Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Cherry (aka About Cherry)

Damn Fine Pie

Cherry (aka About Cherry)
USA 2012 Directed by Stephen Elliott
Koch Media Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very slight spoilers here but... it’s not that type of movie.

Cherry is a little seen (if the box office take is anything to go by) movie written by the director, Stephen Elliot and porn actress/director Lorelei Lee. I think I must have ordered this one quite cheaply from a tangental Amazon recommendation and I suspect the cover art had something to do with that. Having looked through the ratings given to this movie by the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and the IMDB, I think it’s good that I watched this thing because, frankly, somebody needs to speak up for it.

The film starts off with stark white on black titles to the sound of somebody browsing through radio stations. We then carry on the credits in the company of Angelina (the film’s main lead, also known as Cherry and played by Ashley Hinshaw) who is in a car, being driven home by her boyfriend and trying to find that ‘right’ station. When she gets back to her younger sister, her alcoholic mother (played by Lili Taylor) and her step dad, we see exactly how she’d want to escape the drudgery of her life working at her local laundromat with no future.

So she does just that... by posing for some nude pictures for a website locally, using the money to move to San Francisco with her best friend Andrew, played by Dev Patel. Once she is there she gets involved with a new boyfriend, a hotshot but ultimately unlikeable lawyer played by James Franco while, at the same time, biting the bullet and getting involved in the porn industry... where she goes through a story arc which takes her from befriending her first director (played beautifully by Heather Graham) while being a performer in front of the camera to, eventually, directing the films herself.

The movie is interesting in that, while the very early sequences are shot in a more voyeuristic manner, the middle and end sections of the movie which specifically deal with the creative process behind the art of a voyeuristic consumable, are shot more 'matter of fac'tly and straightlaced. For example, in the early scenes of the movie, the characters tend to be in long shot a lot and often seen through an opening or from behind a foreground object, as though the camera is casually observing rather than bringing the audience into the lap of the characters, so to speak. Although this modus operandi doesn’t continue for the majority of the movie (it seemed to me), there is a lot of handheld camera throughout. Don’t get me wrong, there are some static shots and sequences which include a more controlled movement but... quite a lot of the piece is handheld and, of course, in the earliest sequences of the movie, this adds to the sense of the audience being the voyeur. Later on though, when the audience really is seeing what is being shot for the audience of the firm Cherry (her porn name) is working for, it maybe takes over by implication and brings us closer to the potential audience for her ‘product’ and maybe this potential interaction between the consumers and the naked performers is why the director seems to change the way the film is being shot at this point.

Another thing the director does is to use some nice compositions based on vertical lines, both interior and exterior. When Cherry is seen walking down the street en route to what some of my readers may no doubt recognise as a particular building renowned for making some notorious porn content (yeah, the pornographers in this movie seem to be very much based on Kink.com, which writer Lee has presumably had a lot of experience with), Elliot uses the natural verticals created by the cityscapes... the corners of buildings, jutting street signs and lamp posts etc. to frame Cherry as she goes to her audition. Similarly, there’s a beautiful series of shots where Cherry is in her bedroom, sitting on her bed and looking in a mirror as she explores her own body, which has lots of vertical splits penetrating her space and it’s all rather impressive.

There seems to have been a lot of online negative feedback that the minimalistic story arc, such as it is (this is more a study of people rather than a plot driven piece) is unrealistic in terms of the adult industry and I find this a particularly hard point of view to swallow. The path from performer to director and beyond (and into the mainstream) seems to be a fairly proven path for some of the adult workers out there and, after all, isn’t this more or less the path that has taken one of the writers, Lorelei Lee, to the point where she’s writing this movie? And just look at where people like Sasha Grey have gotten. Frankly, I find the people making those kinds of comments more unrealistic, truth be told. Lee is presumably writing this movie from experience and some of the sharper and more adventurous of my readers might notice that some of her fellow performers such as Princess Donna and Sensi Pearl are taking roles in this movie too... not to mention Lee’s performance in a small role here.

Ultimately, Cherry tells how the title character got to where she is by the end of the movie and does so in a way that involves a lot of adult eye candy, some nice shot set ups and some quite nice performances from all of the principal actors involved. And that’s me done with this one. A fairly short review, for me but for a film that is fairly short and sweet itself. Not big on plot for those concerned with, or used to, seeing a bigger and more involving story arc but ultimately a nice character piece and definitely worth a watch if you are interested in some of the things that go on behind the scenes of a pornographic website and the possible consequences to the lives of some of the stars. Check it out sometime... I found it quite intriguing.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Brigsby Bear

Bear Foot In The Dark

Brigsby Bear
2017 USA Directed by  Dave McCary
UK cinema release print.

Warning(ish): Because of the nature of the film, to talk about it adequately means there will be some spoilers but, having said that,
the spoilerage is pretty much what you see in the trailer.

Brigsby Bear is an utterly charming movie about a young(ish) man trying to reintegrate into society after a lifetime of not being able to live in it. It’s also quite funny and extremely moving in places.

As the film opens we meet James (played by Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote this) who is living a life with his parents played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams. It’s an existence very reminiscent of the life lead by the children in the family of the film Dogtooth (reviewed here) in that James has been shut off from the outside world and any other people for most of his life. He is lead to believe the air in the world is unlivable due to it being contaminated with ‘Skinser’s Disease’ and, as he gazes out of the dome of his family home with his dad, looking at the large, mechanical bees and robotic fox, he wonders if there’s more to life. He’s a bit of a genius due to his family being extremely educated and he spends his life watching, talking and thinking about the 700 plus (and growing) episodes of the TV show Brigsby Bear. He even posts his theories about the show on the Internet forum to the two or three survivors in the world who also watch the show (or who he thinks to be other people but... they’re not). And that’s his life...

Until the FBI, who have been searching for James since he was abducted as a baby, raid the place and reunite James with the real parents he’s never even known, who live in the much larger, real world with rules and conventions he doesn’t even know about. So he meets, and goes to live with, his mother and father (played by Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh) and his sister Aubrey (played by Ryan Simpkins). As importantly, he gets to know the detective assigned to his case, Detective Vogel (played by Greg Kinnear) along with some of his sister’s friends including Meredith (who is played by an amazing little actress called Alexa Demie) and Spencer (who is also played at total levels of coolness by Jorge Lendeborg Jr). However, the only thing that James is remotely interested in is finding out what happens in the next, upcoming episode of Brigsby Bear.

It’s then that the true nature of James’ screwed up life hits home when he is told that his ‘dad abductor’ was making all those episodes just to keep him entertained... shooting them at a small studio with an actress who was told it was for a local cable channel. James is distraught but, after he goes on a cinema trip with his new, original dad and is suitably impressed, someone tells him that anyone can make a movie. So, much against his original parents’ wishes (not to mention his psychiatrist),  he recruits various new friends and, with the help of Detective Vogel, who harbours dreams of being an actor and has access to some 'impounded evidence' of props and costumes... he slowly begins to make a movie concluding Brigsby Bear’s adventures as a way of dealing with the world around him.

The film is just enchanting, too, as we see James try to interact with the people in this new world and become accepted, not just by the people close to him but, by people all over the world as old episodes of his VHS collection of Brigsby Bear tapes gain popularity over the internet. The performances are absolutely amazing and the way the camera moves and captures the various scenes is very ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and intimate.

It's a work of art filled to the brim with richly astonishing and emotional moments too. My favourite two would be...

The scene where James tracks down Arielle Smiles (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), who is working in a diner and who played the two ‘twins with power’ in the Brigsby Bear show for the money. The scene in the diner between Sheil and Mooney is really quite moving, as Arielle tries to cope with what she now knows to be the truth of the situation. There’s a wonderful pay off towards the end of the film where she returns for another performance.

The other scene which was quite stand out for me, in a movie which is actually chock full of wonderful moments, is where James goes to visit his ‘abductor dad’ in jail. In a wonderfully emotional scene, Mark Hamill conveys the warmth of someone who knows he did wrong but still loves James as his own son. However, all that matters to James is that he, tape recorder in hand, gets his old dad to record the voice-over narrative in the ‘special voice’ for his new Brigsby Bear movie script... and Hamill’s obvious talents as a voice artist (he’s been voicing animated characters like The Joker in Batman cartoons, amongst other things, for years) are quite evident here.

And there’s not much more I can say about this one, I think. Apart from the fact that it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. For something which has a character who doesn’t have too many options which could segue into a fully integrated happy ending, the film finishes absolutely perfectly with a warm and upbeat, ‘feel good’ ending which certainly does nothing to betray the dark set up and leaves you with a sense of hope for people and communities. A really cool movie and, bearing in mind that it turned out I made up exactly half of the audience numbers on my own on its opening night at my local... one which I hope more people will get the opportunity to experience at some point. Absolutely 100% recommended to anyone who loves cinema. Go see it while you can.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Der Fan (aka The Fan)


Der Fan (aka The Fan)
Germany 1982 Directed by Eckhart Schmidt
Mondo Macabre Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Warning: Okay, this is almost certainly going to have all
the spoilers in this so... if you don’t want to know, don’t read.

Der Fan (aka The Fan) is just one of many movies called The Fan and about dealing with obsessive fans. Why there have been so many movies called this is beyond me. I personally think it should be illegal to call any two movies by the same title unless they are a remake or an adaptation. That saves all kinds of trouble like if you wanted to see a James Marshall boxing movie and instead found yourself watching something where Russel Crowe wears a toga and shouts at a load of Romans. Or sitting down to watch a Charlie Chan movie set in a mine and instead watching Pierce Brosnan racing a tank around a foreign land. The film industry really needs to get on that.

So, anyway, Der Fan starts out with some stark, dark, somewhat typographically aggressive orange on black credits with these wooshing noises playing in the background. We are then introduced to the main protagonist/antagonist of the movie, Simone, played by Désirée Nosbusch... who was apparently a pretty famous TV presenter when she made this film, at just seventeen years old. Considering the amount of the last third of the film she walks around in a state of undress doing things which people tend not to do outside of a zombie film, it’s no wonder that she tried to have the film blocked from being released at the time (although certainly puzzling since she agreed to shoot it)). I guess it’s not the best look to go with when trying to preserve a squeeky clean public image. Of course, the resulting publicity/scandal only helped secure the film a much broader audience than it might have normally had and so, perhaps, it’s something that people can be grateful for.

The film follows Nosebusch’s obsessive fan around town as she frequently skips school and, on a daily basis, goes to wait in line at the post office to find out if she has received a letter from the man of her dreams, the pop star of the movie, ‘R’, played by Bodo Steiger who, it turns out, was also a pop star. In fact, he was in a band called Rheingold and it’s Rheingold who provide the almost unbearably neutral (but also kind of cool) Euro-pop soundtrack/score to Der Fan. So Simone writes to ‘R’ everyday and completely fails to figure that the man receives so much fan mail that there’s no way he would read this stuff himself. She becomes withdrawn from people, misses a lot of school and generally becomes an almost anti-social  and somewhat violently aggressive, teenage hermit because of her obsession with him. She even attacks a postman for the lack of a response from her hero. There’s lots of voice over of her on the soundtrack as she goes through the empty motions of her existence and talks to her hero in her head with a lot of moving camera as we follow her through her days.

There are some nice stealth moments in the film too... such as when Simone's father, who has the say on what is watched on television in the house, is watching a Western when a show starts which she wants to watch because ‘R’ is making an appearance and she wants to see if he uses the secret sign for her, which she has made up in her head. The father eventually gets tired of the Western and switches to the show in time for Simone to see some of ‘R’s appearance... however, he then gets bored and switches back to the Western. Simone makes a play for the TV remote and they are both fighting and grabbing at each other to maintain possession of this precious household object. In the background audio, however, we hear the sound of a gunfight on the Western and it’s a perfect counterpoint to the visual imagery as we see the father and daughter combatants with the sound of shooting as they struggle for domination. Nice stuff.

Of course, at some point things have to change and so Simone gives ‘R’ one more week to respond... a week punctuated on the film by big, visual intertitles from Day 1 to Day 7 as ‘R’ fails to make any kind of reply. So she runs away from home, hitchhikes to Munich (which brings its own, troubling encounter) and goes to find him... hanging outside a TV studio where she knows he will have to be at some point. And, after a day or two, he turns up outside said studio and starts signing fan’s autographs. She watches from afar but he notices her (because he is attracted to her) and goes to speak to her. She faints and, of course, this is her entry (albeit serendipitously) into ‘R world' as she is taken inside to recover, watches the recording and then is taken by him to a flat as he goes to a place loaned to him by a friend who is not in the country. He says they won’t be bothered because not even his manager knows about the place. There’s a lovely shot in all this sequence where Simone is in the car and the camera goes into a slow zoom until it finally reaches to just her lips. She opens her mouth and we are enveloped inside her darkness as a transition to the next shot.

And, as if to push a visual metaphor, here’s where things get a lot darker for these two main characters. We have the completely minimalistic, untalkative Simone and the big pop star ‘R’, who is also pretty minimalistic and neutral in his outlook, seemingly as an extension of his very monotone pop personae. ‘R’ pushes Simone into sex but the sex scene is quite slow, bizarre and ritualistic, with ‘R’ taking a fairly dominant role and with Simone seeming to be very naive in her performance... which is something ‘R’ seems fairly dissatisfied with. So he decides to give her the brush off, telling her she can stay at the place for a few months if she likes, since nobody knows about it and he makes for the door to leave the place.

And here is where it gets really spoilery people... you have been warned.

In reaction to ‘R’s behaviour, Simone bashes him on the back of the head with a statuette in anger. Alas, for ‘R’, the statuette has an outstretched arm which completely penetrates the back of ‘R’s head, killing him instantly as it takes out his brain. The still naked Simone is a little upset at first as she tries to figure out what to do next and, I have to say, the ‘alarm/siren-like' music on the soundtrack at this point sounds like it’s been heavily influenced (if not needle dropped in) by a certain passage of Goblin’s score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, it seemed to me. However, clarity soon comes as the still naked Simone finds one of those electric kitchen knives and, in a curiously bloodless scene, she cuts ‘R’ into more manageable parcels and stores them in a big freezer, before she starts cooking bits of him up and eating him. After a number of days or weeks (we don’t know), when she has no more left of him to eat, she grinds his bones up before depositing the powder into a bag, shaving her head and then taking him for a walk to scatter him. Then she goes home to be reunited with her parents but there’s still a light twist to come at the end.

All in all, the neutrality of the two lead performances in this, not to mention the deadpan soundtrack, make Der Fan quite an interesting, almost hypnotically addictive viewing experience. Despite the normally shocking nature of the content of the last twenty minutes or so of the movie, none of the imagery in this seems like it's really played for shock or exploitative effect. Some of it is actually quite tastefully represented and somehow, although it has almost nothing to it in terms of content, it somehow manages to feel like a film with some substance to it and, if anything, it just seems like a really good movie to demonstrate the perils of the effect of fandom on a person’s mental health. Mondo Macabre’s multi region dual format DVD/Blu Ray edition of the film is uncut and is the kind of clear/crisp transfer you would expect from a company of their calibre. If you are already a fan of Der Fan then this relatively newish Mondo Macabre version is certainly a good way to go. If you’re not... well if you do want to check it out some day, this is still the best version to grab as an intro to the movie, I reckon (just like me) so... yeah... interesting film and one which seems to have caused a bit of a stir in Germany at the time of its release. Worth a look.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


24 Panels Per Second


by Edward Ross
Self Made Hero ISBN: 987-1-910593-03-5

Let me just say right from the start that, although I have some pernickety criticisms of this tome, stemming from my personal passion and familiarity with some of the concepts expressed here, this is actually a great book and it’s certainly not intended to be a negative review. I hope it doesn’t come across as that but I thought I should clear that up right from the start.

One of my biggest worries before delving into Filmish, which is a comic strip in graphic novel form on certain aspects of the art of cinema, was that it would be too close to one of the dream projects I’ve been wanting to produce for years… that being a potted history of the cinema and the language of cinema through the medium of the comic book. As it happens, I needn’t have worried because, while there are some overlaps with what I have been wanting to do, the approach offered by the author here is a very personalised one and he doesn’t go about it in quite the same way that I would have (phew… there’s still room for my project in the world someday, maybe).

The book is presented in seven chapters and utilises a a crisp, clean and quite simplistic black and white line drawing style. It’s interesting because, although the majority of cinematic samples the writer uses to illustrate the points he wants to make are pretty popular, the style of the illustrations pare down the people depicted in a way that doesn’t always make their likeness that recognisable. That being said, it may be a likeness rights issue for all I know and, because the shots the writer has reproduced are just so lodged in the public consciousness, I'm sure most of the references would not be lost on people.

In the first chapter, The Eye, the author looks at the leap from the dawn of film from when early cinema was about recording and displaying the truth at 24 frames per second to when filmmakers like Melies began to astonish people by showing, in the most extreme ways, that film can be used to take people well beyond the harsh realities of living to be transported to an alternate reality. This is what film as art is all about, I would say.

The chapter then looks at the problems of the legendary ‘male gaze’ and then uses that to lead on to the way the point of view of an individual is not necessarily to be trusted. So, of course, Kurosawa’s adaptation of Rashomon gets a look in at some point. There’s also a nice, unnamed panel which accompanies the criticism of the male gaze which is an interesting side swipe at Michael Bay, if you recognise the shot as being Megan Fox looking at the car engine in Transformers… and it’s the smaller, unspecified visual commentaries such as this which add another nice little level to the author’s narrative.

Chapter 2, The Body, looks at the way the human body, in all its variants, has come under scrutiny as the language of cinema, such as the close up and the zoom, advances to capture it. This brings us right up to date with motion capture performance used as the basis of CGI characters where actors can physically inhabit a role in which they couldn’t practically perform before this technology became available.

There’s also the issue of race and the perception of it by various audiences tackled here, not to mention the way in which Hollywood and other countries use the cliché of the racial stereotype to push various agendas.

Similarly, the author takes a look at disability as a short hand for plot points and the way some films use it to define or highlight the difference of villains, in some cases. Among the examples given are the scarred face of Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld variant in You Only Live Twice, the dwarf revealed at the end of Nicholas Roeg’s version of Don’t Look Now (which is a questionable example for the point being made, I think) and the one eyed assassin played by Daryl Hannah in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. However, one only has to think of the hands of Dr. No, the teeth of Jaws in two Bond films and the bladed legs of the villainess in Kingsman - The Secret Service, to realise just how prevalent this phenomenon has been, and still is, in modern cinema.

And, of course, no look at The Body in cinema would be complete without a look at the ‘body horror’ genre from such directors as David Cronenberg and that’s exactly what we get here.

The third chapter, entitled Sets And Architecture looks primarily at the way these two elements send out important messages to enhance the tone of a movie… such as the hellish depiction of New York in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver or the classic, grimy decay of Los Angeles, November 2019 in the greatest movie ever made (so that’d be Blade Runner, then).

One of the interesting things which comes up in this chapter and which I’d never really thought about before, was how the main protagonists in the Star Wars movies - the Luke Skywalkwers, Anakin Skywalkers, Jinn Ersos and Reys of this world - are basically depicted as growing up in a rural backwater as opposed to the cutting edge technological environment of the bad guys (although I’m not sure that would stand up for characters like Darth Vader or even Lando Calrissian).

Of course, it also mentions the artificially distorted sets of German Expressionist cinema to create a particular statement although, bearing in mind the fact that the chapter is talking specifically about sets and architecture, I found it strange that one of the examples the writer chose to depict here is my blog namesake, the original Nosferatu (if I can get away with calling a movie adaptation of Dracula which couldn’t get the rights to Bram Stoker’s story and then just went ahead and used it anyway… original). After all, the architecture itself is not really distorted in this film due to it being, if memory serves, one of the few German Expressionist films (quite possibly the only one), to use outside locations for its shoot instead of creating them on a set like in The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (which is, obviously, also cited heavily here). I also can’t quite forgive the writer for confusing thrillers like Psycho and Se7en with horror movies. They so aren’t horror movies, people.

The fourth chapter is entitled Time and here the author talks about the way time can be 'captured' and transformed… although he appears to cling to a rigid belief in time as something more than just a way of looking at a perceived, man made measurement of linear consumption. Mind you, he does talk about the reliance of the mechanical process of film to establish that measurement and the inevitable way in which the audience perception of such can be altered through techniques such as editing and the way a linear chronology can be happily thrown out the window so… there’s that

In addition, he throws in a quick look at how the content of certain films can alter the way the story is perceived... such as in movies which use time travel as a central plot device, for example.

Chapter 5, Voice And Language, starts off with a look out how the human voice can be altered to enhance the feeling of what a character is all about. By way of examples he mentions Heath Ledger’s truly astonishing performance of The Joker in The Dark Knight and Linda Blair’s famous portrayal of Regan in The Exorcist (voiced by Mercedes McAmbridge if memory serves).

He also goes on to tackle the case of when the entire character is literally just a voice, such as the neutral, measured tones of the HAL 9000 computer in Kubrick’s 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Interestingly, the written language follows on from the audio of the original here in that the lettering used on the illustrations of HAL 9000 is in a much more neutral and formal typeface than the rest of the book… which is nice.

Next for this chapter is a look at how the voice can take on a life of its own and be the main driver of the film. He uses Coppola’s excellent The Conversation here but he also uses one of the lesser know but pretty cool horror movies of recent years, by way of demonstration. That being the language as lethal killing virus ‘zombie’ movie Pontypool (reviewed by me here).

In Chapter 6, Power And Ideology, Ross starts off by going straight for the throat and highlighting John Carpenter's look at the way messages of control are hidden in They Live. He then goes on to cover stuff like soviet propaganda (using all the usual suspects such as Eisentein’s Battleship Potemkin), Chinese nationalism as portrayed covertly in films like Hero and the western as a patriarchal ‘antidote’ to burgeoning feminism.

Included is the almost inevitable section on Reaganist cinema which also makes the point that female characters who don't want to fit into the traditional male stereotype of what they should be are depicted, therefore, as deranged killers such as the antagonist in Fatal Attraction. Another trend which Hollywood doesn’t seem quite ‘done with’ yet.

Another thing covered here are the financial incentives offered by the Pentagon, in exchange for censorship, which  can reward the film maker but with the added string of always showing the military in a good light. Which is nice and informative until the writer makes the big mistake, in my book, of referring to a much loved 1981 movie by the false (no matter how much Lucasfilm want us to adopt this unnecessary retrofitted nomenclature) title of Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I’m sorry but that’s just wrong.

The final chapter on Technology And Technophobia makes the point that, for an industry that’s increasingly reliable on technology pushing the boundaries of what we are able to imagine, a majority of cinema exists by demonising technical progress with killer robots and such like. Even films like the beautiful Japanese ghost story Ringu seem intent to use our technologies against us (in that case, the watching and copying of a VHS tape are used to spread a virulent ‘supernatural terror’ amongst its victims).

It then goes on to explore the pervasive negative portrayal of biological technology too, such as films about organic creation gone wrong like Splice and, well... Jurassic Park. As a counter to this, of sorts, it also briefly talks about films which lionise the concept of consumer friendly technology, especially around the time of the home computer boom of the early 1980s. So there’s that too.

All in all, the clean lines and selective topics scattered throughout Filmish make the book an interesting proposition. I would say that, in some ways, the book is more for the novice in film rather than someone who has at least as much love and passion for film as the author. However, for people who have previously been less inclined to study film as a medium of artistic power, there are a lot of good ‘starting point’ ideas brought up and, thankfully, the writer includes an index of references used throughout to get you looking in the right directions. A good little tome to kick start an interest in the art of cinema and a solid recommendation from me.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen


Charlie Chan and the
Curse of the Dragon Queen

USA 1981 Directed by Clive Donner
101 Films Blu Ray Zone B

So after 47 US made movie adventures... Charlie Chan returned to the big screen, 32 years after the last movie, The Sky Dragon (reviewed by me here) and following in the wake of both live action and cartoon TV shows. And it’s such a shame how Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen turned out, to be honest.

What we have here is a film which seems almost completely wrongheaded in its approach and, if it’s in any way memorable, then I suspect it’s probably for the wrong reasons. It’s unfortunate that a movie with such a good cast turned out so... well it’s not totally unwatchable and it’s not without its charm but there’s nothing really to save this mess, in all honesty.

We have Roddy McDowell, the tragic Rachel Roberts in her last role before she killed herself (indeed, another actress was apparently in reserve for the role in case her mental health issues meant Roberts couldn’t finish shooting), Angie Dickinson as the titular Dragon Queen (who’s not given all that much to do, to be fair), Lee Grant, Brian Keith playing an over-the-top police chief (he was apparently nominated for a ‘stinker’ award as worst supporting actor for this but I think, considering the tone of the film, he does what is required) and it’s also a very early, not quite her debut, cinema feature for Michelle Pfeiffer, playing the fiance of Charlie Chan’s grandson.

We also have Richard Hatch playing said grandson of Charlie Chan, Lee Chan Jr. And yes, that Richard Hatch... famous for only a year or two earlier being Captain Apollo in Battlestar Galactica. He’s seen here hamming it up something terrible and that highlights one of the problems of this movie, actually, rather than the actors in it. It’s an out and out comedy version of Charlie Chan, not a serious mystery with occasional moments of humour or high comedy like the earlier films (depending on if you were watching a Warner Oland, Sydney Toler or Roland Winters version of the character).

And then we have Charlie Chan himself. Just a few years after his first of many appearances playing one of Agatha Christie’s key characters, Hercule Poirot, we have the great Peter Ustinov himself playing Charlie... once again continuing the great American tradition of having anyone else other than someone of the authentic racial background playing the famous detective. Ustinov is a great actor but he’s not really given much of a chance to shine here and seems to be kinda walking around the movie just staying out of the way of everyone else’s comic antics whilst trying to keep his dignity, for the most part. To his credit, he plays Chan straight but also not quite like any of his illustrious predecessors... although I was pleased to hear him use the phrase “Contradiction please!” at one point towards the end. However, since the character is pretty much the only straight, down to earth character in it, he’s not really pushed into the foreground as much as you might expect for something which is, after all, supposed to be a Charlie Chan movie. In fact, quite a lot of the time, the film comes off more as a Lee Chan Jr movie, as Richard Hatch’s Number One Grandson and his on screen fiance seem to be taking up large amounts of the movie themselves.

The film starts off with a credits sequence which is the only time Peter Ustinov gets to go to town with the comedy shenanigans... and I wish he hadn’t. He sings a ‘funny song’ over the titles and it’s truly abysmal... I was glad I only paid a fiver for the Blu Ray already at this point in the proceedings. We then switch to black and white footage of the end of ‘a previous case’, many years ago, and captioned “Then”. This is where we see Charlie and many of the other characters’ first encounter with the Dragon Queen and then we jump to... “Now.” Everybody has aged except Charlie himself who, when he finally comes back into the story, hasn’t aged at all... even though the then 36 year old Richard Hatch character wasn’t yet born in the flashback sequence. This makes no sense.

And then the film is off in a blur of, for the most part, bland and almost unwatchable comic moments of exaggerated tomfoolery which are nothing like what a Charlie Chan thriller was about (and certainly not in the original novels) and everything about that old Hollywood convention of gathering a distinguished cast together in a completely ridiculous movie and then proceeding to have way more fun than the audience is ever likely to have. Strangely enough, we do have the character of a black chauffeur to the family but, unlike the well loved Mantand Moreland of the Sydney Toler and Roland Winters films, this guy is deadly serious and not here for comic relief... at least not the kind that Moreland excelled at in all his wonderfulness.

Now, there are some good comic moments here, in all honesty but... they are few and far between. The visual gag of having an acupuncture dartboard almost raises a smile and the running joke of Roddy McDowell dropping his cigarette ashes into the urn of the ashes of Lee Grant’s character’s late husband has a great pay off when she picks up the urn and exclaims “Oh my God Bernie, you're putting on weight!” Mostly, however, it’s full of duds and the amount of Chan style aphorisms which the writers have put in are way more than you would expect from the character, it seemed to me. Occasional gems like “Experience, good school but... sometimes fees high.” are okay but they’re so diluted by the amount of not so clever sayings that they never really hit home like they used to in the older, much more serious films.

Also, if a writer is going to have a character wishing someone a “very enchanting evening” then the lack of grammar on display does not leave me the impression that you are in any way a serious writer. Or was this just ad libbed on the set?

Throw in a few dodgy chase scenes which only my mother could laugh at (and she did... she was enjoying this way more than me) and you have a movie that fails to captivate or even raise more than a passing interest. There’s a nice little in-joke in a disco where Richard Hatch orders a ‘Captain Apollo on the rocks’ and one wonders if this is something that the writers put in or whether it was an ad libbed prediction, by Hatch, of the state his career would be in after participating in a movie which is bound to leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of the majority of Charlie Chan fans. My final word on the matter is, unless you’re a Charlie Chan enthusiast (in which you have to purchase this to finish off the series) then you are best steering clear of this mess of a movie, to be sure. Still keeping my fingers crossed that somebody tries to do the Chan franchise justice again some day but, sadly, Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen is more of a miscarriage of said justice.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

Morgue One

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe
UK/USA 2016
Directed by André Øvredal
Lion’s Gate Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, there are some light spoilers in this.

André Øvredal is the Norwegian genius behind the original Trollhunter movie (which I reviewed here) and The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is his next feature length film, shot in English and set in Virginia in the US (which I best know of from my annual reading of the latest of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels every Christmas). It’s a film I was desperately wanting to see from last year’s London Film Festival but, alas, I was unable to make the inconvenient screening date and time of this one. So I patiently waited for it to get a proper release at the cinema, only to find it was one of those films that got a completely crazy release in just a couple of screens in London (if that) at truly silly times. So, yeah, I wasn’t able to catch it then either... shame on the sad state of this country’s cinema distribution that it’s so hard to see films which aren’t American blockbusters at your local multiplex now. I believe cinemas should be forced to use at least half of the screens in their buildings for non-American films of much smaller budgets. We are in exactly the same situation in this country as Germany was at the start of the 20th Century (and again in the early 1970s) which prompted them to start taking action against the monotonous certainty of the US ‘hit machine’. Frankly, we should have ten times more cinemas in this country anyway but... I’ll leave that serious issue for another day.

So, anyway, I finally got to see this movie now it’s been released on Blu Ray and, while it’s nothing like the tone of the director’s Troll Hunter movie, it’s a pretty great little horror film and, it seems to me, it does a lot of the things that The Void (reviewed here) was trying to do last year but with much more success at every level here, it has to be said. The film starts off with local police working a crime scene in Virginia in which all the victims in a large house have died from various wounds or burns. In the cellar, however, they come across the body of a naked woman laying half buried in the dirt (the titular character, played by Olwen Catherine Kelly).

The film then jumps to the local morgue where, pretty much, the entire rest of the movie takes place. It’s a family run business and we join the two main protagonists Tommy and his son Austin, played by the inimitable Brian Cox as the father and Emile Hirsch as the son. Austin is supposed to be following in the family business but hasn’t yet told his dad that he doesn’t want to do that... due to the loss of their mother a couple of years hence. They are just finishing up an autopsy and, after introducing his dad to his girlfriend Emma (played by Ophelia Lovibond), they are about to finish their day when the sheriff turns up with the ‘untouched’ lady found at the crime seen shown previously. The cops need everything autopsied but this one they need especially urgently because, with no marks on her body, they would like to figure out the COD (cause of death) in case it gives them a clue to the rest of the mangled up corpses at the site.

So that’s the basic plot set up and then, since it’s a horror film, the story elements start getting laid on so that the ‘pulp horror’ stuff in the second half of the movie can play out more easily. Now, it has to be said, there are a lot of cliché elements to this film (so clichéd that one person in the room as I was watching this had to walk out because it was so irritating to him). For instance, you have the backdrop of a storm hitting the county late at night while the autopsy is being performed knocking out the electricity and plunging things into darkness and gloom, even when the generators kick in for a bit. You have the beloved family pet used to set off a scare... which is a bit of a horror story textbook 101 in itself... and, once you know of the existence of said feline, you are obviously just waiting for something bad to happen to it, right? There’s even a scene where the father is showing the girlfriend a corpse and she questions the little bell tied to the ‘client’s’ foot... it’s explained that this old tradition is kept alive by the father and is a hold over from times when corpses brought in were not always ‘that dead’, they just appeared to be. So, of course, you know this is a set up for the ringing accompanied by walking corpses later on in the film... what other purpose would it have there?

So, yeah, the director does tip his hand to a lot of the elements in this one very early on, to be sure but, personally I don’t think this ever threatens to really derail or spoil the story at all and a lot of that is because of the way the intrigue about various discoveries of the secrets the corpse is hiding play out. I was hooked when Brian Cox straight up finds out that both the wrists and ankles of the film’s ‘Jane Doe’* have been shattered. So how do you shatter someone’s joints like that without leaving an external mark? Then, as the examination continues and various parts of the body are cracked open and violated, they find things like the tongue bitten off... the eyes are unusually milky... a fly crawls out of the nose... there is no rigor mortis... there is a tooth missing... there is trauma to - but no semen in - the vagina and the lungs are severely blackened like the girl has been burnt. Brian Cox’s character has a great line about the significance of that last item when he likens it to finding a bullet in the brain but with no gunshot wound.

Of course, by this point my brain was thinking the ending of this movie was going to be a not too distant cousin of Aldo Lado’s giallo Short Night Of The Glass Dolls but, no, it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Brian Cox talks about Jimson Weed used as a paralysing agent at one point, presumably to put that very thought in your brain but, as I said before... it’s not ‘quite’ the solution to their problem here. When they find a strand of fabric in the mouth and then, later, find the girl’s missing tooth wrapped in a large chunk of the same material, they unwrap it to reveal a load of writing in ancient, magical symbols. This sets up a beautifully “what the heck?” moment when the skin of Jane Doe is peeled back and they find... yeah, like I’m going to tell you what they find here. If you like what you are reading about this intriguing, slow reveal plot then have a look at this movie.

The acting is, of course, first rate (which is what you would expect with Brian Cox on set) and when the film goes full-on horror for the last third of the film, it's pretty handy having someone that credible around. The director also has a good way of shooting things to disclose those familiar ‘is there someone sinister in the background of the shot’ moments by doing a lot of wide sweeps with the camera passing the main focal points of the scenes. This teases the horror but in a more naturalistic way than the current ‘reacting to the environment’ kind of modus operandi of a lot of Hollywood horror at the moment but it doesn’t do it any less effectively. I did get a bit disappointed in the last third of the movie in some ways  because, yeah, we’ve seen it all before (especially in the 1980s on ‘straight to video’ tapes from hell) but, ultimately, the quality of the direction and the investment in the actors pays off a lot more than in recent movies in a similar vein (one of which I mentioned above) and I’m really glad I got a look at this one.

All in all, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is an intriguing little horror movie which might even coax non-horror fans in with the mystery element of the story and, I suspect, give them a more interesting time than audience members who are more inclined to treat this genre as their bread and butter. Having said that, it’s not as good as the director’s previous movie, Troll Hunter but, honestly, that’s a bit of a masterpiece and would take some topping. Although, really, you can’t make a comparison here because that movie was its own thing and this one here is a nice throwback to those old H. P. Lovecraft stories of days gone by... filtered through a strange, mid-1980s US and Italian filter... and that’s a compliment, for sure, rather than it is anything else. So, you know, I have a lot of regard and respect for this movie and would thoroughly recommend it if you want a good night in with the lights off and with the clanks from your own central heating system making you just a little wary of what is going to happen next in the film. It’s not for everyone but I really rate this one so, you know, give it a go maybe.

*For my fellow countrymen who don’t know, John and Jane Doe are designated names for unidentified corpses in the US. In England it’s John and Jane Smith so, you know, that’s why The Doctor has been John Smith as an alias quite a lot of time in Doctor Who since the 1970s Jon Pertwee era.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Janus Chamber

Hot Hell

The Janus Chamber
by Sasha Grey
Cleis Press  2017
ISBN: 978-1627781800

Okay, so here we have the second novel by ex-porn star turned artist, DJ, composer and writer... the one and only Sasha Grey. I’ve been even more impressed with her as a person after her former life as a notorious sexual warrior, first as an actress with her spectacular performance in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (which I reviewed here) and then by her first novel (which, like this one, I’ll still tentatively refer to as an ‘erotic novel’, although that kinda undersells it a little), The Juliette Society, which I reviewed here.

Well, I have to say that, as much as I admired the sheer intelligence and elegance of her attitude and words in The Juliette Society, this sequel called The Janus Chamber really blew me away. I found it way more interesting and addictive than the first one because, while the stylistic nuances in terms of Grey are the same here, as she talks first person through the guise of her central protagonist Catherine, there’s a little more of a story hook to this one... at least, that’s the way it seemed to me.

To be clearer, this one centres around a mystery where Catherine, who has moved on a few years since the last book and who has devoted herself to her politically ambitious boyfriend, discovers a person called Inana Luna, who reminds her of the lost Anna from the previous book. She discovers the depths or... actually... heights to which this person devoted her life in pursuing her sensual limits but her untimely death, concluded a suicide by police, has not convinced Luna’s sister there wasn’t some foul play and so Catherine, who is now pursuing a career as a journalist, pursues the story. She contacts the sister, is given Luna’s diary and even gets to stay in Luna’s old apartment as she goes undercover to work at the hotel which is connected to Luna’s past. From there she gets in good with management and then gains access to the secret, untouchable, extreme sex club in the hotel’s basement and the maze of rooms/chambers full of decadent behaviour and ‘anything goes’ consensual sexuality. And that’s the basic story set up but, as Grey so eloquently puts it here... the story progression in terms of events that happen is not the real thing that people need, so by the time you get to the possibility of an ‘end game’, it’s unimportant... it’s the journey that matters. Closure is not a necessity.

There’s a brilliant chapter on the mystery of hotels near the beginning of the novel which is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way in which Grey explores each and every subject in life as it comes up. Subjecting all the little elements of the physical and mental environment of the story’s main protagonist to a thorough dissection through some quite searing observations, wielding the scalpel of her ‘gaze made words’ with all the care of a surgeon. And the book is full of these kinds of penetrating looks at the world and the way our society views things which I truly appreciated. There are some great, playful metaphors which constantly take you into little diatribes about various aspects of the world around us... such as the contemplation of a changing room in a lingerie shop being an exploration of the relationship with a priest in a confessional box. Passages like this elevate the novel and lend a lot of substance to what is, at heart, an erotic adventure.

Like the first novel, being as Catherine is now a ‘former’ film student, the writer works her own appreciation of the art of cinema into the text and weaves various movie references throughout. She’s obviously got a thing for the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and, one of my least favourite (actually), L’Avventura, is very much used as a metaphor for the plot line here (indeed, there’s even an establishment in the novel named after another Antonioni movie, La Notte). There’s a lovely analogy, for example, that the missing Anna in L’Avventura is, like Schrodinger’s Cat... in a perpetual state of ‘she’s both on and off the island’, of which I was very appreciative.

The book is full of little nuggets like these within the main text. One minute she’ll be talking about Zulawski’s Possession (reviewed here) and the next she’ll be referencing the plot of Brian De Palma’s Sisters (reviewed here). But these references are, hardly, ever just references to the films themselves. They usually serve a purpose, to drum home an observation about a particular thing... like the uncertainty of picking up on the thread of something and sticking with it to find the reward at the end. One of the passages reads thusly...

“Sometimes the best movie scenes happen after the lights have come on and the credits have scrolled out of sight. When you're shuffling out of the theatre, disoriented because your mind's been shredded from the ride the director's taken you on. Then the screen flickers back to life and there's more, and you rush back inside, desperate to soak in a more complete picture of the message, but you're too late. You miss the key moment that brings realisation full circle to unlock the last puzzle piece of the film.

And sometimes, the superheroes just sit around eating shawarma."

... which not only left me gobsmacked but left me smiling from ear to ear, too. You don’t expect to see the first of the Marvel Avengers movies referenced in an erotic novel. At least, I don’t.

Regarding the erotic content of the tome... well, it seemed to me to be a lot stronger and a little less vanilla than the first one. Whenever the character of Catherine writes about the shining star that was Inana Luna or, indeed, describes the sexual adventures going on around her which she either observes or participates in, I couldn’t help but think of the writer’s knowledge and skill set of her own life being thoroughly mined here. Not that I want to make the obvious mistake of confusing an artist with her work but there’s usually the spirit or soul captured within a writer’s words and... well... put it this way... There are people I would trust to know what they are talking about when it comes to content of a hard erotic nature and some people I wouldn’t. Experience counts for a lot and Sasha Grey is definitely someone I would trust to be writing about this kind of stuff with a certain authenticity and, since she’s turned out to be such an intelligent individual anyway, she’s definitely one of the people I would rely on to deliver more than a kernel of truth about the specific kinds of shenanigans going on in this book, that’s for sure.

And that’s all I have to say about this mini masterpiece other than a) the book leaves you on more of a cliff hanger this time around (this is definitely Sasha Grey’s The Empire Strikes Back when it comes to the dramatic portrayal of her story and the third novel in the trilogy, The Mismade Girl, is due to be published in March 2018) and b) I now have a list of notes on things to find out more about like flower flipping, Pryings by Acconci and the Fantasius Mallare because of this novel. So, yeah, I guess you can say I had a pretty good time with this one. Sasha Grey is turning out to be a most rewarding writer and, if you liked The Juliette Society, the The Janus Chamber is definitely something you are going to want to take a look at.

You can follow Sasha Grey on Twitter here and check out her website here... www.sashagrey.com

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Morning Gloria

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool
2017 UK Directed by Paul McGuigan
UK cinema release print.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan (whose wonderful, much underrated film Victor Frankenstein was reviewed by me here) and partially produced by EON films. Yep, that EON films... set up as Everything Or Nothing to produce the James Bond films decades ago. Indeed, this film is co-produced by Barbara Broccoli and it was certainly a surprise seeing the EON name heading up the movie, since their only ever non-Bond film since the company’s inception in 1961 was the 1963 film Call Me Bwana. All I can say here is... they certainly know how to churn out a quality product.

The film tells the true life story of a young man called Peter Turner (the screenplay is co-written by him and based on his memoir), played here by Jamie Bell... and depicts his relationship with a woman almost thirty years older than him, legendary Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, played here by Annette Bening.

Now I’ve always liked Gloria Grahame and, if asked for a personal listing of great actresses, I never fail to include her name. However, that being said, much as I like her I’ve only ever seen her in two of her movies. The thing is though, her sometimes smouldering but somehow vulnerable presence lodges itself in one’s mind with such presence that her image haunts you in a truly iconic way. The two roles I’ve seen her in were quite different from each other but both absolutely amazing. As Violet, the town... um... well I guess they didn’t spell it out so simply  in movies in those days so let’s just say the town’s fallen woman, Violet, in Frank Capra’s totally brilliant Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, is one of those roles. The character who tries to redeem herself, with Jimmy Stewart’s help, by trying to get out of Bedford Falls and leave her old life behind but who, in the end, returns the money Stewart has given her to help out when he is in dire need (along with much of the rest of the town’s folk, of course). The other time I saw her and loved her was as the moll of Lee Marvin’s character in the classic Fritz Lang movie, The Big Heat. The gal who gets mutilated by Marvin when he throws scalding hot coffee in her face and who ends up helping out Glen Ford’s revenge fuelled police inspector as a result. Both wonderful roles and, if I never see another film with her in... well, those two would be enough for me to remember her by.

Annette Bening here plays her in her decline, over the last few years of her life and it’s a wonderful realisation, I have to say. This is the first time I’ve ever really taken notice of Annette Bening, to be honest. She’s never been an actress I’ve been all that interested in or impressed with but the performance here is absolutely astonishing and it would seem I’ve been doing Miss Bening an injustice. As much as I would like Gal Gadot to take home an Oscar next year for Wonder Woman (reviewed here), I honestly wouldn’t mind that much if Bening got one for this instead. Goodness knows, she really deserves it.

The film opens with Bening’s Gloria Grahame prepping herself in a dressing room in the UK somewhere for her evening role in a theatrical production of The Glass Menagerie. The opening is filled with various close ups of her putting on her make-up etc without you ever getting a good look at her until, at the end of the sequence, she passes out in the dressing room as she is about to go on stage. Then her ex-boyfriend, Peter Turner as played by Bell, is called and he takes her back to his family in Liverpool, in the hopes she will recover from what he later, over the course of the film, discovers is cancer in its final stages.

Jamie Bell is, of course, truly excellent. He’s not one of those actors who I’ve seen that much of but, every time I do see him in something, he never fails to impress me. His chemistry with Bening is absurdly brilliant and between the two of them, they manage to pull off what some people may find is a tricky relationship with absolute credibility and I could easily watch these two playing these kind of roles together for hours. They are the figureheads of a great cast which also includes the real Peter Turner in a small role and the always excellent Julie Walters as Peter’s mum.

The direction and design/structure is pretty cool too and, though it would be true to say that the story and various narrative beats are perhaps a little predictable and clichéd, they are also ‘just right’ for the tale showcased here and the director does manage to surprise with the way in which scenes are run into each other in terms of creative transitions between different points in time... not to mention some excellent shot compositions from time to time.

For instance, I was in quite unknown territory at the start of the movie because all the characters know each other already and have an established history with each other. I was five or more minutes into the movie thinking that things weren’t very clear in explaining who these people were and that, at some point soon, the film was going to have to start going into flashback mode. Sure enough, when Jamie Bell walks out of a bedroom and through the landing of his mother’s house, the shot transitions to another place and time with a similar environment and we are suddenly at the very start of Pete and Gloria’s first encounter. The film then continued to impress me by always transitioning back to the 1980s after a while and continuing the narrative of ‘the last days of Gloria’ before hurtling back to another point in the past of these two character’s lives... a bit like a set of Russian dolls which keep unfolding from each other and it’s an idea that works well. It’s a bit like watching a Nicholas Roeg movie in that respect, although the transitions are less violent and don’t take you on such an aggressively highlighted path as Roeg’s work.

There’s a truly unusual scene where Pete and Gloria are in her hotel room disco dancing and the camera movements are kinda swaying up and down to the beat of the music on top of all the movement already created in the shot by the two dancing figures and, rather than alienate me like a scene like this often might, it sucked me into the rhythm of the piece in a great way. Another, truly wondrous and funny moment is when Pete takes Gloria to see the new movie of the time they are in at that particular point... Ridley Scott’s classic ALIEN. He is utterly terrified and has to hide his face in her lap but Gloria is just laughing at the make believe shenanigans of the chest burster sequence and admiring the craft of what the director was able to get away with. It’s quite a telling and brilliant scene.

The script is brilliant too, with some really great moments of sparkly dialogue such as when Pete tells Grahame she reminds him of Lauren Bacall when she smokes and she informs him the last person who told her that was, indeed, Humphrey Bogart... and she didn’t like it then, either. Or the time when they go to the after party of one of her theatrical appearances and Pete whispers to her that a certain person they were just talking to obviously wants to fuck her. “Darling... everyone in this room wants to fuck me.”, she replies. Yeah, there are some really great comedy moments in this but the film is emotionally moving too and even, in some scenes, shows up one of the character flaws of being a vain Hollywood star in a world where glamour can sometimes be as important as talent.

And I don’t have much more to say about this one, I guess. The film ends beautifully with some real footage of Miss Grahame as she, famously, accepted her Oscar in a very particular way and Bob Hope’s comment after... I won’t spoil that bit of footage for you if you’ve never seen it but, go watch this movie and take a look. I absolutely loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (and need to read the book at some point, I think) and so, of course, left the auditorium with tears flowing down my cheeks. If you are into the art of cinema, even if you don’t know who Gloria Grahame was and why she is so well remembered today, then you will not want to miss out on this one. Especially since the two leads are so brilliant here. This is one of those movies which I think will be playing late at night on the telly every Christmas holiday as a ‘quality alternative’ to whatever bizarre festive things are showing on rival channels but, in the meantime, I’ll definitely be picking up a Blu Ray of this one when it gets a release.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Ingrid Goes West

Stalk On The Wild Side

Ingrid Goes West
2017 USA Directed by Matt Spicer
UK cinema release print.

Well this is a pretty amazing movie.

Ingrid Goes West is a film which I went to see purely because I’d seen Aubrey Plaza in one other movie and I was quite taken with her performance. That previous movie was Ned Rifle (reviewed here), the last part of Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy where she played a character who had only been alluded to in the previous parts of that series. I found her quite quirky and appealing as an on screen personality and so when I saw the trailer for this, although I had my reservations, I thought I’d give it a go.

As it turned out, that was a really good idea.

Here, Plaza plays the titular Ingrid who is, for want of a better term, a social media junkie who spends her waking hours trying to catch the eye of her latest Instagram obsession. The movie is toned, for the most part, as a comedy but it has a really dark heart and, as lazy as it is to say it, that dark heart is ultimately Ingrid herself. That being said, she’s not a villainous character and doubles as both protagonist and antagonist in that her actions, when viewed by the audience, are almost understandable at times and, although she is pretty much a full fledged stalker, insinuating her way into the private lives of others, she is also the character who the writers and director presumably want you to identify with.

The film poses no easy way into that mindset, however, as it starts off with the end game shenanigans of her latest obsession. A woman who she is so obsessed with and feeling excluded by that she crashes her wedding and maces her in the face for not inviting her there. The credits montage, then, is of Ingrid in her local mental hospital as we see her partaking of all the usual movie clichéd pastimes pictured at said establishments such as pill taking (with the sticking out of the tongue as proof of a swallow), group therapy and such like while her voice narrates her ‘apology’ emails to her victim, laced with the feint tinge of hope that she will get a forgiving (and possibly inviting) response.

What the start of that sequence also does, of course, is establish to the audience that Ingrid is crazy enough to flip into hostile and aggressive behaviour towards her ‘instagram crushes’ when things don’t go the way she wants... which helps to populate the character with an edge of unease as the story progresses because... well... the audience knows just what she’s capable of.

As the opening sequence finishes, Ingrid’s mother dies and leaves her a large sum of money. We don’t find out until later, in an almost throwaway line, that Ingrid’s mum was her best friend and the void in her life left by her departure may be one of the factors to have influenced the bizarre way in which she engages with the rest of the world. As the movie wears on, she gets more sympathetic, even though, as the story starts properly, she finds a new Instagram person she starts to obsessively follow, to the point where she takes her entire inheritance out from the bank, loads it up in her backpack and moves to California to stalk and penetrate her next ‘victims’ life.

That next victim is Taylor Sloane, played by Elisabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Ingrid very quickly kidnaps her dog and waits for the appearance of a reward flyer, by way of an introduction into the lives of Taylor and her husband Ezra (played here by Wyatt Russell). The film then plays out as Ingrid becomes one of the family’s closest friends as she uses and manipulates everything around her to try to stay popular with her new ‘Insta pal’... including hooking up into a relationship with her young, Batman obsessed landlord Dan Pinto (played by O'Shea Jackson Jr.) in order to be able to turn up with her ‘imaginary boyfriend’. Then, when Taylor’s hero, her dominant and thoroughly nasty brother turns up, things start to go a bit pear shaped for Ingrid in some pretty nasty and uncomfortable ways.

Well,  that’s the basic set up and, I have to say, the actors and actresses in this movie really turn in some amazing performances... especially Plaza and Olsen. A lot of the humour in here is based on that very American style of ‘the comedy of embarrassment’, it seemed to me and, while I’m not a big fan of that kind of ‘little fish trying to fit in’ style of humour, it was just balanced and subtle enough in the performances here that it never once alienated me and I had a really good time with it. Also, as I said before, it’s not just a comedy and as the movie progresses, it kind of creeps up on you that it’s also an observation of the way loneliness can effect people and the lengths to which they will go to pursue a cure for that particular state of being.

There’s also some nice things happening with the way the film has been put together, too. The constant, almost staccato beat of Ingrid’s voice as she reads the Instagram captions out loud on the soundtrack in her head, including the vocalisation of the emojis (princess emoji, prayer emoji etc) is also echoed within the sharp cuts of certain montage sections exploring the famous social media site but it also has some nice visual echoes when the film is not specifically doing that too.

For starters, there are a fair few more static shots than you might expect in a film about the people of this particular age group. And I loved the way that, for some of the establishing shots of new locations, instead of smoothly panning the camera around to create the setting, the director will instead drop three differently angled static shots making up a quick ‘establishing edit’ rather than do the obvious... which is how you would perceive somewhere shown as static photos on a social media site, I guess (don’t get me started on gifs please).

There’s even a set of windows which he occasionally comes back to which take up the whole frame as a three across by two high grid... and of course when a character is standing outside those windows, they tend to be perfectly framed within one of the rectangles, just like you might be trying to do with an instagram picture or grid layout, I guess (I’m not actually on the site, I think).

Another great moment is in the score provided by Jonathan Sadoff and Nick Thorburn (sadly, there’s no proper CD release of this as yet... just a wretched download). Ingrid is dressed up in a Catwoman mask and seducing her new boyfriend with her best Catwoman shenanigans and this includes a moment where she licks his face in the exact same way that Michelle Pfiefer did something similar in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns... and why it works so well here is because the score is an obvious parody of Danny Elfman’s Catwoman orchestrations. It’s just a perfect moment of pastiche in a movie which is full of good ideas and, despite its bleak trajectory, I found myself thoroughly entertained by it.

It also ends in a way which is not entirely unexpected in terms of the aims and objectives of the title character but which also has a tragic poignancy. The way in which it’s pitched here works so wonderfully that, by the end of the sequence following what I was at first worried was the end sequence, I was genuinely torn between whether or not I should be feeling happy or sad for Ingrid. Is this redemption or... ? Oh no, this isn’t quite that at all it’s something else and it may seem deliberately ambivalent in its execution but I just thought the last shot was just the perfect ending for the movie.

Indeed, I didn’t realise how powerful that ending was until I started sobbing as I walked home from the cinema after it had finished. I have to confess, I felt really suicidal on the journey back and the next day and, although I can’t completely blame the movie for that right now (I have some stupid rubbish going on in real life at the moment) I felt compelled by the film to contemplate the darker parts of my biological make up for a day or two. Which is great, right? The film haunted me and made me think about things for a bit so... if that’s not a recommendation for a good time at the cinema then I don’t know what is. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when I come to tot up my top ten movies for 2017 at the end of the year, this one is in the mix somewhere on that list. Ingrid Goes West is a truly amazing little movie and I’m so glad I was lucky enough to see it.  

#IAmIngrid. 👰

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Justice League

Beleaguered Leaguers

Justice League
2017 USA Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Yeah, there will be some spoilers in this one, I think.

Okay, so let me just say up front that Justice League is not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination... it’s just not a very good one either. It has its great little moments and a whole bunch of problems but, out of the five films to date making up the story arc of this particular set of interlocking DC superhero movies, this is about halfway up the list in terms of being an effective and entertaining movie.

DC’s track record hasn’t been all that great since the fantastic last part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy, it has to be said. Man Of Steel (reviewed here) was just dreadful. Batman Vs Superman - Dawn of Justice (reviewed here) was a fair bit better but ultimately not very well received by critics and audiences alike, it seemed to me. Suicide Squad (reviewed here) was... okayish but really wasn’t making people that happy either. But then we had ‘the movie’. Wonder Woman (reviewed here) isn’t just the greatest superhero movie of all time (and, yeah, I know that’s a brave and bold claim to make but I promise this is not a knee jerk reaction to it)... it’s also one of the best movies in the past few years, period. It’s also flattened all the competition at the box office for the forseeable future (or just maybe until the new Star Wars movie premieres next month) and it more than deserves its success.

The thing is, though, everyone was kinda hoping that Justice League would somehow live up to the almost impossible standard that Patty Jenkins set with Wonder Woman and, frankly, that would be hard to top even by her, when she comes to work on the sequel. So I guess it’s no surprise that this movie comes nowhere near as close to the dizzying heights that Professor William Moulton Marston’s amazonian princess scaled to in her own solo movie adaptation. A shame, though, that Justice League doesn’t come close to the Batman VS Superman movie either.

Now I’m not going to go into the production problems this film had, what with Zack Snyder leaving for very understandable reasons and Joss Whedon reshooting the thing in places... firstly because I would be no good at figuring out which bits were directed by whom and, secondly, because it’s the film we’ve ended up with, for better or worse. Given Snyder’s reasons for leaving, there’s absolutely no point in having an autopsy on why this theatrically released cut doesn't really cut it.

Okay... so lets look at the good stuff first and get that out of the way...

Well, some of the action was okay, especially the Amazon’s fighting the villain of the piece, Steppenwolf, near the start... and also in the bank scene where Gal Gadot’s Diana saves a bunch of people by doing some cool action stuff. That being said, I did miss the sudden glow of orange as the metal on her wrist bands cool down after a bullet hit, which was a nice detail in Patty Jenkins movie during the alley scene in London... itself an homage, presumably, to the alley scene in Superman The Movie. Gadot is just wonderful again here, as she was in her previous two movies with this character because a) she looks just like she could do all this stuff in real life and b) because she performed it in such a way that she doesn’t betray the character as set up in the previous two films.

Similarly, say what you will about Ben Affleck but I think he makes a brilliant Bruce Wayne/Batman and I really hope he doesn’t leave the role after this. I think he could really do well in a solo Batman movie and I would really like to see it.

Henry Cavill... well I hated Superman in Man Of Steel but that’s more because of the script than Cavill’s performance and I certainly warmed to him more in Batman Vs Superman - Dawn Of Justice. He’s great here too and you really believe in his character, who he portrays with the same kind of honourable presence as some of the great actors who have played the part before him... and I’m specifically thinking of Kirk Alyn and Christopher Reeve here. Now if they’d only bring back the ‘S’ kiss curl and the red trunks then the illusion would be complete.

Jeremy Irons as Alfred has about as much screen time as he did in the previous movie but I think his character makes a bigger impact here, with various ironic comments thrown at Bruce Wayne which I found fairly entertaining.

 It was also great seeing a Green Lantern in the sequence flashing back to a battle on Earth which took places many hundreds of years ago, too. It’s been suggested that the cloak on him was a reference to the original Golden Age iteration of the character in comics but, the people saying that might do well to remember that the original Green Lantern’s costume was red (yeah, I know that’s ridiculous but don’t blame me... I didn’t write those things).

And that’s mostly the good stuff.

Now we also have three new members on the team...

Ezra Miller does okay as a really bizarre and teenage angsty version of the silver age version of The Flash (aka Barry Allen) and he was getting a good reaction from the audience at my screening. Personally I didn’t find him all that easy to identify with and I could take him or leave him, to be fair. Then we have Cyborg, who was a member of the Teen Titans the last time I read of him (sometime in the early 1980s) so goodness knows what he’s doing in the Justice League of America (as the supergroup was always known in the comics... until maybe recently). He’s played here by a guy called Ray Fisher and, although he turns in a solid performance, I couldn’t help but think that the script wasn’t doing him any favours. He just comes across as a bit dull, to be honest.

Jason Momoa’s version of Aquaman is a more fun character but, honestly, is nothing like the Aquaman I used to enjoy reading about when I was a kid (I even had a little action figure). The clean shaven, blonde version of Superman with the blue eyes, orange suit and green legs and gauntlets has morphed into what is presumably a more contemporary comic book version of the character (well... at least he still has both of his arms here). Again... he was okay but I really would have preferred the version of the character I grew up with here.

Okay... let’s get to the really bad then...

So much of the dialogue between Batman and Diana feels forced and, bearing in mind the amount of times that Steve Trevor’s name is bandied about, it somehow seems disrespectful of the truly marvellous solo Wonder Woman movie what came out earlier in the year.

Another thing which felt out of place was that the background story about the ‘mother boxes’ seemed like it came completely out of the blue and Diana never once goes to Thermyscira to consult with the Amazons. Indeed, she even goes so far as to say that they cannot leave their island... which is a completely redundant and contradictory idea in terms of their purpose on Earth, to be honest. This film so badly needed a scene between Diana and her mother and it similarly needed ‘the amazon horde’ to come galloping in for the somewhat bland (as it is here) action finale too. Especially since their own battle with Steppenwolf near the beginning of the movie was a heck of a lot better.

The way Superman is brought back to life is really stupid Doctor Frankenstein stuff and I couldn’t help but think it all seemed just a little too optimistic and contrived. “Gee whiz... wouldn’t it be great if we could use this mother box technology to bring Superman back to life with?”... well, okay, it wasn’t quite like that but it was pretty close. It felt like the whole thing was written by a small child at this point. What was worse than that though was... Superman and Batman were allies by the end of Batman Vs Superman. In fact, Batman saved Superman’s mother’s life. So why the heck would the newly woken Superman be so aggressively hostile to Batman and the others and try to kill them all? It made no sense. It was like watching that truly dumb scene in Superman III where he splits into two and the evil and good halves fight. It just made no sense.

And then they trot out Amy Adam’s Lois Lane to calm him down? Honestly, it felt like her role was really pushed to the back in this and the scene where she and Diane Lane as Martha Kent were talking in the newspaper offices felt like it was shot quickly in the director’s favourite room in his house one afternoon. The set dressing and feel of the scene seemed to be completely unconvincing.

The music is perplexing too. Danny Elfman has been tapped for this one but I felt like either Hans Zimmer or, especially, Rupert Gregson-Williams (who had provided real emotional depth to the Wonder Woman movie) should have got the gig here. Instead, Elfman uses various themes from films gone by to weave a new musical direction for the franchise and... it just felt wrong. Okay, so he uses Zimmer’s Superman theme from Man Of Steel at one point and he similarly uses Zimmer’s “Is She With You?” theme for Wonder Woman in a less striking arrangement (but without using Gregson-Williams gorgeous thematic material). However, he also uses John WIlliams' Superman music at one point too plus... he even uses his own 1980s Batman theme for some of Ben Affleck’s Batcentric shenanigans. None of that really made sense... what’s he trying to evoke here. It’s a nice enough score, when you can hear it over the noisy sound effects but... it doesn’t knock it out of the park like some of the films in this series do.

Okay, last thing I’ll highlight here is the running time. This is the shortest of the recent DC movies, clocking in at one minute shy of two hours. But you are dealing with six superhero characters, not to mention the big bad guy and the introduction of the mother box on the narrative. How do you cram all that into two hours without losing sight of something? Short answer... you don’t. This film feels like it should be a lot longer and, I dunno, less flippant and somewhat darker in tone considering the events that have birthed it in the previous films. Things felt somewhat rushed... especially when it hurtles to a climax that is less than interesting.

Also... you have continuity errors like the mother box being used to bring Cyborg to life being in the previous film, which makes no sense. Or the fact that the third mother box was found during World War I when, if you check out the epilogue scene included on the home video version of Wonder Woman, you’ll know that Etta Candy and the others were tasked with the mission to find it after the end of the war depicted in that film. Thins like this just seemed a bit like sloppy writing to me, it has to be said.

So, yeah, that’s my review of Justice League. All in all I’m glad I went to see it... if for nothing more than to see Gal Gadot totally slaying it as Wonder Woman. However, the film didn’t blow me away, for sure and it certainly felt a little more anti-climactic than I was expecting. All in all, if you loved Wonder Woman then you’ll probably want to see this one anyway. I can’t really recommend it to anyone on any other basis though so... make of that what you will. Old school DC comics fans, though, would do well to look out for the first of the two post-credits scenes if they want to see a familiar homage and... don’t miss the end if you want to see what happened to another character from a previous movie in the series.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Lure

Fish N’ Blood

The Lure (aka Córki Dancingu)
Poland 2015 Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
Criterion Collection - available in US & UK as appropriate zone.

What if I told you that here is a film which tells the story of two flesh eating mermaid sisters who work with their mother in a strip club? What if I further told you that it’s a musical? And how about if I told you it’s an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, complete with nudity and gory violence?

Honestly, it only took knowing the first of those three propositions to hook me into The Lure. The musical numbers scattered prolifically about this movie are just the icing on the cake. As for The Little Mermaid? Well I don’t know the story and I haven’t seen any of the cinematic iterations of it over the years, except this one. I can’t imagine the Disney version ends the same way as the original story does, however and, it would be true to say that I suspect, in terms of its end game, this one echoes the source material a little closer... although without the end coda of hope and reward that the original story kinda drops into the mix as a spoonful of sugar to make the bitter pill of that original ending go down a little smoother.

However, I was blissfully unaware of the original story when I started watching this so... all the better when the characters here start talking about eating a certain character before one of them turns into sea foam and such forth, I guess. But I’m ahead of myself.

It’s been a while since I was properly looking at Polish cinema, I think. I’ve probably not seen any since the death of one of my favourite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, back in 1996. This one could well get me back into it though because it’s a meticulously crafted and beautiful film and I have to stop and give credit here to fellow tweeter and movie/art blogger Alex Kittle for giving me the ‘heads up’ on this one (and you can read her review of this film here).

I knew I was onto a good thing from the opening logo to the picture. It’s obviously a company that’s been put together to make this particular film, I would guess, as the animated logo shows two mermaids swimming in the sky around a long, phallic tower which starts ejaculating fireworks. It was possibly worth the price of the considerably expensive Criterion Collection CD for just this few seconds of imagery but, honestly, this is one of those films that doesn’t stop giving.

The opening credits are equally beautiful with some nice, minimalist animated work depicting the mermaid sister protagonists of the film in some kind of aquatic cave... the skulls and skeletons of their dead human victims piled up around their natural environment or bobbing on the surface of the water.

We then have a strange prologue which I didn’t quite understand, where the two sisters swim to the bank of a canal and, as I originally thought, ate two men. However, these men seem to be the same two characters who dominate the male cast in the movie and this scene definitely wasn’t a flashback. Since they just disappear through a jump cut to the mermaid’s mum screaming, I can only assume that they definitely didn’t get eaten after all and that this is why the two sisters end up in the strip club with their mother and the two men in the next sequence... which shows a singer belting out an old, I think, Bronski Beat (?) song. While this music continues, the manager is trying to track down a fishy smell and, as he goes through the different rooms in his strip club while the guests are being entertained, the various people such as the cook and the waiters are all in beat with the rhythm of the music. This was my first inkling that this really was going to turn into a ‘hard musical’ at some point soon. The manager tracks the smell down to the two mermaids in their mother’s dressing room and his main bouncer (played by Andrzej Konopka) shows the mermaids off to him. They are stripped down and they have no body hair at all and, it has to be said, rather curious looking vaginal lips (it might be the way it’s been shot, though). A cup of water is then poured onto their legs and their fish tails grow into place, with their real vaginas half way down their incredibly long and beautiful fish tails.

The two mermaids are called Silver (played truly joyfully by an amazing young actress called Marta Mazurek) and Gold (played truly sinisterly by another amazingly talented actress called Michalina Olszanska) and they are instantly given jobs as singers/strippers working with their mum. It’s to the credit of writer Robert Bolesto and director Agnieszka Smoczynska that they don’t try to explain the existence of mermaids and that all the characters who encounter them in the film in no way question that they must, in fact, be mermaids. This would only take time and get in the way of what is, after all, an adult fairytale with a simplistic purity to it. That being said, they are not the only ‘unusual creatures’ in the movie and there is a hint of a background world to the phenomena which is nicely done here without dominating the story. When the manager tells the others to take the girls out shopping for clothes, the film then goes full on into musical territory with a song and dance number set in a big clothes store and, by this point, I was completely hooked on the thing.

Now I’m not going to detail the rest of the story because I don’t want to spoil anything for you but I will say that the film doesn’t drag and I never once got bored with it. The style of the camerawork is pretty cool and almost shouldn't work, one might think. After all, various sequences are put together with smooth, slowish moving camera work with different angles being shot at different speeds of movement and edited together but, I have to tell you, the editor somehow gets away with it here and nothing detracts from the flow of the way you perceive the movie. It’s quite amazing.

The film is also very colourful with some wonderful combinations and also, occasionally, a logical colour coding system to some of the sequences. For instance, when one of the girls start singing in isolation with lyrics which are only for the ears of the people watching the film and not anyone actually in the scene, like a kind of musical narrative to the innermost thoughts of those characters, the lighting kind of suddenly takes on a turquoise shade, reflective of the sea, and everyone else but the character singing is frozen in time... which happens more than once.

There are also some lovely moments made by the director utilising the verticals of the environment as a big design feature in some of the shots. Sometimes she uses them like many directors have done historically, to highlight certain characters in their own delineated space and, at other times, she uses them to conceal things in the frame... such as when two layers of tiled wall are placed parallel to each other in front of the camera and the front plane is only revealed by a character walking out of view behind it... it’s cool stuff here.

Another nice touch is that the girls talk to each other telepathically. We get to hear what they are saying to each other through the subtitles but that’s obviously how it works on the original, non-subtitled Polish prints too because all that is heard on the soundtrack when the girls secretly communicate with each other is a kind of high pitched whale sound... and it works really effectively and is not out of place in a rather cute and fun, mostly light hearted film... albeit one that hides a dark and violent heart, as seen in various scenes as men become the bloody victims of one of the sisters. This is, after all, something of a comedy too and that’s more than amply demonstrated when the two sisters, in their fish forms, are being photographed naked but for stockings and suspenders awkwardly fitted over their fish tails. It’s a nice throwaway touch but it made me crack a smile, for sure.

And it’s a really great film which will stay in my mind for a long time. If I had any complaints it comes not from the film itself but from the translation. Song lyrics and rhyming poems are not the easiest thing to translate at the best of times, especially if you elect to keep the lines rhyming. So it would be true to say that the translations on the subtitles in some of the musical sections are... well, they’re a little but of a push with lyrics translated like...

“As fatal as hara-kiri,
My emotions make me silly.”

I couldn’t help but think of that old Simon & Garfunkel lyric from Kathy’s Song in this respect with their “words that tear and strain to rhyme”. However, credit to the translators for giving this a good go and, like I said, the films is very much a comedy piece too so the ridiculous lyrics here and there only add to the fun of the film.

And that’s me done on this one. The Criterion Collection release of The Lure is a sure fire tip to the hat on the quality of this production and readers based, like I, in Zone B needn’t worry about its availability. If you don’t yet have a multi-zone Blu Ray player then you’ll be fine because Criterion have also released this on their new Criterion UK label. Admittedly, it’s expensive and currently retailing at £18 here but, if you know the label then you know that you will be getting the absolute best transfer with some marvellous extras and that’s just what you get here. I haven’t watched those yet but included in the package are two short movie by Agnieszka Smoczynska so, yeah, this film is a bargain at this price. Especially when it’s such a great movie. If you are a fan of cinema in any capacity then you’ll want to give this one a look, I would think. I’m really pleased that this film dropped into my life and, as you can guess, it’s a definite recommendation from me.