Thursday, 22 March 2018

Superman VS The Ku Klux Klan

Kryptonian Kal-El Klan

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan:
The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate

by Richard Bowers
National Geographic Kids
ISBN: 978-1426309151

Okay, I’ll own up. When I was asked by a very good friend what I wanted for my Birthday this year, I already knew Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate was a book aimed at children. However, it’s not a subject I knew anything about from my readings of Superman comics over the years and I’m really not too proud of where any knowledge comes from, to be honest. As it happens, though, I’m wondering if National Geographic Kids got the target age correct because most of the review snippets I saw on Amazon said the kids couldn’t get through it but the adults loved it. I’d like to add my voice to the clamour saying that, as an adult, I loved it too but... the jury’s still out for many of my friends as to whether this 50 year old deserves adult status yet (doing my best not to get to that notch on the dial, folks).

Now, I knew nothing about the Ku Klux Klan and... why would I want to? However, a real life defeat by a much cherished fictional hero is the tale I wanted to hear and, it has to be said, I learned so much from this volume. Kids be damned, this stuff was more than interesting and I even... and I never thought I’d be saying this... learned stuff I didn’t know about the genetic make-up of the Man of Steel which I hadn’t read before in any publication. So, yeah, this one was definitely a very welcome birthday present, you can be sure of that. It’s only 160 pages so, it’s a quick read but... the amount of interesting, historical detail crammed into the pages really does the trick and gets the job done right.

So, we all know that Superman was the joint creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, making his much delayed debut as the first super powered comic book character in 1938. I didn’t realise the amount of Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish roots they’d injected into their character... which made later comparisons to the ‘perverted by the Nazis to their own ends’ version of Nietsche’s ‘Übermensch’ a completely ludicrous prospect. So as well as the obvious ‘cradle in the reeds’ Moses analogy of Kal-El’s space capsule turning up on Earth, we also had a lot of stuff I didn’t know, scattered about with some of the more familiar history of the two co-creators.

For example... and I’m quoting Bowers here, the Jewish principle of ‘tzedakah’, “a command to serve the less fortunate and stand up for the weak and exploited” was definitely a part of the Man Of Steel’s core principals. As was ‘tikkun olam’, “the mandate to do good works or, more literally, repair a broken world” a strong part of his character... and the early issues I’ve read of Action Comics and Superman certainly showcase that kind of attitude in a very bold, simplistic manner. Plus, of course, we have Kal-El plus his son Jor-El (later Clark Kent) and, in Ancient Hebrew, El apparently means “all that is God”.

The book starts off with a few chapters outlining the contributions and early lives of Siegel and Shuster and also looks at the marketplace conditions at the time (we all know the Max Gaines story about gluing all the newspaper strips together on white sheets to make the phenomenally successful world's first ‘comic books’) which would, in a few years, allow that creation to flourish and take off in ways the many publishers who rejected the idea couldn’t even imagine. It also, as a footnote, includes the bitterness with which the creators pursued a more appropriate remuneration for their work many years later... while still making the point that they were actually getting pretty good money for the time (despite signing off the rights to the character to get it published).

Meanwhile, in the Deep South and the aftermath of the American Civil War, writer Richard Bowers goes on to explain the background of the club of hate mongers that were the Ku Klux Klan and how their ‘society’ was formed in secret by bored ex-soldiers who came out on the wrong side of their battle. Revealing many guises and the three versions which rose up in the late 1860s (eventually outlawed after their violence, despite having many men in powerful positions around the country), the 1920s (eventually ousted when the various heads of the different chapters of the Klan were caught in what I will, in modern parlance, refer to as Weinsteinian style scandals) and, again, to a very short run in the 1940s... before being headed off by a journalistic infiltrator in their midst. With a little help from the last son of Krypton.

Some things I learned here were that those stupid white sheets they used to wear were actually supposed to be symbolic of the ghosts of confederate soldiers returning from battle. Since the first version of the society had to make their own costumes, one wonders if they had contests in their little club houses to see who had the brightest and most intolerant sheets. I also found out about how D. W. Griffith’s major motion picture The Birth Of A Nation (aka The Klansman) was used as a big recruitment push by the KKK and how they gathered at theatre exits with their big crosses, using the film as a promotional tool. I also loved that the main reasons for the second and later incarnations of this band of hate, which boasted millions of members, was not because the people in control bought into their own brand of intolerance but... purely for the money they could make out of their members. $10 membership was a lot of cash in those days and the people with their fingers on the buttons were literally making millions off of their organisation. Think about what that means in terms of the times with that kind of money. And then add in the amount of merchandise they were selling to their people... actual manufactured costumes (by the 1920s incarnation), bottles of initiation water, all-American pocket knives and, seriously, a jewel studded pendant in the shape of a fiery cross for the lady of the house. This is hilarious. I guess everything comes down to money, in the end.

By the 1940s, their third incarnation was on the rise as isolated groups who were joining with other hate filled rabble such as Nazi sympathisers... as Hitler waged his war on humanity. But, this time... there was Superman.

The Adventures Of Superman radio show in the 1940s, starring Bud Collier as the Man Of Steel, was a huge hit but, by the end of the Second World War, the script writers and their sponsors, Kellogs, needed a new enemy and, perhaps, a new angle to keep their radio show the huge success it had always been. There were no Nazis left to ass-kick (Clark Kent failed to be drafted in the war due to his X-Ray vision screwing up the eye test part of the medical) and new targets were required.

Stetson Kennedy was a journalist who had started infiltrating the Klan under an assumed name and who wanted to bring to light their terrible deeds and motivations. Somehow, either himself or via someone else, the producers of The Adventures of Superman had all the intel passed on about these clandestine organisations and took on the Klan... changing their name in the radio serial to The Clan Of The Fiery Cross... which was a less than subtle bit of satire, to be sure. Bowers then continues on with this account of events and shows how the radio show promoted tolerance and respect by beating down on the hatemongers who were slowly rising and helped change the attitudes of children and families everywhere. It not only did the obvious stuff but also showed up the true motivation of the people behind the outfit... dollars. It didn't single handedly wipe out the clan and there are certainly versions of the KKK still operating to this day but... it did make a sizeable impact on the organisation and I think the Man of Steel must have been very proud to be able to lend a helping hand to this real life threat.

Richard Bowers' book is an extraordinarily coherent and entertaining read. The design of the book is great too... feeling a little bit 1970s retro, to be sure but... a nice piece of work. Each chapter starts off with a photo of something relevant... such as a large photo of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro (an inspiration for Jerry Siegel) or a typical newsstand front in a relevant time period. The type is fairly large but it’s an easy read and, like I said before, you get a heck of a lot of information parcelled up in those 160 pages. There are the odd errors, for sure. For instance, when the writer claims that Superman teamed up with Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Captain America in the 1940s. Nope. Captain America was a rival comic company’s character and the first multiple comic book company crossover between characters from what would become Marvel and DC didn’t happen until the Giant Sized Treasury Edition of Superman VS The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. That being said, stuff like this isn’t really too much of a problem and I’d definitely recommend Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate as a welcome addition to any superman fan’s bookshelf. More people need to know about this little slice of K-K-Kryptonian history.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

8 Year Anniversary Post

The Eightful Eight

That’s 8 years.

If you started reading my posts since my first one... that’s how long I’ve been reviewing films on this blog for.

Things have changed a little over the years, though.

When I first started writing this thing, in fairly short reviews for a little while until I started churning out longer articles, I could pretty much review what I liked in terms of the films and books I had laying around. While that’s still technically true now, we are living in an age where, in terms of the moving image at least, there is an abundance of new product... way more than I can personally feel comfortable with.

Quite often these days I just want to sit back and watch a movie I haven’t seen at home but... nope, no time. There’s two to four new cinema releases that week (out of many) and I need to see as many as I can cram into the little time I have left after writing about them rather than spend time on the couch. The blu ray and book piles just keep getting bigger and bigger... because I’m busy neglecting them for watching as much of the new stuff at the cinema that I possibly can. Its just crazy. The last two years in particular have seen, as far as I’m concerned, a lot more movie candidates for spending hours with at the local flea pit than many years before. And even if a majority of them are not all that good... they nearly always look like they’re going to be of some interest to me.

Meanwhile, over in stark contradiction land, we have my other main problem as a blogger these days. Exclusive content distributed by channels like Netflix and Amazon.

I was lucky to see Duncan Jones’ new movie Mute (reviewed here) because, although it’s 'almost' exclusive to Netflix, it did get a few screenings in London and I was lucky enough to catch one of them. Not something I would have been able to check out if I was left to the mercy of the monthly bill for various digital channels.

Films like The Cloverfield Paradox are completely unavailable to me unless I go the bootleg route. You’d think that, since the fourth Cloverfield movie is supposed to hit cinemas this year, the people who made it would want me to see the third one somehow. After all... I’m not going to see the fourth one at the cinema unless I’ve seen the previous instalment. I don’t watch film series' out of sequence. End of.

I also have no chance of seeing Annihilation in this country unless I can snag a copy of the US Blu Ray when it comes out (in the US, the movie had a proper cinema release)... which does nothing to endear me to Netflix either, I can tell you.

Now I can see that, with the kind of audience you’d get on a digital subscription chanel, this practice might be good for the art of film in some ways. After all, the target audience can’t be as narrowly youthful as the cinematic one and that means a wider range of product... albeit, it means that product makes less money back per item (which will also finish them off at some point if they’re not careful). However, it also restricts certain works of art which might have reached an audience via the window of cinema and... that's also a pretty big shop window for Blu Ray and DVD release purchases. This part of the non-crossing over audience are being ignored and, as someone not willing to pay stupid monthly fees for channels like Netflix at the moment (let alone having the time to watch much on there), this is a real kick in the teeth. It also means I can’t review these films for the blog when they come out so... not so great for me.

Yes, I know I’m simultaneously moaning about the abundance of product at the cinema while at the same time pointing out that it’s being excluded in terms of showing specific product but, what can I say, mankind is, perhaps, inherently contradictory.

And that’s me done on this one and I appreciate that this is a very short post but the anniversary took me by surprise again this year. I don’t know why I always think it’s in April.

Once again, I’d like to thank all of you who read this... from dedicated, long term readers to people who have only read a few posts or, you know, only this one... for spending some time here. It’s much appreciated and means a lot to me.

All the best to you.

21st March 2018.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Tomb Raider

Bust In Show

Tomb Raider
2018 UK/USA Directed by Roar Uthaug
UK cinema release print.

Remember when Robert DeNiro ate himself into all that extra weight so he could play Jake La Motta? Or that time when Christian Bale slimmed his weight down to almost nothing to play the central protagonist in The Machinist? This is what an actor does to get himself closer to the look and feel of the character he or she is playing. This is why I just don’t like Daniel Craig as James Bond. In the books, Bond has short black hair. Not smudgy blondy browny stuff (admittedly he has a facial scar too which they should have had right from the start of the movies). Anyway, this is why I can’t take the character of James Bond as seriously as the new films seem to want me to. Like Roger Moore’s version of the character... it’s just not James Bond unless they get the physical details right too.

Now do you remember when Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft for the first two Tomb Raider movies? She wore false breast enhancers because, presumably, she knew how integral the character’s huge bust size was to getting her characterisation right. I have those statistics written down in a celebratory magazine about the original computer game character somewhere. I can’t remember the exact size but the point is that they were important enough at the time that the game publishers knew exactly what the measurements were... possibly because her bosoms helped her keep her balance on crossing dinosaur filled chasms on precariously balanced logs, I should think. So, as much as I love Alicia Vikander as an actress... and I really do, she’s great... I really can’t take her that seriously as an on screen version of Lara Croft if she’s not trying to bring the physical attributes of the character into cinemas with her.

That being said... it’s totally not Alicia Vikander’s fault because, apparently, the various games which have continued the series long after I stopped playing them (I’d finished with the third or fourth game in the series, I think) have been completely contradictory with the various back stories and origins of the character as the series progressed and, yes, even to the point where they reduced her bust size... which is just crazy. I think they should have just been confident enough with the character to do the right thing by her and leave her exactly the same as she always has been and it’s quite sad that they should make these changes.

So, although I am quite offended that they have chosen to change all these things and reduce the character to a point where she completely loses integrity... yeah, I can’t lay the blame for that at the door of the new writers, director or star. Not their fault, I think.

As it happens, the new Tomb Raider film plays hard and fast with the legend of Lara Croft again anyway and she’s actually trying to make her pennies last in this because she doesn’t, by choice, have control over her potential inheritance. People seem to have forgotten... and so does the internet search engines, by the looks of it... that Lara Croft was originally born on something like January 10th 1968 (one day after my own birthday) and not February the 14th, which is what it was changed to a few years later to make a nice tie in with Valentine’s Day. The new movie is set contemporary to its release, which means the central character should be 50 years old now. So... clean slate and a reboot of sorts, it seems. Forget everything you thought you knew about Lara for this one because... they’re just making things up as they go for the movie.

It’s not a bad movie, though, despite having some fairly negative reviews...

Vikander is, as you would expect, excellent in the lead role (as she is in just about any role she takes on, as far as I’m concerned) and she pretty much carries the film. She is ably assisted by Dominic Cooper as her father (another character who has had a name change over the years), Walton Goggins as the villain Mathias Vogel and Daniel Wu as her new sidekick Lu Ren. And, yeah, it’s a straight up action adventure in the style of the original proposition of the first games I used to play... a kind of updated Raiders Of The Lost Ark with a female Indiana Jones figure front and centre. Or back and centre really because the third person gaming style engine on the originals meant you saw a heck of a lot more of Lara’s wiggly backside than you did of anything else, if memory serves.

And... contrary to some reports I’ve heard... it’s no better or worse than the previous Tomb Raider films and, since I quite liked the previous movies, that’s fine by me. It’s a straight, archaeology in action kind of deal and, although there are no new modern twists in the tale, which I suspect is the reason it’s getting something of a lukewarm reception, it is pretty well made and it doesn’t get too dull. Even though... and this is a shame... the story has been stripped of any supernatural elements and, perhaps, resembles more an episode of Scooby Doo in that it leads the audience in with the strong promise of a terrifying, death dealing super being and instead gives us a different and less incredible reveal than we were, perhaps, hoping for.

Still, it’s a fun film and I thought it hit a lot of the right notes.

Visually it’s very interesting because there’s a richness to the images and textures throughout. By that I mean that the director has gone out of his way to give the film a certain amount of depth to it. Not in terms of the 3D version I saw... the 3D is rather unnecessary here... but in the way that he uses various layers on screen to show the audience more going on in the background than they might get usually. It’s essentially the same trick that director Roger Corman used to use on stuff like his famous Edgar Allan Poe inspired films for AIP back in the 1960s... he always used to leave a door open into another room/part of the set to add depth and interest to the frame composition. Director Uthaug seems to be using the same kind of method here and it works fairly well. There’s never, visually at least, a dull moment.

That being said, my favourite part of the movie was the first twenty or so minutes, set in London, where the basic character of Lara is set up in somewhat contradictory form to what we have known from the character in the past. This includes a dodgy appearance by Nick Frost and a truly cool bicycle chase sequence that, alas, seems to top anything else that comes later in the movie. That being said, the director has at least tried to put in a lot of trade mark, physical ‘character situations’ from the game and you will see Lara stumble and fall and generally be placed in the way of various death traps during the course of her adventure. So that’s kind of nice.

Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) continues to show great proficiency as a film score composer and I’m pleased to see that this one, at least, has a CD release. It’s appropriate to the piece and has many nice moments which really help hold the movie together. My understanding is that he gave up the Justice League gig (reviewed here) to work on this one so I’m guessing he was a player of the old Tomb Raider games back in the day.

Ad there’s not much else to say about this one, I think. Other than stick around for a few seconds into the final credits to see another iconic piece of Miss Croft’s imagery added into the mix. A well put together action movie which has nothing really special going for it but which certainly succeeds in pretty much everything it’s trying to do. Maybe give Tomb Raider a go if you are a fan of the games or the Angelina Jolie movies.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Paddington 2

Bear Behind Bars

Paddington 2
UK/France/USA 2017
Directed by Paul King
Studio Canal Blu Ray Zone B

Late to the party again, as I was with the first installment in this extraordinarily entertaining and well made film series based on the much loved English character created by the, now sadly deceased, Michael Bond. Paddington 2 continues the adventures of everyone’s favourite marmalade sandwich eating bear from Darkest Peru as he continues to live with the Brown family and enrich the lives of his London community.

The film starts with a bit more of Paddington’s back story, depicting his first meeting with his ‘Aunt Lucy’. Now, I hate to say the film is obvious as to where it’s going but... well it’s not hard to work out what the last scene in this movie is going to be after seeing this pre-credit sequence. However... that didn’t stop me crying my eyes out at the ending due to the soppy nature of said denouement and, frankly, by the time you take the journey to the end of the film, no other ending would have done... so no problems there then.

Now, I probably didn’t enjoy Paddington 2 quite as much as the first one (which I reviewed here) but it’s certainly almost as entertaining and it has a mighty fast pace to it. All the usual slapstick applies and director Paul King, who also returns for this sequel, seems to have a good eye for creating great compositions with the obvious CGI elements added into the frames. Much of the film is predictable but it also homages the Britishness of the character... such as a bucket and ladder sequence when Paddington decides to become a window cleaner.

Why is he a window cleaner?

Well, I’m glad you asked. He needs to find a present for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday to send to Darkest Peru and he finds the perfect thing in his local antique shop... a wonderful and, as it turns out, very rare pop-up book of London. So rare that there’s no way Paddington can afford it... even with the 50 pence piece Mrs. Bird (once again played by Julie Walters) found in his ear earlier in the movie. So to raise the money, after a false start where he completely wrecks his chances at being a barber’s assistant, he embarks on a job doing everybody’s windows and... he does it pretty well too. Unfortunately, he also accidentally alerts this film’s ‘bad guy' Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an out of work actor forced to do dog food commercials, to the whereabouts of the pop-up book which, unbeknownst to most people apart from the villain of the piece, contains clues scattered around various London landmarks, leading to a famous fortune in trinkets gifted to a deceased trapeze artist.

So, the evening before Paddington finally has enough money for the book, he notices Buchanan in the act of thieving said tome from the store and gives chase in a nicely put together pursuit sequence where he rides the neighbourhood dog he has befriended. Alas, the police don’t see Buchanan exiting, pursued by a bear... they just see our furry hero so, when Buchanan gives Paddington the slip, it’s our favourite bear himself who finds himself thrown into prison. A really nice, bizarrely idealised version of prison, to be honest but, you know... ‘tis a family film.

More adventures continue as the Browns attempt to prove Paddington’s innocence while the bear of the moment and his new prison friends, played by such notable guest stars as Noah Taylor and Brendan Gleeson (as the prison cook, Knuckles McGinty) have a daring escape plan to get Paddington back on the outside to clear his name.

And, yeah, it’s a great little movie.

It’s also filled with some very inventive and lovely set pieces on the visuals...

Such as a wonderful sequence when Paddington is first shown the pop-up book and his imagination projects himself and Aunt Lucy through the cardboard cutout pages on an exploration of London. It’s a beautiful scene and it’s also, presumably deliberately, reminiscent of the old and much loved Paddington TV show of the 1970s where everyone else except Paddington was represented by cardboard cut outs.

And, after accidentally turning all the prison uniforms pink in a ‘washing incident’, many of the jail sequences seem directly inspired by the relevant sequences in The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed by me here), if I’m not very much mistaken and even Dario Marinielli’s, pretty grooving score for the movie seems to follow suit for some of those ‘Desplat moments’ on the soundtrack.

The performances are lovely too, with a whole load of cameos from famous actors such as Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Ben Miller and, seriously, so many I can’t possibly mention them all here. And, of course, along with Q branch’s very own Ben Whishaw reprising voice duties for Paddington, we have Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins back as Mr and Mrs Brown.

Both are a delight, of course and Hawkins tells the story of flying to England straight after her Oscar nominated turn in The Shape Of Water (reviewed here), only to find herself shooting more underwater scenes for Paddington 2. Now that I know the content of that underwater sequence, I have to say it’s one of those moments where Hawkin’s and a CG character absolutely pull off one of the most potentially devastating scenes you could think of in a family film. You know what you’re watching can’t possibly do what you think it’s going to do but both Sally and the CGI Paddington wordlessly convey a whole world of emotion in this part. Seriously, it really wipes me out now just thinking about it.

Of course, it’s a family film so all comes right in the end and, you know, while it has the much expected finish with a set up from the pre-credits sequence, stick around for the end credits look at Paddington’s scrapbook for a chance to see what happens to all the other characters in the film (plus an extra musical song and dance number from Hugh Grant).

And that’s all I’m saying about this one again because I’m getting all teary eyed just thinking about it, to be honest. Not as good as the first film in the franchise but a strong movie which in no way, shape or form lets down the memory of its predecessor. Paddington 2 gets two paws up from me!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Everything I Know about Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai

Curiouser And Kurosawa

Everything I Know about Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai
by Richard D. Pepperman
Michael Wiese Productions
ISBN: 978-1615932115

This book is a nice idea and the author, Richard D. Pepperman, comes more than recommended, in the blurb on the inside cover, as being one of the world’s leading authorities on the craft of motion picture making. That being said, while Kurosawa, my absolute favourite director, is certainly leading by example in all of his extremely masterful and influential films, I can’t quite get my head around the idea that everything you need to know is something that can be observed by watching a single motion picture. Still, it’s a good hook of a title and it certainly dragged me in. Frankly, anything with Kurosawa’s name on it is going to drag me in.

Everything I Know about Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai is not quite what I expected in terms of size or content, as it happens. I should really start looking at those dimension specifications they give on Amazon when they ‘shop window’ these things because, far from being a coffee table tome, the book is actually almost as small as a standard paperback... just landscape instead of portrait.

I suspect the unexpected sizing comes from the idea that, if I were a film student, I’d be able to carry it around in a coat pocket and in his introduction to the book, Mr. Pepperman seems to imply that the book is meant more as some kind of scholarly aid as opposed to a general entertainment for the masses. Not sure I’d agree with that completely but the author has gone so far as to suggest that the book is accompanied by a screening of the movie as you read and, furthermore, has taken the timings and mini chapters of the Criterion Edition DVD as his point of reference to explain where he is in the film as he goes. Which seems kinda unusual, co-opting the great Criterion Collection into the structure of his book. Especially for readers like myself, who live in countries where the Criterion edition of the movie is not readily available.

As it happens, I have two different editions of the Criterion version of Seven Samurai, including their original, first DVD release with spine number 2 on it (spine 1 was a delayed release) and I am assuming the chapter stops in this book relate to their later re-release of the film (or possibly both). That being said, I opted to not take the writers advice on watching as I read because, frankly, I know the movie pretty well by now and there are a large number of screen shots from the film accompanying the text. In fact, as Mr. Pepperman describes each scene, I could pretty much remember the way the dialogue was spoken, the attitudes/expressions of the characters and what sounds and music was on the soundtrack as I read along, so I don’t think it’s completely something you have to do while you read, truth be told.

The book approaches the film with little bursts of text a paragraph or two long, often accompanied by a screen picture, followed by a ‘Lesson Learnt’ paragraph or two. I have to say that, many of the lessons in here weren’t really things I learned and I wondered at just how much of this was new to me as I was reading, a lot of which seemed more common sense and something which you pick up as you watch the work anyway. Of course, there’s always the issue that one person’s interpretation of a film-maker’s intent, especially when you are just putting one film under a microscope, can be something where more is being read into things than were intended but, at least with Kurosawa, I think it’s fair to say that he was pretty much aware of all the marvellous things he was doing and which Pepperman has rightly picked up on. Kurosawa is not a director who I would associate with the term serendipity, for example.

And it’s really not a bad book. Simply written it conveys many concepts and techniques that Kurosawa used in this movie.

For instance, deliberately leaving a character who is clandestinely observing a scene between two other characters in soft focus and having him come more into focus (but never in sharp focus) as he approaches the objects of his scrutiny. Or the practice of sometimes starting a scene transition off without an establishing shot and focussing on a specific character, only to cut to what he is suddenly reacting to as the main focus of an establishing shot.

And so on.

With other ‘lessons learned’ occasionally having very rich pay offs like how a fade into a scene followed by a fade out can be used to smooth over a transition from night to day. Or the use of the sound of galloping hooves in the final battle scenes even when the camera is off in a different part of the village to maintain the audio focus of the peril of the sequence. These, along with other rich gems like the brevity of showing just the consequences of an action, rather than the action itself, are all something which students can learn from and, I suspect, is something that much of modern Hollywood could learn even more from.

As I read some of the writer’s observations, I couldn’t help but think of how one particular Hollywood motion picture seems to be a rich beneficiary of the kind of knowledge found in this book and how some of these techniques highlight how brilliant a certain director and the way her film was put together, adhered closely in some instances to the lessons that Kurosawa and others have gifted the cinematic art with. I was thinking, of course, of Patty Jenkins and one of the true masterpieces of modern American cinema which she bestowed upon the general public last year with her Wonder Woman movie (reviewed here)...

The use of slowing down certain actions such as Kurosawa does in a couple of moments in this movie is something which modern cinema has been doing effectively for a while (I don’t particularly like The Matrix films but I bet Kurosawa was well loved by the directors) and it’s arguably used in a different manner but I thought Jenkin’s use of this during certain small sequences of Wonder Woman were definitely an example of this kind of theatricality done right. I usually hate this kind of thing as its used these days but it didn’t jar and was, instead, used to highlight in a way which is, arguably, more in keeping with Kurosawa’s aesthetic. Similarly, the idea that Kurosawa, with Seven Samurai, wanted to make an action film which wouldn’t sacrifice or minimise the portrayal of the human characters at its heart is something I very much feel is one of the more potent and successful aspects of Jenkin’s cinematic feast.

One thing I did question about the book... and it’s something I need to check... is the fact that Kurosawa is ‘cutting shots mid action’. Now I knew he used to do this but Pepperman talks about this practice as being a “traditional and prescribed directive of the era”. Really? I thought that was kind of frowned upon in the mid 1950s. Indeed, I thought that when editor Peter Hunt brought that kind of ‘against the rules’ dynamic to Dr. No and the James Bond films which came after, he was being perceived as a little bit rebellious and breaking the rules. Perhaps, though, it was a way of doing things in Japanese cinema, at the time, which simply wasn’t in general practice in Western cinema? I don’t know, I’m going to have to explore that one further but it certainly raised the question in my mind.

Everything I Know about Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai is fairly short and it’s a pretty quick read for a movie of such length. I’ve no doubt both students of film and those audience members who are less familiar with Seven Samurai will get a heck of a lot more out of it than people who have been watching it, off and on, for a few decades but even so, this book is an invaluable aid and certainly entertaining... especially if you are picturing the expressions and tones of voice of the actors as they deliver the lines in your mind’s eye. Not a bad book to find on any cineastes shelves but, and this goes without saying, not a substitute for sitting in a room and watching the work repeatedly yourself... the film’s riches are not as inscrutable as the reputation often associated with the nationality of the director.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

You Were Never Really Here

Hammer & Bickle

You Were Never Really Here
2018 UK/France/USA Directed by Lynne Ramsay
UK cinema release print.

Warning: In order for me to talk about a couple of scenes in the way I want to talk about them, it’s necessary to have spoilers here, including the ending of the movie. Please go see the movie before you read my thoughts on it.

Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature length film. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, an actor I’ve never really appreciated until his star turn here, as the title character Joe. Joe takes on brutal, illegal jobs rescuing children from pedophiles for cash... always carrying a trusty hammer to smash his way through people to reach his goal. So, yeah, pretty much a hit man with a conscience. If you understand my title for this piece, you’ll know I’ll soon be making the much noted comparison of this movie to a rather more famous film of the 1970s and I know, already, people are getting sick of hearing this comparison from other commentators on the film. However, like I said, I will get to this in a minute because, frankly, Ramsay seems to be doing everything she can in the movie to invite this response and... she does a fine job with it too.

Now, I usually stay away from films featuring Phoenix if I can but when I saw the trailer for this I was intrigued and, frankly, when I saw who the director was then I knew that I would have to see this one. Including this movie, I’ve only seen three of Ramsay’s four feature films and her last one, We Really Need To Talk About Kevin, really didn’t do much for me, truth be told. However, anyone who directed the absolutely astonishing movie version of Morvern Callar, which I found much more interesting than the book (the book isn’t bad, mind you, but the characters seem pitched a little differently), is someone who has my trust for life.

As it happens, You Were Never Really Here is a truly great movie. There are times when it becomes an almost hypnagogic experience due to the way the images and the stark musical score by Jonny Greenwood work together, too.

After establishing the main character Joe by way of showing us the end and aftermath of a ‘previous job’ and then showing us his loving relationship with his ageing mother, who he lives with, the film drifts fairly rapidly into the main plot set up... where Joe is asked by a senator to rescue his daughter from a child prostitution ring... which is something which is a vast simplification in terms of the political damage the exposure of such a ring could do, it turns out. We follow his mission to rescue young Nina, played brilliantly by Ekaterina Samsonov and then, as Joe waits to deliver her back into the hands of her father, everything goes wrong for Joe and Nina. Joe barely manages to escape with his life. When he returns to his familiar places, everyone he knows has been tortured and killed in an effort to find him, including his mother. Joes mission now becomes to once more rescue Nina from the clutches of the politically powerful, child slave swapping ring that have created this situation in the first place.

And it’s drawn a lot of comparisons to Taxi Driver and... I really can’t disagree with that slant.

Joe’s similarity, in some ways, to "God’s lonely man" Travis Bickle and Nina’s dead-eyed version of Jodie Foster’s Iris are things I don’t think I imagined as the writer/director seems to be almost pushing these similarities on us. The visual metaphors of the streets of New York where Joe drives his car in an almost direct parody of the shots and lightning of DeNiro’s cab driving scenes in Taxi Driver can’t, I’m sure, be anything but deliberate. The seedy apartment building where Joe first rescues Nina could easily be the same building where Travis Bickle makes his final stand to rescue Iris in Scorcese’s phenomenal classic and the distancing that Scorcese achieves in some of that last shoot out (with voyeuristic, overhead shots etc) are mimicked here but in a completely different way. The film is violent in intent but, actually, not that violent in what it shows... you feel it more with the gut crunching sound design and the juxtaposition of visual information rather than see most of the violence and the way Ramsay chooses to show that first big rescue is on perpetually cycling Close Circuit Television screens as we track Joe’s progress through the pedophile's lair via media within media.

Other parallels with Taxi Driver would include the diner where Joe and Nina drink their milkshakes at the end of the movie and there’s even, during that 'New York by night' drive-by sequence, that shot where the camera focuses on what’s outside the front windscreen before shifting so the rear view mirror comes into sharp focus.

So, yeah, I can’t really blame people for talking about the Scorcese movie in relation to this one. It even, in some ways, seems to have the same plot as Scorcese’s noted influence on his version. That being that of the central story of John Ford’s The Searchers, where Nina takes on the motivation associated with the Natalie Wood role in that film.

One of the other influences which I think some people are maybe missing (or maybe it’s just me seeing what I want to see), is that of the cinema of Sergio Leone. In a lot (not quite all) of Leone’s cinema, we have the characters (and audience) being constantly informed and updated by memory flashbacks to a back story outside the current one and this is what Ramsay does with Joe’s character so that, by the end, we have an understanding and sympathy with the character as his own childhood trauma is made accessible to us. Ramsay is also exceptionally clever here because those little flashes of memory kind of creep up on us almost unannounced in a lot of instances and she does this, I believe, by showing us lots of random details in little flashes in a similar way. For instance, we might see a floor polisher suddenly filling the screen for a few seconds or Joe’s mouth at a water fountain. These little cut aways make the other cutaways to Joe’s turbulent past and his obsession with breath play and constant contemplation and fascination with suicide a more palatable and easy thing to accept in the general flow of information as this gem unfolds.

There are some really great moments here, too, which are real flashes of the Ramsay genius and I think my favourite of these is the moment where Joe buries his mother in a lake and weighs his pockets down with rocks too... in a bid to bury himself with her. As we see Joe and the black plastic bag that holds his mum float down to the bottom of the lake, we hear Joe counting in his head on the soundtrack... counting down to his own death, We are then instantly reminded of Nina’s countdown to something on the soundtrack earlier in the film and when Joe opens his eyes at the realisation that he really has to go rescue her again, we see Nina swimming up from the bottom of the lake in Joe’s mind too, as he liberates himself from the water which seemed to be the answer to his obvious death wish.

Now, the ending of the movie is brilliant but I’ve seen some people saying that it competely changes the perception of everything that happens before it. Now, maybe I’m just exceptionally slow or stupid but... I beg to differ. And this really is a big spoiler here folks so, you know, look away and go off and see the movie instead, if you haven’t already done so...

When Nina goes off to a restroom in the diner, Joe takes a revolver and blows his own brains out on the table. Everybody else around him carries on like normal and the blood spattered waitress even plonks his bill down on the table in the big pool of red fluid forming and we realise that he is just imaging this, as Nina returns and wakes him from his revelry. Now, some people are taking this and the prominence of pills he pops to try and keep his haunting childhood memories at bay as testament that none of the things in the movie actually happened and that it was all in his head. I don’t think so... I think this is a natural progression for the two characters and everything did, indeed, happen as we saw it. And besides... Joe still has that big hole in his cheek where he was shot through the face earlier in the movie. So.. a great ending yes but, game changing? No.

And that’s all I have to say about this one. Like Morvern Callar before it, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is an absolute classic of modern cinema and the blatant references to Taxi Driver (which only affect the reading if you’ve seen the earlier movie and are frankly not impactful on the story) in no way hinder the movie... they just indicate a confident director’s acknowledgment of cinematic history within the context of her own movie. A true masterpiece and one which I hope sees her getting a lot of recognition and well deserved praise.

Oh... and for the record... Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely brilliant in this.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Twin Peaks Series One

Norwegian Wood

Twin Peaks Series One
Produced by David Lynch & Mark Frost
1990 USA Blu Ray Zone B

Well... it’s been a long time since I settled back down to watch episodes of Twin Peaks, I can tell you.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 28 years since I last watched these things. I remember it fairly vividly because it coincided with when I was studying for my degree in Graphic Design and all the other ‘kids’ were talking about it too. In fact, one of the things that sticks in my mind was that, when some episodes were broadcast, I’d have a few of my old school friends over to watch that week’s episode live, as it happened (yeah, that’s how we had to watch TV in those days kiddies... one week at a time) and my mother would bake us a cherry pie specifically so we could be chomping down and knocking it back with some coffee as we were all hypnotised by the latest exploits of Special Agent Dale Cooper and the residents of that small, surreal town.

I guess you can all figure out why I’m rewatching these now, though, right?

Lynch has now embarked on a third series which, maybe, picks up on things many years after the point where the second series came to an abrupt, cliff-hanger of an ending... albeit he’s doing it without some of my favourite characters in the latest incarnation. Now, I’m not blessed with having whatever digital channel have the exclusive rights to the new series, so I really have no access as yet ( please note, I wrote the first draft of this review last year, before my next sentence came to pass). However, I figured there must be a Blu Ray release of these new ones coming up sometime within the next year so I thought, since it’s been so long since I watched these things, that maybe it was about time I rewatched both the first two series plus the prequel movie, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me, so my memory is refreshed for when I finally am able to see the new ones. I was going to watch my old Dutch gold box set of DVDs, which was out way before it got released in that format in either America or England and which, for many reasons, I never actually got around to watching when I ordered it decades ago. However, while I was hunting for bargains in Fopp Records I came across a real bargain with the new Blu Ray set being even cheaper than it is on Amazon. All 29 episodes, plus the pilot, plus the international version of the pilot with the closed ending, plus the movie prequel and gazillions of missing scenes was going for just £20... so I thought I’d pick it up and really revisit this great TV show again, in style.

David Lynch was a really huge name at the time this came out and we were all chomping at the bit to see the first episode. We were all expecting something a little surreal... which it certainly is, especially in the second series... and we’d also been warned, via the good old Radio Times television guides from that year, that the show would be a soap opera of sorts. What we weren’t expecting was the wide eyed 1950s innocent style of soap opera dialogue mixed with some really interesting visual designs and a strong sense of being caught up in the dark belly of small town USA. Although, I kinda guess we should have seen it coming after Blue Velvet.

Everything is fairly laid back and the majority of the first episode introduces us, fairly slowly, to most of the supporting characters as we share with them the discovery of Laura Palmer’s corpse, wrapped in plastic and murdered in somewhat unusual circumstances. The last third of the first episode introduces Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI, as he officially joins Sheriff Harry S. Truman (played by Michael Ontkean) to solve the mystery.

I hadn’t realised it at the time it was being shown but, each episode is meant to represent one day (and night) in the life of Twin Peaks so the series runs in something approaching edited highlights of ‘real time’... therefore, hot on the heels of Agent Cooper checking into The Great Northern Hotel at the end of that pilot episode, we join him hanging upside down like a bat in his room the next morning at the start of the second episode and things start to move along very quickly after that.

Twin Peaks is one of those shows you can’t really describe to someone... you just have to let them watch it and be slowly seduced by its dreamy charms. However, there were some interestingly eccentric characters and set pieces along the way in the first, very short series of just eight episodes (including the pilot) which everybody remembers, some of which became almost cliché when they were revisited more often in the show’s second year.

Like the dancing, thumb clicking dwarf played by Michael J. Anderson, inhabiting a dream world that’s possibly not only existing in the dreams of Agent Cooper and in which he and any other characters, perform and talk their dialogue backwards before the film is reversed to make more sense (more sense being a very relative phrase in the small town of Twin Peaks, of course). Lynch’s regular musical collaborator, Angelo Badlamenti, provides a wonderfully jazzy score which really comes into its own in sequences like this and Lynch’s other frequent flyer, vocalist Julee Cruise (who I was fortunate enough to meet once, very briefly) is also on hand in the series every now and again, both in vocal presence and as a singer in the show itself, to really help Lynch create a memorable and arrestingly haunting musical landscape for the town.

Another interesting character would be Catherine E. Coulson as The Log Lady. A lady who carries her log with her as a constant companion and who is willing to translate the log’s unheard response when  asked pertinent questions about the death of Laura Palmer.

And who can forget Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey, the bad school girl with a crush on Agent Cooper. Those dreamy dances and dangerously out of control shenanigans delight as she gets herself in and out of trouble and frightens away the Norwegians who were to have signed a deal with her father... a parent played by Richard Beymer, who is trying to burn down the lumber mill to grab the land... or is the soap opera plot of that one even more convoluted than we can possibly imagine? There’s a wonderful scene in the 7th episode of the series where Audrey auditions for the local whore house by taking a cherry stalk in her mouth and then tying a knot in it just by using her tongue, demonstrating to her future employer the skilled muscles available in her mouth to potential clients. That scene was talked about for months by people after it aired over here. I remember, it was quite quick that she had gotten so popular that she posed naked for an issue of Playboy magazine. That marked the one and only time I ever went out and bought an issue of Playboy (for the articles, honest guv). I still have it.

I could spend ages going through the whole cast of this terrific show but I’ll leave them there and maybe just comment that with Russ Tamblyn’s crazy psychiatrist character Doctor Jacobi... it’s nice to have two gang members from West Side Story present in the same show (Beymer being the other, of course).

Oh... and there was Bob. Bob, who would get even more terrifying in the second series, for sure.

At the end of the first season a load of threads are taken to an extreme set of cliff hangers. I remember everyone tuning in for the last episode of series one expecting some kind of resolution and instead getting faced with loads of plot lines leaving us dangling... such as Audrey finding out that the client she is about to service in her new sex worker role is none other than her father. And, even worse, the gun shot that fells Agent Cooper at the very end of the last episode and which wouldn’t be resolved.... very, very slowly, if I recall correctly... until the following season’s opening.

People wanted more of this and, at that particular time, the network which would go on to cancel it at the end of Series Two were only too happy to let Lynch and Frost give it to us... although it wasn’t entirely on the creators' terms, if I recall correctly.

If you haven’t ever seen Twin Peaks, get yourself hooked up to it because it's quite wonderful (and quite powerfully heart stopping in certain moments of Series Two, if I’m remembering correctly). Essential television viewing which stands above a lot of TV history and which will transport you to another state of mind, especially if you bring a slice of cherry pie to watch it with you. Now I’m going to catch up on the second season so, you know... I’ll report back here eventually. Perhaps when the brand of gum I like has come back into style.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Unfolding

The Twice Fold Tale

The Unfolding
UK 2016 Directed by Euguene McGing
Icon/FrightFest Presents... DVD Region 2

Warning: I need to discuss something specific about the end and that means their are spoilers in here... sorry.

The Unfolding is a British film entry into what technically comes under the ‘found footage’ genre of horror movie and which was directed on an extremely low budget over a number of years. It looks and feels a little cheap, to be fair but... mostly it gets around perceived production values because of the nature of the format of the material you are watching... I’ll get to that particular ingredient of the movie in a minute. It’s actually quite a nice little movie and, considering the budget and the time put into bringing this idea to life... well... it’s really worth a watch if you are into the ‘haunted house’ genre.

The film starts off with the car journey, involving two of our five main protagonists, to a house in Dartmoor and we see everything from the point of view of one of the characters holding the camera (they take it in turns) and, of course, the footage is all nicely edited together. They make stops on their trip to take a look at certain aspects of the rainy, windy and misty scenery (including a ghostly hound which shimmers in and out of existence through the mist on some far away rock - shades of The Hound of The Baskervilles, perhaps?). Meanwhile, the car radio tells us of unrest in the world and the news is a constant thing being referred to on radio and TV sources throughout the film... that the world is on the very brink of global thermonuclear war.

Meanwhile, our two lead characters, Tam (Lachlan Nieboer) and his girlfriend Rose (Lisa Kerr) are heading to meet some friends in said haunted house. Tam is researching paranormal activity for his university work but the first signs that the couple are going to get more than they bargained for is when they arrive very late (because of all that sightseeing) and their friends are all leaving. Said friends urge Tam and Rose not to stay but they are out of their fairly quickly and one of them gives Tam the key so ‘our heroes’ can let themselves in. Once there, various cameras are set up so that any paranormal activity can be recorded as and when it happens.

It doesn’t take long for the spooky shenanigans to take hold and, as the film runs it’s fairly predictable but nicely executed course, more characters are introduced into the text, starting with Tam’s best mate Harvey, played by Nick Julian. After some fairly unsettling events such as cutlery embedded in the kitchen walls, rooms trashed unheard and the usual scary noises that such films use to create unease and tension in the viewer, Tam calls in his tutor Professor Chessman, played by Robert Daws, for expert advice and to help keep them on a straight path. It’s clear to the gentleman in question that the events at the house are probably the most explicit and clear he’s ever seen so he leaves the three overnight to go and get his ‘medium’ friend. All the while, of course, the script never lets up about the possibility of impending nuclear apocalypse and this leads to a nice line when, as the Professor leaves the three youngsters in what has fast become the ‘house of hell’, he turns around and says something along the lines of... “considering what’s going on out there, this is probably the safest place for you”... which is kind of unsettling.

Indeed, when Harvey wants to leave it’s because he has a conversation (off screen) with his long dead brother who says he wants to help him but he can’t and that, in a little while, it won’t matter anyway. So, yeah, the filmmakers aren’t really hiding where this is all heading but, you know, I posted the spoiler warning anyway on the off chance some people won’t figure out the ending within the first five minutes of the start of the movie.

When the Professor returns the next day, he has his 'medium' friend, Muriel, played by Kitty McGeever and she finds all sorts of stuff out. The house is a magnet for various spirits that need laying to rest and the current worldwide threat seems to be causing the house to act as a kind of magnified focal point to all the activity. After she helps one spirit on its way she comes across another spirit of an abusive murderer who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want to pass to his resting place and, in fact, wants to kill them all. And that’s when things start to really escalate for a finale which is, in all fairness, a bit of a hectic, somewhat rushed and confusing denouement to what has been a nicely done lead in.

Okay... so the atmosphere on this movie is cracking. It takes its time, adds a few cheap but effective jump scares of the kind you normally get in movies such as these and, altogether, it’s a pretty good effort. I’ve read some comments online that the acting is not up to scratch but it seemed pretty good and naturalistic to me. Frankly, if you are doing a movie within the ‘found footage’ genre then you really need good actors who can carry this sort of deadpan, reactive form of acting off and the cast have it here in spades. My one big bone of contention is the ending, however.

Yeah, the ending is a problem here, not just because it’s pretty obvious all the way through that it’s leading up to the destruction of the world via nuclear missiles... it’s also because of the implications of that ending on the actual format of the movie itself. All the way through the film has been brought to us from various POV camerawork held by various of the characters or documented sources such as surveillance cameras... and it’s all been nicely edited together (let’s not involve ourselves with the fact that you wouldn’t necessarily keep the camera going while you’re trying to run for your life, etc.). So, yeah, we are asked to suspend our disbelief and involve ourselves in the illusion that this footage has been chosen from... and assembled... to give us an accurate glimpse into ‘what went on’. Also... and this is kind of bizarre... the footage has been scored, quite effectively as it happens,  by composer Leslie Rothwell. So, hang on, a presumably fictional character is supposed to have sifted through multi-sourced footage, edited it together, added a creepy score... even though the world has just ended and the footage would most likely have been destroyed in the bomb blasts anyway. And, furthermore, who would be the proposed audience for such an assembly... everyone just died.

So yeah, the ridiculous follow through on the ending is a huge problem with The Unfolding and it kind of lets things down quite a bit. That being said, getting to that end point is pretty good and, though it's not nearly as polished as most found footage horror movies I’ve seen (if such a term isn’t a direct contradiction to the nature of the medium), it’s probably worth giving this one a look if you’re a fan of this particular strand of horror. The tension created by the juxtaposition of a series of supernatural happenings and a cataclysmic, military solution to the world’s events made me think a little of the Professor Quatermass adventures or an old episode of Sapphire And Steel, to be honest. Nowhere near the best of these kinds of movies but definitely not the worst (I promise) so it does have some stuff going for it and, with a £4.85 price tag on Amazon, it might be worth buying in for one of those cosy evenings at home towards the end of the year, as the winter draws in a little colder.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Michael Moorcock's Legends of the Multiverse

Soul Duggery

Michael Moorcock's
Legends of the Multiverse

Edited by J. M. Lofficier
Black Coat Press ISBN: 978-1612272726

For a book with such a title as Michael Moorcock’s Legends of the Multiverse, it’s surprising how little of it is actually written by Michael Moorcock...

But that wasn’t exactly unexpected and it does kind of uphold a certain tradition in terms of where this particular writer sits with his phenomenally successful characters. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

I first discovered Moorcock in the early to mid 1980s. I managed to somehow see a rare television screening of the excellent screen adaptation of the first of his full length Jerry Cornelius novels, The Final Programme... which I reviewed here a number of years ago. Now, Moorcock reportedly hates this movie but, I have to say, if I’d not seen it then, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have ended up reading about 60 of his novels over the next few years, picked up along with many other writers’ works from various second hand bookshops at between 10p to 30p a shot. Some of his ones I even bought brand new... which is saying something for those days (in actual fact, what it’s saying is that I couldn’t find a cheaper way to read some of these things).

I soon discovered two of my other favourite Moorcock characters too. There was Elric Of Melnibone, the albino king and last of his people who travels The Young Kingdoms calling upon Arioch, The God of Chaos, to help him in times of trouble and carrying the black rune sword Stormbringer... which drinks the souls of Elric’s enemies and, sometimes, friends and lovers, in it’s insatiable thirst for more souls, some of which it channels back to it’s current owner to keep strength in the albino’s weakened limbs.

And my other favourite was Dorian Hawkmoon, who had a black rune stone planted as a third eye in his skull to feed back pictures of his deeds to his enemies, so they could keep tabs on him... and his quest to be rid of this curse and destroy those who would harm him and his friends. I’m sorry if that’s vague but... it’s quite a number of decades since I read these but I would very much like to read them again. I remember the Hawkmoon tales were the first time I’d come upon the concept of an ornithopter.

Of course, I also read others of Moorcock’s heroes such as The Chronicles of Corum, The Dancers At The End Of Time and Erekose and, after a while, you start to realise that there’s a common thread to these tales. For example, some of the events of the first Jerry Cornelius novel and various Elric adventures are echoed in both dialogue (“What’s the hour?” VS “What time is it?” etc.) and events such as the inadvertent death of each one’s sister by their own hand - a needle gun dart through the heart for Catherine Cornelius and a run in with Stormbringer for Elric’s sister. That being said, especially in terms of the Cornelius chronicles, nobody stays dead for very long but then again, it’s really hard to tell just what the heck is going on in the Cornelius books from moment to moment anyway and, perhaps, that’s a big part of their appeal to me (after merging with Miss Brunner as a hermaphroditic creature leading mankind to its own death at the end of The Final Programme, Cornelius turns up alive and well as a negative impression of himself with black flesh and white hair in the next story... but he’s back to his normal look in the third novel, The English Assassin... although he does spend pretty much all of that novel inside a coffin... but that’s another story).

Anyway, there’s a point you get to with Moorcock, when heroes start converging on a place called Tanelorn, in whichever book from whichever series you are reading, that you realise that all his characters are manifestations of the same character, The Eternal Champion, in different incarnations in a vast ‘multiverse’. And when Elric blows a mythical horn and brings an end to all the different dimensional worlds in one fell stroke, there is nothing left of any of these characters or their universes. But, of course, Moorcock being Moorcock, this doesn’t really phase any of them for that long, it seems to me.

So here I am right where I came in, with a timely reminder that Michael Moorcock’s Legends of the Multiverse doesn’t have that much of Moorcock himself in it. I didn’t realise it until it was in my hands but this tome is an imprint of Black Coat Press, who bring out some unbelievably cool short story collections by various genre writers mixing up various heroes and villains from every walk of literature, cinema and TV and kind of scramble them up in unusual combinations, calling it Tales Of The Shadowmen. So you have things like young Bruce Wayne meeting The Shadow or Judex... Fantomas, Arsene Lupin  and Diabolik all sharing a story. Or Barbarella kidnapping Captain Kirk. Or something unusual going on with Babar the elephant. I read one of these annually  produced collections every year (pretty much every Christmas) but I’m always a year behind so I never quite get around to reviewing them for this website. Maybe next year will be the year I catch up and write that review.

Anyway, the two tales from Moorcock which turn up in this volume are actually reprints of previous Tales Of The Shadowmen collections (Kim Newman’s Angels Of Music also started life in the pages of these editions, for those of you who are interested in such things)... so I’d already read those. A lot of the other stories are from a proposed French edition of new Elric stories which never came to fruition. About half of those stories only made it into this volume because... and I don’t know why this was... the remaining writers didn’t want their stories translated into the English language, apparently. Which is curious, to say the least.

I personally have no worries about other writers handling Moorcock’s characters and, apparently, nor does Moorcock. Which kinda makes sense because, when Jerry Cornelius was a star character in the Moorcock edited anthologies of new science fiction writing in the 1960s called New Worlds, he made a present of his Jerry Cornelius character to a number of writers who kinda did their own thing with him. So, in a certain way, this book is almost harkening back to tradition with the way it’s been put together.

It would be fair to say that the book is pretty Elric-centric and you would kind of expect that given the origins of most of the tales here but it doesn’t get too wearing. There are a few Cornelius tales and even a, fairly strange, Hawkmoon story set both before and after (depending on which character you are talking about within the story), the events that transpired at Tanelorn.

And most of the tales are actually quite good and, surprisingly, a fair few of them are pretty much in the style of Moorcock himself. The Elric stories are a bit of a cliché most of the time... you can figure out, for instance, that a character who he goes out of his way to protect in one story is going to become a victim to his savage rune sword before the story is done. Tragedy, death and ambivalence continue to follow Elric and his faithful companion Moonglum through story after story and... yeah... most of these are pretty cool.

There were, however, three stories which I found especially impressive...

The first of these was by Matthew Baugh and it’s called The Garden Of Everything. This one is an additional tale to the chronicles of Corum, who was a character who I never really liked as much as some of the other incarnations of The Eternal Champion but Baugh weaves a quite moving and interesting story of innocence, love, fatherhood and loss which takes place all over the space of just a few days. The writing is sensitive and definitely kept me guessing all the way through.

The next one I’d highlight would be Paul DiFillippo’s Elric tale, The Stealer Of Marketshare (after Moorcock’s own The Stealer Of Souls). This is a curious metaphorical story which takes the hero of The Young Kingdoms and sets up a satire about and the way it conflicts and swallows small businesses. If that sounds silly, well... yeah it is but, somehow, the writer manages to make this thing work and, it has to be experienced to be appreciated, I think.

My last ‘one to write home about’ story in this collection would be Johan Heliot’s The Music Of Souls. This has the main protagonist, a music reporter for a small newspaper in the 1950s and, in particular, in Liverpool, a few years before the emergence of The Beatles. It’s a fascinating look at the music scene of the time and the main protagonist spends his time following a version of Elric who is a session musician working with numerous new bands at places like the famous Cavern Club. Except the albino rocker carries with him his black rune guitar with which, after a while, he tends to slaughter his fellow band members and absorb their souls as he might when Stormbringer was a sword and not a musical instrument. It’s a really great piece as we learn how Elric uses the main protagonist as a kind of Moonglum figure, to chronicle his misdeeds while he is in our dimension. Really interesting stuff.

And that’s me done on Michael Moorcock’s Legends Of The Multiverse, I think. A great little read and, if anything, it’s reminded me what I’ve been missing over the years so I think a Moorcock re-read may well be in the cards sometime over the next few years... once I can get the book backlog under a little more control. Definitely recommended for fans of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, for sure but probably not a good jumping on point for those unfamiliar with his work... but I guess that’s the nature of the beast... or perhaps the nature of the catastrophe. My watch has stopped.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Red Sparrow

Nate N’ Sparrow

Red Sparrow
2018 USA Directed by Francis Lawrence
UK cinema release print.

Red Sparrow is a Cold War spy thriller based on a novel, the first part of a trilogy, by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews. So I guess you can certainly say the writer of the source material knows where he’s coming from in terms of the nuts and bolts operating procedures used in the story and this certainly, I think, comes through in the filmed version.

Now before I go any further, I have to say that I went into this movie knowing it was pre-cut for release in the UK... which is something I almost never humour or entertain. However, the trailer really intrigued me so I made one of my rare ‘window shopping only’ cinema trips. If I liked this ‘selected highlights’ version of the movie then I would buy the full, uncut version from the US market when it comes out on Blu Ray. Which I will be doing, as it happens. However, I really wouldn’t consider the UK presentation the same as being able to actually watch the movie itself. Why? Because I consider even a single frame (one 24th of a second) excised from a movie to be an incomplete edition and not the full work of art. I remember well the old late 1980s TV showings of Blade Runner (reviewed here) where, just the removal of one single swear word totally changed the underlying atmosphere of a specific scene and gave a different emotional hit from it. So... no... watching a movie with cuts is not the same as watching the actual film and I’m both ashamed and offended that censors in this day and age still exist. And I am certainly not giving any respect to the studio who released this and allowed it to be cut just to get a lower rating. Forget the money, guys, it’s about the art... let it lose money, it’s not that important. Art is more important. Entertainment is art and art is not a business. I know that’s a totally naive and less than credible thing to say about the Hollywood money machine but I don’t care... unless we strive to reach that ideal then we’ll never, ever get there.

So anyway... Red Sparrow is not the film I was expecting it to be.

It looked, from the trailer, like an edgier version of the film the Marvel Black Widow movie... if that ever sees the light of day... should be but, although it certainly is edgier than I would imagine Marvel would let their Natasha film be, this one isn’t an ‘action’ thriller by any sense of the expression and if you’re looking for a ‘high octane’ guns and explosions kind of movie, you’re definitely in the wrong place.

This film is actually a proper spy thriller.

It has an edge to it for sure but it’s more like a brutal version of something that John Le Carre or Len Deighton might have written so, oh yeah, I’m definitely a big fan of this film (or what little I saw of it... one of the cuts made is clumsy and obvious so I'm looking forward to seeing the ‘Jean Rollinesque’ pay-off to a certain, early sequence in the film).

Jennifer Lawrence is an actress who impresses me more and more with every film I see her in. I didn’t see her Hunger Games films by the same director (who is no relation to her, despite the surname) because the Young Adult nature of the source material put me off but everything I have seen her in, I have sat up and taken note. I hated Aronofsky’s Mother! (reviewed here) for example but, even in that, you can see what a great and dedicated performer she is and my respect for her deepens with Red Sparrow because, well, it’s a really brave part to take on and she really runs with it. Considering you have some real acting heavyweights in the cinematic ring with her on this one, such as Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling, she does a really good job and more than holds her own. Watching her career now with a lot of interest.

The film is about her character, Dominika Egorova, a once a world famous ballet star but now recruited, due to circumstances I won’t spoil here (even though they’re on the trailer), to the secret government division of agents code named the Red Sparrows. It’s specifically about a plot concerning US intelligence operative Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton) and the identity of a Russian mole he is trying to keep secret. The film tells the story of the grey areas where the lives of these two agents overlap and penetrate each other. It raises the obvious questions about whether Dominika is committed to the Russians or whether she is really helping the Americans and, any weaknesses in the story come, I think, from the writing more than anything else. For instance, there’s a scene where you will definitely find out one way or another, whose side she is on  but I was pretty sure the way it has been set up to make you think the opposite of the truth of the situation was, in itself, giving the game away. Another slightly problematic thing is the identity of the mole, who I was pretty sure I had guessed correctly from the outset and when the reveal came later... again, it was the obvious choice. That being said, there is a nice bit of shenanigans with that character right near the end of the film where Dominika pulls her own trump card which is a moment I didn’t quite see coming... although it makes perfect sense with the way the recruitment of her character is pitched at the start of the piece.

However, these little obvious things really don’t stop this movie from being a really tight spy thriller and I really enjoyed this one a lot more than some of the other, recent attempts to juggle the expectations of ‘action thriller’ as opposed to ‘spy thriller’ in modern cinema. There’s also some really great stuff going on with the way the film is put together too... asides from the nude scenes with Jennifer Lawrence which, of course, are already leading this movie into ‘great’ territory’. ;-)

For instance, there are some nice things done with the sound in certain sequences, such as the boiling sound of a whistling kettle transmuting into the squeak of an opening door in the next scene. Also, the crosscutting of the plot set up with Nate and the introduction of Dominika’s character in the pre-credits sequence, long before either of these characters meet in the chronology of the story, is handled really well and could have gone completely wrong but it’s edited very competently and doesn’t lose the atmosphere of two things coming to a simultaneous, mini climax.

Another thing the director seems to like to do is to set up expectations of a sequence by showing you what happens with a different character earlier in the film and then upending that expectation the second time around. Such as showing the presence of another character’s nasty demise in a similar situation before leading up to it again with a slightly different denouement. This is something which another great spy thriller, The Quiller Memorandum (reviewed by me here), does in its opening phone booth sequence, setting the audience up for a similar moment much later in the film. In Red Sparrow, this technique almost takes on metatextual proportions when one of the characters uses a video of a sequence to deliberately foreshadow the possibilities of ‘what comes next’ to one of the other characters in an interrogations scene. So the film really wears its foreshadowing on its sleeve here and demonstrates an awareness of how those same, subconscious tricks used on the audience can also be brought into play in the context of the movie itself.

Another thing which got me into the cinema to see this was the promise of a new James Newton Howard score. This composer has grown on me over the years and my appreciation increased after I saw a London concert last year. This isn’t, as I’d initially expected, in the same kind of mode as his excellent score for Salt (movie reviewed here) but is a much slower score with a lot of Russian flourishes (or possibly the Westernised perception of Russian musical phrases) peppered into the mix. I suspect it will take me a few stand alone listens to fully get into but it will be getting a proper CD release at the end of the month so I will, at least, get a chance. There’s some stuff in it, especially in a later scene where Dominika meets Nate in his apartment, which plays out like something Bernard Herrmann might have written for it so, yeah, definitely looking forward to the physical release and it certainly works in the context of the movie itself.

The film has a wonderfully ambiguous ending too. I am in no way spoiling it but, now that I know the source material is a trilogy of novels it certainly makes more sense that things aren’t so ‘spelled out’ for the audience and I can only hope (although somehow doubt) that the director and actors reunite for two sequels. Time will tell, I guess.

Red Sparrow is definitely a solid recommendation from me, especially to fans of spy movies which don’t just limit themselves to the action packed confections of the James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. A proper espionage thriller with a very cold sting to it and something which deserves to do a lot better at the box office than I expect it to. Absolutely go and see this one because it’s rare these days that movies like this are let out the gate, so to speak. Stupid plot holes for sure (like how can a world famous ballerina go under cover by dying her hair blonde?) but a top notch thriller, nonetheless.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Lady Bird

Bird Processor

Lady Bird
2017 USA Directed by Greta Gerwig
UK cinema release print.

I’ve not seen Greta Gerwig in much... but I was impressed with her performance in Frances Ha (reviewed by me here) which she co-wrote with her current partner, director Noah Baumbach and I also saw her in a more minor role in Jackie (reviewed here). She seems to be a pretty good actress and an engaging personality. Lady Bird, which she also wrote but doesn’t star in, is her 'solo directorial debut' (it’s technically her second feature) and it’s ‘inspired by’ her time growing up and going to a Catholic High School in Sacramento.

The film stars the always wonderful Saoirse Ronan, who impressed me as Hanna (reviewed here), continued to impress me in Byzantium (reviewed here) and also in her small role in The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here). I’m not sure how long she can keep playing these ‘young waif’ parts (she’s actually 23) but she gets away with it here and I can’t imagine anyone else being as good in this role.

The film takes place in 2002, which seems a strange time to set it in terms of period colour or anchor point details...  except it coincides with the director’s time at the same school, apparently. It’s a little bit of a cliché, I guess, in that it’s a familiar tale of the trials, tribulations and angst that comes from going to High School, falling out with friends and then winning them back, first sexual encounters etc. It also, though, deals with a strong clash of personalities as the main character, Lady Bird (her given name... she gave it to herself) and her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf) are constantly pitched against each other... like many families, I guess.

The film is completely successful, though, in everything that it sets out to do.

There’s no real story in the linear sense of plot goals etc (unless you count the constant plot point about getting into a halfway good college) but it’s one of those tales where the story takes on the shape of the little experiences and bonds which various characters share as they continue through their passage towards the conclusion of the movie... ending up with a piece which is a complete sketch of a character and her milieu with an ending that’s a little unexpected in its rapidity and, in some ways, slight lack of closure. Although, that being said, any chance of any more closure to the arc might have endangered the film's credibility and made it a little too syrupy, I suspect. it’s a pretty good ending as it is anyway. I won’t try and summarise the film in my usual way because it won’t really amount to much in terms of plot details, I suspect.

What I will say is that the film is also extremely smart and funny as hell. And, it has to be said, well observed.

One of the things which stood out for me was, for the most part, the way in which the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother can really flip on a dime, like a lot of families can kind of juggle that hell-hath-no-fury to ‘ooh, that’s a nice dress’ kind of back and forth with relative ease and with no real idea of how that kind of almost bipolar behaviour looks to an outsider. There’s a lot of that style of dialogue and attitude of the ‘functional vs disfunctional’ family unit going on here and it’s to Gerwig and her performer’s credit that it comes over so well when other movies might treat that similar dynamic in a less credible way and with a much heavier hand or, more often than not, leave it out completely.

The other thing the film does well... and this is as much about the performances and the way they are edited as much as the writing... is to deal with the comedy of the way opposite desires or emotions are suddenly turned on their head and acted upon by setting up an expectation of the strength of the lack of commitment to a specific action and then instantly defeating it. That is to say, and I’ll use a really crude example here to illustrate, culled from dozens of movies every year but not, I’m happy to say, from Lady Bird. What I’m talking about is that kind of comedic set up where person x tells person y that such and such is something that they’re never going to do and then you cut to a scene where they are doing the exact thing they just said they would never do. Now, Lady Bird doesn’t do anything quite that primitive in execution but a lot of the, very funny and true humour of the thing comes from that awkward kind of ‘what does person x want me to say’, then saying the wrong thing anyway and then quickly back peddling or negating the original thought or opinion with the opposite kind of acknowledgment. And it really works here. If you’re going to do this kind of observational comedy and not let it cross over into the embarrassment of the characters then the timing has to be dead right and, yeah... it’s done so well here. This kind of humour doesn’t always work but, in Lady Bird, it almost never misfires.

I guess the main things which really help the movie breeze along is the truth in the characters (you feel like these are real people Gerwig is writing about and, I suspect, that’s probably the case) and the sheer sense of fun in the humour. For instance, the shot where Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein) are lying on the floor chatting energetically while eating their way through a jar of communal wafers had a good reaction from the audience and brought a smile to my face. And this sense of fun and honesty permeates the film so that you really can’t help but like it.

Probably the one reason I wanted to go and see this movie is because the trailer had a song from The Monkees psychedelic trip of a movie, Head, in it... As We Go Along if I recall correctly. Alas, unless I was concentrating on something too hard and missed it, the song never found its way into the actual movie but, luckily, the film was so good I really didn’t mind. It’s only February but so far this year we’ve had a lot of great movies already and, obviously, Lady Bird is one of them. Recommended to all lovers of cinema but especially those who cherish a good ear for dialogue and a sense of fun that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. Really glad I got to see this one at a cinema.