Thursday, 19 September 2019
Quite A Mess And The Pitt
Directed by James Gray
UK cinema release print.
This movie has been getting some good word of mouth on Twitter and I have to say that, while it falls just slightly short of being an all time classic, Ad Astra is definitely one of the best films of the year. I have some reservations about it... or one anyway... and I’ll get to that a little later but this one is quite the spectacle. I was somewhat put off that people had been comparing this to the absolute brilliance of 2001 - A Space Odyssey (reviewed here) but I have to say that, in a way, they’re right. There are a few little shots scattered around here and there which, if you know Kubrick’s film well, you'll realise are pretty much done in homage, I think, to 2001... although shot in a totally different way of course. But, yeah, there are some direct references back to the look, or at least content, of certain moments in that.
What I haven’t seen mentioned as yet, although, I’m pretty sure I will be seeing a lot of this commentary fairly soon, is the film’s striking resemblance in terms of tone and narrative structure to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This is something I really wasn’t expecting but by about 20 minutes into the movie I realised that this was definitely part of the vibe the writer/director was going for here.
The set up of the film is very close to the Coppola movie (and presumably Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness too, although it’s been so many decades since I read it that I can barely remember it). In the near future and after the start of a series of bursts of antimatter pulses originating from somewhere near Neptune, which almost kills main protagonist Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) during the film’s opening sequences, Roy is sent on a mission hopping from Earth... to the Moon... to Mars and then on to Neptune. His father who was said to have died in space decades before, working on something called the Lima Project near Neptune is, it turns out, suspected of being very much alive and probably gone insane. He is the prime suspect for directing these bursts that drain all power from their target and he needs to be dealt with as swiftly as possible, before the bursts get stronger and destroy everything in the universe. So he is obviously set up as the ‘Colonel Kurtz’ figure of the movie and the film is about Roy’s journey, including speculative voice-over narrative which helps bring the Apocalypse Now vibe into the mix, to try and get to his father and stop whatever is going on. Things are quite a mess up there.
Brad Pitt in this is very strong and I don’t know why I’m always so surprised when I see him turn in a good performance. After all, he’s done some great work in pictures like Inglourious Basterds and World War Z, not to mention his absolutely stunning job in Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. This film gives him some good stuff to work with, playing an almost machine-like character who is nearly always in control and who doesn’t get an accelerated heartbeat, even in times of crisis. Pitt shows the slight flaws and cracks in his character’s approach to life and he gives some nice, subtle shading to a role which could quite easily been a much more clinical, cypher of a part in the hands of certain other actors.
He’s joined by big, acting war horse names like Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones... plus some really interesting, more contemporary performers such as Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler. Between them all, they and their supporting cast do a terrific job here.
The special effects, quality of the set and prop design and just the overall mise en scène of the thing in general is all absolutely brilliant too and, even though there are a few concepts which threaten to enter more ‘fantasy’ rather than hard sci-fi territory on occasion, this ‘near future’ tale all seems very believable and relatable. It’s got a nice slow pacing but that’s kind of deceptive because there’s a lot of information flying around which has a progressive, emotional effect on the viewer.
For instance, when Donald Sutherland’s character exits the movie fairly early on, he leaves Roy with previously unseen information about the ‘top secret’ mission he’s on and, after this is revealed to both him and the audience, it makes one constantly ‘on the lookout’ for any life threatening situations which could covertly sneak up on the main protagonist and take him... and the audience, by surprise. So, a lot of the suspense comes... not from the actual situations and incidents depicted themselves (although there are some very intense moments, to be fair) but from the expectation that anything or anyone could be about to sabotage that mission and threaten its success in the most terminal fashion.
There’s also... and it’s a very delicate tightrope to walk so, hats off to the director for this... a few action sequences scattered throughout the film and, rather than jar against the tone of the piece, they actually complement and lift the plot rather well. So the ‘space buggy pirates’, not to mention the uneasy tension (due to heightened audience paranoia) of what happens when the crew go to check out a distress signal, make for some interesting moments and hugely enjoyable sequences which don’t damage the overall, less speedily paced nature of the beast.
The score by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe is also quite brilliant, managing to be low key and unobtrusive while still giving you an elevating background hit appropriate to the mostly non-action nature of a lot of the story. I’d love to get hold of this on CD but, as of the time of writing this, it just doesn’t seem to be available. Which is a shame because it’s really cool in the film.
Okay, so far so good. It’s a brilliant film but, for this audience member at least, not an all time classic. Why? Well, the ending just feels a little weak. When Roy finally gets himself to Neptune, by ways I won’t reveal here, the state of his dad and the real issue that is causing the pulses are... well... they’re a bit anticlimactic, to be honest. I did feel kind of short changed after such a sense of foreboding had been kept up throughout the movie and, to add insult to injury, the last ten minutes or so just seemed like Hollywood wanting to please audiences by giving a much nicer ending than any of the characters had a right to expect. So there’s that and it’s why, for me, Ad Astra is a great movie but not a classic. Maybe the ending will grow on me when I watch it again (which I certainly will be doing when I grab the Blu Ray) but, for now, I was a little deflated by the time I got to the final credits.
Ultimately though, if you like science fiction movies then you’re in for a treat with Ad Astra. Definitely go and see this one on as big a screen as possible because it’s fairly spectacular and, the journey to the home stretch is a really great cinematic experience. Like I said earlier, it’s easily one of the best films of the year and you can count on it being in my year end list when the time comes. Go see it.
Tuesday, 17 September 2019
Every Shade Of Blue
by Linzi Drew-Honey
Matador ISBN: 978-1784625306
I’ve talked about Linzi Drew (aka Linzi Drew-Honey) before on this blog. As well as being a very famous British ‘glamour model’ she also had small roles in various films ad TV shows including work with directors like John Landis (she appears in An American Werewolf In London) and Ken Russell (she appears in a few, if memory serves). I reviewed her long out of print but incredibly illuminating autobiography, Try Everything Once Except Incest And Morris Dancing, here but I had no idea that it would be my honour to meet this thrilling lady in person, earlier in the year when she did a signing at the Camden Film Fair. It was here that I picked up a personalised copy of the first of two (to date) erotic romances which she has written and it is furthermore my pleasure to have very recently read said tome, Every Shade Of Blue. This is surely a title attempting to cash in on the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ market (with a further layer of reference in the title, perhaps, by recalling Linzi’s time as a sexy host of the Electric Blue videos of days long gone). There’s not many, I am sure, more qualified to write about this stuff than Linzi, that’s for sure.
Now, I’m not all that practiced at reviewing (or indeed reading) erotica, having just a few other erotic novels on this blog and this one, well, it took me by surprise. I already knew Linzi could write (see my review of her autobiography) but this novel definitely revels in the pulpy nature of a certain, steamy style of erotic literature and, frankly, this was almost a refreshing change from some of the stuff I’ve read in the past.
The novel is basically about a triangle of the three main ‘players’ of the book... the adventurous divorcee Suzanne which, honestly, I couldn’t help but equate, to a certain extent, with the writer herself and her two ‘rivals’ for love and carnal delights, the ‘good guy’ doctor Sebastian Black and the ‘bad guy’ Angelo.
The writer wastes no time in giving character descriptions which give a sense of just who these people... and their co-stars... are and she does this in the way someone like Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis might do it, by giving lots of descriptions of the details and minutia of the characters lives with products and brands etc being emphasised as a kind of shorthand into the kinds of people they are. So clothes, food, watches etc and the variations of these kinds of items are all highlighted, helping build up a picture of the people who populate the novel. This is very much a literary form of ‘clothes maketh the man’, so to speak and she does this with a good turn of phrase and a certain sincerity which might, in some other writers’ works, seem a little hollow.
The book is very quickfire and easy to read, with each chapter told from the viewpoint of a certain character and with each of these chapter sections titled up, documentary style, with the character’s name and the date in which the action takes place... which gets more important as the story progresses and the timing for the characters gets more crucial to the impetus of the main plot. This also allows the author to cut to the chase a little more rapidly using section signifiers like scene shifts and present scenes with vast swathes of trivia edited out... just like you’d get with a location transition in a movie... which I thought was a useful approach.
The book is full of sex, of course, especially in the first and last quarter of the tale... with some nice and somewhat light hearted phrases to sum up the state of her character’s respective headspaces. So, for instance, in a ‘stealth airplane sex’ sequence near the start of the novel, we get stuff like...
“She was shocked as she felt her nipples harden. Take-offs always thrilled her, but this was so much more.”
Some thrillers have a high body count as bad guys are violently dispatched to increase the excitement and enhance the credibility of the central hero in the milieu in which he finds himself. Similarly, Linzi’s book has a high orgasm count... in fact, the lead heroine had already had a couple before I was even up to page 9. And throughout a lot of the book she finds herself, in the writer’s own words... “awash with orgasm.” Which I thought was a nice turn of phrase but it’s not just the sexual shenanigans that make for some evocative writing. I thought, for instance, that “Ruby studs adorned her ears and she had painted her lips a slash of sticky blood red” was particularly nicely done at invoking a certain eye for colour co-ordinating in the main protagonist while being similarly evocative of a penchant for the almost subliminal invocation of body fluids throughout the course of the story.
As it is, I felt I actually believed in some of the characters somewhat and not just the lead protagonist, who wears clothes made of material that “second-skinned her feminine curves”. I soon found myself suitably in suspense somewhat as the book leads to a climax which isn’t quite written as I’d expected... which is no bad thing, of course. I was a little taken aback that the main villain of the piece was someone who practices a heavy BDSM lifestyle because, frankly, this is as valid a form of sexual expression as any other and so equating it with ‘the bad guy’ wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to read but, there are plenty of recipients who seem to be enjoying certain aspects of this lifestyle in the novel too so I’m not going to make any judgements on this. I don’t think this was necessarily a conscious decision on the part of the writer. Or, if it was, then I’m sure the matter was well considered, hence the enjoyment of said practice with some of the other characters.
That being said, while I believed in the characters, I did come away on several occasions disappointed that both the main male protagonist and antagonist had ridiculously huge amounts more stamina than I do. I couldn’t be performing like they do under similar superhuman circumstances, I’m sure (and not for want of trying, I suspect). However, I did find the book quite credible most of the time and, more importantly, extremely entertaining... if distracting to my daily routine on more than one occasion.
In conclusion, then, if you’re into erotica and want to read a sex soaked tale written by someone who, given her past life experiences, is more than qualified to know what she is talking about, then definitely give Every Shade Of Blue a go. For my part, I find myself looking forward to the next novel in the series, Every Shade Of Black but I am waiting before I purchase said tome to see if Linzi will be doing anymore Camden Film Fairs in the near future as I’d surely like to get the second volume personalised too... not to mention meet the lady again after first seeing her on my TV all those years ago. Fingers crossed I get that opportunity sometime soon then.
Sunday, 15 September 2019
Directed by Stuart Brennan
UK cinema release print.
Wolf is written by Stuart Brennan and George McCluskey, who both play main parts in this film... and it’s directed by Brennan. It’s one of those movies which, even before you get to the cinema, presents you with a puzzle. That puzzle being... how in heck did anyone manage to make a movie with the premise, Roman legionnaires versus Werewolves in Scotland, without it getting any kind of promotional publicity at all. I mean come on... Romans VS Werewolves (which would have been a better title, by the way) is something everyone is going to want to watch, right? This film, however, wasn’t even a blip on my radar until I looked up what was on at the cinema over the weekend and found it listed as opening the next day. I promptly went to one of the only ‘two performances per day’ screenings and asked the one fellow audience member I encountered if he’d seen any promotion for this and he basically repeated to me my own feelings on it. That being, ‘nope, only found out by looking up cinema times’ and ‘they had me at werewolf’. So there you go.
And then the film, which isn’t half bad, by the way, started playing and, right away, the mystery of the lack of publicity was revealed. That being that this production obviously had very little money to speak of. I can’t seem to find details of the budget on the IMDB for some reason but it becomes obvious that this story of a group of Romans and their scout who are sent from behind the safety of Hadrian’s Wall and into the forest, to track down some missing soldiers supposed to be offering peace with the Picts, was definitely on the micro-budget level when they can’t even afford to show Hadrian’s Wall in the movie. And also, later on, there’s a ‘time lapse’ shot of stars which looks like a badly manipulated slide shot.
So, yeah, I’m guessing there was no money available for a marketing budget and I’m kinda surprised this one didn’t play at FrightFest a few weeks ago... although, power to these people for getting their movie out into cinemas (although it’s not looking like it’s been scheduled for a release in any other country, as yet).
And... it’s one of those films that reveals its lack of facilities while simultaneously making you realise how clever and creative the cast and crew are being in managing to get what they did get up on screen. Let’s look at some of the more positive elements because, frankly, it’s a nicely made movie, despite the lack of funding.
Okay, so the plot is simple but effective, as you slowly see the team of Roman men and women slowly picked off by... ‘things unseen’ for the most part. And, what it lacks in budget, it makes up for with some quite good dialogue. Clichéd, for sure, as the majority of the team bond and villains are singled out by their actions and allegiances but it’s quite effectively written and the cast perform it spectacularly. I loved the way that it really demonstrated how the Romans took their fighting strategies and formations seriously in the face of the enemy. George McCluskey as the leader of the group is very solid and the three main female characters among the cast... played by Adanna Oji, Jennifer Chippindale and the scene stealing Victoria Morrison... are all absolutely wonderful here too. There’s not a bad one in the lot, to be honest but, I’m not going to name check everyone here.
And then there’s the creative way of shooting this. I’ll tell you now, to save disappointment, when I say that the film obviously had a low budget, that stretches to including any werewolf makeup whatsoever, unless you count fangs. The werewolf attacks which punctuate the film at certain points are masterpieces of mis-direction where you feel, rather than see what is going on. So blurry, silhouettes of figures running at speed in the front of the camera with the reactions of the Romans caught in long shot behind them before cutting back to the various human cast and then cutting back out again in short bursts are very much the order of the day here. And lots of hand held camera throughout the movie, of course.
The director has definitely learnt the old school horror trick of 'less is more' which has been with us throughout the history of the genre on screen and which makes even more sense when you don’t have anything really to show or, as in some movies, something really badly designed. When you do finally catch a glimpse of a werewolf they are pretty much just naked people with fangs so... yeah... people gone feral. That being said, although you don’t see any physical transformations in this, the ostentatious vomiting which accompanies the ‘non-transformations’, post-bite, are quite effectively performed and just about manage to carry the weight of the idea for the length of the feature.
There’s even a nice ‘feminist horror’ pitch threaded through the DNA of the movie which is tapped into for the final scenes. This isn’t just a ‘final girl’ movie its... yeah, like I’m going to put spoilers in here. You need to watch this one for yourself because, frankly, these people are going to need your money and I just hope, with skilled craftsmanship like this, given the budget, that they get to make another feature sometime soon.
Also, I can find no details of who actually composed the somewhat synth heavy score for this but it’s actually pretty good also. Lots of cymbals, scraping metal and percussion to emphasis the chaos in the battle sequences and it’s quite appropriate to the film, even though it’s somewhat anachronistic to the period being filmed. As is most historical scoring so, no problems there. It’s also got a kind of strident three note motif which actually kept the melody gong around in my head on the journey home too so... yeah, if I could get a CD of this score it would be nice but I don’t see a release happening in the near future, to be honest.
Other than that, though... what more can I say. It’s obvious that, with a script and premise like this, a much bigger budget could have made Wolf a truly great piece of genre cinema. As it is, the genius of the cast and crew give us something that is more than entertainingly watchable on a more modest scale and which, frankly, deserves a lot more attention than I expect it’s going to get. Sure, some things look a bit unpolished but I was amazed by just how good this did look in places and the enthusiasm for the material by the cast and crew is obvious from what’s caught on screen. If you are in the mood for something a bit different from the majority of films playing in cinemas this week then get yourself down to see Wolf because, frankly, I can’t imagine this one will last more than a week at the cinema and it’s very much worth a watch for fans of horror. Definitely a good candidate for a ‘mates around for drinks and a movie’ all-nighter, if it gets a home video release.
Thursday, 12 September 2019
Knaves All Gazing
Knaves Over Queens
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Harper Voyager ISBN: 9780008283599
Knaves Over Queens is the 27th in the series of editor (and, once upon a time, contributing writer) George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards mosaic novels. It’s an absolutely brilliant series of books and I’ve written numerous reviews of the more recent tomes in the series on this review blog. The stories tell of an alternate historical timeline which splits off from our own after Jetboy fails to stop the release of an alien virus from the planet Takis in the 1940s, known later as the Wild Cards virus. Humanity is changed in the wake of the virus which leaves behind superheroes (known as Aces), hideous malformed freaks (known as Jokers), Knaves (who are a kind of combination of both… Joker Aces if you will), nats (naturals... those left with absolutely no change) and a lot of people who just die when their ‘card turns’ (when the virus finally manifests itself in their body at some point in their lifetime), which is known as ‘drawing the black queen’, naturally.
This new novel, though, is not a continuation of the various characters who have been living in this universe in the more recent of the novels from the last decade or so (this series of books has been going since the 1980s). Instead, this new one goes right back to the times of the very first book of the series but gives us the various interlocking short stories of what was happening in the United Kingdom at the same time. So this is, essentially, a British Wild Cards novel but, even though some of the contributing writers are the same (including the queen of the Wild Cards writers herself, Melinda M. Snodgrass), it perfectly captures the spirit and fluctuating tone of the rest of the series and it’s one of the more interesting of the series I’ve read recently… although they’re pretty much all good, it has to be said.
Now, there’s one thing I suspect the original writers of the Wild Cards series did without considering the consequences of success too much with their very first novel and over the years I’ve come to look at it as a mistake, with the gift of hindsight. And that is the fact that, in that first volume, the writers flew through the decades from the 1940s to what was then the present of the 1980s all in one glorious gulp… so many of the subsequent novels had to be set, more or less, all around the same time. However, having said that, I can’t qualify that as an accident on the latest collection of stories because Knave Over Queens, sadly, does exactly the same thing. There are single stories set one each apiece in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… a few in the 1980s and then onto one or two stories of each of the intervening decades from then until the present decade… and this is a great shame, I feel. Not that it isn’t a lot of fun, for sure but, it would have been nice if some of the new characters and scenarios developed in these wonderful shorts could have been maybe explored in more detail with, say, one decade per novel or some such.
That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt the tome any and it’s as furiously fast paced as some of the best Wild Cards novels. There are, as usual, some rich character ideas and situations so you have some interesting origin stories ranging from what was happening aboard the Queen Mary, stopped from entering New York harbour when the Wild Card virus was first released in the 1940s, an alternate look at the reign of terror perpetrated by The Kray Twins in the 1960s and a heck of a lot of stuff about various ‘terrorist’ groups such as the IRA and the Twisted Fists (who long time readers of the Wild Cards series will certainly remember).
There’s also the usual interesting characters peppered throughout with Alan Turing, for instance, drawing an Ace of sorts and going by the code name Enigma. Or Mick Jagger who, we are told, would sleep with anyone but who is also, in addition to being a pop star, a werewolf. And all this is set in a world where, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Princess Elisabeth drew the black queen and Princess Margaret was crowned queen. A world where Winston Churchill’s ace allowed him to lead an extended life, including a long political life, where he set up The Order Of The Silver Helix… which is the British equivalent of the aces who work secretly for the government. Another character proves himself fairly useful in the ‘Falklands Conflict’ which I remember seeing all over the news in the 1980s.
As usual, the various characters and incidents either connect to or, at the very least, have consequences in other stories in the novel although, like the very first novel all those years ago, it’s less of a single story arc coming together so much as a few story arcs clashing and sustaining the weight of the various mini adventures throughout. So there are three sets of characters who appear at different times or are at least mentioned in a number of, often unconnected stories, who are there to give a little glue to the thing as a whole. One character starts off his adventure from the Queen Mary in the 1940s and is still going strong by the last stories set in contemporary times. Another character, a nasty goddess who weaves a spell of quite gory death as she plays off the various sides of ‘the troubles’ has her own story arc which leaves the novel with a chilling climax rather than anything a little more upbeat. A third character starts off his adventures as a spin writer for the alternate history version of Margaret Thatcher before his card turns and he ends up having to go undercover for Winston Churchill, in order to infiltrate an organisation which will mean something to regular readers of the series. These are all woven into the fabric of the novel and often find themselves on various sides of conflicts going on in various stories.
There are some nice Easter eggs and bonuses for regular readers too. Now my mind is a bit fuzzy on all the characters in the Wild Cards universe I’ve read over the last 30 odd years but I will say that there’s a least one story that took me by surprise, somewhat, as being the origins of a character who occasionally makes some dramatic and violence filled appearances over the years. And, although there are a few crossovers with characters from the earlier novels, there aren’t all that many blatant crossovers (at least not as blatant as the aforementioned Miss. Snodgrass’ wonderful contribution to the novel). There are, however, a fair few mentions (and probably a lot of little cameos I didn’t pick up on) so frequent followers of the series will, as I said earlier, have a richer experience with this particular tome than people who are just jumping on at this point. That being said, I didn’t catch one Croyd Crenson reference in this one but... I guess you can’t have everything.
And, as you might expect from these stories by now, there is a rich variation of the kind of interlocking tales showcased from here… from 1960s London gangland to a Hatton Garden heist by way of John Le Carre style spy stories, pulp horror and even the horrors of war. So if you’re a fan of postmodernist, eclectic tale spinning with a vaguely super-powered tint and, of course, if you’re already an avid reader, then you will want to grab a copy of this one, for sure. Wild Cards - Knave Over Queens is another triumph for the series and I really hope this doesn’t turn out to be the final novel in the sequence. These books are precious jewels of the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres and they deserve to be cherished for generations to come.
Tuesday, 10 September 2019
The Saint Meets The Tiger
USA 1943 Directed by Paul L. Stein
Republic (for RKO) DVD Region 2
Well I do believe my last review of The Saint’s Vacation (which you can find here) did leading man Hugh Sinclair a bit of a disservice... considering he shot this in the same year, 1941. I believe that, although novelist Leslie Charteris could write great dialogue in the novels, we saw from that last one that his screenplay writing skills were a little less entertaining. At least it seems so to me. However, this screenplay wasn’t written by Charteris and it kinda shows. The Saint is much more clever with his words here... just as he is in the books, ironically... and this one is based on the very first full length Saint novel, Meet The Tiger.
Now I read this maybe 35 years ago and remember really loving it (enough to buy a load more from the second hand bookshop I used to frequent after school on Thursday afternoons) but I really can’t remember much of it now, it has to be said. So as an adaptation I’m not sure how it cuts it but I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than the last entry in the series (it was technically still a part of that series... I’ll get to that in a minute) and quite a bit better than a few of the other ones too.
Now The Saint Meets The Tiger was actually shot by RKO, who had been distributing the movies up to this point. However, when it was shot in 1941, they were looking for a replacement for The Saint series (because the rights would be too unnecessarily expensive to renew) and so they created The Falcon series and George Sanders jumped ship and became the title character in the first of the films, The Gay Falcon (which I will review at some point in the, relatively near, future). However, the character, despite being loosely based on some source material, was pretty much turned into a version of The Saint in all but name and Charteris didn’t like this one bit. He sued RKO for ripping off his character and, in the wake of all the legal shenanigans, this film got put on the shelf for a couple of years. When it was finally released in 1943, the British arm of RKO distributed it over here but they cut a deal with Republic Pictures to release it in the US. Despite the DVD I watched of this being an English edition, this one has a US print with the famous Republic logo at the start.
This one is great though. It’s fast paced and, despite still having that completely unsaintly moustache, Hugh Sinclair really makes the part his own here. He has good on screen chemistry with Patricia Holm (The Saint’s girlfriend for a while and who he first meets in this book as he does in this film), played by Jean Gillie... as he does with Wylie Watson as his butler Horace and Clifford Evans as reporter Tidemarsh. And, of course, some great scenes opposite Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, played once again (for a third time, I think it is) by Gordon McLeod... who also seems to make the role his own.
The plot is an intriguing one dealing with a million dollars worth of stolen gold and how to find it and get it away from the arch criminal, The Tiger. Now, the one thing I remember from the novel was that The Tiger was more or less The Saint’s equal. The same kind of intelligence and rationality but with just a little less of the good samaritan about him when it comes to his acts of robbery. The Tiger comes across similarly in the movie and he even stops The Saint from being killed by his minions, wherever possible. You get a real sense of two adversaries sparring from similar backgrounds with this tale and it’s almost a shame when, at the end, the villain of the piece gets his inevitable comeuppance.
The movie starts off strongly with a phone call from a man who needs Simon Templar’s help. When he turns up at his door a few minutes later, he has been knifed and, more or less, dies in The Saint’s arms after dropping a few choice clues as to where he should look to uncover the mystery. So, Templar and his butler make for Cornwall... which is a curious place as represented in the movie. Half the times when the car drives into a street, for instance, it seems clear that they are on a set... other times it’s clear that real location shoots are being used. There’s even a nice mix where some kind of matte painting slide is used to give what is probably a studio set, the impression of cliffs behind sea.
However, all the dotting about between sets and locations doesn’t stop this one being a thrilling ride and when Pat starts helping out Templar after he exposes one of the villains working for The Tiger, just before he can swindle her out of a load of money, she goes all out to help him. We also have an undercover Inspector Teal who even, at one point in the proceedings, actually manages to pull the wool over The Saint’s eyes, for once. Which is kind of refreshing.
All this is helped on by a rather lively set of stock music by various musicians but which sound, it has to be said, very 'Republic' in nature. The score gets very enthusiastic at various points and is not subtle at all but, somehow, it manages to keep it all afloat nicely without making itself sound too silly. The IMDB credits Roy Webb as being in on the music but, certainly on the print I saw, I couldn’t find his Saint theme anywhere... so I’m not 100% sure on this.
This was, almost, the last film in The Saint series that RKO had anything to do with although they did, indeed, distribute the next movie in the US, which saw the return of Louis Hayward who was my favourite version of the character from the very first RKO movie The Saint In New York (which you can find reviewed here). However, that final movie, produced by England’s famous Hammer studios, was not released until 1953 and, amazingly, is still not around on commercial DVD as far as I can see. However, I hope to have a review of this next one up for you very soon. I just hope Hayward was as good in the role after an absence from Simon Templar of 15 years. I’ll be able to tell you the answer to that very soon, I suspect.
Sunday, 8 September 2019
Ghost To Ghost
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone A/B
Pulse was a bit of a mystery for me when I dove into the latest Arrow Blu Ray transfer of the movie from a year or so ago. For one reason... because I'd somehow never really heard of it before (or possibly I just forgot it).
That's a puzzle in itself because, back in the day, I used to be really into the whole j-horror thing. ‘Back in the day’ being when Ringu (the original and pretty much only great version of Ring) hit UK cinemas in the year 2000, two years after its first run release in Japan. It was a scary film and it wasn't too long before I was hooked on cinema releases of great Japanese horror movies such as Ju-On (aka The Grudge), Dark Water and The Eye.
Also, with the old DVD distributor Tartan Video picking up these and a whole host of sequels and close kin to these movies, it was a really great time to be getting into these kinds of celluloid horrors. Of course most, possibly even all, of those movies were destined for US remakes which I quite happily ignored, fairly safe in the knowledge (according to reports) that they were dumbed down, less interesting ‘knock offs’ of the originals.
One such remake, however, was indeed a US reworking of Pulse and so, like I said, a bit of a mystery that I'd never really registered this movie in my consciousness up until this Arrow edition although, it has to be said, I should maybe give the US remake of this one a go sometime in case it actually sheds some light as to what the heck this disjointed film was about, to be honest.
The film starts off with one set of characters who work in a nursery and one of them goes to investigate why a colleague has not turned up for work. After finding him at home but acting very distant, she gets distracted looking for a crucial disk at work and then turns around to find he has hanged himself. She takes the disk to the office and some mostly vague shenanigans occur which are almost but, not quite, spooky.
Then we switch to another set of characters who, to my stupid gaijin eyes, were the same characters I'd already been following except they were suddenly students and not office workers anymore. Once I'd twigged the various character occupations and environments, I found it a little less puzzling to follow what was going on but, honestly, no less penetrable in terms of what the heck was supposed to be unfolding in terms of story content here.
As far as the story goes, it seems to be a tale about people getting turned into ghosts after just having some contact with spirits. The internet is somehow a transmitter (or maybe not, I couldn’t figure it out) and this strange spate of ghostly manifestations seems to have been started by this truly confounding attempt at an origin tale which starts with this guy in a building somehow realising there's something wrong with the electrics? So he uses red sticky tape to seal the edges of all the electrical boxes in a wall but then the place gets demolished and so the electricity, or whatever the heck it is, is free to slowly infect the world.
So... yeah. Anyway, our two sets of main protagonists are slowly whittled down to one male in one group and one female in the other group, as their friends are methodically "ghosted" one by one until only they are left. And not only are they the only ones left in their respective groups within the story but also, when they look around them after a while, it seems they could be the only survivors of their immediate neighbourhood... possibly the world. It's almost like Gojira (aka Godzilla) has been stomping around the country but without anyone seeing him and with no real signs of damage other than the black stain left in the wake of people as they suddenly turn into lonely ghosts. Hmmm... maybe there's a metaphor in there somewhere but I couldn't really be bothered to reflect on it by this point in the movie.
The way the film is put together is kind of a frustrating thing too. The director is, like many directors I've been looking at lately, kind of obsessed with sectioning off parts of the screen to highlight his performers. The way he tends to do it, at least in this movie, is to use overlapping bits of the natural environment, from the flattened viewpoint of the camera, to make squares and rectangles out of the intersections of both horizontal and vertical lines and then to keep his performers in either one place or moving between intersections... quite cleverly with regards to camera movement in some places.The sections where he does this are often quite densely layered too... absolute tangles of gazillions of areas crowded into a single frame on occasion. However, rather than go for the bright kind of colour scheme which would accentuate this in a clean manner, the colour palette looks rather dull for the most part and... well... the whole thing looked just a little grainy and dingy to me. Not what I’d expect to illustrate that kind of penchant for linear detail, for sure. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to look like this and it’s not just a bad transfer... this is Arrow, after all and, although it’s been seen that they are certainly not above making mistakes in some of their restorations, I would have thought that this kind of dulled down look must be a part of the director’s vision, in this instance.
Another thing which seemed a little out of kilter with the visuals was the score in some places, by composer Takefumi Haketa. Not in terms of the quality of the writing on it, by any means but, for some reason, it often kind of enters and exits a scene right in the middle without warning. It seems a little bizarrely spotted and I wonder how much of that process was decided by the composer and how much was messed around with at the editing stage. As I said, it probably wasn’t too bad in and of itself but the way in which it’s used in certain places just felt a little inappropriate to me, in all fairness.
And that’s all the time I’m going to waste on Pulse. I believe it’s regarded by many as something of a j-horror classic but I found that, for the most part, it did nothing much for me. The actors seemed good but the way their characters were written didn’t have me identifying with them, or really caring, truth be told. Not something I’d recommend as a starting point for this sub-genre of film and even fans of these kinds of movies will possibly not get too much out of it, I suspect. Not something I would find myself going back to anytime soon either, it’s safe to say.
Friday, 6 September 2019
Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story
Directed by Alexandra Dean
Just a brief note of a review to give some praise to this film, which had a short theatrical release last year in the UK. Written and directed by Alexandra Dean, Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story is a kind of love letter of a documentary to the once famous Hollywood star and is a culmination, it seems to me, of various people trying to redress the balance of a life once lived where a person's beauty and public personae was a blindfold to the true genius of the individual in question. It also reveals how the US government, it seems, cheated that star out of both reward and recognition for something which was secretly put to good use and which, when one looks at the benefits of just one of her achievements, has been a boon to mankind since the lady in question first put her mind to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.
This documentary starts at her beginning, shortly after Hedy’s birth as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 and highlights the things which helped shape her personality... such as her inventiveness being due to her admiration for her father, who meant a great deal to her. Also, it mentions her experimentation with the effects of her beauty on people and her frequent visits to a local photographer to take various shots of her... many of them ‘arty’ in nature (and by arty, perhaps I also mean revealing). Then the determined pitch to be in movies in her own country which, of course, built up to her infamous nudity and orgasm scenes in Ekstase (1933).
The film also documents her various marriages including her first, to a prince, which was so stifling that she eventually slipped a sleeping draft into one of the maid’s drinks, swiped her clothes and rode off into the night on her bike to avoid discovery as she exited that marriage and then tried to get into motion pictures... at first turning down Louis B. Mayer of MGM’s offer before then hopping onto his ship going back to Hollywood (along with a load of cheaply signed starlets going with him) and ensuring she got herself noticed enough by him that she could almost name any deal she wanted. The film also documents her decline in later years, as the hardworking Hollywood ethos of drugs to keep you awake and then make you sleep, such as what was being done to many of the workers to keep them going (famously, even child actors like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney), took their toll on her personality and her status as a single mother in the 1940s. Not an easy life to live.
And, of course, the film also makes much of her brilliant invention, co-created with composer George Antheil, where she came up with the idea of frequency hopping to stabilise the course of guided torpedos and stop them from being jammed. The military turned the patent down but evidence has since come to light that they were using these ideas on their stuff all the time and, when it was later followed up to get the patent back from the Navy, the word came through that it belonged to them and they could do what they liked with it because, technically, Lamarr was an ‘alien’. This shocking attitude towards somebody who was, by this point, a lady and patriot of America. Someone who had sold unbelievable millions of dollars in war bonds for the American government due to her appearances (something which a lot of movie stars were doing at the time).
The film is presented to us by various people giving commentaries... a few of them famous movie personalities themselves such as Diane Kruger and Mel Brooks. However, the majority of the interview clips are from relations of the lady, such as her son who the film focuses on quite a bit and, surprisingly for a film of this type, from the lady herself as a reporter, who is also in the film a lot, has unearthed a lost, taped interview he conducted with Hedy many decades before and which is used as a complement to the voice-over narrative on the film. So you do hear a lot of her, ‘in her own words’, so to speak, looking back over her life.
The film is pretty interesting and just about varied enough in its execution and enthusiasm not to get dull and to hold the interest throughout. Much is obviously made of her unique invention of ‘frequency hopping’, which is used as the basis for mobile phone technology, bluetooth, satellite navigation etc and all that stuff is really interesting. All that being said, though, we don’t get to hear about many of her other inventions throughout the documentary and I really wanted to know more... although I think the cooling cube which she thought of as a failure due to information she was unaware of about the difference in water between various states, was a pretty cool idea. I mean, she was so often coming up with stuff that her friend Howard Hughes set her up with a miniature version of his own laboratory when she thought up the concept of swept back wings to help make his planes go faster, after doing a bit of research on fish and birds (which is deftly illustrated in this film)... so it would be really nice to see what else she was dreaming up.
Jeremy Bullock and Keegan DeWitt’s score is a little like the music of Philip Glass in its approach and that’s not a bad thing... but everybody seems to be trying to sound like Glass or sometimes Nyman in their documentary movies these days and it seems a shame that this is the only kind of score we are getting for these kinds of things at the moment. That being said, you can’t fault it and I would have quickly plonked down the money for a CD of this thing, had one been available.
Well, I said this was a short review and I wasn’t lying. Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story is extremely entertaining and informative, at least to the point where it whets your appetite and makes you want to go and read one of the books currently available about the lady. On the surface it would seem that this is not the most likely subject for a documentary movie but, once you step back and think about the import of Ms. Lamarr’s contribution and her legacy to the world we live in, it does make you stop and think how long it would have taken for somebody else to come up with the idea. Definitely worth a watch as this lady’s story deserves to be better known.
Wednesday, 4 September 2019
Mazes and Monsters
Stranger Things 2
Okay so... people who read my review of Stranger Things (which can be found here) will know that I... well I didn’t hate it, I was just mostly not impressed with it in any way. Well, all that changed when I finally got access, via a friend, to Series 2 recently. It’s a real change of pace for the show, I felt and it almost feels like the clichés were all gotten out of the way in the first season so we hit the ground running on this one, immediately picking up from the loose end that Will Byer’s was left with ‘something’ from his experiences in the ‘upside down’.
This season won me over very quickly and it was great when you see the montage in the first episode as the four friends (minus Eleven) are seen making preparations for Halloween and go as the lead characters from Ghostbusters. This one felt a little more like the 1980s as I remembered it... in that rose-tinted nostalgia vision we all have for the decades we are growing up in and it was especially nice seeing the kids saving (and stealing) all their money to go down to their local amusement arcade to try and beat the new ‘animated video game’ sensation Dragon’s Lair. For those too young to remember, this was kind of an experimental game using proper cartoon footage which, if I recall correctly, cost about 5 or 10 times more to play than any of the other video games in the arcades, was way too expensive for me to play more than once and... always seemed to have a queue next to it.
Things like this heroic fantasy themed game would be important to those kinds of kids though and I appreciated the nostalgia hit here.
So, onto the plot and... it’s one of those again where you have a few different ends of ‘this season’s problem’ being solved by different sets of regular characters. This one involves a super intelligence, the mind flayer (named after a character from the Dungeons And Dragons manual), who has an army of growing demogorgons (the kids only had one to deal with last season) who are inhabiting an offshoot of the ‘upside down’ which has manifested and grown under the town of Hawkins and who the kids have to find a way of stopping... both helped and hindered by Will Byers, who has the intelligence of the mind flayer sitting inside him, using his mind and body as a host organism. We also have Eleven, who has been secretly living with the Sheriff of Hawkins, who runs off to pursue her own issues and has adventures in the big city, before finally reuniting with everyone at the end of the penultimate episode like the cavalry as she turns up to... if they’re lucky... kick some demogorgon butt by closing down the gateway to the ‘upside down’.
So... lots of things going on and, as you might guess, it’s riddled with loads of 1980s references and even the music, which is usually somewhat inspired by the sound of John Carpenter’s scores anyway, it seems to me, has a couple of moments in Eleven’s big city adventures with her soul sister who also exhibits special powers, where it either goes into a cover version or, more than likely, is straight needle-dropped in from one of my favourite cues from the score to Escape From New York. So, yeah... very much more my kind of thing, this series.
There’s even a new bully character... since the class heavy from last season turned out to be one of the nice guys after all and is now a protector for the main protagonists... and this new guy, who’s sister is the new love interest of one of the kids, is seriously channeling the vibe of Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club, including looking just like him.
And yeah, good acting from all around including Caleb McLaughlin, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder and Noah Schnapp but, also, a couple of new characters played by Sean Astin (presumably here because he was in The Goonies, a film I’ve never seen) and Paul Reiser... who seems to be both channeling and also atoning for his role in James Cameron’s ALIENS here. And talking of the A L I E N universe, there are an awful lot of references to various films in the franchise here... or at least the first two... with a particular Harry Dean Stanton skin shedding scene coming to mind at one point in the narrative.
So yeah, I was all over this one and watched it through fairly quickly... although I’m already a season behind again and am not sure when I’ll get access to the third series. This one also has a kick ass final shot which, more or less, has been seen all over the show in the form of a sketch, as the writers revisit some of the tropes from the first series... such as a new bully character and, instead of Christmas tree lights being used as a communication device, we have gazillions of abstract sketches which, when taped up all over the house, give a map of where the creatures of the ‘upside down’ are living. And tonally it plays out exactly like the first series, with the same ‘will they, won’t they’ romance beats and concerns of the main characters. I was surprised at one of the scenes of bloody aftermath when one of the new characters is feasted on by a few demogorgons because, I dunno, we’d already seen it happen once and for some reason the camera decides to back to the carnage, perhaps to explain to the audience that, yes, this character you all worked so hard to accept and started to like has now been shredded but, I dunno, the style of the content choice on that moment seemed a little out of place here.
Still, other than that, Stranger Things 2 is a much better incarnation of the show and, like the series itself, this review is a little short, I’m afraid. Looking to see how the series progresses now and kind of hoping we don’t just get more of the same in the third one because, yeah, this particular set of manifestations of the ‘upside down’ has been a little done to death now, I think. Check this one out if you have the time to binge.
Sunday, 1 September 2019
The Five - The Untold Lives Of The
Women Killed By Jack The Ripper
by Hallie Rubenhold
Penguin 2019 ISBN: 9780857524485
This is another book which I noticed sailing past me on my twitter timeline, just before its publication earlier in the year and, I have to say, it’s kind of unique in terms of where it exists in the wealth of written material on the unsolved (officially) and notorious murders allegedly committed by one person, Jack The Ripper, in the late 1880s. I say allegedly because of these five victims... Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Marie Jane Kelly... there’s no concrete proof that they all victims of the same person. Although they are generally believed to be but with the way the different districts of the police in those days didn’t cooperate with each other, a lot of the personal testimony that may have thrown light on this matter is, it would seem, lost. Or at least it would appear so to me.
Hallie Rubenhold’s new book, The Five - The Untold Live Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper*, is an important book about Mary, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine and Marie because it gives something of a real biography, in some ways, to their lives and is something which should hopefully be a big stone weight of a tome when it comes to people writing on The Ripper in future and dismissing the majority of these ladies as ‘sex workers’ or ‘prostitutes’. I say dismiss because that is what people sadly seem to do still with women in that profession although, personally, I’ve always had a kind of admiration and respect for the striking characters who choose to commit to that job... as much as any other job.
What I’m trying to say is, The Five is a very special book. Not only because it challenges and cuts through some of the myths about the canonical five victims but also because, actually, it barely mentions Jack The Ripper... which is no bad thing. I probably mention him more in this review, even.
This book is exclusively about these five women and the multiple chapters which make up each of the five sections about their lives only mention their demise briefly in the last page of their individual stories. There is a little more said about Jack himself in the conclusion of the book but nothing which actually glorifies his (or their, depending on your theory) actions and this is totally not about him. Perhaps some of the regular readers of paraphernalia about this dark historic character may be put off by the lack of inclusion of this, admittedly, iconic figure from a book about the victims... where not even the details of their demise or the wounds they received are barely touched upon in an effort to divert attention away from their killer. However, I will say again that this account of the lives they had before they collided with their final fate and fatality is an absolutely essential piece of writing if you want to know more about, not just the ladies in question but also the kind of lives people were leading at that point in history.
Make no mistake, this is an absolutely brilliant book to get to know the milieu in which these five victims lived and struggled to survive in Victorian society... not all of whom were born in this country... so there’s also some background on attitudes prevalent in other countries in the 1800s which is of some interest. And it was a real eye opener to me. I’ve been on a couple of the Ripper Walks around the Whitechapel area and I’ve had a picture built up to me of what it was like to live in those times but this book really adds detail to the experience. Not just about the harsh... very harsh... realities of trying to survive each day in that kind of existence but how the decks were stacked even more against the ‘fairer sex’ of the era and how attitudes of ‘proper behaviour and conduct for a woman’, even in times when it was a struggle just to find somewhere to sleep for the night for many, were a huge impediment to people every day.
That was one of the big eye openers for me when I read this tome... just how much social attitudes against women were flying, often in contradiction to common sense and then the realisation that, as Mrs. Rubenhold makes mention in her conclusion, many of those same attitudes towards women are still with us today, albeit sometimes more subtly and less overtly woven into the fabric of our times.
This book is like a history lesson I never had (for me especially because I never used to pay attention in my history classes at school) and brings me closer to the lives and times of those struggling with the hardship... both for men and women... of everyday living. It also made me aware of some of the skills and talents (creative talents, in one case) of the ladies specific to this account and above all, made me question my own small knowledge of this human blight on Victorian London known by many as ‘Jack’.
Now, I’m going to say that there’s a lot of speculation in this book in some ways but it is minor and mostly in the way of educated deductions more than anything else. You will find a fair few sentences using phrases such as... “x would have” and “it was likely that”... but, despite the streets of London being a little more well lit than I was given to believe in places (I was under the impression that places like Mitre Square were actually pretty much pitch black at night), this all seems to be a pretty common sense set of deductions all around, based on unearthed accounts of the time. And what this leads to is the inevitable conclusion that, with the exception of one or probably two of these five, the victims of Jack The Ripper were not, as I said earlier, ‘working prostitutes’ (not that there would be anything wrong with that if they were, in my book). They were lumped in as such due to sloppy assumptions made by various police investigations of the time and the lack of people coming forward to verify or disprove that over the years has meant that the legend rather than the truth has been printed, to paraphrase a famous western movie that I’ve still never gotten around to watching.
Although probably not all of the facts are obtainable, Rubenhold does an absolutely brilliant job here... not just of piecing together the path of these five ladies’ lives and making them of such interest but, and this is no mean feat, using her own knowledge and experience of the world of art, literature and history to recognise certain connections where they exist and using these as examples to illuminate and embellish the various environments in which these ladies and their lovers and children, mothers and fathers, walked their everyday paths.
My biggest criticism... or bafflement if you like... is one I mentioned to the young lady in Waterstones in Enfield Town when I bought the book back on its release, earlier this year. Why the heck is the dust cover on the beautiful UK edition an inch shorter than the actual height of the book? Was this some kind of artistic statement, flying in the face of good, honest page protection? Was it a printer’s error or a fluke of untamed graphic design? I’m not sure why that’s the way the book is presented but, either way, it certainly doesn’t look unattractive and if the publisher has decided that this is the way a dust cover should be... an ornamental rather than functional beast, then it’s not for me to quibble.
What I will conclude, however, is that between those dust covers lies an absolutely remarkable, entertaining and illuminating piece of well researched work. Wether you are familiar with the crimes purported to be committed by the one guy or not, The Five - The Untold Live Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper is a stunning piece of work and something which deserves to be read and which almost dares future Ripperologoists to not take heed of the important illuminations therein. Easily a book I would recommend to most and, for me, a much needed and appreciated history lesson on the way a certain section of society were living their lives in the 1880s. An essential and gripping work which deserves to be read by many.
*In the US this book is, for some reason, entitled The Five - The Lives Of Jack The Ripper’s Women... which seems somewhat disingenuous to me in regards to what appears to be the intent of the author of this book. It perhaps, though, reflects the difference of our own culture in sharp contrast to certain overseas markets.
Wednesday, 28 August 2019
Run, Rabid, Run
2019 USA Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
World Premiere screening at FrightFest on Monday 26th August
Warning: Some very slight spoilerage here if you’ve not seen Cronenberg’s original.
Wow... just wow. Turns out that the last film I saw at FrightFest this year was also the one that took the cake and really rocked it. And I really wasn’t expecting that. I’d kind of only half appreciated the Soska Sisters’ movie I’d seen prior to this, American Mary (reviewed by me here). I wasn’t all that keen on it and a quick reread of my old review makes me come across as somewhat jaded. So I was quite worried about this film for a couple of reasons.
One thing was the trailer... which really does nothing for me and, I think, almost undersells just how remarkably good this new incarnation inspired by David Cronenberg’s classic (which I recently reviewed here) actually is. I honestly wasn’t sure about shelling out for a ticket for this one on the strength of that but then I remembered the exclusive footage I’d seen from this presented at last year’s Halloween Edition of FrightFest and thinking it was pretty great. And then, of course, I found out The Banana Splits Movie was playing before this and I had to see that (my review of that one is here) and so I figured, what the heck, I’m going to see this new version of Rabid, too.
And I’m so glad I did because, right from the opening shot, the Soska Sisters suckered me into accepting their new take on this even while I was aware of the manipulation tactics they were lovingly employing to make sure the Cronenberg fans were kept on board and happy with what they were doing here. And I mean quite literally the opening shot, which starts off with a leather jacket clad girl standing by her motorcycle... just as Marilyn Chambers did in the original, before panning down and away to reveal that it’s actually a billboard advertisement (shame it wasn’t an ad for Ivory Snow, I guess). We see the main protagonist/antagonist of this movie, Rose (played by Laura Vandervoort) standing by her own modest scooter and looking up at the advertisement before riding off to her job as a staff, fashion designer for a conceited fashion superstar called Gunter (played by Mackenzie Gray).
As she approaches her work area we hear Gunter giving a speech and, again, I suspect this is all about the Soska Sisters wanting to make the Croneneberg fans feel comfortable because he’s talking about ways of remaking oneself... while it also taps nicely into both the body horror theme of the story and the idea of his upcoming ‘Schadenfreude Collection’. So, yeah, it was overt but by this point the idea of being open to a remake was slowly settling in with me. I’m pretty hit and miss on remakes myself... everybody loves the third version of The Maltese Falcon with Bogart, for example but, if you are going to be remaking stuff like Ringu then you’d better watch out, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, over the next few scenes the characters such as Rose’s best friend and model Chelsea (played here by Hanneke Talbot) and the potential boyfriend Dominic (played by Stephen Huszar) are introduced and Rose’s back story is also fleshed out a little before we get into the main first incident which sparks all that follows, which people who know the original will remember is a motorcycle accident and there is a variant of that here. The nice thing about this was that the directors appear in a few cameo scenes at a party and, due to something they are saying in a toilet cubicle, overheard by Rose, they kinda become the catalyst of all that is to follow because Rose is not left in a stable mindset after this scene.
So after this, things run pretty similarly to the original movie in terms of the main plot focus... the accident happens and a new form of living skin graft is applied to what is left of Rose’s grizzly, hollowed out face and torso. And after things take their course we have the craving for blood, spells of amnesia and, of course, the attacks which begin and, as in the original, escalate on their own independently of Rose who is the carrier of a viral, “don’t mess with me big time” version of rabies. And all I will say as to what Rose becomes in this is... well, you remember those little armpit stingers in the original? I was wondering if the directors would run with that concept here or do their own thing as a replacement and, without getting into spoilers, all I am saying is that this film doesn’t do anything small. And I’ll leave that for you to discover.
In terms of how the film plays.... well it’s just beautiful. Vibrant, sometimes almost primary colours and shot set ups with a Bavaesque quality to them which eschew some of the more coldly clinical moments of Cronenbergism while simultaneously enhancing the content of key scenes where a sequence might be washed in a dominant green or red playing in contrast to the preceding scene.
Added to this you’ve got a lot of strong performances in here and in terms of the story and dialogue... well it mostly does the same kinda thing but it reaches its end goals in a way which, I think, is more in tune to the way stories are explored and presented now as opposed to, obviously, the late 1970s. Which is absolutely right for this because... who wants to see a so called remake when it just does exactly the same thing as the original, which is its own entity entirely? This one tries to take the essence of Cronenberg’s ideas but makes it more direct and takes its time more in certain areas and rushes through other bits which don’t seem so important in this vision of the tale. Again, it feels like this was the right way to do this and I think this new version is different enough that it would make for a good cinematic double bill with the first version playing right before it.
And, as I said earlier, this one shouldn’t alienate those who are big Croneneberg fans. There are a lot of visual and textual references to his world scattered throughout. For instance, the surgical gowns in the operating room presided over by... ahem... Dr. William Burroughs (played by Ted Atherton) are a deliberate echo of the surgical gowns worn by Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers... as are the names of the characters played by the Soska Sisters in this, Bev and Ellie. And there are quite a few little nods in this to keep enthusiasts for the work of Mr. C on their toes, such as a shop Santa Claus being gunned down, just like in the original (but for slightly different reasons). One which I’m not 100% sure was deliberate or just me imagining things, is when Dr. Burrough’s wife turns up near the end of the film. I’m skirting around specifics here because of spoilers but the visual look of some of the scenes she is in reminded me somewhat of a reveal right at the end of The Brood. Like I said, though, I’m not sure if that was on purpose or just me getting too near to my bedtime.
Oh... and Claude Foisy’s score works a charm here and is certainly a lot better than the needle dropped tracks on the original Rabid. It’s a shame that this thing isn’t on a CD because I would rush out and buy it (or, you know, my fingers would rush to the internet to grab it) and I’d similarly do the same thing with his score to Pontypool (reviewed here) if it was around on physical media. It’s one of those scores which has moments of great beauty interspersed with an almost industrial grating, ragged style of musical colour and it’s really much more appropriate to this film than what was used in Cronenberg’s original.
If I had one criticism of this version I’d say the ending, which is quite a bit different from the 1977 one, due to the fact that by this point the character of Rose is now quite self aware of what she has become, maybe missed the best part to just stop at. There was a moment near the end where she does something and I thought... “Yes. Good ending! This is precisely what she should do here.” Alas, the scene has a follow up where things are somewhat compromised in terms of how Rose is left and I felt it diluted things a little but, honestly, it’s a very minor criticism of what I shall be proclaiming to people is the Soska’s great masterpiece (with many more to follow, I’m sure) and I can kinda see why this particular ending would also have been a desirable one. It'll grow on me.
Okay... I think I’m drying up on things to say about this because I really need to see it again and study it properly for a few more hits and, alas, it doesn’t come out on Blu Ray here until October... although I think this would have done well as a full cinema release over here, for sure. This is one of the most beautiful looking horror movies made in the last few years and it doesn’t skimp on the gore here either... which is kind of a bonus when it’s done as well as this. Whether you are familiar with the wonderful original version of Rabid or not, this new film deserves your attention. I was, as you can probably tell by now, really bowled over by the Soska Sisters' movie here (who did their Q&A wearing the same dresses as they wear in the film) and I really can’t wait to see where they are going next. Guess it’s about time I ordered their first movie to have a look at on the strength of this one. I’ll try and get that one watched and reviewed sometime next year. Check out Rabid though because... you know... it’s kind of sensational and everything I didn’t think it could be.
Tuesday, 27 August 2019
One Banana, Two Banana,
Three Banana, Gore!
The Banana Splits Movie
2019 USA Directed by Danishka Esterhazy
Screening at FrightFest on Monday 26th August
For the last 35 years or so I’ve wanted to write, draw and publish a series of alternative, adult themed Mr. Men books. So stuff like ‘Mr. Guts Spaghetti’ who can swing across chasms by his intestines or use them as a lasso to round up stray cattle. Or Mr. Sexworthy who... yeah. never mind. The point being that I’ve not actually done this because I don’t have the rights to the Mr. Men books but, the idea of using a children’s format to tell outrageously over the top, so called ‘adult’ stories for laughs has always appealed to me. Therefore, when The Banana Splits Movie became a blip on my radar earlier in the year, I was so interested to see what this was going to be like. Somebody who is able to distort a former children’s property into something completely different and, obviously, who holds the rights to said property.
This film, it would be safe to say, was the main draw of FrightFest for me in this, their 20th Anniversary year. If this wasn’t playing then I’m not sure I would have bothered to grab tickets for any of the other movies in the festival this year but... well, it was so I got a few films in. As it happens, it wasn’t my absolute favourite of the festival (that one will be the subject of my next review) but this one was still pretty cool.
I’ve loved The Banana Splits ever since I used to watch them on TV as a 2 year old around 1970. I always assumed they were repeats but, as it happens, it ran from 1968 for around three years over the course of 31 episodes, so when I first started watching it then the show must have been brand new. Well... I say I loved The Banana Splits but really I just loved the opening credits with that fantastic theme song... the Splits themselves weren’t all that funny (and even looked a little threatening at times). I kept coming back to it though, because I loved the cartoons they used to show during the programme such as Arabian Knights and The Three Musketeers. It was a show that certainly colonised the subconsciousness of all the kids at the time (to paraphrase Wim Wenders famous quote on American culture) and, all in all, memories are fond.
So I couldn’t wait to see this new version of them which has taken the basic characters and turned them into the antagonists of a horror movie. Well... I say horror but, as it turns out, this new movie is more of a sci-fi tinged slasher movie. Also, the Splits have a human co-host on this version called Stevie, played by Richard White, who everybody hates and who is invented for this just to see another unlikable character run afoul of the new version of the gang.
The plot is very simple. On his birthday, young uber-fan Harley (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) is taken on a trip to be part of the studio audience on a film recording on the latest Banana Splits show. He is accompanied by his mum Beth (played by Dani Kind), his ‘not actually a bad brother after all’ sibling called Austin (played by Romeo Carere), one of his classmates, Zoe (played by Maria Nash) and his stepfather, the somewhat ‘villanous if only mummy would realise’ Mitch (played by Steve Lund). Rounding out the main protagonists is a studio tour worker named Paige (played by Naledi Majola) who is the potential love interest for Austin. In this version of reality, The Banana Splits show never stopped running since its inception in 1968 and, also, the Splits themselves are not ‘men in suits’ but ‘robots in suits’, programmed by their inventor who accidentally gives them a new software update which turns them evil. Which is timely because, unknown to most, a new studio head has been promoted and he is pulling the plug on the show. This will be the last recording ever...
But not if the Splits can help it, as they go on a rampage of destruction before, finally, rounding up all the little kiddies and chaining them into their seats to watch a deranged, killer version of the regular show. Meanwhile, Beth, Austin, Paige and a couple of other characters they meet along the way, are trying to get their kids back and then out of their studio... trying to survive the red eyed robot wrath of the splits.
And... it’s actually, despite that synopsis, quite a slow paced film. That being said, the novelty factor alone of seeing the four splits... Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky... getting up to all kinds of hardcore, violent mischief while keeping the whole tone of things surprisingly ‘on brand’ didn’t fail to keep a big smile plastered to my face throughout the whole performance which, with the FrightFest crowd in attendance, was certainly a memorable one as people were laughing at every outrageous kill. This one was well received, I think it would be safe to say.
So yes, if the idea of your childhood TV chums getting up to cute shenanigans like flame throwing someone’s head, pulling someone’s arms and legs out of their sockets or doing the old sawing a person in a cabinet in half trick... only to pull the two halves apart to reveal a pile of intestines plopping out onto the floor... is somewhat heretical to you, then you’re probably better off steering clear of this one.
I, for one, think it’s an interesting experiment and it’s got some lovely shot set ups, some beautiful colours (as you would maybe expect from this subject matter) and some nice one liners in the dialogue too. Plus, the acting is really very good. There’s no tongue-in-cheek sensibility coming from any of the cast and they manage to play it straight throughout the whole movie. Romeo Carere as the older brother seems to be somehow channeling the look and performance of Mike Nesmith from The Monkees, it seemed to me but even that approach seemed to work here. Incidentally, I believe The Banana Splits was always supposed to be a young kids version of The Monkees anyway so, there you go.
And the kids in this film, especially since they’re so young, are absolutely great. I heard one of the audience saying that the thing which absolutely made the movie for her was the screams of the kids as they watch the bloody carnage in front of them, which she found hilarious. I would personally love to see a documentary, 15 years from now, when the various kids in this are finally able to watch the movie they’ve performed in and just see what their reaction is to the various shots which have obviously been cut in around them. It’s quite a bold juxtaposition of gory ultra-violence pitched against the innocence of childhood, for the most part here.
So, this one came out on Blu Ray over here in the UK on the same day as its UK cinematic premiere so, if you want to take a look at this then you can grab one now. Also, I was very pleased to get, like everybody else who attended the FrightFest screening, a free T-shirt to commemorate the movie with its Splits-like catchline... Tra La La Terror. All in all a good time was had by all so you can’t really argue with that. Some people are going to see this film as some kind of blasphemy while others of a certain age will, I suspect, find the concept of this movie interesting. So check this one out if you’ve a mind to. I would quite like to see this trend continue for a bit to see what new children’s programmes they can treat in a similar vein. Like a violent version of Rainbow where Rod, Jane and Freddy are trying to escape the studio before Bungle and Zippy eat them. Or a sexed up version of Pipkins where stud-muffin Hartley Hare has a fling with Octavia the Ostrich?
Anyway, The Banana Splits Movie was time and money well spent at this years FrightFest but, unbeknownst to me, my final FrightFest film, a remake of a well loved classic directed by The Soska Sisters, was what my whole weekend was building towards. And you can read my review of that stunning film as soon as I manage to squeeze in enough lunchtimes to write it... so give it a couple of days.
Monday, 26 August 2019
Madness In The Method
2019 USA Directed by Jason Mewes
screening at FrightFest 24th August 2019.
Okay, so my second feature at this year’s Arrow Fright Fest (now in its 20th year) was a much more positive experience for me than Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary (which I reviewed here).
Madness In The Method is the directorial debut of actor Jason Mewes, who most people would best know as Jay to director Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob. This one was a blast and though I was initially skeptical of this guys ability to helm something like this, given his on and off screen personae and how easy it is to be fooled into thinking the character created by Kevin Smith based on Mewes,,, and Mewes himself... are one and the same, I found myself very pleasantly surprised at how good this was. Of course, since I am already an admirer of the duo in all their big screen appearances (I even forced myself to watch Scream 3 just to catch their cameo), I am part, of a ready made target audience and, although this movie wasn’t written by Jason himself (I suspect he had a fair amount of input in that process, credited or not), it’s actually a kind of mockumentary fantasy written about him.
Right from the outset, fact is blended with fiction as Mewes fills us in on just who he is and charts both his career path with Kevin Smith (done with some nice animated Jay and Silent Bob inserts) and his various trouble with substance abuse in one form or another. We learn about his former trade as a roofer and how tough it was for him growing up etc. And... I suspect it’s one of those films which Hollywood loves where fact and fiction are blended. The film is full of cameos, some as major roles such as Vinnie Jones and others falling somewhere in between that and what is, in this movie, Stan Lee’s final cameo performance. So, for example, both Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, the two title character actors from TV’s Lois And Clark - The New Adventures Of Superman, have recurring roles in this.
It’s a bit like Fellini’s great masterpiece Eight And A Half, only filtered through a young Hollywood vibe.... in terms of the central character, Mewes playing a fictional version of himself who very consciously wants to crawl out from his stoner typecasting in which he finds himself trapped and reading a not so mythical book about Method Acting before ‘really’ getting into the ‘killer’ mindset of his latest role. I should probably also mention Paul Mazursky’s 1970 movie Alex In Wonderland as a kindred spirit to this film also... but I haven’t seen it myself (or I have and it's been so long I've forgotten it) so I’ll just drop that here in passing.
Okay, so this is a film which never gets dull and explores Mewes’ ‘descent into the method’ as he turns from accidental murderer to, by the end of the film, something else entirely. This is not a horror movie rather than a comedy thriller with the emphasis firmly on the comedic (so I don’t know why it’s playing at FrightFest but I’m certainly not complaining) but it is quite impressive and I especially liked the way the film is edited. Mewes calls some nice cuts here and, although it annoyed me at first, there’s good use made of a little, rotating, ball of Mewes’ head bouncing off the sides of his computer on a screensaver which shouts his catchphrase ‘Snootchy Bootchies’ every time it hits a side of the screen, used to punctuate the structure of the film and to show time and location shifts in the narrative... which is, by its nature, quite freestyle.
I also loved the idea that Brian O’ Halloran, who played Dante Hicks in three of the Jay And Silent Bob movies to date, plays himself as a director who is about to direct a large budget, major Hollywood production of Homer’s The Odyssey. It was genuinely nice to see this guy again although he is in a somewhat darker story here. And like I said, this film is full of cameos from the likes of Danny Trejo, Judd Nelson and even Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith. There’s also an interesting performance by a modern character actor (future Elisha Cook Jr in the making?) called Mickey Gooch Jr, who plays a handle-barred moustached detective obsessed by his suspicion that it is, indeed, Mewes who is behind the killings in the movie. He’s pretty good in the movie but he was even better in the Q and A before the movie, regaling the audience with his tales of the production, which is obviously set in LA but had its shooting locations split between LA and Derbyshire, here in the UK. A very entertaining fellow, despite his choice of head gear.
Oddly, Kevin Smith himself comes off as a little of a darker version of what I perceive to be his true life persona here. However, I’m pretty sure this is one of a few deliberate deviations from real life, especially when Mewes and Moobs (Smith) do the lion face, lemon face routine from Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. Also, it’s kind of a dead giveaway that this is definitely portraying a heavily fictionalised scenario bearing in mind the final fate of Vinnie Jones in the movie, which is actually pretty funny, I thought.
So there you have it. Turns out Mr. Mewes can actually direct pretty well, as well as act and, cannily, put together a movie which, in spite of its free form narrative style, holds together very well as a coherent, linear story. Whether it will actually get any kind of physical home media release over here in the UK is anybody’s guess but, if it does, I’ll certainly be shelling out to have another look at Madness In The Method, for sure. So now looking forward to the next film in my 2019 FrightFest experience, The Banana Splits Movie. Review to follow in a couple of days.
Sunday, 25 August 2019
Mary In Haste
Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary
(aka Exterminadores do Além Contra a Loira do Banheiro)
2018 Brazil Directed by Fabrício Bittar
2019 Australia Directed by Daniel Knight
Both screening at FrightFest 24th August 2019.
Okay so, the first feature film I picked out to see at this year’s FrightFest (sponsored by Arrow Video again this time around and celebrating it’s 20th Year) was... well it was a bit of a dud as far as I’m concerned. It had potential and, don’t get me wrong, this so called horror comedy seemed to go down a treat with the FrightFest audience that I saw it with... who seemed to be laughing in all the right places... but in all honesty, I just totally failed to engage with it. However, there was a silver lining in terms of the short film that the programmers had paired it with and which was shown before this one... but I’ll review Troll Bridge towards the bottom of this post.
Okay, so Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary is a terrible mess of a movie and I was really expecting a lot more from it. A lot happens in terms of ‘over the top’ set pieces including a pickled, still-born foetus attack, a basketball bludgeoning and an altercation between a security guard and the demonically possessed excrement he’s just excised from his body. It’s a wild ride in many ways and, on paper this looks like just the kind of film I could normally get behind and which would suit, what a very special person in my life would call, my ‘gnarly brain windings’.
Alas this film, which follows the antics of four ‘Ghostbusters inspired' charlatans (for the most part) who are trying to hit it big with their reality style internet show and who go to investigate a school where the famous ‘Bloody Mary’ legend has taken grip... played by Dani Calabresa, Léo Lins, Danilo Gentili and Murilo Couto... was, for me, just very dull. It shouldn’t have been because it was full of comedy horror action and lashings of practical, gory effects but, ultimately, this failed to connect with me in the way I thought it would.
Now I don’t mind the tonal clash of comedy and horror... that’s a combination which has proved to work really well throughout the history of cinema and mixing these genres can often do pretty well for people. I think here, though, my main problem with the movie was that there was only one character who I could empathise with on any level and, frankly, that person gets killed early on in the film when the character’s head explodes, blood splashing over the faces of this protagonist’s colleagues. The people who have to carry the rest of the film are basically non-likeable idiots who I would steer clear of as best I could in any real life situation and who, frankly, I would be happy to watch die in an unpleasant manner early on in the movie. Ironically, it’s the characters who are the least relateable who manage to survive the film to the end.
The acting was way too over the top to be credible. Yes, I know it was probably supposed to be but these people really didn’t do themselves any favours and their exaggerated mannerisms and flailing limbs as they run and scream from each new ‘horror’ really didn’t help matters. I started off trying to have a good time with this movie but, by about half an hour in, I really wasn’t ‘on its side’ anymore.
If I was to find anything good or memorable about the film it was the scene where a still born foetus is possessed and breaks out of its bottle in the science classroom to attack one of the main protagonists and, also, the fact that the girl playing this schoolgirl variant of Bloody Mary looked really sinister when she was in the full make-up. This wasn’t enough to save the film for me though which was, bizarrely, distributed by Warner Brothers in Brazil. Despite mild flirtations of a metatextual nature with two characters who are there mostly for ballast plus tonnes of references to much better movies and TV shows, I wouldn’t recommend this film or ever need to watch it again myself.
There was that silver lining though..
Playing before this film was the Australian short Troll Bridge by director Daniel Knight and based on one of Terry Pratchett’s short Discworld stories. Now I’m not a fan of Terry Pratchett. I tried to read his first Discworld novel when it came out but for some reason couldn’t get into it. This short film is lovely, though and tells the story of an ageing Cohen The Barbarian, played by Don Bridges and his talking horse, voiced by Glenn Van Oosterom. I’d never heard of these characters before but loved the way the dialogue went, as the elderly barbarian goes to wake a troll under a bridge and ends up reminiscing with said monster about the ‘old days.’
The CGI, which I think the director who was interviewed for the audience just before the screening said took something like eight years in post-production, is actually quite charming with the troll being almost Disneyesque in his realisation. Added to this, the short has some beautiful dialogue and even more breath taking cinematography... although the amount of CGI work here makes it hard to tell whether cinematography is the right word to use. But the film does look gorgeous, is what I’m trying to say.
Also, the seemingly suicidal path of Cohen’s desire to finally take on a troll may seem pretty much like a death wish but, once all the whimsy and nostalgia has played out and he and the troll have parted company, you realise that Cohen’s encounter with said creature went more than ‘according to plan’ and that, despite paying 25 gold coins in toll to said troll, he actually comes away with something far more precious to him for use in his ‘barbarian hero’ career.
What can I say? This was a charming piece and really the only thing that made sitting through the main feature worth the price of the ticket on this one. I’d urge people to try and seek out Troll Bridge whenever or wherever it is screened as much as I would tell them not to bother with Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary. Somewhat of a mismatch of a double bill, I thought but at least I got to see something of note on my first FrightFest screening of 2019. And, as it happens, the second feature length movie I saw there that day, the directorial debut of actor Jason Mewes of Jay and Silent Bob fame, certainly topped my expectations. More on that in my next review so, watch out for it either tomorrow or the day after.