Monday 29 September 2014

I Origins

Soul Survivor

I Origins
2014  USA
Directed by Mike Cahill
UK cinema release print.

Warning: There are going to have to be some slight spoilers in this review to be able to discuss it a little but, I promise I’ll try not to tell you anything you wouldn’t already pick up from the trailer.


Just that. Wow.

It’s always been my belief that some of the best films made every year are held back in the UK until an Autumn release. Once the big summer blockbuster movies have done the rounds and won’t eat up (or be challenged) by the smaller fish in the pond. This film right here validates that theory nicely.

I’ve not yet seen this director’s previous movie, Another Earth, although I really wanted to. It unfortunately disappeared from cinemas way too quickly for me to get the chance to go and have a look at it and so I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted to see this one before it hastily exits our screens in a similar fashion. And you can bet, after having seen this one, that I’ll be getting to Another Earth at some point very soon.

I Origins is a story about a molecular biologist called Ian, played by Michael Pitt, who has a passion for eyes. It starts off as a love story but takes you somewhere completely different. After a highly charged but failed sexual encounter with a girl at a Halloween party wearing a Diabolik mask, he is haunted by her and fails to notice his new lab assistant who is having brilliant research ideas that will change their lives forever. He has a very rigid and fixed set of scientific values, just like the new lab assistant Karen, played by Brit Marling (who was so good in The East, reviewed here). However, Ian is one of those people who has a strong link with unexplained phenomena/coincidence and he starts to notice the number 11 following him around (I’ve had similar issues at a certain point in my life but I’m not going to go into that right here).

The number 11 leads him to a giant billboard with the same eyes as the girl from the Halloween party (he took some high res photos of her eyes at the time) and eventually he tracks down the girl, called Sofi, as played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey. Thus begins a love story that, as the trailer suggests, is destined to end in tragedy. I’m not going to tell you how Sofi dies because that’s not revealed in the marketing but... lets just say that it’s a particularly nasty kind of death and is the kind of incident you would normally expect to see in a horror film. Ian’s screams as he realises his soon-to-be-wife has died are such a painful ending to that particular scene that the director even dials back the sound after a little while, so we don’t have to hear Ian’s pain, and lets the visuals do all the work here.

Actually, and I know this is unusual for me people but, please, cut me some slack here... I can’t say too much about the cinematography and editing of this particular film because I was so immersed in the experience of discovering each twist and turn of the story. The performances by all the actors are so good that their characters come alive for you in a very real and identifiable way, it has to be said.

After the death of Sofi we then start the second phase of the film and a new romance enters Ian’s life. Then, we get to the third level of the film and it’s seven years down the line. Ian and his lab partner have made their important discovery and showed it to the world. Their research into eye patterns has made them world famous and financially buoyant. Ian’s wife gives birth to their son but, a number of months later, a research scientist calls up Ian to ask for permission to do some tests on his son under the pretence of looking for autism. When Ian and his wife walk out on the tests with their son due to the distressing nature of some of it... after a while, they get to thinking what was really behind them being contacted for their son’s test. With the help of their friend they find that their son’s eyes made him a candidate for a very special kind of experiment, one which they attempt to recreate themselves, in a series of almost scientifically impossible connections which take Ian to India to find the owner of the same pair of eyes as his previous dead lover.

I don’t want to be much more specific than that because that’s as much as you’ll get from the trailer, but the gradual road of discovery and the belief in the old saying that the eyes are the windows of the soul is very much the relevant point here. It’s a science fiction idea but it’s put together so cunningly and soundly that I can almost guarantee you’ll be absolutely riveted to your seat. It’s basically a love story and it challenges the notion of scientific analysis with the belief in a higher design without really cracking into either one as a concluding belief. Don’t get me wrong, the final shots of the movie do give a sense of closure to the questions raised throughout the course of the movie and leave me in no doubt as to what the writer/director’s final conclusion is... but I’ve never been one to believe that hard science and the realm of mystical thought in any way cancel each other out. I think they both just validate the same phenomena from different angles... although I have to confess I hate the idea of organised religion.

There’s a point in the movie where a woman tells Ian about a question once put to the Dalai Lama by a scientist. He was asked what he would feel about his religion if he was presented with absolute scientific proof that made him question his religious views. The answer was that he would study the evidence and, if necessary, he would change his views. She then asks Ian, our main male protagonist, what he would do if he was given a proof that made him question his rational belief in the scientific world as he understasnds it and I think this question nicely sums up the two opposing states at work throughout this movie. It’s a fascinating study of these kinds of questions/dilemmas and it’s shot and scored in a way that is compelling and moving.

That score, by the way, is by Will Bates and Phil Mossman and if I had to try and describe it I’d have to say that it’s a little like something Vangelis might have scored it with, but run through a minimalist, sensibility. Minimalistic like Eric Satie trying to find his way to Philip Glass while being bolstered with, almost throwaway, musical and ambient textures to pick out and highlight stretches and catch the ears at an appropriate moment. Very nice and the CD, which I’m surprised has even got a release for a film like this, is already out... so I’m looking forward to wrapping my ears around that one sometime soon.

This movie is an easy recommend for me. Anybody who’s into movies should love it. For me it’s right up there with this years best movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive and Under The Skin. A real gem of a movie and I absolutely love the fact that I hated the title so much but adored the movie. I will be picking this one up on blu ray as soon as it gets a release.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker

The School On The Hill

Doctor Who: The Caretaker
UK Airdate: 27th September 2014

Well that was a nice episode and getting back to doing what new Who does best... the soap opera. And I’m not being derogatory, in this case... otherwise that’s Star Trek: The Next Generation out the window, to be sure. What I mean is...

Back in the days of the classic Doctor, you had time to do things with your characters. Back in the day you had an average of between four and seven episodes, each 25 minutes long, making up one single story of a number of stories per series. So when you think about it, a standard story of Doctor Who, pre the Russel T. Davies era, was at least twice the length, sometimes more, than a standard story length is today.

What this meant, of course, is that you could progress both your story and the characters (and the way they all work together) at a slightly more leisurely pace and still keep things moving. Today’s episodes are mostly running as a single story with occasional references to a sense of a story arc operating behind the scenes and spearheading each series to a concluding episode which usually fulfils any set ups to that over-reaching arc. They are very fast paced because their shorter running time demands it so sometimes they have to concentrate on story and not pay much attention to a whole lot of other stuff (Robot Of Sherwood, reviewed here would be a good example of this approach) or they can custom a story so that its DNA directly talks about character based issues (and Listen, reviewed here would be a good example of that kind of approach) or, sometimes, they do what they’ve done in this episode and set up a threat which is an easily defeatable one with a quick and easy fix at the end, purely so they can concentrate on the relationships with the characters.

Now I found last night’s episode quite enjoyable, to be honest. We get an episode where The Doctor has to go undercover at the school in which Clara and her new love interest, Danny, work (the same school that was featured back in the very first episode of the show in 1963, in fact) with the excuse of an alien robot thing bringing destruction but which, of course, is really just a way of getting all these characters working together in a danger situation so The Doctor can accept Danny. This is so that, when he’s back later in the series, everyone has a measure of everyone else.

Now then, if I had my extra critical eye on this episode, I’d have to say that the way in which this was all brought about was really rather clumsy. We had an entirely new character spliced into things who was put in just to remind everybody of Matt Smith... down to the bow tie... so The Doctor could mistakenly think that he was Clara’s new lover and to push the difference in that her choice was Danny, in a comedy-dramatic way. And the bit when The Doctor is finally dealing with the “novelty alien of the week” at the end was an obvious set up for a fail. I sat there watching and just as The Doctor was about to push the button of doom (or whatever it was) on the enemy, I said out aloud... “No, that’s going to fail. The script hasn’t fulfilled what it needs to do with Danny yet, who has to rush in and save the day.” And, of course, that’s more or less what happened. So, yeah, too obvious and a little ham fisted, to be sure.

That being said though, it was a great episode because the bits which it did need to do, set up a credible start of a working relationship between Danny and The Doctor while still establishing both the differences and the strengths of The Doctor’s relationship to Clara, was nice and sharply written, hugely entertaining and had me smiling a lot. There was also som nice stuff done at the start of the episode that showed the way in which Clara’s travels with The Doctor impacted on her relationship with Danny and also established the fact that she’s been seeing him for a little while now, all done within the first five or so minutes of the show. Nice writing and editing people. Excitement and brevity in just the right measure. Good stuff.

And that was that, the monster was handled, the introductions were over but that left us with a little hook at the end that kinda showed me I was possibly on the wrong track with the Missy references they’ve been dropping in to the episodes. Another man was killed (this guy hadn’t even met The Doctor... at least on screen) and was then spirited away to “heaven”. However, it blew my idea from last week that they were using teleport devices because, in a scene a little more graphic than we’re used to seeing with Doctor Who, we did see part of his arm land somewhere after he was blasted into pieces. My next best guess as to what’s going on here, then, is that people are being auto downloaded into the same Library Of The Dead where River Song ended up (kind of... she seems to be a free spirit again as of the last time we saw her) in a, kind of, Heaven mode. We’ll see what happens, I guess, but I’m not really looking forward to the conclusion of this particular arc anymore, to be honest. Whatever convoluted explanation they come up with for this is bound to challenge my suspension of disbelief somewhat, I suspect.

Be that as it may, though, this episode, for all its transparency in it’s contrivance to accomplish certain character goals, was vastly entertaining and my second favourite of the series so far. Now let’s see what next week brings, shall we?

Friday 26 September 2014

Perfect Sense

Five To One Odds

Perfect Sense
2011 USA 
Directed by David Mackenzie
Arrow UK DVD Region 2

Warning: I guess there are spoilers here but they are kinda given as part of the trailer, for the most part.

Perfect Sense is another of those films which was totally off of my radar until @screamqueenlauren on twitter said I should take a look at it (so thanks for that Lauren - see her stuff here). It doesn’t seem to be that well known a film and I don’t remember it getting much, if any, of a cinema release over here... which is a pity because its a nice little gem of a movie.

Set in Scotland, the film stars two very strong actors in the lead roles... Eva Green as a scientist, Susan, and Ewan McGregor as a chef, Michael, who works in a restaurant where the back entrance is directly opposite the floor below the windows of Susan’s apartment. These two main protagonists, and the opening salvos and triumphs of the start of their relationship, gives us the window in which we watch the main, science fiction premise of the movie, affecting the lives of everyone on the planet as mankind tries to survive the onset of a new and mysterious disease. And, likewise, the use of a sci-fi plot idea allows us to explore the limits of a relationship to a degree which it wouldn’t have been possible to reach without the basic “what if” element of the story... which is the key thing that good science fiction allows us to do, of course. Stretch real life ideas and emotions beyond their logical conclusions which then allows us to at least have the illusion that we can understand them better.

The central idea of the movie is that there is a virus or disease or possibly something even more mysterious which, slowly at first, begins to strip the population of the entire planet of each of their five senses in both a specific order and, much to the frustration and anger of Susan and her colleagues who are trying to find out what’s going on, without any discoverable way of isolating it to even try and stop it. In this regard, Perfect Sense behaves very much in the way that most post-George A. Romero zombie films do. That is to say, that no explanation or reason is given for the devastation caused by the central premise even if, as in this case, at least one of the main protagonists is actively engaged in finding one.

The film is at once beautiful and powerfully frenetic in places. Sometimes utilising a style such as a slow moving, very precise camera movement with very specific framing and then pitching it against a hand held style of looking at things. For example there’s a beautiful couple of shots of Eva Green in her apartment early on where her room is split into rectangular planes by various bits of furniture to highlight her in her immediate environment and, as she walks to her windows, the reverse shot frames her in the same rectangular space on screen as that previous shot, but using the verticals and horizontals of the windows as the framing device. There’s even a nice but, perhaps, obvious tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s eye for composition in one particular shot of Green and McGregor in bed.

Shots like this are countered by an increasing amount of hand held work which is sometimes slow but always exploratory. The kind of camera eye that allows the audience to feel like it’s reacting voyeuristically with the characters, adjusting slightly to more fully integrate with something that might then become the focus of the shot or a specific scene. Neither of these stylistic approaches are in any way new, of course, and nor is the director’s intentions to make the two styles work side by side somehow... but the fact is, he does manage to mix these different approaches very well and without any jarring moments when the juxtapositions happen. So my hat off to him for that (not that I wear hats, to be honest).

The film is split into a number of sections with a voice over narrative by Eva Green that lets you know what is going on all over the planet, either by direct account or poetic metaphor, usually a mixture of the two. This is accompanied by montage sequences, most of which look like real found footage, newsreel stock shots purchased from a library which have just been edited together, showing the world reacting to the situation in various ways. This is often accompanied by am intricate musical cue and it really gives you an idea of the environmental dangers in which our dashing young couple find themselves. Acting like super-duper, establishing shots for the central idea and it’s course of devastation throughout the movie, these sequences reminded me of the Newsreel sections of John Dos Passos USA Trilogy of novels (specifically, for me, The 42nd Parallel) which achieved a similar effect as a counterpoint to the specifics of the main text, but with words printed on paper as opposed to the images and audio narrative specific to the medium of film.

As the story progresses, both audience and characters alike begin to realise that, for the general population of the planet, each devastating loss of one of the five senses is heralded with a strong, very specific, emotional reaction experienced by everyone. In fact, Susan leaves Michael at the onset of one of these emotional highs (or should that be lows), this one specifically causing a lot of anger and the desire to lash out at those closest to you, and then she experiences exactly the same thing when she goes back to her lab before, like Michael, she goes deaf.

The thing is, there’s a nice bit of subtext to the condition the disease leaves the human race with after each emotional battle for acceptance of their new disability (it’s not that blatant but it’s not hiding itself either). This manifests in a natural coping skill which kicks in and allows people to substitute a different aspect of a sensation in place of the one that was there. For instance, when everybody loses their smell, Michael’s restaurant puts extra salt and sugar in the food so people, regardless of the fact that they can’t smell the food, will come and eat it anyway. Similarly, when everyone loses their taste, people still go out to eat but they concentrate, as in a review of the restaurant read out in the film, on the texture and colour of the food itself. These surrogate sensations manifest themselves in the most interesting ways throughout the running time, such as a scene where Susan and Michael are sharing a bath and they start eating a bar of soap and some shaving foam. And when everybody goes deaf, people still go to watch bands play live, but so they can feels the vibrations created by the various instruments on the speakers in place of listening to the music itself. These aspects of the flip side of the premise are never overplayed and are there as background almost, to the situation on hand so... like I said. Nicely done bit of subtext about the human beings adaptive skills.

The film is beautifully put together and the apocalyptic nature of its ultimate destination starts off by creeping in slowly and then rushes in, as Eva Green’s character compares the onset of the ice age and its effect on the wooly mammoth, leaving a trail of devastation and more things to endure for the human race in general. There’s a point in the movie where absolutely everyone in the world goes into an eating frenzy almost simultaneously before being robbed of another sense... it’s at this point where things start to get really scary and you look at it and you start to speculate what the chances of surviving such an unreal proposition as this would be. And when you start thinking like that you know the film has really got under your skin and, once more, you fear for the future of the young couple burning at the heart of the story... and when a film does this to you then you know you’ve seen a good ‘un.

So not much more to say about this one. Perfect Sense is an almost perfect film and I even liked the ending with it’s sly way of plunging the audience into the same fate as the viewer, it’s coda which then leaves you puzzling as to how that structure of the film even exists in this manner in terms of the characters and, ultimately, the sucker punch when you start to figure out what could possibly be a way forward for the future of the species after the end credits roll. A thoroughly effective and emotionally draining watch which I would recommend for anybody in love with cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Battle Beyond The Stars

The Seventh Steal

Battle Beyond The Stars
1980 USA 
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and Roger Corman (uncredited)
Shout Factory US DVD Region 1

I guess readers below a certain age won’t understand why a film like Battle Beyond The Stars was a big deal with its target audience back when it was released in 1980. It is, after all, a notoriously cheap (although not by Roger Corman’s standards, since the film cost $2 million to make) remake of a classic which is 100 times better than either this or its more famous remake from 1960. Let me give the baffled among you a little bit of context though.

The “space opera” arm of sci-fi had just re-emerged at cinemas again, three years earlier, with the release of George Lucas’ classic Star Wars. There were a fair few bandwagon films like the theatrical release prints of the Battlestar Galactica TV show, Disney’s The Black Hole and the big movie budget version of Star Trek - The Motion Picture coming out around this time to cash in on the success, not to mention much smaller vehicles like Star Crash and The Humanoid. However, sci-fi films were still relatively scarce occurrences at the local cinema so any excuse to go and see the latest extravaganza was always taken. Some of the special effects may look a little ropey today (not as ropey as some of John Sayle’s dialogue in this one, for sure) but in those days it was state-of-the-art and every kid fresh from being reminded of the joys of science fiction from the release of Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here), earlier the same year, would have rushed their parents out of the house straight into the cinema to see this one.

I loved it just as much as everyone else, of course. I think I ended up seeing it three times at my local ABC cinema (now a Tesco car park) and I even remember one of my cousin’s rare visits to Enfield to see it with me, one afternoon. I knew that Shout Factory had produced this deluxe edition DVD and snapped it up when it came out (in hindsight I should have waited for the Blu Ray) but it’s taken this long for me to make some time to watch it and, as you can imagine, I was curious to see how it held up nowadays.

The film starts off with the planet Akir (named after director Akira Kurosawa, for reasons which will quickly become apparent), home of Shad... as played by Richard Thomas (John Boy Walton himself), being threatened with destruction if the planet doesn’t give up its crops and resources to evil Sador (played with villanous relish by John Saxon with a “Donald Pleasance as Blofeld” style scar/make up enhancement on one of his eyes) on his imminent return to their star system after a small time period. All the residents of Akir know is dusting crops and lounging about in simple clothes but they dig out their technological relic of a starship, from decades gone by, and send John Boy, sorry, I mean Shad, out into the galaxy to rustle up a cheap, rag tag team of space mercenaries to return in their spaceships and help defend the planet from the evil Sador.

And if this is all starting to sound just a little bit familiar with you by now, you’ve probably recognised that this is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai. And the film very much follows the main, basic plot points of that movie but condensed into a much shorter running time and with some quite nice and often quite solid sci-fi decoration. I was surprised to see, as I watched this, that the film holds up a lot better than I expected it to after all this time and there are some nice little, well thought out details in this which are worth the price of admission.

Scenes, for example, such as those of one of the main female characters repairing a robot as she plays music by inserting a tape (or advanced technology equivalent of a tape) into a slot into the androids torso... so it can sing the contents to her as she works. Or Shad’s ship whose argumentative female personality talks to him and banters with him throughout the whole film... even going so far as to take matters into her own hands by destroying an enemy ship. When Shad points out to her that she just broke this movies conceptual steal of the first of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics (yeah, funny how everyone uses those... for good reason) she retorts something along the lines of , “Yeah. It’s a stupid law!”... which was quite a refreshing attitude at the time.

That ship, Nell, by the way, has got to be one of the most beautiful spaceships ever designed for a movie. Resembling, quite deliberately, a giant pair of boobs to rival those of one of the lead actresses (yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get to her in a minute) it’s like a giant, flying, sea ship’s figurehead with the arms, legs and head cut off to just leave a beautiful torso that flies and swoops through space. One of the most unique and spectacular designs of 1980s science fiction by my reckoning. Corman must have liked it too because he recycled all the footage of it and used it as the main spaceship in at least two of his other science fiction movies subsequent to this... which is about right when you think about Corman’s notoriously groovy cost cutting measures on his movies.

There are some pretty interesting actors in here too, with George Peppard playing the Earthman “Space Cowboy” and hamming it up with the best of them like there’s no cheque in the post after this gig. Also, we have the addition of Robert Vaughn playing Gelt, a very similar character to the one he plays in John Sturges well loved 1960 Seven Samurai remake, The Magnificent Seven... asides from the “lost my nerves, cowardice” aspect of the character, which gets ditched here. In fact, some of the dialogue in Battle Beyond The Stars, and with Robert Vaughn’s character in particular, seems to have been lifted pretty much intact from The Magnificent Seven, it has to be said, There’s also a vague attempt to have Gelt inherit this movies equivalent of the Mexican kids who follow around Charles Bronson’s character at one point but, this is only a token reference and I’m not quite sure, to be honest, why they decide to use it here without following it up later in an appropriate sequence.

And, of course, no look at this movie would be complete without a mention of every young boy’s dream made celluloid flesh in the presence of Sybil Danning as St. Exmin of the Valkyrie. They manage to pop one of the most buxom and boobage blessed Austrian actresses of all time, give her some of the skimpiest outfits which make you feel like she’s going to just pop out by accident any minute, give her some specific lines about sexuality (which wasn’t that normal for something which was being sold as sci-fi space opera to kids) as well as giving her the most memorable and oft quoted mantra of the movie... “ Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending.” I’ll bet a lot of young, adolescent teens went home and thought about a whole lot more than space opera when they left the cinemas after seeing Sybil in this movie (yeah, me included).

There are two other things this movie is quite notable for, that I can remember.

One if that it employed a young James Cameron on the special effects crew (listed as art director but I’m guessing he was doing a lot on this production) and it’s reportedly where he met his future wife and movie making partner Gale Ann Hurd, which led to the directing of his second feature, The Terminator.

The other thing this film has is a terrific score by James Horner. Sure, it’s reused in numerous other Horner scores and also borrows from composers like Prokofiev, but however you view Horner’s rampant borrowings, there’s no denying that he writes entertaining scores and this is one of them. However, it's said he’s never been happy with the performance of the orchestra on this score so nothing other than the original album master has ever been used for score releases over the years... which is a shame because I, and a lot of other people, would love to get their hands on some kind of expanded remaster of this one. However, the obstacle to release on this one seems to be Horner himself so, at the time of writing this, it looks like there’s not going to be any movement on that front for a while (probably not in my lifetime, I expect, which is a shame... for me).

And what more to say about this one. At times it’s cringe inducingly embarrassing and at other times a certain worthiness shines through its small budget. It’s not the best movie in the world and it’s certainly not a good remake of Seven Samurai, but it is one of the better put together of the “ride the Star Wars band wagon” films that came out at the time and I’m sure youngsters, and the much older variety of youngsters, will get something out of it even now. And it’s surely worth it to see Sybil Danning rocking and almost popping out of those groovy costumes. One that should not go forgotten, I think.

Monday 22 September 2014

A Walk Among The Tombstones

Tomb It May Concern

A Walk Among The Tombstones
2014  USA
Directed by Scott Frank
UK cinema release print.

I’ve not seen Eight Million Ways To Die but it’s probably worth mentioning that here because it’s a film which stars Jeff Bridges playing the same character, Matthew Scudder, that Liam Neeson plays in A Walk Among The Tombstones. Nor have I read the 18 books published by Lawrence Block about the adventures of the character on which each of those two films is based... A Walk Among The Tombstones being the tenth in the series. So I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t pitch this review in the context of any past experience of the character in any previous media incarnations. So as far as it’s success as a faithful adaptation goes... I can’t tell you.

What I can do, however, is point out to you that this is one of the best film noir style thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not exactly a police procedural movie as such because, certainly, the main character Matthew Scudder, played quite brilliantly and believably by Liam Neeson as a recovered alcoholic, is an ex-cop who now works as an unlicensed “private” detective... but it certainly uses many of the investigative methods, or at least the cinematic shorthand for them, used by both policiers and various other private detective films throughout the years.

When I say it’s a modern film noir I’m not being creative with my words either. This is almost a text book classic noir film with many, if not all, of the main ingredients of the classic noir thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s. In terms of the crisp quality of the cinematography and general mise en scene as well as the grimy, grey moral territory that’s often best rendered through a curiously chiaroscuro point of view, allowing the audience to stand in moral judgement of the dilemmas faced by the anti-heroes of such tales.

The plot concerns one of the big noir themes used almost to oblivion but re-appropriated very well for a film with this kind of tone... revenge.

Liam Neeson’s character is hired by a drug dealer because he believes he has a particular set of skills needed to find the people who kidnapped the drug dealer’s wife, ransomed her for a large sum of money and then chopped her up into little pieces after he’d paid them off. There is no shilly shallying around with motivations here... the dealer makes it clear that he intends to kill them. This makes it a little harder for Neeson’s character to take on the job but some cinematic sleight of hand which is presented to the audience as a kind of male bonding follow up scene to his first interview with the husband is all that’s needed to justify why the less morally flexible (than he used to be) Matthew Scudder takes on the job in the first place.

One of the main ingredients of the standard film noir, the femme fatale or presence of a strong female character in the plot, is curiously absent in this movie. There is really no single female lead in this film, only a few supporting female characters. However, it’s tellingly noirish, I think, that the women and girls in this film are mostly seen as the motivations for the actions of the majority of the male protagonists and antagonists here. If you were feeling mean spirited about it I guess you could say that all the female figures in this movie are reduced to catalysts and obsessions for the men to act out their revenge fantasies. However, the other way to look at it is that the female presence, in a movie mostly devoid of women, is actually very strong and certainly, the way one of those women is viewed in this movie, that of the drug dealer’s wife Carrie, is very much an echo of the way a female presence can be used in a classic film noir.

To explain that last comment, Carrie’s painting on her husbands wall serves as a very visual and constant reminder reminder (the camera loves it) of the woman he has lost and is consequently so obsessed with. His brother, also, has various sketches, paintings and studies of her on his wall and the character almost comes to life in a way just from her painting. This is very similar to the way the portrait of Gene Tierney’s character Laura is used in the first half of the movie Laura, in this respect, although that’s probably all I want to say about that particular classic noir in case you’ve not seen it and I give too much away. Needless to say, there was something I was expecting to happen in A Walk Among The Tombstones because I’d made that connection while watching it, which doesn’t actually take place, I’m happy to say.

What we do get in this film, however, is a heck of a lot of male bonding. There’s even a young teenage character who Scudder, almost accidentally, takes on as an assistant who serves both that function and, surely not coincidentally, acts as a kind of redemption fulfilment figure for Scudder due to certain aspects of a shoot out that went wrong in Scudder’s past.

We see this shoot out at the start of the movie, right after a scene which is used to establish Neeson’s character as someone who is initially unlikeable. This shoot out is probably the most kinetic and frenetically edited sequence in the whole movie and, when we revisit the scene later to bring new information to it which wasn’t revealed at the opening of the piece, it’s then that we see why the young teenage character, TJ, has been introduced into the plot line.

The rest of the movie, including the revisited opening chase and shoot sequence, is shot and cut in a much more sedate manner which really allows the shots to breathe and the actors to perform in either long static shots or slow, languorous camera pans etc. The film never gets boring though and concentrates and distills your attention to the emotional heart of the story so that the revenge motif and the moral dilemmas faced by many of the characters never once seem false or fake. You believe in the people in this and you know something bad is going to happen to a lot of them here before the film resolves itself in a very curious couple of ending shots which are, in some ways, very brave of the film-makers.

It’s also got a very nice score by a guy called Carlos Rafael Rivera that is totally appropriate, never overpowers the dialogue or action, but still maintains a strong melodic presence throughout the whole of the picture. I’m guessing it works okay as a stand alone listen too so that’s a reminder to myself right there to go and order the CD after I finish writing this. The score really helps too, in a shoot out sequence at the end that is a stop and start counterpoint to some of the “steps” of a recovering alcoholic, acting as a kind of audio glue. At least I think it was used in that sequence... I’ll need to watch it again. I think this particular sequence was almost a misstep from the director but, since there’s a couple of extended denouement scenes at the finish of the movie, it didn’t completely spoil the tone of the rest of the film for me and I’ll cut them some slack for that. For all I know they deliberately needed to slow the sequence down for some reason, in the final cut, and I can appreciate the metaphor as it’s presented, at least.

Not much else to say about this one. If you like strong, gritty, noirish movies with characters you can believe in and a high level of both emotional and physical violence at certain points then you can’t really go wrong with A Walk Among The Tombstones. Neeson’s performance is superb, as you would expect from an actor of his calibre, but so is everyone else in this and the dialogue is pitch perfect. Seriously go out and see this dark little thriller while it’s still showing.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Doctor Who: Time Heist

Heist Society

Doctor Who: Time Heist
UK Airdate: 20th September 2014

Now with post review addendum. See end of review.

Well after last week’s very strong episode (reviewed here) I wasn’t expecting too much from this week’s episode and it pretty much does what it says on the tin in terms of what the trailer made it out to be. That being said, I have to say that Time Heist was a bit of a “miss” over all and not one of my favourites of this season.

There were some positives, of course. The various actors who made up the team of bank robbers, including Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman themselves, of course, all worked very well together chemistry wise and this installment was certainly more than up to scratch in the dialogue department, if nothing else. That being said, I do think this version of The Doctor is a lot dryer than anyone has been used to for quite some time and I can see this being a possible way of losing a fair amount of the younger audience it has to be said. Also, I fear that the segment of the audience who jumped on purely from when the series was rebooted with Eccleston’s incarnation of The Doctor may find this one a little less flashy than they’re used to and I can see this series beginning to really lose some traction ratings wise if they’re not too careful. Added to the fact that the new series is now going to be broadcast much later than usual from next week onwards could be a very strong negative when it comes to the future of the show, I suspect... although the recent cinematic simultaneous broadcasts of certain episodes have done wonders at the box office so maybe that will help counteract things in some way... who knows?

Another of the positives is the chocolate box full of references to series' gone by in numerous sequences which included some quotes from the more recent series, the fleeting appearance of the comic book character Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer (from the days when I was young enough to be reading Doctor Who Weekly, back in the very late 1970s) and a more serious cameo from the memory worms which were used to much more comic effect in the Christmas Special The Snowmen (reviewed here). This was all very postmodern and nice for the fans of the show, of course.

On the other hand you had a plot which was far too clever for its own good. The four people sent to infiltrate the bank which is being robbed... a robbery which turns out to be something both less and more of what we were expecting... are there of their own free will and, once we’re introduced to the other main player in this, Keeley Hawes* as the owner of the bank, we’re left to really only two people who the architect of the whole operation, known as The Architect to protect his/her identity, could be. And if you haven’t figured it out by the end of the show then perhaps you weren’t paying attention. I’m not going to put any spoilers in here people but, seriously, you will have figured it out long before anyone else in the episode does. The only real surprise, and you might have already had your suspicions as to which character this would involve, is what is in the bank vault to bring these people together. I’m willing to bet that most people would have seen that once coming too though, I’m afraid.

And that’s the trouble when you’ve got a short amount of time for a story like this. If this had been a two or three parter, you may well have been able to conjure up enough different distractive sub plots to keep the audience away from the main nub of the story on which the plot hangs.... and this one doesn’t quite fool anyone enough, for long.

On the other hand... it’s fairly well put together, it’s nicely paced, it doesn’t really lose traction too many times (okay, it does drag in a couple of places but it certainly doesn’t dwell or wallow in the dull bits too much) and it makes use of a limited amount of sets shot from different angles and with different coloured lighting, from the looks of it. It was probably one of the cheaper episodes I would guess.

So, you know, it kept itself ticking along fairly nicely and there’s not a hell of a lot to grumble about other than, you know, being really obvious in places... they just happen to be the places that matter in terms of the actual story telling on this one. Not an episode I’d recommend as something to start on but that’s the way it always goes with a weekly television show I’m afraid... you get your hits and your misses.

Now then, next week’s episode promises to be a bit of a humdinger (and I really hope I’m right on that one). However, now it’s being put in a much later time slot I’m afraid I’m not going to be staying up half the night reviewing it after each episode for a post the same day. I don't mind doing the late nights but half my brilliant audience of readers have gone to bed by the time I'd get my post up. So from now on until further notice, my reviews of the new Doctor Who episodes will probably start showing up on Sunday mornings instead. So hope that’s okay with any readers who have supported me in my past reviews of the shows and who are here specifically for my Who reviews. Don’t worry... I’m not giving up on the series yet, I think it still has a whole heap of potential, I just need a time machine to get my reviews out on time. So keep an eye out for the next Doctor Who review next Sunday morning. Hope you keep reading too... I’m always grateful for having readers of this blog. Makes it all worthwhile. See you soon.

*If we ever get a female Doctor Who any point in the next 10 - 20 years, my money's on her.

Addendum with spoiler: See, this is another reason why it might be better for me to publish these Doctor Who reviews on a Sunday morning from now on. Had a bit of an epiphany about last nights episode when I woke up this morning. Two things... the goodbyes to the Doctor's new friends, with special powers, was an extended sequence where they'd been travelling in the TARDIS for a while and took far too long than was absolutely necessary or normal for an episode. Maybe they wanted to stamp those characters, and their particular talents, into our minds for much later in this series so The Doctor can use them in whatever the end game is this time?

Similarly, this episode set up the concept that people could appear to die (and I'm sure most viewers knew they weren't really dying right from the first time it happened... it was just too obvious, again) when they were actually being teleported. The devices to do this could be used in similar ways of course... maybe to pre-arrange the teleportation of a person at the moment of their death? Hmmm... haven't we seen this before somewhere? Think maybe Missy or, perhaps, even The Doctor himself playing the Missy game? We shall see but it seems an awful lot of "deus ex machina" style plot devices were being sown in last night's episode. Something to think about, perhaps.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

She Cat

What A Feline...

She Cat (aka Meneko)
1983 Japan 
Directed by Shingo Yamashiro
Nikkatsu/Impulse Pictures 
DVD Region 1 

Warning: There will be slight spoilers... but it's not really the kind of movie where you'd worry about them, to be honest.

Hmmm... you know it’s not very often I bother looking up information on a film before I review it but, in this case, I really wanted to because I suspect there’s a rich, historical legacy lurking behind this movie... however, it turns out I could find out pretty much nothing about this one on the internet. I even had trouble finding it from the title on the DVD at the IMDB and, when I did find it under its alternate name of Meneko, there was absolutely no information whatsoever about it on there other than to give some of the cast and crew. So please bear with me and forgive me if I miss some important points out.

This is not the first Pinku movie I’ve seen but it’s certainly the first one I’ve seen in the Roman Porno (romantic porn) sub category of Pinku Eiga. Most of the films in this genre which I’ve personally watched have been either the various teenage delinquent movies (such as the Stray Cat Rock series, amongst others) or films like Sex & Fury and its sequel, the Female Convict Scorpion movies, the Rica movies, the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series (and a load of others with similar names which I’ve forgotten). None of those really stray that much into the Roman Porno category though.

I was primarily lured into ordering this one because the cover showed a naked lady showering with a big “gun logo” stamped over her on the artwork. All I need is a girl and a gun... Godard would approve, I think.

So this isn’t quite what I was expecting because this film has a very intriguing premise, about an ex-killer, the She-Cat of the title, who now runs a “clinic for abused women” with her lesbian lover. She then becomes embroiled in the affairs of an ex-acquaintance from her shady past who has sought her out because she is being followed to be silenced by the people who she thinks killed her sister. Her sister, it turns out, has been missing for a while but her own job involves reconstructing faces of recovered human skulls and she soon realises that the one she is working on used to be her sister. All kinds of mayhem then ensues... as she and She-Cat try to solve the mystery. But does She-Cat really know the difference between her friends and enemies in this convoluted plot?

Well she may not get the chance to because pretty much every time the plot seems to get really interesting, everyone stops to have sex with somebody. It’s the kind of soft core eroticism you would expect from Japanese cinema, especially with such a well endowed female lead who is the epitome of buxom, but I have to say that all this rampant lovemaking at the drop of a kimono means the story and action of the film really suffers. It also suffers, of course, from that well know Japanese trait of erotic and pornographic cinema... the curse of the hidden genitals. That’s right... these days it’s a strange mosaic effect and, back then, it’s all blurring of male and female “below the belt” parts with an effect that looks like somebody has gone overkill with a digital vaseline resembling a lens flair on acid in some scenes. I’ve never understood why Japanese films of this nature are happy to depict some of the most gruelling and transgressive acts of a sexual nature ever captured on camera but almost always fall shy of showing someone’s genitalia. This seems an odd cultural trait but, hey, when in Rome... or when in Roman Porno in any case.

So there’s that.

However, the plot is kind of interesting and features a slow build, some gun play and some chase scenes. What’s surprising, however, is that some of the acting, especially from lead actress Ai Saotome, who plays the clearly bisexual (it turns out) She-Cat and her male lover (who could be anyone for all the help the IMDB is here), is absolutely brilliant and that they are almost kind of wasted in the Roman Porno genre... although the leading lady is stunningly attractive so that definitely helps her in this case too.

The film is competently shot, well edited and with a soundtrack which I totally forgot but which means it’s probably more than appropriate to the on screen antics and shenanigans of the cast. There’s less sex on offer than you might expect from a film of this type but, when those scenes do come, they are fairly long and, well, like I said... they tend to stop the action dead for a while.

The film also includes a betrayal of sorts from one of the lead protagonists who you thought was on She-Cat's side... well no I didn’t actually, I saw it coming from a mile off, but lets pretend I didn’t because I’m being charitable here. The ending scene, however, feels really tacked on and out of place. It’s very strange because the film takes you to a logical conclusion and point of closure with the characters and then, from out of the blue, the main male romantic interest is shot down in the streets in front of She-Cat for... well, for no apparent reason. Why the hell is there any kind of revenge payback from the bad guys... all of whom I thought had been taken care of? I love bleak endings as much as the next person but this one really felt kinda added on just for the sake of giving it a downer at the end. It has no real logic in terms of the story, as far as I could see, and so I was somewhat puzzled by the abrupt end credit immediately after this had happened. What was that all about?

So there you go. My first movie in the Roman Porno category was not a great success but I did appreciate it one some levels... although certain things left a lot to be desired. Not sure if I’d recommend it over the more action packed and exploitational Pinku Violence movies that I have enjoyed in the past but it’s certainly a starting point. Not sure if I’d watch any more although, now I come to think of it, some cheapies I bought from Fopp because they looked interesting might very well belong to the same category for all I know. So I’ll let you know on that one. She-Cat is not exactly the best Pinku I’ve seen... but I have to say it’s certainly not the dullest either. Give it a go if you like large bosomed Japanese women in showers, would be my best advice on this one.

Monday 15 September 2014

Before I Go To Sleep

Sleeping Pill

Before I Go To Sleep
2014  USA/UK/France/Sweden
Directed by Rowan Joffe
UK cinema release print.

I’ve got two minor observations about this movie, based on a best selling novel by S. J. Watson, that you might find worthy of me mentioning here.

Number one is that I’ve seen the overly long trailer for this film so many times now at the front of other movies at my local cinema... so you would think that, after suffering it so often, I should be able to at least remember the title of this movie, right? However, every time someone asked me what movie I was going to see, I had to describe the main premise, “Nicole Kidman can’t go to sleep without losing her memory”, because the title is just not interesting enough to stick in my mind.

Every time.

My friend and I even had to order our tickets at the box office when we got there with a description of the movie because, in the few seconds between spotting the poster outside the cinema and walking in to buy the ticket... we’d forgotten the name of the movie again. And, even now, as I sat down to write this review, I had to look at the IMDB page for Nicole Kidman to find out the title of the movie I was writing about. So I think my main conclusion here is... the title may (or may not) have been right for the novel but as a movie title it’s so unbelievably generic that it just doesn’t stick in the mind, to be honest. It could have done with being called something a little more poetic or imaginative, I think, as a film you aspire to go to see at the cinema.

My other point is that, when I told a few different people the basic premise, because I couldn’t remember the title, they all responded passionately with the same message... “not that old plot again?”. And then trotted out a few movie titles which have used similar plots. Of course, I tried to defend my choice by saying that there would be some kind of extra spin on this concept somewhere down the line because, after all, it was based on a best seller so there must be something more to it than what appears on the surface. Imagine my disappointment after having seen the movie, then, and realising that... no, they were right. It is the same old plot we have seen so many times.

However, this doesn’t make it a bad film and I’m pleased to report that for a lot of the time I was kept mildly curious and interested, waiting for some kind of unguessable twist to arrive in the narrative. It’s hard to not be able to take some pleasure in a film which, for example, stars three very strong actors - Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong - who you know are going to deliver a compelling performance. Which they obviously do and, coupled with a very slow and almost voyeuristic shooting style for most of the movie, it does have a certain fascination as you watch the drama slowly unfold... up until a point.

Now I’m really going to try to keep this spoiler free but the basic plot concept is that somebody has bashed up Nicole Kidman to the point that she has a very special kind of amnesia that wipes the last 20 or so years of her memory out after she goes to sleep at night. She has to catch up each day making use of a secret diary she is currently filming on a camera. Why is it a secret diary? Well, because the story works as one of those “trust no one” kind of tales of paranoia where either of the two male protagonists in her life, her husband Ben or her psychiatrist Dr. Nash, may not be what they seem. She has to slowly try to solve the mystery of why she is in this state and who she can and can’t trust. Which is fine up until a point.

That point, for me, was about the last 20 minutes of the movie which are less than clumsily handled. I wish Nicole had spent more time trying to unravel the absolutely ludicrous plot holes in the film version of this story, which render the entire scenario unworkable as a real life occurrence... but don’t even get me started on tearing down some of the anti-logic in this one.

Now, all the way through the director has been using everyday objects and vehicles (cars and planes etc) to rush out from nowhere to give the audience a jump scare and I found this cheap and unnecessary for the kind of drama that was playing out. My friend observed that the director needed to feel he had to keep doing that because nothing much happens in the film. I think I’ll be a little more charitable than that and say that stuff does kind of happen from time to time... but you certainly don’t need these jump scares, which add nothing to this particular narrative, inserted at random intervals throughout the film.

I was mostly able to let this fly because of the voyeuristic way in which the drama was unfolding. I don’t know if many people will notice this but the camera is with Nicole Kidman’s character Christine for almost the entire movie, choosing to tell things about the events from how she perceives them... and this is great. However, in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, when one of the characters is indeed found to be not who they say they were (and I’m not telling you which one, or even if it is just one of them, and this isn’t a spoiler because the movie works by making you suspect either or both of them), the camera then suddenly darts off with that person for a scene or two and we are no longer seeing events purely depicted from Christine’s viewpoint. Now, I don’t know if the decision to do that at this point was coincidental with when I stopped enjoying the movie or not... but I do know that there’s an intense fight scene which seemed a bit over the top, in some ways, to everything that had gone before and, when I saw an iron appear in shot during the fight... that’s when I started giggling at a point the director would probably have considered inappropriate.

This, coupled with a post-denouement sequence which is full of sentiment and utilising two characters we haven’t even met before in the film (although we have heard about them often) seems just really wrong for the tone of this one... at least to me. Now it may have been following the ending from the book, I don’t know because I haven’t read it, but due to the brilliant way the director had been setting up the shots of Nicole Kidman’s character waking up to each new day, I’m pretty sure there was a much better way to end this movie in a more cinematic fashion, possibly involving one of the other characters we’ve gotten to know through the course of the film. Alas, it was not to be and I can’t tell you what my ending to this one would have been because I don’t want any spoilers in this particular review... but it would have certainly have started with an arm moving off a bed sheet and a post diary watch reveal as the last shot.

So is the movie any good?

Well, for me it’s not something I could watch again. It’s the kind of cinema which places great stock in story content and, as far as I’m concerned, it lives and breathes until the revelation of its secrets... and I’m sure I’ve seen all this done before on TV and film anyway. However, if you’re fairly young, and your experience of movies is not so large, then you may well really like this film. After all, it still kept me fascinated and watching with a certain curiosity throughout the majority of its running time. Not one I’d recommend but certainly some people will clearly get something out of this one, I feel. Coupled with the fact that one of the more striking, Herrmannesque pieces of music used in the trailer is not from the actual film, it turns out, means I had a more disappointing time with this one than I was hoping for... but the lead actors are all very strong in this and if you are a big fan of any of them then you’ll probably love their performances here. Not much else to say on this one other than... I still have about as much success at remembering the title of this one as the central character does of remembering what she had for breakfast the day before. I might need to write it down somewhere.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Doctor Who: Listen

Listen In Action 

Doctor Who: Listen
UK Airdate: 13th September 2014

Warning: Yeah, they’ll be some basic spoilers in this one.

Okay, so this is good.

Best episode out of what has been a mostly mediocre bunch for this latest series of Doctor Who, I reckon. And saying that, we’re only four episodes in so there’s plenty of room for them to dazzle us further but this one goes into the category of the most genuinely nicely done Doctor Who episodes in a while.

Starting out with the age old “there’s something lurking under the bed” premise which has been with us as a kind of mutual “race fear” since before we can remember, the episode builds on this basic fear and takes us into some very interesting territory. It also does what most of the best of the Moffat-era episodes do... which is, of course, build us some nice set ups while simultaneously pulling on the strings of old threads and letting the mystery inherent in the show come into the foreground.

The basic premise is that The Doctor is playing games with himself and wondering just what kind of creature has perfected itself to be the best at hiding. Answer... he doesn’t know, but he’s about to do some research involving Clara, as he intercepts her half way (as it  turns out... gets a bit timey-wimey) through a disastrous first date with the possible future companion who we met a couple of weeks ago as a teacher at Coal Hill school... Danny Pink. However, when The Doctor hooks her into a psychic link with the TARDIS so it can take them to a destination feeding off a specific “under the bed” incident she gets distracted by what she thinks is a phone call from Danny.

Let me pause here and say that it couldn’t have been a phone call from Danny, as we all assumed it was, because she rejoins him later before he would have had the chance to make that call... remember. So who was it on the phone then? Possibly the same personality that keeps trying to bring Clara and The Doctor together at important points? Maybe. Probably. We’ll see when they try and tie some of these things up later, I guess. At the moment, though, it doesn't matter because that's who she was expecting to be on the phone.

So anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. It starts with the “thing under the bed” premise and, for a good ten minutes or so, is a genuinely scary episode which is bound to give the kiddies nightmares I suspect... however, it kind of loses its scary bits pretty quickly, which is a shame, and jettisons them in favour of being really interesting and building up the mystery which starts here as...

... so Clara gets distracted by the phone call and instead goes to a “thing under the bed” incident with her date as a young boy. After she and The Doctor vanquish the thing and The Doctor inadvertently sets ex-soldier Danny on his future course to being a soldier... well they both kind of screw him up by accident as a kid actually... Clara then goes and has another disastrous part of her date before being brought into the TARDIS again by... Orson Pink. A time traveller found by The Doctor at the end of time who might even possibly be one of her future grandchildren... at least that’s what the mystery wants us to think right now, I think it all might be a trap... and the next stop is... the end of time. Where The Doctor lets the creatures into the spaceship Danny was in and almost lets them into the TARDIS. Not that it matters, of course, because there's already one of them in the TARDIS since the start of the episode but everyone, audience and writer alike, seems to have forgotten about that little fact. But anyway, moving swiftly one, Clara takes another stab at psychic piloting while The Doctor is unconscious.

Bringing her to a place which we can only assume is Gallifrey in the past... and I’m really hoping that the writers are allowing for the fact that Gallifrey can’t be gotten to because it’s been temporarily erased from time so, you know, hopefully we’ll find out it wasn’t actually Gallifrey... where a The Doctor as a young boy (or possibly The Master, we don’t know yet) is hanging out in an old barn. Here we have a flashback to John Hurt walking into exactly the same barn on Gallifrey from The Day Of The Doctor... which can’t be right, right? Being as it’s hidden from time? This is the place,  we're told, where he went to open the ultimate weapon. And it’s here that Clara inadvertently becomes The Doctor’s “thing under the bed” and it all gets a bit... well kind of boring actually but I think they’re going to come back to this at a certain point. I hope not because... one of the key things about Doctor Who is you don’t want to know too much information. The man’s a mystery... let that stand please.

Never mind, though. I loved most of this one. The new guy played by Samuel Anderson as both Danny Pink and Orson Pink is holding his own very well opposite a strong actress like Jenna Coleman and the chemistry between Clara and Capaldi’s new take on The Doctor is getting better and better as the show progresses. If there’s one thing Moffat has got an ear for it’s dialogue and the relationship between Clara and The Doctor is at once totally different while still being old and familiar at the same time. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off and Moffat and his actors are doing a pretty good job of pulling it off here for sure.

There’s some nice direction and camera work on this one and some nice lighting coming into play in certain scenes which make certain sequences seem fresh in comparison to others. This lends a certain variety and bizarrely overt, ramped up pacing when used in contrast like this. It really held my attention when my mind was in danger of wandering for a lot of it.

Now the really interesting set up here is the relationship between Clara, the impossible girl who has seen all The Doctor’s past incarnations (and now his boyhood if we are to take the clues we are given in this episode at face value... which I refuse to do with Moffat) and the Pink family through history. Now my big problem here is I never really like Moffat’s endings. He always sets things up marvellously but the endings always seem to leave a lot to be desired and don’t always make the fullest sense, it seems to me (especially if you’re having the TARDIS go back in time to a planet which no longer exists in time... ahem).

Still, all I can do is trust Moffat knows what he’s doing here and see it through to the end... and quite probably grumble about it when it doesn’t make any sense but that’s the chance you take when you watch this show in a weekly basis these days, I’m afraid.

So there you go.

That was Listen. 

Nicely shot, nicely designed, nicely acted and with lots of little manifestations of Murray Gold’s Clara Theme coming in to tug at your heart at the most appropriate moments. Very strong episode but... hopefully not the best of the bunch for this series.

Time will tell... and will hopefully be rewritten.

Friday 12 September 2014

The Doll Squad


The Doll Squad
1973 USA 
Directed by Ted V. Mikels
Vinegar Syndrome Blu Ray A/B/C

Warning: Spoilers but, meh, not really that kind of movie.

This movie is terrible.

It’s brilliantly terrible.

Like... just the kind of “OMG WTF? terrible” all good movie enthusiasts should be exposed to every once in a while.

In fact, it’s so terrible, I’m going to show it to loads of people so they can share my joy in discovering it.

The Doll Squad is not a movie I’d heard of until the very recent release, by the Monstrous Movie Music label, of a limited edition CD of the score (buy it from them here). I listened to the samples, which are in the amazingly groovy and typical 60s/70s spy jazz mode, and knew I had to get the score. And as usual, as an after thought, I then looked the film up on Amazon and saw there was a relatively inexpensive double bill of this and another Ted V. Mikels film called Mission: Killfast on Blu Ray. So I had to check it out.

It’s been said that this brilliant but awful movie was the inspiration for the hit TV show Charlie’s Angels from a few years later and, watching this, I can well believe it. Even the leader of The Doll Squad is named Sabrina. Sabrina Kincaid to give her the full name, as played by Francine York. There are a few memorable “Doll names” scattered throughout the movie with that kind of vibe to them... like Kim Luval, as played by Jean London and Lavelle Sumara, as played by the legendary Tura Satana of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! fame (reviewed here). She also appeared in some of this director’s Astro Zombie movies, including this one reviewed here. 

The film starts off as it means to go on... with some ludicrously bad acting, for the most part. They even have the main villain in this, called Eammon (yeah, ‘cause villains called Eammon sound really threatening, right?) played by Michael Ansara and, with apologies to Mr. Ansara... even his acting seems quite bad and hammily overplayed in this.

Anyway, in the first scene of the film, leading into some not so hot, psychedelic, posterised credits, we are presented with two government officials watching their latest space rocket take off. Unfortunately, a badly superimposed explosion over the TV image shows the rocket destroyed (fairly unconvincingly, it has to be said) and a voice on their TV warns them they should have given the bad guy (that would be Eammon, then) the “nuclear device” he has asked for. This is obviously only the beginning of a reign of terror, curiously and unexplainedly targetting rocketship launches, which will not be stopped until our unlikely government representatives have given evil Eammon his nuclear device. What can be done?

Well, what is done is that, just like at the start of Our Man Flint, but without the budget or resources of a film like that, the “facts” are fed into a computer in the office to find the best people to end this reign of secret terror. And, of course, the name that comes up is... Sabrina Kincaid of The Doll Squad, an all female group that one of these two guys just happens to be the boss of.

Sabrina, who is at least a better actor than these two and, certainly, one of the least wooden performers in a film filled with arboreal talent, then goes to contact the two of her secret squad that the computer has recommended. However, it soon turns out there is a mole in the government agency... although this mole is not too hard to spot due to the dearth of possible suspects who we’ve met in the film so far. Anyway, Sabrina recruits two of her brightest and bestest, a scientist and a martial arts expert and it’s here that we find ourselves in the realms of a 1970s movie which seems, in some ways, to be totally sexist but, in reality, if you look beneath the surface, is actually a really great movie for depicting women in a variety of roles which are anything but those normally associated with the “so called” fairer sex. So that’s good, right?

However, after Sabrina has recruited these two, it then becomes obvious there is that aforementioned mole in the office because the two girls are bumped off by the bad guys. And here’s another interesting curiosity about this film, which may or may not be a Ted V. Mikels stylistic hallmark. Midst the almost Batman-camp atmosphere (on a clay pigeon shoot, Sabrina casually uses her gynormous cleavage to keep spare rounds of ammunition in), when someone is killed or injured in this movie... it tends to happen in the most brutal fashion. These two girls, for example, are both shot in the head and there is some bloodiness in here... one of them, as others later in the movie do, even has an exploding blood/flesh squib going off on the back of her noggin. So it’s a curious blend of fun with enormously sexy, eye candy women pitched against a level of violence which would earn this movie either a 15 or 18 rating these days. Very odd.

When one of the bad guys goes to take out Sabrina, she uses one of her secret agent box of tricks gadgets we have already seen her alluding to in an earlier, kind of “reverse Q briefing” scene. That means she uses her handy flame thrower cigarette lighter to burn the said bad guys face off in a restaurant full of people. Actually, it turns out later in the film that he only got away with a half burned up face and an eye popped out but, in a scene near the end which I would imagine was a big influence on Tarantino and something he did with his Kill Bill movies, Sabrina stabs out his other eye too, for good measure.

Soon after dealing with an undercover “bad girl” who has infiltrated The Doll Squad, Sabrina gets a new team and, after quickly finding out where the villain keeps his secret, desert island lair, she... and a load of deadly agents (including the aforementioned and quite watchable Tura Satana)... land on the island, split up and then find various ways to either infiltrate the villain’s lair or become prisoners there (which more or less amounts to the same thing when you’re watching spy movies... especially ones of this kind of pedigree).

Lots of spy gal hijinks ensue such as kicking, stabbing and shooting at people. One of the more ingenious being that the girls have their secret agent exploding spy drink, which they feed to two guards in a laced bottle of vodka... two guards who obviously don’t have enough sense to be too suspicious that they can’t be tempted by the ladies’ gorgeous bodies and, more importantly, their impressive picnic hamper. However, the ladies back off when the guards start rubbing their tummys in pain and, before you can say spontaneous human combustion, our easily duped guards both explode.

Except, when I say explode, they seem to have the exact same stock footage shot of an explosion superimposed over them, then the film is stopped on the footage in the layer behind so the guards can quickly walk out of frame, and then when the explosion is faded back out, the guards have mysteriously gone, leaving no messy aftermath or human debris behind after them. And if that sounds like an excessively cheap ass way of doing things then a) it is and b) it’s the way every explosion in this film seems to be handled... building, rocket or human being alike. In fact, I think it’s the exact same stock footage explosion used every time, too. At the end, one of the girls pulls out a fortuitously stashed bazooka to take out a man with a flame thrower and, although the end of said bazooka is conveniently placed off the side of the shot so we can’t see anything actually being fired from the muzzle, the exploding man who is victim to this handy, dandy, portable instrument of mayhem seems to be suffering from the exact same stock footage demise as everything else. How bizarre?

The film continues in this vein for a while and never gets boring. The villain's plot, it is revealed, is to unleash the bubonic plague on the rest of the world by infecting them... I wasn’t quite sure how (or even if) that related to the nuclear device bandied about as the plot set up at the start of the movie but I’m sure it must make some kind of sense somewhere (no, actually, I’m really not sure of that at all... this thing seems to be veering in all directions at once). The acting ranges mostly from bad to... um... worse and I noticed that occasionally someone will stumble a line and there was no reshoot... I’ve no idea why, unless the film stock was really that expensive.

More of the strange tone of the movie comes out when the “new girl” agent, who the other members of The Doll Squad are trying to protect, gets shot through the head while being rescued and is then barely mourned (or even remembered) by her hardened colleagues. Curious stuff.

This is partially made up for by a flirtatious game of cat and mouse between Eamon and Sabrina which soon turns into them trying to kill each other. Sabrina throws a bottle full of Martini over Eamon and then throws the end of a lamp cable on him in an attempt to electrocute him... which, as you may imagine, isn’t really something which works a whole lot. In retaliation, Eamon then starts to strangle Sabrina from behind and, it has to be said, the sounds and reactions Sabrina makes in this near death portrayal are... not going ot win anyone any oscars. Luckily, however, Sabrina has her special Doll Squad ring which she uses to spray mace into Eamons face and, while he’s rolling around, trying to recover, Sabrina pulls what looks like an ancient Greek sword from the wall and stabs Eamon to death. I did notice that she then picks up her pistol and I thought she was going to further put a few rounds of ammo in him just to make sure but sanity prevails here... for a good few minutes.

After this, we just have the escape from the island compound and the usual, debriefing scene at the end to sort out before going into what can only be described as one of the worst “spy songs” I’ve ever heard in my life. Now I usually love cheesy spy songs... I even use them on Valentines Day compilations for people I really like (Your Zowie Face from In Like Flint is a natural for Valentines... and also explains, maybe, why I hardly ever get the gal)... but even my eyebrows were raised when I heard this one. Shockingly bad end title music which I can only say I was deliriously happy  to hear again, as it’s on the new CD together with the score.

So there you have it. The Doll Squad... an all girl team of sexy(ish) secret agents done on a considerably low budget, with some outrageously fun stuff going on and a nice, jazzy spy score by Nicholas Carras. Definitely something which can only be appreciated these days as part of the “so bad it’s good” category but that’s okay, I can get behind that. Definitely one to watch if you have a passion for the camp and terrible.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Final Bespination

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
1980 plus subsequent ruinations USA 
Directed by Irvin Kershner
20th Century Fox BluRay Region A/B 

So the first Star Wars had a considerable impact on the Western world. Adults and children alike were seemingly talking about nothing else for the three years we had to wait for the sequel. I remember I must have read those two volumes of Marvel Treasury adaptations of the first film about 50 times in the intervening years... along with starting my big ring binders full of Star Wars sketches, articles and notes. I even “published” a single issue of a science fiction magazine for some of the kids at school... armed with my mum’s typewriter, some scissors to cut photos out of the newspapers, some glue to stick them down on the page next to the type and, with the help of the photocopier in my dad’s office... I put out something that would look amateurish by today's standards but was looking pretty good to me as a kid. I think it would be safe to say, and this may have even been a tag line on one of the posters, that The Empire Strikes Back was “the most eagerly awaited sequel of all time”. This in a time when sequels were no longer a standard thing in Hollywood.

It’s interesting but, in those days, the notion of having spoilers was not really an issue. I think Hitchcock had started a publicity campaign for not spoiling the ending of Psycho when it was released in 1960 but this was not really “a thing” for movies or TV shows in 1980. At least, that’s not how I remember it. So there was a lot of pre-publicity for this film and also a lot of knowledge about the content. Full disclosure in fact.

I remember reading Alan Dean Foster’s excellent Star Wars spin off novel, Splinter Of A Mind’s Eye, at least a year before the second movie hit our screens. If you’ve ever read it, it seems a pretty obvious conclusion that Leia has Jedi powers. In fact, it always puzzled me why so many people were speculating so hard about the line in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda turns to the ghost version of Obi Wan Kenobi and says... “No, there is another.” Had they not read Splinter Of A Mind’s Eye? I thought it was pretty obvious who “the other hope” was.

At least three months before Empire opened over here (and my brain is telling me that it was at least 6 months before but I have no conclusive dates to work from), there was a big exhibition of costumes, models and drawings from The Empire Strikes Back in Selfridges. I went three times at least (I tended to be in London a lot during school holidays) and it blew me away. This was the only way, at the time, to see a playback of the trailer for the movie which hadn’t hit British cinemas yet. It was amazing.

Both the novelisation and the paperback reprint of the US comic book came out over here many weeks (possibly months) before the movie was released and I remember reading the comic strip and being in awe that Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker’s father. These days, if you watch the entire saga in chronological order, it’s no longer a “surprise reveal” and so I guess even this information doesn’t count as a spoiler in any way these days. I was also quite intrigued, that the movie left the story on a cliffhanger. I kept my silence about this stuff because I didn’t want my mum and dad to know what was going to happen before they saw it but I remember my father, before we saw Empire, wondering out aloud if they would bother doing another sequel. I remember answering that they would be in real trouble if they didn’t.

When I finally saw the finished film it was in no way really spoiled by reading the comic strip adaptation (which in those days were often quite different in detail and expression than the work they were adapting anyway) and it surpassed, as far as I was concerned, the absolute brilliance of the first Star Wars movie (reviewed here). I was already pumped up by the comic strip, a couple of clips on clapperboard and a recently aired TV documentary on John Williams by that time but the movie certainly lived up to my, frankly, giant sized expectations.

To say it’s the darkest of the Star Wars saga is an understatement. The only film in the series that comes close in its portrayal of some pretty bleak events is The Phantom Menace (and many people would argue with me on that point I expect... it’s reviewed here if you want to take a look) and The Empire Strikes Back certainly lives up to the implication of its title. The heroes are basically on the run all the way through this movie, Han gets frozen and taken away for bounty after being betrayed by his friend in a less than black and white moral dilemma, Luke loses his hand and ends up becoming closer to Darth Vader in spirit when it is replaced by a mechanical version and... basically... the rebels who are the main protagonists lose at the end. A good dramatic answering call to the previous movie and a perfect set up for an upbeat, good triumphs over evil resolution for the next... something which I remember George Lucas was very aware of when interviewed about it a while later.

It’s also got some truly impressive set pieces such as the fantastic Battle Of Hoth (although I don’t like the “revised” snowspeeder details on the overhauled versions of the film) and the Millennium Falcon’s chase through the asteroid field. It’s also the feature film introduction of Bobba Fett, although he has now been retroactively “inserted” into the previous movie too. I remember sporting a very trendy Bobba Fett T-shirt the year the film was first released. His first appearance was actually 1978, of course, in the much ridiculed Star Wars TV Summer Special... something which I’ve still not quite brought myself to watch, over the years.

And, of course, the music by Johnny Williams is absolutely fantastic... even surpassing the excellent score he did for the first movie, for some listeners. Certainly, The Battle of Hoth gives us some of the most intricate and exciting action music of all time and his scoring for The Asteroid Field is one of his greatest cues. A slightly watered down version was used by him for years in concerts (the first time I saw him perform this live was in either 1981 or 1982 at the Barbican Centre in London) but even that version is great... although the less symmetrical version used in the movie is very powerful.

The use of leitmotif in the score gets a bit screwy unless you’re really concentrating. For instance, when Luke lands on Cloud City (Lucas’ echo of the city of the Hawkmen from the original Flash Gordon strip and serial... as we all recognised straight away) to rescue his friends, an action fanfare version of Yoda’s Theme is used in quite a striking way... even though Yoda has left the film by this point. I guess the justification here is Luke is going into battle fresh from the teachings of Yoda but... I don’t know. It always seemed a bit out of place though, frankly, too wonderful and powerful to really care about in terms of musical continuity at the time.

Unfortunately, this movie now also suffers from the curse of Star Wars revisionism. Lucas has added and subtracted bits over the years and made replacements to fit in with his extended continuity. Both the Emperor and his voice, for instance, now match with the later Ian McDiarmid version and there’s even an entirely new scene composed of using shots from a few sources, including Return Of The Jedi, where Luke and his father have a Jedi “mind conversation”. This last bit wasn’t in the movie before and, frankly, detracts rather than adds to the power of the final, rebels running away in defeat, wind down of the film.

All in all, though, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is still the greatest movie in the Star Wars saga. It kept people talking and speculating for the next three years while they were waiting for the third one and, as you would know if you spend any time on the internet at all, people are still talking and speculating about the continuing franchise to this day. The Star Wars series of films is probably the most powerful and popular series of films ever released in cinemas... and the initial strength of The Empire Strikes Back is one of the reasons why.

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