay! The Daleks are back...

... which, if you’re a regular reader of my Doctor Who reviews over the last five years, is probably not something you would expect to hear me say, given that I always keep banging on about how overused they are in the modern era of Doctor Who. However, for this episode at least, writer Steven Moffat does something fairly special with them....

So, following on from a fairly unremarkable Christmas special, the 2015 season of Doctor Who begins its broadcast with the first of a two part story, this episode being called The Magician’s Apprentice... and it has to be said it’s one of the best episodes I’ve seen in a while in the series. Probably since somewhere in the middle of David Tennant’s last year on the show. Opening with a brilliant and surreal opening hook set on a war torn Skaro, a young boy gets caught in a field of ‘hand mines’ which are hands which come up from under the ground and which can see you with an eye embedded firmly in each palm, grabbing you and pulling you under the surface, presumably to your death. In flies the Peter Capaldi incarnation of The Doctor to give the young boy a hand but, on learning that his name is Davros... he leaves him again to his fate. Which may seem a bit harsh if you’re not a fan of the show and know that the young boy will grow up to become the ruthless creature who mutated the Kaled race and invented the Daleks; a character created approximately 12 years after the Daleks first appeared on the show in 1963, opposite Tom Baker’s Doctor in his first season in the 1975 story Genesis Of The Daleks, before making regular appearances throughout the show’s long history. The eyeballs in hands, of course, now make perfect sense as an inspirational motif for the young evil genius when you realise their similarity to the eye stalks of the Daleks, only translated into humanoid terms.

After the credits, the story continues with Clara Oswald rejoining The Brigadier’s daughter in UNIT as a ‘returned from the dead’ Missy (aka the female incarnation of The Master) gets her attention and then teleports her away to grab The Doctor... who is in the year 1138AD, in a nice little reference to George Lucas’ magic numbers. They are then all transported to Skaro where both Missy and Clara are “Exterminated”... yeah, right... and The Doctor is left on a cliff hanger as he goes back to destroy Davros as a young boy.

Okay, so the story is fairly dark and, more importantly, darkly handled by director Hettie MacDonald, who last directed for the show on my all time favourite episode Blink... so no wonder she does a great job here. It seems the combination of Steven Moffat’s writing and her direction has given us what could, if we’re very lucky and the second part lives up to the set up, be another classic episode of the show. It’s downright creepy and atmospheric and, somehow, the emotional investment conjured up the actors delivering Moffat’s lines for this director seems to really help the audience believe that great things are afoot and... well they kind of are.

I’ve never really liked Davros as a character that much... my only interest in him being a symbol of what he stands for rather than anything any of the actors or dialogue have done for the character in the past four decades. Here though, as a dying creature who has summoned The Doctor for one final meeting, he is absolutely brilliant... seemingly relaxed and at ease on his home planet and, I dunno, just something about the way that Julian Bleach, who last played the character in the two part Tennant story The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, plays him in a much more relaxed manner here that really makes the character work and Moffat ,once again, proves himself as a writer of, at the very least, great starting point stories.

There’s a lot for regular fans of the show to love about this one too, with various Doctor’s who have come across Davros over the years either heard in dialogue clips or seen in video clips... including a major moment for Tom Baker’s Doctor... the famous “Do I have the right” scene opposite Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen is not seen here) as he debates whether he has the moral high ground when considering ending the Daleks before they are even properly unleashed on the universe. Something which this story has big echoes of, of course, with Capaldi’s Doctor being given the choice of saving him, leaving him to die or, perhaps, destroying him (although we know he won’t do that).

There are also some great dialogue references to the Tom Baker and Matt Smith incarnations of The Doctor by Capaldi, who also does some great guitar solos here, including a version of the Doctor Who theme. Music seems to be a key plot device here, in fact, with Missy using a variation of the 1982 chart hit Mickey, by Toni Basil, to grab UNIT's attention. Interestingly, The Doctor also plays a quick version of this on his guitar as a reference to Missy when they meet in this episode although, since he wasn’t around for that scene at the start of the story, one might wonder how he would know that Missy used that to identify herself to UNIT personnel? I’d like to believe it’s a Moffat clue to indicate that The Doctor already knows what’s going on and is one step ahead of the game at this point but... yeah, although he’s done stuff like that before I think it may just be a bit of sloppy writing here in that respect. Time will tell, I guess. Hope he proves me wrong.

Among other nice things for fans of the show is the reappearance of The Sisterhood Of Karn, who were first seen in Doctor Who in the 1976 story The Brain Of Morbius, before returning in a short web based episode prequel to The Day Of The Doctor 50th Anniversary special, giving Paul McGann the power to change into John Hurt’s War Doctor for the purposes of that story. They also reappear in a short web prequel to this episode, released last week. In addition to The Sisterhood and a whole load of other places and creatures from recent Who stories like the Judoon and the Ood, there are some great Daleks from the show’s early history featured in the story, which is great and, better than that, the famous monsters are in no way overused here and seem to be much more of a threat because of their lack of domination of the episode.

My favourite bit, though, was the ambient sound of the chamber in which Davros resides... which is a dead spit of the ambient sound used on the first of the mid 1960s Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies whenever the characters are in the Dalek city and, I’m pretty sure, dates back to the Daleks’ first on screen appearance at the end of 1963. That sound effect made me chuckle to myself when I noticed it.

So, yeah, all in all a well written, well directed and, it almost goes without saying, well acted episode, especially by the three leads Peter Capaldi, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Michelle Gomez, with the latter being little calmer in her delivery of the role (mostly due to the nature of the dialogue, I suspect) and, therefore, a little more lethal like The Master really ought to be. Some nice hits from Murray Gold’s score too with the Capaldi Doctor’s theme getting a little more prominence in the mix, this time around.... although saying that, why they were using it for scenes accompanying Clara rather than using a variant on Clara’s theme is anybody’s guess.

In general, though, The Magician's Apprentice is a truly triumphant season opener and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that the follow on and, presumably, lingering season long fallout from this episode set up, doesn’t let it down. Unlike The Doctor, I can’t travel in time anyway except very slowly forward, so I’ll have to wait for the answers to those questions but... a really strong opening here and I am looking forward to where the show goes from this, for sure.

Friday, 18 September 2015


Fizzle Puzzle

Australia 2014
Directed by The Spierig Brothers
Sony Pictures All Region Blu Ray

A friend of mine recommended that I see this movie and now, thinking about it, I think I did see it trailered last year and was waiting for it to come around to my local cinema... but I don’t think it turned up in my neck of the woods. Which is a shame because I’m always into time travel stories and he was right, I did enjoy this one. It also proves my much aired theory that modern day Hollywood are plundering old 1950s sci-fi short stories as either direct source or inspiration for a lot of the movies being made over the last ten years or more in that this one is a strong adaptation of a 1958 Robert A. Heinlein short story called “All You Zombies”... which is one I’ve not read. Since there aren’t any zombies in this story though, because the context is different to what modern cinema audiences would expect from a title like that, it’s been wisely, I think, changed to Predestination. 

Now it’s hard to talk about this movie without giving huge spoilers and I was in two minds about whether to include those or not. On the one hand, as you go through the movie you can work out what’s coming next and I got to about twenty minutes into the movie and I pretty much knew 90% of the reveals and, certainly by the time they’d arrived, I’d already figured out the other ones. That being said, there’s something to be said for the kind of enjoyment one gets from working things out as you go along and, since being a time travel story makes it almost a requisite to have a temporal twist in the tale, the majority of the audience are going to want to dig in and figure it out before the end anyway. That’s part of the fun.

So I guess that means I’ve got to somehow continue reviewing this without any spoilerage.

So what can I tell you about this then? Well, it’s a story about a time travelling secret agent who is trying to stop a ‘time terrorist’ throughout history known as The Fizzle Bomber. There, you see? Even revealing that much about the plot has already given you your first suspicion of what the ending might entail without me even going into details... which is the problem with these kinds of stories. Luckily, however, the various twists and turns of the narrative are such that the film works out as a kind of series of Russian dolls of a plot line. The things you think are the important reveals start becoming less and less important as the story unfolds and more and more like everything is chasing its own tale... which is kinda the point, I guess. This film has a real Ouroboros of a story line and really does follow its own rear end to an extent that lovers of time travel stories will, probably, hugely embrace. It mixes the temporal elements with another element which I really can’t tell you about without major spoilerage and then uses that to both mask and maintain the self reflexivity of the ultimate paradox which lies at the heart of the solution of this movie. A solution which does, of course, mean we are both privy to the tail wagging the dog and the huge anomaly in logic that this manages to create.

Okay... so this is why I can’t say much about the plot here guys. You will work out what’s going on but, hopefully, it will all work like layers of an onion for you once you realise that each question raised becomes less important than the next and hopefully, you won’t be waiting too long for a certain character in this film to catch up with the solution. Either way, though, it’s a nicely put together ride and I really didn’t mind that the end result was, by the end of the movie, a bit obvious.

We also have three actors who really nail this movie headed up by the always watchable Ethan Hawke, who was in the last Spierig Brothers movie, Daybreakers. He is ably supported by Noah Taylor, who I always think is great, and an actress called Sarah Snook who... well...believe me, if this movie wasn’t perceived as ‘a sci-fi movie’, she would have been a shoe in for an oscar here. She has a much more difficult job than any of the other actors here and once you get the spin of just the first of many of the tricks of her character, you will realise just what an incredible job she is doing in this movie... a lot of the first half of which is told as a series of flashbacks via a conversation in a bar. The answer to all the riddles and conundrums the plot throws at you, and it’s up to you to decide just how many really are being pitched your way, relies a lot on her brilliant performance here and her character is very much the main protagonist of the film... I think it’s safe to say.

There’s some nice visual stuff going on here too. There are some beautiful compositions and there are some bold and absolutely striking colour choices which, while they aren’t the same palette throughout (the opening sequences pitch blue against orange for example, before moving into something completely different), seem to be sticking to mostly two dominant colours per sequence, over the course of the story. I’d like to think that this basic colour choice was an attempt for the directors to synaesthetically gel with certain elements of the story but I’m never going to know about that one, I’m sure... due to the reason that it might not be something desirable to reveal during an interview about this one. Whatever the motivation for this element, however, it certainly works a treat and pushes the film up to an artistic level which it might not have achieved without such a rigid aesthetic principle in place.

The one thing which did mislead me about the movie is the existence of a specific “space comfort” agency... which is basically a way of training women to travel and ‘bond’ with men who go into space (yeah, it’s basically government sponsored prostitution). It’s presented as a historical fact in the movie and it did make me wonder if the audience are being shown some kind of parallel universe specific to the world of the movie... and I guess in a way that’s true. However, when I saw in the end credits that it was based on a 1950s Robert A. Heinlein story, it all made perfect sense. This was speculative fiction of an organisation that Heinlein obviously thought ‘could’ exist in his future and the directors were merely being respectful of his material... and it does give the film a nice little fantasy element it wouldn’t have had if they’d have changed little details like this, it has to be said.

So yeah, that’s me done on Predestination, I think. It gets to be damned obvious over the course of the running time but the writers/directors did well to mask the full extent of the solution in the less linear bits of narrative for as long as they did when dealing with a specific kind of time travel concept which is almost the grand-daddy of temporal conundrums, to be fair. And the ride is worth it too because it’s a brilliant movie, well acted by amazing performers and edited in such a way that it can happily jump around all over the place and you don’t have to be worried about getting “lost in time” yourself as you marry up all the visual data to figure out who is doing something or, more importantly, when they are doing something. A definite watch for fans of science fiction and, if sci-fi isn’t really your thing, then that just makes it all the more easier for you to play the puzzle game with it. Really glad I saw this one and that I have friends who are able to twig me enough to recommend this kind of stuff to me. Definitely give this one a go.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Transporter Refuelled

Frank’s A Million

The Transporter Refuelled
2015 France/China
Directed by Camille Delamarre
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... really didn’t think much of the idea of Besson and co doing a new Transporter movie without the leading actor of the previous three, Jason Statham, returning to the role he absolutely made his own. The concept just doesn’t wash but, I have to say that, although it’s absolutely true that this movie would have played a bit better if Statham had not withdrawn due to a rejection of his asking price, it’s really not the terrible movie I was expecting.

Partly that's due to the story, which is a lot simpler, like the original (and best) of The Transporter movies. The second in the series was, for my liking, way too Americanised in its sensibility for a British character living in France (which was one of the things that gave the first film something unique) and although Transporter 3 was almost a return to that and was a much better picture than the second, they’ve never really lived up to the original in impact as far as I’m concerned. I was one of the few people who actually liked the first movie on its original cinema release, thinking about it now. A lot of people I asked at the time hated it because the action scenes are so over the top in that first one but, I think there’s a lot to be said for a movie pushing way past the limits of credibility and it’s an easy one to defend but, I won’t waste space on that here now... I’m sure I’ll get around to reviewing the original movie on here some day.

Anyway, since I didn’t just catch up to the original on home video like a lot of the first movie’s fans did, and because I saw it in a partially empty cinema on its first week, I’ve always had a kind of emotional investment in the films being as entertaining as possible and, I have to say, a lot of that was due to Statham’s personality playing the lead character, Frank Martin. I’ve not seen the recent TV series because of this (at least when they turned Shaft into a TV show they kept Richard Roundtree on) and I was looking on giving this new film, which doesn’t even have Frank’s French Inspector pal in it either, a wider birth... but then I thought I might as well see what they’ve done with The Transporter Refuelled and, as it happens, barring the exclusion of Statham, they’ve done a really good job.

Now, all this makes it sound, maybe, like they’ve got a wooden block of an actor playing Frank Martin in this one and, again, I really expected this to be the case. Imagine my surprise when I found that the new guy,  Ed Skrein, does a really sound acting job in this... picking up on some of Statham’s mannerisms but then changing other things of the character. Considering he’s filling in from somebody who has left a very deep stamp on the series of films, I was amazed that this guy gave as good a performance as he did. He’s a pretty good actor and, luckily, the writing is backing him up on this so he has some interesting stuff to work with.

The fight choreography he gets involved in is pretty good in places too. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing as absolutely special in terms of the action sequences as the “oiled up Statham” scene from the very first movie but there are some pleasing moments like, for instance, a bit of action in a confined space involving pulling out drawers as part of the combat. The hand combat also doesn’t seem out of place with the style of choreography seen in the other three movies, so that’s pretty cool.

The story focuses on a small group of prostitutes who are trying to regain their freedom after many years of working for a ruthless boss and the way they do this is to first kidnap and then put in peril the life of Frank Martin’s father, Frank Senior, so they can acquire Frank and his “special skills”. Now the ladies are pretty fantastic as strong but manipulating characters, it has to be said... but it’s the character of Frank’s father, played as entertainingly as possible by a guy called Ray Stevenson, who is the real star turn here. It’s pretty heavily inferred that the character is some kind of super spy who has just retired and is collecting his pension... and Stevenson does this as a convincingly sophisticated, self confident James Bond like character in a way which gives some of the various Bond actors over the years a run for their money. There were times in this movie when I thought... “Oh, wow! If only Jason Statham and Timothy Dalton had played these two parts” and, while that would have been glorious, I think it’s a testament to both Ed Skrein and Ray Stevenson that they manage to work this angle together so well. There’s some really good chemistry between the two of them and the writing of the father is very much something Stevenson can get to grips with... he knows what expensive wines to buy and he knows how to keep someone alive using only sugar and cobwebs. No really... there are some nice little touches in the writing on this one.

The one thing which confused the hell out of me was the follow on from the last movie, which it doesn’t have in terms of the way the characters are left. By the end of the third film, which takes place contemporary to its release in 2008, Frank Martin had a new, regular girlfriend. In this movie she’s not mentioned although the timeframe is still right for that to happen. The Transporter Refuelled starts off with a sequence set in 1995... before jumping 15 years to the main action of this story, which dates it as being set in 2010. So some mention of the female lead from the last film would have been useful, I would have thought. Especially since some of the phones and gadgetry being used in this film dates way after the year in question. So already we have some bizarre anachronisms cropping up.

I read that the producers are treating this movie as a reboot rather than a sequel which is a shame, in a way, because it kind of makes it hard for Statham to sign back on board if he should ever want to. That being said, the new guy does a pretty good job so that’s possibly not going to be too much of a problem if the studio can still get good box office for this one... which is presumably a much harder sell without Statham on board. The fact that they’re treating it as a reboot, or even a partial reboot, is brazenly included in the title of the movie, The Transporter Refuelled... which might possibly be the first time a film has featured its status within its title, as far as I can remember. Anyone want to conform or refute that in the comments section?

Either way, I guess the reboot status partially justifies jettisoning the girlfriend and the French police inspector and, lets face it, the series continuity in this is way better than in something like, say, the Daniel Craig Bond movies from Casino Royale to Skyfall... which seem to make no sense whatsoever in terms of continuity as a whole or even amongst themselves, a lot of the time. If you like the previous Transporter movies then, fear not, The Transporter Refuelled, amazingly, doesn’t let the side down and, though you might miss Statham at first, the new guy does a good job with the role. You never know, a fifth outing might be on the horizon if this one goes down okay with the cinema or home video markets. I kinda liked it and if modern action movies are your thing, this one’s definitely worth a look.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Visit

Visiting Rights

The Visit
2015 USA
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I guess there’s a kind of spoiler 
by ommision in here, in some ways.


So here I am again reviewing another M. Night Shyamalan movie and having a bit of a bad time with it because he’s a director I really admire but he seems to be caught up in this trap of making something similar, in people’s expectations, to old episodes of The Twilight Zone and, while there’s nothing wrong with this... it has to be said that his films set you up so that, when you watch them the first time, you know there’s a twist coming. Unfortunately, they’re always so easy to see way before they happen. The Sixth Sense, for instance, is something that most audiences would twig about twenty minutes into the movie. The Village was even worse in that it takes a few seconds to see the ending, when the second, reverse angle of the opening shot kicks in. So that can be a problem.

And, unfortunately for this director, who really does make great and interesting movies, the other side of that coin he now seems almost doomed to perpetually flip is when he doesn’t bother having a twist in the movie at all... like Signs, for instance. It was a great little film from what I can remember of it but I was distracted the entire length of the movie trying to figure out what the twist was and, when there wasn’t one... I just felt kinda cheated and like I’d been wasting my time, to be honest. Again, not Shyamalan’s fault as it’s the expectations set up in the audience which has done him in for making films which are held up to that kind of scrutiny. For me the most succesful of the ones he’s directed himself was Unbreakable.

Alas, The Visit is another lesson in how to not get fooled by M. Night Shyamalan’s twisty movie making. Although, to be fair, he really does try to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience with the blatant introduction of ideas suggesting lycanthropy, demons and aliens... the very introduction of those elements into the dialogue of the film renders them immediately powerless as options for what the twist ending of this movie is but, by then, it’s far too late and pretty much everyone, I would have thought, would have worked out just what the heck is really going on in this story of an estranged mother’s children going to visit the grandparents they’ve never met, while she goes off and does her own thing for a week.

In truth, there were a dozen ways to have ended this story but Shyamalan decides to take a route less interesting and more humdrum in the way the storyline goes, peppering it with clues enough for you to work it out in such a clumsy way, sometimes, that you wonder if, in fact, they are not more red herrings. By the end of the movie, you’ll realise that this is not a horror film at all and something much safer and, perhaps, a little less special than what you might have hoped for. The dead giveaway for the whole thing is when the camera on the eldest of the two children’s laptop gets damaged... that kind of says it all, I think, in terms of where the writer is going with the ending.

It’s still fairly well constructed in terms of the visual content and the editing, though, and the director makes full use of the fact that it’s a film shot as a documentary (yeah, it’s similar to a found footage movie in that respect) and all done through the camera eyes of mostly the two young children, one of whom is shooting the aforementioned documentary. Because it is shot like this, therefore, Shyamalan can sometimes get away with inserting an establishing shot into the film, since the fictional director of the piece could, also, easily do that. It has to be said, though, that despite the pedestrian subject matter of the story, as it turns out, the director still does manage to deliver edge of the seat tension when it comes to the antics of Pop Pop, played by Peter McRobbie and, especially, the personae of the grandmother, played with carefree creepiness by Deanna Dunagan.

A hide and seek sequence under the house, for example, is especially intense and everything in the film seems set up to make the most of the little moments by bringing scarifying sequences, which turn out to be something completely different, to the table. These allow the small sequences, such as the oven cleaning scene which is the punchline to the trailers put out for this movie, shine in relation to the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the terrific performances of everyone here, including the two main child protagonists played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (who are absolutley brilliant) doesn’t succeed in lifting the film out of the rut it gets stuck in for the last third or suceeed in distracting too much from the direction that the story heads in by the end of the film.

Another big thing missing, and this is again due to the nature of the format the writer/director chose to shoot this movie in, is my main pleasure in seeing a new Shyamalan feature... that of the musical score. His regular collaborator is James Newton Howard and the composer always, whether the film is a good ‘un or not, manages to knock out a truly amazing score for this director’s films. Alas, a couple of “found tracks” are all that are included in this movie but, it’s what would work best for the credibility of the film, to be sure, so one can hardly blame Shyamalan for doing this. I’m sure most people would have gone with that decision given the format the film is trying explore.

And that’s my really short review of this one done. It’s not a terrible film, for sure, and I reckon most people who choose to see this thing at the cinema will not go away feeling like they've wasted their time. There are some nice little visual shock moments and some small comedy moments, too, which work pretty well. A lot of people will have fun with this to some extent, I am sure, and I think this is always a director worth crossing over the road for, just to see what he’s up to next. Not a film I can ever imagine revisiting myself but not a total loss either, as long as you don’t expect any kind of revelation at the end. I’ve read a review on a high profile film site which accused the movie of having a lot of plot holes. Pondering that, I think that’s not an accusation that holds much water. Some things, such as the granny freaking out over the possibility of having to impart certain information, for instance, doesn’t contradict things too much when you realise the bigger picture, as evidenced by a key photograph towards the end of the film, for example. There are some valid cinematic moments in here, I think, even if they might not make sense right away when you reflect on them later. So, yeah, The Visit is an interesting film rather than a mind blowingly good one but, there’s no crime in that and I’m kinda looking forward to seeing what Shyamalan does with his next one, for sure. This one didn’t do too much for me though.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Saint Takes Over

Tomb’s Raider

The Saint Takes Over
USA 1940
Directed by Jack Hively
RKO/Warner Brothers Archive 
DVD Region 1

And, once again, I’m back into the process I started a couple of years ago on this blog, that of rewatching all of The Saint movies. This one is called The Saint Takes Over and is the first one, as far as I can make out, not having the direct writing influence of the character’s creator and scribe, Leslie Charteris. The previous movie was also not based on a Charteris novel but it did have his involvement in developing the script... which was a surprise to me considering the gimmicky nature of the previous outing, The Saint’s Double Trouble (reviewed by me here).

Now it always makes me scratch my head when the makers of films based on the books of a prolific writer such as Charteris (there are so many Saint novels out there) choose to do their own thing with the writing rather than call on any number of a wealth of already great books involving the character but, there you go... maybe they got away with paying Charteris less for the use of the character rather than base it on one of the novels, who knows? What I do know for sure is that there’s no real drop in quality in this one.... although the Simon Templar character seems to be much more honest and playing up to the “modern Robin Hood” reputation he has earned in the fictional universe in which he exists. Perhaps to temper Templar’s lack of true criminal deeds in this one, George Sanders manages to play him, with the help of some well written dialogue, as still existing as that character with no drop in credibility at not “rubbing anyone out” or “thieving money”. Indeed, the one slight untruth he wishes to bring into play as a fiction created for the police is even exposed by the person he’s trying to protect in a scene right near the end of the film... but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers on this one.

The film opens, and I think this must be the first time in any of The Saint movies, with an animated version of Simon Templar’s famous stick figure at the beginning of a more standard credits sequence... accompanied when this animation is active, by the whistled version of the title character’s signature melody, composed by either the film’s “music director” Roy Webb or Charteris himself... depending on who’s story you believe (for more on this dilemma, see some of my other reviews of the earlier Saint films). I don’t know if an animated figure features in any of the later films in this series (I will know soon but I can’t remember from the last time I saw them all, decades ago) but I do remember they used to use stick figure animations on the end titles of the Ian Ogilvy TV series The Return Of The Saint... which also made use of that famous, musical jingle as an ingredient of its theme tune.

After the credits we see Sanders playing The Saint using his Sebastian Tombs identity and behaving in a less than welcome, forward manner on a cruise ship (which is something Sanders could always get away with in that he was pretty much typecast as “a cad” as an actor). The brunt of his affection, Ruth Summers, is played by Wendy Barrie, who also played the leading lady in a couple of the other George Sanders movies about the character. Bizarrely, she played a completely different character in each of these movies and it wasn’t until she followed Sanders into The Falcon series of movies, the following year, that she got to play a repeat character opposite Sander’s hero. The Saint saves her from a couple of card sharks and also gets to paraphrase the famous Dorothy Parker quote “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” with the line “Don’t go to bridge classes with men who wear glasses” here. This made me chuckle and I guess that must mean one of the film's two screenplay writers, Lynn Root or Frank Fenton, must have been a fan or, remembering the circles Parker moved in at the time, possibly knew her at one point.

We also learn in this sequence that the New York Police Inspector Fernack, played so wonderfully again by Jonathan Hale, has been suspended from activity by the police. In fact, he’s been framed by a collective, criminal ring of mobsters who planted $50,000 in his safe. Soon enough, both Templar and, in a quite obvious twist which I won’t comment on too much here because it deals with something which some people might still consider to be a ‘reveal’, Ruth Summers, plus the wonderful Paul Guilfoyle as new series regular Clarence “Pearly” Gates... are all working, one way or another (by the end of the movie), to clear Inspector Fernack’s name. This is proving difficult because, each time Templar and Fernack try to isolate one of the key witnesses to testify about the frame up, they end up dead and in such a way that it looks like Fernack has rubbed them out himself.

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot of this one because it is fairly simplistic but there’s more than enough to make up for it in the way of sparkling dialogue and the way it’s shot.

The film is full of loaded comedy shenanigans with Sanders and Hale bouncing lines off each other... with Fernack once more finding himself working with Templar when he really should be handing him in to the police as a key suspect. It’s fun to see him at a loss, too, when he complains at the start of the film that, now he’s been suspended, it feels funny not to be going into work. Fernack’s wife hands him the washing up from their breakfast and says, “Thats what you think is it? That's your mistake Henry. Youre just going to find out what real work is." Which is a nice, comic moment with a certain amount of truth I’m sure a lot of housewives and househusbands would clearly identify with.

The way the movie is shot is not overly creative but it’s certainly not nearly as dull as it could be. Asides from the great noir style lighting making full use of hard to see sets and landscapes, shadows and silhouettes, as was standard practice in the days of cinema when the directors weren’t afraid of leaving the lights off in scenes, there are also some nice touches which director Jack Hively gives the film to lift it out a bit where other, less conscientious directors, may well have left it a more mediocre concoction. He tends to use a lot of moving camera, for example, and in a scene where a character has to read from a paper, he has the character and his associate walk around the room to read from the paper, the camera following them to raise the level of subconscious interest in the visual style and thus aid concentration of the otherwise dull trotting out of plot points.

There’s also a nice bit of visual shorthand where two of the many villains of the film, although one turns out to be an ally by the end of the picture, are introduced by two big photos in a newspaper with a headline explaining their story function... backed up by some dramatic, sinister music which tells you right away that there is villainy afoot and the film makers would like you to associate that villainy with these two, for the time being. This is, obviously, a tried and tested formula for these kinds of movies and, although it’s slipped out of use... presumably for it’s quick fix, clichéd familiarity... it certainly contributes to the director’s overall speedy pacing of this movie... which is a valuable asset when you consider that these things were just a little over an hour in running time, presumably released as B-features, and you really did have to move quickly to try and cram everything in.

There’s also an interesting bit of ‘almost’ product placement here. At one point, Pearly Gates is reading a newspaper and it’s made very clear he’s reading the Dick Tracy cartoon strip in the paper. Later on, the same character is reading one of the actual issues of the era’s Dick Tracy comics. Now I did some quick research, through the usual channels, and it seems that although there had already been three successful Dick Tracy serials, put out by Republic in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1945 that the first of four stand alone films came out, released by RKO who also made this movie. I don’t know why it took another five years before a feature movie was made of the Dick Tracy character but the two references in this movie makes me wonder if they weren’t maybe already courting the rights to the character at this point. If anybody knows if that was the case or whether these two references were purely in the spirit of contemporary pop culture references, then please leave the info in the comments section below this review.

And that’s all I’ve really got to say about The Saint Takes Over. George Sanders and Jonathan Hale are both absolutely brilliant in this and ably supported by the kind of top notch character actors and actresses you would expect in this Golden Age of Hollywood movie making. Another thoroughly entertaining entry in the series and both Sanders and Wendy Barrie would return for just one more picture in The Saint series of films before jumping ship with the similar series of films about The Falcon character (yeah, don’t worry, they’re all on the pile to watch and review once I’m done with The Saint). If you like The Saint movies then this is definitely a corker and it certainly captures the spirit of the novels, barring those slight but skillfully hidden concessions towards the central character (possibly due to censorship issues and the Hayes code?) and fans of The Saint should definitely enjoy this one.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

American Ultra

Age Of Ultra

American Ultra
2015 USA
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
UK cinema release print.

Warning: One slight plot point spoiler.

I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for Jesse Eisenberg as an actor. It has to be said, though, in recent years, I’ve had much less time for him as Jesse Eisenberg the human being, due to some footage I saw of him where he seemed to be saying less than respectful, hurtful things to a person trying to interview him. Now, I’m not sure if that’s a black and white issue or what the backstory to that particular interview was, so I am doing my best to approach with caution on his status as a regular person, especially since his behaviour doesn’t really add up with other stuff he ‘does’ in real life. Thankfully, it’s not my purpose to give a summary of the actor in question’s character... whether good or bad. Actually, I’m not really sure what my purpose is, to be honest, but I can certainly say that, as a personality on screen... he can be a lot of fun.

American Ultra is a film very much suited to his personality type. Or at least suited to play around and defy your expectations of what a stereotype like this can be pushed into being in a certain set of situations, that’s for sure. It’s not like any other movie around in the cinema at the moment... which coming from Hollywoodland is both a surprising and good thing. It’s not the homogenised, cliché ridden, formulaic blockbuster you will be getting on the majority of screens at your local multiplex and that’s always going to give it plus points over most of its contemporaries in terms of quirkiness and appeal. Luckily for us, the cast of actors including Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and John Leguizamo (always nice to see him working) are all superb and help sell this, as does the director and the rest of the cast and crew... possibly somewhat against the odds when you realise how disjointed the script might have looked on the printed page (no, that’s only a guess, I’m speculating here people).

This is one of those movies which comes along once every few years and has that almost inherent quality of appealing to a small group of people (relatively, in film terms) and usually locks psychic antenna with audiences of a certain age... if I was still a teenager (alas, those weren’t the days) then I would absolutely be worshipping this movie and seeing it a gazillions times before buying it on home video and rewatching it, seated beneath a poster of the film of the same name etc. It seems like a really bad cliché, also, for me to use this analogy again because I’ve used it before for other films and I don’t want this expression to lose any of its weight but... I would say that American Ultra is the Heathers of the current teen generation and it will probably be absolutely loved by that section of the movie going public. It’s got that kind of cult appeal... not a term I am that comfortable with using due to its inherent contradictions within a box office context (there are no cult movies and if there were, we probably wouldn’t have heard of them)... that captures the zeitgeist like no other.

As a film the plot is simple... a stoner/loser type guy is really a killing machine created by the CIA and has a handler who has left the organisation because she loves him and who poses as/is his girlfriend. However, he doesn’t know any of this because he assumes his lack of memory is due to all the drugs he does. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic, success-seeking higher up in the CIA sees him as a risk and sends some people to eliminate him. Easier said than done though because he gets reactivated and goes on an accidental killing rampage every time somebody tries to kill him or his girlfriend as they attempt to flee the action.

This is a slightly simplified summary of the plot but it’s the basic nutshell of an outline and the film uses this premise to basically deliver a load of violence and drug addled humour wrapped up as a situation comedy where the situations are really f****ed up and the solutions to them usually end up as the path less travelled... most brutal. And it’s a blast... I had a great time with this movie and especially loved the vibrant colours and sense of movement the cast and crew were injecting into every shot. This one really connected with my inner teen and, though I found the musical scoring to be a bit less interesting than would normally work for me, it seems to be appropriate response to the swirl of chaos pictured on screen for the large majority of its running time. A running time which whips along at a very fast pace, there's no doubt about that.

Now there’s nothing truly surprising or astonishing about this movie, in all fairness.... it doesn’t push past any genaralised boundaries that other movies in a similar vein might have tried to do... but it’s blessed with being fairly well executed, so it doesn’t matter that it’s not taking you to places you’ve not seen before. It’s still fairly out there, though, in terms of its sensibilities and, being gifted with a constantly shifting menagerie of characters and events, you certainly won’t find yourself struggling to stay awake through this one. The editing is especially good because, bearing in mind the stuff which is going on all at once in this movie, I didn’t lose track of either the action or the plotting so... well... all I can say to that is that somebody is doing their job right.

Having said that, some of the violence seems to have been edited in such a way that it’s implying something out of sight of the camera rather than showing it in a few cases and I’m guessing that this movie was diplomatically pre-cut to avoid censorship issues before it got a cinema release. It looks like there’s a much harder cut of the movie waiting to be inflicted on an unsuspecting audience and, if I’m right, I’m guessing we’ll have a more extreme version of the movie to look forward to when this thing finally comes out on DVD and Blu Ray.

The one thing that did catch me off guard me about this movie is that it wasn’t based on a comic book... it really looks like it’s come out of the same “play with anything” kind of format that gave us movie adaptations such as American Splendour and Scott Pilgrim Versus The World... it certainly feels like it, in many ways. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that it achieves this level of substance too, in a way, because it can’t be easy to go through a sustained shoot of something this fragmented without having a previously successful template to reference and give you motivation on a daily basis.

At the end of the day I’d have to say that American Ultra is an all around great movie and something that most teenagers and twenty somethings will find right up their street. As for me... yeah, maybe I’m in touch with my inner child just a little too much but I loved it too and would thoroughly recommend it to most people I know. Go and see it while it’s still playing on the big screen folks... it’s better than most of the other stuff showing out there at the moment.

Monday, 7 September 2015

No Escape

Owen Native

No Escape
2015 USA
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
UK cinema release print.

When I got kinda interested No Escape via the trailers for it at the cinema a month or so ago, I had no idea that this was the director whose last two movies, both horror films, I’d rated so highly - Devil (reviewed here) and As Above So Below (reviewed here). The reason I wanted to see this is because I’ve never been a big fan of Owen Wilson when he’s been involved with out and out comedy but I’ve always really enjoyed his performances in films where he's toned it down into a straighter or quirkier role, such as a fair few Wes Anderson movies like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or his great turn in Woody Allen’s excellent Midnight In Paris (reviewed here). So I wanted to see what he could do in a straighter role and, to be honest, in a somewhat harrowing looking film about people under sustained threat.

And harrowing is right.

It’s not as disturbing as a lot of movies out there but, from something which has been pumped out of the Hollywood machine, I’d have to say that the film is pretty intense and ‘full on’ a lot of the time. Wilson, it has to be said, acquits himself wonderfully, carrying on playing his nice guy personae and staying with it as he and the family he has with him - a wife and two daughters - find themselves having to vacate their hotel and fleeing for their lives one day after moving to the Middle East for a new job... after the whole region rebels against Americans and are killing all foreigners on site... men, women and children... often in most brutal ways.

Another reason I wanted to see this was because Pierce Brosnan also has a good role in this and he’s playing somewhat against type. It’s a real eye opener for those of you who still close their eyes and see Brosnan as either of his suave Remington Steele or James Bond counterparts and, although the character does kind of go through to a certain kind of reveal you are expecting later on in the film, he really brings together a completely different kind of flavouring to the character than you would expect him to bring to the table here. This is Brosnan like you’ve not quite seen him before and he does a really great job here.

Now the story is, to be honest, filled with absolutely all of the clichés you would expect from it... there really are no surprises here and each twist and turn and roll of the dice that Owen Wilson and his family take to escape almost certain death or torture goes exactly like you think it would, even in terms of the sound design doing what you expect it too for some sequences. However, in this case it really doesn’t matter because the director’s constantly roaming camera, coupled with some very skilled editing and an ability to ramp up and sustain the tension and align your sympathies with the characters, despite the chaos you are being shown, is absolutely fantastically well done. It’s like looking at a well oiled machine of a movie which, in this case, means there are some moments in here you will find almost unbearable to watch for fear of what will happen to the people you have come to empathise with.

The actresses playing the two young daughters are pretty good too but the real standout of the show for me here was an actress I’d not seen in anything else before. Her name is Lake Bell and she plays Wilson’s wife and mother of their two daughters and, I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s a role you might at first overlook as being the clichéd stereotype it mostly is... but hold on, there’s more to it than that. While Bell plays a frightened mother, she mixes and balances that with the fact that, if you take a step back and look at the way the movie plays out... she’s actually one of the strongest characters I’ve seen in a while in a Hollywood movie and, although you might overlook it because Owen Wilson has a fair few scenes on his own, she’s actually the one holding things together and she sees a lot more action than Wilson... actually helping to save him from almost certain death in two sequences, which leaves her one up on him in the action stakes, I believe. She comes off really strong in this, mixing a kind of soft femininity with a deep survival instinct which kicks in and ensures she kicks backsides when she needs to, in order to keep her family surviving. It’s actually quite a feat and much credit to the writers for approaching her this way... and big cheers for Bell who plays it so well that she really sells it and, in many ways, becomes the least cardboard of the characters on screen.

So, yeah, all that and an interesting score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders which, while getting buried in a few places, is full of interesting orchestration and really helps unsettle the audience in certain scenes, where the visuals alone might not necessarily kick up the tension to what it is when you hear the score against it. The movie has also got a nice little epilogue which, without giving too much away, kind of strengthens the less overt message which the whole film has been telling you all along... this is about a mother protecting her children and she is the part of the family who brings and maintains life.

The one thing which did make me sit up and take note at certain points is the enormous amount of montage sequences, both before and after the inhabitants of the region start going after American blood. Sometimes they cue you in on the current mood of the population and other times they help keep the tension going but the director seems to use a lot of them. The most interesting thing about the montage sections, though, is that they’re really not there to save time. The sections are rarely shorthand for hours passing because they are sampling through such small amounts of time... it just seems to be a way that this director seems to like to work. Although they did pop me out of the experience a few times, they don’t kill the atmosphere at all and they just about work when these sections come up throughout the course of the film. Perhaps a bit heavy handed but it’s not the kind of movie I would have expected this director to take on anyway so perhaps his background in horror has given him this approach as a solution to shooting kinds of things before. So... yeah, if it works for him then why not? I’m pretty sure he, like most people I should think, will learn more about what techniques are and aren’t working for him with every film he makes. Some directors really couldn’t have pulled this movie off and made it as suspenseful as he does, I’m sure... he’s delivered a well made product for the Hollywoodland factory, and he deserves a lot of recognition for this.

And that’s about it, I think. Short review for this one, I know, but there’s not a heck of a lot to say about No Escape other than it’s action packed, unbearably intense in places and has some great performances from the three leads to help pull you in to the point where you’re anxious about the characters every time they just take a few steps out into the open. I wouldn’t exactly class it as essential viewing by any means but, for what it is, you are in for a bit of a ride if you choose to go and see this thing at a cinema, where this kind of movie works best. I’d certainly recommend it if action, suspense and upholding family values are your thing... just be aware that, although it’s not all that graphic, it is quite suggestively brutal in certain scenes. And well done to Owen Wilson for choosing to be in a film of this nature... he does a really great job in it. And talking of Owen Wilson... isn’t it about time that MGM and EON Productions realised that the straw-headed Texan character of Felix Leiter in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books bears an uncanny resemblance in type and build to this actor? What about it people?