Tuesday, 31 October 2017
Tod Browning’s Ghoul Days
Directed by Tod Browning
Original and also rescored version.
Dracula (Spanish audience version)
Directed by George Melford & Enrique Tovar Ávalos
Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, it's about time I got around to writing about my beloved Universal Horror films for this site. The time seems about right what with Universal launching their shared universe movies which they have rechristened their Dark Universe franchise, albeit with a somewhat shaky start with their new version of The Mummy (reviewed here). Of course, their intended first film in this series was Dracula Untold (reviewed by me soon on this very blog) but the box office on that film meant that it was pretty much a false start for them, though it would be very easy to add the Dracula character from that production into the 'modern times' mix, given the last scenes in that film.
Of course, it's pretty obvious with these first, recent attempts at stand alone movies that the company is wanting to cash in on what I shall call the ‘Marvel Effect’ in terms of box office. The teaming up of established cinematic characters to grab a large, almost unhealthy dose of box office cash. They're certainly not the only company to be doing this (DC's Justice League will be with us in November) but of all the companies going for the gold in this manner at the moment... and this is something I've said before in an earlier review... it’s Universal who can perhaps be forgiven for jumping on the multiple monster bandwagon when you take into account that they already started doing this in the early 1940s (although not, interestingly, with their established Mummy character).
And, though this cross pollinating idea doesn't quite start with their 1931 production of Dracula (pretty much the first horror talkie and a big influence on the output of their competitors at the time)... it actually kinda does, in a way. The monster rallies to come just over a decade later were very much incorporating this character in their cinematic DNA. This marks pretty much the first 'official' version of Dracula on screen... not including the very famous, unauthorised German Expressionist classic Nosferatu, which Bram Stoker’s widow had won a legal case against and for which all the prints were supposed to have been destroyed as a consequence of this legal action (fortunately for us, a couple survived).
The film itself is not based on Stoker's novel as such... and neither are very many of the film versions of it either, it has to be said. Instead it is based on his somewhat simplified stage version which he wrote for his boss Henry Irving. I say “somewhat” because it was filtered through a couple of other writer's versions before it was adapted for Universal... the Hamilton Dean version and the John L. Balderstone version, which he subsequently revised for the screenplay here.
The casting was always supposed to be very different. Various actors had been bandied about for the role until the dream team of director Tod Browning and "man of a thousand faces" Lon Chaney as Dracula were signed. Unfortunately, Chaney died of cancer before the production was due to start shooting and, when there was no one left to cast, Universal snapped up Bela Lugosi... who was really lobbying for the part... for an insultingly small salary. We are fortunate that they chose him though (eventually), because he knew exactly what he was doing with the role since he'd been playing the Count to good reviews in the Balderstone play for an astonishingly large number of performances and, indeed, was instrumental to Universal in acquiring the film rights to the play from Mrs. Stoker in the first place.
Joining him from the phenomenally long run of the stage play were Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward and the inimitable Edward Van Sloan as Dracula's famous nemesis Van Helsing (easily my favourite screen rendition of Van Helsing and I couldn't imagine this film without his amazing presence as much as I couldn't imagine it without Lugosi's Dracula). Like Lugosi, Van Sloane would play his character for a second outing but, whereas Lugosi had to wait until 1949's Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein before he had another crack at his most famous role, Van Sloan would reprise his role of Van Helsing in the first direct sequel to Dracula, the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter. That being said, Van Sloan also turns up in Frankenstein in the same year as this movie and also has a very similar, 'Van Helsingish' role in the 1932 production of The Mummy.
Rounding out the most important members of the cast were Helen Chandler as Mina, Frances Dade as Lucy, David Manners as Jonathan Harker and the absolutely fantastic Dwight Frye as everyone's favourite fly eater, Renfield. Frye's dialogue delivery in this, like that of Lugosi and Van Helsing's, seems almost deliberately slow and stilted, even considering talking pictures had only been going for two years (a silent, intertitled version of Dracula was also released for theatres that hadn't yet had audio equipment put in). This might put off some modern viewers to a certain extent but, if you can get used to the line delivery, it makes for a very rewarding viewing experience totally appropriate to the subject matter and it’s worth giving it a second look to if you couldn't get into it the first time around.
Considering it's the first talking vampire picture (with the lead vampire in question being a very different 'beast' from Stoker's disgusting old man of the novel who was closer, perhaps, to the Nosferatu version of the character) the film never shows the vampires possessing the fangs they are now known for and it never once, in this version shot for English speaking audiences where censorship restrictions were a little more rigid, shows the double puncture marks left in the vampire's victims... although it does, at least, describe them in the dialogue so the audience can get the idea.
There is, of course, no music in this save for the opening titles and the diegetic music (source music from on screen instruments) due to the belief in this period that it would distract from the dialogue. It wasn't until Max Steiner's score for King Kong in 1933 that producers realised the power of the film score in regards to talking pictures (please see my review of King Kong here for the 'strings attached' part of that statement). This, coupled with the unusually pronounced dialogue gives the film a certain eerie quality which it might not otherwise have (and I'll say a little more about 'underscore' in regards to this motion picture in a little while).
In terms of the richness of the visual design of the film, this version has always been viewed as second best when compared to the Spanish language edition shot with a different cast and crew on the same sets and with the same shooting script, through night time shoots when the first production had gone home for the day. I used to adhere to this opinion too but, looking at the two films side by side now, I think they are just very different and the Browning version, shot by cinematographer Karl Freund, is every bit as rich at a visual level, if not more so in some places. I'll get around to talking a bit more about the simultaneously shot Spanish version in a little while.
There's not as much moving camera as in the Spanish version here (as was typical for sound film at this period, the camera was still learning how to be free again and mask the equipment noise) but even where there is fluid camera movement, the Browning version will often cut to a more staged, not quite matching close up version of a character (often Lugosi himself) in much the same way that Sergei Eisenstein used to single out static shots of a character rather than zoom in on them in films such as his classic Battleship Potemkin.
There are many little visual gems in this movie and here are a few of them that I noticed on this viewing:
There's a wonderful scene in the early stages of the film where Dwight Frye's Renfield is standing framed in front of some full length windows in roughly the centre of the screen with his back to us as he looks out. This is intercut with a shot of 'the brides of Dracula' framed in a big open doorway directly opposite that position, echoing the shots both proceeding and succeeding it.
Later on, as Renfield is seen in the hold of the good ship Vesta (actually the Demeter in Stoker's original novel), there is a kind of slightly moving spotlight in the background to give dramatic lighting as he speaks to Dracula in his coffin/crate. This is clearly meant to be the light shining through from an unseen porthole magnified onto the background and utilised for stylistic effect.
There's a particularly beautiful composition in Lucy's bedroom where Lucy and Mina, who is some distance behind Lucy, are sitting in front of a large mirror. In the reverse shot we see Lucy sitting on the left with her back to us, her reflection facing us in the mirror as she talks, slightly taller because of the angle and distance captured in the mirror... and then Mina's relection a little higher still facing us, again due to distance and angle from the reflecting glass. The three bodies in space make an upward diagonal line from left to right, framed by two lamps on either side of the upward frames of the mirror. It’s a pretty amazing composition, as it goes.
In addition to some startling visual designs, there's also the odd moment or two when the editing is just as poetic. My favourite example would be a scene when the main characters are discussing what could have made the two puncture marks on Mina's neck. One of them says, "What could have caused them, Professor?" Suddenly the housekeeper exclaims "Count Dracula!" as if in response to the question but, in actual fact, she's announcing Dracula’s arrival at the house and Lugosi enters in the next shot. It's a nice little touch and it's just these little, electrically charged juxtapositions of interacting elements that make films worth watching in the first place.
The 1998 re-release of the film with a specifically commissioned score composed by Philip Glass is not my preferred choice of viewing, although I have long been an admirer of the music of Glass and, if nothing else, this version serves to illustrate the benefits that having a score can bring to a movie. For instance, the soundtrack detracts greatly from the stilted feel of the dialogue and makes it maybe a little more palatable for audiences not used to such a degree of aural stylisation. Also, the leitmotif quality of the orchestral textures (rather than the melodies, in this instance), clue the audience in to things which the non-scored film was arguably lacking.
As an example of this, there's the shadow of an unrevealed character on a wall intercut in one scene a little before he enters and it’s revealed to be Renfield when he walks on but I don't really think the intention of this shot was to surprise or wrong foot the audience in any way. I suspect it was literally just an insert shot to clue the viewer in to the fact that Renfield has been listening in for a while. The addition of Glass' score makes it a little more implicit that it's Renfield's silhouette because the 'plucking' style of the orchestration which the viewer will have subconsciously associated with the character is used when it appears. This is exactly the kind of thing music in film is good at and Glass demonstrates it very well here.
When I first saw the score performed live against the screen it was in the same orchestration used here, performed as then by the much celebrated Kronos Quartet. However, when I saw it performed a few years later it was reorchestrated for four different instruments (not just strings) and I remember thinking it was a far superior version of Glass' score than the original one issued for home video and on CD. Alas, I've never been able to track down a recording of that version of the Glass Dracula score.
Okay, so the Spanish version, although using the same sets as the English language version, is very differently shot and staged... in some places it's far superior and in others... not so much. It also includes a scene or two not present in the other but, by a similar token, has other key scenes missing. Of the cast of this version, which still uses footage of Lugosi for some long shots to save money, the only three actors really worth looking at are Carlos Villarías as the Count himself, Lupita Tova as Eva (aka Mina) and Pablo Álvarez Ribio as a Renfield who certainly gives Dwight Frye a run for his money but in a much different style (and really, nobody does it better than Frye). The Spanish version of Van Helsing, for example, doesn't possess the same electrical presence as Van Sloane's delivery of the same role, who's stern visual style with the harsh, blonde widow's peak and the thick, milk bottle glasses adds another level of weight to the role which makes his Spanish counterpart seem a much softer, less satisfying variation of the character.
There are a great many differences, far too numerous to mention in an article of this size, in the Spanish movie. Indeed, apart from the same sets and mostly similar dialogue, it's like watching a completely different movie which, in fairness, it is. However, I'll highlight a few of the more interesting comparisons I’ve noticed next.
In the US version you never really see Lugosi rising from his coffin. Instead, the camera moves away and it's implied that’s what’s happened before it either returns or cuts back to a shot of Lugosi standing next to said coffin. Presumably the sight of Dracula groping his way out of his coffin in shot and messing up his immaculate cape was not seen as a desirable element of the film. I can see that. However, all the 'coffin release' shots of the Spanish version are a lot more interestingly handled. Here you see the, usually already half risen, lid of the coffin opening with a mist floating up from within. Then, when the lid is fully raised, Carlos Villarías pops up from behind the coffin lid (which presumably puts no strain on his cloak) and there you have it. Job done and it's much more effective than the English language version in this respect.
There's also much more made of the supernatural manipulation of objects, such as the self opening and closing doors which gave Dwight Frye so much concern in Castle Dracula. In the Spanish version, even the doors on the second coach that carries Renfield to his Transylvanian rendezvous open and close at will with a disturbingly loud groaning. Similarly, there is more emphasis on the title character flying into people’s rooms as a bat before changing into human form. Although you still don’t see the actual transformation, it’s much more heavily reinforced as an idea whereas, in the other one, you may be forgiven for thinking this is not really covered all that well at all.
In the scene where, in the US version, the brides of Dracula go to attack the feinted Renfield but are waved back by Dracula so he can claim him for himself (in a strangely homoerotic subtext found within the trappings of the vampire genre quite often), the Spanish version shows the brides themselves going down to 'vamp Renfield up'.
The differences continue but, some of them are quite odd.
A little more is made of the implied violence as Dracula eats his way through the crew of the Vesta while he journeys to London. However, these sequences include a little less dialogue from Renfield but include a quite incredible, memorable shot of him laughing his head off maniacally as he is framed by the circle of a porthole. A quite menacingly disconcerting shot, as it happens.
That being said, the following scene of Dracula murdering/drinking the Covent Garden flower girl is completely absent from the Spanish version, which is kind of strange. It says a lot about the difference in pacing of more or less the same scenes in the two versions when you consider that the Spanish edition is a full half an hour longer than the US counterpart. However, although the implied violence of this scene has been left out entirely in this version, the twin puncture wounds in the necks of the victims in this are very much a visual presence whereas, as I stated earlier, they were absent in all but dialogue references in the US version. Of course, the costumes on the ladies in question are a lot more racier and low cut than in the US movie so their necks are pretty easily visible all the time (not to mention other bosomy details which their almost transparent attire reveals in certain scenes).
That being said, the scene in Lucy’s bedroom which still does technically take place in a mirror is, while less static, a much more mundane affair in this Spanish version and doesn’t match the visual poetry created in the counterpart scene in Tod Browning’s daytime shoot. Neither is the scene where Renfield crawling across the floor to the unconscious maid as interesting as the version performed by Dwight Frye, which is more dementedly focused as he comes from the back of the shot to the front, rather than what Renfield does in the Spanish version, which just has him crawling in from the right hand side of the frame.
There also seems to be an incredible amount of expository dialogue coming from Van Helsing’s character towards the end of the picture. Much more than the English language version. This is not really a good thing although the ‘hypnotic confrontation’ scene between Van Helsing and Dracula seems a little more elabourate and is intercut with the scene where 'vamped up Eva' is trying to bite Jonathan Harker (or Juan Harker as he is known in this one) and get him to take Van Helsing’s crucifix away from him. Both scenes play out as single scenes in the US daytime shoot version. Likewise, the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with the reflecting box has a much more embellished reaction on the Spanish version of the Count. Bela Lugosi is content to knock the cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hand but Carlos Villarías uses his cane to smash the box from Van Helsing’s hands here.
Another highlight of the different places the directors took their respective versions to includes the final death scene of Renfield. In the Browning version, he is silently strangled to death and then rolls down the big, circular staircase (which would be reused again in films like Frankenstein) to drop off the last bit out of sight behind a chest. In this version, Renfield is screaming as he is half choked to death before being tossed off the same stairs from the top. He’s also not forgotten by Van Helsing as the movie closes, either... his body is still very much visible and the focus of the Professor's attention in the last moments of the film.
A very important difference, to my mind, would be a scene in the Spanish version which follows the story in which we are treated to a conversation between Van Helsing and Juan that makes it quite clear that the former has driven a stake through the resurrected Lucy’s heart. In the US version, her menacing figure is left undealt with by our heroes. So that’s very interesting because one imagines that these scenes were in the script to be filmed by the other crew... they just chose to omit them, for some reason.
The ‘new’ Universal Legacy Dracula Blu Ray collection contains almost all of the extras from the similarly titled US DVD release of over a decade ago. The films look as spectacular as ever and, in the case of Dracula, have a lot of supporting material including film and Universal Horror historian David J. Skaal’s commentary track for the US version, the alternate Glass soundtrack and the Spanish version of the film... although this last item is as annoying as the previously mentioned set as, if your Blu Ray played doesn’t have a subtitle toggle, there are a lot of shenanigans to be performed to get the English subs up for this. It also doesn’t help that, if you pause it for five minutes and the disc’s screensaver kicks in, it resets the default to stop playing the subtitles when you resume. So that’s not good. However, it is a lovely set with these films looking pretty much better than they ever did before. If you’ve never seen the first authorised versions of Dracula before then this Blu Ray set is a great place to start. Not all the films in the interpenetrating sequence are there (you’ll need the Frankenstein and The Wolfman legacy sets for that) but these are relatively inexpensive sets for the amount of content on them and, unlike the previous Universal Legacy versions, also include Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and Abbot and Costello Meet The Mummy on the The Mummy legacy set). It’s a great release and it comes highly recommended from this particular audience member, I can tell you that... give them a go while they’re still out there. Besides, where else can you see a Dracula film where the title character actually has Armadillo’s running around his castle? Not that many, that’s for sure.
Sunday, 29 October 2017
Ragnarok N’ Roll
Thor - Ragnarok
2017 USA Directed by Taika Waititi
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very minor ‘ish’ story spoilers, I suppose.
So here we go again with Thor - Ragnarok. It's yet another, fairly impressive, entry into Marvel’s strand of MCU films (Marvel Cinematic Universe) which all take place in a shared universe and have interlocking characters, themes and situations which build on and support each other. So, essentially, this is yet another sequel to Iron Man, even though Robert Downey Jr’s version of Tony Stark is only mentioned here and doesn’t actually appear in the flesh. Although there have been a few misses along the way... Iron Man 2 and the two Guardians Of The Galaxy films really didn’t do much for me, it has to be said (although I do like the characters in the GOTG films... just not the story ideas surrounding them)... the films are mostly solid and, musical continuity aside, the Marvel films in this sequence seem to have a knack for good casting (both in front of and behind the cameras). This latest installment is no exception to that rule. Sure, it’s certainly not the best of them but it’s definitely somewhere in the upper half of fun Marvel movies, I would say.
The previous two Thor ‘solo’ movies (if you can call this a solo adventure) were different in tone to each other and this third entry again changes the look and feel of the stories. Starting off with Thor imprisoned and talking to the a captive audience abut how he got in this predicament, I at first thought the majority of the running time was going to be one long flashback telling us how Thor got to this point and that the conclusion would lead on from here. Not so, though, and in the first of many surprises, we have a typical James Bondian ‘end of a mission’ moment when Thor talks to a big fiery devil creature and gains an inkling about the duplicity of Loki’s last trick, when it was revealed to the audience but not to Thor that Loki had replaced Zeus and was impersonating him to rule Asgard (at the end of Thor - The Dark World reviewed here). Thor then does battle with the monster and, when he finally gets back to Asgard, uncovers Loki tricksterism (in a nice scene which spoofs Loki’s fake death from Thor - The Dark World). After the two go to find Zeus, played once again by Anthony Hopkins and helped in their quest by a recent addition to the Marvel Universe, they learn that they have an older sister, Hela (played by the wonderful Cate Blanchett), who was banished by Zeus in days gone by. She is the Goddess of Death and she’s pretty powerful.
In a mini showdown, Hela destroy’s Thor’s hammer and, while he and Loki are fleeing to Asgard, she follows them up the Bifrost and both Thor and Loki are thrown from that mode of transport into a random part of the Universe where Thor is taken prisoner by Jeff Goldblum’s ‘Grandmaster’ and forced to fight in the arena against... The Incredible Hulk. However, he has to find a way back to Asgard and so he teams up with Loki, Valkyrie and Hulk/Banner to try to make things right. And that’s the plot set up and that’s all I’m saying about it here... which is pretty much what you can gather from the trailer anyway.
So we have Chris Hemsworth back as Thor and Tom Hiddleston back as Loki and, frankly, the chemistry between them is great. We also have one of my favourite modern actors, Mark Ruffalo, back as Bruce Banner/Hulk and he’s always a fun watch but he’s mostly back as Hulk here, rather than in his human form. The Hulk character has, as you will have seen from the trailers, finally ‘found his voice’, so to speak and is more in keeping with the original comics in this way. I think the character also looks a lot more like Ruffalo here and, maybe I’m wrong here but his head seems to have grown smaller in size too? Seems to have been redesigned. We also have Tessa Thompson who seems miscast, racially, as the blonde haired, Wagnerian styled Valkyrie from the 1970s comics, although I don’t know if she’s been revamped in recent comics like the Nick Fury character was so I might just be showing my age here. Away from the ‘look’ of the character, though, she does do pretty well here and creates an entertaining screen personae but, again, she seems far removed from being The Enchantress as she ‘kinda/also’ was in the early 70s comics.
Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, partaking in some nice heroics and there are also a couple of special cameos here from Sam Neil and Luke ‘brother of Chris’ Hemsworth which provide a great moment when Thor gets back to Asgard. Karl Urban also turns up (although I didn’t actually recognise him, which shows just how good of an actor he is) as a... well he’s definitely someone you have to keep an eye on. He’s not a black and white character by any means, even though he’s still a quick sketch of one... in terms of the film moving at a very fast pace. My favourite new character here, though, was easily a rock creature called Korg who definitely gets all the best laughs in the movie... so I was surprised to learn later that he’d been played by the director, Taika Waititi.
And when I say he got the best laughs...
Thor - Ragnarok shouldn’t really work as well as it does here and this is due to the tone of this one. I mentioned earlier that the previous Thor movies seemed to have a slightly different tone but this one is a complete ‘about face’ to the way in which the characters were presented in the previous Thor adventures. In fact, this one is pretty much written as a comedy all the way through. The scripting pretty much consists of a load of jokes and one liners thrown together and, although a lot of it was apparently improvised on set for this particular film, it really works quite well for most of the time.
Now, you’d think that such an out and out comedy treatment of the subject matter might trivialise the story arc of the ‘big picture’ the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards completing over the next two years but it really doesn’t fall into any of the traps it could have been tripped up with and the tone of the piece never really interferes with the tone and credibility of the established characters (for the most part... I’ll get to my one big complaint in a minute). Furthermore, although comedy is the order of the day in this one, you never really feel like it’s watering down the stakes which are quite high here. It’s also quite edgy in something it does to one of the characters and I realised at one point in the film that one of the scenes used in the trailers must have been shot twice (once with and once without... something) or at least had some heavy CGI work done on it in order to not reveal something which will be a permanent change to one of the regular characters in the MCU.
My one big problem here was the Banner/Hulk character... not in terms of acting but in terms of scripting. For starters, Banner’s few scenes in the movie seem to be really ‘out of character’ to me and it’s like he’s gone completely mad. I understand that after being ‘imprisoned’ in the Hulk’s body for two years the character might return a little dazed and confused but something about the writing here just didn’t seem to ring true to the excellent work Ruffalo has done with Bruce Banner in previous films in the series. Also... and I may be completely wrong about this... but isn’t the continuity completely wrong here. I thought the jet that Hulk used to escape in Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) was found or tracked to a specific place on Earth, although Hulk was not found. Or did I remember that wrong because... that’s not in the back story here. The jet seems to have ended up somewhere completely different and ‘off world’. Also, the character makes reference to having been on another planet other than Earth and the one he’s currently on here and Thor seems to remember this too. Well, I don’t. When the heck did this happen in the intervening movies? So I was finding myself very puzzled during some scenes here.
Also, while I'm on the subject of continuity. If Thor was in a happy relationship with Natalie Portman's character still when he left Earth in Avengers - Age Of Ultron... how can they have had any time to 'split up', as is stated here, when he hasn't been back to Earth since then until a certain scene in this film? That makes no sense. Honestly Marvel, if you find yourself in the position where you have to write a character out because they don't want to do anymore, you could at least make it a little more credible.
However, this is all just minor stuff and, in terms of broad strokes, Thor - Ragnarok is definitely one of the better entries in the MCU. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is nicely done too (although I would have liked to have heard what Brian Tyler might have done with this one) and there’s even a nice musical cameo from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, if I’m not much mistaken. If you’re a fan/follower’/true believer’ of the Marvel movies then you really need to see this... especially since it helps set up (as do they all, I guess), next year’s Avengers - Infinity War. It’s perhaps more married, in terms of the kind of comedy action style it has here, to the two Guardians Of The Galaxy movies but it doesn’t seem to make the same mistakes that those two did (for me) and this one was a much more positive experience. And, like I said, the stakes are high in this one and, by the end of the story, you definitely feel that various things have been changed forever in the wake of this movie. Things which certainly, in some ways, live up to the movie’s subtitle of Ragnarok. My big question of the writers, though, is this... where the heck is Lady Sif these days?
Thursday, 26 October 2017
2017 USA Directed by Dean Devlin
UK cinema release print.
Warning: What the heck... there are some partial spoilers in here.
Wow. Geostorm really is a load of old bobbins.
And I don’t mean bobbins you can re-watch every now and again because it has a certain, good natured quality to it and has a script that revels in it’s bobbinsy nature, winking slyly at the audience in a knowing way. This is the kind of, admittedly slightly entertaining but ultimately not all that interesting variety of bobbins infested movie-making which really isn’t going to stand the test of time and will forever be relegated to that time slot on Boxing Day TV, when everyone is too tired and attempting to digest the festive mixture of Turkey and Christmas Pudding in their gut to be too concerned with anything more taxing than this kind of thing on in the background. This, to me, seems to be Geostorm’s natural place in the world.
The movie features a cast who are all more than up to the meagre challenge this movie provides... okay, so some of the ‘floating around in space - let’s try to copy some of those Gravity moments’ stuff must have been challenging for the actors, to be fair. However, although they all take their roles very seriously and turn in some pretty believable performances... well, they absolutely have to be believable performances with a story and script like this. Geostorm is certainly ambitious, for sure, in a disaster created by ‘a bad guy’ scenario set in Earth’s near future kind of way... but it doesn't really live up to the execution of that ambition in any really enjoyable way.
The plot to Geostorm goes something like this...
In 2019, the Earth is/was ravaged by global storms that left us defenceless against an ever increasing planet that is trying to survive the fallout from global warning etc. Luckily, Jake, played by the always reliable Gerard Butler, has invented a costly weather neutralising system controlled by the International Space Station, effectively throwing a physical net around the earth with numerous ‘weird science’ ballistics that keep our weather calm and as it should be. However, three years after being fired by his little brother Max, the other leading action hero style male protagonist of the movie played by Jim Sturgess, Jake is recruited to go back into space and ‘fix’ the whole satellite net system, a project called Dutch Boy, due to some random weather disasters happening in various countries. However, it soon comes to light that this is not a small series of random cataclysmic malfunctions at all but a bid for global domination (if you take things to their logical conclusion) by the main villain of the piece, who you will spot at least an hour before the reveal, unless you’re somehow ambivalent to the less than subtle intricacies of Hollywood typecasting syndrome.
So it’s Jake in space kicking butt while Max and his secret service agent girlfriend are trying to stay alive on Earth, even though they have to kidnap the president of the United States to get authorisation for Jake to be able to flush a virus out of the system on Dutch Boy. And that’s your basic set up and... it’s all fairly breakneck in its pacing but terribly, terribly clichéd and, even with a semi-interesting car chase through an intensified lightning storm sequence, the movie never gets really great or, even, very good, truth be told. Butler and Sturgess are both fine and so are their supporting cast, including nice turns from Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Adepero Oduye, Ed Harris and Andy Garcia. However, this really doesn’t help with the script and although there are some nice effects shots, the eye candy nature of some of these always seems to be tempered with some spectacularly silly moments such as an ‘it’s okay, the dog’s alright after all’ shot which, frankly, the movie could do without, at least not quite as frequently as it does stuff like this here. It even has a long, protracted ‘goodbye’ scene for Butler as he sacrifices himself to save humanity... only for it not to mean anything five minutes later because... oh look, there was a ‘back door’ escape route off the self destructing space station after all. Ugh!
Also, there’s an immense amount of title dropping in this movie to keep reminding the audience, constantly, that there’s a lot at stake. If Geostorm is the new buzzword in the 'made up pseudo-science section' of the script department here then they certainly found a lot of ways to get it into the dialogue in as conspicuous a way as possible. People keep talking about the damned Geostorm all the time, in case we’ve forgotten where the movie is supposed to be heading. It’s not quite as bad as, most of the time, as “We’d better get a move on or that damned Geostorm wil be geostorming down on us before we can geometricise our geostormingly bad science!” Okay, so that’s not really an actual line of dialogue from this film but... it might just as well have been. Oh and, you know, since this movie is called Geostorm, as we’re being constantly reminded, it would have been nice to actually see the Geostorm happening, rather than have it averted at the eleventh hour to leave the audience wondering when they’re going to get to see the actual manifestation of the much repeated title taking place.
Throughout the running time, I never once felt like the writers were treating their target audience as anything other than super dumb and, really, that goes for the science too. I’m no expert in the scientific realm, not even close but, I can’t help but think that if they’d run a disclaimer on the end of the credits saying “No scientists were seriously harmed during the writing of this screenplay.” then the Scientist Humane Association would be up in arms. Not that there actually is a Scientist Humane Association but, who knows, after watching this thing then people living in the real world may just want to form one.
Okay so, as you can see, I didn’t get a huge amount out of Geostorm. Even cool composer Lorne Balfe’s score to the movie never really seems to give any real lift to the proceedings, which kinda disappointed me. That being said, I just listened to a few sample tracks from the forthcoming CD and they are actually pretty good away from the movie so I’m guessing the score was just mixed too low and the sound effects were burying it in a lot of places. Grabbing great scores to terrible movies is something of a hobby of mine so I may well put this one on my Christmas list.
And that’s really all I’m going to say on this one. Geostorm has some great talent which appears to be completely wasted in what seems to amount as... well... it’s definitely a kids movie, it seems to me. I can’t imagine actual adults out of their teens are going to take much of a liking to this but, like I said, I bet you’re going to be seeing a lot of this one airing on TV stations during public holidays in a few year’s time. Not something I can recommend, in all honesty and... well, it is a disaster movie, for sure but... not necessarily the kind of disaster the producers were hoping for, methinks.
Tuesday, 24 October 2017
Day To Day Dying
Happy Death Day
2017 USA Directed by Christopher Landon
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very mild spoilers to do with the structure of the movie.
Happy Death Day was the first of a cinematic double bill I treated myself to on Saturday... both showing at different cinemas... to feature a score by one of my favourite contemporary composers, Bear McCreary (the second of the two I saw was a pretty important movie called Unrest... and you can read my review of that one here). I hadn’t seen a trailer for this one but, what little I had heard of it would maybe have drawn me towards it by itself... with McCreary’s name attached to it, though, it was something I didn’t want to miss. As it turns out... and much to my surprise, it’s a really cool little thriller.
The film starts off with University student Tree, played really well by Jessica Rothe, as she wakes up in another student’s dormitory room on a different part of the campus. The other student is called Carter (played by Israel Broussard) and he is Tree’s companion, kinda, when things start happening later although, as of that morning, this is the worst situation she wants to be in. And then we see this absolute brat of a student return to her absolutely (for the most part) bratty friends and go through her day, which also happens to be her Birthday and then... as the night wears on... she gets killed by someone wearing a baby mask. And, frankly, I hated the character so much at this point that I was glad that she got killed. The end... except...
The film restarts off with University student Tree as she wakes up in another student’s room on a different part of the campus. What the?
Oh yes... this is basically a remake of Groundhog Day... or at least a movie which totally ‘borrows’ the central premise and transformation of the main character. Tree keeps living through the same day over and over again and, although she changes things, learning from experience each day to take a new approach to the problem at hand, she still manages to get killed each repeated cycle, only to find herself waking up in Carter’s bedroom at the start of the same day again. And, I have to say, it’s a really neat little film because the script is quite well put together and the acting is superb, especially from the main protagonist. In fact, Jessica Rothe, just like Bill Murray’s character in the aforementioned Groundhog Day, convincingly changes for the better as she relives each day, trying to find out the identity of the killer who is ending her life so she can maybe, somehow, break the cycle by surviving and making it through to the next day. Some of the teenage dialogue is a bit repellent at times but I think that’s kinda the point and, by the end of the film, I was certainly rooting for Tree to survive and find out who the killer was. Taking of which...
The identity of the killer is actually something I guessed very early on in the movie. There’s even a big visual clue about two thirds of the way through which, having now watched the trailer retrospectively on YouTube, I’m amazed to find they have even put into the advertising campaign. That being said, I didn’t feel too upset about figuring out who the killer was because, the genius of this thing is that they do something to change your mind about who it is later on, in a fairly long protracted sequence which made me assume I’d been dead wrong all along. In fact, there’s a wonderful sequence near the end of the movie where you think everything is done and dusted and the credits are about to roll and then... the character wakes up with the same day to relive yet again. The big question is why and, when she figures out the answer, the killer is revealed and... okay, so it turned out to be who I thought it was all the way through but I had such fun getting there that I actually didn’t mind.
And it really is a hoot. The idea that the character runs with to find the identity of her killer by sticking close to a different suspect each repeated day to see if she gets killed by someone else is a nice idea and, just as you get used to this, a new crimp in the ‘rules of the game’ is revealed when Tree spends some time in hospital and a new ‘time sensitive’ twist is added into the mix. It’s a good idea to do this too because the film does need some variation to the plot line at some point. Like Groundhog Day, the writer and director put lots of memorable, eye catching moments in the course of Tree’s day to day so she can revisit these little anchor points to help the audience navigate where they are in that time period. Also like Groundhog Day, most of those moments are front loaded to the first part of the day because, each time Tree changes things, she strays from the events of the previous cycle to the point that later stuff doesn't happen for her... apart form her inevitable demise. There’s even a nice, brilliant touch when a reoccurring phenomenon which happens each day is actually used by Tree to give her a tactical advantage over someone who is trying to kill her at one point. I’d been wondering why a certain thing was happening with no story relevance until a specific scene later in the film where the punchline to this particular moment is suddenly thrown into the mix in a pretty cool way. I should have seen that one coming, to be honest but... I didn't so, moving on...
Visually the film is more than competent and, although there are a few little stretches where you’re more or less seeing the same things play out in front of Tree, the film handles the mechanics of the situation (which are never explained, of course) in a visually interesting way. This starts even before the movie and while we’re still on the Universal logo (which is not the Universal logo opening you are expecting) and there’s lots of nice ways of showing the repeats in variations which never get boring. There’s a beautiful shot, for instance (and it’s in the trailer) where Tree gets hit over the head and, as she falls to the ground she just gets relocated in time and space mid-shot to land in bed in the dorm room to begin the next repeated cycle. It’s an amazing little moment and it really made me appreciative of the director (which seemed somehow strange when I found out he was responsible for directing the absolute worst of the Paranormal Activity movies, The Marked Ones).
Bear McCreary’s score is also awesome in this and he really gives the film some lift in all the right places. For instance, on the very first day there’s an obvious moment when you know there’s going to be a jump shock coming.... you are totally prepared for it but, because Bear’s musical stinger is so loud and over the top in its ferocity, you end up jumping out of your skin anyway. Without this score on it, I doubt if I would have even breathed irregularly at this moment. As a stand alone listen... I have no idea but I suspect it will be a fun spin when the CD arrives. At least this one has a CD release, so I’m grateful to the studio for allowing this one out on physical media.
The ending of the film is pretty good and you do get the feeling that Tree has grown and learned from her experiences (no matter that certain consequences of her condition are somewhat swept under the carpet by the end) although, it has to be said, having now heard about the original ending this screened with for preview audiences (who weren’t happy about the film’s last ‘twist of the knife’, so to speak), I would have much preferred the director to have kept the original conclusion to the movie. Also, one slight criticism in a near perfect slasher movie is that the montage sequence, where Tree is dying and crossing off another name on her list after each death is... well, that list wouldn’t exist in that form after the first death so you wouldn’t actually see the names being crossed off one after the other as she goes down the list... especially not with the exact same markings on as the previous version. It would just reset itself to a blank piece of paper at the start of the day. So that’s a bit of a silly error, I would say...
But everything else about this is absolutely right. The film is a very light on gore but it makes up for it with a witty script, great performances, great scoring and there’s even a nice bit of post-modern, meta-textual shenanigans as one of the characters likens Tree’s account of her experiences as being like the movie Groundhog Day... which is a good way to get me on your side if your movie is halfway decent but derivative. Wear your inspirational template on your sleeve like this and you have at least made an attempt to not insult the intelligence of the audience. So knowing winks like that really help.
If you are a fan of American slasher movies and you want something slightly different with glossy production values then Happy Death Day is right up your street. I really don’t care for the genre too much unless it’s maybe directed by Brian De Palma (I much prefer the Italian gialli of the late 1960s to mid-1980s for a more stylish and interesting product) but this one really impressed me and I would thoroughly recommend it. Don’t let this one pass you by.
Sunday, 22 October 2017
2017 UK/USA Directed by Jennifer Brea
UK cinema release print.
The only reason I even know about this new documentary movie is because of one of my favourite composers, Bear McCreary. La La Land records were offering signed copies of his score to a new movie I’ve not seen called Rebel In The Rye and, if you ordered this you also got a free signed copy of his score for Unrest, which I don’t think is available to buy in this format other than if you took advantage of this offer (although I think it might be available digitally, if you are interested in downloads). So a big thank you, somewhat indirectly, to Bear for making me aware of the existence of a film about a condition that I first heard of around a decade ago... because it’s an important thing people should be aware of.
Now, you may be wondering why I haven’t got one of my usual pun titles to kick off this review. Well, believe me, I thought of a few possibles for this one but then, in a mad rush of completely ‘out of character’ thinking... I decided that I didn’t want to make light of a film which is dealing with such an important subject. Believe me, I am not one of ‘those’ kinds of people who think that there are subjects that are not right to make jokes about... everything, as far as I am concerned, is fair game in this context and I think that there are a few reasons why this should be so. However, in the case of this one, I just didn’t want to. It’s not a case of I thought it was particularly wrong to see it in lighter terms... it’s just not something I personally want to do because the stakes need raising on this and I don’t want you to be here reading this if you just happened to like a pun.
Unrest is a documentary written and directed by Jennifer Brea, who suffers quite traumatically, as do many people, with ME aka Myalgic Encephalomyelitis aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s an illness which totally doesn’t exist for many people except... yeah, it really does and you should start taking this seriously because, frankly, it could happen to you and, who knows, the whole human race someday. I first came across this disease because a friend’s husband suffers from the condition. I heard about it through her and then, in my daily life on Twitter, I came across more people with this problem, the symptoms of which are not entirely different to MS, from what I’ve seen. Except it’s quite different and can be even more debilitating to some sufferers, in actual fact... both of these conditions need to be taken very seriously but, at the moment, I believe there’s more funding given to MS because... you know... MS exists and ME doesn’t, right? Wrong!.
Before I say anything further about the film, I just want to relate a short, personal story which really made me realise something about the way people accept the reality of a situation... something which is related to a lot of things in life (especially Mental Health) and which, in my case, will probably seem quite trivial but which I think is a real problem in terms of the way people perceive and believe information. And it’s this... about six months after I first started my full-time job, around 24 years ago, I suffered badly from RSI (repetitive strain injury). Most people didn’t believe in it and it wasn’t until I was sent to an occupational therapist that they realised that, not only was I not faking it, I was actually in quite bad shape. I couldn’t even hold a book open to read and sometimes struggled to hold cutlery for a little while. Luckily, the people at work funded me to treat the problem and, so far, I’ve managed to keep it at bay ever since. It’s never really bothered me again in around 20 years apart from a slight twinge, very rarely. I kinda beat it.
The thing is... people don’t really believe in RSI and... neither did I. Which is the relevant thing here.
I thought it was just a flimsy, psychosomatic condition... until I actually got it for myself. My take away from this was... you don’t necessarily believe in a thing until you’ve experienced the issue first hand. Everybody has had a cold or a stomach ache or a headache so they can empathise and believe in the problem. Not everybody has experienced this kind of thing personally, though... and so there’s always some doubt for a large percentage of the world's population.
And, similarly, I think that’s probably one of the biggest problems with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome)... people just can’t relate to it because everybody can get up out of bed and walk around and so on if they want to, right? Again... wrong.
In this movie, Brea documents, quite unflinchingly and bravely at times, the plight of not having enough energy to even get out of bed for days on end. From her bed, she has conducted interviews with a number of sufferers and, also, the people they rely on, via Skype and social media. What she portrays is an accurate vision of people who are literally 'crashing' because they don’t have the energy to even roll out of bed. Some can’t handle daylight and if, as in the case of the director, they stretch themselves too hard for a very tiny period of time... the consequences are crippling pain and immobility for quite a while. These people see their lives taken from them and, so far, there’s nothing much which can be done about it. And one of the reasons for this is because it’s so hard to get a doctor to make that diagnosis. There’s a certain stigma which seems to have attached itself to it and, as I wasn’t aware of until I saw this documentary... that’s not the worst of it.
I knew about the suicide rate of suffers being high with this and I also knew about the victims of this ravaging condition losing their friends and life partners because of the heavy toll the debilitating effects of this illness has on their companions. In fact, one of the things which the attention these kinds of illnesses sometimes attract is the absence, often, of the effects that this illness is having on the people who are looking after the patients. The burden of responsibility and pressure takes its toll on those on the periphery of the illness too but, Brea’s documentary is a well thought out piece and it also touches a little, especially in terms of her husband, on the weight it has on the people who don’t have the condition but who are living with it indirectly.
However, like I said, this is also stuff I knew about and this... isn’t... all of the story.
I discovered, solely through this film, that people in places like Denmark are being forcibly taken from their homes, sometimes at gunpoint... and sometimes are never allowed to see their family again. In the name of mental health. Seriously, there is some really bad, evil stuff going on out there where government agencies (pretty much, by the looks of it) are taking a hard line at controlling the perception of this condition and dismissing it as anything other than a mental health issue. And a quick google of this phenomenon this morning revealed to me that this shocking news is possibly just the tip of the iceberg and that there are similar things going on in other countries (hello England, America and everyone else... time to wake up and smell the coffee!).
Jennifer Brea’s documentary is sometimes light in tone (such as the sequence in which she tries out various homespun ‘miracle cures’ from around the world wide web) but ultimately, this is a very hard hitting piece of filmmaking which is exactly what it needs to be because people need to start putting pressure on various government institutions to recognise this condition for what it is... something which isn’t ‘in people’s heads’, so to speak, is completely crippling in the kind of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ zombified existence which it induces and something which needs some money pumping into it before the problem get worse (and possibly more wide scale?).
Oh... and as for the element that actually got me there?
The soundtrack turned up in the post and I went on to see if the accompanying movie had any kind of UK release date, expecting it wouldn’t have one. Serendipity struck and I found out that the same week that the score arrived through my letterbox, the film had a few limited screenings in London. So I got lucky and I’m here to tell you something which I merely had to confirm... Bear McCreary’s score is excellent. Never going so far as to ‘musically advise’ you on the tone of the images to the extent where it is spelling things out but nicely appropriate to the subject it is supporting and, as you’d probably expect from an artist like McCreary... a great stand-alone listen, too.
So... Jennifer Brea’s Unrest is a vital piece of cinema. People’s awareness of this subject needs raising and this film, if it’s seen by enough people, may help to do just that. It’s a great piece of work and hats off to Brea for even finding the energy required to put this together, considering most days she is bed ridden. Much recommended by me if you can catch it (I believe it will be available through the normal download channels in a couple of weeks) and I strongly suggest you do so and educate yourself about this. You never know... it could happen to you.
If you want to know more about both the film and how you can help those with this condition, please hit this link to the Unrest movie official homepage https://www.unrest.film/ where, at the very least, you can learn a bit more about how things are and why people should be more concerned. And if you want to see a movie which has obviously been made with great pain and an amazing amount of determination, please check out Unrest.
Thursday, 19 October 2017
In Tents Horror
The Ritual (2017)
2017 UK Directed by David Bruckner
UK cinema release print.
The Ritual is a UK horror movie directed by David Bruckner and based on a novel by Adam Nevill. I’ve not read the book myself but, from what I can see on brief mentions of the plot hook, the whole reason the four friends are going on a hiking trip to Sweden in this movie is either absent in the book or, maybe, a reveal later on. I don’t know which but I expect some major changes have been made... however, it’s clear that I am unqualified to pass any kind of judgement on this in terms of its success as an adaptation so, you know, the usual caveats apply as far as that goes.
As in the trailer, the movie starts off with five friends in a pub but when two of the friends go to an off licence at the request of main protagonist Luke, played here by Rafe Spall, they get into a spot of bother when they accidentally disturb a robbery in progress. Luke hides but is forced to watch his best mate killed while doing nothing himself. 6 months later he and the other three remaining friends of the group, including the annoying Dom played by Sam Troughton (grandson of The Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton) attempt to fulfill what their dead friend Robert (played here by Paul Reid) would have wanted for their annual ‘lads’ trip... a hiking holiday in Sweden. You so know this is going to go wrong... right?
So, yeah, when the weather gets cold the four chums are wanting to get where they’re going on their hike quicker, especially after Dom twists his ankle... so they decide to cut through a big, spooky looking forest and shave some hours off their time. You would think that when they come across a freshly killed animal strung up in a ritualistic pose in a tree, the blood still dripping from its body (I think it was a horse but I’m not 100% certain due to the way the body is arranged), they might want to turn back the way they came but, no, this is a group of lads so the whole thing gets very Blair Witch very quickly... especially when they stumble upon a deserted cabin with strange ritualistic totems and an unnerving atmosphere. When the four awake from some very unusual nightmares, they find themselves strangely compromised and, from then on, everything goes into full-on survival horror mode while they four are whittled down in number as they try to find their way out of the woods before, something, finishes playing with them and killing them off.
And it’s actually very well put together. Maybe not as intensely scary as you might hope but it's certainly very suspenseful in places. The director does some very nice things with the way it’s shot which I really liked. You get the obvious ‘camera looking at the backgrounds of the forest’ so the audience can strain to see whether they can see anything lurking on the peripherals but there’s also some very blatant stuff where he will just point the camera away from the main parts of the shot, into another part of the forest or looking up at the sky and... he will just hold it there and just put these deliberate pauses into the flow of the action. Which is something I thought was quite effective, actually.
Another nice thing that’s done on more than one occasion in the movie is to blend bits of the forest into flashbacks of the main protagonist’s earlier encounter in the newsagent. While there’s certainly a sense that the four friends have had very vivid dreams, you also get a sense that the thing they are up against in this is manipulating their minds while, simultaneously, you get the feeling that Luke’s dead friend Rob is trying to help him survive his experiences from beyond the grave. The director shows this by, as I said, blending the two environments and the people into various bits of the forest, quite unexpectedly, at various points in the narrative. Now I couldn’t work out if this was done as CGI or built practically as sets (it looked good enough that it could have just been created on the sets themselves rather than with ethereal looking computer aided trickery) but it’s very effective and helps give the film another level of surprise to keep you off guard as an audience and thus keep you vulnerable for the next big scary moment... depending on whether you actually felt the film was frightening or not.
So... yeah, there’s also some nicely effective scoring by Ben Lovett which is just the right side of being ‘B-movie over the top’ in places without being too clichéd and with some really relaxing atmospheric textures in it too (alas, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of soundtrack for the release of this one, as yet, which is a shame). And this, coupled with some fine performances from all the actors, a nice reveal on the kinds of people you would expect to meet in the middle of a forest and even a mini King Kong homage (I suspect)... all make for a nicely entertaining, ‘satisfyingly pulpy’ horror movie. However, there is one slightly disappointing thing about the movie and it’s this...
None of the characters are that sympathetic or, honestly, anyone you’d really want to hang out with if they were in your local pub. Especially the main protagonist Luke, who is played brilliantly by Rafe Spall but, he’s not exactly someone who you’d want to get to know. So, all in all, I really didn’t mind if the whole lot of them got killed throughout the course of the movie if I’m being brutally honest and this, for me at any rate, watered down the tension to some extent. You kind of go through the movie expecting Luke to redeem himself and make good on his inaction at the start of the film which ‘possibly’ got his friend killed but, as the story wanders on, although you can see he wants to finally do what’s right, I didn’t get the feeling that he’d made good on his shot at redemption by the time the credits roll. In some ways, it just re-enforces the lack of moral fibre the character exhibits from the start of the film, if you have a think about the way things are left here (which I'm obviously not going to reveal).
Still, for all that, I’d still say go and see The Ritual if you are a fan of horror movies and it’s still playing on a big screen. It’s nicely performed, nicely shot and has a lot going for it as long as you don’t feel you have to like the characters. It’s never going to be the greatest horror movie in the world but there are some nice moments which make it worth taking a look at if you have the time. Not something I’d watch again but highly recommended in terms of the quality of the piece.
Tuesday, 17 October 2017
Professor Marston and
the Wonder Women
2017 USA Directed by Angela Robinson
London Film Festival Sunday 15th October
Okay, so this was my last film of this year’s London Film Festival and I couldn’t have picked a better one. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a truly joyful experience and, also, the timing couldn’t have been better for the producers in terms of following this year's big hit Wonder Woman (reviewed by me here). This is the story of the man who created that iconic character (under the pseudonym Charles Moulton), psychologist Professor William Moulton Marston and the two women in his (and each others) life... his wife, psychologist Elisabeth Marston and their live in lover Olive Byrne.
The film is damn near perfect too.
I knew the movie would have to tackle the Frederic Wertham stuff and it kinda does, in a way... or at least the growing sentiment in America that the relatively new comic book phenomenon was perverted, corrupting and harmful to the children of America (and presumably to the GI’s too since comics were popular with them also). Wertham would be the mascot boy for the terrifying anti-comics crusade to come and so he’s not specifically mentioned here as this movie ends roughly around the time of Marston’s death, which was just a few years early for the full horror of Wertham’s pseudo-psycho babble to take a grip on minds across the country.
However, the growing scare of sensationalist comic books is a perfect place to look back from and writer/director Angela Robinson kicks off the movie with kids collecting unwanted comics in carts as the credits play out before we see Marston looking on at everyone burning comic books and we see an issue of one of the early comics to feature Wonder Woman, perhaps Marston’s most enduring invention, burning up with the rest of them on a bonfire of four colour funnies. We then join Marston defending Wonder Woman to Josette Frank, who was appointed to help National Comics Publications, kinda, self certify before the real storm came later (soon after and decades before they made it official, National Comics branded themselves with the initials of their popular Batman title, Detective Comics, as the now more familiar DC). It’s from this scene, with Frank (played by Connie Britton) asking the hard questions and Marston remembering the relevant parts of this life, that we glimpse the majority of the film in flashback, with constant stops back to the early 1940s when this sequence is happening.
So we have Professor Marston played by Luke Evans and Elisabeth played by Rebecca Hall (who I loved so much in The Awakening - reviewed here - that I thought she should have been heading up a franchise with the character from that movie) giving lectures in Marston’s new psychological theory DISC (which stands for Dominance, Influence, Submission, and Compliance) and taking on a new assistant whom they both, as it happens, want to sleep with... called Olive, played by Bella Heathcote. And we see their story through their personal lens as they build a loving relationship under the same household (mostly) and have various children and struggle with various problems of their specific lifestyle choices versus what is socially acceptable in the 1920s and beyond.
In addition to seeing them discover each other we also see them inventing and testing the lie detector (finally realising the missing ingredient of the ‘false positives’ they are getting by using their possible future (at this stage) relationship in conjunction with it to finally get the correct results. We also see the discovery of illegal pornography as a defining moment in their life and, specifically, Marston’s accidental introduction to the ‘underground’ S&M scene (we all call it BDSM nowadays) including an introduction to bondage via a demonstration the Professor gets set up in the back room of a shop which specialises in... ‘fantasy dress’, shall we say. The bondage demonstrated, first on a model and then on Olive in the showroom is not unlike what we would know a little better these days as ‘shibari’ rope bondage (although the term itself was not, I think, in more common practice, even in Japan, until the 1950s) and this kickstarts another important aspect of Marston and the gals ‘relationship identity’. This is something they already touched upon earlier in the film in a spanking scene in a College ritual and the photographs that Marston later buys to pique the girls’ interest are, he insists, visual representations of his DISC ideas rendered in just four pictures. This later helps give him the idea to inject the same theories into his Wonder Woman character, who would make her first appearance in an issue of All Star Comics before headlining her run in Sensation Comics.
Of course, much is made of the lie detector, the bondage rope and the costume that Olive wears at one point as the early ideas that sparked certain aspects of Wonder Woman (who gets rid of the false words of her enemies with her magic rope of truth and who is constantly getting tied up in the strip during that period). It’s a great story and it’s all laid out from A-Z with Marston finally selling his idea of Suprema The Wonder Woman and writing the stories himself after he and Elisabeth are both fired from their college jobs due to the nature of their relationship with Olive and their various children. This includes a brilliant turn from Oliver Platt as legendary comics publisher M. C. Gaines which is pretty good, with him dumping the name Suprema and going with just the character name which is more familiar to her fans today... Wonder Woman.
And this movie sparkles so much.
The style is quite leisurely with lots of either static or slow moving camera shots which are held for quite reasonable lengths of time to let the performances of the three brilliant leads shine through. The writing is unbelievably witty and sparkly too and it’s a bit like a quick fire 1930s romantic comedy in the way the actors deliver this immensely intelligent dialogue, which juxtaposes nicely with the slower visual style without it clashing - the two things just seem to complement each other perfectly and the movie sings along very quickly. It’s also very funny with some great one liners such as Elisabeth saying something along the lines of “You can’t keep using science to justify the whims of your cock.” That’s probably not the exact quote but it’s not far off and, like many of the humour beats that hit the mark throughout this movie, the audience at the screening I attended were highly appreciative.
The film also has some nice things going on in those shot compositions too. The sorority ritual scene where Marston and his wife get hot and bothered watching Olive spank another student is partially shot from in front of a set of bannisters which partly obscures their features while allowing you to easily glimpse the mood being put through in their performance and it’s a really nice moment. Another really great thing is the deep focus photography used on some of the shots of the rope where Elisabeth ties up Olive in the shop and the texture of the rope is sharp in places where everything else in the shot is blurred out like an old Hollywood, ‘vaseline on the lens’ shot. It’s stuff like this which really gets into your eyeballs, coupled with the dazzling script and the superb acting from all the leads here.
I was a bit worried that the movie wouldn’t be able to legally use images of Wonder Woman due to rights issues but there seems to be no such problems here and there’s even a montage sequence (or two) with various comic panels from the strip set to the music of the famous jazz standard Big Noise from Winnetka, which I suspect might have been inspired by a similar musically charged montage with the same piece from the film Comic Book Confidential. Wherever that idea came from, it works just fine here and this is not to undercut the brilliance of Tom Howe’s wonderful score for the movie either (which I shall be picking up on CD as soon as I can get my hands on it after the release date).
The film ends with the time honoured, various facts about ‘what happened next’ in the lives of the three central protagonists and then the credits roll with photos of the real life William, Elisabeth and Olive... which really hits home, actually, just how glamourous the movie versions of the characters are in comparison to the people that inspired it. Although that’s a discussion for a different time, methinks.
All in all, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women is easily one of the best movies of 2017 and I can’t wait to see this one again when it gets a November release in the UK (and also buy the Blu Ray when it comes out). Don’t be on the fence about this one if you like cinema and also like to see a good, romantic yarn with humour, sadness and poignancy in spades. As far as writer/director Angela Robinson goes with this movie, I shall quote another movie from this year taking everyone’s famous amazonian superhero as it’s subject matter and just say... “You should be very proud.”
Monday, 16 October 2017
The Vay Ve Ver
2017 Spain Directed by Paco Plaza
London Film Festival Monday 15th October
So the fourth of my 2017 London Film Festival screenings was Verónica, a new film directed by Paco Plaza, who was the co-director of the first two excellent [REC•] movies and solo director of the third of the four (which I personally thought was slightly less successful when it jettisoned the ‘found footage’ first person POV style of filmmaking a little way into the running time). The film is purported (according to the various captions at the start and end of the movie... more on those later) to be inspired by the unknown events which build up to the lead detective of a police team arriving at a potential ‘crime scene’ and going on to file the first official report in Spanish history to go on record saying the investigating team were a witness to paranormal activity. Now, I’d kinda like to believe that’s true and several sources on the internet seem to be taking that claim as fact but... I can’t find anything on the real story on the internet either so... not 100% sure I’d take that with anything less than a pinch of salt but, on the other hand, just because I can’t find anything about it in English on the internet, doesn’t mean to say there’s not loads about it in Spanish, I guess.
Now I’ve got a lot of respect for this director because, a number of years ago now, he did something with that first [REC•] film that I really wasn’t expecting from anyone. That is, he took the zombie genre (well, not quite zombies but close enough) and made it frightening again. Well, I say again but I’m not really certain the zombie genre ever really was that frightening, to be honest and... yeah, he made a zombie film which was genuinely scary, rather than just being another ‘body count’ movie. So that was good.
Here he takes the ‘demonic thing summoned by people messing around with a Ouija board’ genre and, although I have to say that he didn’t really succeed in making this film in any way scary, he did make a really fun film which hits up on all the genre clichés and which had some good one liners in it... which, I’m happy to say, had the audience laughing out loud.
Set in the early 1990s, the film has a strong opening which is very similar to the ‘journey to the apartment block in the original [REC•] in that it seems to be shot first person and it’s a rush of chaos as the police respond to the panicked phone call for urgent help, which you hear on the soundtrack as their vehicles rush through the streets to their destination. The lead detective bursts in and we see a shot of the title character, played astonishingly believably by actress Sandra Escacena, her face in close up, head bent back as she screams... except it’s not a scream, it is a yawn and the soundtrack bleeds off to reveal that this is her waking up one morning, three days earlier.
It’s a nice transitional shot and what Plaza does here, since it’s obvious he’s using this ‘documentary style’ opening as a framing device, is tell you that, as an audience you’re going to have to survive three nights of paranormal scare tactics before you catch up to that bookend sequence. And he doesn’t lose any time in setting up the story. Veronica is the oldest of her three siblings - two sisters and one brother - and she has to get them, and herself, ready for school each day because her mother works truly unsociable hours in a nearby cafe. However, Veronica misses her dead father and wants to attempt to communicate with him so, while all the rest of the children and staff of the convent school which they go to are up on the roof watching the eclipse, Veronica and two friends go to a kind of abandoned basement to have a ‘Ouija session’. Now, even my own mother instilled in me, from an early age, not to mess around with those things based on her own experience of one and, right enough, in best movieland tradition, things start going wrong for Veronica right from the start and she lets in some kind of demonic presence to do all the usual horror movie clichés for the rest of the movie.
As I said earlier, the film is not breaking any original ground here but it is nice to have a pulpy horror yarn which is as entertaining as this one. It feels like one of those ‘comfort horror’ movies you can watch when you’re on your own and, helpfully, all the main actors, mostly children, are all very good in this. We also get a nicely spooky turn from Consuelo Trujillo as the blind nun who seems to be able to watch what’s going on anyway (she even watches the eclipse without the use of her eyes) and who is nicknamed by the students as Sister Death. She, alone, of all the adults in the story, can see that a demonic entity is walking with Veronica and she’s a great character. There’s a nice throwaway line here as one of the other nuns guides her out of the basement which neither Veronica or Sister Death should be in and Death says something along the lines of... “You can find the answers in the book!” To which the other nun adds, “There. You see what good advice she gives?”... which got another big laugh from the audience, I can tell you.
There’s some nice photography involved such as shots of the stars stuck onto the ceiling of Veronica’s bedroom superimposed over what else is going on and the camera does the usual roving around Veronica’s apartment to make the audience look for things in the background, which seems to be a common element of contemporary horror films. Like I said, Plaza’s not exactly reinventing the wheel here but he is, at least, making sure that wheel is a well oiled piece of machinery. Enough to get you to the end destination in style.
And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about Verónica. The characters are sympathetic and you really don’t want to see anything bad happen to them. There are a few jump scares, some of which did somehow manage to catch out some of the audience and the bookend sequence at the end continues Plaza’s preoccupation with the documentary feel of the piece with... allegedly... the actual, real life photographs of the aftermath of the 'event' in the apartment that inspired this movie used as accompanying illustrations on the end credits. I didn’t realise that until afterwards because, to me, the pictures looked just the same as the environments in which the film takes place so... good job to whoever did that, I guess. At the end of the day, though, inspired by real life or not, scary or not, the film is a solidly entertaining horror tale and there’s always room for that. It’s certainly more interesting than a lot of the ‘teen horror’ tales which have been doing the rounds just lately so... maybe take a look at this one if it gets any kind of cinema release in your country.
Sunday, 15 October 2017
We’re Stalking In The Air...
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
UK cinema release print.
The Snowman is set and shot in Norway... being, in some ways, an example of what is popularly becoming known as Nordic Noir. It’s based on a novel by Norweigan writer Jo Nesbø and I saw another, quite good movie based on a novel by him a few years back called Headhunters (reviewed here). This one... well it’s not so good, to be honest... although it does have a nice visual quirk that makes it kinda interesting at times. The trailer was pretty good, however (better than the film and I’ll come back to the trailer) and, since the movie stars the always brilliant Michael Fassbender, this was one of the movies I was looking forward to seeing this winter.
That being said, I’ve read or heard of reviews which have been tearing this to pieces, saying that the movie is incoherent and makes no sense. Well, that one I can certainly put to rest and say that, yes, the movie is certainly coherent and, yes, it makes complete sense... to the point where the identity of the killer might be fairly obvious to the audience, alas. However, to some of the more ‘high profile’ newspaper reviewers of this film I would say that they should maybe concentrate more on what is said when people open their mouths to talk as, you know, the storyline and connections made in this really aren’t rocket science. Or, you know, familiarise yourself with the language of cinema by maybe going out and watching more films... if you really are finding this stuff confusing.
However, what this film does suffer from, I would say, is a lack of on-screen content to allow for the more leisurely pacing that the director brings to this. I’ll get back to that in a minute but I’ll talk about some of the positive things in this first.
The number one positive is the acting in this is all nicely done. Not many duds here. Fassbender’s portrayal of Nesbø regular Harry Hole is pretty great and even though not everything is spelled out for us, we get a real sense that there’s an interesting history to this character (this is a number of books into the series, apparently, so I’m sure there certainly is). The character is pretty much on the rocks, drinking and trying to cope with, at the very least, being dumped by his girlfriend but still maintaining a friendship with her son and also, to an extent, with the son’s ‘new dad’. The way Fassbender plays him shows everything with his body language... you get the feeling that this man is completely out of shape but that he once used to be a brilliant detective and his previous career is briefly alluded to by his new partner, played pretty nicely by Rebecca Ferguson. They’re both ably backed up by an incredible bunch of actors including Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer (playing someone who you totally wouldn’t expect Val Kilmer to be playing and making it very different to some of his other work), J. K. Simmons (ditto, he’s certainly not typecasting himself here), Toby Jones and the always utterly compelling Charlotte Gainsbourg as Harry’s friendly ex-girlfriend Rakel.
And the story beats are good too. Once you get into the idea that the scenes with Val Kilmer are flashbacks and slowly start to sew them together in your head with the case Harry is working on, the more sense they make. I did not see the relationship between Kilmer and one of the characters in the modern timeline until it was pretty much revealed, so that’s a good thing. However, this also leads me onto some of the bad stuff like... no matter how stupidly coincidental all of the puzzle pieces are when they fit together, the unlikeliness of them does not detract you from being able to spot the killer a good long while before that identity is made known. So that’s not so good.
Another bad thing is that, when we have the final denouement between Harry and the killer, Harry is competely powerless to do anything much and the demise of said killer is competely coincidental. A serendipitous moment which seems really stupid... ironically poetic given the film’s pre-credit sequence, sure but... yeah, it’s not the smartest ending it could have had. It probably works much better, I suspect, in a novel than it does for an audience when confronted with the irony in a visual manner but, there you go.
Back to my thing about pacing versus content. Yeah, it feels like the film is being rushed and severely edited. For such languid pacing I would have expected something more like a three hour film which takes its time to build up more depth to the characters and the causes of the story they find themselves in. This seems a bit choppy and... this kinda makes sense actually, in terms of the end result. It wasn’t until I was leaving the cinema that I realised that there were a lot more things happening in the trailer than you actually see in the final release print of the movie. So... I might be wrong here but... I suspect the studio shortened it to tighten it somehow when, quite possibly, it would have worked much better as a longer piece. I obviously can’t ever do more than guess at that one but... that’s my very best guess.
Like I said though... some nice things too.
One of them being the director's seeming visual obsession of people looking at things through windows. Most of the characters seem to be constantly putting themselves in situations where they are either outside and showing the audience what’s going on from looking in through a window into a scene or, the reverse... where something’s going on outside and the audience are looking at a character looking outside the window. It’s a really bizarre thing because I’ve not noticed anyone doing this kind of thing quite so often in a movie before and it became fairly amusing waiting for the next ‘through the glass’ shot to pop up.
Also, the murders themselves are quite inventively grizzly. They mostly involve people being cut up into pieces with decapitation clearly a favourite of the killer. The antagonist’s trademark is to build a snowman nearby and, quite often he will either leave a snowman’s head in the bloody neck stump of his victim or, vice versa, plop the victims head onto the body of one of his snowmen. So some interestingly gruesome visuals in this thing, for sure, although the director plumps to not focus on them for very long. There’s a nice moment when someone’s head is blown clean off with a shotgun, too, which is not telegraphed in any fashion and comes as a surprise. So some interesting artistic decisions made around violence and its aftermath in this film, I would say.
And finally we have Marco Beltrami’s excellent score which nicely captures the languid pacing in the way Harry Hole proceeds about his daily life. It kinda sounds like a spy movie score from the mid to late 1970s in its tone at some points. Not as strident or highly stylised as, say, a John Barry score from that era and more like the kind of ‘softer but definitely a distant cousin’ of that kind of cold war music that you were getting a decade later. It’s a good one and I’m pleased that the score is scheduled to get a proper CD release later in the month. Looking forward to giving this one a few spins away from the movie.
So there you have it. The Snowman is not the terrible movie that some of the critics have been saying, I think but... it is quite disappointing in that it’s not a great movie either. Fassbender and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvellous in these characters and I’d like to see them both return to play them again. Alas, I suspect the box office on this one won’t be so great either so I suspect that’s not a prospect I can look forward to in the near future. This one isn’t essential viewing but it’s okay if there’s nothing else on at your local that you want to see. Maybe give it a go.
Saturday, 14 October 2017
My look at the role and definition of the constant companions of literary heroes for Wordsworth Editions can be found here... http://wordsworth-editions.com/blog/great-expositions
Thanks very much for reading and thanks, as always, to Wordsworth for having me.
Thursday, 12 October 2017
2017 USA Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
UK cinema release print.
Warning: One mild spoiler in here.
Well, my first reaction to hearing that there was a remake of Flatliners was... why?
The original 1990 movie starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon was a bit of a classic for my generation... although I honestly can’t remember too much about it now (might have to pick up a Blu Ray at some point so I can rewatch and review it here). I know I was fairly passionate about it, like a lot of people I knew and... I think I went to see it about three times at the cinema on its initial release. That being said, after one more watch a few years later on VHS (the cinema to home video release delay in those days was somewhere between 3-5 years... youngsters don’t realise how lucky they are right now) I kind of forgot about it until, pretty much, I heard the news of the remake/reboot/sequel. And even after seeing it I’m still not quite sure which of those it is... pick one.
I wasn’t rushing out to see this but I did quite like the trailer for the new one and I always quite enjoy Ellen Page as an actress so... I thought I might as well give it a go. I’ve got nothing much against remakes... after all, some of the, arguably, best versions of films are remakes (such as the Humphrey Bogart remake of The Maltese Falcon or the Charlton Heston remake of Ben Hur - reviewed here). I decided to go and enjoy it for what it was and not be too judgemental. I wasn’t sure how different it could be, though, being as the plot on the trailer looked like it was following the original movie fairly closely, aside from character names and a more equal mix of male and female characters.
It has to be said that this new version of Flatliners is actually pretty good although, to be honest, there really isn’t a heck of a lot that’s been changed from the original story. It’s still about a bunch of med students, one of whom craves to see what happens on ‘the other side’ in the afterlife. In this case, it’s Ellen Page’s character Courtney who instigates things, pulling together a small team to help her chart her brain while she’s ‘flatlining’ and making sure someone qualified enough is there to restart her heart after she’s been dead for a minute. In this case the character is motivated by guilt over something that’s happened to her in her past and she wants to see someone again.
Like the original film, once she’s flatlined and walked about in an eerily shot dream world, the majority of the others want to have a go too... especially when they see Courtney’s brain power increase to enable her to do way more than you would imagine she could in such a short space of time. However, like the original, their journeys into another realm within themselves starts to bring ‘anomolies’ to haunt their waking hours and try to kill them unless a certain set of conditions relating to shady secrets from their past are fulfilled. From then on the film becomes more of a horror film for the remainder of the time... or at least as much as it can be for a kid friendly movie (I’m amazed this got a 15 rating in the UK... this is PG material, surely?).
And, surprisingly, I actually found myself liking it a heck of a lot more than I thought I would. The ensemble of actors are pretty good, especially Page and Diego Luna, who does a pretty good job in the only movie I’ve seen him in other than Rogue One (reviewed here). Give this man some solid lead roles! I also thought the set dressing and choice of compositions around these, quite detailed atmospheres created for the story were all pretty good too. Perhaps more so than the original in some ways although, as I mentioned above, this film sticks to that template very closely, with most of the broad strokes being a repeat performance and mainly just the details of the ‘misdeeds’ of the various protagonists being changed this time around.
Having said that... and this was a bit of a surprise moment for me, hence the spoiler warning... one of the five does die in the film and the rest of the gang doesn’t manage to bring said character back from the dead. This leads, of course, to that character’s inevitable return appearance on ‘the other side’ near the end but that’s okay, it’s a logical progression and it helps move the story forward when this happens. Another difference is that one of the five, the more responsible one of the group, doesn’t flatline at all in this version... which I thought was kinda odd but also interesting.
Now there seems to have been some confusion around whether this is a remake of... or a sequel to... the original Flatliners. Not least confused by this, it seems to me, was Kiefer Sutherland who told interviewers that he would be reprising his role from the first one in this film. Sutherland is in two scenes in this and, although the character name is different, it does seem a natural progression of the character (including a prop I noticed which rang a vague bell... but I’d have to look at the original again before I can confirm that particular something). My understanding is that there was a scene shot for this which revealed that, despite the name change, Sutherland was indeed revealed to be playing the same character and I’ve read that this scene might resurface in a slightly longer cut when it gets released on DVD and Blu Ray. Which will be interesting if it does because, frankly, the fact that a group of medical students playing God in the same way that another group of students did decades before is an interesting touch (I also liked that they got the famous line from the original... “Today is a good day to die.” into the screenplay, this time said by James Norton).
One of the things I do remember about the first version of Flatliners was that it kinda peaked about three quarters of the way through the movie and didn’t really recover after the point where it turned into more of a horror movie. Although this new one is only five minutes shorter than the 1990 one, I did think the pacing and interest on this was a lot tighter... it never gets dull and that can only be a good thing. The ending of this is a little better too. Where the first film ended, if memory serves, with a last minute rescue of one of the five from the jaws of death, this movie ends with a much more haunting epilogue involving a specific tune played on a piano which is a little memento of one of the characters thrown from the spirit world... which slightly contradicts any possibility that the way the brain is changed by death is the key to the various phenomena the group are experiencing but it is kind of a fun nod, it has to be said.
All in all, I wouldn’t say the new Flatliners is any better than the 1990 classic but, then again, I wouldn’t say it’s any worse either and there are some definite improvements to the pacing which counts for a lot. Not a film I feel I could revisit that often but certainly nowhere near the disappointment I was expecting from it. Maybe give it a go if you are not too particularly attached to the first movie and, even then, you might still find that you can appreciate this one.