Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Criterion Designs

The Admirable Criterion

Criterion Designs
by The Criterion Collection
ISBN: 978-1604659368

Criterion Designs must easily qualify as being somewhere amongst the top ten most beautiful film books I own. This hefty tome was brought out in 2014 to celebrate 30 years of the Criterion Collection, one of the most influential home video labels of all time. Criterion are an American company who are partnered with Janus Films and who were also once partnered with HVC (which explains why you can now get such gems as the complete Zatoichi Collection and the six original Lone Wolf And Cub movies in high quality Blu Ray restorations).

It’s a label who were almost legendary in the days of the LaserDisc, with titles such as their beautiful Kurosawa transfers and their unbelievably cool ‘alternate cut’ of Blade Runner (my review here), which is one of the titles that first made me prick up my ears in the early 1990s, even though I would never have the required funds to buy a laserdisc player. I later acquired a VHS NTSC version of this cut which was extremely hard to get to watch at the time on a UK PAL player although, thankfully, this version was finally made available properly by Warner Brothers years later, first on DVD and then Blu Ray as one of the five cuts of the movie on the most recent boxed editions of Blade Runner… it’s still my favourite version of the film. Of course, once they started releasing selected titles on US DVD, that’s when I started buying the Criterion titles. Sure, they were extremely pricey compared to any other video company’s releases (sometimes of the same title) but in the case of this particular label, you really were paying for the quality of transfers from freshly struck prints and, most importantly, presented in the correct aspect ratio. More often than not, they’d have some quite unique extras on their discs too… gaining in number as the company thrived.

Over the years their logo has changed quite dramatically (although I’ve now got used to the newish, minimal  design) but one of the quirks that they are noted for and which has stayed with them is the spine number on their DVDs, starting with the release of spine number 2, Seven Samurai, if memory serves (I believe spine number 1, Grande Illusion, was a delayed release?). These spine numbers are something which avid  collectors of the range are happy to pursue almost as much as the films themselves although... I don’t have a 'collector' mentality myself so I wouldn’t know.

The covers of their discs have evolved over the years too and, even in the days when they were purely using photos or posters from the titles in question, they were still mini triumphs of design/layout and their brand image put them head and shoulders above the majority of home video labels out there. They continue to release somewhere between 4 and 6 titles per month and many of their older covers, great as they were, have had facelifts as they are reissued with their new logo or re-released in a Blu Ray edition. Some, of course, have gone out of print or the rights to the movies have lapsed back to the original companies... which gave rise to a thriving trade in bootleg/faked Criterion editions, believe it or not. They’re that desirable on the collectors market.

Criterion Designs is a truly gorgeous hard back book which collects some of the artwork of the range together and, in many cases, gives you some insight into their creation. I was surprised that there's no dust jacket for the book but that's because the inside cover spread, full of tiny drawings, is visible through the front of the book via a large cutout of the current Criterion logo. The book then goes on to showcase a number of great pieces commissioned by a load of brilliant designers and artists, reproducing their work on high quality paper which shows them in their absolute best light (even more so than the original covers themselves, in most cases) and also backs these up, a lot of the time, with some of the booklet interior artwork and boxed set design.

As I went through the book I noticed there were a lot of creatives of whom I’d not heard but also a number who I definitely knew, including Eric Chase Anderson whose illustrations for the Criterion editions of his big brother’s films, Wes Anderson, are an absolute joy. I also came across some artists who I primarily knew from comic books of the 1980s such as Jamie Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame or Kent Williams, whose beautifully painted mini series Blood - A Tale made such an impression on me when I was at college.

In addition to beautiful reproductions of some of their favourite covers, many of which are modern icons among home video enthusiasts, there are number of examples of the genesis of these creations, including evolutionary sketches and alternate versions. There are also many fold out pages which act like double gatefold sections where some of the wider artworks for the range are shown in their full glory… for instance some stunning work for Sam Fuller’s movies Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and the wraparound artwork for the dual DVD/Blu Ray set of Zatoichi movies. As a final extra cherry on the top of an already well iced, cinematic cake, the final section is a gallery of pages of thumbnails of the entire history of their covers on laserdisc, DVD and Blu Ray up until the publication of this book, which is a nice resource to have as you are able to see a load of their releases in situ with each other at a glance.

At the end of the day, much of the stuff reproduced or showcased in Criterion Designs for the first time in a collection of this nature (including unused artwork) is truly breathtaking and, though it was an expensive purchase (which is almost a Criterion brand trait but, luckily, I was given some Christmas vouchers a few years ago which saw me in good stead), it was truly a brilliant buy and, while it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it, I’m just so pleased I invested the money for this volume and hope that, someday, they see fit to issue a sequel tome. Truly a gorgeous addition for the book shelf of any lover of cinema or fine art and a solid recommendation from me. Check this one out while you still can.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

Witness For The Execution

The Hitman's Bodyguard
2017 USA/China/Bulgaria/Netherlands
Directed by Patrick Hughes
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoiler for something
you find out very early on in the movie.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard
stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L.  Jackson and is one of those sub genres of the action comedy film which comes under ‘hesitant buddies’ movie. We’ve seen them all before, of course, and there are good and bad examples of this dotted around cinema history, especially over the last 50 years, with some truly great ones being Freebie And The Bean, the first Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight (which also stars Jackson, this time teaming up with Geena Davis). They’re films which involve two things in their ingredients done especially right if they are to be truly worth any repeat viewing and, in terms of what I think those elements are, this film definitely has one and... well it almost has the other. This is above and beyond all the normal , obvious things that this genre needs to get right, of course, such as good action and a good sense of pacing.

Let’s get to the onscreen chemistry between the lead characters first. Reynolds and Jackson have it in spades. They’re both actors, actually, that I have a lot of time for. I’ve been watching Sam Jackson for a while but first became aware of him properly in Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (reviewed here). He’s an actor I appreciate a lot and, I guess in some ways he’s something of a living legend. Ryan Reynolds I don’t know so well but I liked what he did in Deadpool (reviewed here) and I also loved what he did in Green Lantern (reviewed here) which I think was a, sadly, underappreciated gem of a movie that I suspect might do well over time and become better appreciated in 20 to 30 years than it is right now. He’s also an actor I have a lot of time for. So there’s that and... yup. Like I said, I can confirm the chemistry between the two male leads in this is really very good. They play off each other amazingly well with Jackson reflecting a joyous, life loving assassin who makes a deal to testify against the movie’s prime villain in order to get his wife, played by the always brilliant Salma Hayek, out of jail. Reynolds is the deadpan genius of a straight man for a lot of the show and, together, they really work well.

The film starts off strongly where we see the end of Reynold’s last case as ‘Triple A rated’ bodyguard Michael Bryce, with everything suddenly going wrong before his eyes. Cut to two years later and he is a washed up, down on his luck shadow of his previous self but, still doing a similar job for another firm. We see him pick up a drug addled Richard E. Grant and get him to safety and it is only when we hear him talking to his co-worker on the phone that we realise what this relatively easy looking job entailed... as we see him take out at least a half a dozen bad guys in flashback on his way to pick up his client. One wonders why someone who is so proficient at taking out the opposition is still in the position he’s in but, there you go, that’s who this guy is. We then meet Gary Oldman as dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, who is on trial from crimes against humanity but, somehow, not one shred of evidence has been found against him that will stick. We meet him a little earlier in a scene which is pretty standard fare to make his villainy personal to the audience, as he does something pretty nasty to one of his victims. We then meet the incarcerated Darius Kincaid, played by Jackson, who makes that deal for his wife’s freedom with the British to show up and testify at Vladislav’s trial... if they can get him there alive. Of course, as soon as they try to transport him it’s predictably bedlam but Bryce’s ex girlfriend, Agent Amelia Roussel played by Elodie Yung (who I liked so much in Gods Of Egypt... reviewed here) gets him to a temporary safe house and calls in Bryce to help out. Of course, the two recognise each other immediately because Darius has tried to kill Bryce 38* times in their working life so, after the inevitable fight, things settle down and we are left with Bryce and Darius ‘on the road’ and trying to get to the court in Amsterdam from London (most of the first half of the film is set in the UK) while avoiding the opposition and trying to outwit the traitorous plant within the British secret service who is working for Vladislav and trying to make sure Darius never gets to that trial.

And that’s the set up and, like I said before, the chemistry between the two male leads is pretty good... so that’s all fine. And, yes, the film is pretty pacey and has a lot of good and sometimes quite violent action set pieces. That being said, I did have a few problems with it and... I’ll get to those now.

The other essential element you need, I believe, for this specific sub-genre of film to work, is a very good script. The structure in this is relatively sound... a bit clichéd but I’ve got no issues with that. However, the dialogue is really not that great in a lot of places. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some excellent stuff in here including some poignant bonding between the two leads (as you would expect from this kind of film) and some very funny moments. Ultimately, though, I just felt something was maybe missing for some of the time. The dialogue didn’t always feel like it was making the most out of the situations which we're presented with on the screen at certain points but, on the other hand, it’s still not terrible so I’m really not complaining too bitterly. I did, however, feel that this element never allowed the film to rise to being a truly ‘great’ movie and, instead, it kinda hovers at the ‘really quite nice’ level for a lot of the time, instead. No worries, though... that’s a lot better than most movies out there these days.

Another thing I found was that the action sequences completely failed to exploit the great rapport between Reynolds and Jackson by having a lot of it take place at the same time but with them in separate locations. There seem to be surprisingly few scenes of this nature involving the two of them on screen at the same time. Instead, Reynolds will do his thing in a completely different area while Jackson is doing something similarly violent somewhere else. Take the excellent speedboat chase in Amsterdam, for example. Jackson is on the boat and escaping the villains while Reynolds is on a bike protecting him from afar and having his own battles. Similarly, a car chase with Jackson which is fairly long takes place while Reynolds is involved in a foot chase and gets down with some violent shenanigans in a kitchen. How the two miraculously meet up again after this sequence does raise the eyebrows, it has to be said and certainly stretches ones ability to suspend disbelief. Maybe there were some scenes cut which explained how Jackson can just happen to backtrack the long distance he drove and somehow go to the exact place where Reynolds is having a fight but, you know, it wasn’t evident in this final release print.

These are, however, fairly mild problems and, for the most part, the film is an entertaining and joyful experience. I was surprised to find that I liked the score, considering this genre often has some dire music in it. This one is by composer Atli Örvarsson, who also did the wonderful “baroque n’ roll” score for Hansel And Gretel Witch Hunters (reviewed by me here) among others. It’s a really good fit to the movie and mixed in loud enough that I could appreciate it properly in context... I’m also delighted to find that there’s some kind of CD release for this so, you know, that one goes on the list (although half of it seems to be ‘pop songs’ so now I’m having second thoughts about bothering to purchase this).

So there you have it. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is not the best of this kind of movie that I’ve seen but it’s still a pretty okay one and certainly something I’d like to see a sequel to (The Bodyguard’s Hitman, maybe?). Entertaining enough with great performances, some great action and, importantly, editing that doesn’t lose you in the middle and leave you behind during those stunt sequences. A good night out at the cinema and something you might enjoy if the buddy action comedy genre is your kind of thing.

*I’ve only just realised while writing this review, that the dialogue in that scene
going from 37 to 38 is a little homage to Kevin Smith’s Clerks. A nice touch.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Into The Unknown - The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale

Knealistic Tendencies

Into The Unknown -
The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale

by Andy Murray Headpress
ISBN: No ISBN on this hardback edition.

I wasn’t aware that there was already in existence a print biography of the creator of one of my favourite childhood heroes, Nigel Kneale, until this newly revised/expanded edition was just published by Headpress. Kneale was a creator who kinda popped into my life in terms of delivering striking television (and sometimes film) of the specific kind that leaves a mark on your soul as you watch and a proper celebration of his life in book form was something I’d always wanted to delve into. And now I have, courtesy of the research by author Andy Murray and his quite breezy and ‘matter of fact’ writing style which makes the journey of this book a pleasurable read.

I can’t remember which of Kneale’s works I saw first but it would have been around the age of 6 or 7 when I was first introduced to his writing via television. It might have been the time in the early 1970s when the BBC repeated the adaptation Kneale wrote of George Orwell’s 1984 (and I can find no evidence that they did repeat it in that decade but I know it for a fact they did because I remember it and I’m not old enough to have seen the original broadcast). It's truly the greatest version of 1984 put on screen to date. I remember it starred Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, who was an actor I already knew of when I was even at this young age... and the jingle using the words to a song... ‘“underneath the spreading chestnut tree’ somehow filled me with dread or, at the very least, a strong sense of foreboding, for many years to come.

I don’t remember if this was my very first exposure to his work or whether it was my parents letting me stay up for the Hammer Films remake of his first Quatermass serial, The Quatermass Experiment, which Hammer had retitled to capitalise on it being one of the first X certificated movies as... The Quatermass Xperiment (and which I reviewed here). The very first of the Hammer film versions of the character  didn’t actually use Kneale for the script adaption and he was bitter and demonstrative about it for years but, whichever way you look at it, The Quatermass Xperiment is still very much an interpretation of Kneale and a pretty well made one too, as far as I’m concerned. Either way, whether I saw this before the Orwell adapation or not, I do know that this movie scared me silly and I spent the entire night sweating out the fear... and, of course, my appreciation of it grew from there. Pretty much the same thing happened to me with the Hammer remake of the third serial, Quatermass And The Pit (which you can read my review of here, if you are so inclined).

The reason I’d wanted to see the movie was because my parents had loved the first three Qutermass serials when they were broadcast in the 1950s and often talked about people racing in from the street and stopping what they were doing so they could watch it on somebody’s television set. They even had a large, overgrown potted plant which they called Victor, after the character Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment... who does himself turn into some kind of plant-like creature over the course of that first story.

Andy Murray’s newly revised tome takes you behind the scenes of the late writer’s life, to a certain extent but deals with his professional life much more than it does with his day to day existence, although I did find out a little more about that and it was news to me that his wife, Judith Kerr, is also a talented writer, best known in this country as the writer of such children’s books as The Tiger Who Came To Tea and the Mog The Cat books... although she is far more famous in her native Germany for her memoirs of her family escaping the Nazis a day before they came for them. Kneale also has two extremely talented offspring, too, who I knew nothing about until this book.

Despite having got the feeling that I’d heard an awful lot about Kneale’s professional life from various DVD documentaries and tributes over the years, Murray manages to fill in the little blanks and puts it all in order for the reader and I was delighted to find that there were lots of little things about Kneale that I didn’t know. Such as his admiration for the work of H. G. Wells from which, I think, he got the sense of using ordinary people in recognisable locations for his stories, to give plausibility to the fantastic situations they found themselves in. And, although I didn’t know it for sure, it came as no real surprise to find that he was also a big admirer of the ghostly fiction of M. R. James too.

What’s good about this book is it doesn’t tone down Kneale’s contributions to the art of television and fully explores the way he, along with director Rudolph Cartier, completely changed the face of the medium by pushing the boundaries with serials like the Quatermass stories and various other things they collaborated on. They transformed the medium in this country from something very trite and harmless into something which was a bit more pacey and would challenge the boundaries of what to expect from that small box in the corner of the room. It also goes on to explain that Nigel Kneale’s love of film from an early age lead him to try and think about his writing in a more visual manner and I think this certainly comes across in his work.

Yes, all the familiar stories are in here which fans of Kneale will, like me, lap up. The outcry against 1984 until Prince Charles mentioned that The Queen had really liked it, the writer’s distaste for hiring Brian Donlevy to star as the titular professor in the first two Hammer remakes of the serials - The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II (surely one of the first sequels to ever use a number to denote its status in the running order), the author’s bad experience working with John Carpenter on the early script of Halloween III - Season Of The Witch... and so on and so forth, it’s all in here. However, we also get stories which are, perhaps, a little less in the public consciousness and as the writer worked through various collaborations, we can get an idea of the man behind the mask of Thomas Nigel Kneale and it’s very, very interesting.

Murray uses a lot of Kneale’s words themselves in the text and also the testimonies and praise of various collaborators and also influential fans of his work, such as Mark Gattis and Ramsey Campbell. It also mentions the surprising public friction Kneale had with Verity Lambert over the show Doctor Who, which he hated and refused to write for, even though it’s pretty much a show (one of many) that would never have seen the light of day if Kneale’s Quatermass serials had not paved the way for this kind of TV science fiction. The two seemed to get on well enough decades later, though, when they worked together to get the fourth and final Quatermass serial onto television (it still frightens me to this day... Huffity, Puffity Ringstone Round... can’t think of that made up nursery rhyme used in the serial still without feeling chills down my spine). It’s a shame that Kneale hated Doctor Who so much because there have been quite a few Quatermass references in the show itself, over the decades.

The book includes synopses woven into the text, of scripts and shows that Kneale worked on, including some stuff sadly lost to time (missing presumed wiped, as the saying goes... the BBC still have a lot to answer for) and it’s fascinating to read about some of the ideas he came up with. I would love to see a revival of his TV play The Road at some point. It sounds like it must have been pretty special. The book also talks about some of his writing for short story collections and the like over the years and talks about the work he collaborated on with his famous wife too. It also gives you a very good idea as to his reactions and impressions of people over the years, which is a bit of an eye opener. However, I was interested to find that the most recent, ‘live broadcast’ remake of The Quatermass Experiment, aired in 2005, received a similar reaction from Kneale that I had when it was shown (although it didn’t annoy me half as much as the subsequent DVD release of this, where the BBC stupidly omitted the flubbed lines and accidents that happened on the night of that original broadcast...  I remember them fondly and believe that’s what makes live TV so charming, so they should have definitely left those in, I reckon).

All in all, barring a fair few typos (how does that still happen?), Andy Murray’s Into The Unknown - The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale is a pretty useful and entertaining tome and definitely belongs on the bookshelf of any self respecting fan of science fiction. It’s great as a reference work you can dip into for a quick fact or verification but it's also hugely interesting and written in a manner which makes it very easy to consume. Snap this one up before Headpress run out of copies.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A Ghost Story

We’ll Sheet Again

A Ghost Story
2017 USA Directed by David Lowery
UK cinema release print.

I’ve been trying really hard to figure out how to write this particular review without putting any spoilers in it because I really don’t want to be spilling too many beans on this truly amazing cinematic experience for anybody. I think what I may find myself doing, as my writing progresses down the page, is alluding to things without actually mentioning them. If you find this a little grating in places... my apologies to you.

So I saw the trailer for A Ghost Story maybe a month or more ago and I wasn’t overly struck on the idea of going to see it, to be honest... although I liked the idea that one of the main characters is a guy draped in a white sheet. However, I figured out enough to know that this wasn’t another run of the mill horror movie... not a horror movie at all as it turns out. So I figured, since it was showing locally, I had some time and I’d give it a go. Wow... so glad I did. The trailer really undersells the brilliance of this piece and makes it look like something, admittedly a little more accessible to what modern audiences are unfortunately expecting but, at the same time, redundant as a reflection of the final product. At least that's what I think.

The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as unnamed lovers... possibly husband and wife or maybe not, you never really know. When we first meet up with them they are looking like they are moving out of their current house as Mara is packing up books and so on and not getting much response or help, it seems, from Affleck, who is busy composing and mixing a new song (presumably he works in the music industry). In these opening sequences we get the set up that they are a loving couple going through a slight rough patch. Then, the clang of the piano wakes them up in the middle of the night and, it was only in this one moment as the two of them check out the house to see if anyone has gotten in, that I found the movie in any way predictable. I was pretty sure I knew exactly who had caused that piano to sound of like that and, as it turns out much later, I was right... but by then the identity of this random and spooky noise loses importance as you are already at a place way beyond that moment in terms of how you view the story. In pretty much every other way, the writers/director stayed one step ahead of me and I was really grateful for that.

Okay, so one of the things this movie does, or rather doesn’t do, is herald anything before it happens. Things just happen, sometimes off camera and the passage of time goes on and any changes that have happened tend to sneak up on you because they’ve already come to pass in the movie, for the most part. So the film is full of surprises until you quickly start locking into the same rhythm and expecting the upheavals as they come. And I’m mentioning this right now because... and I don’t think this is a spoiler because you can work this out pretty easily from that initial trailer... the director uses this sneak attack approach to usher in the film’s first big change. That is, when we see Casey Affleck dead in a car wreck just outside his house in the early stages of the film. It’s an event that’s done and dusted and we are already plummeting into the aftermath as Rooney Mara then goes to identify the body at the local hospital.

Most of the identification scene plays out in long shot and with a static camera and that’s pretty much the modus operandi for the majority of the movie, actually. Long held static or exquisitely slow moving shots which give the film a languid pacing. Especially since there’s hardly any dialogue throughout, apart from a few sentences here and there plus a dialogue heavy monologue at a party around half the way through. So the gurney with Affleck’s covered body is in long shot with Rooney Mara and a nurse who pulls back the sheet. Mara asks for some time alone with the corpse, which she has and you can see her keeping everything inside her all muffled, as she does through most of her scenes in the movie. She then pulls the sheet back over Affleck’s face and walks out of the room, leaving us looking at a wonderful composition of a door on the left leading our eye into a dividing screen which, between the door and screen, takes up half the frame. And the dead body is on the slab on the right hand side of the frame.

And allow me to make a quick deviation here, while I’m talking about the way a shot was composed. The whole film is shot in a 4:3 (aka 1.33:1) aspect ratio, with curved corners on it. I kept thinking that when things changed for the lead character (as in when Affleck dies in the car accident) that the aspect ratio would open up to a standard widescreen but, no, it’s held throughout the movie. I don’t know why the director chose to do this but the beauty of the shot compositions certainly don’t render this frame ratio invalid at any rate. Maybe he wanted to enhance the loneliness of both characters through a more intimate or crowded frame space... I don’t know. Either way, once you get used to it, it stops becoming important. So let me jump back to that scene...

Mara has walked out of the room and we are just left with the composition I described above for maybe a minute or two with absolutely nothing happening in shot for a good long while, which is a technique which seems very European and something which I like... I remember Scorcese and Woody Allen have both emulated that kind of empty shot sequence in some of their movies. After a while, though, the sheet rises and Affleck is, just like that, a ghost. A typical children’s vision of a ghost, in fact. Just a sheet with two black eyes in the front where the head should be. We join him as he walks back home and, pretty much from this moment on we never leave his side. The whole movie becomes a look at loneliness, not just of Mara’s but, more so the loneliness of Affleck’s ghost. It’s a film about Affleck watching what goes on in the house or, considering all the things that then happen to that house, what goes on with that piece of land.

In the first sequence of his emerging as a ghost in hospital, we begin to start to put together the underlying purpose of his character as he is wordlessly presented with a visual choice before leaving the hospital, which he decides to ignore to ‘walk the earth’ instead. What’s keeping him here? Well, without going into too much detail, Rooney Mara does something just before she moves on with her life and away from the property which keeps the ghost remaining there as other tenants move in and more things happen. It’s a bit of a plot device but it allows us to watch the ghost watching the world go by and we start to slowly pick up on the boundaries and rules of the afterlife, to some extent. For example, ghosts can just silently talk to each other...

In a wonderfully depressing scene, Affleck’s ghost spots a neighbour’s ghost through the window and they have a poignant moment or two... speaking to each other wordlessly through the subtitles which come up on screen. It’s a wonderful element to a film with a central idea that never really gets played out and the simplicity of it is deceptive because tiny little things happen to enrich the concept further as the story progresses. For example, when something happens in a certain scene you wonder just what the heck is going to happen to Affleck and the neighbour’s ghost now and you see something quite simple but very powerful happen just after you maybe have that thought.

This is very much a film of powerful moments. Remember how in a film like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the moment when the condensation of a coffee cup is left behind on a table to fade from view in a second or two becomes a main event of the film, in a way? Well A Ghost Story is very much like a few of these ‘little moments which have bigger consequences’ sequences put together to make a very compelling and quite wonderful film. And the director’s approach to not really clueing the audience to something that’s about to happen visually is a major ingredient of that and allows for certain moments later in the film, which you may not have shrugged off so quickly in the early stages, to be accepted easier. For instance... and because of spoilers I’m trying to make this contextless... at one point in the film near the end the ghost is sitting on the ground looking at something quite tragic and, when he looks up to notice something else, you realise at least a hundred years must have passed where he was just sitting there recovering from what he has seen. And it’s little moments like this that help make this deceptively simple movie a rich and powerfully rewarding experience. And the ending is just perfect...

There’s a moment near the end that I can only describe, without giving away too much information for those who haven’t seen it, as being similar in intent as those infamous whispered words from Bill Murray to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Sofia Coppola’s wonderful Lost In Translation. The thing you might want revealed becomes the unimportant part of what happens then... its the consequences to the central character which matter and it’s those consequences you see which, like the rest of the movie, happens so fast it takes you by surprise. I was pretty sure I knew exactly where the ending of this film was going to take us but the director surprised me in the last quarter of an hour or so, where the game has already changed and in which you come to realise there are more levels to the ‘afterlife’ than you had at first realised. And Daniel Hart’s intensely and achingly beautiful score completely carries the tone of the film and helps give emotional context to the characters in some scenes (I’m waiting for the soundtrack to arrive on CD because the score is quite haunting too).

So there you have it... I could actually go on more about A Ghost Story but that would involve me getting into spoilers and, if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to do that to you. This movie gets a strong recommendation from me though and absolutely anyone who calls themselves a lover of cinema owes it to themselves to seek out and see this wonderful movie. Easily one of the very best of 2017 and probably for many years to come. I can see this building up a huge following with future generations over the years. Plus I think people will be talking about a certain ‘pie eating’ scene for a while too.... Rooney Mara is quite astonishing here. So, yeah, definitely go and see this one or your future self may regret it.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Annabelle: Creation

The Doll Monty

Annabelle: Creation
2017 USA Directed by David F. Sandberg
UK cinema release print.

Well Annabelle: Creation is a fun film.

Much more entertaining than I was expecting given that I wasn’t all that into Annabelle (reviewed here). That being said, it does spend all of its time wallowing in the most obvious ‘horror movie clichés’ you can imagine but, although there are no real surprises throughout the movie (barring a couple of nice moments), it at least executes these conventions in a concise and joyous manner and, while there’s almost a deliberate absence of character depth to the movie, it really succeeds in one of the main intents of a horror film... it’s a fair bit scary in places.

Annabelle: Creation is, of course, actually the fourth film to feature the title character after a quite important set of appearances in The Conjuring (reviewed here) which was, in my humble opinion, probably the best horror movie of the last decade and a brief glimpse of an appearance in The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case (set in my home town here in the UK and reviewed by me here). Now, I have to admit I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for this movie since the stories themselves are obviously no longer relying on the real life events that are alleged to have taken place in The Conjuring movies and I’m guessing this is Hollywood totally doing its own thing with the ‘character’. To be honest, there was already a ‘creation’ scene in terms of how the doll came to be demonically possessed in Annabelle so I couldn’t possibly see where this thing could go without contradicting itself. Well, if that’s what you are thinking too, fear not, there’s actually a pretty good tie in towards the end of the movie with a little segment which takes place twelve years after the main body of this one... where you get to see certain events you’ve seen before in another movie from a different point of view and which ties it in, quite neatly, to the canon as a whole. No real continuity problems there.

The film starts off with a doll maker putting the Limited Edition brand on the wooden packaging of the first Annabelle doll and it introduces us to his wife and child. However, as in the trailer to this movie, it’s not long before their daughter meets with a tragic and untimely death. The child’s sudden death is handled quite jarringly in a masterstroke of build up and editing, much more intensely implied than as seen on the film’s marketing campaign. The film then jumps on a number of years to a nun and her six charges as they move into the big house with the doll maker and his wife, setting up as a new orphanage. Of course, right away the haunted, demonic shenanigans begin with the children and the director then spends the rest of the time trying to pile on the fear. Which he does quite well but, like I said, clichés...

And I do mean clichés. One of the main child protagonists is partially crippled by polio and right away we are introduced to a chair-lift which can only move up or down once the occupant is seat belted into it. So there’s a situation just rife for a horror chase scene right there and you can bet the director sure uses this set up later. Similarly, we have a ‘dumb waiter’ in one of the rooms with a door which keeps sliding open. Yeah, right. No possibilities for haunted, horror escape routes there then, right? We even have a sinister scarecrow and a big, scary well on the property so, you know, the writers and director are taking no chances in throwing potential horror tropes at you from the word go here. I’d be super critical of all of this if it wasn’t for the fact that the director knows he isn’t fooling anybody and milks the horror elements with almost perfect timing while utilising some strong performances from the kids. One of whom I was especially fearful for, played by Lulu Wilson... due to her similar appearance, in my mind, to a young Hayley Mills.

Now, the film is quite intense but that didn’t stop me from seeing the humour in the film and kind of laughing at certain ‘fright moments’ due to their manipulative obviousness, it has to be said... although certain members of the audience were certainly freaking out right from the start here. Don’t know what that was all about... it wasn’t that scary.

The film certainly plays with the conventions of horror without doing much that’s original with them, I’m sorry to say but, the possible unintentional humour of a few scenes certainly doesn’t go against it and I think most lovers of the genre will be happy with this one. Despite the lack of surprises, though, it does have one very surprising moment in it which isn’t pertinent to the main plot... at least not of this movie, at any rate but, certainly of a movie which is coming to cinemas next year. Keep a sharp eye out for a little scene near the start of the film where Sister Charlotte (played by Stephanie Sigman) is showing the doll maker (played by Anthony LaPaglia) a photograph of her last diocese. There’s a beautifully done, shared universe moment here which I’m sure we’ll get the back story to in 2018. Actually, there’s another nice little moment which may catch people off guard during the film, also using a photograph. I won’t go into too much detail but let’s just say “the eyes have it” and leave it at that.

Benjamin Wallfisch provides a score which, while not exactly a million miles away from what other composers are doing within this genre at the moment, is an effective bit of blood curdling "sound design seeks atonal ferocity with GSOH for scary scoring". It’s appropriate and effective when he pulls out all the stops which he does frequently because, despite the conventions being solidly delivered by the director of this movie, Sandberg also does something which you can’t usually get away with if you want to produce an effective horror movie. This being that there are actually very few rest moments between the various horror set pieces. There are some, obviously but... they are very short and so the horror sequences are almost just piled one on top of the other with very little time for the audience to calm down and pause for breath. This really shouldn’t work as effectively as it does here though so, again, it doesn’t really harm the movie. I suspect the pausing beats that are in here might well have been longer in the first assembly of the movie but were maybe whittled down to up the pacing on this one... who knows, the film might have been even more effective for some longer ‘downtime’ sequences but, as it stands, it seems to manage to hold up nicely without them so, no worries there.

Eagle eyed fans of the real life horrors behind the haunted Annabelle doll will get a little treat too. It’s not exactly a secret that the scary Annabelle doll used for these movies looks nothing like the real life counterpart made famous by the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. When one of the characters is given a new doll right at the end of the movie, that rag doll is actually a copy of the ‘real’ Annabelle doll so, you might want to keep an eye out for that. Just don’t leave that eye out for long though or you, too, may become the subject of a real life horror filled event.

And that’s me done on Annabelle: Creation. I really wasn’t expecting to like it but, although I did have moments where I was more comically amused than scared at certain points, it’s a pretty intense, single minded ride which horror fans should really get on with. A word of warning though... if you leave when the credits starts rolling then you are going to miss out. There are two post credits scenes on this movie... one half way through the credits which is pretty much what you were expecting the film to do as its last shot anyway but then, hold on because there’s a more substantial appearance of another character once the credits have finished. I won’t say anything about this now but I’m sure I’ll be mentioning it again in a future review, if you catch my drift. In the meantime though, this ones a minor but effective horror concoction that genre fans will not want to miss.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Atomic Blonde

Fact Is Satchel

Atomic Blonde
2017 USA Directed by David Leitch
UK cinema release print.

Atomic Blonde is a new film directed by former stuntman David Leitch, whose only previous feature length movie directing was some uncredited scenes on John Wick (reviewed here). He is also currently helming the second Deadpool movie and he directed the mini Deadpool teaser earlier in the year. Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and, for once, the Hollywood “based on a” machine got it right... it really is based on a graphic novel and not a comic book being mistakenly confused for one.

After a brief prologue putting the story into political context in the 1980s with the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, the film starts off with a punchy sequence in which a man is running from some unspecified ‘bad guys’ but winds up dead with, amongst other things, a bullet in his skull, all set to the strains of the New Order song Blue Monday (although I’m not entirely sure whether the version used in the film is actually the New Order version). We then sweep into another sequence as we see the main protagonist, British Intelligence Operative Lorraine Broughton (for the purposes of this review) played by Charlize Theron, in the aftermath of the mission which we will see in the ensuing film. We start off with her in a bathtub, filled with ice, to help her badly swollen and bruised body.

We then see her putting up some make-up in the mirror as David Bowie’s song for Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People, Putting Out The Fire, plays on the soundtrack in a somewhat stolen moment, it seems to me, from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds... in which it's used for a very similar sequence (this film also has another connection with Inglourious Basterds in the fact that popular German actor Til Schweiger turns up in a few scenes). Following this, Lorraine goes to her debriefing in London, sat in a room in the company of Toby Jones and John Goodman as she tells the tale of her recent, disastrous mission in Berlin. The majority of the rest of the film is all flashing back from there (with occasional jumps back to that reference frame) as she goes on a mission to find a microfilm list of all the intelligence agents operating in the world... the very list which the gentleman at the start of the movie was killed for. She is also told to look out for a traitorous ‘double agent’ who goes by the name of Satchel, in order to unmask Satchel and probably terminate with extreme prejudice.

And so she goes to Berlin and, before she can meet her main and thoroughly ambiguous contact David Percival (played by James McAvoy) she is already ‘made’ by the ‘opposition’ and gets herself into trouble which she handles in a most spectacularly violent fashion and then... the film goes on like this for pretty much the rest of the running time. And it’s really not a bad movie, to be honest. A quite tough action piece, nicely framed and well edited so that it’s not going to lose the audience and with the kind of brutal edged comic book violence in it that we’ve seen in, for example, the John Wick films.

Now, there’s a lot going on here in terms of ‘story smoke’ in this one and, ultimately, because it’s the kind of film that delves into the murky underworld of spy fiction, where you never know who is telling the truth and who is working for who, the plot is somehow best left ignored, in my opinion. If this was a Bond or Jason Bourne film, people would be complaining about the simplicity of the plot but, because it’s a different beast, the story doesn’t mean too much, to be honest. The identity of Satchel is treated almost like the identity of the killer in a giallo movie, in that there’s so many people it could be that it’s almost impossible to tell which one it is... and it also doesn’t matter, as it happens. The plot is really, more so than many movies, just a framework to hang the stupendously cool action sequences from and to focus on the ice cold personae projected by Charlize Theron, who does wonderfully well in this role. Indeed, she had eight trainers for this movie and was training alongside Keanu Reeves while he was preparing for John Wick - Chapter 2 (reviewed here) but she still managed to crack two teeth while filming, by all accounts. You can tell by her performance here that she really threw herself into the physicality of the role.

So, yeah, the fight scenes are quite brutal in some places and, rather than being the ‘hit someone, kill someone else before killing the other person you just hit - stop - repeat’ style of combat used in the John Wick movies (which is effective enough and I love those films), the intensity of the fight scenes in this are perhaps even more interesting in that they are more intimate with people taking a long, long time to become incapacitated or die. So, less body count (although it is pretty high) and more the strife and struggle of a well choreographed series of set pieces, in this movie. One of the things I liked about it, regarding this, is the way that both heroine and bad guys are shown to be so damaged and exhausted from their fights that they both have trouble getting up to carry on the combat. There’s one sequence in particular, where Theron’s Atomic Blonde is trying to get a character called Spyglass, who has memorised the troublesome list and who is played by Eddie Marsan, out of the country but she goes on the offensive and enters a multi-story building with him to attack some snipers. In the long, drawn out and chaotic fight scenes which take place here, it was great to see Theron’s character getting punch drunk and falling about all over the place rather than just be the 100% killing machine a lot of these kinds of heroes normally are in these sorts of action spectacles.

My one slight problem with the film was the casting of Sofia Boutella as another agent who becomes Lorraine’s lesbian lover during the course of the story (no spoilers here... it’s in the trailers, people). Toward the end of the movie, Boutella’s character comes under some extreme duress from a third party and it was in these moments that I realised that this actress is going to be typecast if she’s not careful because, the baggage she brings to the role via other movies doesn’t help the credibility of her character here. After all, the agent she is playing is quite vulnerable, almost to the point of naiveté but, the roles I associate her with are the killer blade-legged lady from Kingsman - The Secret Service (reviewed here) and The Mummy in the recent version of... um... The Mummy (reviewed here) . So she really should be able to take care of herself in any situation, is what my brain was telling me. I know that’s wrong and it’s maybe just me but I had a similar ‘unwanted baggage’ problem with Uma Thurman in Paycheck. I’d fairly recently seen her kicking all kinds of backside in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies so I wasn’t prepared, in that particular case, for her to play a character who wasn’t able to take on anything less than a gazillion bad guys and come out on top. So, yeah, just a slight problem with Boutella’s character here too but... like I said, that could be just unique to me.

The end reveal of the Satchel character comes a lot after you are expecting it to be revealed, assuming you’re not taking anything you see and hear at face value and after a few fake endings. I’m delighted to say I completely guessed the identity of Satchel wrong, so that made me smile a little. That being said, since that identity really could have been anyone, the cleverness of the reveal comes not from the who but from the ‘what’ and ‘ why’ of the character than anything else. Sorry if that seems a little cryptic but I’m trying to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. Either way, the film doesn’t end when you think it’s going to end and there are a couple of little twists which, while seeming fairly unimportant after the violent carnage of the rest of the story, still give the film a nice little end play to add a little more depth to the tale.

Other than that though, a nice piece of modern, kinetic cinema with a strong soundtrack of 1980s songs (plus covers), some cool performances all around and a few striking visual touches here and there. Watch out near the end, for example, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment where the blood spray of someone’s brains being blown from their head adds a beautiful splash of red punctuation to the artwork on the wall behind, putting a bloody orifice/red set of lips in the mouth of the subject of the painting (I don’t know if that was serendipitous or planned but it looked really great). There’s also a great pseudo-eighties graphic design style to the way the expository typography is used on screen (with the accompanying swooshing sound of a spray paint can) and even a moment where the moviemakers nearly break the fourth wall when the director uses the flashback format to legitimately have the film you are watching burn up in an imaginary projector, so to speak. So, some nice moments here. I was a bit disappointed, given the setting of the film and the title, that the Blondie song Atomic was not used once in the movie, given that its minimalistic vocals and pounding instrumental could have been put to good use here (not to mention the content of those few lyrics) but, that niggle aside, it’s a really cool flick and if you are a fan of action cinema, pretty much unmissable as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if this movie was anything like the graphic novel it was based on but, as a film, Atomic Blonde is a great night out at the pictures so... give this one a go, if hard edged action is your kind of thing.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Fascination - The Celluloid Dreams of Jean Rollin

Rollin Thunder

Fascination - The Celluloid Dreams of Jean Rollin
by David Hinds Headpress
ISBN: 978-1-909394-23-0

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from David Hinds surprisingly excellent book Fascination - The Celluloid Dreams of Jean Rollin... especially after ordering what I thought must be a thick, coffee table book and finding out when it arrived that, for the quite hefty price tag, it was a little paperback with only black and white pictures peppered about out here and there. However, as soon as I started reading it I found myself immersed in a look at Rollin’s work that, while not exactly exhaustive (and that’s understandable given the lack of availability of certain areas of this director’s work), does offer up some real insight into the cinema output of this famous French auteur which I had not, in some cases, considered in my own evaluations of Rollin’s work.

If you are not familiar with the films of Jean Rollin, he’s responsible for a body of personal work (I’ll get on to the other stuff in a minute) which is, mostly, about naked vampire women who tend to exist in unclear narratives which, while sometimes amateur in comparison to the production values found in a lot of other arms of the cinema, tend to offer up truly amazing moments of startling and surreal imagery that will usually linger in the memory way after the film has been watched. Starting with Rollin’s first feature Le Viol Du Vampire: Un Mélodrame en Deux Parties (aka The Rape Of The Vampire: A Two Part Melodrama) in 1967, Rollin has been presenting somewhat iconoclastic productions which have left him an outsider of the critical malaise left in the wake of his screenings. Even with his great start (depending on how you look at it) in having riots in the cinema with chairs being smashed and even, in at least one case, personal attacks on the street as a reaction to Le Viol  Du Vampire... in much the same general reaction that audiences had to Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou back in 1929.

The author does a smart thing with such a large body of work as this director has produced, especially considering not much of his stuff, relatively, has been made easily available (some stuff is just completely impossible to get hold of... especially his later work). After a pretty cool introduction which includes his own entry point reminiscence into the world of Jean Rollin, he splits the book into three main sections (plus a few minor sections to cover things like Rollin’s short stories). The first, largest section is the one which will be of interest, I suspect, to most fans of his work. This deals with what he calls Rollin’s ‘personal films’... aka the ones the director actually wanted to make (with a determination in the face of continual hospital trips when he was trying to direct, in some cases) and which best express his intent. Films like his aforementioned debut and other Rollin classics such as La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire), Le Frisson Des Vampires (The Shiver Of The Vampires), Lèvres De Sang (Lips Of Blood), La Morte Vivant (The Living Dead Girl) and, of course, Fascination, are all included in here along with a host of others of this most important skein of his work and it’s mainly what this book is all about. Each film has the technical details, followed by a synopsis of the content and then an analysis of the key themes and critical reception of the film. Each little film subsection is also topped off with a quite useful round up by the author of the DVD or Blu Ray editions of the movie in question and which are the best ones to get, with details as to how censored they are in each version. Which is always helpful when you are reading books like this.

Hinds hits the nail on the head when speaking of the gothic element present in the director’s works. He compares Rollin to another cinematic auteur, Tim Burton, explaining that while Burton’s films are styled into the gothic by way of visually creating a spot on environment to do such a job, Rollin approaches a very strong gothic sensibility by another route. If Burton overplays the gothicism in the imagery, Rollin lets the gothic inhabit his world by a sense of the past creeping into these films until it dominates the tone of the rest of the movie. So he’ll start off in a modern world, for instance, like the two lady clowns involved in the car chase/shoot out opening at the start of Requiem Pour Un Vampire (Requiem For A Vampire) but the two girls (almost always two in those Rollin films, of course, being a somewhat recurring motif in his films and novels) soon stumble into a wordless narrative of ancient castle ruins and crumbling graveyards and it is within that environment that they (and we) spend the rest of the movie. It seems to be a common them in the majority (not quite all) of Rollin’s more personal cinematic delights and you will notice it as soon as you start thinking about the plots of many of his movies. La Rose De Fer (The Iron Rose), for example, where two lovers in a modern environment soon journey to an ‘olde worlde’ style gothic cemetery from which they can find no escape and are doomed to remain there for the rest of their lives.

The writer talks about this and other Rollin obsessions which make their way out into the world under the guise of his movies such as that stretch of beach at Dieppe which turns up in so many of his movies or the fact that the protagonists in pretty much all of his works, male and female alike, are ultimately doomed and bound to end the film in tragedy. However, since Hinds interviewed a fair few sources over the long gestation period from when he started writing this more than a decade ago, when Rollin was still alive (and interviewed by Hinds), and last year’s publication date, after the great director had shuffled off this mortal coil to join the endless parade of nubile vampires who we hope were waiting for him... he also gets a lot of interesting behind the scenes facts in here. So we get stories such as having to shoot scenes while held at gunpoint for the filming of Les Démoiaques (The Demoniacs), for example, or the awkward, less than agreeable actress who was tied to the burning boat for the end scenes of the same film and almost ended up drowning. All the good stuff is in this tome.

Another section of the book called Also Known As - The Pseudonymous Films tells of the movies he made for other people with not much interest or creative input from himself, often under an assumed name. So films such as Le Lac Des Morts Vivants (Zombie Lake) and Emmanuelle 6 are listed here, with much the same dedication to detail that the author followed in the prior section about the director’s unmistakably ‘auteur’ works. This is then followed by a less detailed section, mostly just quick technical details of each film only, of the director’s ‘other’ job as a sometimes hardcore pornography director. I actually do own one of these, an uncut La Comtesse Ixe but, alas, I haven’t had time to watch it yet since I picked it up from a Film Fair a couple of years ago. I will get around to reviewing it at some point, though. This is then followed by a small section detailing his short movies and, finally two interviews, one of a transcript of a conversation the writer conducted with Rollin himself and another with frequent Rollin collaborator/producer Lionel Wallmann.

All in all, I’m really quite pleased that I picked this one up because, despite my disappointment in finding that it was not a lavishly illustrated coffee table book filled with rare colour stills, it’s actually a treasure trove of information and it’s also rather good, I suspect, for people who are only just beginning to cotton onto this director’s work... because it tells you just which films you can ignore and which ones are not worth getting into (although, I confess, that two or three of this writer’s favourite Rollin films are actually my least favourite of this director’s truly startling output. I was a bit disappointed that the hardcore films were not treated with the same enthusiasm as the director’s more familiar works but I do appreciate, as I said before, that these can be extremely hard to get a hold of with little interest being given by 'home cinema' labels to find and restore these things. All in all, though, this proves to be an unexpected gem which should find its way into the consciousness of any admirer of the cinema of Jean Rollin and a worthy addition, as far as I’m concerned, to the NUTS4R2 library.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Valerian Borrows,
Seeks In Moral Tales

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets
France 2017 Directed by Luc Besson
UK cinema release print.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is based on the famous French comic strip Valerian And Laureline and stars the always interesting Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. And there’s my first little problem with this movie right there... the strip is called Valerian And Laureline because they are both equal characters with Laureline often saving the day and rescuing her ‘male headed’ partner. Her role is in no way diminished in this movie and they are pretty much joint protagonists in this one so... why the heck has the girl’s name been left out of the title? What the heck is going on here?

So, anyway, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is the latest movie from Luc Besson and, when I first heard he was taking on this project it didn’t set me to cheering, I have to admit. I used to love the films of Luc Besson... I remember seeing Nikita five weeks in a row at the Lumiere cinema, as it was in the day, in St. Martin’s Lane near Covent Garden when I was studying for my degree... I would probably have gone more if it had played longer than it did there. Nowadays however, I tend to see him more as a bit of a hit and miss director. He gave us some of the best French movies going but, somehow he lost his way and, for me, the first chinks in the armour were when he made his other big sci-fi opus, The Fifth Element. That could have been a really great movie but he made the mistake of having this truly irritating character played by Chris Tucker which made the movie practically unwatchable in places so... yeah... wasn’t too sure about that and nowadays I prefer him as a producer than a director, truth be told. Out of his more recent directing work, for every great movie like Angel-A and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (reviewed here), you also get good looking but ultimately vacant junk like Lucy (reviewed here) so... I wasn’t holding my breath with this one, to be sure.

As it happens, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a pretty good sci-fi movie... and although it’s been shot in English, it does have a very 1960s French feel to it... kinda like the movie version of Barbarella but without the sex (to a certain extent... it’s a 12A over here). It’s beautifully shot, well acted and really nice to look at. A fun romp and one which I was hugely entertained by although, I have to admit, I’m not too sure if I could ever sit through it again. I’ll get to why in a minute.

The film starts off fairly strongly with a montage of the history of a space station, starting off in 1975 and working its way to the far future which uses a bunch of human/alien handshake scenes to establish how the ‘City Of A Thousand Planets’ came into being and all set to David Bowie’s awesome second version (the version which became a hit) of Space Oddity. Now, I have to say that this sequence kept me on the absolute edge of my seat... not because of anything that happens but because of what I was expecting to happen. All these alien handshakes at the start set me up to expect the good old “Arghhh. It’s pointing its finger pistols at us... kill them first.” gag which is a bit of an old one, to be fair but, no, nothing like this happens and so I was teetering on my seat for no reason. This is followed by a long introductory scene set on an alien planet called Mul which is pretty cool and which, this time, did go exactly as I was expecting because, in cinematic terms, why spend so long setting up an idyllic and peaceful race of beautiful aliens without following it up quickly with disaster striking with a bang at the end of the sequence? Without giving too much away, when the bang comes a certain kind of ‘shockwave’ (I’m being deliberately cryptic here because I don’t want to post any spoilers) catapults Valerian and Laureline into the movie length adventure. And that’s as much as I am giving away of the plot.

The film is fun to watch and has some nice concepts. The two leads are both excellent and the chemistry between them is good in that they work well together. That being said, it does kind of highlight a big problem with the film which, again, I’ll get to that in a minute. There are also some excellent performances and a lot of cameos too by actors such as Clive Owen, Rutger Haur, Rihanna and Ethan Hawke. The special effects all work well and the movie has a really well written and complex score by Alexandre Desplat. My understanding is that this is the score he had to leave Star Wars - Rogue One (reviewed here) for when he was required to 're-compose' for the version incorporating all the re-shoots (I wonder if we’ll ever get to hear what he did for that original cut sometime in the future). It’s a good, audio glue for the film and, though it does get into the broad stroke, ‘comedy scoring’ style for certain sequences, it’s still quite subtle in places, despite this element and I have to say he does a really good job with it here.

Okay, so let me tell you why the film is probably not going to get me back for another sitting and where I think it’s problem areas are.

Problem area number one... although there are some nice but incredibly old, seen-it-all-before, hard science fiction concepts in the movie, it never once seems to have any kind of surprises up its sleeves. Even the main ‘twist villain’ (and I use the term loosely here) is easy to spot the first time that the character comes on screen and, all the way through, you are just left wondering when the heck the penny is going to drop for the rest of the characters. So, while this film does have a certain ‘wow-factor’ in the beauty of its visual effects and the way some of the shots are put together, there’s nothing really outstanding or ‘next level’ in concept in the story. Maybe it’s because the comic has been around for 50 years now (at time of me writing this, it was first published in 1967) and so I’m pretty sure a lot of the things on show here have been cribbed by many movie makers over the years. Like the excellent John Carter movie (reviewed here), it’s probably been plundered so all the unique things about it nowadays make it look like it’s copying from other things. This film would have gone down really well in the late 1960s or early 1970s though, I can tell you.

The other thing is, as good as Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are together here and as emotive as the ‘beautiful aliens’ element of the story is... it’s a surprisingly emotionless experience, to be honest. It’s not that I didn’t care about the characters (well maybe not much at all but I was at least on their side), it’s more like the direction is just so clinical and spectacular that the director just forgot to put a huge dollop of emotional warmth in it... or at least didn’t really highlight it as much as it was needed here. So even with Desplat’s stunning score, the movie really doesn’t match the emotional heights of something like, say, the new version of Wonder Woman (which I reviewed here). Which means I’m not invested enough in the characters as they are portrayed here to really get into things with them again. So no repeat business from me on this one, I’m sad to say.

However, I would recommend it as being an entertaining watch for the first time around and if you want to make the most of the stunning photography, then probably it’s something you should see at the cinema. An excellent time filler for people who like science fiction (especially if they liked Besson’s The Fifth Element) but I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, truth be told. Definitely worth a ‘first look’ though... not to mention a first listen.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Bestiary In Show

Fantastic Beasts And
Where To Find Them

UK/USA 2016
Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

I’m really not much of a Harry Potter fan, it has to be said.

Unlike my parents, I’ve not read any of the books avidly and the only reason I’ve seen the films, once each, was because they dragged me along to the cinema to see them as each new one turned up. Alas, due to circumstances beyond their control, they never got to see this at the cinema so, instead of being dragged to my local flea pit to see it last year, I instead found myself watching it with them in a communal Blu Ray session so... I’m probably not the best candidate to give you a review focusing on the 'authenticity' of a story set in the Harry Potter universe.

What I can do, however, is at least give a view of how it works as a film and, it has to be said, this one’s not bad at all.

For me, the setting of 1920s big city America coupled with a central cast who aren’t a bunch of teenagers solving groovy mysteries is a good start at not alienating me completely and it’s also lucky I quite happen to like Eddie Redmayne as an actor, who plays the lead character here (yes, I even didn't mind him as that shouty bad guy in Jupiter Ascending, reviewed here... I have a lot of time for him).

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them dealt me its first surprise in that Potter creator J. K. Rowling actually wrote the screenplay... which isn’t based on a novel. What’s more, it doesn’t look like she had any help doing it (unless there was an uncredited script doctor in the mix) and so I have to say I’m very impressed that someone who is used to writing narrative based in novels is actually able to express themselves so quickly and competently in the rather more different medium of film. The more cynical part of me might say that’s no big surprise since she’s obviously been involved, to some degree, in the successful series of films based on her Harry Potter books for a fair few years but, nevertheless, the fact that the majority (for me... I’ll  get to it in a minute) of the film holds up as a cinematic whole is quite amazing and so she definitely is someone I should probably sit up and take more notice of at some point.

Not only is it a coherent movie... it’s also a fast paced one, which actually builds up characters and situations the audience can actually care about while still managing to cram in a heck of a lot of good ideas. The fact that she has an excellent cast such as Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudo, Ron Perlman and Johnny Depp obviously contributes greatly to the characterisations but, even so, the dialogue is quite well written and so is the way in which certain set piece events impressively move the story along in an efficient yet, wildly entertaining manner. And believe me, I didn’t expect to be writing something like that about this movie.

We also have Colin Farrell thrown into the mix who is not, I have to say, an actor I usually have a lot of time and sympathy for but, since he’s playing an obvious villain here, that kind of worked for me too, in actual fact.

The juxtaposition of the quirkiness of the wizarding world we are familiar with now from the Potter series of movies (and books) with the 1920s big city milieu really works very well and everything slots together in a fashion which, at times, made me think of watching certain Terry Gilliam movies in my youth. That being said, there was one problem I had with it but, honestly, it’s only a minor one...

The zoo that the main character played by Redmayne carries around with him in his suitcase, which kinda works like the TARDIS in Doctor Who in terms of the inside being vastly bigger than the outside, features in a couple of scenes but the very first time we are taken in there... it kinda outstays its welcome just a little bit. While I can see where an overly long CGI sequence introducing us to various beasts is probably a great scene for kids, I kinda got bored with it in the same way as the extended Enterprise vanity shots in the original Star Trek The Motion Picture (reviewed here) failed to quicken my blood as a young ‘un. However, I have to remember that, as I am now approaching 50 years of age, I’m probably not the primary intended audience for a movie like this and so... yeah, it is what it is and it doesn’t ruin the movie, for sure.

Other than that overly long section, though, I certainly didn’t find myself getting bored by any of the other sequences in the movie, which are all a lot more faster paced and which never got in the way of character development. Indeed, I can’t wait to see what happens to Dan Fogler’s character in any of the sequels because I really had a fondness for him in this and his final fate is something which is not uncommon in modern science fiction but which is handled so beautifully and tenderly here that... well, you have to wonder how Rowling was able to write anything quite so subtle and equally have to wonder how much of that cinematic sophistication in the handling of certain scenes was aided by the director and actors in terms of the conceptual input. You also have to ask yourself if it actually matters too because... what is cinema if not a collaborative art form?

Not least is the collaborative input of James Newton Howard's excellent score which takes Johnny Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme, quite literally, as a starting point and then gently but surely takes us on a new musical voyage completely appropriate to the movie. That being said, there was a scene where Williams’ theme resurfaces in the last third of the movie for a moment and I was trying to figure out why that particular piece of leitmotif was being used here. I suspect if I knew more of the subtle references from the books and previous movies, which I’m pretty sure must be scattered about in here too, I’d have my answer but... ah well. That stuff is off my radar.

So there you have it. A movie I never really wanted to see turns out to be quite a good film and most certainly a well crafted one. If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series then you are probably going to want to take a look at Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, especially since I suspect the narrative will be linking in a lot more strongly in terms of the characters etc. in the next installment. For muggles like myself it’s probably not so essential but, even so, I quite enjoyed this one.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

DC Comics: Bombshells Vol 1


DC Comics: Bombshells Volume 1
by Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage
DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6132-0

It’s been many years since I read a superhero comic and longer than that since I read one where multiple super powered beings banded together to fight a common foe. When I first started buying the DC Bombshells merchandise a few years ago, in the form of a few travel pass holders and a deck of cards, I had no idea it was an actual comic book. As it transpires, though... it wasn’t. First manifesting itself as a series of popular prints and then progressing to statuettes of female superheroes re-imagined as 1940s examples of themselves (which almost makes no sense in terms of Wonder Woman) or, in some cases, popular male heroes re-imagined as women from that same era, this is a case of original artist Ant Lucia’s designs inspiring a retro fitted comic book series which faithfully works these creations into a 1940s wartime setting.

This first volume, with the subtitle, Enlisted, reprints the first six issues of this series. The various issues which make up this trade paperback reprint gives us some of the back story to these characters as it slowly reveals how they come to be thrown into this mess of a Second World War together and are recruited to form part of ‘The Bombshells’… a kind of US government headed, all female version of the Justice Society of America, if you will (not to be confused with the Justice League Of America, who were the Silver Age equivalent of that particular super-group).

The story starts off strong when the feminist subtext which shapes the central storyline kicks in and completely nullifies one of DC’s biggest hero characters. Instead of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot in the street after they and young Bruce emerge from a movie theatre showing a Zorro flick, they are saved from those fatal bullets by the appearance of Batwoman, a masked vigilante who  presumably takes her name from the baseball bat she swings to brutally beat her evil foes. Thus Batman is never born in this version of the DC universe (at least not yet in these issues, anyway) and this strong, opening statement really is an overt sucker punch to those expecting some kind of Dark Knight storyline to this thing.

There are also some much more contemporary DC characters thrown back in time… ones who I am not all that familiar with in some cases…  such as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. They even manage to shoehorn some nice appearances from male characters in this one too… such as a couple of surprise panels of Swamp Thing raining down destruction on some soviet soldiers and Zatanna’s magic hat rabbit actually being a rodent version of John Constantine (who was played by Keanu Reeves in a terribly unfaithful but ultimately very fun movie version of that character).

The story is beautifully told and takes a fair few more twists and turns than you might reasonably expect from the material as it assembles its interesting cast. I say interesting because some characters such as Wonder Woman are already 1940s heroines to begin with and, although Diana’s origins are more or less what they always were, the story goes further with some characters in terms of its initial set up. Supergirl, for example, was rocketed to Earth and found in the Soviet Union, where she grows up with her half sister Starwoman before events take a more complicated turn.

There is some beautiful art and panel design over various sections of the comic which give it a nicely hotch potch feel in places. For instance, there’s an interesting splash panel introducing Moscow, September 1940 where the text boxes read down the panel but also take you across before going left on two of three vertical boxes which are housed within that main panel. So you read down and the third insert picture box is on the right of the panel which accompanies that text before you continue down where the text is illustrated back to the left on the second vertical insert box… which you have already, presumably, looked at as you are working your way through the text on the way to the right. Because the insert picture boxes are vertical and long, this doesn't actually spoil the flow of information as you might expect it to and it’s a pretty nice feat of visual narrative flow maintaining the sense of the story in as interesting a manner possible without popping you out of that story with its own cleverness. Although, it has to be said, there are some other, somewhat less successful spreads throughout the issues where the reading direction is less clear and I found myself reading down the left page with things not making a lot of sense before realising these pages were meant to be read across a landscape spread rather than going down… something which used to be considered a bit of a design flaw in the way comic panels are constructed (if the panels didn't automatically lead the eye so the reader didn't know where to look next) but… I dunno… maybe I’m just getting too old.

That aside, though, there are also some nice moments where different kinds of art styles are used to reflect the different tones in which the story is told. For instance, when Kara (Supergirl) tells her origin story, the art and colouring flattens more and it is presented  almost as a storybook fable in that simpler, less embellished lines are used and a texture is run into the background, underlying everything depicted in those pages and giving it an almost illustrated fairytale look… which was a nice touch, I thought.

The story itself isn’t simple, though… weaving in and out where characters start off as one kind of person before they end up as someone/thing completely different. There are hints of this even in the first six issues reprinted here and one of the problems of printing trade paperback collections (often confused with graphic novels by many film companies, for some strange reason) is that their continuous nature leaves the reader of such collections without a natural conclusion to the events which are put in motion at the beginning of what are, in the case of this one, looking to be fairly complex story arcs.

That being said, the six issues collected here do lead to a kind of natural “mini conclusion” of sorts and they could be viewed as… almost standalone. Although, to be honest, I get the strong feeling that the writers haven’t finished introducing the full cast of these comics by this point in.

In the old days, when I was reading such things more regularly, DC Bombshells would have been branded an Elseworlds story… which was the DC equivalent of the Marvel comics What If…? universe. Alas, the Elseworlds branding is nowhere in sight on this collection so I guess the concept of the comic might be a somewhat confusing prospect to people who might not know that this is not part of the regular DC canon and are trying to square this with the characters as they might remember them from years gone by or, for that matter, as recently depicted in various movie versions. However, I would certainly recommend this both to fans of comic books and also to those who are less inclined to normally pick up this sort of visual confection. It’s a nice idea inspired by some really cool artwork and it’s clearly taking that jumping on point seriously and not throwing those ideas away for a quick cash in. I’ll certainly be aiming to pick up the remaining volumes at some point.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

47 Metres Down

Eat Metres

47 Metres Down
Dominican Republic/UK/USA 2017
Directed by Johannes Roberts
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Here be spoilers...
but I will warn you again before I get there.

There came a point around about halfway through Johannes Roberts' new shark bait movie, 47 Metres Down, when I realised I was sat in a dark room spending an awful lot of time watching dark water, floating bubbles and not much else. I chose to see this on a weekend where I just had to see the almost perfect movie Wonder Woman for a fifth showing (and counting... my initial review is here)... so that just left me one slot with a choice of two films which, quite frankly, seemed like a slow cinema weekend. It was either yet another teen killing, spooky haunted something or other presentation (which I may yet still manage to catch) or it was a shark movie. Since there haven't been that many shark movies in cinemas in recent years I opted for the latter but, in hindsight, that may not have been the wisest choice.

The film though, I'm happy to say, is certainly not populated by the vacuous, over-teened characters that the trailer makes out. Although my concerns over whether to two leading ladies were destined to be shark fodder or not was hard to judge, they at least weren't the kind of bratty, empty headed young party goers you maybe might have been expecting from something like this, I'm pleased to say. They weren't exactly greatly drawn characters either, for sure and the usual 'move fast, ask questions after the movie' Hollywood style short hand does still apply here but, at least I could imagine hanging out at a bar with the two main leads, played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, without making my excuses and leaving early. So that was okay. And as for the rest of the characters in the movie... barely traced outlines of shades of people, even in the case of the one 'star name' in the movie -  Mathew Modine as Captain Taylor - who spends most of the film as a disembodied but authoritative voice on a headset radio.

The plot set up is two sisters, one just coming out of a relationship break up, who go on holiday and end up meeting two guys who persuade them to do the latest, semi-legal tourist activity, being lowered in a human cage a few metres down at sea to look at the passing sharks. At this point, though, I was pretty much in the camp of... anyone who would put themselves in that kind of semi-risky situation in the first place deserves to be eaten.

So, yeah, the inevitable happens and the dodgy bit of string holding the cage in the water breaks. The girls and cage go tumbling down to the bottom of the ocean floor (or at least a ledge in his case) with only 30 to 50 minutes of air left in their tanks and with various obstacles other than just the man eating (and in this case I guess I should call them woman eating) sharks which are making periodic drive bys to see if their packed lunch has come out of the wrapper yet.

It's not the most boring of films and the director keeps things lively but, it's not the most intense either and it wasn't long until I came to that point which I mentioned earlier where everything was just dark (clearly shot in a tank) water and fizzy bubbles. In fact, the teal tension and unease in the movie, and it's not without those specific elements either, come from Tomandandy's score. Like the recent movie Dunkirk (reviewed here) the music is pretty much everything in adding a layer of menace to the proceedings and the scoring is, at the very least, a well functioning water beast that plays its part maybe more than it might honestly be expected to, truth be told. Apart, that is, from the terrible songs in the early parts of the film, both diegetic and non-diegetic, which almost made me want to swim to the nearest exit.

Spoiler Warning. Miss out the next
paragraph if you don't want to know.

Perhaps the most inspired part of the movie is the fake ending but, alas, the introduction to this sequence much earlier in the movie is clumsily handled in that it's badly telegraphed to the audience. There's a point where the good captain drops a couple of oxygen tanks for the girls and we hear his warning to the particular lady who has swum in range of his signal, that the reason he didn't drop them before is because there's a possibility the overuse of these may give them oxygen psychosis hallucinations. Now, come on, there's no way that would have been written into the script unless the writers were going to use it as a feature of the film later on in the 'story' and, sure enough, as I watched the girls float to their rescuers and get back on board the ship, albeit with some nasty but implausibly gentle (for a shark) wounds... I was thinking, yeah this isn't real... and it isn't. There's a nice effect with some blood on the hand wound of one of the leading ladies and it’s beautifully done as a reveal that half merges the hallucination she is having in her head with the reality of her situation (which is vaguely reminiscent of the ending of the original British cinema and home video cut of The Descent) but, like I said, you kind of know it’s coming so... nice idea but failed to make much of an impact on me, I’m sorry to say.

End of spoilers.

So there you have it.

According to the IMDB there seems to be a whole slew of technical inaccuracies, some of which, from what I could make out, would stop the possibility of the way this story might play out in real life in it’s tracks. I was interested in the fact also, that at the depth the main protagonists are in here, there is no light to give certain things the colours we know them as... so the blood should apparently look green to the human eye at this depth. I wouldn’t have known that unless I’d read it though because, clearly, the blood in this film is pretty red. This includes a ‘close but no cigar’ opening sequence where one of the leading actresses spills her red cocktail into the swimming pool beneath her as a not so subtle visual metaphor for what we are going to see later on. It doesn’t really work all that successfully as a moment of tension, however (which is what I suspect the director was going for there), because once you realise the girls are in a swimming pool, you know there’s no possibility of a shark attack happening at this moment.

And that’s about all I can say about this one. 47 Metres Down is a nice idea but it’s a limited one and the exploration of those story limits throughout the fairly short running time doesn’t serve to help put any real bite in the picture. It’s maybe a little better, or at least more credible, than the shark movie I reviewed last year, The Shallows (reviewed here) but ultimately I left the cinema a bit disappointed with it, I have to say. I’ve not seen any movies which truly measure up to the king of all shark movies, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and, in all honesty, this one comes nowhere near that in terms of quality and entertainment, as far as I’m concerned. Not the big fish I was hoping it might turn out to be.