Tuesday, 30 July 2019
First Of The Fourth
Doctor Who - Robot
Airdate: 28th December 1974 - 18 January 1975
BBC 1 - Region 0 Blu Ray Four Episodes
I would have been two years old when I first started watching Doctor Who. I know this because I remember being laid on a table, for whatever reason... and watching television as the Autons crashed through the shop windows in Jon Pertwee’s debut story Spearhead From Space. So when, in 1974, Pertwee had left the show in a situation which was mostly of his own making (and which I believe he regretted), Tom Baker wrote the BBC a letter and was soon employed, somehow, as the new incarnation of The Doctor. Now I had no idea, at the age of 6, that the character could regenerate and I had to have it explained to me when, at the end of the previous series, Pertwee dropped down effectively dead and regenerated into the new guy. All I knew was that I’d been watching Pertwee’s Doctor and been frightened by such creatures as The Sea Devils and Giant Maggots for, what was then, most of my life. Not to mention reading magazines about the character and doing jigsaw puzzles. So it seemed a bit strange but, I kinda warmed to Tom Baker from very early on. Even had the action figure and accompanying TARDIS (although, unfortunately, the budget didn’t stretch to buying any of the monsters for him to battle... I had to make do with using my Dalek shaped bubble bath). My dad hated him until, of course, he came to love him in the role but... he’s always like that with every new Doctor. He’s going through exactly the same thing with Jodie Whitaker now but, trust me, he’ll really miss her when she’s gone.
Baker’s debut story, Robot, is actually quite good and although he maybe seems a little arrogant at first (as perhaps every incarnation of The Doctor is to some degree) he is also confident and self assured and, I think it comes across very well that the little group of regulars working with him... Elisabeth Sladen as the legendary Sarah Jane Smith (in her second season in the role), newcomer Ian Marter as Dr. Harry Sullivan and, of course, Nicholas Courtney continuing as UNIT Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart... all loved doing the show and it does inject the series with a certain joy which, dare I say it, was somehow a little bit lacking on Pertwee’s last series (after Roger Delgado who had played arch nemesis The Master, had died in grim circumstances while filming in Turkey when his car went off a ravine, leaving all his colleagues heartbroken).
Baker is brilliant and, it has to be said, channeling Harpo Marx just a little bit as, being the youngest actor to play The Doctor at the time, he brings some much needed humour back to the role. Pertwee was , of course, very humourous but he was somewhat drier by the later episodes and Baker’s Doctor is much more harkening back to the days of Patrick Troughton, it seems to me.
The story here is not bad either, if unoriginal. It’s the tale of a political group of scientists who want to take over the world and, by using a big robot, they steal plans to build a disintegrator gun and eventually take Sarah Jane hostage... the only one who’s been really kind to the robot previously... while they almost succeed in blowing up the world with nukes. And, although, as I said, it’s not exactly original, it does work in a nice tight manner with all the different plot elements and characters all doing things which enlighten certain story elements to the audience while advancing the plot in a way which... I dunno, just doesn’t seem as well done these days.
Of course, you’ve also got some really rubbish stuff too. The Robot itself looks pretty good for a ‘man in suit’ creation but when it finally grows to giant size (the Target novelisation of this one was called Doctor Who and the Giant Robot) the amount of bad, unmatted video screen backgrounds in the thing are really an eyesore. Then there’s the hilarious moment where The Brigadier says he’s got something that he thinks will stop it and the BBC attempt a ‘forced perspective’ shot as they wheel in what I’m pretty sure is an old Action Man tank, into the foreground of the shot. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous, plush puppet which we’re supposed to believe is Elisabeth Sladen, with it’s overly comical dangly legs wibbly wobblying all over the place when the robot supposedly picks the actress up in its giant hand. This looks pretty bad but Doctor Who has always had this home grown, ‘make do and mend’ approach to the special effects on the show and it’s one of the things that makes it so charming (even today, it’s not that state of the art, as regular readers will know I’ve pointed out on more than one occasion over the last decade).
Also, another good ‘I did not see that coming and certainly didn’t remember it from seeing it in 1974/5’ moment is the revelation that one of the ‘good guy’ characters is in league with the villains of the piece. It took me by surprise which, these days, is honestly hard to do. So in that way, at least, the writing is better than it is these days and, since this is Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor, the almost surreal, almost slapstick writing is in abundance and there’s some nice comic interaction going on with all four regular characters (and even with John Levene’s ongoing portrayal of Sergeant Benton of UNIT, too, who does a fine job here).
There is an attempt to inject a little King Kong style sympathy towards the robot at the end, when The Doctor finishes its ‘living metal’ body off with a metal eating virus and I’m not entirely sure this is successful but they do really go for it here and lead up to it throughout the series from the second episode onwards. The music is still very much what you’d expect from the Pertwee era too... which is not a bad thing, I guess.
All in all, Robot is not a bad attempt as the debut of a new and, after not very long, much loved incarnation of The Doctor. I think it would be fair to say that David Tennant is the only Doctor Who actor who has ever come close to enjoying Tom Baker’s popularity in the role and, to this day, Baker is the person most people will think of when they hear the words... Doctor Who. The already, blink and you’ll miss it, out of print Blu Ray set is loaded with extras too and the transfer is actually pretty good for a Blu Ray of a show which never really looked all that great to begin with. Really looking forward to watching the other stories in the season soon. If memory serves, the TARDIS is somewhat jettisoned for a bit and the remaining stories have a kind of thematic link to them after the next story... The Ark In Space. And also, a very budget conscious reason for that link in terms of two of the stories, if memory serves. I’ll get to it all soon. In the meantime... Doctor Who - Series 12 Story 1, Robot, is a good place to jump on if you’ve never seen any before.
For many more Doctor Who reviews, classic and modern, go to the index link top right and then scroll down to the TV section.
Sunday, 28 July 2019
The Ghoul (2016)
UK 2016 Directed by Gareth Tunley
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2
The Ghoul, not to be confused with any of the other famous films of the exact same name (why do directors keep doing this?), is the feature length debut of writer/director Gareth Tunley. It’s somewhat gritty in the atmosphere it tries to create and this is in no small way because of the earthy portrayal of the leading protagonist Chris, played by Tom Meeten. The film starts off with the old chestnut of roads and highways observed through the front windscreen of a car... a staple of many movie opening sequences, especially gialli and polizia... and at first this film does kind of dupe the audience into the idea that this is a British polizia in nature.
After Chris has journeyed from Manchester to London, by way of these opening credits, we find out that he’s a police detective and he turns up to investigate a bizarre shooting. He’s given the facts as they are presumably witnessed (something which didn’t quite sit right with me from the start), of an investigation sparked off from the deaths of a man and a woman in a house. The murder itself as described conjures up those wonderful black and white monster movies from the 1940s (and through all the way through the decades to their contemporary counterparts) of the Frankenstein/Mummy/Zombie/Vampire/insert any other likely candidate here... as it shambles towards the hero who puts various bullets through said scoundrel’s body while the thing keeps on staggering towards its target. How, in real life, can this be? Chris has to go and find out and with the advice of his once girlfriend Kathleen (played by the wonderful Alice Lowe), he has to discover just what is going on so he goes undercover to see the therapist of the estate agent who let the police in, who is under suspicion and from here on in the stage is set for a film which, for the first twenty minutes or so, does successfully disorient the viewer as to whether all that prelude actually is the real set up to the story or not.
So, yeah, the first twenty minutes in and the main narrative starts to quite overtly suggest that Chris’ role as a detective is just something he’s made up in the personae of his depression ridden patient... or is it the other way around? For the first twenty minutes or so the writer/director successfully makes you doubt your own perceptions of what is going on and this is the puzzle which is boldly put in front of the audience. Actually, it turns out it’s quite an easy puzzle to solve, as all the clues are put before you and quite clearly underlined so my main problem with this whole scenario was... why would a psychoanalyst take on someone who doesn’t work for a living and presumably can’t pay the bills. I guess it’s possible he could have spent some years on an NHS waiting list but, they are very long waiting lists from what I understand and that doesn’t really help the case if you are supposed to believe that this character is possibly an undercover cop.
The film looks good and it has a certain dreamlike quality to it. The central character inhabits a world which is pretty much a land of confusion and some of the compositions are particularly nice in expressing this, such as a shot looking through the windscreen of a car at Chris and with the car presumably circling because the tops of the surrounding buildings and sky are looping around the reflection like a ferris wheel... which is another clue for the way in which the story progresses, as it happens. I also noticed the director kind of favours highlighting things at the centre of the wide aspect ratio frame and he gets some nice shot designs out of this. For example, when Chris goes to covertly rifle through a filing cabinet, we have the open doorway into the room holding said filing cabinet through which we watch Chris, with a blank wall on the left and another, unopened door filling the right of screen, firmly focusing your attention on the antics of the central character.
The soundtrack helps too, with Waen Shepherd’s score feeling like it’s been heavily influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, one of a set of dialogue free sequences where Chris is following a ‘possible suspect’ feels almost like the long, pursuit and observation scene where Jimmy Stewart stalks Kim Novak in the early stages of Vertigo (another film which starts off using images portraying loops... I’ll get onto this loop idea in just a second).
Chris gets through two psychologists through the course of the movie and, if you close your eyes when the second one, Morland, is introduced, you might recognise the voice of the original Ford Prefect from the radio show The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy as this important character in the film’s narrative is played by none other than Geoffrey McGivern.
Now, the thing is, this film really does give away all the clues and the solution to the puzzle of the central narrative when Morland starts talking about the Klein bottle on this shelf, leading into him demonstrating a simple Möebius Strip and then talking about the worm Ouroboros symbol and, by this point, you’ll probably be in no doubt as to how the movie is going to end and who, in fact, are the people killed in that shoot out we hear about at the start of the story. Which is a pity because, for the first twenty minutes to half an hour, at least, the director really had me questioning things.
Ultimately, this movie is technically a thriller, in that it uses the language of the genre to present its central narrative but, if you’re expecting a straight up example of that then you might be in for a bit of a disappointment. That being said, apart form the ease with which one can unwind the central narrative, once you know the trick (and the literal translation of it would not seem out of place in an old Amicus horror piece from the 1960s), it’s not a bad movie and one which I’m sure many people will find kind of interesting, if a little laboured in some places. Not bad for a piece of British cinema with a very English stamp to it. Not the worst I’ve seen in this kind of area and worth a watch for the actors and expression of the central idea alone. So maybe give The Ghoul a go when you have a wet afternoon in the house.
Thursday, 25 July 2019
Gold Key USA 1966
Back in 1966, movie history was almost about to be made…
If things had gone to plan, a certain pulp character favourite of mine may well have been a lot better known internationally than he is these days. The film was Doc Savage and it was to star TV western actor Chuck Connors in the title role and to be based on Lester Dent’s Doc Savage novel, The Thousand Headed Man. Alas, an error about certain kinds of rights residing with Dent’s widow and not solely by the company who thought they owned them meant that the producers couldn’t start shooting the film, which was already scripted, on the date they wanted. So, at the eleventh hour, they retained the cast and crew and instead rushed out a western, Ride Beyond Vengeance, instead. Looking over the cast that they ported over into this other production, you can kinda see who some of the actors might have been intended to play in the Doc Savage movie and, I have to say, there are some good facial ‘types’ that showed that the people doing the casting were actually taking their job very seriously.
Chuck Connors, for example, was a good match in looks for the James Bama version of Doc Savage. Bama was the artist who had recently been doing all those wonderful cover paintings for the 1960s Bantam reprints of the novels which were very popular at the time. Although the style of Savage’s look via Bama was very different to that of the paintings which had appeared on the original pulp printings of the novels in the Doc Savage magazine of the 1930s and 40s, they’ve pretty much defined the look of the character ever since and are still imitated in books and comics to this day. Bama’s original model for his covers was Steve Holland, who played Flash Gordon on a dreadful German/American coproduction on TV in the 1950s show of Alex Raymond's much loved character so, if you want to see what the ‘real’ Doc Savage from this period was supposed to look like, take a look at an episode of that. Connors, though, had the same kind of weathered look to him and would have been a good version, physically at least. One can also deduce from the cast that made it into the western that Claude Akins would have been, again at least in terms of facial recognition, a perfect match for Monk Mayfair (one of Doc’s five aides) and, likewise, Michael Rennie would have been a solid choice for Ham Brooks, the lawyer (someone who the film company could have used in real life if they’d wanted a quick legal fix to their problem).
Alas the movie was never made and we shall never know if it would have been a better, more well loved fit to the original material than the George Pal produced Doc Savage movie of 1975 (which I reviewed here) and how much recognition it might have brought the character. What we do have left for us though, is the Gold Key comic from the same year which was almost certainly adapted from the script of that movie (different kinds of rights issues for comics than for movies) and which may or may not have strayed from the script. Certainly it would have been a fairly condensed version of the script to fit into one tiny comic and it really isn’t a thoroughly good job of adapting the novel, for sure. But what is it like as a comic?
Well, I finally bit the bullet on this thing a few years ago on eBay when I found an issue in not bad condition for a, relatively, reasonable price. I’d always wanted to read it and, well, now I have.
The cover is magnificent, being a blown up detail of Bama’s Doc fighting a large snake lifted from the cover of the Bantam reprint of Doc Savage - The Thousand Headed Man… which is, please note, a completely different cover than was used on the UK Corgi edition of the story, where a doctored reprint of a James Bama cover painting from an entirely different Doc Savage novel in the series was used, for reasons completely unknown to me. However, whoever was responsible for the writing of the adaptation and the interior art is completely unknown. It looks to me like Gold Key, even at that time, were not crediting the writers and artists like DC and Marvel were.
What I can tell you about the interior art, however, is that it doesn't really look like the actors from the ‘movie that never was’ and more like the renditions that Bama used to characterise Doc and his crew on the back covers of those Bantam reprints. This makes sense. Many comics are made from film adaptations and usually all the writers and artists have to go on is the working script and a few stills of the characters. Think back to the original Marvel comics adaptation of the first Star Wars film for example… there were loads of scenes in that which didn’t make it into the movie and, decades later in the era of ‘extras’ like deleted scenes, it became apparent that the majority of those sequences were shot but had not made it into the final cut of the film. These things happen but at least the likenesses of the characters, in some cases, looked as they appear in the film (Don’t get me started on Jabba, okay?) so there’s that. Alas, when it came to the Doc Savage movie, the team at Gold Key obviously didn't have any stills to work with so I’m guessing that production went ahead after they knew the film project was cancelled and the rights holders, by now Conde Naste, wanted to recoup some money by letting the comic go ahead. That’s what I suspect, anyway.
And… it’s not a brilliant comic in terms of action, it has to be said. And the writing is not all that dramatic either.. For example, comic book shorthand to introduce the characters is used and so Ham is much maligned by being referred to as ‘the toff’. Worse still, given that Clark Savage Jr, The Man Of Bronze himself is not exactly noted for an abundance of verbal commentary and, given this is a comic book and even more of a purely visual art form than a film would be, it’s amazing how verbose he is in this. Talking to himself often and using phrases completely out of character for him such as ‘I’ll bet my shirt…’. Sure, that kind of outburst might be fine coming from a few of Doc’s crew but not the man himself, I would say. I think they might have been better using descriptive boxes more on the case of the scenes where Savage is ‘flying solo’, so to speak, rather than put explanations in his mouth when he famously never explains his actions to those around him.
In addition to this, the drama is fairly flat and, though I last read the original novel back in 1975, I remember the mystery of the thing and the unusual keys that drive the story being fairly suspenseful… in other words, fairly standard brilliance that you would expect from Lester Dent writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. Here it’s virtually non existent and, while I concur that the whole story in just 32 four colour pages is a pretty tall order, everything here just seems a bit rushed and really doesn’t allow for any of the characters to shine through, least of all Doc, who almost seems like a guest star in his own comic at times.
The art is, fairly nice but there’s nothing too experimental or wildly interesting here. I’d say it’s pretty competent but there purely to illustrate the text, rather then enhance it. The same can be said of the design of the panels too. There’s a pretty rigid layout of mostly five panels per page (asides from the ones I’ve pictured above, obviously). The majority of pages consist of a basic, vertical two by three panel page but with one panel of each page extended either vertically or horizontally to try and break it up just a little. Looking at some other Gold Key comics from the time and others from about eight years later, this is fairly common for the company at the time and they would later on get a little more dynamic with their layouts by the time they were putting out titles like The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor.
And… that’s about all I have to say about the Gold Key, Doc Savage one-shot based on Doc Savage - The Thousand Headed Man other than to say that, if the film had happened with that script, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have set cinema screens ablaze but, frankly, we’ll never know how closely it would have followed that script and just how much better it may have been on screen. Still, despite the comic not being all that special, I am really pleased to finally own a copy and, it has to be said, I did learn that Croydon used to have an airport, so there’s that (although, by the time this comic was published, there hadn’t been one there for a while but, still, it’s a 1930s period piece so that’s not really an issue). This one is probably not going to appeal to casual readers, for sure but, for long standing Doc Savage readers like myself, this is pure gold and, dull as this adaptation is, it’s a little piece of both comic book and movie history regarding this character and it’s an essential piece of ephemera, as far as I’m concerned. One for the ages.
Tuesday, 23 July 2019
Directed by Tim Story
So... earlier this year my best friend unexpectedly died. He was only a few weeks older than me and we had a whole host of things already earmarked to see in the coming months but one of the two most anticipated things was to go to the cinema to see the new Shaft movie, since we’d both been talking about the Shaft films together since we first met. As it turns out, this didn’t get a cinema release in this country but I’ve managed to find a way to watch it anyway and, although I have mixed feelings about the final product, I’m pretty sure that my friend would probably... mostly... have liked this one.
Shaft is the fifth film of a franchise which started with the original movie, Shaft, back in 1971 and which was followed by two direct sequels in 1972 and 1973, Shaft’s Big Score (my favourite) and Shaft In Africa with Richard Roundtree playing the titular role based on Ernest Tidyman’s novels. This was followed by Roundtree continuing the character for a TV series and then, decades later, a fourth film starring Samuel L. Jackson was made in 2000, originally to be called Shaft Returns but eventually just called Shaft, also... which was confusing enough at the time. That one had Richard Roundtree back as the original John Shaft in what amounted to a couple of long cameos and with Jackson playing his nephew. It was a quite good movie. Now we have a fifth installment in the franchise where the Shaft family tree has been convincingly retconned to make Jackson the son of Roundtree’s character, even though in real life he’s only 6 years younger than the actor himself.
And, yes, if you can believe this stuff... they’ve called this fifth film Shaft. Which is totally ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever. At least the Star Wars films have subtitles but why have a franchise where over half the movies have the exact same name as the other ones. That’s not going to get confusing at all in years to come, is it?
So, anyway, this movie deals with the next generation of Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher and is a humourously intentioned script dealing with his problematic relationship with his dad, his potential girlfriend Sasha, played by Alexandra Shipp.... and his mother Maya, played by Regina Hall.
So this starts off with a set up of Jackson’s Shaft and Maya and their baby son in a scene set over a decade before the events in the previous movie, where some motivation for barely seen villain of this film is provided and the film then gives us a montage catch up of the intervening years which briefly replays some scenes from Shaft (2000) and maps out Usher’s Shaft’s troubled non-relationship with his father. Then, when the latest family member’s best friend gets mixed up with drugs and is murdered, Shaft Jr, who works for the FBI but doesn’t exactly have much clout, gets his father involved with the case and the two bond as they try and catch the ruthless killers and even, in the last 20 minutes of the movie, have some nice scenes where the original ‘grandad’ Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, gets involved in all the action.
So... okay. There’s good and there’s bad. The good being that there’s some nice and cleverly handled shot transitions throughout the movie and even a split screen section at the beginning of the film. It’s also a blast seeing both Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree doing their thing throughout and, even though he’s mostly played as a joke, Shaft Jr is also not terrible in this either although, to be fair, he does get irritating quite quickly. Especially where a perfect reference to the very first Shaft movie... the scene where Roundtree crashes through the window on a rope, is payed homage to but, alas, in a very jokey way because Jr can’t get through his window.
There’s a lot of bad in this too though.
For instance, despite some nice shot set ups, there’s a scene fairly early on where Shaft Jr is talking to a teenager on the street and the shot design, or lack of it in terms of consideration as to how the scene would be edited, is just all over the place and completely popped me out of the movie. I couldn’t believe how amateur this series of shots was in terms of cutting back and forth between characters on completely different and seemingly random areas of the screen. It didn’t make any sense and it’s like the scene wasn’t filmed to be cut that way at all.
Another problem... despite not being that funny, which is an objective thing anyway... is the fact that it was trying to be a comedy of sorts. The previous Shaft movies all took themselves very seriously in terms of the way the characters, for the most part, interacted and this just feels like it belongs in a different world, despite an attempt at least to give certain elements of the plot some social context. It just felt wrong. And don’t get me started on the running gag of three generations of jay-walkers who will almost get hit by a passing car whenever they walk into the road. This is just a mockery of the title sequence of the very first film.
Also, the pacing on the movie in terms of the actual story and the way it’s being driven is way too slow to fit in with the others (even the 2009 movie). I was at a point maybe 20 minutes or half an hour into the movie and I thought to myself... if this had been made in the 1970s you would have got all those story beats over and done with in the first 5 minutes. It really needed to movie faster than this and, again, this didn’t do anything to make it feel close to the franchise.
And then there’s the music.
I’m not all that familiar with Christopher Lennertz outside of his score for the TV remake of Humanoids From The Deep but he has done his best here. The music feels, for at least some of the time, like it belongs in a Shaft movie. There are some nice references to Isaac Hayes’ original Theme From Shaft although, tragically and inappropriately, the lyrics aren’t heard and the only vocal version, at the end of the movie, is just as part of some weak, sampled up rap version which, great idea as that could have been... just leaves a bad taste in the mouth (and ears, I guess). However, I was pleasantly surprised, when the two younger Shaft’s first go and revisit the original Shaft in his apartment, that he used part of Isaac Hayes original Shaft score which wasn’t part of the main theme and, I suspect, this is the first time this has been done in the franchise since its appearance in the first movie (with this particular cue... there are a few instances of similar Hayes’ references in the TV show).
Ultimately, I think fans of the original films are going to be less happy about what they’ve done with this than people who are coming into the franchise cold. True, there are some great one liners and gags scattered throughout but this honestly feels nothing like a continuation of the films although Roundtree is worth watching this for, if you do like the originals. Not the sequel I was hoping for and it took long enough getting made. I didn’t think I’d end up saying this but I kinda hope they leave this alone now. I think they’ve proven they can’t recapture the original magic which made the 1970s movies... and even the 2000 movie... such great pieces of cinema. Shut yo’ mouth!
Sunday, 21 July 2019
Dress To Kill
UK 2019 Directed Peter Strickland
UK cinema release print
In Fabric is the new film by Peter Strickland, a director whose previous two works, Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here) and The Duke Of Burgundy (reviewed here), I totally failed to get on with. The former because it was misrepresented as using a giallo sensibility when it clearly didn’t (more a mixture of British exploitation filtered through Lynchian surrealism) and the latter because it managed to make completely tame the cinematic representation of a BDSM relationship (even given it was trying to channel films like Check To The Queen... which I reviewed here).
I’m very pleased to say, therefore, that I quite enjoyed In Fabric although, truth be told, it’s still a little tame around the edges in what the camera declines to accurately portray. This is, kind of, a horror film mixed with some light comedy and it’s a little bit like The Yellow Rolls Royce in that it’s a film about a specific object... in this case a kind of demonically cursed object channelling a spirit, in some ways... and what happens to it over the course of a number of owners. Alas, in this film we only focus on two of those owners... main protagonists played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill in separate segments which are interconnected between the red dress of the title, the cursed object I mentioned earlier... and the department store/manufacturer of this specific dress where, at the very least, one can deduce that some of the fashion mannequins work in human form.
The film is vaguely surreal and quite sparklingly witty in places, with some nice performances from everyone involved with a special shout out to Steve Oram and Julian Barratt as a gay couple of bank managers who happen to be the boss of one of the main characters (and they were so good together in Aaaaaaaah! which I reviewed here that I was just pleased to see them together again). Captain Phasma herself, Gwendoline Christie also has some nice, sexually antagonistic moments on screen and Hayley Squires acquits herself well here and also shows a lovely comic side to her personality, such as when the somewhat weedy Leo Bill accidentally demonstrates his unknown ‘super-power’ in her presence.
The film is quite in your face and features much more of the ‘cut away to a visual montage’ moments than the director has manifested in one film before. Here, they usually take the form of either TV adverts for the shop which spawned the accursed dress or, quite often, flat print fashion advertising that give these sequences more of a ‘mood board’ element to them in the film rather than, I think, pretending to be anything that either forwards the plot of the piece (such as it is) or comments overtly on the nature of the narrative.
It’s also looking very 1970s, not just in terms of the period represented on screen (there’s a lot of equipment I remember from growing up through that time here) but also in terms of the style of the film-making and the way in which the shots are put together... which are very much Strickland but also very retro in feel and, I honestly don’t think that’s unusual for this director. The wonderful score by Cavern Of Anti-Matter which, alas, I can’t find on CD, is very much another element of the movie which highlights the pull back to the cinema of yesteryear and I was quite impressed by the audio soundscape of this film, to be sure (as I was by The Duke Of Burgundy score but, alas, that one couldn’t save the picture for me).
Once again, though, if you’re looking out for possible future signature devices from this director (like Ari Aster, I don’t think we’ve seen this guy’s masterpiece yet), it does kind of blend the subtle surrealism of a David Lynch movie still with the jolting, anti-immersive, almost tangental doses of surrealistic inventiveness reminiscent of someone like Jan Svankmajer.
In terms of story, though, it does make a lot more sense than something like, for instance, the director’s own Berberian Sound Studio. There’s no real impenetrable mystery at the heart of the movie which isn’t revealed in such a way that the audience can’t piece together a rough structural chain of cause and effect of the way in which the dress fulfils its purpose. In some ways, this does make the film somewhat predictable... I was kinda waiting for a sequence that showed two or three of the dead characters, from each section, revealing what their final fate would be... but, at the same time, Strickland leaves the ‘t’s uncrossed and the ‘i’s undotted so the audience is free to build on the rough narrative framework that is revealed in any way in which they please. Or at least, that’s the way it seems to me.
If anything, the film just doesn’t quite go far enough for me in terms of what’s depicted on screen. There are some violent moments, some of them bloody but... they never feel as impactful as they could be and that’s maybe because they are less surprising in the half nightmare, half candy factory world the director has managed to weave for us here. Similarly, the sexuality depicted on screen is all pretty much implied with nothing shown in camera as such and it kinda felt bereft of an edge to the ‘on screen shenanigans’ of various characters. So, I guess what I’m exploring here is why I felt the film was somewhat tame like his previous picture... so I should probably focus on something else, perhaps, such as the sparkling and flowery dialogue of the ‘people’ who work at the store or the absolute camp madness of the shop manager but, I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises 'in store' for you here.
In Fabric is... as I said... the first film I’ve actually liked by this director (or at least not hated) and so I’m happy to say that I can now look forward to his next one with a sense of excitement rather than what my expectations were when I dragged myself into central London to see this one. Films like this are, I should say, made for a big screen so if you want the full impact... especially in terms of the deliberately degraded stock effects he’s used in some sequences... then you really need to get yourself to a cinema to see this one. Not a film I would say would strike it big with horror fans but fans of comedy and things which are just a little, subtly unusual should get a kick out of this one.
Thursday, 18 July 2019
Dolly Go Lightly
Annabelle Comes Home
USA 2019 Directed by Gary Dauberman
UK cinema release print
Annabelle Comes Home is the seventh of the movies set in The Conjuring universe and for the most part, these have been successful films (I’m not talking about box office here, although that’s been good for them too on most of these, is my understanding). This one is the third of what had been a series of stand alone spin offs featuring the Annabelle doll from The Conjuring but this one also has the added bonus of having opening and closing sequences featuring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren. Lorraine Warren passed away earlier in the year and there’s a nice little ‘In Memorium’ type statement at the end of the film before the end credits roll.
In terms of the doll centred films in general, I’m going to start off by saying that this is not as bad as the first prequel, Annabelle (reviewed here) but by no means as good as the second prequel to that prequel, Anabelle Creation (reviewed here). This one, though, is set after both of those films and starts off with the Warrens bringing the doll back to their house so they can put it in a glass case and keep the evil contained. So it’s kind of set before the bits of The Conjuring where the Annabelle doll gets out near the end and this is a whole ‘adventure’ involving the doll that somehow wasn’t mentioned in those earlier movies. So wedged in between the various installments, it kinda doesn’t help that the main protagonist of this film, Lorraine Warren’s young daughter Judy, is played by somebody totally different... a young actress called Mckenna Grace. Not that she doesn’t do a great job... it’s just confusing but, with the way child actors' faces change so quickly, probably a necessity of setting this one back a bit before the events of some of the other films.
Grace is ably supported by two other teenage antagonists played by Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife as Judy’s babysitters while the Warrens are away for an evening and if you’re thinking that this movie seems overly teenage oriented for a franchise that has, with the two main movies at least, proved to be a mature, well made series of horror films... you’d be right. This is kind of a ‘Conjuring light’ movie and the plot revolves around something which we’ve seen since the opening of the very first movie in the sequence, the Warren’s ‘trophy room’. The writers have always made it clear that the things in this room should not be disturbed in any way lest the 'evil spirits' within return to their demonic ways so, of course, this is a film about what happens when one of the three protagonists goes on a rampage of curiosity within the forbidden room and lets out, not just the Annabelle doll but a load of other nasty characters too... since the Annabelle is known for being a conduit for all things demonic.
So, yeah, spooky things are afoot and it would be remiss of me not to mention that this movie does feel a lot less like an Annabelle movie and more like Nancy Drew Meets The Conjuring. However, saying that, it’s still very good at laying on the unbearable suspense and not always so obvious jump scares which, frankly, makes it a lot more scarier than some of the other movies I’ve seen at the cinema lately (cough... Midsommar... cough... In Fabric).
In fact, right from the opening ‘mini-adventure’ involving Ed and Lorraine Warren trying to drive the Annabelle doll home before she can kill them, we have the director deliberately playing with the conventions of the horror movie format by setting up not one but two view obscuring moments which he completely doesn’t use to deliver the obvious shock moments. They follow on from each other very quickly and the first of these is when Ed pops the bonnet of his car, thus obscuring what’s going on behind the windscreen from inside, where Lorraine is seated. Straight after, Lorraine opens up a large map of the area which completely blocks out our view of her side window. So, the director already knows we are expecting at least one of these two things to be hiding a jump scare and cleverly skips these... only revealing a cast of spirits from one of the views when we already know what’s happening out there.
Later on, when the film gets into full flow, the usual horror movie rules apply, where things are consistently obscured from the camera or deliberately used to foreshadow action which doesn’t actually come from the usual, on screen sources... and it’s a nice touch which shows that the film makers are at least thinking about the way an audience can second guess where the scares are coming from and, in this way at least, the film is consistent with the two main Conjuring titled movies. So yeah, one of the strong points of these films is that they respect the audience’s knowledge of the visual and audio semantics of the horror movie enough to be able to play around with things from time to time.
Another nice thing was the appearance of the brand of rag doll which was the actual Annabelle doll from the real life case make another minor cameo in this film. I think this has happened at least twice now.
Joseph Bishara’s score is, of course, another strong element of the film and it’s another case of a modern horror film giving us some effective and listenable scoring which isn’t just about extensions of the sound design. Alas, so far there’s only a stupid electronic download of the thing but if ever a CD comes out, I’ll be first in line to buy it. In fact, if a CD doesn’t come out then it will be the first movie in The Conjuring universe to not have one... so I really hope they don’t go the Marvel route with this by not releasing ‘much wanted’ CDs for some of the films.
Ultimately, as I’ve possibly oversold here earlier, the film is like a crazy fun house ride for kids in terms of the mix of teenagers with a whole load of different demonic entities after them but it does, at least, introduce us to some characters which I feel would be nicely explored in other spin offs. The spirit from the last movie in the series, The Curse Of La Llorona (which I reviewed here) makes a brief, fleeting appearance near the very start of the movie but, alas, there’s no reference to The Nun that I could easily spot. However, I think promising characters like a spooky ferryman demon, a killer bride and a big, ferocious werewolf spirit could be happily explored in future spin offs and, I suspect, be more effectively used than they were able to be in a movie which was trying to cram them all in together before we’ve already met them all properly.
At the end of the day, if you loved The Conjuring movies and the Annabelle spin offs then you should have a good time with Annabelle Comes Home. It’s not exactly intense horror but it did procure some screams from the audience I saw it with and fans of the genre in general shouldn’t have too much of a bad time with it. Not an essential watch but if you’re a fan of the cinematic incarnation of The Warrens then you should probably give this one some of your time.
Tuesday, 16 July 2019
USA 2019 Directed by Michael Dowse
UK cinema release print
Warning: Slight spoilers about the opening sequence.
Stuber is probably best described as a modern variant on those action comedy team ups which were popular in the 1980s like Running Scared. It’s also not a movie I would normally bother to go and see at a cinema (or any home format either, to be honest) but this one appealed to me because I have got a lot of time for one of the two main stars of the movie, David Bautista, who I think is a very good but underused actor who deserves much more from Hollywood casting agencies, as far as I’m concerned (check him out in Hotel Artemis, reviewed here, if you don’t believe me).
Here he co-stars with comic actor Kumail Nanjiani playing an Uber driver called Stu who has to ferry Bautista’s tough guy cop character Vic around because he’s just recovering from an operation on his eyes and can’t see very well... but it happens to coincide with a hot lead on a villain he’s been chasing for the last two years. Not to mention the opening of his daughter’s art gallery show and an opportunity for Stu to get together with the girl of his dreams, if only he can get away from driving Vic around and becoming embroiled in a web of crime and violence.
And... it’s not bad actually. Nanjiani is great as the put upon Uber driver who has to kill and kick bad guy ass due to being placed in life threatening situations when all he really needs to be is... somewhere else. And Bautista gets to show off his comic side (which he did very well as Drax The Destroyer in the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies) and basically does an all round good job with his character. Also, although it’s essentially a ‘comedy thriller’, the director doesn’t skimp on the action sequences and delivers, along with the writers and performers (yeah... and everyone else), a movie with some hard hitting, at times almost brutal, action sequences which, although the stakes are more personal, don’t dilute the emotional pull of the characters.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in a wonderful, extended opening action flashback sequence where Bautista and his then partner, played by his Guardians Of The Galaxy co-star, Amy Pond herself, the mighty Karen Gillan, are after the main villain of the piece, Oka, played by Iko Uwais of The Raid movies (reviewed here and here). Now, yes, it was a bit obvious right from the start that the fate of Gillan’s character was that she was going to get fridged to give Bautista’s character extra motivation for the rest of the movie but, even so, she does get some good screen time in this opening section and I would love to see her taking a starring role in this kind of action mayhem movie soon. Like Bautista, Hollywood needs to be putting her in more stuff.
The film takes its time to build up on the love/hate relationship between Stu and Vic and there’s some nice moments of the old but well loved cliché of ‘character building under duress’ scenes that are a staple of these kinds of ‘grudging buddy’ movies. There are also times when you feel that the death of one or other of the main characters seems almost inevitable and I appreciated that the director was able to ratchet up that kind of tension within the framework of a movie like this. It’s rare in movies these days that you actually get to the point where you genuinely think you may be about to lose one of the main protagonists.
I also appreciated that, staggeringly, the director was actually able to surprise me a couple of times too. For example, a main ‘bad guy’ who is revealed near the end is someone I would normally have seen coming a mile off so... goodness knows how this film managed to distract me enough that I didn’t see it coming. Ditto for a minor revelation in the last scene of the movie too... not that I’m going to say anything about that here.
Another thing that impressed me was the exploration and long term relevance of a scene which could have been just another throw away moment but which was given a heck of a lot more gravitas than it would in pretty much any other movie out there. This is a scene where a roomful of minor criminals, finding Vic at their door, have gotten rid of their drug evidence by feeding a load of packets of drugs to their dog. When Vic figures this out, he’s as much concerned about getting the dog to a vet and making sure it’s okay as he is with getting the information he’s after and I appreciated this and was also pleased with a follow on with the dog in the closing scenes of the movie too. This was a classy thing to do and certainly, in terms of effective movie making, endeared me to Vic even more.
And... okay, a short review for this one but that’s because I couldn’t find anything really bad to say about it, in all honesty (plus I had a terrible accident walking home from the cinema and the whole of my face and body is just one big bruise and I can barely move... which kinda takes some of the fun out of the writing process to be fair). Stuber is a pretty nice but, perhaps, not so significant action comedy with some marvellous performances from a director who, I’m pretty sure judging from some sequences in this, would be good as an all out action director too. Not something I’d probably bother with again but I think that this one should hit well with audiences, if the publicity machine does its job and people turn out for it. I had a good time with this one and am happy to recommend it to people who like these kinds of escapades. It’s a fun little film and I’d probably be happy to watch a sequel to it... although I don’t expect that to happen, in all honesty.
Sunday, 14 July 2019
Fourth Wall Of The Dead
The Dead Don't Die
USA/Sweden 2019 Directed by Jim Jarmusch
UK cinema release print
Warning: Some very slight spoilerage.
I’ve always liked Jim Jarmusch as a writer/director, since first seeing his early masterpiece Down By Law in the late 1980s. I’ve not seen all of his movies... there are a few gaps... but I have seen and enjoyed most of them. Every now and again he will make a movie that seems to be a complete side step from his usual fayre. The first time I noticed this was in his truly excellent Ghost Dog - The Way Of The Samurai but he also took me by surprise by making a ‘vampire movie’ a few years back called Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed by me here). Both of those films were much more commercially minded, it seems to me (either by design or by fluke) but each still transcended their genre trappings and held the key elements that I tend to associate with Jarmusch’s work over the years...
Those being: They were funny, poignant and highlighted the alienation of people sharing different languages and cultures even as they drew together.
So when it was announced that Jarmusch had made a zombie movie, I was interested... not just because I happen to like that sub-genre of horror movie anyway but because I knew, coming from Jarmusch, that it would be like no other zombie movie that ever came before it. Well... I got that right.
The film stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver, both regular collaborators with the director (check out Driver’s role in the directors last non-documentary movie Paterson, which I reviewed here) as two cops who are the main police presence in their small town of Centerville, along with the only other cop in town played by Chloë Sevigny. And they are all supported by a star studded cast, many of whom have worked with the director before, including Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop and Caleb Landry Jones (in a wonderful turn as a petrol and film/comic book merchandise dealer who wears a Nosferatu t-shirt). And, as you would expect from a cast like this (or pretty much any cast under this director, actually), they are all pretty amazing. Between them, Murray and Driver keep the mood sombre with their perpetually downbeat expressions and this helps maintain the minimalistic, gloomy atmosphere of a town, one of many, which has suddenly been overrun with a plague of zombies.
Now, I think this film is going to really divide people and there’s an element that even I, while laughing out loud at a lot of the wonderful humour on display here, found somewhat annoying. I’ll get to just what that is in a minute but let me first look at what this film both shares and, often, doesn’t share with the zombie genre in general.
Well, the common traits are a marked goriness when the humans are attacked although, conversely, when older zombies are out walking there is just dust instead of blood, which is possibly more accurate (I’m not sure, not being an expert on the undead myself). There’s also... and this is quite blatant here and almost being done just to check off boxes, it seems... the comparison of zombies who, like their nearest on-screen antecedents in the George A. Romero zombie flicks, are a satire of various aspects of our culture. Indeed, Jarmusch almost goes over the top to prove a point here by comparing some of the zombies to mobile phone/social media users and demonstrating this while it’s already been established earlier on in the text of the film what the ‘wifi’ so desired by the walking dead has already failed in the town.
However, it does do a lot which the modern, post-Romero zombie movie doesn’t often do. For example, it gives us a pseudo-scientific reason for the outbreak of the undead (which somehow comes in two stages in its ressurectional properties and thus renders the narrative nonsensical anyway... possibly what Jarmusch wants here) whereas most modern zombie films don’t try to find a rationale behind the undead shenanigans, they just deliberately side step it and cut to the chase. Here, Jarmusch has introduced the concept of polar fracking throwing the earth off its axis and this somehow raising the dead. Honestly, though... I think this is just another excuse to heavy hand the various metaphors used within the genre and, in some ways poke fun of it.
And that’s where I have my main problem with this film... the lack of respect for the genre. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a director like Jarmusch seeming to say that films made in these kinds of genres are dumb and I’m more than happy for him to have a pop at them. However, the way in which he does it, with a blatant disregard for his own story mechanics where its later shown that... quite literally... anything goes (and if you’ve seen the movie I’m talking about both the final exit scene of Tilda Swinton’s character and the awareness of its non-feasibility in the script by Adam Driver’s character). And this is a big problem for me because, as I’ll get to in a minute, this kinda feels like the director is insulting the intelligence of the kinds of people who would turn out for a film like this... or at least that’s the way it felt to me, anyway.
Also, there’s a lot of referential, postmodernistic jokes in the main body of the film and while the director has done this just a little in the past, usually with a lot more of a story impact than the ‘thrown off’, almost Tarantino-esque way he does it here, I think this dumbs down the movie somewhat too. Again, don’t get me wrong because I had a little chuckle when I saw the late, great director Sam Fuller’s name on a tombstone but this film seems to be loaded with this sort of stuff and, outside of the obvious and loving references to Pittsburgh (where Romero plied his zombie trade), there seemed to be to be way too much of this kind of thing and it felt like the high calibre director was kind of slumming it, to some extent. Jarmusch is better than this, is what I kept thinking... it just seemed a little out of character for him.
Okay, so there were a few walk outs in the audience when I saw this (I’m pleased to say because, if someone like Jarmusch doesn’t get some walk outs then he’s almost failed) and I think this may be due to the quite blatant self awareness of some of the characters, Adam Driver’s in particular... and their inability or disinterest in helping themselves out in terms of where the script is taking them. So, yes, Adam Driver and Bill Murray’s characters both show, from very early in the film, that they are characters in a film and this kinda grates in the way it’s done. We’re not being asked to share in any peril or the particularly humourous modes of speech that the various characters explore (including cycles of repeat phrases which got me smiling quite a lot, it has to be said) because we can’t invest with them in any way as characters. In fact, we are being asked to interact with them on a more metatextual level, it seems but... only when it doesn’t get in the way of the on-screen action... which is a bit like the director is trying to ‘eat all the pies’ and not helpful in creating a film which holds together tonally, despite the minimalistic air of cynicism and acceptance that Jarmusch pulls from the air almost effortlessly.
Despite all these criticisms though, I personally really enjoyed The Dead Don't Die. It’s not ever going to make the top of my list in terms of favourite Jarmusch movies but it’s an entertaining piece and I think long time fans of the director shouldn’t have as much of a problem with it as a more commercially minded audience expecting to see a ‘cool zombie movie’ might have. Recommended to cineastes who are not worried about seeing what I think is personally too many directorial experiments thrown together into the same film. It’s interesting, funny and entertaining so, honestly, what more could you want from a night out at your local cinema?
Thursday, 11 July 2019
USA 2019 Directed by Ari Aster
UK cinema release print
Regular readers of this site may remember that I was kinda torn in my opinion of Ari Aster’s horror movie Hereditary last year (reviewed by me here). There was some very good film making on display there but the tonal shift at the end of the movie plunging straight into supernatural shenanigans with no real slow burn build up to them caused a lot of the rest of the audience I saw it with to laugh while I found myself tutting at the way the spell of the rest of the film was sacrificed to an almost atmospherically non-sequitur of an ending.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Midsommar, Aster’s follow up feature which is pretty much an homage in spirit to films like The Blood On Satan’s Claw (reviewed here) and The Wicker Man is certainly much more on the ball in terms of it being tonally consistent. It also showcases, once more, some very strong cinematic manipulation which certainly makes it a joy to watch on a purely technical level. It also, alas, suffers from one of the main weaknesses that Hereditary had, in terms of its almost deliberate predictability and, ultimately, feels more like a piece of fluff in terms of actual content... although it’s dressed up beautifully, it has to be said.
It’s also, funnily enough, not a horror movie as I was expecting it to be, which was a little disappointing. If anything, I’d say its nearest cousin, asides from those films I mentioned above (especially The Wicker Man which also isn’t a horror movie), would be the American slasher movies predominant in the 1970s and 80s. I can’t, in all conscience, describe this one as a thriller either since it’s mostly obvious what’s going to happen and it’s so slow moving (and that in itself isn’t a bad quality to have) that it feels more like a somewhat flat drama with the odd piece of surrealism thrown in.
Okay, so positive things about the movie... well, the acting is great, especially from the likes of Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (who has a bizarrely striking screen presence here).
And then there’s the camera work and editing which really highlight a great auteur at work (even if I don’t think we’ve seen this guy’s masterpiece yet). For example, the opening sequence is truly amazing. It starts off with a series of static shots of snowy landscapes at twilight with a haunting soundtrack, one after the other. Once the director has lulled you into being comfortable with the rhythm of the shots, the shrill ring of a phone penetrates through the soundtrack and keeps going in time with various cuts which, at this point in the sequence, zoom in (via a sequence of static shots still) on a specific dwelling, acting as an establishing sequence which carries on into a scene which starts with that phone call. This is great stuff and there’s a lot of this kind of the editing of the shots mixed with sound as the film goes on, although there’s also a great deal of slow, moving camera work too.
This general mise-en-scene coupled with some truly beautifully designed shots where the director will section people off into different geometric shapes on screen deliver a film which, whatever its sins, never gets boring. Not only this but there’s some truly startling pieces of surrealistic imagery where one of the main characters seems to almost randomly fuse with the very landscape she is a part of.
Also, while the level of goriness is fairly high, there’s also some quite poetic, if fairly unpleasant moments in the film which are equally surreal (a vivisected person with daisies for eyes suspended and breathing still, through lungs which have been raised out of the back of a rib cage, comes to mind). Alas, far from being the supernatural stuff of horror movies, it’s all explained away within the text of the movies as the somewhat psychedelic properties of the ‘potions’ given to various people or, as the violence mentioned above, the work of a person or group of people. Which is why it’s closer to a slasher than a horror movie, in some respects.
The big problem, though, as I touched on above, is that Midsommar is nothing if not predictable. And it really doesn’t have to be. At some point you will even figure out just who of our main protagonists will be the last person standing, even if it does somewhat fly in the face of the convention of such tales in cinematic history. And it doesn’t help that there’s an awful lot of telegraphing going on in the film. The director likes to dwell on particularly prophetic drawings and paintings throughout the movie and it really is, as you’ll quickly realise, something of a guidebook to the way the story is going to unfold.
However, Bobby Krlic’s (aka The Haxan Cloak, in the few days since writing the first draft of this review) almost hypnotic score is a match for the sometimes off kilter imagery and I’m hoping this will get an easily importable CD release soon.* Its somewhat micropolyphonic texturing is sometimes subtle and sometimes booming and is a big help in certain places in the movie to ramp up the intensity of the imagery being explored. This is one I’d listen to away from the film, for sure.
Other than that, though... again, I’m somewhat torn. Tonally the director has this film licked and Midsommar works so much better as a ‘whole piece’ than his previous movie did but, alas, he still hasn’t worked out how to surprise his audience in terms of the story line and the simple, clean style of the somewhat effective imagery doesn’t add much in terms of substance to the content, it has to be said. Not one I’d recommend to people expecting to see a horror movie but certainly you can learn a lot about the way you can manipulate audience emotion through the editing and sound on this one... so students of moving image may well be advised to check this one out. Personally I don’t ever need to watch this movie again in my lifetime but... I’m sure some people will love it.
*Milan records have recently contacted me on Twitter to confim that they are releasing this on CD at some point in the future... gone are the days when you could buy the CD months before the movie came out, I guess
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Directed by Luc Besson
UK cinema release print
Anna is a new action picture written and directed by Luc Besson. Someone who I used to trust a fair amount to get stuff like this mostly right although I have, it has to be said, been disappointed by a lot of his output of recent years.
I remember seeing his film Nikita with my best friend (no longer with me, alas) at the once great Lumiere cinema (also no longer with us) back in 1990. I think we went back more or less every week it was playing there to have another look at it. I saw it five times on their massive screen, if memory serves. The trailer for Anna looked very much like it was a differently dressed up revisiting of the themes and style of action of Nikita and, now I’ve got a look at it in my local, it has to be said, that’s exactly what it is... more or less.
It also has a lot less of an edge to it, it seems to me, than not only the glowingly brilliant original film but also of many of the retreads of the same material, some self-admittedly remakes and some not, by other director and writing teams. Films like The Villainess (reviewed here) have a lot more going for them than this. I don’t know why but the action sequences in this are just... okay... and the pauses between them seem a little less interesting than they could be. Films like Atomic Blonde and the John Wick series, for example, have a lot more kinetic brutality to their set sequences and, although Besson almost invented this hyper-stylised action world himself... by way of influence on other film-makers at the very least... you get the feeling that the action in this could be a lot more in your face than what we have here.
Besson has tried to compensate, somewhat, for the clichés inherent in this tale of a government created assassin in the way he’s given her a background incorporating a love of Matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, which in turn defines the narrative structure of the piece (which almost lost me at the start because one of the timeline placements didn’t quite make sense to me as I was trying to do the maths in my brain). So what he does is he will have a sequence with what I am assuming is supposed to be a surprising ending, followed by a flashback from some years earlier which shows you how you got to that point in the narrative. And he keeps doing this all the way through and, although it’s a clever way of presenting the story, it does get quite old rather quickly and, much worse, tips you off before any real surprises or revelations about the state or allegiances of various characters are revealed. There’s a bit near the end, for example, when I couldn’t believe that Besson was being arrogant enough to try and fool his audience with the death of one of the characters when it was obvious it was going to be revealed as a staged moment a little later on in the narrative. I did feel quite insulted, in a way, that the director would think people would fall for this stuff.
Okay, so there are some nice things in this film too and a big plus is the strength of the performances. Sasha Luss is brilliant in the title role and she is doing very well holding her own against such strong actors as Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy and Luke Evans. Actually, this really is a good role for Murphy and I’m convinced, by the way he plays this one here, that he would be an absolutely perfect fit for the straw haired Felix Leiter of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, next time they need to change the current actor portraying him in the movies. There’s also a wonderful performance by first time actress Lera Abova as one of Anna’s many lovers but, alas, as wonderful as she is in this movie, the character is somewhat poorly treated throughout and definitely underused, it has to be said. An epilogue to the main narrative giving us some closure about her would have helped, I think.
The other good thing here is the return of Eric Serra as the composer of the film’s score. This is a nicely appropriate piece of scoring with the exact same kind of soundscape you would expect from him... which is handy if you’re doing a ‘less than honest’ remake of Nikita, I guess. I hope this score gets a proper CD release at some point rather than just a stupidly flattened out electronic download affair as I really want to hear this one away from the visuals. This composer certainly hasn’t lost his touch over the decades, that’s for sure.
Ultimately, Anna is a fairly fun time at the pictures but it's hampered by a clever but somewhat impractical structure which, I suspect, dictated how some of the dramatic beats were allowed to fall and sacrificed a possibly more fulfilling experience in the pursuit of its own narrative experiment. It’s still, however, a very competent, polished piece of action cinema but I can’t help but be reminded of one of the earliest and most commonly found pieces of negative criticism of Luc Besson’s work back in the 1980s and 90s when his masterpieces such as Subway, The Big Blue and Nikita were first doing the rounds. It was said that he was a champion of ‘style over substance’ in his movies and, although none of us teenage kids saw this as a problem at the time... and in hindsight I’d still reject that proposition of a summation of his early works... I would say that his recent films such as the terrible Lucy (reviewed here), the so so Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (reviewed here) and this one are seeming to me more like films that totally justify that criticism but, in the worst way. Style over substance can be fine in my book but it needs to show us something either very beautiful or very different to make an impression in these media heavy, visually saturated times and, although Anna feels like it’s almost getting there, it wouldn’t be one I’d recommend to fans of Besson’s earlier works, I’m sad to say.
Sunday, 7 July 2019
Spider-Man - Far From Home
USA 2019 Directed by Jon Watts
UK cinema release print
Warning: Slight spoilers.
Well, Spider-Man - Far From Home is an okay follow up to the various Tom Holland starring Spider-Man movies of recent years. It’s not without its problems though and while various critics have claimed that this film is the first of what many people are calling ‘superhero fatigue’ at the box office... I think we have a while to go before that sets in yet. I think the somewhat muted response to this film is possibly because of the stealth approach to the title character but I’ll get onto that in a minute.
Of the superhero movies released by Marvel so far this year, I’d say this runs second place behind X-Men - Dark Phoenix (reviewed here) but way in front of the ‘so-so but not terrible’ Captain Marvel (reviewed here) and the terribly disappointing Avengers - Endgame (reviewed here)... so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, for this year at least, DC wins the best superhero movie prize with their inappropriately unfaithful (to the original comics) but immensely fun SHAZAM! movie (which I reviewed here).
So... the new Spider-Man has a lot of the stuff which worked from Spider-Man Homecoming (reviewed by me here) tossed in with some excellent performances from Tom Holland as Peter Parker, Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds and the truly wonderful Zendaya as MJ. There are a lot of old Spider-Man character references in these movies but they’re so changed from the versions of them found in the original source material that, once again, characters are given the names of their comic counterparts only and have nothing of the look and feel of them. It’s a shame but it kinda works if you can forget these were comic book characters.
It looks spectacular but it kinda drags a lot, to be honest and I think the real problem with this for me is that you never really get to see Spider-Man in one of his regular costumes until near the end of the movie. He’s either winging it with a stolen half mask or wearing a ridiculous ‘Night Monkey’ costume and none of it really gives you that Spider-Man vibe that fans of the character may want. This is not to say there’s not a lot of action but it just doesn’t feel like anything great and I also think the lack of human, villanous henchmen during the fight scenes, instead of fighting big monsters which, anyone who knows who Mysterio is from the comics anyway, will know are just smoke and mirrors, just takes things away from having any stake in the characters.
Some good stuff though... Jake Gyllenhaal is great as Mysterio and when you see him finally from a different viewpoint, he switches into Spidey nemesis mode subtly and it’s very well played. Also, bringing back Happy played by Jon Favreau and having him dating Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is great. Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders are back too and they do some nice stuff between them.
The main meat of the story though, for my money, is the blossoming relationship between Petey and MJ, which really is what this film is all about as far as I’m concerned, along with MJ ‘discovering’ Peter’s secret identity. Alas, once more this doesn’t happen in the same way as the comics, where it turns out that Mary Jane knew he was Spider-Man even before they’d first met... but they at least let MJ figure it out for herself here so, that’s kind of cool.
Now then, there are two post credits scenes here and, unusually for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, they’re both kinda important in terms of story beats. The first one sees a famous Spider-Man character from a previous version of the franchise (the Sam Raimi series of films) return. Interestingly, since the person playing this character was so good doing it before, they’ve got the same actor back from that earlier franchise. Now, I did kinda thought this was going to happen with the same actor actually... but I thought they might take another couple of films to do it so everybody could forget this person was in it before. Nope, they’ve really gone for it here although, it has to be said, the revelations of this mid-credits cameo may mean that he really can’t be in it a lot in future movies (although he’ll have to be in the next one, for sure). Also, they cut out a nicely done scene which was shown in the trailer for this movie and, with the consequences implied by this first post-credits scene on the future direction of the franchise, it would have made a lot of sense to keep it.
The second and final post credits scene is also something of an eye opener although, it has to be said, I was a little disappointed in the direction Marvel chose to take this. All I’ll say about this one is... you really need to have seen Captain Marvel to really understand what’s going on here.
And... that’s me more or less done on Spider-Man - Far From Home, I think. It’s an okay movie with a nice score by Michael Giacchino which does ‘more of the same’ as the previous Spiderman - Homecoming although, sadly it doesn’t use the old cartoon series music this time around. There are some cleverly thought out, retrofitting link-ins with the various sub-villains here too, with flashbacks to previous MCU movies like Iron Man and Captain America - Civil War. Ultimately, though, this is not enough to elevate it to being a ‘great’ superhero movie... it’s just a nice addition which has its problems but I suspect it will still do some box office (although possibly not as much on repeat performance as the company might be expecting from it... I certainly have no desire to rush back and see it again). I do look forward to seeing how they go about dealing with the challenge they’ve set themselves here in any sequel, though but... I also feel like Marvel really need to raise their game to continue with the unprecedented box office dominance which they’ve managed to hold for over ten years now. Great writing would surely fix this issue. This movie feels like the franchise is getting a little lethargic and, while I had fun, I was certainly underwhelmed too. It’s still worth a watch though... especially if you’re not too hung up on the comic book versions of the characters who are, mostly, not in evidence here.
Friday, 5 July 2019
USA 1992 Directed by Albert Band, Charles Band
Full Moon/88 FIlms Blu Ray Zone B
Oh wow. This is a film and a half.
I only have two scores by B-movie composer Richard Band on CD. One is Trancers III (a film I’ve not seen) and the other is to one of the great 1980s attempts to revive the 3D format in theatres, Metalstorm - The Destruction of Jared-Syn. However, I was sitting reading my Twitter timeline one morning and there was an excerpt from an interview with the composer and he mentioned Doctor Mordrid, a film co-directed by his father and brother and of which he seemed to make no bones about being a rip off of the Marvel comics character Doctor Strange (who is currently being played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the second on-screen iteration of the character). It seemed the production company did, at some point, have the rights to make a movie about the character but, by the time the production came together, they didn’t have enough money to renew the rights so... they didn’t and just changed the names of various characters and shaved off Doctor Strange’s moustache, leaving the rest of his costume pretty much as it is in the early comics, to get around copyright (allegedly... and it does seem to be the case if you read between the lines as well as use the evidence of your own eyes when you let this amazing little movie burn its delightful path onto your retinas).
I was interested in seeing this straight away, of course, but... well I highly doubted there would ever have been an official, commercial release of this movie in the UK. Cut to two or three hours later and there I was standing in Fopp records looking at a fairly new, cleaned up Blu Ray transfer of Doctor Mordrid for the less than princely sum of £6. This was too good to be true and, when I finally got around to watching the movie a couple of weeks later... I found that, not only was it too good to be true... it was also too bad to be true but, in the best way ever.
Seriously, Doctor Mordrid is a amazing and wonderous film and a bit of a strange conundrum of a picture in the sense that... it’s both one of the best ‘so hilariously bad it’s good’ movie’s I’ve seen in a good long time but, also, it’s actually got a bizarre kind of coolness to it. This last element is provided quite definitively by Jeffrey Combs in the title role, who absolutely plays all of the unfolding nonsense with, not just a sense of seriousness and gravitas which this kind of character needs to thrive but also with a lot of charm and on screen presence, it has to be said. Of course, he’s not Doctor Strange, Master Of The Mystic Arts he’s... Doctor Mordrid, Master Of The Unknown which would, I dunno, imply that if he’s a master of unknown things then he must know about them and thus negate the veracity of this contradiction of a title but... well, you get the picture.
And I don’t know if my words can fully do justice to the sheer brilliance of the stupidity of the film but... I’ll give it my best shot.
The film opens with a credit sequence which is a slow pan around Doctor Mordrid’s inner sanctum, the mysterious books and artefacts he has in his collection very slowly examined by the camera as... Richard Band’s opening title music goes completely over the top in a full on gallop of a heroic march which is both completely inappropriate to the style and pacing of the visuals while still being a great melody and piece of music in its own right and which would ably support some of the most heroic title sequences in the history of cinema... just not this one (although I am pleased to say that I did manage to find a reasonably priced second hand CD of the score which arrived in the post a week later). Amongst the credits we also have the legendary caption which says the film is ‘Based on an original idea by Charles Band’ so... yeah, you know what? Let’s not even go there. Unless you want to get into an argument about the meaning of the word ‘original’.
We then get the first scene which gave me pause for thought and made me think straight away of the mighty Marvel artist Jack Kirby... Doctor Mordrid consulting with ‘The Monitor’ (maybe that’s a non-Marvel version of The Watcher) who appears to him as a pair of giant, floating eyeballs in space. Oh yeah, this is something which seems just like Jack Kirby would have been doing in the late 1960s and mid 1970s and it all just felt somehow familiar. As it turns out, what I didn’t know until I looked it up after, is that Jack Kirby actually had been on board with the project at some point in the early stages of the film (presumably, before the money ran out) and so I’m guessing this was one of his contributions.
Anyway, The Monitor warns Mordrid that things are happening and elements are coming together towards the final showdown between Doctor Mordrid and his childhood enemy, a dark sorcerer called Kabal, who Mordrid has locked away in his castle dungeon which is a bit like his own personal Arkham Asylum for demonic villains, watched over by a big prison warden, Gunner. Oh... and another possible Kirbyism is that this castle is solitary in that it’s floating on a big rock in space.
But, back on planet Earth, we find ourselves in Rio De Janeiro... I know it must be there because the establishing shot is a still photograph of that big Christ The Redeemer statue and, should we be suspicious that they are just going to cut back to some footage taken nearer to the studio, it also tells us that in big letters to re-enforce that idea. Now then, wherever we are, we have a truly great moment in the film... perhaps greater than some of the sorcery we shall see later in the way it truly defies the physics of the situation. A guy with a truck load of... can’t remember, maybe diamonds... shoots the guy in front who is driving. So... where you might be correct in thinking this would cause the van to veer around the road in an ‘out of control’ manner and hurtle to destruction, this film tells us this is just not would happen in this situation. Instead, after he is shot dead, the driver would slump over the steering wheel and the van would suddenly slow down and stop because... um... what the heck? What are we being asked to believe here? This is completely ludicrous.
However, this complete lack of a coherent adherence to the laws of physics is soon forgotten as the villain of the piece, Kabal, makes his first appearance. And, it has to be said, he looks like an elaborately comical, long haired, blonde viking with sunglasses trying to find the nearest surf board. Wow. This guy is certainly striking and, a closer look reveals that he is... in fact... Brian Thompson, the lead villain of the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra. Except here, instead of quite literally spitting the word ‘Pig’ at all and sundry, he says a lot of mystical things, fondles a naked woman, enslaves willing servants to do his every bidding and casts some really cool but probably silly spells.
We then get a proper introduction to Jeffrey Combs and also to his pet raven called Edgar. And, just in case you really didn’t get that comical allusion... he later refers to him as Edgar Allan, just to be sure the audience can appreciate the level of referencing on display here. What this raven can’t explain, though, is why several books catch on fire when Doctor Mordrid crosses through his handy portal to visit his castle. When he gets there, he meets up with Gunner, who walks around with two big holes where his eyes would normally be. Turns out Kabal has escaped, melting out Gunner’s eyes in the process (although, to be fair, this doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any). Mordrid restores Gunner’s eyeballs and goes back to Earth to make friends with a lady lawyer with a passion for mystical and spiritual phenomena, who happens to be his next door neighbour and who will help him out later in the film (charmingly played by Yvette Nipar).
Now, when I started watching this movie I’d figured it was made for a TV audience because the obvious cut away shot of blood spraying onto a statue was done without actually having any blood after someone was shot... therefore I just assumed it was being made to get around certain potential censorship problems. So I was pretty surprised when various characters actually start swearing and, on top of that, we have female nudity on screen. Not complaining, mind you but... it did manifest a certain tonal shift which doesn’t, in all honesty, do much harm to the movie.
After a while, the battle between the forces of good and evil is on and things are kinda predictable but always pretty fun and, not once, do the actors suggest that there’s anything wrong with the preposterous dialogue they are having to recite... which can be a lot of the battle on the credibility of these things, to be honest. Not that I’m suggesting the movie has any credibility but, you know, at least people aren’t laughing at themselves here. Even when either Mordrid or Kabal are walking around in their astral forms.
Now then, about the astral projection in this movie. When either Mordrid or Kabal appear before the other in their 'astral form', the budget of this movie does nothing to help portray this fact. They don’t in any way appear to shimmer or change colour and... it’s just the actors walking around like normal, proclaiming their status as such. Luckily, one or the other will usually either throw something or shoot bullets at the ‘astral person’ which will pass through them and then this will be followed with a handy piece of revealing dialogue which is not entirely dissimilar to one or other of them saying... “Ha! Your rocks/bullets/throwy object cannot hurt me, as I am in my astral form.” So there you have it.
And then everything stacks up and we get to the finale of the movie and... it’s a bit of a quick denouement, to be honest. Kabal and the astral form of Doctor Mordrid go toe to toe in some kind of American equivalent of the natural history museum and, to my delight, Kabal brings to life the skeleton of a dinosaur which then rampages around menacing people. And, considering this film was made in the 1990s, it’s actually proper old school Ray Harryhausen style stop motion animation as said dinosaur skeleton, not to mention the woolly mammoth skeleton Doctor Mordrid reanimates to fight the dinosaur, picks up a museum guard and proceeds to eat him. And it’s brilliantly naive and charming because, just like those old Harryhausen adventures, the guard suddenly turns into a stop motion puppet of the guard waving his arms and legs about. Of course, logically I couldn’t work out where this skeleton’s digestive system is supposed to be found or what good masticating on a guard would do it but, hey, I’m no palaeontologist. What do I know?
As Kabal gets quickly defeated by means so alarmingly underwhelming that after only a week since viewing this I have forgotten what they are, Gunner is using some kind of bizarre, laser shotgun to ensure no demons in the castle prison place can escape, as was Kabal’s plan. And then that’s it, the end... apart from fulfilling some romantic obligations between Mordrid and his lawyer friend.
As soon as the film had finished, I realised I could quite easily watch it over again and for multiple viewings. Doctor Mordrid is the perfect ‘night in with drunken friends’ kind of movie that can be enjoyed on all kinds of levels and which owns a certain sense of coolness at odds with the silliness of the story, the banality of the dialogue and the cheapness of its budget. A mini masterpiece of, possibly, inadvertent comedy which still maintains a certain gravitas and commands a certain amount of respect in spite of this. One of my new ‘to be recommended to friends of a certain disposition’ movies to be sure.