Sunday, 29 September 2019
Ready, Play Her, Run
Ready Or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very mild spoilers on one of the deaths.
Ready Or Not was a film I took a hard pass on when it played at FrightFest earlier in the year. Why? Well, because the concept is old and tired out and the trailer made it look really bad. However, by the time it got a general release in the UK, I was really looking forward to it. This is because I’d spent a fairly pleasant half an hour talking to a horror film critic (and nice guy), sitting on the little inner wall which goes around Leicester Square, opposite what we all still call the Empire cinema and exchanging views on various horror movies we both loved. He said that the reaction to Ready Or Not at FrightFest had been overwhelmingly the best audience reaction he’d ever seen at a screening ever and he said it was an absolutely brilliant movie. So I knew I would have to get around to it at some point and I was aware it would be getting a general cinema release a month or so after FrightFest. That being said, he also said something which I’m still kind of mulling over and trying to make sense of. In terms of this film I think this is a bit of a red herring and I wish I’d have known that when he told me... that the film has one of the best twist endings ever which “you will absolutely not see coming”. Well... I’ll tackle that thorny issue in a little while.
Ready Or Not is a movie which really shouldn’t be as watchable as it is. Kind of a souped up version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N... oh wait, I’m not allowed to call books by their original, racially problematic titles anymore because modern people are unable to wear historically contextual blinkers, it would seem. Let me try that again then... it’s kind of a souped up version of the Agatha Christie book which would later come to be known as both And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians at various times but with no skimping on the goriness which can often be a part and parcel of murderous violence... and with a big, campy dose of comedy thrown in for good measure. A cocktail combining these elements and then liberally mixed with a big jug of The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff).
The film concerns a couple getting married... Grace, played by Samara Weaving and Alex Le Domas, played by Mark O'Brien, who is part of a fictional family, the Le Domas gaming empire. Traditionally, the couple are married in front of the Manor House the family makes their home, which they do and, also traditionally, they have to play a game starting at midnight to become properly part of the family... which they do and which is where this movie gets its title from. The ritual involves the new bride pulling a card from an antique box which tells the family what game they will be playing that night. Quite often it’s something normal like Backgammon or Old Maid but, every now and again, a bride will pull the ‘bad’ card. The card which helps fulfill the family pact with the devil which allowed the gaming empire to become rich and prosperous in the first place. When this card is pulled, the bride or groom, whoever the new family member is, is not made aware of all the rules, often until it is too late. So of course, Grace pulls the one card that her new husband has feared she might... Hide And Seek.
So she has to go and hide and stay hidden without being found until dawn. What she isn’t told.... but finds out soon after, is that the rest of the family, coming ready or not after a count of one hundred, are armed to the teeth and need to wound or maim her long enough to bring her back and perform a sacrificial ritual on her, offering her life for their continued charmed existence or, if they fail, they themselves will die. It doesn’t take long for Grace to find this little twist to the rules out, however... and so the film becomes a grimly humorous game of cat and mouse where Grace is fighting for survival amongst a clan of psychotic killers who mean her some considerable harm.
And it’s nicely done. There are some hugely funny shots of humour injected into the thing, such as a running joke where ‘the help’ keep getting accidentally and horrendously killed by the family (including Grace herself, who manages to ‘take out’ one of the house staff by crushing her in a dumb waiter). There are also some genuinely edgy moments of suspense and little, sharp punctuations of violence which help pile on the odds as Grace tries to outrun the various family members... one such moment being when she is trying to escape a pit in the goat shed where the skeletons of other victims of the game have been left to rot over the decades.
It’s also nicely acted. There’s not a bad one in the cast which includes the always watchable Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody (who played the puzzlingly adult version of Captain Marvel Jr in the recent SHAZAM! movie, which I reviewed here). And special mention to Nicky Guadagni who plays a wonderful character called Aunt Helene who has, frankly, the best, comically outrageous, permanently grumpy stare to her face ever and who livens up every scene with just her bad mood in general.
It’s a fun film but my one disappointment comes, well not from the film itself but, with what I was told about the ending with it’s wonderful, revealing twist. And the reason for that disappointment is...
There is no twist.
No reveal at all. Everything plays out, surprisingly predictably all the way through. This film has absolutely no surprises... you know just when Grace will be caught to further the next bit of the story and, if you’ve been listening to the family history at all, you’ll almost certainly know how various people are going to die in the film's last ten minutes. It’s all right there in the dialogue and... yeah... I still can’t see what the guy meant by a final twist. I don’t think there’s any pretense of a reveal even... the story just plays out exactly how you think it will and then it finishes. You know just who will be the ‘final girl’ of the movie and, while it shouldn’t work, the film is so nicely written in terms of dialogue and the performance of it by an incredible team of skilled actors, that you don’t really care how old and jaded the plot is. Meanwhile, I’m still puzzling over what could possibly be thought of as a final twist. It kind of got my hopes up that something new was coming and... it didn’t.
That aside though, fans of both the slasher thriller and horror genres should take a look at Ready Or Not, which combines both those genres and has a fun time doing it. I’d even recommend it to people who aren’t into those kinds of movies because the goriness is not, too excessive and it’s almost always used to elicit a laugh rather than to shock. It’s a slight movie in terms of having much to say about anything (even family politics) but it’s good for an evening’s entertainment at your local cinema and the few audience members who I saw it with in the almost empty screening on opening night all seemed appreciative of it and there were a lot of laughs. Not sure it’s something I’d watch again but good for a one off watch, for sure.
Thursday, 26 September 2019
When Your Number’s Up
Written and directed by Andrew Elias
Ciao Handy Films. Available on Amazon Prime
The Numbers is a fairly recent ‘novella’ of a horror movie (moviella?), written and directed by Andrew Elias and it’s one of those movies which showcase exactly what the British do best... make relatively fun and entertaining films on what was probably a more than modest budget.
It’s rare I watch films like this (or am given the opportunity, to be honest) but I’m glad I managed to see this one because I’ve been following Andrew and his company on Twitter for a while now and it’s always good to see what some of the people you follow have been up to. This film seems to be trying and, for the most part succeeding, in catching the lightning in a bottle that was last done in this country successfully in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, we have almost a pseudo-portmanteau horror film but with a thread that runs through each chapter and fashions it together as one arc. You know, the kind of movie that Amicus and Tigon studios were so good at pulling off back in the day.
The Numbers starts with some nicely striking opening titles which have a beautiful piece of demonic music courtesy of composer Reg Length playing through as the camera hones in on some white cliffs at a, possibly, ‘day for night’ version of twilight and then, through the miracle of distracting the viewer with superimposed clouds, to a mansion house and then on through a window to a man played by Andrew Elias himself. This first and very short sequence is labelled up as 1912, which is when the action takes place and it bookends the movie. This segment is also dialogue free (up until the last shot when we revisit it at the end of the movie) and it shows a man waiting for something uncertain and reading a book called, An Evil Motherhood. Which might possibly explain what he’s waiting for.
Every now and again we are made aware of the presence of his servant within the house but the way the sound is designed and the faceless path of the servant sometimes being used almost as a jump scare in terms of rushing by very fast in the foreground of the camera or staying close to an edge of the frame, is already using the language of the horror movie within its DNA. The first part of the segment ends when the main character finds a calling card on his noticeboard for a fortune teller called Madame Mimi.
The shot style of the movie is fairly clean and, quite often, favouring centre oriented set ups. There’s no clutter to the set dressing (something which sometimes works in favour of a scene and, sometimes not) and the whole thing gives off a very measured and self assured kind of pacing. There are also a lot of browns and blacks used in this opening sequence and a nice colour palette is established here but, of course, that palette is changed and pitched differently depending on which section of the movie you are watching.
The next chapter starts, as do they all, with a time check in terms of the year and a seemingly random number which will have some significance later on in the chapter... the second sequence is called 1955 - Twelve. This section concerns a young woman who is, as she tells her friend who works in a restaurant, going to see a fortune teller and we can see that her card is exactly the same one we just saw in the film’s 1912 opening, implying that the fortune teller in question is either ageless and therefore extending her life through supernatural means or, possibly, she’s travelling in time... but I place less stock in that second theory since the film is tonally slanted with a good old fashioned horror vibe.
The meeting with the fortune teller does not go as planned and the customer ends up being told she is going to die when the hands of the clock point north. So the majority of this section, which is again mostly dialogue free, gloriously so, is the woman waiting in a room and killing time until the perceived hour of her death. One of the things she does while she’s waiting is read a book called The Devil In Woodford Wells by Howard Hobson, which is important to the next mini story in the film (and which is, in fact, a real book). She leaves the fortune teller’s card in this before the end of the episode, which takes place in a wonderfully red corridor and lift area, almost, it seemed to me, trying to capture tonally the spirit of Stanley Kubrick from his film The Shining.
The woman, is played by Lilly Driscoll, doing a wonderful job throughout her short, especially when it comes to the solo scenes. The fortune teller, Madame Mimi, is played by someone called Peyvand Sadeghian and she’s one of those actresses who seems to be able to bring a certain, playful yet forceful presence to a role. She’s well cast as the fortune teller, who appears in all the segments of the story without, as you would expect from the set up, ageing at all.
So the second chapter is called 1983 - Six and it concerns a composer played by Nicky Stephens. He can’t get the last part of a composition he’s working on and swears a lot throughout the segment, although he’s probably the most likeable character in the film. When he goes to a second hand/Antiquarian bookshop to help clear his block, he stumbles across the same copy of The Devil In Woodford Wells from the previous segment and, of course, finds the card and goes to the fortune teller, Madame Mimi. This is probably my favourite segment of the movie, to be honest and I love the little Faustian deal references symbolised by the purchase of the book in question (with a crisp, one pound note... aaah, I remember those). There’s also a terrific denouement in this section which, I really should have seen coming but... just didn’t. So that was cool.
That being said, there is, I think, at least one anachronism in the book shop scene, where a poster for the reissue/film re-release tie in album for The Beatles Yellow Submarine is the poster from a decade or two after the time setting on this segment. However, I do like this sequence in the bookshop and absolutely loved the use of colour in this scene. Where the orange covers of the old paperback Penguin Classics are echoed in the shirt of the bookseller and in the tie of one of the other customers.
I also loved a scene where the composer is playing the piano and all of a sudden the diegetic source music of said piano transforms, after the introductory bars, into a version with all the synthesised instruments in place, as if we can hear what the composer is hearing in his head as he finds his tune. Lovely stuff and, hold that thought because the director does the same thing only in reverse at the start of the next segment, again presumably using composer Reg Length’s remarkably fun score.
Okay, so the third sequence is called 2018 - Zero and it involves a jogger, played by Howie Cobby, who we are introduced to as he runs along some sandy cliffs. Here, the music on Length’s score matches the pace and time setting of the segment with some up tempo, almost techno music. However, in a reversal of the technique used in the earlier scene, we have the non-diegetic soundtrack turning into diegetic source music as we come to realise the music is also what’s being pumped through Cobby’s earphones as he’s running.
And, of course, when he trips and falls on the sand, as his character seems prone to do for some reason, he stumbles upon an almost empty wallet half buried there with, you guessed it, Madame Mimi’s card inside. And this is where the film gets even more interesting... when he takes the card to the pub and has a chat with the landlady there to seek her advice, played really nicely by a lady named Jo Burke. The pub landlady starts telling Cobby about her former experience with an on-stage fortune teller and, as she does so, she is transported into an empty scenario of the theatre where this event happened, along with the ambient sounds of the memory she is recalling. It reminded me a little of Fellini, actually, in terms of where films like the glorious Nights Of Cabiria (reviewed here) would have a brief diversion from the tone of the rest of the movie. Specifically the scene where Cabiria goes up on stage during the hypnotist act and the film kind of stops dead and takes a little tour into another kind of magic before continuing on its course. I loved the whole feel of the scene as Andrew Elias presents it in The Numbers and it’s just one of many quirky little moments that give the film a real lift. And stuff like this, coupled with a truly beautiful, overhead shot of Cobby running along the top of the cliff, is another thing which marks this director out as a having a visually unique way of putting a sequence together. Not to mention being one of the reasons why films like The Numbers deserve to get a proper cinematic release, instead of wallowing in the world of the electronic download... but I’m not going to get into that here.
After this sequence plays out, we end with a brief epilogue taking us back to that opening sequence, this time with its full title revealed as being... 1912 - Two. Once again, I’m not going to tell you where this sequence ends up but I will say that the last shot of the film, which I mentioned briefly earlier, does leave, perhaps, more questions than answers and it’s nice to know that Elias is one of those story tellers who prefers not to spoonfeed his audience and allows them to either work things out themselves or bring their own baggage and interpretations into the mix. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.
But don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. The Numbers can be purchased or rented at Amazon on this link here and the Ciao Handy Films trailer for The Numbers can be found on YouTube here.
Tuesday, 24 September 2019
Directed by Alexandre Aja
UK cinema release print.
Okay, so I didn’t bother with Crawl when it premiered at FrightFest a few weeks ago because a) I knew it was getting a general release the same week, b) I have no interest in alligator thrillers and c) I am not all that taken with the cinema of Alexandre Aja. It was always my intention to just let this one crawl right past me but so many people said, something along the lines of ”No, you should check this one out, it’s really jumpy and you’ll have a good time with it.” So I did.
So many people were wrong.
Although, to be fair, the movie does get a little bit jumpy from time to time but only because, in an unusual bid for a lack of character logic which is ropy in modern thriller and suspense movies anyway, the characters outdo themselves in behaving in a manner which gives them, surely, the least chance of survival possible. This plus an almost unprecedented level of ‘lets see how much bad luck we can pour on to manufacture an extended dramatic situation’ not experienced since the mini masterpiece that was Gravity (reviewed here).
Now, to be fair, the performances here are top notch with the astonishing beauty of the last Pirates Of The Caribbean film (reviewed here) that is Kaya Scodelario playing swimming champion called Haley, who has to go and try and rescue her injured father Dave, played equally well by Barry Pepper, from a basement in a house in New Orleans during a major hurricane. Alas, it’s not long before both of them find themselves in a basement slowly filling up with water but unable to leave because of various alligators swimming around said basement and treating it like it’s their personal cafeteria.
Oh, wait. Did I mention Haley’s a swimming champion? Of course I did. Because that’s obviously the most convenient kind of person to get trapped in a sink or swim situation underwater with carnivorous reptiles. In fact, the whole film is about keeping this one spark of an idea going in the most blatantly fabricated ways possible. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this is quite a nicely made film in its ability to pour on the shock moments but it just feels like there could have been less silly ways of doing these kinds of things other than giving this wonderful cast incredibly, unreasonably stupid characters who can’t figure their way out of this and then relying on a load of frequent, freak coincidences to give them ways of trying to escape.
In fact, I was quite relieved on a couple of fronts where the director sets things up and he didn’t actually yank those threads at all. For instance, the singling out of a tattoo on Haley’s arm in the opening sequence was, I was sure from the moment we saw it, so we could identify the arm when it was floating loose from the lead actress later in the movie. As it happens, the tattoo shot turned out to have no such relevance at all. Secondly, the introduction of a certain kind of character looked like she was there to just get eaten quickly to deliver the necessary shock moment but, I’m glad to say, that particular character did not meet the fate I’d immediately assigned to her. Indeed, without giving too much away here, this one character showed more common sense throughout the whole movie than both father and daughter combined so... yeah... I won’t spoil that one for you.
But, yeah, it doesn’t take too long for the writers to start bringing in peripheral characters like looters and rescue cops in, just to the keep the body count ticking over and so the people trapped can freak out a bit more as they see the number of items on the menu diminishing once more. Again, it's something I could have done without but it's not an unusual step for movies with a killer element in them to take... in order to remind the audience just what is at stake here. So I guess I can’t moan about it too much although it does, it has to be said, seem to just call attention to itself in the most blatant way possible here.
Now, I might not think that much of Aja for the most part but he does know how to put together a competently crafted movie, despite blatant plot devices, so there are some nicely done scenes of suspense and a sense of claustrophobia throughout the film but, ultimately, a lot of the good work here is undermined by having characters who would be cover poster stars for a book entitled ‘What not to do if you find yourself trapped in the middle of a hurricane, about to drown, with a load of alligators.’ So, yeah, I had mixed feelings about the movie.
It also didn’t help that new ‘laws of motion picture natural history’ seem to have been applied here. Not that an alligator would go too much out of their way to attack a human but, if they did, this film introduces us to the rule that, if an alligator is swimming after you and you hop out of the water onto land or a bit of furniture, then it’s unable to follow you. What the heck? Seriously, there’s one point in the story when Haley is swimming for land and then, when the land slopes up to take her onto, relatively, dry land... the alligator who was just seconds away from biting her ankle immediately gives up. This seemed a bit far fetched to me, it has to be said.
Other than that, though... the film was fun in places but ultimately I wasn’t riveted to the screen and I also noticed the film had less exploitation value than most films which feature scantily clad ladies swimming about for hours in high levels of water. The goriness of the effects seemed a bit wanting too, which seemed to me a bit out of kilter with the reputation of the director. And make no mistake, this is definitely a movie which is trying hard to be a modern exploitation movie, for sure. It just doesn’t necessarily succeed at it too well... at least, that’s how it seemed to me.
So that’s me done on this one. I’m quite happy that I did get to see Crawl on my Cineworld Unlimited card and not have to pay out for a Blu Ray at some point in the future.. so that’s a possible silver lining, I guess. Also, I’d have to say there are certain people who I know who I could recommend this movie to because I think they might get a kick out of it... I just wouldn’t include myself on that list, in regards to this movie. I don't ever need to see this again.
Sunday, 22 September 2019
Blood Wiser Bear
Rambo - Last Blood
Directed by Adrian Grunberg
UK cinema release print.
Aaah... not sure where to start with Rambo - Last Blood.
Regular readers of my blog will know I have a lot of respect, time and admiration for Sylvester Stallone. I think he’s one of the few, true, larger than life ‘Hollywoood stars’ we have left but also a great actor and strong writer who could have maybe had a more varied career. The Rambo films are, for me, among his least interesting films but I loved his fourth one, Rambo, and I’ve always loved the scores to these things. If you want to know my feelings on the other Rambo movies, my review of the whole tetralogy before this one is here.
I was actually fairly looking forward to this fifth entry into the cycle but, it has to be said, I was a little disappointed with it. Not because it’s that badly written (in terms of dialogue at least) and the clichéd plot is not necessarily a thorn in its side either... I think this kind of storyline could have made a good Rambo movie, to be honest. And the revenge/action device as a call to arms present here is also pretty good... the movie is honestly a lot of fun in places.
The acting is not bad either. Stallone is cool (although... I think he his characterisation is part of the problem here) and his supporting cast, especially Yvette Monreal as the niece who Rambo has to go and rescue from the prostitution ring who have enslaved her, are all very good here.
And the action is, mostly, well put together. Or at least, the dramatic weight of it is. Stallone is one of those few actors (and directors, when he puts his hand to it... I’m assuming he has a lot to say when being directed himself and so has an influence on the way things turn out in the movies he’s in)... who understands that if you want to have an action cinema then you have to have the long pauses between the action sequences to give the audience a break and to make the scenes of violence or kinetic energy more potent when they come. Using those elements more as a punctuation to the story rather than being what the story is about. Kurosawa knew this. Steven Spielberg knows this. Sly Stallone knows this. And there is that element here to the film too.
And it is a lot of fun and certainly an entertaining picture a lot of the time.
I do, however, have three problems with the film and, for me, they do put quite a dampener on all the positive stuff but, you never know, some films grow better with age when you watch them again in later years and I suspect this might well be the case with this fifth one.
So my first problem is John Rambo himself. The way he is written and, because of that, Stallone’s portrayal of him, is really not like the character as we've known him. For a start, he talks too much. Rambo was always the strong silent type and though there is one scene where he lets his glares do all the talking for him, when he first approaches the Mexican traffickers, he really is not like the Rambo we’ve known in previous movies and I had a really hard time trying to equate this version of the character with the one we last saw eleven years ago, to be honest. Yeah, I know the character has moved on and he’s become a different person now but, even so, it still felt a bit of a wrong departure for this movie. This big bear of a man is wiser but not necessarily as close to his origins as I would have liked. This felt like it could be any generic action movie with any one of many modern action stars playing the central role... it didn’t feel like a Rambo movie. The plot... yes. The character... no.
Secondly, the big action sequence at the end seems terribly edited to me. It was way too fast. It was very gory and I’m not complaining about that... this element was perhaps the only part of the whole affair that brought it back in line with the previous four but... it has to be said, I was struggling to follow it. Not the sequencing or anything, I was cool with that. It was the details of the deaths which I was struggling with... they were just too fast for me to see what was going on. I could see lots of people's heads and limbs were being folded, spindled and mutilated but, before I had time to register what had happened when somebody's face suddenly got pulverised, for instance, the film had already moved on. So I could have done with a little more understanding of what I’d just seen in a few instances.
Thirdly... the score. I love Brian Tyler’s music and it was when he provided the score to the last film in the series, following in the giant, mythical footsteps of the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, that I first started to notice Tyler’s work and, I’ve been an admirer of his scores since then. This one, however, felt less like a Rambo score but... it’s hard to tell, to be honest. He does quote Jerry’s themes a little but it felt to me like there were some real missed opportunities, especially near the end, where he could have elevated the spirit of Rambo through the music a little more than he did. Not necessarily his fault, of course, he might have gone that way and the studio rejected those cues for all I know. However, this is a very noisy film when the action starts and, for the most part, Tyler’s score is not dialled up far enough in the sound mix to really hear it properly or feel the benefit, I thought. I’d love to hear it away from the movie but, alas, it looks like this may be the first Rambo film not to get a CD release (just a stupid, electronic download thing which isn’t the best way to actually hear the music as recorded) and so it looks like I may never get a chance to hear it now. Which is a great shame. I’m hoping Intrada records might leap to the rescue here at some point but I’m not holding my breath.
And that’s all I’ve got on Rambo - Last Blood. The film ends with a montage of clips from all five films with the last section even having a further hint at John Rambo’s final fate with a bit of footage you don’t get to see in the main film... but again, the scoring on this section felt wrong and it could have really done with some more of Goldsmith’s original themes in here. All in all, if you’re a fan of modern action movies and have no great loyalty to the earlier films in the franchise, then I’d say you’d probably have a good time with the new one. Some older fans may struggle with this version of the character but, ultimately, it’s a solid action movie so it should win the majority of them over, I suspect. Not my favourite of the series by any sense of the imagination but I’m glad I saw it and I wish they’d have done a ‘final stand’ movie which was more appropriate to the original character. I was a little disappointed with this one.
Thursday, 19 September 2019
Quite A Mess And The Pitt
Directed by James Gray
UK cinema release print.
This movie has been getting some good word of mouth on Twitter and I have to say that, while it falls just slightly short of being an all time classic, Ad Astra is definitely one of the best films of the year. I have some reservations about it... or one anyway... and I’ll get to that a little later but this one is quite the spectacle. I was somewhat put off that people had been comparing this to the absolute brilliance of 2001 - A Space Odyssey (reviewed here) but I have to say that, in a way, they’re right. There are a few little shots scattered around here and there which, if you know Kubrick’s film well, you'll realise are pretty much done in homage, I think, to 2001... although shot in a totally different way of course. But, yeah, there are some direct references back to the look, or at least content, of certain moments in that.
What I haven’t seen mentioned as yet, although, I’m pretty sure I will be seeing a lot of this commentary fairly soon, is the film’s striking resemblance in terms of tone and narrative structure to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This is something I really wasn’t expecting but by about 20 minutes into the movie I realised that this was definitely part of the vibe the writer/director was going for here.
The set up of the film is very close to the Coppola movie (and presumably Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness too, although it’s been so many decades since I read it that I can barely remember it). In the near future and after the start of a series of bursts of antimatter pulses originating from somewhere near Neptune, which almost kills main protagonist Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) during the film’s opening sequences, Roy is sent on a mission hopping from Earth... to the Moon... to Mars and then on to Neptune. His father who was said to have died in space decades before, working on something called the Lima Project near Neptune is, it turns out, suspected of being very much alive and probably gone insane. He is the prime suspect for directing these bursts that drain all power from their target and he needs to be dealt with as swiftly as possible, before the bursts get stronger and destroy everything in the universe. So he is obviously set up as the ‘Colonel Kurtz’ figure of the movie and the film is about Roy’s journey, including speculative voice-over narrative which helps bring the Apocalypse Now vibe into the mix, to try and get to his father and stop whatever is going on. Things are quite a mess up there.
Brad Pitt in this is very strong and I don’t know why I’m always so surprised when I see him turn in a good performance. After all, he’s done some great work in pictures like Inglourious Basterds and World War Z, not to mention his absolutely stunning job in Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. This film gives him some good stuff to work with, playing an almost machine-like character who is nearly always in control and who doesn’t get an accelerated heartbeat, even in times of crisis. Pitt shows the slight flaws and cracks in his character’s approach to life and he gives some nice, subtle shading to a role which could quite easily been a much more clinical, cypher of a part in the hands of certain other actors.
He’s joined by big, acting war horse names like Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones... plus some really interesting, more contemporary performers such as Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler. Between them all, they and their supporting cast do a terrific job here.
The special effects, quality of the set and prop design and just the overall mise en scène of the thing in general is all absolutely brilliant too and, even though there are a few concepts which threaten to enter more ‘fantasy’ rather than hard sci-fi territory on occasion, this ‘near future’ tale all seems very believable and relatable. It’s got a nice slow pacing but that’s kind of deceptive because there’s a lot of information flying around which has a progressive, emotional effect on the viewer.
For instance, when Donald Sutherland’s character exits the movie fairly early on, he leaves Roy with previously unseen information about the ‘top secret’ mission he’s on and, after this is revealed to both him and the audience, it makes one constantly ‘on the lookout’ for any life threatening situations which could covertly sneak up on the main protagonist and take him... and the audience, by surprise. So, a lot of the suspense comes... not from the actual situations and incidents depicted themselves (although there are some very intense moments, to be fair) but from the expectation that anything or anyone could be about to sabotage that mission and threaten its success in the most terminal fashion.
There’s also... and it’s a very delicate tightrope to walk so, hats off to the director for this... a few action sequences scattered throughout the film and, rather than jar against the tone of the piece, they actually complement and lift the plot rather well. So the ‘space buggy pirates’, not to mention the uneasy tension (due to heightened audience paranoia) of what happens when the crew go to check out a distress signal, make for some interesting moments and hugely enjoyable sequences which don’t damage the overall, less speedily paced nature of the beast.
The score by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe is also quite brilliant, managing to be low key and unobtrusive while still giving you an elevating background hit appropriate to the mostly non-action nature of a lot of the story. I’d love to get hold of this on CD but, as of the time of writing this, it just doesn’t seem to be available. Which is a shame because it’s really cool in the film.
Okay, so far so good. It’s a brilliant film but, for this audience member at least, not an all time classic. Why? Well, the ending just feels a little weak. When Roy finally gets himself to Neptune, by ways I won’t reveal here, the state of his dad and the real issue that is causing the pulses are... well... they’re a bit anticlimactic, to be honest. I did feel kind of short changed after such a sense of foreboding had been kept up throughout the movie and, to add insult to injury, the last ten minutes or so just seemed like Hollywood wanting to please audiences by giving a much nicer ending than any of the characters had a right to expect. So there’s that and it’s why, for me, Ad Astra is a great movie but not a classic. Maybe the ending will grow on me when I watch it again (which I certainly will be doing when I grab the Blu Ray) but, for now, I was a little deflated by the time I got to the final credits.
Ultimately though, if you like science fiction movies then you’re in for a treat with Ad Astra. Definitely go and see this one on as big a screen as possible because it’s fairly spectacular and, the journey to the home stretch is a really great cinematic experience. Like I said earlier, it’s easily one of the best films of the year and you can count on it being in my year end list when the time comes. Go see it.
Tuesday, 17 September 2019
Every Shade Of Blue
by Linzi Drew-Honey
Matador ISBN: 978-1784625306
I’ve talked about Linzi Drew (aka Linzi Drew-Honey) before on this blog. As well as being a very famous British ‘glamour model’ she also had small roles in various films ad TV shows including work with directors like John Landis (she appears in An American Werewolf In London) and Ken Russell (she appears in a few, if memory serves). I reviewed her long out of print but incredibly illuminating autobiography, Try Everything Once Except Incest And Morris Dancing, here but I had no idea that it would be my honour to meet this thrilling lady in person, earlier in the year when she did a signing at the Camden Film Fair. It was here that I picked up a personalised copy of the first of two (to date) erotic romances which she has written and it is furthermore my pleasure to have very recently read said tome, Every Shade Of Blue. This is surely a title attempting to cash in on the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ market (with a further layer of reference in the title, perhaps, by recalling Linzi’s time as a sexy host of the Electric Blue videos of days long gone). There’s not many, I am sure, more qualified to write about this stuff than Linzi, that’s for sure.
Now, I’m not all that practiced at reviewing (or indeed reading) erotica, having just a few other erotic novels on this blog and this one, well, it took me by surprise. I already knew Linzi could write (see my review of her autobiography) but this novel definitely revels in the pulpy nature of a certain, steamy style of erotic literature and, frankly, this was almost a refreshing change from some of the stuff I’ve read in the past.
The novel is basically about a triangle of the three main ‘players’ of the book... the adventurous divorcee Suzanne which, honestly, I couldn’t help but equate, to a certain extent, with the writer herself and her two ‘rivals’ for love and carnal delights, the ‘good guy’ doctor Sebastian Black and the ‘bad guy’ Angelo.
The writer wastes no time in giving character descriptions which give a sense of just who these people... and their co-stars... are and she does this in the way someone like Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis might do it, by giving lots of descriptions of the details and minutia of the characters lives with products and brands etc being emphasised as a kind of shorthand into the kinds of people they are. So clothes, food, watches etc and the variations of these kinds of items are all highlighted, helping build up a picture of the people who populate the novel. This is very much a literary form of ‘clothes maketh the man’, so to speak and she does this with a good turn of phrase and a certain sincerity which might, in some other writers’ works, seem a little hollow.
The book is very quickfire and easy to read, with each chapter told from the viewpoint of a certain character and with each of these chapter sections titled up, documentary style, with the character’s name and the date in which the action takes place... which gets more important as the story progresses and the timing for the characters gets more crucial to the impetus of the main plot. This also allows the author to cut to the chase a little more rapidly using section signifiers like scene shifts and present scenes with vast swathes of trivia edited out... just like you’d get with a location transition in a movie... which I thought was a useful approach.
The book is full of sex, of course, especially in the first and last quarter of the tale... with some nice and somewhat light hearted phrases to sum up the state of her character’s respective headspaces. So, for instance, in a ‘stealth airplane sex’ sequence near the start of the novel, we get stuff like...
“She was shocked as she felt her nipples harden. Take-offs always thrilled her, but this was so much more.”
Some thrillers have a high body count as bad guys are violently dispatched to increase the excitement and enhance the credibility of the central hero in the milieu in which he finds himself. Similarly, Linzi’s book has a high orgasm count... in fact, the lead heroine had already had a couple before I was even up to page 9. And throughout a lot of the book she finds herself, in the writer’s own words... “awash with orgasm.” Which I thought was a nice turn of phrase but it’s not just the sexual shenanigans that make for some evocative writing. I thought, for instance, that “Ruby studs adorned her ears and she had painted her lips a slash of sticky blood red” was particularly nicely done at invoking a certain eye for colour co-ordinating in the main protagonist while being similarly evocative of a penchant for the almost subliminal invocation of body fluids throughout the course of the story.
As it is, I felt I actually believed in some of the characters somewhat and not just the lead protagonist, who wears clothes made of material that “second-skinned her feminine curves”. I soon found myself suitably in suspense somewhat as the book leads to a climax which isn’t quite written as I’d expected... which is no bad thing, of course. I was a little taken aback that the main villain of the piece was someone who practices a heavy BDSM lifestyle because, frankly, this is as valid a form of sexual expression as any other and so equating it with ‘the bad guy’ wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to read but, there are plenty of recipients who seem to be enjoying certain aspects of this lifestyle in the novel too so I’m not going to make any judgements on this. I don’t think this was necessarily a conscious decision on the part of the writer. Or, if it was, then I’m sure the matter was well considered, hence the enjoyment of said practice with some of the other characters.
That being said, while I believed in the characters, I did come away on several occasions disappointed that both the main male protagonist and antagonist had ridiculously huge amounts more stamina than I do. I couldn’t be performing like they do under similar superhuman circumstances, I’m sure (and not for want of trying, I suspect). However, I did find the book quite credible most of the time and, more importantly, extremely entertaining... if distracting to my daily routine on more than one occasion.
In conclusion, then, if you’re into erotica and want to read a sex soaked tale written by someone who, given her past life experiences, is more than qualified to know what she is talking about, then definitely give Every Shade Of Blue a go. For my part, I find myself looking forward to the next novel in the series, Every Shade Of Black but I am waiting before I purchase said tome to see if Linzi will be doing anymore Camden Film Fairs in the near future as I’d surely like to get the second volume personalised too... not to mention meet the lady again after first seeing her on my TV all those years ago. Fingers crossed I get that opportunity sometime soon then.
Sunday, 15 September 2019
Directed by Stuart Brennan
UK cinema release print.
Wolf is written by Stuart Brennan and George McCluskey, who both play main parts in this film... and it’s directed by Brennan. It’s one of those movies which, even before you get to the cinema, presents you with a puzzle. That puzzle being... how in heck did anyone manage to make a movie with the premise, Roman legionnaires versus Werewolves in Scotland, without it getting any kind of promotional publicity at all. I mean come on... Romans VS Werewolves (which would have been a better title, by the way) is something everyone is going to want to watch, right? This film, however, wasn’t even a blip on my radar until I looked up what was on at the cinema over the weekend and found it listed as opening the next day. I promptly went to one of the only ‘two performances per day’ screenings and asked the one fellow audience member I encountered if he’d seen any promotion for this and he basically repeated to me my own feelings on it. That being, ‘nope, only found out by looking up cinema times’ and ‘they had me at werewolf’. So there you go.
And then the film, which isn’t half bad, by the way, started playing and, right away, the mystery of the lack of publicity was revealed. That being that this production obviously had very little money to speak of. I can’t seem to find details of the budget on the IMDB for some reason but it becomes obvious that this story of a group of Romans and their scout who are sent from behind the safety of Hadrian’s Wall and into the forest, to track down some missing soldiers supposed to be offering peace with the Picts, was definitely on the micro-budget level when they can’t even afford to show Hadrian’s Wall in the movie. And also, later on, there’s a ‘time lapse’ shot of stars which looks like a badly manipulated slide shot.
So, yeah, I’m guessing there was no money available for a marketing budget and I’m kinda surprised this one didn’t play at FrightFest a few weeks ago... although, power to these people for getting their movie out into cinemas (although it’s not looking like it’s been scheduled for a release in any other country, as yet).
And... it’s one of those films that reveals its lack of facilities while simultaneously making you realise how clever and creative the cast and crew are being in managing to get what they did get up on screen. Let’s look at some of the more positive elements because, frankly, it’s a nicely made movie, despite the lack of funding.
Okay, so the plot is simple but effective, as you slowly see the team of Roman men and women slowly picked off by... ‘things unseen’ for the most part. And, what it lacks in budget, it makes up for with some quite good dialogue. Clichéd, for sure, as the majority of the team bond and villains are singled out by their actions and allegiances but it’s quite effectively written and the cast perform it spectacularly. I loved the way that it really demonstrated how the Romans took their fighting strategies and formations seriously in the face of the enemy. George McCluskey as the leader of the group is very solid and the three main female characters among the cast... played by Adanna Oji, Jennifer Chippindale and the scene stealing Victoria Morrison... are all absolutely wonderful here too. There’s not a bad one in the lot, to be honest but, I’m not going to name check everyone here.
And then there’s the creative way of shooting this. I’ll tell you now, to save disappointment, when I say that the film obviously had a low budget, that stretches to including any werewolf makeup whatsoever, unless you count fangs. The werewolf attacks which punctuate the film at certain points are masterpieces of mis-direction where you feel, rather than see what is going on. So blurry, silhouettes of figures running at speed in the front of the camera with the reactions of the Romans caught in long shot behind them before cutting back to the various human cast and then cutting back out again in short bursts are very much the order of the day here. And lots of hand held camera throughout the movie, of course.
The director has definitely learnt the old school horror trick of 'less is more' which has been with us throughout the history of the genre on screen and which makes even more sense when you don’t have anything really to show or, as in some movies, something really badly designed. When you do finally catch a glimpse of a werewolf they are pretty much just naked people with fangs so... yeah... people gone feral. That being said, although you don’t see any physical transformations in this, the ostentatious vomiting which accompanies the ‘non-transformations’, post-bite, are quite effectively performed and just about manage to carry the weight of the idea for the length of the feature.
There’s even a nice ‘feminist horror’ pitch threaded through the DNA of the movie which is tapped into for the final scenes. This isn’t just a ‘final girl’ movie its... yeah, like I’m going to put spoilers in here. You need to watch this one for yourself because, frankly, these people are going to need your money and I just hope, with skilled craftsmanship like this, given the budget, that they get to make another feature sometime soon.
Also, I can find no details of who actually composed the somewhat synth heavy score for this but it’s actually pretty good also. Lots of cymbals, scraping metal and percussion to emphasis the chaos in the battle sequences and it’s quite appropriate to the film, even though it’s somewhat anachronistic to the period being filmed. As is most historical scoring so, no problems there. It’s also got a kind of strident three note motif which actually kept the melody gong around in my head on the journey home too so... yeah, if I could get a CD of this score it would be nice but I don’t see a release happening in the near future, to be honest.
Other than that, though... what more can I say. It’s obvious that, with a script and premise like this, a much bigger budget could have made Wolf a truly great piece of genre cinema. As it is, the genius of the cast and crew give us something that is more than entertainingly watchable on a more modest scale and which, frankly, deserves a lot more attention than I expect it’s going to get. Sure, some things look a bit unpolished but I was amazed by just how good this did look in places and the enthusiasm for the material by the cast and crew is obvious from what’s caught on screen. If you are in the mood for something a bit different from the majority of films playing in cinemas this week then get yourself down to see Wolf because, frankly, I can’t imagine this one will last more than a week at the cinema and it’s very much worth a watch for fans of horror. Definitely a good candidate for a ‘mates around for drinks and a movie’ all-nighter, if it gets a home video release.
Thursday, 12 September 2019
Knaves All Gazing
Knaves Over Queens
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Harper Voyager ISBN: 9780008283599
Knaves Over Queens is the 27th in the series of editor (and, once upon a time, contributing writer) George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards mosaic novels. It’s an absolutely brilliant series of books and I’ve written numerous reviews of the more recent tomes in the series on this review blog. The stories tell of an alternate historical timeline which splits off from our own after Jetboy fails to stop the release of an alien virus from the planet Takis in the 1940s, known later as the Wild Cards virus. Humanity is changed in the wake of the virus which leaves behind superheroes (known as Aces), hideous malformed freaks (known as Jokers), Knaves (who are a kind of combination of both… Joker Aces if you will), nats (naturals... those left with absolutely no change) and a lot of people who just die when their ‘card turns’ (when the virus finally manifests itself in their body at some point in their lifetime), which is known as ‘drawing the black queen’, naturally.
This new novel, though, is not a continuation of the various characters who have been living in this universe in the more recent of the novels from the last decade or so (this series of books has been going since the 1980s). Instead, this new one goes right back to the times of the very first book of the series but gives us the various interlocking short stories of what was happening in the United Kingdom at the same time. So this is, essentially, a British Wild Cards novel but, even though some of the contributing writers are the same (including the queen of the Wild Cards writers herself, Melinda M. Snodgrass), it perfectly captures the spirit and fluctuating tone of the rest of the series and it’s one of the more interesting of the series I’ve read recently… although they’re pretty much all good, it has to be said.
Now, there’s one thing I suspect the original writers of the Wild Cards series did without considering the consequences of success too much with their very first novel and over the years I’ve come to look at it as a mistake, with the gift of hindsight. And that is the fact that, in that first volume, the writers flew through the decades from the 1940s to what was then the present of the 1980s all in one glorious gulp… so many of the subsequent novels had to be set, more or less, all around the same time. However, having said that, I can’t qualify that as an accident on the latest collection of stories because Knave Over Queens, sadly, does exactly the same thing. There are single stories set one each apiece in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… a few in the 1980s and then onto one or two stories of each of the intervening decades from then until the present decade… and this is a great shame, I feel. Not that it isn’t a lot of fun, for sure but, it would have been nice if some of the new characters and scenarios developed in these wonderful shorts could have been maybe explored in more detail with, say, one decade per novel or some such.
That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt the tome any and it’s as furiously fast paced as some of the best Wild Cards novels. There are, as usual, some rich character ideas and situations so you have some interesting origin stories ranging from what was happening aboard the Queen Mary, stopped from entering New York harbour when the Wild Card virus was first released in the 1940s, an alternate look at the reign of terror perpetrated by The Kray Twins in the 1960s and a heck of a lot of stuff about various ‘terrorist’ groups such as the IRA and the Twisted Fists (who long time readers of the Wild Cards series will certainly remember).
There’s also the usual interesting characters peppered throughout with Alan Turing, for instance, drawing an Ace of sorts and going by the code name Enigma. Or Mick Jagger who, we are told, would sleep with anyone but who is also, in addition to being a pop star, a werewolf. And all this is set in a world where, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Princess Elisabeth drew the black queen and Princess Margaret was crowned queen. A world where Winston Churchill’s ace allowed him to lead an extended life, including a long political life, where he set up The Order Of The Silver Helix… which is the British equivalent of the aces who work secretly for the government. Another character proves himself fairly useful in the ‘Falklands Conflict’ which I remember seeing all over the news in the 1980s.
As usual, the various characters and incidents either connect to or, at the very least, have consequences in other stories in the novel although, like the very first novel all those years ago, it’s less of a single story arc coming together so much as a few story arcs clashing and sustaining the weight of the various mini adventures throughout. So there are three sets of characters who appear at different times or are at least mentioned in a number of, often unconnected stories, who are there to give a little glue to the thing as a whole. One character starts off his adventure from the Queen Mary in the 1940s and is still going strong by the last stories set in contemporary times. Another character, a nasty goddess who weaves a spell of quite gory death as she plays off the various sides of ‘the troubles’ has her own story arc which leaves the novel with a chilling climax rather than anything a little more upbeat. A third character starts off his adventures as a spin writer for the alternate history version of Margaret Thatcher before his card turns and he ends up having to go undercover for Winston Churchill, in order to infiltrate an organisation which will mean something to regular readers of the series. These are all woven into the fabric of the novel and often find themselves on various sides of conflicts going on in various stories.
There are some nice Easter eggs and bonuses for regular readers too. Now my mind is a bit fuzzy on all the characters in the Wild Cards universe I’ve read over the last 30 odd years but I will say that there’s a least one story that took me by surprise, somewhat, as being the origins of a character who occasionally makes some dramatic and violence filled appearances over the years. And, although there are a few crossovers with characters from the earlier novels, there aren’t all that many blatant crossovers (at least not as blatant as the aforementioned Miss. Snodgrass’ wonderful contribution to the novel). There are, however, a fair few mentions (and probably a lot of little cameos I didn’t pick up on) so frequent followers of the series will, as I said earlier, have a richer experience with this particular tome than people who are just jumping on at this point. That being said, I didn’t catch one Croyd Crenson reference in this one but... I guess you can’t have everything.
And, as you might expect from these stories by now, there is a rich variation of the kind of interlocking tales showcased from here… from 1960s London gangland to a Hatton Garden heist by way of John Le Carre style spy stories, pulp horror and even the horrors of war. So if you’re a fan of postmodernist, eclectic tale spinning with a vaguely super-powered tint and, of course, if you’re already an avid reader, then you will want to grab a copy of this one, for sure. Wild Cards - Knave Over Queens is another triumph for the series and I really hope this doesn’t turn out to be the final novel in the sequence. These books are precious jewels of the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres and they deserve to be cherished for generations to come.
Tuesday, 10 September 2019
The Saint Meets The Tiger
USA 1943 Directed by Paul L. Stein
Republic (for RKO) DVD Region 2
Well I do believe my last review of The Saint’s Vacation (which you can find here) did leading man Hugh Sinclair a bit of a disservice... considering he shot this in the same year, 1941. I believe that, although novelist Leslie Charteris could write great dialogue in the novels, we saw from that last one that his screenplay writing skills were a little less entertaining. At least it seems so to me. However, this screenplay wasn’t written by Charteris and it kinda shows. The Saint is much more clever with his words here... just as he is in the books, ironically... and this one is based on the very first full length Saint novel, Meet The Tiger.
Now I read this maybe 35 years ago and remember really loving it (enough to buy a load more from the second hand bookshop I used to frequent after school on Thursday afternoons) but I really can’t remember much of it now, it has to be said. So as an adaptation I’m not sure how it cuts it but I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than the last entry in the series (it was technically still a part of that series... I’ll get to that in a minute) and quite a bit better than a few of the other ones too.
Now The Saint Meets The Tiger was actually shot by RKO, who had been distributing the movies up to this point. However, when it was shot in 1941, they were looking for a replacement for The Saint series (because the rights would be too unnecessarily expensive to renew) and so they created The Falcon series and George Sanders jumped ship and became the title character in the first of the films, The Gay Falcon (which I will review at some point in the, relatively near, future). However, the character, despite being loosely based on some source material, was pretty much turned into a version of The Saint in all but name and Charteris didn’t like this one bit. He sued RKO for ripping off his character and, in the wake of all the legal shenanigans, this film got put on the shelf for a couple of years. When it was finally released in 1943, the British arm of RKO distributed it over here but they cut a deal with Republic Pictures to release it in the US. Despite the DVD I watched of this being an English edition, this one has a US print with the famous Republic logo at the start.
This one is great though. It’s fast paced and, despite still having that completely unsaintly moustache, Hugh Sinclair really makes the part his own here. He has good on screen chemistry with Patricia Holm (The Saint’s girlfriend for a while and who he first meets in this book as he does in this film), played by Jean Gillie... as he does with Wylie Watson as his butler Horace and Clifford Evans as reporter Tidemarsh. And, of course, some great scenes opposite Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, played once again (for a third time, I think it is) by Gordon McLeod... who also seems to make the role his own.
The plot is an intriguing one dealing with a million dollars worth of stolen gold and how to find it and get it away from the arch criminal, The Tiger. Now, the one thing I remember from the novel was that The Tiger was more or less The Saint’s equal. The same kind of intelligence and rationality but with just a little less of the good samaritan about him when it comes to his acts of robbery. The Tiger comes across similarly in the movie and he even stops The Saint from being killed by his minions, wherever possible. You get a real sense of two adversaries sparring from similar backgrounds with this tale and it’s almost a shame when, at the end, the villain of the piece gets his inevitable comeuppance.
The movie starts off strongly with a phone call from a man who needs Simon Templar’s help. When he turns up at his door a few minutes later, he has been knifed and, more or less, dies in The Saint’s arms after dropping a few choice clues as to where he should look to uncover the mystery. So, Templar and his butler make for Cornwall... which is a curious place as represented in the movie. Half the times when the car drives into a street, for instance, it seems clear that they are on a set... other times it’s clear that real location shoots are being used. There’s even a nice mix where some kind of matte painting slide is used to give what is probably a studio set, the impression of cliffs behind sea.
However, all the dotting about between sets and locations doesn’t stop this one being a thrilling ride and when Pat starts helping out Templar after he exposes one of the villains working for The Tiger, just before he can swindle her out of a load of money, she goes all out to help him. We also have an undercover Inspector Teal who even, at one point in the proceedings, actually manages to pull the wool over The Saint’s eyes, for once. Which is kind of refreshing.
All this is helped on by a rather lively set of stock music by various musicians but which sound, it has to be said, very 'Republic' in nature. The score gets very enthusiastic at various points and is not subtle at all but, somehow, it manages to keep it all afloat nicely without making itself sound too silly. The IMDB credits Roy Webb as being in on the music but, certainly on the print I saw, I couldn’t find his Saint theme anywhere... so I’m not 100% sure on this.
This was, almost, the last film in The Saint series that RKO had anything to do with although they did, indeed, distribute the next movie in the US, which saw the return of Louis Hayward who was my favourite version of the character from the very first RKO movie The Saint In New York (which you can find reviewed here). However, that final movie, produced by England’s famous Hammer studios, was not released until 1953 and, amazingly, is still not around on commercial DVD as far as I can see. However, I hope to have a review of this next one up for you very soon. I just hope Hayward was as good in the role after an absence from Simon Templar of 15 years. I’ll be able to tell you the answer to that very soon, I suspect.
Sunday, 8 September 2019
Ghost To Ghost
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone A/B
Pulse was a bit of a mystery for me when I dove into the latest Arrow Blu Ray transfer of the movie from a year or so ago. For one reason... because I'd somehow never really heard of it before (or possibly I just forgot it).
That's a puzzle in itself because, back in the day, I used to be really into the whole j-horror thing. ‘Back in the day’ being when Ringu (the original and pretty much only great version of Ring) hit UK cinemas in the year 2000, two years after its first run release in Japan. It was a scary film and it wasn't too long before I was hooked on cinema releases of great Japanese horror movies such as Ju-On (aka The Grudge), Dark Water and The Eye.
Also, with the old DVD distributor Tartan Video picking up these and a whole host of sequels and close kin to these movies, it was a really great time to be getting into these kinds of celluloid horrors. Of course most, possibly even all, of those movies were destined for US remakes which I quite happily ignored, fairly safe in the knowledge (according to reports) that they were dumbed down, less interesting ‘knock offs’ of the originals.
One such remake, however, was indeed a US reworking of Pulse and so, like I said, a bit of a mystery that I'd never really registered this movie in my consciousness up until this Arrow edition although, it has to be said, I should maybe give the US remake of this one a go sometime in case it actually sheds some light as to what the heck this disjointed film was about, to be honest.
The film starts off with one set of characters who work in a nursery and one of them goes to investigate why a colleague has not turned up for work. After finding him at home but acting very distant, she gets distracted looking for a crucial disk at work and then turns around to find he has hanged himself. She takes the disk to the office and some mostly vague shenanigans occur which are almost but, not quite, spooky.
Then we switch to another set of characters who, to my stupid gaijin eyes, were the same characters I'd already been following except they were suddenly students and not office workers anymore. Once I'd twigged the various character occupations and environments, I found it a little less puzzling to follow what was going on but, honestly, no less penetrable in terms of what the heck was supposed to be unfolding in terms of story content here.
As far as the story goes, it seems to be a tale about people getting turned into ghosts after just having some contact with spirits. The internet is somehow a transmitter (or maybe not, I couldn’t figure it out) and this strange spate of ghostly manifestations seems to have been started by this truly confounding attempt at an origin tale which starts with this guy in a building somehow realising there's something wrong with the electrics? So he uses red sticky tape to seal the edges of all the electrical boxes in a wall but then the place gets demolished and so the electricity, or whatever the heck it is, is free to slowly infect the world.
So... yeah. Anyway, our two sets of main protagonists are slowly whittled down to one male in one group and one female in the other group, as their friends are methodically "ghosted" one by one until only they are left. And not only are they the only ones left in their respective groups within the story but also, when they look around them after a while, it seems they could be the only survivors of their immediate neighbourhood... possibly the world. It's almost like Gojira (aka Godzilla) has been stomping around the country but without anyone seeing him and with no real signs of damage other than the black stain left in the wake of people as they suddenly turn into lonely ghosts. Hmmm... maybe there's a metaphor in there somewhere but I couldn't really be bothered to reflect on it by this point in the movie.
The way the film is put together is kind of a frustrating thing too. The director is, like many directors I've been looking at lately, kind of obsessed with sectioning off parts of the screen to highlight his performers. The way he tends to do it, at least in this movie, is to use overlapping bits of the natural environment, from the flattened viewpoint of the camera, to make squares and rectangles out of the intersections of both horizontal and vertical lines and then to keep his performers in either one place or moving between intersections... quite cleverly with regards to camera movement in some places.The sections where he does this are often quite densely layered too... absolute tangles of gazillions of areas crowded into a single frame on occasion. However, rather than go for the bright kind of colour scheme which would accentuate this in a clean manner, the colour palette looks rather dull for the most part and... well... the whole thing looked just a little grainy and dingy to me. Not what I’d expect to illustrate that kind of penchant for linear detail, for sure. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to look like this and it’s not just a bad transfer... this is Arrow, after all and, although it’s been seen that they are certainly not above making mistakes in some of their restorations, I would have thought that this kind of dulled down look must be a part of the director’s vision, in this instance.
Another thing which seemed a little out of kilter with the visuals was the score in some places, by composer Takefumi Haketa. Not in terms of the quality of the writing on it, by any means but, for some reason, it often kind of enters and exits a scene right in the middle without warning. It seems a little bizarrely spotted and I wonder how much of that process was decided by the composer and how much was messed around with at the editing stage. As I said, it probably wasn’t too bad in and of itself but the way in which it’s used in certain places just felt a little inappropriate to me, in all fairness.
And that’s all the time I’m going to waste on Pulse. I believe it’s regarded by many as something of a j-horror classic but I found that, for the most part, it did nothing much for me. The actors seemed good but the way their characters were written didn’t have me identifying with them, or really caring, truth be told. Not something I’d recommend as a starting point for this sub-genre of film and even fans of these kinds of movies will possibly not get too much out of it, I suspect. Not something I would find myself going back to anytime soon either, it’s safe to say.
Friday, 6 September 2019
Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story
Directed by Alexandra Dean
Just a brief note of a review to give some praise to this film, which had a short theatrical release last year in the UK. Written and directed by Alexandra Dean, Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story is a kind of love letter of a documentary to the once famous Hollywood star and is a culmination, it seems to me, of various people trying to redress the balance of a life once lived where a person's beauty and public personae was a blindfold to the true genius of the individual in question. It also reveals how the US government, it seems, cheated that star out of both reward and recognition for something which was secretly put to good use and which, when one looks at the benefits of just one of her achievements, has been a boon to mankind since the lady in question first put her mind to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.
This documentary starts at her beginning, shortly after Hedy’s birth as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 and highlights the things which helped shape her personality... such as her inventiveness being due to her admiration for her father, who meant a great deal to her. Also, it mentions her experimentation with the effects of her beauty on people and her frequent visits to a local photographer to take various shots of her... many of them ‘arty’ in nature (and by arty, perhaps I also mean revealing). Then the determined pitch to be in movies in her own country which, of course, built up to her infamous nudity and orgasm scenes in Ekstase (1933).
The film also documents her various marriages including her first, to a prince, which was so stifling that she eventually slipped a sleeping draft into one of the maid’s drinks, swiped her clothes and rode off into the night on her bike to avoid discovery as she exited that marriage and then tried to get into motion pictures... at first turning down Louis B. Mayer of MGM’s offer before then hopping onto his ship going back to Hollywood (along with a load of cheaply signed starlets going with him) and ensuring she got herself noticed enough by him that she could almost name any deal she wanted. The film also documents her decline in later years, as the hardworking Hollywood ethos of drugs to keep you awake and then make you sleep, such as what was being done to many of the workers to keep them going (famously, even child actors like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney), took their toll on her personality and her status as a single mother in the 1940s. Not an easy life to live.
And, of course, the film also makes much of her brilliant invention, co-created with composer George Antheil, where she came up with the idea of frequency hopping to stabilise the course of guided torpedos and stop them from being jammed. The military turned the patent down but evidence has since come to light that they were using these ideas on their stuff all the time and, when it was later followed up to get the patent back from the Navy, the word came through that it belonged to them and they could do what they liked with it because, technically, Lamarr was an ‘alien’. This shocking attitude towards somebody who was, by this point, a lady and patriot of America. Someone who had sold unbelievable millions of dollars in war bonds for the American government due to her appearances (something which a lot of movie stars were doing at the time).
The film is presented to us by various people giving commentaries... a few of them famous movie personalities themselves such as Diane Kruger and Mel Brooks. However, the majority of the interview clips are from relations of the lady, such as her son who the film focuses on quite a bit and, surprisingly for a film of this type, from the lady herself as a reporter, who is also in the film a lot, has unearthed a lost, taped interview he conducted with Hedy many decades before and which is used as a complement to the voice-over narrative on the film. So you do hear a lot of her, ‘in her own words’, so to speak, looking back over her life.
The film is pretty interesting and just about varied enough in its execution and enthusiasm not to get dull and to hold the interest throughout. Much is obviously made of her unique invention of ‘frequency hopping’, which is used as the basis for mobile phone technology, bluetooth, satellite navigation etc and all that stuff is really interesting. All that being said, though, we don’t get to hear about many of her other inventions throughout the documentary and I really wanted to know more... although I think the cooling cube which she thought of as a failure due to information she was unaware of about the difference in water between various states, was a pretty cool idea. I mean, she was so often coming up with stuff that her friend Howard Hughes set her up with a miniature version of his own laboratory when she thought up the concept of swept back wings to help make his planes go faster, after doing a bit of research on fish and birds (which is deftly illustrated in this film)... so it would be really nice to see what else she was dreaming up.
Jeremy Bullock and Keegan DeWitt’s score is a little like the music of Philip Glass in its approach and that’s not a bad thing... but everybody seems to be trying to sound like Glass or sometimes Nyman in their documentary movies these days and it seems a shame that this is the only kind of score we are getting for these kinds of things at the moment. That being said, you can’t fault it and I would have quickly plonked down the money for a CD of this thing, had one been available.
Well, I said this was a short review and I wasn’t lying. Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story is extremely entertaining and informative, at least to the point where it whets your appetite and makes you want to go and read one of the books currently available about the lady. On the surface it would seem that this is not the most likely subject for a documentary movie but, once you step back and think about the import of Ms. Lamarr’s contribution and her legacy to the world we live in, it does make you stop and think how long it would have taken for somebody else to come up with the idea. Definitely worth a watch as this lady’s story deserves to be better known.
Wednesday, 4 September 2019
Mazes and Monsters
Stranger Things 2
Okay so... people who read my review of Stranger Things (which can be found here) will know that I... well I didn’t hate it, I was just mostly not impressed with it in any way. Well, all that changed when I finally got access, via a friend, to Series 2 recently. It’s a real change of pace for the show, I felt and it almost feels like the clichés were all gotten out of the way in the first season so we hit the ground running on this one, immediately picking up from the loose end that Will Byer’s was left with ‘something’ from his experiences in the ‘upside down’.
This season won me over very quickly and it was great when you see the montage in the first episode as the four friends (minus Eleven) are seen making preparations for Halloween and go as the lead characters from Ghostbusters. This one felt a little more like the 1980s as I remembered it... in that rose-tinted nostalgia vision we all have for the decades we are growing up in and it was especially nice seeing the kids saving (and stealing) all their money to go down to their local amusement arcade to try and beat the new ‘animated video game’ sensation Dragon’s Lair. For those too young to remember, this was kind of an experimental game using proper cartoon footage which, if I recall correctly, cost about 5 or 10 times more to play than any of the other video games in the arcades, was way too expensive for me to play more than once and... always seemed to have a queue next to it.
Things like this heroic fantasy themed game would be important to those kinds of kids though and I appreciated the nostalgia hit here.
So, onto the plot and... it’s one of those again where you have a few different ends of ‘this season’s problem’ being solved by different sets of regular characters. This one involves a super intelligence, the mind flayer (named after a character from the Dungeons And Dragons manual), who has an army of growing demogorgons (the kids only had one to deal with last season) who are inhabiting an offshoot of the ‘upside down’ which has manifested and grown under the town of Hawkins and who the kids have to find a way of stopping... both helped and hindered by Will Byers, who has the intelligence of the mind flayer sitting inside him, using his mind and body as a host organism. We also have Eleven, who has been secretly living with the Sheriff of Hawkins, who runs off to pursue her own issues and has adventures in the big city, before finally reuniting with everyone at the end of the penultimate episode like the cavalry as she turns up to... if they’re lucky... kick some demogorgon butt by closing down the gateway to the ‘upside down’.
So... lots of things going on and, as you might guess, it’s riddled with loads of 1980s references and even the music, which is usually somewhat inspired by the sound of John Carpenter’s scores anyway, it seems to me, has a couple of moments in Eleven’s big city adventures with her soul sister who also exhibits special powers, where it either goes into a cover version or, more than likely, is straight needle-dropped in from one of my favourite cues from the score to Escape From New York. So, yeah... very much more my kind of thing, this series.
There’s even a new bully character... since the class heavy from last season turned out to be one of the nice guys after all and is now a protector for the main protagonists... and this new guy, who’s sister is the new love interest of one of the kids, is seriously channeling the vibe of Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club, including looking just like him.
And yeah, good acting from all around including Caleb McLaughlin, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder and Noah Schnapp but, also, a couple of new characters played by Sean Astin (presumably here because he was in The Goonies, a film I’ve never seen) and Paul Reiser... who seems to be both channeling and also atoning for his role in James Cameron’s ALIENS here. And talking of the A L I E N universe, there are an awful lot of references to various films in the franchise here... or at least the first two... with a particular Harry Dean Stanton skin shedding scene coming to mind at one point in the narrative.
So yeah, I was all over this one and watched it through fairly quickly... although I’m already a season behind again and am not sure when I’ll get access to the third series. This one also has a kick ass final shot which, more or less, has been seen all over the show in the form of a sketch, as the writers revisit some of the tropes from the first series... such as a new bully character and, instead of Christmas tree lights being used as a communication device, we have gazillions of abstract sketches which, when taped up all over the house, give a map of where the creatures of the ‘upside down’ are living. And tonally it plays out exactly like the first series, with the same ‘will they, won’t they’ romance beats and concerns of the main characters. I was surprised at one of the scenes of bloody aftermath when one of the new characters is feasted on by a few demogorgons because, I dunno, we’d already seen it happen once and for some reason the camera decides to back to the carnage, perhaps to explain to the audience that, yes, this character you all worked so hard to accept and started to like has now been shredded but, I dunno, the style of the content choice on that moment seemed a little out of place here.
Still, other than that, Stranger Things 2 is a much better incarnation of the show and, like the series itself, this review is a little short, I’m afraid. Looking to see how the series progresses now and kind of hoping we don’t just get more of the same in the third one because, yeah, this particular set of manifestations of the ‘upside down’ has been a little done to death now, I think. Check this one out if you have the time to binge.
Sunday, 1 September 2019
The Five - The Untold Lives Of The
Women Killed By Jack The Ripper
by Hallie Rubenhold
Penguin 2019 ISBN: 9780857524485
This is another book which I noticed sailing past me on my twitter timeline, just before its publication earlier in the year and, I have to say, it’s kind of unique in terms of where it exists in the wealth of written material on the unsolved (officially) and notorious murders allegedly committed by one person, Jack The Ripper, in the late 1880s. I say allegedly because of these five victims... Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Marie Jane Kelly... there’s no concrete proof that they all victims of the same person. Although they are generally believed to be but with the way the different districts of the police in those days didn’t cooperate with each other, a lot of the personal testimony that may have thrown light on this matter is, it would seem, lost. Or at least it would appear so to me.
Hallie Rubenhold’s new book, The Five - The Untold Live Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper*, is an important book about Mary, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine and Marie because it gives something of a real biography, in some ways, to their lives and is something which should hopefully be a big stone weight of a tome when it comes to people writing on The Ripper in future and dismissing the majority of these ladies as ‘sex workers’ or ‘prostitutes’. I say dismiss because that is what people sadly seem to do still with women in that profession although, personally, I’ve always had a kind of admiration and respect for the striking characters who choose to commit to that job... as much as any other job.
What I’m trying to say is, The Five is a very special book. Not only because it challenges and cuts through some of the myths about the canonical five victims but also because, actually, it barely mentions Jack The Ripper... which is no bad thing. I probably mention him more in this review, even.
This book is exclusively about these five women and the multiple chapters which make up each of the five sections about their lives only mention their demise briefly in the last page of their individual stories. There is a little more said about Jack himself in the conclusion of the book but nothing which actually glorifies his (or their, depending on your theory) actions and this is totally not about him. Perhaps some of the regular readers of paraphernalia about this dark historic character may be put off by the lack of inclusion of this, admittedly, iconic figure from a book about the victims... where not even the details of their demise or the wounds they received are barely touched upon in an effort to divert attention away from their killer. However, I will say again that this account of the lives they had before they collided with their final fate and fatality is an absolutely essential piece of writing if you want to know more about, not just the ladies in question but also the kind of lives people were leading at that point in history.
Make no mistake, this is an absolutely brilliant book to get to know the milieu in which these five victims lived and struggled to survive in Victorian society... not all of whom were born in this country... so there’s also some background on attitudes prevalent in other countries in the 1800s which is of some interest. And it was a real eye opener to me. I’ve been on a couple of the Ripper Walks around the Whitechapel area and I’ve had a picture built up to me of what it was like to live in those times but this book really adds detail to the experience. Not just about the harsh... very harsh... realities of trying to survive each day in that kind of existence but how the decks were stacked even more against the ‘fairer sex’ of the era and how attitudes of ‘proper behaviour and conduct for a woman’, even in times when it was a struggle just to find somewhere to sleep for the night for many, were a huge impediment to people every day.
That was one of the big eye openers for me when I read this tome... just how much social attitudes against women were flying, often in contradiction to common sense and then the realisation that, as Mrs. Rubenhold makes mention in her conclusion, many of those same attitudes towards women are still with us today, albeit sometimes more subtly and less overtly woven into the fabric of our times.
This book is like a history lesson I never had (for me especially because I never used to pay attention in my history classes at school) and brings me closer to the lives and times of those struggling with the hardship... both for men and women... of everyday living. It also made me aware of some of the skills and talents (creative talents, in one case) of the ladies specific to this account and above all, made me question my own small knowledge of this human blight on Victorian London known by many as ‘Jack’.
Now, I’m going to say that there’s a lot of speculation in this book in some ways but it is minor and mostly in the way of educated deductions more than anything else. You will find a fair few sentences using phrases such as... “x would have” and “it was likely that”... but, despite the streets of London being a little more well lit than I was given to believe in places (I was under the impression that places like Mitre Square were actually pretty much pitch black at night), this all seems to be a pretty common sense set of deductions all around, based on unearthed accounts of the time. And what this leads to is the inevitable conclusion that, with the exception of one or probably two of these five, the victims of Jack The Ripper were not, as I said earlier, ‘working prostitutes’ (not that there would be anything wrong with that if they were, in my book). They were lumped in as such due to sloppy assumptions made by various police investigations of the time and the lack of people coming forward to verify or disprove that over the years has meant that the legend rather than the truth has been printed, to paraphrase a famous western movie that I’ve still never gotten around to watching.
Although probably not all of the facts are obtainable, Rubenhold does an absolutely brilliant job here... not just of piecing together the path of these five ladies’ lives and making them of such interest but, and this is no mean feat, using her own knowledge and experience of the world of art, literature and history to recognise certain connections where they exist and using these as examples to illuminate and embellish the various environments in which these ladies and their lovers and children, mothers and fathers, walked their everyday paths.
My biggest criticism... or bafflement if you like... is one I mentioned to the young lady in Waterstones in Enfield Town when I bought the book back on its release, earlier this year. Why the heck is the dust cover on the beautiful UK edition an inch shorter than the actual height of the book? Was this some kind of artistic statement, flying in the face of good, honest page protection? Was it a printer’s error or a fluke of untamed graphic design? I’m not sure why that’s the way the book is presented but, either way, it certainly doesn’t look unattractive and if the publisher has decided that this is the way a dust cover should be... an ornamental rather than functional beast, then it’s not for me to quibble.
What I will conclude, however, is that between those dust covers lies an absolutely remarkable, entertaining and illuminating piece of well researched work. Wether you are familiar with the crimes purported to be committed by the one guy or not, The Five - The Untold Live Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper is a stunning piece of work and something which deserves to be read and which almost dares future Ripperologoists to not take heed of the important illuminations therein. Easily a book I would recommend to most and, for me, a much needed and appreciated history lesson on the way a certain section of society were living their lives in the 1880s. An essential and gripping work which deserves to be read by many.
*In the US this book is, for some reason, entitled The Five - The Lives Of Jack The Ripper’s Women... which seems somewhat disingenuous to me in regards to what appears to be the intent of the author of this book. It perhaps, though, reflects the difference of our own culture in sharp contrast to certain overseas markets.