Sunday 29 June 2014

New Tale Of Zatoichi (Shin Zatôichi Monogatari)

Love Is Blind

New Tale Of Zatoichi 
(Shin Zatôichi Monogatari)
1963 Japan
Directed by Tokuzô Tanaka
Daiei/Criterion Collection 
DVD Region 1/BluRay Region A

The third in this series, The New Tale Of Zatoichi was the first of these movies to be shot in colour. Despite the title implying that the film is a brand new adventure for Zatoichi, there are still lingering elements from the story arc in the previous two movies which are brought back into play alongside any new ingredients in the plotting.

After a brief and, curiously, irrelevant pre-credits sequence leading into the titles, the film begins with three armed goons coming after Zatoichi. They have ties to Kambei (one of them being his brother), who Zatoichi killed at the end of the last movie, presumably following on from that abrupt cut (both physically and in terms of the editing) which provided the movie with an extra denouement after the typical end battle sequence was already over. Zatoichi kills one of these antagonists and the other two run off.

The other main story  element of this movie involves trouble when Zatoichi returns home to the original village where he grew up... he even gets to stay with his grandma for a few nights. However, when he becomes the guest of the sensei who taught him his skills with the sword, and the sensei’s sister, things take on a sinister turn. It seems that his former tutor is involved with a group of fugitives called the Tengu Gang, and is helping him work a scam by kidnapping a particular student of his school where he knows he can get a large ransom. He’s also trying to marry his sister off to an “appropriate” partner, but she is resistant of his choice, which seems to be mostly based on wealth and good standing in the community.

This is a movie which shows Shintarô Katsu’s Zatoichi like we rarely see him in the series. For example, for a good deal of this film, he doesn’t bother using his cane sword to get around, instead keeping it holstered on his back, ready for a quick underhand draw when required... the sword cane comes back in use as an actual cane for a little while about half way through the movie but it’s a curious absence through most of it and I wonder if certain people in the studios were trying to lose it as a character prop... which would have been a shame since it’s such a notably iconic artefact of the Zatoichi movies. Obviously, though, this idea didn’t stick... thankfully.

Another way in which this title differs a little to the other films shows itself in a scene where Zatoichi roughhouses a villain, with his hands, to confirm information... never once drawing his sword in the encounter. This is an unusual move for a cunning fox like Zatoichi and it seems totally out of character for him. I don’t remember him doing this in any of the other movies but I may be proved wrong in time as I go through them again... watch this space.

Once again, Zatoichi is asked by a girl to marry her in this one. This seems to be happening a lot in the very early films for some reason. Zatoichi finally agrees and vows to give up his yakuza lifestyle, at exactly the wrong moment as he is once again caught up by Yasuhiko, the brother of Kanbei from the previous films. Zatoichi throws down his sword but Yasuhiko doesn’t want to kill an unarmed man, so they have a wager in front of Zatoichi’s bride to be. On a roll of the dice, Zatoichi will either be left alone or give Kanbei’s brother his arm. When Zatoichi loses, Kanbei’s brother has been so moved by the plight of Zatoichi and his bride to be that he lies to Zatoichi about the roll and pretends to lose, leaving our hero to his fate. When Zatoichi’s new love confirms the suspicion that Yasuhiko let him live, he goes to thank him and talk to him to make things right... too late though because his former sensei has already killed Yasuhiko. Now Zatoichi realises what’s going on and leaps to the rescue of the kidnapped student, with a series of incidents which will have repercussions for him as he realises his ultimate fate is as a wandering yakuza, and not with his suitor.

As usual with these movies, the direction and cinematography is really great.

This one has a fair few static shots of Zatoichi in long shot wandering the landscape, walking from one side of frame to the next and occasionally encountering people along the way. This would become a kind of staple shot to emphasise the character’s travelling/wandering status as the series progressed, of course.

The director works hard to include diagonal lines in the compositions, using them to separate various elements on the screen and sometimes introduces details composed of such angles within cuts of shots. For example, a cut from Zatoichi and some fellow travellers forming three uprights to a closer, mid shot of the same grouping from a different angle, shows the director utilising the heights of the characters to make a diagonal composition running down from the right to the left of the screen. To do this, he has to have one half of a married couple go past Zatoichi on the road before the cut, and then using that character being closer to the camera from the alternate angle to make sure this person is higher than Shintarô Katsu on the frame. This is all good stuff but never seems laboured... things just happen seemingly naturally, although this is obviously not the case.

This director, like Kenji Misumi in The Tale Of Zatoichi (reviewed here), also makes good use of verticals to split the screen. This is obviously evident with the interior architecture of the period being depicted, as you would expect, but he also manages to carry this on, as he does his diagonals, in some of the exterior locations too.  One way he does this, for instance, is by having the faces of two characters having a conversation in close up at the extreme edges of the scope frame, with diagonal vertical trees of a forest taking up the dead centre space between the two. Another sequence where this kind of compositional bent is nicely displayed is in an early fight scene in long shot, where almost all of the action takes place on the left half of the screen, the design only broken when one foe stumbles from the left hand into the right of the centre. Really interesting use of space throughout this film... and in a fair few of these particular movies, to be sure.

Other points of note for Zatoichi afficionados are as follows...

This is the first of the films to show off Shintaru Katsu’s aspirational musical skills... as he starts playing a borrowed shamisen and begins singing along with it, the lyrics echoing the plight and strife of his lowly character. A few of the films have similar scenes written in for Katsu to display his prowess with the instrument, but this is not as elabourate as some of those scenes get in later films.

This films also has a repeat of Zatoichi’s “candle trick”, which he demonstrated in the first film. This time there are four candles in question, with Zatoichi sitting in the middle of the four which are arranged as the corners of a square. A fast flick around him with his sword which he instantly sheaths gives us another jokey replay of the old “fastest draw in the West joke” (“Wanna see it again) in that, over a period of ten seconds or so, the heads of each candle slowly drop to the floor to give the impression Zatoichi has sliced through them at speed without knocking them over... one fallen candle on the floor left curiously alight... to allow lighting for the camera, of course. I never get tired of these kinds of gags as they come up throughout the series.

Legendary composer Akira Ifikube returns for his second of many outings with the character (he had previously scored the first movie in the sequence too) and he once again uses the four note Zatoichi theme he created in that first one as leitmotif for the character, being a kind of downbeat parody, almost, of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There are some nice organ solos of this main theme present in one or two of the scenes too. The Ifikube scores in this particular film series aren’t my favourite ones for the Zatoichi character but they are solid and give the character a consistency with previous installments that the music doesn’t give him in the ones composed by other people.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. Once again, the film ends of a note of tragedy with the foes vanquished but at a moral cost to the characters who are left behind to watch the dust settle. So far the films series has been consistently good and it’s no wonder that they became so popular, so quickly. However, if memory serves me right, the best is yet to come. Stay tuned in to this blog for more Zatoichi goodness soon.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

The Sith Element

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
2005 USA 
Directed by George Lucas
20th Century Fox BluRay Region A/B 

Okay, so after being more than pleased with the first of the prequel films, The Phantom Menace (reviewed here) my faith in Lucas was shaken again, what with his continual meddling with the original trilogy prints and the nightmare when Attack Of The Clones was released into cinemas (my review of that one here). The sluggish pacing of the previous film meant that I wasn’t getting too excited about what we’d get in Revenge Of The Sith but I remember that I had a much better reaction to it at the time. There were some bits which didn’t quite make sense, and they still don’t (yeah, I’ll get to it later on in this review), but overall I originally had a good time with it.

Revisiting the movie now on blu ray, I have to say that my appreciation of this one has soured a little over the years and I’m not nearly as enthusiastic as I once was about this chapter in the Star Wars saga. The action sequences are spectacular, it has to be said, but also quite boring in their choreography and I did find myself slipping into lethargy this time around. The action sequences in Attack Of The Clones were much better but, having said that, the pacing in Revenge Of The Sith beats the prior episode hands down, so overall I’d have to say Attack Of The Clones is still my least favourite Star Wars movie, with this one running it a close second.

That being said, there are still some good things about it. Hayden Christensen, at least in the early scenes of the film, seems a lot more confident and really begins to inhabit the role of Anakin Skywalker, probably due to the fact that the dialogue seems less clumsy than it did in the previous movie. That being said, there still seems to be something a little bit “flipped switch” about Anakin’s fall to the dark side. I know George Lucas has been alluding to it and putting in necessary shading in the previous two films but somehow, even after the slaughter of the Tusken Raider colony in Attack Of The Clones, it still seems like a bit of a leap to me, when Anakin suddenly becomes Palpatine’s follower. Remember, he’d just got Samuel Jackson’s character Mace Windu involved to take care of Palpatine and then, all of a sudden, he’s slicing off Windu’s arm and letting Palpatine chuck the geezah out of a window. And then he’s off to slaughter Jedi.... it seems a bit much to me but, having said that, there could be good reasons for this.

Reason number 1 is... it’s hard to retrofit a series of movies to take place before a set of pre-existing movies and get them to match up (no matter how much you tinker with them and destroy everyone’s fondest childhood memories in the process) and get it absolutely perfect... even though Lucas had some elements of the basic plotline for the back story in place decades before. I know he did have at least some of it figured out because I can remember back as far as 1978, after the very first movie was released at the end of 1977 in the UK (when it was literally just called Star Wars), that I’d talk to my friends about the epic battle between Obi Wan Kenobi and his apprentice by the side of a volcanic pit, where Darth Vader fell in and had to be moved into some kind of iron lung. This movie pretty much has a variant of that scenario in it so, even then, he knew what he was doing. There’s always going to be some kind of inconsistency or lack of logic to it somewhere and, well, like I said... I’ll get to those in a while.

Reason number 2, from what I understand about this picture, is this. The first cut Lucas arrived at ran for four hours. Now, even with the initial rescue of Palpatine originally lasting for over an hour, apparently, that’s still a lot of extra on the 2 hours and 20 minutes running time that got excluded from the cinema and home video versions. This means that there could have been all kinds of subtle signals that Anakin was finally tipping over as a prelude to the actual act itself which may have been cut out. I say could, since I don’t actually know... but it might be that Lucas was trying to fix some other problems with the final cut and the elimination of those problems created the lack of subtlety we see in the final release prints. That kind of thing does tend to happen more and more in the editing room these days, from what I can see from a lot of modern cinema. Mistakes and so forth creep in due to decisions made in the edit. It happens. So I’m letting both George Lucas and Hayden Christensen off the hook on this one... Lucas may not have been standing far enough back from the last cut to be able to glean that he’d lost that element of subtlety.

Let’s balance that out with another plus, then. Ewan McGregor as a more mature Obi Wan Kenobi, 15-120 years before he turns into Alec Guinness, really goes for it with this one and succeeds perfectly. Each of his three performances have, of course, had shades of the Guinness personae in them but this one brings it up to near what Guinness was doing in the original trilogy. Perfect job here from McGregor, I have to say. In fact, most of the performances in this one are spot on. Threepio is also a lot less irritating here... so that’s a blessing.

The music is a lot less choppier too. There are, to be fair, a couple of moments when it sounds like stuff has just been tracked in from The Phantom Menace instead of being re-recorded but, mostly, the music is pretty solid. Not particularly as memorable as... well, any of the other Star Wars films, to be fair, but at least it holds its own against the intergalactic hubbub with a certain dignity and originality... so happy about that.

And there’s that great moment where we see Bail Organa, Yoda and Obi Wan walking the famous corridors that the rebels were defending at the start of the very first Star Wars movie, revised to A New Hope around about the 1978 re-release (contrary to popular belief) and which now, of course, chronologically follows on from the events of the first film. There’s also a nice shot where we see a younger version of Peter Cushing’s character from that same film, Grand Moff Tarkin... but, alas, that scene has problems all it’s own.

So let’s get to the problems with this one, shall we?

Well, asides from a clunky bit of dialogue which really needed the scene originally shot for it to be inserted either at the same point or, preferably, an earlier point in the movie, where Yoda tells Obi Wan that Qui Gon is back from the dead... most of the problems occur when trying to match this movie up to the next film and there are basically two main things I have a problem with here...

Number one is the scene with Grand Moff Tarkin in it. They are looking at the rough frame of their new construction project, the very first Death Star. This is the one that Luke destroys in the next/first movie which is said to be the first time the weapon is revealed and fully operational. Except... hold on a minute... we know from the chronology of the events in The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi that, after the destruction of the first Death Star, the second one could have only taken three and a half years to construct. Bearing in mind that Luke and Lei are somewhere between 16 and 20 years old in A New Hope, that means it takes 16-20 years to build the first Death Star? Even though they already have it half built at the end of Revenge Of The Sith? Seriously? C’mon guys. I mean, I know the first one would have taken a lot longer to build and, you know, to quote Kevin Smith “You think the average Stormtrooper knows how to install a toilet main? All they know is killing and white uniforms.” But, even so... 16 - 20 years. This stretches my ability to suspend my disbelief a little bit, to be honest.

The other problem I have is Luke’s “Uncle” Owen Lars and “Aunt Beru”. They look great in this and the previous movie as younger versions of the actors who played them in the original and, yes, I know Threepio’s memory is wiped so he doesn’t know them anymore but, honestly? You’d think after all the trouble they had when Darth Vader’s mum married Owen’s father and was killed by sandpeople, not to mention the fact that Threepio was Annakin’s droid and had been staying with them for, what, 15 years, that the minute these two saw Threepio again in A New Hope they would have junked him straight away and gone and hid somewhere. Not, presumably... “Oh, remember that robot who’s maker turned out to be the ruthless villain holding the galaxy in a stranglehold of terror... well he’s turned up in Luke's garage. Neat, huh? Better have it’s memory flushed, just in case.” I’m sorry but that’s just not appropriate. I know droids are seen as a lowly “life” form in the Star Wars universe but, seriously, this is basically Darth Vader’s other, mechanical, son. So I’m afraid this was a mistake I saw coming from a long way off, just after The Phantom Menace was released and, though I was trying to trust George Lucas on fixing this problem somehow... he just didn’t. Bit of a blow this one.

Still, an enjoyable film, if not a great one, albeit with some grizzly images which are maybe not totally appropriate for the rating, truth be told. A brave attempt but now with this trilogy back under my belt, it’s time to rewatch the original trilogy on blu ray. I’ll let you know how that goes real soon.

Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Three Days To Kill

Running Up That Kill

Three Days To Kill
2014 USA/France/Greece/Russia
Directed by McG
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Three months ago my cousin, who lives in Australia these days, saw Three Days To Kill at his local cinema and told me to go see it. To be honest, that’s the only reason I went because the trailers for films of this nature tend to look dire, whether the movie’s good or not, and the marketing on this one was no exception. I wondered why it had such a delay getting a release over here but now I’ve got a flavour of some of the reviews I’ve skimmed I see that... well, it’s not a very well thought of movie. Even Mark Kermode had a lot of bad things to say about both the film and its director which... well... this kind of reaction explains the delayed release to some extent, I guess.

One of my goals in writing this review is to partially dispel some of those ideas because, frankly, like my cousin, I had a fun time with this film.

Okay, so I much prefer Luc Besson when he’s sitting in the director's chair but, over the last ten years or so, he’s turned his hand more to writing action stories and then producing them for other directors, for the most part. He’s had a string of hits with these and I have to admit, although they are pretty much exclusively big, dumb action movies, they are almost all done extremely well and, as long as you go into the auditorium knowing the kind of film you’re going to see up front, you’ll probably have a fair time with the majority of the films he’s produced in this fashion.

This one is put together by a director who seems to have fallen from grace in his native Hollywood in recent years but he’s an artist who I happen to like a lot. McG is perhaps best defined by two action movies which, for me, ticked all the right boxes, Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (and if you’re going to watch that second one right, watch the US unrated extended edition rather than the toned down version we got in the cinemas). These were both absolute masterpieces and if you’ve never seen either of them and you’re a fan of colourful, escapist fair with no hint of realism clogging up the story and getting in the way, then you really should make an effort to go see those two. Similarly, and I know this is going to be an unpopular statement, I think his Terminator: Salvation is about the only decent sequel to James Cameron’s original movie... there, I’ve said it, think what you will.

One of the reasons I like this director, and I see it here again on this film, is that I think he’s ahead of his time (or possibly just in tune more with his time) than a lot of people who go to modern action films tend to expect or make allowances for in the current cinematic climate. And I am talking about technique here rather than anything else because, you see, Three Days To Kill follows exactly the same path as all the previous Besson written and produced films... it’s big... it’s dumb... and in addition it has a fair few shortcomings in scripting, or at least what ended up there on the screen. It is, however, contrary to a review of it I quickly glanced at prior to seeing this myself, far from dreary or boring.

It has a thriller plot which is fairly standard. Ex-husband and estranged father to his teenage daughter... Ethan Renner, played very competently and amusingly by Kevin Costner, is a CIA hit man who is forced to leave the service after a big job goes sour and it’s found he’s dying of a rare disease. So he tries to make peace with his past errors and reintroduce himself into his daughter and ex-wife's life just when, as will always happen in movie land, he is given an experimental new drug which could get rid of his death sentence in exchange for one last mission for the CIA... a mission run by the lovely Amber Heard, as the improbable but sexily cool creation Vivi Delay (no I’m not making this up and this should tip you off to the kind of movie this is). Laughs and action then ensue as Ethan kills and interrogates his way to the one man he’s after while fighting off weird hallucinogenic side effects of the drug he’s on and trying to keep everything secret from his ex-wife and daughter. 

Now there are some problems with this movie. My main issues were as follows... 

There are a fair few too many “quality time” montages in here. It’s like there’s some extra padding in the movie when it really doesn’t need it. It seems to be pretty good doing its own thing without these extended kinds of sessions... at least that’s how it looked to me. Also, the timelines don’t quite add up. The movie uses the season of Christmas at the end to illustrate certain things about the main character in a shorthand kind of way but... it doesn’t quite tie in with the fact that the main character needs yet another syringe full of life extending drug. Not quite sure what message the writers wanted me to take away from that last bit, to be honest.

One last thing is that it is very predictable but... that’s not so much of a problem with this kind of film. Big dumb movie, remember? On the other hand, there are some very interesting components to the narrative flow which I’m guessing may be what is bothering some people but in reality probably shouldn’t.

The pacing and tone of certain characters and scenes aren’t quite a match for each other. For instance, Vivi Delay is basically coming on like an aggressive diva in full femme fatale mode and that’s kind of at odds with all the other characters and, incidentally, with how she is presented in the pre-credits sequence. However, that being said, this is the way real life works sometimes and I found myself enjoying the juxtaposition of these elements. They didn’t really make anything work less for me. I can see how some people might have found the unexpected contrast as something they’re just not used to having to deal with in a cinematic context, however.

The other thing that might have annoyed some critics/audience members, is the fact that it looks like McG is trying to push the editing a little further in terms of the use of scenes and sounds bleeding into each other. In this case, he carries on conversations while flicking between the scene where the conversation is taking place and a scene in the near past or future, backwards and forwards, and some people may find this hard to take on board, is my guess. It’s actually a natural progression, if you think about it, to the kind of overlapping dialogue techniques that Soderbergh was experimenting with in his excellent movie The Limey, in most respects. McG is just pushing the language of film a little more in, I suspect, an equally experimental manner to see if this kind of editing style can be made to cover more ground and give more insight to things on screen in a faster manner. 

When it first began to happen in this movie I was a little disoriented  for a few seconds because I thought the lip synch was out... in fact, I noticed somebody has added it on the Internet Movie Database in the “goofs” section when, in fact, it’s just the opening salvo in this specific style of syntax the director is playing with. All I can say is... cut him some slack because he actually is achieving a purpose in some of these scenes with this style of working and once your mind quickly trains itself to keep up with the perceived anomalies and process them as a new way of reading the visuals and soundtrack, then it actually proves itself to be a legitimate technique to add to the tool box for film... in a not entirely dissimilar way that dropping a number of frames out of a film to jump characters a little way forward may have been first perceived as a dangerously distracting idea when it comes to editing. 

So there’s that.

Also, it has to be said, the film is not dull, the fight and chase scene choreography is often quite interesting and this is the first film I’ve seen in a long while (or ever maybe?) where guns routinely run out of bullets and have to be reloaded quickly without the director trying to make a big dramatic thing out of that. So that was kinda refreshing actually. Added to this are some of McG’s trademark colourfully lit sets and dream-like shot designs, used to highlight a lot of the Vivi Delay scenes to good effect and in contrast with the slightly more grittier, down to earth, lighting style of Ethan’s standard on-the-job environments. Coupled with some pretty great performances by much of the cast, including a solid job by Kevin Costner, an actor who I kinda lost my way with but am quite impressed with again now, because of his performance here, and you have a cracking little action movie which a lot of people would enjoy if they gave it a chance. I know the audience I saw it with were laughing and making “thrilled” noises in all the intended places at any rate. 

So, in conclusion, a big dumb action movie which works well on its own terms and also has a go at pushing the semiotics of the visual and aural elements of filmmaking. Not the best movie out there by a long chalk but certainly a respectable and, frankly, highly entertaining entry into the form of the modern, kinetic motion picture. Maybe take a look sometime?

Sunday 22 June 2014

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

Perpetual Motion Picture

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
2013 France/Canada
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Playing at UK cinemas now.

You know, there are a few directors out there who, when you look at any of their work from any part of their career, instantly prove without even trying, that the auteur theory is a legitimate and important consideration when it comes to critical contemplation of the art of film.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is just such a director.

I don’t care if he hires the same crew every time he makes a film (I suspect not) but he always manages to push, pull and cajole his workforce to make a work of art which is quintessentially, like it or not, a Jeunet film. I’d defy anyone familiar with some of his prior work, to look at his latest feature, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, or any of his features for that matter, and not recognise his celluloid fingerprints written large for everyone to see.

Some directors are harder to decode, perhaps, and some allow their soldiers to shine through with their own little quirks as part of their own authorship to a piece, but I’m beginning to subscribe to the auteur theory more and more as I see cinema in all its different forms pass through my head at 24 frames per second, year after year. Some directors, like Jeunet, are stronger at being less shy about their particular visual and, in Jeunet’s case, aural foibles and it all makes for a strong legacy of cinematic culture which will ultimately be destroyed some day when our tiny and unimportant world comes to its natural, or more likely unnatural, end.

Jeunet’s latest film is probably one of my least favourites of his but... guess what? It’s still absolutely wonderful, thoroughly entertaining and shines like a beacon to his genius, leaving other films on the current cinematic landscape seeming impoverished and suffering from some kind of stylistic malnutrition compared to the director's characteristic richness and vivid creativity on display in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. It doesn’t matter if I rank it lower than the majority of his other master works because, all said and done, I still found it thoroughly entertaining and engaging both in terms of the artistry with which it tells the story and, also, emotionally... it does get quite moving in a couple of places.

It doesn’t spoil things to give away some of the plot details of this movie, ones you could probably already pick up from the pre-publicity machine as it springs in to action around this release although, it has to be said, I didn’t even know this film had been made until I saw it was playing at the Haymarket this weekend... surely a film by one of the most important directors of our time needs a little more of a publicity push than this? But, anyway, as I was about to say...

T.S Spivet, played brilliantly by newcomer (to movies) Kyle Catlett, is a ten year old boy living on a farm with his Western obsessed father, played by Callum Keith Rennie (best remembered by me as one of the key cylon templates in the Battlestar Galactica reboot), his entomologist mother, played quite wonderfully and assuredly by Helena Bonham Carter, his sister (Niamh Wilson) and the shadow of his dead twin brother, Layton (Jakob Davies), who died in a “firearms accident” involving T.S in a barn. The aforementioned main protagonist, T.S, accepts the challenge he reads into a particularly stirring lecture on science and proceeds to invent, for all intents and purposes, a perpetual motion machine in the form of a “magnet wheel”... although, as he points out to people a few times, it’s not really perpetual motion generator as it will stop every 450 years or so and you will have to replace the magnets to get it going again... entropy increases, but very slowly in this case, it would seem. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington want to give Spivet an award, so he runs away from home to accept said award and.... the film tells of his preparations and adventures leading up to his acceptance of the award and accompanying fame.

The film is apparently based on the book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen and, regrettably, I can’t tell you how well the film works in terms of its adaptation of this book since I haven’t read it myself. The book does, however, seem to have a reputation for being equally rich in its use of visual imagery so I suspect there must have been some kind of common ground if Jeunet decided to make a film of it.

The film is the first to be shot with a new kind of 3D camera (the Arri Alexa M, if that means anything to my more technically inclined readers) and I have to say that, although I’m not much impressed with the majority of the 3D element in film of the latest batch of 3D movies (I think the ones in the 1950s worked better and were certainly more honest in their blatant use of the technique for it’s gimmick value), I have to say that the 3D in this movie is absolutely superb. Not least of all because the usual brightness of Jeunet’s colour palette coupled with the 3D effect is completetly beautiful but, more than that, because Jeunet’s oft used technique of superimposing vignettes onto the main image to explain points in the narrative, often plucked straight out of the head of one of the main protagonists, is pushed even more to the fore when projected in 3D. In fact, if you get a choice between seeing a 3D and 2D version of this one I would urge you, in this particular instance, to go see it in 3D because the director has pretty much specifically designed it to be seen as such, even going as far as to use the analogy of an old 3D viewmaster in the wonderfully designed end credits.

One of the director’s other key signatures, the use of sound to illustrate or give audio clues to the visual landscape, is also very evident in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. For instance, when we see numerous species of insects in Helena Bonham Carter’s bug collection, we hear the buzzing and general sounds of the insect world coming through on the audio mix, which probably goes in at an entirely unconscious level for most people when looking at stuff like this. That does nothing to negate the technique's potency at pushing an idea, of course. And, perhaps not a key signature, in itself, but the inclusion of one of the directors regular collaborators, Dominique Pinon in a small but key role, is another little but effective addition to the general Jeunet-ness of the film, if you will permit me the indulgence of describing it as such.

So there you have it, a lesser one of the director’s works for this particular movie goer but, certainly, a whole lot better than most of the other movies playing in cinemas this year so far. I didn’t like the musical score composed by Denis Sanacore so much on this one, in all honesty, but only because it didn’t appeal to me aesthetically... its does its job well and is appropriate to the tone of the movie, for sure. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is yet another example of Jean-Pierre Jeunet giving us a visually complex, candy confection of a movie which, frankly, any fan of the art and science of the motion picture should dash along and swallow up before it dissappears from cinemas with as little fanfare as it arrived. There is much to be recommended in films like this... and we don’t get the opportunity to see enough of them.

Friday 20 June 2014

Celluloid Horror

Scare Necessities

Celluloid Horror
2004 Canada
Directed by Ashley Fester
DVD Region 0

Celluloid Horror is a documentary feature film which focuses on troubled but transformed soul Kier-La Janisse’s crusade to get a legitimate horror film festival up and running in Canada. Tirelessly dogging her goal and mining her passion for film, specifically movies which, arguably, fall into the horror and exploitation categories, into a much loved and well attended event which ran for several years.

I first became aware of the existence of this documentary about Janisse from the introduction to her book, House Of Psychotic Women. I read that earlier in the year and was pleasantly surprised by what a knowledgable and entertaining read it was... there’s a reason why I called it, pretty much, the best book on the exploitation and horror genre in film I’d ever read and, if you want to read my review of that book, you can click here. 

Although this film has less of the “case history” of Janisse in it, one of the things which helped make the book so unique and fascinating in its approach, I was pleased to see some of the real life “characters” of her past, such as “Warren Oates Dad” and “George C. Scott Dad” making brief appearances in the documentary, so I could put some faces to names. The film certainly lets you get an alternate flavour of the woman and her tireless energy in making quite daunting things happen for her creation, the Cine Muerte festival. It’s a pretty entertaining piece and it seems to be less angled at painting a specific bias or promoting a hidden agenda in its focus... which is unusual for a documentary, to be honest. The only real pitch it seems to be going for is all out fun and the promotion, vicariously through the lady in question, of the legitimacy of horror and exploitation cinema as a serious artistic pursuit in and of itself. Hey, no argument from me on that one. Preaching to the converted.

The film struck a cord with me because of the naivety of Janisse when she started trying to get films for the very first festival, in regards to the kind of money involved. I myself had been looking into getting into programming screenings a few years ago but a seminar on just how to do it left my face white with the amount of money in different kinds of licences you have to pay out just to get one film screened... and that’s assuming you can even get in contact with the various rights holders. When I looked at the amount of time I would have to put in and the various other factors involved in that particular route to regular screenings, I realised there just wasn’t enough flexibility in my day-to-day existence for me to fit it in around my work life. Fortunately for Janisse, it looks like she was in a position at the time where she could just about drop stuff in her life to pursue these passions... but that’s not to say it was in any way easy, far from it. You have to admire her tenacity in her pursuit and there are several stories highlighted in the film which show her importance within the realm in which she has chosen to plough her love for film into something which can be beneficial for her audience... even if it means taking a loss on it. There’s an interesting anecdote about French vampire surrealist Jean Rollin, for example, and the long journey to getting even a willing participant such as him to turn up as a guest at the festival.

Also, she was one of the people championing The Isle, a great movie I was trying to push to people’s attention back around about the start of the millennium (I believe the UK DVD is still sliced to buggery by the BBFC, so grab a Hong Kong edition if possible). I didn’t realise she was actively involved with getting it screened in Canada but that gives her even more brownie points in my little black book, as far as I’m concerned. More importantly, she got the ban lifted on Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik in Canada, by being quite shrewd and challenging the censors at an appeal level by spotting their deliberate agenda based ommissions from their own case against lifting the ban and using it against them. So.... one smart cookie.

Also, between her excellent book House Of Psychotic Women and this documentary, it’s even made me kind of interested in seeing the Nekromantik films too... something I wasn’t all that bothered with until now... so that’s kind of interesting (luckily for me, Arrow Films are releasing an uncut blu ray in the UK this year... so I shouldn’t have too long to wait).

The documentary is really well put together and uses a lot of clips from genre films to either illustrate, decorate or, occasionally, push a point someone is making, and this is all well and good. Some of the footage is not footage which is certified over here in the UK actually (and I’m thinking of an animal killing from Cannibal Holocaust) so that’s all really interesting. And, of course, you also get to see the audience reactions a little bit when she screens some of these films at Cine Muerte... which is kinda fun.

And talking of fun, I think my favourite bit is the footage when she manages to get Udo Kier over for a week. He’s a cool guy and it’s just brilliant when, because subtitled prints haven’t arrived in some cases, Udo, Kier-La and a bunch of her friends “live dub” some of the films for the audience as they are watching the film. There’s some footage of them all trying to dub the excellent giallo Black Belly Of The Tarantula, for instance, and Kier-La is just trying to keep a straight face while saying her lines and just failing hilariously throughout. This is brilliant stuff. And to top it off, at the end of Udo’s week, they present him with an award in the form of a giant sized bottle of J&B whiskey with the inscription “For Lifetime Achievement In Eurotrash - Udo Kier”. I’m sure lots of my readers are regular J&B spotters, as they always turned up in a lot of gialli, police thrillers and various other Italian exploitation films throughout the 1960s and 1970s... so the form of the award is totally appropriate. They go on to confirm that Udo drank the bottle full of whiskey that night... which is another thing that cements his cool, wild man reputation, for me.

So that’s it for this one. A cool documentary which tends to use the music of Goblin quite a lot, specifically the main themes from Suspiria and Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso), which is kinda puzzling actually because I don’t remember director Dario Argento even getting a mention in this movie... but still, a really entertaining piece and one that gives you a nice look at the bubbly enthusiasm of Kier-La Janisse, which is not how I’d imagined her when I read her truly excellent book House Of Psychotic Women (again, that book reviewed here). Definitely worth a watch and there are some nice extras on the DVD, including a segment of the film which was heavily truncated in the documentary itself, restored as a lengthy segment, and the full interview with Kier-La Janisse and Udo Kier on a talk show... not to mention a whole load of exciting photos and things of that ilk. Definitely worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy. See Celluloid Horror if you are into scary, gory movies and exploitation but, absolutely, definitely, make sure you read Janisse’s excellent autobiographical genre study House Of Psychotic Women too... both these things are well worth your time.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Tulpa (aka Tulpa - Perdizioni Mortali)

Mea Tulpa

Tulpa (aka Tulpa - Perdizioni Mortali) 
2013 Italy
Directed by Federico Zampaglione
LFG Dual BluRay ZoneB/DVD Region 2 + 
CD Soundtrack Limited Digipack

I’ve been wanting to see Tulpa for a while now. Giallo films have been all the rage again since the dawn of the DVD era, when multiregion machines have made Euro-horror, Gialli, Spaghetti Westerns etc accessible in countries like the US and here in England, where they may not have been so easily available before... especially in an uncut form.

Giallo movies are often mistaken by genre fans as horror films for some reason. They’re not and it seems to me to be a case of people either mistaking films about serial killers to be anything other than a thriller... or writers wanting to include some of their favourite giallo movies in books they’re writing about horror. However, for horror to work, you need an inhuman monster element (science created/mutation/black magic etc) or some form of supernatural threat like a ghost story. Most gialli have neither of these elements and they’re often not even scary... however there have been a couple notable exceptions.

Dario Argento’s fifth feature Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) for example, is an out and out giallo. However, the spate of killings that is initially perpetuated throughout that movie is actually caused by the supernatural foresight of the clairvoyant victim and the need to keep her silence. This supernatural element is used purely for that introduction into the story, to set in motion a specific chain of events and I can’t quite remember, off the top of my head, any other classic giallo which uses the genuine supernatural as a prelude to its main course like this one... although I'm sure there must be others which have slipped my mind.

There is, however, a famous red herring of a giallo movie by Sergio Martino called All The Colours Of The Dark (Tutti I Colori Del Buio) and that’s definitely a film which hides behind a supernatural setting and uses the language of horror films all the way through the movie until, at the eleventh hour, it’s revealed that... actually... no supernatural events have occurred after all and it was all very much a case of humans killing humans, like an old Scooby Doo cartoon ending. So very much a giallo and not a horror movie.

Tulpa, however, is definitely a modern giallo, or neo-giallo if you like, that carries on the tradition of the giallo films of the late sixties and onwards, but also adds a little hint of the supernatural into the mix at one point... but, again, although the significance of this moment is quite a high stakes one in terms of the denouement of the movie, it’s not an element which turns this into a horror film and Tulpa stays very much in the giallo camp in terms of... well... all the usual trappings actually. Trappings which are being lovingly homaged in this recent movie which, unbelievably, given the popularity of the form at the moment, has not had any release in either the UK or the US, at the time of writing this review (I eventually bit the bullet and bought a special limited edition German multi-disc set and I’m glad I did, actually).

Now there has been a definite upsurge in movies imitating the giallo style and, in some cases such as Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here), films which say they are trying to be giallo but are actually more using the language of Euro-horror rather than the specific form of the giallo genre. It’s become a popular genre again among the humble cineastes who scavenge and forage for rare scraps at the various Film Conventions throughout the land... and that’s why we are getting films like Last Caress (aka Glam Gore) popping up in the market, which also hasn’t had a UK release at time of writing and which was reviewed by me a couple of years ago here.

Probably the collaboration of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, with their brilliant movies Amer (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here) are the leading exponents in the use of, at least, the visual and aural style of the giallo in modern film-making. Amer perfectly uses the style of the giallo to weave a puzzling narrative triptych of observations about a common central protagonist at various stages of her life but, although the stylistic traits of the movie are pure giallo, the film is more an exploration in surrealism. The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears is similarly a study in surrealism but, in addition to using giallo signatures in the work, the opening narrative thread is also a gialloistic concoction (whoops, made a word up there) and it’s even closer to the form... while still being a million miles away on some level.

Although Tulpa isn’t as spectacular as either of these two examples, it’s certainly a lot closer in style to giallo in terms of the story structure and I know a few of my friends would probably prefer it over the two examples I just cited (although personally I am swept off my feet by Cattet and Forzani’s works of cinematic art).

Tulpa opens strong with a journey to a rendezvous which is right away lit with an intense, Bava-esque colour palette. We are introduced to a male and a female who are engaged in a BDSM lifestyle and the man secures the woman face down on a bed in preparation for their mutually consented expression of dark passion.

And then the typical giallo killer steps in.

And by typical, I mean just that... a dark figure in a mask, raincoat, hat and black gloves who stabs and slices into the guy before he has a chance to properly start up with his lover. After the killer has split him apart with one of many knife wounds (one of which, passing up through the chin, mirrors a similar moment in Argento’s Opera, if i’m not mistaken), the man’s genitals are sliced off and left in front of his lover who is still firmly secured to the bed. The woman is left alone by the killer... or at least that’s what’s implied.

Then we have the opening credits seaquence, comprising a series of typical establishing shots of a city in Italy (probably Rome?) which are all shot in fairly neutral colours. On one of the shots we pan down the front of a tall building and focus on a girl jogging. After this shot, all of the establishing montage features shots of her running against the city locations and we know from the end of this sequence that she is the main protagonist of this movie... Lisa, played by Claudia Gerini. After we follow her into a few scenes at work, witness a few more murders and also some sex scenes in the secret sex club, Tulpa, in which she spends some of her downtime, it becomes clear that all the scenes set in the club or involving the murderer, are lit in the brightly coloured and richer tones of a classic giallo in contrast to the “everyday life” shots which, though still shot quite cleanly and beautifully, are more neutral in tone. This, of course, makes the neon tinted, colour saturated tones of the movie’s underworld a much more palatable confection to the viewer and enhances the scenes of sex and murder in an almost subconsciously enticing manner. It’s like the colour schemes of two specific Dario Argento movies, Suspiria and Tenebrae, have been rubbed against each other and the resulting design style is Tulpa.

The fact that we first see Claudia Gerini’s character jogging is useful in her set up because that demonstrates to us, in no uncertain terms, that she is not out of shape and can run if required... a character trait we’ll later see in action when she is chased from the sex club by a female bodybuilder wielding a samurai sword. So the jogging isn’t gratuitous eye candy (although a lot of the movie surely is... and why not?) since this kind of thing clues us in that her character is not just a sedentary office worker and she can put some speed on if required.

As is typical in a giallo thriller, a lot of the murders are either quite spectacular or quite imaginative and Tulpa rarely fails to live up to the expectations created by the history of its genre. For example, a scene where a woman is securely fastened to an old fashioned carousel with passes by a strategically placed piece of barbed wire is a devious concoction for fans of blood and gore, as her face gets gradually and bloodily whittled down each time she passes it... until her left eyeball rolls onto the floor. When she comes to a ‘dead’ stop, her blood drips down onto her own eyeball. Warped but imaginative stuff for the demanding audience.

What is less typical of the genre is that the movie doesn’t incorporate a large element of the police procedural investigation that you would expect to see in these kinds of scenarios. Indeed, the police are relegated to a brief appearance at the end of the movie and are completely out of the narrative for pretty much all of the film. Instead, Lisa becomes our central Nancy Drew character in a solo adventure, which is fitting since, as the film slowly reveals its nature, you realise that there may be some link to her which is behind the recent spate of murders.

Or not.

I’m not going to tell you what really is going on here, in the interests of not wanting to spoil it for my readers. Suffice it to say that, another way in which the film follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, is in the ability to set up suspects and red herrings and then lead you on to try and solve the mystery when it could be almost anyone behind the killings. One particularly good red herring plays into the supernatural element. A Tulpa is a Tibetan manifestation or spirit person/demon ritualistically created out of the ether by someone. The way in which it manifests in this movie is fairly handy, actually, and the red herring comes in your expectations of this element... which are set up in the last act. That being said, most regular giallo watchers will probably realise the total insignificance of introducing a concept like this into a film of this nature by this point in the narrative. The Tulpa element does turn up, though... just not in the way you might imagine it would.

Adding to all this is a pretty great score by Andrea Moscianese, Federico Zampaglione and Francesco Zampaglione. It’s very much got a modern horror, sound design element to it but it’s mostly channeling the sound of the giallo, specifically using the Goblin stuff as a starting point for the rhythm, percussion and guitars... perhaps even more specifically it’s not a million miles away from Goblin’s last score for Argento’s Sleepless in its tone. Whatever the specific inspiration is, though, it works really well and it’s been hanging around as an earworm a lot for the past few days.

Tulpa - Perdizioni Mortali is a pretty great neo-giallo, it has to be said. I think the disappointment coming from a lot of reviewers of this movie may actually stem from a lack of sympathy or understanding of the original material which a film like this references as part of its genetic make-up. However, if giallo is your thing, then you’re probably going to recognise Tulpa for what it is, a very well executed modern take on the genre. If you’re expecting something else then you might be less sympathetic to the simplicity of the set up and the stylistic flourishes peculiar to the genre, to be sure. For me, though, this was a great little film and one I’ll be coming back to some day.

For my beginner’s guide to the giallo genre, check out my article Giallo Fever by clicking here. 

Monday 16 June 2014

The Twilight Zone - Series One

Serling Steak

The Twilight Zone - Series One
1959/1960 USA
Produced by Rod Serling
Shock BluRay Region A/B

Five and dime, pulp fiction portrait of a young writer. Ex-army. Making some progress in writing for both radio and television but already battling censorship in one form or another.

His script, The Time Element, has just been aired as part of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Bookended with introduction and comments from the popular comic actor Desi Arnaz, it concerns the story of a man played by William Bendix who is time travelling backwards to the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 in his dreams... or are they the dreams of his psychiatrist, played by Martin Balsam? A clever enough script for a television show in 1958, with a classic sting in its tail.

The success of this story and the writer's current track record is such that CBS are willing to let the young writer in question have a go with a new show he wants to air.

The writer’s name is Rod Serling and his next stop... The Twilight Zone.

Yeah, that’s right! I’m finally catching back up to The Twilight Zone. I used to watch it a little as a teenager when they finally started re-running it again in the early 1980s. It was a show my dad always talks about with fond memories and when you get a measure of the style of the episodes and the famous “twist ending” style of writing... you can certainly see why this programme is both fondly remembered and cited as a major influence on the work of many writers and directors over the intervening decades.

When I was a kid, starting from its first issue in 1977, I used to read a comic (so did my dad) which was a big hit in the UK. It was a science fiction comic and it had a very hard edge to it... so much so that it was regularly getting into trouble with various censors and authorities and found itself having to dumb itself down at regular intervals or print retractions to the appropriate corporation it had managed to aggravate in its “everyone can be a target” attitude to life. It’s still popular to this day, probably not because the first issue introduced a kind of reboot of a famous British comic book character from a comic called The Eagle named Dan Dare, although that’s why everyone bought the first issue. It was probably due to the popularity of the character introduced in the second issue, still going strong and called Judge Dredd, that has kept this comic called 2000AD going for so long... but it was a general leaning towards twisty stories that kept people coming back for more.

One of the semi regular scripts over the first 25 years or so that I was reading it was named after the alien editor figurehead of the comic. Tharg’s Future Shocks was exactly the kind of stories you used to get in Serling’s The Twilight Zone and, with the comics reputation of plundering from the best, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the trick endings thrown up in the actual strip were, in fact, just rehashes of old episodes. Certainly, the creators of the comic were wearing their influences on their sleeve when they published a story about a man who was haunted by Rod Serling’s ghost... who would introduce an unseen audience to a man’s daily life routines while slowly driving him mad.

This is, of course, just one particular thing I’ve picked on which was influenced by Serling’s incredible show. Others would be very obvious copies of the format, a show where one off stories could have a range of tones (bleak, whimsy, hopeful, terrifying) and a variety of times and places (sometimes in just a single episode) to pull you in to the series. If you didn’t like the story one week, the next one would be competely different and draw you back in. And with Serling giving you his personal tease on the contents of the next show before the end credits would roll... you knew you’d be back for more. Shows such as The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond were obvious imitations of the “formula” of these kinds of shows and, as I’ll mention in another review coming soon, even the influential and well loved show Star Trek would be channelling exactly the same kind of stories that were present in The Twilight Zone. 

Serling, of course, would provide the astonishing (to this day if nobody tells you about if before you first watch it) twist ending at the end of Planet Of The Apes, an ending which keeps the same kind of spiritual concept of Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (La Planète Des Singes) but which reconceives it into something that's a much more stronger and damning indictment of man’s stupidity (the ending of the Tim Burton version had a less stronger ending to it but, ironically, is closer to the denouement of the original novel in most ways). This style of setting up a specific story element and then pulling the rug from under the audience at the eleventh hour is something which a lot of writers on the programme seemed to adapt as their way of working and, truth be told, it’s not a million miles away from the style of a lot of science fiction short stories of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 1950s. Which makes sense because, in addition to Serling writing quite a lot of the episodes himself, you had people like Richard Matheson writing episodes for the show too.

Series One is as hit and miss as any other TV show with this kind of changeable format that pitches you up in a new story each week... leaving you with no regular cast to hang on to except the unflappable Rod Serling with his introductions, coming soons and much imitated voice over commentarys during parts of a story. This is to be expected, of course, and when it’s lousy it’s watchable and when it’s good it’s often incredible. And, as you would expect, everybody has their own favourites and their own clunkers which they respond to at some level in one way or another... but it’s probably a huge testament to the show’s popularity that so many people do have episodes which they vividly remember form the history of the show and which sparkle above all the rest for them.

I re-watched about a quarter of these things when they were repeated on the Bravo channel we used to have in the UK about 15 years ago. The repeats happened to coincide with a time when I was off work with a serious illness and recovering in my bed meant I got to wake up and watch daytime repeats of The Twilight Zone before slipping into sleep again at various intervals during the day. Watching the first series on blu ray now, I can see why the show had such an impact on people and why I’ve never forgotten them. A few of my favourites from series one would be...

Episode 2. One For The Angels
After a dullish opening show, we are introduced to an absolutely incredible episode full of whimsy but which also shows the consequences of one person’s decision. In this, a street salesman is visited by a rather charming and debonair incarnation of death and, due to trying to keep himself alive longer than he is destined, finds himself endangering the life of a young girl. In order to save her he must make “a pitch for the angels”, a show of absolutely brilliant sales patter that even death himself starts to make purchases for things he doesn’t really need. Will the man save the girl who is lying on her death bed and, if he does, what will be the consequences to him?

Episode 8. Time Enough At Last
Burgess Meredith in charmingly over the top mode as a bank worker whose life is dedicated to reading, much to the dismay and irritation of his battle axe of a wife and displeased boss. Then, one day as he locks himself in the bank vault during his lunch hour yet again, so his reading is not interrupted, he comes out to find the entire world has been turned to rubble in his absence. At first despondent, he finds enough food to last him forever and then, much to his delight, he finds that the books in the library are all still in tact and readable, containing decades of great literature for him to read in his existence as the last man on earth. Is this to be his final happy ending or does fate have one last blow in store for him?

Episode 9: Perchance To Dream
In which a patient comes to a psychiatrist to tell him of his fear of sleeping as he is pursued by a woman who will seal his fate. But how do you know when you are dreaming and when you are awake? The patient in question might not ever know the answer but we certainly will in this episode which plays around the concept of bleeding realities.

Episode 10. And When The Sky Was Opened
Starring Rod Taylor as a pilot in some distress, this is an early example of what happens when you find you and your colleagues are being extracted from both reality and history one person at a time, and how the world reshapes itself around the holes left by a person who never existed.

Episode 11. What you Need
A story of a salesman who knows what you want and will sell it to you cheap before you even knew you needed it yourself. When a thug uses his realisation of the man’s special powers to exploit the salesman, we get to find out that sometimes what you need is, really, not what you’d really like.

Episode 16. The Hitch Hiker
A young woman on a long road trip is terrorised by the frequent sightings of a hitch hiker who couldn’t have possibly gotten ahead of her whenever she sees him. Something’s not right and, although the twist ending on this one becomes fairly obvious from early on, it’s fun when you realise that, at some point, she will have to let the hitch hiker into her car in order to reach her final destination.

Episode 21. Mirror Image
A lady waiting in a bus station finds that she’s not the only one waiting for the bus... in such a way that she spends the episode in fear.

Episode 25. People Are Alike All Over
Roddy McDowall stars as the surviving astronaut who has crashed on a planet where he fears the alien race who are waiting for him just outside his wrecked space craft. When he finally meets them, his fears are allayed for awhile, only to be confronted at the end of the episode with the inescapable conclusion that, indeed, people are alike all over.

Episode 34. The After Hours
Another obvious twist but nicely done. One of the strengths of The Twilight Zone was that, even if you could see the twist coming a mile off, they were often written and directed so well that you certainly didn’t mind sticking around for the obvious denouement. This tale about a young lady played by Anne Francis (from Forbidden Planet) who finds herself on the floor of a department store not generally seen by the regular customers, and her final fate there, is nicely done.

Episode 36. A World Of His Own
This final episode of series one is pretty funny and even Rod Serling, in his own words, gets in on the act in this tale of a writer who can conjure up people out of thin air with just his words. It would be fair to say that the ending of this story is what youngsters these days would call... fairly “meta”.

And there you have it. Series one of the mother of all anthology shows has some pretty unmissable episodes which have been an inspiration to creative people ever since this first season aired over 1959/1960. One which guested a lot of interesting writers and, of course, many famous actors such as, in this series, Jack Klugman, Burgess Meredith, Roddy McDowell, Ida Lupino (who also directed an episode in a later series), Jean Marsh (as a robot in her days before playing Rose in Upstairs Downstairs, or even Sara Kingdom in Doctor Who) and future Avenger Patrick Macnee.

Another reason for watching this brilliant show, for the musically inclined among you, was the wealth of A-list movie composers used throughout the series. These were the days when big movie composers thought nothing of writing for TV too and we’re talking some pretty big hitters in the case of The Twilight Zone, which had several scores composed by the likes of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman. In fact, Herrmann even wrote the haunting opening title music of the first season. Not the “da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da” of Marius Constant’s much invoked signature tune, which was used from the second series, but a more haunting one, to my mind, which isn’t as splashy and catchy as the later choice of opening, but which I personally find a little stronger and more appropriate to the content of the episodes, if truth be told. Either way, some of the scores in these shows are amazing, sometimes culled from library music composed specifically for that purpose by people such as Herrmann and Goldsmith, and sometimes with bespoke compositions. Always great pieces of musical moods to give the drama of the show the weight it sometimes needed.

And that’s about it. The Twilight Zone was a series about ideas and the exploration of those ideas in a science fiction induced starting point. If you’ve never seen them but you like movies which make you think, it’s almost guaranteed that the films and TV shows that are doing that now owe some small debt to Serling’s classic show. The new Blu Ray transfers from Shock are absolutely brilliant and loaded with extras. This first one, for instance, has isolated score tracks for almost all of the 36 episodes, plus alternate versions of some of the episodes from other TV shows or radio dramatisations, plus interviews and commentaries for some of the key works. It even has, on the last disc, the original The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse hour long episode (minus adverts) that opened the gates and allowed Rod Serling to dazzle and, sometimes, terrify audiences for five series of absolutely riveting television in the late fifties and early sixties... shows which continue to be a well spring for directors such as Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shamalayan to this day. If you’ve never seen any of these before you might want to do yourself a favour and spend a good few hours getting acquainted with some characters and places you might not have met in their original form before. A cast of ideas and fiction which will go on to reside in that one special place in your heart... in The Twilight Zone.

Sunday 15 June 2014


Oculus Riffed

2013 USA
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Playing at UK cinemas now.

When I first sat down to write this review, I was going to call it Bin-Oculus... but then I decided I couldn’t be so mean spirited to something where the director, cast and crew have obviously all worked very hard on a genre tale which is, at the very least, quite competently put together... a hell of a lot more than some of the ones I’ve seen over the years, I can assure you. However, having let this film lay in my memory overnight I have to come to the sobering conclusion that, while Oculus certainly isn’t a terrible movie.... it’s not exactly a classic either.

The film is based on a short horror movie by the same director called Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man With The Plan and, although I haven’t seen that earlier film myself, I’m guessing that the subject matter, and the way the story is spun out, probably carries a lot more impact in its original Twilight Zone sized format than it does expanded out to a feature. In many ways, that’s the film’s main problem, which I think the writer/director probably recognised very early on and is what gives the film its specific structure... but I’ll get to that in a minute.

There are some good things about this movie. Karen Gillan is one of them.

She is and always has been, the person you look at when she is on screen. To say this lady has some screen presence is a massive understatement and she is a big positive for any film or TV show she is in. In this case, though, that doesn’t matter because, frankly, all the performances are pretty good, including the child actor and actress who play the brother and sister leads for half the movie in the back story. And if the prospect of having the aforementioned Doctor Who actress in the movie isn’t enough to get any sci-fi fan’s pulse racing, we have the added attraction here of Katee Sackhoff, Starbuck in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV show, playing her mum. So this is all good stuff.

And, to be honest, the central concept of a haunted mirror which causes madness, death and destruction to the owners of any house in which it resides is also a good one. I think, as I said earlier, the structure of this one is a problem in some ways... not that the director's solution isn’t a good one, I just don’t think it worked too well here in terms of scares. A bit of a wasted concept.

It’s a story of two halves, you see. Being both a contemporary story of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who are trying to end the mirror because of what it has done to them in the past, and the story of that past with their younger selves played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Rather than play out as two separate elements, since they are obviously both lengthy sections, the director wisely decides to cross-cut between the two which also, of course, gives him the added bonus of highlighting things happening in one time zone with things happening in the other, as seen in contrast to each other. Which also gives him the obvious option of bleeding each reality into the other and he grasps that opportunity with both hands and utilises it in an attempt to manipulate the audience’s emotions. However, at least in terms of this disappointed audience member, in that last thing he fails to some considerable degree.

I know this because, throughout the whole movie, I didn’t find this one scary. I was expecting to get a taut, white knuckle ride of emotional jumps out of this film... which a lot of the modern ghost stories seem to be getting much better at, in my opinion. However, I knew this one wasn’t pulling me in like it was supposed to because I wasn’t getting that concerned about any of the central protagonists and I even, and this is really annoying, found myself checking the time three quarters of the way through to find out when this one was going to end. Not good.

I think one of the reasons this thing maybe isn’t working, aside from the structure meaning it takes a long time to get on with things, is due to two other elements.

One of these is that the film is just too damn predictable. It telegraphs the ending of one of the characters, for example, within the first 20 minutes or so of the opening of the film. That is to say, one of the characters sets a kill switch, a sure fire way of ending the mirror should things get too out of control. Which is kinda nice but, frankly, anyone who hasn’t figured out that at least one person is going to fall victim to the trap hasn’t watched enough movies in their lifetime. It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the movie and the only thing you really have to worry about, or not in my case, is just who is going to “get it” by being snared in their own trap.

It’s not all, completely predictable, though. Just mostly. The structure becomes quite freeform due to the rules set up in the movie by the “ghostly properties” of the mirror and there’s one sequence where a certain thing, involving a pet dog, is used to set up audience expectation which it then refutes... except, oh no it doesn’t, you just share the confused perception of the characters, as it turns out... so you might, as I was, feel a little bit cheated by the off screen nature of that particular reveal, or lack of reveal in this case.

Which leads me to why I really couldn’t care less what was going on in the movie after a certain point, even with some fantastic portrayals by the actors and actresses involved. And it is this...

At a certain point in the movie, fairly early on, we are taught, along with the main protagonists, that the reality of the movie is not necessarily how we are perceiving it at any one time. That physical laws are unstable and subject to change because anybody in the film could be hallucinating anything that’s going on, including their physical location. This means, basically, the film can do whatever it wants and lie to us visually as much as it likes... but it doesn’t matter what it does because there is no consequence to anything we are seeing. What will be will be... regardless of what reality we think we are experiencing. This, of course, has the effect of taking the sting out of the tail of the film... the movie can do what it wants to with the characters and it doesn’t have any influence on their ultimate fate... so, naturally, you stop caring about them and having a stake in their survival. What you’re seeing at any one time could always just be the mirror lying to you... so what does it matter? It felt like the horror element of the story got de-toothed long before it had properly started... so I had no investment in the way the images and sounds were presented to me... they were just something washing past my retina which didn’t really mean much.

However, having said all that, the film is generally nice to look at, with some smoothly flowing camerawork and some nice visual ideas. The introduction of Karen Gillan’s grown up version of Kaylie, for instance, which focuses on the movement of her big, red pony tail, made me smile in delight as I watched the movie. A predictable little sequence involving a light bulb and an apple is, similarly, well executed. And the score too, by The Newton Brothers, is nicely done as an appropriate but, quite typical, example of modern scoring for the horror genre. So that’s all good and I’ve got the CD on in the background as I write this review.

That being said, I really can’t find a lot of really good things to say about this movie and, my moans about structure and visual trickery aside, I really can’t say much of anything too bad about it either... except that on a “scary horror movie” level, for me it just doesn’t really work that well. Can’t say I could recommend it for fans of the horror genre but I can recommend it for anyone interested in following Karen Gillan’s post Doctor Who career because, as I’d expected, she does a great job in this movie and they should put her in a lot more of them, methinks. Also, the concept itself isn’t bad and the director/joint writer may be one to keep an eye out for in the future... we might see some seriously good stuff from him before long, methinks. All in all, though, I have to say I had a bit of a dull time with Oculus and I’m not expecting to watch it again in the future, to be honest.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Yo Yo Girl Cop

Why Oh Why Oh...?

Yo Yo Girl Cop
2006 Japan
Directed by Kenta Fukasaku
Toei DVD Region 2

When I saw this DVD going for just a few quid at a film fair last year, there was no way I was not going to buy it. It has a cover with a teenage girl wielding a yo-yo in support of the quite unbelievably awesome title, promising a film which would hopefully make good on its conceptual proposition of a pretty girl doing violent things with the aforementioned, weaponised toy. I also made an assumption that it would be in the same kind of vein of the kinds of over-the-top concept films Japan has been pumping out lately which have a certain sense of self awareness and over-the-top irony on their delivery. Films such as The Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police, Robo Geisha (reviewed here), Big Tits Zombie 3D (reviewed here), Chanbara Beauty (reviewed here), Chanbara Striptease (reviewed here), Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (reviewed here)... and various others of that ilk.

However, I have to say that this film is a million miles away from those kind of, mostly, good time movies and, it has to be said, is curiously devoid of very much fun altogether.

Yo Yo Girl Cop is actually inspired by a successful Japanese manga called Sukeban Deka, from 1976, which was adapted into a TV show in the mid 1980s, followed by two late 1980s movies and some animated TV shows in the early 1990s. The title translates as Delinquent Girl Detective and, as far as I can make out, this is kind of a reboot sequel which works in a similar fashion as the Samuel L. Jackson Shaft sequel, in that the original actress playing the title character in the TV show plays the mother of the main protagonist here... who I think, and I may be losing something in translation, is the daughter of that original character, inadvertently inheriting the mantle of the former.

Either way, for a character with such an amazing legacy and with such a cool concept as special police agents who are armed with deadly yo-yos, I found the film curiously dull and, in a few places, fairly hard to follow.

The film starts off with an okay opening which, unfortunately, shows right away that the CGI effects are of the particularly low budget variety but it’s followed by an animated opening credit sequence that really kicks ass, as a silhouette of the title character performs cool moves with her yo-yo to a rock oriented score. Alas, when the credits sequence is over, so is the best part of the film. Instead of playing to the utter ridiculousness of the nonsensical concept, which maybe would have been preferable, the film instead tries to approach the subject matter with a grittier, realistic attitude. And that’s fine... it’s as valid an option as any to make a drama come to life. Except that, in this case, the story and the way it’s delivered in a disjointed and, frankly, uninteresting manner makes for a very dull affair.

The one thing which was keeping me watching was the obvious hope that, at some point, Yo-Yo Girl Cop was going to get her “special equipment” out and make good on the promise of the title of the film but, alas, the spinning toy only comes out for a few seconds at a time until the final showdown sequence of the film, where she “tools up” and you start to think to yourself... finally.

Instead, the few bits of yo-yo oriented action in this last sequence are fragmentary, uninspiring and , for the most part, badly lit. It really does nothing much to make up for the seam of teenage angst the film is trying so desperately to mine throughout the running time, which seems to emphasis the negative traits of “grown ups” and the hipness of being a teenager. Played by “J-pop sensation” Aya Matsura, or so the DVD cover tells me, the title character is tolerable and, despite her constant negative attitude to the world of adulthood, may have been an interesting protagonist to journey with. However, the people and situations she finds herself with or in are basically either dull or clichéd and the bits which don’t quite make sense and have a go at whetting your appetite to find the answer to their set up, are lamely tied up and ultimately lead to a villain who, despite the perpetual build up throughout the movie, is much less of a personality than you might reasonably be lead to suspect would turn up and... well... lets just say I had absolutely no interest, by the films eventual denouement, in who lived and died in this affair... and on which side of the law they found themselves, for that matter.

I don’t quite know the audience this movie is aimed at but, I’m pretty certain it’s not me. The terrific idea of an undercover cop who settles her arguments with the help of her lethally dangerous yo-yo is a great starting point for a fun filled, action packed, adrenalin pumped movie... unfortunately, this particular film isn’t that at all and I suspect it would be better received, perhaps, by an audience who is more familiar with the original material and adaptations. And that’s certainly not me, or anybody I know, for that matter. I’m not sure how well Yo Yo Girl Cop did when it got released on DVD over here and in the USA but I’m guessing the cheap price I got it for is reflective of its performance in English speaking countries. Certainly, I wouldn’t inflict this film on people, even if they had an interest in yo-yos or teenage schoolgirls... it’s just too dull. Not one I could, in all conscience, recommend to anyone.