Wednesday, 28 June 2017
Melancholy Bay Bee
Transformers - The Last Knight
2017 USA Directed by Michael Bay
UK cinema release print.
Okay then. Here we are for another slice of well coordinated but ultimately bland Bay-hem. And it’s a bit of a shame because he’s obviously a very competent director and knows how to construct, shoot and edit action scenes that cram a lot into them without, for the most part in this one, losing you in the edit.
I’ve said this before on this blog but I’ll do so again now... I think the very first Transformers movie that he directed, 10 years ago, was absolutely brilliant and I consider it a modern action classic. I had no idea who the Transformers were (they were somewhat ‘after my time’ when I was a kid) and I really didn’t want to see that first one but I was dragged along to a screening by someone who was a lot more invested in the experience than I was and I was totally lost to the movie. It was a blast. It also had an absolutely classic score by Steve Jablonsky. Imagine my surprise and continued disappointment, then, when all of the sequels, often sharing some of the same cast and crew of this first one, were all so hard to watch.
I’m sorry to say that, even with the added experience and gravitas that Sir Anthony Hopkins brings to his role in this fifth (and possibly final) installment, he was not able to save the film or lift it out of the muddy puddle it seems so desperate to be clawing its way out of.
Actually, there are a lot of reasons why this film should work so lets take a look at those first.
I mentioned Anthony Hopkins was in this right? He, of course, adds a certain amount of weight to the film but he can only go as far as the script constraints will allow. Ditto for Mark Wahlberg who, once again, acquits himself very well and proves himself to be one of the more interesting actors out there today. He is also backed up by his new romantic interest Laura Haddock, his new surrogate daughter played by Isabela Moner (Nicola Peltz did not return after playing the character’s actual daughter in Transformers - Age Of Extinction (reviewed here) and Josh Duhamel reprising his role as Lennox from some (I think most) of the other movies. They’re all very good and, for the most part, don’t let themselves get upstaged by the effects.
Another thing which is good about this one is that it really does try to make as much sense out of the speeding juggernaut that the franchise has become as possible and tries hard to construct a story that makes sense with all the previous installments, tying them up into a perfect bundle. At the end of the last movie we had main Transformer good guy Optimus Prime leaving Earth to seek his creator and they pretty much pick up the story from there. Admittedly, they also add in some kind of weird war between Transformers in his absence and Wahlberg’s character is in nowhere like the happy place which was seemingly in his near future after the previous installment... choosing, instead, a fugitive's life on the run from new ‘misguided good turned accidentally evil because he’s playing for the wrong team’ Lennox and his squad of Transformer destroyers.
The film also, kinda, ties up where those medieval Transformers from the last movie came from and also mentions the Witwikky’s part in the history of Transformers' on Earth... going so far as to show a truly stupid photo of Shia La Beouf when he was in ‘crazy’ mode from an earlier film. I guess that’s Michael Bay’s not so subtle way of getting a little bit of revenge after La Beouf quit the series... or maybe it’s just a cute in-joke, I don’t know.
So we have a plot filled with the secret legacy of Transformers and a script involving Mark Wahlberg being chosen by a bit of alien tech to be 'the last knight'. We also have a nice little prologue with King Arthur, Lancelot and Merlin defeating their enemies when Merlin strikes a deal with some Transformers to make a huge dragon machine. Actually, that sequence is a bit confusing/problematic because only a descendent of Merlin can wield a certain object in modern day to help defeat the Decepticon’s evil plot and Merlin is played here by Stanley Tucci, who had a prominent role in the last movie as a completely different character in modern times. So all the way through you are waiting for that character to show up and reveal they are the descendent of Merlin but... no, they don’t. Merlin’s descendent turns out to be another character but... I won’t reveal which one because, you never know, you may actually want to go see this movie.
Okay, that’s the good stuff mostly out of the way.
The bad stuff?
Well the script might be okay in terms of tying everything together but the dialogue is pretty awful, it has to be said. I couldn’t believe these great actors were being asked to speak some of these terrible lines and, especially in the case of the great Anthony Hopkins, I was embarrassed at some of the stuff they were getting him to do. Truly cringeworthy and somehow beneath him is the take away I got here. Special mention to the also great Wahlberg, though, for managing to get some of those lines sounding pretty natural and for injecting his scenes with a certain amount of credibility, for sure.
One thing which could have been great is the return of John Turturro to the series (after his strange absence in the last film). The performance is quite literally phoned in, however, as he doesn’t share any of his very brief scenes with any of the other human characters, instead spending his entire time on the phone to Anthony Hopkins. It looked almost like these were added scenes after part of the cut maybe wasn’t working but I’m just guessing there and that may not have been the case.
I think the bad dialogue combined with the excesses of the action scenes kinda drag the movie down quite a bit, to be honest. The special effects are all fantastic and the action scenes quite rollicking but they all just kinda squash together with no highs or lows in between sequences and I honestly found myself almost drifting off to sleep at one point while the movie was being at its most noisy.
Steve Jablonsky’s score is kinda okay but, from what I could hear of it, joins his sequel scores as being nowhere near the classic that his first Transformers score was (which still gets a heck of a lot of spins per year on my turntable to this day). However, as might be expected, a lot of it is buried under the sound effects so I won’t be able to apprise the score properly until the CD comes out next month and that’s far too late for this review.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about Tranformers - The Last Night, to be honest. It’s big and noisy and there’s lots of movement on screen and if you like seeing heavy metal behemoths bashing each other up with as little emotional context as possible, well... there’s certainly room in this world for that kind of cinema and I wouldn’t blame you for indulging in that kinda large slice of escapism one bit. As for me, it’s nowhere near the classic that the first movie was and it’s not something I’d revisit anytime soon, truth be told. Unlike the first movie, this one shares the same qualities as the other sequels in that they're really not ‘more than meets the eye.’
Monday, 26 June 2017
Shack To The Future
2017 UK Directed by Joel Hopkins
UK cinema release print.
Hampstead is a film I came to quite by accident. By that I mean that I didn’t hear anything about this production until I caught a trailer for it in the cinema a couple of weeks before it was released. I’ve always liked Diane Keaton since her days pairing up with Woody Allen (I used to adore her singing Seems Like Old Times in Annie Hall) and the movie looked like it was something more interesting than a lot of the turbulent, explosive movies on offer at my local cinema at the moment.
The end credits mention that the film is ‘inspired’ by the real life ‘ Hampstead Hermit’ Harry Hallowes although, to be fair, I suspect there’s an awful lot of embellishment in this one which, you know, is usually the case with ‘true stories’ or biopics. In fact, the character’s name has been changed in this to Donald, as played by Brendan Gleeson, while Diane Keaton’s completely fictitious character is called Emily. So I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that there’s not a heck of a lot of basis for this in the real life story which inspired it but... this is art so, you know, there doesn’t have to be.
This is probably going to be a fairly short review, however, because there’s not too much to be very critical about. It’s not being too ambitious as to where it’s reaching and it ends up as a kind of charming, romantic British comedy with, maybe, a little more edge than some others, at least in terms of the little truths which cut at the heart of the two main characters, Emily and Donald. I suspect there’s a lot that the actors here brought to the table in this one too because, technically, the script seems to have not much to say in terms of the history of the character’s lives. It’s all pretty much done in shorthand with a few scenes thrown in to establish details... with Donald coming off as the more mysterious of the two, although there are some hints about his past from which you can deduce all the necessary emotional baggage the character is carrying around with him.
For instance, we know Emily is a widow who has lost her husband about a year before this story starts and that she has found out he was having an affair with a younger woman. When she shouts at him and throws her shoe at his grave, complaining about all the debt and red tape paperwork he has left her with, you get a pretty good idea at the turmoil and drifting quality of her character.
But even though these two characters, Emily and Donald, have quick swipes at their personal histories, the two actors involved bring them totally to life and they become real people before your eyes. You get a real sense of their history just from the way these two veteran performers are absolutely nailing the attitudes and body language of the words they have made flesh.
The story itself is about a man called Donald who has been living in a shack in the forest which he built for himself seventeen years prior and who is being threatened with eviction. He lives the life of a reclusive tramp who catches and cooks his own meals, bathes in the river and generally lives a carefree life where he doesn’t want that much contact with people. However, Emily tries her best, almost by stealth, to help him and sets in motion a chain of events which sees Donald in court defending his right to stay put... instead of just getting angry at people about it
Keaton is an absolute powerhouse in this and I always wonder why I don’t see more of her in films these days. She plays a caring and compassionate woman caught up in a web of ‘rich Hampstead dwellers’ who she seems to have nothing in common with before she meets and ultimately falls in love with Donald. She is an absolute master of her craft and I noticed in this that, although the scripting is pretty good it’s, as I implied before, what’s not in the script where she really comes into her own. It’s almost as if you’re watching a silent movie and I’m convinced if this was playing without dialogue in a cinema, you’d still be able to make complete sense of the story even without any inter-titles because Keaton uses her face a lot here... twisting it into quizzical expressions and stealing deductive half glances at the characters she interacts with in such a way that no talking is required (although, obviously, she’s pretty good at that too).
Brendan Gleeson, mind you, is similarly a force to be reckoned with here in his portrayal of the gruff, bear of a man that is Donald. I’m not that familiar with his work (although a quick scan of his career on the IMDB shows that I have actually seen a few other movies with him in them) but I know I want to see more of what this guy can do because he’s brilliant here... matching Keaton’s acting style perfectly and bringing his talent to the table so that, when they’re together, the two elevate each other’s performance as they sparkle against each other (I recently picked up a very cheap Blu Ray of Calvary with Gleeson in it so I may give that one a go fairly soon).
Keaton and Gleeson are also aided by a pretty sound cast too... not least of which is Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville as, almost, a kind of villainess of the piece, in some ways... but she manages to bring a certain lack of black and white to the character which you maybe wouldn’t expect, given her story function in the picture. And we also have some pretty sound cameos from people like Simon Callow as the judge, James Norton as Emily’s son and a very intense Phil Davis as a key witness in the trial at the end. Actually, at the time of writing this review, the IMDB seems to be totally unaware of Phil Davis’ presence in the movie but, you know, trust me... it’s him.
The film is not particularly flashy or overt in its mise en scène, to be fair... it does however capture some of the nicer looking parts of Hampstead and the surrounding areas very crisply so the film is certainly easy on the eye and, almost a rarity these days, the editing doesn’t get in the way of the flow of the movie. With a mild and pleasantly impressionistic score by Stephen Warbeck, the film weaves its spell and gives you what I would call, a nice agreable night out at the cinema. Something which is not to be sneezed at when giant transforming robots are vying for your attention and want to ruin your eardrums with their over-enthusiastic sound design.
All in all, Hampstead is a nice little movie and something I would wholeheartedly recommend. It does get a bit syrupy, for sure... but there’s plenty of grit and challenging viewpoints thrown into the mix too so... you know... maybe give this one some of your time.
Sunday, 25 June 2017
Telos About Mondas
Doctor Who - World Enough And Time
Airdate: 24th June 2017
Warning: Yes, this one’s got big spoilers in it.
This review marks another little 'anniversary' for me. When I first started this blog the first Doctor Who story that aired live and which I wrote about at the time was the first Matt Smith story The Eleventh Hour (reviewed here) and since that first Doctor Who review I did, well... this is my 100th Doctor Who review for this blog (not including the odd book review and episodes of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane adventures, some of which you will also find here). And I'm very pleased to be still reviewing them now after all this time.
So, okay, this was a really great set up episode but, as has been pointed out by various critics over the last few years, Moffat’s really good at openings and really bad at endings... so we shall just have to see how the wind blows when the second episode of this two (maybe three) part story ‘sort of’ concludes next week.
This weeks episode, though, was a real humdinger...
World Enough And Time started off with the lone Doctor, supposedly injured, stumbling out of the TARDIS and beginning his regeneration process. And then the credits play and there’s no more mention of this sequence and we are left to assume that the rest of the story is being told in flashback. I'm still unsure if he’s going to be completing that process at Christmas, as everybody says, or will be regenerating next week... perhaps he’ll do it at the end of next week but still make an appearance in the Christmas special. Who knows? Apparently.
So the next thing we have is Missy being the new ‘Doctor Who’ (in a somewhat distressing shout out for fans who are probably all, like myself, hoping that Moffat hasn’t decided to make that The Doctor’s real name) as a test to see how helpful she is and to decide whether she has turned over a new leaf. So they go to the aid of a real distress call and it’s Missy, Bill and Nardole answering while The Doctor watches their progress from the TARDIS as they try and figure out what’s going on with a starship which is slowly reversing away from a black hole... with the time at one end of the ship going very rapidly as opposed to the relative time at the other end of the ship.
And then we get our next big shock as somebody blows a big hole through Bill’s heart and she falls lifeless to the floor before a bunch of ‘heads covered in rags’ patients take her away to repair her at the other end of the ship... while The Doctor, Missy and Nardole are left to wonder what’s going on... a few minutes passing at what is a rate of months for Bill as she is somehow revived and her heart replaced with a big cyberchest thing. Oh yeah, that’s right... we knew the original, William Hartnell cybermen from The Tenth Planet (reviewed here) were back and, by the end of the episode, Bill is fully converted into... the very first cyberman. Or cyberwoman, I guess.
And there were some nice things about the episode which were really well written. For instance, as Bill stands there in shock and we see a hole the size of an extra large fist punched through her body where her chest was, we flash back to point where Bill is warning The Doctor about this whole ‘trial run for Missy’ thing being a bad idea and asking The Doctor to keep an eye on her safety... so a nice poignant moment there. Although, I’m still not 100% sure that she’s not talking to a version of The Doctor who has already seen her die... but I’m guessing that this would be too inappropriately ‘timey wimey’ for Moffat in terms of the sense of gravitas purveying the episode... which is really atmospheric and scary, in all honesty.
Bearing in mind the Mondasian* cybermen are held back until the very end of the show as a surprise moment, one has to wonder why the BBC announced they were going to be on these episodes at all... if you’re going to have a surprise then have a surprise, for goodness sake. Although, truth be told, these new costumes, while scary, aren’t a patch on the original costumes from 1966 and have some very marked differences, it has to be said. As it was, though, we were all just sitting around assuming Bill would be ‘converted’ at the end of the episode. I mean, not even Murray Gold’s music gave the game away in that... he didn’t use his cyberman theme once, it seemed to me. So, it’s like they were playing the episode completely for a big surprise and then just decided to tell everyone a few months before it happened. Bit of a silly thing to do, if you ask me.
And talking of surprises, we have John Simm back as the previous incarnation of Missy... The Master... and I’m assuming well be seeing him regenerating into her before the end of next week’s episode, maybe? Now, again, Moffat plays it really clever here and, aided by John Simm’s quite remarkable acting skills, hides him in plain sight for most of the episode. And that could have worked really well, again, if the BBC hadn’t let the cat out of the bag about him being in this final story. As it was, though, I was still fooled by the tactic up until only five minutes or so before he pulled off the prosthetics and revealed himself. At which point I exclaimed... “You don’t think that’s John Simm in disguise, do you?”... to the rest of the room and was told... of course not. However... it turned out it was.
Never mind though because World Enough And Time was still a smartly executed episode and, as usual, Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Michelle Gomez and John Simm were all doing some marvellous stuff here. There was also a nice little moment where The Doctor performs Venusian Judo (for the first time in decades in the show, I suspect) which ties in nicely, kinda, to the reappearance of the character Alpha Centauri a couple of weeks ago (I think Jon Pertwee first used this fighting style in the story The Monster of Peladon, right?). In fact, coincidentally, I was only talking about The Doctor fighting using Venusian Judo on a train back from a concert the other week so, yeah, it’s nice to have the reference.
Other than that, though... well I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that Moffat doesn’t screw up the season finale next week. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the story and I really hope he doesn’t forget to tie up all the loose story threads which he dangled in the first episode of this season. Especially since Bill deserves a lot better than the fate she has been given, to be sure. So, yeah, a nice episode, well put together and hope they don’t all screw it up next weekend. Fingers crossed for that, then.
* From the planet Mondas, one of the two worlds of cyberman legend, along with Telos.
Thursday, 22 June 2017
Doo Doooo, Be Doo Doo
Italy 1985 Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
“I chose Switzerland as it's somewhere nothing much happens.”
Back in the misty days known as the ‘Dawn of DVD’, a new chapter of European cinema of all shapes and sizes was opened up to me. I’d always been a big watcher of movies at home but VHS tapes were not releasing enough stuff in the correct aspect ratio and I refused, and still do to this day, to watch things in anything other than the ratio it was meant for... except in very rare cases where the original prints are no longer in existence and have never been made commercially available. Not only that... loads of the films available over here in the UK were shamefully censored by the BBFC, who even to this day are somehow allowed to be perpetrators of one of the most inexcusable crimes against filmanity ever... censorship.
So my ‘video junkie’ habit kinda slowed down to a ‘not quite stand still’ after a while. Then, however, DVDs were upon us and with them came the relative ease of ‘multiregion players’. You could literally walk into your local TESCO, buy a player and then look up the appropriate remote control button combination hack for the player you bought to make it ‘region free’. It’s not quite so easy with Blu Ray these days but it’s still not that hard to get a proper multizone player... thank goodness. Otherwise cineastes in Britain would be suffering even more due to the greed of the companies who want to jack up the prices to foreign countries. Not to mention the censorship and ‘time of release’ issues. Back in the day, you could buy the US edition of the DVD months ahead of the UK theatrical release for cheaper than the price of a cinema ticket and then, if you liked it, wait for it to come out on general release in the cinema in the UK and watch it like that too.
Long story short... not only were most of the DVDs finally being put out in the correct aspect ratio but you could get away from the drag of Victorian era censorship practices by just buying the uncut version from whatever country that was putting them out. There were even a load of shops selling the foreign discs in London, if you were worried about making transactions on the internet, at that time (pretty much all gone now).
And so, with the easy bypassing of censorship laws coupled with the quality transfer of the print (in most cases... don’t get me started on companies like ArtsMagic) and the correct frame size, a whole new vein of cinematic treasure was opened up to me which I’d previously ignored because I knew certain director’s films would be snipped by the censors in the UK editions (and still are, in many cases). So, of course, one of the first director’s films I went to take a proper look at... along with the likes of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin and Mario Bava... was the great Dario Argento. After years of admiring the soundtrack ads on the back of American magazines like Starlog.
This film, Phenomena, which has just come out in a ‘most but not quite all of the bells and whistles’ limited edition from Arrow, was the first Argento that, on my first watch, left me a little disappointed. I’d recently seen The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Deep Red (reviewed here), Suspiria, Tenebre (reviewed here) and Inferno (films like Four Flies On Grey Velvet were still not readily available on DVD in any other way than poor bootlegs still, at that time... now I have something like six different prints of that one) so I was being really spoiled with quality Argento. Phenomena, while still pretty good, has quite a different feel, in some ways, to those classic Argento films I just mentioned.
A fair amount of people seem to somehow, class this as a horror picture but, although there’s a strong supernatural presence in the film, this isn’t something the villain(s) of the piece, such as they are, can access and it really is another one of Argento’s trademark pictures... the Italian giallo. The supernatural element is similarly discounted in favour of true giallo leanings in such films as his aforementioned Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) and the modern giallo Tulpa (aka Perdizioni Mortali - reviewed here). When I first watched this one years ago (on the old Anchor Bay Region 1 double bill DVD with Argento’s Inferno) I remember thinking that, of all the Argento films I’d managed to see by that point, it was a bit of a dud. However, I’ve began to warm up to the unconventional feeling generated by the movie (it’s not really a whodunnit style giallo in that there aren’t a gazillion suspects and one of the main killers is not introduced properly into the text of this film until he is more or less revealed) and since then, I’ve seen a fewArgento movies which, believe me, are far worse than this one (Phantom Of The Opera, anybody?). Although, it has to be said, I’m much more tolerant of his later stuff than a lot of his fan base seem to be these days. So yeah, watching this in the new Blu Ray transfer from Arrow was a pretty good experience (and also had its downsides... which I’ll get to in a while).
Set in Switzerland, the film follows a teenage girl played by Jennifer Connolly (called Jennifer) who has a psychic link with insects and an affliction where she sleepwalks (sometimes with an insect’s eyes’ view of a killing being committed). She befriends a wheelchair bound, Scottish forensic entomologist played by the late, great Donald Pleasance who, naturally, has a trained chimpanzee to help him get stuff done. Actually, the chimpanzee is used at one point as almost Argento’s only concession to the whodunnit style of the traditional giallo in this, when he uses the creature holding a razor blade early on in the film to put the idea in the viewers mind that, just maybe, the monkey is going to turn out to be the killer!
Monkey magic aside, though, he film is actually full of those beautiful compositions and swooping camera shots which are a bit of an Argento trademark but some viewers (myself included, first time around... about 17 years ago) may miss them because of the muted tones employed... cold whites, grays and blues... but not used as starkly contrasting against strong blacks or textures as those kinds of tones are in the director’s amazing movie Tenebrae (aka Tenebre), where they absolutely pop. Actually, there is one moment which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the movie towards the end of the film, where we cut to a shot of an airport, which is all the acidic, primary colours reminiscent of Argento’s more usual palette (which is a colour palette Bavaesque in style, to say the least). This scene is completely at odds with the visual tone of the rest of the movie, as far as I'm concerned. If you want to find out more about the whites, greys and blues and the way they are manifested then read Rachael Nisbet’s excellent essay on the fashions of the film which is the absolute highlight of the printed booklet in this limited edition set (and check out her blog too if you like excellent writing on Italian exploitation cinema... just click here).
Regardless of the visual style, the film is, however, a visual feast of strong composition and the movement through those compositions.
For example, there’s a beautiful shot through an elliptical glass window taking up approximately the left hand two thirds of a shot with Jennifer making a phone call in one half of the window which is artifically split in half by the back of the booth behind her, framing two other characters in the near distance in the right hand half of the split outside the booth. Then the camera pans slightly right as these two go to what was, until now, the last third of the frame and stops with the dead, right hand half of the window split in the now remaining first third of the screen. We cut to a quick insert of Jennifer in the booth reacting to their comments before we cut back to that same, original master shot. Then Jennifer leaves via that half split of the window and the other two girls leave as the camera follows Jennifer into the next part of the shot... as the window goes out of frame. Beautiful stuff.
Another interesting moment comes after a bus drops Jeniffer off while she's busy being the film’s Nancy Drew character. The camera movements directly after the bus unloads Jennifer kind of swoop into framing her at the same kind of speed and movement it used with the filming of the departing bus and everything kind of follows through in the same kind of motion. It’s moments like this which make Argento one of the great directors, as far as I’m concerned.
I also noticed, this time around, a kind of visual obsession (probably in this one film only but I’ll be on the lookout for it more now) of downward movement as objects are dropped, falling to the bottom of the screen. Argento does this at least three times here... once in the opening of the first murder of a girl played by his own daughter, Fiore Argento, when we get a beautiful detail shot of a pair of scissors dropping and sticking into the floor, accompanied by a nice audible clamor. These scissors will soon find themselves embedded in the girls hand. The second use of this strange dropping motif is of the girl’s head itself. As she is pushed back through a window, a little reminiscent of violence found in both Argento’s Suspiria and Tenebrae, we cut to the other side of the window above a waterfall as Fiore is decapitated by the glass and the camera follows the course of her head as it drops into the swirling, white waters below.
A third ‘drop’ shot takes place during a suspense scene in the last fifth of the movie, where Jennifer is trying to disentangle herself from an intravenous drip and leave a room before her guarding nurse wakes up and catches her. The nurse has fallen asleep while she is knitting and at one point, while Jennifer is making her escape, the kitting needle drops to the floor and we fear the sound of it may wake the nurse. However, instead of clanging to the ground, the needle drops perfectly into a waiting ball of wool in a shot very reminiscent, at least to these eyes, of the shot much earlier in the film of the dropping scissors. So I need to be revisiting all his work again now to see if he used this kind of visual echo in any of his other films (like I needed an excuse to revisit Argento with all these nice Blu Ray editions coming out).
One of the things about the movie which is kinda all over the place is the music. There were a lot of different composers working on this one, including Goblin’s former head honcho Claudio Simonetti and British composer Simon Boswell. The music is mostly pretty fantastic and a lot of it is included in a new, remastered CD presentation which has a few more tracks than previous editions, as a fourth disc in this Arrow limited edition set (alas, it still doesn’t contain Bill Wyman’s lovely, atmospheric track The Valley on the CD but, well, you can’t have everything I guess). Simonetti’s stuff is absolutely brilliant but, like a lot of the music in the film, quite often seems inappropriate to the imagery. There are some nice tranquil shots going on in a movie comprising, mostly, a laid back sense of pacing but, for the most part, the music is speeding along and doing its own thing for a lot of the time. It seems to me it works much more successfully as a stand alone listen but I know a lot of both Italian horror movies and gialli were being scored in this manner then so, you know, sign of the times and all that. It doesn’t deter from the beautiful visuals too much and it’s still a great score (I’ll admit, the remastered CD was the primary reason I pre-ordered this set).
The film marks the last shoot that Argento and Daria Nicolodi (mother of Asia Argento) worked on while they were still together as a couple (although not the last film they both worked on). Here we have Nicolodi killed in a hideous manner and also Argento’s other daughter Fiore meets an equally terrible fate. Daria is killed in an even more spectacular manner in the director’s excellent movie Opera, two years later and, one wonders whether that says anything about Argento’s character and attitude to his partner at the time. Probably not but I did find the interviews with him on the Arrow documentary a lot scarier and less benign than the usual ones.
It’s a pretty good documentary too... where I learned things such as the front view of a scene set in a car was shot in Italy while Daria Nicolodi and Jennifer Connelly’s part of the same scene involving a bee in the back of the car was shot in Switzerland. And I honesty would probably never had noticed it if it hadn’t been for this documentary but, now that I know it, I can see that the background whizzing by past the windows of the car doesn’t really match when the camera is pointing at either the front or back. So... don’t think I knew that before so much appreciation there to Arrow as they have commissioned quite a good documentary from the guys at www.freakorama.org. It’s interesting that nobody mentions the fact that Jennifer Connelly got the top of her finger bitten off by the chimpanzee and it had to be reattached in hospital, though. A bite is mentioned but it's somewhat downplayed here. However, there are a few things about this top notch Blu Ray that left me a little disappointed, to be honest.
First up, there’s the case of the elusive footage from the Japanese laserdisc version of the movie. The film is presented three times in this set... one in the International cut, one in the horrible US release Creepers cut and the obvious winner here, a hybrid version which is the longest to date and includes the extra footage from the Italian cut. However, the footage from the Japanese laserdisc, where Jennifer apparently levitates above the other children, doesn’t seem to be present. What’s more, nobody seems to be saying anything about it either. I asked Arrow directly a few times on Twitter if they were going to include the scene in their new cut but they seemed reluctant to even reply to me on this issue. What’s more, although the documentary doesn’t mention this footage, there’s plainly a sequence of archival footage in this very same extra which shows Argento and his crew shooting that missing scene. Talk about winding up the fans! It’s a shame that, if this footage couldn’t be found in something the producers of this disc thought salvageable for a high quality Blu Ray presentation, even as an extra, they didn’t at least acknowledge its existence. Oh well.
Also, for a package with an abundance of extras on every disc, why couldn’t they get the clearance for some of the old Anchor Bay bonuses to be included too? The Bill Wyman video of his musical contribution to the film, The Valley, is not on this one (and neither, as I mentioned above, is it on the CD soundtrack) and it’s a shame because, although it’s a bit of a slow burn the very first time you hear it, it’s actually quite a nice bit of scoring.
Another thing which annoyed me intensely was the fact that this disc is region locked and, not only region locked but it doesn’t have a screen to tell you about it. Now my Blu Ray player often defaults back to Zone A after it’s been on stand by for a while and so, when I put the first disc in, the machine tried to read it and then it just went black. It took me a few tries because Arrow didn’t see fit to include an apology screen for this horrible practice, before I realised I had to reset my machine to Zone B to be able to play it rather than send the thing back to Arrow as a faulty disc. I got there in the end but, honestly, for a company who are such a boon the UK home video market like Arrow are at the moment, you would expect at least the courtesy of a screen clarifying that you are trying to play it on the wrong region setting. This is something that companies like, for example, Shameless, do really well with.
Other than those few of points though... it’s well done again to Arrow for giving us a great package and especially for including the remastered score on CD. This is probably the absolute best version you could possibly get of Phenomena anywhere in the world, as far as I know (to date). If you are a fan of Argento’s work you will seriously want to make sure you have this new Blu Ray version of the film and, if you aren’t, make sure that if this is the first time you see this film that this is the version you watch. It's a movie which has grown on me over the years and it’s certainly a film like no other Argento’s done... quite unique in its atmosphere and flawless in its visual execution, at the very least. Watching this movie reminds me that I’d really like to retire to Switzerland some day. Who knows? One day that might even come to pass.
Tuesday, 20 June 2017
The Sky Dragon
USA 1949 Directed by Lesley Selander
Monogram (via Warner Archive) DVD Region 1
I don’t think it was deliberate but, for one reason or another, The Sky Dragon was the last of the 47 Charlie Chan talkies made between 1929 and 1947. This brought to an end what had been a ‘mostly’ profitable series of films, albeit via a law of diminishing returns as the series went through cheaper studios and shrinking budgets as it wore on. Original number one son Lee Chan, as played by Keye Luke, is back as the only one of the Chan offspring present, playing opposite Roland Winters in his last go at the honourable Hawaiian detective. Luke had returned a few films previously and, while he was once the juvenile comic relief, putting him back in here in that spirit maybe made a bit less sense because he and his on screen father Winters, were both the same age.
Also back, of course, is the later series regular Mantan Moreland, continuing his wisecracking, perpetually fearful chauffer routine as Birmingham Brown although, it has to be said, the only decent scenes he gets in this are opposite Lousie Franklin, who plays the maid of one of the murder suspects in this film.
There’s also, much to my delight, the inclusion of actress Noel Neil in the proceedings. Noel Neill was, as you no doubt know... the original Lois Lane, first starring in that role opposite the very first cinematic Superman Kirk Alyn in the theatrical serials Superman (1948) and Superman Vs Atom Man (1950). This was one of a few movies she made in between those two serials. Of course, she also went on to reprise her role as Lois Lane opposite George Reeves in the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman from the second series onwards (Phyllis Coates left the role after her first season). She later turned up in a “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo as Lois Lane’s mother in one of the extended cuts of the 1978 motion picture Superman The Movie (again opposite Kirk Alyn, playing Lois' dad) and later performed as an old, dying woman ripped off by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in the opening of the 2006 movie Superman Returns. I think she also got some ‘Super’ TV cameos under her belt as well (before her death last year at the age of 95).
Alas, Noel is wasted in this movie as she doesn’t have much to do except provide a friendly female face and provide Charlie Chan with helpful information to clear her fiance of the murder charge when the occasion arises but... it was nice to see her here again, for sure.
This film starts off in an airplane as a man is murdered for the half a million dollars he is carrying while the rest of the crew and passengers are drugged, unconscious. These passengers include Charlie Chan and his number one son who then set about the rest of the movie trying to find the identity of the killer and, as usual, try to find the truth of the matter while the police jump at every opportunity to convict an innocent person of the crime. The police never really came off that well in these films, to be fair.
This is not the best of the Chan films I’ve seen, in all honesty, but it is pretty fast moving for it’s ‘just over an hour’ B-movie running time. The trail of the mystery is kept lively by a bunch of murders, incidents, tussles with possible suspects and Lee Chan pulling a wedding director from a fire after his garage has been set ablaze... with him in it... in an effort to destroy some camera negatives which will reveal the all too obvious, to this viewer at any rate, identity of someone in the film.
However, while the pacing is quite tight, I can’t say I was really all that impressed with the film and nothing much really stood out other than the occasional, expected, Charlie Chan aphorism which are peppered throughout the short running time with, it seemed to me, just a little less joy than they have been in some of the previous films. I liked the idea of the murder and theft taking place on the plane but would have really loved it if the entire movie had taken place in that plane with Charlie solving the crime before the plane lands and it would have given the perpetually cash strapped Monogram Pictures a cheaper budget, too, I would suspect... having to shoot on only one set. However, after the first quarter of an hour the action moves out of the plane and I suppose it’s easier to keep the pacing up when your characters can go from incident to incident as the story progresses. Monogram had been going since 1924 but released their last movies in 1952, so things must have been really tight by this point.
It would have been nice to see the series continue on after The Sky Dragon, although there was still a little life in the character after these films had come to an end. For me, those early days of Warner Oland playing Charlie opposite Keye Luke as a much more youthful “number one son” are still my favourites... but I honestly don’t mind Sydney Toler and Roland Winter’s takes on the character and I will probably be rewatching these movies over and over until I die (which hopefully won’t be very soon). Take this movie for what it is, a mildly entertaining entry into a great series of classic Hollywood detective yarns. And... just by way of a heads up... although it’s the last in that series of Charlie Chan films, I’m not planning on making this my last review of a Charlie Chan movie. Watch this space.
Sunday, 18 June 2017
Doctor Who - The Eaters Of Light
Airdate: 17th June 2017
Well this was... hmmm... well, I’m sorry but it really did seem kinda bland to me.
It wasn’t terrible, for sure but... it wasn’t that engaging either.
The Eaters Of Light uses a hook of music being heard in the Scottish hills and a crow apparently cawing “Doc-tor!” near a centuries old depiction of the TARDIS engraved in a rock. It also fashions its quite simplistic story under the guise of The Doctor and Bill trying to settle an argument about the fate of the real life ‘mystery’ of the Roman Ninth Legion... accompanied by Nardole, of course. Various books have been written and, of course, films made about this particular mystery... such as Centurion (reviewed by me here).
Here, we are asked to believe that the majority of the legion were literally filleted by a monster who has come through an inter-dimensional rift and, although that’s good Doctor Who, it all feels like it's a bit thrown away here and I think that’s due to the shorter running time of modern Doctor Who stories than anything else. I mean, this has all the makings of a classic episode and feels very much like an old Tom Baker episode from the late 1970s. Indeed, there are moments when the always excellent Peter Capaldi delivers some of his line readings just as the Fourth Doctor would have done... close your eyes at certain points and just listen... it’s almost like he’s deliberately trying to evoke him.
The problem is, though, that in a story which has such a simplistic, one track story line as this week's episode, then you maybe need a bit more time to set up the various characters and turn them into something more complex than just the bare sketches we have here, to maintain a certain level of interest and sympathy with them. Alas, single 45 minute stories of Doctor Who are much shorter than the multi-part affairs of the old days, when an average story would last between four and six 25 minute episodes per story. And it feels like the ideas presented here suffered because of it.
There was also some stuff that didn’t quite make sense.
For instance... Bill is rendered unconscious and when we see her come around, everyone is reacting like she’s only been unconscious for an hour or so... however, we also know that in the same time, The Doctor has been absent in the rift for over two days. So how the hell does that work out? Another thing that didn’t quite work for me is that a creature who feeds off sunlight (and presumably bones) is frightened of small shafts of light trained on it to keep it at bay. I’m sorry, what? I maybe missed something there but it did seem more than just a little incongruous, if truth be told.
The main trouble for me, with this story, is that there was no really great, stand out sequences that made you sit up and think... yeah... this is what Doctor Who does well. Instead we had quite a few missed opportunities, it felt like.
For example, when The Doctor explains to Nardole that crows do talk and they’re not in any way significant, you think he’s fobbing him off (and the audience) to accomodate a brilliant story twist later in the episode. Alas, it turns out The Doctor’s explanation is actually correct and that the crows have just been single minded in what they are saying over the years... which really is a rubbish explanation and does nothing but let down the opening hook, as far as I'm concerned.
Then we have... and I don’t know how many times we are going to have to go through this again and again in this show... Bill talking about being a lesbian. Seriously people, we’d got it the first time. Okay? We don’t need to be beaten over the head with it every other week as though it’s some kind of special thing we are supposed to be in awe of. We don’t need this stuff continually.
Another thing which really does highlight what I was saying about this resembling an old Tom Baker episode is the design of the creature itself. Now I’m not the biggest fan of CGI and I personally prefer practical effects where possible but, the ‘man in suit’ style creature running around on all fours looked preposterously bad here. Just like an old, cheap episode of Doctor Who from the late 1970s or 1980s, to be honest. It wasn’t as bad as the Myrka from the Peter Davison story Warriors Of The Deep (reviewed here) to be sure but... it wasn’t that far removed from those days either, in all honesty.
And, of course, we have the drama of the stuff with Missy crying as though she’s not a bad person and The Doctor’s true nemesis anymore. Seriously, are people buying this? Well, we’ve got an older incarnation of her dropping by next week so I guess that can’t go too well. In fact next week see the story I’ve been looking forward too since finding out about it, with the return of the original Cybermen whose only other appearance was in William Hartnell’s last story, The Tenth Planet (reviewed here). So I’ve got my fingers crossed that’s going to go well. It also, as it happens, marks the 100th TV Doctor Who story which I will have reviewed for this blog to date so, you know, let’s hope it’s a good one.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
My 1300th Post
Image And Ownership
Well, this one makes 1300 posts since my on-line debut back in March 2010 (right here). As always... thanks very much for reading. I appreciate that a lot.
I didn’t really have anything planned to write for this one, it kinda crept up on me so... I thought I’d pose a question about something which has been bothering me on and off about linearly perceived visual arts since somewhere around the mid 1980s. And the question is ultimately this...
Should shots in film be copyrighted? Is it an infringement when, say, a particularly well known shot is imitated in a certain kind of way? Not a question that most people would ask but I was almost obsessed with it in the 1980s and, well, here’s my take on it...
This question first occurred to me because of Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Jaws. Everybody loves that shot on the beach where the camera seems to fold out the perspective and caress Roy Scheider’s face, right? It's achieved by pulling the camera back at speed from the subject while simultaneously zooming in at exactly the same speed... or the precise reverse of what I just wrote. I forget which but you get the picture. It’s a celebrated shot and... perhaps rightly so. I used to love it. However, a few years later I finally got around to watching Alfred Hitchcock’s absolute masterpiece (although I didn’t appreciate it as such the first time I saw it) Vertigo and, well, you probably know that exactly the same trick with the camera movement timed to the reverse zoom is used in the model shots looking down the interior of the tower that James Stewart’s character famously can’t climb. So it turns out that Spielberg, who I seem to remember was once, as a young man, thrown off one of HItchcock’s sets, kinda nicked the idea from the celebrated director... or did he?
I’ll use a later example now and I’m going to pick on Spielberg again... not because I have anything against him. On the contrary, I think he’s one of the all time great American directors of his generation. It’s just, please forgive me, I’m getting a little old and I can only think of certain examples off the top of my head.
So let’s talk about Jurassic Park (1993) for a minute.
I think I may have mentioned this before in a review but in that move there’s a celebrated moment where the Tyrannosaurus Rex gets loose and goes on a rampage. The main protagonists are sitting in special jeeps stranded by the enclosure from which the errant T-Rex has escaped and, to heighten the suspense, Spielberg focuses his camera on a glass of water sitting on a ledge in one of the jeeps. We then start to see ripples in the water, followed not long after by the sound of the gigantic footsteps as a way of wringing out every last bit of tension from the scene. It’s great stuff but... take a look at The Unbearable Lightness Of Being from 1988, a clear five years earlier than Spielberg’s masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece... both these films are). There’s a scene where two lovers are in an apartment and the camera focuses on a glass of water which begins to ripple as vibrations build up from the Soviet tanks invading Prague in August of 1968. Is this another ‘origin’ shot or was this visual substitute for approaching danger used even earlier in cinema? I don’t know the answer but the comments section is downstairs if you do.
Okay, so two shots that are, on the surface, quite unique and then an inventive use of them in other movies by a different director, right? But where does homage end and plagiarism begin? Stay with me on this for a minute...
I recently watched director Anna Biller’s fantastic first feature length movie Viva (the review is written but it might not go up for a month or two yet and... I do mention some of this shot detail in there too). There’s a sequence in there where the director (who also stars in and wrote the thing) is lying naked beneath a man who is, more or less, forcing himself on her. The scene uses the same camera technique from a similar scene in Radley Metzger’s sexploitation opus Camille 2000. The camera focuses on a bowl of apples (in this case) in front of her and, as she heavily breathes in and out on the soundtrack, the differential focus keeps switching in time to her breathing between the apples and her face. The scene is clearly a knowing homage and Biller even uses the score from Camille 2000 in this scene (and a few other scenes in the movie too) to re-enforce that idea. However... how many young people watching Viva are that likely to have seen Camille 2000? What percentage of the audience? So... and I really am playing Devil’s advocate here... when does copyright infringement kick in when a percentage of your audience, possibly even a significant one, has no idea you are intentionally parodying using something from another movie.
These are just three examples here but I’m pretty sure there are a wealth of others which could be thrown into the mix too.
My personal response/answer to this question back then... after I thought about it for a good long while... is that you can’t copyright a shot or even a series of shots. These, like everything that has gone before them in cinema history, are things which are additional techniques added to the toolbox of any director’s visual semantics. It’s fair game. After all, I don’t ask why a director uses a zoom or a dolly or a pan or cuts to a close-up after an establishing shot. Therefore, I can’t, in all fairness, expect anything else in history’s cinematic arsenal to be exclusive to one person. And looking at that long history of the motion picture (relatively), it’s obvious that there are a hell of a lot of movie makers not bothered about any sense of visual ownership either. So there you go... there’s my answer.
However... think on this as a little postscript to this proposition...
In this day and age when two different comics companies have the opposing rights to the words ‘super heros’ and ‘superheroes’... and the phrase ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is off limits, possibly due to copyright violation in some countries (hence a change to Salazar’s Revenge for the fifth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie in certain areas?) then you have to ask yourself what kind of world we are living in right now and, you know, how long before companies do start asking this exact same question and trying to patent specific types or styles of shot? I hope it doesn’t come to that but... well... watch this space.
And thank you for indulging me for reading to the end of my 1300th post. As I said before, it's much appreciated. Stay tuned for more reviews, coming to this blog soon!
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
Womb With A View
Enter The Void (Director’s Cut)
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Entertainment One DVD Region 2
Warning: A big spoiler here about the end of the movie but I’ve marked it it just before I get there.
I saw Gaspar Noé’s movie Irreversible some years back now. It was an okay film but I’m not sure it was completely deserving the acclaim it garnered. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t... but it’s quite possible I’ve become kinda jaded to certain types of cinema that layer themselves behind a veil of inscrutability to end up taking you to a point that’s somewhat obvious. Irreversible took me to that point but at least it had a strong moral centre... so I was curious enough to check out the director’s much publicised movie Enter The Void in its longer, directors cut. It was about time, after all, that I finally caught up to this movie.
The film starts with some bizarre electronic drone on the score as gazillions of credits hurtle past you at a speed which renders them almost unreadable. This is followed by the introduction of some ‘thump heavy’ nightclub electronic music as a second section of credits starts, again too fast for the human eye to handle but with some amazing, different font transformations and colours as it rushes to the opening of the movie.
The first thing which will probably strike you as you watch this is that it is, for the most part (although there a few contradictory shots in the first section of the movie), shot completely from the point of view of the main protagonist, Oscar, who is living in Tokyo making an okay living from dealing drugs, somewhat responsibly... if that’s not a contradiction. He makes so much money at it that he’s able to buy a ticket for his sister, who went to a different foster home when they were both orphaned as young ‘uns, to come to Tokyo and live with him. She does so but the problem with the whole camera eye thing, where Oscar’s eyes double for the camera lens, is that... just over 20 minutes into this movie, which lasts a good two and a half hours plus, Oscar is shot dead by the police, the camera focusing on his bloody hands as he realises he has been shot and dies.
However... because this is a movie by a director not afraid to explore the boundaries of cinema somewhat, this doesn’t stop the camera from staying with Oscar for the rest of the movie. In the first 20 minutes of the movie, Oscar (played by Nathaniel Brown) talks with his sister, Linda... before she goes off to the nightclub where she works as a stripper/pole dancer... he’s rung by his friend Victor, just as he’s started tripping (the bizarre manifestations of the drug trip reminded me of some kind of subatomic universe and you can see it’s based on biological shapes, which is handy because we are often told that this particular drug is like what happens to the human brain after you die). Something has happened to the relationship between Oscar and Victor and he has to bring Victor his stash of drugs. Oscar’s artist friend Alex, who is sweet on Linda, accompanies him some of the way, filling him in on the specifics of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead he’s leant Oscar, thus setting up the rest of the movie’s narrative stance. When Oscar gets to the rendezvous point, it’s a set up and Oscar is shot through the door of a bathroom as he tries to flush the drugs in a police sting.
Alex is played by Cyril Roy, Victor by Olly Alexander and Linda by the absolutely wonderful Paz de la Huerta. Now, I raved about La Heuerta when I saw her for the first time in Nurse 3D (reviewed here) and here, she performs with a more naturalistic style to her acting. It’s quite an eye opener because, although she’s extremely sexy and out of her clothes quite often, she is not playing anything like the psychotic and vengeful serial killer she played in Nurse 3D. Here she plays a somewhat naive and less decisive character but, she does an absolutely wonderful job here and I really do have to catch up with some more of this woman’s work.
After this extended opening sequence, we move into the second section of the movie.
This film is set up into three sections, you see... the first being the last 20 minutes or so of Oscar’s life. The next hour or so is a flashback summation of key points in his life which tell us of his special relationship with his sister, takes us through the car crash which leaves the two of them orphans, then gets to his moving to Tokyo, how he makes friends with Victor (and how Victor’s mum makes ‘more than just friends’ with him), his friendship with Alex and, ultimately, how everything came to set up the opening sequence, which we then go through again in edited highlights but from a slightly different perspective since we are now travelling as Oscars soul so, everything is seen from behind Oscar, as opposed to actually from within Oscar’s eyes when he was inhabiting that body.
We then go into the third section of the film which is Oscar’s soul flying around in the aftermath of what’s happened and his jumping through time to see what becomes of all the other characters... in search of... something which seemed obvious to me as soon as we started the third section of the movie, to be honest.
The film is pretty much moving camera throughout, with very few shots which are viewed statically. Your eyes will be in a constant state of interaction with the shots paraded past your retina and my one criticism would be the adoption of this style in the very first section of the movie, where the camera actually inhabit’s Oscar’s body. Thing is, a moving camera is a fine way of half capturing the human visual experience on a daily basis... but only half. Human beings are constantly moving their heads around all the time but... they’re also moving their eyes and the eyes usually fixate on something and focus on it rather than just whizz by everything as the head moves... so it’s a nice movie convention and I guess I don’t know how Noé may have achieved anything closer, but it somehow didn’t strike me as a particularly good match for the material during the first 20ish minutes, to be honest.
The film’s colour palette is vastly oversaturated in the most pleasant way, looking like Mario Bava on acid is the phrase which cropped up in my mind as I was watching. It’s quite often dictated by the various neon signs flashing through the windows of whatever room the camera eye is spending time in but, even when it’s not, the colours are exaggerated and, well, quite pleasing to the eye, I have to admit. I could have done without some of the strobe effects when the soul is flying around, though, and I’m almost kinda glad I never had to watch this in the cinema.
It seems, in this last section, we can also enter the dreams of at least one of the characters and I have to say, there are some marvellous shot transitions as various temporal and spatial anomalies are created in a way that marries them up perfectly. Noé’s meticulous planning is highlighted by the way the edits work when they really shouldn’t and he must have put a heck of a lot of work into the design of this movie. He also, in this last section, uses various portals found in situations to travel between points in time. For instance, he will wander over the rim of the urn which will contain the dead character’s ashes, or a bowl, or a window... and then he will take another pass at it and swoop through the said shape into the next sequence. Once you realise this is what the director is doing, it becomes kinda fun to figure out which object in a room or in a landscape will be the next thing the director picks as another portal for Oscar’s camera eye... amusing stuff.
Big spoiler now.
My biggest problem with the film is that it’s hugely predictable. As I started the third section I figured the soul is looking for a way to re-enter life and I kept waiting for Paz de la Huerta’s character, Linda, to get pregnant. She does so, twice as it happens, and sure enough... on the second time we are inside her vagina as Alex ejaculates onto the camera. We then turn and ride the sperm down, following it into the camera soul’s sister before being reborn as Linda’s child. Okay, so it’s probably the only logical conclusion at this point in the movie but I did think it was kind of obvious and I really hate it when I can predict the ending of a movie so long before that ending actually happens.
End of spoiler.
That being said, Enter The Void is not hard to watch and, because of the constantly enquiring camera eye, it isn’t exactly slow paced. I think some audiences might find the film a challenge in terms of the length and fragmented nature of the, quite episodic narrative flow but, ultimately, if you are into cinema then you will probably find the film a joyous celebration of the media. It’s not a film you can put on to pass the time with your half inebriated mates on a Saturday night, for sure but, all in all I found it much more interesting than the same director’s Irreversible. Not exactly a feel good film but not something which isn’t life affirming either. Maybe give this one a go if you have a long stretch of time on your hands.
Monday, 12 June 2017
MILF Dead Ramble
The Mummy 2017
2017 USA Directed by Alex Kurtzman
UK cinema release print.
Semi warning: Very minor spoilers here.
I’ve always loved the Universal Monsters movies, ever since I was a nipper when I first saw the classics like Dracula (and his daughter), Frankenstein (and his bride), The Wolfman (reviewed here), Creature From The Black Lagoon (reviewed here) and, of course, The Mummy. I even loved the ‘actionised’ versions by Stephen Sommers too (well, the first two anyway). When I bought my first DVD player, many years ago, the imported discs of the various Universal Monster gems were at the top of my list of cool movies I needed to purchase...along with the other big essentials The Final Programme (reviewed here) and the 1930s Flash Gordon serials. I rediscovered these timeless classics again and loved to be able to finally see all the movies produced in clean transfers and in the correct sequence without resorting to disjointed TV broadcast dates.
Regular readers of this blog will probably know that, although I don’t have anything good to say about Scientology, I really think a lot of Tom Cruise, both as an actor and as a personality who brings a heck of a lot of good thoughts and hard work to the roles he undertakes. So when I heard that one of my favourite modern performers was going to join yet another reboot of The Mummy, I was pretty happy about that. I went to the debut concert of one of my favourite modern score composers last year... Brian Tyler (concert reviewed here)... in London and Tom Cruise was in the audience too (presumably over here shooting this movie, as it happens) and the next day it was announced that Mr. Tyler would be doing the score for it too. So, again, I was happy about that.
I didn’t think too much of the trailers for this movie, to be honest... but I was intrigued by the fact that the film was being headlined by a female mummy (not such a rarity, actually... but they’re usually downplayed for some reason). This time we had the gorgeous Sofia Boutella as the new “boobs n’ bandages” incarnation of The Mummy, Princess Ahmanet and I was intrigued to see what kind of dynamic a female antagonist would bring to the picture this time.
I also got wind somehow that Russel Crowe was playing Dr. Henry Jekyll and it was then that I realised there was going to be a bit of a 1940s Universal ‘monster rally’ vibe going on in this picture. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the company announced that this was going to be the first of the Universal ‘Dark Universe’ series, which would include such characters as Frankenstein’s monster, The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man (played by Johnny Depp, no less). True, I could be cynical (and very accurate) in saying that the company was obviously doing what DC have started doing and going for that Marvel Avengers money... in that they obviously want to cross over all the characters and reap the huge profits to be had from the combination of different characters that appeal to different fans... but of all the companies going for this kind of cross pollination of characters at the moment, I reckon Universal studios with their famous monsters have the right to do this more than any other company out there. After all, they’ve being doing it since 1943 when they unleashed Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman... which was so successful that their next two pictures had three monsters apiece... the Frankenstein monster, The Wolfman and Dracula... in them, in House Of Frankenstein (1944) and House Of Dracula (1945). Although that last one was pretty much the last hurrah for these particular Universal monsters in a totally serious horror movie for a while, they did all return together for what must be one of the first films to cross pollinate both serious horror and comedy in the much loved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein... which starred Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster (his third time in the role), Lon Chaney Jr as The Wolfman (his fifth time in the role) and, returning for his second and final time as Dracula, the original champ vamp Bela Lugosi. Of course, Lon Chaney Jr would also play Dracula once and The Mummy in three of the Mummy sequels (after Boris Karloff and Tom Tyler had both had a crack at the role). Strangely enough, The Mummy character never came up against his fellow monsters back then and even an appearance in Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy was devoid of any monsters. So I’m really hoping this modern film series runs its course and sets things right on that score.
So, yes... no matter how bad the trailer was, not to mention the terrible critical drubbing the movie has gotten... this was a Universal Monster movie, scored by one of my favourite modern composers and... I was looking forward to it a lot.
Funnily enough, despite what people have been saying about it... I was not disappointed with it.
Okay, so the film doesn’t start off as strongly as it could. After an extension to the Universal fanfare which ushers in their new Dark Universe logo (Was this also scored by Brian Tyler?) we get a brief detour with the Knights Templar (which does, I promise, become somewhat relevant to the story much later in the film) and we are also introduced to Russel Crowe's Jeykll. Some of the dialogue is not great in this scene as Crowe sets up the story, for the audience, with a big flashback to Princess Ahmanet’s history and her origin as The Mummy. Now, I have to say that the brilliant Stephen Sommers movie of 1999 also has a similar sequence at the opening but, it would be remiss of me not to point out that the 1999 one doesn’t need the ‘not very well written’ narration as this one does. True, it does also use voice-over narrative but a lot of the points that Sommers needed to hit in his version are made more interesting in the lurid but actually quite subtly expressed visuals and, although this new version certainly has that, the narrative just feels a little overplayed here, truth be told.
That being said, this is a, mostly, different kind of movie from that incarnation of the franchise and this opening, pre-title scene is pretty much the weakest moment in the picture. Which is a shame because for some of the audience that will really set the tone and persist in their memory. After this, the movie is actually pretty strong and although there’s plenty of action in it, I’m wondering if a lot of the disappointment from the critics comes from expecting an action/horror movie rather than what we have here which is actually more a horror/action movie... if you know what I mean.
One huge difference is that Sofia Boutella is not once sympathetic. In the Sommer’s version the audience can, at least, identify with the reasons why the two lovers do what they do... here, Ahmanet was as evil in life as she is in her living death so that’s a clear difference in the way you are asked to view the monster. And, while the script is possibly a bit ropey in places... such as the ludicrous but hugely enjoyable fight scene between Tom Cruise’s anti-hero Nick Morton and Russel Crowe’s ‘gor blimey guv’nor’ performance as Jekyll’s alter-ego Mr. Hyde, it is at least, for the most part, focusing on a singular story goal.
That is to say, it’s not the potpourri of different movies and scripts sandwiched together as some critics have been saying, I believe. Sure, it’s got a few moments where the tone is uneven and it perhaps tries to do a few too many things... we have the main story line of Ahmanet trying to reincarnate Set in Tom Cruise’s body, we have the secret organisation of Monster Fighters run by Crowe’s Jekyll/Hyde character and we also have a series of strange moments where Cruise’s best mate Chris, played by Jake Johnson as the comic relief, returns from the dead to talk to the cursed Cruise character in much the same manner as the male protagonist of John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London is ‘cursed’ with his dead friend visiting him at regular intervals. However, I don’t think there’s enough of a melange here to cause too much confusion for the audience... well, unless you have the attention span of a two year old maybe but most people, I suspect, will be fine with it.
The performances are all cool too. Cruise is pitch perfect as always and Sofia Boutella absolutely nails it as an incarnation of seductive evil as Ahmanet. The on-screen chemistry between Cruise and his other leading lady in the film... Annabelle Wallis as Jenny Halsey... is perhaps a little off but I honestly think that’s nothing to do with either of these actor’s performances and everything to do with a script which moves so fast it could have, perhaps, just allowed a little more breathing space with another scene or two to establish the, ‘already before you met them’, strained sexual relationship between these characters.
There are also some great little rewarding references to the history of the Universal Monsters franchise of both the long past and the more recent history. A vampire’s skull, for instance, plus a nice moment where you see the hand of the gillman from Creature From The Black Lagoon preserved in a jar. Also, aside from the obvious giant sandstorm face reference to Stephen Sommers’ version of The Mummy, check out the brief appearance of the quite distinctive tome with which Anabelle Wallis knocks Jekyll’s bodyguard unconscious. A little hint... “You must not read from the boooooooook!”
Oh, and for the record... Brian Tyler’s score is characteristically excellent and adds some interesting textures to some of the quieter, suspenseful scenes too. I’m a bit annoyed that the electronic download (I don’t do downloads) is twice the length of the already generous CD release which is due out in a few weeks but, you know, at least it’s getting a CD release so I’ll at least be able to hear half of it away from the movie. Looking forward to revisiting some of his quite distinctive themes for this coming from my stereo.
All in all, The Mummy is not a bad movie at all and far from the disaster that everyone, the critics at least, seems to be making it out to be. I understand it’s not done too well at the US box office but I also understand it’s done very well, Tom Cruises biggest opening, at the Chinese box office and so I’m really hoping the Dark Universe project at Universal is not scaled back or dead in the water because of its domestic performance. I really want to see the sequel which is left very clearly primed for this movie... as well as all the other monster mash-ups the new franchise has got planned (although I don’t really see how the proposed Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera movies would work alongside the other projects they have planned in this series, to be perfectly honest). Still, good luck to them and if you are a fan of the old Universal monster movies and don’t mind the possibly over-adrenalised action sequences that these kinds of movies utilise to capture a younger audience, then you should have an okay time with this one. I’ll certainly be looking to pick up the Blu Ray as soon as it gets released.
Sunday, 11 June 2017
19th Centauri Fops
Doctor Who - Empress of Mars
Airdate: 10th June 2017
Warning: Some slight spoilerage about the appearance of a certain character here.
Okay, so that was surprising. After last series’ one truly abominable episode, Sleep No More, Mark Gatiss gives us new hope with one of the few, as it turns out, of the latest season’s non-dud episodes. There’s still a chance, I guess, that this isn’t a season with a majority of duff episodes... after the strong opening three... and I hope this episode is the shape of things to come for the remaining three weeks.
I have to admit I was dreading this after Gatiss basically ruined The Ice Warriors for me, who are the lead monsters this week, in a Matt Smith episode a few years ago by doing to them exactly what Ridley Scott did to H. R. Giger's majestic, dead space jockey creatures from A L I E N in Prometheus... made them a ‘something in a suit’. However, although said suitage is certainly mentioned again in this episode, it’s just a passing reference and we have more of the hulking menace of the original creatures who first went up against Patrick Troughton in the 1960s back. I believe, actually, since they were off our screens for so long up until a few years ago, that this is only the fourth incarnation of The Doctor they have come up against.
Okay, so the episode starts ‘fairly’ strongly (and it would have been a lot stronger without the preview trailer from last week) with The Doctor, Bill and Nardole dropping in on NASA. One of the few weaknesses of this particular episode is in this pre-credits scene, actually, because... why the heck did they drop into NASA in the first place? Anyway, NASA receives a photo transmission from one of their probes of the surface of Mars and, clearly spelled out in some rocks placed on the ground are the words... “God Save The Queen”.
So of course Bill, Nardole and The Doctor, who has somehow figured out, more or less, when those rocks were placed, travel back to Victorian era Mars and they are startled to find a bunch of Victorian troops stranded there, along with their “Man Friday”... a loan Ice Warrior. Of course, in traditional Tomb Of The Cybermen fashion, it’s not long before a small group (because, you know, budgets and costumes) of Ice Warriors being led by their Empress are locked in battle with said humans on the surface of the alien world. What’s more, Nardole has accidentally deserted with the TARDIS and can’t seem to get back to The Doctor and Bill, who are also stranded in this mess of a situation. So... can The Doctor and the ‘Man Friday’ Ice Warrior broker some kind of peace between the two races before the humans are totally wiped out?
It’s really great to have a ‘mostly’ stand alone episode of Doctor Who like this which works well as a short form story and the performances by all of the usual suspects sparkle and gives Gatiss’ words their due. I’ve always liked this kind of Victoriana science fiction style of story (I love the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, for example) and it seems clear the people involved in this episode must have done too. Big shout out to the costume designers and builders because the wonderful Victorian spacesuit with the nice old grammophone style speaking tube are a lovely bit of steampunk sensibility brought to the show. This is good stuff and the episode is fast paced and ingenious.
Also, there are a load of shout outs to things in this episode for fans of the art of the moving image to revel in. Not just movies such as The Terminator and The Thing but also some great nods to the history of the show too... as is becoming customary over the last few years in Doctor Who. For example, we have a lovely portrait of Queen Victoria which the human soldiers have brought with them to Mars and it’s clearly Queen Victoria as played by Pauline Collins (No Honestly, Shirley Valentine etc.) who played Queen Victoria in the David Tennant/Billie Piper episode about Victoria being trapped with The Doctor and Rose in a battle between king fu Zen Monks and a werewolf in the episode Tooth And Claw (an encounter which brought about her creating Torchwood, which Captain Jack Harkness, as played by John Barrowman, would later head up).
My favourite little nod, however, was something I saw coming just a second or two before it happened. There is a voice on a viewscreen and, just after, the image of the alien doing the talking is revealed. Yes, it’s Alpha Centauri, the ‘hermaphroditic hexapod’ who was a delegate involved in the delicate negotiations which also involved the Ice Warriors in the 1972 classic Jon Pertwee story The Curse Of Peladon and the not so classic sequel, in 1974, The Monster Of Peladon. Alpha Centauri has got to be one of the most affectionately cheapest and ridiculous monster designs in the entire history of the show (I can think of others, though) and it’s nice to see ‘it’ back on screen for a fortunately brief period of time here. What’s even more startling is it’s voiced, once again, by 92 year old Ysanne Churchman, who voiced the character in its two other appearances and who is probably more famous for playing Grace Archer in the long running British radio show The Archers (a character who died in a fire on that show in 1955).
So, yeah, a nice slice of nostalgia for fans of the Pertwee era and it certainly left me with a good vibe.
However, we also have the return of Missy/The Master as the only way Nardole can get the TARDIS back to The Doctor is to release Missy to help. Which reveals a possible other weakness of the episode as it stands at the moment, without the context of whatever’s going to go down with Missy in weeks to come. That is to say... we have absolutely no idea why the TARDIS malfunctioned in the first place. Was it just pulling itself out of danger like it occasionally has before (I don’t think it would leave The Doctor without coming back for him). It certainly looked like an invisible hand was pulling at the controls. Or is something more sinister going on. Was the TARDIS reprogrammed to do this on cue so that Missy would gain access? I guess we will, at some point, probably find out... or possibly not since the resolutions in most series finales of Doctor Who these days often leave a lot of badly forgotten loose ends and a lot to be desired. We shall see.
There’s also the matter of how the probable predecessors of the Ice Warriors set many years in our future on Mars, in the David Tennant episode The Waters Of Mars, can somehow be fully evolved and in hibernation for thousands of years in the Victorian era. I’m not too fussed though. Something for the fans to figure out, I guess.
However, as far as Empress Of Mars goes, for now, let me congratulate all involved, especially Mark Gatiss, in bringing us a cracking episode of Doctor Who just when we really needed one. God Save The Queen.
Thursday, 8 June 2017
Lady And The Vamp
Penny Dreadful Series 3
2016 USA Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilers.
And so I finally got around to watching Series 3 of Penny Dreadful and I’m happy to say that this third trip, with the surviving characters, is a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be. At the end of the last season I expressed concerns that the continuation of the show would not be up to the high standards of the previous incarnations due to all the characters splitting up and going their separate ways. However, rather than giving us stand alone episodes of each one, as I’d expected, the majority of the series has each set of characters in scenes all crosscut in the same episodes.
So, as each character has their own adventures we can start to join the dots and see how one part of the story affects another and get a taste of how, when the inevitable reunion of characters happens (to some extent), the people are still very much caught up in one single minded cause. That cause, in this one, being the advent of the ‘end of days’ ushered in by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) herself. And, I have to say that, beyond my expectations, this one really works well and I enjoyed this third series almost as much as I did the first.
We also have a bevvy of new characters, four of which... Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, Renfield and Dr. Seward... are ripped from the pages of British, gothic literature and a few others who... well, who are not. We have Perdita Weeks as the extremely cool ‘hunter warrioress’ character Catriona Hartdegen... although she’s introduced rather late in the story, almost like the writers are making her ready to become a regular in a fourth series although, as it turns out, a fourth season was not on the cards. We also have Dr. Seward, who has been recast as a lady and who is played by Patti LuPone. She is a problematic character in that she is played by the same actress who played Miss Ives’ witch friend/instructor in Series 2 and, to get around this, the writers have made that former character an ancestor of Dr. Seward. Which means the Vanessa Ives character is obviously a lot older than I’d thought... possibly hundreds of years. I don’t think I realised this when I watched the second season to be honest and, frankly, I'm still not sure how that timeline would work given her relationship with Sir Malcolm. And we have Jessica Barden playing a ‘waif with teeth’ who is rescued from a Victorian ‘torture/snuff’ club by both Billie Piper’s Lily (the Bride of Frankenstein character) and Reeve Carny’s Dorian Grey.
So, yeah, we start off with the various groups split. We have Sir Malcolm, as played by Timothy Dalton, who is about to be brought from his big game hunting in Africa by an Apache who claims to be the spiritual father of Ethan Chandler (aka Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman)... in an effort to rescue him from his real father (who is played in one episode here by Brian Cox). Meanwhile, Ethan in Texas (as played by the brilliant Josh Hartnett) is rescued from his captors by the leftover witch from last series, played wonderfully by Sarah Greene. They then go on a mission to wreak bloody vengeance on Ethan’s real father but... well, I’m really trying to not get into spoiler territory here. We also have Eva Greene’s Vanessa Ive’s character left on her own in London where, after a period of heavy depression, she makes the acquaintance of the head of the Natural History Museum... but is she also being stalked by a greater menace from her past?
And then we have Victor Frankenstein hooking up with Doctor Jekyll in order to help him perfect a chemical serum which he hopes will relieve mankind of their baser, violent, out of control desires. Of course, we all know where this is going with Jekyll but, alas, it’s another thing which we don’t get to see through to culmination... almost, again, as if the writers were holding it back for a further series. One wonders if the writers knew it would be finished when they started writing this season or if they were as taken aback by the cancellation as the many core fans of the show were.
Finally we have Rory Kinnear’s brilliant reprise as the Frankenstein monster, who is now finally beginning to remember scraps of his former life. There is what is probably a retro but still effective gesture on the part of the writers here where another character from the regular pool, turns out to have memory loss of certain events and, as that character regains it, we find that Frankenstein’s monster and this particular character have a much deeper connection/history than the friendship they have slowly cultivated over the last two seasons. There’s one episode here which features the full, shared history of both characters here and it’s addictive and jaw dropping. Which is just as well, actually, because the Frankenstein monster shares no screen time with any of the other, regular characters in this one except for hiding out of sight of them towards the end of the last episode when... no, if you need to know the rest of that sentence then you need to watch it.
Now, since I knew that this was the last series and had some expectations that the writers knew that too (the last episode does, indeed, finish with the words ‘The End’), I was interested in seeing how one of the regular characters, Miss Ives, would finish up and, I have to say, it wasn’t at all what I expected. I fully expected to see her on her own, with all her friends and colleagues dead by the end of the last episode and she, herself, imprisoned within a straight jacket. This would have been the perfect ending for me here. However, instead of this, admittedly downbeat conclusion to the series, the writers have gone for something less expected and, in my opinion, maybe just a little less interesting but... well, I’m not too disappointed by the end game here. I certainly would have had trouble keeping interest in another series after the final events in this one play out as they have done and it’s an end which certainly, in my opinion, brings things to a sound conclusion... despite the possibilities of new regular characters being an interesting proposition.
And there’s not much more to say about this one, methinks.
Penny Dreadful Series 3 is another slice of moody, twisted gothic literature remade in the new image of the writers and served up with a dark and enhanced flavour, well held together by one of Abel Korzeniowski’s excellent scores. One of the few TV shows I’ve watched over the last year and, if you’re into the kinds of characters and situations explored herein, definitely worth some of your time, I think.