Saturday 29 January 2011

The Reichs Stuff

Mortal Remains (aka Spider Bones) 2010.
By Kathy Reichs.
William Heinemann Publishing.
ISBN: 978-0434014712

I’ve always liked Kathy Reichs’ slick tales of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the way she helps solve crimes by clues recovered from the bones of the dead. Her character is very much the “bone” version of Cornwells’ Scarpetta character but with maybe a younger and less authorative feel about her. Every Christmas time I read the new Patricia Cornwell followed straight away by the latest Kathy Reichs and every year I’m hard pressed to figure out which one I enjoyed more. Sometimes Scarpetta, with her regular bag of well-worn characters and her niece Lucy, gets my vote. Other times it’s Tempe Brennan with her on and off relations with Detective Ryan that gets under my skin the most.

This year I was a little disappointed with the Reich novel, although to be fair I wasn’t 100% into the Cornwell either (and I’m damn sure these ladies can’t like being compared to each other... sorry ladies).

Let’s get one thing straight though... before I get into this. The Temperance Brennan who populates these brilliant novels is not the same Temperance Brennan who populates Kathy Reichs’ TV series Bones. I saw a couple of these once and was quite shocked by how much the Temperance Brennan in the TV show is just not the Tempe I know from the books. Apparently, I’m reliably informed, the Tempe in the TV show is based on, or perhaps that should read “inspired” by the real life Kathy Reichs who really is all those things that Tempe Brennan is. But the characters in the novels and the TV show have different regular characters, different backgrounds and history and, as I was made painfully aware when I tried to watch a couple of episodes... completely different personalities.

My Tempe Brennan is the Tempe from the books... and I’ll stick with her, thanks very much.

Mortal Remains was released in America under the title Spider Bones which, given the pattern of the titles of the previous novels in the series and the fact that one of the (dead) characters was called Spider... makes a whole lot more sense than the “catch all” title of Mortal Remains. I don’t know why the publishers decided to change the title for the UK market but it must have been done in something of a rush because, in the Foreword and Preface, the author is still referring to the book by its American title Spider Bones.

Nomenclature aside, however, the book tells the story of Temperance Brennan’s investigation in Hawaii with her daughter who is recovering from a bit of a shock to the system and with Detective Ryan and his “problem” daughter from his ex-wife. The story itself takes on the usual twists and terms with a couple of action sequences thrown in for the ride and, at the end, justice is served and we’re still all none the wiser as to how the Brennan/Ryan relationship is going to go.

The book is not as entertaining as some of the earlier entries in the series, nor does it have the scope of earlier novels like Cross Bones (where the action and danger hots up as Tempe has to try to identify if the old skeleton found on a dig in Israel is, in fact, the bones of Christ), but it does hold true to the standard, modern pulp formula of using cliffhangers, or what they have become, to keep the reader turning the pages... and nobody does this quite as well as Kathy Reichs.

It’s funny. When I was thinking about what I was going to write in this review, I read a blog by one of the people I follow on twitter @buckocowboyland (you can read that blog here) and it was talking about the old cliffhanger serials of yesteryear. This got me to thinking about those old 30s Doc Savage pulps that I absolutely love reading and how their would always be an absolute corker of a cliffhanger at the end of every short chapter to keep the readers reading. Both Cornwell and Reichs do the same thing but in a, slightly, more subtle way. They don’t use blatant cliffhangers but they do use a kind of foreshadowing of future events to keeper the readers momentum. Phrases along the lines of “When we opened up the rib cage and saw what was inside our eyes met and we both registered shock” or “Little did I know that the next three hours would change the course of the whole investigation for good” are planted right at the end of a chapter to keep the reader wanting to know more and it’s this kind of hint at future knowledge in the character’s travels that is, in many ways I believe, the modern evolvement of the old cliffhanger endings. Cornwell seems to have cooled it down a little the further down the line she gets, although there are still traces of these to be found in her novels at certain key points. Reichs is even less subtle about using this technique and still peppers quite a lot of these around and about in her novels.

But whether these things are done subtly or not, it doesn’t matter. The darn things work and once you start reading one of these things you really aren’t going to want to put one of these down for very long.

The other thing that’s become very unsubtle about the Brennan books is the sheer volume of the pop culture references slipped into the text. Reichs’ books have always had these and they certainly give the novels a hipper, younger feel to them than the atmosphere created in Cornwell’s Scarpetta books, but it’s beginning to get a bit overwhelming now. There are more cinema, TV and musical references in this one than I could comfortably shake a stick at and this kinda reaches it’s zenith here when Reichs has her lead character name check the TV series of Bones in this novel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of “breaking the fourth wall” and am always quite happy to accept these kinds of shenanigans as an acceptable artistic decision... honestly people, I’m a big fan of John Byrne’s initial runs on The Sensational She-Hulk (for the three or so of you readers who might know what the heck I’m talking about there ;-), so it’s really something I’m happy to tolerate and entertain and welcome with open arms. But this one just smacks too much of product placement for your own brand image and it quite popped me out of the novel when it happened... and not in that good, Godardian way either. This felt kinda wrong.

Also, since I'm on the subject of referencing other material, I feel that Reichs dropped the ball a little bit in that, since the majority of this novel is set in Hawaii, she could have reminded the readers of another famous fictional crime-fighter who lived in Hawaii... namely Charlie Chan!

All in all, though, Mortal Remains/Spider Bones is another corker of a page turner from the bone-grinding mind of Kathy Reichs and regular readers will know just what to expect with this installment... it’s not her best but it’s still very entertaining... Temperance Brennan has definitely retained her sense of humour after all the crap that’s happened to her in the course of her adventures. New readers may not want to sample this one as a jumping on point though and would be best to start a lot earlier in the series... preferably with the first novel, because... well, why wouldn’t you want to start at the beginning?

Monday 24 January 2011

The Postmodern Always Rings Thrice

Three Shorts by James Devereaux

For a while now, I’ve been following the exploits of a youngish actor on Twitter who goes by the name of @ejamesdevereaux and frequently checking out his regular weekly column of tips for actors at his website, The Great Acting Blog (click here to go there instead). I know that this intense (yeah, you need to read some of those blogs) and talented guy also writes stuff and is a founding member of The Drifting Clouds Cinema Group (click here to go there instead), which screens independent movies in need of recognition by the general public at large. I don’t know how big those screenings are but, from what I can gether... they do their bit.

What I didn’t know is that Devereaux has also directed some short movies and when he invited me to take a look at them on Youtube it was with a rush of interest tempered with trepidation that I “virtually wandered” over to Youtube to take a look at them... after all, I’d been following this guy for a while now on Twitter and he’d become quite a cornerstone in my little “timeline family”. And we’d had a few discussions (yeah, well I call them arguments but, whatever) about our shared love of “art house” movies and my general unwillingness to marginalise those kinds of movies by labelling them as such.

I needn’t have worried too much though, it turns out. I watched his movies and I was quite taken with them. There are three I’ve seen... My Little Grapefruit, Romantic Rebellion and Strangers. As far as I know they were all written by Mr. Devereaux and Romantic Rebellion and Strangers also feature him in lead roles.

At first glance these films ticked all the general check boxes with some of the influences of the director as I’d gathered what they were from his writings and tweetings. There’s a Hal Harley flavour to all three, especially strong in My Little Grapefruit, which does nothing to detract from the incidents happening on screen. And these shorts are about incidents... you won’t find any full blown stories with easy narrative resolution here. Like I wrote about another film last week, any real narrative thrust is brought to the onscreen events by the viewers interpretation. These are not stories... they are little views of details from peoples lives from which information can be gleaned but never resolved into a neat little package having the closure demanded by modern Hollywood blockbusters. Something tells me Devereaux is about as far away from wanting closure in his movies as one can get.

Take My Little Grapefruit, for example, which tells of a new female, French tenant in a lodgings (played by Magda Merkova) who is moving in to the place, sharing with a guy played by John Giles... the pacing is definitely Hartley with broad and almost static shots with a Rifle-style soundtrack but there is also a direct wire into the plays of Harold Pinter. The acting style and delivery is saying as much when nothing is being spoken as when the dialogue is in full flow. At first I thought that perhaps Giles acting was a little naive or amateur but then I realised that it wasn’t the acting at all... it’s actually pretty good but it was too subtle for me to pick up on at first (yeah, well I don’t do subtle, me). It hit me quite soon that the guy was just acting the part of someone who is very childlike and on-the-surface. I’m a bit behind in my blog writing of late and I’m kinda glad I am because it’s given this one film in particular a chance to filter through my brain a little and realise there’s much more going on beneath the surface of this character than I at first thought.

All the way through this one, this character extols his own virtues by using the same phrases of negativity about “the English” while rejecting them but when he later goes out to buy some books to impress the new tenant (including the same bloody copies of Camus’ The Outsider and Sartre’s Nausea that I read at college, all those many years ago) it’s clear that he probably shares more than just a few of the typical English stereotypically perceived traits than he would like. It wasn’t until a few days later, when thinking about this film on a bus journey to work, that I realised the character was just repeating phrases that he’d heard levelled at him by the previous tenant. Or is he. I don’t know and it’s probably not important... but I reckon if he’s reading this then the director might like to pop on the comments section at some point and explain himself? If he feels he wants it to be explained.

Other influences abound in the second of the shorts I watched... at first I thought the Devereaux character, from the way he was dressed and the “frivolity” of his personality was a nod to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless but as soon as a second character came into it I realised it was inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s shorts (which were later collected and augmented for a feature length compilation) Coffee and Cigarettes. This ones all about the acting style. Devereaux’ character is one of those people who says something false (I assumed) and then compounds it with larger lies but in a humorous way as an attempt at getting to know someone. But that good old Jarmuschian “gap” between people in the way that their ownership of their own style of their language (even when it’s the same language) is just always there to get in the way and screw things up. This is a joyous little short movie to watch.

Strangers was my least favourite of the three but, to be honest, it’s still pretty good. A man with a hat (who seems to like the dimple created in his hat as it is echoed by another prop in the movie in an almost fetishistic manner) is in pretty much the same style of outfit as Alain Deloin in Le Samourai. Again, there are long, pitched pauses in the dialogue and a little “Kapow” moment when the two protagonists first lock eyes. It then jumps from black and white to colour for a sequence which is almost pure, early Hartley in rhythm and farcical form and this makes a “crash, bang, wallop” kind of contrast with the pacing in the monochrome sections. I’m hoping the writer/director doesn’t mind me comparing him with some of his heroes... it doesn’t derogatise his very serious pursuit of his arts (writing, acting, directing) and may be as much my own inability to express his work on its virtues as opposed to comparing and contrasting his stylistic influences.

All in all, I’d say these three shorts are very well written, very sound pieces of art (yeah, he’ll like that but it’s true... so shoot me) and, perhaps as importantly, they are also very entertaining pieces and worth clicking on the links below if you want a diverting, charming but not necessarily unchallenging 25 minutes or so...

Saturday 22 January 2011

Fleecing Hergé

Tintin and the Mystery
of the Golden Fleece 1961
Directed by Jean-
Jacques Vierne
BFI Region 2

I remember seeing this movie the two times it got shown on BBC television when I was a kid. According to the write up in the generous booklet in the new BFI release of this film, the second time I saw it was in 1978. It’s a film I always liked and something I always wanted to see again. You can imagine my happiness, then, at finding the BFIs recent release amongst my Christmas presents this year.

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece is a great Tintin adventure, for those of you who are familiar with the famous comic albums. It was not based on one of the actual Tintin strips itself, but from one of the Tintin prose stories... however, this doesn’t really matter because it’s a joyous film which perfectly reflects the visual style of Hergé, the characters’ creator, with bright and colourful locations and actors who are “made up” to look like their comic counterparts so naturally that you’d think they’d just stepped off the page. Even the slightly eerie false beard worn by Captain Haddock, brilliant realised by comic actor Georges Wilson, is not enough to distract you from the sheer brilliance of the overall visual look of the people who stridently inhabit this movie... and most of the recurring characters are in here too.

The upturn of Tintin’s quiff and the blue of Captain Haddocks’ anchor laden jersey, the deafness and swinging pendulum of Professor Calculus and the matching bowler hats, suits and canes of Thompson and Thomson... all the characters are lovingly and faithfully portrayed.

Perhaps the least best actor of the lot is Tintin’s dog Snowy. This dog is a menace to continuity all over the picture as it runs around having the best possible fun it can get out of the sets and actors and making matching shots a hard proposition for the editors. It’s obvious this dog had a great time making Tintin... as obvious at least as the fact that in some shots the film-makers have resorted to attaching a bit of fishing wire to him to tug him in the right direction on cue. One of the great joys of watching this movie is, in fact, Snowy spotting... working out where in buggery f*ck that little dog is from shot to shot... usually racing around in the background somewhere, biting someone.

The story of the film is simple... a mischievous and charismatic sailor leaves his rickety, run down old ship, The Golden Fleece, to Captain Haddock in his will. When Haddock, Tintin and Snowy arrive to see the ship it is in such a rundown condition that Captain Haddock is not interested in it at all. However, after an unfeasibly generous offer to buy the ship from Haddock, our three intrepid adventurers are off on a globe hopping cruise to find the secret of why people want the ship they are sailing and... of course... it turns out that “treasure” of some kind has been hidden “somewhere”. Unfortunately for me, even though it’s been 32 years since I’ve had the opportunity to watch it, within 5 minutes I had remembered where the treasure actually is in the twist revelation at the end... something which was a genuine surprise to me as a kid. So I spent the remainder of the film feeling smug and taunting my fellow audience members with loaded questions. Still... good ending though. Professor Calculus’ constantly moving pendulum should help you to discover the Mystery of The Golden Fleece long before the surprise twist is revealed.

And then we come to the music. I remember the music for this film sticking in my head when I saw it decades ago but I wasn’t certain how my memory was with regards to the recall of this jaunty and catchy, melodic score. I needn’t have worried... it was exactly the same as if I’d just been watching it yesterday. A happy little tune and variations for a happy little movie. The leitmotif, four note cue for the villains, whenever anything even remotely sinister is called for, is really laughable in its persistence but not without its own charm. Pretty irritating after a while though.

However, laughable though it is in terms of its musical decisions, Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece is a fun film filled with exuberance, colour and vibrancy which is a joy to behold. Action, adventure and the improbable, over-the-top-delivery styled insults all make the first of only two (until Spielberg’s new versions get released) live action Tintin films a true joy to watch.

Blistering barnacles! Now I just have to check out the sequel, which I don’t actually remember... so I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it. Good name though... Tintin and the Blue Oranges. I look forward to getting a viewing of it sometime soon!

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Twice A Tron A Time

Tron Legacy 3D 2010 US
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
This film currently screening
at UK cinemas

This review contains electronic spoilers which may try to crawl into your computer systems to lead a software rebellion and eradicate humanity.

Tron Legacy is another great movie... but you’d find it hard to believe that given the amount of critical whining and pounding it’s received. Perhaps we’re all just living in more sophisticated times but Tron Legacy, though a sequel, almost at times seems like a remake of the original, which I reviewed here.

I say a remake, but it’s certainly a direct sequel to the original confection which lit up our cinemas and our collective computer-boom obsessed minds back in 1982. For example, the film starts up 12 years after the events of the first movie and then quickly switches to the present day. Bruce Boxleitner is back as the original human “model” for Tron. Unfortunately he is only briefly glimpsed as the younger Boxleitner version of Tron for some obscure reason... the Tron character (or what he has become) goes through the movie with his helmet visor covering his face... presumably a cost cutting exercise based on whatever it cost to do what they’ve done to Jeff Bridges.

And what have they done to Jeff Bridges? Remember what they did to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan at the opening of the third X-Men movie (the worst X-Men movie ever made to date)? Well Jeff Bridges plays three versions of himself in this movie... he plays the younger, fresh from Tron, twenty-something version of himself outside the computer world (in a, frankly, less than successful CGI or however they did it version of “young Jeff Bridges”). He also plays the CLU version of himself... that’s the computer version of himself which got “de-resed” at the start of the original movie but seems to be back and is, in this movie, now the “villain of the piece” and he also, finally, plays the Jeff Bridges as he looks now, trapped in a computer for the last 16 or so years and... well he’s brilliant in all three roles but he really seems to be “channelling Liebowski” in this third version of his personae. Not complaining. Love The Big Leibowski and would like to see him do more work in this vein (he may get the chance... it seems Tron is about to become the next big Disney franchise with future movie installments and a TV show in the planning stages).

The movie is not hard to follow and has virtually no plot. The son of the original Bridges character Flynn should be running the global and kind-of-evil company that ENCOM has become since his dads disappearance but instead he has just been lounging around and lunging out at people and especially ENCOM. Then he gets sucked into a computer in Flynn’s old amusement arcade and has to help his dad defeat the evil CLU and also promote and propagate the one surviving “program” who is an evolved form of new life spawned chaotically from the computer world... kind of like a self-writing virus I guess. As it happens, said self-writing virus takes the form of sexy, young lady program so there are love and pixellated sex possibilities happening now in the Tron universe.

The movie, it has to be said, plays like a complete rerun of the first movie. Young Flynn gets sucked into computer, has to go and fight in the “games” by doing exactly the same things and in the same order as his father did in the first film... just more impressive looking versions of them. So... fight with flying discs... astonishing light-cycle chase and then a big, long, slow ride on that Jules Verne meets cyberspace flying contraption they used in the first movie (and I’m pleased to say, since I’m a big reader of Verne, that said author gets a little mention in the movie). Along the way a few more action sequences have been inserted (excellent bar fight scene) and some nice metaphors are made... such as the “rescue” dog young Flynn owns in the real/non-computer world and the “rescue” programme in the shape of a sexy, hot woman he ends up with at the end of the movie.

I also liked the little reference to Wendy Carlos’ score to the original movie that “younged-up Jeff Bridges” hums for a few seconds in the bedroom of his son at the start of the movie. I had been moaning about the lack of Wendy Carlos’music in this movie but, as it happens, the score to this one by a young band with the unfortunate name of Daft Punk is quite enthralling and compelling and toe tapping and worthy of instant purchase on hearing it (which I did, naturally).

Basically, the big fault of this movie is that it’s really just doing what the original movie did when it was released. That movie was all about the effects and so is this one. Tron was just eye-candy for an early 80s audience which looks a bit clunky by modern standards. Tron Legacy is eye-candy for the “now generation” and it’s actually very respectful of the look of the original movie... it’s all just ramped up a bit. More detail and the 3D aspect is really superb on this one (for once... wish they’d stop making 3D movies again now though... the cinemas are using it as an excuse to charge us more money for the tickets).

However, I’d have to say that the big fault of the movie being so much eye-candy is also it’s biggest asset. It doesn’t need much of a plot, it is what it is... and if it does kinda drag in tempo in the middle and towards the end, no matter. It’s got a lot to look at and your eye will be enthralled. This movie is not about the underlying art of its substance (of which there isn’t much, to be fair) but it’s everything about the art of it’s surface... and this, in this one case, more than makes up for the hollowness of that outer but beautiful looking shell.

Saturday 15 January 2011

I Amer Camera

Amer 2009
France/Belgium Directed by
Hélène Cattet
& Bruno Forzani
This film currently
screening at
UK cinemas

Amer is, simply put,
a wonderful movie.
Go see it.

Oh, okay. You want me to elaborate on that, don’t you? Right, here we go then...

It would seem, perhaps, overstating the obvious to identify that Cattet and Forzani’s Amer uses all the techniques and visual/musical trapping of the brilliant genre of the Italian giallo movie (explicity, those made in the period of the classic gialli of the 1960s and early to mid 70s ). Pretty much everyone who’s seen this movie and who is familiar with the genre (which I wrote a very long article about here) have picked that up.

Of course, the section of the audience who are not “up” on their gialli are not going to recognise that... and so I expect a fair number of the people who are going to be looking at this movie are going to find it very fresh indeed. To us long-in-the-tooth veterans, however, there’s still a certain freshness and pacing to the way in which these stylistic techniques are revitalised and, dare I say it, “adrenalised” which make Amer a movie to be reckoned with. Let’s call it retro-fresh then! ;-)

For starters, though, I should put out a warning to people who like dialogue laden movies or ones which tell a story, to be the sole choice of celluloid food on their menu of film... this movie really doesn’t have much in the way of story and very little dialogue for its 90 minutes. If you want something which is a linear ride from point A to B then you’re in for a disappointment. It is a narrative, linear structure to be fair but... it doesn’t really add up to anything really coherent or resolved without you as an audience bringing your own interpretations to bear and impose quite strongly on the visual evidence presented before your eyes.

I can summarise Amer for you very quickly but it won’t lead to closure or even enlightenment in terms of narrative structure... although, to be fair to this consideration, it does at least have a framework on which to hang a semblance of ideas on... but the essence of Amer is that it’s very much, in some ways, a surrealist movie. Here you go then. Here’s my brief summary...

The film is split into three parts.

Part One tells the story of a little girl running around a spooky and frankly disturbing and scary house as she tries to deal with her mum and dad, a dead body and a female monster presence (presumably one of her grandmothers) who you never really get a proper look at as it pursues her to regain a “magical” charm in the form of a pocket watch with an eyeball on it. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I need to see it again.

Part Two is the girl as an adolescent teenager who goes into the local village with her mother (who is having her hair cut) and there she kicks a teenage boy’s football away before chasing after it and feeling sexual attraction to a gang of bikers as she walks past them... for which her mother slaps her.

Part Three is about the same girl grown to womanhood who returns to the abandoned house, gets freaked out by the taxi driver who brought her there (who may or may not be the boy who got his football kicked) and who may or may not be the guy who is now pursuing her through the house and trying to stab her... although that figure could also be herself chasing herself in her minds eye. Not made my mind up yet... only seen it once (and will watch it many times more in my life I suspect).

Ok... that probably sounds quite weird as a plot summary but, if it does, then I’ve done my job because it will hopefully convey the surreal atmosphere created by the movie.

There’s a lot to look at here and people who are into “movies about movies” (like the perverse pleasures offered by the cinema of extremely referential directors like Quentin Tarantino) will love this movie. It hits all the right spots. The opening section of the three sections which comprise the movie is very similar in mood and tone to master giallo maker Dario Argento’s horror movie Inferno. The whole movie, of course, in its homage to the giallo film is using that highly stylised, extreme colour lighting scheme favoured by both Dario Argento and Mario Bava (who helped Argento out on Inferno) but certainly this opening with it’s “monster” figure in barely glimpsed aggression is very similar to the earlier New York sequences of the afore-mentioned Argento flick.

The first section also wears on it’s sleeve the “eyeball watching” shots that Argento favours in such movies as Tenebre and even alludes in some sequences to those great Italian giallo and spaghetti western title sequences which had posterised, single colour versions of the film’s protagonists moving around the screen against a black background (like one of the original trailers to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). In fact the whole “giallo-stew” approach sounds like it could fall apart quite easily but the techniques using the age old voyeuristic “something-is-watching-this-unfold-and-it-may-just-be-you” approach combined with very dynamic editing, some of which seems like the fast-cut editing on Hopper’s Easy Rider but with a slightly less intrusive, won’t-pop-you-out-of-the-movie sensibility are very skillfully and assuredly approached by the writer/directors and the whole thing is a complete joy to watch.

What hasn’t been mentioned much, or so it seems to me, is the less than giallo-like ingredients to the movie. The middle section is an impressive and subtly made (if less than subtly conveyed) homage to burgeoning sexual desire which would be less influenced by Italian giallo and more heavily influenced, I would suspect, by British and American movies of the early to late sixties. And the joyous and kinetic explosion of visual and sound editing that is the “chasing after the football sequence” is such an assault on the senses (at least in the cinema) that I heard it already being mockingly parodied by members of the audience on leaving the cinema (it has to be said that of the three people I went to see this with, only one of them liked it a bit while the other two seemed to fairly actively dislike/ridicule it... always a sign of a good movie).

The third part is, again, great for fans of gialli in that it features such iconic images as the black leather gloves, the big bugger of a stabby knife and even at one point, a briefly and deeply redish reference to David Hemmings attacking the plaster wall in Argento’s Profondo Rosso!

And all this done with a brilliant, enhanced sound design which sounds just like the exaggerated sounds you would find in Alan Splet’s wonderful soundscapes for the early movies of David Lynch (so think giallo mixed with Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and this will give you some idea of what to expect).

And then of course, as you inevitably do with many of my reviews, you come to the music... and in Amer it’s quite important. Any doubt in your mind that the directors aren’t consciously employing a “giallo style” to their movie will evaporate as soon as your hear the first notes of the music used in this film. It’s one of those needle drop scores which has been assembled from music from other films and this one quite specifically uses the music from three famous gialli... and what a thrill it was to hear them belting out in really great, crystal clear sound from the speakers in the cinema. More specifically, the music mostly comes from three movies which have a very distinct and visual style... and since their are two very distinct visual approaches to scoring gialli (there is the atonal meets jazz style scoring of films like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Short Night of the Glass Dolls and there is the Goblin inspired progressive-rock style scoring used in movies like Deep Red, Tenebre and Sleepless), it’s interesting to note that the makers of Amer went with one specific style as opposed to a mixture of the two. Specifically, the three most blatantly used scores in Amer seem to be from (to my tired old ears)... Bruno Nicolai’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, Ennio Morricone’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula and Selvio Ciprianni’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters? I think there are probably a couple of others in there but certainly those ones are fairly prominent. The musical selections are also very sparsely spotted so they are certainly quite stand out, in that they’re not buried in the usual wall-to-wall musical overkill which a lot of modern movies are burdened with.

All in all, then, I can unhesitatingly recommend Amer to anyone who loves looking at the way the raw building blocks of the language of the cinema can be used to manipulate the senses and attitudes of an audience... this is definitely “future text book” stuff and I can’t wait to see what this writing/directing team do next. A genuine, for once, roller coaster ride of a movie with sounds and images which will be haunting you long after the last frame of celluloid has uncoiled from the projector and I can’t wait to pick up the DVD! Lucky for me the R2 rush-release DVD comes out towards the end of this month then! Hurrah!

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Another Leigh

Another Year 2009 UK
Directed by Mike Leigh
This film recently screened at UK cinemas

There are three things I can always rely on when I go to see a Mike Leigh movie...

1. It’s going to be really, incredibly depressing... but hey, I don’t mind that. And his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky kinda caught me out on that in that the main character was such a positive live-wire... an unusual departure for Leigh I feel. Although it has to be said that there were also moments of great pain and depression and hurting, damaged souls walking around on the lead character’s peripherals... so not too much of a departure then.

2. I will be in the hands of an assured, confident film-maker who has never once let me down and who will ensure that, even if the subject matter of the movie is not to my taste, the movie will never flag or be boring or be anything other than riveting.

3. It will always feature some of the greatest acting performances ever committed to celluloid.

And that last bit’s very important when it comes to Mike Leigh because, in my humble opinion, Mike Leigh is one of the all-time great actor’s directors.

Seriously, if you’ve never seen a Mike Leigh film and you regard yourself as someone who is interested in the art of performance then you should seriously check this guy's films out because the ensemble casts of these movies kick serious acting arse and any performance in any of his films would put most acting Oscar winners to shame.

And Another Year is certainly no exception to this rule, populated by a cast of characters that will make you laugh, cry or cringe in their on-screen personae.

I think a lot of the credibility of his characters stems from the fact that, according to a live post-movie interview I saw after the movie Womb with two of the actors who also happened to star in Another Year (Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), Leigh doesn’t start off with a script and goes into a movie, instead, with an intensive period of rehearsal with the actors to shape and grow the characters and the situations which shape the course of the movie. This is quite evident in his movies and it’s very much like that expression they use for big budget movies which have a lot of scenery and special effects... you know when people say they can see the “money” all up there on the screen? Well in Mike Leigh’s case it’s definitely a case of... you can see the prep time with the actors all up there on the screen!

This was a gripping but hard movie to watch because one of the main protagonists, a needy and downwardly spiralling character played by Lesley Manville, reminded me so much of someone I used to know. And there was another character in there who is even more tragic in some ways than this pitiful wreck of a woman and I thought... wow, that could almost be me in ten years time! So not an easy film for me to watch in those terms.

Don't get me wrong though, Another Year is a great, great movie and it does the usual Mike Leigh thing of not really having a start and end point... and just meandering along at its own pace without coming to any kind of conclusion... other than the conclusions you might yourself make about the lives of the characters on screen. I’d single out some actors or actresses but, as is always the case with Leigh’s movies... everyone in it was absolutely brilliant.

Now, I’ve always found this director's movies a bit hit and miss but not in the obvious way... as I’ve more or less said earlier... they’re pretty much all brilliant. I do however, have an acid test for movies which I like to apply to everything I see and it is this... would I want to watch it again. With Leigh’s films it is in this aspect that I find him hit and miss. Certainly with Naked - in my opinion his greatest film, if not one of the all-time greatest movies ever made - then I can watch it repeatedly and often. The same goes for movies of his like Life Is Sweet, Happy Go Lucky and High Hopes (starring the lovely Ruth Sheen who acts her socks off again in Another Year playing a somewhat similar kind of character, I think). Others of his movies, Vera Drake or perhaps All or Nothing, I could only ever watch once. I don’t need to see those again as I won’t get a buzz out of repeat watchings for those particular films.

Another Year sits in the second category for me... I couldn’t watch it again... too painful. But if it sits in that second category then it certainly sits there proudly. Because, repeat viewings or not, this movie joins this director's other works as being one of the finest films made for the cinema. If you’ve never seen one of Leigh’s movies before, you should definitely check it out. And if you have seen his movies before... c’mon, you already know the score with this film-maker. It’s a must-see. So track it down soonest.

Sunday 9 January 2011


Unstoppable 2010 USA
Directed by Tony Scott
Screening at UK cinemas

You know I’d really like to write that Unstoppable is a hurtling express train-ride of a movie delivering fast thrills and surprises to anything standing in its path. I'd like to... but I really wouldn’t be justified in doing so.

Similarly, I was more expecting to be able to write that Unstoppable is a dull, lumbering, slow train of a movie with more station halts than you can comfortably shake a stick at... but that wouldn’t be fair either considering that, in spite of the content of the movie, it’s actually quite an entertaining piece of popcorn fodder cinema.

I think the key to Unstoppable lies not in its casting... which is actually quite good, but in it’s director Tony Scott... who has always proved a dab hand at these kinds of films (although personally I prefer him when he’s tackling stuff like The Hunger). And when I say that he’s the key to it... I really mean it because no great performances (and the performances are all more than competent in this movie) are going to save this dud, cliched script from being the completely predictable abomination it is... only Tony Scott, the director can do that... presumably because he’s throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it.

So let’s see what we’ve got then. A just redundant old timer working his last two weeks on the job (played well by Denzel Washington) and young newbie with a back story Chris Pine (that’s the post-Shatner Captain Kirk) risking certain death to stop a hurtling missile of a train crashing on a bend and wiping out a whole town when it goes down because of its cargo. Seriously folks, the only real difference between this and The Cassandra Crossing is the lack of passengers and disease ridden people and the fact that the main protagonists are not actually sitting on the “train of doom” in this one.

My reaction to this movie by about a third of the way through was... “I can’t believe that Hollywood are still churning out films this dumb and formulaic. Surely a modern audience is not going to sit still for this level of obviousness?” And it’s true... I can’t. What audience was this movie made for? What’s going on?

But Tony Scott at leasts uses the language of the cinema to make it visually exciting and suspenseful... using lots of fast whip pans which even the credits sequence and location/time intertitles use as their animated make-up in order to push the whole “things are happening fast” massage home to you... ramming it down your throat as fast as it can. I don’t know how he does it but he manages to make the whole thing watchable... even if you are writing the characters script in your head as you watch it and it plays out exactly as you would expect... even down to the “have your cake and eat it” conclusion of the movie.

The truth on this one lies somewhere between those two opening statements I made about what I was wanting and expecting this film to be like. It’s not a terrible movie and I certainly didn’t mind spending a couple of hours of my time at the cinema to see it... it was fairly fun and you can just switch your brain completely off on this one. I wouldn’t watch it again but it’s certainly good enough for some light-hearted entertainment. Just don’t expect to go home on this one with a sense of having watched anything with a sense of fulfilment or accomplishment... it is what it is. A popcorn movie pure and simple. See it if you have some hours of spare time on your hands.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

My 200th Blog Post!

Please click image above to "embiggen!"

Tuesday 4 January 2011

A Corpse In Every Port

Port Mortuary 2010.
By Patricia Cornwell.
Little Brown Jug.
ISBN: 9781408702352

I got a little bit worried about Patricia Cornwell for a while. Every year for the last fifteen years or so I have had a Christmas ritual of getting given the latest novels by Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs and reading them over my Christmas holiday one after another. I usually whizz through them quite quickly but this year I’m a little behind on my reading because the Christmas season seems to have been a little more “packed” for me than usual.

Cornwell’s Scarpetta books have mostly been brilliant since she started writing them but I remember a period of a good few years which ended, maybe three or four years ago, when I noticed she’d kind of lost her edge with the characters and... to my amateur thinking... got very sloppy with her writing. Honestly, there were a couple of books in another series she was writing as well as in her long running Scarpetta series where I thought she’d really lost it. Things seemed to be unexplained and then the audience were referred back to them even though we hadn’t known anything about them. And in general... it just seemed like she was preoccupied with other things in her life and I was, frankly, shocked that the publishers let one or two of them out in the state they were in.

That’s an awful criticism to level at anyone and I don’t do it lightly. It didn’t coincide with her shift from telling the Scarpetta stories in first person narrative style to third person... it was a year or two after this. And I kept telling myself... oh, look. Even Ian Fleming had a couple of rubbish ones in his Bond series. The Man With The Golden Gun anybody?

I’m glad to say, though, that the books soon picked up quality again and the last few years have been really tight, gripping reads from the woman who is basically the Queen of the modern day crime writers (Kathy Reichs definitely runs her a close second though). I’m quite sure in years to come, Cornwell’s investigative forensic scientist (or whatever the current nomenclature is... don’t shout at me, I’m not very technically minded) Dr. Kay Scarpetta will be as well known as some of the other great literary “detectives” of our time. Certainly she wouldn’t look out of place in the company of Sherlock Holmes, Joseph Rouletabille, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlow.

Her books and characters are quite intensely focussed and written with a razor-like sharpness which rivals the quick efficiency of one of Dr. Scarpetta’s scalpels as she slices into a dead body to look for clues. It’s the kind of writing that hooks you in and won’t let you rest until you get to the, often quite unexpected, solution at the books end.

Port Mortuary is no exception to her brilliant Scarpetta adventures and matches the intensity of her previous work and, if anything, kicks it up another notch or two. It’s also a return to a slightly different style of writing the characters in that, for the first time in years, the inimitable Cornwell has returned to writing the story in first person from Scarpetta’s own viewpoint. Now this is interesting and I guess there are pros and cons to working the characters in this way.

Cornwells books have always been a bit edgy in that the mortality of the regular characters, especially in the early days, has always been up for grabs. You never knew who was going to wind up dead next and about the only character you could be sure was probably not going to die was that of the fictional author, Dr. Scarpetta herself. All that changed, though, when Cornwell switched to writing them in third person and my natural assumption was that Cornwell had maybe finally got fed up with the character she had created and decided to switch to a writing viewpoint with which she could kill the character off unexpectedly if need be. And so the books, for the most part, became an even more intense read because you were always fearful, as you were reading through these things, that this could be the last book in the series and that Scarpetta could pop her clogs any minute.

Switching the books back to her old “first person” perspective allows for greater mystery (you don’t know what any peripheral good or evil characters are thinking because you are no longer in their heads) and allows for more surprise in the actions of other characters but at the same time gives you the message that Scarpetta is narrating all this... so it’s not likely she’s going to die anytime soon.

Port Mortuary is quite a focussed bit of writing in that for nearly all of the near 500 pages, all the action of the novel takes place pretty much over a 24 hour period (although obviously events pertaining to the current investigation are filled in by the relevant characters keeping Scarpetta up to speed). It also tells the story of a cover-up operation which Scarpetta colluded with in the early days of her career and which has been haunting her since. I’m not going to tell you what that is though... spoilers!

There was a lot less of my favourite Cornwell character Lucy Farinelli in it than I would have liked but she’s certainly represented in the plot as it also includes references to increasingly alarming nano-technology... and in her forward at the start of the novel, Cornwell is quick to point out that she is not writing science fiction here but science fact. So... something new for me to worry about again. I do wish Cornwell would write a series of books specifically about Lucy Farinelli at some point... but I guess she would have already done that if she’d have thought that was a commercially viable option.

All in all... Port Mortuary is a really great book giving you another giant dose of the near super-human (in intellect) Doctor Kay Scarpetta and fans of this writer and of this character in particular certainly won’t need me to tell them to pick this one up. A solid, good piece of writing from one of the great modern writers. Go get it!

Monday 3 January 2011

Some Like It Potter

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
2010 UK/USA
Directed by David Yates
Screening at UK cinemas

It’s not that I don’t like the Harry Potter movies in general... it’s just that I’m kind of indifferent to them in some ways but I have to admit to usually, on most of the entries in the series, being rather pleasantly surprised at just how competently made and entertainingly diverting they can be for a couple of hours. But I usually forget about this and when I’m dragged along to the cinema to see the next one (always by my parents, who seem to like them), I’ve usually convinced myself that the franchise is nothing more than a bloated, dead carcass of a passable children’s literary adaptation as opposed to what it really is... the films that they will put on TV at Christmas and Easter over and over again for the next 50 or 60 years until the inevitable remakes take over.

And so it goes with the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As usual I find myself at the cinema on New Years Day to see this one (New Years Day or New Years Eve seems to be a favourite choice of day for seeing big budget kids movies) and as usual I’m sitting there waiting for the movie to start, watching endlessly tacky ads and calculating just how many hours I will be stuck in there. And then, as is the norm for the Harry Potter series, the film starts and I am completely sucked into the plot and story. Now you have to understand that I’ve never read any of these books, nor have I ever had any real desire to do so. So any observations I can credibly make about this film preclude any pretensions as to whether or not they are in any way a good adaptation of the novels in question. I’ll have to leave that side of things to more Rowling-friendly reviewers.

Where that actually benefits me, though, is the fact that I can see how the story works in the movie for itself without bringing any prior knowledge of the books with me. And I have to say that, plot wise, these movies seem to do very well. Maybe it’s because the plots are so simplistic but... well, lets put it this way. I only ever see these movies once, when they play at the cinema. I’ve never been tempted to rewatch them on DVD. And every time I go and see the next one I assume I’m going to be really confused on the storyline... but I’m not. It’s mostly very clear to me what’s going on in these movies... at least on a very simplistic level. For example... I know that Harry Potter has to find these host vessels called, apparently, Horcruxes. The destruction of these things will weaken the evil bad guy (who really is quite evil in these stories) and lead to his eventual destruction so Harry Potter will no longer be hounded by the obsession of said evil madman, Voldemort, to hunt down Potter and destroy him (this would apparently have bad consequences).

In this film our heroes Harry, Ron and Hermione find and destroy one of these Horcruxes... and I think that means they have about four more to grab in the next and final installment (coming to our screens later this year). I don’t know if anyone in the context of the story has considered the possibility that one of the Horcruxes might be using a living person as a vessel yet... but from the way the plotting goes I don’t see how that can’t be. Some friend or foe is going to have to die along the way I guess... there seems to be a lot of death and pain in the Harry Potter series. These may be kids books but they are certainly very dark kids books if the movies are anything to go by.

Saying that... I’m still not 100% sure that Dumbledore is dead (as shown in the last movie)... and I’m really never that sure that bad guy Snape is actually really a bad guy. Frankly... if Dumbledore is still alive then it would have been a set up involving Snape anyway. I think Snape must be Dumbledores “double agent” in Voldemort’s dark horde.... but I’ll have to wait until the next installment to find out I guess.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a long, long film and I’m happy to report that, for this scribbler anyway, it doesn’t flag or get dull even once... despite there not being a great deal of physical, kinetic action in this one. I’m happy to report that there are quite a few long, slow sequences with our heroes in hiding where there’s hardly any dialogue and the medium of film is actually used more as a purely visual (and musical) medium... giving itself over to the one thing that producers mostly like to stay clear of these days for some reason, but which cinema can do equally well without relying on voice over narrative to express an internal monologue... the art of depicting characters in reflection and thought without seeming flat or dull. These scenes held my attention rather than distracted me.

The music is pretty good... it would be since it’s one of this generations finest score composers Alexandre Desplat... using Williams original Potter leitmotif very rarely and with just enough of a deft touch to remind you that you are very firmly in the Harry Potter universe. Now I went into this movie knowing that the remarkable Desplat had done the score and so could just about detect some slight, characteristic trademarks in his musical style apparent in the movie... but these are so rarely invoked that I have to say, if I hadn’t had known it was Desplat then there’s no way I would have pegged it was him doing the score. Don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing but it’s certainly a feather in his cap that he can so completely immerse and blend his own stylistic voice and weave it into the score without overstating himself in his music in order to serve the continuity of the movies themselves. Well done geezah!

I haven’t got much more to say about this movie to be honest. It’s a very dark entertainment with some, more than competent, performances by some of our best loved national treasures (David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters etc) which has now, unexpectedly, whet my appetite for the next installment. An unexpected treat and one which I’d urge anyone who liked the previous installments to rush out and see at their earliest convenience.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Nailing Hammer

The Art of Hammer 2010.
By Marcus Hearne.
Titan Books. ISBN: 978-1848567375

I don’t look at enough poster books, I’ve decided. I always like looking through them but the lack of words always makes them seem like a less meaty proposition to reading a quick novel. I don’t know why because, once I brave the lack of comfort which a well typeset page of text brings to me, I am invariably caught up in the rich colours and garish “movie type” which such rare treasures of lurid propaganda ultimately reveal to me... reaching out it’s 4 colour arms to embrace me in it’s seedy charm and hyperbolic copy-writing.

Marcus Hearne’s wonderful collection of posters from one of the more unappreciated of the successful British Studios, The Art of Hammer, is a case in point. Neatly split into specific periods from the studios rise to it’s disappointing fall, the posters tell a story of sorts as you can see how the success of picture after picture brought the inevitable sequel of a sequel.

There are some really nice examples of the companies amazing posters inside and some of the captioning on the posters is extremely interesting as it points out interesting little facts about how the poster has had to be changed or fascinating notes about the history of the poster design. The little gem that some objectionable elements had to be removed from Count Dracula's hands on one poster, for example, which has the ultimate effect of making him look like he’s holding his hands up in celebration after just having scored a goal. Or the fact that one of the poster’s Dracula images is actually a self portrait of the artist, as the new shots of Christopher Lee to work from had not turned up in time (and when you know this, it really shows... I can never look at that poster again and see it in the same light).

If I do have any complaints about this really excellent book, it would be that examples of some of the artwork I wanted it for did not have a section covering it at all. Specifically, I wanted to see all the posters for the Hammer films which had posters painted to secure a film deal but which were never made. I’ve seen a fair few of these reprinted in magazines over the years and they’re, in many ways, a lot bolder and sumptuous than many of the posters to the movies that actually got made. It’s disappointing then that none of these excellent posters actually made it into the book... but then again, I’ve got my fingers crossed that the clever marketing department at Hammer could bring a second volume out with all those in. The Lost Art of Hammer or some such would make a more than adequate stocking filler next Christmas.

The book also includes posters for films which some younger generation fans might not have realised were Hammer films... such as the big screen Hammer versions of Man About The House and On The Buses. An eye opener for some of the younger fans I expect.

I was surprised that Hammer didn’t take the opportunity to include the poster artwork to their new production, Let Me In, at the end of the book. This would surely have helped cement in people’s minds that “Hammer is Back”. Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. This really is a startling volume and fans of good old lurid poster art should celebrate in the release of this book and make a purchase. It’s good crack for horror poster junkies like myself.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Best Stella

Curved Space:
The Adventures of Stella Star 2010.
Edited by Richard Dean.
Createspace Books. ISBN: 9781453725320

Back in 1978, there was the awesome film called, by decree of the producer, Star Crash... a bit of a B-movie epic and all-round general fun ride of a movie. This movie starred the always lovely Caroline Munro in the lead role of Stella Star and my review of this movie can be found here...

Now we have a new collection of short stories picking up where the film left off and giving us new tales of Stella and some of the other characters from the movie.

There are a few styles of different forms of science fiction writing and, when it comes down to pure science fiction without any levels of heroic fantasy or horror thrown into the mix, there seems to be three major strands of sci-fi writing, as far as I can make out. Style Number 1 would be the hard edged, high-tech sci-fi of people like Arthur C. Clarke and are mostly not my thing (although technically I guesss, Jules Verne would fit into this category and he very much is my thing, so maybe I should just modify that one right now with... I prefer the ones written prior to the 20th Century).

The second of my sci-fi story categories belongs to what I call “soft” sci-fi and this is the kind of science fiction I can read a lot... basically the kind of fiction that writers like Philip K. Dick do best where the realms being explored are the limits of the human psyche and the way we interact with our environment and drugs and love and emotion and how these humanistic categories can be pushed and developed through the introduction of science-fiction concepts to places and speculative destinations which they would be unable to reach in a conventional scenario. This is the science fiction of “ideas” and it’s easily the kind of stuff I much prefer to read over the other of my personal sub-genres of sci-fi.

And then there’s the space opera stuff. You know... the run, jump and shoot of science fiction tales where a spaceman’s gotta do what a spaceman’s gotta do, his six shooter becomes his high energy laser gun and his horse is transformed into his personal spaceship. Got nothing against these kinds of tales but I personally don’t read these kinds of things much... again though, when I do read these I prefer to read the oldies and nothing much from the last 40 or so years. Give me John Carter of Mars and others of his ilk if I’m going to read stuff like this. I much prefer to see the big budget movie equivalents of these kinds of tales, rather than read the stories themselves.

However, that being said, Star Crash is itself one of these “oaters of the stars”, so I have to say that it’s appropriate that pretty much all of these stories fall into this third section of my little genre splits. Not too big on ideas but certainly plenty in the way of alien hordes eating the dust of Stella Star’s perfect, leg hugging, thigh high boots or tasting the electric death of her improbable art-deco laser weaponry. I can’t blame the various writers here for churning out adventuresome tales among the stars rather than explore the inner recesses of the human condition. This is Stella Star we’re talking about here, after all.

As you would expect in compilations of this nature, the stories are a bit hit and miss in the way of quality and I think it would be unfair to pick apart individual stories and praise or blast them when this kind of literary entertainment can be so uneven. What I will say though is that I would have preferred a sense of continuity between the stories (there is none) or, barring this, an individual, one paragraph intro to each story or writer to ground the reader in the fact that all you’ve read in the story before is no longer relevant (since we’re pretty much dealing with the same few characters from story to story). It can get a bit disconcerting when you’ve been told that Simon and his father The Emperor (from the original movie) are dead and Stella is on a quest for revenge... only to have them turn up as the family in the next story. I wonder how many of these stories were actually commissioned for this specific project and how many were just lying around in homage for years in other media (such as the internet?).

However, the stories are entertaining enough and you really don’t have to think too much. It’s a very quick read and the large spacing on the leading on the font used also ensures that you’ll speed through this one at a rate of knots. There’s a lot of humour, though a lot of the writers seem almost obsessed to slip in exactly the same references to David Hasslehoff’s future career (he played Simon in Star Crash) in the form of KITT from Knight Rider and Pamela Anderson in a bikini running along a beach in slow motion... from Baywatch. Still, the sequence where Stella beats up the Pam-bot is quite fun and, although the writing style of a lot of the tales isn’t really my kind of thing anymore... they certainly don’t betray the tone captured in the original movie (which I’ve seen waaay too many times and still counting) and are completely appropriate to the source material.

In other words... it doesn’t let the movie down in any way.

The book includes a forward by original movie director Luigi Cozzi and a previously unpublished excerpt from an unused portion of the script by him. It also includes a forward by Stella Star herself, the first lady of fantasy, Caroline Munroe... who’s every word I’m quite happy to hang on. She actually sold me my copy of the book herself and personalised it for me... which still has me dancing on the air a bit :-)

Curved Space: The Adventures of Stella Star can be purchased from all good book retailers. The tome is illustrated with some great pictures of Stella in action and there’s an absolutely gorgeous painting of her on the cover which is worth the price of the book alone. Copyright prevents me from sharing that cover here on my blog but if you drift on over to Amazon here you can check it out for yourself!