Wednesday 31 October 2018

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown


The Beagle Has Landed

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
USA 1966
Directed by Bill Melendez
Watched on YouTube

I rarely watch anything on YouTube, it has to be said. I much prefer owning the stuff I watch rather than streaming or renting from a source which can just turn around and deny me the ability to watch what I want, when I want it any time it likes. However, I thought I’d make an exception this year because Varese Sarabande has just reminded me this gem of a cartoon exists by releasing the first CD issue of the soundtrack. Now, it has to be said, I did try and order a UK DVD or Blu Ray of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, only to find that this thing seems to be totally out of print over here. Now normally in that situation I would just order the US edition but, alas, I knew that if I’d gone down that route then it was probable I wouldn’t even receive it until after Halloween this year... which kinda defeats the object. This is definitely a seasonal TV special and soundtrack and playing it past 31st October just seems like really bad luck, to me.

I remember that I never saw this one as a kid. Halloween, it has to be said, was not something that children in the UK in the 1970s or before... or even the 1980s for that matter... really participated in or knew much about. Trick or Treating was not a thing over here until maybe the mid to late 1990s and the way it’s mutated into some kind of aggressive well as a totally cynical exercise in merchandising scary, seasonally appropriate merchandise to the kids and their financially challenged parents... is probably not something I should go on about at length here.

So yes, I was certainly aware of Halloween as a kid from only one source... The Observer magazine that got delivered to my parent’s door every Sunday. This used to run the Peanuts strip in colour near the back and, every October, you’d get the odd Halloween installment published. That was my only exposure to Halloween, not to mention The Great Pumpkin and so the bizarre culture shock I experienced when, in later years, I saw Halloween rise in popularity over here, spreading like a virulent celebration of destructive anarchy, made me wonder if our country had become just another state of the USA. I used to watch and love the odd Charlie Brown specials on TV as a kid (and later) as did everybody but I don’t know if this one even got shown on UK TV, truth be told. According to the IMDB it was only ever broadcast in the US and in Finland for some strange reason so... maybe it really never aired over here.

Anyway, I found myself with a spare half an hour for lunch and I found a few versions of this on YouTube. A couple were questionable in quality but I did quickly find an HD version and away I went.

It’s a little crude in style but most of those early Peanuts cartoons were and they were no worse for it. They’ve always been about the little pearls of wisdom that Charles M. Schulz used to inject into his strip and all of the ones I’ve seen (although I’ve seen nowhere near all of them) are primarily about promoting strong messages of right versus wrong. They are sometimes quite surreal (another reason to like them) and certainly very cynical at times but they always have a lot of heart in them and I suspect that’s why they’re so well loved around the world.

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown tells the short story of what happens when the Peanuts gang go trick or treating while Linus and Sally (who has a crush on Linus, if you recall), spend all night in the ‘most sincere’ Pumpkin Patch that Linus can find, fruitlessly awaiting the appearance of this peculiar figment of Linus’ imagination. There’s not much to write home about in this one, it has to be said but... it is a slice of pleasant, heart warming Charlie Brown goodness once again and, in terms of the animated specials, it also has a couple of firsts.

For example, this is the first time an animation had been done of Charlie Brown attempting to kick a football and landing on his back after Lucy pulls it away from him. Even in this first animated manifestation, though, it’s already being treated by the characters as a running joke.

The other famous first here is that this is the first time we get to see the animated Snoopy playing around as the World War One flying ace, in pursuit of the Red Baron. Most of the classic elements of those flights of canine fancy are in place here already such as, even when he’s doing a loop the loop, you never see anything other than the top of his dog kennel standing in for his Sopwith Camel and both the flying sequence and his progress returning home behind enemy lines is done with a deft touch which carefully rides the line between Snoopy’s imagination and what’s happening in the real world. The only thing which seems a little false here is that instead of Snoopy’s inner voice narrating his adventures... you never get to hear Snoopy’s thoughts in the cartoons... we instead have the surrogate voice of Charlie Brown narrating on the soundtrack. This almost but, doesn’t quite, work and it seems a bit false. I think this was something they dropped in later shows but I’d need to watch more of them to find out how quickly this element was ditched from the franchise.

The whole show is, of course, scored by the late, great Vince Guaraldi and this is always one of the best reasons to watch the early, classic Peanuts shows. This one has some nice variations on his famous Linus And Lucy theme going through it too which, frankly, I'm really looking forward to hearing when I can get around to giving the new CD a spin. It's good jazz scoring from a truly remarkable composer.

And that’s me more or less done with It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown which, frankly, any fan of the Peanuts gang will surely love. I say more or less because there’s a little epilogue to my review here. When the end credits were rolling I noticed that the cartoon was released in 1966, which rang a little alarm bell in my head. I remembered that a couple of years ago I bought a DVD called The Peanuts 1960s Collection, which is also now sadly out of print and which I haven't had a chance to watch yet. When I looked at the box when I got home I realised that It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was on this all along. So I really needn’t have spent so much time and energy trying to get hold of this one and neither did I need to resort to YouTube to watch it. Sometimes the things you want are right on the end of your nose so, the moral to take away from this story, I think, is this. Whatever you do, don’t get as old as me... it’s no fun.

Monday 29 October 2018

Doctor Who - Arachnids In The UK

I Never Metebelis
I Didn’t Like

Doctor Who - Arachnids In The UK
Airdate: 28th October 2018

Here we are again. Time for what is, again, a very short review for this week’s new Doctor Who adventure... Arachnids In The UK. But, wow, what an episode? This one is classic Doctor Who and it really felt good to have the series starting to feel really familiar again.

This one deals with what happens when The Doctor finally gets her new companions home, safe where they want to be in Sheffield. Except... nope, it’s not safe anymore when a whole load of mutated, giant spiders are parcelling up the population in order to, maybe, eat them or some such thing later on. As it is, though, not even the spiders really have a plan or clue as what they are trying to do here... they’re just trying to deal with suddenly growing to huge sizes with no rule book to help them figure things out.

It’s a nice story and it shows the difference between Doctor Who as it is now and what you could have got away with 30 or more years ago. Ambitious stories like this which calls for huge special effects in terms of hordes of, quite convincing actually (for a change), mutated giant spiders would have maybe had the writers shying away from their original concept due to the scope of the thing and how it could have been achieved on a budget. The curse of CGI actually means that when you want to do something like this, you can at least have a fair stab at it and I was impressed with how these spiders were rendered here. They sure beat the days in the early 1970s when Jon Pertwee was running around and trying to face down a giant spider, which actually saw him regenerating as the result of his experiences in that story.

Talking of which... how can you have an episode like this without The Doctor mentioning the spiders of Metebelis Three? Unless I missed it when somebody I was watching with was asking silly questions but, I’m pretty sure they might have made more of it if they’d wanted. After all, they mentioned Jon Pertwee’s Venusian Aikido the other week, didn’t they? It’s not like they’re shying away from references to the old days here.

The best thing about this episode for me, though, was Jodie Whitaker finally being completely like The Doctor. Or at least The Doctor as he has been for the last ten years or so. There was a lovely scene near the start where she’s dropped off her new friends and is trying to say goodbye but... nobody, including her, really wants to and the dialogue here and the way she quickly accepted Yas’ offer for a cup of tea was completely nailing the character as far as I was concerned. It was good Doctor Who writing (from Chris Chibnall himself, which I totally didn’t expect) and it was made so much more of by the way Jodie performed this stuff. Astonishing moments here by an incarnation of The Doctor I have already accepted into my heart. I know my dad will be taking a few more seasons to get the hang of her but then again, he always does with each new regeneration. He only starts to appreciate them when they’re almost done with the show.

So... a sci-fi yarn involving scary monsters, a mild eco friendly message to educate the youngsters and young at heart among us and some truly great performances. Whittaker, as I’ve said, was astonishing. Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole were doing great too... these characters are starting to feel familiar. And Bradley Walsh as Graham... well he was superb and has the ghost of his dead wife haunting him in that good way. I hope they keep the character on board the TARDIS for a very long time but, something is telling me that I wouldn’t surprised if the writers have some very dramatic plans for Graham before the season is over. So I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that things work out for him by the end of the season... or at least continue on with him as a regular on the show.

Okay... one bad thing about this week's episode was... I totally didn’t understand the off-screen resolution of the story. The big mother spider is dead but nobody has said what’s happened to the slightly smaller versions... or did I miss that too. Everything just seemed to stop on the dramatic resolution of the emotional drama rather than actually tying the story threads up, it seemed to me. Not that I care that much, however... I’m just grateful we got a good story here. Or rather... a doctorish story. It feels like Jodie has brought the programme home again now so I’m really looking forward to the coming weeks.

Also, apart from the opening music arrangement, I’m really getting used to Segun Akinola scoring these things now. It’s almost Herrmannesque at times, in that the composer is using short, repeat motifs in places to build up the tension which can be, presumably, quickly edited if a scene is suddenly cut by a few seconds or, you know, added to if it runs longer than an earlier cut. So looking forward to a CD release of this at some point, hopefully, once Silva Screen finally get around to releasing Murray Gold’s last season, that is.

And that’s me done on Arachnids In The UK. Classic Doctor Who stuff by a cast and crew who seem to be really getting into it. No real complaints from me (for once). Looking forward to more time traveling shenanigans soon.

Sunday 28 October 2018


Thulsa Bloom

2018 USA/Belgium/UK 

Directed by Panos Cosmatos
UK cinema release print.

I’ve been trying to get to see this one for a little while now. Unfortunately, because of it’s near simultaneous release on streaming and DVD (although not in the proper Blu Ray format it needs to be seen on in the UK... I'll have to import that from the US - since publishing this I've found out that there are actually two UK Blu Ray editions of this, both exclusive to HMV), the very limited cinematic release has made this almost impossible for me. Then I finally managed to find one screening which was on at an appropriate time for normal, working people to actually be able to go and see this thing, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. Like almost all the screenings it sold out fast due to a mix of good word of mouth and limited showings but at least I finally got to secure a ticket. The cinema was packed and this was kind of good because this film is a very intense ride and it seemed almost like a community spirit took over in the auditorium as this near magical motion picture started to stream deliriously into our collective eyeballs.

Mandy is both... not the film I’d expected it to be but everything I would have hoped it could be if this kind of film-making was more common. The dream-like quality of the visuals and the way the film kind of slowly ebbs and flows on a singular course at a very deliberate pace is not something I think a lot of director’s would have held their nerve with (I guess I’m going to have to catch up with Cosmatos’ other movie at some point).

At its simplest level... which is pretty much the only level you can really take it, I think... the film is an old school revenge movie. Mandy Bloom, played almost enigmatically by Andrea Riseborough, lives in a cabin with her lumberjack boyfriend Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage... until fate intervenes in the form of cult leader Jeremiah Sand, played by Linus Roach. Well, I say cult leader but there is some evidence to show that he might be the devil or some other major demon although, at one point in the film, his hold over others weakens and whatever power he may have had deserts him.

He and his psychotic group of followers also have the use of a group of biker ‘heavies’, for want of a better term and there are many ways to interpret these bizarre creatures. With their superhuman strength and impenetrable visage there’s a lot to suggest that they are either demonic entities or, possibly, even aliens. Or are they just totally drugged up humans who think they are either demons or aliens? I don’t know and, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter as they are just another obstacle in the path of Red Miller as he seeks revenge for the brutal murder of his girlfriend... who was coveted by Jeremiah but who dared to laugh at him.

Now Nicolas Cage is an interesting actor but I do find him an acquired taste and haven’t seen a great deal of his movies. That being said, I was blown away by him back in 1990 when he played Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. Alas, it’s been a long time since I was able to watch that film again because subsequent DVD and Blu Ray releases to date have been heavily censored... I wish someone would release this properly at some point. He’s great in Mandy too, though and, although he doesn’t say a whole lot, you get the feeling that Red is completely focused by his grief and hate.

Now talking of David Lynch... if I was asked to sum up the atmosphere of this movie by comparing it to other things, I’d be hard pressed. Like Argento’s Suspiria (reviewed here) it’s very much a movie which works completely on its own terms and is not like much else you’ve seen at the cinema, in terms of style and feel at least. So my best summation of the feel of the movie would be this... imagine if Dario Argento and David Lynch had met in the early 1970s and decided to make a film together and then, furthermore, gave all the audience members some LSD before they went in to the cinemas... that’s what I would imagine Mandy feels like in words. The colours, the intensity, the animated cartoons of a naked Mandy giving Red cryptic clues as to the location of the cult from beyond the grave... it’s all very overwhelming and, indeed, the slow pacing of the film is almost a necessity to give your head a chance to catch up to what you’re seeing and hearing on screen.

Also, I don’t know if anyone else saw this possible connection but it almost feels like our imagined versions of Lynch and Argento were trying to do a modern reboot of the John Milius version of Conan The Barbarian. I can see Jeremia as a stand in for Thulsa Doom and the simple revenge arc as almost an homage to that 1982 classic (indeed, Mandy is even set in the 1980s and also includes an oblique reference to the animated Heavy Metal movie). So yeah, this film felt very much, to me anyway, like Eraserhead meets Suspiria meets Conan the Barbarian by way of the artistic sensibilities of Panos Cosmatos, so... yeah, that works for me.

The score is fantastic too. This is one of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s last movie scores before his accidental death earlier in the year and it’s another absolutely brilliant piece. It’s quite similar in tone to his amazing scores for Sicario (reviewed here) and Arrival (reviewed here) and I can’t think of anything else that could hold the film together in the way that this intense music, mixed right into the foreground of the film, could. It elevates the ‘in your face’ nature of the visuals and really helps glue the imagery together without letting up. It keeps you in the headspace required to appreciate Mandy as the work of art it is because, it has to be said, there are a couple of places where it does threaten to drift over into ‘camp’ territory and there are plenty of laughs midst the blood and gore to be found here. That’s another reason why this is a great communal experience because the audience reaction was terrific... a girl in a group of people sitting to my left held her hands over her face when a giant, fiery “bat’leth” of an axe is thrown into a man’s head and then found herself laughing at something one of the characters said not five minutes after this scene. And, it has to be said, everyone had a little chuckle at Nicolas Cage’s grin in a shot near the end of the movie. This is another film which people are going to remember this actor for in future generations, I think.

One scene where Miller is trying to process what has just happened to his girlfriend, could have gone either way. It’s a protracted scene of him alternately drowning down a bottle of Southern Comfort (I think that’s what the bottle was) and screaming emotionally in his y-fronts and, it very nearly got a lot of unintentional laughs, I suspect. However, let me say just this about that scene... it’s possibly the closest contemporary equivalent I’ve seen to the Isabelle Adjani ‘grocery in the subway’ breakdown sequence in Zulawski’s Possession (which I reviewed here)... so I think a certain cross section of the audience would have appreciated this. It’s a raw moment for Cage and, luckily, it does just come out as the right side of credible in a film that is being called by a lot of reviewers... ‘totally bonkers’ and, who am I to disagree with them. As long as they mean bonkers in a good way then I have no fight with that.

Mandy is a hallucinatory, intense, vibrant, fun and somewhat trippy pill to swallow. It’s 100% a modern exploitation movie but one which doesn’t skimp on a lot of the implications of that term and celebrates itself in a way that lets the audience join in with it. A really great little flame of a movie and one which I’m sure an insane bunch of cinephiles will be happy to keep burning for a number of years. Don’t miss out on this one... especially if you can see it on a big screen with a full house... a gem of an experience.

Tuesday 23 October 2018


Bon Voyeur

2018 USA
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber
and co-written with Isa Mazzei
Screened at the London Film Festival
Saturday 20th October 2018.

Cam was the third and final of my London Film Festival screenings this year and it was a pretty positive one. Before the film started, director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei (a former sex cam worker) explained that, although the movie had played in a festival before, this was the first time the final, polished cut of the movie had been exhibited... which kinda half explains why I couldn’t find a trailer for this anywhere online when I sat down to book my ticket for this one.

I was surprised to see the Blumhouse logo at the front of this but it transpires, as the movie progresses, that this is not technically a thriller but a horror movie. Which I’m fine with. I was less fine with the Netflix logo which came up at the front but... yeah... don’t get me started on Netflix.

The movie tells the story of a week or so in the life of Alice, played with a lot of energy and confidence by Madeline Brewer. Alice is a sex worker who performs for customers as part of a specific cam site similar to virtual spaces like LiveJasmin and Chaturbate under the name Lola... I guess men cluster to her like moths around a flame, assuming that’s the correct reference for her performance name. That being said, the film is not really pitched as an erotic movie... that is just the milieu in which Mazzei and Goldhaber chose to set their story, which mainly centres around the topic of identity theft.

That being said, the big main positive of the film is that it doesn’t stigmatise sex work as being anything more negative than any other profession (finally, at last) and doesn’t try to judge anyone for anything, at least not the sex worker characters in the film. What it does show, however, is the terrible prejudice against people who choose to work in this industry... not just from family and friends but also from the police when they are asked to help out in the film. I know from the Q&A session at the end of the screening that two of the lines in the film, both assigned to the police in a scene where Alice turns to them for assistance, are taken directly from Isa Mazzei’s own experiences of intolerance and dismissive attitudes... one specifically with the police and one from a number of people in Hollywood.

The film takes a while to get to the basic plot set up as it shows the lives of the cam girls and their obsessions... Alice’s obsession being to get to the top of the league in views (she starts the film outside of the top 50). Also, the way the movie is shot with a lot edits to different things going on in an environment as a kind of information overload stops the narrative dragging at certain points. This approach is combined with some nicely designed sets such as Alice’s ‘Pink Room’ which the director said was their homage to David Lynch’s Red Room in Twin Peaks, courtesy of production designer Emma Rose Mead and they really help lift the movie into something which can match the level of the writing and deliver it up as a rich audio/visual experience.

Then, once we are familiar with all of the little quirks of Alice/Lola’s trade, we get the real plot set up. Her account gets hijacked and she is locked out. However, she is still somehow also performing every night on the site... it’s just not Alice but, an exact facsimile of Alice carrying on. However, it’s not a ‘deepfake’ performance (the writer and director said that the movie was already shot when all the ‘deepfake’ controversy started up last year) and it’s not, as Alice finds when she starts to investigate, old archive footage of her previous performances. In fact, when she sock puppets up an account to interact with the new Lola, she finds that Lola is responding to her and everybody else just fine. Something else is going on... but what?

Well I’m not saying but there is certainly more than meets the eye here and, just like a lot of post-Romero zombie movies, the nice thing about the movie is that it never really explains the main antagonistic presence lurking in the shadows of cyberspace... but it does show our heroine overcoming her difficulties and taking the fight for her online identity to a point where she can try and beat it at its own game. Circumstances become especially muddy when she realises that some of the girls performing live in their top placed cam shows actually died a while ago in real life. And as the danger signals start to kick in on the character, we see her energy levels and paranoia worsening as she reacts to the crisis. 

As her investigation to get her life back continues under difficult circumstances, she hits the same kind of walls that all of us seem to hit when having trouble with our ‘online’ lives. Nobody really understands all the ins and outs of their virtual footprints and Goldhaber and Mazzei explained that it was their intention to play with the fact that people who are all building an online construct such as thier Twitter or Facebook personae which is unleashed into the world, are often quite deliberately accepting of all the murky things that companies are doing to us in our cyberlife. We tend to ignore what we don’t feel we can change and I know I’m always a bit reluctant to click ‘accept’ on the terms and conditions of pretty much every online sign up that I come across but, like the main protagonist in this film, I keep on doing it because the only other option is to not be able to access the specific tool I need. There are several times in the movie where Alice hits a brick wall with online support and I can relate to this all the number of times I’ve tried to actually contact, in the flesh, some of the sites I use on a daily basis. There’s no real support anymore in the online world, just the pretence that there’s something there to help you when things go wrong and I find that this is something which is getting worse year by year.

The performances in Cam are all pretty good here too. Madeline Brewer is absolutely phenomenal here in a part that, I found out from the Q & A, agents were kinda hiding from their clients because they didn’t want them associated with this role and she’s ably supported by some pretty good actors and actresses, including Patch Darragh and Michael Dempsey as two of her online clients and Melora Waters as her mother.

In terms of it being a horror movie rather than a thriller... well it has the horror element in there for sure. The writer and director stated after that they were initially thinking of making a documentary about cam girls but then instead decided to show the positivity surrounding the industry by using genre cinema instead. This is something which I’ve said before on here that the low budget horror genre can do really well... bring about an attitude change by sneaking in ideas and characters which go against conventional expectations in a format which isn’t as closely monitored as a big budget horror movie (such as when the three Insidious sequels really took the older 'medium' character from the first movie and ran with her as a mature action hero in the subsequent films).

It’s a good idea and it works well here... they do a terrific job...  but I would personally be careful with the marketing on this movie. It doesn’t deliver any of the gut punch scare tactics that most modern horror films use as their standard modus operandi and it also doesn’t do the traditional sense of lurking dread that the more successful horror movies do. The real horror of this film lies in the way online identity can be twisted and used against a person, which is a factor in the movie that haunts you later, once you’ve had time to process it... but it’s probably not going to deliver to audiences expecting the usual kind of genre movies put out by Blumhouse. Possibly it would be better to market this as a thriller rather than a horror and let the slow slide into realisation that there’s more going on than meets the eye sink in as an audience watches.

All in all though... Cam is a really nice little movie which dares to portray sex workers as what they are rather than what some bizarre section of the general public still prefers to see them as and it deserves to be a success. I hope this one gets a proper cinema release worldwide but I’m not sure if that will happen if Netflix have put up the money. Worth taking a look at if you get the chance, though, because it’s got things to say and it’s offered up here in a sweetened pill which might actually do some good if audiences choose to swallow the offered medication. A nice film to end this year’s London Film Festival experience for me too... I managed to see three good ones.

Monday 22 October 2018

Doctor Who - Rosa

Parks And Re-Creation

Doctor Who - Rosa
Airdate: 21st October 2018

Oh, okay... so this is better.

When I first saw that the BBC were going to do one of their historical recreation style episodes this week, my first thought was that it was going to be a bit pants like last week’s episode. Well, I’m happy to report I was dead wrong about that.

In a bit of episode titling which I can only assume is a deliberate parody of the first episode of the new wave Doctor Who shows that started with Christopher Eccleston in an story entitled Rose, which also introduced Billie Piper’s popular Rose Tyler character... this episode is called Rosa.

Why? Well because The Doctor and her new crew are whisked back in time to Montgomery, Alabama the day before the famous black activist Rosa Parks (played here by Vinette Robinson) refused to give up her seat for white folk on December 1st 1955, thus prompting her arrest and leading to a chain of events which ended segregation on buses. The TARDIS has brought them here because, as The Doctor soon discovers, there are some very strange, out of place, energy readings for the time and, as they investigate, they are flung face to face, not just with Rosa Parks but also the terrible racial prejudice bordering on paranoia which was presumably part and parcel of living in this period.

However, it also brings them into contact with an alien ex-con who has time jumped to the same period so he can stop Rosa from having to give her seat up on the bus and thus stop the boycotting of the buses and the eventual end of the segregation of said transport in the state (and beyond). So they have to do their darnedest to ensure that all the right elements are still in place for Rosa to make her historic protest and arrest. Which isn’t easy with ‘villain of the week’ Krasko, played by Joshua Bowman, trying to make little changes in the timeline to ensure this doesn’t happen.

And it’s not a bad episode and I’m optimistic that this series will be a little more hit and miss... rather than downright miss, like last weeks episode... as the weeks go by.

So, the good: Well, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill are all great as they are both alarmed and angry at the racial intolerance on display and, frankly, Jodie Whittaker is simply phenomenal as The Doctor in this one. I don’t know what order these episodes were shot in but she does a really good job here and I get the sense that she is really beginning to find her feet with the character. It kinda helps she has a good script to play around with too. She really knocked it out of the Parks in this one, it has to be said (or I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say that for this specific episode).

The pacing was also pretty fabulous and there was, in all honesty, never a dull moment as The Doctor and her companions tried to fix and second guess the moves of Krasko by doing all in their power to ensure that a) the bus still runs, b) James Blake (played by Trevor White) is still driving it and c) it’s full enough for Blake to order Rosa to give up her seat for a white person. The identity of that white person is something I won’t give away here but it’s fairly obvious, to be fair, just how entwined the regular TARDIS crew are going to be with the events as they unfold.

There was some stuff I both didn’t like or which I thought was questionable too so, very briefly, they are as follows...

Everything looked too clean and well kept. However, I’ve seen the BBC make this kind of ‘mistake’ before and therefore I had to think to myself that, yeah, maybe that’s how things were in the 1950s with a much less abundant population than we have nowadays. Maybe the BBC keep portraying places like this as being really tidy because that’s just how things were in those days. So that’s my possible but ‘not really all that worried’ criticism out of the way.

Second criticism was the use of a song over a certain sequence and its repetition over the end titles. Now they’ve done this before in the Eccleston and Tennant eras and sometimes they get away with it, in my opinion and... sometimes they don’t. I think that, in this particular case, it’s an example of they definitely didn’t. It was, at the very least, mixed in way too loud although I could see how it might have solved a dramatic problem in this particular scene. Again, it’s a personal opinion but, it wasn’t for me.

Third thing... the reason for Krasko being there wasn’t adequately explained. We had a little of his back story but really no context as to why he should undertake such a task in the first place. I don’t think the character had enough emotional weight or reason for actually doing all this in the first place. It may have been cut for time but I don’t think it played out very well the way it did.

Okay, fourth and final thing (because, seriously, don’t get me started on the opening titles and music arrangement again)... there’s a point in the story where Tosin Cole’s character gets rid of the Krasko situation for good and I can’t help but think that The Doctor would not have approved of his methods here and would have scolded him for it, just as she did the week before when he reached for the gun. It’s possible that we haven’t seen the last of Krasko, of course but... I’m not holding my breath for him to return anytime soon. Especially when show runner Chris Chibnall has gone on record saying there will be no multi-part story arcs this season (although that does, I would say, remain to be seen).

And that’s me done on this one, too. Much better than the second episode and I’m a lot more confident about emotionally investing in the new Doctor now (although I know some people have already bailed on the series after last week’s show). Really looking forward to next week’s episode I’m glad to say so, fingers crossed the spiders seen in the trailer are as deadly a threat as they might have been in the 1970s incarnation of the show. We shall soon see, I guess. 

Sunday 21 October 2018

The Cannibal Club

Club Lunch

The Cannibal Club
(aka O Clube Dos Canibais)

2018 Brazil Directed by Guto Parente
Screened at the London Film Festival
Friday 19th October 2018.

So The Cannibal Club is the second of my three London Film Festival screenings this year and, so far so good on my picks for 2018. This one is pretty great too.

Despite the title, this is not about the Victorian society founded in 1863 with the same name but a modern tale of a Brazilian secret society comprising of rich people who have covert meetings where they can watch their victims perform sexually before slaughtering them and eating them. They also, as in the case of main protagonist Otavio, played here by Tavinho Teixeira and his beautiful wife Gilda, portrayed by Ana Luiza Rios... kill and eat their employees when they are not having one of their meetings.

The film is short but quite engaging and tells the story of what happens to these two, bloodthirsty protagonists when Gilda sees something she shouldn’t have involving the head of the society Borges, played by Pedro Domingues. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie shows them as being the hunted ones as the paranoia which has been building up the whole movie in Otavio’s mind turns out to be completely justified. And that’s probably as much as I want to share about the story and its outcome with you because I don’t want to post any spoilers about it.

It’s an interesting film because, at heart, the absurdity of the situation of a powerful group of civilised cannibals which, to be fair, is a very old concept is drawn here with very humorous overtones (I decline to use the word comic because that will confuse matters in a minute when I talk about another aspect of the film). However, despite the funny moments, one of the many things the director gets absolutely right here is that the main protagonists, right from the outset of the movie, feel very dangerous. For example, as soon as you see Otavio handling a gun and giving it to one of his employees, there is already a palpable tension to the movie which few directors are able to hold when it comes to weaponry like firearms. Quentin Tarantino, for example, is one of the few directors I can think of who can still make guns feel dangerous in a world of constant action cinema and this is very important because, people should be reminded how dangerous guns are and the power of the consequences of using them. Right from the start in The Cannibal Club, I was nervous around the main characters... especially Otavio who is wonderfully played and whose mood you feel can flip on a coin at any moment. It’s a very stylised performance because, one minute you will see him masturbating over another man having sex with his wife as part of their pre-arranged honey trap so the employee can be slaughtered with an axe as his wife is penetrated by him... the blood splashing over her naked form while her husband's semen drips into the blood of their next meal... while at the same time, in a later scene, the husband complains about the way they are being harassed as if they are some kind of murderers. This flip flop of morality is very black and white and overtly drawn in both the performance and the script and this is one of many elements which lend this movie a kind of comic book sensibility... and I don’t mean that in a derogatory tone.

The whole film, to my eyes, played out like a comic book and I was reminded of this very much on the last, mid end credits shot of one of the characters sitting by a pool contemplating the aftermath of everything we’ve seen played out in the final third of the movie. The composition and style of this shot could almost have been pulled from a panel of a comic strip by the late 2000AD artist Carlos Ezquerra. It felt very late 1970s - mid 1980s almost, like something he might have drawn for 2000AD's sister comic Crisis back in the day, or something one of the British comic book artists might have worked on in the US for the early days of DC’s Vertigo imprint. In fact, the whole story felt like that too, it has to be said... and that’s not a bad thing.

For instance, the shots can be very colourful but a great deal of them are also static shots of people moving through the frames rather than having a great deal of camera movement. Not always but, certainly an abundance of letting the static frame do the talking and, in conjunction with an editing process hitting beats on the music, it works really well for this movie.

Also, the practicality of the editing process seems also to be a symptom of the practical effects used. The film is very bloody but it doesn’t feel CGI’d at any point. It does however, pull back in some ways from showing the full impact of the gory moments 'in shot' and instead concentrates on weapons impacting behind a person or off screen rather than going the ‘whole Argento’ and building elabourate false body parts to show the actual impact of a weapon on human flesh. That being said though, because of the editing process, you possibly feel the impact of the violence in the film a heck of a lot more than you would if you saw every death in minute detail and the director is obviously very aware of how he does this because, in a couple of scenes where two or more people are being murdered, he relies on the gory aftermath we’ve seen previously to let our imagination do the work and relies purely on the sound of the kills rather than have the camera bear witness to them... and I have to say it works very well in the two cases where he does this. And, again, this way of editing around some of the violence also enhances the stylistic, panel by panel feel of the movie to play as some kind of audio enhanced comic book... which counts in its favour as a potent piece of cinema.

So we have some beautiful shot set ups and some brilliant performances from all involved, with special shout outs to Tavinho Teixeira and Zé Maria (aka José Maria Alves) as one of his employees... not to mention the eye candy of Ana Luiza Rios, who’s blood spattered, naked body reveals an actress who is confident in a role which might have other performers fleeing less than cautiously.

My only real complaint here... and this isn’t really a criticism because I think it’s just  personal thing to me... was the musical score by Fernando Catatau. It gives an upbeat and far too jaunty and raucous flavour to the scenes for my taste. However, I suspect the juxtaposition of this up tempo music in contrast with the horror of the subject matter is precisely the point here. I would have preferred a more traditional piece of scoring but, although I didn’t care much for the music, I think it really fulfills its purpose here so, like I said, not really a criticism.

So those are my thoughts on The Cannibal Club. Whether this will get a proper release in the UK is not something I know at the moment but, if it does, I suspect it won’t have an easy time at the BBFC. Guto Parente draws the parallels between sex and eating into the mix in a bloody and appropriately carnivorous metaphor which, again, is almost clichéd but I don’t think the visual expression of this obvious relationship between sexuality, violence and the human digestive system is going to be very censor-friendly in some countries. I hope I’m wrong because I’d happily watch this one again on a nice Blu Ray transfer if given the opportunity... but only if it’s left uncut. As such, I would definitely recommend this uncategorised cut I saw of the film at the festival as something that lovers of bloody violence and dark comedy in movies will embrace. I can only hope it stays uncut on subsequent iterations of the film... people need to get the opportunity to see this as it should be seen.

Thursday 18 October 2018


More Questions Than Afters

UK 2015
Directed by Gez Medinger and Robin Schmidt
FrightFest presents.../Icon DVD Region 2

AfterDeath is an interesting movie and, for the most part, a quite effective one. It starts where another film’s twist ending might actually be the big reveal but here it’s the set up. We begin the movie with the realisation that the five central protagonists (the entire cast not counting the ‘voice’ of a demon) are actually all dead.

The movie kicks off with Robyn (played by Miranda Raison) waking at night to find herself washed up on a beach. She flees the sands because she is chased by some fairly aggressive smoke monster thingies and arrives in a cottage. Inside she finds three of the other five actors in the film engaged in a ménage à trois on the couch. They are Sam Keely as the truly unlikeable Seb, Elarica Johnson as Patricia and Lorna Nickson Brown as Livvy. After an exchange, of sorts, she finds the fifth of this group (including herself), Onie, played by Daniella Kertesz, trying to slice up her own wrists but, alas, no blood and no death. She is informed that they are all dead and this leads to Robyn throwing out the most hilarious and sardonic line of the film about what the others did when they discovered they were dead and in some kind of afterlife limbo... “so you thought... threesome”.

It’s an ‘afterlife’ then, which we have here but, it’s not the ‘afterlife’ our main protagonists, all of whom perished in a fire at a night club, were expecting. As the movie goes on, they try to discover the rules of their predicament, as they are obviously not in heaven and they are not entirely certain they are in hell. It’s interesting because, last year I saw a film at the cinema called A Ghost Story (reviewed here) where the audience can slowly put together the rules and vocabulary of the haunted limbo world from observing the environment of one of the main characters. Here, though, it’s a slightly different kettle of fish because these five people need to find out what’s going on and why they are in a cottage which is familiar to each of them (not saying any more than that, don’t want to post any spoilers) and how they get out of there. Especially since, at regular intervals, the unreachable lighthouse in the distance shines on them and brings a burst of pain into their lives. Also, why does one of their number keep disappearing at the drop of a hat, only to reappear again a little later. And what are these wretched smoke monsters all about?

Robyn is the most determined to find out what the hell is going on and tries to steer the rag tag group towards some kind of logical escape plan... leading us through the usual antagonistic response scenes, the bonding scenes... and so forth. All the leads are pretty cool in this and as the film goes on, a little more is revealed about each character and things start to make a little more sense.

It is, it has to be said, a one trick pony of an idea (which I suspect I also might have said about A Ghost Story and that was awesome)... but the writing, direction and performances are such that the mystery behind the shrinking universe they find themselves inhabiting (without giving anything relevant away there) doesn’t get too old and the premise never really begins to flag until the last quarter of an hour or so of the film. By this point, perhaps, the ending is fairly obvious in terms of the various paths it could take but even by then the dialogue is still quite spiky and the last line of the film is especially irreverent and bound to wind up, I suspect, a certain cross-section of the audience.

Also, for a cheaply budgeted British horror film, I was surprised at just how effective and realistic the moving smoke demons in this one were. I tend to hate a lot of the more obvious CGI moments in movies and am always the first to criticise them but the special effects here seemed really good to me so... yeah, congratulations to a horror film for even getting me to mention them.

Not much else to say about Afterdeath but, like a lot of the FrightFest presents movies put out by Icon, I would say this one would work best as one film out of a screening of many (which is how it would have originally been seen at FrightFest, I guess) rather than something you watch on its own. Definitely a good movie for one of the middle ingredients of a private horror all-nighter and with the cheap price of the FrightFest DVDs at the moment, definitely worth a purchase if you are a fan of theologically themed horror movies. I’ve seen similar ‘people trapped in a puzzle’ stories filmed with far less panache and imagination over the years than this one.

Monday 15 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Ghost Monument

Final Desolation

Doctor Who - The Ghost Monument
Airdate: 14th October 2018

Last week, the new series of Doctor Who did something which it hadn’t done for a very long time... it ended on a cliffhanger. Well, hold on, bold claim that... there have been a few cliffhanger endings over the last few years so let me rephrase that. The last episode finished the story off by going straight into the next story with a cliffhanger to be continued in the brand new story the next week. That is to say, The Doctor transported herself and, accidentally, her companions out into the vacuum of space. Now this is something which the show used to do all the time. The first serial, nowadays known as An Unearthly Child, finished its last episode by showing the TARDIS landing and, unseen by everyone else but the audience, the radiation counter rising rapidly into danger levels. This was to then continue the week after in the story that would be the main factor in the show’s early success and which stopped it from dying an early death... the introduction of The Daleks.

And this practice of having each serial apart form the very last of each series bookending on to the next story is something which pretty much happened throughout the time that both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton played The Doctor, before it was dropped, mostly for good after the occasional, brief, resurrection, when Jon Pertwee played The Third Doctor in the early 1970s. But new show runner Chris Chibnall brought it back for the last story (including the multi companion format which would be a staple of the First, Second and Fifth Doctors’ time on the show) and I guess it’s not a bad idea to give it another go. It kinda makes sense in this day and age where cliffhanger season finales and even... um... mid season finales (don’t even try to make sense of that phenomena) are a fixed feature of many TV shows. That being said, this week’s new story hasn’t continued that trend at all but it’s at least nice to have the possibility that this kind of thing could randomly happen at any given moment.

So how did new Doctor Jodie Whittaker do on her second full length outing in the role?

Well... mostly not bad I guess. I think she and her excellent co-stars did really well with a script from Chibnall which was... well, I think it must have looked fine on paper but I’m really not sure of the execution of it here. That being said, there was one clever thing in the script. When the main villain of the week started talking about The Ghost Monument of the title, I was pretty sure it would turn out to be The Doctor’s TARDIS in reality and... yeah, it was. The nice thing about that, though, is that rather than save it for a final punchline, which must have been a temptation and wouldn’t have worked because... well, because it’s pretty obvious... he immediately then confirmed it was the TARDIS there and then so that was a nice touch.

So... well we have the welcome return of an opening title sequence. So "Yay!" for that. Unfortunately it’s... well... it’s a bit rubbish. The second half of it reminded me of the worst of Sylvester McCoy’s opening titles and the start of it reminded me of... I dunno... some kinda disturbing liquid going around in a washing machine. Add in a really wrong sounding (yeah, I know it must be deliberate) arrangement of Ron Grainer’s original title music and we have something that, really doesn’t make me look forward to it, in all honesty. My one hope here is that it will grow on me.

We also have a redesigned TARDIS interior which is... also going to take some time to grow on me I suspect. Maybe it’s a good idea, though, in terms of it being quite roomy and easier to handle four inhabitants in the main console room at any one time. Who knows? Well... hopefully Who knows.

The main story itself, about The Doctor and her companions helping the final two surviving contestants in a cross galaxy race to find The Ghost Monument and win enough money to keep them and their families safe for the rest of their lives was... a bit action packed with a budget that was somewhat less than action packed, I felt. The planet of Desolation is a deathtrap world designed to kill all who set down in it but the way the various characters managed to escape death each time really wasn’t all that convincing. Seriously, if you’re going to have highly skilled sniper robots chasing after you with their weapons, it’s really not that credible that they are going to miss hitting you repeatedly. This didn’t look good and this and certain other death defying exploits just didn’t seem all that plausible, truth be told.

As for The Doctor? S/he is starting to change a little. I can’t remember The Doctor questioning herself for quite some time to this degree (since Tennant?) and the end where, frankly, we all knew the TARDIS would have to rematerialise anyway, really wasn’t all that convincing or, welcome, I reckon. However, like I said before, I like the idea of a female Doctor and it’s early days yet. New regenerations rarely come across as the definitive version of their characters until they’ve got a series or two under their belt and this counts as much for the writing team as it does with the actors and actresses involved.

So... yeah, really not a great episode for me and I really don’t like the idea that an underlying threat for the motivation of a couple of the characters in this one is the alien race of Stenza, one of whom we saw in the last episode. Because that means they’re probably going to come back again at some point and, truthfully, that was a really awful, unthreatening villain.

However, every series of Doctor Who has at least one or two weak episodes (or many more in the case of Steven Moffat’s run on the series) so I’m not going to let this one phase me. I’m just going to try and forget about it for a bit and hope next week’s episode has a little more going for it than this one. We shall see.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Bad Times At The El Royale

Royale, No Cheese

Bad Times At The El Royale
2018 USA Directed by Drew Goddard
UK cinema release print.

So this one surprised me a little.

I took a punt on Bad Times At El Royale and kept my fingers crossed that Drew Goddard, who directed The Cabin In The Woods (reviewed here) would deliver something greater than the dreadful, slickly edited gangster film that the trailer kinda half made it out to be. I’d recently said to somebody that, more often than not these days, trailers really put one off going to see the movie and reflect the tone of said movie in a completely inaccurate manner and... I’m happy to say that this is the case with Bad Times At The El Royale.

Now, the film is about criminally inspired shenanigans at a famous hotel (once owned by Frank Sinatra) which is split in half by the state line which separates Nevada from California (the rooms on the California side are a buck more expensive). It’s also got a rollicking good ensemble cast including Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth... who are all truly excellent and it’s nice to see this cast interacting in ways you wouldn’t expect them to here.

I say ways you wouldn’t expect because, although I quite liked The Cabin In The Woods, I did find it incredibly predictable. However, this new film surprised me a number of times when I was sure I knew what was coming next. For example the film has a pre-credits sequence which consists of a static camera watching a room in the El Royale. After a while the action within the shot keeps cutting to different parts of the day in the same shot placement, rapidly, in a montage which shows us the set up one of the film’s main plot points. I don’t want to ruin this sequence for anyone but this set up includes buried treasure (of a sort) and a man with a shotgun. Now, after the sequence ends and the title goes up, the rest of the film takes place ten years later, in 1969 and tells the story of what happens when seven characters converge on the place over the course of the fairly long running time. My point is, though, that I was pretty sure I could figure out the identity of the man with the shotgun within the opening minute of the post opening credits shot but, as it happens, I’m glad to say I was wrong. On the other hand, certain things about this opening set up do go unanswered still by the time the end credits start to roll but, you can take an educated guess at certain things and it’s nice to at least leave a movie with something to think about.

Now, the film has an excellent script, good acting, a nice fluid camera style which alternates between static shots and slow pans when required and it gets you interested in the various characters in a number of chapters which give you a little of the back story of each person and how they came to be here as the movie progresses. It’s an old cliché of a way of giving you the information in the most suspenseful way, to be sure and certain things are deliberately left unsaid (as in that pre-title sequence) so you can draw your own conclusions about them but, for the most part, it’s a very smart movie and it keeps you interested in the way things are going to turn out all the way through. It also feels dangerous a lot of the time, so you fear for the way things are going to go down when you see someone who’s got a gun, for example. Especially when not all the characters are as stable or predictable as you might think... Dakota Johnson’s character, for example, or Chris Hemsworth, who seems to be playing some kind of evil cult leader in the same vein as Charlie Manson.

I guess if I was going to compare it to something else, I might say it’s put together in the same way and with the same intensity as a Quentin Tarantino movie... just with less flowery dialogue (not knocking Tarantino’s dialogue, it’s usually very good, just saying that the speech here doesn’t match expectations of his particular work). Less sonorous dialogue is no bad thing though and I have to say I found the, relatively, smaller amount of ironic, post modernistic references in the movie to be a refreshing change in a film set in this kind of era, to be honest. That being said, Jeff Bridges does sign his name in the hotel register as Father Daniel Flynn, Flynn being the name of his character in the two Tron movies (reviewed here and here)... but I can forgive them that one, I think.

My main criticism of the movie is actually found within that dialogue, however. That being the use of very similar phrases coming out of different character’s mouths, rather then getting them all to speak about things in different ways. For instance, at least two different characters from different backgrounds use the phrase “all the bad” when such a distinctive phrase is not probably something two different protagonists are going to share. So the voice of the writer/director is very much present in the dialogue and... like a lot of writers tend to do and should really think about not doing... all the characters are thus easily perceived to be a version of how he speaks/writes. Which is a shame if you ask me.

The only other thing I didn't like so much was the constant use of songs in the film. They play an important role in terms of both atmosphere and, in at least one scene, commentary on the action but the rest of the music in the film is handled by Michael Giacchino and is less prominent. Maybe if I’d known more than a couple of the songs I would have had a better response to the musical side of the film but, as it stands, I’m not sure it’s quite my cup o’ tea.

All that being said, though, these are really minor criticisms and I have to say I enjoyed Bad Times at The El Royale from end to end. Which is especially impressive because the film has a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes but it really doesn’t feel that long and the pacing is such, with a cliff hanger seemingly at the end of every chapter stop, that you certainly won’t realise where the time has gone. At least I didn’t so, yeah... pretty impressed with this one. It’s not something I think I could watch again but it certainly holds the attention and I’d definitely recommend you catch this one while it’s at cinemas. There’s a lot of rubbish out there at the moment in movieland but this film certainly doesn’t add to that pile and is worth your time, I’d say. You’ll find yourself caring for characters who probably make a bad first impression on you when you first meet them, which is no mean feat in itself... so give this one a go.

Friday 12 October 2018

The Queen Of Fear

Fear Fresher

The Queen Of Fear
(aka La Reina Del Miedo)

2018 Argentina/Denmark
Directed by Valeria Bertuccelli & Fabiana Tiscornia
Screened at the London Film Festival Wednesday 10th October 2018.

The Queen Of Fear is the first of my very slim selection of films to see at this year’s London Film Festival and it was a bit of a quickie choice for me. That is to say, a good friend of mine was flying in for a few days, she’d never been to the LFF before and, of the movies which were showing at times we could manage, this is the one I thought looked the most interesting (of those not already sold out). As it is, it might well be the best thing I see at the 2018 Festival, it turns out.

The film explores a week or so in the life of a famous actress called Robertina, as she tries to deal with a one woman show she is writing and starring in, while trying to juggle certain other things in her life and maintain her sanity in a lifestyle of people who demand her time and attention and while she’s also working through her paranoia and fear associated with various sections of her life. As a nice parallel to that, The Queen Of Fear is not only written by and starring Valeria Bertuccelli as the main protagonist and focus of the film... she’s also co-directed it, thus making the movie a kind of counterpart to certain plot elements as her character's life plays out.

Robertina is, as the title of the movie suggests, a woman who carries her daily fears with her like a shroud and keeps her anxieties locked up inside her all the time while she tries to portray a kindly and helpful person at ease with her surroundings. There are a fair few things which are cumulatively adding to her anxieties... primarily the fact that she is not present (and doesn’t even have the content figured out yet) for the rehearsals of her one woman show as she is trying to deal with an old friend called Lisandro, played here by Diego Velazquez, who is probably going to be dying of cancer any time now and who she is trying to help in person in Denmark, when she should be figuring out the form and content of her show in Argentina. Added to this we have mysterious power outages in her home which may (or may not) be caused by some kind of stalker, we have her deliberately irritating and histrionic maid not getting on with her other household staff and we have a recent husband who has just, ‘probably’ (as far as she can tell) left her life after a few weeks/months of marriage and who is also just at the periphery of her day to day.

Actually, it’s the power cuts which provide the strongest visual metaphor of Robertina’s constant flight into fear and it’s with one of these that the movie opens with... and returns to... time and time again, before bringing a resolution, of sorts, in the final scene. It’s also an interesting opening which clearly shows the striking visual design of the film, which is evident in almost every scene. Bertuccelli has a quite obvious penchant for building her shots up from vertical and horizontal lines and this first set of interior shots demonstrates it in no uncertain terms. Like many directors in the past, she uses these patterns to split and redefine the visual planes on her screen and this is particularly evident in the shot where, after spending some time with her ‘ex’ husband who she catches in her house one night, she frames both characters in a small, vertical rectangle in the centre of the screen from inside the house, looking out as they are talking outside by his car.

And did I mention that she has a very white house?

A white house of primarily vertical lines which are prominent when she walks through it, often dressed in pale colours or white herself, like a fortress of light to protect her from the sometimes less perfectly composed but still fairly anemic colouring of the outside world as she moves her cautious way through it. Even her dog, Jimmy, is completely white, it seems, to enhance the effect.

My favourite part of the movie, which made me laugh out loud for a second, was when the heightened sense of vertical and horizontal lines are completely overplayed in one scene and, judging by the carefree nature of the film, this is a deliberate moment of toying with the audience on a visual level. It’s a short sequence where Robertina is seen in  a medium shot in foreground wearing a cream and white top consisting of sections of both vertical and horizontal slabs and, as the camera is tracking her, she passes by a zebra crossing of white vertical lines and the collision of the large, looming road surface with her costume seemed like movie makers having fun with the mise en scène to show the audience that they are quite aware of the elaborate, possibly overwrought but certainly charming frame designs they are running with here. Which is fine by me... like I said, I laughed out loud (which is fairly unusual for me, I guess).

This heightened sense of artifice is ably aided by a central and dominant, tour de force performance by Valeria Bertuccelli which is both very funny but also extremely emotionally charged and moving at times, especially in the wonderful relationship she has with her dying friend Lisandro... Velazquez is just amazing here too and I’d happily watch a movie just of the two of them talking in a room for a couple of hours. The on-screen chemistry and the way Lisandro kind of takes care of her when it should be the other way around, even as it’s made clear to the audience that, despite her intentions, she’s not the best or most attentive of friends to those of her who she chooses to call as such, is just brilliant.

Another brilliant thing about this movie is when the rug is pulled out from under the audience toward the end. When we see the opening of her first (and possibly last) performance of the play which she has been trying and mostly failing to commit her time to, we have a moment when we think the downward spiral of the events of the last few days has finally gotten to her and finished the character off for good. Instead, audience expectations are nicely and cleverly upended when we find out her character is a lot stronger than we thought in the most brilliant way... but I don’t want to give it away to readers of this review so I won’t elaborate here.

What I will say, though, is the film has a heightened sense of drama in certain key sequences due to the way the score by composer Vicentico is written and spotted. And by spotted I mean the all important way in which sections of a motion picture are chosen to either be accompanied by an underscore (or song)... or not. Jerry Goldsmith, for example, was an absolute master of spotting movies in preliminary discussions with his directors, often going with a ‘less is more’ kind of approach to the project at hand which wasn’t always a fashionable stance. However, this movie demonstrates how useful these kinds of decisions can be because the music on this is very sparse with only certain key moments running with underscore (or at least that’s what it felt like to me). Of course, in contrast to the absence of the score in certain parts of the movie, the emotion for the moments where music is brought into play means that it heightens the mood required for the viewing and decoding of the sounds and images in these sections, where the most important events may have seemed a little less potent without it. This film is a good example of how spotting and scoring can make or break a project, I reckon.

So there you have it. The Queen Of Fear is an absolutely stunning, emotionally charged good time at the movies and I have no idea, like a lot of these things that get screened at these kinds of festivals, whether this will be getting any future kind of English friendly release either here in the UK or in the US. I know if it gets a Blu Ray release it’s one I’d definitely pick up to watch again and I can only hope various key distributors are looking at something like this for the near future. A true gem of a movie and a good start for me to this year’s London Film Festival.

Sunday 7 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Fall From Grace

Doctor Who
The Girl Who Fell To Earth

Airdate: 7th October 2018

Warning: One spoiler in here... though I expect you’ll see that dramatic moment coming a mile off due to pre-publicity reveals mixed with the way the characters are written.

So back in the early 1980s, when Tom Baker finally made good on some of his previous threats and quit Doctor Who for good (almost), there was real possibility that the new incarnation of The Doctor might be a lady. And the same rumours persisted in the British tabloids when Peter Davison finally decided to leave. And I remember, when those rumours first started flying, 14 year old me was terrified at the prospect. How can a lady be the male character The Doctor. Nobody had really thought of the idea that a Timelord, although able to change their appearance and, quite obviously, certain parts of their personality... could possibly change their sex. There just wasn’t a precedent for it. Sure, there were lady Timelords and we all, in those days, assumed that they always were ladies from birth to death and birth again.

Switch to modern times and I actually welcome the idea. There have been examples in the last few years of Timelords regenerating and changing their sex at least twice (and don’t think I didn’t know where you were going to be going with that idea Moffat) and I’d like to think attitudes have changed with the youngsters along with a lot of things involving female inclusion in film and TV. Although, it has to be said, when Jodie Whittaker was first announced last year, a lot of kids (including the kids well into their 30s, 40s and 50s) were not accepting of the idea. Equally, there were also a lot of happier, supportive people too and I’m hoping the new series will really hit the ground running.

That being said, I do have my reservations about this series now but they are much more to do with things which have been said by the new show runner Chris Chibnall rather than anything else and, at the end of the day, I reckon his show direction can’t be any worse than the Steven Moffat years. Nothing against Mr. Moffat mind... he’s always been on my radar as a brilliant writer since I first saw the Doctor Who episode Blink but, he always struck me as someone who would have brilliant openings and terrible finishes...often waving some nonsensical made up scientific sounding tosh and wielding it like a magic wand for a quick fix.

So here we have the 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker headlining, although she’s technically the 14th since the addition of John Hurt (and don’t even get me started on things established in the Tom Baker story The Brain Of Morbius). She’s also been given a whole load of companions which is something the early shows in the 1960s used to do a lot and which is a trend that came back into fashion a bit during the Peter Davison years. So we have a new Doctor, three new companions... Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan and the one and only Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien... a new format with hour long episodes (but a shorter series), a new composer in the form of Segun Akinola and, oh yeah, everything’s new.

And it’s also not a bad episode, as it happens.. although I have to say I was the only one in the house who actually liked it. Then again, my folks always take a couple of seasons to get used to the new Doctor.

Right. Where to start.

Well Jodie Whittaker is almost spot on. She’s a bundle of energy and I certainly felt confident she can succeed as The Doctor. I say ‘almost’ because at the moment she seems to be playing it a little like Peter Capaldi’s version in some ways... I could almost hear him saying the lines in my head but I suspect this is more to do with the way the dialogue has been written. The writers maybe haven’t found their feet with the new personality as yet and I’m sure, just like Capaldi did, the character will be more evolved by the time we get around to Jodie’s second series. Anyway, the important thing is... she’s pretty great in the role. Of course, no Doctor has ever proven themselves before they go up against the Daleks but, until we get to see that for ourselves (and we really do need to see that at some point) then I’m confident Whittaker can do a good job of protecting people from alien invasions and such like. And, as it was, the dialogue was pretty great at any rate.

Her companions?

All really good. I was worried the larger ensemble would not give Jodie room to shine but she easily holds her own with what is a fantastic supporting cast, all with certain quirks which lend themselves to a, perhaps somewhat obvious but ultimately refreshing (for this show), set of dramatic character developments.

Okay, another plus is that the incidental music was actually quite good. I was really worried when Murray Gold left that the glue of the show would melt a little and things wouldn’t hang together but the new composer is doing okay so far. I couldn’t detect any leitmotif for the new Doctor yet other than riffs on Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s original title theme but it’s early days yet.

If I had to be a little critical I would say the actual storyline and plotting wasn’t up to much and was a little bit obvious in a lot of places. That being said though, the consequences of people’s actions shown was good with a fair few deaths including one important character called Grace who dies while helping save the others. However, the dialogue saved things a lot of the time and I even liked the cheesy way the writers thought to address the growing incidents of knife crime in the UK at the moment.

That being said, there were a few things I didn’t like.

First thing is... no TARDIS. We know it’s waiting for The Doctor somewhere but we don’t know where. Chibnall said there would be no multi-episode story arcs in this show but finding the TARDIS is a pretty big set up if you ask me.

Secondly... no opening titles. Something tells me this is going to be a regular feature of the new show and I really hope I’m wrong about that. We need that familiar theme and set of graphics welcoming us in each week. This seems a bit of a no brainer to me.

Thirdly... there were a few little moments which reminded me that the show is as cheap as it ever was. One thing in particular, where a hand smashes through a glass window but the edit takes us away just as the impact is about to happen makes me believe the sugar glass, or whatever it is they’re using these days, didn’t break all that convincingly and they couldn’t afford to do another take. I may be wrong about that but that’s what that creative edit felt like to me. That last criticism is only a minor thing though. Doctor Who was always cheap and that was sometimes part of the charm. It’s never harmed it too much over the years. Occasionally, maybe... but not for long.

And that’s me done on the first episode of the new series. Too early to tell what kind of shape and style the current incarnation of the show will take but I think we’re off to a fairly good start here. And even if all the other scripts turn out to be lousy... Jodie Whittaker is going to be a good version of The Doctor. I’m pretty sure about that.

So, looking forward to seeing what the timey wimey future will bring to this series. It’s a shame it’s on a Sunday night but what can you do?


Venom Seed

2018 USA
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very slight spoiler in here.

Well this was a bit of a surprise.

I saw the trailer to Venom and it looked awful. This was followed up with a lot of negative, bad word of mouth comments on Twitter on the first couple of days of its release. However, I wanted to keep abreast of things because the Fox Marvel Universe looks like it will be properly merging with the Disney owned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) any time now and so there’s a possibility that the character could be crossing over into that world at some point, possibly with the same actors attached.

What can I say? I may be out of step with the zeitgeist again because I had a really good time with it. There are a few issues (not as many as you might think from people’s reactions) but overall it’s a pretty great Marvel movie and I hope they make good on the promise of the first of the two extended post credits scenes (so that’ll be the mid-end credits scene then) at some point. So hoping for some good box office on this one but, judging from people’s reactions, it might not get it.

I’m not that up on Venom as a character, to be honest. He’s only about 30 years old and I think I’ve only ever read the first ten or twelve years of Spider-Man in the comics. But this highlights one of the biggest problems of this movie right there, in relation to this source material and its pretence to be an adaptation of it because, although there are Spider-Man universe references in it, the primary one being that J. Jonah Jameson’s son, the astronaut, gets a few brief shots at the start of the movie and the other being mention of Eddie Brock’s New York problems (I’ll get to the final post-credits scene soon), this incarnation of Venom has nothing to do with Spider-Man at all which is odd here because... well okay here’s why.

Venom first appeared as an alien symbiont in a Spider -Man story called Homecoming... which is what the last solo(ish) Spider-Man movie was called, right? The story was part of a big Marvel event called Secret Wars in the comic, which featured all the Marvel characters battling each other on an alien world. It’s here where Spidey picked up the black, alien symbiotic costume and, many issues later, got rid of it when it became the villainous Venom and bonded with, among others, reporter Eddie Brock. Now, we saw some of this story already on screen when it was used, alas minus the Secret Wars part, for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. So I can half understand why they didn’t want to go down that route here and instead give him a new origin again (kind of, not really but I’m not going to condemn them for it) but we still have the problem that Venom still totally looks like Spider-Man.... because that’s who he first bonded with.

And that’s my biggest problem with the new movie. Venom bonds with Eddie Brock, played here quite comically by Tom Hardy who portrays him as a much more sympathetic character than I recall. And for the first twenty or so minutes after he bonds with Eddie, which in itself is a fair way into the movie... which is fine, it’s a slow burn... we don’t ever see him manifest as a full character and all the while I was thinking... oh, they’re doing this right. Soon he’ll see some footage or a picture of Spider-Man and that will justify him looking like the character. And that’s where they slipped up because, when Venom does manifest to Eddie and various others, he looks just like Spider-Man but with absolutely no justification for that. Which is what I was worried about when I first heard they were doing a stand alone Venom movie and, yeah, they really dropped the ball here.

Most everything else is great though. The movie takes time to build up the characters like Eddie, his former girlfriend Anne (played by Michelle Williams) and the movie’s main villain Carlton Drake (played really well by Riz Ahmed). And there’s even another symbiont (there’s a few actually but one other main one) which starts the movie as kind of a red herring because you assume it’s Venom but then it turns out... oh no it’s not. This character is useful in the early parts of the movie (and works much better then than in the end third of the film) because it allows the writers and director to play with the idea of the alien symbionts in almost a horror movie kind of way. This is something that’s further enhanced by Ludwig Göransson’s rather appropriate, almost cheesy riffs on a kind of 1950s style scary sci-fi approach to the scoring... which surprised me from this composer and is spot on for this. Well done to Sony for giving it a CD release at the end of next week. Much appreciated.

The musical style also changes when it needs to, especially when, somewhere in the last third or so of the movie, the tone shifts and it becomes an all out adventure Super Symbiont style action fest in the Mighty Marvel Manner (as they used to say in the comics). And this kind of works for the film too... it’s a fun watch with some nice, fast pacing and there’s even a brief appearance of a sexy Lady Venom at one point (or She-Venom as she was known in the comics, apparently). The point is, everyone is good and everything, more or less, follows through on story logic. I don’t know why people are saying it’s a mess and doesn’t make sense because, it clearly does... even if it does come off as a bit of a cross between the plotting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here) and Rampage (reviewed here) at certain points.

I have only two other problems with it.

One is the time continuity. At the start of the picture we have a rocket crashing on Earth and then Eddie Brock brought in to to do a puff piece interview with Carlton Drake as damage control on that event. Soon after, we have a caption that reads “Six months later” and Eddie is in a bar watching a news item. All well and good except the news announcer is talking about that same rocket crash which happened... one month ago. I appreciate that the timing relocated to a longer period makes more sense with what’s happened in the progression of the characters in the intervening months... but if you’re going to slap a caption on there then make sure the dubbing on the news cast synchs up with it. Mind you, it’s not as bad as the appalling time continuity error made at the start of Spider-Man Homecoming (reviewed here) with it’s proximity to the events of The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, reviewed here) so I think we can let these guys off the hook on this a little.

What really made no sense however, especially after a quite cool, extended mid end credits sequence, was an extended post-credits end sequence which is an action scene from the new Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse movie released in December... especially as it seems to have absolutely nothing to do with Venom or the rest of the film. So that was a bit strange but not especially damaging to the rest of the picture, I guess.

So what else can I say? Despite the unbelievably bad word of mouth the movie has been getting, I thought this one was a really fun ride and there are a lot worse things you could be seeing at your cinema at the moment. It’s not super great but it’s certainly not a dud and it’s also got a memorable cameo from Stan Lee near the end of the picture. So if you are one of those fans who are fond of the old phrase “Make Mine Marvel”, I think you’ll find Venom is at least worth a look. I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

Thursday 4 October 2018

The Shallows

Cells Pitch

The Shallows:
How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember

by Nicholas Carr
Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1848872257

In his astonishingly interesting book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, writer Nicholas Carr starts off by reminding us of some of the things Marshall McLuhan said in his 1960s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. How he pointed out that the radio, movies and television were pulling us all back out of our solitary experience of reading and into a more tribal collective state. However, something Carr reminds us about here is that McLuhan was possibly more aware of the double edged nature of his findings than the memory of popular culture may have us believe. His famous quote “The medium is the message”, Carr confirms, is as much a cautionary warning of that fact as it is an acknowledgement of it.

Because there’s something wrong here, isn’t there?

And if you’re bothering to read this review I’m guessing you are probably more than just a little aware of this too. The way your brain can’t always seem to focus as well as it used to when you were younger (and that’s not necessarily because you were younger, as we’ll find out). The way you can’t seem to concentrate on reading like you used to. Or the way your brain is perhaps becoming more and more distracted every day?

Well, Carr has done the research and he’s here to throw the gauntlet at our feet and tell us exactly why our brains are getting so messed up by modern life... and it’s not just restricted to the technology of modern times such as the internet mentioned so prominently in the subtitle of this book. The internet merely presents a speeding up of a technological process at work on our brains which is, perhaps, as much a natural progression as it is digression or devolvement. Except, there’s way too much at stake here to continue to embrace the fiery call of the digital technologies which are part and parcel of our everyday life. Alas, it’s also seemingly far too late to pick up that gauntlet and run away from the catastrophe that is eating up our brains on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. What we can do, however, is listen to the warnings and decide if we can afford to slow down, just a little... and take a small step back from the way we are, constantly, rewiring our brains. Although, that last imagined call to action, based on what I’ve been reading here, may be just a little spurt of optimism too far on my part.

Okay, so this isn’t a book primarily about the internet... it’s about a long line of things literally dumbing down the species as a whole from century to century and how we are collectively always advancing to worse versions of this behaviour as the years go by.

In this book, Carr asks us to try and think about what it is about the internet, for example, which is being seen by some as an enemy to thinking and defended by some for, what appear to be all the obvious reasons. Yes, the internet can deliver so much content in many different ways... more than we’ve ever been able to access before in the history of our species... but that’s not what Carr is arguing against at all. Instead, taking McLuhan as a brief starting point, he asks us to look at the effects of the media itself, as opposed to the content it delivers. Carr was moved to write this because the internet had dumbed down his capacity to “lose himself in a book” or, frankly, concentrate on much of anything for very long (I’ll get back to how he’s even able to convey this in a well written book towards the end of this review).

And although I, myself, have been feeling the effects of technological overload on my brain for a number of years now (and I’m so glad to find it’s not just me)... I can understand how, for the majority of people, this idea would be a very hard sell.

After all, quick and almost instant access to any knowledge you want at a few key strokes as opposed to flicking through the pages of a book you’ve located which might have what you’re looking for in it? That is to say, the ‘internet way’ of getting information as opposed to the way we’ve always gone to a paper reference or pulled out a memory from within ourselves... that’s good isn’t it? Who is to say the old way of thinking is any better than the new ways? Some people, it seems, think books are totally superfluous now and who is to say they are wrong?

Well... Nicholas Carr and our own brains actually... although Carr has a fairly open mind about the claims on our mental real estate the internet and other associated digital media are making on our minds as a force to be very cautious about, as opposed to a force of ‘difference’. That being said, you can clearly see which side of the fence he has fallen on by the end of the last chapter of The Shallows. And he, like most people, admits he is a heavy user of the internet and all the other technological marvels that make up our modern environment... as reliant on it, as much as anyone else.

And the way he shows us just what is happening is by constantly going back in time and looking at, not just the way things have developed but how various inventions such as written language was having a marked affect on the users that embraced these things. For instance, let’s look at the case of the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche was always pretty ill and he’d got to the point with his illness where he could no longer write or even concentrate on reading due to some historical problems. He was ready to give up when, instead, he bought an early and unusual, if beautiful version of a typewriter and, suddenly, he could not only write again but he became prolific. However, his style of prose changed too. It was noted by many and Nietzsche himself realised this. He blamed, or praised perhaps, the typewriter which had given him a new lease of life but simultaneously changed his thought patterns.

Carr also goes on to talk about various other historical examples of brain altering culture such as the written word. When mankind replaced pictures with words and was able to write things down and store things, there were big warnings about this dangerous new technology formed of an alphabet because men would grow shallow in thought, since they no longer had to pluck the information from their brains. And this is exactly what’s happening to us at the moment at a later stage of this problem where our ability to pull facts from the internet has weakened our ability to work at recalling things on our own. Big time, if my tired brain is anything to go by. How many times have you thought... oh, I can’t quite remember... it’s on the tip of my brain... and then just looked it up online rather than struggle a bit to open the right mental link to get the answer. It’s getting dangerous out there in cyberspace people!

What’s actually going on here is something which has come to light in only the last few decades... neuroplasticity.

It turns out the brain is constantly diverting and forming new physical links to different things we’re doing but, as one kind of cognitive function is exercised over another (even if only for an hour a day for a week, it seems) then new pathways are opened to make you good at that kind of behaviour but you sacrifice other things. For example, it turns out that London taxi drivers who have ‘The Knowledge’, the complete map of all the roads in London stored into their mind, are absolutely dreadful at remembering anything else you ask them to recall. Because the stuff in the brain used for ‘The Knowledge’ has grown and the stuff for other kinds of memory functions has died off... until it starts getting regularly exercised again. Turns out our brains are rewiring themselves to new functions all the time and this might, I suppose (I’m speculating here) also explain why lovers or good friends tend to pick up a lot of each others mannerisms once they spend a little bit of time together.

Carr’s book is an absolute delight as he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of history, throwing up loads of interesting stuff I never knew and then weaving it altogether to build a very interesting case as to why the technological age we have reached now is even more dangerous to the way we lose the ability to ‘deep think’ about things... not to mention ‘deep read’ a book (as he refers to it in a few places).

So he talks about the development of the written word such as the clay tablets favoured by the Sumerians and the codex (or bound book) which replaced the scroll in popularity for a number of reasons. And the form various written versions of languages took in various times. For example, when it came to words, no blank spaces separated them back in the old days. ‘Scriptura continua’ as it is now called. There was no punctuation and words in ‘sentences’ weren't necessarily in the right order. So the amount of concentration a person had to put into deciphering the text and drawing meaning from it was a lot more of an involved process than it is these days. So we invented grammar and sentence structure and things got easy for us (and I’d personally be lost without these things) but we sacrificed one part of our brain for another.

Another interesting thing I learned from this book is that, even by as late as AD 380, it was considered very strange if somebody read a book to themselves in their head, as opposed to reading the text out loud. I’m not going to spoil here how we know this though because, well I can’t tell this stuff like Carr and it is all very entertainingly written. It’s also quite something to learn about an invention by somebody called Lee De Forest which he named the Audion... it was a game changer for a lot of technological progress and paved the way for a lot of advancement. And wait until you find out what Google are really doing!

Now then... back to the medium and the message and just why Carr and many others are seeing the internet as the enemy, to a certain extent.

The way we navigate a piece of writing influences the degree of attention we pay to it. The touch and experience of paper can immerse us into the experience in a way reading something on screen with a scroll bar can't. And the influence of the web is huge. As it’s grip became more apparent, printed magazine layouts were even tweaked to look like their online counterpart.


The use of tools like the internet is not without significant neurological consequence, Carr argues. The act of 'deep reading' becomes impossible online because every time you are faced with a link or pop up etc. your brain is distracted by it and has to make a decision on whether to remain or click it and go and look at something else instead. Yes, often related content but you didn’t even finish what you were just reading. And the links keep coming as do the distractions (I’d possibly hesitate to point out to the author that this book has lots of numbered sections which send you to various appendixes... a distraction to reading if ever there was one). And this would explain why a fair few of my younger co-workers aren’t even able to sit down and read a book or work on something for longer than five minutes before looking at their phone. The culture of distraction has become in-built to our systems very quickly... so quickly it’s frightening. We basically get cognitive overload which distracts our brains and possible sources for this are 'extraneous problem solving' and 'divided attention'... the two central features of the experience of surfing the internet. And it’s not just this either... it’s the way we read online, often vertically and skimming the text randomly, which is a big hindrance and is another thing we are evolving our brains to do, very quickly, at the expense of other things.

In fact, various results of researching the way we read online prompted one prominent and respected researcher to propose the question "How do users read on the web?" His answer... "They don't."

And, yes, there are arguments to be made that humanity is just branching off into another direction... another stage of neurological evolution if you like. However, as much as Carr keeps an open mind about things in his book, the more he is brought back to the fact that the cost... in what we are losing in terms of our ability to think, contemplate and ponder things... is far too high. Disastrously high, in fact and I suspect we’ll really be seeing the signs of this in just a few more years down the road. I work in an educational environment myself (although I’m thankfully not a teacher) but I’ve more than noticed the consequences of digital technology on the minds of the younger generation in the last five or so years and, seriously, it is quite frightening. All the more so when I realise it is happening to me too.

One last thing... Carr mentions how impossible it was to try and concentrate on the writing of this book for all the reasons he explores in it. It was a long time coming but what he had to do in order to get the thing done was move himself and his family to a much quieter, rural area and deliberately limit his internet and email access. After a while he found himself able to concentrate on things again and the clarity of thought he used to have returned to him... at least until he finished the thing and then had to go back to technology’s dark embrace. It’s very much like the story Julie Delpy tells in Richard Linklatter’s Before Sunrise about being in a situation which forced her to go without television and similar distractions for a long time... after a short while she found the clarity of thought she used to posses returning to her. This is obviously just another version of this reaction to the neuroplasticity of the brain, possibly even before researchers had identified it and given it a name.

All in all, I’m glad I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember... and I would recommend it to pretty much anybody who has a heart that beats. Not exactly a survival kit to modern life but certainly something which is, at least, a cautionary warning which you may want to revisit at some point when you realise how ‘woolly’ your brain is becoming as a consequence of what you are inadvertently training it to do. It’s an entertaining, if sobering read but... it never hurt anyone to spend a little time sober, as far as I can remember. Definitely give this one a go before your brain drowns.