Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women



Shibari Boom-De-Ay

Professor Marston and
the Wonder Women

2017 USA Directed by Angela Robinson
London Film Festival Sunday 15th October


Okay, so this was my last film of this year’s London Film Festival and I couldn’t have picked a better one. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a truly joyful experience and, also, the timing couldn’t have been better for the producers in terms of following this year's big hit Wonder Woman (reviewed by me here). This is the story of the man who created that iconic character (under the pseudonym Charles Moulton), psychologist Professor William Moulton Marston and the two women in his (and each others) life... his wife, psychologist Elisabeth Marston and their live in lover Olive Byrne.

The film is damn near perfect too.

I knew the movie would have to tackle the Frederic Wertham stuff and it kinda does, in a way... or at least the growing sentiment in America that the relatively new comic book phenomenon was perverted, corrupting and harmful to the children of America (and presumably to the GI’s too since comics were popular with them also). Wertham would be the mascot boy for the terrifying anti-comics crusade to come and so he’s not specifically mentioned here as this movie ends roughly around the time of Marston’s death, which was just a few years early for the full horror of Wertham’s pseudo-psycho babble to take a grip on minds across the country.

However, the growing scare of sensationalist comic books is a perfect place to look back from and writer/director Angela Robinson kicks off the movie with kids collecting unwanted comics in carts as the credits play out before we see Marston looking on at everyone burning comic books and we see an issue of one of the early comics to feature Wonder Woman, perhaps Marston’s most enduring invention, burning up with the rest of them on a bonfire of four colour funnies. We then join Marston defending Wonder Woman to Josette Frank, who was appointed to help National Comics Publications, kinda, self certify before the real storm came later (soon after and decades before they made it official, National Comics branded themselves with the initials of their popular Batman title, Detective Comics, as the now more familiar DC). It’s from this scene, with Frank (played by Connie Britton) asking the hard questions and Marston remembering the relevant parts of this life, that we glimpse the majority of the film in flashback, with constant stops back to the early 1940s when this sequence is happening.

So we have Professor Marston played by Luke Evans and  Elisabeth played by Rebecca Hall (who I loved so much in The Awakening - reviewed here - that I thought she should have been heading up a franchise with the character from that movie) giving lectures in Marston’s new psychological theory DISC (which stands for Dominance, Influence, Submission, and Compliance) and taking on a new assistant whom they both, as it happens, want to sleep with... called Olive, played by Bella Heathcote. And we see their story through their personal lens as they build a loving relationship under the same household (mostly) and have various children and struggle with various problems of their specific lifestyle choices versus what is socially acceptable in the 1920s and beyond.

In addition to seeing them discover each other we also see them inventing and testing the lie detector (finally realising the missing ingredient of the ‘false positives’ they are getting by using their possible future (at this stage) relationship in conjunction with it to finally get the correct results. We also see the discovery of illegal pornography as a defining moment in their life and, specifically, Marston’s accidental introduction to the ‘underground’ S&M scene (we all call it BDSM nowadays) including an introduction to bondage via a demonstration the Professor gets set up in the back room of a shop which specialises in... ‘fantasy dress’, shall we say. The bondage demonstrated, first on a model and then on Olive in the showroom is not unlike what we would know a little better these days as ‘shibari’ rope bondage (although the term itself was not, I think, in more common practice, even in Japan, until the 1950s) and this kickstarts another important aspect of Marston and the gals ‘relationship identity’. This is something they already touched upon earlier in the film in a spanking scene in a College ritual and the photographs that Marston later buys to pique the girls’ interest are, he insists, visual representations of his DISC ideas rendered in just four pictures. This later helps give him the idea to inject the same theories into his Wonder Woman character, who would make her first appearance in an issue of All Star Comics before headlining her run in Sensation Comics.

Of course, much is made of the lie detector, the bondage rope and the costume that Olive wears at one point as the early ideas that sparked certain aspects of Wonder Woman (who gets rid of the false words of her enemies with her magic rope of truth and who is constantly getting tied up in the strip during that period). It’s a great story and it’s all laid out from A-Z with Marston finally selling his idea of Suprema The Wonder Woman and writing the stories himself after he and Elisabeth are both fired from their college jobs due to the nature of their relationship with Olive and their various children. This includes a brilliant turn from Oliver Platt as legendary comics publisher M. C. Gaines which is pretty good, with him dumping the name Suprema and going with just the character name which is more familiar to her fans today... Wonder Woman.

And this movie sparkles so much.

The style is quite leisurely with lots of either static or slow moving camera shots which are held for quite reasonable lengths of time to let the performances of the three brilliant leads shine through. The writing is unbelievably witty and sparkly too and it’s a bit like a quick fire 1930s romantic comedy in the way the actors deliver this immensely intelligent dialogue, which juxtaposes nicely with the slower visual style without it clashing - the two things just seem to complement each other perfectly and the movie sings along very quickly. It’s also very funny with some great one liners such as Elisabeth saying something along the lines of “You can’t keep using science to justify the whims of your cock.” That’s probably not the exact quote but it’s not far off and, like many of the humour beats that hit the mark throughout this movie, the audience at the screening I attended were highly appreciative.

The film also has some nice things going on in those shot compositions too. The sorority ritual scene where Marston and his wife get hot and bothered watching Olive spank another student is partially shot from in front of a set of bannisters which partly obscures their features while allowing you to easily glimpse the mood being put through in their performance and it’s a really nice moment. Another really great thing is the deep focus photography used on some of the shots of the rope where Elisabeth ties up Olive in the shop and the texture of the rope is sharp in places where everything else in the shot is blurred out like an old Hollywood, ‘vaseline on the lens’ shot. It’s stuff like this which really gets into your eyeballs, coupled with the dazzling script and the superb acting from all the leads here.

I was a bit worried that the movie wouldn’t be able to legally use images of Wonder Woman due to rights issues but there seems to be no such problems here and there’s even a montage sequence (or two) with various comic panels from the strip set to the music of the famous jazz standard Big Noise from Winnetka, which I suspect might have been inspired by a similar musically charged montage with the same piece from the film Comic Book Confidential. Wherever that idea came from, it works just fine here and this is not to undercut the brilliance of Tom Howe’s wonderful score for the movie either (which I shall be picking up on CD as soon as I can get my hands on it after the release date).

The film ends with the time honoured, various facts about ‘what happened next’ in the lives of the three central protagonists and then the credits roll with photos of the real life William, Elisabeth and Olive... which really hits home, actually, just how glamourous the movie versions of the characters are in comparison to the people that inspired it. Although that’s a discussion for a different time, methinks.

All in all, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women is easily one of the best movies of 2017 and I can’t wait to see this one again when it gets a November release in the UK (and also buy the Blu Ray when it comes out). Don’t be on the fence about this one if you like cinema and also like to see a good, romantic yarn with humour, sadness and poignancy in spades. As far as writer/director Angela Robinson goes with this movie, I shall quote another movie from this year taking everyone’s famous amazonian superhero as it’s subject matter and just say... “You should be very proud.”

Monday, 16 October 2017

Verónica



The Vay Ve Ver

Verónica
2017 Spain Directed by Paco Plaza
London Film Festival Monday 15th October


So the fourth of my 2017 London Film Festival screenings was Verónica, a new film directed by Paco Plaza, who was the co-director of the first two excellent [REC] movies and solo director of the third of the four (which I personally thought was slightly less successful when it jettisoned the ‘found footage’ first person POV style of filmmaking a little way into the running time). The film is purported (according to the various captions at the start and end of the movie... more on those later) to be inspired by the unknown events which build up to the lead detective of a police team arriving at a potential ‘crime scene’ and going on to  file the first official report in Spanish history to go on record saying the investigating team were a witness to paranormal activity. Now, I’d kinda like to believe that’s true and several sources on the internet seem to be taking that claim as fact but... I can’t find anything on the real story on the internet either so... not 100% sure I’d take that with anything less than a pinch of salt but, on the other hand, just because I can’t find anything about it in English on the internet, doesn’t mean to say there’s not loads about it in Spanish, I guess.

Now I’ve got a lot of respect for this director because, a number of years ago now, he did something with that first [REC] film that I really wasn’t expecting from anyone. That is, he took the zombie genre (well, not quite zombies but close enough) and made it frightening again. Well, I say again but I’m not really certain the zombie genre ever really was that frightening, to be honest and... yeah, he made a zombie film which was genuinely scary, rather than just being another ‘body count’ movie. So that was good.

Here he takes the ‘demonic thing summoned by people messing around with a Ouija board’ genre and, although I have to say that he didn’t really succeed in making this film in any way scary, he did make a really fun film which hits up on all the genre clichés and which had some good one liners in it... which, I’m happy to say, had the audience laughing out loud.

Set in the early 1990s, the film has a strong opening which is very similar to the ‘journey to the apartment block in the original [REC] in that it seems to be shot first person and it’s a rush of chaos as the police respond to the panicked phone call for urgent help, which you hear on the soundtrack as their vehicles rush through the streets to their destination. The lead detective bursts in and we see a shot of the title character, played astonishingly believably by actress Sandra Escacena, her face in close up, head bent back as she screams... except it’s not a scream, it is a yawn and the soundtrack bleeds off to reveal that this is her waking up one morning, three days earlier.

It’s a nice transitional shot and what Plaza does here, since it’s obvious he’s using this ‘documentary style’ opening as a framing device, is tell you that, as an audience you’re going to have to survive three nights of paranormal scare tactics before you catch up to that bookend sequence. And he doesn’t lose any time in setting up the story. Veronica is the oldest of her three siblings - two sisters and one brother - and she has to get them, and herself, ready for school each day because her mother works truly unsociable hours in a nearby cafe. However, Veronica misses her dead father and wants to attempt to communicate with him so, while all the rest of the children and staff of the convent school which they go to are up on the roof watching the eclipse, Veronica and two friends go to a kind of abandoned basement to have a ‘Ouija session’. Now, even my own mother instilled in me, from an early age, not to mess around with those things based on her own experience of one and, right enough, in best movieland tradition, things start going wrong for Veronica right from the start and she lets in some kind of demonic presence to do all the usual horror movie clichés for the rest of the movie. 

As I said earlier, the film is not breaking any original ground here but it is nice to have a pulpy horror yarn which is as entertaining as this one. It feels like one of those ‘comfort horror’ movies you can watch when you’re on your own and, helpfully, all the main actors, mostly children, are all very good in this. We also get a nicely spooky turn from Consuelo Trujillo as the blind nun who seems to be able to watch what’s going on anyway (she even watches the eclipse without the use of her eyes) and who is nicknamed by the students as Sister Death. She, alone, of all the adults in the story, can see that a demonic entity is walking with Veronica and she’s a great character. There’s a nice throwaway line here as one of the other nuns guides her out of the basement which neither Veronica or Sister Death should be in and Death says something along the lines of... “You can find the answers in the book!” To which the other nun adds, “There. You see what good advice she gives?”... which got another  big laugh from the audience, I can tell you.

There’s some nice photography involved such as shots of the stars stuck onto the ceiling of Veronica’s bedroom superimposed over what else is going on and the camera does the usual roving around Veronica’s apartment to make the audience look for things in the background, which seems to be a common element of contemporary horror films. Like I said, Plaza’s not exactly reinventing the wheel here but he is, at least, making sure that wheel is a well oiled piece of machinery. Enough to get you to the end destination in style.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about Verónica. The characters are sympathetic and you really don’t want to see anything bad happen to them. There are a few jump scares, some of which did somehow manage to catch out some of the audience and the bookend sequence at the end continues Plaza’s preoccupation with the documentary feel of the piece with... allegedly... the actual, real life  photographs of the aftermath of the 'event' in the apartment that inspired this movie used as accompanying illustrations on the end credits. I didn’t realise that until afterwards because, to me, the pictures looked just the same as the environments in which the film takes place so... good job to whoever did that, I guess. At the end of the day, though, inspired by real life or not, scary or not, the film is a solidly entertaining horror tale and there’s always room for that. It’s certainly more interesting than a lot of the ‘teen horror’ tales which have been doing the rounds just lately so... maybe take a look at this one if it gets any kind of cinema release in your country.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Snowman



We’re Stalking In The Air...

The Snowman
2017 UK/USA/Sweden
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
UK cinema release print.


The Snowman is set and shot in Norway... being, in some ways, an example of what is popularly becoming known as Nordic Noir. It’s based on a novel by Norweigan writer Jo Nesbø and I saw another, quite good movie based on a novel by him a few years back called Headhunters (reviewed here). This one... well it’s not so good, to be honest... although it does have a nice visual quirk that makes it kinda interesting at times. The trailer was pretty good, however (better than the film and I’ll come back to the trailer) and, since the movie stars the always brilliant Michael Fassbender, this was one of the movies I was looking forward to seeing this winter.

That being said, I’ve read or heard of reviews which have been tearing this to pieces, saying that the movie is incoherent and makes no sense. Well, that one I can certainly put to rest and say that, yes, the movie is certainly coherent and, yes, it makes complete sense... to the point where the identity of the killer might be fairly obvious to the audience, alas. However, to some of the more ‘high profile’ newspaper reviewers of this film I would say that they should maybe concentrate more on what is said when people open their mouths to talk as, you know, the storyline and connections made in this really aren’t rocket science. Or, you know, familiarise yourself with the language of cinema by maybe going out and watching more films... if you really are finding this stuff confusing.

However, what this film does suffer from, I would say, is a lack of on-screen content to allow for the more leisurely pacing that the director brings to this. I’ll get back to that in a minute but I’ll talk about some of the positive things in this first.

The number one positive is the acting in this is all nicely done. Not many duds here. Fassbender’s portrayal of Nesbø regular Harry Hole is pretty great and even though not everything is spelled out for us, we get a real sense that there’s an interesting history to this character (this is a number of books into the series, apparently, so I’m sure there certainly is). The character is pretty much on the rocks, drinking and trying to cope with, at the very least, being dumped by his girlfriend but still maintaining a friendship with her son and also, to an extent, with the son’s ‘new dad’. The way Fassbender plays him shows everything with his body language... you get the feeling that this man is completely out of shape but that he once used to be a brilliant detective and his previous career is briefly alluded to by his new partner, played pretty nicely by Rebecca Ferguson. They’re both ably backed up by an incredible bunch of actors including Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer (playing someone who you totally wouldn’t expect Val Kilmer to be playing and making it very different to some of his other work), J. K. Simmons (ditto, he’s certainly not typecasting himself here), Toby Jones and the always utterly compelling Charlotte Gainsbourg as Harry’s friendly ex-girlfriend Rakel.

And the story beats are good too. Once you get into the idea that the scenes with Val Kilmer are flashbacks and slowly start to sew them together in your head with the case Harry is working on, the more sense they make. I did not see the relationship between Kilmer and one of the characters in the modern timeline until it was pretty much revealed, so that’s a good thing. However, this also leads me onto some of the bad stuff like... no matter how stupidly coincidental all of the puzzle pieces are when they fit together, the unlikeliness of them does not detract you from being able to spot the killer a good long while before that identity is made known. So that’s not so good.

Another bad thing is that, when we have the final denouement between Harry and the killer, Harry is competely powerless to do anything much and the demise of said killer is competely coincidental. A serendipitous moment which seems really stupid... ironically poetic given the film’s pre-credit sequence, sure but... yeah, it’s not the smartest ending it could have had. It probably works much better, I suspect, in a novel than it does for an audience when confronted with the irony in a visual manner but, there you go.

Back to my thing about pacing versus content. Yeah, it feels like the film is being rushed and severely edited. For such languid pacing I would have expected something more like a three hour film which takes its time to build up more depth to the characters and the causes of the story they find themselves in. This seems a bit choppy and... this kinda makes sense actually, in terms of the end result. It wasn’t until I was leaving the cinema that I realised that there were a lot more things happening in the trailer than you actually see in the final release print of the movie. So... I might be wrong here but... I suspect the studio shortened it to tighten it somehow when, quite possibly, it would have worked much better as a longer piece. I obviously can’t ever do more than guess at that one but... that’s my very best guess.

Like I said though... some nice things too.

One of them being the director's seeming visual obsession of people looking at things through windows. Most of the characters seem to be constantly putting themselves in situations where they are either outside and showing the audience what’s going on from looking in through a window into a scene or, the reverse... where something’s going on outside and the audience are looking at a character looking outside the window. It’s a really bizarre thing because I’ve not noticed anyone doing this kind of thing quite so often in a movie before and it became fairly amusing waiting for the next ‘through the glass’ shot to pop up.

Also, the murders themselves are quite inventively grizzly. They mostly involve people being cut up into pieces with decapitation clearly a favourite of the killer. The antagonist’s trademark is to build a snowman nearby and, quite often he will either leave a snowman’s head in the bloody neck stump of his victim or, vice versa, plop the victims head onto the body of one of his snowmen. So some interestingly gruesome visuals in this thing, for sure, although the director plumps to not focus on them for very long. There’s a nice moment when someone’s head is blown clean off with a shotgun, too, which is not telegraphed in any fashion and comes as a surprise. So some interesting artistic decisions made around violence and its aftermath in this film, I would say.

And finally we have  Marco Beltrami’s excellent score which nicely captures the languid pacing in the way Harry Hole proceeds about his daily life. It kinda sounds like a spy movie score from the mid to late 1970s in its tone at some points. Not as strident or highly stylised as, say, a John Barry score from that era and more like the kind of ‘softer but definitely a distant cousin’ of that kind of cold war music that you were getting a decade later. It’s a good one and I’m pleased that the score is scheduled to get a proper CD release later in the month. Looking forward to giving this one a few spins away from the movie.

So there you have it. The Snowman is not the terrible movie that some of the critics have been saying, I think but... it is quite disappointing in that it’s not a great movie either. Fassbender and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvellous in these characters and I’d like to see them both return to play them again. Alas, I suspect the box office on this one won’t be so great either so I suspect that’s not a prospect I can look forward to in the near future. This one isn’t essential viewing but it’s okay if there’s nothing else on at your local that you want to see. Maybe give it a go.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another Wordsworth Editions Guest Blog



Great Expositions

My look at the role and definition of the constant companions of literary heroes for Wordsworth Editions can be found here... http://wordsworth-editions.com/blog/great-expositions

Thanks very much for reading and thanks, as always, to Wordsworth for having me.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Flatliners (2017)



Electro-Cardio Games

Flatliners (2017)
2017 USA Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
UK cinema release print.


Warning: One mild spoiler in here.

Well, my first reaction to hearing that there was a remake of Flatliners was... why?

The original 1990 movie starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon was a bit of a classic for my generation... although I honestly can’t remember too much about it now (might have to pick up a Blu Ray at some point so I can rewatch and review it here). I know I was fairly passionate about it, like a lot of people I knew and... I think I went to see it about three times at the cinema on its initial release. That being said, after one more watch a few years later on VHS (the cinema to home video release delay in those days was somewhere between 3-5 years... youngsters don’t  realise how lucky they are right now) I kind of forgot about it until, pretty much, I heard the news of the remake/reboot/sequel. And even after seeing it I’m still not quite sure which of those it is... pick one.

I wasn’t rushing out to see this but I did quite like the trailer for the new one and I always quite enjoy Ellen Page as an actress so... I thought I might as well give it a go. I’ve got nothing much against remakes... after all, some of the, arguably,  best versions of films are remakes (such as the Humphrey Bogart remake of The Maltese Falcon or the Charlton Heston remake of Ben Hur - reviewed here). I decided to go and enjoy it for what it was and not be too judgemental. I wasn’t sure how different it could be, though, being as the plot on the trailer looked like it was following the original movie fairly closely, aside from character names and a more equal mix of male and female characters.

It has to be said that this new version of Flatliners is actually pretty good although, to be honest, there really isn’t a heck of a lot that’s been changed from the original story. It’s still about a bunch of med students, one of whom craves to see what happens on ‘the other side’ in the afterlife. In this case, it’s Ellen Page’s character Courtney who instigates things, pulling together a small team to help her chart her brain while she’s ‘flatlining’ and making sure someone qualified enough is there to restart her heart after she’s been dead for a minute. In this case the character is motivated by guilt over something that’s happened to her in her past and she wants to see someone again.

Like the original film, once she’s flatlined and walked about in an eerily shot dream world, the majority of the others want to have a go too... especially when they see Courtney’s brain power increase to enable her to do way more than you would imagine she could in such a short space of time. However, like the original, their journeys into another realm within themselves starts to bring ‘anomolies’ to  haunt their waking hours and try to kill them unless a certain set of conditions relating to shady secrets from their past are fulfilled. From then on the film becomes more of a horror film for the remainder of the time... or at least as much as it can be for a kid friendly movie (I’m amazed this got a 15 rating in the UK... this is PG material, surely?).

And, surprisingly, I actually found myself liking it a heck of a lot more than I thought I would. The ensemble of actors are pretty good, especially Page and Diego Luna, who does a pretty good job in the only movie I’ve seen him in other than Rogue One (reviewed here). Give this man some solid lead roles! I also thought the set dressing and choice of compositions around these, quite detailed atmospheres created for the story were all pretty good too. Perhaps more so than the original in some ways although, as I mentioned above, this film sticks to that template very closely, with most of the broad strokes being a repeat performance and mainly just the details of the ‘misdeeds’ of the various protagonists being changed this time around.

Having said that... and this was a bit of a surprise moment for me, hence the spoiler warning... one of the five does die in the film and the rest of the gang doesn’t manage to bring said character back from the dead. This leads, of course, to that character’s inevitable return appearance on ‘the other side’ near the end but that’s okay, it’s a logical progression and it helps move the story forward when this happens. Another difference is that one of the five, the more responsible one of the group, doesn’t flatline at all in this version... which I thought was kinda odd but also interesting.

Now there seems to have been some confusion around whether this is a remake of... or a sequel to... the original Flatliners. Not least confused by this, it seems to me, was Kiefer Sutherland who told interviewers that he would be reprising his role from the first one in this film. Sutherland is in two scenes in this and, although the character name is different, it does seem a natural progression of the character (including a prop I noticed which rang a vague bell... but I’d have to look at the original again before I can confirm that particular something). My understanding is that there was a scene shot for this which revealed that, despite the name change, Sutherland was indeed revealed to be playing the same character and I’ve read that this scene might resurface in a slightly longer cut when it gets released on DVD and Blu Ray. Which will be interesting if it does because, frankly, the fact that a group of medical students playing God in the same way that another group of students did decades before is an interesting touch (I also liked that they got the famous line from the original... “Today is a good day to die.” into the screenplay, this time said by James Norton).

One of the things I do remember about the first version of Flatliners was that it kinda peaked about three quarters of the way through the movie and didn’t really recover after the point where it turned into more of a horror movie. Although this new one is only five minutes shorter than the 1990 one, I did think the pacing and interest on this was a lot tighter... it never gets dull and that can only be a good thing. The ending of this is a little better too. Where the first film ended, if memory serves, with a last minute rescue of one of the five from the jaws of death, this movie ends with a much more haunting epilogue involving a specific tune played on a piano which is a little memento of one of the characters thrown from the spirit world... which slightly contradicts any possibility that the way the brain is changed by death is the key to the various phenomena the group are experiencing but it is kind of a fun nod, it has to be said.

All in all, I wouldn’t say the new Flatliners is any better than the 1990 classic but, then again, I wouldn’t say it’s any worse either and there are some definite improvements to the pacing which counts for a lot. Not a film I feel I could revisit that often but certainly nowhere near the disappointment I was expecting from it. Maybe give it a go if you are not too particularly attached to the first movie and, even then, you might still find that you can appreciate this one.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Most Beautiful Island



The Wait Wait Show

Most Beautiful Island
2017 USA Directed by Ana Asensio
London Film Festival Monday 9th October


My third film of this year’s London Film Festival was Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island. It’s a low budget work about a poverty stricken Spanish lady who has moved to the US to escape reminders of a tragic event in her past. It’s written and directed by Asensio and stars herself as the film’s main protagonist, Luciana. As the director told the audience in a Q&A with some of the actors and one of the producers at this screening, the film is inspired by her own experiences with the darker underbelly of an America where you have to do whatever you can to make ends meet and survive without being, as another character called Olga (played in this by Natasha Romanova) puts it, “eaten by New York”.

The film starts off beautifully with an abstract shot of people walking backwards and forwards in the streets of New York but it seems like their bodies are unnaturally elongated. Although the shot is held for a while, my brain couldn’t quite process what I was looking at... was it a reflection in a window, was it some kind of filtered image. Then, more images of the hustle and bustle of New York grabs our attention as we follow Luciana and some others on their daily journey though a chaotic city filled with energy. The credits appear over this sequence and, although the images are well shot and using quite a lot of moving camera to follow the action, the whole effect of the editing is like a pack of cards being riffled right into your field of vision as the chaos of the city lands in your face and... yeah... it’s a good way to start a movie.

What we have here is a film that has a big tonal shift about a half to two thirds of the way through and I almost wish I hadn’t watched the trailer before clicking on the ‘book a ticket’ button in terms of knowing the way the story, such as it is, was going to change but, on the other hand, if I hadn’t been responding to what must have been appealing elements of the trailer then I might not have gone to see this one at all so... yay for trailers. I’m so glad I caught this one.

So the first part of the film follows the central character as she tries to do various things like visit a doctor without having any health insurance, looking after two kids as a nanny (which really piles the pressure on Luciana) and the whole feel of most of this first section is of a kind of ‘throwaway kitchen sink’ kind of cinema. It’s effective in that it brings the viewer into a kind of fly on the wall appreciation of the reality of this character’s life and the terrible things she has to face.

One nice, very brief sequence in this section is where Luciana and her friend have to give out flyers dressed as ‘sexy chickens’, for want of a better term. It’s interesting actually... and this could either be serendipity or just a really great artistic decision but... the constant and unstoppable shouts of the girls as they try to entice potential customers to take a flyer is kind of manifesting itself on the soundtrack design in a way that is not unlike the constant, grating clucking you sometimes get from the real life versions of the poultry in question. It’s an interesting burst of human noise when a lot of the previous sound pollution on the movie is less human than this sudden burst of two frantic voices trying to catch the eyes of passers by. So, yeah, clever stuff and since the director seemed so intelligent in the Q&A and, obviously, with the construction of her film being quite clever, I’m going to make the assumption that this was a genius artistic choice rather than a happy accident... although sometimes the retention of an accident after it’s happened is also a wise decision.

Another great moment in the film is where Luciana is sitting in a bath and she sees a piece of tape on the wall by the side of the tub covering a hole. I’m not going to tell you what happens next but although it seems almost Lynchian in its placement in the story, it also kind of sets up both the psychological mindset of the character and the way in which she copes with a certain aspect of life in the way that it slightly echoes something which is to come much later in the movie and also leads us into an artistic expression involving close ups and an exaggerated soundtrack effect which will also, as it happens, echo something later. This is a pretty well thought out movie, to be sure.

As the character goes about her journey, her friend Olga casually gives her an invite to a job where she will get paid $2000 for just a couple of hours of work, as long as certain rules are followed. We are still in the general free-for-all of the discordant everyday existence of the character at this point so it comes as more of a shock to the system when we go into the last sequence of the film... everything that has occurred before this lulling us into a completely different mindset in much the same way that, for example, Takashi Miike’s Audition turned out not to be a romantic comedy after all. This becomes a waiting game where Asensio uses her skills as a director to make things as uncomfortable for the audience by using the kind of suspenseful language of the ‘horror movie’. This isn’t technically a horror movie, in fact... but the tone of the final act is and everything kind of slows down while the camera shots appear to be held a lot longer in this next sequence.

Luciana and the other girls are locked in a big cellar and looked at by ‘customers’ who go into another room and nobody is allowed to leave. Each of the girls are dressed in the same costume and are carrying a handbag they have been given which is padlocked shut. The next 20 or more minutes is an excruciating and unsettling sequence as the girls wait to be called into ‘the room’ to play ‘a game’ for the customers. When it becomes clear that sometimes a girl will leave the room and get payed and, sometimes, they don’t leave there alive at all, Luciana tries to escape but, as you would expect from a movie which hasn’t yet revealed the nature of high stakes activities in the adjoining room, she has no success at changing her fate. In a slight change to the rules she accompanies the dominatrix-like host (played wonderfully by Caprice Benedetti in sophisticated, sinister mode) to go in with Olga and we are finally shown just what takes place on the room... in another sequence which may make some audience members hold their breath.

I won’t comment on the general content of this end sequence and I won’t let on whether Luciana survives what happens to her or not. What I will say... and the director was very keen to get this point across in the Q & A... that whatever happens to the character after the film has finished, Luciana is able to kind of forgive herself for the tragic incident which has happened in her past which has caused her to take on this kind of existence in the first place. The film does leave questions hanging in the air but, honestly, that’s not a bad thing and I’m kinda glad that Asensio deliberately, like some of the best filmmakers do, chose not to cross all the ‘T’s and dot all the ‘I’s. A film is, after all, a phenomenon which, like most pieces of art, leaves something to be pondered on after the initial experiencing of that art... like a piece of scar tissue in the brain that haunts you for a period after the initial response. And that’s exactly what happens here... this is a film that you may find yourself thinking about for a good while after.

Most Beautiful Island is a really cool movie. It’s been described by some as having a Grand Guignol feel to it. I’d have to say that’s about right, from what I know of the kinds of skits that were put on in that theatre but, not in the blood n’ gore sense that a lot of people tend to associate with that term (this is not a bloody film) but more in the kind of suspense filled tension generated in a fair few of them, including those which were less about bloodshed and more about an examination of the human condition, albeit in an exploitative form. Ana Asesnio has created a really interesting piece of art here and, although she has her acting career, I really hope she continues to write and direct because she’s definitely someone to watch, I would say, on the strength of this directorial debut.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Blade Of The Immortal



Chanbara Sauce

Blade Of The Immortal
2017 Japan/UK Directed by Takashi Miike
London Film Festival - Sunday 8th October 2017


Okay, so quickly onto the second of the films I’m seeing in this years festival. I always find Takashi Miike one of those directors who makes movies that you will either love or hate but, whichever polar opposite of that kind of Marmite spectrum you are sitting on with one of his movies, they are always, at the very least, extremely interesting. And, it has to be said, almost always interestingly extreme too.

At the grand old age of 57, Takashi seems to be somehow directing and financing between 2 - 6 films a year and this one, Blade Of The Immortal, based on the series of Manga strips by Hiroaki Samura, is his 100th movie. Does this guy ever sleep? Miike was actually at the festival for this premiere and, although I couldn’t stay to see his Q&A after the movie (alas, I was suffering from ‘last train home syndrome’), I was at least able to see his introduction where he told us that the series of manga this is based on spans a 15 year, serialised period and that this movie, although clocking in at an impressive 2 hours and 20 mins, was his attempt to encapsulate and compress the themes and ideas of the entire ‘decade and half story arc’ into one feature film. Well that’s a pretty tall order but I have to say that, for me at least, the film didn’t jump around or seem too episodic in light of this revelation and it never once seemed to me to be anything other than a coherent whole (albeit with a lot of new characters being introduced at various points in the story).

The film starts off in the way in which a typical chanbara (which, to be fair, this is) might finish.

 Opening in black and white, which reminded me a lot of those old Kurosawa samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s, we meet the main protagonist, Manji (played by Takuya Kimura) and his sister (played by Hana Sugisaki). They are on the run due to  a misdeed of Manji’s recent past but, rather than commit ritual suicide over his indiscretions, he has to stay alive to look after his kid sister. And then we get that typical 1970s chanbara ending where he alone has to fight a group of 50 - 70 men, the leader of whom gives him some motivation by cruelly slaying Manji's sister. So it's ‘Crazy 88 massacre time’ for this lot and Manji does the usual lone wolf samurai act of cutting down every opponent and leaving nobody else standing. However, unlike a lot of the classic chanbara I've seen, Manji actually gets quite badly damaged during the melee and is about to die of his wounds (which includes his right eye being stabbed out and his left hand parting company with his arm). However, a mysterious and unexplained sorceress woman drops blood worms into Manji’s wounds and he becomes immortal. His nearby hand is, kind of, organically knitted back on by the blood worms although, for some reason, his eye isn’t ever regenerated (yeah... it’s okay to have a scientific system for your film which regenerates your life etc but... oh no... don’t let it mess with the look of the character, right?). Finally, the title of the movie comes up and we jump into colour for the remaining running time.

Jump fifty years later and the rest of the plot is then set up as a young girl sees her father killed by a bunch of villains and her mother taken to suffer a fate worse than death. In the best traditions of movies like True Grit, she goes to find someone who can revenge her father as a salve for her grief and the wandering sorceress (for want of a better term) tells her about Manji... so off she goes. Of course, we have the usual, stand offish reluctance of the hero to take up the quest but the young girl, called Rin, reminds Manji of his long dead sister... which would make sense since she’s played by the same actress.

Once he’s got over his ‘it’s not my fight’ problems, the rest of the film involves, strangely, very little travelling (the two seemed to be based in the same place with the villains often just happening to be in the vicinity, for some strange reason... or at least within walking distance) but lots of swordplay and also, I’m glad to say, some time spent on giving little character sketches of other important characters (many of them villainous) and working them and their background into the plot. It’s refreshing that Miike takes time to do this when a lot of modern directors might not have approached the material in this way and the pay off is that certain characters have an emotional resonance on the story at key times during the course of the film (often when they die, as it happens).

The swordplay is ferocious and lively and is very much the kind of ‘one against many’ that you see in some of the later Zatoichi films, not to mention the fairly typical exploits of both Lone Wolf and Cub and Sleepy Eyes Of Death. Indeed, the first pre-credits fight I mentioned earlier is more or less a template for the various skirmishes throughout the movie but, of course, as the story builds to a climax, so does the number of opponents increase so you eventually have one man against whole armies, etc. There are two things which made these kinds of scenes a little different. Other than being shot by Miike with a nice attention to the way elements of the battles are framed and the incredible sense of the way the various shots are edited together, so you don’t lose your place in the combat scenes...

The first of these is that the fights seem a whole lot less bloody than I am used to seeing in a Japanese film and, of course, this goes doubly so considering that it’s Miike, the man behind such extremely, violently ostentatious movies such as Ichi The Killer (if you’re going to see that one, get a Dutch copy as they’re definitely uncut). Sure, there are lots of body parts flying and there is literally a small, almost river of blood formed in the middle of the battleground at one point... but you don’t get the huge gouts of blood and arterial spray that I tend to typically associate with any Japanese movies since Kurosawa first started that trend in the very last scene of his excellent Yojimbo follow up, Sanjuro. Instead, the brutality of the violence is somehow less comic book in its depiction here... although I’m really not sure whether I preferred this choice from the director or not.

The other thing about the various fights involving Manji is that he does tend to get cut up quite a lot in each and every fight he’s in and, too be honest. I was getting kinda tired of watching him being sliced n’ diced and then, slowly and painfully, regenerating each and every time he gets in trouble. I kind of felt like yelling... “He’s immortal, we get it!”... at various points because, it struck me that compared to many of the great swordsmen in Japanese cinema, he’s wasn’t that skillful that he couldn’t come away unscathed on occasion.

However, that’s a minor grumble and, in all honesty, I really enjoyed Blade Of The Immortal and it’s reminded me that, in terms of Takashi Miike, I’ve barely scratched the surface of his work and I need to see more of it. This is a nice slice of chanbara goodness which, perhaps, isn’t as unique or unusual as you might at first think but certainly pays homage to the genre and it should satisfy fans of this type of cinema. I’ll certainly be picking this one up on Blu Ray if this gets a UK release and look forward to seeing it again. A solid swordplay movie from one of Japan’s modern, master directors. Not to be missed.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

How To Talk To Girls At Parties



Spiking The Punk

How To Talk To Girls At Parties
UK/USA 2017 Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
London Film Festival screening 7th October 2017


So here we go with another year of films at the London Film Festival and, I have to say, this year has got to be one of the best line ups of interesting films that I’ve seen at the LFF in quite some time. Certainly, since joining the BFI almost 30 years ago, I’ve not seen a Festival Programme filled with quite so many movies I either can’t afford to go and see or being shown at times too inconvenient for someone who relies on the overground railway to get them home at night. So I’ve had to miss out on some real interesting debuts like Let The Corpses Tan and I am just hoping I’ll somehow get to see some of the ones that got away in some kind of release or another (although, I suspect like most years, some of them won’t get any kind of commercial release with English subtitles). So my first film in this year’s programme was How To Talk To Girls At Parties and I was off to a good start because it’s a real corker.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties is based on an award winning short story by comic book writer extraordinaire (among other things) Neil Gaiman. I’ve admired Gaiman as someone who can weave words together in a meaningful way ever since reading his character Death from his much revered DC Vertigo comic, The Sandman. I’ve not read this short story but, looking at a quick synopsis of it on Wikipedia, I can see that the film takes the kernel of Gaiman’s source material and then expands on it in a, perhaps less subtle but certainly cinematic way.

The film revolves around Enn (played by Alex Sharpe) and his two school friends who are all into the punk scene. Which makes sense since this is set in deepest, darkest Croydon of 1977 and everybody is celebrating The Queen’s Silver Jubilee (ahh, I remember that street party well). The three go to a punk gig to try to hook up with Queen Boadicea, who is a kind of promoter on the punk scene and played, totally against type but totally brilliantly, by Nicole Kidman. When the boys get lost and go to the wrong 'after party', they instead crash a gathering of people who are all kitted out in latex costumes much like the ones you’d see in a Skin Two magazine or buy from Honour Clothing. They are all indulging in strange, fetishistic rituals... which makes perfect sense because, as it turns out, Enn and his mates have stumbled on a colony of aliens living among us. Things get strange but Enn meets a beautiful, young girl called Zan, played by Elle Fanning and... the two fall in love. However, Zan has only 48 hours to get as many experiences from Enn and his ‘punk scene’ before committing human suicide (kinda) and returning to the alien form in which she appears to roam the galaxy with her species. Which makes things complicated.

Everybody is brilliant in this and the film pitches some nicely observed comedy against some poignant and touching scenes as both Enn and Zan experience emotions and adventures in what could be their first and last two days together. The humour is mostly centred on the cultural differences between Enn and his mates and the race of aliens with Fanning and her species playing off the standard ‘fish out of water’ scenario as she mistakes various Earth customs and sayings while Enn and his mates mistake the aliens for ‘Californians’ and use this to explain away some of the, actually very alien, things they see.

The director uses different kinds of camera work for the movie including some montage sequences where the camera speed and stock is played with to make it both more gritty and ethereal at the same time but he also brings us some very crisp compositions and sharp, brightly lit colour palettes to offset that a lot of the way through. It’s almost like a meeting of two worlds in terms of the way different styles of shooting the thing are thrown together... which, of course, is exactly what the film is representing. So it’s a nice way of showing it.

I’m seeing that this hasn’t been getting very good reviews from previews in other countries and I have to wonder why that is because I found it an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. The only thing I can think of which might be off putting is that the film is... not only ‘so very British’ but it’s also capturing a time of living in Great Britain that is barely recognisable now. The punk scene in the 1970s was gritty, raw, loud and in your face and the director really manages to show this. Indeed, when the film started I had absolutely no sympathy or empathy for these three punk urchins blagging their way into a venue without paying but, very quickly as the film progressed, my heart started to melt and get into the journey of the movie with them and... well... it helps that the film is quite funny in places. The first kiss... or attempt at one... between Enn and Zan is... well, I don’t want to spoil it for you here but the audience responded to it with a lot of laughter. It was a pretty well received film, I can tell you, judging by the brilliant audience response it was getting here.

As the film continued on and transported me into a love story which isn’t a million miles away from Romeo And Juliet in tone, I realised that the lead actor looked a little bit like Neil Gaiman and, then I figured out why he was called Enn (presumably, the letter ‘N’ for Neil). Indeed, after a heart wrenching ending which, again, I am certainly not going to spoil for you here, there’s a wonderful epilogue where the story jumps something like 15 years and Enn is signing a novel based on his experiences at a bookshop reminiscent of the old Forbidden Planet signings you used to get in Denmark Street and St. Giles High Street in the 1980s (of course, Forbidden Planet still do signings regularly but the look and feel of this one, with issues of 2000AD and The Sandman on display in the window, seemed just like a part of my childhood recaptured... although the early 1990s setting might be a little late for the atmosphere being evoked here). Again, I’m not going to spoil the wonderful epilogue scene for you here but what this did, to me, is drum home how much the movie incarnation of the character was partially based on Neil Gaiman... or at least a fictional Neil Gaiman who maybe never existed like this in real life. Who can tell... well , yeah, alright, Neil Gaiman could tell but I doubt somehow he’s going to be reading this review and providing me with an answer to that one.

Anyway, that’s my first of this year’s London Film Festival movies and, I have to say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. If I had any one minor complaint about How To Talk To Girls At Parties it’s that the three ‘school chums’ looked way older than the ages they were supposedly playing but, that’s okay, they all did a really great job here and it was pretty easy to suspend disbelief on this stuff when the script and performances of everyone in this movie are so good. I would love to see this released over here at cinemas and would also love to be able to pick it up as a Blu Ray at some point so... you know... here’s hoping this one somehow manages to grab the success it certainly deserves. I, for one, haven’t got a bad thing to say about it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049



Morphology. Longevity. Incept Dates.

Blade Runner 2049
2017 USA/UK/Canada
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
UK cinema release print.


Warning: I could have written a spoiler free review here but I decided I wanted to address the issues that this film throws up a little more freely. So, fair warning, all the big spoilers will be covered here. If you don’t want to know this stuff then don’t read until after you’ve seen the movie. Lots of spoilerage per paragraph and you won’t see them coming until I blindside you with them so, seriously, if you don’t want to know, don’t read further than this warning paragraph.

To paraphrase another famous movie, this was not the sequel I was looking for.

That being said, I really wasn’t looking for a sequel to Blade Runner at all and I’ve always dreaded, even back in the 1980s when the subject first came up, that anyone would ever get around to doing one. I’ve already made clear my thoughts on the first film, which I first saw at the cinema in 1982 in its most perfect cut (as far as I’m concerned), the original studio cut. You can read my Blade Runner review here where I look at the various cuts of the movie and also detail my personal relationship with the film, helping to keep the movie alive long after it expired as a box office flop by going to see it with my friend at various midnight screenings before it suddenly started to gain popularity again in the 1990s. I must have seen the first movie somewhere between 50 and 100 times by now and so, yeah, I have a lot to be compromised by a bad sequel to a perfect movie which, lets be honest, doesn’t really need a follow up anyway.

So the first and most positive thing I will say about it is... it’s not a terrible movie. It’s actually, in fact, a pretty well made, modern science fiction film which harkens back to the 1950s or earlier for its central themes... themes which writer Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original source novel pillaged by the first movie, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explored on a number of occasions in his writing career. So, for a nice, adult themed, science fiction movie... yeah, Blade Runner 2049 is quite successful in that sense.

As a sequel to the original film both in look and in spirit though... well that’s another matter and, much as I like Villeneuve as a director, I don’t think he does either of those things justice here.

For example, the film does, indeed, look spectacular but, honestly, compared to the look of the original movie which, it seemed to me, was much denser and more coherent in its portrayal of a crowded, urban environment in meltdown... this film felt a little inconsistent and sketchy. Maybe it’s because none of the establishing shots or fly bys of the various environments are long enough but... it didn’t really hit me the way it should do, I think.

The director eschews the classic opening titles of the first film and cuts to the intro text. At various places in the film we get text highlighting the various locations but, I can tell you, I was sitting fairly close to the front with a giant screen and those titles were so small I could barely make them out. The white type just about but the red type just above them... no way. Goodness knows how this would play in a home environment with a smaller screen. We then get a vista of landscape and, while its set in a different environment and we still get the giant eyeball shot to echo the first movie, it just all feels a bit ‘by the numbers’ to me. I’ve seen the first movie a gazillion times on some great screens and, almost without fail, the opening shots of the city on that old one flip flops your stomach over and dazzles with the sheer spectacle. Alas, this movie doesn’t have anything nearly as close as that opening and... yeah... I really felt it.

One thing this film does have which is similar to the original in terms of positive stuff is a cast of very good actors. Ryan Gosling is amazing (as he pretty much always is), Harrison Ford is... well, he’s Harrison Ford (so that means he’s always watchable), Ana de Armas  is pretty great as Gosling’s virtual companion, Sylvia Hoeks as a ‘bad gal’ replicant is actually more like the ‘andies’ in the original Dick novel than Ridley Scott’s movie (in that she’s actually genuinely evil rather than the like the morally superior replicants of the first movie) and Mackenzie Davis looks stunning as a working gal replicant who slinks about and is dressed similarly to Daryl Hannah’s Pris from the first movie. The film does, indeed, try and echo a lot of the beats of the first film and the gait of this particular character is one of the things which actually works as an homage here, I thought.

And then you have two genuinely outstanding performances which I think were worth the entry fee... although they are both fairly small roles. One is Robin Wright as Gosling’s boss. She really knocks it out of the park here playing an equivalent role to Deckard’s old boss Bryant from the first film in terms of inherent species-ism. She was great in Wonder Woman (reviewed here) and she is truly, old school, hard boiled, tough as nails here. Her final scene in the movie opposite Sylvia Hoeks is pretty memorable. And then we have David Bautista playing a truly sympathetic replicant. He shines in, literally, his only scene in the movie which is the opening sequence. I’m beginning to really like what this actor can do and this is the most interesting thing I’ve seen him perform so... yeah, very impressed with his performance here. So those two were the stand out performances for me in this film, it has to be said.

About that opening sequence though?

Well, it’s something I’ve been half wanting to see since 1982 in that it’s a throwback in spirit to an early draft of Blade Runner, as a way of establishing what the central protagonist does in an action sequence. Here it further serves to establish that Ryan Gosling’s character 'K' is also a superhuman replicant... so it proves useful. It also kickstarts the story when certain ‘clues’ are found on the farm residence where Bautista’s character is working. Instead of pulling the retired replicant’s jaw bone out and revealing a serial number as in that old draft screenplay I am referring to from the first film, Gosling just harvests one of the characters eyes as proof of something he already knows from what amounts to a mini, portable Voight Kampff test replacement he carries in his pocket. It’s actually a pretty good scene and plays with a lot of tension... Villeneuve using that ‘old chestnut’ of the boiling pot in the corner as a way of enhancing the suspense of the scene. And it works really well here. Here’s the thing, though... I remember back in the early 1980s, Phiilp K. Dick complaining about that scene when he read it in the script and saying that it was one of the worst things he’d read (or words to that effect), condemning the tone of the film Ridley Scott was about to make (although I understand that, from what footage was available of the original that Dick actually saw back in 1982 before his untimely death, he really liked the final film Ridley was making and praised it wholeheartedly). However, I can’t help but think that, with the reintroduction of a variant on that opening (which I kinda guessed they would be doing here, to be fair), he would be turning in his grave.

One of the things which I’ve always loved about the original is the fact that Deckard is never portrayed as being a replicant... something Scott tried to change on all subsequent versions of the movie. There are lots of reasons why he actually wouldn’t be a replicant (quite apart from the fact that Philip K. Dick’s original novel explores the same issue more implicitly and categorically states that he’s not an android)... for instance the weakness of him against any other replicant in the film (newer model or not). In fact he actually gets rescued from death by two replicants in that first film... admittedly by one who is trying to, at first, kill him at the end of the picture in the case of one of them. I’ve never believed for a moment that Deckard could ever be a replicant, despite Scott continuing to say he is... because the evidence just doesn’t stack up. My biggest worry would be that this film would paint him as a replicant but the writers are quite clever here. We have a scenario where Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace character... a more evil equivalent of Doctor Eldon Tyrell from the first movie... kinda assumes that Deckard is but poses the question to him because he isn’t certain.

And... I still think he isn’t. And here’s why...

Villeneuve has gone on record that the original studio cut is his favourite (like me) but that he’s made this one as a sequel to the Final Cut. I think not, actually. This film seems to me to be a sequel more to the original studio cut than people might, at first, realise. The story involves Gosling’s ‘K’ hunting the child of Deckard and his replicant lover from the first film, Rachel (played by Sean Young back in 1982 and again... wait, I’ll get to that in a minute). The back story here is that Rachel died about five years after 2019, in childbirth, due to a C-section. So there you go, if I got my timelines correct, already the film is sequelling the original ‘drive off in to the sunset’ ending where Rachel is deemed a special replicant with no built in, four year life span. Secondly, if Deckard was a replicant then how could he have impregnated Rachel? One or the other sex would surely be manufactured as impotent? Especially since a lot of them were destined to be ‘pleasure models’ and engage in sexual activity. After all, if you’re making replicants, you surely don’t want your male replicants running around shooting anything other than blanks in the reproduction department, do you? So, yeah, I’m happy to say that, as far as I’m concerned, this movie categorically proves Deckard is not a replicant. Finally. End of discussion and we can finally return to seeing that original ending with the origami unicorn fashioned by Edward James Olmos’ character Gaff (who returns in a brief scene with another origami animal here), as the metaphor for Deckard believing in a myth, for what it was. Thank goodness.

Okay... so Rachel. Just under a year ago I complained about the bad job the computer graphics guys had done with resurrecting Peter Cushing’s character in Rogue One (reviewed here). Something I still  stick by now. Well, we have a similar disappointment here where Niander Wallace has created a new version of Rachel who looks somewhat similar to what she did in the original (presumably voiced by Sean Young? It doesn’t say in the IMDB). Except, like Cushing in Rogue One, the CGI character looks really dodgy to me and if I didn’t know she was a recreation of a younger character, I would still see that something was really ‘off’ about her here. This just doesn’t work for me and although the way the character bows out of the film is quite dramatic, it kind of takes the edge off any emotional response to the character I might have had, I think.

One last thing...

There’s a scene in Dick’s original novel emphasising the lack of empathy the androids have which is where, after finally saving enough money up to afford to buy a real animal (a sheep which Deckard names Groucho), one of the female androids throws it off the roof and kills it. There’s a similar incident going for the same emotional beat here, where Gosling’s virtual companion has deliberately put herself in a situation where she has become... for all intents and purposes... mortal. The lead replicant villainess destroys her in a similar throwaway moment and this, at least, is something which I think Philip K. Dick might have been able to appreciate. So there’s that.

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s new score is trying hard to be like the Vangelis original but it gets way too overbearing a lot of the time. I would have preferred to hear what Jóhann Jóhannson would have done with the movie before he ‘left’ the project. Interestingly, there’s a moment at the end where, from what I can tell, ‘K’ dies from his wounds. As he lets go of his life, we get a new version of the Vangelis Tears In Rain music from the original movie, which underscored the death of Rutger Hauer’s character. However, since the replicants don’t seem to die from injuries too seriously unless shot somewhere vital, it seems to me that you could interpret this moment as 'K' just having a rest for a while. After all, there’s no visual metaphor like the release of the dove from the replicant’s dying hands as in the 1982 version. So it’s interesting that, unless you know the music, you may not realise the character has died at the end, I suspect. However, I could be wrong and placing too much emphasis on the strength of the original score, to be fair. The soundtrack is filled with lots of similar (and in some cases identical), ambient sound effects as the template movie and sometimes, just like the original, you may have a hard time trying to work out where the music ends and the sound design kicks in.

The thing which the story did really well is to actually fool me with the twist reveal of the child of Deckard and Rachel. I was pretty sure who it was all the way through the movie until this moment it’s spelled out and it gives the character in question a new beat, as it were, in that the person is obviously ‘recruiting’ a replicant army by giving memories to various artificial characters. It’s a nice moment in a film which looks great (although not nearly as good as the original) and is full of nice moments such as this. However, for me, even though it’s trying, it just doesn’t feel anything like a sequel to Blade Runner. It doesn’t quite get there... but it does get close on the odd occasion.

One last piece of symmetry with the original, though, was the audience size. When the film came out and flopped back in ‘82, I remember being in a cinema with my parents and there were literally maybe just over ten people in the audience. Well, quite surprisingly, since this new movie has had such high praise, I found myself in the same situation in a 3D screening on opening night, where there were again just over ten people. Which puzzled me and, I can tell you, I saw two couples walk out of the movie at various points. Which I find quite interesting because, whether it lives up to the original or not (and I’m siding with ‘not’), it’s still quite a nice piece of cinema on its own merits.

My friend, who I have been seeing screenings of the original film with since the mid 1980s, was with me for this performance and I think his reaction to the movie pretty much sums it up the best for me. As we both left the cinema, he looked in about as pretty much a state of mixed irritation and dejection with Blade Runner 2049 as I was feeling. He turned to me and said six words... “What was the point of that?” Other than to point out the studio were going for some cash again, I really couldn’t think of a good answer or disagree with his sentiment. For me, I’m afraid, it’s too bad this sequel won’t live... but then again, who does?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Incendies



Genus Envy

Incendies
Canada/France 2010
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Trinity Film Blu Ray Zone B


I remember seeing a lot of enthusiasm for Incendies a few years back from Alex Kittle on Twitter (and she reviewed it here). Because of that I had it on a back burner in my mind to keep an eye out for it for a while but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I spotted a Blu Ray version of the film at a film fair for a only a few quid. So I bought it and then, on the way home, found that it was written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, who gave us such films as Sicario (reviewed here) and Arrival (reviewed here). I like that director’s way of expressing himself visually so I was really looking forward to seeing this one and, for the most part it didn’t disappoint. That being said, it does have one glaring problem, as far as I’m concerned but, for the most part, this is buried within the layers of a nice little movie.

So the things I usually associate from the work of Villeneuve, based on those two other films I’ve seen by him, are found in abundance in Incendies right from the start. That being the stunningly beautiful photography which pitches the characters against gorgeous, often naturally lit landscapes and the languid pacing which rarely rushes through the content of a shot unless a certain kind of tension is required. The film is truly wonderful to look at and, like certain moments in the previous works I mentioned, it’s often a bitter or troubled set of protagonists that are caught in the light of his cinematic spectacle.

After a brief opening showing a group of children with their heads being shaved, which will make more sense towards the closing of the story, the film starts off proper with two twins, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxime Gaudette), who are visiting the notary of the will of their recently deceased mother Nawal (played by Lubna Azabal). However, the conditions of the will means that each of them get a sealed envelope. Jeanne is asked to track down the father she didn’t know was still alive and give him one envelope. Simon is given a sealed envelope for the brother neither of them knew they had. They have to trace their mother’s steps back to a fictional area in the region of Palestine... from what I could make out... and find the story of her life - the atrocities she bore and decisions she made - in order to find the respective recipients of said letters.

Simon is angry and refuses to do this for a while but Jeanne, a 'pure mathematics' teacher, takes up the challenge first... before Simon goes to her aid and completes his part of their combined mission. The film spends most of it’s time in the past, flashbacking constantly to Nawal and setting up a character whose origins she has obviously, in future years in the story, reassigned to someone else. We see her struggle in love, childbirth and the necessity of abandoning said child, flung in protest against political strife and ultimately trying to track down her child before some even more gruelling stuff happens to her... all rendered in such a dreamy, picturesque way which, of course, contrasts to the gritty, raw atmosphere in the same way that the sad lyrics of a song may sometimes be more effective with an upbeat tempo. We see her transformation into The Woman Who Sings and just what that name means to various people caught in the plot.

And every now and then we cut back to Jeanne and, eventually, Simon as they slowly begin to unravel and learn a truth that they really don’t want to hear while, at the same time, learning an appreciation for a mother who they never knew, presumably, had gone through so much incredible pain and adverse conditions in her life. It’s a truly nice piece of work and I can only applaud both Villeneuve and the incredible actors, not to mention composer Grégoire Hetzel whose music, along with some pretty great needle drop songs, really finds the beauty in the story of Nawal and the terrible consequences of her actions.

That being said... okay, glaring problem time. The film has got a big reveal but, as it happens, this director proves once again, just as he did on Arrival, that he’s not very good at keeping the ending out of sight before he’s ready to show and tell. Incendies goes on for just under two and a half hours but, by the time I had gotten to a certain claustrophobic and nightmarish scene with a coach, about 40 minutes into the movie, I had already figured out one important aspect of the father and brother at the centre of the mystery of the movie. And, after a little more information in some of the following scenes, I’d say I pretty much pieced together the whole ending to the movie within the first hour and so... there was a little bit of me waiting around and seeing how long it would take the central characters to catch up with me, it has to be said. So, yeah, not very impressed with that element of the film but, when you have a movie with a limited amount of main characters in it, it doesn’t take long to solve the problem of identity, for sure. Which is a shame.

However, that being said, there are plenty of other rewards contained within the viewing experience, such as when Narwal kind of has a breakdown which eventually leads to her death and you realise that, at that point, not even she knew the full truth of her past. Despite the obviousness of the plot, Villeneuve manages to keep piling the tension on and, although it’s ultimately not nearly as graphic as many thrillers might be, it’s still 'felt' a little more intensely than you might feel in other films. After all, like I implied before, when you have a slow camera taking in all the details of a shot and the paths of the central characters through it, the ugliness which the camera is so intent on recording comes to the foreground and there’s no escaping the grim memoirs of a life well lived.

In all honesty, although the key to the film is quite easy to discover much earlier than you would probably want it to be become apparent, the film sucks you in with its constant flickering between the two time zones in which we see our main characters trying to discover the quickest route to the well hidden branches on their family tree... while we also see the roots of this particular part of their origins slowly beginning to grow and stretch out its dark branches. Ferociously good acting with the camera catching little, shorthand details of their characters, such as the exercise regime of one of the characters at a certain point in her life, helps convince the audience that these are real people who have lived through really bad times, above and beyond what many of us mere mortals are asked to go through during our lifetimes. Incendies is a definite must watch for any passing cinephiles and especially those who are truly enamoured of the beauty one can find in the cinematography of André Turpin and the typically gorgeous, slow burn style of Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic world. Time to track down some more of his movies, I think, before I possibly lose empathy with him on his latest project... an unnecessary sequel to the greatest movie ever made called Blade Runner 2049.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Horrorstör



From Orsk ‘til Dawn

Horrorstör
by Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books 2014
ISBN: 1594745269


I think Horrorstör was another one of those books I found by accident on Twitter. If social media is good for anything it’s getting great recommendations about films and books from like-minded people (also for initiating phone sex or, if you’re really lucky, eventually finding your life partner but, you know, those are other stories). The novel is by a guy called Grady Hendrix and, as is typical with a lot of Quirk books (such as their excellent Dracula’s Heir - An Interactive Mystery - reviewed here) it’s a book that I just couldn’t imagine working in any other format than print.

That’s because... and here’s the novelty value of this novel right here... the book is designed to look like an IKEA style catalogue. In fact, the entirety of the novel takes place in a branch (and surrounding car park) of a big chain store called Orsk which, as the writer explains soon enough, is an ‘all American’ furniture store in ‘Scandinavian drag’ that specialises in being a more cheaply produced version of IKEA but without letting on to the general public that they are really an American based company.

So the design reflects the look of a typical IKEA catalogue, starting off with a fold out plan of the store on the front inside cover (echoing a map in a fantasy novel too, I guess) and the best way to walk through it. This is followed by various ads, coupons and diagrams that you might find in a real store catalogue. There’s also a plan, of sorts, in the fold out back flap but, unless you want a spoiler, I would advise you not to look at that until after you’ve finished the novel. And, of course, everything is expressing the Orsk Ethos and there are website details and bar codes etc., built in as part of the design. Since I am a stickler for such things (anally retentive), I did actually type in the email address for the Orsk website into a browser and I can tell you that it redirects you straight to the Horrorstör page of Quirk books just in case... I dunno... in case you want to buy another copy for someone, I suppose. And, with all the detailed ‘customer experience’ blurb in these sections of the book, you often get the pun which I never got tired of throughout my whole time reading the book... to the effect of, if you have any questions... “just Orsk”.

Then the book settles down to an, admittedly squarer format, standard paperback design but with each chapter starting off with a big splash page diagram of a specific piece of ‘build it yourself’ Orsk furniture. As you progress through the book, the furniture diagrams get more unusually customised to something more horrible as the story progresses from what is essentially, at the start of the novel, a satirical and smart comedy which takes time to ridicule the poe faced seriousness of the IKEA style ‘shopping philosophy’ and various management style buzz words and customer service concepts... before shifting tonally into something which is more out and out horror as the novel continues. And it’s pretty good too, I’d have to say... with a few reservations.

So after these brief design shenanigans, the novel opens properly with that time honoured tradition of comparing both customers and employees alike to zombies. Yeah, the writer plays with this presumably because he embraces the idea, I guess, that if you’re going to have a horror novel set in an area principally built for shopping then you at least have to acknowledge the debt that ‘shopping horror’ owes to the late, great George A. Romero’s classic zombie sequel Dawn Of The Dead. I guess that’s just a given. As it happens, though, anybody expecting a zombie novel needs to shift their expectations because that’s not what we have here. In fact, if I were to compare the novel to anything else in the horror genre, it would be the Silent Hill video games and movies, I think (one of which is reviewed here).

However, whatever you are expecting from it, this book is not just a novelty idea which creates expectations of zombie horror... it’s actually a very well written, pretty funny at times, intelligent piece of satire. In fact, the writing style is sheer Douglas Coupland, if I were going to compare the writer to anybody else... probably unfair but I suspect if you like Coupland’s prose then you’ll probably not take long to get into Hendrix’s use of wordage here.

The little digs and pokes at the IKEA brand and, I suspect, quite a lot of other shops are quite wonderful too...

“Rather than follow everyone and walk right past Basil, Amy decided to go the long way. Defying the intentions of an entire think tank of retail psychologists, she walked backward through Orsk, starting at the rear (the checkout registers) and moving clockwise through its entire digestive tract towards its mouth (the Showroom entrance at the top of the escalator). Orsk was designed to movie customers counter-clockwise, keeping them in a state of retail hypnosis.”

... and I particularly enjoyed the little truths which come out about real life stores like IKEA, which I know  everybody tends to get lost in. I once heard that if you just look backwards, everything makes sense and you can get out of there quicker... something I would recommend to all shoppers who don’t feel the need to be so forward thinking about furniture purchasing. The shop philosophy is quoted often by a ‘model employer’, a manager called Basil and the central heroine, Amy, is always quite healthily cynical of the brainwashing methods of the corporate mindset. I love that the way through the store is named by Orsk “The Bright And Shining Path” and I love that the clunky, build it yourself furniture can only be assembled by customers using their “Orsk Magic Tool” which is incompatible with screws on other brands of furniture. This actually reminded me a lot of what Apple has become these days... a company who has lost site of being in any way customer friendly and changes the various connections and leads to their stuff so they are incompatible with a) anybody else’s products and b) even their own slightly older products in a constant attempt at getting people to constantly upgrade and line Apple’s pockets with the usual IT world advances, often known more technically as... “money for old rope”.

I especially liked how, in the later passages of the book where the easy comedy of the first half has given way to a more brutal horror, Amy exploits a known design flaw in one of the shoddier cabinets made by Orsk to escape certain death. It’s not, however, all just satire of shopping... Hendrix also has little digs at a few other things, one of them being those stupid reality TV shows about ghost hunters. Two of the characters are trying to catch paranormal activity in the store after hours and their critique of the shows that do this kind of thing already is quite ‘on the nose’ in some ways. And I also love the circular nature of the writer’s observations when two of the characters get lost in the store and, rather than be just because the Orsk stores are designed like IKEA, it’s actually because a paranormal phenomena has manifested itself to make them lose their way but, for a while, they just assume it’s the inscrutable nature of The Bright And Shining Path that is leading them astray.

I said I had a couple of reservations and they are as follows.

Okay, so number one is a really weird grammatical thing where the writer uses the word apprehend in a passage in the second half of the book rather than the word comprehend, which is what I think he meant when you read the sentence back over. That one really grated because I tend to expect commercially published novels to be properly proof read (which, alas, most of them aren’t, these days).

The other slight problem I have is the tonal shift. The characters are such nicely drawn, comical characters that when the horror starts, it kinda doesn’t live up to the marvellous comedy writing in the first part of the book. Although it’s not always overtly gory, the book does have its moments and the brutal torture of some of the characters you are following seems a bit unnecessarily grim at times. However, even when the writer is throwing all this horrible stuff at the reader, the characters always manage to stay true to themselves (except when experiencing certain trance states of mind, which I guess is pretty much acceptable). So although some of the horror content like body constriction and eye gouging is pretty intense, the central protagonist, Amy, still manages to carry the story through on the weight of her fictional shoulders and, by the end of the book, she stays true to herself.

Other than these slight niggling problems, though, Horrorstör is a really nice piece of writing and I had a really good time with it. I especially liked the Epilogue where the story picks up a number of months later. The characters never seem to quite do what you think they’re going to do in this and the last little part of the narrative is a really nice touch. Ultimately, I’m not sure how regular readers of ‘horror fiction’ would do with this but I’m sure readers of standard, contemporary writers would enjoy this. One of the more enjoyable pieces of fiction I’ve read over the last few years and a solid, oak panelled recommendation from me.