Tuesday 28 March 2023



Before Swine

Directed by Ti West
United States/Canada/New Zealand

Warning: Some spoilers.

Ti West’s Pearl is a prequel to his movie X, which I reviewed here. It stars Mia Goth as the title character who, of course, played a dual role in X, one which completely took me by surprise as the old age make-up and performance of Pearl completely hid the actress from my perceptions in that one. This one was written, from what I hear, in a two week quarantine break in New Zealand, before the shooting of X, co-written over computer by West and Goth together. My understanding is that parts of this production were shot simultaneously with this one too.

And, it’s completely brilliant and, once again, Mia Goth amazes me with the power of her performance. Those expecting a film similar to X in tone may find this one slightly jarring at first. Now, I don’t usually like American made slasher films with X being one of the rare exceptions and, while Pearl is also, in essence a slasher film... it’s not a traditional slasher and it’s more in the lines of something like Hitchcock’s Psycho than, say, the Halloween or Scream films.

If you’re expecting nudity and goriness of X level proportions then you are probably going to be disappointed. The only nudity in this one comes in the form of an early 20th century, silent stag loop (one you might well have seen before if you have any interest in vintage erotica) and while there are some scenes of gruesome violence, such as a split screen sequence near the end where Pearl performs her own clean up by dismembering the corpse of her sister in law (Emma Jenkins-Purro), it’s far less frequent than in the aforementioned X. Although, of course, the pauses between the scenes where Mia Goth’s title character goes from naive, not too bright farm girl to completely derailed and unhinged not too bright farm girl... are much more potent for their diminished frequency.

The film is set in 1918 and I believe the director wanted it to play out in black and white. Alas, A24 refused that idea and so the film veers in the other direction. Starting off with a similar shot towards the barn doors and out onto the farm, which lovers of X will remember, it actually swings into full on technicolour levels of image saturation and, coupled with a really wonderful score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, it actually feels, sounds and looks (also helped along by the typography at the start) like a late 1940s/early 1950s movie... so the tone doesn’t seem quite right to the setting but, really, it does nothing to weaken the potency of the movie and the incredible performances at its centre.

We find out that Pearl has a domineering mother (Tandi Wright), a vegetable of a wheelchair bound, unresponsive father (Matthew Sunderland) and longs to leave the farm. Her husband is away fighting in the Great War and everyone is afraid of the Spanish Flu (indeed, people wear masks reminiscent of the start of the current Covid pandemic). Pearl is a dreamer and longs to escape and be a dancer in the movies, befriending and then later despatching the local town projectionist (David Corenswet). But we realise right from the start that Pearl is a little disturbed, as she pitchforks a goose and feeds it to a crocodile (or it could be an alligator, I barely know the difference).

As the film goes on, Pearl experiences more troubles and dwells on her horrible future... until her bouts of violent self expression become more frequent. But the movie still manages to be almost overwhelmingly entertaining as the stand out cinematography, the performances and the seductive, old Hollywood style soundtrack dazzle the viewer with their combined magnetism. Or at least, these elements pulled together certainly dazzled this viewer.

There’s the odd transition wipe on motion, the amazing split screen sequence which heralds in Pearl’s husband’s return home from the war and an amazing, held shot of Pearl’s face expressing a wealth of emotions behind her forced smile... not to mention a wonderful, stagey, song and dance number set against the trenches of the First World War.

My one disappointment came when the bohemian projectionist character, who shows the pornographic stag loop to Pearl in his projection room, referred to his job as a good ‘gig’. I checked it out after and found I was correct that this is an anachronism in the language, it would seem... as the term didn’t start to be used until the 1920s, at the very least two years after this movie is set. Or so I’m told.

However, it doesn’t really matter because Pearl is a truly entertaining motion picture and one which I will, of course, pick up on Blu Ray, along with X. I’m just waiting for the third installment in the trilogy, MaXXXine, to get a release and then, well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a nice Blu Ray box set of all three packaged together. Also, this is a rare prequel these days in that, other than to spoil the surprise, perhaps, that Mia Goth also plays this character in X... this is a movie which could easily be watched before seeing X and it will probably enrich the experience of seeing that original. Or at least add even more tension when you realise, prematurely, just what Pearl is capable of. And that’s me done with this one. If you are into very focused, quite intense gothic thrillers or, indeed, liked the first movie... then you should have a pretty good time with Pearl, I would say. I can’t wait to see the third installment in this franchise, for sure.

Monday 27 March 2023

Infinity Pool


 Seconds Chances

Infinity Pool
Canada/Croatia/Hungary 2023
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Film Forge

Infinity Pool is director Brandon (son of David) Cronenberg’s third feature length movie and, I have to say, although I’ve only now seen two of his movies, I was a little disappointed in this new one. I’ve not seen Antiviral (yet... will do at some point) but I liked his movie Possessor, quite a bit more than this one, I think.

Now, I have to say that people on Twitter have been all over this one for a while and, it’s not hard to see why because, the released stills with some truly horrible face masks being worn by people are quite striking. And it’s been getting some really good reviews from followers I trust. There’s even been the usual ‘walkouts and fainting in the aisles’ kind of ‘so negative it’s completely positive’ style tales from early screenings. So I was a little puzzled to find that, for all the talk of being incredibly violent and sexy... it’s kinda not really straying too far into either of those terrains.

It is good sci-fi though and it does have a heck of a lot of good stuff going for it so... I think take any negativeness in this review with a pinch of salt. I think there are a couple of things which have maybe swayed my view of the film and let me get those out the way first, or at least qualify them to my readers... because I really wanted to like this movie and I happen to think that people like Brandon Cronenberg are cinematic visionaries who deserve to own the future of cinema.

I think I’ve either become too jaded by things I see in movies these days or, quite possibly, it’s not me and there’s just nothing new under the sun. That last shouldn’t be a problem for me... because when is it ever? But maybe my expectations of this writer/director at this point are a bit too high and it may be that I return to this film in ten years time able to appreciate it more for what it is, rather than for something it isn’t.

Secondly, it seems to wear some of those influences on its sleeve, not by dint of the fact that the plot (which I won’t get into here because I don’t want to post spoilers on this one) seems like it’s inspired by things I think I can easily see... but because, in this case, the film I’m absolutely convinced was at least a partial influence on this one, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (the one starring Rock Hudson, remember?) is just not one of those films I can personally bond with. It might be something to do with the fact that upper classes can pay their way through any horrible accident or decision with no thought or consequence to the pain and misery they create for others they use to scapegoat their ‘adult playground’ attitudes but... yeah, this is not an area of cinema I particularly enjoy myself. Although I know many people love Seconds so, if there’s one thing I think I can safely say it’s that, Infinity Pool will at least have a lot of fans. Especially in the younger crowds, I suspect, who might not have been exposed to so many similar movies yet.

A special shout out goes, also, to the always incredible Mia Goth, who’s partying attitude throughout this somewhat mirrors, in my opinion, the psychological trajectory that Rock Hudson goes through in the earlier film. Okay... all the actors in this movie are amazing. Asides from the amazing Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård (always very reliable) giving amazing performances, they are backed up by a load of other great performers like Cleopatra Coleman and Thomas Kretschmann. So all very strong actors in this film and, if you’re going to do science fiction of this internalised yet ostentatious manner, you need reliable performances like these to help build and retain credibility.

Asides from this you have the director’s handling of the camera and how it does and, more importantly, how it doesn’t reveal things. The movie starts in darkness with just two voices until curtains are pulled back in a hotel room. This is followed by a very dizzying montage of swirling, 360 degree horizontal rotation segments which, frankly, annoyed me almost as much as the annoying fast edits in the more hallucinogenic sequences of the film. Then I realised that this stuff was all done to deliberately disorient the viewer to maybe stop the brain box from kicking in quite so fast on the more obvious moments in the plot.

And another tactic the director uses in a similar manner is to repeat those obvious moments ad infinitum so that, even though you probably already know what’s going on, it’s rendered immaterial as a significant plot turn by a certain way through the running time. So, there’s a point early on, without giving any of the plot away, where an actor can either be playing character A or he could be playing, let’s call it character AB. I made a choice about what an obvious sleight of hand switch on identity was pretty early on but, this occurrence, like a series of Russian dolls being opened (maybe as represented by urns holding a dead character’s ashes, in the case of this movie), is then repeated where, well, it just doesn’t really matter anymore. Only to Skarsgård’s character who, to be fair, is obviously haunted by his own lack of ability to differentiate what has happened right to the very end of the film.  

That being said, while the end of the movie is deliberately vague and attempting to be haunting... it kinda felt a little too much like a cop out to me, it has to be said. Nothing wrong with it... I just felt like it wasn’t a strong enough ending myself. Like if you’d been conducting a science experiment and got a result which you didn’t really care about either way. And, in terms of entertainment levels on the obvious things it’s more or less being sold on... I didn’t think there was that much sex or violence as it’s been hyped for (put this against any 1970s or 80s B movie exploitation movie and this one would look decidedly low key and out of place, it has to be said). Not that this is particularly what the director was going for, to be fair but then, why have so many people concentrated on this aspect?

At the end of the day, I was sadly just not impressed by Infinity Pool and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone unless they were going purely to see how the camera can capture things in a beautiful way and throw it around to create certain emotional responses (of sorts, I kinda didn’t feel much either, to be fair). This doesn’t mean it’s not a good film, by the way... quite the contrary. It just means I didn’t respond to it with the same level of appreciation that I suspect a lot of good people will. So lets see what happens and I’ll take another look at it in another decade, if I’m still around.

Sunday 26 March 2023

John Wick Chapter 4

At My Wick’s End?

John Wick Chapter 4
USA 2023 Directed by Chad Stahelski
UK cinema release print

Warning: An obvious implied spoiler at the end...

Okay so, the John Wick films have been a long ride. I never expected them to go through as many sequels but I’m kinda glad they did. John Wick Chapter 4 is an even longer ride than most of them, being about an hour more than the original film which kickstarted the franchise and... like the others to a certain extent, it’s all about attaining a purer form of action cinema. A stripped down, choreographed ballet of blood and fists which delivers body blow after body blow, piling them onto each and every main actor in amounts that, thanks partly to the Kevlar suits the characters wear and partly due to the poetic nature of the fantasy element on display here, no normal person could really survive all that well without rolling around on the floor for half an hour after one or two impacts.

And fans of the films will certainly, for the most part (I know one exception), love this movie as much as the others. It really takes that honed down action motif and divests it of all but the most necessary dialogue scenes with, of course, John Wick himself, played brilliantly by Keanu Reeves, being a man of few words. He allows others to do the talking for him for the most part but, even so, there’s not an awful lot of plot on display in this one.

What that means, of course, is that in the few dialogue scenes... and some of them are very well written, with the exception perhaps of the rather delusional musings of Lawrence Fishburne’s character (who does well with what he has to work with)... everyone else gets better lines than the lead star. And, along with Reeves and Fishburne, there are some excellent actors in this one... some I knew and some I didn’t. 

So, of course, returning is Ian McShane as Winston, the manager of the New York branch of The Continental, the shining outpost which goes a long way to defining the shadow world in which the assassins in these movies are able to work. Then there’s Lance Reddick as his concierge Charon, who sadly died, much too young, one week before this film’s premiere (there is a dedication to him at the film’s close... I guess it’s easier to quickly do this in the sad world of modern digital prints now).

There are also numerous new characters who are all brilliant but I’m just going to pick on three of them here. So we have the lead villain, this time played by Bill Skarsgård. I really hated him in this but, that’s because he plays the character so well, throwing in an arrogance and hiding his lack of intelligence behind a facade which I really can’t imagine anyone respecting. So good for him for making this person truly unlikeable.

Then there’s Caine, played by famous ‘martial arts’ actor Donnie Yen from the Ip Man films (which I’ve still not seen but, I have the first three piled up somewhere to watch and, I guess I’ll pick up the fourth at some point if I like those). It’s quite strange because, in Rogue One - A Star Wars Story, Yen played a blind character who was absolutely modelled on the famous blind gambler Zatoichi, who appeared in so many films played by Shintaro Katsu (and a few others). In this film, he’s once again playing a blind, unstoppable killing machine who uses sound to more accurately sense where his enemies attacks are coming from. I really think some enterprising studio needs to go the hole hog now and just make some new Zatoichi films with Donnie Yen recreating the iconic character.

Finally there’s Shamier Anderson as Tracker. Now this is an interesting one because he is, for all intents and purposes, a kind of less honed John Wick surrogate character. He works with a dog as his loyal companion which, of course, is something John would be sympathetic to too... Wick’s dog fixation is barely mentioned in this fourth part but there is a definite nod to it both in Tracker’s dependence and description of his working pet as an ‘emotional support dog’ and, also, in a nice moment where John Wick makes a tough decision and inadvertently wins Tracker’s heart over to his own cause. So, yeah, it’s actually an important character and, Wick and Caine notwithstanding, he’s probably the coolest person in the movie.

And, yeah, it’s full of action and heart... much like the others you are rooting for a fair few of the characters and, yes, it has emotional tension, not least from the relationship between former allies and friend Wick and Caine, who are pitched against each other here. It also looks great and has exactly the same kind of dark neon colour palette of its predecessors. And then there’s the end... and this is where the spoilers come in. The dramatic arc of the central character is possibly quite obvious to a lot of people and, yes, all I will say is that this film actually goes there. What’s the real sucker punch, though, for people like myself who were expecting an ending like this (there’s a post credits sequel too folks... stay past the end) is that, by the climax of the film, there’s absolutely an option for it not to end with what once seemed like the inevitable conclusion of the John Wick character arc so, yeah, I think it will hit some harder than others.

But, like both the director and lead actor have acknowledged here, the audience will certainly bring their own baggage with them when translating the endgame of the movie and, things which happen in the shadowy world of The Continental and The Table (a world where there never seems to be a shred of law enforcement to interfere in any killing portrayed on film... thus pushing it further into a fantasy land), are not as they might seem in the real world. In other words, no matter what the fate of the central character, there was always going to be a physical aid to help him remain undercover in his new life or death, as a necessity perhaps. All I’m saying is that, although the film might seem conclusive to some (as it does me), there’s certainly an option to do a John Wick Chapter Five at some point down the line (I've already heard rumblings of it this morning)... although whether Keanu Reeves, who’s not getting any younger, would be able to still do one is another matter.

Ultimately, I thought John Wick Chapter Four was a fine movie in the ‘distilled, minimalist action’ genre. I didn’t think it was the best in the series... I still prefer the second movie over all of them... but it does what fans of the franchise would expect it to do and is an entertaining, if over long, slice of thrills and spills. Miss it at your peril. 

Tuesday 21 March 2023

13th Anniversary Blog Post

The Death Of Television

Okay, so for my 13th Anniversary Blog Post, I thought I’d take a quick look at the current state of TV shows because, frankly, it is in a bad way and I think the format as we know it is going to need to have some adjustments made and reinvent itself before long... is my best guess.

Okay, so a couple of things have happened lately in the world of streaming TV channels. One thing is that one of the companies, I think it might be Warners, have taken down a huge chunk of their old TV shows (most of them is my understanding) because they don’t want to keep having to pay the creators royalties on the product any longer. And, yes, Warner Brothers have always been a studio that’s known for being... well... cheapskates but, I think there may be some consequences to these actions down the line and I will discuss this in a little while.

Firstly though, I want to discuss the constant cancellations of TV shows by companies like Netflix, forcing their customers to have to abandon the shows they’re watching without knowing how things turned out for the characters they’ve spent months... and sometimes years... following.

Okay... let’s backtrack to the 20th Century for a little while and recognise that, yes, TV shows have always been cancelled some time long before the creative teams, cast and crew would have preferred them to end. And, of course, when many of the people still watching those shows would much rather they could continue to be watched. In the old days, it was unusual for a series to have a definitive ending episode (although there were some, like the much publicised final episode of M*A*S*H). But one difference was that there was no internet or other places you could get relevant information about your shows in those days.  I remember waiting ages for a second series of Tales Of The Gold Monkey to hit our screens.... eventually figuring out after a few years it was never coming back.

But the other important thing to remember was that, unlike most TV shows today, it was rare that a very overt, underlying story arc was threaded through a show. Most shows on episodic television consisted of stand alone single or two episode stories and so, if a show was cancelled, there would be no “what happens next?” questions in the minds of the viewers. Again, there were exceptions. The Prisoner in the late sixties, for example, was only 17 episodes long and it was cancelled. However, because the producers knew it was going to be cancelled, it allowed for Patrick McGoohan (the show’s star, producer and sometimes writer/director under a pseudonym) to write two episodes... Once Upon A Time and Fall Out, that finished off the story for the audience. Admittedly, some people were not happy with the final episode although, I thought it was a brilliant wrap up to a startling series myself... but whether you liked it or not, it had a definitive conclusion of sorts.

Sometimes, though, by the 1990s when shows did start to have underlying story arcs seeded into certain episodes, this could also backfire. Such was the case of Millennium, the sister series to Chris Carter’s The X Files and set in the same universe. By the end of Season 2 the show’s creative team realised that they were about to be cancelled, so they wrote an ending where most of the regular characters were killed and the world as we know it was wiped out by a virus, with only a few people left alive. The End...

The End... that is until the studio changed their minds and said they weren’t cancelled after all... could they have another series, please? And so Season 3 of the show is... a bit of a mess. The world ‘didn’t end after all’ and new characters had to be brought in to make up for the absence of many of the regular characters from the previous two seasons of the show. And, of course, surprise surprise, the show then got cancelled at the end of Season 3, when it hadn’t tied up it’s story arc this time. Chris Carter had to put a follow up episode, to make some sense of the mess, as a crossover story in the next season of The X Files.

Anyway, lets hop back to the present then and realise that, more than at any other time in history, shows are cancelled without notice to the creators and pretty much everything on TV these days has a continuing story arc, which is what keeps people watching. And a lot of these shows, due to drops in subscription levels etc, are being cancelled willy nilly, leaving the remaining audience in the cold. I watched a couple of episodes of a new show called 1899 just before Christmas... and then got caught up in various manifestations of seasonal shenanigans. By the time I came back to it in late January/early February it had already been announced that the show, much to the disappointment of the cast and crew, not to mention its audience, had been one of a number of cancellations. I asked Lee at the ticket office in Enfield Town train station, my local station, who had seen the whole show (and loved it) and, well, even he said to not bother to watch the rest (I did though). If they’re cancelling it then what’s the point in watching, was his mindset and I think that’s probably a sensible suggestion at present.

And that’s going to be a problem for Netflix and other channels I think. I’m now seeing similar sentiments echoed both by various people I know in real life and on social media. People have been bitten by this phenomenon too often and I know a lot of people won’t watch a TV show now until it’s finished its entire run... because they don’t want to invest any time in something which is going to be cancelled before they find out the end of the story.

What with the onus on the customers to buy subscriptions to the channels, with all the other financial drains going on in he world these days... Netflix and many others are losing bucketloads of subscribers and... guess what? If you cancel the show then people are not only going to not watch the one which they were only halfway through, they’ll more than likely ditch the channel itself because, you know... what’s the point?

Okay, so back to that other thing... Warners or some such studio dumping all their stuff to save on royalties. But... yeah, you know... people want to either watch this stuff for their first time around (probably the same ones who were adding a programme to their list of shows that have naturally finished and so are safe to watch) and, if they want to rewatch their favourite shows a second time... they now can’t. So, it boggles the mind that the companies indulging in this short sighted practice are not realising this is going to lose them huge amounts of subscribers. And don’t forget, many of these shows are channel exclusives and many don’t have physical releases to fall back on. When they’re gone, they’re gone. And with that kind of mentality, coupled with the constant cancellations... what creative team is going to want to trust the studio again by starting up a new show for them?

One last thing... the pirates definitely win. Films and TV shows go live in high definition to watch for free on many sites on the world wide web, pretty much the day they hit digital anywhere in the world or, in some cases, way before then (not to mention hold backs on release patterns which mean a country who doesn’t have that show or movie yet can watch it way before they’re ‘supposed to’ on the web).  And, you know, something tells me these hosting websites keep all of their old shows and movies so their customers, their hats pulled low and lurking in the shadows, don’t have the worries of a channel deleting their favourite series. They’re there until the government blocks access and closes them down... which means it’ll be a good few hours before the same site is being hosted somewhere else with all the back catalogue fully intact (from what I can make out... a little bird told me).

So, in conclusion, something the various companies might want to think about is a) not cancelling shows before they’ve finished their run and b) don’t delete them from your servers so your customers, who are paying large amounts of money, can still access their favourite shows. Something the creatives might like to think about.... although it flies in the face of why people have become so addicted to TV serials again (just like the old theatrical serials of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s had a power over their audience)... is that it may be better not to introduce a binding story arc to these things and just have the regular characters taking part in stand alone stories again. Honestly guys and gals, this can be done in a way that people would still watch, I’m sure.

Anyway, that’s my thought on the current state of TV and thank you for reading my 13th anniversary post. Normal service will be resumed very soon. Do not adjust your TV set.

Monday 20 March 2023

The Demons Of Ludlow

Pianist Envy

The Demons Of Ludlow
USA 1983 Directed by Bill Rebane
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers I guess... if you ever wanted to watch this one.

The Demons Of Ludlow is the fourth film of six of this director’s movies featured in Arrow’s Weird Wyoming - The Bill Rebane Collection and, alas, it’s not a great one either. Nowhere near as good as the one film from this set so far which I did really like, The Alpha Incident (reviewed by me here).

The film stars Paul Bentzen as the preacher of the small village community of Ludlow and, he’s an actor I actually quite like, having been exposed to him purely from the films in this boxed edition (he was also in The Alpha Incident and Invasion From Inner Earth, reviewed here). It’s a shame then that it turns out the actor only made seven movies in his whole life... he didn’t play in his next two films (his last) for over 20 years after making this one. Here, he is one of the two main protagonists, along with a woman who is returning to Ludlow after a long absence, having left the village as a teen. Now, however, she’s a reporter and, remembering the terrible old stories of her grandfather, she returns when it’s celebrating 200 years since it was founded, to see if there’s a story.

Turns out, there is.

This film is an unashamed cash grab/emulation of all those popular American slashers of the 1980s, specifically those with a supernatural bent. In this case, it shares more than a few similarities with John Carpenter’s, then fairly recent, all time classic horror The Fog (reviewed here). Alas, although it shares a few thematic elements with the Carpenter movie, such as the bicentennial celebrations and some homicidal ghosts wandering around, it doesn’t really share the quality of the partial inspiration for it and, although Rebane occasionally tries to lift the film with interesting stabs of shot design, there’s nothing as interesting as in The Alpha Incident. A shot where the preacher (who finds an ancient artefact in a wall, just like Father Malone in The Fog), is framed in a mirror and another person framed within a cross in that same mirror is notable but, not something that can save the movie. There are some nice shots of long cast shadows throughout but, nothing that really catches the eye and interests the mind on a visual level consistently, I felt.

The town takes receipt, on its 200 year birthday, of an old piano sent by the family of the man named Ludlow, who founded the town originally. However, it turns out his hands were cut off and he was exiled from the village and sent away to England... but now he’s returned in the form of this ‘haunted’ piano, along with his old timey ghost cronies... to shoot, stab, hang and tear people apart with some of the cheaper and unimpressive practical effects I’ve seen in 1980s horror movies, it has to be said. One guy’s bloody stumps where his hands should have been are literally just him clenching his fists with a bit of red on them, for instance.

The piano itself is kinda strange apart from, you know, being haunted. When it’s played it starts off sounding a little like a harpsichord but then you realise it’s just a synthesiser being played on the soundtrack and you don’t even need to see the various actors’ hand movements not synching up to tell you this. It sounds just awful and, though Ric Coken and Steven Kuether’s score is mostly appropriate, coming off with a kind of cheap Bach on a Casio synth vibe to it, it’s nothing to write home about either and, to be honest, adds no tension to the film. It’s a million miles away from the terrifying synth scores that Carpenter was supplying for his movies.

There’s also a strange, glowy, neon green hand which occasionally makes a killing entrance onto a scene or two but, yeah, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything in the plot (other than it’s on the side of the ghosts). Perhaps it’s a stand in for one of the town patron’s hands but, yeah, it looks more like an alien hand, to be honest. Either way, it fails to be unsettling and maybe that’s my main take away from this movie. The Demons Of Ludlow is a comfortable feeling film but it’s not really entertaining in any manner and it totally fails to be scary or disturbing at any point. There are no scenes in the movie which are likely to scare you the way the director is obviously intending they will so, yeah, it just feels a bit damp and limp and I really can’t work up enough enthusiasm to object to it, in all honesty. It is what it is and it’s probably not something I’d recommend, to be honest and... having a flying piano near the end in no way makes up for anything else in the movie. These aren’t the demons you’re looking for.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Shazam! Fury Of The Gods

Nicked Fury

Shazam! Fury Of The Gods
USA 2023 Directed by David F. Sandberg
Warner Bros
UK cinema release print

Warning: Very minor spoilers but there’s no way I’m giving away the ending or the really important cameo in this review.

Wow. This film is awesome. And if you want to take that as my final, less detailed verdict of the film so you don’t feel like you need to read to the end, please do so.

And it’s not just the awesome cameo towards the end of the movie where an amazing character restores a semblance of the status quo to things here... although that scene was so brilliant it had me crying by the finish. Nope... the whole film is a great, fun and respectful sequel to the first movie, which was a little better than this but... this being only slightly less better than absolutely brilliant is still pretty good, I reckon.

Okay, there are a few negative criticisms I have to make about this one and I’ll get those out of the way first because, yeah, they don’t even begin to make a negative dent in the movie and I can’t wait to get this thing on Blu Ray (partially because I saw this at Cineworld and I’m guessing the physical copy will be more in focus than how they projected it there).

So, okay, I was disappointed that the big dramatic beat from the first one of Mary Bromfield (still not yet revealed in this iteration as really being Mary Batson, Billy’s sister he didn’t even know he had) getting into college is sidelined to a throwaway scene explaining why she didn’t go. I thought the emotional investment in this character set up in the first film wasn’t given it’s due, to be honest.

Another negative thing was... I didn’t quite understand the physics of the big dome utilised by the villains in this one. It has certain physical properties in one scene which are completely forgotten about in a later scene but, yeah, I guess anything is possible when you’re dealing with magic.

Thirdly, but not so much of a big deal... one of the best lines in the trailers for the movie, about throwing a truck at a dragon, didn’t make final cut... which is a shame. However, the pacing of the scene in question is such that it would have slowed things down unnecessarily and been less credible so I suspect it was better out than in, in this instance.

That’s it. Those are my only negative things about the film. The rest is absolutely brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The cast from the original film, including stand up performances by Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Zachary Levi as Captain Marvel (because, two fingers up at Marvel who ‘legally acquired the name for one of their own characters... luckily, many audience members past a certain age can still remember what the name of the Worlds Mightiest Mortal is), Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman (like the first movie, he’s basically the lead kid in this film), Grace Caroline Currey as Mary Bromfield (and Mary Marvel... again, lets call her by her real character name for the purposes of this review) and a load of other returners are all great here. And, by golly they sure fooled me in the first film because, apparently, this is Grace Caroline Currey’s first time playing her super hero alter ego. The girl they had in the first film (which I reviewed here) looked so much like her I just assumed it was the same actress playing both roles in that one so... yeah, don’t know why they bothered with someone else in the original.

And this lot are joined by some nice additions including a couple of super villains played by Dame Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu and, also, a nice turn from Rachel Zegler (in her second film, after playing Maria in Spielberg’s quite good remake of West Side Story). Plus a couple of cameos but, seriously, that one towards the end of the picture... absolutely gave me a huge rush of emotion (while simultaneously keeping me angry at James Gunn... more on that anger in a little while). One thing I did miss was the sequel set up from the post credits of the previous movie but... the final post credits scenes here (there are two of them) is very much a sequel to the post credits of the first. So, yeah, if the direction of DC hadn’t suddenly changed then that talking earth worm ‘Mr. Mind and the Society Of Evil’ adaptation story may well have been coming along at some point.

I’m not covering the plot here but the film is full of great little references both to other comic book characters (including little digs at rival company Marvel) and also some great pop culture references in general. Such as the ‘pediatrician’ scene from the trailer... I’d already spotted the haunted doll from The Conjuring movies in the shot in the previews but I’m happy to say Annabelle remains in the finished movie here. And a nice moment where a guy on the street calls the main character Captain Marvel... and he’s not only played by Michael Gray, who used to play Billy Batson in the Shazam TV series in the 1970s but he’s even wearing the same t-shirt costume he wore in it. And, wow, I love the symmetry of having a character originally co-created for Fawcett Comics (before DC bought the rights years later) by C. C. Beck, get a score by composer Christophe Beck. I mean, I doubt they’re related but, even so.

Oh... and I’m not even going to say anything about the wonderful Unicorns or the fact that the makers of Skittles must have paid a fair amount of money for their quite prominent plot point of a product placement... but I don’t care because, even if it will date the movie some years from now, it was just delightfully done.

And, well, it’s such a good movie with a brilliant, post bad gal defeat denouement scene that, in light of the first of the post-credits scenes here, you just have to hate James Gunn’s new DCU ending policy even more. After Blue Beetle, The Flash and the second Aquaman movie have played out in cinemas later this year, the decision has been made to pull the plug on the current movie DC universe with even their most highly anticipated movie originally on the slate, Wonder Woman 3, completely cancelled. So no more Henry Cavill as Superman (as set up at the end of Black Adam) and no more Justice Society (not to mention the Justice League). The whole thing sucks but these movies are teasing and building towards a series of event movies that will now, unless DC does an about turn sometime very soon, won’t happen. So yeah, while I’d like to see another Wonder Woman and a Justice League/Justice Society team up movie where they take on Black Adam before becoming his ally to ward off some greater evil... it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. Which is a huge pity, especially after DC have finally seemed to have been gaining traction after their earlier cinematic efforts didn’t quite get things right, it all seems to have been scuppered... unnecessarily, it seems to me.

But don’t let that sourness put you off going to see what is probably the best superhero movie that’s going to be in cinemas this year. I suspect Shazam! Fury Of The Gods might well make my top ten movies of 2023, by the end of it... time will tell, I guess.

Tuesday 14 March 2023


Alvarez Now

USA 2023
Directed by
Scott Beck & Bryan Woods
UK cinema release print

Okay, so this review of the latest Adam Driver sci-fi movie 65 is going to be pretty short. So being because it’s neither terrible or great and I don’t have much to say about it either way. It was fairly entertaining but the negatives and positives of the thing balance out pretty well with nothing really standing out in either direction.

Okay, so the plot is that, while transporting human cargo in suspended animation capsules which should take him about two years, the starship piloted by Mills, played by Driver, is hit by part of an uncharted asteroid cluster and crash lands on an unknown planet. Only he survives the crash, other than one suspended animation pod which wasn’t destroyed. He manages to locate it and thaws out a 9 year old girl, Koa, played by Ariana Greenblatt, who doesn’t speak the same language as him. He then has to get her and himself a number of kilometres away and up a mountain to find where the escape capsule ended up, to see if he can get them off the planet. Where he has landed is the planet earth, 65 million years ago... where dinosaurs just want to eat them, more than anything else. And, of course, those of you familiar with the Alvarez hypothesis will know exactly why Driver’s craft was hit by an asteroid (with bigger ones to follow) and just why he has to get them off planet as quickly as possible.

And like I said, there’s good and there’s bad. The good... well, the three main actors, Driver, Greenblatt and Chloe Coleman as Driver’s ‘sick daughter back home’ (who was so good in Gunpowder Milkshake... reviewed here) are all absolutely brilliant. And, to support them, the special effects are pretty nicely done too. Add in a fine score by Chris Bacon and things are an easy watch.

The bad... well, there are a couple of things. Firstly, I wanted to see this movie because, when I saw the trailer a number of weeks ago, it reminded me of just the kind of story that would have been serialised as a black and white comic strip in a late 1970s to mid 1980s issue of 2000AD, when I was a kid. And, well, that’s pretty much exactly what we've got here. Which is a double edged sword because the script, as in the way the characters bond and the situations they find themselves on their quest, really does seem like it would have been fine in the 1980s but... it just seems a little hackneyed and clichéd these days. There really aren’t many surprises... apart from a truly brilliant, early jump scare when Driver’s character first sees some dinosaurs... and the tired old trope of separating and then running away from danger into even worse danger seems well overplayed here. I think they do that one at least three or four times and, you kinda knew exactly when these moments were going to happen. As well as knowing pretty much how each character was going to get out of their situation, due to telegraphing things earlier in the movie. So, yeah, it was kinda comfortable and entertaining rather than scary, for most of the time.

And the dinosaurs are pretty well done but they’ve certainly gone away from the expected designs of things and these have their own look. Not a bad thing, for sure but, well, when I see a big dinosaur I want it to be at least as scary as those in the original Jurassic Park movies... these one’s weren’t all that, it has to be said. Competent and believable for sure but, no... much less intimidating than I would have liked.

But, like I said, scripting aside, 65 is more than competently handled, very well acted and a general crowd pleaser in terms of at least delivering some action and lots of appropriate growling. It’s just not a great film and, as I said at the start, not a terribly bad one either. I’d recommend it if there’s nothing better on and you want to just lay back in your seat and be entertained, Nothing to write home about but, you’re certainly in the hands of some good actors in this one.

Monday 13 March 2023

The Rig

The Day The
Rig Stood Still

The Rig
2023 UK
Six episodes January 6th release

Warning: The spoilers wake...

It’s funny.... I’ve never been that happy with Iain Glen as an actor for some reason... before now, that is. I guess I saw him playing a bunch of villain roles in Hollywood movies and always confused not liking the character with the actor playing with him. I’m ashamed for making that very obvious mistake, especially at my age in life but, there you go, that’s how it is... or rather, that’s how it was. Now though, I’ve seen him play a kind of anti-heroic, could go either way character in the new TV show The Rig and, I have to hand it to him, he’s excellent in this and I respect him a hell of a lot more as an actor. I’ll need to keep an eye out for some of the other stuff he’s done. He’s great here.

That being said, The Rig is not primarily Glen’s show, for sure. It’s one of those stories which has several ‘heroes’ (for want of a better word and before I start to wear out ‘protagonist’ as my regular substitute) and it’s a brilliant ensemble piece which lets you figure out just who the heroes and villains are and, well, like all good drama, it’s not that black and white with a lot of the characters.

Now, apart from Glen, I didn’t know any of the other names in this show but I sure recognised a lot of them. I’ve probably seen most of them here or there in other things so we have the likes of Emily Hampshire (oh right, just looked her up, I recognised her from Chapelwaite, the review of which will eventually pitch up here on this blog when I can schedule it in), Molly Vevers, Abraham Popoola, Rochenda Sandall, Martin Compston, Mark Bonnar, Mark Addy and Owen Teale. And they all, including many others in the cast (hey, I’m not going to do a huge list here), seemed like old friends to me. They are all obviously classic character actors and are absolutely perfect as an ensemble cast for this kind of thing. And Owen Teale, especially, should win the award for most ignorant and sustainably angriest man in existence here... he plays the wild card roguish element very well but, it’s the old ‘heart in the right place’ character option for him and I kind of appreciated the bluff and powder keg element he brings to the show.

The story is a slow burn of sorts although, when you think about what’s covered, you realise that there’s actually a fair amount going on in terms of character progression. The show appealed to me because it looked like it was going to play as something like another variant of The Thing, just set on an oil rig but, yeah, it’s actually a little more than that and, like a lot of the elements in the show, the perceived threat to the crew is not necessarily what it seems. The fact that Mark Bonnar’s reading a copy of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes in the first couple of episodes is a bit of a giveaway and there’s definitely an ‘ancient ones’ Cthulhu vibe going on in the show as well. Without giving too much away, I would call this a kind of aquatic version of The Day The Earth Stood Still but, with the ‘alien’ life form pulling no punches and not hesitating in wiping out life on the planet if it’s not being listened to. So, yeah, there’s obviously a strong, environmental, ‘save the planet’ kind of thread running through the tale too.

One of the things which, at first, disappointed me and then fascinated me is that, as I intimated earlier, the characters are not clear cut. For example, Iain Glens character towards the end of the show seems to be vacillating between different courses of action in terms of attempting to find a way for his crew to survive a certain threat. One minute he’s going to go with the lead of the obligatory ‘human villain’ character, introduced at the start of episode four and then, suddenly looking at another option which presents itself. And then I realised that this is a nice touch by the writers because, asides from the tension created by not knowing with whom his character will side with, it certainly reflects the stresses and lack of clarity of real life, to some extent.

At the end of the day, I have to say that while The Rig isn’t the most spectacular show on television (although it does have some amazingly well designed shots, such as the longish opening shot of the first episode), it is quite good science fiction and the gradual unfolding of the story coupled with, as I said, a whole host of great actors, kept me entertained. What mainly disappointed me was the fact that it turned out to not be a mini series but, instead, leaves it all on a bit of a cliff hanger as to what will happen next. Thankfully, the show has just been renewed for a second season.

The thing is... and this is where the spoiler warning comes in folks, stop reading if you don’t want to know... I’m just not sure what more the writers could possibly have to say about the subject to sustain another series. At the end of the show, we witness a handful of survivors being taken away in two helicopters at the prelude of an ‘extinction level event’, as a huge tidal wave, the grand daddy of tsunamis, is about to wipe out Great Britain and, quite possibly, the rest of the world too. The Rig is quite badly destroyed by the start of this wave and then the survivors in the helicopters get hit with the revelation that the helicopter isn’t taking them home (probably wise, actually, since their homes are about to exist only under many fathoms under water) but somewhere else. But where? Such mystery. Well, I hate to be one of ‘those’ people but, since the majority of the land is about to be wiped out and the title of the show is... well... The Rig... I’m putting my money on the helicopters landing at another rig before long because, yeah, where else would they be going unless they want to change the title of the show and lose viewers who wouldn’t realise? We shall see, I guess. I’m hoping series two isn’t all that far away because, post pandemic (yeah, right, like that’s over), the gaps between seasons in TV shows seem to be getting so large that I often forget what happened last time around, in many cases. But, yeah, I think The Rig is worth a watch and I’m glad I saw this one.

Sunday 12 March 2023

The Demoniacs

Wreck N' Rollin

The Demoniacs
aka Les démoniaques
France 1974
Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Some slight spoilerage here.

Jean Rollin’s The Demoniacs is a little different from his usual ‘personal movies’ in that, while it still has the ‘demoniaques’ of the title coming as a pair of girls (almost every set of protagonists or antagonists come in twos in a Rollin film), these two are in no way vampires. Exactly what they are is open to debate but... okay, I’ll run the plot by you first, such as it is.

Set sometime in the 19th century, Rollin uses voice over and shots of the heads of the four ‘wreckers’ in circles as he runs down the background of each one. This is pretty much like an extended and more thorough version of a similar technique used in the opening credits of those old 1930s serials where, for the first few episodes, footage of the actor would be used to introduce the characters and certainly Rollin was a big fan of various movie serials.

Then the credits roll and the film starts in the aftermath of the four wreckers, The Captain (John Rico), Le Bosco (Willy Braque), Paul (Paul Bisciglia) and bad gal Tina (Joëlle Coeur). They are looting their latest shipwreck and then find the two girls of the title survived... played by Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier. So they rape them both and kill them (kinda). Shortly after, in the local saloon bar, the captain is plagued with visions of the dead girls haunting him as ghosts and, frankly, even though these ghosts can still be raped and bashed about, I’m going to stick to the idea that they are actually dead at this point. Then the ladies return for more trouble from the increasingly paranoid crew of ‘wreckers’ but get away and visit the ‘cursed Abbey ruins’, where the two guardians, including a lady dressed as a clown (so, yeah, definitely a Rollin film for sure) allow the girls to liberate a demon who has been imprisoned in the Abbey for hundreds of years. There is rumour that it’s Lucifer himself. Certainly, if you can get away with wearing the black coat, white shirt and bear chested medallion look like this guy, you probably are Satan because, yeah, nobody is going to give you any hassle about it if you walk the walk, I guess.

Anyway, Satan (or his nearest equivalent) sexes the two ladies up and gives them special powers to take their revenge on their killers. They start to do this (using powers that make statues fly around the Abbey grounds, projected at their enemies) but the wreckers kill the two guardians and so the gals give the devil his powers back, so he can bring those two back to life. They then go and meet their own rapey, painful deaths (again) but not before all the wreckers have killed each other... or died unconvincingly by their own hand.

So yeah, okay, you never watch a Rollin film for the strength of the acting but this one particularly has some very melodramatic and over the top performances from the cast... as well as a propensity for various actors and actresses to look the audience directly in the eye on occasion, while delivering a monologue, as if they could be breaking the fourth wall. Well, I actually believe the acting in this one is deliberately unconvincing. At the top end of the movie Rollin inserts the on screen credit... “Un film expressionniste de Jean Rollin” and I can’t help but think he’s trying his best to get the cast to act as if they’ve just stepped out of a silent film here. The acting is quite unlike many of his other films I’ve seen, if memory serves. So there’s that.

Of course, what you do watch Rollin films for is the surrealistic imagery and beautiful cinematography and this one is no exception. There are some wonderful shot compositions in this, especially where architecture and the human form meet and, as I remarked to someone when I was looking at this one again, you can tell straight away from looking at any frame in the movie that Rollin directed this. It’s beautiful and it looks really good on the US Blu Ray for Redemption/Kino Lorber.

Also, about this wonderful transfer... this one is touted as an extended directors cut and I did feel that there was extra length to this version than the last time I watched it (in the wonderful Encore boxed edition DVD... which had more extras on it but, like I said, I think this version is longer). Also, again if memory serves, this is probably the one non-porn movie that Rollin made which has the most female nudity and sex in it... even more so in an extended masturbation sequence from Tina at the end of this one. So there’s that if you want it (I certainly do but, that’s just part of the Rollin experience for me).

A couple of things which stood out for me which kinda seemed wrong were...

Okay, so the score is credited to Pierre Raph but I reckon there are also some old library cues in their because, especially near the start, it seems to belong more in a 1930s-50s film, it seemed to me. It certainly didn’t seem to marry up so well with the style of the images in some scenes so, yeah, it’s probably a deliberate ploy to bring it back to the serials or silents (there are some solo piano cues in strange places too) so... well, it is what it is.

Another thing is that one of the patrons in the pub has a beautiful figurine of Bela Lugosi as Dracula (the only time a vampire, Rollin’s stock in trade, gets a look in here) but, yeah, you know, the setting of this film certainly pre-dates Bela’s time on stage and screen as Dracula (and probably pre-dates cinema too, for that matter). And there are apparently a fair few anachronistic objects scattered around the place that I didn’t notice but, yeah, I’m not going to quibble.

Once again, with The Demoniacs, Rollin delivers a heady cocktail of bad acting, nudity, surrealism and great compositional beauty to the table. In other words, he brings ‘true cinema’ and I will certainly be revisiting this film a few more times in my life, if all goes to plan. And this US Blu Ray edition is certainly a nice version of it for sure. Grab this one while it’s still in print.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

The Alpha Incident

Take The A Strain

The Alpha Incident
USA 1978 Directed by Bill Rebane
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: An incident or two of spoilers.

Well, I finally saw a Bill Rebane movie that I really liked. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite cheaply made but, since not a great deal of large budget stuff happens, it doesn’t matter if we don’t see any of it on screen because this kind of script is perfect for low budget.

The film starts off with a credits sequence over footage of blood cells, cueing you in straight away that this is going to be one of those viral movies like The Andromeda Strain (reviewed here) or The Satan Bug (reviewed here). Indeed, like The Andromeda Strain, this particular type of virus comes from space, specifically brought back from Mars via a Martian probe. A team of scientists are studying it in a lab and trying to figure out what causes it to kill their various rats and mice, in some instances forcing their brains out through their heads. About a fifth of the action takes place here, crosscutting from the main focus of the story and back to these labs every so often but, once again it is man’s folly which brings about the ‘incident’ of the title (although what the heck ‘Alpha’ is supposed to be isn’t really made clear... I couldn’t find mention of it in the movie).

The film even has a real old-school Hollywood star in it, in the form of Ralph Meeker, who you may remember in such parts as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in the outstanding Kiss Me Deadly, or as Kolchak’s buddy in the original TV movie of The Night Stalker. He was just recovering from some kind of heart attack when he made this so he doesn’t do much more than sit around, get up and talk a little while using a load of facial expressions for the most part... but that’s fine. That’s pretty much everyone’s role and, that’s part of the beauty of the film.

Anyway, the majority of the martian virus is being transferred by train to another lab for military experimentation, so it’s shunted into a siding by a small town railway station one morning. However, what the government guard on the train didn’t realise is that one of the curious train guards, played by George ‘Buck’ Flower, allowed his curiosity to get the better of him and he snuck a look at the mysterious cargo, accidentally breaking it and absorbing the virus through the broken glass lodged in his hand. Still not knowing what it is, he greets and has contact with the three workers in the station’s office the next morning and then, when the government guard, who may or may not be infected, finds out, he quarantines the place and the government evacuates the town and puts the national guard out. The government guy wounds one of the three, to stop him from leaving and also wounds Flower, who manages to make it into the surrounding forest to die.

And from here on in, the film becomes an intense, claustrophobic study of four people... the old timer (Meeker), the obnoxious one, the sexy lady and the government’s man... as they are forced to be in lockdown together. Later on, as new things are understood about the virus from the scientists working around the clock to find an antidote, it transpires that the thing activates and kills you when you fall asleep (which may or may not be a nice nod to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers). So the army send a helicopter to drop off coffee and amphetamines and, yeah, things get intense with the four people, who happen to find themselves in a Bill Rebane film... and, as I mentioned in my reviews of Rebane’s Monster-A-Go-Go (reviewed here) and Invasion From Inner Earth (reviewed here), Rebane seems to be all about mutual dislike and confrontation.

The film even has some really nice cinematography throughout too (probably from the director or one of his family) and includes some nice frame compositions. Such as a wonderful moment when two scientists are talking halfway up a stairwell. We see them from the side, framed in a kind of artificial diamond shape made from the tops and bottoms of the flights of stairs above and below them. It looks pretty good.

Or another moment when two of the men at the station are having an argument just outside the office. As they verbally spar in the foreground, we can see Ralph Meeker through the glass door quietly observing them from inside, his head perfectly framed in the top panel of the door.

There’s also a wonderful scene in a laboratory in the third part of the film where the colours are all slats of oranges and reds, which really lift the humdrum nature of the scientist sequences at this point.

Somehow, through all of this, the director manages to squeeze in a shot of Jenny, the female member of the station office workers, played by Carol Irene Newell, as she undresses and, believe it or not given the scenario, shoots a sex scene with her in it too. I guess it’s as good as any way to stay awake although, she seems a bit reluctant, to tell the truth.

And if you’ve read this far... here’s where the spoilers reside so, if you’re looking to see this anytime soon, skip the last couple of paragraphs. Fair warning.

Unlike some of Bill Rebane’s earlier movies, which often had a small but positive silver lining behind the ending... this movie is unflinchingly pessimistic and bleak in its outlook. Meeker is the first to go and suddenly throws a fit after he doses off, followed by a nice practical effects shot of his rubberised head with its eyeballs popping out and his brain making its way out the back of his skull (this is the most graphic I’ve seen Bill Rebane get, thus far). This is followed by the sad and lonely Jenny blowing her brains out in her car and then, when the government man and one deliberately obnoxious character are the only two left, the audience gets the news that the government is giving up on them as no cure has been found. So they helicopter drop off an ‘antidote’ for the people, not realising they’d not all take it at once. The obnoxious fellow does and they find out, to their dismay via his death, that the antidote was a cyanide capsule. Then the government man falls asleep but then, the next morning, he wakes up unscathed and he realises he was never infected by the virus himself... which is a bit of a waste because, well, lets just say that fans of George R, Romero’s classic Night Of The Living Dead will recognise that this has pretty much the same ending and leave it at that. So, yeah, pretty bleak.

All in all though, I have to say I really enjoyed this one. The film even has an original score this time around by Richard A. Girvin. He puts one foot wrong early on with some overly comic music for when Flowers goes to investigate the cargo in the train but, mostly it’s very cool, understated work which goes well with the chilling tone of the movie.

As I write these words (probably at least six months* before this review gets up on the site... I have a bit of a backlog of reviews to publish) I’m still in the newly extended coronavirus half-lockdown shilly shally which the government have lengthened rather than put us in proper lookdown and closing the borders. So The Alpha Incident was kind of a comforting watch in terms of having a situation I could directly relate to. Ralph Meeker’s character sums it up nicely when he’s talking to the government man... “I sure never expected anything like this’d happen in my life.” Yep, I think that goes for all of us in the world at the moment, to be honest. The Alpha Incident is a really cool movie and I’m happy to have been acquainted with it, thanks to Arrow’s Weird Wisconsin - The Bill Rebane Collection. I hope some of the others I haven’t watched yet are as good as this one.

*More like 18 months, it turns out

Monday 6 March 2023

The Third Day

Sea Salt Of The Earth

The Third Day
2020 UK/USA
Episodes 1-3 - Summer (aired September 2020)
Live 12 hour event - Autumn (aired October 2020)
Episodes 4-5 - Winter (aired October 2020)

Warning: Some spoilers.

I first heard about The Third Day from listening to the Colours Of The Dark podcast during the pandemic and was looking forward to watching it for 2021’s Halloween week reviews, which were dedicated that year to folk horror, in honour of the then upcoming All The Haunts Be Ours folk horror box set from Severin. Alas, once I’d watched it I decided against that because, as far as the main parts of the show are concerned, nothing really supernatural happens which can’t also be explained away scientifically, therefore putting the series into the realm of drama or, at best, thriller. However, something in the live stream, one take, 12 hour real time broadcast bridging episode, airing between the two halves of the series and called Autumn, convinced me that something ‘out of this world’ possibly did happen and so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt as far as the genre goes. Because, at the very least, it does use some of the tropes of the horror film and, like I said, Autumn just about lets people get away with pigeon-holing it into that genre.

Episodes 1 - 3 Summer
The basic plot set up is that Sam, played by Jude Law, is living with grief for his dead son and he is going through a yearly ritual where he throws one of the boy’s t-shirts into the stream in which his body was allegedly found. The stream is near to the small island of Osea in Essex, which is separated from the mainland by a causeway which disappears for many hours in the high tide, thus cutting off the island from the rest of the outside world... via roadworthy vehicles, at least. He has done something bad, probably criminal in his past (which you will find out all about, slowly revealed over the course of the show). He sees someone in the forest, a teenage girl, attempting to kill herself. He rescues her and drives her to her people on Osea but then gets caught up in the local politics of two warring factions on the island, many of whom see him as the new leader of the community, due to a link to the island from his past which Sam is not yet aware of.

Even though he has a wife and two surviving kids, Sam gets accidentally hooked up with Jess, played by Katherine Waterston... and ends up staying in the local inn run by a husband and wife played by Paddy Considine and Emily Watson. However, strange things are afoot on Osea, which sees itself as the heart of the world where, if harmony is lost on the island, it affects the rest of the planet negatively. Which means you get all the folk horror tropes like strange people worshipping a strange religion, unusual religious experiments and the ‘outsider’, meaning Sam in this case (although he’s not as much of an outsider as he thinks he is) not being able to get off the island during the three days he finds himself trapped there (almost like an episode of The Prisoner, in that respect).

And it’s nicely paced, by which I mean it’s slowly paced with long shots full of fluid camera movement and tremendous acting from all the main cast as the mystery of the island unfolds, culminating in a turning point at the end of episode three. For the whole time the ‘possibly supernatural’ moments are kept at arms length by the writers and directors. An example would be an absolutely astonishingly well made moment when Jess is leading Sam away from a village festival and into the forest... as they start walking you can’t help notice that various villagers have started floating in the air and, by the time Sam’s realised this, he too is being guided, floating through the night. However, for every supernatural yin there’s a possible scientific yang... in this case the fact that Sam and Jess just dropped acid before this scene and therefore what we are seeing may not be what is really happening.

And then we get to Autumn. This special episode was broadcast live from the island in one take (although they apparently managed to sneak camera changes in there somehow... although how you could do that without using things like travelling mattes is anybody’s guess) and takes place over 12 hours from the morning to the evening. And, it’s an absolute technical marvel as the, now extremely slow moving camera, rambles in and out of various character’s lives throughout the island as Sam has to go through a set of trials similar to the Stations Of The Cross before dying, being buried in a grave (which we spent at least an hour watching Jude Law dig himself in the rain)... and then rising from the dead. And this moment is where, as far as I’m concerned, the show gives itself away as possibly being a horror show as opposed to just straight drama... the supernatural is obviously present unless there’s some way a human can survive that kind of treatment.

And watching this special event episode is a bit of a trial too, it has to be said. I like slow paced movies a lot but this one doesn’t have much in the way of plot and, frankly, it could all have been done in one hour long episode. So while some of it is absolutely gripping, quite a lot of it isn’t. Do I need to see a guy eating a sandwich for quarter of an hour, or Jude Law drag a wooden boat across the island for a couple of hours? Probably not but, while I didn’t need to be watching a close up shot of Jude Law taking a nap for half an hour, he certainly needed the rest... what’s come before this scene and what comes after it is pretty punishing and hugely demanding physically and, I’m pretty sure that’s Jude Law's actual blood seen in certain scenes and not a special effect.

Either way, I’m sure some people will love the bits that I found hard to sit through in this special episode and, vice versa but, either way, it doesn’t detract from this being an absolutely historical achievement in live television, for sure. Most of the mistakes made in it... and I’m sure there must be a fair few... are such that people wouldn’t notice but I am glad a major mistake happens in a festival scene where a guy jumps into a vat of mud, in which the villagers are all getting re-Christened in and absolutely covers the camera lens (much more than the rain does, which only obscures sections of the screen at various points). It is at this moment when we see a hand come out with a succession of cloths to wipe the lens clear so, yeah, that’s a nice moment. Fans of the pop group Florence And The Machine might also like to view this 12 hour episode as Florence Welch is one of the lead actors in this one and she even does a little bit of singing (although I’ve not heard the band myself so I don’t know if her style is at all recognisable here).

Episodes 4 - 6 Winter
And then on to Winter, which at first seems totally unconnected to the previous three episodes, focussing on a new character entering the village... Helen, played by Naomie Harris, who has some pedigree in the horror genre after her early female lead in 28 Days Later but whom most people will remember for her version of Miss Moneypenny from the Daniel Craig era of James Bond films. She turns up with her two daughters to stay in a place she has pre-booked, which she says is for a holiday to celebrate her eldest daughter’s birthday but which, in fact, turns out to be a pretext. But I won’t say why because that really would be a spoiler... admittedly one I figured out early into the fourth episode but the quick reveal at the end of the fourth installment is nicely done and I don’t want to wreck it for you. Let’s just say that the Winter episodes don’t turn out to be totally unconnected to the Summer story arc at all and leave it at that.

Again, this block of episodes uses various folk horror tropes and treats us to visions of a dead and gutted half fish/half squirrel and a crowned sheep sitting on a throne with its uterus sliced open to reveal a human baby doll... but like the first three episodes, always has an alternative explanation implied as to what is really going on. For instance, is a vision seen by Helen in the final episode a real thing or is it because her body is going into hypothermic shock at this stage... who can tell?

What I can tell you is, asides perhaps for the 12 hour single take episode, which doesn’t have too much audible dialogue and is mostly filmed in long shot, I’d have to say that the entire series, with it’s allusions to folk horror spookiness, is pretty intriguing and The Third Day is a nice piece of televisual art, for sure. Certainly one to check out if you are a fan of TV shows of this ilk but not something I could honestly say I could sit through again unless it was given a nice Blu Ray release at some point, which I somehow doubt will be coming, it’s a shame to say. 

Sunday 5 March 2023

Cocaine Bear

What’s It About, Del Boy?

Cocaine Bear
USA 2023
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
UK cinema release print

To probably quote many other critics, I’m sure, Cocaine Bear is a movie which very much does what it says on the tin. It was a film I mainly got interested in from the buzz surrounding the title (I had a similar attraction to the movie Snakes On A Plane for the same reason) and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Also, I don’t really know Elisabeth Banks as an actress but I did like the previous movie she directed (and starred in), the 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels (reviewed here).

Okay, so call me naive (I’m sure a lot of you will call me that and worse) but I went into Cocaine Bear not realising it was an out and out comedy. I mean, I knew it was based... or in this case perhaps ‘inspired’ is a better word... on a true incident in 1985 and I knew there was never going to be a shred of reality or truth to the way the real life events were depicted. Two things are true... one is that, while dumping drugs out of a plane, a man’s parachute failed to open and he died from the fall. Two, a bear ate a quantity of the cocaine he dropped. Those are the only two things that this movie shares with the actual incident, as far as I can tell. In reality, the bear died from the consumption of the narcotics within five minutes (and is now stuffed and displayed somewhere).

This film is about the rampage of the bear as she goes to protect her two cubs from interfering humans and, mostly, tries to find more cocaine to consume. It’s also about various disconnected bunches of humans who find themselves in the forest (or park as they are in the US, from what I understand, not bearing any resemblance to UK parks so much... at least not the ones I know). Of these humans, my ‘favourite performances of the movie’ shout out go to Kerri Russell as a mother trying to find her teenage daughter, Alden (Han Solo) Ehrenreich as a grieving member of a drug cartel who has been sent to the forest to find the drugs along with his friend played by O'Shea Jackson Jr. and, last but by no means least, Scott Seiss... who I just found out is exactly the person I thought he reminded me of in only his second ever part in a movie. Seiss, it turns out, is the man who does those ‘angry retail guy’ sketches and posts them on YouTube and twitter... and yeah, this guy definitely deserves to be in more movies after his hilarious performance in this, I would say.

Lastly, Ray Liota is also in this film and he gets a dedication in the end credits (stay for two post credits scenes, by the way, if you want to catch every drop of the movie). Ray plays the nasty guy who wants his drugs back and sends his boy to get them. It was his last movie role before he died, one week after recording his ADR for this one.  

And it took a while to grow on me, truth be told. As I said, I was expecting more of a modern, retro exploitation film than a comedy and comedy certainly isn’t my favourite movie genre (unless it’s got The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen in it, you’re going to have to work hard to get me to stay). So for the initial set up, I was less than comfortable with a film that was obviously being played for laughs with some quite broad comedy but, after a while, I began to get on board with it. After all, it’s competently put together (with a caveat I’ll get to) and it’s well acted by a whole host of comic performers... it’s too long to list all of them here. For me though, I really got into it when the emergency Ambulance showed up with Scott Seiss on board as one of the paramedics, partnered up by the equally excellent  Kahyun Kim. The scenes which follow their arrival are quite funny and pulled me into things, for sure.

It is a fun movie and, yeah, I was rooting for a lot of the humans to survive it. That being said, I thought the film was edited in a peculiar manner. There are gaps where it’s implied what’s happened in scenes cross-cutting between sets of characters rather than seeing the actual things happening, making almost unnatural jumps in the narrative. Now, I really don’t mind not being shown everything and filling in the gaps for myself without being spoonfed data but, I dunno, a fast paced comedy movie seems to need those kinds of moments more, I would have thought. My first thought was that it was a level of competence, or lack of, in terms of what ended up on screen and my initial assumption as I was watching was that the crew hadn’t been able to capture all the footage they wanted. However, there’s a really odd editing decision later on where a flashback to a scene we didn’t see is suddenly cut into a conversation (leaving me completely baffled for a minute as to what I was watching) and I realised that coverage wasn’t the problem, this was an artistic decision on the part of the director. So, yeah, it’s not the way I would have gone with the movie but the film doesn’t lose much clarity from this approach and it works just fine, I guess.

All in all, after about a half an hour into the movie, I have to say that I had a pretty good time with Cocaine Bear and would certainly recommend it to my friends who like comedies. I’m still in two minds as to whether I’ll follow this up with a Blu Ray purchase a little way down the line (maybe when it hits the sales). But, a good evening at the cinema at any rate and, if drug fuelled bear rampages played for comic effect are your thing, you will definitely want to give this one a go.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

The Case Of The Black Cat

The Paws That Refreshes

The Case Of The Black Cat
USA 1936
Directed by
William C. McGann and Alan Crosland
Warner Archive DVD Region 1

The Case Of The Black Cat is the fifth of the six Perry Mason feature films made by Warner Brothers in the 1930s but the entire regular cast, such as they were, including Perry Mason himself, were changed. Mason is played in this one by Ricardo Cortez, who had already played another famous fictional hero, Sam Spade, in the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (the third version had Humphrey Bogart in the role, of course). He’s actually quite good as Perry Mason in this but it helps considerably that this is a much straighter adaptation to the spirit of the source material and hasn’t been turned into some kind of 1930s screwball comedy like three of the previous four, which starred Warren William as the lawyer.

In addition we have his secretary Della Street now being played by June Travis and Garry Owen as Mason’s detective Paul Drake (now no longer being referred to as ‘Spudsy’ in the films). In the last movie, The Case Of The Velvet Claws (reviewed here), Perry and Della had been married but, I guess the studios expected the public to have very short memories in those days because, although this movie was released in the same year, there is absolutely no indication that they are married here and it’s obviously been dropped in favour of being more like the novels.

And it’s a convoluted affair where Perry Mason takes on a cat as his client, on behalf of its owner who is one of the people soon murdered in the film which, because he has the cat on retainer, allows Mason to both discover, in one case... and uncover, a number of murders (kind of) and make sure that he can build enough evidence to defend the innocent to pursue the guilty parties.

So yeah, the film is quite serious in tone but the - perhaps too smooth - Cortez makes a good go of it, although he really does seem to be a little too over confident and easily amused as he goes about his business. I have to say that, although Warren William’s version was absolutely nothing like Perry Mason, I kind of preferred him. That being said, I’m pretty sure this is probably much closer to the character in the books and so it’s a good move that the series of films tried to get itself back on track, although author Erle Stanley Gardner similarly disliked Cortez in the role, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Cortez only played the character this once.

Unlike all but the first of the movies, this one actually does go much nearer to the structure of the books, with the last quarter of an hour or more of the picture being devoted to the big court case where Mason is defending a young man who has been framed by someone who, it turns out, wasn’t even the murderer. This includes a nice twist moment in which a mystery witness is arrested and produced half way through the trial, something which Perry is as surprised at as the rest of the people in the trial but which he takes advantage of, to get the case thrown out of court. It also gives him his next client and, it has to be said, is something of a twist reveal which I’m very pleased to say, I actually didn’t see coming.

The film is not badly shot but, again, lacks the boldness and experimentation of the Michael Curtiz directed entry in the series, The Case Of The Curious Bride (reviewed here). That being said, it’s certainly not too complicated to follow the edits, is clearly lit and is easy on the eye. I did have trouble keeping up with the plot in one or two instances but this was down to the convoluted nature of the storyline on this one, rather than the way it was presented, I think. The acting is all fine too, with the chemistry between Mason and Street being quite well played, although Della’s not in it as much as she could have been. It also sees the introduction of one of the more regular characters in the books from what I’m told... the District Attorney Hamilton Burger, played here by Guy Usher. Again, like the other new recruits in the cast, he would only play his part the once.

The only other thing of note which I will throw in here is the fact that the cat in the film isn’t actually a black cat. It’s white and partially black and certainly not what one would think of as a black cat. Reading up on it, I’ve found out that the story this one is actually based on is The Case Of The Caretaker’s Cat so... yeah... why the change to Black Cat in the title? Especially since, you know, it’s clearly not a black cat. The answer is, apparently, that the film was released around Halloween of 1936 and the studio were trying to cash in on the ‘witching season’ to push their film. Well, okay maybe... it’s as good an explanation as any I guess and so I’ll swallow that one until a better explanation comes along which, let’s be honest, isn’t likely to turn up now.

And that’s me done with The Case Of The Black Cat... not a bad picture and certainly it’s pretty entertaining for the hour and six minute running time. I have only one more of these left to watch and then I’m done with the entire run of Perry Mason cinema movies, it would seem. So I’ll get on to that one as soon as possible.