Thursday 29 September 2016

Doc Savage - The Secret of Satan’s Spine

Bad Days With Black Rock

Doc Savage
The Secret of Satan’s Spine

by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
Altus Press ISBN: 978-1618272164

So once again we have the amazing Will Murray taking on the mantle of the old Street and Smith pen name, Kenneth Robeson, to continue the good work of Doc Savage, long after original scribe Lester Dent’s death. I think it says a lot about Murray’s enthusiasm and attention to detail that this tome feels exactly like it’s been written in the period of Dent’s work when this particular story is set.

The Secret of Satan’s Spine is a Doc Savage adventure which takes place in the 1940s, during the Second World War. The back story of Doc Savage and the Amazing Five was that they met while serving in the First World War, although the full story was never divulged until many decades later when Philip Jose Farmer wrote a Doc ‘origin story’, Escape From Loki. Doc and what was left of his crew only managed to survive another four years in literary form after the Second World War before the pulp magazine in which the novels resided was cancelled. Obviously, over the years, and this has much to do with the Bantam reprints, the Doc stories have found a new lease of life and so, here we are with another of Murray’s incredibly well cobbled together tales... taken from an original Lester Dent idea which was rejected by the publishers at the time.

Something dark and strange happened to Doc Savage in the 1940s. He became much less reliant on the scientific gadgets that were always, until that point, a large part of his literary personae. The fashions of the time had presumably made it more popular for ‘science detectives’ to solve their problems with their brains (and possibly fists) rather than reach for, in Doc Savage’s case, a whole arsenal of curiously ‘ahead of their time’ gadgets which were, more often than not, easy to conceal on one’s person. Another strange thing which happened was that Doc’s five famous aides slowly found their roles diminishing until, by a certain point, Doc was only ever accompanied by the two who were, presumably, the most popular with the readers... Monk and Ham.

Something else which I seem to remember happening, although my memory may be playing tricks on me here and I’m unable to confirm this at present, is that Doc’s Crime College, where he operated on their brains to remove captured criminal’s memories of their past before teaching them how to become upstanding citizens, either slowly disappeared or may have just been consciously dropped by Doc at some point. By then, I suspect, Dent had maybe realised that the decision to change someone into a less criminal person without any choice in the matter, and in total secret, was a bit of a moral blind spot and so it was dropped, or at least pushed into the background significantly, during this time. It’s an interesting dilemma which various post-Dent comics and stories have used as a dramatic springboard in later years but I think it’s probably something Dent realised himself at some point. It’s definitely something Anthony Burgess must have figured out when he explored a less subtle variant of the same dilemma in A Clockwork Orange.

Anyway, all these little changes to the character means that, for me, the stories written and set in the 1940s, while still good, are not usually among my absolute favourite Doc Savage adventures.

Will Murray addresses these points and the style of the 1940s Doc head on and, in doing so, makes him much more readable and more interesting than I remembered him from being during that period. He talks about Doc consciously leaving his gadgets at home in order to not rely on them so much but... at the same time... it’s also true that for large chunks of the book, Doc is wearing what is the 1940s ‘science magic’ equivalent of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. So Murray kind of straddles a line between ‘to gadget or not to gadget’ and does it pretty convincingly, it has to be said, without really examining too closely why Doc would ever want to make life harder on himself and do such a thing in the first place.

The story starts off with Monk and Ham arguing, as usual, before Monk gets pulled into a scheme by being duped by a pretty face... a plot which will soon involve Doc and Ham too, as they take passage aboard a military ship to try and figure out just what kind of deadly commotion is about to erupt. However, that’s as far as it goes in terms of regulars of the series... it’s just Doc, Monk and Ham in this one and that would certainly fit in with the time period Murray has chosen to write about here. To counter that somewhat, he brings in a group of four friends who appeared together in one original Doc adventure by Dent and reunites them with what’s left of Doc and his crew... although they don’t do a whole lot over the course of the narrative, if truth be told.

As for that Crime College? Well, at one point near the end, Monk informs one of the captured criminals that he can look forward to a spell in Leavenworth, which is a far cry from Doc taking him back to a secret location and performing a special kind of acupuncture surgery on his brain. No explanation is given as to this passing comment by Monk and I’m guessing that people who are only aware of the 1930s Doc Savage adventures might raise and eyebrow over this line in the book. It does, I’m sure, make sense though.

The plot and pace in this one is not reminiscent of the globetrotting variety of adventures, even though a lot of the world, in terms of distance, is technically covered here. Unlike a lot of the Doc narratives, which can often be similar to a 1930s film serial in terms of people going here, there and everywhere, repeatedly, over a number of weeks... the structure of this one is fairly simple. We have a small part of the story at the start which is set in New York and a small part at the end on a small island which houses The Secret Of Satan’s Spine. Everything in between is set on the ship which has started its journey with a healthy number of disguised villains as well as the ultimate cure for all kinds of villainy everywhere... namely Doc, Monk and Ham.

The action isn’t choc-a-block and full-on in this one either, it has to be said. That doesn’t matter, though, because Murray has a way of grinding out his pulp prose in a fashion that moves the reader on at a fair lick without necessarily needing to constantly read about fist fights or other such matters... although there is still certainly enough action in here when called for... it’s just not one action set piece after another, which is not necessarily a bad thing and, especially I suspect, if you’re writing a specifically 1940s period Doc tale. Murray knows his stuff and he does his job well here.

I actually, despite the era of the Bronze Man’s adventures in which this fits, really enjoyed this one, after the initial set up was out of the way. The Secret Of Satan's Spine is a much better volume than Murray’s Doc book prior to this, The Sinister Shadow (reviewed here) and once I’d gotten over my disappointment at the 1940s setting, I really got into the swing of it. One slight criticism may be that the author seems less willing to spend time on a more believable pseudo-scientific explanation for some of the more fantastical things on display in this novel but I was happy to overlook this because of the sheer entertainment value that these inventions and archaeological artefacts bring to the story. Not nearly one of the best of Murray’s yarn spinners but certainly nowhere near the bottom end of the spectrum either. If you’re a Doc Savage fan then you should have no problem with this addition to your bronze library so... yeah... all in all, another big triumph for Will Murray writing as Kenneth Robeson. Looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Heaventh Seven

The Magnificent Seven (2016)
2016 USA Directed by Antoine Fuqua
UK cinema release print.

Okay... so Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was one of the great masterpieces of cinema. No one, I think, would debate that (and retain any credibility, for sure). This film is kind of selling itself as a remake of the first of the more famous remakes of Kurosawa’s classic, The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges in 1960. That film is also a bit of a classic, albeit a second hand one, and I know that a lot of the cast were so in love with Kuorsawa’s original that they were chomping at the bit to play the US equivalents of the original Seven Samurai, as far as some of them could be said to have counterparts in their remake.

People perhaps don’t remember that when the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven was released in the US it immediately flopped but, did quite well in the United Kingdom and was therefore given another, much more phenomenally successful release in the US immediately following its UK success. At least, that’s the story I know (and it’s a very similar story with John Carpenter’s original Assault On Precinct 13, if memory serves me correctly). So yeah, that version became a perennial classic too and whatever you think of it in comparison to the far superior, original masterwork by Kurosawa, it’s still a lot more of a great movie than a much later remake, the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond The Stars (which I have a bit of a soft spot for too, to be honest, and which is reviewed here). It also spawned three sequels... Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven and The Magnificent Seven Ride.

Now, the reason I mention all this is because I personally find remakes much more palatable if they’re reworked in a different milieu rather than do it in the same setting as one of the previous versions. So Kurosawa’s chanbara became a Western and then a Star Wars cash in space opera (I believe there was an Italian peplum version of the movie too). I think it speaks to Kurosawas ability to put together classic stories in that exactly the same thing happened to his chanbara Yojimbo when it was remade by, among others, Sergio Leone as a Western called A Fistful Of Dollars and again, starring Bruce Willis, in the 1930s depression era USA as Last Man Standing.

What surprises me about this new take on the original is that Antoine Fuqua and co have decided to remake the Western version of Kurosawas tale as... another Western. Ummm.... would rather had seen something else done with it but I guess, like the recent Ben Hur remake (which I reviewed here) I can’t be too vocal about reworking this kind of thing when some of the remakes are already classics in their own right.

Now, it has to be said that this new version of The Magnificent Seven isn’t really a remake at all. The characters have different names and, for the most part, don’t have too many counterparts from either the original Kurosawa version or the John Sturges version. Although, it has to be said that Chris Pratt is kind of playing a slightly less dashing version of Steve McQueen and Byung-hun Lee is kinda the greatests swordsman from the original, by way of James Coburn’s knife thrower in the first remake. However, all the character names are different and their relationships to each other are different too... although the Takashi Shimura/Yul Brinner role is obviously the one played by Denzel Washington here (although he doesn’t play it the same way) because he has an all black outfit and is the man who leads the others. Ethan Hawke’s character is a little closer in the spirit of the Sturges version because he has a back story relating to Denzel Washington’s character and he plays something like the Brad Dexter role in this one... except he also plays something like the Robert Vaughan role too so, you know, he’s essentially one of the few visible counterparts in the movie and it’s an amalgam of two of them.

The story is the same in spirit but... different too. This time, the villagers live in a small town and the threat to them comes not from Mexican Bandits but from fellow Americans who have taken over their town via the local gold mine. So I guess you can say the film takes certain elements from both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven but does its own thing with them. It’s more a classic Western than it is a remake but, that being said, there are a fair few homages to the originals. I’ll get to the music in a minute but there are a few lines and paraphrases from the Sturges version such as Denzel Washington’s take on Yul Brinner's “I’ve never been offered everything before” (or words to that effect, itself an homage in tone to Takashi Shimura’s “I understand” when he realises the true cost of the farmers’ sacrifice in Seven Samurai). Actually, about the money the Seven are offered here... we are lead to believe it is pooled together by the locals in town but when the Seven arrive, it’s pretty obvious that the two people who hire Denzel and his crew have done so without the knowledge of the townsfolk. So there’s a bit of a weird... “How did they raise the money?” moment I had in the movie just about there. Now as it happens, and this demonstrates the way in which the basic characters have mutated into something completely different for this version, Denzel Washington’s Chisolm character has his own motivations for taking on the job (which you’ll find out right near the end) but as for the others... hmm. Maybe a bit of a story logic shortfall there, I reckon.

Another thing this movie has in common with the Sturges version is Steve McQueen’s joke about the guy who jumped out of the window of a tall building. Chris Pratt tells this joke in this version (although I wasn’t too sure about his delivery of this the first time, to be honest) and then the writers have a field day with it and it becomes sort of a running gag in this movie... which is a nice idea but, ultimately, felt overused and therefore undervalued because, you will hear it five or six times throughout the feature and it certainly wears out its welcome at some points.

The final battle is pretty entertaining though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not got the sheer spectacle and excitement of Kurosawa’s epic ‘rain and mud’ finale but it is pretty much a more engaging and tense shootout than the 1960 John Sturges version... which is something I didn’t expect to be typing. So there’s that.

The tone of the movie is strange, though. Instead of being a classic American Western like the Sturges, we have a movie which takes elements from that legacy but also from the American Revisionist Westerns and, very much, the Italian Spaghetti Westerns too, it seems to me. It’s a very postmodernistic, eclectic version of a Western and although the visuals mostly manage to make this mish mash of Western styles work, it’s the musical juxtapositions which manage to help glue it altogether.

This was James Horner’s last score. That is to say... he’d written some of it from his visits to the set and it was delivered to the director after his death. The rest of the score is by a guy named Simon Franglen but, unless the two composers were both writing in completely different styles (which there seems to be in the movie) then it’s kind of hard to tell where one composer is taking the reigns as opposed to another. And it’s a diverse mix with the emphasis on 1970s revisionist style scoring, classic Americana (I’ll talk about that in a minute) and Spaghetti Western writing... especially the tense underscoring you get to the preamble to some of the gunfights in this. That being said, Horner’s danger motif is front and centre a few times in the movie and, yeah, if you know Horner (or even Prokofiev, for that matter) then it will probably pop you straight out of the action.

One thing which one or another, or possibly both, do in a couple of sequences (but my best guess is it’s Franglen in this case) is suddenly revert back to the Coplandesque style of Americana Western scoring that Elmer Bernstein used, to a certain extent, in the 1960 version. Now, Bernstein's classic score is not actually used in this movie at all other than a somewhat weaker orchestrated version at the end credits... which actually seem to play out visually more like the opening credits to Sergio Sollima’s iconic Western The Big Gundown (aka La Resa Dei Conti reviewed here) than a classic American Western, it has to be said. Bernsteins scoring isn’t used anywhere else in the movie apart from, at a couple of times, a very slight use of a simplified, four note version of one of the melody fragments, repeated here as a background rhythm. It’s actually far subtler than it possibly should be on a big, broad Western calling itself The Magnificent Seven, so I don’t know if that was an intentional reference or not... but mostly the composers don’t take their cue, so to speak, from the memorable Bernstein classic which is probably even more famous than the film it was written for (and reused in the sequels).

And I don’t have much more to say about this one, it seems. The cast are fantastic, especially Vincent D'Onofrio’s turn as Jack Horne but, mostly, the Seven don’t seem quite as charming as the 1960s lot, nor indeed their 1954 counterparts in Kurosawa’s amazing Seven Samurai. They are, however, more politically correct in their genetic make up, it seems to me. You have a dark skinned actor leading a group of men who include a Mexican, an Asian and a Comanche Indian in their number. Which is absolutely great, of course, and makes for an interesting movie but, at the same time, I have to ask myself the question... would you get that kind of ethnic mix working side by side in the Old West? I don’t know the answer to that, actually, because I’m not very well versed on history, especially American history, but I do wonder if it’s a valid criticism or not as to whether this kind of mix of stereotypes would have made a happy, effective team in the late 19th Century.

At the end of the day, however, I’d have to say that this version of The Magnificent Seven (if you want to think of it like that) is brilliantly played, well shot and is blisteringly entertaining. If you like Westerns and are not too worried about how it matches up to any of the previous versions, then you’re in for a treat because this is a pretty good one. An exciting time at the cinema and perhaps one to round up your friends for. I could easily see there being a sequel to this at some point although, like I said earlier, the ending is slightly different than you might be expecting if you go strictly for the ‘counterparts’ game in terms of surviving characters. A fun film though and one I might even watch again some day... so that can’t be bad.

Monday 26 September 2016

Ben Hur (2016)

Another Fine Messala

Ben Hur (2016)
2016 USA Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
UK cinema release print.

Okay... so this is probably another remake that nobody really wanted but at least it’s directed by a fairly cool Russian-Kazakh director, Timur Bekmambetov, who made the Nightwatch and Daywatch movies... both of which were great although, in all honesty, not so great as adaptations of the astonishing source material they took as they’re inspiration. Ben Hur is another adaptation but... not of the novel.

I can’t really have too much of a problem with a remake of Ben Hur because the one I personally think of as a classic, the 1959 Charlton Heston version (which I reviewed right here), subtitled A Tale Of The Christ,  was at least the second, if not the third version of the story already. And, as far as I know, none of these adaptations are too much like the popular novel written by Lew Wallace. I read it a couple of decades ago and don’t remember too much about it but I do recall it having a lot to do with Ben Hur raising an army to fight for Christ against the Romans... and the movies haven’t picked up on that plot line yet, it seems to me. So this new one is very much a remake of the previous movie versions, I think, and since they stray from the source material so much already... I don’t think purist notions of not having yet another remake are helpful.

That being said, this is obviously not as good a movie as the 1959 version, for sure but, surprisingly, it is an entertaining movie and it does come at the same material from a slightly different angle to those that came before it.

For example, the prologue with the birth of Jesus is ommitted from this version and it starts off, instead, with the opening of the chariot race before flashing back in a clichéd but interesting visual transition to Judah Ben Hur and his adopted brother Messala racing horses at a point in time a good six or more years prior to where the post-credits story in the 1959 version begins. The two characters, played very well by Jack Huston as Ben and Toby (Dr. Doom) Kebbell as Messala, are more fleshed out and you realise just what it is both of them have to lose from their falling out after Messala comes back from joining up with the Romans. It also sets itself up for an end sequence which pushes the bounds of credibility almost as much as Messala’s decision to destroy Judah and his family in the first place... all of which seems so much more ridiculous when you realise the history of the characters as explored here. Oh, yeah... it’s got a much different ending to the 1959 version, that’s for sure, but I don’t want to put any spoilers up with this one.

Almost as though Timur Bekmambetov recognises this slight weakness in prior versions, instead of the cause of the downfall of the House of Hur being a loose tile that falls on a Roman parade... it is, instead, slightly less flimsy excuse for Messala’s banishing of the brother of his youth here... although, to be honest, it still seems like a massive over reaction to the problem at hand. However, that’s one of the ways that the director has made this film more accommodating to the tastes of modern audiences. That and the pacing.

This movie is around an hour and a half shorter than the 1959 Ben Hur and it sails along with massive chunks of the traditional story excised in the name of a brisker, modern take on the tale. For instance, Jack Hawkins 1959 character of Quintus Arias, replaced here by the always remarkable James Cosmo, is almost totally excised in the film and his relationship to Ben Hur completely non-existent in this version. I won’t tell you why because that would constitute a spoiler but, honestly, this helps cut a lot of time out by removing the whole plot line about Hur becoming a free man of Rome and thus able to compete in the circus against Messala. And although we have the excellent Morgan Freeman narrating and playing Ilderim (the role played so well by Hugh Griffith in the ‘59 version), his words which allow for the logic of the film to pitch the exiled galley slave against the might of Rome momentarily palatable, are merely a work around it seemed to me, to allow for this film's expedienct nature. Also, why oh why have they changed Ben Hur’s galley slave number from 41 to 61 in this version? Was that the number in the book? I don’t remember but I know it popped me straight out of the movie experience in this one with an angry reaction as soon as somebody spoke the number. Grrrrrrr. Also, the lack of continuity where fake snow landed in people’s hair, didn’t melt but also didn’t match from shot to shot and moved around on their heads depending on which takes were being used and in which order they were edited together really dislodged me from the immersive nature of the cinema experience too... there was a lot of bad continuity stuff like this going on throughout the film.

The pacing and lack of story, plus a very truncated post chariot race sequence, do, I have to admit, make this version seem like ‘Ben Hur light’. It’s very much a ‘highlights album’ compared to the versions that have come before it, it felt to me.

The other thing this does a lot is take the more modern Hollywood route, which isn’t one of contemporary USA film-makers' most endearing features, by following a cause and effect narrative arc. Everything seems to build towards something else with almost nothing in there being just ‘a nice scene’ as opposed to something which gets you to your narrative destination quicker. For example, the fate of Ben Hur’s leprous mother and sister is the same as it is in the film but he meets with them before the chariot race in this one, thus giving him and the audience more emotional fuel to ensure we all want to see him take his revenge against Messala in the race. Also, of course, by relocating most of these scenes earlier, we have less to get through post-race with the big action climax of the movie coming not too far before the end of this one. It’s all very clever and entertaining but... not necessarily an equal balance for the offset of the impact of the ending, which seems almost ridiculous in terms of Hur’s family and with a new outcome which, by the final moments of the film, seems absolutely, hysterically wrong. All I’m saying is that Messala, although wonderfully played by Kebbell, can’t really keep credibility with the audience, I think, with the script as it is here.

But, there’s also a lot of good stuff here too. The performances are all great, the photography and shot designs are all very interesting and dynamic and you certainly won’t find yourself getting bored. The chariot race is also very gripping and, although the concluding minute or so of this event are perhaps a little less impactful in some ways, it’s all quite breathtaking stuff and almost, believe it or not, holds its own with the 1959 version of the scene. Not quite but... almost. There’s also one thing it has which that specific earlier version didn’t have in this scene...

Which brings me to the music.

The score here is courtesy of the wonderful Marco Beltrami and I will say straight away that it really wouldn’t be fair to compare this to the music of the Charlton Heston movie. That version had a score by one of the greatest film composers in history, Dr. Miklos Rozsa, and it’s acknowledged as being one of the all time great movie scores. I could no more fairly compare this to that than I could compare Danny Elfman’s score for Planet of the Apes to Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking original or, indeed, Beltrami’s own score for The Omen remake to Jerry’s original of that. The modern one will always be destined to lose in a straight comparison and, anyway, it would be a completely unfair thing to do because the cinematic syntax of the modern movie versions are in no way anywhere near the original's in terms of their approach to shooting a story. So, what I will say is... that Beltrami’s score for Ben Hur is pretty darned good. It’s a different approach but it kicks ass when it needs to and I look forward to grabbing the CD at some point soon. That being said, he does make a decision about the chariot race sequence that I really wasn’t expecting.

In the 1959 movie, which was almost pretty much wall to wall music, the chariot scene is left completely unscored. It has a prelude fanfare but, when the race starts, you are down to just the sound effects and it helps make the race seem more grittier and forces you to concentrate more, in some ways. Now, when George Lucas re-made the chariot race in his pod race sequence for Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace... another move which is pretty much wall to wall music... John Williams also, apart from a similar prelude fanfare, leaves the majority of the pod race left unscored. This is partially, I suspect, as an homage to Rozsa’s choice on Ben Hur and Williams' music only comes in right at the end of the pod race when the valve on Anakin’s racer starts to work loose. I suspect one of the motivations behind both of these composer’s decisions may have been because of the wall of noise that the music would be competing against although, I know they were both highly skilled enough to be able to write around that obstacle.

However, in this version of Ben Hur, Beltrami has scored the chariot race and... you know what? It works really well and is quite spectacular in the way he uses the baseline to accentuate the mounting tension of the race. It’s a different solution to the previous versions but it’s, you know, a different film and it works surprisingly well here. Sometimes, you don’t always have to make the same decisions that history has taught us works, I guess.

And that’s pretty much it for me on this movie, I think. It’s not a great version of Ben Hur but it is an entertaining movie, for sure. It’s not one I could watch repeatedly through various decades of my life like the 1959 version but it’s a good piece of cinema and, if you are not overly wedded to the versions that have come before it, then I don’t think you will be too disappointed with this one as a ‘good night out at the movies’. There may be a little too much of the Religious element in this one but it’s not as blatant as the original (until maybe the end) and I think most people can be tolerant of other people’s theological issues, even if they don’t tie up with their own. So, yeah, all in all a recommendation from me and not the travesty I was expecting. The ‘highlights only’ approach isn’t ideal but there’s enough distraction on the screen to hold your interest for the two hours, I think.

Ben Hur At NUTS4R2

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ

Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur (2016)

Friday 23 September 2016

Bridget Jones' Baby

Apostrophe, Now

Bridget Jones' Baby
2016 Ireland/UK/France/USA
Directed by Sharon Maguire
UK cinema release print.

You know, I think it’s really irresponsible for a movie studio, after they were hopefully hauled over the coals for it when the first Bridget Jones movie came out, to continue to perpetrate the unbelievable crime against grammar/spelling/punctuation of the title of this movie that is seen on all the movie posters and tie-ins. It’s not a title I would reproduce here and I have removed the superfluous ‘S’ from the way it’s spelled so at least it doesn’t perpetuate the ignorance like a virus from this site... although I guess I’m forced to leave it on the pictures of the posters above (was tempted to just blur it out). I’ll stop going on now about this extremely important issue of mangling the English language and encouraging generations of students (and grown lecturers, believe it or not) to continue to spread this disease of no small concern but I won’t have it on my blog. Period (or full stop as it’s called over here).

I loved the first movie in this series, Bridget Jones’ Diary (see how easy it is to just ignore the bad punctuation?) but was fairly disappointed with the second. Also a little confused because my dim memory of that second one, Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, is such that I thought she’d gotten together with Mark Darcy at the end and he’d proposed to her... or something similar. However, the story has obviously moved on quite a lot because, at the start of this one, Darcy is married and her other former lover, Daniel Cleaver, is lost and presumed dead (although I’m sure you can all guess how that one turns out).

Hugh Grant’s presence in this movie is confined to a few photos only but the incomparable Renée Zellweger and the always amazing Colin Firth are back to reprise their roles as Bridget and Darcy, for a third time. As are a lot of the wonderful supporting actors and actresses from the other two movies such as Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent, Sally Philips, Shirley Henderson (somewhat wasted here as she’s a blindingly great talent) and James Callis (who was absolutely awesome as Baltar in the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica and who is reprising his role here as Mr. One Hit Wonder of the pop scene). We also have a few new comers with Mark Darcy’s new rival Jack, played brilliantly by Patrick Dempsey (who I’m assured has a nice puppet) and Bridget’s news 'anchor woman' mate Miranda, played so entertainingly by Sarah Solemani, who I guess is at least partially responsible for getting Bridget into the dilemma she finds herself in for the remainder of the film.

Said dilemma lands in two parts when Bridget has six hours of passion with millionaire Jack by stumbling into the wrong tent at a music festival and then also, within the space of a few weeks, temporarily rekindles her passion with Mark Darcy. However, the condoms she is using are well past their use-by date and so, she finds herself pregnant and without any real clue as to who the father is. To make matters worse (aka funnier), she is half in love with both of them and, for a while, neither knows about the other... causing some awkward moments not just for her but for her doctor, played by the always watchable Emma Thompson, who also did double duty as a script doctor on this one too, I’m told.

So the big question in the movie on everybody’s lips is... who is the father of Bridget Jones’ Baby and... well you’ll be hanging on until the very last minute to find out. And if you want it clarified even a little further, you might want to stay for an easter egg in the form of a photograph which flashes up for a few seconds after the final end credits have played out.

Okay... so the film has its moments but, even with the same director as the first installment in the sequence on board, I have to say it’s no masterpiece. The first one was absolutely phenomenal but this one shares with the first sequel the feeling of a slightly missed opportunity and people just... well not milking the memory of the first one exactly but, maybe losing a few of the ingredients which made the original so special along the way. That being said, the adult edge to a lot of the humour is back in place and you can’t say the film isn’t gutsy in places. I personally didn’t find the movie all that funny this time around, it has to be said... but please don’t take me at my word on that one because I did observe that the audience were absolutely falling off their chairs with laughter during certain scenes so I think that, if anything, it’s definitely a crowd pleaser with, certainly, some of the most enthusiastic audience reaction I’ve seen all year.

Mind you, saying that, there were obviously some celebrity cameos in this movie made by people who I was obviously supposed to know and, I’m sorry but... I’d never heard of them. So I’m guessing a lot of the jokes just went over my head on this one. And, of course, even if you don’t find this one all that funny...  Renée Zellweger is such a perfect actress with impeccable comic timing that you can’t help but relate to the characters... especially when she’s supported by such a fantastic cast. I’ve always had a soft spot for Zellweger and, although this isn’t a film I was overly keen on, I did enjoy the presence and continuity she brought to the role here.

And that really is pretty much all I’ve got to say about Bridget Jones' Baby, I’m afraid. This is probably one of the shortest reviews I’ve written in a few years but there’s not much more I can add. Would I recommend the movie? Sure, Bridget Jones fans are bound to at least like it a little and, judging by the audience response, most of them will love it. I think it’s a tad of a stretch to hear people saying that this is the best of the three but, heck, I’m not entirely sure I'm a good judge of the subject matter in this case, to be honest. So I think I would just say that, if you didn't like either of the first two movies then I would err on the side of caution and not go. For everybody else I would say... it’s maybe worth a watch but don’t go in expecting the first movie or you will be disappointed.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Blair Witch

Heather Report

Blair Witch
2016 USA Directed by Adam Wingard
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I’ve actually opted for spoilers in this one because I want to talk about specific aspects. If you don’t want to know this stuff then don’t read.

This film, directed by Adam Wingard who made the excellent The Guest (reviewed here), was originally called The Woods when it was being shot and then trailered. I remember seeing the trailer for ‘The Woods’ a few months ago and thinking... “Wow. This looks like a remake of The Blair Witch Project”. Not more than a couple of weeks since I saw that trailer, it was revealed to the public at large that The Woods was not really the title of the film and that it was, indeed, to be called Blair Witch. The first thing I thought of was how perfectly appropriate it was that someone had managed to make a sequel in secret, given the way the original movie was initially marketed as a ‘real phenomenon’ documentary.

Now, I remember the buzz surrounding the original movie because, around about the same time, somebody at my work place had asked me to be one of two test subjects to spend time looking around the internet, getting familiar with it and trying to figure out if the internet and emails were something which would be worth getting for the business. I remember reading about the initial viral campaign and then, when all was revealed that The Blair Witch Project was just another horror movie... but extremely low budget and extremely scary... my interest was piqued. I remember one reviewer coming out of a screening at Cannes or Sundance or somewhere like that and she was visibly shaking because the experience had been so scary for her.

The film didn’t exactly start the found footage phenomenon in the genre... that claim probably, if memory serves, belongs to Cannibal Holocaust... but The Blair Witch Project did, indeed, popularise the technique for horror film audiences and it’s a style that certainly hasn’t gone back out of fashion in the 17 years or so since its cinematic release. There are loads of these found footage horrors made every year, it seems to me.

Adam Wingard’s new movie slyly sidesteps the horrendously disappointing first sequel, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, without actually contradicting events in that story, from what I can remember of it. Instead, what  he’s done is to have one of the new crew of forest explorers leading an expedition because he is the brother of the lead protagonist of The Blair Witch Project, Heather Donahue, originally played by... Heather Donahue. Yeah, I know... it seemed to be a part of the first movie’s viral campaign that the characters were indistinguishable from the actors who played them. So, following the trail of some new footage found of the incident (which makes no sense to me), Heather’s brother James takes his friends out there, to hook up with the people who found the new footage and try to find the house that Heather and the others ended up in at the conclusion of the first movie.

And then, of course, when they all start camping in the forest the first night... things start to go wrong for them.

Now, I have to say I have a lot of respect for Wingard after The Guest and so, before I go into what some people may say is a weakness of this movie, I just want to say that I had an absolutely terrifying time watching this at the cinema, as my adrenalin levels rose and fell at every shadow and scream. So, in many ways, it’s the equal of the first movie in terms of being a scary experience but...

... I’d also have to say that it’s practically a repeat of that first movie. Which, in all honesty, is exactly what I was expecting from it after seeing the trailer for both The Woods and Blair Witch, at different times. It’s all in colour this time because most of the cameras used are high tech ear cams which the actors wear themselves. They also have a drone with a camera attached to it and all kinds of other things like satellite navigation. Of course, as you would expect from a film set in the Burkkitsville Woods of the first movie, none of this stuff is working properly for very long and even watches and mobile phone alarms are shown to be alarmingly off track when it comes to giving our hapless victims any help whatsoever in somehow managing to find their way out of these woods alive.

So... yeah, it’s also a lot less subtle a movie than the first one was. In the first one, the divide and bewilder routine worked over a series of nights, on a slow build, with lots of daylight conversations highlighting the fraught victims... and that became the main narrative anchors to stabilise the audience between scares. In this one, we have the first day, the first night, what’s left of the second day after some strange, time shifting stuff, and then we’re already on the second and, what appears to be final, night of the film. So the characters spend much less time walking around the forest trying to either find their way out or looking for a lost member of their party and much more time running in blind terror from actual seen, physical attacks on the group. Well, seen in the sense that you see things moving around by themselves and hear giant footstep sounds giving chase etc.

The film also spends a lot longer on the inevitably climactic scene in the house at the end of the movie... as various characters are chased around by a, mostly, unseen terror... although Wingard has also opted for brief glimpses of the witch this time as a malevolent, supernatural (almost parody of herself) creature. The back story of her death is elaborated on earlier in the film, as the witch was tied to a tree and left exposed to the elements with weights hung from her limbs creating a makeshift rack as her punishment and execution. Here, the smartly considered “blink and you’ll miss them” moments where you get an impression of her, match the idea that she has very long, extended, spindly arms and legs as a visual echo of her original fate at the hands of the community she was at odds with. Luckily, the director and his team are smart enough to not let you get too clear a look at the witch herself and, like the rest of the movie, it’s pretty much all done with sound and constantly shifting, moving camera shots. It’s actually very effective.

The performances are what you usually get from found footage productions... very naturalistic and believable. This kind of movie making definitely seems to bring out the best, to an extent, in an actor and, if this is the kind of feel they want to create, then the cast here all do an admirable job. As does the director, who succeeded totally in making me clutch the arms of the cinema seat on this one. I think people have been a little rough on this film, judging by some of the tweets I’ve seen over the last few days. I understand how people are going to latch onto the fact that it’s almost a straight remake of the first in tone and content but... I can’t help but think that, for the first Blair Witch film in an incredibly long time, many of those same people might have complained if it was significantly different or progressive from the first one. Either way, as far as I’m concerned, Blair Witch is a big recommendation from me for all those of you who like horror movies and especially if you like the first movie in the franchise. I won’t be going into the woods alone for a while after this, I can tell you that.

Monday 19 September 2016


Ladies Of Spain

2016 Spain
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
UK cinema release print.

Julieta is the latest movie directed by Spanish treasure Pedro Almodóvar and based on three short stories from Alice Munro’s collection Runaway. I’ve been told that many believe that this is a ‘return to form’ for Almodóvar and all I can say to that is... I’m not so sure he was ever really off form. Okay, so I didn’t like The Skin I Live In (reviewed by me here), and I didn’t see his last movie, I’m So Excited, either... but up until then I’d say I personally found him to be a great director and have liked maybe 75% of his total output. I remember being absolutely blown away by Broken Embraces, for example.

I mention Broken Embraces because, like that movie, Julieta is a good example of Almodóvar’s cinematic art showing signs of being fairly self referential but, thankfully, not yet a parody of himself, as yet. Although he did come close to that in some ways, perhaps, with one of his lead characters in Broken Embraces acting in that story's 'film within a film' parody of his early hit, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. In Julieta, the references are much less blatant than that but.. they are there. For example, one character near the end of the movie refers to himself as acting as if he was in a Patricia Highsmith novel, someone who Almodóvar has often referred to as providing the template on which he’s based many a character on. Another example would be the character Julieta owning some music by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who, of course, did the music for Almodóvar’s High Heels.

Julieta is a gripping tale of the title character played by Emma Suárez in half the film and bookending a younger version of her in flashback, played by Adriana Ugarte. It tells of her writing a letter to a daughter who walked out of her life 12 years earlier and so we get the story of her encounters with death and the dramas of, ultimately, a torn apart family. And, when people say this is a return to form for Almodóvar, perhaps they mean it’s a return to the kind of themes which were often found in his movies from around the mid 1990s and for most of the next ten years of his career. It’s almost like a rerun of some of those movies in thematic elements but, frankly, when we see a new superhero or zombie movie variant every other month, I’m not going to knock the director for returning to familiar territory... just like I wouldn’t knock Woody Allen for constantly returning to the kind of thematic content that he does best.

The story is one of the elements that would tell me, if I was watching this film unaware of who directed it, that it was an Almodóvar movie. The other give away is just how meticulous the mise-en-scene is for the first half an hour. Everything is rigidly defined and Almodóvar is all about playing with vertical sectioning of the screen here. He puts people into different segments of the screen and there’s even a wonderful shot where Darío Grandinetti is standing in Julieta’s apartment in close up at the intersection of two different walls, one masking the other, as though two flat, bright sections of colour are splitting down the middle of his skull... it’s amazing stuff. I did notice, though, that after the film starts moving into flashback territory, the style loosens up a little, with a more easy going, less rigid sense of spatial awareness taking over from the very blatantly controlled first section. I don’t know if this was a specific decision by Almodóvar to subconsciously say something about the confines of Julieta’s life after the tragedy at the centre of her drama comes to pass or whether this was just a coincidence but... something tells me this might have been a deliberate artistic decision.

The actors are all fantastic, of course, with everyone I’ve mentioned so far giving it their all and, for aged fans of Almodóvar’s work, there’s even a role for Rossy De Palma here. Also worth a mention are Daniel Grao as the love of Julieta’s life, Xoan, and a great turn by Inma Cuesta as local sculptor Ava (in reality, her fascinating work is all by artist Miquel Navarro). They are all aided by a script that really keeps you interested and sympathetic with the characters and a, really not bad, score by longtime Almodóvar composer Alberto Iglesias, which is once again mixed into the foreground like a 1950s Hollywood style accompaniament and seems a little out of kilter with he way most scores these days are mixed but, it works really well and the prominence and style he uses here has almost become an Almodóvar trademark in itself.

The one thing I do feel a little bit disappointed in was the ending. The film concludes at a point which feels like we are just about to get some answers as to why a certain thing has happened in the movie (see how careful I’m being about spoilers here people?) and, instead, Almodóvar just lets the credits role before we get the scene we want to see. Which is frustrating. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think I can see exactly why he’s used the ending he has but, even though it probably is the perfect conclusion for the movie, in all honesty, I would have loved to see the scene which two of the characters find themselves driving to at the end of the film.

That being said, Julieta is still a great little movie and a welcome change of pace from the ‘Hollywood bang-bang, crunch-crunch’ cinema which has been the main cinematic diet over the summer months. I had to make a journey into London to see this because my local Cineworld had decided not to show it but I’m glad I did because it’s nice to see something more meticulous and engaging at the pictures every now and again (or most of the time would be good, to be honest). It’s probably not the best by this director, to be fair, but it is up there with the ‘very good’ category as far as I’m concerned... which is a great deal better than a lot of other director’s ‘very good’ movies, to be fair. If you are into this celluloid artist’s work and have liked his movise in the past, then you probably won’t have any problems with this one. Another canvass in the portfolio of one of contemporary cinema’s great creators. Give it a go if it’s playing somewhere local to you.

Thursday 15 September 2016

The Girl With All The Gifts

Gift It Through The X-Shop

The Girl With All The Gifts
2016 UK/USA Directed by Colm McCarthy
UK cinema release print.

Wow. This is amazing. It’s rare that a movie quite lives up to the intrigue and power of the way the trailer for the release has been cut and, since The Girl With All The Gifts had such a wonderfully intriguing trailer, I was expecting something quite good from it, to be sure but... nowhere near the powerful cinematic experience that this film delivers on pretty much every level.

I’ll start of with what is becoming an increasingly frequent caveat in regards to a lot of book to film adaptations recently, to my shame. This film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by M. R. Carey and, alas, it’s not one I’ve read. I can’t, therefore, tell you how successful it is in terms of translating the source but I do know that, despite the novel and the screenplay being written kind of simultaneously (is my understanding of it), there are some elements from the book which didn’t make it into the movie and, also, the physical descriptions of some of the characters are way off.

That being said, and as I’ve mentioned many times before on here, movies aren’t books and adaptation from one format or another means making artistic choices which can benefit one medium at the expense of elements of the other and... this one is no different, I’m guessing.

What I do know for sure, and without giving away any spoilers, is that we have a British zombie movie which, while the writer and director disown the term ‘zombies’, instead going for the term ‘hungries’, is one of the best post-Romero zombie movies around and stands head and shoulders with other modern classics of ‘infected, zombie like’ creatures as the films in the [oREC] and 28 Later series. Whether the humans have died and come back or, in the case of some of these pseudo-zombie films, had their humanity and higher intelligence killed off by the virus to effectively create the same thing, is kind of a moot point in terms of this cultural phenomenon which started, as far as I can remember, in the early 19th Century.

The film introduces us to Melanie (played by Sennia Nanua) and, indeed, takes her viewpoint during the whole running time. She is one of a bunch of children who share the same... shall we say ‘eating habits’... as the ‘hungries’ that the last pockets of humanity are trying to keep at bay and find a cure for. I won’t give you the full history of how and why these children exist because it’s got a classic horror twist and it’s a nice moment when Doctor Cladwell (played by Glenn Close) reveals this history to Melanie. The film centres around the child, her adoration for her teacher Miss Justineau (played by Gemma Arteton) and her role within a group of survivors of an attack on their base camp including Caldwell, Justineau, Sgt. Eddie Parks (played by Paddy Considine) and Dillon (played by Anthony Welsh).

It’s very much a road movie as the small group try to find their way to some kind of safety and, all the while, with the exception of Miss Justineau, they are as much afraid of Melanie, as they are of the ‘hungries’ who they spend so much of their time trying to avoid contact with. Like most good zombie movies, and I don’t know if this is also true of the book, we never really know the details of the apocalyptic virus and how it first started but, having plunged us right into this world, the Doctor (and the writer) does have a good idea of the life cycle of the virus and, by the time we get to the last third of the movie, it becomes a key thing to understand the way the story evolves... not necessarily taking you to the place you’re kind of expecting it to in the same way you thought it would. Not quite, anyway... although the ending is quite familiar but also so much more than you would normally get from this kind of movie. It’s a good ‘un but, again, in the interests of not spoiling this for anybody... I’ll keep that to myself. I think John Wyndham would have loved this movie, though.

As you would expect from a film with a cast like this, there is some absolutely powerhouse acting going on. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for both Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine and, as you would expect, they totally knock it out of the park and are ably supported by Anthony Welsh. Glenn Close, on the other hand, is an actress I’ve never really liked all that much. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an absolutely incredible performer and you can’t fault her work... but she’s never really appealed to me. However, having said that, I think she’s got a real great role here which is perfect for her as a kind of ‘almost but not quite, depending on your moral point of view villain’ in the form of Dr. Caldwell and, yeah, she owns the role totally.

And then we have Sennia Nanua’s central performance as Melanie.

What can I say? I don’t know where they get some of these child actors from but some of them are amazing and, surrounded by some interesting and incredible child co-stars for certain scenes, Nanau manages to deliver an absolutely gobsmacking performance filled with all the subtlety and nuance that you might expect from someone three times her age (whatever that is, there seems to be no information present about that at time of writing this). Given that it’s a movie that someone her age presumably wouldn’t be allowed to legally see in this country, she does wonders here eating and biting her bloody way through various life forms and I can only applaud her performance whole heartedly.

Saying that, it’s not a very scary movie, at least in terms of the expected jump scares that a modern ‘horror film’ might be expected to supply. As far as I’m concerned, however, that just cements the link between this movie and the wealth of zombie movies which have come before. Aside from, maybe, the [oREC] series, which is genuinely scary for the first two outings, this takes its cue from the traditional zombie ‘survival horror’ strand of cinema and it does it very well... with a visceral suspense that slowly builds throughout the movie to its, really very satisfying, conclusion.

And then there’s the music. Oh, I wish there was a CD release of this thing already because the score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is almost overwhelming in its power and raw beauty and, for a change, it’s been mixed right into the foreground so the movie gets an amazing lift of emotional, brain churning intensity. The opening sequence, for example, is very good but it really gets a sense of rising dread infused into it by the slowly building chanting and humming that plays out throughout certain passages of the movie, sometimes with metallic percussion at points. It’s really a magnificent work and it would be a major crime against filmanity, not to mention musicology, if this remains unreleased on CD. Hopefully some smart record label will try and pick this one up.

And that’s about it as far as The Girl With All The Gifts is concerned. An all round major achievement of intense suspense, zombie mayhem, some very sly and dark humour (the audience I was with were very appreciative of a certain line about whether Melanie would like a cat) and, right near the end, a moral question about the nature of a life form which, when finally answered, seals the fate of the world. An absolutely blistering and brilliant piece of cinematic art and absolutely one to run to as quickly as you can if you’re a fan of zombie movies. A real gem which I will be telling everyone about.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Nina Forever

Anaïs Nina

Nina Forever
2015 UK Directed by The Blaine Brothers
UK cinema release print.

One of the things that makes looking at the cinematic arts a worthwhile experience is that, just occasionally, you get something popping up which is an absolute joy to watch and which reminds you exactly why you spend so much time watching flickering images projected onto one screen or another in the first place. Nina Forever, a film I kind of picked up on as being something to watch out for while on Twitter towards the end of last year, is one such monument to near cinematic perfection. It’s also very cheap on Blu Ray right now (always a help) and, despite winning a number of festival prizes, still doesn’t seem to be very well known and, frankly, that’s really got to change. This is definitely a movie which people should know about.

The film is centred around trainee paramedic (and part-time supermarket worker) Holly, played by Abigail Hardingham and Rob, played by Cian Berry. Holly admires Rob because, after the death in a car accident of his girlfriend Nina (played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy), he had tried to kill himself. Following a break up with her current boyfriend who leaves her because she is ‘too vanilla’ and ‘not dark enough’, Holly actively tries to insert herself into the distressed Rob’s life and, after not very long, the two become involved. However, their troubles start right from the very first time they begin to get intimate because, you see, the damaged, bloody, ghostly corpse of Nina manifests itself in their bed and starts making acerbic comments every time the two are in the middle of ‘getting it on’. This is no flimsy apparition, either, as Nina leaves her mark on things whenever she is manifested and, pretty soon, dumping the blood soaked bed sheets and turning over the bloody mattress becomes a regular fixture of Holly and Rob’s life.

And so that’s the basic set up of the movie but, despite how that sounds, the film is far from being a horror movie or, to be honest, even the “fucked up fairytale” the film’s cover proclaims it to be. In actual fact, it’s a poignant, sometimes very touching but, almost always, very charming romantic comedy.

Let’s start with the acting. Abigail Hardingham is unbelievably cute in this and one of those actresses who you fall in love with immediately you start to get to know her character. She is just absolutely amazing, does wonders with her facial reactions/expressions and has the audience involved with things right from the outset. Cian Berry is also pretty cool and turns in a strong performance, with some great comic timing, as the movie progresses towards its unusual conclusion. Fiona O'Shaughnessy’s Nina, apart from being the talking point that moves the tale forward, is actually not in it for a lot of the time as she only pops up when the two main protagonists are having sex, but she does bring her own dynamic to the picture and is a perfect contrast to Hardingham’s Holly. I can imagine that, if this film had been made 20 years ago, it’s the kind of role someone might have asked Eileen Daley to have a go at. Although her personality grates in contrast to the others, she is the much needed third part of this triangle which lives within the film and takes the audience on a journey like none before.

The film starts with some beautiful titles which, even on Blu Ray, are hard to read. These slowly fade in and then suddenly flare up into readability for a fraction of a second before quickly diminishing to make room for the next. An electronic build up on the foley suddenly turns into the sound of a motor vehicle crash and then we see the very first shot of the movie. And it’s seriously arresting and beautiful in its stillness as we see a roadway with Rob and his crashed bike with dominant blues and blacks in the colour palette, a slow rising column of smoke adding the only real movement in this long held shot until Rob starts moving again and we realise he is alive. It’s actually quite breathtaking in its beauty and, like a lot of the establishing shots seen throughout the film, containing a kind of dream-like and contemplative quality that I could only compare to the poetic cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

The film is just full of wonderful stuff like this and, combined with the absolutely spot on character acting, contrasting with some beautiful moments of visual punctuation, it all contributes towards marking this film out as a minor masterpiece. Like a couple of films have done recently, for better or worse, the Blaine Brothers use animated, typographic text on screen to illustrate what’s going on when various characters text each other. Far from being distracting and gimmicky as it was earlier in the year in The Shallows (reviewed here), this actually adds a layer of emotional depth to the proceedings and perfectly captures the unspoken communication which has begun to dominate our daily lives. For instance, after their first ‘almost date’, Holly is woken in the middle of the night by a text from an ‘unknown’ caller (meaning she hasn’t gotten around to putting Rob’s name in as a contact on her phone yet), simply saying “I really wish I’d kissed you.” The text goes unanswered but the expression on her face tells us that she is looking forward to the start of a new relationship.

Another perfect moment where text is used to augment the emotional qualities of the movie is when Rob, who has been in an argument and is spending time away from Holly, leaves the house of his dead girlfriend’s parents and starts to write a text to Holly... but we then see the text backtrack and erase itself as we realise that he is uncertain of what to say... whether the text would cause more harm than good... and he then decides to leave his thoughts unsaid. It’s great stuff and shows how much the writers, directors and, of course, the actors, understand these carefully observed moments which are part and parcel of everyday, contemporary life.

Asides from the stunning photography, capturing an almost ‘other worldly realm’ whenever any of the characters are on their own, the film has some nicely put together pieces of ‘visual stuttering’ which almost reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey in their sophistication and the sheer arrogance of the directors at making the sequences work in this manner. For instance, the first time Holly takes off her clothes, as she is about to make love to Rob for the first time, it’s approached in little flashbacks from a point when Holly is thinking back to it. However, these little twos and fros, backwards and forwards in time as we watch Holly remove her clothes and watch her remembering removing her clothes, displaced and fractured from the main narrative conventions, serves to set up the scene as we are about to see it played out back in the present, in real time... and when we see it again, certain parts are left out for the sake of brevity and it’s the perfect balance, once more displaying the deft touch of the directors/editors as they weave a spell of timeless romance and still having it make perfect sense in terms of the way our brains decode this visual syntax.

And a word about those sex scenes... since it’s about the manifestation of a dead girlfriend who only comes out to play when sex is happening. There are a fair few of them but, somehow, the directors manage to make them both incredibly raunchy and, amazingly tastefully shot at the same time. Which is no mean feat when you think about it. And it's brilliantly light visual touches riffing on a more ‘in your face’ theme, along with stunning lines such as “Neither of us thought permanent marker was permanent enough”, that help to make Nina Forever the absolute triumph of movie making that it is.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Nina Forever absolutely blew me away. It’s both intense yet achingly sweet in its dissection of young love and, to boot, it has an ending which I really didn’t see coming and which is, in some ways, a bit of a twist. Well, okay, I can’t truthfully say I didn’t contemplate the possibility of this kind of conclusion but I jettisoned the possibility that the ending could play out like this because it’s not the easiest to articulate and I was personally plumping for one of two other endings... one ecstatically happy and the other one kind of bittersweet in its finality and gateway status when, in fact, the ending which we do get is infinitely more interesting and, in some ways, a lot stronger than the one I was most expecting. I can only applaud the subtlety and the challenge to one of the characters that this particular ending brings (and it’s really, probably, not the one you are thinking it could be) and I have to say that this movie really marks out the Blaine Brothers as immense cinematic talents to look out for in future (and I’ll certainly be looking out for Abigail Hardingham too, you can bet on that).

If I’d have somehow managed to see this at the cinema last year, bearing in mind I’m not even sure this movie got any kind of mainstream release beyond maybe a few festival screenings, then this movie would easily have made one of the top few places of my ‘greatest films of the year’ list. As it is, this one is certainly a hard recommend from me and, all I can say is, I wish I’d discovered this earlier. It’s still haunting me now, weeks after first watching it. Give it a go if you get a chance... it’s got a magic all of its own.

Monday 12 September 2016

Don’t Breathe

Rooms Of The Blind Head

Don't Breathe
2016 USA Directed by Fede Alvarez
UK cinema release print.

I was quite up for seeing Fede Alvarez’ new movie Don’t Breathe when I first heard of it because the title, at least to me, implied that it was a horror movie. As it happens, a few weeks later I found out that it is not, in any way, an example of the horror genre... more of a ‘home invasion’ movie. Now I’m not a big fan of home invasion movies, as it happens. They tend to be nasty and sadistic in the intent of their main protagonists but... you know... not nasty and sadistic in a good, wholesome fun way. More something else. However, while there are some caveats in terms of the morality on display in this movie, it’s actually more of a heist goes wrong story than anything else. So that’s kind of cool and, once I’d understood that after seeing the trailer, I figured I might as well give it a go. Especially since it seems to have taken America by storm a few weeks ago.

Okay, so the film is about three burglars, one of whom 'borrows' the keys to various houses from his dad’s security firm so they can let themselves in and help themselves to people’s belongings when they’re out. Some minor character stuff is set up so we can get the idea that... not all of the criminals are bad. Some of them have just fallen on hard times and have other responsibilities. Yeah... okay that didn’t really work for me, to be honest. It’s much like the first time I saw Attack The Block (reviewed here), in that the film asks me to choose between a bunch of thugs (or burglars in this case) and another, possibly, depending on your point of view, even worse character or set of characters.

And that's one of only two real problems with the movie... I didn’t really care too much as to who got killed or didn’t make it to the end of the movie. They’re all as bad as each other so, that takes the heat off in terms of worrying about what’s going to happen to anybody, to be honest. That’s not to say, however, that the film is lacking in tension. Indeed, the film is to be praised as being unbearably taut and intense the entire way through. So even when you don’t care who gets what done to them, you will certainly be on the edge of your seat as the movie progresses.

To ratchet up the tension, the director uses the very simple trick of shooting the film almost as if it’s a certain kind of modern horror film. As I said, it’s not a horror film, it’s a straight thriller, but the director does his best to make you jump throughout the movie and he does so quite successfully, as far as I’m concerned. I must have reacted more jittery to this movie than most genuine horror movies I’ve seen at the cinema and even one of the ‘jump scares’ that is included to little effect in the promotional trailer, works so much better in the finished product, especially with some ferocious sound design kicking in, that it’s a brilliant set up to help make the audience feel uneasy, even before our three looting protagonists/antagonists (take your pick) have even made their first attempt at breaking and entering into the main central antagonist’s home.

The trick here is that the owner of the house is blind but he's ex-military... so he’s fast, tough, ferocious and agile when it comes to protecting his 'millions of dollars pay off' which a court of law awarded him after his daughter was killed in a car accident. So he not only wants to defend his home, but he bears a grudge against anyone who goes after his loot. He also has a ‘creepy secret’ in his basement which further enhances the moral slant of the story... just in case you were having any trouble with siding with 'heroes' who want to rob you of your money. Yeah, okay, there are a lot of clichés in this movie, including killing off one of the ‘so called’ good guys early on in the proceedings to show how tough the main antagonist is and just how much trouble the others are in, as he locks them down in his home with him.

At this point the film turns into a survival movie, relying heavily on what I call the cinema of predetermined chaos. Everything gets turned around in the confusion of a constant battering of intensity and people go back for objects or people they shouldn’t, drop things which will help the opposition, and just generally make silly mistakes so the writers and director can manipulate your emotions even more when those particular threads are pulled. However, like I said before, it’s a really well oiled example of this kind of cinema and, as I alluded earlier, my heart was pounding in my chest throughout a lot of this movie.

The film also has some nice little set pieces too and one in particular comes to mind, when the director tries to ‘out-Spielberg’ Spielberg’s work on one of his more inventive sequences in The Lost World (Jurassic Park II)... but I won’t say what that is because I really don’t want to spoil this one for you. There’s also an interesting sequence involving grey filters/overlays and some black contact lenses to make certain character’s eyes look like they are dilated but, again, I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself.

Don’t Breathe opens strongly with a visually arresting sequence which, again, is something I won’t describe here but, in this particular case, I’d have to say that it was possibly a mistake to put this opening sequence in here. It’s basically a flash forward to a sequence right near the end of the movie, before the final act is played out and this means that it gives away certain truths about which characters are still in play in the main body of the film at this unspecified point in time. So the tension gets diminished somewhat by having that reveal play early on in the picture. But, there are still a few spills and chills left once the movie catches up to this point and, despite a little ‘sleight of hand’ in terms of one of the characters who keeps seeming to come back from certain death, one can only respect the writer/director’s call here in that the trade off between that opening and the majority of the rest of the movie was obviously worth it to him so... yeah, may have been the right call.

Also, more so, perhaps, than a lot of movies, this film owes an incredible amount of its tension and excitement to the beautifully unsettling score by veteran composer Roque Baños. I’ve admired his scores on other movies and this one is quite heavy and is dialled up in the mix a lot of the time, allowing some beautiful percussion effects to come to the fore and help to move the story along. There is supposed to be a CD release coming towards the end of this month and, I have to say, this one is most certainly ‘on the list’ of required purchases.

And that’s about it. I thought the ending of this film in terms of the very last scene was a little weak... with producer's eyes firmly looking towards the possibility of a sequel but, ultimately, this is absolutely cracking movie making and I would recommend Don't Breathe as a great, if jumpy, time at the cinema. Don’t miss this one if you enjoy films which genuinely make the blood pump faster and your hands grip the arms of the cinema seat. A very punchy and morally ambiguous film which will make you think for a while after the final bolt has been shot, so to speak. Catch it while you can.

Friday 9 September 2016

Nightmares Come At Night

Lorys Slain?

Nightmares Come At Night
(aka Les Cauchemars Naissent La Nuit)

Liechtenstein 1972 Directed by Jess Franco
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A

Well this is going to be a somewhat short and hard review to write, methinks. I always find Jess Franco a bit hit and miss although, I think I’ve been lucky in that the majority of the reviews of his movies found on here have been quite favourable. However, Nightmares Come At Night is a bit of a miss as far as I’m concerned.

The film stars Diana Lorys as Anna, a woman who used to work at a strip joint although, also, she might be a princess. She might also, as it happens, be losing her mind but it’s so hard to tell one thing from another in this movie, to be honest. The film also includes legendary Franco star Soledad Miranda... although the date of ‘release’ is a good two years after her tragic death (for more information on her, see my review of Vampyros Lesbos here). However, I should point out that Soledad really isn’t in it very much... I’d guess much less than ten minutes in total and there’s a reason for that which I’ll go into later.

After an opening credits sequence highlighting stills from the ‘film’ against a groovy soundtrack by Bruno Nicola, we are introduced to naked Anna as she sleeps and dreams of a threesome with her ‘employer’ Cynthia, played by Colette Giacobine, and a man whom she promptly stabs in the throat. When she awakes there is blood on her hands and after she has a shower, she has a conversation with her doctor who is treating her for her mental health issues... or is he?

Not a great deal on offer here in terms of fans of Franco’s work, to be honest. There’s not that many ‘still’ shots in the film and Franco often zooms in or out of a shot before panning around to follow the action, sometimes culminating in another zoom in or out. It’s colourful in places but the compositions are not as clever as some of the ones I’ve seen him use in other movies from this same period which were, obviously, shot much earlier, from when Soledad Miranda was alive (that comment should make more sense if you continue reading). There are some slight pleasures to be found in Franco’s eye for a pretty girl and the sheer amount of nudity on display, no doubt. There’s a long, very slow strip sequence with Diana Lorys which is so slow it’s almost static, something which is justified by some dialogue at the start of the sequence  but which, like a lot of the movie, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Now, if I was being really kind I could call this Jess Franco’s stab at capturing the mystery, puzzle box nature of a movie like Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad... only in colour and with a fair amount of nudity. Which is a description which would absolutely sell the movie to me but it lacks the clinical rigidity and continuity in the presentation which make Marienbad a masterpiece and this film... much less so. There’s the occasional interesting thing which crops up such as a conversation between Anna and her doctor in a car where all the close up reverse shots of her seem bleached out while the doctor is at full strength in terms of colour... but moments like these are few and far between. Indeed, I’m guessing that last thing I mentioned was a deliberate artistic choice because of the way the footage is edited together but I could easily be mistaken for thinking it is just the print which has gone wrong here because, frankly, for a Blu Ray presentation, it has to be said that the print on this is truly terrible to the point of being almost unwatchable in certain sequences. There’s a reason for this, though, as there is for the fact that the story, such as it is, is a real hodge podge of impenetrable nonsense and the answers to the questions raised in the viewing experience are cleared up, to a certain extent, in the excellent extras which are also included on this Zone A US Blu Ray disc.

As it turns out, this is not a single film, as such. It never had a real release and this is a patchwork job done by Franco to make sense of at least two unfinished projects which have been, I would say almost haphazardly, spliced together and presented as one piece. The footage was never actually released on this ‘lost’ film apart from a few screenings, from what I can make out, and it only exists as an ‘answer print’... which is the first test done with colours and sound synched. The producers of the Blu have obviously done their best with he material on offer and cleaned it up as well as they can while having to keep a lot of stuff on there because of not wanting to loose what detail there is. The various bits of footage were also in different aspect ratios so they’ve gone for the ratio they believe Franco would have presented this in if he had created a ‘release print’ from the material but that’s handy, as it happens, because the existence of some footage on an ‘ending’ shows that it must have been shot to make some kind of warped sense of the narrative (although the resulting talk of a hypnotised killer makes no sense either) and maybe explain why the footage with Diana Lorys doesn’t ever match up contextually with the fairly fleeting ‘spying neighbours’ footage of Soledad Miranda and her lover/partner in crime. So at least it’s possible to deduce for these, and a few other reasons, why we have this ‘lost’ or ‘ghost’ Franco movie in the shape it’s in.

All in all, though, I personally would have said that maybe this would have been best presented as an extra on another Franco package. It’s a real mish mash of a film and, as entertaining as it may sound, it really wasn’t remotely entertaining to this audience member. Bits of it are well shot and bits of it are less easy to decipher from the print. Nicolai’s score is good, as it always is, but doesn’t really help the picture out much, if truth be told. This is not the least favourite of the Jess Franco movies I’ve seen, and he’s a director who’s made some incredible, visually addictive movies... but it’s definitely down there in the lower depths of his work as far as I’m concerned so I can’t really recommend this one myself. If you’re a Francophile and a completeist, you’ll almost certainly want to check this one out. If not... I’d maybe proceed with caution.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

Mills And Boom

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD
UK 2014 (released December 2015)
Directed by Paul Goodwin
Metrodome DVD Region 2

When I heard there was a (relatively) new documentary focusing on the story of “the galaxy’s greatest comic” I got quite enthusiastic. I haven’t picked up an issue of 2000AD in about 14 years but, up until then, I had every single issue they published (and still have those boxes full of the first 1000 plus issues to this day).

I remember back in 1977, I was recovering from a fairly brutal car accident (long story and I’m not going to bother going into it here) and the first issue came out. It had a new feature on an important new movie I was just hearing about in those days. Something called Star Wars, which was due out in cinemas at the end of the year over here in the UK. However, this was not the main selling point to me or my dad. It wasn’t even the free Space Spinner (aka cheap frisbee) stuck to the front cover. We’d seen an advert on television, I think, for the comic which was basically a cartoon including some of the characters, referred to even then as ‘hyper heroes’ (presumably to avoid copyright issues with DC and Marvel) and among them was... the new Dan Dare.

I’d been hearing stories from my dad about how good Dan Dare in the Eagle comic was all my life (I was 9 years old) and so we both decided that this comic was something we should have. I read it first, loved it, and then passed it straight on to my dad to read... which was pretty much the way it was for the more than 20 years we were buying it... at first as a standing order from the local newsagents and, later, as a subscription direct from the publishers. I remember how cool the second issue was with its “biotronic man” stickers which you stuck on your arms and legs to show your machinery innards... it was one of the most painful free gifts to remove from young, hairy arms ever... even in the bath. We already had some cool strips presented to us from the comic’s host alien, The Mighty Tharg, such as Dan Dare, MACH 1, Invasion, Flesh and Harlem Heroes but, the second issue also debuted a comic book character fairly important to this day... Judge Dredd (which also crossed over into Harlem Heroes on occasion). It was all good and the cool Summer Special, out around the same time as the first couple of issues, was also pretty amazing.

I stuck with it for years but my absolute favourite strips all coincided at a period in the early to mid 1980s... Sam Slade - Robo Hunter, Ace Trucking and, the absolutely brilliant, stupendous literary masterpiece... The Ballad Of Halo Jones. It was a great time to be reading comics but the quality did dwindle by the time I gave it up, that’s for sure.

So, yeah, I was positively salivating to see what truths  and ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories to some of my favourite strips and certain famous incidents would be in Future Shock - The Story of 2000AD and... this documentary only half delivers as far as I’m concerned. Which I hate to say because there are some great talking head interviews in here with some of the great comics creators including Pat Mills, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman and even a quick nod from the last Dredd actor, Karl Urban.

Now the main problem is not the abundance of interview footage... far from it. There are some nice illustrations to split these up from time to time with comics either brought to life by panning around a multi-planed version of various panels (either done for real or digitally) and even some animated sections. These were quite cool although... I think there should have been more of them, to be honest.

No, my main problem is just the wealth of stuff not covered in this documentary. There were some key moments in the early history of 2000AD which I think weren’t covered here. Also, although it does at least have a few minutes on the comic’s predecessor Action (in many ways it could be seen as that, I think) and the subsequent banning of that comic by the British government, I think it could have done with a lot more exploration of the British comics scene before 2000AD to really bang home the context of how important it was, at the time, to the people reading it.

And then there were some pretty big incidents that I really would have liked to have seen covered with a little more knowledge of what was really going on that the public didn’t know about at the time.

For instance, when the second Judge Dredd multi part epic The Cursed Earth ran in the comic (if you count The Robot Wars as the first but not counting the Lunar City One stories as a multi-part tale), it got into a whole lot of trouble. Why? Well there were issues where you had Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders sadistically beating or killing other advertising slogan characters like Speedy the Alka Seltzer boy. There was the Jolly Green Giant, a famous frozen brand’s mascot character, who would yell “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, just like he did in the adverts at the time.... but then eat people in this particular incarnation. Or the infamous Burger Wars chapters... where rivals Ronald McDonald and Burger King would whip and kill their employees until they got it right etc. I remember a few weeks after the Jolly Green Giant stuff there was a small strip in the comic by way of a retraction, with Judge Dredd and character Spikes ‘Harvey’ Rotten eating the frozen food products and saying how good it was. I still have all these issues of course, although I haven’t read them in decades. They’ve never been allowed to be reprinted and trade paperbacks of The Cursed Earth have always been pretty light in content up until... as it happens... July 14th this year, when an uncensored reprint has finally been allowed to come out in a new hardback edition.

However, this whole incident was not covered in this documentary and it would have been nice to have known just what was going on behind the scenes at the time... how the many varied companies responded to these stories and also, how were the artists and writers allowed to get away with it by management in the first place. We loved it at the time but... I just don’t know how they had the gumption to even try to get cynical satire this dark published in a popular, weekly comic.

Another thing which seemed to go completely unmentioned in this documentary were the comic’s other related publications. For instance, they talk about, or show, characters like RoJaws and Hammerstein from RoBusters and Johnny Alpha from Strontium Dog but they actually originated in the comic StarLord. The comic was cancelled and folded into 2000AD which took on the name 2000AD and StarLord for a while. Similarly, sometime after the comic had reverted back to its lone 2000AD title, the newish comic Tornado also failed and then it became 2000AD and Tornado for a while. None of this stuff was mentioned even once in the documentary. Nor was their more mature sister publication, which I also used to love, called Crisis.

Various people in the interviews here were quick to point out how much they hated the alien editor of the comic, The Mighty Tharg but... most of the readers loved him and I would have liked to have heard more tales of how he came into being. Also, again, I would have liked them to say a few words even about the two companion comic’s hosts StarLord and Big E (Dave Gibbons in a ridiculous costume, as I recall) but there's nothing about them on here. Nor about any of those cool ‘free gifts’ the comic used to sometimes have in the early days... like the aforementioned Space Spinner, the Biotronic stickers and the Red Alert Survival Wallet! Would have been nice to have heard about this stuff, to be honest.

Then again, the documentary does give us some interesting stuff, like the ego clashes between Pat Mills, who comes across as very professional and easily ‘the man’ to be talking to in this film, and various other editors who worked on the comic later. It also charts the dip in quality, which I suspect is when I decided I’d finally had enough of the mediocrity which was going on under the name of 2000AD at a particular time, and how it’s been subsequently bought and rescued by a publishing company that understood how the comic worked and why it was so successful in the first place.

The highlight for me, in this documentary, is Neil Gaiman telling us why Alan Moore walked away from the comic and that, after the first three books of The Ballad Of Halo Jones, he had a load more books planned and how he’d once told Gaiman the story of where it was going, ending up with Halo as an old woman. Gaiman says there were tears in his eyes when he heard it and, remembering how powerful and influential to me that strip was, I still can't believe that Moore has never been offered gazillions of pounds to carry on with it.

One of the good things the documentary does do is highlight the poor working conditions, in terms of basic, decent rights for the various writers, artists etc. It also dovetails that into the time when the American comics basically poached all the best of the talent from British comics to work over there... with 2000AD being a primary source for top British talent. It talks about the big talent "defection" to the successful DC "adult brand", Vertigo Comics, and even talks to their most famous editor/nurturer of talent, Karen Berger. It spends a while on this subject and this is all fascinating stuff but, again, while I was watching all this, I was wondering why there wasn't less of this stuff and more about 2000AD itself... especially when there was so much essential stuff missing.

The purloined Tharg's Future Shocks short story that became the basis, unofficially, for director Richard Stanley's classic sci-fi movie Hardware is touched upon, especially since it really highlights, again, the poor working conditions the staff were having to suffer at the time. Of course, this leads in nicely to the obvious but perhaps often overlooked fact that 2000AD has been a major influence on all kinds of film, literature and even music in the intervening years since its inception. However, what it really doesn't touch upon too much is the amount of shameless rip-offs the writers and artists of 2000AD perpetrated themselves. Practically every time a new issue would arrive,  me and my father would read the comic and we would trade "references" we'd spotted in the issue and marvel at how these creator's were getting away with nicking it week after week. It's touched on very obliquely in a blink and you'll miss it sideways look at the reflection of the media at the time but when it comes down to mentioning things like Strontium Dog, pretty much, being a futuristic Spaghetti Western, for example, it just doesn't go there at all.

The only extras on the DVD are digital reprints of single episodes of some of the strips but the quality didn't seem that great to me and most of the double spread openings are badly split between two screens and, in the case of The Ballad Of Halo Jones, for example, doesn't retain the colours of those first two pages as they originally appeared as the colour centre spread of the issue... so not very good as a historical document either, I reckon.

All in all, this is not the best review of Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD, I know. I guess I could half recommend it to people who are totally unfamiliar with the comic but, really, it seems light on the more interesting chapters in the comic's history. Comic book  readers will no doubt find it at least, in some ways, interesting because a fair few good creators are included in the interview footage. For old school fans of the comic, however, I would say this may not be a film which covers what you would be wanting to see here. Still, at the moment it's the only documentary movie I know of that at least tries to cover this material so, not exactly a recommendation, maybe, but well done for giving it a bash, at least.