Friday 29 May 2015

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

Ape N’ Stance

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes - 
Original Extended Cut
USA 1972
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
20TH Century Fox
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Okay, there are some spoilers here so I can highlight the difference between the two cuts.

The relative box office success of the excellent Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) meant another sequel was required and so... here we are again. The fourth film in the series, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, has always been a bit of a brutal and dark film... even in it’s theatrical release print (the version I’ve known and loved all these years). I remember seeing it at the cinema as a kid (I was maybe 5... or 6 if I saw it on a re-release) and the scenes of Roddy McDowell’s main protagonist being tortured via an electric current through his brain stayed with me for a long time.

One of the reasons why I wanted one of the recent Blu Ray sets, and it’s included in the latest eight movie set too (which is the version I’m watching these from), is because the fourth disc also includes the extended, ‘almost original’ preview cut which was toned down and considerably changed to make it less darker by the time it went on general release. It’s more violent and, although most people will be rooting for the apes all the way through this one, it also shows them becoming as much monsters as the humans who have been victimising them all through the film. For this review, I watched the extended cut and then rewatched the ending of the theatrical release to remind myself of just how different it is.

There is, for the first time in the Planet Of The Apes movies, no pre-credits sequence on this one. We just go straight into a credits sequence which establishes straight away that the movie is set in our planet’s far future. That’s right, the caption comes up... North America 1991. So... the ‘far future’. A slightly moving, slightly askew camera records a compound where apes are being shepherded around by humans who are conditioning them, not with kindness, to do simple tasks. The apes are branded by their class in different coloured uniforms, green for chimpanzees and red for gorillas (although they look completely different anyway but, I guess, this simplifies things for both the society in the movie and the audience for the film).

When the credits are over we have Ricardo Montalban, once again, playing Armando from the previous movie and he’s brought the son of Cornelius and Zira with him, once called Milo but now named Caeser and assuming the identity of the ape he was switched for in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, presumably. It’s been about 20 years since the last part of the story in terms of the character’s lives, and Caeser has grown up to look and act just like his dad. Yep, Roddy McDowell here plays his own son from the previous movie, something which very few actors have done... played one of their character’s offspring (I can think of only one other off the top of my head but I’m sure there must have been a few... just not very many). Armando and Caeser have come to the big city to advertise Armando’s circus but the two obviously really weren’t aware of just how bad man’s subjugation of the ape species is... although Armando at least had some small idea.

The back story to this phenomena, a world where apes are slaves to man and are doing all the menial tasks... and the cruelty to which they are put... is explained by Armando like this. Eight years prior to 1991, a virus was brought back by an astronaut in space (interesting idea and something we don’t actually see in these films) which killed off all the dogs and cats on the planet and people wanted to replace their pets (a plot point highlighted by a memorial to dogs and cats which Armando and Caeser are standing by). The apes became the new pets but once humans learned that you could train them to do much more, slavery set in and the status of apes in this society is quite astonishingly brutal and humiliating. Apes have been trained as slave labour to perform various functions like shining people’s shoes, window cleaning and, that old favourite which really makes no sense to my generation, white washing walls. Apes are treated in a derogatory manner, for example, when the waiter apes in restaurants are tipped for good service, not with currency but with raisins. It’s also a world which is ever scared of the threat that the apes will somehow dominate, after the shenanigans of the last film... so apes are not allowed to congregate in one place, even though they are not talking apes like Caeser.

When Caeser sees the inhumanity of man against ape, he inadvertently gets Armando in trouble with the authorities and the two have to split up while Armando gets held for interrogation. However, when Armando doesn’t come back, Caeser infiltrates the apes being shipped into the country to be slaves to humans... so he doesn’t get found out as the son of Cornelius and Zira.

And that’s how he ends up serving in the household of the film's primary human villain Breck, played by Don Murray, and his kind hearted, ape loving aide Mr. McDonald, played by Hari Rhodes. It’s very apparent, when we listen to Breck, that the upper echelons of this 'future' society are very worried that the son of Cornelius and Zira could somehow be alive and fulfil the timeline which makes apes the dominant species on the planet and eventually usher in the destruction of the Earth. Now that Armando is on their radar, they suspect the ape he was accompanied by, Caeser, may be the substituted offspring who is fated to bring mankind to its knees... and they’re certainly not wrong.

When Armando plunges to his death during an interrogation, Caeser loses the plot a little and starts off building a wordless revolutionary force with the various apes, who can understand his will and intent well enough without being able to speak. Once this underground ape army is set in motion, the battles and events to bring the downfall of the authorities will, in time, mark the end of mankind as the most intelligent species on the planet, just as we’ve already seen it did during the first two films in this series, Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here). A temporal paradox, of course, since without Taylor’s spaceship in the first film, Cornelius and Zira would never have been able to get back to the past and start us on this loop in the first place. Also... it kinda totally contradicts the story that Cornelius gave about the birth of the ape revolution in the last film but, hey ho, that’s okay... since it also contradicted the back story of the first film too. Don’t know why the writers didn’t do something about this but I guess you could always take the rather lame hypothesis that the last film set up an alternate timeline if you like. As a kind of cop out for the sloppy continuity.

It’s a brutal and violent film, especially in this extended cut, but it’s also quite funny and insightful in terms of the habits and reactions of people’s behaviour and what you might call, human nature... it’s got some quite biting satire in it which is something a lot of the best science fiction has in spades, of course. There’s a great throwaway line, for example, which both tells you the state of mankind’s technological progress over his environment and vices while, at the same time, saying everything about the nature of desire... when a woman is seen smoking, she refers to cigarettes thusly: “Funny. Now I know they won’t kill me, I don’t enjoy them.”

Ultimately the film is a joy to watch and Roddy McDowell, who was a somewhat major supporting player in the first film (his character relegated a little more when played by a different actor in the second one) and a joint co-star for the third movie, really shines in this as he pretty much has to carry the whole of the audience’s attention and empathy on his own shoulders... and he does so amazingly well. Not only that, most of the film he is pretending to be just another dumb ape so he doesn’t even have a lot of dialogue to use. Instead, he conveys all the hatred, wisdom and moments of humour (there are some in here, I promise) mostly by his facial expressions (already covered in buckets of make up and prosthetics but what he does with it is truly inspiring) and his body language. It’s a masterful and extremely overlooked piece of theatrical performance and it’s probably, because of the sheer amount of obstacles coupled with McDowell’s status as the main lead of the film (once Ricardo Montalban’s character has met his death), his best acting job in the entire series. It’s quite amazing to watch and often you’ll probably forget you are actually looking at a character who is supposed to be an ape... and I mean that in a good way.

Combined with this we have some really nice compositions in the film, with the director using things like legs and boots of the, presumably, deliberately “nazi-like” humans in the foreground, large on screen, to overshadow the things happening in the background and comment on the nature of man’s way of living his life in the future. So that satire isn’t just inherent in the script, Thompson does stuff to highlight things visually with framing too... which again, I think, is an overlooked element of these movies and this one in particular. The camera is rarely static for long and even some of the more still shots are imbued with a slight, almost imperceptible hand held shake to them... which really shouldn’t work as well as it does here but... it does.

We also have a really wonderful score by composer Tom Scott which is quite badly mistreated and chopped about or just rejected at various points in the film. Frankly, this is a great shame because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the next best score to the legendary Jerry Goldsmith’s contributions to the series. Scotts music is brutally percussive and somewhat stark, fits right into the musical universe of the previous apes films and is, to my ears, a much more successful and appropriate response to the material and ideas behind it than Leonard Rosenman’s two scores. Why this composer’s score was mistreated and why he wasn’t retained for the next film really leaves me scratching my head and jumping up and down making “Ooh! Ooh!” noises. It’s great in the movie but, if you want to hear the full score as intended, Film Score Monthly put out a release of it back in 2001 on CD as a double header with Rosenman’s score for the next film in the series.

Interestingly, the climax to the movie uses some of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original film tracked in at the end but, and I find this interesting because there seems to be no reason for it, it starts at different points depending on whether you are watching the theatrical cut or the extended edition.

So let’s talk about the extended edition just a little bit. Well, unfortunately, it’s still missing the original pre-credits sequence shown at early previews where some cops find a beaten and bloody ape, injured at the hands of its human masters and showing in a fairly graphic manner what the majority of the rest of the movie is trying to reenforce in the mind. There are still referrals to this incident left in the dialogue in the film as it stands now.... but it would have been nice to have the original pre-credits on it. Especially since this now means this is the first Apes movie not to have such a sequence.

The rest of the extra material in the extended version is mostly from the last third of the movie and it’s the full effects and brutality of the bloody violence where the apes go into battle against the humans that is more intense, with lots of blood squibs going off etc. The very ending is a lot different too. In the theatrical version, Breck and his people are about to be brutally clubbed to death by the apes. McDonald, who is off to one side, pleads for their lives and then Natalie Trundy, playing an ape for this movie, says “No”... the first normal ape who has learned to speak. Caeser shows compassion and lets them live. However, in this original version, Trundy has no speaking lines and all the humans, bar McDonald, are bashed to death by the apes. It’s an interesting ending because it shows the apes, who have been the underdogs all the way through, in order to capture the sympathy of the audience, showing themselves to be just as ruthless as their former captors and it’s an ending which leaves nobody left to root for... possibly why the decision was made to change the ending. Possibly.

Goldsmith’s replacement music, tracked in from the first film, is also a lot longer and begins a lot earlier in the extended cut than it does in the final release version. When you look back on the final release print with the hindsight of knowing that it’s been recut, it’s really easy to see the cellotape and spit job done to change the ending. Certain shots of the apes bringing down their clubs are reversed and recut later to look like they’re cheering Caeser, for example. Roddy McDowell has got a load of new lines and when he delivers them he is either in long shot where you can’t really tell what he is saying or, even worse, the footage has been reframed and cropped in extreme close up with his mouth off the bottom of the screen so you can’t see it... a bit strange until you know the reasons why.

However, even if you’re watching the original theatrical release version, which most people are familiar with, it’s still quite a gruelling but mostly entertaining watch and it’s a good piece of social commentary underneath a science fiction veneer, which is pretty much the most you can want for movies exploring a fantasy milieu, I reckon. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is my third favourite of the apes movies but, sad to say, I seem to remember the next one in the sequence being somewhat less interesting and quite a lot less watchable than any of the others... even the second one. I’ll see if I still feel that way in a week or so when I give Battle For The Planet Of The Apes a watch... and you can be sure I’ll report back here for a debriefing.

Wednesday 27 May 2015


Hack To The Future

2015  USA
Directed by Brad Bird
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very slight spoiler on the content 
of one action scene in here towards the end.

Tomorrowland is a new movie by Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles (which I loved) and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (reviewed by me here). It’s based around, or at least inspired by, concepts and ideas from the long running Disneyland theme park attraction Tomorrowland. However...

First of all, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to Disneyland so I really can’t say how much of a good... um... adaptation (?) it is of the original attraction but, I suspect the “inspired by” I just tagged it with is probably closer to the truth than anything else you’d want to say because, it turns out, the place has gone through a lot of reinventions and reboots in its long history, since it first opened its doors in 1955.

Secondly... I wasn’t that sure of what to expect from a movie based on a theme park attraction. The only ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are the Disney Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and... well I figured that at least the first one was okay. Can’t say a lot for the three sequels but, using that twisted logic, I decided to give this movie a go because the trailer was kinda intriguing and with that kind of track record from the studio... well... as long as I steered clear of Tomorrowland 2: Dead Man’s Jetpack... I figured I should be fine.

Now, I was unaware, when I went into this movie, about the decidedly mixed reception this film had been getting with people but I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The only thing I really knew about it going in was what I said in my first paragraph and what I’d seen on the trailer which has been playing at my local cinema for the last few weeks. But the film surprised me by being, a) quite good and b) not what I was expecting after seeing said preview.

Now I’m sure a fair amount of my readers will have seen the trailer in question, which includes footage of a girl touching a randomly found pin badge and being transported to a future world of wonder whenever she touches it, while simultaneously still existing in her own time and place... although she is blind to our own experienced reality while she’s touching the pin. Well, all I can say without giving away too much about the film, which I’m really not wanting to do here, is that the version of the future world she sees and as the audience perceives it is not the whole story and is a little misleading in its entrance into the main premise of the film. And so I have to congratulate the writers and directors in taking a page from their own screenplay when it comes to the nature of the trailer in regards to the actual end product but... again... I don’t want to elaborate that point too much for fear of spoiling some of the reveals in this to you.

What I will say is that the main protagonist who you see in the trailer, asides from a nice bookend, framing element coming in at various points in the movie, doesn’t really arrive in the film as a properly established character until at least 20 mins into the movie but... that doesn’t matter and it’s a nice surprise because the film does jump in time a little by starting out in 1964 and then shooting off to the present day. Of course, not all of it is set in the present day, due to the nature of the story. Regardless of this, though, it starts off running and continues with a helter skelter pacing that really doesn’t let you stop and breathe much before the next exciting spectacle is upon you... and this film is all about cinematic spectacle, that’s for sure.

Now, it’s a great film but it does have its issues... the excessively hasty pacing being one of them. I would have preferred a little more stillness in there, I think, but Brad Bird is especially well known for
his animated masterpieces and that kind of art form does tend to move things along faster. Also, I suspect this is Bird’s natural preference for movie making too so that’s fair enough. It’s a personal issue I have with the film and I think that might be more my problem than anybody else’s.

Another thing I found kinda hard to handle, and I suspect this is another aspect of Bird’s personality, which is probably why he melds so well with Disney, is that the film is extremely hopeful, naively so perhaps, and is all about believing people can make a positive difference to the world... which is great. However, I did find it a little bit preachy and way too overkill in a lot of places. To explain...

When I was a young ‘un, growing up in the 1970s, my mum and dad used to take me, pretty much every year, to see the pantomime version of Peter Pan on stage. More often than not it would have Ron Moody playing Captain Hook and usually, for some strange reason, a grown woman playing Peter Pan (which possibly confused a load of kids but who am I to judge?). I think I probably loved it but I remember one part of the show where audience participation was a must. Peter Pan’s trusted ally, the fairy Tinkerbell, would be half dead and on the ropes... her little light fading and about to be extinguished forever. That is, unless the audience, with the power of their combined voices, could yell at the stage that “We believe in faeries” really loudly. Then, of course, after much frenzied repeat yelling and much milking of the audience, Tinkerbell’s little light would return to full brightness and we could all carry on with the show. I’m pretty sure that this probably carried over into the classic Disney cartoon of this J. M Barrie property too... although it’s been so many decades since I’ve seen it that I can’t be absolutely sure if it did. The point is, the film Tomorrowland suffers, if you want to see it that way, with a manifestation of exactly the same thing. It’s all about people believing enough in the future so that their will power can change and fix it... and so this whole “Tinkerbell solution” is something the director here has in common with that and... well, even as a kid, I used to hate that bit of Peter Pan.

Other than this stuff, though, the movie is a really fun ride... if you’ll pardon the analogy. There’s conflict and chase scenes aplenty with a much more ruthless and deadly intent behind the group of henchmen sent to kill our three heroes than you may guess from the trailer. Bird is not afraid to show both people and “animatronics” dying in the movie, if it helps provide credibility to his fairytales... something of which I wholeheartedly approve when it comes to getting certain points across and maintaining a modus operandi which won’t upset the suspension of audience disbelief.

This film is, by nature, extremely CGI heavy but, even with that constant distraction, the three main protagonists played by George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy are all really excellent and Hugh Laurie as their main antagonist, of a sort, is a good balance to address the kinds of cynical audience issues (such as some of the ones I have) and then hold them up as a villanous response for the three heroes to punch against. It all works extremely well.

The film has some nicely designed frames, some good editing which rarely gets confusing during the intense action sequences and a brilliant score by one of the director's chief collaborators, Michael Giacchino, sounding a lot here like he’s channeling Philip Glass in a couple of sequences (and I really hope they decide to put those cues on the upcoming soundtrack album.. fingers crossed). Michael Giacchino rarely turns in a dull score and his work here is par for the course... that is to say, appropriate and wonderful.

The film includes a nice little nod to Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Jules Verne but the best scene for me is when Britt Robertson’s character Casey is trying to track down information on the pin and she goes to a science fiction memorabilia store. Here you will see a whole range of cool stuff as set dressing... the store is amazing and I was all over spotting the many references which includes models of Robby The Robot, Robot B-9 from Lost In Space, Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still, a lifesize Han Solo in carbonite and a load of other cool stuff that will make collectors and fans alike wondering the prices of such things. A major action scene takes place in this store and, at one point during a chase, there is even a copy of the old Planet Of The Apes board game which I had as a kid and I recently mentioned in my review of Planet Of The Apes here. The only thing which was bugging me was... did they actually destroy any of these collectibles. Mr. Bird, for the record, a “no nerdy science fiction items of memorabilia were harmed during the making of this motion picture” during the end credits would have taken a weight off my mind.

Seriously though people, barring the caveats I mention elsewhere in this review, Tomorrowland is definitely worth some of your time. It’s a slick, action packed folly where all the main protagonists have their eyes on a prize of a hopeful  and positive future for the human race. It’s kinda like a mid-1980s sci-fi blockbuster but with more budget to bring some of the crazier concepts to life properly and with some really great actors in front of a crew and director who clearly know what they’re doing. Not a great movie but a really charming, good one which is definitely worth at least one watch... and I’m sure a whole bunch of you are going to dig it a lot more than I did so... you know... put it on your list and check it out sometime. And watch out for low flying jetpacks.

Sunday 24 May 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Prowl Play

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
2014  USA
Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
UK cinema release print.

I’ve been desperately waiting for this movie to come out over here in England for a while now, after it got such good word of mouth on the festival circuit. It’s been dubbed as the first Iranian vampire movie and, while I think the director might be Iranian and it’s certainly set in Iran... it was filmed in California. So I think that claim might need to be taken with a pinch of salt, depending on what your criteria are for the funding or location of a film and how much a part that plays in its nationality. It’s also been called a “vampire Western” but... no.

Not even close.

What it is, in fact, is a very good independent vampire movie which gets a lot of things right, eschewing the general over-explanatory route of story telling, often found in a lot of modern Hollywood and English movies and, instead, bringing a real sense of emotion and heart to the piece. I could go directly to the cliché of saying it’s quite a quirky film but, when you get what is essentially a black and white foreign movie of any type these days, then quirky probably covers a myriad of terminological sins that I’d rather avoid but... I suspect you’ll get that word applied a lot to it in reviews of this one, as a general catch all.

When I had to go into Central London to see this film because the local multiplexes wouldn’t pick it up, I was appalled that I was charged £14 for a cinema ticket now in this country’s ‘bright capital’... after all, I will probably be able to pick up a Blu Ray of the film for far less after a month or so of its release... but at least I can say that, in the case of this particular cinematic experience, the money was well spent.

The film is shot in a very crisp greyscale and tells the story of Arash, played by Arash Marandi, who lives with his junkie of a father and has to live with the fact that his dad owes the local and thuggishly villainous pimp lots of money, in a place referred to only as Bad City. But then there’s the title character too... the girl who walks home alone at night... played by the quite delightful Sheila Vand (with the director herself standing in for her in long shots on a skateboard). This lady who has no name is, in fact, a vampire and, though a lot of the scenes take place at night, where she wanders around and somehow manages to stay on the periphery of everybody’s consciousness, she doesn’t necessarily follow all the normal vampire rules that movies have laid down as law over the years. She’s not allergic to sunlight, she casts a reflection in mirrors and she has no fear of running water, for example. But she does have a great set of retractable fangs which can do a lot of damage, drinks blood and has a beautiful and commanding screen presence, even though she’s waif-like and seems to be a remote and lonely soul at heart. In terms of her visual look she definitely, due to her hair style and the striped top she has a penchant for wearing, reminded me a lot of Elina Löwensohn’s character in Hal Hartley’s Simple Men and one wonders if the director is a fan of Mr. Hartley’s excellent work.

The first thing that struck me about the film, and which continued to entrance me as I watched, was the director’s fixation of manipulating large visual blocks within a frame, often split up with a vertical line. She will find a way of splitting the frame up into, say, two sections, taking up either half the frame each or a two thirds to one third mix of space, and then have all the action of the shot predominantly taking place in one of those areas... whether there is a definite visual, vertical indicator or not. There are actually, when you start watching out for it, very few sequences (there are a couple, I think) where this visual modus operandi has not been employed, even when the camera is tracking somebody who is, for example, turning the corner of a street... the camera will more often than not follow with them so they are framed within roughly the same spot in the moving shot. Which is very good practice, actually, because it allows the director to do the thing which was good and common practice within movie making when widescreen formats were first popularly used back in the 1950s, which is to ensure the eye is not jumping from one place to another when the shot cuts to a reverse shot of the same scene or makes a transition to another. In fact, there is quite a beautiful transition from two totally different scenes which relies on the use of a splitting, vertical plane within the first few minutes of the movie. It makes good sense when using a 2.35:1 or similar aspect ratio, as this film does, to employ this kind of very controlled frame design within your scenes because it means you are less likely to pop your audience out of the action or give them an unintentional, visual jolt when you cut from moment to moment. And the flip side of that, of course, is that if you do want to give the audience a bit of a shock or a challenging sting, then you can just use the familiarity of the visual style as something to suddenly drop for a moment and get the desired kick out of it. It seems to be one of the arts of composing shots for a widescreen set up that seems to have either gone out of fashion or has been forgotten in recent years so... I’m glad that someone is still making use of this extremely controlled and ultimately beautiful technique of making films.

The other standout thing about this film is the writing of ‘the girl’ and the way that Sheila Vand plays her. I said she was waif-like and she also seems lonely and vulnerable at times... I imagine that she wanders the streets at night on the prowl with food being only partially her reason for doing this... I think she just wants to interact with people because she has almost forgotten what it’s like to have somebody else there for her. As such, the film develops with an implied, developing romance between her and Arash, even though she has done something terrible to Arash without either of them at first realising it... and also something near the start of the movie which has helped Arash turn his life around a little... so it’s interesting. There’s a really fantastic scene where Arash gives her some earrings and she doesn’t have pierced ears... so she gets Arash to pierce them on the spot for her and that... but I don’t want to give away the whole of a scene, which is a charming turning point for the title character. Enough to say that ‘the girl’ is truly adorable.

It would be easy to say that she is an avenging crusader, in that you get the feeling she is protecting people from bad antagonists at times, even with the fall out from the last person she kills on screen, because she does seem to relish inflicting her special brand of justice and, of course, she needs to eat. There’s a brilliant scene where she scares a little boy half to death on purpose, presumably to bring him in line and ensure he grows up to be a good person, but there’s also the fact that she seems to enjoy it a little and she is truly fearsome when she needs to be. I think one of the things I like about this film, though, is its deliberate refusal to paint everything in black and white tones worthy of the film’s greyscale palette... the director makes no real judgement on the people who inhabit the screen and, though they are very much ‘broad stroke’ characters, there is a certain complexity to all their emotional or psychological make up which leaves you, as an audience, in the position of working out if any given character is ultimately a good person or a bad person... and whether their past actions are something they need to be answerable for now. As the title character says to Arash at one point... “I’ve done bad things.”

This is a philosophy which I almost always applaud a writer or director for and, in the case of Ana Lily Amirpour, she’s both. And it helps that the title character is not without humour either... the way she stalks some people using stereotypical ninja stealth skills that go hand in hand with the legacy of vampirism in cinema is present but there’s also a magical scene where, a little way in, you realise she’s doing her own version of the famous Groucho/Harpo mirror sketch in Duck Soup... and that definitely got a little chuckle from me. And, again, I applaud the writer/director for a magical little scene which will live on in my memory through the years.

Ultimately, I have to say that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s wonderfully shot and lit, beautifully written, more than competently acted (and I’m totally in love with the central character), well designed and, concerning what I said about the composition of the majority of the shots in the movie, easy on the eye when it comes down to the editing. A truly charming film which will stay with me for a long while after the memories of other movies released in cinemas this year will have dimmed and turned to dust. A great success for Ana Lily Amirpour, who has instantly marked herself out as someone to definitely keep an eye on. Do yourself a favour and try and catch this one before the screen space gets devoured by the onslaught of dinosaur and time travelling robot movies in the not so distant future. One of the best films of the year.

Friday 22 May 2015

Island Of Terror

Confounded? Try Silicate!

Island Of Terror (aka Night Of The Silicates)
UK 1966
Directed by Terence Fisher
Odeon Entertainment (for Planet Films) 
Blu Ray Region B

Warning: Slight spoilers but nothing which 
should really diminish your enjoyment of this movie.

One of the things I love about the current Blu Ray and DVD release landscape in the UK is the discovery of movies I really should have been tuned into as a kid but which, somehow, managed to escape me. Such a release is the new UK Blu Ray of the 1966 Terence Fisher movie Island Of Terror. Now Fisher is a director who is probably on the radar of pretty much anyone who’s interested in British movies made in the Science Fiction and Horror genres... most famously for the movies he shot for Hammer films such as Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula and reviewed by me here) and the excellent Four Sided Triangle (reviewed by me here). He also directed one of my all time favourite British sci-fi/horror tales, The Earth Dies Screaming, which I would recommend to all of my readers and which definitely falls into the realm of what I have often called on here, my much loved ‘comfort horror’ films.

Island Of Terror is, from now on, also one of these much loved comfort horror films I will occasionally reach for but, I should probably warn the faint of heart when it comes to certain people who like to take their horror straight up and as it comes, that it’s also badly written and falls quite comfortably into that realm of cinematic entertainment known as... the unintentionally hilarious movie.

The film starts off with some amazing script outbursts which show the inhabitants of an island village at their harbour, each passing second including samples of dialogue which absolutely highlights how cut off from the world they are, even to the point where ‘the company’ hasn’t even bothered to put phones on the island for the last two years. It’s a smallish community and even the local police force seems to be a force of one - Constable John Harris played by Sam Kydd. We then cut to a scene of some of the most incomprehensible sci-fi techno babble I've heard committed to celluloid, which I’m sure even the scriptwriters probably didn’t understand and made up without any kind of research, as a team of scientists in a secluded manor house on the island start their next experiment involving Strontium 90 and a load of lab equipment. All in a quest to discover the cure for cancer. The pseudo-science dialogue is quite outrageously bad, even for a movie like this, and would have took some rehearsing to get it to roll off the tongue like that, I’ll bet.

We then get a credit sequence where my ears stood up and took note. I’d not consciously heard any other movies scored by this composer except one and, as they music played out, I just had time enough to say to somebody in the room that... this sounds a little like the music to the first Dr. Who And The Daleks movie... before the music credits came up. Music by Malcolm Lockyear with sound effects by Barry Gray, who people will know as the musical team behind that first Dalek movie and, in Barry Gray’s case, the composer of many of the Gerry Anderson TV shows such as Joe 90, Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds, Space 1999 (Season 1) and the like. So I was quite pleased to be able to identify Lockyear’s trademark style when I’d only ever heard his stuff on that first Dalek film, to my knowledge. That being said, when the music was playing on the menu screen, the other person in the room with me suggested the film must be a comedy, from the sound of the score. Nope, it’s not a comedy... well, not intentionally, anyway, but I’ll come back to this point with the music a little later, I think.

Pretty soon, a man goes into a cave and we hear his screams. When he’s discovered by Sam Kydd and taken to one of the three male main protagonists of the film, Dr. Landers (played by Eddie Byrne), it becomes apparent that the rubbery husk of the remains has somehow had the bones stripped from the body. Oh no! Is it a virus? Landers takes advantage of the only boat a week that leaves (or some such, they really do keep emphasising how cut off the population of the island is at any opportunity) to go to London to enlist the aide of his friend Dr. Stanley, played by the legendary Peter Cushing. Stanly takes Landers to meet the lothario Dr. West (played by Edward Judd) who agrees, along with Dr. Stanley to accompany Dr. Landers back to the island to investigate the body.

But how to get there?

Well, West’s girlfriend Toni (played by the lovely Carole Gray) has a rich father and she secures a helicopter ride back to the island... on condition that she can accompany them. Unfortunately, she only accompanies them to be a paper thin character frequently put in peril, assist exposition and help out with the villagers while the men do all the interesting stuff but... hey ho... that’s what you expect from this kind of movie, I guess. Of course, it then transpires that her father will need the helicopter again the very next morning... so the four of them are dropped off on the island and the helicopter agrees to return in a few days... because it’s really important to the plot that everyone in the audience knows they are cut of from the rest of the world on this island for a number of days, right?

And then, amost immediately, the whole film gets really great and when our intrepid heroes go to investigate the Manor House containing the island’s experimental scientific community... they find them all in an equally dead and rubbery state, their bones sucked from their bodies. It doesn’t take long for our heroes to discover that the scientific experiments to cure cancer inadvertently brought forth a rock based, amoeba like creature with a long tentacle that can sting you and suck the very skeleton from you in a very small amount of time. Oh... so it wasn’t a virus after all then? Okay that’s good.

From here on the film turns into a standard monster combat situation, as our heroes learn in no uncertain terms that the silicates (as they call them) split after they’ve eaten some bones (belonging to the odd horse or human, for instance) and multiply with great rapidity. Our three scientists, aided only by West’s girlfriend, the short lived constable and a bunch of “Oh, arrr” local villagers, have only a day at most to stop the total annihilation of the population of the island by the increasing numbers of silicates. As one of the villagers said to another, in a piece of dialogue that says everything about this movie in terms of its scripting... “There’s some peculiar goings on, going on, on this island.” Not sure if that’s the right punctuation  for that sentence or not but... no, I’m not making this stuff up.

Oh wait. Did I say ‘standard’ monster combat situation. Well, this movie is anything but standard and although the script is quite bad and giggle inducing at regular intervals, it’s... well, it’s pretty well made for starters. There’s some really nice things happening with the composition of the shots and the director uses the varied heights of people to make diagonal patterns and pyramid shapes within the set ups... which works really well and might well be a signature trait of the director since I’m sure I’ve picked up on that element of his films before.

The other thing this movie has got going for it, apart from some brilliant actors and actresses in it who you wouldn’t believe would ever want to attempt to bring these almost unsayable lines to life, is a certain unpredictable quality to it. It’s not a film which sticks completely to a formula and, though the elements of peril and much laboured sense of jeopardy are hitting pretty standard riffs, things suddenly happen in this film that you just don’t expect to see... like the unexpected death of one of the three doctor heroes about half way through the movie (and no, I’m not going to tell you which one that is).

There’s another quite amazing moment which completely contradicts what we know about the physiology of the silicate monsters but is a nice scene, nevertheless... where Peter Cushing’s character gets a tentacle around his wrist and is being pulled towards a silicate. Edward Judd’s character reacts as quickly as he feels the audience can keep up with and grabs an axe, moving towards the silicate... and, just when you expect him to cut the tentacle off the creature, he chops off Cushing’s hand instead. Apparently this particular scene was trimmed in a few countries, including here in the UK, to delete the spurting of blood from Cushing’s stump. However, I’m happy to confirm that this Blu Ray reinstates the second or two shot... which was previously only available in a German DVD release of the movie, from what I can make out.

Even the possible cure to the silicate problem, which I won’t go into here, involves the heroes sacrificing all the cattle on the island to the creatures in order for their mad scheme to work... which is kinda brutal and ruthless even for a modern horror film, when you stop and think about it, let alone something which hit the cinemas in 1966. So all in all, the less than predictable way in which a lot of the plot unfolds is quite stand out and it certainly had me scratching my head, in a good way, at times.

Less good is the amount of padding in this movie. It’s not  long affair but a lot of the film seems like it’s lingering unnecessarily in scenes to fill out the running time. For instance, when the helicopter leaves our heroes on the island we are treated to a long, held shot as it flies off into the distance for a while. The music tries hard to make this long, drawn out static shot sound a bit more exciting but, sad to say, and going back to the comment made about the film looking like it was a comedy, the soundtrack does seem like inappropriate scoring for the majority of the movie. it would be great as a stand alone listen, I’m sure (although I’m also sure we’ll never get the chance) but as support to the movie, it’s heavy rather than robust a lot of the time.

Similar scene padding comes when Cushing and Judd go to collect a load of Strontium 90 from the Manor House. We are treated to a long scene of them putting on their protective radiation suits which takes far longer than it should and, sad to say, looks like each actor is wearing a giant condom over their head. I know the characters want to stay safe but that’s not the kind of safe I was expecting from them, to be honest.

While I’m at it though, I noticed a probable cut scene too, that doesn’t seem to have made the final version of the film. In one scene, where Judd is addressing the village community, he talks about running one of the creatures over... well I can probably hazard a guess as to where this scene would have been but it’s certainly not referring to anything that happens in the movie as it was released... so that’s a bit of a worry. Also, a quick note to anybody fighting monsters... if you’re going to throw Molotov cocktails at rock creatures, don’t stand directly under a tree which happens to have one in it. Just a little word of advice there.

And that’s all I got on this one. The ending is... well it’s a bit more predictable than some films I’ve seen Fisher work on but there's a little punchline of an ending, where one of the characters says the truly groan inducing line... “We’re lucky this was an island. If it had happened anywhere else I don't think we could have destroyed them.”... takes us to a scientific research team in Japan,  obviously working on a similar problem and getting killed offscreen by a similar ‘accidental creature.’ It’s all happening in this movie but it makes for an incredibly corny ending, I must say.

All that being said, though, I absolutely loved Island Of Terror and have no hesitation in recommending it to pretty much anyone who loves these old British B movies and it’s one I’ll no doubt watch a fair few times in my life, now I know it exists. Not a hard release to love and I certainly hope there are a lot more of those kinds of movie coming from wherever they dug this one up from. I’ll be happy to stand in line for them.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Blood for Irina

Rising Vamp

Blood for Irina
USA 2012
Directed by Chris Alexander
Autonomy Pictures 
DVD Region 2

Wow. You know, that old adage advising that, if you don’t have anything good to say about something, you should probably not say it at all? It's one I do tend to subscribe to as a general rule... although there are occasional exceptions. It’s an attitude I support but, due to me having a review blog for the last five years, it’s something I’ve had to wrestle with sometimes. When a film doesn’t have much good in it that I can find to shout out as a positive then the decision, in those kinds of cases, has to be, really, just tell it like it is. There’s no sense in trying to hold yourself to a certain standard of critical insight or viewpoint if you’re going to run away at the first sign of anything bad you have to say and so... it’s in that spirit that I intend to write a short review for this film. Even though I was tempted to just walk away and forget about it.

This one first came to my attention when I saw it on the shelf at Fopp records earlier in the year. Blood For Irina is a brilliant sounding title and this was coupled with a cover showing the lower face of a vampire lady with blood dripping down it. It piqued my curiosity somewhat but it was the price tag of being only £4 which was the real clincher in the deal. So obviously I stacked it on the small pile of visual treasures I was already planning to purchase because, hey, at £4 you can’t really go wrong, right?


If I’ve learnt one lesson from this experience it’s that, even the most seductive looking packaging and lack of expense in a product can sometimes add up to a bad buy. I can’t say I regret purchasing this movie because, if I didn’t, I’ll always be looking out to grab a copy sometime but, honestly, it was a hard film to concentrate on and sit still for.

It opens okay, though, with a shot of blood dripping into water and ultimately, after a while, turning the screen a kind of orange colour. Actually, the director seems obsessed with any shots he can get of various fluids... be they blood or water... dripping into, onto or off of something throughout the entire length of the film,. Then we get the title of the movie followed by a shot of a child’s plastic toddler doll on some pebbles with, I think, a slight and almost imperceptible slow zoom out ... presumably taken on a beach somewhere. We then find ourselves with the vampire lady of the title but... it has to be said, she really isn’t doing much. And she doesn’t do much quite frequently, at the expense of pretty much all else, throughout the film’s short running time of 70 minutes. Irina seems to be a creature existing in two modes... one in where she’s constantly bending over her sink and vomiting up blood, indicating that she’s definitely on her way out as a vampire... and the other where she’s kind of walking around looking for prey and just generally posing in slow motion for her unseen audience.

There’s hardly any dialogue in this film with the only words spoken being occasional voice over; muffled and distorted sound bites from Irina to try and inform the audience... but inform us of what? The rest is, as I've said, mostly just shots of the main character as she walks around a bit. To be fair, the film is trying to convey a certain mood and a lot of it is handled with long, slow, static master shots with cuts to the next set up... there’s hardly any camera movement at all in the opening section of the movie, for example. Then we start getting more slow zooms and some of the shots do have interesting lightning schemes but, almost to counter that, either the stock the film has been shot on (maybe digital video?) or the way the images have been processed really do not help with the overall look the DP might have got with this stuff and ultimately, it has to be said, it just looks fairly cheap, nasty and way too “high definition” for the kind of moodiness they’re going for. At least it seems that way to me.

And, as I said... nothing much happens...

A dead body is found and stabbed with a pole by someone who doesn’t make much sense in the narrative as it stands... possibly a guardian-like figure for the title character? I couldn’t really tell, since there’s no dialogue except the odd, distorted monologue from Irina, as I mentioned above. She might say, for instance... “I remember...” and that’s the way we’re supposed to tell that a particular sequence is supposed to be a flashback... I think. Then it’s the odd shot of the doll on the pebbles again and then more throwing up of blood in the sink. It’s not that the images don’t flow into a linear whole, I think... it’s just that they don’t really say anything or have much meaning, it seems to me, than a bunch of actors posing for a camera because everyone thinks it looks good.

The “deleted footage” which comes as an extra on the disc perhaps provides a clue to why this film is as it is... because the out-takes I’m thinking of are a standard dialogue kind of scene between the main character Irina (played by Shauna Henry) and another actor and... it’s not particularly good. I’m wondering if the director went with the idea of just doing the film as a bunch of wandering visuals that don’t do much because he maybe sensed he was losing the battle in the dialogue sequences and maybe felt he needed to drastically change the shape of the way the movie worked rather than piece together some not so greatly acted scenes.. and then altered the way he was shooting the movie to adapt to this decision. I don’t know if that’s at all true, I might be completely wrong, but that’s my best guess.

And I really don’t have much else to say about the movie. It’s been compared to the cinematic styles of both Jean Rollin and Jess Franco but, seriously, it’s nothing like able to capture any of their occasional magic and if I hadn’t been clued into that then I would never had any way of knowing that this is the kind of thing the director was going for... if, indeed, that is what he was going for.  It’s a bit of a mess, to be honest, which makes me wonder how there’s actually a sequel to this movie been made somehow. I’m curious to see how it could possibly follow on from anything much in this one and, all I can say is, given the strength of this one, I suspect my curiosity will probably roll over and die before I get anywhere near to purchasing said sequel.

Another thing which detracts from this movie, big time, is the musical score by the director himself, which is certainly competent enough as music but it seems to be holding its own against the visuals rather than either working with them or giving them emotional shape... so it doesn’t do the movie any favours.

Ultimately, I can’t honestly recommend this movie to even lovers of vampire cinema. I love the idea of a beautiful vampire lady wandering the streets with no dialogue and savouring the richness of the shot compositions but, honestly, this is not a great attempt at trying to capture the sublime emotional ennui that this style of cinema can, and sometimes does, achieve. I’m sorry this review is so damning... more sorry than I was writing this than having to sit through the thing... so my apologies to all involved because I know how hard these things must be to make. Vampire movies can be a hard thing to get right and this one looks like an honourable try which had some production issues along the way... at least, it looks that way to me. Like I said at the start of this review though, I have to call things as I see them and that’s about all I can do with this one. Move right along... nothing to see here.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Mad Max - Fury Road

Furioser and Furiosa

Mad Max - Fury Road
2015  Australia/USA
Directed by George Miller 
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so the reason I just spent some time over the last few weeks watching the Mad Max Trilogy (reviewed here, here and here) was so that I could bring myself up to speed on the latest installment, Mad Max: Fury Road. Now there has been a lot of good word of mouth on this film with some people even suggesting that it’s similar to the cinema of Kurosawa in its execution and influence... well, it’s really not ‘Kurosawa good’ and I wish people wouldn’t evoke my favourite director every time they want to say they really quite like something.

On the other hand, this is certainly an okay film and, for the most part, it follows through in the spirit of the first two films of the original trilogy... so there’s that. Also, I needed to see this one in IMAX 3D... not because I was particularly bothered about seeing the spectacle on an extra large screen, but because there was no way I could pass up the chance to ask the person in the box office for a ticket to IMAX MAD MAX... it had to be done and it was worth the six quid extra on top of the Unlimited card to be able to say that phrase out loud to someone.

The film does, however, truly look quite spectacular, even using the cliched orange/blue colour scheme that the director plumped for in this one. And it’s full of action.... perhaps a little too much for many people’s tastes. I know one lady, for instance, who labelled it a kids movie due to the lack of both emotional content and story. Personally, I didn’t think the movie lacked a strong emotional element at all... and it had a heck of a lot more of that than in the original trilogy, especially in terms of the chemistry between Max, played in this one by popular actor Tom Hardy, and the new female action hero Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It helps the ‘action movie shorthand’ if you have two really good actors doing these things, of course.

Yes, there is a lack of anything but the simplest mission objective of a plot but, although I can understand the irritation of that to some people, it’s certainly one of the strongest links between this and the first two movies... which also shared a common lack of vision when it came to the story telling, although not to the detriment of either film. If you read my review of the third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, in fact, you’ll find I was citing the more complicated plotting as one of the reasons why that film didn’t really work too well in terms of spiritual continuity with the others. This new film is a lot more like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in terms of content...although the visual style is a world apart. I’ll get to that in a minute.

What we basically have in this film, and why it fits right into the Mad Max universe that Miller has created and maintained all these years, is the last 20 minutes or so of that second movie stretched out to make one, long car chase of a movie. There’s hardly any let up or pause between set pieces and this does make it a little more weaker as a film in some respects, than one or two of its predecessors. That being said, I got a real feel that this is where Miller wanted to take the Mad Max films all along and you have to remember that modern cinema has changed a lot in the intervening years since the original trilogy. Back in the day it was probably cinematic suicide to make one long movie which was just, basically, a big chase scene. These days, when action films just keep getting more and more over the top in their execution and with audiences demanding the kind of visual overload that goes with this style of presentation, I suspect the director finally felt like he could make the kind of movies that he always wanted to and...  in the way he wanted to. So...

The good
Well, the colours are fantastic, despite the aforementioned predominant hues... and it’s a real eye candy movie in terms of both the colours and the inventiveness of Miller’s post apocalyptic vision. There’s some beautiful lightning in a scene where Max, Furiosa and their cargo of beauties (I won’t bother to explain that, go see the film) are driving at night  and so everything is washed in blue light, even Max and Furiosa in the front two seats. In the back seats, however, the ladies who are accompanying them, have a lamp on and that creates a contrasting set of colours in the back seat of the vehicle... all pitched against the other colour scheme within the same frame. So that’s really good. And the surrealistic element of the landscapes and the kinds of Daliesque people who inhabit them are pretty interesting too.

Actually, I say it’s MIller’s post apocalyptic vision but one of the people who wrote it and drew concepts for it, back in the 1990s as it turns out... but still with his story and ideas being retained now due to production problems in the long road to... err... Fury Road, is comic book artist Brendan McCarthy. I used to read his work in popular British comic 2000AD and, although he didn’t create the comic book character I am about to cite, it has to be said that the look of the Charlize Theron character Imperator Furiosa does owe a visual debt to Mean Machine Angel from the Judge Dredd strip in the 1980s. In fact, the film is so action packed (at the expense of everything else) and colourful that I believe it would be fair to say the whole movie is infused with a comic book sensibility and so McCarthy’s involvement in the project does explain certain things, in that sense. In terms of design and colour, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Max.

There’s a scene in this where Max has to give Furiosa a makeshift blood transfusion with a needle and so, at one point in the proceedings, it gets to a point which I can only describe as having a Fury With A Syringe On Top moment. Yay! I nearly used that for the title of this review but I didn't so, forgive me, I had to work it into the text somehow.

The Bad
Well, when I reviewed Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome I moaned that the cinematography in that one, utilising lots of camera movement, was out of keeping with the often static shot set ups of the original two films. Alas, this film embraces that kind of moving camera vibe to it all the way through... but I think I can forgive it somewhat because, for one thing, it’s more or less just one long action sequence and so moving camera is appropriate. Also, like I said, modern action cinema is a different beast to the celluloid milieu that Miller was filming in back in the 1970s and 1980s and, though I prefer that slower approach to film, I can’t fault Miller’s choice to go with what he’s done here.

The Ugly
Okay... so there’s been a lot of talk about where this film fits into the original chronology, with even George Miller citing it as a reboot. That being said, I think it’s obvious, to me anyway, that it’s a natural sequel to the third movie and takes place after that. More or less the same opening explanation (and footage) of the current state of the post-apocalyptic future our main hero finds himself in that graced the opening of the second movie, in most prints, is used here. But the character still has his leg brace due to wounds received in the first movie, he still has the iconic jacket with the left arm now stitched up where it was torn and he has long hair like he did in the third movie at the start of this one... so I reckon it’s just a natural sequel, The thing that did confuse me were the constant, dream-state flashbacks to people in his past, his family apparently, who didn’t look or sound anything like that in the original movie. So that’s kind of confusing.

All said and done, Miller carries on the films with what is, ostensibly, a wagon train Western that has various nasty bad guy elements representing the chasing Indians and Max, Furiosa and their crew as the good old cowboys of the piece. Junkie XL’s score is noisy but serviceable, even though it’s not in keeping with either of the composers who scored the original trilogy, and there’s also a character relationship between Max and a ‘bad guy turns good guy’ which holds a similar dynamic as that between Max and the Gyro Captain in the second movie... so that’s a nice bit of character building stylistic continuity for you, if you are looking out for that kind of stuff... and much more convincing than the cheap audio/visual echo of the music box from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which has been almost half heartedly, it seemed to me, inserted into the film to check a box.

All in all, it’s not the best of the Mad Max movies (I’d rate it second or third best, although I can’t quite figure out my preferred order of that one just yet) but it’s certainly not a bad film and it’s way better than Mad Max: Bungee Jump Dome... so there’s that. I was certainly entertained by it a fair bit, even if I was a tad disappointed in the overwhelming emphasis on the spectacle of modern action cinema. However, I’m really glad it’s getting such rave, if somewhat baffling to me, reviews and I think it’s a nice pay off for Miller who really deserves this success. It’s certainly a film I’ll be revisiting again on Blu Ray in the next year or two and I think most people will be behind this one. And they’ll get no arguments from me.

Mad Max @ NUTS4R2
Mad Max
Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Mad Max: Fury Road

Friday 15 May 2015

Camille 2000

Camille Toed

Camille 2000
Italy 1969
Directed by Radley Metzger
Arrow Films Blu Ray Region B

Camille 2000 is only the second film I’ve seen directed by Radley Metzger but, like The Lickerish Quartet, which I reviewed here, I was totally blown away by it and I’m absolutely appalled by the lack of response and interest in this film that both the IMDB and certain influential critical web sites have seen fit to let stand. I only knew Metzger before I saw The Lickerish Quartet, by reputation, as a man who made cheesy sexploitation and porn films but, frankly, this is the second time I’ve been both mesmerised and enthused by the way he handles his art and I think this director is worth a lot more of any cineaste’s time... whether that’s an unpopular statement to make or not.

Camille 2000 is Metzger’s, then, contemporary reworking of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camélias but, sad to say, I only know the original work through a reference in Woody Allen’s old stand up routines of the 1960s... so I can’t compare this movie in terms of adaptation although, in all fairness, I don’t think it’s trying to be anything other than slightly inspired by what I’ll grudgingly call the ‘source material’ here. The Allen routine, with the one throwaway line about the original, did tip me off to how the movie was going to end, though, it has to be said.

When I saw The Lickerish Quartet, I’m sure I probably made reference in some way to the metatextual nature of the narrative and the way in which Metzger pulls the objective rug out from the viewer half way through and makes you think about... and question... everything you are seeing. There’s not a heck of a lot of that going on in this movie but he does include a bookending device which plunges you into a similar dilemma of how you might, or might not, read the images differently in context of the whole story and this bookend starts with the title of the movie shouted out by a crew member, possibly Metzger himself, as it is seen in the context of a clapperboard announcing the unfolding film as a specific take. So that’s all quite interesting and I’m wondering if this kind of implied versus perceived reality is a particular fetish or obsession for Metzger and whether it crops up as a signature gesture in many of his other works.

What I do know for sure is that he takes a simplistic plot of a man falling for a woman... a lady who is used to a less morally inclined lifestyle... and explores their relationship, break up and the true nature of their wounded love for each other while embellishing it with a sense of beauty and 'aesthetic wow' which makes the whole thing worth watching. Margueritte, played by the gorgeous Danièle Gaubert, the Carmille character in the film (it’s her nickname because of the flowers she always has around and the ties to the Dumas character it conjures up in people’s minds... oh wait, there’s that metatextuality again) sacrifices her own happiness and breaks up with her naive new lover Armand, played by Nino Castelnuov. Armand is one of many lovers she has and she ditches him because she believes the words of his father that they can never be happy together due to certain aspects of their basic nature. And therein lays the tragedy, of course.

In anyone else’s hands this story might seem dull and pointless but Metzger’s artistry is pushed to the fore and he shows us various encounters between the lovers and their friends (many sexual or filled with nudity) and every scene seemed to me to be a toolbox of new visual treasures... both in style and also, of course, in content. One lady wears a beautiful string vest style dress which hugs her in all the right, revealing  places and it would be true to say that there’s a lot of fascination in this particular movie with see-through costumes... but it’s not just in the costuming that this interest manifests itself.

Yes, there’s a whole lot of transparent or semi transparent costumes in the movie but the director also shows an interest in shooting through or against similar textures made from glass or mirrors and he uses this often to make multiple planes or sections in a screen to position his actresses and actors in, giving us beautiful compositions worthy of some of the most celebrated cinematic artists of our time. This is especially true of the sex scenes and there aren’t many, maybe one or possibly not even that, which aren’t shot through some kind of third party texture or substance.

For instance the first sex scene of the movie, which includes off-screen fellatio, is rendered as various shots through mirrors. Later on, the ‘love making’ utilises the reflections in a whole bank of mirrored panels used to show multiple views of the coupling. Starting off with five panels we, after a while, cut to a close up shot of two of the panels and then we pan along the small bank of mirrors before cutting back to the master shot and repeating the same movement in a larger view of what turns out to be many, multiple mirrors which make up one of the walls of Margeurite’s bed chamber.

In fact, all the sex scenes are equally inventively and tastefully shot, with one specific part of one of the sex scenes being pretty much the only one not executed through some kind of artifically occurring, reflecting or refracting viewpoint. The specific shot I’m thinking of is quite amazing and I want to try to describe it for you here...

Marguerite is lying naked on her back on a bed with only her head and shoulders shown, filling half of the frame coming in from the left of the shot, while Armand performs, presumably, an act of cunnilingus on her. So her head and shoulders are forming a horizontal profile within half of the landscape ratio of the shot. There is a bowl of white flowers, presumably Carmelias, filling up the foreground, in front of her, in the right hand side of the shot. As Margeurite’s pleasure mounts, her breathing becomes heavier on the soundtrack and this is when Metzger (and I believe he went to  lot of trouble to get this set up to work) starts changing the rack focussing of the shot to bring the flowers into deep focus and blur Marguerite’s head and upper body. As she sighs and breathes in and out on her approach to orgasm, Metzger starts refocussing the shot , alternating between her and the flowers, as she breathes in or out... giving us a pulsing and very visual representation of Marguerite’s head space by illustrating it with the rhythm of the constantly shifting differential focussing.

So that’s orgasm through rack focussing... and it’s pretty amazing to watch. Worth the price of admission alone, I would say.

It’s a movie with a lot of visual and conceptual inventiveness throughout and this sets it apart from others. There’s lots of big, inflatable furniture, some completely transparent (just to follow a visual theme, I guess) and the set design when the two ex-lovers separately attend a BDSM themed sex party is quite gob smacking in its execution... what with big dangly chains, gold sparkly stocks and bright colours... not to mention the cage for having sex in the corner, for all to see (and you can bet that Metzger takes full cinematic advantage of his compositional eye with all the vertical sections thrown up by those bars). It’s like ‘nobody in real life’s’ idea of good taste BDSM or in any way realistic to 'the scene' but... it’s quite an eye opener and has a certain sense of charm and fun to it that, perhaps, is something that should be brought back to current BDSM lifestyle trends in some ways. It’s just the kind of party I’d love to attend and... well, I don’t even do parties.

The film is peppered with cool and witty little touches too like, for example, a lady exhaling from the joint she’s been smoking into a balloon, thus inflating it, before passing it on to the next person, who deflates the ballon in his mouth... which is kind of a nice visual way to show this whole kind of drug sharing routine. Or there’s the moment when Armand realises that Camille has not turned up for their date because she is sleeping with another man, so the next day he sends her a personal message of a woman turning up at her door. The messenger turns her back on Marguerite and steps out of her clothes, revealing a written note on her back from Armand, scrawled in lipstick or some other media, which says “You are a whore. I was an idiot.” The implication of how Armand got the message on the gal is plain but also one which Marguerite finds amusing and not in any way troubling... perhaps even a little endearing and this, perhaps, highlights the difference between the inner worlds the two inhabit.

Another interesting scene comes up towards the end of the film, where Armand and the current 'successor' to Marguerite’s charms play a James Bondesque duel of Chemin De Fer, both trading insults about the other’s character and, perhaps unfairly, about Marguerite’s value as a human being too. This was a little hard to watch because, frankly, the tragic character of Marguerite was very much the hero of the story, for me.

There are a load of, pretty much soft core in this case, sex scenes scattered throughout the movie and I have to say they were less than erotic but much more interesting to watch on a visual level... which is one of the key things I personally respond to in terms of cinematic aesthetics. It wasn't the sex scenes that kept me hard, it was the way in which the director used the camera which kept my enthusiasm at much more than half mast. It’s also quite striking that a scene towards the end of the movie, set in a hospital, has the two main characters separated by a plastic, transparent, life support tent... which is kind of an interesting sense of synchronisation with the tone of the characters when you consider that the majority of the sex scenes in the movie between these two are shot via either a reflective or transparent surface... or a groan inducing combination of the two.

Piero Piccioni’s score is, unsurprisingly for a composer of his character, utterly fantastic too. Unfortunately, the soundtrack was issued ages ago by the now, pretty much defunct, Right Tempo label and so it’s quite rare and expensive in a physical edition these days (and if I want to get into the spirit of Camille 2000, then I definitely want to get physical with it). As I was watching, I realised that I had probably already got at least half the musical cues on this because it’s one of those scores which always tends to get represented, by some track or another, on many of the Italian exploitation score compilations I have in the racks... but I’d still like to get my hands on the full version at some point (there’s a download available but... who has room on their computer for downloads?).

And that’s pretty much it, in terms of Camille 2000. I was completely bowled over by the technical artistry in this film and I really need to see more of Radley Metzger’s work now. Unfortunately, a lot of his stuff is quite badly censored in the UK so I’m going to have to do my research and look farther afield than what can be found on these Victorian shores (actually, with the state of censorship in this country as it is, this statement is quite insulting to Victorian values... we’re far worse off in the United Kingdom now than the Victorians ever were). As far as this movie goes, though, the Arrow Blu Ray restoration and remaster is a thing of beauty and it’s got a few nice extras on it too. Definitely something I’d recommend to most lovers of cinema, I think... regardless of the reputation it seems to have garnered over the years. Grab this one while you can.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films And Animation

Living On Borowczyk Time

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films And Animation
France - various years
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk 
Arrow Dual Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2

I’ve not seen a heck of a lot of films, over the years, by the famous and, quite possibly notorious, director Walerian Borowczyk because a lot of the material he turns his attention to is kind of edgy and it’s usually handled in the kind of matter-of-fact but playful way that drives British film censors wild and reaching for their loathsome, art defacing scissors. That being said, he was always on my mind when I was going through College in the late 1980s/early 1990s because his films often seemed to be playing at the equally famous Scala cinema... and I usually had one of their incredible “picture timetable” posters pinned above the desk while I worked, more often than not featuring shots of scantily clad ladies as illustrations for films by this director (and usually a few Russ Meyer ladies would be on there somewhere too).

I remember, when I was studying my Graphic Design Degree at the London College Of Printing, my old screen printing teacher, with whom I used to occasionally play badminton, telling me that she was off to a screening of Borowczyk shorts at the Scala one evening. I’m guessing the contents of this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition, which has been put out by Arrow films and which I got cheap... err... at a value for money price at Fopp is, probably, fairly near to what she saw that evening.

I’d have to say that this disc is really not what I was expecting from this Polish born director who worked in France and has a reputation of making erotic, probably pornographic to a large extent, movies of a certain level of acceptability for cineastes in this country. The vast majority of the content on here comprises animations with, I think, just a couple of live action films and I found it surprising that there was practically no erotic content of the kind you might expect to see from a man of Borowczyk’s particular interests and obsessions. That being said, having seen another of his feature length films since watching this collection, I can see that there is a little bit of correlation between the techniques used here and those deployed on his more famous works. I’ll hopefully get to say just a little more on that sense of continuity when I come to write a review of his Immoral Tales... coming soon to this blog!

All in all, the style of a lot of the films on this disc are something that I might expect to have come from the mind of modern surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer and both he and Borowczyk seem to share a passion for exploring what I am about to call... a cinema of textures. Investigating, through animation in this case, the way both animate and inanimate objects can be exploited as a celebration of flat surfaces and their juxtaposition with contrasting shades, colours and textures. And also, another similarity to Svankmajer’s work, things will often move around by themselves with no visible hand at work to explain the motivation and spirit of various paraphernalia.

The films show off a wealth of both visual and aural ideas as you go through the body of work, perhaps more obvious and less tempered than when they are restricted by the credibility expected from an audience when using live actors... especially made, as most of Borowczyk’s films were, in an era bereft of the CGI trickery modern audiences take for granted. There are around eleven shorts on here and one feature length animation, The Theatre Of Mr And Mrs Kabal, which is a sequel of sorts to an earlier short found on this disc, The Concert. 

Out of these, there are certain films which struck a chord with me more than others and I found myself admiring the minutia of an inner Borowczyk world unfiltered by the constraints which might leave his live action work bereft of the majority of such overt observations. I liked the way, for instance, his short film Les Astronautes is mostly animated by rapidly cutting stills together... well, yeah, that’s all film, actually, but what I mean to say is... doing it so that the eye can easily perceive the cuts. Like a lot of his shorts, the film pulls us straight into a world of abstraction but in this case, it does have at least a basic, easier to conceive, linear framework to hang things on to... the journey of an astronaut in his spaceship. It’s a cornucopia of absurdities which possibly wears a little thin by the time it’s played out but there are nice little touches like a periscope the main protagonist uses when he’s flying around the earth which shows his eyes visible in the top part as he watches a lady in her underwear from inside his perpetually morphing spacecraft. There’s another nice little touch when he is flying along upside down in space and his hat drops to the ceiling of his craft. Every time he reaches up/down and puts it on so he can be wearing it whilst driving, it just drops to the bottom/top of the ship again... so instead he sits on some books to make himself tall enough to wear it. It is somewhat whimsical and I might be tempted to say that the whole thing was influenced by The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine... except that it dates from 1959, long before that particular animated feature and long before space travel was a reality too, of course. So maybe the creators of Yellow Submarine saw this at some point.... it’s quite possible I would imagine.

His short work Renaissance features, more overtly, another device which I’ve also often seen Jan Svankmajer use, that of the self constructing or deconstructing ‘entity’... be that entity an animate or inanimate object or character. This one starts off, for instance, with an owl constructing itself from its basic components, the feathers growing thicker as time passes. After he’s done with the owl, Borowczyk focuses on various other objects in a room constructing themselves... trumpet, photograph, wicker basket, scary children’s doll etc. A bunch of grapes appear to the sound of a typewriter clunking away with added carriage return (not sure if any of my younger readers will be familiar with the expression ‘carriage return’ actually... which is a sobering thought about the rapidity of technological change in the scary world we’re living in these days, I think). The short ends with a hand grenade being constructed and then, quite rapidly, deconstructing the whole room again when it blows up.

Another of the many shorts on here which I took a shine to was Joachim’s Dictionary, which consists of a line drawing of a man with slightly different things happening to him as a new dictionary definition is applied to each mini vignette. There was a nice little two part joke which highlighted, in different definitions, the difference between Man and Boy by showing how each would eat a cherry and then just spit out the stone... that is to say, man and boy: no difference between the two. So that was cool although, the majority of the shorts aside from these three and another interesting one called Scherzo Infernale, detailing briefly the story of an angel who wants to be a prostitute, really didn’t do much for me. I had, very much, a feeling of ‘seen it all before’.

The feature length animation The Theatre of Mr and Mrs. Kabal, a sequel to the less interesting short The Concert (aka Le concert de M. et Mme. Kabal) held my interest a little better. The film starts off with the animator, possibly Borowczyk, entering the frames and conversing with Mrs. Kabal, who communicates with him in an electronic gibberish on the soundtrack which is subtitled in three different languages as she speaks. This one explores another surrealist environment and also hangs a somewhat linear, if hard to fathom, thread through the whole thing. Mrs. Kabal seems, I think, to have an aversion to butterflies but, when she ‘consumes’ too many, her husband has to find a way to help. Inspired by ‘a film within a film’ about the human body at his local cinema, he blows his wife up in size and goes to work on her, entering her insides in a manner similar to the protagonists in the movie Fantastic Voyage, but with the size difference achieved through reverse means. Turns out the butterflies have caused quite a lot of trouble in Mrs. Kabal’s body and it was interesting to see what I can only presume was the ghost of Mrs. Kabul, herself, wandering around inside her for a bit, too.

A well animated feature but, as I said, one out of many which held my attention much less than I was expecting. That being said, it is a very creative set of shorts in many ways and, if youre not too long in the tooth and were not inundated by completely incomprehensible Polish and Czechoslovakian surrealist cartoons playing as fillers between TV programmes in the early 1970s, then you may find that you’ve not seen stuff like this before. At the small amount of money I payed for this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition at Fopp, it’s definitely something I would advise any cinephiles to avail themselves of in the near future. As for me, I think I prefer Borowczyk’s live action features, what little I’ve seen of them, to his animated shorts but, even so, I can appreciate the hand of a genuine artist when I see one. Certainly, I’m glad I’ve seen these now and it’s not inconceivable that I’ll give them another watch in years to come. Put this one on your list if you are a fan of shorter works of cinematic art, is my advice.