Saturday 29 April 2017

Wordsworth Classics Guest Blog

Will The Real Protagonist Please Stand Up?

My look at the two main archetypes of heroes in literature and film can be found here as a guest blog at Wordsworth Editions.

Monday 24 April 2017

The Belko Experiment

War Gent Belko

The Belko Experiment
USA 2016 Directed by Greg McLean
UK cinema release print.

You know, I’ve probably had to overuse the expression “does what it says on the tin” rather a lot in my reviews over the last few months but, with regard to this film and the way it’s being marketed, it definitely is the “go to” phrase for this particular concoction. When I first saw the trailer for this a month or two ago, it looked like nothing less than a full on remake of the famous Japanese adaptation Battle Royale... with, perhaps, just a smidgeon of Cabin In The Woods thrown in for good measure. Battle Royale has the plot of one high school class taken away by the government every year for a live, televised event which see the kids fitted with exploding collars and then forced to kill each other within a specific time so the last person standing can be ‘the winner’. The Belko Experiment is exactly the same plot but, in this case, it’s adults who are working in an office building in Columbia who are part of the bloody carnage and the motivation, at least as it’s presented here, is slightly different in terms of why this ‘game’ is happening.

The film stars John Gallagher Jr. as main protagonist Mike Milch (who I recognised from 10 Cloverfield Lane, reviewed here). It's he who first realises that the trackers the company fits it’s employees with, inside their heads in case they are kidnapped, are actually tiny bombs planted in their skulls to detonate anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of the game. This is the equivalent of the exploding collars from Battle Royale and, of course, it’s used by the writer to establish the rules of the game in no uncertain terms pretty soon into the proceedings. Milch is joined by some pretty convincing actors and they all do their thing in the quite claustrophobic setting of the office building, which has been sealed up with metal to prevent anyone from escaping.

The film is not the kind of film I would associate with the writer, James Gunn, who directed the two Guardians Of The Galaxy movies... it’s a lot more sadistic and horror driven than that. It’s not an actual horror film but it is an intensely driven action thriller and the use of gory violence elevates the grimness of the scenario quite effectively at some points. It would be true to say that it’s not nearly as grotesquely bloody as many modern horror movies out there these days but, at the same time, it is quite edgy and certainly uses the visual syntax of horror to maintain a similar effect. The tension in the suspense scenes is quite high and the whole exercise has a certain amount of dread and, alas, a predictable inevitability about just where everything is going to be heading for the end of the movie.

About that ending... I’m not going to reveal anything here but I will say that I wasn’t expecting much in the way of actual hard answers as to the reason this carnage is going on. Sure, you do get some generic ones and there is, I suppose, a partial sense of closure at the end of the movie. That being said, the final shot of the film, which is a slow pull back looking at... something... very much sets this movie up to be only the first part in a franchise of Belko movies, to be sure. It’s in no way subtle and the very last line of the movie, spoken just before the credits roll, makes it very certain that if this film is successful then the studios will be able to start churning out the sequels.

That being said, despite its predictability, The Belko Experiment is a well made, somewhat entertaining (although also pretty mean spirited in its lack of morality and general unpleasantness) thriller which even has a nice line of musical jokes in the songs used in the soundtrack. The opening title song, for instance, kick starts the ‘fun’ with a series of foreign language covers which, if you know the English lyrics, provide a throwaway commentary on the action and intent of the film from the start. So that’s all good.

Wow... so this is one of my shortest reviews since my first year of writing them on this blog but I really don’t have much more to say about this movie, I’m afraid. If you are into the spectacle of violent cinema where people’s bodies are there to be penetrated by slow or fast moving objects as flesh is sliced and diced in ostentatious splashes of crimson, then The Belko Experiment is probably your kind of thing. If, however, you’re not into films where the characters are set up to be slaughtered in a mass celebration of violent bloodletting without, it has to be said, all that much criticism or judgement of such behaviour in the way in which the film is shot or in the issues it raises, then it’s probably something you should maybe approach with a little more caution. It’s not personally something I’d be that happy to watch again (unlike, for example, Battle Royale) but I do believe there’s a certain audience who will love this one and it's really not badly put together. Bon Appétit.

Sunday 23 April 2017

Doctor Who - Smile

Frown Upside Town

Doctor Who - Smile
Airdate: 22nd April 2017

Okay, so episode two of the new series is another pretty good one. Not nearly as strong as last week’s set up, for sure, but as a stand alone story without too much of the series thread going on in it (I’ll get to that in a minute), it made for a pretty satisfying episode... although a familiar enough one in terms of the variety of stories you get on the show. And, look, it would be pretty hard to do a story type which hasn’t been done in the 50 plus year history of the show so, you know, this is not a problem.

So we have an episode which carries on exactly where we left off last week (I’ll get to that in a minute, too) with Bill entering the TARDIS for her first proper expedition, this time to a planet in the far future where a colony has been built for one of the fleeing starships who were evacuated from Earth sometime in our far future. After some slight stuff with Matt Lucas to remind us of ‘The Vault’ that The Doctor is supposed to be guarding, something which is brought up later in the episode too, just so we don’t forget about it for sure, The Doctor and Bill find themselves in an empty colony populated by inadvertently lethal micro-robots, like flying nanites, and their silent, emoji speaking robot interfaces. A, very slight, mystery for The Doctor and Bill to solve as they penetrate to the heart of the robot town/colony to the actual starship it was built out of, the Erewhon (the name of which is apparently a Victorian reference I was completely oblivious to... thanks beckygracelea of twitter... and which also happens to be an anagram of Nowhere... and was also a Star Trek spaceship etc). There, while The Doctor attempts to blow the place up before the emojibots can call their mechanical masters to strip future settlers of their skin, tissue and organs before grinding up their bones for fertiliser, Bill makes a more interesting discovery.

Okay so, it really wasn’t a bad one and I like the way this series is going. It was nicely shot with some very neutral, white corridors offset with some much more colourful lighting schemes when The Doctor and Bill finally reach the actual starship at the heart of the town. It was fairly fast paced although some of the sequences, like The Doctor trying to park Bill back on the TARDIS before they both go back, seemed a little like padding, in some ways. Nice padding, though, so that really doesn’t bother me.

Bill seems to be working out really well as a companion. She has a nice chemistry with Capaldi and so it’s a shame that Capaldi and, I strongly suspect, Bill, will not survive the end of the year in the show.

And about that...

Last week I had some pretty wild theories about Bill, one of which of her actually being a former incarnation of The Doctor’s grandchild Susan Foreman and regenerating at the end of the year to be left with the William Hartnell incarnation of The Doctor. You can read my full blown speculation and possible variants in last week's review here. Now, as it happens, there’s already a scene here which, at least on the surface, confounds that issue. When Bill expresses she is starving, a table is set for them both... one plate has two jellies and one plate just the one. Bill takes the plate with one and The Doctor speculates that two jellies were laid out for him because he has two hearts and she only has the one. So that would rule out timelord then, in her case. Unless, as I originally assumed, the computer set the two for her because she was more hungry. That being said, if 'The Doctor and River’s' daughter, then maybe her mother’s partner was a human in which case... it might explain why she has one heart. Or maybe her mother was the wife of The Doctor and River's son? Although, if that’s the answer then I shall be grumpy because... the first episode of Doctor Who was called An Unearthly Child for a reason.

So that does seem to rule out Bill being The Doctors grandaughter... or does it?

That thing about the jelly really could be a cunning ploy by one of the writers to throw us off the scent, perhaps. After all, I’ve had to grow accustomed to the writing on the show getting very devious over the last 6 or so years for that very purpose, it seems to me. So I’m not completely ruling out that theory yet and, as fuel to my wild eyed fan boy-like fire, the cat was kinda let out the bag earlier in the week that David Bradley is returning to the show for this year’s Christmas special, which is also touted as Capaldi’s swan song. Now Bradley, as you probably know, did a wonderful turn as part of the 50 years celebration of the show in An Adventure In Space And Time (reviewed here) playing William Hartnell in that drama about the making of the first few years of Doctor Who. Now, although Bradley has already played a totally different role in the show a few years back, I can only assume that he’s coming back at Christmas to play the ‘Bill’ Hartnell incarnation of The First Doctor so... we shall see?

Meanwhile we also have to solve the mystery of what’s in the vault The Doctor is supposed to be guarding. Is it just an empty blind to hide the mystery of Bill, hidden in plain sight, or is it something more tangible like, oh, you know, Gallifrey. Only time will tell, I guess.

The end of this story dovetails straight into the next episode with our weekly time travellers already arrived at their next destination for next week’s shenanigans... which is similar to the way this episode picked up straight from where we were last week. Now this is quite a nice because it's the way the old shows were formatted in the days of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, with the end of the story leading into the next. So the show runner and writers are definitely going for that ‘old school’ feel in this series, which is cool... especially for old timers like myself.

So there you have it... I really don’t have much to say about Smile other than it was a pretty solid installment and definitely worth a revisit when the inevitable end of year Blu Ray set is released. Really enjoying this show again and really liking the way Capaldi’s version of the central character has developed.

Thursday 20 April 2017

The Tourist

Venice Wailer

The Tourist
USA/France/Italy 2010
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Optimum Blu Ray Zone B 

I got really annoyed when I missed this movie on its cinema release back in 2010. I’d seen the trailer for The Tourist about three weeks before it opened and the way it was cut together made it look just like a kind of modern remake of something like Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, with the lead actors Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie standing in for Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Alas, the movie only stayed for a week at the cinema and it coincided with a point in my life where I was obviously unable to free up the time to see it then. However, it never went out of my mind that I should get around to seeing this one day, despite the less than mixed and mostly negative reviews it got at the time.

Flash forward to late last year when I found a Blu Ray copy in my local Computer Exchange shop going for the princely sum of £1.50. I figured, with two such prestigious actors in it, I really ought to give it a go... especially at a price like this. Due to some technical difficulties at home, I ended up screening this on the same day I bought it and, I have to say, that the movie wasn’t what I was either hoping for, nor expecting.

The plot is, it has to be said, straight out of one of those old Hitchcock style thrillers, with Jolie being constantly watched by the police in case her lover, Alex, who escaped with millions of pounds belonging to a Russian mafia boss, tries to contact her. The catch is, since he’s had reconstructive surgery, neither she or the police no longer know what he looks like. If you’re sensing an end of movie twist coming this early on in the film, by the way, even from this quick summary... yeah, you’d be right. When he does send her a contact note, she is told by him to take a certain train and to pick up some guy of the same height and build to use to throw the police off their guard. However, the burnt letter used to contact her is reconstructed by the police, which is something he didn’t see coming. Or did he?

The police, led by Paul Bettany and his boss, Timothy Dalton,  are onto the fact that, when Angelina Jolie as Elise picks up Johnny Depp’s character Frank, he’s not the real deal. What nobody counts on, including Alex, is that the Russian mafia boss Reginald, played by Steven Berkoff, is also out to get Alex and, unlike the police, they believe this is the real Alex and they want their revenge... plus, you know, the money back. It’s down to Frank and Elise to charm and flirt their way around against all odds until the finale of the picture, in a twist so obvious you will see it coming from very early on in the film.

And the film is charming to an extent. The dialogue writing wouldn’t look out of place in those old 1950s romantic thrillers this movie is presumably trying so hard to invoke. Alas, the plot itself is a little too simplistic and, in all honestly, the pacing is far more sluggish than you might expect from one of these kinds of films. Also, some of the acting just seems a bit off, to be honest. Both Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie both seem to be suffering from a distinct lack of chemistry with each other in this one which is odd, considering they’re usually both pretty amazing. Jolie is playing quite a sophisticated, intelligent femme fatale (with her own twist, as it happens) but her laid back approach to the line delivery in this seems to leave the performance just a little ‘flat’ in places. One also has to wonder just how super intelligent she is, by the way, when after being told to pick out someone of the same height and build as Alex, she manages to pick up Johnny Depp’s character when he’s not even standing up... so she is highly unlikely to know just how good a match he is, methinks.

Depp himself is oddly lacking the charisma one might associate with such a great acting legend. One wonders if he isn’t so into the idea of making his ‘mild mannered Maths teacher’ so different from Elise’s former lover that he is deliberately playing the character as a sort of ‘drab’ and uninteresting person. Either way, that’s how he seems to come across in this movie... which isn’t a good thing.

The other problem with this movie is that the there’s relatively little action in it. Sure, there’s a scene where Johnny Depp is running chaotically across rooftops, avoiding the bullets of the Russian mafia and, yes, there is a high speed boat chase through the canals of Venice at night but... these action sequences are both a bit far and few between and, ultimately, quite dull when compared to some of the stuff we have seen in various action thrillers over the last couple of decades. It all seems very lethargic and you would think a strong cast like this would deserve a little more imagination put into the writing and the way in which the film has been structured, to be honest.

James Newton Howard’s score is appropriate but not one of his best, as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to hear it away from the context of the movie (and I may well have a look at sourcing a cheap copy on CD at some point in the near future) but it’s ultimately very reflective of the type of movie that this film is trying to be... which is a shame because I think JNH has written some great scores in the past and he deserves a little more recognition but... yeah, I don’t think this one will do that.

And that’s about everything I’ve got to say about The Tourist  right now. The end twist is something which, as I’ve said, most audience members will see coming extremely early in the picture and, although there’s nothing really terrible about this movie, it’s not got anything remarkable going for it either, that’s for sure. I read somewhere that this had a very troubled pre-production history with various actors and directors dropping out at certain stages. I also read it was a very quick shoot and neither of these pieces of information surprise me, to be honest. The fact that people have had a tough time describing it as either a comedy, a thriller or something in between probably says it all about this brave but ultimately lacklustre movie. Not a film I could recommend to anybody but, I do appreciate the various people involved trying to cobble together a movie which focuses on old style glamour shenanigans, rather than some of the ‘played out’ stuff we’ve been seeing at the cinema just recently. The problem is, it just doesn’t work here and so, ultimately, it’s just a bit of a dull movie. Which is a great shame.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

The Handmaiden (aka Ah-ga-ssi)

Ben Wa Like Beckham

The Handmaiden (aka Ah-ga-ssi)
South Korea 2016 Directed by Chan-wook Park
UK cinema release print.

Chan-wook Park is one of those directors I seem to react differently to every time I see a new movie by him. For instance, I found the first two films in his ‘vengeance trilogy’, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy to be more miss than hit, whereas I loved the third part, Lady Vengeance and, in a way, I guess I quite enjoyed his ‘American movie’ Stoker, to a certain extent.

The Handmaiden is an ‘adaptation’ of the Sarah Walters novel Fingersmith, which was already filmed as a TV show by the BBC. Since I’ve not read the original novel nor seen the original TV show, I can’t in all honesty say whether this is a truthful adaptation of the novel or not... although after Ms. Walters saw the screenplay it is alleged she asked the writer/director to instead credit is as ‘inspired’ by the novel so... I’m guessing not. And by the looks of it, the whole of the third part of the film, which is split up into three acts as the original, is completely different and with a different outcome to the source material. I understand it’s a lot more upbeat than the original which, in a way, surprised me since it’s Chan-wook Park we’re dealing with here but, of course, that’s what’s great about cinema... it can sometimes surprise you if you’re able to drop your guard for long enough.

The film, in its initial set up, tells the story of ‘The Count’, played brilliantly by Jung-woo Ha and his collaborator Sook-Hee, played even more amazingly by Tae-ri Kim. She infiltrates the house of The Count’s romantic interest as her handmaiden in order that the lady of the house,  Lady Hideko, played just as amazingly by Min-hee Kim, can be ‘gaslighted’ in order for her ‘fortune’ to be wrested from her as she is committed to an insane asylum. And that’s the surface set up and I’m not going to go into too much detail about it because, as with many of these movies dealing with gaslighting, there’s a twist or three in the tail and I have to say my hat off to Park for actually surprising me when I should have been paying more attention, with a delicious twist I’m amazed I missed at the end of the first act. I honestly don’t know how I missed that one.

All I can say is that I must have been so distracted by the gorgeous cinematography, the slow and hypnotic pacing and the beautiful editing of the piece that I was so thoroughly entranced by the mise-en-scene as to be so completely taken in with something which, in a movie by any other director, perhaps, I would have seen coming from the first five minutes. So my respect for this guy goes up another notch, it has to be said.

However, it’s also true to say that there is more than one twist in the movie and the other twist at the end of the second act was something I totally saw, pretty much straight away after the first twist was revealed... so there’s that. I did, at least, retain my dignity in the face of chicanery in the second and third parts of the movie, as the beautiful combination of pitch perfect performances under some wonderful lighting coupled with some absolutely essential girl on girl action threatened to sweep away any further mental cogitation from the dank recesses of my flickering, watching brain.

Another rich texture in the movie was the musical score, which seemed to be a combination of the compositions of Yeong-wook Jo coupled with a fair few ‘found’ pieces of music, needle dropped into the soundtrack. I did, actually, notice the patchwork effect of the different styles of music threatening to tug at the scenes of the overall scoring element of the movie at times but it actually all just about manages to work without jarring the continuity of the ear too much.

It's a slow burn of a movie and fans of 'Hollywood pacing only' are possibly advised not to sit through this one as the running time on this is not too far shy of three hours. Frankly, though, any cinephile worth their celluloid salt is going to want to see this movie because it’s such a perfect blend of the various elements of the cinematic art/craft that the sumptuous design and elegance with which the actors portray the characters is so haunting that you’ll be thinking about certain shots still a day or two later.

Fans of the director may find The Handmaiden a little more subtle in its approach to a subject matter which is, lets face it, a far from subtle style of melodrama but I don’t think any Park fans will be disappointed with this movie, for sure. There is beauty in pretty much every image, even when those images are dealing with torture and death. A deftly handled film which, despite its running time, doesn’t outstay its welcome and lets you leave the cinema feeling like you’ve really watched something worth seeing... which, of course, you have. Looking on interestedly now, to see what Park will be up to next.

Sunday 16 April 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot

Fore Play

Doctor Who - The Pilot
Airdate: 15th April 2017 BBC 1

Well this was a very strong start to the latest series of Britain’s most popular science fiction export (arguably more popular than Professor Quatermass, although I really don’t think it could exist without the good Professor clearing the path in the first place, so to speak). This episode introduces a new companion or, quite possibly, an old companion (yeah, alright, I’ll get to my silly speculation bits later) in the shape of lesbian character Bill Pott’s, played by the really very good Pearl Mackie, and also brings back the current ‘sort of’ companion Nardole, as played by Matt Lucas (who is also good... which shouldn’t surprise me but it does). This is the episode which had a preview scene released quite a while ago (over a year?) but I noticed there’s a heck of a lot less dialogue coming from Bill in the version of the scene as it was presented here so I can only assume that the character has undergone some ‘tweaks’ since she was first written in... well they’ve had a very long time between series’ to tinker with her, I guess.

So the episode starts off strongly for me, personally, because we have The Doctor, now seen to be a lecturer at Bristol University, explaining to students as to the nature of time. Time, he says, is an illusion created by seeing lots of static bits placed in such a way that the perception of them experienced one slice after another gives us a sense of a journey over ‘time’. This is nicely demonstrated with a moment which seems like it would better fit right in with Moffat’s other hit TV show, Sherlock, in that the film itself (although we’re really watching digital, right?) is sliced up before us as a metaphor for the explanation of the true nature of time. I’ve been telling people they’ve been looking at time all wrong for years... as a fluid rather than a static state accessed in a specific way we are mostly cursed with looking at it... it doesn’t exist. So it’s good that the universe’s premiere timelord has finally gone on record as saying this.

Okay, so we have a really good opener because it does what Doctor Who does best... gives us a mystery to work on. In this case there’s more than one because we have the introduction of Bill and the mysteries surrounding her and The Doctor’s mysterious ‘secret vault’... and we also have the writer running through the wet paint very fast to distract us with the mystery which gives the story its name. That of The Pilot... who appears as a manifestation of a permanent puddle which can chase you through time from one end of the galaxy to another and reflect your image back as a feedback the right way around, rather than a true reflection. This in itself is good stuff and this underlying plot, which I won’t detail here, helps explore the sexual diversity of the new companion and does it in a romantic way, full of wonder. So that’s all good then.

We also have another encounter with the Daleks which, fortunately, is only a minor appearance and doesn’t hook in with the main plot. There’s one of a few nice little nods to the history of the show which are found in this episode here in that the Movellans are seen with them. I couldn’t believe it because the last and, I suspect, only other time we saw them was in the Tom Baker serial Destiny Of The Daleks back in 1979. My joy was slightly tempered by the fact that the Daleks we see with them are a more updated design than they were when the Movellans were around but... oh, well... that BBC budget thing is getting in the way of authenticity, I suspect.

Another nice and, I suspect, ‘more important than they’re letting on’ reference came up in the scene where The Doctor was persuaded not to use a memory wipe on Bill. The implication of him falling victim of the very same thing in the last episode to feature Jenna Coleman as the deal breaker here was beautifully re-enforced by composer Murray Gold using his old companion Clara’s theme to support those moments... lovely stuff.

But there’s more than one mystery her to solve and, as is usual for the rebooted Doctor Who stories since the time of Christopher Eccleston’s reincarnation of the character, there’s an underlying puzzle thread to be solved which will obviously be an arc for the entire series. We know that Peter Capaldi will be leaving soon, allegedly during the Christmas special but, I suspect, the transformation may be a little sooner than that... after all the Mondas cybermen who are returning for the last two episodes of the series and who haven’t been seen in the show since 1966 saw the death of the William Hartnell incarnation of the character (who I suspect Bill is named after by the writer, in an affectionate tribute) and it would be a nice, fearful symmetry if they were to cause the death/regeneration of the latest incarnation too. But this is not the real mystery and nor, I suspect, is the vault which The Doctor is apparently guarding. He would know better than to have something precious locked up, surely? He’d hide it in plain sight I would have thought. It could be a TARDIS or a nursery even but, I suspect, something timelordy (especially if The Master is making a return) and so I think it’s about time I went into the ‘wild speculation’ section of this review. So I apologise if all this turns out to be silly...

We are used, over the last ten years or so, to seeing references to the previous episodes of the show and they are usually very brief, blink and you’ll miss them, shout outs. However, we have here a Doctor who has a picture of his 'late' wife River Song on his desk at the University along with a photo of his Grandaghter Susan Foreman, as seen in the first year or so of the original series. She was played by Carol Ann Ford and she left the show in the 1964 story The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, which I reviewed towards the end of last year here. And The Doctor keeps coming back to these photos throughout the episode rather than just have this as a throwaway shout out so... the writer wants us to notice something here.

Now I have several theories on the subject but this is my pet one at the moment. I’m betting on something similar to this but, please remember, I’m only one episode in so the pieces of the puzzle might not all have been revealed as yet...

What’s missing from this set of photos? We have The Doctor’s wife and The Doctor’s granddaughter... no Doctor’s son or daughter... whichever that was. That element is decidedly missing. We also have a new companion called Bill who The Doctor has suddenly taken an interest in and whose mother died when she was born. When she is now given some photos of her mother before she died, she spots the reflection of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in a mirror taking the photo in one of them. And then she, and we, are all promptly asked to forget about it as the ‘puddle story’ takes up the heat for most of the rest of the episode...

However, if we don’t let ourselves get distracted we have the idea that we have The Doctor who knew Bill’s mum before she died and the idea of memory wipes represented. So my number one theory at the moment is that Bill’s mum was The Doctor’s daughter and, since Pearl Mackie doesn’t seem to be expecting to be staying around past this current series, I’m guessing her mind will be wiped a little and that she is The Doctor’s granddaughter and, when she regenerates into the familiar Susan Foreman incarnation of the character through televisual trickery at the end of the show, she will be left with an earlier incarnation of The Doctor (aka William Hartnell) and he will take her to Coal Hill School, sometime shortly before the very first Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child, takes place.

Well, that’s my most favourite conclusion at the moment, anyway. Although, if that really does prove to be the case, then the LGBT community will want Moffat’s head on a stick for having a lesbian character who regenerates into a character who runs off with a man at some point. So maybe not. But I like the idea that the new companion ‘may’ be Susan or, at the very least, in some way related to her so... lets see if she’s revealed to be in possession of two hearts anytime soon, eh?

And that’s that for me. Great opener and I can only hope the show continues at this quality. I guess I’ll find out next week.

Friday 14 April 2017

The Beaster Bunny

Kicking The Rabbit

The Beaster Bunny (aka Beaster Day: Here Comes Peter Cottonhell)
USA 2014 Directed by The Snygg Brothers

Purgatory Blues LLC DVD Region 2

‘Twas the week before Easter and though it was sunny, not a creature was stirring, not even this bunny... who was sitting here one night trying to figure out what the Easter movie review would be for the blog and, while browsing my twitter account, had one drop into my lap courtesy of @cyber_shep who was watching a film I’d never heard of called The Beaster Bunny. I looked at the trailer on youtube and saw that... wow, it was quite bad. Thoroughly cheap and silly and so, of course, being as these were excellent criteria for Easter watching, I headed on over to Amazon to see what the availability was on getting one before the holidays. As it happened, even though the English DVD had only been out a day or two, it had the one hallmark of quality that I tend to place a lot of trust in... namely, it was already only retailing for five pounds.

As it turns out, when it was released in the US, three years ago, it went under the title of Beaster Day: Here Comes Peter Cottonhell and I can only assume, without needing the benefit of the hindsight I now have, that the reason for the title change on this UK release is for the same reason that the name changing shenanigans often are on a lot of movies with a delayed overseas release... the reputation of the film was so bad they didn’t want to tip off any potential customers. Alternatively, The Beaster Bunny is a hell of a better title than the original so, you know, maybe it was due to art.

I had another strong recommendation via the packaging on discovering that the 15 rating the film carries in the UK is for, and I quote, “strong language, bloody violence, injury detail, nudity” and... well, after all, isn’t bloody violence and injury detail a lot of what the biblical origins of Easter are about, in some sense. Although, personally, I could do without strong language being thrown into the mix but, hey, I’m sure that’s just me. What I will say is that the glorious artwork on both the front and back covers of the box and slipcase, which bear very little relation to the content of the film housed within, are truly worth the price of purchase of this thing... which I now know is pretty much more than can be said for the actual movie itself, to be honest.

So, we have a terrible movie which is, obviously, quite intentionally terrible and the film is a mixture of good ideas, enthusiastic acting and some genuinely awful, almost cringeworthy scenarios which really aren’t my cup of tea, it turns out... and I say that even though I’m quite used to watching this kind of stuff.

The film tells the story of a failed acting student who returns to her small town and moves back in with her dad and his girlfriend. Given an ultimatum by her father, she applies and, against her best expectations, gets a job with the local dog catchers, where she has to put up with the attentions of the film’s comedy psycho dog catcher and figure out what’s killing the folk in the nearby forest. Of course, what is killing people, in quite gory fashion, is a 50 foot, man and woman eating rabbit... and so the film goes on without much plot and some okay ideas but with some fairly, it has to be said, tasteless humour and ofttimes mean spirited writing which didn’t exactly leave me in stitches.

This movie has all the hallmarks of being a deliberately ‘so bad it’s good’ film like those Grindhouse style, ‘ironic’ movies like Nude Nuns With Big Guns (reviewed here) and Hobo With A Shotgun (reviewed here) but, alas, it doesn’t ever quite get up to the level of those films and instead, kind of putters around doing the same kind of stuff all through the movie.

So... good stuff? Well the actors are wonderfully over the top in their portrayal of Hollywood stereotypes, although as I said, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the writing. I really didn’t enjoy the lead psycho character but the actor playing him... and the IMDB isn’t particularly helpful on this film but, I reckon it’s Peter Sullivan... well he turns in a great performance here. As does Marisol Custodia as the main female lead, Brenda.

Other good things are nice throwaway ideas like the name of the Dogcatcher company - Dog Catchers In The Rye - some truly stupid scenes of scantily or topless maidens being terrorised by the big bunny of the title and, quite frankly, the most ludicrously unconvincing, “this is a marionette puppet superimposed badly into the action” creature you’ve ever seen. This, of course, combined with the hefty  gore factor, gives it a truly great ‘stupid factor’ and you can’t help but smile at some of the shenanigans caught on film. They even have a corrupt mayor who won’t close down the upcoming, highly profitable Easter Weekend celebration event in the park just because of the ‘wild animals tearing people apart’ stories. Even the score by John Paul Fedele is serviceable and somewhat catchy.

The bad stuff... well pretty much everything else. This has got the worse CGI superimposition of objects combined on screen which even make the very earliest days of Ray Harryhausen look totally realistic in comparison (and I’m not knocking Harryhausen here people, I think he was a great man and contributed so much to the world of film... which I’ll hopefully get to cover properly at some point on this blog). Even stuff like a large, static clump of earth look totally unrealistic here.

Other annoying things include the fact that, although the comical deaths are quite gory, you never actually see them happening properly ‘in camera’. Usually you just see a quick cut, quite anticlimactically,  to the immediate aftermath which, once you realise that this is the MO for the entire picture, is less than satisfactory. This coupled with story elements like a giant Easter Bunny which seems to serve no purpose or place in the plot help, unfortunately, make this one of the worst ‘so bad it’s good’ movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

That being said, The Beaster Bunny is quite fun in places and, if you want to watch something which is absolutely silly for Easter then this could be a candidate for your movie watching adventures... although you might want to dull and confuse your senses with a little alcohol first or you might be in danger of not taking anything fun away from this movie at all. I’m actually quite glad I saw it, on some level and, like I said, the box artwork is truly awesome. Such a shame, then, that like a lot of things and people in this world, the cover is a lot more interesting than what’s on the inside.

Thursday 13 April 2017

The Invisible Gorilla

Gorilla Killer

The Invisible Gorilla And Other
Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us

by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0007317318

I received this book as a gift from a very special friend on the occasion of my Birthday earlier in the year and it’s a pretty amazing read, I have to say. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us starts off by highlighting the original ‘Invisible Gorilla at a basketball match’ test of awareness which was originally conducted by the writers and which, I’m guessing, a lot of UK readers will better remember as the 'Moonwalking Bear test' which was featured on a long running cinema advert over here a few years ago.

Basically, the test comprises of a basketball match between two teams... let’s say one team are wearing white tops and the other are wearing black tops. The viewer is asked to count the number of passes the white team make over the length of the short clip. As they are busy counting the passes, a large percentage of the viewers will fail to notice an unusual thing which happens in plain view because they are so busy trying to count the passes. In the original test a man in a gorilla suit walked into the centre of the pitch and started beating his chest before he exited (in the advert I mentioned above, it was a man as a moonwalking bear). The point is, because most people are busy concentrating on something else, anything that is remotely unexpected and which the test subject does not know is coming, will often be completely invisible to them... even when it’s staring you in the face (and possibly beating its chest with vigour).

Now this is as good a justification as any to explain why I lose my socks even though I'm always told they’re right under my nose... so, if nothing else, this book has helped me rationalise and excuse my potentially sockless existence. However, it also highlights how dangerous the world is to people and that we need to understand that, although we think we are paying attention... we’re often just labouring under the illusion of attention, which can be pretty problematic at times. For instance, how many people driving in cars hit bicycles because they didn’t see them... even though they had been looking straight at them for a while? You often look without seeing and this blindness to anything even marginally unexpected can often catch you out, with some pretty serious consequences.

And that’s what this book is about. It pinpoints several different types of ways (not just the ‘attention blindness’ demonstrated in the Invisible Gorilla experiment) in which our minds are playing tricks on us in the interest of holding a mirror up to the human race and highlighting the various ways we are deceived and, indeed, often deceive ourselves.

For instance, an example is given of comparing people who were in the same rooms as each other when the horrific events of 9/11 happened, a little while down the line from that point in time. If you’ve seen Kurosawa’s magnificent adaptation of the short story Rashomon, you’ll know how different the same set of events can seem to different people. This was played out when certain people in this book were asked to explain their recollections of the event and how they reacted to it at the time. Bearing in mind that what people were doing when events like 9/11 or, say, the assassination of JFK, were happening tend to be the moments people purport to remember most clearly... it turns out, we don’t remember them very accurately at all... even though we believe we do. It’s all in the mind and your memories ‘renew’ and slightly somehow rewrite the facts after a certain amount of time.

Another good mental obstacle highlighted here is the illusion of confidence. A sample is given which is of a doctor looking up something in front of a patient as opposed to a doctor who will listen to the symptoms and very quickly give a diagnosis and a positive course of action. Most people would trust the second doctor much more because they are absolutely confident in what they are saying. However, it’s much better to have been seen by the first doctor in this example because that doctor is not subscribing to the illusion of confidence that the brain is telling him, or her, is the correct direction for this medical examination. And what this book does is to tell the truths about a lot of myths surrounding the human brain and our awareness of it. Although I am kind of angry that the authors debunk the idea that the male of the species can’t multi-task. That’s one of my favourite excuses for not doing things just gone flying out the window then.

Another good example of the illusion of confidence and, perhaps, the illusion of knowledge which the book also goes into, would be the case of the crook who robbed a store in the US, even though he knew the in-store surveillance camera was on. This was because he’d rubbed his face in lemon juice before committing the robbery, safe in the knowledge that lemon juice can be used as invisible ink so it stood to reason, obviously, that rubbing his face in the substance would cause his features to be rendered invisible. The guy was arrested hours later, is my understanding of it.

Another brilliant example based in real life research is the illusion our brains give us of being able to see correlation and patterns, cause and effect, in coincidental things which happen simultaneously. For instance, and this is a real life fact... did you know ice cream sales rise and peak at the exact same time as the number of drownings rise and peak every year? This is an easy one to see through because... what possible correlation is there that could cause one of these two truths to effect the other? Of course, the answer is... there’s not. There is, however, the fact that the two are both symptoms of another truth... they are just not directly connected to each other. In this case, when the sun is hottest in summer, ice cream sales peak and so does the number of people who decide to go for a refreshing swim. Hence, both these figures rise. But you can see how just a few clever omissions in the way this data is expressed by an advertiser or newspaper that wants to sell papers can make it seem that there is a direct causal link here and the writers of this book also warn us of the dangers of this kind of advertising.

Another more alarming real life scenario demonstrating this phenomenon is the so called link between the MMR vaccinations for children and the belief that this causes autism. What’s really going on there is that the first signs of autism that you may be able to detect in a child happens at around the same time/age in which the majority of them are inoculated with the MMR vaccination. There’s no actual link but lots of people refuse them as a result of the belief that there is and they therefore put older people with certain medical conditions which render them unable to have the vaccination at risk for their lives.... which is kinda unacceptable but it’s what’s going on in the world, nevertheless.

And there’s a heck of a lot more interesting mind tricks examined in this tome with real world examples and the odd bit of advice as to how you can try and safeguard against some of them, even if it’s just a little bit. Unfortunately, being aware of something doesn’t necessarily make one less prone to it but there’s definitely a lot of food for thought in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us which a lot of readers might care to dine on. This book is quite simply written and you won’t need to be a ‘jargon buster’ to understand the wealth of interesting ways the human brain is fooling us on a regular, day to day basis. Let’s be honest here, if somebody like me can make some sense out of the contents then it’s pretty much going to be easy to understand by anybody. So if you find yourself at a loose end for something entertaining and, in this case, a little bit practical too, then you could do a lot worse than track down this book and make yourself more aware of what’s going on inside your head... not to mention your confident co-workers and friends. Definitely a recommended read from me.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

The Creeping Garden

The Brave and the Mould

The Creeping Garden
UK 2014
Directed by  Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp
Arrow Dual Blu Ray/DVD plus CD

Question: What do you call a toadstall that takes you out to a club all night and buys you drinks?
Answer: A fungi to be with.

Okay, let me make something clear here, before I go any further... this new(ish) documentary film is about slime moulds... not fungi. It was believed at one time that these things were one and the same kinds of species but... well... since slime moulds tend to go wandering off on their own (very slowly) then they are now believed to be something categorised somewhere between fungi and the animal kingdom and this movie by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp makes a very good case for that. Between the two of them, then, it’s the slime mould, not the toad stall, that is (marginally) more likely to take you out for a night on the town, truth be told.

I’ve been following Jasper Sharp on Twitter for quite a while now because of something I accidentally accused him of once and as soon as I’d been put straight on a specific source of information, I realised he is an absolute expert on various aspects of Japanese cinema, for which I have something of a layman’s passion. He's also, as it turns out, is a genuinely nice person on Twitter and, in a strange twist of social media oriented fate, seems to somehow be someone who has his head screwed on straight. So that’s always a good thing.

When he first started tweeting about the new book he was writing... and the accompanying film he was co-directing with Tim Grabham... called The Creeping Garden, my initial burst of enthusiasm that it might be something to do with Japanese cinema soon vanished when I found out it was about slime moulds. This is, after all, not something that most people would rate as their number one
avenue of exploration, if the matter ever came up. As a year went by and I heard various things about it, I became a little more interested but still, as it happens, quite cautious. However, at one of the stalls at last year's FrightFest I saw the book for myself and started leafing through it... I’m a graphic designer by trade and was admiring the spot varnishing on the cover and some of the beautiful photography inside. Overwhelmed with curiosity, I hastily purchased said book although, for various reasons, I still haven’t had a chance to read it yet (don’t worry, I’ll get to it at some point this year, I hope).

It was in December that I pre-ordered the film and it finally came out in March of this year... although mine was a little late in arriving due to “overwhelming demand” (I quote the customer service email I received from them) but, lets face it, that’s the nicest reason to delay a package... they must have been flying out the door. So I’m really pleased it’s doing well for them but... is it as intriguing as it looks?

Well, frankly... yes.

Starting off with an old black and white news broadcast from the US about a group of slime moulds found in some gardens in Texas, presumably feeding into the general paranoia of that time, the film takes us on a journey through the ‘secret life’ of the slime mould as seen through the eyes of various experts and artists who seem to be under the spell of said ‘creatures’ and who might happily concur with the modified expression, 'a man’s best friend is his slime mould’.

After we pan across some grass in much the same way an American thriller might pan across some big city rooftops to introduce a story, we start off by walking around a forest with an amateur mycologist and the first thing which struck me is just how good the cinematography is in this movie. It’s like watching something shot for an Andrie Tarkovsky film and there’s some very special footage in this piece. It also uses a fair amount of time lapse imagery of various slime moulds going about their daily business,...or at rest... and this leads us nicely into a gentleman talking about the early time lapse films of British naturalist/photography pioneer Percy Smith and his 1931 movie Magic Myxies, which was pretty much the first movie to show slime moulds in this fashion. We get to see the apparatus which he invented to do this and it’s all very fascinating and, of course, totally different to how we’d do it these days (although the principal is probably very similar).

We also spend some time with an artist who is fascinated with various moulds and she uses the patterns produced by them in her art. We find out from her that slime moulds are very into eating porridge oats and we see a time lapse of a slime mould trying to reach an oat in a maze and see how it starts off by sending 'tendrils' down different routes until, once it’s found the oat, it regroups and sends everything that way... the quickest path to the food source. We also see some of this artists popular wallpaper using patterns from slime moulds reacting with various parts of her own internal organs such as blood, a cheek swab or a cervical smear. With it she introduces us to the concept of using the wallpaper to decorate your interior space with your own interior space. Of course, another way of doing that could be demonstrated in the arm chop/arterial spray 'painting the wall' scene in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (reviewed here) but I guess her technique here is a much more practical  and survivable example. ;-)

We also follow this lady as she conducts ‘human slime mould’ experiments with groups of volunteers to see if groups of humans tied together and without being allowed to speak to one another are able to work together towards achieving their food source as well as a slime mould could... with limited success but it is quite fun.

And so it goes. We are introduced to slime moulds who play a piano and help a composer with his compositions and we see a robot which has been built to be driven, rather successfully, by these ‘creatures’. When it really hit home for me that this is a much overlooked creature was when these things, which had already been described as working together like an ant colony, were put on various points to join food sources on maps of the world and then, when they expanded out and the tendrils joined the various ‘destinations’ they’d somehow echoed human road network systems of various periods. One guy even said they’d managed to mimic the division of Germany in 1947 on one of these maps but I wonder what the conditions of the experiment were to do that and how much the human factor influenced the results.

Later on, we are told about ‘organic computer science' being pioneered using slime moulds and one wonders how that may impact on technology in the near future.

One thing that's clear, though, is that the majority of the people talking about how interesting and worthy of study the much maligned and diverse world of slime moulds is, seem to share the common agreement that they don’t have a brain. However, I’d have to question that conclusion a little bit because, given the way the human neural network builds and creates new pathways... I couldn’t help but think that maybe the collective brain of a slime mould may be a bit bigger than we’re currently looking for... if you see what I mean. After all, these things have a circulatory system which somehow flows backwards and forwards, quite curiously, and one can’t help but think what kind of alternate pseudo-neural network might be getting missed by science somehow. Which is a nice thought but perhaps too wild a claim to make... at least for now. The point is I have no idea how close these things are to a more intelligent form of life and, at this stage, it’s impossible to know.

What I do know is that this beautiful film is something which has at least, wild theory or not, kickstarted that idea in my head and so, next time I notice a slime mould in the forest, I certainly won’t ignore it as quickly as I might. I have to tip my metaphorical hat and respect the mould.

This movie captures these often spectacular  things in all their glory and in a way which never lets the material get boring. It includes lots of nice, uncommented visual metaphors scattered throughout the film and the juxtaposition of certain elements do spark the odd thoughts, quite deliberately I’m sure, in the mind of the viewer. For instance, a lady studying a slime mould on a slide presents us with a magnified shot which, when we cut back to a giant close-up of that persons eyeball, we are focused on the rich network of veins on the whites of her eye which very much resemble the slide she was looking at. Also, there are some great time lapse shots of various moulds in a more or less resting state where the mildly shifting shape, when sped up, makes the things look like they are actually breathing in and out as the camera watches.

All in all, this is an impressive, certainly odd but ultimately thought provoking film which makes you contemplate your place in the universe... at least that’s how I reacted to it. Arrow's current dual format Blu Ray/DVD of The Creeping Garden is an absolutely astonishingly crisp transfer, comes with a limited edition booklet and also, and this was another big pull for me, contains a bonus CD with a rearranged recording of the, somewhat ambient, score by Jim O’ Rourke. It’s a pretty great release and one of the reasons why boutique labels like Arrow continue to be as popular as they are. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants to watch something totally different from what they would normally expect to see in a documentary movie and I’m so glad I accidentally hooked into this.

One last thing though. There’s a point in this movie where one of the interviewees ponders the relevance of these organisms to the Earth and says that, at the moment... “If slime moulds were eliminated from the planet, we might never notice.” Well... yeah, maybe. But flip that around a minute... what about if humans were eliminated from the planet? Other than the huge lack of pollution and extended life of this strange sphere we wake up on every day... would any creatures feel any less benefit if humans were removed entirely from the equation? I’m not so sure they would.

Monday 10 April 2017

Raw (aka Grave)

Rof doog ti si tahw?

Raw (aka Grave)
France/Belgium 2016
Directed by Julia Ducournau
UK cinema release print.

Back in 1989, my cousin and I were scanning the local newspaper trying to find something to do for the evening. We didn’t know any of the movies playing so we went to the film review section and found a certain movie which the guy writing the article said was the sickest, shocking, most over the top depraved drama he’d ever seen... so of course, me and my cousin decided to definitely go and see that one. As it transpired, the movie was in no way even remotely sick, shocking or depraved, by a long shot. In fact, if we hadn’t read the review we probably wouldn’t even had known we were supposed to feel shocked. I vowed never to be taken in by such hyperbole written by someone who obviously had the naivete and life experiences of a three year old again but... oh dear, it just happened to me once more.

I was surprised that my local Cineworld even got Raw, to be fair. They usually don’t show subtitled films and they tend to warn people that the film they are about to see is "in foreign". I always get offended by this and also by the fact that the Cineworld App lists this movie with French in brackets, to somehow distinguish it from the other films and single it out as something to be wary of. It’s a despicable practice and it needs to stop. Non-English language films are quite often better made and more interesting than their Hollywood counterparts and it fills me with range that the cinema thinks so little of people that they think the potential audience somehow need warning about this stuff.

As for the film itself, well... I got kind of angry when I left the cinema because this film has a reputation for having a lot of people being sick in the audience and also walking out to vomit etc. I don’t think I’m in any way jaded to the spectacle of cinema and all I can say is that if this was truly their reaction to this movie... well... modern audiences must be very fragile to think this stuff is in any way intense or shocking. Either that or they’re all five years old and have not seen many movies yet. To be fair, I have noticed a steady decline in teenagers these days being in any way experimental or willing to throw themselves into experiences so, perhaps, this general dumbing down in the ability to interact with life might explain the reaction to this movie. Whatever it is... I really can’t fathom it.

So, Raw has a few nice things about it, to be fair, but for every nice thing that tries to elevate it, something else is always there to counter it so, I’ll deal with the positive things first because... well... it’s just nice to open with positive things.

Okay... so the acting style of the movie is very naturalistic, in that it’s not overblown or overly dramatic. More Robert Altman than Steven Spielberg, so to speak. Nothing is played, at least by the actors inhabiting their characters, as in anyway shocking or heavy. It is what it is and the three main protagonists... Garance Marillier as Justine (with whom we share the world POV with... so she’s kind of the main protagonist, if you will), Ella Rumpf as Justine’s sister Alexia and Rabah Nait Oufella as Justine’s room mate Adrien... are all absolutely impeccable in their roles. So that’s cool.

There are also the occasional, nicely done shot designs and a certain tendency to insert throw away images which could be easily mistaken for an almost surreal dreamscape in certain areas of the film... although when these things blend with the actual narrative, they tend to play almost as red herrings rather than actually belonging to an altered state of consciousness. And... that’s it on the good stuff, I think.

Onto the bad...

Well, the story is somewhat clumsy, I felt. It’s all set during Justine’s first week at a veterinarian college as she undergoes, with her fellow ‘freshers’, an intensive ‘hazing’ ritual. Hazing is pretty much a stupid, ritualistic and primitive practice which I wish students would grow out of now. There’s no excuse for this juvenile stuff. Anyway, that’s what the story is about and the vegetarian Justine is more or less forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. From there on she gets a taste for raw, uncooked meat... particularly of the human kind. And that’s when the film really goes belly up, in a way. This is because the sequence of events throughout the movie... right up to what I’m assuming is supposed to be some kind of  twist ending coda, by the way it’s dramatically revealed but which most people will see coming from the first ten minutes of the film anyway... is all so predictable. It’s almost as if the director is sign posting various things are going to be happening each time something is ‘on the cards’ soon and I felt very let down by this.

And it’s very ham fisted, too.

Not in any way subtle... which is where some of the film's allegedly gruesome sequences might have seen the benefit, big time, in supporting the naturalistic style of the actors in the movie. Instead, the director decides to have Jim Williams’ score slowly dialling up to eleven at certain narrative points like the end cycle of a whistling kettle coming to a boil and... yeah... it really doesn’t work here, to be honest. It’s like the director knows her film isn’t having the kind of effect she is going for so she’s looked for a composer to emphasise certain elements and then wielded his score like a blunt instrument to try and beat the audience into submission and say “Look... this bit’s supposed to be really edgy and unbearable because the music is bashing your ear drums to tell you it is... right?” And that’s a shame because, for all I know, the images with a more subtle score might have packed more punch but, yeah,  this doesn’t do the material any justice. And it’s a shame in more ways than one because it’s actually a great musical score in its own right and I’m sure it would be cool as a regular stand alone listen... it just seems inappropriate to the style of imagery, to be honest. And, of course, as luck (or company stupidity) would have it, you can only get the score as an electronic download rather than on a proper CD so... I’m destined never to hear this thing again, I suspect.

And that’s about as much as I can say about Raw. It may be okay and have some meaning for youngsters or first time movie goers who are not in any way versed in the language of cinema but for the average movie goer I would say that you should be mindful that it is very predictable and certainly won’t show you anything you haven’t really seen before. In fact, if you want to see a much better French movie about one woman’s obsession with eating flesh, then I would recommend the excellent film In My Skin (aka Dans Ma Peau), starring and directed by Marina de Van as a much more mature and somewhat surreal alternative to similarly themed, obsessive subject matter. As for Raw, well... I was hoping for something special from this one but, alas, it was not to be.

Thursday 6 April 2017

Amicus - The Friendly Face of Fear

Am I Cursed?

Amicus - The Friendly Face of Fear -
The Definitive History of Amicus Productions

by Allan Bryce
The Dark Side

Amicus, The Friendly Face of Fear: The Definitive History of Amicus Productions
is pretty much one of those ‘does what is says on the tin’ books, to a certain extent. This tome was bought for me by my cousin for Christmas, who last year gifted me Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s The Amicus Anthology (reviewed here) and it’s more like the book I thought that first one would be... although, ironically, it’s not as detailed as the former.

It’s not a bad little book though, especially for someone like me who knows very little about the Amicus studios and who hasn’t seen... that many... of their films. Starting off with the usual kind of mini biography of the two former partners MIlton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the book then goes on to look at each film, mostly assigning a chapter per movie. I really didn’t realise that Amicus had made this few films in their mere 15 year history so that was an eye opener for me.

Each mini chapter discusses the production of one film or other and uses occasional interviews by people who worked on the film themselves... usually the directors and producers, for the majority of those sources, although the words of some actors and actresses are also included.  There’s not too much about the musical scores for the films here, which is a shame, but it does take you through some of the censorship issues, although they really didn’t have that many of them, by the looks of it. Not even a fraction of the trouble their more successful rival Hammer did, it would seem.

Actually, looking at that censorship issue, it’s almost like they had the exact opposite problem to Hammer. This may seem quite strange when you compare things to modern audiences and their effect at the box office but an X rating wasn’t the kiss of economic death like the nearest equivalent mostly is today. In those days, if you were making a horror film... and the majority of the Amicus films were, barring the odd thriller or their science fiction stuff like the Doctor Who movies, The Land That Time Forgot (and its sequel, which didn’t actually have the Amicus name on it), At The Earth’s Core and so forth... then it was more desirable for your film to be granted an ‘X’ certificate to show your audience you meant business and to get the punters in.

Ironically, however, it was almost like a mission statement of one of the producers that their films would not be anywhere near as gory or as violent as their Hammer counterparts... indeed, he wanted to be making horror films for children. So when it came to the censorship issues, I was surprised to find that, on occasion, the films were awarded a much lower certificate and Amicus would have to request a higher rating from the BBFC to maintain credibility with their target audience... sometimes even going so far as to shoot the odd, slightly bloodier scene to help raise the rating.

The book is quite well designed for the most part and, one thing it does have in abundance, is plenty of picture content... some in black and white but a lot of colour stuff too and, of course, this includes the poster designs for a lot of the productions plus some behind the scenes stuff. It’s nothing, if not densely illustrated and, although I was disappointed in the lack of full on detail in the content (I could have done with thirty or so pages per film as opposed to 5 - 7 pages per production), the writing style is not too bad and it makes for a warm and cosy read.

Throughout and especially towards the end, the book also tells us the state of Subotsky and Rosenberg’s partnership as time went on and how it deteriorated over the 15 year period due to a variety of different reasons, especially when a producer called John Dark appeared on the scene. It’s sad to read of this stuff but there’s also a sense of... “well at least we got as much as we did from them” and the book does also go into how the two thrived or survived after the company went under.

So there you go... a short review for a short book. Amicus, The Friendly Face of Fear possibly won’t tell people who know a lot about the company much that is new and so, in all honesty, I wouldn’t recommend it to them. I would, however, recommend it to folks like me who haven’t actually got a lot of knowledge on the studio in the first place and who want a quick, introductory primer to the films. This is something which is a valuable addition to my book shelves until, at some point, a suitably more substantial version looking at the entire history in detail is researched and written (one can hope, I guess). Top marks, though, for Allan Bryce who makes this look at the studio and the reputation they built as entertaining as possible.

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Free Fire

Shooting Stars

Free Fire
UK 2016
Directed by Ben Wheatley
UK cinema release print.

I usually find the films of Ben Wheatley... who along with co-writer Amy Jump has, perhaps unwittingly, become one of the most shining auteurs representing British cinema these days... well... usually a bit hit or miss. I’ve only seen four of his six cinematic features (and not a great deal of his TV work... only his Doctor Who episodes) and of those four, I loved the first two I saw... Kill List (reviewed here) and Sightseers (reviewed here)... but really didn’t rate High Rise (reviewed here) when I saw it at the London Film Festival back in 2015. So I approached his new film, Free Fire, with a certain amount of caution. Not least because the trailer didn’t really appeal to me all that much.

It does, however, have a lot of big name stars shooting at each other in this film... such as Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Noah Taylor and Michael Smiley... which is to be expected with this directors growing status in international cinema. People are going to want to work with him.

 It would be true to say that on the level of the acting talent in this film, nobody does a bad job here. They all make believable characters and a certain sense of heightened, dramatic ‘realism’ is manufactured to serve the threads of black humour running through the piece. It’s a film that will pull you into an immersive experience in a very short time. That being said, although it’s a heck of a lot more entertaining than High Rise (for me at least), it was nowhere near the dizzying heights of the other two movies I mentioned in the opening paragraph. That being said, it’s an interesting experiment of a film in its premise and execution and, if it was for nothing other than that, then it’s to be applauded for going full on into the very limiting territory which the writers and director have chosen to explore here.

The film tells the story of an arms deal that goes sour and, apart from maybe the first ten minutes of the movie, it’s all set in an abandoned/disused factory/warehouse kind of environment. Now, the thing I didn’t realise until finding out the day after I saw it is that it’s set in Boston in 1978. The film is all shot in Wheatley’s home town of Brighton, UK,  which is not all that much of a surprise actually, since the only external locations are a moving vehicle at night and a place just outside of the warehouse. No, what surprised the heck out of me after having already seen this is the fact that this movie is actually set in the 1970s.

Nothing about the style of dress or haircuts or anything else in this movie screamed 1970s at me and, I suspect, that this failure or inability on my part to register that it’s set in a historical time period, albeit one I grew up in, is endemic to me rather than anyone else. A fair few times in my life I have been called Mr. 70s by people who have never met each other at different periods of my life and so, I can only assume I have a blind spot when it comes to recent time periods I’ve lived through. That being said, it makes a little more sense now as to why people in the movie risk life and limb to get to the only phone in the place rather than whip out a mobile... which I never even thought of while I was watching. The phone design should have perhaps given it away but, in my minds eye, all people’s telephones still look like that so I didn’t make the association. I think dial phones should make a big comeback, to be honest. Of course, if any of the characters did have a mobile phone on them then the ‘experiment’ could not have worked in the same controlled environment that this movie has in the same way... so it’s obvious why Mr. Wheatley chose this period for this film. After all, can you imagine how something like the original Die Hard (reviewed here) might have played out if John McLane had a mobile phone on him?

The film is about, as I said, a gun deal that goes sour between the two parties buying and selling the guns and, right from the outset when the various people meet, Mr. Wheatley raises the tension by having them not get on very well at all. Far from it, in fact. Everything feels dangerous and the audience is left waiting for the one trigger that blows the gasket of the less than smooth running engine of this particular arms deal and causes everything to go wrong. It turns out that the back breaking camel’s straw is an incident that occurs off screen and which affected two of the characters from the night before this event takes place but, once these two characters, one from either of the side of the deal, both recognise each other... that’s when everything goes, as people say these days, pear shaped.

But it’s to the credit of Mr. Wheatley, Ms Jump and the cast of the film that the audience is already placed in a position where everything seems like a powder keg waiting to go off anyway. The characters do not like being around each other and they act, for the most part, like people who don’t expect an arms deal could go sour. So rather than go in polite, they spend a lot of their time trading insults with the ‘opposition’ and generally getting on each other’s nerves... not a great start to an equitable trade solution, to be sure.

The film, once the inevitable happens, becomes a movie comprising of all the cast members insulting and shooting at each other and just trying to find a way to survive the evening and get out of the environment they all find themselves trapped in. Nobody escapes a bullet and the characters are continually shot up and find themselves getting more damaged as the evening wears on. Everybody just wants to shoot everyone else and get themselves to a hospital... not to mention the presence of two snipers in the warehouse, who are an unexpected element to the majority of the characters (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler... you’ll find that one out very early on in the proceedings).

All in all the film is noisy and has some nice moments in terms of dialogue but, for me and probably only for me, the film seemed less able to grab me than it may most people, I suspect. Anyone who knows me knows that I dislike gangland based or criminal POV films and, like most other films featuring these types of characters, I didn’t find one redeeming feature in pretty much anyone here. So that kinda takes the punch out of it for me because, once the shooting starts, I didn’t really mind who got shot and who made it out of the film alive. Horror films about bratty teenagers tend to throw up the same problem for me so... yeah, for the most part, if I don’t feel like I could spend an hour of pub time with a character then I’m probably not going to care what happens to that person.

It is, however, a fascinating film to watch on a technical level and Wheatley manages to get some nice shot set ups with various planes of space slicing up the screen in some places. There’s also a nice ‘John Denver’ moment too but, you know, I don’t want to get into pseudo-spoiler territory here. It must have been a nightmare to film in some ways... but probably a lot easier in others. I’ve absolutely no idea if this is the case but it struck me very early on that... with the amount of damage that both the characters and, perhaps more importantly, the set/environment they are inhabiting is taking... this thing must have been, surely, shot in sequence (apart from maybe the first ten minutes of the movie). Otherwise it would have been a complete nightmare with rebuilds to already damaged sections of the set and, believe me, the warehouse takes a lot of damage as the film progresses. I wouldn’t be surprised, too, if all of the actors would have all been on the set more or less simultaneously for about 90% of the time... so it must have made for a pretty interesting shoot. I’m guessing, of course, but I really can’t see how it could have been done any other way.

Ultimately, Free Fire is not really my cup of tea but I don’t think that’s going to be the case for most audience members and I think this will go on to become a well loved movie. I think history will treat this kindly and I think, although I would probably never watch this again myself, that I would recommend this film to a fair amount of people as I genuinely think most of them would enjoy it far more than I did. So there you go... catch it while it’s at the cinema because it’s all about guns and noise and shouting and you need the nice speakers for that.  And, yes... I am now back on track in terms of waiting to see what this director does next. He’s a bit hard to predict and that can only be a good thing.

Monday 3 April 2017

Ghost In The Shell

Carry On Up The Cyber

Ghost In The Shell
USA 2017 Directed by Rupert Sanders 
UK cinema release print.

Wow. Where to start with Ghost In The Shell, I wonder.

Well, I can start by confirming it was a 1989 Manga which was later turned into a Japanese anime... first as a movie and then as a series of TV shows. What I can conclude from that is that it must have been very popular and, in fact, it was certainly popular enough that even I knew of it, though, as it happens, I’ve never read the manga or seen any of those particular anime myself. So, you know, in terms of whether it’s a good adaptation of the original manga or not, I have no way of saying.

I do know, however, that while I am okay with enjoying various manga such as Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, I don’t seem to really get on with anime, truth be told. That being said, I’ve only seen about three of them... the first being Akira, not long after it was first released. Akira, it has to be said, left me cold and my relationship to anime didn’t improve when I saw Wicked City... which was when I realised that, although anime were filled with good ideas, they rarely made for a good, all round coherent and contained story and seemed content, probably by choice, to just be a jumble of half formed ideas with a bit of sex and violence thrown in.

That being said, I liked the anime Metropolis (again based on a Manga inspired but, as it happens, having nothing to do with Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece) and liked the way the music and story on that one fitted together in a much more satisfying whole. Still anime are not my number one go to entertainment and that’s just the way I am with them. So it would seem unlikely that I’d want to go see an American,  live action adaptation of one but... you know what... I’m so glad I saw this one. Based on the strength of starring Scarlett Johannson who I like a lot (yeah, I know, I’ll address the casting issue a little later but some of you won’t like what I have to say about that, I suspect), I found myself getting hooked in by the trailer and trekked out to see this one on the second day of release, which was a Friday evening. I was quite shocked to find the cinema two thirds empty, even on the 3D showing but... well, we’ll see what box office this takes.

As I said, I don’t know much about the original manga or the anime but judging from the film they both wear their influences prominently displayed on their sleeve because, honestly, I don’t think you would be able to get to the gorgeous visual style of this movie without being a big fan of Ridley Scott’s greatest masterpiece Blade Runner (which I reviewed here). Itself influenced, one supposes, by the emerging cyberpunk movement in science fiction at the time (which was basically still fifties science fiction but dressed up in new technology and having, seemingly, more freedom with the evolution of modern abstractions of technology, from what I can deduce) as much as Philip K. Dick's source novel, the visual style of the 1982 classic can be seen in this new version of Ghost In The Shell quite prominently. The world inhabited by Scarlett Johansson’s character, Major, being a direct descendent of that visual style in the sense of piling on more of the same and making it a bit more holographic in the way in which advertising embeds itself into the architectural structure of the environment.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if various crew members were huge fans of Blade Runner because, if you’ve seen the movie enough times (I must have seen it near to treble figures by this point in my life), you will notice little samples of sound coupled with the odd, stray musical note which will set off a little rush of Pavlovian joy, triggered by certain similar moments in this movie and... I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate. So what we have here is a film which feels like an ever so slightly less emotional, hopped up on acid, actionised version of Blade Runner, only told from the replicant’s viewpoint... in this case the robot (the shell of the title) which houses the ghost or spirit of the human character who has had her brain put inside the titular casing.

And that is absolutely fine.

I had a real blast with this movie, which envelops and surprises the viewer at every turn. I particularly liked that in a typically post-humanistic culture in which people are using cybernetic implants of all kinds, the movie was able to reveal sides of the various characters which we didn’t realise existed until, say, somebody takes the front of their eyes off, revealing the prosthetic enhancement within. It’s nicely paced and, although the last twenty minutes seem a little flat and less like an action packed denouement, overall the tone and spirit of the movie seduce the viewer into an experience which, frankly, I would like to see more of by the way of sequels.

The editing is fine and the scoring credited to Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, both composers I like, seemed pretty spot on and interesting to me. Hope this gets some kind of CD release soon because I really want to grab this one.

The acting cast is great as well.

Pilou Asbæk as Batou is amazing, Danusia Samal is a shiny, brightness who doesn’t quite get enough of a chance to glitter as much as she could, as is Chin Han and, of course, we have two acting giants in this movie too. First up is the great Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, who really brings weight to the movie, as you’d suspect. The other giant being Zatoichi himself, the legendary director and actor 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, who brings some baggage with him in some ways because, if I was the lead villain in this piece, I’d know enough not to try and mess with this guy and take him out so easily with a bunch of machine guns. Kitano is always going to win.

And then we have Scarlett Johansson herself... an actress I’ve admired for years since first seeing her in the absolutely astonishing Ghost World and whose career I’ve followed in films such as her Marvel movies as the Black Widow and, of course, her absolutely stand out role in the Scottish movie Under The Skin (reviewed here). Here she does an absolutely first class job as Major, with lovely, stilted movements at times betraying her ‘shell’ while at the same time giving us a solid presence of the humanity of her ‘ghost’ throughout the picture... it’s a nice piece of work. And I know what you probably want me to address at this point so... let’s get to it.

Whitewashing, as it’s known at the moment, is the accusation that male and female caucasian actors should not be portraying people of other origins in movies. I used to have that view sometimes, when it somehow suited me too but, honestly, it’s a bad standpoint to take. I’ll show you why I believe this using myself as an example.

When I was a kid I used to love the Charlie Chan movies and anyone who follows my blog and reads my semi-regular Chan reviews will know I still do. Of all the actors to portray Charlie Chan in US cinematic history, none of them were Chinese. Warner Oland was Swedish, Sidney Toler was from Missouri, Roland Winters was from Boston and Peter Ustinov was born in Swiss Cottage in London. However, the first two of these, at the very least, were absolutely excellent Charlie Chans but... okay... lets get in to the “I’m not a racist but...” game.

When I first saw the Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck, I couldn’t understand why the heck the Kingpin was suddenly a black guy. Same thing with Nick Fury in the other Marvel movies... how was the always brilliant Samuel L. Jackson playing the white guy who, as Sergeant Fury, headed the Howling Commandos in the Second Word War? It made no sense. But you know what? It didn’t exactly spoil my enjoyment of the movies or of the characters these actors were skillfully portraying. I got similarly outraged when Jennifer Garner, of Texas, was chosen to play the Greek Marvel character Elektra but... guess what? She did a great job.

And to even put another spin on this whole racial thing going on at the moment, there’s this new ‘outrage’ about Black British actors like the amazing John Boyega taking ‘American’ roles in films like the new Star Wars trilogy. Seriously? What is going on here? What happened to the tolerant and united society I thought we all lived in.

The thing about actors is.. they do acting.

Let’s boil that down to what it really is... they are professional liars in that they pretend to be someone they’re not to give you an interesting, enlightening or entertaining experience (and when it all comes together, preferably all three of those things). If you’re going to say they suddenly shouldn’t be pretending to be certain other kinds of people based on the colour of their skin then the issue is more to do with you than them, I suspect.

And lets also look at it in economic terms. I would have maybe picked someone like Rinko Kikuchi to play Major in this. She’s pretty good and I’m pretty sure she’d have done a great job. But I bet they wouldn’t have been able to raise half the budget for the movie without having a major star name like Scarlett Johansson involved and, so, you have to take a step back and think... if someone like Johansson didn’t get involved in this thing, there’s a strong possibility that a movie like Ghost In The Shell wouldn’t even have gotten financed at all. So, you know, have a think about this kind of thing. Also, it's strongly implied, if not spelled out, in this movie that Major's shell looks nothing like her original human body so... who says it has to be looking Japanese? Scarlett certainly doesn't.

And I wonder, just as a little last thought on the subject, how many people who have been calling for a female or black James Bond have been accusing Hollywood of whitewashing? I’m pretty sure that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, would start spinning at dazzling speeds in his grave if such a thing happened, judging by the tone of the writing he did on these books in the 1950s... which were ‘of a time’ so leave them alone. And, you know, I’m not above feeling strongly about this stuff myself. If Hollywood tried to make a white Shaft, I would be fairly cross about it, for sure. The thing is, though, creative projects have a lot of things which the general public don’t even see and casting the wonderful Ms Johansson as Major in this is... well it’s not a major problem and, frankly, a lot of the people making a fuss about this kind of thing are coming off as either hypocritical or naive about the history of this phenomenon, it seems to me.

So anyway, there you go. I don’t want to start a debate on this stuff but I think it’s important that people who are throwing out accusations like this shouldn’t endanger box office on what turns out to be a really great little movie. Some of them, if they saw the film for themselves, might really have a good time with it... truth be told. Of course, that’s easy to say for someone like me to say, who will be turning 50 next year so, you know, hopefully some of these people will start to develop into well rounded human beings and be less stressed about all this stuff happening in the world. Because if you are going to let something like the casting of an actress get you so enraged then you will probably have a lot worse coping skills for struggling with a lot of the other, much more terrible and unfair stuff which life throws your way in your future. The world is a really terrible place at the moment... so you need to learn to swim above this kind of stuff and learn what that old saying means... “live and let live”.

And that’s me done on this one. Ghost In The Shell is a superb, almost masterpiece movie which will give you a fully immersive experience into the cyberpunk world popularised by authors such as William Gibson. My one possible complaint being that it wasn’t maybe as hard edged in the goriness department as the subject matter maybe called for... I think it could have stood going for a slightly higher rating. Other than that, though... if you like big budget special effects movies done, mostly, right then you won’t want to miss out on this one at the cinema. Great stuff.