Monday, 30 August 2010

Bleu Movie

Trois Couleurs: Bleu 1993
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

I remember going to see this at a late night performance at, what was then, the Lumiere cinema in London back when this movie was first released. A couple of mates and I had driven into London late one night to specifically see this movie and we were all really tired... but as soon as the movie started we were completely hooked on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s amazing movie. I’d persuaded my friends to drive into town to watch this on the strength of a TV screening of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love and his Decalog (which includes a shorter, alternate version of that film but with a different ending).

Blue didn't disappoint any of us... it was everything we were looking for in a movie right then... if we even knew what we were looking for. Rewatching it for the first time in a very long time, I was struck by how the director’s movies are both so distant and yet so utterly involving in their complex make up. Something about his movies gives you a very voyeuristic feeling... which is kinda strange considering that Kieslowski’s style of filming is quite artificial and the absolute antithesis of something like the “more than questionable” “style” of Dogme filmmaking which became slightly fashionable for a while (and don’t start me off about the inherent contradictions in the Dogme manifesto which make it impossible to even begin to shoot a movie in that style without ignoring the ground rules... I get kinda passionate and angry about it).

Kieslowski’s Blue uses a very strong colour palette (as some of his films do), and you will get primary colours juxtaposed against each other, much like in the movies of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, although they are not as deeply saturated as the colours those directors play with... but Kieslowski shows us that these colours are certainly strong enough to bounce off each other and create their own colour space without having to accent them so strongly. And of course... there’s a lot of blue filtering in this movie. It’s a visually striking film.

Blue tells the story of Julie, deftly played by Juliette Binoche, who is in a car crash at the start of the movie to which she loses both her young daughter and her famous composer husband. When she alone survives and finds that she is unable to take her own life, she runs away from it all and gets rid of as much of her previous life as she can and just tries to stay out of people’s way. Not so easy because a colleague of here husband, Olivier, is in love with her and tracks her down and keeps trying to find ways to attract her attention. It's suggested as a possibility, early on in the narrative, that Julie might be the actual writer of her famous husbands compositions. This is neither confirmed or denied because Kieslowski seems to have a fondness for filling his films with ambiguity and an acute lack of closure... which is absolutely fine. You make up your own mind. Certainly, as she assists and pretty much takes over from Olivier in his task to finish her husbands last important composition, the circumstantial evidence is compelling that she might well have been the true author of her husbands works.

Kieslowski tends to focus on little details in his films... little moments of extreme beauty like the drip, drip of the fuel from the tail pipe of a car or a feather lightly blowing in the wind. And it’s really interesting to watch these artificially accented shots because they are also a window into the main action which puts you in a fly on the wall position quite often and give you that sense of voyeurism that is in few director’s works. The performances are all absolutely amazing... as they always are from the actors in his movies... and this attention to pulling perfect performances out of very talented people allows room for the artificial concentration of some of his shots to work and breathe without worrying that bad performances are going to heighten the lack of naturalism... these really are expertly crafted films.

Kieslowski and composer Zbigniew Preisner’s fictional composer Van den Budenmayer (their equivalent of Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle and Ryful) also pops up in this one (as his music does quite significantly later on in The Double Life of Veronique). Preisner’s score in this is fantastic and swells up at unexpected times when the screen fades to black in the middle of a shot... only to fade back in after the music... like the director is “pulling a Godard” and wanting you to see that he’s making a point. I think what he’s doing is highlighting every time the lead character is posed with a choice or question that pulls her back closer to the land of the living. When she follows music with her fingers in various sequences of beautiful close up photography, a filter is used so all but the one note being played is in focus in the centre of the screen at any one time... a beautiful film to look at.

And then, of course, there’s the sugar cube shot. Once of the most memorable celluloid images and perhaps my favourite single shot of any movie. Julie dunks a sugar cube into a cup of coffee and in extreme close-up we watch the cube soak up the coffee over the space of five seconds. This looks cool on DVD but I can’t stress enough how much Kieslowski’s films need to be seen on the big screen. When you see a giant sugar cube soaking up coffee in your face at the cinema... it’s a moment of true beauty. I didn’t know this until earlier today but apparently Kieslowski went through all the sugar companies until he could find one which absorbed the coffee in exactly five seconds. No more... no less. Now that’s attention to detail!

Kieslowski’s Blue is the first part of a trilogy which continues in White and Red. His movies are some of the most beautiful pieces of motion picture art ever shot. If you’ve not seen this and you’re seriously into film then you may want to give his movies some of your time.

French MicsMacster ReMixd

aka Micmacs à tire-larigot
2009 France
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
E1 Entertainment DVD Region 2

I’ve always liked Jeunet’s films, right from the moment I saw his first feature, Delicatessen, made in collaboration with Marc Caro. I remember I was a student and I’d just been to see Merci La Vie at my favourite cinema, the Lumiere in London (now deceased) and had been totally blown away by it. A day or two later I saw Delicatessen at, I think, the Curzon Soho (as it’s called now) and thought it was a pretty cool film, even when compared to Merci La Vie (which was one of the coolest movies ever made in my book).

Jeanet’s MicMacs carries on the very strong signature style of the director with it’s rich and vibrant colour scape (this time he is back to doing his Amelie style reds and greens for a lot of the shots) and his lingering on inventive and creative mechanical processes which seem to be one of his prime obsessions... some of his style even made it into his strictly American film Alien Resurrection (the fourth in the Alien franchise.... everyone seems to forget about Jeunet’s involvement with it these days but he even got Dominique Pinon in it again... reuniting him with his costar from The City of Lost Children, Ron Perlman). And talking of Dominique Pinon, he gets two roles in this movie. One as a human cannonball and a cameo where he is reprising his role as the hero of Delicatessen... but don't ask me how those timelines match up.

MicMacs tells the story, in it’s own good time and with a whole host of atypical comic diversions, of Bazil played by Dany Boon who Jeunet seems to be treating as a modern day Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin in this movie... perhaps that’s about right because a quick trawl of the internet tells me that he’s a famous comedian in France. Bazil’s father was blown up by a landmine made by one arms manufacturing company and, later (but still within the pre-credit sequence of the film), Bazil is accidentally shot in the head with a bullet made by another arms dealer... the result of which is that he loses his job at a video store were he used to spend his time watching old film noir classics like The Big Sleep (the soundtrack to this movie is half permeated with old Max Steiner cues) and after spending a couple of months homeless and Chaplinesque, he is adopted by a “family” or gang of people who live in a tyre yard and who are all as eccentric as himself. Plans of revenge hatch in his bullet penetrated mind... but knowing Jeunet as you do, you know it is going to be an Amelie-like revenge and not some brutal and cold revenge like another writer/director may inflict on his audience.

My one slight grumble is the directors re-exploration, in a more dumbed down form, of that brilliant sound trick he invented in Amelie where different letters are read with different sound atmosphere effects in the background, and when a new hybrid letter is created from these and read back, he plays the various soundscapes as they match back against the relevant words or phrase. A similar sound device is used in the duping of the two arms dealers to make them think they have ben on a long trek halfway around the world... the reveal of this device of others things like vacuum cleaners standing in for plane engines seems to me to just be a comment on the foley of a movie anyway and would have been exactly how Jeunet did it in Amelie. Why reiterate the technique here when the audience is already smart enough to know how these things are done? It just made the punchline of the movie seem a bit anticlimactic to me.

Still, it’s a minor criticism... the denouement of a movie, does not a movie make (although some people would vehemently disagree with me I know). I didn’t enjoy MicMacs half as much as his last two movies, Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, but that’s not saying much when this director’s movies are just so good... it’s still a joy to watch and a movie I would recommend without qualification.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Fiery the angel fell...

The Girl Who Played With Fire
2009 (UK release 2010)
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Screening at UK cinemas now

Here be Dragons but, also, here be spoilers! These spoilers will extend to the third part of the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest as well as giving away stuff from the books which didn’t make it into the movies... ooh, and also gives away something which happens to Lucy in one of Patricia Cornwell’s novels. You have been duly warned and proceed at your own risk.

I’m going to start this review by trying hard to remember something Kurosawa once wrote (probably in his book Something Like An Autobiography I would imagine) about his early days learning the ropes at Toho and the difference between a novel and a movie script... a story he remembered which demonstrates the different dynamics between a book and a movie... this is as well as I can remember it so I apologise for any small inaccuracies but the message should remain undiluted.

He’d written an adaptation and taken it for approval. In the book he was adapting, a faction of people were wanted with a price on their heads. A wooden sign is posted in a village about them and when one of them saw it, he rushed to where they were hiding and told them all about it. Kurosawa was told that his direct translation was not cinematical enough. To rewrite it so that when the person in question saw the notice, he uprooted it from the ground and ran away with it to show his friends... and that this was the correct way to do things cinematically.

Why am I starting with this little anecdote from Kurosawa? It’s because I want anyone reading this review to know that I am quite aware of the difference between a novel and its on-screen adaptation. Of course things are going to be cut or handled differently to fit the demands of the medium... I get it, I really do. I’ve not got a problem with it and I want you to trust me on this one.

So I’ll go ahead and say now that The Girl Who Played With Fire is, just like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo before it, a really good movie but it’s only a half good adaptation.

Stieg Larsson’s original novels are fantastic and I truly think they are bold, pulp masterpieces of their time. So it’s quite possible I’m a little too close to the source material to be totally subjective about this but I’ll give it a go...

I remember sitting at the cinema during the first movie thinking how annoying and commercial a decision it was that they’d left out the “swinging” sexual lifestyle of two of the main characters Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger. In fact, Erika Berger’s a major character in the books and has a very important role to play in the third part but she seems to be really pushed to the sidelines in the movies so far. When you think about it, there are hardly any of the female characters in that first book (save for a couple of the Millennium staff and the old lady who has the photographic link Blomkvist needs) who don’t end up sleeping with Mikael Blomkvist. He seems to be having sex with everyone. Both Salander’s and Berger’s affection for sado-masochistic sex is also kept out of the movies for some reason. I kept thinking that they would have to, at the very least, bring the Blomkvist/Berger sleep and f*ck together as the best of friends whenever they feel like it element into the movie at some point because what happens in the last couple of pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has serious consequences in the way that Lisbeth Salander relates to these other characters for the remainder of the other two books.

For Salander, you see, Blomkvist is her first serious relationship... the one which she has decided to go against her best instincts and finally trust someone for and invest in them after all and attempt to be a committed, loving person for them. Then at the end of the first novel, as she heads over to Blomkvist’s place to give him a Christmas present she sees him from across the street in Bergers arms and... from that moment on... she hates Blomkvist and his betrayal (as she perceives it, it’s not a totally black and white issue in the book) of her and it’s not until the very end of the third novel, some months after the main events depicted in that novel, that she decides to let him into her life again as a friend... even though he’s been helping and fighting for her the whole way throughout the second and third novels.

It’s an important slant and it’s only briefly alluded to in the second movie when we find out that Blomkvist has absolutely no idea why Salander’s been avoiding him after everything they went through in the events of the first part (just like he does in the novels). Some viewers who haven’t read the book don’t twig at all that she’s deliberately avoiding him in the movie and it’s no surprise after that little “Thank you for being my friend” message she leaves on his computer in the movie. Can’t quite remember if this note was in the original novel or not but if it was, you can be damn sure it was a covert and coded message meaning something completely other than the warm, fuzzy sentiment it comes across as in the movie.

Another glaring ommission, although not as necessary as those stated above but certainly sorely missed, is Salander’s criminal but thoroughly sympathetic global practices across the world. As she syphons off the money from the criminal organisation she’s come into contact with from the previous book and employ’s “cut outs” etc to invest and embezzle more money, she instantly becomes a multi-multi-millionaire many times over. This Modesty Blaise/Simon Templar-like figure she cuts so impressively in the novels is, again, only briefly alluded to in the movies for people who have read the books. Great swathes of her exploits were alluded to in a brief scene of her in one of her many disguises at the end of the first movie. In the second movie there are three references as far as I could make out... one scene near the start when she is instructing one of her employees how to invest her money, another scene in her former boss’s office (another character relegated to the sidelines but they’ll really need him for the third movie if they do it properly) where she acknowledges that she doesn’t need any money and then a third oblique reference on some documents Bomkvist finds in her new luxurious apartment. It was a shame they couldn’t get at least some of this stuff in the movies but there’s only so much time you can push in a theatrical release.

The film itself is very good for what it is. A tad cliched in parts (the romanticised computer hacking sequences which pay lip service to the Salander character as portrayed in the books) and the characters have, perhaps, as you can see from previous paragraphs here, been softened down a few notches to make them acceptable to a commercial cinema audience (at least in the eyes of the producers and sponsors is my guess... people liked the characters in the books enough, didn’t they?).

I find it curious that the most cinematic of the three novels (the Hollywood action fest style novel) dropped so much from it including some of the action scenes... where was the brilliant three handed foot chase sequence when Blomkvist is trying to find Slander for example? It was strange looking down at my watch and finding only about 20 minutes of The Girl Who Played With Fire had passed but we were already maybe two thirds of the way through the novel when the big, shock death of two of the characters was already upon us. All of the characters suffered from severe cutting due to length of time (they’re quite thick tomes) but the director certainly managed to pull it all together and sew all the selected highlights together to make a pretty comprehendible and watchable movie. Well done to him for that. And you got to meet Blomkvist’s sister who represent’s Salander at her trial in the third book... for most of the third novel Salander is recovering from the events depicted at the end of this movie in hospital under police arrest and the remainder of the book is taken up with her trial and then an action sequence where she faces off against her Robert Shaw-like Bondian henchman brother (as he is depicted in the movie... a less lethal and more clever version of the character than that in the novels)... and you want to see how that fight turns out :-) Hope they do it like the novel!

Actually, I thought the amount of damage inflicted on Salander in the movie version of The Girl Who Played With Fire was a little toned down compared to the novel. I wonder how many of the movie audience realised she’s been shot in the head. That she survives in the book after you have already had to give up on the character and accept her as dead is quite a tightrope of credible writing to balance on... like Lucy in the Scarpetta novels, she is only the second character I can think of off the top of my head who has survived a bullet in the head (Patricia Cornwell did her character one better by having the near fatal shot handily remove a certainly fatal brain tumour which was growing in the head of her character... thus curing her rather than killing her). I think perhaps I’m being a little harsh here because if the excellent Noomi Rapace had played her totally as the at-deaths-door-can-barely-move-vengeful-ghost-spirit she becomes at the close of the second novel... it might have stretched the ability of the audience to continue to buy into the character.

Actually, I think I’ve said enough here... I’m probably being a little over harsh on the movie but it’s only because I enjoyed the novels so much. The Girl Who Played With Fire is a really great thriller and it’s bound to be better than the US remake of it which we’re all going to have inflicted on us in a couple of years time. If you’ve seen the first movie and liked it... rush to your cinema to see this one too. It’s well worth your time if thrillers and larger than life genre characters are your thing. And certainly better than any other crime thriller playing at the cinema at the moment I would guess.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Hey Big Expender!

The Expendables 2010 US
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Screening at cinemas now

Well... we’ve been hearing about this “dream team” movie for a long time now... is it worth a look?

Yeah, it’s okay. I actually have a deep regard for Sylvester Stallone (with his degree in English and his endless crusade to get a movie about Edgar Allan Poe made)... not always been that sympathetic to his choice of roles but then again I might also be the only person on the planet who actually loved Cobra ;-) so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts on whether you want to trust me as a reviewer on this particular slice of Hollywood action fest mayhem.

There’s really no point in going over the plot points on this one... it’s the same thing you’ve seen over and over again. A group of hardened mercenaries do a job involving a target, the targets sexy daughter who opposes her fathers ways, lots of explosions, gunplay, knife wielding, brutality and... oh... Eric Roberts as one of the villains. I guess if you’re going to have a villain of US descent these days you have to have it be played by Eric Roberts otherwise you contravene some obscure union ruling is my guess ;-)

There are big names in this movie including, other than the main man Stallone himself who also directs, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke. There’s also a little cameo scene with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger that I actually found pretty uncomfortable to watch... neither of them were playing nice people.

Like the recent John Rambo (which was a surprisingly good little gem of a movie), The Expendables is directed by Stallone in a very eighties way... I don’t know exactly what it is about this movie but in terms of the shot set ups and the way the non-action scenes are edited, it just felt very much like a late 70s/early 80s movie to me with lots of cuts to different sides of the conversations rather than having the confidence to rely on the master shots, and that’s not doing it a disservice... I think. Considering the majority of the players involved, then that’s probably a shrewd move... intentional or not... it has a certain tone to it that kinda fits the movie like a glove.

There are little niggles I have with it too, though. Some of the characters are a touch misogynistic in their attitudes and it’s probably a deliberate ploy I think... maybe I’m being a little too forgiving here but I don’t think people would have even noticed this if it were really made back in the 80s... It’s certainly not a good thing but, considering the general 80s feel of the movie, then I don’t think it’s totally out of place in this movie... although I kinda wish it wasn’t there in the first place.

Another niggle is the action sequences... Stallone, both in this movie and in the last Rambo movie, has started going for a new... let’s call it super-violence representation, in that he has gotten into showing you just what damage can really be inflicted on the human body when someone gets shot. You will see people cut in half with machine guns or with the top parts of their body blown clean away. Ballistic weapons aren’t nice, people (is any weapon?), but while this film does kinda set out to glorify the violence and lionise the perpetrators of this swift brand of justice as heroes, it at least lets you see the consequences of playing around with this kind of firepower in grizzly detail. However, the editing in the action scenes is like Speedy Gonzales on acid... a lot of the time you just can’t tell whats going on and in this movie you have the added disadvantage of it cross-cutting between various big name stars doing “beat ‘em up” scenes so that it’s not always easy to work out what people are doing at any one time. It’s okay in the earlier scenes in the film and the absolutely best action sequence is the one where Stallone and Statham do reconnaissance on an island and... shall we say... get themselves into some trouble. But overall the action sequences were a bit confusing to me... although I suspect that when viewing it on a smaller screen on DVD, it might be a lot easier to decode and follow the onscreen antics than it is on a massive "in yer face" screen. Jet Li’s fight scene with Dolph Lundgren is the real casualty here. We all know that Jet Li can fight like a madman and take on anyone... so whats going on here? One wonders if, perhaps, a little bit of Sly ;-) editing was undertaken so that Li didn’t fight everyone else off the screen... you know, edited and made a little choppier to tone it down a little in much the same way that a large amount of Alan Rickman’s scenes were cut from that dire Robin Hood remake because he was testing better with the audiences than Costner. That’s pure speculation about the “editing” of Li though... before anyone shouts “slander”. Just my guess is all.

Dolph Lundgren’s character arc was interesting... and you need to stay to the end of the movie to see that one through. It’s a nice little touch at the end which gives a little shot of redemption to a couple of the characters and makes a comment on the stupid, limitless boundaries of male bonding... which probably just about sums the movie up I think. So I’ll just leave it at that and say that if you’re a fan of action movies that you used to rent out for a couple of quid from your local off-licence in the mid-80s... then you’ll probably have a small place in your heart for The Expendables.

Florinda’s Giant Steps

Footprints on the Moon
aka Footprints
aka Le Orme 1975 Italy
Directed by Luigi Bazzoni
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

Wow. Just wow!

That’s the second time lately that I’ve seen a really fresh and memorable film and both times it’s been courtesy of Shameless Screen Entertainment. You know, I keep thinking that pretty soon I’m going to watch one of their presentations and really hate it... well that will probably happen at some point sooner or later but... this wasn’t it. Shameless’ re-build edit of this lost and mostly forgotten movie is a really great viewing experience for those of you who like minimal dialogue and long sequences of reflective atmosphere.

Footprints on the Moon is, I confess, a movie I’d not heard about until I started exploring Shameless’ back catalogue... but I saw a trailer for it on one of their other releases and the cinematography looked so beautiful that I thought I’d give it a go... and I’m really glad I picked it up. Going on the sleeve artwork, the film comes across as a cross between a science fiction movie and a giallo... the truth of the matter is, though, that Footprints on the Moon is neither... so I’m a bit puzzled by Shameless’ description of it as “the most haunting and beautiful giallo you will ever see." I guess if you’re trying to sell DVDs then gialli are really popular right now in the UK.

They’re absolutely right though in their assertion that it’s a haunting and beautiful film. The cinematography is, indeed, quite stunning... and no wonder. It’s by the acclaimed Vittorio Storaro of all people!

The film starts with Alice (played by “giallo-babe” Florinda Bolkan) awaking from a sci-fi dream which features Klaus Kinski and his colleagues stranding an astronaut on the moon in raw black and white photography. When Alice, who is played as an icy and private individual by Bolkan, goes to work she finds she may have lost her job as a translator because, and she only discovers this when she gets to work, she appears to have lost three days of her life which she can’t remember.

A postcard in her wonderfully spacious apartment which has been torn into four pieces leads her to investigate and stay in a hotel on the island of Garma... where people seem to know her from a previous stay which she has no memory of, albeit under a different name. So the whole film becomes a mystery puzzle where the main protagonist is trying to find out what the hell has happened to her and why she keeps dreaming of herself as an astronaut stranded on the moon. With it’s moody cinematography, long reflective passages sans dialogue and atmospheric musical cues by composer Nicola Piovani (there really needs to be a score CD of this movie!), I found that Footprints on the Moon kept reminding me of Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad... which as far as I’m concerned is a really good thing. And with the island of Garma... I couldn’t help but pick up a little on that whole Portmerion and The Prisoner vibe coming at me. It almost certainly wasn’t intentional... but that really doesn’t matter.

And for fans of the giallo film (of which this is definitely not an example), the film also features young Nicoletta Elmi, or as me and my friend Jake refer to her - “dodgy giallo child”, in a prominent role in the film. You may remember her from such giallo and horror genre classics as Deep Red (Profondo Rosso), Who Saw Her Die?, Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve), Baron Blood as well as her “all grown up” form in the first Demons movie (famously as the usherette). It’s always a good moment when watching these kinds of movies that we get a new Nicoletta Elmi sighting!

The one problem with the film, if indeed it has any problem at all, is that the end sequence answers all the mystery puzzle questions with one sweeping and, perhaps, unsatisfying gesture. And when you look back at the history of Bolkan’s character in the movie (her job for instance) then it doesn’t really add up too well or make a lot of sense. But then again, Last Year In Marienbad never made a lot of sense either but you don’t hear people complaining about that (I hope). It’s perhaps a slight spoiler to say that the end coda of this movie takes as it’s template what I always refer to as “The Caligari Conclusion” in that it shares the same stylistic dismissal of its main protagonist with the same lack of respect afforded the characters in both The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and The Cabinet of Caligari (1962). This bothered me a little since the puzzle element took such a strong hold in my mind during my first viewing of this movie... but it’s such a great movie that this particular ingredient will soon diminish in my mind and this will be a movie I’m sure I’ll probably rewatch a number of times over the coming years. My gratitude and respect to Shameless for putting this one out there for people to see.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Solar Powered Corpse With Lingerie Fetish

Astro Zombies 1969 US
Directed by Ted V. Mickels
Image Entertainment DVD Region 1

I’m feeling a little ambivalent towards Astro Zombies after my first viewing. I was expecting it to be bad... that’s where the fun of watching this kind of movie comes from as far as I’m concerned. But it was a lot less entertaining, if truth be told, than most of the B-movies I’ve seen recently. And of course, there’s the few odd little moments which induce a big grin as most anything made badly on a low budget does.

I’m not sure how I’d really summarise this particular movie because I was having a really hard time following the plot on this one. The one active Astro Zombie in the movie is not from out of this world and in the strictest sense of the term it’s not even a zombie. He is, as far as I could work out though, at least a reanimated corpse... a reanimated corpse with a giant metal skull for a head and a strange propensity for grabbing at young female victims with the intent of stripping away their outer garments and, apparently, stabbing them repeatedly through their lingerie.

The story follows two separate factions: The CIA headlined by Wendell Corey and a criminal faction headlined by Tura Satana of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Both factions are after one Dr. DeMarco played with perhaps a little less gusto than usual by John Carradine, an actor not unfamiliar with mad scientists and movie monsters from his Universal horror days. The reason he is in demand is because he, with the help of his immensely and unbelievably hilariously gurning lab assistant (very much in the Igor mode), has perfected a process, where you extract... um... stuff... from the brain of a dead body by attaching an old funnel and hooking it to some wires so you can record it on a small circuit board which you place (literally place, it doesn’t connect to anything) in a metal box inside an obscurely named piece of machinery. Blood also needs to be extracted and somehow this helps create a metal, skull-faced astro zombie. Ooh... and there’s also mention that the creatures brains are solar powered... this becomes important later. But of course their only successful astro-zombie went psychotic and escaped and started murdering local women... which is why the CIA are looking for the good doctor since they are familiar with his work.

The movie starts off with a gorgeous woman driving down a highway... there are lots of shots of driving in this movie... just as there are lots of very long and interminable sequences of John Carradine babbling absolute gobbeldygook technical jargon and painstakingly unscrewing things and trying to look desperately scientific. It’s like the director really needed to pad this movie out big time to get it up to feature length for exhibition purpose... so why cut away from the boring stuff when you don’t have enough script to keep the action going... anyway I digress...

The woman is driving down the highway and after a while she parks her car in her garage where we know the monster is hiding. It has to be said that this young lady’s acting talents do not match her obvious charms and as she looks around the garage because, presumably, she thinks she’s heard something... you can kinda see the director standing behind the camera and pointing at the different places where she has to turn her head to look at before the monster grabs her... and of course the monster does grab her and then proceeds to undo her clothing a little with much vigour... almost like they don’t want you to realise that her clothing has come undone as anything other than by accident... and then, down they go below camera and said monster begins to repeatedly stab her. Blood and screams ensue. The blood splashes against the side of the car repeatedly in this film's one attempt to pull off something like an artistic shot... and the screams go on for quite a while than you might normally think necessary. This monster can’t be a very dab hand with a knife... he must keep missing every major artery for her to carry on quite that much.

Cut to the credits sequence of some Japanese made Black clockwork robots battling a model tank to the sound of machine gun fire. I’ve seen this done somewhere before but I can’t think where... and before you ask the question... no, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. Unless the writers who happen to be the director and Wayne Rogers (who played Trapper John for all those years on M*A*S*H) are trying to push a metaphor here... if they are though it was kinda wasted on me. Answers on a postcard would be welcome.

After this we are treated to the sight of a bloodied man inside the wreck of a car crash... in the middle of a large open area of flat green landscape... a place where it would be almost impossible to crash your car... and even if you could find something to crash your car into (and there really is no evidence it’s crashed into anything specific) then you’d have to really defy the laws of physics to have it end up like this... but then the brilliant hunchback sidekick played by William Bagdad comes lurching on the screen to steal the body for his masters dastardly experiments.

After this you get the CIA briefing including an impossibly dashing and frankly fake looking “hero figure” played irritatingly by Joe Hoover. The character is called Chuck Edwards and that’s actually pretty apt because after less than five minutes I really did want someone to chuck Edwards through the window. And shortly after this we meet the villains... Tura Satana has a bizarre little henchman who’s quick to reach for his knife. Later on in the movie he seems to develop a penchant for wearing a beret made from white fur... I hope I never again have to watch a heavy wearing a white fur beret... I felt for him, I really did.

Pretty soon the monster makes one of its very rare appearances and kills one of the lab assistants in a lab belonging to a “generic good-guy scientist” who has been partnered with an undercover CIA agent. The lab assistant stays behind after work to “finish up” and the monster makes its entrance... nonchalantly ripping off her clothes until she is down to her lingerie and then violently stabbing her repeatedly... hmmm... seems to be a theme developing here.

I’d normally do a list of tantalising highlights at this point in the proceedings for this kind of film... but it has to be said... a lot of this movie is just padding out overlong scenes and I just didn’t get the same “B-movie glee” as I did out of, say, Dracula VS Frankenstein or Superargo Contra Diabolus. So I’m hard pushed to offer up a menu of exploitative delights for you on this one...

Apart from one great moment... or okay moments... which made me laugh. I said that solar powered thing was important, right? When fighting one of the CIA heroes and his girlfriend the monster has the hero on the ropes and the girlfriend down to her lingerie and is about to move in for the kill when he starts making “ooh, something's wrong” movements with his arms and reaches for a handily placed electric torch which he turns on and jams against his forehead... See there? Solar power! He then runs away with the torch firmly jammed against his head.

At the end of the film, when the heroes and villains have all congregated in the good doctor's laboratory to face off over the inert form of a freshly created “astro-zombie”, the previous astro-zombie crashes the party to kill off all the bad guys... he rushes into the basement laboratory... still clutching his electric torch in his hand, jammed against his forehead. Quite unintentionally funny.

And that’s about it I’m afraid... I don’t have very much else to offer on this movie other than to say that, while I’m really glad to have seen it, it’s not something I’d necessarily show anyone else for laughs... there is quite a lot of padding in there and some of it is not all that watchable. But don’t let that put you off watching it if solar powered, mechanical zombies are your thing.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A Salt on Precinct Jolie

Salt 2010 US
Directed by Philip Noyce
Screening at cinemas now

There will be some slight spoilers here... you are duly cautioned.

There’s not a lot really that I can say about Salt of any consequence. It’s a fairly decently made, mostly entertaining action thriller which checks all the right boxes and cynically sets itself up for a sequel which I suspect will never be made... but don’t go in expecting anything more than that.

I’ve heard it bandied about that Salt is, perhaps, to be considered an intelligent action thriller. Is it? Well no, really it’s just got a halfway decent script and the lines are spoken with some conviction... and the action sequences, which take up most of the running time, are fastly edited but not too fast, thankfully, that you can’t make out what’s going on...

Let’s put it this way... it’s not unintelligent... it’s just not nearly as smart as it’s trying to be. All the twists and turns in this movie are amply telegraphed long before they are “revealed” to the audience. The identity of Salt herself for example and the, is she or isn’t she a Russian spy, thing. The movie tries to have it’s cake and eat it here by making her both who has defected her allegiance to the US government through the love of her husband (played by the King Kong Nazi from Inglourious Basterds). The director does his absolute best to make you think that Salt is “the bad assassin gal” but due to the sense of morality in the film they telegraph her intentions throughout by having her wound or incapacitate any of her fellow countrymen rather than kill them because, you know, she’s really working for the good old US.

Similarly, you’ll probably figure out who the real villain of the piece long before the movie tries to throw any suspicion on Salt herself. If you are in any doubt as to the identity of the “real” mole in the CIA is before you actually see him go into action then... well you’ve obviously been happily mollified by the balletic and energetically edited action sequences with which the film is laced.

No matter. The acting performances are superb and are exactly what you’d expect from such top-notch performers as Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the aforementioned August Diehl... although to be fair, Ejiofor and Diehl are completely wasted and it was a bit embarrassing having a final one-on-one scene between Jolie and Ejiofor where Ejiofor’s character acted at complete odds with the character as you’ve seen him in the rest of the movie. His decision really doesn’t make sense but then again, neither does the rush ending. All Jolie’s character has to say is... “Hey, don’t take my word for it... just ask the president when he regains consciousness... he’ll tell you who it was”... but the film doesn’t seem to want to hang around for long enough to tie up all the loose ends.

I think my main criticism of the film is that it’s definitely trying to hit the same, projected, audience pleasing hotspots as the remake of The Bourne Identity. Again, it’s a bit embarrassing but you can almost see the accountants saying... okay, we want a scene where Jolie escapes from a building where everyone is after her... then we want a scene where she’s inching herself around a ledge on a high up building. Oh, and a scene where she changes her appearance please. Ooh... and can we have that bit where Matt Damon jumps in the water at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum in it please. Oooh... and how about starting the movie off with the post-credits sequence from Die Another Day (one of the worst Bond films ever made) but replace tortured up Brosnan with tortured up Jolie and then swap her back like in that movie. And all the while, we want a score which sounds exactly like John Powell’s Bourne scores pumping away in the background please... oh, but don’t get John Powell ‘cause he’s getting pricey... just temp track it with his stuff and then get James Newton Howard on it. He can copy anyone’s style.

My last paragraph says it all I think... I’d have sworn that the score was by John Powell in Bourne mode and nearly jumped out my seat when James Newton Howard’s name came up. Not his fault though... I expect it was heavily suggested to him that he sound like that and I suspect this may be yet another modern day crime against filmanity... temptrackitus.

All in all though, Salt was a fun ride at the cinema for those welcome times when you feel you can switch your brain off and just let the shadows and light wash over you. If you like convincingly delivered lines but with loads of foot chases, gun battles, explosions and stabbings then you might like to give this film a try... Salt is Peppered with sequences like these!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tarkovsky’s War

Ivan’s Childhood 1962 USSR
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

Please note: I am reviewing Tarkovsky’s movie from the Region 2 DVD here because I saw it cheap in a sale and jumped at the chance to upgrade from my old VHS copy because I’d unfortunately forgotten that Criterion had released a version of it in the US. I can say, without having viewed it, that the Criterion edition is almost certainly the best option to go with and that I would have abstained from parting with my £7 and gone with the US version if I’d remembered its existence. The Artificial Eye version seems to suffer from the same problem that a number of foreign language films seem to suffer from over here in the UK - which is that you cannot remove the subtitles if you want to study the power and beauty of a shot without the typography getting in the way... a big setback for these kinds of films, especially on films like this which are shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and therefore intrude fully over the shot.

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of my favourite directors (second only to Akira Kurosawa in my book) and richly deserved his reputation as the great poet of cinema. Ivan’s Childhood was his first feature length film and also one of his most commercially successful. It is based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov and tells the rather grim tale of Ivan, a 12 year old boy orphaned by the conflict of war who is used, guiltily, as a child spy against the nazis in World War 2.

Tarkovsky is one of those rare directors who’s mise-en-scene is so compelling that the subject matter really doesn’t matter. Each and every shot composition in his films look like an utterly beautiful still photograph... and Ivan’s Childhood with it’s sometimes dreamy, sometimes stark black and white photography is no exception. The opening shot of Ivan in a forest looking through a spider’s web is just for starters in the beauty stakes... it just is such an amazing movie to look at. Like all Tarkovsky’s films. This is the kind of movie that the home viewing medium of DVD was made for.

The sound design was a little alienating at times, not sure if this was deliberate or not but everything seemed quite uncomplicated and simple... there are two sound options on this disc... Dolby Digital or original mono... I obviously opted for the original mono. C’mon DVD companies! It wasn’t going to sound like Dolby Digital when it was released into cinemas in ‘62 so I’m damn well not going to watch it like that now. Next you’ll be trying to sell me heavily doctored Blu-Ray prints which lose the grain of the film and make everything look like a larger than life cartoon-like, piece of fluff, bad CGI experiment gone wrong instead of the original movie! Oh, wait...

Anyway, another slightly off kilter thing about this movie is the overscoring of certain scenes with music which is quite a bit overly dramatic and romanticised for both the subject matter and, indeed, for the way that subject matter is represented visually. I don’t remember how much control Tarkovsky had over the way his movies were presented but I’m guessing not very much apart from the two films he made abroad. Most of the film plays with no musical score but the only time it is really effective and appropriately chilling is when two characters ride a boat back from behind enemy lines.

But the weight and power of the visuals, the excellent performances and the fine script easily outweigh the film's musical and sound distractions. There are a few flashbacks and dream sequences which would normally be in stark contrast to the way the rest of the footage is presented, but everything is presented so beautifully that you will be into these sequences before you even realise you have broken off from the main narrative for a while... and maybe that’s the point. One such sequence where Ivan rides a cart full of apples with his sister uses back projection for the forest background, but no attempt is made to hide this as the back projection is printed as a negative image and contrasts surreally with the foreground footage. A neat little trick that I can’t, off the top of my head, remember being done in other movies (I’m sure that five other examples will suddenly present themselves to my memory five minutes after this review goes live).

Ivan’s Childhood is quite a simple little film for Tarkovsky... the texture and density of the narrative structure is nowhere near his later films. It’s all there in the shot, though. Texture and depth like you don’t see in many director’s works on such a consistent level (maybe Mario Bava). If you like the sheer poetry and beauty of the visual image presented to you in crisp and stunning black and white photography then Ivan’s Childhood should definitely be on your movie hit list.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Last Impressions

The Last Horror Film 1982 US
Directed by David Winters
Troma DVD Region 0

I should possibly put up a spoiler warning here but... seriously... I think the only way I could possibly spoil anything here is by actually recommending this movie to anyone.

Two things you should know about the “uncut special edition” of The Last Horror Film.

1. It’s presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio which normally would have me running for the off button and returning the film back to the stall I bought it from and moaning about crimes against filmanity. But I haven’t done that because it has the truly wonderful Caroline Munro in it and this is the only way I can get this film. Also, as I was going through it, I think the 4:3 ratio may have come about from splicing in the previously cut bits of footage. My guess is it was shot in something like 4:3 and this is an open-matte transfer... so technically nothing’s missing... it’s just not being seen as it was meant to be seen in a cinema. On the other hand... If I’d paid to see this in a cinema I would have hastily regretted my actions by about ten minutes into the movie.

2. The quality of a lot of this movie is terrible with some kind of video haze trashing the picture... I was pre-warned about this on a nice message screen from Troma just as the picture was about to start... so I can’t exactly complain about this.

I bought this movie because I really like Caroline Munro. She’s a real nice person to chat to and a nice talent and she’s a bit of a horror and fantasy genre scream queen with a bit of a cult following. In The Last Picture Show, which is set during the Cannes Film Festival, she plays Jenna Bates, "a horror and fantasy genre scream queen with a bit of a cult following..." so you can see why Ive been anxious to see this movie, right? You may remember Miss Munroe from such films as At The Earth’s Core, Star Crash, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Taste The Blood of Dracula. You might also remember her as the henchwoman who winks at James Bond as she is trying to shoot his Lotus off the road from her helicopter in The Spy Who Loved Me. Older readers of this blog who used to travel the London tube lines in the early seventies may remember her wonderful face and figure adorning large posters when she was the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl. Or even as the Dusty Bin girl on ITVs game show 3,2,1!

Unfortunately, although she’s been in some clunkers of movies, this is probably one of her all time worst movies and I’ll lay the blame of that one at the director’s and producer’s doors, I think, because the art design on this movie is quite well thought out... it’s just got terrible production values. The script is truly awful and does not give the performers much to go on... which is why everyone seems to look so wooden in this movie I suspect. And it’s such a shame because the idea of this movie is quite sound. A would be director and stalker wants to put Jenna Bates in his movie so he follows her to Cannes and a series of gruesome murders take place amongst the cast and crew of her last movie. There are lots of little fantasy scenes with the maniac (played by Maniac’s Joe Spinell) and the general impression is a kind of serial killer version of Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy... except if it was The King of Comedy made on a budget of 5 dollars and a bag of lemon sherberts by someone who needs a seeing eye dog to get him to the locations.

I suspect the films funding is to blame here. There are a hell of a lot of “stolen” shots from the Cannes FIlm Festival and while I was pleased to see lots of movie posters from movies I’d forgotten about... I’m sure that people like Marcello Mastroianni probably don’t realise they’re in this movie.

Everyone does their best in this but it just doesn’t seem to work very well and the big twist ending is probably something you will figure out from the start. If you really want to know the twist ending then follow me on twitter and send me a Direct Message... it’s got to be better than having to sit through this movie.

Really disappointed by this one... but my quest to buy everything which has Caroline Munro in its credits continues.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Crepax’s Valentina Rendered Celluloid Flesh

Baba Yaga aka Baba Yaga: Devil Witch
aka Kiss Me Kill Me aka Black Magic
1973 US Directed by Corrado Farina
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

You know... in the history of cinema there have been comic strip movies... and there have been comic strip movies. That is to say there have been some fairly entertaining pop-corn fodder like the recent Spider-man, Batman and X-Men movies. There have been some hugely interesting or sometimes quite faithful entertaining versions like the original Flash Gordon serials, the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial, Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella (although I suspect that last one isn’t exactly faithful to its source material). And then there are a few movies either adapted from or inspired by comic strips that really give it a go at understanding either the structure or the intent of the source material and are straight out masterpieces in their own right... two I could think of are American Splendor and Ghost World (and if you haven’t seen these you really ought to do yourself a favour and take a look at them).

One of the more interesting movies from this popular genre which exists in a hinterland somewhere between completely entertaining but not quite masterpiece is director Corrado Farina’s excellent movie Baba Yaga, which is inspired by the much loved Valentina character created by Guido Crepax. Crepax is probably best known in this country (UK) for his graphic novels based on such erotic classics as The Story of O, De Sade’s Justine and Emmanuelle... but for people everywhere else, Valentina is an important character. I remember being a teenager in the 80s and reading what few tales of Valentina could be translated into English without being heavily censored in serialised form in the US translation of the Heavy Metal comics which were imported into the UK. Valentina was amazing and helped lead my mind into the strange, erotic quagmire that it is today. Valentina, after the initial early tales, was always big on nudity (including, of course, Valentina herself, who was based on the visual image of Louise Brooks) with a hefty dose of sado-masochism (a term which seems to have evolved into BDSM these days... or just dumbed down, not sure which) and my mind was always erotically charged whenever I’d see those very clear, crisp ink drawings reproduced on the page.

A while ago now, a US company released a DVD of Farina’s movie version of the Valentina strip, Baba Yaga, and it was a great watch... up until now. On that original DVD there were a whole load of deleted scenes which the director rightly bemoaned was cut from his movie by the producers without his agreement. In 2009 Shameless Screen Entertainment, who seem to be doing a amazingly good job with their releases up until now (but I’m bound to find something I can grumble about sometime) have released in the UK a Region 0 (that means you can all play it whatever country you’re from, whether you have a multi-region machine or not) DVD which, with the help and approval of the director, restores those scenes back into the movie... and boy, does it make a difference.

Little bursts of eroticism and politically charged outbursts against violence and the establishment are back into the mix, including a fascinating pre-credit sequence which gives the film, in my humble opinion, even more of a lift and a more direct access into the kind of surreal cultural stew that permeates the remainder of the film and which leads directly into the credits sequence which utilizes Crepax’s wonderful line drawings from Valentina in its make-up.

As you may or may not know, Baba Yaga is a mythical witch character from Slavik folklore who kidnaps children and, well, does witchy things to them. In the movie she is played by Carrol Baker who you may know from such films as Baby Doll, The Big Country and How The West Was Won (and yes, you don’t need to point out to me that I’m beginning to sound like Troy McClure... give me a break here though, I’m not a cartoon... at least not on week days). In this movie she has a fetished up S&M doll who turns into a full-on flesh and blood fetishistic dominatrix at will (because you can’t have a Valentina story without Valentina getting whipped into an S&M frenzy) who is causing Valentina all kinds of trouble... as is her camera (Valentina is a photographer in this) which has been cursed by Baba Yaga and is killing people or rendering things inoperable whenever she clicks the shutter. Valentina herself is played by French actress Isabelle De Funès who almost, but not quite, looks like Valentina. The hair and figure seem about right to me but the face just seems a tad too old and maybe a little less innocent than it ought to. She does a fine job in the part though and to be honest it’s one of those cool Euro-movies which are more about the way in which the camera moves through the shot, the pace of the editing and the way, in this particular case, the frames are arranged to be more comic book like in their execution than about the performances of the actors.

Plus the score in this by Piero Umiliani, who gave us the classic, good time, I-will-play-this-album-to-death score to Mario Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon... is another classic and should, in an ideal world, be available on CD. Can some bright spark record label please release this score already?

While Baba Yaga is probably not the perfect movie that I would have wanted a Valentina adaptation to be, it’s a way cooler than the majority of comic book movies made today and it’s never boring. It’s definitely worth an hour and a half of your time and the restored and absolutely the best ever Shameless edition... Baba Yaga: The Final Cut... is definitely the one to get. Asides from the restored movie (which, to be fair, is not exactly seamless due to deterioration of the film stock I would guess on the restored scenes but which is absolutely watchable and a much more enhanced version of the movie) you also get two documentaries on the Fumetti by the director of the film which both feature Crepax’s creation in them and also a new interview with the director.

And as always with the Shameless versions you get a choice of cover with a reversible sleeve (both pictured above). The inside reverse sleeve has a wonderful poster painting and big, cool 1970s typography... but the regular front cover artwork has a load of drawings lifted directly from the Valentina strip... and I can’t not have the Guido Crepax artwork on my front cover. Spoilt for choice really!

High Moon

Moon 2009 US
Directed by Duncan Jones
Sony Pictures DVD Region 2

Big, scary spoiler warning. Not only does this review contain spoilers for Duncan Jones’ Moon but, within the first paragraph even, it contains spoilers for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. If you read this review without having seen Moon you will be doing yourself (and the director for that matter, I suspect) a great disservice. If you read this review without having seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo, then you should even more hang your head in shame for spoiling great movie moments ahead of you. In fact, not watching either of these movies constitutes a terrible crime against filmanity whether you read this review or not. Secondly... although this starts off giving the impression that it’s a negative review, it really isn’t. If you’re going to honour me by reading it, please read it to the end. So please consider yourself warned... I don’t do it often.

About three quarters of the way through Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the character played by Kim Novak reveals to us, the audience, in a scribbled letter to a character to whom she never sends it, the secret of the movie... she is the original person who’s death was staged while she was assuming another identity to fool James Stewart into testifying that an unseen character committed suicide instead of being murdered. Over the years many people have argued over the fact as to whether this “reveal” happens way too early in the film and whether Hitchcock should have waited until much later to do this. Certainly the first time I watched Vertigo I thought it was way too early... on the other hand I had it pretty much sussed out anyway so perhaps it was the right thing to do? Certainly, over the years and after numerous screenings of Vertigo, I feel that actually Hitchcock made the right call on this one... it’s fascinating to watch James Stewart inadvertently torture Novak’s character because he doesn’t know the truth and to be “in on the joke” and understand Novak’s pain at this point in the narrative.

Okay, having said that much...

I took another look at Duncan Jones’ excellent movie Moon the other night on DVD. I remember watching this at the cinema when it came out and feeling just a tad disappointed... well, no, okay then... a lot disappointed on that very first viewing. Why? Well I could see as I was watching, right off the bat, that it was an amazing piece of movie-making worthy of any audiences attention but... and this really annoyed me at the time... I’d been lead to believe by the pre-publicity generated by the film that there was a big twist coming.

So I’m watching this film and about a third (?) of the way into the movie a second version of the lead star comes into existence and finds the damaged body of the previous version of him in a lunar vehicle smash-up. He brings him back to base for medical care and then you have two “Sams” in the story, both played by Norman Rockwell... so far so good. Very intriguing. This movie really has me hooked... but then they start talking about whether they’re clones of each other and I start thinking... “No. Way too obvious. Where’s the twist in that?” And so I figure the scriptwriter is trying to plant red herrings in my mind to make the real twist seem like a real punch in the gut when it comes. So I’m sitting in the cinema trying to figure out just what the real twist is... but then pretty soon after it becomes clear that clones really is the answer. These clones only have a three year lifespan - after the old one is incinerated and a new one is woken up. So okay, I think. There must be a different dimension to the story that I’m not getting yet. What’s going to happen? Are they trapped in hell? Is it really a time trap? What’s going on? And then the film kinda resolves itself... they are clones, one of them is dying and then one of them escapes the Moon to bring the truth of the “generic villanous company’s” nefarious employee-by-cloning work ethic back to earth. End of story. No twist and so I left the cinema a little underwhelmed that day... even though I knew I shouldn’t be... and here’s why.

Moon is a beautiful looking (and sounding) film. It’s really cleanly shot and has a kind of flowing pacing all of its own... sound overlaps into different scenes etc. to give the film an almost amorphous quality all of it’s own although not in terms of structure - the plotline is very linear. The style of it is almost like a modern 2001: A Space Odyssey... and I’m not making that comparison just because all of the action is spacebound. It just has that tidy, immaculate and sometimes slightly ponderous pacing which allows your brain to relax itself into the movie and build up a kind of uncluttered relationship with the central character(s).

And, of course, Sam Rockwell is brilliant. I knew that anyway, of course, from his brilliant star turn as the villain in the first Charlie’s Angels movie (yeah, okay, I loved both the Charlie’s Angels movies... so slap me) and his performance in this as he plays clones of the same person in different stages of their development is awesome. Even if he didn’t have little visual clues to help you keep track of each clone’s identity, you would have no problem telling the two clones apart. The acting is that good.

The feel you get from watching this unassuming masterpiece is the same kind of feeling you get from watching cool 70s genre classics like Dark Star and Silent Running... a relaxed and interesting sci-fi view of a world created by someone who really knows what they’re doing. It even has a reference to the first Alien movie as one of Sam’s plants is called Ridley.

Clint Mansell’s musical score is superb. Which, to be honest, is what I’d expect from the composer who gave us the landmark score to Requiem For A Dream and the Bonder than Bond score for the brave attempt that was Sahara. The Moon score keeps riffing on the same theme but it’s brilliant, filled with strange sounds including one little effect which is almost exactly the same sound you’d hear when Lee Majors did anything remotely bionic in The Six Million Dollar Man. The album is well worth a purchase for a chilled out evening with a glass of wine.

And guess what... this second viewing has made me realise that, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo before it, the clone-twist-reveal element is actually perfectly timed. It’s where it needs to be to let the story breathe and play out in it’s own time and it’s own way. I can tell that Moon is going to be one of those movies that I fire up every three or four years to rewatch. It’s a film you can relax with and which will put you in a reflective and meditative trance.

This director may well be one to watch. Let's hope we get some more films out from him soon so we can make a more rigorous judgement on a larger body of work. Not all movies work with some viewers the first time around. Some of them need to grow on you and often the fact that you don’t have to concentrate so hard on the storyline on subsequent viewings allows your appreciation of the piece to be reignited and you’ll often get a lot more out of it (Eraserhead was like that with me). This movie is going to become a constant redigitised-celluloid companion for years to come.

Take it from me... this DVD is worth taking a second trip to the Moon for.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

A Channer Darkly

Dark Alibi 1946 US
Directed by Phil Karlson
Warner Brothers DVD Region 1

Finally, someone has released some more Chans on DVD! So I’m now catching up with the eighth Chan box set (eight if you include that lousy old UK Region 2 poorly transfered from TV screenings boxed set which was then superceded when the US started releasing the Chan’s right).

Dark Alibi is one of the later Monogram Chans starring Sydney Toler as Charlie. Now Sydney Toler was an excellent incarnation of Chan, no doubt about it... unfortunately he’s always compared unfavourably to Warner Oland, and yes there’s certainly no doubt in my mind that Warner Oland was the greatest Chan of all... but cut Sydney Toler some slack because he’s really pretty good in the role too!

This one co-stars Benson Fong as semi-regular character Tommy Chan aka Number Three Son (who you may also remember from his role 20 years later as one of the three evil scientist egghead villains from Our Man Flint) and Mantan Moreland as chauffer Birmingham Brown doing his usual scaredy cat role (NUTS4R@ readers who are regular horror genre enthusiasts may remember him playing almost the same role in King of the Zombies).

This movie starts off really well with some excellent chiaroscuro camera work. Silhouettes, shadows on walls, shots through bars... typical of the US film noir style which grew out of German Expressionism from two decades before (when is someone else going to figure that out... do I have to think of everything ;-). There is some really great, moody stuff in this opening robbery/murder scene but unfortunately the rest of the movie never again scales the visual heights so brilliantly introduced in this opening (which makes me wonder if the opening footage was lifted from another movie).

Still, it’s not a bad Chan movie. Not a patch on the Oland films of course, nor on the earlier Toler vehicles when the series was still at Fox! But it moves along at a pace... Benson Fong is pretty annoying however and Mantan Moreland, while always lovable, frays the nerves a bit on this one. Constantly talking to his legs to not run out on him there are numerous, repeated insert shots of his legs trembling which, it has to be said, really isn’t funny.

That being said, however, there are three nice scenes where Ben Carter, Mantan Moreland’s partner from his stand up comedy act runs some of their routines with him. While not as good as the routines they did together in the Chan movie The Scarlet Clue a year earlier, the scenes are still a welcome relief and one of them is chosen to conclude the picture by letting Charlie in on the routine himself. Sydney Toler would have been getting on a bit for now but he seems to do a pretty good job with his timing in this routine.

Other things of note in this entry in the series is a really intense scene where Charlie Chan appears to be shot at point blank range... I actually got nervous because there was no possible way out and I didn’t want to spend the rest of the movie with a recovering Chan in a hospital ward... however, the real villain of the piece has sabotaged the gun and the pseudo-henchman type villain only succeeds in killing himself with the booby trapped gun... which splits nicely into comical strips along the barrel.

Probably the worst thing about this movie, which is mostly set in a US prison, is its inability to leave you guessing on this one in the “whodunnit” stakes. The “surprise twist” villain at the end of this movie is almost a redundant scene because you pretty much guess the main culprit from that character’s first walk-on appearance early in the movie.

Still, all in all the majority of the Chan films are remarkably watchable and this one is no exception... even if Mantan Moreland was a little less on form than usual. Am looking forward to firing up the DVD player and putting the next one on soon.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Evil Tetralogy Minus One!

Resident Evil 2002 US
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson
Screen Gems DVD Region 1
Resident Evil: Apocalypse 2004 US
Directed by Alexander Witt
Columbia DVD Region 2
Resident Evil: Extinction 2007 US
Directed by Russel Mulcahy
Sony DVD Region 2

It’s been a couple of years since I bothered taking up screentime to rewatch the Resident Evil movies. I’ve been telling a friend of mine to watch these since the first one came out being as, you know, he appreciates a well put together zombie movie but he’s always had some excuse or another for not getting down to it... with the approaching fourth movie in the tetralogy on our screens soon in 3D however, the time seemed right to him to do this... so I found myself carting the trilogy to a bizarre destination out of the other side of London so he could get acquainted with the trilogy for the first time.

I’ve always had fairly mixed reactions to these movies as a whole and my rewatching of the first three on DVD has done nothing to get me to really re-evaluate my feelings towards them. For the most part these are fairly decent zombie movies in the modern sense of the term (no voodoo in sight and no real scares but plenty of body count action) with some problems in the second movie and some slight inconsistencies with the third.

The Resident Evil movies are movies “inspired” by the popular Playstation series of games (called, more appropriately, Biohazard in its native Japan... as are the movies) which means they are a series of zombie movies based on games which, in themselves, were inspired by George A. Romero’s classic zombie movies... so the first problem the original director (who has produced the other movies in the series which all star his wife Mila Jovovich in the lead role of Alice) had was to not seem like a cheap rip off of Romero. Well, to be fair to him, the comparisons are inevitable but the first movie is very mysterious for the first half an hour or so and keeps both the audience and the characters guessing as to just what the heck is going on... the zombies being left for dessert rather than the main meal.

Another way of distracting us from unfair comparison is to make us compare it to every other genre favourite out there. There’s the scene straight out of Vince Natali’s Cube for example... I remember getting really annoyed about this when I was at the cinema but since the director admits as much in the commentary track (well he says it’s an “homage” to Cube anyway) then perhaps we can let him off. Even my friend was pointing out the various scenes from genre films “remade” as the initial trilogy played out.

Oh, by the way, I don’t know if it’s still on there these days but the original US release of Resident Evil had/has one of the worst, self-indulgent, gals making inappropriate jokes and giggling too much commentary tracks ever... it will annoy you... listen at your peril!

The nice thing about the first three movies is that the locations and situations won’t bore you with their familiarity. Each movie has a different kind of feel. The first one is a “get-out-of-the-underground-lair-before-time-is-up-and-we’re-trapped-and-we’ll-all-die” kind of movie. The second movie is set within a sealed off, zombied up city and is essentially a remake of Escape From New York. And the third movie is the “lets-all-ride-on-bikes-and-in-trucks-and-wander-a-post-apocalyptic-zombie-filled-planet-earth-in-search-of-a-new-zombieless-home” movie.

Another nice thing is that each successive movie doesn’t start where you think it might. During the first 10 minutes of the first movie we are treated to the sight of a passed-out-in-the-shower Mila Jovovich who wakes up with amnesia (which she and some of the other characters conveniently have for most of the first movie), gets dressed (in a rather fetching red dress) and gets spooked in the hallway of a mansion before... something happens. This first movie ends with her waking up and tearing herself from some tubes she’s hooked up to in a deserted hospital and going out into Racoon City (now overrun with zombies of course), arming herself with a shotgun and then striking a pose.

The second movie starts a little while before this outbreak of enthusiastic undeadery has had a chance to take hold and takes a good quarter of an hour to catch up to this scene from the last film. And when it does replay it the character drops out of the action again for another quarter of an hour or so before making an impressive but vaguely nonsensical entrance bursting through the windows of a church on her motorbike. This movie finishes with the main villain of the third movie introduced and letting her escape and “activating” the evil technology that is resident in her body so she basically becomes the villainess for the next movie (all of which is explained away in the next movie because the production company were presumably not brave enough to turn the main heroine into a villain for the third feature... this is the one truly weak part of the third movie... that and the bad CGI monster Alice has to fight at the end). Unfortunately I can't in any way, shape or form take the second movie seriously since the appearance halfway through of a really terribly made, man in suit, less than an old BBC Blake's Seven budget, bargain bucket monster who is supposed to be the all-powerful Nemesis. This monster is really rubbish!

Again, the third movie takes the audience by surprise by replaying the scene of Alice awakening in the shower from the first movie. At first the audience assumes we are being treated to a flashback until the events go down a different path to the scenes in the first Resident Evil (eliciting exclamations of stifled astonishment from the audience) before an explanation is given as to what the heck is going on in this first sequence.

All in all though, the movies are quite fast paced, bristling with action and too loud music and has a fair few (fairly shaky and not thought through) Alice in Wonderland references to boot. An enjoyable, switch your brain off for 4 - 5 hours moviegoing experience which I would actually go and see at a cinema as a triple bill just for the atmosphere if some bright spark were to put them on as a screening. Right... I have to stop blogging now and see if there’s a screening of the whole tetralogy sometime soon when the fourth movie gets released. Goodbye for now, undead readers!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Hearts of Glass

The Dark Volume 2008. By G. W. Dahlquist. Penguin. ISBN: 978067096535

The Dark Volume is Gordon Dahlquist’s sequel to his earlier novel of Victorian science-fiction The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was a book I picked up about 5 years ago on the strength of a free sample chapter given out in book shops. When it went on sale in hardback it made a bit of a splash, at least with the people I was with at the time, because of it’s attractive cover with transparent blue dustcover, distressed with aged pages on the inside covers and it’s own, traditional single-strand cloth bookmark connected to the spine. Personally I always admire a hardback because the dust jacket always makes its own natural bookmark, but this was a classy alternative for less classy readers like myself. The second hardback, which to be fair I picked up brand new for less than a fiver when my local bookshop closed down a couple of years ago, has no such cover enhancements but I won’t say it’s a lesser read just because of it’s cover. I’ll say it’s a lesser read for other reasons which may or may not soon become apparent.

For those of you who have not read the earlier volume, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was a Victorian set tale of science-fiction/fantasy in which three heroes (or two heroes and one plucky heroine if you prefer) come together to go after a cabal of decadent hedonistic villains intent on world domination through their process of making Blue Glass books from indigo clay which have the ability to suck out the experiences of anyone who looks in them and can be used as a device for “experiencing” a persons pleasures or, in the case of this second book The Dark Volume, be used to transfer a recorded mind into another being. Or at least that’s basically it... more or less, there are twists and turns along the way but that’s the basic plot set-up.

The three heroes, Celeste Temple, Abelard Svenson and Cardinal Chang (who is an assassin but who is referred to as Cardinal because of the red coat he wears and who is nicknamed Chang because of the slit scars across the fronts of his eyes) each come from different backgrounds and the structure of the first novel is okay to begin with but it gets a little tiresome after a while. Each character is assigned a basic chapter each and about a third of the way through the book, the characters, and the heroic events they have become entangled in from different viewpoints, meet up and form an alliance to stop this sinister cabal. They then go their separate ways in separate chapters which are quite rigid in their repeat order - Temple, Chang, Svenson - and then come again at the end to destroy the base of operations of the villains and kill most of them on a crashing airship.

This second volume picks up where the first one left off and not, as I'd hoped, with the three main characters together and working together on another adventure. At the start of this one the heroes are recovering from recent events but already within the first chapter they are no longer together. Unfortunately the same individual repeat structure is reused in this second novel, which I guess serves it’s artistic continuity well but in the end I was getting a tad annoyed with this.

My other grumble was that the events of the first book seemed pretty much concluded and this second adventure seems to be no more than a padded invention for the sake of continuing this specific story. And I honestly didn’t mind it... just would have preferred a fresh start for the characters. There isn’t really anything much new on display here which we didn’t already get in the first book and the continued glimpses of tantalizing sexual aberration unfortunately remain just that... they arouse your interest without actually giving you any payoff... leaving you unfulfilled. Fair enough, you may say... this is the style of the writer who does not want his books to digress too much into the realms of sexual perversion... and you’d be right, of course. It’s a solid, stylistic choice. However, it’s a hangover from the first novel and, frankly, by the time I’d gotten halfway through this particular dark volume, I was left wondering when it was going to get in any way dark.

That being said, this all sounds like I’m venting my disapproval of this work and I’m not. I’m reliably informed that this kind of fiction hovers into the territory of a genre I’m mostly unfamiliar with called steampunk... be that as it may, as far as I’m concerned this falls very much into the realm of Victorian and post-Victorian pulp science-fiction and this is a genre of fiction with which I’m both very comfortable with and which I enjoy immensely. This stygian tome is no different and I’m glad to have read it.

A word of caution though to people wishing to partake of this novel... and here be spoliers... although two of the characters appear to have given up their last breath on this mortal coil in the final chapter of this book... you kind of assume, since both deaths are thinly described and left as a deduction of the third character rather than as a definite conclusion, that they will be back for a third outing. The novel is certainly left on something of a “soft” cliffhanger as far as I am concerned and I look forward to reading the third volume as soon as possible... and therein lies my word of warning. While checking out a few things to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on this review, I discovered that the books did not sell well and lost their publishers a great deal of money it seems. This does not bode well for a future volume and so I think there’s a good possibility that the characters may very well stay dead for the rest of their fictional lives. I’d like to think that this is not their final curtain but only Mr. Dahlquist presumably knows the answer to that question... let’s hope he writes another volume soon!