Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Sixth Watch



Six, By Her Hex

The Sixth Watch
by Sergei Lukyanenko
Penguin
ISBN: 978-1-78-515030-2


And so, finally, the sixth book of Lukyanenko’s famous Night Watch series is translated into English.

If you are not familiar with the Night Watch series then you may remember the large budget Russian blockbuster movies made last decade... Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006). They were pretty well received films internationally and, personally, I think the second was a little better (at least in terms of being anywhere near the source material as an adaptation) but they were really so far away from the content and atmosphere of the original stories that, when you first start reading these things, you might feel you’ve got the wrong batch of books. They were cool films but the books, which are a million miles away from what director Timur Bekmambetov did with the movies, are so much better and more engaging than their cinematic equivalents.

The books, to date, are The Night Watch, The Day Watch, The Twilight Watch, The Last Watch, The New Watch (reviewed here) and this latest addition to the stories, The Sixth Watch. The stories follow the exploits of a group of light and dark wizards, vampires, witches and so forth who are working behind the scenes of our modern world and keeping the balance between good and evil. They’re mostly told in the first person by the main hero of the stories, Anton Gorodetsky, who starts off when we meet him as a lower grade ‘Other’ and who advances and gains power (and also gains a wife and daughter) as the novels progress. They’re a bit like Adam Hall’s Quiller books in style, with a little more humour as the stories progress and mixed up with the kind of wizardry one might expect from a J. K Rowling novel.

They are fairly gritty in nature, which I suspect might possibly be a trait of Russian literature... but also quite magical and witty. They're also very rewarding and the story arc of each novel doesn’t usually go quite to where you think it’s going to go. There’s usually a revelation or two about regular characters you think you already knew and, quite often, people you care about wind up either dead or forever changed in some way... and this one is certainly no different in that respect.

This latest tome in the series follows the pattern set about by the earlier novels to some degree, in that it’s split into three parts with various chapters comprising each section. Usually, though, each section tells a different short story... sometimes with shifting viewpoints but with the majority of the novels narrated first person by, as I said earlier, Anton Gorodetsky. Then, when you get to the end of the last part, it usually reveals itself as a binding part of an arc which the earlier sections have been leading up to as kind of puzzle pieces of the larger story and a more crucial ‘end game’. In this new one, however, the sections do not take the appearance of stand alone stories at all and I wonder why the writer chose to split this one into parts at all since each section carries on directly after the last one ended.

Indeed, the story which starts off the first chapter makes it clear that the various factions - The Night Watch, The Day Watch, The Inquisition and The Witches - must work together to try and defeat an impending threat which, in the usual high stakes stories by this author, would mean an end to both them and the rest of humanity on the planet. This kickstarts in two ways. Firstly, an unknown vampire is drinking blood from victims who are left alive rather than drained and Anton is given the case, which is kind of beneath him now since he is such a unique other... not to mention his even more powerful wife Svetlana and his completely unprecedented, powerful daughter Nadya. He quickly learns that this is because the initials of the names of the victims bitten in order are spelling out his name and giving him a warning. Is the vampire his enemy, though, or an ally? Meanwhile, all the 'prophetic others' in the world from all the various factions have a simultaneous prophecy about the return of a long forgotten being called ‘The Two In One’ and, as usual, the prophecy is buried in clue filled rhymes which Anton and the others have to try and solve... this one including talk about a Sixth Watch and the end of the world, due in just a few days time. And that’s the basic plot set up.

And it’s wonderfully written although, I was pretty sure I knew how this one was going to turn out. I’d just assumed that, at some point, someone would be smart enough to figure out that as long as the conditions of the prophecies were never met then nobody would have to worry about it reaching its ultimate conclusion and that, I figured, is why nobody in the Watches seems to know anything about The Two In One or The Sixth Watch from their archives. However, I’m pleased to say (in some sense) that I was wrong and the arc concludes quite differently.... with a certain amount of sacrifice which will certainly mean the books, if any more are written in the future, will be a completely different affair... at least from the starting point of any further adventures.

Now I’m not going to say much more about the content of this one except that a few significant characters who I thought I’d never see again make return appearances in this book... including The Tiger, who made so much trouble in The New Watch and who is seen as an ally of his human basis, Anton, here. So when The Tiger is involved, a creature born from the Twilight which is where all the sorcerers and shape-shifters draw their power, the reader know the dangers are very great indeed.

What I will say is the book is carrying on in the globe hopping tradition of the later tomes and it’s not all set in Russia, although the majority certainly is. It’s also a wonderful read, as usual and, while the end of this volume seems like it’s a dead end for the series... and may even be intended as such... I’m pretty sure that Sergei Lukyanenko could certainly whip up another one where a certain character’s fate is either reversed or improved upon should he so desire (so I’ve not given up on another cracking Night Watch adventure to come just yet, although I recently found out this one is being marketed as "the final" Night Watch book... we shall see).

And I don’t have too much else to say about The Sixth Watch other than that the first person style makes these books easy to slip into and the cynicism of the central character and his attitude to certain aspects of the fantastic elements which make up these stories ensure that the ideas are easy to access and, once in, you will probably be as agog as I was. To say that these books are page turners is a bit of an understatement, for sure. So for all fans of the series... don’t hesitate as it’s another great novel and it might, just might, be the concluding volume in the series. If you’ve never read one of these before... well, the characters do tend to progress and grow from novel to novel so you’d be much better off starting from scratch with The Night Watch and reading them in order. These are great books, though and fans of fantasy fiction shouldn’t let these go unread. I just wish somebody would do a set of TV miniseries’ and adapt them properly... they certainly deserve it.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dunkirk



Dun-roamin’

Dunkirk
2017 UK/Netherlands/France/USA
Directed by Christopher Nolan
UK cinema release print.


It might be pertinent, perhaps, to mention at the very start of this review that I am not the biggest fan of war films. That being said, there are a few which I think work really well and I’m sure that if I could just bring myself to see a few more of them, I’d probably embrace the genre as much as I do any other. However, I’m also not the best admirer of the work of director Christopher Nolan either, although I did like the second and third films of his Batman Trilogy quite a lot.

So why did I go and see this movie then?

Well, I’ve mellowed a lot to the music of Hans Zimmer over the years (and seen him twice in two incredible concerts, one of which is reviewed here) and I really wanted to see what he’d do with a score set in the Second World War which, I assumed (rightly, as it happened), would eschew the traditional but quite effective, Ron Goodwin style approach to the onscreen antics of its protagonists and instead deliver something much more... um... Zimmer-like. I wanted to see if this kind of scoring would hold up to the subject matter. It does so admirably, as it turns out but, that being said, it’s not a typical war film either. Even so, Zimmer meets it more than halfway. I’ll get back to the music in just a short while but let me tell you a little more about the film itself.

Well, it’s a bit of a visual treat and that’s good because, as I said, it’s not your typical war film and there’s not a lot of dialogue in it... the main chunks of speaking going to Kenneth Branagh as an officer but even his dialogue is minimal compared to most other movies. It’s also not a film which captures, in any way, the epic scale of war... at least not in the same way that most directors would do it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s more like watching an intense, dramatic thriller than a big patriotic celebration and I think the reason for that is because the film doesn’t focus on big units of men moving around... well it does have that element, obviously but, it doesn’t focus on it...

Instead, it tells a story from the points of view of four main protagonists in different parts of the skirmish. We have a young soldier called Tommy, played really interestingly by a guy called Fionn Whitehead and he is on the beach at Dunkirk. He just wants to get off the beach and onto a boat, somehow, to escape all the killing going on around him. He’s one of those characters who any person would really want to be around because, just like Sandra Bullock in Gravity (reviewed here), wherever his character ends up, that’s where the most trouble and peril is going to hit. Stay away from this guy... he’s incredibly unlucky. We also have Kenneth Branagh as an officer on the same beach, waiting patiently for some kind of help to arrive to get his soldiers off to safety.

Then we have Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson... a civilian mobilised to take his boat out on a rescue mission to get the soldiers and who takes his son and another local lad with him plus... we have Tom Hardy as a spitfire pilot who sacrifices his best survival options in order to pitch in when it counts. I thought it was kind of interesting that Tom Hardy played the Batman nemesis Bane in the same director’s The Dark Knight Rises (reviewed here), mostly behind a mask and in this film he also, almost the whole time, plays a character hidden behind the mask of his flying outfit. Interesting that Nolan picked himself an actor who he knew, from previous experience, could deliver a performance with most of his face hidden from the audience. Good call.

As the little storylines unfold, the main dramas leave the Branagh officer part more as an anchor point which is not really going anywhere but which has this important character because you get a sense of ‘establishing info’ from him whenever we cut back to him. So the main dramas are Tommy trying to get away from conflict with every path he chooses seeming to get him closer to it, the noble spitfire pilot who is running out of fuel and needs to figure out when to turn back and we have the drama of Mr. Dawson and his companions after they pick up a shell-shocked soldier filled with the horrors of war, played by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy.

However, what’s really interesting... and I didn’t really realise this was happening straight away, is that the linear track of the film is chopped into little bits and we are crosscutting continually to bits of the action which are happening in a totally different part of the timeline. So, for instance, we can be watching an action or suspense scene cross cut with another scene which was occurring a day or so before but without any warning and, I have to admit, it took a little while for me to realise what was going on until I started noticing things like days scenes cut against night and the different characters looking at other scenes from a different point of view. It’s actually very clever in this regard and, as the film progresses, you get the sense of time zones speeding up to meet each other, somewhat, so that by the time you get to the end, you can place all the characters in roughly the same area at more or less the same time and see how the actions of one person in one place has consequences to another character in a slightly different chronological space.

Nolan also has a way of sometimes ‘hanging back’ in a shot and giving the camera POV a certain voyeuristic kind of feel. For instance, he might follow a character only so far into a shot and then stay put so you can see the character from afar interacting with a new environment... almost like using an establishing shot in reverse. Now I have seen this technique used before, most notably in Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli (aka Ms. Stiletto, reviewed by me here) and Nolan does it really well here. It’s a great way to place your main protagonists into a situation while detaching you and letting you see a slightly bigger picture at the same time.

Now, I have to say that I did find some of the editing, even following this deliberate method of structuring the story, a little clumsy in parts. Things occasionally felt disjointed and popped me out of the narrative at some points but... Nolan is lucky in that he’s got Hans Zimmer suturing up all the little visual discrepancies that some of the audience might feel are there. Which, okay, is a standard role of film music anyway... it brings continuity across the cuts... but Zimmer really earns his keep here.

I was thinking about the relationship between composer and director as I left the cinema on this one because the music is a big factor in the success of this film, I feel. If you think about the huge impact made by the partnering of Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann you will perhaps remember the latter’s famous score for the former’s Psycho. A score written entirely for strings but which has a vast impact on the way the film was perceived. Even Hitchcock himself, before that score was written, was contemplating cutting Psycho down to an hour and using it as an episode of a TV show before Herrmann told him to hold on until he’d written something. The result was a score which many people regard as injecting pretty much all of the tension and unease you feel in Psycho when watching it. Without Herrmann’s music, the film would not be the powerful classic it is widely regarded as being today.

And I think, without doing Nolan a dis-service because his visuals and scenarios are quite intense in some places... that this is exactly the same thing happening here. I believe Zimmer’s score for this movie is responsible for, maybe, over 90% of the unbelievable ‘edge-of-your-seat’ moments in the narrative. There’s a really strong set of sequences near the start of the film where Tommy and a French soldier grab a wounded soldier on a stretcher and make a very long, fraught and suspense filled run to get him on the one leaving ship... in the hopes that they can get on it themselves. Even from this section, Zimmer’s music is full on tension filled suspense and it’s, wisely, mixed into the foreground of the audio track so that it can do its job as effectively as it does. And it continues to do it throughout, with a score which uses a recording of Christopher Nolan’s pocket watch ticking transcribed into a synthesiser and used, perhaps in a clich├ęd way, like a metronome’s heartbeat on the soundtrack which synchs with your own biology and ramps up and down with your emotions once you’ve got it in your head. I’m really looking forward to listening to the CD of this one away from the movie, I can tell you.

So yeah, that’s my take on Nolan’s Dunkirk. There’s excellent acting in a truly visual style... it’s the looks, pauses and reactions, not the words, which make for most of the drama. There’s some beautiful cinematography and some well designed sequences (such as a truly suspenseful part where Tommy is on a boat being slowly riddled with bullet holes... I won’t describe the whole scene and spoil it for you here, though) and there’s Hans Zimmer’s truly phenomenal score (which I was surprised to hear commented on by a random audience member as they were leaving the screening... more people are actually listening than I thought, perhaps). So, yeah, this one counts as my third favourite Christopher Nolan film, I think and, as such, gets a strong recommendation from me. War is hell... but it can also look and sound pretty nice with the right people behind and in front of the camera... so maybe give this one a watch.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Love Witch



Witch Slap

The Love Witch
USA 2016 Directed by Anna Biller
Oscilloscope/Fright Fest Blu Ray Zone B


Okay, so this is a film I had to forego seeing at a very limited screening on the weekend of its official release in the UK because it was a) in a fairly small screen, b) only had something like bean bags for seats (yeah, I know that sounds comfy but I’m old... not sure my knees would thank me) and c) while I very nearly didn’t let this detract from me seeing the only showing it had, the poster advertising it also said it was a ‘feminist’ screening... and I really didn’t want to be sitting there in a room full of what many victims of modern culture seem to feel feminism has become (actually, people used to tell me I was one but I only ever wanted equality and so I never really looked into it that much). I felt like I would be like too much of an annoying outsider to what felt, although not actually stated, like it would be a ‘girls only’ showing. I want an easy life. I was still contemplating the idea, though, because this movie was getting some good word of mouth on Twitter. However, I then found out that, two days after the screening, the Blu Ray was being released for less than the price of what the cinema ticket would have cost me... so in the end I just pre-ordered that as a more than viable alternative.

Now, I’ve seen a fair bit of positive and negative criticism about this movie and, frankly, if somebody can generate that amount of split in an audience then their film is probably going to be worth seeing whether you actually like it or not, is my view. I have to say that, for the most part, I really liked this movie, the first I’ve seen by director Anna Biller (although I have Viva in the ‘to watch’ pile*) and I had a big smile on my face throughout most of the running time... well, apart from when I spilled the ginger beer but that in itself says a lot for the movie because I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen long enough to ensure the table I put my drink on was actually there (and, yeah, I quite spectacularly missed it, thanks very much... lots of cleaning up to do).

So the film starts off setting a tone, which it sticks with throughout, which is of the kind of retro fake Hollywood artificiality and hyper-realism you might see in a movie made 40 years or more ago. A lot of people have mentioned that this harkens back to the old AIP style pictures made by Roger Corman and the rest of the bunch back in the sixties but it’s something which has been denied by the director and I think, amazingly, I can actually agree with her on this one. I can understand the tendency to compare them but I think any similarity is generated purely by the director, cinematographer etc on those period pieces using a common visual style with a wealth of films made contemporary to them... so any similarity seems to be more a coincidence of era, if you see what I mean.

Biller herself has likened the style to 1970s Hollywood and I can certainly see this but, for me, the experience was a little more like watching those late 1950s to mid 1970s TV sit coms of cheery times gone by. Sure the visual style is quite focussed and unwavering, especially on the colour front, but the acting and make up is also strongly stylised (almost stilted... but I don’t mean that in a negative way) and this all builds on the wholesome and clean image which, in this case, gives us a sense of expectation from the material so that Biller is able to pull the rug from under us at certain moments. You don’t watch an episode of Bewitched or I Dream Of Jeannie or The Brady Bunch, for example, and expect the lead characters to be killing and burying the other characters or pissing into witch bottles.

The Love Witch starts off strongly with us following the thoughts of the title character, Elaine (played beautifully by Samantha Robinson), as she rides into a new town and stops outside her new apartment building... which looks like something out of The Addams Family. Right away the artificiality of the environment and ersatz tone of the movie are spelled out in capital letters and underlined in dayglow paint as the shots of Elaine from inside her car are all done with old Hollywood style rear projection. The last two modern era films I saw to use this effect to comment on the nature of the ‘filmed reality’ we are seeing were Peyton Reed’s Down With Love and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and as soon as you see this technique used in a modern setting, it immediately gives the message that we are being included in a hyper-real world which has its tongue wedged, fairly firmly, in its cheek. At least, that’s the way I saw it and certainly the dialogue and acting style seems to bear this out.

Indeed, the film further explores the nature of its own artifice by having a few shots thrown in of Elaine putting the finishing touches on some paintings... which is her hobby when not making witchy things for the witchcraft shop in town. At no time does there ever seem to be any wet paint on her brush nor actual painting going on at all as she goes through the motions for the sake of the character... which I thought was a neat kinda detail to exploit the artificiality of this work in comparison to what movie-making has become now in mainstream cinema. So that was cool.

Another thing which immediately hits one in the forebrain is the amazing sense of colour coordination displayed in the very cleanly designed shots. When Elaine is wearing red, her suitcases are the same colour and tone etc. This is further emphasised fairly quickly when Elaine and her new friend Trish, played by Laura Waddell, got to a restaurant and all of the people in it are dressed in the same pink, lavender and whites of the rest of the interior decor. It’s lucky Elaine and Trish both decided to freshen up to the exact same colour coding as everyone else in this scene, that’s for sure. ­čśŹ There’s also a lovely switch around later on when Trish is in mourning and everyone in the restaurant, including Elaine, is dressed in pretty much the same colours as before but Trish sticks out like a sore thumb due to her black atire.

It’s in the first restaurant scene that we get the tone of the story when Elaine and Trish are discussing love and Elaine explains... “Men are like children, they're very easy to please. As long as we give them what they want.” The whole tone of this seems to be that men are really stupid when it comes to love and the male characters in the movie do bear that out, wearing their 1950s dumb male chauvinist influences quite flamboyantly on their pseudo-celluloidal sleeves. I have to admit, I was a little offended by this attitude when it turned out that almost every male character is somewhat reduced to this particularly easy stereotype until I realised that the majority of the women in this film were all equally as stupid in terms of their rigid bondage to a specific set of attitudes and coding and I realised this was all just part of the fun, in some ways.

While I do think the director is an amazing artist on the strength of this one film I was also, for a short while, thinking she was an absolute genius when it came to the musical scoring too. I had the preconceived idea from looking at the IMDB that Biller had written the entire score by herself and all through the movie I was thinking how amazingly close she was getting to the orchestration of certain composers and scores at various points. For instance, there’s a sequence when one of the male characters has a flashback and the music is almost what Ennio Morricone might have written for Edda D’Ell Orso to hypnotically warble against in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. And the music from the first love scene in the film sounded like it’s dropped straight out of the same composer’s score for Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. As I discovered the day after, though, Biller just wrote a few of the diegetic songs for the movie and the rest of the score is needle dropped in from various scores and movies exactly like the ones I’d almost been identifying throughout the movie... including Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, as it happens. Although, if you’re trying to get away from comparisons to the kinds of movies AIP were putting out in the 1960s, I would have thought going for Italian exploitation stuff exactly like the ones AIP used to distribute in America at the time (sometimes rescored by composers like Les Baxter) would have been something she would have steered clear of. However, you can’t help but applaud her for the musical choices as they also give the film another ‘larger than life’ veneer to help carry the illusion of retro-fakery which seems, at least to these eyes, to be the order of the day as far as this little gem is concerned.

There were a couple of things which niggled me on this one, though. There was an extended medieval reenactment thing happening where two of the characters in the film are ‘fake married’ and I felt those particular scenes did overstay their welcome a little. Also, I found the last third of the movie a little jumpy, particularly in Elaine’s attitude to one of her old, male witch ‘friends’ which seemed to suddenly soften towards the end. Not quite sure why that happened, to be honest. Also, Elaine is very forward in her chat up lines and inducements to the various men in the movie she is trying to get together with... spelling things out for the various stupid men to get things moving quicker (I can relate... I am a stupid man and I apparently don’t often realise when a lady shows interest, it has to be said). This is all fine and a very funny element of the film but my problem with it comes when she starts maybe spelling things out a little too much for the actual audience too. Using close up inserts and flashbacks, for example, to remind us of something which we really weren’t likely to have forgotten in the short time since we’d seen those scenes play out chronologically in the main body of the film. I kinda felt like the movie was insulting what little intelligence I had in such scenes although, to be fair to Biller, it’s probably exactly how those old Hollywood movies and TV shows would have treated their audience back in the day so... maybe there’s some justification for this. So that’s possibly my problem.

All in all, I found The Love Witch to be a charming, delightful surprise of a movie with some very strong performances by the likes of the aforementioned Samantha Robinson and some great turns by Gian Keys, Laura Waddell and Jeffrey Vincent Parise. Absolutely brilliant and colourful mise en scene, mostly good editing and some great sound design and music choices had me grinning from ear to ear throughout the majority of the film and this is definitely a top recommendation from me if you want to see something a little different to a lot of the stuff that’s out their currently. Take a ride with The Love Witch for a good time.

*Having now seen Viva since writing this review, I can confirm I had an even better time with that movie than with The Love Witch so... review to follow sometime soon.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Baby Driver



Engine Ears

Baby Driver
2017 UK/USA Directed by Edgar Wright 
UK cinema release print.


When I first heard that one of the more interesting directors of recent times, Edgar Wright, was working on a movie called Baby Driver, my reaction wasn’t exactly the most enthusiastic. I really like the music of Simon and Garfunkel, those middle three albums they released in the 1960s were absolutely perfect but... their song Baby Driver from their fifth album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, has got to be my least favourite of their songs. In fact, in all honesty, that last studio album together has not got that many good songs on it at all... at least ones that work for me. So yeah, taking one of their dud songs as inspiration for a movie was not my favourite idea... Wright uses it in this over the end credits.

And then I saw the trailer for this thing a few months ago... which was well received by everyone except me. It was a movie with gangsters/criminals and I really don’t like those kinds of people. I went through Grammar School as a kid so the kind of hoodlum mentality behaviour you see at these institutions in real life is not what I want to see reflected in my cinema viewing, where said thugs are armed with guns or similar methods of killing people. If I want to see a gangster movie then I’ll go with Bogart and Cagney, thanks very much.

So the film already had two strikes against it but... I do like Edgar Wright as a writer/director and I did want to support him and so, yeah, I went and saw this thing anyway. And I have to say... I really didn’t get a lot out of it, to be honest. Out of all the Edgar Wright movies I’ve seen, this is the one I wouldn’t ever want to see again. Ironically, though, I am glad I saw it because, while it didn’t ring any particular bells for me, there’s a lot to be admired in it and you can certainly tell that the deft hand of an auteur director has touched this picture.

The film tells the story of Baby, a young super-duper getaway driver played by Ansel Elgort, his burgeoning relationship with a young waitress called Debora, played by Lily James (who seems like a young M├Ądchen Amick as she used to look in the first two seasons of Twin Peaks) and his ‘work’ for his boss Doc, played by Kevin Spacey. Baby was in a car accident as a kid... where he lost his parents... but is the top of his league when it comes to handling cars and is working off a debt for Doc because of something he did in his past. However, the accident left him with tinnitus and so he uses a number of loaded up i-pods to distract from what Spacey refers to as his “hum in the drum” and the music is so ingrained in his nervous system... and in the basic DNA of the movie as a whole, actually... that he times out everything to music and this helps him keep everything ticking over like clockwork and excel at what he does.

And that’s the basic set up but, as you can guess, the various crooks involved in the jobs bring about disaster on themselves... and Baby and Debora... and everything works towards a conclusion which doesn’t necessarily take any of the easier routes to an ending but is certainly enough, I should think, to win the hearts of most audiences (just not me but even I’m happy to admit that the film is made with a heck of amount of skill and that it’s worth giving it a watch).

I said that the various songs in the film are entrenched in the film’s DNA and right from the opening heist, getaway and subsequent ‘walk to get the coffees’ which plays out over the opening credits, it’s clear that Wright is making a very personal movie. He uses the timings of the music to coordinate the way the characters are moving and even the title character lip synchs a lot of the songs so much so that, for a while there, I thought the film was going to go straight into the territory of ‘the musical’. It doesn’t quite get there but the musicality of the film is quite overt and, by the way the opening heist is choreographed, I thought for a moment that all the characters were literally using the timings of the song to carry out their criminal mission.

That subsequent post heist journey Baby makes to get the coffees, which accompanies the opening credits, is all more of the same and his dance/walk is cut in time with the music, with more lip synch and there are even some moments, during this section, where some of the lyrics to the song that’s playing are introduced onto the screen by way of signs or bits of graffiti in the background. And, of course, Wright manages to get them into the shot at the perfect times as they come up on the soundtrack and it’s one of the little things that, whether you like these kinds of movies or not, make this one worth a watch because, in terms of the visual/audio syntax of the movie, it’s pretty unique.

There’s another perfect musical moment in the film where Baby and the 'next crew' are being briefed by Doc and he’s listening to Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance all the way through the scene. You don’t hear the briefing (you do hear some of it in the trailer, strangely enough) and everything on the soundtrack seems to make a comment on the nature of the visuals. That’s something which happens anyway when you synch music up to image sometimes but, of course, Wright pushes the visuals to synch up perfectly in this sequence so that they almost become a commentary on the characters and their attitudes in this scene. The writer/director also uses this to highlight an important point about Baby when one of the thugs, Bats, played by Jamie Foxx, questions Baby’s attention to the plan because it’s clear Baby has been grooving on the music as the briefing plays out. This is where we are shown that Baby, who also looks after a deaf foster parent, can lip read as he then reels back the entire briefing to Bats and the others with almost photographic recall (which is why Spacey’s words are not heard when the brief is actually playing out... who wants to have to listen to it twice). It’s a nice sequence and its moments like this that saved the film from being ‘something to endure’ as I sat through it.

Other than the sure, confident direction and the absolutely brilliant performances from all the cast in this, we have a central character who is, while certainly a criminal, a well meaning person with a good heart and the way he acts towards people and tries to stop 'death' happening (to an extent... there are some deaths by his hand in this too) are things which help him in a scene near the end of the picture... but I really don’t want to give anything away here.

So that’s my take on Baby Driver. I think Edgar Wright is a great writer/director and Hollywood needs to be throwing money at him to make more films. I really didn’t like the film all that much but, having said that, I can certainly see that there’s a lot to admire in it. I wouldn’t want to watch it again but I would certainly recommend it to people who don’t have my kinds of hang ups about films with gangsters in them and I think this will be a well loved piece of cinematic art for many years to come, as new audiences discover it over time. Definitely worth catching on the big screen, I would say, if you’re going to see this one.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

David Lynch - The Art Life



Imitating Life

David Lynch - The Art Life
2016 USA/Denmark
Directed by Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes
UK cinema release print.


There’s a moment in Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes’ new documentary film David Lynch - The Art Life where Lynch is in the middle of recollecting a story about the day his family moved to Virginia and he stops telling the story because it’s too intense a memory for him to want to go on. Presumably something bad happened involving the father of one of his friends but we never get even a clue as to what the famous director was about to say and, after a few minutes of talking us through and setting the scene of the ‘incident’, he just leaves us hanging. At no point in the movie does he bother to go on with his story and it’s this lack of disclosure about something which may or may not have had any bearing on him as an artist, which I’ve become accustomed to in this man’s work over the years.

I became an admirer of the director when one of the TV channels over here, it may well have been Channel 4, gave the movie Eraserhead its debut broadcast (must have been late 1970s or early 1980s). I watched it on an off air recording the next morning and really wasn’t sure about it but knew I had to show my dad this unusual film before the day was over. My second viewing really got to me and it became one of my favourites, even as my dad vowed never to watch the movie ever again. Although I like a lot of the David Lynch movies I’ve seen over the years and, also, loved two of his TV shows (Twin Peaks and On The Air) when they were shown in the UK, for me it’s Eraserhead which will always mean the most to me. It’s a great little movie and it’s worth looking at on a big screen, if you’ve never seen it in the cinema.

David Lynch - The Art Life is basically 88 minutes of the artist/director talking about his early life while we are shown shots of Lynch as he is now and working on various art projects which are juxtaposed with archival footage and photographs illustrating the subject on which he is speaking... which amounts to a long monologue about his early life from birth and leading up to the shooting of his first feature length movie, the aforementioned Eraserhead (which is where this movie finishes). Mostly, then, the documentary is free from movie references (other than the artists desire to go to a prestigious film school at a certain point) and mostly talks about the man’s dedication, throughout his life, to fine art.

And it’s an extremely hypnotic and quite fascinating study of the man.

The film has an interesting atmosphere because, quite apart form the pin sharp cinematography and the way the camera moves around various, quite beautiful black and white photos of places and situations in the artist’s life, it soon becomes apparent that... although Lynch is the only person seen in this movie apart from his latest daughter (who seems to be named after one of the characters in Wild At Heart) in some scenes (and not including the archival footage where people like his first wife are also seen), the camera is never resting on him whenever he is speaking. All the stories are recorded and, presumably, dropped onto the final cut, without the talking head kind of point of view shots one might normally expect in this kind of film and this crutch of seeing what you’re hearing being taken away at a visual level seems almost like another form of a lack of full disclosure, which I tend to associate with the director's work so... good call guys.

Now I don’t know much about Lynch himself... other than a few anecdotes I’ve heard him tell over the years and from having seen some great movies he’s directed but, as the man talks, while we are shown shots of him manipulating textural, gungy stuff on one of his works of art or painting on the surface of croissants to stick onto another piece, I noticed that the laid back kind of rambling, “no rush to get where I’m going” style of storytelling the director is engaged in was something I’d heard before. It hit me after a while and I suddenly made the connection to the soundtrack of David Lynch’s feature film prequel to his hit TV show, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me. On the album (and in the film, obviously) there are a couple of tracks by a ‘group’ called Thought Gang and one song, A Real Indication, features exactly the same kind of speech patterns/sentence structures, in rhythm to the jazzy, slightly twisted melody, that Lynch is using in his sentences in this documentary. Now, I’d always suspected Thought Gang was really just Lynch and his much used composer Angelo Badlamenti and so I checked it out earlier today and, sure enough, it is Lynch and Badlamenti. I’d always liked that song and so maybe that’s why the vocal accompaniment to the visuals on David Lynch - The Art Life felt so, somehow comforting, to me perhaps.

Now, it has to be said, not much big stuff happens in the movie but even so, I was swept away with it right from the opening credits and the film whizzed by so fast that, although almost an hour and a half had gone by, I thought I’d only watched about a half an hour and really could have done with this movie being three times as long as it is. For a documentary where nothing much goes on, it has a fairly blistering pace, in some ways. The score by various people, too, is actually very suited to the material and adds a layer of Lynchian atmosphere to certain parts of the movie. It’s a shame that this music doesn’t seem to have had any kind of commercial release because it’s definitely a score I would have liked to have snapped up on CD at some point for a stand alone listen but, alas, that doesn’t look like it’s on the cards.

Nevertheless, David Lynch - The Art Life is a pretty cool movie and, because it tends to steer clear of the artist’s work as a director and focus almost, but not quite, exclusively on other things, it’s also a good thing that you can watch if you’re not familiar with the director’s movies. It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone who is interested in hearing people talk about themselves and it’s definitely, I suspect, something that I could watch a few more times and not get bored. It does tend to leave you wanting more, truth be told but, in all honesty, that’s really not a bad thing and films that can whet your appetite are always hitting the mark, as far as I’m concerned. This film is a wonderful time capsule about one of the most interesting and memorable artists working in cinema (and in the art world) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and, as such, deserves to be seen. So go see it.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes



Gorilla Warfare

War For The Planet Of The Apes
2017 USA Directed by Matt Reeves 
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Minor spoilers.

Yeah, okay then.

The latest trilogy extension of the famous Apes franchise reaches what looks like it should be its last part with this latest entry, War For The Planet Of The Apes. That being said, I am already hearing that plans for another sequel are already in the works and I can’t imagine this one won’t do the numbers because... well, it’s pretty good actually. Formulaic, perhaps but... hugely entertaining. So this makes it the ninth official film in the franchise for 20th Century Fox so far... I’m not counting things like TV episodes rereleased as movies or the dodgy Japanese Time Of The Apes in terms of official movie sequels but, you’re more than welcome to do so if you so desire. I still need to sit down and watch that Japanese one at some point.

Although the last film in the series, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, left things on something of a cliffhanger, this new part of the sequence does not carry on directly from the ensuing carnage implied by the ending of the last film but, instead, carries it on from some time after that impending battle has been fought and with the surviving apes living in the forest. However, this film opens extremely strongly with a kind of ‘apes meet Vietnam’ kind of feel as a splinter human military group go in with their donkey apes... who are basically apes who have betrayed their kind and who once fought with Koba, the ape who was killed by our simian hero Caesar (played once again by Andy Sirkis)... and attack the apes with some heavy firepower before being slaughtered themselves. This is right before Caesar lets a few of the humans go to send a message to their evil Colonel, played here by Woody Harrelson like a young and more energetic version of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now. Indeed, the words Ape-Ocalypse Now can be seen as graffiti on a wall in certain scenes.

However, rather than leave the apes alone, things escalate and Harrelson kills Caesar’s wife and son, leaving him with only his newest son Cornelius, in one of many nice references to the original cycle of five Planet Of The Apes movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although, in those films, it was Cornelius who was the father of Caesar and here it’s the other way around. When Caesar decides to hunt down the military unit of humans and take vengeance for his loss, he unwillingly takes a few apes with him and the rest of his people flee to a new location... or so he thinks. Soon though, as well as the mission, he also has a new human companion tagging along.... a very young girl played by Amiah Miller who, in another nice reference to the original movies, can’t speak and who is given the name Nova. I won’t give away the reason why the young girl can’t speak because it’s actually integral to where the story is leading up to but I will say that it’s a hangover from something that happened in the first film in this cycle, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

By the time Caesar gets to the compound where The Colonel and his men are located (with another nasty surprise for the apes), he also has another companion in the form of a ‘comic relief’ ape called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn)... who is kind of unnecessary to the plot but he’s quite a fun character and he doesn’t detract from the tone of the movie too much... actually being a comical character that performs his intended function in the story. That is to say, he lightens the tone without causing the film to descend into comedy. So, some nice writing coupled with fine performances in this movie throughout, actually.

The film is quite staggeringly fast paced and engages the imagination without letting go. The strong opening is pretty intense, as is the rest of the film... not to mention quite moving in places... and at some point you might, if you have time, stop to remember that most of the characters for maybe 85% of the time in this movie are CGI (motion captured for sure, by the performers, but still CGI). The fact that these characters are basically talking animals, which you soon forget,  speaks volumes not just about how good the special effects here are but also about how well realised the apes in this movie are. You will feel for them and that’s another twist which has slowly been building over the course of the movies, just like it did in the original movies almost 50 years ago... the humans have, for the most part, become the villains of the piece and we are asked to sympathise with the apes for most of the time. The fact that we have no trouble doing this shows what levels of skill are on display when these movies are made and it’s, perhaps, an interesting thing to note that this particular trilogy has had no single human regular character in more than one film... the only regular recurring characters are the most recognisable apes. The writers and director take a not unusual but fairly interesting route from point A to point B and it all holds together really well in that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of other episodes in the ongoing saga. It continues to hold interest over a running time which, in this case, is well over two hours.

The movie also has a lot of overt references to the original franchise films... perhaps more so than the previous two. I’ve talked about Cornelius and Nova in this context but there’s also stuff like the mutant symbol from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes being used by the splinter group of soldiers here and a nice switch around on the ‘scarecrows’ of the original Planet Of The Apes. It also, despite its mostly serious tone throughout, has a lot of the kind of humour which permeated the original movies, to a certain extent. Even the opening shots of the backs of military helmets with references to things like the 1951 Ronald Reagan movie Bedtime For Bonzo are loaded with witty quotes and observations and it’s nice to have this stuff in a movie which could so easily have become too poe-faced if it were done with a less defter touch.

Also along for the ride on this one is composer Michael Giacchino, who joins the ranks of both Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman to become only the third composer in the series to have scored two Apes movies. The score here is, to my mind, a lot more punchy and interesting than his score for the previous movie and I am really looking forward to the CD release of this in a few weeks. He even does a lovely, almost primitively percussive arrangement of Lionel Newman’s 20th Century Fox logo fanfare (including the 1953 Cinemascope extension to the musical jingle) at the start of the movie... which I'm really hoping makes it onto the album and which goes down a treat right at the start of the movie. His recent opening logo musical arrangement of another well known tune for the start of Spider-Man - Homecoming (reviewed here), was a similarly nice treat. 

All of this... story, script, special effects, performance, music and a great deal of other things come together so well in War For The Planet Of The Apes that it’s almost, in some ways, a perfect movie. Anybody who liked the last two in the series should really have a good time with this and I would recommend seeing it on a big screen if you can get the chance. I’d like to see this sequence stop here now because it does have a fairly natural ending to the story started two films ago but there’s certainly space for it to go somewhere else if the studio really decides that the money is talking too loudly above the spirit of the art. I guess we’ll just have to trust that the accountants see, hear and speak no evil, then, when it comes to expanding on the franchise any further.


Planet Of The Apes @ NUTS4R2
Click on title for review, where available.

Planet Of The Apes TV Show (live action) - to be reviewed
Time Of The Apes - to be reviewed

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

It Comes At Night



Going Postal

It Comes At Night
2017 USA Directed by Trey Edward Shults
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Very minor spoilers... if such a thing is possible with this kind of movie.

It Comes At Night was called by a critic last week... a ‘post-horror’ movie... and there was an immediate backlash on Twitter about this term, which I can understand totally, although I expect a fair number of people who were then going on to defend the genre of horror (and the genre certainly doesn’t need anyone to defend it as far as I’m concerned) had probably not even seen this movie themselves. Otherwise they’d know the truth of this film which is this...

It Comes At Night
is certainly not a ‘post-horror’ movie. However, neither is it in any way a horror movie... by any stretch of the imagination. The only ‘post’ going on here is that it’s a movie which is set after an unknown post-apocalyptic event has wiped out a large population of the planet. This is, if anything, a fairly straight forward survival drama with heavy doses of suspense thrown into various places in the movie. I am, however, loathe to write it off completely because it is an astonishingly well crafted work and it pretty much had me at the edge of my seat.

I remember back in the mid to late 1980s to early 1990s, one of the major criticisms of certain kinds of movies being released was that they were films made with a lot of style but no substance. Well, it pains me to say it, in some ways... but this movie has got to be one of the most ‘style over empty content’ movies I’ve seen in a very long time. However, like I said, it’s an extremely well put together piece of nothing and so... some people are probably really going to love this one.

Some of the reasons I think people have got it stuck in their minds to expect some kind of horror film from this movie are quite obvious and, like the content of the film itself, all on the surface.

The trailer doesn’t help things and the title of the movie, It Comes At Night, certainly doesn’t help matters when it comes to audience expectations either... especially since, as it turns out, the title seems to be totally irrelevant to the content of the actual film. At the end of the movie we have no idea what It is, nobody is actually waiting in anticipation of any It in the film and, whatever the title thinks It is... it certainly doesn’t seem to come at night. Pink Bunny Rabbits At Sunset or My Dinner With Jellyfish would be just as equally an appropriate titles to the picture, I would say... and no, there are no rabbits or jellyfish in this picture either. They must be hanging out somewhere with the not so mysterious It I would imagine.

The film’s director, while making a beautifully suspenseful movie, is also somewhat to blame for the setting up of audience expectations throughout the movie. He does use horror tropes like the ‘undead re-incarnation of a loved one’ when one of the characters does frequently have bad nightmares during the progression of the movie but, honestly, they are in no danger of turning this film into a horror movie in any way, shape or form. The opening sequence of the movie does, it’s true, have some similar content to the opening of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters... reviewed here) but the resemblance ends with a gunshot and there are certainly no zombies, for example, in this movie either.

However, the film does weave quite a spell, being about two families trying to share a dwelling and keep the outside world well and truly locked outside and it’s more about the tension and paranoia induced by the situation that these people find themselves in which makes for the suspense and unease. Plus, of course, the audience expectation that it’s going to turn into a horror movie at any moment... which, alas, it certainly doesn’t.

There’s also a dog thrown into the mix which... isn’t so good in terms of tipping the hat to the audience as to where the story, such as it is, is heading. I absolutely love dogs but, honestly, if you see one in a film in this kind of situation you know that the darn thing is either there to inadvertently rain down trouble on the main protagonists or is going to get itself killed (or sometimes an unsettling combination of the two). And, yes, sure enough... the four legged friend is what ultimately brings destruction to at least some of the characters in this movie, for sure.

It’s a brilliant ensemble piece, though, in terms of the acting. When you get this kind of minimal cast in this kind of claustrophobic situation you need people who can really get the job done in terms of body language and expression and you want people who aren’t, necessarily, reliant on the written dialogue of the scene. You need actors who can bring an honest edge to what’s not in the dialogue and the director certainly got himself a group of thespians who can give fantastic and quite harrowing performances here. Special mentions go to the always fascinating Joel Edgerton who plays Paul, the father figure of one of the two families who end up living together and, also, to the extraordinary Kelvin Harrison Jr, who gives an absolutely electrifying performance as Paul’s son Travis.

Another nice thing to add to the edginess of the acting here is the quite unsettling score by Brian McOmber. I don’t know this guy's work but it’s certainly effective here and provides a lot of the tension, I suspect, in various scenes. Luckily, the powers that be have decided to release a CD of the score so I’ll be putting that one on the ‘to get’ list at some point soon... it deserves a listen away from the visuals it was intended to accompany, methinks. Glad it’s wisely not just a stupid download release, this time, for sure.

It Comes At Night is...
really not a movie I’d want to see again and, to be honest, if I’d have known the kind of piece it was then I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go and see it in the first place. It is though, as I’ve said, extremely well put together and I think it’s probably worth seeing if you like tightly paced, suspenseful, small scale yarns... if you don’t mind the lack of substance in the picture. Personally, I found the 1962 movie, Panic In Year Zero!, directed by and starring Ray Milland (and reviewed by me here), to be a more interesting movie of roughly the same kind of story. This movie will have its fans though and it’s certainly loaded with ‘edge of your seat’ suspense, if you like that kind of thing. So maybe give it a try... but don’t expect too much, would be my advice.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Spider-Man - Homecoming



Fifty Shades Parker

Spider-Man - Homecoming
2017 USA Directed by Jon Watts 
UK cinema release print.


One of the things they’ve managed to do in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), in the nine years since it’s been going in the current incarnation of it, is to take some second tier Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Ant-Man and Thor and do something truly wonderful with them in their cinematic incarnations that, as far as the other non-MCU franchises go, they have emerged triumphant and very much become the first tier characters that they never quite managed to be in the comic books... outshining the majority of the films produced from genuine top tier characters like Spider-Man and The X-Men.

However, when they made a deal for the movie rights to the Spider-Man character so they can use him in conjunction with another company and bring him into the MCU proper... well, they made a real good go of it with his debut appearance in Captain America - Civil War (reviewed here) and one of the positive things I’ll say about both that movie and this one, Spider-Man - Homecoming, is that they have managed to take a character who has already headlined, in different incarnations, a number of big budget theatrical releases and still find a way to breathe new life into the character. Although you’ve seen it all before in terms of the Spider-Man character... you also haven’t, in that they manage to side step the strengths and weaknesses of previous versions and change things up enough that the character feels like a new MCU character. Rather than, say, a stray from another movie.

What this means, though, is that a lot of the things that people loved about the original comics are thrown out with the radioactive bathwater and I think some audience members, myself included to a certain degree, might find it a bit of a shame. I’ve only ever read the first hundred or so issues of the original comic myself but what I’m trying to say here is, if you are looking for a version of the character which finally matches the way he and his supporting cast are in the comic books then look no further than... the 1967 animated TV show because, honestly, that’s probably the closest thing you’ll find. So all of you classic spider-fans are forewarned... this isn’t like the version you remember from the comics.

For instance, the character’s Spider sense isn’t mentioned once here and seems to have been replaced by the voice of Jennifer Connelly as his ‘in suit’ computer on the costume which Tony Stark has manufactured for him. Which has a nice continuity in some ways because Connelly is married to Paul Betany who played the voice of Jarvis in the original Iron Man suit before he was ‘evolved’ into the live-action character of The Vision in Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here).

So yeah, there are some things which I feel are mis-steps in the new film. Mainly in the casting and characterisations.

For example, we finally have a version of Betty Brant in this version but, instead of looking like the character should look (done so well but without the star billing that Peter Parker’s original love interest should have had in what amounted to cameos in the Sam Raimi versions), she is way too young and has blonde hair instead of her classic look. Flash Thompson, instead of looking like his namesake Flash Gordon looks anything but and Pete’s other love interest from the early days, Liz Allen, rather than being the drop dead blonde from the comics, is 'beyond brunette'. In fact, I’m not sure that even was supposed to be Liz Allen because of the ‘thing’ which comes to light later on in the movie which, I surely won’t spoil for you here. As for MJ? Well here’s she’s not a Mary at all... instead she's Michelle so... don’t know where their heading with that one. Face it tiger... we don’t know quite where that jackpot is coming from as yet. So it’s all a bit of a mess although, it has to be said, the actors and actresses involved in bringing them to life here are all pretty likeable and watchable... so there’s that.

Tom Holland is pretty cool in the role, doing what he’s doing and, so is Jacob Batalon as his best friend Ned. Then there’s the usual MCU characters creeping in here who really work well with Holland’s portrayal, including the always watchable Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark and his former Iron Man director Jon Favreau reprising his Happy Hogan role. There’s also a great little cameo near the end of the movie by someone who I really didn’t think we’d be seeing return to the MCU franchise and that was a great little moment but... again, won’t mention who that is because I don’t want to spoil it.

So there’s all that and, of course, we have the truly brilliant Michael Keaton playing The Vulture as the main bad guy in this one. Now, this version of the character is, again, nothing like the one who made his debut in the pages of the third issue of Spider-Man’s comic book history, The Amazing Spider-Man Issue 2 from 1963... but the spirit of the character is in tact to a certain extent, although Keaton manages to play him with a lot more sympathy and I was really pleased that Marvel have continued with their uncanny knack for casting just the right people for the right roles because, as you’d expect from Keaton, his performance here is amazing. Especially in a certain scene in a car journey when a certain penny finally drops (aided by a nice moment in the way his face is lit) and you can see the wheels turning in his mind.

The film is a real hoot too. It’s crackingly paced, whizzing by very fast so that you won’t necessarily have time to catch your breath and notice certain weaker points of the film like how it fits into the timeline of the current crop of Marvel movies...

It starts off extremely strongly with a pre-credits sequence showing why Keaton’s version of Adrian Toomes decided to become The Vulture and it’s a sequence starting off in the wake of the big alien battle at the end of the first Avengers movie (which I reviewed here). It also has Tyne Daley (Yeah, that’s Lacey from Cagney And Lacey right there!) as the comic book character Ms. Anne Marie Hoag in a nice moment where the Marvel movies finally acknowledge the existence of Damage Control, the people who clean up after various superheroes have wrecked the place in their battles and who have turned up in a number of comic book series' over the years. We then come to one of those other kinds of problems I alluded to a couple of paragraphs ago in that the rest of the pre-credits... and the movie proper...  takes place eight years on from the events at the end of that first Avengers movie. So you do the maths then. The first Avengers movie came out and was, presumably, set in 2012... that’s only five years ago in reality, right? So why the heck they chose to set this film (and presumably Captain America - Civil War) in the year 2020 is beyond me. Especially since it has a major ‘this doesn't make any sense’ knock on effect in terms of the other movies in the series.

However, like I said, it’s not the kind of movie you’re going to enjoy if you get mired in both expertise in adaptation and continuity logic. Let’s forgive it for now and move on...

The film continues to open strongly post credits with a big excerpt from Peter Parker’s video diary as an alternate, ‘first person’ version of his involvement of the events in Captain America - Civil War and we take that as our starting point for a movie which continues to be strong and totally entertaining all the way through. It sets the tone nicely and gives the title character a good starting point to launch and swing into action from and it’s truly a nice and unexpected touch. There’s also another little unexpected thing later on in the film which I really should have seen coming but I didn’t. This seems to be a bit of a rare year for movies taking me by surprise, it seems, what with the awesome Wonder Woman (reviewed here) also managing to pull the rug from under me (for the most part). It has to be said that the thing I wasn’t expecting here, which I have alluded to twice already (hopefully without potential ‘blind’ audience members noticing it) relies on the kind of silly, clich├ęd movie continuity that you would almost always only find in a Hollywood movie but.. that’s okay too. I don’t mind being fooled by these things every now and again... love it, in fact. Even though I was particularly dense on this one.

Another great strength of the movie is that it doesn’t feel like the MCU have just borrowed the character to plug into their own movie and are now returning the favour. This film is completely integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe like all the other films in that particular franchise and it doesn’t feel like any of the characters have been thoughtlessly added on. The various Avengers characters like the, kind of, appearance of Captain America (you saw some of that in the trailer for this movie so it’s not a spoiler) and the old Avengers tower and the new Avengers ‘mansion’ are all in here for a reason... well mostly... and feel like a natural element of the film and the story line/characterisation... so that’s pretty good. There’s also a major event that happens to Iron Man, in a way, which will obviously need to be alluded to in future Avengers movies, for sure.

And all of this is good stuff.

Another good thing is Michael Giacchino’s inclusion of a newly arranged version of the 1967 animated Spider-Man TV show theme tune which plays here over the Marvel logo at the start (it’s the version which you could see the recording session from in that video which surfaced on the internet a few months ago). As for the rest of the score... well I really like Giacchino but I was hoping he’d use that old theme throughout on this and I was having real trouble with the main Spider-Man theme here because it really sounded familiar from somewhere else... although I couldn’t quit place it. There are  few moments where he seems to be subtly referencing the old TV show theme here but, as far as I could hear, the pay off to that never materialised... at least not in the way I wanted it to. That being said, “as far as I could hear” is an apt comment, I feel, because this really was a movie where the score was maybe dialled down too much and wasn’t allowed to properly compete with the noisy, explosive action scenes when they were scored. So, yeah, looking forward to giving the CD a spin when it arrives so I can hear the score properly, to be honest.

And that’s that. The film is an absolute blast and, although it has an absolutely awful end credits animation which really seems to dumb down the characters completely in about as inappropriate a manner as you can imagine, Spider-Man - Homecoming is a really enjoyable piece of modern popcorn fodder and fans of the MCU films should like this one. There are two ‘post credits’ sequences for the film... one half way through which is actually quite relevant to the future of the Spider-Man movies, in one way or another, followed by one right at the end of the credits which is... completely irrelevant and which some people may well feel is not worth staying on for. Irrelevance aside, though, the movie gets a big recommendation from me... with the caveat that fans of the character as he appeared in the proper comics of the 1960s and early 1970s might have a hard time adapting to what Marvel have decided to do with him here. It is, however, a humdinger of a web spinner.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Belladonna Of Sadness












At The Mountains of Sadness

Belladonna Of Sadness
Japan 1973 Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
Cinelicious Pics Blu Ray Zone A 

Belladonna of Sadness is a movie which had a general release in a few countries in the early 1970s and which is credited with contributing heavily, on its failure at the box office, to the demise of the studio that produced it. It wasn’t released in the US or, I believe, in the UK, until last year and I, myself, probably wouldn’t have heard of it if I hadn’t stumbled into a promo for the US Blu Ray release on Twitter a few months before it came out.

The film is an animated (kinda) feature length movie and is said to be the last in Yamamoto’s  Animerama trilogy although, since it stands alone without the other works, I suspect this is an ‘unofficial’ trilogy named such by over enthusiastic audiences... such as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly being named a trilogy when they actually aren’t or Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet being named his ‘animal’ trilogy, just because they have names of creatures in the titles.

Now I say it’s an animated feature but animated is a loose term when it comes to this movie which, for the most part, deals in static images which are then creatively panned over or zoomed in or out of for artistic effect with the odd moving part thrown in such as a creature’s eyes lighting up or a drawbridge on a castle pulling shut. That being said, there are some brief examples of proper animation thrown into various parts of the movie, such as the initial rape of the films main protagonist Jeanne, on the day she gets married to another character called Jean (both tragic figures) in which we see the path of her misfortunes as the leader of her village and his castle full of people take turns to defile her body and we see her loins and spine filling up with blood which tears through her.

The film is full of tragedy as various misfortunes are visited on Jeanne and Jean, with Jeanne most notably affected by the harsh knocks that life delivers her as she sleeps with the devil (voiced by legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai) in various incarnations until, at some point over the years, she gives him her soul so she can become a vengeful and satanic witch to lead a revolt in her village.

There seems to be an abundance of sexuality and violence in the imagery throughout the entire length of the running time and, although this includes such clich├ęs such as a vaginal flower opening up its petals, there are some interesting ideas showcased in an expressive manner here. Probably the most animated sequences in the movie are the montage sequences which crop up every now and again to move the narrative forward or make a point and there is definitely a feel that the director, although known for his animated work a long time prior to this, was perhaps a little inspired by The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. Although the animation and drawing style look very different to that for the most part, there’s one particular montage sequence, where Jeanne finally gives her soul to Satan, that seems almost ripped out of Yellow Submarine in terms of the stylistic chaos which manifested in a somewhat more joyful manner in that particular work.

For the most part, the images and the way they are drawn are what makes this mostly watchable and it carries a very broad range in terms of the different kinds of imagery pitched against each other in the editing room. Some of it seems like boldly simplified caricature in nature while a lot of the erotic content seems almost like it is trying to be something Guido Crepax might have drawn for one of his Valentina strips. It’s almost like a fairy tale for adults in that the content of this particular movie is definitely not for kids but the visual language in which it is expressed is done so in the guise of childhood imagery. This imagery is ably supported by the score which, apart from the songs, is written by Masahiko Sat├┤ and it kind of alternates between a rather interesting, rocky and acidic version of something Vince Guaraldi might have supplied for a Charlie Brown cartoon and something which is, sometimes, a bit more wallpapery and easier to ignore.

In terms of story, the title of the tale is apt because it really is a portrait of tragedy and this is sometimes backed up with lyrics from some of the songs in the score. The lyrics help pour on the misery and help carry the message which seems to be a highly feminist one... which is strange because, truth be told, the film seems to be oddly misogynistic in where it chooses to focus its attention. That being said, there are some great lines and one, where the women and children are left behind in the village to look after it while the men-folk go off to war for a few years, is a really telling one in terms of its overall message... “Women are always the ones left behind to suffer.” However, despite this noble subtext, the final image of a strange point made about the French Revolution, which seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the rest of the film (and which was, tellingly, not in the original release and added many years later for re-release in certain countries) seems to be an almost complete non-sequitur and leaves you hanging, in terms of being a fitting climax to the movie.

All in all, Belladonna of Sadness is innovative in places with some nice, expressive art and, at the very least, a consistency to the story in terms of the downward spiral of events it depicts (even with that strange ending). I have to say I found myself wandering a lot (or actually almost nodding off) as the film played out and it would be true to say it wasn’t successful in completely capturing my attention. I’m glad I saw it but I can’t, in all honesty, say I’d recommend it to a third party but, that being said, if you are into seeing beautiful artwork represented on screen then this definitely is a film which has it in abundance. Not particularly something I would watch again in a hurry but also not without interest. It has its moments.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Session 9



Asbestos They Can

Session 9
2016 USA
Directed by Brad Anderson
Universal DVD Region 2

When I first joined Twitter, just over seven years ago now, one of the horror movies which seemed to get a lot of praise was a film I’d not seen, let alone heard of, called Session 9. Well, I finally just got around to catching up with the thing and, I have to say, it’s not ‘quite’ the scare fest I was expecting it to be.

The film deals with five people in an Asbestos Abatement Team who basically have to clear asbestos out of an old, abandoned mental hospital. They also only have one week to do it because Gordon, their fellow team member and boss, has promised the customer a quick turnaround and a lower bid than any other contractors who have given a quote, to sort the job out as speedily as possible.

The film is quite slow paced, which isn’t really a problem for me although, I have to admit, that by about half an hour into the movie, I was looking at my watch wondering if anything was going to happen. However, it’s not the kind of film which is overly reliant on shock/scare tactics, it has to be said. While there are a fair number of sequences of roaming down dark and dingy corridors filled with lurking dread and the possibility of a supernatural phenomenon just around the corner, the movie tends to be more akin to those old gothic horror stories which were always traditionally "English things to ponder" over the Christmas season.

Indeed, although the movie is bang up to date for 2001, when it was unleashed, the tone of certain passages did, instead, make me think of writers such as M. R. James rather than any of the contemporary screen classics of the time of the film’s release. In this respect there’s even a passage in the movie when one of the potential victims of the story finds a trail of gold coins belonging to the nineteenth century, leading to a cache of more hidden treasure which compels the gentleman in question to return to the asylum after dark, without the others. There seems to be no mention of why coins from the 1800s would be present in the asylum at all, although people familiar with some of the history of the area before the Danvers State Insane Asylum was around, which is the real life abandoned asylum where this was actually shot, might be able to square the presence of old coins in the area.

Interestingly for a film which has such great interiors, there was hardly any actual set dressing used, according to the movie makers. Instead, 99% of what you see in the film’s interiors was already there just waiting to be found and used by people. It’s actually one of the more interesting elements of the film and you can certainly understand why a film crew might be interested in shooting here.

The acting is all pretty top notch, with the five man asbestos team played by David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon and Brendan Sexton III... all doing a great job with the limited material they have on hand. This is a good little crew of performers and they are able to make the most of one of the screenplay’s strengths by using the dialogue and their body language to conjure up the often unspoken relationships between the various members of the team without, too often, feeling the need to spell it all out.

However, these elements don’t necessarily add up to a scary movie and if you are the kind of horror movie watcher who likes to see exclusively terrifying stuff, you might find yourself out of luck on this one. However, it does have a nice, slow burn quality which, clock watching aside, did get me staying with the movie until the end. When one of the characters unearths the nine tapes of interviews with a disturbed mental patient who houses a few personalities inside her brain, things start to get marginally interesting and a certain, almost but not quite, supernatural element to the movie creeps in... just enough for me to be able to safely label this film a horror movie, as opposed to a thriller. However, even after things intensify in their nature... it has to be said that the rigidly slow pacing seems to infect the movie like it has a stone hanging around its neck at times. It even has a character set up with nyctophobia but, although the writers do make use of this in a sequence near the end, I couldn’t help but think the exploitation of this weakness was a little more lethargic than necessary.

One of the things the film does well is that it has a fairly meticulous design layout and that extends to the shooting and editing too. In addition to the very simplistic design of the (real life) mental hospital, likened to a bat, we also have some nice transitions which parallel each other and show a sense of almost thematic symmetry at work within the way the shots are put together. For example, when one character uses a knife to make a vertical cut on a box, so too does a vertical knife slash accidentally cut the finger of one of the other characters. So little things like this make the movie worth sticking with.

Alas, the film has a ‘kind of’ twist ending. Now, the supernatural force at work here also goes hand in hand with something, or possibly someone, else here and, without me giving anything away to you... there’s a good chance you are going to see the ending coming way before it actually does. This isn’t a terrible crime, of course, and whether you can see it before it’s revealed or not is not the problematic part. The problem is that after the so called reveal, the film then walks around dwelling on it and explaining it for ten minutes when, honestly, it’s not that big a deal. The ending of the film is a bit of a weakness here, it has to be said and, though it didn’t spoil my appreciation of some of the other elements in the movie, it didn’t exactly make me think I’d spent the last hour and a half well either, to be honest.

And so that’s my experience with Session 9 which, looking at the atmosphere it tries to go for at certain times, might have been ‘inspired’ by the John Carpenter composition Reel 9 from his score to The Fog (reviewed here). It’s an okay movie for horror addicts but not all that scary, it has to be said. It might work better as the third or fourth movie of a gigantic marathon session where the pace needs slowing down a little, I would imagine, but as a stand alone I can’t say it did all that much for me, I’m afraid. Definitely for die hard horror fans only, would be my verdict on this one.