Sunday 30 September 2018

The Greenaway Alphabet

A Pip Off The Old Block

The Greenaway Alphabet

Directed by Saskia Boddeke

2017 Netherlands
Raindance Festival Screening 29th September 2018.

Wow... what an utterly charming film.

The Greenaway Alphabet is a documentary, it is said, about the film-maker/artist Peter Greenaway... although I’m sure that it’s designated as such merely for the convenience of cataloguing the type of film it purports to be (something I suspect, with his affinity for lists and categorisation, Peter Greenaway himself would approve of). What it actually is, in fact, is more an exploration of the artist in relation to his 13-16 year old daughter Pip Greenaway (depending on when various parts of the film were presumably shot or... possibly... when Peter remembers the age of his daughter with any degree of accuracy).

Now, I always liked Greenaway in my teenage years and, very specifically, three films he made in relatively quick succession, all of which will eventually get reviewed on this blog (I have the Blu Ray upgrades, just not a large measure of that man-made phenomenon mistakenly known as time), those being A Zed And Two Noughts, The Belly Of An Architect (my favourite) and Drowning By Numbers (which I well remember seeing at the now defunct but always splendid Lumiere cinema  in St. Martin’s Lane, when it was released into the wild back in 1988). I remember the soundtracks CDs to those films were a common musical background whenever I was working on various art and design projects at College.

Later on, the director’s work slowly disappeared from my life as I didn’t have time to keep up with him but those three films in particular were very much a part of me by then. Interviews with other people and first hand accounts from various collaborators made me begin to think of Greenaway as “a bit of a nutter” in later years but, what this ‘documentary’ does is show us that the man/artist is far from the awkward behemoth some of those collaborators made him out to be and is, instead, a quite interesting and warm human being... as is his daughter Pip, who is seen interacting with him and asking all the right questions to allow her father to reveal himself without the barriers perpetually going up. That is to say... all the wrong questions, which is what makes them so right.

The film is shot, with a lot of love evident in every frame, by his wife and mother of Pip, Saskia Boddeke. She is a multimedia artist in her own right and has collaborated with Mr. Greenaway a fair amount too. The documentary is partially shot, it seemed to me, in a way which might have... only at times... been reminiscent of Peter’s moviemaking with things a bit like the multimedia paintbox of delights movie that is Prospero’s Books. And, of course, the greatest result of their collaboration, their wonderful daughter Pip, is evident in most of the film too.

The film starts off by going through the words and concepts associated with Peter Greenaway as explored by him and his daughter as an alphabet, starting at A, going through to B and, a little way in, deviating from the expectations of the order of the piece by going to a later letter before coming back to one which we covered earlier and then missing out a whole bunch of others. It actually reminded me of the infuriating... but fun... red herring style appearances of some of the 1-100 numbers hidden throughout the frames of Drowning By Numbers but the lovely director Saskia was there at the screening (with Pip in the audience to answer the odd question too) and she explained that it was never her intention to shoot every letter but merely to use this as a starting point, so to speak, to the journey of the film. The title was always going to be The Greenaway Alphabet, however, in memory of the this being ‘a thing’ in the Greenaway household when Pip was growing up.

And I have to say that the film completely surprised me. Not only is it warm and engaging (far more emotionally warm than a typical work by her husband, I would say) but it’s also a lively, visual spectacle too, as the director juxtaposes various images and situations against each other to make sometimes startling visual metaphors, utilising drawing over the images and moving split screen segments to enfold the viewer in an experience which feels, by the end of the movie, something much more than the sum of its parts.

The Q & A at the end of the session was quite interesting and informative about the way different countries reacted to the various screenings. For instance, Saskia pointed out that the mostly British audience for this screening was much more staid and serious than in some countries where the quite wonderful humour of the piece elicited much more emotive reactions... but I guess the sourness of our self expression here is what makes a British audience what it is. So the Q & A was certainly illuminating, although there was an awful moment when one person in the audience suggested that the film was coming from a perspective of  white privilege in the arts. Well, when you have a cast, effectively, of two people... there’s not really much you could do about the racial mix, which I think is what that particular audience member was trying to relate, much to the bafflement of the director (and disenchantment of the rest of the audience, most of whom were probably equally perplexed by this odd question, which seemed almost a non-sequitur in the context of the film we had just watched).

And I don’t have much more to say about The Greenaway Alphabet... not anything I could think of as a valuable criticism, in any case, since the film is just perfect the way it is. I honestly hope this film gets the critical attention and monetary awards it so readily deserves. I would love to have this thing on a nice Blu Ray disc and would hope to watch it again if I ever got an opportunity. It’s almost certainly going to be one of this year’s top ten movies in my end of year list and I would urge any fan of Peter Greenaway... or of art and its importance to the warmth of the family unit... to try and hunt down this film and take a look. A short review for a truly wonderful piece of cinema. This is the only film I saw at this year’s Raindance festival but, honestly, I’m so glad I chose this one. I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did... truly remarkable.

Thursday 27 September 2018

A Simple Favour

Babe Sleuth

A Simple Favour
2018 USA Directed by Paul Feig
UK cinema release print.

This film is a strange blend of two different genres and one of those genres, the girly comedy flick, is not one I would normally be caught dead watching, in all honesty. However, I saw the trailer to this one and it’s been billed as the 'darker side' of the director in question and, I have to say, it's a curious mix in that it starts off like... and is also populated by characters in... one of those typical chick flicks (in the common, popular vernacular of our time) but then turns out to be a fairly dark thriller in disguise. And it’s quite a delicate balancing act to bring those two things together but I can only applaud the people behind this for pulling that mix off so well and, as far as this audience member goes, quite successfully.

Now, to be fair, I’ve seen some very negative comments about A Simple Favour and it seems to me they’re rooted in perceptions of the collision of genres as presented here with terms such as ‘tonally all over the place’ being used and, while I can see that point to some extent, I think they’re missing the bigger picture because it’s exactly that kind of comic genre camouflage that turns what could have ended up being a fairly run of the mill thriller into something a little more interesting than what other writers and directors would have done with the material.

So, yes, it does come off as a somewhat nicey nicey cover version of Brian DePalma regurgitating Alfred Hitchcock as a girls’ night out event movie but... it’s precisely because it has that veneer of made for TV audience dramedy that it’s able to shine and give us an entertaining and somewhat satisfying ride. For example, the main protagonist Stephanie Smothers, played by Anna Kendrick, as a single mother who runs a somewhat successful vlog and who tries to help all and sundry, is so frustratingly the ‘someone I would never want to be within ten feet of’ kind of ‘nice girl next door’ that I would just not be able to stomach this kind of character in most movies (and even less so in real life). Here, though, as the story progresses, we discover a certain darkness in the character’s background and I found myself totally involved in her shenanigans because the veneer of charm hides a more than capable person underneath.

The plot centres on her new relationship with the mother of one the other kids, Emily, played by Blake Lively... and Emily’s husband Sean, played by Henry Golding. The two characters are worlds apart but as Stephanie gets drunk on Martinis and shares secrets with Emily, she becomes the only decent substitute Emily has for a passing friendship but, one day Emily calls Stephanie to pick up her kid from school before disappearing. A week or two later she turns up dead, her body washed up from a lake with signs of a large amount of heroin abuse. After a somewhat inappropriately small mourning period, Stephanie jumps into Emily’s life when she hooks up with Sean and she moves in. However, it’s not long before she begins to smell something fishy when she learns from the police that Sean took out a big life insurance policy on his wife only weeks before. Is there more going on than meets the eye here?

Well yes. I’d have to say that my one disappointment with the film was that it’s easy to figure out, about a third of the way in, that it’s a partial remake, in terms of the main part of the obvious twist, of a famous Hitchcock movie and, as such, I was waiting for certain other character revelations to be revealed at some point. A Simple Favour is based on a novel by Darcey Bell but, according to my sources (thanks IMDB) there are quite a few changes to the shape and details of the original novel so I don’t know if I can lay the Hitchcockian similarities at her door or at Jessica Sharzer’s, who wrote the screenplay. Certainly, with the absence of certain character details in the novel and a denouement much different to this adaptation, I’m guessing a lot of the ‘homage’ came from the struggle to make it more cinematic. There are certainly references to Hitchcock and also a nod to Henri-Georges Clouzot in the dialogue.

Now normally I would be very disappointed with figuring out the basic twist that early on in the film but, as I said, the shifting tone which darts between comedy and thriller really adds an entertaining element to the film because, in spite of this less than ambiguous reveal, you do get the feeling on occasion that anything could happen. It’s not 100% new territory but it is fairly uncharted and when Stephanie starts to Nancy Drew her way into finding out what’s been going on, it reminded me a little of the excellent, original Fletch movie (let’s forget the sequel, shall we?) and the wonderful series of books that was based on. There are some similarities in the way the main protagonist starts to research the death of her friend, although in Fletch the intelligence of the character was much more overt than the hidden machinations of Stephanie that Anna Kendrick really makes work in the role here.

More icing on the cake is a songtrack which involves a lot of French language pop (including Serge Gainsbourg and Bridget Bardot’s Bonnie And Clyde) and a score by Theodore Shapiro which manages to walk that tonal tightrope on which the director is balanced and provide some good support and enhancements to the movie. The French songs especially come into their own in the gorgeous looking opening and closing title sequences, which mix the kind of moving split screen style montages cribbed from certain sections of the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair with some nice, dynamic typography against the French pop-ness. It’s a heady mix and helps give the film a sense of visual/sonic branding to support the fact that, in terms of genre mixes, this kind of thing doesn’t often get done like this in contemporary cinema.

Also, the cinematographer is no slouch here and there are some great little compositions throughout. All of the houses that people are living in are beautiful and seem to be several pay grades above what certain characters could afford but the internal architecture of these ‘rich people dwellings’ is used nicely to highlight and compartmentalise the people who travel through the space in a way that can set them psychologically apart from each other in certain scenes before bringing them closer in others. There’s some good stuff going on here and it’s another thing which helps glue the two different styles of movie making going on here together and helps the audience accept this for what it is.

And that’s me done with this one. I wasn’t really expecting A Simple Favour to be any good and, given the ambition of what the writer and director have tried to do with this cross-pollination of styles, it really shouldn’t have been. I found it really entertaining, though and I’d actually see this one again at some point in the future. There are a lot worse things playing at the cinema at the moment so maybe catch up to this one if you like thrillers or female centric comedies... this one gives you the best of both worlds.

Tuesday 25 September 2018


Premature Exacerbation

2018 France Directed by Gaspar Noé
UK cinema release print.

I’ve now seen four out of the five full length feature films that Gaspar Noé has made and, I have to say, I wouldn’t really call myself a great admirer of his work. While I quite enjoyed his Enter The Void (reviewed here) I was not a fan of either Irreversible or Love (reviewed here). However, since this movie has been getting such good word of mouth and also played at FrightFest this year, I really wanted to catch this one. Especially since one of my favourite emerging actresses, Sofia Boutella, is in it. I’d not heard a single bad thing about it on Twitter... alas, now I’ve seen this thing myself I’m wondering if the huge clamour of people falling over themselves to be seen proclaiming the brilliance of this movie is just a case of The Emporer’s New Clothes syndrome more than anything else. Well perhaps not because I did, frankly, see something which made me feel out of touch a little at the end of the screening but... hmm, I’ll talk about that at the end of this review.

So Climax starts off quite strongly with a shot of snow and one of the characters - I couldn’t tell which one - dragging her blood stained body down the screen. Then the end credits roll and I was immediately hoping this wasn’t going to be another case of Irreversible, where each segment precedes the one you just saw. Luckily for me, this wasn’t the case and this end sequence is followed by a long, static shot of a TV screen showing you talking heads of the various dancer characters being interviewed for the show which they are seen rehearsing at the start of... ‘the rest of the movie”. Now, I have to say I did miss out a little on some of this dialogue because, one the left hand side of the TV screen there’s a pile of books and on the right there is a pile of old VHS cassettes. So I was busy trying to identify titles such as Zombie and a book on Fritz Lang as much as I was trying to concentrate on the subtitled dialogue here, it has to be said.

Now, after this we get our first scene in the main hall of the building where all of the rest of the movie is set... the camera travels back and forth between various rooms and corridors for the rest of the running time. This first sequence here is of the dance troop, who are the ensemble of characters, showing the choreography they have been learning and it’s... it has to be said... fairly spectacular and captured with some swooping camera movements which, as you might expect, do go full ‘Busby Berkeley’ to a certain extent, at least in the way the cinematographer captures the footage. I was quite impressed and was ready to be further gobsmacked as a ‘party’ in the hall gets underway but, alas, things got dull very quickly after that. The plot point, such as it is, is that somebody has spiked the Sangria with LSD and, as things go on, people fall under the influence of said substance and paranoia, some mild sex, mutilation and death happen as the whole thing becomes a drug fuelled Lord Of The Flies session within the building... as things get out of hand fairly quickly.

And I’m fine with that in theory. The long takes, both static and moving camera (for quite a lot of it) is something I have no problem with but... it just needed to engage me a little more. Nothing you see in the movie is particularly new or really even shocking or horrific and I just started clock watching after a while (and it’s not a long film, clocking in at a little over an hour and a half). It reminded me a little of another film which had a deliberately chaotic mise en scene this year, Darren Aranofsky’s Mother! and, I have to say, I wasn’t impressed with that one either. And, really, I’ve got nothing against a ‘cinema of chaos’ piece and I especially embrace movies that have no story or don’t feel the need to justify themselves to their audience... but they have to at least be interesting or I’m not going to be that bothered about anything that’s happening on screen, to tell the truth.

Now that I’ve said that, the film does have a few good things going for it...

The acting is first rate and, since I’ve now learned the script was only five pages long, it doesn’t surprise me that the performances were so great since I’m guessing it was mostly improvised in the 15 days it took to shoot it and, frankly, you have to be good as an actor if you can handle that level of creative input. Also, since it’s quite complex in terms of camera movement and tying things together visually, I’m very impressed with the director... at least in as much as he was able to capture the footage in a way that, for most of the film, makes sense (although it does get confusing for the last twenty minutes or so when the camera is deliberately tilted upside down).

There’s also a nice little incident which takes place in the kitchen area of the building about half way through which was so sudden I wasn’t expecting it and this did kind of lift my hopes up for the movie a bit... before slowly destroying my expectations again. Alas, there were no more surprises once this moment is passed and by about three quarters of the way through I was just wanting it to end because my jaw was threatening to dislocate itself with all the yawning.

There’s even a bit of dialogue from those opening talking heads that might come back to haunt you when you watch the last shot of the movie, which I suspect might have been partially inspired by Man Ray’s 1932 photograph Glass Tears. Alas, when this shot finishes, that’s also the end of the movie and it’s a movie where you never quite see a lot of the really unpleasant stuff going on... just its aftermath which, would be fine if it was presented in a more engaging manner.

Now, the interesting thing was... once that last shot was done the screen went dark and the house lights came up. I was bored silly by this point and stood up to leave when I noticed the other audience members in the cinema (which could only have been a quarter full), were all just sat in stony silence and contemplating what they just saw. I thought then that maybe I was missing something because, frankly, the only other time I ever saw something similar in audience reaction was with Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream when it previewed at the London Film Festival the year before it was released... except that Aranofsky’s film had been definitely worthy of this kind of reaction, it has to be said. I just couldn’t work out why people were responding like this to Climax because, after all, it was a very mild and kinda dull movie... at least that’s how I experienced it.

My puzzlement was further exacerbated when I went to the loo and various audience members were in there and talking heatedly about the brilliant movie they’d just seen and I really did feel a little out of step. What the heck was I missing? My first thoughts were that these were just people who didn’t get out and go to enough movies but maybe I’m just a little out of touch when it comes to Gaspar Noé... I just don’t think I’m impressionable enough to be his target audience. I remember a similar thing when the original Trainspotting came out at the cinema and it just felt kinda ‘old hat’ to me. This particular brand of movie making representing a loss of control rendered as visual chaos has been done numerous times before by the likes of Federico Fellini in Eight And A Half and even the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup so... yeah... this one just felt very muffled to me, I guess. It won’t be making my top ten this year, for sure.

However, I hope Noé continues to make plotless films because he is, at least, one of the very few auteurs (and he is an auteur, whether you like his films or not) who is willing to try his hand at something like this. I’m still hoping he’ll make something I’ll absolutely click with in future years so... yeah... I shall continue to keep my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I don’t feel like I could really recommend Climax, in all honesty but it obviously has a lot of fans out there so maybe give it a go anyway. At the very least, if you don’t find it to your taste, it’s a relatively short movie... it just doesn’t feel like it.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Fly In Me Eye

Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Italy/France 1971
Directed by Dario Argento
Shameless Blu Ray Zone B

Honestly. I must own about 6 or more different versions of this movie on DVD. Why? Because there was a massive delay when it came to getting this thing out in that format, for some bizarre reason... possibly something to do with rights issues tied up with the American company Paramount Pictures, if I was asked to speculate. So, in the early years of the format, we were all making do with a bootleg of the thing. Then, there was a more, ‘half official’ German bootleg in nice packaging and so we all double dipped on that thing. Then, after a good many years (over a decade since the dawn of DVD I think), Paramount finally released an official DVD of this in the US. Except, guess what, it wasn’t quite the full version of the movie (not even as complete as the various bootlegs on the market by this point) so then, as the years went by, more official releases from other countries emerged which, as they went on, got just a little better with moments not on the previous releases and in a better transfer or with different sound formats etc. So it went from becoming this ridiculous hole in anyone’s selection of Argento films to... well... the one with the most different variations on the street, probably.

The excellent Shameless Blu Ray of the full, uncut version (or should that be... even fuller, more uncut version) even makes reference on the film’s difficult home video release history in the kind of charming hyperbole I come to associate with boutique labels of this nature. The film is released on their label as “Dario Argento’s Lost Masterpiece” Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Well... it works for me... kind of. All I will say is that this Blu Ray looks, asides from some additional footage edits which I’ll get to later, absolutely stunning compared to some of the versions I’ve had to watch over the last decade or so.

The film starts off with a stop and start credits sequence, depicting a young Michael Brandon (who UK viewers might best remember from the TV show Dempsey And Makepeace in the 1980s) in the role of Roberto Tobias. He is playing the drums with his pop group in a couple of different locations and then cutting in and out with the almost threatening opening titles of a bloody heart beating out time as the furious Morricone score is silenced and then thrown back in on the next bit of footage of Brandon drumming... and so on. These opening credits include a wonderful shot where the screen is blacked out apart from a round hole in the centre of the screen, from which you can see the band... it’s only a little later when you see fingers strumming in close up on the other side of the opening that you realise the shot is supposed to be a camera view looking out from inside a guitar (although I’m guessing Argento and his crew might have achieved the shot with a more camera friendly prop of the same thing.

So by the time the credits are over and we hear Roberto talk to one of the other players, we realise he must be a fairly successful recording artist and, though I love Argento’s work and really like this movie, it has to be said this is such a light sketch of a scene representing the character’s day job that even the slight way in which the same kind of character is depicted in Deep Red by David Hemmings  (reviewed here) is more convincing than this... and in Deep Red it’s really not that convincing.

Anyway, Roberto’s eye is caught by a strange figure watching him and it’s someone who has apparently been shadowing him for a while now. He follows him into an empty theatre and confronts him but the guy pulls a knife and in the struggle, appears to fall onto the knife, leaving Roberto with the smoking gun in his hand (or in this case, the bleeding knife) and with a whole load of worry because he also notices a strange masked individual deliberately taking photos of the whole thing. Later on, the photos start turning up in places in Roberto’s house, along with strange warnings that he will be killed soon. What can Roberto do, though? He tells his wife, Nina, played by Mimsy Farmer, who would go on to star in a number of these Italian genre films (including the giallo Autopsy aka Sun Spots and the ‘not quite a giallo’ The Perfume Of The Lady In Black... which I reviewed here). She doesn’t know what to suggest but agrees Roberto shouldn’t go to the police while there’s hard evidence that he appears to have killed someone so he turns to a friend, God (aka Godfrey), played by Bud Spencer, for advice. He hires a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle in a really funny performance) as he tries to find out who is giving him so much trouble while, at the same time, having an affair with his wife’s cousin and also having to deal with another couple of murders as someone who knows what’s going on is killed when a ransom is mentioned. I really don’t want to say anymore about the plot or the unfolding story at this point because it’s one of Argento’s great movies and I don’t want to put in any spoilers.

Needless to say, the film is full of wonderful ‘only from Argento’ visual moments throughout and these alone ensure it is a joy to watch.

For instance, the camera eye view shifts to different people or sometimes inanimate objects. So a shot of Roberto walking through a series of curtains near the start is quite immediate and in your face in a way this kind of activity had probably not been shot before. There’s also a brilliant moment where a goblet at the side of screen is picked up and moves with the camera eye of the killer to bludgeon a guy. Later in the same sequence, the POV switches again to being the actual object itself and as the camera smashes down on the victim's head, the screen gets covered in his blood. The immediacy of shots like this really grab the viewer and call attention to the style in which the images have been constructed and edited in a really great way. I’d say the film’s visual richness is even more ground breaking than the previous parts of Argento’s so called Animal Trilogy, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here) and Cat O’ Nine Tails (reviewed here).

More visual flourishes I wouldn’t want you to miss out on can be found in the ‘waiting in the park’ scene. As the time passes in a typically long and relatively dialogue free scene as a character is waiting for ‘the killer’ to turn up with some ransom money, the park empties out and gets dark. Argento doesn’t show this passing of time in a traditional manner here. Instead, when the character looks at a couple kissing or some kids on the roundabout, she sees them for a second or two before we jump cut to the same shot, devoid of any people. It’s a bit similar to David Hemmings winking out of existence at the end of Antonioni’s Blow Up, to tell the truth and one wonders if this was an influence on Argento here. Similarly, as the character is walking around and trying to find an exit, the sky jumps from daylight to moonlight on her in the blink of an eye. Not a choice a lot of directors would have made here, for sure.

Like pretty much all Argento’s work, especially from this period, the film also has some exquisitely designed visual compositions where the director makes full use of the environment to find new ways to frame his characters. Such as the case where the private detective comes to a stop across the street from a building. The camera is inside the building and looking out and down a couple of floors as the verticals along the window then frame the detective while he pauses and then, eventually, looks up into the camera. He also uses a lot of transition moments where a cut to a character’s head in relative close up at the front of a shot is perceived to be the extension of a scene but when the camera pulls back it reveals that we are in an entirely new setting with the same person, carrying on an entirely different conversation. Moments like these hold the interest and prevent the telling of the tale from getting too dull (let’s face it... and this is a rule of thumb for the giallo genre in general... with some of these scripts you really need a visually exciting approach to the material to keep things watchable).

There’s also a typical Argento trademark kind of shot when somebody phones the killer and he follows the course of the phone lines across the city in a series of cuts until we see the phone at the other end of the destination. Argento would, of course, polish this almost irrational idea of following a flow of seemingly irrelevant visual detail and do a similar thing all in one shot in the celebrated moment in his film Tenebre (which I reviewed here), when he takes the camera literally ‘around the houses’, so to speak, before we are witness to a double murder sequence.

Also, like most gialli I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a fair amount of them now), Argento makes it almost impossible to work out who the killer is, burying the main suspect under a mound of red herrings so, unless you can see the trick of the thing right from the outset (and I think the only time I did this with Argento was when I first saw The Bird With The Crystal Plumage), then you will possibly be a little surprised at the end. All through the movie Argento puts deliberately misleading moments in to try to point the finger of suspicion at somebody other than the true person behind the main protagonist’s tormentor. For instance, the deliberate smoke and mirrors of Michael Brandon going through his record collection at a party and finding one of the incriminating photos slipped in among them is something Argento quickly follows up with a shot of the housemaid seeing him do this and pulling a sinister looking expression on her face in reaction, leading the audience to think she might have a hand in things. The real cheat he utilises in this movie though... and I don’t know why nobody ever questions it after they’ve seen it... is to use the sound bytes from the killer’s unhappy childhood flashbacks superimposed over a series of shots of another character... thus throwing suspicion on them just by playing on the fact that the audience will immediately tie up the audio to the visual in their collective mind.

Also, in typical giallo fashion, each time you think you’ve cottoned onto who the ‘giallo killer’ is, they more often than not wind up dead themselves in the next scene and remove themselves from your mental suspect list. That happens a few times here and Argento even reverses that trick at some point by... oh right...spoilers. I won't go there on here.

Like Argento’s prior giallo films having at least a tenuous link to the actual events of the movie, the title Four Flies On Grey Velvet is a reference to a scene which adds further mystery to the identity of the killer in the final act. The old, corny chestnut about a person’s eyeball retaining the last image seen before death which can then be photographed directly from the retina is behind this title... an idea Argento wasn’t keen on using until he was told about the kind of shot he would be able to put in the film... the four flies being the final image photographed from one of the murder victim’s eyeballs. I have to say, the actual shot and pull back of a characters extracted eyeball being photographed through a lot of optical equipment does make for a striking visual moment and you can see why Argento was persuaded to go down this route here. Certainly he’s a director who, I believe, is quite happy to sacrifice credibility in the service of finding the perfect shot and this attitude is put to good use here. Also, until the crazy reveal as to what the four flies actually mean, it’s not going to give anything away to first time audiences, that’s for sure.

The film also has a beautiful Ennio Morricone score for Argento which is also a little more ‘poppy’ in places compared to his scores for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails. However, the two fell out over Argento’s use of this score in the final film, from what I can tell and it was the maestro’s last score for Argento until the 1980s, when he scored The Stendhal Syndrome and Phantom Of The Opera. That being said, if Morricone had not left after this film, would we now have the style of typical giallo scoring which was pioneered when Argento discovered, through Daria Nicolada I believe, Claudio Simonetti and his group Goblin? Sometimes bad things happen for a good reason and it’s almost impossible to think of 1970s and 80s Italian giallo and horror scene without the influence of the Goblin sound, for sure. Or the music of the 1970s/80s American slasher scene which referenced it either, for that matter.

Four Flies On Grey Velvet is easily one of Argento’s best giallo films and it looks absolutely beautiful here. The Shameless edition Blu Ray really shows the movie off to its best with the one possible caveat being the jumps in the print... but that’s not their fault. You see, like a lot of these restorations where the longer Italian cut has been recreated utilising a much better print from the American release, you can tell just what footage was deleted from the original US/UK cut. One of the obvious giveaways, although I’ve never seen it done by a company quite so seamlessly as this excellent release, is that the colours and look of the film stock changes completely midway during a shot. Another giveaway is that, since the English language dub (which the English and US actors are actually lip synching to visually) was not created for certain trimmed scenes (or didn’t survive), a character will be speaking in English one minute and then, suddenly be speaking in a different voice in Italian with subtitles coming up the next... before hopping back in to English. Now this doesn’t, thankfully, happen that often here but the upside to both the stock change and language inserts is that you can work out exactly which scenes were cut for the US/UK releases and speculate as to why. Mostly it’s just the openings and endings of scenes where a few seconds of a shot have been trimmed to speed things up. However, I noticed that the start of a scene where one of the characters is introduced as Nina’s cousin is trimmed... presumably because the idea of the lead character sleeping with his wife’s cousin was considered a little risky by some censors (not by the general public, mind... just the censors). Another scene which has a lot of Italian inserts popping up is when the killer has been revealed and they make a long speech explaining some things. It does go on for quite a while, actually and I can see why it would have been thought better to trim by some. So, yeah, the downside of these restorations is not always such a problem when the nature of the original cuts can be unearthed, I reckon.

This latest Blu Ray is the best version of Four Flies On Grey Velvet to date and if you are an Argento fan then you will want this film in your library. It’s criminal that it was left unproduced on home video for so many years though. Almost as criminal as charging me money for each subsequent, slightly better version which came along afterwards. That being said, the extras on this one are fairly minimal, it seems to me and I’m wondering, now that Shameless have apparently gone into a closer partnership with Arrow Films, whether a full bells and whistles version might be somewhere around the corner with a load of extras and lobby card reprints etc. I hope so because, yeah, in the case of this particular film... I’d probably buy it all over again.

Thursday 20 September 2018


The Shapeshift Of
Springs To Come

USA 2014
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Metrodome Region 2

Slight warning-ish: Okay, there will be a very minor spoiler in here but it’s nothing that the directors don’t make implicit fairly on in the movie and also a main feature of the trailer so... if you’ve already seen the trailer you don’t need to worry too much about this review.

Spring is the second of three feature films from writers/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and was made by them between Resolution (reviewed here) and their recent sequel to that film, The Endless (reviewed by me here). I was kind of on the fence about those two movies, to be fair but the trailer to this one looked much more engaging so I bought a cheap DVD copy of it and, well, now I wish I’d imported a Blu Ray of the thing from overseas because a) it looks fantastic and b) it's easily, for this audience member, the superior film and something of a minor masterpiece.

The film starts off with some brief, scene setting stuff in America with main protagonist Evan (played really nicely by Lou Taylor Pucci) looking after his mother and watching her die in bed in front of him. It’s a touching moment but the next scene, at a kind of wake after her funeral in a bar, something happens... the consequences of which are that Evan decides to get out of America for a bit. He ends up going to Italy and, for a while, he hooks up with a couple of British ‘townies’ who are almost half charming with their typical combination of football crowd thuggery and witty banter but after they leave for Amsterdam, Evan decides to stay around in Italy for a bit, getting a ‘work for room’ arrangement at a local farm. Some of that decision is based on the interest of an absolutely gorgeous looking woman called Louise (played by the astonishingly striking Nadia Hilker) who seems to take a shine to him.

Of course, as their relationship continues... well... the audience is let into the secret that there’s something not quite right with Louise. There’s something very ancient about her but what is it exactly? Vampirism? Werewolvery? Serpent lady? Well, there are times that you might think all three and each time you try and get a handle on things you are presented with something different. However, the explanation as to what is going on, as you will hear from Louise herself, is a fusion between science fiction and fantasy concepts with little hints of the horror film, all injected into what is essentially a romantic, boy meets girl kinda movie. And it really works at pretty much everything it does. The subtle holding back and tease of the main premise is timed just right and the way this is filmed, with long swooping camera drone shots of Italy used to punctuate the segues between scenes in certain areas, make this a work with more than one kind of eye candy to it.

It’s a beautiful looking film but, as well as that, it’s a great performance piece by the two central leads and it never really veers into ‘too intense to spoil the atmosphere’ territory. Indeed, there’s also a lot of humour and in one specific scene set in church towards the end of the film, the suspense is quite fraught. It’s also, however, a scene laced with laugh out loud humour and the way the directors/performers manage to hold both emotional states for a few minutes is quite special.

Another thing I would take my hat off to the directors for is a shot near the end where we’re looking up at Evan and a plane and its trail as it appears to go through the middle of his head in the background. I wonder how they managed to time that so precisely and whether this was a serendipitous occurrence or whether it was planned out and they somehow knew the flight paths.

The best thing about this movie, though, is the ending. Things are at their romantic best but, without giving anything away, the final shot of the movie, where the camera zooms into Evan’s face before zooming back out to return to the master shot, is absolutely brilliant and things in the tale could go either way at this point. It’s also fairly subtle as it relies purely on sound design and then a pull back into that master to tell the final piece of the narrative... the unconscious biological choice the audience has, by this point, been primed to anticipate. Now, there is another way this could have also ended beautifully utilising the same footage in a different way... by not employing certain sound effects and not zooming back out to the master... but the slightly less ambiguous ending the directors have gone for here works an absolute treat and, honestly, you’ll have to wait until the last few seconds of the movie to find out if you get the fairy tale ending you’ve probably been hoping for... Spring is pretty much an adult fairy tale, to be sure... or whether this is going to be a darker revelation. And I’m certainly not going to spoil anything here.

What I will say is that this is a truly great and, seemingly, hidden gem which deserves much more attention than I’ve seen it getting. I absolutely adored Spring and think more people need to know about it. It’s entirely different, thematically, from the other two films these people have made and if there are Lovecraftian undertones to the story in some respect, they’re altogether different from the hard Cthulhu sympathies of Resolution and The Endless. So there you have it. Spring is an absolutely brilliant movie for lovers of horror but, primarily I think, just lovers in general. I hope these two directors do more of this the next time around because, honestly, the world needs more of these kinds of pieces of art in it. Definitely pick this one up while it’s still around.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Killing Eve

Kill About Eve

Killing Eve
Series One
BBC3 - Eight Episodes

Regular readers might remember that there aren’t that many TV programmes that I actually bother to watch... they hog too much time and shorten my productivity on the blog. I’m a little more of a film person, I would have to say. However, when I saw the printed 'bus sides' campaign for Killing Eve, I immediately googled it to find out if this was an upcoming film. Nope, it was apparently a TV show and it would be ‘broadcast’ on an internet channel (one which is at least free if you’ve payed your TV licence) and that, furthermore, shortly after that first episode had aired, you could watch the whole first series of eight episodes on the iPlayer.

As it happens, this is what I did with my Sunday following the first broadcast because, well... Sandra Oh was in it. Now, I don’t actually know much of Sandra Oh’s work at all but I’d remembered she’d made an impression on me with her role as a stripper in the excellent movie Dancing At The Blue Iguana 18 years ago. So I really wanted to see her again and, since the bus ad made it look like she was one of the main leads, I decided to check it out.

Killing Eve is based on four short (very short, by the looks of it) internet novellas by Luke Jennings which were later collected into one printed volume. The story tells of a psychotic assassin codenamed Villanelle and the woman who is tracking her down for Her Majesty’s Government, Eve Polastri. Now I’ve not actually read these short works but I would imagine, since the show comprises eight times 45 minute episodes (approximately), that the TV show must stray from and maybe expand the printed source material quite a bit. For instance, I know Villanelle’s actual surname has been changed from the original and I’ve no idea why this kind of detail would have been seen as something to tinker around with.

The show starts off strongly with an opening in a cafe, depicting Villanelle trying to catch the eye and attention of a little girl eating cake at a table opposite her. The cabinet behind Villanelle (played here by Jodie Comer) perfectly reflects the little girl to the right of the screen as Comer sits left of shot so we can see both of them in frame at one particular moment in the sequence and it’s little flourishes like this by various directors over the eight episodes, that really keeps things interesting as the story goes on. That and the absolutely brilliant script (story wise less so but the dialogue is absolutely beautiful) and, of course, the absolutely brilliant performances of Comer as Villanelle, Eve (the title character is played by the aforementioned Sandra Oh, who absolutely steals all the scenes she’s in) and a whole host of good actors and actresses who have somehow come together to be in one of the more interesting television highlights of recent years. At the end of this opening sequence Villanelle, who has been trying to maintain her presence in the eyes of the child, does something to finish the scene which completely shows, albeit in a mild form, her psychotic nature to the audience.

We then cut to Eve in bed with her husband and, abruptly following on from a remark that at least it’s Saturday so she can stay in bed, there’s an aggressive flash cut which takes us to the next scene where, indeed, she turns up at the office as she has had to go in on a Saturday morning due to an emergency. Now this is kind of interesting and it’s quite powerful in the way it sets up what is, after all, an old comical script cliché in a manner which isn’t all that comical and which doesn’t lose sight of the gravitas of the situation. Even though the tone of the entire series has huge doses of humour cutting through it in about as effective way as you could imagine... it all somehow seems to work.

Strangely enough, this doesn’t seem to be a directorial instruction (different director on that episode) but more of a production decision (or maybe they just liked it the first time it worked) because there is a similar flash cut at a more serious juncture during episode six which does exactly the same thing... eschewing the rest of a conversation showing you the state of one of the character’s marriage mid word to just show you Eve landing in another country. So a kind of ‘read between the lines’ attitude to the audience and I think this works rather well the two times they do it.

This aggressive kind of editing works really well for the series as a whole, which is full of impromptu mid-scene montage effects which just delete unnecessary footage to focus on getting to the next important beats of a scene. For instance, again in the first episode, there is a scene where Villanelle gets back to her apartment and she puts on the stereo to one of... and I’m sorry but I always get these confused... either the Gymnopédies or the Gnoissiennes by Eric Satie. A sequence of events is then montaged together as Villanelle takes a bath but the music stays constantly playing in the background... so it switches from a diegetic music track to a non-diegetic track because, after all, the piece of music is only a few minutes long. So that’s an interesting technique right there already but then, when Villanelle is disturbed by her boss, the music carries back on as a diegetic source cue again. Amazing... so unless we are supposed to infer that Villanelle just keeps getting out of the bath to play the same track over and over again... then something really interesting just happened to the way the music is used here and I think that kind of abstract jump is fine, actually, since it works fairly well... although, to be fair, it did pop me out of the scene while I was watching so I could analyse just what was going on with it.

There’s also something nice but unusual going on with the typography of the show. On the actual words KILLING EVE, where the top join of where the diagonals meet on the K, N and V, depending on which episode you are watching... a drop of blood will start to flow down from one of those joins. Also, the text is all in UPPER CASE apart from the ‘g’ which is a quite old fashioned form of lower case. Now, I’ve probably missed a visual pun here but I couldn’t work out a) why this was done and b) why they’ve done it for every ‘g’ in the opening and closing credits. It works but I couldn’t figure out the functionality of that aesthetic choice so if anyone knows why it’s there like that, please let me know.

The music is okay but a lot of the time there are songs on the soundtrack. I know one person in my family complained about the domination of the visual image by the music track here which, personally, I really don’t mind. I’m more annoyed that they went for songs rather than original score in a lot of places but... it still worked fine without it, for the majority of the running time.

Another thing I could see about this which annoyed me was during the episode where a man is murdered in a BDSM clinic. After various officials have been looking over the dead body and we pan down to the guy’s toes, one of them gives a very faint wiggle. Not good and I couldn’t work out why the editor didn’t catch this one, especially since it’s right in the foreground of the shot. Unless it was left there deliberately to imply something but... I don’t think it was.

Anyway, not really a deal breaker of a toe wiggle there and I’d have to say that Killing Eve is one of the best pieces of television I’ve seen in a long time (although, as I explained earlier, I’ve not seen as much modern TV as most folk, I suspect). That being said, I have to say the lack of nudity in sequences which kind of demanded it did seem rather strained and I find that kind of attitude on behalf of the makers of these things kinda offensive when they abandon common sense for lack of nakedity. Despite that, though, it's definitely a hard recommend from me here and, while the plot and big reveals are very clichéd in terms of where the story is going (alas, almost every plot twist is very much telegraphed well before its time), the acting and extraordinary dialogue on this one really comes through here. Alas, in the last five minutes of the final episode, the writers seem more interested in setting up a second series rather than trying to resolve certain issues but, even this ending which is still quite a statement, is done in a very comic manner and totally relies on the timing of both Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer to make it work. And they really knock it out the park, for sure. Killing Eve can be streamed, for just under a year from when this review goes up, from the iPlayer and a US Blu Ray disc is getting released soon. I hope the BBC makes a Blu Ray available for purchase in the UK at some point soon too because... streaming. Meh.

Sunday 16 September 2018

The Cat O' Nine Tails

X + YY = 9

The Cat O' Nine Tails
( aka Il Gatto A Nove Code)

Italy/France/West Germany 1971
Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Well it’s been quite a long time since I last watched Dario Argento’s second feature film The Cat O’ Nine Tales. It’s one I think I’ve only seen once before because, out of his first 8 or so films (I’ve never gotten around to watching Five Days In Milan - aka The Five Days -  so I can’t include that one), it’s the film I like the least. Strangely enough, I think Argento was of a similar conclusion for many years (perhaps still) that this was his least favourite of his own movies. Now, I remember reading decades ago that in terms of success, the film played to packed audiences and it was, at the time, the most rented or bought of Argento’s films on the home video format. I’ve never understood this one’s popularity but if you can get away from the fact that the story is just a little dull and simplistic, it’s really not a bad film and, in retrospect, it really is an amazingly put together example of an auteur piece in terms of Dario’s output.

As I said, the script is somewhat dull but the acting is actually a notch up from what you get in many of Argento’s movies, as the two Americans who headline the picture are both turning in top gear performances here. It’s really unusual to see this calibre of work in an Italian giallo, even if it is made by one of the two kings of the genre, Dario Argento. Both James Franciscus, who you might remember from such films as The Valley Of Gwangi and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and his co-star Karl Malden, who you may remember from films like Murderer’s Row and Billion Dollar Brain... are as good as I’ve ever seen them here.

The film starts its set up with break-in at a high end Genetic Research Laboratory in which nothing appears to be stolen. Newspaper reporter Carlo (Franciscus) and retired, ex-journalist Franco (Malden), who is blind and does a wonderful job convincing the audience of that, join forces in trying to solve the mystery, which seems to be connected to a string of deaths and an attempt on both their own lives.

We also have the lovely Catherine Spaak in the movie, who plays the daughter of the boss of the company and it has to be said, her fashion choices are partially worth watching the film for. Her role is strangely silent for a lot of the time and her striking figure isn’t in a whole lot of the movie but that might be deliberate as it seems that Argento really goes out of his way to make her the person of suspicion in terms of the serial killer here. Actually, in terms of the sex of the killer, this second film is one of the few that breaks the Argento mould but I won’t say too much here because he does really seem to go to great lengths to make sure that his red herrings are well set up. That being said, when the killer was revealed I was surprised but, to a certain extent, not that inspired by the choice of killer as I really didn’t have anything emotionally invested in that person. In fact, I didn't even recognise them.

The film takes the X-YY chromosome revelations of the time and runs with the idea that people with this ending of chromosomes in their genetic make up are more likely to be troubled or violent individuals... something which holds no water today although the idea that anybody can pick out the father of their child and promote certain tendencies in their future offspring genetically is something still very much relevant, from what I remember in the news a few months back. So despite the false premise, the film almost seems bang up to date in terms of the explorations of this particular obsession.

That being said, while the violent set pieces are mainly dull - asides from an interesting shot of a man’s face hitting the front of a train - there are a lot of Argento-isms to enjoy in this film and I think it’s one of his best in terms of the way it’s put together visually.

For example, early on in the film there’s a wonderful, three quarters view of a poorly lit corridor with two men walking up it towards camera which pans along with them. The moonlight  from the unseen windows past the camera’s field of vision is creating a series of verticals in the shape of a diminishing pyramid along the full length of the corridor at a certain height on the screen, punctuated by stabs of colour as it also lights up the brown doors of the many offices in the corridor. A truly gut punchingly beautiful composition. Then, not ten minutes later, the shape of the train tracks in relation to the height of the platform on the scene where the train murder is committed is a huge visual echo of this earlier shot. The director also splits the screen up into shapes and does stuff like an actors head and shoulders, off centre in the composition masking the vertical corner of a wall where the two colour textures meet... good stuff.

And talking of visual echoes... he does a thing here where future parts of shots or even shots from a previous scene are strobe cut into the current scene to show you what a character is thinking about or to give it forward momentum before actually going into the next sequence (a little like what Dennis Hopper does with his quick cuts in certain sections of Easy Rider or a less overt form of what Nicholas Roeg would do in his movies). I don’t remember Argento ever employing this technique again but it certainly gives the film an interesting dynamic, with these little visual stutters suddenly popping up out of the blue and giving you either an insight into a thought process or propelling you forwards into the next set piece.

Other more familiar Argento-isms might be the photographer’s dark room being a bright, neon green instead of the usual red colour (any good for developing photos?) and a wonderfully bizarre, close up, camera mounted POV shot from behind two glasses of milk as they are carried over to Catherine Spaak... similar to other quirky highlights Argento introduces in his art. Not to mention the ‘brown eyed’ close up shots to signal to the audience that... the killer is watching.

It’s been said almost exclusively of Mario Bava, that you could take any frame of the footage from any one of his films and have a perfectly composed, still photograph. Well, of all of Argento’s movies which have exquisite cinematography, this is certainly one where you could do just that too. Some of the shot compositions are truly breathtaking and, to give you some extra icing on the cake, we have another wonderful ‘atonalism meets jazz’ score from the wonderful Ennio Morricone. It’s well worth a listen away from the film too. Very interesting stuff with, of course, the wonderfully hypnotic shenanigans of Edda Dell’ Orso’s truly amazing vocal performance. This is music made in both heaven and hell and the dynamic between the two is always an interesting listen.

And that’s about all I have to say about The Cat O’ Nine Tails. Despite the gorgeous visuals and audio, it’s still one of my least favourites of the early Argento’s but certainly still one, I suspect, which I could watch over and over, if I had the time. Possibly not one of the best ones to take on if you’re an Argento novice but well worth checking out at some point.... especially if you managed to snag one of Arrow’s limited edition boxed versions of this dual Blu Ray/DVD edition, which also includes a booklet, poster and miniature lobby cards along with the usual high quality extras you would expect from their discs. The print and transfer sure look good on this one.

Friday 14 September 2018

The Predator (aka Predator 6)

Pawn Of The Pred

The Predator (aka Predator 6)
2018 USA/Canada Directed by Shane Black
UK cinema release print.

Well this was a bit of a nice surprise.

I’ve never really been much into the Predator franchise, it has to be said. I saw each of them in the cinema once when they were released, starting when the first film debuted back in 1987 and... I may have seen the two entries I quite liked a second time on VHS or DVD (depending on when they went to home video). I remember getting quite enraged as a 19 year old when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared to outrun the shockwave of a small nuclear explosion (or some such) in the first one. Any credibility flew out the window at that point although, I have to say, the film is due a revisit since I was maybe not appreciative of the action movie format (something I wasn’t really into at the time) as not actually having to be credible as a real world event (the fact that I loved Jason Statham as The Transporter would indicate a subtle rehabilitation in that area, on my part).

So, the only two I felt were half good enough to revisit were Predator 2 (which at least put the Predator in an urban environment I could relate to, other than a jungle) and the first, much better, Alien Vs Predator movie, despite the enraging continuity errors. Although the studio managed to totally ruin that offshoot from the franchise by following it up with a “beyond dull” teenage slasher film of a sequel which just happened to have an Alien and a Predator in it (the only really outstanding or noteworthy thing about the whole charade of Alien Vs Predator: Requiem was Brian Tyler’s excellent score).

Anyway, Shane Black’s new entry into the series, The Predator, is actually a lot better than at least four of those previous movies and, despite having terrible trailers, actually reminded me why I like Shane Black as a screenwriter in the first place (he directed this one too... not to mention played one of the original team in the very first Predator movie). Now, there are some bad things about this, for sure, but they never really detract from the main mission of a lot of films with big box office expectations like this... it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The film centres on a government sniper whose mission goes very wrong after a Predator crashes on Earth, right on top of him and his targets. The sniper has the unlikely name of Quinn McKenna and he’s played here by an actor I’ve kinda liked in everything I’ve seen him in... Boyd Holbrook. After mailing some high tech Predator stuff he acquires early on to his autistic son, living with his ex-wife, for safekeeping, he is picked up by a Predator hunting squad and is going to be the scapegoat for the deaths of his unit since a patsy is needed. So he goes into a prisoner transport van where he meets a complete load of nutters... literally, none of these would be great customers for counselling... who laugh at him until the Predator that is still alive breaks out of captivity to look for... something I’m not going to tell you about in this hopefully spoiler free review. Meanwhile, the main female lead of the film, scientist Casey Bracket (played by Olivia Munn) is called in because she ‘knows biology’. There’s kind of a plot hole here in terms of why she would need to be recruited and then also need to be sillenced after the Predator breaks out but... who cares, like I said, it’s kind of fun. So Casey and Quinn hook up with the guys in the bus... who make The Dream Team look positively sane... and they try to get to Quinn’s little boy while avoiding death by both government agency and alien before said alien turns up at Quinn’s son’s house. However, there are bigger things happening and the story is nowhere near as simplistic as the previous films in the series so... I don’t want to give any surprises away here.

And it’s an entertaining, if a little messy in some places, piece of filmmaking. The script and especially the dialogue from Black is exceptional and quick fire and all the actors tend to gel with each other really well. The bunch of nutters from the bus deliver the typical Black, rapid fire dialogue and with such a pace that they make The Marx Brothers look positively sedate by comparison in some scenes. Casey is written a little bit like a male character wearing a skirt, to an extent but.... I have known women like this so I’m cutting the writer a little slack here.

Also, a big shout out to Jacob Tremblay as Quinn’s son Rory. Sure he’s a typical Shane Black character in the sense that, if Shane Black writes a movie it’s usually got a kid and some Christmas scenes in it but... in this case, he does become a big mover and shaker in this film with a lot to do. Oh... and for all those of you waiting for a Christmas scene to turn up in this... he's switched it to another festive occasion here... although, again, I’m not saying which one.

So, the film is chock full of humour and a lot of action but it never quite gets to the point where the hectic nature of the pacing... and it really is hectic and chaotic folks, make no mistake... causes you to want to rest your head in your hands for a minute or two. It’s absolutely not boring, for sure and, yeah, doesn’t quite outstay its welcome... although the ‘sequel positioning’ last scene may be just a bit too much for some.

Another thing the film is full of is gory violence... but it’s not fetishising the severity of its blood letting the way a strong horror movie might. This is strong violence but it’s pretty much always treated in a carefree or throwaway manner and... that’s a nice approach. Some of the stronger stuff (probably stronger than any of its predecessors in terms of visceral thrills) is ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ quick and this adds a certain level of credibility and consequence to the on-screen action. It’s a nice way of doing it and this ‘matter of fact’ level of violence is refreshing in a big budget, Hollywood movie, I think.

Now, I said the film was messy and... well it is. The follow through from one sequence to another jumps about a bit. For instance, the three plot strands of Quinn, Casey and Rory all come together really easily with hardly any time passing (although the mailman with that package must be lightening fast if this is truly the case) and it seems like some bizarre coincidence that they suddenly all seem to be taking place in the same area of America. Indeed, there was more than one scene where characters turned up in the other character’s backyard, so to speak, without hardly any time seeming to have passed at all between strands of the story. It disd jump me out of the movie a couple of times, I can tell you that.

Again, though, I can forgive the director and editor for this because they’ve delivered a really entertaining sci-fi action yarn and, when the film does seem to be a little jumpy, it’s got some excellent glue holding it together. That glue being the beautiful throwback 1980s style score by composer Henry Jackman. Using themes and orchestration from Alan Silvestri’s scores for the first two movies, Jackman surprised me with a rich retro orchestral sound I haven’t heard much in a while (even from Silvestri himself). Alas, at the time of my writing this, no CD release seems to be in sight and I’m not paying out for a download, I can tell you that. Jackman really does a good job with this one, though, and it’s one of those films where the music lingers on with you for a day when you look back on it. It’s very appropriate to this glorious mess of a movie Black and his crew have crafted and I’m all for it.

So yeah, that’s pretty much it from me on this one. The Predator is a nice slice of action sci-fi with a lot of humour, violence and  great acting chemistry coming out of its celluloid ears. There’s even some nice scenes for dog lovers but... you know... spoilers. If you liked the previous film in the series then you should get a kick out of this one. It’s not exactly subtle but it will probably put a smile on your face every now and again and that’s no bad thing. Worth a look.

Tuesday 11 September 2018


Noé Escape

France/Belgium 2015
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Artificial Eye Blu Ray Zone B

Love is a movie which includes unsimulated sex scenes, directed by Gaspar Noé, who also directed a movie I quite liked called Enter The Void (reviewed here)... and one which I didn’t care for all that much called Irreversible. Whether I like his movies or not, though, I do quite like his style of direction and presentation and so I thought I’d give Love a go.

The film is one which kind of teases the viewer with the pretence of having a story to tell... one might say it even has a bit of a mystery at its heart... but it doesn’t actually concentrate on that mystery at all and neither, it seems, is the director interested in giving us any solutions or closure to the so called plot set up. Instead it uses this starting point to explore the past relationship between the film’s central protagonist Murphy (played by Karl Glusman) and his ex-girlfriend Electra (played her by Aomi Muyock) from the viewpoint of looking back on it from his present situation with his current girlfriend and their young son.

Now I’ve got nothing wrong with movies that use a hook as a starting point and give no closure to that hook. Anyone paying attention to my reviews will know that I don’t value story as a major ingredient in a film anyway. In fact, last year I reviewed Sasha Grey’s second novel, The Janus Chamber (right here) which does exactly the same thing and even has this kind of ‘anti-structure’ referenced and justified within the text of the book. So I’m all quite cool with that.

That being said, the film wasn’t that much of an intriguing or fun watch, it has to be said. I didn’t dislike it too much but then I wasn’t as intrigued as I had been by Enter The Void so... not greatly enthused about this one, in all honesty.

The film starts with a long held shot of Murphy and Electra naked in bed and playing with each other’s genitals. It’s a nicely composed shot and I’ve got absolutely nothing against films which use real sex in them (theatrically released or otherwise). As Electra masturbates Murphy’s penis, we hear Eric Satie on the soundtrack... either one of the Gymnopédies or Gnoissiennes. We then jump cut in time to the sound of Murphy’s phone as he lays in the same bed with his current gal on New Year’s Day. As things go on around him and we learn that the phone call was former girlfriend Electra’s mother trying to contact him (because Electra has disappeared off the face of the earth) we hear his internal monologue as a voice over on the soundtrack... something which continues throughout the movie.

The film then starts flashing backwards and forwards in time and space as we explore various ‘scenes’ from his relationship with Electra, learn how much Murphy feels he still really loves her and also hear of his disenchantment with his current lady and the domestic cage which his life has become. And, as we hear him talk to himself and constantly calling himself a ‘loser’, it doesn’t take long to figure out the truth about this character... he really is a ‘loser’. I’m sorry but I could work up absolutely no sympathy for this fellow at all, no matter how well performed all the leads in this are (including Murphy). I kept asking myself why anybody would want to hang out with this whiny and constantly hypocritical guy when they didn’t have to.

Asides from the naturalistic and often very good performances from all the key actors, the film is full of the long takes and fluid camerawork which we are now accustomed to within the cinema of Gaspar Noé. Also, asides from constant shout outs to the director himself in one guise or another (for example, Murphy’s son is called Gaspar), Murphy is also a budding director and that allows for a fair few visual and audio references to keep fans of cinema interested in this.

The lightning schemes are often quite ‘impressionistic’, for example and, during one sequence where Murphy is wandering the streets at night and sifting through all the puzzle pieces of Electra in his head, the colour and light combined with the figure he is cutting through the city (with his back to us, half the time) absolutely invoked the ghost of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Which makes sense since, in the time period when he is with Electra, Murphy has a Taxi Driver poster in his apartment. It’s a shame the music on this particular sequence I’m thinking of doesn’t go the whole hog and uses Bernard Herrmann’s last ever movie score on the soundtrack too.

However, there are some quite nice and unexpected movie score references throughout the running time... such as when we see a sex scene depicting the inception of Murphy’s son and it’s scored with Gaslini & Goblin’s music from Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red). There’s another surprising, musical choice when Murphy and Electra visit a swinger’s club (on the recommendation of a police officer who arrests Murphy at one point) and the whole orgiastic sequence is underscored with John Carpenter’s main theme from his film Assault On Precinct 13.

It’s nice little surprises like this... along with the director’s usual flair for unexpected spectacle such as a scene with a camera POV inside a character’s vagina, with Murphy’s penis thrusting towards camera before ejaculating into a swirly, kaleidoscopic image... which keep the audience interested in a film which has, after all, a truly unsympathetic central protagonist. Or the interesting way the director will sometimes mask the sides of a shot in darkness to focus into the centre of a composition. Little touches like these keep the film from being boring although, it has to be said, in terms of any real substance to the characters or follow through on their actions, it’s kinda light.

Love is not a film I’d necessarily recommend to many people as a jumping on point for Gaspar Noé but fans of this director will probably be okay with it. The UK, Artificial Eye Blu Ray also has a 3D print of it on the disc, if you have the facilities to take advantage of this at home.

Sunday 9 September 2018

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

Knife ‘N’ Easy

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
L'Uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo) Italy/West Germany 1969
Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

It’s been a while since I last watched Dario Argento’s first feature film (as a writer/director, although he had written stuff for other directors such as Sergio Leone before this), The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. I first came by it via a couple of American DVDs in different editions over the years and I remember the last time I saw it was maybe 10 years ago when the BFI had a screening of it, in what turned out to be an astonishingly grubby print. This new Arrow Blu Ray edition brings back Argento’s early signature classic in style and, if like me you bought the limited boxed edition rather than their standard reissue, you also get some nice printed extras included in the slip case such as a thick booklet, a double sided poster (if you have any wall space to hang it) and, a big draw for me, a set of postcard reprints of the original Fotobustas (basically, the Italian version of lobby cards).

The film itself is remastered and, while it doesn’t look as crystal clear as the title might imply, I think it’s probably the best I’ve seen it looking here. If you are new to Argento and want a good jumping on point, this Arrow version would be a good place to start.

While it’s certainly not the first giallo of its kind... Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood And Black Lace (reviewed by me here) both pre-dated it... this is what single handedly started the slew of gialli that followed in its wake and it’s certainly the genre which gave Argento his fame and the one in which he’s worked the most. Not to mention, of course, that it’s the film which earned him the name ‘the Italian Hitchcock’. It’s also what was the start of what has been unofficially titled ‘the animal trilogy’ although, the only common links other than director style and genre is that animals are mentioned in the titles of the next two... The Cat O’ Nine Tails (which is a different thing altogether anyway) and Four Flies On Grey Velvet.

The film starts with the typical black gloved killer typing out a letter, still clad in said black gloves. Now I know 1960s typewriters were somewhat ‘gappier’ than modern day keyboards but, seriously, have you ever tried typing a letter wearing thick leather gloves? It seems somewhat silly and, furthermore, why would the killer not want to get any fingerprints on their own typewriter? This kind of doesn’t make sense. The scene also has the killer ‘fetishistically’ sharpening one of a set of nicely laid out knives. We then have the credits running properly, set to Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score, as the camera follows a young woman on her daily journey and Argento employs a trick here which he does throughout the movie in some fashion or another... he freezes the frame constantly and accompanies it by the shutter sound of a camera, the killer’s camera, taking a picture. Hold that thought, I’ll come back to this a little later. After this credit sequence we join the main protagonist as he is introduced, as an American writer based in Italy, staying with his girlfriend Julia (played by Suzy Kendall). Just before this, his friend buys a newspaper from a street kiosk which also has prominently displayed, some of those famous giallo magazines/novels of the time... so right away Argento was setting the scene for the genre in which he would, for the most part, work on for the rest of his life.

I remember that, when I first saw this movie decades ago, I had already seen four of the director’s movies. I had seen his two main horror movies, a genre which he rarely works in compared to the giallo, Suspiria and the direct, ‘official’ sequel Inferno. I had also seen Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, reviewed here) and Tenebre (aka Tenebrae... reviewed by me here). Now the thing about those two gialli is that they both have twist reveals as to the identity of the killer and, unusually for me, they both completely surprised me when said culprits were revealed at the end. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however, is the first one by Argento where he not only didn’t take me by surprise but the one where I worked out the identity of the killer within about five minutes of the opening credits. I always wondered why my dad, who was watching with me on that first viewing, never figured this one out because, for me, it just seemed quite obvious what was going on, when main protagonist Sam, played by Tony Musante, finds himself observing an attempted homicide as he is trapped between two sets of glass, sliding doors in the entrance to an art gallery, while he looks on as Monica Ranieri (played by Eva Renzi), is struggling with her stab wound on the floor. Now, I have to say, I always thought those double sets of doors with six feet or so between each set on either end of a long area were an invention of the movie because the design has always seemed completely impractical to me. Funny, then, that I now work in a building which has pretty much exactly the same set up in its entrance... I guess buildings like this do exist after all.

Even from this early scene, where Sam is watching the struggling girl pulling her bleeding body across the floor, Argento was displaying some of those wonderful shot designs he is so famous for... as this includes a lovely, almost iconic, shot looking up from Monica Ranieri’s POV as the camera looks up at Musante and frames his head and shoulders completely with the pattern on the ceiling above him... it’s lovely stuff.

By now, if you are an astute viewer, you have everything you need to solve the identity of the murderer and so Argento spends the remainder of the film trying to convince you that various people are the killer, by giving them character traits which match a somewhat false clue given early in the film and letting the audience get on with it and assume characters with matching traits (smokes Cuban cigars, is left handed etc) could be the killer and, like many a good giallo that was to come after it, various suspects die just when the audience figures out it could be them (not this audience member though... like I said, I found this one surprisingly easy to figure out after both Deep Red and Tenebre had fooled me). While it does this, it also keeps reminding the audience that there was definitely something a little 'off kilter' with the attack that Sam witnessed, by having Sam flashing back to it constantly with footage shot from different angles which, like the opening title sequence where the camera shutter sounds stopped the action dead, he uses in a similar manner to overtly step back from the film and highlight this mental process in as stylised a way as possible, in much the same manner that Godard would sometimes want to pop his audience out of the action to contemplate more what they were watching. And it works brilliantly here.

It’s also very interesting in terms of how Argento progressed as a director here because, although he often uses characters having what I shall call ‘memory attacks’ to remind the audience that there are doubts as to the nature of what they witnessed, he rarely does it in quite the way he does it here, literally calling a great deal of attention to those flashback moments, both visually and with hits of Morricone’s score, whereas in later films he tends to segue to them in a much smoother manner. That being said, I love the way he does it here and I am going to have to watch the new Arrow version of The Cat O’ Nine Tails (a film I haven’t seen for even longer than I have the gap between screenings of this one) to see if he’s still using this way of doing things there.

Morricone’s score, too, is a big talking point of this film, as far as I’m concerned. Argento was lucky enough to have the Italian musical superstar score his first three features before moving briefly onto Gaslini and then, of course, reinventing the sound of both Italian horror and giallo movies for all time by employing progressive rock band Goblin on Deep Red and many of his subsequent movies. Morricone would score a couple of his later movies (his score for The Stendhal Syndrome is wonderful) but these first three are probably what his musical collaboration with Dario Argento are best remembered by. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage fuses a melodic, contemporary jazz approach with a certain amount of ‘stinger’ atonalism and some wonderful wordless vocals which were, according to the IMDB, not sung by the usual suspect Edda Dell’Orso. Still, that haunting ‘la la la la la la la laaaa’ is not something easy to forget from Morricone’s score here.

And that’s all I’m going to say about this one here. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a wonderful giallo thriller from the maestro of the genre, Dario Argento... which he populates with a certain intensity balanced with a very likeable police inspector, played by actor/writer/director Enrico Maria Salerno and some decidedly oddball and larger than life characters who bring a lot of humour to the film. Definitely a good starting place if you’ve never seen any of this director’s work before and, if you can ignore some of the bad acting and ridiculous plot details which are part and parcel of this genre... Argento’s films in particular... and instead concentrate on the visual poetry of the film which he brings to all his work, then you will surely find this film wins you over with its edgy charm. And if you’re going to buy it, definitely grab the latest Arrow Blu Ray version because it’s the best version around, to date (and not the older Blu Ray they did from years ago which was incorrectly cropped on the image). If you're going to do Argento... do it right.

Friday 7 September 2018

The Nun


The Nun
2018 USA Directed by Corin Hardy
UK cinema release print.

As a fan of The Conjuring universe (with the possible exception of the first Annabelle movie (reviewed here), I’d been looking forward to The Nun and was especially ramped up for it after her cameo appearances in Annabelle: Creation (reviewed here). However, when it hit UK cinemas on Thursday, my twitter timeline was full of people who had watched it during the day (one of them even a professional film critic) saying how dull and unscary it was. So I went from a ‘looking forward’ high to really lowering my expectations to a kind of ‘can’t be worse than Mortdecai’ kind of attitude.

I needn’t have worried. Although it has some minor problems or, at the very least, unusual pacing decisions, The Nun is actually quite a solid, scary movie and it sits well within that good old ‘comfort horror’ zone I sometimes like to reside in when I go to some of these things.

Set in the 1950s, this is the spin-off tale of the demonically possessed nun who gave Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) so much trouble in the The Conjuring 2 (aka The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case reviewed here) and also some trouble seen in the first film which we didn’t realise until the nice reveal at the end of this one, it turns out. This tells the story of Father Burke (played by Demián Bichir) who is summoned to the Vatican and assigned, by some high up officials which includes a brief appearance by Michael Smiley, to go to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun at an Abbey there to determine whether the place is still holy. Father Burke is an expert on matters of exorcism and so forth and he knows right from the bat that he is being asked to do more than this and that his bosses know more than they are letting on about what’s going on over there. This becomes especially apparent when he is told to go there via England to pick up a young ‘nun to be’ called Sister Irene (played here by Taissa Farmiga) who has not taken her vows yet. When they spend some time together he realises he has been asked to use her to assist him because of a bunch of visions she had as a child. They go to Romania and do as instructed, seeking out a farmer called Frenchie (played by Jonas Bloquet) who they are told to go and see because it was he who found the nun hanging outside the Abbey.

The audience already knows just why she was hanging there, as it happens, because the film's opening sequence takes you straight into full on horror movie territory and starts piling on the scares from the start. When the three of them go to the Abbey, they are given an indifferent welcome and Burke and Irene are given quarters to tide them over to the next morning as the nuns can’t talk to them before then. Meanwhile, Frenchie goes back to find the horse and cart he drove the two up in and... then the horror starts up again.

Truth be told there’s not a heck of a lot of plot on this thing but basically, the rest of the film is how the three characters take on occult forces and a bunch of nuns being controlled by a demonic entity and... there’s not much pause between each horror set piece, truth be told. Actually, this film really shouldn’t work to the extent that it does because there are no real pauses midst all the storm and fury but... well... I have to admit I found it both scary (purely in terms of cheaply done but phenomenally well executed jump scares... there’s no real lurking sense of dread here) and enormously fun. Somehow the director manages to pull all of these horror set pieces together and runs us from scare to scare at a breakneck pace which is usually a recipe for disaster but somehow, at least for me, works a treat. If anything, in terms of plot and subtlety, it reminded me of one of those early to mid 1970s Hammer movies which were their last hurrah before their inevitable demise towards the end of that decade... just with a slightly more breakneck pacing.

I’ve read a few criticisms that the characters are not very well fleshed out but I’d disagree on that point. Admittedly they’re only character sketches but I certainly found their various back stories and on screen chemistry something which absolutely had me on their side from the first. These three work well as a single unit and they even have time for some humour midst all the gothic grotesquerie on show here. I think the producers really learned from the fact that the main movies in The Conjuring franchise were populated with very likeable characters and so this made the horror element even more threatening. Well, we have that kind of camaraderie here and they even have a lead actress who looks somewhat like Vera Farmiga does in those movies. No surprise there, actually, because it turns out that Taissa Farmiga, who plays the main protagonist pretty much, is actually Vera’s younger sister. So that’s kind of cool. I think these characters were roughed out well enough and I certainly believed in them, for sure.

The one thing which annoyed me a little was the fact that these three characters, more than any others in a lot of modern horror movies, made the classic genre mistake of constantly splitting up and having their own scary adventures away from the others. This is just plain ridiculous... once you know you are being trolled by at least one fearsome supernatural entity (and there’s a lot more than just one in this movie) then it’s common sense that you all stay within arms reach of each other. In some ways these characters are just asking to get in trouble with the various, habit wearing manifestations of demonic evil that they keep running across and I really had to wonder what the writers were thinking at a few points in the narrative.

That being said, though, it was small price to pay for premature burials, zombie nuns, shocking mirror manifestations and going toe to toe with underwater nun monsters. Not to mention a completely non-surprising but still quite cool way of deploying some of Christ’s blood which I was really into (it was a really obvious moment but I’m glad the did it here). And all this is nicely scored by Abel Korzeniowski, who did such a good job with the scores to the three seasons of Penny Dreadful. Admittedly there’s nothing groundbreaking here, with the usual sound design versus atonal undercurrent dominating to an extent but, it is all very appropriately scored and I’m looking forward to spinning this score away from the movie at some point (since the powers that be were on the ball for once and issued a soundtrack CD of this one).

So there you go. The Nun is not a classically great horror film like The Conjuring (reviewed here) but it is a heck of a lot of fun and for scares it also walks over a lot of the competition this year. Definitely would watch this one again on Blu Ray and really had a good time with it. Certainly something I’d say to go to if the horror genre is your kind of thing. And, like I said, the ending of the movie, when you would expect the credits to roll, has a really nice tie in to the first film in the franchise which will probably be appreciated by people who admired that one. Glad I didn’t miss out on this.