Sunday 29 April 2012


Deadly Interview

Assassins UK 2011
Directed by Michael Bonomo
Available online now

It’s always very flattering when a director gets in touch and asks you to take a look at his short film. I’ve had this kind of request a number of times now but I’m always filled with a lot of anxiety before I watch these things because... well... someone’s taken the trouble to ask for my opinion and they’ll probably want me to review it and... what if i don’t like it?

So when director Michael Bonomo sent me a direct message on twitter about his short film Assassins, I had the usual mix of “well that’s really nice but what if it’s tosh?” feelings running through my head. This went on a little longer than usual because several, mostly stupid things, came up so it took me almost over a week to get around to checking this one out.

Happily, I’m glad (and relieved) to report that Assassins is a beautifully tight, well made little movie and I’m glad that the director is looking into turning this one into a feature length film.

The movie has only three actors in it but one of those is seen only in flashback... so it’s mostly a two hander in terms of the specific drama of the situation. It starts off with a chilling, nameless character played by a guy I’ve seen in two shorts now, Bill Oberst Jr, and he is waiting in his car for a first time assassin to finish his work. When he judges that enough time has passed for the man inside to have finished his job, he gets out of his car, enters the apartment and sits down with a glass of water... surprising the new assassin. Everything about Oberst Jr's character is meticulous and clean... which could also be used as poster-gal terms for the general tone of the movie-making on show in this one. Everything is very cleanly shot and designed and the action takes place in very utilitarian sets. Oberst Jrs character is very specific in everything he does, which includes wiping down all the surfaces where he could leave fingerprints as and when he does (yeah, right from the opening, the director is clueing you in to the professionalism of this character).

Highlighting “surfaces” is also a tactic the frame design takes, in that there are some great close ups of specific surfaces contrasted against each other... a gun barrel on a toilet seat, a rack focus shot of the owner, an image of a door handle which is then juxtaposed with an image reflected in a mirror as Oberst Jr enters the victims apartment. It’s almost like the agenda here is to subconsciously concentrate the viewers mind on the fact that the world of the assassin is a world of surface details which need attending to... look after all those little details and the rest will fall into place. I’m not sure if this is what the director intended from this style of shooting but it’s certainly a nice touch if he did.

Now I don’t want to give away too much about this little gem because I want you to discover it for yourself, but I will say that the weight of the drama on this one rests on the slow realisation of the would-be assassin (and the audience) that the two main characters are already playing out a relationship, which is kind of an interview process in actual fact, and that the whole thing is a set-up with Bill Oberst Jr's character being in something of a win/win situation. He is disappointed by his would-be protege but he is willing to let either one of two scenarios play out. Again, I’m not going to tell you what happens at the end but there is a certain darkness to the final half a minute or so of this movie which gives it a bit of “edge” where other movies with a similar concluding incident might lose out in the memorability stakes... that is to say, it’s not what happens at the end that is so dark... it’s the clumsiness and lack of professionalism associated with one of the characters in its execution which is what ensures it lingers in your memory a little once the credits have finished rolling.

The film is mostly scoreless, which works okay to highlight the very deliberate world of the hired assassin I guess but I think it could have maybe done with a little more, subtle musical emphasis throughout... especially if it was as sturdy and interesting as the end credits music composed by somebody called Kristen Baum. Nice work!

Okay, so that’s me done with this one, I think. I’d really be interested in seeing what this director will be up to in the future which, as it happens, looks like it’ll be a feature length version of this short... albeit with a slightly different plot line to the original version. This is where you readers come in!

This film is only ten minutes long so if you’ve got just ten minutes of your life you can spare in the next day or so, you could do a lot worse than clicking on one of these two links below and taking a look at this short movie for yourself. This film needs to be seen and giving a watch won’t cost you anything except ten minutes (depending on your net connection). Then if you like what you see, you could do a lot worse than tweeting or emailing the link to somebody else you feel might appreciate this short film too. There’s even a donation button on the second link where you can actually make a real difference to these artists and help them kickstart fund the feature length version by making a small donation via PayPal. It’s all good stuff and I think more movies should be funded in this manner because I suspect it helps nurture a less compromised artistic vision when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of filming... which is what this short demonstrates amply. A less compromised artistic vision. Something we all strive for.

But don’t take my word for it. Click on one of these two links and check out the movie for yourself. It’s only ten minutes long and it’s free... enjoy!

Go here or here

Saturday 28 April 2012

The Avengers

Some Assembly Required

The Avengers 
aka Marvel Avengers Assemble
(aka Iron Man 4, The Incredible Hulk 2, 
Thor 2, Captain America 2)
US  2012
Directed by Joss Whedon
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: There are going to be some pretty strong spoilers 
assembling themselves in this review... don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Hmmm... Maybe I was setting myself up for something of a fall but when the good word of mouth buzz about the new movie of “Earths Mightiest Superheroes” (as the tag line on the comics always used to read back when I were a lad and directly quoted by Rob Downey Jr in this movie) hit the internet, I was really expecting to like this film a lot more than I actually did. Don’t get me wrong... it’s not a terrible movie by any means and it’s an incredible task to be able to keep this many balls in the air in terms of plot points and multiple characters who all have to be major factors in this kind of film... it just fell a little short of my expectations and disappointed me a fair bit. This is usually something I try not to let happen... have expectations that a film will actually be quite good, that is. I always try to keep my expectations as low as possible to avoid this kind of disappointment but I guess the long slow tease over the last 4 years where The Avengers has been less than covertly promoted in various "slot in" sequences in 5 other films has artificially built up my expectations somewhat. This is, after all, a film which is a sequel to 4 other superhero franchises, where four of this particular team come from.

Maybe that’s my problem with it. All of those four characters - The Invincible Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and... The... um... and Captain America -  have to have some serious screen time to keep their respective fans happy and, of course, other members of the team (Black Widow who debuted in Iron Man 2 and Hawkeye who made his first on screen appearance in Thor) also need equal amounts of screen time... not to mention Loki and the other regular characters who are returning from some of the previous films... Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Doctor Selvig and Pepper Potts (regrettably, Natalie Portman’s character is referred to only in the context of a holographic photo). It’s an almost impossible task to cram all those characters into a movie that really, in my opinion, could have done with about three quarters of a hour of judicious editing down, and still have everything flowing the way a good story does... if story is what you’re after.

Truth be told, because of some of this, it’s a movie which does, in places, become a little dull and jaded around the edges without concentrating on any one thing for too long. It’s certainly weatherable because, in spite of all of this, there are some really great, kick ass moments in this movie, but I did find myself clock watching a little before the end of the movie, which is a little unfortunate.

Also, I thought there was a certain inequality in terms of character arc on this one. Thor, for example, appeared almost from nowhere and I still don’t know how he managed to get back to earth after the end of the last movie, when the rainbow bridge from Asgard to Earth was destroyed. Did I miss the explanation somehow through all the visual noise in this movie? Maybe so. 

I thought Captain America, Nick Fury and Hawkeye had a little less progression of character in this one too. Apparently the original three hour cut of this had a lot more of Captain America in it, including one sequence I would have really liked to have seen and which I would have expected to give the character a little more depth. His reunion with his 40s sweetheart from the previous movie (presumably as a very old woman now) was sadly left on the cutting room floor for the theatrical release but I suspect they’ll stick it out on BluRay when the time comes (not that I’m going to be bullied into buying a BluRay player just for this release!).

And to be fair to the Cap, he did get the best line in the movie. Two words when he was giving orders to his superhero army at the final battle of the movie. Just a quick order to a certain green-skinned goliath who more than fulfils this order... “Hulk... Smash!”

On the other hand... some of the main protagonists in the movie did get a much better character arc and sense of progression and, to be fair to the movie, were handled much better...

Black Widow is introduced in what amounts to a remake of the “tied-to-a-chair-fight” in the first Charlie’s Angels movie. Despite all this, the character manages to demonstrate her techniques of prizing the truth from people not once, but twice, over the course of the movie and her back story is fleshed out as something more like the Black Widow I used to know as a lad growing up in the early seventies as opposed to the travesty of the character as she appeared to be in Iron Man 2. As usual, however, Scarlett Johanssen does a pretty good job in the role.

Agent Coulson, although not exactly a major player but certainly a big series regular, is fleshed out a little more and makes the ultimate sacrifice in this movie by dying at the hand of Loki as he fights back (well, hey, look... when I say there are going to be spoilers in a review there’s going to be spoilers... you were duly warned). Perhaps not a major character for some but certainly he has a lot more screen presence than Loki, who is as dull and flat and useless as he was in Thor. Honestly, I don’t understand why people like this character so much because the guy playing him seems to have virtually zero screen presence... what’s up with that?

Tony Stark was pretty great in this. Not only coming up with ways to save the world and also a new way to put his suit on (as you just knew he would) but also, finally answering the big question which has kinda plagued the character since his inception as a guy wearing armour... is he really a hero? Captain America questions Stark’s ability to make a sacrifice for a cause and cites this quality as a true mark of a hero. In the final battle sequence Stark sacrifices himself for the planet and proves himself a hero (and in this sense, man of the match) but, of course, ends up surviving that sacrifice... since we already know Iron Man 3 (aka Iron Man 5 in my book) is due up for shooting soon. Plus we all knew by this point that we hadn’t seen the shot of Hulk catching him yet from the trailer.

And I’m saving the best character for last because, without him, this movie would not have got anything but a big thumbs down from me...

Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, as played by Mark Ruffalo (I guess nobody wanted to work with Ed Norton again... I hear he’s difficult on set?) really comes through and finally does the character some justice in this movie. I’ve always liked Mark Ruffalo as an actor anyway (seriously check him out in My Life Without Me and In The Cut) but a combination of his acting with some “not half bad” dialogue writing for the character (the original TV Hulk Lou Ferringo does the voice for Hulk on this one but Ruffalo did all the motion capture himself and the CGI Hulk’s features are obviously modelled after Ruffalo) really works wonders and the character positively shines in this one. He plays Banner as a much more confident, in control, kind of person... one who has come to terms with his lot in life and who is at peace with what is obviously a constant raging anger within him (he lets slip near the end that his secret is to be constantly angry all the time, which helps him tame the beast I guess). 

When he’s the Hulk, too, he gets three of the most attention grabbing and “physically” witty scenes in the entire movie. The first is when he and Thor (who he kinda dislikes after a fight with him earlier in the film) take out a load of aliens and they both stand triumphant... there’s some brilliant CGI comic timing as the Hulk does a little side punch into Thor’s head which sends him flying off screen. It’s a bit like a Ren & Stimpy cartoon.

The second standout Hulk moment is where the “evil” Loki starts “monologuing” in front of him about how humans are pathetic and they should all neal to him because he’s a God. Right in the middle of his speech he is interrupted by the Hulk picking him up and battering him all over the place like he’s a limp rag doll. I couldn’t hear Hulk's words to him as he walked off and left him smashed on the ground because the audience was laughing so hard.

The third wicked Hulkout moment is the bit where Iron Man is unconscious, presumed dead. Everyone is all sad and weeping and then Hulk just lets out a big roar right by his face and he wakes up! This was pretty funny.

I really wanted this movie to be more than the sum of it’s parts, especially as some of those parts were really shiny. Alas, I feel The Avengers is less the movie it possibly could have been. That being said... there’s plenty for both comic book afficionados and superhero fans to get their teeth into in this one. Lots of geeky references to old comics but I don’t want to give away too many of them (and I’m still trying to process them all) but I could almost swear there were even a few panels from the legendary four issue mini series Marvels recreated in this one. It’s been over a decade since I read that and the issues aren’t anywhere I could easily get ahold of them for this review (boxes behind boxes behind boxes) but it would be great if somebody reading this could tell me if the waitress looking at the battle from the diner window and her subsequent TV interview footage were taken from this tome. There’s a even an ALIEN reference when Banner is greeted by veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton (wearing his trademark hat from ALIEN and Paris, Texas) and they get into a conversation about... well... aliens. That was pretty good to see. I would say, however, that the inevitable Stan Lee cameo, which I was waiting for all the film and which didn’t surface until a few minutes before the end, was a little lacking in originality in this one. Probably his worst cameo to date.

Okay so, as you can tell right now, I didn’t love The Avengers but neither did I hate it. Of the six Marvel movies actually made by Marvel Studios themselves so far, I’d say it was my third favourite... far behind the first Iron Man movie and the Thor movie in terms of both quality and entertainment value and into the okay but not so hot status of the other three Marvel Studios movie... Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America: The First Avenger. However, like I said before, if you’re into comics and/or superhero movies, you’re really not going to want to miss this one... and if you’re a fan of The Hulk, well this is his best movie. Have a good time with it if you can.

Wednesday 25 April 2012


That Touch Of Clink

Lockout France  2012
Directed by James Mather & Stephen St. Leger
Playing at UK cinemas now

Okay... so movies set in prison are not usually my kind of thing but the title of this film is the least interesting thing about it and misleading in that it’s really not about prison... it’s just set in one. I saw this off the back of seeing a trailer for it in the cinema and it looked to me more like an action movie in the style of something like Escape From New York than a dyed in the wool prison movie... and it helped, of course, that it turns out that the prison is in space.

Now, the basic premise does share a modicum of similarity with the aforementioned John Carpenter classic, in that a man sentenced to go to this very prison has to go in and rescue the President’s daughter. That man is Snow (played by Guy Pearce from Neighbours) and the girl is Emilie (played by Maggie Grace, who played the dopey character in Lost). Right from the outset, though, this film establishes itself as a quality action product and not the dull prison-riot in space movie you might expect from it.

The opening flashback action sequences are pure “James Bond in the future” as we see the last 10 minutes of Guy Pierce in action as a secret agent on a mission which has just gone wrong. After an awesome fist/gun fight with a bunch of generic “bad guys”, his secret service friend is killed and he is given possession of what Hitchcock would have called a McGuffin (a term I hate but use here for simplicity and clarity). Suddenly, since it looks like Snow has killed his friend, his own people are gunning for him. He has to get a “briefcase” to his partner while avoiding everyone who is out to get him. He does so but is caught and sentenced to be imprisoned in “suspended animation” on a prison satellite for 30 years. But when the presidents daughter (who has gone to see just how well the prisoners in this place are faring) gets caught in a “break out” accidentally caused by the stupidity of one of her assistants, she and some of the staff of the prison suddenly become bargaining chips for the inmates who have all been let out of stasis and are very much running the asylum. Since half of them are suffering from either some kind of psychosis from the “suspended animation” techniques employed or have their own twisted, damaged outlook on life... running the asylum is exactly what it turns out to be. There are some decidedly unstable people in charge of things now.

Enter Snow (dropped in via a spacesuit and entering through an airlock) who is sent in by his own people to get the girl out and who agrees to do this because he is told by a friend that his partner Mace, who had possession of “the briefcase”, is now one of the prisoners.

That’s pretty much the set up and its about as much as I’m going to reveal here story wise. Now let me tell you about the film itself...

Well... it’s pretty great actually. As I said, it starts off with a James Bondesque action sequence including a very fast bike/car chase where the stock has been either treated in a strange manner or, as I suspect, there’s much more CGI going on in the chase than my mind could comfortably comprehend. Somethings been done to it and it looks kinda interesting and I haven’t seen anything quite like this short sequence done before on film that I can recall... for all I know, all the actors in this sequence were CGI too. There’s some kind of interesting texture or shake to those speed shots which give it a very unreal quality.

Guy Pearce is really having fun with this role. He takes the cliché of the standard “Bondian quip” up to the level of constant banter where pretty much almost every sentence out of his mouth throughout the whole movie is a playful joke or dig at something. You might think this couldn’t work or would dilute the script down to nothing but a parody of itself but, actually, Pearce manages to elevate this role into something extremely entertaining without losing the audiences trust in the character. Despite his constant jokes, you always feel that this guy can be extremely dangerous and is the ideal person suited to the role of getting Emilie out of harms way. With a lot of people I might say they were just overacting and got lucky... but I know Pearce from other movies and he’s a pretty talented actor. I trust the actor to know what he’s doing by delivering the lines in the very stylistic way he does in this movie (it’s really over the top) and he comes through in this one with shining colours. Also, when you find out his first name at the end of the movie and realise which Hollywood “film star” he’s named after, this larger than life style of acting makes perfect sense for the character.

All the acting is good here though... with special mention of Maggie Grace who also has a certain integrity to her character which you can trust and take to the bank. She’s a character who is deliberately stereotyped by other characters just so the audience can see she’s not that person at all and sympathise with her... works really well. Lot of respect for her in this one.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that there are two main villains in this one who are such a great pair of movie villain clichés but who play their roles really well and convincingly... and by that I mean one plays the role really nastily and out of control while the other plays the role really nastily and completely in control. Yes, you guessed it... we have two brothers who are inmates here and one is the loose cannon psychotic who just does whatever he wants and gets everyone, including his own people, into trouble... while the older brother is the controlling influence (as much as he can be) but who is just as nasty as his brother if you don’t do what he says. Like I said, typical set up and the two actors here play it beautifully. You’ll feel pretty anxious when they’re around.

Although the movie is filmed in English, this one’s actually produced by famous director/producer Luc Besson. I don’t know if he had much to do with the actual way this one was shot, designed and edited but, if he did, then it just lends credence to the fact that the French really know how to make a sci-fi/actioner (it’s a bit of a Western too) brimming over with coolness. Everything works really well in this one... the suspense scenes work well because the performances are so intense and the action scenes are actually edited in such a way that you can actually tell what’s going on for once. Hooray for that. So many movies these days are edited so aggressively that you just can’t follow the geography of the action and work out what’s going on. I often wonder if that’s because the crew sent to shoot the action work on some of these things just don’t know enough to get the right amount of coverage for the shots that are required. This one you should have no problem with. The action manages to be raw and aggressive without losing the audience comprehension. Perfectly put together.

So okay... the chemistry between all the leads is good. The acting’s pretty good. The action, editing and even the music is all good too. Besson eschews his normal techno sound for a good solid, almost John Barryesque score by composer Alexandre Azaria and it works really well. Azaria is, of course, no stranger to composing scores for films produced by Besson, seeing as he provided some pretty good scores for the second and third movies in The Transporter series.

The story, too, is kinda okay although, to be fair, you will figure out who’s really behind things by the halfway mark and you’ll just be waiting for Snow to confront that character when the inevitable scene comes near the end. You’ll also, I suspect, have figured out that the main characters are being told the location of “the briefcase” in a cryptic way long before anyone on screen realises (about half an hour before probably)... so that’s not great.

However, some slight weaknesses in the writing are more than compensated for by what surprised me as being a really well oiled action fest of a movie. Plenty of “blood n’ thunder” in this one, followed promptly by their mates “rough n’ tumble”, means that the movie never gets boring and though, it’s true, the characters are thinly drawn stereotypes for the most part... you will probably really like them and accept them as people you can get happily involved with for an hour and a half. A refreshingly well directed acting piece which I would love to see “sequalised” at some point. A Snow franchise would be more than welcomed by me if the craftsmanship on display is as good as it is on this one. If you’re into science-fiction movies or action movies or, heck, even Western movies... you might like to take a look at this one before it disappears.

Monday 23 April 2012


Hit or Miss?

Battleship USA  2012
Directed by Peter Berg
Playing at UK 
cinemas now

Wow... I never thought I would be actually having to write a movie review of this particular film in this tone. I mean, c’mon, you know a movie based on a very rudimentary childrens game is a stupidly conceived idea to begin with but you don’t expect the film-makers to make a movie as bad, if not worse, than you imagined they could make out of this material. I think this is probably going to be a very short review. So what have we got here then...?

Fire Torpedos: Ok... bad enough that you base your movie on such a slender premise. You then have the gall to promote it on a game of Battleship when you have completely moved the goal posts already and turned it into an alien invasion movie more reminiscent of a part of the Transformers franchise than anything to do with the original game.
Outcome: Direct hit to their starboard bow sir.

Target their weapons:  It’s surprisingly bloated. The main protagonist outstays his welcome before the title has even come up... while you spend a long, long time finding ways to show what a f*ck up and disappointment he is. We got it already within the first couple of minutes! You don’t need to pile on scene after scene of pseudo-character development as it’s both unfunny and feels like the running time is being horrendously padded.
Outcome: Hit! Main guns down, Captain.

Broadside against their port side: This film is surprisingly badly written. What’s the point of having commendable special effects when it’s so dumb? I still don’t know what the aliens were after, or why they weren’t killing unarmed humans. Nor do I know why they were trying to signal their fleet when it’s obvious they pretty much already knew how to get here. Seriously? This is fine... just... for six year olds. To anyone even approaching the age of consent, however, this is just going to look pretty dumb.
Outcome: Hit! They’re not in good shape, sir.

Hang on Captain, they’re firing back: Okay, so this film was trying so hard to be a Transformers movie, what with its mechanised, explosive death craft and all, that the studio hired the composer of the scores for those movies, Steve Jablonsky, to do the honours here. Result? It’s actually got a strong score, not as good as the first Transformers movie but certainly a lot better than the second and third. I shall be buying this one when it gets a release. Shame it’s almost the only redeeming feature of this film.
Outcome: We’ve taken a slight hit sir!

Take evasive action: Trouble is, of course, that score can either support what’s there or, in some cases, elevate the movie to new heights through a series of musical statements that help you empathise with the on screen action or give you a greater understanding of what’s going on. Unfortunately, the sheer awfulness and dumbness of some of the decisions made about  what’s on screen overwhelms the support the score can offer it and, unless you’re specifically listening out for it, you’re probably not going to give it much thought. Worse, there are whole passages where the score is completely obliterated in favour of some kind of soft, commercialised, middle-of-the-road rock music. So it doesn’t get much chance to fix things anyway.
Outcome: Most of their torpedoes missed us, sir. They’re coming around to have another go at us.

Incoming: The film has a couple of really high quality actors in it. Alexander Skaarsgard and Liam Neeson. They obviously believe in the movie.
Outcome: Just missed us, Captain.

Show them what’s what with a salvo across their bow: Well I’m guessing they either just wanted to take home another bloated Hollywood pay cheque or the film turned out very differently to what they’d expected. Honestly, most of the cast, even the less than likable main protagonist, all put in good performances. It didn’t help the movie in the end though. Also, Liam Neeson must have less than ten minutes of running time spread out across the whole, padded... err... I mean epic length of this movie... on about three different sets used for multiple scenes filmed with him. You can bet his first and last appearances on the movie were shot on the same day... at least that’s what I suspect. I don’t know how many days of actual shooting he was involved in but I can’t imagine it was anything approaching a week.
Outcome: Hit! Some of their crew are bailing, sir.

One last shelling ought to do it. Fire when ready! I think I don’t really have much more I can say here. I was actually half expecting to enjoy Battleship because I do have a soft spot for large, US action movies but this one just stunned me and had me wonder just how small the suits in Hollywoodland think our collective IQ is. I honestly can’t recommend this to anyone who is even half the size of me. Seriously, they should have a little bar next to the ticket-tearers at the cinema about waste height and a sign that says “you must be no taller than this to enter this screening” wherever this one is playing. I honestly felt this one was a complete waste of my time when I could have been watching something more intelligible (like Teletubbies maybe?). I hope this one doesn’t do well because I would hate to think the amount of money they sunk into making dire twaddle like this is validated at some level.
Outcome: We’ve sunk their Battleship, Captain.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Delicacy (La Délicatesse)

The Girl With 
The Audrey Tautou

Delicacy aka La Délicatesse
France  2011
Directed by David and Stéphane Foenkinos
Playing at UK cinemas now

This review is dedicated to a very special friend.

I nearly left La Dèlicatesse on the cinema shelf, truth be told. I love Audrey Tautou but this movie wasn’t playing locally (no surprises there then... I hate provincial multiplexes) and it looked like it’s time in London would be limited to just a couple of weeks. Also, I didn’t think a whole lot of the last romantic comedy I saw Tautou in last year, Beautiful Lies, and this was looking and sounding like a repeat of that movie.

But then I had one of my strange “urges” telling me I should make the effort to catch this one and so I went up to the Haymarket in London for early yesterday evening and took a look. I’m so glad I did...

Now I’ve not read the director David Foenkinos’ original novel that this is based on (yet) so I can’t really comment on how good an adaptation this movie is. I’m guessing it’s pretty good because he also helped write the screenplay and co-directed but... one never knows. If anyone who’s reading this does know if it’s a good fit then please enlighten me in the comments section below. I do know that some time in the next few years I’ll probably try to pick up the English translation of it (in all good bookshops now, apparently) if I remember.

What I do know is that this is not a light, fluffy, romantic comedy that you have in La Délicatesse. There’s more to it than this. It doesn’t just use the situations created by two people who love each other as springboards for funny situations or painfully embarrassing moments like a lot of lesser movies do... there are funny scenes in this movie and there is terrible pain on show too... but it’s much more adult than to just use these to concoct a formulaic sequence of events from this kind of set up.

Yes, love is playful and silly and often perceived as childlike... that’s okay, that’s all a part of what love can be. But this in no way means that this kind of phenomenon between people should be treated in a throw-away manner as it is in a lot of movies that regularly do the rounds. Last night I found myself texting these words to a very close friend as I stood at the exit of the cinema after the movie had finished...

“The French have a knack for just occasionally capturing love on screen without treating it lightly.”

I have to say now that, in the cold light of day, I feel exactly the same way about it. La Délicatesse is an absolutely wonderful movie about certain aspects of love and, perhaps more accurately in some places in this movie, attraction. It’s, for sure, shot through with a hefty does of personal tragedy, but the themes in the film are all treated in a very sensitive manner and, marvellously, it manages to do this while still retaining a certain sense of poetic beauty, both in language and rich, clean visual imagery... which other movies tackling these kinds of subjects may shy away from. There’s a real warmth to this film and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably leave the cinema with tears in your eyes.

There’s also some other interesting things going on here. Three of the main protagonists all have their own internal dialogue going on as a voice over narrative at certain sections of the film... but this is a “present tense” kind of narrative. About a third of the way into the film you’ll be made very aware that it can’t be anything but a present tense narrative... I just can’t tell you why without spoiling it. Something happens and it was only a minute or two before it happens that I realised that it was going to occur. Good for them that I didn’t see it coming a mile off... this is because I’d been lulled into a certain sense of security by the voice overs.

The film is very well shot and designed but it doesn’t really make a point of this except when it comes to “transitional shots”. There are a lot of these and, apart from a very flashy shot depicting a marriage in the first third of the movie, they are kind of “hidden” transitions that don’t call much attention to themselves but which leave you catching up because they jump forwards a good amount of time between shots. The shots are mostly hidden because they are often shots which match the previous shot and look like a natural continuation of those shots... until you realise the clothes the characters are wearing are suddenly different and this is not a continuation of the previous part of the scene etc. It’s a bit irritating at first and it starts doing these time jumps from very early on in the film, I think even before the title of the movie has come up on screen, but they work quite well and are mostly not too jarring. It will not take you very many seconds to “catch up” with yourself in this film.

The performances by the main characters are all very good, as you’d expect from the calibre of actors on display here. Since one of the main protagonists is Swedish, you also get some nice little jokes about this character’s home country, including a blink and you’ll miss it reference to Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy (which now fully justifies my review title, thank you very much). The music score by a French pop artist woman called Emilie Simon is amazing (apparently the album this stuff can be found on as an interlaced project is called Franky Knight) and gorgeously interweaves instrumental passages with songs she’s singing which comment on the appropriate moments on screen. I’m gonna have to look into this methinks.

All in all, I was really pleased with this fine slice of French Delicacy. It takes guts, sometimes, to show even just the surface details of the complexities of love and, while this film is certainly no Betty Blue in terms of showing the devastating forces which are set in motion every time somebody starts seeing someone, it doesn’t cop out either... even when it’s being its most poetic. A truly adult film for anyone who’s ever been in love and not a fluffy series of romantic jokes... although there are some very funny romantic comedyesque scenes here too. Not a film to be missed if you have the heart of a poet or a lover... or both.

Saturday 21 April 2012

The Fantastic Four (1994 unreleased version)

Four Play

The Fantastic Four
Germany/US 1994
Directed by Oley Sassone 
Produced by Roger Corman
Status: Unreleased

Well then. This is one of those films you’ve either never heard of, because the studio didn’t want you to know about it, or have more than likely snapped up as a bootleg copy at a comic fair in the intervening years. A bootleg or streamer of an unscrupulous website is probably the only way you’d ever get to see it, though, because it’s never been intended to be seen by anybody and it’s certainly never had any kind of commercial release or broadcast.

However, if you don’t already know the story behind this one then I’ll tell you all I know about it now. Skip to the end if you’ve already heard this one...

Constantin Films had the rights to make a movie of the famous Marvel Comics property The Fantastic Four, but the thing is (as I found out when I used to get interested in why comic companies would put out a single issue of a character after a decade before consinging said character back to comic book limbo  again for another decade or so), when you buy these rights they will eventually revert back to someone else who can then put them up for sale again. Basically, you have to show that you have used the characters you have bought the rights for in the media you intended to use them in or you will lose the option to hang on to them after a certain period of time. I think I’ve got that right.

So anyway, Constantin Films had these rights, but they didn’t have the budget to make a proper movie version of The Fantastic Four at that point in time... and the clock was ticking on their options because they didn’t have long before they had to show they’d done something with them. So they approached the legendary producer/director Roger Corman to make a quick movie out of the property with a teeny, tiny budget and not much time. So that’s exactly what he did.

Now none of the cast, crew or even the director knew that this wasn’t a movie being made for a paying audience. This means that everybody on this movie was doing the best they could which, frankly... after having seen the final product, is pretty scary to be honest. Now I don’t know how many retakes there were on this one but I do know that the film took approximately one month to shoot. Just one month. That should tell you a lot right there... and yes, I know some of Corman’s own, more brilliant masterpieces were done in less time and with even less budget but it’s like comparing apples to oranges here. Edgar Allan Poe costume epics are not going to have the same kind of costs as something which needs a massive budget, just for effects work alone, like a superhero movie. Especially a superhero “team” movie where each of the characters have different powers to deal with.

So okay... that’s the background!

The movie itself... well actually it’s not as incompetently put together as you might expect from my little build up. It’s quite bad but, frankly, if this had been shown on TV as a pilot episode for a new show back in the 1970s, it could have held its head up high with shows such as Spiderman, Logans Run or Planet Of The Apes (to name a few). However, what you have to remember and keep reminding yourself while you’re watching this version is... it wasn’t made in the seventies, it was made in the nineties... how in heck did the cast and crew think this was ever going to pass muster on any TV set, let alone as a “high profile” movie?

The film starts off with the four main characters as younger versions of themselves, with Sue and Johnny Storm being not quite teenagers yet... while Ben Grimm and Reed Richards pretty much looking the same as they do when the story jumps forward in time (Note to moviemakers: The addition of white sideburns after a jump in time does not automatically make a person look older!). Here we have the origin of Doctor Doom played out, kinda, although the guy playing Doom is actually pretty bad in this... but infinitely more watchable than the guy they got to play him in the later ones. In all fairness to the actors in this one, I think it’s best if I let their names go unmentioned in this review... they were all pretty solid TV actors who have done a fair bit of work (the gentleman playing Reed Richards even went on to play the back of the younger version of Sean Connery’s head in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade some years later).

After Victor Von Doom is frazzled, presume dead, we jump ten years to find that Johnny has grown up to be the right kind of age, Reed and Ben have stayed more or less the same and Sue Storm has somehow grown into a character played by a 33 year old actress, which makes her just the right age to be marrying Reed I guess but... really hurts your head when you try to figure out the timeline.

So anyway, cut a long story short, the four go into space, get mutated via cosmic rays, get captured by Doom, escape Doom, go to rescue Ben’s new crush (the blind character Alicia Masters) from an underground dwelling group of criminals who stole the diamond from the Fantastic Four’s rocketship which is what caused them to go wrong in space in the first place, then go back to clobber Doom. And that’s about it I’m afraid...

The story doesn’t make sense in a lot of places, it has to be said. And the dialogue is excruciating. The only thing that even half saves this version is the fact that the actors all managed to keep a straight face. The costumes really aren’t that bad, it’s the old blue with white highlights the group used to wear in some of the comics during the 80s and 90s... but the effects work which is needed to give the four heroes their powers is... well... it’s pretty weak.

The Thing is a suit with a few moving parts... it’s actually not that bad but not what I’d want out of the design (I much preferred the new one from the modern movies to this). Think, The Toxic Avenger but made out of orange rocks. The Invisible Girl is just done with crude but adequate fade outs. Mr. Fantastic himself is just using a few stretchy limbs which look quite bad (especially when his arm is all twirly and unmoving as he waves from a car after his wedding in the final shot... quite laughable in fact) but the way The Human Torch is handled is quite charming. Bad... but charming.

For most of the film his powers are just relegated to a fiery hand or arm which are cartooned over like a Disney production... but it’s quite fun and pretty to look at. When we finally get to see him go to the full body Torch, and it’s only the once, it turns into a complete cartoon rendition as he trys to fly in front of the path of some destructive cosmic force. What this sequence reminded me of almost exactly (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Corman’s lot didn’t use it as a template) was a similar scene in the very first 1940s Max Fleisher Superman cartoon (The Mad Scientist). So... like I said... not without its charm.

The film is, however, quite bad and some of the acting in here has to be seen to be believed. But worse than the acting is the score... it’s quite bad and innapropriate in a lot of places for anything other than a 1950s melodrama. The piano passages in this one were irritating me beyond belief and I just wanted it to stop a lot of the time. This is one score I wouldn’t be picking up, I think, even if it did ever get a commercial release somehow... for all I know it could’ve been tracked in from something equally as cheesy. It was credited to two professional composers, however, so it’s probably all original. Blimey! How far do you have to go to retain the rights to a bunch of characters? Maybe it was cheaper than buying library music... who knows. Music is always subjective though, so I won’t shout too loudly about this one.

At the end of the day, I was hoping this unreleased “gem” of a movie would be so bad that it kinda won me over. However, some sections of this are more competent than others and there’s no real “garbage” overload coming from this one. I’d recommend this one only to fans of the characters who want to see “what could have been” and to the rest of you I’d say “don’t bother with this one”... if you can find a copy to bother with in the first place, that is. It’s really just a curio and an interesting watch if you want to see what allowed Constantin to retain the rights to the characters and put enough of the budget in to be part of the modern incarnations of these characters at the cinema... and I’m glad they did because I thought those last two movies were pretty fun.

And, yes, I know I’m in a minority on that one.

Friday 20 April 2012

Doctor Who - Terror Of The Autons

Mastering The Doctor

Doctor Who - Terror Of The Autons
UK 1971
BBC Region 2

Okay... so here we have a Doctor Who serial that I’ve not seen in 41 years... I was three years old the last time I watched this one. It’s the second and final of the Jon Pertwee era stories to feature the Nestene intelligence and its deadly tools of the trade, the Autons. This is the last time this enemy would be properly seen again until they returned to the series (on more than one occasion) with the inaugural Christopher Eccelston story Rose.

As I began to watch this one, however, it became very clear to me that this story was a pretty interesting tale of Doctor Who “firsts” than I’d realised when I’d slipped the disc into the player. Lets take a little look at those...

My first clue was when one of my favourite all-time companions Jo Grant (played by the incredible Katy Manning) walked into shot and The Doctor was actually quite rude to her. What’s going on, I thought. Turns out these two characters had never met before. Yep! This is the very first story to feature the inimitable, long-standing companion Jo Grant, after Caroline John’s companion Liz Shaw (who featured in the first Pertwee story, Spearhead From Space, which was the first Auton story) had left the show. After accidentally causing trouble and mayhem in her first appearance, Jo Grant is kept on as The Doctor’s new assistant because, it seems, she’s just too nice for The Doctor to tell her he doesn’t want her around. Smart move Doctor!

The second “first” is that this is also the initial story of UNIT (United Nation Intelligence Taskforce) regular Captain Mike Yates on the show (Richard Franklin). He’s got pretty good chemistry with Jo Grant and one might almost feel that romance could possibly be on the cards at this stage. So this is, in fact, the first story to feature the full triumvirate of regular UNIT characters on screen together in the same story - Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates.

Lastly, and my no means leastly, this is the first appearance of The Doctor’s arch nemesis The Master, as played by the late, great Roger Delgado. Delgado made such a lasting impression with this role, mixing charm and ruthless villainy in equal measure... and right from the start he’s using his famous trademark weapon of a Tissue Compressor Gun which kills people by shrinking them down to the size of dolls. In just a couple of years, Delgado would find himself decapitated in a freak road accident in real life, but it’s a testament to the absolute brilliance of his performance that he is the one face you are always guaranteed to think of first (if you’re over 40) when the character of The Master is ever mentioned.

Okay... so this four part serial is one of those ones which got a lot of complaints from the parents of “scared silly” children at the time... and it’s easy to see why. The Auton’s trademark has always been death by everyday plastic objects which are usually harmless and this one has its fair share of ingenious deaths, aside from the trademark shop mannequins. These include a plastic blow up sofa which crushes a man to death by... well kinda swallowing him (it sounds better than it’s actually presented, believe me), a telephone chord that tries its best to strangle the life out of The Doctor, deadly plastic daffodils and a miniature doll that hurls itself on its victims to strangle them. All good stuff although modern viewers looking back at this one through the passing years may wonder what all the fuss was about, and I can’t say I’d blame them. The execution of these effects is so awful and crude (more so than in the previous Doctor’s black and white incarnations) that it’s hard to remember just how naive we all were to be taken in by this kind of thing at the time.  Even some of the effects that shouldn’t be effects shots, just actors in interior sets, are actually the actors standing on a projected backdrop of that interior... and they so look like it. The miniature doll death is particularly disappointing in retrospect, since it relies on an actor in a suit on blown up, projected backdrops lunging... followed by the victim attempting to sell the shot by gagging and trying to pull off a static doll from his throat. Comical death then but... the nation was in an uproar at the time it seems.

But, as typical of the Doctor Who stories in this period of the show, the bad effects work is just not really a problem because the dialogue, story and acting in these things is all top notch and the on-screen chemistry of the performers really helps to sell the story and distract from the sheer clumsiness  of the effects work (mostly due to budgetary constraints I would  guess... the effects teams on these things had to be pretty resourceful) and instead get the viewer caught up and involved in the events as they play out on screen. There’s some nice stuff here, especially when one of the guest characters fights the Nestene consciousness that has taken control of his mind and sacrifices himself for the good of the The Doctor and Jo. Perhaps a little rushed but it still manages to inject a certain amount of poignancy into proceedings.

At the close of the story, The Master helps The Doctor defeat the Nestene intelligence himself but when he escapes, The Doctor reveals that he has swapped out a crucial piece of The Master’s TARDIS with an older version from his own... leaving The Master as stranded on earth as he is. This new Moriarty for The Doctor was obviously expected to be a successful element of the show right from the outset and the chemistry between Pertwee, Manning and Delgado is a joy to watch at these early stages, as they always would be. These characters really hit the ground running.

So... all in all I would say that Terror Of The Autons is even more entertaining than Spearhead From Space and definitely worth a watch as an important serial establishing some long running elements in the show. Put this one on your Doctor Who play list, if you have one.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Cold Eyes Of Fear

Wolff In The Cold

Cold Eyes Of Fear Italy/Spain 1971
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Another World Entertainment Region 2

Yeah. Okay. This is kind of an interesting movie.

I bought this one because I thought that a) it was a giallo, as has been said of the film in various articles about the genre in recent history and b) because it has a cool Ennio Morricone soundtrack, written in the style of the work he was doing for various gialli at that point in his career.

Well... turns out the information I was given was only half true. Yes, Morricone did the incredible score on this one but, no, it’s not really a giallo movie as such. However, like The Perfume Of The Lady In Black which I reviewed here a few weeks ago, the stylistic qualities of the movie are absolutely following the same format as a traditional giallo of this period, so it’s as near as it can get, really, without actually straying far enough into the territory of that genre.

For me, there are a number of things a movie has to check to be able to make the “giallo-cut”, if you’ll pardon the expression. Take a look at my argument in my article on the genre here to see my 11 trademark “tells” of the Italian giallo, of which a film has to meet over half of the criteria in my book, to be able to qualify. And yes, Cold Eyes Of Fear does meet more than half the criteria on the list... beautifully shot and ambitious compositions, bad acting, beautiful scoring, big european actor plugged in (this one has Fernando Ray who doesn’t meet any of the main protagonists throughout the course of the movie as he’s office bound)... the list goes on.

However, two of my giallo check points are absolutely essential to the mix and I believe they must be satisfied to qualify any film as belonging to this actual genre. One is that there must be a series of murders committed by one or more characters, scattered throughout the course of the movie. Tthis movie does have a couple of killings but they’re not plugged into enough places in the movie and not far enough spaced apart... and these murders are merely necessary evils which could be avoided if allowed, and not the product of a deranged mind (although one of the lead villains in this movie does have some serious issues). Secondly, there’s no “whodunnit” element to the story. You know who’s doing what and for why pretty early on in the proceedings... and yeah you could stretch a point and say that one of my favourite gialli, The Killer Must Kill Again, also suffers from a deficiency of mystery in its plot, although that particular movie is definitely and very consciously playing around with the iconography and motivations of the genre in such an obvious way, that it’s absolutely a giallo in its intent and execution. Cold Eyes Of Fear is certainly, I think, giallo-istic in its execution... but I’d certainly question its intent.

Anyway, that’s why I personally think it fails as a giallo... but on the other hand, as an interesting piece of “home invasion by hoodlums tale”, it’s a pretty neat little movie.

What it does have, as kind of an opening tease to fans of Italian gialli, is a gobsmacking mini homage to the giallo movie within the first 5 minutes. A blonde woman is terrorised by a typically dressed, gloves and flick knife giallo killer... and her clothes cut away from her as she tries to evade him. It’s a scene like many others you’ve probably seen in many movies in this particular niche but, just before the lady is killed, it’s here revealed to be a clever nightclub routine. This introduces us to our two main protagonists in the audience (the son of a prestigious lawyer and a prostitute), who then run around swinging London before going to the lawyer’s, father’s house to have sex.

When they get there they find a villain and the butler dead. The villain makes them wait until popular American plug-in actor Frank Wolff arrives... who is plotting revenge on the lawyer who sent him to prison a decade or more earlier. This is when things get decidedly un-giallo like as the movie becomes all about cross-cutting between the father’s office, which has been rigged with a bomb in the door when he leaves, and the tension filled house as various dialogues play out as our characters explore various threads of conversation on guilt and justice while also beating each up quite a bit.

While this movie wasn’t all I’d hoped it could be, Wolff’s acting is superb and you almost admire the intelligence of the character at some points. Alas, within a year or so, Wolff, who suffered from depression, had taken his own life in a hotel room (a few of his movies were released posthumously at the cinema) but the quality of his acting is quite evident in even his trashiest work.

Although the movie itself is not quite a giallo, as I mentioned earlier, the music certainly is. Morricone has produced what could be his most extreme giallo-style musical score for this one. There’s hardly any obvious melody in this one... just stabbing atonal clusters of notes, weird sounds, backbeat and occasional jazz rhythm. Think of the more atonal and driven passages of his scores for such gialli as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, The Fifth Cord and Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion, to name a few, and this is the score which concentrates all that and distills it down to just one grating, jarring and incredibly groovy piece of scoring (the CD presentation is fantastic and if you like the above scores and haven’t already got this one, I’d urge you to pick it up). To some people, especially to younger audiences I would imagine, this might sound a little over-scored in the context of some of the sequences in the movie, but if you’re used to watching Italian films of this period then you’ll be right at home with it.

Okay... not much else to say about this one I’m afraid. It’s not that I’m unenthusiastic about this movie, it’s certainly got its own unique qualities... it’s just that it’s not as strong an “early 1970s Italian experience” as I was hoping. Not sure if it would appeal to all of my readers but those of you who are adequately well versed in the giallo genre, which seems to have heavily influenced this one stylistically, will probably get a kick out of it. A good movie to watch as the first part of a double bill followed by one of Wolff’s actual giallo appearances I would expect. Either way, knock back the J&B and give this one a look sometime... you might just have some fun with it.

Tuesday 17 April 2012


Panel Vision

Super US 2010
Directed by James Gunn
G2 Pictures Region 2

Warning: There’s a couple of superpowered
spoilers in here somewhere.

Hmmmm... how to review a film like Super.

Not too sure about where to begin on this one because, although it’s riding the wave of “real vigilante super heroes” movies in the wake of more prominent movies like Kick Ass... it’s also very different in both its intent and its tone.

The movie is of interest because, although the main protagonist Frank D’Arbo, played by Rainn Wilson, decides to “shut up crime” and becomes The Crimson Bolt... he does so without any real knowledge of, or emotional investment in, the four colour heroes that might be expected to have inspired him in the first place. This dysfunctional character, though, has suffered from strange visions all his life and after he loses his wife to a drug dealer... his motivation is to get her back. This is filtered by an overtly and humorously extreme Christian superhero on television (played by Nathan Fillion, no less) whose messages of over zealous purity strike a chord with Frank and soon he is down to the local comic shop and seeking “superhero origin” advice and research material from the owner, Libby (played by Ellen Page).

Libby does her best to point him to the right back issues and he returns, after his first failure at fighting crime, to check out non-super powered heroes and the weapons they use (Batman etc). He becomes The Crimson Bolt and his new weapon is a wrench with which he bops people over the head, usually leaving them half crippled or unconscious and covered in blood...

And here’s the thing...

Although the movie is very much played for laughs, it’s certainly a very black strand of humour and it’s also shot through with the hard question of whether masked vigilantes should be allowed to exist and what the consequences of using violence as a weapon against crime are. And, like the best movies of this kind, it certainly doesn’t pull any super powered punches in this department.

Things start to escalate (or should that be descend) rather quickly when Libby figures out the true identity of The Crimson Bolt and begs Frank to be his sidekick. She eventually wears him down but it’s obvious she is sexually attracted to Frank (who has no interest in this and has a very violent body reaction when she, kind of, rapes him in a fit of lust) and also much more interest with the violent side of the costumed shenanigans as a revenge against the unjust as opposed to attempting to tackle the issue in a more level headed manner. In her first outing as The Crimson Bolt’s sidekick “Boltie”, for instance, she nearly kills someone because she suspects he’s the guy who keyed her friends car. We’re way out of sight of “the punishment fits the crime” here people!

And that’s kinda the point.

Frank is certainly no better. Seriously hospitalising a man and woman because they pushed into a cinema queue instead of going to the back and when “Boltie” saves his life by driving into a man and crushing his legs against a wall with her car (laughing in his face gleefully after the act), he immediately forgives her and they become a team once more.

The violence is harsh, as is Frank’s bad moral judgement when he and Boltie go on their final mission together and he allows her to go with him. It’s then that he learns the responsibility and consequences of taking a teenage girl into the heat of battle with him... and in a way that he finds emotionally devastating, even as he rescues his wife (Liv Tyler) from the clutches of the evil drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) and his friends.

By the end of the movie Frank is pretty much in the same boat he was somewhere soon after the start of the movie... except he now has a pet rabbit and a lot of “proud memory moments” as symbolised by the amount of sketches he’s covered his wall with. He goes unpunished by the law (and seems to have recovered from the amount of bullet hits he took during the course of his short-lived career as The Crimson Bolt) but at the same time you kinda feel that, while he’s probably not learnt much, he has at least rescued and liberated and truly saved the person he most loved in the world (although I don’t want to give away too much about how their relationship continues after that... please watch the movie) and there is a certain sense of redemption by the last few moments of the movie, even if that redemption cost more lives than it was possibly worth.

Super is a film which asks us to consider issues. The film poses these kinds of questions about “at what point the self proclaimed good guy fighting for justice becomes far worse than the criminals he is trying to punish”, without trying to force feed us answers or buy into a certain morality. It’s job is just to ask these things and leave you something to ponder once the movie is done... not ram solutions down our throats. As such, I found Super to be a quite refreshing antidote to many of the bona-fide superhero movies which have played on our screens over the last ten years or so and would definitely point this one out, for the same kinds of audience who are attracted to that kind of product, to add to their viewing list. This one’s definitely worth a look.

Sunday 15 April 2012


Head Reckoning

Headhunters aka Hodejegerne
Norway/Germany 2011
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Playing at UK cinemas now

Yeah, okay. This one wasn’t bad.

Based on a novel by popular writing phenomenon Jo Nesbo, Headhunters tells the story of a successful art thief who covers his day to day expenses by working as a very successful business headhunter with a very strong reputation. It’s made pretty clear right from the start of the movie, in first person, voice-over narrative, that the only reason he keeps planning and executing these risky crimes is to keep his absolutely gorgeous wife in the financial luxury he feels she needs to entice her to stay with him.

Not the best motivation, to be sure, but it immediately gives you a bit of insight in to the true nature of the main protagonist and allows the audience to empathise with him and root for him throughout the film. His wife is, actually, a typically gorgeous icy blonde and, although the subjective perceptions made by characters turn out to be a little skewed in the story, the director does leave things to be seen in this fashion for the majority of the movie... as a necessity actually because a lot of the suspense and tension of certain scenes in this movie play out from an audience viewpoint of not knowing who can be trusted and, of course, without that skewed impression in the first place, the events of the film would not have a reason to take place.

I should probably point out at this point that I have not read a translation of Jo Nesbo’s original novel but I am assuming that the events of the film have followed this fairly closely, regardless of my ignorance of the source material. Why? Because, frankly, this movie is so densely packed with story twists and dialogue, heaped onto action and suspense sequences, that the movie has to be very fast paced to squeeze in all the story content and I’m assuming this stuff is all taken from the source novel.

And it really is fast paced. I’d hate to think what the average shot length on this movie is... four seconds? It very rarely slows down for much longer than that.

In some ways, this movie harkens back to the kind of fast paced caper movies that Hollywood used to make so well in that period between the early and late sixties, filtered through an almost 1930s screwball comedy pacing that is a fairly ferocious animal when it comes to throwing this stuff at Western audiences these days... this is not an “effects movie” it’s a “people doing stuff” movie and this is, of course, to be applauded in every way possible.

Actually, that 1930s screwball analogy isn’t such a fanciful or wild deviation as you might think, if you’ve not seen this movie. The main protagonist looks like an uncomfortable cross between Christopher Walken and Rocco Siffredi and the absolute absurdity of the situations he gets himself into and his comical reactions to those situations are all very much played for laughs. The film is also quite violent and wallows in the goriness that the consequences of violence result in and, as such, the film is a curious mix of dark, hardened and edgy movie making but mixed up with comic overtones... almost Monty Python in its construction... certainly farcical in many of the chase scenes that adorn the film in a number of set pieces.

The musical score, too, is frantically paced light jazz combined with large stabs of dark colour and punctuated with a more modern percussion element. I would buy this in a shot if they released it. As it happens, I can’t even remember the names of the two composers of the score which is a shame because the internet does not seem to want to help me out with this one. Not even the IMDB has the composers listed... which is a bit strange. What’s going on here?

On the down side, the story of this film is fairly twisty and turny but, for the most part, I think due to the sheer density of the things which happen in this one, they are pretty much predictable all the way through. This is a shame but, of course, it’s one of the risks you take with this kind of storyline. Things are probably less easy to see coming in a novel than they are when everything is encapsulated into a moving picture format and, when you have the main protagonist actually narrating the story, there are certain things you know can’t happen to him... so there are moments when you might think he’s going to be exiting the story at a certain point and then remember he can’t because the film started off with a narrative framing device. This stuff works against itself sometimes.

What I will say, though, is that because this is a fairly crackling, action/comedy thriller, I don’t think they’ll be many people who wouldn’t like this one. I’m pretty sure that Hollywood will be all over this one (although I somehow doubt Rocco Siffredi will get offered the lead role) and be wanting to remake this as soon as possible. It’s not one I think I could personally watch again as I don’t really value story as a “key” component of film-making but I know a lot of people do tend to like the story element in films that they watch and I certainly enjoyed it enough to put this on my “recommended” list. Check it out if comic thrillers are your thing.

Saturday 14 April 2012

The Cabin In The Woods

Cabin Fever

The Cabin In The Woods
USA 2009 (released 2012)
Directed by Drew Goddard
Playing at UK cinemas now

Joss Whedon wrote this movie.

Now I don’t know much about this guy, but I’ve seen the first few episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and thought the dialogue writing was pretty good. Similarly, I have seen the feature film Serenity and all the episodes of the TV show it comes from, Firefly, and loved them both. Whedon is a pretty good writer in my book... although his writing style is very specific to him which, while it’s to be applauded as the sign of a true artist, also leaves him open to being a little predictable in the way things are expressed.

It’s a common ailment of many writers, no matter what medium they are writing for (it’s especially common in novels), for all the characters to be “speaking from the same place” so to speak, rather than having their own, very different ways of expressing themselves. Usually, when the writing is filtered through a set of different actors, this helps lose that kind of familiarity with the patterns within the words... but when you have someone as genuinely outstanding as Joss Whedon... the writing tends to come through more and take you back to the fact that all the characters are written by the same person.

It’s not particularly a big problem... it doesn’t ruin the experience for me and just reminds me of the basic artifice of the events I am reading/watching. Woody Allen’s writing does exactly the same thing and, frankly, Jean-Luc Godard would approve of all this kind of “showing of the wires” which good writers sometimes inadvertently let happen... so it’s not really a big deal.

I say all this because The Cabin In The Woods is actually, despite all the hype and good word of mouth it’s been getting, quite a predictable film. I don’t think its particularly a fault of the dialogue or even the story itself... I think it’s more to do with the main premise (which is a fairly common one to horror films but dressed up in the trappings of modern technology) being quite good but fairly unwieldy. You can’t really fail to tip your hat as soon as you start drip feeding the little clues as to what’s really going on in the movie... and they do that right from the opening, pre-credits sequence. So I just want to say that if you’re going to see this movie because you want to be surprised to an extent, there’s a good chance you probably won’t be if science fiction, horror or fantasy fiction is your kind of thing.

Similarly, the trailer works against the likelihood of having a “twist ending denouement” because you know certain things about the movie from that too, but let me tell you that you won’t get the whole picture just by watching the trailer. The trailer will, however, spoil the movie to an extent for you because you’ll know from the footage included in it that one of the characters who you thought was dead isn’t. I won’t reveal that one here but if you’ve seen the trailer... you’ll know it when it happens.

And don’t worry about the poster with the three floor, Rubric’s cube style twisting layers... it’s a pretty misrepresentative advertisement for the film. Nothing like this in any way happens in the movie and the cabin, although perhaps a bit of an iceberg from a certain point of view, is a single floor cabin... so pay absolutely no attention to the poster.

The film starts unconventionally and starts giving its secrets away right from the start and, after the opening (and bizarrely “jump scare” title sound and typography), we are introduced to the kids who typically make up these kinds of “red neck slashers in the woods” tales. Although, I have to say, that there’s no really terrible character in this lot, like you would normally get in one of these kinds of movies... yeah, you know, the one you can’t wait to get killed... these five are all pretty likeable people you maybe could stand hanging out with yourself... so you will be rooting for this lot when the killing starts.

I don’t want to say too much about this movie because it’s best to go in fresh (I wish I hadn’t seen the trailer) but I will say that this is certainly a genuine horror movie as opposed to the serial-stalk-and-slash fest that some kids are calling horror movies these days... seriously guys, serial killer movies are thrillers... not horror. There are also quite a few shout outs to the history of horror in film and literature which people familiar with the genre will be happy about. It’s a very diverse and large horror net this film eventually reveals itself to be casting and, though you will figure it all out ahead of time, half the fun is seeing how the idea is executed in this one. Fans of H. P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, to name just two, will be happy with some of the homages in this one. There’s also a beautiful little J-Horror tribute in there... and the final shot of the film almost reminded me of something Jack Kirby might have drawn back in the 70s. Postmodernistic eclecticism is definitely the order of the day on this movie.

I think, the thing to remember with this one is that it’s a fun film. It’s really not trying to take itself too seriously, as you will soon learn from Joss Whedon’s typically witty and intelligent writing... coupled with some “more than competent” film-making from the director and his crew. This is horror comedy which a lot of people will really like, I suspect, in terms of the core audience this film is aimed at. What I would say, though, is that I wished that towards the end of the movie it hadn’t suffered from the same problem that plagued the brilliant Monsters VS Aliens animated feature a few years back... in that, I wish that the producers would just have spent some money to secure the rights to some of the “characters” that pop up in this movie... rather than having to parody them and hope the audience “gets it.” Of course, the characters I’m talking about wouldn’t be cheap and the aim of these kinds of movies is to make them relatively inexpensive so the investors can see a big return on them. Horror movies with excessively large budgets are a rare commodity these days, it seems, and who can blame the producers when an 18 rated film means half your intended target audience aren’t even going to be allowed in to see the picture.

At the end of the day.... The Cabin In The Woods is quite a joyous movie but not as remarkable as many might have you believe. It is, however, a fairly fresh look to this particular kind of material (don’t want to spoil it by saying what kind of movie it really is) and horror fans, in particular, will probably have a good time with this one. I’m sure it will pull in the money and I’m sure there will be demand for a sequel... although, I don’t think even the great Joss Whedon could magic up a sequel to this one without quite an elaborate bit of writerly sleight-of-hand... would be interesting to see him write himself out of that corner.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Black Samson

Stick-ing It To The Man

Black Samson US 1974
Directed by Charles Bail
Warner Brothers Region 1

Warning: A couple of spoilers are possibly waiting to beat
you over the head with a big stick in the following review.

What’s his name? Black Samson.

What’s his game? He doesn’t have one...

Um... yeah, okay then... apparently.

At least that’s the case if you go by the incredibly lethargic lyrics in the impossibly ponderous song which opens the movie here and serves as its theme tune. Accompanying a title sequence of credits superimposed over various customers and topless dancers in Black Samson’s nightclub... this less than enthusiastic musical statement by Allen Toussaint is, in my opinion, a really bad start to a film which is a not very special but highly competently put together entry in the string of classic blaxploitation movies made at the time.

Riding the wave of popular genre titles like Shaft, Coffy and Cleopatra Jones, the director shows himself more than up to the task of cobbling together a variation of these kinds of movies, although it has to be said that there’s not an awful lot to get that enthusiastic about in this one either. Also, this director went on to make the less than stellar Cleopatra Jones sequel, Cleopatra Jones And The Casino Of Gold, which is something I just can’t forgive him for after the first movie in that series was so cool.

So there’s not much to say about Black Samson... he owns a nightclub and he “keeps his area clean” (the streets just around his nightclub is what I think we’re talking about here) but the Italians want to “muscle in” on his territory, bringing crime and drugs to Black Samson’s “people”. Okay... so when the man says no, one Italian guy played by William Smith... who comes across in this as a really nasty, poor man’s version of what would happen if you rolled up Jack Palance and Cameron Mitchell into one person (and who doesn’t seem to have stopped working since... fantasy genre fans might recognise him as the father of the titular character in the 1982 movie Conan The Barbarian) ... decides that he won’t take no for an answer and starts trying to make life uncomfortable for Black Samson (Rockne Tarkington) and his woman.

And there you have the entire film in a nutshell because it basically follows the following formula for the entirety of the movie...

1. A scene where Samson and either a potential ally in his fight against Italian crime or an antagonist (or both) talk a bit.

2. Then a scene where the Italians ambush him and get beaten by him in a fight and/or car chase.

3. Italian mobster does something nasty or evil (or both) to make him lose sympathy with the audience.

4. Then another fight or ambush with Black Samson...

... then repeat until enough running time is covered and you get to the final act.

Now then, there’s not an awful lot to recommend this film. The characterisation is so thin that if you took all the characters and stood them on a table you'd need to glue sticks to their backs to stop them from flopping over. You don’t care much for anybody except you know you want Black Samson to win, mostly because the lead villain damages girls and is sexist and wants to kill people. The only things which seem to define the title character are the fact that he has a lion behind the bar (and that’s where he stays all movie because the darned thing looks like it’s doped to the eyeballs whenever a human actor is on the set) and a big stick which he uses to beat fairly defenceless villains with until they fall over after he’s caved their heads in. It does, though, seem less than sporting to have the main hero relying less on his cunning and quick wits and more on a big, decorative stick and so, sometimes, he beats and pummels bad guys with his fists a little, before picking up his discarded stick again and giving them a good head whacking.

This film is okay... it’s competently shot and edited, the acting is fine (although a little whiny and irritating in some quarters) and Black Samson, for all his lack of back story or motivation, is a fairly sympathetic character you don’t mind rooting for... but the end is what made me sit up and take note. I’m used to seeing a few good men go with the lead character and give the villains their just desserts, heck I even tolerated Jim Kelly fight bad guys amidst soap bubbles at the fairly weak climax to the pretty good Black Belt Jones... but this one is interesting because it looks like there’s no escape for our hero... you know there will be, you just don’t know what it is yet.

The film gets nasty and Black Samson’s woman gets her breasts carved up with a knife to keep him away... but he finds out where the mob have got her stashed and breaks out with her, riding back to his block with her alone and pursued by cars full of angry Italian mobsters. When they chase him into his street though, all the people in the neighbourhood who know that Black Samson is “the man” take to the roof tops and in an unusual display of solidarity for this kind of movie, start chucking bricks, heavy objects, even refrigerators and kitchen sinks down upon the heads of the Italians. This is the people standing up for what they believe in until, by the end of this interesting little sequence, only the main villain is left standing and uncrippled so he can fight Black Samson in a duel to the death. No surprises in this long and drawn out fight then... Black Samson’s fists can reign down some righteous blows on his opponents but it’s not too long before his big bugger of a stick gets to do the talking and the main bad guy is thoroughly “sticked to death” by the whole experience.

And that’s it... there’s not a heck of a lot more to say about this movie other than the music doesn’t kill the vibe too much and it’s fairly watchable if you like films in this sub-genre. If you’re just starting out on black action heroes of the late sixties and early seventies, however, I could recommend a whole bunch of other movies which work this particular formula in a much more entertaining fashion than this one does. This one’s best watched if, like me, you’re into these kinds of movies... it’s no Shaft’s Big Score or even a Truck Turner though, I'm afraid.