Tuesday, 27 February 2018
2017 USA Directed by Greta Gerwig
UK cinema release print.
I’ve not seen Greta Gerwig in much... but I was impressed with her performance in Frances Ha (reviewed by me here) which she co-wrote with her current partner, director Noah Baumbach and I also saw her in a more minor role in Jackie (reviewed here). She seems to be a pretty good actress and an engaging personality. Lady Bird, which she also wrote but doesn’t star in, is her 'solo directorial debut' (it’s technically her second feature) and it’s ‘inspired by’ her time growing up and going to a Catholic High School in Sacramento.
The film stars the always wonderful Saoirse Ronan, who impressed me as Hanna (reviewed here), continued to impress me in Byzantium (reviewed here) and also in her small role in The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here). I’m not sure how long she can keep playing these ‘young waif’ parts (she’s actually 23) but she gets away with it here and I can’t imagine anyone else being as good in this role.
The film takes place in 2002, which seems a strange time to set it in terms of period colour or anchor point details... except it coincides with the director’s time at the same school, apparently. It’s a little bit of a cliché, I guess, in that it’s a familiar tale of the trials, tribulations and angst that comes from going to High School, falling out with friends and then winning them back, first sexual encounters etc. It also, though, deals with a strong clash of personalities as the main character, Lady Bird (her given name... she gave it to herself) and her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf) are constantly pitched against each other... like many families, I guess.
The film is completely successful, though, in everything that it sets out to do.
There’s no real story in the linear sense of plot goals etc (unless you count the constant plot point about getting into a halfway good college) but it’s one of those tales where the story takes on the shape of the little experiences and bonds which various characters share as they continue through their passage towards the conclusion of the movie... ending up with a piece which is a complete sketch of a character and her milieu with an ending that’s a little unexpected in its rapidity and, in some ways, slight lack of closure. Although, that being said, any chance of any more closure to the arc might have endangered the film's credibility and made it a little too syrupy, I suspect. it’s a pretty good ending as it is anyway. I won’t try and summarise the film in my usual way because it won’t really amount to much in terms of plot details, I suspect.
What I will say is that the film is also extremely smart and funny as hell. And, it has to be said, well observed.
One of the things which stood out for me was, for the most part, the way in which the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother can really flip on a dime, like a lot of families can kind of juggle that hell-hath-no-fury to ‘ooh, that’s a nice dress’ kind of back and forth with relative ease and with no real idea of how that kind of almost bipolar behaviour looks to an outsider. There’s a lot of that style of dialogue and attitude of the ‘functional vs disfunctional’ family unit going on here and it’s to Gerwig and her performer’s credit that it comes over so well when other movies might treat that similar dynamic in a less credible way and with a much heavier hand or, more often than not, leave it out completely.
The other thing the film does well... and this is as much about the performances and the way they are edited as much as the writing... is to deal with the comedy of the way opposite desires or emotions are suddenly turned on their head and acted upon by setting up an expectation of the strength of the lack of commitment to a specific action and then instantly defeating it. That is to say, and I’ll use a really crude example here to illustrate, culled from dozens of movies every year but not, I’m happy to say, from Lady Bird. What I’m talking about is that kind of comedic set up where person x tells person y that such and such is something that they’re never going to do and then you cut to a scene where they are doing the exact thing they just said they would never do. Now, Lady Bird doesn’t do anything quite that primitive in execution but a lot of the, very funny and true humour of the thing comes from that awkward kind of ‘what does person x want me to say’, then saying the wrong thing anyway and then quickly back peddling or negating the original thought or opinion with the opposite kind of acknowledgment. And it really works here. If you’re going to do this kind of observational comedy and not let it cross over into the embarrassment of the characters then the timing has to be dead right and, yeah... it’s done so well here. This kind of humour doesn’t always work but, in Lady Bird, it almost never misfires.
I guess the main things which really help the movie breeze along is the truth in the characters (you feel like these are real people Gerwig is writing about and, I suspect, that’s probably the case) and the sheer sense of fun in the humour. For instance, the shot where Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein) are lying on the floor chatting energetically while eating their way through a jar of communal wafers had a good reaction from the audience and brought a smile to my face. And this sense of fun and honesty permeates the film so that you really can’t help but like it.
Probably the one reason I wanted to go and see this movie is because the trailer had a song from The Monkees psychedelic trip of a movie, Head, in it... As We Go Along if I recall correctly. Alas, unless I was concentrating on something too hard and missed it, the song never found its way into the actual movie but, luckily, the film was so good I really didn’t mind. It’s only February but so far this year we’ve had a lot of great movies already and, obviously, Lady Bird is one of them. Recommended to all lovers of cinema but especially those who cherish a good ear for dialogue and a sense of fun that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. Really glad I got to see this one at a cinema.
Sunday, 25 February 2018
Directed by Duncan Jones
Curzon Soho Screening 24/2/18
Duncan Jones is another one of those directors I've not really been sure of over the years. Kinda liked Moon (reviewed here), kinda didn't like Source Code (reviewed here) all that much and I didn't bother with Warcraft because I've never played the World of Warcraft game on which it's based (although I've heard it's a pretty good movie). I kinda got interested in Mute when I saw the director begin tweeting about it a while back but it's a film I nearly didn't get to see.
Why? One word... Netflix.
I'm not opposed to subscription channels as a whole. They have to make their money and I know Jones talks very highly of them in terms of getting the funding together to make this movie, which has been gestating for a very long time, from what I understand. So good for Netflix on that score. What I do object to is making these things exclusive to a channel as pretty much the only commercial option to both a main stream theatrical release and a physical media release. What that means is that people like myself who either can't justify the expense of subscribing or won't subscribe due to not wanting to what amounts to 'borrowing' a film from someone (via streaming, when it's actually deemed available, that is) as opposed to actually owning your own copy which you can put on your player anytime you want.
Furthermore, it's both a blow against the art of film and also something which is going lose money which the backers could have made back on a physical release.
To explain, films like this deserve to be seen on a cinema screen (especially a film like Mute... I'll get to it in a minute, I promise). They are made to be experienced on a big screen and you lack a little something if you've only watched it on your 'so smart' TV, iPad, computer or mobile phone. This is not what cinema is about. Also, the availability of cinemas in urban centres is a lot more accessible than having to sign up for a channel... especially if you only get to watch TV say, once a month if you're lucky.
As far as the people involved losing money? Well, as I said, not everybody is able to, or wants to, access Netflix. Which means the distribution of films like this are driven underground. I've already been offered a free copy of the movie on disc and at least one stranger on my daily bus ride to and from work just this week has told me about various 'free' streaming channels where I can watch all the newest movies without ever paying a penny. And it's not like I was even asking. So, yeah, I strongly believe Netflix should rethink their "exclusive to" business model because, you know, if people really want to see it without Netflix... I suspect they'll find a way.
Anyway... onto the movie because I got lucky on this one and spotted that the Curzon chain of cinemas in the UK have organised 'one a day' screenings of the film and I managed to get myself to one of these. Of course, the irony here is that the ticket cost me much more than the price of a month's subscription to Netflix but, having seen how visually rich and striking this one is, I'm kinda really glad I got to see it at the natural environment for the art of film... the cinema.
Out of the, admittedly small, amount of this director's films I've seen to date, I think Mute is my favourite.
The film starts as strongly as it continues with the main protagonist Leo as a boy where we see just why he is, as the title of the movie says, mute. We also see that the quaker family he was born into does nothing concrete to stop this condition from remaining and that's really all we need to know about this background so the rest of the movie, set many years later, shows Alexander Skarsgård playing Leo, who works as a barman in a night club with his girlfriend Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh.
The story is set in the future and it seems to be around the same time that Jones' first feature, Moon was set. I know this because Sam Rockwell reprises his role as both Sam Bell and his clones in a cameo (basically making this movie MOON 2, in all but name). It would be true to say this futuristic environment in which this old 1940s style noir plot plays out is an extremely well crafted future version of Berlin. It would also be true to say that, with its occasional flying cars, overpopulated cityscapes and neon candy lighting, the film pays more than a little homage to Ridley Scott’s early masterpiece Blade Runner (reviewed by me here). In fact, it looks so much like it that it’s way much more true to the look and feel of that movie than the official sequel which was released last year. Mute truly captures the ‘designer gritty’ spectacle that Blade Runner 2049 (reviewed here) was lacking, as far as I’m concerned.
The film has a wonderful set up which gives you a glimps into the romance between the two main characters before going into a somewhat clichéd but no less effective film noir style mystery... as Naadirah goes missing and Leo has to try and discover what’s been going on in her life for this to happen and try to find her. It’s a simple set up and it follows a clear path towards an end goal while showcasing a credible world of future wonders and sleazy corruption.
The actors are razor sharp too.
This is one of Alexander Skarsgård’s greatest performances, if not his best, as he uses his facial expressions and body language to portray what’s going on in the head of the main protagonist. Seyneb Saleh is wonderful but, sadly, not in the film as much as I would have liked. Then you have Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, playing a kind of gangster’s doctor called Cactus Bill with his fellow surgeon Duck, played by Justin Theroux. Rudd is fantastic in this and the back and forth between him and Theroux, when they’re performing surgery or, in one case, a surgically inspired interrogation, is a deliberate and continued reference, both in look and dialogue delivery, to Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce in the original Robert Altman movie version of MASH. It seems strange to have this here but it really works well, I have to say.
The film also has wonderful music from Clint Mansell, who scored Moon for Jones. Again, like the film itself, this wonderful score could almost be a sequel to the score for Blade Runner, with a little bit of Moon thrown in for good measure at some points. I really liked this and would buy it in a heartbeat if they would just give it a CD release. It seems odd that a masterwork of a score like this (and the same composer's score for the live action Ghost In The Shell, reviewed here) has not been given a proper soundtrack release. This needs to happen soon people. It’s a crime against filmanity... as is Netflix’s decision to hold this one back from a proper cinema release but... let’s not go there again.
The film seems to have polarised audiences with a lot of critics saying that the story keeps going off in different directions and tangents. That wasn’t my experience of it at all, I have to say. If anything the plot line was too simplistic, in a way... but the story line was always in plain sight and, although we kept cutting between two of the main character’s adventures (as we do in numerous films), it seemed pretty clear what was happening and its relevance to the ongoing story. I really think that if the newspaper critics couldn’t follow a storyline which, in all honesty, doesn’t have much of a complex tale to tell then... well... we really are in trouble, aren’t we?
My one slight grumble was that the film maybe went on a little too long past what I thought was its natural ending. I really didn’t think the last 15 or so minutes added much other than a slight shot at optimism for a couple of the characters. I really didn’t need to see anything more after Leo finds out just what happened to his girlfriend and I think a certain shot of him sitting under a tree would have been a better place for an ending to come.
It’s a minor grumble though and, for my part, I’d recommend Mute as both a great film and, most definitely, something which you should catch in its native habitat, i.e. - the cinema. If you like science fiction with a lot of heart, or 1940s film noirs for that matter, then Mute is for you. Dystopian societies this well realised are a bit of a rarity in cinema and this one is so well done that its definitely worth your time. Now keeping my eye on this director as a more serious artist to have on the radar. Looking forward to seeing what he’s up to in the future.
Thursday, 22 February 2018
Nymph or Mania?
Lady In The Water
USA 2006 Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Warner Brothers Blue Ray Zone B
Wow. This is a pretty cool movie.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an ongoing and strange reaction to the films of M. Night Shyamalan. I try to see them because I always loved Unbreakable but, for the most part, I have found most of his films to be very obvious, unsurprising and disappointing. However, I almost always like the musical scores James Newton Howard composes for Shyamalan... a director who seems to bring out the absolute best in this composer. So I try to see these when I can.
Due to various issues with my life back in 2006, it wasn’t always easy to get to see the latest movies when they hit the cinema and, consequently, Lady In The Water was pretty much the only film by this director which I missed on the big screen. Because it got fairly bad word of mouth and was pretty much a box office failure, I could never really muster up the effort to get around to seeing this one. However, about a year ago I spotted a Blu Ray of the movie going for around £3 and figured I might as well finally get to it. After all, I really like the lead actor Paul Giamatti and, you know, there was that James Newton Howard score to hear within the context of the movie.
I was a little surprised, therefore, when... after a brief narration scene involving cartoon stick figures, giving us a potted background history of the fantasy creatures that are to be found in this tale... I found that the film has a charm and warmth far surpassing my expectations. Right from the outset, when we are introduced to the caretaker of a building, Cleveland Heep, played by Giamatti and the strange water nymph he finds in that building’s swimming pool... ‘Story’, played by Dallas Bryce Howard... I was hooked and wanting to find out just what was going to happen to these people.
Shyamalan’s almost invisible directing style provides us with a window on the many characters who inhabit Heep’s building, gradually introducing a truly amazing cast including Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez, Jeffrey Wright and, of course, Shyamalan himself... who at this point in his career seemed to be writing himself bigger roles with every film he directed. As it happens, he’s pretty amazing in this too so... I can live with that.
Lady In The Water is based on a story M. Night Shyamalan made up to tell his children at bedtime and, as such, this film is a little more whimsical than you might expect from him... dealing, as it does, with water nymphs, their quest to ‘awaken’ a specific person in the world of man, the ferocious grass creatures who seek to stop this and kill said water nymphs and... other story elements which pull together as the film progresses. I don’t want to spoil this one for you so I’ll stop there with the plot details, suffice it to say that the film is about Heep and his quest to identify and slowly gather the necessary people from the tale so he can help Story fulfil her mission and return to her home while, at the same time, trying to protect her from her enemy. And it’s just great, in all honesty.
I’m not quite sure why this got such a bad reaction from people as it’s easily either my favourite or, perhaps, second favourite of this director’s works (although the score is Howard’s least interesting for Shyamalan, it has to be said). Maybe it’s because people are less able to buy into what amounts to almost a fairy tale of a story with adults fulfilling their specific purpose to make the laws of the fantasy world come to life. Or maybe it was just badly publicised by Warner Brothers... who knows? What I do know, though, is that I wish Shyamalan was still making films like this instead of some of the other territory he’s been moving into recently.
The really nice thing about this movie is that Bob Balaban’s character is a film and book critic. Therefore he knows everything about stories and Shyamalan is able to use this element he wrote into the character to slyly stick his tongue into his cheek by simultaneously having this guy deconstruct the elements of the film as they are playing out. It’s almost like he’s poking his tongue out at his critics (but not as a sign of affection in this case, as it might be considered by lovers) and saying to them, “Yeah, this movie is obvious and I know character A is bound to do this and character B will always do this but, actually, that’s not going to stop me from having my cake and eating it by having these characters do these things to move the story forward while I highlight that this is what they are doing anyway.” So it’s kind of cool and I think the last movie before this that I can remember pulling off such a level of self awareness while still using the clichéd elements of its genre rules to play out those very same things was the Stephen Sommers reboot of The Mummy series for Universal back in 1999. Lady In The Water has exactly the same kind of level of reflexivity in it but it’s even more blatant and spelled out for the audience... and it still manages to get away with it.
Another thing I liked about this one is that there is no expectation of any kind of a twist ending like a great many of this director’s film have. That meant I could feel more relaxed watching it and, although the ending was pretty much a shoe in for the obvious conclusion, I really didn’t mind it and wasn’t in any way disappointed with the film’s denouement either. Which was nice.
All in all, I’d have to heftily recommend Lady In The Water to any of my friends who have a warm heart and like adult fairy tales. It is in no way deserving, in my opinion, of the rating it has on the famous Rotten Tomatoes website and I really don’t know why people are calling it contrived when it’s not something that the writer/director is really trying to hide about this work. So, if you’ve never seen an M. Night Shyamalan film and want to see a good one, check out this one because it’s an unquestionably warm and emotional movie. There aren’t that many of those being made these days, it would seem.
Tuesday, 20 February 2018
Wakanda Man Is He?
2018 USA Directed by Ryan Coogler
UK cinema release print.
Black Panther is the latest in the chain-linked Marvel Cinematic Universe movies which have set modern cinematic trends on fire since the debut of the first Iron Man film. It carries on directly from story and character elements set up in both Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) and Captain America - Civil War (reviewed here).
Now, I’m not a big Black Panther comic book fan, truth be told. I remember I used to draw him occasionally as a kid (like most of the Marvel and DC superheroes) but I never really had any of his stand alone appearances... just the odd appearance in a hardback UK british Marvel annual or Marvel Treasury edition guesting in other heroes' stories. So, in terms of the comic book roots for this film, I can’t really talk with any authority.
I do, however, remember Klaw (aka Ulysses Klau) and was really stoked when he turned up in Age Of Ultron, portrayed by Andy Serkis, because I wanted to see him in the colourful costume and with the ‘sonic claw’ he used to wear on his arm. Alas, my biggest disappointment with this movie is that, although Serkis once again shows up to do the honours, I felt he was a really under utilised character and, alas, doesn’t have either the costume or that big metal stump with the sonic antenna sticking out of it... which is a shame. I had further disappointment with this character’s arc here too... used as a bit of a plot point rather than a character in his own right... but I can’t say too much here because I want this review to be spoiler free.
As it happens though, in spite of this, Black Panther is actually pretty good and certainly holds its own with a fair amount of the MCU movies over the years. And in terms of art direction... well in that respect it’s probably the best of the current Marvel movies... at least in a visual sense.
The film has good performances all around and that helps a lot for a movie with not many ties to the other films being present in the flesh, so to speak. Chadwick Boseman really seems to have grown into the role fairly quickly and he has some of the humour which the character was missing in Captain America - Civil War. Which is not surprising since his involvement in that movie came from his reaction to the death of his father. Martin Freeman returns here too, as the CIA agent he played in Civil War and he is also a heck of a lot more palatable this time around with him taking a more heroic role... though having an American accent coming out of his mouth is still just plain wrong and sounds quite terrible. Lupita Lupita Nyong'o, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and Forest Whitaker are all, as expected, strong in their varies supporting roles and, I have to say, Michael B. Jordan as the villanous Killmonger is quite striking, both in presence and appearance here.
Okay. So there’s a lot of good stuff here with an almost ‘international espionage’ tone to some of the scenes (my favourite part of the movie was the ‘incident’ set in a casino in Busan) and the action is as competently handled as well as it is in all the other Marvel movies of recent years. That being said, in a movie which is pretty entertaining a lot of the time, I did have a few little grumbles with it.
Okay, so my main problem was that it was quite repetitive all the way through. You have three (technically) combat challenge scenes, three spirit journey scenes and the whole thing kept feeling like... "Didn’t I see this stuff enough earlier in the movie?" I take the point that most Marvel movies like this are somewhat formulaic in that they are ‘battle - pause - battle - pause - battle - pause’ movies but I just felt the types of situations which presented these conflicts could have been a little more varied in the execution. This is maybe, partially, due to the fact that the film doesn’t ‘globe hop’ as much as some of the others (most of it is set in the fictional country of Wakanda) and... I dunno... it just got a bit ‘samey’ after a while.
The only other problem I have with it is in the continuity of the Black Panther character in relation to his other appearance. We saw in Captain America - Civil War how he failed to stop the murder of his father and then took over the mantle of Black Panther. However, it turns out he doesn’t get his ‘panther powers’ bestowed on him - by the ingestion of a specific herb - until this part of the story, set after those events from the former film. So are we saying the version of the character in that one was not operating at optimum strength? Especially when, to be honest, I couldn’t see much (if any) difference between that version of the character and this one? I either didn’t understand something or there was some sloppy writing in here. Not sure which, to be honest.
These are all fairly minor grumbles though and there’s a lot of good stuff to make up for it.
I said the film has the best art direction of any of the MCU films to date and the colours utilised throughout are fantastic. I loved the clashes of the red costumes of the king’s personal guard against the various sets/locations and there are some amazing, probably artifically enhanced, skies in this film. It’s really nice to look at and marks this director out as someone to watch, I think.
It also has a really nice score by Ludwig Göransson but I’m really unhappy that, just like another MCU film Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 (reviewed here), the powers that be have not seen fit to issue a CD release of this one... instead going down the incredibly stupid ‘download’ route. Way to exclude the soundtrack listeners who wanted to purchase this thing people! This practice should be outlawed.
So there you have it. A pretty cool film. I don’t think it deserves all the unbelievable hype it seems to be getting and, frankly, it’s no Wonder Woman (reviewed here) but it is a pretty good entry in the series and it certainly doesn’t let the other movies down... although I didn’t like it as much as some of the others from the last couple of years of the ongoing saga, truth be told. It does have a certain power though and brings, again, a slightly different feel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe which will be useful in future crossovers... the next one being the big Avengers - Infinity War film in two months time. With regards to that, this film has two post credits scenes... one in the middle and one right at the end so, you know, you might want to stick around for those two. A certain character makes an appearance in the second of these who I was expecting to turn up in the main body of the movie properly and lend a hand, given the set up in a previous film but... oh well, at least he’s in here.
If you are a lover of the Marvel superhero movies then Black Panther is a little different and definitely one to have a look at... especially if you want to know what’s going on for the next one. Definitely give this one a go if this is your thing. A solid entry in the ongoing Marvel juggernaut.
Sunday, 18 February 2018
Gill Merman Del Toro
The Shape Of Water
2017 USA Directed by Guillermo del Toro
2018 UK cinema release print.
Well there you go then. Only just over halfway through February and we already have a new movie release that absolutely embodies the spirit of cinema and is exactly what the art form is all about.
It would be fair to say I’ve found director Guillermo del Toro a little hit and miss over the years but, in all honesty, much more with the movie speedometer pointing towards ‘hit’ than at the other end of the scale. I am still a bit reluctant to embrace both of his enormously creative works Kronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, for example... I’m sorry, they just left me cold. However, I absolutely loved the two Hellboy movies he did (especially the second one which, it seemed to me, felt like it had less studio interference) and Mimic, Pacific Rim (reviewed here) and Crimson Peak (reviewed here) were all films I could get behind to some extent.
When I saw the trailer for The Shape Of Water featuring Sally Hawkins, who I think is one of the more engaging and wondrous British actresses of recent years, it looked like a movie which would, at the very least, once again enrich an audience’s cinematic experience with a beautifully crafted, heavily stylised piece of art and... yeah... dead right it does.
It also looked like it was taking inspiration from one of my all time favourite monster movies of the 1950s and, yeah, it does that too.
The film is set in 1962 and details the story of a mute cleaning lady called Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, who works with a group of workers, including her friend Zelda (played wonderfully by Octavia Spencer), that look after the cleaning duties for a top secret, government research facility. One day they have a new ‘asset’ brought to the facility... an amphibian man played by Doug Jones (who played a very similar character for this director in the Hellboy films, of course). The creature has been captured in a river in South America (another reference to the obviously inspiration of the character, which I’ll get to in a minute) and is treated cruelly as a science project (or worse) by the majority of the scientists at the facility and, especially, by the accompanying security chief Strickland. Strickland, played with the usual villanous relish by Michael Shannon, is the real monster of this film which, actually, is in no way a horror film but certainly has moments of dark terror to be found in both Shannon’s role and in the ‘cold war’ paranoia surrounding the only kindly scientist, played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
However, Elise slowly falls in love and creates a bond with the creature and, when she finds that Strickland has scheduled its termination and vivisection, she enlists the aid of her commercial artist friend Giles (played so poignantly by Richard Jenkins) and the two of them, including a couple of unexpected allies, plot to kidnap and ultimately free the creature. And that’s about as much I want to tell you of the story arc because, well... you’ll surely want to discover that for yourself.
The film starts of strongly with the allusions to Elisa’s unknown start in life and a wonderful homage to cinema and great TV of days gone by (both visually and on the soundtrack). The beauty and charm of Elisa’s daily routine, where she wakes up in her room above the Orpheum cinema and draws a bath before furiously masturbating in the tub prior to going to work, is full of detail and, much like a lot of past cinematic classics, almost threatens to overwhelm the senses as you watch and let the world wash over you in all its glory.
As you would expect from a director of this calibre, it’s not just the incredible talent he calls on which makes the film into a little masterpiece of the visual arts. The set and shot design is superb and he manipulates some nice, often aquatically themed colour palettes to tell his story... a tale filled with a lot of charm and heart (which is something which I found lacking in Pan’s Labyrinth, to be honest). He also does some wonderful stuff with the sound design too. For instance, in a scene where Michael Shannon’s character is roughly having sex with his wife, the background sound of the springs and rhythm of the bed keep going through to the next scene transition and become the ambient noise of the next environment... which I found quite phenomenal and applause worthy, to be honest.
There’s another little moment in the film later where the lighting in a room where Elisa and the Creature are eating dinner suddenly goes fully into an unnatural state in that the whole room dims to black except Elise, in a spotlight, as something truly touching is about to happen... and then the film goes completely sideways into a brilliant sequence which I really can’t spoil here but... it was absolutely not what I was expecting to happen and it involves a monochromatic sequence of 1930s style spectacle.
The creature itself, of course... and the romance with the main protagonist... is clearly inspired by the classic ‘creature feature’ Creature From The Black Lagoon (which I reviewed here) and the whole film, which does include sex sequences and (yay!) Sally Hawkins in a state of undress, seems like the director had watched that film and become inspired by that moment where the gill man is swimming beneath Julie Adams and falls for her. And, as it turns out, from what I understand now that I read a few lines from the director about the movie from other sources after seeing this... that’s pretty much the case. This film is very much a projection of Creature From The Black Lagoon (although it technically bears a little more resemblance in setting, perhaps, to the first of the two sequels, Revenge Of The Creature) and a look at where that relationship could have gone if 1950s cinema had been perhaps a little more relaxed in what it was allowed to depict, story wise, at the time.
All of this is accompanied by a score composed by the great Alexandre Desplat (although there are a lot of sequences, also, where source music from various eras relateable to the period and its direct history are utilised) and, while its probably not one of his best, it is a nice score and I’m hoping a closer listen (the CD has been sitting in the corner of the room for the last week or two, still in shrink wrap) will make clear why it’s been given an Oscar nomination. It’s nice stuff including a lot of whistling which appropriately helps to build the world as seen through the eyes of Elisa.
The film is both romantic and passionate in its portrayal of the beauty of this world but also pushes the limits in such a fantasy in that it doesn’t shy away from going to some really dark places. There are some things which are tough to watch but the director and his cast manage to pull it off so deftly that it never feels like the two opposing emotional styles are threatening to tear the piece apart and I feel del Toro is much more adept at the art of keeping things in balance than he was, maybe, at the start of his career. Like any other artist, he is a creator who grows better and more skilled as he gains more experience at the helm of these amazing worlds he creates.
The denouement of the movie features something happening which I was half expecting would be made more of, when the story first reveals the scars around Elisa’s neck which are held accountable for her inability to speak. However, rather than being a disappointing revelation of something which some people will also, I’m sure, find a little obvious... it’s just where I personally felt the movie needed to go and I was really happy the writers and director did this thing, while we hear Richard Jenkins recite a piece of poetry on the voice-over narrative which is obviously the inspiration for the title of the film.
And that’s more or less all I want to say about The Shape Of Water. Like Elisa, I have no more words to describe the pleasures and wonders of the environment in which this central character lives her life but I do have the words to recommend this to anyone who answers to the somewhat dubious title of cinephile or even the more casual watchers and lovers of the cinematic form such as myself. The Shape Of Water is another gift from Guillermo del Toro and it’s a present which I know I will certainly be unwrapping again for myself when the Blu Ray gets a release. It’s definitely something which cries out to be caught on the big screen of your local cinema so, my advice would be to swim to this one as soon as you can.
Friday, 16 February 2018
Sin-a-rama : Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties (Expanded Edition)
by Astrid Daley-Douglas
Feral House Books
A good friend of mine bought me Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties on the occasion of my 50th birthday, earlier in the year. This enticing and immensely entertaining look at the landscape of, mostly softcore, sex fiction paperbacks of the mid-1950s to late 1960s is a subject I was completely unfamiliar with (no, really) and so I dived into this one with relish.
The book takes the form of a glossy art tome reproducing various covers from this vast field which are mini masterpieces of artwork based, mostly, on the idea of showing as much of a woman’s (or sometimes man’s) body in a painting as you can get away with but while concealing all the naughty bits due to censorship laws. It’s not just the cover art that gives the often hilarious charm to these pop culture classics, however... many of the mind blowingly silly titles are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any potential reader and one wonders if the target audience for these books at the time was reading these things with the knowing wink the writers obviously gave them or were treating them as more serious fare.
The book starts off, the first 70 pages or so, as a series of articles by different authors which give an often ‘first hand’ account of the various goings on around the scene of the stable of writers and the different companies they wrote for (almost always under a pen name, as you ‘ll see in a minute), as well as the various executives behind the scenes and the amount of trouble they would get into for distributing this kind of, extremely lucrative at the time, literature. Not to mention the lengths agencies like the FBI would go to in order to try and get some kind of prosecution for distributing this stuff. It also has some nice information about the various aspects of the law at different times and shows how various legal developments, such as the big court case with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and various other things which sidetracked the US government (the emphasis on this book is once again on the American demographic), allowed a loosening on what could and couldn’t be gotten away with in terms of describing the various sex acts depicted and, often, condemned by the very people exploiting them in order to be seen to be taking the moral high ground in order to get these works through.
The first big shock for me was that the second of the accounts in this book is by famed science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Why? Well, although he was already an established writer of fantastic science fiction at the time, the big sci-fi boom of the 1950s had passed and there were only two publishers who were really putting that kind of material out at the time. Hence he and, it turns out, a lot of other famous writers, were more than just dabbling in churning out absolutely loads of these novels for the various publishers under a variety of different pseudonyms.
Silverberg starts out with a sample of how a piece of purple prose would be written now, full of all the different terms for the various ‘activities’ going on. He then gives an example of the same act written as he wrote it in the flowery and implied language of these novels and it’s quite an entertaining example of the difference between then and now. He goes on to say he was leading a fairly good lifestyle at the time and the rates that he was being paid for these things kept him in the high life. It turns out he churned out 150 of these novels in the space of five years. Do the maths there and figure out how many of these things he was knocking out every month at a starting salary of $600 a novel (which eventually doubled, if I understood him correctly) and you’ll see the kind of ferocious pace he and his contemporaries in the field were writing at in what must have been seen as a fairly lucrative trade. And all the while still writing for other genres for different publishers... and still getting out to all the parties too. Nice work if you can get it.
And it seems like it was a similar situation for a load of these ‘high end’ writers working in this, technically, lower end of the profession. And I mean ‘high end’ writers. You had people like Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Donald F. Glut (remember his novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?), Donald E. Westlake, Edward D. Wood Jr (yeah, the infamous director as played by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood) and even Evan Hunter (his more familiar pen name would be Ed McBain, of course), to name but a few. All of them labouring diligently to ensure their latest opus would not fall under the legal category “utterly without redeeming social value”, so that the work couldn’t be banned. And all of them lit up with beautiful cover paintings and designs by great artists like Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew and Chet Collom.
And, of course, some of these writers and artists had just as interesting and sometimes tragic lives as the protagonists who populated their particularly charming brand of sleaze novels. And the book does have some very touching accounts of their lives by their friends of the time which are quite poignant in places.
After this quite large amount of text for the small number of pages it fills to the brim (in fairly small type), the remaining of the 328 pages in this tome are made up of reproductions, some of them full page, of the various covers that make up various subsections of differently themed sleaze for you to wade through. And it’s a very cheering read with some truly genius, sleazy titles and some really cringeworthy but somehow brilliant copy lines accompanying said titles.
Titles like Narco Nympho, Jazzman in Nude Town, The Couples On Venus Lane (“The neighbourhood was like one big swappy family”), Flip Flop Swap, Sexus Suburbia (“Her motto was 'love thy neighbour'!”), Sinburbia, Flesh Therapist, Sahara Sin Den, Nude In Orbit, Caper At Canaveral, Those Sexy Saucer People, Twisted Tulips, Pit Stop Nympho, Sin Seance and Carnal Countess (“Wanton Mistress of a Neo-Facist Passion-Cult!”). And the whole gamut of possible porn variations are covered such as wife swapping, lesbianism, homosexuality, occult themed porn, corporate sector porn, fetishism, science fiction porn and so on.
There are also, scattered throughout, little samples of a paragraph or two of ‘juicy’ text pulled from the pages of some of these scintillating classics. My favourite, for example, was this moment from ‘hippie porn’ themed novel Light Up by Jon Parker (or whatever his real name might have been)...
"Her enormous breasts plopped free, then came to a dizzy bounce, pointing forward. Already, her nipples were as rigid as red crayons; moist crevices with droplets of scented perspiration dominated the enormity of the twin globes. The nipples were like bright red strawberries, capping the milky white breasts."
Yep, I’ve read stuff like that before and it doesn’t make it any less entertaining, that’s for sure.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this immensely fun and truly enlightening/educational read about the various novels in question and the environmental conditions which gave rise to them. At the back there are two kinds of indexes where you can find out some of the writers behind the pen names they used plus an attempt at a listing of all the various publishing companies putting this stuff out. This is, I have to say, a truly eye opening book for me and a real gem to have on the bookcase along with such treasures as the Grady Hendrix book Paperbacks From Hell (which I recently reviewed here). If you’re interested in this kind of stuff then Sin-a-rama : Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties is, indeed, a quality read. Don’t pass this one by.
Tuesday, 13 February 2018
Directed by Mike Leigh
Entertainment One Blu Ray Zone B
I’ve always been a big admirer of Mike Leigh and will always think of him as one of the more opulent of the great British directors in the history of the medium. That being said, Mr. Turner is a film that I spent quite some time avoiding.
There were two reasons for this... firstly, although I am by profession a graphic designer and had the traditional ‘arty’ schooling that such a vocation demanded back in the days when education and actual knowledge about your subject were less scorned commodities than they are today, I’ve never really been enamoured of paintings with traditional subject matter. So artists like Turner, Constable, Whistler etc were out while people like Dali, Pollock, Warhol and Rothko were in, as far as I was concerned (and my tastes really haven’t veered much since those days, to be honest). So a film about Turner was not really ever going to be my first port of call.
Secondly, one of the things I really like a lot about Leigh’s cinema is the naturalistic acting and situations which he gets from his performers. I believe that a lot of creating of the parts and rehearsal time to build the roles and improvise the dialogue and action are a big part of his films and I just couldn’t see how this seemingly rigid, ‘biographical’ straight-jacket could sit too well with this style of artistic expression (it’s one of the reasons why I’ve also been avoiding Topsy Turvy).
However, I recently found out that, although not a specific admirer of Leigh like myself, my father had a strong desire to see this one and so, after my mother bought this for him for Christmas, I was in the seemingly unenviable position of having to watch it after all and... I have to confess... I liked it as much as my father did (which, for the record, was a lot).
Now I don’t have a great deal to say about this movie, to be sure but, I didn’t want to let myself down on my ‘see a film and then write about it’ promise to myself so... here I am writing about the thing. So be gentle with me if this is not as 'up to scratch' like some of my other reviews may, or may not, be... depending on your taste.
Okay, so lets start with the easiest thing to say in that the performances here are all absolutely marvellous. Especially, of course, when you have the wonderful Timothy Spall in the title role of J.M.W Turner. This performance is especially interesting due to the fact that, for the most part, Turner could apparently be a man of few words and much of where his dialogue might have been is, instead, transformed by Spall into a series of grunts and gestures. The other thing about it is, it would seem from the performance and ‘story arc’ here (if that is the right term to use in this instance), that Turner wasn’t exactly a spectacularly nice man and his relationships with other people were sometimes not the best that they could be.
Another excellent actor in this is Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper (and sometime sexual partner, it would seem, among many) who really does kind of suffer as much as some of the other characters with Turner’s lack of... empathy, shall we say... with those around him. The character is kind of sidelined in the main narrative in terms of her impact on the man but ever present, hovering around the shots and the way she lets things slide and tolerates the whims and neglect of Turner is quite telling, in a way, about the mind of the painter. I believe that in real life she followed Turner into death only a couple of years later.
Now I really don’t know anything about Turner... although, I seem to remember the ‘incident’ depicted in this at the Royal Academy with the red buoy added to the painting and the quote about this act as being like Turner firing a gun shot, did come up in a lecture at college once... so the intentions of the director to deliberately inject Turnerisms visually into the movie are well beyond me to identify. However... coming from a cinematic artist who I would equate with having a fairly loose approach to his work, the shots seem to be much more rigid in their compositions and the frames have a richness of colour and light which I would, perhaps in my ignorance, term painterly. So I suspect the director has done his best to recreate some of the more famous of Turner’s works within the camera to the point that even I could tell that something was going on here. At the very least, I’m sure Leigh has enriched his compositions with the energy of the man’s paintings so, you know, if you’re a fan of Turner’s work then this picture is probably something you should see.
The film is intriguing, though, more for what isn’t said than what is and the actions (or lack of social niceties in some cases) paint an almost incomplete but appetite whetting portrait that arouses the curiosity and allows the audience to imply the arc of the character in his final years (which is the period portrayed here). Indeed, this conclusion of the sly spectacle of the ‘less is more’ approach here may well be because I have gone into the story completely ignorant of any aspect of this man’s life and, perhaps, the impressionistic strokes of Leigh’s artistic palette are meant to stimulate recognition of a story already well familiar to the majority of the audience finding their way to this work. However, as someone completely oblivious of the man’s path through life, I was certainly never bored with the characters on screen. Nor of the beautiful visual designs in which they’re captured so... you know... it’s okay to go to this one knowing nothing about the subject, too.
One scene, or series of scenes in particular, held my interest... when Turner goes to take another wife he gets a photographic portrait of himself taken for her... before bringing her back some time later for a shot of them both. His questions to the photographer and his own obvious technical expertise about lighting and so forth are highlighted, as are the hints of his expectations of the perceived future demise of his profession when photography started to capture realistic facsimiles of the everyday world. These are a nice couple of scenes and, like certain others, prod your brain into thinking about how Turner might have felt and reacted to this new fangled invention... the threat of photography.
And that’s really all I can say about Mr. Turner. As a big admirer of Mike Leigh I have to say that, although this is not on of my favourites of his works (I suspect Naked, Life Is Sweet and Happy Go Lucky may forever be my top three) it certainly is a spectacular and thought provoking film and, if you are a fan of cinema, or of Turner... and absolutely definitely if you are both... then you should probably take a look at this one as soon as possible. Another masterwork, of sorts, by one of the great British writing/directing talents of our time.
Sunday, 11 February 2018
The Cello-ship Of The Thing
Airdate: 2nd February - 9th March 2018
BBC 1 Six Episodes
I don’t often watch TV shows if I can help it...
There are a few special ones, sure... but, on the whole, they tend to divert too much time away from my blog for too little return in terms of reviews to be published. However, I do occasionally make an exception and, in this case, it was as a result of a review on the internet which highlighted that this was actually a horror show (a rare thing for modern day BBC) and the reviewer seemed quite enthusiastic about it. He even singled out the musical score by Dominik Scherrer (with Natasha Khan) as being... well... more than something to write home about so, obviously, I needed to have a look at this one. In truth, it had sold me on the idea because I well remember some of the outstanding horror themed TV shows of the past such as the Quatermass serials, Sapphire & Steel and The Omega Factor and I just, somehow, assumed this one would be an echo to the kind of quality of writing and production that the various stations used to put into these things back in the day.
Alas... that’s not quite the case here.
Now, if you only watched the very first episode of Requiem, I can understand why you’d probably be put off from watching another. Episode One is particularly dreadful on a number of counts. For instance, the main character, internationally famous cello sensation Matilda Gray, played by Lydia Wilson, seems a bit inconsistent as a cellist when you compare what her hands are doing when they cut from a long shot to close up and back again. Not much continuity in tempo there, I can tell you. Also, when one of the characters slashes their throat right in front of Matilda, I found it a bit hard to swallow when I realised that the dead character’s eyes kept looking around in at least two of the shots. Seriously, if the actress couldn’t hold the pose then just don’t let the footage run that long.
Both of these things in themselves could be overlooked but the main problem here is that the ‘timing’ of the horror elements in this particular episode is appallingly ineffective. I would have thought they’d have saved the definitive presence of an unseen terror at least until the end of the first one, to be honest but, the abundant appearances of ‘ghostly spirits’ and badly timed set pieces does nothing to hold the atmosphere, it has to be said. Worse than that, the identity of the person who Matilda and her musical sidekick Hal Fine (as portrayed kind of interestingly by Joel Fry here) try to find when they take a ‘time out’ to investigate shenanigans which might make sense of the bizarre death I mentioned earlier, is pretty obvious to work out once you are about twenty minutes into the first episode. Blindingly obvious.
So why did I bother watching all six, you might ask?
Well, I very nearly didn’t but I was impressed that the identity of the person I mentioned above was not held until the last episode but was, in fact, revealed at the end of the first. That meant they had to be going somewhere else with the storyline and so I thought I might as well watch the next one to see what happens next.
Thankfully, the second episode is a heck of a lot better than the first and the ghostly shenanigans are pretty much put on hold until the end of the episode. This pretty much enables the writers and performers time to build up a certain amount of intrigue and atmosphere so, by the end of the second one, I was much more into the whole thing. Although, the series doesn’t quite sustain that standard right the way through to the end, it has to be said.
Now, there is some nice stuff in here such as some excellent sound design and the odd shot where the framing looks well designed to take advantage of the placement of the characters within their environment. However, there’s still a lot of bad stuff too.
For instance, the main protagonist is someone I found I could find no sympathy for at all. Most of the time she comes across as a selfish, entitled youngster who is used to always having her own way and seems intent to ignore the people around her who actually care about her and want her to succeed. Now that may, on reflection, have been the whole point of the way that character was written and played (going by something one of the characters reveals in the last episode) but, if that was the case, it certainly didn’t do me any favours. I was far more interested in the exploits of the local bar maid, played by Sian Reese-Williams and her developing relationship with Hal or the adventures of the local police sergeant played by Clare Calbraith, than I was the main protagonist. I really didn’t care what happened to Matilda by the end of the show and I guess that’s possibly a problem for this kind of story.
The other thing was that, for a TV show trying to be, presumably, a cutting edge horror tale which is broadcast after the watershed, I found the levels of nudity compared to their necessity in certain scenes preposterously low during the moments which were obviously written to exploit such things. The BBC iPlayer made a point of warning me that 'the following show' had ‘upsetting scenes’ and ‘sexual situations’ and... well I think that’s false advertising, to a certain degree. I can never figure out how you can take a series shots of a naked lady in a shower and still manage to not show much of her body. If you don’t want to show her body then... hey, that’s fair enough... but then why set the scene in a shower in the first place? It wasn’t necessary.
Similarly, I’m all for having sex scenes in a show but why the heck, when the bedsheets are flung back after an evening of frantic lovemaking, would you reveal that the heroine of the piece still has her bra on? How unreal and harmful to the pseudo-reality of the story is that? I mean who actually behaves this way in real life? Unbelievable.
So, yeah, there are some problems with the show but I did find that for four of the episodes... numbered two to five... I was sufficiently hooked and intrigued to say that I really enjoyed it a lot. And, yes, that original review I read was right... the music is pretty good and I would certainly grab a copy if a CD soundtrack was released of this one.
Unfortunately, I’d have to say that the series was unable to sustain the levels of intrigue for the sixth and final episode which is, if I’m honest, as much of a mess as the first one was. I quite liked that some things which seemed a little like loose ends were the writers trying to be subtle and allowing the audience to fill in the blanks by themselves but, one of the scenes towards the end actually undercuts the lack of bloodletting you know is coming by having a quick, abstract shot in flashback followed by, a short while after, a shot of four shallow graves including an arm sticking out with a watch that really does try and spell things out for the audience in the least engaging way possible. I mean, if you were going to allude to what the fate of some of the characters was going to be, withhold a certain event and then show us anyway, you might have been a lot better off just showing us what occurred in the first place.
Also, it has to be said that the final fate of the main protagonist, Matilda, is pretty obvious once you get to a certain point here and so the various epilogue scenes seemed quite redundant and you are just waiting for the writer and director to spell it all out again... just in case you hadn’t already worked it out (while I would have said that it was almost impossible not to figure it all out in advance). The show starts going ‘The Full Wheatley’ (Dennis, that is) from the second episode in so you can pretty much work out where all this is going. So what we have is an unsatisfying ending which wasn’t exactly unexpected and which will probably leave most fans of the horror genre a little unsatisfied, truth be told.
At the end of the day, I’m kind of half glad I watched this one because four of the six episodes were at least interesting but, in all honesty, I don’t think I could recommend this one to most people... especially if they are horror fans. There are a lot better genre exercises than this out there and, maybe this one is a little bit of a time suck that a lot of people wouldn’t need. Which is not, I promise you, what I was hoping to write about Requiem.
Thursday, 8 February 2018
Paperbacks From Hell
by Grady Hendrix
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Paperbacks From Hell from a very good friend of mine this Christmas. It was a book I’d heard about and wanted to explore because the subject matter, as implied in the subtitle on the front of the book - ‘The twisted history of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction’ - was a phenomenon I well remember here in the UK and it was something which was timed just right for me to actively explore at the time.
To explain... on 7th September 1981, almost two years after it’s original US broadcast, the first installment of a two part US TV miniseries based on a book by horror writer Stephen King and called ‘Salem’s Lot, was broadcast in the UK. Now I would have been 13 years old when I saw this and was traumatised, like many young ‘uns at the time, by the cool ‘vampire kid' floating outside the bedroom window and the scene where the black shadow pops up from the bottom of the screen with an over the top musical stinger. So... yeah... all us kids loved it and it started me off acquiring Stephen King novels from my local W. H. Smith And Son Ltd.
And, of course, naturally, once you start buying this well written horror stuff, other writers in the same shelving sections come to your attention. How do you judge which ones you want to read next? By that very same thing you should never judge a book by, of course... it’s cover.
So it wasn’t long before I was also devouring the slightly less ‘up market’ but still very well written novels by James Herbert, the most popular of the UK horror writers at the time. So... King’s ‘Salem’s Lot... The Shining... The Stand and then sliding into Herbert’s The Rats... The Fog... The Jonah etc. However, at that age, horror isn’t the only thing your hormonally challenged mind is into and... there was a fair amount of sex included in the majority of the Herbert books. Those well read passages which soon became the first thing you kept an open eye and open fly out for when the latest purchase was brought home.
And then, of course, it’s a slippery slope and you find yourself reading the full banquet (or whatever you could afford on the small amount of pocket money which was somehow your true birth right) of horror novels which combined out and out gory mayhem coupled with extremely experimental and well thumbed sexploitation. Some of those novelists were still very much masters of the craft of writing... I might mention Dean R. Koontz or John Farris here... and others more than made up for in creative, over the top, gory sexiness what they may (or may not) have lacked in terms of their ability to turn a good sentence and write decent prose... so we had people like the beyond prolific Guy N. Smith with his crab books or John Halkin with his killer jellyfish or Shaun Hutson with his bloodthirsty slugs (see my review of the movie of that one here).
What I didn’t realise when I was given this grand tome, is that this particular love letter to the trashy, horror fiction paperback genre of the 70s and 80s was also written by the very same person who wrote a novel which I really liked when I read it last year... Horrorstör (reviewed here)... by Grady Hendrix. So you have him to blame for bringing to our shelves this extremely nicely designed and enormously entertaining volume.
The book starts off with his introduction where he talks about finding a used copy of a book of that era called The Little People by John Christopher. This is a book which features, amongst its many grotesque elements, a bunch of Nazi leprechauns called Gestapochauns who are heavily into S&M (as it was called before it was sanitised, somewhat, to BDSM) and who are created from the unborn foetuses of Jewish concentration camp victims. After hearing this absolutely bonkers concept, I did try to get hold of a decent copy of this book online at proper old school second hand prices (which seems to have gone up from the 30p standard these things used to be picked up for in musty, old book shops of the 1980s, for some reason) but, alas, the prices for this one on ebay etc are fairly high... presumably as a result of people reading Paperbacks From Hell, no doubt.
After the intro, Mr. Hendrix splits his exploration of this delightfully hellish landscape of well thumbed paperbacks by splitting his tome up into eight chapters. These are Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, Weird Science, Gothic And Romance, Inhumanoids and a mouthful of a final chapter called Splatter Punks, Serial Killers & Super Creeps. He further explores each of his categories with different sections to highlight different types of sub genre and these mini sections, with titles such as Salad Of The Damned, Starry Starry Nightmare and The Vampire Strikes Back, should probably tell you pretty much the tone of the reading experience here than anything else I might add.
But... if it doesn’t... let me spell it out for you.
Hendrix’s take on the genre is fun and irreverent and reflects perfectly the writing style which made his earlier novel Horrorstör so great. It’s also pretty informative as he takes us from the point, starting with gothic romances, where the popular horror novel of the period was properly born to the point of its regrettable demise a couple of decades later. Now I obviously haven’t kept up with times because I didn’t realise the horror novel wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it was during this time. I honestly thought you could still buy really trashy literature like this from the shelves of your local book store but... I guess not so much.
I did, though, learn a fair amount from this book... such as where some of the trends which the author has chosen to bundle up into specific categories first started or were influenced by. The popularity of such things as the demonic possession horror tales or the blaxploitation terrors obviously coining it in after their cinematic counterparts found an audience for them. Various influences and trends are lovingly explored and it’s illustrated throughout with full colour reproductions of various covers.
There are also randomly placed sections for the works and mini biography of various specific cover artists. Usually it's only a page long but it’s a nice thing to add and it even, on occasions, includes unused versions of the cover in question or an original, pre-painting preparatory sketch for these.
Another nice thing was the inclusion of some books (sometimes by name drop only) which I didn’t think anyone else had even heard of or, indeed, had read these days... such as Satan - His Psychotherapy And Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. (by Jeremy Leven), which was one of the best books I remember reading from that era... or Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes And Monsters which, to be fair, Hendrix seems to hold in far less regard than I.
Above all, though, the writing style is extraordinarily entertaining throughout and I loved little gems of passages about, for instance, how to best raise your possessed, homicidal or downright stabby evil kids. Or the warning about the dangers of keeping demonically possessed toys up in your attic. And a brilliant bit about the typical ‘horror man’ (who is immensely ‘chiselled’) and the typical ‘horror woman’. I especially loved this little bit about the ‘horror woman’...
“The most expressive parts of her body are her nipples. They noticeably harden when she is aroused, surprised, confused or meeting new people. They are practically prehensile tentacles, capable of lengthening, thickening, unfurling, budding, flaring and swelling.”
Yeah... I have to say, I’ve read a few books like that but it’s kinda funny, to be sure.
If I had one caveat with the book... and this is in no way a criticism... it’s that the writer is pretty much coming at this stuff from a mostly American angle when it comes to the cover art. Now a lot of the British cover art was often more sexually exploitative or photographic...or often a thrilling combination of the two... with the UK covers of books like John Halkin’s Slime and Dean R. Koontz Whispers and Night Chills, with their naked ladies in peril or at sleep, something which was often more memorable than the printed words between said covers. It might well be in the interests of Mr. Hendrix to maybe look at doing a sequel to his current tome where he can explore the UK landscape of the time... a Paperbacks From Hell In The UK, if you will.
Like I said, though... not a criticism, more an observation and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this writer's journey into a time I had almost forgotten. Much recommended to both the oldies like myself who will find themselves on a trip down memory lane and also to the younger audience who were maybe never exposed to this stuff before. The book is beautifully designed, well researched/written and is an absolute treasure trove of trash for anyone’s book shelf. Check it out when you can.
Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Hell On Mirren
Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
UK cinema release print.
Winchester is a new film based on the unusual, perpetually built and rebuilt house constructed by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the man behind the Winchester rifle. It is best known as one of the most haunted houses ever... at least that’s the modern myth surrounding the ‘Winchester Mystery House’, as it’s more popularly known... and that might explain why it has been the subject of many different art forms over the years including other films, books, comics, TV shows and video games.
Indeed, the last movie I saw based on this particular urban myth (if you prefer to see it as such) was the utterly dreadful beyond belief (sliding into incompetency, I thought) The Haunting Of Winchester House... which I reviewed here. I can, quite honestly, say that this current cinema release is a way more positive viewing experience than what that previous film turned out to be.
Winchester stars Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, Sarah Snook and Jason Clarke as the central protagonist Dr. Eric Price. Dr. Price is a psychiatrist who is hired by the Winchester company to stay in the house with the remaining family for a period, carry out an observation and declare Sarah Winchester ‘unfit’ to remain in power there. However, as the film runs it’s course and we find out just who has cherry picked him for this job and, more importantly... why, then the real agenda behind the job offer becomes clearer.
Dr. Price takes the job as he is heavily in debt... when we first see him he is entertaining three escorts at his large house while they are all tripped out on Laudanum... and the job will pay double what he owes to various establishments. We also learn, through the course of the film that he is carrying on like this to try and get over the violent death of his wife and, although he doesn’t know it yet, he will certainly find some kind of solution at the famous, constantly shifting mansion.
I have to say that this film surprised me in that it was quite effective. The reason that surprised me was because the plot of the film is completely cliché ridden and the dialogue is so awful that you certainly need actors of the kind of calibre of Mirren, Clarke and Snook to help give it some kind of life and make it all sound credible for the few moments when said dialogue hangs in the air out of their mouths. However, the film is so well directed and so great at the timing of the scares that it turns out the execution completely saves this movie and is very entertaining/terrifying in certain places.
One of those clichés, of course, is to throw in the good doctor’s fondness for abusing his little bottle of Laudanum as it’s so obviously a trick to allow the character to play along with the scares in the early stages of the film without feeling the need to affect any change in his circumstances. That is to say, the man is subject to all kinds of terrifying happenings but, because he knows his perceptions of things must be somewhat changed by his poison of choice (literally poison), then he is able to pass of the various supernatural attacks as just hallucinations brought on by his drug habit and thus allow the audience more ‘horror movie foreplay’ before he realises something a little bit ‘out there’ is going on.
Now, I saw through all this charade at audience manipulation as the cliché it was, right when I first spied the Laudanum bottle but, I have to say, that you can’t really criticize the cast and crew for falling back on this kind of writing crutch, to be honest, as the scares come thick and fast at you. Indeed, the first big jump scare, which involves a shifting mirror and which deliberately makes you complacent in the expectation of such a moment before coming out of left field where your mind was not focused... really got to the audience, I can tell you (and to me too, I’m happy to say).
So, yeah, the film does all the expected stuff you would expect from this kind of movie... the dark shadows, the POV camera work as the ghostly spirits observe the living, the locked doors and the various large furniture placed in front of the protagonists field of vision... it’s all here and it’s all quite shamelessly trotted out but... it’s also to be admired in the context of this movie, I think. It does prove to be rather effective and the directors, actors and editor all prove to be consummate professionals in their work.
The (sadly unavailable on CD at time of writing) score by Peter Spierig is also pretty much 'on the mark'. Yes, it's the usual, slow moving with added atonalism moments you might expect but, again, like the composer’s skill at directing this movie, it’s all very appropriate and effective to the job in hand.
And there’s not much more I can tell you about this one, I think. Winchester is a first class shocker and very much an old style B-movie with an A-movie cast list. If you like horror movies then you’ll probably want to check this one out. Yes, you’ve seen it all before but, rarely I suspect, have you seen it handled just so well. Certainly the best of the art pieces I’ve seen covering this phenomenon and a real treat for genre fans. Not one to miss.
Sunday, 4 February 2018
Ebbing, Easier Screwed
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
2017 USA/UK Directed by Martin McDonagh
UK cinema release print.
You know, I nearly didn’t bother with this movie.
I'd read on Twitter from a few people that the film was completely devoid of emotion and also, on the IMDB, that it was not much better than a TV movie. Well... I should have probably already remembered to not let the conclusions of people on Twitter, bad or good, be a factor in deciding whether I should go see a film or not... and in the case of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri... well it’s a good reminder to always take what you read on the internet with a modicum of salt.
As it happens, this is one of those damn near perfect films that come along every once in a while. Consequently, this may be a somewhat short review because I don’t really have too much to say about it but let me press on for a minute or two here.
So the film’s inclusions in this years Oscar nominations were mostly another nail in the coffin for me because a film’s acceptance for a potential industry award is so often completely off the mark in regards to the organisers making value judgements on the year’s cinematic art that it's really not to be taken seriously. As it happens, though, Carter Burwell... who is a composer I feel is a bit hit and miss when it comes to effectively scoring a movie... was nominated for his contribution and so I thought I might as well go an hear what he had to offer. As it happens, though, the score is probably one of the least deserving of Oscar attention that I’ve heard and, if this is in this year’s awards then there’s definitely something wrong with the system here... although, to be fair, the fact that Wonder Woman (reviewed here), Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (reviewed here) and A Ghost Story (reviewed here) didn’t get nominated for at least 15 categories each proves that the whole Oscar thing is a joke... put together by people who just don’t seem to understand or appreciate the art of film. It’s all very strange.
However, for this reason I ended up in the cinema to see this thing and it really is a great little movie.
The film starts off with some fairly strong visuals showing us the three billboards from various angles and master shots to establish them as the defining motif of the film... one which we shall come back to, in terms of the shot content, time and time again. However, this is undercut with this totally rubbish song which started getting on my nerves from the very start and which is joined, at various places in the film, by various other irritating songs that almost managed to kill the scenes they were in... so there’s that.
We then join Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred, as she drives into town past the three billboards of the title, stops the car and then gets the idea to rent them out to poke the police who have kinda given up on solving the recent rape and murder of her daughter. This is what the film is about... the battles she faces keeping the billboards up and using them as a force to keep the police’s mind focused on her unsolved murder. However, this film is not a one trick pony of a movie, it turns out.
It’s a particular work of art which is populated by a very strong cast. Joining the always brilliant McDormand we have Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, the underused, chameleon-like Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish and Peter Dinklage. They’re all fine actors and all brilliantly supported by a cast of character actors who are all as fine as they are. Despite comments I’ve seen, you would think that these performers, between them, could conjure up the necessary emotion and you’d not be wrong. It’s true, McDormand plays the character of the mother as a somewhat tough and muffled person but... she’s certainly not lacking in emotion and her turn here packs one hell of a wallop, I can tell you that.
I think what impressed me most about the film is that it’s not populated by black and white characters. The writing of the characters... and I’m not necessarily talking about the wonderful dialogue here but the way they are structured... is all very much portraying them in shades of grey. For example, one might say that there are two characters on the police force who could be seen as villains but, as you get to know them, you realise that its not that simple and they more than redeem themselves at certain points in the film, completely changing your perceptions of them. And it’s a similar situation with Mildred’s character... even though you are rooting for her the whole time, you can’t always say that she follows a good and righteous path to her ultimate destination and, by the end of the movie, you may not even be sure what that destination is supposed to be anymore. It’s phenomenal writing and that’s why you need these strong performers to handle the different shades of right and wrong which are inside every character.
The performances also help with the dialogue too. The comedy in this film is brilliant and, though it is a bit of a ‘movie review’ cliché to say this, there are scenes in this movie which will have you laughing your head off one minute and then stone cold sober the next. Such as a moment between a mother, an abusive ex-husband and their son turning from everyone being two seconds away from serious bodily harm to being tempered and turning back into comedy again with the stupidity of the ex-husband’s 19 year old girl friend accidentally diffusing the situation. This stuff requires a deft touch by everyone, I would guess (including the editor) and that’s exactly the kind of perfect attention to getting things exactly right that this film seems to possess in spades. You really don’t know how the characters are going to behave here and some of the drama, especially in a scene where Sam Rockwell’s character is on a phone while holding a shotgun, comes from the various characters never really knowing what is going through each other’s heads. It’s a big strength of the script and the way in which it’s shot. It also means the occasional, visceral violence that punctuates the story is entirely unexpected until various incidents happen. Which is a good thing.
Another thing that struck me was that the director sometimes opts to use shots that are very high in contrast... in that you’ll have a lot of dark and light in a shot. He’s not afraid to turn the lights off and use an outside source to pitch against the darkness, for example. Like when Mildred is reading a letter that Sheriff Willoughby ( played by Woody Harrelson) has left her and she is in a completely dark interior but the windows (she is nicely framed in one for this shot) are a contrasting light source which pitches her into silhouette.
Similarly, there is a scene later where one of the characters is reading a different letter from Willoughby, in a darkened room where he is not supposed to be, having let himself in at night. Because his back is to the windows, he doesn’t realise the building has been set ablaze by molotov cocktails until he is blown forwards by the last of five bottles. But while we watched him reading the letter, the light from the fire outside those windows is what gives the shot this similarly strong contrast and I couldn’t help but wonder if the director had used this kind of composition with strong areas of light and shade to provide a counterpoint to the complicated greyness of the characters. Probably not but it would be a nice thought if this probably serendipitous to and fro between the intricacies of the character’s internal, psychological make-up and the bold, simplicity of the shot design was a conscious decision.
Carter Burwell’s score is... serviceable when it’s not being undermined by needle-dropped songs on the soundtrack. It’s similar in melody to the terrific score he did for Carol (reviewed here) although it doesn’t... ahem... ‘homage’ Philip Glass in its constitution like that score did. Certainly, there were a lot more scores worthy of Oscar attention this year although, ironically, not many (if any) made it into the 2018 nominations list, it would seem.
And that’s me just about done on this movie. The film ends with something which, almost, leads onto a sequel but you know there’s no way you’d actually want to witness the possibilities implied as to what comes next. It is, however, a good ending and that’s another big win for the director here, as far as I’m concerned (I’ve not seen any of his other films so I’ve got no idea what he’s normally like). Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a phenomenal motion picture and I’m really glad I had the opportunity to still be able to catch it at a cinema. Definitely recommended for lovers of the art of film-making, for sure.
Thursday, 1 February 2018
Star's Hip Enterprise
Batman VS Two Face
USA 2017 Directed by Rick Morales
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
Batman VS Two Face is an animated feature from the end of last year which serves as a sequel to the previous year’s Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders (which I reviewed here). The animation continues the adventures of the 1960s TV show in much the same way that the recent comics series Batman 1966 has done. Like the previous movie, this one features original TV show stars reprising their roles. So we have Adam West as the voice of Batman, Burt Ward as the voice of Robin and Julie Newmar as the voice of Catwoman. In addition to Newmar we also have a character called Lucilee Diamond who, towards the end of the movie, finds herself dressed up as Catwoman. I didn’t know it until I spotted her in the end credits but this character is voiced by none other than Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman opposite West and Ward in the 1966 Batman movie.
Rounding out this fine cast we have the inclusion of a famous Batman super villain who was one of the few who never made it into the TV series, played by an actor who was in his heyday at around the same time and who also, strangely, never made it into an episode of the original show. So here we have Two-Face, aka schizophrenically scarred ex DA Harvey Dent, played wonderfully by Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. It was really a blast seeing him take on the voicing duties here and it’s quite fitting that the face the animators have given him here is that of a young Shatner of the time... so a purr-fect fit.
We also have a load of current voice talent, as in the last one, taking the parts of various other roles from the TV show's rogues gallery and, mostly, getting a really good match for the voices. The knock off versions of Cesare Romero’s Joker, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and, in a more expanded role here, Victor Buono’s King Tut are all absolutely fabulous renditions of what the actors sounded like back in the day. For some reason, I’m still having some trouble hearing the similarities to Burgess Meredith’s iconic rendition of The Penguin but he doesn’t have as big a part this time around, to be fair.
While this is not nearly as witty or clever as the first film in this second and, alas, probably last movie in the series (due to the recent demise of lead actor Adam West... this is his last movie appearance), the film is also not nearly as convoluted but, while the story is simpler in this rendition, it doesn’t stop this film from being any less jokey or entertaining and, in some ways, I think I possibly enjoyed this second one even more than the first (although I suspect it doesn’t have as much repeat value as the initial installment).
The plot gives us a slightly new version of the creation for the Two Face character. This time it involves him being sprayed in the face with the collected essence of evil from a machine invented by Hugo Strange... and this also allows the writers to play fast and loose with the way his physical deformities (not to mention magically changing clothing... don’t even go there) manifest themselves and appear/disappear at will. If you’re a purist in terms of how your super villains are put together and worry about the consistency and logic of their incarnation then this movie is not going to be for you. If, however, you take it in the spirit in which it is intended... a light flashback to a simpler and much loved 1960s TV show, then you’re in for a treat.
The film has a fairly short running time of 1 hour and 12 minutes (which is six minutes down on the first film) but this doesn’t mean any of it feels too short and, like always, the animators and writers have fun with the gags.... such as an onomatopoeic punching effect spelling out SPRANG! in memory, presumably, of former Batman artist Dick Sprang... or having the climax of the movie take place in Lorenzo’s Oil Factory. Most of the jokes are pretty much on the mark here and, even though it doesn’t feel nearly clever as their first go around the block with this animated incarnation, it still brought a smile to the face and chuckles to the lips on more than one occasion.
The musical soundtrack, too, is spot on again with the three composers from the previous movie, Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis, doing an excellent job at giving Neil Hefti and Nelson Riddle a run for their money when it comes to sounding like the old shows and movie. A word of warning... the CD version of the score is only available exclusively from one site in the US and they won’t ship it out to the UK (or many other countries, by the looks of it) so, if you want a copy, you need to find a US friend to send one on to you (and thanks very much again Treva, for gifting this soundtrack to me for Christmas, it’s a great score and much appreciated).
And that’s really all I’ve got to say about this one. A short but hopefully sweet review and, even though it’s not live action, this is a fine swan song for Adam West and I hope he would have been proud of the result. If you liked the old Batman TV show or were a fan of Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders and... especially if you loved both... then Batman VS Two Face is more than worth some of your time. It’s Bat-tastic.