Wednesday 27 November 2019

Charlie's Angels 2019

Charlie-vous Fancy?

Charlie's Angels 2019
2019 USA Directed by Elizabeth Banks
UK cinema release print.

Wow... before I say anything else, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is not without some minor problems but, honestly, it’s a great movie and I can’t understand why it’s got so many negative reviews from people. It’s frankly a little weird that there are just so many one and two star reviews on the IMDB, for example. Seriously, enough people hated this thing so much that they decided to take the time to vent negatively about it? Well... it almost seems like there’s some kind of bizarre secret agenda against the movie but I’m here to say that the naysayers are dead wrong about this one. I had a blast with it but... now I’ve got that out of the way, like I said, there are a few problems, albeit minor problems... so I’m going to go right in here and tell you about the issues I had with it. But first, a little emotional context...

I remember when the original Charlie’s Angels TV show came out in the UK around about 1976. I would have been twelve and I think I was one of the few boys who watched it. I don’t know why... I already wanted to sleep with some of the Angels at that age so I couldn’t quite figure out why the other kids at school of my sex weren’t all over this one too but, well, it was just mainly a girl thing, somehow. Pretty bizarre. I watched odd episodes here and there, didn’t follow it religiously but I did like the shows I saw.

Cut to the 21st century and McG’s two Charlie’s Angels movies. I loved these and think they’re absolute masterpieces of cinematic magic. The beautiful and constant colour palette changes from scene to scene, the sense of fun and the chemistry between the girls was all absolutely brilliant and I’ve never been able to figure out why we didn’t get another three or four of these.

So, I would have to say my expectations were a little low on this new one because a) I knew it couldn’t top the sheer artistry and perfection of the McG movies and b) the word of mouth on this one was awful. The one thing which did give me hope is that one of the, relatively, younger generation of Hollywood composers who I like a lot... Brian Tyler (see my review of his first concert here) has done the score for this. Indeed, I had the CD in my hands before the movie even opened over here... so I at least knew the music was probably going to be pretty good. I’ll get to that later.

So there I was, hopeful that the film could be okay but really not expecting much from it. And, for the first ten minutes of the film at least, that expectation was sadly on the nose. The opening scene which is the usual ‘conclusion of an adventure’ sequence that the Bond films pioneered and popularised back in the 1960s is here as expected and, although it gets the male chauvinist stuff out in the open fairly on, the action in this lead-in looks like it’s either been too aggressively edited so you can’t see what’s going on or it's maybe cutting around performers who can’t fight in the hopes it may look like they’re kicking ass (which is something a fair few Hollywood movies have done in recent years, unfortunately). Then, when I was expecting a revamped old school homage to the Charlie’s Angels TV show opening like in the McG movies, I instead got a terrible dose of imagery which, may, have been origins of the leading characters... or maybe not. It was going way to fast for me to process and there was some terrible, blary, loud pop singing going on behind the visuals. I was pretty fed up by this point.

However, against all the odds, the film then proceeded to win me over fairly hastily. The three main girls in this... Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska are all pretty amazing and have some really good chemistry. They are ably supported by various people playing ‘Bosleys’... among them Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and the writer/director Elizabeth Banks as the ‘main Bosley’ of the movie. And a special shout out to Luis Gerardo Méndez playing a ridiculously cool guy named Saint. For every comment I see that the film is trying to make men look stupid all the way through... well, yeah, maybe that’s a bad agenda but, honestly, this character more than makes up for any of the bizarre, ‘man demoting’ sexism perpetrated by the writers here so... yeah, not a problem.

Okay, so the film by this point is stepping up the pace with some really cool action sequences and some nice humour in the right places. Once again the film purposes itself as being a sequel to all incarnations that have gone before it and not a stand alone reboot. In fact, there’s some terrible and obviously 'deliberately tacky' photoshopping of Patrick Stewart with various incarnations of the Angels through the years, which is a nice touch.

Let me sort out some of the bad now.

The action editing in some scenes still looks like it’s trying to hide a lack of fight training... unless, as I said earlier, it’s a deliberately choppy style which doesn’t quite come off. This is unfortunate but it’s not evident in all of the action scenes and they’re still quite exhilarating to watch, nonetheless. Like the previous incarnations, there’s a big emphasis on fun in this movie, even without the ‘colouring book’ cinematography. There were other sequences in the movie which didn’t quite make sense in the edit to me... however. I felt I was being asked to make certain leaps in understanding which I could have done without in simple things of the ‘how did that person suddenly wind up in that vehicle?’ variety. It did look like the editing was trying to make up for some accidentally un-filmed footage now and again but, thankfully, these moments were few and far between.

The only other problem I had was the horrible and ‘mixed in way too loud’ pop songs which punctuate the film at quite a steady lick. They seemed to be the driving force behind some of the montage sequences when, frankly, it should have been the other way around (I mean, McG’s sometimes terrible needle drop music choices were at least supporting the scenes they were being used in, I thought). Again, though, this is countered with... oh , wait, I’ll save the genius of Brian Tyler for a little later.

One thing which, briefly annoyed me was a stupid plot twist which was revealed halfway through the film. I knew it was coming, the audience knew it was coming and... it was so obvious that it enraged me when it happened. Except... turns out the audience are being ‘played’ at this point. Not going to say anymore about that because it would constitute a spoiler but lets just say I so fell for the writer/director’s art of distraction that I was pleasantly surprised (yes, I know, I was surprised... it happens now and again) when the truth of the situation was finally brought to the foreground.

And all this with... oh yeah... Tyler’s score. He’s great at creating the soundscapes for these kinds of films and, though I was hoping for more of the original 70s Charlie’s Angels theme in it... it only makes a brief appearance in an ‘homage’ closet scene... I have to say that the score for this one really knocks it out of the park. It’s got a strong melody line and it mutates into good solid action scoring on a dime. To hell with Brian Tyler, though, for giving me a score which wouldn’t leave my head after the film had finished and wouldn’t let me sleep that night because my brain kept playing it back while I tossed and turned under the sheets. In fact, I’m still humming it as I type. Absolutely first class work from this composer and I can tell this is going to get a lot of spins on the CD player this month. Nice composing from someone who has fast become one of the ‘greats’ of Hollywood scoring.

So, there you go. Not much more to say on this one. Brilliant cast, good chemistry, fast pacing, some mostly good action and a brilliant score... if you can get through the opening ten minutes without turning off, I think you’ll find the new incarnation of Charlie’s Angels is a cinematic delight. And if you want to see a cameo from an old character from the original show, not to mention various other cameos, stick around for the six mini scenes which play out during the end credits. This is a definite Blu Ray purchase for me when it comes out and... well... I just wish I had time to fit in another cinema screening of this one but it’s the wrong time of year for that. Go see it if you can though. With a few tweaks it could have been a masterpiece... instead it's just a really fun, entertaining movie. And who can argue with that?

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Giraffes On Horseback Salad

Dali Soup

Giraffes On Horseback Salad
by Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker and Manuela Pertega
Quirk Books ISBN: 978-1594749230

Well this is certainly an interesting book and one I was completely foaming at the mouth for as soon as I found out about it on Twitter which, fortunately, was a Friday night. That meant I was able to get into London and get my hands on a copy within about 12 hours of discovering the existence of this thing (then didn’t get around to reading it for many months after but, hey, it was something less to worry about picking up later). Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a graphic novel which tries, almost, to do the impossible and both succeeds and fails in equal measure but, in this case, the nature of it’s failure is so consistent with an authentic feel for the material, that it’s partial failure is just another sign of its success, so to speak. Yeah, okay, I’ll unravel that one for you in a minute, after this short lead in...

Back in 1980, it turns out, when I was 12 (I always thought it was a lot earlier), the Tate Gallery in London (there was only one in those days) briefly displayed a huge retrospective of the work of Salvador Dali. I remember queuing up for hours with my parents to get in (in the days before timed entry and bookings) and eventually getting through the door and being absolutely blown away by it. This definitely made me want to have some kind of job in art and my ultimate career destination in graphic design is not so far off base, I feel. Dali was my painting hero.

Flash forward to sometime in the mid-1980s and my family got their first video cassette player. It was big, silver, had huge diving board buttons and a cassette tray that popped out the top. On the day we got this, I bought some blank tapes and decided to do a test ‘off the air’ recording of something on television that night. The BBC were showing the first of a small season of late night Marx Brothers movies... I think it was just Animal Crackers, Monkey Business (my favourite), Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’d never seen one of their films properly before and so I recorded Monkey Business and, when I watched it the next morning, I was absolutely hooked on the Marx Brothers and decided to try and watch all of their movies as soon as I could (and I would, often multiple times when it came to their first eight films... with their first five made for Paramount being their absolute best).

Also, of course, over the next few years I was reading all I could about my various interests and somewhere, while reading various biographies, autobiographies (such as the brilliant Harpo Speaks) and celebrity correspondence, I got wind of a ‘collaboration’ between Harpo Marx and Salvador Dali. Somewhere in the mid to late 1930s they were trying to collaborate on a film which Dali was writing and which would be an extremely surreal Marx Brothers movie (well, aren’t they all). Now, it has to be said, while I was intrigued and excited by the prospect that something like this could have happened at some point, I was pretty sure the resulting movie would probably have made for some hard viewing. The Marx Brothers, if you’ve never seen one of their films, are already extremely surrealist in nature... not just visually, as evidenced by Harpo’s shenanigans but also in terms of the flexible, pun-like nature of the outrageously funny dialogue written for Groucho and Chico. To put them with the world’s premiere surrealist (even though he’d been excommunicated by the movement naming themselves as such at some point earlier) seemed like taking things a bit too far because, Dali’s form of surrealism was of a completely different kettle of lobsters than the brand exhibited by Minnie’s boys (Minnie was the Marx Brothers mother, manager and driving force in their early years). It didn’t seem to me like it could be a good or even halfway watchable ‘fit’ but it was great to imagine just what might have been.

Well, Josh Frank has taken things a whole lot further than ‘just’ imagining’... although, to be fair, he’s done a lot of that too. Basically gathering and unearthing some rare documents including a 40 page treatment of the handwritten ‘script’, such as it was, by Dali... he has made a graphic novel adaptation of the film that ‘might’ have been. Now, it would be terrible to think that this thing is completely unlike the collaboration that ‘almost’ emerged between Dali and ‘team Marx’ but, there is a basic skeleton apparently, in which Frank has filled in the blanks as best as he could imagine them and made the thing ‘play’ quite well... something Groucho Marx didn’t even think was possible of the material. There are 45 pages of text introduction here recounting, among other things, the approach and breakthroughs made by Frank to get this story told and it’s extremely impressive. You can’t, alas, say this is anything like what the original movie might have been, I think it’s fair to say... but, with the help of Quirk Books (who I’ve mentioned on here before as being an interesting publisher), he has done his best, along with fellow writer Tim Heidecker and the extraordinary illustrator Manuela Pertega, to give us an entertaining and very interesting ‘What If...’ version of how the collaboration might have turned out.

Some creative decisions I agree with and some I don’t but I’m not the artist so that’s all beside the point. Frank says he resurrected the spirit of wonderboy genius Irving Thalberg, who loved the Marx Brothers and took them in at MGM when they needed him most, to help him in his collaboration and, while that’s a nice thought... I can’t help but think that even Thalberg, had he been alive (he died very young), would not have green lighted that pitch.

However, what we have here is an amazing collaboration between the writers and artist involved. The text and images combine to weave a spell, mostly in greyscale but with the odd dashes of colour, which... as mind-bendingly surreal and ill-fitting the spirit of the original collaboration is... roots it in 1930s America and allows it to sit well with the movies that the brothers would be making at the time. It’s tastefully and sympathetically done and although the book doesn’t really come alive until Groucho and Chico arrive in the main narrative... and maybe flags towards the end... this adventure of Jimmy (played by Harpo out of costume and with a large talking role which, from what I know of the sound of his real voice... would never have been allowed to happen) and his love affair with ‘The Surreal Woman’ which causes chaos in the world, is a truly beautiful work which I would be proud to have on my bookshelves, if I had any free bookshelves. As it is, I’m proud to have it stacked up on a huge, precarious pile of other books which I can put my hand out to steady as I pass it by.

The quality of the dialogue and the appropriate nature of it is easy to demonstrate...

Groucho: “Oh, and only pocket the spoons this time. Last time I nearly impaled myself on a fork in an overcoat.”
Chico: “Ah, you crazy. Forks don’t wear overcoats.”

Or how about...

Groucho: “You know what a paradox is?”
Chico: “Why, sure. Everyone knows what that is. I shot two pair-a ducks and cooked them in a nice soup.”

And it certainly delivers on the throwaway Groucho lines too... “Next time let’s take something more seaworthy. Like Esther Williams.” Other times, intriguingly, there are some obvious set ups and, though you know exactly how Groucho or Chico would have responded to it... and, in fact, did respond to these same set ups in various movie adventures, the writers drop the more Marxian response and sail off in another direction. I’m assuming that’s deliberate, by the way, because I’m sure these guys must know the Marx Brother’s work inside out. And probably the right way round, too!

My biggest grumble here is that there’s barely any Harpo in it. The Jimmy character played by Harpo is pretty much any one of many ‘straight romantic leads’ who found themselves coupled with the brothers. So this is like the Allan Jones or Zeppo Marx characters which would sometimes pop up and Jimmy only very vaguely and, not very often strays, into ‘Harpo’ territory. I’d like to say this is probably as Dali intended but I noticed, when some of the original script pages were reprinted in the back (along with Dali’s handwritten notes and sketches for some of these things) he has scenes assigned to Groucho and Harpo which, in the graphic novel version... have been switched to Groucho and Chico. So I’m not 100% sure why this decision in adaptation was made unless... as is more than possible... various treatments and script fragments by Dali were in complete contradiction to each other. I’m guessing that may be the case.

The illustrations are wonderful and, despite the chaos of the content of these drawings, the panels are easy to follow and there are some nice layouts including some wonderful double page spreads where words and images snake away between the two pages without, I’m glad to say, confusing the reader.

Ultimately, this was both more and less of what I wanted from this book but, like I said, its failure I suspect is more coming from the way the original movie might well have failed in its intent, with such a mixture of ‘brands’ being compromised with Dali and the Marx Brothers seeming to be just a slightly ‘out of kilter’ fit. I think lovers of both the artist and the comedians will take to this book like a duck to soup though and, honestly, the interior artwork is just wonderful and worth the price of admission alone. Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a brave and exciting labour of love which, at the very least, will keep you interested and intrigued as you make your journey through it’s alluring pages. I’m certainly glad I bought this one and it definitely a solid recommendation from me. Don’t miss out.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Judy And Punch

A Stoning For Your Sins

Judy And Punch
2019 Australia Directed by Mirrah Foulkes
UK cinema release print.

Judy And Punch is one of those rare movies that look really interesting when you see the trailer and then, when you see the film itself, turns out to be exactly that... a real corker of a movie.

The film is not, as you may possibly be expecting, a true history of the story behind the much loved Punch & Judy shows still performed to this day... instead, it’s a fictional portrayal of two people who have invented the concept for this reality... a reality which really is as pleasingly tenuous, I would have to conclude by the conclusion of the story, as the little vignettes which play out in their puppet show.

Set in the 17h Century in a little village called Seaside (which, the inter-title explains, is nowhere near the sea), this stars the always incredible and talented Mia Wasikowska as Judy, puppeteer extraordinaire and her ‘domestic abuse prone’ husband and writer/puppeteer Punch, played by Damon Herriman (who recently played Charlie Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood although, it has to be said, he’s far more effectively an unintentional villain as Mr. Punch). These two actors, more than ably supported by their co-stars, pretty much carry the film and it has to be said their performances here are astonishing. Wasikowska as the persevering wife and mother of Punch’s child who turns into a ‘not quite classic’ version of the female revenge figure by the end of the film is totally believable and this character is just the kind of role she thrives on. Herriman was surprisingly good as Punch, playing a drunk and short tempered, abusive man in a way which lets you understand where he is coming from in his pursuit of his basest instincts while still coming off as totally unsympathetic... and also he somehow manages to look and feel very much like the puppet he is named after too, with not a swazzle in sight.

The film opens strongly with a performance given by Judy and Punch of their puppet show which is followed the next day by a public stoning of three female victims in the village which everyone attends.... Mr. Punch is given the honour of casting the first stone. This immediately sets up the period with its echoes of witchcraft and the ruthless violence punctuating the times and, although the film is shot through with a very dark humour, the grimness of the situations throughout are very sobering and the bleakness tends to dispel the underlying comedy before it can take hold. This is not to say the film isn’t entertaining... it is and I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen but... expect to be in for a dark time with this one.

Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes, who is perhaps best known as an actress herself (appearing in things like The Crown), smartly plays with your expectations of the basic anchor points of a famous Punch and Judy tale, bringing in key elements like the dog, the sausages and, of course, their baby. However, she does manage to play with these expectations so that, although the tent poles of this popular entertainment show are met, they don’t necessarily come in the obvious manner. For instance... and I don’t think this is really a spoiler because it’s made implicit in the trailer... everyone pretty much knows that ‘something’ is going to happen to the baby, so Foulkes teases the audience with the threat of an open fire and toys with the elements she’s set up in, actually, much the same way a horror movie might set up a fake scare before bringing on the actual jump moment shortly after. When something does, indeed, happen to the baby it’s perhaps not that surprising but still... it’s an effective (perhaps even visually poetic) moment which leaves a lasting impression.

Okay.. so lets talk about the violence because I’m seeing people saying its a violent movie and... well it’s not actually violent at all... at least not in terms of what you actually see on screen. Asides from a long shot during the stoning near the start of the film, for instance, every act of violence as far as I could tell is kept just out of the view of the camera. Instead, this film uses a more the impressionistic version of violence which is, probably, much more potent in that your imagination fills in the blanks just at the moment where, say, a Dario Argento movie would not cut away (I’m thinking about a specific scene in Tenebrae now, reviewed here... but I’m not going to say what because I’m trying to make this review spoiler free). Instead, we are left with the camera looking closely at the aftermath of the violence in most cases, which is again very grim and shows exactly what has taken place. The method of justice that Judy metes out at the end of the movie, for example, is something which you can guess is coming but the aftermath of this moment is still quite disturbing and in no way blunts or cushions the moment for the audience. It has a nice little epilogue in terms of the birth of the traditional Punch & Judy show too. So, in some ways the film actually is quite violent but it’s less about what you actually see and more about how the examination of the crimes sit with you on a gut level... although I’m sure some people will believe they saw much more than they actually did in the film and, of course, that’s a great compliment to the director, cast and crew if they do.

Also, I have to say that the biggest crime committed in the film is that the absolutely jaw droppingly brilliant score from composer François Tétaz is not available to buy commercially. It’s so good and really helps elevate the visuals. When it first started, I actually thought it was Alexandre Desplat in full on Wes Anderson movie mode and was surprised when the end credits came up and found it’s Tétaz. This is meant truly in a complimentary way and, honestly, I wish they’d put a CD of this one out because it could very well be a contender for best score of the year. Quite dazzlingly brilliant on the ear throughout.

Okay, so that’s me done other than to mention that there are moments in this film, especially when Judy is ‘resurrected’ and joins up with a secret community of... well lets call them witches for the sake of this review but they’re absolutely not... where Foulkes uses the visual and acoustic syntax of a horror film to good effect. This film isn’t in any way a horror film, for sure but... she effectively mines elements of that genre to tell her tale and with some set design which feels pretty authentic, bolstered by an exceptionally fine cast and crew... well, I’d have to say that Judy And Punch gets a solid recommendation from me, especially for those readers who absolutely love the art of cinema and all that it’s about. Easily one of the year’s best and I would urge you to catch this one at your local venue while you can.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The Comic

Look Before You Sheep

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
The Comic - Boom Studios
24 issues 2009-2010
Art by Tony Parker, Adapted from Philip K. Dick

Wow. It’s not that often I get on board with comic book adaptations but this one is absolutely amazing in the ways it’s both faithful and unfaithful to the original source material. Hopefully when I elaborate on the various qualities of the comic, that comment will become clearer.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is probably my favourite novel. I read it maybe ten times over the decade after I first discovered it which was, I’m sure to nobody’s surprise, the week after the movie adaptation, Blade Runner (which is my favourite movie and which I reviewed here) was released in cinemas here in the UK, back in 1982. The first time I read it I had a hard time with it, in some ways (although I loved Dick’s way of expressing himself in words right off the bat). My biggest criticism of the film after first reading it was that it was nothing like the original novel. It wasn’t too long, however... and after a couple more read throughs... that I realised that, actually, the novel was only different in specific sequences of what is actually going on in a scene from moment to moment. There are literally, if you take adaptation as purely that, only two scenes from the novel translated in the movie.

However, by the time I’d finished my degree course in Graphic Design and wrote (and completed a year before deadline... I was that into it) my final major thesis on the specific ways in which the movie actually was, in spirit, a very faithful adaptation to many of the concepts inherent in the original novel, I was completely sold on both the film and the source and how well they complemented each other.

Of course, that still left me with the concept I found the hardest thing to fathom the very first time I read the book... Mercerism.

The empathic religious union which is one of the main concerns of the novel, where people grip the twin handles of their ‘empathy box’ and ‘merge with Mercer’... an old man who rises from the ‘tomb- world’ and tries to reach the top of a mountain while stones are lobbed at him... was nowhere to be found in the movie. Or was it? I think it could be argued that the Voight-Kampff test based on both empathy and the other driving force of the novel - the responsibility to look after the last surviving animals on the planet or, if you can’t afford one, then to pretend you have one by buying a cheap, electronic simulacrum of one so you don’t seem like an uncaring individual - is as much about the point of Mercerism as anything else.

I’m not going to get in to that argument here though because I’m not talking about the movie version... I’m talking about this comic book version which is, I have to say, pretty much on the nose in terms of capturing the spirit and style of the novel. Of course, half the battle is using a lot of the writer’s original words in both the speech bubbles and in the long stretches of narrative used in the comic but... this rendition really is the closest you can get to reading the original novel if, for some reason, you’ve never read it.

Now the look of some of the characters is interesting here. Many of the those in the movie are not quite the same as in the novel but what the artist, Tony Parker, has done here is to give some (by no means all) equivalent characters a very similar look to what they had in the film. So, for example, even though Deckard is married and a slightly different kind of person in the story, he’s made him look very much like the Harrison Ford version in terms of his dress and hair style etc. Similarly, although genetic designer J. F. Sebastian was originally J. R. Isidore, the low IQ ‘chickenhead’ character and humble employee of the maintenance team who service the electric animals under the disguise of a veterinarian hospital... he looks quite similar here to his movie counterpart. Other characters like Roy Batty look considerably less like those in the film but the artist has definitely gone out of his way to cross pollinate the two worlds - the world of the novel and the world of the film - as much as he possibly can, at least in terms of the visual look of the piece.

And the text is really faithful (just basically taking Dick’s words) with layouts that are simply brilliant. The way vast numbers of narrative panels will butt up against each other and also overlap with speech bubbles is ingenious and he uses the shapes created by these overlapping elements as a way of giving the reader a visual pathway to the order in which to read and decode the page, so to speak. Despite some quite cluttered and beautifully artwork which is quite complex in itself, you never really find yourself getting confused in the narrative space of the thing, even in the specific sections dealing with Mercerism.

In fact, the Mercerism stuff as the artist has chosen to render it here is, if anything, even clearer in terms of how the fusion works because you can see it happening as characters are superimposed or half drawn as Wilbur Mercer in those sequences. And this is what I mean when I say that even where the artist has been unfaithful to the concept, it still ends up retaining the spiritual levity of the original. For example, when I first read the novel back in 1982, the empathy box I visualised was some kind of large cabinet and, to be fair, there were only so many ways to imagine it in those days. In this comic book, Parker has used a TV screen to project the image of Mercer and... a stroke of genius this... where the characters go to ‘grip the twin handles’ of the empathy box, here he’s reimagined it as a kind of modern gaming controller like something you’d find connected to a Playstation console... with the twin handles being the two obvious bits you grip on those controllers. This isn’t something Dick in his time (nor I when I first read it) would have been able to predict or confidentally guess (they didn’t even have the first computer or arcade games when this was written) but it really updates the concept visually so it’s easier for audiences to buy into it. This is complementary, visual storytelling done right.

Similarly, there’s a lot of imagination in the way the worlds, characters and situations are rendered. For example, when the androids in the book are talking about the thriving, black market trade, off-world for pre-colonial fiction, you could only really guess at the kind of thing this could be. Here though, it’s lovingly rendered in allusions to science fiction tales across a range of media from our own past in close parodies showing, for instance, the stratosled rockets from the Flash Gordon serials, a scene from the movie version of The Day The Earth Stood Still and a typical pin-up illustration inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars novels. Which is a really nice touch and the whole comic is full of these lovely little shout outs.

The artist also comes to a certain kind of compromise as to the make up of the androids. They are kind of a cross between the flesh and blood of the movie versions of the replicants but, again, cross-pollinated with the hard, synthetically wired mechanical Andys of the novel. At first I was a little annoyed about this but then I realised that, while Dick was talking about some quite specific machines here... he was also talking about having to give them bone marrow tests as an alternative way to tell if they were androids so, if anything, the artist has tried to clarify Dick’s thoughts into one, stylistic vision. So, in reflection, I don’t really have a problem with it here.

All in all, then, an absolutely brilliant comic book adaptation and a reading experience which was, almost, as moving as the original novel. Okay, so the other bounty hunter from the completely unknown police department, Phil Resch, was envisaged much harder nosed than I recall him from the book but that’s fine... the points he makes and the ideas that he or Deckard or both may actually be androids (something which is definitively disproven in the novel and this comic because, after all it’s about empathising with them, not becoming them) are all here and the androids, unlike the film, never ultimately come off as superior in their ability to empathise with other beings (or rather, their inability). Arguably, this is one of the elements that makes the film great, the fact that the replicants seem to be morally superior to the majority of the humans that populate the movie but Dick’s original intent... the 'absence of appropriate affect' which he was inspired to write about as this novel after reading an excerpt of a journal of a Nazi prison officer complaining that the noisy screams of the people in his concentration camp were keeping him up nights... is equally as powerful and it’s been faithfully adhered to here.

If you like the original novel, you won’t be disappointed with the comic book version of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? If you’ve never read it and are only familiar with the movie version, I think you’ll find this is a fascinating read which will probably make you want to explore the concept further in the book. Either way, this is an excellent attempt at depicting the world of a novel with some pretty hard to adapt sections. Give it a go if you have some time.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

The Aeronauts

James’ Hun And
The Aeronauts

The Aeronauts
2019 UK/USA Directed by Tom Harper
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoilers in terms
of the romantic content of the movie.

Directed by Tom Harper, The Aeronauts is one of those US co-productions with a distinctly British flavour, based on the real life antics of pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher in the 1860s. Starring the always brilliant Eddie Redmayne as Glaisher and the equally amazing Felicity Jones as his co-pilot on the venture, Amelia Wren, I was so entranced in this little ball of a wonderfully structured, cinematic gem that I was completely fooled in regard to the fact that, far from being a rock solid account of events as they took place in real life, there is a lot of fiction carefully grafted onto the source material to breathe life into the story. That is to say, the astonishing Mrs. Wren is, in fact, a complete fiction of a character... which makes me struggle a little with the restraint of one particular aspect of the story but I’ll come to that a little later. Suffice it to say, though, that Wren’s back story reads as completely convincing as any of the rest of the tale and it would be impossible for someone like me to tell what is what when it comes to seeing through the smoke and mirrors presented here. Not that I would want to do that, actually because... yeah... this is a truly entertaining little movie.

Okay, so  the film tells how Glaisher, with the help of his friend John Trew (played by Himesh Patel, who I thought was so good in Yesterday... reviewed here) approaches the recently widowed Amelia Wren, a couple of years after her husband died from falling from a hot air balloon flight the two were making (there’s more to that story but I won’t reveal it here), lifting her depression and hiring her as a co-pilot on a trip to get as far up as they can in the sky so that Glaisher can prove his theories about the atmosphere having layers and bring back enough research, or at least the start of research, to allow mankind to be able to predict the weather... something my various iphone apps still can’t do satisfactorily to this day. So next time you are looking at an app or show or weather report and want someone to blame for the blatantly false information based on meticulously researched guesswork, you can remember that you have James Glaisher to thank for it.

I love both lead actors in this movie and, of course, Redmayne and Jones already made a brilliant pair in their portrayals of Stephen Hawking and his wife in The Theory Of Everything (which I reviewed here). In this they are just as engaging and sharp as you would expect from them and it really helps to have two leads with such perfect chemistry because, frankly, the film is mostly a two hander set within their balloon... at least, that’s where the majority of the drama comes from.

In their quest to enlighten their audience, they are aided by a really ‘not bad’ script, in all honesty. The structure of the movie is such that the film starts with a bang just before the ballon is getting launched for its historic trip beyond the clouds and then, as the drama unfolds, one or other of the main characters will flash back to how they came to be in this position... in increments throughout the course of their current adventure... and just why they are exactly where they are (a bit like an old Marvel comic from the 1960s and 70s in that respect, I would say). The fact that they are both brilliant allows the narrative to soar through to the finish line with ease, using lots of comedy and personality clashes (to begin with) as Glaisher is the gruff, serious scientist (kind of) and Amelia is the wild, fun loving, entertainment seeker who demonstrates she can be more than just 'relied on' in a tight spot. This last demonstrated with some wonderfully fraught scenes of peril as the two characters race towards their final fate with death lurking in every gust of wind and with a truly brilliant final solution to slow the speed of their downward descent.

The film has a nice score, too, from Steven Price which, alas, has only been issued as the usual ‘quality challenged’, flat download and not put out on a proper CD... which means I won’t get the opportunity to hear it away from the main movie. However, it’s appropriate to the pacing and 'larger than life' shenanigans which go on in certain moments and beautifully compliments the visual information as it comes at you.

My one surprise (asides from a worrying scene with a dog early on in the film) comes in the form of the romantic element of the tale. It’s one of those movies where a burgeoning relationship is hinted at for the characters and it’s one which is never implicitly stated but certainly made a lot of in terms of the tone of the film. I was of the opinion then, as I watched it, that the two people obviously never ‘got it on’ in reality and so the moviemakers wanted to be true to life as much as possible, leaving the characters with a lot of things left unsaid. Which kinda made sense to me at the time. However, now that I know that Amelia Wren didn’t even exist in real life, I can’t think why the writers didn’t allow the romantic ‘sub plot’, as it were, to come to full fruition during the course of the film. I mean, everybody wants them to, don’t they?

Asides from this small puzzle and the fact that, in an age of CGI special effects, there is an underlying sense of sobriety in terms of taking the sheer spectacle of a hot air balloon credibly floating above 19th Century London at face value, I would have to say that The Aeronauts was one of the more enjoyable movies to get a cinema release this year and I’d gladly recommend this little slice of pseudo-history to anyone. The fiction of the thing may all be hot air but it certainly got this cinema goer to his final destination in as enjoyable a manner possible.

Sunday 17 November 2019


Monos Chromatic

2019 Directed by Alejandro Landes
UK cinema release print.

A day before I saw Monos, a friend who’d already seen it told me this wasn’t a very good movie. Despite movie trailer comparisons to Apocalypse Now, which I didn’t believe (and rightly so, as it turns out), I wasn’t put off by this statement too much because there was really only one reason I wanted to see this movie... or more precisely, hear it. Yeah, you guessed it, the music. Monos has a score by the fairly new, dazzling composer Mica Levi. I loved her scores for Under The Skin (movie reviewed here) and Jackie (movie reviewed here) and... well I want to end this review with a shot of positive statements so I’ll cover the score last.

Monos is, in fact, not a terrible movie... but I think it’s far from being a great movie also. I’m not sure why the critics are quite so taken with this one but it feels very much like one of those ‘IMPORTANT’ movies from the 1980s which everyone felt the need to be seen to be supporting. I can imagine this might have had a lot of well attended repeat screenings at The Other Cinema and the Scala if it had been made 45 or so years ago. However, it does feel like a relic of a time way before it was conceived and although I’m quite given to fits of nostalgia induced entertainment, this one just kind of left me cold but, I think that’s because some of the more brilliant aspects of it set up their own, perhaps impossible to meet, expectations on the part of the audience.

Okay... so the film looks at a teenage cell of soldiers or terrorists (no idea what) in some unnamed country, in some unknown time period. It’s not, I think, that the filmmakers were deliberately withholding any of this information from me, I just think they assumed a knowledge of possible real life events that just isn’t going to be there for certain audience members. Is there a war of some kind going on in the world right now? No idea but if there is then I think it’s about time everybody stopped trying to kill each other, to be honest.

So I had no clue as to what was going on or why the Monos of the title, which is what this particular group of soldiers is called for some inexplicable reason (I still don’t know what the title means), are guarding a hostage. I couldn’t even tell if the character called Rambo is supposed to be male or female, to be honest. They keep calling him a guy but he’s clearly being played by a woman (perhaps it’s a Peter Pan thing going on). It’s well acted by a whole host of people, many of them first timers, I suspect. Absolutely brilliant performances from Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Karen Quintero and Julian Giraldo are on display here which absolutely make you believe 100% in the characters but, alas, acting and making things credible is not the whole battle when it comes to making a movie.

This is coupled with, despite an abundance of both hand held camera movement and a decision to focus on long shots of the cast during certain situations, some truly great cinematography. The use of colour and contrast throughout the picture is phenomenal but something was holding me back from properly embracing the film in the terms with which it needed to be hugged close, so to speak.

Thinking about it, I think the disappointment stems, as I said above, from expectations set up. The film doesn’t have much of a story, doesn’t enlighten the viewer about anything and doesn’t really even have an ending. It just doesn’t do anything really special and, frankly, none of those criticisms would normally seem like the nails in the coffin that they seem to feel like here. Films don’t have to satisfy these criteria and can still be hugely entertaining movies. I think, for me though, the brilliance of the way the movie is shot, edited and performed is the thing that makes me feel that everything is such a wasted opportunity. With beautiful looking image making like this, I really would expect it to be able to do more with its raw components than just end without any kind of point being made or resolution apparent.

For example, I’ve never read Lord Of The Flies or seen any of the movie versions (unless you count that episode of The Simpsons) but there are some really blatant references to it here (both visual and in spirit) so that even I cant miss them... but do they really help the viewer draw conclusions about the nature of this ‘young army’ here or have much point to them. Other than for it to be very predictable (when a key character is murdered at one moment in the narrative, it’s not exactly a surprise... you can even feel when it’s about to happen). So, yeah... forget the story on this one and stick with the performances, is my advice.

And the music, of course.

Mica Levi’s score is... okay it feels a bit gimmicky this time around in terms of I can see some people coming away and thinking a lot of it was just sound design but, it’s certainly a direct descendent to her Under The Skin score in that it’s driven with unrelenting repeat phrases played at a frenetic pace and helps maintain the films only true sense of edginess in the scenes in which it is utilised. Coming across like the sound of the helicopters in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (the only concession I’d concede to any similarities to that film) by way of being, perhaps, a spiritual sister piece to Threnody 1 -  Night Of The Electric Insects from George Crumb’s musical delirium Black Angels, the score is the one truly great achievement of the film and you can bet I’ll be ordering the CD as soon as I finish this review (tried to get one in Fopp on the way home from the cinema but, alas, they’d already sold out). Indeed, it perhaps wears some of its musical influences on its sleeve, at least it seems so to me... but it is something I could probably listen to for a good number of spins without getting bored of it... although I don’t think it has any of the emotional resonance of her score for Jackie.

And that’s me done with Monos, I think. Not a movie I’d need to bother watching again but a lot of good ingredients in the mix and I’m sure certain kinds of audiences will go for it... especially those with a sense of nostalgia for 1980s styles of cinema, I suspect. Not really my cup of tea though, I have to say.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

For Kerry - November 2019

Kerry Kumar Singh
19th December 1967 -
24th May 2019

For Kerry - November 2019

Kerry Singh was my best friend.

Regular readers will have occasionally heard of him on this blog before (in posts like this one about Blade Runner) but I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned him by name before now. I’ve known him for around 40 years after we met on the first day of school back in the late 1970s but I don’t think we actually started talking to each other and hanging around together properly until around June 1983. Kerry was three weeks older than me but, because he was born in December of ‘67 and I in January ‘68, I got to wind him up every year by telling people he was a year older than me. It used to be our favourite annual argument, as we both grinned at each other while Kerry clarified the dates with whoever we were with.

I can remember, more or less, how our proper friendship started. For some reason I wanted to go to see a film at my local cinema (which would have been called the ABC Cinema in Enfield at the time) and something, I don’t know what, made me ask Kerry if he wanted to go with me. He surprised me by saying yes and so we both went and saw Educating Rita together. In fact, my recollection is that we both loved it so much, we went back another two times over the next couple of weeks.

After that, we started regularly going to the cinema more and more, with or without our select group of friends at the time (Hi Steve, Jason and Andy!) and we saw some real crackers, often on a Saturday evening after I got out of my Saturday job at W. H. Smith’s, when Kerry would bring his van around (he was always between 10 mins and 3 hours late... apart from that one time when he was a spectacular 24 hours late) and we’d bomb it into London, park in one of the free spots around the back of the British Museum and then walk, more often than not, to our favourite cinema... the Lumiere on St. Martin’s Lane (although sometimes we’d hit the Metro on Rupert Street or, if we couldn’t find the film we wanted playing anywhere else, one of the tiny screens at the Swiss Centre)... to see some great movies such as Betty Blue, The Hairdresser’s Husband, Merci La Vie, Monsieur Hire, Sante Sangre, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita... we had multiple visits to that one) and a whole host of others. Then, after that, we’d hit Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus (they were open until midnight) and then follow it up, when Tower closed their doors, with a quick trip to Dunkin’ Donuts opposite (goodness knows if they ever shut), before walking back to the British Museum and then heading home.

Other times it might be the Barnet Odeon... in which case we would more often than not follow it up with a drive to Hampstead for their pancake stall. At the time this stall was located right next door to the Hägen Das ice cream parlour... which we’d hit straight after finishing up the crepés before calling it a night.

Kerry was one of those rare people I could connect with and know his exact thoughts. We used to know what each other would say about any situation before it happened, which made us a good double act, expecially if we were playing partner whist. To say we had a lot of fun to offset the darkness of our normal 9-5 would be an understatement. We used to laugh a lot, partially due to Kerry’s completely contagious humour. He would always be there to cheer you up when things were down and we always had each other’s back. And if either of us yawned loudly, the other would yell... “No Chewie, No! You have to stay here and look after the Princess.” Like I said, fun times.

Kerry got married and started a family ten years ago so we didn’t see each other as much as we did in the old days but we were always there for each other and, after my cousin moved to Australia a few years ago and we realised we hadn’t been seeing each other as much as we’d liked, we decided to make sure we went to the cinema with each other at least once a month and that’s what we did. We saw all the Marvel movies together and Christmas week was reserved for new Star Wars films. The last film we saw together was Avengers End Game but we planned on seeing the new Spider-Man and Shaft movies as our next ones. Alas, that was not to be.

I remember a couple of years ago... I did something and I don’t even remember what it was, probably made Kerry aware of a bargain and picked something up for him he might otherwise have missed. Anyway, I remember him thanking me for still looking out for him. I reminded him that this is what we always did for each other... look out for one another... and I know I was always grateful he was around to talk to and keep me sane. Especially since he was the practical one of the two of us. I wouldn’t know how to wire a plug or fix a fence or a gazillion other things but, if you needed some help with something like that, Kerry was your man.

Kerry passed away earlier in the year on the 24th May 2019, quite unexpectedly and in circumstances I find hard to come to terms with. I miss him a lot.

So why have I left it until November 2019 to write a memorial piece for my blog? Well, asides from the fact that it’s still painful to think about, November 2019 was going to be a special month for us. Here’s why...

Back in the days before 1992 (sometime around 1985 is my guess), I introduced Kerry, by way of a screening at either Barnet ODEON or the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead (once one of our favourite repertory cinemas but, alas, not the cinema it once was anymore), to Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner. I’d seen it with my folks back on its first release and it had become my favourite movie. I thought Kerry might like it and he did. As much as me, it turned out and so we started going to see it, usually on a midnight screening, whenever any cinema in London or the suburbs showed it (we even saw it presented by Rutger Hauer once... Kerry met him in the toilets and grabbed his autograph as I recall. I had to wait until after the show to secure my signature). Pretty soon we started noticing a lot of familiar faces in the audience for this film which, you might remember, totally flopped on its original release. It was like being part of a little, dedicated community.  In those days, it was just about able to be called a cult movie... before a surge of popularity created by people like Kerry and myself and riding the crest of an accidental Los Angeles screening of the rush assembly cut, brought it back into the public eye forever more. We loved that movie and I remember asking Kerry once what his favourite film was... expecting the reply to be either The Pink Panther or A Shot In The Dark. Nope. “Same as you...” came the reply... “Blade Runner”.

So... as you probably know, Blade Runner was a film set in the near but so far future of Los Angeles, November 2019. So we said to each other that, if we were both still around in the year 2019 (we couldn’t even imagine we would be), then we would fly out to Los Angeles together to see if the reality lived up to the beautifully shot urban decay of the film. It was a promise we’d made each other but, as is often the way with such things, as we got nearer the decade we both realised that the expense, both monetary and in time, of getting to Los Angeles in November of this year was a bit of a hard ask. But I knew, as I’m sure Kerry did, that we’d need to mark the month somehow. We would have to do something. One opportunity which came up, although it was sadly scheduled for October 2019, was a ‘live music to film’ screening of Blade Runner at the Royal Albert Hall. I went to it by myself in the end. It wasn’t a good performance actually but I know Kerry really wanted to go. I remember ringing him up in January or February this year asking if I should book us tickets and, although he was up for it, he said that it was half term week and he wanted to spend as much time as possible being there for his wife and child. Which I totally understand and I’m mentioning this here because I want you to realise just how much Kerry adored his family. They were everything to him. They were so good for him and I hope somewhere up there he’s still keeping an eye out for them (and on me for that matter... I’m pretty sure he’s laughing at some of the ridiculously incompetent things I’m doing these days in his absence, that’s for sure).

Anyway, the point is, this was the month we were supposed to be doing something really cool but, alas, Kerry didn’t live long enough for us to hatch up any plans, it turned out. Though he passed on in May, I’ll always remember him and our November promise.

I’ll still occasionally mention him in the odd blog review, of course. He’s been far too big an influence on my life not to. So when certain films finally get re-watched and reviewed here, you may recognise his name and from now on I’ll make it a hyperlink back to this post so you can read just who he was to me and know of the huge void left in my life which can’t ever be filled in quite the same way again.

Kerry Singh was my best friend and he always will be.

But I sure do miss him.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Terminator Dark Fate

The Fate And The Furious

Terminator Dark Fate
(aka Terminator 6)

2019 USA Directed by Tim Miller
UK cinema release print.

Warning: This one has some spoilers because I don’t have a great deal to say about it but I can, at least, talk about specific plot points.

Terminator Dark Fate is the latest in a long line of Terminator films, starting off with James Cameron’s break out picture The Terminator back in 1984. I saw that first one a year or two after that via a big box video rental from the Off Licence about five minutes walk away (it’s still an off licence but, alas, doesn’t rent videos anymore). Out of all the Terminator movies, that first one was by far and away the best of the series and it’s the only one so far I’ve watched multiple times. All the others I’ve only seen once on their cinema releases. Out of the rest... 2 and 5 were pretty unwatchable, 3 and 4 were a little more entertaining.

This new sixth one is... somewhere in the middle of that lot in watchability, I reckon.

Now, I’ve got no idea just what is going on with the story anymore. They’re a little more contradictory as they go on and all have tried to reboot the franchise in some way. Frankly, the continuity on these things is just as bad as the 1940s Universal Mummy sequels or the various X-Men movies from 20th Century Fox... pretty non existent and disrespectful to the audiences who have plonked down money to see a sequel which fitted in with the prior films in the series.

Alas, Terminator Dark Fate is absolutely guilty of the same derogatory attitude towards its paying audience and within the first five or so minutes of the movie, it completely disregards the 3rd, 4th and 5th films by wiping out the possibilities of those futures, having a ‘younged up’ John Connor shot dead by a Terminator soon after the events of the second film. We then jump to present day when another Terminator, played by Gabriel Luna (who you may remember played Ghost Rider in Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D) is sent back to our time to kill a young woman called Danni Ramos, played by Natalia Reyes. However, an ‘augmented human’... basically a synthesis of future tech crossed with a human being, so a super powered cyborg, in other words... is sent back to protect her in the form of Grace, played by Mackenzie Davis.

And, to be fair, things get off to a great start with some strong and unrelenting action sequences which really had me believing that this may be one of the better terminator sequels. I was enjoying what I was seeing a lot and that didn’t let up when, in an early ‘deus ex machina’ moment seen in the trailer, Sarah Connor (with Linda Hamilton returning to play the somewhat iconic role) comes to everyone’s rescue and stalls the pursuit of the new Terminator for a little while. She has been getting anonymous messages from someone ‘off the grid’ for years now telling her when and where a Terminator will appear... “For John...” and is the poster girl for America’s Most Wanted as she has been dealing with various Terminators over the years. When Grace hacks her phone they match some coordinates she was sent back with and they go on a road trip to find themselves at the home of... the Terminator who killed John Connor at the start of the film. He has matured into Arnold Schwarzenneger as he looks now and, since he has new orders and is more or less the cybernetic equivalent of a Ronin (a masterless samurai), he has ‘grown a conscience’ and wants to make amends. And the rest of the film is, of course, more action as this group tries to destroy the Terminator, suffering a few losses along the way.

And... it doesn’t quite do what it needed to do for me to really get on its side. Which is a shame because, for the first hour, I was really into it hook, line and sinker. When Schwarzenegger turns up, though, things kind of go downhill a little and it’s not specifically because of him. As usual, Arnold is really cool in this and he does have some good moments in the film... as do all the cast, who make up a great ensemble. And it’s not even that the script is that bad either, despite its disrespect to the three films that preceded it. I just think that, by this point, there’s been a lot of truly spectacular action sequences and, frankly, the action in the second half of the movie, relentless though it is, just doesn’t really top anything you’ve already seen before and the pauses between set pieces aren’t really enough to keep you invested in them for the whole movie. I kinda had action fatigue by around the midway mark, I think. That was my biggest problem with it.

The ending and the not completely surprising revelation about the importance of the girl everyone is protecting is not that satisfying either, it has to be said. And it’s a shame because, like I said, the movie has got a great opening for the first hour. Then it just gets... well kinda dull actually. I no longer needed to see any action by this point and I was just waiting for all the pyrotechnics to finish. Pacing is everything and the second half of the film didn’t really have much contrast in it, truth be told.

Tom Holkenborg’s score to this however, is pretty cool. It’s quite respectful of Brad Fiedel’s original and it works and lifts the action in the occasional scenes when you can actually hear it without getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak. I believe La La Land are planning on issuing a CD of this one towards the end of the month and I may well pick this one up at some point.

Other than that... not much else to say. Good chemistry between the actors, some nice action scenes at the start and, thankfully, some good editing in those action scenes too... you’d probably not get too confused by what’s going on in this one, so that’s good news. Other than that though... not much else to weigh in with Terminator Dark Fate I think. Fans of the franchise will probably be happy enough with it (although I hear that the box office take on this is not what the studios would have wanted). Newcomers to the franchise could also probably pick up what’s going on fairly early in the film too so if you want to see a lot of explosions and bullets and flying bodies, then this is probably the film for you. I’m not sure however, at least in terms of the Terminator movies, that Arnold Schwarzenneger will ‘be back’ for another.

Sunday 10 November 2019


Appy Death Day

2019 USA Directed by Justin Dec
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Slight spoilers as to the set up of the movie.

Well this is a fun little movie. It’s not out and out brilliant but it is entertaining and it has a nice premise which the writer/director Justin Dec uses to riff on a mish mash of old genre tropes.

The plot is simple. A bunch of friends at a party download an app called Countdown which predicts and counts down to the end of your life in Years, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds. Since nobody believes in such things being possible with an app (obviously), they are not worried about that proposition and the reason they download it in the first place is to use it as a drinking game... the one who has the nearest death prediction has to drink everybody’s shots. Well, of course, one of them gets a time which is only a couple of hours away and both she and, a few days later, her boyfriend, die from being killed by some kind of demon at their predicted second.

This is when the main protagonist of our story, Quinn (played by Elizabeth Lail), a recently graduated nurse, comes in. She witnesses the emotional impact on the boyfriend and figures he’ll soon be fine once he realises he’s not going to die so, of course, when he does die at the alloted time, in the hospital she works in, she starts getting very worried. Especially since her and another load of hospital staff also downloaded the app the previous day and, you guessed it, Quinn has little more than two days left to live. So yeah, before you know it she is trying to outwit the demon who is obviously taking up all her waking thoughts, especially since her new ally (played by Jordan Calloway) and her own sister have even less time to live than her.

Simple set up and the director is basically just riffing with it. As you can see, it’s pretty much a common or garden ‘demon curse that follows you around until your untimely death’ movie, following in the footsteps of such treasures as Drag Me To Hell, It Follows (reviewed here), Ringu (review coming sooner or later), Truth or Dare (reviewed here) and, of course, the grand daddy template and chief influencer of all supernatural curse stories Night Of The Demon (aka Curse Of The Demon, reviewed here), which was of course an adaptation of M. R. James’ short story Casting The Runes (you can find my review of the TV adaptation of this one here). That being said, in this one you can’t actually rid yourself of the curse or stall it by passing it on like those just mentioned... just get more people hurt, so it’s also probably very much like the Final Destination movies but, as I’ve never seen any of those, that’s only my best guess.

Now I never really get tired of these viral curse movies anyway but the pacing and writing on this is all pretty good. The director has thrown in lots of little strands of things he can pull on at the appropriate time such as the turbulent but healing relationship between Quinn and her younger sister (played here by Talitha Bateman from Annabelle Creation - reviewed by me here), Quinn’s guilt over the death of her mother and a male villain who is definitely put in to highlight the current ‘me too’ movement... although, to be fair, the director uses this character as a clever way of short cutting to a possible solution to Quinn and her friends’ problem, using this to deliberately crush her hopes at the eleventh hour.

Also, though, as I said in my first paragraph, the director happily cross pollinates varying horror sub-genres here by, for example, going the ‘full Dennis Wheatley’ at one point with salted circles harbouring protection symbols, used to shield the main characters from a visit by the demon (which you just know is going to go wrong). There’s even a moment in this which is a dead steal from what is probably the most memorable scare moment in The Haunting (reviewed by me here). All I shall say about this is that there’s a definitive ‘the horror thing already happened but you didn’t notice’ realisation where the writer/director parodies the “Oh my gawd. Whose hand was I holding?” moment done in, really much the same way.

There are also some great comical characters in the movie too. For example, the IT expert who manages the local phone store, played by Tom Segura, who is quite hilariously rude (and therefore true to life when it comes to people working in IT?) to almost everyone he spends time with, representing one of the ‘solutions’ of the movie when he tries to hacks Countdown App and reset all the clocks (if you want to find out the final fate of his character, stay behind for a bit after the credits have started rolling). Or the brilliant ‘rock and roll exorcism priest’ played by P.J. Byrne, who unfortunately drops clean out of the movie after his failed attempt at saving the life of one of the main protagonists. I don’t know why he’s just not referred to again, at least, later on in the picture.

In all honesty, the film isn’t really all that scary but it does have the occasional effective jump moments along the way. One of the smart things the writer/director does to ratchet up the tension in certain scenes is to have the Countdown App giving notifications every minute for the last five minutes or so of the victim’s life, which come in the form of irritating screams... which the director uses to full advantage. So perhaps it isn’t the scariest movie out there but, frankly, the same can be said for a lot of modern horror movies and this one, at least, is nicely put together and short enough so it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

All in all, then, what we have here is a genre piece where the emphasis is on fun rather than scares but, honestly, it works fine on that level for me. Well, I say it’s not scary but, I noticed the app is now available on the app store and I’m certainly not brave enough to download that one just yet. If you are into horror films and want to watch something which is done competently and possibly using some of the most clichéd styles of the genre in the most entertaining way possible then Countdown is probably something you’ll want to take a look at. The only real downside is the somewhat rather blatant set up for Countdown 2... it’s not subtle and grates a bit... although I suspect, judging from the amount of people in the cinema when I saw it, the box office on this one may not be enough to green light a sequel on, unless it does well on DVD and Blu Ray rentals.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Doctor Sleep

Look Before You Sleep

Doctor Sleep
2019 USA Directed by Mike Flanagan
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Contains spoilers for the original novel of Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a pretty good film but I’m really surprised that Stephen King himself, the author of this sequel to his earlier book The Shining, has endorsed it. It’s not a secret that King hated Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of The Shining (reviewed by me here) because of the way it differed from the novel and there are two reasons why I would have thought that King would have been equally damning of this new movie adaptation of Doctor Sleep. One is that the last third of the movie is nothing like the last third of the original book (which I reviewed here). It takes so many more liberties with the text than Kubrick did on his adaptation of The Shining and the ending is completely changed. That in itself would have been something he would be quite critical of, I’d have thought but you also have to factor in that director Mike Flanagan (who directed the wonderful Absentia, which I reviewed here) has deliberately synched it in visually, in a lot of it, to Kubrick’s version of The Shining... which King hated. So, yeah, puzzled but happy, at least, that the famous horror novelist is finally recognising a good movie, albeit a slightly flawed version of his original novel here.

So lets get to it then.

The film will give fans of Kubrick’s original chills right from the opening Warner Brothers logo, as the Newton Brothers recreate the first few bars of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s opening title variation of the Deus Irae from The Shining before they go into their own thing. The film starts off not long after the original and we get some scenes showing Danny and his mother after the events of that film. These two don’t look as much like the original actors as you might like but they’ve done their best to make them look like variations of what they might look like at that point in time. Then the movie picks up speed and jumps to Ewan McGregor playing a grown up version of the first film’s/novel’s central child protagonist Danny Torrance, first in the scene where he wakes up in a woman’s bed in full ‘morning after’ mode and, then, as he ends up in New Hampshire and is helped back into both employment and into the local alcoholics anonymous group by his new friend Billy (played here by Cliff Curtis). We also get background on the group of antagonists called The Knott, headed up by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat.

The film then jumps forward another eight years and carries on with the story of the novel for a good way, building up the tension in The Knott but precluding them systematically dying from measles due to contaminated steam (steam is basically their name for the essence found inside people who ‘shine’). So we get them noticing the young girl protagonist Abra (who has a powerful version of ‘the shining’ in her and who is played by Kyliegh Curran here) and we get Abra’s psychic relationship with Danny reaching the point that, after she psychically witnesses the slow murder and absorption of a kid at the hands of The Knott, she seeks Danny out in real life and the two ultimately hatch a plan to put a stop to The Knott before The Knott can find and kill them too.

Then, around about the point where The Knott spring a trap set by Danny, Abra and Billy, the film deviates massively from the original novel in a lot of ways. Although the last battle takes place in the grounds of the Overlook Hotel it’s only Rose in that final battle and not a big battle royale with a large portion of The Knott. Also, in the book the Overlook is no longer there and The Knott have their campsite in the ruins. In the movie, Danny and Abra lure Rose to the still standing Overlook Hotel for their final showdown. There are other characters that make more appearances than they did in the novel too and, frankly, the number of survivors of ‘the good guys’ and the specific people still left standing at the end is completely different. It is like watching a new story from this point on.

It all looks and sounds fabulous though. The performances by McGregor, Ferguson and Curran are brilliant and Curtis give solid support as Billy. In fact, there really isn’t a bad performance in this movie. Even Alex Essoe, who takes over from Shelley Duvall as Danny’s mum Wendy, does a good job here... especially since she doesn’t look all that like the original actress (the same could perhaps be said of whoever they’ve got playing Jack Torrance in lieu of Jack Nicholson here... I can’t find out who plays him in this as the Internet seems somehow shrouded in mystery about him right now).

The last third features a lot more Stanley Kubrick references (pitching in with the references at the opening of the film) and it’s a fun time if you’re an admirer of the Kubrick picture. Some of the sets and shot set ups have been recreated (and that’s down to the sound design too) but, nice as they are to look at, it’s all a bit of a strange mix up. For instance, in the novel, Jack Torrance makes an appearance right at the end in a rescue/redemption moment. Here that’s gone and the scene and necessity for his appearance is also not here... instead, Flanagan tries to shoehorn the character into a much bigger role and... honestly, it doesn’t work that well here, I think. Also, the character’s effect on Danny and the subsequent chase scene is... well it’s a bit laboured, it seems to me.

However, the party guests, the brief reappearance of the twins and other things are done pretty well.  One cameo and set up for the new denouement which people who haven’t read King’s The Shining may find puzzling is also strangely mixed in here and, like I said, if you have only seen Stanley’s take on the story, then it might seem like a really clumsy 'deus ex machina' moment. I’m talking about the boiler in the Overlook Hotel... I’m not going to say much about it here other than to remind readers that, in the original novel The Shining, it played a huge role... and I’m saying that bearing in mind that I haven’t read the novel since the late 1970s/early 1980s but, yeah, even I can remember the boiler room being a big thing in the book. So, yeah, Flanagan and co bring that back in to the mix but, like I said, it’s going to seem like a really sloppy addition if you haven't read The Shining.

The cinematography is all good though and the music from the Newton Brothers gets back nearer to the soundscape of The Shining soundtrack once you get into the last third. Honestly, there’s a series of shots which come just after the film really starts deviating from the book and I was kinda expecting them to happen and I was thinking, I hope they remember to properly use Carlos and Elkind’s Deus Irae here again... yeah, they do and although the sequence of shots is much, much shorter than the original ones the director is parodying (and shot at night in this instance), it does feel good when this little moment comes.

And that’s me done on this one I think. I hate the new ending as I thought the one in the book was perfect and, frankly, if King ever gets it into his head to write a third novel in that sequence, the movie studios are going to surely find it hard to adapt it after the big U-Turn ending this film takes. That being said, in spite of all these terrible changes plus the overuse of a character who would have been much better left as the brief but weighty appearance he has in the novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride on this one and will certainly be grabbing the Blu Ray when this one gets released. UK fans of the score may want to know that there’s a CDR release of it on US Amazon which they’ll ship to the UK, if you want to hear the music properly rather than attempt to listen to a disappointing and compressed electronic download. Looking forward to giving that one a spin when it finally arrives in the mail. Anyway, Doctor Sleep is definitely something you should see if you liked the Kubrick version of The Shining but please don’t expect something close to the book... there are some wild deviations here.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Arrow FrightFest Halloween Edition 2019


Arrow FrightFest
Halloween Edition 2019

Horror Marathon
Saturday 2nd/Sunday 3rd November 2019
Mini reviews for the movies Candy Corn,
The Haunted Swordsman, We Summon The Darkness,
Uncanny Annie, Swallow, Trick, Scare Package

After having to come to terms with maybe not being able to go to this year’s Halloween FrightFest Marathon, due to the illness of someone very close to me, I was delighted to find I was able to attend after all. I enjoyed it so much last year (read my review here) and, if anything, this year rammed it home to me that even though the movies might not always be all that great (I didn’t like too many of them except one stand out one which I’ve named this article after), it’s worth being there to pick up that vibration of a community spirit to the FrightFest events and, even though I’m mostly too shy to talk to people, it’s just an atmosphere of togetherness that I like to sit in my seat and bask in.

As to the movies themselves... well looking at a load of new horror films in one sitting is always going to be hit and miss (and personally, I think they only showed three horror films this year with one of those being very much a comedy-horror... the other four consisted of a fantasy puppet movie, two slashers and a film about the perils of marrying rich). This year’s selection was, perhaps, less interesting than last year’s but none of the films were in any way made in an amateurish way (a complaint that maybe could be levelled at one or two of the previous Halloween FrightFest screenings), so it was a solidly programmed affair, at the very least...

Candy Corn
USA 2019
Written and directed by Josh Hasty.

First up was Candy Corn. This film was obviously cheaply made but didn’t, as I said above, look unprofessional. This is an old school ‘revenge from beyond the grave’ story where the local town idiot, who gets picked on every year on Halloween by the former bullies of his old school, is accidentally beaten to death by them. However, he has recently got a job helping out a travelling sideshow carnival (yeah... you just know there’s going to be a ‘one of us!’ reference in this to Todd Browning’s original Freaks... not the only film in this year’s selection which does this) and when he is found by the head of the show, Dr. Death (played brilliantly by Pancho Moler), he is revived as a vengeance filled zombie creature to take out the people who were involved in his death.

While the film has a nice 1950s EC comics feel to it, it’s never really that great and the deaths are not nearly as imaginative as perhaps they ought to be for a film which relies on a traditional ‘body count’ mentality injected into the proceedings. It did, however, have a pretty great and memorable score, co-composed by Michael Broker and director Josh Hasty. People were even still whistling it in the queues for the toilets in the small break between films.

The Haunted Swordsman
USA 2019
Directed by Kevin McTurk

Next up was special effects guy extraordinaire, Kevin McTurk’s new short film (about 16 mins long), The Haunted Swordsmen. Like his previous two shorts, he and his crew have worked long hours on this puppet movie, building the characters and sets with exquisite detail and over many years. This tells the short story of a ronin who is trying to hunt down the demon who slew his shogun. For a puppet show, so to speak, it felt more epic and looked more breathtaking than the majority of the other films on the programme. It’s interesting because the main character’s face has no movement built into it (indeed, the mouth on that one character is done with CGI on the rare occasions he speaks because he was originally written without any lines) but due to the lighting and context of the shots of his face, you kind of project the expressions onto him yourself as you are watching. Ultimately though, the film was a bit of a teaser because it’s the part of a story where the defeated hero is given a new challenge or quest to find a magical weapon in order to defeat his enemies... so it does kinda feel like there’s a lot more of the story to tell. Still, it’s a really nice piece and I was really happy to be able to see this one on a big screen.

We Summon The Darkness
USA 2019
Directed by Marc Meyers

Next up was We Summon The Darkness, a movie which, like the great giallo All The Colours Of The Dark, is a straight thriller masquerading under the guise of a horror movie. Alas, it’s revealed as the movie plays out, that the supernatural trappings are all just hot air and, really, this amounts to not much more than a serial killer movie. After a strong start with a group of three women who really have some interesting chemistry, it kinda falls apart. Again, this is partially because there is a so called ‘twist’ half way through the movie but, honestly, anyone who’s been paying attention to the shenanigans of the girls in the first five minutes will know exactly what that twist is right from the word go. So it does get kinda irritating watching through this and waiting for the other characters to catch on. I was impressed with some of the performances but not the clichéd storytelling so this one was another ‘miss’ for me.

Uncanny Annie
USA 2019
Directed by Paul Davis

Ironically, it was the next movie, Uncanny Annie, which easily won the Halloween Edition FrightFest ‘best movie’ best screening for me this year. Ironic because, out of all of them, this one is actually a TV movie, made for a horror anthology series in the US called Into The Dark. So yeah, I was really glad this was here because there’s probably no other way I would have gotten to see it. The premise, too, is really simple but quite effective as a narrative hook. It’s simply a horror movie remake of the original Jumanji. A group of students play a board game one Halloween in memory of their dead friend who died the year before but, pretty soon, the evil spirit haunting the game has trapped their reality in the box and they are trying to play through the game while it starts killing off the players one by one. It looks fantastic, has a kind of gothic air about it (especially with the graphics on the board game... I’d love to own this set) and is, for me, the only movie in this years Halloween FrightFest which even approached being a little scary or having any tension about it. I also loved the way that, by the end of the movie, the game has become a kind of punishment for some of the players who are hiding some guilty, if kinda obvious, secrets. Plus it had a great one liner earlier on which was the funniest moment of this year’s programme... not to mention a ‘blood tearing out of the eyes’ moment which was obviously lifted from the Christopher Lee death scene from one of the Hammer Dracula movies (Tarantino put the same homage in Kill Bill Volume 1).  Had a really good time with this one.

USA/France 2019
Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

Next up was Swallow, the ‘best looking’ movie of this Halloween’s edition of Frightfest. Although, despite one of the programmer’s ‘allergic’ reaction/tirade to people wondering why it was showing here, I’d have to say I also would question its place here. It’s not a horror movie and as to the line of defence that says Frightfest represents The Dark Heart Of Cinema...? Well I didn’t think it was all that dark either, to tell the truth. It was kinda nice and gentle to watch though and mainly focused on the brilliant lead actress Haley Bennett, playing housewife Hunter, as the director filmed her and some other outstanding actors in beautifully uncluttered shots, more often than not using upright vertical slices along the frame to position various players and objects in.

Hunter has married a wealthy man and it shows the way she reacts to the everyday loneliness of being a housewife with not much to do, alone in a huge house with no company. It kinda follows in the footsteps, to a certain extent, of Marina de Van’s In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) but, instead of developing an obsession with cutting and eating portions of her own body, Hunter develops an obsession with swallowing objects which... well.. aren’t mean to be swallowed. It’s kinda cool but low key and, I think, a little over hyped in terms of the effect it might have on people... it’s really not a disturbing film. It is a feminist movie, to an extent and I did like the tangents it went off on towards the end of the film but, ultimately, I’ve seen this kinda thing done before. That’s not to diminish this one though.... but I did and still do question why it was bundled into the FrightFest package (as I did with the film The Unthinkable, which was easily one of the best movies of the year last year but, again, don’t know why it was playing at FrightFest).

Ultimately though, Swallow is a stand out film and in terms of the impeccable cinematography, I did think as I was watching it that, the shot design coupled with the look of the lead actress made me feel like it was watching an early Cindy Sherman photograph coming to life. Also, the musical score was quite interesting and reminded me a lot of composer Bernard Herrmann. Not in the way that it was orchestrated as such but, more in the way that it seems to be accompanying the psychological environment of the movie and using short, repeat, motifs to slowly transform and surround the lead actress. This one is also definitely worth at least one watch if you happen to come across it.

USA 2019
Directed by Patrick Lussier

Trick was another of those ‘serial killers with supernatural trappings’ kinds of movies but, by the time you got to the end and the final twist (which, again, if you half squint at certain points in the movie, you can kinda see coming a mile off), it revealed itself to be just another slasher movie and, frankly, the Italians are much better at those kinds of things. It was a speedy ride and the performances were good  (heck, it even had genre actor Tom Atkins in it) but, ultimately, it didn’t have a whole lot of substance to it and the cinematography and the way it was edited were not enough to hold the picture up by themselves on this one. The one good thing it did have was that a couple of the deaths which, again, this genre thrives on, were at least a little more imaginative than those on show in some of the other films here.

Scare Package
USA 2019

Directed by Mali Elfman, Courtney Andujar,
Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins,
Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy,
Noah Segan and Baron Vaughn

Last up for the day was Scare Package, a comedy horror anthology which has seven segments and which boasts, on the poster, seven different directors. As to that last thing... count the names above and you do the maths.

This film, which is held together by a linking story set in a video store, has a kind of mission statement to it to basically ‘send up’ one or more famous horror tropes in each segment. Like FrightFest itself, it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair with the stories told within but the film started off really strongly with the first three segments being very funny (and also very gory, in places). I was completely on the film’s side before I even got out of the first segment so, frankly, found myself quite puzzled when the film rapidly went down hill after about a third of the way through. Some of the later scripts are just not funny and the postmodernistic references start to get on the nerves after a while. By about halfway through the film I was just waiting for it to finish and it was a really dull, slow crawl to the finish line Which is a bit of a shame but I think some of the writing was frankly not good in certain sequences. 

And that was the end of my Halloween FrightFest marathon, which started at 11am and finished around 12.30am the next morning. As expected, some films stood out while others quietly shuffled into the background but, I’ll say it again, the sense of community spirit that you get with horror folk attending these things it pretty cool and the ticket prices for the day passes are still good value for money. If I had one complaint about the format it’s that the intervals between the films are way too short. People need to go to the loo and eat or grab a drink. I think the festival could definitely do with starting an hour or more earlier and just having slightly longer gaps... especially when, due to Q&A sessions with people behind the films, things start to run a little late towards the end of the day and those gaps get even shorter. Other than that though, I had a great time, am looking forward to next year’s event and, as an added bonus, got to see one of the directors do a live pumpkin carving demonstration where he did a full Halloween pumpkin in exactly one minute (it was great hearing the audience counting him down too). As always, FrightFest is definitely worth a visit and if you’ve not been to one you might want to consider going next year.