Thursday, 27 October 2016

Doctor Strange

Benedict In Monks

Doctor Strange
2016 USA  Directed by Scott Derrickson
UK cinema release print.

Doctor Strange is one of those comic book characters who I loved as a kid and I got quite excited when I’d heard Johnny Depp was in consideration for the role. I wasn’t too disappointed when he exited the scene because, frankly, Benedict Cumberbatch is one of those actors who you know will do a great job with any material he’s given and I could see how the arrogance his Sherlock character projected would be something which could really help bring the pre-magical version of Dr. Stephen V. Strange to life (the V stands for Vincent and that was who the original look of the character in those early 1960s appearances in Strange Tales, which I loved so much in reprint form, was based on... Vincent Price).

Now, I used to love these comics because Doctor Strange could jump out of his physical body and do battle on the astral planes, while somebody was hanging around and guarding his physical form so it was kept safe from harm. As a young 7 or 8 year old, of course, I was all about things like astral projection and ‘out of the body’ experiences so, when you had a Marvel superhero who could do all that stuff, it was a treat.

I went to the cinema on the first night of release in the UK, which was unusual enough in that it was a Tuesday, because I just couldn’t wait to see how this character fits into and pushes the boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the answer, on both those counts, was... well, actually pretty well. Scott Derrickson, who directed this wonderful movie, has actually treated the material with the respect it deserves and you get a real feeling of those early short strips co-created by Stan Lee and, as importantly (perhaps more so), original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko, who helped write and then drew the strips. They were pretty much a guide to the psychedelic world of the spirit in its hippiest, trippiest form but, a good few years before all that wave of counter culture hit (I’d personally say that certain sequences in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of movies also foresaw and possibly ‘usher’ed in the birth of psychedelia... possibly as influenced by the colour work that Mario Bava brought to the cinema and which the people at AIP studios at the time were more than aware of).

The movie really does those early 1963 and 1964 tales justice and the origin is pretty much the same as the one depicted in the comics, although I believe The Ancient One was originally based in the Himalayas and, either way, he was most certainly an old man...not Tilda Swinton, who plays the role in the film. And that’s not a dig by the way... the casting of the always brilliant Tilda is a really shrewd one, especially since the wonderful Rachel McAdams plays the only other female character in this movie and she’s pretty much wasted in how little screen time she has for the majority of the story. We also have the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor, a villainous Mads Mikkelsen and a very funny Benedict Wong in the cast. Along with Cumberbatch, absolutely nailing Strange as you would expect from him, they have a really great ensemble group of actors here... at least two or three of whom will definitely need to come back for further Marvel movies.

I do have a few disappointments in the film but they are really minor. I’ll just get them out of the way now.

Okay... so somewhere in The Avengers (aka Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and reviewed here), I’m pretty sure Doctor Strange is mentioned in the helicarrier (also in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, reviewed here... but that’s a different issue). Now the Stark Tower wasn’t rebuilt as The Avengers Tower until after the events that took place in that movie so... how can a ‘pre-heroed up’ version of the character be looking out on a New York skyline that includes The Avenger’s Tower? Surely the timeline here doesn’t make sense and is a bit of a... well, a huge continuity error? I may be wrong but that kind of hit me between the eyes when I was looking at this movie in cinemas.

The other thing is that the tone of the story seems a bit... hmmm... somehow a bit too ‘even’. The magical battles are really something special in that they’ve done it all superbly... well okay, the astral plane versions of the characters aren't totally white ghosts like they were in the comics but what they’ve done here gets the message across pretty well and probably appears a lot more acceptable on screen than taking the look straight from the page, is my guess. However, there doesn’t seem to be much contrast within the scenes... with the last third of the movie being a few battles at different locations following on in quick succession without any real contrast in the sequences. I felt it needed just a little more ‘oomph and rest’ between set pieces to give you time to breathe and pace things a little more... thus enhancing the action sequences when they come...  but that didn’t quite get that feel here so it almost threatens to become somewhat less than the sum of its parts on occasion.

A third thing is problematic purely because I knew the early comics. There’s a character in here and, as soon as I heard his name, I knew where the story arc was going to be taking him... I won’t reveal the character name here because if you know the comics you’ll know it already... and I don’t want to put in any spoilers here. I didn’t know if they were going to be saving a certain ‘turning point’ for that character for a later movie or maybe they were going to go the full Green Lantern movie route and have that character do his thing in an epilogue scene. Well, this movie has two post-movie scenes, as do a lot of MCU movies these days. One superb one in the middle of the credits with exactly the Marvel character I had suspected would turn up making an appearance and gluing it together with one of next year’s MCU movies... and a post credits scene where the character I mentioned before gets to live up to the character as portrayed in the comics. So, yeah, they went the full Green Lantern on this one... which is fine by me because I’m one of the few people who actually loved the Green Lantern movie and I believe the plot and structure of the new Doctor Strange movie shares a lot of DNA with it, actually. Anyway, my problem was that I knew something pretty basic about a certain character who is in the movie way before it happened and so... maybe that wasn’t the wisest move. Then again, there are probably a significantly less number of people who used to read Doctor Strange than most of the other Marvel comics so... it’s not such a big deal, I guess.

Everything else about the movie works really well. The acting, the look and design, the spectacular special effects are all absolutely brilliant... and the dialogue in this one is really great too. There’s definitely a lot of fun and humour about this movie and it’s certainly a sharp relief from the previous MCU movie, Captain America - Civil War (reviewed by me here). Another great thing about it is the music...

Now, I’m gutted that Brian Tyler didn’t get a chance to work on this because I like how he’s slowly been bringing the musical elements of the Marvel cinematic universe into some kind of coherent style (something the company seriously needs) but now they’ve pulled in Michael Giacchino on scoring duties. Now I quite like Giacchino anyway (although I don’t like his opening, Marvel company fanfare as much as Tyler’s) and he turns in a really great score here. Definitely loved the sitars used in the end titles and it all works really well with the movie. Cant wait to get the CD of this one... it’ll be on for quite a few spins, I can tell you.

This movie has all the usual tie ups that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for and I’m sure Doctor Strange will be playing a special role in the proceedings in the third of The Avengers films. There’s a special artefact he always had in the comics, apart from the famous red cloak (blue in those original stories... if memory serves me... it didn’t change to red until later) and I’m sure anyone familiar with the artefact I’m talking about from the strips will realise exactly how this factors in with some of the last few years’ Marvel movies... so I won’t say anything more on that subject here because one of the characters, Wong, makes the connection quite implicit by the end of the film. So, basically, if you’re trying to watch all the specific Marvel movies which link into each other at the cinema... definitely don’t miss this one.

And, really, you don’t want to miss Doctor Strange anyway. It’s a terrific, fun movie and, although it injects a certain gravitas into some of the subject matter, it’s a welcome antidote to some of those solemn, darker super hero movies which have been doing the rounds at the cinema lately... juggling a dark, frightening tone with a light, frothy window dressing. Great stuff and easily the best of the superhero movies I’ve seen this year. Watch it while it’s hot!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Jack Reacher - Never Go Back

The Reacher 
Walks Among Us

Jack Reacher - Never Go Back
2016 China/USA Directed by Edward Zwick
UK cinema release print.

Jack Reacher - Never Go Back marks the second time that Tom Cruise has played Lee Child’s modern, literary hero after starring in the excellent Jack Reacher (reviewed by me here). At the time I saw that I was not the biggest Tom Cruise fan but I also didn’t turn off just because of the man’s unfortunate religious choices and, in the four years since I saw that one I’ve warmed to him much more as an actor who makes smart choices, does the job well and is, generally speaking, a decent human being (scientology aside and, frankly, I don’t want to taint this review by giving a showcase to that stuff).

This is apparently based on the 18th book in the Reacher series (the first movie was based on the ninth) and this one is a worthy successor to the original movie. I didn’t quite like it as much and it has an ever-so-slightly different feel to it but I suspect this is because the book is possibly more friendly to the Hollywood action genre rather than any specific changes in adaptation... although I’m sure that the company have made their fair share of those too. I’ve never read any of the novels myself but Lee Child continues to show support to the movie series by, once again, taking a small cameo role in the film.

This movie is all about a possible romantic interest for Reacher, who is in Washington to take a military lady out for dinner after a number of phone calls over the years. Her name is Turner and she’s played by one of Marvel’s finest Agents of SHIELD, Cobie Smulders, as seen in a fair few of their movies. However, when Reacher finally looks her up she is under military confinement for charges brought against her and, since Reacher figures she hasn’t done anything to warrant it, he also finds himself framed and under arrest for suspicion of murdering her lawyer pretty quickly. So he breaks her out of the military base and the two go on the lam, hunted by the US government and a team of ruthless assassins who want them dead while they try to piece together what brought all this into play.

A further complication on the way is the fact that Reacher may, or may not, have a teenage daughter he never knew about and now she has to go on the run with Reacher and Turner because, by a dramatic twist of fate, the assassins know about her and so they’re coming for her too.

And so here you have a recipe for an action movie which can involve male/female bonding, potential father/daughter bonding, potential girlfriend/potential daughter bonding and, surprisingly but refreshingly for a big budget Hollywood movie, female antagonism of the title character due to his sexist attitude... and yeah, this movie runs with it all and manages to hit all those emotional beats with room to spare. Which is no mean feat considering the pacing of the film which, frankly. doesn’t hang around in the same ways which were a key strength of the first movie... instead, devolving this into more of a slightly inferior Hollywood action blockbuster but, frankly, no less a fun one.

What I mean by that is that the first Jack Reacher was slower and had more of a suspenseful, genuine thriller air to it. You could imagine someone like DePalma or even, without too much of a stretch, Hitchcock directing certain scenes in the first one. That opening sniper scene in Jack Reacher, for instance, was a powerful set up. This movie is more like what you would expect from modern Hollywood action cinema... it’s a run, chase, punch, shoot and repeat movie for most of its running time but, as I said, it’s a damned good one so I’ve not really got much of a problem with this.

I don’t know much about director Edward Zwick but I did notice... and I’m not sure if this is a conscious thing or not... that he’s introducing certain characters and situations with a very quick establishing shot before refocusing on the main character in a shot with a slow pan or some such technique to give you a kind of ‘closer look in’ at who or what he wants you to notice. It sounds kinda lame that he should follow a regular establishing shot of, say, a character to do this... after all, think of what Spielberg does in the Indiana Jones films. However, quirky as it seems, it kinda works here and the lead in to the more focused shot is usually so brief that I don’t think half of the audience even realises he’s doing it.

This kind of foreshadowing of a shot is similar in theme to what he does with Tom Cruise’s character whenever Reacher is trying to see an event in the past the way it ‘may’ have happened and, although it’s a slightly different technique in terms of the motivation for the foreshadowing, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two aesthetics were linked, deliberately or subconsciously, by a similar approach to making the film.

What I can say for sure is that it’s a darned entertaining movie and the acting by Cruise and Smulders is great (although I noticed Cobie seems to not win most of the fights she gets into, for some reason) and the chemistry between them and the wonderful teenage actress Danika Yarosh is something which really helps pull the film together by making the three characters work together as a unit... although I’m sure you’ll realise why the teenager is in it in terms of a dramatic undertone to the action at the end of the movie and, alas, on that score this movie does exactly what you think it’s going to.

I was really quite partial to Joe Kraemer’s score for the first movie and was hoping they would bring him back for this one. Alas, that was not to be but I have to say that Henry Jackman’s score is an equally appropriate work to support this... especially since this second movie is much more action oriented. I think I’d need to listen to it away from the movie to make a proper judgement on it but, in terms of the way it supports the images, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.

Jack Reacher - Never Go back is a solid Hollywood action hit and, if that’s what you want from your cinema then certainly I would recommend this one. The action sequences are unsurprising but well executed and the whole mix of good actors, good direction and a nice bit of action scoring is not a bad thing to have playing at your local cinema, for sure. I don’t know how fans of the books feel now about Cruise’s casting in this but, certainly, people who liked the first movie should be okay with this one, even if the run, punch, jump ethic does seem to take over just a little too much during the course of the running time. Also, if you’ve not seen the first one, there’s not really anything that isn’t explained in this one so... this can also be a jumping on point for the franchise if you are feeling left out from not having seen the original film. Something for everyone here.

Monday, 24 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Blake’s Heaven

I, Daniel Blake
2016  UK/France/Belgium
Directed by Ken Loach
UK cinema release print.

Well this is a first for me. I’ve never seen a Ken Loach movie before. Yeah, I know... how did I get to be this old and not have seen a Ken Loach movie? Well the truth is, I’ve always kinda avoided him. I’ve never had any doubts that he’s a skilled director (and this movie certainly gives strong evidence of that) but he’s just never really made the kinds of films I’ve wanted to see. If I see a film giving a social commentary then I’d much rather see it wrapped up as science fiction or horror where the issue can be explored at a level of speculation unavailable to films not in those genres. But it’s not even that because, I’m okay with some other directors who do this kind of thing, to an extent. So, really, I don’t know what my excuse is but, there you have it... he’s not a director I’m familiar with.

However, I saw the trailer to I, Daniel Blake and I recognised people I know.

That is to say, I recognised the types of people he’s talking about here. I used to know somebody living in extreme poverty facing exactly the same kinds of  bureaucratic problems revolving around receiving benefits while desperately unfit for work, in a similar dilemma the title character in this film faces. I am friends with an old man who has been travelling the same bus route as me for years who has no computer, no television, no mobile phone and no way of knowing how to use those things anyway. He’s about as far away from being a digital native as you can get. Another man who sometimes rides the bus with me has been told by his pensions office that he’s got to do a load of stuff online to continue to receive his much needed pension. He wouldn’t know what a modern computer even looks like, let alone know how to turn it on if he could get access. Some of these people barely have enough money to manage to eat for a week let alone be able to afford any real access to a digital world they won’t understand... so how do they survive in this terrible new world of governments running through computers?

So, yeah, I saw the trailer to this movie and it all looked very relevant to me and I thought, yeah, I probably should pop my Ken Loach cherry on this one. And I’m kinda glad I did.

I, Daniel Blake stars Dave Johns in the title role. A sixty-something year old who has lost his wife and who has recently had a heart attack on the construction site where he works as a carpenter. His doctor has told him he can’t yet go back to work but... the government says he’s fit for work and so he has to appeal and sign on and try to negotiate the whole Jobseekers Allowance charade. So in a very short time his life goes all Kafkaesque as he tries to negotiate a red tape world of online forms and stupid people who will only lift a finger to help once the paperwork is correctly filled in... and probably not even then.

In his adventures in Government stupidity, he befriends a relocated single mother called Katie, played by Hayley Squires, and her two young children. He helps out by lending his construction skills to fix things for her, watch the kids when she's out and generally being a ray of hope in her life while, all the time, the thick miasma of Government stupidity seeks to drag him down too. The movie explores their relationship and the way they attempt to fight or work around the system... and the lows and lows it takes them to.

Now Loach is not quite the ‘man rubbing a raw wound’ that I thought he would be. He’s not out to say that everyone in Government is bad or that all of the ‘little people’ are good either. It seems to me that he’s happy to see the good and bad in some people without them deferring to the sides of the two worlds they live in and this is quite a refreshing approach, actually.

There are some nice things about the style of the film such as using a moving camera for a lot of it. Although it’s almost certainly hand held, to catch a voyeuristic, intimate feeling of travelling the same road as his characters, it’s not jerking around all over the place like some movies and it’s actually fairly unobtrusive, not acting as a barrier to immersion into the events depicted, like it might in other hands. He always happy not to judge things too much, allowing the audience to make up their own minds about the terrible injustice carried out on a daily basis... so that’s kinda cool and it’s a much less preachy movie than I thought it would be too.

The acting is superb. I’m guessing a lot of this was improvised and polished in rehearsals and, I’ve also heard that the film was shot in sequence with the director drip feeding his players a scene at a time... presumably so there can be no foreshadowing in the acting process. Which is a good idea and I can't see how that approach to movie making could ever fly on, for instance, a Hollywood production, where shooting all the scenes of any given location is a good way to save money. Dave Johns and Hailey Squires are absolutely electric in this movie. Their performances are moving with some amazing scenes like the one where Daniel is telling Katie and her kids about his deceased wife or the amazing sequence where he accompanies Katie to a food bank and... an incident occurs. I’m actually tearing up again as I write this sentence and think about it again, to be honest.

The music by George Fenton is practically non existent but... it is there and I noted it’s used in a very powerful way... once I’d actually noticed it, that is. The musical moments are mostly a sustained cluster of notes held, almost in a micropolyphony kind of way like Györgi Ligeti used to do, and they’re mixed so low in the soundtrack that at first I thought they were coming from the screen next door or that possibly there was something going on outside the cinema. They get slightly louder every time they’re sounded and it seems to me that they were few and far between appearance, only welling up behind a scene (and I do mean behind... way back) every time Daniel has to process something which is a little closer to being the straw which breaks the camel’s back. It’s a really subtle way to use movie music and that tells me that Loach is obviously a fairly sophisticated film maker too... not many people would be that brave with the scoring these days, methinks.

The only real thing which surprised me in a slightly negative way is that the film is fairly clichéd and predictable in places. It follows certain arcs with the characters which are perhaps very obvious choices for the writer to make. That being said, the people out there on the streets are also suffering these very obvious choices in real life so... perhaps that was actually the point here. I can’t fault anyone for this and it’s so well crafted that it doesn’t really matter, to be honest.

The ending is kinda good too. Many directors would milk this ending and make a much bigger thing of it. In this movie, you have an incident which happens and then one quick prologue scene and then, without fanfare, the movie is over, the credits are already rolling and, if you’re anything like me, your face is probably all wet. In fact, I saw this at the Picturehouse Central in the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus. When I got the trains back home I didn’t stop tearing up until I’d walked to the Piccadilly line, got the train to Finsbury Park and was still crying until I got the Victoria Line to Seven Sisters to make the overground train. So yeah, it was definitely a powerful experience but it did it by stealth. I didn’t feel its power until afterwards, when key scenes came back to haunt me.

So there you go. That’s me on I, Daniel Blake and my introduction to the cinema of Ken Loach. A pretty good movie and people who are living in this country probably all should go take a look at it. Cinema and art can sometimes be best when they are reflecting back the audience's own predicaments... and this film certainly shows up some of the terrible problems of this country... and probably many countries. Definitely worth the price of admission... assuming you can afford the ticket price. Modern cinema ticket prices are not cheap.

Friday, 21 October 2016


Hip Space

2016 UK Directed by Alex Taylor
Screening as part of the London Film Festival -
October 16th 2016

You know... sometimes a journey doesn’t take you from point A to point B. Sometimes you get to the end of the road and find that the journey itself was the destination after all. I think Alex Taylor’s Spaceship is a little like that. The narrative hints at an end point in the journey but, when you reach the end of the movie, you find that it’s not necessarily what it was all about in the first place.

Spaceship is the final of the five films I picked to see at this year’s London Film Festival and I have to say that, out of them all, this one was the most unusual and unconventional in its construction. It’s also a pretty rewarding film if you take the journey with the characters with the right kind of mindset to receive the sound and images although, I suspect, this one might well split audiences right down the middle.

The set up to the film is that Lucidia, played by Alexa Davies, is living with her father Gabriel, played by Antti Reini. Years ago, Lucidia’s mother went missing for a few days and then just turned up out of the blue... dead in the swimming pool with a smile on her face. Once, in the same town which also houses a military base, a whole group of teenagers went missing from school and returned a few days later claiming they had been abducted by aliens. It’s from this starting point that the film begins to look at Lucidia, Gabriel and a whole load of Lucidia’s teenage friends as each of them are followed by the cameraman who records, almost voyeuristically, their conversations about various topics not always pertinent to any central plot (although there are ripples).

This is one of those movies which is all about calling on the actors to improvise their scenes and the director himself, in a post screening talk, said that his modus operandi was to find interesting people to play the various characters and to let their personalities come to the fore. Which is not exactly a new idea but it does make for a refreshing cinematic experience and I might be right in saying that this ‘story’ is very much one which took shape in the editing room, for the most part, rather than from following any kind of script too closely (Eisenstein would approve). I would think it was subsequently honed down so specific narrative markers could be hit at this stage. At least, that’s my best guess.

When Lucidia disappears like her mother did (twice by my count, if you include her re-entry into the general narrative space for a second time at the end of the film), Gabriel obviously tries to find her and, as a result, hooks up with his daughters teenage friends, striking up a friendship of sorts with one of them, Tegan, played by Lara Peake. Tegan may or may not be a semi-reincarnation of his dead wife... at least in spirit. He also gets to meet Luke, played by Lucian Charles Collier and Alice, played by Tallulah Rose Haddon, who has her own goth slave and isn’t always the most responsible of this group of friends, to be honest.

The film makes use of fragmented and occasionally seemingly unrelated footage to weave a spell on the audience while at the same time backing off from any completely prescribed perception of events.
A quick look at the synopsis of the movie on the IMDB convinces me that either the person writing it hadn’t seen the movie or that they perceived it in a very different way from how I did. Which is okay... I just feel that the IMDB entry is a little misleading in this instance. The film is not about telling a story in a conventional sense and, rather, it tends to rub little studies of people’s personalities together and allows the audience to bring their own baggage to the proceedings, stimulating them to their own connections. Some films do this... they aren’t all that common but they are out there and this one makes use of this approach to the material very well.

From the sound of it in the Q & A after the screening, the director did his best to create an interesting and intimate atmosphere on set and, although the stock and styles of shooting various sequences sometimes come at you in a fairly ramshackle way... they never seem to quite rupture the underlying flow of the footage as it’s presented to the audience. The way the actors and actresses are allowed to perform for the camera, almost unfiltered in a way, makes for some very naturalistic, believable turns from the cast and it’s nice to have a director who will allow that to happen as much as it seems to here. At least on first watch. Of course, the skill is that he is able to control the ebb and flow of these vibrant characters in the editing room after the main shoot and turn the truth into art, in a way. So, yeah... truth at 24 frames per second, as it’s been said many times.

Everything is about audience perception of events when it comes to certain aspects of the ‘story’, if you want to call it that. There is a definite through line which links most of the groups of characters and the friction or energy created when these little pockets and moments of time come together reveal a much bigger and more fantastical picture of events in the film as a whole... depending on whether an audience member decides to accept these events at face value or not. It gets quite surreal in places, depending on the decision you make to either take things as they are stated or start to look for unmentioned alternative versions of the version of reality you are witnessing.

There’s one magical moment, for example, involving Steven Elder, who plays a squaddie who has... been away, somewhere, for a while... and who is looking for a boy who dances to disco in a cave. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a poem which he recites to Lucidia at a moment during the last third of the movie. However, as he begins to read he... okay, I’m not spoiling this scene for you. What I will say is that it reminded me a lot of a kind of cinematic equivalent to what Michael Moorcock used to drop into certain passages in his early Jerry Cornelius novels. I think Moorcock used to use this technique I won’t name as a kind of literary Godardian distancing device... something to pop you out of the experience so you can then look at it closer. Which was my very first reaction when I heard Elder start reciting the poem but, as he goes on with his words, the scene becomes something more interesting and almost forces you to re-examine your own reaction to how you felt 10 or 15 seconds before, when he first starts reading. The director talked about this scene after the film had finished and he had obviously been worried about it... I think was very grateful for the way his actor managed to deliver the lines in the final movie.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Spaceship. This is not what you might think of as a ‘mainstream’ movie but it is very interesting and, although certain kinds of audiences may find it a little challenging, I think it’s worth approaching in a switch your brain off capacity and letting the art and little subtleties wash over you to get the best out of a first viewing. It’s a movie I may well come back to at some point, if there’s a Blu Ray release, partially because some of the colour palettes used are so sparkly & beautiful and partially because I suspect certain lines and incidents may make a lot more sense a second time around. If you’re into cinema then you should definitely take a look at this visually brilliant, opulently performed and ultimately haunting movie. There are too few of these kinds of films about, to be honest.

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai

Thursday, 20 October 2016


From Fear To Maternity

2016 UK Directed by Alice Lowe
Screening as part of the London Film Festival
October 16th 2016

My only real proper recollection of the phenomenon that is Alice Lowe, prior to this movie, is of seeing her in Ben Wheatley’s excellent film Sightseers (reviewed by me here) and I will always have the moment stuck in my mind from that where she screams “This is not my vaginaaaaaaa!” When reading up on her, though, it turns out I’ve actually seen her in quite a few things without actually realising it. I chose Prevenge as my fourth 2016 LFF movie purely on the strength of Lowe in Sightseers and, frankly, I’m really glad I did... I saw five films at the festival this year, most of them very good in one way or another and this particular one certainly is a magnificent and shiny little masterpiece, it has to be said.

The plot is straight out of the kinds of 1980s pulpy horror paperbacks I used to read as a teenager. You know the ones? Where a baby inside a mother’s womb starts controlling the parent and manipulating the outside world, usually resulting in much bloody mayhem. I’m not implying any of those trashy novels were a direct influence in this case, far from it, but this movie could slot nicely into this genre while, at the same time, being the absolutely most amazing and strikingly sensitive portrayal of that kind of idea we’ve yet had on screen.

Lowe plays the, mostly quite tragic, protagonist Ruth. She has lost her boyfriend in a 'terrible event' before finding out she was pregnant. As the baby grows in her belly, she is compelled by the unborn child to work her way through a kill list of seven people (which actually changes at one point, but I don’t want to post any spoilers on this one), murdering them one by one as the movie progresses but, of course, since it’s Alice Lowe, the film is also a comedy and the bleakness of the situations are shot through with a strong dose of extremely funny humour which will quite possibly have you laughing out loud, even through some of the goriest set pieces showcased here. There’s a set up, for example, where Ruth’s midwife, played by Jo Hartley, says something about what Ruth will be going through in her pregnancy which comes back to haunt her during a murder scene in an absolutely hilarious moment that had the audience roaring. Again... don't want to spoil that moment here.

The film opens strongly with a scene of a pet shop owner, played by Dan Renton Skinner, showing Ruth his ‘dangerous animals’ and right from the bat we notice that the majority of the men in the movie are portrayed in a funny but extremely unsympathetic light... which works really well to help keep the audience sensitive to Ruth’s plight, to a certain extent. What with Skinner's witty but slimy innuendo, for example, or Tom Davis’ performance as the appallingly ‘orrible DJ Dan, you can’t help but side with Ruth in certain situations. Not that this film is sexist in that way. The wonderful Kate Dickie is one of a couple of women who turn up on the kill list although, it has to be said, the girls certainly don’t seem as sleazy as some of the men in this movie.

All the performances in this movie, in fact, are pretty much amazing and... as good as everyone is, I do have to still shout out Lowe in this, not least because she’s directed and starred in this, from her own script, while heavily pregnant. I mean, c’mon, that’s a feat in itself but to also turn in some of the finest acting in one of the absolute best revenge films going takes some talent. Lowe has a gift for melancholy and she expresses it amazingly well throughout the film but... she can also express a sudden burst of joy and when you see the quick contrast between the two states, as you will in the closing scene of this movie, again for reasons I can’t divulge, the audience will get an emotional rush from it, I’m sure... at least, I did.

The set up for the revenge in the film is held back and not overtly spelled out at the start of the movie. This is another of the film’s strengths because, as the story progresses, the audience can begin to piece together the truth about what has happened to Ruth’s ex-boyfriend and the events surrounding his death as the director slowly drip feeds us the necessary information as the central protagonist/antagonist works her way through her shopping list of revenge killings. It’s a smart way of doing this, actually, and you can’t fault the writing here because, what might have just ended up as a catalogue of killings, one after the other... for that’s basically what the structure is here, is lifted by the mystery of the motivation for Ruth’s actions and... well all I can say is you certainly aren’t going to get bored by this one.

Another interesting facet to Ruth’s character and the actions which her baby, whose voice we hear in Ruth’s head all the way through, compel her to take is that of her compassion for other human beings. Before she takes another person’s life she, in almost but not quite all situations, talks to the characters before they realise her intention... as she gauges if they really deserve the gory retribution she is about to serve up. We get a real feeling throughout the movie, and this is also reiterated in the words of Ruth’s midwife, that the baby is the one in control the whole time and it’s not always Ruth’s decision to get the job done, so to speak. This gives her a much more 'human' feel and is another layer which wraps us up in her experience and allows a certain empathy with a character who is, after all, a serial killer.

The end of the film is pretty cool and it leans a lot on the editing and rhythm established earlier in the movie. There's a scene where Ruth (and presumably her unborn child... nothing like a womb with a view) is watching a silent movie actress on television. I think it might be Theda Bara* but I'm not 100% on that. Anyway, the attitude and performance of this actress kinda captivates and then informs the sensibilities and confidence of Ruth, which is made clear through the associations made in the editing of that sequence and echoes of this throughout the movie. In the second to last scene in the film, Ruth is forced to ponder that there might be a different catalyst for her killing spree than she, and the audience watching, had at first realised. This is made beautifully clear in the last scene in the movie where the last two edits confirm these suspicions while at the same time celebrating them in a wonderful moment which, I suspect, may divide some audience members.

And that's all I've got for you on this one. Prevenge is, as I said before, a mini masterpiece of a movie and it's definitely a hard recommend from me. If you like revenge movies in general then I certainly think you'll like it. If you like them laugh out loud funny and, relatively, bloody then... so much the better. What I can definitely say without reservation is that it's a well written, artfully crafted and technically brilliant example of modern British cinema at its best. Seriously... don't miss this one.

* No, I was dead wrong on that account. I asked Alice about this sequence on Twitter and here is her reply... "It was an excerpt from Crime Without Passion 1934. The Furies represented by uncredited actresses. thanks for the great review! xx"

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Mifune - The Last Samurai

Mifune Valentine

Mifune - The Last Samurai
2016 Japan Directed by Steven Okazaki
Screening as part of the London
Film Festival - October 15th 2016

My first experience of watching Toshiro Mifune was when I was 12 years old, seeing him play Lord Toranaga in the 1980 TV series Shogun. It was a role which stuck in my mind for a long time but I had no idea who he was. When I discovered my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa, a few years later, I was absolutely entranced by both him and, of course, both his main acting collaborators, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. They soon became my new favourite performers and, after all these years, that pretty much stands. So when I saw that there would be a new documentary about the life of Mifune at this years London Film Festival called Mifune - The Last Samurai, I jumped at the chance to grab tickets and I’d have to say that, of the five movies I saw at this year’s LFF, this was probably the one I was most looking forward to.

Unfortunately, although it has a lot of good things about it, I’d have to say that it’s the one film in this years festival which disappointed me somewhat. Perhaps it’s my own expectations which brought me to this state of mind in that I was expecting a proper biography of the actor but, when I saw that the film is only 1 hour and 20 mins long, I should have possibly realised that there’s no way anybody could have done justice to the legend that was Mifune in such a short running time. I’m assuming that the curtailed running time was a contractual obligation and that this film is ultimately destined to be a DVD or Blu Ray extra... at least that’s my guess. Personally, I would have liked to have seen it expanded on by a couple more hours.

Now let me just start off by saying that it’s actually a pretty good movie and, to a certain extent, is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the actor and his work. That being said, it’s a bit of a puff piece in some ways and there seems to be some pretty glaring ommissions which could lead to a very slanted view of events in the actor’s life, if you don’t know anything about him. Certainly it rolls along at a fast pace and has some interviews with a lot of people still with us who worked with Kurosawa way back when. Not only still with us, it seems, but looking way younger than their years might suggest and one of the strengths of this documentary is that it’s primarily told by people who were a witness to the lives of the main players in this film and, mostly, not second hand stories.

So you have people like Haruo Nakajima, who acted for Kurosawa and who was sometimes the “man in the suit” in various Godzilla films (both Kuroswa and the Godzilla films came from the same stable, Toho Studios). Or Kurosawa’s long standing script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, who wrote a wonderful book a number of years ago about her experiences called Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, which is well worth a read. There are also talking head interview excerpts from the likes of admirers such as Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg, not to mention Miffune’s son Shiro and Kurosawa’s son Hisao. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of so many people so close to the subject matter of the documentary that ensures it turns out as uninformative on certain periods of Mifune’s life as it seems to be in places... perhaps Japanese politeness won out over reportage of the facts. There is some pretty important stuff which is excluded here, I think.

I guess the clue is in the title but one of the main weaknesses of the movie is that it seems to focus, with the exclusion of almost all else, on Mifune’s period, samurai movies... which isn’t, by any means, all he did. It also, and I did find this strange, seems to dwell almost exclusively on Mifune’s time working with Kurosawa. Now Kurosawa is my favourite director, for sure, but both he and Mifune had a longish career away from each other too... so this seems to be a very strange way of producing a fair and unbiased documentary. While other films in Mifune’s CV are briefly mentioned, such as his international work on productions like Grand Prix, Hell In The Pacific, 1941 and the aforementioned Shogun, the main interest in this movie is absolutely on the artistic collaboration between the two and, though it’s a very important cinematic collaboration to rival other successful celluloid partnerships such as Scorcese & DeNiro or Hitchcock & Herrmann, one has to wonder if the film might have been better coming clean about what it really wanted to say and making it a movie specifically about that collaboration, rather than throwing the odd mention of other things into it too... after all, the running time is so short, there’s barely enough time to cover either of these subjects adequately.

As I said earlier, the film is also very spare with its facts and glosses over some important stuff. For instance, it mentions Mifune and Kurosawas last film together and says that they had nothing more to give to each other and decided to stop the collaboration... which makes everything sound nice and polite. However, for years I have been hearing the stories of how Kurosawa’s thirst for perfectionism extended to crazy extremes on Red Beard, with him trying to get authentic set dressing from the period of the movie for things like the insides of drawers which would never even be opened while the camera was rolling... presumably to properly immerse his crew in the right atmosphere. Consequently, with stuff like this, Red Beard’s shoot ended up taking two years... years in which Mifune, now with his own ‘struggling to be cash solvent’ production company, was not being able to work in films for that company and help keep the required revenue coming in. Tensions on the set of Red Beard must have been pretty fierce, I suspect.

It’s also said that Kurosawa saw the roles in other films that Mifune had been taking as inferior to the pictures he was making and he didn’t, for instance, have a good word to say about Mifune’s work on Shogun, amongst others. All of these things must have taken a toll on Mifune and Kurosawas relationship and it’s no wonder that, after Red Beard in 1965, they would never work together again, although I believe Mifune was still loyal to Kurosawa and spoke in his defence. After all, it was due to Kurosawa that he started off his career in acting.

Little things like these and the implication rather than straight forward presentation of Mifune’s role in the Second World War training Kamakazi pilots seem to paint a very one sided picture of the main subject of the documentary and I thought this was such a shame because, although the film is wonderful and it’s nice to see all these people turn up for it, it would have been better to have a more accurate portrayal of the man on film, I feel.

However, there are some nice things about it too. There are sections early on in the documentary which show excerpts from rare, silent chanbara movies and it was nice to see these and realise that, in many respects, they are not that different from ones still being made today.

The music in the film, composed by Jeffrey Wood, is quite minimal with a percussive quality which doesn't seem completely out of place when you pitch it against some of the classic Kurosawa movies excerpted, such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo. It doesn’t intrude on the proceedings and lends it some appropriate support when required... so that's all good.

Also, although I somehow failed to realise this until I saw his name on the credits at the end, the voice-over narrative for the film is performed by Keanu Reeves. This seems entirely fitting as I can think of nobody better, at least in Western cinema, who can play a modern day incarnation of the wandering ronin (aka masterless samurai) with such style and confidence. Think, for example, of his stray dog of a character, John Wick (reviewed here), in the recent film of the same title... practically a living embodiment of certain parts of the mythos surrounding the honourable samurai.

And that's my take on this particular movie done. If you've never seen a Kurosawa movie or looked at anything with Toshiro Mifune in it then you should probably take a look at this film and then follow it up with Stuart Gailbraith's excellent book The Emporer and The Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. If you're already a fan of either then this is still a very interesting, if not nearly as informative, look at the two of them. However, as an extremely good friend of mine remarked, when I told her about the movie... "No story tells the whole story."

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Women Who Kill

Life's Kills

Women Who Kill
2016 USA Directed by Ingrid Jungermann
London Film Festival screening, October 15th 2016

Warning: Very light spoilers.

So the second of my movie choices for this year's London Film Festival was the black comedy Women Who Kill. Now the fact that it was a comedy must have somehow escaped me when I read the brief description of the movie in the LFF programme this year... otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I usually only respond well to comedies if they have Woody Allen or The Marx Brothers in them, truth be told. However, if the comedic tone was somehow underplayed a tad in the description, I'd have to say that was kind of a wrong move for fans of the genre because, frankly, not only is it a comedy... it's actually a very good one.

Describing it as a black comedy might be a little off though, it seems to me. Despite the tone of the scenes and the way the dialogue is delivered, it's actually quite a broad comedy and had the audience laughing out loud and almost rolling in the aisles. Not me, of course, because I rarely actually laugh or smile at comedy, but I was certainly enjoying and appreciating it as much as the next person.

The film focuses on Morgan, played by the writer and director of the movie, Ingrid Jungermann, who co-hosts a podcast she does with her ex, live-in girlfriend Jean, played by Ann Carr. The two women both research and host this podcast, Women Who Kill, which concentrates on some of their favourite female serial killers and goes into a lot of the detail which they’ve researched about their subject matter. In fact, they even go to various prisons to interview different serial killers for their show. The one they see in their latest edition is nicknamed, The Clipper, and played briefly, in two scenes, by Annette O' Toole. Everybody thinks that Morgan and Jean should get back together again properly but, at this moment in time, they are both kinda half resistant to the idea.

Enter Simone.

Played by Sheila Vand, the star vampire of the wonderful Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (which I reviewed here), this bright young thing comes from nowhere and enters the story, making a play for Morgan which the latter is more than ready to pursue. And so Morgan has a new relationship in her life with a woman who, she confesses, is a big fan of Morgan and Jean’s serial killer podcast. However, as the relationship plays out Morgan starts to feel a little more paranoid and vulnerable each day... refusing to ask her lover about her locked ‘mystery box’ until, when her suspicions get really aroused, she breaks into it one night and finds samples of different peoples fingernail clippings... which are labelled with the first names as the victims of... ‘The Clipper’. With a suspicious sudden death at the place where she and Simone work, Morgan is forced to ask herself if can this be The Clipper’s daughter and, if it is, is her life and the lives of her friends in danger?

Well you’ll have to go see to find out and I certainly urge you to. This has got a fantastic batch of actresses in the movie and the chemistry between them all is just wonderful. Jungermann’s script is tremendously funny and becomes a finely honed tool to extract laughter as the deadpan and somewhat understated delivery by Jungermann and Carr of some amazing one liners reach levels of high art in their performance.

Even situational comedy is great in this, such as the sudden unexpected announcement of the Sat Nav system in Morgan's car which is when you first realise that the main protagonists are going to interview someone in prison. Or a tremendous, actually somewhat suspenseful mini sequence where Morgan reaches for a weapon in the cutlery drawer of the kitchen when she believes Simone might be about to attempt to kill her... only to find later her hands had found a less than useful egg whisk for the situation. This is great stuff but the humour and extreme wit to be found in the, frankly, near perfect screenplay, also explores the tender and intricate sides of the central relationships, giving valuable insight into these characters and also a little look at the bigger picture in how these kinds of cutting observations apply to humanity’s collected experience. At least, that’s what I got from it.

There also seems to be a strong subtext dealing with the way a person’s interests and obsessions can also intrude into the smooth running of their life and how it can affect all of that person's relationships like the ripples from a stone being dropped into a body of water. Is Morgan bringing about her own problems and leading herself on in an example of self fulfilling prophecy or is there really much more to Simone than may at first meet the eye? The excellent but highly comical approach to the scoring tells us to disregard our own ideas about Simone but, is it leading us down the garden path, so to speak? And no, I don’t know who did the wonderfully light score to this movie, which seems somehow typical in terms of music for American independent movies, because the IMDB is no help here whatsoever, as it turns out.

What I will say is that the end of the movie is pretty bleak but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. In some ways it reminded me of the original ending of Kevin Smith's Clerks. If you've ever seen that alternate ending you'll know it gets uncompromisingly dark in the films final minute. Women Who Kill also explores depressingly darker territory in the film's final minutes and, though I don't want to give anything away, I will say that the ending might haunt you unexpectedly after you've seen it and start forcing you to question your perceptions of what you have spent the last hour and a half of your time watching. You won't necessarily be able to find a consistent solution and I suspect the last few minutes might not sit well with some audiences, but it's a pretty interesting finish to the film and I find those kind of 'almost inconclusive' conclusions are often the best, at times.

So there you have it. If you're a fan of US indie cinema and you actually get the opportunity to see Women Who Kill on release sometime, definitely take a chance on it. The dialogue is scintillating and the static nature of some of the camera set ups goes hand in hand with the understated, but hilariously funny, performances... letting them breathe so they can worm their way into your imagination. A truly cool film, this one, and worth some of your time.

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai

Monday, 17 October 2016

Inferno (2016)

Inferno, Rest, Trains

Inferno (2016)
2016  USA/Japan/Turkey/Hungary
Directed by Ron Howard
UK cinema release print.

Not to be confused with the amazing Dario Argento movie of the same name, Inferno is the third of the big screen adaptations of Dan Brown’s popular Professor Robert Langdon series, this one being based on the fourth book... which is kinda strange but then the series started off with the second book, The Da Vinci Code and then made a sequel out of the first book, Angels And Demons (the movie of which I reviewed here). So why they’ve missed out The Lost Symbol I don’t know but I’m sure, if this series of movies continues to make as much money as the novels have done, they’ll get to it.

Like the first two movies, this one is once again directed by Ron Howard (who played Richie Cunningham in the TV show Happy Days back in the 1970s) and all I can say is, I still can’t figure out what his directorial signature is. Other than, for the most part, making some pretty entertaining and, usually, quite popular movies. My experience with the series thus far is... The Da Vinci Code was an okayish movie (and it had Audrey Tautou in it, so that helped) and Angels And Demons was an outstanding modern action thriller. This third one is incredibly entertaining too but, I think it also has some problems... just not quite enough to outweigh its sense of fun.

The movie, once again, stars the always watchable Tom Hanks as Professor Langdon (an actor I first saw in a TV movie called Mazes and Monsters and liked him in that so, you know, it’s good that he’s made a but of a name for himself now) and he is aided and abetted (character wise) by a very strong cast including Felicity Jones, who played Mrs. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (read my review here) and who is about to become very famous heading up the release, in September, of Star Wars: Rogue One. The film also stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (who I last saw in The Duke Of Burgundy (reviewed here), Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ana Ularu and... oh yeah, they’re all amazing. You will believe in these characters and the unusual things they say and do for sure... you will have no problem suspending your disbelief here, that’s for sure. So that’s one of the huge plusses that the movie has.

The film starts off in the midst of an ongoing story and we're catapulted right into the heart of things as we have a completely discombobulated Professor Langdon suffering from hellish hallucinations based on a famous illustration of Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy. The pace is, beyond anything the second movie threw at the audience, quite blistering. However, for the movie as a whole that’s a bit of a double edged sword because, although you won’t get bored here and the action will whizz by at a rate which will leave you wanting to catch your breath maybe just a little more than the director and editors allow that to happen here... you will also be as discombobulated as Professor Langdon from the outset of the film. Although things make more sense as the film speeds on, you will find yourself just wishing it will all calm down at some point.

That is to say... it’s a movie made up of mostly short sharp shots. The modus operandi here seems to be why listen to a line of expositional dialogue in a master shot when you can split it up into three totally different angles of a character when they are delivering a line. I guess it makes the dialogue more interesting but it's usually also punctuated, very quickly, by another dose of action/suspense as Hanks and Jones are hunted by pretty much every authority on the planet... as Professor Langdon tries to stop a virus which promises to unleash death on over half the world very quickly (people who are familiar with the story as it’s represented in the book, which I’ve not read myself, should be aware that this movie has a quite different ending to the original novel). As a consequence, however, it’s all very choppy and there are some points, even in scenes where nothing much is happening, where you just wish everything would slow down and go back to a single master shot at some point.

I’m guessing one of the other reasons the people who made this have decided to subject this movie to a ferociously intimidating piece of editing (although it's never dull) is because there is a so called twist about two thirds into the movie and they're maybe trying to distract you from it but, honestly, if you haven’t worked out what that twist will be within five minutes of the film's opening sequence starting you’ve not been paying attention because, honestly, Howard pretty much telegraphs this not so revealing reveal quite a lot throughout the movie. I was kinda disappointed, actually, when it happened because... well, who wasn’t expecting that? Obviously, I won’t give that twist away here but it’s exactly what most people, I suspect, are thinking throughout the movie and saying to themselves... “C’mon Professor Langdon, when’s the penny going to drop?”.

So there’s that.

However, like I said above, although there are a lot of problems with the story... or at least with the way the story is presented in this medium here, there are enough plus points to kinda outweigh it and still give you a good time at the movies.  And one of those plus points, of course, is Hans Zimmer’s amazing score.

I kinda liked Zimmer’s score to the first movie in the series but wasn’t completely crazy about it. His second score, though, to Angels And Demons, was simply a fantastic modern work and certain tracks from that are never off my iPod or CD player for very long. This third score is better than the first and certainly holds it’s own with the second... although I need to hear it as a stand alone performance before I can decide whether I like it better than the second or not. The music obviously uses Zimmer’s already established Robert Langdon theme but, also, it seems to use a lot of references to the action themes from Angels And Demons in some of its slower passages too... especially through the first third of the movie, which surprised me because that means I’ve now got absolutely no idea how the leitmotif works with this set of films. Why the heck was that in here? I haven’t got a clue but I do know a good soundtrack when I hear it and this one is pretty cool. As to be expected from the pacing on the movie, there’s a lot of action music and percussion so it should be quite a ‘rocking’ listen when I finally get the CD to this one. I’ve come to respect Zimmer a lot over the last decade or so, after initially dismissing him at the early stages of his career. He also knows how to rock a concert venue as you can read in my review of his London concert from earlier in the year here. 

All in all, although Inferno is quite predictable, a bit choppy and aggressively edited (not to mention quite noisy for a lot of the time), it’s also got some beautiful visuals (when you get time to focus on them), some great acting, an amazing score and, frankly, there are a lot worse big budget type popcorn movies you could be spending your cinema cash on at the moment. I’m not hearing a great critical reaction to it at the moment but I’m hoping that it will do enough at the box office so that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks will reunite for a fourth one (and preferably with Hans Zimmer in tow). Hopefully they’ll sink their teeth into The Lost Symbol next.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Alien 2 - On Earth

Come On Alien

Alien 2 - On Earth
(aka Alien 2 Sulla Terra)

Italy 1980 Directed by Ciro Ippolito 
88 Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, this sort of has some mild spoilers but I don’t think you’ll mind them. It’s not that kind of movie.

Oh dearie me. Where do I even begin with a movie like Alien 2 - On Earth?

The Italians, along with a few other countries I could name, seem to have a reputation (and sometimes a knack) for jumping on the bandwagon when a film, or series of films, hits big. And then they capitalise on/exploit that craze for as long as they can while the money still comes in. When Argento repopularised the giallo format with his movie The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, for example, there were suddenly gazillions of gialli being made. When the Americans were using Italian studios to film their various biblical epics like the Charlton Heston version of Ben Hur, there was suddenly a slew of peplum (sword and sandals movies) again with heroes such as Hercules and Maciste heading the bills (I suspect the leftover sets and props would also have played a part). When Sergio Leone hit big with the first real Spaghetti Western, his remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, called A Fistful Of Dollars, there were suddenly hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly styled Italian Westerns being produced. They even bandwagoned their own bandwagons in some cases. For instance, when Sergio Corbucci had a hit with the Spaghetti Western Django, there were almost “too many to count” numbers of westerns made which had Django mentioned in the title of the movie, whether he appeared in the film or not (a trend which Tarantino played on a few years ago when he mentioned the famous character in the title of his movie but then, despite having Franco Nero in an unrelated cameo in the film, having a totally different character called Django as the main lead).

So yeah, in Italy, a really successful movie made sometime between, at least, the 1950s and the 1980s, was going to spur production on a large number of 'cinematic delights' cashing in on this film... quite often without any of the qualities that made the original template any good, actually being carried through into the next batch.

And that’s how it was when Ridley Scott’s A L I E N hit cinema screens back in 1979.

Young ‘uns these days possibly don’t realise just how big Scott’s A L I E N was when it came out. Star Wars was still very fresh in everyone’s mind and, despite a classic run of adult oriented science fiction films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the post Star Wars consumer market was very excited to see an adult oriented, science fiction/horror movie once more. At 11 years of age, I was unable to see the film at the cinema on its first run due to its X certificate rating, but I remember being impressed that my mum and dad, for the first time I could ever remember in my life, went out to see the movie without me. But I had the big photonovel of the film and also, the far more violently expressed graphic novel, which also included scenes not seen in the movie until the much later ‘director’s cut’ and which, believe me, was way more gorily drawn than anything seen in the actual film.

So, the point is, A L I E N was pretty big and so, as far as the Italians were concerned, I guess, it was fair game for them to produce their very own sequel. Don’t forget that the film’s first official sequel, ALIENS, didn’t come out until 1986. So I don’t really blame the Italians for doing that. After all, the similarities between A L I E N and certain sections of Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires were pretty obvious and so... I guess they felt they could just steal their stuff back.

Having watched this ‘sequel’ now, I have to say it’s one of the most unbelievably mind numbing and tedious movies I’ve ever seen... even for a dodgy, Italian, rip off exploitation movie. The film actually, in no way, shape or form other than in the title, mentions or refers to anything specifically in Ridley Scott’s A L I E N other than a few echoes which I’ll get into in a minute.

My first clue that I would have to take the film’s sequel status with more than an oversized pinch of salt was the fact that it’s set in the present day... or that is to say, contemporary to when it was filmed. As opposed to being set in the far future like the original A L I E N. If I was being kind, I’d say certain elements of content have been inspired by Scott’s film but, even so, there are other Italian exploitation films from around the same time nicking bits from A L I E N which are still bad but which have a flair for fun and are quite watchable. Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (sometimes retitled Alien Contamination for some territories) springs to mind in this capacity as a fun, schlocky, so bad it’s good stab at something which maybe couldn’t have quite existed without films like A L I E N leading the way. However, Alien 2 - On Earth is not schlocky fun... it’s just interminably dull, to be fair.

The film has, presumably, hardly any budget and that would suggest why the film takes place solely in a TV studio (for one scene), a beach (for a couple of scenes), a bowling alley (for a few sequences including an over long finale) and, mostly, in a series of caves. Yes, it’s like a poor man’s The Descent we have here and instead of the crew of the Nostromo we have a bunch of people who like to explore caves and a writer/director who is trying to convince the audience that a bunch of 'cave scientists' can actually make a decent living poking around investigating rock forms. The background to this story is of a capsule returning from space with no astronauts aboard (I don’t think we actually ever see it) and a bunch of blue rocks turning up which, when one kid finds it, does something off camera and leaves her without a face. Of course, one of our 'Team Cave Explorers' protagonists finds one of these rocks next to the toilets at a gas station (there you go, I knew there was another location I was forgetting) and puts it in his ruck sack. The team then go underground for the majority of the rest of the movie, with everyone looking out for the character Thelma (played by Belinda Mayne) because she keeps having her telepathic flashes that something dark is going to happen.

The film is laughable right from the start due to an interesting but wildly inappropriate score by Oliver Onions (more well known to many as Guido and Maurizio De Angelis... who scored gazillions of Italian movies... including one of my favourites as a kid, Watch Out We’re Mad, reviewed here). However, despite some nice ‘spaced out’ synthesizer sounds running in the background, overlaying it on a free and easy guitar melody and with occasional vocals and, furthermore, bringing it in at completely inappropriate moments throughout the movie, does nothing to add to a sense of mystery or horror, believe me. It might make you laugh and also, perhaps, be quite listenable away from the movie but, in terms of supporting this story... it's completely out of it.

Aside from the dullness, there are also some great continuity errors too. When our heroine Thelma goes to the beach to meet her psychiatrist, he arrives on a boat and sits with her for a few minutes to establish for the audience that she has a darkness and a kind of sixth sense when something bad is happening (even from a ludicrous distance, which makes you wonder why she isn’t sensing every other bad thing going on in the world which isn’t pertinent to this hastily cobbled together plot), with the excuse of putting his boots on, which he waves at the camera. However, when the two go back to long shot after their talk, there are no boots or even spare shoes to be seen... they’ve just vanished completely. Good stuff.

Now, to be fair to the director, there are some nice moments of beautiful cinematography on show here... a scene where the little girl near the start of the movie finds the pulsating alien rock thing on the beach and she’s silhouetted against the sea by the light, comes to mind. However, moments like this are few and far between and, it has to be said, they can’t save this movie.

Now, the only things I could find on show that might be inspired by Scott’s A L I E N, apart from some gory scenes, is the atmosphere and costumes, As they go into the caves, they are full of stalactites and stalagmites and I can only think that maybe the film’s producers and designers were thinking that these natural formations might somehow pass for something that, if you half closed your eyes, might look like they came from the mind of H. R. Giger. That’s my best guess anyway. Coupled with the caving suits and the helmets with the lights on, I can only assume they were going for a similar look to the early, planet exploration scenes of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic. However, it has to be said that the scenes in the caves are among the dullest and unwatchable in the movie which... is a pity when you realise that at least 90% of the movie takes place in them.

The bizarre flying, almost unseen alien creature is badly handled but, to be fair, some of the goriness is imaginatively inspired. The life cycle of the alien in this film kinda means it jumps out of the rock and takes someones face off... until they are found with their face in tact somehow, which I suspect is due to a hasty script rewrite halfway through shooting when they realised that a faceless woman is not someone the rest of the cavers were going to bother about trying to administer medical aid to, after she is attacked. So in this movie we have a face ripper rather than a face hugger and it then somehow lives inside the host’s head before popping out of the front of their pulsating, rubbery face (pushing an eyeball or two out in the process) and attacking the next person. The next person attacked in this case is hooked to a rope at the edge of a precipice, for reasons really not worth bothering about going into here and, as he’s left dangling over the side of the edge above his companions, his head suddenly drops off for some bizarrely inexplicable reason.

And the majority of the rest of the movie is spent with the rest of the gang of spelunkers as they run around the caves trying to get out while being picked off one by one by a very dodgy special effect. There’s a brief moment of respite when one of the crew is taken over by the alien creature and Thelma tries to communicate telepathically... I know that’s what she’s trying because, for some strange reason, her eyes are glowing green when she’s doing this. It doesn’t do much, though, and when she and another survivor finally get out of the caves they find, just as you kinda know they would, the rest of the world abandoned... although there are no dead bodies around, to speak of. So, of course, they try and find out where everybody has gone by going back to their favourite bowling alley (because, why wouldn't you, I guess?) and it’s here that the climax of the movie is set because... of course an alien life form would be so interested in bowling. Must have been a very cheap location, I suppose.

Alien 2 - On Earth ends exactly as you think it might, scotching any chances of this being somehow even a prequel to A L I E N, rather than the advertised sequel. And, despite how fun it probably sounds, I can honestly say that it most certainly isn’t. The film’s only other noteworthy feature apart from the very occasionally nice cinematography is the inclusion of future giallo and horror director Michele Soavi in the cast... but he’s hardly a notable actor here so... well, he fits right in with all the others then. I’m really glad I saw this ‘lost gem’ finally and am grateful to 88 Films for releasing a restored Blu Ray of it but, even after recommending loads of terrible but fun Italian exploitation movies to people in my time, the only thing I can say about this one is, keep clear. It’s truly dreadful... just not in a good way.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Feathered Serpent

Chan Clan Phooey

The Feathered Serpent
USA 1948 Directed by William Beaudine
Monogram/Warner Bros DVD Region 1

So here we have The Feathered Serpent, the penultimate of the six films where Roland Winters played Charlie Chan and, although it’s not an especially entertaining edition of the exploits of the world’s most famous Chinese American detective, it is one which is quite unique in the history of the series. It’s the only one of the original run of films which spanned nearly two decades and various companies to feature two of Charlie Chan’s sons in the same film, together. Namely Number Two son, played by Victor Sen Yung and, after a very long absence, Keye Luke as Number One Son.

Now Keye Luke was an artist who used to paint posters for various movies until he shot to fame in the original US run of Charlie Chan films opposite Warner Oland, my favourite Chan man, in the title role. I always remember him from watching the Charlie Chan films as a kid where he used to run in on a scene, usually thinking he’d solved the mystery and yelling something along the lines of “Gee, pop!” When Oland died unexpectedly, Luke had already shot some scenes for the next movie and these were transplanted, with new scenes added, when the Charlie Chan film was hastily rewritten and turned into one of the Mr. Moto films with Peter Lorre. The 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble, to be precise, which I reviewed here. After the films were recast with Sydney Toler, Luke declined to continue in the series and so number two and three sons replaced him, on and off, for the majority of the Toler films. But, one decade later, Keye Luke was back in the series, opposite Roland Winters... regardless of the fact that he was slightly older than the man playing his father at this time (many years later, Luke would go on to voice Chan himself in the Charlie Chan cartoon show).

Now, with Mantan Moreland continuing in his role as the Chan family chauffer Birmingham Brown, you might think, with the three of them, that there are now way too many sidekicks for a Chan film to comfortably handle and, to tell the truth, you’d be right. How many 'on screen dummies' do you need to explain things to under the banner of audience exposition? I might be a little harsh on the idea, actually, because the writing on this one isn’t that great, even though it’s a remake of a former 1937 Western, The Riders of the Whistling Skull.

Roland Winters seems a little too laid back in this one, it seems to me and... I have to wonder what he thought of Keye Luke returning to the role. It’s a bit of a puzzler because I’m presuming they really went to town ageing Winters on this one in some subtle way because, as I indicated above, Keye Luke who is seen playing his offspring is, actually, five months his senior. Something only Hollywood could be bold and stupid enough to get away with.

This one isn’t so much a mystery story, since the villain behind the plot of this tale of a doomed archeological expedition reveals himself fairly early on in the proceedings. The set up is such that, with Chan and his team on vacation in Mexico, they find themselves suddenly embroiled in a plot when the man they rescue from the roadside turns out to be one of two missing scientists that another expedition are trying so hard to find. That means it’s up to Chan to help them find the scientist in question and also find the hidden Aztec lair full of buried treasure. So, yeah, the usual stuff but the execution of it here leaves a lot to be desired, I think.

There’s lots to groan about in this one, too. When the lights go out in a house at night and the first murder is committed under cover of darkness, it only takes the lighting of one single candle to suddenly plunge the set back into a fully lit shot set up. Oh dear.... still, Monogram were not known for being particularly brilliant film studios, that’s for sure. These Monogram films had a much smaller budget than the 20th Century Fox produced movies and, although some of the Monogram Chan films are excellent, the lack of production value really shows on this one.

Another groaner is when Chan and his sons, with Birmingham Brown tagging along, decide to join the expedition, Number One and Two sons immediately dress up in safari suits, along with obligatory pith helmets... this looks really silly. Actually, one of the great problems with this is the apparent lack of chemistry between Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung. This would be Yung’s final Charlie Chan film... although he’d started back when Sydney Toler first took over from Warner Oland, with Benson Fong also playing number three son in the films where Yung wasn’t available. Now, I’m not sure if this lack of dynamic interaction between the two is a personality thing or whether it’s because they have just been given some terrible lines to work with here. What I do know for sure is that, once again, Mantan Moreland’s portrayal as comic relief Birmingham Brown is fantastic and he somehow manages to get the best lines, again, in this one. For example, when he wants to get out of a scary situation he says to one of them... “There’s somebody I’d like to see outside.” When he’s asked who, he answers “Me!”. Similarly, in another moment when he’s at a disagreement about staying where the trouble is, he reminds his boss... “Oh Mr. Chan, we’re on vacation. Why don’t we vacate?”

So yeah, Moreland and his quick fire dialogue really helps hold the movie together, for me, but ultimately, this one does fall kinda flat. There’s a nice mixture of moving camera and also static edits in and out of compositions but, at the end of the day, there’s just not enough going on here and it’s just not well written. Even the comedy moment which you can see coming a mile off, with Moreland sitting on a rock and accidentally activating the entrance to the hidden temple, is not milked the way it might once have been and it’s just a genuinely dull affair, for most of the short running time. The Feathered Serpent is not a Chan film I’d recommend anybody start on but, if you are a die hard fan of the series, the fact that he has two sons sharing the screen with him is certainly interesting. If you want to get excited about Charlie Chan, however, go back to the Warner Oland movies first, would be my advice.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Zoology (aka Zoologiya)

A Tall Tail

Zoology (aka Zoologiya)
2016 Russia/France/Germany
Directed by Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
London Film Festival screening, October 8th 2016

And so my 2016 London Film Festival adventures begin with Tverdovskiy’s low key but gently stunning movie Zoology. The film’s central concept intrigued me enough to add this to my ticket applications for this year’s festival... or bookings I guess, since they’ve all gone on-line and become computerised these days, which I hate.

The story, such as it is, tells of a frumpy, late/middle aged woman called Natasha, played by an amazing actress who doesn’t seem to have done much film work at all in her time, Natalya Pavlenkova. Not long after the film has started, we find that Natasha, who works in her local Zoo, has somehow grown a full fledged tail. Naturally, she is somewhat concerned about this and so goes to see her doctor, who then sends her to get an x-ray done. The man who takes her x-ray... and a second visit after the first one turns out to be blurry... is Pyetr, played by Dmitriy Groshev, who becomes Natasha’s romantic interest, despite what looks to be a fair age difference between the two of them and, of course, despite Natasha’s tail.

The film is a gentle study of Natasha as she begins, over the course of the movie, to embrace the idea of having her tail and we see her transformed into someone who starts to enjoy her life as her new appendage seems to see her blossom into the person she always had the potential to be. It’s a lovely little study of her coming to terms with her tail as the rumours and whispers about ‘the devil woman with the tail who can fix you with her eye and make you die with her stare’ become more abundant in her small community.

Perhaps part of the reason it’s so engaging, besides the absolutely incredible performances put in by the two central leads, is that the director seems to be using hand held camera for everything. There are a lot of shots which follow the actors around almost reactively, like a visual version of a film score 'Mickey Mousing'* the on screen actions... but even with the seemingly static shots in the movie, there’s still a lot of slight camera movement infecting the 'still' shots like a ‘slow shake’ and it’s very much the kind of methodology which some American TV shows, like Firefly or the Battlestar Galactica reboot, have been using recently to give a more ‘documentary-like’ feel to the proceedings. It’s kind of interesting, actually, because I noticed this happening pretty much all the time throughout the movie as I was watching it without being aware of who the director was and what his previous movie making exercises had been. However, at the screening, we were lucky to have lead actor Dmitriy Groshev on hand, with a translator, to talk a little about it and to answer any questions from the audience afterwards... some of which were quite awkward and, therefore, quite interesting. He explained that the director was actually a documentary director so that immediately made sense to me because he is obviously using that approach to make what seems to be (and the IMDB isn’t much help on this, it seems) only his second fictional feature length film.

It’s not a particularly unusual approach to making a movie, especially nowadays, but it does serve to give the film a kind of voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall, kind of feel to the proceedings and, consequently, helps to legitimise what might be considered a fantastical story element by grounding it in a style which you might not associate with that kind of subject matter. Right away, you are sympathising with the main character because you forget that you are watching actors and are, instead, watching a slice of life, to a certain extent.

The film treats it's central theme less than seriously, most of the time, especially for a study dealing with the alienation of a person through a sudden physical transformation. It also doesn’t judge, like the local community and church, who condemn the phenomenon as the sign of some Religious demon, the existence of the appendage in question and, in fact, leaves the origin of the mystery of this new member unexplained... which is refreshing and, although this has been happening a little more lately in the odd American movie, is something which helps dispose of a lot of exposition and allow the writers and director more time to concentrate on just what it is they want to say about the phenomenon.

The comedic element of the movie, which includes a really fun scene where the lead actress is using her very flexible tail to masturbate in her bathtub, is very broad and the myth of Russian films being humourless and very bleak is pretty much busted throughout, most, of the running time here. I’m no stranger to Russian movies but at least two people had warned me, before I went to see this, that is was Russian and, therefore, bound to be a bit miserable. Imagine my surprise, then, when in the last few minutes of the movie, this actually turns out to be correct and we have a tragically dark but, also, beautifully executed ending which actually took me by surprise during the last minute or so of the film. I really don’t want to give away any spoilers here, especially since it was revealed at this screening that the movie will, in fact, be getting a UK release at some point in the future, but the ending of the movie both startled me in the unexpectedness of just where it leaves us while at the same time being absolutely brilliantly timed. The best thing I could liken it to would be certain types of music. When I was in my 20s and 30s I used to listen to a lot of music by contemporary minimalist composers and two of them, Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, would often end a piece quite abruptly but, simultaneously, at the exact natural point it should be ended. The result was a passage of music which finished before you realised it would (on first listen) but at the same time brought a sense of unconventional resolution to what you had just been listening to. The ending of this film is just like that... but on visual terms with the editing, which is always said to be an element of film which is similar to music anyway and, if you want to see that analogy demonstrated perfectly, then the ending of Zoology gives you that chance.

After the screening there were a fair few questions, one about the portrayal of female stereotypes, which I guess was kind of valid but which the actor admitted, presumably because he, like me, can’t see anything wrong with using stereotypes as short hand to get a message across... especially when these people do exist in real life. Another was very telling in that the lady who asked a question obviously saw the tail in the tale as a penis and some kind of misogynistic attitude towards women in the message of the film and, although there is that analogy made a couple of times to set up a couple of jokes, I think the question said more about the person asking it and the baggage she brought to the screening, rather than any inherent negative attitude to women... especially for a film which has such a strong, female character as the central role (and not some kind of male fantasy female, either). The lead actor pointed out that perhaps the lady was confusing somebody moving closer to maleness (which isn’t the case, anyway, I think) with somebody becoming just generally more alien and therefore not accepted but I can kind of see where the lady in the audience was coming from, even if I don’t agree with that subtext being present in the film, myself.

And there you have it. Zoology is a great little movie which has an intriguing premise and which plays it, mostly, for comedy with a lightness of touch which, perhaps, allows the bleak reality of the situation to come crashing down on the audience at the close of the film. One of the better films I’ve seen at the cinema this year and one I’d definitely recommend catching in screenings or on some kind of home video format if you get the chance. A movie which deserves a lot of recognition, I think.

*A term for film composition where the music catches and illustrates particular actions or dialogue highlights etc.

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai