Sunday 30 March 2014

Captain America - The Winter Soldier

Signed, Shield & Delivered

Captain America - The Winter Soldier
2014 USA
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Joss Whedon
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Yeah, this one’s going to have some pretty big spoilers because of the things I want to discuss, I’m afraid. If you want to be in the dark when you see this movie... don’t read this.

So here we are back in the Marvel Universe produced version of, um, the Marvel Universe (as opposed to non-Marvel Marvel Universe franchises like Spider-Man and the X-Men). I have to say, this second outing for Captain America is a pretty good movie in the sequence. Probably my fourth favourite of the collected series which dovetails into the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and The Avengers arc.

The film does the usual thing of not keeping closely to some of the things in the Marvel series of comics on which these stories are, well, let’s call it “inspired by” shall we? However, this one doesn’t really stretch things too far (apart form maybe with a certain aspect of The Falcon... but I’ll get to that soon) and while it’s not nearly as bleak and pessimistic as some people have seemed to have made out, this is not the gung-ho burst of US patriotic bomb blast you might have been expecting from a super soldier named after his country. Overall, I liked the consistent tone of cold war betrayal going on with the plot line (something which began in The Avengers aka Marvel Avengers Assemble) and felt it a more interesting movie than, say, Captain America: The First Avenger (reviewed here)... although I still wish they hadn’t rushed Cap out of the 1940s and kept him in that time period for a few more movies (yes, I do want a 1940s set film version of The Invaders please!).

Now I’m not all that familiar with the storyline of the original comic book version of The Winter Soldier but I remember a friend filling me in on the basic plot line about 8 years or so ago. Marvel haven’t exactly been keeping the identity of The Winter Soldier a secret, with even the IMDB revealing who the character actually is, and it’s fair enough actually... after all, the comics were published a long time ago now. So, this movie sees the return of Sebastian Stan as the brainwashed and “returned to life” Bucky Barnes, reprising his role from the first Captain America movie ( although I still wish they’d have put Bucky in his original costume for that first outing). He plays the role of The Winter Soldier much better than he did the 1940s version of Bucky, in my opinion, but that’s because he didn’t play Bucky as the Marvel Universe equivalent of Robin, The Boy Wonder, as he was obviously modelled after. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the character, however, the combat scene where his identity is revealed to the audience in Captain America: The Winter Soldier probably made a nice surprise.

The film ditches and rewrites parts of his history of course, as it does with all the characters in the movies to fit them into a strong, unifying Marvel brand (which is about to be shot to pieces with the new X-Men movie, actually, but I’ll get to that later). So, when a scene where Steve Rogers is revisiting his past at an exhibit at the Smithsonian, this film compounds the lack of Nick Fury during World War 2 and so... much more officially in this version... Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos becomes Captain America And His Howling Commandos. Similarly, the character of The Falcon, who started out life in a 1969 issue of Captain America, is not wearing his traditional spandex red and white costume with accompanying mask, which infuriates me a little... but, at least, it’s replaced with a practical piece of technology which doesn’t look as out of place within the overall tone of this movie. Plus, well done to actor Anthony Mackie (who I really liked in The Adjustment Bureau, as I pointed out here), for turning in a really solid and likeable performance as one of the beloved heros of 1970s comics.

Chris Evans just gets better and better every time I see him in something and his portrayal of Captain America, is actually pretty competently delivered, considering the character is so righteous and star spangly that he could easily dip into boredom at any second. Evans manages to make him both believable as an actual person and to also deliver a no nonsense confidence within the prison of the character... so that’s pretty good. The film even includes the scenes deleted from The Avengers movie, with Steve Rogers visiting the aged Peggy Carter, his love interest from the first movie, and we see the pain of responsibility in Captain America’s life as his former flame slips into dementia. It was a shame they didn’t feel they could bring this character back, frozen in time like her star spangled boyfriend, but the whole thing works dramatically much better as an anchor in the title character’s life, I guess... so that was pretty good.

And then we have Scarlet Johansson’s take on Black Widow, who is finally beginning to look more and more like the comic book character she is based on. Granted, she doesn’t seem as troubled and tortured by her past as much as she needs to be just yet, and her former love affair with The Winter Soldier seems to have been completely bypassed for the sake of brevity in this movie, but she’s always good to watch and I feel that, if the writers and directors of these movies don’t cop out on us, they’re definitely moving the character in the right direction now.

The film is a heady blend of action and “spy hard” theatrics and the brilliant action sequences, when Captain America throws his mighty shield, are not edited too badly (only gets a little confusing in a few places) and, without a doubt, it has to be said, all those who choose to oppose his shield, must yield.  Samuel L. Jackson’s usual turn as Nick Fury is pretty cool too, although it’s really strange that the writers of this movie really expected us to think that they had killed the character off. Frankly, we know a faked death when we see it and there’s a lot of reasons why it just makes no sense to eliminate this character, just yet, from the franchise. So, yeah, I did feel like my intelligence was being way too insulted by that point.

The return of Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola was expected, to be sure, but not in the way they’ve brought him back (which kind of pre-empts a Johnny Depp movie coming out soon, it seems) and I’m glad he returned for this one, if just for Natasha Romanoff’s throwaway reference to the computer hacker movie War Games. Would’ve been nicer to see him in the flesh, maybe, but at least he got a look in.

Emily VanCamp, as Agent 13, is also absolutely brilliant in this, and held my attention for all the scenes she’s in. I’m assuming/hoping that she’ll be a regular in the film series as it develops but, well, let’s see where they go with that. Which leads me to the next big question...

How can we have an Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D TV show when S.H.I.E.L.D has been historically infiltrated by Hydra and all but destroyed, now, by the main protagonists of this movie? Why am I even watching that show, to be honest? It needs to get better really soon now... I’m the only one in my house still bothering to watch it. Maybe this is the way they kill off the show before, hopefully, moving some of the TV characters back into the main movie franchise?

Like all the Marvel Universe Phase One and Phase Two movies, the film has a post end credits scene and also, like Thor: The Dark World, a mid end credits scene and, this sequence, throws up the little rant I was going to get around to having when the new X-Men movie came out... but now I can do it here too. The original comic book characters of the brother and sister twins who were Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver started off, if my hazy memory serves me correctly, as villains... part of Magneto’s mutant army in the early 1960s X-Men comics, before they switched sides and became part of the superhero team known as The Avengers. So it makes sense for them to appear in continuity here... with an origin which seems to be involving some new villainous society. However, and here’s the problem, 20th Century Fox also have rights to the characters and they are using them in their upcoming movie X-Men: Days Of Future Past... played by different actors and, presumably, with a different movie origin story which doesn’t dovetail into this franchise. This is a bad idea all around, people. It’s surely going to confuse the heck out of audiences who a) don’t know the origin of the characters and b) who don’t realise the Marvel Universe has been strangely split between multiple studios. It’s basically like having two different Spider-Man movies out there starring different actors at the same time. It makes no sense but, lets reserve judgement until we’ve seen both X-Men: Days Of Future Past and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron first, I guess. Maybe the X-Men timeline will wipe them out of existence by the end of that movie.

And that’s about it, for this review, I guess. I used to have a Captain America action figure as a kid with a special toggle on the back which used to make his arms punch if you pulled the joint out of his socket (yeah, that was a deliberate thing you were supposed to do, people... I didn’t usually used to pull my action figures’ limbs out for fun) and it’s nice to see the character now knocking around on film in a credible manner (as opposed to the theatrical serial Captain America from 1944 and the various TV movie incarnations of the character over the years). And the film does have one last special trick up it’s sleeve if you really want to get pulled into your local cinema to see this movie... and it’s this...

 Jenny Agutter reprises her brief role from The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble and reviewed here) and takes out a roomful of bad guys with her kung fu kickassery (plus some extra help from those quick action edits). There’s a little extra twist to this sequence, shown moments later, but... seriously... go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and you will get to see Jenny Agutter stand up to Robert Redford’s goons and kick some Hydra butt. Which is as good a proposition as I’ll ever need to get me into cinemas, to be honest.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fun movie in a franchise which knows how to keep a serious level of gravitas and credibility to characters who are, by definition, the very antithesis of credible, while still remembering to keep the writing dialled up to “full on fun”... not the best entry in the Marvel franchise... but certainly a very good one.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Mutual Admiration Society

Great Aspectations

Mutual Admiration Society
2014 UK
Directed by James Devereaux & Rouzbeh Rashidi

When actor/director James Devereaux asked me to look at Rouzbeh Rashidi’s latest film, I hadn’t twigged it was directed by the both of them. Of course, I’ve reviewed work by both of these directors before and, sometimes, Devereaux stars in Rashidi’s movies... but I didn’t wake up to the collaborative nature of the project until after I’d seen it. I saw the fingerprints of both these artists within the film, of course, but it’s taken me this long to figure out that they are both moving in similar directions in the way they make their art, at the moment, and so I’m guessing that’s why their mutual alliance felt more focussed to me in its intent than I would expect from certain other cinematic partnerships over the years.

The film is presented in black and white and opens with a bearded Devereaux, the only character in the entire film, looking around him. As can be expected with an actor of Devereaux’s calibre, the performance, mostly improvised, is something that is always watchable and interesting. The aspect ratio is similar to that you would get from a mobile phone, which then expands to a wider ratio to see Devereaux in context and interacting with his environment, before switching back to the previous ratio.

In fact, the aspect ratio keeps switching it's location within the bounding frame (composed of white space) throughout the course of the movie.

The shapes used within the space, within the frame, are not to indicate different narrative or chronological points in the story (story is not necessarily what you would call a present element in a film made by either of these directors, to be honest). I suspect, they’re more presented that way to challenge one’s notions of a static ratio as the best way to frame a shot when a different one would specifically serve a different shot. A way of freeing the cinematic space and the constant switching between various planes of that space, very quickly trains the audience to adapt to this kind of acceptance of the art on its own terms.

We also, of course, get into multiple, smaller ratios showing different aspects of the same character in the same space and, because we're already used to the changing visual interface, by this point, we accept this in a less jarring and intrusive manner than we might if, say, it was someone like Brian DePalma suddenly switching to a split screen mode.

Later on, when Devereaux is clearly distressed, his mind in chaos, the ratio is tilted within the overall binding white space of the film frame to further enhance the jangled internal communication of the character within certain shots. The directors experiment with different ways of showing this kind of expression of being bound by the space. For instance, at one point, the ratio of the frame is opened out but Devereaux's head is jammed at the corner intersection of three walls within the bottom right hand corner of the screen. This instantly creates a dialogue between the space captured within the camera as an expression of the boundaries of both the physical form and the human spirit… and the way the stock itself, be it actual film stock or digital pixels, can be retooled to fit a similar embodiment of the same goals and tests the effectiveness and limits of each one as a set of co-existing, artistic techniques. To further push this exploration, the directors even use a strobing effect at one point.

Another key thing to that approach, of course, whether it’s an intentional construct or a serendipitous momentum created by the realisation of the art itself, is that you have the human body as an extension of the mind, exploring the limits of its physical space but, also, within an arena wherein the director (as God) controls the limits of that exploration at a place where the unaware and unnamed protagonist in a film can't know how he (or she) is being manipulated within their alternate reality.

Asides from the dialogue between the way space is used both internally and externally to the content of a shot, there are some really nice moments in the film which make it all worth the watch.

For instance, the contradiction inherent in Devereaux’s stern faced contemplation of his situation (whatever that actually is) and the external expression of the seriousness of his intent...  pitched against the absurdist action of taking a fully clothed shower while drinking a cup of tea. That’s a pretty nice moment right there.

His character, with a gammy leg, dragging himself up a hill just to have a quick look around, then coming down again, is probably a metaphor for something I'm not smart enough to pick up on but it did remind me of Greek tragedy somewhat, and the concept of a daily struggle, perhaps by way of Philip K. Dick's concept of the pseudo-religion of Mercerism in the novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? It seems to be, intentionally or not, a visual representation of a certain human attitude, or perhaps need or drive, which is a basic subconscious component of our species.

The struggle between the tortured mind, the physical confinement of such  and the sacrifice involved within such struggle, seems to be a constant concern of the movie, in fact.

What you have here, as you let the images wash over you, is a definite sense of fragments of a central narrative in a simultaneously existing before/after state. The gun, the limp which appears and disappears from shot to shot can be seen, if you choose to read the images this way, as two states on either side of a central event. Once again, Rashidi and Devereaux are inviting us to bring our own, unique narrative element to the film. For me this was a haunted, recovery period of a hit man after something went wrong on a job, followed by preparation for the next job… or is it the other way around. Of course, the beauty of these kind of visual stimulations is that everybody is going to see their own thing within it… which pushes and supports an idea I've had for a while, actually, that people's reaction to a movie is based purely on their own personal baggage that they bring to the experience with them, and how well that same personal agenda is reflected back at them. The almost inevitable refusal to show the actual event which creates the material for this structure is, I think, typical of the work of both these directors.

And all this is judiciously, but effectively, spotted with Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso n.1, per due violino, clavicembalo, pianoforte preparato e orchestra d'archi... the music used in a more traditional way to create emotion and unease at certain moments in the film and add a certain weight to some of the sequences. It’s been a couple of decades, at least, since I last listened to this composer’s work so I’m pleased to be reminded of him and I really ought to catch up with his work again sometime soon.

Devereaux’s own blog about the way this film was made can be found here and I’d say it’s well worth a read and, obviously, well worth a watch if you’re into the art of making movies. You can follow both directors on twitter on the links given below and, if you give them a shout, maybe they’ll give you a link to the movie for a free watch.

Rouzbeh Rashidi

James Deveraux

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The Golden Eye

Miner Incursion

The Golden Eye
1948 USA
Directed by William Beaudine
Monogram - Warner Brothers 
DVD Region 1

Well it looks like this may be my last Charlie Chan movie review for a little while... until either Warners or some other interested party decide to commercially release the few missing movies I don’t have yet... or until I maybe go back to the start and watch them all over again.

This is the fourth of the six movies headlining Roland Winters in the role of Chan and, blimey, I’m finally starting to get used to the guy. Either he’s grown on me big time or the writing on this one is more able to play to the strengths of the actor and the way he performs the role. Either way, this movie is a pretty fun romp in the series and certainly the best of the Winters’ films I’ve seen to date.

One of the reasons for this may be because Chan is totally on the case in this one and has a lot more to do with the story than usual... not just leaving it to other characters to play out the running time. Don’t get me wrong, this film still has a lot of supporting players including the second of three regular appearances by Tim Ryan as police “Lt. Mike” as Chan calls him... who does a great job acting as a whacky,  undercover drunk (then immediately sobering when he visits Chan to exchange information). Some great and thoroughly entertaining acting going on here in this one. And, of course, the later Chan’s would be incomplete without the double act routines of Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son and Mantan Moreland as chauffeur Birmingham Brown. Their scenes are a little less frequent than usual, which allows Winters and Ryan to shine, but their presence is still very much felt and a wonderful bit of business takes place at the start where they are dressed in dodgy cowboy outfits, packing to go under cover in a resort Western town (the Lazy Y Ranch) which is situated near The Golden Eye gold mine... which gives this film its title.

The plot is pretty obvious in both its execution and denouement, with a mystery involving a non profitable gold mine which has suddenly become very profitable for absolutely no reason... you pretty much figure out what is going on there right from the bat. However, as with a lot of these kinds of formulaic films with running characters, the plots are merely a skeleton to hang some nice scenes on which show the characters you know and love in their best light and, like I said earlier, this one’s a fun old romp.

There’s kind of a “surprise” villain in this one too but, honestly, if you didn’t see that one coming then you’ve not been watching enough mystery movies during your life. There are no "real" surprises here but plenty of smiles and chuckles and I’m really glad to see Winters really getting into the part here... even if Chan’s days as a running, cinematic icon were, sadly, numbered.

There’s a very strange bit right at the end where, after Chan has revealed the solution to the mystery and the various bad guys have been captured or met with death, Mantan Moreland gets a last say in the movie. Birmingham Brown steps right out of the scene, walks over to the camera and breaks the “fourth wall” by talking to the audience in a little “wrap up” monologue all his own. I don’t recall ever seeing this happen in a Charlie Chan movie before and I’m wondering if this was something the director was trying out as a feature to use in forthcoming films in the series. Not having access to the final two stories, as yet, this isn’t something I am going to easily find out, I suspect.

As Chan films go, The Golden Eye goes a long way to capturing the magic in a bottle of some of the Warner Oland and Sydney Toler movies in the series and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Just hoping somebody will release the missing Chans to us sometime soon though. I need my opium fix.

Monday 24 March 2014


Liam What I Am

2014 UK/France/USA
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Well. surprisingly, this movie is not the complete disaster I thought it was going to be.

The first time I saw Liam Neeson take on the role of an action hero it was when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (the later 3D version of which is reviewed here) opened at cinemas in the UK. I was impressed both by the movie (yeah, I know, I’m in a minority there) and also by Neeson’s presence in that kind of role. When I went to the cinema a few years back to see him inhabit that kind of dynamic role once more, in Taken, I was once again impressed with him in that much harder edged and grittier take on the contemporary action hero.

Then it all changed for me.

I saw him take on another action role in Unknown (reviewed here), a film by the director of Non-Stop, and was extremely disappointed with it. Not specifically with Neeson, he’s always a pretty much guaranteed appropriate performance... but the film was pretty awful, it has to be said. Similarly, although I kinda enjoyed Taken 2 (reviewed here) for what it was, I felt it was a big downgrade in quality compared to the almost perfect first film... the plotting just seemed way off course to me.

Now, if I’d realised Non-Stop was directed by the same guy who turned in Unknown, I almost certainly would have avoided this one. As it was, I didn’t know that and, although the trailer for this one looked pretty run of the mill, I wanted to see if this one could possibly be as cliché ridden as the film’s pre-publicity made it out to be.

And the answer to that one is... yes.


It’s also a pretty good little B-movie style action thriller and, although it does feel kinda cosy throughout the majority of the film, it didn’t spoil my appreciation of it as an entertainment. I liked, for instance, that the film made use of just one set for over 99% of it’s running time (the story is about terrorists on a plane) and I’m guessing this whole thing was a fairly low budget affair.  I also appreciated the acting performances too, it has to be said. You can’t go wrong with Liam Neeson and Juliane Moore really (although, knowing what she’s capable of, Moore’s screen time and character could have been considerably expanded in this one, as far as I’m concerned) but, more than that, it’s like the plane was filled up with really great modern character actors. I didn’t know any of their names but some of their faces looked familiar and they were all damned good in their parts.

Another great thing about this one is that the action editing was really good. And by really good, I suppose what I mean is that it displayed a high level of competence in allowing the audience to actually be able to piece together the action choreography in their heads... rather than just show a load of fast cut incidents and attempt to fake it in an almost “impressionistic” way... which has been a weakness of a fair amount of Hollywood style action movies over recent years. Yeah, I know I’ve said that stuff in reviews before but, I think it bears reiterating here because I would always appreciate knowing up front if I’m going to be able to effectively decode the images that are presented to me... no matter how short the shots are.

There are other things about this movie which are far from good, though...

It telegraphs certain things about the nature of the threat and even, in a couple of sequences, kinda points out who’s behind everything long before the actual threat even materialises in the film. The “bad guy” element is pretty much finger-pointed in the first five or ten minutes of the movie and, after that, the red herrings deliberately highlighted at key points aren’t really enough to throw you off the scent for very long, I’m afraid.

It’s also full of clichés too. Some of the character types even correlate to previous “air disaster” movies and, although they are obviously presented like this as homage, it doesn’t really do itself any favours in that regard. The character background stories are pretty 1970s TV soap opera too... so that really didn’t help. It also leads us into an almost inexcusable quality of the movie which annoyed me intensely, in that it had both the “generic villain comes back from death to cause more mayhem” factor and the “generic ally of the main protagonist comes back after death in case he needs to make cameo appearances in any sequels” factor in this film. Added to these crimes is a last minute, end of movie, blossoming romance where there really wasn’t one, and none needed, kind of ending to the story and there’s enough there to certainly have turned me off this movie.

But, as I said earlier, Non-Stop has a kind of “comfort action movie” quality to it and, as it’s well acted, well edited and has a fairly good score by composer John Ottman, then I think it’s probably going to be good enough for most fans of this kind of broad action thriller to sink their teeth into. Not a rave from me but certainly, as I said at the start of this post, not a disaster. There are a lot worse action movies being made and released into our cinemas these days, I think.

Saturday 22 March 2014


A String In The Tale

2011 USA
Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
G2 Pictures DVD Region 2

Warning: For me to properly talk about this movie I need to spoil the film’s unique premise. However, it’s a curious situation because, although I would have rather have gone into the film not knowing what this was, the truth is that, if I hadn’t known about the nature of the villain of the piece here, then I wouldn’t have bothered seeking the film out in the first place. So it’s kind of a Catch 22 and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that should be hidden, especially when the cover of the DVD kind of reveals it anyway, to a certain extent.

Cassadaga is a film I watched because I saw a mini video review by Lauren Rebecca Reid (@ScreamQueenLR) highlighting the film and I found the premise vaguely intriguing. There’s a link to her piece on Cassadaga at the end of this review.

Cassadaga is, apparently, a place in Florida which is noted to be a hot spot for psychic phenomena... so it’s a natural to set a movie about unexplained, spooky shenanigans here... although, as you’ll find out, the strong supernatural element here is not completely what this film is about.

Kelen Coleman plays Lily, a deaf orphan art class teacher who shares a strong bond with her younger sister, who she loses to a car accident in the first five minutes of the movie. When she decides to move on with her life, she wins a scholarship to stay in a large house and focus on her own work, while also taking art lessons. Trying to settle in, her soon to be new romantic interest geezah, Mike, introduces her to a couple of his friends and they go to see a local psychic (this is obviously a smooth move for a first date in this town). In one of the film’s more inventive moments, a record player is used to channel the voice of the dead, which even Lily can hear in her head, somehow, and dead Lily’s sister is talking to her until another spirit grabs Lily and puts her into a trance where “glimpses” of something are revealed to her.

Now this is one of the problems with Cassadaga. In its attempt to be a scary movie, which it looks like it’s trying to be from all the horror style window dressing on display, it becomes apparent right from this moment that this is one of those movies which operate in that specific sub-genre of wronged spirits trying to warn and help the living... while also getting themselves in a state where they can properly rest. As such, there’s no real scary element in this film since, although the ghost does tend to come out of nowhere and the director uses visual misdirection so you don’t see her coming, you know it means our main protagonists no harm... so any scare value in the movie comes from the serial killer of whom the ghostly spirit was a victim... and that’s a shame. Especially as I don’t tend to see serial killers, or any other kind of “human monster”, as something to be scared of... at least not in a horror movie context anyway.

Which brings me to the main spoiler. Cassadaga has a serial killer who, because of some bizarre childhood thing shown as part of the pre-credits, (which is nowhere near as well put together as the childhood sequence opening Argento’s Deep Red aka Profondo Rosso, but still quite well shot and colourfully lit, actually) has a penchant in later life for kidnapping women. He then proceeds to cut off the bottom of their legs and arms, just below the joints, attach ends to the stumps in metal, put various eyelet hooks through the limbs in question... and then re-attach these to the “still alive” victims so he can turn them into life-size marionette puppets.

So there you go. That’s the spoiler and also the other bit of real inventiveness in the movie. I don’t think I remember seeing this done on screen before... but I am getting old now so I may be wrong. It’s not done badly, either, although I think a little more could have been made of these sequences in terms of giving them a little extra foregrounding in the main story than what we have here.

Balancing that, we have some weak moments.

One is a technique, used in two sequences, where a person in the story is crosscut with a flashback of that person in the story in a different scene. The way these are linked in is kinda strange and although, certainly, in one of the two sequences, the cross-cutting does at least serve to forward the momentum in the investigation which is, by this point, the main thrust of the narrative, I found something clumsy about doing it in this way in both of the instances this occurred. Frankly, I feel the scenes would have been better served playing as individual moments but, especially in the case of the first scene, which is at the tail end of the opening credits, I can understand that the director may not have wanted to slow things down anymore... it’s certainly a way of maintaining a faster pace to get the information across... I just felt it was distracting in the overall make up of this movie and so, for me, it popped me out where I should have been immersed.

The other thing is that the main romantic interest kinda drops out of the story about two thirds of the way into the film and doesn’t return to the narrative in any way, shape or form at all (unless you happen to stay for the little, post end credits scene) and no sense of resolution or closure is given to this character. Now, in terms of classic film making, this is certainly not an unknown thing to do. Take Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, for example. Unless you were fortunate enough to see the version with the alternate ending (which I think might be the one I saw on TV as a kid, actually) then the brilliant character of Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, disappears form the narrative halfway through the picture and is discarded completely from that point. Her use as a story element has been served and Hitchcock, unwisely in my opinion, removes that character from the playing field.

In Cassadaga, the same thing happens... it’s almost like the character is only there to fulfil certain points in the plot and then, when it’s useful to not have him there anymore, an excuse is found to just throw him out of the story, never to return again... although, by the end game of the movie, you are honestly expecting him to. So that left me feeling a little unresolved... but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I didn’t find it too distracting. At least he didn’t rush in at the end like some kind of deus ex machina and save the heroine from certain death. In fact, they have a different stand in for that inevitable moment which, while also a cliché, does kinda work.

What else?

Well the acting is all good and the leading lady, who I’ve not seen in anything before, is kinda hot. So that helped me a lot. The atmosphere works well in some sequences, although that’s counter balanced by a lack of genuine scares. The shot design, lighting and camera movement through this is all very good although, the editing choices do seem a little jumpy in terms of where we are chronologically in the narrative at times. It feels like some fill in scenes were lost along the way to bring the time down but, if that’s the case, then the film maybe suffers a little bit in that respect.

However, this movie is far more competent than a lot of these kinds of low budget horror films out there and it’s certainly very watchable and I probably enjoyed it a lot more than it sounds I did here, I think. Certainly one to watch if you’re into these kinds of films which, I’m guessing, maybe went straight to DVD over here? It’s unusual too, in the sense of having a lead heroine who is deaf and, once you get tired of watching out to see if the lead actress accidentally reacts to anything she hears rather than sees, is a pretty good spin although, again, I wish they’d made more of this fact to deliver a little more suspense at key points in the narrative.

Never mind, though. If you want to settle down to a nice, comfortable horror movie when you’ve next got some time on your hands, Cassadaga might be worth giving some of your time too. For Lauren Rebecca Reid’s short video piece on the movie, click here.

Friday 21 March 2014

4 Years A Blog

Well, it’s four years to the day since I first started writing this blog.

Over the years, especially this last one, it’s been the only thing that has helped preserve my sanity when life get’s really bad and so I want to thank all my regular readers for checking in here like you do. Things are actually pretty awful in my life right now and I don’t think anything’s going to get better at any point so, although I have precious few hours a week when I can actually either watch something for this site or, indeed, write something for it, I have at least been able to come on here, if time allows, and share some thoughts on the one part of my life which hasn’t been taken away from me... movies (and the odd book review too). I have a feeling that this blog may well outlive me, possibly soon, but I’m doing my best to get at least two reviews up a week where possible. Not much, I know, but I'm doing my best in the time I have. So please check back when you can.

Time/life permitting, in addition to the regular eclectic bunch of new and retro reviews, here are some of the themes/series I hope to be rewatching and exploring for this blog over the next 12 or 18 months, personal situation allowing...

More Kurosawa, a continuation of my reviews of the 1930s film series of The Saint, The Falcon series, the Zatoichi series of films on BluRay, the Christopher Lee Fu Manchi films, some dodgy euro super-hero movies and, of course, the usual glut of giallo, horror, scifi, exploitation, new cinema releases and goodness knows what else.

If I’m still around for the ride then I hope you are too.

Thanks for supporting my blog by reading.

All the best,


Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Zero Theorem

Zero Wolf

The Zero Theorem
2013 USA/Romania/UK
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Kind of a big spoiler in here about the end of the movie, depending on your point of view.

Terry Gilliam has always been a bit of a directing hero for me... so I wish I didn’t feel like I have to write this review and make the kind of judgement I do on it. I alluded to my experiences with The Zero Theorem in my previous review of Under The Skin (reviewed here) and I’m afraid I had less than a good time with this one.

I find his films, themselves, a bit hit or miss but, ultimately, Gilliam is an individual artist (yeah, he’s an auteur, for sure), mostly uncompromising (as far as I know) and always interesting. My favourites of his films: Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys are all pretty incredible in their own way, each of them either a major or minor masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned. And The Zero Theorem is no different in its inventiveness than any of these four movies... which is why it annoys me to deliver a harsher call on this one.

The Zero Theorem has a hell of a lot going for it, though. So let’s get all the good stuff out of the way first.

For starters, it’s got absolutely kick ass actors including a bald Christoph Waltz, who is always watchable (even in The Green Hornet, reviewed here) and, another of my personal favourites, David Thewlis, playing the line manager at the company Waltz works for. All the supporting actors were pretty cool too and, added to this, you have an intricate and art directed to death, dystopian world created for them to all work in. An alternative version of our world perhaps, in the future, where advertising and hard edged consumerism has taken over and trivialised the human existence even more... like we all knew it would. We should have heeded Philip K. Dick when we had the chance. It is a highly detailed clutter of a world with a slightly unreal feeling to it (which I’m sure is deliberate) and a sense of chaos which is directly reflective of the times we are now, unfortunately, living in... and it all works really well.

Conceptually this film is, still, a bit of a masterwork. The “crunching” which is the sole purpose of our hero Qohen Leth (played by Waltz) and his co-workers, is a job which is laboured with game-pads, bicycles, computer screens and software, which comes in a liquid form, to the extent that the actual understanding of the mechanism of the work the people in the film do is just a notch beyond our comprehension... we just see it as a video game analogy of something approximating hard work but conceived in a way which is alien to our way of thinking at present. Which of course further enhances the far flung future aspect of the environment that the film’s main protagonist inhabits.

After an encounter at a party in which Qohen finally gets to talk to the elusive “management”, he is reassigned to work from home on a concept called The Zero Theorem. His goal, as we perceive it, is to guide blocks of formula into walls in a virtual landscape to prove the idea that “Zero must equal 100%” without destroying the integrity of the formula and causing all the formula built structures in the framework to come tumbling down, which they inevitably do... frequently. This is a special project which has already, over the years, seen many people burn-out while trying to solve it and, by the end of the film, when Qohen has abandoned the girl who he loves for his all important work and the promise of his delusion of a “life affirming” phone call, we find that Qohen really is no different from all the others who have tried to solve this apparently unsolvable puzzle. Or is he? With his final descent we are, perhaps, left with the assumption that, ulitimately, life really does have no meaning and that Zero, does indeed, equal 100%. In fact, by the end of the film, I’m not even sure the main character even ever existed as anything more than a virtual reality within the memory banks of a computer where he thinks he works... nor even that the computer, indeed, like anything in the movie, even exists.

Who is doing the asking, for example? Qohen’s boss or God? And is there a difference? And does it matter? The simple answer, perhaps, is no... who cares?

And therein lies my main problem with the movie... I don’t care and, honestly, if Gilliam is trying to prove that either life has no purpose, or at least that life has no purpose that man is able to comprehend, then thanks but... like most people I imagine... I already knew that. Life is pretty meaningless and seems to be about chasing bits of money which are completely unimportant.

Now I’ve often said on here that the end of a movie doesn’t really matter if the build up is good. Like sex, a good tease as a set up doesn’t mean you have to finish in the most traditional way if you don’t want to... and I still say that. The Zero Theorem is nothing, if not one long tease of a movie. But something left me feeling underwhelmed with it... it’s like I was wrestling and hanging on with complex issues dressed up as fun but it felt like there was too much melting ice cream and nothing, really, of the main meal... to mix my metaphors somewhat. It just felt like empty window dressing to get us to a point where the writer of the movie says... “Hey, you know what? It’s been fun but I’m going now. Please lock up on your way out.”

It felt anti-climactic and, although I’m a big fan of movies crammed with exploratory ideas, and this film has them in spades, I was just left unimpressed and, worse, uninterested in the events on screen. Tellingly, this is not the kind of movie I could watch as a repeat viewing... which seems a strange thing for me to be saying about a Terry Gilliam film but, there you have it, I’ve said it and I’m disappointed by that but I have to be honest about this stuff.

I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t either a) a big fan of Gilliam’s work (which I am) or b) a big fan of movies with a lot of cluttered concepts in them (which I also am)... and even then, it would be to see it as a bit of a talking point rather than something I would really urge that kind of person to look at as a good time at the movies. This one gets a big zero from me, I’m sorry to say, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things... I’m still looking forward to seeing the next Terry Gilliam movie already because, after all, when he’s good he’s great but when he’s bad... he’s interesting.

Monday 17 March 2014

Under The Skin

Skin And Bare It

Under The Skin
2014 UK
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Under The Skin is one of those films that exists in a certain space in cinema which allows you to bring your own baggage with you and create your own interpretations of what is going on within the material as it’s presented to you, to a certain degree. Films like this have a special, almost “Holy” place in cinema and they also tend to divide audiences quite heavily... at least that's what I usually observe. I saw two new cinema releases this weekend and both of these films had this kind of interpretive quality to them. However, the other one I saw failed in its intent spectacularly, in my opinion, because the message which I brought to/took from it seemed to be way less than the sum of its parts and the frames were, typically for the director of this other movie, crowded with ideas and details but... it all just felt like a lot of chaos for very little reward or insight at the end of it. I’ll get to all that in my review of that film when I write it. Check back here in a day or two for that one.

As far as Under The Skin goes, I think the qualities I just highlighted worked so well because the action of the characters and the space in which the actors performed them was, mostly, calm and tranquil, allowing the experience to very slowly let you explore what you think you are seeing in the movie. So much so, in fact, that some of the key sequences were deliberately uncluttered in what I personally believe were the language of metaphor rather than actual reality... although the film's director did have a tendency to keep upending my deductions of such matters as I was watching and, in one quite spectacular sequence, where a man’s internal organs, muscles and bones are very quickly extracted from his body, leaving only his skin floating around, I was forced to even question the nature of those similar scenes I had been viewing.

The always watchable Scarlett Johansson plays an alien creature who “wears” the skin of other people and uses this as a disguise, drifting from peron to person and place to place as a, for want of a better term, predator. She is not necessarily a sexual predator (I haven’t read the original novel on which this was based and, having seen this, now wish I had before I saw the movie, actually) but she uses the language, both minimally verbal and physically, of human sexuality to pick up her prey. She then devours them in a what I can only assume, in spite of a couple of sequences bordering on the cheerful art of the non sequitur for me, is a metaphor for the storage and consumption of human beings (represented by a black room with somebody undressing and following the disrobing Johansson, then slowly sinking step by step into a bizarre and dreamlike liquid storage state, before being eaten later).

The film, I am glad to say, was very minimal in dialogue throughout, which I prefer as I still tend to see cinema as a visually dominant form of art (although, bearing in mind my love of scoring, I really shouldn’t still feel this way). To ignore the music and sound design of this film, however, which at times become almost interchangeable as an ambient noise, probably created purely by the composer,  slowly creeps into the realm of sinister and unsettling music... would be a big mistake. While not technically atonal, the score still has the kind of power to both make you feel less at ease in places... it’s always pushed to the front of the sound mix in the “eating” sequences... and to tell you what’s coming next with an almost leitmotif style running through it, even though thematically it seems almost as alien as this film’s central character.

Starting off with Johansson discovering and practicing human vocalisations, which make important the world of sound to a certain extent, the character of the alien takes on a journey through the film where, if read one way, “she” becomes more humanistic as she is, perhaps, polluted by the sometimes troubled souls with whom she comes into contact. The director cannily punctuates the long stretches of calm, stealth and exploration which characterises the majority of the movie, with occasional stabs of sound and sometimes action which shock by their highlights in isolation, the way that somebody like Tarkovsky or Bergman may have chosen to highlight something within the overall consuming style of one of their works, perhaps. A sudden lively burst of conversation, a violent mob or a hardcore, aggressively lit dance club are all thrown into the mix as the main protagonist/antagonist, depending on how much you can identify with her, goes about her daily/nightly business. The visceral shock of these moments, which hit you like a muffled, comfortably wrapped, crash to your senses amidst a barren, meandering journey allows you, the audience, as a human spectator, to empathise with the way the character is able to handle these sudden changes in tempo and, if you’re like me, come closer to her viewpoint. Which I’m guessing was the director’s plan?

The film is adult in nature, at least in terms of there being tonnes of nudity and allusions to sexuality, but lit quite muddily in places... which lifts what could have been a gaudy, exploitative entertainment (and there’s nothing wrong with that) into something much more restrained and expressive of the kind of existence depicted here. Interestingly, because of the underlying nature of the creature’s easy target of human sexuality, and the kinds of people “she” has to plunder to sustain her on this planet (although there’s no real indication she is of extra-terrestrial origin, to be honest), the irony is that we learn as much, probably more, about the nature of the human condition from Johansson’s journey through it, than we do of the origin of her species and her purpose here other than just existing and eating. Again, I may or may not get more of that equation from the novel. And, of course, the irony is that she, too, seems to be growing to a new relationship with her encounters with humanity... and her final fate, which I certainly won’t reveal here, is a symptom of the naivety of not approaching such a changeable and unpredictable species such as humanity without a certain amount of caution and distrust.

Under The Skin is, I have to say, a film which I couldn’t fully comprehend on my first viewing, mainly due to the fact that I was trying to apply a certain logic to the visual metaphor and its final conclusions with certain characters. For example, the lack of the central character’s blindness to the condition of another character she encounters, said everything about her alien outlook but the final fate of this character seemed at odds with what I’d seen before, unless you see Johansson’s slow descent as one of empathy rather than consumption of something that didn’t agree with her digestive system (as I was initially taking this for as I watched).

I went into the cinema thinking that this would be a kind of female-centric version of Nicholas Roeg’s movie adaptation The Man Who Fell To Earth (reviewed here) and, although the films are as different as chalk and cheese, the otherworldliness of the central characters and the way they are depicted without any judgements made by the roving “camera eye” is certainly something which the two films have in common. Under The Skin would certainly go well as the second part of a double feature with Roeg’s classic, for sure.

At times inscrutable, at times simplistic but always emotionally engaging, Under The Skin is probably one of the better films you’ll see in a cinema environment this year... so if you are a lover of the art form of film then it would probably not be something you’d consider missing. Certainly, in my case, it’ll probably lead to harder things... like multiple viewings and reading the original novel by Michel Faber. So catch this one if you can.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Doctor Who - The Daemons

On The Devil

Doctor Who - The Daemons
UK Airdate: 22nd May to 19th June 1971
BBC Region 2

The Daemons is the last story in the second series of Jon Pertwee’s stint on the show. It’s a much loved classic among fans and, I believe, it was Pertwee’s personal favourite of the stories he worked on for his run as The Doctor.

I didn’t remember much of this one from when I was a kid, I was two years old at the time,  but I have a fair few Doctor Who memories from before this so I must have seen it and I think I vaguely remember Bok, the stone gargoyle that comes to life as a servant of Roger Delgado’s character The Master in this particular five parter.

Seeing it now with fresh eyes, I can see why people like it so much and it’s very obvious that the influence on this particular story probably stems from Nigel Kneale’s groundbreaking teleplay for the third of the four Quatermass serials, Quatermass And The Pit (my review of the movie remake of that serial is here). Like the Quatermass story, The Daemons uses supernatural belief and terrors as a way into a tale which eventually turns out to be rooted in science, cannily exploiting the “best of both worlds” scenario to elicit the fantastic curiosity of the supernatural, specifically in this case The Devil, with the “grounded in science” personality of this show’s lead protagonist. Both the Quatermass story and this one both use the idea of another race of creatures chaperoning the human race in some sort of experiment although, it has to be said, Quatermass And The Pit was far more intriguing than this exploration of that concept.

One of the things going for it is that you have a full range of regular characters in the line up for this story, which was in one of the “Doctor is exiled to earth by the timelords” series, due to budgetary restraints at the time. Here we have my favourite of the female companions, the hippyish Jo Grant (as played by Katy Manning) and you have a full compliment of UNIT characters, featuring Captain Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton and, of course, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who in this story utters his famous line, which actor Nicholas Courtney plundered for the title of his memoirs, Five Rounds Rapid. When faced with Bok, the stone gargoyle who is running around and disintegrating people, he casually turns to one of his men and barks the wonderful order... “Jenkins. Chap with the wings there. Five rounds rapid.”

This particularly story is a bit of a romp and includes a force field around the sleepy village of Devil’s End which is keeping The Doctor, Jo, Yates and Benton inside the village while the Brigadier and his team are trying to find a way in. It’s pretty much action fuelled with lots of running about, Jon Pertwee driving both a motor bike and his faithful car Bessie, and lots of explosions (including a helicopter explosion which was tracked in from the James Bond film From Russia With Love, which I reviewed here).

Roger Delgado is in great form as The Master in this one... he’s always a delight to watch. I was, however, surprised to find that the two trained soldiers, Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates, get beaten up and have to be rescued so much by people who wouldn’t be as trained in the art of hand-to-hand combat as they are. I was also disappointed that The Doctor tends to talk down to Jo Grant quite a lot in this one, constantly pointing out her shortcomings to make relevant plot points apparent. However, it is at least Jo who saves the day in the end when she demonstrates the human trait of self sacrifice to The Deamons... or Daemon in the singular, actually, since you only ever see one of them. The make up on the Daemon is excellent but, alas, the special effects which superimpose his gigantic form over the rest of the setting is particularly bad, which is a shame.

There are some sequences when the titular monster is rampaging about the countryside where he is never actually seen on shot and is just glimpsed by others as we see their reaction shots to let our imaginations fill in the blanks. I expect that’s probably a shrewd move on knowing the limitations of the special effects rather than an all out attempt to be subtle but, whatever the reasoning, it works quite well.

Despite the conclusion of a classic but, frankly, silly scene where The Doctor is captured by Morris Dancers and almost burnt on a maypole, the story has some very nice moments and, although I prefer stories like The Sea Devils in the Pertwee years, this is certainly a pretty good jumping on point if you’ve never seen one before... although three scenes rely on Jon Pertwee making use of driving Bessie by a remote control device... when seen as a whole that’s a little over done but it would certainly have made sense when the story was originally spaced out over the course of five weeks. Reminders would have been necessary so we can see why The Master finds himself returned to UNIT captivity at the end of the story.

The other big weakness on this one for me was that, although I can fully understand that the idea of a stone gargoyle coming to life as The Master’s assistant is a pretty scary concept, Bok has his stone tongue permanently stuck out of his mouth... which makes him look rather silly and unthreatening in my book... but I’m sure as a kid I would have been as petrified as this stone monster is himself, so I can understand why he’s become one of the iconic images of the Pertwee years.

Still, a bona fide classic Doctor Who story and one which is well worth a watch if you are interested in the third incarnation of the United Kingdom’s favourite science fiction export. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know...

Thursday 13 March 2014

300 - Rise Of An Empire

Spartan Fink

300 - Rise Of An Empire
2014 USA
Directed by Noam Murro
Playing at UK cinemas now.

I quite liked the first 300 movie... in a way.

Now, to be fair, Robocop 2 taught me long ago of the complete unreliability of the phrase “You can’t go wrong with a bit of Frank Miller” but I thought the original 300 was a pretty good attempt at getting the look and feel of his writing and illustration on screen in a fairly entertaining manner. I wasn’t too thrilled when I heard there was going to be a sequel and, to be honest, I was in two minds about bothering with it.

One thing that changed my mind and that was the fact that the trailers revealed that Eva Green was playing a villainous spin on the character of Artemisia in this one. I really like that actress quite a bit and I was hoping that she’d read the script before filming and made an informed choice about being involved in this one. So that was the way I found myself waiting in line for this movie, anyway.

What I didn’t know is that Frank Miller, by the looks of things, hasn’t had all that much involvement in this sequel to the movie of his former comic book. I understand that he was writing a sequel comic specifically so it could be filmed, called Xerxes, but that the story in the screenplay was changed quite a bit from that and, to boot, he’s apparently only written the first two issues so far. So not much of Miller’s spin on what a sequel might be like seems to have made its way into this film, I’m afraid.

Also, with regards to recapturing the spirit of the vision of Frank Miller, I’d have to say that 300: Rise Of An Empire has a little less of a graphic look than the first movie. It’s certainly highly stylised, don’t get me wrong, and frankly it looks fantastic... but the “is it a comic book panel or is it live action?” kind of visual attitude deployed at key, strategic moments throughout the first film seems to have been ratcheted down, somewhat... or at least that’s how it felt to me.

The action in 300: Rise Of An Empire takes place before, during and after the events of the first movie and, although this is a valid, and quite interesting at times, solution to the path that a sequel might take, the story does seem to leave much to be desired. It kinda works, but it does seem a bit hollow and, also, the dialogue felt equally vapid to me in a lot of places, which didn’t help me accept the movie too much, even though some serious stabs at humour are attempted throughout... with some success in places and then, in other places, where it just kinda falls flat. The actors are all really great in this film but they just don’t have lines of any real weight or substance for the majority of their screen time, so that gives them all a bit of a grandiose feel, I think.

However, what that leaves us with is a film which still looks quite good and with more action scenes than you can shake a bloody spear at. The spectacle is enough, in this case, to at least have yourself a fairly good time at the cinema... although the action does keep stuttering in and out of slow motion to highlight moments of battle and, it has to be said, this does get quite irritating after a while (where “after a while” equals 30 seconds). There are lots of overly gory sequences played out, for example, which the censors may not have let the film-makers get away with if they had been used in the context of a horror movie. Here, though, the “still stylised to an extent above and beyond the realms of anything like reality” context of the violent content, with lashings of blood literally tracing slow motion splashes across the screen at various intervals, seems to be more acceptable to our current, self appointed and terribly sinister moral guardians than if the film were presented in a less fairy tale-like manner, I suspect.

One of the more puzzling things I felt myself contemplating in the cinema, as I became more and more jaded to the incredible amount of mindless but fairly beautiful on-screen violence, was the curious incidents, on a number of occasions, where the CGI blood artifically splashes the lens of the camera, like a drop of watery spray hitting the equipment, which then disappears when we cut to another shot. Yes, I know stuff like water splashes and lens flare are deliberately added on with CGI these days to try to manipulate a more “fly on the wall” connection with the audience... but that’s precisely my point of why I think this kind of effect is out of place here. Surely, when you are taking time and patience to give the film a “through the looking glass”, mythical comic book look... the last thing you want to be trying to do is then bring the viewer back down to reality, no? I’m not saying it doesn’t work (well, okay, it obviously didn’t work for me... just popped me straight out of the movie. I doubt if the director was going for “the Goddard effect” here), but I do find the decision to utilise this kind of visual technique quite bizarre within the context of the other artistic decisions going on here.

And of course, the other big special effect the producers have going for them here is Eva Green.

Not only does she come across as a strong and powerful warrior, utilising her almost trademark sideways glances and facial expressions to convey a total “don’t f*** with me, sweetheart” attitude to the characters surrounding her (not to mention the audience), but she also goes topless while brandishing her sword for a very (too) short sequence. Given that I saw the 3D version of the movie, I found this to be very appealing and, frankly, the best of all the eye candy and other technical jiggery pokery found on the screen during this movie’s running time. A much appreciated turn out by Eva, once again.

What I didn’t appreciate too much about the visual content, however, was the almost total lack of surrealistic and just plain odd imagery in this movie. The first 300 film got quite freakish, if I am recalling correctly, whenever you got into the scenes with Xerxes and his entourage. In this one, everything seems mostly within the realms of the everyday and somehow less bizarre than I would have liked. So that was a bit of a disappointment, then.

So there you have it. 300: Rise Of An Empire is not a patch on the original 300, and it feels like it has a lot less substance behind it than even that movie had on offer... but at least it all looks lovely and while I’m not sure if I’ll ever give it a second spin when it comes out on Blu Ray or not, there are certainly a lot worse ways of spending your time at the cinema at the moment. Especially if you have a lot of affection for the original movie... you probably won’t want to miss this one, in that case, because of the way it interpenetrates into the timeline of the first movie. If you really didn’t like the first one, however, this is less than more of the same... so those of you in that camp may want to miss this one.

Sunday 9 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Hotel Recall

The Grand Budapest Hotel
2014 UK/Germany
Directed by Wes Anderson
Playing at UK cinemas now.

There’s something about a Wes Anderson movie that creeps up behind you and just grabs you right from the start, pulling you into the realm of the story and providing a totally immersive experience for their “always too short” running times.

I was trying to pinpoint, after leaving a screening of his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, just what makes the majority of his movies, as far as I’m concerned, just so perfect. In the end I’m forced to confess that there’s no “one” real signature element of his style which can take the full responsibility for the absolute joy one gets from watching his stories play out in front of you. It’s a terminally infectious combination of all round stylish movie-making infused with an absolute perfection of execution, even at the points where he deliberately dumbs down on the technical expectations to feed the whimsy of his pieces (think the various stop-motion sea life in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or the high speed ski chase in this movie, by way of example), that feeds your mind and allows you to switch off to all concerns other than the shadows and light playing out in front of you in a darkened cinema, that allows for such a fantastic marriage of small scale stories made epic.

I usually hate doing lists but the elements in and of themselves are easy to identify, of course:

1. The clean, sometimes sweeping and sometimes static, but always simplistic movements of the camera through an artifical environment which leaves you in no confusion as to where you are.

2. The matter of fact neatness of the sets which are always easy to understand, with the director often giving you an overview far more detailed than any mere establishing shot, which perhaps mirrors the agenda of Kurosawa to give the audience a very clear map of where the action is transpiring before fully spinning his narrative web.

3. The level of detail in those sets. They are always quite neat, which lends an air of art versus reality, and they are always filled to the brim with little insights into the characters that inhabit them.

4. Perfect casting, employing actors who are some of the best in their field and who are not just playing to type. They are being used in a movie which, you can tell, they want to be in rather than just pick up another pay cheque. This film includes cameos and extended cameos from a large number of Anderson’s back catalogue of actors and actresses and it’s a joy to watch each one pop up, one completely uncredited one (even on the IMDB) for literally about one or two seconds of footage. I’d do a list but it would go on forever.

5. A musical undercurrent which is usually quite diverse in its style and sourcing, although The Grand Budapest Hotel is slightly different in this respect and I’ll get to that a little later.

6. The quirky and fun writing which is always witty and more often than not takes what, to another writer/director, would be a fairly small scale story, and then imbuing it with a sense of grandeur which allows it to shine at its own pace... which is rarely slow or boring.

7. A constant and stable pacing, presumably arrived at through the editing, which allows the brisk intermissions of action... random fleeing, window jumping, cat throwing etc... to come alive as startling little highlights, enhanced by their throwaway treatment, rather than muffled by this artistic attitude.

I could go on, but those are the main ones.

And, of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel has all this in spades... apart from, to a certain extent, the musical element... but the treatment and use of that here shows a trust perhaps lacking in the director’s previous work and, like I said, I’ll get to that soon enough.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of the titular hotel’s concierge through the eyes of his lobby boy. We have a Russian nesting doll format for the story within a story within a story structure, but the main narrative is told through the eyes of the lobby boy from his old age as the rich owner of the hotel (I’m not giving anything away here... you’ll know this much within the first 10 minutes of the movie). Anderson uses shifting aspect ratios to differentiate between the “narrative stacks”, with most of the movie being screened in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and it works pretty well, with the shifts from one ratio to another being mostly noticeable on purely a subconscious level once he’s done it a couple of times.

The performances, as you would expect, are astonishing. Ralph Fiennes has finally got my attention and possibly respect as an actor and he is an absolutely joy to watch in this as a slightly camp womaniser who appreciates the finer things in life. His lobby boy, played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori, is an absolute wonder and, as I said, this is all the norm in a film directed by Mr. Wes Anderson. And, honestly, Tilda Swinton's old age make-up is absolutely amazing. I rarely find “ageing” make up in any way convincing but this time it’s really impressive. I didn’t at first realise I wasn’t watching an 80-something actress unknown to me.

And Willem Dafoe’s caricature of an evil henchman is at once thoroughly sinister and over-the-top funny. It’s not got the depth of the role which Dafoe played for Anderson in The Life Aquatic, but it’s not supposed to. Conversely, Edward Norton’s character is really just an extension, albeit in a different profession, of the character he plays in the wonderful Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom (reviewed here). And it’s just as poe-faced and funny.

But don’t get me started on Harvey Kietel. You may find yourself bursting out with laughter just at his appearance in this one. He's always so good in this stuff.

And then there’s the music.

Wes Anderson tends to employ a lot of “found” needle-drop style music in his films, although this is often supported at times with an actual composed score to give certain moments the kind of unity which music can easily create to glue different parts of a movie together with a leitmotif or atmospheric approach. Mark Mothersbaugh’s music for The Life Aquatic, for example, utilises a melody in different orchestrations... from something that deliberately sounds like it’s being played on a cheap, 1980s Cassio synthesiser through to a full-blooded action cue representation of the theme... to bring together the elements as a unified “Team Zissou” force within the film. Similarly, a more subtle but similarly progressive set of orchestrations is employed by the always brilliant Alexandre Desplat with his “Heroic Weather” theme in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, to further enhance the sense of unity and harmony with the various characters.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson pretty much throws the needle-drop element, cat-like (no don’t ask), out of the window and instead has hired Desplat to provide a full score and, while it does tonally go through a needledrop like quality in terms of the style in places, it finally feels like an Anderson film has a full and cohesive musical direction and, given that it’s composed by Desplat, of course, it’s an absolutely marvellous piece of scoring. The CD should hopefully be arriving through my door for a closer listen sometime this week, I hope.

And that’s about it. I could go on and on about how wonderful a movie this is but I think you’ve probably got the idea by now... at least if you’ve read this far. What I will add though, is this...

I’ve seen most of this director’s work now and I would rank this movie as fourth within his oeuvre. But it’s an absolutely brilliant and joyful experience and I plan on seeing this movie several times more in my life. I may rank it fourth in his movies but it’s fourth out of four absolute masterpieces he’s made. If that isn’t enough of a recommendation for you to rush out and see this truly splendid artefact of cinematic wonder then I don’t know what is. Run, don’t walk*, to your nearest cinema and see this fabulous creation for yourself.

*Please note, this writer takes no responsibility for any accidents, injury or death resulting in the investment of this advice.

Friday 7 March 2014

Yurusarezaru Mono (Unforgiven)

Ronin Scared

Yurusarezaru Mono (Unforgiven)
2013 Japan
Directed by Sang-il Lee
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Okay then.

Yurusarezaru Mono is a new Japanese samurai remake of Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven. I should probably warn you of the fact that the IMDB is reminding me that it’s 22 years since I last saw that film at my local cinema... Cinema: now deceased. Reviewer: Not quite deceased yet.

Bearing in mind I saw the film only once, I’m remembering that I thought it was an okay film but not enough to ever bother watching again. As such, I really can’t remember much of anything about it so, if you’re after a review which can compare and contrast this new version to the original, then you might want to go and read somebody else’s review with that specific agenda instead.

Now then, the fact that this is a chambara remake of a gritty American Western, which in itself was a throwback, in some ways, to the old revisionist Westerns by the likes of director Sam Pekinpah, is a bit of a twist. Usually it’s the other way around, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no, to be honest... in fairly equal measures.

Let me take the example of Akira Kurosawa because, quite apart from him being my favourite director, some of his films have quite famously been remade as Westerns... and also because some of his work seems to be directly referenced in Yurusarezaru Mono... but I’ll get to that part later.

Three of Kurosawa’s chambara were famously remade as Westerns. The Italian giant Sergio Leone remade Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as A Fistful Of Dollars (which hugely helped establish Clint Eastwood as a movie star and helped him make the crossover from television) and two American directors remade Rashomon (as The Outrage) and Seven Samurai (as The Magnificent Seven)... so there is an established and easily recognisable legacy of period samurai and ronin movies being recast into an “old West” setting (in fact, Yojimbo was also later remade again, as a 1930s gangster movie starring Bruce Willis in the role originally played by Toshiro Mifune and then Clint Eastwood, in a film called Last Man Standing). However, you might want to ask yourself just why these films, especially those of Kurosawa, have been picked on as source material in this manner.

Well, one reason may be the similarity in the village/wilderness setting and the commonality of the archetypal hero/outsider who travels to a place, fixes things and then leaves it behind as he/she goes on to the next port of call... or dies trying. That’s one thing these two genres have in common, to a certain extent. But let me get back to Kurosawa for a minute...

To the Japanese people, certainly in the 1950s and 1960s at any rate, after the global recognition bestowed on Rashomon at various film festivals including, famously, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival... Kurosawa was always looked on as a bit of an outsider. In his own country, his films were perceived as having a very Western flavour to them (in the sense of not seeming like they were a product of the East). This attitude was best summed up by one of his friends, Donald Ritchie, who I was lucky to catch as part of an all day Kurosawa seminar event at least a decade or so ago at the National Film Theatre. He basically said that this attitude from Kurosawa’s Japanese audience seemed to stem purely from the point of view that Rashomon, and much of his later work, was such a success worldwide. The Japanese had always thought of themselves as inscrutable and incomprehensible to the Western mind, and were proud of that part of their worldwide reputation. The fact that Kurosawa was acclaimed on a global scale meant, to them, that he must be directing his films in a way which was compatible to the tastes of Western audiences and, therefore, not truly Japanese.

Which is kind of a load of hogwash when you think about it. All directors are influenced by the huge range of films they have seen from all kinds of countries and the Japanese, including Kurosawa, were no exception. This is as it should be with an artist.

Now indulge me for a minute while I get back to Kurosawa again because it is, I promise, relevant to the film in question... somewhat.

Kurosawa was a life long fan of the famous Western director John Ford. When they met once, Ford said to Kurosawa of his films... “You really like rain.” The two got on famously and, from what I understand, Kurosawa even started to dress like Ford did on set after this meeting. So the point I’m trying to make here is that all directors are equal in their multi-cultural influences and, though it’s not been done that often in reverse (at least not being identified as such... I’m sure a lot of Japanese films may have been influenced by things such as the classic Hollywood Western), the fact that we have a samurai film which is a remake of a 1990s Hollywood Western, especially one which was originally directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, really shouldn’t be a surprise and certainly not an issue. So now I’ve spent all that time pointing out that there’s nothing new here... let’s just forget about that for a while, yeah?

Yurusarezaru Mono is quite spectacular in its execution. It’s a small story of a group of prostitutes who want revenge on the two men who cut up their colleague and who are blocked on the reward they are offering by the local “sheriff” who has his own agenda. This includes beating up and making an example of anyone who wanders into his village to try to make good on claiming that reward and killing the two men who he let go.

Ken Watanabe plays Jubei, the Eastwood character who is pulled out of retirement to kill the two men and claim the reward by an old war buddy. He is backed up by some fantastic character actors who I know I’ve seen many times before... but I have no idea who they are because the IMDB, appallingly, rarely puts photo avatars next to the names of actors and actresses unless they’re English, American or “extremely famous”. But everyone in this is absolutely excellent and, although it’s a small story, it’s a visual treat which, coupled with the excellent acting and sense of drama, maintains a certain pace that ensures you are not going to be getting tired of any of the on screen antics while it’s playing out.

Now, it doesn’t contain a great deal of action in terms of spectacular swordplay, which many of the chambara lionised by Western audiences tend to display, with the few action scenes in this one being much more up close and personal than you might expect from this kind of cinema. And also, there’s a strong emphasis on gunplay too, which goes hand in hand with the use of swords and daggers (this is set early on in the Meji period in Japan) but this, also, is something of a tradition in this kind of cinema and, although the gun play is pushed a lot more forward into the mix, this movie is definitely an Eastern, as opposed to a Western.

Two scenes echo famous scenes by Kurosawa... the first being the introduction of a character who accompanies Ken Watanabe’s character Jubei and his friend (depending on which translation you are reading of the names). An introduction which mirrors the boisterous and drunken antics of Toshiro Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai to a great extent (and later Horst Buchholz in The Magnificent Seven). The character is even from a certain clan/race of people who are seen as primitive and out of step with the other protagonists in the film... just like the alienated Mifune character was in Kurosawa’s classic.

The other big reference to Kurosawa goes back to the weaponry used in this one. In Yojimbo, much is made by Tatsuya Nakadai’s character Unosuke about the bullet being faster than the sword. It’s all about the contrast and the battle between the new age of weaponry pitted against the “old guard”, represented in Yurusarezaru Mono by Jubei and his war buddy but, more specifically in this instance, by a bounty hunter who is used in the first half of the film to demonstrate the deadly ruthlessness of the main antagonist. This is good stuff but definitely a nod to classic Kurosawa... which is nice actually and not something which would have come up in the original 1992 version of Unforgiven.

Like most films of this type, the character building and dramatic tension is ratcheted up to a resolution expressing itself in a final conflict, where Jubei faces down the villain and a whole roomful of his henchmen on his own (and that’s not a spoiler, honest guv!). I won’t tell you the circumstances leading up to this small scale battle royale, nor the final outcome, but I will say that, as I touched upon earlier, that this is not the spectacular ballet of kinetic violence you would expect from, say, a Zatoichi or Sleepy Eyes Of Death or Lone Wolf and Cub movie... or even a Hanzo The Razor installment. Nor is it the swift and deadly final cut of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro. This is a battle which, like most in this film, is all shot tight in on the main protagonist and which dislocates you by not showing the periphery of his battle, as he hacks and punches his way through it, to any great degree.

Also, the director plays with slowing down and speeding up the action at will, altering and enhancing the sound design as he does this and, although that sounds like it’s a hard line to walk, the director manages to pull off this kind of fight choreography exceptionally well, against all odds, with the result that... although maybe not as pretty to look at, it’s certainly a kind of violent conflict that you, as an audience, feel more in your gut. It’s not my preferred choice, by a long shot, but it’s a perfectly valid artistic direction to take and, as I said, the man in charge manages to really make it work well.

So there you have it. A quite lovely, sometimes gritty film with a surprizingly American style soundtrack which, again against all odds, works unusually well with the on screen action. Most everything about this movie works, to be honest. It’s damn near perfect. Whether you’ll like it or not depends on your appreciation of the conventions of either the chambara or Hollywood Western film genres but, as far as I’m concerned, this ones got everything going for it. Unlike the original movie it’s based on, this one is definitely a film I’ll happily pay a few return visits to in the coming years.