Friday, 2 December 2016

Cloverfield



Clovers and Shakers

Cloverfield
USA 2008 Directed by Matt Reeves
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B


Cloverfield was a virally marketed, big monster movie directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J. J. Abrams. With the sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane (reviewed by me here) out earlier in the year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay just £2 extra to grab it in a double movie set with the first film and upgrade my original to Blu Ray. I’d loved the first movie, as much as I enjoyed the sequel, and I wanted to rewatch the sequel with this first one still fresh in my mind. It has to be said, the last act of the sequel is making a lot more sense to me now I’ve refamiliarised myself with the original masterpiece.

The film is a hand held shot affair, with Hollywood in 2008 finally beginning to capitalise on the first person shooter genre of camerawork which was repopularised by The Blair Witch Project, nine years earlier. So seeing what is a big, special effects extravaganza of a big monster and various other nasty creatures rampaging and destroying Manhattan had a lot of novelty value when it came out... it was the first time, I think, when we’d seen fairly large, broad, epic tales captured in this POV stylistic vein.

Now, this is one of those movies which seems to split people straight down the middle between loving it and hating it and... I have to say I’ve always loved it. I know one of the criticisms from people is that the film takes a while to get going, with the character Hud, played by an actor I recently saw in Deadpool (reviewed here), T. J. Miller, documenting what is supposed to be a going away party for his best friend Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David). Rob is leaving New York to take on a job based in Japan, which is a nice little nod to the Japanese influence on this movie... everyone knows this is an American parody of a Toho kaiju movie, right? Then things go to hell and Rob, his friend Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), Hud (and that character name is obviously a nice, little jokey reference to the abbreviation Heads Up Display, due to the way the movie is shot) and Hud’s ‘crush’ who is ignoring him, Marlene (played so well by Lizzy Caplan, who is the ‘lady horseman’ in Now You See Me 2 - reviewed here), go off to rescue Rob’s estranged ex, Beth (Odette Annable), who is trapped in her apartment in the area of New York where this monster is attacking.

Now one of the problems I’ve heard people cite for this movie is that it takes so long to get going. Yes, it does take a while to get into the action, I admit... especially for such a short film... but I think it’s pretty necessary, actuallly, because it introduces you to the characters and helps create a bond so that you’ll worry about them whenever they’re put in peril. It’s a standard movie making tactic and I think it works especially well here. Especially since the ‘found footage’ tape that’s been recorded over still has traces of the previous footage, which tells the back story of Rob and Beth and is a nicely subtle counterpoint to underline and reenforce emotional values when it flickers back from underneath the top surface, when the video is paused for whatever reason and some tape presumably winds on. It’s well handled and I think modern audiences really need to be a lot more patient than they are today.

The film really does get going once it starts up with the fantastical element, however, and the great scene from the trailer where the Statue of Liberty’s severed head lands just a few metres away, in the street, from our main protagonists is still a great effect... although, apparently, nobody was willing to believe the real Statue of Liberty’s head is actually smaller, so the effects company were forced to make it a lot bigger than actual size for the version of the scene in the movie.

There’s a lot of frantic camerawork in the film, it has to be said, but at least, due to the nature of the beast, there’s a lot less visible editing going on (although I’m sure there must be a lot of hidden moving wipe edits during many of the scenes. There are also some great disaster and horror movie tropes and set pieces dotted throughout the movie... like the terrified swarms of rats in the abandoned subway running away from something our main protagonists, who are walking the tunnels, don’t see until one of them has the bright idea to switch on the night vision on the video camera. Hud faithfully documents everything he can for as long as he’s able to but... I won’t say too much about that right now... spoilers.

Another scene reminiscent of a disaster movie is where our crew climb up the insides of one skyscraper to try and gain access to the other skyscraper which is resting against it, half fallen, in an attempt to rescue Beth. Lots of great scenes here to be honest and the final fate of one of the characters, Marlene, adds a whole new level of intrigue to just what it is we could be dealing with here... something I had hoped would be picked up on in the sequel but... yeah, that one went in a whole other direction, for sure.

The film is riveting and exciting, with amazing performances from all the actors and some deftly handled transitions into one set piece after another. Alas, due to the nature of the film, there is no underscore but it does, during the end credits, have a beautiful end title piece called Roar!, composed by Michael Giacchino and it’s yet another reference to the film’s influences in that it’s very much an homage to the old Akira Ifikube music to the original Godzilla movie, Gojira, from 1954. A beautiful piece and I can’t believe this track still goes unissued on a CD somewhere... although it is available on iTunes, if you want to hear something really cool, in the vein of those good old kaiju eiga scores. 

And that’s about it. Cloverfield is a film that I personally believe is a much more subtle blend of set ups and styles than people give it credit for. Certainly the best hand held shot giant monster movie to date (well, yeah, of course... I think it’s probably the only one, so far) and certainly something which is maybe a little more of a big spectacle cinema experience... which is ironic, given the nature of the format it’s trying to mimic. However you see it though, it’s very much a hard recommendation from me and monster movie lovers should find it an interesting watch. I much preferred it to something like the two official US made Godzilla movies (to date) and it’s something I will be watching again at some point. Definitely a lot of rip and loads of roar to be found in this rip-roaring spectacle.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Doc Savage - Glare of the Gorgon



Stone With The Wind

Doc Savage - Glare of the Gorgon
by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
ISBN: 978-1618272386


When a man goes to the 86th Floor of Doc Savage’s skyscraper to enlist the help of the man of bronze, he suddenly shows signs of distress and collapses dead. His brain has been turned to stone and an icon of the Gorgon is found, burned onto the corridor’s wall in green.

So begins another of Will Murray’s more-hit-than-miss adventures of Doc Savage, writing under the old Street and Smith house name Kenneth Robeson, once more. This one, it has to be said, is absolutely dynamite but I may be reacting to this particular humdinger of a tale in this way because it’s dealing with my favourite period of Lester Dent’s* writing of the character. Specifically, his early career. It’s set not long after the events of the December 1934 tale The Annihilist and it reminded me a lot of those very early Doc Savage novels I read whenever I could find them. Thus adding fuel to my flame that, as I’ve stated in past reviews of Murray’s work with this character, the author changes his writing style subtly to make it fit in with how the original writer might have written it at that point in his career.

Doc was a lot more of a simpler character then, of course, but even at this point of his career, specifically in the aforementioned tale The Annihilist (if I’m remembering correctly), certain moral issues of his special Crime Clinic, the secret place where Doc cures his enemies of their evil nature by performing brain surgery to take away their memories before rehabilitating them and sending them back into the world as honest citizens, were already being called into question. Murray picks up on this an reiterates it in certain parts of this cracking adventure yarn, even bringing back a policeman who is ‘in the know’ from that earlier Dent novel, here.

It’s interesting the way he uses the dialogue in this story to place it this early in Doc’s career. Such as his utterance “Come brothers, let us explore”... the term ‘brothers’ not being a turn of phrase I remember the character keeping for long in the originals. The characterisations of various characters in this book are very rich too... perhaps more fitting to the longer novels of Docs early career as opposed to the shorter novellas, due to page cuts in the original pulp magazines, after a certain point in the character’s life. Like he has time to imbue everyone with their own small personality sketch rather than just hit the action without consequence. For example, a couple of crooked henchmen in the early stages of the novel called Blackie and Blue are almost a 1930s equivalent of Ian Fleming’s Wint and Kidd hit men from his novel Diamonds Are Forever and Murray’s command of the prose used to describe these two was so strong that I assumed they would be around for the whole book when, in fact, their criminal career as far as Doc Savage and his aides are concerned, is finished very quickly.

Those early 30s novels could also be quite brutal and dark when they wanted to be and, even though Doc himself didn’t believe in killing, this didn’t exclude the addition of a very dark thread that could be pulled when things got rough and Murray has some of this darkness injected into this novel at various points... most pointedly when a regular character actually commits suicide over certain facts of the case and then the real criminals use this death to muddy the waters and point the finger of suspicion elsewhere. I can genuinely say i didn’t expect something that happens to one of the characters in this and so, as far as I’m concerned, if you can catch me off guard then you’re doing something right.

One again, the current Savage chronicler is having a lot of fun with the characters and, I think I mentioned in an earlier review of his books that he has now become extremely poetic when finding new ways to describe the unconscious trilling sound that Doc makes when he’s figured something out or found something to be genuinely puzzling. In this one Murray describes it thusly: “A searching wind slipping serpentine over shifting sand dunes could conceivably produce such a susurration.” This is getting nicely surreal now but certainly entertaining, it has to be said.

My one real question about the novel is in the fact that two of Doc’s aids, Renny the engineer and Johnny the archaeologist, are absent from the shenanigans here. Now I know Dent used to regularly strip down the crew in the novels, presumably because there were too many people to have to try and include in the dynamics of the story, but I didn’t think Dent started doing this until much later in the day in terms of the decades he was writing these things. However, I could be wrong and, even if I’m not, it doesn’t really matter. A cracking yarn is a cracking yarn and not much else matters as long as it all makes sense and the continuity is good.

Murray even manages to get in an element to the story that I had forgotten was sometimes an ingredient of some of those very early days of the character. Namely, being hounded by the police who mistakenly believe that either him or one of his aides are to blame for whatever villainy is afoot. In this one, Doc Savage is being hunted for the last quarter or so of the book by the Chicago police, who believe he might have something to do with the death of the various gangland characters who are having their brains turned to stone by the mysterious gorgon of the title. I don’t seem to remember any of Murray’s earlier Doc Savage novels including this kind of ‘police VS Doc’ element so I’m really pleased he resurrected it for this novel, taking place at a time in the bronze adventurer’s career of ‘righting wrongs’ when it would still be a credible incident.

And there you have it. A short review for Glare Of The Gorgon, another near perfect Doc Savage adventure from the creative mind that is the new Kenneth Robeson, Will Murray. I know he’s started writing new Tarzan books now but he does such a good job with Lester Dent’s creation that I hope he still finds his way to writing more Doc adventures. In the meantime, he’s written the first stand alone (in a novel format, at least) adventure of Doc’s cousin, Pat Savage. So, yeah, you can expect a review forthcoming on that one sometime in the New Year, for sure.


*Who wrote the majority of the 181 original Doc Savage novels under the Kenneth Robeson byline.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Paterson



Solo Killer Patters On

Paterson
2016 France/Germany/USA
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
UK cinema release print.


Paterson is one of those quietly paced, unassuming masterpieces that Jim Jarmusch releases to the world with a minimum of fuss and which then continue to haunt you for months or years at a time.
I’m rarely disappointed with this director, a man I’ve been watching since I first saw his third feature, the excellent Down By Law (reviewed here), when it debuted on the Alex Cox presented BBC2 TV season of Moviedrome, back in 1990. He is one of the key directors of the 1980s independent American cinema movement (if such a thing really exists) along with other notables such as Hal Hartley and, to a certain extent, Steven Soderbergh.

This movie has funny timing for me because, only the other day, I was contemplating the current state of the ‘indie film movement’ and was thinking that a lot of those kinds of directors either stay in their particular artistic niche and continue to make very similar films with declining profits (because they are no longer the ‘new face on the scene’) or they start making bigger, more commercial films for major Hollywood studios and kind of accidentally stop doing what they were best at and going for the dollars. Either way is a valid choice and I can’t blame anyone for taking either route but it struck me at the time that Jarmusch is, to my mind and with my limited exposure to the field, unique in that he seems to be making more and more commercially accessible movies like Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Broken Flowers and Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here) while at the same time making them in a way which is uniquely a part of his identity and without selling out his artistic leanings as part of the process.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how bankable he’s seen by studio heads. The opening night screening of Paterson I went to had maybe ten people in it but... he’s certainly doing a lot more things which seem to be targeted for an expanded audience expectation while still making what are, frankly, some of the more beautiful and poetic works of modern cinema. Those last three films I’ve name checked, for instance, have much less of the sense of not particularly being about anything than a lot of his earlier films did and they have a kind of story arc to them.

Paterson is no exception in that it’s both an easily accessible movie with a current top star (Adam Driver, who is pretty hot right now after playing Kilo Ren in the new Star Wars movies) and it’s also a great piece of cinema. That being said, it does putter along quietly with no clear story arc and in this way, among others, it’s reminiscent of Jarmusch’s earlier works.

The film is about a week in the life of one man, named Paterson, who lives with his girlfriend and her intimidating British bulldog. There’s no clear story arc at all... the movie comprising little incidents and highlights without building into something that even approaches a classic or even modern Hollywood sense of cause and effect film-making.

Paterson, the man, is a bus driver who lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey and who drives a bus which says Paterson. Every day we see his internal body clock waking him up at around 6.15am and we follow parts of his day and his regular routine as he kisses his girlfriend, eats his breakfast cereal, drives his bus, composes poetry in his head for writing in his notebook on his lunch hour, walks back home, takes the dog for a walk and then leaves him tied up while he has a pint of beer at his local bar. Each day is the same routine but the beauty of it, which is part of the genius of Jim Jarmusch, is that all the little incidents and differences to each day are contrasted against each other and affect the way that the central character, and the audience, experiences Paterson’s daily journey through life. So little things that are ‘off’ slightly, like him waking up a quarter of an hour late, give us a window into his mental state, to a certain extent, or at least allows us to make deductions about him... if we're that way inclined.

Adam Driver is an actor who I really didn’t like when I saw him in Star Wars - The Force Awakens (reviewed here). He seemed to be a weak villain at first but he kind of grew on me on subsequent viewings and when I saw him again in Midnight Special (reviewed here) I realised there was more to him than I’d at first realised and that his almost understated style of playing a character might not, at first, seem the best choice for a Star Wars character but who, I suspect, will pay dividends later on in that particular branch of the saga. Here he proves himself a perfect Jarmusch actor, quietly strolling through the scenes, a lot of them played silently as they are pitched against his voice over as he tries out new balances of words and writes poetry in his head or in his diary... something which Jarmusch chooses to also illustrate via superimposed typography on screen as the words flow from Paterson’s creative mind. Yeah, this is yet another of a fair few movies this year, it seems, where the directors' have chosen to throw up text on the screen to illustrate certain things in their movie and which I’ve both moaned about and celebrated in equal measure, depending on how much they detracted or added to the immersion factor. Jarmusch, I’m glad to say, handles this element very well and it’s not at all gimmicky or distracting as it was in, say, The Shallows (reviewed here).

Paterson’s girlfriend, Laura,  is played by Golshifteh Farahani who is both absolutely wonderful and adorable as a quirky, live at home companion. Each day she is up to something passionate and, possibly, damaging to Paterson’s home but she certainly has a quirky charm. She spends a lot of time painting... the walls, curtains, her dresses as she is wearing them and Paterson returns each day to some new surprise or change of scenery. There’s a beautiful design moment near the end of the movie where she has been going through a phase of painting black and white circular patterns and lines and when she is in the kitchen preparing her cup cakes for sale at a local event, the cupcakes are patterned in exactly the same kinds of monotone designs as everything else such as her dress and the walls and curtains in the kitchen. There’s a shot in here where it all comes together in an abundance of visual saturation and which we see Driver’s Paterson is fully aware of,  just as we are as an audience. It’s a great little sequence and one of many beautiful little moments which make up the film.

There’s a whole host of great actors in here, of course, as you would expect from the kinds of films that Jarmusch makes... they need to be good not to stick out like a sore thumb in this kind of piece. Everyone gets a little moment to shine, not least of which are a couple of teenagers who are on Paterson’s bus. I knew they both looked really familiar but I couldn’t place them as the scene played out. It wasn’t until later, when I looked them up, that I found they were the two child leads from Wes Anderson’s excellent Moonrise Kingdom (reviewed here) and it was just so nice seeing them working again here. Three thumbs up there for a great cameo casting choice.

The film also, to a certain extent, shows Jarmusch’s... let’s say ‘fetish’... for multicultural groups of people coming together and communicating in a way which shoots through any barriers and expresses a truly post modern society of which we are all a part. Everyone seems to be speaking the same language in this one so there’s not so much of  an emphasis on ‘alienation breeds communication’ as there has been in some of this director’s works but he still champions the ideal of a warm and fuzzy global society and I can only applaud him for that.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Paterson other than the small audience who I saw it with all seemed to love it and that many of the lighter, comedic moments in the film were, it seemed to me, well appreciated by all. And I was personally happy to find a reference to Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first" routine in this one. It’s a gentle and poetic movie which doesn’t try to hammer home any big ideas and the deftness of touch of the observations which are the building blocks of the movie will both illuminate and haunt you... staying with you, as I indicated before, long after the credits have begun to roll. Another big, hard recommend from me and another movie that proves that this particular director knows exactly what cinema is all about and is able to deliver. In other words... another Jarmusch masterpiece.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Extinction



Harmony Heir's Prey

Extinction
Spain/USA/Hungary/France 2015
Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas
Sony Region 2 DVD


Warning: Very mild spoilers... which you’ll almost certainly see coming, anyway.

Okay... this is another one I got into through the music because Varese Sarabande released the score by Sergio Moure towards the end of last year. So I waited for it to hit the cinemas over here and, of course, after a while I found out that not only hadn’t it got a big screen release in the UK, it was already on bargain bucket DVD on Amazon. So, yeah, finally got to see the movie that the cool music went with and... I was not disappointed.

Based on the novel Y Pese A Todo by Juan de Dios Garduño, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Extinction tells the story of a few surviving people after a couple of apocalyptic events hit worldwide, one of which is akin to a zombie virus. So, yeah, this is very much an I Am Legend variant in some ways. It’s got not so great word of mouth or critical celebration, it seems to me, but having watched it I have to say, it’s one of the more interesting little horror films that we’ve had released over here recently (albeit on a ‘straight to home video’ format in this country) and I really don’t think it deserves the attention, or lack thereof, that it’s been getting.

Like most good zombie films, there is no reveal as to how the zombie virus got started and we start off with a strong opening scene as civilians are being escorted by the military on a couple of buses. On that bus are Patrick (played by Matthew Fox), Jack (played by Jeffrey Donovan), Emma (played by Valeria Vereau) and Emma’s tiny baby Lu. Any fan of horror films knows a military escort on two buses with a couple of armed guards on board to protect the passengers is bound to go wrong and, as you might expect, it’s not long before the military escort are picked off and infected by flesh chomping undead and the passengers are on their own and fighting for their lives...

We then cut to nine years later and the sleepy village of Harmony.

I say sleepy village because it now has a population of only three people... Jack and Lu, who survived the bus attack from the opening sequence and, in a separate compound, Patrick and his faithful Welsh Border Collie, known as... um... dog. Good a name as any, I guess. I suppose that's four survivors, then, if you count Patrick's four legged friend. It’s clear something has happened between Jack and Patrick so that they are estranged in this manner and, although you think you can probably guess exactly what that is after you’ve seen the full, opening sequence... it’s actually not quite that variation of the events that you think must have happened. It all amounts to the same thing, though, and you’ll see that play out in one of many flashbacks as the movie continues on its, pretty interesting, path.

One thing is for sure, though, and that’s the cold and snow which these last three survivors are living in. And that’s where the existence of a second apocalyptic event is revealed to the audience. The Earth somehow managed to have a ‘big freeze’ and this, effectively, second ice age (well, it snows a bit but I guess you could define it as that) is what killed off all the zombies all those years ago. Although this doesn’t stop Jack and Patrick taking every precaution just in case, you know, someday the zombies return. Which you know they’re going to, right? Except... maybe not in the form you would expect.

It’s very much a character driven piece and the writers and directors take time to let the actors fill out their roles and allow them to live in the audience’s mind before the inevitable rug-pulling scenes kick in. Lu is now nine years old and so Jack is taking all his time educating her, worrying about her and attempting to keep her out of trouble... overcompensating for disaster in her upbringing a lot due to his own experiences. The nine year old version of the character is played by a young actress called Quinn McColgan and, it has to be said, she does amazing work in this role. The unkempt Patrick, on the other hand, keeps himself from going insane by hunting for food and by broadcasting a radio show every day... even though he knows he has no listeners. And that’s pretty much where the status quo of the movie is before... the inevitable happens.

Yes, it’s not too long before the three protagonists who are heirs to the town of Harmony fall prey to a new threat... or rather the old threat come back in new clothes. The zombies aren’t as extinct as we thought. Rather, in the almost decade that the three main characters have been surviving, the undead have evolved into a new kind of creature. Good news is that their bites aren’t infectious anymore. Once one of them chows down on you, then you won’t turn into another zombie thing... if you survive the experience, that is. Bad news is... they’re blind, albino, bestial creatures who can climb most surfaces and who hunt by sound. Not so hot then.

When an additional, fourth character comes into the mix, played by Clara Logo, and warns of the oncoming pseudo-zombie creatures, things get intense... especially when nine year old Lu is accidentally locked in the basement with at least one of the creatures...

What happens next is something I won’t spoil here but there’s more character building and emotional glue to be attended to in this quite taut story, which has a classic look in terms of the snowy streets and environment these characters inhabit. When you see Patrick with his big beard and his dog riding a snow bike and brandishing a rifle, you can’t help but think of John Carpenter’s classic remake of The Thing or the movie may remind you a little of a George A. Romero zombie movie... but with a little more snow.

The acting is great and Vivas finds a way of bringing even the most pedestrian of scenes to life with a sense of ‘something out there’ and a moving camera which, while at times annoying during some of the hand held scenes, really lends the movie an almost voyeuristic feel that this kind of subject matter really works well with. Sergio Moure’s score adds to the atmosphere when required and certainly helps effectively dramatise the situations through a specific musical palette. It’s also pretty good as a stand alone listen too, obviously, otherwise... you know... I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the film in the first place.

When all is said and done, Extinction is a well crafted and more than competent spin on post-apocalyptic horror/science fiction cinema and true fans of the genre will hopefully like this one a heck of a lot more than the critics obviously did. The relationship between Jack and Patrick isn’t as clichéd and completely obvious as the opening sequence might lead you to believe and, slowly but surely, the film reveals the real way in which events have unfolded over the years and why Jack doesn’t even want Patrick talking to him and Lu, let alone coming near his house. Definitely a solid recommendation from me and, now, I have to leave it there so I can go listen to the score again.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

High Stakes - Wild Cards 23



Frandemonium 

High Stakes - Wild Cards 23
edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass
Tor Books ISBN: 9780765335823


Well, here I go again. Almost 30 years since I started reading the first Wild Cards books (in those wonderful Brian Bolland covers), the Aces, Jokers and Nats are back in the 23rd of the mosaic novels to date.

Looking in the ‘previous books in the series’ style listing in the front of the volume finds that the publishers have now split up different chronological groups into subsets that, despite all the novels overlapping and making up the same timeline, are obviously arranged to allow people to peruse the shared Wild Cards universe in an easier manner. So we have little subsections like The Puppetman Quartet, The Rox Triad, The Card Sharks Triad etc. This new novel, High Stakes, is apparently the final part of The Fort Freak Triad but, I really couldn’t care, truth be told. After the cliffhanger ending of Lowball (reviewed here), I couldn’t wait to find out if the apocalypse had been ushered in and the world was about to end for the collective of characters in this particular literary universe.

I put a pretty high profile 'spoiler warning' in that last review where I predicted that the old enemy The Astrologer would be back and that the streets would be running red with blood. Well, I have to say, I got it dead wrong about the return of the astrologer but the absolute carnage in this particular tome is certainly on a level with some of the blood baths of the very early days. This one is a battle royale like no other in the series and I was almost surprised, whenever I looked away from the words on the pages, that the leaves of the book themselves weren’t running crimson with the blood of lost souls. It’s an apocalyptic battle, to be sure.

This novel carries on directly from the end of the last book, with Marcus the snake man (aka The Infamous Black Tongue) fleeing the botched rescue showdown of the last volume with his new girlfriend, after the death of a very much loved character in the last novel who he does return for... at some point. The Wild Cards writers have never been shy at killing off their characters and the last novel was no different. You get a sense of finality and closure here, to some of the characters that were lost in the last novel. So we have Marcus trying to get out of Talos, as does Franny (Detective Francis Xavier Black) who had travelled to Talos to stop one abomination only to find, once he stopped it, that in doing so he automatically unleashed the ensuing apocalypse. And he has to get out of Talos too... but this time as the puppet-pet of the lead villainess of the last book, Baba Yaga, who he slowly builds a certain bond of understanding with. Kind of.

High Stakes pretty much focusses on the relatively new characters of the recent Wild Cards volumes, although there are still some old timers ‘in the mess’, so to speak, as key players in this novel. There’s even an uncredited Croyd (aka The Sleeper) sighting in this one again, although this story has nothing to do with his character this time and he’s not even mentioned in the ‘end credits’ of the book (I believe he was originally created and written by late great sci-fi writer Roger Zelazny in the earliest Wild Cards books). However, readers still know this generation of characters well and it’s completetly suspenseful to read about some much loved fictional people being pushed and ripped asunder, both mentally and physically, as they try to stop the sheer dread of an advancing army of a surrealistic terror realm slowly creeping across the world.

Early on in the novel, the writers drop in an almost Mothra-like incident which is something they could call on to save the day in the final battle as it plays out here. All the way through I was waiting for a certain character to ‘pop’ out into the world in a new form and drop back into the plot all 'deus ex machina' in the last act. To their credit, the writers didn’t actually use that strand at all and, in the end, a different resolution.... or a different kind of resolution (take your pick)... is introduced into the text. I’m not going to say whether it’s a good or bad resolution but... yeah, there is at least a sense of closure to the unspeakable evil that is slowly destroying the world.

The book doesn’t let up in the pacing department from the get go... which is not actually that surprising since we are basically dropped back into the middle of a story which we’d already started but, I have to say, just keeps speeding up and getting more ugly and darker as it carries on towards its conclusion... which is just what I would expect from a team of writers who have woven together such special characters and situations over the years. And, as usual, interjected into all this mayhem are some great little concepts and some nice explorations of the machinations of the unique powers of some of the characters which, sometimes, may have you laughing out loud, just like me when I was reading this. For all its grotesque insanity and high stakes bedlam, the book still manages to find time for a lot of humour within its pages and, all I can say is that the writers, as always, do a fantastic job.

There is also an epilogue section in the novel, which shows some of the characters once their ‘final solution’ has been played out. Now I don’t want to put any spoilers in here for anybody but I will say that one of my favourite characters out of the last few books definitely has a slight shift in personality here. There is a certain vengeful part of the epilogue which, almost, signals a loss of innocence or, at the very least, an unwillingness to stick to a more heroic code from one of the main players of the last two books. I felt sad about this scene but, if the writers of this series know anything, it’s how to write drama and I can only imagine, ten years from now, how this fictional person’s arc will play out. After all, I remember when Mark Meadows was one of the heroes of the books, for people who can recall back to the early novels and how his character turned out 40 or so years later in the shared chronology of the Wild Cards universe. No, Mark Meadows is not in this one... I was just using it as an example for long time fans of the series but... yeah... the point is that there’s a shift in tone towards the end and one wonders how this will play out for a certain character in the future of the series.

For almost thirty years now I’ve been saying that the Wild Cards stories should be made into a high budget TV show. Not a movie because, frankly, that wouldn’t have the scope and breadth required in a mere two or three hours to even begin to cover the contents of the first novel. Well, fairly recently it looks like Hollywoodland have finally agreed with me and, after the success of a certain other George R. R. Martin property on the airwaves, it looks like a Wild Cards TV show is finally...well... on the cards, if you’ll forgive the pun. This fills me with both hope and trepidation. Hope because, well, modern CGI special effects are finally at a point where they might be able to cope with something of this nature. Trepidation, however, because I hope they’ll give the earlier novels a fair crack and, when all is said and done, they really are going to have to throw a huge amount of money at each and every episode to make this thing work properly, methinks.

Either way, getting back to the subject at hand, High Stakes - A Wild Cards Novel is certainly going to keep fans of this long running literary sensation happy. For people who aren’t long running fans, however, it might not make the most sense and I can only urge you to start at the very beginning if you want to get into these amazing adventures. Either way... excellent book and bravo, once again, to all the writers who are able to magically juggle all these character strands without getting lost in the fray. I applaud you all.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Doctor Who - The Edge Of Destruction



Quo Tardis

Doctor Who - The Edge Of Destruction
8th and 15th February 1964 BBC1


Okay, so The Edge Of Destruction is one of those old Doctor Who serials that I’ve wanted to see for a long time because it’s unique in a lot of ways. As far as I can remember, this was the first and only two part story until 18 years later, with the broadcast of the Peter Davison story Black Orchid. It’s also the very first bottle neck episode in the history of the show which, considering it’s only the third story in, could be something of a record for TV bottlenecks. In case you don’t know, a bottleneck episode is a show which is made on a very limited budget, to compensate for overspend on other episodes of a TV show. They’re very cheap and you can usually tell when you’re watching one within five minutes because, often, the episode will consist of an excuse to gather just a few of the cast in a single room where they reminisce about things that have happened recently. The episode would usually then quickly devolve into a series of clips/highlights from previous episodes of the show so the running time is padded out completely and, hey presto, you’ve hardly spent any money on that edition.

Bottlenecks weren’t a new thing even back in 1964, of course. I know the theatrical serials from the 1930s to the 1950s, such as the Flash Gordon serials, would also tend to contain a similarly lower budgeted episode where the good guys would stop and take stock of their current situation. I don’t know what year the phenomenon came to television, though. I do suspect, however, that the producers of the show were in a tight spot after presumably spending a good chunk of their money on the prior story, which was the debut of The Doctor’s most famous adversary, The Daleks.

Well, The Edge Of Destruction doesn’t contain any flashbacks to previous episodes but it does limit itself to the only four regular cast of the show at that time, comprising William Hartnell as The Doctor, Jaqueline Hill as Barbara, William Russel as Ian and Carol Ann Ford as The Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan. And it’s all a very simple, studio bound set as, for the only time I can remember in the show, the entire story is set inside the TARDIS, in just two rooms... mostly the main console room. A few years ago there was another ‘mostly’ TARDIS set story called Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS (which I reviewed here) but while the majority of that story took place in The Doctors favourite mode of transport, not all of it did. There were some significant sections set outside the TARDIS whereas this story has absolutely no external setting at all, apart from what is seen on the TV monitor in the background of the set. Running at about 50 minutes for the two episodes, it’s also a bit longer than the more modern story too.

One of the reasons I’d always wanted to check this one out is because the drama of this one strips away the way the characters present themselves to each other, to a certain extent, as they all turn against each other to try and figure out just what is going on. They all wake up with temporary amnesia and go into almost a trance state at times, often cowering in pain as they try to approach the central control panel. There is even a moment where Susan tries to attack Ian with a pair of scissors, instead letting them rip and tear into a couch she’d been resting on. I noticed, at this point, that the music illustrated her actions with stabs of tone which, although they weren’t performed here on strings, I suspect owed a certain debt to Bernard Herrmann’s similar musical shenanigans in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, already. Susan also later threatens Barbara with these same scissors and it’s interesting to see these characters suddenly so paranoid about each other at such an early stage in the show’s run. Although it’s a bottleneck story, I’m guessing viewers at the time must have been riveted to this one. Similar hostility is shown in the end of the first episode’s cliff hanger... which concludes with Ian, who was supposedly drugged by The Doctor, attempting to strangle the time lord where he stands.

The fallout in terms of character’s relationships with each other in this one is that, after the story has concluded, Barbara does quite a bit of extended sulking, The Doctor finally apologises to her and tells her that she is a valuable contributor to his accidental crew. So the episode does go some way towards building the characters and the way they approach each other in future episodes.

The reason The Doctor realises her value is because, at some point in the second episode, Barbara realises that there’s some kind of pattern to various strange things that have been happening in the TARDIS and this leads The Doctor and Ian to eventually conclude that the problem is that the TARDIS is stuck going backwards and forwards in time between the start of the universe and, presumably, the planet Skaro, where our heroes had been to in the prior episodes of the season. So once The Doctor works out what’s wrong, he manages to put things right and then go on to explain that, although the TARDIS is a mechanical device, the funny shenanigans such as clock hands disappearing are the machine trying to warn them. And it’s here that we get the first idea that, despite The Doctor’s protestations in this episode, the TARDIS is actually a conscious, sentient entity and, of course, this would be picked up in the Russel T. Davies era of the show, culminating in the Steven Moffat produced episode, written by Neil Gaiman, The Doctor’s Wife (reviewed here).

Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, this explanation makes not one lick of sense as to why anything has been happening at all in the story and goes down as one of the most ‘WTF?’ moments in Doctor Who history. Seriously, a time loop means everyone keeps going into a trance, losing their memory, getting headaches and then pinching pains in the back of their neck... not to mention large, unhealthy doses of paranoia. It’s a poor explanation for what has been, up until this point, a fairly interesting story.

That being said, if you’re going to do a bottleneck episode, this is the way to do it. It’s got a nice, claustrophobic feeling to the two episodes and even when Susan and Barbara go outside the TARDIS to lead us into the next episode, they are only viewed by Ian, The Doctor and ourselves through the scanner in the TARDIS so... yeah, all set in the TARDIS. Good stuff. This is certainly one of the favourites of the, admittedly few, Hartnell stories I’ve seen and, though I wouldn’t start with it if you’ve never seen any of this era of the show’s stories, I would certainly include this one in on a viewing list. In fact, those first three Hartnell stories are definitely worth seeing in order, I suspect, as the characters and their relationship to each other are properly set up over the course of many weeks. Despite the sheer lunacy of the ‘answer’ to the mystery of the story, it’s a pretty good entry in the series and, possibly, even goes into Sapphire And Steel territory at one point. Definitely worth taking a look at this one.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Train To Busan (Busanhaeng)



Desperately Seeking Busan

Train To Busan (Busanhaeng)
2016 South Korea Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Very, very light spoilers... but, you know, how spoilery can it be? It’s a zombie movie.

Train To Busan is a film I’d heard was pretty good from feedback about this year’s FrightFest screening (I only went to one FrightFest movie this year, as reviewed here) and I was really up for seeing this when it opened in a very limited number of cinemas in London for Halloween weekend. Alas, it was the week where I fell painfully ill and I not only missed this little gem but I also, and this really upset me, had to miss the John Carpenter concert. So yeah, I was a little gutted to say the least. However, when I was sufficiently recovered a couple of weeks later, there were still one or two screenings of the film playing in the Central Picturehouse cinema in London... so I at least got to see this one eventually.

Now, in most other years I would be happily saying this is the best zombie movie anybody has made for a few years now but, while this movie is pretty cool, this is the same year that the incredible and easily instant zombie classic The Girl With All The Gifts came out (as reviewed here) so I would have to say that this little gem runs second place in the 2016 zombie stakes. However it’s still pretty amazing and I was so glad I got to see this in the cinema.

The film is by a director, Sang-ho Yeon, who seems to have worked exclusively in the animation field before the debut of this, his first live action feature film. As such, it would be a little too easy to pick up on the stylistic nuances of this movie and hail them as a crossover from his usual medium. However, I’d have to say that I didn’t see anything unusually stylised about the movie apart form, maybe, the choreography of the zombies when they die and transform into the undead... which looks quite spectacular and which seems all done through the movement of the actors’ bodies. So, yeah, nothing about this movie gives away or hints at the past movies of this director as far as I’m concerned... not that I’ve actually seen any of his other work. People better versed in his body of work will probably be able to cite his directorial signature in the movie but, alas, I have only Train To Busan to go on.

But it’s a pretty good movie to begin with in terms of looking at this director, I think.

The plot is of a divorced father who is taking his young daughter to see her mother, early one morning, on the train to Busan and it just happens to coincide with a zombie outbreak. The film starts off with an unexpected incident of animal road kill which sets up the plot and then we get the set up with the daughter and her father. Then the film becomes a road movie set on a train as the world around the train devolves into zombie chaos very quickly and the passengers have to try and navigate themselves out of trouble and back on the train, when it makes ‘emergency rescue stops’... only to find their cavalry has already been defeated by plagues of zombies wherever they arrive. And that’s all the plot you need or get in this one.

One of the things about the specific sub genre of horror which is the modern zombie film is that they are almost never scary. There are a few exceptions I can think of but, for the most part, they are usually only body count, action horror movies and, frankly, I’m fine with that. Scary would be good but the fun of the action on these kinds of things is also entertaining so you don’t hear any complaints from me. Train To Busan is no exception to this rule, it has to be said. You won’t exactly find anything terrifying about this one, I think... especially if you’re already a fan of the genre. That being said, well done to the director for having some excitingly staged set pieces which do, on the other hand, give a feeling of genuine suspense... such as an elongated stealth rescue from carriage to carriage, trying to find the way through the zombie hordes. Oh yeah, there are zombies on the train too folks and it gets a bit hairy quite a lot of the time. Another artfully staged sequence comes near the end and involves a small group of people trapped between two tilted, delicately balance (but not for long) train carriages about to come crashing down on them, one of which is on fire and both of which have hordes of zombies about to push their way through the windows and explode onto the survivors. It’s pretty intense stuff and, although the film is less than scary, it will certainly have you on the edge of your seat, that’s for sure.

I remember once reading something by Kevin Smith where he was talking about the shooting of Dogma and how hard it is to actually shoot in a train carriage. Assuming Sang-ho Yeon actually did shoot in a train carriage as opposed to a break away set, my hats off to him. He manages to get some amazing and fluid tracking shots going on in this film and it makes for some cracking cinema.

One of the possible problems for some audiences is that zombie and horror movies, and especially disaster movies, which this kind of crosses over into (it’s almost like watching The Cassandra Crossing but with the cast populated by undead creatures, in that respect) is that they can easily fall into cliché and, to be brutally honest. Train To Busan seems to do almost every cliché in the book. We have the father trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. We have the friendly guy who starts off hating him and then becomes his comrade in arms against the zombie menace. We have the schoolgirl and schoolboy who are just about to find love with each other before they are confronted with a survival situation and...  we also have the shrewd business man who is just trying to save himself at the expense of everyone else and who diverts the popular opinion away from the actual people trying to do some good and becomes their enemy... before the even more obvious thing happens to him. It’s all in here but, honestly, I didn’t mind it a bit because a) the director and actors manage to pull it off very competently and with a clear understanding of the limitations of the genre rules and b) there was enough of the other zombie action set pieces happening that it was all much more distracting from any over ripe dramatic situations so... yeah, like I said... I had no problem with it.

And one of the most amazing things were the zombies themselves. Whenever somebody dies in this movie and becomes a zombie, they go through a transformation where their body contorts to unnatural angles, like rigor mortis is setting in and then declining in a rapid manner which causes their bodies to pop up and about... before they go on their blood lust rampage. There’s one guy I can remember who had his right arm firmly angled behind the back of his head and way past the other shoulder and I wondered if he was a contortionist who had dislocated his shoulder or whether this element had been CGI’d on later. One thing’s for sure, and this was very refreshing, is that the actors playing the zombies don’t just shuffle... or in this case run... along not caring much about what they are doing. They all look like they’re trying really hard to bring some kind of feral, basic instinct to the actions of their characters and I really appreciated the effort even the smaller extras were putting into this. Truly a great piece of zombie film-making here.

And that’s about all I’ve got right now, on this one. My only other slight complaint with Train To Busan would be that there’s a scene near the end involving the death of one of the main protagonists that just gets overtly syrupy and sentimental... a good deal more than was necessary, I thought. However, I can easily overlook this because it’s such a great little movie and it should certainly be lurking near the top of any zombie lover's ‘to watch’ list. I know I’m hoping to revisit this film sometime next year on blu ray and, all I will conclude here is that, if you are a lover of the genre, then you should really have a good time with this ‘zombies on a train’ action movie. So definitely look this one up.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Arrival



Cunning Linguist

Arrival
2016 USA Directed by Denis Villeneuve 
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Although absolutely no spoilers are in here, the fact that I talk about the syntax of the film could result in slight spoilerage if considered for a while.

Arrival is an adaptation of a sci fi short story I’ve not actually read by Ted Chiang called Story Of Your Life... so I can’t say how it is as an adaptation. This expanded (presumably) version of the story is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed last year’s movie Sicario (which I reviewed here) and who, since finishing this movie, has started filming a seemingly unnecessary sequel to Blade Runner (reviewed here). On that subject, I guess if I had to name a modern director who could take on a sequel to what is, after all, the greatest movie ever made, I think Villeneuve may be a good one to trust. I wouldn’t trust Ridley Scott after the way he’s ‘revisionist butchered’ the film in subsequent decades and, especially after having seen Prometheus... which seems to take joy in holding up all that was great about his astonishing movie A L I E N and then destroying the memory of it.

Anyway, back to this director’s Arrival. It’s not too long ago since we had a big, conceptual sci-fi movie playing in cinemas but they don’t come along as frequently as some of the other kinds of films made in versions of the genre so this is kind of a welcome change from the plethora of superheroes and space opera movies which have been howling for our collective attention in recent years.

Now, the thing about high concept sci-fi films like this one is they, generally, live or die on the strength of the mystery which is hiding at their core and which is usually revealed at the end of the movie. More often than not, the audience will work the ending out way before they are supposed to on these kinds of event films and this is either because they are too obvious or because the director telegraphs (or is forced to dumb down because of studio pressure) the nature of the ending. Alas, while Arrival is a pretty terrific movie, it’s no exception to this rule but... I’ll get to that in a little while.

Okay, so what’s good about Arrival?

Well, a heck of a lot actually. Villeneuve has equipped himself with some fine actors in this one with the main protagonist being played by Amy Adams, who is very well supported by the always watchable Jeremy Renner. They are both in terrific company as they are backed up by a team of good actors, headed primarily by Forrest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The plot is very simple... Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one of the United States’ top linguists, who is called upon by the military, in the form of Colonel Weber as played by Forest Whitaker, to try and communicate with an alien species who have landed twelve ships around the Earth at places where, apparently, Sheena Easton has had hit records. No, I’m not making this up and I did appreciate the odd bit of humour in what is, it has to be said... and this seems to be typical of this director... a fairly dry film. It’s a film that deals with big emotions but there’s something fairly distancing and clinical about the directorial style which mostly tends to render the emotional context as something which needs to be studied and observed rather than felt. At least that’s the way I react to Villeneuve’s work and I have absolutely no problem with this. Louise heads up the languages team and Renner’s mathematician character, Ian Donnelly, heads up another division and, every 18 hours when the ship allows some humans to go inside to make contact, the two are accompanied by military personnel to try and make some kind of breakthrough, for their country, as to what the aliens want and if their intention is hostile.

Of course, the world’s leaders are all conducting their own investigations with their own spaceships and, as tensions rise, Louise has to try and find ways to get the fragmented super powers talking again and to stop them from launching what seems an inevitable attack on the aliens, thus causing major disruption between the nations and possibly inviting death from the aliens. At least that’s what the story at first seems to be about if you are just accepting everything as it’s fed to you. I wasn’t but... yeah, like I said earlier, the film has a flaw and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Villeneuve, once again, gets the most out of his cinematographer by grabbing some really beautiful shots but the colour palette, asides from some strong reds near the start, is kind of subdued and neutral throughout the entire course of the movie. Everything looks very dialled down and flat although, in some shots, I did notice he tends to enhance a small part of the screen with a bright colour or striking object which, although it’s rarely the centre of your focus, does tend to balance the way the shot is received, it seemed to me. I’m not sure if that was a conscious decision to do that but, since these things take so long to light and set up, I can only conclude that it was.

However, despite looking like the cinematic equivalent of a page full of Helvetica, the shots are quite beautiful and, coupled with some very slow and fluid camera movement and less than speedy pacing, I have to say that it’s an immensely gorgeous looking film and it’s primarily on that basis, and the strength of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s riveting score, that I will be seeking this one out on blu ray so my dad can take a look at it at some point.

However, there’s some bad stuff thrown in with the good which I’ve been intimating all through the review and... well... the problem is this.

Arrival places the solution behind its mystery dead front and centre. There’s a pre-credits scene to this movie and I so wish the director had not included this because, even before the title to the movie comes up straight after this, I’d kinda figured out exactly where the ending was going. It was always going to be a possibility that the movie ventures into the territory that it does... and I’m trying really hard to not give away spoilers here people... but the director really tips his hand very early on in the proceedings with the opening sequence, both with the nature of Amy Adam’s voice over to this scene and, even more tellingly, in the way he shoots around a certain something, deliberately not revealing something specific through blurry cinematography. This immediately got my brain thinking about why certain visual clues had been hidden and, of course, once your mind goes down that track it’s not too hard to think of the best logical conclusion... or at the very least, the way the film is really playing out towards a similar conclusion if you’re not caught up in the director and screenwriter’s parlour games.

Villeneuve reenforces his folly in a much cleverer way than, say, M. Night Shyamalan might try and cover his obvious slips in his movies. What Villeneuve does here is structure the film and the frequency of certain styles of scenes so that they play out in a way that the audience will, for the most part, trick themselves into misinterpreting some of the information. It’s my long held belief that the complex series of visual signifiers that make up the syntax of cinema stick in people’s brains as youngsters after watching only a few films or TV shows. For instance with flashbacks (which work slightly differently in some cinematic cultures, I’ve noticed) or other such things such as two shots of people talking and cutting back and forth, making up a conversation, have very pointed interpretations. So, if you screw around with the way they are really as opposed to being perceived, then you can allow the audience to fool itself. The strength of the opening sequence in the amazing film Pleasantville, for example, relies on the audience thinking that two characters are having a conversation before a long shot reveals the punchline that they are both in different places and a conversation ‘with each other’ isn’t happening at all at this point.

The director of Arrival uses another long held cinematic tradition, which I won’t name here, to fool the majority of the audience as to a certain element of one of the characters and I suspect it might work really well on some people. The only reason it didn’t work on me, I suspect, is because I have an unconventional outlook on life and don’t take for granted a certain linear element of people’s lives that they tend to latch onto as a scientific reality. And that’s all I’m saying about that so as not to spoil things for you but, alas, I did find the main conceptual twist to be jarringly obvious right from the pre-credits sequence, I’m afraid.

However, it doesn’t matter. The thing is... Arrival is a startlingly good presentation of a concept that has been done in a fairly different manner quite recently in the cinema and certainly in a more light hearted manner by some films over the last four decades. The pacing might be a little too European for some audience members (which was clearly the case in the screening I attended where people were kicking the backs of chairs or going out for a little walk half way through) but it really is a stunning film and I, personally, didn’t get bored by it once. If you are into conceptual science fiction then you’ll probably want to take a look at this one. It’s a film with amazing cinematography, great music and some interesting performances. And if you do find it as obvious as I did in terms of never quite taking you by surprise, the film more than makes up for it in other ways and ultimately I found it to be an entertaining, if not entirely thought provoking, lollipop of a movie.

Monday, 14 November 2016

A Street Cat Named Bob



Cat Man and Bob In,
Feline Groovy


A Street Cat Named Bob
UK 2016 Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
UK Cinema release print.


Yeah, I know. This is not exactly the kind of movie my regular readers would expect to see me covering here. In my defence, there’s a good reason why I made the trip to the cinema for this one and it’s this...

I’ve been riding the buses to and from work for something like 24 years now. Over the last six years or so there’s been this old man on the bus who I see most nights on the journey home. He is pretty friendly and he has a set pattern where he uses his free bus pass to travel back and forth between Enfield and Waltham Cross to... simply... pass the time of day at a local betting shop and to get his dinner in one of the local supermarkets. He has absolutely no way of contacting anyone if in trouble and, since retirement isn’t always the game people seem to think it can be, he has nothing to keep him on the pulse of what’s happening other than what he sees in borrowed newspapers or hears on his trusty, pocket radio. He has no TV. He has no computer. He has no mobile phone. He lives with nobody else. And that’s his life.

Over the years I’ve got to know him on those bus  journeys and would now call him a friend... even exchanging Christmas cards at the end of the year. One of the things he does do is to occasionally buy a second hand book from a charity stall in the local market and that gives him a lot of pleasure, even if he takes a fair number of months to read each one. He’s mostly into thrillers but, one day, he bought the true life memoirs called A Street Cat Named Bob, on which this movie is obviously based. He was really into the book and was telling me all about it a lot last year.

Well, I’m not one to not know a rare opportunity to get this guy out for ‘a trip’ one evening and when I read a few months ago that this movie had been made, I arranged to take him to see it when it came out... seeing as the last time he’d been to the cinema was 30 years ago for Top Gun (a film I’ve never seen), even though he’d loved the cinema in his former, pre-retirement life. Alas, the first week of release of this movie saw me off work for a week, completely incapacitated with a crippling and painful condition and with absolutely no way of reaching this guy, seeing as he’s so cut off from the world. Luckily the movie was still playing a week later (not a guarantee these days, even with multi screen cinemas) and so off we went. So yeah, that’s the reason why I went to see this movie... so don’t judge me on this one. 

So what’s the film like? Well, helmed by the director of the quite respectable Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (reviewed here) it’s actually not the over romanticised, dumbed down film I was imagining this to be. I haven’t read the book by James Bowen, who is played by Luke Treadaway in this... but I’m reliably informed by my ‘bus friend’ that the film is very close to the book. It’s actually got an edge to it which, really, I should have expected since it deals with the real life plight of a homeless man on the streets of London and the trials and opportunities that happen for him after he adopts a stray cat, the titular character, Bob. Or should I say, since cats are the creatures they are, the cat adopts him. It turns out, too, that although a fair few cats were playing Bob throughout the movie... the real life Bob The Cat is actually playing himself on screen for a lot of the time. Wow... this cat lives up to his fame.

James advances his way up from the streets and Bob the cat helps him by getting him attention, perched on his shoulders as he goes from busker to Big Issue seller, gets himself off the methadone which was getting him off drugs, tries to reignite his relationship with his estranged father (played by Anthony Head) and even strikes up a touching relationship with a neighbour, Belle (played by Ruta Gedmintas) when he is in a council flat. We are witness to a really amazing story which almost takes you by stealth but which is a testament to both human misery and the slow pull of human kindness which plays out in everyones life. Dare I say there were a few tears in my eye at various points in the movie? There’s even an appearance or two by Ruth Sheen, who some people may remember from her collaborations with director Mike Leigh... it’s always a treat to see her in something.

One of the things I wasn’t expecting Spottiswoode to do at varied points in the movie was to suddenly shift the camera to a POV shot from Bob’s viewpoint. The first couple of times the director does this in the film it’s actually a little jarring but, as your brain learns to adapt to these sudden shifts from 3rd person to 1st person point of view, you start to get used to the visual vocabulary and begin to adapt to the sudden shifts in a way which makes it quite watchable and, although I could have done without it, it probably does enhance certain scenes in some ways. I know my friend got a kick out of these kinds of sequences where Bob is worried by a mouse... another cohabitor of James’ council home. Actually, is a cat a person? Maybe that should be ‘1st Feline POV’ in the case of this movie.

The film has a little more substance and certainly a lot more heart than I was expecting. It never gets too dark but there are a few moments in there when an old acquaintance of James is in trouble at one point or when James finally kicks the habit for good, which are certainly why this film was awarded a 12 certificate, I think. And, despite the Feline’s eye view moments, the film hangs together pretty well and takes you to a point presumably just after the end of the original book, where we begin to see the success that James and Bob finally acquire and it makes for a neat ending.

The music is quite good too. The score by David Hirschfelder is appropriately light but glues the visuals together fairly well and it really comes into its own during the darker passages of the movie. What really surprised me, though, is that some of the songs are also quite engaging when James is out busking and trying to get enough change to be able to buy some food for the day. One in particular, Satellite Moments, is particularly catchy and almost serves as an anthem for the film. Sure, it’s kinda syrupy but, you know, that’s okay because the lyrics also rang true and I’m even contemplating grabbing the CD of this one at some point on the strength of it.

And that’s my last meow on A Street Cat Named Bob. It’s not for everyone but it’s one of those kinds of movies that British cinema does best... making a charming, feel good movie which offers real insight in a way that doesn’t become too overwhelmingly fairy tale and which makes you think on after the final credits roll. The final credits also serve as a reminder of the way people are forced to live by showing us photos of the real James Bowen from the times depicted in this movie and, obviously, his original best seller. He also turns up as a fan of his fictional counterpart in a cameo near the end. At the end of the day, though, I really wasn’t worried whether I was going to like this movie or not. What was important to me was that my friend from the bus got to go to the cinema for the first time in 30 years and that he ‘really’ enjoyed the movie...and that’s what mattered here. So please, if you’re thinking of catching this one anytime soon, take a hard recommendation from my friend. He should know... he’s read the book.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Flower With Petals Of Steel



Heavy Petal

The Flower With Petals Of Steel
(Il fiore dai petali d'acciaio aka
The Flower with the Deadly Sting)

Italy/Spain 1973 Directed by Gianfranco Piccioli
Dencam Movies DVD Region 0


Warning: Slight spoilers but... no, not really. The really
big spoilers will remain hidden beneath the steel petals.


Okay... so I thought it was time to check out one of the more obscure giallo movies in my ‘to watch’ pile and so, I chose one of the ones with the silliest and most gialloistic titles.

This films starts off with a quite eerie scene of a scuba diver under water, during the credits. For the first half of the credits there is no actual music and the claustrophobic nature of the scene is enhanced both by the sound of loud bubbles on the soundtrack and a camera point of view that sits just behind the diver. Then the music score, by Marcello Giombini of Sabata fame kicks in and... wow, it’s really good. Kind of a stage beyond dissonance... like an atonal, abstract melange of hostility but with a sweet, candy shell wrap. This needs to be issued on a CD soonest.

As the first swimming figure approaches a second figure, the credits finish and we cut to a scene involving more POV shots, tight in on the action, as the camera crosscuts between a speeding ambulance with it lights and sirens blaring (in some cases the camera is literally just behind the siren which takes up the foreground of the shot) and the main protagonist of the movie driving his own car equally fast and in the same direction as the ambulance. There are a heck of a lot of tight shots bordering but rarely quite getting, to the full first person viewpoint in this movie... it seems almost an obsession with the director but, that being said, it gives this its own style and is very effective in certain sequences.

We soon find out that the reason this man is going in the same direction as the ambulance is because he works at the same hospital. The main protagonist being Dr. Valenti, as played by Gianni Garko, whom the Italian genre cinema fans among my readers will recognise had parts in such classic movies as Cold Eyes Of Fear (reviewed here) and The Psychic (aka Seven Notes In Noir)... not to mention his upcoming role as Sartana in Keoma Rises (in which Franco Nero will be returning to the role of Keoma, by all accounts).

As soon as Valenti ‘lands’ at the hospital, he has to go right into surgery as the aforementioned ambulance was bringing in an emergency job. We see exactly what kind of a hot tempered and mostly unpleasant protagonist he is when he fires his main Operating Theatre nurse for not giving him the correct instruments quickly enough. He also has a nasty attitude to his girlfriend... or ex-girlfriend as far as he’s concerned.

Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend is entertaining the company of her lover Evelyn, played by Carrol Baker. Except, it turns out, she isn’t just her lover... she’s also her sister. Hmmm... nothing odd about this one so far. It seems to be a state of affairs that Valenti is quite aware of and, he doesn’t want his ex around anyway... especially since one of the nurses in his Operating Theatre, who also somehow doubles as his secretary, is obviously sleeping with him on the side.

Anyway, when the good doctor comes home from work that day, he finds his ex in his apartment and, although she says absolutely nothing, he goes completely mad and gives her a good dressing down before getting so emotionally unstable that he shakes her around a bit and throws her onto the floor. He also, somehow, manages to knock his 'giant steel plant' which he just happens to have in his living room... and it goes toppling onto the floor as he rushes off to take a good, hard swig of his giallotastic J&B whiskey. You can always tell a good, traditional giallo from the J&B whiskey bottle sighting. However, when he goes back to check on his ex he finds she is dead, stabbed to death with one of the petals of steel on the aforementioned plant or, you know, flower with petals of steel. So, yeah, anyone thinking this was one of the more abstract giallo titles can go think again... this is the actual murder weapon mentioned in the title. Smooth stuff.

Valenti is suitably distraught... well... okay, he’s suitably unimpressed, that he has to now cover up the woman's accidental murder and dispose of the body but, luckily for him, he’s a doctor. So he goes to it in a fairly longish sequence as we half get to see him (most of it is off screen) dismember his ex-gals body with his trusty surgeons scalpel and then load her into bags, in a fairly ‘matter of fact’ presentation. Don’t usually get to see post murder dismemberment in a giallo, I have to say, so this was a bit of a new one on me.

After this he drives to a somehow conveniently located giant grinding machine... possibly some kind of industrial cement mixer, I couldn’t really tell, and pitches the bags full of body into the mix. There’s some great sound design for this similarly long and quite intense scene, which plays out with no musical scoring as Valenti silently watches his former sweetheart get swooshed and pulped in no uncertain terms.

And that’s when thing start to unravel for Valenti. The next day, Carrol Baker comes looking for her lover/sister, Daniella, and he fobs her off with an excuse. However, Baker is on to him and starts getting him embroiled in an investigation over the disappearance of Daniella. Added to this, a package turns up at his home for him and it’s a box containing two of the steel petals of... “the flower with the petals of steel.” Someone knows something and so now Valenti’s being blackmailed by an unseen party on top of everything else.

And then things start to get nicely convoluted but... also confusing.

For example, there’s a totally random scene were Valenti travels to an exterior location with lots of chattering dolls heads and a naked woman pinned, bleeding to an upright structure... she might even be the murdered Daniella. I couldn’t figure this scene out... seems not to be a dream sequence and also seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. It’s just completely confusing and, as the movie carries on, it seems to get more and more obvious that it was completely superfluous to anything else going on.

However, we also have another plot strand turning up where it seems Valenti also has a wife who he committed to an insane asylum for having nymphomania (Seriously? This is a good reason to have someone committed rather than just buy them a sexy present?). It seems she has been cured and released but, I think, Valenti seems to have had no idea that she’s presumably on the loose somehow... was his accidental murder of the girl all that it seemed? Or is there something entirely more sinister and giallo-like going on behind the steel petals of this movie?

And then even the police inspector starts shifting his amorous attentions to one of the main female characters but... what’s this? Right near the end... just when I was beginning to doubt whether this movie actually qualified as a giallo, we have another murder of a main character and the reveal behind this one is all tied into a scene almost at the end of the movie when we, finally, continue with the scuba diver scene that started the whole affair for us. I don’t want to give away too much about the revelations and plot twist reveal at the end here but... underwater girl on girl action is also included in this sequence, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat.

So, yeah, a crazily surreal title which actually means something, a few murders, some nudity, a J&B bottle sighting and lots of self reflection in the main protagonist means this definitely gets itself into giallo territory by the end of the movie. There’s also the visual style to take into account here and director Piccioli supports the whole 'gialloness' of the movie by giving us some nicely designed shot set ups at certain points in the film, where the actors stand in just the right kinds of places in a composition to be highlighted by the structures around them. Together with the minimally spotted but very cool score by Giombini, which definitely deserves some kind of release (unless it’s possibly been tracked in from other Giombini scores?) then The Flower With Petals Of Steel is a nice example of the genre, even with the downright confusing scenes, and really needs a proper transfer, preferably on Blu Ray, sometime soon before this movie slips into even more obscurity. Definitely one I’d re-buy in a remastered edition with, hopefully, a few more subtitles in places which maybe needed them. If you’re a fan of Italian gialli, though, it’s definitely one to check out.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

70s Monster Memories



Fangs For The Memories

70s Monster Memories
by We Belong Dead
ISBN: Doesn’t appear to have one,
nor a publishing house.


You know, most years on this site I usually complain that over half the books I read covering some aspect of movies or literature are pretty much badly written or, laughably, terribly researched to the point where a good deal of the ‘facts’ found in the tomes in question are just plain wrong. However, this last year or so seems to have been a bumper year for me reading more than above average movie or genre related books and I’d have to say that this fairly new but, already out of print (before I’d even finished reading it), collection of reminiscences called 70s Monster Memories doesn’t end that trend... it’s a really excellent book. And here’s why you should seek it out if you are of a certain disposition and are still able to source a copy from somewhere.

Although there may be a few stray, incorrect facts within some of the articles in this tome (apparently the date of the first UK Film Fair at Wimbledon is a couple of years out in one article... which started a disagreement between me and another person in the queue at the latest incarnation of these things at Westminster, earlier in the year), it mostly side steps that problem because, despite being served up by a large number of writers, these pretty much all take the form of personal reminiscences of specific times and places where the people relaying the information are able to remember things pretty well and, if they don’t quite remember a fact or figure about what they are talking about, are happy to own up to that within the context of their article.

This book is written by a number of contributors who, presumably, work for the magazine We Belong Dead and so the book is, in some ways, like a 400 plus page magazine. It’s glossy with full colour reproductions by the gazillions on each page but don’t let this fool you... there’s a heck of a lot of text to get through in this thing and it’s not a quick read. Once you start savouring some of the articles that make up this wonderful tome... you won’t want it to be either.

“When I were a lad” I loved the old Universal and Hammer movies, which I used to watch from the age of six or seven in glorious black and white (with the exception of the loss of my Hammer virginity at the age of about seven with Taste The Blood Of Dracula, which I saw on my Uncle’s colour TV). Although I’d not be content to describe myself as a 70s Monster Kid, as the majority of the writers in this tome do, I did like a lot of monster stuff and loved drawing skeletons... which apparently used to frighten the other children at my infant school so much, it got to the point where my teachers were concerned I might need a child psychiatrist... never could figure out why.

However, that being said, the kind of person who will probably best benefit from wallowing in the nostalgic pages of this book are the kinds of people who remembered the seventies and the ofttimes simpler, sometimes more dangerous way we were all living our lives. This isn’t about monsters that were created in the 1970s as such... more about the monsters which were readily available to us kids at the time so... a lot of the old cinematic incarnations, for example, such as the Hammer, Universal, RKO, AIP and Amicus horrors are lovingly remembered here.

And as for the range topics covered in this splendid tome, many of which are dear to my heart and which I never thought I’d see written about in print... well, there’s just some astonishing stuff in here. Where else, for instance, will you find a book that carries reminiscences and facts about the old Aurora Glow-In-The Dark Monster Model Kits, Dracula Ice Lollies, Sound Effects recordings, BBC TV Double Bills, US TV movies and a plethora of things which might seem strange to be banging on about to a younger generation (although they may have fun discovering some of this stuff for the first time). There’s even a wonderful article about Horror Top Trumps which reproduces many of those fondly remembered cards on the pages (and if you want to see a really in depth look at these old cards, then take a peek at @hypnogoria’s multipart blog about these cards here http://hypnogoria.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/tombs-of-trumps-index.html, which is a real treat and which is even more thoroughly researched than you can possibly imagine. Truly great stuff there.).

As I was going through this I started remembering things from my youth that I’d completely forgotten about such as the lurking terrors to be found in a range of British Public Information films of the time... some of which were like miniature horror films themselves in some ways (and that article in itself will lead onto another review on here at some point... just in the middle of the ‘visual research’ now). It was great having my brain stimulated to remember crisps in the shape of Dracula’s fangs, Horror reference books, an abundance of journals, monster comics like Dracula Lives and Werewolf By Night, poster magazines, movie tie in novels, action figures, rubber sharks and a whole range of pulpy horror novels with loads of sex and goriness by writers like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert and, of course, including a good look at the Killer Crab books of Guy N. Smith. There’s even an interview with Vincent Price’s daughter in this thing... not to mention a foreword by Dez Skinn and an afterword by Alan Frank. And if you’re too young to know who they are... don’t worry, you can read this book and find out.

I have only three real criticisms and they are really just personal preferences more than anything else. When I was a young ‘un in 1976 (I’m told, although I’m sure it was 1975?) we used to buy Topps Shock Theatre Bubble Gum cards (also known as Shocking Laffs) which were filled with gory images from Hammer Horror films and had cheesy captions, not to mention a terrible joke on the reverse side. I loved these cards but they were eventually banned at our infants school (I’m not surprised in hindsight) before I could put together a whole set. I still have mine and am about 8 cards away, still, from completing my set (these things aren’t that easy to come by on ebay either, these days)  and I regularly open up one of my trading card albums to remind myself of those days. However, criticism number one is that, although these are covered in this book, it’s only a one page article and, since there were a few things of note about these cards and their US variations, I would have liked a longer, in-depth look at these.

Criticism number two is that one of the most terrifying TV shows of the 1970s, Sapphire and Steel, is not covered here at all... which I think is a terrible oversight. Surely someone has fond memories of chatting away in the playground the next day after the show aired and discussing the man with no face or the ghost soldiers haunting the railway station?

My third criticism would be... although there are a large number of absolutely essential illustrations, some of the covers and packaging described in the article don’t always match up with what is being shown. For instance, a writer may speak lovingly of the cover of Issue X of a magazine which caught his eye in an obscure shop in a seaside town one year and describe it in detail but the accompanying illustrations on the page may contain no shot of the particular issue number being so affectionately detailed.

But these are pretty small criticisms, it has to be said, for a book which is an absolutely stunning, ‘must have’ purchase for anybody who grew up watching monster movies on the telly as a kid in the 1970s. Granted, since there are so many writers talking about aspects of their own childhood there are a fair few articles which have overlaps in content with others in this volume but, seriously, 70s Monster Memories is one heck of a goldmine of a book as far as I’m concerned and I’ll definitely be revisiting it time and time again for nuggets of information over the years. Even though it’s not technically a reference book, there’s so much stuff in here that you just can’t find in other books on the market. At least not at the moment. So this is a hard recommend from me and, if you can find a copy, it would make a perfect Christmas present from people of the right age. Something to really get your fangs into.