Thursday, 31 August 2017
Have Gun, Will Unravel
The Dark Tower
2017 USA Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
UK cinema release print.
I actually wasn’t going to bother going to see The Dark Tower, to be honest, with you. Much as I like Idris Elba and the way his character loaded his guns in the most ridiculous, impossible way ever in the trailer, I was annoyed by the appropriation of Ennio Morricone’s famous watch chimes from For A Few Dollars More (they don’t actually make it into the movie itself, just the marketing) and the negative critical attention the movie got kind of kept me disinterested on the first week of its release. However, a co-worker at my esteemed place of employment suggested to me that, actually, it’s a pretty good movie so I figured that, if I got a chance, I’d try to make some time for it after all (so thanks very much to Tracey S for the ‘heads up’).
Now, I’m pretty glad I saw this one in the end because, frankly, it’s not nearly as bad as the negative reviews are making out and probably doesn’t deserve the poor box office it seems to have had (which in a year where cinema attendances have apparently dropped over 50% to reach their lowest numbers in decades, doesn’t seem like that bad a sin, to be fair, when compared to the performance of the majority of big studio films of 2017). That being said, it’s not without it’s problems and these are not little things so I’ll get them out of the way now.
Now, one of the criticisms that the film is supposed to have is that this really isn’t an adaptation of any in the series of the Stephen King novels it is alleged to be based on. More of a prequel or sequel by all accounts. Now, although I used to love reading Stephen King in the early to mid 1980s when the first of these novels was released, I never bothered with this one because it was in what I quaintly used to call a ‘rip off’ edition... because the page count was very low and so the company who released the paperback here in the UK made the book slightly oversized and charged way more money than a regular novel twice the length to compensate for it. Even in my early teens I could tell a bad deal when I saw one so I didn’t waste what little pocket money I had getting this one. What this means, of course, is that I can’t tell you how great an adaptation or interpretation of the original source material this movie is but, by all accounts it’s not very close so I can understand the negative passion unleashed by fans of the novels at the way this movie has been handled. My sympathies to them on that one.
Not being able to weigh in on that one myself, then, the biggest problem I had with the film was the incredibly appalling continuity. The main child protagonist of the film, Jake, played ably by Tom Taylor, drops his bag of trusty drawings at one point to lock himself in a bathroom and then escape through the window before being chased out of his neighbourhood. When he escapes, finds his destination and travels to an alternative world through a portal, he suddenly has his bag with him again. What? And then, suddenly, within ten minutes, it’s gone again as he seems to lose it between two shots with no apparent explanation. At first I thought the film’s other main protagonist, The Gunslinger played by Idris Elba, was carrying it before remembering that he also had a bag like that left by the remains of his camp fire when Jake stumbles into him. So... yeah... magically teleporting bag is not the best continuity in the world. Now I understand that this may have been the fault of hard editing choices in the final cut but, even so, the continuity leaps are quite glaring here and enough to pop you right out of the movie.
So there you go... that’s my only real stumbling block with the movie. As for the rest of it...
Well, it’s a nice action movie with a very retro feel for us oldsters. It really does feel like a movie which might have been made in the early to mid-1980s (when the novels came out) and if you’re into that kind of feel then all well and good. It kinda reminded me a bit of Back To The Future Part III crossed with The Dark Crystal and... yeah... depending on your age or tolerance for flights of fantasy, then you’ll either embrace this film or shun it. Personally I had a great time with the melding of that kind of, almost innocent, sensibility mixed together with the kind of modern action sequences which have that 'Jason Statham in The Transporter' kind of ridiculousness to it... which I also loved. Seriously, when you see the way The Gunslinger manages to constantly reload his dual six shooters in the blink of an eye or throw revolver chambers up in the air and catch them in his guns, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It certainly stretches the boundaries of credibility and challenges the audience's skills at suspending their disbelief but, you know, in a way that’s what cinema is all about... to show us something we can’t necessarily see in real life (like all great art). So I really have no complaints about that.
The performances are good from all the lead players and that’s especially to be said for the primary bad guy, The Man In Black, played with relish and the usual amount of almost effortless talent by the always watchable Matthew McConaughey. There are also some nicely edited together sequences such as the full ‘bullet fired through the night’ sequence which you will have seen in the trailer in a truncated form but which works better here due to the build up as certain key locations and objects are viewed by the camera before being revisited in the edit of the actual 'gunshot moment' itself. It’s good stuff and, although the film never really manages to raise itself up from being a B-movie kind of affair, it’s a nicely put together B-movie and can easily go toe to toe with a lot of A-list pictures which don’t have the same kind of understanding of the way a sequence is put together (despite the glaring continuity issues in this movie).
There’s also a nicely epic, over the top but very listenable score by Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) which gives some of the action sequences the required boost when called for. This guy is becoming quite an accomplished film composer and I’m warming to him a lot of late.
If there are some Stephen King enthusiasts in the audience who are not alienated by the deviations from the source material, then there are a heck of a lot of King references dotted throughout the film for them to enjoy. King tends to link all of his books together by having them take place in local locations or referencing events from other books as throwaway comments by characters and the film does the same thing here. For instance, Jake has the ‘shine’ associated with King’s famous novel (and subsequent Stanley Kubrick film) The Shining and a poster pin-up of Rita Hayworth from King’s short story The Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption (filmed as The Shawshank Redemption) is quite prominent in one scene.
At the end of the day, The Dark Tower is not the best movie out there, especially in a year which, even with record box office lows, has given us some very rich cinematic art. It is, however, very entertaining and certainly doesn’t get boring for its ‘not quite an hour and a half’ running time. Certainly, if you’re put off by the negative word of mouth for the movie but you’re not that fussed at how closely it follows the original series of novels then you may want to give this one a look after all. It’s not an entirely unoriginal movie and it even has a few edgier moments that other Hollywood movies might have shied away from. Give it a go if you’re looking for a bit of light hearted popcorn fodder that you won’t have to think too much about. You could do a lot worse.
Tuesday, 29 August 2017
Blood From The Mummy's Tomb
1971 Spain Directed by Seth Holt & Michael Carreras
UK London FrightFest screening 27th August 2017.
Warning: Spoilers towards the end.
Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is one of my top six favourite Hammer movies and, as such, I was pleased to find that a new restoration for Blu Ray release was being premiered at this year’s FrightFest. Although it is one of my favourites, it must have been at least a decade since I last watched it and I found, on rewatching this now, that I’d forgotten quite a few things about the film since I’d last seen it. I also found I’d got it mixed up in my head with Bram Stoker’s original story, The Jewel Of Seven Stars, on which this film (along with a few other movies) is based.
The film stars the absolutely wonderful Valerie Leon in a dual role as Amanda and the ‘mummy’ of the title, Tera. While this isn’t the first movie to depict a female mummy (I’m sure that, at the very least, Santo or some other Mexican character probably got to it first and there was also a TV adaptation of this Stoker story which aired just before this was released), it’s still a pretty rare phenomenom in film and you can kind of see the influence of this and how it possibly paved the way for such modern female Mummys as Patricia Velasquez in The Mummy Returns and Sofia Boutella in the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy (reviewed here).
Miss Leon is just amazing here in a role which is perhaps a little less talky than you would expect but, then again, there are a lot of stretches in this movie which are done without dialogue and the film is, arguably, better for it. Her mere presence tends to dominate every scene she’s in so I’m surprised we didn’t see a lot more of her in similar roles over the years. It’s an interesting character in that one never quite knows, as the film progresses, if Amanda is the main protagonist or antagonist as the grip of Tera’s legacy takes a hold of her mind at various moments.
In this, the character is joined boy her ‘boyfriend straight out of the sixties... luv’, played by Mark Edwards. In a bizarre twist, as in-jokes go, the character he plays is named Tod Browning, after the director of the US version of the 1931 Dracula (and strangely not after the director of the 1932 film The Mummy, which would maybe have made a little more sense). The film has a few sly little references, actually, such as a To Let sign on a house being named after Hammer’s own Christopher Neame and Roy Skeggs.
Although the plot is fairly close to Stoker’s original novel (or perhaps novella?), it’s a little bit of a departure in terms of where the narrative direction goes... it’s anything but formulaic... and this helps mark it out as being from a particular period in Hammer’s cinematic history when they were being a bit more experimental (perhaps that’s why it’s one of my favourites). That being said, the film does have a ‘Mummy’s curse’... or perhaps legacy would be a better word in this case... as Amanda was born as her mother died, at the exact time her father discovered and opened the tomb in Egypt which housed Tera (as in the original story, if memory recalls). She is destined to become Tera reborn if certain elements, years later, are brought together when the Seven Stars align in the right way on a certain date. Of course, the party who discovered the tomb have all split up in later years and each have one of these essential artefacts in their ownership. However, by the power of Tera’s severed hand, the artefacts are slowly brought together as the ‘body count’ element of the film gets underway. As the distinguished Kim Newman said in his introduction to the screening, there’s a heck of a lot of throat ripping in this movie and, for some reason, people seem to have their throats torn out by a magical, invisible enemy and not directly by the creeping severed hand which is rendered, as it is in every other film featuring a creeping severed hand, in a way which in no way detracts from the comedic element of having... well... a creeping severed hand (wow... I managed to work that phrase three times into the same sentence and am still not bored with typing it... I’ll see if I can return to it at some point).
The film has a troubled production history... Peter Cushing started filming in this one as Amanda’s father, Professor Julian Fuchs, but his wife died very early on in the filming and he left to be replaced by the always excellent Andrew Keir, who had previously played iconic character Professor Bernard Quatermass in Hammer’s own excellent remake of Quatermass And The Pit (reviewed here) four years before... a role he would return to decades later on the radio. As if that was not bad enough, director Seth Holt, whom Mr. Newman told us tended to know exactly how his movies would slot together in his head, died half way through production and Michael Carreras took over to carry on shooting and editing. Alas, Holt never told anybody how the film would slot together in the editing room and so, despite having a script, there are probably some differences in the way it was put together as opposed to what it was supposed to look like. Perhaps this jigsaw puzzle of an exercise explains why Miss Leon’s night gown seems to inexplicably change colour in a scene following on from another... maybe the footage was supposed to be taking place on another night rather than as seen here (did anyone else notice that or is my mind playing tricks on me?). Indeed, some scenes like the death of a character in his car are pieced together in a truly abstract manner and make it something of an expressionist piece, although I suspect the original intent may have been quite different. It’s a neat solution if not all the footage was available to be put together (perhaps a creeping severed hand absconded with the film stock)... never mind the fact that a pair of characters react instantly to the death, even though at least one of them couldn’t have known about it yet. Again, possibly an editing mistake or even, as is such the case with a lot of questionable moments in modern movies, an editing decision.
Everyone is, of course, marvellous in this picture, which has a whole host of familiar British character actors (although, alas, not Hammer regular Michael Ripper, as this was the only Hammer Mummy movie not to feature him). We also have a more sinister... ‘almost but not quite but maybe he is depending on a certain point of view’... villain of a character played absolutely brilliantly by James Villiers, who some might remember best as the lead villain in the second of Richard Johnson’s Bullldog Drummond movies, Some Girls Do.
In addition to the sterling cast, though, we have a tremendously loose atmosphere which, admittedly, doesn’t do much for the pacing but certainly gives the film a very strange vibe to it and which I truly think does the movie a lot of good. There’s some wonderful shot compositions using vertical shapes in one sequence and some truly amazing camerawork in a scene where the camera just pans around speedily at weird Dutch angles in an insane asylum as the laughter and wails of the patients play on the soundtrack to a fairly disconcerting effect. Add to this the great Tristram Cary’s not so subtle but extremely striking score to the film and you have a sure fire winner. Add in Tera’s amazingly ornate costume which, as Kim Newman pointed out... nobody in the world could have worn as well as Valerie Leon... and you have a minor but no less potent piece of iconic Hammer Horror imagery added into the mix too.
One thing about the Hammer films of this specific period which always got me was their unbelievably bleak endings. In the original TV serial of Quatermass And The Pit, for example, things are all wrapped up happily by the good Professor when he delivers a speech telling people what just happened and why everything is going to be fine for a while, if I’m remembering correctly. The Hammer film version eschews that ending and just concentrates on a spent Professor Quatermass and his female companion as they look on silently recovering from the destruction caused in the last twenty or so minutes of the film. It’s far bleaker and Hammer had a phase where all their films were ending with this kind of pessimistic atmosphere and this one is no exception. Bram Stoker revised his original story years later to give it a far more optimistic and upbeat ending to what it had in his original text but the Hammer film has a much more ambiguous ending. It has been noted that this is the first time Hammer had filmed a Mummy movie where the Mummy wasn’t swathed in bandages and that’s quite correct except... in the ending that claim possibly comes into question. As the Professor’s house falls in on him and kills two of the characters, including the Professor, we have a little scene where one of the characters has survived and is wrapped in bandages for her wounds in a hospital. It’s Valerie Leon again, her eyes are quite distinctive (as they need to be here) but, the film leaves us with the question as to which version of Valerie Leon it is... Amanda or Tera. Actually, if you listen to one of the nurses mention her state of undress when she was brought in, I would have to conclude that it’s definitely Tera who survives the movie to live and rip throats another day but I guess the case could be argued either way. Whatever the answer is, the camera freezes on her open eyes peaking from behind the bandages to give us another grim ending to a Hammer Horror.
Blood From The Mummy's Tomb has been nicely restored here and if you’ve never seen it before then this is probably the best version to catch... since they seem to have sorted out their ‘day for night’ photography shenanigans from the previous release of the film. So it’s good news that this latest version will be out as a new Blu Ray/DVD later in the year, then. Certainly a nice thing for those Hammer enthusiasts out there to add to their Christmas list, no doubt. I know I’ll be after this one, for sure. Now if they could just do the same kind of Blu Ray corrections for Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, I’d be even happier.
Sunday, 27 August 2017
Braindead In A Limousine
The Glass Coffin (El Ataúd De Cristal)
2016 Spain Directed by Haritz Zubillaga
UK London FrightFest screening 26th August 2017.
Okay, so I’m only going to two films at Frightfest this year because most of the really interesting films showing were screening on the Friday and I really didn’t want to take another day off work because I was expecting to have to do that for both the Raindance and London Film Festivals over the next few months (as it happens, the one film I want to see at Raindance is also on at a silly time which would leave me stranded after the trains stop running so... that festival is going to be a no show for me too, I’m afraid). So one of the films I’m going to this year at FrightFest (after I finish writing this review) is a restored version of something I already know I love. Hopefully my review of that one will be up later this week.
My other choice this year was Haritz Zubillaga’s The Glass Coffin and I chose this one because it’s probably the most intriguing film playing at FrightFest. Intriguing in that almost every minute of the movie is set in the back of a limousine and, while not completely a solo act, the film is almost solely focusing on the performance of actress Paola Bontempi... playing a hugely successful actress called Amanda, who is on her way to accept a lifetime achievement kind of award before her journey to an awards ceremony becomes her personal journey to hell (although, I might argue, sometimes it would be hard to tell the difference... awards ceremonies are a kind of hell themselves). The other reason I picked this one is because the resemblance of the title to a typical Italian giallo of the late 1960s/early 1970s... especially in its original Spanish translation, El Ataúd De Cristal.
The foyer to the screening in the Empire cinema in London (you can call it Cineworld Leicester Square all you like... to me it will always be ‘The Empire’) wasn’t even remotely ‘horrored up’ as last years beautifully disturbing experience in a different venue but I guess that’s all just window dressing anyway. When I got into the screen after perusing and abusing my wallet at the various Frightfest stalls, the music playing over the speakers in the cinema as we were waiting for the director and lead actress to be introduced and for the film to start, wasn’t even remotely trying to portray ‘horror movies’. We had the concert version expansion of the Jaws main title (that’s so not a horror film people... it’s just a shark movie) followed by the opening title music of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (that’s not a horror movie either, of course... in fact it’s closer to a Western) and the lack of genre loyalty in the music choices playing at the FrightFest irked me somewhat, it has to be said.
As it happens, though, it turns out that The Glass Coffin isn’t actually a horror movie either... nor is it a giallo. It’s pretty much just a thriller but, like I said, an intriguing one because of its setting and ability to create a mood in the early parts of the film. Then again, neither is The Villainess a horror movie, by the looks of it... another film I wanted to see but couldn’t make the time it was playing at this year’s festival. I honestly don’t know why FrightFest programmes non-horror movies into their festivals (unless it’s a financial/sponsorship issue) but there you go. I don’t mind too much but then... why call yourself FrightFest? I have only good things though, mainly, to say about the FrightFest brand so I’ll get off my high horse now on that one.
So, yeah, The Glass Coffin is 77 minutes of limousine based action as the popular actress character is urged/forced to do humiliating things for her unseen audience with the threat of the chauffer coming in to beat her up for a bit if she refuses to comply. The unseen presence by the voice in the car on the little camera monitor which she focuses on every time we hear it speak is a bit like Kubrick’s 2001 - A Space Oddysey in that, like the iconic HAL9000 computer, it creates an inanimate and intimidating presence from a harmless looking lens. Well, maybe not quite so intimidating in this case but... whatever... the intent is there.
The film features an awful lot of ‘in your face’ close ups which is, I guess, what you would expect from a movie set entirely within the confines of a car. The lighting, which seems to have three set colour schemes, actually takes on a personality of its own as the audience, like the character who we are being asked to sympathise with, begins to associate a certain lighting scheme with ‘approaching danger’ and, within the confines of the setting, the director does very well to keep the interest held for as long as he does. It’s a little bit of a one trick pony of a movie, to be fair but, there is just enough variance in the events that happen (one of which seems to be a set piece inspired by the most recent remake/adaptation of Casino Royale) to ensure the film doesn’t flag too much throughout its running time. The lead actress, apart from seeming like a very nice lady in real life (she came on with the director to introduce the movie and succeeded in warming my heart within the space of a minute), gives a remarkable performance here (or number of remarkable performances here... I don’t want to write anything too spoilery for those who haven’t seen it) and was an excellent choice to be able to carry this movie for as long as she does.
In terms of my enjoyment of the film itself... yeah, not so much. For all it’s beautiful direction, colourful and interestingly designed frames, Carpenter-esque scoring by composer Aránzazu Calleja and tour de force performance at the heart of it, I felt the script was a little weak, to be honest. Not in terms of the dialogue, which is fine but... in the story and the execution of it towards a conclusion that isn’t exactly unpredictable, I just felt I’d seen it all before and could have maybe done with a more interesting denouement to the whole affair. That being said, the kinds of people who end up attending FrightFest (myself included, to a certain extent) tend to be quite jaded when confronted with scenes of an intense nature so maybe this was just the wrong crowd, in a way, to be showing this kind of movie to. There is a certain intensity captured in it and I suspect a less ‘horror friendly’ audience would maybe have reacted a bit more strongly to some of the more violent content of the movie than the people targeted at this specific festival (again... the question comes up... why show non-horror films at the FrighFest?) so maybe I’m being a bit harsh and blasé to the whole thing. I’m still processing the movie and am maybe in two minds about whether I really liked it or not but I think, in general, I would still recommend this to people as one to take a look at sometime because of the novelty of the setting and the uncanny ability of the director and actress to hold your interest enough to keep going with it. One to put on your list, perhaps, if The Glass Coffin gets some kind of release in your home country (I don’t know if this one will be getting any distribution here in the UK as yet but... one can hope it does).
Thursday, 24 August 2017
A Boob To A Kill
Double Agent 73
USA 1974 Directed by Doris Wishman
Something Weird Videos Blu Ray Zone A
After the deadly disappointment of Doris Wishman’s first Chesty Morgan movie Deadly Weapons (reviewed by me here) I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get back to the Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies Blu Ray that I purchased last year. However, now that I’ve seen this second entry in the director and actress’ collaborative CV, I have to say that Double Agent 73 was a heck of a lot better than I was expecting and way more watchable than the previous film. That is to say, that first movie wasn’t even good in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way whereas... Double Agent 73 is absolutely quite bad in the most entertaining way.
The film starts off with Chesty stripping off during the credits and the clicking of her camera breast each time she squeezes said appendage brings up a new title card full of names. Wait... did I say ‘camera breast’? Oh yes... I’ll get to that in a minute.
The film starts properly when we are shown two villains playing cards in a private residence. We know the two are bad guys because one of them has a red blotch down the side of his face and is accompanied by a fiercely sinister musical stinger which, according to the music credit on the movie, is the work of Cine Top... who I can only assume is a needle drop library providing music by the yard. We are also shown a ‘spy’ going through the house and the movie nicely dates itself in this scene by having an old time photo-cube in a shot.
The spy guy finds some sinister looking film in a drawer. He steals it but, as he tries to make his getaway, he is spotted and caught by our two card playing fiends. The two villains consult their villanous boss, Mr. Toppler, with the spy in question and we know his identity must be important to the slow unravelling of the film because we only ever see Toppler in silhouette at this point in the proceedings. So by now your bad movie senses should be kicking in and telling you that the mystery of who this guy is should be pretty easy to solve from fairly early on in the movie and... yep, so it is.
Anyway, Toppler tells his bad boys to get rid of the spy so they take him down the street and run him over. They do a bad job of it too because they leave him alive long enough to tell a passer by in the street something before he finally shuffles off this mortal coil...
Cut to Chesty Morgan’s character Jane Genet (Agent 73) as she watches a group of men and women playing naked volleyball and sunbathes while reading her newspaper in her black, lacy underwear. Actually, it looks like the volleyball game is spliced in footage from another completely different movie because, even as she’s ‘paged’ and called away, she doesn’t once interact with the footage we’ve been shown of the game as an establishing shot and I can only assume this stuff is culled from one of the director’s earlier nudist movies and then just spliced in to give the illusion of having a budget. So then Chesty, who is a secret agent (it transpires), flies back to wherever she works and is called in to get a new mission briefing regarding a truly fuzzy plot to do with... drugs, I think... I honestly couldn’t say and I was really trying hard to find some sense in the plot here but, it all involves the mysterious Toppler in some capacity. This scene is really hard to watch, actually, because it involves a lot of cutting between a classic conversation set up with each shot involving either Chesty or her boss ‘face on’ as the main subject of the shot with the back of the other’s head in the corner.... which is a pretty basic thing you wouldn’t think you could screw up except each of the character’s faces seem to be in much less focus than the back of the other person’s head each time the shot changes. You’d think with the lady in question playing the main lead, they’d at least be able to get their ‘rack focusing’ done right.
Actually, I don’t like her boss in this picture. For starters he gives her a dumb assignment which involves finding leads, taking pictures of any clues and then eliminating the people she finds with the mysterious ‘clues’ and recording their picture so the people back at base can see who she’s taking care of. Also, he uses phrases like “This is extremely imperative, Jane.” Seriously? What kind of messed up grammar is that? That’s as redundant and awful as trying to say something is ‘very excellent’... don’t worry though, I won’t be trying to say that about this movie.
So anyway, the way Jane is supposed to take pictures is through an XL camera which her boss has implanted in her left breast, activating it with the whirr and click of the shutter by giving it a good squeeze. Which is, like, probably one of the most impractical secret agent, super spy gadgets in the history of film, maybe? So every time she wants to take a photograph she has to go topless and squeeze herself in the right direction. No information is given as to how she is supposed to focus or frame a shot... it’s just get her breast out and ‘smile for the mamera’. Makes no sense.
What also makes no sense is the nurse who assists with the surgery trying to kill off Chesty when she’s still groggy from the operation. No problem though. Chesty’s Jane is a smart cat and she dispatches the nurse by strangling her with a phone cord... and then plays with her breasts so she can take some pictures of her, naturally. Hmmm... it’s almost like this is just a ruse so the lead actress can keep getting her bosoms out for the audience, you know?
Okay, so this is a terrible movie but, like I said, it’s pretty enjoyable in places and I really wish I’d have been watching this one with an audience. Pretty soon we are into real ‘budget film-making’ when Chesty and an informant are speaking in a night club. Except... just like the nudist volleyball scene, the footage of the party with all the people doesn’t in any way match Chesty and a guy standing alone against a wall in what looks like it’s supposed to be in the same room as the party. Once more, none of the party footage is on the screen at the same time that Chesty and her companion are in shot but, the really brilliant thing Wishman does here... and it’s quite cheeky... is to cover the wall in bacofoil, shine some ‘Bava-tastic’ red and green lights on it and wobble it about a bit. For literally half a second you think you are watching a load of people dancing behind Chesty... until you realise that, no, ambient atmosphere or not, it’s just a piece of shiny foil being woggled about for a bit. It’s genius, it looks totally rubbish and... I love it. Nice attempt at a solution to having no money there. This brought a smile to my face.
There’s lots of more absurdly stupid things happening in this movie. Such as when a naked Chesty wards off a guy by knocking him down a couple of times in a fist fight... well, I say a fistfight but Chesty actually uses her breasts of doom, throwing them about like a pair of fists and doing some damage which, while it sounds completely stupid (and it is completely stupid, I assure you), actually looks kind of credible because the director slows the footage down so it looks like there really is some weight behind the main star of the show’s natural, sizeable assets.
Later on she lets herself get caught so she can take out a guy with her exploding lipstick. Meanwhile, a man stabs a girl who he mistakes for Chesty in a shower in a quite grisly, gory yet entirely unconvincing murder scene. When a guy comes after Chesty she squirts some gas from a smoking hooka thingamajig and then kills her immobile victim by filling his throat with ice cubes... which I guess is kinda inventive for a Doris Wishman film, I would say. Another spectacular kill comes when she somehow, through the magic of non-matching camera footage, manages to throw her earring across the room... right into the neck of her potential assailant. And of course, all through the movie, each time she takes out another bad guy or gal, she has to get her breasts out and take some photographs of them.
I’m not going to reveal anymore of the story here but, it has to be said, it’s totally silly... as is the ending and the revelation that Chesty is in danger because the spy camera has a hidden time bomb in it which will go off if she doesn’t report back to base in time. Why? Why the heck would you send out a trusted agent with a bomb in her bosom? This really begs the question as to why her boss, who presumably authorised this, would be working in an ‘intelligence’ agency. Oh well... I guess you can only be as intelligent as your script.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one other than to reiterate that, of the two Chesty movies I’ve seen, this one is definitely the more fun and also, although she’s not great in it, she’s certainly a hell of a lot more credible and interesting in Double Agent 73 than she was in Deadly Weapons. I’d have liked to have seen her in a few more things after this, as I reckon she had the potential to become something more if given the right opportunities but, alas, her career only went on to include a deleted scene pulled from a Fellini movie and an unconfirmed appearance in a 1980s film. Which is a shame.
Still, I enjoyed this one and if you’re still on the fence about picking up the US Zone 1 Blu Ray Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies, all I can say is, for me at least, this one was worth the price of admission, purely as a celebration of stupidity. Recommended for a room full of guys and gals who are heavily ‘alcoholed up’ and if you don’t mind people shouting at the screen in response to the ridiculous antics of the characters who inhabit this strange, alternative and amply cleavaged version of the cold war warriors of the US of A. Great stuff.
Tuesday, 22 August 2017
The Admirable Criterion
by The Criterion Collection
Criterion Designs must easily qualify as being somewhere amongst the top ten most beautiful film books I own. This hefty tome was brought out in 2014 to celebrate 30 years of the Criterion Collection, one of the most influential home video labels of all time. Criterion are an American company who are partnered with Janus Films and who were also once partnered with HVC (which explains why you can now get such gems as the complete Zatoichi Collection and the six original Lone Wolf And Cub movies in high quality Blu Ray restorations).
It’s a label who were almost legendary in the days of the LaserDisc, with titles such as their beautiful Kurosawa transfers and their unbelievably cool ‘alternate cut’ of Blade Runner (my review here), which is one of the titles that first made me prick up my ears in the early 1990s, even though I would never have the required funds to buy a laserdisc player. I later acquired a VHS NTSC version of this cut which was extremely hard to get to watch at the time on a UK PAL player although, thankfully, this version was finally made available properly by Warner Brothers years later, first on DVD and then Blu Ray as one of the five cuts of the movie on the most recent boxed editions of Blade Runner… it’s still my favourite version of the film. Of course, once they started releasing selected titles on US DVD, that’s when I started buying the Criterion titles. Sure, they were extremely pricey compared to any other video company’s releases (sometimes of the same title) but in the case of this particular label, you really were paying for the quality of transfers from freshly struck prints and, most importantly, presented in the correct aspect ratio. More often than not, they’d have some quite unique extras on their discs too… gaining in number as the company thrived.
Over the years their logo has changed quite dramatically (although I’ve now got used to the newish, minimal design) but one of the quirks that they are noted for and which has stayed with them is the spine number on their DVDs, starting with the release of spine number 2, Seven Samurai, if memory serves (I believe spine number 1, Grande Illusion, was a delayed release?). These spine numbers are something which avid collectors of the range are happy to pursue almost as much as the films themselves although... I don’t have a 'collector' mentality myself so I wouldn’t know.
The covers of their discs have evolved over the years too and, even in the days when they were purely using photos or posters from the titles in question, they were still mini triumphs of design/layout and their brand image put them head and shoulders above the majority of home video labels out there. They continue to release somewhere between 4 and 6 titles per month and many of their older covers, great as they were, have had facelifts as they are reissued with their new logo or re-released in a Blu Ray edition. Some, of course, have gone out of print or the rights to the movies have lapsed back to the original companies... which gave rise to a thriving trade in bootleg/faked Criterion editions, believe it or not. They’re that desirable on the collectors market.
Criterion Designs is a truly gorgeous hard back book which collects some of the artwork of the range together and, in many cases, gives you some insight into their creation. I was surprised that there's no dust jacket for the book but that's because the inside cover spread, full of tiny drawings, is visible through the front of the book via a large cutout of the current Criterion logo. The book then goes on to showcase a number of great pieces commissioned by a load of brilliant designers and artists, reproducing their work on high quality paper which shows them in their absolute best light (even more so than the original covers themselves, in most cases) and also backs these up, a lot of the time, with some of the booklet interior artwork and boxed set design.
As I went through the book I noticed there were a lot of creatives of whom I’d not heard but also a number who I definitely knew, including Eric Chase Anderson whose illustrations for the Criterion editions of his big brother’s films, Wes Anderson, are an absolute joy. I also came across some artists who I primarily knew from comic books of the 1980s such as Jamie Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame or Kent Williams, whose beautifully painted mini series Blood - A Tale made such an impression on me when I was at college.
In addition to beautiful reproductions of some of their favourite covers, many of which are modern icons among home video enthusiasts, there are number of examples of the genesis of these creations, including evolutionary sketches and alternate versions. There are also many fold out pages which act like double gatefold sections where some of the wider artworks for the range are shown in their full glory… for instance some stunning work for Sam Fuller’s movies Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and the wraparound artwork for the dual DVD/Blu Ray set of Zatoichi movies. As a final extra cherry on the top of an already well iced, cinematic cake, the final section is a gallery of pages of thumbnails of the entire history of their covers on laserdisc, DVD and Blu Ray up until the publication of this book, which is a nice resource to have as you are able to see a load of their releases in situ with each other at a glance.
At the end of the day, much of the stuff reproduced or showcased in Criterion Designs for the first time in a collection of this nature (including unused artwork) is truly breathtaking and, though it was an expensive purchase (which is almost a Criterion brand trait but, luckily, I was given some Christmas vouchers a few years ago which saw me in good stead), it was truly a brilliant buy and, while it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it, I’m just so pleased I invested the money for this volume and hope that, someday, they see fit to issue a sequel tome. Truly a gorgeous addition for the book shelf of any lover of cinema or fine art and a solid recommendation from me. Check this one out while you still can.
Sunday, 20 August 2017
Witness For The Execution
The Hitman's Bodyguard
Directed by Patrick Hughes
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very mild spoiler for something
you find out very early on in the movie.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson and is one of those sub genres of the action comedy film which comes under ‘hesitant buddies’ movie. We’ve seen them all before, of course, and there are good and bad examples of this dotted around cinema history, especially over the last 50 years, with some truly great ones being Freebie And The Bean, the first Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight (which also stars Jackson, this time teaming up with Geena Davis). They’re films which involve two things in their ingredients done especially right if they are to be truly worth any repeat viewing and, in terms of what I think those elements are, this film definitely has one and... well it almost has the other. This is above and beyond all the normal , obvious things that this genre needs to get right, of course, such as good action and a good sense of pacing.
Let’s get to the onscreen chemistry between the lead characters first. Reynolds and Jackson have it in spades. They’re both actors, actually, that I have a lot of time for. I’ve been watching Sam Jackson for a while but first became aware of him properly in Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (reviewed here). He’s an actor I appreciate a lot and, I guess in some ways he’s something of a living legend. Ryan Reynolds I don’t know so well but I liked what he did in Deadpool (reviewed here) and I also loved what he did in Green Lantern (reviewed here) which I think was a, sadly, underappreciated gem of a movie that I suspect might do well over time and become better appreciated in 20 to 30 years than it is right now. He’s also an actor I have a lot of time for. So there’s that and... yup. Like I said, I can confirm the chemistry between the two male leads in this is really very good. They play off each other amazingly well with Jackson reflecting a joyous, life loving assassin who makes a deal to testify against the movie’s prime villain in order to get his wife, played by the always brilliant Salma Hayek, out of jail. Reynolds is the deadpan genius of a straight man for a lot of the show and, together, they really work well.
The film starts off strongly where we see the end of Reynold’s last case as ‘Triple A rated’ bodyguard Michael Bryce, with everything suddenly going wrong before his eyes. Cut to two years later and he is a washed up, down on his luck shadow of his previous self but, still doing a similar job for another firm. We see him pick up a drug addled Richard E. Grant and get him to safety and it is only when we hear him talking to his co-worker on the phone that we realise what this relatively easy looking job entailed... as we see him take out at least a half a dozen bad guys in flashback on his way to pick up his client. One wonders why someone who is so proficient at taking out the opposition is still in the position he’s in but, there you go, that’s who this guy is. We then meet Gary Oldman as dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, who is on trial from crimes against humanity but, somehow, not one shred of evidence has been found against him that will stick. We meet him a little earlier in a scene which is pretty standard fare to make his villainy personal to the audience, as he does something pretty nasty to one of his victims. We then meet the incarcerated Darius Kincaid, played by Jackson, who makes that deal for his wife’s freedom with the British to show up and testify at Vladislav’s trial... if they can get him there alive. Of course, as soon as they try to transport him it’s predictably bedlam but Bryce’s ex girlfriend, Agent Amelia Roussel played by Elodie Yung (who I liked so much in Gods Of Egypt... reviewed here) gets him to a temporary safe house and calls in Bryce to help out. Of course, the two recognise each other immediately because Darius has tried to kill Bryce 38* times in their working life so, after the inevitable fight, things settle down and we are left with Bryce and Darius ‘on the road’ and trying to get to the court in Amsterdam from London (most of the first half of the film is set in the UK) while avoiding the opposition and trying to outwit the traitorous plant within the British secret service who is working for Vladislav and trying to make sure Darius never gets to that trial.
And that’s the set up and, like I said before, the chemistry between the two male leads is pretty good... so that’s all fine. And, yes, the film is pretty pacey and has a lot of good and sometimes quite violent action set pieces. That being said, I did have a few problems with it and... I’ll get to those now.
The other essential element you need, I believe, for this specific sub-genre of film to work, is a very good script. The structure in this is relatively sound... a bit clichéd but I’ve got no issues with that. However, the dialogue is really not that great in a lot of places. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some excellent stuff in here including some poignant bonding between the two leads (as you would expect from this kind of film) and some very funny moments. Ultimately, though, I just felt something was maybe missing for some of the time. The dialogue didn’t always feel like it was making the most out of the situations which we're presented with on the screen at certain points but, on the other hand, it’s still not terrible so I’m really not complaining too bitterly. I did, however, feel that this element never allowed the film to rise to being a truly ‘great’ movie and, instead, it kinda hovers at the ‘really quite nice’ level for a lot of the time, instead. No worries, though... that’s a lot better than most movies out there these days.
Another thing I found was that the action sequences completely failed to exploit the great rapport between Reynolds and Jackson by having a lot of it take place at the same time but with them in separate locations. There seem to be surprisingly few scenes of this nature involving the two of them on screen at the same time. Instead, Reynolds will do his thing in a completely different area while Jackson is doing something similarly violent somewhere else. Take the excellent speedboat chase in Amsterdam, for example. Jackson is on the boat and escaping the villains while Reynolds is on a bike protecting him from afar and having his own battles. Similarly, a car chase with Jackson which is fairly long takes place while Reynolds is involved in a foot chase and gets down with some violent shenanigans in a kitchen. How the two miraculously meet up again after this sequence does raise the eyebrows, it has to be said and certainly stretches ones ability to suspend disbelief. Maybe there were some scenes cut which explained how Jackson can just happen to backtrack the long distance he drove and somehow go to the exact place where Reynolds is having a fight but, you know, it wasn’t evident in this final release print.
These are, however, fairly mild problems and, for the most part, the film is an entertaining and joyful experience. I was surprised to find that I liked the score, considering this genre often has some dire music in it. This one is by composer Atli Örvarsson, who also did the wonderful “baroque n’ roll” score for Hansel And Gretel Witch Hunters (reviewed by me here) among others. It’s a really good fit to the movie and mixed in loud enough that I could appreciate it properly in context... I’m also delighted to find that there’s some kind of CD release for this so, you know, that one goes on the list (although half of it seems to be ‘pop songs’ so now I’m having second thoughts about bothering to purchase this).
So there you have it. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is not the best of this kind of movie that I’ve seen but it’s still a pretty okay one and certainly something I’d like to see a sequel to (The Bodyguard’s Hitman, maybe?). Entertaining enough with great performances, some great action and, importantly, editing that doesn’t lose you in the middle and leave you behind during those stunt sequences. A good night out at the cinema and something you might enjoy if the buddy action comedy genre is your kind of thing.
*I’ve only just realised while writing this review, that the dialogue in that scene
going from 37 to 38 is a little homage to Kevin Smith’s Clerks. A nice touch.
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Into The Unknown -
The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale
by Andy Murray Headpress
ISBN: No ISBN on this hardback edition.
I wasn’t aware that there was already in existence a print biography of the creator of one of my favourite childhood heroes, Nigel Kneale, until this newly revised/expanded edition was just published by Headpress. Kneale was a creator who kinda popped into my life in terms of delivering striking television (and sometimes film) of the specific kind that leaves a mark on your soul as you watch and a proper celebration of his life in book form was something I’d always wanted to delve into. And now I have, courtesy of the research by author Andy Murray and his quite breezy and ‘matter of fact’ writing style which makes the journey of this book a pleasurable read.
I can’t remember which of Kneale’s works I saw first but it would have been around the age of 6 or 7 when I was first introduced to his writing via television. It might have been the time in the early 1970s when the BBC repeated the adaptation Kneale wrote of George Orwell’s 1984 (and I can find no evidence that they did repeat it in that decade but I know it for a fact they did because I remember it and I’m not old enough to have seen the original broadcast). It's truly the greatest version of 1984 put on screen to date. I remember it starred Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, who was an actor I already knew of when I was even at this young age... and the jingle using the words to a song... ‘“underneath the spreading chestnut tree’ somehow filled me with dread or, at the very least, a strong sense of foreboding, for many years to come.
I don’t remember if this was my very first exposure to his work or whether it was my parents letting me stay up for the Hammer Films remake of his first Quatermass serial, The Quatermass Experiment, which Hammer had retitled to capitalise on it being one of the first X certificated movies as... The Quatermass Xperiment (and which I reviewed here). The very first of the Hammer film versions of the character didn’t actually use Kneale for the script adaption and he was bitter and demonstrative about it for years but, whichever way you look at it, The Quatermass Xperiment is still very much an interpretation of Kneale and a pretty well made one too, as far as I’m concerned. Either way, whether I saw this before the Orwell adapation or not, I do know that this movie scared me silly and I spent the entire night sweating out the fear... and, of course, my appreciation of it grew from there. Pretty much the same thing happened to me with the Hammer remake of the third serial, Quatermass And The Pit (which you can read my review of here, if you are so inclined).
The reason I’d wanted to see the movie was because my parents had loved the first three Qutermass serials when they were broadcast in the 1950s and often talked about people racing in from the street and stopping what they were doing so they could watch it on somebody’s television set. They even had a large, overgrown potted plant which they called Victor, after the character Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment... who does himself turn into some kind of plant-like creature over the course of that first story.
Andy Murray’s newly revised tome takes you behind the scenes of the late writer’s life, to a certain extent but deals with his professional life much more than it does with his day to day existence, although I did find out a little more about that and it was news to me that his wife, Judith Kerr, is also a talented writer, best known in this country as the writer of such children’s books as The Tiger Who Came To Tea and the Mog The Cat books... although she is far more famous in her native Germany for her memoirs of her family escaping the Nazis a day before they came for them. Kneale also has two extremely talented offspring, too, who I knew nothing about until this book.
Despite having got the feeling that I’d heard an awful lot about Kneale’s professional life from various DVD documentaries and tributes over the years, Murray manages to fill in the little blanks and puts it all in order for the reader and I was delighted to find that there were lots of little things about Kneale that I didn’t know. Such as his admiration for the work of H. G. Wells from which, I think, he got the sense of using ordinary people in recognisable locations for his stories, to give plausibility to the fantastic situations they found themselves in. And, although I didn’t know it for sure, it came as no real surprise to find that he was also a big admirer of the ghostly fiction of M. R. James too.
What’s good about this book is it doesn’t tone down Kneale’s contributions to the art of television and fully explores the way he, along with director Rudolph Cartier, completely changed the face of the medium by pushing the boundaries with serials like the Quatermass stories and various other things they collaborated on. They transformed the medium in this country from something very trite and harmless into something which was a bit more pacey and would challenge the boundaries of what to expect from that small box in the corner of the room. It also goes on to explain that Nigel Kneale’s love of film from an early age lead him to try and think about his writing in a more visual manner and I think this certainly comes across in his work.
Yes, all the familiar stories are in here which fans of Kneale will, like me, lap up. The outcry against 1984 until Prince Charles mentioned that The Queen had really liked it, the writer’s distaste for hiring Brian Donlevy to star as the titular professor in the first two Hammer remakes of the serials - The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II (surely one of the first sequels to ever use a number to denote its status in the running order), the author’s bad experience working with John Carpenter on the early script of Halloween III - Season Of The Witch... and so on and so forth, it’s all in here. However, we also get stories which are, perhaps, a little less in the public consciousness and as the writer worked through various collaborations, we can get an idea of the man behind the mask of Thomas Nigel Kneale and it’s very, very interesting.
Murray uses a lot of Kneale’s words themselves in the text and also the testimonies and praise of various collaborators and also influential fans of his work, such as Mark Gattis and Ramsey Campbell. It also mentions the surprising public friction Kneale had with Verity Lambert over the show Doctor Who, which he hated and refused to write for, even though it’s pretty much a show (one of many) that would never have seen the light of day if Kneale’s Quatermass serials had not paved the way for this kind of TV science fiction. The two seemed to get on well enough decades later, though, when they worked together to get the fourth and final Quatermass serial onto television (it still frightens me to this day... Huffity, Puffity Ringstone Round... can’t think of that made up nursery rhyme used in the serial still without feeling chills down my spine). It’s a shame that Kneale hated Doctor Who so much because there have been quite a few Quatermass references in the show itself, over the decades.
The book includes synopses woven into the text, of scripts and shows that Kneale worked on, including some stuff sadly lost to time (missing presumed wiped, as the saying goes... the BBC still have a lot to answer for) and it’s fascinating to read about some of the ideas he came up with. I would love to see a revival of his TV play The Road at some point. It sounds like it must have been pretty special. The book also talks about some of his writing for short story collections and the like over the years and talks about the work he collaborated on with his famous wife too. It also gives you a very good idea as to his reactions and impressions of people over the years, which is a bit of an eye opener. However, I was interested to find that the most recent, ‘live broadcast’ remake of The Quatermass Experiment, aired in 2005, received a similar reaction from Kneale that I had when it was shown (although it didn’t annoy me half as much as the subsequent DVD release of this, where the BBC stupidly omitted the flubbed lines and accidents that happened on the night of that original broadcast... I remember them fondly and believe that’s what makes live TV so charming, so they should have definitely left those in, I reckon).
All in all, barring a fair few typos (how does that still happen?), Andy Murray’s Into The Unknown - The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale is a pretty useful and entertaining tome and definitely belongs on the bookshelf of any self respecting fan of science fiction. It’s great as a reference work you can dip into for a quick fact or verification but it's also hugely interesting and written in a manner which makes it very easy to consume. Snap this one up before Headpress run out of copies.
Tuesday, 15 August 2017
We’ll Sheet Again
A Ghost Story
2017 USA Directed by David Lowery
UK cinema release print.
I’ve been trying really hard to figure out how to write this particular review without putting any spoilers in it because I really don’t want to be spilling too many beans on this truly amazing cinematic experience for anybody. I think what I may find myself doing, as my writing progresses down the page, is alluding to things without actually mentioning them. If you find this a little grating in places... my apologies to you.
So I saw the trailer for A Ghost Story maybe a month or more ago and I wasn’t overly struck on the idea of going to see it, to be honest... although I liked the idea that one of the main characters is a guy draped in a white sheet. However, I figured out enough to know that this wasn’t another run of the mill horror movie... not a horror movie at all as it turns out. So I figured, since it was showing locally, I had some time and I’d give it a go. Wow... so glad I did. The trailer really undersells the brilliance of this piece and makes it look like something, admittedly a little more accessible to what modern audiences are unfortunately expecting but, at the same time, redundant as a reflection of the final product. At least that's what I think.
The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as unnamed lovers... possibly husband and wife or maybe not, you never really know. When we first meet up with them they are looking like they are moving out of their current house as Mara is packing up books and so on and not getting much response or help, it seems, from Affleck, who is busy composing and mixing a new song (presumably he works in the music industry). In these opening sequences we get the set up that they are a loving couple going through a slight rough patch. Then, the clang of the piano wakes them up in the middle of the night and, it was only in this one moment as the two of them check out the house to see if anyone has gotten in, that I found the movie in any way predictable. I was pretty sure I knew exactly who had caused that piano to sound of like that and, as it turns out much later, I was right... but by then the identity of this random and spooky noise loses importance as you are already at a place way beyond that moment in terms of how you view the story. In pretty much every other way, the writers/director stayed one step ahead of me and I was really grateful for that.
Okay, so one of the things this movie does, or rather doesn’t do, is herald anything before it happens. Things just happen, sometimes off camera and the passage of time goes on and any changes that have happened tend to sneak up on you because they’ve already come to pass in the movie, for the most part. So the film is full of surprises until you quickly start locking into the same rhythm and expecting the upheavals as they come. And I’m mentioning this right now because... and I don’t think this is a spoiler because you can work this out pretty easily from that initial trailer... the director uses this sneak attack approach to usher in the film’s first big change. That is, when we see Casey Affleck dead in a car wreck just outside his house in the early stages of the film. It’s an event that’s done and dusted and we are already plummeting into the aftermath as Rooney Mara then goes to identify the body at the local hospital.
Most of the identification scene plays out in long shot and with a static camera and that’s pretty much the modus operandi for the majority of the movie, actually. Long held static or exquisitely slow moving shots which give the film a languid pacing. Especially since there’s hardly any dialogue throughout, apart from a few sentences here and there plus a dialogue heavy monologue at a party around half the way through. So the gurney with Affleck’s covered body is in long shot with Rooney Mara and a nurse who pulls back the sheet. Mara asks for some time alone with the corpse, which she has and you can see her keeping everything inside her all muffled, as she does through most of her scenes in the movie. She then pulls the sheet back over Affleck’s face and walks out of the room, leaving us looking at a wonderful composition of a door on the left leading our eye into a dividing screen which, between the door and screen, takes up half the frame. And the dead body is on the slab on the right hand side of the frame.
And allow me to make a quick deviation here, while I’m talking about the way a shot was composed. The whole film is shot in a 4:3 (aka 1.33:1) aspect ratio, with curved corners on it. I kept thinking that when things changed for the lead character (as in when Affleck dies in the car accident) that the aspect ratio would open up to a standard widescreen but, no, it’s held throughout the movie. I don’t know why the director chose to do this but the beauty of the shot compositions certainly don’t render this frame ratio invalid at any rate. Maybe he wanted to enhance the loneliness of both characters through a more intimate or crowded frame space... I don’t know. Either way, once you get used to it, it stops becoming important. So let me jump back to that scene...
Mara has walked out of the room and we are just left with the composition I described above for maybe a minute or two with absolutely nothing happening in shot for a good long while, which is a technique which seems very European and something which I like... I remember Scorcese and Woody Allen have both emulated that kind of empty shot sequence in some of their movies. After a while, though, the sheet rises and Affleck is, just like that, a ghost. A typical children’s vision of a ghost, in fact. Just a sheet with two black eyes in the front where the head should be. We join him as he walks back home and, pretty much from this moment on we never leave his side. The whole movie becomes a look at loneliness, not just of Mara’s but, more so the loneliness of Affleck’s ghost. It’s a film about Affleck watching what goes on in the house or, considering all the things that then happen to that house, what goes on with that piece of land.
In the first sequence of his emerging as a ghost in hospital, we begin to start to put together the underlying purpose of his character as he is wordlessly presented with a visual choice before leaving the hospital, which he decides to ignore to ‘walk the earth’ instead. What’s keeping him here? Well, without going into too much detail, Rooney Mara does something just before she moves on with her life and away from the property which keeps the ghost remaining there as other tenants move in and more things happen. It’s a bit of a plot device but it allows us to watch the ghost watching the world go by and we start to slowly pick up on the boundaries and rules of the afterlife, to some extent. For example, ghosts can just silently talk to each other...
In a wonderfully depressing scene, Affleck’s ghost spots a neighbour’s ghost through the window and they have a poignant moment or two... speaking to each other wordlessly through the subtitles which come up on screen. It’s a wonderful element to a film with a central idea that never really gets played out and the simplicity of it is deceptive because tiny little things happen to enrich the concept further as the story progresses. For example, when something happens in a certain scene you wonder just what the heck is going to happen to Affleck and the neighbour’s ghost now and you see something quite simple but very powerful happen just after you maybe have that thought.
This is very much a film of powerful moments. Remember how in a film like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the moment when the condensation of a coffee cup is left behind on a table to fade from view in a second or two becomes a main event of the film, in a way? Well A Ghost Story is very much like a few of these ‘little moments which have bigger consequences’ sequences put together to make a very compelling and quite wonderful film. And the director’s approach to not really clueing the audience to something that’s about to happen visually is a major ingredient of that and allows for certain moments later in the film, which you may not have shrugged off so quickly in the early stages, to be accepted easier. For instance... and because of spoilers I’m trying to make this contextless... at one point in the film near the end the ghost is sitting on the ground looking at something quite tragic and, when he looks up to notice something else, you realise at least a hundred years must have passed where he was just sitting there recovering from what he has seen. And it’s little moments like this that help make this deceptively simple movie a rich and powerfully rewarding experience. And the ending is just perfect...
There’s a moment near the end that I can only describe, without giving away too much information for those who haven’t seen it, as being similar in intent as those infamous whispered words from Bill Murray to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Sofia Coppola’s wonderful Lost In Translation. The thing you might want revealed becomes the unimportant part of what happens then... its the consequences to the central character which matter and it’s those consequences you see which, like the rest of the movie, happens so fast it takes you by surprise. I was pretty sure I knew exactly where the ending of this film was going to take us but the director surprised me in the last quarter of an hour or so, where the game has already changed and in which you come to realise there are more levels to the ‘afterlife’ than you had at first realised. And Daniel Hart’s intensely and achingly beautiful score completely carries the tone of the film and helps give emotional context to the characters in some scenes (I’m waiting for the soundtrack to arrive on CD because the score is quite haunting too).
So there you have it... I could actually go on more about A Ghost Story but that would involve me getting into spoilers and, if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to do that to you. This movie gets a strong recommendation from me though and absolutely anyone who calls themselves a lover of cinema owes it to themselves to seek out and see this wonderful movie. Easily one of the very best of 2017 and probably for many years to come. I can see this building up a huge following with future generations over the years. Plus I think people will be talking about a certain ‘pie eating’ scene for a while too.... Rooney Mara is quite astonishing here. So, yeah, definitely go and see this one or your future self may regret it.
Sunday, 13 August 2017
The Doll Monty
2017 USA Directed by David F. Sandberg
UK cinema release print.
Well Annabelle: Creation is a fun film.
Much more entertaining than I was expecting given that I wasn’t all that into Annabelle (reviewed here). That being said, it does spend all of its time wallowing in the most obvious ‘horror movie clichés’ you can imagine but, although there are no real surprises throughout the movie (barring a couple of nice moments), it at least executes these conventions in a concise and joyous manner and, while there’s almost a deliberate absence of character depth to the movie, it really succeeds in one of the main intents of a horror film... it’s a fair bit scary in places.
Annabelle: Creation is, of course, actually the fourth film to feature the title character after a quite important set of appearances in The Conjuring (reviewed here) which was, in my humble opinion, probably the best horror movie of the last decade and a brief glimpse of an appearance in The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case (set in my home town here in the UK and reviewed by me here). Now, I have to admit I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for this movie since the stories themselves are obviously no longer relying on the real life events that are alleged to have taken place in The Conjuring movies and I’m guessing this is Hollywood totally doing its own thing with the ‘character’. To be honest, there was already a ‘creation’ scene in terms of how the doll came to be demonically possessed in Annabelle so I couldn’t possibly see where this thing could go without contradicting itself. Well, if that’s what you are thinking too, fear not, there’s actually a pretty good tie in towards the end of the movie with a little segment which takes place twelve years after the main body of this one... where you get to see certain events you’ve seen before in another movie from a different point of view and which ties it in, quite neatly, to the canon as a whole. No real continuity problems there.
The film starts off with a doll maker putting the Limited Edition brand on the wooden packaging of the first Annabelle doll and it introduces us to his wife and child. However, as in the trailer to this movie, it’s not long before their daughter meets with a tragic and untimely death. The child’s sudden death is handled quite jarringly in a masterstroke of build up and editing, much more intensely implied than as seen on the film’s marketing campaign. The film then jumps on a number of years to a nun and her six charges as they move into the big house with the doll maker and his wife, setting up as a new orphanage. Of course, right away the haunted, demonic shenanigans begin with the children and the director then spends the rest of the time trying to pile on the fear. Which he does quite well but, like I said, clichés...
And I do mean clichés. One of the main child protagonists is partially crippled by polio and right away we are introduced to a chair-lift which can only move up or down once the occupant is seat belted into it. So there’s a situation just rife for a horror chase scene right there and you can bet the director sure uses this set up later. Similarly, we have a ‘dumb waiter’ in one of the rooms with a door which keeps sliding open. Yeah, right. No possibilities for haunted, horror escape routes there then, right? We even have a sinister scarecrow and a big, scary well on the property so, you know, the writers and director are taking no chances in throwing potential horror tropes at you from the word go here. I’d be super critical of all of this if it wasn’t for the fact that the director knows he isn’t fooling anybody and milks the horror elements with almost perfect timing while utilising some strong performances from the kids. One of whom I was especially fearful for, played by Lulu Wilson... due to her similar appearance, in my mind, to a young Hayley Mills.
Now, the film is quite intense but that didn’t stop me from seeing the humour in the film and kind of laughing at certain ‘fright moments’ due to their manipulative obviousness, it has to be said... although certain members of the audience were certainly freaking out right from the start here. Don’t know what that was all about... it wasn’t that scary.
The film certainly plays with the conventions of horror without doing much that’s original with them, I’m sorry to say but, the possible unintentional humour of a few scenes certainly doesn’t go against it and I think most lovers of the genre will be happy with this one. Despite the lack of surprises, though, it does have one very surprising moment in it which isn’t pertinent to the main plot... at least not of this movie, at any rate but, certainly of a movie which is coming to cinemas next year. Keep a sharp eye out for a little scene near the start of the film where Sister Charlotte (played by Stephanie Sigman) is showing the doll maker (played by Anthony LaPaglia) a photograph of her last diocese. There’s a beautifully done, shared universe moment here which I’m sure we’ll get the back story to in 2018. Actually, there’s another nice little moment which may catch people off guard during the film, also using a photograph. I won’t go into too much detail but let’s just say “the eyes have it” and leave it at that.
Benjamin Wallfisch provides a score which, while not exactly a million miles away from what other composers are doing within this genre at the moment, is an effective bit of blood curdling "sound design seeks atonal ferocity with GSOH for scary scoring". It’s appropriate and effective when he pulls out all the stops which he does frequently because, despite the conventions being solidly delivered by the director of this movie, Sandberg also does something which you can’t usually get away with if you want to produce an effective horror movie. This being that there are actually very few rest moments between the various horror set pieces. There are some, obviously but... they are very short and so the horror sequences are almost just piled one on top of the other with very little time for the audience to calm down and pause for breath. This really shouldn’t work as effectively as it does here though so, again, it doesn’t really harm the movie. I suspect the pausing beats that are in here might well have been longer in the first assembly of the movie but were maybe whittled down to up the pacing on this one... who knows, the film might have been even more effective for some longer ‘downtime’ sequences but, as it stands, it seems to manage to hold up nicely without them so, no worries there.
Eagle eyed fans of the real life horrors behind the haunted Annabelle doll will get a little treat too. It’s not exactly a secret that the scary Annabelle doll used for these movies looks nothing like the real life counterpart made famous by the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. When one of the characters is given a new doll right at the end of the movie, that rag doll is actually a copy of the ‘real’ Annabelle doll so, you might want to keep an eye out for that. Just don’t leave that eye out for long though or you, too, may become the subject of a real life horror filled event.
And that’s me done on Annabelle: Creation. I really wasn’t expecting to like it but, although I did have moments where I was more comically amused than scared at certain points, it’s a pretty intense, single minded ride which horror fans should really get on with. A word of warning though... if you leave when the credits starts rolling then you are going to miss out. There are two post credits scenes on this movie... one half way through the credits which is pretty much what you were expecting the film to do as its last shot anyway but then, hold on because there’s a more substantial appearance of another character once the credits have finished. I won’t say anything about this now but I’m sure I’ll be mentioning it again in a future review, if you catch my drift. In the meantime though, this ones a minor but effective horror concoction that genre fans will not want to miss.
Thursday, 10 August 2017
Fact Is Satchel
2017 USA Directed by David Leitch
UK cinema release print.
Atomic Blonde is a new film directed by former stuntman David Leitch, whose only previous feature length movie directing was some uncredited scenes on John Wick (reviewed here). He is also currently helming the second Deadpool movie and he directed the mini Deadpool teaser earlier in the year. Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and, for once, the Hollywood “based on a” machine got it right... it really is based on a graphic novel and not a comic book being mistakenly confused for one.
After a brief prologue putting the story into political context in the 1980s with the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, the film starts off with a punchy sequence in which a man is running from some unspecified ‘bad guys’ but winds up dead with, amongst other things, a bullet in his skull, all set to the strains of the New Order song Blue Monday (although I’m not entirely sure whether the version used in the film is actually the New Order version). We then sweep into another sequence as we see the main protagonist, British Intelligence Operative Lorraine Broughton (for the purposes of this review) played by Charlize Theron, in the aftermath of the mission which we will see in the ensuing film. We start off with her in a bathtub, filled with ice, to help her badly swollen and bruised body.
We then see her putting up some make-up in the mirror as David Bowie’s song for Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People, Putting Out The Fire, plays on the soundtrack in a somewhat stolen moment, it seems to me, from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds... in which it's used for a very similar sequence (this film also has another connection with Inglourious Basterds in the fact that popular German actor Til Schweiger turns up in a few scenes). Following this, Lorraine goes to her debriefing in London, sat in a room in the company of Toby Jones and John Goodman as she tells the tale of her recent, disastrous mission in Berlin. The majority of the rest of the film is all flashing back from there (with occasional jumps back to that reference frame) as she goes on a mission to find a microfilm list of all the intelligence agents operating in the world... the very list which the gentleman at the start of the movie was killed for. She is also told to look out for a traitorous ‘double agent’ who goes by the name of Satchel, in order to unmask Satchel and probably terminate with extreme prejudice.
And so she goes to Berlin and, before she can meet her main and thoroughly ambiguous contact David Percival (played by James McAvoy) she is already ‘made’ by the ‘opposition’ and gets herself into trouble which she handles in a most spectacularly violent fashion and then... the film goes on like this for pretty much the rest of the running time. And it’s really not a bad movie, to be honest. A quite tough action piece, nicely framed and well edited so that it’s not going to lose the audience and with the kind of brutal edged comic book violence in it that we’ve seen in, for example, the John Wick films.
Now, there’s a lot going on here in terms of ‘story smoke’ in this one and, ultimately, because it’s the kind of film that delves into the murky underworld of spy fiction, where you never know who is telling the truth and who is working for who, the plot is somehow best left ignored, in my opinion. If this was a Bond or Jason Bourne film, people would be complaining about the simplicity of the plot but, because it’s a different beast, the story doesn’t mean too much, to be honest. The identity of Satchel is treated almost like the identity of the killer in a giallo movie, in that there’s so many people it could be that it’s almost impossible to tell which one it is... and it also doesn’t matter, as it happens. The plot is really, more so than many movies, just a framework to hang the stupendously cool action sequences from and to focus on the ice cold personae projected by Charlize Theron, who does wonderfully well in this role. Indeed, she had eight trainers for this movie and was training alongside Keanu Reeves while he was preparing for John Wick - Chapter 2 (reviewed here) but she still managed to crack two teeth while filming, by all accounts. You can tell by her performance here that she really threw herself into the physicality of the role.
So, yeah, the fight scenes are quite brutal in some places and, rather than being the ‘hit someone, kill someone else before killing the other person you just hit - stop - repeat’ style of combat used in the John Wick movies (which is effective enough and I love those films), the intensity of the fight scenes in this are perhaps even more interesting in that they are more intimate with people taking a long, long time to become incapacitated or die. So, less body count (although it is pretty high) and more the strife and struggle of a well choreographed series of set pieces, in this movie. One of the things I liked about it, regarding this, is the way that both heroine and bad guys are shown to be so damaged and exhausted from their fights that they both have trouble getting up to carry on the combat. There’s one sequence in particular, where Theron’s Atomic Blonde is trying to get a character called Spyglass, who has memorised the troublesome list and who is played by Eddie Marsan, out of the country but she goes on the offensive and enters a multi-story building with him to attack some snipers. In the long, drawn out and chaotic fight scenes which take place here, it was great to see Theron’s character getting punch drunk and falling about all over the place rather than just be the 100% killing machine a lot of these kinds of heroes normally are in these sorts of action spectacles.
My one slight problem with the film was the casting of Sofia Boutella as another agent who becomes Lorraine’s lesbian lover during the course of the story (no spoilers here... it’s in the trailers, people). Toward the end of the movie, Boutella’s character comes under some extreme duress from a third party and it was in these moments that I realised that this actress is going to be typecast if she’s not careful because, the baggage she brings to the role via other movies doesn’t help the credibility of her character here. After all, the agent she is playing is quite vulnerable, almost to the point of naiveté but, the roles I associate her with are the killer blade-legged lady from Kingsman - The Secret Service (reviewed here) and The Mummy in the recent version of... um... The Mummy (reviewed here) . So she really should be able to take care of herself in any situation, is what my brain was telling me. I know that’s wrong and it’s maybe just me but I had a similar ‘unwanted baggage’ problem with Uma Thurman in Paycheck. I’d fairly recently seen her kicking all kinds of backside in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies so I wasn’t prepared, in that particular case, for her to play a character who wasn’t able to take on anything less than a gazillion bad guys and come out on top. So, yeah, just a slight problem with Boutella’s character here too but... like I said, that could be just unique to me.
The end reveal of the Satchel character comes a lot after you are expecting it to be revealed, assuming you’re not taking anything you see and hear at face value and after a few fake endings. I’m delighted to say I completely guessed the identity of Satchel wrong, so that made me smile a little. That being said, since that identity really could have been anyone, the cleverness of the reveal comes not from the who but from the ‘what’ and ‘ why’ of the character than anything else. Sorry if that seems a little cryptic but I’m trying to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. Either way, the film doesn’t end when you think it’s going to end and there are a couple of little twists which, while seeming fairly unimportant after the violent carnage of the rest of the story, still give the film a nice little end play to add a little more depth to the tale.
Other than that though, a nice piece of modern, kinetic cinema with a strong soundtrack of 1980s songs (plus covers), some cool performances all around and a few striking visual touches here and there. Watch out near the end, for example, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment where the blood spray of someone’s brains being blown from their head adds a beautiful splash of red punctuation to the artwork on the wall behind, putting a bloody orifice/red set of lips in the mouth of the subject of the painting (I don’t know if that was serendipitous or planned but it looked really great). There’s also a great pseudo-eighties graphic design style to the way the expository typography is used on screen (with the accompanying swooshing sound of a spray paint can) and even a moment where the moviemakers nearly break the fourth wall when the director uses the flashback format to legitimately have the film you are watching burn up in an imaginary projector, so to speak. So, some nice moments here. I was a bit disappointed, given the setting of the film and the title, that the Blondie song Atomic was not used once in the movie, given that its minimalistic vocals and pounding instrumental could have been put to good use here (not to mention the content of those few lyrics) but, that niggle aside, it’s a really cool flick and if you are a fan of action cinema, pretty much unmissable as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if this movie was anything like the graphic novel it was based on but, as a film, Atomic Blonde is a great night out at the pictures so... give this one a go, if hard edged action is your kind of thing.