Thursday 28 September 2017

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Scoring The Psycho-lops

The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad
UK/USA 1958 Directed by Nathan Juran
Indicator/Powerhouse Films Blu Ray All Zones

Warning: Some story spoilers here.

Here we go then.

I’ve been wanting to take another look at all those old Harryhausen films I used to love as a kid for a while now and what better excuse than the new limited edition, numbered, Dual Format Blu Ray/DVD boxed set, The Sinbad Trilogy, on the Indicator label. This particular film I'm watching first is a 4K restoration of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and it’s looking pretty good. I’m not sure what all those K’s mean but the other two films in this loose trilogy are both 2K restorations. I don’t know if that means they’ve had to work harder restoring the older film or whether there’s a more sinister reason for the misplaced Ks but I do know that the films come with a host of extras, many of them previously unreleased (and there are some real gems here) and also, presumably for this limited edition of the release only, a nice booklet about the movies including information about the unmade fourth Sinbad adventure set on Mars.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is not the first Sinbad movie I saw... that would be my cinema trip to see the 1973 movie The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (where I first became aware of the lovely Caroline Munro) at the age of five but this is right up there with it and is probably my favourite, in some ways, because of the cracking score by the great composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored a diverse number of assignments in his career with memorable music for films like Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, Mysterious Island, Obsession, Sisters and Taxi Driver, among many others.

After Herrmann’s rousing overture we join Captain Sinbad, played by Kerwin Mathews and his fiance Princess Parisa, played by the lovely Kathryn Grant. They are at the end of an adventure which kick starts the story. Landing on an island for food, Sinbad, Parisa and their brave crew are attacked by a giant Cyclops who is chasing after a ‘magician’ called Sokurah, played wonderfully villainously by Torin Thatcher. After rescuing Sokurah from the one eyed beast, it becomes clear that the magician dropped his magic lamp in the kerfuffle and he does his best to entice Sinbad and his crew back to the island to seek out his treasure. However, Sinbad is having none of it and they go back to Bagdad to prepare for Sinbad’s wedding... with a truly outstandingly orchestrated little piece by Herrmann accompanying the establishing shot of the town (one of three pieces from this movie which were also beautifully rearranged for one of Herrmann’s Phase 4 recordings, which are also worth giving a listen to sometime).

Of course, it’s not long before the evil wizard gets his way by covertly shrinking Parisa down to a very small size you could fit in the palm of your hand. Sinbad is suspicious of Sokurah's involvement in this but agrees to take the wizard back to the dangerous island so he can mix a potion to restore the Princess... a potion from which they will need a small portion of a shell from a Roc (a mythological giant bird). To get people for this suicide mission, Sinbad recruits a new crew from the Bagdadian equivalent of ‘death row’ but it’s not long before these brigands attempt a mutiny... yeah, that’s a pretty silly recruitment plan, if you ask me. Once Sinbad and his loyal friends (and Sokurah) have foiled the mutineers and sailed their way past the voices of sirens, the film does a strange jump in time and the men are once more loyal (to a degree) and ready to explore the island. Looking at the way this movie is edited now, I reckon there were some scenes either cut out or not shot at various points in this production because it is a little jumpy in places, it has to be said.

Of course, from here on in it’s Sinbad, his men and Princess Parisa against Sokurah and all manner of Harryhausen’s stop motion animated characters... including two of the aforementioned cyclops (one of which is obviously inspired by Homer, in the way it meets its final fate), a baby Roc, a full scale Roc, a dragon and, in one of the most impressive scenes in the film (and certainly one of the coolest pieces of scoring in Herrmann’s career)... a sword fight with a skeleton. Luckily, Sinbad and Parisa have the kind hearted Genie of the lamp, played here by Richard Eyer, to help lead them out of trouble when things get too overwhelming. What is quite puzzlingly magical, though, before the Genie even comes into the story, is the question which has never occurred to me before but which was worrying me all throughout the running time during this viewing... where the heck does the young, shrunken Princess keep getting her teeny, tiny costume changes from? She was shrunk in her pyjamas and a small manufactured set of garments would surely not flow the same way that these dashing threads... which threaten to liberate Kathryn Grant’s bosomy bosoms at any moment... seem to freely hang at regular intervals. This kinda makes no sense, people!

Now I’ve always defended Kerwin Mathews before, on the strength of both this movie and his performance in Harryhausen’s The Three Worlds Of Gulliver but, it has to be said, I really noticed how much of a wooden block of an actor he is in the movie this time around. To be fair, Torin Thatcher is always going to be a hard act to keep up with but Mathews seems to play every scene quite deadpan and one wonders if he was having a good time making this movie or not. He seems to be having a hard time emoting in this performance and it really shows when, for instance, in some of Grant’s reaction shots to the animated monstrosities, she really ‘goes for it’ in an almost over the top, exaggerated way. She’s great in this, though and... one wonders if her reaction shots would look a little calmer if she was standing next to anyone other than the unflinching rock that is Kerwin Mathews. To make matters worse when it comes to his portrayal of Sinbad, the writers have written it so that almost every other thing he says to his Parisa is some form of compliment and the pedestal he places her on reminded me of the constant enthusiasm of John Carter for his Barsoomian Princess Dejah Thoris, in the martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs... only a bit more intrusive as demonstrated through the running time here.

Other than this, though, it’s a pretty decent fantasy adventure yarn and, to be honest, with Ray Harryhausen’s beautiful stop motion work and even some nice colour schemes when it comes to the contrasting blue and orange lighting in the wizard’s castle, the last thing you’re going to be worrying about is the acting. Especially with Bernard Herrmann’s sumptuous score filling up yer ears. In fact, Herrmann’s score is so good, it might even distract you from the fact that the pulley system which makes the dragon safe to pass by is not in any way hidden and so it’s just an all round lousy security option to have a dragon guard the entrance to your castle if you’re just going to make the solution to getting past it so easily accessible. It’s another thing that makes no sense about this movie. However...

Indicator have put out an excellent blu ray of this as part of their box set and it really is the best version, to date, that you can get. In addition to various documentaries (including a 27 minute piece on Herrmann by Steven C. Smith, the writer of the composer’s biography A Fire At Heart’s Centre), you also get an isolated score track on all three movies in this collection and also the old Super 8 cut down versions too. A whole slew of extras, in fact, as Indicator do themselves proud by being as thorough and respectful of the material as some of the best boutique labels out there (such as Criterion and Arrow Films). My absolutely favourite extra, though, is a promotional single tie in song which cinemas were asked to play in the lobby called Sinbad May Have Been Bad But He’s Been Good To Me. This is a wonderfully cheesy song, certainly not composed by Herrmann and orchestrated and sung almost in the style of Peggy Lee’s Fever. I just live for the discovery of bizarre movie tie in songs like this and my one regret is that I am only discovering this truly shiny gem with this new boxed set... I just wish someone would put this song on a CD because it’s one of those tracks which would go on every compilation play list of songs that I do (along with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith’s Your Zowie Face from In Like Flint, Rio Conchos - unused in the film of the same name, Johnny Williams’ Two Lovers from How To Steal A Million and his title song from John Goldfarb, Please Come Home). Truly gorgeous and I wish this one was issued in a more malleable format than on here.

And that’s about it for this one. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad is a truly quaint but astonishing film and it looks better than ever on this new restoration. I have to say that, even when I was a kid, the merging of the 'plasticine' monsters with the live action looked a little off because of the quality of the two stocks when you put them together but it somehow doesn’t seem to have that problem here and, rather than looking like the limitations of the effects are showing through on the Blu Ray transfer, it actually looks a hundred times better than I’ve seen it looking anytime before and could easily just be mistaken for an ‘in camera’ effect with the differential focus. I don’t know if it would have looked that good  in the cinema originally or if Indicator have maybe managed to do what the people working on the Blu Ray transfers of the Bond films did a few years ago and get them looking better and truer to the original negative than they did on their original release prints but... whatever they’ve done it really works here. If you’ve never seen any of the three Harryhausen Sinbad films then this new box from the label, The Sinbad Trilogy, with a front cover poster from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, is well worth the time and the price of purchase. I’ll be sure to check the other two films in the set out soon and write them up here but, seriously, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad is a bit of a classic and, though it will look kind of primitive to young ‘uns of a certain age compared to films like Star Wars, you really can’t beat stuff like this for firing up the imagination. A truly captivating romp for the little ones and all us grown ups who are still young at heart. A fabulous film and a truly wonderful soundtrack too.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Cinema Somnambulist


Sleep Throat

Cinema Somnambulist
by Richard Glenn Schmidt
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform  2016
ISBN: 978-1516899258
Front and back cover illustrations by LeEtta Schmidt

Cinema Somnambulist is Richard Glenn Schmidt’s follow up tome to his first book, Giallo Meltdown, which I read and reviewed last year (right here). This one is the 'same but different' in regards to content but certainly identical in tone and style of that first volume of surprisingly addictive ramblings on a theme.

In terms of the content and what I mean by that? Well, this book of irreverent reviews is mostly culled from his Cinema Somnambulist website and, while there are few gialli in here (a huge helping of which were obviously in the previous book) the diversity of the genres and entries are all over the place so... you know... something to please everyone. So it’s not quite as focused as the previous offering but, that’s okay, it has its very bright moments.

The book begins with a paragraph of questions about what obsessed cinephiles have dreams (and nightmares) about and, after his brief introduction, Schmidt goes on to summarise how he got hooked on movies and also how his tastes have changed in terms of the kind of stuff he watches now. Of course, one cinephile’s obsessions are another celluloid maniacs casual viewing but who the heck cares as the book is light and fluffy and never really loses your interest although, I did find the opening chapters a little harder than some of the rest of the book. Especially when, naturally, some stories and reminiscences occasionally overlap as the entries were originally conceived and ‘virtually published’ to be read separately at different times.

As in the previous book, the author’s way of expressing himself is something you may find is an acquired taste but, once you have acquired it the same kind of 'Schmidtisms' that made the first one so memorable are, naturally, found in abundance here. I especially like his way with (or without, take your pick) words like when he’s talking about Last Tango In Paris where he comments “I was drawn like a moth to a blowtorch” or when he’s talking about a completely different, more horror genre based film (as the majority in this book are). I forget which movie he was talking about here but, try this one... “This turns the dirty hippies into bloodthirsty and fleshhungry (okay, how is that not a word? WTF?)...”. He also, as before, mentions the scores to these things quite often and that, as far as I’m concerned, can only be a good thing... “The music by Music by Antón García Abril is vibrant, classy and never dull.”, for instance.

As you would expect, since these little excursions look at cinema through a somewhat distorted but likeable lens, there’s some stuff you’re going to be agreeing with and other stuff where you’re going to take quite the opposite view from the writer. I can certainly get behind his love of both Demons (aka Demoni) and the original Robocop, for example (well I say original but, no, that reboot doesn’t exist for me) but, I really can’t share his similar viewpoint on the direct sequels to those two classics. Demons 2 had a lot of promise but, for me, almost totally fails to deliver on the sheer addictiveness of the first movie. Ditto with Robocop 2, which the writer loved but, surprisingly since it’s written by the great Frank Miller, I always felt was an unworthy and mean spirited sequel to Verhoeven’s  original master work. That being said, Schmidt goes on to confess that he hasn’t even seen Robocop 3 due to the change in the lead actor but, seriously, he should check that one out. Robert Burke, one of Hal Hartley’s coolest acting collaborators, can more than handle the role and, despite the toned down rating, well... all I can say dude is Robocop takes on a robotic martial arts dude. How can you not want to watch that.

Where the book really comes into its own is where it has very long chapters devoted to specific genre sets of films. So there’s a great section on Asian horror which had me reaching for my ‘films to look out for’ notepad on my iPhone and it’s interesting to see him compare something like the original Ringu, for example, with the American remake. Personally, I loved the original sequence of films so much I’ve tried to stay away from the US version but Schmidt has some interesting things to say on the subject. Also, it was great somebody else had even seen such movies as Mystics In Bali and The Queen Of Black Magic, let alone enjoy them as much as me.

There’s also a section on Anime which, despite the writer’s love of the form, still really does nothing much for me. That being said, it’s nice to know which ones I should take a look at if, for some strange reason, I find myself inclined to look at them. I have to admit, I recently watched the original anime movie of Ghost In The Shell (review pending) and, while I loved the recent live action movie based on it, I found the anime clunky and hard going, to a certain extent.

Another standout section, in some ways, is the long one on the films of Jess Franco. Now the section is pretty funny but, as someone who appreciated certain Franco films a lot, I was kinda offended by the author’s penchant for watching the cut down, 'clothed' alternate versions when he had the chance to watch the proper, uncensored, sometimes ‘with added porn’ versions. Honestly, watching the toned down versions are a waste of time. My message to Schmidt would be... “Forget Erotikill dude... go for the full Female Vampire version. You need to see these things in all their glory and, as it happens, it’s a terrific film. It rocks.” So yeah, there’s that.

All in all, though, if you’re a connoisseur of trashy movies and you don’t mind a less respectful, very humorous tone to the way it’s represented here, then Cinema Somnambulist should definitely be on your list of books to read in the corner of the bus when nobody is looking. I would say start with Giallo Meltdown which I, personally, found to be a much more entertaining reading experience but this second book is definitely a ‘must buy’ if you liked that one. And, seriously, whichever you start with, look into acquiring a copy of this one at some point soon because, believe me, Schmidt’s synopsis of Gigi has to be read to be believed.

For more on Richard Glenn Schmidt, check out his websites and

Sunday 24 September 2017

Kingsman - The Golden Circle


Kingsman - The Golden Circle
UK/USA 2017 Directed by Matthew Vaughn
UK cinema release print.

Disclaimer: The only real spoilers you will see in here can all be easily gleaned from the trailer. However, if you haven’t seen the trailer then I would urge you to go in blind.

So the time is already upon us when we get the first and, possibly, not the last sequel to Kingsman - The Secret Service, a film which I loved and reviewed here. Now, it has to be said that I was was really not looking forward to a sequel to that first movie because, while Taron Egerton as Eggsy and Mark Strong as Merlin were bound to be back for the next one, I thought that Colin Firth’s stand out role of Galahad (aka Harry Hart) was an important ingredient in making the whole thing work. Well Vaughn and co-writer, the often quite wonderful Jane Goldman, obviously thought so too because they managed to find a way to bring Firth’s character back which, while utterly implausible in real life, doesn’t really stretch the credibility of the hyper-real world of the ‘Kingsman universe’ too much and... a little more on that later. That being said, I have seen a lot of negative comments about the film being either dull or unwatchable from several quarters on Twitter and the like over the last couple of weeks so... yeah... I wasn’t exactly holding my breath to wait and see this one.

However, as it happens, it’s my firm belief that the bad criticism I’ve heard of it is, for me at least, quite wrong. Not only does Kingsman - The Golden Circle live up to and honour the spirit of the original movie, it also builds on that world fairly successfully and, to boot, is another fun ride. It’s quite true that it isn’t quite near as good as the first one but, honestly, that would be a pretty tall task. However, what the cast and crew have delivered here is a solid, action comedy super-spy thriller which, although I’m sure it completely strays from the comic book source as much or, posssibly, even more than the original movie did, is a nice slice of cinematic spectacle and, I would have thought, a bit of a crowd pleaser. There are, it has to be said, quite a lot of what I would call minor problems with it but, ultimately, these don’t add up to a significant movie killer and the film coasts along quite nicely with, as the first one, a real feeling of empathy and good will conjured up for the main protagonists to succeed in their mission.

Okay so, the three cast I’ve mentioned above are supported by a very strong, somewhat misused in cases, cast which boasts several big names. Julianne Moore is excellent as Poppy, this film’s super-villain, although I believe she is written quite badly and it does hurt the film a little, I think, that Eggsy and Harry don’t actually get to meet or interact with her until their final confrontation scene. So, excellent as she always is, she does tend to feel like she’s been plonked into the film in a corner to just cut back to every now and again in an effort to remind us that there is an evil mastermind making all these things happen in the film. Which is a shame.

Similarly, Channing Tatum is in this but you’d barely know it. His role is quite small and, although he stays the course of the film, the plot line treats him as just an example of how deadly the super-villain’s plan is... like he’s an egg timer so you know how crucial the mission is getting. Jeff Bridges is similarly wasted as the boss of Statesman, the US counterpart to Kingsman and Halle Berry is also not given much to do as the US version of Mark Strong’s Merlin character. I was surprised to see an excellent singer, Tara Hugo, in a little cameo as a bar maid. I don’t know much about her or even, to be honest, that she was also an actress but she brought out a truly great album of Philip Glass songs a year or two ago which is worth giving a listen to. And talking of singers, I was similarly caught unawares to see that Elton John has such a large and crucial part in the story. He’s like ‘the cameo that never goes away’ and he has some nice little moments during the course of the film. There are quite a few more ‘name’ actors putting in appearances in this one but if I list them all I’d be here all day and this would be the longest, scroll hungry review ever... so I won’t.

These people are all good, of course but, it was the surprise reappearance of a number of characters and actors from the first film which really helped pull this one together. A couple of main players are back but I don’t want to spoil the surprise if you haven’t seen this one yet. That being said, as in the first movie, the writers are not afraid to kill off well loved characters and, by the time this film is done, I found I wasn’t eyeing any further sequels with much anticipation after the loss of yet another main ingredient of the series... at least in my eyes.

The film is a joy to watch, though, for the most part and the director has got this really nice thing going with scene transitions which are reflected from the end of one scene into the next... so a pile of drugs will be the side of a mountain next to Poppy’s secret lair, a hole punched through a wall in that lair will be the hole left on the bomb site of the Kingsman shop in London and a bottle of whiskey would morph into a big building in Kentucky shaped like the bottle of whiskey, etc. It’s a nice touch and it really works through the movie without being overdone to the point that it begins to wear thin.

The stunt work and action in this is also great and there’s the usual strong humour undercutting things as it did first time around. Colin Firth’s resurrection is handled particularly well in that he doesn’t immediately snap into mission mode and a lot of scenes of him not being able to remember who he was are not rushed unduly. The way he is brought back into himself, as it were, hinges on the credibility of an ‘expanded’ flashback to part of the original film that everyone remembers and it’s done very well. Even the scene where he goes into a deliberate parallel scene of his famous “manners maketh man” moment from the first doesn’t go as you’d expect it to, being used to simultaneously show that the resurrection isn’t completely taken, as yet and also used to try, not all that successfully, to up the stakes with another character to give the final quarter of the film a little more edge... but, again, I can’t say anything more here because it’s quite definitively in spoiler territory (although a certain plot twist could be deduced from the trailer and I was wondering about a certain possible reveal before I even started watching the movie, to be honest). And even the resurrection of another character (who appears in the film right from the start) is pretty well accounted for and makes total sense, in all fairness.

All this being said, though, the film does have a fair few problems too. For one, a cable car sequence relies on having the car fitted with something which is both completely useless to anyone, super-villain or not, and makes absolutely no sense. Nobody would have a cable car that could do what it does here and, especially, for absolutely no good reason or practical use as it is portrayed during this sequence. Similarly, a character who is branded as part of ‘The Golden Circle’ would surely not let themself be played in the way that Eggsy plays that person in this movie. You can’t claim that a specific character is a naive person if we’ve already been shown how rigorous a ritual it is to be allowed to be a member of The Golden Circle. It makes no sense.

Another big problem is the quality of the action. Like I said, it’s all great but it also feels a little anti-climactic at times because the opening action sequence of the film which involves a fight and chase in a Kingsman cab (as seen on the trailers) is so blisteringly good and makes for such a strong introduction to the film, that nothing else in the movie really feels as intense as that again. Great opening though. However, for a film that does a lot to link in with the first to the point of both replaying scenes and setting up parallel versions of some of those set pieces, then I was bemused that the two most talked about orgies of violence from the first - the blood rage church sequence and the head exploding sequence - had no alternate versions explored in this one and... I felt it really needed something as extreme as those towards the end of this one to keep the feel a little closer to the first.

The film is probably, I suspect, not all that great as a stand alone movie either. There are a lot of jokes and nods to the first one but some of them are quite subtle and rely on knowledge gleaned from that movie. For instance, when an exchange between two characters goes to saving the world, unless you’ve seen the first one then you won’t know what that little hook in the conversation is all about and no idea that they’re really talking about anal sex. Similarly, when we are shown Eggsy’s Kingsman office in his flat, people who haven’t seen the first one may not understand why three, completely unglamourous newspaper front pages are decorating the wall. Even when Colin Firth’s character is being questioned by Merlin about the exact same thing, unless you know what Firth’s explanation of the newspapers is in the first film, you may find yourself scratching your head as to the significance of these questions. So this really is a film for people who are familiar with the first... not least because so many scenes from the first one are ‘given away’ here. That’s not particularly a problem, mind you and I prefer it like this but... I can see how some people might get lost in this one.

However, even with all the minus points, the film still manages to be a cut above many others which have tried... and failed... to do this kind of thing properly. They've also convinced me that the time is right for somebody to have a crack at a movie version of The Ballad Of Halo Jones at some point soon please (anybody who remembers Toby will know exactly what I'm talking about when they see this).

And the score, once again by composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson from the first film, creates the all important musical continuity which so many big screen franchises (Marvel, DC, Alien, Star Trek etc) get wrong. The Kingsman theme is used more, has instant recognition value here and I suspect I’m going to be playing this score a lot more than the first one when it comes out on CD at the end of next month. It even, apparently, has some of Jackman’s score for X-Men - First Class deliberately used for a certain scene here.

All in all, then, Kingsman - The Golden Circle is a great night out at the movies. Not devoid of problems but definitely one which I think fans and admirers of the first film will enjoy a lot. Like I said earlier, I can’t see how a third movie would be able to work without a certain ‘ingredient’ in the mix but, hey, there’s at least a possible replacement character already lined up for that role here, I suppose, so... lets see how the box office on this one goes before we write off another sequel.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Split Second

‘til Death Do Us Heart

Split Second
UK 1992 Directed by  Tony Maylam
101 Films Blu Ray Zone B

I well remember the time of the shooting of the film Split Second in London in the early 1990s because the eight week shoot that Rutger Hauer was in London for meant that he made at least one public appearance. So, I and my friends went to see a double bill of Zabriskie Point (which Hauer had chosen himself) and Blade Runner (reviewed here) at the Everyman in Hampstead, both introduced by the man himself and with a Q&A session after. I remember waiting outside once the show had finished... I asked him to sign my copy of the illustrated Blade Runner screenplay, which he did, and them, because at this point he was surrounded by fans, I gave him my pen so it would be easier for him to get through them quicker, before I went on my way. I suspect the pen didn't last that long.

I waited for a number of years after that, for my local cinema in Enfield (which was an ABC or possibly taken over by Canon at that point) to screen Split Second, which he’d mentioned at the event, only to find it never got a local release. I’m guessing it was only playing in the centre of London because, looking at it now, I assume it must have had some kind of release in its own country.

So I never got to see it and it’s been one of that long list of films that ‘got away’... up until now, that is, when I found it quite by accident on Blu Ray in Fopp records, displaying all the signs of quality that I look for when I go shopping for movies... that is to say, it was knocked down to a fiver. Cheap and cheerful is always a good thing in my book.

So here we have a movie which is set in the far future of... 2008 (Why do they do this so often? It’s like they want these things to date quickly)... and set in London after a terrible rain of forty days and forty nights (yeah, really) has submerged most of the city underwater. Not that you’d know it because a lot of the long shots in this piece show London pretty much dry and above water but a number of the actual locations do have the main protagonists wading through water, to be fair.

The film starts off strong with suspended detective Harley Stone, played by Hauer, going after the serial killer who killed his former partner. The partner whose wife he was having an affair with... played by an immediately post Star Trek IV - The Undiscovered Country (reviewed here) incarnation of Kim Cattrall. He follows the killer into a strip club where the girls are, it has to be said, dressed up in so much leather fetish wear that you wonder if they are ever going to be able to successfully strip at all... after five or more minutes one finally goes topless but, you have to wonder, cool leather stuff aside, if this is the most boring strip club in the world. Here we see our first victim, who has her heart torn out before Stone realises said killer is there. After this scene, Stone is given a new partner called Dick Durkin - no, seriously - who is played by Alistair Duncan (but credited here as Neil Duncan) and the two go on a hunt for the serial killer together.

As the story unfolds, we find that the serial killer, whose MO is to tear the hearts out of it’s victims, has a psychic link to all the people it’s killed or wounded and is pretty much a giant supernatural beast creature... or possibly an alien... and is slaughtering people because of some ritualistic nonsense about the Chinese Year of the Rat and the Scorpio star sign. And... barring the fact that you wonder how a tall creature vaguely reminiscent of Giger’s Alien but ‘done on the cheap and looks it’ can blend in with its victims' environments long enough to get the jump on them... well, it’s a heck of a lot of fun actually.

The film has a surprising disregard for anything like appropriate or credible behaviour from pretty much most of the characters and the chaotic lack of common sense in the pursuit of justice give this film a trashy but entertaining vibe, as we watch Rutger Hauer playing a mentally unbalanced cop, obsessed with destroying the monster and restarting his old relationship with Kim Cattrall while breaking in his new Oxford trained partner to the point that Durkin slowly gets almost more insane than the lead protagonist by the end of the picture.

It’s pretty wild and crazy and the camera work shows this. Some of the shot design is not as spectacular as some of the sets themselves are but it doesn’t hurt the movie and there’s a lot on offer here. It’s got a nice load of character actors in for the ride too, such as Alun Armstrong as Stone’s boss, Pete Postlethwaite as a rival cop, Ian Dury as a nightclub owner, Tony Steedman as a police armourer (for when the hero’s decide they need some ‘big f***king guns’) and the always watchable Michael J. Pollard in a small role as a Rat Catcher.

There’s also a conscious effort, it seemed to me, to capture the baggage that Hauer brings to the role whenever possible. His most famous film in the UK at the time was Blade Runner and he was also popular over here at the time of the making of this movie for his Guiness adverts, for which he wore the same Blade Runner style trench coat... which he is also kitted out with here. The ‘futuristic’ debris of London isn’t, unfortunately, any match for the designer grime of Blade Runner but the music by Francis Haines and Stephen W. Parsons, does try and hit some of those moods in the rare, subtler moments of the score as Ridley Scott’s former classic, with the first few seconds of the opening music to the film definitely trying to evoke the opening of Vangelis’ score to the former movie quite blatantly, it would seem.

There are a few technical errors in the picture, to be fair, like a scene where Rutger Hauer squats down to dip his fingers in some blood and the long shot not matching up the blood on his finger tips (or the finger tips of whatever second unit actor was used for this pick up shot, at a guess, at any rate) and stuff like this is quite noticeable. Also, the idea of the origins and motives of the big monster creating havoc in an artistically pleasing and gory way are somewhat confused and not making complete sense, it has to be said. Nor, for the record, could it be hiding in the couch at one point when the couch was being sat on and it was down the street a few minutes before hand... and especially without damaging or disturbing the couch (or its occupant) as it did this.

That being said, there are some nice ideas in this movie, including something which possibly gets lost in translation but strongly hints that there are modified, intelligent dogs in this future (either that or it’s not quite made clear why Stone shows a dog his police ID) which could have been made a little more of but, ultimately, gets lost in the furthering of the plot, such as it is, and the action.

I have to say though that, for a b-movie, Split Second really pleased me and I had a good time with it. I wish Rutger could have done more of these kinds of pictures because I now, already, have a lot of love for this one. If you are into horror and science fiction and want to do an all-nighter with some drinking buddies then this gory, British thriller with a topless shower scene from Kim Cattrall and a big, clunky alien ripping people’s hearts out and decorating the walls and ceilings with their blood is not a bad place to start... jumps in story logic or not. I’d probably recommend this to a fair few of my friends and, for the price that Fopp is charging for the Blu Ray of this right now, you can’t go seriously wrong with this one. Really enjoyed this one.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

American Assassin

Son Of A Beach

American Assassin
2017 USA Directed by Michael Cuesta
UK cinema release print.

American Assassin is a movie based on a ‘prequel novel’ from a successful series of books by Vince Flynn about a character called Mitch Rapp, played here by Dylan O' Brien and set in the world of international espionage. Now, I’ve not read the book but I understand there was at least one major change to the story settings here but, obviously, my ability to judge this movie in terms of adaptation is non-existent. But, as I’ve said so many times on this blog before, I may not be able to tell you how faithful it is to the original source material but I do know how it plays as a film.

The story starts with some poignant POV footage of Mitch proposing to his girlfriend on a beach. The POV stuff ends and the film goes into regular style footage when, as he runs off to get some celebratory drinks, terrorist open fire on the tourists and she is killed. The change to the story I was talking about earlier was, I believe, to have the girl killed in a beach shooting for this whereas, in the novel, I believe she was killed in the Lockerbie bombing. Jump to 18 months later and Mitch has been training himself up (cue long montage sequence) and is about to infiltrate a terrorist cell to start a long revenge/war on terrorism process. However, because he’s been drawing attention to himself, the CIA have been watching him and when things go a bit pear shaped for Mitch, they come to the rescue like the cavalry and eventually recruit him, sending him to train with super duper ex-Navy seal, killing machine turned instructor Stan Hurley, played here by Michael Keaton.

From here the film progresses along a familiar, somewhat clichéd but largely enjoyable story line as Hurley’s team, including Mitch, have to go after a large haul of stolen plutonium and preferably retrieve it before it can be made into a bomb. However, an ex-student of Hurley’s, who is bearing a grudge and was thought missing presumed dead, is also involved in the plot and... yeah, you get the picture. There’s nothing new here. It’s pretty much just a Western revenge story. Back in the old days the bad guys would have been red Indians. If the film had come out in the sixties it would have been changed to a cold war story and the Russians would have been the bad guys. Where we are with it now is that it’s centred around Middle Eastern terrorism to an extent but, whatever, a fairly typical film plot with just the bad guy stereotypes updated to modern times.

It also doesn’t matter though because the film is fast paced, doesn’t always rely on dialogue heavy scenes to tell its story and is actually not all that much about glorifying the violence although, it has to be said, there is rather a lot of it in here and it gets quite brutal at times (I really could have done without the extended torture sequence towards the end of the movie but it wasn’t too harrowing to watch, I guess). In some ways it’s a little bit like the other action movie I saw at the cinema a couple of weeks ago... Stratton (reviewed here) but this one seems to have a bigger budget and is a lot sleeker in terms of how thing looks. Of course it helps that you have wonderful actors like Michael Keaton added into the mix, playing somebody who he’s possibly just a little too old to play, I suspect but, because it is Keaton we are talking about here, he looks like he really could do everything he does in the movie without losing credibility and, as you might expect, Keaton knocks it out of the park. It also has a good little score by Steven Price which keeps things nicely ticking over when needed.

Some of the editing was a little bit more aggressive than I was expecting. You expect some fast, possibly out of kilter and sometimes jarring edits in an action sequence but even in the more slower paced sequences, I thought some of the ways in which shots were cut together didn’t show the most audience friendly route. Now, that might well have been because the frame designs being utilised in these sections seemed less likely to mesh without leading the eyes away from the place they were looking at in the previous shot... which is something modern directors sometimes lose sight of, I think.

Another thing which is a slight but not insurmountable problem here is that the movie, as formulaic as it is, has a tendency towards telegraphing its intentions somewhat during the course of the film. For instance, I was pretty sure that something very specific was going to be revealed about one of the characters from very early on in the film, once that character had been introduced and... yeah... I was right. However, that particular issue... which I’m trying not to talk about because I don’t want to included any spoilers here... is actually upended again later on in the film and the result of the specific twist I’m talking about is somewhat built on and realigned along a different path before the story is done... which is about as good a thing as could have happened with it, to be honest.

Ultimately, American Assassin never really rises above being a good little action thriller but, as far as that goes, that should probably be enough. It’s not one I could repeat watch or anything but it was a good evening out at the cinema and, as a bonus, you get to see Michael Keaton playing a tough as nails action hero character and, really, you couldn’t ask for much more than that. Also, the very last shot, which is pretty much a ‘break the fourth wall’ moment in the film, was the perfect way to end this one. Definitely worth a trip out to your local to catch this assassin’s ass in action.

Sunday 17 September 2017


Writing Home

2017 USA Directed by  Darren Aronofsky
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Yeah, I’m going to discuss most of this with “big spoilers” full on and right from the outset. If you don’t want to know then please don’t read.


Darren Aronofsky used to be one of my absolute favourite modern directors. The first three feature films he made blew me away. They were like a triumvirate of works of genius that repeatedly hit and engaged the brain on every level from the opening scenes through to the breathtaking finales. So yeah... Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain... three truly spectacular works. Even the director’s fourth feature, The Wrestler, was a pretty cool film. True, I couldn’t watch it more than once like I could his first three, which I would be happy to leave on repeat play throughout various stages of my life but, it was still a great film.

Unfortunately, Aronofsky starting mis-stepping, for me at any rate, with Black Swan (reviewed here), which I was so looking forward to and which managed to somehow underwhelm me on almost every level. And then he brought out Noah (reviewed here) which... honestly didn’t endear me to him and made me laugh when he decided to have giant rock creatures helping Noah fight off all the pesky humans who wanted to get on his ark. He might as well have had Transformers in there, to be honest.

And so we come to mother! which I thought had quite an interesting and edgy trailer but, after having been let down by this director twice in a row now... well, I really wasn’t holding my breath to go and see this thing. However, I then got wind of a critic (via 'Twitter buzz') who had called the movie something along the lines of “the most disgusting and depraved, vile film ever to be allowed in a movie theatre” with the clear warning that audiences should not go out to support this kind of thing. So, of course, my ears immediately pricked up and I was all full on about to going to see a movie that would provoke such an unequivocally negative response and I suspect the person who wrote that review did more to get people into cinemas to see this movie than the actual trailer campaign did. No publicity is bad publicity is something I’ve always, more or less, believed but with many films, such as this one, this is a case of bad publicity being hugely more preferable and influential than any positive press could be.

To be frank, though, having seen the movie myself now... if that reviewer genuinely felt like that about mother! then, honestly, he or she needs to get out and see some more films because there’s pretty much nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. It’s not really that impressive as a movie and certainly not going to disturb anybody but the most sensitive, 'wrapped in cotton wool' souls, I would have thought. Pseudo film reviewers who say such things should maybe get a life (and stop getting my hopes up that the film is a lot more vital to the art of the moving image than it actually is).

Okay... let’s get to the good stuff first, which won’t take long.

Jennifer Lawrence is someone I’m really getting the hang of lately. She is absolutely excellent in this role and, I would say, pretty much carries the movie on her lonesome. Javier Bardem, who I first saw in Jamon Jamon many years ago at the cinema, is an actor I’m not all that familiar with but he’s pretty great here, too, as a successful writer struggling to write new poetry. And both these titanic actors are ably supported by the likes of Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Domhnall Gleeson... and, of course, they’re all great in this too.

Not only that but Aronofsky manages to take these pitch perfect performances and fashion a movie which, at the very least, engages some interest at the start and patiently renders his vision in a way that’s assured and leaves the audience in no misunderstanding about what is going on within the narrative... which could have got out of hand with so many of the crowded frames filled with noise, chaos and people, especially towards the last twenty minutes or so of the movie. Which really is no mean feat... Aronofsky knows how to craft a movie.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s one thing to be able to render your vision above and beyond the level of most of your contemporaries but... when the vision is a little lacking or simplistic, as I felt it was in this film, then it doesn’t matter how good you are technically, the film is not necessarily going strike true with an audience. Or at least hold their interest for the entire time.

The first thing he gets wrong here, from my perspective, is that he telegraphs the end of the movie right from the start and, once you kind of get the hang that the movie is probably somewhat cyclic in nature, it kind of becomes a dead give away that the whole thing is not necessarily to be taken on a ‘realistic’ level and that the film is merely a kind of metaphor for the creative process, with all the central characters merely prose within the writer’s wrestling imagination. And once you realise this, probably from sometime around the first half an hour, the inevitability of the nature of the ending becomes something you are just kind of hanging around to see when the characters will catch up with that concept. Of course, they never really do because, you know, they are just characters within the fiction of the fiction... um... if you see what I mean. They are the fabric of the creative process and it kind of becomes like there’s less at stake here than you might have, at first, thought.

The film is quite Buñuelian, in some ways and while I was watching the film I couldn’t help but thinking that the director had maybe seen the truly great The Exterminating Angel (reviewed here) a few more times than was good for him (which, it turns out, was a bit ‘on the nose’ because I just found out that Aronosfsky is listing it as one of his influences on the making of this film). The lunacy and chaos of the film feels like that mixed with the kind of freeform visual stream of consciousness of The Monkees’ movie Head and Fellini’s Otto E Mezzo (Eight and a Half) although, to be honest, I could watch all of those three films I just mentioned quite often whereas mother! is not something I’d ever need, or want, to bother to see again in my lifetime.

The continuous assault on the senses never really matches the madcap lunacy of, say, The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (another film this might be said to superficially resemble at a genetic level) and instead maybe drifts off into the 1960s mainstream Hollywood, bloated and relatively less interesting hijinks of movies like What’s New Pussycat? (which I still have a slight, soft spot for, nonetheless) or the Peter Sellers vehicle, The Party. The resemblance is there, perhaps unintentionally and, like those kinds of Hollywood attempts at recapturing the madball antics of earlier generations, mother! kind of falls flat on its face in terms of continuing to engage interest after the, quite compelling, first half hour ...before the languid pacing and tranquil camerawork give way to handheld chaos and an almost reactive way of tracking the action.

So there you go. I didn’t really like mother! too much but it’s not in any way extreme or too disturbing like some of the word of mouth is suggesting. I think the film’s biggest problem is that, after a while, the constant pandemonium which the director is trying to bombard you with just gets a bit boring and you kind of can’t wait for it to end so you can get some peace and quiet. Which is a shame because, like I said before, I truly believe that Aronofsky was one of the great directors of modern cinema and I just wish he would be again. This film, though, feels a little like a diluted, ‘seen it all before’ kind of experience with a simplistic story and, alas, for me... that doesn’t quite tick all the boxes, I’m afraid. If you want to see what stunning work this director can really do then check out Pi or Requiem For A Dream. Those are the two movies that are really going to hook you.

Friday 15 September 2017

Doctor Who - The Enemy Of The World

Two By Two

Doctor Who - The Enemy Of The World
BBC DVD Region 2
Airdate: 23 December 1967 - 27 January 1968

2013 was a relatively good year for Doctor Who fans. After the initial disappointment that an alleged cache of “missing presumed wiped” episodes of the show had possibly been mostly ransacked and sold off to private collectors, the good news was that, as part of that cache, all but one episode of the missing 1967 story The Web of Fear and all of the serial that preceded it, The Enemy Of The World, were now once more amongst us. The BBC more or less rush released the two stories onto DVD with pretty much no extras at all at the end of the year and, from what I can remember, both stories languished at the very top of the DVD charts for a week or two. Not a bad chart performance for a couple of black and white Patrick Troughton stories almost 50 years old.

This marks my first screening of this story, although I had the novelisation of this one, adapted by Fourth Doctor companion Ian Marter. I remember when reading that novel as a kid, wondering how they'd managed to be able to use a word like “bastard” on a family viewing, British TV show in the 1960s and, as the existence of this recording confirms... they didn’t. Marter was adding his own dialogue to the mix and gave it a far more adult tone than it had originally, methinks.

This is a good story to have back with us, though. There are, sadly, very few Second Doctor stories surviving and this one is a particularly interesting one to have because it features my favourite Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in a dual role. Yes, I know it’s the old ‘jump the shark’ doubles plot but, already in the, then, short history of the show, this wasn’t the first time that a doppelganger of The Doctor had cropped up and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Here it’s done pretty tastefully and, believe it or not, there’s only one scene right near the end of the last episode where the two characters actually come face to face. So you don’t have to sit through too much of that split screen stuff here.

Why this is a good story to have had recovered though, is because of the versatility of Troughton’s standout performance. Yes, we’re all aware he was good as The Doctor and even non-Doctor Who fans will remember him, I’m sure, as being an outstanding character actor in films such as, for example, the original version of The Omen (reviewed by me here), where the priest he is playing gets impaled by a church spire. However, although he is a double for the title character, Salamander (the titular 'Enemy of the world'), he is only his double in appearance. The evil Salamander speaks with a kind of Mexican accent and this gives Troughton a chance to show off how he handles dialects. He also does some much more subtle stuff than this with the dual role, though. For instance, as The Doctor is working on perfecting his impersonation of Salamander so that he can find out if the tyrant of a future time in the Earth’s history, the far off year of 2018, is actually what his enemies are saying he is... he comes over as something like a cross between the two roles. Pulling it off enough to fool Salamander’s chief of security but still being different enough from his performance as Salamander throughout the serial that you can almost see The Doctor going through a learning curve.

The companions in this one are two of my favourite ones, Jamie and Victoria and, of course, age old unrealised sexism raises its head again when, to help The Doctor, Jamie makes it appear that he is saving Salamander’s life so he can get a job as one of his personal bodyguards. He asks Salamander to sort out a job for Victoria and she gets... cook’s assistant. Well, it is ‘of it’s time’ I guess and I’m not too worried about those kinds of gender stereotypes, especially when some of the episodes have smart performances by Mary Peach as a resistance fighter and Carmen Munroe as a food taster, the latter being an extremely strong role with no clear black and white division on the character who finds herself working for Salamander, even though she hates him, before eventually switching sides and... well, I’ll leave you to discover the final fate of her character here.

The music in this one is quite prominent in the mix in some places for a show of this nature in the era it was broadcast and the plot itself, while a little reminiscent of an old Flash Gordon serial in its twisty/turny revisiting of terrain and locations backwards and forwards as the narrative continues, is still quite entertainingly told... even if it doesn’t have an inhuman monster bent on the destruction of The Doctor and his companions, as many of the shows had.

As usual with the Troughton stories, there’s a lot of humour involved and one of the things that got me chuckling was when someone mentioned they should rendezvous at the old, disused jetty. “Disused yeti?” proclaims The Doctor, slyly referencing the robotic creatures from the, now sadly lost, story The Abominable Snowman. The creatures were quite popular and had made their debut only two stories prior to this one. They would make their second appearance, in updated and perhaps a bit less appealing costumes, in the very next Doctor Who adventure, The Web Of Fear (reviewed by me here).

As a lot of the earlier Doctor Who serials did in those days, the end of each story would directly cliffhanger into the next story and this one is no exception. At least, however, we are able to watch the other side of the cliffhanger in this case. At the end of the sixth episode of The Enemy Of The World, the TARDIS is in flight in space and time but the doors are open and The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are trying to hold on for dear life in case they get sucked out and scattered in time and space (I won’t tell you why... "spoilers sweetie"). Luckily, we now have the majority of the episodes recovered for The Web Of Fear and after the prologue of that adventure, we once more rejoin The Doctor and his companions in this predicament until Jamie can get the TARDIS stabilised once more. So, in that regard at least, it’s nice that running stories were rediscovered and restored.

The Enemy Of The World is quite a nice, pacey Doctor Who adventure and it’s also better for the fact that not everybody is what they seem. The bad guys and good guys aren’t as clear cut until the final episode and doubts about the intentions of certain characters do rear themselves right from the onset. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and the Second Doctor in particular then The Enemy Of The World should definitely be on your ‘watch list’. If, however, you are new to the programme then I suspect a more ‘monstercentric’ episode might be a better jumping on point than this. Still, hard to go wrong with Troughton in such fine form and, once again, this charming actor doesn’t disappoint. And with Donald Trump voted in as the president of the USA at the moment, the idea of a dodgy dictator such as Salamander ruling the world of 2018 with an iron fist doesn’t seem like a million miles away from the real world, to tell the truth.

Tuesday 12 September 2017


Leave It To Viva

USA 2007
Directed by Anna Biller
Anna Biller Productions/Shameless DVD Region 2

It’s really interesting seeing what is, effectively, Anna Biller’s first full length feature only a few weeks after seeing her second, The Love Witch (reviewed here), because I can now pick up on the tremendous similarities between the two and, temporarily at least, assign director signature traits to her (woohoo!). It also means she pretty much demonstrates, through her various artistic choices which follow through in both films, that she’s very much an ‘auteur’ director in the sense of captaining her specific celluloid ships through the same route. If you see what I mean.

Like The Love Witch, Viva uses a slightly surreal, ‘on the surface’, over the top acting style which I personally associate with American TV sitcoms from the 1950s - 1970s. It’s more overtly signposted within the text here, to a certain extent, due to the fact that Biller seems to be trying her best to make an early to mid-1970s US sexploitation picture and, although the highly comical acting method demonstrated in Viva (and in The Love Witch, for that matter) is certainly not endemic to that genre (although obviously some movies, like Doris Wishman’s films, use it almost by default in terms of the talent of the actors and actresses available), it’s at least ‘of the time’. Biller seems, to me, a little more subversive in that, while she is, after all, very definitely making an exploitation movie - this one has tons of nudity including Biller herself as lead character Barbie/Viva - she seems, at least to me, to be very much expressing it in the same way that an episode of The Brady Bunch or Bewitched might try and portray it. Which is... you know... kinda interesting and certainly makes for the cinematic equivalent of a page turner, in this case.

The opening follows Biller’s character Barbie from the bath where she’s reading a magazine and drinking before she vacates said vessel to get made up and dressed. Roaring off in her red, open top car which, since this is an Anna Biller movie, matches the same shade as the outfit she is wearing. And, that’s another stylistic tag which I’m going to lumber Biller with here... the exceptionally groovy colour palette she uses matches what she did nine years later in The Love Witch in that everybody’s outfits seem designed to either perfectly match to, or contrast against, the decor of the set they are seen in. For example, in one scene where Barbie and her husband are visiting her best friends, Sheila and her husband - two perfect nuclear families with cracks hidden beneath their ‘beautiful people’ surface - one guy is wearing a green top and the other guy is wearing a white shirt but with trousers which match the exact shade of green of the first guy’s top. It’s pretty nice stuff and, although one might say she’s taking a page out of the era in which she’s set this film... Los Angeles 1972... that certainly doesn’t hold for The Love Witch and I think it says more about the director’s impeccable taste when it comes to pulling all the details and colours of the mise en scène together in the most exquisite way. I’m telling you right now people... I’d love to see this woman make an Italian giallo.

She also, like in her later film, uses the decor to express the motivations of her characters... often through the use of paintings which make overt their attitudes towards certain issues. It’s not an uncommon modus operandi but it’s a nice touch and I’ll add that quirk to my ever growing list of Anna Biller signature marks, if I may (at least until she grows in a different direction, as most directors do).

The scene following on from the opening where Sheila and her husband talk about Playboy and drink an alcoholic breakfast ends up with Sheila about to strip down so her good, wholesome husband can take ‘artistic’ shots of her... seems more like a porn movie but it’s incredibly heightened, with lots of fake laughter by all the actors who perform their roles wonderfully (including Biller herself), before Barbie turns up and then both girls strip off for the ‘arty photos’. Biller seems both inspired by Playboy in this movie while similarly poking fun at the people who read it (Shelia proclaims, at one point, that old chestnut “I only read it for the articles...”). It’s a brilliant little parody of the kind of ‘soft porn logic’ combined with deliberately ‘bad acting’ which really nails and telegraphs the mood Biller is going for in a very quick way. She even goes so far as to deliberately mis-match shots to create little continuity errors between them to further authenticate the delivery of her agenda. At least... I assume it was deliberate?

Of course, one of the things which this is doing, in a film inhabited by generally stupid characters, male and female, is to show the sexism and attitudes of either sex in a repressive social set up. You have the guys getting together to talk about their latest technological equipment like their new stereo or TV (actually... that doesn’t sound too different to where we are now, to be honest) and the ladies getting together for conversations which, quite frankly, don’t just fail the Bechdel test but defy it in the most spectacular fashion. One husband, for example, sits patiently for his wife to give him his pipe and light it for him. Now, I grew up in the 1970s so it’s probably harder for me to identify where these common occurrences of everyday sexism (at least as it is perceived these days) begin and end but Biller makes it crystal clear for the audience in one lovely moment when a pampered guy looks straight into the camera and says...

“There's never been a better time to be a man. The willing women. The dandy clothes. The frills. The big rings and jewellery. The open shirts. The sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savour this time. For it will soon be gone, never to return.”

As the film progressed I found that, rather than get bored by what might, at first, seem like a one joke movie, I was witness to a minor masterpiece with something new and rewarding in most scenes. There’s some great stuff in here... the stereotypical gay male hairdresser who is working on Barbie’s hair and the neighbour who comes in to ‘borrow a cup of sugar’ (both Barbie and the hairdresser get turned on by the watching neighbour’s sugar eating shenanigans), the silly songs (which are a heck of a lot more on the nose in this than they were in The Love Witch, it seems to me), the old “Give it to me! Love it! Oh yes!” rapid shoot photographer scene (I used to be a child model in the early 1970s and I can tell you now, stereotype or not, that’s exactly how some of them behaved) and the fact that when her husband is taken ill and being treated in hospital with stress because she comes home late one night rather than have the dinner waiting, she feels it’s appropriate to go to the hospital in a sexy nurse outfit to show how much she intends to care for her husband. There’s some crazy stuff in this film.

Now I was a little puzzled, as I was with The Love Witch when I saw this because, while the director is doing her best to evoke America in the early 1970s, the soundtrack sounds more like it’s been needle-dropped in from Italian composers and, as it turns out once again, that’s exactly what is happening here. However, I figured it out after a while because there were a few scenes which sounded like they were being tracked in from Piero Piccioni’s score to US sexploitation director Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 and, by about the third time it turned up on the soundtrack in one guise or another, I was pretty sure. This is further enhanced during a big orgy scene where Viva, as the reimagined call-girl variation of Barbie is known, is being drug-raped. Biller actually uses the same differential focussing and refocussing trick, timed to the main character’s breathing, that Metzger used in Camille 2000 and which you can find fully described by me in my review of that film here. And this, coupled with the score in this scene, very specifically identifies at least one of the director’s main inspirations for this movie... albeit with a much different motivation towards the subject matter.

About that sequence... although the mise en scène in this shot isn’t nearly as accomplished as Metzger’s original version, Biller takes it all to the next absurdist level. In this one, instead of focussing on flowers, Biller focusses on apples and then, after the shot I just described, the colours posterise and the apples become animated, floating fruits licking and then continuing with one eating the others. That cartoon apple then stretches or warps out to become a load of swirling, psychedelic flowers before the blood or juice of the apple starts to shower down over the live action screen of Viva being molested. It’s almost like the artist is criticising the original scene by going so over the top with it that you can’t help but see how ridiculous it is... at least in this context. I was blown away by the shot in Camille 2000 and still am. However, it’s a great visual moment from Biller in a film which is filled to the brim with amazing stuff like this.

And that’s about as far as I’m going with this review, I think, other than to say that Viva was a total blast to watch and, with lines like (on being informed a man’s wife has got a job interview) “Will you be back in time to cook dinner?” and a parody of Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film has enough surprises and little tricks up its sleeve to keep you entertained for its considerable two hours (a fair amount longer than most of the sexploitation films the director is parodying to make her points here). A solid recommendation on this one with the reminder that you need to keep an open mind about the style of acting in this and not dismiss it until you realise how skillful the artists are being here. Now I just have to wait around while the lady in question makes another movie. Can we have a giallo next, please?

Sunday 10 September 2017

Wind River

Huckleberry Fiend

Wind River
2017 UK Directed by Taylor Sheridan
UK cinema release print.

Warning: A very minor, structural spoiler on this one.

Well this is a terrific little film.

I wasn’t really that sure what Wind River was going to be like from the trailer but it looked like a high quality production and, yeah, that’s something it certainly is. I was personally more interested in the casting, more than anything. Ever since The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) I’d been kinda wondering how long it would be before somebody spotted just how good the chemistry was between Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye character and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch character in that sequence in the middle of the final battle, where he lays everything out for her before she makes that decision and grows into the heroine she is supposed to be. Well somebody else other than me must have noticed it after all because here they are playing the two lead protagonists in a taut thriller which pitches them against both 'murder most foul' and the adverse, icy conditions of the Wind River Indian reservation, where this film is set.

After a brief prologue of a scene which is better explained in an autopsy room later in the picture, we get around about 15 - 20 minutes of the film just setting up Jeremy Renner’s character. He has an Indian ex-wife and a son and there’s something else which connects him spiritually (at least) to the events which follow and which I am not going to spoil for you here. He is a hunter/tracker for the reservation named Cory Lambert, working hand in hand with the police as he kills wolves and whatever else is killing livestock in the area. I have to admit I was torn with being asked to empathise with someone who goes around killing animals but I am not going to get into that debate now and Renner plays the character very well. The writer, who is also the director, is sensitive enough to not let it be too much of a problem for the audience, I think. As Renner is tracking a family of lions who have been killing off buffalo in the area, he comes across the dead body of the girl from the opening sequence and, after calling the local (and very small) police force in, the FBI are informed.

Enter Elisabeth Olsen’s character, FBI agent Jane Banner, the fish out of water who needs the help of Renner’s tracking skills to investigate various elements of the case as they come to light and who is quite unprepared for the weather conditions. She does, however, prove herself to be a dab hand with a pistol and, although she is the ‘green’ out of town character with the usual dynamic which that brings for the first 20 or so minutes of her screen time, she soon proves to be an edgy and resourceful person. And she’s all the local police have got to help them because, due to the way in which the first victim dies, the coroner cannot ‘officially’ reach a decision of homicide so she needs to wrap things up in a hurry before she is pulled out of there and back to her normal ‘hunting ground’ of Las Vegas.

That’s the basic set up and it’s a real humdinger of a movie, for sure. It actually utilises a lot of hand held camera throughout but it’s used to good effect without spoiling the sharp focused, languid style of the cinematography. Hectic during such scenes as running through a snowy forest and... just a little jittery and inquisitive to heighten tension when, for instance, Olsen is trying to secure a house without knowing who is inside and whether or not someone is going to try and shoot her to pieces around the next corner. This style of shooting can either kill a film stone dead if overused or really add to the weight of the story and this one, I’m glad to say, is definitely in the latter camp.

It’s not all moving camera though. There are some really nice static shot compositions here too and one of them was so well done, not what I’m used to seeing from a big budget movie made in the last ten years or so, that I was quite staggered. It’s a scene from the earlier part of the movie where Jeremy Renner is standing out on the porch of the father of the first murder victim, talking to him. He’s kind of half blocked off by a vertical wooden slat so he is in sharp profile in the left hand side of the screen. In the middle of the screen are some more verticals and diagonals and in the foreground, completely out of focus, is the guy he is talking to, also in profile to the right of the screen. So you have three vertical splits with the right of shot like a blurry after echo of the left. Which is all pretty cool but then the director further surprised me by showing just how much he knew about designing within this kind of widescreen format for the big screen, where a jolting cut could pop an audience right out of the action. The reverse shot is taken with the camera at such and angle that Renner’s head and shoulders takes up the same left hand third of the screen with the other actor still on the right... which is exactly how you make a seamless transition without unsettling an audience in a cinema where the contents of a huge, wide canvass is leading their collective eye at any stray movement or cut. It’s text book movie making and I was glad to see it so well executed here.

Although I had no idea who the killer was in this one before the reveal (it’s not that kind of film... the reveal here is the first time you meet the character) there was a point where, quite bizarrely as it happens, where I kinda second guessed the reveal of a certain shot... well I did and I didn’t. To explain, after a certain very intense scene involving a bunch of law officers and Elisabeth Olsen, she is knocking on the door of a trailer and you are almost expecting something to happen. Then you see the person inside the trailer getting up from bed and going to answer the knocking. For some reason, I just knew that when he opened the door I was not going to see Elisabeth Olsen on the other side of the door. I kinda guessed the director was going to pull a switch in the edit and that’s exactly what he did. Where I got it wrong, though, is that I was expecting it to be Renner on the other side of somebody else’s door when, instead, the director doesn’t displace the narrative spatially at all. He instead displaces the narrative in time and it’s here that we are privy to the scene which went on before the opening sequence of the film. That being said, it’s quite a good way to do it and it kinda beats Quentin Tarantino’s way of showing the exact same thing... that is, revealing the back story to an up and coming scene by flagging it up just before it becomes really important, as he did in The Hateful Eight (reviewed here) and as this director does here. It’s a nice little moment and the pay off when we finally do get back to Elisabeth Olsen knocking on that same door is... well, it’s a good one.

At the end of the film we have a scene where the inevitable happens... Renner’s character is a hunter/tracker and he finally catches up with his prey. The nature of the punishment that he metes out is not totally unexpected and, in its ‘poetic justice’ kind of way, it kind of reminded me a little of the way Mel Gibson conducted business at the end of the very first Mad Max movie (reviewed by me here). It’s not a million miles away from that and, after the final denouement, we have two epilogues which pick up some other pieces in the story and... it all goes down very well, to be honest.

The music for the film by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame) is quite supportive in places but did get a little too distracting in some moments. This is mainly in some passages where some lyrics are sang over the scoring and... well, I didn’t think too much of it when Hans Zimmer tried that in his score for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here... although that makes an awesome concert piece on it own) and I wasn’t too sure of it here. I might pick up the soundtrack CD at some point and see how it holds up as a stand alone listen but, when the vocals aren’t kicking in, it seems an appropriate and supportive score, on the whole.

All in all, Wind River is a pretty fun and quite suspenseful, tension filled thriller which shows just how good Renner and Olsen are together (and they are ably supported by a whole bunch of great actors) with a more leisurely pace than most modern movies today. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just shows how the director appreciates what a slower approach can bring to a movie when the action scenes are given that kind of setting, so they will really jolt the audience in contrast when... ‘stuff goes down’. It’s edgy, has some beautiful, snowy backdrops and it doesn’t once get boring or outstay its welcome. Definitely one to get to see this year if you are serious about seeing good movies when they come out at the cinema. A well made joy from start to finish.

Thursday 7 September 2017


Stratton ‘til Morning

2017 UK Directed by Simon West
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some very minor spoilerage in this one.

I always find Simon West a bit hit and miss as a director, to be honest. I hadn’t thought too much of the Stratton trailer when I saw it a few weeks ago but was willing to give it a try because I quite like Dominic Cooper and it’s rare that I actually get to see him headlining a movie... especially an action movie, no less. I loved him as the vampire turned hunter in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (reviewed here), for instance. Stratton is based on the main character from the majority of Duncan Falconer’s novels and is a bit of a stand in for Falconer himself, who modelled the character after his time in the Special Boat Service of the Royal Navy (basically the Navy’s version of the SAS). However, I don’t think this movie is based on any of the specific Stratton novels, or they would have been more forthcoming with a ‘based on’ credit at least somewhere (although I could be wrong).

Now, it has to be said that the film has had some pretty awful word of mouth and, to be fair, it does have its problems but the film is not too bad if you don’t mind the action sequences seeming a bit lacking in this one. Of course, you could argue it’s an action film but, to avoid disappointment, you might want to tell yourself it’s a secret agent film with some action sequences thrown in. Either way, if you’re going for the action you might want to have a little rethink as no reviewer, I would imagine, would call this ‘high octane’ stuff. However, like I said, it’s not too bad.

The film opens strongly with two agents, one of whom is Dominic Cooper as Stratton, as they go through an underwater tube/pipe system to penetrate a ‘secret lair’ but the mission goes horribly wrong due to incorrect intel and also the fact that “the bad guys” knew they were coming. This opening sequence, following on from some nicely designed main titles, is quite suspenseful and everything you could want it to be... up until a point. That point being when the two agents leave the tube system and find themselves in an empty complex with the object of their mission already snaffled by the bad guys, a load of dead workers and a load of gunmen standing between them and their extraction point. It’s here that the inadequacy of the budget (which I assume was low on the evidence of the resulting film) seems to sink in and things get less exciting. For instance, when Stratton lets off all the charges that he and his fellow agent have planted in the ‘is it a secret lair or... what the heck is it’ place, well... we had indoor fireworks once, when I was a kid and, to be honest, they had more of a bang than the sad, little explosion that occurs here.

And that’s the real big problem with this film... the action sequences. I don’t know if the stunts and effects work in this were affected by a terribly low budget, as I imagine it to be, or were just not very well conceived. The case could be made that the dialogue scenes leading up to and around those ‘not quite set pieces’ are actually quite good (although a little predictable) but I did think the writers did well in painting some nice little portraits of the lead character and his team.

Of course, the actors here more than pull their weight with that dialogue, with Cooper ably supported by Derek Jacobi as his ‘boat life friend’ as well as Connie Nielsen, who I’d recently seen as Queen Hippolyta in Wonder Woman (reviewed here), a role she will be reprising in the upcoming Justice League movie, by the looks of things. Here, she plays Stratton’s boss and the dynamic is like a slightly more active version of the Judi Dench version of M from the Bond films but it kinda works and I was quite impressed how the character didn’t do the obvious things like reprimanding the team for the various shenanigans that they botch up during their missions and she seemed like a really fair boss to work for, I’d have to say. Also, watch out for a lady on Stratton’s team called Aggy... she is played here by an actress called Gemma Chan and she’s one of those people who dominates the screen whenever she’s on. I wouldn’t be surprised if some director cottons on to this in future and she starts getting some major league roles (fingers crossed).

Cooper himself is okay in the lead role but I just didn’t really believe him as the kind of action man the writers wanted me to think of him as. I know Henry Cavill dropped out a week before shooting this and I wonder how tailored the role was to that actor. I do know Cooper looks uncannily like GI Joe in this one than was too close for comfort. And by that I mean the specific English character called GI Joe. To explain, as a child no kid had the internet or even much of a hint as to what was going on in the rest of the world in the same period of history other than what they caught on TV so we weren’t really aware of global, alternative brand names. In England, the American GI Joe line was manufactured by Palitoy and known over here, quite affectionately by people of a certain age, as Action Man. However, one of the 'action men' had a scruffy looking beard and that one was known as GI Joe. And it’s this scruffy beard that both Dominik Cooper and his new work partner, played by Austin Stowell, are wearing in this movie as they pursue the bad guy played by Thomas Kretschmann and... I don’t know, it was almost a ‘comedy’ beard as far as I was concerned. I don’t think it helps make Dominic Cooper look like a ‘manly man’s man’ at all and it kind of slips into the realm of camp humour at certain points. Ah well, at least his beard and moustache didn’t get better lines than he did and, despite this slight problem, Mr. Cooper still does a fantastic and believable job with his character so... not complaining too much.

The score, by the way, by Nathaniel Méchaly, is absolutely superb and plays just like the score to a modern Bond movie, only better. It seems to be used a lot in an almost inappropriately up tempo style to make the scenes somehow play faster than they actually are and I couldn’t help but think of a young Elmer Bernstein employing the same tactic to speed up the pacing of The Magnificent Seven all those decades ago. Méchaly does some really good work here and I truly think EON productions should give this one a listen and maybe give him a shot at the next Bond film because, quite frankly, he’s already doing it here. This stuff is in a way different ball park from his earlier scores for the Taken trilogy, for sure. Such a shame, then, that the score is unavailable to buy at the time of writing this review. A nice CD of this would not go amiss.

But like I said, the action is a bit of a problem here. Other action movies might end with a shoot out or chase on a cruise liner or an aircraft or with a big building going boom... this one has a double decker bus chase. Not that I’m knocking the ability of the humble double decker bus to take part in action movies, after all we’ve seen the effectiveness of said transportation in both Live And Let Die (reviewed here) and The Mummy Returns. It has to be said, though, the ending of this movie falls a little shy of spectacular and the post-action scene stab at the possibility of a future romance in Stratton’s life seems like such an afterthought that it’s a little laughable. Also, there’s a twist with one of the characters which is revealed about half way through but, even though I had no clue there should be a twist, I figured out that there would be because one of the characters seemed a little too shady. Which is bizarre but I saw it coming from the opening sequence onwards in terms of the identity of the ‘mole’ in the department so, yeah, not so well played by the writers, on that one, I felt.

All in all, Stratton is not a bad movie... just a little flat. In fact, what it reminded me of mostly was of a really great 'made for TV' movie of the 1970s where they got everything right. It’s just not what I would expect to see being touted in a modern cinema setting. More like an extended episode of The Professionals than something the big leaguers would be knocking out. That being said, I did find it quite enjoyable and diverting so I’ve really no complaints and it genuinely doesn’t deserve the negative attention it’s been getting, that’s for sure. So... see it if you like to watch the odd bit of adventure storytelling and you don’t mind if the action choreography seems a little tame in places. There have been worse movies thrust onto an unsuspecting public this year.