Friday 28 June 2013

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind

Terror Firmer

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind
2013 Ireland
Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Limited release at venues when announced.

Every now and then, the director Rouzbeh Rashidi contacts me and asks me if I want to see whichever film he’s been working on at the time. It’s always a double edged sword because I find Rashidi’s work (previously reviewed here, here, here and here) to be really great stuff but it’s also very challenging and I often question myself as to whether I can do artistic justice to his work in reviewing one of his pieces. But I always want to see what he’s been up to and I always bite the bullet and review it after... although I never know just where to start when trying to get down something which tries so hard to capture a glimpse of these specific works. Works which are both simple and vastly complex pieces all at the same time.

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is a film which, at first glance, seems to be a bit of a departure for Rashidi in terms of image content and the way that content is treated within the context of the movie. However, as you start getting into it, you realise that, actually, yes it’s very much a part of the “Rashidi Universe” and the concerns and level of what is revealed and concealed is certainly keeping in spirit with the films I’ve seen by him before. It just took me a little longer to adjust because this one seems to have a much more accessible (at some levels) story arc in some ways than the director’s previous films. That is to say, in as much as parts of the plethora of connected images are easy to corral into a rough narrative framework than they maybe are in others of his works.

The film starts off with a sinister face mask in silhouette in varying shades of focus while seaside wurlitzer style organ music, that I most associate with David Lynch’s Eraserhead, washes over the soundtrack. The aspect ratio changes to something approximating 4:3 as the mask seemingly changes form until eventually vanishing from the screen to usher in the title of the movie.

After the title, a man paces backwards and forwards in front of a garishly lit neon cinema before we cut to a shot of a ceiling fan rotating at various speeds in rhythm, which strobes us back to the previous shot at increasing speed. We then cut to an arial shot of clouds in orange and then to a blue tinted cemetery where James Devereaux slowly walks towards the camera to a piece of Philippe D’ Aram’s score to Jean Rollin’s Fascination. And here is one of the few slightly negative criticisms I’m going to make about this movie. Excuse me here while I have a musical interlude...

Quentin Tarantino, amongst others, is the master of the needle-drop soundtrack. And when I say needle drop, I mean he uses bits of his favourite film scores and sews them altogether to create the soundtracks to his films. The problems with this, though, is that even half cine-literate audiences are going to pop right out of the movie experience and start playing guessing games as to what movie the music originally came from. And this is exactly what happened when I first saw this shot of Devereaux underscored to this specific cue. Instead of watching the film my mind drifted off into... “What is that? A violin and a musical saw maybe? I know that music. I have it somewhere... oh, hold up... it’s Fascination.

Now this may not be a problem for the film maker in question, it’s true. Godard would often want to deliberately jump the audience out of his movies and musical approaches were just one of the ways he did this. Now this may be what Rashidi wanted, I can kind of see this modus operandi working with other scenes in this film and also in some of his other films... but I suspect that wasn’t what was required here, although the musical association is certainly a non-verbal indication which supports the films end credits, which include attribution to the work of the famous French lesbian-vampire-surrealist director Jean Rollin. Certainly the film could stand roughly on the same side of the coin as some of Rollin’s early work like Le Viol Du Vampire... and could probably cause similar riots as this early Rollin work created back in the 60s if this was shown to a packed house around my local too, I suspect (that’s a compliment, by the way, if you are in any doubt). So it’s quite possible that we are supposed to make that association with the famous French director’s work from early on and certainly the sight of James Devereaux wearing a mask like some Diabolik or Fantomas or SuperArgo in many of the scenes creates an equally sinister feel as the ones worn in something like, say, Rollin’s La Vampire Nue (reviewed here). So maybe that was Rashidi’s intention after all?

We then cut to James Devereaux sitting on a park bench in two angles, split screen with, again, heavy filtering as he goes into a monologue on the left hand of the screen while on the right hand side of the screen he experiments with the mask from the opening titles. He then wears the mask evoking, as I said before, a typical masked hero/villain/ vigilante style character from early 1900s to late 1960s cinema.

This is a leap for my experience of this director's work because the unreality is hitting you at all angles as both the sound design and shot design are stretched like a piece of fabric with the kind of artifice which is just not that present in the earlier works I've seen from Rashidi. And, at this stage of his career, I can only assume it’s a progressive leap or, if not, then something which will be useful to him in the pursuit of his, very well polished, approach to his art.

In the very next sequence, Devereaux does a startling thing, and you begin to understand the title of the movie a little more (which is probably also a first for me in regards to this director, actually). The Devereaux character is seen fighting invisible demons who may... or may not be... there. I’ll get back to that later.

Things get spookier as scenes and then clusters of shots are pitched against each other in terms of colour tint washed over a changeable level of saturation. This is all good stuff and, as the masked Devereaux goes about his business, mostly dialogue free, concepts are introduced to the viewer’s minds eye due to the introduction of weird props and landscapes which Devereaux interacts with… seemingly almost shamanistically in certain sequences.

Pretty soon, other elements and scenarios are presented in an abstract manner. A lady in blue. James at his apartment waiting the arrival of something, by the looks of his body language... perhaps awaiting a psychic attack if one wants to look at the movie on a purely material level. A guy sifting through objects in the sand. People clambering down perilous, rocky terrain… looking like a mountain expedition washed up on Mars.

More seemingly random elements are introduced.

A gentleman... walking through a deserted alley in the snow. We cut back to the girl… are we watching three parallel timelines or are we, as I suspect, meant to inform the picture with our own sense of time and story within the piece? Mixed up footage inhabiting the same space and treated in a way that gives a sense of the past is also included. Are these flashbacks to one of our characters memories and, if so... which character. The girl on the bridge who leads into the possible flashback or Devereaux’s sinister, masked cypher... who possibly leads us back out of them from a different “mind space”?

And this is where things get interesting and I’ll talk about those invisible demons now.

When I was a kid I had (and probably still do have, I am sure) a paperback sized reprint of the first 12 or so comic strip stories of the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange. Now this guy was interesting to me because in these stories, he often used to leave the physical plane of the earth (leaving his body slumbering) and fight his enemies, often Gods or demons, on a spiritual plane of existence of which mortal man is unaware. And this informs my response to this picture, in as much as I choose to take the “terrors of the mind” of the title as a specific attack on Devereaux from another character glimpsed in the movie. It’s not specifically spelled out and I really don’t think the director wants to lock us into a specific interpretation of the events and footage we see on screen. I do, however, think that Rashidi wants us to bring our own baggage into the screening room with us. These are not, I think, supposed to be passive movie experiences. I’ve said this and underlined it in magic marker before about this director’s work but, seriously, I think he rubs together little bits of incidents of something which he has the coda for, to give it the semblance of a linear structure in certain scenes, but I think he’s much more interested in stimulating the brain of the audience into bringing their own meaning and level to his work. I’m pretty dumb so I tend to take a lot of this at face value... which is why HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is very much an exercise in surrealist science fiction for me (the HSP stands for Homo Sapiens Project, by the way). At least... I hope they’re not supposed to be passive experiences, at any rate, otherwise I’ve missed the point completely.

As we watch some of the sequences, the images are filtered, interfered with and deteriorated so much that we begin to imagine our own shapes and visions within the cinematic canvass in front of us. Much like a person staring at a piece of wallpaper with a particular pattern might begin to imagine they can make out faces in the surface detail after a while (this phenomenon is, of course, brilliantly demonstrated in Robert Wise’s original 1963 version of The Haunting). Some bizarre goings on with a camel (behavioural mind control?) is added to the mix and pretty soon your brain is really beginning to look at a lot of the footage (if not all of it) as metaphor or symbolistic in essence. But, as I said, with a lot of that kind of stuff... it’s very much open to interpretation.

Like a lot of Rashidi’s films, this one seems to be, very much, a celebration of a character’s internal struggle... the thoughts and moods they have made manifest in a half dream state and then emblazoned across the screen and pumped directly into your cerebral cortex. This kind of basic human state is something that is apparently frowned upon in Hollywood these days, as being something un-showabble. It’s not true though... cinema is fantastic at this kind of mood work. But also, in this one, you get a sense of shared or combined contemplation. You get a sense from some of the imagery that some of the... again, I’ll call them characters, or possibly cyphers, are two different aspects of the same person existing in two different planes of existence and overlapping with each other... a spiritual realm and a more (or less) realistic dimension happening simultaneously... like two different aspects of the old Moorcockian multiverse concept... but also with a sense that there are spiritual invaders trying to take possession of a persons actions. It’s a very interesting, science fiction style concept... and it really begins to get under your skin after a while.

When director/actor Max Le Cain comes in towards the end of the film to meet with Devereaux’s character, you almost feel that he’s a kind of Van Helsing or Carnacki character, here to help rid Devereaux of what ails him and to arm him with the magic bullet he so obviously needs to help him rid himself of the... well.. the terrors of the mind.  The last five minutes or so of the movie are definitely climactic, noisy and certainly feel like an end game before the epilogue. An epilogue which could be interpreted a couple of ways and, again, helps give you a finish to the “story”... if one chooses to look at it this way.

Now, this movie is really good and, if you struggle with it in the way I think is intended, then you’ll be rewarded with a certain state of mind which bypasses clarification in favour of a sense of shared wisdom. It’s not going to be an easy film for someone unprepared for this directors work, I suspect, but it’s certainly a very good one. I can’t imagine it playing in any lengthy cinema runs but, and I know I’ve said this before, this should find a home at least in an art gallery (it’s certainly deserving of finding a good home) and I hope the director plans to submit it to any festivals and screening opportunities he can find. I’m pretty sure the unfortunate exclusivity of an art gallery venue would not be on the directors most ideal list of locations and if he can see a way of getting this into local communities and stimulating thought and discussion on the nature of film and exhibition then all the better for it.

It's interesting because, although it seems to be a bit of a departure for Rashidi… well, as I said before, once you're invested in the film, there's no way you could mistake this piece of work for anybody else's art but, also, I think that this is one of this directors most engaging and accessible works... even while stretching the boundaries of the way footage is treated (or should that be mistreated) and the way we decode the images and sounds we are presented with.

What I do know is that HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is a considerably mature work from a confident director who seems to be progressing from one phase or period of his work and into something else altogether. That may be a wild claim to make, perhaps, and in 5 or 6 feature films time we’ll get a better sense of the truth or lack of truth of that, I think. But for now, the artist is very much on top of his game and I would urge you to give this movie a go if you get the opportunity to see it at some point. If not, it might track you down and come looking for your cinematic eye on its own terms.

There is no escape!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Before Midnight

Midnight’s Last Gleaming

Before Midnight
2013 USA
Directed by Richard Linklater
Playing at cinemas now.

You know, two of my all time favourite movies are just about a couple of people talking to each other for the entire length of the feature... they’re a bit like My Dinner With Andre at a very basic level, but without being confined to just one room and with a less one-sided conversation.

The first of these was directed by Richard Linklater in 1995, who I already knew from his marvellous movie Slacker, and it was called Before Sunrise. It’s a brilliant, charming, funny and very romantic movie, perfect for watching with your lover (except in the case of one of my ex-girlfriends... when I tried to show it to her on Valentines Day and she made me switch it off after a quarter of an hour... she wasn’t a fan).

It tells of one day in the lives of the two lead characters - Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke and Celine, played by Julie Delpy. The two characters meet by accident on a train going somewhere and they get on so well that they both decide to get off the train in Vienna and spend the rest of the day and night there seeing what’s going on before continuing with their respective journeys. The camera follows them as they encounter people and situations of no real consequence and keep up an absolutely charming conversation about various ideas throughout. It seems (and probably was) as much improvised as it was scripted and the film is an absolute testament to the fact that a low, practically non-existent budget can often produce great art.

It was an almost perfect film and the ending was absolutely brilliant. The young lovers, as they come to be over the course of the hours they spend together, are both going back to their homes the next morning... Jesse to the US and Celine back to France. So they make a pact... they will meet each other in exactly one year at a specific time and place and continue their relationship then. No addresses are swapped or numbers given. Just the chance to properly continue what they started in a meeting designed to recapture the fleeting spontaneity of this first encounter. They then go their separate ways and that was it... film finished and the story is done. Or so we thought. It was left up to us to figure out if they got together again in a year’s time or not. It was beautiful.

Except... what nobody knew is that it wasn’t over.

In 1994 Richard Linklater made an absolutely mind blowing and very cool animated film called Waking Life, which will either overload your circuitry by 20 minutes into the running time or will actually force your mind to expand and cope with it and deal with it on its own terms. Two of the many “dream protagonists”, in a five/ten minute cameo, were Jesse and Celine carrying on their conversations from Before Sunset, again voiced by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It was a nice little tribute to these characters and it was at that point that you start to wonder if, perhaps, Linklater and his two leads were not done with these characters just yet.

Then, out of the blue, nine years after the release of Before Sunset, a sequel movie materialised, with  Hawke and Delpe also contributing greatly to the dialogue and shape of the finished product (as they do in their current collaboration). This was absolutely gob smacking to fans of the first movie who neither expected or really wanted, in all honesty, a sequel to the first. That being said, this is my second favourite “conversation movie” and the thing which got people back into the cinemas to watch it was basically because the film is also set 9 years after the first in movie time too. We all wanted to know if Jesse and Celine both made their rendezvous a year later as they’d planned or if events had transpired to stop them. Well... I’m not giving anything away in this review to spoil it and, without having seen it, you’ve absolutely no way of knowing whether they got together or not. The second film is set over a four or five hour period in Paris and it kind of leaves you almost, but not quite, with a question similar to the ending of the first. A decision is made by one of the characters and you think you know what that decision is but... it’s a transient world. Nothing is set in stone. What happens next?

Well this time fans weren’t going away saying, “We’ll never know.” This time they were saying, “How long until we get to see the next one.” And, of course, the answer to that is... now.

Yay! Jesse and Celine are back!

Nine years, again, in both real and fictional time since the events of the second movie and... yes, things have moved on once again in these two character’s lives. I’m not going to say too much about the story of this one... especially since these really aren’t films that have, or are about, story except in very minimal terms, if you look at the broad arc created by the end of each movie.

Instead, what I will say is... this is another great film in the... um... “Before Series” (I wont say Before Trilogy because I’ll be gutted if they don’t make another one).

This time the “action” (or lack of, in reference to these films) takes place in Greece and the situation the two characters find themselves in is an opportunity centred around Jesse’s occupation in the second and third films. It’s a brilliant meal of a movie but its main course is quite bitter/sweet. The ending is once again left at a place where decisions seem to have been made but, due to the volcanic eruptions preceding this decision, the nature of the ending is not set in concrete and one wonders where the characters will end up in relation to each other within a year of the ending of this one.

There are a couple of things in this one which are a bit of an oddity for this series of films. The first is that for a big chunk of the first half of the movie, the characters are not just interacting with each other but with a bunch of other characters who are their companions at this point in time. This seemed a bit unusual for these movies but I rolled with it and was ultimately rewarded again with the total isolation of these two characters with each other by the last segment.

Secondly, and regular readers may be surprised at this, this film had a musical score in places which really didn’t gel with my remembrances of my experiences of watching these characters before. There’s not much of one and it only comes in at the odd moment but I did feel it was just a little too obtrusive and maybe it’s a sign of the studios perhaps not having enough confidence in the fabulous threesome (the director and the two main leads) at being able to carry the film on their own genius. And, yeah, I recognise the irony of someone like me who regularly champions film music to not want a score in this film. It just felt wrong.

Everything else about it felt right though. The dialogue, performances and extra long takes of between 10 and 20 minutes in some cases (just like the first two movies) were all there and the conversation was gripping and, in places, a little depressing... it has to be said. I was totally hooked again in these fictional people’s lives right from the first shot and, as a consequence, my stomach was doing butterflies as the tone of the film grew darker towards the end... not even Julie Delpy’s magnificently naked breasts were able to stop me worrying about the territory these characters were getting into. This is intense.

I can’t tell you what happens. It would be really terrible of me to do that to you. Just wrong.

All I will say is this... If you liked the other two films in this series, then go and see this one too. It’s my least favourite of the three but by no means less brilliant and it deserves your honest box office coin. If, however, you haven’t seen the first two... steer well clear. You really do have to see these movies in order. These characters are too great for you not to experience their conversational adventures in chronological order... you owe them that much as a fan of cinema in general. Before Midnight is, like the two before it, one of the best films of the year it was released in. If you are into cinema then you need to see these three movies. They are part of what the art is all about.

Roll on 2022... which is when I expect the next one to be released.

Sunday 23 June 2013

World War Z (aka World War Zed)

Dead’s Zed, Baby

World War Z (aka World War Zed)
2013 USA/Malta
Directed by Marc Forster
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Dead looking spoilers
suddenly springing to unlife to bite you...

I really didn’t know much about World War Z going in.

In fact, the only four things which I did know were as follows...

1. Brad Pitt is in it. I don’t mind him as an actor but at least one of his decisions in the past, if what I read was reported accurately, caused some bad consequences for other people in the business and consequently, since I don’t know him... I am wary of him. That said, his performance in 12 Monkeys was astonishing and I enjoyed his comic book performance in Inglourious Basterds a heck of a lot too. However, he’s a major star (and producer of this film) and my feelings say that major stars change the tone of projects... and that’s not often a good thing.

2. There was a lot of fuss, really a lot of reported news in the film press, that this project has been going for a long time and that major changes and reshoots were made. This is usually a sign of a bad movie, or often a really good movie which doesn’t match studio expectations of it, which is deemed in need of fixing and that tampering, from what I see of it, is rarely for the better (the extended cut of the Universal remake of The Wolfman, for example, became a contradictory mess in its longer version, whereas the original studio cut is quite watchable - reviewed here).

3. I’ve not read the original novel this thing is based on but I’m told that there is no one central protagonist in the book and that everything is pieced together from different news reports on a global level. Now this could be perceived as a problem because Hollywood and its stars don’t react well to narratives which have no real main protagonists in them but, you can tell even from the trailer, that this movie did have a starring lead role for the picture... Brad Pitt. I wasn’t too worried about this (not as much as I might have been had I read the book, for sure) and I think sometimes in the film industry you have to streamline things down to a central narrative character arc in order to get the film to something watchable... so not too many worries there.

4. The trailer worked really well for me. We had gazillions of zombies eating everything in sight and people in peril. So, really, whatever cynicism I might have been harbouring for the final product on screen... it was going on hold. I like zombie movies. They’re strangely comforting (for the most part).

Now just a couple of days prior to this, I’d heard some criticisms of this film on twitter based on it being filled with action for the first two thirds of the movie and having a strangely subdued last third and, yeah, I can almost see how some people might have had a hard time with that except for one thing, and it’s this...

Although the movie does celebrate zombie action over anything else for the first couple of acts, the third act, while slower in pacing and less spectacular in setting (although no less spectacular in set design), is certainly no less an intense or a suspenseful sequence than what has gone before it. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a whole lot more breathtaking and interesting than the rest of the movie put together... even though by now you’ve completely figured out how the movie is going to finish (I’ll get to that later).

So what we have here is like a big computer game with the first couple of levels in action mode and the final level in stealth mode. Pitt is quite convincing in his role and although it’s not a character driven plot, the film does take time to invest you with a feeling of Pitt’s “family unit”, which is a dead giveaway to the emotional state you will get to at the end of the film and why you know Pitt’s “final solution” will work... it has to in order to pan out the family drama. This drama is badly handled right at the last couple of minutes, I feel, and is one of the worst things about the movie, imbibed with a certain saccharine sweet sentiment instead of going for the natural sugar which was all it needed at this point.

Nevertheless, despite critics redundant rumblings, World War Z is a pretty entertaining time at the movies. It’s basically the big budget end of Hollywood finally catching up to something the low budget end of US film-making has been doing well since the late 1960s and, in this, it does kind of come across as George R. Romero meets 28 Days Later but with a slicker, commercial feel and lots of money to do it in style. But so what? It’s fine by me... I get to see a big budget zombie movie which actually gets to play at local cinemas with enough showings for me to be able to catch it. That’s not a bad thing and, as I say, it was pretty entertaining.

The film enthusiastically goes from one impressive set piece to another and is basically split up into three acts:

1. Escape from the zombie epidemic that suddenly hits where you are living and destroys your entire city in the space of an hour...

2. Become a globe-hopping researcher to try to find the cause of the plague and find some way to stop it... with impressive stop overs in both Korea and Palestine.

3. Go to Cardiff in Wales and sneak around a zombie infested World Health Organisation building with all the atmosphere (and some of the cast) of a really good Season 2 or Season 3 Torchwood episode.

Job done. Great film.

I did find it to be a bit “art-imitates-reality” poignant when Pitt’s character discovers that by immediately lopping off the hand of a female colleague he can halt the infection before it starts, considering the tragic events that have recently plagued his own real life family, but this film is a really well oiled machine of what is known these days as “the summer blockbuster” and it didn’t fail to deliver the goods (as many of them, of course, do fail to do just that).

There were a couple of disappointing things about the movie, though.

I don’t understand the USA ratings system but certainly, over here in the UK, the movie has a 15 rating. That’s kinda crazy because this film is pretty bloodless and lacking the kind of goriness you would usually expect from a good zombie movie. It’s like the producers were playing it safe on every level and not wanting to annoy the censors too much. So anything which might have been better explained by seeing it demonstrated as on screen violence, like the aforementioned, quick fire hand amputation or the killing of an “up-close-and-personal” zombie threat is often just off the side or bottom of the screen where you can’t properly get a handle on it quickly enough. It’s not too detracting or damaging to the movie as a whole, although it obviously distracted me enough to notice it each time they did (or rather, didn’t) do it but I’m guessing this just means there’ll be a harder, longer  and more satisfying cut of the movie released on video at some point.

The other thing which bothered me was the obviousness of the final solution and it’s successful outcome. By the time of the third act, Brad Pitt (and the audience) will have more or less figured out what the “chink” in the zombies’ armour is. However, in the last part the film makers place the lead character in a position where he is surrounded by zombies and there is no way out... unless he tests out his theory on himself and goes with his final solution. Which is what he does and, since we’re already so invested in him getting back to his family, we know it’s going to work, no question. This kind of lets it down in some ways but it doesn’t make it any less watchable for it and it’s only the very end of the picture with the family reunion where it gets maybe just a little less palatable... on the whole.

But there it is. World War Z is a pretty entertaining movie and it certainly won’t let down people who are into these kinds of monster infected pleasures (myself included, of course). The performances are fine and, aside from that one mis-step with the predictability of the “cure”, the writing is pretty good too with some excellent and hard hitting dialogue in places, performed by a cast who are obviously enthusiastic about hitting the right kind of tone for the story. I can’t speak for anyone else who’s seen this movie, obviously, but from my end, that of the endless audience, it’s certainly a top notch summer pop corn movie and people should have a good time with this one. I certainly enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than the last film I saw by this director, Quantum Of Solace, which perhaps isn’t saying a lot, come to think of it. However, World War Z is something I am quite looking forward to introducing to mum and dad when it comes out on Blu Ray... and that’s not a bad thing. Go see it.

Thursday 20 June 2013

The Killer Is On The Phone (L’assassino... È Al Telefono)

The Bald and the Beautiful

The Killer Is On The Phone 
(aka L’assassino... È Al Telefono)
1972 Italy/Belgium
Directed by Alberto De Martino
Camden Collection DVD Region 0

The killer on the phone is not the best giallo I’ve seen, but it’s certainly nowhere near the lower tier of some of these films and it’s got some quite interesting stuff going on it. This held my attention for the full running time without me even looking at my watch... and that in itself is a good thing these days.

It’s a little unusual for the majority of films in this genre... and this one joins the likes of Luigi Cozzi’s The Killer Must Kill Again (helping to create a little sub-genre of giallo all its own, perhaps), in that this is one of the few, the very few that I can even recall, where the identity of the main killer is pretty much known to the audience right from the start of the picture. What we don’t know until the end, although you really will begin to suspect this from very early on... is who the killer has been hired by. Therein rests the mystery, such as it is, in The Killer Is On The Phone.

Now there’s one big problem with this specific giallo and it’s the story/writing. The principal idea is okay and we watch Telly Savalas play a hit man who goes to kill a woman, five years after the death of her husband... an event in which she was a witness. Don’t ask me why it’s taken him five years to figure this out because, frankly, I don’t know. Anyway, when Telly approaches the main protagonist/ heroine, Eleanor (as played by Anne Heywood), she has a bizarre memory thing going on and feints dead at his feet. I don’t know why he doesn’t just finish her off there and then... except that they are out on show to the general public at large to a certain extent... although why you would then confront her in public at all and tip your hand is anybody’s guess at this point.

Anyway, when Eleanor recovers she goes to her house to find it’s been knocked down. When she goes to ring her husband, she asks for her “other” husband who died five years ago, not her current geezah on the spot. It’s clear by now that Eleanor is finding herself a little plagued by memory problems and as, throughout the film, her amnesia has brief signs of clearing through dreamlike flashbacks... including knife murders and bondage sequences opposite both her previous husband and Telly Savalas... our lovable hit man is stalking her and waiting in the wings to see if her memory comes back, delaying his next contract killing so he can sort out his loose ends here.

It sounds okay but the execution in terms of the writing is really not great and while the premise itself is actually quite strong, the writing is just not dextrous enough to pull off any real surprises or take the audience unawares, it seems to me. Right from early on a character is introduced into the proceedings and by then you’ll probably have your suspicions as to just who has been (and is) killing off people around Eleanor... although, it has to be said, the pleasantly surprising motivations behind these murders kinda makes no sense when you think about it... unless Telly Savalas is actually acting completely alone. Which he’s obviously not. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that this is one of those gialli when it’s really best not to scrutinise the story content too much and just try and go with it.

Which isn’t a bad thing to go with on this one.

Story issues aside, the movie is a visual and aural treat with performances by all the leads, who are particularly strong for this kind of movie. There are a fair few sequences throughout the picture with little or no dialogue and this makes the majority of this picture just about physical acting... and I’m not talking about action sequences either. Some of these scenes get into the whole aesthetic of stripping the craft of acting down to something along the lines of silent cinema, where a walk across a street can be as interesting as anything else that’s going on during the movie.

This not only gives the actors a breather away from some of the terrible lines they have to say (the version I saw was in Italian with English subtitles but this didn’t blunt the mediocrity of the dialogue as it often can in foreign films) but it also gives the cinematography, set design and music a chance to shine just a little brighter. And they do.

The director does what a lot of his “giallo comrades in arms” do on these things and goes for elaborate camera shots which frame and sub-divide the scenes beautifully. My theory has always been that the scripts on these things were so bad that the directors distracted themselves from the tedium by crafting the most complex mise-en-scene you can get in cinema. Whatever the reason, this film is no exception and De Martino splits shots into smaller blocks to frame different parts of the screen and even goes as far as to add texture or reflection to different plains to push your eyes right where he wants them to be in the frame. He also has some quite dynamic moments with combinations of movements and characters in a single frame falling naturally into each other. An example of this would be fairly early in the film where Eleanor gets into a car and we pan round as it drives off to the right of the shot... and then turns a bend and is driving away from us... then Telly Savalas will enter from screen right as the car is driving away from us and we’ll track back round to the left and follow him to where he ends up. Stuff like this always resonates with me and I find these kinds of films relaxing.

The score, by giallo stalwart Stelvio Cipriani (which was released last year as a 500 limited edition pressing from Digitmovies) is a departure from some of the writing I have come to expect from this guy in the past. It’s not a trippy bass line with beats and a big swooping melody like some of his scoring from around this time... it’s much more sedate and haunting and, it has to be said, a little more mono thematic than I would expect from him. With the exception of just a couple of typical “atonal jazz crime” cues, the score is mostly variations of one theme played repetitively and, mostly, slowly over the course of the film. It’s not bad but you won’t be able to stop humming it for a while... not because it’s particularly catchy but because of the amount of exposure it gets in the film. Still, a good support for the movie and nicely done.

The version I saw is known to be an uncut version but the film is, with the exception of one “giallo-typical” naked lady stabbing, mostly bloodless... even when Telly Savalas dies a particularly nasty death towards the end of the picture... before the, not so big, reveal of the person behind the whole plot. The camera cuts away at his slow dissection just at the last minute... which is curious for a genre of cinema which would normally revel in the amount of gore and arterial spray it can get up on the screen to satisfy an ever jaded audience. This is not a criticism... merely the pointing out of an oddity within the course of a giallo which, to be fair, is decidedly odd itself.

As I said, the performances are great but not particularly character based, although you do get a real sense of some of these characters as you follow them around and little details such as Telly’s collection of toy soldiers flesh the people out just enough without straying too far from the expected territory in that sense. Savalas does an excellent and very subtle job on this one which is kind of strange when you compare it to the role he’d just completed in the same year before shooting this, the over-the-top cossack in Horror Express (reviewed here).

All in all, I would say that if this kind of movie is really not your thing anyway, then I wouldn’t bother with this one... it’s not a jumping on point to get you hooked on the genre by any means. If, however, you are already invested in this genre to some extent, then The Killer Is On The Phone is certainly one you should see if you know what to expect, to a certain extent, from the Italian gialli of this period. Not a great giallo but certainly a competently made and watchable one.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Monster That Challenged The World

Slime Doesn’t Pay

The Monster That Challenged The World
1957 USA
Directed by Arnold Laven
MGM Midnite Movies DVD Region 1

So here I go on another review into uncharted B-movie territory, this time with the 1957... err... classic, The Monster That Challenged The World. My main hooks for watching this one were, firstly, because it’s on the same disc as another movie I wanted to watch soon - IT! The Terror From Beyond Space - and secondly because I already have the score to this movie on CD, and it’s always nice to go back and see how the music fits the film.

This one’s another hilarious horror but the monster looks quite classic. Ropey but, yeah, definitely classic. There’s an old pulp magazine from way back when which has pretty much this same monster featured on the cover. I know what it looks like but I just can’t remember what the title was and the cover to that one also used pretty much the same illustration on it... so I’d be interested in seeing which one came out first. Anyway, there are a number of monsters in this movie, all of the same species, but since we never see any two together in the same shot, I’m guessing the prop and costumes budgets on this one weren’t outrageously expensive.

The movie is set in an American town called Salton Sea and all the main protagonists come from the military base there or are police or scientists collaborating with the military. After a small earthquake, the movie starts out with two sailors going to pick a guy up out of the sea who has just landed in the drink as part of a parachute test. When they get to the spot they saw him go in, however, they realise he’s not around... only his parachute, bobbing in the water. When one of the two sailors goes down to find him, he also doesn’t return. Then, a creepily devilish shadow in the shape of a giant centipede thing sets the remaining sailor to screaming, so we know that it won’t be long before lots more people start to go missing.

We also know that the actor playing said sailor can’t scream for toffee... instead, emitting a manly vocal rendition of repeating “Arghhhhs” which sound more like the product of an act of sexual coupling than a harbinger of slime covered death. It’s quite a bad performance. Yeah, that's him pictured above. Just the still says it all, doesn't it?

Then, after meeting the main protagonist of the military base, his future love interest and the said future love interest’s young daughter (her mum’s a war widower)... it’s straight down to business as our brave crew of scientific explorers try to work out why some of the local sea water is slightly radioactive and why one of the recovered bodies from the earlier incident is all swollen up and bug eyed in death. And what’s that gooey slime that’s been covering everything at the various “scenes of the crime”? The local coroner can’t work it out... then again, the local coroner keeps his sandwiches in a frozen body drawer and can’t work out why nobody else wants a nibble, so it’s fairly safe to say that this strange phenomenon is a little beyond his knowledge.

Pretty soon our crew of intrepid heroes are back on the job and two scientists go back to the spot and dive down to investigate. They recover an egg before one of them is aggressively eaten by a centipede creature with bug eyes. The other one is chased back to his boat where the rest of the crew, including our main protagonist, manage to fend off this beast with various sticks and pointy things. When they get back to land, the egg is put in the scientists lab for study and, like in another giant sea creature movie a few decades later, all the neighbourhood beaches are closed (I’m looking at you Spielberg).

The egg in the lab actually furnishes us with two things. One is the chance to watch home movies of molluscs or, if you like, snails, while the stern but fair scientist tells us how these are the creatures which have been mutated to giant form as radioactive water seeped into an underwater fissure when it was shaken loose by the earthquake I mentioned at the start of the film... letting loads of creatures free to prey on tasty human snacks around the area. Unfortunately for the stock footage of snails and the supporting narration of the scientist, it should be fairly clear to any viewers of this movie with eyes located in their actual heads, that the giant monsters in this movie look absolutely nothing like snails and are in fact, in no way related. But we’re told they’re exactly the same so I won’t labour the point.

The other thing the egg in the lab gives us as a gift is the opportunity for more up close and personal shenanigans later on, just when our heroes thought all the monsters were killed off. You see, you know something is going to happen as soon as somebody questions the studies the scientists are doing on the egg, shortly after it is taken there. “Won’t it hatch?” is the question put to our main scientist. To which he replies something along the lines of... “No, It’s okay as long as the temperature doesn’t go up and this knob stays set below here, the egg won’t be able to hatch.” There you go... talk about tempting fate.

Meanwhile, the underwater sea caverns are sealed up but, it turns out the monsters have shown up via a secret passage and are hiding there, coming onto land to pick off people to eat when they’re feeling peckish. The question is, where is their entrance and where will they appear next.

And the film continues in this vein.

Actually, the film’s quite a nice, relaxing watch it has to be said. There’s some good unintentional comedy to be found throughout including a weird, almost “written as a gag”, moment when the police captain is telling the main protagonist (who is played by Tim Holt and who looks the dead spit of Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat) how a big stakeout turned out to be an event where nothing happened and likens it to the patrolling cars he has looking out for the monsters who are roaming the state. Cut to two officers patrolling in a car remembering how their situation right now is just like that stakeout where nothing happened. This is so stupid that I wonder if the writers actually meant to try and get a laugh out of the audience at that point? They needn’t have bothered, this film has a lot of laughs hidden in it, to be fair.

However, before I mock too hard, I do have to remember that one scene, where you know an elderly lock keeper is going to be slimed to death by a stray monster at some point in the picture, actually did make me jump as the mollusc struck the man down quick and definitely pre-empted future horror movies where something suddenly attacks from the side of the screen and makes your heart miss a beat. I had a genuine jump scare from a 1950s B-movie... so that’s kind of interesting. Similar to “the bus” in the Val Lewton’s Cat People to be sure, but with less noise and more visual startlement!

And, of course, Heinz Roemheld, the original Flash Gordon title music composer, completes the full on mutating mollusc mania with heavy stabs and stingers. Brooding, underwater menace doesn't get much better (the score can be picked up from Monstrous Movie Music here).

So what can I say. If you’re not a fan of sci-fi and horror B-movies from a time when radiation mutated, rubber beasts walked the studio lot, then this is not going to be your favourite movie anytime soon. If however, you’re happy to watch such intellectually challenging fodder as The Giant Claw, The Mole People or Earth Vs The Spider, then this movie is better than some of the similar features that were being made at the time and it’s therefore definitely worth you taking a look if you get the chance. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Man of Steel

Zeal Before Nod

Man of Steel
2013 USA/Canada/UK
Directed by Zack Snyder
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Some big Kryptonite nugget sized 
spoilers lurking in here later...

You know, in some ways, I owe Superman a lot.

When I was two or three years old, I was encouraged to read via Superman and Batman comics which my dad or my uncle would pick up from the stand, long gone I imagine, at the Angel, Edmonton in the very early seventies (1970 in fact, I suspect). These comics, along with Green Arrow/Green Lantern, World’s Finest, Shazam!, Justice League Of America, Daredevil and The Amazing Spider-Man and also the annual Christmas time reprints in such tomes as The Batman Bumper Book, The Superman Bumper Book and, wait for it, The Superman and Batman Bumper Book, were pretty much how I learned to read and by the time I got to junior school I was already out-reading all the other kids in the class (and writing epic length tales of imaginary spaceway heroes in some lessons too, from what I can recall). I particularly remember the cover to one specific Superman comic I read which, unfortunately, was the only comic which didn’t survive my childhood because I just read it too much and it finally fell apart. But the cover was so good to a kid my age... Superman VS The Electronic Ghost of Metropolis. It would probably cost an inappropriate amount of money these days if I were to track it down in the chance I could read it again but that cover will always live on in my memory.

So Superman meant a lot to me and I remember how thrilled I was when I used to watch the reruns of the old George Reeves The Adventures Of Superman show when I was a kid... and even the old Superfriends cartoon show. And I still have my Superman reels for my old 3D viewmaster somewhere about, I’m sure. When the first of the Christopher Reeves movies came out at the cinema, many years later, it was an event almost as big as the Star Wars movie of the previous year. All the kids loved both that and the sequel and I even got on well with the third in the series at the time... barring one scene which totally enraged me... but that’s another story.

Years later I discovered the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 40s and was absolutely blown away by the visual sophistication of these which, I believe, are the most expensive cartoon shorts ever made. I remember when a film some years ago called Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was released into cinemas and I also loved that for being able to so perfectly invoke the spirit and visual feel of those Fleischer animations.

As the years have gone by I’ve rewatched all the old George Reeves shows on DVD and, more importantly for this fan of the last son of Krypton... about seven or eight years ago I now acquired and watched on DVD the very first live action Superman theatrical serials from 1948 and 1950, starring Kirk Alyn in the title role, who will now always be my favourite live action Superman, I think.

Now, as far as the new Man Of Steel movie goes, it has to be acknowledged that I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Two reasons for this, actually... one was the fact that every trailer I’ve seen for this movie was... well... a bit rubbish. Two was the fact that, in their wisdom, the producers decided to get rid of Superman’s red pants. To explain to all my international readers (and thank you all so much for coming on here and reading, you’re all very much appreciated), I am English. In the UK the term pants is not what we call trousers as it is in the US, apparently. Over here it means underpants, or Y-fronts or... um... I dunno... men’s knickers. It’s long been a jokey but undeniable fact that Superman wears his underpants, the wrong way around, over his trousers. Funny or not, though, it’s always been an integral part of his costume and, along with one or two other minor but equally unwelcome tweaks to the uniform, these basic “no brainer, you don’t change these things” elements have been unnecessarily tinkered with in this movie. So even going into the screening I knew this was not going to be a proper Superman movie. No red knickers... no Superman!

But... I trusted Zack Snyder as a director and he’d not let me down in even the most challenging movie properties before this. He took liberties with Watchmen, to be sure, but certainly not as many as with Man Of Steel and I thought, even though it didn’t have the fake alien squid monster (which it really should have) it still kinda worked as a movie. Dawn Of The Dead, a reboot of one of the classic zombie movies, was also really cool (and works better when you realise it’s really not a remake of the original in anything but name and location similarities). I even thought Sucker Punch, a much maligned movie on its initial cinema release (don’t worry, a film that good will be rediscovered and lionised to classic status in approximately 23 years time) was a brilliant and highly cinematic experience (reviewed here). So on the strength of these I went along to see Man Of Steel anyway.

Besides... I wanted to hear what Hans Zimmer was going to do with the score.

Now, I took my folks out to see this and frankly, the cross section family assessment of this movie is as follows...

Dad: That was a terrible, terrible, atrociously bad movie.
Mum: It was a bit long winded and could have done with being a lot shorter. Not very good.
Me: It wasn’t completely terrible. It was way too noisy. There were no red underpants.

So... well there you have it. But let me give you a little more about what I thought of this noble intentioned monstrosity.

Well, firstly, it’s like no Superman movie you’ve seen before, even though it’s practically a remake of the opening half hour of Superman The Movie and most of Superman II. After a spectacularly realised set piece that shows the rebel General Zod and his cohorts defeated and Jor El (Superman’s father) himself becoming a fugitive on his own planet before the baby (Kal El) is finally launched towards Earth and Krypton destroyed... we are propelled immediately into a series of early “adult Superman” adventure sequences with him performing various, low profile, super-powered rescues. It would be fair to say that the director hits the ground running but, frankly, as spectacular and as enjoyable as the early Krypton scenes are on a purely cinematic level, they really are inappropriate to the subject matter, I felt, and would have been much better off in a Flash Gordon movie (for the record, I would love to see Zack Snyder direct a Flash Gordon movie, especially if it’s done in the proper time period). There’s an element of adaptation to this movie, whether you like that or not, and this “interpretation” of Krypton was beautiful but just not what was needed, I feel.

Also, another problem for some will be the eliptical way in which Snyder tells his tale of Superman. It’s, quite appropriately, much more like a comic strip, jumping backwards and forwards in time so we can get to the action as well as seeing his defining years on Earth at the same time without slowing down the high level of energy on the screen (this film is nothing if not pacey). It’s another example of Hollywood wanting to have its cake and eat it at the same time but, for the majority of the film it really kind of works and I was certainly buying into this technique for a while. However, if you’re a complete novice to the legend of Superman and unfamiliar with any of the previous versions (and there are many who are these days, I promise you) then you may have a hard time following the back story is my guess. The crash landing of young Kal El’s space capsule on Earth, for example, is never even shown... we just have to take the implication which, if you don’t know the story, may be a bit of a leap, is my guess.

There are some good things about the movie, though...

Superman could never fly in the early comics... he could leap tall buildings in a single bound though and this later developed in the strip into the kind of high flying ariel stunts we are used to associating with the character post-1930s. This new version pays homage to this in its “first flight” sequence and it’s  a really nice nod to those origins. It reminded me of a similarly successful scene in the much maligned John Carter movie, when the title character in that film (and Edgar Rice Burroughs original source novel) has to learn to cope with extra muscular activity in a gravity a lot lighter than on his home world (review here). So this was all good when it comes to Man Of Steel. Although, he didn’t have red pants on, of course, so... it wasn’t really Superman.

The performances are all superb, although many of the characterisations are quite off. It’s not the fault of the actors, presumably, if they’re being written like that in the script.  Larry Fishburne makes a surprisingly cool version of Perry White and Ma Kent is brilliantly played by Judge Hershey herself, actress Diane Lane. The title character, played by some guy I’d not heard of called Henry Cavill, really looks and acts the part as far as he’s allowed, although he does look extremely worried all through the movie. Also, losing the kiss curl (and that’s been done before many times too) is a big mistake. It’s not just a kiss curl you guys, it’s the "S" symbol. It’s as much a part of the Superman costume as his red underpants... oh, wait.

Hans Zimmer’s percussion heavy score, too, is excellent but quite noisy. Not as memorable as some of the Superman scores in the past but certainly he’s had a good go at it and I look forward to hearing the score CDs when they finally arrive in the post.

Anyway, yeah, there are some nice things about the movie but... the number of bad things happening maybe outweighs all that.

The plotting is atrocious, for example and completely relies on a ridiculous piece of “deus ex machina” towards the end of the picture which really is just a piece of technical sounding mumbo jumbo and which seems to make mockery of physics. I know I’ve bandied the “deus ex machina” term around a lot just lately in my reviews but, honestly, if Hollywood stops doing it then I’ll stop calling them on it. Sheesh! And for your information, I suspect deliberately creating a black hole over a big city on the planet Earth may actually do even more damage to the planet than Superman, Zod and his crew do. Not just disappear and... oh, don’t get me started.

It’s kind of fitting that a modern incarnation (minus red knickers) of a classic character who made his debut in a 1938 issue of Action Comics should be part of a film where the emphasis is solely on action... unfortunately, and this really surprised me from this particular director, the action sequences are edited together really badly. I couldn’t work out what was going on half the time, I have to admit. It was all going by super-fast and mostly super-incomprehensibly and I so won’t be taking my hard earned super-cash to another screening of this movie if I can help it. Although I’ll probably buy a reference copy on DVD when it hits later in the year (or when it goes in the sales). Seriously, all that over zealous energy was pretty much non-stop caving my brain in on a Friday night and making me go all sleepy. It really is a case of “zeal before nod” as far as this film is concerned.

Which reminds me... I was quite disappointed that Snyder didn’t use the famous line “Kneel before Zod” in this film. Unfortunately,he  didn’t succumb to the same kind of post modern referencing temptation that J. J. Abrams did in his latest Star Trek movie, it would seem (Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!).

There are a few more things that I think this movie could have done without changing. The “mild mannered reporter” incarnation of Clark Kent, for example, is saved for a reveal right at the end of the movie... which bothered me quite a lot actually. It’s also kind of annoying that Lois Lane is right in on the identity of Superman pretty much right from the start of the movie, when she accidentally gets embroiled in an incident in this version's equivalent of The Fortress Of Solitude and then uses all her reporter’s know how to track down her alien rescuer to the Kent’s home in Smallville. I suspect that, at DC, this might also be known as “pulling a Mary Jane/Gwen Stacey” in terms of watching what does and does not work at the box office. Although it seemed to fail on them as a ploy in the much panned but quite good Green Lantern movie from a few years ago (and reviewed here).

The one thing which really killed the movie quite a bit for me, though, was the death of gazillions of millions of bystanders. In Superman movies, innocents tend to not get killed, even during the big street battles with Zod and his crew in Superman II from what I can recall. Kal El would simply not tolerate not being able to rescue someone. It’s just not on and would do a lot of psychological damage to him, I think. During this movie there is a reign of destruction against the Earth which sees literally millions of innocent people dying. In the old Superman The Movie version from 1978, the character even breaks the director’s vision of “verisimilitude” (and annoyed us Superman fans no end) by having the man of steel magically take time backwards and heal the world rather than suffer anyone dying.  In this movie the gloves, and the red pants too, apparently, are off. Millions die and quite often due to the last son of Krypton himself  doing as much structural damage as the main “villains” of the piece. Superman loses his innocence and then compounds that by committing an act of murder at the end of the film when he chooses to end Zod’s reign of terror the only way left open to him. Superman makes the decision to kill and loses his “big boy scout” label in the process.

I think this was all very wrong and, frankly, if they wanted to make another Batman movie then they should have done just that. Superman is a different kind of hero to Batman... this is why they always work so well with each other. They possess strengths of character which fill in each other’s weaknesses. It’s a mistake to make one too much like the other... especially over the simple box office knowledge that bleak and vicious plays better than strength of morality in the cinema these days. It’s a shame but... there it is.

Okay, I’ve said a lot of negative stuff here but I don’t want to come down too hard on this movie. Lots of it was throughly entertaining and I don’t think a younger audience is going to be too concerned over the morality issues of the tale (even if there was a direct biblical analogy thrown into the mix in one scene). If you’re a fan of big budget action films then Man Of Steel might be right up your alley but if you, like me, have a big soft spot for the character, then you might want to have another think at whether you want to see this one. If you do though, and you find yourself wondering how Superman got into such a sorry state of affairs, just keep reminding yourself of one thing... “If he’s not wearing red pants, he’s not Superman."

Thursday 13 June 2013

The Woman From The Sea (Kaitei Kara Kita Onna)

Watered States

The Woman From The Sea 
(Kaitei Kara Kita Onna)
1959 Japan
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
Seen at a screening at the National Film Theatre

Warning: Slight spoilers swimming around the depths this review...

This is a movie which I had a bit of a strange reaction to when I finally saw it. I went to an NFT screening with JamesDevereaux of The Great Acting Blog and after the film was done he asked me what I thought of it and, in all honesty, I felt little disappointed but ultimately wanting to take another look at it... which is unlikely at the moment since the movie has never been made available on video in a country which would necessitate a subtitled print of a relatively (for Western audiences) obscure film. I said I’d need to sleep on it and, after a few fitful attempts at sleep (my personal life at the moment is a wreck) I have come to the conclusion that it’s a film I’d very much like to rewatch and let grow on me. Which must mean I kinda liked it, right? My feelings will probably be more apparent to me as I finish writing this review.

The film was screening as part of a season of old Nikkatsu studio films at the National Film Theatre and the curator of the event, Jasper Sharp, came out and did a little intro to the movie. Now bearing in mind the NFT staff always give out fact sheets containing an article about the movie you’re about to watch before the screening, I have to say that the gentleman in question was, for the most part, just underlining what I’d already only just read on the programme notes. However, I am grateful to this guy because he mentioned one insightful scrap of information in his opening spiel which, although I would probably have arrived at the same conclusion myself after watching the film, I have to give credit to him for because he pointed it out first and maybe I was looking out for it. That information was a comparison of this film and others like it to... Scooby Doo... and I’ll explain just why I agree with that proposition in a little while.

So the first thing I have to say is that it’s very much of its time, but for an American or British picture, in terms of cutting and editing. Even the shot set ups, although there were a couple of stand outs, were not what I was expecting from a Nikkatsu studio picture from this specific era (Nikkatsu are, of course, Japan’s oldest film studio). Most, not all but most, of the shots are a little less stylised and the space less artificially populated than I would suspect from some of the giants of Nikkatsu... people like Seijun Suzuki and his ilk. Instead, the movie relies on a more charming and comfortable feeling of community injected into the scripting and acting. The acting, by the way, was pretty matter of fact but stronger for it in this one, with special mention going to whoever the lady was who played the main male protagonist’s aunt.

The film took me by surprise because I was expecting something more serious and less lightweight for a picture that essentially contains supernatural elements mostly associated with the horror genre and, indeed, you can certainly see strong elements of that genre in this film but in a more “gee whiz” kind of presentation. Dealing with a beautiful (and HIsako Tsukuba really does have a searing presence in this role) fish-woman who attaches herself to our main protagonist Toshio (played by Tamio Kawachi) early on in the film, I was expecting something a little more haunting and poetic like a watery version of Kaneto Shindô’s excellent film about cat spirits, Kuroneko. Instead, we had a similar idea but with a lady who is a shark and who has been poaching and eating fish, not to mention feasting down on some of the locals as part of her diet too.

The strange bit is that the whole movie has been cross-pollinated with what I can only assume are the Japanese equivalent of the American beach culture movies of the time (you know, stuff like the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicelli vehicle Beach Blanket Bingo). These were apparently (and again thanks to Jasper Sharp for this) known as “sun tribe” movies and this makes for a rather uneasy, if spectacularly interesting, blend to watch on screen because, on the one hand you have a threat to the community in the form of a hostile, aggressive fish-woman who lures her victims to their death and eats them and it’s all mixed in with the same fish-woman and Toshio getting all teenage romantic and starry eyed. It’s quite a stark contrast at times too, because the villagers who seek to slay this beautiful monster are really quite viscous in their intent and even Toshio’s brother is killed off by the titular monster.

And while all this is going on, the great Japanese composer Masaru Sato’s score is enhancing the shenanigans even further and this is where the Scooby Doo analogy really takes hold because one of the methods the filmmakers use to give the audience the message that this is a wholesome movie about a bunch of kids investigating groovy mysteries is to have Sato deliver a score full of weird jazz and percussion hits and, annoyingly, Hawaiian guitar stingers... all dropped in almost without structure, or at least quite randomly, within the underlying music. And thinking of it, although it’s been many decades since I watched an episode of Scooby Doo, an extremely similar method of scoring was taking place in those early cartoons and this does give the picture a very strong message that it’s all just a heady, teenage romp.

Except it’s not. People are dying in brutal fashion and even Toshio is in line to be the next meal of the young “fish themed maiden”. So it’s all very interesting actually.

At the end of the day... I was fairly entertained by this film and I would certainly pay out for a DVD or Blu Ray of this movie if it was available (I’m looking at you Criterion Eclipse!) An interesting experience and one that people who are into exploring different movies should all strive to seek out... or at least a movie in a similar vein. Time and money well spent.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Mission Impossible II

Treasure Of The 
Chimera Mardre

Mission Impossible II
2000 USA/Germany
Directed by John Woo
DVD Region 2

Okay, so on to the next review as I watch the Mission Impossible films for the first time, courtesy of my dad (see my review of the first one here).

So four years after DePalma’s first movie hit cinemas, famous Chinese action director John Woo was called in to direct the second in the ongoing series and, as you would expect, delivered a much different film to the first one. I actually remember the trailer which ran for this in cinemas at the time, of Tom Cruise getting all ‘Kirked up’ and climbing a mountain and a nice quote from Anthony Hopkins along the lines of “Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible.” I must say, the trailer looked quite good but there was no way I would be going to the cinema to see it because I hadn’t seen the first one. 13 years later... I’ve now fixed that issue.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, I‘ve not seen that much Woo... but I know he makes some of the most respected ‘kinetic action ballet’ style of movies out there. I’d seen only four of his other films before this and I remember three of those - The Killer, Hard Boiled and Paycheck - being pretty good... unfortunately this man also made a terrible movie called Face Off which, to paraphrase a great writer once again, I only managed to survive the tedium of by gnawing one of my own legs off.

He seems to have a couple of trademark features to his films that I can make out... one is a white dove which always seems to get in there somewhere (a little like director John Glen’s pigeon obsession), this film being no exception and the other being that there’s usually a fair amount of slow motion footage during action sequences which, in all honesty, I do find kind of dull. Woo uses these to highlight certain details of a sequence he wants to stick in your mind... much like Eisenstein would take an isolated shot of an individual in close up, isolated away from the crowd he or she is in, to emphasise the emotion or detail of a scene... that is, if Eisenstein had been filming people driving high speed vehicles and shooting about a gazilllion rounds of ammunition a second at each other.

Well there’s plenty of his slow motion stuff in here too... especially in the end fist fight between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character and the main villain of the piece, played by Dougray Scott (who I previously saw in the Doctor Who episode Hide, reviewed here...). However, there is one use of slow motion right near the opening of the picture, which introduces Thandie Newton’s “lovable thief” romantic interest character and throws her into the mix of things as Tom Cruise first catches her eye while they are both observing some Spanish flamenco dancing... and the flamenco steps are slowed down. This "dance" of these characters’ opening encounter is something which does catch the imagination somewhat and it’s also something which the director takes great pains to emphasise as an echo within the body of the rest of the movie... and which I think is a good thing because I’m guessing that emphasis wouldn’t eccessarily have been something which was actually written into the script. It’s done almost subliminally during key moments, by the use of Hans Zimmer’s fairly interesting scoring, which every now and again will reference back to that flamenco music to remind us that Cruise and his new leading lady definitely have... “a thing” for each other. And this works really well.

I say it’s a different kind of film from the first one and certainly there’s a lot more sweeping elegance to the shooting style but, although John Woo had the script written around the action scenes he already wanted to include as set pieces (and not the other way around as most traditional directors would do), the film is not exactly an action fest in terms of content and I’m afraid to say that, while I prefer good writing over high speed action pieces any day, this second outing suffers from exactly the same problem tht the first film did. That is to say, the story and events depicted are really obvious and predictable all the way through.

It’s very obvious, given the parameters of the Mission Impossible branding, that various twist scenes are just not going to work. The whole plot being centred around a sample of a deadly virus called Chimera, for example, almost screams out for one of the Mission Impossible team to get infected, causing a 20 hour time limit to that person expiring unless the virus can be obtained. Of course, way before the time this actually happens in the movie, you will have figured out who, how and certainly why this happens... which is a shame because I suspect that could have been rewritten as a really strong and dynamic part of the plot.

Similarly, a good five minutes before we see the leading actor ostensibly shot by one of the bad guys (so “bad” he went on to play Dracula in Stephen Sommer’s Van Helsing), it’s pretty obvious by the way the scene is shot, even before either of the characters are through the door in a particular scene, that Cruise has switched their identity with the aid of the “not very convincing” face masks people use to steal each others personae with in these films.

But, as the first entry in the series, there is some good stuff going on here too, with a great "bath/robbery" scene between Cruise and Newton near the start of the movie and a truly poetic, wire work fist fight at the end which isn’t anything new (even for the time) but is certainly more than watchable, especially when pitched with Zimmer’s effective choral and percussion music which does a lot to elevate a fair few of the action scenes to a certain level of quality... much like Elfman’s did in the first movie although, to be fair to Mr. Elfman and in hindsight, having now heard the music as a stand alone experience, Elfman’s score did suffer a lot more in the mix than Zimmer’s does here, where it gets a fair amount of highlighting against the inevitable bullets, bikes and bangs.

A lot of people have said to me that the second and third movies in the four to date are a lot worse than the original. I don’t think the second movie, at any rate, is any worse than De Palma’s opening salvo... I just think it’s a similar film done differently. So, honestly, if you liked the first one and haven’t seen this one, I’m guessing this will be a far from intolerable experience for you. Check it out sometime.

Mission Impossible at NUTS4R2
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to click on one of the titles below to take you to my review.

Mission Impossible
Mission Impossible 2
Mission Impossible 3
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 
Mission Impossible: Fallout

Monday 10 June 2013

The Last Exorcism Part 2

Nell To Pay

The Last Exorcism Part 2
2013 USA
Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Very light spoilers possessing
the soul of this review as you read...

Well this movie came as a bit of a surprise when I finally saw it.

A number of years ago now there was a “found footage” horror movie called The Blair Witch Project which was made on a shoestring budget and which went on to conquer the box office and scare people silly. While the iron was hot, a sequel was commissioned by the studio but this dispensed with the dodgy 1st person camera eye view that had so impressed people in the first movie (although this film far from pioneered that style of directing, it certainly repopularised it and the aftermath of that is still with us today) and instead was presented as a straight, linear movie narrative. The seeming touch of brilliance, though, was the fact that it was the so-called found footage from the first movie which inspired the characters in the sequel to proceed into similar territory and get themselves into so much trouble.

Unfortunately, for everyone involved, the second Blair Witch movie turned into “just another teen horror movie” which was dull and uninteresting and it seemed that the filmmakers had been so intent on reaching that easy pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that they had forgotten to make sure that the film turned out to be any good.

Cut to a couple of years ago and a similar “documentary style” footage movie called The Last Exorcism that some people didn’t really go for but which I’d really loved opened in cinemas (my review of it can be found here). When somebody other than the original creative team announced that they would be doing a sequel (so what would that be... The Laster Exorcism?) and that they would be dispensing with the first person camera style in this one also, I was getting a strong sense of deja vu that this was going to be going the same way as the Blair Witch sequel... especially as it comes to pass that “found footage” from the first movie turns up as a youtube video in the second film.

However, where The Last Exorcism Part 2 scores over the Blair Witch Project sequel big time is that, this time, the new creative team actually put together a pretty entertaining movie. I know I’m probably going to be in the minority on this one but, I have to say, I really liked this installment.

Ashley Bell returns to this film in the same role which she played so dazzlingly well in the first movie and this one indeed picks up pretty soon after the last film ended in what I can only call a “blaze of Wheatley”. Only this time she’s not doing hardly any of the “twisted body” thing she did so well in the first movie... this film is not like that. It does its own thing.

Her character, Nell, is “discovered” in the pre-credits sequence, which is another little exercise in jump scare horror, and this pretty much sets the tone for the whole movie and her adventures in a girls orphanage in New Orleans is all about becoming a normal girl who is gradually feeling her recent past catching up with her.

Nell is a name which echoes deep for me in the legacy of cinematic horror. It’s the name which Shirley Jackson gave to her heroine (short for Eleanor but written ghostly on a wall as Nell) in her novel The Haunting Of Hill House which became, and still remains, my favourite movie in the genre when Robert Wise made it into a film in the early sixties, The Haunting (so much so that I’ve never been able to contemplate seeing the remake). Nell in this and the previous movie in The Last Exorcism franchise has fair hair and an innocent to the point of blindingly naive demeanour, just like Jackson’s original heroine, played so well in the sixties movie by Julie Harris and maybe that’s why I have such an affinity with the Nell character in this franchise. More likely, however, it’s probably more because Ashley Bell is such a fantastic actor who really knows how to use her body language to put her character across when the character’s voice leaves her words often unspoken. She’s a really interesting actress who tends to hold your attention whenever she’s on screen.

There’s also another actor back from the previous movie but... I really shouldn’t tell you who. It might spoil the sequences that character is in a little too much for you.

To be honest, the movie proceeds throughout most of its running length to be a series of cheap scares piled on top of yet another sequence of cheap clichéd scares which I can sometimes be critical of as a technique in modern horror... except this movie executes these fright moments so well. It had me jumping at everything... dogs barking and hurling themselves at fences, radios doing spooky volume tricks, birds flying into windows... it’s all there but the director knows how to time it so, even though in most cases you know exactly when and how the scare will be coming, it still manages to give your heart a little rush when it comes. At least, it did that for me.

Nell’s gradual maturation from an innocent little girl through to a point when she is anything but an innocent little girl is both touching and satisfying to watch. There’s a scene in Sam Raimi’s excellent M.R. James retread Drag Me To Hell (reviewed here) where an attempt is made to trap a demon in a goat and then kill the goat before it gets loose again and a similar kind of sequence (in a slightly differently presented way) is played out towards the end of this movie but, where Raimi tends to play his scenes for laughs, this one is played for keeps and the shift in strategy by the exorcist and his secret society in here... their kind of end game last resort... is something which makes you think, oh yeah, this was the devils plan all along, to force this battle right here and now. I don’t want to spoil the final outcome for you but I really loved the last sequence of the movie (as i had the movie before) and, without giving too much away, I would have loved it if somehow a time machine could have been invented to let Bernard Herrmann score the last shot as a backwards xylophone hit over a jump cut. If you know the film I’m referring to here well... when it comes up in this one you’ll know it when you see it.

There is prominent use of CGI in this little end sequence but I just loved it and although there will probably be a lot of detractors to this movie, because it doesn’t do exactly what the first movie did and for a heap of all kinds of other reasons, I know a skillfully put together motion picture when I see one and the performances and standard, but astonishingly effective, horror score straying into the realms of sound design by composer Michael Wandmacher mark this movie out as a much worthy successor to the original film than, say, Damien: Omen 2 was to The Omen (and there’s a good reason I refer to that film series in particular here).

All I can say is, if you liked the first movie and were as astonished by Ashley Bell as I was, here you get to see a less physical but equally enchanting side to her characterisation of Nell and I think you might want to go along and leave your expectations at the door. I know I did and I’m very pleased at that.