Saturday, 31 December 2016
Top 20 Movies of 2016
Okay... so here we go with the annual, scary to put together list of the best movies of the year. Despite popular opinion, I don’t think it’s been a bad year for movies and my cinema visits seemed a little more frequent than usual as a result. Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the year is the fact that we had both a new Star Trek and a new Star Wars movie and neither of them were good enough to make it into my list. And nobody is more upset about that than me, I reckon. Still, without further ado, here’s my list for this year in reverse order. Hope you like...
20. Mermaid (aka Mei Ren Yu) 3D
Directed by Stephen Chow, this large budget comedy telling a charmingly small moral fable is more hit than miss and it’s one of the more unusual movies to be released at British cinemas this year. My full review can be found here...
19. Green Room
This taut, gritty and harrowing drama about a bunch of musicians trapped in a nightclub is made even more poignant in light of the death of one of its leading actors, Anton Yelchin (who played Pavel Chekhov in the last three Star Trek movies). Another long term Star Trek stalwart, Patrick Stewart, appears here in a role in which he manages to be absolutely downright villanous. Not a movie I could sit through again but that’s no reason not to proclaim it one of the best of 2016. My review is here.
18. The Nice Guys
Funky, 1970s set action thriller/comedy written and directed by one of the great screenplay writers in Hollywood, Shane Black. The music by John Ottman and David Buckley alone is worth looking at this one for. My review here.
17. Doctor Strange
The second best of the many superhero movies released this year sees Benedict Cumberbatch breath life into the quirky, psychedelic 1960s Marvel character that the movie is based on. He’s well supported by the always watchable Tilda Swinton and the always listenable Michael Giacchino. My review can be found here...
16. Train To Busan
In a year perhaps less likely than some, we have three first class zombie movies coming along at once. The first of my picks in this category which make it into my list is the darling of the FrightFest, Train To Busan... which is about as good a ‘zombies on a train’ movie as you’re likely to see. My review can be unearthed here.
15. Women Who Kill
This witty and acerbic comedy with an edge is all about two ex-lovers who put out a radio show about their favourite female serial killers and the depths their obsession with these kinds of people takes one of them. I really hope that this gets some kind of Blu Ray or DVD release over here because I think more people should know about this one than they do. My review can be found here...
14. Respectable - The Mary Millington Story
Simon Sheridan’s documentary about the life and tragic death of Britains most famous porn star was more or less, apart from the odd one off showing, a straight to DVD movie over here. This is a shame because it well deserved a proper cinema release, as far as I’m concerned. My review of this one is here.
13. Sadako VS Kayako
This is what happens when a company jokes about making a movie combining the main monsters from their Ring and The Grudge franchises and the Japanese public buy into this bizarre idea so much that it’s decided to make the movie for real, after all. This is a cheesy but very fun take on the two franchises all rolled up into one outrageous confection. I just hope it can get some distribution either here or in the US sometime soon. My review here.
What can you say about Jim Jarmusch? Still very much an independent spirit and still churning out non-commercial films which he somehow manages to get financed. One of the great artists of American cinema and this is another movie that demonstrates why. My review of this one can be found here.
11. The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case
Although this is not the masterpiece that the original The Conjuring was, this movie still has a certain charm to it... not least in the personalities of the two, true life protagonists and the actors who bring them to life. This one is set not too far from where I live so I was really chomping at the bit to see this (especially since the first movie is so wonderful). This one manages to link the famous tale of the Enfield poltergeist to the events surrounding The Amityville Horror... which I don’t believe for a second but it’s a nice little movie. My review is here...
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This claustrophobic tale of a serial killer and two potential victims under lock down dovetails into the same cinematic universe as the original Cloverfield... both as the thing the writer uses to set up the scenario of the main movie with and then, big time, for the last quarter of an hour or so of the story. This one is all about the performances and the way the director shoots the small environment in which the majority of the tale takes place. My review is right here...
9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Wasn’t expecting this potentially one joke wonder of a novel (which I’ve not read) to be the basis of such a strong movie but this one is a real joy to watch. It’s smart and it has a lot of fun with the parallel world created by the cast and crew. Well worth a look and the second of this year’s three unexpected zombie entries on the list. My review here.
8. Zoology (ala Zoologiya)
It’s to be seen as to whether this Russian/French/German production about a woman who grows a tail and loses her inhibitions art the same time will get a proper release in English speaking countries but, if it does come out next year and you get the opportunity to see it... just go. My review is here...
Again, true this story about the investigative efforts of a small team of journalists is probably not something I could watch that often... but it is a quality production to rival some of the greats of that genre such as All The President’s Men. It would be tempting to overplay the subject matter and make it a much more syrupy production than is necessary but, luckily, the writer and director steer clear of going down that route. My review is here.
Probably the most popular superhero movie made in a long time, Deadpool, like the comic it’s based on, breaks the fourth wall continuously and still manages to let the audience feel comfortable with it dropping itself into the main cinematic X-Men timelines (which, to be fair, are so screwed up and out of any serious continuity with each other that it hardly matters at this point). My review of this gem of a masked vigilante movie can be found here.
5. I, Daniel Blake
This completely depressing and genuinely moving film is, if anything, a little more glossy and glam in its portrayal of the kinds of poverty and injustice I have seen going on in this country. That being said, this one really drives all its points home and, if the ending is just a little bit of a cliché, you can only forgive it that indulgence in the light of the kind of everyday tragedies it’s talking about. My review of this one is here.
4. The VVitch
This movie had the most bizarre and abusive audience reaction I’ve ever seen... with people laughing and shouting back at the screen or leaving in droves throughout. And my understanding is that this audience interaction with the film was far from an isolated incident. Either way, I kinda loved the slow burn and the very rewarding ending to the movie and I think this one will get the odd revisit by me over the years to come. Here’s my review.
3. Hail, Caesar!
I don’t know why this one seemed to fail with audiences, from what I can gather, but I think this is one of The Coen Brother’s greatest movies... right up there with The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s absolutely wonderful for people who are into the history of American cinema and... well if you’re reading this blog then that must include you, right? My review of this gem is here.
Alice Lowe wrote, starred in and directed this black comedy about a woman driven to serial murder on the instructions of her unborn child while she was, herself, pregnant. Which is surely no mean feat. It’s a bit of a masterpiece and I really hope this gets a proper cinema and home video release (so I can repeat watch the thing) sometime very soon. My review is here.
1. The Girl With All The Gifts
And so, against all the odds, a low budget zombie movie takes my top spot of the films of the year. This isn’t just any zombie movie, however. It’s British made and it manages to be genuinely suspenseful for what is, essentially, a post-apocalyptic road movie. It also manages to have an unexpected story arc to fulfil before the movie is done with and it honestly feels like what would have happened if somebody had asked the late British science fiction writer John Wyndham to have a crack at writing a zombie novel. There’s a little more to this evocative concoction than you may, at first, suspect or realise. My review of this gift of a movie is here.
And that’s me done with this for another year. In a couple of weeks, when I’ve finished evaluating the contenders, I’ll post my favourite movie score releases of the year. Some of these may overlap with this list and... well... I suspect some of them really won’t. So maybe come back and have a read of that at some point. In the meantime, it’s still not quite too late to enter my annual, cryptic movie quiz (just click here) and there’ll be some more reviews coming soon.
Wednesday, 28 December 2016
The Legend of Tarzan
Directed by David Yates
Warner Bros Blu Ray Zone B
Due to a coincidental turn of events, both the leading ladies in my life received a copy of The Legend of Tarzan as part of their Christmas haul this year. Firstly, I remembered my sexy lady friend had expressed an interest in seeing the movie at the time of its release but didn’t get an opportunity to see it... so I picked a copy up for her. Then, by a strange twist of fate, a few weeks later my mother also expressed an interest in seeing it... so she got one too (what is it with Tarzan and the ladies?).
Now, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this one myself. I had managed to, almost by accident, avoid it when it was released into cinemas earlier in the year and I didn’t think that I would have to bother to catch up to it. Alas, it was the first movie my mother wanted to watch on Boxing Day this year so, alas, I had to sit through it after all. Which ultimately, it turns out, was not actually a bad thing.
I’m not the biggest fan of Tarzan, it has to be said. Sure I used to watch the Ron Ely, Lex Barker, Jock Mahony and Gordon Scott versions of the character when I was a young ‘un. My favourite of all of them in my early years was, of course, the Johnny Weissmuller series of movies... there’s no topping those ones. I never got to see Buster Crabbe play the role but, you know, that one’s in the ‘to watch’ pile for sometime in the future. Edgar Rice Burroughs was never about Tarzan for me, though... he was all about John Carter of Mars, as far as I was concerned. The Tarzan stories were just a curiosity... although, like a lot of kids my age, I had the Mego action figure with the curious skin coloured costume made to look like skin slipped over the already skin coloured action figure plastic... never could figure that out.
So, yeah, I wasn’t exactly fussed about seeing this but I quite like Alexander Skarsgård as an actor... maybe not as much as his father but, heck, he’s a pretty good performer in my book and the agenda for this movie, it has to be said, seems to be one of getting a load of great performers together to get it all to work. So, supporting Skarsgård we have Margot Robbie, the always brilliant Samuel L. Jackson (who seems a bit of an anachronism in terms of his status in the time in which this movie is set... but I’m no expert so I might be wrong on that) and the often outstanding Christoph Waltz as the villain of the piece.
Now one of the things I was most afraid of when sitting down to watch the movie is that it would be yet another interminable ‘origins of the Lord of the Jungle’ movie but, as it happens, the writers wisely jettison the lengthy build up to the creation of Tarzan and go for a more interesting plot line while still, as it happens, trying to have their cake and eat it in terms of the origins department. That is to say, the film is set many years after Tarzan was ‘himself’ and he is now firmly enshrined in his Lord Greystoke personality... until a combination of the villain orchestrating his return to the jungle combined with Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘good guy on a mission to free the slaves’ character pushing from the other side of the equation forces Tarzan to return to his roots. Needless to say, things go pear shaped quickly and we have a jungle romp where the villain is trying to manipulate Tarzan towards his death for personal gain while taking Jane as a hostage.
Now, the origin of Tarzan is still included in the film but the writers have it as a slowly developing series of flashbacks inserted into the main narrative at regularly paced intervals. It’s not needlessly long and it also serves to inform the relationship between the main lead and his romantic interest via effective cinematic shorthand so... it not only backs up the main character but it’s also used to enrich the character arc and, above all, doesn’t outstay its welcome. I found this a much better solution to the usual ‘origins’ problems modern film-makers seem to want to needlessly lumber themselves with so... the movie gets a big tick with me for that.
The Legend Of Tarzan is nicely shot with some wonderful use of three (at least three) different colour palettes... with the scenes in London all being lit with a steely blue bent to show the coldly neutral prison that the main characters' lives have, almost without them realising it, become. These are offset with some yellowish, not quite sepia but heading to that kind of overt colour coding, flashback scenes and, as I was expecting... the full monty in terms of all the colours of the rainbow when we get to the contemporary (to the characters) jungle scenes. So the people behind the camera really thought about this one in an intelligent fashion and it really shows. The film is, in some ways, a joy to watch and I was much taken with both the visuals and, as I intimated earlier, the performances.
Where the film goes wrong is in some of the dialogue. A lot of it is good but, alas, I still think Christoph Waltz is not having good enough dialogue written for him. I’ve not seen him do anything to equal the lines he’s given in the Quentin Tarantino movies he’s starred in and, while Tarantino is a pretty good writer, I don’t think this is because he’s the only one able to write for Waltz. I just think the approach to his personality is not hitting the mark with a lot of his Hollywood productions, it has to be said. I mean, the dialogue they gave him in those terrible Clash Of The Clans adverts about a year ago was pretty good and a darn site better than a lot of the US made movies he’s been in... so I don’t think it should be this hard to get a screenwriter who understands the kind of material that Waltz absolutely excels at. And that’s really not knocking Waltz... he still does a phenomenal job here but... I just felt his scenes could have done with a lot more dialogue to play around with than what he gets here.
Still, that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise cool movie and, although I was less taken with Rupert Gregson-Williams' completely appropriate but perhaps overly clichéd score to the movie, I overall had a good time with this and some of the dialogue was, indeed, excellent. The chemistry between Alexander Skarsgård and Samuel L. Jackson, for example, really works well and they should maybe put the two in more films together, methinks.
And that’s all I got to say about that one. Not the best Tarzan movie I’ve seen but a lot better than most of the attempts made in, maybe, the last 30 years or so by a long chalk. If you like the Tarzan character then this is an enjoyable, if empty, take on the character and you should find yourself suitably entertained by a fine action film. It’s never going to get anywhere near my 2016 top ten list but it’s certainly not the film I was expecting it to be. So The Legend Of Tarzan is well worth a look if you have some free time on your hands, I reckon.
Monday, 26 December 2016
Doctor Who -
The Return of Doctor Mysterio
Airdate: 25th December 2016
Well this is interesting.
Despite defending the odd preview and trailer for this episode a few weeks back... I seemed to be the only person I knew comfortable the idea of a superhero in Doctor Who (which is not unprecedented... remember the Patrick Troughton story The Mind Robber?). Everybody I know, pretty much, who ventured an opinion on the potential of this story said it was a rubbish idea. And, now the episode has actually aired, I’ve seen a few people on the internet so far, I’m sure there will be more, who thought the episode one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever.
And what’s even more interesting than that... to me at least... is not the fact that, once again, I seem destined to be in a minority. I’m well used to that. What’s interesting is that the episode, for me and, as it happens, for all the family members I watched it with, is one of the best in recent memory. Even topping the 2015 series in which, I think, Peter Capaldi and the team writing for him really came into their own and cracked the formula for his Doctor, after a fairly shaky start.
I’d like to highlight some of the bad things to be found in this episode but, honestly, I couldn’t think of any. It was all pitch perfect. I prefer show runner Stephen Moffat as a writer rather than head honcho, as my history of Doctor Who reviews over the last six years shows.... but when he manages to pull things off right he really does some wonderful work. This story was almost as good as his Doctor Who masterpiece story Blink and here’s why...
We all knew from the marketing that this show had a superhero bent to the plot and, low and behold, it starts off with the camera panning and entering the panel of a comic book. And, what do you know... the colour schemes in this episode are all very simplistic and beautifully reminiscent of the kind of four colour concoctions loved by all admirers of the form, whether they be kids or... you know... 48 year old, bigger kids like myself.
And the performances in this one are all brilliant. Just going to quickly shout that out here and say that the leads other than Capaldi (but obviously including him), especially Justin Chatwin as Ghost and his mild mannered alter ego... the appropriately alliterative Grant Gordon... Charity Wakefield as Lucy Fletcher (the Lois Lane to Grant’s Clark Kent) and Matt Lucas as Nardole... his head restored to his body after last year’s Christmas special The Husbands of River Song (reviewed here), did a lovely job. They were all great but, no surprises here, it’s the dialogue and story structure that wins out in this one.
We start off with The Doctor befriending and accidentally creating the superhero character featuring in this episode and, at the same time, we also find out right from the outset that the superhero of the title, Doctor Mysterio, is in fact, The Doctor. Something which I’m sure we’d all figured out when the title of the episode was first revealed a month or two ago but, you know, there’s always room for error on second guessing what Moffat is going to do with the story line.
From here we get a wonderful narrative which crosscuts between the current plot of an invasion of living brains scooping out human brains before replacing them with themselves and The Doctor visiting Grant at various stages of his life as the realisation dawns that he has been accidentally ‘gifted’ with his superpowers for the rest of his life. Everything is perfect and there are some wonderful reveals here alongside a truly super satire on the way comic books are written and the way the clichés of the format can be celebrated while still being used to help support the very DNA of the writing which is doing so.
There’s some great stuff near the start with The Doctor talking to the young boy version of Grant about Superman and Spiderman that had me almost laughing out loud. And, of course, throughout the show, which also took some great moments from the 1978 Richard Donner movie Superman The Movie as a template before gently playing with them, we have the eternal problem of the absolute travesty of Superman’s biggest disguise, a pair of glasses, being highlighted and then used as a running gag throughout the story. This was great stuff and not subtly done... if it had been more subtle then it probably wouldn’t have been quite so entertaining, to be honest.
We also had another shining score from composer Murray Gold and, all I can say about his wonderful music in this is... isn’t it about time Silva Screen records put out the soundtrack to the 2015 season already, so we can get another step closer to owning the score to this one? Surely it must be time by now?
There’s not really much else I can say about this one. Like I said before, if I could find something to complain about I would but... it was just so entertaining. Something I didn’t expect to be writing today. It even had a very melancholic passage where we realise that the Peter Capaldi version of The Doctor’s timeline has now gone past the point that we first met River. That is to say, he’s now definitely sent River Song back to die, when she personally met The Doctor for the last time (but The Doctor’s first time), in the library in the David Tennant era story in which Moffat first introduced her character. It’s a bitter sweet moment of realisation and both Capaldi and, surprisingly, Lucas, play this really well. Although, I still remember River’s ‘post-death’ words to Matt Smith in one of his last episodes so, you know... never say never.
And that’s that.
We had a trailer for the next series which, in all honesty, didn’t exactly grab me but I’m certainly looking forward to this starting sometime next year. Until then... I may have some old episodes coming up for review sometime soon so, if you like Doctor Who, be sure to check out this blog as I revisit some of the older incarnations of The Doctor once again. And if you missed this one, be sure to catch up with it. It’s one of the best things that’s aired on TV this year.
Saturday, 24 December 2016
Well it’s that time of year when I get to thank you all for reading and to wish you a Merry Christmas.
It’s actually been a pretty good year for me on many fronts... my personal life is something I’m much happier with and, for the first time in a few decades, work has been pretty good for the last few months too. So I have a lot to be thankful for this year.
This is the bit where I tell you what the future has in store for NUTS4R2 and, it has to be said, I always get it completely wrong.
Well I can, at least, safely predict the very near future on this blog. In a day or two my review of the new Doctor Who Christmas Special should be published here... unless something absolutely awful happens to me when I should be watching it. This has been a full year without the regular programme on air but there will be a new series starting next year (sometime in April is my best guess) and we have had the spin off sister show, Class, to keep us going (yeah, there will be a review of the first, hopefully not the last, series of that going up soon).
I also have to get the inevitable Best Movies of 2016 list up there soonest. Just got one more to watch and one other to rewatch before that list is fully finalised but I hope to have it up by New Years Eve. As usual, my Best Soundtracks end of year list will not happen until the second week or so of January... I have to wait until after my birthday before I can draw a conclusive picture of those as stand alone listens.
As for the rest of the year on this blog... well, I shall try and predict it but I usually get it wrong...
Hoping to get a lot of franchises one here... so some more Zatoichi movies, some more Sleepy Eyes of Death movies, finishing off The Saint movies, finishing off the Charlie Chan movies, a possible rewatch for the Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood movies... and likewise for the Indiana Jones, A L I E N, Batman, The Falcon, Stray Cat Rock, Superman and Beverly Hills Cop films. Plus... more gialli, more horror, more exploitation, some blaxploitation and some very strange superhero movies. Plus... I should probably get around to watching films like James Batman (where James Bond and Batman team up... no, I’m not making this up), Brazilian Star Wars and Wolf Devil Woman. Many more titles like these folks... I just have to get the time to catch up on this stuff.
And, of course, the inevitable slew of new cinema releases. People have been saying that 2016 has been an incredibly bad year for film. I’m not so sure... I feel like a lot of the DVDs and Blu Rays I wanted to explore had to be overlooked this year because there were so many interesting releases at the cinema. Will 2017 be the same? We shall all have to wait and see, I guess.
One thing’s for sure though... I’m very grateful for each and every one of you who comes on here to read my words once in a while, even if it’s only very occasionally. So thanks so much for your time and support and have a very Merry Christmas from me. And, you know... a very Happy New Year.
Tuesday, 20 December 2016
The Annual Quiz
So here we are again.
Time for another Cryptic Movie Quiz for the Christmas period.
If you look at the grid above you’ll see spaces for 18 movie titles running horizontally and below are the cryptic clues to help you work out what these non-Christmas movie titles are (I'm sorry if it looks a bit blurry but the new Photoshop is absolute rubbish). To help you out, I’ve filled in a line of letters downwards spelling out EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY... so you have a letter in its correct position for each of the titles. Click on the grid to see a larger version of it.
Once again... and depending on my finances after Christmas... I’ll probably award a small, strange or possibly customised prize (if I know you from Twitter) to the person with the most correct answers.
Email your answers to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and you have until the end of New Year’s Day (January 1st 2016) to get your entries in. A few days after that, I’ll stick up the name of the winner (or winners, if it’s a tie), along with all the answers, here on my blog.
By way of an example, here’s a question from last year’s quiz, followed by the answer.
One thousand quid for rooms to rent for that annoying, enlightened soul. 21 letters.
One thousand pounds is also known as "a grand" in the UK. An enlightened soul could be Buddha but, if he's annoying, then he could be a bit of a Pest. If he's renting a room then it could well be in a hotel. Hence we have The Grand Budapest Hotel.
If you keep checking back at the comments section, I may put the odd clue on every now and again to help you out.
Full marks are rarely scored so if you’re feeling a bit stuck, there’s still everything to play for. Send me what you've got anyway.
Hope you enjoy playing and, above all, have fun.
1. A less egotistical, traditionally English adopted drink behaving much more like a flaming headed Johnny! (13 letters)
2. Placed upon an Apple branded, bleeting sheep. (7 letters)
3. Unusual, backwards fish on a rocky pinnacle. (13 letters)
4. Drifting, frozen plasma is a tramp. (13 letters)
5. Whether it’s this Linda or that Linda, it should make an interesting activity. (20 letters)
6. A couple of bonfire night dummies from a city in France. (11 letters)
7. None scrambled at the demonstration of the fourteenth letter of the alphabet. (12 letters)
8. A loose Emergency Room. (7 letters)
9. An unhappy and confused oak is speaking in poetry. A spiritual entity is proceeding positively but in reverse. (14 letters)
10. Rearrange the angle slightly and reshuffle the end of the earth. (10 letters)
11. That young lady stuck between Sunday and Tuesday. (17 letters)
12. Diminuitively speaking James, it’s a greeting. (7 letters)
13. Get in a couple of big fights just above the thigh. You can put this example of typographic spacing in a container if you are family. (18 letters)
14. See the insect and then send a letter to one. (11 letters)
15. To derive, by reasoning, in the negative. (7 letters)
16. A single stalk of wheat gets very angry while wearing a couple of French hats. (16 letters)
17. Great French fiction writer finds himself in a muddle. (5 letters)
18. Unlock to gain access on the Monday and the man is royalty. (13 letters)
Sunday, 18 December 2016
Rogue One’s Run
Rogue One - A Star Wars Tale
2016 USA Directed by Gareth Edwards
UK cinema release print.
Warning: There’s a whole galaxy load of spoilers in this review so probably don’t read this until you’ve seen the movie.
First up, before I pull this movie apart a little, I’d like to ask you all to take this review with a pinch of salt. The reasons for this are as follows...
1). I was pretty ill when I made the journey into London to see this film. I traditionally always see my first viewing of a Star Wars movie in London’s West End (since the end of 1977 at the age of nine) and so I like to make sure I see each subsequent one in a similar venue (if not the same). If it hadn’t been that the cinema in question, the ODEON Leicester Square, had charged me an exorbitant £24 for the single ticket, I wouldn’t have braved it into the nation’s capital city to see it... I was that ill. This could have affected my viewing of it somewhat.
2). There have been a few films in my life where I didn’t get the brilliance of them until I watched them a second time. These have included The Mummy Returns, Avengers Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) and, very recently, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’m guessing this was because there was just too much information for me to process the first time around and so, on subsequent viewings, I was able to appreciate the experience much better. So bear in mind that, although I love The Force Awakens now, I initially came out of my first screening totally depressed with it. So... bearing in mind I didn’t hate Rogue One nearly as much as I did The Force Awakens, I’m kinda hoping this troubling movie will grow on me on any subsequent viewings. That being said, I’m not planning on rushing back to see this one anytime soon and that’s all the wriggle room I’m going to give this movie.
Okay, so Rogue One starts off, as has been stated by many people, quite jarringly. There’s no opening title crawl after the familiar “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” (don’t worry Lucasfilm & Disney, I’ve grammatically corrected the number of dots on the end of the statement for you) which is a bad move, no opening rendition of the Luke’s Theme Star Wars fanfare (another dumb move) but, to be honest, the most jarring thing is not in the visuals but in the music here because, quite frankly, the first shot of the film itself is not inconsistent with the kind of shot you would normally get after a standard title crawl. The difference is purely Michael Giacchino’s opening sting which is deliberately heavy handed, for some reason. Think about the openings of the three Insidious movies (reviewed here, here and here) for a comparison. Giacchino does a similar thing here, albeit less atonal and more in keeping with the musical vocabulary of John Williams.
After this we get a story about how the Death Star plans were recovered to needlessly but, interestingly, make the plot device in the original Star Wars movie (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope) work. And, although it’s, for the most part, immersed in something which is similar to the known Star Wars universe, it doesn’t really feel much like a Star Wars movie, to be sure.
One of the many things which make it very different is the goody-goody moral attitude of the Rebel Alliance as portrayed in all the earlier movies. In this film you have one of the good guys shooting an informant in the back under the guise of calming him down and the same character keeping a hidden agenda from his comrades in arms for a good deal of the movie. So these are the dark edges of a war which, while absolutely necessary in real life, I would imagine, to being able to survive a war... have not been overtly on show in a Star Wars movie before, when it comes to the good guys doing bad things (I’m discounting Anakin Skywalker killing all those kiddies in Revenge of the Sith because he was already established as a villain by that point).
Now one of the bad things which threw me in this movie is that it tries so hard to be a separate channel, so to speak, from the regular Star Wars movies, that it seems somewhat contradictive when it does it while making so many references to the originals. Like The Force Awakens, it’s peppered with both sound effects, sound samples and lines of dialogue culled form the Star Wars stories so far. And to compound that further, it has a lot, really a lot, of characters from the original movies popping up in this movie. Like the Walrus Man guy and his surly friend in a moment that looked to me, pretty much, like the whole scene and dialogue was spliced into a new background in a way that almost makes the scene in A New Hope redundant if you happen to watch this one first.
Perhaps the most problematic thing is the return of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing has been dead for decades now but he’s been digitally resurrected using old footage, re-voicing and CGI twaddle. Unfortunately, he looks just like a bloody cartoon throughout the whole thing and I felt like I was watching a load of cut scenes from an old Playstation video game for a lot of the movie. I think it was a mistake to bring his character back into it this much in this movie, where he seems to have a much bigger role than he did in the original. Now, a friend of mine disagreed with me in the pub about this yesterday and he said the CGI work on Cushing was phenomenal. However, he then went on to say words to the effect that, “... obviously, you could tell it was computer generated but...” and there is the problem in a nutshell. So much CGI in many movies is totally invisible but, when the effects guys get ambitious, they usually ruin it. The fact that you can detect it, even if you didn’t know he was a digitally resurrected character, is absolutely rubbish and, as far as I’m concerned, not worth having in the first place. This monstrosity reminded me a lot of the CGI Yoda in the prequel trilogy, who also looked unrealistic and cartoon like. This is just awful and I think maybe Cushing’s character should have made a minimal appearance at best. When Princess Leia appears at the end of Rogue One, uttering one word, that was at least a bit more minimal and realistic, I thought. A much better use of the technology, as far as I’m concerned. Tarkin just pops you right out of the experience whenever he’s on which was not a good thing.
Another not so good thing is the prison transport truck which is carrying female lead Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. As it trundles along on its wheels you just sit there all popped out of the movie again and go “What the f***? Wheels?” Even the primitive Gungans, over thirty years prior to when this movie is set, had hover technology just like “everything else in the Star Wars universe” asides from, obviously, the AT AT and AT ST Walkers. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
Okay, now the movie does something interesting in that we get a character in it who is a ‘Guardian of the Whills”. Now The Journal of the Whills is one of the first bits of Star Wars lore I can remember. It was in the original novelisation of the first movie and it referenced the tale as being a recorded set of facts from these fictional journals. However, although it’s been around in the public conscience since 1977, the Whills have never been overtly referenced in the actual movies themselves, that I can recall. So here we have Donnie Yen playing a Whill Guardian called Chirrut Îmwe except...
Well, there’s no easy way to say this... he’s basically playing Zatoichi.
Now regular readers of my blog will know of my love of the long running Blind Swordsman character Zatoichi and, to be fair, it’s easily the template for this character and the way Yen plays it almost directly references Shintarô Katsu’s classic take on the character. Now, don’t get me wrong... I loved Yen’s performance here and I would be really surprised if the Japanese don’t offer him a new series of Zatoichi movies based on his performance but... it does seem like his character has just been grafted onto the movie with no rhyme or reason other than they wanted a cool, Zatoichi-like figure. Yes, I know the Star Wars movies are nothing if not a postmodernistic mish mash of various influences from 1930s Flash Gordon serials, Errol Flynn movies and Kurosawa chambera but still, this seems just a little bit too blatant in its ‘borrowing’... even for a Star Wars movie. He’s a cool character though so... whatever.
Darth Vader’s rampage aboard Princess Leia’s ship at the end of the movie makes no sense. Here he is all out using the force and his lightsabre to take out all the rebels, throwing them around with the power of the dark side like rag dolls... but in the following film, the original A New Hope, he resorts to using his hands to strangle a single rebel? Really? If he was still this powerful... doesn’t he come off as a little sedate in the original movies? Hmm... not going to say too much about that.
I’ve read a lot of bizarre criticisms that this is a movie with a strong female lead who dominates the plot. Felicity Jones character is the main character but I wouldn’t say she dominates the film and it really feels like a more ensemble piece, just like the original. So no worries on that front... all the actors and actresses (who aren’t digitally resurrected) do a good job here. I especially liked Alan Tudyk (Wash from Serenity and the Firefly TV show) as K-2SO. He’s pretty good and gets probably the best lines of throwaway dialogue in the entire movie.
It’s funny because people say it drags for the first half an hour and then gets going. I found it dragged the whole time and didn’t get going at all. Although I could see there was a lot of action on screen, it somehow felt really light on the action front to me and I think this was because the music wasn’t carrying me along in the action cues like it should have... which brings me to my main grouch about the movie... the musical score.
Now don’t get me wrong... I love Michael Giacchino and I love this score in some ways. I’m pretty sure when I put the CD on it will be a cool stand alone listen. In terms of what it does for this movie... well all I can say is that I wish Alexandre Desplat had stayed with the project.
Giacchino does some amazing stuff here in echoing John Williams orchestrational style from the first movie (possibly even more subtly than Williams did in his amazingly cool score for The Force Awakens) but what it triumphs in with the technical structure and texture of the sound it loses in its lack of rich melody. So it's like he covered the subtle details of how the scores work while simultaneously missing the broad strokes. Williams’ themes are barely referenced apart from a couple of appearances of The Imperial March (which is wrong because it should have really been pushing the original Death Star theme because The Imperial March doesn’t appear in A New Hope) and a couple of other moments, including Luke’s Theme in the end credits.
Now, I need some melodic, lietmotif hooks to keep me inside the Star Wars experience. This movie appeared not to have any. It’s fine if they want to lose the Williams themes in favour of strong, new thematic material (just like Williams did to a certain extent in The Force Awakens)... but you need to replace them with something consistently recognisable to keep the interest going. In Return Of The Jedi, by the time of the forest battle on Endor, you already know the Ewoks theme because Williams keeps referencing it... so the action music which uses it is something you can tap your toes to as you watch the happy carnage. Here... we have nothing strong that I could latch onto. Yeah... I know this composer only had four weeks to do it and I think he’s done a fantastic job here... I’d be surprised if this is his last Star Wars project. This one just didn’t serve its purpose, as I see it, in this movie. Yes, it’s very clever and uses the grammar of Williams’ scores but... I stayed on throughout the end titles, as I do with all the Star Wars movies, to try and get a handle on the themes and I still had a hard time hearing the melodies. Maybe it was because I was so ill but... maybe not.
And that’s as far as I’m going in this review, I think. I am really hoping that I’ll regret posting such a negative review when I get to see this film again... I’m hoping I get much more out of it on subsequent viewings. At the moment though... yeah, I can’t quite see this as a Star Wars movie... especially when there are some terrible ‘deus ex machina’ moments in it and what looks like a tagged on ending scene for two characters who should have been dead already. there’s some bad stuff in this movie and I was feeling the ‘StarWarsiness’ of any of it by the time the film finished, for sure. However... I’m willing to give it another try so I'll see how it goes next time... I guess.
Star Wars at NUTS4R2
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones
Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith
Episode 4: A New Hope
Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi
Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Episode 8: The Last Jedi
Thursday, 15 December 2016
Directed by Richard Donner
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B
It’s funny... these days I think of Bill Murray as one of the most solid, reliable actors working in Hollywood with a incredible output of quality movies to his name over the last decade or more of his career... including such amazing performances in films like Groundhog Day, Lost In Translation, Broken Flowers, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Monuments Men... to name but a few. However, back in the late 1970s to mid 1980s, I really didn’t think a lot of him at all, to be honest. I’d seen him in stuff like Stripes and Caddyshack and, really, I just couldn’t get the hang of him.
Even the one big film to my taste that he was in at the time, which I did kinda half enjoy, the original Ghostbusters (the first pop song I’d ever bought because I was always more interested in movie scores than songs), didn’t elevate him much in my eyes. It was an okay film... Murray was okay in it and I really had no idea that one day he would, in my humble opinion, come into his own and quietly become one of the most interesting acting talents in Hollywoodland.
My first inkling that Murray really had more going for him was when I first saw Scrooged. I can’t imagine trekking out to my cinema to see this at the time but I might have done because I seem to remember my cousin recommending it to me at one point. Either way, this is probably the movie where I began to realise that Murray’s understated acting style was, in fact, an indication of a talent I hadn’t realised that was there so, even though I understand that he really didn’t get on with the director on this movie... I think this is the one where he starts to quietly shine in the background.
I guess we can blame Charles Dickens for the raw cynicism of his source novel, A Christmas Carol, to give a direction for TV programming executive Frank Cross, Bill Murray’s version of Scrooge, in this modern update. Murry starts off as a villain and goes through the ghosts, as in the original story, until he reaches his final destination of redeemed believer in the spirit of Christmas. And, it’s not a bad film. I liked it better back in the 1980s/90s, I think and, it’s definitely a film which is very much a time capsule of the era it was made in, in that it does seem a little less than timeless. But it has a certain charm and Donner is a pretty good director and, with the help of Murray, he does some nice, off kilter stuff in this...
... starting with a very strong opening, highlighting some wacky and cynical Christmas programmes which set the mood up straight away as to how Frank Cross approaches the commercial aspects of the season. The strongest of these is a hilarious gun battle/siege at the North Pole where Santa and the elves are arming themselves against a furious attack when Lee Majors comes to the rescue in ‘The Night The Reindeer Died’. Murray and the writers further illustrate the cynicism of the main character by having him fire one of his employees without any kind of remorse as to how that will affect the life of the person in question and also chucking out some great, dark throwaway lines. For instance, when one of the prop guys tells him he can’t fix tiny reindeer antlers to a mouse with glue, Murray asks him if he’s tried staples.
All this is a great set up as a contrast to the inevitable, moving scenes where Cross is taken by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to see various aspects of his life... um... past, present and future and also, of course, to revisit the romance of the woman he let get away from him due to his unremitting selfishness and cynicism. Who in this case is a character called Claire, played by the truly wonderful Karen Allen. You know, I’ve always liked this actress but I’ve seen her in hardly anything else other than the obvious two Indiana Jones movies and it’s always a pleasure to watch her work. She is sadly underused in this movie in terms of screen time but what she does here is absolutely heart melting and if anyone can make you believe that their character is still somehow in love with what Frank Cross/Scrooge has become, it’s her.
Asides from a vast array of small roles by faces you wouldnt expect to see in a movie like this, such as John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Michael J. Pollard and Robert Mitchum, there are also a number of quite interesting set pieces thrown into the mix. The most interesting of these is the appearance and gravitas of the grim reaper-like ghost of Christmas yet to come. Donner nicely sets up the appearance by having a fake grim reaper in a lift who Cross reacts to as though he is the real thing. A little later, a giant skeletal hand reaches through a bank of TV screens and we see the true spirit, so to speak. It’s not a cutesy sight like the ‘devilish cabbie of Christmas past’ or the ‘violent Christmas tree fairy of Christmas present’. Instead, we have a truly nightmarish, giant manifestation who has haunted and lost souls in his stomach, when Murray’s character takes a peek, and a face beneath the traditional hood that is a silent TV screen. It’s truly sinister and, I think, something which the film really needs at this point in the proceedings to sell the concept that Murray’s character will experience something which will finally send him over the edge and back into being a respectable human being again.
That being said, if there’s one weakness with the film it’s the last ten minutes or so, where Murray’s character has such a sea change and gives a long speech on national television that one wonders just why his boss, Robert Mitcham, doesn’t just fire him on the spot. I don’t know why this ending just grates against me so much now, especially since it’s pretty much on a par for the original... but it just feels a bit of a cop out compared to the build up at this point. That being said, the film is generally quite moving and, at more than one point in this first rewatch in over a couple of decades, I was getting to be quite a blubbery mess from scene to scene. So despite my trifling caveats, the film does still pack a lot of power for me, which doesn’t surprise me, to be honest, since I’m a real sucker for the sweet sentiments of Christmas. Much more so than when I was a kid, that’s for sure.
And, of course, the icing on the cake is Danny Elfman’s score which I’ve already mentioned (along with a possible inspiration/similarity to Ronald Stein’s score for Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace) in my Best Christmas Music article, which can be found here. There’s some typically Elfman Christmassy jingling going on here and it’s also, obviously, a nice stand alone listen away from the movie... although I did feel that some of the music in certain scenes was possibly a bit inappropriate and was overtly Mickey Mousing the action unnecessarily at times. Even so, a great score by Elfman which is just more evidence of him being one of the modern masters of the art of soundtrack composition. He definitely hits a lot of right notes here.
So there you have it. My take on Scrooged is that, while ultimately very dated and a bit hit and miss when it comes to the laughs (and there are a lot of references here to those previous Bill Murray movies which I didn’t particularly like), it deserves its place as one of the more repeated and pleasurable movie gems which lives up to a good rewatch every few Christmases. If you’re in the mood for a seasonal, sentimental journey and you are a fan of Bill Murray’s deadpan delivery then you could do a lot worse than sticking this one on the Christmas TV rotation. It’s not a bad film and possibly needs to be more on everyone’s radar than it perhaps is, at the moment.
Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Horror for Christmas
Edited by Richard Dalby
Michael O'Mara Books Ltd
After last year’s novelty of reading a book set at Christmas during the merry month of December, when I purchased the much talked about reissue of Mystery In White (reviewed by me here) I decided to make this something of a tradition on this blog from now on so, if at all possible, I’ll be reading and reviewing something seasonal around this time every year.
Now, I almost went for another Christmas mystery book but then I remembered it’s somewhat traditional to be told ghost stories around this time... at least in the UK... so I decided to have a look for something in the horror genre this time around. Maybe I’ll try another yuletide whodunnit next year.
This Richard Dalby edited tome, Horror For Christmas, was what I ultimately decided upon after trawling amazon for a quarter of an hour or so. Partially because a compendium of short stories written by a variety of authors was almost certain to have at least one story I liked but, mostly, because a nice hardback copy on amazon costs only one penny at time of writing this. It even, if you make up the price and order it with any other required items, qualifies for free super saver delivery so... yeah, got this one totally for a penny and, since it’s such a hit and miss affair, I’m kind of glad I paid no more for it, to be honest.
There are many great names with a short story credited to them in the book... some of whom I’ve heard of and many of whom I’ve not. The absolute decider for making the purchase for me, other than the modest asking price, was the inclusion of a short tale by Nigel Kneale, the creator of Professor Quatermass, no less. However, as it happens, it turns out that, of the ‘hit and miss’ stories found here, Kneale’s story definitely ventured into the ‘miss due to being vaguely incomprehensible’ category, as far as I was concerned. It's the shortest thing in here at only a few pages long and I even resorted to a Google search after, to find out if I was missing anything about what the story was about. Not that I ever found an answer to that question.
Now, I must confess to having a bit of a mental block when it comes to the specific short form of ghost story fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ghost story and wonderful novels such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House are not pieces of prose to be trifled with. However, when it comes to spectral short stories, I always seem to read things which are almost all very similar and with more or less the same few duplicate endings... presumably because there’s only so much you can do with a ghost story in such a short form. These things are almost always completely predictable and usually for me, as a result of this, somewhat frustrating and disappointing. That being said, not all the stories in here are spirit manifestation stories and, asides from the looseness of the term ‘horror’, which I don’t think should be applied some of the stories in here (human monsters are not monsters people... these are just thrillers), there a few little gems to be found near the back of the book and even some of the ghosty ones are quite good... but just not very many of them, it has to be said.
I found the first half of the book to be mostly very dull, to be quite honest and, even the most interestingly constructed one of the early tales in here, the Switzerland set The Sinister Inn by F. S. Smythe, is devoid of an actual spooky monster with which to clearly label this tale an exercise in horror. For the most part, though, the majority of the stories are absolutely as predictable as I expect a short ghost or horror story to be and it’s only my single bloody mindedness about not giving up on something I’ve started that kept me from flinging the thing aside and looking for something else to fulfill my Christmas book review. However, the book really and, quite unexpectedly, starts to come into it’s own with the last five stories, one of which is a very long one and these last tales are actually something worth reading.
The good stuff starts with Ronald Chetwyn Hayes ‘strange fiction’ style tale Christmas Eve, which basically tells of a man who is recruited by a young lady into perpetrating what amounts to an extremely gory act on a live ‘victim’. However, not all is as it seems and it leaves both the main character and the reader with a question mark over the head as to what the story was really about and what the consequences are for this character in the future.
After that we go into a story called The Night Before Christmas by Psycho author Robert Bloch, which is one of those tales which really isn’t, in any way, shape or form, an example of the horror genre but which, at the same time, wouldn’t have looked out of place in comic strip form in an old 1950s EC comic such as Tales From The Crypt or The Vault of Horror. This tells the story of a desperate artist who gets a king sized commission but who gets, against his better judgement, too close to the subject of his painting. Lets just say that Bloch manages to give us a savagely gory conclusion (this would really suffer under the knives of the censors if it was ever filmed) which is also merely conjured up in a single last line which is a real killer of a pun. Bloch wraps his violence up in humour so... you have been warned.
Next up we get The Great Arcana by Ron Weighell which is a proper supernatural tale and tells of moving statues and portals out of hell. It isn’t too far away from being an H. P. Lovecraft Cthulhu sketch in some ways... but as if it were being retold by someone like M. R. James. It’s exactly the kind of story that the Italians would have made a commercially successful horror film of in the mid 1980s... and for all I know, they probably did possibly borrow from this at one time or another.
Wish You Were Here by Basil Cooper is the longest (and best) story in the book, almost a novella, and it’s very much a traditional ghost story. It’s also set quite local to where I work, in a village called Hoddesdon. Now the thing about this one is... yes, it is an obvious, much telegraphed ending... just like the other ghost stories in here but, because the writer spends a lot of time building up the characters in this and stoking the fires of suspense, I found I really quite warmed to this tale of a successful writer being haunted by old postcards and... something else.
The last story in the book is To Dance by the Light of the Moon by Steven Gallagher, who I knew from reading his novelisation of Saturn 3 (the movie is reviewed by me here) when I was in my teens. Now this tale of a newsreader of a small, independent radio station is not nearly as good as the four stories which come before it and, it’s up to interpretation as to whether the story delves in to the realm of the supernatural or not (I think it probably does but there is an alternate solution to the tale's grim ending note, I suspect). It is, however, refreshingly different from a lot of the fodder in the early part of the book and after the front loaded disappointment of the earlier section, it continued to be an entertaining read... even after the four, really quite interesting, previous excursions into horror tinged mayhem.
So there you have it. My verdict is in. I’m not sure I’d be totally at ease with recommending this tome to many people, in all honesty and, though I really enjoyed the second half, I think you’d have to be quite up for giving up time on more frivolous pursuits if you want to wade into this one. I certainly don’t regret buying this one... especially for a penny... but I think next year I might look around for either another Christmas mystery story or try yet another genre. And if you have any suggestions for future Christmassy reads, please leave it in the comments section below and I’ll see if I fancy it.
Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Christmas Needle Drop
So it’s that time of the year again when seasonal shoppers trample peace and good will into their fellow consumers, as they hastily clamber over their fallen bodies to snatch up the best bargains they can in the name of completing that long list of Christmas shopping requirements. Thankfully, it’s also the time of year when a fair few people get an extended holiday away from work and so the anticipation of this annual absence from the drudgery of the real world (for the most part) suffuses most of our hearts with a feeling of peace, well being and joy... blocking out thoughts of the gazillions of people who die in Christmas shopping traffic or those expiring from hypothermia as the winter bites down hard.
One of the things I always look forward to each year is the start of December because that’s when I feel I can legitimately start playing all my Christmas themed music without getting too many funny looks. So this year, I thought I’d do something new, for my blog, which is pull out and highlight my all time favourite Christmas sonorities for you all to consider listening to at this most festive time of the year. To make things more easier and less agonizing in deciding what’s what, I’ve put my eleven favourite Christmas albums, in reverse order of course, first and then made a second list for absolutely unmissable, stand alone Christmas themed tracks which aren’t on any of those albums listed. Before I start though, a few caveats...
You won’t find Johnny Williams’ two, almost certainly excellent, Home Alone scores on here. Why not? Well simply because I’ve never heard the scores or even seen the movies (and I still have no desire to see Macauly Caulkin do an impression of a work by Edvard Munch, thanks very much). I’m sure these are very good, Christmassy albums but, honestly, I can’t personally recommend them without having heard them.
Also, you won’t find Danny Elfman’s score to Edward Scissorhands on here. Yes, I know it’s been used in a gazillion seasonal adverts and has become almost synonymous with the yuletide season (and dodgy perfume) over the years and... it is a great score... there just wasn’t enough of a Christmas link for me to be able to justify extending my list to twelve, as far as I’m concerned. Elfman’s score for The Nightmare Before Christmas is similarly missing in action but for a simpler reason... I think it’s a bit rubbish and you can hear another, much more interesting musical's influences coming through from the temp track... at least I think I can. Either way, it’s just not for me. However, Elfman fans can relax because one of his Christmas scores did make it in here, so make like a snowflake and chill when it comes to that particular composer.
Okay so first up we have...
The Top Ten Coolest Christmas Albums
11. Everly by Bear McCreary
If you love the music of composer Bear McCreary as much as me, especially his amazing stuff for the last incarnation of the Battlestar Galactica TV show, then you’ll no doubt love the score to this Christmas set shoot ‘em up featuring a machine gun toting Salma Hayek. The icing on the cake is a bunch of Christmas songs with vocals performed by Brendan McCreary and Bear’s wife Raya Yarborough (seriously, her version of Silent Night is well worth the price of the CD). This album is quite new to me but it’s going to be spinning every year in December for me from now on.
10. Die Hard by Michael Kamen
This much loved Christmas action movie has a sequel which also takes place at Christmas. However, Kamen’s music for this first film is much more seasonal as, asides from quoting musical source material like Beethoven’s Ninth and Singin’ In The Rain, he also weaves in some festive tunes which mesh perfectly with the underscore and are manipulated in a similar way to how Kamen manipulates the audience’s emotions. There’s a wonderfully sinister interpolation of phrases from Winter Wonderland in here which will change the way you receive the spirit of the music.
9. Scrooged by Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s take on the classic Bill Murray update on Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol uses a lot of Christmas melodies and is a perfect summation of Elfman’s ‘Yuletide stylings’. My one complaint would be that the four note melody from Ronald Stein’s score to Roger Corman's ‘Lovecraft masquerading as Poe’ movie The Haunted Palace, so famously (and allegedly) stolen by Toto for the score to Dune, also seems to play a prominent role in this score. Still, a great listen and a fun album.
8. A Christmas Carol and A Child is Born by Bernard Herrmann
Double header from Kritzerland of two phenomenal Christmas scores, including songs, written by my all time favourite composer Bernard Herrmann. It’s a limited edition and probably out of print now but well worth grabbing if you can get hold of one.
7. Gremlins by Jerry Goldsmith
The late great Jerry Goldsmith’s famous score to Joe Dante’s ‘almost horror’ movie is a bit of a masterpiece. Again, the sequel to this was also set during Christmas but that score can’t hold a candle to this one. Asides from the Gremlins and Gizmo themes, of course, there’s some great seasonal tunes encoded into the DNA of this thing and it’s always going to be on my stereo throughout the season. The FSM expanded version of this score is a must-have.
6. Krampus by Douglas Pipes
What an incredible score to a newish Christmas movie. There’s some great, traditional tunes from the Xmas genre which are used to counterpoint and metamorphosise a horror film, and score, which is like a much grimmer version of Gremlins in tone. It’s kind of lazy to say that Pipes score is reminiscent of Elfman at his most Christmassy but he is and I honestly think he out Elfman’s Elfman in some passages. A grim and unsettling but ultimately fun and addictive listen.
5. It’s A Wonderful Life by Dimitri Tiomkin
Kritzerland finally gave us a limited edition of the music from this much loved, and rightly so, Christmas movie... blowing away all the pseudo compilation imitations on the market. It’s a great job they do on this score, considering the age of the master tapes... just put it on and find yourself transported back in time to a black and white Bedford Falls. How cool is it that we finally have this music released?
4. Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe by Murray Gold
This Christmas special set in the 1940s is easily the most moving and emotional episode of Doctor Who ever and Gold’s music, presented by Silva Screen as a double header with music from the Christmas special The Snowmen, is absolutely heart rending. It doesn’t take many minutes of listening to this music before I’m a blubbery mess, crying into a handkerchief.
3. Star Wars Christmas Album - Christmas In The Stars
How can you not love an album of very strange songs sung by See Threepio, R2D2 and their alien friends to celebrate Christmas in a galaxy far, far away. It even has a young Bon Jovi on at least one track. Despite its absolutely infuriating lack of continuity with the rest of the Star Wars canon, something which my mind can’t even conceive, especially since the Christian faith surely wouldn’t exist in a universe with Jedi in it, it’s hard not to repeatedly play an album which has such cool songs as “What do you get a Wookie for Christmas when he already has a comb?” on it. I’m so glad this album is back in print and on CD.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi
Jazz legend Vince Guaraldi’s amazing Christmassy score to the very first Charlie Brown animated special is absolutely spellbinding and something I will always come back to every Christmas. His slightly downbeat version of O Tannenbaum is the most powerful performance of that particular seasonal standard and this is also the first Charlie Brown score to feature the less Christmassy but much loved and popular Linus And Lucy theme. This is an album everybody should have on in the background on the approach to Christmas.
1. Christmas With The Chipmunks by David Seville
There is simply never going to be a better Christmas album than this outstanding volume of Christmas with The Chipmunks (now known, on Amazon, as Christmas With The Chipmunks Volume 2, for some reason). I’ve been listening to this every Christmas since I was born in 1968, originally on the first pressing vinyl and then, from about the mid 1990s, on a CD my friend in America sent me one year. It’s absolutely unbeatable and make sure it’s this version of the album you get because it has the most moving, “there’s something in my eye” rendition by Seville of Silver Bells that you’re ever likely to hear.
Bonus Beats - more unmissable single tracks
9. The Christmas Wine by John Barrry from The Lion In Winter
A very traditional arrangement which is almost hymn like in its rendition but it’s a beautiful side of John Barry from his prime which a lot of listeners may not be familar with. I’ve never seen the film but this is a cool album and this is a great track.
8. A Christmas Song by John Barry from The Last Valley
Another lovely score from a Barry scored movie I’ve never seen... this one sung in a language I don’t even understand (perhaps Latin?). This is another, peaceful hymn and is a good companion piece for my previous pick.
7. December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
The ultimate queen of modern popular music brought this song out very early in her career... which is cool because it’s become a Christmas standard and transports me straight back to the 1970s... even if I did only discover her music from the mid 1980s. This is classic, early Bush and should be played at least once at every Christmas party to make said party more bearable.
6. Birth Of A Penguin by Danny Elfman
Absolutely astonishing, jingly, snowy, Christmassy track which serves as a prologue (and pre-credits sequence) to Tim Burton’s Christmas set, second Batman movie. This fun track tells of two parents throwing away their newborn where he floats into the sewers in a basket before being raised by penguins. This leads into a dynamic version of the Batman theme and it’s a great album to get because it also features the gem of a musical piece that is used to accompany the ‘transformation’ of Selina Kyle into The Catwoman. The expanded La La Land edition is definitely the way to go here because the original release of the score was always sounding muddy and muted... the two La La Land editions don’t.
5. Dragnet Parts 1 and 2 by Stan Freberg
This double header of a Christmas sketch parody of the original Dragnet TV show by Stan Freberg trumps some of his other Christmas themed stuff and also features Miklos Rozsa’s four note theme from The Killers (Rozsa successfully sued the makers of the original Dragnet for nicking this part of his score). It’s a bit of a masterpiece and what more can one say about the inimitable Freberg other than... most people call them Green Onions but really they’re called scallions.
4. 7 O'clock News/ Silent Night by Simon and Garfunkel
The most chilling and depressing version of Silent Night you’re ever likely to find, from Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. This cross-fades some horrendously chilling news stories such as a serial killer strangling and stabing student nurses and President Nixon’s response to the anti-Vietnam war protests against the classic hymn, with the grimness of the news broadcast getting louder and louder until the carol is almost fighting to be heard underneath. Jaw dropping stuff and a timely reminder that not everyone is having a great Christmas.
3. Troika from Lieutenant Kijé by Prokofiev
I first became aware of Prokofiev’s Troika as a pre-teen when it was used as the opening title music from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Love And Death. Since then, of course, I've noticed it’s also one of those “Christmas tunes to go to” when it comes to sampling a bit of the main melody and sticking it into your Christmas song. The original composition and orchestration is, however, a beautiful piece which will always conjure up the sound of sleigh bells in my mind.
2. Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? by John Barry from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
I’ve never understood why more people don’t realise this but the John Barry song Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service isn’t just one of the greatest Christmas songs ever recorded, it’s also, without doubt, the greatest James Bond song ever released. Sure, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love and You Only Live Twice are great songs... but they pale in comparison with this masterpiece, sung here by Nina of Nina and Frederick fame (they did a cool version of Little Boxes too). On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is easily the greatest Bond movie by a country mile and, though it also has a more famous song sung by Louis Armstrong (of which I’m not a big fan), it also has the coolest Bond song ever... this one.
1. I Wanna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek by The Go Gos.
Oh wow. you can’t go wrong with this wonderful piece by the GoGo’s. You will hear all the love for a Dalek that you can get in this song, and even hear one join in on occasion, asking for Mince Pies and stuff. It’s a silly song but most Christmas songs are and this is one of the silliest... therefore the greatest and most entertaining Christmas song ever recorded. Why there aren’t a gazillion cover versions of this I’ll never know but, this one is just perfect so you can just play it on repeat for about 15 times before moving onto Christmas With The Chipmunks... a powerful combination, for sure.
Monday, 12 December 2016
Directed by Joe Lynch
Blu Ray Zone B
I’ve been wanting to see Everly since I first saw the soundtrack CD advertised, put out by La La Land records. It’s not a movie I’d heard of but one of the more interesting composers of the early half of the 21st Century, Bear McCreary, did the score and I really wanted to hear it. However, rather than just blind buy, I decided to wait until the movie was released in UK cinemas before I ordered it. After all, I could afford to wait and it had a machine gun toting Salma Hayek on the cover... so it was definitely going to be a film I wanted to see.
But then the usual thing happened... the soundtrack was going out of print towards the end of last year and still no sign of a movie release in this country... actually the IMDB says it was released in the UK in cinemas in June 2015 but it must have been a very limited release for me to have missed it when I was actively watching for it to come out. Also, given the nature of this movie, it seems really weird to be releasing this in any country in a month that isn’t December but... I’ll get to that in just a minute.
So, anyway, I liked Bear McCreary enough that I wasn’t going to miss out on the score before it went out of print, so I ordered a copy and then checked the Amazon listings to see if it was also on there... and that’s when I found that, not only was the movie already out on Blu Ray over here, it was also going for a very cheap price. So I figured... okay, I’ll order the movie too then and, low and behold they both came in January.
Then came my next surprise...
Glancing at the track listing I soon came to realise that this movie was, in fact, a Christmas movie. So, although both the score and the film had arrived in January... I had to wait all year until December came around before I could both watch the movie and listen to the CD. Because those are the rules of Christmas movie watching/listening... you don’t knock the universe out of alignment because you want to watch a movie before its proper time. So, yeah, after almost another year of waiting I was finally able to watch and listen to Everly last week. Yay!
So was it worth the wait? Well... yes and no.
The movie stars the always watchable Salma Hayek as a prostitute locked into a slave contract and trapped in an apartment for the best part of five years, unable to see her mother or her new born daughter in all this time because she is enslaved by a yakuza boss who also has the police in his pocket. However, she has finally had enough and after her latest batch of horrendous treatment at the collective hands of the "villain of the piece’s" men, she goes nuts and kills them all. The movie then becomes all about trying to get her mother and daughter to infiltrate the building she is in and to give them the money to disappear with, while trying to stay alive in said apartment, under siege conditions and constant attacks from various interested contract killers, once a suitable reward has been offered for her death.
That’s the whole plot and that’s all you need. However, while there is a lot to be recommended in this movie, there’s also some down sides to it too so, ultimately, it’s not quite the movie I was looking for, or even expecting. It does have it's fair share of good moments though...
For example, the use of smooth, fluid camera movements to capture the essence of any situation and to present it nicely framed, it seems, is the MO of the director and the crew do a really good job at getting some fine compositions on screen. Even the use of damaged walls where bullets, bombs or bazooka shells have peppered them with large holes are made use of as the camera weaves in and out of the these concrete exit wounds in its quest to allow us to track along with the central character. It’s really nice stuff and, although I hate to throw up comparisons to other directors here, it reminded me of the professionalism and consummate skill of somebody like Luc Besson so... yeah... this director might be worth looking out for in the future, methinks.
There are some really nice touches too, such as one of the corpses Everly’s stashed in a tub having a cell phone which uses the opening jingle from Danny Elfman’s score to Edward Scissorhands... it’s a cool moment. Another quite spectacular sequence shows Everly blowing one man exiting a lift filled with lethal henchmen back into said elevator with a shotgun burst and then lobbing a grenade to follow him in as the lift doors start to shut on them all. This is accompanied by an explosion just as the doors are finishing closing on the filled up lift, throwing out a giant sized, rectangular slit of high speed blood into the corridor. Nothing as drastic as Kubrick’s celebrated ‘blood and elevator’ shot from The Shining, for sure but, like I said... nice stuff.
The acting by some of the people in the film is not all that brilliant, truth be told, but somebody who really is, of course, is Salma Hayek. I’ve thought a lot of her since I saw her playing both The Muse in Kevin Smith’s Dogma and artist Frida Kahlo, in Frida, and she really doesn’t let herself down here. Quite simply, as well as being obviously quite sexy, I’ve never known why she isn’t in more high profile projects because, if you know her work, you’ll know she is a really great actress.
However, like I said, there’s also some bad stuff here and, for me, the movie loses impetus in the final third. A one room bullet fest sounds like a good idea (even now, to me) but I think this one could have done with just a little more variation in its DNA, I suspect. The amount of intrusions Everly has gets a bit boring and there’s a scene where she is being tortured by a character called The Sadist which is truly sick and fairly harrowing, I would say. That being said, because the threat of death and mutilation in this scene is so real, it kind of nullifies any belief that the character might not survive it and you are basically just waiting for the deus ex machina interventions to show themselves, one at a time... which, of course, they do.
So yeah, it dragged through the last third and was a bit overly grim, I think, for something which might be considered Christmas viewing and I can maybe see why it possibly didn’t do so well with audiences when it was released. I think if the writers/director could have possibly pushed it into a slightly different direction for the last 25 mins or so, it would have truly been a much loved movie and found its audience a lot quicker.
That being said, I still haven’t mentioned the music yet which, as I expected, is well worth the price of admission. If you like composer McCreary in his full-on Battlestar Galactica mode then this is a movie score for you. He does some great, percussion heavy, sustainable action cues here which are just what I was hoping would be the case. The CD album has five Christmas songs on it in addition to McCreary’s score; three sung by his brother Brendan and two sung by his wife Raya Yarbrough. Funnily enough, although the three Brendan McCreary performed songs are listed on the credits, alongside the various other songs used in the movie, I couldn’t actually detect much, if any, trace of them in the finished film. The two Raya Yarbrough songs are definitely in there, though, and her version of Silent Night is an especially powerful/haunting version of the song.
All in all, the film is an interesting piece of action cinema but, for my money, it gets a little bit too mean spirited in the last half an hour or so to entice me back for repeat viewings. I am glad I saw it though because, if nothing else, it means I’ve got another cool CD soundtrack to put in my Christmas spin rotation and I got to see Salma Hayek proving how good she is... even in roles like these. Ultimately, though, Everly is not exactly a big recommendation from me but if you’re a die hard action movie fan then you should probably check it out at some point. The movie itself isn’t particularly festive either, apart from the time setting, so I wouldn’t necessarily wait as long as I did to see it, either, if you do feel like giving it a go.
Friday, 9 December 2016
Crimes Of Fashion
Blood and Black Lace
(6 Donne Per L'Assassino)
Italy 1964 Directed by Mario Bava
Arrow Films Dual Edition
DVD Region 1/2 Blu Ray Zone A/B
Those of you who read my review blog often enough will already know that I tend to cite Mario Bava fairly often when it comes to describing the particular style of the colour palette of a movie. It’s quite possibly a lazy cliché of a shorthand to use but I find it effective and anybody who knows Bava’s work will know exactly what I mean. The point I’m trying to make here is that Bava is a very important director when it comes to looking at cinema on a purely visual level. So important, in fact, that I can often use the simple term Bavaesque to describe something relevant to a film I’m reviewing.
For all of that, though, it seems to me that I have hardly any of the great man’s films reviewed on this blog and one of them, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (reviewed here) happens to be one of his worst (and certainly the most spectacular failure I’ve ever seen by him). So it felt like it was time to put something more positive about this director who, still to this day internationally, is not the household name of Italian directors that such luminaries as Fellini, Antonioni or even those who have somewhat inherited Bava’s mantle such as Argento, are. However, this is quite unfortunate because in terms of being an artist contributing to an absolutely beautiful visual cinema that should be studied over and over again by students of film goes... he really has no peer.
Bava is also, more often than not, acknowledged by his contemporaries and inheritors, as being the man who gave us the giallo film. Now the giallo in film is slightly different to the giallo books that gave the screen genre its name and if you want a more detailed account of just what that is, then you can take a look at my quick guide to the giallo here. The first on screen equivalent (although this, too, is surely arguable) is generally accepted to be the film Bava made the year before this one, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which certainly takes the basic tenets of giallo literature and captures it on celluloid, to a certain extent, albeit with a lot of humour.
However, I think most people would agree when I say that this film, 6 Donne Per L’Assassino (aka Blood And Black Lace) is the one which forever set the stylistic content of the cinematic giallo firmly on its track and that ‘Bavaesque’ handle I talked about earlier would certainly become worn out very quickly if you were to consider its application when reviewing the numerous (and there are very many) gialli that came after this. Most famously, perhaps, the cinematic legacy of Dario Argento, whose first movie The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, six years later, would take Bava’s legacy and make the giallo the popular genre it was soon to become... the primary influencer on any such cycle of films being, obviously, a huge box office. Something which I don’t think Bava ever really had for films like this, which is a great shame.
So here we have Blood And Black Lace which is, for me, the first real on screen stab at this genre using the conventions which would define it and, frankly, it’s a strong and pleasurable cinematic ride right from the stylistic opening title sequence which throws in the vibrant, primal colours which were ex-cinematographer Bava’s stock in trade, with camera movements coming to rest on various cast members juxtaposed against the hollow, wicker-basket style mannequins that serve the Fashion House which is the backdrop to the film’s plot... all lubricated with Carlo Rustichelli’s amazingly vibrant, rhythmic opening title music.
After this, we get the exterior of one of the main settings of the movie, beautifully rendered on a rainy night with a creaking and broken sign as we let the film assault our visual and audio receptors in the most pleasing ways possible for a thriller which, for its time, is also one of the more brutal in its choices of the style of the killings on display... if not quite the actual depiction of the moments of grizzly death that Argento never held back on in the same way Bava does here. There are lots of good things in this movie and, of course, lots of terrible but, it has to be said, the terrible things are expected now in hindsight because, they too, have become the mainstay of the giallo cinema as it's progressed over the years, for better or worse.
The weakest stuff on show here is a script containing dialogue which is barely deliverable in a credible way by most actors, one would think, and... appropriately enough... a bunch of actors who, for the most part, are able to deliver that dialogue in exactly that manner... with a complete lack of credibility or believability. With the exception, of course, of the leading lady from The Crimson Pirate, Eva Bartok, as the owner of the fashion house and her lover, the much underrated Cameron Mitchell, who I think makes a big contribution to a lot of the films he’s in, even when he’s as stony faced and less overtly expressive as he is in this one.
One of the ways Bava seems to make up for any shortfall in the performances of his cast is to put together people who have absolutely incredible faces. They all are, for the most part, very memorable and have an almost caricature quality to some of them. There’s one guy in this, for example, who is almost impossible to look at without thinking of Peter Lorre. The dull witted Inspector of police is also much like one you would expect to see in a German Krimi movie although, I have to say, he also looks, to me, like the dead spit of popular movie critic Mark Kermode. More than once through the movie I was almost expecting him to start questioning one of the suspects about the various merits of The Exorcist, the resemblance was that strong.
Actually, while the police in this film are typical ‘giallo police’ in that their investigations never once seem to lead them near to the truth of the situation, they are at least confident in their own powers and seem slightly less ridiculous than some of the genre characters who followed in their wake. That being said, you wouldn’t want these guys on your side because you can pretty much bet that their next suspect is as likely to be the next victim on the killer’s list than anyone useful to their investigation.
However, everything else about this marvellous movie more than makes up for its shortcomings and there’s certainly too much great stuff to list here (this movie really needs its own book). Bava’s mise-en scene is absolutely incredible, pitching his almost trademark greens, reds and purples in single shots while splitting the planes of those shots with various foreground levels or objects to give them a unique depth that many movies don’t have in terms of their use of visual space (I can’t even imagine how amazing a film like this would look if it had been shot in 3D).
Some of the death scene set pieces are a little ridiculous, such as the woman being smothered in foreground while we see her legs struggling slightly in the background of the shot and her arms splayed out not even once trying to put up any resistance against the killer with the cushion in her face. Seems like she’s almost helping the killer in this scene rather than trying to escape her ghastly fate but, whatever, the aesthetics of the shot are quite groovy and I don’t think I’m supposed to question the authenticity of the murder method in this case, I would say.
The film is very much a piece of art that pushes the visual semiotics of cinema and it uses quite a lot of long, wordless sequences to propel the story forward... something which a lot of modern directors seem almost shy to do at times, it seems to me. For instance, in one of the stalk and kill sequences, a girl is seen running around in the background of a shot and then towards the camera and it’s not until her hand comes in from the direct right of the shot and touches on the quite elaborate and obvious mirror, that you possibly realise you were watching a reflection for the last 6 or more seconds. There’s no attempt to hide the contrivance of the apparatus in shots like these, either... just the director’s confidence that the power of his shot composition, and the movement within the frame, are strong enough to distract from the punchline of the shot until he’s ready to tip his hand. I bet at least 9 out of 10 people who see this are taken in by it too.
Another highlight of the film is a brief but beautiful shot of a woman who has been drowned in a bathtub. We look up at her from the bottom of the bathtub once the killer has tried to cover the murder by slashing the wrist of the lady in question to make it look like a suicide.... we see the red washing up from the bottom of the shot to greet her head and shoulders. Truly gorgeously arresting visuals in this one.
There’s also very much a feeling of art for arts sake embedded into the visual DNA of the film. There’s a certain kind of shot where the camera is moving throughout the movie as if from the eyes of the killer... I’m sure most people have seen these kind of shorthand, first person, point of view shots before. They’ve become a cliché in themselves over the years and, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn’t Bava who invented them, to be honest. However, one such ‘roving’ shot takes place right near the end of the picture, with the ‘character’ of the camera eye even knocking down one of the mannequins as it passes. It’s interesting when you realise, as I’m sure not many people do once the shot becomes a third person view, how there’s no way that the camera could have been standing in for any of the characters at this particular time or physical space. It’s an artifice which is used without logic and, to be honest, most people won’t even realise the first time around... I cite it here only as a testament to the fact that, like his successor Dario Argento, Bava was obviously much more concerned with the visual aesthetic of a movie than whether or not the methodology of how he achieved his atmospheres fit into any form of established reality. 'Art is art' versus reality and, it appears, neither of the two are necessarily close companions in the cinema of Mario Bava.
The last piece of icing on the cake is Rustichelli’s gorgeous score. Perhaps somewhat untypical of either of the two most common approaches that music in giallo would take - the jazzy, atonal scores of Morricone or Nicolai versus the progressive rock tinged rhythms of Cipriani or Simonetti’s Goblin - the music in this movie is almost a throwback to the 1950s, which is fair enough considering the proximity of the film to that decade. It’s similar in some ways to the driving rhythm and strident melody of Henry Mancini’s score for Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil. That being said, the score also manages to enhance the atmosphere of the suspense required and has some effective stingers appropriate to the genre. It’s certainly something which should be a big hit in any giallo music lovers library, that’s for sure.
And that’s about it from me on Blood And Black Lace. I upgraded to Arrow’s newish Blu Ray edition from last year mostly because Mario Bava’s mise en scene is always going to look especially vibrant on blu ray and, partially, because it was only £6 in a sale. I’m so glad I did because it comes stacked with extras which, on their own, are worth the price of admission and it also includes a bonus film, a modern giallo, which I haven’t watched yet but which, when I do, will no doubt take up the space of another review on here. If you’re already in love with the cinema of Mario Bava and this film in particular, then this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition by Arrow is definitely the way to go. If you’re a complete stranger to the haunted world of Mario Bava then what are you waiting for? Go grab this one while you still can... it’s text book visual film-making at its finest.
If you want to read a little more about the genre, then my article about it is here. If you want to read more about the phenomenal director behind Blood and Black Lace then Tim Lucas’ epic tome Mario Bava - All The Colours of the Dark, is definitely the way to go... it’s possibly the most thorough and, certainly, one of the greatest books on an aspect of cinema that has ever been seen in print.