Tuesday 28 September 2010

Judge Red

Trois Couleurs: Rouge
1994 Poland/France/Switzerland
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

Trilogy spoilers ensue!

Red, the third part of Kieslowski’s colour trilogy, is another masterpiece from a highly skilled director at the height of his creative powers.

Again, unlike most of the work I have seen by this director, the pacing in this part is much less leisurely and the movie is generally less voyeuristic than Blue, the first part of the trilogy. Although it’s certainly not as pacey as White. And as you can imagine from the first two... there is an abundance of red surfaces and lighting within the movie. In fact, the colours in this movie, to my mind, seem to be much richly and more densely saturated than in the first two movies... and I’m not just talking about the reds here... it’s everything. This really does come close in certain shots to a Mario Bava or Dario Argento movie - you may have noticed if you read this blog regularly the these two are my great “lighters of movies” who I use in comparison with everyone else... if you want to see colours on film then these are your "go to" guys.

Red tells the story of model Valentine who is worried about her brother because he is suffering with mental health issues. While driving her car she accidentally runs over an escaped dog. The dog isn’t dead but it’s in a bad way and she drives and carries it to it’s owner through the tag on the collar and finds herself talking to a miserable and depressed retired judge who has no interest in the state of the dog and, in fact, seems to have a complete lack of interest in life in general (seriously, this guy is almost as miserable as me... and that’s saying something).

Valentine takes the dog to a vet and it quickly recovers but soon escapes and leads her back to the retired judge, played by legendary actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (Silence himself from The Great Silence). After learning his hobby is to electronically eavesdrop on his neighbours phone calls, her initial disgust leads to a blossoming relationship and eventual friendship with him as she hears the tragedy’s of his life.

There are minor subplots with various neighbours but that’s pretty much the set-up in a crimson lit nutshell. All the actors in this film are superb, the music is superb (and this film became a bit famous for some of the music presented in a bolero form at the time although, on rewatching the film 16 years after I first saw it, I can’t think why as it’s doesn’t seem as prominent as I remember), the cinematography phenomenal... and yet it still manages to catch the subtleties of an intimate, non-sexual relationship between the two main characters. That’s one thing which doesn’t change with Kieslowski from film to film - the implications of a scene and the perceived intent of his characters is subtly revealed but never really highlighted within a shot... an intelligent movie-maker pitching at a half intelligent audience... or at least not dumbing everything down. And it’s this kind of strategy that I think keeps you hooked on a Kieslowski movie the first time around... you want to see where he’s going to lead you because it’s almost impossible to know.

There are some great moments in this film... I laughed out loud when Valentina went to buy a Van den Budenmayer CD only to have found it sold out... one of director Kieslowski and composer Preisner’s little references to a fictional composer they created for use in Kieslowski’s films (you’ll find this guy turns up in some way in a lot of them). Also there’s a brilliant overlap from the first two films with the character of the old lady slowly trying to recycle her bottles again... the difference being that in this one Valentine actually rushes to her aid, unlike the main protagonists of the first two movies.

The film has a neat ending too. Early in the film Valentina has been at a photoshoot where her hair is wet and dishevelled and she is looking perplexed against a large red background for a big series of billboard banner adverts (the image itself became the main poster campaign for this film). At the end of the movie she takes a ferry to her brother but there is a storm and a terrible tragedy as the ferry sinks. As the judge watches a television fearing the worst for his new friend, it is revealed in a newsflash that there are 7 survivors. Two of these are Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent... their characters have obviously gone off and ended up together after the end of Blue. Two more are Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski who played the divorced husband and wife in the second film... this is an interesting punchline to White since the newsreader identifies their characters which means they’ll both be in a lot of trouble with the law subsequent to the events in this film... Julie Delpy has presumably been sprung from jail and Zbigniew Zamachowski is obviously not wanting to publicize that he has faked his own death.

And then you have Irene Jacob’s Valentine... her hair is wet, she looks bewildered and in shock, and there is a red background behind her... an exact replica of the poster campaign she shot earlier in the film.

Trois Couleurs: Rouge is a satisfying ending to the trilogy and as usual I can’t recommend Kieslowski enough. If you’re a fan of cinema then you can’t afford to miss these movies, which only get richer with the passing of time.

Sunday 26 September 2010

No Bone Unturned

Winter's Bone 2010 US
Directed by Debra Granik
Screening at UK cinemas now

Warning... spoilers!

Winter’s Bone is one of those movies that I find very difficult to review... hence this post is probably going to end up being a very short read (not sure if that is good news or bad news to you). It’s not that it’s a bad film because it isn’t... it’s a very good one. It’s just that it felt, I don’t know, kinda been there, done that to me... which to be honest, isn’t a really useful criticism and I guess when you’ve been watching movies for as many decades as I have it’s to be very much expected.

The film tells the story of the quest of a young daughter from a family who’s father has run out on them, so she is looking after her demented and unresponsive mother and a younger brother and sister and trying to keep everyone surviving under stressful and sometimes humiliating circumstances. However, if the local sherriff can’t find her father before his date with a law court comes up, then the house will be taken and the family scattered to the winds. The plucky heroine will leave no stone unturned in her quest to discover her father’s fate.

Right from the start you can tell that you are in the hands of a director and crew that really knows what they’re doing - it’s startlingly well lit (if a little artificial on some of the interiors), tremendously well performed, well edited (with a continuity caveat that I’ll come to later) and has a gentle pacing and a certain quirkiness in it’s sense of focus which gives one a comfortable feeling when watching it. But I never really found myself actually caring for any of these well drawn characters... not quite sure why because the director was taking great pains to keep reminding me of the children and their ultimate fate should the heroine fail in her quest by introducing shots of the children engaging in various activities at various points in the movie. That’s what I meant by quirkiness... most big budget films wouldn’t take time to slowly build a relationship for the audience with the children in a series of little vignettes scattered seemingly randomly throughout the course of the picture... a big budget movie would wield a far blunter instrument and just bludgeon the audience throughout the first 20 minutes of the movie until even the slowest souls would begin to realise just what is at stake here!

A nice thing as an addendum to this is that one of the more concentrated scenes with the kids can be used as a comparison to the older sister who has taken on what turns out to be a very dangerous quest. As she shows the children how to gut a squirrel and chastises the boy for not wanting to pull the intestines from the dead animal... telling him that there is a lot of stuff he’s going to need to get over in order to survive, it mirrors a scene near the end of the movie where the heroine herself cannot bring herself to chainsaw off the hands of her dead father for identification and somebody else has to do it because she is not strong enough.

The film is a slow build as the daughter follows the trail of her missing father through a terrain of very hostile and misogynistic characters and I can see why some people have been very much taken with this film from the angle of its mystery storyline (although at the screening I saw there were five walkouts within the first 20 minutes!). Personally, storyline never really means a great deal to me, it’s not what gets me going in a movie and this is perhaps why it failed to grab me in the same way as a great many people. And then there’s the continuity thing...

Early on there is a scene which takes place during the day and then another scene which takes place in the evening of the same day and it’s clear that some time must have passed. This is followed a little later by another scene and the dialogue is such that it’s clear the first scene I’m talking about happened only a few hours before that... so this sequence was obviously originally intended to follow up the original sequence. I reckon the scenes must have been reshuffled in editing because the rhythm of the picture needed to change... that’s my guess anyway. It’s a shame that the scene couldn’t just be reshot but I guess reshoots are pretty expensive... it could maybe have done with a few words redubbed to take away it’s originally intended placement in the narrative flow is my guess... either that or I was really phased by how artificial some of the interior lighting looks (not a criticism and I loved the whole orange VS blue cup placement thing) and mistook one of the scenes as taking place at night. I’d go back and check but... it’s not the kind of movie I could watch for a repeat viewing.

The one really refreshing thing about the whole film is the way the director (and this was adapted from a novel so it might not actually have been her decision... tough to know when I haven’t read the novel) lets the actual mystery of the story take a back-burner. When the corpse of the father is found (kind of) there is a real sense of everything kind of resolving itself without any fuss and with nobody really caring about whether people find out who killed him or not. Certainly the audience is not let into the identity of the man’s killer and this casual approach to what was originally the driving force of the story is a nice thing. At the end of the movie you have the feeling that one of the characters has figured out who put the father in his cold, watery grave and is going to do something about it... but that’s not going to happen within the body of the movie itself and is left for your imagination.

At the end of the movie I was happy that I’d seen it and, although it’s not a personal favourite, it’s certainly one I could recommend to lovers of low-key mystery movies of the sort normally associated with a private detective of some description. A good second feature from an obviously smart director.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

A Symphony of Horror

Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear
2010. Edited by Neil Lerner.
Routledge Music and Screen Media Series.
ISBN: 9780415992039

I found this book while killing time at the British Film Institute shop on the Southbank, waiting for a screening of The Final Programme. I practically jumped for joy when I saw it, although the section this came from is relatively out of sight from the cash register so I received no weird glances at said outburst of spontaneous emotion at the time from the sales lady... I’m happy to say.

I love books on films and I especially love books on film music and, on top of that, I have a certain affection for films which are classed in the horror genre (if anyone can agree as to what that is) and so this book looked like it was going to be my new best friend for a while.

Alas, it was not to be. I tried really hard to cut this book some slack but in the end it just wasn’t doing it for me and, much as I hate to give books bad reviews... well I’ll just have to be unpopular with my findings is all, I guess.

I’ll try to be brief on this one.

This is a collection of essays on horror film scoring so I was expecting it to be a bit hit and miss in its ability to provide me with some interesting and hopefully entertaining knowledge being as it is written by a number of different people each coming at their own personal preference of study for their article. Unfortunately this was way more miss than hit.

It starts off badly with a few generic articles on horror scoring before going into essays about specific scores. So the first essay on the use of the organ in horror film, with explicit reference to the obvious organ-music movie Carnival of Souls, is one of those articles when you wonder whether the author has just missed the point somehow. A highly articulate (as are all the essays in this book) pondering of the meaning behind specific uses of organ music, seems to me to be one of those pieces of writing where the writer concludes what they want to think the director saw in his use of the music, rather than what the decisions on the scoring and the reasoning behind those decisions actually were.

The second essay similarly annoyed me... entitled “Mischief Afoot: Supernatural Horror-comedies and the Diabolus in Musica", it claims to be a study of the “devils music” in film but seriously, I have two words for the writer of this one... “Bernard Herrmann!” How can you write a serious article about the way the devil and assorted demons have been represented in film scoring when you don’t even mention the one theme which is generally acknowledged to be the piece of devil’s music in film? Bernard Herrmann’s fiddling-good Mr. Scratch theme for The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy) is surely the standout that all future scores were compared to, Liszts Mephisto Waltz and Goldsmith’s later appropriation and re-use of it notwithstanding. And isn’t this book supposed to be bang up to date? Good gosh, one of the most shining examples of demonic scoring in recent years has got to be Christopher Youngs jaunty, devil’s fiddle score to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. Why wasn’t that included?

As I went through the collection, things were mostly eliciting similar reactions from me... and then I got to an article dissecting Psycho. Seriously... Psycho? Yeah, of course Herrmann's score to Psycho is one of the great soundtracks but... this is supposed to be a book about horror scoring isn’t it? In what universe does anyone consider Hitchcock’s Psycho to be a horror film? It’s at most a thriller guys... an American giallo if you will... but not a horror movie. No way? There’s no real monster in this movie or any hint of the supernatural... and please don’t get me started on that whole Norman Bates and Hannibal Lektor are monsters argument. They’re just serial killers. Nothing more or less.

Okay, so moving swiftly on... it’s not all bad news. The article on Carpenter’s The Fog was pretty good although, again, I have two things to say about that.

1. If you don’t know which synthesisers were used on the recording... ask someone, don’t just go with an educated guess and...

2. Unless it’s a very unfortunate typo... when talking about the DJ character Stevie Wayne? It’s "she" not "he!"

It gets better towards the end. The article on Kilar’s Dracula is worth a read and the last chapter comparing the score for The Sixth Sense with The Others actually made me want to fire up the scores and give them a re-listen (kinda hard when I never bought the score for The Others and it fetches silly money now).

Ultimately, although some of this volume was okay, I really regretted spending my money on this one... it seemed to often that the people trying to put their points across were regularly missing examples of composer’s work that would have really helped them push their points and strengthened their arguments. So, and I do really hate to say this, it’s probably the worst book on film scoring I’ve ever read. But at least I’ve read it now and can have a valid opinion on it... of sorts.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Fantastic Literature Ltd

Every few months I do a short blog entry on a retailer, publisher, record label etc. that I think may be useful to you. Previous articles have been on Film Score Monthly and Wordsworth Publications. This time around, I want to bring to your attention a great on-line retail store for lovers of science-fiction, horror, crime and fantasy... Fantastic Literature.

When I was a pre-schooler I learnt to read from a not too steady but enthusiastic influx of Superman and Batman comics. This kept me way ahead of the game when it came to reading by the time I got to school and, naturally, when I started to devour proper books instead of the less stimulating and stilted stylings of Janet and John, it wasn’t long before I found quite a few science-fiction and fantasy novels mixing it up with the likes of my Jennings, William and Famous Five books.

Shooting through to my teenage years and the likes of Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kenneth Robeson were my constant companions. Always a book sticking out of my jacket pocket and marking me out as... one of those weird kids who read stuff!

If, like me, you share an affinity with dusty old shops stacked high with yellowing paperbacks with brilliant cover illustrations that really made you want to pick up a book and read it, then you might also have found yourself, like me, kinda starved of late for finding a really good place to get a decent choice of second hand books. Unless you’re living somewhere really book friendly like Hay on Wye or Felixstowe (both of which have some fantastic second hand book emporiums) then you have probably noticed that most second hand bookshops and stalls these days mostly only have books that are less than ten years old. Gone are all those great science fiction treasures of yesteryear... replaced by multiple copies of the latest Dan Brown or Patricia Cornwell pulps.

And this is why you should check out Fantastic Literature. Simon & Laraine Gosden’s Fantastic Literature Limited is the place for you. All those old sci-fi, fantasy, crime and horror writers who you never see on the shelves anymore... one might mention Dennis Wheatley, Maxwell Grant, Robert Sheckley and a whole host of others, are waiting to be reunited with you for a very reasonable price on a user-friendly website which is obviously a labour of love.

In addition to their “sales” side, which will keep you in some happy, virtual browsing for a good while... they also keep you up to date with all the latest genre news via a series of links from both their home page listings and from "Out of the Woodwork", which is a free newsletter which the Gosdens send out regularly to keep you up to date with what’s going on in their wild, mysterious world and also keeps you abreast of their most recent acquisitions for sale (some of them are often quite rare).

In addition to their main site, they also have an ebay store and their regular site will also keep you abreast of their Amazon reseller feedback... just in case you have second thoughts ordering from them. I’ve certainly had no problems with them and they’ve always been very helpful to me.

Ultimately that's probably the thing that comes across most from these people... you can say as much as you like about their professionalism in being a genre bookseller of excellence (which they are) but when it comes down to it they excel in that all important area of customer service... something that seems to be a bit of a dying art these days.

So if you’ve got nothing better to do right now than read this blog, you might want to spend some time browsing Simon and Laraine’s excellent website here at http://www.fantasticliterature.com/ and get yourself reacquainted with some of the great genre writers of both the past, present and quite possibly from the future (they cater for everyone here). Go on... browse your heart out.

Sunday 19 September 2010

A Stella Star Is Born

Star Crash
1978 Italy/USA
Directed by Luigi Cozzi
(as Lewis Coates)
Shout Factory DVD Region 1

Hit hyperspace past this article if you don’t want to see spoilers... although to be honest, spoilers will not diminish the absolute fun you may have while watching this blast of a movie.

There are a lot of criticisms that could be levelled at Star Crash... all of them probably legitimate and, frankly, I really don’t care if they are. That it’s a cheap, quick n’ dirty cash in attempt to ride the Star Wars bandwagon is to state the obvious... but, you know, if that’s all you see in it then you are kinda missing the point on this one. The homage/rip off quality of this film does not start and end with George Lucas’ seminal trilogy and Star Crash is definitely a film which wears it’s influences on it’s sleeve, so to speak.

Another criticism which could also be levelled at this movie is that it has an incredibly bad script. Hmmm... personally I’d jump to its defence against that accusation and modify it a little. It does, to be fair to its nay-sayers, have terrible dialogue... but I’m telling you now that there is not an actor or actress in the stellar :-) cast of this film who doesn’t deliver their lines with the utmost conviction and seriousness... that this sometimes comes off as a little funny or stilted... oh, alright then, downright hilarious, does not, in fact, do the film a disservice. Frankly, if this wasn’t so professionally delivered by the cast then this movie would be lost to time and never have been resurrected from movie-hell obscurity. But the corny dialogue and the, lets-make-the-best-of-it attitude from the actors and actresses save it from a fate worse than celluloid death and have elevated this film to the status of a cult classic and I for one am happy to watch repeat viewings whenever I can.

And remember, dialogue does not a script make. Some of the ideas and intentions in the story and structure of the film are actually quite refreshing and mark it out as not just another Star Wars rip-off (and there were a lot of them around a the time as anyone going to the cinema in the late seventies will attest to). The pacing and tone of this movie is straight out of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon strip, itself a blueprint for the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s a shame that the development time and the budget was not up to the task because this could have made all the difference to the end product, as entertaining as it is.

The way the movie plays out with constantly shifting locations and a quest among the stars makes it more reminiscent of a Sinbad movie (something which actress Caroline Munro was certainly familiar with by then after her star turn opposite John Philip Law in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). In fact, if somebody at the time had consciously set out to make a movie entitled something along the lines of “The Interstellar Voyage of Sinbad” then I’ll bet Luigi Cozzi’s Star Crash is almost certainly how it would have ended up.

The story is simple... evil Count Zarth Arn (played enthusiastically by Maniac Joe Spinell) has designs to rule the universe. Space smuggler Stella Star (the always gorgeous Caroline Munro, an actress who in real life turns out to be one of the nicest people in the known universe) and her navigator Akron are captured by space cops (one of them is a funny robot space cop with a voice that’s suspiciously reminiscent of Old B.O.B from The Black Hole) but released from their respective prisons to go on a mission for The Emperor (played amazingly respectfully by Christopher Plummer) to find Zarth Arn’s homebase and planet and also rescue the Emperor’s son, played by young up-and-comer David Hasslehoff (in the days before he had a robotic car sharing screen time with him).

As I said, this film wears its influences and movie heritage on its sleeve and low budget homages are found everywhere. The judge who hands out Stella Star (don’t you just love that name?) and Akron's prison sentences is a green, floating head in a bowl and is a dead spit for the main martian in much loved 50s classic Invaders From Mars. The hard labour sentence given to Stella is straight out of the Atom Furnace rooms on the floating city of the Hawkmen in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. A group of troublesome amazons may flash up huge reminders of Barbarella and Caroline Munro’s brilliant costumes may also remind you of this... some of the greatest and fetishistic tributes to female sensuality that an actress has ever worn in a movie and if anyone was ever going to wear these things and make them look amazing and practical then it’s Caroline Munro.

More “homages” include a giant, metal, robot guardian straight out of Harryhausen’s Talos in Jason and the Argonauts (but a lot more jerkier with perhaps a bit less confidence in the animation) and two robot bodyguards with big scimitars for Joe Spinell who are the Star Crash equivalent of the sword fighting skeleton in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. And Mr. Spinell’s footsoldiers are all dressed in pseudonazi-esque costumes which look suspiciously like they’ve been borrowed from Mario Bava’s production of Planet of the Vampires... but with added, downward pointing arrows at the front of their helmets which are very reminiscent of the skull-cap Charles Middleton wears as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.

And, of course, Akron has “force-like” powers and a light sabre to despatch his enemies. I’m amazed that George Lucas didn’t sue and, even if he had, I don’t think he would’ve won... besides, he was already fighting and losing his court case against the makers of Battlestar Galactica at the time, if my memory serves me.

There are four reasons why I can recommend that anyone with an affection for cheezy science fiction flicks should take a look at Star Crash...

1. The best reason I can think of to watch most of the films she is in is Caroline Munro herself. Stunning, sexy, professional and always delivers what is asked of her. A real trooper and, I suspect, the object of affection for many adolescent males growing up in the seventies. She was the Lamb’s Navy rum girl after all but she also deservedly holds the title of “First Lady of Fantasy” with roles in such crucial genre films as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Doctor Phibes Rises Again, Dracula AD 1972, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, At The Earth’s Core, The Spy Who Loved Me, Maniac and The Last Horror Film... to name but a few.

2. Joe Spinell has the best, most enthusiastic, longest sustained villanous laugh in the history of movies in this film. Seriously... Mwahahahahahahaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! doesn’t even come close. This guy had the best “Mwahahaing” in the business. He is sorely missed.

3. Luigi Cozzi directed a really interesting giallo called The Killer Must Kill Again and that typical, highly saturated and contrasting Italian colour style, right out of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, finds it’s way into Star Crash. No plain white starry backgrounds in this version of space! Here the stars are also yellows, reds, purples and greens making space a really fun and colourful place to be. And some of those spaceship launch tubes are lit like Christmas trees. If you like lots of bright, shiny colours in your movies... then this is a must-see movie.

4. The great composer John Barry did the score for this film and it’s a real humdinger! Seriously, if you get nothing else out of the space battle dog fights in this film, you’ll at least be tapping your toes like crazy! And those melodys and rhythms will be haunting you long after you’ve finished watching.

So there you have it! My unqualified recommendation for an admittedly slightly cheesy movie which holds a real place of affection in the hearts of its fans... myself included. In fact, Star Crash is possibly one of the most fun times this side of the universe! 

If you watch this movie and you like the Stella Star character in general (and who wouldn’t) then a new book of fictional short stories has literally just been released called Curved Space: The Adventures of Stella Star with a foreward by both Luigi Cozzi and the inimitable Caroline Munro! I’ll be reading that one next month sometime and reviewing it here for you!

For more details of the splendid actress who plays Stella Star and to join her fan club... please click here... http://www.carolinemunro.org/


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