Wednesday 28 May 2014

800th Post - The Ladies Of Hammer

For this, my 800th Blog Post I thought I'd return to territory from what is still my most popular post on here, my 300th Blog - Faces Of Caroline Munro (see here). So, in that spirit, above is my tribute to just a few of those ladies who helped make those wonderful Hammer Horror films of the past so memorable. Click on the image above to "embiggen". ;-)

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Superargo VS Diabolikus (Superargo Contra Diabolikus)

Key Argo

Superargo Contra Diabolikus 
(aka Superargo VS Diabolikus)
1966 Italy
Directed by Nick Nostro
LFACC DVD Region 0

Superargo Contra Diabolikus is a film I’ve been wanting to take another look at for while because I have a few of these Italian masked heros and villains films to get through over the next year or so and this one is one of the first of these from Italy and, as it happens, it’s also one of my favourites. I’m probably, in fact, unusual in that most of the things I’ve seen in print about these particular films tend to favour the sequel, Superargo And The Faceless Giants (which I reviewed here ) over the original but, personally, I still prefer this one, although it’s even more simplistic than it’s successor, it has to be said.

From what I can understand, Superargo Contra Diabolikus was one of a number of films which were put in production to ride the wake of the popularity of the Diabolik fumetti and the proposed big screen adaptation of it, Danger: Diabolik. However, due to production problems on the Diabolik movie, which led to delays and eventually ended up being directed by the incredibly talented Mario Bava for a 1968 release, this film (and a fair few others, from what I can make out) didn’t exactly coast along in the wake of the Diabolik film because it actually beat it into cinemas by two years.

I personally reckon, however, that certain elements of the Superargo character, which I believe was a creation created entirely for the screen and not based on any source novel or comic, must have taken some influence from the popular Mexican series of films headlining Santo (aka El Santo) the masked wrestler and which dealt with his exploits against various villains or supernatural monsters, sometimes with a big helping of science fiction thrown in at the same time. That would certainly account for the pre-credits sequence in this film, which looks like it could almost have been ripped out of one of the Santo movies, and which establishes Superargo (played by Ken Wood) as a wrestler who accidentally kills his friend in the ring (by throwing him out of it) and forcing Suparargo himself, filled with remorse, into retirement... thus leaving him free to join the secret service and lend them the use of his superpowers. This is something his girlfriend, played by Monica Randall, is very pleased about, when he joins the service after a fantastically cool and psychedelic opening credits section which combines swirling shapes, an illustrated artist's mannequin and shots of Superargo posing and screaming in mad pain, all set to a soundtrack which eventually... oh, wait. I’ll get to the music in a little while.

There follows a post credits sequence where Diabolikus (played by Gérard Tichy, who looks almost like a clone of Joseph Cotton, in all honesty), his sexy right hand gal (an unnamed character played by Loredana Nusciak) and a bunch of never ending thugs, steal plutonium and other rare substances from a ship before mercilessly machine gunning to death the entire crew.

Having proven to us that the villains are well worthy of their bad guy (and gal) status, we are then treated to an extended sequence where Superargo is briefed and then subjected to a series of lengthy tests to demonstrate his abilities to the five government leaders representing the United Nations. Here we learn such things as his near invulnerability when his new boss stabs him in the arm and he doesn’t bleed, or flinch. We learn that his blood coagulates faster than anything and that you can subject him to extremes of cold without getting him too frosty. We also learn that no matter how much he physically exerts himself, his blood pressure and heartbeat always remain at a constant speed. Also, we are shown that he can hold his breath for at least seven minutes, which probably comes in handy in some circumstances... so all good stuff then.

Curiously, we are also thrown a supposed Achilles heel in the character by showing that, although being subject to live electricity cannot harm him... he actually feels great pain when handling it. I say curious because the standard reason such things are pointed out in these kind of affairs is so that you can play with this later on in the film. Alas, it only comes up once near the end and has absolutely no impact, positively or negatively, on the actions of the characters.

Once this sequence is out of the way, Superargo is given a spacial “Q branch” style scene where he is given a new costume... which is absolutely identical to his usual red body suit and black face mask (which, incidentally, you never see him without, as conspicuous a spy as you could want I guess) but which is bullet proof. He is also given a new car, pills which stop his heartbeat (oh yes, those do come in handy), a television camera inside a lady’s brooch (because... um... WTF?) and a load of geiger counters. Superargo nearly eats one of these because... well, let me put it to you this way, only the Italians would equip their agents with geiger counters hidden in replicas of an olive on a stick. Again, most curious since Superargo doesn’t once encounter a Martini filled party but, instead, throws these in the water to trace the trail of the boats that made off with the radioactive substances at the start of the movie.

And this is a long set up for a movie which is entirely ridiculous, quite a bit of fun while, to the cast and crew’s credit, taking itself absolutely seriously and straight faced all the way through.

There’s some nice camerawork too... with some shots in particular used to split frames vertically or sometimes diagonally to push the idea that this masked hero might have stepped out of a comic book at some time... even though he didn’t. Also some interesting stuff when Superargo is being tortured in a scene which is not even feintly trying to hide the sadomasochistic subtext that a lot of the adult audience might find an appealing element of the movie... with Diabolikus’ lady using her big stick to repeatedly hit the classically secured Superargo. During this sequence he is subjected to fiery jets beneath the tilting table to which he is fastened, the camera dizzyingly wobbling up and down to express the intensity of the flames and its effect on Superargo which, to be fair, the audience probably wouldn’t have thought to be too much, considering the extended demonstration of the title character’s formidable and totally unexplained and unjustified super powers at the start of the movie.

Other things like using repeat motifs on transitions are also used in the film and are also a very nice touch. For example, Superargo spinning a globe and then cutting shot to a similar globe spinning in another room used as a location transition... or the same to characters shaking hands in first one place and then cutting to them doing the same in a separate location to suggest the passing of time. It’s all quite good and does its job in keeping you interested in the film if, for whatever reason, you weren’t already interested in a film with a ridiculously red costumed, black masked, super powered hero at its centre.

And then there’s the little matter of the music. Oh yes. The score to this by Franco Pisano is a right little gem. I would absolutely love to get this score because it’s vibrant, dynamic, bold and totally appropriate to its bizarre subject matter. However, I suspect the fact that I can’t find evidence of any recording ever being made commercially available is possibly down to the fact that it’s also a complete rip-off of John Barry’s score to the James Bond film of the previous year, Thunderball. The main theme is a similarly orchestrated, similarly tuned version of Barry’s famous 007 sub-theme, which he began using in From Russia With Love but which is used most prominently, of the five Bond films it features in, in Thunderball and it’s specifically this kind of pacing that the score is trying to match here, if I’m not mistaken. Throw in some underwater sequences with similar orchestrations to Thunderball’s famous underwater atmospheres and, seriously, a great score which I would give anything to own on CD. Although I suspect they might have some difficulties with John Barry’s estate if they did release this one. Only my opinion though... watch the movie and have a listen for yourself and see what you think.

So, there you go, great music for a serious movie about a less than serious subject. Ideal for kids who will take it as seriously as the main cast, and with any adult subtext going straight over their heads, and a fun romp for those of us who like to watch movies made in simpler times and with simpler, larger than life and, let’s face it, more than feintly ridiculous concerns. A good, solid recommend from me and, if you like it, be sure to watch the sequel, where Superargo has a guru sidekick who has taught him how to levitate. Why would anyone not want to watch these films?

Sunday 25 May 2014

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) - Director’s Cut

Oskar Out To Lunch

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) - Director’s Cut
1979 West Germany/France/Poland/Yugoslavia 
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
Arrow BluRay Region B dual edition

Warning: I guess there are spoilers here...

Volker Schlöndorff’s version of the Günter Grass novel The Tin Drum is essential cinema, no doubt about it. As essential, perhaps more so, as the work it was based on in terms of it’s achievements within its own specific medium.

I remember first seeing this on television in the 1980s and I also remember turning up for a screening of this at the Barbican Centre in London, with a friend, around 10 years later. When we got there we were turned away. The screening had been taken off at very short notice due to “an intervention” by the BBFC, or at least that’s the reason we were given at the time. I didn’t know what the issue was, especially since it had already been shown a number of times on television prior to the attempted Barbican screening, but there we were, with our wasted train tickets, on a jaunt down to London for a screening which didn’t happen. I’ve never known, to this day, what happened then but I did notice a distinct absence from that point on, in screenings of this particular film at cinemas. After a while (a few years) it just quietly came back and then it was business as usual for The Tin Drum, it seemed to me.

The Arrow Blu Ray dual edition I recently watched is something very special indeed. Not only does it have the original theatrical edition of the film on there, along with the usual slew of extras on a second disc...  it also has a 2011 “director’s cut” of the movie which is considerably longer than the original, by about 20 minutes.

To those who don’t know the work in any medium, The Tin Drum is narrated by its central protagonist Oskar (played in an extraordinary performance in the movie by David Bennent), a little boy whose thoughts and philosophy’s are fully formed from birth (possibly before) and who is forced from his mother’s womb, probably against his will...

“Only the prospect of the tin drum prevented me from expressing, more forcefully, my desire to return to the womb.”

Oskar has, in addition to a fully formed brain which he keeps to himself, a number of talents... one of which is his decision to not grow from the age of three. To cover up for this strange talent, he deliberately throws himself down the stairs into the cellar to give the grown ups an excuse as to why he no longer grows or ages after this incident. That’s one slightly wrong note which the film delivers, to my mind. If you are not fully understanding of Oskar’s thought processes, by this point, the way this incident is presented in the movie, against Oskar’s narrative voice-over, makes this incident possibly look like a suicide attempt... thus nullifying Oskar’s cunning until this side of him is unearthed properly during later incidents.

Another talent of Oskar’s is his ability to emit a loud, piercing scream which can shatter glass. It’s not just breakages which Oskar can cause with his vocal talents, however. Towards the end of the movie it is revealed that Oskar has perfected his talent to such an extent that he can even use his voice to etch pictures in glass. This is another surreal moment in a film which is full of such celluloidal magic but, it has to be said, the film is a little more black and white in its presentation of the specifics of the story than the actual novel is.

In the novel, it is clear that Oskar is telling his story from a sanitarium, well after he has come to the decision to decide to grow up. The story is pitched so you never know whether to take the things Oskar tells you as being the truth or whether he is, in fact, just an insane man. The film eschews this in favour of presenting the narrative as is, a gospel truth at 24 frames per second, and I’m never quite sure if this was a good call with this story or not. Something I’ve never made my mind up about over the years.

The whole thing is, of course, a fantastic and imaginative way of showing the rise and fall of Nazism from the observers at ground level, although I’m sure a lot of the political stuff is lost on someone like me. Oskar is a boy who lives in a house where the portrait of Beethoven has been replaced by a portrait of Adolf Hitler. As he himself says about Nazism, to the viewer, dependent on which translation you are reading...

“There was once a gullible people... who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really... the gas man!”

The shot set ups are not necessarily beautifully designed, but they do take on a certain beauty of their own in terms of detail and the very leisurely pacing. The camera doesn’t move around a heck of a lot, there are a lot of static shots and cuts, but when it does, it’s usually very slow moving and because of the lack of rapid movement, tends to drag you into the work in a voyeuristic manner.... you feel like a fly on the wall, witnessing the events rather than experienceing them with the characters. This, of course, sometimes makes it even more unbearable to watch in certain places.

There’s also a great contradiction with shooting this film in this style because, the subject matter does get quite surreal and some of the shots match this. A shot or two of Oskar in the womb, for example, followed in one case by a sequence where we, the camera eye, are pushing out from between his mothers legs... or a scene which I think is a new one, where some nuns are shot for trespassing and we see their souls rise to heaven. Or the way the film goes into slow motion and the camera falls, gracefully, with Oskar as he throws himself down into the cellar. Some of this stuff, especially the womb sequence, is very similar to the kind of artificial insert shots that Dario Argento sometimes inserts into a sequence and it’s interesting that the film uses this kind of visual language because, when it’s pitched against the leisurely, almost naturalistic style of shooting, the voyeuristic sensibility actually strengthens the scenes of a more incredible nature and therefore bolsters your ability to suspend your disbelief throughout the, quite long, running time.

Legendary film composer Maurice Jarre’s score similarly helps to push the effect of some of these visuals, coming across all sinister and off kilter in certain scenes which tell you something magical... or possibly fairly disturbing... is about to happen.

The new blu ray rendition of the The Tin Drum is fantastic... the film still has kind of a soft look about it but still has a lot of definition/detail without the feel of the original film stock appearing to have been lost in translation or diminished in the remastering process... at least that’s how it looked to me. I’ve not checked out the extras yet but I think some of them are different to the old US Criterion edition of the film, especially (and obviously) those related to the new director’s cut. This was money well spent and, frankly, anybody who is into cinema should probably put this on their “must own” list. It’s a film I expect to revisit every seven years or so and the charm juxtaposed with a traumatic time in history never seems to wear thin. Definitely recommended for cinephiles and casual watchers alike... especially in this new blu-ray, director’s cut edition from Arrow.

Friday 23 May 2014

X-Men - Days Of Future Past

Future, Past Caring

X-Men - Days OF Future Past
2014 USA/UK
Directed by Bryan Singer
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Big spoilers in this one and I’m not even going to apologise for them... this is no more than this dreadful movie deserves to “call it out” to people.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s strange but, I’ve only ever heard that quoted, usually incorrectly (from people who have remembered it wrong), by film-makers trying to defend the outrageous continuity errors evident in their films which their audience has had to point out to them. I have to say that, in terms of the context within which people quote this about their big screen stories, I have to disagree and bring my own inner hobgoblin to the table, in this case.

I believe that a film franchise succeeds or fails on a lot of different factors on a film by film basis but, one of the things which is really important, and which can kill a whole franchise if you let it, is consistency... in this case, the consistency of continuity. And, unfortunately, the X-Men franchise has now, as far as I’m concerned, sacrificed itself for a quick buck on the altar of the hobgoblins who were really only interested in having a good time at the movies but, instead, are forced to hold a mirror up to the movie and say... “Seriously? You think your audience are all this stupid?”

Before I rip into this awful mess properly, I just want you to know how I stand on the previous films in the franchise, so you can see where I’m coming from and judge my thoughts on X-Men: Days Of Future Past (or X-Men: Days Of Screwing The Continuity Even Further While Pretending To Solve It And Hoping Your Audience Doesn’t Think About The Movie For Too Long, as I now call it) so you can either agree or disagree with my thoughts in terms of this movie’s place compared to the others.

X-Men: Bryan Singer’s first movie was pretty much the first movie based on a Marvel comics property that was actually any good. Not just good, pretty damned brilliant, as it happens. It almost made up for not having the proper characters from the 1960s in it and changing the costume design... well... yeah, almost makes up for it. Something to note: Professor X and Magneto built Cerebro together, when they were friends, in this continuity.

X2: X-Men 2: This was at least as good as the first movie. Another brilliant piece of modern fantasy action from Bryan Singer with a strong opening and a strong ending leading into something very dark and with a consistent tone throughout. Basically, an epic feeling movie to set up the Dark Phoenix character arc.

X-Men: The Last Stand: This was awful. Brett Ratner took over the franchise and basically used every great set up from the previous films and managed to make them pretty boring and unwatchable for, pretty much, most of the film. A lot of people haven’t forgiven this movie for being so bad, as far as I can see. Something to note: Young “bald” Professor X and his friend, Young Magneto, go to recruit Jean Grey together. Professor X can both walk and simultaneously use his mutant powers. In this movie, Charles Xavier is killed/disintegrated, although his mind seems to have jumped into a “different” human being... if the post credits sting is anything to go by.

X-Men Origins - Wolverine: A lot of people didn’t dig this movie but I thought it was okay. A lot of fun and very much like an old 1980s or 1990s “straight to video” kind of B Movie.... but with an A Movie budget to play around with. Thought this was much better than the reaction it got. Things to note: Professor X is in this one too, at the end. My review is here.

X-Men: First Class: Absolutely brilliant. Had a lot of continuity errors which could not be explained as a hangover from the previous films but since it was technically a reboot of the franchise, I was happy with this when treated as a stand alone sequence of movies. Things to note: In this timeline, Magneto and Professor X did not build Cerebro. Professor X is crippled by the end of their first big adventure and way after he and Magneto were still friends, confounding the opening of X-Men: The Last Stand totally. My review is here.

The Wolverine: Nice little movie. Not as fun as the last one but different and kinda interesting. Things to note: Wolverine's adamantium claws are severed and are no longer something he has in this “continuity”. Instead, he has reverted back to the bone claws he was born with as a result of the events depicted in this film. Jean Grey haunts his dreams after he killed her in X-Men: The Last Stand. Also, Professor X and Magneto confront Wolverine in an airport in the post credits sting of the movie. Wolverine looks shocked because, obviously, Professor X is dead, isn’t he? At least, his body was destroyed. My review of this one is here.

Okay. Recap over.

So here we have X-Men: Days Of Future Past. And all I wanted from this movie right now is for it to fix all those stupid continuity holes from the clashes between the awful X-Men: The Last Stand and the amazingly cool X-Men: First Class... and in a fairly fun manner, if possible. And, if only the writers would have thought about it a little more, maybe they would even have nailed that because, frankly, while a bit silly, the central premise they use to wipe out the history of the characters in this one really works well... except it fails before they even start using it.

I can see how the idea here was maybe “borrowed” from the rebooted Star Trek films from a couple of years ago. In the first one (reviewed here), the Spock of the regular timeline is catapulted back into his past, which then changes the future of the younger versions of himself and his friends... thus giving the franchise new life to go back to the days of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in their prime for a movie series without having to worry about contradicting anything that came before. Revelling in that, in fact, by having a half remake of Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan for their sequel (reviewed here) and totally having their cake and eating it at the same time. And why the older version of Spock didn’t just wink out of existence because his timeline didn’t actually happen anymore, I’ll never know. Oh, yes I do... because they don’t care about the logic at the heart of the theory of time travel. Okay, whatever.

Singer’s approach in X-Men: Days Of Future Past is to have Wolverine’s “mind” sent back to his younger body in 1973 and get him to change the past then, to split everything off into a new timeline which doesn’t result in the death of mutant kind... and you know what? That could have worked out really well, and the film-makers obviously seem to think it did.. or they never would have released this shambles into cinemas in this form. But the thing is, to have someone sent back from the future to change that timeline... you need to have that future actually be a possibility in the first place. That reality has to have existed before you go back and change it... and there’s no way the point in time that Wolverine is sent back from could actually have happened within the continuity of the previous films without a lot of explaining away of certain things... and there’s absolutely no concession to this, nor concession to audience intelligence, in the movie.

It starts off well enough with concentration camp imagery of imprisoned and dead mutants (and potential mutants) and this is, of course, a nice echo of the World War II Nazi concentration camp sequences which open both the original X-Men and X-Men: First Class. So a really nice idea there from the director. Then we have a fairly cool fight which is basically just a set up to explain the major time travel element  in the film. And then we see the last surviving mutants holed up together, awaiting the coming of the deadly Sentinels. Among these mutants are Kitty Pride, Ice Man, Professor X, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine. They are, of course, the X-Men... well... err... X-Men and X-Women... except... woah... hold on a minute... who’s in that line up again?

I got really excited by the post-credit sting at the end of The Wolverine because the story confronted us with something that was just so impossible within the actual X-Men timeline... Professor X and Wolverine existing in the same continuity after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand... that I figured they must be really confident about undoing the mess they’d made of the consistency between the movies. If they could throw something like that in to be explained away in the next film then... hey... they could do anything.

But that’s the thing, guys and gals. This opening set up is why the whole premise of this movie fails totally. Not only don’t they explain it... they don’t even refer to the events depicted at the end of The Wolverine in any way, shape or form. They just act like the third film didn’t even happen... kinda. Stay with me here because it’s an important concept to get over. Wolverine’s claws in this version of the timeline are back to being adamantium claws. Yep... that’s right... it’s like the events of The Wolverine, released only last year, didn’t even happen. Except... here’s the rub... The Wolverine refers all the way through to Logan’s guilt at having to kill his beloved Jean Grey to save humanity and... err... mutantanity from certain doom. So we know that happened in that continuity. However, in this film, Wolverine also has painful memories of killing Jean Grey (or Dark Phoenix or even, my favourite, Marvel Girl) in that third movie... they actually use clips from it as flashbacks in this one. So then... Professor X is dead isn’t he? This makes no sense. And you can’t try to justify/explain this version as being a version in which the events of the third movie never took place, because they refer to that movie a number of times.

And that’s basically why this movie is screwed before it’s even started. Because the point in time from which our intrepid hero is travelling back from in his mind is absolutely not a reality which could have happened and no attempt is made to explain this. What, they thought we were going to be all overjoyed that most of the old crew were back that we wouldn’t notice the thing has no logic or reason to it at all?

Not only that but, at the end, Wolverine’s mind snaps back to the version of himself fifty years later in a timeline we haven’t seen and all his memories of those fifty years are replaced by his old ones (which is why he’s astonished to see people like Jean Grey and Cyclops back in his timeline). This also makes no sense... his mind didn’t have anywhere else to snap back to... his timeline was destroyed. Serious clangers all round here folks.

Okay, so now I’ve reiterated why the film just totally falls apart and screws the entire franchise sideways into a cocked, adamantium hat... what’s the movie like apart form the huge plot holes?

Well... it’s kinda okayish, in some ways. It’s got a good buzz about it early on but, ultimately, it all just felt a bit “by the numbers”. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Ellen Page were all fine... but that was it for them. They were all just fine... and who can blame them in some ways. Their dialogue wasn’t exactly special. Ditto for most of the First Class team. Michael Fassbender is always damned watchable but he honestly didn’t seem to be present in most of his scenes, apart from when he loses it at Charles Xavier on the plane... that was pretty good. Jennifer Lawrence’s take on Raven/Mystique was okay too but she’s flying more or less solo in this one and, although she’s a bit of a stand out character, she’s mostly just seen beating people up.

James MacAvoy is fantastic and just like his Xavier character in X-Men: First Class. Absolutely a consistent and brilliant performance. However, asides from the cool acting, theres another basic continuity problem with this one. We saw him crippled at the end of the last movie but, in this one, Hank/The Beast has made him a serum which gives him his legs back every time he has his fix. However, this also has the side effect of relieving him of his mutant powers... further highlighting the absolute impossibility of the opening sequence of X-Men: The Last Stand as a path from this reality... except we know all that must have happened because Wolverine’s mind was just sent back from that future reality. Not very well thought out, is it? It’s like the writers kept painting themselves into a corner and then were trying to distract you with things to cover up the fact that they couldn’t address the issues this throws up. But hey, who cares, the audience won’t be paying attention will they? Um, whatever dudes.

There were some other nice things about the movie. The idea that Magneto was implicated in the murder of JFK but was actually trying to save him because he was a fellow mutant was nice. Some, not all, of the action sequences were nicely handled too, the really good ones being the opening fight scene and the sequence where Quicksilver saves them all in the Pentagon jailbreak scene. Which is a pretty great scene... except... oops. Now that’s another confusing thing for audiences who don’t understand that the rights to certain Marvel characters reside with more than one company...

So here you have Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days Of Future Past.... which is a Marvel/20th Century Fox picture. However, we just saw him portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the first mid-credits sting at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here), made by Marvel/Disney, and will see him portraying that character again in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron next year, also for Marvel/Disney. What’s worse is, the 20th Century Fox version of the character and the Marvel/Disney version of the character are not allowed to share the same history, The ones locked into the S.H.I.E.L.D timeline is not even allowed to mention “mutation” apparently. This is going to confuse a hell of a lot of audience members who don’t know the ins and outs of the situation, folks. All they’re going to know is you’ve got the same character played by two different actors with contradicting histories co-existing at the same time in cinema history. Probably not a great idea guys.

Okay, what else. Well, the music is okay. This one marks the first time that an X-Men movie has had the same composer twice and John Ottman’s score here reuses the X-Men theme he used for X-Men 2. Wait, what? Yeah, you can see the problem here, right? Even the music is, for one of the few rare times in a Marvel movie, insisting on a continuity which is already shot to hell. Which is a shame because Ottman’s score does the job here. It’s not as cool as his earlier X-Men 2 score, or even his two Fantastic Four scores, but it does it’s job and I’ll be grabbing a copy when the CD comes out in a couple of weeks.

And... what else? Um... the special effects are okay, if you like that kind of thing, and the film is competently shot and edited. So, some nice work there... but none of this goes anywhere near making up for the fact that this movie screws up the continuity even worse than X-Men: First Class did.

When the four sequels to Universal’s The Mummy were released in the 1940s, these sequels formed what was supposed to be a single continuity. However, some of the films took place decades after the previous one and in all that time, they were all set in contemporary America, give or take a few years. Worse, in one film, Kharis The Mummy gets buried in a swamp in one country and, when he rises from the swamp to live again in the next movie, it’s somehow relocated to another country. Now, it’s my belief that the majority of those 1940s audiences didn’t question these huge plot holes because, frankly, these were the decades well before anything like commercial home video viewing could even be imagined and re-release cinema screenings were less of a thing then. The movie played, you saw it, and it wasn’t until commercial television started out in the 1950s that these movies would get shown enough again to be able to spot stuff like this. However, note to people in Hollywoodland expecting a gullible audience to swallow the scripts they turn out with more holes in them than a Swiss cheese... your audience is no longer living in the 1940s. It’s not like somebody isn’t going to notice all this stuff somewhere along the line. You need to write smarter than this!

When I went to buy a ticket for X-Men: Days Of Future Past, for a performance a few hours later, there were a lot of firemen in the cinema and when I got to the front of the queue I was told that they were only giving out refunds. It turns out the cinema in question had been struck by lightning less than ten minutes before I’d arrived and it had knocked all the projection rooms out. When I tried again a few hours later, they’d literally just managed to get the cinema rebooted up and were selling tickets again. All I can say is... I should have taken this as some kind of omen, maybe? X-Men: Days Of Future Past is my joint, least favourite X-Men movie, tying with X-Men: The Last Stand in last place. This was not how I was hoping the latest film in a, mostly, fairly strong film series would play out and the only audience I could possibly recommend this to is an audience who haven’t seen any of the previous movies in the franchise because, honestly, this one just makes no sense. And it’s such a shame. It feels like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (reviewed here) all over again. It just didn’t address the issues it needed to address... and these directors/writers/producers need to make a smarter product to keep the percentage of their audience interested in these things satisified, I’m afraid to say. The hobgoblins are loose... and their small minds are out to tear apart your inconsistencies.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Garden Of Evil

Saddle Rousers

Garden Of Evil
1954 USA
Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox/Momentum 
DVD Region 2

I first saw this Western on TV over 20 years ago. I remember I made a point of recording it on video, off air, because I was interested in hearing Bernard Hermmann’s score for this movie within the context of the actual film... so nothing much has changed with my motivation for watching some of these movies in the intervening years then, I guess.

I remember really liking this one but it was probably shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and just dumped like that onto TV by an uncaring channel for a less than demanding UK public. Now the film is available on DVD ( I got this one very cheap at a Film Fair) I can finally see it properly, in its full 2.35:1 approximation of the Cinemascope aspect ratio in which it was shot.

The film starts off with three cowboys played by Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell, being rowed to shore after the steamer they were journeying on (actually an anachronism in the particular time and place this film is set) breaks down and they are stranded in Mexico for possibly a few days/weeks. About the only thing you can do here is drink at the local saloon bar and watch the lovely, young Rita Moreno sing at you. Unfortunately, Miss Moreno is only in the film for a few minutes, for one scene, to make a point about the characters and the kind of one horse town the three cowboys find themselves in. Then the real story kicks in as Susan Hayward rides into the place looking for volunteers to accompany her back, over the course of a few days ride, to the goldmine she has been working in and help pull her, probably dying, husband out from some fallen debris in the mine. The journey is a dangerous prospect, though, because the mine is deep in hostile Indian territory.

Of course, since they’ve nothing better to do, and because Miss Hayward is offering a large amount of money for their trouble, the three cowboys and a local Mexican pitch in and join her in what starts off to be a kind of road movie in terms of the trip to the mine and the way the relationship between these five individuals develops on the trip.

We have Víctor Manuel Mendoza as Vicente, the Mexican who is covertly marking the path to the hidden gold mine, presumably so his buddies can come back later and take all the gold for themselves. We have the young, proud, troublemaking hothead Luke, played by Cameron Mitchell, who rubs everybody up the wrong way and who you know will be the main villain of the piece until the Indians come along later in the story to take over that tonal role. There’s Richard Widmark playing Fiske, a professional gambler and self appointed poet who talks a great deal and is the perfect verbal crutch for the other male member of the expedition, Hooker. Gary Cooper plays Hooker, and he plays him as the kind of guy who says little but, when he does say something, you have sense enough to quit yer yapping and listen up good... well, unless you’re Cameron Mitchell, apparently. Hooker assumes a quiet sense of authority and leadership for the group without even trying and it’s obvious he’s the real man’s man hero of the piece... and it’s a part he plays really well, as do his fellow actors and actresses... all play their parts convincingly and with gusto.

I never realised, the last time I watched this, just how much of a misogynistic movie this is. Susan Hayward plays Leah, who is bringing a rescue party for her husband but is seen by the men in the party, especially Cooper and Widmark, as an attractive and desirable woman which, obviously, means she’s dangerous and not to be trusted. She is portrayed as a user and someone who is bringing calamity slowly into the path of any man she crosses, something her husband acknowledges when the five of them finally get to him in the mine but, honestly, she’s really not and I found the tone of this film a little strange in this respect. Cooper even knocks her out with a full on punch at one point in the picture... for noble reasons, of course.

The film is fascinating in this manner though. A brooding, psychological study of a powerful woman and the way the men in her life acknowledge and accept her power over them in spite of their recognition and disdain of it. The landscapes have a mostly dark and brooding tone, too, and a lot of the film is talk with no action, to be honest... but when the talk is this interesting, you tend to take notice and listen anyway.

When the bursts of action do come, however, Bernard Herrmann’s deeply brooding score, which is mostly echoing the internal, psychological landscape of the picture in the way that only he could do it, pulls out all the stops and really hits you with the brash, loud, swirling repeat vortexes of music that he does so well. There’s nothing especially subtle about those strong, “balls to the saddle” chase pieces in this film and his notes have your head spinning as he waves his magic baton and the orchestra crashes in for the kill.

It’s been noted, often, that this is Herrmann’s only Western score. Well, that’s not quite true actually. Most people tend to overlook the odd TV Western episode and the stock library of Western music he created for tracking in for various instances in these kinds of shows but, certainly, it’s definitely his only big screen foray into the Western landscape and, typically for Herrmann, this score follows practically none of the conventions of any Western scores you’ve heard before or after. There’s literally a couple of minutes, no more, of standard Americana Western style scoring to punctuate the “lazy ride” kind of music you would expect in one of these oaters, for a saddle bound dialogue between Widmark and Cooper in an early part of the journey to the mine. The rest of the score, though, is either intense and brooding... or a gut churning maelstrom of fast menace for the action sequences. It’s not what anyone would be expecting for a Western score and maybe that’s why Herrmann was not hired to ever score one on film again... but it’s a real kick ass score, for sure, and the main reason why I wanted to watch this movie again.

The dialogue is unbelievably quotable too. Razor sharp lines where everyone who says anything seems to be making a point about something. Cooper’s character, Hooker, says a number of things worth hearing throughout the movie which support his natural authority over the other characters. For instance, when contemplating a very negative dialogue with Susan Hayward, he follows it up on a verbal antidote with, “After all any man says, it's what he does that counts.” When making a decision to stay behind on a narrow cliff edge and fight off Indians single handed, while the remaining survivors of the trip thus far use the time to get away, he states that, “Somebody always stays. Somebody all over the world gets it done.”

At the end of the film, though, Cooper does seem to get a little overly cryptic. He finishes off his memorable one liners with this little gem... “If the earth were gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.” Which is like... um... okay. I might paraphrase and say, if ladies were potatoes then men all over the world would be dying for a packet of Salt N’ Vinegar crisps... but that wouldn’t mean much either, to be honest. But the way Cooper delivers lines like these is priceless and well worth the price of admission alone. I’d love to see this play in a cinema with an audience at some point.

So there you have it. Garden Of Evil. Unusual Western. Brilliant film. Well performed and, I have to say, really nice use of the cinemascope aspect ratio compositionally by a director and cinematographer who really know how to make use of the format... splitting the screen at times so extreme right and left are pitched against each other and not having to worry, like some directors have to, these days... if they choose to work in that kind of aspect ratio... about how it’s going to look cut down at the sides on television screenings (yeah, lots of channels here in the UK still commit many crimes against filmanity of this nature every day). If you’re curious about a moody picture which is essentially a road movie in disguise, where personalities are pitted against each other while uniting in a common cause, then this movie might be worth a look. If you’re into Westerns in general then it’s definitely worth a peak as it seems, to me at least, to be a little different from what you might be expecting from this era of Hollywood Cowboys and Indians. Either way, hitch up your slacks n’ skirts and climb in the saddle with Cooper and Co for Garden Of Evil. You should have a galloping good time.

Sunday 18 May 2014

House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films

Top Kier

House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
by Kier-La Janisse 
FAB Press 
ISBN: 978-1903254691

Wow. This book is really great.

You know, when you get to my age and you start reading books about your passions - in this case the art of film  - you start realising that a lot of factual errors are getting into print these days. I can only conclude that a lot of the people writing these things are way younger than me, do not know quite what they’re talking about and, worse, don’t have anyone at their publishing house checking their facts. Either that or they’re all very ancient and suffering from senility or some such unfortunate condition.

I’ve also noticed a lot of spelling mistakes creeping into print these days too... which I find almost inexcusable.

Kier-La Janisse’s mouthful title of a book, House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, doesn’t suffer from any of this stuff and, I have to say, it’s certainly the most interesting book I’ve read on genre film, and one of the best tomes on any kinds of film history that I’ve read in a long time. I’m not saying it doesn’t have any faults... you know me, I always find something to complain about, but those faults don’t stem from the writing in any way (yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get to them later).

One of the things that make this book seem like a breath of fresh air in a wilderness of genre studies is the approach to roughly the first half of the book... it’s actually like having two heavily illustrated books in one, which is a bargain. The two halves are split by a generous section of colour photographs highlighting posters and film stills from various movies discussed here, with the second half being an absolutely invaluable appendix section of alphabetical reviews of some of the author’s favourite films that have a prominent psychotic woman. Some of the entries in this section are quite small but, in those cases, it’s because the writer has already covered those films in more detail in the first half of the book.

And the first half of the book just blew me away.

The author has been a film programmer for various famous cinematic venues in America but, she is also a self confessed psychotic woman... her term for a quick character reference, not mine. It is this bold revelation which gives the thrust of the title and its contents, of course. The whole first half of the book deals with her own bad behaviour and mental insecurities and expressions but she choses to tell her story in a convoluted and wildly entertaining way... by comparing her true life experiences of various traumatic episodes with those of her favourite, female, celluloid psychos and so, each chapter covers a few films which she briefly summarises, passes critical judgement on and then relates back to her own life in some way. This is fantastic stuff.

Just to give you a quick taste, here’s a quote from the book where she’s talking about a documentary film made about her called Celluloid Horror (it’s on my "to acquire" list):

“... my adolescent propensity for physical violence, my history in group homes, foster homes and detention centres, and the years of involuntary therapy that only encouraged my rebellion further. Most painful of all, it captured the disintegration of my brief marriage.”

And that’s just from the introduction.

What’s marvellous about this work is the author's ability to look at her own life history, good and bad, and treat it with an objective and critical eye, which demonstrates both her intelligence to question and rationalise it... before she feeds it back into certain psychotic women from various horror and exploitation movies made over the years. I don’t know who this woman is but she “had me” from the opening pages and I became an ardent admirer of her writing style, expressive flourishes and insight very quickly. I didn’t always agree with her judgements of certain characters or inclusions, particularly in the case of Four Flies On Grey Velvet and Morvern Callar... but that’s okay. I’m surprised I agreed with so much stuff she was saying.

Another good thing which came out of this book, asides from a really great read on this kind of material, is the fact that I now have a lot more films I need to see... which I find quite amazing. When I read books on horror and exploitation... and Janisse doesn’t fall into the trap of mistaking one for the other, as a lot of writers do... I usually have a short list of about four or five films which have managed to get past me and which I would like to add to my growing backlog of movies to watch. This time I came away with a list of 37 movies I definitely need to see. That’s a lot and, the worst of that is, I reckon at least half of them aren’t commercially available either. Time to start asking around at the Westminster and Camden film fairs again, methinks. But this is all good stuff and it was the final straw that brought me to finally purchase Zulawski’s Possession and watch the damn thing (expect a perplexed and bewildered review of that movie on this blog sometime in the next few weeks).

I said there were a couple of not so good things about this book and they both stem from the design... which is interesting. The thing is, the layout of the book looks great... but it’s not so functional or practical.

The length of line, for example, is way greater than the 12 - 16 words you would get in the majority of books and so the strain from both concentration and eye flick is appalling. Coupled with this, the print in the book is really tiny. It looks like it’s 8pt or something and although there’s a lot of content and this may have forced the decision from a financial issue, I think this was a big mistake. I had some trouble but the psychotherapist/counsellor I showed it to over a stolen lunch hour found it so difficult to focus that I know there’s no way she would ever read it in this form... which is a shame. And, of course, the small print also contributes to that problem with “length of line”. If the publishers were this dead set on going down to this size then I would have preferred to have read it either double or triple columned, if truth be told (which also lessens the page count, as a bizarre typographic symptom... something I always find amazing, even when I know the science behind it). Note to the publishers: there’s so much content in this book that, if you’d have blown the type up a few points and then published it as two separate volumes, I would have happily shelled out double the money for the same content dressed differently. It would have been an even easier read than it already is, too.

That aside, Kier-La Janisse’s House Of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films is easily one of the coolest, riveting and entertaining books I’ve read on film in a good few years. I would recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone who is into horror and/or exploitation films and, also, for anyone who is into the idea of a “case study” owning her own perceived neurosis and converting it into something knowledgable which enriches other peoples lives through what can be learnt from it. An absolutely invaluable resource and a truly interesting work from a truly interesting character. One of my few “must reads” of the year.

You can follow the writer on twitter here...

Friday 16 May 2014

Godzilla 3D ( aka Gojira 2014 aka Godzilla 2014)

Aphid And Goliath

Godzilla 3D 
(aka Gojira 2014 aka Godzilla 2014)
2014 USA/Japan
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Big, giant sized spoilers breathing fiery destruction in your face... although, to be fair, it’s a movie about big monsters. How spoilerish could it be.

When I saw Gareth Edwards first feature, Monsters, four years ago (reviewed here), I noted that I quite liked it but the last act left me unfulfilled. I wanted to see a giant monster carnage fight sequence at the end and, since it was shot on a very lean budget, I’m guessing money would have been one of the deciding factors as to why that didn’t happen? Either way, that’s not a problem when it comes to this movie because the director has graduated from his original Monsters to a feature involving the original King Of The Monsters... so this film does seem like a bit of a natural evolution for him, thematically, and it’s been released just in time for The Big G’s 60th anniversary... which is nice (although I would have preferred to see a Toho film, in some ways).

I don’t remember what age I first saw the original 1954 version of Godzilla but it must have been sometime around when I first saw King Kong on television. I would have been about 4 years old so around about 1972 I would guess. Actually, the story of my original encounter with King Kong, very late at night, is a nice one for me but I’ll save that for another review, I think. All I remember about the original Godzilla is that, when I later saw the third film from the original first wave (The Shōwa Series) of the three waves (Shōwa, Heisei and Millennium series) of Japanese films about the character, King Kong Vs Godzilla, when I was about 5 or so, I was stoked to see the two giant monsters fight.

Of course, in the first four films or so of the Shōwa cycle, Godzilla was still pretty much a villain or, to be more precise, an uncontrollable beast that people needed to clearly defend themselves from and stop at any cost. By the time we got to the next few films in this first cycle, Godzilla had pretty much been subtly transformed and recast as Japan’s avenger and guardian, coming out to fight against whatever giant monsters were out to stomp Tokyo and its neighbours.

Now this is kind of relevant here because Gareth Edward’s new take on the legend is actually not really a reboot of the 1954 version. In fact it acknowledges the 1954 version without paying too many respects to the creation and legacy of the character in any great way. The film’s occasional stabs of postmodern homage lie in the date he was first spotted (1954), the name Serizawa, given to Ken Watanabe’s character but seemingly nothing to do with the original character from the 1954 film, plus occasional visual or typographic references to Mothra and other kaiju eiga elements thrown up in parts of the frames. There’s one more big piece of homage in the design of the title character... but I’ll get back to that later. What the director does do, however, is reestablish the role of Godzilla as an avenging guardian to the world, coming out of retirement to fight a world under attack by giant monsters who, in this movie, take the form of oversized aphid-like creatures who are swallowing radioactive devices like losenges, to feed and reproduce from.

If the plot sounds silly, well... it really is.

The story in itself is fine, tonally,  in terms of the history of the character... but I did have a lot of trouble with the dialogue in certain places when it comes to dealing with the fantastical elements of the story. They have some great actors in this movie, you see. The main leads, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (as a husband and wife in this one, after playing brother and sister as Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, reviewed here, and coming soon in the same roles in the 2015 movie, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron), are both more than fine in their performances and give the movie some likable characters to get behind. However, there are some real heavy weight, long respected actors here like the aforementioned Ken Watanabe, alongside Juliet Binoche, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins and, though the director uses little character sketches for each of these, and other action “sequence characters” (I’ll get to that in a minute)... it has to be said they’re mostly just standing around wasted in this film and the lines they have to deliver, for a lot of the time, are absolutely preposterous. It’s strange because, although the story itself is quite silly, it does work as a credible whole within both the world they create for this movie and also as something which isn’t out of place in keeping with the sensibilities of some of the Toho movies... but the dialogue itself is terrible. So that was kinda bizarre... I felt.

That’s about the only real weakness of the film, other than a couple of personal preferences, that I could find. In other words... I was thoroughly entertained by this movie and a lot of that, I suspect, is to do with the director’s approach to the material. Judging from this film, Edwards has two really potent signature elements which seem to work really well here...

One is a philosophy of always leading you into something else with a little revelation. While the director doesn’t eschew establishing shots, he does tend to leave them in the dust at several points and, instead, starts from things being revealed in close up and then going wide. For instance, while looking for something in a storage facility in the Nevada desert, a storeroom door is opened and just a bright light is revealed. We then cut and pull back so we can see that the storeroom has a big hole in the other side of the room where “something big” has broken out into the surrounding desert. A very similar kind of reveal happens when some firemen go into a room in a suite in a hotel, only to find that the other side of the room is missing and opens out into the city landscape, where an aphid style monster has ripped through half the suite.

It’s a really interesting way of shooting things and the director persists with this kind of “reveal detail” in either large or small scale occurrences throughout the picture. But not only that... he also uses exactly the same technique in reverse a couple of times. For instance, we are just about to glimpse one of the first proper shots of Godzilla with one of the insect-like monsters getting “into it” with some killer combat moves in long shot... when a safety door is shut in front of it and the screen goes to darkness for a half a second before cutting to another point in the story. There are a few moments like this and it’s a good way of whetting your appetite for the main bout a little later.

So yeah, reveals are this director’s thing... at least on this movie. But there’s something else he does too.

I noticed that for the scenes of carnage, a lot of the time the director will focus on a few characters that are entirely incidental to the story and are only around for, pretty much, the action sequence they are in. He makes you care about specific humans, caught in the turmoil of having giant monster action in their close proximity, and he follows these minor throwaway characters throughout their specific scene. It sounds like it shouldn’t work because you don’t have time to get involved with, basically, “star extras”... but he does it really well and, somehow, manages to pull it off beautifully. I really felt for the bus driver in the bridge sequence, for instance, even though I knew I wouldn’t see him again after that scene was over. The director uses this kind of “acquire a character for a short time and then jettison” approach all the way through and makes it really work... I applaud him for that.

My only grumble with that, of course, is that some of the other actors, like Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn, could really have done with having their characters expanded a little more, I felt. Giving them a little more purpose would have helped a bit... as would ageing some of the actors and actresses for the fifteen year time jump near the start of the movie. Strange that some of them look more or less the same in 2014 as hey did in the sequences set in 1999... at least, that’s how it struck me.

What else? Well you have Godzilla him/herself (don’t even go there... I am not getting into that whole Gojira gender argument, thanks very much).

One of the problems... on of the many problems... with the previous US outing in 1998 was the fact that Godzilla was all CGI and didn’t look anything like any of the classic Toho incarnations of the character (no wonder the Japanese incarnation whipped the US version’s backside in just a few seconds in the last of the Japanese movies, to date, Godzilla: Final Wars). The fact that pretty much every Toho Godzilla movie shot in any decade of the characters monstrous career has featured men dressed in suits stomping on miniature sets as the sole way of portraying the character has given them a look and feel that G-Fans love. If it looks too much more functional than something that could be done with the “man in suit” approach, then it was going to turn a lot of people off. Luckily, the version of Godzilla in this movie is very respectful to the look and design of the original (and the many different, evolving suits over the years, during the course of 30 movies). It looks like the man in suit has come to life and we get a much more expressive version of the classic look we know and love... and yes, you will feel sympathy for this version of Godzilla and you will be rooting for him to get the upper hand on his opponents as they gang up on him...

Which leads me nicely into the choreography of those battle scenes.

As I said before, the director holds back and teases you, showing you through the eyes of the various human characters who will take up our attention in the foreground of a shot while things are happening in the distance (a similar tactic was taken in the movie Cloverfield, although that was a more natural thing to do because it was shot as first person footage). Towards the end, though, he stops teasing and you get some full-on giant monster wrestling. This doesn’t really deteriorate into one of those fights where Godzilla and other various kaiju start throwing rocks or bits of buildings at each other... which is okay for the intensity of this one actually. It’s up close and personal with The Big G and the aphids getting in each others faces.

Also, the writers use the classic fight dramatics which tend to go down well in these kinds of movies. Godzilla comes in and beats up the bad guys. Then the bad guys, or in this case “bad loving guy gal monster couple who want to hatch their eggs and destroy the world”, team up on Godzilla and do him some damage, thus invoking audience sympathy and concern for our big, scaly reptilian... um... thing. Then Godzilla gathers up his/her last remaining strength and gives one big final push and beats the living daylight out of the enemies... finally bringing in one of the old, key favourite weapons in, frankly, the most brutal and satisfying way I’ve ever seen Godzilla use it, to be honest. If you’re a fan of the character then you’ll know just what I’m talking about but, if not, then all I can say is the way I worded the spoiler warning at the top of this article was definitely a tip off to the killing blow, so to speak, in this film.

Another interesting thing, and I’m not sure if many of the audience would have noticed it at the time, is the echo of the main human protagonist, who happens to be a bomb defuser in the army, in the title character. It’s brought home visually by linking two scenes. There are a couple of completely preposterous moments in this movie when human characters you thought must have died... didn’t. It’s a big leap of the imagination in two particular places but one of these, when you think you are looking at a burn victim, is actually our human hero who is laying on the ground recovering, covered in thick dust. There’s a similar scene near the end of this one when you think Godzilla has sacrificed himself for humanity once too often and has died for our sins (the character actually dies a few times in the Japanese films... including the 1954 original). However, it turns out Godzilla's just unconscious and also covered in dust and scarring, which is kind of a nice touch, I thought.

One more thing I should address here is the music, of course. One of the first teaser trailers for this film featured one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti, on the soundtrack. Surprisingly, the music from that teaser is used in the corresponding scene in the movie proper... which is not something I was expecting. Now I love Godzilla scores and have all the soundtracks to these movies, mostly in the form of the six hugely, wallet munching Japanese boxed sets of the entires scores (and bonus tracks) which were released at irregular intervals over a 5 or 6 year period in commemoration of the character’s 50th anniversary. So I know the various classic Godzilla films provided by a number of composers, especially those by the Masaru Sato (who worked with Kurosawa a lot) and, the man who injected the series with three classic themes for the character (just on his very first outing) and who also invented the distinctive roar... Akira Ifikube.

Now I wasn’t in any way worried about this score because I knew it was being composed by Alexandre Desplat, one of my favourite contemporary film composers. I knew this guy could do a good parody of Ifikube if he wanted to but, in all honesty, I don’t hear a heck of a lot of Ifikube’s influence, and certainly none of his famous themes in this score. In fact, the end title musical suite that Michael Giacchino composed for the aforementioned Cloverfield is about as good a classic Godzilla parody score as you’re going to get. Desplat, it seems to me, hasn’t payed enough homage in his score and, I know some people say that he has but, honestly, I just can’t hear much more than the faintest influence in this.

That being said, though, Desplat’s score is nothing, if not appropriate to the visuals on screen and the rhythm of the editing and, once you resign yourself to the fact that nobody thought it was a good idea to pay the rights to use some of Ifikube’s original themes, you’ll probably realise that it’s still a fantastic, kick ass score and it works very well away from the movie too, as a straight listen. The score CD arrived in the post a couple of days before the UK release date of the movie so I had a chance to lower my expectations in terms of postmodernistic musical jokes on this one and realise that, once again, Alexandre Desplat has turned in a damn fine score in a year which includes, so far, his outstanding work for both The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here) and The Monuments Men (reviewed here).

And there you have it. This movie has great acting coupled with clunky dialogue. You will find your powers of being able to suspend disbelief in some of the expository speeches a little hard to maintain but the action is pretty solid and the direction is interesting and noteworthy. If you’re a lover of Godzilla movies in general... it’s way better than the previous US effort and, possibly, better than some of the later Toho originals. If The Big G is not someone you’re familiar with but you like ridiculous action sequences anyway... then you might also want to check this movie out. It’s a mostly good Godzilla flick with a lot of heart... and that’s quite an achievement in the modern, US blockbuster movie stakes these days. Stomp along to your local cinema and take a look.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

The Juliette Society

50 Shades Of Grey

The Juliette Society
by Sasha Grey
ISBN: 978-0751551587

Warning: This review is of a book which deals with material of a graphic sexual nature. Therefore, at certain points, for example when quoting the work, I will need to use language which reflects this. If words can offend you when used in this manner, please don’t read on.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way ashamed of the title of this review although, I am a little embarrassed, perhaps, at how I’ve leapt on the most obvious title for this piece. My only defence is that, when all is said and done, since this book at some times explores similar territory to the more well known title I invoke above, when coupled with the writer’s name, it seems like almost a criminal act not to use that title. 50 Shades of Grey is a book I’ve never read due to the consistent attitude I’ve encountered that it’s both quite badly written and ultimately a little condemning of the lifestyle it uses as its currency... The Juliette Society, for the record, is very well written, as I’ll go on to say in my review.

I suspect Sasha Grey is a name that will be familiar to a certain segment of the readers of this humble blog but, just in case her rising star managed to pass you by somehow, I should probably give you a very quick and dirty character sketch of her career thus far.

She was a very famous porn actress, many might say notorious (although I’d personally replace that term with warrior-like), who has done, on camera, pretty much almost everything sexual it’s possible for two (or many more) humans to do with each other. In her five years (I think I’ve got my sums right?) in the industry she made around 278 pornographic films (at least two as director) and retired from the business at the age of 21. She has always been an advocate of her career choices and waxed intelligently about the nature of working in this environment in an upbeat and joyful manner. She is probably the least person to come across as, in any way, exploited in anything, other than on her own terms, as anyone you're likely to meet.

She then pursued a succesful musical career while also acting in mainstream movies, including working as the main lead for Steven Soderbergh in his film The Girl Friend Experience (which I reviewed here). She then released a photographic book entitled Neü Sex and has followed that up with this debut novel, The Juliette Society.

What this all says to me is she must be a pretty amazing person and I was expecting something really special from this book... a novel which surprised me on some levels, it has to be said.

The story, such as it is, is told in “first person” by a central protagonist called Catherine, a film student who foreshadows the opening of the book with a quick lead into what The Juliette Society actually is, in the fictional world she inhabits. An underground, mobile world of sexual extremes catering for the jaded tastes of the rich and powerful. Since I’ve always believed these kinds of “clubs” existed in the shadows of society anyway, it wasn’t a big step for me to embrace the ‘reality’ of this proposition.

Actually, story is not the best way to describe this work because it’s a novel which is more interested in the detailing of sexual incidents and the exploration of ideas than it is in actual narrative. When I at first found this disappointing because of my prediction of the denouement of the story, I soon realised that I’d had such a good, easy ride getting to that point anyway, because Grey is an extraordinarily good writer, that it didn’t really matter anymore anyway and, certainly, Grey had warned me through her character right near the start of the book that story was not the most important thing to her. Regular readers of mine will know of my insistence that film does not have to be rooted in story and the character of Catherine ruminates from early on in the narrative about the most artistically successful and popular films being subservient to the creation and maintenance of “character” above all else. And she’s right... this is the hook that people respond to in pretty much all film (unless it’s something like, say, Koyaanisqatsi, which has no characters in it at all).

The book tells of Catherine’s sexual desires towards both her boyfriend and to her film studies lecturer... and the spiral into the sexually extreme world of her friend Anna, who gives gives masochistic performances for the BDSM crowd on an extreme website called SODOM, and who is attracted to all the sexual explorers that she finds in life.

Throughout, the book’s various and interesting topics... such as Catherines attitude to the size and potency of a man’s genitalia, the taste and texture of sperm, the gravitation towards certain sexually charged words over others... are peppered with amazingly cine-literate observations which often seem to fit puzzle-like and snugly into whatever erotic shenanigans the character is engaged in, at one level or another, at the time. Grey is an obvious admirer of French New Wave cinema, for example (hey, who isn’t) and both Godard and Truffaut are regularly returned to during the text of the novel. I quote directly from the text here by way of example...

“Does Marcus ask Anna to lick his balls while he deconstructs The 400 Blows?”

Godard’s muse from his 1960s period, Anna Karina, comes up more than once in the text (which is also a pseudonym Sasha Grey used early on as her performance name in the porn industry, if I’m not mistaken) and there are so many brilliant references to all genres of film too numerous to mention... all brilliantly laid out. Here are just a few...

During the pages she makes mention of the subtext of Vertigo, retreads the almost legendary story of the term Rosebud in Orson Welles Citizen Kane being a less than sly and provocative reference to William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his lover’s clitoris, while fully embracing the cinematic art of Luis Bunuel. In particular, Bunuel’s Belle De Jour catches the eye and mind of her lead character and this ties in with the title of the society tangentally referred to in this work, which gives the novel its monicker, being named not after any Shakespearian reference but by being an allusion to Juliette, the corrupted sister of the title character in the Marquis De Sade’s novel Justine (aka The Misfortunes Of Virtue).

I love the way her central protaginist also mixes up several movie references within the same sentence, such as...

“The path I’m on, you can’t see it. It’s not a yellow brick, the lost highway or a two-lane blacktop.”

When she started referencing stuff like this, along with Godard’s Made In The USA and De Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom within the first 20 or so pages of the novel, I knew I was in for an interesting ride and I was right. Not because I was 100% interested in where the narrative was going, but because the way she writes about such subjects shows her skill and intelligence in the way she can convey complex issues with a fairly sparse but enjoyable turn of phrase. This one was a very easy read and my respect for the writer as a person has further risen after reading this debut.

Where she really had me though, apart from with her stance that large screened cinemas are the only place to really “see” a movie (I neither agree or disagree, dependent on the nature of the movie, on that one), is when she tackles Stendahl syndrome, a condition that not a lot of people seem to have heard of, for some reason. Named after the author Stendahl, author of The Red And The Black (Scarlet And Black etc.), it’s a condition where a person is overwhelmed physically by a degree of symptoms as a response to great works of art, often paintings. What really endeared me to Sasha Grey here, though, is that she’s also familiar with famous Italian director Dario Argento’s movie The Stendahl Syndrome, which stars his daughter Asia and uses the condition as a plot device to kickstart one of his trademark giallo movies. Grey describes the opening sequence of that film in the early stages of this novel and that really got me on her side.

As I said, the book reveals a quite extreme intelligence behind the writing and while the wordage is quite erotic and graphic, it never really goes full tilt into the physical aspects of the sado-masochistic world it hints at in the earlier parts of the novel, instead concentrating on Catherine’s discovery, acceptance and ultimately aroused curiosity about that world in, what I can vouch for, seems to be a constant pattern when shifting into the world of extreme sexuality... a lady friend or two of mine have had a similar experiences over the years and the raw quest for the exploration of these extreme passions as depicted in The Juliette Society gells quite well, and in some cases quite uncannily, with my own observations and explorations of these things in real life. It’s a cannily realistic book in some ways, if you happen to be a person who has explored such dark and uplifting corners, but also might seem a bit tame, too, for those who have trod that path and become better people for it.

So do I recommend this book?

Well, my dissapointment that the writer chose this particular subject matter for her debut novel (because she runs the risk of people stereotyping her to that kind of output, I suspect)  is tempered by the observation that she is writing exactly what she wants to be writing about and, also, by the fact that the simplicity of her raw intelligence imbues every page with a certain power. So yeah, it’s one I think a certain amount of my readers may enjoy, with the warning that it is, at heart, an erotic novel, and that you need to take into account the subject matter before you start reading it. In fact, Sasha Grey’s opening tease, which starts the novel and is also reprinted on the back cover of the English edition of the book, is as much of a warning too, for fear that those of a feint heart when it comes to matters of talking about sexuality in a frank manner, may have an allergic reaction to the contents. Plus... she obviously well knows the kind of rites of passage challenge behind this particular opening shot.

So my final conclusion on this one would be... if you are into movies and you are into sex, and you don’t mind reading about both, then probably give The Juliette Society a go. I’m glad to have read it, myself, and I’m expecting even greater works from the writer, over the years. Let’s wait and see if I’m right.

You can follow Sasha Grey on twitter here.

Monday 12 May 2014

Storage 24

Store Wars

Storage 24
2012 UK
Directed by Johannes Roberts
Unstoppable BluRay Region B

I was kinda desperate to see this movie when it first came out at the cinema... but it was only around for a very brief run, from what I can remember. There was no way I could make an opportunity to see it in the two days I might have had a shot at catching it at that time... even if I’d have known it had already come out. Luckily, the second hand DVD exchange shop in Soho came to my rescue and I was able to pick up this Blu Ray for £4. So that’s handy, then.

I quite like the work of Noel Clarke... who starred, produced, came up with the story and wrote an early draft of this screenplay, from what I can understand. I especially liked his movie 4,3,2,1, which you can find reviewed here. Storage 24 is his take on the whole sci-fi/horror cross-over genre and, although I found it quite entertaining, I think it also has a few problems, if I’m going to be fair.

The film involves some people in a 24 hour storage for hire place in Battersea (I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of places popped up in various locations over the years) and involves a group of friends and acquaintances who are helping Noel Clarke’s character Charlie, and his latest ex-girlfriend Shelley (played by Antonia Campbell-Hughes), go through their joint stuff in storage and sort it out. However, a plane crash in London has caused the storage facility to go into full lock-down mode, with shutters which are only temporarily repaired and reopened to let a couple of the main characters into the storage facility before... yeah, you guessed it, locking down on them again.

As it happens, this storage place is not a good place to be at the moment because a hungry alien behemoth was in a crate in the crashed plane and it has now promptly escaped and is busy using the film’s main location as an “all the humans you can eat” buffet... and that’s the plot. And it’s an okay set up, to be fair. A nice way of getting all your creature fodder together in a confined space so your lead monster can pick them all off while they react to their new situation and work through their personal issues as they are now forced to become heros and villains to each other.

So far so good. Let’s have a look then. Okay, so the good things about this movie are...

Well the performances are mostly pretty good. Noel Clarke is someone who I would expect to turn in a good showing but most of the supporting cast are pretty cool too. Not all of them, to be sure, but that might be more to do with some of the lines of dialogue given to some of them rather than the actors themselves.

You also have some nice little nods to the history of the genre, with some very specific shout outs to the ALIEN franchise in particular. For instance, there’s the engineer who is called in to get the doors working and who then goes down into the dark basement wearing a cap which is the dead spit for the one Harry Dean Stanton wears in Ridley Scott’s original classic. So you know full well what’s going to happen to him.

And this films very own version of an air vent scene, as Charlie and his friend Mark (played by Colin O'Donoghue) are trying to get into various storage bays to tool up with some weapons whilst simultaneously avoiding the nasty beastie hunting them. That’s a pretty nicely photographed sequence actually and, although obviously another nod to ALIEN, it also put me in mind of the  sequence with Sean Connery stuck in the air ducts in Dr. No (reviewed here)... but with much different sound design.

Now I heard a criticism from a friend of mine who said the monster in this lets the film down. I’d disagree with that to a certain extent. I think the make up, prosthetics, CGI or however this one is done is all fine. I think what lets the film down in regards to the monster is that it’s just too damn well lit. Most horror directors know the advantage of only showing little bits of the monster for most of the key scare scenes because, no matter how good or physically scary your monster is, it’s nowhere near as threatening as what your own imagination fills in on the blanks between shots. I think I could have done with seeing a lot less of this guy as the film progressed and would have preferred some seriously groggier lighting during some sequences.

The other thing I think lets this film down to a certain extent is the pacing. Now I’m all for horror movies to be very slowly paced and with nothing much happening apart from the key scare moments... but this one seems to be lingering too long in certain sequences and, although I was personally surprised that this leisurely pace wasn’t working during the first half of the movie, it... well... it just wasn’t. Can’t quite put my finger on why but I felt that certain of the scenes just needed to be a little punchier. Maybe more cross cutting between places might have helped... it just felt too drawn out in certain scenes and my mind went wandering when I should have been more fearful of what was coming next. If you look at a movie like The Descent, for example, they may employ cheap shock tactics in a lot of it but the timing and pacing are absolutely spot on and it’s become a modern horror classic because it just does what it does so well. Here, I dunno... maybe the editing is at fault? Whatever the problem... it is too protracted during sequences and that, ironically, loses the suspense and anticipation when it should have been highlighting it, I feel.

But there’s some nice quirky stuff going on too. A sequence where the monster is somewhat taken aback by a “woofing” mechanical dog in a toy container, for example, or the fact that some of the character arcs don’t quite go in the way you’re necessarily expecting them too (which is always a good thing). There’s also the final shot which shows something I’d already thought of about what’s happening in London outside of the storage facility during the running time, but i’d dismissed it as a real possibility. However, the last shot definitely changes the playing field for our “heroes” in this one and it’s nice that they ended on this idea. It could have been worse.

Ultimately then... for me... Storage 24 is more of a comfort horror movie. Something you screen during a horror all nighter if you want to give your audience a little break from the intensity for a while. If you’re into these kinds of movies then there isn’t really a great deal to complain about here and it’s certainly not going to be a waste of your time to give this one a spin when you get a chance... before you drop it into storage.