Sunday 29 April 2018

Avengers - Infinity War

No Turn Unstoned

Avengers - Infinity War
2018 USA Directed by  Anthony and Joe Russo 
UK cinema release print.

Well this was surprisingly good.

I honestly thought that Avengers - Infinity War, the first of two movies which is a culmination of the various plot threads left deliberately dangling in the wake of the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), was going to be only half watchable at best. Since the film teams up most (but, contrary to what was advertised, not all) of the specific Marvel superheroes in those films, I was assuming that this would be patchy at best. After all, with over 60 major characters making appearances... well... my thinking was that you could only give them a few lines of dialogue each and then there would be no time left for action. I’m happy to say I was wrong about this... plus a few other things I’d predicted for this film so... yeah, happy to be proved incorrect in this instance. There are some minor problems but not really enough to do overall damage.

Now I’ve not read the comics these are based on but I’m well used to the Marvel movies not being anything like the original source materials and this one certainly isn’t... although I’m guessing the basic plot elements are the same. For instance, in the comics it’s the Silver Surfer who crashes through the roof of Doctor Strange’s mansion and warns him what is coming his way. Well, we still get the roof crash and warning here but it’s courtesy of one of the other characters... specifically one who isn’t locked into sticky negotiations as Disney’s lawyers retrieve the Silver Surfer and many other characters from 20th Century Fox.

The film follows the antics of super villain Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, as he gathers the five Infinity Stones seen in a fair few of the previous movies so he can wield them with his Infinity Gauntlet. Standing in his way are Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, War Machine, The Falcon, White Wolf (formerly The Winter Soldier), Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, The Guardians Of The Galaxy... and a fair few others.

Now the script is actually quite well written and, breaking the burden of the story to what is effectively three mini teams working together in different parts of the universe, the directors manage to pull together an entertaining movie which doesn’t get distracting and which doesn’t feel like the story is in service to the characters instead of, how it should be, the other way around. In fact, even when they're cross cutting on mini cliffhangers built into the action sequences from one group to the next, it never becomes too overpowering that you don't know exactly where you are with the various characters.

It’s actually very dark in places... in fact the threat and tone of the movie is dark all the time but that doesn’t stop the film-makers from having a lot of humour with it and it’s great to see new combinations of the characters reacting and arguing with each other. There are some truly funny scenes in this and it’s a really nice juggling act because you do find yourself laughing even though the lives of half of the population of the universe can be wiped out at any second.

The movie starts off with a fairly bleak opening sequence, the sound of which can be heard even as the opening logos are rolling up on the screen, which carries on from one of the post-credit sequences in last year’s Thor - Ragnarok (reviewed here). The film takes a little time here to show us just how lethal going up against Thanos can be, in no uncertain terms. It also shows up just how ineffectual against Thanos the biggest ‘character weapon’ in The Avengers' arsenal is. And, yeah, the story didn’t go the way I thought it would. The IMDB cast listings for the film are, at best, wildly inaccurate and I suspect that this, along with other strong hints along the way, were deliberate instances of misinformation by Marvel/Disney so the fans of these movies wouldn’t be able to figure out what is going on here until they were in a cinema watching this thing. Everything is handled quite deftly and, with the excellent performances we get from regular cast members such as Rob Downey Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Hemsworth and Elisabeth Olsen, it makes for an entertaining movie, to say the least. A cast ably supported by Alan Silvestri’s music for this one...

Now, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Silvestri’s score for the first movie but he does some good work here which, obviously, utilises his main Avengers theme to good effect. The best use of this, for my money, is when two of the characters are about to get ‘taken out’ by allies of Thanos in a train station in Scotland. Just as things are about to go dark for two of the characters, three of the other regular characters show up for the first time in the film and the music suddenly swells on Silvestri’s main Avengers melody. It’s a great movie moment and gets the hairs on the arm standing to attention, that’s for sure.

Okay so, there’s some bad stuff here too. One of which is the recasting of a character from one of the previous movies. If the character is not that important and could be replaced by another if the original actor didn’t want to come back then... why use that character at all? It seemed a bit odd, to be honest.

Another thing is... well I’m not going to reveal the ending here but how dumb do Marvel think their audience is? Some stuff happens in the last 5 to 10 minutes of the movie and... it just feels like Marvel are insulting everybody’s intelligence here. I can understand how they might have been able to tease out this specific ending around thirty years ago, before the internet but... well all I’m saying is that we all know what movie sequels will be coming out in the next couple of years. Sure, the next two MCU movies... Ant Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel (in reality, Ms. Marvel) are both set before the events of Infinity War but, you know, people already know what other stuff is in the works down the line. The end of this movie makes the prospect of next year’s follow up seem like it’s going to be a big ‘control z’, ‘undo’ moment of a film, to be honest. So the, actually quite nicely done, dramatic punch of the final act is somewhat softened by the fact that, I would guess, most of the audience don’t believe a moment of it.

One final thing I question somewhat is from the film’s post credit sequence. If you have a distress beacon you can send to a specific person that you think can make a difference to the clear and present danger the various characters find themselves in here... wouldn’t you have activated that during the events of the first Avengers movie? I find it a bit of an odd deus ex machina, to be honest.

Apart from these few things, however, the movie is not the mess I was expecting it to be and the Russo Brothers have knocked out one of the better of the MCU movies with this one. Especially in terms of the main villain. Thanos is not the one dimensional bad guy you might at first think. His motivations for the wholesale slaughter of half of the universe are, it has to be said, not that different to what should be happening in real life on this planet now anyway. We are a vastly overpopulated world and we should be looking for ways to cut back on the growing population... which I think could be done without killing anyone. It’s exactly the same kind of motivation that the ‘evil’ mastermind in Ron Howard’s Inferno (reviewed here) has and, although Thanos’ pursuit of his goal is inherently evil (what with all the wholesale slaughter and such), it doesn’t change the fact that these are exactly the conversations people should be having here now and his arguments do make a lot of sense. When Thanos returns in the next movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Thanos himself who sets everything back the way it was before some of the events of this movie take place because, if nothing else, he certainly has an unshakeable moral centre.

And that’s about all I’ve got for you on this one. I suspect that the follow up part of this story could easily be a bit of an anticlimax... although I am still expecting the character I thought would die in this one to meet his maker in the next one, that’s for sure. Avengers Infinity Wars is a truly entertaining, funny but also bleak movie experience and, you never know, I might go back to this one and have another look while it’s still at cinemas. Not Marvel’s best movie but certainly one of their best. If you claim to ‘Make mine Marvel!’, as the phrase used to go, then you don’t want to be missing out on this one.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me


Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me
USA/France 1992 Directed by David Lynch
Warner Brothers Blue Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers for anyone who’s
never seen any episodes of Twin Peaks.

And so onto the theatrical movie release of the ongoing Twin Peaks saga.

I remember my friends and I rushing to see Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me at the cinema when it was released. I’d absolutely loved the first two seasons but I remember being sorely disappointed by this big screen continuation. I’d had no idea that the movie was going to be a prequel (of sorts) to the original series so was expecting to see all of my favourite characters thrown back into the mix and with some kind of closure, or at least acknowledgment, of the cliff hanger style nature of the final episode of Season Two (reviewed here).

Instead, the majority of the movie is set over the last week before the very first episode. There’s not much of the series’ main protagonist... Kyle McLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper... in this at all, which is to be expected in a prequel, since he doesn’t enter the narrative of the story in the show until two thirds of the way through the first episode. Although, he does appear in this movie in other ways, through the use of dream sequences involving Laura Palmer.

Laura Palmer is the main protagonist in this as Lynch’s camera puts her under the microscope, with Sheryl Lee reprising her role and giving a truly astonishing performance. No matter what I’m going to go on to say about this mis-fire of a movie, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Lee literally carries the film and gives so much of herself over to this role.

Now, there’s no way that you should ever be tempted to watch this movie before seeing the first two series... even though it technically takes place chronologically before them. There are two main reasons for this. Reason one is that it gives away the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer (or killers, depending on your view point of host and controlling, demonic spirit) right from the outset so, if you see this first it kinda knocks out the ‘whodunnit’ nature of the original story. Secondly, it becomes apparent in one scene that some of the ‘visions’ Laura has of ‘The Black Lodge’ are from the future and not of the chronology of when the film is set. This is made apparent when we see the corpse of Agent Cooper’s girlfriend Annie, played again by Heather Graham, appear in Laura’s bed, warning her that the good version of Agent Cooper cannot escape from The Black Lodge. So, again, this relates directly back to the last episode and is something you are not going to want to go into the series knowing at this point.

The film starts off with a fairly bold statement... as the opening credits play over a static field from a TV set and, once they are done and the camera pans back to identify that’s what we’ve been watching, the TV set is destroyed by an axe. I guess that’s David Lynch’s way of breaking with the TV format and drumming home that this is a proper, cinematic experience he’s going for now. Which is a shame because... well I’ll get to my problems with the film in a minute.

The first half an hour of the film focuses on two characters completely unknown to us... two FBI agents investigating a murder, played by Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland. After this, Agent Cooper takes over the case when one of them goes missing and although we see Lynch, McLachlan and Miguel Ferrer returning to their roles from the TV show, the scene is brief (Lynch also appears in the first half an hour, though). There is a sequence with David Bowie but, again, this is all, along with the first half an hour, thrown away and goes nowhere. My understanding is that the brand new TV show, which I’m about to dig into, picks up a few of these pieces, although this opening stuff actually takes place ten years before the rest of the movie.

After about 35 minutes, we finally get back to Twin Peaks, with the familiar Angelo Badlamenti signature music kicking in but... it’s not quite the Twin Peaks we’ve come to know and love from the TV show. For a start, Lara Flynn Boyle’s Donna Hayward, Laura Palmer’s best friend, has been replaced by another actress, Moira Kelly. She does a reasonably good job in the role but, the effect of seeing somebody else replacing such a regular face was kinda jarring at the time. Of course, I’ve since seen Lynch deliberately switch actors backwards and forwards in a role within the same movie, something I suspect he picked up from Luis Bunuel when he did it (although the name of the film escapes me)... but back then it seemed like the wrong thing to do here. I am more accepting of it nowadays, to be honest.

I think my main problems with this film are that... okay, it’s really, really dull. I like Laura Palmer and it’s a pleasure to watch such a fine performer as Sheryl Lee practicing her craft but the film is incredibly slow and it really, as you might expect, just reiterates stuff we already knew from the slow solution of the case in the original series. There are cameos from a few of the regulars from the original show (I remember people cheering and clapping in the cinema when people like The Log Lady turned up on screen) but not enough of them and they really don’t add much to the story.

Also, in spite of Lynch’s axing of the TV at the start of the movie, which we will see again and make more sense of later in the movie, it still looks really small scale to what you might be expecting in terms of size and spectacle. Admittedly some of the interior sets of the familiar houses seem a little more opened out and Lynch really uses the widescreen ratio to highlight the use of vertical divisions of multiple rooms being seen simultaneously within a frame but... no, it mostly doesn’t look or feel like it gains anything from being a cinema release and that’s pretty sad. Especially when I do admire the director so much and loved the original show. Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me is not a film I’d really recommend to anyone, although I understand it’s kinda essential viewing, along with the original shows, if you want to watch the new series (I think David Bowie maybe returns for a short while in that one?). So, a lot of a disappointment then and, alas, still not a film I can appreciate as much as the TV show that spawned it.

However, I am really looking forward to diving into the brand new series sometime very soon so, you know, I’ll report back on that one as soon as I can.

Twin Peaks at NUTS4R2

Twin Peaks Series One
Twin Peaks Series Two
Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks Series Three - Limited Event Series

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Scared to Death

Truth Or Scare

Scared to Death
by Rachel Amphlett
Saxon Publishing
ISBN: 978-0994433763

Warning: There will be a spoiler here but I will
put a warning around the paragraph in question.

I probably should warn you up front that I am quite torn about this book and so my review is going to be a little ambiguous at best, I should think. On the one had I found a lot of it truly terrible, for one reason or another but, from another point of view, I found there were the occasional golden nuggets and I certainly rushed through the thing quick enough so... yeah, not 100% sure of what to make of this one but I’ll give it a go. If, however, you find yourself reading this and you happen to be the author of this novel or a huge fan of said author, please do yourself a favour and ignore this review. It’s certainly not my intention to hurt anybody and, since my insights into what makes good writing are wholly subjective and therefore questionable, you might well be better off not delving into this one.

Now, the first thing I have to say about this is that I have no idea who Rachel Amphlett is and I had never heard of this book. What happened was this... long story short. Somebody asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I mentioned a book about the use of film scores in horror movies called Scored To Death. However, due to the capacity for the fragile interface between the human brain and the giant that is to sometimes yield a breakdown in communication, I somehow found myself, not with a tome which analysed the use of different styles of music in genre cinema but, instead, Scared To Death... a British police procedural thriller. That being said, I’m all for reading something I’d never heard of before and my regular two mystery writers, who I ritualistically read new books from during the Christmas period - Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs - both had a year off this year with their respective lead characters for some reason so... yeah... I thought I’d give this a go anyway.

I’m still not sure if that was a mistake or not.

The book opens with two parents driving to an unknown location, racing to save their kidnapped daughter. Within a couple of pages I was quite impressed with the writer’s turn of phrase in the following passage...

“The glass and concrete superstructures of the bigger enterprises that had lined the inner sanctum of the centre of the estate lay dormant, while empty windows stared accusingly at the quiet roads that encircled them...”

I loved the idea of the windows grumpy at the roads that didn’t carry the customers to sustain the various businesses to the industrial estate and I thought I was in for a good ride. Well... yes and no. There are some good things but... well, let me get my main problems with the novel out of the way first.

The book is the first in a series of stories about Detective Kay Hunter of the UK Police and the story is, apart from the odd chapters where it splits off with other characters, told mostly through her eyes somewhat (although it is written in the third person so we at least know that anything could happen to the main protagonist, should the author desire). They must be fairly successful because there is a whole slew of these Kay Hunter novels plus various other book series by the same writer... so that, in itself, renders anything negative I might say about these things somewhat redundant anyway.

Now, I’m used to reading books in this particular genre by, as I said, Cornwell and Reichs but, those two are actually doing in real life what their characters do. They have first hand knowledge to throw in, along with whatever else research they do, of the profession of their main protagonist and this more than comes across in their central narrative choices. In Scared To Death I felt like I was reading a novel where the writer was not really telling me anything about the procedures involved in working a homicide in the UK. I didn’t feel like she had ever worked on the force, for instance and, from what I could find out about her from her own website and from her amazon bio, I think that’s pretty much correct... she doesn’t come from that background. Yeah, alright, people don’t need to have lived a specific subject in order to write great prose about it but, in this particular case, I just felt it would have helped. That being said, I’ve done stints of jury service three times in my life now (yeah, I’m old) and almost every time the police really have often seemed like they were completely asking the wrong questions, unable to get any kind of real evidence against those on trial (when the right questions asked of the right people would have been quick, easy and decisive) and even completely contradicted each other when on the witness stand. So... I dunno... maybe the police procedure in the UK really is as haphazard and make-shift as it comes across here... in which case, the writer certainly nails it.

Another problem is the structure of the story. As we go along and find out the motivation of the serial abductor/killer... the writer starts revealing other characters who were also in the mix, withholding one character’s identity until the end although... it’s not too hard to work out. The slow parcelling out of information seems like the writer is just hitting anchor points to reveal things in short bursts... which is fair enough but the problem here is that it’s done in such an obvious way. However, the biggest ‘twist’ of the book is so ludicrously handled that I immediately had to flick back and re-read to see if I missed anything earlier because I couldn’t believe how clumsily the information was revealed.

Okay... here’s the big spoiler warning...

Towards the end of the book it’s revealed that a second teenage girl who has been kidnapped while the detectives are still trying to solve the initial kidnapping/murder case is, in actual fact, the daughter of one of the detectives. Say what? Oh... right... he felt embarrassed and didn’t want to mention to any of his colleagues that he was related to one of their initial leads. That’s really realistic and great policing just there... right? I mean... seriously? This kind of 'implausible in the face of the previous part of the story reveal' barely works well in cinema, where it’s a little easier to succeed with stuff like that because you don’t follow the thoughts of the characters in the same way. In a novel... I am really surprised that anyone tried to get away with this kind of reveal in this way, to be honest. It did nothing to endure me to the writer.

End of Spoiler Warning.

Okay, one last negative thing before I concentrate on the positive.

The kidnapper/killer is a ‘bastard’. Everybody says so.

I mean literally everybody. No matter what character they are or from what walk of life they come, they seem to all have ‘a thing’ where they will mutter the word ‘bastard’ under their breath in relation to the killer. Enough already. There are other curse words available. I’ve mentioned before that a terrible thing that even some of the most revered writers do is to give all their characters a kind of inadvertent, shared language... which they no doubt share with the writer. This is not how it happens in real life people. Everyone has their own way of phrasing things and their own ways of reacting to things. Sure, like-minded people tend to gather together and react in a similar way for the most part... friends and lovers. But people thrown together at work or, in this case, people from different walks of life who have nothing to do with each other... they’re not going to sound the same. So, yeah... this book is one of those which, unfortunately, tends to have everyone expressing themselves in the same voice. It’s a bit of a bastard to be honest. Oops.

Okay, so I said a whole bunch of negative things here but let me tell you about the positive stuff...

Well, as I said at the start, the writer can turn a good phrase. She has a knack for capturing situations and boiling them down to only the bits you need to know. Now, personally, I’d prefer more descriptions about the every day little details to add a sense of realism to these kinds of situations but there’s no wrong way of doing this and Amphlett’s approach is certainly one that gets the pacing moving. Like a good pulp writer, she runs through the story at a pretty fast gallop and, I have to say, this was a quick read which had me hurtling along to the end game very quickly. I would have liked a little more detail about the background of the main character but I could tell the writer was deliberately holding back so she can reveal more details in a future novel in the series.

So, yeah, it was a quick read and I actually wouldn’t mind reading another, to be honest, just to see if she’s going to take the solution to a 'missing evidence' issue in the main character’s past life to the conclusion I expect she’s going to take it. However, with the mountainous book backlog I have at the moment, that’s unlikely to happen, in all honesty. That being said, although Scared To Death has a lot of downsides, I think regular readers of crime fiction might find this one a good thing to pack away for light summer holiday reading in between their other, favourite tomes. Not the best I’ve read, by a long chalk but, it certainly has a bizarrely addictive, un-put-down-able edge to it... that I can’t quite deny.

Sunday 22 April 2018


Prey’s Anna-tummy

2018 USA Directed by Fritz Böhm
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Spoilers for those of you who really can’t see this stuff coming from the outset.

Wildling is not the film I thought it was going to be.

No, I mean it really wasn’t.

I was sitting in the cinema waiting for the movie to start and the trailers came on and then they started showing the trailer for Wildling. Wait, what? Turns out the trailer was for a completely different film called Hereditary and I’d somehow got it mixed up in my head with the title Wildling. Well the little girl in the Hereditary trailer looks like some kind of wild thing anyway, right? So I had literally no idea, as I sat waiting for the trailers to end, what film I was about to see.

As it happens, this was a good thing because, by the time Liv Tyler turned up as the town sheriff, I realised that I had seen this trailer and that the film was, at least, on my cinema hit list... it’s just that I’d only seen the trailer once as opposed to the seventy gazillion times they’ve been playing the Hereditary trailer at my local for the last month. So I’d assumed that one was coming out first.

Now, I am astonished to see that the IMDB average ratings for Wildling mostly range from zero stars to three stars out of ten and I can only wonder if these people were watching the same movie as me. I... bar one or two things I shall go on to outline... absolutely loved it.

The film starts off with a little girl called Anna, locked away in a bedroom, kept there with stories of the Wildling coming to eat her. Her ‘daddy’ is played by Brad Dourif so... you know, right from the outset you realise she’s being raised by a nutter. When she grows old enough to get her first period, ‘daddy’ starts directly injecting stuff into her womb through her tummy each day to stop her maturing into... yeah, you know exactly what’s coming from this point on. She is, of course, the Wildling of the title and, as you’ll discover later, her true parentage is as yet unknown to her.

When she gets too sick from the drugs Daddy is pumping into her and asks him to end her life, he goes to shoot her but ends up shooting himself in the head instead. The police, in the form of Ellen Cooper, the town Sherif played by Liv Tyler, arrive and Cooper takes Anna to her home while various tests results are waited on. There, Anna learns about life with real people and bonds with the sheriff’s teenage son Ray, played by Collin Kelly-Sordelet. He is really excellent here but the real star of the movie is Bel Powley, who plays the young 16-18 year oldish Anna (although she’s way older than that in real life). She is so good here.

Of course, the combination of Anna's now ‘woke’ and changing, hormonally challenged body which unleashes her natural ferocity and defences coupled with the secret society of Wildling exterminators all comes to a head and things get out of control as she becomes the prey and takes to the woods for survival. In one of the film’s few 'less than completely credible' moments, it turns out that ‘Daddy’ managed to miss anything vital when he shot himself in the head and so he emerges from his hospital bed to lead the secret society of vigilantes on a quest to kill Anna.

The last quarter of the movie is very reminiscent, or at least it seemed to me, of the original John Rambo movie First Blood... where you have the lone warrior facing off against the enemies and taking them out one by one. I was just waiting for a Jerry Goldsmith score to kick in and then this illusion would have been complete.

The film has, it should be said, nothing really original going for it in the annals of ‘man-beast’ (or should that be woman-beast?) or werewolf films but that really doesn’t matter when the execution is this good. It’s not really played for scares, for the most part, either but that doesn’t make it less of a movie. One of the stupidly critical reviews I skimmed on the IMDB to find out why people were so down on this said that it’s not a proper horror film because it’s not scary. Seriously? A horror movie doesn’t have to be scary, people! After all, would you say that The Bride Of Frankenstein or Son Of Dracula or Ridley’s Scott’s A L I E N are in no way horror movies just because they’re not scary. No... Wildling definitely has a ‘beyond science’ shape shifting monster lurking at its heart... a sympathetic monster for sure but it still qualifies as a horror movie in my book. And it’s an excellent one too. The writers are smart enough to leave out any complicated origins as to where the Wildlings came from and just leaves their presence unexplained so they can get on with the story. Which is something that a lot of horror movies have learned to do since the dawn of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, from what I can see.

It does have a lot of 'almost' clichés and it is pretty predictable, to be fair. I knew pretty much what the very last shot was going to be... or where it would be located, at any rate... from the moment Anna first goes into the town library in the first third of the movie but it’s a nice ending and there is an extra character in that scene which I didn't realise would be there (I’m not going to say who though... you have to watch it if you want to find out).

My biggest problems with this movie are with the transformation and design of the title creature. I mean, good grief, all that limb bending, snapping and popping that An American Werewolf In London was somehow so influential with has got to stop. It was fine once but it’s not the only way that you can express the transformation of human to beast. Good grief, it’s got all the potency of an episode of Manimal now (which, for those of you who haven’t seen this truly awful 1983 TV show... reduced the transformation of the title character into a bit of a joke by the time it had finished its one season run). This is such a cliché now. Although the way Anna starts losing teeth in preparation for what the transformation will need when it comes to pass is a nice touch.

Also, the creature design just looks like a bit of 1960s neanderthal make up and I was kinda expecting something a little more ferocious or special than what we’ve got here, to be honest. I guess the director thought this look would be a little more credible but, personally, I thought it was just a little too understated. By the time we get to the full transformation, I wouldn’t have thought you would have needed to hold back so much. Luckily, Bel Powley excels as much as the savage version of Anna as she does as her more human counterpart and she manages to sell it to the audience in spite of the not so inspiring creature design.

All in all, though, these are very minor complaints for a truly well made horror tale... which is exactly what Wildling is. It’s also nice to see Liv Tyler in something really good again too and I think she’s a little under utilised as an actress, to be honest. If you go to this one expecting a scary movie then you might be in for a bit of a disappointment but, if you are looking for a well observed, well made genre film then you should definitely go to see this one. Truly glad I got my films mixed up, this time around.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Films Of The New French Extremity

The French Evolution

Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity
by Alexandra West
McFarland Books
ISBN: 978-1476663487

Alexandra West’s Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is another book I got given for my half-century Birthday this year and, I’m happy to say, it’s one of those slightly rarer film books that is actually pretty well written and which holds a certain kind of intelligence projected at 24 frames per second into the eyes of the reader and on into the celluloidal soul.

The film looks at a certain group of films from the late 1990s to the late 2000s (a roughly ten year period) which the author, amongst others, have embraced and labelled the New French Extremity movement in cinema.

Now I like some labelled ‘movements’ in cinema because they are a useful ‘catch all’ term to group certain similar directors, regardless of the real validity of a movement which is perceived as a collective. Most cinematic groups I could think of off the top of my head are usually not trying to be part of a specific movement, although, like the French Nouvelle Vague, they can at least be said to rise from similar goals and ideals. The only ones I can think of, off hand, which were deliberately trying to be specific styles of cinema both came from Germany. The first would be the German Expressionist movement in the late 1910’s to late 1920s which was deliberately manufactured to combat the plethora of American product in the German marketplace by making films with a very specific, overtly stylised leaning. The other being, in the wake of the Oberhausen Manifesto, The New German Cinema with people like Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Herzog and Wenders making films as a reaction to the likes of the frivolous German sex comedies which were in such abundance at the time.

From what I can understand of the New French Extremity collective, if you want to identify it as that, is that this too was not, unlike those last two examples I gave, a deliberate movement but something which has been looked at and labelled in this manner. Now I’m quite happy to throw my oar in and agree with the various people defining this upsurge in a particularly extreme ‘anything goes’ version of French cinema as a specific trend but I’m not one hundred percent in agreement on certain parts of the definition, to be honest.

The writer starts off the book by giving us a long history lesson on the violent and troubled past of the country in question... as opposed to the stereotypical romantic portrayal of the country which tends to stick in people’s minds. So she looks at the various battles and wars of France and paints a picture of a nation which has always been covered in blood and viscera. She looks at the way the collective consciousness of France is troubled and confused by things like the history of the Nazi atrocities that played out on French soil, for example, and the collusion of the country with this, to a certain extent. And all of this history is great for someone like me, to be honest, as a person who really didn’t listen too much in school anyway.

The second chapter does the same for the history of French cinema, to give this latest movement some context... so again the French New Wave, the Cinema Du Look etc (that last being a term which I find as insulting and overstated as I do accurate). And when she catches up to the New French Extremity she points out really useful stuff like the films in question tending to not go for jump scares like a lot of horror movies but rather to look at the subject head on while pondering and revelling in the grotesque elements which come into play.

After this, the book then gives a chapter by chapter look at one to four films which the writer has collected into little sets and which seem to go together as miniature groups of movies, for one reason or another. And it’s quite invaluable... not always so much in the things it sometimes identifies as signposts to the movement’s concerns but more so, for me personally, as a shopping list of films I need to pick up, in the cases of the ones I haven’t already seen.

The book also seems a defence, in some ways, of the movement... specifically, it seems, in disagreement with another critic, James Quandt, who apparently rejects a lot of these films as being worthless and, in some way, failures... while still recognising the existence himself of a New French Extremity movement. A movement which has also been called ‘cinéma du corps’ - cinema of the body.

As the film wades through many films I haven’t seen, as well as some of my genre favourites such as In My Skin, Inside and Martyrs (reviewed here), various points are made which tie the films into an exploration of the troublesome country of origin and, while some of the films explored are certainly defended more fervently than I myself would bother with - I personally found High Tension, for example, to be overly obvious right from the start and problematic to the point that I really couldn’t enjoy the film - the comments of West are never trite and, even when I don’t agree with them, always have value, even if that’s just as a starting point to lead to further discussion/exploration of the subject. Something which I think Colin Geddes, programmer for the Toronto Midnight Madness festival, who is interviewed in this volume's appendix, might approve of.

The book finishes with an examination of the various ‘American remakes’ of famous horror films that some of these French directors have perpetrated on an unsuspecting public in recent years... like The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D (reviewed here) and The Eye but... yeah, I’m not really into these commercially hopeful remakes so, while I found this chapter interesting, I wouldn’t have necessarily grouped them into this collective, to be truthful.

The one thing I really don’t agree with is the discussion of this movement as something which is already done and dusted. I think this particular style of French cinematic history, if one does choose to define it as such, is really still only getting started. After all, another film which left me bitterly disappointed and underwhelmed last year, Raw (reviewed here) is surely deserving of being grouped collectively with the other films mentioned here and I suspect there’s more to come soon (hopefully with a lot more bite to them, so to speak).

That being said though, Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is a big winner with me and I certainly welcome it onto the shelf of film books worth taking time to delve into (I’ll get around to actually physically putting them on a shelf one day). A very interesting tome and I hope the writer has some more like this up her sleeve.

Tuesday 17 April 2018


Ape ‘n’ Stance

2018 USA Directed by  Brad Peyton
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very slight spoliers.

I never played the 1980s classic arcade game that Rampage is based on... in fact, quite strangely, I don’t even remember it. So in terms of how good this is as an adaptation of that property, I can’t really say with much authority. That being said, since the ape, wolf and crocodile in the original game were apparently formerly humans in the back story... my guess is that this is more of a new story with some name checks rater than a faithful adaptation.

I wanted to see Rampage because I somehow really liked San Andreas by the same team of Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) and director Brad Peyton (and you can read my review of that one here). Also... I saw the trailer and any movie with an intelligent, giant ape in it... you can bet I’m up for that.

So Rampage starts off with a very strong opening which might, almost, make you think the cinema was showing the wrong movie. It’s like watching ten minutes of Gravity (reviewed here) as we start off in a space station which has been trashed by a giant rat from an escaped experiment and the one surviving member of the crew who is frantically floating around trying to survive... but she’s unable to release the escape capsule. In one fell swoop we are introduced to how evil the main antagonists of the movie are when they won’t release the locks on the capsule remotely from earth until she recovers the component parts of the experiment. But... you know... floating giant space rat! Things all come to a head when the lady in question finally manages to escape but then ends up dying anyway with the samples crashing to Earth in little mini cannisters. When various wildlife comes into contact with the gas excreted by the samples - a wolf, a crocodile and an albino ape in this case - it alters their DNA, grows them huge (and gives one or two of them some other impressive biological changes) and also makes them more aggressive.

Now the ape, known as George, has an impressive relationship with Davis Okoye, played by Dwayne Johnson. They can talk through sign language and George can also, pretty much, understand what Davis says to him. However, things get worse when the bad gal in charge of the organisation, who were doing their experiments in space because they would be banned on Earth, turns on a beacon which means the three, steadily growing behemoths all head towards Chicago to destroy said beacon.... which is also making them more aggressive. The evil plan being that the military will kill the beasts and the company can get DNA samples back from the bodies to continue their, potentially very lucrative, mad scientist ways. However, these beasts are pretty unbeatable and it’s up to The Rock, the always watchable Naomie Harris (as an ex-employee professor of the evil company) and OGA (other government agency) trouble shooter Harvey Russel, played by the brilliant Jeffrey Dean Morgan, to form an uneasy alliance and attempt to stop the destruction and, if possible, get George to calm down a bit.

And it all works really well. Yeah, it’s nonsense but it’s immensely entertaining nonsense and there’s never a dull moment. Midst all the action set pieces you have three great performances by the leads and there’s even some really nice shot compositions thrown into the movie...

One which particularly impressed me is fairly early on in the film where George has been caged in a lab in the wildlife place where Davis works. The room has a large window and we see Davis looking on in close up from the other side of the window. So we have The Rock’s head in deep focus filling the left of the screen and then, the focus shifts so his head blurs and we get the reflection of George the giant ape filling the right of the screen in sharp focus. Which is a nice touch but then it took me a moment to realise how great a shot it was because, the reflection must have all been a CGI effect which was then inserted. That’s a great way to use it rather than just cut back to the same CGI of the ape in the environment and it’s touches like this which show up the creative directors (regardless of the nature of the projects they choose to work on) from the merely competent ones. This was a really nice moment.

Now the other thing I really want to say about this movie is... it’s actually quite gory. The opening sequence has a dead guy floating around with his eye socket eaten out by the giant rat (presumably) and a floating, severed hand dripping blood... for example and there are some similarly grisly (and fun) scenes throughout the movie (when someone gets stepped on at one point they pretty much explode in a shower of blood). And there’s nothing wrong with that. However... the film is a 12A and there was a five or six year old child in the audience I was with. Now I don’t believe in most forms of censorship at all other than the obvious self censorship (if you don’t like it, don’t watch it) but the one thing I do think should be in place is a form of censorship for children. Because some can completely handle it (as, luckily, the child in the audience could... although he was scared by the IMAX logo animation) and some can’t, so I reckon 11 or 12 years of age might be the best place where the only age restriction might be. So a 12 would have been fine for this but I suspect some (by no means all) children would have a hard time with it. Heck, I remember the amount of crying kiddies there were in the audience for Raiders Of The Lost Ark back in 1981 when the nazis melted at the end so, yeah, maybe a stark '12-minus-the-A' rating is the only certification needed for any film. Something to think about.

For pretend adults like me, though, this stuff was all fine and throw in an Andrew Lockington score (which I hope gets a proper CD release at some point rather than the stupid electronic download shenanigans which should be made illegal until a proper physical copy comes out) and you have a recipe for a great action movie. I wasn’t expecting anything great from Rampage but what we have is a blockbuster type movie which is more than competent with some great chemistry between the actors (they really need to put The Rock and Morgan in a few more films together), a strong female co-star who isn’t just there to be rescued and some nice looking carnage which isn’t over edited and which you can follow fairly easily. A great night out at the cinema if you want to see something which is just plain fun.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Truth Or Dare

The Dare Essentials

Truth Or Dare
2018 UK Directed by Jeff Wadlow 
UK cinema release print.

So, yeah, okay... I’ll admit I was expecting the latest horror movie from the Blumhouse studios to be a generic, teenage slasher movie and so, it would be true to say, I wasn’t expecting much from this one. However, I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that... not only is it not really a slasher movie (although people are still somehow trying to call it that despite, in some instances, having already seen it themselves) but it’s also not technically a teen movie in that, although all the main protagonists are college aged teens, the majority of the actors playing them are a lot older than that.

Truth Or Dare is, in fact, a properly full blown horror movie but with the emphasis on fun rather than all out horror. I mean, sure, there is a body count element to this but the overall emphasis on this one is an overwhelming sense of suspense as the audience waits to see where the next supernatural attack will be coming from and if anybody will die as a result.

The film starts off on one last ditch spring break vacation by a group of student friends to Mexico before they all go their separate ways and the opening credits montage is, it has to be said, sickeningly ‘teenage selfie and fun times’ style shenanigans to emphasise the point that these are best friends. However, this is preceeded by a pre-credits sequence which is actually quite strong... where a random teenager, who we will obviously meet again later in the film, is compelled to set a lady on fire in a grocery store, against her best intentions.

After the opening montage, the group of friends hook up with an ‘outsider’ character and are compelled to play a game of Truth Or Dare in an old, creepy mission. However, the end of the game does not go as planned and, days later, once our friends are back from their summer vacation, the game follows them back. And by that I mean, they are haunted by the game and the next challenge could come from anywhere, quite often from one of their friends, as a character's face will suddenly distort into a rictus grin that looks like a demented snapchat filter and compel them to take a truth or dare. The rules are simple... if they don’t tell the truth or fail the, often quite lethal, dare... they will be suddenly compelled to take their own life and, once the body count starts to build and the friends realise that this is a) really happening and b) not going to stop even though it is tearing their relationships apart and setting them at each other’s throats... the film carries on from there as they try to unravel the clues to, hopefully, help them stop the game in its tracks.

Now I saw a comment on here that the writers kept changing the goalposts of the film as it goes along when it comes to the internal logic of the rules of the game but, as far as I could tell, that really isn’t true. The filmmakers obviously knew that they had to somehow write themselves out of the obvious character reaction where everyone will take a truth rather than a dare and... well I think they got around that problem quite smartly, giving the tweaked rules a proper background later on in the story, as our protagonists find out, along with the audience, certain things about the accidental creation of a new variant of the game.

Now, as I was speeding towards the ending in this fast paced, fun filled movie, I realised that it was an old horror trope going under a new coat of paint and that, the brilliance of the title and plot set up is that it’s a little bit of misdirection. Without going into spoiler territory I will just say that this is yet another version, in essence, of M. R. James’ famous tale Casting The Runes... which was adapted in various forms as a TV play (reviewed here) and a great movie called Night Of The Demon (or Curse Of The Demon depending on which print you see... a short review of that one can be found here). Of course, there have been many other ‘reboots’ of this main ‘pass the curse on/viral curse’ movie over the years, many of which don’t usually admit (as this one kind of doesn’t) that they are inspired from a very specific source... such as the Ringu films (or the Ring films in the US versions), Drag Me To Hell and It Follows (reviewed here). The premise usually makes for some interesting horror movies and this one is certainly no exception.

The film is nicely shot although it is, it seems to me, a little over reliant on hand held camera to give it that specific, ‘enquiring third person’ feel. It’s pretty much sustained throughout the movie but, I have to say, they really make it work well here so not really too much of a complaint from me, I guess. The other thing this has got going for it, which goes hand in hand with the strong cast of main protagonists such as Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Nolan Gerard Funk and Hayden Szeto... all of whom give great performances... is something it shares with one of my favourite horror films of recent years, The Conjuring (reviewed here). That quality being that most of the main protagonists are actually genuinely nice people. You really wouldn’t mind hanging out with this group and so, of course, you actually do begin to care about them when they start dropping like flies.

Now, the film had maybe one missed opportunity that I could see. This is when a mute character gives the surviving characters a potential ‘magic bullet’ solution to their problems. As she scribbled various notes to the lead actress I was just waiting for one of the notes to say ‘Truth Or Dare’ but, alas, it didn’t go there... which I feel is kind of a shame, actually.

However, the other great thing this one has going for it is, it has to be said, a fantastic ending. I actually didn’t see this one coming and I was really pleased with how things were wound up here. I think it’s been commented that this ending sets it up for a sequel but, honestly, I don’t see how the potential follow up with the consequences implied here could possibly or credibly be returned to in a gripping or properly character focused story. It is, however, a really nice conclusion to the film and... well, let’s just say that, sometimes, magic bullet plans don’t always go the way you think they’re going to go.

And that’s me done on this one. Truth Or Dare is definitely recommended for horror fans, for sure... especially those who like ‘viral curse’ movies. I really loved this one and it helped that the teenage characters weren’t all brats. One to go to the cinema and see for sure. Go on... I dare you.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Twin Peaks Series 2

Bob’s Your Uncle

Twin Peaks Series 2
Produced by David Lynch & Mark Frost
1991 USA Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: This has some small spoilers.

Okay, so we’d waited long enough but we weren’t that far into the start of the New Year, as I recall, before we were finally able to see how the bunch of cliffhangers we were left with at the end of the first series of Twin Peaks (which I reviewed here), were to be... somewhat resolved. Most things were sorted out fairly quickly but the one thing which everyone remembers is the long, slow and painfully drawn out sequences where Dale Cooper is lying on the floor bleeding out with gunshot wounds and being as polite as he can to this elderly figure who is talking to him and not cottoning on that the prone Special Agent needs help... as he lingers and moves around the place at a snails pace.

Eventually, of course, Coop is found by somebody else and, after a fairly quick recovery in the hospital, things are back on track again in this run of 21 more episodes which comprise the second series (the first series being only eight shows). We have an abundance of varied things happening over the weeks such as Laura Palmer’s doppelganger cousin, played by the same actress, being murdered by the same person who killed Laura and left wrapped in plastic in similar circumstances. We also have the resolution, of sorts, to who killed Laura Palmer about a third of the way into the season, which kinda left Lynch and co with nowhere else left to go with that story line but, it’s my understanding that the producers wanted some kind of resolution to that set up while Lynch was quite happy to never let people find out. I suspect his third series, made last year and which I haven’t had the opportunity to see yet (at time of writing), is a lot less compromising than what was happening back then. I understand Lynch even walked on it before production commenced until the company putting out the new one tempted him back with complete control over the new show.

So with Laura Palmer’s killer caught and, as it happens, dead (although it’s not the last time you see him in the show)... we have a load of other plot lines developing and the effect it has on the show, with lots of different characters and stories suddenly just showing up to the party, gives the whole thing even more of the soap opera feel that Lynch was originally looking for (Lynch himself also plays Dale Cooper’s deaf boss Gordon Cole in some episodes, where he absolutely delights). The various new elements weave in and out of a thread which is ultimately leading to a surreal place called The Black Lodge which was also, we are told, of special interest to the team on Project Blue Book (when that was an active thing in the... what... 1950s and 60s?).

We also have a lot more of Killer Bob - who is the being who inhabits various people when they are doing the killing, David Duchovny as an FBI agent in drag (I believe this is the role which brought him to the attention of Chris Carter and paved the way to him being cast as one of the two principle characters on The X Files) and, in the last few episodes, a new love interest for Agent Cooper in the form of Annie, played by the then relatively unknown, Heather Graham... who charmed the pants off of everyone in Twin Peaks and certainly the audience watching. Which makes the last episode in this series, which also leaves things on a kind of cliffhanger, in some ways, even more gut wrenching to watch a second time around. I won't say why, however.

It’s funny but I seem to remember the iconic dancing dwarf man in the room in the White/Black Lodge being in a fair few episodes of the second series but, in truth, he’s hardly in it at all, although he does feature prominently in the last episode. One thing which did send a shiver down my spine in a... ‘Oh.  Real life did almost imitate art with just one year out.’ kind of way was a moment towards the end of the last episode where the dead but ethereal form of Laura Palmer looks Agent Cooper in the eye and says... “The next time you see me will be in 25 years time.” Wow, talk about being prophetic. Lynch almost couldn’t have engineered that coincidence properly if he had been trying (and who’s to know... maybe he was).

The death toll in this series is a lot higher than the first with regular and semi regular characters being killed off, many of the most loved ones in the last episode. The whole thing about this series seems to feel incomplete somehow... like there was more to come but things didn’t happen the way Lynch wanted them too, maybe. Certainly, the potential romance between Audrey Horn and Dale Cooper didn’t flourish the way it was intended due, from what I can understand, to tension on the set with Kyle MacLachlan’s real life girlfriend of the time, Lara Flynn Boyle (who played Donna). Instead, we have a young Billy Zane taking up romance duties with Audrey and, as you might expect from this great but somehow under celebrated actor, he does a damn fine job here.

Also, there’s an absolutely stand out episode where... not too much happens... but it’s absolutely brilliantly directed by actress Diane Keaton. It’s the only one on the series that I can remember which has such a stylised approach with some gorgeous shot design and, as I was the first time around, I was completely mesmerised by some of the stuff she gets up to here... such as using the square windows in two constantly swinging doors to highlight two actors talking on either side of, and behind them, to punctuate the conversation. Or using the placement of a giant ice cream cone on the chequered floor of the local cafe to carry on the chess analogy brought to the series by Dale Cooper’s arch villain, former FBI Agent Windom Earle, played by Kenneth Welsh. Seriously, Keaton should be better known as being as formidable a director as she is an actress, if this episode is anything to go by.

And that’s all I have to say right now about series two. Still a joy to watch and, as always, the villains in this are terrifying. Not everything actually makes sense but, I expect it makes a lot more sense than what we get in the new series, judging from comments I’ve seen and heard by other people on twitter. Hope to acquire a copy of that one soon. My next stop before that, however, has to be the prequel movie, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks at NUTS4R2

Twin Peaks Series One
Twin Peaks Series Two
Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks Series Three - Limited Event Series

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Shell Be Back

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Japan/UK 1995
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Manga Entertainment Blu Ray Zone B

So here we go again. I loved the live action US ‘adaptation’ of Ghost In The Shell, from last year (and reviewed by me here) so much that I wanted to give the original anime adaptation a go. Luckily for me, the Blu Ray has been released and it’s fairly cheap at the moment although, if I’d have known it contains absolutely no extras on it at all, then I would probably have waited a while longer for the price to drop even more. I’m going to be comparing this one to the live action version quite a bit here because, in all honesty, I was a little disappointed with this movie when the two are looked at in close proximity to each other. It just proved to me that I find most of the few anime I have watched vaguely unsatisfying, for the most part.

The film starts off with a title sequence of ‘computer code’ from which the voice cast and crew emerge and it’s very much a product of the period in which this cartoon was made or, in all honesty, a decade or two before it was made... which seems a little strange for a movie set in the year 2029. Intercut with this, we follow the process of the shell with the title ‘ghost’ in it being manufactured... or at least re-shelled, maybe... and it’s at this point I noticed the first big difference between the movie and  the anime/manga (presumably it’s based on one) which came before it. That difference being that the shell actually has nipples on it and the body is airbrushed in all the right colours (nipples included) to make it less easier to identify it as a shell. So, really, I am now extremely annoyed that the Scarlett Johansson version didn’t have her going through the film naked and executing all those killer combat moves... it makes me very angry that the new version didn’t even try to get this right (just as it made me angry when the characters in the John Carter movie from a few years ago were all wearing clothes, for some reason... that’s not how things were in the books).

However, on the whole, there’s not a lot of things that the anime does better than the live action version, I reckon. For instance, the opening sequence where Major drops from the top of the building etc is still more or less, there as it was in the recent movie but... it’s not the prelude to a long and drawn out action sequence like the new version and neither does it include those amazingly scary geisha killbots that were so brilliantly unsettling in that last one.

And that seems to be the modus operandi for a lot of the film, to be honest... the latest one seems to do so much more than this original. Now one of the reasons for that, I am told, is that the new movie takes stuff from later Ghost In The Shell productions and uses those too... like those geisha killbots, for example. That means the whole quest for Major to find out about her previous identity and those moving scenes of her meeting her mother are themes not present in this version of the story and certain other elements are missing here too. There’s also, amazingly, less action in this version... which was a surprise considering that it doesn’t cost any extra for a cartoon. There is some gory violence and it’s way more over-the-top than the recent version but, that being said, there’s hardly any of it in it.

The story line is a slow build and it does have a certain atmosphere to it. I can see why this must have been popular in its day. That being said, many of the scenes that do originate here... like the fight in the water, the diving into another shell scene, the boat scene and so on... seem to be a lot less emotional or lack the gravitas of the live action edition and I was truly stunned to find this to be the case. Even the external architecture of Tokyo here misses the exquisite detail and chaotic hustle bustle of the lived in, “Blade Runner on steroids” sensibility which seems to have informed the later work.

I have to admit here, my reaction to this ‘template’ is very much tainted by my seeing the new version first and I wonder how much of the stylistic look of this anime evolved into something more graceful for later anime movies and TV shows in the Ghost In The Shell franchise... which may, in turn, have informed the latest incarnation more than this particular version, at least stylistically. I’m usually very good at distancing myself from other versions of a work and judging something within the confines of its historical context but, in the case of this series, I’m having a lot of trouble doing that, it has to be said.

It’s not a complete write off as an anime, though, and it’s better than what I remember of, say, Akira, for example. It’s also nice to see the vision of ‘the net’ that this film projects and the way that our interpretation of cyberspace has not really altered over the years as we, presumably, have begun to understand that it’s a slightly less baffling beast. However, for me, this was a bit of a dull movie in comparison to last year’s release.

Certainly a good movie to watch if you’re into animation and anime in general, though, I would have thought. The cartoon seems to be made of much stronger stuff, like the violence and sexual content but, because there’s so little of it in comparison to the new film, it just doesn’t seem to be able to match the perceived excesses of the newest beast on the block and... well... that’s all there is to it.

I don’t know the history of this original film in terms of how the project got started but something which did seem a little strange was the fact that, after I’d watched the first ten minutes or so in Japanese with English subtitles, as I had imagined the best case scenario to be, I realised that the lip movements in the film in no way match up to the Japanese vocal track. So I started the film off again, this time with the English dub and... well the result was certainly interesting because the English vocal track perfectly lip synched to the cartoon. So I wonder if this movie was maybe made for an English speaking audience first and foremost, perhaps?

Either way, Ghost In The Shell, or at least this 1995 version, didn’t really do all that much for me, I’m afraid. However, it is one of the better anime that I’ve seen over the years so I suspect this one must be fairly well loved by those fans around the world and, as such, would recommend this to anyone who is into this kind of animated style. Other than that, though, I’d still heavily recommend the new Hollywood version of Ghost In The Shell over this one... even if Scarlett’s nipples aren’t properly visible like the original character’s.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Ghost Stories

The Fear Hunter

Ghost Stories
2017 UK Directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some slight spoilerage.

Well... I really wanted to like this one but, unfortunately, it was not to be.

I’d wanted to see this in one of its earlier incarnations as a stage play in the West End of London a few years back but, alas, the truly scary ticket prices had put me off seeing it. Something which I’m now thinking may have been a blessing in disguise, to be honest.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I was so disappointed by this one because, frankly, the movie is very well put together. I doubt it’s because I saw another brand new and quite intensely scary movie earlier in the week (the frighteningly brilliant A Quiet Place, which I reviewed here) because one scare fest does not necessarily cancel out the other. I suppose it could be, as mentioned by me in another review recently, that I have become somewhat jaded by the format of ghost stories of late.... although, having said that, I can think of several horror movies with ghostly themes which have been fairly successful in their intent over the past five or ten years (although none of them can hold a candle to Robert Wise’s original version of The Haunting, of course).

Let’s see if I can figure out what this one didn’t deliver as I start writing about it. 

Ghost Stories stars Andy Nyman as a mildly famous, professional debunker called Professor Philip Goodman. The film is also co-directed and co-written by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson and it takes the form of one of those old portmanteau style horror movies of years gone by... the kinds of things pushed out by Amicus and AIP back in the day (and even Ealing, in one notable case). I can only assume it’s an homage to these kinds of films and, thinking about it, I suspect this is where my main gripe with the movie lays. I’ll come back to that.

Nyman’s Professor Goodman is contacted by his childhood hero, another professional debunker, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades before. He challenges Goodman with investigating three cases which he, himself, couldn’t disprove and the film takes the format of Goodman going to each of the troubled individuals who have had ‘supernatural experiences’ in turn... played by Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman.

Contrary to the blurb on the trailer, that the various cases are each more terrifying than the last, I personally found it to be the exact opposite of this, with the scariest one being the first segment. In this, the director’s skillfully shoot a more or less static interview between Nyman and Whitehouse for the first half of the segment, cutting between various angles and distances and it is in this sequence especially that I found them to be absolute masters of their craft. I was especially enamoured of the way they designed the composition of their frames to keep the audience fixated on specific things and not jump them out of it... something which is almost a necessity since the widescreen format started being commonly used in the 1950s and it’s a skill which, it seems to me, a lot of directors and cinematographers seem to forget these days.

For instance, they’ll have Whitehouse’s head large on the right hand side of the screen and, when they cut back to Nyman, his head is also filling the same area of the screen so there’s no jolt or excessive eye movement on the part of the audience. This was pretty good and especially effective in this first sequence (which is pretty much the only one which employs static shots in abundance in the interview part of the mini chapter) because when we go into Whitehouse’s flashback of the events that took place... the camera movement is a contrast and drags you into a scarier journey where, like in all the other segments, the camera can be wandering around and allowing the audience to anticipate and keep vigil on various corners and reflective surfaces on the screen... to build tension as to where the next threat is coming from.

After the denouement of this first scene, however, with an all important finger hooking into the protagonist’s mouth which was made notable enough to kind of give away an echo of a specific piece of ‘master imagery’ at the end, we immediately go into Nyman interviewing someone else without going back to Whitehouse’s character. This immediately got my back up and my ‘Spidey sense’ tingling because there’s no way of telling whether, as implied, Whitehouse survived his encounter and it immediately made me think that the main threat and punchline of this film would revolve around the character of Goodman himself, far more than the set up of the sequences as is first implied.

Sure enough, the second segment, which is a bit of a romp and involves a truly excellent performance by Alex Lawther, takes us a little closer to the uncertainties of Goodman in the set up for the interview. Actually, Lather looks very much like a demented ventriloquist’s dummy in some ways and I was totally expecting him to actually turn out to be one by the end of the segment but that was not the case. One wonders, though, if the look of the character was a nod to the 1945 movie Dead Of Night, in terms of referencing the lineage of this type of horror format.

This whole sequence involves a car in the forest coming a cropper with a creature that is probably the devil (or a vertically walking goat person, you decide) and, my one take away from this was I quite liked Haim Frank Ilfman’s score in this section, although I suspect the particular Cineworld screen I was looking at this in had one of the speaker channels down and so none of the music seemed particularly well mixed, even in the horrible and much hated product adverts before movie played.

Again, this second story sequence left things hanging in terms of the interview by the end of the story and you were never really sure whether the main protagonist really got out alive or not... at least that’s how it felt to me.

By the end of the third segment, which starts off promisingly enough, things start to get significantly mixed into the personal history of Goodman himself and it’s only a short hop away from being the kind of ending you would expect from this type of multistory linking device but, alas, not really any different from such tales we’ve seen or read in the past. Which I think is my main problem with it. It’s not that the specific ending is obvious... it’s not really. It’s just the style of ending which seems quite weak, to me and, coupled with my feeling that the individual segments all came to a stop just when they were starting to actually get scary... well, it really left me spectacularly unimpressed and shoulder shrugging by the end of the movie.

Which is a shame because, apart from the actual structure of the writing, everything else is good. Even the written dialogue is well put together. The performances are all sound and the direction and cinematography all pretty amazing. So I really am surprised that I was so underwhelmed by this production and I’m now wondering if it’s just because I’m ‘an oldie who’s seen it all before’. I don’t think I could really recommend this one to my friends and I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again (although I do want to pick up a CD of the score, if it’s released) but I suspect teenage viewers who may be less familiar with the dark and delightful legacy of horror cinema this is so obviously trying to tap into may get a lot more out of Ghost Stories than people like me. I’m not saying more movies like this shouldn’t be made... I just wish they were a little less obvious than this as to the nature of their end game and, maybe, just a little scarier on the journey to their final destination. This one’s not quite my brand of tea, I’m sad to say.

Thursday 5 April 2018

A Quiet Place

Womb Of The Blind Dead

A Quiet Place
2018 USA Directed by John Krasinski
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so this one’s pretty amazing.

I’ve said this before on here but... remember how David Lynch’s Wild At Heart starts with Sailor Ripley repeatedly bashing in the skull of someone on a brass railing and the sound and fury of that moment sets up just how dangerous and spontaneous he is (even though he’s pretty much the hero of the film)? Similarly, remember how Steven Spielberg starts off Jurassic Park with a sequence which really shows you just how dangerous a velociraptor can be? These are two scenes which set up the potential of certain elements of a movie to teach the audience to be afraid and to make them anxious that there’s a possibility the film-makers are not going to be pulling any punches here. Anything bad could easily happen.

Well, this is what the new post apocalyptic sci-fi/horror movie A Quiet Place does within the first ten minutes or so of its running time. The film is directed by John Krasinski and stars both him and his real life wife, the always incredible Emily Blunt, as Lee and Evelyn, the parents of a family of survivors after ‘something bad’ has happened to the planet. And, if they don’t want something equally bad happening to them they have to be, as Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon would say... “.... vewy, vewy quiet!”. And, like those two classic examples I just gave, the writers here find a similar way to let the audience know just how dangerous the threat to these people is.

The film is given a deliberate, documentary style ‘validation’ by setting the scenes on screen in typography as Day Number ‘x’. So we’re given the number of days since the family have been struggling to survive (along with other survivors in nearby places) since things went wrong. What went wrong, is something you pick up quite quickly, in some ways, from early on in the film. At some point, starting when people started mysteriously going missing but then escalating... big insect-like creatures have wiped out most of the population of the planet. Are they mutations of some sort? Are they aliens? Well, just like the traditional stance of something like a post-Romero zombie film, we never actually find out. The film-makers do just the right thing here and never explain the threat. They just set it up as the thing which makes this thriller work and... well, it really does work.

Okay, so these big, fast insect things are basically blind but they hunt by sound and, physically, their whole head is, more or less, one giant ear. You understand this even though hardly a word is spoken throughout the movie. Most of the dialogue, such as it is, being done through subtitled sign language. This, of course, re-enforces the necessity throughout for almost total silence and this also, naturally, gives the filmmakers ample ammunition to scare the audience silly with sound. For example, there’s a scene fairly early on in the film where somebody accidentally overturns a lighted lamp and, frankly, the noise of this scared the life out of me. So it’s certainly an effective tactic.

Now, I’ve said before that horror movies can still work well when they’re following the genre rules and clichés associated with them, as long as they’re executed competently and... A Quiet Place is no exception. The film is fraught with peril and it’s also so well timed and constructed that, even though there aren’t really any surprises here, it’s done just right and I don’t mind saying my heart was in my mouth for most of the film. The suspense in the movie is almost unbearable and intense and I was so pleased with this movie that I didn’t mind the clichés set up to build the foundations for the scares straight from the start.

So... okay, let’s look at those clichés then.

Well, number one is that we have one of the children, the daughter of Evelyn and Lee, called Regan, who, it turns out, is totally deaf. It’s a testament to just how good the movie makers are that they can set that up very early on in the first sequence just with the sound design (you'll know what I mean when you hear it, if you see this in a half decent cinema). Big shout out to the young actress Millicent Simmonds, by the way, who is absolutely phenomenal in this role. So, yeah, we have a deaf character which the audience immediately understands can be a danger in this situation... she can’t hear if anyone, including herself, is making any noise to attract the creatures. So you know the director is going to milk that for all its worth.

Cliché number two, which you will see from the trailer, is the ticking time bomb in Evelyn’s womb. Evelyn is pregnant and is due very soon... babies are noisy things and so you can pretty much figure out that the baby is going to be coming along at the absolute worst time possible for our characters. There will be consequences.

And the third cliché is the potential ‘magic bullet’ solution to all the troubles the characters find themselves in. There’s a point where someone is given something... and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here... and you just know that this is going to turn out to be the possible salvation/turning point away from mankind’s extinction. And I have to say, in hindsight, once you figure out just how these creatures work, you might wonder why the heck nobody thought of this earlier, before humanity got into this situation in the first place. It’s a pretty obvious thing but, heck... since we don’t know enough about how things happened at the beginning of the catastrophic events that kickstart this whole plot, who’s to say if there was any time for the population of the planet to sort this out? Lets humour the writers here and say there wasn’t.

So, yeah, full of obvious things, this movie but, like I said, so perfectly put together and executed that I really don’t think anyone is going to mind too much. The film is so scary I was really glad I took my blood pressure pill before going to the cinema, I can tell you. It’s also wise in the way it’s been edited and especially in what’s been omitted, I suspect. I know the trailer has a fair few things in it which don’t quite make it into the movie and, given my slight criticisms, some of those cuts were probably quite wise... it’s best not to know too much of what has gone on before to get the characters into this situation in the first place.

Added to all this, we have a Marco Beltrami score which is typical of his excellent horror work and which really drums the scares into you... playing on the nerves in exactly the right moments to elicit the most adrenalin rushes as you watch. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming CD release of this so I can hear those grating, atonal, nerve shredding tones away from the movie.

So, yeah... I saw this on a day of preview screenings of the film at my local cinema on Easter Monday but it should be on general release in cinemas tomorrow and I would heartily recommend this to anyone who is either into horror movies or who doesn’t mind balancing on the edge of the cinema seat for an hour and a half. This is one of the scariest, well made genre pieces I’ve seen for a while and I’m really pleased I got to see this one on the big screen. Do not miss A Quiet Place... you’ll be holding your breath.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Isle Of Dogs

I Love Dogs

Isle Of Dogs
2018 USA/Germany
Directed by Wes Anderson
UK cinema release print.

So it’s only April and here we have what may well turn out to be the absolutely best film of the year. Isle Of Dogs is yet another corker from one of the two greatest, living American directors Wes Anderson (the other being Hal Hartley, of course). Now, though I’ve seen almost all of Wes Anderson’s movies, I’d not seen his earlier stop-motion movie Fantastic Mr. Fox (I don’t remember being that impressed with the original Roald Dahl source material as a kid) but I’m now quite keen to see this as I realised, while watching this, that the medium in which Anderson has chosen to work with on this thing in no way compromises or marginalises his artistic signature.

To the contrary, despite the fact that none of this film is live action, it looks and feels unmistakably like a Wes Anderson movie right from the get go. All the usual markers are there including the labelling, the setting out of parameters and the linear, clean shots that mark his work out with a unique fingerprint. In fact, as I was watching the film, I started to wonder if the reason that absolutely no compromise in this director’s style is in evidence here was in fact because his regular, live actions films themselves, in some way, resemble neatly organised, animated works. It’s something I’ll need to ponder on further.

Isle Of Dogs starts with a metaphorical fable (in terms of its relation to the main body of the story) of a boy samurai and his defeat of an enemy that wanted to rid Japan of all dogs. The story then flashes forward to the main setting of the film... a Japan of the future in which the mayor has ordered all dogs, which have pretty much contracted a contagious dog flu, to be dumped on a trash island. It is here that the main human protagonist’s dog ‘Spots’ has been dumped first (also known as Dog Zero) and it’s here that Akira, the boy pilot, flies to rescue him. The film shows how, when he teams up with a pack of ferocious dogs, he goes to find Spots and right the wrongs of the mayor, who is about to poison the entire island and wipe out all the canines.

And it’s great. Just great.

The dogs all speak English and are voiced by various film stars, many of them Wes Anderson regulars. So people like Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Liev Shreiber, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gehrig, Frances McDormand, Scarlet Johansson and, seriously, Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, various Japanese human characters, played by a variety of actors and actresses, only talk in their own language and it’s completely raw in the film except where it’s deliberately translated by various people or by electronic gubbins (as pointed out to the audience in the typical Anderson way). So, in some ways, the Japanese humans have the same kind of effect on proceedings as the nonsensical, abstract ‘waaah, waaah, waah’ voices of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Well... unless you happen to speak Japanese, I guess.

The film breezes along and it has all the usual, inventive, witty and sometimes quite moving dialogue moments you'd expect from Anderson, as Atari and an angry stray dog called Chief form an unlikely bond in an attempt to find Spots. The animation is just perfect and some of the expressions the dogs make to the audience where they break the fourth wall like Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy might do in one of their shorts when they look to the audience for some kind of understanding or validation is great. It’s also got its own visual short-hand going on too, as any filmed footage shown on a TV or screen of the characters is done as a traditional line drawing style cartoon whereas the body of the work is done in a stop-motion style animation. So that was a nice touch.

The music is great too... as you would expect when the great Alexandre Desplat is working with this director. I believe this is their third collaboration and, like the previous two - Moonrise Kingdom (reviewed here) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here) it’s absolutely brilliant and quite possibly this will also be the best score of the year too.

Like pretty much all of Anderson’s films, there’s usually a substantial amount of needle-dropped music in his work and although this has kind of calmed down a little since he started working with Desplat, there are still a few places her and there where he goes the needle dropped route in this. One of his listed influences on this film is my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa and there are a few pieces from Kurosawa scores in the movie. The one which made me jump off my seat was in a scene where the theme from Seven Samurai starts playing... a tune which is never far from my mind anyway. There’s also, amongst the odd, assorted songs, a nice and extremely unusual ‘cover version’ of Prokofiev’s Troika thrown into the mix... so, yeah, you can bet I’ll be ordering this CD as soon as I stop typing up this review.

And there’s probably not too much more I can say about this convoluted yet ultimately simply rendered and inventive film. The problem when someone makes such a perfect movie is that there’s not always as much you could say about it as there are no flaws to pick up on. Isle Of Dogs is easily one of the best animated movies I’ve seen for quite some time but it’s also, quite unmistakably, an ‘on brand’ Wes Anderson film and this director just seems to be getting consistently better with every piece of motion picture art he makes. I can’t recommend this film enough to anyone who will listen and, honestly, you’d be really missing out if you don’t see this one at cinemas. Such a great ride.