Thursday, 29 October 2015


Blurred Mentality

2015 USA
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve
UK cinema release print.

Well this is an interesting film and not the kind of thing I would normally go and see. Being as its subject matter is a war on the drug cartels between the US and Mexican borders, it comes dangerously close to being a gangster type of picture and I really don’t like those... gangster movies populated by psychotic murderers remind me too much of having to survive a middle class grammar school when I was growing up.

However, there were two things I did like about the trailer I saw. One, the fact that the movie has Emily Blunt in it... an actress who I’ve got a lot of time for, sharing the spotlight here with her two male co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. That being said, I’m not the greatest fan of either Brolin or Del Toro but they do pretty well in this and I’m finally beginning to get an insight on the power a performance from someone like Del Toro can bring to the table on films like this, where the line between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ is blurred so much that you are almost certainly in just as much danger, if not more, from the people purporting to be on the side of the law in this kind of scenario. That being said... I would love for somebody to write something for Del Toro that’s completely against type. I’d like to see how he could handle himself in a romantic comedy or some such because, with an actor this powerful... I’m guessing there are quite a few things we haven’t seen him do yet, of which he’s more than capable.

However, I’m digressing... so, yeah... I think Emily Blunt is an interesting actress and this is easily one of the best performances she’s done, I reckon but, seriously, she wasn’t enough on her own to draw me to check out a movie dealing with the kind of horrific subject matter that this film uses to explore its themes. The thing which equally got me to the cinema to check this out before it left is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s amazing score... which was getting good reports and I really needed to know if I should pick up the CD while that’s still available (the answer to that one is ‘yes’... but I’ll get to that later in the review).

Okay, so I’m there in the screening and the first thing I’m hit with is Roger Deakins exquisite cinematography filming a drug raid by the FBI... where we meet Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer. The opening sequences, encompassing both before and sometime after the raid, including an amazingly grim find between the walls of the house and a booby trap which kills some of the Feds, is clearly an attempt to unsettle the audience and build up an awareness of just how bad things can get in this movie. This way of building tension from showing us that terrible things are possible within the world of the characters is an impending threat tactic employed by a lot of film-makers over the years... off the top of my head I would compare it to the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park (reviewed here) and David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. 

This opening sequence absolutely makes everything seem dangerous and this sense of unease is brilliantly maintained by Deakin’s and Villeneuve’s contributions to the cinematography, shot design and the way these elements are put together. There’s a thing which is done throughout the movie which is give the camera eye, usually composed of sweeping and very smooth movement, a voyeuristic sense. It will often focus on an irrelevant or less necessary detail in a shot, such as another shot of a decomposing corpse (after we’ve already seen a load of these) or a basketball game... and then use these details as a starting point to open out the focus of the shot, usually with a pan or a zoom or some other camera flourish, and then allow the audience to catch and follow the real intent of the scene. It’s a really interesting way of looking at the content of the shot and, done quite leisurely as it is here, makes for a very creepy feel. You don’t know what’s going to be coming at you next... which is kinda the point and certainly gels with the fact that Emily Blunt’s character is never given the full facts of what she’s getting herself into and is on very shaky ground as to what to expect from any situation she gets involved in... which is why this particular visual approach in the design and movement through the frames is so appropriate on this movie. The style of the mise en scène puts the audience at exactly the same disadvantage as the main female protagonist... and it works very well.

There are also some truly beautiful sots of landscapes such as the first plane ride, where we never get an exterior shot of the plane carrying our ‘heroes’ to their destination... instead we get these amazing aerial shots which look like they could have been lifted out of Godrey Regio’s Koyaanisqaatsi and the shadow of the plane to indicate that what we are seeing relates to the path of the journey the lead actors are taking. There are a fair few arial shots used in this movie and the director also uses different media sourced in the film by the characters to do the storytelling at some points... such as a night vision lens on the helmets of certain people or a pan back and forth across a bank of black and white security cameras. This is all good stuff, is edited into the film in a less than intrusive manner and adds another layer of visual texture to the film.

Added to this we have some brilliant performances by the leads with Emily Blunt being particularly amazing in her role of, basically, observer (there’s a reason why she’s there and it becomes apparent by the final reel) and Del Toro and Brolin playing quite terrifying people who, frankly, are just as terrifying, unpredictable, merciless and, in the case of Del Toro, as evil as the cartel they are trying to destroy. This makes for a quite unnerving film and, coupled with the startlingly gorgeous cinematography, the juxtaposition of the grittiness and grimness of the lives of these people with the beauty of the way the camera catches them, it’s a very powerful combination and this film does get under one’s skin a little by the conclusion.

And then there’s that music. That score by Jóhannsson is pretty amazing. It’s not unique in that it seems to be using a lot of that kind of droning sound which has been so popular with movie audiences over the last few years in films like Gravity (reviewed here) and Interstellar (reviewed here) but he also hits the percussion beats quite a lot and the way it’s composed actually helps promote a lot of tension... especially when it’s low key and then suddenly dialled up right into the mix. You know when the music starts to ramp up that something big is going to go down... but it might not be as disturbing as some of the stuff which happens when there is no music playing at all. The film seems quite judiciously spotted in regards to which sequences are scored or left without music and, sometimes, the lack of music in the lead in to a scene produces its own uneasiness, to tell the truth. This is definitely something I need to listen to away from the world of the film so I’m looking forward to listening to the CD at some point soon.

And that’s about it for me and Sicario. I couldn’t watch it again because the moral ambiguities of the majority of the characters are quite disturbing but it’s certainly a fine, well made film which is a strange mix of styles, elevating the sleaziness in a really good looking package which, combined with the electric performances, raises it to something quite striking, arresting and ultimately disturbing... not to mention haunting. Definitely check this one out on a big screen because, as I said earlier, Roger Deakin’s cinematography is exquisite.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

A Witch In Time

The Last Witch Hunter
2015 USA
Directed by Breck Eisner
UK cinema release print.

I’m not a big Vin Diesel fan, it has to be said. I’ve seen him in a few things like Pitch Black and XXX and, although I thought the former of these two was an okay movie, I wasn’t all that impressed, at the time, with the main male lead, who I thought was a bit wooden. That being said, I also wouldn’t go out of my way not to see a movie with Vin Diesel in it... it’s just he tends to make films I wouldn’t usually choose to pass time with at the cinema. So when I saw a trailer for The Last Witch Hunter at my local a few weeks ago it looked kinda interesting to me... silly, but interesting. So I thought I’d take a look.

I’m kinda glad I did because, you know what, Vin Diesel is a bit wooden but, looking at the confidence and ease with which he is able to deliver lines against seasoned actors like Michael Caine and fill the expectations of the role in this movie, I’m giving him a long hard look now and thinking he maybe does this on purpose. It’s part of his on-screen personae in very much the same way that John Wayne used to cultivate a certain style of character when he could actually have been a lot more versatile than that if he wanted to be. I think Vin does alright in this movie and I’m gonna start looking out for him in other films at the cinema... if they take my interest.

The film itself is... well it’s a mixed bag when it comes to the style in which it’s been shot, marrying up hand held, slightly jerky shots to sprawling camera pans and then relying on the editing, which is skilled enough to just about make it all work. The story is great though and the impression you get of it from the trailer is totally accurate. It’s silly but fun... and those movies tend to occupy a large place in people’s hearts because escapist adventure tends to be pretty good when it does what it says on the tin... and this is no exception.

The film follows the adventures of Vin Diesel as a witch hunter called Kaulder, aided by his friend Dolan the 36th, played by Michael Caine, the latest of many ‘Dolans’ through the ages since Kaulder’s death and rebirth through a witch’s curse. Kaulder and Dolan are part of an organisation that makes sure witches through the centuries are kept on the straight and narrow to comply with the world’s laws that witches are not allowed to harm humans. Kaulder is that secret society’s blunt instrument, weapon of choice against any witches who stray out of line. However, when Dolan the 36th retires and is replaced by Elijah Wood as Dolan the 37th, that former Dolan is found ostensibly dead on the same day and black magic is obviously involved. This leads Kaulder and Dolan the 37th into a plot to rebirth the evil witch queen who cursed Kaulder with immortality over 800 years ago.

On the way, he finds himself flung in with a young witch called Chloe, played by the lovely Rose Leslie, who does the whole dynamic of not trusting The Last Witch Hunter through to risking her life on his behalf... and a heck of a lot of magic and battles in the quest to try and prevent the witch queen and her evil plot. Along the way there are betrayals of one kind or another and revelations about the central character, which is a key part of the jigsaw puzzle of the trick to defeating the queen at the end of the movie.

Now, I have to say, there was one surprise fairly early on in the movie which I didn’t see coming but, for the most part, the script is full of clichés and pretty much every twist and turn telegraphs itself way before it manifests on screen... but that’s okay because sometimes a cast and crew can get away with that kind of writing, especially in a fantasy action genre like this where the characters are themselves of greater interest than any plot that they are thrown into. And everyone does fine here... the acting is all pretty good and the writing, while not throwing too much originality at your brain, does succeed in writing interesting character types to go along on the adventure with.

It also helps that it’s a fairly solidly made movie and the set pieces, such as they are, are handled well, are mostly exciting (although the final battle sequence does tend to go on a bit, it has to be said) and the editing doesn’t get in the way of decoding and understanding the action sequences like it does in a lot of Hollywood blockbusters. I was pretty much entertained all the way through and that’s no mean feat with this kind of movie, to be sure.

I love films which are pretty much monster hunter movies like this so The Last Witch Hunter is right up my street. I was looking at a father and his two kids in the row in front of me and they seemed to be lapping it up too. I was looking them and thinking that, for these kids, this is the modern day equivalent of those old Ray Harryhausen stop motion action adventures that I used to watch as a young 'un in the 1970s. It took me right back, in a way. It also reminded me a little of the old Hammer and Amicus movies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s too. Not in look, because pretty much every set and shot in this movie is enhanced with an abundance of CGI set dressing comprising special effects and such like, but in that this is just the kind of film that studios like those would have liked to have been making back then... if they’d have had the monstrous budget at their disposal back then to credibly create some of the magical creations in stories of this kind... which they wouldn’t have.

To be honest, I’d like to see more movies with this of monster hunter theme to them at the cinema. I loved films like Van Helsing and even the completely inaccurate to the source material but still quite fun Constantine, to be honest, and this film definitely follows in the footsteps of movies like these. There’s really nothing wildly new or different about this one at all but, it is convincingly put together and makes up for the lack of shining originality by being really on the nose when it comes to setting up a credible world and not deviating from that vision.

Steve Jablonsky’s score is okay too. Certainly appropriate although, again, I didn’t think it maybe went far enough to stress the dark, twisted bleakness of some of the characters in some places. Some more experimental orchestration might not have gone amiss, I think. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely score and I bet it’s a great listen away from the movie (which is why the CD is going straight onto my Christmas list) but I did feel, in some places, that it sounded perhaps just a little too much like every other American fantasy movie out there. With a character like Kaulder, who is living on the edges of our reality and on the outskirts of a plain of existence where witches and demons gather at the periphery of mankind, I thought that it was just a little mediocre in certain places. That being said, I’m really not sure the composer can be blamed for that because the film has one of those noisy sound mixes where a lot of the time the music is dialled back in contrast to the various action sound effects which take centre stage in the audio range of the film.

Still, it serves the movie admirably and it’s really not a complaint. The Last Witch Hunter is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed if you’ve seen the trailer, not a frightening movie and I suspect it’s not supposed to be. It is a fun, action romp tinted with horror film trappings and filtered through generations of movie and literary characters who have sought to fight with demons and witches to keep the world safe. Vin Diesel’s Kaulder is one such character and the actors here do so well that I would love to see a sequel to this sometime. Not really expecting that to happen but, hey, I enjoyed it and I can imagine it will be a Christmas holiday favourite on TV in many households in years to come. Not essential viewing by any means but a solid, fun action movie that should satisfy most lovers of that kind of combination genre. One to watch out for, if you have the time.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Woman Who Lived

Stand and Delivery Charge

Doctor Who - The Woman Who Lived
UK Airdate: 24th October 2015

Okay, so this was pretty good but... I’m guessing it might not be a crowd pleaser. Not for the younger audience because there’s not really much in the way of action in this one... just sparklingly well written dialogue. And I suspect the very dark tone of this, while ideal for a viewer like me, to some degree, will probably put off some people... but time will tell on that one.

As for me... I thought this follow up episode, The Woman Who Lived, was absolutely marvellous and explored the anxieties and consequences, touched on by The Doctor when he brought The Girl Who Died back to life, in an absolutely beautiful manner. It gets very dark but not quite as dark as it could have got and the avenues it explores and the end game of the episode actually did surprise me to a certain extent. Which is good because I was sure it wasn’t an option the writers would even consider being on the table for this and, although it might seem a bit hum drum and a bit of a quick fix solution... I think it was handled, both in the writing and the performance, in as eloquent a way as possible.

The episode wisely ditched Clara for almost the entire running time, to give the relationship between The Doctor and the titular character, Ashildr, to play out in as much time as was needed to explore the themes and throw in the odd comic sequence for light relief. The episode also delivered just the right touch with Clara too because the longevity of The Doctor’s companions and the way in which they are left behind is something which is again thrown up as an element which we can now see in a different light... after a conversation which happens towards the end of this episode. Clara unwittingly brings closure to the conversation, even though she has no way of knowing what she’s doing and it makes for a really touching conclusion to the story.

I have to give a big shout out to Maisie Williams as Ashildr. She was pretty good last week but this week, playing someone who had been made bitter and numb to life due to the passage of, and emotional ravages of, time... well she was just astonishing. Given that the episode only lasted 45 minutes, she managed to convey all the bitterness and dissilusion turned into a more cavalier way of looking at life in a kind of shorthand way that was totally effective and I was so impressed by the depth of her exploration. She, like Jenna Coleman is able to do regularly, kept up with Peter Capaldi, who is frankly brillliant, and gave him a run for his money on screen. What a treat to see amazing writing performed so well on a weekly basis. We’re halfway through the series now (they chopped it down by yet another episode this year and are counting the Christmas special as this year’s thriteenth episode) and I have to concur that somehow the writers and show runner Steven Moffat have really been able to turn the show around. This is quality stuff here... but I’m still cynical enough to expect the inevitable fail at some point soon. Hope not but... yeah, I’m a little jaded myself.

Congratulations too, should go to Rufus Hound, who only had a few scenes to make me care enough about him as a character that the final end game solution of the storyline here finally looked like it was obviously the inevitable choice to take. I won’t spoil it here by saying what that was but... although, as I said, a bit of a hum drum option to stear the plot threads too, Hound’s performance as highwayman Sam Swift was one which stood up and delivered a means to at least make that final choice by the titular character an acceptable one. So that helps a lot.

There were some nice references to The Doctor’s past adventures here too, with a conversation including the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London implicitly naming the Terrileptils as the creatures who started the fire in Pudding Lane... as seen in the Peter Davison era story from the 1980’s, The Visitation. Captain Jack Harkness also gets a big shout out... which I’m sure a lot of people will be happy about. Of course, the sonic sunglasses also made a most unwelcome return... so there was something really bad about the episode. Maybe we can get that fixed somehow though? I understand there’s an on-line petition. Is Moffat just teasing us with this thing or does he mean to keep the sunglasses in? This really isn’t a good idea.

One last thing... Murray Gold’s score was absolutely brilliant... asides from a little ‘comedy romp’ music in a break-in scene perhaps. Truly beautiful with some nice, haunting piano work for a scene with Ashildr at the end and a nice little, light touch rendition of Clara’s theme too, all helped the episode weave its magical spell. Another short review but in terms of incident, the episode was fairly simplistic and the locations were not all that many... plus I really don’t have anything to complain about again so... sorry if you’re feeling short changed on the size of this one but I don’t have much else to say about this, other than it’s another one of the stronger episodes of the last five years. Looking forward to next week and seeing if that episode is set before or after one of the semi-regular characters was killed off at the end of last year and, also, whether this will lead on to The Doctor rediscovering Gallifrey or not. Time will tell so... another Doctor Who review next weekend, methinks.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension 3D

Wheatley Hell’s 
Going On Here?

Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension 3D
2015 USA
Directed by Gregory Plotkin
UK cinema release print.

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for the Paranormal Activity films. The first of these (reviewed here) was not really all that scary but fits into my realm of 'comfort horror'. Paranormal Activity 2 - 4 (reviewed here, here and here)  were pretty scary and, as each new film was released, they added another compelling puzzle piece to an overall  back story arc that has been used to drive the franchise on, pretty successfully, since the first installment. At this point I should probably point out that I don’t include the original sequel to the first Paranormal Activity film, the Japanese horror movie Paranormal Activity 2 - Tokyo Nights because, amazingly, the producers have done a really good job at suppressing a release of that, now unofficial, sequel over here or in the US and I still haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy with English subtitles. it follows a completely different plot avenue from the US Paranormal Activity 2 and I really want to see what the Japanese did with it. I shall keep looking out for it though.

The US films are not set in a chronological order but, as the story unfolds, you realise that there's a good reason why this is so, especially with the inclusion in the fifth installment, the dreadful Paranormal Activity - The Marked Ones (reviewed here) of the concept that various characters in the Paranormal Activity universe can travel back and forth in time. Now this is interesting because, as far as I can remember, the release of Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension was stalled for a couple of years to make way for the shooting and release of The Marked Ones and it seems to me now that the only reason this could be so, was that test audiences (be they members of the public or part of private studio screenings back in 2013) may have been confused by the time travel element in this movie but, honestly, although I originally assumed that this was why that fifth film was needed, I can honestly say that you’d have to be... well...  really not very smart if you couldn’t work that out for yourself by the things which are happening in this one, since the film straddles mostly just two realities (or three if you count the titular plain of existence) - that of the year when Katie and her sister were taken in by ‘the coven’ in the past and also the current part of the story playing out, the year 2013... which gives me further circumstantial evidence that this was, at least in part but probably in whole, in the can by the original projected 2013 release date.

Now, the thing which was driving me nuts about this one before I went to see it was that it’s being presented in 3D. What the heck? Now you have to think about this. The movies are found footage horror films making use of whatever camera technology they are purportedly being recorded on... mostly VHS in this one because it includes the identity of the finders of the tapes which you saw being discovered in the opening of one of the former episodes... I forget which one. So how do you get away with justifying a 3D release of a Paranormal Activity film when the whole point of these things is they’re supposed to look like they are documentary style found footage recorded on the hoof?

Well, as it happens, I forgave them almost immediately because, like the majority of the series, this film brings in a slightly newer element which elevates proceedings just a little more than the last one and, in this one, it’s the discovery of a souped up camera which has twice as much innards as it’s supposed to have and which seems to have been specifically created to capture things happening in a spirit realm, invisible to the naked eye or a normal camera, superimposed over the real world images as they manifest themselves. So think shots of eerie ectoplasm beings appearing whenever the films ‘star demon’ Toby comes out to play, so to speak. So most of the footage in the movie is still flat but, whenever The Ghost Dimension starts manifesting whenever it’s this particular camera picking up the footage, the ghost parts are actually projected on a 3D layer... accompanied by some appropriate sound design to heighten the audiences awareness that something spooky is about to happen while simultaneously conditioning the audience, Pavlov style, that whenever they hear these sounds or see these ectoplasmic 3D black shapes... something awful could happen, so be afraid! Of course, all this would have gone down a lot better if it had made its original 2013 release date, when 3D hadn’t totally lost the popularity Hollywood wants it to have, in order to justify the ticket price hike but... at least the team behind the film have gone to some lengths to find a decent spin on the gimmick for this movie... which I think lets it off the hook somewhat.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is a real return to form for the series after that last, plug in installment. This one has a group of characters consisting of people who you really can sympathise with again and who you can hope make it through the film fairly unscathed... rather than the bunch of foul mouthed  street thugs you just don’t care about in The Marked Ones. Of course, I’m not going to tell you if everyone or, indeed, anyone survives this installment but... it’s a Paranormal Activity film. What do you think? You need to go find out.

The film is somewhat formulaic, it has to be said, following the slow burn format of the previous installments with the scares getting increasingly more alarming and violent as Toby and the gang ramp up to a finale where all hell breaks loose... almost literally in this case. There’s also a nice return, in this one, to the old Dennis Wheatley school of horror... which manifests itself when a local priest gets involved with the family and friends who are trying to protect their Toby-obsessed daughter. So, yeah, you get the old chalk symbol circle sequence where everybody has to stand in said circle and must not... whatever they hear or see... leave the circle which protects them from the demonic forces at work.

Okay... so how do you think that ones going to work out in a Paranormal Activity movie? Someone always leaves the circle of protection in a horror tale, right?

Let’s just say that the final confrontation between the priest and Toby, kickstarts the usual chaotic and scary concluding sequences of the film and, I have to tell you, the writers/producers/director goes way past the level they usually do at this point in these movies. You will, finally, get some good glimpses of Toby and the demonic deaths of any/all/some of the characters in this one (like I’m going to tell you) are all done in a much more over-the-top fashion which, in a lot of cases, makes full use of the 3D format. It possibly gets a little silly in this final pièce de résistance of the movie but it’s swings and roundabouts averaging out between the “blimey, that scared the pants off me, I did not expect that” moments and the “okay, 3D demonic impaling... whatever” moments and I can really forgive the film-makers any indulgences with the last quarter of an hour of this movie because it’s just so much scary fun.

The creator of the franchise, Oren Peli, has gone on record that this will be the last in the series but... hang on, you can’t stop it here! The final message we take away from this one is pretty grim and I really do want to see more of this franchise. I don’t think the story is done here and I would so much like to see a good guy/gal ‘anti-coven’ group of heroes go into a final showdown with Toby, the coven and, presumably, the devil made flesh etc. This is like where they left it at the end of The Last Exorcism Part 2 (reviewed by me here) and I was pumped up to see where the next one would go... which didn’t materialise. I want to see this series’ equivalent of the original Omen trilogy’s The Final Conflict (reviewed by me here) where there’s a huge showdown between the forces of darkness and light, over one or two movies. I don’t even care who wins... I just want to see it. I think this film needs to maybe make a heck of a lot of money and wipe out the bad box office of the unnecessary fifth installment to somehow give the studio a hand in reconsidering their options at this point.

The one thing that I found maybe dissapointing is that this is the first of the movies not to feature an adult version of the Katie character and played by the original actress. We certainly hear about what she’s been up to in 2013 and we certainly see a lot of her as a young ‘un... but no actual appearances in her adult guise in this one, I’m afraid to say. Which would have been a nice touch when all hell starts breaking loose in this one, I feel.

Regardless, my final words on Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension are... this is another great entry into a seriously cool set of movies which actually make full use of the, possibly overused, modern cliché of the ‘found footage horror’ movie. It’s scary, heart racing fun for people who like to go to see these kinds of films and if you’re a fan of the Paranormal Activity series... essential viewing. If you got disheartened after that last movie in the series, you don’t have anything to worry about here... it’s back on track and is especially well worth a watch at the cinema in 3D because it’s used to enhance a plot point. And, like I said, I really hope this one does the numbers because I really want to see another sequel. A truly great movie, too, to spend this Halloween at the cinema with. Go see it soonest.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Blood Of My Blood (Sangue Del Mio Sangue)

Vamp Light

Blood Of My Blood (Sangue Del Mio Sangue)
2015 Italy/France/Switzerland
Directed by Marco Bellocchio
Seen at the London Film Festival October 9th 2015.

Warning: Light spoilers.

Marco Bellocchio’s new film, Blood Of My Blood, is one of the three films I picked out to see at the London Film Festival this year because the premise sounded intriguing. It also sounded very similar, in some respects, to a movie called The Witches’ Sabbath which has been languishing in my ‘to watch’ pile of DVDs for almost a year now. Which, bizarrely, I found out on the IMDB the day after I watched Blood Of My Blood, is also by this same director... a man whose work I have not seen before. Must be something in my subconscious picked this one out of this year’s programme to apply for the tickets, I reckon.

This movie is interesting in that it’s a film of two definitive halves, both set in the small town of Bobbio but in two different time periods. One section set historically at a time where suspected witches were being tortured for confessions by various monks in their monasteries and then flipping over to the present day halfway through the movie. The main lead actor, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio who plays Federico, is also the producer and son of the director and, like a few people in this movie, he has a dual role playing a character and then, later, a different person in contemporary times... presumably an ancestor of the one he played in the first part.

The plot involves a beautiful actress called Lidiya Liberman, in her debut role, playing Benedetta, a woman who the monks need to confess to consorting with Satan to allow Federico’s twin brother to be buried properly, rather than as a suicide which goes against God. In order for that to happen, they have to prove that he was not in sound mind and committing the action of his own free will and so... they need to torture a confession out of Benedetta.

The first half of the movie is Federico going from hatred to love of Benedetta as she undergoes fairly common witchcraft style trials such as the “if she floats she’s guilty” variety and, surprisingly, passing them all until she gets to a point where a kind of compromise is reached and she is, rather than burnt, walled alive into a tiny cubicle.

When we jump to the present day, we follow the upset caused by a Russian businessman who wants to buy the building in which Benedetta was walled up in and the current owner, an old vampire from a secret society of vampires, who wants to block this from happening but isn’t really in a position to. There are echoes from the past as he goes about his business and spies a new waitress in town who is the dead spit of Benedetta. Is she an ancestor? Well probably not as a nice revelation scene about her nature takes place in flashback towards the end of the movie... but I won’t spoil that moment for you here.

There are also some nice comedy moments, during the first half especially, where Federico introduces the two women he is staying with while he is visiting the monks, to the fanning of their sexual curiosity and awakening of their desires... which Federico is able to kindle and satisfy in one hit. He does tend to put it about a bit in his earlier incarnation, it has to be said.

Now there’s an interesting thing about the camerawork on this one, I noticed. Specifically, a lot of the shots in the first half of the film seem to be pitched from a point of view either slightly below or slightly above a ‘square on’ view. Not everything in the first half of the movie is shot like this but a lot of it seemed to be and that means that you are always either looking slightly down or slightly up at the characters as they come into view. This is bolstered by the odd extreme shot taken from either a greater height, such as the top of a staircase looking down at a door (something which is used a few times in the first part of the movie and again in the contemporary section of the film) or a shot from well below the view of the particular subject matter of a sequence. The latter is best demonstrated in a really interesting view point as when Benedetta is being thrown into a river loaded down with chains... the camera views her atop a cliff from under the water as a blur, later returning to this point of view as her body drops and breaks the surface of the water. There are definitely some nice things being done with the cinematography on this one.

The musical score by Carlo Crivelli is mostly appropriate and tasteful (asides from a few overtly comically scored moments, perhaps) but at a few points a couple of songs by ‘Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ are used and one of them, in the same sequence as the trial by water I described earlier, starting up when Benedetta is weighted down at the bottom of the lake, is Self-fulfilling Prophecy. Now I don’t know why the director and producers chose this but it popped me straight out of the movie for two reasons... other than for being a truly beautiful and haunting piece of music in its own right (which I guess means I’ve maybe answered my own question as to why it was chosen, to some respect). One reason is because it’s almost a more modern sound and doesn’t feel contemporary to the period it’s supporting. Now this is not a new thing and is, actually, a very common practice of musical anachronism found in more films than you might expect. To be fair, it’s not being used as ‘source music’... but I just find that when songs with vocalised lyrics are used that it tends to ‘break the spell’ of the illusion of the movie much more than if it was a purely instrumental piece. This is not what I would expect from the period in which this portion of the film is set.

Secondly, it’s already a piece of music I associate with both cinema and vampirism, being as it’s used to very good effect on the 2010 German vampire movie We Are The Night, reviewed here. So I don’t know if this was chosen to maybe evoke the idea of vampirism into the subtext of the movie before the overt introduction of one in the second part of the story but, much as I love this particular piece of music, I suspect this would have been much better off serving as purely a temp track in the rough cut for a new piece of score rather than being used outright in the movie. Of course, for people who are unfamiliar with We Are The Night or, indeed, the music group in question, then this may not have the same effect on certain members of the audience. I’m not in a position to be able to guess at that one.

All in all, Blood Of My Blood is a pretty good movie. It doesn’t spoon feed the audience and it leaves little puzzles and mysteries of the characters to play out in the mind after the movie is done. For me, for instance, a scene involving the throwing of a second cloister key onto the river bed may be concealing more interesting truths about the two characters than my brain was divulging to me on this first viewing. This is always a good thing but I’m not sure, to be honest, if this is a film I’d want to watch again. It is, however, a bit of a rare gem and the performances of the actors and the great, almost larger than life characters they conjure up here, are quite watchable and interesting. Most people should have a fairly good time with this movie, I think. Not exactly unmissable but certainly a rewarding film if you have the time and if, indeed, it gets any kind of release in this country at some point.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Crimson Peak

Redded Bliss

Crimson Peak
2015 USA
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Slight spoilers in this one 
in terms of the first half of the movie.

Well... this one surprised me by completely living up to my expectations of it... which were unrealistically high, it has to be said.

I first saw the trailer for Crimson Peak online, either at the end of 2014 or early 2015, if my memory is not playing tricks on me. I admire Guillermo del Toro as a director but find him a bit hit and miss when it comes to making movies which are able to entertain me. Films like Pan’s Labyrinth which, with its surrealistic fairytale leanings, should have been right up my street... left me a little cold, to be honest. Whereas stuff like the Hellboy movies (especially the second one) and Pacific Rim, to a certain extent  (reviewed by me here), are films I could happily repeat watch. However, even the films I find less than entertaining by him are always worth a look because they are usually so arresting at a visual level. Crimson Peak is no exception but, I’m happy to say, it’s also wildly entertaining and, frankly, a bit of a masterpiece of modern Gothic romance.

Now, I’m pretty sure I read a tweet by del Toro saying that the film is not a horror movie. Well, I guess it depends on your definition of horror. For me, anything with non-human monsters - be they off-planet, other-wordly or supernatural phenomena, falls firmly into the horror movie camp for me... and the presence of a handful of ghosts in this film certainly does the trick here. However, the horror details are really the icing on the cake of this delicious crimson confection... the movie is both more than that, and less than that, in equal parts... depending on your point of view.

More than that because they support what is basically a contemporary take on an old school gothic romance, a film firmly following a direct lineage of movie versions of such works as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Less, because the movie is more about the characters and their relation to their situation rather than a full on ghost movie... although this really isn’t to suggest the movie is anything less than scary in certain sections. What we have here is the style of those kinds of earlier literary works infused with a quite chilling rendition, due to del Toro’s very good taste at getting things to look and feel right, of the kind of modern incarnations of ghost horror movies such as Mama (reviewed here) and Dark Water.

The film follows a young lady called Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska, as she finds herself in an unlikely romantic entanglement with her former Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here) co-star Tom Hiddleston as Thomas Sharpe and his sinister sister Lucille Sharpe, played by Jessica Chastain. After the violent murder of her rich father by an unseen assailant, she and her money return with the Sharpes to live with them in England, to his ancestral home which... as Edith finds out far too late (certainly much later than anyone in the audience would expect, given that Tom starts talking to her father and his colleagues about red clay)... is known by the locals under the nickname Crimson Peak. This is a place she has been warned of, by her dead mother, and told to stay away from... so obviously there wouldn’t be a story here unless she ended up at this place at some point in the film’s running time. Her biggest concern... and the audiences... is to try and figure out just who or what is there that may mean her harm. Is it the ghosts of the violently deceased that plague her in the night or are either Tom or Jessica less transparent in their intentions than they are letting on?

Well, I’ll tell you now you probably won’t take too much time seeing through the various clues, highlighted in the cinematic equivalent of a giant marker pen on paper... but the mystery element in the story should keep some people happy and it’s not the story, anyway, which makes this film such compelling viewing. It’s del Toro’s deft touch and signature on the frames themselves which will have you riveted to see what beautiful set piece is coming next. There is high romance (a lit candle for a waltz scene), lurking terror (the entire environment Edith ends up in) and there’s also the terrifyingly rendered ghosts in the movie... I promise you, you would not want to meet one of these creations on a dark night. Above all though, there’s also a deep and lacerating sense of violence which boils up when, admittedly, you most suspect it but... honestly... with a certain visceral force that leaves you with a schism in your head as you try to marry up the contrast between rich, romantic gothic atmosphere and the viciousness and goriness of an expression of violence in which del Toro certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

It’s a terrible cliché for me to write in a review but the film truly is a rich, visual and, also, aural feast - the sound design is beautiful with whispers of dread and terror lurking in your ears as you follow the characters through the old house on Crimson Peak. This is, of course, exactly what I would expect of the director and his artistic sensibilities. He has apparently gone on record as saying that the design of the film was his attempt to recreate the look of Mario Bava. Now, as regular readers will know, I cite Bava’s influence in films a lot but I wouldn’t have necessarily highlighted that here unless prompted by the director’s own words. What I will say is that I was much more struck by the film’s resemblance, on some visual level, to the mid 1950s to late 1960s horror movies put out by England’s Hammer studios. The dense colours don’t quite seem to be as luminous as one might expect to encounter in the works of Bava, to my mind, and more like what you would see in a Christopher Lee Dracula movie, for instance (my review of the first Hammer Dracula can be found here). Indeed, the fact that Mia Wasikowska’s main protagonist is presumably named after one of Hammer’s best loved actors, Peter Cushing, presumably demonstrates that these films were also in the director’s mind when he was working on this film.

Either way, Hammer and Bava are not the only references for horror or, indeed, giallo fans to sink their teeth into. For example, the murder of Edith’s father is straight out of a Dario Argento giallo... in fact, I suspect it’s inspired by a murder scene in Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red, reviewed by me here) but the director really manages to up the stakes and make the violence in this particular scene, among others, something you almost want to look away from. Which, frankly, is what violence should be... something you really want to look away from. The director uses the brutality of the violence to punctuate certain scenes, especially in the last reel, and really hits home that the characters populating the story, no matter how beautiful they all look in his perfect shot compositions and framed within his leisurely moving camera, are very much real people with a lot at risk. It helps add to the gravitas already conjured up by the three main leads and Charlie Hunnam’s character, who becomes more important toward the end. I’m happy to say that the ‘deus ex machina’ arc of Hunnam's character doesn’t necessarily follow the exact path the audience thinks it’s going to... and he's not very smart in some scenes, it has to be said.

Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is an absolutely beautiful film and it’s steeped in the gothic tradition of the literature of over a hundred years ago, filtered in a deliberately post-modern fashion through some of the best directors of colourful horror films of the past but, at no times, does it ever stop from being the unique and personal vision that you would expect from this Mexican master of cinema. Guillermo del Toro is one of the absolute key modern players of what is still the most popular art form of our time... the motion picture. Crimson Peak is, I will say again, a masterpiece and, from my view at this stage of his career, one of his key films.... certainly my favourite so far of all his works. Great beauty for fans of gothic romance and tales of ghostly spirits bearing warnings from the dead. Definitely one you should catch up with and see on a big screen. Such a beautiful film.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Died

And The Horse They Odin On

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Died
UK Airdate: 17th October 2015

Warning: Some spoilers here.

So episode five of the current series, much to my surprise, is another first rate episode. It’s technically another two parter and indeed the story should continue, in a way, next week... just with a different set of characters and locations, aside from the one important supporting character, it would seem... The Girl Who Died.

It’s a very simple story and it’s one which leaves The Doctor and Clara in a situation where all they have to help them are their wits and The Doctor’s special MacGyver powers to make the most out of the various things you can find in a small viking village in order to save the day. This time it comes at a price, the consequences of which will doubtless be explored in the next episode following on from this... The Woman Who Lived.

So, yeah, this episode starts with the tail end of an off screen adventure where The Doctor wards off an entire battle fleet while simultaneously rescuing a stranded Clara in space before the brain eating spider working its way up her costume can have her for dinner. All well and good but when the two stop for a quick breather, to catch up on what just happened and the limits of their allowed involvement, they are back in viking times and promptly captured by a band of the said fellows who take them back to their village. Two things to note is that they are now two days by boat from the TARDIS and, hooray, The Doctor’s sonic sunglasses are snapped in half and, though they do make use of them still... well, let’s just hope that he doesn’t make any new ones anytime soon and he can get a new screwdriver manufactured by the TARDIS before the next episode comes into play.

The story gets underway properly when a species of aliens, the leader of whom represents himself as Odin and projects his image into the sky, culls the village of all its fighters, effectively making them into a protein shake to drink, and then accepts a challenge by the title character of this story to come back the next day and fight the warriors. That is to say, they’ll come back and slaughter the rest of the village the next day. So immediately, The Doctor and Clara are put into a Seven Samurai kind of situation (or The Magnificent Seven, if that’s you’re preferred pop cultural reference here) and have to train up the remaining villagers to fight... even though they realise it will be futile.

Of course, before the episode is over, The Doctor manages to MacGyver some stuff up from the local blacksmith’s forge and, using handy electric eels, helps the locals defeat the alien menace. However, the price is the death of the girl who challenged the alien race in the first place. And this is where it gets really interesting in terms of continuity with the series because The Doctor finds a way to save her too... but the reasons he does this are a neat fix on something which may have been bothering a minority of the viewers of the show for a while.

You see, Doctor Who is a big and long running show here in the UK. Pretty much most British actors have a role in it at some point or another and many of them return again for different and, quite often, more famous or longer lasting roles over the 52 year history of the show. Nicholas Courtney, for example, played a recurring character in a long story in the William Hartnell years before returning in Patrick Troughton’s era as Colonel Lethbridge-Stuart, who was soon to be promoted to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart and who worked with quite a few of The Doctor’s over the years before his death a few years ago. Similarly, future Doctor Colin Baker starred in a minor role in a story in the show years before. The second incarnation of the time lord companion Romana regenerated into a character she liked from the previous series, naturally played by the same actress. So there is a precedent for this in the show and that last example is a pertinent one here because the writers acknowledged the actress' likeness in the story and came up with a justification for it...

Now Peter Capaldi is no stranger to the Doctor Who universe. He played a major role in the third series of Torchwood and, more importantly here, played a great character in the David Tennant story The Fires Of Pompeii. The Doctor acknowledged in the first proper Peter Capaldi story that he recognised the face from somewhere and wondered why his body had chosen it... with a few careful and quick flashbacks to both of those stories we now have the reason for The Doctor’s face being the same as one which occurred in the earlier episode used here... as a reminder that sometimes you don’t always have to leave people behind. Which is possibly unnecessary but it’s certainly a nice touch.

The episode is loaded with references to other pop culture references too... from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum to Noggin The Nog and the writer certainly must have had a lot of fun with this one. The story is pretty cool in its own right too and the simplicity of stripping away the technology and throwing The Doctor in at the deep end to manufacture the tech and use what he’s got to ‘capture’ upgraded technology both works really well and gives the characters a chance to shine in a simpler environment. There’s some really nice character building going on here, not least of which is shown in the way The Doctor saves the girl who died. Reprogramming an alien field kit he heals her back to life after death but... there’s a catch. The field kit absorbed in her body will never stop repairing her. She won’t age and won’t die ever... or so we’re told. And we learn, or are reminded (to be more accurate) of The Doctor’s regret about him outliving all his friends when he leaves her with a second reprogrammed field kit... so when she meets the person she wants to share the curse of immortality with, she has the power to make it happen.

That being said, I don’t think things will quite play out that way. I think next week we’ll find that there is another option to immortality and that the second field kit may well go unused. We shall see what we shall see and I’m kinda hoping I’m wrong on that count. So fingers crossed.

All in all though, The Girl Who Died is probably the best episode of the current series so far, which is saying a lot since even the slight duds have been pretty good episodes. Entertaining, well performed, more than adequate special effects, the reminder of The Doctor’s ability to ‘speak baby’ and, to top it off, maybe even a little thought provoking. Can’t ask for much more than all that on a Saturday evening science fiction TV show I reckon. Good job all around. Will be interesting to see where the next part of this story takes us.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Ghost Theatre

Oh Hell, Dolly!

Ghost Theatre (aka Gekijô Rei aka Ghost Theater)
2015 Japan
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Seen at the London Film Festival 10th October 2015

“Wow. Just saw the new film from the director of the original 
Ringu and Dark Water at London Film Festival. Just wow!”
 Tweet from NUTS4R2, 10th October 2015

I think I’ve only seen three Hideo Nakata movies before this one... the original Ringu and its sequel (not the one based on the second book, Spiral, but the sequel called Ringu 2... which is actually a better film than Spiral, I think), plus the original version of Dark Water. I’d enjoyed them all and they really got me into the whole, modern Japanese Horror genre (or J-Horror as it’s bizarrely known) at the time of their release.

When I saw his name pop up again in this year’s London Film Festival programme with the UK premiere of his new movie Ghost Theatre, I expected another dark and terrifying horror film from a man who really knows how to scare the pants off his audience. So I took a punt on it and, to be honest, although the film really isn’t that scary compared to the illustrious works I mention above, what we have here is something far better...

The film opens strongly with an alley and two buildings on a night during a heavy rain storm. The scene looks like it might have been shot in a studio but that just adds to the whole look and feel of the thing, to be honest. As we look in a room we see a teenage girl staring into the eyes of a life sized mannequin. When we are taken further into the scene, we realise the mannequin, which seems to have very human eyes behind the hollowed out sockets, has fixed her in its stare. We then follow the girl’s sister, who is looking for her. After she finds her sibling dead on the ground, she looks around at the mannequin, which shifts its position slightly, also fixing her in it’s deadly stare. Then the father turns up, finds his two dead daughters and rushes the mannequin back across the alley and into his workshop... for it is he, it transpires later, who made this classic abomination. He starts to dismember his creation, finishing by severing the head. However, before he can end his work, as he is about to light the gasoline he has poured all over the dummy, the police stop him and this prologue, which the audience will return to later in the movie in a couple of different flashback formats, is finished for the time being.

We then jump twenty or so years into the future to the present day and catch up to the lead character, a young actress whose name I can’t remember (and the IMDB is of absolutely no help with movies like this). She is fed up with playing the equivalent of “second corpse on the left” in a string of J-Horror movies, so she goes to see her agent, who promptly sends her off to audition for a new play by an acclaimed director which... and classic horror fans will love the introduction of this element... is about the original ‘Countess Dracula’ herself, Elizabeth Bathory. Most horrorphiles will know the story of the real life Countess who was supposed to have murdered a fair few teen girls in her time (she did) and bathed in their blood to prolong her own life (more debatable). She’s inspired many film-makers and there have been probably a dozen films about her at least, over the years (two of them that include her as a character are reviewed by me here and here).

So our teenage heroine goes to the audition and wins a minor role. The main role goes to a more well known, bullying actress and, yeah, we then get the usual jealousy of the new talent and rivalry going on before the director has to replace the lead with our heroine... at least for a while. Here’s the thing though... in the play, Elizabeth Bathory is struggling with her acts of violence and being influenced or acting against the wishes of the voice of a lifesized mannequin which she hears in her head... her madness imbuing the doll with her own evil. Now, when the props people in the movie were looking to find a decent head to buy to go on the dummy they have made... well, guess which mannequin head they happen to stumble across? Death ensues as various people in the cast and crew are killed by the unsettling mannequin in its new body and, luckily, our heroine's unwillingness to sleep with her new director means she’s fired before the third act... so she and her new romantic interest in the form of a prop boy can go and find out the back story behind the mannequin and try to make it back to a full dress rehearsal in time before the un-living doll can kill everyone in the theatre.

The deaths inflicted by the dummy in question actually harken back to the deaths in this director’s Ringu in some ways... in that the dummy doesn’t have to actually do anything other than be fairly close to its victim in order, as it it transpires here, to suck out the living energy and leave her victims as dead, waxy husks of corpses... each stolen soul getting her closer to being a flesh and blood creature rather than the hollow shell she starts out as. And that’s the basic plot of this one... without, I hope, revealing too much. The nice thing about that, of course, is that the murderous shenanigans of the creature are also a metaphor for the Elizabeth Bathory character, in essence, so it’s a neat little trick the writer has performed here. Perhaps it’s a case of... I never metatextual I didn’t like.

The plot is not what makes the film a really good time at the movies, however. It’s the way the material is treated. For starters, we have a really strong lead teenager demonstrating a startling amount of screen presence in her performance. It doesn’t hurt that she’s really cute but the character is also shown to be fairly intelligent (about as much as you can get away with in these kinds of movies, anyway, if you need to play by ‘horror rules’) and she is a positive force on the narrative drive, giving the audience someone they can identify with.

Perhaps more important than that, though, is the way the movie is shot. It looks just like an old Italian giallo in the way it’s been presented and you can almost feel the ghost of Mario Bava lurking just off to the side of the sets. The colour schemes used are all bright and Bavaesque with some seriously beautiful purple lighting moments in the movie... especially near the start. The compositions make a lot of using vertical lines to split up the space into sections and to physically separate people and elements in a shot but Nakata also utilises a load of diagonal lines throughout the film and pairs these with the verticals. Quite often he will shift or accentuate the perspective within a shot by having, say, the bare frame of a theatrical set in the mid-ground and slanting backwards diagonally... then using the placement of people both in front and behind that diagonally protruding frame to direct the eye into the focus of the shot and... well it’s all just really spectacular. I’ve always liked Nakata to a degree but my respect for him as a filmmaker has gone up even more after seeing what he does in this movie. It’s truly spectacular.

How he shoots the mannequin is interesting too. He starts off quite subtly by just showing the ‘alive’ eyeballs and a few shifts of movement when we see the full body of the original dummy. Later on, when the second incarnation of the dummy starts causing trouble for the human characters in the film, he pulls back for a long time from showing the full figure of the dummy moving and, instead, just concentrates on a stare, a hand of maybe just a shot of the feet walking. This works quite well because, by the end of the film he shifts into high gear, showing everything for a sustained period of time, and it feels a little more climactic in contrast to the way he’s held back over the course of the build up.

There’s not a great deal of blood and gore but when the director does feel the need to deliver he certainly gives it a go, such as when the main protagonist is left alone with the mannequin’s head at one point and the head starts bleeding, covering a whole table top in crimson. And right near the end of the movie, after the director has really let rip on the larger than life element of the concept, just when you think you’ve seen it all, he offers up one character stabbing the dummy and he resorts to a good old Japanese standard... started off by Akira Kurosawa in the end scene of Sanjuro and leaving an indelible mark on the history of violent, Japanese cinema ever since... the big arterial spray of blood. I think it’s done pretty much tongue in cheek here too, to be honest... after a lot of good taste shown throughout the movie, this final stab and bleed shot is so over the top in its intensity, covering the face of the lead actress almost completely, that it’s pretty much treated like the punchline to a joke which the audience to this kind of genre offering are all in on. It did get a big laugh at the screening I was at, I can say that much.

The whole feel of the ‘over the top-ness’ of the final act, coupled with the Elisabeth Bathory theme and the beautiful colours and rich compositions, reminded me a lot of the whole grand guignol type of entertainment of the end of the late 19th/early 20th Century. Indeed, the theatricality of the milieu and even the subject matter also lends itself to the original translation of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to some extent, which translates literally as The Theatre Of The Big Puppet, it would seem. I’m guessing the whole look and feel of this allusion wasn’t lost on Nakata and he played up to it in this movie... at least I hope he did. Whether he did or not, though, it’s a masterpiece of that kind of turn of the century chicanery as filtered through such cinematic artists as Mario Bava and the direct lineage through to Dario Argento in terms of its giallo like vibes... even though it’s not a giallo in itself and is firmly a horror movie.

And that’s really about all I’ve got to say about Ghost Theatre. Great performances, inventive sets and shot designs, editing which doesn’t confuse and an appropriate score all make up a truly rich visual feast of a horror movie which, while not scary in any way, is truly a masterpiece of the genre... at least, as far as I’m concerned, it is. The director wasn’t here for the screening and I don’t know if this is going to be getting any kind of distribution in this country either as a cinema release or on home video. However, I will be hunting this one down to watch again because the idea of a Blu Ray of this movie is pretty mouth watering. If you’re into horror movies and have an appreciation of the history of the genre, then you should really seek this one out and give it a look. I’m so glad I did.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Writer’s Block

2015 UK
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Seen at the London Film Festival 
11th October 2015

Hmmm... I’ve only seen two of Ben Wheatley’s films prior to this one but I would still call myself an admirer of the director’s work based on the experience of those two alone; Kill List (reviewed here) and Sightseers (reviewed here). Now I’ve not read J. G. Ballard’s original novel of the same name, on which High-Rise is based, so the usual caveats apply to me being able to say anything even remotely intelligent on its status as a good or bad adaptation of the work in question. For what it’s worth, I’m told this is very close to the source novel.

Ben Wheatley, however, is essentially, someone who I see as an overtly ‘British’ director and although the writer is also, of course, English, Wheatley would not be my first thought when it comes to being a person to direct something based on one of Ballard’s works, to be quite honest. Then again, the only novel I’ve ever got around to reading by Ballard was my old, battered, 1960s edition of Crash (asides from some of his old New Worlds short stories) and so... I’m also less well informed in that quarter too.

All that being said, what I am able to say is that Wheatley does a very interesting job with subject matter which I’m guessing is a little difficult to translate into a visual milieu in the first place. Amy Jump, who adapted this for Wheatley, has therefore done a spot on job in terms of giving the director something less abstract to work with... although the film does have its moments so I can only assume these are appropriate responses to certain passages in the source text.

Now, I have to be honest here and say that I wasn’t particularly entertained or impressed with this movie... at least not nearly as impressed as I was with those other two films I saw by this director. That being said, you have to admire someone who can depict the kind of moral decline of those living at different levels of a futuristic tower block and have it still mostly making sense by the time you come out of the other end of it. I say mostly because there were, for me, and I may be at fault here if I wasn’t processing the amount of rich visual and audio data on offer in this film quick enough, some instances where the narrative either jumped or expected you to take a leap of faith in terms of the time frame and what good old Ballard contemporary Michael Moorcock would probably have referred to as... “the speed of the collapse”.

In terms of linear storytelling, we have a fairly standard, almost 'Lord Of The Flies' style decay taking place at pretty much all levels of the social structure in the High-Rise block in question, with the people at the top of the tower occupying the uppermost rung of the class society and the lowest of the low nearer to ground level. All well and good and, as you’d expect, by the end of the film, when the moral entropy has pulled everyone down to the same level of destructive mayhem and survival... I felt myself popping out of the movie and asking why the heck the world outside hadn’t moved in on the tower block and brought everything back to order. Bunuel, for example, could get away without those kinds of questions being asked in something like, say, The Exterminating Angel (reviewed here), because the dream-like parameters of the prison that the house party becomes in that movie is fairly self contained and less like something which could have a genuine echo in real life, it seems to me. This film didn’t generate that same kind of easy negation to the logic of the events taking place and so I was fairly baffled at the exclusion of the view of the outside world looking in at the chaos.

To be fair, Jeremy Irons character of the 'architect' of the structure, occupying the uppermost rung of the tower, is seen to be deliberately keeping the police at bay in his own pacificistic manner at one point in the narrative but... the amount of anarchic destruction, loss of human life and generally appalling survival tactics going on in the building by this point did lead me to question just why the heck would he do that, after everything that has taken place. I also found myself questioning just what had happened to the job that the central character, Dr. Laing (played very nicely by Tom Hiddleston), has in his real life because a lot of the time it was hard to tell if he was actually getting into work or not, by the end of the picture. One guesses not since he decides to set up a private practice within the confines of the tower block but... I dunno... I’m guessing that there was maybe a fair amount of footage cut out of the final version and something had to give.

Another thing I was disappointed with, to a certain extent, was that the movie didn’t really seem to go far enough in its portrayal of the descent into a barbarism which had the potential to be quite a bit more unsettling, it seemed to me. For instance, when a character played by the always brilliant James Purefoy helped to deliver the baby of a woman who his clique of barbaric, upper class toffs had kidnapped earlier in the film... I initially assumed it was because the baby might seem to them to be a more viable source of nourishment than the horses and dogs they’d begun to have to eat by this time in the picture... but unless some footage was cut out here, this doesn’t seem to be the case. One wonders why, then, when human life has become such a cheap, throwaway commodity at this stage, they are even bothering to help out at all. However, this may not be Wheatley and Jump’s fault here... it may be that in order to stick to Ballard’s vision of the story (if story is the right word to use here... possibly not) then the writer and director may have decided to tone down the level of this particular circle of hell in order to be a closer adaptation of the source.

So, yeah, perhaps I was just a little underwhelmed by it but there’s also a lot to like in this movie such as a moment when Tom Hiddleston’s character goes into a dream and he’s walking down a corridor with some air hostesses, breaking into some dance moves in slow motion. Scenes like that were getting a good reaction from the audience and even I broke my deathly, emotional pallor and chuckled at that one. I also was quite thrown by the scoring which seems to be a mixture of Clint Mansell, source songs and some tracked in music library cues at certain moments. It all seemed a bit uneven and some of the scoring choices really seemed to make less than perfect sense but... it does keep the film interesting and is almost used, in some scenes, to create a juxtaposition of two different emotional hits of opposite moods conveyed by the music and image... which is as valid and oft used a technique as any other I can think of in the history of cinema... it certainly gives one pause for thought during certain sequences of this movie.

Another incredible scene utilising sound, rather than music, occurs after a character called Richard Wilder, played absolutely astonishingly by an actor called Luke Evans, starts repeating and then screaming his name into a tape recorder, his language slowly deteriorating until we are left with just snarling rage and loss of identity. Then, when a person comes in and questions him later, as he lays beneath a table, as an answer to the questions he starts and stops the playback at the correct moments and a raging torrent of incomprehensible vocals are his answers. This was pretty neat.

The film is a heady mixture of brilliant performance from the likes of Irons, Hiddleston, Purefoy, Evans, Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keely Hawes, coupled with some nice tracking shots, beautiful editing and, although I noticed rather a lot of zoom shots, the director seems to make even these work within the mix too. I’m wondering if the style of a camerawork was another 1970s homage, being that we have a future conceived of in the 1970s by Ballard and manifesting itself here, distilled by Wheatley through a retro filter to channel that atmosphere.

The Q and A at the end of the screening with both Ben Wheatley and Tom Hiddleston was kinda interesting and it certainly showed the passion and enthusiasm that these two men shared for the subject matter which they’d collaborated on. Hiddleston even read out a part of an old J. G. Ballard interview to the audience to show just how prophetic the author was and, yeah, I think that when you have that kind of belief in a project, the good work is going to shine through in the final product... whether you like that final product or not.

At the end of the day, High-Rise really isn't a bad film. It’s actually a pretty well made movie... which I’m guessing some will find far more challenging than the usual fare on show at their local cinemas. As far as I’m concerned, although I did appreciate it, I think it’s just not my cup o’ tea. Like the time I saw Trainspotting on the release of that movie, I just felt this one was another film where I’ve seen it all before... but then I am getting to be a bit of an old geezah, so that’s not necessarily a good yardstick for whether you, the reader here, will enjoy ot or not. Even though, unlike Wheatley’s other films, this is not a repeat view movie for me, I can recommend that it’s almost certainly going to be a most interesting night at the cinema in comparison to a lot of the other movies coming out in April, which is when this movie is scheduled to be released in the UK, as ar as I can make out. So you might want to make a note of this one in your diaries because... I suspect it will be, at the very least, much talked about when it hits the cinema circuit proper.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Doctor Who - Before The Flood

Flood Sacrifice

Doctor Who - Before The Flood
UK Airdate: 10th October 2015

Warning: Spoilers on this one.

Okay, so this second part to the Doctor Who story started last week (and reviewed here) is perhaps a bit weaker than the initial set up called for because, well, it does seem to telegraph itself quite a bit... almost deliberately so in the opening, pre-credits sequence. That being sad, although it really does feel like The Doctor and his companions for this story are just picking up the threads and solving things in an exercise on how to burn through all the problems and put things right in the allocated time they’ve got, the performances are all pretty strong and the dialogue of the characters is, once again, perfectly done.

The pre-credits sequence where The Doctor is addressing the audience directly, although we might actually be witnessing this from a ‘Claras-eye view’, so to speak, pretty much sets up in the minds of the audience a fairly standard temporal paradox which is actually very common to a lot of time travel stories... be they Doctor Who or something more ‘Hollywood’ such as the ridiculously error ridden Back To The Future Part 2... which suffers from a similar writer's malaise in the logic of its own structure. This basically seems put in here with the assumption that the audience for the show are somehow lacking in either the desire or common sense intelligence to think about certain aspects of the story later and think around the parameters of this kind of paradoxical conundrum in the first place. Frankly, and as entertaining as this opening was, I really don’t like being talked down to in this manner and I felt the explanation, which The Doctor demonstrates by use of the deliberate creation of Beethoven based on the works of his which can’t have existed without Beethoven being there in the first place, was more than a little condescending in the attitude that we probably don’t spend any time thinking of these things once the show is over, let alone pondering this kind of stuff often enough as kids growing up.

So yeah, since we’re on limited time and you know the opening isn’t going to be something which couldn’t be cut, one wonders if the BBC are maybe dumbing things down a bit because they have no confidence in their script to make you think a little, just by the events portrayed once the story has played out. Which is a shame because it’s really not a bad script and it’s still a little better than the majority of the episodes over the last few years in that it’s a solid, reliable story with some nice character moments.

Unfortunately, as I intimated before, that story was pretty much finished last week and this really is just picking up the pieces in terms of the catching up of events and letting the kinds of sequences you are expecting to happen play out so the story can resolve itself. And, of course, the fact that with last weeks episode all hanging on the mystery of “who’s in the box?”... well I was hoping the writer would surprise me this week but, no, they might as well have just hung out a sign on the side of the box last week saying “The Doctor’s in here... so don’t even worry about it”. Now, to be fair, the writing in the second part pretty much shied away from re-emphasising the mystery of the box for the majority of the episode but... yeah, that’s only because they presumably wanted to have their big “The Doctor pops out of the box” moment as some kind of surprise to somebody... some strange and perhaps mythical audience for the current show which doesn’t actually exist in real life to be genuinely astonished by these things. All in all though... okay, yeah, it’s not good enough. This episode is kind of plummeting in my respect for it as I’m writing about it, to be honest.

So let’s get back to some of the good stuff...

Well, the BBC people have said that this season is going to be darker and... yeah, it is. The death of innocent people, casualties of war caught in the crossfire, has never been a thing the programme has swerved away from in the entire history of its show but there's usually some acclimatising to do, especially in the current incarnation of the series, where the deaths are mourned or given a sense of purpose. This series isn’t doing that and... that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Also, the look of it seems a lot darker too. Physically I mean. There’s a certain kind of dread gloom in most of the sets and locations used here and it’s very much the kind of grim setting a horror movie might make use of. So it feels good for the show to be playing with the possibilities that it’s not forgotten how to be a horror story. Not that this episode is particularly scary but at least it feels a bit grim. So that’s kind of nice.

Unfortunately, in the effort to scare you, it also did fall into the cliché trap at one point and, again, it’s something you can see telegraphed from the week before. Now I'm all for having a deaf character who signs and can read lips in Doctor Who. Especially since she was useful as an element to push the plot along rather than just be a token kind of role in the previous episode. However, last week I kept thinking to myself that... yeah... we’re going to have a scene where that character is put in harms way and they will try and ring the suspense out of a scenario where her life is under threat exactly because she can’t hear what’s going on. But, before that, they’ve got to set up a situation where her constant companion, her translator, isn’t there to help her. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they do in this next episode and it seems almost embarrassing but... I can understand why the temptation would be there to do that in this, so I really can’t stand in judgement of it too much.

And whichever way you look at it... they are pulling all this off with a certain amount of style and good taste. It’s beautifully shot and nicely cut together with the added bonus of Murray Gold’s fantastic scoring... including an almost heroic action version of the current Doctor’s 'a good man' sub-theme and a beautifully developed, almost hidden reworking of Clara’s theme at one point where Jenna Coleman’s character has a nice scene.  All in all it’s my least favourite of the season so far but... that’s still head and shoulders above a lot of the post-Tennant episodes of the series so I’m happy with the direction this season is heading in (possibly straight to a character called the Minister Of War in the last two episodes, if my guess is correct) and I am just hoping this good spell on the show continues for a bit. Now all they have to do to keep me really happy is lose those damn shades and bring the sonic screwdriver back. That really needs to happen soon.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Martian

Redded Bliss

The Martian
2015 USA
Directed by Ridley Scott
UK cinema release print.

Okay... the first thing you need to know about me if you’re going to read this review is that I’ve never read Andy Weir’s bestselling novel The Martian, on which this film is based. Therefore, I really can’t give you any idea of how good an adaptation this movie is of the source material, which, with someone like Ridley Scott at the helm, could go either way (I still refuse to watch Hannibal after what he apparently did to it). What I can do, though, is review this purely on its own terms as a personal cinematic experience... which is all a production team would possibly want from a review, I would think.

Ridley Scott used to be my favourite director for a little while, back in the mid-1980s. He directed two of my favourite films, in fact. Firstly, the original ALIEN, the first theatrical release cut of which I would still claim is the best of any of the movies to make use of the titular creature created for it by H. R. Giger. Secondly, he directed what has, since I first saw it as a teenager in 1982 at my local cinema, been my favourite movie of all time (maybe tying in first place with The Third Man). That film being the original cut of Blade Runner (reviewed here)... one of the most moving and spectacular modern noirs I can think of.

Unfortunately he's also let me down quite a bit over the years. The Hannibal debacle was just the start. He also delivered a ‘director’s cut’ of his original ALIEN which, while restoring sequences we all wanted to see, also trimmed footage from the whole experience and sped the film up somewhat needlessly, Scott citing the way audiences change and digest visual information to be the prime motivator in his decisions on that one (if I remember the interviews correctly about that at the time). Similarly, we now have something like five different versions of Blade Runner but, still by far the best, is the one which Criterion put out on laserdisc (now on the latest Blu Rays and DVD box set presentations of the movie) which was a less censored version of the original theatrical release.

So when it comes to Scott I have a lot to gripe about in terms of what he’s done to what were my favourite movies of his, not to mention the abomination of Prometheus... but that’s another story and I reviewed that one here.  The fact that he's about to 'prometheus up' a sequel to Blade Runner is the final nail in the coffin of good taste, it seems to me.

However, he’s visually brilliant, no matter what choices he makes, and since cinema is at least 50% reliant on the visual aspect (I would say) then you can’t deny that the man is a bit of a film making genius... whether you agree with his decisions or not. So I went into The Martian with open eyes and a desire to be impressed because I like science fiction and, also, I quite like Matt Damon as an actor/personality... so, yeah, I thought I’d give it a go.

What we have here is a film about an astronaut left for dead and stranded on Mars with roughly no chance of survival. He then sets about trying to beat all the odds to try and a) survive, b) communicate with his NASA colleagues on Earth and, c) organise some kind of plausible rescue in the kind of time window he has left before the inevitable stranglehold of approaching death comes to claim him.

And you know what? It’s a pretty good film.

Having a likeable celebrity like Matt Damon in the lead role certainly helps lift this and, luckily, he is supported by an absolutely astonishing cast of cool actors such as Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña and Chiwetel Ejiofor... not to mention a load of lesser known actors (to me, at least) who all knock it out of the park when it comes to performance. That is to say, like the best science fiction, the acting makes everything completely credible and, with a plot like this, where credibility isn’t so much of an issue due to the implied scientific know how... everything seems totally convincing in this movie. Even the bits which might not be quite as scientifically accurate as you might hope or expect.

Scott doesn’t direct this in the same way as the earlier movies that I best remember of his (The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner, Legend or Someone to Watch Over Me, for example) and I was expecting the movie to be full of extremely long, slow pans and a very specific kind of lighting style which I didn’t see once. Instead, we have a way of shooting, or at least editing, which splits things up into smaller cells of time. Now don’t get me wrong here... this isn’t cut/cut/cut for the MTV generation kind of filmmaking... but it is a heck of a lot pacier and it struck me that Scott has done a clever thing here...

What he seems to be doing is splitting up the Matt Damon scenes of isolation and shooting them from different viewpoints and sources in order to somehow pacify the sense of isolation for the character. The director could very easily have gone down a Mr. Forbush and the Penguins kind of route (reviewed here) with the way in which he shot the lead actor but, instead, he goes from maybe a close up or slow pan to a different view as seen from a monitor... or on another kind of visual source. And quite a lot of the action deliberately takes us away from Damon and shows it all from the point of view of either the people on Earth or Damon’s colleagues, who are on their way back home. Though this is possibly dictated by the content of the novel (and like I said, I really don’t know)... the writer and director could easily have gone for a version of the movie which stays with the title character a lot more and gets information from other sources communicated in a different way than it is here. So it’s an artistic choice and I think either way could have worked very well and got us two completely different looking movies.

Scott’s gone this way and it seems to work really well.

The other thing we have here is a movie with no real central antagonist. Okay, yeah, it could be argued that Jeff Daniels character fulfils that role to a certain degree... almost by default because he’s the one who has to make a lot of tough decisions. However, this is more a disaster movie in the aspect that most people are all there pulling for each other (including Daniels) and this does tend to give the movie a strangely unexpected feel good factor. This is not a downbeat film by any means and, I think, Scott has chosen not to emphasise the chronic sense of danger in the way he’s shot this movie...

For instance, when Damon’s title character, Mark Watney, accidentally blows himself up while he is trying to find a way to manufacture water to grow potatoes for food, it’s played mostly for comedy and the moment the calamity happens is almost slapstick in the way it is timed and staged. It certainly got a huge laugh from the audience I was with at my local cinema. Sure, we are aware of the consequences but they’re downplayed to an extent where we can watch the drama unfold without taking things too dryly. Now that’s possibly not the most appropriate decision but it’s certainly a solid artistic decision and, whether you agree with it or not, you have to give the moviemakers some credit for taking a less expected route.

At the end of the day, The Martian is a surprisingly strong 'feel good' movie. I certainly wasn’t expecting that from someone like Ridley Scott, who is certainly no stranger at portraying ‘the black dog’ on film... but it’s certainly what I got. It’s maybe not as bleak or as effective in the sense of filling the audience with the appropriate amount of terror that such a situation presents us with but it’s extremely watchable and a real fun trip of a movie. Perhaps not a complete masterpiece but certainly a fine work of art from a great British director... so give this one a go if you like plausible science fiction wrapped up in an addictive little package of a movie. Not one you’d want to miss having an opinion on, methinks.