Thursday, 30 March 2017
Djiin And Tonic
Under The Shadow
Directed by Babak Anvari
Precision Pictures DVD Region 2
I’ve been meaning to catch up to this Iranian horror movie since it played the festivals here in September of last year and, while I was in Fopp at the weekend, I thought I’d pick up a copy. After searching their horror section for a Blu Ray for quite a while I enquired after it and the guy behind the counter told me that the company who put it out didn’t bother with a Blu Ray release for this country. You could tell he was angry about it and I joined him in this anger... it’s pretty outrageous that you can’t get hold of films which you’d hope would be playing in a couple of screens of your local multiplex but were never even shown there, and that they would be made available in the best quality format possible. Especially with the warm reception this one had. These companies should really have a think about what they're doing now. This kind of crime against filmanity isn’t acceptable in this day and age.
Then I got further enraged because, instead of being in the horror section, the DVD, which was already only a fiver because, you know, it wasn’t a proper Blu Ray... was placed in a world cinema section instead. Okay... really people, there should be no need for a ‘world cinema’ section. We’re all one world. Those kind of artificial boundaries created so 'idiots who can’t read' are able to better avoid properly subtitled films should be banished from shops and instead everything should be listed together and in alphabetical order. With the odd categories like science fiction, westerns and horror maybe thrown in for good measure... although that obviously doesn’t take into account cross-pollinated genres so, yeah, maybe not even that.
Anyway, for a very cheap price I finally got to see Under The Shadow and it was well worth the wait and, it has to be said, more than worth the price of admission. The film is set in the Iraq/Iranian war in 1980s Tehran and the credits start off with actual footage from those times. We then focus on an interview, of sorts, as the main female protagonist of the movie, Shideh, played skillfully by the beautiful Narges Rashidi, tries and fails to get back into her University course where she was studying to be a doctor before she became ‘politically active’. The way of life for these people is drummed home effectively when a big explosion outside the office window goes off without any reaction other than for both of the characters in the room to casually look around when the explosion occurs, offering testament to the matter of factness of the loss of life in this part of the world at this time. When Shideh goes home to pick up her young daughter Dorsa, the other main protagonist of the film, played by Avin Manshadi, the director did something which really won me over in terms of this movie.... but I’ll get to that in a paragraph or two.
Shideh is living with her doctor husband and her daughter in an apartment but something’s wrong with their place, although Shideh doesn’t realise or even accept it yet. Her daughter receives a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits, specifically a djinn spirit, from an ‘adopted’ child in another apartment but things go wrong for her when she loses it. Now the djinn steals her favourite doll and, once it gets a hold on her consciousness, it proceeds to try to steal Dorsa away from her mother, setting up emotional barriers between the two. Things get worse once Shideh’s husband is called up to be a doctor in the war and he leaves home, strongly suggesting that, since Tehran is rumoured to be hit with missiles soon, Shideh and Dorsa go to stay with his parents. And so, as various neighbours move out before the rumoured bombs start flying, the movie becomes about Shideh and Dorsa living with the possibility that something very strange is going on in the house until, eventually, they are the only ones left with the malevolent spirit and battle commences.
The acting is excellent and you really feel for Shideh and what is going on with her situation. And it’s supported by amazing cinematography, shot design and editing which completely push this movie into a special place. The director uses big vertical blocks of texture/colour within the movie, which is mostly set in the interior of the block of flats and these big bold statements really provide a lot of scope for visually anchoring what is essentially 'a ghost story' and exploiting the shapes and depths of the shot design to frightening and, often, beautiful effect.
That thing he did which first impressed me, for instance, which occurs when Shideh first goes to pick up Dorsa from a neighbour, totally blew me away. We have a shot where Shideh is standing in a corridor and about to knock on her neighbour’s door. The big shape, dark colour and texture of the door takes up the right hand half of the shot with our main protagonist highlighted to the left of it on the other half of the screen. Then, as her neighbour answers the door, the camera is panned around a little at roughly the same speed to take in what’s through the doorway. Because the door opens inwards, the door shape has now switched to take up the left half of the screen and we see Shideh’s neighbour framed perfectly in the right hand space of the shot. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw how perfectly this was done.
This is fantastic stuff but the director also makes good use of certain realities of living in a zone where there are lots of explosions going off. Namely in how the windows of the flat are decorated. I’ve heard of this before, although never seen it done but... the windows have masking tape placed around the edges and crossing in the middle so that, if any bombs go off in the vicinity, the shockwave is less likely to take out the windows with it. And, of course, since the flat has a fair few windows, the director can make real good use of this by pitching light in through the windows to leave ominous looking crosses of shadow throughout the apartment at key moments. It’s a nice idea and it works really well.
He doesn’t just use the visual elements to single out areas where he wants your attention either. There’s some nice use of sound to hone in on things too. For instance, there are a number of scenes where Shideh is seen doing her daily workout regime. It’s basically using an old, diving board buttoned VHS machine with a copy of the once popular Jane Fonda workout cassette in it but, as things get just a little more intense for Shideh and her grasp of what’s going on in the apartment, there’s a scene where this gorgeous actress is seen doing her aerobics but, as we move closer to her, the soundtrack of the cassette is dialled down to nothing and this really helps the mind focus on the figure of a mother flying in the face of adversity and sticking her routine.
That moment also ties up nicely to another scene later in the movie where, for reasons I won’t reveal here, Shideh no longer has the tape and so she still, just silently, does her usual routine but without the constant input of Ms. Fonda to help her. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of how directors like Kurosawa or Friedkin would sometimes use the sound design to focus in or provide a stark, sobering contrast to something which has come before, or sometimes after, a specific moment in a movie.
The other thing I got out of this was just how different the culture is in this country compared to the unfortunate people who lived in Tehran at the time. For instance, a scene where Shideh has to tell off her child for mentioning the video recorder in front of a stranger because they are not allowed to have such things says a lot about the society she lives in. As does the sequence where she grabs her kid in fear, runs into the street and is promptly detained or not wearing enough clothing covering all of her body. It really shows how ‘in the dark ages’ some cultures are, especially with their attitude to the female contingent of their population. To the writer's credit, the dialogue given to the policeman who detains Shideh shows his ignorant attitude in a negative light too so... yeah. Something to think about, I suspect.
All in all, I had a great time with Under The Shadow and would heartily recommend it, not just to fans of a slowly building ghost story but also to the general cineaste at large. The characters and their situations are haunting, if maybe not quite terrifying, and the shot design and gravitas of some of the situations combine well to give a truly outstanding film. Definitely don’t let this one slip into obscurity... it deserves better.
Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Directed by Martin Campbell
88 Films Blu Ray Zone B
From the director of Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale comes... oh dearie me. Another, quite atrocious, British sex comedy.
And, yes... it’s that Martin Campbell.
I was given Eskimo Nell for Christmas by the wife of a friend (who is also a friend, obviously). I don’t know why people take a look at a Blu Ray, see that it’s got Mary Millington’s name prominently displayed and then think of me but... well, I guess I just evoke ‘quality film’ when they bring me to mind. ;-)
To be fair, I’d been curious about this movie for a long time, mostly for the Millington connection but, in regard to Mary’s appearance in this, all I can is that for someone who gets prominent billing in the casting on the box when she’s in the film for, maybe, less than 10 seconds with her footage played at high speed as she does a strip as part of an ‘audition’ montage... is that it’s nice she’s still so well remembered. She appeared in this a couple of years before she made the first of her two breakout hits, Come Play With Me (reviewed here) and The Playbirds (reviewed here) and there really isn’t much to see here if you’re a fan of the actress. Although there is a more Mary-centric short movie included on the extras. The product description mentions her turn here as an “eye popping cameo” but its more of a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” kind of affair, I have to say.
What’s more interesting is that, although it’s a bit of an ensemble piece, the lead actor who plays the main character, as I see it, isn’t even listed on the front of the box at all. So one has to wonder what that actor must have thought of appearing in this that he’s somehow managed to have his name ommitted from the main cast list on the packaging. Oh yes... I’m looking at you Christopher Timothy, aka James Herriot in the hit TV show All Creatures Great and Small.
The film starts off with a voice-over song giving singing narration about a young graduate fresh out of film school, who we see tripping around all the usual places in London, trying to get a job as a director. There are some nice visual and audio references to places like the Hammer film company on Wardour Street and the like and, as this song continues, said young man is kicked out of various studios until he starts looking at the rock bottom places working straight from Soho, landing a job from producer Benny U. Murdoch as played by Roy Kinnear. You can tell exactly the kinds of films Murdoch and his backers make from the posters adorning the walls of various offices... The Sexorcist, King Dong, Vampire Vomit and Motor Bike Orgy. There’s even a poster for the Doris Wishman directed movie, Deadly Weapons, starring Chesty Morgan in Murdoch’s office (which I reviewed here). It becomes clear that he specialises in making ‘sexy’ sequels to ‘real’ movies such as his sequel to Son Of Cochise... Keep It Up Hiawatha.
This is not the kind of role I would equate with Kinnear, the national treasure who was often on TV in the 1970s and 80s, not to mention his work in some prestige film roles such as The Three Musketeers (and its two sequels). Here he plays a ‘tits obsessed’ producer who measures anything of quality in terms of how it can be boiled down to sex (when he’s not getting undressed and trying to demonstrate his prowess in this particular area) and he clearly wants a porn film made by the new graduate. So the new guy says yes and enlists his friend, the penguin obsessed writer Harris Tweedle, as played by the aforementioned Christopher Timothy, to write a script.
The rest of the film comprises the exploits of the director, his agent and the writer as they accompany the producer securing backing money from various people and then find their script requests (not to mention leading lady requests) getting more contradictory and impossible as the quest for production goes on and they interact with a cast list for this movie that... yeah... you really wouldn’t associate with this kind of endeavour. There’s Christopher Biggins... as the son of a ‘Mary Whitehouse’ character... and his sister who is dating the director and who happens to be played by the great Katy Manning, who played my favourite Doctor Who companion Jo Grant in the early seventies. Her inclusion here alone makes the acquisition of this film a necessity in my book although, it has to be said, she’s totally wasted in this.
So, anyway, when Kinnear’s character absconds with all the money and our three heroes are left responsible for it, it’s up to them to write and direct four different versions of the movie for each of the backers, including Katy Manning’s character’s mum, who is all about purity and censorship in cinema. So, yeah, they have to do a Christian parable, an out and out porn version, a gay S&M version and, my favourite, the world's first Kung Fu musical... which in this case also involves a lot of nuns and is somewhat based on The Sound of Music... but with added kung fu action.
Now, even though this is a truly terrible film and might test the film stamina of a certain type of audience, there are some nice ideas in the mix, to be sure. Although I found most of it to be pretty unfunny, there were a few things that made me chuckle. Such as a line from one of the backers explaining what he wants in the movie. “Hardcore, plenty of flagellation, rubber appliances, throw in some bestiality as well... then in the second scene...” and so on.
There’s also a long montage sequence showing the lads on set as each of the four versions of the movie are directed which is where, for me, the most laughs come from. The sequence where one of the Eskimo Nells and her leading, Asian actor are singing a line of verse before kung fu-ing one of a series of nuns in repeat mode did make me smile somewhat. However, all that being said, it’s generally a bit dull and less than witty, for the most part. Like a downmarket version of a Carry On film but with added anatomical detail.
It’s funny... back in Germany in 1962 some young directors got together at a film festival and drafted a document called the Oberhausen Manifesto because they were worried about the direction of German cinema, much of which had devolved into soft core sex comedies as their chief product. Ten years later many of these directors were pushing at these boundaries and producing interesting movies and are now more well known as starting the New German Cinema... or what was the New German Cinema. Meanwhile, in the UK, despite all our kitchen sink and cinéma-vérité stuff which was getting critical acclaim at the time, there were still a lot of sex comedies being produced and one wonders whether a similar protest to the backdrop of this kind of product was going on behind the scenes, so to speak, in Great Britain at the time. It seems to me we were somewhat lagging in these kinds of areas (and no, I don’t hate sex films, just making a comparison to the creative climate in different countries, is all).
And that’s about it in terms of my take away from Eskimo Nell except for... just one more thing. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I was a professional child model in the very late sixties to mid 1970s and it’s always good to see various London locations like Wardour Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and the surrounding areas used in a movie like this. It’s a London which can only exist on film now and it is always nice to see and remember various landscapes which are still there, mostly, but populated with different shops etc. Seeing things like the old Athena shop on Leicester Square (a regular haunt) with a Wimpy Bar right next to it brings back a fond rush of nostalgia for days gone by. So, you know, even if Eskimo Nell isn’t your kind of thing... if you’re as old as me, you might want to take a look just for the unexpected trip down memory lane, as our intrepid film school heroes run through the streets of London trying to put right the consequences of their actions. It was kinda fun, I guess.
Monday, 27 March 2017
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Mild spoiler allusions about the end of the movie at the end of this review.
Hmmmm.... okay. When I first saw the trailer for Life a few weeks ago at the cinema my first thoughts were... “How come I’ve not heard anything about this movie before now? Were they trying to keep it a secret?” Which is not good, really, I would have thought, when you’re trying to publicise a new Hollywood movie. My follow up thoughts were along the lines that the movie looked like a pretty close rip-off of ALIEN but with nods to the ‘reality’ of films like Gravity (reviewed here) and with a few famous people in it. Strangely enough, when I got to the cinema and saw the thing, I soon realised I was watching a fairly close rip-off of ALIEN but with nods to the ‘reality’ of films like Gravity and with a few famous people in it. Woah, deja vu.
I guess with a film like Life you can at least say that it does what it says on the tin in regards to the minimal amount of marketing I saw and, I’m quite happy to report that it’s really not a terrible movie. On the contrary, it’s quite suspenseful and intense in a few sequences and that’s just what a scary movie, or at least something trying to be a scary movie, should be, right? Alas, it also has some problems too but let me just concentrate on the good stuff first...
That good stuff would be the central performances of the actors and actresses - Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ariyon Bakare. They all do good work here and another plus sign for the movie is they are able to interact with an environment that looks pretty good on film. All the antigravity stuff works fine and looks credible.
The film’s alien ‘actor’ is also good. Named Calvin, it’s not the straight ‘homage’ to ALIEN that a lot of the movie ends up being and, although it basically looks like Flubber, it kinda works. Especially when it gets inside characters and causes damage from the inside... so the camera can linger on all that internal blood escaping through the mouth and floating around... which is kinda okay, although the first time it’s properly done it goes on forever and maybe outstays its welcome as an effect fairly promptly in the movie.
Jon Ekstrand’s score is equally good and appropriate to the action, helping the film create the tone it needs when it best needs it. I am awaiting a physical CD release which is not scheduled until May and I can only keep my fingers crossed that it doesn’t get cancelled due to critical or box office reaction to the film... which I believe has been fairly poor.
Okay... so that’s it for the good stuff.
My real problem with this was that the editing and sequence of events didn’t get enough coverage for me to be able to properly tell what was going on in certain scenes. For instance, I watched a character die and then 5 or 10 minutes later he was back without any kind of fanfare, just wounded. I had no clue but obviously the other characters did. Also, at one point, and I suspect this error may have occurred due to scenes getting chopped in the final edit (although I’ve no way of knowing so don’t quote me on that), I counted that there were, in fact, two aliens because there was no way the same alien could have been hiding where it does without being seen (or travelling through locked doors if I’m remembering correctly). So I assumed there were two of them to deal with after a certain point in the movie when, it turns out... no, there was just one. I think the way this was put together could have stood being made a lot clearer at certain points.
Thirdly... remember Star Trek - The Motion Picture (reviewed here)? Special effects like the ones seen in that film were still relatively new and the producers overcompensated for that by throwing in loads of ‘vanity shots’ of the effects, highlighted just to show them off in what are probably some of the more boring moments of any of the Star Trek movies. It was like the people behind the camera were saying “We spent a lot of money on these shots and you’re damn well going to enjoy them!”. Alas, I felt Life suffered from a similar, if not quite as extreme, propensity to linger on various effect shots which, frankly, I was not interested in and which slow down the movie... in this case, slowing it down in a negative way. The effects were great but I didn’t really need them shoved into my face at close range and that’s kind of how I felt certain things were being handled here, frankly.
Okay, lastly, the film has an ending which most people are going to see coming at least five minutes, if not more, before the film actually catches up to it. It was pretty obvious although, I have to say, it was a pretty nice ending and it almost makes the film suddenly feel like it’s been adapted from one of those old EC horror comics which got into so much trouble in the 1950s. It’s silly and schlocky but it’s also a kinda fun stab at an ending and... that’s almost a requiem description for the entire film, in some ways. A kinda fun stab at a movie which, maybe, is a bit obvious and doesn’t quite make it in some ways.
Life isn’t in danger of blowing anyone away, for sure, but it is a kinda entertaining horror movie, for the most part. It won’t make you think and it won’t haunt you afterwards and, like I said, it has some problems. However, if you are into sci-fi horror films it’s not that much worse than a lot of ‘straight-to-home-video’ releases of the 1980s and, as I’m sure you’re aware if you are into watching film, some of those can be a lot of fun. A not bad time at the cinema and I may even grab this one on Blu Ray once it’s done the rounds and drops below a fiver. There’s still plenty of room for ‘space horror’ in my life.
Thursday, 23 March 2017
Daimajin all the people...
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Daiei Studios/Mill Creek Entertainment Blu Ray Zone A
I’ve been wanting to see this trilogy of pictures fusing ancient Japanese culture stories, reminiscent of classic chambara, with the kaiju eiga movie craze of this (and many other) periods in Japanese cinema for quite some time. Now, thanks to Mill Creek Entertainment, people are finally able to see the Daimajin movies in a restored transfer and, most importantly, with all the films in the correct aspect ratio. Which I’m very pleased about.
After a really fiery but beautiful set of opening credits ending with a quite surreal, eyeball shrinking into a mountain moment (which kinda makes sense in a way when you hear the legend of the Maijin and the Daimajin), we have a really creepy atmosphere evoked as the camera tracks a landscape near a small community. We hear the legendary Majin stomping about and the people of the village start their prayer ritual to keep the Majin locked in the hillside, where the giant statue of Daimajin keeps watch over him and ensures this God is trapped.
We then see the viewpoint of the ruler of the village and... he’s a pretty sympathetic guy and a supporter of his people, which is almost a rare thing for a Japanese period piece. Alas, he and his wife are killed in a coup (the noise of the alleged Majin a distraction which allows this to happen easier) and his young son and daughter (played by Yoshihiko Aoyama and Miwa Takada) flee with their guardian, Kogenta (played by Jun Fujimaki). Hunted, they make contact with the high priestess, who has been told to stop all the religious malarkey by the new and ruthlessly evil ruler of the village, Samanosuke, played by Ryûtarô Gomi. The new guy enslaves the good people, makes them work for him and takes away their livelihood in the name of taxes etc. The three main protagonists of this story, the guardian and the two heirs, are hidden in the forbidden mountain in a ‘cave with a view’... a view of the Daimajin guardian.
Then, as if by the magic of a scene transition, ten years have passed. The son and daughter are grown up but all three still live in the cave and are still wanted by the head of the village so they can be put to death. Then, things start to rapidly go wrong for everyone and, eventually, all the main characters are either dead or in the process of being crucified except for the daughter and a young boy from the village. The priestess who was helping them is killed but the new chief orders the Holy Daimajin statue destroyed in order to stop the people from believing in something. However, it’s not as easy as it looks, even when a giant nail is driven into the statues forehead to try and get some kind of damage done, frightening all the bad guys as it starts dripping blood. They leave the mountain as the powers of the elements are unleashed upon them and the daughter preys for the Daimajin to help... which it does by standing up and going on a bloody rampage through the village until justice prevails.
That’s a much simplified version of the story but its enough to give you a taste and the film is beautiful to look at with some gorgeous cinematography and some not half bad special effects to boot. When the boy proceeds up the ‘haunted mountain’ to prey fro help at one point, the wispy bits of cloth denoting ghosts are very nicely done and the skeleton’s hand which grabs the boy is also another nice touch, as he looks around again and it’s just a hand-like branch tugging at his clothes.
What’s interesting is that it’s almost, but not quite, bloodless compared to some of the other Japanese films coming out at the time. It’s almost like it’s a children’s film in that respect. You won’t find any arterial sprays of traditionally energetic, Japanese blood fountaining out of bodies on this one and very few wounds, life threatening or not, actually visibly bleed (aside from the spike which stays firmly lodged in Daimajin’s head for most of the last act and a few, slight, bloody wounds to the heroes)... even during a torture scene. That being said, and perhaps I’m giving it away by mentioning that it even has a torture scene, the film is actually quite nasty and violent in its attitudes and one wonders whether the target audience for this was actually a family audience or not... especially since their are some quite prominent child characters in the story.
For instance, even the come uppance of the bad guy at the hands of Daimajin at the end is a curious blend of bloodless viciousness. After smashing the house in which Samanosuke has fled into, he picks him up (in the same way King Kong might have picked up Fay Wray in the 1933 original - reviewed here... and there the similarity ends), holds him up to one of the wooden crosses, slowly and lingeringly pulls the giant nail from his own head and then impales the villain against the cross with it. This last moment plays off screen but the act in itself is quite nasty, although not entirely unexpected because I was waiting for Daimajin to do something fatalistic with that giant nail sticking out of his ugly bonce since Samanosuke’s men first drove it into his vengeance filled noggin.
As I said, though, the film is not really a violent picture compared with many others made around the time and it's full of some nice, tidy compositions and bright colours which are a pleasure to watch. And the slow build to the final resurrection of the Daimajin from his stone drenched sleep is nicely paced and a good pay off for the long build up. The film even has a typical score from legendary composer Akira Ifikube which is quite appropriate and, like a fair few of the cast and crew here, Ifikube was also someone who worked on a number of Zatoichi films over the years.
And that’s all I’ve got on this one, really. I was half hoping that the film would be set in the 1960s so I could see a full on Tokyo stomp but, even so, it’s a pretty cool attempt at doing something a little different to the large influx of giant monster movies the Japanese were presumably being inundated with at the time and I had some good fun with it. Looking forward to seeing the other two in the original trilogy sometime soon so... yeah, more Daimajin reviews to come in the near future.
Daimajin at NUTS4R2
Return Of Daimajin
Daimajin Strikes Again
Tuesday, 21 March 2017
Se7en Years of NUTS4R2
So that’s seven years and 1259 posts... and counting... of NUTS4R2 since my very first post.
And, once again, I thank all of you who click on and read this thing every now and again for taking the time out to do so.
I never thought I’d have the stamina to keep this thing going as long as I have. Especially when I’m holding down a full time day job and still managing, somehow, to get this thing updated an average of three times a week. There have been a few times in the past where I nearly gave up but my personal circumstances over the majority of the past two years have been such that it’s been a long time since I put any real thought to stopping this thing. So I keep on going and, hopefully, some of my readers find it mildly educational or, at the least, somewhat entertaining on occasion. At least I hope so. I endeavour to keep the posts somehow coming in the hopes that somebody is getting something out of them.
As is the tradition on both my anniversary posts and my ‘numbered’ posts, I’m not going to be reviewing a specific film here with this entry. This time I’d like to talk about something which I’ve been reminded of from writing certain reviews on here over the years and that is... the idea that it’s sometimes okay to change your mind.
I don’t do it often but, when I do, I find that I’ve got a much more positive opinion of a film a while after I’ve reviewed it than I did when I first saw it. And my question to myself on this subject is... is this a problem, for someone who writes reviews, to mellow towards something which he or she didn’t treat very positively on the first sitting?
I first became aware of this issue when I sat down in the cinema in 2001 and watched the Stephen Sommers sequel The Mummy Returns. I’d loved the first movie from two years earlier and was really looking forward to this but, when I left the cinema, I just felt kind of “Meh.” and underwhelmed (or quite possibly overwhelmed, actually). If I’d have been writing reviews back then I would have given this a pretty bad write up. However, circumstances were such that I was in a situation where I had to see the movie again a couple of weeks later and, much to my surprise, I loved it from that second showing onwards. I don’t know why certain films hit me like that but my guess is it’s because some of them are so loaded with special effects and action that I really just spend the first showing trying to process all the data and not concentrating on things like story and emotional content... instead, falling back on those factors on subsequent viewings, once my brain has understood the mechanics of what I was watching.
There have only been about four movies on here in the 1259 posts I’ve written so far which I feel fall victim to a similar emotional malaise on my first viewing but they were for pretty popular films and I find that kind of interesting. Perhaps my first approach on watching a movie is somewhat different to a large strand of the population... I really don’t know and I wouldn’t like to guess.
The four films I’ll flag up where this has happened recently are as follows.
Avengers - Age Of Ultron, which I reviewed here, was a somewhat less than positive experience. However, when I went back for another look with someone else, I loved it and ended up seeing multiple 3D showings. And it was a similar story for Star Wars - The Force Awakens, which I reviewed here. I’d been expecting a certain character to die since the casting was first announced and then I spent the whole movie waiting for that guy to die (you know the one) that I kinda missed everything else and, furthermore, the ending of the film totally depressed me. I wrote a fairly sober review and was really surprised when, on subsequent screenings a week later, I absolutely loved the movie. I can’t say the same for Star Wars - Rogue One (my review here), of course, which I enjoy a little better but which makes me even angrier at the continuity every time I watch it. All of those comments still stand... but then so do the comments I made about the other two movies so... I’ll get to that in a minute.
I also had initial problems with another film I now love... Ant-Man (reviewed by me here) and, my most recent review in giving a film a much harsher look than I now feel I would have given it if I’d reviewed it after a second look would be La La Land (which I reviewed here). My biggest criticism of this was that, while I quite liked the score, I’d thought the songs in it were terrible and didn’t have any impact. Well... I’d have to say I’d now disagree the songs don’t have any impact but, certainly they didn’t on first play. All it took was one listen to the song-track highlights CD a few weeks later to wake me up to the fact that the songs were toe tappingly excellent and I then went to back to see the movie another two times and loved it (and am waiting for the Blu Ray to come out). The truth is, all I needed was for the songs to grow on me and I would have been okay. If I could have listened to the CD first then I would probably have loved this one on first showing but... that’s not a common thing to happen these days so I’d argue the case that, in terms of first viewing, I wasn’t in a good place to give those songs a fair review.
So yeah... sometimes my first thoughts about a film... well they don’t change but they certainly aren’t where I end up in terms of my relationship with a film.
So I come to the point where I once again ask myself... should I wait a while and see a movie again before reviewing it? And the answer to that is an emphatic ‘no.’ Sure, my slant on these films come off as a little negative sometimes but I’ve looked back at those and, although my attitude is perhaps darker than it would be later on, I’m pleased to say that my basic criticisms are pretty much what they should be. I may be a little less forgiving but it certainly doesn’t invalidate the truth of them and so, I think, I’ll carry on as I am for now. I think my batting average is pretty good on first reactions and it’s not really something I have time to have a long reflection period on anyway... especially when reviews of new cinema releases bring the most readers in the shortest time span (although the posts of older things do seem to win out in stats over time, if people are interested in such things).
So if you are ever wondering why I gave the majority of those films mentioned above a hard time in my review... maybe take a little time and then go back and rewatch and think that maybe, as much as you love a piece of cinematic art, they’re not flawless gemstones. Mistakes are made, bad artistic instincts are sometimes followed and, absolutely, this does not invalidate yours, or anyone else’s enjoyment of the final product. You like what you like... and that’s the final word on the matter. Not some review on a blog.
So please, if you feel like I’ve given a movie a much harder time than I might have, as I suspect a lot of people will be feeling about the post I put up yesterday, please remember that it really doesn’t matter but that it doesn’t invalidate my criticisms of it either. I do my best here and, hopefully, for the majority of my readers, that’s enough. And I hope you continue to read and, hopefully, enjoy my perspective on certain things for a long time to come. I’m not writing in a vacuum here and I appreciate the time it takes you to read them.
So happy birthday to my blog... I’m happy to say that. Another candle older and another year of writing about to be unleashed.
Monday, 20 March 2017
Sunken Do Nots
Directed by Jordan Peele
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Right from the outset, there will be spoilers here.
If you want to see this movie then don’t be reading this review.
I will kinda half apologise right now because I know a lot of people really like this movie but... I wish I could’ve had a heads up and 'gotten out' of seeing Get Out when I had the chance.
The warning signs were clearly on the trailer. It looked like a truly obvious plot set up hiding no real surprises and I didn’t totally buy into the ‘happy couple’ of the trailer either... something definitely wasn’t as simplistic about that relationship as one of the characters obviously thought it was. In short, it looked like a truly forgettable attempt at a thriller with a possible racist bent and not something I would ever really need to see.
But then, much to my amazement, it started getting some truly great word of mouth on twitter and the like, the week before its UK debut. People and, even some organisations I trusted, were touting this as a modern day classic. Not only that... they were touting it as a classic ‘horror movie’. Really, did I miss something in the trailer which tagged it as a horror movie? Couldn’t see any non-human monsters or supernatural elements in there but if people were saying this was so and being as enthusiastic as they were then... maybe this one was worth checking out after all.
So I did and then, rather than write the review up as soon as I got home from the cinema, I put a good night’s sleep between the computer keyboard and me as that was my review equivalent of counting to ten to calm down because, frankly, I came out of that movie so angry at having such a non-film inflicted on me that I didn’t want to say things I’d regret in the heat of anger. So hopefully my enraged rant is somewhat tempered as I write this the next morning.
Lets get the good stuff out of the way first.
Get Out is nice to look at and is edited in such a way that it all manages to hold together... except in the case of one ‘what the heck, that’s not possible’ moment and I’ll detail that in a while. The main male lead Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is really good in this and one of the few good things about the script is that he’s painted as a really smart and confident character who, frankly, you would want to go to the pub and hang out with. It’s a great performance and it feels a little wasted in this movie, to be honest. We also have Catherine Keener playing the mother of Chris’ current girlfriend Rose, played by Allison Williams. Keener is always a great performer to watch and, along with Kaluuya, is one of the few people in this movie who aren’t playing it way over the top. Which is more than I can say for the guy playing the father, who came off as channelling Bill Murray's character in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, it seemed to me. The last guy who is really terrific in this movie is Caleb Landry Jones, an actor I’ve come to admire over the years. I first saw him playing a villainous brother in The Last Exorcism (reviewed here). After a while I noticed him cropping up as a more pleasant and even heroic figure in films such as X-Men First Class, where he plays Banshee (reviewed here) and the incredible Byzantium (which I reviewed here). Alas, he’s back to playing a villainous brother again here and I really hope he doesn’t get typecast in this kind of role because, if he’s not careful, he’s going to end up as the Brad Dourif of his generation and that would be a shame.
That’s pretty much it for the good stuff, I’m afraid. The score is kinda nice but I don’t understand why it’s being singled out by people and, well, it’s not out on CD as far as I can tell, only download, so it’s not like I’ll get the opportunity to hear it away from the movie myself. It was nice to hear Flanagan and Allen performing Run Rabbit Run again on the soundtrack though.
Okay, the bad stuff.
Did I mention it’s really obvious? I’d picked up on all the main, so called ‘twists’ during the first watch of the trailer, including the stuff about Chris’ girlfriend which supposedly ‘comes to light’ two thirds of the way through the movie but which, in fact, is pretty much telegraphed right from the get go. I hate figuring out films ahead of time and maybe it’s because I’ve seen a fair few of them that it’s hard to surprise me but this one is truly not a plot you would need to understand rocket science for, people.
Another thing... this is in no way, shape or form a ‘horror movie’. It’s not even an American slasher. It’s squarely attempting to be a thriller and, if you want to get really technical, I’ll acknowledge that there’s a very soft science fiction tinge to the story, if you want to see it that way. I don’t know why people would buy into the idea this is a horror movie but I can only assume the kinds of people seeing this have no idea what a horror film even looks like. Also, the people loving this movie (and it’s good that they do, actually, because that means cinema is not dead and some of them will go on to perpetuate the industry/art form when they go to work, one would hope) must all be really young and naive cinema goers who don’t have that many films under their belts because, seriously? They didn’t see any of this stuff coming after the first ten minutes of the movie?
There was one thing I even saw coming even though it made ‘absolutely no sense’ for it to be happening. In order to stop himself being triggered by a certain sound which puts him back into a hypnotic trance (the sunken place), Chris, who is strapped down tightly in a chair, realises that the upholstery he has been picking at with his fingers contains cotton padding inside and it’s something that he can stuff his ears with. Which he promptly does? Um... what? So he manages, somehow, to unpick the big straps that have his hands trapped, which he’s already demonstrated is impossible, stuff his ears up and then, even more of a stretch, somehow replace these straps and make them look untampered with? I can only assume that a crucial sequence explaining just how this would have been possible was excised from the movie at some point because, frankly, this completely throws any semblance of credibility the movie was going for at this point. Absolutely no way that happens people!
That’s not all, either. After our hero successfully uses the cotton wool to block his ears at a key point and is looking to make his escape from hostile territory with similar dangers... he throws the cotton wool away! Really? You would throw your one chance at protection from this problem away before you’ve made it to freedom? I think not. This is a serious weakness in the movie and I really can’t think of a way of justifying this kind of plotting, to be honest. This isn’t just ‘not turning a light on in a scary movie’ levels of wrongheadedness... this is completely crazy.
And I’m racking my brains to say anything else of any interest about Get Out here but I think I’m done. It’s a shame that such fine actors and a quite competent director have collaborated on a story which feels like it comes straight out of 1950s short stories and would make one of the less interesting episodes of The Twilight Zone but I equally can’t blame them because, well, sometimes things look a little rosier on the page than they turn out on the screen. I’m really glad, in some ways, that the film is doing well for them because then, at least, they’re getting something back from it. I just hope it doesn’t usher in a new golden age of truly dumbed down stories that insult the collective intelligence of the audiences like this one does, though, because that’s always a possibility when something like this is a hit. I just hope that next time I trust my gut instincts on the trailer and work out which films to let pass me by. We shall see. I’m not a fast learner.
Thursday, 16 March 2017
UK 2015 Directed by Steve Oram
Fright Fest Blu Ray Zone B
Pant-hoot - noun: A breathy hooting or honking call uttered by a chimpanzee, typically in a series rising in a screaming crescendo and tailing off with quieter calls; a series of such calls.
Oxford Living Dictionary.
If you’ve seen Steve Oram’s movie which he co-wrote and starred in with Alice Lowe... Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (reviewed here)... you’ll no doubt already know that this guy’s film projects are worth watching. Even so, this movie was not even on my radar until a friend of mine recommended this film to me (along with a few others which will make interesting review material) when I was touring the merchandise stalls at the Frightfest last August. Well... I say recommended it. What happened was we were looking at the stall where all the Fright Fest* branded films were and I pointed to this one with a dubious title and a strange cover of a gorilla unzipping from a human suit and asked him if he’d recommend it. He looked at me with a smile on his face and said he really loved Aaaaaaaah! but that he was reticent to recommend it because it’s extremely bizarre. I then went on to explain to him that this statement was, in fact, the best recommendation he could give me so I went for the extremely ‘value for money’ purchase of the blu ray version. I didn’t realise just how ‘value for money’ that was until I finally got around to watching it this gem.
Aaaaaaaah! is one of the most insanely entertaining, completely unique and mesmerising movie watching experiences you can have. It's even just a little mind blowing in some places but... you know... mind blowing in that good way. If you’re anything approaching a cinephile or even a casual watcher of movies (like myself) then you really need to be grabbing this one and seeing what all the fuss is about as soon as possible.
Oh, wait a minute. What fuss? There hasn’t been any notable fuss about this and on checking the internet, I can’t even buy this for any of my American friends because it’s never even been released over there. This is definitely a 'crime against filmanity' right there and some wily distributor needs to rectify this as soon as possible.
The only thing I can liken this film to, in my history of watching good movies, is the very first time I watched David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Aaaaaaaah! is one of the great moments of movie art of the 21st Century and it needs to be seen by anyone who is in love with cinema. Although, saying that, it’s got some pretty strong imagery at times and it’s not exactly ‘safe for work’... or for relatives, for that matter.
So what is the film actually about? Well, I’m not 100% sure that’s the right kind of question for this kind of movie experience although it does, when you think back on it, have a sort of story to tell. This is how the movie starts off...
Steve Oram and his friend trek into a forest. Oram gets out a photo of a bride, presumably now deceased by the expression on his face. He puts it on the floor and, rather than bury it, his mate starts pissing on it before Oram stops him. Oram then whips his own cock out and starts defecating on said photograph, while the tears of grief are still streaming from his eyes. His mate then cleans the head of his penis and Oram goes to have sex with a tree while the other squats and watches, before they go off to see what else is going on.
After not very long you will realise that all of the inhabitants of the movie, who are speaking in grunts and groans and using their bodyies to communicate just as much as their vocalisations, are in fact apes. That’s the premise here... everybody is a physically a human being living in a, mostly, human world, but they are all of the mindset of apes and so you get a thorough and blindingly funny, dissection of the way their small tribes (or family units in human terms) interact with each other.
They have their own TV show showing a cooking programme, hosted by a lady with her breasts on display as part of her outfit as she prepares to roast a hog and also, cover it in sugar (or perhaps salt but my guess is sugar). When two ladies go out to do a bit of clothes shoplifting, they are caught by the manager and his assistant which, obviously, means they have to be molested by said shopkeepers... before one of the girls does something a little more drastic to cut short the assistant’s pleasures.
There’s even a party scene with various apetastic social interactions on display such as a courting ritual for Oram and one of the girls and a teabagging moment (which will lead to a heck of a lot of trouble for some of the characters later in the film). The shindig is presumably thrown by the mother figure of the household, played brilliantly by once-upon-a-pop-star Toyah Wilcox. In fact, all the actors in this are absolutely brilliant. If you want to see some absolutely amazing, Oscar worthy acting then this movie is the absolute epitome of unbridled expression to achieve an end. And we see the soft but ferocious hidden sides of characters too, like the one I call Battenburg man (played by Julian Barratt), who carries his Battenburg cake with him as a precious object and even, in one instance, uses it as a makeshift brush to help paint the walls of his new family’s home.
But it’s not just the acting, of course.
The point is, how did Oram’s mind actually map this thing out in the first place? He’s said he was watching a video of two tribes of gorillas, one of whom was attacked by the other and about the death and rape in that moment and the reflection of it by the male apes of the attacking tribe afterwards. Well, I don’t know how Aaaaaaaah! was filmed but I am assuming that the majority of the cast and crew had to get pretty familiar with the rituals and habits of the various ape families to be able to turn in the enthusiastic performance they did here. Especially since the whole thing was apparently shot in two weeks. I’m assuming that there was a fair amount of improvisation on the set too but, as I intimated earlier, there’s certainly a structural narrative in place. I’m also pleased to say that the final denouement of the movie is something I did not, for once, see coming... so I’m really pleased about that. The point is, though, the story line does kinda work towards that ending in a few sections of the film but I was sufficiently misdirected to not figure out what the end pay off to that was (and I’m not 100% sure now I'd have been able to second guess it anyway). But I do know it didn’t let me down.
The camera work is fairly roaming and energetic in certain places, as you’d expect, but the edit makes it all work really well and not seem jarring to the eye at any point. It’s already jarring to the mind in some places, to be honest, and that’s not a bad thing. Usually I rely on the score to unify this kind of stuff and, about that...
The film soundtrack uses a lot of synthesised, zany sounds and beats and I wasn’t sure about this matching up with the tone of the movie until I realised that this simplistic approach may well appeal to the apes/people inhabiting the movie and then it all clicked into place for me. So when we see montages like Oram and his new lady friend, played insanely well by Lucy Honigman, going shopping while he is still carrying around the arm he tore out of another character in the film, the music provides a narrative about the absurd simplicity and intensity of the lives we are watching, even as it helps glue the edit together. I’m actually not sure, now, whether those particular scenes I just described actually have any music on them but... you get the idea. It’s a clever modus operandi for the film and it works a treat.
And there’s not a heck of a lot more I can add to this, to be honest. Is this a solid recommendation from me? Yes, of course it is. I think anyone who’s into film should pop this on in the format of their choice, possibly cover it in sugar and watch it until their eyeballs show signs of falling out. Easily one of the most original works I’ve seen in quite some time and I’ve already inflicted it on one set of friends with, I expect, more to follow (yeah... sales of Aaaaaaaah! are going to be going up a little sometime soon, I reckon). Not something for everyone, I would say but, even if you don’t actually like the movie, it’s definitely an experience and you should probably, at least, try it once.
*Although why this movie was branded up with Frightfest is anybody’s guess... since it’s totally not a horror movie.
Tuesday, 14 March 2017
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
UK cinema release print.
I’ve quite liked some of Paul Verhoeven’s films in the past, with Robocop being the stand out one for me. It has to be said, though, that the films I’ve seen by him have tended to be American productions and, somehow, feel more like comic book movies than real films for consenting adults. Not a pop at Verhoeven, by the way... I think this applies to most theatrical releases these days and sometimes that kind of stylistic choice goes down a treat. However, I’m not used to seeing a film which is a, relatively, complex and subtle picture like we have here from a director like him.
One of the partial reasons for this, apart from the writing, is that he’s filled the roles with incredible actors, most of whom I don’t know but many of whom seemed familiar and recognisable. Recognisable or not, though, they all do some great work here... not least the true star of the piece, Isabelle Huppert. I’ve not seen too many of the films made by this outstanding French actress, living in a small town which is even, technically, in London means the opportunities to see anything other than big budget US movies is fairly limited... but I’ve been a fan of her work ever since seeing her in the lead role in one of my favourite living director’s films... Hal Hartley’s Amateur. Truth be told, it was her name that brought me to Elle rather than Verhoeven’s (well, actually it was a train). Plus it had some good word of mouth so I took a trip out to the Hackney Picture House to give it a look (the film isn’t showing locally to me... surprise, surprise).
Elle stars Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, the joint founder and director of a video game company. She’s a successful business woman but her character is a lot more interesting, emotional, devious and complex than her seemingly muffled exterior might lead her friends to believe. Part of this wealth of depth which, in all honesty, I imagine very few actresses other than Huppert could have successfully pulled off, stems from an extremely traumatic incident from her childhood which has obviously left a mark on her and which, perhaps, gives some insight in the way her character reacts to things in certain scenes. Which is an observation I couldn’t imagine myself writing all that often about a female character in an American film, to be sure but, if cinema is good at one thing it’s good about its diversity of expression, so maybe I’m being a little unfair to Hollywood in this comparison.
The film starts off with a black screen and the sound of Michèle’s struggles and cries on the soundtrack, followed by a cat watching what she is going through before Verhoeven’s camera reveals a scene of Michèle being beaten and raped in her house. The killer, wearing a body suit and mask which makes him vaguely reminiscent of the comic book character Diabolik, leaves her recovering on the floor. The scene is quite intense and, as the film plays out, we see the impression it has made on Michèle’s mind as she flashes back to it internally, replaying and sometimes changing the outcome of the encounter. This is a good tool to help the audience grasp the weight of the incident on the central character, actually, because the way she deals with this event externally is with considerably less alarm and upset than one might reasonably expect from a woman placed in this kind of situation.
The first half of the film is basically a mystery as, while still getting threats and a humiliating computer game movie of her made public, she tries to learn the identity of her assailant who, by the way, doesn’t stop at attempting just one attack on her through the course of the film. Meanwhile, she has a convoluted life to handle, having an affair with her best friend and business partner’s husband, amongst other amorous interests, and dealing with her ex-husband, her mother and her son. When she finally reveals who the rapist is in the movie, I have to admit I was just a little disappointed, at first. I can usually figure out the identity of the mystery at the heart of most movies I watch and, alas, in this movie I had already figured the identity of this person the first time we see him in a social context without his mask. That being said, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie and certainly, this mystery is only the first half of the film. The next part is the long played out vengeance of Michèle as she takes stock of her social situations and slowly pulls together various threads of her own convoluted life to bring about a denouement which I didn’t really, quite, see coming but which absolutely fits her character’s history. The path to the conclusion of the film is not a black and white one and, I’m glad to say, not all the scenes in this movie follow that dull, cause and effect pattern endemic to a lot of modern movies. For instance, Verhoeven includes a sequence where Michèle gets one of her employees to teach her how to use a gun, setting up the idea that she will buy and use one at a later point in the film. But she doesn’t and it’s exactly this kind of detail in the drama of these kinds of richly woven movies that make them so much more interesting than a lot of product around. Scenes in a story don’t always have to lead to something else, they can just be about re-enforcing the inner state of where a character is at, rather than lead you onto the next stage of the journey.
Anne Dudley’s score to the movie is somehow slow, light and more ponderous than I was expecting from this film but, once the character of Michèle is in your head and you see the way she deals with events in her life, it makes perfect sense and seems completely right for it. I’d like to hear it away from the movie but the CD is so expensive compared to others that I probably won’t rush out to buy this one straight away (and I’m certainly not going with a cheap download option... thanks but no thanks music labels). It certainly maintains an atmosphere of ‘muffled reality’ in some scenes which perfectly reflects the way Michèle conveys herself to her friends and relatives.
Elle is a dark work of art with a wonderful cast and some nice choices by the director which don’t push the movie over the top in its exploration of, in all honesty, the kinds of events and incidents which could easily be exploited in a more spectacular fashion. Despite figuring out who the main antagonist is (and even that word may be too strong for his character, in some respects... this movie greyshades its depiction of events pretty well) I had a really good time with this and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see something a little different to the kind of stuff you usually get in cinemas these days. Lovely film. Not enough of these kinds of affairs are given a release in this country. Which is a shame.
Monday, 13 March 2017
Kong-A-Thon, Live In Bone, Sea Skull
Kong - Skull Island
USA 2017 Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
UK cinema release print.
See, this is why I love watching the odd movie every now and again. You never know when something’s going to surprise you and be an absolutely brilliant helping of cinematic art and entertainment.
I had really low expectations for this film.
The thing is, and if you read my last review you’ll already know this, I have a lot of respect and admiration for the original 1933 King Kong movie (and you can find that review just here). Most of the other movies to either feature King Kong as a character in a different storyline (such as this one) or trying to remake the original have, for the most part, been a little entertaining but mostly dull. I think my favourite of the bunch of movies to utilise the character over the intervening years since the wonderful 1933 version has been the second of the Toho Kong movies from 1967, King Kong Escapes. And, frankly, how could you not like a movie where a giant ape has to fight a giant mechanical simulacrum of itself... that’s always going to be a winning formula.
So I was pretty surprised when this new movie, Kong - Skull Island, turned out to be, pretty much, the best of the US Kong movies since the original. I went to a 3D IMAX showing of the movie at my local Cineworld and ended up having one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in a while.
The film is actually not a remake of the original as such and, if you were following the poster campaign and the not so great trailers then you’ll know the marketing people were very much trying to channel the look and feel of Apocalypse Now (the brilliant Vietnam war epic which takes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as its source material and then embellishes it with... almost everything else in the movie). I can see the temptation of selling the movie in this way... this film is set in 1973 when the Vietnam war ended and there are a lot of military helicopters and loud late 1960s/early 1970s rock songs blaring out as diegetic music on the soundtrack. That’s about where the similarities end here though... John C. Reilly is not channeling Dennis Hopper’s character from Coppola’s classic movie and Kong himself is certainly no Kurtz.
This movie does its own thing and, it does it very well, it has to be said.
It looks great, for a start. It’s also big and loud and has a very fast pace to it. This is not a film about bringing Kong back from Skull Island, either. You won’t see any rampages through the concrete jungle of New york in this movie. As the title implies, the majority of this film takes place on Kong’s home turf and the motivations that drive the characters are a little different too. There’s also a great cast which should have tipped me off, from just the quality of the actors involved here, that this movie was worth a look. You have John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and the aforementioned John C. Reilly, to name just a few. And the way certain people are introduced into the story and allowed to develop a little before being thrown together, albeit quite quickly, is a wonderful example of character depth through brevity captured on film. Also, that whole backlash against Brie Larson’s character when the first images were released on the internet last year is totally unfounded. She may be fleshed in quick but she’s a very strong character, without being an in your face, kick-ass femme fatale and I really appreciated her inclusion as a photojournalist on this one.
If you want to look for parallels to the original King Kong, you could say the character played by John Goodman is a very distant cypher of the Robert Armstrong character and this is further enhanced by the costume design for him... but he’s not that close a comparison and neither are Hiddleston and Larson close comparisons to Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray either, for that matter. That being said, Larson’s Mason Weaver character does have a special relationship with Kong in this movie but it’s handled slightly differently while still, at some moments, being totally poignant... so I was really pleased with how this turned out.
Kong himself, actually, is great work and he reminds me much more of the 1933 Kong, despite being about six time taller and the audience will probably find an emotional connection with him (or at least this audience member did). He’s not just surrounded by a fantastic human cast either... there are some nasty species of wildlife on this island and some of them make the mythical lost spider pit sequence from the original King Kong sound tame in comparison. I was amazed this only got a 12A rating over here... I would have thought a 15 rating may have been more appropriate. There’s one sequence where a character played by Toby Kebbel (who also motion captures Kong for this movie too) sits down on a log and... ah, no way I’m spoiling this one for you but I honestly didn’t see that one coming.
A minor criticism would be in some of the scripting. It would be true to say that this film belongs to the ‘Person A says there’s absolutely no way he’s doing [insert appropriate stupid thing]... cut to a shot of Person A then doing the aforementioned stupid thing’ school of film-making and I did face palm at that cringeworthy point in the movie. While other parts of the screenplay seem quite cliché-free and tight. Almost like there’s a clear division noticeable between the multiple writers of this thing. However, like I said, a minor criticism.
I’d heard bad reports about Henry Jackman’s score to the film but, heck, I certainly don’t know why. Not only is it a good match for the monster mayhem in the movie but it’s also pretty exciting stuff. Granted it’s no Max Steiner Kong score... or even Akira Ifikube or John Barry... but it’s pretty cool and I’m suitably angry that I can’t listen to it away from the movie as, so far, there’s only a download version available. Let’s all hope that Watertower Music comes to their senses soon and release a proper CD into the wild. I really want to get this one.
From it’s opening logo audio homage to the original movie which, it turns out, dovetails nicely into an opening sequence set in 1944 (which almost plays out like a mini version of John Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific) through to a truly exciting post-credits sequence (which is supposed to set the movie up as a prequel to a big movie which came out a few years ago but which, given the characters involved in this 'must see' end sequence, really feels more like it would only work as a reboot when we get to the timeline of the next movie), Kong - Skull Island constantly demonstrates that it’s a truly entertaining blockbuster movie. I really can’t recommend this film enough to anyone who loves monster movies and Kong in particular. Don’t miss seeing this spectacle at the cinema or you might just regret it. And like I implied just now, stay past the end credits if you want to see a big hint at where the next film in the franchise is going. I can’t wait.
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Kong At Heart
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
RKO Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
(FOPP Records Exclusive)
I must have been five or six years old, back in the early 1970s, when my father announced that a film he’d been telling me about all through my infancy, King Kong, was getting a rare transmission on TV by the BBC very late one night at the weekend (in those days, you had to wait several years for a film to be repeated on TV again). The deal was this: If I promised to go to sleep, my dad would bring the small, portable, black & white TV we had up to my parents bedroom and he would wake me just before it started. Then I could clamber into the bed between my parents and watch the movie... and that’s what happened. My parents did this and promptly went to sleep again, either side of me, with my bleary eyed dad telling me to shake him awake when Kong started climbing the Empire State Building. Which, of course, I did... and it’s long been remembered in my family, that enthusiastic cry in the middle of the night of “Quick! Wake up! He’s climbing the..” etc.
King Kong was a film which stuck with me all my life. I even went to the cinema at the Angel, Edmonton, a few years later, for the Dino De Laurentis remake. My parents and I all left the cinema scratching our heads as to why there were no jet planes in that version like the posters depicted (and as seen clutched in my hand in the form of a tie-in, rubber King Kong). The De Laurentis version, though, is for another review sometime... and it wasn’t all that good anyhow. However, the 1933 original was, and still is, a classic... and I try and watch it every few years to remind myself how great it is. Something I’ve been neglecting to do over the last 7 years as I write this blog. But with the exclusive Fopp Records UK Blu Ray just released, presumably to tie in with the arrival of Kong: Skull Island in cinemas today (see my review next week), it seemed like it was time to revisit it again.
I could probably write half a book on this picture but, since there are already several books out there on the subject, I won’t go into too much detail in this review and just treat it like I would any other movie... with a certain amount of brevity.
The 1933 King Kong, if you’ve really never seen it before, is a truly great movie. It stars Bruce Cabot as Driscoll - the romantic male lead (of sorts), Robert Armstrong as the enthusiastic and foolhardy wildlife director Carl Denham (based, I believe, on uncredited director Meriam C. Cooper himself) and, billed above them both, Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, destined to be the ‘bride of Kong’, as Denham would have it. Over a year in the making and ahead of its time, it is also thought to be responsible for saving RKO pictures from bankruptcy, such was the box office take on this thing.
The story sets Driscoll, Denham and the lovely Ann Darrow on a voyage of mystery to Skull Island, following a “funny little map” Denham got from a Norwegian seaman depicting uncharted territory, so he can make the greatest natural history documentary ever... once he’s discovered the secret of the legend of ‘Kong’. When they arrive and blonde haired Ann is kidnapped by the natives to be a sacrificial offering for Kong, they soon discover that the secret is he’s a 50ft giant ape (actually, the height varies throughout the film depending on the models used and trying to pin down a specific size is... problematic at best). Kong snatches Ann so Driscoll, Denham and a group of highly expendable sailors go after them, fighting off the prehistoric wildlife which somehow still lives and prospers on the island. Then, when Driscoll rescues Ann and inadvertently lures Kong back with them, Denham knocks him out with gas bombs and they take Kong back to New York to be a money spinning attraction. Fans of Doc Savage may like to pause and remember that, according to Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, Doc actually invented those gas bombs (And if you want to read about another, more personal encounter between The Man Of Bronze and Kong then you might like this review here).
Of course, once Kong is returned to New York the flashbulbs from the cameras of the press cause him to break his bonds and chaos ensues. I won’t elaborate on the ending, just in case you’ve not seen it, but there’s always a lot of sympathy for Kong and audiences have been feeling sorry for the poor creature ever since the first previews. Actually, in an attempt to make the character even more sympathetic, once the studios realised just how upset the paying public were about what happens to Kong in the last reel, the subsequent cinema re-releases had the scenes of Kong eating and trampling people, for the most part, removed from the cut (from about 1934 onwards, is my understanding) until they were finally restored to the prints sometime in the 1980s or 90s (I forget which, sorry).
I remember watching it around 15 or so years ago and noticing something about one of the shots of the sailors running through the jungle. And this is a warning to all of you kids who fear getting old because... I can’t quite remember what it was exactly I spotted, even though I only watched it again the other day and couldn’t catch it this time around on the new Warner Blu Ray. However, I’m pretty sure there’s evidence actually within the film itself to prove the existence of a scene which was famously, if you believe the stories, excised from the movie after the very first premiere screening. I’m sure there’s a place where the continuity doesn’t quite make sense and, also, there is a bit of a linger on an empty composition... as if the shot has been deliberately truncated before something specific happened in it.
Of course, the scene I’m talking about is the legendary, some would say fabled, lost spider pit scene. The story goes that, in the film up until and including the preview/premier screening, there is a scene somewhere on Skull Island where some of the sailors fall into a pit (possibly at the aftermath of the log sequence but I’m not so convinced of that) and they are eaten by giant spiders. Apparently the scene was so horrifying that it was all the audience were talking about from that point on and it stopped the movie dead (in some accounts the story goes that the audience were laughing at it because the bulging eyes of the spiders looked so ridiculous but... take your pick, the result is the same). The footage was removed (if you believe from all the circumstantial evidence, like me, that it did, indeed, exist) and has never been seen again.
Will it ever turn up? Well if you’d have asked me 8 years ago then I would have said there’s no way we’ll ever see it. Then something wonderful happened and somebody found the rest of the footage, more or less, of the long lost, complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis... something I never expected to hear of in my lifetime (and you can read that review here). So, unlikely as it is that we will ever get to see the lost Spider Pit sequence (other than in Peter Jackson’s reconstruction he attempted for a special feature on a previous DVD of this thing... which I believe is ported on this new version somewhere), I’m not ruling it out completely. Movie miracles do happen and I even hear there’s rumour a print of London After Midnight might have turned up somewhere (which, again, I’ll take with a pinch of salt until I actually see it).
One of the things which is really good about Kong is the special effects work supervised by Willis O’ Brien. I believe famous stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen was an apprentice to this man at some point in his life but, even though I love Harryhausen’s work dearly, I feel the stuff achieved in this 1933 version of King Kong is far greater, at least in terms of model work. The way the animators looked at how an ape would behave is quite amazing and this was all built into Kong’s personality. For example, when he fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex and breaks it’s jaw, he plays with the broken jaw until he’s satisfied it’s dead... some good ape behaviour observation there. The dinosaurs in this, however, are not quite as good, to my mind, as the ones in Willis O’ Brien’s work on the 1925 silent film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles first Professor Challenger story, The Lost World. In that one, you can actually see the saliva dripping from the jaws of the giant reptiles and they seem, just a little bit more realistic than the ones seen eight years later in Kong. Although, that being said, the ones in Kong are still pretty great.
One of the things the animators couldn’t get away from was leaving their mark on the model Kong. That is to say, often you will see his fur moving all over the place as if the wind is ruffling it from several directions all at once. This is because as each frame was shot, the animators had to grab the model somewhere and left their finger marks in the soft fur. Personally, I think this is great because it really shows the personal touch on the thing. You're not going to mistake this stuff for CGI anytime soon.
There’s not quite as much rear projection work or superimposed opticals in this movie as you might think either... although for the longest time I’d always assumed most of it was done this way. However, some of the stuff where the models and live action match up is so good and, now I know how it’s done it all makes perfect sense why it seems so, well, seamless. What it is for some of the time is that the live action stuff is seen in what appears to be a little, cordoned off area away from the rest of the screen, like in the entrance of a cave or under vegetation etc. However, rather than try to superimpose the live action over the top of it, the animators did something very clever. They processed the film out as prints the right size to go against the models, however many sheets per frame, to get the right speed against the models. And then the paper was placed on as part of the model shoot and the print changed every time the models were moved. So the live footage is a hard copy in front of the camera being used in exactly the same way that a child may draw a stick figure in the corner pages of a sketch book and then use it as a flick book. It’s clever stuff and it completely fooled me, I have to say. Of course, you also have the tell tale moments where a live action person will crawl behind a foreground object like a rock or a tree and then emerge from the other side as a puppet so Kong can grab them or, you know, a dinosaur could eat them... but this kind of spotting game is also a fun way to pass the film.
The other great technical accomplishment and, if movie legend is correct, a bit of a game changer... is Max Steiner’s original score, which has been credited many times with returning film score music to film. Silent movies had many scores especially composed for them and sent to theatres as an accompaniment but, when talkies came out from 1927 and onwards, film music died a death because directors assumed that the music would seem too unnatural to accompany films that had speech and sound effects. Any music from that point on in talkies, up until this movie (and a couple of others, I'll get there in a minute), had to be seen as an on-screen source, like a radio, grammophone or band playing in a room, to justify its presence. However, Steiners score to King Kong, which uses lots of 'Mickey Mousing' in its genetic make-up (that’s where the musical expression is emphasised to 'ape' the actions and incidents on screen, in various ways), not to mention also scoring atmosphere and making musical metaphors when required, is a phenomenal piece of work and its the reason why many/all film studios started using a musical score in their films... once it had been proved it could be done.
Of course, saying that, Steiner also wrote a score for a film which both Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong were simultaneously shooting on the same sets as Kong during the evenings, The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff) and, presumably because Kong took over a year to finish - and no wonder with all those effects shots - The Most Dangerous Game hit cinemas the year before. So I’ve always wondered why it’s King Kong that has always been the one which people took note of in this regard. Although... well I guess it’s because it was such a big picture to make the point on. I’m pretty sure, if I recall correctly, that the 1932 Universal movie The Mummy had a little bit of underscore at the opening of the film too but, like I said, it’s Kong that seemed to do the trick in regards to music. Johnny Williams even puts a little homage to Steiner’s score to this in a scene in his score for the second Jurassic Park film, The Lost World, although that dinosaur book and film bears no relationship to the original dinosaur book and film (although I’m absolutely certain writer Michael Crichton named his novel in homage to Conan Doyle’s literary work).
Regarding this new release. I was hoping to paraphrase Carl Denham and say “They’ll have to think of a lot of new adjectives when I get back” from watching this new Blu Ray transfer but the film still seems a little grainy to me and I don’t think it has any new extras which weren’t on the previous DVD release of the movie. This makes me wonder if Warner Bros, a studio which is not exactly known for spending any money on anything, have maybe just gone and ported over their previous transfer from DVD rather than shell out for a brand new remaster. I have no idea to be honest. That being said, I could certainly tell that the leading actress wasn’t wearing a bra in a lot of her shots from this edition so... yeah, it’s not a bad job at all.
And there you have it. I’m not going to rattle on about this release anymore because... well, I’d be here all day. I’m pretty sure that if you are in any way a fan of cinema then you would have almost certainly seen the original 1933 movie. If not... you really should rectify that immediately. There’s a reason why this movie is so worshipped in the film community and there’s a reason why various film makers try to either periodically remake it or use the central character to their own ends in a spin off project. Take a trip to Skull Island and give the original 1933 version of King Kong a look. It’s a journey you won’t regret.
Monday, 6 March 2017
Directed by James Mangold
UK cinema release print.
And here we go again with what is probably the last of the X-Men movies to feature the popular 1970s creation Weapon X, aka Wolverine... at least with Hugh Jackman in the titular role and before 20th Century Fox start on the inevitable reboots to retain the options on the characters (one would suppose). That being said, Logan doesn’t quite feel like the majority of the X-Men movies out there, although it does have some of the feel of The Wolverine (reviewed by me here), which is to be expected since that movie was also directed by James Mangold.
This movie has a harder 15 rating over here and an R rating in America (and is on its way to becoming the biggest earning R rated movie they’ve had, by the looks of it). What that means in terms of the central character is that the violence is exactly as grim as you might expect from some of the comics and the tone is quite downbeat. The story content, for example, exactly matches that grimness, giving us a film set ten or so years in our future where there are no more mutants being born and, out of the few who are left, the two we are most concerned about here are both dying. It’s been said that this is Patrick Stewart’s last go at the Professor X character too and, for this one, he impressively lost a lot of weight for the role so he could play a very sick version of his iconic character... one who is prone to brain seizures which, if they are left unchecked and without medication, are capable of killing everyone around him. So we have a future where Wolverine and a mutant called Caliban are looking after the Professor but are also in hiding due to an incident in their past. You do get to hear what this incident, roughly, is but a lot of it is left to the imagination and no real details are revealed... which is a shame because I would have liked to know a little more.
And then, into this grim world comes a mutant child who has been genetically injected, along with other children, and raised from the DNA samples you may remember being ‘retrieved’ in the post credits scene from the last movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse (reviewed here). And the government programme that created this group of pre-teen killing machines, as shown in the film in no uncertain terms, wants them all back as they escaped before they could be murdered in favour of another programme. And so, in the case of one of the children, Laura (played nicely by Dafne Keen), it kind of falls on the reluctant Logan and the enthusiastic but extremely cranky Professor X to get her to a place called Eden... the origins of which I won’t spoil for you here.
And that’s that. The movie is a road trip film with certain X-Men-like events happening and a kind of bonding between Logan and Laura as the three main characters are thrown into the mix together. The director also exhibits a certain passion for showing one of his key influences, the old Alan Ladd version of Shane, up on the screen and, I have to say, it was kinda nice to see Jack Palance shoot Elisha Cook Jr on a large screen again. I have to say, though, that the references dotted about all over the place in reference to this movie are not exactly subtle and I think they could have been a little less overt and seemingly important than they are made out to be here.
But it’s not a bad little film, to be honest. It didn’t quite hit all the marks for me and I think I preferred the other two Wolverine-centric movies over this one but... it’s still a pretty good movie and much better than, say, the third movie, X-Men - The Last Stand, and the relatively recent X-Men - Days Of Future Past (reviewed here). I think it does the main character a little less justice than he deserves and it seems like he’s not learned anything from the arc which has brought him to where he is in this one but, maybe he’s as confused at the cracked continuity of the series of films as his audience, perhaps?
I hate to break it to anyone but this film in no way attempts to fix the completely bonkers lack of joining up and co-existing of various elements of the X-Men franchise, which seems to have been compounded and made worse with every movie made since the third one (except maybe for the second of the movies featuring Deadpool, from last year... you can read my review of that one here). It doesn’t explain how Wolverine was able to have Professor X in his Patrick Stewart body back at the end of The Wolverine and nor does it explain why, at the beginning of Days Of Future Past, he once more had adamantium claws when we’d clearly seen them stripped back down to bone claws in the previous film. And there are some other obvious errors which I won’t go into here but which make this, once again, impossible to exist with the other films in the franchise... something which can be said for pretty much every movie since The Last Stand.
But never mind... flawed as this movie contnuity is, there are some really nice things in it, not least of which is that the X-Men have also become fictional characters in a series of comics published by Marvel. Actually, although the various comics throughout the movie look and feel like 1970s issues of X-Men, they were in fact created with new artwork for the movie... so if you’re looking for a specific key issue which is used as an important plot point here then please don’t bother, the issue doesn’t exist outside of this movie.
I haven't got much else to say about this one, to be fair, but I did enjoy it and I’ll probably watch it again when it gets its inevitable Blu Ray release. There’s also a nice Marco Beltrami score which gives it a different feel to what I was expecting... almost playing against the tone of the film in some places but still managing to somehow work. There’s also some good song placement needle dropped in on this one so, all in all, the music was pretty good and I’m certainly looking forward to listening to a CD release of Beltrami’s music at some point.
If you’re a fan of the X-Men movies then you shouldn’t have a problem with Logan. It’s not an all out action fest like some of the films but, at the same time, the violence in this is quite intense and, certainly, fans of the Wolverine character from the comic books should enjoy this one. It’s definitely a mature take on the characters and, in this case, it’s also a depressing one so, you know, don’t go to this one expecting to come out on a high. If you go in knowing that from the outset... and I’m sure most people can figure out what’s going to happen in this one anyway, just by looking at the trailers... then you should have an okay time with it.