Friday, 29 July 2016

Jason Bourne

Billion Dollar Bourne

Jason Bourne
2016 USA Directed by Paul Greengrass
UK cinema release print. 

Warning: Very mild spoilers.

Hmmm.... okay, I’ll jump right in here with a quick history of my reaction to the Jason Bourne films. Still haven’t seen the Richard Chamberlain version of The Bourne Identity but it’s in the ‘to watch’ pile and I will get to that soon. Absolutely loved the Matt Damon remake of The Bourne Identity... one of the great spy films to join the classics such as The IPCRESS File (reviewed here), The Quiller Memorandum (reviewed here) and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, as far as I’m concerned. Then Paul Greengrass took over as director for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum and, although the story content and acting etc was fine, the camera movement and editing made the action sequences barely watchable at best and, certainly, incomprehensible at their worst. There were some redeeming features in Supremacy such as Bourne’s visit to the daughter of two of his past victims but, ultimately, I didn’t think much of these movies other than continuing to love what John Powell was doing with the music in them.

Surprisingly, the Jeremy Renner starring The Bourne Legacy (reviewed here), while having an atrociously simplistic story which the writers seemed to be trying to disguise by giving it as many links to the Matt Damon films as possible, was actually quite entertaining. James Newton Howard’s score was cool too and I expect he might have gotten the gig with that after turning out an incredible pseudo-Bourne score for the Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt (reviewed here), a few years earlier.

And so now we come to Matt Damon’s semi-triumphant return to the Bourne films, along with Greengrass returning as director and.... it’s a mixed bag to be honest. I say semi-triumphant because, although I’m sure it will do the right numbers at the box office, Jason Bourne really doesn’t have too much going for it but, at least in terms of Matt Damon, his performance is worth watching, as always. So at least we have a credible main lead and the film feels like it’s got some kind of authentic link to the Bourne series.  However, even a great actor like Damon needs to have a half decent script to work from and... I really don’t think he got that here. In fact, this feels just as simplistic as The Bourne Legacy in terms of story content and no amount of heavy weight actors brought into this melange of  various, patched together conspiratorial shenanigans going on at the CIA is going to help make this anything which could reach the dizzying heights of the first movie.

We also have the return of Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons in this, who really helps Damon keep this movie afloat, and as far as I could tell she’s the only other series regular in this one other than the title character. However, the way she's written in this story and her stupidity at attracting attention to herself, while brilliantly played by Stiles, really doesn’t do the character any favours. Well done to Stiles for making it work but, like most of this film, it’s the writing that’s the problem... not the acting.

The heavyweights I was referring to earlier are the three main supporting cast with Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Director Robert Dewey, Vincent Cassel as ‘The Asset’ (aka kick ass Bourne style assassin bad guy) and the relatively young Alicia Vikander as CIA tech guru Heather Lee. All of these people are good but they all serve a bad storyline. Jones is very much in the mould of CIA Directors from the previous films so, we pretty much know what’s coming from him and do we really need to see the CIA playing political games against each other involving fellow agents who are aggressively ‘taken out’ when they start to get in the way... yet again in the Bourne series? Can’t some of them just play as a team, once in a while. Vikander is pretty strong and just about manages to pull off the gravitas needed that not having so much ‘old timer character baggage’ from other films almost hinders. Her character works quite well and it’s someone the audience can root for as a possible ‘non evil’ character most of the time.

Vincent Cassel is always a nasty bad guy but, here, he really could have done with being given more lines, I think. Also, it has to be said, certain revelations about his character further serve to highlight just how amateurish the story is here. We have a back story to everything we already know about the Jason Bourne saga and his links to Treadstone, which is grafted on wholesale for this movie and which brings in Jason Bourne’s father... and what happened to him just before Bourne joined the CIA. When we get a true reveal on just who Cassel is playing in this, very near the end of the movie, it’s actually one of those things which you think of very early and then dismiss because, hey, that would be really lazy story telling, right? Everything seems to connect in this movie just a little too conveniently and way more than you would expect it to in real life... it seems to me. Cassel’s character is pretty much a victim to the cause and effect method of storytelling that a lot of US cinema tends to fall back on, crutch -like, these days and it’s a shame that the writers felt the need to do this, I think.

In terms of the way the camera moves and the editing... well it’s certainly fast paced but it suffers from the “Paul Greengrass special” school of filmmaking in that, a) the camera never stops moving around and b) it’s lots of short shots cut together continuously which, to be honest, can be more than a little disorientating and distracting  from the main action on-screen. I have to put my hand up and say, for once in a Paul Greengrass movie, I wasn’t totally lost in the action sequences and, for 90% of it, I was managing to figure out just what was going on. However, the editing and vertiginous camerawork never lets up and, after a while, you are just left wondering as to which part of the screen the director wants to show you, to be honest.

Composer John Powell returns to the fold with this one and he’s joined by composer David Buckley. Now I don’t know who scored which bits or what the nature of the collaboration was but I did notice how good the score throughout the movie was, when I could hear it above the ‘extra loud and in your face’ sound effects tracks. I’m looking forward to acquiring this asset on CD in a week or so and it will be interesting to hear it properly, away from the pop pop bang bang noises. The Jason Bourne theme is all over the movie but I wasn’t able to detect the Treadstone Assassin motif in this first sitting. I’m sure it must be on there though and this score certainly feels like it belongs in a traditional Jason Bourne film... so I would be interested in knowing who composed which bits.

Other than the score and the acting performances, however, it’s really not a good entry into The Jason Bourne series and, while it is pacey and quite entertaining, it has nothing of the power of the endings in previous Matt Damon entires in the franchise. The end here seems very contrived and, ultimately,  a bit anticlimactic... especially in terms of how Bourne is able to see and hear things for his not so mind blowing twist at the end. Even so, every plot point seems designed to propel the action forward without actually telling you what it really is everybody is playing this game for and I thought it really out of character when Bourne doesn’t run from it all at the start. All in all, if you like the previous Bourne films then I don’t think you’ll have a particularly bad time at the cinema with this one... it’s just not quite reaching that high bar which was set previously. It’s worth a watch if you like action spy movies with not much plot, though... so yeah, if that’s what you’re in to, maybe give Jason Bourne a go. There are a lot of worse things out there in the local cinemas at the moment.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Giallo Meltdown - A Moviethon Diary

Mellow Giallo

Giallo Meltdown - A Moviethon Diary
by Richard Glenn Schmidt
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform  2015
ISBN: 9781507839126

This was another of those pesky “other people who bought this who are much cooler than you, also bought this stuff...” recommendations from Amazon and, frankly, I’m not sure if this book is a work of crazed genius or the exact opposite. I’m going to plead the fifth and conclude to myself that it averages out as something in between the two but, most books devoted to Italian giallo films are doing a service to a hugely neglected, although certainly rediscovered in the last decade or so, genre of cinema that mixes mostly terrible acting and bad mystery plots with violence and sex soaked shenanigans. The fact that these films are quite often so beautifully filmed, designed, edited and musically scored that the craftsmanship behind the camera more than makes up for the lack of coherence and elevates the genre to an art form which is possibly the most vibrant in the history of cinema, makes them much worthier of your attention than a lot of the stuff playing in your local multiplex these days.

Now, my main problem with this book is the use of English throughout.... American, Canadian or any other. There are a heck of a lot of typos and grammar clangers in this book and, while I understand that a smattering of these are clearly deliberate, to match the humour of the writer, I still see red when words or letters are mis-used or, in the case of some sentences, missed out altogether. That being said, there’s a fair amount on offer in this tome too and it’s certainly not like any other book on giallo you may have read in the past, I suspect.

The book itself is divided into 13 sections where the writer sits down for three or four days at a time and just binge watches a load of giallo movies... well into double figures, in any one period. I guess we’ve all done stuff like this but Schmidt is a repeat offender and, frankly, when it comes to watching gialli, who can blame him. He’s often joined by his wife LeEtta... who also did the cover art to this misguided gem of a book... and various other friends, mother-in-law and pets, as the moviethons run their inevitable course. It’s not the best structure in the world but it’s not like he’s trying to say huge amounts about the films in question and these are more like reading reactionary notes to the images and situations as they unwind before his J&B stained eyes in real time... even though he’s obviously gone back and edited them to make them more coherent after the fact.

Okay, so I don’t know much about Schmidt himself, other than he seems to be a fairly entertaining guy. It looks like he’s also a blogger for and and this may go some way to explaining his writing style which, to me, seems to be as manic, unfocused and driven as a drugged up version of James Ellroy in one of his more frenetic streaks of twisted prose. Think White Jazz on acid! That being said, his humour runs consistently throughout the text and, although he’s not trying to deliver solid, critical reviews of the films here... he does quite often touch the little kernels of truth about a flick which demonstrates that his somewhat self-deprecating words actually mask a rare insight into the art of film in general.

The films range from the obvious to the obscure and that’s one of the things that kept my interest going throughout the length of the book, to be honest. I’ve got maybe between 150 to 200 gialli in my personal library (and growing steadily) but this guy seems to have seen even more than I have... which means about a third of the movies covered in this book are new to me and, for the most part, went straight on my ‘to acquire’ list... although I suspect I have a fair few of them already, foldered away in my ‘to watch’ movie backlog, which is probably well over a thousand movies deep by now.

The book gets off to a good start when the writer mentions that his wife refers to Luigi Pistilli as the Italian Jeremy Irons. Which is pretty funny, I think. Say that to anyone at my work place and I can guarantee that not a one of them will even know who Pistilli is but, little moments like this are what makes the book readable and, although I found his style infuriating at various times, I somehow could not put the thing down. It even distracted me from my Candy Crush time so... you know... I must have really liked it.

And on it goes. There’s a weird mix of fairly obscure films and giallo classics on show here. I like that the author is totally okay with sourcing copies of the films he wants to watch from... um... illegitimate sources and that he’s up front about it. Over half the films in here are not, and probably never will be, commercially available and I think the writer takes the same attitude as me when it comes to seeking out prints of movies you want to see before you die. If it’s not available commercially, life is too short to wait around on the off chance that it might, one day, become so. So there are a lot of caveats in here about bootleg VHS transfers with Greek subtitles and bad tracking problems. In the case of a couple of the films he’s watching, he even complains that the movie has some of the reels in the wrong order. I have to respect someone who goes to extreme lengths to watch films which he can’t source from anywhere else and, by the looks of it (and also like me) he's happy to upgrade to a proper, commercial transfer, when one becomes available for sale. Or ‘if... it becomes available’, more to the point.

The writer has some nice patter when he’s at his most coherent. Here are a couple of my favourite gems from a book that has a fair few jewels tucked away when you least expect them...

“The beautiful scenery is totally beautiful. Darn it, where's my thesaurus.”

“The killer liberates them both of the burden of keeping all that blood inside their bodies.”

I’m also really pleased he has some of the same problems that I have when I’m trying to review a movie and can’t remember details like character or actor names. At one stage he says:

“Good old Howard Ross is here as the police inspector. IMDB says his character's name is police inspector.”

I’m glad that the guy is this sarcastic when it comes to the IMDB because, honestly, the amount of times it’s let me down in a similar manner is beyond belief. Sometimes it can’t even find the title of the movie you’ve just watched because it’s just not been entered into the database. So, yeah... I can kinda relate to this guy because he obviously has the same kinds of research problems as me to get through.

For all this, though, there was one bit which put me into a red rage, at first, when the writer is talking about giallo master Dario Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? He refers to one of the characters in it spying on his neighbours like Cary Grant does in North By Northwest. I was on my feet and angrily ranting up and down the room at this point because, as you know, everybody knows this was James Stewart in Rear Window. After I’d calmed down and read another paragraph, I came to the realisation that maybe the writer was having me on because he then goes on to reference the Hitchcock movie where the two characters swap murders as being The Birds (as opposed to Strangers On A Train). Okay, so this is even more blatantly ludicrous than the first ‘slip up’ and so, I can only conclude that the dude is messing with the reader’s minds for fun. At least... I hope he is.

At the end of the day, Giallo Meltdown is a slightly patchily written but hugely entertaining love letter to a genre of films which has become very popular again over the last decade or more. One thing I will say is that, if you are less than familiar with some of the films he’s giving notes on here, you might find yourself a bit lost. So we come to that old conundrum of the reader having enough knowledge so that they’ll be entertained by R. G. Schmidt’s jokes and observations about a particular film while, at the same time somehow being unfamiliar with classic and basic essentials of the genre such as Argento’s Deep Red (reviewed here) and Tenebrae (reviewed here) or Mario Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon (reviewed here)... that you will actually find the writer’s plot descriptions of some use. It’s kind of a Catch 22 situation but I think I’d rather be in the former camp than the latter. Either way, the book is as much about the writer and his companions (and some of the revelations about these companions, although expected, are kinda heartbreaking) and I ultimately had a good time with it. If you’re a fan of the genre and the various actors, actresses, directors and composers (I’m pleased to say he also talks about the music in these things a fair bit), then you should probably give Giallo Meltdown a try. I’m glad I did. I just have to find out what Mountain Dew is now because the author here drinks gallons of the stuff and I don’t think they make it in this country.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Peachy Elba

Star Trek Beyond
2016 USA Directed by Justin Lin
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very slight spoilers beyond...

Well the thirteenth cinematic Star Trek movie is finally here and... I still don’t quite understand why the heck it’s called Star Trek Beyond but... oh well... abstract title for a bit of a fuzzy movie. Star Trek Beyond is probably my least favourite of the mini trilogy within a franchise (to date) which began with the 2009 Star Trek (reviewed by me here in one of my earliest NUTS4R2 reviews) and continued with Star Trek Into Darkness (reviewed here). That being said, it’s nowhere near being a bad movie, certainly in terms of the Trek franchise as a whole... it’s much better than Star Trek Nemesis (reviewed by me here) for instance.

Okay... the story isn’t all that great on this one, to be honest. However, you can tell that British comedy guru Simon Pegg, who plays ‘Scottie’ in the new films, has been let loose on the script for this one because the dialogue is pretty sharp. It’s also a movie which is big in action but still lives up, somewhat thinly perhaps, to the basic science fiction storytelling which made the original 1960s series which these current movies are based on so great.

The actors are all fine here with a much bigger role for both Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Anton Yelchin’s take on Pavel Chekov. I’m sure the majority of my readers will know of the tragic accident which claimed the life of Yelchin about a month ago, a big blow to the acting community, I believe. I remember how good he was in the Jim Jarmusch movie Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed by me here) and, just recently, Green Room (reviewed by me here). So it’s actually very sad to see him go. Something which I’m sure won’t get easier for audiences as each of the other four films he still has coming out this year are released.

Ironically, Yelchin’s part is somewhat beefed up in this movie and, although Chekov is still very much assigned to a functional role in this, Yelchin gets his chance to shine as he’s with Chris Pine’s incarnation of James T. Kirk for large chunks of the movie, as the two pair up to try and find their lost crew. I think the dead give away that the writers have been getting more interested in Chekov as the franchise continues is the inclusion of a nice line towards the end which certainly echoes the original character, as played by Walter Koenig in the TV show. “Did you know that Scotch was actually invented by a little old lady in Leningrad?” asks Yelchin, which made me smile and realise they were possibly looking to get much more invested in the character as the franchise continues.

Star Trek Beyond is not just a memorial movie for Yelchin, however, who gets a credit at the end of the movie which simply states... For Anton. Pryor to this on his own memorium credit, and throughout the movie, we are continually reminded of another famous Star Trek actor who passed away recently... Leonard Nimoy, who played the original Mr. Spock and continued to do so in the previous two movies. Nimoy is the one constant that bridges the original franchise and this so called reboot (or sequels as most people know them) as his original character went back in time and bore witness to the creation of this redirected timeline that started off this version of the adventures. With two identical Spocks at different ages living in this timeline, the writers have now chosen to kill off the Nimoy version of the character too... or Spock Prime, as he is now known. It’s a touching moment when the current Spock, played so well by Zachary Quinto but with a slightly diminished role in this adventure, is left his older self’s few artefacts which, presumably, he managed to somehow bring back in time within him. Amongst these is a photograph of Nimoy and the rest of his fellow cast from the original movies, grouped in a publicity shot that I’m guessing was one used for Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country (reviewed by me here). It’s one of a few touching moments and, probably, one of the very last times we’ll see Nimoy’s face in a Star Trek movie.

All the other actors are great too, of course, with Judge Dredd himself, Karl Urban, playing a great version of Doctor McCoy, Zoe Saldana as a much more active Lieutenant Uhura than Nichelle Nichols ever really got the chance to be and John Cho continuing his good work as Sulu. Also joining the cast are Sofia Boutella as new ally Jaylah and the always watchable Idris Elba as the main villain of the piece, Krall.

So solid acting, great dialogue and special effects which are up to the scratch, as usual. However, there’s perhaps way too much action in this one or, at least, way too much motion. I’ve not seen any other movies by director Justin Lin but in this one the camera seems to be swooping all over the place for most of the time. It rarely comes to a stand still, even in the quieter, more low key scenes, and while this technique serves some scenes well, like the first proper ‘swoop through’ of the ‘snowglobe space station’ Yorktown and also in some of the action scenes... the camerawork does get kinda dizzying and disorienting at some points, it has to be said.

Another thing which had me questioning if I had my 3D glasses on correctly was the lighting in some of the scenes... so much so that I had to take them off at one point to prove to myself that, yes, the scenes really were lit that badly. There are certain sequences in the movie, especially in... without giving too much away... Jaylah’s house, that are not exactly dark but... well, just downright dull and which are hard to register on the eyes. Like the interiors in some scenes are all shot through a fine fog which doesn’t quite want to engage you in a way that might help you appreciate the sets. Fair enough, I guess. I’m assuming the director was going for some kind of neutral effect to give other scenes contrast around these, maybe, but it really didn’t do much for me.

The other thing which didn’t quite work for me was most of the last act... the action sequences seem somewhat less than entertaining although, even with all the swooping and whirling camera movement, I was actually able to keep up with the choreography of the kinetic set pieces in this one. So there’s that, I guess.

At the end of the day... Star Trek Beyond is an okay addition to the franchise. Some of the dialogue such as Scotty’s reference to a giant, green hand, which is obviously a humorous reference to the original Star Trek TV episode Who Mourns For Adonis?, had me chuckling a fair bit and you can’t help but buy into the characters when they have lines like this. Alas, it doesn’t make up for a finale which, for me, brought to mind some of the worst Star Trek movie finales such as Star Trek Insurrection (which was an okay film with a terrible last act and which I reviewed here) and the aforementioned Star Trek Nemesis. Truth be told, by the end of the movie, I was getting pretty bored and I think it could have done with either some pruning at the end or, possibly better, a much more interesting couple of set pieces rather than the usual... countdown to stopping the villain realising his plan with just a few seconds to spare kind of scenario. It was already a tired way of doing things back at the dawn of the century... it’s really yawn inducing now. Or, at least, it is the way it’s presented here.

All in all, though, it’s sure to please Star Trek fans who, I’ve no doubt, will turn out for it in force... although I noticed the 3D screening I went to wasn’t even half full on its opening night... which I can’t quite figure out since it easily took number one spot at the box office. So, yeah, not a bad one and I’ll definitely be rewatching on Blu Ray at some point... possibly when it’s been out for a while and goes onto the sale racks. Star Trek Beyond doesn’t really take you anywhere near where the franchise hasn’t boldly gone before but, at least, it doesn’t do that in a competent manner and there are some really witty one liners along the way. Maybe give it a go if there’s nothing else on at the cinema this week.

Star Trek @ NUTS4R2
Star Trek Series 1
Star Trek - The Motion Picture 
Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home 
Star Trek V - The Final Frontier 
Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek - Generations (aka Star Trek VII) 
Star Trek - First Contact 
Star Trek - Insurrection 
Star Trek Nemesis 
Star Trek Beyond

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Ghost Bus Tours

Who You Gonna Call?

The Ghost Bus Tours
The Necropolis Bus Company - London Branch

Just a quick shout out of a review to the guys and gals, actors and actresses of The Necropolis Bus Company...

Just recently, I found myself staying with a friend in the heart of our country’s capital and one of the escapades we were booked up for was the local tour of this spook themed sightseeing trip, The Ghost Bus Tours. The company in question also hosts similarly themed tours in both York and Edinburgh but I can only speak out for the London version of their spooky shenanigans.

The bus departs promptly at an agreed time in Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square and, to save disappointment, you may wish to visit their website and book your seat... you can click on the URL at the bottom of this review. The very bus on which my companion and I found ourselves seated was the lone survivor of a 19th Century Private Funeral Bus service. Due to some bizarre circumstances involving a fire in 1967, which I won’t spoil for you here but which you will find is the subject of a dramatisation on the bus itself, this vehicle itself has its own spooky history and its painted up in the original colours with railway like seating inside and with its own internal lamps and black curtains. Both lamps and curtains come into use at some point on the trip but... you know... I really don’t want to spoil this one for you.

The actor playing the conductor is there to give you a fascinating, guided tour of the haunted hotspots of our fair city and, along the way, he provides more than his fair share of horrible stories which is deftly countered by a comedic tone throughout.

Now, if you’re purely a fan of sophisticated humour and clever witticisms with your travels... this is probably not the tour for you. It has to be said that the majority of the jokes and quips which the conductor comes out with are... I’m delighted to say... real groaners. It makes the trip fun and, although there are some slight scares to be had along the way, these aren’t much that many people couldn’t handle and the emphasis is way more on the comic approach rather than scares. The spooky stuff, which happens as a dramatisation when the conductor is interrupted by the living or the dead, is communicated through a video screen in the top and bottom decks and, also, lighting and sound effects. This communication system also helps convey the drama/humour of the situation should you happen to notice... and it’s pretty hard not to... when the bus picks up the odd, unscheduled customer, for the evening.

As the bus makes its way through the traffic, the conductor points out the sights of London’s most haunted structures and, if you are a complete stranger to London, then you will probably find this extremely handy. A whole host of important buildings and landmarks such as New Scotland Yard, The Old Bailey, The Bank Of England, Lyceum Theatre, The Monument and even the statue of King Charles the First riding a horse which marks the very centre of London, are all pointed out on the trip... amongst many other fascinating and little known locations. Not to mention some beautiful views of London sights such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and The Tower Of London. So if you find yourself a complete stranger to our fair capital, it might be worth starting your holidays by taking this ghoulish but fun little trip to give yourself a quick overview of some of the more traditional places you could visit on your stay.

One thing I will say, which is not a criticism but a mild caution, is that some parents may find the graphic descriptions of death and torture mentioned... with a fairly comical delivery, to be sure... something the younger passengers might not be ready for. Similarly, there’s a lot of adult humour in the double entendres and such like used by the conductor - for instance, when referring to going down the rear passage or when talking about the ghost in Cock Lane. All that being said, though, there was a little girl who looked to be about seven or eight years old on the tour when me and my friend rode the bus and she seemed to be having the time of her life. I’m pretty sure the more ‘adult humour’ would have been going over her head and, as far as the morbidly graphic descriptions were concerned... well I guess some kids just like that sort of thing.

The tour finishes with a very mild but entertaining form of audience participation (no, don’t worry... you won’t be singled out to specifically do anything) and, although it’s a pretty cheesy and over-the-top ending to conclude the full, behind-the-scenes story of the bus itself... the tone and the skill of the actors who never once break character make the whole thing just about palatable and, I have to say, I and my companion had a thoroughly good time on the warped but highly entertaining Ghost Bus Tour, which lasts approximately an hour and a half, depending on the density of traffic (I would guess).

If you want to take a look at a promotion for the bus tour and book yourself a ticket, then look no further than this website, or ring them on 0844 5678 666. If you are of the personality type that enjoys a good laugh involving brushes with the grim reaper and the trail of spirits that walk the earth in search of eternal peace, then this is a nice alternate to the regular kinds of sightseeing bus tours you will find on offer in the City of London. So, who you gonna call?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick


Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick
6th July to 24th August
Somerset House, London, England

While I was on the way to stay with a friend for a London holiday over a few days, I noticed a tube train advert for an art exhibition called Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick. Now Kubrick has always been a bit hit and miss for me (although he did some films which I hold in very high regard), so I didn’t give it much of a second glance. However, on the last day of the holiday, me and my friend decided to go to the show at Somerset House, last minute, since it’s located only a few minutes walk from the hotel where we were both staying.

I have to say... I’m glad we did. I also wish we’d got there earlier as two hours was not enough and one of the exhibits shuts at 5pm, before we could get to that room (although I will most certainly be going back there to check that one out too).

The exhibition is a selection of works with the common theme of art inspired by Stanley Kubrick and, although it sounds like its going to be a bit derivative of the director’s work... nothing could be further from the truth and there are some great works of art on display here, along with the fair share of pretentious rubbish you also get at these things. There are paintings, installations and also some films with big names such as Michael Nyman, Joanna Lumley, Cate Blanchett, Samantha Morton and Philip Castle involved in one way or another. Not to mention a contribution by Stanley’s wife, Christiane Kubrick.

After seeing one of her paintings opposite the desk where you buy your tickets, you go into a room and are confronted with an art installation of a space helmet with a screen inside depicting a monkey. No guesses for which of Kubrick’s famous films inspired this one then. After that, a fair amount of the exhibition is floored with shiny tiles which sport the same pattern as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining. After pausing to look at a pile of electric fires over the carpet, you enter a room with lots of old radios and the Dies Irae playing loudly in the background. It’s amazing stuff but it just keeps getting better and better as you make your way through this astonishing exhibition.

There were two works in particular which invoked the ‘wow’ factor in me when I saw them. One is a room you enter to watch a short film play out on each of the four walls. The piece is called The Corridor and it’s by Toby Dye. Each wall's film is shot in the same corridor but... stick around and look at all the screens as much as you can, constantly shifting your head, as the looping movies with no actual end or beginning (and starring Joanna Lumley, amongst others) start to interpenetrate and invade each other’s narrative space in a truly amazing way. I’ve got no idea how the artist was able to plan this one all out in his head but it’s worth standing in the centre of that room and just watching what is going on, constantly changing your viewpoint, as it plays out. Just mind blowing.

The other mind blower, for me, is a long, thin, flashing light situated near the end of the exhibition on the far wall of a lighted corridor. It’s stroboscopic and looks a bit pretentious until you... well... until you see the brilliance of it for yourself. The piece is by Chris Levine and it’s called Mr. Kubrick is Looking. I’ll quote the free booklet you get when you buy a ticket here, I think.

“A self-portrait by Kubrick is projected into the viewers peripheral vision using LED light technology. This ‘visual echo’ appears and disappears in a moment like a phantom. Levine is fascinated by the ‘sensory energy’ and ‘spiritual dimension’ of light.”

So, yeah, what happens here is quite uncanny and, being as I’m not technically minded, I am at a loss to explain exactly how it does this but... look at it full on and it’s a thin column of flashing light... look away from it and immediately, for half a second or so, you’ll get a photograph of Stanley Kubricks face as a fading ghost impression on your eyeball. As your eyes flash back and forth between the light and anywhere else in the room, the image briefly appears and reappears in your vision. Just incredible, amazing stuff. I was absolutely gobsmacked by the scientific alchemy on display here and will need to look into this at some point soon.

There are, of course, some not so hot pieces with fairly tenuous links in the show too. For me the two similar Scottish churches made of cardboard as a ‘tribute’ to the twin girls in The Shining seemed nicely constructed although a bit ludicrous but... you know... one person’s disappointment is another’s true art. I would certainly say the exhibition was way more positive than the few negatives I found and with 45 exhibits of varying shapes, sizes and media dotted about the ersatz Overlook, you’d be hard pushed, I think, not to find something to your liking here. Definitely a big recommendation for me and something which I’m still thinking about a week on from having first seen it. A repeat visit is certainly on the cards and you can find out more about Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick at the website and photography is, apparently, allowed... although ‘flash photography’ is forbidden.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

My Scare Ladies

Ghostbusters (2016)
2016 USA Directed by Paul Feig
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... so where to start with this thing?

Maybe at the very beginning...

I remember when I was a 16 year old back in 1984 when the original Ghostbusters movie came out. I think it was true to say everyone went to have a look at it and that it very quickly became a cultural phenomenon. I remember I went to see it, not because of the articles about the production in magazines such as Starburst and Starlog, but because of Ray Parker Jr’s hit pop song written for the movie. It captured everyone’s toe tapping molecules and it was the first actual pop single, albeit in 12” remix form, that I ever bought. Even as a young ‘un I was more into orchestral scores than I was dumb pop songs but the instrumentation build up on the Ghostbusters song was pretty good and it was even infectious enough for my parents to come and see the movie with me.

As it was... the original Ghostbusters movie was... well, it was okay. An entertaining enough time but certainly not good enough for me to repeat view it at an age when repeat viewing was what I did when the movies were good enough to warrant it. I also remember how everyone was stoked for the inevitable sequel, the imaginatively titled Ghostbusters II, a few years later and... you know... how amazingly terrible that second movie was. So no matter what my criticisms about this movie are, just remember one thing... it’s not as bad as Ghostbusters II.

The new Ghostbusters movie is a gender swap affair, much like the 2007 film The Invasion, which was a gender swap remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. In this movie, the role of the four Ghostbusters are replaced by actresses Melissa McArthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones while the ditzy secretary is played, with a genius amount of stupidity, by Chris Hemsworth. Now, for some reason, this provoked a lot of outrage from various quarters who seemed to think this was some kind of new or bizarre thing to do but, seriously, it’s not really a problem. That being said, the movie certainly does have a big problem which I’ll come to in a minute.

The film is actually not a sequel to the original movies, which is kind of a missed opportunity as far as I am concerned although I do take the director’s point that it works better as an introduction to the characters if the people of the world depicted in this one don’t actually know of the proven existence of ghosts. So I’m coming around to the idea. But this isn’t my big problem with it and... oh heck. I can’t keep skirting the issue here so I’m going to come right out and say it.

The biggest problem that this movie has is that... it’s just not funny.

Which is a huge hurdle for me... especially when, on every other level, it seems to succeed brilliantly in bringing all the coolest ingredients together.

For instance, the pacing and the little, inventive surprises, such as the origins of the Ghostbusters logo in the subway (which you kind of see coming but it’s a fun moment when it happens), are everything you could hope for in the inaugural movie of a renewed franchise... and I really wanted to like this film. The way the whole thing is structured and the way it leads the audience along, one step at time, until you get all the right elements in place, to say nothing of the many cameos from almost all of the main 1984 cast members (stick around for the various mid-end credits and post credits scenes folks), is nothing short of brilliant and things keep moving in a way that gives you so much more than just an empty frame of a script with a few set pieces hanging on it.

And the actors playing the main leads are great. McArthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Jones and Hemsworth are all perfect, with a special shout out to the amazing job Kate McKinnon does in her role. And the chemistry between the actors is just awesome with their ability to deliver quickfire dialogue in perfect timing almost reminiscent of The Marx Brothers back in their day. However, like I said, it’s just not that funny.

It’s the dialogue itself which is the real culprit here because, as I said, the structure, pacing and everything else is just perfect (and, for the record... my parents loved this reboot too). The dialogue just rarely had anything resembling a joke in it which was even good enough to make me smile a little. I occasionally cracked a half grin at the odd in-joke or reference but... yeah... this was not the mirth making experience I was expecting it to be. Which is a shame because I was really hoping this new movie would be good, if purely because the idea of making the central cast four females was so criticised by a large proportion of the male population. That being said, of course, I’m already getting a feel that the box office on this thing is going to be huge and I’m guessing that, just because I didn’t personally find it funny (much like I didn’t find the original all that funny, to be fair), it doesn’t mean a lot of the cinema going audience are of a similar opinion. There were three young ladies in the same audience as me who were absolutely lapping it up in the most vocal way possible (making me wonder just what the hell I was missing, to be honest). So I think there’s a lot of scope for a franchise here and I’m pretty up for seeing a second movie because, like I said, the chemistry between the main cast was awesome and they just need to get to perform some funnier dialogue and they’ll be away.

So would I recommend the new Ghostbusters? Tough one. All I can say is that I really didn’t think much of it as an entertaining time at the movies but I suspect I’m probably in a minority on this one. So if you like the idea of the main premise then I think you should seriously consider plonking some money down for this one. It’s got a lot going for it, even if I personally found it to be not quite to my taste. So maybe it has more than a ghost of a chance, at least, with the target audience.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Neon Demon

Eye Candy

The Neon Demon
2016 France/Denmark/USA
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
UK cinema release print.

Okay... so I was not too impressed with the other Nicolas Winding Refn movie which I saw a few years ago called Drive (which I reviewed here). I haven’t been too keen on reuniting my acquaintance with the work of this director but the publicity surrounding this latest movie by him, the references to the influence of Mario Bava in his work and the fact that this one was “Booed!” out of Cannes sounded like this might be a promising movie. Well, in some ways I suppose it is but, like my previous experience with his work, it seemed like this one was a visual feast of a candy shell, protecting an empty centre of absolutely no substance whatsoever.

The film is a hard look at one young model’s rapid ascent in the modern fashion photography industry and the consequences of that astonishing progress on her as the film plays out towards its, almost inevitable, conclusion. I say inevitable because once you meet the various characters in this film, one of the things you will notice is that they all stay perfectly on track to fulfil the kind of single minded stereotypes they already inhabit at the start of the movie. There is no real character progression, it seemed to me, and although the conclusion is a slightly different presentation of the logical destiny of the central character Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, it’s certainly nothing new and I think the influences the director so blatantly likes to wear on his sleeve are a fair match for the nature of the ending.

The film has been promoted as some kind of horror/thriller film and the title of The Neon Demon certainly does a lot to support this kind of perception of it but I think, at the end of the day, this is quite misleading and if you are expecting that kind of movie (which I wasn’t, as it happens), then you may be a little disappointed with it. I’ve already mentioned Mario Bava being cited as a key influence but I think Refn is very much influenced by the Italian giallo genre as a whole, on this one (my personal take on the Italian Giallo movie can be found here), and the stupendous shot compositions on display here, with washes of intense colour pitched against each other with very meticulously crafted designs, certainly owes more than a little to various gialli over the years. That being said, in terms of the actual story content, it is in no way a parallel for the highly saturated mystery thrillers that defined that genre and, again, I really don’t think people will be that impressed with the lack of plot on show here.

The way Refn splits the screen off into vertical slabs of colour and space to highlight his players within the frames and leaves large areas of the shot without any people in it, sometimes focusing on empty space completely, rather than following the actors when they walk off the screen, certainly hits some of the stylistic traits of both ‘the cinematic giallo’ and a European sensibility to film-making in general. And, of course, combined with the deep reds, purples and greens which pop out of the screen at you, even from the fantastic opening credits, the whole effect seems to be borrowed or copied from a mid 1960’s to mid 1980s Italian mindset. Contrasted with the almost 1950s pastel colours he uses when the main protagonist leaves her professional environment and returns to the shabby motel run by Keanu Reeves’ character.

Even the actor who plays Jesse’s ‘boyfriend’, Karl Glusman, bears a striking physical resemblance, in my mind at least, to Antoine Saint-John who played the title character in the splendid giallo movie The Killer Must Kill Again. And without trying to give away too much about what happens in this one, the content could be likened to the conclusion of a movie which is very often mistaken for being an Italian giallo, but which isn’t really one itself. That film being The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (aka Il Profumo Della Signora In Nero... which I reviewed here).

Of course, given the somewhat plotless subject matter on display here, I would imagine the director could quite easily defend his art here (and it certainly is ‘fine art’ the way the camera and cinematic palette is wielded on this one) by pointing out his product is as shallow and vapid as the profession he is focusing his lens on but... nah! I don’t think I’d personally want to let him off the hook with that one. What he does shoot, though, is astonishingly beautiful and he has particular visual fetishes on display here which take on an almost obsessive quality throughout the film. For instance, he uses a lot of mirrors and reflective surfaces which allow him to further craft clever compositions involving those split sections while simultaneously enhancing the agenda of vanity and obsession with physical beauty in the world of fashion photography.

Another thing he does is that he seems to be able to intensify and capture a bizarrely drugged out quality with the majority of the character’s eyeballs, specifically of the actresses playing the fashion models, which drove me crazy trying to figure out how he lit his subjects so brightly while still having their peepers fixed and dilated... contrary to the laws of physics. One wonders if a lot of the actresses were wearing contact lenses. One also wonders if this signifies certain potential supernatural properties to some of the characters. Again, I don’t want to get too literal here because I’m trying not to post spoilers on this but, the relationship that make-up artist Ruby, played absolutely brilliantly by Jena Malone, and a few of the models have with Elle Fanning’s Jesse character make you wonder if the central protagonist’s final fate is pre-ordained from the first time Jesse meets Jenna, or if her ultimate expulsion from her safety net was prompted merely by a knee-jerk response to something she does near the end of the movie.

One also wonders if any of the characters in this movie are a direct metaphor for Elizabeth Bathory, perhaps, who has been portrayed in many ways in many movies over the years.

However, one of the things I will credit the director for is his willingness to create an open ended atmosphere, especially in the aftermath of a certain scene near the finish, which neither confirms or denies the potential for an almost supernatural taint to the proceedings on show. My personal conviction is that the very last few minutes of the movie, while pushing the potential of an other-wordly enhancement to some of the characters, almost immediately frustrates it again by the actions of another character, after one of the central antagonist’s self inflicted demise. However, I’m sure it’s something people will have a mixed response to.

As for me... well, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous and, due to the score provided by Cliff Martinez, sounds gorgeous too. The lack of a real plot or story to the movie, especially when the central characters are so wonderfully brought to life by the main actors (including the wonderful Keanu Reeves in a what I thought was a fairly brave role for him), is not usually anywhere near a problem with me and I often prefer those kinds of films which don’t have a real tale to tell... but this one, for some reason, did feel quite empty and I found that, although I was certainly entertained by the look and feel of the movie, I was less than happy with the resonance of the final product, haunting as it is, in some respects. It’s not one I’d particularly recommend to people and I’d have to say the outrage it’s provoked in some quarters seems bizarrely out of kilter with the ‘nothing new here, move along’ quality of this film and just forces me to conclude that the people who express such notions are sorely lacking in their appreciation of cinematic history. At the end of the day, there’s nothing really surprising or eye opening about The Neon Demon and I would only go to see this one if you are an ardent fan of style over substance.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Zeta One

Zeta Max

Zeta One (aka The Love Factor)
UK 1969 Directed by Michael Cort
Tigon/Jezebel Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: I guess this technically
has spoilers in it all the way through.

Wow, this is terrible. Almost entertainingly bad to an extent, sure, but... terrible nonetheless.

I bought this on US Blu Ray a few years ago and have only now just gotten around to watching it. All I can say is that I’m really glad I got this one as it’s a great example of something that you just couldn’t imagine getting green lit today. Very much a product of its time... although I don’t think it was very well received back in its day either. Not surprisingly.

It was conceived as being a companion piece to the sadomasochistic imagery of a science fiction based, regularly running photo spread in Zeta fashion magazine but the film is trying really hard to be a Bond parody, mixing it up with a sci-fi plot line... if it can be seen as having a plot line (or at least one that makes any sense whatsoever). It starts off with a Bondian ‘almost song’, Zeta, playing over some distinctly non-Bond like credits employing some nice, static stills from the production. This is probably the best part of the movie.

We then go into the opening sequence where we see James Word (I guess his word is his Bond?) arriving home at his apartment, played by actor Robin Hawdon. In an entirely unsuccessful parody of a sequence in Doctor No (reviewed here), when Bond realises there is an intruder in his rooms. Here we watch as the moustached Word creeps around his apartment before opening the kitchen door and stumbling over some cleaning equipment, falling at the feet of this film’s equivalent of a sexy Miss Moneypenny substitute, who is there to cook for him and seduce him. It won’t take you very long to figure out why, either... but they unbelievably leave it until the end of the movie as some kind of ‘surprise moment’, I guess.

Anyway, when he falls at the feet of this starlet, his moustache is left hanging half off and it’s half revealed that he was wearing it as, I dunno, some kind of a disguise. Or, I suspect, he was wearing it so that all this footage which forms a bookend to the main ‘story’ in flashback, and which I’m guessing was shot sometime after the main production in order to pad out the running time, would match up to earlier footage of the actor when he had a real moustache... perhaps.

This James Word character seems totally inept when it comes to walking around in the film, often stumbling over things. However, other than constantly picking himself up, he doesn’t play the role with any comedic air at all and so his constant, gravity challenged shenanigans seem a bit strange and disconcerting on a character who is supposed to be the hero. Not that he actually leaves his apartment for the entire first half of the film, believe it or not.

So, anyway, the girl is in his flat and they talk and then play an interminably long game of strip poker, with inappropriate comedy scoring and a complete lack of sexual intrigue, despite the nudity content of this and many other scenes in the movie. She wins the game (but not before stripping off) and therefore gets to ask James about his recent mission, while they are cuddling in bed. Cue the actual film... after this opening scene has gone on for, believe it or not, over 20 minutes. Over 20 minutes of the first bit of padding. I believe the original director may have been ‘removed’ from the production half way through the shoot and, if that’s the case, this could explain a lot.

Word starts telling his story and then we finally get to something which very vaguely resembles a plot. Word’s boss W (which I guess is an inverted M... more Bond games) tells him about a place called Angvia (guess that’s another less than subtle anagram, then) populated by a race of only women, who kidnap worthy ladies from Earth society and brainwash them to fit in with the Angvian way. However, nobody seems to know whether they are from another planet or another dimension or what? All I can tell you is they live in some kind of impractical, psychedelic studio set and they can pop up in our streets out of thin air at the touch of a button. As can their big lorry which kinda phases in and out of reality in a country lane, presumably to load up their kidnapped lady folk. Strangely enough, their ability to materialise and dematerialise seems to desert them at any time they find themselves in trouble... I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Okay... so now we have the main villains of the film. When I tell you the villainous Major Boudon and his favourite henchman Swyne are played by ‘Carry On...’ veterans James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtrey, I could totally understand that you’d think this movie was a comedy of some sorts but, if that is what it’s also trying to be, it’s a very poor one, it has to be said. Nobody actually does or says anything funny, that’s for sure and seeing the glee in which Boudon and Swyne want to torture any captured Angvians is really not what people are going to want to remember these two beloved National Treasures for. Especially with James Robertson Justice coming out with appalling lines, on discovering an Angvian spying on his house, like “Swyne. There's a bitch in the bushes. Go and see what she wants.” Major B wants to conquer the Angvians and take over their kingdom... but there seems to be absolutely no motivation or reason given as to why that would be during the entire running time of the film... along with lots of other absent details.

Meanwhile, back in the other part of the plot which actually never meets up with these villains, James has lost the woman he’s supposed to be meeting as she’s been kidnapped by Angvians. So he goes to see his boss on the 13th floor of his offices, finally getting him out of his apartment after 45 minutes into the film. He goes up to see him in an automated, talking lift that is a real jobsworth of an elevator and is, presumably, an attempt to ‘comedy up’ the general proceedings. The lift won’t take him up to the 13th floor as it’s superstitious but, when the doors open, James seems to have reached his destination anyway... as he’s sent to Scotland to try and rescue an Angvian from the clutches of Boudon for... oh, the plot points really escape me on this one. Don’t judge me too harshly, I believe I’m not the only person who can’t find a coherent way through this movie.

In the meantime the kidnapped girl is taken to the Angvian headquarters, allowing the audience a splendid view of quarter naked,  half naked and fully naked women in baths, eating fruit and in combat training. It is a colony of bizarre decorative shapes and kaleidoscopic effects. The ‘fighting corp’ exercises look very silly, however. Although it’s nice to see one of my favourite Hammer icons, Valerie Leon, wandering around in almost nothing.

We find that the Angvians use those stupid 1960s movie magical tele-screens which allows them to see anything that’s happening in ‘our’ world and that they employ left over sound effects from episodes of my favourite TV show The Prisoner. The kidnapped lady in question is pushed into a mechanical machine and she comes out in a chamber, laying face down but somehow naked on an invisible board in a black room with psychedelic wax lamp style designs swirling around her, badly superimposed into the foreground. We watch her spinning around and upside down for a while but it seems that when she comes out of this chamber she is not, in any way, reconditioned.

Elsewhere, a rescue mission has gone wrong and one of the Angvians is in trouble, so another prominent Angvian, who has been pumping James Word for information (not the person in the framing story), goes to Scotland at the pop of a button to rescue her. For some reason the girls can materialise and dematerialise anywhere, when and where they please... unless they’re in trouble. Then the cavalry arrive with their special powers which the same girls also seem to posses so... you know, they had many easy ways to escape if they wanted to. James also runs around the Scottish forests... or should I say ‘stumbles’ through them... but doesn’t actually arrive until the end of the story and once the two main villains have somehow just completely dropped out from the narrative of the movie, after a gang of henchmen have been taken out by Angvians... I’ll get there in a minute, people.

Meanwhile, our original kidnapped gal tries to escape by opening a pointless tube, much like a ventilation shaft but with no apparent purpose to it, and crawling down miles of twisty, turney tubes, rubbing her clothes against the edges at all angles and constantly revealing anatomical features of her body as the clothes get caught in the pipes. However, one of the trained elite also spots she is gone and gives chase by entering the same series of tubes and... doing exactly the same thing.

When the escapee gets loose, she takes on some of the trained military finest by karate chopping one of them and grabbing one of their belts which she flings at another two, the belt wrapping around their torsos, trapping them together. Except... hold on a minute. For a planet or, you know, possibly a strange dimension, that has no male population, the reverse shot of the throwing seems to show a man’s hand guiding the belt to the correct destination, flashing in from the left of the screen. Hmmm.... good production values on this one then... and all lovingly restored in the high definition Blu Ray format that films like this so obviously deserve.

Meanwhile, again, the head of the Angvians, Zeta, played fleetingly in scenes by Dawn Addams, sends her military unit to the rescue in Scotland using the Anglian intelligence codes for their rigorous strategies... in this case she orders... “Action 69, fast”. Um... which apparently means a lot of scantily clad dominatrix types come to the rescue by using what I can only describe as ‘air karate’ on a load of endless henchmen. And when I say ‘air karate’ I mean just that. They point their hands in anyone’s direction and a manipulated thunderclap peels on the soundtrack as their victims go flying. Which make you wonder why the Angvian they’re coming to save didn’t do that to her captors in the first place... or... you know.... just teleport herself somewhere else, as we know they can do.

And that’s nearly the end. There’s a pile of henchmen laying in the forest but no James Robertson Justice or Charles Hawtrey among them and, bizarrely, nobody asking questions about where they are either. So much for the bizarrely convoluted nothing of a plot. We then jump back to the book end scenes where, big surprise, it’s revealed the Moneypenny character is also, secretly, an Angvian and she kidnaps James Word, taking him to her realm to breed with the population in the ‘inseminating room’ so that they can perpetuate their species. Why they’re only now realising they’re short of men is anybody’s guess. In the insemination room we see various naked women lounging around James between his inseminating duties... apart from one strange lady who is doing the most bizarre and energetically out of place dance you’ve ever seen in the left of the shot. Here, James is constantly fed a diet of champagne and raw oysters to keep him up to his new job, between girls. And that’s that... the end.

Okay... so this is one of the most ludicrously plotless films you’ve ever seen. You may think the 1960s Casino Royale movie or the Dr. Goldfoot films are inanely insane but this movie makes those look like absolute masterpieces in comparison. It sounds fun, on paper but... it really isn’t. I’m not quite sure why this has had a US Blu Ray release but I am at least grateful that Jezebel have put this out... if only so people who watch it can warn others about it. If you’re a seasoned veteran of watching 1960s tosh that possibly should never have gotten out of the script stage, then you’d certainly want to add Zeta One to your library. For anyone else, however, this movie will probably seem like a colossal waste of time. This kind of movie is exactly my cup of tea and even I had some problems with it. This movie gets an A for enthusiasm but an E for effort, I think.

Monday, 11 July 2016


Lack Brain

USA 2010 Directed by The Brothers Strause
Momentum Pictures Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: I really feel I need to talk about the end of this movie so... yeah, some obvious spoilerage in this one. There will be another warning before it happens, though.

Well this is a bit of an interesting one. I missed this movie at the cinema and I think it got into trouble from having a similar theme to Battle: Los Angeles (which I loved and reviewed here) when it was released, because one of the directors worked on the effects for the other film.  That being said, I can see why they maybe didn’t get too far with that legal action because, apart from the 'aliens in a city' commonality, it’s a very different kind of movie, especially when you get to the end.

It’s actually a very low budget movie but you wouldn’t at first, know it to look at it. It had, at the time, more visual effects shots than most Hollywood blockbuster movies of that period and it’s not bad effects work... very good, in fact. However, although I knew next to nothing about the film before I watched it, as the movie wore on I began to figure out that the budget must have been quite small because, for the most part, it’s all filmed in one building... comprising two apartments, some stairs and corridors, the rooftop and a parking bay. There are a few other very brief scenes which take place in a pool (of the same building and the interior of a plane but... that’s about it). Oh... and the special effects shots of aliens and so forth riddling the skies of LA... which is pretty great looking in terms of that kind of thing, I have to admit.

The film starts off with a teaser of the main male antagonist Jarrod, played by Eric Balfour, about to get ‘snatched’ by an alien creature before jumping to fifteen hours earlier, showing him and his wife Elaine, played by Scottie Thompson, arriving in LA to visit Jarrod’s rich and successful friend Terry (played by Donald Faison) on his birthday. They go to a party and they are all sleeping in the same apartment suite when... we catch up to the pre-credits teaser and the aliens arrive and start snatching up loads of people in order to carry out their nefarious plans.

Pretty much right from hereon in, the film becomes about a small group of people trying to survive without being discovered by the aliens who, it would be fair to point out, seem fairly invincible throughout the movie. This includes, of course, all the stupid ‘shall we stay or risk making a break for it’ kind of arguments with the usual male ego stuff getting in the way of the more rational plans. So, yeah, the usual minor friction punctuated by some suspenseful scenes and some pretty cool special effects sequences throughout.

Now, I have to say that, for the first half of the movie, I found this film to be quite gripping. I was on the edge of my seat more than once and, although another person watching this with me found it irritating from the get go and opted to stop watching, I thought the build up in ‘alien invasion terror’ was quite well done and maybe suspect that the film-makers really didn’t need to opt for having the teaser scene in at the start at all... seeing how it automatically negates the usual dramas going on with the character development because, as an audience privy to what’s going to occur, you know that in 15 hours time in the character’s lives... none of that will matter.

So yeah, pretty well cobbled together for the most part and there was even a parody of the old War Of The Worlds scene with the tentacles groping around and looking for the bothersome humans which, I actually found to be far more worrying than I expected it to be... even though I knew there would have to be a scene like this in the movie at some point.

After a while though, it has to be acknowledged that I stopped liking the way the story progressed, or rather didn’t progress, during the second half of the movie. The characters are mostly making stupid decisions throughout, which didn’t help, but the lack of a budget for a larger scale story really begins to wear on the viewer after a while, I think. Everything that is seen involves one or other of the initial set of characters and we never really leave them. What this means is that when the US military is sent in to try and stop this new and fantastic alien menace, we don’t get any military point of view on what is going on as the story never goes outside the realm of what the main protagonists see. So we see battles happening from a distance without ever really getting close enough to the main action to know what the tactics being employed are. Even when we have a scene with a couple of soldiers on a roof, we’re never really told anything about what is going on.

So, yeah, the movie has a strong first half with an equally competent but increasingly dull second act, to be honest. It just gets a bit ‘samey’ after a while and I guess the budget wasn’t there to get the story onto another level when it needs to pick up at certain points although, as I said earlier, the effects sequences are astonishing. As are the aliens themselves, who seem to be half machine and half organic creatures that really probably shouldn’t have been as convincing as the special effects team are able to render them here. I’m not even 100% sure that the big motherships that come and start all the trouble are not living creatures themselves, to be honest. It’s not made clear and left for the viewer to figure out... which is okay in my book.

Okay... so now I talk about the ending so... spoiler warning... do not read the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know.

The film does seem to be going on a bit and outstaying its welcome towards the end. It’s a bleak proposition for any survivors because, as I said, the aliens seem to be fairly invincible. The creatures have been luring humans towards them, like the sirens of mythology, with hypnagogic light shows which pacify them before they ‘eat them’ metaphorically and take them inside... where their brains are scooped out and used to install into more new aliens. Which kind of makes no sense as a way of propagating your species I reckon...

Lots of pitfalls but, then again, I don’t think like an alien, I guess. However, when the last two surviving protagonists, Jared and Elaine, are snatched, Jared’s brain is scooped out and he’s put into a new alien. Elaine is discovered to be pregnant and so she is taken ‘somewhere else’ to have some kind of other thing done to her...but here’s the thing. Jared’s brain is still thinking like he was before, so the new alien comes to the rescue of Elaine and is about to take on all the other aliens (probably unsuccessfully) as the movie ends. It’s a bizarrely interesting movie in terms of pushing the follow through of just where you can take your main male protagonist but, alas, it also doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jared’s former mentality kick in? When no other human’s does? And if that were at all possible... why would the aliens be doing this in the first place.

End of spoiler.

There’s not much logic here, it’s true but, at the end of the day, hats off to the film makers for trying something different in terms of where the story can go... even if I had lost faith in the characters by this point. The interesting but ultimately unsatisfying ending, coupled with a fairly solid first half to the movie, are enough to at least ensure I can recommend this movie to the kinds of people who like science fiction movies and alien invasion scenarios in particular. There’s a lot wrong with this movie and also a lot right. There was a sequel made which was supposed to come out last year (if the teaser posters are anything to go by) called Beyond Skyline and starring Frank Grillo but, as far as I can tell, although it’s completed, it hasn’t actually been screened as yet. I quite like Grillo, though, so I’m hoping this won’t be consigned to being on a shelf without ever seeing the light of day. That would be a shame (or possibly not, if it’s that bad).

Either way, Skyline is at least an interesting film and, though it might not have the same rewards and pleasures that other films in this kind of genre have, it’s certainly not a terrible movie and I think sci-fi fans would be wrong to ignore it. I’m not saying they’d necessarily like it but, you know, it does have some minor things to say at the end. Not one I’d watch again (the Blu Ray cost £3, brand new) but certainly good enough for one shot.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Now You See Me 2

Now You Don’t

Now You See Me 2
2016 USA Directed by Jon M. Chu
UK cinema release print.

Okay then. I was quite harsh on the first film in this series, Now You See Me, when I reviewed it (right here) because of the usual “I saw that coming” predictable nature of the movie. That being said, I was also pretty positive about it, called it for what it was... an extremely entertaining movie... and was happy to watch it a second time. The sequel is a similar affair, in some respects... except it more than lives up to the high standard of the first movie. I won’t go so far as to call it a better movie than the first... but I will say it is at least its equal in many respects. If ever there was a sequel that truly follows the first movie, continues the main themes and builds on that story arc to a certain extent, this movie is it.

However, now I’ve said all that, there’s a real problem with this film before you even go to the cinema to see it... the title.

I remember I was at Brian Tyler’s debut concert in London, earlier in the year (reviewed by me here) and I saw/heard him premiere a suite of music from his score to this movie. As he started playing, the title of the movie was revealed to be... something other than Now You Don’t. Seriously people? You have the perfect title for a sequel implied by the opening half of a well known phrase used for the first movie and, instead of following it up with the expectation of a movie called Now You Don’t, you call it Now You See Me 2? I mean, c’mon? How dumb is that? It niggles me but I know some people who are really angry that the studios let it go out under this title. It really insults the audience too but... well, I guess the suits at Hollywood have a pretty good track record for insulting their audience, as they always have had.

Okay, so before I go on to point out why, even with a completely different director than the first magical confection, this film is another little slice of genius... let me get to the bad or slightly disappointing stuff first. Number one of which is a repeat of the main flaw of the first movie in that, certain elements of the story are actually quite obvious and predictable. There’s a major figure in the first movie, and I won’t say who because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, who turns out to be not what he seemed in the previous one. It’s kind of a twist reveal near the end of the picture, once the main plot is all wrapped up, and the problem is that most people will probably see that coming a mile off. Also, like the first film, the very nature of the illusion (both real and created by the camera to con you it’s plausible), is such that, as an audience, you don’t take anything you see for granted and so, the tension and suspense I suspect you’re supposed to feel as the main plot comes to its conclusion, isn’t in any way unexpected... it’s sad to say.

My third disappointment with the film is that the two female leads from the previous movie, Mélanie Laurent and Isla Fisher (the lady horseman), are not present in this one. Which is a shame as they were both so fantastic in the first one. So there’s that. However, we have the brilliant Lizzy Caplan, who I loved in Cloverfield, playing Lula (the new lady horseman) and she’s just as amazing in this. Also, we have Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, playing the main villain of the piece along with another character from the first film. So there’s also that.

And the cast is great. I’ve already shouted out Caplan and Radcliffe but they’re joined by the main regulars of the previous movie in the form of Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman... who are all as brilliant as you would imagine them to be. We also have new cast members Tsai Chin (who was a regular in some of those old Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies), Jay Chou and the lovely Sanaa Lathan... all thrown into the mix with them and who are all, also, just as great in this. So there’s even that, too.

It’s not just this stuff that makes the movie so brilliant, though. There’s that same, very fast moving camerawork that was a stylistic trait of the first movie, coupled with some really sharp dialogue writing, spectacular set pieces, lots of hokum and, for the most part, action sequences which don’t involve car chases and shooting at people. It’s all good and it ties itself to the original movie straight away by giving us a very strong opening sequence, which is a closer look at the back story of Mark Ruffalo’s character, on the fateful day which set his original 30 year plan of revenge in motion. So, yeah, this film really works right from the opening shots and Brian Tyler’s incredible score.

And talking of Brian Tyler and his toe tapping, amazing score for this movie... I was pretty sure I spotted Mr. Tyler himself in a 'blink and you’ll miss him' cameo as a guy who checks and straightens Jesse Eisenberg’s tray in an early scene in the film... it’s only for a few seconds of screen time but... yeah. He’s not listed as being in it, in either the credits or the IMDB, but... pretty sure that’s him.

The really brilliant bit for me, though, is that the writers and director managed to completely misdirect my attention for a lot of the movie... which is quite appropriate but completely surprising to me for a film which is about nothing but misdirection. Again, I don’t want to say too much but one of the actors playing one of the horsemen has a certain element to his character which turns up in the film fairly early on in the proceedings and it’s like this thing is deliberately put there to make people like me realise it’s a set up and wait throughout the whole movie, and I did, for the writers to yank that string and use his character to bring in a twist. And the joke's on us because, with such an obvious and stupid set up for a character... the string is never pulled. It’s just a distraction to get you thinking about other things while the writers try to surprise you (mostly unsuccessfully, granted) with other stuff happening in the script. However, the fact that they got me thinking deliberately in another direction wins the writers a lot of brownie points here, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a brilliant and, possibly far too obvious, set up and the film is a lot smarter than that, it turns out. Not smart enough to be called Now You Don’t but, yeah, at least smart enough to fool me for a good long while. So well done on that score people... I was totally expecting ‘that’ character to be used as a switch later on.

And that’s it for Now You See Me 2. If you liked the first movie in this franchise, all I can say is that it certainly doesn’t let the first one down and, I suspect, a lot of people may like this one even more. There are some stupidly impossible illusions and real clichés of things magicians do here but, ultimately, it’s a really well oiled machine that is a joy to watch and it kept me thoroughly entertained the whole way through. Also, I loved the ending and the return of a trend to cinema of a secret organisation working behind the scenes that the law is unable to touch. The Eye, who we heard about in the first film, is not exactly Fantomas or Diabolik... but it’s similar in style to the spirit of Judex and, well... that can’t be a bad thing, I think.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Tokyo Decadence

Lost And Bound

Tokyo Decadence
Japan 1992 Directed by  Ryû Murakami
Region 2 DVD

Warning: Slight spoilers in here...
or at least an indication of a lack of them.

Tokyo Decadence is written and directed by Japanese novelist  Ryû Murakami and based on some of the short stories from one of his collections. I’ve not read any of this guys books (who I believe is no relation to famous novelist Haruki Murakami, who I like a lot) other than one by him called In The Miso Soup. I remember that book being quite raw in terms of its subject matter and, because of this, I guess I was expecting a little more edge to Tokyo Decadence than I found.

My prime reason for wanting to see this movie... asides from the obviously raunchy sexual content implied by both the title and the cover art... is because the film stars Miho Nikaido as the main protagonist. Miho Nikaido is, or possibly was (I’m never quite sure) the wife, or possibly just long term girlfriend, of my favourite living director Hal Hartley. I used to watch her in Hartley films such as Flirt (the first one I saw her in at a London Film Festival screening some years ago), The Book Of Life and Henry Fool (among others). She’s always been an actress whose work I respect, admittedly due to her being in films I love so much, and I knew that, if nothing else, she would certainly be able to carry whatever film she starred in, if necessary.

Here she plays Ai, a prostitute who specialises in aspects of BDSM... what used to be called good old S and M when I was a kid. Indeed, the madam who arranges her clients, along with the other girls working the same profession, refers to their clients as either wanting an S person or an M person... meaning they want to hire a sadist or a masochist (or top or bottom as they are known over here). All the girls switch between either role and the very first pre-credits scene of the movie is, in fact, the most intriguing...

We see Ai tied to a leather, adjustable chair. She is then, much to her anxiety, injected with something by her client. Once that is done she is blindfolded and gagged and then the man she is with does something to her off-camera, after taking his upthrust foot in his hand. We cut to a close up of Nikaido’s face as the blindfold and gag are taken away from her and we see her glazed and possibly uncomprehending expression as the shot is held and she discovers the reality of her situation, which is...

Okay, this is where it gets kinda strange as far as I’m concerned because the film then cuts to the opening credits sequence of Ai travelling the Tokyo streets. Since the tension created so skillfully in that first sequence was ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level, my immediate reaction to this was... oh, okay, so the rest of the film must be in flashback leading up to this moment and they’re going to reveal what happened at the end of the picture. Which is one of the main things that kept me interested in the film, to be honest.

Okay... I’ll come back to this a little later.

The shots of Ai travelling the streets of Tokyo at night in this are little visual gems of clinical menace, it has to be said. Everything seems blue lit and claustrophobic, the camera taking in the panorama as Ai silently observes the oppressive urban culture around her. It actually got me thinking, as I was watching, of the early cinema of David Cronenberg in the way it evokes a blue and washed out sense of hopelessness and, I have to say, that whatever else you might conclude about this film, you’d have to admit that it is, at least, deeply expressionistic in places.

For the rest of the film we follow little episodes of Ai’s daily life, mostly her encounters with various BDSM clients and I can only assume that each little vignette is culled from a different short story in Murakami’s source book. A really charming starting story, however, has Ai visiting a fortune teller who tells her she must do three things to avoid harm. 1. Place a telephone book under her television set, 2. Avoid any art galleries in the East and 3. Buy a pink, precious stone and have it made into a ring which she must wear on her middle finger. Of course, this scene is useful in two ways... primarily as an indication of Ai’s superstitious and wide-eyed innocent nature but, secondly, as a small plot device to almost get her into trouble when she goes back to a hotel room after leaving it behind... following an encounter with a particularly taxing and stern client and his girlfriend.

Actually, there’s a wonderful shot in this long sequence with her first post-credits client. She is on all fours in front of a mirror with a vibrator tied between her legs and her client is plunging in and out of his girlfriend, who is in a similar position behind Ai, playing with her as he does this. However, the reflection on the mirror is angled perfectly so that the client’s girlfriend is hidden by certain foreground elements and so, while we see this on our side of the mirror, the reflection makes it look like the gentleman in question is fucking Ai himself... which is a pretty impressive bit of camerawork, as far as I’m concerned.

The film is quite tame in its pervery, for the most part, but the way it's shot and the protracted nature of the sequences, much without dialogue, gives it a certain dark weight in places that you wouldn’t expect from this particular aspect of the modern BDSM scene. A lot of the shots are static set ups which also give it a more voyeuristic feel in certain scenes, although this is not an exclusive set of artistic decisions and there are plenty of shots where the camera roams a bit more freely. There’s also a lightness to certain sequences too, including a scene where Ai and another woman are doing a double domme session with a guy who likes to be strangled and they think they have accidentally killed him... until he regains consciousness and scares them both.

There’s a big tour-de-force acting sequence near the end of the movie where Miho Nikaido’s character takes a pill that a rich dominatrix gifts to her to give her Dutch courage as she goes through the streets under the influence of the drug, bottle in hand, and searches around for the address of her ex-celebrity boyfriend. Nikaido is pretty amazing in this, as she always is, and the whole sequence kind of reminded me, a little, of a kind of modernistic turning point in her life, similar to the less volatile but probably more potent ‘man with a sack’ sequence from Fellini’s excellent movie Nights Of Cabiria (reviewed here). It’s an interesting part of the narrative to end on and, frankly, the fact that the film does end on this sequence is what annoys me the most about this film...

At no time do we return to the truly powerful opening scene of the movie. Was this scene in Ai’s future or past? We don’t know. Do we know what her client did to her? We do not. It doesn’t come up again and I found this almost artistically criminal, in some ways, that the writer/director never returns to bring closure on this powerful opening set up. I could understand it if he’d given us a reminder of the scene and then refused to disclose what actually happened... that would have been a valid aesthetic choice and I could respect it. Here, though, we are just distracted away from the memory of the sequence all the way through the film and, in the end, it just wanders off into the closing credits. Very disappointing, as far as I’m concerned.

Ultimately, for all its good acting by the lead protagonist and some interesting shot designs and slick atmospheres evoked by the director, I wouldn’t be prepared to recommend Tokyo Decadence to a friend. It’s not something I feel I could revisit anytime soon but I am, at least, glad that I saw it. Another good thing is that it at least treats the BDSM scene in a, mostly, respectable fashion so there’s that but... no, not nearly as entertaining enough as indulging in the real thing. Maybe give this one a miss and use the cash you save to try something new instead.