Monday 30 March 2015

Run All Night

Running Up That Kill

Run All Night
2015  USA
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra 
UK cinema release print.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that this new movie starring Liam Neeson is a bit of a hard boiled action thriller. He’s done quite a few of these kinds of projects now, since his deservedly popular role in the first Taken movie, but to be honest, the films he’s been doing in this mode are always fairly hit and miss and the kinds of roles he’s been taking have become something of a cliché, to be honest. That’s possibly because he’s so credible in these kinds of roles, I expect. That being said, though, I sincerely hope he doesn’t abandon these roles too soon, before he has a chance to do a couple of sequels to the excellent A Walk Among The Tombstones (reviewed by me here) at least.

Run All Night is his third film for director Jaume Collet-Serra, following his work with him on the lamentably awful Unknown (reviewed here) and the surprisingly enjoyable Non Stop (reviewed here). I’m happy to report that, of the three films he’s done with this director, Run All Night is by far the superior movie to the other two, being both immensely enjoyable and actually making sense and following through on its own internal logic... something which I feel Unknown was not quite able to do. It’s also quite a gritty, anti-hero role that the always watchable and talented Neeson brings to life in this movie and it’s usually quite fun to watch the actor tap into his dark side for this kind of part.

The film centres on Neeson’s character Jimmy Conlon, who is a washed up killer for the mob, headed up by the ageing Shawn Maguire, played by the always brilliant Ed Harris. The film concerns the way these two veteran hard men deal with their relationship with each other after Conlon has to shoot Maguire’s son, played by Boyd Holbrook, in order to stop him from killing Conlon’s own, very estranged son, played by Joel Kinnaman. The film then becomes a bit of an action fest as Conlon does his best to keep his son, who hates him, and his son’s family, out of harms way as Maguire goes all out to settle the score.

And, yeah, there’s action galore and it’s all very well handled because it’s treated in quite an “in your face” kind of manner with loud gunshots that spell out ugly death. It doesn’t try to turn the violence into too much of a kind of kinetic ballet as some films choose to do (rightly or wrongly and for whatever artistic reasons) and instead lets you really feel the suspense and danger inherent in the situations portrayed on the screen.

What the film really has going for it, though, is the dramatic undercurrent of the ageing Neeson and Harris both trying to survive in a world that’s moved on from their old school ways of doing things. Both thrust back into an incident where those exact kinds of brutal methods are what they are now having to embrace again to come to terms with, and try to survive, their current situation. And all of this is bolstered with the subtext of Neeson’s son having to trust his father and the possibility of Jimmy Conlon’s partial redemption in his son’s eyes... or at least his acceptance. And, frankly, when you have actors in a movie who are as good as this... it’s rare that they’re not going to deliver the goods in terms of the emotional weight required. They certainly all do an excellent job here.

Now, I really hate to use the clichéd critical term that the movie is a bit of a roller coaster ride... but even if that phrase outstayed its welcome almost before critics started applying it to every mildly kinetic action movie possible, the truth is that this film certainly lives up to this phrase in terms of pacing and it really does whizz along quite quickly... although the actual arc is relatively slowly set up. Nevertheless it’s shot in such a way that the build up itself is hurtling along at quite a breakneck speed and you’re not going to find yourself yawning or checking your watch at any time throughout this movie, I suspect.

That being said, though, my one negative criticism of the movie is that the editing style was quite aggressive all the way through the picture. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were some lovely transitions in this movie, and some nice use of sped up cityscape zooms and transitions to get you arriving at the next sequence, but I would have to say that the average shot length in this movie, which also has quite a lot of moving camera in it, is probably only a few seconds. Even the scenes which shout out for a slower treatment, like rambly conversations between main characters, seem to be cursed with being made up of lots of little alternate angles and edits when, perhaps, it might have been better to let some of these scenes play out more in their master shots, rather than try and speed them up with constant cutting.

Even so, though, if you can handle that spin on the pacing solution, which I guess is one way to keep things moving, then you should certainly have a good time with this one. There’s a lot to like in it. It rarely gets confusing, even with all the aggressive editing, so that’s also a big bonus on this one... especially during the jumpy, fighty, chasy, shooty sequences.

One thing I would like to take a minute to shout out on this one is the excellent score by a composer called Tom Holkenborg, otherwise known as Junkie XL. Now, I’ve got his music to the second of the 300 movies (reviewed here) and I have to say that I thought that was an okay score... although I’ve noticed on various film music message boards that there seems to be a general rejection, in some quarters, concerning this guy’s music... and I don’t know why this is. Now, I don’t know how this score will stand up as a stand alone listen (although I’ve ordered a copy of the CD from the US so I hope to be able to make a judgement on that in a few weeks) but the way it works in this movie is pretty good. There is a strong melody line, almost but not quite a leitmotif approach, which plays out for Neeson’s character and it’s mixed in with typical but immensely listenable and supporting modern action scoring. Here’s the thing, though... it’s also very well spotted...

That is to say, just like masters of the craft such as Jerry Goldsmith, the places where it’s been chosen to either have music or not, is quite well thought out and effectively followed through. To use an example of another master Hollywood composer, think about the pod racing scene in John Williams’ score for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (reviewed here). Once the race scene starts, the music is killed off in its entirety for almost the full duration of the race, allowing the sound effects to take over and present a more raw experience, with Williams only bringing in his score towards the end of the sequence to bolster a specific incident and its repercussions on the outcome of the race. In Run All Night, Junkie-XL does a similar thing with a high impact car chase... leaving it almost completely unscored until near the end of the sequence where he suddenly (and wisely in terms of orchestration) starts bringing in some percussion to top off the action and then bring you back into the sound world of the film afterwards... very nicely done. I think this guy is probably a fairly skilled composer and I think the soundtrack community should give him more of a chance, to be fair.

And that, I think, is all I got to say about Run All Night. Well shot, nicely lit, beautiful acting, appropriately handled scoring but a bit jarring on the eyes in some places due to what I feel is maybe a little bit of a case of overenthusiastic editing. If you’re a fan of Neeson’s action movies, though, then this one is certainly one of the better, not to mention most credible, of those... so you shouldn’t have any worries about giving this one a go and you probably won’t want to pass this one up... even if I stooped to calling it a roller coaster. Embrace the cliché.

Friday 27 March 2015

Red Nights

Small Potions

Red Nights
aka Les Nuits Rouges du Bourreau de Jade
Hong Kong/France/Belgium 2010
Directed by Julien Carbon & Laurent Courtiaud
Goodfellas international 
DVD Region B

Okay... I think this is going to be one of my shortest reviews ever.

So this was an interesting movie but, perhaps, just a little less than I was expecting from it, overall. I can’t remember which book I’d seen this recommended in but it was on my grab list and so, when the chance to buy a cheap copy came up, I took that opportunity. I’m still undecided as to whether it was a good buy or not, to be honest.

Red Nights is alluded to on the box cover, by one reviewer, as being a kind of blend between an Italian giallo and an espionage thriller and, while that may seem a bit of a facile summation of the content of this film, I can’t help but feel that, in some small way, the essence of this sentiment is indeed correct. There are similarities in the mise en scene of the picture in terms of the general beauty of both the composition and colour schemes found in a lot of gialli over the years... and the simplistic, eye on the prize plot which is attached to it could also seem to be the kind of “one horse” idea found in certain types of espionage thrillers throughout cinema history. But I think, plot-wise, in some ways at least, this conclusion is, perhaps, being just a little too generous.

So let’s look at what we’ve got here.

Well, content-wise, the film opens strongly with a key character, a lead villainess who I thought was called Jade but is, in fact, according to the IMDB, called Carrie Chan. She is played quite confidently and with much poise by Carrie Ng and, here at the start of the film, she is seen eating in a restaurant and consulting with a lady in terms, it would seem, of a dominatrix getting to explore the desires and limits of a new client. The restaurant montage which conveys this and then progresses the woman she is interviewing into her car and back to her place, makes it quite clear that Chan is a dominant character. She then places her new ‘client’ in a rather elaborate and expensively crafted version of a standard fetish vac-bed and gives the lady a quick taste of its power. However, on her second pass with the bed, she seals the breathing holes on the ‘ever so conveniently falling’ latex top sheet (seriously, there’s a lot of ‘aesthetic luck’ and artistic licence going on here folks) with some tape and proceeds to stab her new thrill seeking acquaintance through the abdomen... we get to see the red blood oozing out of the black latex... which is kind of a nice visual and deeply enriched in relation to the colour palette of the sequence (I’ll get on to that in a minute).

After this, we meet another character, Catherine Trinquier played by Frédérique Bel, who is also something of a villainess but, apparently, she’s the good villainess... if you’re happy to sympathise with someone who starts off the film murdering her lover in order to change the terms of a profitable deal and benefit herself. The deal, in this case, involves the location and possession of an artefact which, once broken/unsealed, holds an ancient potion which poison’s the subject while increasing the human body’s sensitivity ten fold. The idea is that Carrie Chan and her male lover want to take the potion together and suffer indescribable agonies mixed with joy as they are both transported from this mortal coil. Which is kind of interesting but also kinda dumb and is used to set up the idea of an item that everybody in the movie wants to get their hands on to keep the plot moving forward.

Now the thing is, it’s worth a lot of money but Chan and her pawns do tend to keep killing each other off and making more trouble for themselves when, frankly, if they’d have just payed the ‘finder’s fee’ agreed on as the deal for the attainment of this treasure in the first place, everybody could have been on their merry way. It really feels like most of what the characters are putting themselves through in this movie is to fulfil a hastily written schoolboy plot with no real depth or subtlety to be found to make you actually care who has the bloody thing at any one time... which is a big weakness of the film, I think. In some ways it reminded me of the naivete of plot of something a beautifully drawn Guido Crepax Valentina tale might make use of, as opposed to something modern... and that’s not a bad thing but, overall, the simplicity of the construction of the actual storyline was just not sophisticated enough to really draw me into the plot with any kind of sustained emotional investment.

That being said, there are also some more interesting elements to the film.

For example, the shot designs are beautiful and decidedly singular in the choice of colour palette. Often, as a character will stroll from one room to another, she (or occasionally he), will enter a completely different coloured environment and they’ll often be quite strikingly unlike each other - one might be predominantly red, for example, and then a window through to the next room will be bathed in either a blue or yellow scheme. The scenes tend to have just one or two major dominant colours to them... rarely more than that at any one time. Also, the characters and angles of objects are often delineated by shapes which cut the screen into their own sections and this, I suspect, coupled with the highly stylised use of colour, is where the idea that this film shares DNA with the Italian giallo probably stems from... and it is, to be sure, quite astonishingly beautiful in some areas.

However, while the gialli of their day were often falling short in terms of acting and plotting and still managed to get away with it, this film failed to hold my interest, somehow, in terms of both the mise en scene and the musical element, to the same degree that I might successfully embrace a late 1960s or early 1970s giallo. So ultimately, if this sensibility was a key influence on the direction and art design of this movie, then it has to be said I think the style of the imagery never really invokes enough dominance on its own to distract form the shortcomings of the story. At one point a DePalma-esque split screen section pitches two widely different colour palettes against each other but, while the contrast is nice to look at, it didn’t blow me away to the extent that, say, a Mario Bava movie might have... so there’s that.

Another interesting thing is that there are no real leading characters, it seems to me, who are in any way out and out good. Most everybody that you meet in this film are pretty much as bad as each other and it is kind of refreshing to know that, whoever wins in this game of cat and mouse, the film doesn’t take us into the realm of the characters here on an easy route. What’s also great about this approach is that the writer and director can keep on surprising you with the mortality rate of the various people throughout. In a way it’s a little like watching a Star Trek movie if it was only populated by characters who wore red shirts... which is an interesting prospect, of course.

In conclusion though, I’d have to say that, despite the overall beauty of the piece, Red Nights left me slightly disappointed. It’s a glossy and slick film to look at and I think that for many (and normally I’d count myself in this section of an audience), the sheer elegance of some of the compositions is going to be enough, for many people, to lift it a little above a lot of the run of the mill thriller’s being made nowadays. Not a solid recommend from me but certainly something which might well resonate with a key section of my readership... I just don’t think I’m going to be watching it again anytime soon.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

John Williams' Film Music

Readers Of The Lost Art

John Williams' Film Music: Jaws', 'Star Wars', 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style by Emilio Audissino 
University of Wisconsin Press
ISBN: 978-0299297343

Hmmm. I’ve been putting off writing this up for a while after I read the book in question because... well, it’s not that great. It’s quite well written but it fails, I think, in its intent and in possibly deciding what the target audience for a book with this title would maybe require from... well... a book with this title.

And what about that appalling title, eh?

I honestly can’t bring myself to type something with such a blatant disregard for the rules of English grammar on this blog. There’s a picture of it above if you want to see what the publishers have horrendously let the book go out titled as... it’s the whole Bridget Jones’s Diary debacle again. Honestly, Lynn Truss wrote a book partially inspired by seeing that stupid version of the BJD title... which should of course be Bridget Jones’ Diary, as a word ending in ‘s’ as a possessive doesn’t have an additional ‘s’ after the apostrophe... as I hope my readership knows. It took me a while to get around to reading this book because, well, every time I went near the cover my blood started boiling all over again and I had to walk off and leave it where it was.

Anyway, appalling grammar aside, along with its obvious disproof that this is, in fact, the only book on John Williams in English (because... well the bloody title isn’t in English, that’s for sure)... we have a fairly skillfully written book which, according to the author in his introduction, started life as a much longer thesis he wrote which he then “de-academicised” for commercial publication... although I’d personally argue that claim... and stripped down to something more pertinent to the title. Again, though, I’m not sure just how pertinent the content is to the main title. If you include the entire subject title, even, it still seems a little off to me.

For starters, it’s not until the 69 page mark that you get any real mention of John Williams. The opening of the book mainly deals with what the author refers to in the title as the Classic Hollywood Music Style and, while he goes at great lengths to explain what that is via a kind of potted history of soundtrack composition before Williams arrived on the scene, I have to say that this stuff wasn’t the reason I picked the book up. I say “potted history” not as a derogatory term, by the way, but merely as a short hand to remind readers that the history of film music is a rich and varied topic and the short amount of pages given it here would never be able to do it proper justice, although Audissino does remarkably well in terms of putting some of the basic information across in such a short space.

However, there are two things wrong with this opening, as far as I’m concerned.

Number one being that I’m really not sure that what Audissino concludes is the Classic Hollywood Music Style is consistent with what other people may define it as. Sure, he hits the obvious “usual suspects” like Korngold and Steiner but, it has to be said, the specific honing in on a particular and specific way of writing scores, filled with Mickey Mousing etc (the phrase coined for when music illustrates and synchs to onscreen movement and action), actually doesn’t do any of the composers he puts under and outside this umbrella any favours in defining something which we’re all going to agree is typical of such an umbrella term as Classic Hollywood Music Style in the first place. It completely ignores the diversity and range of all film composers, for one thing, and the rigidity of his definition means that a lot of classic Hollywood scores from, say, the 1930s to the 1950s, that we may all think of as such, would not fit in with Mr. Audissino’s straitjacketing of his terms. Of course, some of his readers and the composers in question might feel that it does but, unless I completely misunderstood it (always a possibility), then I found the term much less useful than the author obviously did and somewhat alienating in a way. I think part of the issue might stem from applying rigid classical music definitions to a spin off of motion picture art which also has to perform certain functional duties as part of its musical DNA.

The other thing is, like a lot of the audience for this book (I suspect), we’re not here for a lesson on the history of film music. Most of us probably already know this stuff and were looking for more personal, or even musical, information specifically about John Williams. If we’d have wanted a history of film music we would have bought that book (I know I did, years ago... got a couple of okayish ones) and, though the writer's summation is professional and concise, I feel that if you wanted to write that more generalised introduction taking up almost a quarter of the book (when you take the notes and other bits out), then you maybe shouldn’t have called your book John Williams’ Film Music... or even the grammatical tragedy of a title that it's currently marketed under.

Now, after approximately 69 pages, he does get to John Williams but, since I know practically nothing about the composers private life, I was kinda hoping to learn more about him. The biographical details are here to an extent but... not so much. I still don’t remember if he’s married, got kids etc... other than what I’ve learned from programmes bought going to some of his concerts years ago (on the odd occasions he came to England to perform in concert). If the writer does mention little snippets like these, they are usually throw away items rather than telling us anything of the history of the relationships etc that Williams has made over the course of his life, it seems to me.

The bonus is, or would be, of course, that the rest of the book is dedicated to a critical analysis of John Williams’ writing style and work technique. And it kinda is, I guess, but most of the scores I was interested in were either barely mentioned, not mentioned at all or deemed unimportant or inappropriate to the objective of the book to be dealt with at any length. What we have is three chapters dedicated to the work on Jaws (although much less detail than I would have imagined), the first of the Star Wars films (again, surprisingly little compared to what I thought could have been kulled from a study of the music in this film) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark... the last being a fairly overlong section but more in keeping with what I would have thought would have been written to fulfil the title of a book which even included the name of the film in its subtitle. What a shame the author didn’t feel like maybe analysing three less “box office bait” scores in Williams’ oeuvre. Personally I would have liked to know more about his work on, say, The Fury or Dracula or, my favourite Williams score, Images. Bit of a missed opportunity I feel... in some ways. How about 20 or 30 pages on each of his films and then releasing it as a multi volume work? That might have been more interesting, methinks.

However, the last section I mentioned was, I have to say, the best of the lot for me because the writer expounded a theory, or arrived at a conclusion perhaps would be a better way to say it, about one of the elements of the leitmotif in Raiders Of The Lost Ark that I had never thought about before... and he’s absolutely right and I actually learned something here, so that’s all good. What it is I learned from Audissino is this...

Marion’s Theme from Raiders Of The Lost Ark is not a theme specifically for Marion.

What? You what? Shock horror is probably the reaction you are having to that statement now (as was I when I was reading this)... but thinking about it he’s right.

What he has to say about it is that the theme as used in the movie is not a theme which is used whenever Marion is on screen. Think about it. It only comes into play when Indiana Jones is either with Marion on screen or he’s thinking about her (such as in the aftermath of the exploding truck about half way through the movie). It doesn’t represent Marion at all... it represents what Marion means to Indiana Jones. It’s kind of acting like a “male-gaze” equivalent of the leitmotif... it’s all about Indy and his feelings... not about Marion. And as I went through the music in the picture in my head... I realised that the writer is right. Not only that but, although I’m not as familiar with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as I am with Raiders Of The Lost Ark, I’m pretty sure that the usage of Marion’s Theme in that one, perhaps due to the very nature of keeping her identity as a surprise and then the fact that pretty much all her scenes are with Indy, means that the logic of that particular piece of music follows through in its use on the fourth film too... so that’s pretty cool. I love it when I learn something good from a book and this was a bit of an eye... err... ear opener, to be honest.

That being said, the book was mostly a disappointment for me because the bits I came for, and which I felt were implied by the title, were just not there for me and, instead, I got well written but very general stuff which you would think the target audience for a book like this would already know about before specialising in a specific composer. It is, however, extremely well written so, if you are a complete novice in terms of the legacy of the great Hollywood composers then I think you might well benefit from picking up this tome... although, I believe there are some more thorough ones on the Market at present. As it is, though, my hunt for a book about John Williams’ life and a full study of his music is still on my 'to find' list... as I suspect it is for a lot of other movie music fans. This book isn’t it... but it certainly whets the appetite for further studies.

Monday 23 March 2015


Elles A’ Poppin’

France/Poland/Germany 2011
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
Artificial Eye Blu Ray Zone B

Elles is another movie I acquired as a blind buy because a) it was very cheap on Blu Ray in Fopp and b) it had a striking image of Juliette Binoche on the front cover. Binoche is an actress whose cinematic presence I first became acquainted with on an “after college trip” to the ODEON cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue, London, back in 1988 to see Philip Kaufman’s marvellous adaptation of Milan Kundera’s great novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was in that screening that I fell in love with both the young Binoche and her female co-star in the movie, Lena Olin. I’ve been following her work, casually, on and off over the intervening years but, for me, she is one of the all-time great French actresses and so a quick read of the back cover convinced me to pick this one up off the shelf and bring it back home with me.

In the film, Juliette plays Anne, a working wife and mother, who is writing an article for ELLE magazine on the subject of student prostitution. She is aided in this by a series of interviews with two specific, young prostitutes - Charlotte, played by Anaïs Demoustier and Alicja, played by Joanna Kulig - and the movie is a collection of scenes from a regular day or two of Anna coping with juggling work, a dinner party for her husband’s boss and her problematic relationship with her two sons, while at the same time interspersing the incidents that make up her days with both extracts from the interviews with the two girls in various locations and, more so, flashbacks to the actual encounters and lives the girls lead... all presented cross cut in a, slightly, non-linear fashion, although all the three types of footage being cross cut are sliced into segments which run linearly in their own chronology, if that makes sense. So you have five different timelines - Anna, Anna interviewing Charlotte, Charlotte’s life as a working girl, Alicja and Alicja’s life as a working girl - all crosscut with each other but still running in order in terms of their footage in relation to themselves.

It must have been an absolute nightmare to edit but... at no time are you ever really confused in the ‘narrative structure’ (and I use that term very loosely) of the piece and it all makes sense and fits together beautifully well. Which is amazing considering that the way in which various shots are taken are also quite different. For instance, a well staged shot following a smooth and fluid pan will be pitched straight against a more naturalistic, hand held style of camera work within the same segment. Furthermore... some of those long, smooth camera shots will get to a point in a scene, to reach a particularly beautiful composition, and then suddenly there will then be camera movement on a small reaction to something a character has done, like Anna taking a pace or two backward within a master shot and the camera will just be rearranged slightly to bring her back into the centre of the frame. Which is marvellous and, I would have thought, incredibly difficult to make work with all the different styles of shot being sewn together in the editing to make something so completely understandable... but it does it so well.

Scenes are quite confidently mixed and matched: flashbacks to Binoche and her subjects in the past while simultaneously seeing the story line of each of the girls as it progresses on a parallel to Binoche and independent of her, creating an ambience of mood which, again despite the shuffling around, doesn’t lose the emotional veracity of the piece or dilute its rendition due to the bouncing back and forth between shot content. The director magnificently coaxes the audience into accepting the overall flow of the piece, independent to the format of the content, without imposing any judgement on, or desire for, a more linear narrative flow.

Another thing the director seems to be doing quite often in this, and it’s quite possibly not a conscious thing but just an accidental occurrence, is to contrast scenes comprising of long shots with others in extreme close up... it’s quite refreshing that the director is not afraid to get right in the face of her actresses and actors in this film. Again, despite the two very different levels of intimacy achieved by the distance of the camera to her subjects, she seems to make it all work pretty well.

In terms of content, I’m pleased to say that the writer and director of this presents the two prostitutes as intelligent and emotional beings. It doesn’t make any judgement on their chosen profession and this is a good thing. As the narrative goes on it becomes clear that Anna’s original, cynical stance on the pitfalls and rewards of the girl’s chosen routes becomes more accepting and she begins to see them as friends and feels something of a void in her own life in comparison... at least that’s the way I saw things and, like many films, it’s open and resilient enough to handle a certain amount of interpretation. The two girl’s lifestyles are seen as not without danger but certainly as something which entails more freedom and ownership than Anna’s current home situation... which is a good view to take. It also has some telling details of the truth of the working practicalities of the girl’s lives. For instance, having two phones - one for clients and one for personal calls. I used to know a sex worker... not a prostitute actually but, in most ways, she did a job that certainly qualifies as sex work... and she apparently used the same kind of arrangement with her phones... so that struck me as a nice truism.

While the film is showing both the pros and cons of being a pro, and not making any real judgements from the audience in terms of pitching the content of the girls at any rate (the trajectory of Juliet Binoche’s character is, as I mentioned earlier, a little different in emotional tone) it doesn’t shy away from showing the graphic sexual content one might associate with the chosen profession of Charlotte and Alicja... which can only be a good thing and is a gutsy move on part of the writer and director not to veer away from what might be, to some, fairly challenging imagery in certain sequences. I was a little bemused at one point because the film, fairly early on in the narrative, shows one of the girls receiving a golden shower... and that’s something I believe is deemed uncertifiable by the BBFC in UK releases of movies, be it at the cinema or on home viewing. However, it’s definitely in here and so I’m wondering how this release got away with it, frankly. Certainly not complaining, but wondering how on earth Artificial Eye were allowed to include that content in their release with no intervention by our horrible censors. A neat trick, no doubt.

And so we have a film where the boldness of the content is not let down by either the acting - everybody, including Binoche of course, is absolutely awesome - and nor does the mise en scene and the editing let it down either. In fact, it gets quite dazzling on both fronts.

At one point, for instance, there’s a brilliant sequence where the director upends our perceptions of what we are seeing by the way the tone of two scenes involving one character’s interactions are presented in the edit. We think one of the girls is with her regular boyfriend, because the relationship between the two is so respectful and loving... and later we find that he is just another paying customer. In contrast, we are immediately given a scene of her with her 'real' boyfriend, which is the less easy going of the two relationships by far. It soon becomes clear that he doesn't know how she earns her money... which strikes me as another truism for a certain portion of sex workers, I suspect.

Another great piece of cinematic revelation comes in the form of a transformation scene around a dining table near the end of the movie and the culmination of both the dinner party Anna has had to prepare for and the current fragility of her emotional state. Here, the slow pan round of the camera circling the table allows the director to progressively and surreptitiously replace the people at the table with the actors who played the various girl's clients. Also, as we refamiliarise ourselves with the faces of the actors once they have transformed back to the real guests, it becomes clear that one of the guests is, indeed, one of the girl’s real life clients. Juliette Binoche, in her mind, is joining in with the music provided by one of the “clients” nakedly strumming a guitar and singing, until a cut takes us back into a view of Binoche as she really is... looking ghastly deadpan and without any of the joy of what has been going in her head showing externally. It’s a brilliant scene and a striking piece of performance from Binoche... but, of course, I’ve come to expect nothing less from this remarkable actress. The scene makes an obvious metaphor, perhaps, by using the art of the reveal to bring home the basic truths to an audience about the commonality of both the clientele and the girls they go to see, by holding up a mirror and showing us that neither is out of the ordinary and it could be any one of us or our close circle of friends in a similar situation. Again, though, it’s done without any form of judgmental tone from behind the camera... here the conclusions of the revelation are judged only by Anna herself and her reaction to her lapsed state of reality at this point. Which is just as it should be.

Elles is, I have to say, one of my better blind buys. If you can’t tell by the above coverage, I really enjoyed this one and am looking forward to revisiting it again at some point in the future, not to mention seeking out other movies directed by Malgorzata Szumowska somewhere down the line. A truly remarkable experience in modern cinema and something no cinephile should miss out on. I fully recommend this one to anyone into the beauty of the art... don’t let this one get away from you.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Five years of NUTS4R2

Live And Let Five

Hello there.

Five years ago today I started writing this blog. 

I must have been fairly enthusiastic about it because, looking at it, I posted three articles on the first day. Five years on, it’s safe to say, I don’t post quite as many reviews as I used to but, then again, it’s swings and roundabouts when you compare what I was writing when I first started up to what I am writing now. 

And by that I mean that, in the first year or two, I was writing much shorter reviews by the looks of things. These days, the majority of them are, at the very least, twice as long as what I was writing then... which I think probably means I’m more confident in finding my voice as a writer of reviews now than I ever was before. Or, just possibly, that I’m getting more rambley and irrelevant the older I get. One of those, you decide.

Over the years, one of the things which has helped me develop a, fairly, consistent style is the fact that I seem to have a nice bunch of readers who are generally wonderful people. I’ve had the odd bad comment, to be sure, and sometimes... quite inadvertently... invited the frowning comments of writers who think I have wronged them on here (for some reason it’s usually the writers, rather than the directors, who tend to comment on here, when it comes to opening a dialogue with me). However, for the most part, I’ve generally had some pretty good feedback over the last half a decade... so that really helps me sometimes.

The reason that really helps me is because... well... life seems to get really tough sometimes. I get depressed the older I get and as opportunities diminish (the chance to have kids, raise a family, become a multi-millionaire or live on an island with a harem of appreciative women-folk... for example), I often find that writing about stuff on my blog is the only escape route I have to get away from the curveballs and general insanity that reality sometimes throws my way. I’ve felt like quitting the blog, too, on occasion but... something keeps pulling me back and part of that is because you readers have been so nice and generous with your time for me over the years.

I have to say, the reviews I write here must satisfy some part of my psychological make-up I never realised I had before getting into the whole NUTS4R2 thing. It’s almost like I’ve become addicted to writing over the years but, make no mistake, it’s not always as easy as it sounds to sit down and churn out an article or review. Even after all these years, I will still worry about certain films or books I’ve read and imagine I don’t have anything much to say about them. Luckily, once that pen hits the page... or in my case, once those fingers start pecking at the keys... something inside tends to take over and I find something I can write about. Make no mistake though, certain films cause me a lot of anxiety because, no matter how easy it is to get going, it can sometimes be quite a daunting prospect to start writring about something. 

Take, for instance, my two favourite directors, Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. It seems to me that I am not worthy to even begin to cast a critical eye over what was in the minds of these two great people. That being said, it strikes me that not an awful lot of people are familiar with directors of this calibre so it’s a pleasure to sometimes be able to highlight the works of classic film directors and hopefully spark some interest in the occasional reader who will then go away and look at an example of their work (as I know has happened every now and then). So that’s all good.

Also, it’s a good way of clarifying my own thoughts and applying my own theories as to why the minds behind the movies have reached their finished product in just the way they have and, I hope, readers feel that I’ve brought a little knowledge into their lives, from time to time. Well, yes, probably not in all the articles on here but, it’s my hope at least, that some of my writing on film has met with the beginnings of enlightenment for some, when it comes to decoding those flickerings of shadow and light that dances across our collective retina and takes so much of our hard earned cash... one way or another. 

I’ve also watched some remarkably odd films which I’ve sometimes only bought with the blog review in mind (see my recent review of The Vixens Of Kung Fu here to find out what happens when this processs backfires). And, quite often, it gives me the opportunity to get away with watching some real trash cinema and some of that stuff churned out to make a quick bundle of cash has some very surprising, “way beyond competent” technical skills thrown into the mix, too.  

I must admit, though, that without you reading this now, this humble blog is nothing. I love the virtual  friends and readers I’ve made through this blog as I have promoted it on Twitter over the years and some of the minds I’ve been privileged to share ideas with. People like Katrin Jenny of Twitterland, for example, who reminded me only yesterday evening, that today is indeed my five year blog anniversary. I’d completely forgotten it this year so... thanks for that lady... I owe you some mind numbing alcohol when you are next in the country! 

So, as you can probably guess, this blog entry was completely unplanned but, hey, at least it gives me the chance to articulate my appreciation of you readers, without whose regular visits, would mean these pages and words would stack up to being considerably less than, to invoke a time honoured, classic movie legend, “a hill of beans”. So thank you readers, old and new, for sticking with me and paying my writing the occasional visit now and again. It means so much to me and helps ease the insanity of my less than tranquil life. 

All the best to you all and... stick around... if you think some of the films I’ve reviewed over the past five years have been either special, moving, thought provoking or downright odd, well... you ain’t seen nothing yet.

All the best,


Friday 20 March 2015

Nurse 3D (aka Nurse 3-D aka Nurse)

Clear As Blood

Nurse 3D
aka Nurse 3-D aka Nurse
USA 2013
Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski
Lionsgate Blu Ray Zone B

Well this is a refreshing little movie. I took a chance on this because I loved the two promotional posters which were put out... painted impressions of the title character, played in the movie by an actress I’d not come across before called Paz de la Huerta. One poster depicted her totally nude, asides from her nurses' hat and high heeled shoes, but not showing too much because the majority of her body is covered in blood. The other shows her in her nurses' gear and riding a giant syringe. Now, neither of these tableaux are quite in the movie, although the first scenario does have a kind of equivalent moment... but I’m happy to say that the two, quite striking pieces, do sum up the spirit of the piece quite well and I was really pleased by this bloody and sugary confection.

And I’m also, it has to be said, quite baffled by the strangely split response from the target audience.

It’s actually a little more like I was expecting American Mary (reviewed here) to be like, to be honest and, while neither American Mary or Nurse 3D have anything like the kind of levels of grotesque shock and goriness implied by both the content and marketing of those two films, Nurse 3D wins out, for me, by having a very strong sense of humour shot through it which I found sadly lacking in American Mary, to a certain extent... although I notice that exactly the opposite conclusion has been drawn by some reviewers.

Let me start by saying that both the beautiful cinematography and the editing of the film hooked me in right away which, bearing in mind it starts off with the old birds eye cityscape kind of opening which I’ve seen gazillions of times in gazillions of movie, is pretty impressive. It’s not like they’ve even added any new camera movement to the effect, but it’s just so sharp and got so many beautiful colours in even this mundane style of  shot, that I was pulled right into the following sequence of the title character talking to herself and the audience, in a voice-over internal monologue, before I even knew what had hit me. It’s a very fluid sense of camera movement throughout the whole film and it has extremely breezy pacing. Honestly, it feels like it’s a Disney movie or something, right from the opening and all the way through. Like a big, toffee lollipop that Disney might have made, if Disney were in the business of constructing movies around the inner thoughts of a homicidal serial killer posing as a nurse and gorily righting what she sees as wrongs.

The rest of the cast, including Katrina Bowden as the main ‘hero/victimised protagonist’, Kathleen Turner in what amounts to a cameo, Judd Nelson (Remember him? “Don’t you... forget about him...”) and, unbelievably, the great Martin Donovan (who should have won every oscar going by now) are all astonishing but the real star of the show is Paz de la Huerta. She’s really interesting and I think maybe the film’s split focus between the obvious Hollywood main protagonist Danni (Katrina Bowden) and Nurse Abby Russell (Paz de la Huerta), may be one of the reasons people have had a kind of torn reaction to it. The tone is uneven because, frankly, half of the time you are on the title character’s side and are rooting for her, even when you know you probably shouldn’t be... but de la Heurta plays her serial killer role with such a sense of fun and cuteness that you can’t help but be split between the two. However, that’s really not a bad thing and I would suggest that maybe the core audience don’t always enjoy examining the way they feel about their reactions to characters in cinema, perhaps?

Anyway, the film opens with a dazzling scene of us witnessing Nurse Abby Russell in action, as she picks up a man who has no qualms about cheating on his wife (with her) and then slashing his femoral artery before pushing him off the roof of a multi-story building. So, right from the start, Russel is set up as a vigilante, avenging sex bomb and, frankly, strong women like that are always hard to resist and, I’m concluding,  a good thing in cinema in general (even if the constant shots of her naked form  suggest the male-gaze motivation behind the way some of it is written).

At first I thought Paz de la Huerta (full name María de la Paz Elizabeth Sofía Adriana de la Huerta) was a bad actress but then I realised the way she was playing the role was actually, given the fact that it gets quite obvious that the character is definitely a few bandages short of a full medical kit, with a kind of unbelievable, projected intensity and investment in the role. She’s actually quite amazing and very deliberate with the way she both reacts and pronounces things... it’s almost as if she’s done what Bela Lugosi used to do and learn the scripts phonetically... which of course, in Lugosi’s case too, makes you prick up your ears and really listen. Now I’m pretty damn sure that isn’t the case with this particular actress but I do know that something about her means I pretty much couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she’s on screen. It’s like the camera is radiating towards her all the time and I also couldn’t help but think about Marilyn Monroe, and the way she would deliberately project a personae into the camera lens. It’s almost like Paz de la Huerta is channelling Monroes style of performance in the psycho babysitter role from Don’t Bother To Knock (reviewed here) but totally stripped of any vulnerability and in full, self confident mode... and it’s actually quite a dazzling performance which underpins the whole movie, to an extent. So I need to see more films with her in, for starters, to see if she has this kind of presence in other movies or if it was just something that kind of came together for this role.

Either way, the movie is astonishing in terms of mise en scene, which is a big help, and there’s even a nod to the great Dario Argento in the scene where Nurse Abby injects Danni’s step dad, played by Martin Donovan, and we cut to an expressive and audacious fake shot of the action from the inside of the syringe... which is exactly the kind of thing Argento started doing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s in films like Opera, for example. I would be really surprised, actually, if a director of Aarniokoski’s attitude, who shot second unit on films like Resident Evil: Extinction (very briefly reviewed here), wasn’t in any way influenced by Argento but it’s certainly nice to see him putting his influences up there on the screen like that.

Another interesting thing about the movie is the music, which for the first half of the film doesn’t really do much Mickey Mousing or, indeed, even reflect the psychological landscape of the film to any extent than of being in Abby’s mind... so it just kind of plays through in a very light, poppy, ambient way until, suddenly, things don’t go quite Nurse Abby’s way for a while, which is when a little dissonance and sinister vibrations start flavouring the music. Now, if the composer would have only kept the score doing that, then that would have been a noteworthy choice for this artistic voice because it would mean that the score is only reflecting Abby’s thoughts... enhancing the character’s presence on screen through the style of the scoring. Alas, very soon after the score turns into this area, composer Anton Sanko also starts using it to describe the threat to Danni’s character too... which is a shame, I think. That being said, it might not have been the composers choice that the music does this at various points in the movie so I have to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

All in all, though, I was really pleased by the way Nurse 3D turned out, despite the lack of goriness implied by the marketing. I think this movie should certainly be a little more appreciated than it seems to be and I’m really surprised to find that, since it was actually completed in 2011, it was wallowing in distribution hell for two years prior to its release. This is a movie I would recommend to pretty much anyone who likes a good serial killer movie, especially because the narrative viewpoint of the story is actually from the killer herself... and that’s not all that usual in these kinds of films (although there have certainly been a few famous examples of this in cinema over the years). As a result of this movie, I definitely need to start looking out for films featuring Paz de la Huerta (I think I can see one I’ve not seen sitting on the shelf opposite me as I write, actually) and I’ll certainly give this movie another watch sometime in the future. A charming serial killer movie, as far as I’m concerned.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Vixens Of Kung Fu

Below The Black Belt

Vixens Of Kung Fu
US 1975
Directed by Lin Cho Chiang 
Vinegar Syndrome 
DVD Region 1

When I started this blog almost five years ago, I certainly wasn’t expecting, or even entertaining the notion of, reviewing hard core pornography. I’ve got nothing against pornography, at all, but I just don’t think it would make an interesting thing to review and it’s not the kind of material I would want to be synonymous with the NUTS4R2 identity, if truth be told.

That being said, I have no compunction about reviewing the odd (hopefully very odd) exploitation movies, grindhouse movies and long standing readers will note that I have a fair mix of different kinds of reviews on this site. When I ordered this film, The Vixens Of Kung Fu, it was because I’d seen the movie poster via someone on Twitter and it promised a film full of naked ladies in kung fu battles... which I thought would very much be a movie I’d want to shout out to people via this site. I didn’t realise, even when I started watching this movie, that it was actually a mid-1970s hard core porn film, probably shown at a fairly specific set of adult cinemas and drive-ins in the US at the time... presumably garnished with an oriental flavour due to the popularity of the David Carradine TV show Kung Fu at the time. It does, however, have some really stupid and noteworthy (of sorts) things happening in it so I’ve elected to include a review here because, as of yet, I’ve got nothing else like this one on this site. Whether I review the companion movie on the double bill DVD, Oriental Blue, or even bother to watch that one... is up in the air at this time.

So I started watching this thing and the film starts with... well, some really nice and colourful photography, actually, as a figure wanders through rural landscapes midst some really terrible, cheesy ‘Japanese/Eastern philosophy narration nonsense’ of the kind only a Western scriptwriter could have come up with... although the idea that this film has a script really doesn’t hold up much as it even fails to provide coherent linking material between what is, honestly, just a load of sleazy hard core sex scenes.

A woman in a forest is accosted by three, badly dubbed gentlemen (at least, I hope that’s not their real voices because, honestly, this is worse than the voices on a cartoon) who then proceed to shoot the woman with their “anaesthetic gun” (which looks like a regular revolver because, who can afford special effects on this budget?) and then rape her semi-conscious body. When the three individuals in question stripped down to nothing and got their throbbing weapons of choice out, I got my first hint at why I hadn’t been able to find an entry on this film in the IMDB*... although I did find it later on a very different kind of movie database, which is not the kind I would usually find myself frequenting. In order to convince us the “anaesthetic gun” is actually a believable tranquiliser, instead of a lethal killing machine, the soundtrack plays a sleepy harp arpeggio as the woman collapses. We are then treated to what amounts to an extended rape scene as the three men make use of her unconscious body in a very graphic manner, starting off with some jaunty banjo music to presumably align them with a hillbilly mentality of some kind, and then continuing with some kind of comedy soundtrack playing in the background. It’s really sleazy and I nearly turned it off right there (believe me, there’s a lot more competently made and imaginative porn out there than this sad debacle) but I really wanted to see the naked kung fu.

After the men have their way with the sleeping lady and then flee (leaving the movie for good, asides from a few seconds of flashback at a later point), we have a scene where another lady, Cunchon, is training her naked followers (there’s about five of them, all women) in the ancient art of kung fu... although, as we will see as the film progresses, this is not any form of kung fu you’ve ever seen before. Cunchon briefly turns into a bird, with the miracle of cutting from one shot to another, and then finds the girl from the forest naked on a beach. How she got from the forest to the beach is anyone’s guess and, frankly, not something the script writers, if there were any on this movie, saw fit to address.

Cunchon takes her new disciple under her wing, so to speak, and, giving her a naked massage with added and inappropriate breast sucking, she asks the forest lady for her story. Forest gal answers that she’s a prostitute, and then we get treated to various lengthy sequences of her “on the job” in flashback. Yes, this is a classy film alright.

After these sex flashbacks have played out, she then tells her new samaritan about her rape in the forest.. which of course leads to them having full on lesbian comfort sex. And, like all the other sex in this movie, it’s terribly boring 1970s quantity not quality sex which held my interest so little that I was able to keep taking my eyes off the screen and type notes into my iPhone as it played out. It was getting kind of boring but...all was not lost in terms of the possibility of some bizarreness... even if I had to sit through a sex scene with a terrible pseudo-oriental song playing in the background. Even though they are in a hot, forest and beach combined location (somehow), the gals manage to have sex on a polar bear rug. I guess that would lend some legitimacy to the term rug munching but, seriously, a polar bear rug?

After this, Cunchon teaches her pupils the mysteries of kung fu. Which means we have an extended sequence of naked ladies sitting cross legged and breathing heavily while the camera concentrates on the philosophical aspects of the scene against the semi-oriental soundtrack... and then the various ladies’ vaginas start smoking... presumably to signify their climb to enlightenment and their burgeoning ‘kung fu powers’. See, I knew there would be a reason why I should carry on watching this movie... bizarre smoking vaginas. There’s a phrase you don’t expect to write every day. Or maybe it was supposed to be steam. It definitely looked like these ladies would be coming to a boil at some point soon.

The voice-over narrative then tells us that... “Cunchon trained her women, physically, spiritually and sexually...” which means we get to see a red head and brunette having a playful and lengthy lesbian encounter in the forest, for some reason. Honestly, though, a lot of the time the music in this movie sounds like it comes from a sleazy porn movie of some kind. Oh... right. Well I guess that’s appropriate to the genre then.

It's at this point that a wandering monk turns up and the two girls beat him at kung fu and take him prisoner. Now, hold on, because when I say kung fu, I’m using that as shorthand to try and describe what’s really going on here... which seem to be fast cuts of the various people appearing, disappearing and then reappearing in space in various poses without actually connecting with each other, let alone actually sharing the same shot, until one of them is lying on the floor. It doesn’t even once try to be realistic and... well I guess a case could be made that it’s artistic expression if you wanted to have a go... but either way, it’s hilarious.

Once the wandering monk has been captured, due to the girls’ proficiency at exploiting blatantly ‘WTF camerawork’, they have him naked in their outdoor training area while their leader tells them to devour him. Apparently, though, devouring him just means they all have group sex with him for ages. While this was as unbelievably boring and surprisingly even less than entertaining than the other assorted sex scenes which comprise the movie, it did have one thing of note in it, when I realised that the movie makers had needle dropped parts of Lalo Schifrin’s Enter The Dragon score over both this, and a later sequence. Apparently, after the sex, the ladies are supposed to destroy the monk but, somehow, he manages to be out and about of his own free will again after this sequence. So... you know... could have done with some scripting here, methinks.

So the monk wants to get some kind of revenge and he seeks the teachings of another kung fu mistresss, who teaches him the art of... kung fu masturbation, by the looks of things. I don’t see it as something you’d need a black belt in myself but, you know, I’m sure there are hidden health benefits tied up in ancient, oriental philosophy of which I was previously unaware. The man is further trained by running along a beach while letting his modesty hang in the wind, with weights dangling from it. Presumably this helps him maintain his strength when he most needs it? Meanwhile, we have lots of shots of forest gal and her new leader also running along a beach... although this does nothing to compensate for not really being able to tell what the heck is going on from scene to scene. More continuity required, guys and gals.

And then, I guess, there’s the big showdown... between the monk and the lady from the forest.... who presumably have nothing to do with each other in the plot at all but, hey who cares, let’s pitch them against each other anyway, right? So lots of posturing and limbering up between the two is caught on camera until, just when you think the scene is going to explode into an orgy of naked kung fu fighting, the lady in question suddenly tumbles head over heels towards the man and... starts licking away at his specially trained kung fu weapon. And... we’re in another sex scene. Some kind of bizarre showdown sex scene, it seems, where the camera stock was so expensive, in relation to the budget, that when a wasp tries to enter the fun as the lady in question is sucking down on the monks own personal nunchakus, her squeals are left in as she bats the said wasp away and out of the shot. This is quality film making, ladies and gentlemen.

Now I don’t like to give out spoilers without any warning but, seriously, this is a porn movie... as it turns out. So I was bemused by the ending where the lady collapses, presumably dead, as the monk ejaculates a strong spray of blood and then also keels over, presumably dead. And that’s pretty much it, I’m afraid... the end. I’ve watched a sleazy and, more upsettingly, unentertaining porn movie with nothing much to show for it other than some crazy cutting, some hastily needle-dropped Lalo Schifrin scoring and a bunch of smoking vaginas... which, to be fair, was the bit that made me sit up most and pay attention. I’d like to recommend this film to those of my readers with a fun spirit and a love of exploitation but, seriously, I can’t find much to redeem this. It would be true to say that this movie did not live up to the promise of the title and the way in which that title might be fulfilled in my minds eye, I’m afraid. Stay away from this one, would be my advice, it’s just not worth it.

*Please note: Since I wrote the first draft of this review, 
there's now a listing for this movie on the IMDB, for some reason.

Monday 16 March 2015

Sound Of My Voice

Culting Edge

Sound Of My Voice 
2011 USA
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
20th Century Fox 
DVD Region 2

Warning: Very minor spoilers and, perhaps, some intriguing 
and compelling reasons for you to check this movie out.

Still on my Brit Marling kick, it seems, after first discovering her in the movie The East (reviewed here), rediscovering her in the beyond excellent I Origins (reviewed here) and further compounding my obsession with her performances in the amazing Another Earth (reviewed here). Sound of My Voice once again finds her in a film she’s co-written with a director (as she did on The East and Another Earth) and in this one she plays the part of the main antagonist... if you can call Maggie, the character she plays, such a strong word. My personal take on this movie is that you can do that but, honestly, this movie is not a stranger to the idea of an audience taking away with them what they also bring... I’ll briefly touch on that a little later.

I’ve read synopses which describe this movie as being shot like a documentary but, take it from me, it really isn’t. I don’t know if people are getting confused about that because it employs a lot of hand held camera footage or whether it’s because the two main protagonists, a young couple, are documentary film-makers. It’s not something I can really comment on. The two characters in question are called Peter, as played by Christopher Denham, and Lorna, as played by Nicole Vicius and they, like all the actors and actresses in this film, are absolutely brilliant. Playing their characters as naturalistically as possible to augment the “fly on the wall” kind of reality you get from the hand held camera work and the choice of footage used in the final cut.

Peter and Lorna have spent a lot of time trying to penetrate into the heart of a secret cult run by the mysterious Maggie, played by the aforementioned Brit Marling, who is a phenomenal presence in this movie, even though our sympathies are with Peter and Lorna for the duration of the film. It starts with Peter and Lorna going through the dubious steps required, including blindfolded and restrained travel followed by a very long and ritualistic secret handshake, to get to their first meeting... along with other new ‘recruits’ into Maggie’s cult following. As the film progresses, the issues of how a leader of such a cult comes to have a large amount of power over her followers and the ways in which trust, influence and persuasion break down a follower’s resistance to the idea of the leader’s spiel is explored as we see Maggie using various methods to gain the respect and awe of the majority of her followers.

Her initial hook to her group of new recruits is simple... she is a traveller from the year 2054, who has somehow, beyond her understanding, awoken in our time and is amassing followers she can lead to survive the struggle which she knows is ahead for the human race as a species. Which, you have to admit, is a good hook. However, it doesn’t wear out its welcome as quickly as you might think because the film, in a very brief time, takes you on a journey of discovery along with Peter and Lorna and doesn’t present the information in as clear cut or straightforward manner as you would need to make a quick judgement on the truth, or possibly lack of, in Maggie’s words and pitch.

Actually, maybe that’s a bad way to put it. The film very much starts you off in the camp that, yes, this is all a con but the brilliance of the movie is such that it leaves you in a place where you’re both not quite sure what you just watched and where there is no real closure to be had unless you have very strong opinions about the characters... one way or another.

There are three strands to the movie and the main strand is Peter and Lorna trying to get a scoop on the cult and hopefully put a stop to Maggie’s influence over her followers in the hopes that nobody will be harmed. However, there are also two other things going on, one with a little girl in the school that Peter teaches at for his day job and another of a lady who may, or may not, be working for a government intelligence agency... although this is certainly how she presents herself when she asks Lorna to help her gain access to Maggie towards the end of the movie. The thing is, the doubt as to whether Maggie is actually telling the truth or not, after she treats certain members of her congregation quite ruthlessly in certain scenes and which make you believe she certainly isn’t who she claims to be, stems from the intersection of both the little girl at school and the government agent’ strands of the story line.

I’m very happy to say that Batmanglij and Marlin give you no easy, clear cut answers. The possible identity of the little girl, which I won’t reveal here, and something she does towards the end of the movie certainly pitch the story in a certain direction but, one of the things you have to remember and which the audience has been primed for all the way through, is that the way these kinds of cult leaders usually operate is by conning their audience of followers and, because of that basic air of caution thrown in to the mix where this film is concerned, you can’t rule out any possibility that the little girl is already a part of the con and perhaps that’s the reason for her seemingly frequent periods of narcolepsy at school. Are they genuine or are they because she’s been staying up until the small hours every night.

The other element is the government agent, who gives Lorna a very definite spin but who has already gone into full James Bond mode when it comes to taking precautions in her hotel room in a scene earlier in the movie. It seems innocent enough when the character first reveals herself to Lorna but, when you think back on the film, you wonder if perhaps there’s also a connection with this character and our future in the year 2054.

The film is part of a proposed trilogy of movies about Maggie but it’s been made clear that the writers aren’t expecting to get any funding to make a second or third movie in the sequence... I get the impression this wasn’t a big hit at the box office and, in some ways, I can see why. This movie won’t be giving you any real closure and, as you probably know, a lot of people don’t like the absence of the plot ‘all finished off’ and packaged nicely with a gift tag saying “this is what just happened”.

And then you think about the follower who takes Lorna into the woods and what she shows her there and you think... well hang on a minute. What, really, is going on here?

My one and only piece of negative criticism of Sound Of My Voice is that there’s a point towards the end where Lorna makes a decision (again, I’m not going to tell you what it is) which is motivated by the actions of Peter, but which seem, to me at least, to be way too hasty in terms of what we know about the history of these two characters and it does seem a little rushed when, honestly, the film could have afforded to spend a little more time exploring the building up and exploration of Lorna’s motivations at this point.

That being said, you can’t fault the performances, the direction, the camera work or the editing and it’s certainly a film which I would recommend to anyone interested in cinema as both art and entertainment (not that I really believe there’s any difference between those two terms, in point of fact). So there you have it, a film which may, or may not, be a science fiction film but which is, certainly, a true gem of a character piece with personalities you can believe in. A big clap to all the artists involved and I hope, someday, somebody will stump up some cash so we can really find out what happens to Maggie... and what year she’s from.

Friday 13 March 2015

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro)

Snatch Processing

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell 
(Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro)
1968 Japan 
Directed by Hajime Satô
Shôchiku via Criterion Eclipse 
USA DVD Region 1

Warning: I’ll be honest, there are some spoilers here, 
including the wild ending, but they are such glorious 
ones that they’ll probably just make you want to grab 
a copy of this movie and have a look for yourself.

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, is the second of the four films which make up the Criterion Eclipse boxed set When Horror Came To Shôchiku and, frankly, it’s more than made up for my slight disappointment with the first film in the series, The X From Outer Space (reviewed here) and is easily worth the price of the box set on its own merits.

This one is kind of a mix of styles and genres and has a heck of a lot going for it. One of my more pleasing discoveries of last year, to be sure. That being said, the film is full of terrible dialogue and bad acting, in keeping with a lot of the Japanese mini fantasy epics of the time. Even so, the fact is that this film rises above being more than the sum of it’s cheesy parts by a clear mile and, like the blurb in the liner notes, I’d have to say that it’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before... at least not in terms of this particular blend of elements coming together in one venue.

The film starts off with quite a lengthy pre-credits sequence inside a plane. The discussion among the passengers is about the ‘violence of today’, with acts of terrorism creating a new world of fear which nobody wants to live in. During this pre-credit’s sequence we are introduced to all the stereotypes you would normally get in an airplane disaster movie and, that’s pretty much where the plot seems to be going for a while. You have the boss and his humble employee trying to impress him, the humble employee’s wife who is blatantly having an affair with her husband’s boss, the nervous passenger (who, of course, turns out to be a mad, suicide bomber), the terrorist (no, a different terrorist), the American lady who is flying to pick up her dead husband from the Vietnam war (one of the many aspects of the political issues being pushed throughout the course of the movie) and so on. You also have a couple of scientists or professor types on hand... one who makes himself known when he is needed for expositional dialogue in the plot and another one who only seems to make himself known when the first scientist is dead and is also needed to do the same job. Yeah, I know, it’s full of genuinely sloppy and unintentionally comical writing but, like I said, the film rises above this.

The plane is flying through a red sky like “a sea of blood”, as one character puts it, which is really beautiful and brings to mind the apocalyptic sky effects used in the opening of the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. It has to be said, however, it’s rendered much more beautifully here and it’s at this point that I became aware that the models used (the plane, for example) are made and shot to an absolutely first class degree. This is made even more evident when the plane crashes a little later and is easily the match for some of the better model work used on various kaiju eiga at the time.

As the passengers talk, there are schock punctuations to the discussions as the occasional bloody, flapping bird is seen hurling itself at the windows from inside the plane creating, at least once, a genuine jump scare moment. Another thing used to punctuate this sequence, and the film in general for that matter, is when a flashback to inform a character or idea is introduced. Black and red shots of an assassination which took place before the narrative has started and various shots of war (many of them archival shots) are edited in quick staccato, both visually and on the soundtrack, to create ultra-fast slide shows to help push the points being raised. These are genuinely skillfully done and add another layer of interest to the movie.

At this point, the pilot and his crew are alerted that there is a suspected suicide bomber on the plane.. so they go through everyones luggage with the usual arguments ensuing until they come across a sniper’s rifle in a briefcase. The assassin makes himself known (although he has nothing to do with the suicide bomber, who is undetected at this point) and hijacks the plane, forcing the pilot to change route to Okinawa. After he does this, however, a UFO flies over the nose of the aircraft and the aircraft is left damaged in its wake as an engine bursts into flame. Thus, the plane crashes and the film then becomes a survival movie, with the surviving passengers bickering amongst themselves as tensions increase. This is where the film turns into a less pro-active version of Flight Of the Phoenix for the duration... except a version of it where an alien vampire is on the loose.

Yeah, okay, I was getting to that...

The sniper splits away from the group, gets drawn into a landed spaceship and his head is split open in front, to reveal a make up effect like the opening of a vagina on his face throughout the rest of the film. A blobby rock creature slides into the cavity and controls his brain. As we will find out from a similarly possessed lady passenger later in the film (for some reasons the ladies don’t grow a slot on the front of their heads like the male passengers who are ‘possessed’ do), the aliens have landed and they plan to destroy all humanity. However, the way they plan to do this seems to be for the guy they have taken over to get as close as he can to people and bite them in the necks like a vampire, in order to kill them.

This, of course, makes absolutely no sense as an invasion plan but, by this point in the proceedings, I was having way too much fun with this movie to care. Not only does it have a bizarre mix of shoddy B-movie plots and characters so stereotypical that you know what they’re going to say before they do... it does it all in such style. The cinematography, shot design, set design (with some spectacular colours in the alien spaceship, for example, which are like organic shapes forced to adhere to straight angles) and editing are all way too good for what you would normally expect from a film of this calibre and it’s just like sitting down in front of a screen and eating dessert for the duration of the piece. For instance, when the pilot is forced to turn the wheel of the aircraft and change route on the instructions of the hijacker, the camera is tilted so the frame changes to an angle and speed matching the wheel turn. Phenomenal and inventive work going on here.

As the bad aliens make good on their highly impractical invasion plan, going through the passenger manifest one neck at a time and replacing their injured host with a new one as needed, we are treated to one of the most mesmeric B-movies I’ve seen in a long time. Not only that... the special effects are both very effective and highly resourceful, beating out what a lot of American and British studios (such as AIP and Hammer, for example) were doing at the time. For example, when a human host is dead and required to disintegrate, it looks like the special effects team have actually sculptured extremely life-like versions of them out of sand and, as the floor not shown “in camera” is slowly dragged out from under, they crumble and dissolve before your very eyes. This is great stuff and when it looks this good, I can’t work out why this technique hasn’t been used in other films I’ve seen.

As a pièce de résistance, just to top off the film and leave you with a truly apocalyptic finale, the surviving pilot and his air hostess/love interest escape the clutches of the aliens and walk across the desert, not knowing where they are... until they find themselves to be crash landed near a Japanese city after all. As they walk into the city they find that everyone is dead and that the aliens have landed everywhere and killed off, presumably, the entire rest of the population of the planet except for these last two. We pan out from them as we ponder this bleak realisation... out and out and zooming right out until we are left with a shot of the earth. As a final sucker punch, loads of UFOs arrive in space (much like the opening credits sequence of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks) and then scorch the Earth to a cinder. This is definitely an overkill situation we are in now, in terms of general pessimism, and it’s like the writer wants to make up for man’s inhumanity to fellow man through war and strife by wiping us all off the face of the planet in this movie.

This is all great but it’s also highly questionable, of course, Frankly, why would you want to go to all that trouble of finding human hosts and then biting all their necks like some kind of cosmic vampire if all you needed to do in the first place was to park your fleet in orbit and laser us all to death in a few seconds. This makes no sense people!

It makes no sense, has no logic and is, frankly, one of the most rewarding and unmissable B-movies I have ever seen. I don’t understand why this one is not more well known in this country (nor why it took 11 years after it’s initial Japanese release to get a release in American cinemas, apparently). Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell... who isn’t a body snatcher and is definitely not from hell... is easily one of my most enjoyable movie experiences of last year. A real treat for these jaded eyes and definitely a major reason to splash the cash on the Criterion Eclipse When Horror Came To Shôchiku boxed set of DVDs... I just wish they’d released a Blu Ray edition. I’ll definitely be upgrading to a higher resolution format if one ever becomes available. Truly... miss this one at your vagina-headed peril.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Far From The Madden Crowd

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
2015  UK/USA
Directed by John Madden 
UK cinema release print.

So it’s almost two years since The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel arrived in UK cinemas and, for a film I wasn’t that up for seeing initially, it impressed me quite a bit (my review here) I now find myself in the unexpected situation of seeing a sequel. Unexpected because, frankly, it’s not the kind of movie I would imagine would get or, indeed, require one... and I suspect some of the cast and crew were as surprised as me by that turn of events.

Like the first one, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel captures a certain charm and spirit from its ageing cast which is fairly unique and unlike most anything else at the cinema at the moment. Most of the regular cast of the first one (those characters who survived) are back for this installment including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle and the always lovely Celia Imrie... there’s also a “surprise return” from another of the main players in the first film but... I won’t spoil that one here.

They are joined in this one by Tamsin Greig, Richard Gere (an actor who I’ve always had a lot of time and respect for, even if I don’t agree with some of his role choices... but anyone who’s worked in a Kurosawa movie is okay in my book) and David Strathairn... all of them equally great actors and who are welcome additions to the cast, although Strathairn, regrettably, only has two scenes (more on that a little later).

The film has room for these new characters to shine, such as Richard Gere’s novelist, and it also allows them to bring out other characters who were less in the spotlight in the last film and show sides of their personality we were unaware of. Specifically, I’m thinking of Sonny’s mother, played by the beautiful Lillete Dubey, who gets her chance to shine in this one, playing opposite Gere for some great two handers.

If you remember the first film, the key redeeming character turned out to be the one everybody was set up to dislike... who was actually the hidden gem and salvation of the title institution run by Sonny (played by Dev Patel) at the end of the movie... the character played by Maggie Smith. This second film is told through her eyes somewhat, via a voice over on a letter she is writing, and even though her scenes are small and fleeting (it’s a big cast), she is the prism through which the main narrative thrust is viewed... and there’s a dramatic reason for that but, again, I won’t spoil that one for you here either.

My chief concern about a sequel like this was that they wouldn’t have enough for all the characters hanging over from the first film to do but, while the film is much less about reaching personal destinations than that initial story was, this one seems to be about watching the way the characters have settled down and are handling the situation they are in. It’s set only 8 months after the first installment and it seems to me that maybe it should have moved on two years in time, like the production, but in some ways it makes a little more sense to lessen the time in relation to the dynamics of one of the sets of character relationships... although the characters all look a little more 'settled in' than a mere 8 months suggests, I would say.

Like the first film, it’s very much an ensemble piece and, since the writers have not run out of ideas and situations for their characters, this means that everybody seems to get a little less screen time than I would have preferred. Which is a shame, especially when there were a couple of extended dance sequences which maybe could have been considerably cut. There’s also a tendency to leave much which is going on unsaid, in a most subtle fashion, from certain situations while other events are spelled out in a rather too obvious manner. For example, Bill Nighy’s revelation to the man repairing his bicycle that he’d like to marry the Judi Dench character is telling us something which is far too obvious already... although there is justification later in terms of another character knowing the situation through a relationship to the bike man. Having said that though, I really don’t think things like that needed to be spelled out when the cast were doing such a terrific job of economically conveying just what was going on in their heads.

Similarly, a scene between Maggie Smith and David Strathairn near the end of the movie also seems to be more about making the audience aware of something (which again I really can’t divulge here) but in this case, at least, the second of two marvellously electric scenes the two actors share in the movie, is absolutely subtle and understated and executed much more preferably, it seemed to me.

Some of the situations in the movie do get a bit over the top in that very British way which makes you question the tone, at one point. One sub-plot involving the possibility of a contract killing and a Scorpion Cab is just this side of outrageous to still work comfortably within the film and just saves itself from turning into something more like a TV situation comedy... although for a while there I was looking at it and thinking how well the theme and setting of this series of films would convert over to a TV sit-com (and I fully believe that will probably happen someday in the future... maybe not right away but I wouldn’t be surprised if they try it at some point in the next 15 years). However, the writing, direction, cinematography and acting all pulls it off and back in the right direction and it just misses being a parody of itself by the skin of its teeth.

While I think the movie could have been a little longer, or cut differently perhaps, to show just a little more of the characters we loved from the first movie, I think that this film will still please people who embraced the idea of the first film. This is perhaps lesser of a movie and it may be a bit obvious to say that the title of the movie, which is actually referring to a second branch of the titular dwelling, may also be paraphrased to say that, of the two movies, this is also the second best of them... but I would perhaps also urge audiences to acknowledge that the second best of such a high quality, well polished product is certainly deserving of an audience who I am sure, are going to appreciate it as much, if not more, than I. A good solid film and one which I will be grabbing for my mother on a Blu Ray at Christmas, I should think. If you loved the first one... definitely don’t miss out on this release.