Thursday 30 November 2017

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

Morgue One

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe
UK/USA 2016
Directed by André Øvredal
Lion’s Gate Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, there are some light spoilers in this.

André Øvredal is the Norwegian genius behind the original Trollhunter movie (which I reviewed here) and The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is his next feature length film, shot in English and set in Virginia in the US (which I best know of from my annual reading of the latest of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels every Christmas). It’s a film I was desperately wanting to see from last year’s London Film Festival but, alas, I was unable to make the inconvenient screening date and time of this one. So I patiently waited for it to get a proper release at the cinema, only to find it was one of those films that got a completely crazy release in just a couple of screens in London (if that) at truly silly times. So, yeah, I wasn’t able to catch it then either... shame on the sad state of this country’s cinema distribution that it’s so hard to see films which aren’t American blockbusters at your local multiplex now. I believe cinemas should be forced to use at least half of the screens in their buildings for non-American films of much smaller budgets. We are in exactly the same situation in this country as Germany was at the start of the 20th Century (and again in the early 1970s) which prompted them to start taking action against the monotonous certainty of the US ‘hit machine’. Frankly, we should have ten times more cinemas in this country anyway but... I’ll leave that serious issue for another day.

So, anyway, I finally got to see this movie now it’s been released on Blu Ray and, while it’s nothing like the tone of the director’s Troll Hunter movie, it’s a pretty great little horror film and, it seems to me, it does a lot of the things that The Void (reviewed here) was trying to do last year but with much more success at every level here, it has to be said. The film starts off with local police working a crime scene in Virginia in which all the victims in a large house have died from various wounds or burns. In the cellar, however, they come across the body of a naked woman laying half buried in the dirt (the titular character, played by Olwen Catherine Kelly).

The film then jumps to the local morgue where, pretty much, the entire rest of the movie takes place. It’s a family run business and we join the two main protagonists Tommy and his son Austin, played by the inimitable Brian Cox as the father and Emile Hirsch as the son. Austin is supposed to be following in the family business but hasn’t yet told his dad that he doesn’t want to do that... due to the loss of their mother a couple of years hence. They are just finishing up an autopsy and, after introducing his dad to his girlfriend Emma (played by Ophelia Lovibond), they are about to finish their day when the sheriff turns up with the ‘untouched’ lady found at the crime seen shown previously. The cops need everything autopsied but this one they need especially urgently because, with no marks on her body, they would like to figure out the COD (cause of death) in case it gives them a clue to the rest of the mangled up corpses at the site.

So that’s the basic plot set up and then, since it’s a horror film, the story elements start getting laid on so that the ‘pulp horror’ stuff in the second half of the movie can play out more easily. Now, it has to be said, there are a lot of cliché elements to this film (so clichéd that one person in the room as I was watching this had to walk out because it was so irritating to him). For instance, you have the backdrop of a storm hitting the county late at night while the autopsy is being performed knocking out the electricity and plunging things into darkness and gloom, even when the generators kick in for a bit. You have the beloved family pet used to set off a scare... which is a bit of a horror story textbook 101 in itself... and, once you know of the existence of said feline, you are obviously just waiting for something bad to happen to it, right? There’s even a scene where the father is showing the girlfriend a corpse and she questions the little bell tied to the ‘client’s’ foot... it’s explained that this old tradition is kept alive by the father and is a hold over from times when corpses brought in were not always ‘that dead’, they just appeared to be. So, of course, you know this is a set up for the ringing accompanied by walking corpses later on in the film... what other purpose would it have there?

So, yeah, the director does tip his hand to a lot of the elements in this one very early on, to be sure but, personally I don’t think this ever threatens to really derail or spoil the story at all and a lot of that is because of the way the intrigue about various discoveries of the secrets the corpse is hiding play out. I was hooked when Brian Cox straight up finds out that both the wrists and ankles of the film’s ‘Jane Doe’* have been shattered. So how do you shatter someone’s joints like that without leaving an external mark? Then, as the examination continues and various parts of the body are cracked open and violated, they find things like the tongue bitten off... the eyes are unusually milky... a fly crawls out of the nose... there is no rigor mortis... there is a tooth missing... there is trauma to - but no semen in - the vagina and the lungs are severely blackened like the girl has been burnt. Brian Cox’s character has a great line about the significance of that last item when he likens it to finding a bullet in the brain but with no gunshot wound.

Of course, by this point my brain was thinking the ending of this movie was going to be a not too distant cousin of Aldo Lado’s giallo Short Night Of The Glass Dolls but, no, it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Brian Cox talks about Jimson Weed used as a paralysing agent at one point, presumably to put that very thought in your brain but, as I said before... it’s not ‘quite’ the solution to their problem here. When they find a strand of fabric in the mouth and then, later, find the girl’s missing tooth wrapped in a large chunk of the same material, they unwrap it to reveal a load of writing in ancient, magical symbols. This sets up a beautifully “what the heck?” moment when the skin of Jane Doe is peeled back and they find... yeah, like I’m going to tell you what they find here. If you like what you are reading about this intriguing, slow reveal plot then have a look at this movie.

The acting is, of course, first rate (which is what you would expect with Brian Cox on set) and when the film goes full-on horror for the last third of the film, it's pretty handy having someone that credible around. The director also has a good way of shooting things to disclose those familiar ‘is there someone sinister in the background of the shot’ moments by doing a lot of wide sweeps with the camera passing the main focal points of the scenes. This teases the horror but in a more naturalistic way than the current ‘reacting to the environment’ kind of modus operandi of a lot of Hollywood horror at the moment but it doesn’t do it any less effectively. I did get a bit disappointed in the last third of the movie in some ways  because, yeah, we’ve seen it all before (especially in the 1980s on ‘straight to video’ tapes from hell) but, ultimately, the quality of the direction and the investment in the actors pays off a lot more than in recent movies in a similar vein (one of which I mentioned above) and I’m really glad I got a look at this one.

All in all, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is an intriguing little horror movie which might even coax non-horror fans in with the mystery element of the story and, I suspect, give them a more interesting time than audience members who are more inclined to treat this genre as their bread and butter. Having said that, it’s not as good as the director’s previous movie, Troll Hunter but, honestly, that’s a bit of a masterpiece and would take some topping. Although, really, you can’t make a comparison here because that movie was its own thing and this one here is a nice throwback to those old H. P. Lovecraft stories of days gone by... filtered through a strange, mid-1980s US and Italian filter... and that’s a compliment, for sure, rather than it is anything else. So, you know, I have a lot of regard and respect for this movie and would thoroughly recommend it if you want a good night in with the lights off and with the clanks from your own central heating system making you just a little wary of what is going to happen next in the film. It’s not for everyone but I really rate this one so, you know, give it a go maybe.

*For my fellow countrymen who don’t know, John and Jane Doe are designated names for unidentified corpses in the US. In England it’s John and Jane Smith so, you know, that’s why The Doctor has been John Smith as an alias quite a lot of time in Doctor Who since the 1970s Jon Pertwee era.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Janus Chamber

Hot Hell

The Janus Chamber
by Sasha Grey
Cleis Press  2017
ISBN: 978-1627781800

Okay, so here we have the second novel by ex-porn star turned artist, DJ, composer and writer... the one and only Sasha Grey. I’ve been even more impressed with her as a person after her former life as a notorious sexual warrior, first as an actress with her spectacular performance in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (which I reviewed here) and then by her first novel (which, like this one, I’ll still tentatively refer to as an ‘erotic novel’, although that kinda undersells it a little), The Juliette Society, which I reviewed here.

Well, I have to say that, as much as I admired the sheer intelligence and elegance of her attitude and words in The Juliette Society, this sequel called The Janus Chamber really blew me away. I found it way more interesting and addictive than the first one because, while the stylistic nuances in terms of Grey are the same here, as she talks first person through the guise of her central protagonist Catherine, there’s a little more of a story hook to this one... at least, that’s the way it seemed to me.

To be clearer, this one centres around a mystery where Catherine, who has moved on a few years since the last book and who has devoted herself to her politically ambitious boyfriend, discovers a person called Inana Luna, who reminds her of the lost Anna from the previous book. She discovers the depths or... actually... heights to which this person devoted her life in pursuing her sensual limits but her untimely death, concluded a suicide by police, has not convinced Luna’s sister there wasn’t some foul play and so Catherine, who is now pursuing a career as a journalist, pursues the story. She contacts the sister, is given Luna’s diary and even gets to stay in Luna’s old apartment as she goes undercover to work at the hotel which is connected to Luna’s past. From there she gets in good with management and then gains access to the secret, untouchable, extreme sex club in the hotel’s basement and the maze of rooms/chambers full of decadent behaviour and ‘anything goes’ consensual sexuality. And that’s the basic story set up but, as Grey so eloquently puts it here... the story progression in terms of events that happen is not the real thing that people need, so by the time you get to the possibility of an ‘end game’, it’s unimportant... it’s the journey that matters. Closure is not a necessity.

There’s a brilliant chapter on the mystery of hotels near the beginning of the novel which is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way in which Grey explores each and every subject in life as it comes up. Subjecting all the little elements of the physical and mental environment of the story’s main protagonist to a thorough dissection through some quite searing observations, wielding the scalpel of her ‘gaze made words’ with all the care of a surgeon. And the book is full of these kinds of penetrating looks at the world and the way our society views things which I truly appreciated. There are some great, playful metaphors which constantly take you into little diatribes about various aspects of the world around us... such as the contemplation of a changing room in a lingerie shop being an exploration of the relationship with a priest in a confessional box. Passages like this elevate the novel and lend a lot of substance to what is, at heart, an erotic adventure.

Like the first novel, being as Catherine is now a ‘former’ film student, the writer works her own appreciation of the art of cinema into the text and weaves various movie references throughout. She’s obviously got a thing for the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and, one of my least favourite (actually), L’Avventura, is very much used as a metaphor for the plot line here (indeed, there’s even an establishment in the novel named after another Antonioni movie, La Notte). There’s a lovely analogy, for example, that the missing Anna in L’Avventura is, like Schrodinger’s Cat... in a perpetual state of ‘she’s both on and off the island’, of which I was very appreciative.

The book is full of little nuggets like these within the main text. One minute she’ll be talking about Zulawski’s Possession (reviewed here) and the next she’ll be referencing the plot of Brian De Palma’s Sisters (reviewed here). But these references are, hardly, ever just references to the films themselves. They usually serve a purpose, to drum home an observation about a particular thing... like the uncertainty of picking up on the thread of something and sticking with it to find the reward at the end. One of the passages reads thusly...

“Sometimes the best movie scenes happen after the lights have come on and the credits have scrolled out of sight. When you're shuffling out of the theatre, disoriented because your mind's been shredded from the ride the director's taken you on. Then the screen flickers back to life and there's more, and you rush back inside, desperate to soak in a more complete picture of the message, but you're too late. You miss the key moment that brings realisation full circle to unlock the last puzzle piece of the film.

And sometimes, the superheroes just sit around eating shawarma."

... which not only left me gobsmacked but left me smiling from ear to ear, too. You don’t expect to see the first of the Marvel Avengers movies referenced in an erotic novel. At least, I don’t.

Regarding the erotic content of the tome... well, it seemed to me to be a lot stronger and a little less vanilla than the first one. Whenever the character of Catherine writes about the shining star that was Inana Luna or, indeed, describes the sexual adventures going on around her which she either observes or participates in, I couldn’t help but think of the writer’s knowledge and skill set of her own life being thoroughly mined here. Not that I want to make the obvious mistake of confusing an artist with her work but there’s usually the spirit or soul captured within a writer’s words and... well... put it this way... There are people I would trust to know what they are talking about when it comes to content of a hard erotic nature and some people I wouldn’t. Experience counts for a lot and Sasha Grey is definitely someone I would trust to be writing about this kind of stuff with a certain authenticity and, since she’s turned out to be such an intelligent individual anyway, she’s definitely one of the people I would rely on to deliver more than a kernel of truth about the specific kinds of shenanigans going on in this book, that’s for sure.

And that’s all I have to say about this mini masterpiece other than a) the book leaves you on more of a cliff hanger this time around (this is definitely Sasha Grey’s The Empire Strikes Back when it comes to the dramatic portrayal of her story and the third novel in the trilogy, The Mismade Girl, is due to be published in March 2018) and b) I now have a list of notes on things to find out more about like flower flipping, Pryings by Acconci and the Fantasius Mallare because of this novel. So, yeah, I guess you can say I had a pretty good time with this one. Sasha Grey is turning out to be a most rewarding writer and, if you liked The Juliette Society, the The Janus Chamber is definitely something you are going to want to take a look at.

You can follow Sasha Grey on Twitter here and check out her website here...

Sunday 26 November 2017

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Morning Gloria

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool
2017 UK Directed by Paul McGuigan
UK cinema release print.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan (whose wonderful, much underrated film Victor Frankenstein was reviewed by me here) and partially produced by EON films. Yep, that EON films... set up as Everything Or Nothing to produce the James Bond films decades ago. Indeed, this film is co-produced by Barbara Broccoli and it was certainly a surprise seeing the EON name heading up the movie, since their only ever non-Bond film since the company’s inception in 1961 was the 1963 film Call Me Bwana. All I can say here is... they certainly know how to churn out a quality product.

The film tells the true life story of a young man called Peter Turner (the screenplay is co-written by him and based on his memoir), played here by Jamie Bell... and depicts his relationship with a woman almost thirty years older than him, legendary Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, played here by Annette Bening.

Now I’ve always liked Gloria Grahame and, if asked for a personal listing of great actresses, I never fail to include her name. However, that being said, much as I like her I’ve only ever seen her in two of her movies. The thing is though, her sometimes smouldering but somehow vulnerable presence lodges itself in one’s mind with such presence that her image haunts you in a truly iconic way. The two roles I’ve seen her in were quite different from each other but both absolutely amazing. As Violet, the town... um... well I guess they didn’t spell it out so simply  in movies in those days so let’s just say the town’s fallen woman, Violet, in Frank Capra’s totally brilliant Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, is one of those roles. The character who tries to redeem herself, with Jimmy Stewart’s help, by trying to get out of Bedford Falls and leave her old life behind but who, in the end, returns the money Stewart has given her to help out when he is in dire need (along with much of the rest of the town’s folk, of course). The other time I saw her and loved her was as the moll of Lee Marvin’s character in the classic Fritz Lang movie, The Big Heat. The gal who gets mutilated by Marvin when he throws scalding hot coffee in her face and who ends up helping out Glen Ford’s revenge fuelled police inspector as a result. Both wonderful roles and, if I never see another film with her in... well, those two would be enough for me to remember her by.

Annette Bening here plays her in her decline, over the last few years of her life and it’s a wonderful realisation, I have to say. This is the first time I’ve ever really taken notice of Annette Bening, to be honest. She’s never been an actress I’ve been all that interested in or impressed with but the performance here is absolutely astonishing and it would seem I’ve been doing Miss Bening an injustice. As much as I would like Gal Gadot to take home an Oscar next year for Wonder Woman (reviewed here), I honestly wouldn’t mind that much if Bening got one for this instead. Goodness knows, she really deserves it.

The film opens with Bening’s Gloria Grahame prepping herself in a dressing room in the UK somewhere for her evening role in a theatrical production of The Glass Menagerie. The opening is filled with various close ups of her putting on her make-up etc without you ever getting a good look at her until, at the end of the sequence, she passes out in the dressing room as she is about to go on stage. Then her ex-boyfriend, Peter Turner as played by Bell, is called and he takes her back to his family in Liverpool, in the hopes she will recover from what he later, over the course of the film, discovers is cancer in its final stages.

Jamie Bell is, of course, truly excellent. He’s not one of those actors who I’ve seen that much of but, every time I do see him in something, he never fails to impress me. His chemistry with Bening is absurdly brilliant and between the two of them, they manage to pull off what some people may find is a tricky relationship with absolute credibility and I could easily watch these two playing these kind of roles together for hours. They are the figureheads of a great cast which also includes the real Peter Turner in a small role and the always excellent Julie Walters as Peter’s mum.

The direction and design/structure is pretty cool too and, though it would be true to say that the story and various narrative beats are perhaps a little predictable and clichéd, they are also ‘just right’ for the tale showcased here and the director does manage to surprise with the way in which scenes are run into each other in terms of creative transitions between different points in time... not to mention some excellent shot compositions from time to time.

For instance, I was in quite unknown territory at the start of the movie because all the characters know each other already and have an established history with each other. I was five or more minutes into the movie thinking that things weren’t very clear in explaining who these people were and that, at some point soon, the film was going to have to start going into flashback mode. Sure enough, when Jamie Bell walks out of a bedroom and through the landing of his mother’s house, the shot transitions to another place and time with a similar environment and we are suddenly at the very start of Pete and Gloria’s first encounter. The film then continued to impress me by always transitioning back to the 1980s after a while and continuing the narrative of ‘the last days of Gloria’ before hurtling back to another point in the past of these two character’s lives... a bit like a set of Russian dolls which keep unfolding from each other and it’s an idea that works well. It’s a bit like watching a Nicholas Roeg movie in that respect, although the transitions are less violent and don’t take you on such an aggressively highlighted path as Roeg’s work.

There’s a truly unusual scene where Pete and Gloria are in her hotel room disco dancing and the camera movements are kinda swaying up and down to the beat of the music on top of all the movement already created in the shot by the two dancing figures and, rather than alienate me like a scene like this often might, it sucked me into the rhythm of the piece in a great way. Another, truly wondrous and funny moment is when Pete takes Gloria to see the new movie of the time they are in at that particular point... Ridley Scott’s classic ALIEN. He is utterly terrified and has to hide his face in her lap but Gloria is just laughing at the make believe shenanigans of the chest burster sequence and admiring the craft of what the director was able to get away with. It’s quite a telling and brilliant scene.

The script is brilliant too, with some really great moments of sparkly dialogue such as when Pete tells Grahame she reminds him of Lauren Bacall when she smokes and she informs him the last person who told her that was, indeed, Humphrey Bogart... and she didn’t like it then, either. Or the time when they go to the after party of one of her theatrical appearances and Pete whispers to her that a certain person they were just talking to obviously wants to fuck her. “Darling... everyone in this room wants to fuck me.”, she replies. Yeah, there are some really great comedy moments in this but the film is emotionally moving too and even, in some scenes, shows up one of the character flaws of being a vain Hollywood star in a world where glamour can sometimes be as important as talent.

And I don’t have much more to say about this one, I guess. The film ends beautifully with some real footage of Miss Grahame as she, famously, accepted her Oscar in a very particular way and Bob Hope’s comment after... I won’t spoil that bit of footage for you if you’ve never seen it but, go watch this movie and take a look. I absolutely loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (and need to read the book at some point, I think) and so, of course, left the auditorium with tears flowing down my cheeks. If you are into the art of cinema, even if you don’t know who Gloria Grahame was and why she is so well remembered today, then you will not want to miss out on this one. Especially since the two leads are so brilliant here. This is one of those movies which I think will be playing late at night on the telly every Christmas holiday as a ‘quality alternative’ to whatever bizarre festive things are showing on rival channels but, in the meantime, I’ll definitely be picking up a Blu Ray of this one when it gets a release.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Ingrid Goes West

Stalk On The Wild Side

Ingrid Goes West
2017 USA Directed by Matt Spicer
UK cinema release print.

Well this is a pretty amazing movie.

Ingrid Goes West is a film which I went to see purely because I’d seen Aubrey Plaza in one other movie and I was quite taken with her performance. That previous movie was Ned Rifle (reviewed here), the last part of Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy where she played a character who had only been alluded to in the previous parts of that series. I found her quite quirky and appealing as an on screen personality and so when I saw the trailer for this, although I had my reservations, I thought I’d give it a go.

As it turned out, that was a really good idea.

Here, Plaza plays the titular Ingrid who is, for want of a better term, a social media junkie who spends her waking hours trying to catch the eye of her latest Instagram obsession. The movie is toned, for the most part, as a comedy but it has a really dark heart and, as lazy as it is to say it, that dark heart is ultimately Ingrid herself. That being said, she’s not a villainous character and doubles as both protagonist and antagonist in that her actions, when viewed by the audience, are almost understandable at times and, although she is pretty much a full fledged stalker, insinuating her way into the private lives of others, she is also the character who the writers and director presumably want you to identify with.

The film poses no easy way into that mindset, however, as it starts off with the end game shenanigans of her latest obsession. A woman who she is so obsessed with and feeling excluded by that she crashes her wedding and maces her in the face for not inviting her there. The credits montage, then, is of Ingrid in her local mental hospital as we see her partaking of all the usual movie clichéd pastimes pictured at said establishments such as pill taking (with the sticking out of the tongue as proof of a swallow), group therapy and such like while her voice narrates her ‘apology’ emails to her victim, laced with the feint tinge of hope that she will get a forgiving (and possibly inviting) response.

What the start of that sequence also does, of course, is establish to the audience that Ingrid is crazy enough to flip into hostile and aggressive behaviour towards her ‘instagram crushes’ when things don’t go the way she wants... which helps to populate the character with an edge of unease as the story progresses because... well... the audience knows just what she’s capable of.

As the opening sequence finishes, Ingrid’s mother dies and leaves her a large sum of money. We don’t find out until later, in an almost throwaway line, that Ingrid’s mum was her best friend and the void in her life left by her departure may be one of the factors to have influenced the bizarre way in which she engages with the rest of the world. As the movie wears on, she gets more sympathetic, even though, as the story starts properly, she finds a new Instagram person she starts to obsessively follow, to the point where she takes her entire inheritance out from the bank, loads it up in her backpack and moves to California to stalk and penetrate her next ‘victims’ life.

That next victim is Taylor Sloane, played by Elisabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Ingrid very quickly kidnaps her dog and waits for the appearance of a reward flyer, by way of an introduction into the lives of Taylor and her husband Ezra (played here by Wyatt Russell). The film then plays out as Ingrid becomes one of the family’s closest friends as she uses and manipulates everything around her to try to stay popular with her new ‘Insta pal’... including hooking up into a relationship with her young, Batman obsessed landlord Dan Pinto (played by O'Shea Jackson Jr.) in order to be able to turn up with her ‘imaginary boyfriend’. Then, when Taylor’s hero, her dominant and thoroughly nasty brother turns up, things start to go a bit pear shaped for Ingrid in some pretty nasty and uncomfortable ways.

Well,  that’s the basic set up and, I have to say, the actors and actresses in this movie really turn in some amazing performances... especially Plaza and Olsen. A lot of the humour in here is based on that very American style of ‘the comedy of embarrassment’, it seemed to me and, while I’m not a big fan of that kind of ‘little fish trying to fit in’ style of humour, it was just balanced and subtle enough in the performances here that it never once alienated me and I had a really good time with it. Also, as I said before, it’s not just a comedy and as the movie progresses, it kind of creeps up on you that it’s also an observation of the way loneliness can effect people and the lengths to which they will go to pursue a cure for that particular state of being.

There’s also some nice things happening with the way the film has been put together, too. The constant, almost staccato beat of Ingrid’s voice as she reads the Instagram captions out loud on the soundtrack in her head, including the vocalisation of the emojis (princess emoji, prayer emoji etc) is also echoed within the sharp cuts of certain montage sections exploring the famous social media site but it also has some nice visual echoes when the film is not specifically doing that too.

For starters, there are a fair few more static shots than you might expect in a film about the people of this particular age group. And I loved the way that, for some of the establishing shots of new locations, instead of smoothly panning the camera around to create the setting, the director will instead drop three differently angled static shots making up a quick ‘establishing edit’ rather than do the obvious... which is how you would perceive somewhere shown as static photos on a social media site, I guess (don’t get me started on gifs please).

There’s even a set of windows which he occasionally comes back to which take up the whole frame as a three across by two high grid... and of course when a character is standing outside those windows, they tend to be perfectly framed within one of the rectangles, just like you might be trying to do with an instagram picture or grid layout, I guess (I’m not actually on the site, I think).

Another great moment is in the score provided by Jonathan Sadoff and Nick Thorburn (sadly, there’s no proper CD release of this as yet... just a wretched download). Ingrid is dressed up in a Catwoman mask and seducing her new boyfriend with her best Catwoman shenanigans and this includes a moment where she licks his face in the exact same way that Michelle Pfiefer did something similar in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns... and why it works so well here is because the score is an obvious parody of Danny Elfman’s Catwoman orchestrations. It’s just a perfect moment of pastiche in a movie which is full of good ideas and, despite its bleak trajectory, I found myself thoroughly entertained by it.

It also ends in a way which is not entirely unexpected in terms of the aims and objectives of the title character but which also has a tragic poignancy. The way in which it’s pitched here works so wonderfully that, by the end of the sequence following what I was at first worried was the end sequence, I was genuinely torn between whether or not I should be feeling happy or sad for Ingrid. Is this redemption or... ? Oh no, this isn’t quite that at all it’s something else and it may seem deliberately ambivalent in its execution but I just thought the last shot was just the perfect ending for the movie.

Indeed, I didn’t realise how powerful that ending was until I started sobbing as I walked home from the cinema after it had finished. I have to confess, I felt really suicidal on the journey back and the next day and, although I can’t completely blame the movie for that right now (I have some stupid rubbish going on in real life at the moment) I felt compelled by the film to contemplate the darker parts of my biological make up for a day or two. Which is great, right? The film haunted me and made me think about things for a bit so... if that’s not a recommendation for a good time at the cinema then I don’t know what is. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when I come to tot up my top ten movies for 2017 at the end of the year, this one is in the mix somewhere on that list. Ingrid Goes West is a truly amazing little movie and I’m so glad I was lucky enough to see it.  

#IAmIngrid. 👰

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Justice League

Beleaguered Leaguers

Justice League
2017 USA Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Yeah, there will be some spoilers in this one, I think.

Okay, so let me just say up front that Justice League is not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination... it’s just not a very good one either. It has its great little moments and a whole bunch of problems but, out of the five films to date making up the story arc of this particular set of interlocking DC superhero movies, this is about halfway up the list in terms of being an effective and entertaining movie.

DC’s track record hasn’t been all that great since the fantastic last part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy, it has to be said. Man Of Steel (reviewed here) was just dreadful. Batman Vs Superman - Dawn of Justice (reviewed here) was a fair bit better but ultimately not very well received by critics and audiences alike, it seemed to me. Suicide Squad (reviewed here) was... okayish but really wasn’t making people that happy either. But then we had ‘the movie’. Wonder Woman (reviewed here) isn’t just the greatest superhero movie of all time (and, yeah, I know that’s a brave and bold claim to make but I promise this is not a knee jerk reaction to it)... it’s also one of the best movies in the past few years, period. It’s also flattened all the competition at the box office for the forseeable future (or just maybe until the new Star Wars movie premieres next month) and it more than deserves its success.

The thing is, though, everyone was kinda hoping that Justice League would somehow live up to the almost impossible standard that Patty Jenkins set with Wonder Woman and, frankly, that would be hard to top even by her, when she comes to work on the sequel. So I guess it’s no surprise that this movie comes nowhere near as close to the dizzying heights that Professor William Moulton Marston’s amazonian princess scaled to in her own solo movie adaptation. A shame, though, that Justice League doesn’t come close to the Batman VS Superman movie either.

Now I’m not going to go into the production problems this film had, what with Zack Snyder leaving for very understandable reasons and Joss Whedon reshooting the thing in places... firstly because I would be no good at figuring out which bits were directed by whom and, secondly, because it’s the film we’ve ended up with, for better or worse. Given Snyder’s reasons for leaving, there’s absolutely no point in having an autopsy on why this theatrically released cut doesn't really cut it.

Okay... so lets look at the good stuff first and get that out of the way...

Well, some of the action was okay, especially the Amazon’s fighting the villain of the piece, Steppenwolf, near the start... and also in the bank scene where Gal Gadot’s Diana saves a bunch of people by doing some cool action stuff. That being said, I did miss the sudden glow of orange as the metal on her wrist bands cool down after a bullet hit, which was a nice detail in Patty Jenkins movie during the alley scene in London... itself an homage, presumably, to the alley scene in Superman The Movie. Gadot is just wonderful again here, as she was in her previous two movies with this character because a) she looks just like she could do all this stuff in real life and b) because she performed it in such a way that she doesn’t betray the character as set up in the previous two films.

Similarly, say what you will about Ben Affleck but I think he makes a brilliant Bruce Wayne/Batman and I really hope he doesn’t leave the role after this. I think he could really do well in a solo Batman movie and I would really like to see it.

Henry Cavill... well I hated Superman in Man Of Steel but that’s more because of the script than Cavill’s performance and I certainly warmed to him more in Batman Vs Superman - Dawn Of Justice. He’s great here too and you really believe in his character, who he portrays with the same kind of honourable presence as some of the great actors who have played the part before him... and I’m specifically thinking of Kirk Alyn and Christopher Reeve here. Now if they’d only bring back the ‘S’ kiss curl and the red trunks then the illusion would be complete.

Jeremy Irons as Alfred has about as much screen time as he did in the previous movie but I think his character makes a bigger impact here, with various ironic comments thrown at Bruce Wayne which I found fairly entertaining.

 It was also great seeing a Green Lantern in the sequence flashing back to a battle on Earth which took places many hundreds of years ago, too. It’s been suggested that the cloak on him was a reference to the original Golden Age iteration of the character in comics but, the people saying that might do well to remember that the original Green Lantern’s costume was red (yeah, I know that’s ridiculous but don’t blame me... I didn’t write those things).

And that’s mostly the good stuff.

Now we also have three new members on the team...

Ezra Miller does okay as a really bizarre and teenage angsty version of the silver age version of The Flash (aka Barry Allen) and he was getting a good reaction from the audience at my screening. Personally I didn’t find him all that easy to identify with and I could take him or leave him, to be fair. Then we have Cyborg, who was a member of the Teen Titans the last time I read of him (sometime in the early 1980s) so goodness knows what he’s doing in the Justice League of America (as the supergroup was always known in the comics... until maybe recently). He’s played here by a guy called Ray Fisher and, although he turns in a solid performance, I couldn’t help but think that the script wasn’t doing him any favours. He just comes across as a bit dull, to be honest.

Jason Momoa’s version of Aquaman is a more fun character but, honestly, is nothing like the Aquaman I used to enjoy reading about when I was a kid (I even had a little action figure). The clean shaven, blonde version of Superman with the blue eyes, orange suit and green legs and gauntlets has morphed into what is presumably a more contemporary comic book version of the character (well... at least he still has both of his arms here). Again... he was okay but I really would have preferred the version of the character I grew up with here.

Okay... let’s get to the really bad then...

So much of the dialogue between Batman and Diana feels forced and, bearing in mind the amount of times that Steve Trevor’s name is bandied about, it somehow seems disrespectful of the truly marvellous solo Wonder Woman movie what came out earlier in the year.

Another thing which felt out of place was that the background story about the ‘mother boxes’ seemed like it came completely out of the blue and Diana never once goes to Thermyscira to consult with the Amazons. Indeed, she even goes so far as to say that they cannot leave their island... which is a completely redundant and contradictory idea in terms of their purpose on Earth, to be honest. This film so badly needed a scene between Diana and her mother and it similarly needed ‘the amazon horde’ to come galloping in for the somewhat bland (as it is here) action finale too. Especially since their own battle with Steppenwolf near the beginning of the movie was a heck of a lot better.

The way Superman is brought back to life is really stupid Doctor Frankenstein stuff and I couldn’t help but think it all seemed just a little too optimistic and contrived. “Gee whiz... wouldn’t it be great if we could use this mother box technology to bring Superman back to life with?”... well, okay, it wasn’t quite like that but it was pretty close. It felt like the whole thing was written by a small child at this point. What was worse than that though was... Superman and Batman were allies by the end of Batman Vs Superman. In fact, Batman saved Superman’s mother’s life. So why the heck would the newly woken Superman be so aggressively hostile to Batman and the others and try to kill them all? It made no sense. It was like watching that truly dumb scene in Superman III where he splits into two and the evil and good halves fight. It just made no sense.

And then they trot out Amy Adam’s Lois Lane to calm him down? Honestly, it felt like her role was really pushed to the back in this and the scene where she and Diane Lane as Martha Kent were talking in the newspaper offices felt like it was shot quickly in the director’s favourite room in his house one afternoon. The set dressing and feel of the scene seemed to be completely unconvincing.

The music is perplexing too. Danny Elfman has been tapped for this one but I felt like either Hans Zimmer or, especially, Rupert Gregson-Williams (who had provided real emotional depth to the Wonder Woman movie) should have got the gig here. Instead, Elfman uses various themes from films gone by to weave a new musical direction for the franchise and... it just felt wrong. Okay, so he uses Zimmer’s Superman theme from Man Of Steel at one point and he similarly uses Zimmer’s “Is She With You?” theme for Wonder Woman in a less striking arrangement (but without using Gregson-Williams gorgeous thematic material). However, he also uses John WIlliams' Superman music at one point too plus... he even uses his own 1980s Batman theme for some of Ben Affleck’s Batcentric shenanigans. None of that really made sense... what’s he trying to evoke here. It’s a nice enough score, when you can hear it over the noisy sound effects but... it doesn’t knock it out of the park like some of the films in this series do.

Okay, last thing I’ll highlight here is the running time. This is the shortest of the recent DC movies, clocking in at one minute shy of two hours. But you are dealing with six superhero characters, not to mention the big bad guy and the introduction of the mother box on the narrative. How do you cram all that into two hours without losing sight of something? Short answer... you don’t. This film feels like it should be a lot longer and, I dunno, less flippant and somewhat darker in tone considering the events that have birthed it in the previous films. Things felt somewhat rushed... especially when it hurtles to a climax that is less than interesting.

Also... you have continuity errors like the mother box being used to bring Cyborg to life being in the previous film, which makes no sense. Or the fact that the third mother box was found during World War I when, if you check out the epilogue scene included on the home video version of Wonder Woman, you’ll know that Etta Candy and the others were tasked with the mission to find it after the end of the war depicted in that film. Thins like this just seemed a bit like sloppy writing to me, it has to be said.

So, yeah, that’s my review of Justice League. All in all I’m glad I went to see it... if for nothing more than to see Gal Gadot totally slaying it as Wonder Woman. However, the film didn’t blow me away, for sure and it certainly felt a little more anti-climactic than I was expecting. All in all, if you loved Wonder Woman then you’ll probably want to see this one anyway. I can’t really recommend it to anyone on any other basis though so... make of that what you will. Old school DC comics fans, though, would do well to look out for the first of the two post-credits scenes if they want to see a familiar homage and... don’t miss the end if you want to see what happened to another character from a previous movie in the series.

Sunday 19 November 2017

The Lure

Fish N’ Blood

The Lure (aka Córki Dancingu)
Poland 2015 Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
Criterion Collection - available in US & UK as appropriate zone.

What if I told you that here is a film which tells the story of two flesh eating mermaid sisters who work with their mother in a strip club? What if I further told you that it’s a musical? And how about if I told you it’s an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, complete with nudity and gory violence?

Honestly, it only took knowing the first of those three propositions to hook me into The Lure. The musical numbers scattered prolifically about this movie are just the icing on the cake. As for The Little Mermaid? Well I don’t know the story and I haven’t seen any of the cinematic iterations of it over the years, except this one. I can’t imagine the Disney version ends the same way as the original story does, however and, it would be true to say that I suspect, in terms of its end game, this one echoes the source material a little closer... although without the end coda of hope and reward that the original story kinda drops into the mix as a spoonful of sugar to make the bitter pill of that original ending go down a little smoother.

However, I was blissfully unaware of the original story when I started watching this so... all the better when the characters here start talking about eating a certain character before one of them turns into sea foam and such forth, I guess. But I’m ahead of myself.

It’s been a while since I was properly looking at Polish cinema, I think. I’ve probably not seen any since the death of one of my favourite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, back in 1996. This one could well get me back into it though because it’s a meticulously crafted and beautiful film and I have to stop and give credit here to fellow tweeter and movie/art blogger Alex Kittle for giving me the ‘heads up’ on this one (and you can read her review of this film here).

I knew I was onto a good thing from the opening logo to the picture. It’s obviously a company that’s been put together to make this particular film, I would guess, as the animated logo shows two mermaids swimming in the sky around a long, phallic tower which starts ejaculating fireworks. It was possibly worth the price of the considerably expensive Criterion Collection CD for just this few seconds of imagery but, honestly, this is one of those films that doesn’t stop giving.

The opening credits are equally beautiful with some nice, minimalist animated work depicting the mermaid sister protagonists of the film in some kind of aquatic cave... the skulls and skeletons of their dead human victims piled up around their natural environment or bobbing on the surface of the water.

We then have a strange prologue which I didn’t quite understand, where the two sisters swim to the bank of a canal and, as I originally thought, ate two men. However, these men seem to be the same two characters who dominate the male cast in the movie and this scene definitely wasn’t a flashback. Since they just disappear through a jump cut to the mermaid’s mum screaming, I can only assume that they definitely didn’t get eaten after all and that this is why the two sisters end up in the strip club with their mother and the two men in the next sequence... which shows a singer belting out an old, I think, Bronski Beat (?) song. While this music continues, the manager is trying to track down a fishy smell and, as he goes through the different rooms in his strip club while the guests are being entertained, the various people such as the cook and the waiters are all in beat with the rhythm of the music. This was my first inkling that this really was going to turn into a ‘hard musical’ at some point soon. The manager tracks the smell down to the two mermaids in their mother’s dressing room and his main bouncer (played by Andrzej Konopka) shows the mermaids off to him. They are stripped down and they have no body hair at all and, it has to be said, rather curious looking vaginal lips (it might be the way it’s been shot, though). A cup of water is then poured onto their legs and their fish tails grow into place, with their real vaginas half way down their incredibly long and beautiful fish tails.

The two mermaids are called Silver (played truly joyfully by an amazing young actress called Marta Mazurek) and Gold (played truly sinisterly by another amazingly talented actress called Michalina Olszanska) and they are instantly given jobs as singers/strippers working with their mum. It’s to the credit of writer Robert Bolesto and director Agnieszka Smoczynska that they don’t try to explain the existence of mermaids and that all the characters who encounter them in the film in no way question that they must, in fact, be mermaids. This would only take time and get in the way of what is, after all, an adult fairytale with a simplistic purity to it. That being said, they are not the only ‘unusual creatures’ in the movie and there is a hint of a background world to the phenomena which is nicely done here without dominating the story. When the manager tells the others to take the girls out shopping for clothes, the film then goes full on into musical territory with a song and dance number set in a big clothes store and, by this point, I was completely hooked on the thing.

Now I’m not going to detail the rest of the story because I don’t want to spoil anything for you but I will say that the film doesn’t drag and I never once got bored with it. The style of the camerawork is pretty cool and almost shouldn't work, one might think. After all, various sequences are put together with smooth, slowish moving camera work with different angles being shot at different speeds of movement and edited together but, I have to tell you, the editor somehow gets away with it here and nothing detracts from the flow of the way you perceive the movie. It’s quite amazing.

The film is also very colourful with some wonderful combinations and also, occasionally, a logical colour coding system to some of the sequences. For instance, when one of the girls start singing in isolation with lyrics which are only for the ears of the people watching the film and not anyone actually in the scene, like a kind of musical narrative to the innermost thoughts of those characters, the lighting kind of suddenly takes on a turquoise shade, reflective of the sea, and everyone else but the character singing is frozen in time... which happens more than once.

There are also some lovely moments made by the director utilising the verticals of the environment as a big design feature in some of the shots. Sometimes she uses them like many directors have done historically, to highlight certain characters in their own delineated space and, at other times, she uses them to conceal things in the frame... such as when two layers of tiled wall are placed parallel to each other in front of the camera and the front plane is only revealed by a character walking out of view behind it... it’s cool stuff here.

Another nice touch is that the girls talk to each other telepathically. We get to hear what they are saying to each other through the subtitles but that’s obviously how it works on the original, non-subtitled Polish prints too because all that is heard on the soundtrack when the girls secretly communicate with each other is a kind of high pitched whale sound... and it works really effectively and is not out of place in a rather cute and fun, mostly light hearted film... albeit one that hides a dark and violent heart, as seen in various scenes as men become the bloody victims of one of the sisters. This is, after all, something of a comedy too and that’s more than amply demonstrated when the two sisters, in their fish forms, are being photographed naked but for stockings and suspenders awkwardly fitted over their fish tails. It’s a nice throwaway touch but it made me crack a smile, for sure.

And it’s a really great film which will stay in my mind for a long time. If I had any complaints it comes not from the film itself but from the translation. Song lyrics and rhyming poems are not the easiest thing to translate at the best of times, especially if you elect to keep the lines rhyming. So it would be true to say that the translations on the subtitles in some of the musical sections are... well, they’re a little but of a push with lyrics translated like...

“As fatal as hara-kiri,
My emotions make me silly.”

I couldn’t help but think of that old Simon & Garfunkel lyric from Kathy’s Song in this respect with their “words that tear and strain to rhyme”. However, credit to the translators for giving this a good go and, like I said, the films is very much a comedy piece too so the ridiculous lyrics here and there only add to the fun of the film.

And that’s me done on this one. The Criterion Collection release of The Lure is a sure fire tip to the hat on the quality of this production and readers based, like I, in Zone B needn’t worry about its availability. If you don’t yet have a multi-zone Blu Ray player then you’ll be fine because Criterion have also released this on their new Criterion UK label. Admittedly, it’s expensive and currently retailing at £18 here but, if you know the label then you know that you will be getting the absolute best transfer with some marvellous extras and that’s just what you get here. I haven’t watched those yet but included in the package are two short movie by Agnieszka Smoczynska so, yeah, this film is a bargain at this price. Especially when it’s such a great movie. If you are a fan of cinema in any capacity then you’ll want to give this one a look, I would think. I’m really pleased that this film dropped into my life and, as you can guess, it’s a definite recommendation from me.

Thursday 16 November 2017


Shower Bridge

Curtain (aka The Gateway)
USA 2015 Directed by Jaron Henrie-McCrea
Fright Fest Presents DVD Region 2

Warning: Some light spoilerage in terms of the basic premise in this.

While I can understand, to some extent, that Curtain is now called The Gateway (according to the IMDB), I have to say that the new title doesn’t live up to the promise of the mystery at the heart of this movie, even if it is technically more accurate, in some ways. I know that if it wasn’t for the provocative hook embodied by the title on the DVD, which in the UK is Curtain, then I would probably have not bothered picking it up and looking beyond the cover in the first place. As it was, this is one of a slew of cheaply priced films which I grabbed at the Frightfest in the last quarter of last year and which a friend recommended to me.

The film is very much an independent film in terms of the production values but it’s a lot better than many I’ve seen going under that label and it’s quite quirky and fun but, also, contains some very nice visual moments that puts it above some of the duller stuff floating around in the independent horror market.

It starts off with an arresting shot of a point of view ascent towards some light from something which I, at first, assumed was the interior of a well (although it’s presumably meant to be a portal... as the narrative makes clear later). It’s a fast and rotating climb to a halfway point, then a brief pause before finishing the fast, rotating POV where the centre of the light becomes a person’s eyeball as a guy wakes up from his slumber on a subway train. The guy is obviously living in fear of something and when he gets to the flat, he removes all the duct tape from the door of the bathroom he’s put to stop... something... from getting out but after he has a few more swirly vortex visions he slashes his own throat.

With that initial set up out of the way, we follow on the rest of the story with a burnt out ex-nurse called Danni, played by Danni Smith, as she moves into the very same flat. To make ends meet she is working as one of those people who stop you on the street with their clipboard and seek donations, in her case for a Save The Whales organisation. However, as she moves into her new flat for her first night and hangs the shower curtain in the bathroom... that’s when her problems begin because, when she awakens the next morning, the shower curtain has gone. Did someone get in the night and steal it? The doors were locked so it’s unlikely. So what happened to it? A classic, locked room mystery, of sorts.

So, of course, she goes and buys another shower curtain and, yep, once the bathroom door is shut and she turns her back on it,well... the next time she checks on it the curtain is gone. So she buys another shower curtain and sets up her mobile phone camera to take a video of what’s happening to it when she vacates the bathroom and, when she plays it back, she finds that the curtain is being sucked through an invisible vortex in the shower wall. Which is nicely done and pretty much mind boggling to anyone who happens to find themselves in this kind of situation. And so, to prove to herself that she’s not going mad, she shows the video to her obsessive and irritating coworker Tim, played by Tim Lueke and, rather than go to the police, the two of them try to solve the matter on their own.

Of course.

After all... this is a horror movie.

So anyway, it’s not long before they have the bright idea of scrawling an “if found, please ring this number” style message on the next shower curtain they send through the mysterious portal and, funnily enough, they do actually find out that the curtains are ending up somewhere very specific... but that’s all I’m saying about the storyline on this one. I don’t want to give away too much.

The thing that makes the film stand out from many others of this ilk... asides from the fairly unusual idea of a bunch of shower curtains that are pulled magically through a portal, of course... is just how well thought out the shot design, cinematography and editing is in certain areas. For instance, the opening sequence of the man walking home to his flat includes a nice shot of him coming towards the camera on the right of the screen while the other three quarters of the shot are taken up with the blurred surface of a wall. Another inventive moment is when Danni goes on a shopping spree for shower curtains in the local supermarket where the camera is mounted on her shopping trolley in various places and the footage sped up to push the idea that she’s had enough and will do what it takes to sort this problem out.

There’s another really interesting moment where Tim is driving a car and the camera takes the point of view of Danni sitting in the driver’s seat. As Tim is talking to Danni (or us) we see the traffic going by from right to left as he passes it out of the driver side window behind him in frame. And then a moving wipe goes from right to left to show a time transition but we are still on a view of traffic, albeit from a different situation, travelling in the same direction. A lorry follows the wipe at the same place and speed and the illusion this creates for a second is of the lorry actually creating the wipe on the frame, although, of course, it’s only actually in the new footage that is being transitioned too. This was a nice bit of filmmaking and would almost have been worth the price of the DVD alone.

My favourite moment of the movie, though, was also another transition piece. This involves dialogue overlapping from the next scene which, okay, is something which is done a lot in cinema. However, the starting shot is of Danni reading and when the dialogue of a lady talking to her from the next scene infringes upon the shot, she looks up from her book from the first scene to listen to her... we then cut the actual scene where she finishes the motion of her head and looks round to the lady who actually is talking to her in the latter scene. This was another really cool moment in a film which has a lot of nice little things going for it.

My only real complaint is that the kind of horror film this ends up as is a bit of a cop out in terms of actually explaining why, for instance, the shower curtains are being pulled through the void. There’s a big emphasis on some kind of vague demonology in the film and there’s also a ‘birth cycle’ of one of the horror elements in the movie involving these curtains... but no real logic behind them. When the film ended I was a little disappointed in this but at the same time, it reminded me of the excellent fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in a way. Almost always in a Lovecraft tale, the main protagonists would descend into madness or death with no real explanation in the scientific world as to what terrors they have been facing and none is likely to be forthcoming.

While I was a little muddled on one issue in the film, though, the last newspaper headline of Curtain does at least give a certain, very bizarre, kind of redemption to one of the characters and I couldn’t help but think of Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth at this point. I’m not sure whether the director was putting a nod in to that story but I certainly think the guy knows his stuff when it comes to these kinds of genres. There’s even a nod to, or at least a vague similarity to be found, in one scene where Danni is attacking the tiled wall of the bathroom to find out what mystery is beneath which reminded me of David Hemmings attacking the wall in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red and reviewed by me here) and I, again, had to wonder if this was a deliberate nod or a case of serendipity.

What I do know for sure is that, for a fiver, Curtain was money well spent and, though the intense horror elements of the last third maybe don’t live up to the clever mystery of the film’s initial premise, I was certainly glad I saw this one... and also glad the DVD wasn’t labelled up The Gateway, that’s for sure. Certainly a film I’d recommend to fans of gory horror movies as opposed to a straight science fiction audience but, in my experience, there’s a huge crossover there so if you are into either kind of genre I would maybe give this one a go anyway. This one’s definitely worth a visit, just... stay away from the shower.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Q aka Desire

Q Tips

Q (aka Desire aka Q Desire)
France 2011 Directed by Laurent Bouhnik
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Q is a film by Laurent Bouhnik which seems to have a few titles depending on where you watch it. For example, over here in the UK it is sold as Q while in some countries it is known as Desire and in some, even as Q Desire. Having watched this movie, which doesn’t really have a story in all honesty, I’d have to say I’d personally favour the title Desire because I’ve got absolutely no idea what the letter Q is supposed to denote in the context of this film.

I first came across this movie as an Amazon recommendation. Now I have no remembrance of why I actually clicked and purchased this movie but I suspect, knowing the way my mind turns, that it was something to do with the inclusion of graphic, non-simulated sex within the genetic make up of the movie. Also, it was quite cheaply priced so those two elements combined is why you may see a few of these types of films creeping into my blog for the next year or so. I’ve got no idea what I must have purchased, however, to have had this as an Amazon recommendation in the first place.

Okay, so getting back to it... I said that the movie doesn’t have much in the way of story and that’s true. However, if you’re a regular reader of mine and have been paying attention, you’ll know I’m not the absolute biggest fan of having a storyline in a film anyway, I can take it or leave it and, in the case of this movie, it certainly doesn’t harm it. In fact, Q is a pretty cool film and I can’t help but think the now old (and in some cases dead) guard of what was once the Nouvelle Vague would be quite happy with the way this one has been shot and presented.

The film has a great opening which is almost monochromatic (apart from a slight blue tinge), of a public shower and changing room. We see a woman’s naked backside and general chatter amongst a number of girls before the lady in question turns around, still in fairly tight shot (no faces are revealed in this scene) so we can see her sex. Various other women’s crotches and back sides wander to and fro in the shot as the sexual gossip on the soundtrack continues. The very stark lighting and slight suggestion of blue give this sequence a feel, almost, of an old hand-tinted monochrome movie of the 1920s or earlier. Then, all of a sudden, we go into the first main establishing shot of the movie as we cut to a long, panoramic shot of green cliffs, beach and sea which is almost like a visceral punch in the eyeballs in its placement next to that opening. We see a car driving along the road, it’s almost a detail because it’s so tiny in the shot and then we cut to the main protagonist of the film... well actually, I don’t know if anybody in this ensemble movie can be said to be the main protagonist but, certainly, the lady in question called Cecilé and played with absolute abandon by Déborah Révy, is definitely the character that most of the other characters have in common and it is her manipulation of  the people around her that define the shape of the movie.

In the car, Cecilé is with a stranger who she has picked up in a bar and who she has talked into driving down to the beach where she will try to have sex with him. However, when the two get to it in a public loo, the specific nature of her desires and his lack of respect for what she wants means they don’t quite get things on. Cecilé was in the bar originally to find a plastic container for her father’s ashes so she can scatter them but she has had no luck.

The character of Cecilé hurtles through the plotless movie hooking up with various people and reveling in her seemingly carefree attitude to the pursuit of love, life and liberty but rather than concentrate on her character all the time, the film builds up small pictures of her friends and kind of rubs all the different interconnected characters together. That being said, it’s not a movie which doesn’t have a certain pay off and that is found within the sexual relationships and the way people regard each other throughout the duration.

Visually the movie is lovely. There are a lot of interesting, coloured lighting set ups within the movie so that, for example, the first sex scene between Cecilé and her boyfriend has a blue tint to it... thus highlighting this as a blue movie in more ways than one, I would guess. There are some great little frame compositions too.

For example, a shot near the start of the movie has two friends talking while one of them is working on his car. The car is face on to us with the bonnet up, filling the centre of the frame with one of the two players with his back to us, sorting out what’s under the hood, so to speak. His friend wanders in and out of the shot on the right hand side of the frame by going into the middle of the frame behind the car, only to reappear again a few seconds later. It’s nice stuff and just one of a fair few interesting compositions in the film which mark this director out as someone to pay attention to.

Another scene where Cecilé is alone on her bed and masturbating herself while a storm rages outside is also lit in blue but further shows that the character is not always so good at reaching an orgasm. As she fails and starts crying, the faces of the dolls in her room, cut to in close up, bear silent witness to her failure to climax. It’s almost subliminal the way little throw away shots like this creep into the broader action of the film but it’s good stuff and helps keep you riveted to the screen.

There’s also a very interesting shot which I think is a key sequence of the movie in that the director almost highlights his lack of a constant, narrative thrust. It’s all set in a small portion of a town, possibly a square and... the camera wanders fluidly around following one of our central characters after another and kinda eavesdropping on their mobile phone conversations and then finding another passing character to latch onto as the various people move in and out of the area or, in some cases, remain seated. Some of these characters enter and exit more than once and it’s like the director is just casually dipping into things which are happening as if to say, “look this film is following random characters and just being a fly on the wall.” However, this also belies the fact that there is a constant thread slowly building and that thread is Cecilé... as we watch her seduce various men and women, steal someone’s phone, cause upheaval and generally act like an unstoppable tidal wave on everybody who comes in contact with her. She drifts in and out of everyone’s lives, sexing them up in much the same way the directors camera drifts in and out of the lives of the various characters who inhabit this movie.

However, as we see by the end of the piece, there is some method in Cecilé’s seeming lack of responsibility and personal madness. At least four of the characters are manipulated into taking part in scenarios staged by Cecilé which are absolutely beneficial to their lives and, it would seem, this isn’t an unplanned series of coincidences. Cecilé is doing unexpected, good deeds behind the scenes, as it were. Sexually themed good deeds, for sure but, people seem to end up with a lot to thank her for by the finish of the film and she even, in some uncertain way, reaches a kind of ‘moving on’ stage herself as the film finishes.

And then there’s that opening sequence. The shower scene is actually an anchor point scene and the director returns to it four more times in the movie and, each time the camera is a little further away from the people in the shot, exposing a tiny bit more of their bodies little by little and leaving the reveal of their faces (which really doesn’t’ come as much of a surprise, to be honest) until the last of these scenes.  So the second one is a little further off and so is the third in which we also see various ladies’ torsos. By the time we get the fourth of these scenes, the camera is sufficiently far back for us to see that the shower room is through an opening directly in front of us and we are now in a ladies changing room, where the various characters in question are all in various stages of undress and putting on lingerie. The director maintains the near monochromatic nature of the shots except for one girl who puts on bright orangy brown knickers and, by the time of the fifth and final of these sequences, before the camera drifts up to reveal the faces of the people chatting in the room, also her brightly coloured garter belt. The identity of the various characters in the scene will certainly come as no surprise by this point but, again, the reason for the sexy underwear in the changing room once again becomes apparent as something Cecilé has organised and, once again, it seems likely that some good will come out of it.

There are things in the movie which I didn’t expect to make it past the censor in this country. The film is full of various male and female genitalia in various states of erection and includes hand jobs and blow jobs as part of the performance (although the film doesn’t quite go as far as some mainstream releases I’ve seen... some of the scenes in Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs come to mind). However, while the sex is quite full on (thus, once again exposing the terrible hypocrisy of the British Censors) it never once threatens to dominate the main characters or the way the narrative, such as it is, is shaped. Which is a good thing and means I possibly take this film more seriously than certain others. 

And that’s pretty much all I have to say on Q other than the fact that I had a really good time with it and that the performances throughout by the various actors and actresses were flawless and engaging, for the most part. It’s nice to have a film which isn’t demanding a rigid, narrative understanding from the audience and allows you to be caught up in it without necessarily having to have any expectations as to where a storyline might have been leading you. It definitely makes for an unpredictable movie and, for me certainly, that’s half the battle. A good one to put on when you’re alone in the house with a bottle of whisky and when you want to just chill out and let the medium of film absorb you. Definitely a recommendation from me on this one.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Dracula Untold

Taste The Vlad Of Dracula

Dracula Untold
Directed by Gary Shore 
Universal Blu Ray Zone 2

Warning: I guess this is technically somewhat spoilery.

Okay so, after seeing the recent version of The Mummy (reviewed here) I was reminded that the new Universal Dark Universe* monster movies were originally to have begun with this one, Dracula Untold. However, I don’t think this one did very well at the box office and so, even though it would fit like a glove, hand in hand with the new version of The Mummy, Universal have stated that this is not part of that new cycle.

Now, this is a film I totally ignored at the cinema (like a fair few people, as it turns out) because the trailer looked truly dismal and more about Vlad The Impaler, the real life figure whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was said to be inspired by, rather than actually treating him in his more common version of a contemporary, womanising vampire. And, strangely enough, that’s actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what this film is about, although the main character, played here by Luke Evans, does take possession of various vampiric and demonic powers fairly promptly in the course of the story. However, I’d noticed that, just lately, this film has been getting some good word of mouth from people on Twitter and so, when my local Computer Exchange had a Blu Ray of the movie going for only £3... I figured I’d give it a look.

Well... you have to give the cast and crew some brownie points for trying.

The acting is all pretty good from Luke Evan’s Vlad to his lover played by Sarah Gadon and, of course, Dominic Cooper as Mehmed. We even have Charles Dance on hand as a sort of ‘almost but not quite’ Nosferatu style, old vampire geezah who strikes a bargain with Vlad when he is in desperate trouble. Added to this is the really quite nice cinematography and for anything else negative you might want to lay at the feet of the movie makers here, you have to give it credit for being really nice to look at, at the very least.

However, while it’s certainly a ‘far from terrible’ movie, it’s hardly a great one and I personally believe that its chief problem is that the script and dialogue is just not that great and the fairly dull structure of the film is really not doing it any favours... especially when it comes to the sensibilities of a modern audience. To say it’s singular in its storytelling would be pretty accurate and the structure is like something out of an old Universal or Republic serial... just without the variance in locations and inventiveness which was often on hand in the best of those.

So the story structure is... Vlad comes back from his wars and discovers the source of the power he will use later in the film. Vlad is threatened with something horrible and, when he attempts to comply, his strong moral centre (seriously... this is Vlad The Impaler?) means he refuses and brings the full wrath of his enemies on him. So he strikes a deal for ‘supernatural vampire powers’ and fights the armies, moves his people somewhere else, fights the armies all over again... then loses both his motivating spirit and becomes a full fledged vampire... so he creates a vampire army to finish the war off once and for all. And.. that’s more or less it.

The film has some pretty major flaws other than the trite dialogue and singular structure, however. I mean the writers are on a losing battle trying to make Vlad Tepes somehow a bit of a family man who all his army and close friends love... without denying the fact that he went around impaling his enemies in truly horrible ways. Um... yeah, it doesn’t quite work does it? Especially when he continues to do that rubbish later in the film and everyone is still all... “Alright geezah! How’s it going? We all missed you.” Luke Evans, who is a pretty good actor (see him in Professor Marston And The Wonder Women as soon as possible, reviewed here), does his best with the material but it’s a seriously conflicted kind of script to be honest.

Another stupid thing is that, while I would never have predicted that the film was going to go off and do something interesting at some point, there’s a whole thing where the head vampire played by Charlie Dance strikes a bargain with Vlad. With great vampire power comes great vampire responsibility and Dance wants to lose his vampire powers forever and pas them onto somebody else (an outcome which is clearly contradicted in the final scene of the movie, by the way). So Vlad has the useful, army crushing vampire powers for only three days unless he gives into his unnatural thirst and drinks blood before then... in which case he’s cursed forever and is bound to walk the countryside only at night because sunlight is lethal to him (something else which is totally contradicted by the last scene, by the way). So I guess it’s a case of Vlad-u-added Tax in terms of his unearthly powers. And, since you know this is a Dracula origin story... you know he’s going to have to drink blood at some point before the end so, well, it’s not going to be that surprising is it?

Oh yeah... and about those vamped up, ramped up powers. After discovering that if he runs through the forest fast enough he can become a swarm of bats (there might be some unintentional humour in this scene... just saying), he starts doing it a lot more and that’s how he defeats thousands of men in an army single handedly... by becoming bats and, presumably, batting them to death. The fight scenes are not that great or clear, to be honest. Oh, and there’s a scene where he faces off against the villain of the piece, who worked out he’s a vampire (the bat swarming must have given it away) and somehow deduced he’s got a somewhat powerful allergy to silver. So, you know, he fights him in a tent standing in loads of silver coins and thus weakening Vlad in the final battle to, presumably, build up tension in the audience in case they think he somehow can’t win. Which is ridiculous because, you know, he’s Dracula now. And, yes, there is a bit where the villain throws silver coins at our hero in much the same way as somebody might throw sand in the face of an opponent. There might have been vague, smiling disbelief at the silliness of it all at this point... from this member of the audience, anyway.

Now, all the above taken into account, it really isn’t a terrible movie... just not a good one. The film features an epilogue scene set in the modern day featuring our vampish hero encountering Mina Harker for the first time and the presence of Charles Dance as a voyeuristic background figure... thus setting it up to possibly be the first past of that Dark Universe sequence. Now, all things being equal, I really wouldn’t mind if Luke Evans returns as Dracula in one of the new Universal Monster movies because, as completely ludicrous as this film gets in some places... it’s fine as a basis for a character which could be better written. So, yeah, bit of a wasted opportunity here but we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I end this review by saying that, unless you have a lot more than just a casual investment in the Dracula character and his history, then Dracula Untold is probably not going to ring your bell very much. If you’re into historical horror, there might be some bright spots for you but, for the most part... I was certainly Vlad when it was all over.

*It looks like the Dark Universe franchise at Universal has, since the time the first draft of this review was written, stalled somewhat... possibly for good. I hope it comes back to our screens soon though.

Thursday 9 November 2017

The Void

They Void With
Their Boots On

The Void
Canada 2016
Directed by  Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Signature Blu Ray Zone B 

Warning: Some spoilers in this one, I guess.
Especially in terms of the ending.

So the low budget, crowd funded film The Void is one I was especially wanting to see earlier in the year but, like The Love Witch (reviewed here), it only got a very limited screening of a few performances at hardly any cinemas in London and the DVD and Blu Ray editions were hot on the heels of that release. Probably within a few weeks of those initial cinema screenings.

I’d seen only good word of mouth about this one but my own response is much less favourable than I'd imagined it would be. However, there are still some nice little moments in there.

The film starts with a badly wounded man and a woman trying to escape a property in the woods. Two men give chase but the man manages to get away from them. They do, though, manage to wound the woman and stop her progress before they pour gasoline on her and set her alight. One would assume these two are the villains of the piece but, despite the simplicity of the plot, it isn’t quite that black and white. After the opening credits, our main policeman protagonist Daniel Carter, played by Aaron Poole, finds the wounded man from the opening sequence and he is losing a lot of blood. Carter drives him to the nearest hospital and that’s when his troubles start. He finds himself having to shoot a woman who comes at him with a knife, after she's stabbed the eye out of a fellow patient, before back up arrives in the form of another cop. However, not long after the second cop's arrival, the phone lines at the hospital go dead and the radio link to police headquarters is mysteriously cut off. There are also a bunch of strange figures who look like members of the Klu Klux Clan but with big triangles reminiscent of a pyramid emblazoned on the front of their hoods, wandering around outside the building. One of them attacks Carter, who manages to get back inside and away from the mob of... quite iconic looking cultists.

At this point the cult members don’t enter the hospital and are happy to place it under siege while the two pursuing men from the start of the film also come into the building and start causing trouble for the two police officers... who also have a pregnant woman and her father to attend to, in addition to the regular medical staff. Sides and allegiances are soon forged, however, when they are all attacked by some kind of Lovecraftian Cthulhu creature with tentacle power... one of a few monstrosities which are being born from people after death has finished with them.

And that’s the basic plot set up and I’m not going to say much more about that aspect of the film. I was trying to figure out, however, why I wasn’t responding as positively as I might to a film which, frankly, seems to have my name written all over it as something I should be watching.

Now I had a problem with some of the acting performances, for sure. I don’t think the cast were necessarily bad, though... just maybe doing their best with a script which was a little too clichéd and obvious, is my best guess. Some of the dialogue was very bad but, although certain other elements of the film pointed towards a terrific parody of the kinds of ‘straight-to-video’ rental and sell through horror and exploitation titles of the 1980s, it felt just a little too 'dead on' in some ways and I could have done with the dialogue and story line being less poe-faced in certain areas because... well... it could have done with just a little dose of irony lacing the material, I think.

That is to say... it could have been maybe just a little more over-the-top in pushing the exploitation angle of the movie rather than replicating it so well. When Tarantino and Rodriguez brought out Grindhouse, I thought very much the same thing in reference to the two directors’ different approaches to their feature films which made up half of that double bill release. Rodriguez’ Planet Terror really played up the exploitation angle and had fun with it... injecting it with a sense of tongue-in-cheek irony which sat very well with the modern sensibilities of the intended audience. At least, I thought so. Tarantino’s contribution, however... Deathproof... seemed a dead spit imitation of exactly the films it was trying to recall. It had nothing much extra added and felt like an authentic grindhouse movie... with all the negative implications that might carry too. Primarily, for me, being that I thought it was a little dull and reminded me of why I didn’t watch a lot of films of that oeuvre when I was a teen anyway (although it could be said I’m possibly making up for it nowadays).

The Void strikes me as being in very much a similar situation, of the film being maybe a little too authentic, in some ways, to the 1980s video rental market (as it was over here in the UK) that I feel it’s trying to go for. The monsters and main antagonist are all very much what you’d expect as something some of those old directors would have created as an homage to the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and there are also very strong tones of a Lucio Fulci influence thrown into the mix... especially with the ending of this movie which, while almost being a non-sequitur to the events we have been watching throughout the running time, seems to be a direct play for recreating the famous final shots of Fulci’s movie The Beyond (reviewed by me here).

There seems to be lots of practical effect gore and an enormous amount of simultaneous mayhem thrown into the mix... all of which is admirably handled by the director. I personally felt the film needed a bit more of a sense of the 'over the top' element in other areas. Some nudity thrown into the mix, for example, or a much more 1980s horror vibe on the soundtrack, as opposed to some transparent writing lapsing into very modern, atonal sound design style stuff (don’t get me wrong... I’d love it if they released a CD soundtrack of the score by Blitz//Berlin, Joseph Murray, Menalon Music and Lodewijk Vos... I just don’t think it serves the film in a great way).

A special shout out, though, to both actor Kenneth Welsh as Dr. Richard Powell, who manages to capture the style of mad, bad guy from those kinds of movies perfectly (maybe because he’s been around so long and perhaps because he was known to everyone as the face of Wyndom Earle in Twin Peaks back in the day) and also to the team doing the make up effects because, at some point, his character looks like he walked straight out of a Fulci movie. There’s a beautiful extra on the Blu Ray disc which is a gallery of pre-production art from the film and it’s a really nice thing to have on there. Would love to have seen it printed in a proper book instead of it being a digitised bonus thing, though.

I don’t want to trash this movie because it did hold my attention and it’s obviously a labour of love for the team who brought it alive. There’s some nice stuff for genre fans to sift through including those truly iconic and simply designed ‘cultists’ and even a TV showing the opening sequence of Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead in the background... foreshadowing the siege situation the characters inhabiting the hospital will soon find themselves in (and now I come to think of it... didn’t a fair part of Fulci’s The Beyond, which I mentioned earlier, take part in a hospital?). I think there’s enough here to keep most modern horror fans happy with the movie... especially if it was a middle section of a triple (or more) bill midnight movie screening. I think those of you uninterested in the genre at all would probably struggle with a way into this one but, at the same time, I don’t think the film was made for that kind of audience anyway. Probably not a film I would personally watch again unless I was doing an all night movie screening with some mates and some alcohol but it’s a nice stab at trying to make a product in a way which hasn’t been done un-ironically in a while so... you know... if you’re into horror then maybe give it some of your time at some point.