Wednesday, 30 March 2016

British Cult Cinema - The Amicus Anthology

AA Meeting

British Cult Cinema - The Amicus Anthology
by Bruce G. Hallenbeck
Hemlock Books
ISBN: 978-0957676282

Once again, author Bruce Hallenback gives us a book about an aspect of British Cinema history which isn’t very often covered, in a fairly inexpensive reference work put out by Hemlock Books. Now, it has to be said, I was mistakenly expecting this book to be about the history of Amicus studios, something I know next to nothing about and was therefore thinking this to be a quick primer in the development of the studio. Not so, in fact, although in some ways you could say it does do some of that job. Primarily, though, British Cult Cinema - The Amicus Anthology is doing exactly what it says on the cover, which is giving a unique and fairly charming overview of the specific anthology films which Amicus put out over the period they were in business... all of which were horror anthologies, of course.

Now, I’ve never seen any of the movies in this book while I was at an age that I can actually remember them now (I’m sure I must have seen over half of them when I was about 7 or 8 years old) and so one of the nice problems to have with a tome of this kind is that Hallenback gives some good descriptions, including the weak and strong points, of a number of films that I now have to somehow find the money to be able to purchase them all. A few of them, to be fair, I already have sitting on the shelf in a ‘to watch’ pile but even in terms of the ones I already have, I believe there are some nice new, restored and uncut Blu Rays coming out or already in UK stores... so I will have to find some cash from somewhere to give a few of these things their due.

As he did in his tome British Cult Cinema - Hammer Fantasy And Sci Fi (reviewed here), Hallenback starts off by first giving the reader an overview of the specified film format as it was before Amicus Studios started churning out their productions. So you’ll find a chapter highlighting films such the famous (infamous?) Dead Of Night in here. It’s always good to have some historical context thrown into the mix and to root the subject matter in and the writer does a fine job of picking out interesting highlights (and lowlights) over the years before then giving us a brief history of the originations of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s Amicus Studios and the financial state they found themselves in before the first of these was ready for the cameras to roll on. After this, he goes on to detail each of the Amicus anthology movies in turn, starting with a film I must get around to seeing soon, Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors, assigning a new chapter to each film.

Of course, this experienced writer (it looks like he’s written a fair few of these types of books for Hemlock over the years) knows very well about giving the reader context for the specific movies he is bringing to life here, so you will also know what some of the other key Amicus films were being made at around the same time as the ones highlighted in this volume. More importantly, he gives you a handle on the script process and the development of each project for the films in question.

For example, since a lot of the stories in these anthology films started off as short stories by famous writers such as Robert Bloch (most popularly remembered as being the writer of the original novel Psycho, which Hitchcock made famous) or comic strips in the infamous EC Comics, he also gives you examples of the original works which inspired the ‘episodes’ contained within each film, often pulled and boxed out by the designers of the book. I was actually a lot less impressed with the design on this one than the actual writing but the principle of execution for the layout is sound, at least. Hallenback even, to a certain extent, goes on to compare what ended up on screen with the original source novel and sometimes script and highlights the differences, which is handy.

The writer also details the more prominent career points of the various stars in these films which I found most enlightening, especially in the case of Geoffrey Bayldon. I originally knew the actor on television, when I was a nipper, in the title role of a show I used to love, and which I’m sure many of my readers must be familiar with... that of Catweazle. Years later, he became as much loved by the young un’s in the regular role of The Crow Man, opposite Jon Pertwee’s Worzel Gummidge. For years, growing up, I was wondering why nobody had thought of offering Bayldon the role of The Doctor in one of my favourite TV shows, Doctor Who. Well, all I can say is it took this book for me to find out that Bayldon had, indeed, been twice offered the role of The Doctor, once before William Hartnell established the role and again before Patrick Troughton took over from him and, each time, Bayldon had rejected the offer. It’s a shame though and I wonder if,  with hindsight, the gentleman in question regrets his decision nowadays... I think he would have been just right for the part.

Anyway, I digress. Also, for each movie covered here, Hallenback lists any changes for markets once the product was finished. Being extremely interested in censorship issues myself, this information is worth its weight in gold... especially useful for fairly active DVD and Blu Ray buyers researching which versions of the films to get from which countries, so as to get the fullest print possible. The writer also gives a brief synopsis of the separate stories in each of these films - so beware there are spoilers - and also goes on to excerpt extracts from reviews and so forth in order to give the reader an idea of the critical reaction to each work, before also going into how strong the box office was for each offering.

And so the book goes on, with a chapter on all of the Amicus anthologies (there really weren’t all that many of them) and also some very close relations to them where one or the other of the partners was involved in a similar product which didn’t, for whatever reason, carry the Amicus name. Which is also good to know.

To finish the book, Hallenback goes on to detail the most prominent ‘Horror Anthology’ films which hit the screen since the end of Amicus’ reign of ‘cinematic terror compilations’ and so you’ll also find movies such as The Monster Club and The Twilight Zone The Movie detailed in here. Again, this section is equally full of facts about the productions and I, for instance, had no idea how many years had passed since The Monster Club was ‘in the can’, so to speak, before it was released on UK shores. We knew nothing of the long delay at the time and I can remember seeing it in cinemas over here in the 1980s.

So there you have it. Bruce Hallenback gives us a truly entertaining and, at least as importantly, enlightening tome on the Amicus horror anthologies such as Tales From The Crypt, The Vault of Horror and Tales That Witness Madness. If you’re into British horror than this book, like more than a few by the same author in this series, I suspect, is an indispensable tome to have on your bookshelf. Not the best looking book in terms of design but, in terms of sheer information imparted by someone who’s obviously enthusiastic about his subject matter, worth its weight in blood and bone.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar

Brit Israel

Jesus Christ Superstar
USA 1973
Directed by Robert Stigwood
Universal Zone B Blu Ray

“If you strip away... the myth, from the man,
you will see, where we all, soon shall be.”

You know, people who know me well know I could not be said to be a religious person. I have no problem with accepting the ‘possibility’ of a God in some form or another but in terms of religious belief... well, for all its variations and censorship issues, it’s just a man made concept designed to help keep the masses in order. Not my thing.

However, if you’ve never seen (or as importantly, heard) Jesus Christ Superstar because you think it’s in some way a religious treatment of the tale then you really need to think again, do yourself a favour and maybe read the rest of this review before you dismiss it. After all, how many pseudo-Religious epics do you know that have Romans wielding machine guns, drugs, prostitution and tanks rolling in as a calling card? Also, there’s a reason why members of the clergy were handing out flyers and trying to stop people going in to see various productions of this thing in its many forms, back in the 1970s... and I’ll get to the tone of that soon enough.

Jesus Christ Superstar started off life as a rock opera concept album by British composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. It was an amazing work in that it didn’t cow-tow to popular depictions of the roles in various religious texts over the centuries and instead looked at the myth (or however you want to describe it) as a down to earth study of the psychology of, primarily, the relationship between Jesus and one of his disciples Judas Iscariot. It very quickly became a sell out Broadway and London show based on that album and then went on, in 1973, to get the inevitable film adaptation by Robert Stigwood, with a screenplay by Melvyn Bragg.

Shot on location in Israel, the film starts with the overture, which brings some of the catchy themes into the foreground, as it pans through the ruins of a temple. As it really gets going we see a coach arrive. The players and crew, all in contemporary dress, exit the coach and get out, unload some equipment, get into costume and generally get ready for their unique version of the Passion play. The film then continues strongly with Carl Anderson’s Judas Iscariot, in an almost perfect left-of-centre composition, sitting on a rock watching them all set up while he starts singing the opening number, Heaven On Their Minds. This really sets the scene for the kind of alleyways this particular look at the legend goes, with hot lyrics in this number like “I remember when this whole thing began, No talk of God then... we called you a man” and “Well your followers are blind, Too much heaven on their minds...”

It’s a great song and the whole thing is done with panache, leading into great numbers like What’s The Buzz? and Everything’s Alright. Unlike some versions of the story, Webber and Rice have no problem calling a spade a spade when it comes to things like, for instance, Mary Magdalene being a former practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, as Judas is quick to point out with lines like “It’s not that I object to her profession... but she doesn’t fit in well, with what you teach and say.” Indeed, Mary, played here beautifully by Yvonne Elliman, is also quick to point out her history in what was one of many quite controversial lines in the show/album/film, contained in this case in her signature song I Don’t Know How To Love Him, when she sings “I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways...”

Jesus Christ Superstar is also not a version of the tale that’s afraid to show the cracks in the myth, or chinks in the armour of the religious pretension that binds it up. Indeed, when Judas criticises Mary’s use of 'fine ointments' on Jesus when it could have been used to raise money for the poor, Jesus, in actor Ted Neely’s wonderfully powerful vocals, sings a reply which sounds pretty much like something the current British Government would say... “Surely you’re not saying, we have the resources, to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got!” Hmmm, now who does that remind me of?

The whole thing is full of clever lyrics and little throw away lines that come back to haunt you later on as being really quite something special. Like the lines in the song This Jesus Must Die...Singer 1: No riots, no army, no fighting, no slogans. Singer 2: One thing I'll say for him, ‘Jesus is cool!’.” And, of course, it really helps that a lot of the songs are just plain funky, catchy tunes with rocking guitars and amazing orchestrations going on with them. It’s a bit of a musical masterpiece, truth be told, and if Lloyd Webber had done nothing else, and I don’t like a lot of his stuff to be honest (although Cats and the original version of Tell Me On A Sunday are pretty amazing), then he would still deserve the kind of reputation he has these days on the strength of this one musical. The brilliance of both the lead characters in one song using the derogatory terms of each other’s names in the actual situation of them being what the words have come to mean, personified, is phenomenal...

Jesus: “You liar, You Judas!”

Judas: “What if I just stayed here and ruined your ambition. Christ, you deserve it.”

It’s pretty good stuff, when you reflect on it in the context of the song and in the moment. You really need to hear it to get the full weight though.

Anyway, this film also brings the visual elements ‘to the table’ to match the absolute cleverness of the lyrics and scoring. The syntax of those elements, often working with the score but sometimes cutting against them to push a point, is nothing short of brilliant and bits you would think an editor might not be able to get away with, work really well. For instance, following one set of dancers as they jump up and then actually freezing the frame for a beat before it cuts to another group of dancers in the same formation coming down. It’s great stuff and the freeze frame is rarely seen as a force for creative expression in film and TV but in this movie it really is used to great effect. Another, for instance, would be the throwaway chorus line in Hosanna, when the crowd sing “JC. JC. Won’t you die for me?” and the camera focuses and then freezes for a few seconds on Ted Neely’s face while the song continues, as if to highlight that this might be when Jesus begins to see the writing on the wall, as far as his final fate is concerned. It’s great stuff and, again, it shouldn’t work but it just does.

And slow motion, for goodness sake! It’s rare that you see slow motion used well in anything but here, Stigwood manages to use it in a way which actually enhances certain moments and, in some cases, brings the full weight of terror hiding beneath the lyrics and visuals to the foreground, despite the up tempo music which is underscoring the action. Mary dragged away as Jesus is being whipped to a phenomenal piece of scoring springs to mind as an example of this.

I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this one, I have to admit. The idea of bringing the contemporary elements with the coach, guns, tanks, planes etc is all great. The sobering commitment to not turn away from demonstrating the political agenda of Simon Zealotes who wants Jesus to “Add a touch of hate at Rome”. Even the sheer ‘weight of numbers’ as Jesus rejects the pleas of the lepers is actually quite overwhelmingly horrific, when you take a step back in your mind to think about it after the fact. Like I said, I’m not a religious person, but when Christ throws the pimps, prostitutes, money lenders, drug dealers and various trading stalls out of the temple, one has to think about modern churches and cathedrals like Canterbury and such like, which have cash exchanges and expensive gift shops residing within. You have to wonder, if a Christ figure did actually exist, what he’d think of all this going on now. I don’t think he’d be all that pleased with the idea that you can buy fudge and bookmarks in his alleged father’s name, to be honest. But I don’t think I’ll say more about that here.

So there you go. Not much more to say on this one other than it’s a bit of a masterpiece work... first as a concept album, then as a stage production (I remember seeing this when I was about seven years old in 1975... I think Paul Nicholas was doing it at the time) and then as this fabulous movie production. The visuals will have you spellbound and scenes like the sudden montage of religious crucifixion art suddenly popping up in the middle of a song will sober you up quick, even while the incredible musical score will still have you tapping your toes all the way through. If you’ve never seen or heard this one before and have been put off because you think it will be a preachy, religious experience... well, it certainly isn’t that and I’m sure many people will see it as the absolute opposite, actually. There are no miracles to be found in this version of the ‘story’ and no resurrection at the end... although there is a sequence which may or may not (you decide), take place in Jesus’ head as the angel of Judas sings the title number at him while questioning his judgement and actions. It’s good stuff. But don’t take my word for this one because it’s a pretty cool movie and you need to make your own mind up about it... and whether or not you want to see it, for that matter. I’d thoroughly recommend it and, frankly, it’s got some really cool guitar riffs and lyrics in this one. You know where I stand on this... it’s a work of art. And I like good art. Now where do you stand?

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Diana’ther Day

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice
(aka Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice)
2016 USA
Directed by Zack Snyder
UK cinema release print.

I had it all worked out that I’d deliver a scathing critical blow by calling this review The Brave And The Dulled when I came to write up this movie. However, after having seen said movie, I realised that was impossible because, contrary to both my own expectations based on the awful previous movie, Man Of Steel (reviewed here), and the negative reactions by the press... not to mention terrible word of mouth online... it turns out that Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice is actually a pretty good little movie. It has a few problems, for sure, and you can bet I’ll be pointing them out in a minute, but...  ultimately, it’s both a vast improvement over director Snyder’s former Superman movie and it delivers a nice spin, although not an original one, on some of DCs flagship characters. I’ll fess up and say I’ve seen almost all of the director’s previous movies and Man Of Steel is the only one I didn’t like... so I’m happy that this movie sees a certain ‘return to form’ for the director. At least as far as I’m concerned.

So the good stuff here is that the film doesn’t change or in any way pervert the characters like the previous film did... and fans of Batman who are saying it does, really need to look back to both the character’s origins and, also, the history of comic books, for a little enlightenment there. I count myself as an ardent admirer of the character over the years and this certainly does him justice. Also, the problems in the last film of Superman making the decision to kill General Zod and also not being able to stop gazillions of innocent people being killed are used as a motivator on the plot point on this movie’s ‘bout of the century’ and the weight it’s given in the script does make amends, somewhat, for Snyder’s choices on Man Of Steel. Although Superman still doesn’t wear his underpants on the outside here and that’s a detail that definitely needs some correcting.

Okay, so I can guess that some non-comic book fans or, more, people who don’t know the rich legacy of multi-character cross-overs, don’t understand the politics of character ‘team ups’ and I can imagine a lot of the movie going feeling short changed on this movie over what is, frankly, a little punch up towards the end of the story between the two title characters. But it is a greatly misleading title and one which, I’m sure, a lot of comic book fans discounted as being in any way truthful very early on in the marketing of this movie... especially when the subtitle Dawn Of Justice was added. Now, personally, I think they should have stuck to the legacy of the two characters crossing over because, after the first few times they did it in one or other of their comics, back in the 1940s I seem to remember, they were doing it a lot under the title World's Finest... and that was a comic that ran for many decades, if memory serves me correctly. I wish the studio had been more honest and less ‘marketing monded’ with the general public and called it that. Perhaps, then, there’d be a few less disappointed audiences out there on this one.

Either way, this is how a comic book cross-over works in both the DC and Marvel Universes... and you already saw a little bit about how this plays on film in Marvel’s The Avengers (reviewed here). So the characters would meet and they’d basically start fighting each other over a disagreement or because they’ve been duped by one or more villains. This is even how it happened in the famous, first 'cross-company' oversized comic book in the 1970s... Spider-Man Vs Spiderman. The heroes will fight for a short while and then find the error of their ways and spend the rest of the time teamed up against their common villain/s. And that’s pretty much the way this movie works too... except the prelude to the fight takes most of the movie and leads up to a kind of prelude to the final act. But getting their is entertaining enough, even if the showdown is a bit of a damp squib of a battle.

Okay, so no surprises in this film and lots of nicely shot, nicely edited and well acted drama. It’s a cool piece of work with Henry Cavill still being a good fit for Superman... and with a script that helps him do that, this time around. Ben Affleck was always going to be a perfect fit for Bruce Wayne and he decides to play him very cynically here but it still works pretty well. Jeremy Iron’s Alfred is pretty cool too, and I prefer him to Michael Caine’s recent take on the character in some ways... although neither of these versions are in any way faithful to the original Alfred Pennyworth in the comics, it seems to me. Gal Godot as Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman is pretty great in this movie and... yeah, she kind of steals it by the final act, that’s for sure. Looking forward to seeing her in action in cinemas next year which presumably tells the story of her exploits in World War One, referenced in a photograph in this movie. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is a little off with his ‘madness’ it seems to me.... although he does have an interesting quirk where he invades the space of other characters regularly by touching them, which was interesting. Amy Adams is pretty cool and Holly Hunter is wasted but certainly knocks her role out of the park. All pretty good.

Okay... there are a couple of problems.

Right from the start the writers wisely gets through the whole Batman origin story by cross-cutting the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne with the discovery of the bat-cave, during the credits. Good. This saves time in the rest of the film and the director can hit the ground running. However, there’s a point in that opening which had me growling my head off until I realised that it had been mixed into a dream sequence (for the record, Batman can’t levitate) and this sets up the fact that Bruce Wayne has a lot of ‘dream state’ visions in this movie and it’s a way over-relied on ploy by the film-makers to access some beautiful scenes (at least one of which owes a very strong debt to Frank Miller’s classic Batman tale, The Dark Knight Returns) but it really is a ‘have your cake and eat it’ kind of scenario and the problem is that you can never tell if you’ve suddenly gone into a ‘dream moment’ or not. Which means a scene which seems like a foreshadowing of disaster, and may or may not return in a future movie, is not to be trusted and seems like a nonsense at the moment. So that’s a bit of a shame.

Another problem is the physics of this universe, which seem to have changed since the last movie. In that movie Superman warned Lois to move further back and then further still so he wouldn’t hurt her with the aftermath of him taking off to flight from standing still. Fair enough but in this movie, he can do it standing right next to her on a balcony with no warning and no consequences... doesn’t make sense, does it?

Okay, now four other members of the Justic League of America make appearances in this film, three of them small, and a larger role for Wonder Woman. The problem is that the sequence where the other three are shown means that in a scene set in water, later on in the film, you assume a certain other character will make a return appearance and, when he doesn’t, it leaves you a bit disappointed. Secondly, if the whole thing seems shoehorned in to give the DC cinematic universe something to quickly combat the slowly earned and built up Marvel Avengers movies to rake in the cash... well, yeah, it does seem like it and it does kinda hurt the film, to be honest. The exception being Wonder Woman who is carefully worked into the story right from the start and who appears naturally in a scene which shouldn’t have been used in the trailers because it’s such a great entrance.

Another problem is that there’s another very famous character, and I’m not talking about Wonder Woman, featured in the last trailer for the movie and as soon as comic book fans see that character, they’ll have another pretty good idea of just where the producers are going with this movie. Yes, they do make it a partial adaptation of a very famous Superman comic and yes, we are left with an ending to the film that none of us really believe, and with good reason. There’s no post credits scene in this movie but viewers would be advised not to blink as they get to the end of the very obvious final shot of the film.

Okay, what else? Well, for a two and a half hour movie, the action is flat and minimal. Personally I don’t mind that but I think some audiences are going to be disappointed with that. It’s not great fun, nor probable when you think of the way Batman’s ‘gun’ works, that Superman can be taken down so easily in certain scenes. The physics seems slightly ‘off’ but it’s okay, I guess... just not very interesting. A bit dull. But it serves the story so, what the heck.

Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score (plus a load of others if you read the fine print at the end of the movie credits) is not terrible in that it at least builds upon the leitmotif that Zimmer used in the previous film and their are definitely some thematic elements for the other characters. Wonder Woman’s one is kinda interesting. I haven’t listened to it as a stand alone score as yet but am hoping to give the CD a spin once I’m done writing this. I need to revisit the original score again too, after it started growing on me when I rewatched Man Of Steel last week in preparation for this movie. It doesn’t hurt the film and seems appropriate, pretty much. So that’s all cool. I’m seeing Zimmer in concert next month so it’ll be interesting to see if he does any of this score then.

Okay, that’s about it. There are some nice references for comic book fans such as the nod to The Mark Of Zorro (augmented here with Excalibur) as the film playing before Bruce Wayne loses his parents and a nice dig to audience members such as myself who prefer the Superman character rooted in the values of his origins in 1938. This kind of thing is always good and doesn’t hurt the film either. Other than that... not much else to say. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a far better movie than I was expecting and certainly helps fill in the crater left by Man Of Steel. There’s a scene where a character from the first film returns which might annoy some people but I’m trying hard not to put spoilers in here so won't address that now. All in all, though, I think some people will like this a lot more than most of the critics and I reckon its something you just need to take a chance on, truth be told. I’m glad I didn’t get putt off seeing it... although I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Pleasantly surprised, though, so that’s good.

Friday, 25 March 2016

The Boy

Brahms, La La Boy

The Boy
2015 USA/China/Canada
Directed by William Brent Bell
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoilers.

Well this is a bit of a shame. I was all up for a creepy, haunted doll movie after the 2014 film Annabelle (reviewed here) turned out to be such a disappointment in this sub-genre... especially after it was a spin off of one of the greatest modern horror movies ever made, The Conjuring (reviewed here). The trailer to this one looked deranged enough and had some nicely atmospheric moments which compelled me to take a look at the cinema, even if just to find out if either of the endings to the movie I had in my head, due to the way the trailer was edited, were the correct solution to the on screen mystery.

So off I went and I would normally, at this point, be very happy to say that The Boy completely went in a different direction and took me by surprise... if it wasn’t for the fact that the direction it does go in is such a mis-step that it completely destroys the atmosphere of suspense and lurking dread that the rest of the film had been working so hard and successfully to achieve. And it’s a pity because, frankly, right up until the last twenty minutes or so of the film, the audience I saw it with were completely going with it.

If you’ve not seen  the trailer, the plot of The Boy is about a woman called Greta, played by Lauren Cohan, who has come to England to escape an abusive ex-boyfriend, taking on a job as a babysitter/nanny for a while at an old mansion sized house. However, when the parents, who are about to go off on holiday, introduce her to the young ‘un in question, who is called Brahms, they introduce her to a doll. The parents act and talk around the doll as if it’s alive, somehow embodying the spirit of their eight year old boy who died in a fire and they have a list of duties which they expect Greta to follow while she is left ‘holding the baby’, so to speak. Greta thinks the two of them are fruit loops already but it’s easy money and suits her needs to be out of the USA while her ex pursues her by force, so she’s happy to take the money and go through the motions.

However, when she is left alone, it becomes clear that something else is going on with The Boy and the supernatural seems to come into play. Kinda. Perhaps. Oh, look... although this film uses the visual syntax and grammar of a horror movie, it really doesn’t roam into that territory as far as I’m concerned. Sure, it uses jump scares and dream imagery to shock the audience at some points and the audience I was with, in particular, were really jumping at some of the quite obvious moments where this kind of cheap effect takes place... but as far as I’m concerned the film belongs in a completely different genre and not the one seemingly presented here, to be honest.

That being said, the performances are mostly pretty good with the main protagonist Lauren Cohan being ably matched by ‘the delivery boy’ Malcolm, played by Rupert Evans. I found the acting by Brahms himself to be a little bit wooden but, you know, I guess that’s to be expected. The acting is nicely supported by some roving camera work which does all the usual horror clichés too, diverting attention to edges and corners of screen so the audience can keep worrying about where the next fright is going to be coming from.

The big problem here, though, is the last 20 minutes of the movie. The writers/director decide to take the solution of having what has been going on in the film up until now as being some kind of red herring to set up with a twist but... it’s a really awful one and completely downgrades the movie, I reckon. And it was such a promising set-up too. However, I know I’m not the only one who thought so because, although the audience had been acting really jumpy and scared throughout the course of the movie, here they started to realise the over-the-top ridiculousness of the situation and began to openly laugh at the chase/histrionics at the tail end of the movie. It’s a real shame and, not only was it a lame solution to lumber the movie with, it also stands in a somewhat contradictory manner to the way some of the POV shots in the film were taken. I don’t want to say too much about that on here but certain technical details of those kinds of shots seemed somewhat at odds with the film’s final solution and it appears, in some ways, to make a nonsense of the rest of the film proceeding it.

Now, I heard the movie had a slightly troubled production and post-production, specifically on the latter in scenes which were cut from the movie in order to gain a softer, more money friendly rating. Now, for whatever reason those sequences were cut, one possibility I have to consider is that maybe there was footage missing from the final print that explained a few of the contradictions in the story/genre type as I found them... so it may not have been the fault of the director if certain elements of the story don’t jell as well as they could have. Even so, I think the end game on this movie was a huge disappointment. And the ending sequences just felt kinda tacked on. I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane  (reviewed here) the previous evening and, although that film does indeed have an additional ending sequence which brings it into the Cloverfield universe, at least it was a sequence which inspired terror in the audience. In The Boy, it was more apt to inspire laughter, as it transpired.

A saving feature of the movie is Bear McCreary’s score but I was less enamoured of this one than his two other recent masterpieces The Forest (reviewed here) and the aforementioned 10 Cloverfield Lane. His score to The Boy is less what I would recognise as the ‘McCreary sound’ but at least it’s appropriate to the on screen visuals and works okay as a stand alone listen, away from the movie. The music from the last act may resemble an 1980s, cheesy straight to VHS release from your local newsagent in tone but... like I said... that’s actually pretty appropriate to what we’re getting up on the screen during these moments so the composer does pretty well with the material he’s got to work with. I’ll certainly be spinning the CD a fair bit, which is more than I can say for the movie, when it gets a home video release... I won’t be watching this one again.

If you’re a fan of horror movies then the first three quarters of The Boy is pretty cool... but you might find yourself let down at the end. I can’t imagine anyone without an interest in certain 1980s sub-genres of mainstream thrillers are going to get a hell of a lot out of this one, however. Not something I could really recommend and it’s a real shame because I think the basic premise of this one works really well, up until a certain point. Not up to scratch though, at least for me, as far as scary doll movies are concerned. Approach with caution.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Under The Hood

10 Cloverfield Lane
2016 USA
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Mild spoilers plus some clearly marked large spoilers towards the end of the review.

You know, contrary to a lot of people I know, I really enjoyed the original Cloverfield when it was released back in 2008. I know some of my friends were put off by the found footage format (one of my friends, to this day, still refuses to watch it in case it gives her motion sickness) but I thought it was a truly excellent use of the shooting style in the choice to make an American kaiju eiga. In fact, I still feel it out-Gojiras the US Godzilla movie made just two years ago in being a much more fun and terrifying movie.

You could be forgiven, though, for not even realising that the new movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was  upon us since it was put together under such a veil of secrecy that it wasn’t until the trailer appeared less than two months ago that people outside of the studio and crew officially knew it existed at all. That producer J. J. Abrams was able to get this made in secret in this day and age of intrusive media saturation, perpetually fuelled by the studios themselves (more often than not, I suspect), is pretty unbelievable.

Okay, now first let me address issues about whether this is an actual sequel or not to the original Cloverfield because, I had a much better ending for this movie in my head after seeing the trailers and, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Yes, we know the film is a self contained thriller (not a horror movie until the last 20 minutes or so) that started life as something slightly different and had some new ‘Cloverfield’ scenes tacked on to the end. Unfortunately the film does seem like that too, a little, and I know one of my friends is going to love it up until the last act, where he’ll probably get really angry with it... so that'll be an interesting conversation. However, as far as I’m concerned, the film is a direct sequel to the original Cloverfield, even though I’ve seen people arguing about it on message boards as to why it certainly isn’t. Yes, there are elements about the last act which make no sense in terms of having the information about the original that we already have but... that was always one of the main points about the original movie... but there’s also a big link to the ‘baby monsters’ aspect of that original too and I think, since the clue is kinda in the title, people should maybe ponder more about why it’s called that and enjoy the ‘gaps’ in the story which allow for the movie to fall under the Cloverfield umbrella. After all, there are big gaps in Abrams’ own Star Wars: The Force Awakens (reviewed here) and nobody complained about that... oh wait, yes they did. Still, he’s obviously a producer who’s not against leaving something for the imagination and in this movie, he doesn’t seem worried about the director leaving it for the audience to fill in the blanks as best it can. I’ll come back to this last sequence, with spoilers, a little later in this review.

Okay, so I have to say right up front that I really loved this movie, almost as much as the monster fuelled carnage of Cloverfield itself, although it’s probably not fair to the writers and director to directly compare the two as they are vastly different kinds of movies. This one starts off with what, for me, is the best sequence in the film... the pre-credits and opening credits sections which, seriously, I think should be required textbook viewing for people studying movie making. Starting out with the always excellent actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing the film’s main protagonist Michelle. She’s someone who I’ve seen in a few of these genre pieces and, frankly, the opening of this movie is fantastic as she plays in what is, essentially, a  mini silent film. We see her breaking up with her boyfriend but just from her point of view and by long distance... we never see her boyfriend even once in the film, just hear his voice near the end of the movie and, really, that’s no spoiler because the context of that says very little about the status of the characters.

This is all accompanied by Bear McCreary’s amazing tour-de-force of a score and it’s edited so beautifully, as is the title sequence where Michelle's car is wrecked, probably deliberately, and the sound design drops out strategically to accompany title inserts cut in to freeze the action in your mind and enhance the trauma of it as the noise of the crash keeps returning. It’s a visceral piece of film making, very intense and quite wonderful. Now the rest of the film certainly lives up to this opening but, for me, this three or four minutes at the start were worth the price of admission on this thing. Absolutely what cinema is all about and the reason why I’ll definitely be picking up the Blu Ray release somewhere along the line.

Okay, so then we get to the rest of the film where Michelle is ‘rescued/imprisoned’ by John Goodman’s character Howard and has to live with him and a guy called Emmet, who has found his way to the bunker (for other reasons I won’t reveal here), played by John Gallagher Jr. And you don’t know what’s coming next people! If you’ve seen the trailer, that whole climactic moment where Michelle breaks the bottle on Howard’s face and goes to open the bunker doors to the outside world is... actually within the first third of the movie, more or less. So don’t go in thinking you know what’s going to happen next because... you more than likely just don’t.

As I said, Winstead is cool in this (like she always is) and Gallagher Jr does a good job with a half sympathetic character. John Goodman, though, is extraordinary as the ‘unhinged’ antagonist of the film... I don’t want to say too much about his character and his slowly revealed past but, honestly, this is not the kind of guy you want to stay locked in a Cloverfield-proof bunker with. Not by a long shot.

And the film continues on in a fashion which is quite intense, wonderfully acted, wonderfully shot and with a genuine sense of skill and competence shown by the director. The editing is really beautiful too... latching on to something Steven Spielberg seems to do in his work also, which is to manipulate both time and visual space, truncating and lengthening specific parts of certain scenes to wring the maximum amount of suspense out of them. This is especially true of the ‘mad rush’ to the bunker door set piece which I highlighted earlier... as the director stretches and compresses certain parts of that chase which will have most audience members on the edge of their seats, I suspect. And this tension keeps going all the way through the movie.

I noticed that, for the last 20 minutes of the movie, for instance, the guy in the audience siting next to me had his hand clamped over his mouth in fright the whole time... which is a pretty impressive reaction, in my book. And that last part of the movie, post-bunker, is where the film connects up properly to Cloverfield... and I’m going to reveal that here now so I can discuss it... so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now...

Big spoilers start here!

When Michelle gets out of the bunker she is chased by a smaller Cloverfield monster and also what look like Alien spacecraft. Now much argument surrounds the identity of both the monster and the spacecraft but it seems pretty clear to me that the creature is a slightly grown version of the ‘spawn of Cloverfield’ mentioned, or heavily implied, in the first movie. The aliens could be something to do with them but the way they release gas makes me think that they are possibly wanting to tranquilise the monsters so... either the monsters and aliens are coincidental to each other and are natural enemies or... the aliens have released the monsters on the planet. Either way, it’s clear to me that the monster is similar in style to the creature in the first movie and that’s good enough for me. The whole fun comes from rubbing the two story elements together from each film and speculating on the connection... at least until a third project maybe comes to light.

Spoiler ends here.

And there you have it. An incredible film and, did I mention Bear McCreary’s score being an absolute masterpiece? It certainly is, at least in the context of the film itself. I’ve yet to hear a CD of it but I’ll snap it up as soon as it gets a non-download release because it was absolutely amazing. This composer goes from strength to strength and I hope he gets a lot more high profile films because of this one. Truly brilliant.

So there you go. 10 Cloverfield Lane is, in many ways, a bit of a future classic. The acting, editing, music and story elements are all superb and I even didn’t mind the tacked on nature of the Cloverfield element, grafted a little clumsily but not as badly as it could have been. This movie is a definite recommend from me and I can’t wait to see what director Dan Trachtenberg does next. Nor to see another Cloverfield movie, to be honest. Catch it in the cinema, which is the perfect venue for this kind of movie, before it goes.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Six Years, 1100 posts

Six of the Best

Well... some of the better, anyway.

This post marks both my 1100th entry on this review blog and, more importantly, six years to the day since I first decided to sit down and see if I had enough mental stamina to write this thing and keep it going. Which I kinda doubted but, hey, I’m still here and, honestly, at my end of the telescope (late 40s), the years just tend to shoot by.

So I'm marking this post with a new piece of artwork (click on it to enlarge), which I hope you like. Not sure what to call the thing, to be honest. I started off with ‘Do Showgirls Dream Of Origami Unicorns?’ but maybe now prefer ‘The Showgirl And The Unicorn’. Either of which is probably better than ‘The Eye Of The Vagina’... especially since I reckon I can do a different piece to go with that title. Anyway, which title do you think suits it best (out of those two, please)? Let me know in the comments section, if you’ve a mind to.

Anyway, thanks, as always, for reading and sticking with me for however long you have been out of the past six years. It’s very much appreciated and I’ll try my best to keep it up.

All the best to you.


Friday, 18 March 2016

Area 51

Little Gray’s Hells

Area 51
USA 2015 (2009) 
Directed by Oren Peli
Pyke Enterprises All Region DVD

Warning: There are some major spoilers lurking in this one.

You know, I really like Oren Peli and his Paranormal Activity movies (apart from Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones - reviewed here ... which sort of failed miserably) and I did kinda remember that he was making Area 51 at some point... but I’d also forgotten about it. A friend pointed me in the direction of it as it only just came out a few months ago in some kind of ‘on demand’, non physical release (yeah, like I’d actually be interested in streaming anything you guys) and so I managed to acquire a ‘review copy’. Turns out, the film has been sitting on the shelf since its completion in 2009 and it’s not had a proper release in any way, shape or form apart from a few limited screenings and the aforementioned, non physical media... which doesn't count as a release at all, in my book.

I was interested to see the film has got bad word of mouth and people mostly think it’s not a good movie, for some reason. In fact, the one review I read sounded more like they were reacting to the movie the way I reacted to Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. However, I would like to humbly point out that my opinion of Area 51 is decidedly contrary to this. In fact, I found this to be a terrifying movie, if truth be told.

This is, of course, very much a found footage horror movie and, at the time this movie was actually shot, that approach to movie making in this genre certainly wasn’t as overused as it seems to be six years on from when this was initially made (although I’m hearing now there were some recent reshoots on this). Truth be told, a movie like this was always going to have great potential to scare me silly because of the subject matter... I had a few sleepless years researching this kind of stuff at one point and I feel fairly close to the obvious subject matter suggested by the title.

Unlike The Marked Ones, Area 51 mixes footage from multiple cameras of a bunch of young people who I actually didn’t hate. One of the group, Reid (played by Reid Warner), is the driving emphasis behind the mission as we see him disappear from a party he and his friends have been attending and then turn up again in the middle of the road hours later, suffering from missing time (a common alien abductee phenomena). We already know from fake interview footage which starts the film that, after this experience, Reid’s personality changed dramatically and his research led him to investigate UFO activity before he went away one weekend with his friends on a trip and... never returned. So, yeah, we have a little foreshadowing here, I guess, which is not too subtly done but, similarly, the found footage format does tend to disguise, or at least give credence to, a sloppier, more overt way of telling a story so it’s more than forgiveable in my book. People in real life are, it has to be said, mostly sloppy and overt.

There are some terrific sequences in this one including scenes of following a government employee, staking him out and then breaking into his home before almost getting caught. The suspenseful tension in this scene, which seems to be shot in the same house they used for the second of the Paranormal Activity movies (reviewed here), is quite palpable and this kind of “are they gong to get caught” dilemma is always something I find hard to sit through without a certain amount of anxiety anyway.

After stealing a security pass and then reuniting with the main female lead, Jelena (played by Jelena Nik), a character who’s father “committed suicide” due to his research into this stuff, one of the group is left in the car waiting overnight at the edge of Area 51 for a quick pick up while three of our ‘camera eye’ friends break into the facility at night. Now there is a certain lack of credibility in this sequence, in some ways, because you would imagine this place is a lot better guarded and secure than is suggested here. The kids break into this place easily and start roaming the corridors. The director teases us for a while by showing us alien technology, including the outside and inside of a flying saucer but also backs that up with scary looking case studies of dead humans who have met a nasty end at the hands of... whatever the government have in ‘the lower levels’. Then one of our intrepid three accidentally sets off the alarm and they get separated -  Darrin (played by Darrin Bragg) running around a few levels below the surface of the complex, while Reid and Jelena proceed to hurriedly penetrate further into the lower levels.

At this point the film becomes a chase movie with the three main protagonists trying to both evade the security guards in Area 51 while at the same time trying not to become victim to the brutal alien species in the base. The aliens are not seen that much and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I’m now thinking we see two different species of alien creature in the movie... or not see them, depending on your point of view.

Okay, it gets a little spoilery here so maybe don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know... The thing which impressed me with the slow, Dante-like penetration of the various levels below Area 51 by Reid and Jelena was that there is a kind of logical hierarchy to the aliens that they experience and it's the single mindedness of this follow through which makes me think that the thing chasing Darrin on the upper levels is from a different species. When Reid and Jelena come face to face with the famous, stereotypical Grays (presumably still from Zeta Reticula?), they are revealed to be just empty suits with zippers. One wonders who wears these suits... the handlers for the aliens or, I am guessing, the aliens themselves when they leave the base? They then come across some kind of machine which looks like a way of feeding blood to whatever is on the level below. When they reach that level they get chased out by half glimpsed things but then they escape through a pipe into a series of white rooms where Jelena is frozen in place and floats away. Reid gives chase, finds her and then they are both floated up to... an alien ship? Meanwhile, Darrin manages to just about escape with his life to the car but then... more of the same kind of thing.

End of spoiler.

The thing for me though, was that the hierarchy of that descent does, as I said, suggest a certain logic and a system put in place by both aliens and government working together... although the thing pursuing Darrin definitely is not something anybody wants loose, again giving credence to my theory that we are not witnessing just one alien culture at work here.

The whole film is done with 'shaky cam' style shenanigans, as you would imagine, but the sound design of the thing also nicely supports the effect of what the director is trying to achieve here... which is obviously to scare the pants off you. The general hubbub of the young protagonists reaches epic heights of noisy banter at some points, even when they are trying to stealthily sneak into Area 51 and, at first, this all really irritated me. That was until I realised that the director was using it to heighten tension through its absence in certain scenes... so when he wants to push the level of suspense right up to eleven, so to speak, everybody quietens down and we are left with one of the multiple camera viewpoints and whatever ambient sounds are put into the foley.

This is quite effective and, possibly, a natural thing to do anyway but he does it to a level where the polar opposite, when the kids are constantly talking, is something I would liken to being the audio equivalent of a director concentrating on the people in a shot and then, suddenly, shifting focus to concentrate on a small detail. It’s probably something done with sound design in a lot of movies and, certainly, there’s usually a slight ambient highlight like a low level hiss or some such effect whenever something is going to get scary when these kinds of found footage style, first person POV films are released. Maybe it’s because the tension in the room as I watched this was at the point when I was especially conscious of everything that was going on in the sound spectrum for the film. Either way, it sure was effective for me, I can tell you.

And that’s me done with Area 51 methinks. A somewhat maligned film in terms of its having no proper cinema release and something which I would have really enjoyed on a large screen, I have to say. At least I’ve got to see it now so I’m able to say that anybody who is a horror fan and into streaming films via Amazon and the like, should maybe have a look at this one while it’s available. It’s not the best of these kinds of films, for sure, but it certainly isn’t anywhere near the level of the bad ones and I found it a lot more effective than some of the movies of this nature released in cinemas these days. Give it a look sometime... you may find that it’s pretty good.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


New Lisa Life

2015 USA
Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
UK cinema release print.

Welcome to my very short review of Anomalisa, a film that I went into totally unprepared for... which is usually a good thing. I’d seen someone recommend it on Twitter and I liked two other films written by Charlie Kaufman... Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. All I knew about the film itself, however, is that it was not a children’s film and that it employed stop-motion animation in the pursuit of the story, as opposed to live action filming.

As it started, I realised my experience wouldn’t be a totally negative one, at any rate, because there is a line or two of dialogue referencing Darren McGavin as Kolchak - The Night Stalker... so I was pretty happy about that. Another thing that I was happy with, after about a quarter of an hour, was the dawning realisation that the main lead was being voiced by one of my favourite and much under-rated actors, David Thewlis. So this was all good. What I didn’t pick up on until I waited for the cast list at the end, however, was that the Lisa of the title, Anomalisa, was being voiced by one of my favourite actresses too... Jennifer Jason-Leigh... so this was all good.

Another point of note is that there are a large number of characters, many of them quite minor, appearing in the film but the entire voice cast of the movie is only three people in total. Of those three, Thewlis and Jason-Leigh only play one character each... which means all the rest of the characters in the movie, male and female, are voiced by another underrated actor, the original Francis Dollarhyde himself, Tom Noonan. So a curio of a movie and I would expect nothing less than that from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, to be honest.

However, that being said, I can’t say I was totally enthralled by the movie I saw, either.

The problem with the film for me comes not from the basic idea or the voice acting (the three are amazing, as you’d expect) and even, the ‘acting’ of the stop motion models is pretty convincing... you might even find yourself forgetting you are watching puppets at some points. The main problem for me was just that it was a little dull in places. It wasn’t because the story is quite down beat and depressing, dealing as it does with Michael (David Thewlis) who is staying in a hotel for a night before addressing an audience about the keys of customer service... I can handle downbeat just fine and often prefer that kind of movie over anything which feels false. It just didn’t really go into a totally unexpected realm until one nightmarish sequence when one of the characters turned out to be dreaming. I thought it was going to go full tilt into paranoia and fantasy at this point but... nope, it just came right back into the hum drum reality of the characters again, as Michael spends his evening having a kind of meltdown, one of the symptoms of which is his one night stand with the title character.

All that being said, however, despite my ambivalent attitude towards the on-screen shenanigans of the animated characters, I didn’t exactly hate it either and I was surprised to find the end of the movie had gone so quickly... the hour and a half of the screen time felt like a little over 40 minutes to me... so I must have been getting something out of it. Perhaps it’s my ability to easily put myself in the shoes of the central character which made the film a bit less lustrous in terms of plot or story content (not that I’m the biggest fan of story, either).

There is, obviously, much to recommend and admire in the film, though...

I’ve already mentioned the incredible voice talent but Kaufman’s regular composer of choice, Carter Burwell, provides an appropriate if, not entirely, memorable score... at least in the context of its mix in the movie itself. It's the craftsmanship of the models, however, which really stands out in this movie and, more importantly, the way their movements and mannerisms have been observed. Little throw away moments that people seem to exhibit in their day to day existence seem to be captured in the way the models move and react to both each other and their immediate environment. There’s a sex scene which, I’m reliably informed, was the longest thing to film and get right. It certainly shows it was laboured over because it’s a nicely observed sequence where humanity at both its best and worst comes together as two people try and capture their own personal lightning. It’s a nice moment in a film full of ‘moments’ but, ultimately, it brings no real peace to the main protagonist, Michael, and the next morning Tom Noonan’s voice is pitched against Jennifer Jason-Leighs saying the same lines simultaneously. This is a clear indication, as we are obviously experiencing things from Michael’s perceptions, that Lisa is maybe less standout and special in Michael’s world than he (or she) at first thought... which is a shame and one of many downbeats in the film which races towards an ending of... well not much closure. The only sequence in the movie where a kind of 'anti-closure' is given is the final scene of the film, which is the only scene in the movie not to feature Michael, as it happens.

Ultimately, I’m glad, as an observer of cinema, that I got the chance to see Anomalisa. It’s probably not going to set the world alight, I suspect, but it is interesting and shows us a juxtaposition of technique and content that, while not exactly new, is at least unusual and rarely glimpsed. Not something I would rush out to see again but fans of cinema might do well to at least take a little look at this exploration of humanity and, frankly, I want to see (and hear), David Thewlis in more lead roles. America seems to have really wasted his talent, in some ways.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The VVitch

2V Or Not 2V

The VVitch
2016 UK/USA/Canada/Brazil
Directed by Robert Eggers
UK cinema release print.

“There’s a creepy VVitch, in your neighbour’s wood.
Who you gonna call? Goat Busters.”
Traditional New England Folk Song

I’ve been looking forward to seeing The VVitch, subtitled A New England Folk Tale, for a while now, not knowing quite what to expect from it. I’d have to say that, what it delivered, while maybe not as over the top as the trailer at first seems to promise, is actually quite a nice little genre movie. However, before I go on to elaborate on this, I have to say that I was not seeing this film in the most ideal circumstances... bizarrely.

I saw The VVitch in my local cinema on the first night of its official UK run which, frankly, you would maybe be forgiven for assuming, as did I, that this would be the absolutely best place to see said film. Not so. Well, certainly if I’d have been in the cinema alone, it might have done the trick. Unfortunately, this film has got to have had one of the worst audience reactions I’ve ever been witness to. In terms of horror movies I’ve seen in cinemas, I’d had three audiences which stuck in my mind up to this point. The first was the original cinema run of the zombie spoof Return Of The Living Dead back in the 1980s, where the full house audience were collectively screaming and laughing throughout the movie in all the right places... a magical experience. The Blair Witch Project provoked a reaction in the audience of general disappointment, at least on one of the screenings I went to, although I really loved that movie also. The first Paranormal Activity film was the third one that sticks in my mind. It’s a great film, although, not that scary but I‘ll never forget the audience and the lady who ran from the front of the screen, screaming loudly as she dashed for the rear exit.

Well I can add The VVitch to memorable audience reactions in a screening. I was kinda enjoying the movie for what it was but, after about fifteen walkouts from the mid-point of the movie onwards, I began to notice that the audience were getting so badly behaved they were even talking back to the screen and clapping mockingly in certain sections. They started off at bored and ran the gamut through to generally ridiculing everything on screen as it happened... about the only moment which seemed to stun them was a small scene involving a crow which, I have to say, I didn’t actually myself find scary but which managed to shut them up for a minute or so. At the end of the movie and from the feedback I was hearing all around me, I think if they’d have been armed with something they were able to throw at the screen then I suspect they would have been pelting it for all it was worth.

Now, as I said, I quite enjoyed the movie but this didn’t make for the most ideal cinema experience in the world, to be honest. I was trying to figure out afterwards what set off a mass of nearly two hundred people (the film was pretty well attended) to act this way and I can only assume it’s the lack of shock/jump scares that customers have come to expect from modern horror movies combined with a certain intensity surrounding the lack of anything scary really happening a lot of the time that maybe caused the unrest. I’m not qualified in a psychological capacity to be able to fathom what caused this collective outrage, to be honest, but that’s my theory. For whatever the reason... it wasn’t pretty.

The film itself concerns a family of six: Kate Dickie (I’ve always had a soft spot for Kate) as the mother, Ralph Ineson as the father, the oldest daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (pretty much the main protagonist, given that it’s very much an ensemble piece), the next eldest brother Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, a very young brother and sister and a baby boy. Set in New England of 1630, the family are banished from their community due to, as far as I could make out, being too fervent in the practice of their Christian religion. So they take their leave and build their own small farm far from the people who have thrown them out, next to a wood. Of course, it’s a wood housing a witch, or so they believe.

One day, Thomasin is in the field next to the wood when the newborn suddenly vanishes, almost before her eyes. This is the first hint of a supernatural phenomenon in the film and it’s an important one, backed up by the appearance of a more tangible presence in the wood about halfway through the movie. This is because, later in the film, when we are witness to exactly the same kind of paranoid accusations in microcosm that bring to mind Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (not a favourite of mine, it has to be said), the audience does at least have some idea that there is, indeed, something uncanny going on. This isn’t a film about  hysteria... this is a bonafide horror film and those two sequences I mentioned are the main clues to begin with, along with certain visual signifiers which are strengthened by this knowledge.

For instance, the brilliant way in which the camera’s eye focuses on certain animals in the movie is disquieting. It’s as if the director is saying to us... look here, these are supernaturally possessed creatures and that’s what’s going on here. These are witches’ familiars, which feature in lots of tales of this ilk, and the camera brings the same kind of unmoving and sharp focussed intensity in the study of these creatures as it does when focussing unflinchingly on the various actors in this movie. So the goat which is featured so heavily on posters and in the trailers, known as ‘Black Philip’, is an obvious indicator of satanism afoot but it’s the rabbit which keeps turning up and fixing the camera with a stare which really works so effectively in some of the earlier scenes.

The acting by the cast mentioned above is first rate... and that even includes the two younger siblings Mercy and Jonas played by Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson. In fact, there’s a point in the movie when you wonder if you should really be hating these two or whether they are just victims of their circumstances like everyone else in the movie. When things start to go pear shaped at the end, the director leaves it to your imagination as to what exactly is their final fate.

Now, it has to be said that the content of the film as written is not, really, in any way scary, to be honest. For the majority of the time it’s more like a study of the breakdown of a family unit which just happens to involve a strong supernatural element in its genetic make up. What makes it scary in certain places... or at least unsettling... is that composer Mark Koven’s score is absolutely astonishingly good. Two of my all time favourite pieces of music are by composer György Ligeti (both were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in part, as a matter of fact), Lux Aeterna and his Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo-soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra (which I was lucky enough to catch in concert once). Koven’s score conjures up exactly that kind of atmosphere for The VVitch, perfectly unsettling the audience with a kind of presence of creeping dread which can then be ratcheted up to 11 when the choir comes on more strongly at certain points. Absolutely wonderful and the first thing I did when I came home on the Friday evening after I saw it was to place an order for the CD recording. I can’t wait to hear this one away from the movie... it’s going to get a heck of a lot of spins this year and might even end up being my number one pick of scores for 2016. Time will tell, I guess.

The end of the movie is pretty near perfect as well. Now the bizarrely behaved audience I saw this with seemed to be really complaining about the ending of this one right after it finished but, honestly, I can’t think why. I don’t want to give anything away here but the ending made perfect sense to me and it finishes at exactly the same point that I would have cut to the first credit. Perfect ending, which I obviously won't reveal here, with just the right amount of supernatural wonder combined with the celebration of falling from grace that I would have wanted from a story set up like this. No complaints from me here but plenty, as I already said, from the audience.

So there you have it. The VVitch is a pretty nice little genre piece which deserves to find its audience... an audience who obviously weren’t in attedance at the 9pm screening on the first Friday at the Enfield Cineworld. I can only assume these strange souls were unprepared for the atmosphere of intensity throughout the movie and reacted to it by ridiculing it out of their own lack of understanding of the kind of material that is rarely examined in the way that this movie does it. If you’re expecting a jump scare kind of movie then there are plenty of other, lesser horror films out there at the moment that can give you that... if you want something a little more sedately paced and honest in its intentions, however, then maybe you should go check out the Va Va Voom of the Va Va VVitch. I'm glad I did.

Friday, 11 March 2016

London Has Fallen

City Of Lon-Down

London Has Fallen
2016 UK/USA/Bulgaria
Directed by Babak Najafi
UK cinema release print.

Ha. Well here we go again... Gerard Butler’s stab-happy character Mike Banning is back in the line of fire, once more risking life and limb in the service of his president, reprised by Aaron Eckhart, in this fairly loud but never dull action thriller sequel to the previous film, Olympus Has Fallen (reviewed by me here). Now I quite liked the original movie and, of the two ‘Whitehouse under attack’ movies that came out that year, the other being White House Down (reviewed here), I thought that Olympus Has Fallen was the better of the two.

Now there were some warning signs that this sequel, London Has Fallen, might be in trouble as it seems to have seen off more than its fair share of directors in its long journey to the cinema, including the director of the original movie. That being said, I can’t say I felt in any way drastically let down by it and I was pretty excited to see my home town taking the brunt of the terrorist carnage this time around. London has been getting picked on for wide scale destruction a few times in the last five years or so by Hollywood movies... after a long drought which means my best memories of London under attack are still the British monster movie Gorgo, which I last saw when I was maybe eight years old. It’s just somewhat refreshing, after a long wilderness of not getting walloped, when you see famous places like London Bridge and Westminster Cathedral decimated (almost quite literally, in the actual sense of the word... no total destruction here) by the agents of evil and I have to confess that, despite reports that the movie is a bit shaky, I had a pretty good time with this one. It made absolutely no demands on my brain and, after a hard day at work, I kinda appreciated that.

Najafi’s direction of the movie is pretty assured in that the way the action sequences are shot and edited continue the trend in this franchise of being absolutely straightforward and easy to decode. If you like action films but find yourself at odds with the editing on some of these modern blockbusters where they’re often, I suspect, just trying to edit themselves out of not having enough shot coverage, then you have nothing to be concerned about on that count here... the choreography of the stunts and action isn’t in any way confusing.

The Mike Banning character does, however, retain that uncompromising, almost gleeful, ruthlessness in his violence but... well I guess that’s just something that gives the character a unique edge. You may not necessarily agree with the wild abandon into which he throws himself into killing off his enemies but that at least has a certain amount of continuity with Butler’s role in the first one so I don’t think you can complain too vocally about that. I’m guessing the Americans will see him as a passionate patriot but personally, for me, he’s very much an anti-hero in his pursuit of violent solutions and, whether you hide it in jingoistic flag waving and go with it or not, the character is not somebody I would necessarily want to hang out with in a pub. As a fictional character though... yeah, I’m not going to get too distracted by that... I’m happy to watch violent movies and just assume that anybody watching who is not already of that mindset themselves is not going to be in any way influenced by this. Butler does what he does and he does it well. The same for Eckhart... he’s a harder character, in some ways, than he was in the first film but he has a certain amount of honour to him and your sympathies tend to align with him, as best as they can with such broadly drawn characters.

The acting is top notch and the action is credible. There’s one action sequence toward the end of the movie where Banning and a group of British military are moving in on a terrorist complex which very much uses the vocabulary, to some extent, of those first and third person shooter styles of video games, almost dropping you right into the action with the characters and using the camera to stay with one or two of them and scope out all the angles of attack, as the good guys and bad guys clash. It's very effectively done here and, in some ways, it reminded me of the opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, although it obviously doesn’t have the same shock effect of that movie... nor is it supposed too. The action sequences are very well done and that’s half the battle in this kind of tale.

Actually, there’s a lot of stuff I liked here...

For instance the fact that it’s a sequel but not necessarily hitting the same kind of marks as the first movie. Olympus Has Fallen was very much a ‘stealth’ action movie set, more or less, inside one location and it had the feel of, say, the first Die Hard movie in that respect. Here, the canvass has opened out and after a trap is set using the death of the British Prime minister, we have a movie which takes place all around our fair capital and involves not just hand to hand combat but also car chases and helicopter action. This movie is not just trying to be an imitation of the first one and I really appreciate this. That being said, fans of Butler’s stab happy, head busting in the first one (where it made more sense for that stuff to be happening) is referenced in at least one action scene here. Oh yes, the happy head stabber that is Mike Banning returns to blade up more skulls in his thirst for cranial destruction. Not nearly as much as the first movie but it’s there for the fans. What fans, I don’t know? Fans of being stabbed in the head, I guess.

Anyway, I digress. Another great thing about this movie is that the writers are not afraid to kill off regular characters from the first movie. Once again, actors and actresses such as Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster and Rhada Mitchell are back and, all I’ll say is that at least one of them doesn’t survive the picture.You’ll probably guess who before things happen, though. One thing I will say is that, just like the first movie, Rhada Mitchell is almost criminally underused as Mike Banning’s understanding wife. She’s such a great actress and I think she would have been equally good at playing Gerard Butler’s role in some ways and I just hope that her role is expanded a little more if there’s a third film in the franchise (and never mind Pitch Black or the Silent Hill movies... if you want to see Rahda Mitchell being absolutely amazing, check out a little movie called High Art sometime).

A stand out moment for me, in the film, was when a car with heavy, bullet proof glass kept on going and going until, after the pummeling it’s taken, some of the bullets finally start to go through the glass and the driver is killed. This is great. You hardly ever see bullet proof glass failing in the movies. They’re usually impervious to the passage of time and wear but here... yeah, I quite liked that touch which I can only presume is the reality of the situation. Keep hitting a re-enforced windshield with a gazillion bullets and, eventually, some of them will get through. So well done whoever came up with that one.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about London Has Fallen. Good all round action which tends to simplify the political and moral issues of its plot but which kinda has its heart in the right place... albeit by showing a somewhat vengeful side of America. Trevor Morris’ score is solid and appropriate, once again and the good news is that at least this time around it’s been issued on CD... the first score is only available on download so, as I said in my review of the last one, no CD... no purchase. My only real grumble is that the talented British medical profession were only able to determine that the Prime Minister was killed rather than died naturally on the same day they were burying him... that makes no sense and is a detail kinda glossed over to serve the story (or blow a hole in it). Other than that though.... London Has Fallen is a thrilling time at the movies. It’s not one I’d rush out to see again but it is a competent and satisfying time at the cinema... so if you like that kind of thing, maybe go see it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Other Side Of The Door

The Monkey’s Door

The Other Side Of The Door
2016 India/UK
Directed by  Johannes Roberts
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Yeah, there are probably what could be
considered some very slight spoilers, for some, here.

When I first saw the trailer for The Other Side Of The Door a few weeks ago, it looked to me like just another in a long line of reworkings of W. W. Jacobs famous tale The Monkey’ Paw and, yeah... that’s pretty much on the nose as to what it is. Of course, it’s not like a lot of the other various 'labelled' movie and TV adaptations of this story over the years in that it goes very quickly past the last act of that tale as, I guess, you would expect it to in this day and age. This film does, though, exactly what I expected it to do... dispensed with the three wishes part of the tale and found a different means to bring the dead son back to... well not quite life... back to the undead, I guess.

The film replaces the monkey’s paw with a magic temple in India and, after a strong pre-credits moment when a girl on a beach turns out to be... something else... we have a fairly long ramble until we get to the point where the mother, after a failed suicide attempt, is tempted to bring her dead son back from the dead... by going to the temple. The rulebook on this one is that you scatter the ashes of your loved one outside the temple, where death and life meet, and lock yourself in. You will then, in the night, be able to speak to your deceased relative but, no matter how much they plead, you must never open the door to let them inside. So, yeah, the rule books are always thrown out the window in these kinds movies otherwise you’d have no story progression and this one is no exception.

Now, the film is fairly well made in some ways... the tension in certain sections is nicely ratcheted up and the director has a penchant for using any verticals he can find... trees, columns, fencing and even the corners of a four poster bed... using them to split the screen up into sections for the actors to play in. So there was definitely some nice stuff going on here but... and it’s a big but... while the atmosphere in some sequences works well, in other parts of the movie it tends to fall flat on its face.

For instance when the, at this point invisible, ghost son wants a story read to him in bed, a book drops off the shelf, the lights go on and a chair is invisibly pushed into place... and the movie completely loses any power it had to be creepy or eerie in these moments. Maybe it’s the suddenness and speed at which these incidents occur that was the problem but any slow build up to these moments are pretty much lost at these kinds of points in the film. It’s too well lit, it’s too fast and it’s downright comical in some places, it has to be said.

Another thing that seems a bit 'off' in this film is the timings of some of the shots. There are plenty of moments in this movie where the director is trying to scare the pants off you via jump scare tactics and, yes, he uses all the clichéd set ups you would expect in a horror movie, good or bad. I have no problem with the film taking the obvious route in these kinds of situations because, done well they can really work. The trouble here, though, is that they aren’t done that well in a lot of places... some of them work and have the desired effect but at other times, not so well. For instance, there’s a transition moment from one quiet scene to another where the shot starts with a large flock of birds taking flight, loudly on the soundtrack. Now that’s obviously supposed to be a big scare moment but... yeah, it just doesn’t work. The timing is all wrong it seems to me... can't quite explain it but maybe the editing lingered just a beat or two too long to get the required jump. Usually this kinda thing works on me... and it did in some of the other parts of this movie... but here, nothing.

One of the big saving graces of the movie, apart from some beautiful scenic shots of India and the performances by Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto and Suchitra Pillai as the mother, the father and the wise housekeeper, is Joseph Bishara’s score to the movie. It’s nicely unsettling and this, at least, goes a lot of the way to supplying or bolstering the required tension in certain sequences. Of course, this composer has a particularly good track record in composing for horror scores, with his three Insidious scores (movies reviewed here,  here and here) and his scary sci-fi score to Dark Skies (movie reviewed here), which is a pseudo horror film in itself. He’s a composer who I feel really raises the stakes when he works on one of these things and this movie is no exception. I’m hoping this one will at least get a CD release somewhere down the line so I can hear it divorced from its context. Bishara does this stuff pretty well.

However, all the music, beautiful photography and fine performances in the world can’t stop The Other Side Of The Door being as obvious and light weight as it is as a horror film. I think the editing on this one might have helped enormously if it was drastically trimmed in places but, asides from not quite working on some of the jump scares, it also feels a little bloated in places and uneven in pacing in certain areas. Also, I’m pretty sure most people watching will see the very last scene of the movie coming way before it happens. It’s a well done moment but... totally expected and, although clichés like this can work, I think using it here just feels like a final slap in the face. I would imagine if you’re a young teen and you’ve not seen these kinds of horror movies before then you might find yourself surprised and, possibly, even frightened in places on this one but, for the majority... no. I reckon seasoned horror fans certainly won’t find an awful lot to get their teeth into here either. A really nice try but... just not enough subtlety or tension, I suspect. Perhaps don’t necessarily be tempted to look beyond the other side of the door of your local cinema screen if there are other films you want to see out there at the moment. You’ve been warned.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Hot Hail

Hail, Caesar!
2016 UK/USA/Japan
Directed by The Coen Brothers
UK cinema release print.

Ha! You know, when I first saw a trailer for this movie on the internet sometime last year, I thought the idea of this one looked promising but I was in no way expecting this to be a good movie. It looked like a whole bunch of actors and film-makers having a whale of a time and, quite often when this happens, you often find the people making the movie are going to have a far better time than the audience who are going to be watching this. I might cite the 1967 version of Casino Royale or 2015’s Mortdecai (reviewed here) as examples where this tactic seems to seriously backfire on the studio.

Another problem I have, and which made me fairly wary is that, much as I love some of the Coen’s movies dearly, I do find them a bit hit and miss and, over the last five or six years, I have found their movies definitely in the miss category, for me. I love the Coens of The Big Liebowski, Oh Brother Where Art Thou and The Man Who Wasn’t There but some of their other stuff seems to be less emotionally involving to me.

Well, I needn’t have worried on either count, as it happens, because although it took me 20 minutes or so to warm up to their latest opus, Hail, Caesar!, I absolutely loved it, once it got going. The film stars Josh Brolin as famous Hollywood ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, a fictional version of the real person who works here in a made up studio where thinly disguised ‘Coenised’ movies from Hollywoodland’s rich legacy are in production. When famous film star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney as a kind of Charlton Heston via Victor Mature type, is kidnapped from the set before the completion of his latest movie Hail, Caesar!, it’s up to Eddie to get him back while still trouble shooting other problems with various stars who work for the studio.

In a nice touch to the William Wyler version of Ben Hur, the fictional Hail, Caesar! shares the exact same subtitle of that movie, A Tale Of The Christ. There’s even a hilarious scene where Clooney is trying to channel the same look of reverence that Heston does in Ben Hur, when Christ gives him water on his journey to be a galley slave, although the roles are slightly twisted around here, just like a lot of other stuff in this movie is nicely subverted... such as the gay subtext highlighted with a joke in the sailor’s song and dance number performed by Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, this film’s equivalent of Gene Kelley.

Other people who populate this film are Tilda Swinton in a kind of dual role playing a kind of ‘twins’ version of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz and Scarlet Johannson doing a kind of earthy version of famous water dancer Esther Williams. The character which made it completely watchable for me though, is the role of Alden Ehrenreich as ‘singing cowboy’ sensation Hobie Doyle. I don’t know who this guy is but he’s phenomenal. Sure, he gets some good laughs in scenes with Ralph Fiennes character as the studio attempt to ‘change his image’ but it’s his other role in the film which really help bring this all to life.

Hobie is obviously a parody of the Roy Rogers/Gene Autrey cowboy stars of yesteryear and can perform some neat tricks as demonstrated here. He even has his very close parody of a Gabby Hayes style sidekick who, obviously, gets all the laughs from the fictional audience when he takes his date to see one of his films. And about that ‘date’. This movie is very much a film watcher’s movie... like a Quentin Tarantino piece, a lot of the pleasure in watching it is derived from how many famous movie references you can pick up on. A real movie spotter’s pursuit, is this. We only hear her name teased a few times in the movie, for a while, and as soon as I heard her name, Carlotta Valdez, my brain was on fire. I spent the next twenty minutes or so of the movie agonising where I’d heard it before until it finally kicked in and I realised that this was the name of the fictional, historical figure that Kim Novak is pretending to be channeling for the benefit of James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo. Oh my gosh, I thought to myself, are they going to go the whole hog and make her look like the ‘Portrait of Carlotta’ right down to the iconic hairstyle in the Hitchcock movie?

As the film wore on and I realised the Coens weren’t taking the strength of their parody too seriously (I’ll get to that in a minute) I then started thinking that maybe they were going to have Hobie dating a parody of the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez, herself. As it happens, it turns out Hobie is dating a version of the famous actress Carmen Miranda and, it has to be said, Veronica Osorio, the wonderful actress playing her here, makes it more than apparent who she’s supposed to be in her very first scene. She is an absolute delight in the role and her scenes with Alden Ehrenreich, as Hobie entertains her with both a real lasso and, later, a spaghetti lasso, are just so charming they will probably win your heart right over. However, Hobie’s solo scenes as he goes after the kidnappers are equally great and... I’ll briefly mention those in a little while.

George Clooney, of course, is also brilliant in his role and when it turns out he’s kidnapped by communist writers, his scenes with them are pretty funny too. And it was nice to see Patrick Fischler as one of those writers... I always wondered what had happened to that guy who played the video store clerk in Ghost World and... here he is. He has a very distinctive face which makes him a good person if you want someone to stand out and add texture to a crowd. Clooney is marvellous, though, and the more stuff he makes these days which border on almost parodying himself, to an extent (with a little bit of stretch), forces me to admire him more and more as both an actor and a star as the years go by. Some people might be afraid to take on this kind of role but, as usual, Clooney gives it his all.

Now there are some problems with the parody in this movie, to be sure, and I’ll highlight those soon enough, but one of the things which made me stop worrying about the authenticity of a lot of the stuff on show in the movie is that, it soon becomes obvious that the Coen’s just don’t worry too much about making it all authentic. These are broad strokes which create a brief impression rather than full blown homage and, as such, it kinda works at its own level. Where it’s less satisfying is when some aspects of a parody are finely tuned to the smallest details but maybe slightly tarnished by another element being less so...

For example, the sailor’s song and dance number, headed up by Channing Tatum, is an incredible movie moment. It’s clear that the choreography and dialogue of those big MGM mid-fifties numbers have been studied here to the nth degree. And Tatum has obviously been looking at Gene Kelly and the way he moves, the way his face expresses (or doesn’t always) and the way he delivers his lines... it all works really well. As does the consistency of the simplicity of the colour scheme of the set being used. However, what doesn’t work about this scene is the veracity of those colours themselves. The MGM films used to be... well, over the top and almost over saturated beyond belief in those movies... the colours here, while simply wrought, have none of the luminosity of the hues used in the films the Coens are trying to emulate in this scene... which kind of spoiled the overall effect of it, for me.

Another example would be Carter Burwell's score throughout the movie. Now this must have been a dream job for a composer to work on as he has to cover a range of musical styles due to the nature of the content... but I noticed that he was more successful in some styles than others... although that might not have been his fault. For instance, the music he delivers for the Hail, Caesar! movie within a movie scenes are typical in structure and tone of the kinds of scores these films were getting by the likes of Dr. Miklos Rozsa but... well, they just don’t seem to have the same punch or over the top-ness, over scored quality of the originals. However, like I said, it might not be the composer’s fault, it might just be mixed too far back into the background compared to the way the music would have been mixed into a genuine Roman/Religious epic of the mid 1950s so... well I’ll find out once the CD arrives.

The composer does do some really great stuff here too though and, getting back to Hobie going after the kidnappers, the scenes where the Coen’s get almost metatextual and use the vernacular of the 1940s and 1950s film noirs to tell that part of Hobie’s story is faithfully backed up by Burwell with something which really does the trick in those sequences. So, yeah... looking forward to this score arriving in the post sometime soon.

And that’s what I thought of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! Once it starts coasting along the movie is a real breath of fresh, or maybe that should be reconditioned, air midst a cinematic climate where no other film is being made quite like this one at the moment. So as far as subject matter and approach are concerned, there’s nothing else like it out there currently... so if you want to see something different then check this one out. I, for one, had a great time with this movie and if you’re a fan of old school Hollywood movies then you’ll probably have a good evening with this one. Definitely a big thumbs up for this one... if I had a massive, giant thumb to do that with.