Sunday 30 September 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution 3D

Vile Bodies Of Evil In War

Resident Evil: Retribution 3D 
2010 Germany/Canada
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Screening at UK cinemas now

Warning: Here be evil spoilers!

So here we are again. This is the fifth movie in what I think I’m right in saying is the most popular and lucrative series of films to be based on a computer game series ever. On the other hand, the original games are so overloaded with cultural references to various horror movie classics over the years, the most obvious being the large influence of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, that it’s sometimes hard to realise where the line between the two formats and their various homages blur, in actual fact.

What I am certain of, is that this film, while not as good as a lot of the others, is still a solid and respectable entry into the series. It’s walks a very risky tightrope between trying to correct things and undo things which have been added to as elements as the series has progressed, while at the same time driving those knitted together components to give the series new directions in which to continue. That it manages to do this actually quite well, while still managing to pack the flick with what is extensively wall to wall action, is somewhat good news.

The trailers for this promised the return of many characters who had died in previous episodes of the film series, which I’ve reviewed here (1, 2 & 3) and here (4). Although I had some idea in the back of my mind how this could work, the explanations for the reemergence of characters (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Salmon, Sienna Guillory and Oded Fehr etc) who were sliced, diced, defected to the umbrella corporation or exploded, and so forth, in the previous movies... was actually better handled than I expected. It was good to see these faces again and, for anyone else who thinks they’ve figured out what the deal was here, all I’m going to confirm is, yes, these actors do have multiple roles in this installment.

We also get answers, of a sort, or a least a little more elaboration, of the non-sequitur of the giant sized hammer dude from the last movie and also this film goes some way to give more context to the brilliant “Tokyo in the rain” opening credits sequence of Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D. Interestingly, the sequence in this film where this opening was addressed has the added musical attraction of using the same composers' music for that sequence, layered in over the top of this one. The music in this one by Tomandandy (literally, a two man team of composers called, um, Tom and Andy) is quite serviceable, although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did their last one. But congratulations to them because I think I’m right in saying that this is the first Resident Evil movie to retain a composer over from the previous film. So while this movie, as all of the sequels, feels like a reinvention of the last, it has the musical glue to keep continuity with the last one more, finally, and that’s helpful because this one starts off exactly where the cliffhanger ending from the last one left us.

Talking of which, the credits on this one are quite nice and also fairly arrogant in that they show a slowed down action sequence which runs backwards (in excellent 3D for a change, just like the last one) until it gets back to where we left it... we then have Mila Jovovich’s Alice character (yeah, this one continues with the slight allusions to Alice In Wonderland in it, with the Red Queen once again popping up as the computerised villain of the piece) recapping the previous installments... like she always does. We then catch back up to the last film again and see the action sequence ran back at full speed this time, but going forwards to propel us into the rest of the movie proper... it lasts maybe less than a minute this time, though.

The performances are all good again, (especially Michelle Rodriguez in the non-villainess version of her, um, character) and the action sequences all excellent and, it has to be said, unrelenting... although I did find some of the passages in the movie a little light on emotional context and thus a bit dull. This film also undoes, right at the end when they’re setting up the sixth film in the series, my main concern about the last one... by reintroducing the “T-virus” back into Alice’s system and returning her “super powers” to her... although one of Michelle Rodriguez’s characters also has those super powers, so she will obviously be back as a villain at some point, I suspect.

For a movie which reunites so many cast members, it seems unusual that Ali Larter was not in this one properly. I can’t quite remember, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t die at the end of the last one, did she? The absence of this character is conveniently circumvented right at the start when Alice is literally blown out of the action on the ship from the last movie and thus we don’t know the final fate of her companions. I’m pretty sure they will bring Larter back when they do the next one though... at least I hope they do.

Another and, frankly, much bigger loss to the series is that there’s no “Alice Versus Zombie Dogs” fight in this one. This is the first Resident Evil not to have a little scene where Alice fights off zombie dogs... and that kind of disappointed me to be honest. Their inclusion in the last three were so obviously forced in their because the fans love them... so it’s a shame they’re absent here.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this one. If you’ve not seen the last one, even though this does have a handy recap, you’ll probably be lost in it and even if you aren’t, you won’t have any emotional set up to the characters. If, on the other hand, you’re already a fan of the series in general... well it’s not as good as some of them but, even so, it doesn’t let the side down and serves as a good set up, I assume, to whatever the next part of the arc is... which seems to look like it’ going to include some kind of war with flying dragonish looking things (I don’t think they were zombie Pterodactyls anyway... hard to tell). So, no worries if you’re into the Resident Evil movies already... this one’s still a hefty installment. You can watch without peril.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan

Melody’s Song

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan
Airdate: 29th September 2012. UK. BBC1

Warning: Absolutely loads of spoilers in this one, sweetie!

Right then. Following on from last week’s sentiments... I’m kinda glad I don’t have to write anymore reviews of new Doctor Who for a while after this week (although, stay tuned to my blog... Silurians and Sea Devils will be coming). It’s getting to feel a little disappointing when every episode seems to be a little less than I was expecting/hoping. It’s like writing up Torchwood 4 all over again.

So, anyway...

The much publicised “departure of The Ponds and return of The Weeping Angels” episode started off really well with some moody, 1930s New York set ups and an appearance from a creature who I knew would have to be in it, but whom I was expecting to be saved until the end as a “big gun”. That is to say, and it’s all pretty obvious even to a child, I’m afraid, that as soon as you hear the episode is going to feature these popular foes and the title is going to be The Angels Take Manhattan, you pretty much have expectations that you’re going to see The Statue Of Liberty running around. They obviously thought it was obvious too, because they stuck it  in right from the start... although you don’t see it running around because, presumably, the budget wasn’t big enough. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to see the angels moving but, let’s face it, they did in the last one (even though it made absolutely no sense and broke all the “rules” that were set up in the excellent episode Blink) and, frankly, it’s not like nobody’s not going to notice The Statue Of Liberty running around anyway. It really wouldn’t have made it off its island without being spotted so, well... it’s not really making a lot of sense is it.

The episode starts off intriguing and quite charming until about half way through when all bets are off and you really find yourself drifting through an episode of... um... not much really. The chemistry between River Song (one of my favourite characters) and The Doctor seemed a little stale this time... some of the lines were good but it really wasn’t done with the same sense of fun coming across I usually get from episodes with this character. Still, The Doctor hasn’t sent her off to her final fate as yet (as seen in the David Tennant episodes) and so there’s plenty of time for her to come back and do good in future installments. Although, if The Doctor is supposed to be whisking her away each night from her prison and she’s been pardoned for murdering someone who doesn’t exist... how does that all work? She’s not in jail now for her adventures and, presumably, she’s served some time already for... um... not killing someone? Hmmm... this was all thought through properly wasn't it, eh? I’m kinda feeling let down like there’s not going to be any magical “fixing” of this storyline in future episodes now.

I think, to date, this has been the worst series of Doctor Who I’ve seen in quite some time... and I seem to be saying that a lot just lately. On the other hand there was some good stuff in this one too.

The production values... despite not having the money for miniatures to show The Statue Of Liberty walking... were pretty cool. The thing looked nice and moved along at a good pace... I really think the main weakness on this one was the writing I’m afraid. Apologies about that but there you have it. It’s how I feel. Although, saying that, the idea of having a recurring and constant “human battery farm” of a meal by recycling would be rescuers of their own future selves was a little touch of genius... just not enough to cut it the kind of slack i would prefer to.

Oh well, time will tell for the programme, I think. New companion this Christmas, although she seems to be a Dalek, so it’ll be interesting how they address that issue... and Asylum Of The Daleks was my favourite story of this series so maybe the new gal will breathe life into the show and give it the impetus it so greatly needs right now.  Hopefully I’ll be able to review that for you all on Boxing Day if nothing drastic happens to me, like death or senility, so I’ll enjoy my welcome break from reviewing these shows for now, methinks. Thank you for reading. More film reviews here very soon (hopefully tomorrow sometime).

Friday 28 September 2012

The Possession

What’s Up, Box?

The Possession
USA/Canada 2012
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Playing at UK cinemas now

Wow. They never turn the lights on in these kinds of movies, do they?

That’s always been one of the first rules of the horror genre, of course, but these days they usually don’t just rely on people kinda forgetting to turn the lights on. There’s usually a reason to have the dimly lit room to navigate through.

To be fair, The Possession, which is actually a pretty entertaining film as it happens, does provide more on-screen explanations towards the end of the film when the supernatural element, which is out in the open from the start, is more apparent to the main protagonist. Lots of demon activated flickering lights etc. But for a lot of the early film the lighting schemes in the new house which the father character, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, moves into and takes his two teenage daughters to when he has visiting rights as a divorced parent, do tend to draw attention to themselves in the most surprising manner. You will find yourself wondering why the heck nobody ever thinks to turn on a light.

The film as a whole, in fact, is a pretty obvious one and you will find yourself struggling to find anything actually surprising or unexpected about it. Again, though, to be fair to the film-makers, the horror genre is a notoriously easy genre to decode and there’s not really a great deal of surprise to be had from them since the late 1930s. This is why the genre is so easy to cross breed with other genres like comedy or science-fiction... the rules are always so simple.

So, yeah, The Possession, a film about a girl who buys a dybbuk box with a demon lurking inside it and possessing her is more than just a little predictable... but this doesn’t stop those unsurprising scares from being fairly effective. Just because you know something’s coming, it doesn’t make it any less potent and this film in general is very gutsy in that it takes some very broad, less than subtle strokes to tell its tale of creeping, insidious horror. Even when the movie turns into a kind of Jewish themed version of The Exorcist in the last third... you’ll figure out just what is going to happen between the father and his daughter but the CGI effect used to enhance this sequence is full of strobe-lit scary creature goodness. The final fate of the Jewish exorcist guy and “the box” is also something you’ll see coming a mile off... but they have to leave these kinds of films open for some kind of sequel, don’t they?

The movie is greatly aided by a score by Anton Sanko which is even less subtle than the movie itself... but I mean that in the most complimentary way. It’s scored in the same way that John WIlliams might score a horror movie, everything’s very bold with some major “stings” which are so heavy handed “in the mix” that Bernard Herrmann might even have been proud of them. “In the mix” is definitely the key phrase here though because it’s been ages since I’ve heard a score which was so heavily mixed into the foreground (and wasn’t in a Doctor Who episode). It’s put together like a 1950s movie in terms of the way the music is deferred to on everything... and that’s just great in my book. I suspect the composer might have brought everything down a notch and written some more complex passages if he’d realised his work wasn’t just going to be buried underneath the sound effects in much the same way that most other directors treat the work of their composers... but I’m glad he didn’t. It’s a score I’d very much like to listen to away from the movie in CD form but I suspect there’s fat chance of a stand alone soundtrack album getting released for a movie like this. Rather a shame, actually. Maybe one of the more obscure labels will be able to rescue it some day.

So what we have here, when all is said and watched, is a charming little horror movie which is extremely clichéd and predictable but which, at the same time, doesn’t allow the lack of surprise to get in its way. It’s well shot and lit (even if you do want to shout at them to turn the lights on a little bit) and the girl playing the character of Emily, Natasha Calis, does the role so well that you will really feel it when she starts piling on the pressure. And as for Jeffrey Dean Morgan... well, frankly, I could watch him in anything. One of those rare actors with real screen presence. He doesn’t do a lot more than stand around half the time in this... but he does it so well and with such weight, that you can’t help but admire the guy. Hope he gets a lot more high profile work... he deserves it.

So, this is pretty much a glowing recommendation from me for older fans of horror movies, I think. I suspect the youngsters watching this one might find it a little too heavy handed compared to their usual splatter movies (this one goes in more for surrealistic touches than full on goriness) but I think the older horror hounds, the ones who can appreciate a good old Universal monster movie or a Val Lewton psychological horror might well have a better time with this one. Give it a whirl if you are a fan of the history of the horror genre.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Le Streghe (The Witches)

Streghe Counter

Le Streghe (The Witches)
Italy/France 1967
Directed by Mauro Bolognini, Vittorio De Sica, 
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi and Luchino Visconti
Warner Archives Edition Region 1

You know... I’ve been trying to see this film for quite a few years now.

It’s somewhat ironic to me that I can now, finally, buy a copy on US Region 1 DVD when it turns out that the reason I’ve not been able to see it for all these years is that United Artists have kept it suppressed all this time outside the European market (of which I am technically a part of, but our DVD and VHS releases have always been dominated by what’s available stateside). The reason, apparently, is that they didn’t want it to interfere with their new rising star Clint Eastwood’s career in his native country. Although, personally, I don’t think he did that bad a job in it.

In the absence of the film itself, I’ve had to make do with both the official soundtrack, finally released a couple of years ago in a limited edition from Digitmovies, which contains the majority of the score as composed by Piero Piccioni... and it’s a real toe tapper (I’m listening to it again as I type these words) and a hard to get compilation album of scores Morricone composed for Pasolini movies, which contains a 9 minute suite of the music from his section of the movie.

The reason I have wanted to see this movie for so long is because I read that it had Clint Eastwood taking on such famous comic book characters as Flash Gordon, Batman, The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician and Diabolik. In fact, he gets bashed about by them quite a bit.

Let me clarify that, just to let that sink in... Clint Eastwood gets beaten up by Flash Gordon, Batman, The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician and Diabolik.

So... you can totally understand why I’ve been so eager to see this one, right?

Anyway... Le Streghe is finally “out of prison” and it's made up of five separate stories directed by such luminaries as Mauro Bolognini, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi and Luchino Visconti. Seriously people! How do you take it upon yourself to suppress a movie and let it rot in a vault somewhere when its directors include De Sica, Pasolini and Visconti? What the actual bleepity bleep bleep?

So... um... keeping my rage under control here... I’m pretty sure I can understand why a studio would want to suppress a movie like this, having watched it and finding it almost unwatchable... but even so... people need to see these directors’ work on this.

The five stories in this movie... The Witch Burned Alive, Civic Sense, The Earth As Seen From The Moon, The Girl From Sicily and A Night Like Any Other... all have a director apiece and all have one thing in common, which is the fantastic actress Silvana Mangano, who I’m guessing this film was built around as some kind of showcase to her acting talent. In terms of showing the versatility and, as it happens, great beauty of this actress, the film succeeds well. I don’t recall ever seeing her in anything before (unless you count her much later role in Lynch’s Dune) but I now want to see her in anything I can because she’s just hypnotic whenever she is on screen by herself.

This is especially true of the segment directed by Pasolini and which stars and ageing Toto, an actor who was a “big deal” in his native Italy but who is not such a big name, it seems to me, over here. This segment requires Mangano to play a funny, deaf mute and she does it with such feeling, fragility and passion that you just want to watch this silent performance forever... and turn the wretched movie off whenever she’s not on. The make up and hair in this sequence is unbelievably stylised, deliberately looking like a comic strip... and even the statues in the graveyard look like something drawn by the artists of Asterix. Toto and the actor playing his son wear “big, orange hair” and the whole segment is played for laughs. Laughs which don’t come (I didn’t crack a smile too often, it has to be said) but played for laughs, nevertheless.

The only other dubious pleasure on offer, which is the reason why I wanted to see it in the first place, is the segment where Clint Eastwood plays Mangano’s boring beyond belief "square Johnny" of a husband. The character of the wife is so unfulfilled in her marriage that she keeps slipping into a dreamlike fantasy land where she takes revenge on her husband’s straight-laced ways and indifference to her. Hence, the sequence featuring the various comic book characters. The film gets ironically referential in a way that most movies weren’t in the era this one was produced... in that Clint reads a list of possible cinema trips for the evening and one of the potential films he reads out is A Fistful Of Dollars. Similarly, in one of the later fantasy sequences, he is seen in a costume which is kind of a multi-referencing parody of the costumes he wears in Leone’s films and the ones from his Rawhide days. It’s probably not something he was that happy to have done and one can see how he, and various studio executives, may have felt this role may have compromised his career a little... that and the fact that the film really is, as one person who was in the same room as me when I was watching it said... interminable.

Yeah. Interminable is pretty much right on this one, I’m afraid. Interminable with an upper case I.

Am I glad I saw it? Yeah, because if I hadn’t seen it I would have been chasing it for years, maybe decades. Also, I might never have discovered the young Silvana Mangano if I hadn’t seen this. Although Theroem is still on my “to buy” pile.

Can I recommend it? No. It’s incredibly dull, long winded and tedious. There are a few really great moments in it but these are just so anaesthetised by the creeping monotony that, most times, you won’t really care.

Would I watch it again? I’d say no, for now, but Mangano is beginning to haunt me a little... and the music during the Piccioni scored segments is pretty cool... as is the stupid, 60s cartoon opening credits sequence which matches the name of the film well but manages, like the title, to have nothing to do with the actual movie (there’s a metaphorical witch burning, if you look at it through a deeply skewed lens, in the first segment I suppose).

All in all I’d say stay away from this one unless, like me, you can’t die without having seen it once. And also, be warned, that screening it might kill you... as it slowly erodes your spirit. :-)

Sunday 23 September 2012

The Saint In London

Real Teal

The Saint In London
USA 1939
Directed by John Paddy Carstairs
Warner Archives Edition Region 1
Based on the novel The Saint In London, 
formerly The Misfortunes of Mr. Teal

Well that’s more like it George. This third outing in the original series of films is Mr. Sanders second go at the role and, well I’m warming to him much more after seeing this. His second crack at Simon Templar is, indeed, cracking ;-) and the fast paced action of the plot is matched more mercurially by Sanders whereas, in the previous film (reviewed here) he was a  lot more sedate, even lazy, in the role and it came off, to me, as something of a mismatch for The Saint.

With Simon Templar returning to London, you’d think he’d have a chance to settle down for a while but, right from the outset, this is an action packed ride with full on, wisecracking, 1930s screwball style dialogue which is as much to do with the original stories these films were based on as it is to do with the cinematic landscape contemporaneous to these movies.

Within the first few minutes, The Saint has whistled his famous ‘signature melody’, carried over from the last film, caught out a pickpocket in a brilliant bit of playful sleight of hand, hired said pickpocket to be his butler and assistant, and then picked up with an old female acquaintance who will join him in his adventures in this movie... his additional, ‘unofficial assistant” who becomes so because she saves his life at least once.

The action is tightly paced but very focused on telling the story and the quickfire delivery is polished and subtle in its writing... and more importantly... Sanders really keeps up with it this time. I actually found him a joy to watch in this one... which was a bit of an improvement on my perceptions of him in the last one and a massive improvement on the way I usually see Sanders. I’m beginning to believe in him a bit more... and am keeping my fingers crossed that George holds that performance in the next few (it’s been years since I last saw these... literally decades). This director really knows how to play to Sander’s strengths, it seems to me, and it’s interesting that he also directed some of The Saint’s 60s TV adventures and had a dedication written to him in one of the original novels... Leslie Charteris obviously thought a lot of this director.

We also have the first bona fide screen appearance of The Saint’s original “reluctant ally”, Inspector Claud Eustace Teal, played here by Gordon McLeod, who really does make a great version of him. He reprised the role a couple more times in this series for RKO. Like the American counterpart to this character from the previous two films, Inspector Fernack, he is supposed to be after Templar but then lends his aid when he realises The Saint can help him find the real bad guys in the movie.

And as bad guys go, the leader of the set up is not a fool and almost a match for The Saint and his rag tag gang of friends. He feels dangerous, which is just the kind of man you want as an opponent to Templar and it would be true to say that all of the actors and characters in this film are, perhaps, little known but certainly very good at elevating the tension and highlighting the bubbly humour inherent in the script. A nice piece of work all round in this one and the film-makers even remember to put the steering wheel on the right hand side of the cars for a movie set in London... which is quite handy. Of course, if the film hadn’t actually been called The Saint In London then I probably would have been less wiser as to where the action of this one was supposed to be taking place. I doubt if any of the crew actually got over to England for this one... although I might be wrong, I guess.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter where the movie was shot in my book, because when you’ve got great, quotable lines like, “It ain’t no water pistol, so watch out where you squirt that lead!” right from the word go, then you know you’re in for a treat of a movie. Definitely looking forward to watching the next one.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Doctor Who - The Power Of Three

The Three Whomigos

Doctor Who - The Power Of Three
Airdate: 22nd September 2012. UK. BBC1

Warning: A few right angled spoilers lurking in this one.

You know, I'll be kinda relieved about not having to write any more of these Saturday night reviews once Doctor Who takes a little break from our airwaves after next week's episode. Not because they’re in any way terrible, similarly, not because I am having to heap praise on them on a weekly basis (I wish). That’s the thing though... these episodes aren’t that terrible but they aren’t that great either. The last two series especially had their share of “not so great” episodes in them... but they also had some great “stand out” event episodes in them too. This season it all feels just a little bit... I dunno... a bit humdrum?

I was expecting, quite honestly, for this weeks episode to be the best of the current bunch re-materialising onto our television screens. Truth be told though, if you’re comparing just the stories from the last four weeks, that honour has to go to the season opener, Asylum Of The Daleks. This weeks installment though, it has to be said, runs it a close second in the entertainment stakes and I have to admit I found myself well and truly entertained this time around... up until a point.

The episode had a great slow burn premise of an invasion of harmless seeming black cubes which lay low for a bit while the entire population of the planet get used to them. The Doctor, therefore, comes to stay with the Ponds and also, we see a welcome return from Rory’s dad from the Dinosaurs On A Spaceship episode... as played, wonderfully, by Mark Williams. The cubes stay for a few months or a year... depending on whether you believe what Amy Pond says in UNITs secret Tower Of London base or, if you believe the much more credible evidence of Rory’s dad’s invasion log, which lasts for over 361 days. These little and easily fixed continuity errors creeping into Doctor Who again is actually quite alarming and it should be stopped. I’m not saying it’s limited to this programme... it seems every movie I see has problems which seem to have been based on decisions to cut stuff out or use alternate takes of a scene which doesn't match up with others. It seems to be a blasé attitude which has crept into modern day thinking and which allows for these kind of slap-dash decisions to be made. I’m not impressed.

But anyway... moving swiftly on...

The Doctor comes to stay with The Ponds and though it would be true to say that the episode has a lot of scope for comic moments and genuine feeling, it doesn’t quite take all the opportunities it presents itself with, if truth be told... but I don’t care really because if you get a script which places The Ponds and The Doctor in a social setting, then I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, this one did seem like a combination of two old episodes combined. The “coming to stay” scenes did seem to feel like they’d been stolen from a previous Matt Smith story, The Lodger, from his debut season... while the invasion of the cubes who are accepted into humanity as an anxious UNIT ponder their meaning was very similar to the opening of the two part finale of David Tennant’s second season... Army Of Ghosts. Still, self referential plaguerism aside, the episode kinda worked well, with Rory and Amy in the process of making a decision as to whether to stop their adventuring with The Doctor for good or carry on “in the loop” so to speak. Along the way there were some references to a new adventure with the Zygons (last seen in their debut episode in Tom Bakers Fourth Doctor story Terror Of The Zygons) and a new UNIT character introduced called Kate Stewart, who happens to be the daughter of a long serving and endearing character from Doctor Who history, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart... so that was a nice touch.

So yeah, the episode was good, like I said... up to a point.

Alas, that point was roughly the last fifteen minutes when things started going all "extra-terrestrial action stations" and the threat was finally understood, only to be reversed in mere minutes as The Doctor became a really terrible example of a "deus ex machina" and everything was as it was again. Pretty rubbish and definitely felt a little rushed if you ask me. Could have done with being a two parter, perhaps, and adding more dramatic weight and a more harder earned victory, don’t you think?

The whole episode led up to the dramatic point that Rory’s dad has encouraged The Ponds to carry on their adventures, after The Doctor has all but promised that they’ll never die on him. Yeah, right, well we can all see where this one is going can’t we? Maybe they’ll just die of old age but next week is being touted as The Ponds last episode on the series, so we’ll just have to see. Personally, I’m hoping that we don’t lose River Song too in the process, but I’m guessing we will. I think something funny and irreversible may be about to happen on the show concerning the last few years of Doctor Who history... and all I can say is, I hope I’m wrong.

Not a bad episode, though...on the whole. Could have done with a little more emotion and a little less running about but I’m guessing there’s going to be a lot of running about next week so maybe that’ll make up for it. Still looking forward to it... just about.

Friday 21 September 2012

Gradiva (C'est Gradiva Qui Vous Appelle)

Morroco Bound

Gradiva (C'est Gradiva Qui Vous Appelle)
France/Belgium 2006
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Mondo Macabre Region 1

Hmmm... not too much to say about this one.

Gradiva is a very loose adaptation, I suspect more in spirit than in actual incident, of the 1902 serialised novel by Wilhelm Jensen. It uses, in the film at least, strong elements of sado-masochistic fantasy and is written and directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote Resnai’s, quite literally timeless classic, Last Year In Marienbad.

So... a film directed by the writer of one of my favourite “puzzle-movies” containing scenes of BDSM delight... I was really looking forward to this a lot. Alas, when I watched it the whole thing seemed a lot less of what I was hoping for. It’s got some really nice sequences and shot set-ups for sure but... that was really all they were... nice.

The film starts out with a totally unsympathetic male protagonist, who seems like he’s strayed in from a Merchant Ivory film... since I’ve only seen one of those that I can remember, I was doubly surprised when, after I’d made that connection, it turned out that lead actor,  James Wilby, had indeed strayed in from some Merchant Ivory projects. Doh! Perhaps this explains why the whole film, although set in Marakech in Morroco, seems somehow polluted with a miasma of stuffy Englishness that I couldn’t really shake off.

This central protagonist is researching the works of Delacroix but he strays into an underground world filled with fetishistic and ritualistic BDSM practices and slavery. My interest was momentarily piqued when a writer, played by Arielle Dombasle, starts writing about a character in a novel she’s working on and then, as we see her main female character embodied in her minds eye, our main protagonist who was set up earlier is seen chasing after her. Are we watching “our” real world of the film or a fiction within a fiction? Alas, what could have been a fascinating puzzle-box of a movie concerning the nature of dreams, fiction and reality instead becomes... um... a somewhat less than fascinating movie about dreams, fiction and reality.

The film deals with interpenetrating layers of alternate realities and, in some ways, Last Year In Marienbad could be seen as dealing with the same issues, but it fails to match Resnais’ movie in subtlety and instead, presents us with something that seems to be an impenetrable mess. I really don’t mind the inscrutability of a text which is deliberately meant to remain indecipherable... love that approach in fact. It’s the sheer amount of mind dulling ennui which permeates the picture which kills it for me. The main protagonist doesn’t help... always finding himself in situations he doesn’t understand or control without taking any, it seems to me, pro-active or strong steps to free himself from his troubles or solve the mystery of the dream woman who haunts him in both his sleeping and waking life.

There is, to be fair, a generous dollop of female nudity presented in pursuit of a strongly S and M flavoured vibe... bloody whippings and tortures are on show but the whole thing smacks of a softcore, schoolboys fantasy of what this kind of activity might actually be like, and rarely manages to reach a true understanding of the nature of the desire which fires the trials and pleasures that can be ignited by those kinds of relationships in real life. In other words, it’s like everybody on screen is play acting about something they have no real understanding of... at least get some experience of these kinds of shenanigans if you’re going to be portraying them on screen, I say.

I can’t say that watching Gradiva was a totally unpleasant experience and I’m really glad I saw it... but I can’t imagine myself dipping into this one too often. I personally have an affinity with the pointless and undecipherable but, when such a proposition is delivered in such a passive manner, without relishing, it seemed to me, the strong brush strokes it could have been using to create the complexity of its central enigma, then I am less sympathetic and find myself watching it in a passive state rather than trying to work out all the angles in an epitome of transfixed fascination. I’m afraid this one just didn’t do it for me.

But like I said... it’s kinda nice to look at. So maybe some of you may get something more out of it than I did. Not a recommendation from me but something less than a condemnation too. It seems this very short review is as passive in intent as its subject matter. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

To Rome With Love

Rome, Sweet Rome

To Rome With Love
USA/Italy/Spain 2012
Written & Directed by Woody Allen
Playing at UK cinemas now

Well I’ve been watching this writer/director/performer’s work for most of my life now and I’d have to say that, although I’ve had some bumpy times with a few of his movies over the last couple of decades, this gentleman never fails to make interesting, quirky and quality works of art. Last year’s Midnight In Paris (reviewed here) was an absolutely brilliant film and To Rome With Love is no less an absorbing, and sometimes funny, experience... especially if you’re willing to accept the film on its own terms.

By that I mean it’s Woody being more experimental with his writing again. He’s always had quite strong flashes of surrealism throughout his work, starting with his early stand-up routines and then progressing into plays and films, but lately he seems to be much better about letting these elements of his work, when he chooses to go down this kind of route, creep up more subtly on the viewer and take the audience by stealth. The writing techniques he uses to do this are quite masterful and one wonders why a few more “Hollywood”, or at least “US” directors can’t study this man’s works more and understand how to misdirect the audience with a bit of style... rather than just hit them around the face with a big wet fish of obvious intentions.

I’m trying to write this review fairly spoiler free but there are two kinds of surrealism going on in this movie. One is the quirky dream-like surrealism of films like Play It Again, Sam and Annie Hall, and a similar kind of objective narrative stance from a major character on the actions of the past is visited directly in one of the story threads of To Rome With Love... which are woven in parallel, rather than together, to give the audience a sense of the city (although, I’m not sure a love letter to Rome would be so narrative heavy). The other, more dominant but less easy to detect strand of distinct surrealism is woven into the fabric of the movie itself and is presented in the way the different narrative sections fail to interact with each other.

To explain the first... when Alec Baldwin, who plays a famous architect by the name of John, leaves his friends for the afternoon to explore where he used to live in Rome back in the 80s, he can’t find his old place. But a teenager called Jack, played by Jesse Eisenberg, recognises him as he’s a fan of his work and offers to take him back to his place which is near where the architect used to live. However, as a short period of time passes with these characters and Jack’s girlfriend, it becomes obvious that there’s something else happening here. Because of the way it was written, though, the initial encounter between these two characters, to me at least, was of a completely different nature and it’s set up by the script, beautifully acted of course, to sucker punch you five or ten minutes later.

Other flights of fancy are similar to the Robin Williams character in Deconstructing Harry (a man who suddenly becomes out of focus) and start from similarly absurd premises which are then explored on their own terms. These include Roberto Benigni as an average man who suddenly achieves an instant fame for no apparent reason... and this is obviously a platform to explore both the effects of fame and success on the average man and, also, the effects of the loss of fame in someone’s life. This is, presumably, Woody’s exploration of the real trials of fame which I guess he knows very well, transplanted onto the life of someone who has done nothing to provoke that kind of attention.

Another similarly surreal story thread tells of Woody Allen’s character’s discovery that his daughter’s new fiance’s father has a strong opera voice and Woody’s attempts to market this in the classical music industry. Of course, the ultimate starting point for this thread is that people sound better singing in the shower than they do in real life... however, once Woody’s character realises this, the boundaries of credibility are slowly stretched as we are presented with a full-on solution to this most basic of dilemmas.

As for the second, less noticeable surrealistic device showcased througout the film... Well, for a while there you are expecting all the threads to weave themselves together and culminate in a series of scenes where all the myriad characters connect in some way, but this is not the case. A beautiful lady I was talking to on twitter about the movie the other night (@LauraFigas follow her here) said that the tone of the film seemed uneven to her and there were indeed some instances where my mind was grappling to tie the story strands together in a linear narrative due to expectations of the same. However, I’ve now remembered/realised that the time streams between each of the many intercut stories are inhabiting their own, individual time scales and Allen uses the fact that one story which may be set over a number of hours is being intercut with several stories which transpire over a much greater length of time, to dislocate our engagement with the temporal mechanics of the piece, which in one story inhabits two different points in time simultaneously anyway, and allows the audience to stop trying to decode the stories as one, unifying, single unit... which it certainly isn’t. For me it worked fine and my brain decided to accept that the juxtaposition of certain scenes weren’t making sense, which allowed me to enjoy the absurdity of many of the situations arising in the movie. For the lady I talked to on twitter, this manifested itself in a less satisfying manner but I can see how this movie could maintain a sense of unease within the viewer.

As usual for Mr. Allen’s movies, there’s a strong cast on hand to really make the dialogue and situations sing... including the great modern actress Penelope Cruz (glad her career has survived the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie) who has less to do in this movie than she did in, say, Allen’s extraordinary work Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but who certainly has great presence playing a prostitute clothed in red (hey, I’m a red blooded male... so cut me some slack here) and gets some of the best comic lines in the movie.

And also, as you’d expect, the movie is well shot and edited and really rolls along quite quickly, even though this is one of Woody Allen’s longer movies, clocking in at almost 2 hours. The vague experimental nature of the format isn’t something you should let put you off, unless you really are somebody who prefers the closure of several cross-cut stories to be tied up in a neat, little bow. The stories each have their own, individual conclusions and this works for me, at least. My one grumble, if I had to have one, would be that the Penelope Cruz character leaves the story without any warning while all the other characters have their own ending scenes. Then again, her character is the one in the film who has less at stake, so maybe that’s why Allen chose not to leave us with one final scene of her to remember the character by (and at this point I can only hope that Mr. Allen gets hit with some kind of Fellini complex and goes the way of The White Sheik... towards his own Nights Of Cabiria project with Ms. Cruz).

To Rome With Love is another great triumph from everyone’s favourite Brooklyn neurotic... and if you are a fan of this director, you won’t want to miss out on another of his masterworks. Enjoy it for what it is... and on its own terms.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Countess Perverse (La Comtesse Perverse)

Thus Spake Zaroff’s Frau

Countess Perverse (La Comtesse Perverse)
France 1974
Directed by Jess Franco
Mondo Macabre Region 1

Okay then, The Most Dangerous Game, aka The Hounds Of Zaroff, was first published as a short story by Richard Cornell in the Collier’s Weekly in 1924. It was made into a movie in 1932 and used the same sets as the Skull Island sequences from King Kong, shooting on them at night while King Kong shot during the day (presumably, King Kong’s 1933 release date was due to the vast amount of special effects sequences that were needed to finish the film). Bearing in mind that two of the actors in the movie, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, were also shooting in King Kong during the day, I’m guessing they were on something a lot stronger than coffee to keep them on their gruelling schedule (I’m just guessing, don’t quote me on it... I just know what Hollywood studio practices were like in those days).

It’s an entertaining film but also a very important one because it was hugely influential and has left its mark on a variety of films over the years. That is to say, the story has been appropriated in many an official and unofficial remake both at the cinema and as TV episodes of long running series over the decades... the last variant of which I remember seeing being the fifth installment in the Predator series (reviewed here). It’s a very simple story. A man and a woman are shipwrecked on an island owned by one Count Zaroff, who is the world’s greatest hunter and who releases his captive “guests” onto the island in order to continue to feel the thrill of the hunt of “the most dangerous game” in the world... his human prey.

So yeah... it turns up a lot.

Jess Franco’s fast and loose reworking of this concept, Countess Perverse, at least acknowledges its roots while gifting the film with a huntress, Countess Zaroff with her “side kick”, of sorts, being her husband Count Zaroff.

Now then... I’ll get my little grumble about this movie over with and out the way first, okay?

Did Jess Franco, the people marketing this film or, frankly, anyone who was watching it, actually know what the word “perverse” actually means? Obviously not, I fear. As any reader of Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Imp Of The Perverse will tell you, the word means “willfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired”, which is why Poe uses it to describe the action of confessing one’s sins instead of allowing oneself to get away with whatever one has successfully kept hidden. It is not, in any way except in application of the words meaning to a specific sentence dealing with sexuality, a term connected to that of sexual perversion. So calling your film Countess Perverse when what you really mean is “Countess who’s really into kinky, sexy stuff”... really doesn’t make sense now, does it? Get it right!

Okay then. Jess Franco.

I always find his particular brand of sexploitation and trash “classics” to be somewhat hit and miss, despite Orson Welles once calling him the best assistant director he’d ever had (the two had worked together on Welles’ adaptation of the stage distillation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, V, VI and Richard III... Chimes at Midnight in 1965). However, this particular Franco film, in a truly startling, crisp and shiny bright transfer by Mondo Macabre, of an unbelievably gorgeous print, has to be among my favourites... right up there with Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed In Ecstacy and Female Vampire.

Starting off with a flashback sequence told to a couple by a naked woman they “find” washed up on their beach, who has somehow managed to escape the Zaroff’s ideas of deadly entertainment, it soon becomes clear that this other young couple are the ones who supply the Zaroff’s, on their island retreat, with plenty of "fresh meat". I guess you could call either of them... the pimp of the perverse (thanks Edgar). And fresh meat, is exactly right, as it turns out, because Franco’s additional twist to the story is that the hunted game are eaten by the Zaroff’s, who first feed some of their, usually female, last victim unknowingly to their new guest before having sex with her, between the two of them, as a prelude to revealing their sinister nature and their particular “rules of the game”.

The young couple, who supply them and who are looking to get out from under the Zaroff’s employment, also have a penchant for menage a trois style sex and get it on with the survivor before dumping her back on the island for the Zaroff’s. However, when a new young thing played by LIna Romay, who was a very important companion and constant star to Franco right up to her death earlier this year, turns up as the potential next victim for the Zaroffs, things start to go a bit wrong for everyone. One of the couple, Tom, gets quite attracted to Romay’s undeniable charms... and, of course, the three way sexy shenanigans with her kind of clinches the deal and sets up the end of this movie.

The ending is great, by the way. 15 minutes worth of Countess Zaroff, naked except for her bow and arrows, stalking a nude Lina Romay through the long grass of the island. To say that the actress playing the Countess, Alice Arno, is breathtaking beautiful, would be an understatement. Her absolutely gorgeous body with red hair in all the right places is just one of the seductive birthday suits showcased in the film. If you are into watching Franco’s films for the nudity aspect, then this one is one of his best. It’s also worth mentioning the young Lina Romay again. She’d worked with Franco before, and I suspect they became an item very quickly, but she’s really meant a great deal to him in his life after his first actress/muse Soledad Miranda, died very young, very shortly (I think within a day or so in a car accident) after signing a big American studio contract. Lina Romay became the thing Franco most needed her to be in his movies, someone who could play both achingly innocent or the personification of sadistic corruption as needed... sometimes a little of both in films like Female Vampire. She acted in 120 movies, most of them for Franco, who has directed 197 films to date (his new one is still in post-production).

Looking at this movie, Franco’s shot design is crisp and elegant, even in its intended original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (aka 4:3) and he manages to get away with a lot of stuff which I’d usually deem bad practice myself such as fairly fast zooms in and out of shots, without killing the swinging mood of the piece or popping you out of the action. I could watch this again every year, I think, without getting bored with it... which is why I was so surprised to find, in Mondo Macabre’s excellent notes on the film, that this was only one of "twelve movies" that Franco directed that year. Twelve! Busy period. I’d heard he’d had a nervous breakdown or two during his time... directing that many feature films a year and maintaining a reputation for bringing them in on time and on budget, it’s really no wonder.

Countess Perverse is an enjoyable romp and I’m really glad I bought this one. It’s a piece of fluff but it’s an extremely well shot piece of fluff with a transfer by Mondo Macabre (still one of the all time great DVD labels) giving it an excellent presentation. This one deserves to be on every Francophile’s must see list... and it’s also a good one to start off with if you’ve never seen any of his films before, I suspect. One of the best DVDs I’ve bought all year. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Check it out.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy

Once A Pond A Time In The West

Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy
Airdate: 15th September 2012. UK. BBC1

Warning: A fistful of spoilers.

When I first read that tonight's episode of Doctor Who was going to be a western, the first since Hartnell’s Doctor in the sixties, I was thoroughly expecting something as rudimentary as the Spectre Of A Gun episode from the original Star Trek series or the Living In Harmony episode of the prisoner. Instead, I think what we got was something much less interesting. So my apologies to any readers perusing this now but... it’s, once again, going to be an uncharacteristically short review.

This episode had no real story arc woven into it (as far as we know) and there’s nothing wrong with that... but I just felt it needed something. Can’t really fault the writing which probably looked quite edgy on paper since it’s basically dealing with the alien equivalent of a nazi war criminal and a cyborg victim of said criminal seeking revenge. Oh... and about that ‘borg in this episode. Are they all going to start looking like that now since Star Trek The Next Generation? That’s got to be a copyright prosecution waiting to happen, is my feeling. Mind you, I felt the same back in ‘95 when I turned up at the cinema to watch Jeunet’s latest at the time, The City Of Lost Children... so what do I know, eh?

I think maybe a big contribution to my disappointment on this one was the fact that this was almost set up to be something bigger than it was. When an alien doctor is mentioned during the pre-credits sequence, we get the idea that The Doctor is going up against someone he’s met before and that there’s going to be some big reveal right at the end. Unfortunately, that conclusion gets shot down very quickly into the episode and you realise quite sharpish that the opening narrative hook really was just that, a hook with no real substance to back it up.

In the end, all we got was a conflict between two opposing people which just happened to be transplanted onto a cowboy backdrop. Granted, you could argue that pretty much all genre fiction is constructed in much the same way but this one just seemed a bit of a waste of the BBC going all the way to the legendary Almeria in Spain, where gazillions of legendary Italian (Spaghetti) Westerns were shot back in the day. I was expecting some more spectacular Western tropes and references on display than I actually got in this one. Maybe I was just expecting too much though because it is a genre I hold dear to my heart... although I’m by no means an expert on them.

The acting in this was okay too, not that I’d expect anything less from Doctor Who, but I must say that the flow of the narrative seemed to be a bit unnecessarily jumpy at times. Jumpy to the point that things weren’t quite making sense. For instance, The Doctor leaving the sheriff’s office off on a plan he’s concocted and leaving the others behind... followed by his friends involved in a sequence of events that could only have been briefed by The Doctor after he’d hatched his plan. What’s that all about then? Did we miss an embarrassing scene where his companions call him back and say... “Okay, Doc, we’ll help you... but first tell us what your plan is and tell us what you want us to do.” Because, frankly, the stage direction, so to speak, of these two sequences didn’t make any sense.

And then you have The Doctor talking outside the sheriff’s office again in the middle of the night. However, when he goes back in, unless i was somehow interpreting things wrong, the barely glimpsed background out one of the windows was broad daylight... or at least lit so it looked like broad daylight.

Similarly the music seemed a bit uneven in tone. At times it was aping the Italian Westerns in style, with the kind of orchestrations popularised by composers like Ennio Morricone for the films, before suddenly lapsing into the kind of Aaron Copland/Elmer Bernstein Americana feel of the classic American Westerns of the first half of the 20th Century. I’m not saying it was undeliberate, it obviously was what the composer was doing, but I did find the juxtaposition of the two musical styles somewhat jarring and it popped me out of things when I really didn’t want to be.

There was, however, a really nice sequence with The Doctor riding a gender-challenged horse called Sue in which he reveals that “horse” is also a language he can speak, as a nod to his speaking baby from last series I suspect. If you have a popular episode... echo it back to the audience when you can. That’s a common track taken with most Hollywood movie sequels, as it happens.

Amy and Rory didn’t have much to do in this one and, well... I really don’t want to knock the efforts of all the people who have sweated blood making that episode, it’s not nice, but I have to at least acknowledge that I thought tonights episode was possibly the most boring episode I’ve seen since the show started back up again in 2005. I thought last week's was going to be the worst episode in this series but, frankly I was wrong. I’m guessing, and hoping for that matter, that this was the dullest one we’re going to be getting this year. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Next weeks looks more interesting though and when I first read the brief teaser for it a few weeks back in the Radio Times, it’s the one I pegged to be the most coolest episode of this year’s offerings. Let’s hope I’m right as I am still, in spite of tonights pseudo-western, looking forward eagerly to next weeks installment.

Now I just wish I had a time machine to get me there quicker.

Thursday 13 September 2012

The Iron Rose (La Rose De Fer)

Thorn Of The Dead

The Iron Rose (La Rose De Fer)
France 1973
Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Region 1

Well this is going to be a pretty short review.

I’ve noted on more than one occasion my respect for the writer/director Jean Rollin, who is perhaps best remembered for the spate of surrealist French lesbian vampire movies he gave the world. A true under-appreciated poet of cinema. I recently reviewed his film The Nude Vampire here and discovered it to be another little gem. I’d never seen that or The Iron Rose before and I expressed how much I was looking forward to seeing it.

Well, now that I have, it has to be said that I thought it was the least interesting of the works I’ve seen by him and, frankly, I found it a hard movie to watch. Starting off with a strong scene which made me groan because, once again, it uses a quite strikingly beautiful actress, Françoise Pascal, on Rollin’s favourite beach (yeah, you know the one), and a credit sequence set to a beautiful shot of a young couple kissing on the front of a train, the film then takes us to a crowded wedding reception where a thin, young man recites poetry to catch the eye of the aforementioned, beauty.

After this, the two go on a date and it pretty much, apart from the occasional passer by (such as a clown) becomes a two hander as the protagonists go into a cemetery to eat their picnic, which mostly seems to consist of chocolate, and then descend into a tomb to make love. When they come up for air, night has fallen and it’s here that the film takes on a certain Bunuelian flavour... and when I say that I’m thinking specifically about the impossibility of trying to find a way out of an artificially induced situation like the guests not being able to leave the house in The Exterminating Angel (reviewed here). For, once our sexed up couple leave the tomb, they find it impossible to find their way back out of the cemetery. They are not just locked in, they are caught up in a recurring loop of M. C. Esher-like proportions, coming across the same terrain again and again, even when they go over the wall.

Okay, I admit the movie sounds really interesting, but for some reason this one just didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because, unlike most of Rollin’s films, it has a storyline (no matter how simple and one note) that you can follow... whereas I’m more used to seeing a Jean Rollin that is mostly impenetrable and which has great and beautiful surrealistic shots which you will remember forever. Here though, I think the shots are merely both really colourful and competent... but with very few standout sequences, apart from the girl naked on a “beach representation” of the cemetery near the end. That’s quite striking but a minor oasis in a desert of dullness as far as I’m concerned... and I really don’t like to say this about Rollin’s work.

There’s an interesting vocal, experimental piece on the soundtrack reminiscent of something György Ligeti or Edgard Varese might have done at some stage in their careers but this really doesn’t give the visuals the lift they need and, in the end, I have to admit I was just waiting for it to finish (I may have started to nod off at some point).

At the end of the day, it’s a well shot but not great Jean Rollin movie. If you’re a fan of this director’s work, and I really am, then you’re going to want to watch this one anyway. This is the first time I had a truly, less than stunned reaction to his work, although Two Orphan Vampires came close. I’m not going to let this put me off tracking down some of the movies I still haven’t seen by him though... but I would warn you to not expect too much from this one and approach cautiously. It’s been called, by one reviewer I respect a lot, Rollin’s first true masterpiece. I disagree with that one, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean that you would. Rollin is always worth a look even when he’s churning out stuff like this, is my view. But if you’ve never seen any of his movies before... I really wouldn’t start off with this one.

Monday 10 September 2012

Cockneys VS Zombies

Bow Bells VS Hell’s Bells

Cockneys VS Zombies 2012 UK 
Directed by Matthias Hoene
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: ‘Ere, there’s bleeding spoilers in this review, 
so if you don’t want to know what’s coming, you’d better scarper!

Well... since I could only find this movie playing in Central London, I was expecting to be a little disappointed with it, figuring if it was a competent film it would be playing at my local multiplex. But I loved the trailer and I really wanted to see this one, so I braved the streets of London once more. As it turns out, I’m really glad I did.

Cockneys VS Zombies, like a lot of movies with the abbreviation VS in their title, is one of those films that delivers exactly what it says on the tin. That the film does so with such stylish panache and good humour is just the icing on the cake.

Two brothers, Terry and Andy, their cousin Katy (played by Michelle Ryan of 4321, Doctor Who, The Bionic Woman and Eastenders fame) and a couple of accomplices, go off to rob a bank in an effort to get enough money to stop the old people’s home that their grand-dad runs from being demolished. Due to a freak of timing, their expected haul of thousands of pounds accidentally ends up as 4.5 million... but they are cornered by the police and have a nutter in their gang who just makes things worse.

Luckily for them, this occurs on the same day as a local building site excavation uncovers a zombie infested tomb which starts to infect the whole of the East End of London. With the military sealing London off it’s up to our team of rag tag cockneys to grab the money, tool up with weapons from their “colleague” Mental Mickey’s lock-up, rescue the old people from their granddad’s home and then fight their way out of London. And if you think this little set up is ripe for comedy mayhem and oodles of gory violence, then you’d be right. Cockneys VS Zombies delivers in spades (quite literally in some scenes) as the group bungle their way through to rescue the old people, played by the likes of Richard Briers (his star turn with a 9mm Uzi taped to his zimmer frame will be something I’ll remember for a while), Honour Blackman (who proves herself still able to nicely wield a machine gun), Dudley Sutton (wheelchair guy with a shotgun riding... er... shotgun) and Tony Selby (you’ll believe a man can batter a zombie to “undeath” with his artificial leg).

The real star turn of “the old buggers”, as I shall affectionately refer to them, is Alan Ford as the war hero grand-dad. He is totally gung ho and a flashback sequence to the second World War where he single handedly takes on a small bunker of Nazi’s will both have you in stitches and visually demonstrates everything you need to know about his character.

There’s also both serious tension and comedy to be found with the psychotic Mental Mickey, who you do no want to get on the wrong side of. Both living and undead need to watch their step where this guy is concerned, but there’s also a couple of inventive zombie genre gags I’ve not seen before connected to his character. Doesn’t mean to say they’ve not been done before... it’s just that I don’t remember seeing them before...

The first gag is when Mickey gets bitten in the arm and Michelle Ryan blows the zombie away at the head. However, the teeth and jaw bones are still left in Mickey’s arm for a while until he can find a way to get them forcibly open.

The second gag takes place once Mickey has “turned” into a zombie, as you know is going to be inevitable. When our heroes try to kill him off with multiple gunshots to the head, the bullets just blow away the flesh and bounce off his head, revealing the metal plate in his head that he’s had since his recent experiences in the military. It takes a little while to get rid of him.

All this and a few more good, visually inventive zombie themed gags make the film a pleasure to watch. They even had Chas and Dave turn up for good measure, singing a catchy refrain on the end credits of the movie quite apart from their cameo spot...

We’re going ‘ead to ‘ead, 
with the undead, 
we’re gonna fill ‘em full o’ lead, 
‘cause they won’t stay dead. 

Catchy... it gets almost as infectious as a contaminated zombie bite as the credits wear on and if you’re not careful, you’ll be singing it in your head as you come out of the cinema, just like I was.

The film is typical of a zombie film in that, when the humour is originating from the zombie angle, as opposed to the cockney angle, the comedy is pretty dark and there’s a spectacularly non-PC shot in the movie where a zombie-toddler get kicked across a yard and hits a target on a sign reading “Targetting child cruelty.” Bleak, but hilarious within the context of the surrounding scene. The comedy scenes are, naturally, hit and miss but this film did make me smile quite frequently so they are certainly doing something right. The action sequences, too, are not edited too choppily and everything makes sense, with no confusion as to who is doing what at any one time. As is usual with these kinds of films, no explanation or interest is given as to why the protagonists have a zombie outbreak on their hands but, if you’ve seen enough of these things as I have, you’ll know that this isn’t really a problem.

The ending on this one doesn’t disappoint either and it’s a much more optimistic film in tone to what you normally get on these affairs. One thing I will say though is that this movie should have got a wider distribution. If they’d have showed this at my local for a few weeks I’m sure word of mouth would have got around and ensured a big turn out down my way. If you’re a lover of zombie movies, this is easily one of the more watchable and enjoyable ones on offer (which, given just how many of this genre are made every year now, usually on a tight or practically non-existent budget, really is no mean feat). The cockneys in the movie, old and young, are all great little actors and this work deserves a bit more recognition than it’s currently getting, I believe. It’s a British movie and it needs some support. I reckon this could do really well in the US if the marketing is handled correctly. A great little treat for all fans of the shambling undead.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Dredd 3D

Drokk n’ Roll

Dredd 3D 2012 UK 
Directed by Pete Travis
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: There are very minor, drokkin’ spoilers
in this one. Don’t judge me on that.

When I was a child my dad told me about a lot of cool stuff he’d seen at the cinema or read in books or comics. One of his favourite comic strips was called Dan Dare and it ran in a quite superb comic in the 50s and, I think, early 60s, called The Eagle. Sometime in the 80s, one of the publishers started reprinting collected volumes of Dan Dare and I could finally read these awesome strips for myself and see just how fine, and how far from anything else on the comics scene at the time, the artwork was on those. Pretty incredible.

However, back in 1977, when I was 9 years old... I couldn’t.

But something happened that same year. My father and I were in a newsagent in Edmonton Green Shopping Centre and we spotted the very first issue of a new comic that was advertising the “new Dan Dare” comic strip. The comic was 2000AD and my dad bought it for me... and we both read it in turn. From then on we were hooked, although my dog chewed up the free 'Space Spinner' (small, red, plastic frisbee thing) which was free with that first issue. We bought every issue as it came out and I saved them and have them all to this day. I stopped buying the comic maybe six or seven years ago... so I think I read almost 30 years of the thing and , believe me, that’s a lot of comic boxes worth of fine artwork and compelling stories right there.

I remember the advertisement in that first one talking about their new strip starting in issue 2. The strip was called Judge Dredd and he was a “lawman of the future”. He was also ultra violent (the comic used to get in trouble with the trade standards and censors a lot for introducing kids quite graphically to concepts like entry wounds and exit wounds), a bit of a fascist, never smiled, never took his helmet off and, due to the bleak humour injected into the skillfully written stories, became the comic’s most popular character in no time. To this day, to my knowledge, he’s never taken a break from patrolling the futuristic streets of Mega City One and has even existed in three UK publications simultaneously at one point. That’s a lot of Dredd back story to choose from if you’re going to make a movie out of the character.

The second issue also had free 'Biotronic Stickers' with it which you peeled off and stuck to your limbs to make yourself look like you had bits of machinery poking through your arms and legs.So that second weekend two things happened. One was, I discovered I liked this new Judge Dredd comic strip and the second thing was my young discovery of the intense agony that only comes from peeling big, garish stickers slowly and painfully off of my own hairy arms. That second was a lesson I’ll never forget.

They tried making a movie of Judge Dredd back in the mid-90s with Sylvester Stallone in the role (even though Joe Dredd in the strip was obviously modelled after Clint Eastwood) and based, amongst others, on a multi-part, epic story called The Day The Law Died with a tyrannical Chief Judge, Judge Cal, who was obviously based on Caligula. Most people thought the movie was quite bad. I’d say that it wasn’t all bad... the first twenty minutes of that film were pretty good Dredd, actually. Unfortunately the movie did then jettison the pure Dreddness of the character and story and basically turned into a Hollywood action movie that was fine on its own merits but which really stopped doing the character any justice from the moment Sly Stallone took his helmet off.

So frankly, up until this weekend, the absolute best and faithful adaptation we have had of Judge Dredd in terms of the bleak humour and, heck, on a lot of levels actually has been...

... the first Robocop movie.

Everyone going to that movie when it came out in 1994 knew it was ripping off the strip in 2000AD and we were all surprised when the studio that brought that one out didn’t have to pay some hefty royalties to “the galaxy’s greatest comic”. Yep! As I said... that was the most faithful in tone we’ve had to that character at the movies. Up until now.

When I heard they were making a new Judge Dredd movie for this year I wished them luck but didn’t expect it to be any more than another failed clone of the first movie attempt. Dredd was just too bleak and dark humoured for the kind of box office money they were going for.... surely?

Well, yeah, probably. But the good thing is... they done it right.

Now this film has one main problem, that I can see, and that’s Mega City One. I’m guessing there wasn’t enough money in the budget to properly render a true, futuristic vision of Dredd’s turf that would match the visions created by people like Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra form the 70s and onwards. However, the lack of “futurism” on display in this version is at least justified in the opening voice over narrative by Dredd himself as a story point and, although I thought it was going to be very off-putting, the fact is... it wasn’t. Almost all of the action in this movie takes place over the 200 levels of one of the giant tower blocks of Mega City One and so there just aren’t enough shots used to let you get too much of a handle on it.

Everything else is pretty good though.

Right down to a newsfeed that mentions an iconic character called Fergie and various bits of referential graffiti highlighting jetboard, graffiti artist Marlon Shakespeare (aka Chopper) and Kenny Who!

The film takes place during Dredd’s examination day of rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson, another character from the comic created in the 80s and based on the look of Debbie Harry. Anderson was immediately popular with the readership of the comics when she was first introduced as a minor character because a) she was a Psi-Division Judge... which means she had psychokinetic and telepathic abilities... and b) she was really hot! So she’s an obvious character to bring to the screen. Also, it allows them to set her up for Judge Death if they chose to feature the four dark judges from Necropolis in any possible sequels.

This film uses exactly the same kind of plot of the recent movie The Raid (itself a variant on what the original version of Bruce Lee’s incomplete version of Game Of Death was supposed to be), but instead of a whole police team going into the building and taking on everyone inside, you have just Dredd and his new rookie, under examination conditions, trying to fight their way against all odds to take out MaMa... a villainess who basically “owns” the block and who has been manufacturing and selling a new street drug called Slo-Mo, which has the effect of slowing time right down for a while for any of its users/addicts.

Actually, the plot device of Slo-Mo is a pretty smart move by the makers of the movie, as it allows for some really great, slow motion photography, with lots of “Argento moments” and also enables the gory violence (this movie has an 18 certificate) to be slowly and voyeuristically consumed in much the same way that us kids in the 70s would be able to have frozen moments of time, from panel to panel of the strip, showing a bullet going into one persons head from one side and then exiting the other with a great splash of “black ink blood” (2000AD was a black and white comic for many years with just the covers and the centre pages being in colour).

I say Argento moments because the cinematography on this one is full of moments which show the beauty of violence in much the same way that Dario Argento would dwell on or create a specific shot or surprising moment, just for the sake of having a great shot with nothing supporting the story. Argento’s pretty much admitted this penchant for the “cool shot” over the story support in interviews and anyone who doubts this just needs to look at the non-sequitur “Mad Puppet” scene in Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso) to understand what I’m talking about here. Dredd 3D is filled with a lot of shots of slowed down water splashing, or cheeks exploding as bullets fly through them and fire being reflected in his helmet visor etc. Indulgent but brilliant and very welcome. Dario Argento is going to love this movie, I’m sure.

But it’s not just the story that has a lot going for it. The actors are great too. Karl Urban, a young actor I’ve been watching with great interest, gets Dredd right and stays right with the character all the way through. He doesn’t take his helmet off, he doesn’t smile and he’s got a growling Clint Eastwood style voice delivery that really lets you know that he is “the law” and is not expecting to be taking any prisoners when it comes to fighting for justice.

Similarly, a young actress called Olivia Thirlby really does a fantastic job as future Judge Anderson. She instantly wears the part and makes it her own and you will definitely be rooting for her to pass her exam and stay the heck out of trouble while you’re watching this one. There are some pretty intense sequences with her and a captured perp in the movie and she really handles herself well in these scenes because Thirlby looks way too wispy to be able to survive in this kind of hostile, aggressive environment... but survive and flourish she does.

Supervillain MaMa, as played by Lena Headey, is also extremely impressive... although I can’t for the life of me think why. I’ve never really noticed her in movies before, although I’ve seen her in a few I think, but she does an absolutely amazing job here without seeming to do much of anything at all. She doesn’t go in for any flashy, grand-standy type flourishes with the character, she just plays her very simplistically and naturally... which means that half the time she’s just standing around doing nothing much. However, I think it’s fair to say that in the scenes she’s in, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She really has an absolutely amazing amount of screen presence and the vibe you get from her that she’s a woman to be reckoned with is instant and really serves the movie well. I’ve got to start looking out for this lady in more films.

And I guess that’s it, apart from the music. The score is okayish industrial noise which I’m really hoping will come out on CD so I can actually hear what it sounds like as opposed to being buried in the mix of the movie. Meanwhile, there’s a new album out called DROKK by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury which I just bought which purports to be an album of music “inspired by Mega City One” but which also happens to be, although it’s obviously not sold as this, the rejected score to this movie. Can’t wait to put that on later and check out what might have been.

And that’s all there is to say I think. Dredd 3D perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of the strip as it was when I used to read it in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The Judge costumes are admittedly a lot clumsier and clunkier than I’d hoped for but you get used to that pretty quickly. I think the real reason this movie might possibly fail at the box office, in addition to being made 30 years too late, is the fact that it is very dry in the tone of the characters and very simplistic in its story. Younger audiences these days want more emotion and upbeat from their action movies... this is just like those comics, so it’s far from what the kiddies will be expecting from it.

Nevertheless, this movie gets a strong recommendation from me. Dredd done right for a change. Catch it while you can. It's Zarjaz!