Monday 31 August 2015

She Killed In Ecstasy

Miranda Rights In Tights

She Killed In Ecstasy
Spain/West Germany
Directed by Jess Franco
Severin Films Zone A/B/C Blu Ray

Warning: Ecstatic spoilers within.

So this is another of those films I haven’t seen in a while and am just catching up to again because of the beautiful Blu Ray transfer just put out by Severin Films. In my previous review of the companion Blu Ray to this set, the famous Franco classic Vampyros Lesbos, I mentioned how this was one of the last few films that the inimitable Soledad Miranda made for Jess before her quite tragic and untimely violent death at the age of 27... in circumstances which surely go down in movie history as one of the most cruelly ironic twists of fate. For my review of that movie and a very brief history of that untimely end, please see my Vampyros Lesbos review here.

Now, She Killed In Ecstasy is a film I’ve always remembered, after first seeing it more than a decade ago, as being the poor half sister to Vampyros Lesbos. I recalled it as being quite fun but nowhere in the same league and, it seems, a lot of people would have agreed with me. However, now I see it again, looking utterly fantastic in Severin’s new, crystal clear transfer (which is the best it’s ever looked), I’d have to say that I actually prefer this movie in some ways and that Vampyros Lesbos, while absolutely great, runs it a very close second, now, in my estimation of these two movies.

The films begins with the famous Manfred Hübler and Sigi Schwab psychedelic and deeply groovy music but it’s playing over shots of really grim cabinets housing medical curios such as brains in jars and still born babies... totally undercutting the jollity of the score in a bizarre juxtaposition of sound and image which almost sets up a schizophrenic conflict in the intended audience. It’s a really strange choice.

A woman comes out of an amazing looking architectural home (the same one Franco uses in his later film Countess Perverse, reviewed here) and takes a long flight of stone steps onto a beach. Wearing a purple cape and with an air of cool confidence, she could almost be either Countess Carody from Vampyros Lesbos herself, or Lina Romay’s character in Female Vampire (reviewed here). When we see a close up of her face and she starts telling her story, via the main body of the movie, in flashback with her narrative voice over, her beauty hits you right in the eye like a big pizza pie... that’s Soledad. At least, I think it’s mostly in flashback... I’ll come back to that point a little later.

Once again, the movie is one of Franco’s most visually arresting and he’s up to his tricks of using flashy zooms and lots of reactive, moving camerawork here. With this one especially, Franco shoots the film is like it's being voyeuristically observed through a psychedelic fog. Like someone was standing on the other side of a hot wax lamp, almost, and watching the action through the glass distortion. Once again he uses lines and shapes created by the environments he shoots in to split up the performers into sections and have them interact with each other from different perspective planes within the same shot. And it’s rarely distracting enough that you’ll necessarily catch all this stuff within the first viewing... it’s all just shot perfectly without, for the most part, intruding on the consciousness of the audience.

Back to the story of the movie and we have Soledad Miranda’s character, Mrs. Johnson, being shown around her husband’s laboratory by the short lived character... um... Mr. Johnson, played a bit woodenly, it has to be said, by Fred Williams. Soledad is wearing an “almost not there” silver bikini in these earlier scenes and it really is quite something to see. Not many ladies could probably pull off wearing something this amazingly revealing but she is able to get away with wearing it and, combined with her absolutely amazing and powerful screen presence, I was wowed by her costume, rather than finding myself laughing at it.

Her husband, it turns out, is doing something medically revolutionary which can't help but look like mad and creepy science to anyone not inhabiting his or, possibly, his on-screen wife’s head. The medical panel who he seeks to approve his project thinks so too... in no uncertain terms. He is banned from continuing his experiments with embryos and his licence to practice medicine is revoked. His lab is smashed up, even, by the group of enthusiastic medical nay-sayers.

This, understandably, upsets the character a tad and it’s not long before he finds that he’s a man driven insane by the constantly corny repeating flashback dialogue of the medical council’s conclusions on the soundtrack. That is to say that, from this point, whenever he is on screen and being looked after by the wonderful Mrs. Johnson, he has the voices of those characters echoing in his head and is unresponsive. Those characters being played by regular Franco collaborators Paul Muller, Howard Vernon, Ewa Strömberg and, of course, Jess Franco himself in a fairly large role. Who wouldn’t be driven mad by these voices constantly following you around on the foley? It’s not long before Mr. Johnson slashes his own wrists and, after rolling awake and naked on her bed, Mrs. Johnson finds him in this state. The film very quickly turns into a revenge thriller, not a million miles away from François Truffaut’s movie adaptation of The Bride Wore Black (reviewed here), it has to be said... but Jess Franco style... which means it’s sexy, bloody and has a gorgeously 'swinging' soundtrack on it.

The rest of the film follows the otherwise un-named Mrs. Johnson as she tracks down the four above mentioned members of the medical council and sets herself up as a honey-trap to lure them to bed with her so she can give them her own brand of justice. While the film is full of little 'off the cuff' details like Howard Vernon’s character silently praying before he has sex with her, like he’s saying grace before dinner, it’s mostly a film of big, broad strokes, it has to be said.

Soledad Miranda’s character starts off by stabbing Howard Vernon in the throat and cutting off his genitals before leaving a typical serial killer style note on the wound left by Vernon’s castration... or as Franco’s own character puts it... “his penis was severed”. It’s interesting because you can see the history of the censorship issues this film has had over the years in the way the stock changes to a slightly different quality a little towards the end of the scene where Franco find’s Vernon’s body. He walks into the hotel room and we see him standing over the bed and we register the shock and horror on his face. Then the stock has a bizarre shift in quality which Severin were obviously unable to fully compensate for (but believe me, compared to other versions I’ve seen of this movie, they’ve done a really remarkable job here) as the camera pans down to the bloody aftermath of Soledad’s sexually charged crime.

Next up is the lesbian seduction of Ewa Strömberg’s character, perhaps recalling similar scenes between the two actresses in Vampyros Lesbos. Here, the girl’s love scene is once again shot in such a way that it feels like Franco is looking through surrealistically tinted glasses... quite literally in one small sequence where, at the start of the gal’s scene, Soledad very specifically places a half full glass of sherry in front of the camera, obscuring about a half of the screen in the middle of the shot and carrying on the tactic of making things look dynamic and interesting There also seems to be a lot of shadow work in the film, It’s not blatantly overt like an old 1940s noir thriller or even an Indiana Jones homage to such, but the shadow element is there, set up by the way the light is thrown onto the actors in certain scenes such as this one.

This scene is completely wonderful because Soledad kills her victim by smothering her with an inflatable, stripey, transparent pillow which magnifies her victim’s struggle as the camera looks through the pillow at her magnified face. It’s a bit like the smothering scenes you see in the TV show The Prisoner, when the Guardian known as Rover smothers an actor and you see his face pushing through the plastic... but it’s a more colourful and transparent version of that here. It has to be pointed out, though, that the scene does look fairly implausible. Ewa Strömberg puts up virtually no struggle and it seems very strange to think that Soledad could possibly hold her down... and she’s not even trying. The struggle on Ewa’s magnified face is completely at odds with what her flailing arms are passively doing in the long shot here. You know what, though? It really doesnt matter because the aesthetics of this particular murder win out over the implausibility of the crime anytime in my book

The third crime, where Soledad “scissors” Paul Muller’s head and then contemplates him and all else that has happened in her recent past, is notable because it gives us a slow pull back from Soledad’s face to finally end up with the absolutely iconic shot of her that is usually the first one that anyone of my generation remembers of her; the one for which Severin have had a new illustration painted for the new cover. It’s the one shot of Soledad Miranda which has burned itself into my brain over the years from its repeat usage by various companies on video and CD covers.

After this we get another of many brief scenes where Soledad is having an internal conversation with the corpse of her dead husband on their bed, going so far as to make love to it in this part of the movie. Which I find really odd, actually, as the police have been investigating his death and everybody knows about the character’s suicidal demise... so why they let Soledad keep the body, which they evidently did because they find it in her car at the end of the movie, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps  post death laws in the country in which this is set are less stringent than they would be in the UK? Or, you know, perhaps the movie is completely implausible in the details of its storyline.

Franco himself is the fourth and final revenge victim and, frankly, he really leaves himself open for it after swooning upon finding his wife dead at the hands of Soledad’s character. He ends up tied to a chair so Mrs. Johnson can carve him up a bit before stabbing him repeatedly to death... Miranda’s always deeply expressive eyes showing the hate for her victim as she completes her final act of vengeance before... driving her car off a cliff with herself and her husband in it.

Wait. What?

I thought the film was being told from a flashback of her standing on the beach looking lovely at the start of the film. Okay so, if this is the case, how is she dead at the end of her story. Is it a case of the flashback ending at a certain point in the narrative and just being fairly unclear where this takes place? Well, yeah, I would guess so. Not quite sure where that opening sequence comes in unless it’s after the third victim’s demise but... I’m sure I missed a trick here which, you know, is okay because this certainly won’t, I hope, be the last time I watch this beautiful movie.

So there you have it. A beautful work of art with nudity, death, vengeance, some insanely gorgeous looking compositions and a groovy soundtrack by Manfred Hübler and Sigi Schwab... with the very occasional musical insert by Bruno Nicolai, it turns out. Perhaps tracked in from one of his scores for Franco’s other films? Who knows? If you do, just let me know via the comments section at the bottom of this review. The film would be nothing, however, or at least a lot less, without the truly divine presence of the late and very great Soledad Miranda... an actress with amazing screen chemistry who was definitely going to be going places, if not for her truly tragic demise. She Killed In Ecstasy is one of her's, and Franco’s, best films. If you see any of either of their films, make it one of these last few they did together. They truly are a great team... Franco and his original muse, before he found his lifelong partner and star Lina Romay. Especially make a point of buying this excellent new Severin two disc limited edition Blu Ray of the film because the second disc in it is an extended CD of the music from Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed In Ecstasy and The Devil Came from Akasava... which is even longer than the expanded version of the Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party CD put out some years ago. It’s gorgeous music for putting on at swinging, psychedelic parties and your ears certainly won’t regret the purchase.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Doctor Who - The Green Death: The Special Edition

For The Larvae The Professor

Doctor Who - The Green Death: The Special Edition
UK Airdate 19th May - 23rd June 1973
BBC DVD Region 2

Warning: Slight spoilers in this one.

I last saw The Green Death when it was first broadcast in 1973. I would have been five years old and I remember the giant maggots, which are a big feature of the episode, being a talking point around the house and a thing which would invoke both fear and playful memories of big, wiggly things coming to get ya! I wasn’t expecting it to be half as good as I remembered when watching it now on this special edition version of the DVD but... well... it surprised me in more than one way.

I’ve noticed over the past few years that the Doctor Who stories featuring Jon Pertwee don’t seem to age as badly as the ones starring Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy... I don’t know why it is and the special effects are still quite shoddy, though not as shoddy as the ones utilised in the programme during the 1980s and 1990s... I can say with some confidence. The stories and, certainly, the dialogue and scripts, are all pretty top notch and tackle issues in exactly the same way that all of the best science fiction does... head on and by exaggerating certain elements to be able to explore the issue to a degree it would be less able to do without a science fiction context.

In this one, the big issue is ecology and the environment. It centres on a computer who has taken over the employees of a global oil company which is dumping toxic waste... it’s seeping into a local coalmine in Wales. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and the always brilliant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) go to investigate the deaths of people who come into physical contact the sludge, infecting them with a virus which turns them into a cheap 1970s TV effect... glowing green before claiming their lives. Jo declines going with The Doctor on a quick jaunt to the planet Metebelis 3, where he acquires a blue crystal which will cause him trouble later in the history of the show, because she believes the environmental work being done by Professor Jones and his group of ‘Eco Hippies’, combatting the global company who is responsible for the toxic sludge and the giant sized maggots who are breeding and infesting the coal mine, is more important... good for her. It also heralds the fact that this will be Katy Manning’s last TV adventure as Jo Grant until her brief return to the role in a two part story, The Death Of The Doctor, opposite Elisabeth Sladen and Matt Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures almost 40 years later (and reviewed by me here).

Now, although Jo Grant was always a well admired character by me, when I was a toddler, my recent rewatches of a few of the old Jon Pertwee stories have made me realise that her character wasn’t all that well fleshed out or given that much interesting dialogue. Here, however, it’s clear that by this point she is really being written in a more useful manner and the focus on her and the dialogue/scenes she is given are all absolutely marvellous. And, of course, Katy Manning really makes the most of it, displaying great chemistry with all her co-workers, including Stewart Bevan as Professor Clifford Jones (she was engaged to him in real life, at the time, although I understand that didn’t last too long) who she goes off with to get married and travel down the amazon at the end of the last episode here.

Now the show is not without its weak moments...

There’s a loose end of a character when one of the principal actors had to drop out of the show due to ill health. The special effects are quite good in some places (the miniature work of explosions is good although the white action figure driving the model of The Doctor’s car Bessie in one shot is hilarious) but utterly abominable in others when it comes to the blue-screen work. Whenever any of the characters goes down the lift shaft in the coal mine, for example, they are quite clearly standing against a superimposed piece of back projection footage. Similarly, although there’s a lot of location work in a fair bit of it, there are a fair few terrible shots when the people at UNIT are walking or standing around a studio, superimposed against a backdrop of the open country. Now I’ve got no idea why this was needed and all I can think of was there wasn’t enough time to get all the shots required and, instead of going back out on location to reshoot, the decision was made to go with a studio solution. In all honesty, it really is quite noticeable and surely hurts the scenes when this is done.

However, everything else in this story seems right on the money and it even involves some scenes of Jon Pertwee returning to his comedy roots as he dons two ridiculous disguises to penetrate the security at Global Chemicals... one is a “funny milkman” personae and the other is the old “dressing up in women’s clothing” routine where he impersonates a cleaning lady. This is all quite amusing, if a bit clunky, but I can’t imagine what young fans of the show might make of all this dressing up shenanigans these days, to be honest. That being said, the costumes Pertwee wears as The Doctor are, as usual, absolutely brilliant and I just wish I could get the crushed leather jackets and the frilly shirts that he got access to on these things... I’d be wearing them all the time.

Not too much else to say on this one. The score by Dudley Simpson is lively and typical of the show in that era, the giant maggots are actually fairly well done but when one of the larvae hatches, the resulting, dragonfly like creature is quite badly handled. However, when The Doctor steps off the TARDIS on Metebelis 3 and a tentacle suddenly whips out from the front of the screen and goes straight around his neck... I have to say that it was so effectively done that it actually made me jump. Something these kinds of shows don’t really do to me that often... at least not since I was a kid, at any rate. The end is quite poignant too and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the last scenes with Pertwee and Manning didn’t bring a tear to the eye. Overall, I’m really impressed that The Green Death has held up as well as it has and I think it’s certainly one of the best Pertwee stories and also, I would say, one of the best of the stories in the history of the show. Now I just have to figure out which Pertwee story to acquire next.

Wednesday 26 August 2015


8 Bits &  Pieces

2015 USA/China/Canada
Directed by Chris Columbus
UK cinema release print.

Blimey. You know, I never expected to be extolling the virtues of an Adam Sandler movie on here, let alone find myself sitting through one but actually... this one surprised the hell out of me. Now, the reason for my shock comes from the fact that I’ve really never even seen an Adam Sandler movie before this one. I’m not the biggest fan of out and out comedy (just give me The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen and I’ll stick to those) and whenever I’ve seen a movie trailered for a film starring Sandler, I’ve basically just never been interested. Not his fault... they just don’t look good the way they are marketed.

The trailer for this one was a lot different, though. For starters, Sandler seemed to be headlining more of an ensemble piece here (which you’ll find is true... once you see the full movie) but, way beyond that, the one thing which caused me to be curious about this was... it had a load of the games I used to play when I was a kid in it. Technology has moved too fast in recent years but let me take you back to my childhood for a few paragraphs...

I was born in 1968 and, about 4 years later, amusement arcades were hit with the first proper electronic video game... and it wasn’t more than a year or two before this was also sold as a plug in unit which you could attach to your own television set and play whenever you wanted. Called Pong, it was a pretty simple, black and white game. You basically had two bats made of pixels, plus a ball, and you had to try and hit the ball past your opponent’s bat. Now that might not sound like much to you but, for that point in recent history... it was mind blowing. You actually had something which was really just a picture on your screen which you could actually remotely control with a little twiddly knob on a control unit and with an on-screen bat that would go up and down depending on how you twiddled that knob. Seriously? How was this possible? This was like magic. It blew everyone’s minds I think... not just the kids. We were surely at the very end point of a technological wonderland here... we could never imagine mankind ever progressing past this place in history as far as electronics were concerned.

Then, in 1978, Space Invaders was launched into arcades and bars.

There was a cabinet version and a table version where you could rest your drinks next to the screen while looking down at the table in whatever bar or cafe you happened to be in and, for the expensive price of 10 pence per session, play out your three lives to your heart’s content. And we were all like... What new sorcery is this? How could this be? How could anyone manage to invent something even more mind bending to our laws of physics than Pong. What’s happening to the world?

And then that world just exploded.

By 1982 I had one of Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum machines to play games on and my folks had a Philips G7000 (known in the US as a Magnavox Odyssey², apparently). Everyone was playing video arcade style games, both in the games’ native environment and also in their own homes. We all just couldn’t believe what was happening and it consumed our lives for a while.

And this is what Pixels is all about, in a way. It’s based/inspired on a 2010 short film by director Patrick Jean and I have to say that I haven’t seen that short... yet. However, this longer version is pretty entertaining in that’s it’s a loving homage to the old video arcade games of our past which took over our lives, to a certain extent, way back in the 1980s.

The film starts off in 1982 with the young versions of the film’s four main male protagonists as they compete in the Arcade Video Game championships of the world. Adam Sandler’s character Brenner, along with the young versions of characters played by Kevin James (Cooper) and Josh Gad (Ludlow) are beaten out in the final by Peter Dinklage’s Eddie, as he and Brenner compete in a tie-break game of Donkey Kong. Meanwhile, the video games manufacturers send a time capsule of their arcade games into space as a means of shouting mankind out to other beings... hmmm. Okay.

And then we cut to the modern day and everything about this film which is already on a whimsical level completely crosses over into complete unreality but... that’s okay because it’s a way of the filmmakers setting up a crazy premise without it seeming insulting to the audience’s collective intelligence. For example, Brenner has grown up to be a low paid employee of a corporation called NERD, whose job it is to go to people’s homes and set up their newly purchased technology such as sound systems and computer games etc. Here he meets a military expert called Violet, played by the always brilliant Michelle Monaghan, and this sets up the film’s romantic sub-plot (of course). His mate, Cooper, then calls him on the phone and he goes to see him... in the White House... because Cooper, it turns out, grew up to be the president of the United States.

So I guess the tactic here is that, if you’re going to ask the audience to buy into a plot which is totally insane and incredible to begin with, you might as well prep them for it before hand. If you can accept the fact that Kevin James is playing the President of the USA but still finds time to hang out with his low income buddy from their arcade playing days... well, then anything they ask you to accept after this will seem just a little more credible as a premise to work with, I suspect. And I have to say... it worked for me.

If you don’t already know the plot yet, aliens have found the time capsule sent out in 1982 and see it as a challenge to a battle for the destruction of the planet Earth. So they start attacking us with real life versions of our 1982 video games. Each battle counts as one out of three lives lost for the losing side and, if the losing side is planet Earth... no more planet. We get pixilated for good. So it’s up to the President and his old pals... plus Peter Dinklage’s Eddie, who they pull out from jail where he’s doing hard time for income tax evasion... to save the Earth and battle the aliens in giant, life threatening video games, aided by the light cannons and other inventions rigged up in a hurry by Violet and her robot helper.

Now this all sounds fun but with a movie premise that insane, which gives every adult kid with a part of their heart left in 1980s retro-gaming a little whoop for joy, there’s got to be a down side to a movie like this, right? They’re probably going to screw it up or it’ll be too dull or unwatchable but, I have to say... and I really didn’t expect to be saying this about Pixels, this movie is absolutely as entertaining and fun as its initial set up would want you to believe. I don’t know how the film-makers managed to pull this off with such panache but, bearing in mind it’s a broad comedy, it’s mostly done with a certain amount of taste and, absolutely, with a lot of loving homage to those old arcade classics that made our hearts race as the speeding, heartbeat rhythms of the games caused our fingers and thumbs to punch harder at those big, round buttons.

Now this won’t be a film which will appeal to everybody, I’m sure, but if you remember these games from your youth or you are happy to buy into a premise as silly as the one pitched by the film and then run with it... well then you should have a pretty good time with this one. The pacing is speedy but not so fast that the various characters don’t have time to breathe and the performances in here are all great. The action scenes are easy to follow too... something of a challenge in the Earth bound sections of the final battle sequence to be sure... so the coverage and editing, not to mention the groovy special effects of various 8-bit characters who people my age will know and love, are all first rate and you don’t need to worry about not being able to follow anything in this one.

There are also some amazing cameo appearances here as well such as Max Headroom (voiced by the man himself, Matt Frewer... and it’s the first time Max has actually been computer generated as opposed to a post-make-up manipulated Frewer illusion of the same), Serena Williams, Martha Stewart and Dan Akroyd.  Plus you have some great supporting actors in this too, such as Brian Cox and Sean Bean, who become slight problems to our heroes as they try to save the world. There are also some interesting ‘manipulated cameos' from the likes of Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize (to name just two of the dead celebrities brought back for the film) which also bring a smile to the face as the aliens use old 1980s TV personalities to communicate with the people of Earth.

And of course, there are a whole slew of video game characters turning up in this movie too... such as Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger and the lovable Q*Bert. It has to be said there are also a fair amount of anachronisms for the time these arcade games are supposed to date from too... Paperboy was not as early as 1982, for example, but he makes a prominent appearance in this film’s final battle, along with a few others not quite ‘of their time’ in this movie. However, I guess with such an unreal film that has Kevin James as the President and a... gosh... a female Prime Minister (some of the action is set in London, England)... well I think I’m prepared to overlook a little historical accuracy in this case.

And that’s really all I’m going to say about this one. Pixels is a nice comical movie with some lovely performances, some ‘not too uncomfortable’ comedy moments, some relatively ‘good taste’ decisions (for the most part... I really didn’t need to see Q*Bert wet himself in fear) and, all in all, a great time at the cinema in a loving homage to the video games which made some of us what we are today (as shallow as 8-bit characters, I would guess). I’m not even going to get into a lather that the video games in this film are made up of voxels (which are 3D) and not actually pixels (which are 2D) because I, quite surprisingly, really enjoyed this movie. So if old style retro arcade games are your thing... you really might want to give this one a watch at some point. It’s kinda fun.

Monday 24 August 2015

Sinister 2


Sinister 2
2015 USA
Directed by Ciarán Foy
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very slight spoilers on this one... I suppose.

You know, for a movie series which highlights a supernatural entity who sows terror by getting people to document brutal deaths and using the aesthetic properties of a specific medium such as film, music, radio etc to do it... and then hold that exact same thing up to the audience as a form of entertainment, reflecting the very method the sinister perpetrator of these films uses to perpetuate his own mythology in a post-modern, ironic manner... is really something that I should probably find very appealing, interesting and comforting within the context of a modern horror movie.

Alas, the Sinister films, it seems to me, take this promising premise and then just throw it away, ham-fistedly, in an attempt to chase a specific kind of horror audience which probably hasn’t existed in truly profitable numbers since maybe the late seventies or early eighties drive-ins. I honestly was hoping for more from the second part of this franchise but... this film delivers something far less palatable and, while it does still have a few nice things in it... I really would have been cursing the studio for turning out this film following the last least if I’d have had more of a liking for the first movie which, luckily, I really don’t.

When I reviewed the first Sinister movie here, I pointed out that the only truly good things in it were the performances (including one by the always outstanding Ethan Hawke), Christopher Young’s score and a very surreal scene of ghost kids running around a house. These were pretty much the only things of any interest the first movie had going for it so... well... you might well ask why I bothered seeing the second one. And the answer to that, dear reader, is because I really didn’t think much of... Insidious.

I reviewed the first Insidious movie here and it really wasn’t anything to write home about. However, when I ended up seeing Insidious 2 (reviewed here) and Insidious Chapter 3 (reviewed here) I found both the sequels to be much more interesting movies than their original counterpart and so... I was kinda hoping the same effect would kick in with the Sinister franchise but... yeah, it seems not.

Sinister 2 doesn’t really have a lot going for it, it has to be said.

Like movies such as Jurassic Park (reviewed here) and Wild At Heart, Sinister 2 moves you straight into a traumatic event taking place. This opens with supernatural occurrences being visited on the audience straight away with both a ‘film’ of people being burned alive on crosses... followed by one of the film’s main child protagonists hanging out with a set of ghost kids. Unlike both Jurassic Park or Wild At Heart, however,  it doesn’t frighten you or set you up to feel really afraid of the possibility of certain things happening... it just makes everything feel a lot less creepy because there is no slow burn lurking terror to help along the ‘scary bits’... and the timing of those kinds of scenes and the way they are handled in this movie just makes them... well... they’re just not effective, you see them all coming and you certainly won’t be frightened of them. All the best scares in this movie were in the trailer and... they’re really not any scarier within the context of the movie as a whole.

Another thing is that the majority of the characters are just not in any way sympathetic... I’ll get to the ones who are in a minute. The two kids are not someone you’re really invested in saving from the possibility of their horrible fate and the abusive father figure in this film is really just setting you up so it’s okay by you if he dies a gruesome death... even if the end result of that particular scene completely contradicts the opening of the movie. Yeah... so there’s no logic in this movie anymore because they jettison it in the final act. Really, there were very few characters who I wanted to see survive this movie anyway and since, as it turns out, they’re going to show us that things we’ve already seen really weren’t as were presented and then alter how the events turned out then, by that point, I really don’t care anymore.

Thirdly, the murders committed by the various children in this are brutal to the point of just making for a really mean spirited film. I really don’t enjoy seeing the documentation of atrocities such as the ones on display here and it smacks of just being gruesome for the sake of it... rather than feeding into what could have been a great, supernatural movie.They even use the old medieval torture of having a live rat gnaw its way through someone’s body to escape a heated prison trick... except they do it to five people in one hit here and this, along with a couple of the other murder variants in this story, make the movie really uncomfortable to watch and, though that’s probably the point, the irony of the central premise becomes lost because it’s really no fun to see this stuff shot and presented the way it is here. This is meant to horrify and it does... but that very literal interpretation of what a horror movie should be doing really does harm/cancel out the supernatural dread which the film is, obviously, also trying... and frankly, failing... to create for the audience.

Fourthly... they’ve tried to expand on the eerie ghost kids sequence in the first movie way too much and ultimately, the whole scariness of that is shot down right from the word go, here. It’s like half the movie is trying to be a less effective version of that scene and, really, it doesn’t work even once... especially at the end where we get the POV scenes of characters who can’t actually see the kids reacting to what are presumably, to them, poltergeist like disturbances. This obviously completely erodes any logic of having the main antagonists having to use living people to do their killing in the first place. Seriously... what is the point?

I said there were a couple of good things in this too. Well the unnamed deputy character played by James Ransone who was so good in the first film returns in a much larger, main protagonist role as the equally unnamed ex-deputy character from the first film... and he, for some reason, has some great lines and seems incredibly well fleshed out compared to everyone else in the movie... even though we still don’t know anything much about him. His scene with a character called Dr. Stromberg, played by Tate Ellington, which links things more back to the first film, is the standout scene here... mixing genuine spookiness with some great one liners, relying very much on Ransone’s comic timing. And most of the way through the film... you will be rooting for him until the dreary miasma of general nastiness dulls everything down, leaving this particular audience member weary and uncaring.

Similarly, the main female lead played by Shannyn Sossamon, is equally interesting and works really well with Ransone’s character. She’s not quite as well written as him and, at the end, when she really does metamorphose from being a strong, resilient character to a full bodied damsel in distress... well, I kinda gave up on her too, to be honest.

Tomandandy’s score to the movie is serviceable, highlights a certain creeping dread and does what all good modern combinations of atonal stinger and ‘lurking in the realms of sound design’ horror scores do... but it’s trying to imbibe the movie with a certain amount of terror which, alas, the film just really doesn’t have in abundance. I’d listen to it away from the movie... and probably will if it comes out on CD as opposed to a stupid electronic download... but it really seems to be trying to score a film the director and producers wanted to make, as opposed to the one they ended up with. At least it feels like that to me.

So that’s that, I think. Unless any future sequels... and given the box office take on this so far that’s possibly in doubt now... are actually great works of art, then this is the last time I’ll ever have to watch Sinister 2 and, really, I’m not unhappy about that. If you go to see horror films to see demented goriness which makes no sense and which pales in effect due to the way its presented... then this is for you. If, however, you go to horror films to see how the director can both use and bend the rules of the horror film to evoke an emotional response in the viewer and to see if anything new or interesting can be brought to the table... well... Sinister 2 is definitely something you can miss out on. The only sinister thing about this one is how they could manage to make a sequel worse than the first movie.

Friday 21 August 2015

VHS Forever - Psychotronic People

Tape Worms

VHS Forever - Psychotronic People
UK 2014
Directed by Mark Williams & Darren J. Perry
Son of Bill Production MultiRegion DVD

So I’d heard about this relatively new documentary film from the tail end of last year via Twitter, got kinda interested in it and then promptly forgot about it, what with all the other digitalised celluloid attractions on offer these days. However, when I realised I’d only been to three film fairs this year, instead of the 13 or so a year I was knocking back a few short years ago (due to varying reasons, mostly budgetary), I realised that I should maybe get myself down to the latest Camden Film Fair and see what was going on... mostly because I’d been hoping to catch up with the stall of the Camden Fair’s organiser at this year’s London Film And Comic Con (reviewed here) and, like a fair few other dealers, he’d not bothered with that one this time around.

Anyway, when I got there I visited a stall run by Tony & Donna Clarke of the Psychotronic Video Store ( who were selling a fair few treasures, including the beautiful limited edition (only 300 copies folks) Lucio Fulci playing cards I’d bought a few weeks before and, among the many gems available, was this movie. So I thought, yeah, I still wanted to catch up to this and, once I’d been around all the stalls at the show, I went back to make the purchase. I was further surprised when one of the directors of the movie, Mark Williams, was there to sign copies for people... which was great.

Now, I’ve seen a few of these small, independent low budget documentaries over the last few years, my favourites being the two epic docs on Video Nasties (reviewed by me here and here) and this is probably one of the lowest budgeted I’ve seen. The IMDB entry for VHS Forever lists it as costing approximately £1000 to make and, I have to say, for the small amount of money it cost, the writers/directors have come up with a very entertaining and fairly informative, depending on how much of this stuff you already know, little homage to the early days of VHS collecting.

Now it would probably be remiss of me not to point out that this particular documentary film is about a very specific aspect of early VHS collecting in this country and, sadly for me, it’s an aspect of the scene I missed out on as a teenager because I was more interested in World Cinema at the time than many of the movies covered here, although watching this film has made me realise I might have a couple of cardboard sleeved rarities sitting on a shelf somewhere which may bear further investigation. There’s not much of anything about the early days of UK collecting when the budget arm of the sell through market was established and tapes were coming down in price, for example. You won’t find The Video Collection label and their early hits like Bringing Up Baby and Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers being praised and lionised on here. But you do get another view of the world of the pre-certification, video nasty style horror market and the first hand stories of the people who used to buy these. This makes it very much a companion piece to the two Video Nasty documentaries I mentioned earlier and, although it won’t mean a heck of a lot to a certain section of the VHS buying market, to me this is essential viewing.

The film covers a little bit about the infamous banned list and the stories of the victimisation of the people who used to buy and sell these tapes and, once again, highlights how out of step the UK was, and still is, with the rest of the planet in regards to trying to conform and control what an individual should be allowed to watch on his or her TV set. Another thing which makes it valuable to me is the kind of people the crew interviews for this movie. Along with well known and well loved names like Norman J. Warren, Lloyd Kaufman, Caroline Munro and Kim Newman, they’ve also got some of those less well sung experts like Nigel Burrel who, perhaps, should be better known amongst lovers of film than they are right now. There were a fair few people talking, also, who have taken my money over the last few decades at shows like the Camden and Westminster Film Fairs and it was kinda nice to see them and, also, rewind them to catch what they said again when I realised the locations they were being shot in meant I had been concentrating more on the background to see if I saw either myself or one of my friends wandering around rather than paying attention to what was actually being said.

The film is not going to give you a thoroughly detailed account of the persecution and horror that people were up against at the time... I remember a lot of the kids in my old school playground used to swap copies of tapes that would have given Mary Whitehouse an absolute fit if she’d have known how easy these things were to get a hold of for teenagers or younger, some of which still wouldn’t be allowed in this country or many other countries due to various laws... but the film does give a lot of interesting stories and reminiscences by a few of the hardcore collectors of the time that are vastly entertaining and well worth the £10 I paid for this DVD. This includes stories about visiting the original Psychotronic Video store in Camden in the 1980s and its infamous ‘back room’, where certain highly prized and riskier titles might be purchased in illegal trade.

It also talks to some of the illustrators at the time who were responsible for the fantastic artwork on the sleeves of some of these things and, furthermore, interviews some of the modern poster and sleeve artists who were inspired by them... I now know why we still get the odd, fantastic exploitation sleeve like the one used for Hobo With A Shotgun, for instance (reviewed here). So, yeah, one of the things which sticks in my mind about this film... and it’s something I think I was half aware of before but this certainly drums it home... is that the lurid artwork of the sleeves themselves were as easily responsible, if not more so, for making some of these dubious pleasures targets of an increasingly watchful yet uncomprehending government body. And, yeah, I think it’s good that the filmmakers here have included the graphic design element of the original tapes and it also leads to two scenes where one of my favourite people of all time, the always lovely Caroline Munro, talks about the artwork on a couple of the VHS sleeves of movies she’s been in, namely Dracula AD 1972 and The Last Horror Show.

Now, one of the most noticeable aspects of this film is that the quality is questionable and this might possibly put some people off... however, it should also be pretty obvious to a lot of people who spent a fair amount of the 1980s watching VHS transfers that the footage has been deliberately shot like this, possibly even downgraded, to look a little fuzzy like an old VHS recording. It’s also shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio to emulate the horrible pan and scan look which was a feature of many of those early cassette tapes... and one of the reasons why I stopped buying this stuff until they started releasing widescreen editions. However, it works pretty well here regarding the subject matter and the kinds of people who are going to want this account of years gone by in their library are probably not going to have a problem with it... it’s certainly endearing.

All in all, I’d say this movie isn’t going to exactly appeal to a great amount of people but for individuals like myself, who were around during these days and remember having to go and approach dodgy looking people on the streets of Camden Town if we even wanted to be in with a chance of acquiring withdrawn movies like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange... then there are a lot of memories, stories and judgement calls about those days which are quite appealing. Also, it’s edited pretty well and some of the transitions between segments of interviews leading onto other comments by people are intelligently done and their juxtaposition gives all the sides of the story on certain issues without clinging to a specific agenda... which is a good approach to take if you are trying to give an overall picture and capture a specific zeitgeist without trying to gloss over the inherent problems which were made manifest by this area of ‘the VHS scene’.

VHS Forever - Psychotronic People is a charming look at a time which people from younger generations won’t know much about but which is still relevant to the current issues of censorship and film trading going on now... I can’t remember how long ago since I last had to wait outside the Electric Ballroom until the police had finished raiding the Camden Film Fair and confiscating materials... but it can only have ben a couple of years ago at most and some of the questionable (and therefore often the most fun) things you can get at these kind of film oriented events are really not that different to what was going on 30 or so years ago. So this is definitely a film which a specific section of modern cineastes of a certain kind are going to want to get their teeth into, methinks. At any rate, it’s something I’m very pleased I bought and probably a movie I’ll be dipping into again and again for reference purposes over the coming years. So put this one on your list if this specific kind of home video subculture is something you either remember from the time or have an interest in... you should have a fun time with it.

VHS Forever - Psychotronic People is a limited edition but, at time of writing, it’s still available to purchase here...

There is also a facebook group for the film, if that’s your kind o’ thing, here and the main website page for the film is here

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Doctor Who - The Vault


Doctor Who - The Vault:
Treasures From The First 50 Years
by Marcus Hearn 
BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1-84-990581-7

Doctor Who - The Vault: Treasures From The First 50 Years is one of those clever books about a subject which manages to smartly side-step the problems inherent in work about a passionately followed phenomenon that can cause so much friction between fans and leave everyone smiling. Marcus Hearn offers up a coffee table book which is not in any way a thorough reference volume of the first fifty years of this much loved programme but, more, a fond recollection and celebration of our favourite timelord.

It’s all about the pictures, in this volume, which are less about capturing the actual show and more about remembering the wealth of memorabilia which has been generated over the decades. Although it has a good amount of text and with a chapter split for every year of the timelord’s presence on screen during those 50 years, it’s by no means a detailed account of either the making of the show or an in depth look at the fictional universe portrayed in the series... it’s more of a quick description of what was going down in any particular year and about the striking illustrations provided in this generous tome... which up until a couple of weeks ago was still only a fiver on Amazon... although I still saw a stallholder charging £25 for it at the recent London Film and Comic Con (reviewed here).

As I went through this book, I found a wealth of things which I used to have as a kid and which brought back a lot of memories for me by association. There are things which I still have to this day... such as the stand up cards free with Weetabix, the Jo Grant badge I got from a packet of Sugar Smacks, the Radio Times Ten Year Anniversary Special celebration of the show (still one of my favourite bits of merchandise which I remember reading cover to cover on a long train journey as a kid) and that old standard, The Doctor Who Monster Book. There are also things which I regret letting go of at some point, like the series of Jon Pertwee jigsaw puzzles and various well read Target books over the years... but it just made me appreciate how much this show gave me in the past and is still, to some extent, giving to me now.

As I wandered through pictures of old Iron-On Transfers and Dalek Bubble Bath which I remembered from my youth, I was also pleased to actually learn the odd thing or two in the text... such as John Nathan-Turner’s increasing lack of interest in the show as the years took their toll and his attitude towards the fans... something I never realised when I used to watch his version of the series in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a nice surprise, too, to see the odd photo or play bill from a stage show I saw in the 1970s called Doctor Who and The Seven Keys To Doomsday which starred former Troughton companion Wendy Padbury and Trevor Martin as the good Doctor himself. To this day I’d remembered almost nothing about the show other than the Daleks were in it and that it was very loud. I’d completely forgotten about the other robot monsters in it until I saw a photo and I was quite moved as the writer described the opening regeneration sequence and the two companions in the show running out from the audience to help The Doctor as he regenerated into Trevor Martin. Now I’ve read about it I can actually remember that bit and also being completely alarmed and seeking the advice of my parents as these two audience members started kicking up a fuss and running up on stage to become part of the play itself... wonderful stuff.

There are also some glaring omissions in this book which, for a show primarily for a family audience rather than specifically a children's programme, fails to mention Pertwee companion Katy Manning’s nude appearance in a photoshoot with the Daleks for an 'adult magazine'... something I believe she did while still appearing in the show. I can understand why the publishers felt best to leave the photos themselves out of a book which they know will also have a large child audience... but they could at least have given this important piece of Doctor Who memorabilia a mention. Oh well, the pictures and details are usually easy to get hold of on the internet, I guess. And it was small price to pay considering the amount of annuals, games and other things from my childhood I was constantly reminded of as I worked my way through, some of which I might otherwise have forgotten now I’m left with a brain that keeps dumping huge amounts of information haphazardly as the years drift on by.

My one big regret about this volume is that there weren’t enough illustrations of the amount of stuff available at the time. I kept thinking to myself... well yeah, that’s one of the 'x amount' but where are the pictures of all the others in that range. It’s an immensely enjoyable, fun book to read through, no doubt about it, and Marcus Hearn has done a wonderful job on this one. That being said, it really does highlight the need for a modern, up to date book on the full range of collectibles available over the years which have been generated, officially or (more interestingly) unofficially, by the show... that’s a book I would buy in an instant. But, as it stands, while this book will certainly appeal to a lot of young ‘uns who weren’t around when this stuff was originally being produced, I think it’s probably safe to say that it’s definitely the adult readers who will get the most out of this precious tome. Certainly a book I’m proud to have on my shelf and something which will definitely be 'dipped into' time and time again. A great addition to any Doctor Who fan’s library.

Monday 17 August 2015

The Man From UNCLE

A Few Of My Waverly Things

The Man From UNCLE
2015 USA
Directed by Guy Ritchie
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... okay, so this is one of those films that make reviewing these things both interesting and, frankly, extremely frustrating. I saw the trailers for this and the tone looked somehow wrong and, well... it certainly is but there’s a lot of good stuff here too.

I used to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E as a kid on TV, mostly in the many movie incarnations... some of which were just edited versions of compiled episodes and others which were original stories (if memory serves me correctly). It’s been a long time since I saw any of those projected onto a big screen... I think I saw one or two around about the early to late seventies, on screenings at holiday camps etc when I was a kid. I remember the biggest factors in me getting into these things, as it always seemed to be, were the musical scores on these. Although the original The Man From UNCLE theme by Jerry Goldsmith is what most purists will probably cite as the best, I personally prefer the reworkings and scores by other composers such as Gerald Fried and Richard Shores... once the unusual time signature of maestro Jerry’s had been changed to something more usual (which I really don’t mind in this particular instance... not nearly as much as the original composer did) and made more typically jazzier. I used to hum this stuff all the time as a kid.

Now I don’t know much about Guy Ritchie but I saw his excellent Sherlock Holmes film and his not that bad but, not great, sequel to it some years ago. I can see that he’s a great talent and has some nice, possibly even innovative stuff, going on in his films. As such, I was expecting at least a half watchable movie from this and The Man From UNCLE is certainly more than that. However, the film at no time seems like either and extension or a reboot which is faithful in any way, shape or form to the original series or movies... and it really seems to make no attempt to be that, it has to be said.

For me, the movie needed to have at least two things in it besides characters who were like the originals... that was a variation of the original Jerry Goldsmith melody line plus baseline to give it a musical identity and, of course, those signature scene changes which sent the camera fast panning off to the left or right with a jumble of “incomprehensible to the eye” image movement which snapped you into the next location. I thought that the studio would at least retain these things but, alas, it really didn’t and I think this hurts the film tremendously in terms of being an addition to The Man From UNCLE universe.

As far as the characters are concerned, the movie puts too much history into the characters and this means they have been severely changed from their earlier counterparts. Bond author Ian Fleming originally created the Napoleon Solo character for TV before being pulled off of the project due to contractual conflicts with the Bond series of films (again, if my memory serves me correctly). However, the character name, at least, made it into the book of Goldfinger (and the movie version, reviewed here, although in the film he’s just referred to as Solo), so that’s kind of interesting in terms of development times. The character name was used in the book five years before the show aired so I’m not sure if that was a long development time or just a case of Fleming using an old name he liked... he also contributed the character April Dancer, who would later be played by Stefanie Powers in the TV show The Girl From UNCLE. 

In this updated version, Solo has somehow become an ex-thief and Ilya Kuryakin is a big gorilla of a Russian who suffers from psychotic episodes. This is a far cry from the original characters and it really puts the final nail in the coffin as far as continuity with the originals goes.

That being said, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are both absolutely great playing this movie’s versions of Solo and Kuryakin... the audience just has to accept they are playing different characters. They are ably supported by Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki playing both ally and villain in this although, it has to be said that Debicki seems a little underused as the main antagonist. One wonders if there was a much larger film, much of which was left on the cutting room floor for this one. Certainly the visual absence of a pay off scene involving Kuryakin and Count Lippi, in a nice reference to Ian Fleming’s Count Lippe character in Thunderball (reviewed here) and the use of montages which promise larger action sequences than were revealed, perhaps, may indicate that this movie has been heavily trimmed... probably by the director I should imagine. All that being said, the film is a joy to watch once you can get over the fact that the only character who is remotely like his original source is Hugh Grant channeling a younger version of Leo G. Carrol’s Mr. Waverly character.

The film is set in the 1960s and that’s certainly good. The director seems to enjoy playing with a kind of hyper real version of the sixties which is not a million miles away from the style employed through various espionage films over the years... just not really The Man From UNCLE franchise. One of the things he does is employ split screen techniques such as those popularised in movies like the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair and he has a great slant on this at the end of the first sequence he does in this manner, where the vertical split from two separate, parallel displayed shots is pulled away revealing that you are actually seeing a single shot which is split by a vertical in the composition already. He does this less successfully later in the movie but the first time he does that here it’s a nice little reveal.

Another interesting thing he does is to take the old horror cliché of having something important happening in the background of a shot which the main characters are unaware of, the audience witnessing what’s going on before the characters realise it. He uses it for comic effect and, certainly, the first time he does this it works quite well. However, I have to say that it becomes something of a signature flourish throughout the film and, by the third time he relies on this technique, I was getting a little tired of it, to be completely truthful.

However, asides from all these little moans, it’s actually a great little 1960s style homage movie with bright colours, nice dialogue, great performances and a very freestyle shooting methodology - Ritchie seems to use every kind of different camera move and trick in the book and it’s really to his credit, and the editor’s, that he manages to make it all work so well without ever once jarring the viewer. There is a certain positive chemistry between all the lead actors and actresses too, which really helps the film, even though these are not the characters you are familiar with from the original show.

Daniel Pemberton’s percussion heavy score is the icing on the cake. Ritchie uses a number of songs, many of them put to surprisingly good use on the soundtrack, but Pemberton’s sixties style spy score is absolutely brilliant and this soundtrack was an instant purchase for me on CD. My one regret, as I stated earlier, was that the powers that be had decided not to use the original theme tune, which would have greatly lifted the movie more into UNCLE territory and I would have really liked to have heard what Pemberton would have come up with  for this. I was already a fan of his score for The Awakening (movie reviewed here) and it was a blast to hear him having the opportunity to do something this flamboyant in a modern film score... hopefully he will become a bit more well known in the industry after this because, Goldsmith cues or not, it’s a pretty cool score.

And that’s about all I have to say about The Man From UNCLE: The Guy Ritchie Affair. It’s not the best version of the source material it could have been. In fact, it couldn’t be much further from it even if the director had tried to update it chronologically to modern times. However, it is a great little gem of a movie and if you are not someone going in with any expectations that it needs to live up to the original, then you should have a lot of fun with it. Like the 1960s Modesty Blaise movie, this film is an absolutely appalling adaptation... but it’s a really fun film. Go see it.

Friday 14 August 2015

Crawl or Die

Die Valkyrie

Crawl or Die (aka Crawl Bitch Crawl)
USA 2014
Directed by Oklahoma Ward
Off air recording from The Horror Channel

Warning: Small spoilers here, I guess.

Crawl Or Die is a low budget movie which seems to have got a lot of traction amongst my twitter followers over the last year or so. Indeed, it’s only because I look in on Twitter from time to time that I knew this film even existed in the first place so, when it had its first showing on The Horror Channel recently, I got someone to record it for me. It’s a film I knew absolutely nothing about other than the title and the fact that a lot of people liked it.

Now, I’m not sure if I should have maybe read a bit about it before venturing in because I was a bit lost during the opening sequence of the movie, I have to say. I’d like to say that it’s because the writer/director Oklahoma Ward decided to start on an action sequence and then fill you in a little on the story in flashback after this... and to be fair, that’s exactly what he does. However, and this is really my only negative criticism of the movie, I think it’s more that I found things hard to follow in this opening sequence because it’s so darkly lit and seems to jump around confusingly. It may be because I was watching it in less than great conditions at the time, however, so that might not be a fault of the film.

Once we get the idea that a group of ‘action men and women’ are trying to escape from some kind of creature, we are then filled in on the plot, to a certain extent. The last fertile woman on the planet (known as ‘The Package’ and played by Torey Byrne) , uniquely free from infection by a virus of some kind, is being escorted to a spaceship to get her off the planet and heading to the mythical Earth 2. This, of course, implies that the movie is set on Earth but, since this is a projected trilogy of films, or so I’m told, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that our own planet is Earth 2. Her specialised security escort is assigned with the task but they run into trouble and they are pursued by a big, insect like creature as they flee underground and find themselves navigating an increasingly smaller and claustrophobic tunnel system as they are pursued by the beast. They literally have to crawl or die in some sequences and we are left with the intelligence of the film’s resourceful protagonist, Tank, played by Nicole Alonso, to help the group survive and get the package to her rendezvous as best she can.

Now, the first thing which hit me about this film, even in the confusing (possibly deliberately so... due to budgetary constraints?) opening sequence, is that the acting and dialogue is extremely naturalistic. And by naturalistic I mean that the things people do and especially say don’t feel like they’ve been written. Now that may be just the result of having an excellent ensemble cast who perform brilliantly, and they certainly do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fair amount of improvisation in the dialogue here too. Certainly, you don’t have any trouble in believing that any of the actors are anything other than who they are pretending to be and...well... that’s to everyone’s credit.

Because of the locations used and the lack of showing an outside environment to any real extent, the film doesn’t really suffer from the smaller budget. It’s a bit of a double edged sword because I would certainly liked to have found out just exactly what the creature is that was pursuing them and, you know, why it was out there in the first place... but the director seems to make the movie work really well, despite possible shortcomings like this and he’s obviously a talent who will rise very fast if he can deliver similar films on a shoe string.

The cast is pretty amazing, as I’ve said, but special mention goes to Nicole Alonso as Tank, a character who I can only assume from both her name and her visual style, must be an homage to Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s iconic comic book character Tank Girl. She is especially expressive during the course of the movie as she grunts and groans at the strain of having to crawl or force herself through various small places that must have been a fairly gruelling shoot in terms of the physicality of the role. I suspect she probably felt really silly being asked to do the same kinds of things over and over for take after take and it’s a real tribute to her hard work that she never once loses credibility in the part...

Which is pretty impressive when you realise that 90% or thereabouts of the film (no, I’m guessing but I bet I’m not far off) is pretty much free from dialogue. Instead we are left with the visuals, the sound design and the occasional piece of well placed scoring to help create the illusion of a fairly competently made science fiction movie which, by all accounts, is already garnering a solid reputation. In a way, it’s a movie which almost trades on the best parts of silent film acting and, like I said, Ward has managed to piece himself together a cast that are able to call on those kinds of skills to deliver the kind of film he wanted to make.

Also, and this kinda makes the experience worthwhile, there’s a bit in the movie about three quarters of the way through which I really didn’t see coming. It’s a surprise because it defies the expectations of the initial set up to the movie and, well, longtime readers of this blog will know that it’s incredibly hard for a movie maker to actually surprise me these days. So I’m particularly impressed by this and am happy that the writer/director played against the expectations created by the opening sections of his story.

And that’s about it. As I said, I watched this from an off air recording of the film’s premiere on The Horror Channel (the first thing I’ve watched from there) and, about ten minutes or so into the film, I found out the one, truly horrific thing about The Horror Channel that really ensures this TV station lives up to its name. There were adverts put in during the running time. Yeah, that’s right. Commercial breaks. It’s really lucky I was watching a recording of the airing and able to completely skip the stupid adverts... otherwise I would have had to stop watching the film altogether. I won’t put up with commercials or sponsors and, the way things are going on this planet just lately, I would urge everybody to give up on watching adverts completely. If they’re going to force feed that rubbish down your throat then seriously, do yourselves a favour, watch your shows later and jettison the adverts... they destroy the experience and, in my humble opinion, the abomination of the commercial break should be banned forever.

Anyway, because it was a recording I was watching, I was able to complete my viewing of the movie relatively uninterrupted and I’m glad I did. While slow moving the movie never really threatens to get dull and at some point the morbid fascination of watching people crawling down tunnels with no real dialogue becomes almost compelling. Crawl Or Die is not a classic movie by any means but certainly an interesting one and in todays market that’s not a bad thing to be. I quite enjoyed the experience and would like to see more of Oklahoma Ward and Nicole Alonso in the future... hopefully with a larger budget at the director’s command. One to watch out for, I think.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

I Love Liz La Point - 5 Years Of Art & Love

Love And Depth

I Love Liz La Point - 5 Years Of Art And Love
(expanded edition)
by Terry Osterhout
Limited Private Pressing

David Bailey once took some photos of me.

I also worked with Richard Harris, apparently... maybe even sat on his knee. Not many people would know this about me, nor would they want to I’m guessing, but I used to be a child model between the ages of “too few to mention months” up until the age of nine when a truly bizarre car accident short circuited my career (but that’s a whole other story).

Why I mention all this is because I know that modelling for a photographer can be hard work sometimes and it’s something that certainly requires a lot of patience. So I always have a lot of empathy for them when I see models striking various poses, in addition to the look the artist is trying to capture, because I know it’s not always an easy job. One such model is Liz La Point.

I first became aware of Liz through Twitter, presumably following her off of someone retweeting some shots of her. She has a certain charm and appeal above and beyond her obvious fantastic body. As with most models, and I never realise why people take this for granted so much, it’s almost always the face that draws you into a work first... and Liz has this kinda pixie look about her which really made me take notice. After a while I discovered that the photography was taken by her husband, Terry Osterhout and so I looked into that too.

Fairly recently, Terry produced a beautiful hardback collection of photo sessions of his wife called I Love Liz La Point - 5 Years Of Art & Love in two editions, one regular and the one I’m reviewing here, the expanded edition. I was thrilled when Terry ran a competition to win one of these books and, though I rarely enter competitions these days (maybe once a decade), I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d actually won. Didn’t see that one coming. And it’s such a brilliant collection, that kept me up for hours looking through it when I should have been asleep, that I wanted to share a review of this work here.

Which is where I have my problem because... well... this is the first time I’ve tried to review any photography. I’m not quite sure how to do it, what to look out for or what to say. But, hopefully, I’ve muddled through that here without making myself look too much of an idiot and I think it’s a book that people interested in such things should certainly contemplate owning and enjoying for themselves... which is why I’m writing this now.

The tome is split into various themed sections... well chapters, I guess... and right from the outset we are presented with shots which define the cheeky and playful nature of Terry and Liz' approach to eroticism and female beauty in the first batch called Vintage Vixen. Here the hippy-like but revealing clothing and seductive poses the model is presenting are nicely undercut by the knee high socks she is wearing as she frolics on a bed. This immediately brought a smile to my face and made me ponder just how many couples have gone through the whole "socks in bed" debate.

Now, I hate to go on about capturing textural contrast because it’s something that somebody looking at photographs is probably supposed to bang on about… which is a good reason not to do it… but Osterhout does find some interesting moments capturing the juxtaposition of different surfaces throughout the book. For instance, a shot from the Vintage Vixen shoot is a close up of Liz' pubic hair with her thumb just brushing the lips that mark the entrance of her sex. The hair is in direct contrast with the smooth skin of part of her leg and the creased orange top coming down to her waste... the three different textures colliding with each other and highlighting the others all in one hit.

Next up is the first of two mostly black & white series' in homage to the famous Valentina comic strip character created by Guido Crepax (see my review of Valentina movie Baba Yaga here). There is an almost thrown together quality about this series but it's a deceptive attribute when you start to really look at what's involved here. Some of these show experimentation with the depth of field, with large parts of a composition blurry while Liz's head or hand is in sharp focus to grab the attention… which makes for an interesting shot. Osterhout does a similar thing in a photo from a lovely little session entitled The Writer, where a studious looking Liz is lounging naked, other than her glasses, writing in an exercise book. In one of these shots he again uses a smaller depth of field to bring her feet to the attention of the onlooker while everything else in the shot is softened down. An overhead shot of Liz looking up into camera while sucking on her pen, her head in such a way that it looks almost artificially attached to the beautiful trunk of her body, is equally captivating.

One of the things which caught my attention is the range of styles that the artist manages to capture with his camera eye throughout the book. The Wet series, for example, reminded me of the kinds of beach scenes that would adorn various calendar's in the late 1970s/early 1980s and took me straight back to my teenage years. Another series entitled Wild In The Forest gave me a similar 1980s hit as almost a tribute, and I have no idea if this was deliberate or not, to the movie version of Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle... except you never saw Sheena as seductively displayed as Liz is here. Especially the “almost about to get feral” feel of the last shot in that series, with the model looking straight into the camera as if to say... “things are about to get real”. Other shoots in the book have distinct atmospheres which capture different periods, genres and moods, such as the aforementioned Valentina shots which pitch things back to a late sixties/early seventies feel. The photographer here is nothing, if not diverse, in his approach to his subject.

Another way Osterhout expresses his diversity, whether consciously or not, is by the way he lights certain scenes in either a soft or hard light, and uses this, and a range of colours, to reflect a certain mood. For instance, after a load of really amazing shots, we get to a section entitled Random Favourites and the first six shots in this section are absolutely stunning in their sense of intimacy with the subject. You can almost feel Osterhout and La Point’s love for each other coming through the lens of the camera and capturing something almost as elusive as lightning in a bottle. If the reader (viewer?) went into this book blind, without knowing that the photographer and artist are married, then surely they would 'get it' by this point that the two are lovers. It really comes through here and I can see why these shots in particular were selected for their 'favourites' section.

Also, the way Liz is made up helps contribute considerably to the mood of the artist’s creation, it seems to me. The heavy eye shadow on a series called The Gamer (playfully reminding me of all those mis-spent evenings shouting angry insults at Lara Croft as she met her untimely death over and over again) gives us a much sterner looking version of La Point which, given my own sexual preferences, was a bit of a turn on, it has to be said. The metaphor of the console joystick Liz grasps in her hands in this sequence was certainly not lost on me, for sure. There’s one shot in this sequence which is probably my favourite in the book and it makes up a double page spread. It’s not so much the skill of the photographer, or the pose as Liz is naked and resting bent over a chair, with her behind prominent, which makes this shot stand out for me. It’s the expression on her face, looking back over her left shoulder and directly in to the camera, which is truly startling. It’s one of those looks that makes you project yourself into the photograph, making you wonder what the hell the “character”... as opposed to the actress that is the model... is thinking and just how that expression came into being.

A playful series of Liz reclining against a collection of sprawled out comic books is striking in many ways, not least of all because Osterhout obviously has the same run of 1970s John Carter Warlord Of Mars comics which I have stowed away in a box somewhere. The clarity and humour of the shots in this are lovely, with a wonderfully attention grabbing set of Superman symbol panties which are absolutely brilliant when showing the contours of the model’s sex lips against the colourful design. This series of shots, entitled Comic Book Geek, makes a mini sequence... almost a seduction... with the model stripping down slowly until we are left with just the sense of her sex through the panties before finishing with a close up of her lower legs and the super-heroic knickers dangling around them. A brilliant tease where the pay off in this one is the denial of the reveal.

There are a few other sections in here, too, which are telling a sequence of events in a narrative order. One long sequence called The Haunting Of Red Riding Hood has Liz starting off in the traditional Riding Hood costume and then running through the forest, shedding clothes as she goes, trying to escape the unseen creature that is presumably giving chase. It actually has a similar vibe about it to the Walerian Borowczyk movie The Beast, also featured as a section in the original extended cut of that director’s Immoral Tales (and reviewed here). Like that movie, the subject of the camera gaze starts off in fear and ends up in consensuality. This and a few other sections in the book certainly gel with the artists description of himself as a storyteller rather than a photographer and, although he (like us all, I guess) hates being labelled by other people, I have to say he’s a really great photographer too... someone who really knows what he’s doing and who seems to embrace the spontaneity of the creative process, as evidenced by some of the great work throughout this particular volume.

So, yeah, that’s about all I’ve got to say on this one. If you’re into sexy shots (far more revealing than the ones I’m allowed to show on this blog under Google’s guidelines) with a large degree of technical skill combined with the soul of an artist then I Love Liz La Point - 5 Years Of Art & Love is certainly worth picking up for your personal library. A truly gorgeous gal, a gifted photographer and the fruits of their passion published and bound for your perusal and, hopefully, fascination. Also, the last section, where Osterhout and Liz declare the full fire of their love, should melt even the sternest of hearts and have you saying “Awww” to yourself. This is a really great book and I’m proud to own one of the copies... for which I very much thank both the artist and his muse with equal appreciation.

You can visit Terry’s site and buy a copy of this wonderful volume here

To find out more about Liz La Point at her website here and check out her YouTube channel The Naked Advice here 

Liz’s blog column for The Naked Advice is here

You can follow Terry on Twitter here and Liz here

Monday 10 August 2015

Fantastic 4

Doom Watch

Fantastic 4
2015 USA
Directed by Josh Trank
UK cinema release print.

Well this one really surprised me.

I was expecting this movie, from the reports I heard of the genesis of the whole film on the internet as it geared up and then entered production, to be truly dreadful. While it certainly has a few real issues, which I think are easy enough to highlight (probably more problematic to fix), I found myself enjoying this film a heck of a lot more than I expected to and I would say that people really need to check this one out for themselves.

I used to read the Fantastic Four as a nipper, back in the early 1970s. I had at least one annual in the seventies detailing their adventures in The Negative Zone, which kinda has a counterpart in this movie version and which, I remember, had a gorgeous Jack Kirby splash page featuring the four of them drawn against a surreal photomontage. My main source of reference for the characters, however, was a book of reprints of the first seven or so issues as a paperback and, of course, reruns of the late 1960s TV cartoon show... I can still hear the music to that one in my head to this day (I wonder if I’ll be able to catch up with those again one day or whether they’re unavailable). I also had a vinyl LP by a group called Icarus as a kid called The Marvel World Of Icarus, which had a great song about the superteam too (and many other Marvel characters) which was always stuck in my head. After it was quickly pulled from circulation and considered a "lost album", it resurfaced relatively recently on CD if you want to check it out from the usual sellers.

I also liked the previous two Fantastic Four movies (and would have loved to see another one of those made) because they were fun... although they really screwed up Doctor Doom, I would have to say. The Roger Corman movie which was made purely to retain copyright of the property in order to make those two, and which was never shown (although you can read my review of the Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four right here) is really not good, to be honest... but I do find it interesting in that this new version of the movie was kinda 'panic made' again because of exactly the same problem... the rights to the characters were going to revert back to Marvel unless Fox made a movie right now. Interesting piece of history repeating itself regarding this property, methinks.

The director here is Josh Trank and I remember when I heard he’d been brought on, I gave a little inner “woohoo” because I’d seen his previous movie, the debut feature Chronicle (reviewed by me here) and had absolutely loved it. Although that’s a relatively low budget, found footage piece, the story of teenagers who accidentally find themselves ‘gifted’ with superpowers and the way it changes them was a really clever piece of cinematic storytelling and it seemed obvious that he was a natural for a superhero team movie at some point. Alas, all the subsequent news I heard after this... down to casting and changing both the origins of the characters and their history made me hate the project more and more each day and, although I quite enjoyed this new version, be warned... this is not the same Fantastic Four that anybody my age will remember from the comics. Even the fact that they’ve dumbed down the adult characters to kids I find objectionable... hey guys... at the very least, Reed Richards had some very distinctive white sideburns... what happened?

However, if you can divorce yourself from the original source material, which it plays around with a great deal, then you can probably hook into this tale of four kids who are almost, but not quite, playing out a less sophisticated, bigger budget version of the directors debut feature, the aforementioned Chronicle. And it’s actually pretty good in a lot of ways. I don’t know what all the negative reviews are about on this one because the acting by the principals; Miles Teller as Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Kate Mara as Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl), ex Chronicle co-star Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) and Jamie Bell as Benjamin Grimm (The Thing)... is all pretty good and there’s some strong character work midst all the special effects, which keeps things strolling along. Like I said though, there are some problems with this movie too...

Now I’m not going to go into all the behind the scenes drama on this movie that is being dragged out in the press in the form of leaks and rogue tweets. I have little respect for the Hollywood machine in that it chews up and then spits out talented individuals and turns what could have been great artistic masterpieces into 'by the numbers', emasculated pseudo-spectaculars that underperform due to the very reasons that the studio tampers with the work in the first place. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the story behind the scenes on this one yet but... well I reckon we’ll know what goes on at some point in the future. There are some things which do hurt the movie though and, because of all the hidden shenanigans on this one, including the cutting before even shooting, by the studio, of three main action set pieces (apparently)... well I’m just not sure who you can blame for any of the slightly negative things which are in this movie... or at least the things I perceive to be negatives.

Okay... so leaving out the complete changing of the characters and their origins, not to mention their age, we have the whole Doctor Doom problem again. Now in the previous two films, part of that problem, as far as I was concerned, was that the actor playing him was pretty unlikeable... yeah, okay, he’s supposed to be a villain but I found it a barrier to his performance. Here, we have a pretty great guy called Toby Kebbell playing the role. I don’t know what else this man’s been in but he does a really great performance in the movie before he turns into the nemesis of the Fantastic Four. However, what with the changes to his origin and his portrayal as some kind of organic, metal monster... he doesn’t really work. It’s something I think may have been a hangover from the Marvel Ultimates comics but, my opinion in movies based on Marvel or DC comics is that, unless it involves Elektra or She-Hulk, anything post 1973 never really happened... go back to the original characters because those ones worked. The biggest problem with Doom here though, apart from the changes on his look and attitude, are that he’s damn near omnipotent. It’s like trying to fight an evil version of Superman and, though the writers here at least use this to force the film back to one of the ideals of the original comic strip from the early 1960s, it makes for a bit of a dull climax to the movie which, in all honesty, leaves you expecting to see more in the next one or two set pieces... before you realise that this is it, the movie is now over.

There seems to be whole sub-plot missing from the movie and it leads to Reed Richards looking like he’s betrayed his friends at one point and... we’re none the wiser because it’s never really explained as to the project he’s working on when he’s on the run, although I assume he’s working on a way to bring back the human version of Ben Grimm. But we’re never enlightened about that matter in the final cut of the movie and neither are any of Reed’s team mates. I suspect the trailer, which shows a version of the super group working together in a way that never actually happens in the film, either has footage not in the final cut or, I suspect, has been cut in a very clever way into fooling the viewer into thinking something else is going on. Either way... you won’t be seeing a fully functional, working team as you do in this version of the movie until their serendipitous final fight at the finale (of sorts).

Which is another problem I had with this movie... even though the final battle (as it turns out) is our first chance to see the team in action together... that’s a bit of a mistake, I think. The special effects and action was handled well enough but the sheer lack of action when the film has been hurtling at a fair momentum to get to these kinds of scenes tempers the movie a little and leads directly into my third and final problem with the film... and I think this is where a lot of the audience probably lost it a bit...

The epilogue to the movie, with the Fantastic Four setting up as their own, government funded super group is... well it’s really badly written. There’s a scene right at the end where they are trying to think of a name to call themselves and I’m guessing the collective audience are thinking exactly what I was thinking... “No... they’re not going to do this like this. Please don’t say the lines I dread are coming. Please don’t do it like this, it’s such a terrible way of doing it in a contemporary movie it’s going to come off as really silly... this is just the worst.” And then... yeah they do it and that’s the punchline leading into the credits roll... I think this must have been the main reason why members of the audience were shouting out that the movie was “rubbish” when they left the screening I saw and, really, I can’t blame them, to be honest.

Not me though because, in spite of these problems, there’s a lot to admire in this movie too. It’s fairly solid apart from scenes like that at the end which, one might suspect, were reshoots with another director anyway (possibly... don’t think we’ll find out conclusively for or against that hypothesis with any honesty for a while yet... I don’t trust big corporations to tell the truth). One of the key things which stopped me losing my rag with the movie and sit up and take notice is that, while it changes everything, the key values of the original comic book... the sense of family and the idea that a group of heroes working together can defeat something they can’t tackle on thier own (something which was no doubt inspired by the Justice Society Of America from the DC comics of the 1940s and their 1960s and onwards counterparts, The Justice League Of America) is something that Fantastic Four comics always took the opportunity to preach to the fan base and, whether you personally embrace those values or not (I don’t really, most of the time), it’s a relatively good set of values to have at some levels and that spirit is definitely in this movie in spades.

Another great thing about this is the music. Now it’s co-composed by Marco Beltrami and one of my favourite composers, the genius concert hall minimalist Philip Glass. However, I’d really like to know the story behind the scenes here because Glass doesn’t work on these kinds of movies, rarely lets his music be timed to a scene in the traditional way most composers have to work (the directors have to cut their scenes to fit his music, not the other way around) and... I just don’t know how he became embroiled in this. What I suspect is he maybe composed a few pieces and Beltrami took them and extrapolated parts to use to build some of the other pieces in the film... my understanding is that Glass himself wasn’t present at the recording sessions which suggests, to me at least, he had a bad experience here and washed his hands of the film as much as he could. That being said, it’s a really strong score and Beltrami and Glass both do a wonderful job on it. It seems a bit ‘dialled down’ in the movie against the sound effects and I felt it a shame that in a sequence where Sue Storm explains the nature of music to Reed Richards, it’s left unscored... but the soundtrack album to this one is awesome and it’ll be on lots of repeat spins on my CD player, I can tell you that much. My copy turned up before I saw the film and I was grooving to it before I got to see the visuals it supported. I doubt if we’ll see Glass come back for any sequels though.... if, indeed, any sequels get to be be made.

And that’s my take on the new Fantastic 4 movie pretty much done. Has it got problems... oh yeah. Do these problems stop it from being an enjoyable movie experience? No, it’s mostly pretty good, well acted, brilliantly scored and, despite some awful scripting in certain scenes (especially the end one), I’d have to say I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than, say, the last 20th Century Fox superhero movie I saw, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here). It’s not the exactly the best superhero movie ever made and, while I can’t claim I had a completely fantastic time with it, I certainly was kept entertained for the length of the running time. Maybe not one for big fans of the comic book characters to go see but certainly, if you’re into your superhero movies, this one doesn’t fail so hard as people seem to be saying it does. Give it a look sometime, maybe.