Monday, 30 January 2017
Heading West to Newmar Kit
Batman - Return of the Caped Crusaders
USA 2016 Directed by Rick Morales
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Mild spoilers on some of the jokes.
Adam West and Burt Ward have twice before returned to the roles which made them household names in the 1960s. After the phenomenal success of the 1966 Batman TV show and its companion movie, they also returned in 1978 for the horrendous attempt at a new live action Justice League like TV show, Legends of the Superheroes (reviewed by me here) and, somewhat more successfully, playing themselves in an adventure story around a mini biopic in 2003 in Return to the Batcave (The Misadventures of Adam and Burt).
Although the Batman movie they did at the end of the first 1966 season has been fairly easy to see over the years, for many decades the TV show itself was trapped in some kind of legal hell with various companies holding bits of the rights, from what I understand. So no new merchandise, or even the shows themselves, were allowed to be sold in any format (although the bootlegs surfaced big time about seven years ago, as I recall). All this changed a few years ago when the complicated minefield of who owns what finally got unravelled, to a certain extent, and all kinds of merchandise and, of course, DVDs and Blu Ray sets, were finally released onto a mostly unsuspecting public...
And it all did phenomenally well. I used to watch the show when I was a kid so I was chomping at the bit to get clean transfers of the episodes but apparently a good deal of the tie in merchandise which they’ve been releasing over the last few years sells very well, from what I understand. This includes a Batman ‘66 comic book which continues the adventures of the TV incarnations in the medium which spawned it. Now I won’t go into just how truly ironic this is because of certain things introduced in the TV show which then became ‘Batman lore’ in the comics (I’ll save that info for when I finally get around to reviewing the TV shows) but it seems the comic is every bit the hit that the toys and gadgets released for the show were and so it maybe seems an obvious thing to do a Batman ‘66 animated movie.
I have to say, though, that until they announced Batman - Return Of The Caped Crusaders (and got it out quite quickly), I never saw that one coming!
And so we have Adam West and Burt Ward reprising the voices of Batman and Robin and, as a tasty bonus, they’ve also bought one of the original Catwoman actresses, Julie Newmar, with them. It’s quite cute, actually, when you see the three of them in the sound studio on the extras and realise that Julie was wearing pussycat ears during the recording session. She rocks! I also hear she still throws great parties, too. They also had a load of other fellows voicing the other three main super villains in this movie - namely The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin.
Now, this is a hard review to write because it’s always going to be fun to watch a new Batman movie taking the camp style of the TV show with some of the original Bat-thespians plus other people mostly sounding like the actors they have been recast as. However, this is a mixed bat-bag in terms of my reaction to it although, for the most part, I took a really positive experience away from this. There are a couple of things that let it down, though, and I’ll get to those in a while.
So yeah, there a some things I did find lacking in this one, for sure, but what it certainly doesn’t lack is both a sense of fun, some imaginative and innovative scripting and... loads of enthusiasm and love for the original shows (it even has a Nelson Riddle-esque score). If you’re an old time Bat-fan then you won’t want to miss out on this one. Even my dad, who was the first to point out the flaws with this, seemed to be taking away something from it. There’s some great humour in here, as you would expect. And anyone who used to find the funny side in the absolutely ridiculous conclusions that Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, would leap to from the various dubious jokes, rubbish riddles and clapped out clues left for them... only to be proven right when they follow up on their loopy leads... will be happy to know that there’s more of the same here.
Yes, Robin’s “Holy...” exclamations are in here with a wonderful homage to Russ Meyer when he first sees Catwoman’s Catmobile and exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!”. Other stuff like the musical transformation into Thus Spake Zaruthustra (synonymous to many with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) when the dynamic duo fly their Bat-rocket into space, the bizarre architecture on the space station and the recreation of the ‘Bat ascent’ scene up the side of the space station are also pretty great. There are two of the famous Bat ascent sequences staged in this, though, and I was pretty disappointed that none of them featured ‘special guests’ popping out of windows to question the dynamic duo like they often did in the 1960s.
There are also some nice references to more modern, darker film and comic strip incarnations of Batman in the use of various lines of dialogue Batman uses when he gets transformed into ‘evil Batman’ by Catwoman’s ‘bat-nip’ potion and also in the use of colourful, onomatopoeia style word bursts synonymous with the Adam West show during the fight scenes. For instance, some of the words start of in the calmer sections with silly captions that read “Spork!” or “Sprang!” (the latter presumably a nice reference to golden and silver age Batman artist Dick Sprang) but when Batman becomes more ruthless and evil the bubbles change to things like “Bludgeon!” and “Pulverise!”. A similar nod and dig to one of the more modern versions of the character comes when Catwoman tries to make a deal with Batman near the end of the movie and tells him she’ll give herself up if he’ll give it all up and run off to Europe with her so they can drink tea in a café. They all agree however, that this would be a bad ending for their story... thus getting in a nice little poke at Christopher Nolan’s ending to The Dark Night Rises.
Another great joke to the format of the original show is where someone switches their TV camera to “fight” mode which just tilts said camera to coincide with those whacky, Dutch angles the old series would often employ to capture the action sequences. My favourite moment, however, is when Batman gets hit over the head in front of the Julie Newmar Catwoman and his vision goes funny so that he sees three of the Catwoman in front of him... however, the joke is that, with Julie in the middle, the other two images are of Lee Merriweather and Eartha Kitt’s incarnations of the character from the originals. Neat stuff.
However, there are a few little things which really let this move down for me, too. Adam West’s delivery, unlike Burt or Julie, sounded just a little slow throughout. Now, my guess is he wasn’t doing anything different with his voice to how he used to play it years ago and I suspect when you see the actual actor delivering the lines it looks fairly terrific but, when you put it against a flat cartoon, it kinda loses something in translation.
Also, the look of the characters and the way they sound caused problems for me in certain cases. Why do they have a fairly respectable looking Chief O’ Hara and the fake Irish voice to go with him, for example, when Commissioner Gordon, who also sounds like his 1966 TV counterpart, is drawn absolutely nothing like him and is, instead, the classic looking Commissioner Gordon, recently recreated quite well in the Nolan movies. Similarly, some of the villains sound great... the people doing the voices for Cesar Romero’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, for example, sound really quite good. So why does The Riddler look nothing like him? I’m not even going to mention The Penguin here.
Which brings me to my real problem with Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders. I haven’t seen any other recent Warner Animation movies as yet but f they’re anything like this then I may find myself steering clear. The animation is lousy. It’s not quite as bad as mid 1970s ‘made for America by Koreans’ cartoons but... it’s not that far off either. I kept waiting for someone to blink a bit to make it look like it was less lifeless. Now, I appreciate that because of the kitsch material the movie takes as its source, there was probably a conscious decision to simplify the animation style but, seriously, if you compared this to a 1940s Max Fleischer Superman short, the Fleischer would win every time. Now, as it happens, I think if you compared the 1940s Fleischer stuff to ‘any’ animation made in the last 30 or more years, the new stuff is going to come up short but, seriously, I was not enthralled by the animation on this one... even when they had some great visual gags on, for instance, the transition Bat-symbol scenes through certain parts of the running time.
All in all, however, Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders is still a big bag of fun and, once you can forget the not so great animation, you should be in for a good time with it. We even have Batman dancing the Batusi in the end credits, with occasional variants on the famous Batman The Movie “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” scene (although, again, you have to really know the movie and the 1966 character to get why things like this, with no other reference in the body of the current story, are here at all). If you were into the show in the 60s or were lucky enough to catch the 1970s repeats, like me, then you might want to spend some time with this fun, if a little flawed, tribute to those simpler times. If you have no interest or familiarity with the originals (nor why the originals came out in the first place... referenced nicely in this cartoon with the costumes from the 1943 and 1949 serials hanging up in the Batcave)... then you might be better off going straight to those originals before heading into this one.
Friday, 27 January 2017
Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962
Expanded Edition by Mel Gordon
Feral House (revised edition)
Grand Guignol is one of those terms which I’ve heard bandied about in various critical writings on literary and cinematic horror works for a long time. It’s almost an overused cliché (although I am more than happy to use it myself when it gets the message across) and though most people understand it and the origins of the term, it’s nice to finally be able to have a book which takes you briefly through the 65 year history of the venue and all that it stood for. I, myself, first became acquainted with the term when some very small amount of information on it was available in either the first or second room of the Museum Of Moving Image (MOMI) on the Southbank when it opened in 1988 (a wonderful, if not always accurate, film museum in London which was, shamefully, ‘temporarily’ closed in 1999 and subsequently never re-opened).
Now, thanks to the kind Christmas gift giving of a very special friend, I have explored the story of the shows performed there in this great book, Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962, by Mel Gordon. The tome is split up into a few interesting sections and the first one details the entire saga of the venue with a few notes about what it was before it played host to the horror shows and then going on to detail important playwrights and the varying attitudes of their works, plus the reception of those works with the general public at large.
For those who don’t know, the Grand Guignol was a theatre in one of the raunchier, perhaps I should say sleazier, districts in Paris which would run programmes of short vignettes, usually involving themes based around sexuality but, most importantly, often incorporating lashings of gory violence with the, presumably very skilled, performers having to get their timing and sleight of hand as good as any stage magician to be able to pull off the trick of realistic eye gougings, acid burns, cuts, tears, limb lopping and the like to a fully expecting, but not always necessarily prepared, public.
Named after Guignol, the popular Punch and Judy character from Lyons, the theatre and its programme was so popular in France that it was listed in guide books and had audiences flocking from all around the world to take in the, mostly, unique and horror filled sketches, night after night. The real acid test for the actors and actresses, though, was the amount of faintings they had per night as a benchmark of their performance skills. As the writer says, “Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals.”
A typical tale, as described by Mel Gordon, can be found in this brief synopsis to a seasonal play, for instance... A Christmas tale of a poverty stricken woman in the last stages of pregnancy, unable to find someone to take her in (as Mary and Joseph were able to in their day), murders her child and throws the remains to the pigs in the fields while carols sound from the neighbouring village.
And there are a lot worse, in some ways, than this kind of thing in here and that, I think, is why various writers and critics over the years have used the phrase to metaphorically describe the sheer visceral horror of certain scenarios in art.
Gordon traces the origins of this tradition and shows how the horror and sexual content escalated when new writers and owners were brought in. Originally the plays were conceived as being new, unflinching and naturalistic tales which, obviously, included these strong, graphic elements as part of their daily bread. He also mentions a particularly interesting performer called Paula Maxa who met with an unfortunate demise 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways on the stage of the theatre and was also the victim of a stage rapist attack at least 3,000 times. I would love to see a full biography of this lady emerge some day. As it is, the writer reprints, in a later section, a longish and autobiographical newspaper story of her early years from the time, although I can’t really hazard a guess as to the truth of the claims made by Maxa here. This amazing little article written in her own words certainly whets the appetite for more information about this sensationalist performer who seemed more than happy to play and wallow in the kind of unsavoury elements found in the plays in which she performed.
The book also tells of the complete failure, despite its quite unparallelled success in Paris, that the Grand Guignol met with when the plays and actors toured in other countries such as Canada, America and over here in England. It’s also implied that, in some cases, these failures were quite possibly brought about by the xenephobic critics who may have had something against the idea of the French coming to their country. It also cites various foreign censorship bodies watering down the content of the shows in their territories as another reason why the touring thespians were forced to close their doors due to poor turnouts before their full season had finished.
After the story behind the venue, its performers and plays, we then get a lengthy section of brief synopsis of around 100 of the plays... of which there seem to have been many thousands. The summaries are rarely more than one or two short paragraphs each but they do serve to give some flavour of the breadth of grotesque pleasures which were on offer on a nightly basis. It also makes one wonder why nobody has tried to bring back a modern version in various theatre districts around the world... I would love to go and see one of these disturbing evenings myself. Ah, well... burlesque seemed to be making a comeback a few years ago so, perhaps, someone will get around to Grand Guignol.
After this section we get an archival essay on the nature of fear and the way in which people lap up horror and death by one of the vignette writers of the time. Reading it, the justifications could have been written by anybody working for the old Universal horror movies in the 1930s and their direct cinematic descendents. Actually, the cinematic legacy is briefly mentioned in the book, in a chapter discussing the influences on films like Robert Weine’s The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (one of my favourites), which, it argues, owes as much, if not more, to Grand Guignol than it does to German Expressionism.
The book also has a number of attractively reproduced colour plates of posters advertising the theatre over the years and there are also a fair number of monochrome photos throughout, showing details of some of the acts (so if you want to see grainy pictures of actresses having their eyeballs seemingly pierced by knitting needles, then you will find that kind of stuff in here). This is all followed up, at the end of the book, by the reproduction of the scripts of two popular Grand Guignol plays, both of which feature some nasty deaths to various protagonists and antagonists. I’m reliably informed that the scripts are from different plays depending on whether or not you get this new, revised edition of Gordon’s book or an earlier version.
And the book then ends, quite abruptly, on the final grim moments of the last reprinted play.
A common problem when I read books on an aspect of cinema or some other topic in which I am, fairly, well versed is that I usually find lots of incorrect things passed off as facts and it mostly really annoys me. I found none of this in Mel Gordon’s tome and the writing style was quite accessible throughout. Of course, my unfamiliarity with the subject matter in the first place leaves me in the position of not being able to recognise any bloopers within the pages even if they were there but, heck, it’s just nice to be able to read a book and not worry about that stuff for a while.
Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962 is a truly brilliant book and I count myself lucky to have received this splendid tome for Christmas. If anyone is already interested in this kind of horror theatre or has heard the term ‘Grand Guignolesque’ used to the point of insanity in various writings on the genre, then I would urge those of a sound mind to take a look at this volume. It’s an easy, uncomplicated read and it’s full of knowledge... just what a good book should be.
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
Split In Image
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Yeah... this pretty much has all the spoilers
Okay, so... if you’re a regular reader here then you probably already know my track record with M. Night Shyamalan is not all that great. He really gets me angry because, in almost every film, his ‘famous twist’ at the end is really obvious and telegraphed right from the start. The Sixth Sense, for example, takes only ten minutes to crack on first viewing. The Village was the worst one for that stuff though... it’s literally the second shot of the movie (which is a reverse shot to the previous if I’m recalling correctly) which is about 30 seconds or so into the film, when the trick ending is made pretty clear in the way the director uses his camera. So I’m not the biggest fan of his storytelling because it’s always so easy to pick up on and his last movie, The Visit (reviewed here) did nothing to change that opinion of his work. About the only time he did surprise me was in Unbreakable, where the nature of Samuel L. Jackson’s character was revealed at the end... so I probably have more respect for that movie than any of his others. I also liked Devil (reviewed here... although that wasn’t actually directed by him, just written from his story idea).
So Split was a movie I kind of put myself through because I quite like James McAvoy but I was pretty sure, on seeing the trailer last year, that it could only have one of two possible endings and so, even before I set foot in the cinema, I was berating Shyamalan for being too obvious. However, the truth be told, he seemed to be banking on me thinking that on this one and... well, I’ll get to that later.
As the trailer suggests, Split is about a man, played by James McAvoy, who is seriously schizophrenic in that he’s holding a multitude of split personalities in his head (23 or possibly 24, to be almost precise). He kidnaps three women, locks them up and is going to do something ‘bad’ to them. And so that’s the general idea and, after the trailer, I realised it could go either way on an ending.
I was pretty certain that one of these two options would be the film’s supposed twist here...
1. Every character in the movie, not just the obvious ones played by James McAvoy, would be another manifestation of his split personality... including the so called victims he had purportedly kidnapped. That seemed like a bit of an easy one even for Shyamalan, though, so my alternative was...
2. Near the end it would be revealed that McAvoy was, in fact, identical twin brothers taking on a large number of personalities each. While the victims had been talking to one or the other manifestations without realising they were talking to differently motivated sets of personalities throughout the course of the movie. This might have made things a little more interesting... was how I was thinking.
As the movie began, from the first shot in fact, I realised Shyamalan had probably gone with the easier option of nobody being real outside of McAvoy’s head. Certainly the way the film was shot and the isolation and lack of interaction in some scenes, plus the constant flashbacks to the abused childhood of the primary kidnap victim played by Anya Taylor-Joy (who was so good in The VVitch which I reviewed here and as Morgan, which I reviewed here) seemed to point right to this kind of denouement.
As it happens, though, M. Night Shyamalan did manage to surprise me but, alas, it was in the least interesting way possible. I had hoped the director may have come up with a third, much more clever option for an end twist but it was not to be. Instead, it was more of a surprise by ommission. Do you remember his movie Signs? I spent the whole of that movie trying to figure out what the explanation was behind the aliens in the movie. What the twist was that turned everything on its head and surprised the audience in an interesting way. However, Signs didn’t have a twist ending, as it turned out. Instead, it basically said that everything in that movie was to be taken as face value and we should just live with the idea that it’s a sci-fi movie. Which didn’t sit well with me, to be honest. Well, in Split, the director heads back to this territory in that there is no twist ending on this movie... everything is there to be taken at face value. Where Shyamalan does get a little clever, then, is by finally adapting his cinematic syntax to mislead the audience to a different conclusion from the correct one, rather than just passively let them ride along second guessing it. The red herrings of the mise-en-scene make the lack of surprise a thing in itself... so, okay, I can at least respect him for this.
I guess my one real grumble out of all this, though, is that just like Signs before it, this makes the film seem somewhat anticlimactic. I wasn’t very happy at the lack of twistedness to the plot here, it has to be said. However, Shyamalan does redeem himself somewhat with a little punchline moment at the end of the movie which, at least, changes your mind about the kind of movie you have been watching up until that point.
So... okay, good things? Well McAvoy is as good as you'd expect as various manifestations of the antagonist's multiple characterisations and Taylor-Joy is also pretty great here, it has to be said. There are some nice shot set ups which, when not trying to make you second guess a different ending, caters to the title with some nicely framed vertical elements which split the shots from time to time. So that’s all good.
The music by West Dylan Thordson is okay too, although I would have preferred to have seen Shyamalan carrying on his immensely creative relationship with composer James Newton Howard, who I think did his best work for the Shyamalan films. Especially since I think that in the last few seconds of the movie they've maybe re-used or tracked in an old theme from an earlier film. I’d certainly buy this score if it was made available in CD format but, alas, it seems once more that I’m not likely to hear it as a stand alone because the only way it seems to be getting a release right now is via electronic download (don’t do it kids... it sucks... make them give the music a proper release.
One of the more stand out moments of the whole experience is that it does have a nice little epilogue scene after the first couple of credits which do put a new slant on the way the movie has been playing out. You do, after all, see one of McAvoy’s personalities eating various people and walking around on walls and ceilings like Spider-Man and once it’s been established that this manifestation is not, surprisingly, in anybody’s head, it then delivers up one little nugget of an end coda which kind of puts the movie into perspective. That being that this whole movie was, in some ways, an elaborate set up for a new supervillain. Yeah, that’s right, it’s an ‘origin story’ for a character called ‘The Horde’. And this is what we take away from the last five or so seconds of the little punchline scene at the end. Set in a diner, some folks are talking about the escaped maniac and one of the diners says it reminds her of that guy that got caught years ago, but couldn’t remember his name. As the diners leave they reveal Bruce Willis in a cameo, reprising his role from Unbreakable and simply saying... “Mr. Glass”. So there you have it... if, and I doubt this but you never know, Shyamalan and Willis ever get around to making their ‘proper’ sequel to Unbreakable, we have a new supervillain for the movie. In the meantime though, this scene firmly identifies Split as an Unbreakable sequel so, for now at least, that’s what we are left with.
Other than that one truly bright moment, however, the film has a lot to admire in it but don’t expect too much from it and don’t expect a twist ending for sure. This is a fairly entertaining ride for a lot of the time (with the usual fun at seeing Shyamalan himself do one of his cameo appearances) but it’s not a great film like... um... well, like Unbreakable was. That being said, it’s not as chronically disappointing as most of his other films either (the jury is still out for The Lady In The Water because I haven’t seen it yet... it’s in the ‘to watch’ pile as I type) and it’s worth a watch for seeing the way McAvoy manages to manifest his various personalities. Not one I would be too bothered with seeing at the cinema but if you’re already a fan of this director then it may be something you enjoy. Not his best but, certainly, not his worst.
Monday, 23 January 2017
La La Land
2016 USA Directed by Damien Chazelle
UK cinema release print.
So it turns out that the new movie La La Land isn’t a great film... but it’s a pretty good shot at trying to shoot an old fashioned musical from a certain golden age of Hollywood’s history and, almost, really nailing it. I have a couple of reservations about it but I’ll bring those up in a minute.
I had the chance to see a preview of this movie at last year’s London Film Festival but I didn’t bother because a) I didn’t think too much of the lead actor and b) whenever someone tries to update the musical in a modern era, they usually fail abysmally. It was only towards the end of 2016, when I started hearing unqualified raves about La La Land on Twitter, that I got half excited about it and decided I’d probably check it out when it finally got a release over here.
Now, the film stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the two lead protagonists. I’ve always liked Emma Stone and think she’s an extremely talented and engaging actress. Ryan Gosling, however, is someone I’ve previously had a problem with and it was all based on one film, Drive, which he did okay in, to be fair, but which I thought was best summed up if you stuck and ‘L’ on the end of the title. I’d only seen him in that one thing, by choice, until I saw him in last year’s The Nice Guys... which I loved. Now my review of The Nice Guys is here but, in a nutshell, I hated both lead actors but went to see it anyway, on the strength of the writer/director of that film. And Gosling did great in it... winning me over especially with his Lou Costello impression in one scene. La La Land marks the second time I’ve quite warmed to a Gosling performance so I think I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now. The jury is still out but it’s 2 -1 to him and I’ll give him a chance next time I see his name attached to a project.
La La Land is a musical which stars Stone as an aspiring actress and Gosling as an aspiring jazz musician... two perfect career goals for your characters if you are making a musical, methinks... marrying the potential careers of these two characters to the format of the movie itself. So the writer was onto a bit of a winner there, right off the bat.
The opening of the movie is an ambitious but not great musical sequence set on the highway which put me in mind of Alan Parker’s musical Fame more than the kinds of 1930s - 50s musicals the film seems to be inspired by. It’s a sequence which is cleverly cut to make it look like one long shot (instead of a few long takes which I suspect is nearer the truth of its actual genetic, cinematic make-up) but my first big problem with this movie is clearly shown here and it didn’t impress me, it has to be said.
The problem with this and a lot of sequences in the film is that the songs are just not strong enough, I feel, to support the quite technically accomplished performances given by the actors and the crew in the service of La La Land. I actually found myself being more appreciative of the actual musical score between the songs, if I’m being honest and, for a musical, that’s probably not a good thing. That being said, although the tunes aren’t instantly memorable, they are repeated enough throughout the movie that by the last third of the film they do have a certain familiarity and, I suspect, if I were ever to watch this movie again, I’d probably get more out of them than I did here.
That being said, it does have everything else a great musical should have in it and, for the most part, it’s quite successful in hitting the notes it aims for throughout the running time. I’m a big fan of the late 40s to mid 50s MGM musicals and there are definitive homages to the formula used in such movies as On The Town, Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris and The Band Wagon, to name a few of my favourites, to be sure. Now, some of these sourced out sequences don’t, I would have to say, quite make it. The midfilm romantic number you always get is a sequence which the makers of La La Land have set at the same observatory as seen at the opening of Rebel Without A Cause and its the obvious moment where the lovers finally get to know each other and act out their musical harmonies. The surrealist element of these kinds of moments... well, you know, more of a surrealist element than bursting into song every ten minutes... which is a key ingredient of the form, is a lovely concept and it has everything going for it... I just think the resulting sequence is a bit lame. Then again, I always did find that mid-romantic moment in a lot of those MGM musicals a bit lame so, you know, there’s a good argument here that the director really nailed it.
One big thing it has got going for it is the sheer talent of the cast and crew at getting a lot of hugely subtle things timed right. Gosling, Watson and some of the other actors are absolutely gobsmacking in terms of getting some quite complex stage direction absolutely right and one can only stand back in admiration when you see these things. It’s one thing to marvel at the timing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire when they do some absolutely amazing things but when you get two leads here, for example, who are not noted for their ability to sing, dance or do some quite physically disciplined things... well I was pretty impressed by the performances, I must admit.
Now, in spite of these many jaw dropping moments, one of the things that makes La La Land a very good movie and not a great one, at least for me, is the lack of ambition to do something different with the form rather than just repeat it. Yeah, okay, there’s a certain wisdom in learning to walk before you can run but I felt like a lot of the sequences were trying so hard to get the atmosphere just right from those great musicals of yesteryear that they forgot to really add anything truly unique to the formula. which is a great shame but... well, combined with some musical numbers which don’t, as I said, have the strongest tunes and lyrics in the world then the film does feel kind of flat in some key places where I truly believe it could have shone. A lot of those musicals were pushing successive boundaries in their day and I would have liked to have seen something I hadn’t seen before here too.
However, that being said, by the last third of the movie I was blubbering uncontrollably at certain scenes and really cursing myself, I have to say, for having seen the trailer. All I’m saying is that, if you haven’t seen a trailer for La La Land before you see this movie... keep it that way. A certain shot in that trailer will telegraph a little ahead of time the kind of ending this movie has and... you wont’ want that. Every MGM musical I can remember from a certain period had a long, surreal and, for want of a better term, ‘arty’ sequence which would play just before the main plot elements resolve themselves. The movie makers use exactly the same tactic here but, well... there’s a point at the start of this sequence which you’ll be anticipating from the trailer and which will tell you everything you didn’t want to know about the ending which will be coming up later... which is a darned shame.
That being said, I’m not going to blame the director for that badly telegraphed ending... just the marketing people... and future generations won’t be lumbered with the trailer automatically before viewing like many people on the first release of a film are. So for future audiences this little wrinkle should iron itself out. At the end of the day, La La Land is a film that, although it starts of a little underwhelmingly, does build to a more immersive experience and there are enough visual movie references throughout the film to keep most cinephiles happy. It’s most important quality, though, is that it has a lot of heart and on that basis alone, not to mention the efforts of the hardworking cast and crew, I’d have to say that this one is definitely worth catching at the cinema if you fancy it. It doesn’t stand above many of the mesmerising musicals from Hollywood's furtive history but it can, with a pinch, stand alongside some of them and... that’s really no mean feat in today’s movie marketplace. It’s probably a good ‘date movie’ too so, you know, give it a go maybe.
Thursday, 19 January 2017
When The Note Comes In
Top Ten Contemporary
Score CDs of 2016
Well, it’s that time of year again when people start asking me what I thought the coolest scores of 2016 were and, I’d have to say, I’m kinda disappointed with my list this year. One of the problems with that is I limit myself, quite strictly, to what is allowed to go on this list.
It goes without saying that I don’t include the redundant, vinyl only releases of the year and nor do I include the evils of the electronic download as a viable alternative to the magic of compact disc as the required format for any soundtrack listener worth their sort. So that sort of “but it had a (insert either of the two evil formats here) release" isn’t going to cut it with me. It has to have had a compact disc release in the year the movie came out to be eligible. Something which has scuppered my number one spot this year, as I’ll go on to explain.
Apart from this, my other rule is that the score has to be from a movie released this year in the UK or US. There are gazillions of good archive scores released nowadays from small, boutique labels of restored old scores, most of which would run rings around anybody’s pick of soundtracks from just one year... with this year being no exception. I would love to put a proper listing together for the many resurrected film scores coming out in any year but it would just take me too long to properly compile the damn thing. There are a lot of ‘holy grail’ type releases coming onto the market, often monthly, and there is just so much stuff now getting released that every soundtrack listener’s wallet is under threat... with companies like Intrada, La La Land, Quartet and Varese Sarabande putting out some truly great stuff (although many of my personal Holy Grails seem to have been left untouched... cough cough... The Final Programme, Work Is A Four Letter Word and proper releases of Doc Savage and Blade Runner).
Okay, so my biggest problem with this year’s listing, asides from the fact that it seems to be all American scores this time around, which is not a great thing, is that the score that would easily take the top spot, Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s amazing The Girl With All The Gifts, has not even made it onto one of the lesser useful formats as yet, let alone a nice CD release. This is a shame but I’m going to have to leave it off because, without the CD to give it some ‘stand alone’ context, I really can’t, in good conscience, include it.
So here we go... my top ten score CDs from contemporarily released movies of 2016 in reverse order.
10. Nerve by Rob Simonsen
There either seems to have been a resurgence in electronic music in films over the last few years or I’m getting older and noticing it more. The film is an okay movie but the score on this one is phenomenal... easily the best of a bunch this year (many of which seemed to be trying to sound just like late 1970s John Carpenter... which is no bad thing... but not quite getting there) and as accessible for someone like me as, say, the Tron Legacy score was a few years back. Definitely worth picking up. My review of the movie is here.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane by Bear McCreary
One of my favourite modern TV composers, Bear’s score for this spin off from the original Cloverfield is fraught with tension and some interesting and melodic atmospheres... plus he uses the musical instrument known as the 'blaster beam' (which is rumoured to be able to give women spontaneous orgasms). Check out my review of the movie here.
8. Inferno by Hans Zimmer
Zimmer’s synth heavy score picks up where his masterpiece, Angels and Demons, left off. It’s not as strong a work but it does its job in the movie (which wasn’t the best of the series) and it's very listenable away from the movie. His Professor Langdon theme gets referenced here, of course, but so too does his chase music from the previous movie. Not 100% sure how the leitmotif on these films works but, who cares when it’s so much fun? The movie review to this one can be found here.
7. The Forest by Bear McCreary
Bear’s second and final entry into this list sees him providing some incredibly eerie atmospheres and a lot of his, almost trademark, drumming. Set in Japan, the score somewhat reflects this and is easily one of the most satisfying listens of the year. I reviewed the movie here.
6. Rogue One by Michael Giacchino
Giacchino’s score to one of the most frustrating Star Wars movies of all time (so far... my trust in Disney has gone right down after seeing this) is equally frustrating... both in the movie and as a stand alone listen. The composer has a lot of the musical language down but there aren’t enough big themes to make it totally sound like a John Williams Star Wars score (some would argue that it shouldn’t). Also, the choice of leaving off the opening title crawl, with the familiar main theme, was a bad call. At least it’s on the end titles but... astoundingly... on the album it isn’t. Honestly, this is absolutely a terrible thing to do... like leaving the latest James Bond song off of a James Bond score. Which is something else they’ve started doing of late. This is a quite good stand alone listen which grows on you with repeat listens but it really needs a proper, full length CD release. My review of the movie is here.
5. Hail Caesar! by Carter Burwell
Burwell’s affectionate look back at Hollywood in the Golden Age, filtered with a little of today’s sensibilities, is a beautiful and fun homage to the scores by the likes of Miklos Rosza and the kinds of songs of Comden and Green used to turn out in their heyday. Just a completely ‘smileriffic’ album which stands up away from the visuals as much as it supports them in the movies. My review of this completely underrated movie, one of the best of the Coen Brothers, is here.
4. The Nice Guys by David Buckley and John Ottman
This Shane Black movie set in the 1970s gets exactly the score it deserves. This sounds like a dozen funky TV cop shows from that era without actually pinpointing any of the influences down. It’s slick and, maybe a bit short for an album release but it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. This movie probably wouldn’t be sunk without the funk but, man, it has it in spades here. Crucial grooves from a movie which I reviewed here.
3. Doctor Strange by Michael Giacchino
Given the amount of superhero movies we’re getting on our screens every year, you’d think that a few more of them would have made it into my top ten. However, this is the only one which managed that trick in 2016. I was really looking forward to a Brian Tyler score for this movie, especially since he seems to be the only guy who was able to bring a semblance of musical continuity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Alas, he seems to have mysteriously parted company with Marvel (although I’ve heard nothing official, it’s just my observation based on a few things and I sincerely hope I’m wrong) and so we have Giacchino scoring Doctor Strange and... it’s really pretty good. The main theme and the beautiful end statements of it, especially in Go For Baroque and Master Of The Mystic End Credits would elevate it to this list most years and its’ supported by some nice stuff. My review of the movie can be found here.
2. Arrival by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Jóhann Jóhannsson is not someone whose work I’m very familiar with and so I’m inevitably going to compare it to his similarly atmospheric score for Sicario. This one really suits the subject matter with some interesting moods and a modus operandi which really fits in with the idea of language and the way it can sometimes be seen as a code... the patterns made by the music reminding the audience of this at key points and also, if you’re anything like me, frightening the audience half to death when the sheer density of the music kicks into high gear with a more thunderous wailing than the quieter passages of musical texture around it. My review of the movie is here.
1. The VVitch by Mark Korven
At times a jarring but absolutely riveting score and quite popular with those who actually liked the movie. This score sounds very simple but it holds a power reminiscent of some of the choral work of one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti. Lay your head down in a darkened room with this and it’s pretty much guaranteed an unsettling atmosphere will develop. Simply one of the best horror scores since the 2015 score to It Follows... which is high praise indeed. My review of this film is here.
And that’s my short contribution for this year. Hope you find some time to delve into these soundtracks. If you do, let me know in the comments section below. Happy listening.
Wednesday, 18 January 2017
Only The Boney
The Bone Collection
by Kathy Reichs Penguin 2016
Most of my regular readers will know that reading the latest Kathy Reichs novel involving the exploits of her literary alter ego (as opposed to her TV alter ego of the same name), Temperance Brennan, is always my second Christmas ritual of the year. This year, however, the format is a little different and, I would guess, many of her most die hard fans may have already read three quarters of this book already... because it’s actually a collection of four short stories of similar length, only one of which has not been printed before in one publication or another. Luckily for me, I was unaware that Reichs had written any short stories about her literary counterpart/heroine at all so, yeah, these were all new to me.
The Bone Collection consists of three previously published tales - Bones In Her Pocket, Swamp Bones, Bones on Ice - and her new ‘origin’ tale as the last story of the book, First Bones.
Now anybody more interested in the soap opera style character development of the longer novels may find themselves a bit out on a limb here. For instance, Andy Ryan, Brennan’s longstanding on and off partner, had come to a very important ‘arrangement’ with her at the end of the last book. Anybody hoping to see the natural progression of that relationship will have to wait for another of the regular novels, although Ryan does make a brief and unexpected appearance in one of the stories... just not neccessarily in the way you’d expect.
As usual, the stories in this are excellent and well written. The first three, although mini adventures of everyone’s favourite forensic anthropologist, all follow Reichs' tried and tested formula... which is maybe not the best thing in terms of predictability but which certainly makes for entertaining reading. For example, the shorts are all split up into mini chapters and, yes, there’s still that little tease of an upcoming revelation at the end of each chapter, just like you’d get in the old pulp magazines which were ancestors of today's modern, popular crime writers. Kathy Reichs has always, I feel, been very ‘Doc Savage’ in her approach to the writing, building in mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter and these work as effective ‘can’t put down’ page turners here... just like they always do. Foreshadowing the next big clue is something at which she is an absolute master (or should that be mistress?).
Like a lot of Reichs novels, the books are actually hinged around something she has a strong feeling about and the first two stories in this book are based around cruelty to some form of animal or other (trying not to give spoilers here) as the motive behind the various people murdered. And, as always, in her afterword to each story, she gives you details of how you can get involved and help the various causes trying to end this kind of thing by giving you links to the various web sites created by people who want, like any rational being would, an end to the kinds of practices detailed here.
The third story is set in Brennan’s home town but, strangely enough, it deals with a death on Mount Everest. You have to read the story to find out what Temperance is doing trying to piece together a body which has been frozen for a few years and then transported back to the US but it was inspired by a story which I found very interesting. The details are described in the tale themselves and Reichs confirms it all in the afterword. For instance, did you know that there are absolutely loads of dead bodies on Mount Everest which are out in plain sight but unrecoverable by sherpas because it’s just too dangerous to attempt. And furthermore, the ones wearing the most distinctive clothing kind of act as marker points for people undergoing climbs. It’s a morbid detail but one which Reichs uses to good effect in this tale which is set after a real 2015 earthquake which dislodged a lot of the unrecovered bodies and suddenly made them accessible to ‘rescue’. I have to say, the truth behind the body that Temperance is working on didn’t fool me for a minute but... it’s an entertaining ride, as usual, getting to the end.
All through the first three stories we get the odd comment from Brennan about Andy Ryan and, if you have a good memory, the comments she makes reveal the age of the stories themselves and you can kind of work out where they slot in to the timeline of the full novels. Which is why I was wondering why the brand new story, First Bones, which was being touted as the ‘first’ Temperance Brennan story, is the last tale in the book.
Well, as it happens, it’s a flashback tale which is bookended from the 'bang up-to-date' version of the regular characters and tells of her first ‘case’, when she was still a student, retrospectively from the character’s life where she is now. And this is actually important in some ways because... something happens in this last story, in the contemporary sections, which is definitely going to change a certain constant element of the novels and which I seem to remember has been around since the first ones I read all those years ago. I’m trying hard not to give away any spoilers here but, if you're a regular reader of the good doctor’s adventures then you really need to read the last story in this collection... although I expect she’ll have to mention it in the next stand alone novel anyway. I completely didn’t see this one coming... which maybe goes someway to explain why I’m still addicted to the literary world of Kathy Reichs.
And that’s about it. If you’re a regular fan of the books then The Bone Collection is pretty much a necessary read as far as I’m concerned. Also, it’s nice to read short form stories from a favourite author sometimes. I’m not so sure it’s the best jumping on point for new readers, to be honest, because of the reveal in First Bones but there’s a whole back catalogue of books by this writer to explore if you are new to the world of Temperance Brennan. Either way, though, it’s an entertaining read and not to be missed.
Monday, 16 January 2017
Mary Entry, My Dear Watson
Sherlock 4.3 - The Final Problem
UK Airdate: 15th January 2017 BBC 1
Warning: Some slight spoilerage here.
Oh rats. This is absolutely not the review I wanted to be writing today, in the wake of last night’s season finale of Sherlock. The show has been a bit hit and miss since it first started and there’s usually one clunker per series but... yeah, The Final Problem isn’t good. In fact, I would go as far to say that it’s not only the worst episode of this series... it’s the worst of all four series. Not a good one at all and, ultimately for me, very disappointing.
Okay... so was fully expecting the re-entry of Mary Watson into the plot this week. Perhaps a continuation of her back story thread and how it was, maybe, intertwined with Moriarty and Euros Holmes but... nope. She has a brief cameo where she enters the show via another video clip at the end and I mention this here purely to justify the title of this blog post. I was going to be using this title whether she reappeared or not, you see... I didn’t want to waste it. Alas, my ideas at the continuation of her storyline seem almost blown out of the water... up to a point.
And that point is... I’m now forced to give up on the idea that Molly Hooper was behind everything. The Molly-arty figure, so to speak. Alas, she remains a footnote in the lives of Holmes and Watson and I think that’s a waste of a great character and, indeed, a great actress. In fact, the entire episode seemed a waste of great actors and actresses, to be honest, because if there’s one thing you couldn’t fault here... perhaps the only thing... it’s the quality of the acting from all the usual suspects in this. So Cumberbatch, Freeman, Gatiss etc were all exceptional in this one... they just didn’t do very well as characters, I would say. I know the plot was dealing with things from childhood but I don’t think they had to make all the dialogue that childish. Also... it all seemed a bit too theatrical and cypherish, to me. Which is a shame.
On that subject, though, the one member of the cast who really won out in all this stuff was, in fact, the wonderful Louise Brealey in her one scene here as Molly Hooper. She played it in such a way that you really wanted to know what kind of day she’d been having and why she was responding like she was. It was a brilliant scene and pretty moving and her performance made you wonder why the heck the rest of the characters hadn’t been written as well as that this time around. This scene between her and Sherlock, at least her side of it, seemed to be the only ‘real’ and moving thing happening in the entire show, to be honest.
On the subject of Mary Watson... well there’s room for another series in a few years if they decide to go down that route and it would be a fairly simple matter, I would have thought, to bring her back into the role. Of course, the split between Amanda Abbington and Martin Freeman probably makes that highly unlikely now but, I’m certainly not going to rule that one out yet. Especially since I want to know who mailed the P.S. DVD she’d recorded at the end of the episode.
Okay, so there was a lot not to like in this and I really don’t want this to turn into a laundry list of complaints. Especially since I’m still really keen on the series and most of the people I know have now given up entirely on it and haven’t even bothered with Series Four. I still think it’s a good show and, honestly, one really bad episode out of three is not too bad an average, is it?
Okay... so things like the absurd skill at reprogramming people that Sherlock’s sister has really does go into the realms of fantasy. Yeah, I know there are real life precedents for this kind of thing but they really whacked this up to the Nth degree here. On the other hand, Sherlock is pretty much an invincible breed of super science hero and, maybe it’s fitting that his latest nemesis also has super powers of her own, so to speak.
There’s also the question, by way of an example of shoddy ‘run through the wet paint before someone sees you’ writing issues inherent in this week’s installment, of why Sherlock, Mycroft and Watson would feel the need to break into the compound in which Sherlock’s sister, Euros Holmes, is supposedly imprisoned when Mycrioft pretty much outranks the top brass there anyway. If they suspected the lunatics were already running the asylum then they should surely be better prepared for what was waiting for them. If they weren’t then... why the heck would they break in there in the first place? They could just walk in with authority over everyone there. So, yeah, taking the time to prove that security is lax seems a bit of a stretch of an excuse to show those kinds of action scenes here, methinks.
But all this, however, is distracting me away from one of the main reasons why I had a hard time with the episode.
It was dull.
Simple as that. I kept checking my watch to see how long we had to go because it was dragging. There were no interesting plot twists or developments and even the media induced enhancements were few and far between and certainly didn’t add much when you noticed them. About the only little clever thing I did like was the shot of the ashes from Musgrove Hall continuing to rain down on Mycroft in Sherlock’s study at the aftermath of his story... quite liked that nice little touch but there just wasn’t enough of this kind of inventiveness, I felt, in this episode. I got quite bored by the end of this one.
So there you have it. The Final Problem was not much of a series finale and, from what I understand, I’m not alone in that conclusion. I was actually going to part with some cash in a week or two to buy the complete series blu ray coming out next week but, after seeing this clumsy nightmare of an episode, I’m not sure I’d want to after the disappointment of that climax. I’m still hoping that we’ll get another series in a few years’ time (preferably with lots of Mary and Molly in it) but for now... well... I’m kinda glad they’re all taking a break from it, to be honest.
Thursday, 12 January 2017
by Patricia Cornwell
Harper Collins 2016
And here we go again with the first of my two regular Christmas literary rituals coming into play. Namely, the new Kay Scarpetta book by the amazing Patricia Cornwell. I suspect this one will be a fairly short review because there’s only so much you can say about a novel that’s so well written and perfect, easily confirming Cornwell as the top writer in her field... but I’ll have a go.
Unlike a lot of the Scarpetta books, Chaos starts off with an extraordinarily long lead in before the first dead body of the story actually arrives. This is, of course, to set up characters and to place them in the path of Cornwell’s two lead characters, Scarpetta and her FBI husband Benton Wesley, before pulling all the threads of her plot together. It also allows herself to set up the occasional red herring which is fine with me because, in all fairness, it actually worked with me this time and when a character does something with a bottle of water in the early stages of the book, I fell victim quite convincingly to her sleight of hand and was distracted in totally the wrong direction. I’m always really pleased when Cornwell (or anyone, these days) is able to surprise me when it comes to not telegraphing the ending of the story from early on.
And, of course, it goes almost without saying that Cornwell is so good at portraying her varied characters, such as Marino, her niece Lucy and Lucy’s lover Janet (who’s not in it very much), that although the lead in to the action is a fairly long one this time... I didn’t mind it a bit. She takes her time to explain things to the reader, embellishing the background in which her characters work with layers of reality so that, I really don’t feel slowed down at all. This is all great stuff and in the hands of a master writer like her, it just all works really well.
Another reason why this approach in no way messes with her writing style, which is in the first person from Scarpetta’s point of view (as the majority of them have been) is that this one is a good example of a story where Cornwell manages to do some interesting things with the passage of time. The whole story is set over the course of about a day, tops, with just a chapter or so at the end set a couple of days later and this way of structuring the story seems to be something the writer has been doing a lot of over the past few years. It’s also something she seems to excel at more than most who try the same tactic and she still seems to be able to both compress and expand time on a whim... which is really helpful in the somewhat manipulative art of fiction writing, for sure. Most of the book is set at the crime scene of the first body or the surrounding area and various characters make appearances at regular intervals to inform Scarpetta of certain plot developments as she works a crime scene and races against time to get the body properly attended to before she can have it transported to her autopsy rooms.
As the story unfolds, we are made privy to various cutting edge ideas and theories that someone in the author’s position has access to know about and it can sometimes be a quite sobering experience to read about terrifying inventions which could threaten the life of everyone if somebody got it into their head to build and use this stuff in a certain way because, well, you just know that if someone with Cornwell’s connections is writing about this stuff, then it’s probably a distinct possibility that it could happen (if it hasn’t already).
Regular fans of the series will be happy to know that certain long running antagonists and ghosts pop up from the past in this one, just as they have been for a couple of novels now, and that the way in which they pop up is sometimes surprising. The very last chapter, for example, when everything is supposedly said and done, reveals some surprising information about a fairly recently acquired character that I totally didn’t see coming and only had a hint of a couple of chapters before. So there’s some good stuff here and one has to wonder just how much forward planning the usually meticulous Cornwell is doing with her characters because 15 years or so from now, I reckon she’s left herself another thread she can pull on if she wants to.
And I’m really not going to say anymore about Chaos for fear of spoilers. I said it would be one of my shorter reviews and it certainly is. There’s not much else to say. Once again, Patricia Cornwell demonstrates why she is the queen of modern crime fiction, turning out a book that is taut, slow but evenly and suspensefully paced and... as I kind of expect from her these days... nothing short of a minor masterpiece. If you’re already a fan of Cornwell and have read the series from the get go, this is another ‘must read’ as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t say it’s a jumping on point for new readers but, if you are a new reader, go back to her early works and start from there because, frankly, her character progression is amazing. What more can one say? Well done again to a truly great writer... don’t miss out on the Scarpetta books. They are essential reading.
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
2016 USA Directed by Morten Tyldum
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Yeah... there are a few spoilers in this one.
I kinda half avoided Passengers over the recent Christmas holidays because of the response I saw it getting on Twitter. However, when I returned to work, somebody told me it was actually very good (and that Jennifer Lawrence wears a bikini a lot) so I thought I’d better go and take a look for myself and see what kind of sci-fi movie this is and... well, it’s problematic.
There’s a kind of moral judgement to be made about a certain character in this movie, right from the early set up of the film, and although the director (who also directed the adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, reviewed here) found this aspect to be what made the story interesting, from what I read, this doesn’t make the character all that palatable the way he’s been played here by Chris Pratt. Possibly my own disappointment in Chris Pratt gleefully owning up to being someone who hunts animals may be some baggage I’m bringing to the film myself though... so I have to be careful about my gut reaction on this one.
It’s funny. If I’d have seen this as a kid in the 1970s, where it might have stood side by side with such classics as Silent Running (reviewed here) I would probably have had no problem at all with this film. As it is and with the current climate of madness to be found on various social media outlets, the central moral question is something which doesn’t sit comfortably with me... particularly the way it’s presented here.
So, okay... the plot is a ship carrying hundreds of passengers across the galaxy in suspended animation for well over a hundred years to start life in their new home malfunctions and one of the passengers, played by Chris Pratt, is woken up 90 years too early... with no hope of getting back to sleep again. After a year with just the robot bartender played by Michael Sheen to keep him company, he finds himself hopelessly on the verge of committing suicide because he is so lonely... and the director, and Pratt, play this for all it’s worth. And the reason the set up is so long... maybe half an hour... is because the story can only move forward if you can sympathise with Pratt’s character and the distraught state he’s in. However, instead of blowing himself out into space without a suit, he falls in love with the profile of another passenger, Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and wakes her up to keep him company... thus ruining her chances of ever seeing her destination. He doesn’t tell her he woke her... only that her pod malfunctioned like his.
And so the two fall madly in love and, in a whirlwind of interstellar cliché, Pratt is just about to ask her to marry him (being as they’re the only two souls around) when the android mistakenly reveals that Pratt ruined her future by waking her up. She then totally freaks, understandably, and cuts off all communication with Pratt. And here’s where the real problem with the movie kicks in. She could have either forgiven him after a few days of anger or, never forgave him. At least that’s the way I see it. There’s no slow burn that can fix this kind of dilemma that Pratt has been a bit of an eel, suicidal or not, and I think if she is going to go off and refuse contact for as many months as she seems to in the movie, then there’s no going back for them.
However, when one of the ship’s crew, played by Laurence Fishburne, is also woke by his malfunctioning pod, the three are forced to work together to save the ship to stop it, and its crew of hundreds of passengers in suspended animation, from blowing up. However, Fishburne’s character is not so lucky as Pratt’s and it turns out the machine didn’t wake him properly. He’s got maybe a day or two to live due to not coming out of hypersleep properly and then, for the final half an hour or so of the film, Pratt and Lawrence have to put their differences aside and work together. And this is where, for me, the film falls down flat in that Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora soon forgives and rekindles her love for Pratt as they collaborate against their mutual peril. And it seems to me that this wouldn’t be something that could happen if she had already severed contact for as long as she did. There’s also the problem that giving her love and then making a certain decision she does about something near the end of the film, not going to say what, almost validates and empowers Pratt’s morally grey decision.
And this was a real movie killer for me, it has to be said.
Mostly everything else is pretty good about it... although the script is extremely cliché ridden and there are absolutely no surprises all the way through. The special effects and shot set ups are fine and all the lead actors, including Pratt, are giving some great performances. I’ve not seen Jennifer Lawrence in anything else other than Winter’s Bone (reviewed here) and her three X-Men movies (to date, reviewed here, here and here) but I’m really loving what she’s doing here and suspect that she could reach ‘movie star’ levels pretty soon, if she manages to avoid the career pitfalls of being a successful woman in the Hollywood community. Really think she’s got something going for her in terms of being a box office draw.
Ultimately, Passengers isn’t something I could probably see again but I don’t think it’s a bad sci-fi film and, although it’s morally ambiguous (if you do happen to see Pratt’s character’s actions in shades of grey) I don’t think that die hard fans of the genre will have too many problems with this movie. I think it could have been a lot smarter and a lot less clichéd but I don’t think appealing to anything but the lowest common denominator IQs was probably a factor in the production of the movie. I was a little frustrated because it felt a lot like there was a better movie trying to get out of what is, essentially, just another old 1950s sci-fi short story plot but, I’m guessing I’m really not the kind of science fiction fan that this movie is aimed at. It’s certainly not a terrible film though and although it’s no Silent Running, it’s certainly no Plan 9 From Outer Space either so... yeah, if you’re in the right mood you may want to give this one a look.
Monday, 9 January 2017
Sherlock 4.2 - The Lying Detective
UK Airdate: 8th January 2017 BBC 1
Warning: Spoilers from the outset.
And here we go again. This is an almost text book episode of what Sherlock is all about and what it’s always been about since the very first episode aired... It’s all about being very clever in its use of the media to both play with the way the content and information is delivered to good dramatic and comic effect while still using the flexibility of this rug-pull of a malleable breaking of the fourth wall, on a purely narrative level, to be able to wriggle out of anything. For that reason, I really loved it. However, another thing that has remained consistent throughout the majority of the series is the fact that on the level of the actual content delivered... and I mean the writing and its inability to use those same techniques to sustain trust or be anything less than obvious, for the most part... it lives up to its normal standard and is also, unfortunately, fully represented in the chemical make up of this weeks episode.
In other words, it was an entertaining romp but, unfortunately, not clever enough by half.
Now then... this didn’t stop me enjoying this one, I have to say, and I found it to be a much stronger episode than the previous one but... it felt like a stop gap so Holmes can get Watson on board again after the ‘possible’ death of his wife in the previous episode. And, yes, I’m still not buying into that whole ‘Mary is dead’ idea just yet... if I’m going to make myself look stupid on that front then I can at least drown properly without flapping my arms this way and that in terms of my suspicions of where the last episode might end up.
So, despite the excellent performances of all the usual suspects in this one... Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Mark Gatiss... not to mention the always brilliant Toby Jones playing a really unlikeable serial killer who, alas, because the writing telegraphed his character too much, wasn’t surprising anyone (but, as usual for Jones, he did it so well)... my attentions were fixated on just two things throughout this episode. One of them was the whole Mary Watson thing and I’ll get on with my one last chance at second guessing that in a minute. The other thing was... alas... thrown in my face, so to speak... and that also had its roots in the previous episode.
In last weeks episode, Dr. Watson had a dalliance, albeit in text form, with another woman. This week... after I was sure that Holmes wasn’t actually talking to a dead woman... another character in the story had some chips by the River Thames with Holmes and, at that point, my thoughts marinated to... wasn’t that the lady on the bus from last week but with different coloured hair? And then I told myself I was probably wrong and moved on until another scene with Watson and his therapist and, looking at her I thought... no, wait! Isn’t that the woman from the bus from last week? And then I moved on again because... well I kinda stopped playing that game and I assumed my gut instinct was wrong. Well, it turns out I was completely right in that all three women were, in fact, the same person... the only thing I didn’t quite see coming was her relationship with one of the main characters but.... yeah... you know... my gut was right.
And so I’ll come to Mary. I’m still not convinced her death wasn’t staged... possibly by Mary (and Molly... and I’m still not giving up on my Molly-arty theory either, for now) and the reason I’m still clinging onto this sad conviction that she might still be alive (at least until the conclusion of next week’s episode, at any rate) is because Moffat seems keen to make it seem almost impossible to the viewers at home that she could be anything but dead. So we have the ghost of Mary Watson talking to John Watson and giving him advice... or do we? Well, it was stated and is quite obvious that the ghost of Mary Watson is just a projection created by John Watson to deal with her death and... well... that psychological manifestation doesn’t have to mean that she’s actually really dead, does it? As long as John believes that she’s dead then he can have whatever ghost he likes playing around inside his brain. And that’s where I am at the moment and part of me sincerely hopes I’m wrong in my suspicions because, frankly, it would be nice if Moffat and Gatiss were able to run my mind around in little circles because I hate being right about a lot of the stuff I see on TV and at the movies... kinda numbs the emotions, so to speak. Time will tell... seven more days of that man made temporal construction known as a week should reveal the end game on this one... we shall see.
Other than all that though... great little episode despite the obviousness but with the quality... and this is a gift that Moffat seems to have... to still inject great dollops of humour into the programme even when the two main protagonists of the series are in their darkest places. Some of the dialogue, as always, was pretty wonderful... it’s just the broader strokes on these things which sometimes screw these up a little, methinks. So... wonderful performances, cool and innovative use of the medium to show things in the usual, marvellous, Sherlock manner and, as always, a really nice score by David Arnold and Michael Price which comes out on CD on 27th January (if you were wondering... pre-order it specifically from Silva Screen before the release date here now and you should get the special limited bonus disc of the score to The Abominable Bride thrown in too, if you get your skates on).
Despite some obvious moments, not a bad bit of viewing for a Sunday evening. British television has still got it, I reckon, and Sherlock is very much one of our finest exports. Looking forward to the next one now... just to see if any of my wild theories are right.
Thursday, 5 January 2017
Now On The Big Screen: The Unofficial And Unauthorised Guide To Doctor Who At The Movies
by Charles Norton Telos Publishing
“Now you can see them in colour on the big screen...
closer than ever before. So close, you can feel their fire...”
Thus stated the original theatrical trailer to the 1965 movie Dr. Who And The Daleks, which is one of the many items under discussion in this, relatively, new book (2013/15) by Charles Norton. Which is what I found myself reading on Christmas Day this year since, for technical reasons, the new Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs novels had not yet found their way to me under their traditional, seasonal wraps. Don’t worry, said tomes were gifted to me a few days later once family members had been met and greeted so, if you’re waiting for my usual, annual review of the latest works by these two ladies... they will be coming soon (as soon as I get to finish them).
Instead, this somewhat marvellous tome given to me on Christmas morning gets to be my first book review of 2017 and, I have to say, it’s certainly an interesting project (as is often the way with unauthorised and, therefore, often more ‘honest’ editions). Writer Charles Norton not only attempts to document the origins, production and aftermath of the original and, to date, ‘only’ Doctor Who movies to be released in cinemas at the height of Dalekmania in the UK - the 1965 movie Dr. Who And The Daleks and the 1966 film Dalek Invasion Of Earth 2150AD (both starring Peter Cushing as scientist Dr. Who and Roberta Tovey as his grand daughter) - but he also, for the majority of the book, goes on to lift the curtain on all the various planned and aborted Doctor Who movies which have never made it to the screen in the intervening years. Some of these proposed projects came from names associated somewhat with the television history of the show itself and others, from less familiar quarters. And it’s a very interesting read for anyone who loves the colourfully depicted, distorted movie versions of the characters as played by Cushing and co as much as they do the television show.
The first two sections deal with the original motion pictures in quite some detail and even include, like I’ve seen done before in other important works that deal with British films of that era, some of the considerations of the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors, as the acronym more honestly stood for in those days) from the script submissions, before even a shot of frame was filmed. This is interesting in itself since we have an insight into some scenes which were scrapped and also some sequences which were shot and then later cut or modified, like the close-up shots of the Kaled inside one of the Daleks which the BBFC thought too disturbing to include in a family/children’s film (such as it was perceived back then). It also includes, as do all of the chapters dealing with other, more ill-fated productions, comments about the experience from various cast and crew culled from a number of credited sources over the years.
It’s good stuff and, as far as I can tell, the most definitive story 'behind the scenes' of the two Peter Cushing movies in print and, if it had just been these two movies that the book was solely about, then it would have still been a great read. As interesting though, are the next chapters which probably make up around three quarters of the book, which detail the likes of various projects by people who were trying to get another movie incarnation of the good Doctor to the screen... including a third continuation of these original two movies.
So we have a section, for example, devoted to Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, which was the long gestating brain child of the two writers who were also starring in the television series at the time the project was first mooted... Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) and the late Ian Marter (who played the Doctor’s fourth assistant Harry Sullivan, for a while, as a preliminary to going on to write various novelisations of the series for Target books, before dying tragically young). There are some nice reminiscences to be found here including the time when Tom Baker and Ian Marter went to the Dominion in London in 1977/8 to take a look at that new Star Wars movie which had just come out... only to leave the cinema dejected when they realised the budgetary goal posts for any big screen science fiction projects had just been dramatically changed and that they really had no hope in hell of getting something like that financed.
Along with a whole host of projects in the book, two of which would have featured one of my favourite ladies, Caroline Munro, in their genetic make-up, the tome also covers Douglas Adams’ proposed film project, Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen. Now Douglas Adams had a history of writing some episodes of the show (including the infamous ‘lost’, half filmed due to TV strikes, Tom Baker story Shada) but he is perhaps more famous, world wide, as the man who created and wrote the legendary Radio Show, series of novels, TV show, theatre production, movie and audio recordings that constitute The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Now, as soon as I’d read the title of his proposed Doctor Who movie I think I’d figured out what eventually became of it and, sure enough, this book confirms that it did end up being the basis of the third of the five Hitchhiker novels... Life, The Universe and Everything.
Now On The Big Screen does, in places, get a little dry and perhaps just a little tedious in some chapters but it’s all done in the name of enlightenment and you can’t knock author Norton’s quite thorough approach to digging up all he can about the material in this volume. Indeed, a synopsis of the script usually running between five and eight pages long is provided for pretty much all of the detailed movie projects in this book, which is absolutely invaluable. What it did, however, make me realise is that, as much as I’d love to see another new Doctor Who movie at some point in the future (and, call it a hunch, but I suspect we’re all a lot closer to that prospect than we are possibly aware of until the marketing machine gets into high gear) is that I’m really thankful, in some ways, that none of the stories summarised here never made it anywhere near the big screen because, honestly, they do mostly sound quite awful (although there’s surely still time for Caroline Munro to be offered a big part in the regular TV show, perhaps?).
After the main book has concluded, with a little on the background politics of the BBC that ushered in the new Russell T. Davies era of The Doctor’s adventures in televisionland, we also get another invaluable, much smaller section telling a little bit about the various, unauthorised, straight to home video spin offs featuring some of the actors, actresses and characters from the series... some of which are written by people who work on the show these days, such as Mark Gatiss. So this is a good little guide for further, non-Doctor adventures with characters like Sergeant Benton, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, Sarah Jane Smith, Liz Shaw and even the likes of Professor Travers and Victoria Waterfield, it would seem.
All in all, the information contained in this tome is of great interest to fans of Doctor Who and I’m really glad to have Now On The Big Screen on my book shelves (such as they are... might be the floor at this point). Charles Norton has done a great service to fandom when pulling this research all together here and its an absolutely invaluable addition to any Whovian’s library. So glad to have this one.
Tuesday, 3 January 2017
Annual Cryptic Movie
Quiz Answers and Winners
A big congratulations to the joint
winners of my 2016 Cryptic Movie Quiz...
Andy (twitter handle https://twitter.com/AndyLawrence5) is the man behind the always brilliant Euro Not Trash site at https://eurodrama.wordpress.com/ and Sarah (twitter handle https://twitter.com/sarahrward1) is the famous writer who has her Crimepieces site at https://crimepieces.com/
Well done to them and a huge thank you to everyone who sent in their answers to the latest quiz. I hope you all enjoyed playing (which is kinda the point).
And so... on to the answers.
1. A less egotistical, traditionally English adopted drink behaving much more like a flaming headed Johnny!
Someone less egotistical may be considered modest. A drink traditionally associated with the English could be tea. So... Modest Tea. A flaming headed Johnny could have been Johnny Storm, the Human Torch but in this case it was Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider.
So... Modesty Blaise.
2. Placed upon an Apple branded, bleeting sheep.
Placed upon is On. A sheep makes a ba ba sound. An apple branded product usually has an ‘i’ in front of it like iPod or iPad.
3. Unusual, backwards fish on a rocky pinnacle.
Okay... Unusual could mean strange. A fish could be a cod. Backwards it would be doc. A rocky pinnacle is known as a tor.
So... Doctor Strange.
4. Drifting, frozen plasma is a tramp.
Drifting and frozen indicates snow. Plasma is sometimes another term for blood. As the song goes, the lady is a tramp.
So... Lady Snowblood.
5. Whether it’s this Linda or that Linda, it should make an interesting activity.
Which Linda is it? Or should that be Witch Linda? Perhaps it’s Linda Blair. An interesting activity could be a project.
So... The Blair Witch Project.
6. A couple of bonfire night dummies from a city in France.
A traditional bonfire dummy is Guy as in Guy Fawkes. A city in France could be Nice.
So... The Nice Guys.
7. None scrambled at the demonstration of the fourteenth letter of the alphabet.
Okay, so the fourteenth letter of the alphabet is ‘n’. A demonstration could be a demo.
So, demon. None unscrambled is neon. So... The Neon Demon.
8. A loose Emergency Room.
Loose = slack. A common abbreviation for Emergency Room is ER.
9. An unhappy and confused oak is speaking in poetry. A spiritual entity is proceeding positively but in reverse.
A confused oak? Well de-confuse it by rearranging it to ako. If it’s unhappy it’s sad. So Sadako. A spiritual entity could be a Ka. A positive exclamation is okay. Reverse it and you get kayo. That gives Kayako.
So... Sadako VS Kayako.
10. Rearrange the angle slightly and reshuffle the end of the earth.
Angle rearranged could be angel. The end of earth is an h. Rearrange it to the front of the word and you get heart.
So... Angel Heart.
11. That young lady stuck between Sunday and Tuesday.
Easy one here... The Girl From Monday.
12. Diminutively speaking James, it’s a greeting.
A greeting could be “Yo.” A diminutive form of James could be Jimbo.
13. Get in a couple of big fights just above the thigh. You can put this example of typographic spacing in a container if you are family.
A couple of big fights could be battles. Above your thigh is your hip. So battleship. A container could be a pot. A typographic measurement could be an em. Someone in your family is kin.
So... Battleship Potemkin.
14. See the insect and then send a letter to one.
An insect is a bug. If you see a bug that could be bugsee. Send a letter could be to mail a letter. One is one. Mail one.
So... Bugsy Malone.
15. To derive, by reasoning, in the negative.
To derive by reasoning is to infer. A negative is no.
16. A single stalk of wheat gets very angry while wearing a couple of French hats.
Get angry and you get wild. A single stalk of wheat is a straw. A french hat could be a beret.
So... Wild Strawberries.
17. Great French fiction writer finds himself in a muddle.
A great French writer for me was Jules Verne.
So unscramble his last name to get... Nerve.
18. Unlock to gain access on the Monday and the man is royalty.
Mon is short for Monday. If you unlock something yo need a key... so monkey. A royal man could be a king.
So... The Monkey King.
Thanks again all for playing. Hopefully I’ll get the time to do another one next year.