Sunday 31 July 2011

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4 Episode 3: Dead of Night

Love At First Night

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4
Episode 3: Dead of Night
Airdate: July 28th 2011. UK. BBC1

Okay, so here we are at week three of the new Torchwood reboot and it's just beginning to look like it's a proper piece of sci-fi storytelling again as opposed to a series of set-pieces cobbled together with some loose threads. Not to say that their aren’t some really obvious “event sequences” thrown in for good measure, but the tone of this one was pretty level and despite the obvious loose cannon of Rex (who I’m sure will be dead by the end of the series anyway, if the new Torchwood team are successful?), the team seem to be working together as a whole and even Rex returns to the fold once he is reminded of the gravity of the situation.

So what have we got here then? Well, for one thing we have the slow, cross-cut plot details emerging like a photographer might develop a photographic print... and that print, in this case, is of a story with a lot of texture and detail in its telling. The various points coming across are beginning to seem that they were written for a modern comic book rather than a movie... and by that I mean to praise Torchwood, not bury it. It’s long been my belief, based on the evidence of comic books in the last 25 years, that the comic book medium is the place, of all the “visual based” media, where a writer will get the opportunities to tell richer and more adult minded tales... and by that I don’t mean “adult” as in “porn” or “violence” (I personally find the “adult” euphemism to be a curious contradiction when used in regards to the actual childish sensibilities on display in a lot of gory/sexy movies) but “adult” in terms of tackling less juvenile issues with a healthy attitude and a structural template which will allow these issues to be explored and re-examined over an appropriate period of time.

This week's Torchwood certainly lived up to these lofty aims with some very densely textured details and questions being aired as the mystery girl who is the link between Oswald Danes freed child killer and good gal Doctor Juarez leads us into one section of the story which will, inevitably and ultimately, bring these pieces into a direct crash trajectory with Torchwood.

Now there is someone who is making money off the plight of “the human race that can’t die” and this, in turn, makes you wonder about the assumed “alien nature” of the new human condition, with Torchwood assuming an extra-terrestrial cause to the woes of mankind. But by the same token, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, could have brought about this new condition other than alien intervention. Now, if I was an optimistic type and believed in artistic synchronicity between different aspects of an artistic property with no worries about the time factor, I would by now be thinking that the Owen character from the first two series of Torchwood was about to make a Lazarus-like appearance and be the obvious point of solution for the team... “oh, living-dead boy Owen has managed to resurrect himself from radiation meltdown after all... yay. Oops, he accidentally did the same for the rest of the planet in the process... oh well.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s that either so I’m pleased to say that three episodes in, I’m still in the dark. I don’t expect to stay that way for very long, but for now I’m happy.

This week’s set piece was the intercutting of two unnecessary sex scenes into the mix... not that I’m not a big fan of unnecessary sex scenes (who isn't), it’s just that these weren’t much fun, to be honest. That’s one of the few negatives on the show right now. Less sex and more nudity please!

The differences of English and American culture are dutifully pointed out by the new Esther character, who I’ve realised has been included just to point out these semi-amusing quirks of cultural divide and also to be the person the others can explain things to so the "whole" audience have no excuse not to know what's going on. Yep, Esther wins my “exposition gal of the month” award... or would if I had such a thing.

I’ve started to notice the camera work a little more now and they’ve gone for that thing they do a lot in Firefly and Battlestar Galactica with a constant, though mostly unobtrusive, hand held style which just follows the action and reacts to characters as they say or do something by honing in on them. Kind of like a cinematographic version of musical "Mickey Mousing" on a soundtrack... it will catch every slight action and nuance and that’s its job. Not very inspiring perhaps but mostly effective although, I have to say, I’m getting just a little bit fed up with it. Not very fair of me, I know, since its obviously a valuable item in the moving image toolbox. I’d rather see a little more smoothly paced and perfectly framed action I think, but confess I am kinda getting on a bit now.

So far, so good though and I am much more encouraged that this is going to be a good series on the whole... although the ratings seem to be going down accordingly and apparently there’s no guarantee (or even much likelihood if I’m reading the news stories correctly) that there will be a fifth series of the show. Which is unfortunate as I’m still waiting to see how Captain Jack ends up as a disembodied head in a jar for countless millennia! Maybe I’ll never know.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Mr Moto in Danger Island

Motosterious Island

Mr Moto in Danger Island 1939 USA
Directed by Herbert I. Leeds
20th Century Fox Region 1

Yeah, that’s right. Although the grammatically challenged title has been altered to something a little bit more palatable in the Internet Movie Database, the box, poster and finally the print transfered to the DVD definitely state that our intrepid hero Kentaro Moto, as played by Peter Lorre, is definitely in the said island and not on it. Rest assured though, regular Moto fans will not have to see their beloved character swallowed up by a raging lump of sand from the ocean in this one.

This is a pretty standard Moto film with most of the elements of Moto’s strong character on display although he doesn’t actually act as judge, jury and executioner on his lonesome as he did in some of his earlier adventures. I wonder if, by this point, the studio were attempting to soften the character down a little by paring back on the character’s vigilante brand of justice?

Certainly, though, the rough and tumble element is ever present. The film starts off in a cruise ship with Mr. Moto and a young lady watching a wrestling match on deck. One of the wrestlers, played by a young and uncredited Ward Bond, is distracted by Moto’s explanations of the art of wrestling to his lady friend and consequently loses the match. Of course this means it’s time to pull Moto into the ring so the wrestler can give Moto a chance to show off his judo throws to the paying public at the cinema. The wrestler's real opponent takes a shine to Moto’s technique and good nature and, from this opening sequence until the end of the movie, this second wrestler (named Twister McGurk) acts both as Moto’s right hand man for the duration of the adventure and also as the quite likable, fairly effective, comic relief character.

This is a pleasant enough film and Moto even repeats his trick of “going fugitive” in an attempt to gain the confidence of the criminal element in the film... although this doesn’t really work this time around and Moto and McGurk find themselves in a sticky situation. All's well in the end though and the movie climaxes on a boat chase before reverting to a sequence where Mr. Moto demonstrates his judo throws on McGurk one more time... he’s actually been doing this at McGurk’s request all throughout the movie but it really doesn’t get too irritating by this point... maybe just a little.

As usual the film is packed with regular character actors doing their thing, each one looking more suspicious than the last, but for the life of me I couldn’t actually identify any of them this time around. I knew all their faces though.

But perhaps the face that sticks out the most on this one is Moto himself... who seems to be wearing some ridiculous, dark complexion. Lorre’s make up looks really weird on this one and I hope that this is the one and only time that the studio tried this effect out. He certainly stands out form the crowd but certainly not in the best way.

All in all though, this is another cracking Mr. Moto adventure which packs diamond smuggling, swamp lurking, kidnapping and lots of randomly placed judo throwing demonstrations into its short running time. If you’re a fan of these kinds of movies then you surely won’t be disappointed in this one.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

The Happening

What just happened?

The Happening USA/India/France 2008
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
20th Century Fox Region 2

Warning: There be spoilers happening for this and other Shyamalan films in this article!

I think I’ve talked about M. Night Shyamalan on my blog a few times before. He’s a very talented director and writer who, mostly I feel, just slightly misses the mark when it comes to delivering on the set ups of his movies. Plus he’s really not very good at hiding the obvious conclusions that can lead you to the ending of the film, sometimes within just a couple of shots at the start of the movie (case in point on that was The Village, a movie which telegraphs its ending on shot number two by the way it’s put together).

Shyamalan first came to my attention when I went and saw The Sixth Sense at the cinema... this was an okay and scary film but pretty much within the first 15 minutes you can figure out that the lead character is pretty much dead... what other explanation would there be for the nature of the performances and the pretty blatant sleight of hand within the camera work.

Unbreakable was a more satisfying film because the writer/director kept you concentrating so much on the question as to whether the central character is or isn’t a superhero, that the real twist in the movie kinda leaps at you in the last couple of minutes... that was the only time I’d been impressed with the ending of a Shyamalan movie but it really doesn’t matter in some ways because, even though the camera kind of gives things away in his movies, the end result is usually entertaining whether you got there before the characters in the movie or not.

However, Shyamalan’s big problem was that, by the success of those two movies, his reputation has been kind of cemented as a guy who makes big budget Twilight Zone style stories and because of that, the audience is expecting a clever (oh, okay, maybe not so clever) twist at the end and so, when he tries to make a movie without a twist, everything about the brilliance of some of the way these movies are put together gets thrown out the window by an angry audience who are out for blood. Signs had exactly that effect on me because... well it’s a Shyamalan film so it must have a twist ending, right? So there I am watching an interesting movie about a possible alien invasion and all I’m thinking all the way through is... “no Shyamalan’s gonna be smarter than this, this isn’t aliens, this is something clever and brilliant which I haven’t quite figured out yet but I’m sure the revelation will be absolutely awesome and we’ll all kick ourselves for not seeing it earlier”... and then it turns out to be aliens. Seriously? What the f-? That kinda let me down big time with Shyamalan’s work (and don’t even get me started on The Village properly ‘cause I’ll tear it to pieces).

The Happening is another case in point in the problem with having a reputation of dealing twists and then not delivering on them... which is a shame because this movie has such an intriguing set up that it’s impossible not to want to find out what’s going on in it. And, like Signs, that’s the major downfall of this movie.

The films starts brilliantly with loads of people in a large park and other areas of a suburban city freezing for a few seconds and all but a few of them succumbing to “something” which makes them all kill themselves in the most hideous (sometimes) but convenient ways. There’s a brilliant sequence where dozens of builders walk off scaffolding to their collective demise. A national emergency is called and our hero Marky Mark Wahlberg and his wife and his friend and his friend's gooey, cutesy daughter go on a road trip to try to escape the epidemic of suicides that is happening all over the country.

Early on Shyamalan cleverly puts what I thought was a red herring in your mind... Marky Mark is a teacher and “nature’s defence mechanisms” are discussed. Then, later on in the story he further builds on this ridiculous premise by having a guy who owns a nursery suggest that the plants on the planet have had enough and are spreading a pollen which causes mankind to somehow kill itself (yeah, right). Unfortunately, for anyone watching this film, it turns out that in the end of the story what has been happening is that “the plants on the planet have had enough and are spreading a pollen which causes mankind to somehow kill itself”... wow! Deja vu!

Seriously, this isn’t really good enough. Okay, so the guy may have written himself into a corner with a brilliant set up which he then couldn’t explain... or it might have been his intention all along... but to keep dumbing down to the lowest common denominator and giving the audience a blatant commentary all the way through about what’s causing the problems is a terrible idea. It would have been better if those sequences had just been cut and the plant thing was a big reveal at the end... except he couldn’t have done that because by about three quarters of the way through the movie, the dwindling supply of survivors are using that explanation to stay away from trouble... so maybe an approach would have been to categorically state that this was the explanation in some way so that audiences didn’t get their hopes up for a better ending... that way the response may have been a lot more positive I would expect.

The trouble with this approach is, like all of Shyamalan’s films, the movie itself is absolutely brilliantly made and riveting to watch... right up to the end where it all caves in on itself. This guy does not end well is my opinion. But, if you’re the kind of person who can see past the weakness of one section of a movie and appreciate the rest for what it is, then you’ll see that Shyamalan’s actually a subtle blend of the celluloid sensibilities of Hitchcock and Spielberg and that he is an artist worth keeping an eye on.

As always in his films, his greatest collaborator here is composer James Newton Howard who, for some reason, always manages to deliver an absolutely top notch, knock it out of the park masterpiece of a score for Shyamalan (where he often doesn’t do that for other directors) and this one is no exception. There is a scene in this movie where our “survivors” go past a car with a parking alert sound on and I believe that same sound is the basis for this score as it is echoed, deliberately or not, in the bricks and mortar of the notes that comprise the main title. The standalone CDs of these things are always worth picking up because Howard’s true musical genius comes to the foreground on these projects.

And that’s really all I can say about The Happening. It’s very simple... if you’re the kind of person who cares about the ending of the movie and this overshadows everything else you’ve seen getting there, then The Happening is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, the ending is not going to wreck it for you and you can happily watch an interesting study in the art of cinematic suspense, then The Happening is definitely worth a look as Shyamalan usually handles the semiotics of shot flow and edit like a real auteur. And listen out for that beautiful score which creeps up on you like a ghost... it's all good stuff.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Wake Wood

The Waking Dead

Wake Wood 2011
Directed by David Keating
Hammer Films Region 2 DVD

Warning: Yes, there are big spoilers here for those of you who have not seen it.

While I generally like a fair few of “old school” Hammer Films, I’ve been pretty disappointed with their recent releases as a rule. Their return to the big screen with Let Me In was, by far, inferior to the original Swedish movie (although both movies took substantial liberties with the original source material) and their recent movie, The Resident, suffered from disappointing second and third acts which didn’t really take advantage of the set up... at least that’s the way I saw it.

I find it strange, then, that this third “modern Hammer” movie was not released at the cinema and gets a straight-to-DVD release as, frankly, it’s actually quite watchable and entertaining and I would certainly had liked to have seen this one on the big screen where it belongs.

That being said, there’s not an awful lot that’s “too” special in Wake Wood... it’s pretty much taken the famous short horror story The Monkey’s Paw as its starting point, but it does add a couple of little twists to it that are kinda neat... although not exactly mind blowing.

The film starts out with shots of a troubled couple's car journey to the village of Wake Wood, which is intercut with the couple's backstory as their young 7 or 8 year old daughter is killed by a dog and the journey is all underscored with a piece of music that can best be described as a rustic version of a John Carpenter power theme. The father is a veterinarian with a boss played by consummate professional Timothy Spall, while the wife is the owner (?) of the local pharmacy in Wake Wood. It’s in her capacity here that she finds out about the sinister and knowing underbelly of Wake Wood which is something akin to the closed communities in the original The Wicker Man or an episode of the original TV series of The Prisoner, although it’s depicted here in very quick and broad strokes and so loses a little of the weight and intensity it might have found if the film had ben allowed to wander at a more leisurely pace.

So saying, though, the pace is somewhat blistering (you won’t get bored on this one) as the couple find that they can have their little girl back for “three days only” as long as they obey the rules... a) she doesn’t cross the boundary lines (which would destroy her it turns out) and b) she has to have been dead for no longer than a specific amount of time (think it was a year).

The couple agree and they borrow somebody else’s fresh corpse (part of the procedure) and the village community rebirths their little girl in a fiery ritual worthy of a Dennis Wheatley bestseller. As it happens, however, there’s something a bit wrong with this young girl and she acts a little differently from other regular rebirths the village indulges in... and when I say “acts a little differently” I mean she goes around murdering assorted village locals who want to send her back from whence she came.

After a while it all comes out that the couple had broken the rules and she’s ben dead longer than the prescribed time... when they eventually find the trail of corpses left by their little angel they join in the manhunt (err... dead girl hunt) and the mother tricks her undead young ‘un back into the ground... but there’s a catch and once the initial story is finished, there’s an interesting little coda set a while later which I won’t spoil here, suffice it to say that the husband's skill at cutting open cows so they can birth their young is a skill which is about to come in very handy to him after the credits have rolled. The worst is yet to come... although I don’t expect we’ll ever get to see a sequel and, to be honest, it doesn’t really need one.

Wake Wood is a nice, little atmospheric horror film and, the thought struck me as I was watching this, it would really not look out of place as an episode of the original TV show Hammer House of Horror... it has that kind of vibe to it. Personally I could have done with the movie being about a quarter of an hour longer so they could slowly build on the feeling of having such a close-knit community in the village, but I guess the powers that be were thinking of the MTV generation audiences again... slow and delightfully ponderous is not back in fashion again yet, it seems. If you like old-style, early seventies horror movies though, even if this one is not exactly scary, you’ll certainly want to take Wake Wood out for a spin. It’s certainly the only one of the recent batch of releases from Hammer that certainly would not look out of place with their rich back catalogue. Worth a look!

Saturday 23 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 3D

Hallows Goodbye

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 3D 2011 UK/USA
Directed by David Yates
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning: There are going to be some spoilers in this one.

Ok... so if you read my review from earlier in the year of the first part of this final Harry Potter adventure (right here), then you’ll already know my fairly passive relationship with this particular film franchise... but just in case you didn’t read that one... here’s how I stand on the series so far...

Haven’t read the novels. Seen all the movies once at the cinema and not unimpressed with them but less than overwhelmed with them and not that fussed about them... until we came to the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, which I really liked.

Ok, end of recap of this blogger's Harry Potter reviewing credentials... let’s get down to business.

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a while because I was quite disappointed by it... and I know less than stellar views of hugely popular movies do sometimes tend to attract some negative comments from those film's respective fan bases. I think I probably wouldn’t have been feeling so let down on this one if it wasn’t for the fact that the last one was just so good. Also, for once in a Harry Potter flick, I actually found myself a little lost in terms of just what the heck was going on in this one (for once in this series).

I think that last conclusion is because of my unfamiliarity with both the books and the movies. That's because I don’t repeat view these ones... I tend to see them only once, although I have to admit to now feeling tempted to rewatch the whole lot on DVD (time to raid my parents DVD collection). Two things I have to say about that though, because I am not taking the rap for my lack of interest in the previous movies as being a cause for not bonding emotionally with the source material.

One... it didn’t have a recap at the start! Golly people! Even the old Flash Gordon serials used to have a recap at the start of each episode. Pardon me, Mr. Studio Executive, if I wasn’t fanatical enough about your original product to go out and buy the DVD and obsessively repeat watch it until every last detail of every last frame was ingrained in my memory so I could catch up on your money-spinning franchise. I went in there assuming there’d be one at the start but, instead of that, it just picked off from where it left off and expected you to remember that Harry was linked in his mind to the chief bad guy and that he and his spell casting young friends are trying to destroy camouflaged objects called horcruxes (or some such) which sap away the soul of the prime villain of the series. A recap would have been really useful.

Two... this movie turns into the wizarding equivalent of the second half of Return Of The Jedi about two thirds of the way through. The dark forces are aligned and an army of bad dudes is descending on Hogwarts School, to destroy Potter, and a big battle royale between the forces of darkness and light turn Hogwarts into a ruin of a school as Harry’s pals and colleagues die like flies on the field of battle... trouble is, I didn’t know or remember who any of them were. The names and faces meant next to nothing to me. I’m sure people who are heavily emotionally invested in the series or those who have read (and reread) the books would have had a really big reaction to the deaths on screen as they happened... but honestly, there was one scene where everyone was crying around a corpse and they flashed you a quick image of the dead person’s face and I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman who had been killed, let alone who the character actually was (they didn’t seem to clarify further later on in the film and I’m still yet to find out who the heck died there. Someone please tell me already!).

I reread my review of the last one just now and have to say that I was at least right about two things... Snape wasn’t exactly the bad guy and the last horcrux was actually inside a living person... although I hadn’t actually twigged that this particular person would turn out to be Harry himself (but honestly, if I’d have been on top of my game and watched these movies again I would surely have figured it out before the end game in this installment).

So that’s why I was mainly disappointed with this one... I got kinda bored with it quite a lot and I just didn’t think that it was as cool and dark as the last part (it was the same director... really?) although I know most fans of the series would disagree because of their favourite characters dropping dead left, right and centre.

And then the kicker was, when all is done and dusted, we have a little end sequence which is set 19 years after the events of this one... the main characters are all made up to look a little older... except that the make-up doesn’t really make them look older in any way, shape or form and you end up wondering how these teenage heroes (yeah, I know but teenage in terms of characters they are playing, okay?) can have offspring who are almost as old as they are.

The other folly of this film is that the 3D is awful (it’s a transfer over and not shot in 3D I suspect, right?) and completely unnecessary when you do happen to spot something that looks like it might have entered that eerie third dimension. I’m sick of 3D now... let’s give a big, warm welcome to the return of 2D please.

So there you have it... not the best verdict on the film I could have given perhaps but I still hold a vast admiration for the overall competency and general appeal of the series in general. These are not badly made films people (even this one is still pretty good... despite my complaints) and I’m sure these films will be remembered for a very long time... or at least until Warners decide they want to remake them again... um... purely for artistic reasons, right?

Either way, it doesn’t really matter because Harry Potter fans are going to have a good time with this movie regardless. So if you’re one of them and you still haven’t seen it yet... what are you waiting for?

Friday 22 July 2011

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4 Episode 2: Rendition

What Condition My Rendition Is In

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4 Episode 2: Rendition
Airdate: July 21st 2011. UK. BBC1

Now that’s what I’m talking about. This episode was much, much better and it was "all over" the spirit of Torchwood, even in the lengthy scenes away from the two surviving members Captain Jack and Gwen Cooper. The three new series regulars Rex, Esther and Doctor Juarez were all sensational and I expect we’re supposed to be thinking now that these three will be joining the Torchwood team for any future series', should they get made. However, I suspect at least one of these three characters will be killed off before the end of the series... after all, one of them is technically dead now already and given the mortality rate for regular characters in Torchwood, anything can happen.

I guess they’ll need to start making that point to the larger audience they are expecting sometime soon so I’m expecting at least one of these characters to drop out early in the game... but I sincerely hope not because all three of them are beginning to grow on me already.

Carrying on exactly where it left off last week, this episode sees Gwen torn from the side of her husband and child and flown with Jack to the US, prisoners of the CIA... however, there are conspiracies afoot in the CIA and the rot starts with Esther’s boss, played by the “Ahh, Ahh, Ahh!” guy from Jurassic Park (wow, how lazy at research am I? Ah, leave it. Everyone knows who I mean when I say “Ahh, Ahh, Ahh!” guy. He was even on the pinball machine). A faction of the CIA are already gunning for Torchwood and now it’s been properly clarified that, while the world has turned immortal, so Captain Jack has become mere mortal, which means we’re probably going to see a lot of “Jack in peril” type situations over the coming weeks (even though we know he can’t die because we’ve seen that happen already in an episode of Doctor Who, set in the far future of Jack’s timeline).

This weeks assassination attempt came in the form of a poisoning with a cure which was, to be fair, a little more protracted and milked than a similar scene in The Girl Who Was Death episode of the original series of The Prisoner, but perhaps not “quite” as much fun. However, this sequence where Gwen Cooper is strong-arming her captors as she orders them to strip the plane of ingredients for the antidote cocktail she is making on the instructions of Doctor Juarez is both comedy gold and Torchwood writing at its best. It also shows the ballsy character of Gwen again, played with absolute perfection as always by series regular Eve Myles. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if her performance in this show sees her heading back to the US sometime soon for some stateside roles. People are bound to sit up and take notice.

It was good to see the very bleak Torchwood humour was back with a vengeance, best seen after Rex snaps the neck of the CIA agent who tried to poison Jack. Since nobody can die in the world depicted in this story, said CIA lady stumbles after our escaping heroes but proves ineffective and, it has to be said, highly comical. The look that passes between Jack and Gwen is comment enough on this turn of events.

The pacing in this weeks show was fantastic as we are quickly made aware of unforseen developments to the trouble mankind is in because it can’t die out anymore. Never mind the population explosion, another worrying threat is that the antibiotics given to horrendously injured but undying people will just, over the course of time, allow various diseases to build up resistances to various medicines and disease will be rife within the human race. Since the prospect of intervention at a massive scale seems probable (divine or otherwise) then this could be a set up to turn the ability to die back to the "on" position and let humanity die of its own lack of resistance to numerous illnesses.

Of course this is all very bleak stuff and, so far, we’re being lead to believe that this is all a symptom of something to do with Jack’s ability to die and not heal himself... but here’s the thing. Jack would inadvertently heal himself every time he took any kind of side swipe or mortal wound... but the people of earth in this story really aren’t doing that. They’re all left in various states of dying or perpetual living death so there’s a good chance, I reckon, that they’re not exactly suffering from what ails Jack. So in this instance that might well be a red herring from the writers. It will be interesting to see if the end explanation for all this turned up, “our goes up to eleven” existence is written as being extra-terrestrial in origin or is a symptom of “man meddling in things he can’t understand." My best guess right now is that it’ll be a little of both.

As this episode ends our band of flung together “regulars” are on the run from the law (Rex and Esther having been set up by cloak and daggery faction of the CIA) and we have the introduction of a new character who is currently selling herself to her customers as a PR woman... those customers being Doctor Juarez and the executed-but-not-died-and-free-to-roam-legally killer pedophile, played marvellously against type by Hollywood actor Bill Pullman... who I’ve liked ever since seeing him as a young actor in Kasdan’s big screen adaptation of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. I think this PR woman is going to turn out to be a lot more than what it says on the tin so I wouldn’t be surprised if her role starts growing now in leaps and bounds from week to week.

All I can say at this point is what I know... and that is that if this episode is anything to go by (as opposed to last weeks misfire) then this is going to be one intense TV show. It’s left me wanting more of the same next week and that’s quite a turnaround because I’d all but lost interest in the show after the first episode. I hope it doesn’t all come down to who’s writing the show because, and I find this surprising for a serialised story that follows a single arc, their are a few different writers on different episodes... so I’m kinda hoping the quality doesn’t drop down again next week.

Keeping my fingers and toes crossed that this second episode is the start of something good.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-garde

Hear The Blood Of Dracula

Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-garde
Written by David Huckvale
McFarland Press
ISBN: 0786434562

When I bought this book I was pretty sure I was buying into something I wasn’t really going to fully understand, to be honest with you. After all, the scores used in horror films are, for the most part, less tonal and much more complicated than the kinds of scores used in other kinds of movies and, since I don’t read music, I was expecting a much less comprehensible (to me) but ultimately more satisfying experience (I might learn something) from this book than what I got here.

Let me say, before I get into all that though, that this book is a really entertaining, well put together and easy to read publication. My real problems with it, and they are minor problems and I’m probably the only reader whose going to have those, lie in the exploration of the relationship of the music in the context of what Huckvale calls “the musical avant-garde” in that, the author states an intention at the start of the book... and then takes us on a merry tour of absolutely fascinating and first-hand, straight from the horses mouth anecdotes about, or by, the composers themselves, without pushing his points as much as I would have liked.

Stating, quite correctly, that horror movies are genuinely the biggest audience for certain styles of musical composition which includes atonal music and twelve tone serial music where the audience is not necessarily aware that they are listening to such things is an interesting thought to ponder when the audiences for concerts of such music (always popular in musical lessons throughout recent decades and probably a mainstay of compositional study to this day) are so small and these things are barely programmed in, when compared to classical music by composers who use melody and harmony in their work. However, I can’t agree with the authors claims that the Hammer and Amicus horror films made in Britain from the mid fifties to the mid seventies are necessarily, as claimed, the first exposure that audiences to these films would have had to these styles of composition in a cinematic context. And while these scores may well have been as influential on contemporary horror score writing as the writer claims, I can’t help but think that some of those late thirties and onwards “Universal Horror” scores by such mainstay composers as Hans Salter and Frank Skinner had some interesting passages which invoked a certain musical disharmony worked in with the more melodic writing which they also captured to an extent in their work. In fact, as I’m writing this now, I can hear Hans Salters early fifties three note motif for Creature From The Black Lagoon echoing around my head and I’m thinking to myself... well this really wasn’t meant to do anything but disturb you... musically it’s really not supposed to be that easy to digest.

What we have here then, is a less rigorous approach to the authors own intent which, while not sloppy, is certainly a little less analytical than I’d have liked for the majority of the volume (it does have its moments however)... and I guess if it had been more rigid in its exploration of the music in more technical terms I wouldn’t have understood a word of it so, in a way, I’m slightly disappointed but certainly grateful.

That being said, the book is jam packed with some really interesting stories about a whole slew of Hammer and Amicus composers and I was particularly interested to see both Elizabeth Lutyens (whose music I know from her brilliant and as yet unreleased score for The Earth Dies Screaming) and Richard Rodney Bennet covered in the text. Odd little production tales and the occasional analysis of the way the music works in certain movies make for a very entertaining, if quick to read, package and it’s especially useful when a score which hasn’t had a commercial release, such as The Satanic Rights Of Dracula, is discussed. I have the 19 albums of Hammer scores and compilations that GDI put out years ago but the majority, if not all, of these score CDs are no longer in print so this is a good book to have if actual musical samples are not to hand, although some first hand familiarity with the style of musical writing used in these particular movies would obviously enhance the readers experience of this worthy tome.

One other thing I noticed was that, although it’s an American book, the language used on the occasions that the author does get into the music written on the page seems to be mixed up between British and American terminology from chapter to chapter. For a while Huckvale will be talking crotchets and minims, which are terms I understand, and the next he’ll be talking about thirds and fourths, which I don’t. I found this a little confusing and it made me wonder if, perhaps, certain chapters of this book were sourced from previous works and essays.

Not much more I can say about this one to be honest... while less exploratory in sheer musical analysis than I was hoping for, it certainly is a joy to read if one has any interest in the music of these kinds of movies and it’s certainly a quick and jolly entertainment that everyone will be able to understand without knowing too much about music. While I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wants to really study the scores of these movies as a necessity, it’s certainly of interest to people with a basic love of these kinds of scare-fests and their musical compositions. This book will certainly make you appreciate that you don’t have to just Taste The Blood Of Dracula... you can hear it too!

Sunday 17 July 2011

Potiche (Trophy Wife)

Potiche Time

Potiche (Trophy Wife) France 2010
Directed by François Ozon
Playing at cinemas now (just about).

I’m not sure there’s too much I could say about François Ozon’s new (to this country) film Potiche. Certainly it’s a fun film, based on a stage play the director had seen ten years earlier and set in 1977. The director and cast, among them French legends Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, certainly seem to be having fun and the whole proceedings seem to be injected with the same campy humour that suffused the same directors brilliant 8 Women, rather than being in sympathy with the razor sharp twist Ozon who gave us the haunting Swimming Pool (that very last shot really turns the whole movie around!).

The story is pretty much a farce where a barely significant trophy wife played by Deneuve takes over her licentiously unfaithful but ailing husband’s umbrella company (originally her fathers and essentially her dowry) and turns it around into a major success before family politics get in the way. She does, however, go on to bigger and better things by the end of the movie and, of course, all the “factory business” brings her back into contact with the mayor, a socialist “commoner” who she had a sexual liaison with some years before and, naturally, their spark is rekindled somewhat.

This is a colourful film with some nice little laughs (although I didn’t laugh as loud as the upper-middle class London audience, it has to be said) and while it’s certainly a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, there were definitely, in my humble opinion anyway, some missteps along the way... and they’re mostly about the tone of capturing something that’s supposed to be set in 1977. This seems out by about 20 years, as though Ozon's looking back through such a miasma of nostalgia that he’s overplayed things completely... because this movie looks and feels like mid-fifties/early sixties cinema.

The music doesn’t help things either... seriously, I absolutely adored Philippe Rombi’s score for this one, in fact it’s mostly what I was concentrating on and enjoying throughout the whole movie (which says to me that it’s pretty overscored) but it sounds definitively Bernard Hermann from the same period I mentioned above. There’s one sequence where Deneuve first drives to see Gerard Depardieu in her car and then walks a long corridor in a block of apartments... the driving sequence reminded me very much of the scenes of Marion Crane’s flight from her misdeeds in Psycho and then it all gets filtered through the sensibilities of Vertigo as she walks down a corridor lit in red and greens and all the while the music is telling me... Herrmann/Hitchcock/ Herrmann/Hitchcock/ Herrmann/Hitchcock over and over.

Other sequences play out very much like an old 60s Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicle... but this kind of tribute was better done in Down With Love (to perfection) and, again, seems oddly out of place for a movie which is supposed to be set in the same year that Star Wars came out in cinemas. A token scene with a disco thrown in, whether it was done in the original stage version or not, does not really seem to make up for the lack of period authenticity. So this mixture of unique periodic vegetables are perhaps more of a potage than a potiche.

The trappings of the stage show have also, as one would expect, not been fully overcome. Like many movies based on theatrical productions, this movie is mostly interior scenes with external locations looking like they’ve been tagged on to open up the settings a bit...but frankly, I don’t mind this too much because if I’m seeing an adaptation of a play then I’d much rather see something closer to the original piece, I suspect, than something which has been completely changed around to give the story a more credible image to audiences (like myself) who are unfamiliar with the original stage production.

Hmmm... it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on this film but I’m really not. Potiche is a perfect example of a movie which depicts female self-empowerment and it’s also got some laughs, terrific performances and some nice production values along to boot (even if those production values seem to have overshot their retrofitting by a couple of decades). And I think all films which deal with issues of female empowerment should be supported and watched... especially when they’re playing to limited audiences in a cinematic environment where rampant summer blockbuster are dominating all the screens by themselves on multiple, staggered screen performances. This release is not well timed to find the audience it deserves methinks... so you might want to seek it out while it’s still, barely, around in some areas.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Torchwood - Miracle Day 4.1

Passing the Torch

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4 Episode 1
Airdate: July 14th 2011. UK. BBC1

Hmm... since I’ve only been blogging a year and a half and have not had a chance to review the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood before in a public space, I think maybe I should give you a little history of my own experiences with the last three series’ of Torchwood before kicking off into a review of episode one of the fourth series.

When the first series came out 5 years ago, we were all excited about it over here in the UK because this was the first time that we’d had a spin-off show from a popular TV show, Doctor Who and the name Torchwood or The Torchwood Institute had started to get referred to a little bit in the good Doctor’s show to get us all primed and ferocious for the series premier... and all in all I have to say that I was very disappointed with the first series back then. Since then I’ve re-watched them all on DVD and am not quite so disappointed now with them, I think my expectations of what the series was going to be possibly got in the way of me being able to accept that series on it’s own terms a little bit... although I still say that the first year of Torchwood was hands down the worst series of the show we got (so far).

I think we were all expecting more Doctor Who references on the programme (after all, even the shows title is an anagram of Doctor Who) but apart from a few cynical references to The Doctor and an episode featuring a cyber-babe, we had to wait until the last minute of the last episode of the first series to hear the familiar sounds of the TARDIS... and that was all we got, the last episode dovetailing into a new Doctor Who adventure in the main series which guest starred Captain Jack (and an important three episodes they were, dealing with the return of The Doctor’s famous arch-nemesis The Master, this time around played by both Derek Jacobi and John Simm in two incarnations).

Aside from that though, I think that first season had some bad writing in it. It was trying to be adult without wanting to really ruffle anyones feathers was my opinion of it... and as such was a huge let-down. The pacing seemed a bit out and the dialogue just sounded too... well too English school-marmy for my taste. Everything was so prim and proper and you got the feeling half the time that the shows writers (and Russell T. Davis is an excellent writer and producer to have on anything, by the way) were just doing things to impress the audience which just weren’t that impressive.

However, good fortune inadvertently smiled on me because I persevered where, frankly, every other friend I had who was watching this show dropped out of it by the middle of that first series (and none of them have returned to watching it by the sound of it, which is a pity because Torchwood suddenly got to be compulsive viewing a short time after).

My secret weapon, at the time, was that I had a girlfriend who liked it and insisted on watching it (otherwise they would have lost me too). I groaned when I heard she wanted to watch the second series when it came on but dutifully sat with her to watch... and I’m really glad I did. Torchwood Series 2 was like a fresh breath of air to jaded British TV... it’s like the producers and writers really listened to viewers perceptions, analysed what was right and wrong about that first series, and managed to completely fix everything. The second series, right from the opening hook in the first five minutes where the crew chase down an escaped fish alien, was absolutely brilliant. The pacing was great, the dialogue was clever and extremely witty, it was a TV show that had got itself more than just a fresh lick of paint... this was suddenly a great show. Even if they did kill off the best two characters at the end of the series.

And then the BBC decided they didn't have enough money to carry on so the third series was a 5 part serial which aired in one week over consecutive nights... everybody was disappointed with this decision but it has to be said that the result of this, Torchwood: Children of Earth, was also quite brilliant and dramatic. And both critically and in the ratings was an absolute sensation.... so of course the plodding BBC let it wallow for more than a year without commissioning a new series, presumably because of budgetary restraints again?

Luckily (perhaps) a US cable chanel has jumped in to fund a fourth go at it and the right, honourable “Russ T” and his brilliant producer Julie Gardner have brought us a show which I’m still confused about in regard to it’s title. I believe that over here it’s called Torchwood: Miracle Day and in the US it’s called Torchwood: The New World. Ether way... we get to win on this side of the pond because I believe our episodes are 5 or 6 minutes longer over here. My guess is they’ve cut out a lot of the uniquely British bits in the US to make way for advertisements?

And I also have to say that, quite surprisingly, after my viewing of episode one of this 13 part serial (man, that’s one long story arc) then I’m almost, but not quite, as disappointed as I was with that first season... but this is, after all, only the first episode so I’m figuring (hoping) this is gonna get real good, real quick).

There’s two real problems I’ve got with it at the moment. One is... it looks and feels like any generic, US made TV series... it seems to have lost a lot of that edgy Britishness that it had and looks maybe a little too slick for something like Torchwood. That’s okay though... I’ll get used to that, I’m sure, as soon as it gets a bit more edgy (fingers crossed).

Because my other problem is that it really does feel very formulaic at the moment. It’s exactly what I was expecting it to be... and that’s really not a good thing. Even the action sequences were things we’d seen before... rockets entering a dwelling through one window and exiting via another window, helicopters flipping out of control and just flying over the heads of “our heroes” etc. We even had a major character skewered through the chest in exactly the same way as the husband and child got killed off at the start of Neil Marshall’s The Descent... we’ve seen it all before.

Same thing with the Ret-con and standard Torchwood procedures (and emergency drills)... I guess this is a big jumping on point for US audiences though, so it’s understandable for now.

But, there were also some nice sequences in it, like the man who is blown apart and later decapitated but who is still conscious and alive throughout this process (the show deals with a world unable to die). Also the fact that Captain Jack has suddenly become mortal since his run in with the Daleks at the end of Christopher Eccleston’s first season of Doctor Who. Interesting twist that. After all, we know the ultimate fate of Captain Jack Harkness and we’ve even seen his ultimate death in an episode of the companion show, hundreds of years in the future, so we know there’s no actual threat to Captain Jack in this series... although I do put it to you that he could wind up decapitated by the end of the show... that would tie in with things, wouldn’t it? Although I doubt if they’d want to do that to John Barrowman’s career in the two shows just yet.

The real problem with the events occurring on Miracle Day though, of course, is that if it really is related to what normally “afflicts” Captain Jack then they’re going to have to get into the whole Rose Tyler powered up by the heart of the TARDIS where she inadvertently gave Captain Jack his passport to immortality (I like to call it the Rose T-virus)... that could be an awkward one to dovetail into a “jumping on” series. We’ll have to see what happens on that.

So, yeah, some nice things about the show, certainly... like Captain Jack's use of the name of a former Torchwood team member Owen Harper as an alias or the little flourishing musical references by Murray Gold to the old main theme of the show whenever Captain Jack does something particularly Captain Jack-ish... although I was surprised to see they’d dumped the old “chase/action” theme in favour of something less striking... never mind.

Also, though, there’s been no real references or explanations as to Captan Jack’s sudden return to earth after the death of his lover and the guilt over deliberately and painfully sacrificing the life of his grandchild at the end of Torchwood: Children of Earth. But again, this is only the first episode and I’m sure they’ll get to it. I’m willing to forgive them a lot for a few more episodes due to the fact that Series 2 and 3 were so brilliant... I trust Russell T. Davies a lot so lets just be patient and see what he’s got for us this time.

The jury is out on Torchwood 4 for the time being.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Only Human 2009

Rouzbeh Rashidi's 2009 feature film Only Human is another intriguing work by a director who, every time I think I’m beginning to get the hang of him, seems to become more of a cypher to me. To be fair to myself on this one, although I’ve seen a few of his shorts, I’ve only seen one of his other features (Closure of Catharsis - reviewed here) and so maybe I’ll begin to see more of a signature pattern as I see more of his work.

There are certain things which seem intrinsic to Rashidi’s work on a picture by picture basis, but that’s more to do with his approach to narrative content (if he’ll allow me to use that term when approaching a set of works which seem to have no cohesive narrative object while still maintaining a narrative approach). What threw me most on this picture though is the extreme level of stylistic control maintained over something which is treated with an attitude of almost found footage. This wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

Once again this movie is shot in black and white (I’m not sure if Rashidi is really into colour as a source of his particular brand of “truth at 24 frames per second”). Right from the start you are confronted with a brilliantly framed establishing shot of a street scene where a silhouetted figure (the director himself, I suspect, in this instance) walks out into the street and exits screen left... setting up a very linear flow before the camera completely ignores going with that character and cuts to a close up of a window cleaner in that street. There's so much to take in on this and some of the other quite stunning long shots that you suddenly start noticing little details you'd missed 5 or more seconds since the shot started. Rashidi gives you time to look, which is a quality a lot of big budget directors are almost afraid to possess these days.

Shots cutting to closer details are taken from the less obvious parts of the frame (where this part of the shot initially has less motion or action than other parts of the shot) and then homes in on these as "other" potential "story possibilities" exit via the periphery of the screen as in the shot I just described. Thus, already, a pattern begins to emerge which, by the repeated insistence of relocating you away from where you were expecting the action to be, already sets up a rigid strategic device which I suspect the director was made more aware of in the editing process of making this movie than the actual shooting process itself (I hope I don't do him a dis-service in that assumption).

The act of cramming so much visual detail into some of the shots, cutting to some action within a shot and then, sometimes, going back into a more relaxed, less dynamic version of the initial establishing shot of a scene, reminded me of a similar technique used by Peter Greenaway in his earlier features. Also, in these kinds of segues he uses a technique which many directors, including Greenaway, Kurosawa and Friedkin, have used over the years as a form of transitional punctuation... that of shifting between two extremes of sound. For instance, a series of street shots which have become very dense and busy in terms of audio build up is abruptly ended with a stationary shot of a car to start the next sequence and the sound at the start of this shot is almost silent in contrast to the previous one. This is a good way to shift and set up a new emotional stance in your audience on a subconscious level.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, which at first glance might be considered to be quite simplistic in it’s attitude towards capturing the action. But this is misleading, it’s really not simple at all.

For example, other scenes where the camera cuts back from starting on medium shots to an establishing shot reveal little delights of framing, like when a guy kicking a can against a wall cuts back to him in long shot with a row of clothes pegs in the upper foreground of the shot... once again reminding you of the sheer density of the world out there! The framing of that particular shot, by the way, forms a nice little triangular pattern, leaving the figure fixed in his two dimensional plane only one way out... that of exiting via the bottom of the frame... which, of course, he does.

This shot is then echoed as this frustrated guy sits in a similarly triangular shot formed by some iron railings which metaphorically form the cage of this captive character’s existence. Further shots in this particular sequence serve to enhance this sense of an individual imprisoned by circumstances he can’t fight... the humdrum wading through treacle that drags all of us down at some point as we try to negotiate our daily routines or lack thereof.

A sense of control persists in shots of an organic nature too. There's a brilliant view of two trees blowing in the wind, one in foreground and one slightly in background, but the trees really only blow in the wind in their respective sectors of the shot, barely touching. It's like a Bergman shot of two people framed artificially against each other... only with trees! The absolute sense of rigid constraint in the shooting juxtaposed with the usual Rashidi qualities of a lack of expected narrative spoon feeding makes for a unique feel to the movie and one which I can both applaud in celebration while wrestling with the confounding and frustrating nature of this kind of modus operandi.

There are other things about this film I’m not so sure of in terms of intent but certainly they present themselves in an artistically coherent style, possibly by good fortune or by accident rather than as initial intent... but Rashidi is always, it seems to me, quick to capitalise on the quirks brought out in the actual physical act of making a film... just like any good director would be.

For instance, the subtitles in a few of the scenes are rendered in a standard typewriter font which is much less easier to read and it’s possibly another Rashidi barrier to digestion of an image... or possibly a serendipitous act due to not knowing so much about readability of fonts which also falls into the same zone of not letting your audience be passive.

There’s also the thing of pitching the quality of shots against each other. Some of the visual splendours of this movie are sharp and clear while other kinds of shots, often close-ups shot at night, are grainy. Probably a limitation of the equipment but one which seems to be something to be worked with rather than against is my guess from what I’ve seen so far of this director’s work. Certainly there’s an absolutely astonishing level of control over the tonal qualities of the shots on display in this one... whiter than white, blown out tones juxtaposed with dark blacks and very few greys in some sequences give the film an extra lift which a lesser director might not have thought of as an enhancement to the artificiality of this world, which in some ways perhaps owes a debt to Melville, to whom this movie is dedicated to at the start.

And it’s not just in the nature of the way events have been captured... or in this case perhaps I should say “corralled”. Like some of Melville's work, the film deals with the solitude of the individual and further establishes the alienation of people fragmented by the very technology which is designed to bring them closer together. An immersion into a proxy world created by technology as opposed to experiencing the rituals of their communication in the presence of other people. This is no better demonstrated than in a sequence where one character plays a first person shooter video game across the internet with a “friend”. It’s like the people in this movie are only ever prodded into some semblance of awareness when they are filtering their experiences directly through technology... such as a phone line, the internet or a television set.

Nobody in this movie is in any way happy and most of the time they are missing what’s right in front of them. Even when people (as in couples) are together, their disassociation is made blatant either by a visual highlight of the shot or by an attitude of indifference by the characters, all of whom are very much individuals rather than “other halfs”... a bleak world view which is brought to us by Rashidi in a crisply framed environment, bringing the fragmentation of the many pieces into sharp relief by virtue of the sheer beauty of some of those sequences.

Once again, Rouzbeh Rashidi gives us a challenging film which is both a joy to receive on a visual level but which is challenging by deference to its lack of fulfilment of the blatant promise of narrative cohesiveness... characters are set up and intercut from sequence to sequence, but this just serves to enhance the tension of the lack of closure, or sometimes even explanation, as to the nature of the way in which any of these characters may, or may not, relate.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said before in regards to Rashidi’s work, I don’t see how this kind of cinema can cross over into making an impact on the mainstream cinema goer... and whether thats a desire of this director or not is something only he will know. However, it is a quite brilliant exemplification of cinema as art and any lover of film and the language of film will probably find something interesting peeking out from between the frames at them. I found it, once again, a most refreshing movie to watch and it has my full recommendation if you can get an opportunity to see it. I'm looking forward to sampling some more of this director’s work in the near future.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Oxford Murders

Murder Most Mathematical

The Oxford Murders Spain/UK/France 2008
Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Contender Films Region 2

The Oxford Murders, based on a Spanish novel I’ve not read yet by Guillermo Martínez and directed by Álex de la Iglesia, is one of those rare cases where a film with little or no advertising or pre-release hype and practically no exposure in cinemas comes out of the blue and stuns you and grips you and amazes you with the absolute genius of the sum of all its parts... those parts being brilliant camera work combined with astonishing editing, fantastic performances (including some surprising cameos), amazing scripting, fascinating dialogue, haunting music and, all in all, just a general mastery of the art of the cinematic form that you wonder, when it’s over, what just hit you.

I never got the opportunity to see this at the cinema when it was initially released. I think it was only out for about a week and I remember (or maybe that should be don’t remember) there being pretty much no warning of the film other than an accidentally heard half of a radio appearance by John Hurt to bring it to my attention. I wanted to go see it but I just didn’t have a chance at the times it was showing on its limited run.

But then, a month or so later, a guy at work gave me a copy of it on DVD-R which he’d downloaded from the internet (and as per usual with such things these days, the bootleg was in the proper aspect ratio and was a crystal clear transfer). Since I wasn’t going to ever pay out for a copy of this movie without having actually seen it first, I saw no harm in accepting and watching the film in question. I’m glad I did, obviously, and have now finally gotten around to purchasing a proper DVD copy of the movie so I could rewatch this brilliant gem in an even better transfer (debatable) and pay the movie makers back for their tasty celluloid confection.

I should probably point out the irony here that, since I would never have bothered to watch this movie after I’d missed it at the cinema if a pirate hadn’t fallen into my hands, then I would never have got around to putting money into the coffers of the people who made the movie. Um... so without a pirate being available, the movie company would not be making any money off me on that product. Hmm... I’m not a big fan of pirates and this was an exception as I usually prefer to wait for the official DVD release if I like a movie (although I will happily pay out money for a dodgy copy of something that is either banned or quite old but not been made available by a film company, since that’s probably the only way I’ll get to see a particular movie in my lifetime, in some cases) but I have to say that my experience of people who watch pirate copies in general is that the movie companies are really not losing any money on these things... since these people seem to be unwilling to pay out to see these things at the cinema or on proper DVD anyway, from what I can see. So in a way, pirate copies are a way of distributing a movie to a bigger audience with a fairly minimal loss (I expect) to the rights owners.

Anyway, I’m not getting into that argument here because, as I say, I would rarely buy a pirate unless it’s somethng that a company has withheld from release because they think there’s not enough profit in it... and thankfully they’re catching up now with their mega-expensive-but-at-least-it’s-now-available archive editions, which will hopefully kill off some of the opportunities for bootlegs over the next few years... although what happens when downloads take over is anybody’s guess.

Right... lost the plot a bit there, didn’t I?

The Oxford Murders is set in the present day, in Oxford (yeah, even in the Spanish source story it’s all set in Oxford... kinda curious) but it grabs you even from the start which plunges you straight into the trenches of the First World War. One lone man is writing in a notebook right in the middle of the conflict with explosions landing around him while his fellow soldiers look on from their point of, relative, safety. John Hurt’s narrative then takes over to explain just who this great mathematician/philosopher was and why what he was writing was so important that he couldn’t wait to scrabble to safety before getting it down. We then cut to present day and a lecture by John Hurt’s character which is telling this tale to a spellbound audience. We then flash just a little back in time to meet the other main male lead, played by Elijah Wood, before catching up to this lecture again where Wood trys to get Hurt’s attention.

I really don't want to say much about the details of the plot but the murders soon start and these murders appear to be based on a series of logically progressing symbols as our two main leads attempt to help the police with their enquiries (cue bumbling Police Inspector stereotype) where everyone is a suspect and a twisty, turny road towards an end game (of a kind) which you may at some point see coming... but I bet the movie turns you away from the final solution before it arrives there. There’s a fake ending on this movie where everything appears to be solved and tidied up but then... well if you’re going to watch this movie, make sure you stay right until the final scene set in the Victoria and Albert Museum is all I’m saying!

It’s a strange film as the camera work, sometimes static, sometimes on the move and often cutting between various different styles of shots really shouldn't work too well... but it so does. This film manages to sucker you in even when the combinations of shots, when you think about them after, probably shouldn’t really work together as well as they seem to.

The acting in this movie is really strong and that’s really not surprising since some great talents are at work in this one... and this coupled with some really delightful and quirky scenes makes for great entertainment. For instance, the sex-on-legs being known as actress Leonor Watling plays Frodo’s... er... I mean Elijah’s love interest in this picture... and seriously she is practically scorching in this movie. I can’t believe anyone can be this consistently sexy in scene after scene... and her introduction in a squash match where Elijah’s character has marked up the court mathematically so he knows exactly where the ball will be returning to depending on the angle it hits the wall at is both quirky and astonishingly alluring (wow... I’m getting astonished by this movie quite a lot aren’t I?). And Leonor’s introduction in this scene is like an application of deep heat to the loins in the area of arousing ones interests to a considerable acting talent (she was amazing in My Life Without Me, which by the way is another great cinematic triumph of recent cinema history) but here she just rocks!

And then we have Dominique Pinon who most people will recognise from his frequent appearances in practically all, that I can remember, of Jeunet’s movies (Delicatessan, Cty of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Mic Macs etc) playing a bit of a warped character who may or may not be the killer (you really need to wait for that last lilttle end coda to find out the depths or lack of people’s culpability) and, as usual, he commands the few scenes he’s in.

And then you have the wonderful director Alex Cox playing a man driven completely mad by the abstraction of mathematical thought, drilling a hole in his own head and watching his body lose limb after limb to a degenerative disease... it’s really quite something to see, the little vignette where John Hurt's voice over provides us with the story of this character. And fans of Torchwood’s Owen Harper will appreciate Burn Gorman’s turn as a similarly demented Russian student who may, or may not, also be a prime suspect in the series of murders.

And then you have the musical score by Roque Baños (I finally managed to track down a CD copy from Spain in the end as it does seem to be a tricky one to get ahold of for some reason... which is a crime in itself). A prominent Spanish composer you may remember from his very Hermmanesque score for The Machinist, he further cements his reputation as being an excellent mimic (in the best sense) of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for the films of Alfred Hitchcock with a similarly stunning score which really evokes and gifts the movie with a retro, haunting atmosphere which will leave you in no doubt of the genius of this composers work... he even gets uncredited appearances as the conductor of a local Oxford orchestra at a few key places in the film.

So there you have it... an absolutely stunning ride, this one, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who is into the art of cinema and has a love and passion of movies in general. You owe yourself to seek this one out... it’s really quite extraordinary.