Directed by Robbie Walsh
One of the perks/curses of writing a review blog is that sometimes a person involved with a film, usually a director, will trust you enough to give you a preview screener of their work in order to get an honest review. It’s something I’ve started shying away from just recently because, well, I really don’t have a lot of time on my hands but, when writer/director/actor Robbie Walsh approached me on Twitter about his recent feature The Letters, I grudgingly (very grudgingly, I have to admit) accepted. Glad I did because, sometimes when you’re approached out of the blue like this, a cinematic gem comes to light and this is definitely a nicely put together movie about, it turns out, a very troubling real life issue happening now in Ireland.
Okay, so the background of this movie is that, a few years back there was a huge scandal when it turned out thousands of women in Ireland had been given false test results on cervical smears and been told they were fine when, in actual fact, they had the beginnings of cervical cancer and were dying, without being caught early enough to be able to try and prevent this with treatment. This film is a fictional account of three such women, characters who have received false negatives and then found out, later on down the line when it’s too late, that they have advanced cancer symptoms.
The film opens with a curious sequence of a ballerina on stage, cross cut from behind her, stretching the full length of the frame and from a front view. For the front pov, the director puts her in spotlight against a dark backdrop and she takes up the left hand side of the screen. As the shots from the different views switch back and forth, the credits for the movie appear in the right hand side of the screen, complementing the dancing, spotlighted figure. It’s a curious and possible surreal introduction to the film but once you get to the finale of the movie, this scene makes perfect sense in the context of the last five or ten minutes of the story.
Well, I say story but, it’s more of a character study of the three fictional characters (and I suspect some of them may well be fictional composites of real women) and the way they are negatively impacted by their situation. So first up, after the credits, we have the majority of the rest of the movie shot in a moody monotone, looking a little washed out and neutral a lot of the time. I asked the director if that was a deliberate move to not emphasise the blacks and whites and, yeah, it was a way of helping imbue the scenes with the necessary sense of a chaotic nightmare in relation to the bookend scenes of the movie (which is perhaps a hard proposition to explain if you haven’t had the benefit of having seen the film but, trust me, this makes perfect sense too).
And chaos is certainly what we get when we are introduced to the three main characters in little, ten minute sections. So the first character is Sam, played by Mary Murray, a woman struggling as a single mother of five kids and living with crippling debt, which needs repaying to loan sharks. During these sequences and also with other characters when they are feeling under pressure (which is quite a lot), the director utilises hand held camera to give the viewer the sense of being right there in the eye of the storm with them.
This is followed by a character called Cliona, played by the gorgeous Sarah Carroll, who is a worker at the healthcare centre which has given the false positives and who is ultimately scapegoated by her wretched superiors (one of them a minister, played by the director himself in one of the least sympathetic roles in the film) when the calamity comes to light. There’s something muffled about this character, contrasting with the outer glamour projected by her. It takes a while for a certain reveal to come to light but there’s a good reason why she lives her life in such an elabourate, self contained, struggle. She daydreams in colour and this also gives us an introduction, of sorts, as to the pertinence of the way the final scenes of the movie are shot. Actually, the early dream sequence is nicely pulled off as the sound design highlights a clock which is ticking in her office, the sound of which suddenly looms large in the foley during this sequence.
Then we meet Mary, played by Kathleen Warner Yeates, the third of these fictional victims who lives with her mother Bridgette, played by Ann Russell, in order to care for her while she goes through dementia. Like the other two characters, for different reasons, she is living a chaotic and intense life. The director continues to use handheld camera to highlight especially difficult times and also, the other thing he does, is to have a low frequency pulse-like soundtrack cue come in to highlight particular moments of stress with the characters. This works pretty well because the majority of the film is left unscored.
After these three introductions, the film starts crosscutting between the groups of characters to chart their daily horror and things become especially powerful when the film suddenly goes to black screen and a voice over recording of one of the real life women dying from this misdiagnosis is used on the soundtrack for a minute or two. This is followed by an equally grim montage of the three women receiving their letters telling them that, actually, they are in serious trouble. This is quite a devastating few minutes and, you’d be right if you’re thinking the film is not an upbeat, feel good movie as the three main characters cough and splutter their way to three slightly different versions of oblivion (one of the characters taking another character with her). That being said, art doesn’t have to be upbeat, especially with this kind of ‘mirror to society/Loach by way of Bergman’ treatment of what is, after all, a very serious slice of subject matter. And, it has to be said, the film does have many moments of sheer beauty to it, not least of which is the alternative viewpoints of death seen in the closing minutes of the movie. This does, it has to be said, include a parody reconstruction of a famous painting which has become almost something of a cliché in terms of its use throughout cinematic history but, Walsh manages to pull it off quite well here, using it to add to the final product rather than detract from the underlying issues of the piece.
And that’s me just about done with The Letters. I’d like to thank the director, both for allowing me access to it and for making such a wonderful, socially conscious confection. The three lead actresses give absolute powerhouse performances in this and my biggest takeaway from the picture was that this one needs to get more exposure. It’s a well made movie about a very serious and concerning issue happening in Ireland right now and more people need to see this and learn about what’s been going on. If you can get the opportunity to see this one, definitely give it a watch. Nicely played.
Tuesday, 29 November 2022
Monday, 28 November 2022
The High Cost
Directed by various
UK/USA August 2022
Series One - Eleven Episodes
Well then... so they finally adapted one of my favourite comics, The Sandman, to a television format. Well, I say it’s one of my favourite comics and, that much is true but, I’ve only ever read the first couple of story arcs and assorted stand alones so... let’s just say I’m a big admirer of the comics (which I am now reading again, hopefully in their entirety) without being any kind of authority on them. And, it has to be said, as someone who has a special place in the heart for these particular four colour wonders, I was extremely worried just how much they were going to screw it up. Certainly, some of the casting choices were extremely concerning to me when announced. I hate this bizarre, tokenism cultural reappropriation that seems to be going on in everything right now and, certainly, many pasty, white characters have been cast as black here and, similarly, some males characters have been recast as female.
So, for example, my favourite character from the comics, the iconic looking Death, is played by black actress/writer/producer Kirby Howell-Baptiste and I figured that would be a calamity. However, one of the things this reminded me was, sometimes, it’s possible (and switching mediums, perhaps necessary) to change things but, as long as you keep something of the spirit of the character intact during that transition, then you’re onto a winner. And I have to say, not only does Kirby Howell-Baptiste look the part (skin colour aside... she still manages to look something similar to the character), she absolutely knocks it out the park with her ‘low-key powerhouse’ performance as Death. She had my heart in minutes, for sure.
Now stuff like these appalling kind of casting issues are all over this series and, surprisingly, these don’t actually deter from the spirit of the comic and these characters in the slightest. And even changing the great John Constantine to a female character, Johanna Constantine (of which there are now two in The Sandman TV universe because of this casting change), played by the extraordinary actress Jenna Coleman (as both versions of Johanna, for the record), is much less problematic than I imagined... I’ll have a little more to say on her a bit later on.
Now I’m sure the great Neil Gaiman has had something to do with the writing and development of this show so, the various changes (and there are many) can perhaps be looked at as a genius writer revisiting his earlier work and just tweaking it slightly, with the benefit of hindsight (and to make it work in another medium, for sure). And much as I hate ‘George Lucas style’ revisionism to a work, which is a little like what’s gone on here... I think they all did a wonderful job.
So, yeah, the TV version of The Sandman is not only absolutely brilliant, it’s also very true to the heart of the source which... is probably a very difficult thing to pull off but, yeah, they somehow managed it. This show deserves all the awards. Now, I’m not going to go into the story content here... if you’ve never read these brilliant comics then you’ll want to go into this show absolutely fresh (and then maybe read the comics after) but it’s a show which, like its source, is a series of brilliant ideas and concepts strung together in a heady, dramatic cocktail of supernatural and mythical shenanigans which is hard to resist... because they did it so well. Luckily for me, the first series adapts the first two story arcs plus a few stand alone issues... and it’s all the ones I’ve read. Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death appears in the version of my favourite ever issue (to date), The Sound Of Her Wings and, it’s absolutely brilliant... I’m hoping that the powers that be will star the same actress in the first Death comic book mini series now, Death - The High Cost Of Living (please?).
Tom Sturridge plays Dream/Morpheus, the titular Sandman and, while he doesn’t quite look like the more stylised version of him in the early comics (maybe not as pale or spiky enough) he does kinda look like a young Neil Gaiman and, honestly, he does absolutely brilliantly as Dream here. Very much a cipher of a character but also a character which, already in the show, you can see is being changed from his experiences with humans. After a few episodes I turned around to my dad, who I was watching these with and said, “... you know, this guy would make a good Elric!” and it’s true. If anyone thinks to do a TV or movie version of Michael Moorcock’s brilliant Elric Of Melnibone stories, Tom Sturridge is obviously the man to go and see.
Okay, some of the changes I was not a fan of but that didn’t hurt in the long run were... hmm... okay, let’s see...
A lot of the DC character references are gone. So the 1930s Golden Age comic book version of The Sandman, referenced in the comic as being inspired by Morpheus’ imprisonment in one panel on a page, did not make it into this. Similarly, the great David Thewlis plays John Dee but I don’t think he’s once referred to as Doctor Destiny, his alter ego as a villain in the Justice League comics. And he also doesn’t have a neighbouring prison cell next to Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow from Batman, in Arkham Asylum as he does in the comic book version either. Also, while Thewlis is the perfect piece of casting for this character (I would never have thought of that... brilliant choice), his actions seem more tempered. ONE SENTENCE SPOILER WARNING... he doesn’t kill the woman who goes out of her way to give him a cross country lift in her car after they have a long, pleasant conversation, as he does in the comics either... which I personally thought was a mistake but, I guess they thought the character wouldn’t garner enough sympathy with a modern TV audience for what comes later if they’d have gone through with that (I’m guessing).
Which brings us to another important change... Jenna Coleman as John Constantine. Really? Okay, so, presumably to not cross threads with either the John Constantine TV show or Keanu Reeve’s big budget Constantine movie (and the sequel which may well be going ahead now, after all this time), they’ve turned John Constantine into a woman, Johanna, not to be confused with her/his own ancestor Johanna (who also turns up in an episode played by the same actress). And, much to my gobsmacked shock, Coleman absolutely rocks it in this role. Now, I loved the Constantine movie and I love the work of Keanu Reeves but, my main criticism of that film (which I also loved, just not as an adaptation) is that Reeves plays a down on his luck, blonde, dirty raincoat wearing Liverpudlian (I think he’s from Liverpool, right?) as a rich, black haired yuppie person who, frankly, is nothing like John Constantine. Which is why I was amazed that, not only does Jenna Coleman rule this role, she also plays it just like the John Constantine in the comics. I mean, she channels John amazingly well and I would love to see a spin off series about this version of the character as well, it has to be said.
Okay, I’ve probably written much more than I was expecting to without even going into the plot but, honestly, if you like brilliant ideas, of which there are many on display, then The Sandman is one heck of a TV show and it gets a big recommendation from me. Two of the stand alone comics (again, two of my favourites) turn up as a special double bill bonus Episode 11 at the end and, yeah, I was wondering how they’d do Dream Of A Thousand Cats credibly... the solution was, as an animation, of course. And there you have it. Can’t wait for series two to come out and this whole show, every episode, was an amazing experience (and the way they do the ‘story fight’ between Morpheus and Lucifer is very inventive for a kinetic visual medium... it’s just right). Definitely don’t waste anymore time if you’re on the fence about this... a perfect show with a perfect cast, it turns out. Absolutely loved this and I just hope Netflix will consider releasing this on Blu Ray at some point soon (not to mention a proper soundtrack CD please).
Sunday, 27 November 2022
The Case Of The Curious Bride
Making It Legal
The Case Of The
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Warner Archive DVD Region 1
The Case Of The Curious Bride, the second of the Warner Brothers movies based (lightly enough for th original author to actually hate them) on the famous Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, once again stars Warren William as the famous legal hotshot. But already, by the second film in the series, it’s a very different kind of movie from the first one. It also has a very famous director in the form of Michael Curtiz, who would direct many popular (too numerous to mention them all) Hollywood classics in his career such as Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Commancheros and, of course, Casablanca. I’ll name a couple more of this director’s movies in a little while when they become very relevant to one of the minor actors here, just a step up from an extra, in this movie towards the end of this review.
Okay, so I said this was a very different kind of Perry Mason and I certainly mean it. The film pretty much transforms the story and characters into a very frothy, funny romp, starting off with a scene where Mason practically takes over a restaurant in order to prepare a meal. And it’s almost as if the scriptwriters are trying too hard to make it witty and funny and... they don’t let up all the way through. It’s not quite like watching The Marx Brothers at work but it is a little inappropriately handled for a Perry Mason adventure, I would say. It even has a scene where Mason’s detective assistant ‘Spudsy’ Drake accidentally subjects Mason and himself to tear gas and the two have a touching scene where they are crying for comic effect. This movie really is skating on thin ice but... yeah... it just about gets away with it, I think.
And talking of ‘Spudsy’... he’s played by Allen Jenkins, who played the disgruntled police detective in the previous movie (eagle eyed veterans might also remember him as the original version of Goldie Locke in at least one of the early Falcon films). We also have a new Della Street already, this time in the form of actress Claire Dodd. She does alright here though, at least as good as the last person and ably assists Perry when she can, as he gets involved with an old flame who is now married to one person and who was married to another who was legally dead for four years except... now he’s turned up again. However, he doesn’t turn up for very long as he’s soon bumped off for real and she is now the prime suspect. The corpse in question is played by an actor who would soon be even more famous than the director and, okay, I’ll get to that in a minute.
What’s really interesting here is the amount of crude but persistent camera movement in this movie, which seems a little out of place for its time, this close to the transition from silent films into talkies... maybe this was when the equipment started getting quieter to move about again. Anyway, there seems to be a lot of dollying up to characters like a kind of ‘do it yourself’ zoom shot and, also, there’s some very nice footage of a low key car chase where the car behind is shot from the back of another car with a very dynamic set of sweeping camera movements. This really does seem ahead of its time for 1935.
The shots seem to get more elabourate as the film wears on, too. There’s a really odd shot where Della is looking into the camera longingly after Perry has left and the shot just holds for way too long before she suddenly freezes altogether and the frame seems to push in like a zoom into the camera. Not long after this, the director starts using something similar to transition from scene to scene. So, for instance, he’ll dolly out of a shot at the end of a scene and then it will blur and dissolve into him dollying into the exterior of a building, acting as an establishing shot, which will in turn dissolve out as he dollies into the next scene within that location. So, yeah, a very specific visual language is being established by Curtiz as the film progresses. It’s distracting but interesting and I wonder if he was just experimenting with what he could get away with here.
Okay, so I’ve mentioned the comedy and I’ve mentioned the convoluted camera moves... let’s talk about the corpse of the murdered ‘former’ husband. Well, we see him for a few seconds with a sheet over him without getting a look at his face. Luckily, a flashback revealing how he died takes place in the last five minutes or so of the film where the character gets into a fight and then gets accidentally pushed back onto a broken glasss before we see the life fade out of his eyes. He has no lines and he’s on screen for maybe not much more than a minute but this is the fourth little part for an up and coming Tasmanian actor the world would soon know more of, namely, Errol Flynn. I can only assume the director met him while working on this movie and he would, that same year, direct him starring in what would be his break out role from extra to star, Captain Blood. The two would work on many more movies together such as The Charge Of The Light Brigade, The Adventures Of Robin Hood and Dodge City. So, yeah, this movie is worth watching just to see the start of this famous director/actor working relationship.
One last curious thing which I should possibly mention is that, this being a Perry Mason story, there is no courtroom scene in this one at all. Instead, Perry throws a party for a number of guests at short notice (why the heck they all came is anyone’s guess) and unmasks the real culprit (who he will go on to defend after the film is finished, we are told) at the party. So, hmm, don’t know if this was the case in Gardner’s original novel but, I’m guessing not and it seems strange to me to have a film about a famous lawyer and not have any time in court. Still, even for all it’s faults, The Case Of The Curious Bride was certainly an interesting movie and I had a good time with it. I’m looking forward to watching the next one to see if they decided to carry the tone over from this one or not. As always, I’ll let you know.
Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Black Panther - Wakanda Forever
Black Panther -
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Warning: Spoilers in the second half of this review
Okay... the good stuff first because, it has to be said, I had some issues with Black Panther - Wakanda Forever. However, that didn’t stop me enjoying the movie way more than the first one. I’ve got nothing against former star, the late Chadwick Boseman in the role, I thought he did a good job but, it has to be said, the first Black Panther (reviewed here when I was in a more forgiving mood), was pretty dull and surprisingly repetitive, for the most part. It was a bit ‘meh’ and I’ve only watched that one twice (once at the cinema and once on Blu Ray) so, yeah, it wasn’t that good. I’m delighted and more than a little surprised that this second, direct follow up (as opposed to the many indirect follow ups), is actually immensely entertaining as a stand alone cinematic delight. And that’s perhaps all that matters.
Also, forgive me for not mentioning the character of Ironheart much here (played in the movie by Dominique Thorne) but she’s a relatively new character in the comic books and I have no personal experience of her... I guess she’s around to pick up the mantle of Iron Man in word and deed and, fine, if they can’t get Rob Downey Jr back in the MCU then, that’s the way it is, I guess.
It’s well directed (again, as a purely cinema excursion, as opposed to adapting characters from the comics) and jostled along at a pleasing pace.. although when Shuri (played once again by Letitia Wright) tours Atlantis (but not Atlantis by name anymore, in this ‘adaptation’), the film does stop dead and get deathly dull for just a while. Similarly, when she goes through her dream visitation, it’s equally less engaging than the rest of the movie but, at least that sequence is over quicker. I would say, however that there are a few big negatives, two of which angered me greatly but which, despite popping me out of the movie to reflect on my fury for a few minutes, didn’t taint the viewing experience as a whole.
There are also a couple of traps the movie fell into which were pretty obvious. First of all, they’ve been trying to keep the identity of the new Black Panther a secret and, honestly, I don’t know why they bothered. It was obvious, when Boseman left this mortal coil, who would take over in that role and, sure enough, the character you are totally expecting to inherit the mantle in this movie pretty much does. The other thing this film did was to kill a character from the previous one off at a certain point and, I would be surprised if nobody saw that coming as it was the obvious dramatic beat needed to motivate another character into their ultimate destiny. So, yeah, don’t go to this movie expecting any surprises, that’s for sure.
Okay, onto the really negative stuff I still feel angry enough about to mention then... and we are now getting into spoiler territory people, so stop reading if you don’t want to know.
So we have a prologue to the movie where the emotional stuff about Boseman’s Panther is mourned. It seemed almost like a plug in and didn’t do much for me but, since I know a lot of the audience for this film were pretty upset when Boseman passed (rightly so, I’m sure), I’m guessing these sequences meant something. This is followed by a nice segue into a tribute to Boseman as part of the Marvel logo. Which was nice. What’s not so nice is the next inter-title of the movie which proclaims that we have moved on... and I quote... “One Year Later”. Except, after a day has passed in the story, we then find a character referring to the date as being exactly one year later. What the heck? So the subtitles here totally lied to us... it should have read “364 Days Later” because, frankly, a year had not yet passed. I felt really angry and completely lied to at this early point in the movie. Now I know Marvel has a track record within the franchise of getting their dates and times mixed up and just plain wrong (Spider-Man Homecoming anybody?) but this is literally a time mistake in the same film and it would have been so easy to correct it by just putting the right subtitle up there. Absolutely crazy. I felt really let down at this point. If you can’t trust the written narrative then what can you trust (it takes me back to the days of the Museum Of Moving Image where, despite me complaining on several visits, they had a photo from Blade Runner labelled up as being set in the year 2020 instead of November of 2019)?
The other thing was the introduction of Namor... aka The Sub Mariner... into the Marvel universe. They totally screwed this up in many ways, it seemed to me. Now I’ve got nothing against the actor playing him here, Tenoch Huerta Mejía. I thought he did a good job with the role and gave it a certain depth of character to Marvel’s first comic book anti-hero, who made his debut in Marvel Comics No 1 in 1939. However, Namor was never a complex, three dimensional character. He was more of a hot head, unthinking person who got into scrapes for all the wrong reasons and his dialogue was never that well thought out, especially back in the 1930s and 1940s. He was never this eloquent, expressive or well thought out in his speech and... yes, I know you have to change things to make them work well in a movie but, this just seemed like a betrayal of the character.
Also, I felt like we’d lost the rich legacy of the character by introducing him in a Black Panther movie. When the character was re-established in the silver age of comics incarnation of the Marvel universe in the 1962 Issue 4 of Fantastic Four, it was an absolutely brilliant reveal to his character. As the inheritor of the mantle of Namor’s former frenemy, The Human Torch, burned the beard of a hobo’s face away and revealed him as the long, lost character from the 1930s. I would have loved for Marvel to bring him back in the same way cinematically, perhaps in their upcoming Fantastic Four movie and, let’s face it, what’s the point in having a post 1960s version of the Sub Mariner if he isn’t constantly trying to get into the Invisible Girl’s knickers? This is the version of the character I wanted to see... not this, admittedly well acted, more sophisticated version of the Sub Mariner. Again, not Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s fault, he does well with what has been written for him here... it just felt totally wrong for fans of Namor.
The other slight yawn of a plot point was when they turned Martin Freeman’s long standing ally into a fugitive from justice. It was nice seeing him again as the character but it really achieved nothing in terms of contributing to the overall story and, I can only assume that this is Marvel laying a bit of groundwork to reintroduce the character in more of a ‘superhero’ role later on down the line. I guess we’ll have to see.
However, other than the crippling negative elements of the film, which I just pointed out... yeah, pretty good movie. It entertained and I mostly had a good time with it. Looking forward to seeing where they go from here, in a way (although not in terms of Namor, it has to be said). If you’re into the Marvel movies and liked the original Black Panther, then Black Panther Wakanda Forever should certainly score some points with you... not least because it’s a far superior movie than its predecessor, for sure. Give this one a look if you are into your superhero movies, is my advice on this one.
Tuesday, 22 November 2022
The Devil’s Hour
The Devil’s Hour
Directed by various
UK October 2022
Okay, so The Devil’s Hour is a new thriller series out from the UK and I am going to try very hard to write this one without spoilers. Mainly because, once you know the answer to what’s going on... you know... and a lot of people will probably get there themselves without my help. Also, though, because it’s a brilliantly executed rendition of a currently popular movie trope but it’s done with a certain amount of skill, enough to properly pull it all off quite effectively.
Okay, so I can give you the main premise because it will tell you absolutely nothing about what this show is about. You may remember the magic time 3.33am, popularised in modern cinema by films like The Haunting Of Emily Rose, as the time when a person is woken by the devil or some demonic force due to the time’s representational mockery of the three who are... in religious mythology... the father, the son and the Holy ghost. The idea here is that the show’s central protagonist Lucy Chambers, played by the always brilliant Jessica Raine, is awoken from nightmarish dreams and... lets call them flashbacks... at exactly 3.33am every night (okay, morning) for pretty much the majority of her life. She is separated from her husband (played by the Cineworld Adverts Phil Dunster) and lives with her strange son, Isaac (played astonishingly by Benjamin Chivers). Isaac has no emotional response to anything in his life, is susceptible to the commands of others, feels no pain and sees things which aren’t there. He is going to a child psychologist played by Meera Syal (one of many he’s seen) but no breakthroughs are being made. Meanwhile, a detective played by Nikesh Patel is trying to find a man who is abducting and killing people. These two worlds collide when Isaac dissappears for a while (found by Lucy’s seemingly schizophrenic/dementia ridden mother) and the man behind it all, Gideon Shepherd (played by the great Peter Capaldi), is making like Hannibal Lector as we crosscut between a future interview between him, Lucy and the detective... and events as they happen.
And that’s all I can say other than, the title and the premise of the show are obviously there to make the audience believe that this is some kind of horror concoction but, as I suspect most people will realise by the second episode in, this main hook of the 3.33am (which may be better written as 33rpm in terms of the ultimate explanation for everything, it seems to me, as a visual metaphor) and the choice to shoot the story in the visual and audio language of a horror film, is really just a red herring. It’s a bit of misdirection to, perhaps, try to stop the audience from guessing what’s really going on too quickly.
Certainly, it’s in one sense a police procedural show but, also has strong, dominant elements of another genre but I don’’t want to say too much. What I will say about the story however, is that it’s amazingly complex and the execution echoes that. The editing is so good on this with various bits of crosscutting between dreams, reality and so on and... yeah, that’s good because it really has to be. Hats off to the writer here but I suspect a lot of the final cut was partially shaped, more so than most shows, in the editing room to enhance the twists in the story.
So, yeah, can’t say too much. It’s well shot although, pulling out a directorial signature style is hard given that the show has multiple directors. But I can talk about the actors because, well, they are amazing. Jessica Raine is someone who my regular readers may remember from both her appearance in the Doctor Who episode Hide (reviewed here) and, perhaps more importantly, from her turn as producer Verity Lambert in An Adventure In Space And Time (reviewed here). She is absolutely the backbone of this show and really carries things... especially since Capaldi’s appearances, which you might at first think take place in her dreams (and probably they do, also... it would make sense), are fairly limited for the first four episodes. Nikesh Patel is equally great, given a gift of a character who hates blood and the aftermath of the violent crime scenes he has to go investigate (which becomes particularly poignant in one instance... but shh... spoilers). Patel takes this gift and really runs with it, making another credible character to help carry parts of the story. And as for Benjamin Chivers... well, he’s so good that even I was misdirected by his incredible performance (I assumed a grown up version of his character was also appearing in the series at the same time as he... but that wasn’t quite the case... although see the end of this article for further speculation). Now, it has to be said, that once the explanation you kind of see coming is explained by Gideon, with the help of a knotted shoestring (although it’s a nice spin on a popular concept, it has to be said), I felt a little left in the dark about Isaac’s character. It made sense up until a certain point but nobody, it seems to me, explained the ‘why?’ of that character... but that’s one of the strengths of the show. It doesn’t try and spoon feed you all the explanations so much and there are things left unsaid which will bring your own deductions to, I’m sure.
And then there’s Capaldi, of course. He plays Gideon pitch perfect and, by the end of the show, you will have to decide as to whether he is an evil person or, as he believes (and so do I, to an extent) a good, righteous person. Certainly he kills people and does horrible things to them and, yeah, with a role written like that you need someone as good as Capaldi to be able to walk that tightrope and make the character real and somewhat sympathetic. He once again proves why he’s such a great performer and, I was pleased to see, the quality of the acting by Raine and Patel means he managed to be a powerhouse without actually stealing the scenes from under them. Everyone holds their own beautifully in this and it was a pleasure to watch something so well made, to be honest.
Added to this, we have a pretty good score by The Newton Brothers which, alas, is only available so far as a horrible electronic download rather than on a proper CD where it belongs so, yeah, doesn’t look like I’ll be able to revisit this as a stand alone listen anytime soon. A shame really.
Now it seems some web sites think there will be a follow up season.* While I thought the ending of this was brilliant and really quite final, the nature of the basic premise, once revealed, means that all the cast of characters can return for future shows for sure. I’m just not sure why they’d want to do that because, it seems to me, to be a one trick pony in that respect. Brilliant trick as it is. But I’m not complaining either way... lets see what happens. All I know for sure is that The Devil’s Hour is one of the best things to hit TV screens over the last few years and it’s got a lot of power to it, plus a lot to recommend in it (I absolutely loved one ‘throwaway’ shot of a mobile phone... you’ll know it when you see it... to create a sense of time setting). And so I do... absolutely recommend this one unashamedly. Definitely worth some time.
*As of the day this review goes up, series 2 and 3 have beeen announced, including the obvious returning cast members. Really not sure what more that they can add to the story (apart from the possibly obvious true identity of Isaac) but, have at it.
Sunday, 20 November 2022
Etch A Fletch
Directed by Greg Mottola
Once upon a time there was a movie called Fletch. It starred Chevy Chase as the title character, Irvin Maurice Fletcher, or I M Fletcher (pronounced, I Am Fletcher) and it was based on the first book of a series of Fletch novels (including prequels), written by a truly great writer called Gregory McDonald (now sadly deceased). Me and my late, great best friend Kerry loved Fletch and quoted it as often as we could. It was the first but, not quite the last, time I liked Chevy Chase in anything and, as a result, I acquired and read all of the Fletch novels available (which included the one this current film is based on) and picked the others up as and when McDonald wrote them. They were all absolutely brilliant (apart from, maybe, Carioca, Fletch, which I could never get on with for some reason) and we were all chomping at the bit for a proper sequel.
Fate was not kind to the legion of Fletch fans because, in the film company's infinite stupidity, the direct movie sequel, Fletch Lives, was not based on one of McDonald’s books, being completely a studio concocted adventure. And it showed. It was, alas, pretty awful (asides from Harold Faltermeyer’s wonderful follow up score) and, yeah, I think it must be the combination of terrible, unwitty dialogue coupled with yet more outrageous disguises for Chase to don (which were never a part of the novels and which they should have ditched for the first film too), which killed the franchise stone dead. There was talk of it being revived over the years, most notably when the great Kevin Smith was going to write and direct McDonald’s first prequel, Fletch Won, to star Jason Lee. That would have been awesome as Smith is one of those writers who would have completely understood how the dialogue and characterisation would have worked... the novels are all about the dialogue and the odd, subtly done surprise twist, as far as I’m concerned.
Which brings me to the new adaptation of a Fletch novel... Confess, Fletch. And, wow, the audience finally got the sequel it deserved.
This one stars John Hamm as former investigative reporter Fletch, dabbling around the art world and, on the surface, attempting to find some stolen paintings so that his new fiance, Angela (played by Lorenza Izzo), the daughter of a count, can find the painting required to pay off the ransom on her kidnapped father. But, as complicated as that plot seems... there’s always just a little more twist with a Fletch story and, like most of the novels, you won’t properly begin to see the real picture until the evolving post-mortem of an epilogue, where all the pieces finally fit together. And that’s all I’m saying about the plot because, by the very nature of the style of story telling involved in these books/films, I need to keep this one spoiler free.
Now, I’m going to address the elephant in the room for fans of the novel right away here. I was angry about the exclusion, from this movie, of the second most important character in the book, the eccentric Irish Detective Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn. He’s a force to be reckoned with in this novel and was popular enough that, after appearing and making a difference to the way events run in this story, spun off into his own series of Flynn books by MacDonald. Here he’s replaced by two equally likeable police characters who, it has to be said, are mostly portrayed as incompetent whereas, if memory serves, while Flynn seems like he’s incompetent to Fletch in the novel at first, he comes into his own and brings his own spin into giving the movers and shakers enough rope to hang themselves... and others... with. And I was annoyed he’s not in the movie but, it turns out, there are legal issues with using the character in this film (which I hope are beyond the stupid one of just paying more money for the character) and so... it had to be done without Flynn.
Normally I would be calling this an unforgivable crime (which, to be fair, it is) but I have to cut the writers, director and performers some slack here because... absolutely everything else about the style and atmosphere of the novels, they got right. Admittedly, they’ve felt the need to update Fletch to an era of emails and cell phones (not right) but the dialogue is clever and the spirit of the piece is well and truly intact. It was an absolute joy to watch this.
The actors in this are great too. I’ve got no idea who John Hamm is and I don’t remember him from anything I’ve seen but he’s almost perfect for Fletch. By ‘almost perfect’ I mean he delivers his lines well and has exactly the same ‘laid back to the point of being deceitful’ attitude of the character (who nobody ever really listens to well enough to get any of his jokes). I love the way that, like the books, half the stuff he says to people goes by them without them noticing it. So, yeah, Hamm does an absolutely gorgeous job... but... at 51 years of age he’s just too old for the part and looks it, to be honest. That’s the only problem I had with it but, I’m willing to overlook that because a) it’s not his fault and b) he’s absolutely fabulous... although I’d get any sequels done quickly because I do not want to see a 60 year old Fletch running around in this kind of story. Oh.. and a quick shout out to another person I never heard of, Ayden Mayeri, who really knocks it out the park playing a character called Griz. Stellar work lady!
And, he’s backed up by some great actors doing some wonderful performances... Kyle MacLachlan’s germophobic art dealer is good, John Slattery as Fletch’s former boss at the New York Tribune is excellent and, wow, Marcia Gay Harden does a wonderful turn as Fletch’s possible future mother-in-law, The Countess. And it all goes towards cementing the perfect formula of the novels... these are not comedies, as Paramount found out when it went into full comedy mode for the bizarre sequel Fletch Lives... these are comedy thrillers. That is to say, straight thrillers with a very strong sense of humour, not least of which is found in the dialogue and thought processes of the titular character. Which is exactly what we have here and which they really managed to nail.
So yeah, I loved Confess, Fletch and, if you liked that original first movie and, especially if you liked MacDonald’s fantastic series of books, you will probably love this one and go into it with the right kind of expectations. I’m very interested in seeing how this does at the box office because, frankly, I think we might find the audience for this kind of solid movie has probably not got a lot of crossover with the young target audience who go to the cinema... so I hope they look at figures for streaming and, please give us a Blu Ray release of this one (not to mention a proper CD edition of David Arnold’s wonderful score... damn thing’s only available as a stupid digital download at present). So, yeah, great movie, don’t miss out.
Tuesday, 15 November 2022
The Case Of The Howling Dog
A Case On
The Case Of
The Howling Dog
Directed by Alan Crosland
Warner Archive DVD Region 1
Okay, I’d best make a confession. Not only have I never read any of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular books about the much loved law room warrior Perry Mason, I’ve also never seen any of the movies or TV shows based on his books about the character either. I mean, sure, I’ve seen the odd ten minutes of the early Raymond Burr TV shows here and there, as my dad likes the character but, I’ve never really cottoned onto him until now. I bought my dad a set of the six, original movies which were, as far as I know, the only ones made in the US for cinema release... the various TV shows kinda carried the legacy of the character after these. And, well... I thought I’d watch this with him to see what the fuss was all about.
So The Case Of The Howling Dog is the very first screen adaptation of one of Gardner’s books and, unlike those books and future versions (from what I understand), Mason is already a very successful lawyer commanding a huge law firm and large set of offices. Here’s he’s played by Warren William and he’s also aided by his perpetual secretary Della Street, played here by Helen Trenholme in her only shot in the role. I believe that, later on in the books and also the films, the two characters get married.
The plot set up has an unusual hook of a neighbour’s police dog troubling a guy who moved in two months before. He hires Mason to take care of his will and also to try and arrest the guy who he believes is making the dog howl. It all gets very convoluted with Mason getting embroiled in a plot which involves two wives and two husbands (one of whom is initially Mason’s client) and the woman later suspected of shooting one of the men, who Mason is also, because of his contract with his initial client, in a position to defend. Of course, there are a couple of more murders before the story is through and, I have to say that, while I was kinda expecting the way the story played out in the film, it’s a little more restrained and unusual than many of the film series with running characters I’ve seen from this time period.
For instance, this is not rough and tumble movie where the main protagonist chases and fights his way to the solution of the case, picking up helpful clues along the way. Mason is a lawyer and doesn’t get involved with all that malarky, by the looks of it. This is not The Saint, The Falcon or even the Charlie Chan film series in terms of how these are put together. However, in spite of this, the film doesn’t get boring and Mason does do quite a lot of, well, shall we say skillful manipulation and staging of the facts which, I must say, I really wasn’t prepared for. It’s not that he’s fabricating evidence so much as creating new evidence which is just the right side of that distinction to discredit other observations and throw things into doubt... so, yeah, wasn’t expecting that so much. Nor was I expecting his clients, who he is defending, to lie to him either but... well, yeah, this is not familiar territory for me.
The film rolls along at a fair crack and, about twenty minutes before the end, the trial of Mason’s defendant starts. Now, another of my expectations dashed was the assumption that there would be a lot of court room drama in this but, barring a couple of quick adjournments and the discovery of two more corpses just around the corner from the trial (which seems a bit bizarre in terms of placement of the action), the courtroom scenes are over pretty quickly. There’s a slight rumple which I didn’t quite understand in terms of legal distinction at the end of the movie but, well, in the end the defendant goes away unscathed and with a new lease of life... and a new leash too, courtesy of a dog which Mason brings in for his client at the end (the howling dog is shot by... a person I won’t reveal here).
So, yeah... The Case Of The Howling Dog is not my usual kind of picture but I enjoyed it right enough and I’ll probably watch the others with my dad when he starts going through them. So look out for more Perry Mason movie reviews on here sometime, relatively, soon. Apologies for the short length of this review but, yeah, I really don’t have too much to say about this initial entry.
Monday, 14 November 2022
Who Is Bill Rebane?
Who Is Bill Rebane?
Directed by David Cairns
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
After mostly enjoying my experiences with low budget film-makers courtesy of Severin’s Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection (the index of reviews of all the movies in this set can be found here) and Arrow's own He Came From The Swamp - The William Grefé Collection (reviews under titles in index), I thought I’d give Arrow’s next ‘low budget/big box set’ production a go in the form of a film-maker I wasn’t familiar with at all (or so I thought), so I took a gamble with Weird Wisconsin - The Bill Rebane Collection in the hopes that, like those two prior box sets I mentioned, the gamble would pay off. The set collects together six of the director’s pictures alongside a brand new documentary and, like those former box set experiences, I plumped to watch the documentary, Who Is Bill Rebane?, first so I could get an idea of what this guy was all about.
The film starts off with one of two very small clips of famous film critic and director Mark Cousins who is asked where he places the work of Bill Rebane and his one line, quizzical response, gives the documentary its title.
I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the quality of this documentary, as I had been on those other two box sets but I don’t think it’s the fault of the writer/director... who supplies a kind of intensely driven, almost poetic voice over narrative to link the various clips of talking head interviews of people who are either deeply appreciative of Rebane or who have worked for him in some capacity or another (usually lots of capacities, I guess, since these kinds of low budget films usually have everyone pitching in to do everything they can).
Born in Latvia in 1937, young Ito Rebane managed to survive the Russian invasion and war, somehow, moving with his family to the USA in the 1950s, when he changed his name to William Rebane. He invented a 360 degree film projection system called the Cinetarium which was ahead of its time somewhat and which failed to garner much interest or be in any way successful. His first film was shot in stages as money ran out, meaning characters dropped out halfway through and prompting, in one instance, an actor playing a character who was already dead returning to play that character’s brother for the next segment of the film. The film was eventually ‘ballasted out’ with even more inserts added in by the Godfather of Gore himself, Herschel Gordon Lewis and released as Monster-A-Go-Go (it’s the first film in this set so, yeah, expect a review of that one here sometime soon).
After stupidly turning down the chance to make a picture for Sam Arkoff, Rebane moved to Wisconsin, which everyone interviewed for this film agrees is a very strange and off kilter place to live (they only decided necrophilia should be made illegal in 2008)... and built a studio there, where he made low budget movies which, sometimes gave good returns but, he rarely saw any of the profits himself. His wife was his producer and sometime assistant director and it sounds like he’d get his whole family involved on occasion. Perhaps the stark, driven but flattened quality of Who Is Bill Rebane? is such as it is because, from the sound of it, many of the films Rebane made dealt with big background ideas that rarely manifested themselves overtly in his films but were constantly talked about and which, it seems, often featured endings which were ambiguous at best.
Perhaps his most famous movie, The Giant Spider Invasion (not included in this set, sadly) is one of a couple of exceptions to this rule because, you do see a VW bug made up to look like a giant spider. It sounds ridiculous and, when you look at it... it really is ridiculous. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a movie by Rebane but, when one of the people being interviewed describes how well, against all odds, that movie played with cinema audiences and then described a scene about a lady accidentally drinking a drink made when a tarantula is liquified in a blender, I actually remembered the scene and recalled I’d actually seen this movie play at a cinema in Enfield Town, here in the UK, back in the late seventies as part of a double bill. And yes, I do remember the audience reaction for this scene being really big... I also remember not liking the movie that much though so, there’s that. However, having said that, I now feel the need to seek out a copy of the movie from somewhere and lay that ghost to rest.
Actually, one of the things this movie has highlighted is that some of the more interesting looking Bill Rebane movies, featuring monsters like Big Foot and a swamp creature, are not actually included in this set. However, it does have a few films with some interesting premises to them at the very least so, yeah, I am still looking forward to exploring these sometime soon.
And there’s not much more to be said about this. If you want to hear stories of how Rebane shot a private eye mystery which involved a talking bear played by a man in a suit (another one not included here and which I absolutely have to see) or how pop legend Tiny Tim starred in a slasher movie for Bill but also replaced all the light bulbs in his room in Bill’s house with 250 watt light bulbs and expanding the water bill with his 45 minute showers, then Who Is Bill Rebane? is definitely the place to find out about this stuff. It’s not the most entertaining documentary in the world, it has to be said but, it’s done nothing to dispel me from watching the six films in this set and I am suitably intrigued and ready to delve into the somewhat deadpan world of this weird Wisconsin director. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Sunday, 13 November 2022
Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity
The Cleavage Of Zaroff
Slave Girls From
Directed by Ken Dixon
88 Films DVD Region 2
It seems strange to me that a prestige label like 88 Films, no less, would release this movie in an open matte 4:3 aspect ratio but, at least I know I’m gaining picture in that method of transfer, rather than losing the sides. As a result of this decision, I made a mental note to be kind if I saw any camera booms entering the shots from the top, because that can often occur in open matte transfers, when extra picture information the film maker didn’t expect you to be able to see makes its way into the frame.
I don’t know what it was that drew me to watch Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity... maybe a sense of curiosity about Buzz Lightyear’s famous catch phrase. Possibly the prospect of seeing a finely crafted science fiction epic to stimulate my brain with its twisty, philosophical bent. Or maybe it was the vaguely ridiculous title coupled with cover art of scantily clad ladies with huge, photogenic features wielding unfeasibly large guns and being menaced by strange aliens and robots... all hovering above the strap line, “Big Movie. Big Production. Big Girls.” But mostly it was probably the ridiculously cheap asking price when I ordered it from Amazon four years ago (something which has since inflated to a figure close to the Infinity mentioned in the title, due to its out of print status).
We start off with a title sequence with some actually quite wonderful music composed by someone called Carl Dante. Nice music which is totally and deliberately reminiscent of Basil Poledouris’ amazing score for Conan The Barbarian, for sure, due to it’s orchestration. It even contains a little hint of Jerry Goldsmith’s klingon battle music from Star Trek The Motion Picture in it too and I have to wonder if those composers’ music was used as a temp track to rough cut the picture with.
The film continues quite strongly, it has to be said, with a prologue where a top heavy, scantily clad young vixen is being chased through a jungle by a not unimpressive, given the budget, alien monster with a gun wired to its arm. It closes in on the girl but, just before it kills her due to its ‘non-cleavage appreciating alien ways’, a man shoots it with his miniature laser crossbow and the woman is saved... or is she? Probably not as we can probably conclude from what this guy gets up to later in the film.
Meanwhile, on a starship, two chained slave girls called Daria (played by Elizabeth Kaitan) and Tisa (played by Cindy Beal)... who have absolutely no back story at all, I should point out... break loose from their chains through brute force and then, in the words of one, “reverse the polarity of their cuffs.” Hmm... where have I heard something like that before? They overpower their dumb guards and somehow manage to steal a smaller spaceship from inside the larger spaceship, winning their freedom. Their celebrations are short lived though, due to there being no inhabited planets nearby. Well, none, that is, apart from the ‘planetoid’ that pops up on some kind of beacon. They go to investigate and crash their ship on said planetoid. Then they find a castle with their new host Zed (played by Don Scribner), his two lethal robot servants and his other two guests... brother and sister Rik and Shala, played by Carl Horner and Brinke Stevens. However, after sneaking about in the castle after dark (plus some hot softcore sex action between Daria and Rick), Zed’s sinister secret is out and after Rik is killed on a hunt, the three women are released into the surrounding jungle and its ‘phantom zone’ filled with various zombies, giant spider webs (no spiders though) and the big alien wielding the gun from the start of the picture.
It turns out, you see, that Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity is actually a cleavaged up, busty remake of The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff)... a film which has been remade many times over the years, most recently as The Hunt (reviewed here). And, actually it’s not a terribly made film but the writing is very bizarre. In that it’s kind of rubbish and elabourate and unnatural sounding while, at the same time, you get a sense that it’s supposed to be this bad and that’s all just part of the writer’s plan. Which actually makes the film a lot of fun in the ‘so bad it’s good’ stakes, it has to be said. So yeah, a typical dialogue exchange might be, when Daria burns her hand getting them out of their cell on the slave ship at the start of the movie and, when Tisa asks if she’s alright, she quips back... “A little well done, perhaps.” And the villain is a little too much like he’s a schoolboy philosopher in some respects, coming out with lines like... “I’ve always found the female of the species to be the greatest challenge... far more crafty and cunning than their male counterparts.”
Also, although the special effects look quite low tech in some ways, they’re actually not too terrible either although, there are a few technical flaws in the movie. Such as when one of the gals hits an alien over the head with a big stick. For some reason not made very clear in any way, shape of form, this causes the alien to just explode out of existence... however, when he does this, an entire wall wobbles like you’re watching a movie equivalent of an old BBC episode of Blake’s 7. So, yeah, that’s not so good. And there are other things in the movie that don’t really make sense... like when Tisa goes back to look for a map dropped on the jungle floor because her cleavage wasn’t quite adequate to hold it in her bikini top by itself (should have given it to Daria). When she backtracks to look for the map, she is looking all around her cautiously without even once looking at the ground where, you know, you might think a dropped map may be located (she finds it eventually).
And, yeah, that’s mostly everything I want to say about this movie. Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity isn’t exactly high art but it’s an entertaining enough diversion for what it is and maybe that’s enough for a Saturday night. Probably better as a collective ‘movie night in with friends and booze’ experience, I suspect. The UK version of the film from 88 Films is probably the best version to get in terms of the DVD as the American disc is apparently similarly presented in an open matte transfer.
However, the UK disc wins out, kinda, by having an accompanying feature included called... hmm, okay... Famous T&A. This is literally a collection of badly cropped 4:3 clips of various actresses such as Ornella Muti, Ursula Andress, Brigitte Bardot and various others, in examples of their nude scenes. Starting off with Sybil Danning doing a reverse strip into a costume, she hosts the entire thing dressed as a Roman Gladiatrix and reading ridiculously written lines about the various actresses bodies over the course of the hour and a quarter. And I do mean reading. You can see she’s reading from cards in certain scenes for sure. Now, I would normally be up for something this rubbish and pseudo-sexy but, honestly, the 4:3 aspect ratio on this was a real turn off for me. If I want to watch various stars taking their clothes off, then I want to be seeing them properly framed in the correct aspect ratio, thank you very much. I mention this bonus film in passing here purely because I know some people will have some nostalgia for this kind of bosomy showcase, which may remind them of the old celebrity episode of Electric Blue from the 1980s. Ultimately though, it’s not worth purchasing the disc for this special feature alone... although I could understand why you may be tempted.
Tuesday, 8 November 2022
The Great Yôkai War
The Great Yôkai War
aka Yôkai daisensô
Directed by Takashi Miike
Shochiku Blu Ray Zone B
From Arrow’s Yōkai Monster Collection Blu Ray set
Once again, the Yôkai monsters are back... along with a whole host of new Yôkai (literally hundreds or possibly thousands in the scenes where they gather for ‘the final battle’ of the movie). This time around, however, they are set in contemporary times and the great and extremely prolific director Takashi Miike is setting the pace (I believe he’s just made a sequel to this movie last year) with The Great Yôkai War.
Now, Miike can be a bit hit and miss and the amount of visual information thrown at the audience in this one is huge and, to my western eyes, mostly bewildering. However, I believe the incredibly complicated story is revealed, in the end, to be a really simple tale after all, with a tsunami of energetic set dressing, so to speak. The plot involves a young boy who is chosen, in his village’s traditional annual festival, to be that year’s token Kirin Rider... who is supposed to retrieve a sword from Goblin Mountain to keep the ‘worked at’ peace every year. However, a very nasty demon who is enslaving many of the Yôkai and who is the living spirit of the ‘resentment humanity has earned’ by throwing out old things they think no longer useful, is leading a hate filled invasion of the world of humans and it’s up to the young, new Kirin Rider, along with some of his new Yôkai allies, to try and stop all of Tokyo (just for starters) from being destroyed.
Okay, so there are various twists on the plot dressing, such as a friendly rat creature and the return of various early Yôkai such as the snake necked lady Rokurokubi and the umbrella demon Karakasa Obake (with his long dangly tongue), not to mention the Kappa from Spook Warfare (reviewed here)... and also a gruesome process where the evil demons melt down the good Yôkai and merge them with resentful objects to transform them into evil, metal creatures... it all gets a bit Tetsuo, to be honest.
There’s also the bold colours that Miike can sometimes work with and the colour palette on this one tends to run to pinky mauves, reds and blues (other than a few shots of nature, I don’t remember seeing too much green in this one). Ditto for the sometimes striking frame compositions although, it all gets a bit lost here because there is just so much thrown at the screen, it seems to me. And a technique where he edits out many frames at a time to make these flash edits of someone, but they are still rooted in the same spot rather than walking away or to the camera, which kind of highlights the facial expressions as an overload of information on the part of the main protagonist. Don’t remember seeing that done before.
This is said by many to be a remake of Spook Warfare but I think that, although it shares some basic themes, such as the idea of two factions of Yôkai in conflict, it mostly does it’s own thing in this one. Even when one takes into account that the fragmentary, non-linear nature of some of the set up and first of the mini epilogues to the action could be seen as a distortion of the general plot (yeah, okay, I got there in the end but my brain had to wake up to decode this and try to make sense of it for a while).
The CGI effects of the evil demon’s metal monsters is interesting here because, although I can only assume this is all CGI, the monsters themselves look almost a throwback to the stop motion animation techniques pioneered by Willis O’Brien back in the 1920s/30s and, especially, to the ‘Superdynamation’ cinematic realms of Ray Harryhausen. Now, aping this technique with more modern methods isn’t anything unusual, I’ve seen this done before in films such as Blood - The Last Vampire (reviewed here) but it’s still nice to see this kind of homage/tribute to the special effects techniques of yesteryear and it’s far less dull than what might have been put up on the screen.
Other nice things on show here are an ‘on screen’ tribute to Shigeru Mizuki, who brought the Yôkai back to popular public consciousness in the 1960s with his manga based on the tales he heard from generations back and, indeed, he also has a small cameo in the film as a demon king. When the main lead goes to research a cute Yôkai that befriends him, he travels to the real life Mizuki Museum to get the information on the creature. There’s also a cool moment in the film when a giant demon-like thing flies through the sky on its way to destroy Tokyo and one of the people at ground level exclaims “Ah, it’s only Gamera.”, which did make me smile. I was also pleased to see the umbrella demon being used to float/fly another demon, as it was similarly utilised in Spook Warfare.
Some bits did fall flat for me though...
The use of an advertising jingle used to herald the fact that the evil demon is accidentally merging with an Azuki Bean which, given that “Azuki beans grow in love and peace!” as we are sung to, means his plans are scuppered. Similarly, an action sequence involving the main protagonists accidentally finding themselves riding on the wings of a jet plane, only for the screen to suddenly freeze with the caption “Don’t try this at home kids!” seemed a little pretentious and too much like a nod and a wink to an audience which might not, by this point, have found themselves too invested in the story line.
And that’s all I’ve really got to say on this one. I love Miike but The Great Yôkai War is not one of his films I could watch over and over again. There’s a lot of rich, visual, surrealistic creations on screen (and the reveal of the Rokurokubi is perfect) but the ‘throw everything in at once’ nature of the dense visuals means you are always just trying to take everything in to the point where, it has to be said, it becomes a bit of a dulled down experience. Still, it’s nice to see some of these monsters back and I certainly want to see what he’s done in the new one... although whether it will wash up on these shores is another matter.
Monday, 7 November 2022
Rock Of Eternity
USA/Canada/New Zealand/Hungary 2022
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Let me say up front that I found Black Adam to be quite an enjoyable entertainment and I want to make that clear before getting into the negative stuff. Regular readers will know that, even in the event that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson makes a movie I don’t like (it happens occasionally), I’ve got nothing but a huge amount of respect for this actor and the good work he’s doing in the entertainment industry which, despite popular thinking, can sometimes be a lot more important and influential than it at first appears. Also, one of my favourite UK critics really panned this movie, kinda, in the most respectful way... I can see some of his points but I didn’t really have any kind of negative experience with this movie other than the few things I want to get out up front so, yeah, here goes, the bad stuff...
First up, this movie is full of racial/cultural reappropriation again. I don’t mind it so much but why is it that when various characters of certain origins are played by Western actors (I’m thinking stuff like Scarlett Johansson being called out on Ghost In The Shell, for instance) there’s a load of angry protests but when some of the characters with white origins are suddenly played by actors with a darker skin, there seems to be no equal reaction. So, yeah, some of the actors in this movie are completely wrong for the characters they are portraying from the comics and, thusly, this movie should not be considered a competent adaptation of the original source material, it has to be said (although, they all did a brilliant job in this, for sure). I dunno, this kind of thing... and it seems to be happening a lot over the last ten years or more... just makes me consider the people making these movies are, well, making blatantly racist movies. However, live and let live is how I view it... if they want to do that to their characters then that’s down to their own conscience, I guess.
Okay... so I’m assuming this movie is also based on much updated versions of the characters than the ones I know from the comics. Black Adam was a character who began in a 1945 issue of The Marvel Family comics and he was the arch enemy... yep, a villain... of the original Captain Marvel (you know, the proper Captain Marvel who we now have to call Shazam! because of Marvel comics now owning the name of that character for a range of their own super heroes). And, he’s supposed to be like a dark mirror version of Captain Marvel... so it should really be the same actor playing Captain Marvel also playing Black Adam, in actual fact. Right now, the main cinematic incarnation of Captain Marvel... um... or Shazam! (whatever) is played by Zachary Levi, so its puzzling that The Rock, who admittedly does look a lot like the original comic book version of Captain Marvel, has been tapped for this role (although he plays it absolutely brilliantly, it has to be said). And he’s definitely supposed to be a villain... rather than an anti-hero so, yeah, they got that really wrong.
And the Justice Society Of America have been around since the end of 1940, comprising the line up of Doctor Fate, Hourman, the Spectre, Sandman, Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman. In this movie only Doctor Fate (played by Pierce Brosnan) and Hawkman (played by Aldis Hodge) are still in the line up. The Atom has been replaced by the nonsensical Atom Smasher (played by Noah Centineo) and they’ve also dropped in Cyclone (played by Quintessa Swindell). Actually, the original Atom does turn up in a cameo, played by The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler... but he’s not in the suit. The very existence of the JSA in the DC cinematic universe does, of course, throw up the big question of... why the heck did Batman put a lot of time and effort into assembling the Justice League in the movie of the same name when all of these characters were already around to help out? It doesn’t make sense. And as for Hawkman... Hodge plays him brilliantly but, yeah, see two paragraphs ago. So, well, they got all that wrong.
That’s all the negative stuff though, pretty much. Apart from maybe the stop/start, bullet time style ramping up and down of the action highlighting sequences... don't get me started.
As a film depicting modern superheroes in mythic battles of good versus evil, though... it’s a pretty good one from DC, this time around (DC bought the Captain Marvel characters out from Fawcett in the 1970s if memory serves). This new take on the Black Adam character sees him revived by the power of SHAZAM in the 21st Century and suffering severe self doubts about what his purpose is in the modern day world... although there’s so much fast paced action in this one that the emotional resonance of the character, which is certainly all present and correct, seems a little tempered by the ‘all in’ assault on the senses that the modern superhero movie seems to have progressed/deteriorated into. But it’s entertaining action and it has a bright heart at its centre, for sure... so I can’t be too harsh on it.
What is surprising is the absence of an appearance by Captain Marvel... sorry, Shazam, in this one. Although the film does go out of its way to embed itself firmly into the current, if somewhat confusing, incarnation of the DC cinematic universe, with a character who was last seen in The Suicide Squad (reviewed by me here) making an appearance at both the start and end of the movie.
And it’s nice musically too. Lorne Balfe’s score really goes for it (and the CD the company has seen fit to release... thanks very much... will be going straight onto my Christmas list). Lots of strong, heroic stuff with some powerful choral support which all, because of the visual excesses of the movie, somehow don’t overpower it. And talking of the music, Balfe gets a little bit of help from both Ennio Morricone and John Williams in the movie too. There’s a scene early on in the picture where one of the characters is watching the denouement scene from one of Sergio Leone’s early spaghetti Westerns. It made me very angry because the TV station the character is watching it on is showing the film in totally the wrong aspect ratio and that just shouldn’t be allowed. However, there’s a brilliant parody of this same scene which turns up later when Black Adam finds himself in a similar showdown, very much filmed in the way Leone might have done it and, of course, a re-recording or reorchestration of Morricone’s score from that same scene is used here. And as for John Williams... well... all I’m saying is stick around for the post/mid credits scene at the end of the picture. It’s worth waiting for.
And that’s me done on Black Adam. It’s really not a bad film as some critics have alluded and, that’s kind of besides the point anyway because, once again, the people have voted with their wallets and I understand it’s got one of the strongest openings for this kind of movie to date. I am assuming this character (played by The Rock) will be returning for various sequels and crossovers in the near future and, rightly so in my opinion, this wasn’t a bad film at all, although I wish a certain member of the JSA had survived until the end of the movie to return with him. But, yeah, shush, spoilers.
Sunday, 6 November 2022
Directed by Zach Cregger
20th Century Fox
Barbarian is a film which I missed when it played at this year’s August Bank Holiday edition of FrightFest. Which is a shame, since it turned out to be one of the best loved films of that four day period. However, it’s now playing in UK cinemas and so I finally get to see this one. It’s considered a horror film by many but, due to the nature of the antagonist of the film, I’m a little unsure whether I would bravely categorise this one in that genre and I don’t want to get into that argument again (for me, it’s probably more a thriller) but, it certainly uses horror genre conventions to tell its tale and, although it does mine a lot of the tropes and clichés of that genre... well, this film is still pants wettingly scary for a good deal of its running time. If you can juggle the cliches and do it right, as the director and actors do here, then you can really come up with something which transcends the usual batch of signifiers and that’s exactly what’s happened here... it’s a film which had me on the edge of my seat, so to speak, for a lot of the time, as the suspense was almost unbearable.
Okay. so one of those things the film does so well is set the tone in a way that hails back, in my mind, to a conversation Brian De Palma once had with composer Bernard Herrmann, when they were working on the brilliant Sisters (reviewed here). Herrmann really went for it on the opening titles cue and De Palma was hankering to being more subtle with the music at this point and holding back, from what I understand. Herrmann was characteristically candid in his reply that someone like Hitchcock could get away with being more subtle on the scoring at the start because, with Hitch’s reputation, they knew something awful or scary was going to eventually happen. When you’re a relatively new director, that’s not going to be the case and, yeah, this attitude works like a charm in Barbarian.
For most of the first 40 minutes, protagonists Tess and Keith, both brilliant performances by Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgärd, find they’ve double booked the same Airbnb through different companies but, after some reservations on Tess part, they decide to both stay at the property for a couple of nights. The first five to ten minutes play out, not really with any tension in them except... yeah... the opening music on the title card and other occasional, subtle and sometimes less subtle, scary music shenanigans going on in the background. So even though you’re watching something fairly benign for a short while... the music comes in at various intervals to remind you that you are not going to be in for a comfortable ride.
The dialogue between these two characters is interesting because Keith is trying his best not to seem like a freakish serial killer or stalker to the point when, you know, you just assume he is. Even though he’s a really nice guy but, yeah, it’s always the nice guy, right? Tess, after some ‘toing and froing’, decides to ignore all the warning signs and... that works out fine. Onto evening two... where things get spooky but, what the writer/director does with this long lead in is... he sets the audience up to expect danger from one avenue and then, of course, plays with those expectations a little later in the film.
Something then happens which I’m not going to spoil here before... we cut to a different story altogether... an actor played by Justin Long, who has been the victim of a recent Me Too accusation and had his life turned upside down. That being said, just because he’s a victim of this kind of nasty accusation, doesn’t mean he’s also the better person either... he ultimately turns out to be a disappointing specimen of a human being when push comes to shove later on in the story, for sure. Then, this second story slice dovetails neatly into the first story slice before then drifting into a third. And, I have to say, the third story excerpt made no sense to me at first because, since the 1980s seems just like last week to someone of my age, I didn’t realise until right after the end credits started rolling that this third detour was a flashback. It needed a bit more signposting for me, to be honest. And then, of course, once I thought about it, it does indeed lead back into the first two slivers of story beats we’ve already seen.
Not saying anymore about the plot because, although it’s sheer genius in the way it’s done, it’s a bit of a one trick pony in terms of the story’s trajectory (but what a trick!) and I’m guessing it might not have the best rewatch value in terms of future revisits because of this aspect.
The film looks absolutely fantastic though, with moody lighting styles pitched against the more clinical aspects of the ‘ground floor’ of the Airbnb and a really nice use of vertical upright slices to chop the screen up and delineate the actors in their space. Even a scene outside of the residence, when Tess goes for an interview with a documentary film-maker, is shot inside a particular kind of office building filled with strong vertical slats everywhere. And, yeah, that’s all a visual cliché in itself perhaps but, I’m not getting tired of this kind of compositional approach from directors anytime soon.
The music is good too. The film is sparsely spotted but the scored scenes really work and, again a cliché but the inclusion of a ramping up heartbeat motif on the score or audio design really works well in a couple of sequences. This coupled with the wonderful cinematography and some really great acting by a cast who manage to bring the characters to life and make them people you can identify with... or be concerned about (to a point, not sure about the Me Too guy’s trajectory)... make for a very strong movie and all I can say about this is, horror or not, I can see why this film was so well received by audiences at Fright Fest this year. I think this one will have a good shelf life if it gets a proper physical media release. Plus, without going into too many spoilers, I’m never going to tire of seeing characters in a film pull off a random limb from another character and use it as a club-like weapon.
Now, I have a couple of criticisms in that I felt the ending was a bit of a low key resolution to things. I would have liked a little more from it, perhaps the hint of an outside collusion from figures of authority or some such. And I would have liked the local neighbourhood outside the Airbnb place to maybe have more of an explanation as to why the area is practically deserted and why the houses have been left abandoned and in ruins over the years. The obvious tie ins to the main plot on that score don’t really make a whole lot of sense, truth be told. But, asides from that, yeah, Barbarian is a brilliant movie and a solid recommendation from me. A very suspenseful, intense movie, for sure.
Tuesday, 1 November 2022
Along With Ghosts
Chanbara Of Horrors
Along With Ghosts
aka Tôkaidô obake dôchû
Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda & Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Daiei Blu Ray Zone B
From Arrow’s Yōkai Monster Collection Blu Ray set
Along with ghosts is the third and final part of the loose Yōkai Monsters trilogy from the late 1960s, following 100 Monsters (reviewed here) and Spook Warfare (reviewed here). As far as I know there have been at least two more Yokai Monsters movies made since these, the first of which is also included in Arrow’s Blu Ray set Yōkai Monster Collection.
This one has very little in common with the previous entry in this series. Indeed, almost none of the various Yōkai in this movie have anything to do with those in the previous two movies. The one exception being the early appearance, with an even briefer screen time than its last appearance, of the big cyclops bear of a creature, the Tsuchikorobi. Other than this quick cameo, the other spooks on show here are pretty much new (maybe some background creatures used as ‘extras’ could be recycled but certainly none of the main creatures you associate with the first two parts of the trilogy, it seems to me). However, where it differs greatly from Spook Warfare, it does share one small DNA link with 100 Monsters... and that is in terms of the story content.
The story, such as it is, follows what happens after a boss kills both two rival clan members and an old man, the latter warning them not to kill anyone on the sacred ground of the forest less the inevitable curse follows them. The boss is after an incriminating document and after two of the bodies are disposed off, they chase after a seven year old girl who has witnessed events and who steals the document but soon throws it away. The old man, mortally wounded, returns to his house and dies but it turns out he’s her grandfather, who let the father believe his daughter had died seven years prior, because he was a ‘no good’ sort of gambler. The grandfather gives the daughter specific dice made from her dead mother’s bones so her father will recognise her and, just before dying, sends her off to find him, pursued by the evil gang. From then on it becomes a kind of road movie with the girl meeting various heroes and villains on her quest to find her father. There is also a slight twist in the identity of the father (of course) and, towards the end, the Yōkai monsters intercede although, frankly, the wandering ronin she befriends could just have easily taken care of matters himself.
And this is where it harkens back to the original movie. Unlike Spook Warfare, which has a plot revolving around the Yōkai themselves as they fought against an invading, foreign demon... this film, like 100 Monsters, has a standard kind of chanbara plot and the monsters themselves just seem to be plugged in here and there to remind everyone that this is a Yōkai movie. They are not at all integral to the plot and, honestly, don’t really do much other than turn up in a few instances where the little girl, finding herself in trouble, suddenly appearing in deus ex machina moments which aren’t, I have to say, a patch on the previous films.
That being said, the spooks in this one do feel a lot more sinister and aggressive... so tonally having things like the umbrella demon in this one might have detracted massively from the more serious tone the film seems to be going for. This film also happens to have a flying head attack... two flying heads, in fact. Which is strange because I’m not used to seeing flying heads in Japanese films. I mean, severed heads flying off necks in various directions sure but, honestly, self powered floating heads drifting in for a bite is a trope I’d more expect to see in the rich legacy of Indonesian cinema than in films like this, I would say. Not that this was an unwelcome occurrence... it certainly helped pep up the muted supernatural shenanigans of this one, for sure.
The film is well shot with some nice, smooth sequences with moving camera and also a few shots where the action of the movie is shot behind other things, such as bushes, to add a sense of depth to the composition. There are, once again, no great gouts of arterial spray when anyone gets slashed with a samurai sword but, at the same time, the directors don’t shy away from using blood to show the aftermath of various bits of sword violence throughout.
So, yeah, really not much to add to this third in the trilogy, which seems to have more in common with a Zatoichi movie than it does with anything else. Along With Ghosts is certainly not my favourite of the original Yōkai films (I think that would be Spook Warfare) but it’s certainly not a bad movie and fans of standard chanbara should get along with it just fine. Certainly, the Arrow box set collecting these three plus the first of Takashi Miike’s modern takes on the Yōkai is worth picking up.