Friday 29 June 2018

Sicario 2 - Soldado

Dancing Cheek To Cheek

Sicario 2 - Soldado
(aka Sicario - Day Of The Soldado)

2018 USA/Italy Directed by Stefano Sollima
UK cinema release print.

The last time I saw the winning combination of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro lighting the screen up, they were both looking very different to how they appear in real life, going toe to toe (toe to chest, actually) as Thanos and The Collector in the excellent Avengers - Infinity War (reviewed here). However, the film where they absolute burn the screen down with their performances has to be the original Sicario (which I reviewed here).

When I first heard that the Hollywoodland people were planning a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent war on drugs classic, I didn’t think it was such a great idea to do a follow up to a film that was so striking and had such a powerful ending. Also, the Emily Blunt character was written out very early on in the genesis of this sequel and I think that was actually a big mistake (and I’ll get to why I think that’s the case a little later on). I also remember saying that the original was something that was so morally ambiguous in the way the main characters were portrayed that I didn’t think I could ever watch it again. However, I did watch it again a couple of months ago because the solid direction coupled with the absolute gorgeous cinematography was haunting me (and did I mention the Blu Ray had come right down in price to a few quid?). I have to say that, although the intensity of the film was somewhat diminished when you knew what was coming, I actually liked it a lot better the second time around and will probably even watch it again sometime in the next decade. Nevertheless, a sequel to the story of these particular characters just seemed wrong.

This is neither here nor there, though, as a sequel has been made with the atrocious name of Sicario 2 - Soldado, as it’s known in the UK and with the slightly better title of Sicario - Night Of The Soldado in various other territories. Now, I have to say I was expecting a little better of director Stefano Sollima, purely and unfairly because he’s the son of Sergio Sollima, who directed at least two of my favourite spaghetti westerns back in the 1960s. However, it would be true to say that this film suffers a lot because it doesn’t have the keen eye and gravitas of Villeneuve’s original, aided substantially by Roger Deakins' absolutely jaw dropping cinematography and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s striking score.

Instead, what we have are two great central performances, again by Brolin and Del Toro but, with a storyline which, in some ways, fails their characters a little bit, I think. Although they are both quite blistering here, Del Toro’s character Alejandro seems to lack the emotional weight of the slightly earlier version we’d seen before but, again, I think the writing failed him a little. I kind of expected the writing to soften him down a little in this one, to be honest, because the trailer showed that there was a kid in it but Brolin, too, seems to be a little more diminished in that he has a little more overtly expressed emotion to his character this time out.

I’ve been trying to figure out just why this is and I think it’s because it’s written from a slightly different point of view this time around. In the first one, almost everything was very much shown through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s outsider character and, although we didn’t stay with her the whole time, I think it would be true to say the majority of the movie is pretty much experienced as an audience from her point of view and this really allows Brolin and Del Toro the contrast needed to come in and be very hard hitting, almost brutal, with their rendering of their characters. Sicario 2 - Soldado kind of lacks this approach. True, the film has a fairly strong second opening (after a prologue featuring people trying to get across the border), set in an American supermarket which is absolutely terrifying. Alas, that’s the most terrifying sequence in the movie and when a young girl played (brilliantly) by Isabela Moner is thrown into the mix, we’ve already started renewing our relationship with Brolin and Del Toro so her reactions to the characters, quite apart from being from a different kind of point of view to Emily Blunt’s character from the first one, are somewhat diminished as we have already been following their antics before this point. If it would have been me I think they would have been better off starting with this scene and introducing her character from early on, sticking with her throughout the entire length of the film. As it happens, her shock and horror at the events going on around her are less useful in this regard and... well... you just feel less.

Now, I can’t blame the writers for doing this, to be honest. The structure serves a story where Brolin and Del Toro split up for the majority of the movie and so trying to tell this tale from a single viewpoint might have seemed a bit odd. It doesn’t, however, get away from the fact that you really do feel this one a lot less.

Added to this is the fact that the cinematography, so beautiful in the first movie, is somewhat pedestrian in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got a very competent and very clean look which I appreciate but... well... it’s no Sicario.

Also, we have a musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has worked with the original film’s composer a number of times, trying to sound something like his predecessor but never quite getting there... at least in the mix as it stands in the cinematic release (the stand alone listen may be a quite different beast, I suspect). In fact, I’m sure that, by the end of the movie, they had either re-recorded one of Jóhannsson’s main themes from Sicario or, perhaps as likely, just tracked it straight into the movie in an attempt to give the audience something they were at least familiar with. Which is a shame because the music is certainly very good but...not really holding its own, in comparison.                            

Added to this we have some quite badly telegraphed ‘miracle escapes’ for some of the characters along with some ‘surprise attacks’ which are just a little disappointing because you can usually see them coming. There are some touching moments where Del Toro and his charge are helped by a deaf man and his family in the desert but a few brilliant scenes do not a great movie make and, sadly, although this is quite a good thriller, it’s really not got that ‘gut punch feeling amidst the incredible visual beauty’ which the Villeneuve movie had in spades.

So there you have it. Sicario 2 - Soldado implies quite heavily that there will be a third part and... well, we’ll have to wait and see if I can get excited about that prospect later on down the line. For now, Sicario 2 is a competently crafted but by no means outstanding piece of genre cinema which I think will divide audiences passionately and which, perhaps, really didn’t need to say anything further than what we already know about the characters. And I think I’ll leave it at that.

Sunday 24 June 2018

The Haunting

Hissed Air, Bloom N’ Fall

The Haunting
UK/USA 1963
Directed by Robert Wise
HMV/Fopp Exclusive Blu Ray Zone B

A few decades ago, when people used to ask me what my favourite horror movie was and I said The Haunting (even in the days before I had to clarify it with “the original 1963 version of” before hand), I was more often than not met with a response something along the lines of “not heard of that one.” Nowadays, however, I’m pleased to say that the majority of people I answer this too are as aware as I am that this is pretty much the greatest horror movie ever made. It’s reputation has grown in stature to the point that it usually makes most of the important “Top Whatever” film lists, such as the BFI’s corker of collective list-dom, often ranking quite high.

The film is directed by the great Robert Wise who not only edited Citizen Kane for Orson Welles but who directed quite a large number of films in surprisingly diverse genres over the years... you might know him from such films as The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original), West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (again, the original) and even Star Trek - The Motion Picture. He’s made many great films but none of these, to my mind, matches the absolute perfection and entertainment value of The Haunting (although The Day The Earth Stood Still comes quite close).

Out of the two filmed versions of Shirley Jackson’s source novel, The Haunting Of Hill House, this is supposed to be the closer, in tone and spirit, to the original and I know Wise did liaise with Jackson when he started working on it. In fact, he ditched a version of the script where it turns out everything takes place in an insane asylum in the mind of one of the characters because it wasn’t in the book and Jackson disagreed with the idea. While the book is quite chilling and not an awful lot physically happens in terms of things you could put your finger on (from what I remember... it’s been over thirty years since I’ve read it), the film is possibly stripped down even more and, if you want to see a ghost story film where hardly anything is seen but absolutely everything is felt then... this is the film for you.

The Haunting starts off with a voice over narrative intro by Richard Johnson against a shot of the house at night and, even though you might not consciously realise it yet, even that first shot is already working on you as part of the directors constant agenda to distort the audience's perception and keep them off guard as much as the house does the same to the main characters (if you look at the edges of the screen you’ll see the peripherals kind of lean toward the centre in a circular manner... I’ll get back to why that is in a minute). After a brief title sequence over the same shot, Johnson continues his intro as Dr. Markway as he explains to the audience (and a couple of people he is leasing the house from, which you’ll see at the end of this sequence) about the history of Hill House and the deaths that have occurred within its walls. And much in keeping with one of this character’s main traits, it also contains a certain amount of warmth and humour... “Built ninety odd... very odd... years ago...”. This history of the house sequence includes a horse going into a frenzy at a certain place by a tree in the grounds (an event which will, in some ways, come back to haunt one of the cast members right near the end of the movie) and a woman who ascends the spiral staircase of hill house with a rope on a plate.

One of the things Wise does throughout the film when he wants to disorient the audience (or disorient them even more, that is) is to use fast moving camera panning around everywhere and using things like whip pans and other tricks to really hit the feeling of a lack of control. Even in this opening history lesson we are treated to such things and a lovely piece of shot design ending with a fast camera movement is truly great. We are looking down from just above the young lady ascending the stairs with the rope and climbing with her (the camera was fixed to the rail built for it when the staircase was constructed) but we then pan to the left of the stairs looking down as she walks up past the camera. The next thing we know, her legs swing in to shot as it is made abundantly clear she has hung herself... the camera then rapidly descends back down the path of the spiral staircase at great speed (probably enhanced in the edit, I should think). Gorgeous stuff.

After, we see Markway granted access to the house, as long as he is lumbered with future owner Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn as the film’s big sceptical character) and he picks his ‘guests’. We then see a teeny bit of the back story of just one of those guests, Eleanour... played, really brilliantly (as they all are in this) by Julie Harris. We get a glimpse of her personal ‘sensitive nature’ as a sister who has had to look after her dying mother for a number of years and who now seems somehow at a loss after she has nobody to look after. She steals her sister's car and makes the journey, at Markham’s invitation, to Hill House. Of the ‘guests’ in the house, she is the only one who is given any real back story and it’ll become clear why later, especially since Markway chose her because she had a strange ‘poltergeist incident’ with hail stones as a young girl.

When she gets to the house, after a run in with Valentine Dyall as Mr. Dudley the groundskeeper, she meets Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) who shows her to her room in a most eerie performance. Starting off totally silent and evading all questions, when she gets Eleanour to her room she suddenly goes into her introductory spiel and the contrast between stark silence and a high speed volley of rules and regulations from a character who looks quite ‘haunted house gothic’, is a nice addition to proceedings. There’s a brilliant shot here when Elanour first arrives and puts her briefcase down and it’s one of many in a film which is filled with beautiful compositions. As she goes to pick her briefcase up off the floor, we have a shot from her point of view looking down at the floor with the briefcase at an angle filling the left of the screen and her face reflected, along with the lights from the ceiling, in the highly polished floor next to it. Again... beautiful stuff.

After this, Eleanour meets Claire Bloom’s character, Theodora, who we later find out is psychic. Right from when we meet her she says things which allow the audience to unravel the kind of person she is... by giving foreshadowing to her highly sensitive flashes of people and things... “you wear your thoughts on your sleeve”... as well as playing up the lesbian overtones of her character and her attraction to Nell (her pet name for Elanour). Actually, the sexuality of Theo’s character was originally going to be much more specific and overt with a back story scene for her too, with her splitting up and leaving her girlfriend at the start of the movie but, apparently, the censors didn’t like the idea so Robert Wise decided to cut it. I don’t know if it had actually been shot or not before that decision was made.

After this, the girls meet Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markway and Russ Tamblyn’s Luke where it’s explained that, because of Eleanour and Theo’s past brushes with the world of the supernatural, they and a few others who dropped out, were selected to research the supernatural occurrences of Hill House. Pretty soon after, when everyone goes to bed, we get the first of the film’s ghostly and, if it’s the first time you’ve seen the film... very unsettling, supernatural ‘attacks’. Actually, if you’ve seen the movie before, the use of sound design coupled with the camera work is still pretty chilling even when you know what’s coming.

Lets look at this a little then. Why is this such an effective film?

Well, we are told that Hill House is a house that doesn’t make sense. Doors all shut themselves, no room is a natural rectangle and all the angles 'don’t quite add up'. There are cold patches in various places and this is visibly demonstrated in certain scenes with little things like the shivering of a plant in a wind where there is no draught or the visible breath of Luke when he sits in a certain spot.

Now then, I said at the start that even the first shot of the house is a little out of kilter and the reason this is so is because Wise went to the photography department and asked to use a specific lens and camera... the 30mm, anamorphic, wide angle Panavision camera... which wasn’t in use yet as it was still being developed. He had a look through and looked at the way it curved all the peripherals ‘in’ slightly and asked to use this to help him create a personification of the distortion of Hill House... and he even had to sign a waiver when he got it, to say he understood that the lens was imperfect. And the imperfection of the lens is absolutely perfect for a film about a house as a character in its own right. There are some nice things which happen when, as he does in this, he pans the camera around an interior. If you follow a piece of scenery or prop around with your eyes as it travels from one side of the screen to another, you can see it straighten up and then bend itself back the other way as the lens does its thing. Added to the imposing interiors and unusual and slightly uncomfortable set dressing, such as a statue of a woman’s face with a veil over it, her features barely visible through the marble... this lens was just the ticket for the tight, claustrophobic and vaguely unsettling feel the director was going for here.

Combined with the sound in the supernatural scenes, it really comes into its own.

For instance, Wise is able to completely spook his audience by doing things like having the ghostly, almost aggressively conversational noises of the ghosts of Hill House coming into the foreground as the camera pans slowly across the wallpaper in Elanour and Theo’s bedroom, tweaking the pattern slightly and lighting it in such a way that the audience can fill in a hidden face which isn’t really there but... oh, yes it is because that’s one of the things the human brain does best... constructs hidden faces where there aren’t any. And another great trick is to switch the camera around suddenly from third person to first person view, disorienting the audience and making an audio connection which gives a certain personification to the unseen presence. For instance, Elanour shouts “It’s against the top of the door!”... and then we immediately cut to a shot of the two ladies huddled in bed, looking down at them from the top of the door.

And the whole film is like this... an unassailable, almost passive aggressive assault on the senses by Wise’s view of the story as much as the house is deliberately weakening the minds of the people inside. And that is what it’s doing because it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise that Hill House has an agenda for these characters... or one character in particular, at any rate... and it even uses distraction techniques to force the sets of inhabitants apart from each other at one point.

Even in its more relaxed moments, the film is a tour de force of beautifully composed, manipulative film making. There’s a lovely shot where Elanour and Dr. Markway are talking and the perspective is crashed together to give a marvellous effect with Markway’s head in close up on the right of the screen while the top half of Elanour and her torso is filing the left of the screen... these two protagonists facing each other compositionally from different distances from the camera while not necessarily looking at each other at all.

The Haunting is quite remarkable and a film which I try to come back to as often as possible and I’m glad I do because, even though I’ve seen the picture a number of times (well into double figures), I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, this time around. I quite like Humphrey Searle’s, sadly lost, score to the movie but the early back story scene with Elanour fighting out her right to leave the rest of her family is something I’ve always considered almost comically overscored. Honestly, the music here is unwieldy and plays against the scene it is supposed to be illustrating quite badly. However, this time around I saw (and I can’t believe this was the first time I’d noticed this) that when the music stops, you can just make out Elanour switching off something which is not actually on the screen... so all these years I’ve thought I’d been listening to tragically awful underscoring in that scene, it turns out to have a diegetic source of a radio out of shot. This explains a lot.

If you’ve not figured it out by now, the original 1963 production of Robert Wise’s The Haunting gets a huge recommendation from me and this latest viewing does nothing to discourage me from  adhering to my notion that it’s the greatest horror movie ever made. Definitely watch this one if you’ve not seen it before... it’s a truly amazing ghost story.

Batman - Gotham By Gaslight

Gas Expectations

Batman - Gotham By Gaslight
USA 2018 Directed by Sam Liu
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Well... my blood is still boiling after watching this new, animated feature which purports to be an ‘adaptation’ of the brilliant one-shot comic Gotham By Gaslight. I can’t imagine what the creators of the original, Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, think of this travesty but I do feel for them.

That original comic was one of the first, possibly even the first, Elseworlds comic by DC. I’m not sure if my old copy from 1989 even has the Elseworlds logo included on the cover but it was a popular imprint (with me at least) and DC’s answer, or so I assume, to what Marvel were doing with their What If? comics.

Okay, so people who know me have probably figured out that I find it quite interesting when characters and situations from different sources or universes come together and are cross pollinated to give an alternate feeling to the familiar elements of their individual stories. There have always been comics where some of the characters 'separated by time', for example, have come together in a single story. I might mention The Shadow debuting for DC in the pages of one of the Batman stories (Batman Issue 253) or my favourite of the Marvel Two-In-One comics featuring The Thing from The Fantastic Four alongside Doc Savage (kind of). One of the more interesting titles that Marvel used to put out was What If?... which literally took famous moments or characters in Marvel history and said... well hang on, what if that hadn’t panned out that way at all? So you had some great issues like What If Conan Had Walked The Earth Today? and What If Elektra Had Lived? Of course, Elektra did live... or she got really confusingly reincarnated at any rate... but at the time they brought that issue out she was still very much dead in the comics.

Anyway, as good as this long running comic book series was, when DC finally decided to get in on the act, they came up with the Elseworlds series of one shot comics (and occasional mini series). Their explanatory blurb on the front or back covers was always pretty much the same... “... where DC Comics heroes are taken out of their usual setting and put into alternate timelines or realities.”

So I have some great comics like Metropolis, where the idea of Superman was literally displaced into a version of the famous Fritz Lang movie of the same name. Or Batman: Red Rain.... where Batman goes toe to toe... or is that fang to fang... with Dracula. Or Amazonia... where a Victorian era version of Wonder Woman takes on Jack The Ripper etc. There were quite a few of these things published in one format or another and Gotham By Gaslight was where a Victorian version of Batman took on Jack The Ripper, who had journeyed to America. It was a great little tale and even inspired a sequel, Batman: Master Of The Future, which the makers of this hideous mis-step of a cartoon have also slightly plundered for their own take on this story.

Frankly, as I was watching this new animated version, Batman - Gotham By Gaslight, I could barely remember any of the events, characters or situations I was seeing portrayed on screen as being in the comic. I had to go back and check that I didn’t imagine the original incorrectly but, there you have it, there are so many liberties taken with this one it’s pointless calling it by this title. I know a movie adaptation has specific demands that make it essential, in most cases, to change a few things to help the flow of the film but this one goes way beyond the old and dubious scapegoat of artistic licence. In fact, it feels like ‘artistic licence’ met ‘art’ down a back alley sometime and anally raped said masterpiece before slicing it up with a chainsaw and then jumping up and down on the bloody remains of what was, in this case, a once great story.

I can barely write these words without being enraged as to what they have done to this, in all honesty. There is a slight similarity in the costume that the Batman variation wears in this (which was my favourite costume variation in the comics, to be honest) and the killer is still Jack The Ripper... but even that is not as it seems because the person who ‘was’ Jack The Ripper in the comic is not who it turns out to be in this travesty of a cartoon version. Seriously, it’s like what the producers and writers of the James Bond franchise of movies used to do more often than not... just buy the title and then come up with their own story, characters and situations with absolutely no regard or, as in this particular case it seems to me, no respect for the original material.

Honestly, I can’t stress how different from the original source material this movie is. In this version, Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) is one of the main players and... yeah, you guessed it, she’s not even in the comic. The Joker was referred to in the comic but... oh, right... makes no appearance here. Instead you have throwaway versions of characters like Poison Ivy, Harvey Dent and Adam Strange. This really has got nothing to do with Gotham By Gaslight people! And there were so many other things from the source they could have thrown into the mix, like Sigmund Freud but... no... we have something far less interesting here.

I remember the artwork in the original comic being fairly gritty and very ‘Victorian’ish and it all worked really well. In this cartoon, however, everything seems so 'xerox smooth' and flat and it just seems like the most simplified, child-like version of 'Batman Victoriana' you would ever hope to stumble upon in your worst opium nightmare. They’ve managed to take what was an impressive story and not only completely change it so it’s barely relatable... they’ve also managed to make it look as bland as possible. I just don’t understand this approach. All the animation looks kinda slow and somehow cheap. Like a 1970s/80s Filmation cartoon.

Also... why the heck is this a 15 rating? There’s a modicum of blood in it and the occasional ‘slightly naughty word’. This is not worthy of an adult certificate... especially since it seems like it was made by a kid. Honestly, it’s like a bunch of stuffy old conservatives got around a table and put their hands over their mouths while grinning as they put in a swear word or two. This is beyond childish and not anything close to adult oriented entertainment.

Okay, so good things?

Well... the fist fight choreography was kinda okay. It was mildly entertaining although, it has to be said, Batman never actually wins any fist fight in this thing and even in the last one, he only escapes fiery death by using a trick he learned from Houdini. 

Okay, so other good things...

No, wait. That’s it.

There are no other good things and don’t let me get started on that awful song which is desperately failing to sound like the period its trying for. I bought this Blu Ray because I loved the original comic book and now I feel like I’ve been completely hoodwinked by Warner Brothers. I thought I was buying a version of Gotham By Gaslight but it turns out this is in name only. There should be a huge disclaimer on the front cover of this thing telling people that any event or characters portrayed in this movie are completely incidental and in no way meant to resemble the one thing it’s supposed to be an adaptation of. After seeing two amazing Batman animations (reviewed here and here) by the same company putting this one out, I’d have to say they should hang their heads in shame at committing this atrocious misrepresentation of a great Augustyn/Mignola work. Don’t bother with this one... go read the comic instead.

Thursday 21 June 2018

The Saint In Palm Springs

Errant Stamps

The Saint In Palm Springs
USA 1941 Directed by Jack Hively
Warner Archive Blu Ray Zone A

So here we have the next installment of my off and on rewatch of the movies based on The Saint. This is the sixth in the series and it’s also the fifth and final one for George Sanders in the title role. Sanders would jump ship on the Simon Templar but not the studio when he swapped this role out for another character who Leslie Charteris, writer of The Saint novels, once referred to as a ‘bargain basement’ version of his. I’m talking, of course, of the films where he played The Falcon... which was a series which also left him behind after a while but in a much more interesting fashion, if I recall correctly. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that when I start revisiting The Falcon movies for this blog. They’re on the ‘to watch’ pile.

It’s actually a bit of a film for ‘lasts’, actually. This is Jonathan Hale’s fifth and final appearance as Inspector Fernack. This is also Wendy Barrie’s third and final appearance in The Saint series of films but, strangely, she plays a different character in each one. She also followed her leading man Sanders into The Falcon series. Finally, we also have Paul Gullifoyle playing in his third and final of The Saint movies... although it’s only the second appearance of his character Clarence ‘Pearly’ Gates in this one.

The film is a short one but it’s a charming romp, like most of them and, although Sanders maybe is a little too ‘upper class’ for the role, he still does a great job and who can blame him with the quality dialogue he gets in these things. The words used in these 1930s and 1940s films positively sing themselves off the page and they really show up the movies that are thrust into our cinemas these days. Nobody is writing dialogue as good as this anymore.

The Saint In Palm Springs
starts off with a ticker tape directive to arrest The Saint as he disembarks from an ocean voyage but, of course, he gives the two welcoming policemen the slip and fastens them together with their own handcuffs when they try to take him in. When The Saint turns up shortly later, unnanounced, in Ferneck’s office, we find it was all an elaborate ruse by the inspector to attract The Saint’s attention so he could ask him for some unofficial help. That help being that he wants Simon Templar to escort his friend and the extremely valuable stamps he has on him to a close family member of the gentleman in question. These stamps are worth gazillions of dollars and there have already been two attempts made on his friend’s life.

Ferneck, who is a character I enjoy a lot, is only in the movie for... probably less than ten minutes but he starts the adventure off and he also has probably the best line for when his detectives return empty handed and cuffed together by The Saint... “Well, you'd better go down to the police garage and borrow a file. When you get those things off, you better use it to sharpen your wits.” Of course, one wonders why the heck he had to send out a false telegram to his own department to look for The Saint anyway, instead of just sending them out to discretely collect him but... um... no, I’ve got no answer for that one.

Alas, Ferneck’s friend bites the bullet, so to speak, just after Templar arrives. Templar manages to hold on to the stamps, however and agrees to deliver the ‘cargo’ to Wendy Barrie’s character Elna Johnson personally and look after her/them until they can be safely and officially squirreled away. On the way he meets a femme fatale who right away tips her hand to the audience that she is after the stamps but also, it seems, there is more than one interested party in these tiny scraps of paper.

The film then, for all its one hour and six minute running time, becomes a series of scenes in Palm Springs where The Saint, Elna and Pearly Gates try to keep up with the stamps as these little items leave a trail of corpses in their path. It's a flimsy plot but, with all that sparkling dialogue it's a pleasant enough watch and, although not his best, finishes Sander's run on the series fairly nicely (in fact, he literally rides of into the sunset on a horse at the end of the tale, like an old Western movie). There are some fairly silly things about it too though...

Like the fact that expert pickpocket Pearly Gates is on probation and he has to check in each day after his job with his parole officer to keep himself from going to jail for ten years... so what job have they found him to do while on parole? House Detective for the resort that Templar is staying in, of course. Seriously? How in heck do you give a seasoned criminal a tide over job as a house detective... this makes no sense. It’s almost as silly as the overhead model shot of Palm Springs used as an establishing shot when The Saint arrives. I’m pretty sure it’s a model because there are no people walking around it... then, when we cut to the resort itself, all the exterior locations seem to have been recreated in a studio. It’s not an uncommon thing for those days but it does look fairly silly at times.

Another silly thing is the presence of George Sanders’ stunt double during a ‘lights out’ fist fight during the story. I use the word ‘double’ loosely because, honestly, he looks nothing like the person he’s doubling for. And it’s not a particularly violent fist fight either, to be fair. One wonders why they needed a stunt double for this scene in the first place. Perhaps at Sanders insistence?

All silliness aside, though, The Saint In Palm Springs is still another good dose of Simon Templar’s shenanigans and, once again, features a Roy Webb score which utilises the ‘Saint jingle’ that Sanders whistles throughout. Whether it was actually Leslie Charteris or Roy Webb who came up with that jingle is a matter on which there is some disagreement but it gives the films some continuity (which even carried over to the Ian Ogilvy TV series Return Of The Saint in the late 1970s, if my memory is not failing me). So, much to be recommended in this one and, as I said earlier, I will be following Sanders’ transition into The Falcon series in a while (not to mention Tom Conway’s version of the character... which makes for an interesting story itself). In the meantime, I will carry on with The Saint series with an actor I don’t recall seeing in the part before, taking over from Sanders. The next three films, I think, are totally new to me. So look out for that next one at some point in the very near future.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

The Editor

Build My Giallos High

The Editor
Canada 2014
Directed by Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy
Shout Factory Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Slight spoilers in this one
regarding a certain comedy moment.

Blimey. I think it would be true to say that The Editor is not the film I was expecting it to be.

True enough it’s an homage, mostly, to the popular Italian gialli of the mid/late 1960s to early 1980s but it also throws nods to other genres and styles into the mix too, such as both Italian and Canadian horror films but, mostly, this is not what took me by surprise. What surprised me was the fact that the film very quickly, after a strong opening sequence reminiscent of giallo cinema, turned out to be a comedy. And I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about that.

Asides from the giallo spin, my other main reason for ordering a US Blu Ray of this thing was that it features Paz De La Huerta in its cast, who I loved in the movies Nurse (aka Nurse 3D, reviewed here) and Enter The Void (reviewed here). However, it has to be said that although she’s technically a main character, playing the wife of the editor in the title, she actually doesn’t have many scenes in this movie. Which is a pity but, there you go.

Now, as I said, the film starts off quite strongly and it features a beautiful sideways tracking shot, along the top of a row of drink bottles, of a girl in a strip bar dancing while lit by some sultry red and white lighting. We then cut to her walking home in streets lit yelllow, red and green and she is almost molested before she returns to her red and blue apartment. As you can tell from this description, the wonderfully lurid, saturated colours of the Mario Bava/Dario Argento school of ‘psychedelia noir’ is already in place, right from the outset and the film also has a few nice shot compositions too... but I would say that most of those compositions are not as rigidly creative as the ones seen in many gialli over the years, to be fair.

Once the girl emerges, naked, from her shower, she is attacked by a typically clad ‘giallo killer’ and injected with a fluid which leaves her paralysed on her bed as the killer puts a venomous spider on her spectacular nudity. However, before the arachnid can do its work, the killer bashes her head in with an ostentatious swash of blood. And then we cut as the audience is let in on the secret that this is all just a movie within a movie that the titular character is editing for his boss, a once great giallo director. And then, for me, the film somewhat descends into the kind of over the top, tongue in cheek, campy comedy which makes films like Anna Biller’s Viva (reviewed here) and The Love Witch (reviewed here) so great but with perhaps not quite her sly acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the source material. That being said, the many comedy moments in the film can be quite amusing in some places although, in many of those cases, I would have said that a good knowledge of giallo cinema would be essential to ‘getting the joke’.

There are two main characters in the movie. There’s the The Editor, Rey Ciso... played with a kind of strange, deadpan but wholly appropriate detachment by Adam Brooks. He is one of those troubled souls who can’t be one hundred percent certain that he’s not actually doing the killings himself. The background of the character is that he was once a great up and coming editor who had a nervous breakdown after being driven mad by the pressures of his attempt to edit 'the world’s longest movie' (I’m not making this up). Then, he accidentally cut off the fingers of one of his hands in the film splicer and now has to wear a kind of wooden gloved prosthetic on that hand.

The other character is the police detective Inspector Peter Porfiry, played by Matthew Kennedy. He at first suspects that Ciso is the man behind the murders but, by the end of the film, they become allies to hunt down the truth of the situation. Both, of course, are heavily ‘giallo’d up’ and are sporting full-on Maurizio Merli style, 1970s moustaches.

There are jokes aplenty in the movie such as the typical giallo priest figure who is consulted by the detective. Also, a nice moment where a character drops something while talking to the detective and, when he gets in his car, Porfiry finds it is a straight razor and returns it, placing it in the owners black gloved hand. A nice shout out to those seventies giallo killers. There’s also another wonderful moment when one of the characters in this film within a film, shot by the director of a fictional classic giallo called “The Cat With The Velvet Blade”, crashes an exercise montage sequence which looks (and sounds) like something out of Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock. He accuses one of the girls of being a mystery killer, wearing a mask... such as you might see at the end of a Scooby Doo cartoon. However, when he tugs at her visage it becomes fairly evident she isn’t wearing a mask as her face comes off in his hands and her eyeballs in the red, gorey mess of the inside of her face roll around as she screams. No harm done, though, as the detective just pats the face back into place and then, after a quick cut, the girl is back to normal. It’s a moment which takes you by surprise in a film which has a few similar tricks up its sleeves. There’s even a comical sex scene where the detective makes love to his blind girlfriend and then... um... blindfolds her. Yeah, okay.

Like a typical 1970s Italian exploitation picture, the acting is quite bad through the majority of the film and, of course, that’s quite deliberate and adds to the feel. This is further enhanced by a musical accompaniment comprising of quite a few composers, as it happens, one of them being Claudio Simonetti who, of course, is exactly the kind of person you want scoring a movie like this.There are also many great homages to various genre movies throughout the course of the film which crop up and take you by surprise.

For example, the actual killing of the actress played by the girl within a film at the start of the movie has her fingers cut off (a killer trademark in this) and left dead and bloodily hanging in a shot deliberately reminiscent of the first murder sequence in Dario Argento’s horror movie Suspiria. Every now and again, too, the directors will drop in an homage to my favourite Sergio Martino giallo The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh (reviewed by me here). Even the music in these sequences, which mirror the strong, non-consensual sex fantasies of giallo queen Edwige Fenech in that movie, are scored with a parody of Nora Orlandi’s famous score (later re-used by Tarantino in Kill Bill Volume 2).

More nods include: A parody of the killer standing behind another character who we don’t know is behind him until he bends down, which is from Dario Argento’s masterful giallo Tenebrae (reviewed here) and which was later ‘stolen’ by Brian De Palma for Raising Cain. Talking of De Palma, there are, in fact, a couple of split screen sequences used towards the end of the movie which parody that director’s cinema to a degree too. And talking of Argento, a book that the wonderful Paz De La Huerta is reading has the title, Three Mothers... echoing Argento’s trilogy partially based on a page from the follow up essay of Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater (available in a very reasonably priced Wordsworth Edition here)... Suspiria, Inferno and The Third Mother (aka Mother Of Tears). The film even has a nice appearance or two by much loved genre actor Udo Kier, who of course had a small role in both the first and third parts of that trilogy. Not to mention a moment representing Canada by parodying David Cronenberg’s body-horror classic Videodrome.

On top of this, there’s a whole slew of Lucio Fulci moments in The Editor, including: The girlfriend of the detective who discovers the first murder and is rendered completely blind in an instant because of the horror of what she saw. Her eyes go completely white and she looks very much like Catriona MacColl in Fulci’s The Beyond (reviewed here). That being said, some of the long shots of her face don’t match when they cut back to close up but I’m honestly not sure if that was a mistake or some kind of deliberate nod to the same kind of errors happening in those movies. Similarly parodying The Beyond, a load of spiders emerge from the walls of a library to attack the detective when he is doing some research. So, yeah... some nice references here.

At the end of the day, I wasn’t too sure about this movie after about ten minutes in from the start but, as the genre jokes got more sillier and over the top, coming thick and fast, I had to admit I more than cracked a smile or two and so I would surely recommend this film to... at least one of my friends that I can think of. It slowly won me over and my initial disappointment changed to appreciation by the time it reached the end of its running time. Overall a nice little viewing experience with some truly silly sequences and some quite over the top, practical 'in camera' gore effects. However, I would also have to mention that, unless you are quite well versed enough in giallo and horror movies over the last 50 years (thankfully, I seem to be), you may find that a lot of the jokes in The Editor fall flat because you might not understand them. Other than that, though, you’ll be just fine.

Sunday 17 June 2018


Click Bait

2018 USA Directed by Ari Aster
UK cinema release print.

You know, this has been trailering at my local cinema for months now and my interest in seeing this was growing every time I saw the promo... which in itself is cut together in a slightly misleading way. Well, nothing wrong with that and I will say that I don’t intend to be posting too much in the way of spoilers about this other than what you can glean or speculate on from that initial trailer.

Hereditary is a film which I suspect is going to split most audiences passionately down the middle... divided between those who write the movie off as completely ridiculous due to the last five or ten minutes of the movie and those who can, despite the absurdity of that sequence, recognise that the build up to this point in the movie is actually really well put together. And therein lays the problem with this particular beast but... before I highlight the negative stuff, let me tell you about the huge amount of positive things this film has to offer.

Now I’m sure most of you have seen the trailer dealing with a family... mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and his small and somewhat sinister, little sister Charlie... played by Milly Shapiro who makes those disturbing clicking sounds you’ve probably seen in the film’s promotions. After Annie’s mother dies, she continues working as an artist building her miniature scenes based on real chapters of her life and tries to continue on with her family. Indeed, the first long shot of the movie includes a slow track into a dolls house she is working on that becomes the set of one of the rooms in the house. And then ‘things happen’ and that’s as much as I’m going to try to tell you about the plot here because it does get a little predictable in places and I don’t want to be responsible for leading you to the right conclusions about the movie.

Horror enthusiasts might have already figured out that the distinctive clicking sound that Charlie makes is an aid to the filmmaker to have something strong and identifiable so that it can become linked to something in your mind and create tension when it sounds the alarm bells. Well, yeah, if this is what you were thinking you’d be absolutely right. The sound is not functionally unlike the sound of the hostile plants approaching in the 1963 version of The Day Of The Triffids or the sound that the giant ants make when they are around in the 1954 movie THEM! It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché but it works well enough here and honestly I didn’t mind it.

The main reason I didn’t mind it is because this film isn’t one of those immensely fun but sometimes a bit ‘samey’ modern horror films which rely too often on cheap jump scares to rattle your nerves. There are a few times when the film gets kinda scary in places but it rarely relies on the sudden surprise that seems to be the currency of contemporary genre film making. Instead it utilises a kind of creeping fear which plays on the mind and sends the odd prickle up the back of the neck. Such as three or four intense scenes where the director plays on the universal fear brought on by thinking you can see someone in your bedroom at night in the darkness, only to find out that various furniture or possessions bundled up together are just giving that illusion. There’s a lovely denouement to one of these scenes which I think a lot of audiences will go for. Unfortunately, this film is so good at this sort of stuff that, when the final act of the picture finally comes, things seem a little foolish in comparison to such a well prepared lead in.

However, the cast and crew do a lot of good work and there are some lovely shot compositions here as well as some wonderful foreshadowing of certain themes.

For instance... and if you’ve seen the trailer you will probably remember this moment... after a pigeon flies into the window of her school, Charlie is later to be found snipping off the dead bird’s head with a pair of scissors as a keepsake. This not only heightens the strangeness of the character (which actually might be a piece of deliberate misdirection by the director) but also echoes a lot of... hmmm... shall we call it head play? There’s a certain morbid obsession with decapitations in this movie and so the scene where Charlie performs her makeshift surgery on the dead bird actually does have a point to it and there’s even a certain amount of story logic to it too, when one looks closely enough. Like I said... this film has foreshadowing coming out of its ears.

Perhaps my favourite piece of foreshadowing in the whole movie, however, was during a family car ride home. We have a long shot of the car speeding down the road going left of screen and the car is kept squarely in the middle of the camera until it goes past a telephone post and then the shot stops dead with the telephone post splitting the screen vertically in the centre of the shot while the car quickly speeds off of the left of the screen. So we are left with just the post and nothing happening in the static view of the road which it holds for a good few seconds. It might have been punctuated by a musical beat here, I don’t quite remember.  I didn’t even realise what this was about but I acknowledged it as a really nice cinematic moment and it wasn’t until much later in the film, a fair way after another memorable sequence involving what I assume is the same telephone pole, that I realised what a brilliant piece of highlighting this was. Although I can’t tell you why at this point because... you know... spoiler free.

Talking about the music... Colin Stetson’s score is quite restrained and brooding and just what you need for a film which doesn’t employ shock tactics to slowly build its tale. There was one scene where the music seems to be ‘mickey mousing’ what’s on screen but, interestingly enough, it’s not actually mickey mousing the action itself... more adding rhythm to a piece of the sound design and giving it a more insidious hook into the ear. It’s a shame the movie didn’t do more of this stuff on occasion because the way it’s done here is quite effective and I don’t remember seeing/hearing it done quite in this kind of way before. It suspect it will be a fairly interesting listen away from the movie and... yeah, I just ordered a CD of this thing from Amazon before typing the rest of that sentence. Luckily it has an appropriate physical release.

So yeah all of this is great but... like I said.. the film has a few problems.

The least problem this film has is that it’s a mite predictable. I’ve seen some posters with ‘critic’s copy’ on them describing it as this generation’s The Exorcist. Well... nope, it’s not and if there’s a big film from the past I might be more tempted to compare it to, that would possibly be Rosemary’s Baby. Indeed, there’s a moment in the film where you first meet a character and right away I thought to myself that she might as well have introduced herself to the audience and another character with the words... “Hello, I’m your friendly support lady and I’ll be your Ruth Gordon for the evening.” I think most people will, like me, work out what this lady's overall function is in the main narrative as soon as she comes into the story but, again, I didn’t mind it so much because the artistry, not to mention the quality of the central performances in the film (especially by Collette and Shapiro), is absolutely first rate.

The biggest stumbling block of the movie for me is... well, let me tell you what happened in the screening I saw. About 5 or 10 minutes from the end of the film the audience started chuckling and, as things escalated, laughing the film off the screen, almost. I can’t say I entirely blame them either. There’s a point just after one of the lead characters starts getting chased around the house that the film switches tonally very quickly from creeping terror to the downright silly and unsubtle. The imagery in this last section wouldn’t have looked out of place in old movies like Tom Thumb or Jack The Giant Killer and although it was all valid in terms of finishing off the story in a logical way it was really a case of too much too quickly. After the long and slow build up it switched totally into the “well, that escalated quickly” stage and lost all credibility, I felt. Obviously I didn’t feel that quite as strongly as the rest of the audience, however, who were openly giggling by the end.

One last thing though. There’s a nice touch where the final shot kind has the camera tracking away from a scene in the same way that the first scene was tracked in from a shot of a dolls house. Now, one of the nice things this director does... and it’s not the first time I’ve seen this done but I haven’t seen it done in a single movie quite as frequently as it happens here... is that he transitions from day to night and back again in the outside world just like he’s flicking a light switch on or off. Everything just switches to daylight or night time, eschewing any sunrise or sunset. Now, given the whole ‘doll house’ framing device, one wonders if this is part of one final comment as to the reality of the world in which the film’s central narrative takes place. Are all these characters just figures being moved around in a miniature form? It’s food for thought but I’m not going to get too bogged down in that one. Sometimes when you think about the mechanics of a story too much the whole thing just falls apart.

So there you have it. I actually quite enjoyed Hereditary for what it was but ultimately it felt like it really dropped the ball in the final act. I do, however, think it’s worth a look... not for the horror fans exclusively but for a general audience because some of the film making on display here and, especially, the craft of slowly weaving a tale is pretty well done. Whether or not you think the ending lacks a certain amount of credibility is another matter but don’t let this stop you from enjoying the rest of the movie. It’s certainly not without its charm.

Thursday 14 June 2018

Night of the Living Deb

Debbie Does Zombies

Night of the Living Deb
USA 2015 Directed by  Kyle Rankin
Icon/FrightFest Presents... DVD Region 2

I may have mentioned it a few times on here that I don’t usually respond that well to comedy shenanigans unless it’s written by Woody Allen or stars The Marx Brothers but, every now and then a movie comes out which will tickle my funny bone in just the right way (not the way that leaves the whole arm paralysed and makes you grimace in pain while you wait for circulation to return). Night Of The Living Deb is just such a movie and it really breathes new life (and death) into the not that old ZomRomCom sub-genre of flesh eating zombie movies.

The movie stars this little whirlwind of an actress called Maria Thayer as the title character, Deb Carrington, beginning with her being egged on to talk to the “50 shades of heeey” guy at the bar they are having their 4th of July eve celebrations in. The guy's name is Michael Cassidy and, playing Ryan Waverly, he makes an excellent foil for Deb’s amazing one liners. The chemistry between them is wonderful as they suddenly, on their ‘morning after’, find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse with Ryan, at first, not all that enthused about what might have happened the night before they woke up in bed together.

However, this particular ‘day after’ is an onslaught of zombie carnage as the two try to pick up friends and relatives to save from destruction, including famous genre actor Ray Wise as Ryan’s dad, the head of the water company responsible for accidentally turning the majority of the town’s population into flesh devouring monsters. On the way through this trip of a movie, various genre tropes are discussed, movies quoted and there are so many funny gags coming at you all over the place that for a moment there I actually did have a Groucho flashback because Thayer’s delivery is that good as the love struck, over enthusiastic survivor with a heart of gold. Indeed, although the film isn’t a 1930s screwball, romantic comedy in name, it certainly does have a lot of moments that viewers might notice as Deb’s character is as persistent and unflappable in the pursuit of Mr. Waverly as Katherine Hepburn was with Cary Grant in some of those classic movies like Bringing Up Baby so, you know, you can probably tell I thought a lot of this movie on first viewing.

The film is full of the necessary ‘zombie splatter’ scenes with many classic moments from the history of zombie cinema being referenced here but there’s also some nice commentary on the genre too. For instance, there's a nice little scene when Deb slows them down to a halt as a zombie slowly shuffles towards them and she makes a comment about not worrying too much because these are obviously the old style, classic zombies which shuffle about like they’ve got cerebral palsy. Only to be told by Ryan that the zombie in question is someone he knows and he really does have CP... and then the fast running zombies suddenly appear to continue the pursuit.

In regards to this kind of zombie tribute, there’s also the much hackneyed scene where the characters identify that they have two shots in their revolver and so Deb says they can ‘tap out’ if it comes to it. Quite besides the fact that Ryan stresses his displeasure at the idea of being shot in the head if he’s about to become a zombie, he points out that when Deb is making the ‘tapping out’ motions, the order she does it in has her killing herself before shooting him... which really isn’t going to happen. And it’s great little moments like this that really liven up what could have been a not so good film and turn it into a truly fun and entertainingly great one.

There are also some great gags in the details too and I particularly loved the comment on the mentality of the people of Maine (which looks like it kinda matches my own in this regard) when the camera pans past some graffiti on a wall which says, “Your all going to die” but with the correction added where someone has crossed out the word ‘your’ and replaced it with the grammatically correct “you’re”. I love stuff like this and this movie could probably have gone on for another hour before I got bored with it. I also especially liked the throw away stuff near the end about the sanity of the way in which ‘zombie begets zombie’ (which is how I say this without putting spoilers in to give the game away) is something which defies logic in the wide variety of zombie movies. It’s a nice little moment and it gives rise to hope at the climax of the movie.

The film is not all that predictable... well, okay, it kind of is in terms of where the story might be heading but it takes the least predictable route there, for the most part. It also isn’t without its problems... well... only one problem that I could detect actually (apart from not having a sequel made). When a broadcast is made from a TV station towards the end (presumably, at least partially, in homage to Romero’s original version of Dawn Of The Dead), the consequences of that broadcast are shown and they are the kinds of things which would take a day or two to be happening in the world outside the small town which this feature uses as its setting. However, we then cut back to the main action and it could only have been 5 minutes or so, at best, in terms of the chronology of the narrative so... yeah. I suspect the director realised that though but just relied on the great God of artistic licence to make the scene work which is... well, I’m a little pernickety about such things but this is such a joy to watch that I can forgive it that little slip up easily.

And that’s really all I can say about this one. Night Of The Living Deb is absolute gem of a movie and, like Alan Jones says in the introduction to this ‘FrightFest presents...’ DVD... they get everything right. The DVD also has a ‘Making of featurette’, which I didn’t watch... and a Blooper Reel which, contrary to the majority of blooper reels I’ve seen, is actually quite funny, for the most part and doesn’t outstay its welcome. If you are a fan of either zombie movies or comedy/horror films then you could do a hell of a lot worse than to watch this truly genius little film. All I can say is, please, can we have Dawn Of The Deb now?

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Pirates Of The Caribbean - The Curse Of The Black Pearl

Her Cool Pirate

Pirates Of The Caribbean -
The Curse Of The Black Pearl

USA 2003 Directed by Gore Verbinski
Disney Blu Ray Zone 2

Here we go then. It so happens that it’s finally time to watch the Pirates Of The Caribbean films again from the start, since I’ve not really watched these since their cinematic release. My impression of these at the time was similar to what I later thought of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies... that being that the first one in the franchise is a pretty good film and that it’s been followed up with some truly dreadful sequels, none of which has managed to disprove the old adage that, in terms of the quality of both series’ of movies, lightning doesn’t strike twice.

This first one is, in retrospect and as I look at it now, just a little too long in terms of its total running time of almost two and a half hours. That being said there’s very much a case to be made, in my mind, that the movie is made watchable by one particular actor and, coupled with a pretty cool score, he’s the thing which makes this one worth watching at all... although that’s not to dim the light of the other very good performances in this.

The film is based on the 1967 Disneyland attraction of the same name (minus the subtitle). It was the last such attraction to have been steered by Walt Disney himself, although he died a few months before it opened and it’s kind of ironic that, since this film was so financially successful and popularly received, the ride was closed down for a while to make it even more like the movie version... although there are apparently plenty of references to the original ride in this film.

The opening of the movie is a prologue chapter on a ship under the command of a character called Norrington, played by Jack Davenport. Here we see the younger versions of Elisabeth Swan and Will Turner before they grow up, by the next sequence, to be played by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Elisabeth’s father, played by Jonathan Pryce, is quite keen that Elisabeth marry Norrington, even though there are obviously years between them (although Jack Davenport doesn’t seem to age at all in the time between the sequences). Of course, she is in love with the village blacksmith, the aforementioned Will Turner, who she knows to have something to do with piracy from the opening sequence, although she’s doesn’t reveal this information to Will. I remember sitting in the cinema and watching this first ten or so minutes of the film and looking at my watch and thinking... please don’t let the entire film be this dull and boring all the way through. Luckily, it’s just at this moment that we get the opening salvo of shots of Johnny Depp’s entry in the story. The music swells as the camera holds back from an establishing shot and we see Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in command of his vast ship and the score gives wind to his sails. It’s only then that it’s revealed that Sparrow’s ship is, in fact, a tiny boat with one smallish sail and a reliance on how the camera can change the perspective of a shot and flatten it out. A nice little punchline as the boat is obviously sinking and Jack starts trying to bail it out as he nears port. A follow up shot not so long later sees Jack gliding confidently into port with a pullback to reveal he’s standing on top of the still sinking mast which just manages to get him to port so he can gracefully step off as the boat goes under. Nice stuff and this has got to be one of the best and most elaborately shot entrances for a character in modern Hollywood.

And then the writers throw a plot and some action at everything of varying quality but the film is, frankly, completely reliant on Johnny Depp’s exaggerated performance of Captain Jack Sparrow as the very heart and soul of the entertainment. Without Depp, in this case, the film would be nothing but here he really adds the ingredients so sorely missing from the sequences which find themselves "Deppless" and some nice concoctions of skeletal pirates, blood sacrifices to Aztec gold, coupled with some great swordplay and chase choreography make the film a pleasure to behold. Admittedly, it’s a slow trundling pleasure but there are some nice little movie references too, to keep the weary audience afloat and there are a lot more doubloons than duds in this one... something which sadly can’t be said for the other films in the series, if memory serves.

There’s a nice moment, for instance, where Jack Sparrow and Will Turner decide to team up and use an overturned rowing boat to walk beneath the surface of the sea, like a miniature submarine, using the naturally formed pocket of air left in the top of the boat to breathe. This is, of course, a nice little shout out to the exact same submersible solution created by James Hayter in The Crimson Pirate, as he uses the idea to transport himself, Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat out of trouble (if you’ve never seen this marvellous movie, make a point of doing so... not only does Hayter’s character invent this submersible when called for... he also invents gun powder and the hot air ballon throughout the course of the story). Similarly, a well choreographed bit of ‘rescue nonsense’ at the end of the movie where Turner tries to get Jack Sparrow away from his impending execution is similarly choreographed almost like a dance routine and recalls the acrobatic antics of Lancaster and Cravat in certain scenes in The Crimson Pirate.

And then there’s the score. Although it’s composed and credited to Klaus Badelt (who also did a marvellous score for the reboot of The Time Machine), he also had a lot of help, primarily from Hans Zimmer who wrote the themes and, according to the original soundtrack album credits, ‘over produced’ the CD release. When you start digging deeper, however, you start to realise that there were a few composers working on the movie but, be that as it may, it’s a great score. There have been some marvellous scores over the years for pirate movies... the as yet unreleased score for The Crimson Pirate by William Alwyn and the much re-issued John Debney score to Cutthroat Island, to name but two... and The Curse Of The Black Pearl certainly joins them in having a rousing and much loved score. It does the job admirably and the strong Jack Sparrow action theme, albeit somewhat similar to something which originally appeared in Zimmer’s score for Gladiator, is one of those cues which people will be humming through the ages. It’s mixed quite heavily into the foreground in this movie and, frankly, it’s all the better for it. More movies these days, where the sound designers are in love with their own miasma of audio bombast and submersion, should give the music greater room to breathe, in my opinion. The films would certainly reap the benefits.

So there you have it. Well before Pirates Of The Caribbean came out, I was an admirer of Johnny Depp as a great actor and on screen personality and, although I’ve learnt in recent years that a good Johnny Depp performance isn’t always enough to save the day (Secret Window, The Tourist, Mortdecai etc.) this is definitely a film where he shines enough to carry the action and weight of the movie on himself and turn it into something quite watchable. There’s much buckling of swashes to be had in this first installment of Pirates Of The Caribbean - The Curse Of The Black Pearl and, though I couldn’t watch it every decade, I feel like there’s still a few viewings of this one left for me. If you like big adventure movies and you’ve never seen this one before... you’re in for a good time.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom

Amber-ling Entertainment

Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom
2018 USA Directed by J.A. Bayona
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very minor spoilers.

Hmm... yeah. Okay this is not that great people. In fact... it’s far from good. I gave the previous entry of the five Jurassic Park films, Jurassic World, an okayish review (just here) but you can tell I was trying to be really kind to it and I said it was my fourth favourite of the bunch. This one... well, it’s not exactly terrible but, yeah, I guess this is my fifth favourite and it seems to be one of those franchises like Transformers or, to an extent, Pirates Of The Caribbean, which gets just a little bit worse each time around.

It’s pretty hard, I would have thought, to screw up a movie where giant dinosaurs run around eating people and, to be fair, this still holds true for this movie... kinda. Except there must be some real problems, it seems to me, when I find myself struggling to stop myself from looking at my watch during the movie.

Okay... so let me focus on the stuff they got right for a minute...

Well, the performances from returning actors Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are top notch and, even when they haven’t got great dialogue... and this is a film of a lot of scenes which don’t have great dialogue... they do an admirable performance in their roles here. As do co-stars Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith. Jeff Goldblum is, of course, always watchable but, as I suspected when I saw the trailer, he’s only in it for a couple of minutes at the start and a couple of minutes at the end so... not a great return for his character Ian Malcolm, to be honest. I was quite pleased when Toby Jones turns up as a nasty business man because the first thought you have is.. this guy is just here to get eaten. That’s almost his sole purpose in this movie... so that was another box ticked off.

Another positive is that the director seems to be making a concerted effort to design some nicely composed shots some of the time. There are cool examples of emphasising things by shifting focus and using sections at the edges of the screen in a few instances. So some nice, cinematic moments scattered throughout.

Okay so... that’s pretty much all the good stuff there.

Frankly, this film dragged quite a bit... even though it was full of action. Well, I say that... nothing much happens for the first twenty minutes or so but, once we get to the island, things go wrong for the main protagonists very quickly and heroes and villains are speedily identified. Everything is clearly marked but even the main characters seem to be acting like they have labels rather than names. Like many films, each character has their function but this movie makes it seem so obvious as to what role the characters are supposed to fulfil that you might as well just label them up... ‘velociraptor whisperer’, ‘high heel in peril girl’, ‘vet girl’, ‘button gal’, ‘computer guy’ etc. Everything slotted into place so obviously that there was nothing much to surprise you except... oh yeah... that one thing.

There’s a sleeper of a twist reveal which you kinda know is coming for the little girl played by Isabella Sermon as they keep dropping visual hints but... and this is a problem with a lot of things throughout the whole film... nobody, including the audience, really gets time to digest it when the big reveal is finally... um... revealed. And that’s a typical thing happening with this movie because, once the movie ramps up about 20 minutes or more in, there aren’t really that many pauses or time for reflection and suspense to build up before the next bus load of dino madness is upon us. So there’s no real weight or sense of terror lurking in the background and the suspense sequences feel just a little bit samey and anemic. Not something which has bothered me before when I see these things but it is a big problem here because this story really doesn’t have too much going for it. It really can’t afford to rollercoaster over those few good dramatic beats here and there in the way it does.

It’s interesting because this movie is much more graphic in its depiction of violence compared to the other Jurassic Park movies... it seems to me. Bearing in mind it’s a 12A rating in the UK, there’s a scene where half a guys arm gets pulled off while a dinosaur ‘toys with its food’ and another scene where you see a man ripped in half, Darth Maul style, between two dinosaur’s mouths. Now I’m not specifically blaming the director for what I’m about to say here but... you never really feel the violence and it shows just how beautifully crafted Steven Spielberg’s first two films in the franchise were because, with a minimum level of on screen goriness, you somehow feel the grizzly nature of violent death more in the way those are shot, edited and scored. Here, you see more but feel way less. Maybe a good demonstration of that old cliché ‘less is more’ in reverse here, it seems to me.

And talking of scoring. I love the majority of Michael Giacchino’s film music... heck, I even went to his birthday concert last year... but the music in this really is an unstoppable force and has a heck of a time trying to compete with the sound effects on this one. It seems simplistic and overpowering and, given the composers knack for weaving in other composers styles and melodies, the John Williams source material is barely referenced. In fact, there was probably more of it in the trailers than you got here and that’s just crazy because there are some real moments where the audience could benefit from the identification of those Williams themes to lift the emotions and, it just doesn’t really happen.

My one big, unforgivable mistake on this whole movie, however, happens within the first ten minutes or so and I was so angry about this that I could barely watch the next scene because my outrage was  persistent. In the early scenes they use a lot of BBC ‘newscast’ footage to recap the audience on what happened at certain points in the last movie as well as bring them up to speed as to what has happened in the couple of years chronologically between the two films. There were even scenes of people watching these broadcasts with their naked eyes and no special glasses... you know what’s coming don’t you? How in the heck are we supposed to believe that the BBC or whoever is broadcasting in 3D? Seriously, the TV footage stuff was all in 3D too and there’s absolutely no way that would happen. Popped me straight out of the movie. Just completely dumb. How is this stuff allowed to happen? I don’t even have the words to express my anger as to how a flat screen is suddenly able to magically broadcast in 3D. What were they thinking?

Also, while I’m at it... is it even possible for amber to break, let alone shatter from such a small distance? I think not, somehow.

So, yeah, I’ll just try and calm down now and say that... if you like the other Jurassic Park films then Jurassic World - Falllen Kingdom is probably going to hit some of the right buttons although, honestly, I’m getting really fed up with these now. There’s a post credit sequence which just underlines what you already know, which is that the producers obviously have a clear goal for the next movie in the series but, honestly, I’m just not sure I care what happens after this. A bit of a misfire but the kid inside you might like it. Or not. Who can tell? Give it a go and see what you think.

Thursday 7 June 2018

Ladies Of The Night

Working Tales

Ladies Of The Night
by Maggie McNeill
ISBN: 978-1494370701

Okay so this is a book I had as a recommendation from Twitter. Not that anyone actually recommended it to me personally but I saw someone or other talking about how good it is (they were right about that) and I looked at it and thought that the cover was really cool. Added to that the fact that the writer, Maggie McNeill is/was a sex worker and that all the stories, more or less, feature characters from a world where sex is sold or bartered as a service was just the icing on the cake. I’ve always thought that working girls were criminally underrated and persecuted in terms of the attitude towards service they provide to the general public at large so, whenever one sticks their head up from behind the parapet and does something additional with their talents, I’m always interested.

Now, I was a little wary about this volume called Ladies Of The Night because, for the last few years, I’ve not been getting on with the short story format as much as I used to as a kid. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the short stories of, say, Philip K. Dick are almost always absolutely amazing but some of the ghost story anthologies I’ve read lately (and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know my December habits by now) have been pretty underwhelming.... especially when they purport to have some kind of Twilight Zone style twist but rarely end up delivering anything either a) surprising or, b) remotely thought provoking. Then again, I really wanted to own a copy of a book with that printed cover so... yeah, I gave it a go.

As it happens, though, I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and content of McNeill’s short fiction. She can spin a yarn or, in most cases here, a nicely realised sketch of a concept and, although the majority of the stories hosted here which are, for the most part, taken from the writer’s blog The Honest Courtesan (which you can go to by clicking here) are only a few pages in length, she manages to invoke and weave together some pretty cool ideas and atmospheres in this tome.

I say hosted because a really nice touch with this collection is that McNeill’s written a short introductory passage to each story which gives a little context as to why it came to be written or in what kind of time period it is set. And there are some real corkers in here too with different writing strengths coming through in various stories. For example, the extra long opening tale Pandora is all about the atmosphere of dreams and the ways that the curious world of sleep can dominate and bleed into the everyday. Whereas another tale may be more about the way in which the attitudes and perceptions of the professional choice of the central protagonist are highlighted with, often, a much more idealistic conclusion in the understanding of some of the heroine’s decisions portrayed than comes about in a real life scenario.

Now, while the stories mostly involve ‘ladies of the night’ in various incarnations, it would be true to say that this collection isn’t exactly erotic in nature. Instead, like good science fiction, the writer uses that milieu to explore ideas which are not necessarily specifically about that... it’s just a useful metaphor to be able to tinker with certain themes.

Indeed, almost all of the tales here could also be labelled as either science fiction, fantasy or supernatural in content. There’s even a brilliant, recurring character in three of the tales called Aella, who is an amazonian heroine in the style of the kinds of characters you’d find in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian tales such as the likes of Conan of Cimmeria and Red Sonja.

In the first of these three Aella shorts, A Decent Boldness, Aella finds herself far from home and her actions to rescue a girl find her offered a hefty wage to be security in a brothel. She learns the ropes and it makes the point, quite succinctly, that a more than decent wage can be made from the encouragement of the sins of the punter.

The second tale, A Haughty Spirit, is set four years later as she and her friend/lover are on a long journey back to her tribe of Amazons and I loved the tactics that she uses to rescue her friend from the chieftain of a hostile tribe.

The third of the Aella tales. Glorious Gifts, offers a more practical approach to things perceived by others as affairs of the heart. This places our heroine in a possible dilemma that is, in some ways, a metaphor for how our stupid governments treat the idea of sex work (if I read it right).

These are all great as, indeed, the majority of the stories in this volume are and I found it refreshing that, asides from the theme of sex as an item of transaction, the events and situations are from a wide variety of fictional times and places. In here you will meet sex robots, vampire hunters (and, of course, vampires), detectives, superheroes, aliens, ghosts, mirror portals, Gods, faeries and even, in one memorable instance, a tale which examines an underlying problem of a certain, unnamed, time travelling Gallifreyan in a very interesting manner. So, yeah, as a longtime watcher of Doctor Who, I was very pleased with this one.

The other thing about this collection is that... for the most part... the little twists at the end of each tale are actually something which you might well not see coming. I was surprised, in a good way, a few times and, as my regular readers will know, this is a talent that I value highly. I’m very rarely surprised but this collection has some nice little ‘stings in the tales’, so to speak. They more often than not come in the very last paragraph or line of the story too... which is maybe even harder to do. My absolute favourite one in this collection is called The Specialist and it is a tale told by a working girl who has developed a service where she caters for a very specific kind of client. I’m not going to spoil that for you here though but, you know, worth a read. Like a number of the stories in the book, this one starts off with a character looking backwards at certain events until we catch up to the present, usually right at the end of the story.

And that’s all that I have to say about this one, I think. Maggie McNeill’s Ladies Of The Night is a truly interesting, entertaining and thought provoking collection of short stories. Well written and none of them outstay their welcome. Really enjoyed this one and am very much looking forward to purchasing and reading her second collection of short stories, Forms Of Things Unknown, when I am able to. In the meantime, if you are a fan of short fiction, this one might be right up your street.

Tuesday 5 June 2018


Sphere Pressure

USA 1979
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

When J. J. Abrams produced and directed the first of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, the chrome look of one of the character costumes reminded him of the iconic chrome/silver ball in the Phantasm series of movies and so he named that character Captain Phasma. I’m just recounting this story by way of demonstrating how well loved and how far reaching these particular low budget horror movies are. When you watch the first one nowadays it maybe seems a bit dated but still retains its quirkiness and I think, if I were truly watching this for the first time now, then I would possibly be wondering what all the fuss was about. However, Phantasm has been with me for a not inconsiderable chunk of my life and its something I like to come back to every now and again and, this newish Blu Ray box set from Arrow Films was a good excuse to do that. Not only does it have another model sphere, smaller and closer in size to the real thing than the excellent DVD box set of some years ago, plus a little book full of photos and information... it also has the long awaited fifth movie from the end of 2016, Phantasm Ravager, making it’s UK premier here. So I was very excited for this new, restored boxed set.

My first experience with Phantasm in the UK was the TV spot used to advertise its first cinema run back in 1979, contrary to what the IMDb is now telling me in that it says this movie didn’t even get a release over here until 2016. But I clearly remember the TV spot at the time with the main teen protagonist running from one of the lethal chrome balls, flattening to the ground and letting it pass over his head. I also remember the tag line in that advert, with the voice saying at the end... “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” I just confirmed my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me by phoning my friend @cultofthecinema, who remembered the posters being out on the tube at the same time and I remember them front of house at my local cinema. So, yeah... sometimes the IMDB can get it very wrong.

Of course, I was only 11 years old in 1979 so it wasn’t a movie that I would have been allowed to see at the cinema. It was an 'X' movie anyway but I remember that, by then, my head was perpetually filled up with lots of science fiction stuff such as Doc Savage, the Flash Gordon serials, Doctor Who, Space 1999, Star Trek, Sinbad, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run comics (the actual movie was a 'AA' when it came out in 1976 so I was too young but, again, in addition to the comics there was the short lived TV show), Star Wars, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica and... well, you get the picture. I mention this in passing to indicate that, even though my mind was on other things, the TV advertising for this was very much a ‘thing’ and the imagery found in even those short ads was quite haunting.

I don’t think I came into contact with the movie itself until the late 1980s or early 1990s and it would have almost certainly been a TV print. Probably uncut but maybe not. I’ve seen this movie maybe another three or four times since then and, every time I watch this one, I am always surprised by the ‘just about hanging together’ and surreal nature of the experience. The film stars A. Michael Baldwin as the teenage Mike and the plot deals with how he and his brother Jody, played by Bill Thornbury, team up with their friend Reggie (played by Reggie Bannister) to investigate the local funeral home Morningside after their mate has died and strange, inexplicable stuff is happening around town. In fact, Mike and Jody’s friend is stabbed by The Lady In Lavender (played by Kathy Lester) in the opening sequence of the film and it’s then that we also get our first flash of a shot of one of the film’s longstanding icons.

That icon being one Angus Scrimm, who is probably best known for playing The Tall Man in all the Phantasm films and who is recognisable in costume and saying his catch line “Booooooy!” in a way transcendent from the films which made him such a famous figure in low budget horror. Scrimm died in January 2016 and his last two films were Phantasm Ravager and Dances With Werewolves. It’s always good to see Scrimm turn up in stuff unannounced (like this director’s film John Dies At The End, which I reviewed here) but it’s in this film where it all begins for him as far as being a larger than life horror personality is concerned. Seeing him strutting his way through the beautiful, vertical shapes and tones of the Morningside Funeral Home is still something special... probably more so when you’re seeing it in the context of the larger body of work that is the Phantasm series.

Phantasm is a great film and, sure, it has its other great icon the flying spheres. We only see it in two scenes in this original. The first being the scene which was used for the trailers and TV spots where Mike is being held by a guy with the sphere flying towards him... the blades come out but Mike bites through the other guys hand and wriggles out from his grasp just in time for the ball to land on the other guy’s forehead, fixing itself by its twin bayonet blades before unleashing a high powered drill to burrow into the victim’s head while a hole opens out in the back to eject the blood. One might possibly, the second time you see it, be asking yourself why such a bizarre and elaborate method of killing is required in the first place but the first time you see it, you’re probably too distracted by the novelty to care. The only other time we see the ball is in a much later scene where... oh, okay, I don’t want to give away everything.

Quite apart from these two great icons of modern horror... The Tall Man and his silver spheres... we have a movie which, in all honesty, jumps about a bit, doesn’t make a lot of sense, has tuning fork portals, shrunken slave midgets which look like Jawas (but which were conceived well before the Star Wars lookalikes made it to the screen... the film shoot was lengthy and even the principal photography took a year of weekend filming to finish), a black box of mind pain and a possibly even more painful guitar duet played by Reggie and Jody. it’s disjointed and surreal in places but, for most of the time, manages to maintain a semblance of holding itself together... although every time I get to the ‘double ending’ of the first movie, I’m reminded how this doesn’t seem to make any coherent sense and am baffled how they managed to pull off even one sequel... let alone another four.

Oh... and it’s also kind of brilliant in its own, low budget way. Conjuring up an atmosphere fairly unique to this franchise and managing to inextricably be both dated and timeless at exactly the same moment. We also have Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s haunting and fairly minimally spotted score which seems to be almost trying to catch the same kind of progressive and relentlessly driven tone of things like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from The Exorcist, Goblin’s score for Suspiria and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme... although it’s a more laid back version of ‘relentlessly driven’, to be sure. And yes, I know that makes no sense but it’s also a good term for the movie itself, with it’s slow and rambly but ultimately eventful pacing... driven but also laid back.

Arrow’s new Blu Ray transfer is the best I’ve ever seen the film looking and, as it’s Arrow, you get a package with gazillions of extras on each of the five discs... not to mention a sixth bonus disc with even more extras on it. If you are into horror movies or even if you are into weird or off-key tales of science fiction, which this movie is as much as it’s a scary movie, then you should definitely check Phantasm out if you’ve never seen it before. It’s strangely addictive and it’s something you can go back and have a look at every few years and probably see something new or, at the very least, something you’ve forgotten, in it. Am really looking forward to continuing my revisitation of the Phantasm universe as I delve deeper and put my hand back into the Arrow box of fear. Keep your forks tuned.