Sunday, 22 April 2018

Wildling



Prey’s Anna-tummy

Wilding
2018 USA Directed by Fritz Böhm
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Spoilers for those of you who really can’t see this stuff coming from the outset.

Wildling is not the film I thought it was going to be.

No, I mean it really wasn’t.

I was sitting in the cinema waiting for the movie to start and the trailers came on and then they started showing the trailer for Wildling. Wait, what? Turns out the trailer was for a completely different film called Hereditary and I’d somehow got it mixed up in my head with the title Wildling. Well the little girl in the Hereditary trailer looks like some kind of wild thing anyway, right? So I had literally no idea, as I sat waiting for the trailers to end, what film I was about to see.

As it happens, this was a good thing because, by the time Liv Tyler turned up as the town sheriff, I realised that I had seen this trailer and that the film was, at least, on my cinema hit list... it’s just that I’d only seen the trailer once as opposed to the seventy gazillion times they’ve been playing the Hereditary trailer at my local for the last month. So I’d assumed that one was coming out first.

Now, I am astonished to see that the IMDB average ratings for Wildling mostly range from zero stars to three stars out of ten and I can only wonder if these people were watching the same movie as me. I... bar one or two things I shall go on to outline... absolutely loved it.

The film starts off with a little girl called Anna, locked away in a bedroom, kept there with stories of the Wildling coming to eat her. Her ‘daddy’ is played by Brad Dourif so... you know, right from the outset you realise she’s being raised by a nutter. When she grows old enough to get her first period, ‘daddy’ starts directly injecting stuff into her womb through her tummy each day to stop her maturing into... yeah, you know exactly what’s coming from this point on. She is, of course, the Wildling of the title and, as you’ll discover later, her true parentage is as yet unknown to her.

When she gets too sick from the drugs Daddy is pumping into her and asks him to end her life, he goes to shoot her but ends up shooting himself in the head instead. The police, in the form of Ellen Cooper, the town Sherif played by Liv Tyler, arrive and Cooper takes Anna to her home while various tests results are waited on. There, Anna learns about life with real people and bonds with the sheriff’s teenage son Ray, played by Collin Kelly-Sordelet. He is really excellent here but the real star of the movie is Bel Powley, who plays the young 16-18 year oldish Anna (although she’s way older than that in real life). She is so good here.

Of course, the combination of Anna's now ‘woke’ and changing, hormonally challenged body which unleashes her natural ferocity and defences coupled with the secret society of Wildling exterminators all comes to a head and things get out of control as she becomes the prey and takes to the woods for survival. In one of the film’s few 'less than completely credible' moments, it turns out that ‘Daddy’ managed to miss anything vital when he shot himself in the head and so he emerges from his hospital bed to lead the secret society of vigilantes on a quest to kill Anna.

The last quarter of the movie is very reminiscent, or at least it seemed to me, of the original John Rambo movie First Blood... where you have the lone warrior facing off against the enemies and taking them out one by one. I was just waiting for a Jerry Goldsmith score to kick in and then this illusion would have been complete.

The film has, it should be said, nothing really original going for it in the annals of ‘man-beast’ (or should that be woman-beast?) or werewolf films but that really doesn’t matter when the execution is this good. It’s not really played for scares, for the most part, either but that doesn’t make it less of a movie. One of the stupidly critical reviews I skimmed on the IMDB to find out why people were so down on this said that it’s not a proper horror film because it’s not scary. Seriously? A horror movie doesn’t have to be scary, people! After all, would you say that The Bride Of Frankenstein or Son Of Dracula or Ridley’s Scott’s A L I E N are in no way horror movies just because they’re not scary. No... Wildling definitely has a ‘beyond science’ shape shifting monster lurking at its heart... a sympathetic monster for sure but it still qualifies as a horror movie in my book. And it’s an excellent one too. The writers are smart enough to leave out any complicated origins as to where the Wildlings came from and just leaves their presence unexplained so they can get on with the story. Which is something that a lot of horror movies have learned to do since the dawn of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, from what I can see.

It does have a lot of 'almost' clichés and it is pretty predictable, to be fair. I knew pretty much what the very last shot was going to be... or where it would be located, at any rate... from the moment Anna first goes into the town library in the first third of the movie but it’s a nice ending and there is an extra character in that scene which I didn't realise would be there (I’m not going to say who though... you have to watch it if you want to find out).

My biggest problems with this movie are with the transformation and design of the title creature. I mean, good grief, all that limb bending, snapping and popping that An American Werewolf In London was somehow so influential with has got to stop. It was fine once but it’s not the only way that you can express the transformation of human to beast. Good grief, it’s got all the potency of an episode of Manimal now (which, for those of you who haven’t seen this truly awful 1983 TV show... reduced the transformation of the title character into a bit of a joke by the time it had finished its one season run). This is such a cliché now. Although the way Anna starts losing teeth in preparation for what the transformation will need when it comes to pass is a nice touch.

Also, the creature design just looks like a bit of 1960s neanderthal make up and I was kinda expecting something a little more ferocious or special than what we’ve got here, to be honest. I guess the director thought this look would be a little more credible but, personally, I thought it was just a little too understated. By the time we get to the full transformation, I wouldn’t have thought you would have needed to hold back so much. Luckily, Bel Powley excels as much as the savage version of Anna as she does as her more human counterpart and she manages to sell it to the audience in spite of the not so inspiring creature design.

All in all, though, these are very minor complaints for a truly well made horror tale... which is exactly what Wildling is. It’s also nice to see Liv Tyler in something really good again too and I think she’s a little under utilised as an actress, to be honest. If you go to this one expecting a scary movie then you might be in for a bit of a disappointment but, if you are looking for a well observed, well made genre film then you should definitely go to see this one. Truly glad I got my films mixed up, this time around.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Films Of The New French Extremity



The French Evolution

Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity
by Alexandra West
McFarland Books
ISBN: 978-1476663487


Alexandra West’s Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is another book I got given for my half-century Birthday this year and, I’m happy to say, it’s one of those slightly rarer film books that is actually pretty well written and which holds a certain kind of intelligence projected at 24 frames per second into the eyes of the reader and on into the celluloidal soul.

The film looks at a certain group of films from the late 1990s to the late 2000s (a roughly ten year period) which the author, amongst others, have embraced and labelled the New French Extremity movement in cinema.

Now I like some labelled ‘movements’ in cinema because they are a useful ‘catch all’ term to group certain similar directors, regardless of the real validity of a movement which is perceived as a collective. Most cinematic groups I could think of off the top of my head are usually not trying to be part of a specific movement, although, like the French Nouvelle Vague, they can at least be said to rise from similar goals and ideals. The only ones I can think of, off hand, which were deliberately trying to be specific styles of cinema both came from Germany. The first would be the German Expressionist movement in the late 1910’s to late 1920s which was deliberately manufactured to combat the plethora of American product in the German marketplace by making films with a very specific, overtly stylised leaning. The other being, in the wake of the Oberhausen Manifesto, The New German Cinema with people like Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Herzog and Wenders making films as a reaction to the likes of the frivolous German sex comedies which were in such abundance at the time.

From what I can understand of the New French Extremity collective, if you want to identify it as that, is that this too was not, unlike those last two examples I gave, a deliberate movement but something which has been looked at and labelled in this manner. Now I’m quite happy to throw my oar in and agree with the various people defining this upsurge in a particularly extreme ‘anything goes’ version of French cinema as a specific trend but I’m not one hundred percent in agreement on certain parts of the definition, to be honest.

The writer starts off the book by giving us a long history lesson on the violent and troubled past of the country in question... as opposed to the stereotypical romantic portrayal of the country which tends to stick in people’s minds. So she looks at the various battles and wars of France and paints a picture of a nation which has always been covered in blood and viscera. She looks at the way the collective consciousness of France is troubled and confused by things like the history of the Nazi atrocities that played out on French soil, for example, and the collusion of the country with this, to a certain extent. And all of this history is great for someone like me, to be honest, as a person who really didn’t listen too much in school anyway.

The second chapter does the same for the history of French cinema, to give this latest movement some context... so again the French New Wave, the Cinema Du Look etc (that last being a term which I find as insulting and overstated as I do accurate). And when she catches up to the New French Extremity she points out really useful stuff like the films in question tending to not go for jump scares like a lot of horror movies but rather to look at the subject head on while pondering and revelling in the grotesque elements which come into play.

After this, the book then gives a chapter by chapter look at one to four films which the writer has collected into little sets and which seem to go together as miniature groups of movies, for one reason or another. And it’s quite invaluable... not always so much in the things it sometimes identifies as signposts to the movement’s concerns but more so, for me personally, as a shopping list of films I need to pick up, in the cases of the ones I haven’t already seen.

The book also seems a defence, in some ways, of the movement... specifically, it seems, in disagreement with another critic, James Quandt, who apparently rejects a lot of these films as being worthless and, in some way, failures... while still recognising the existence himself of a New French Extremity movement. A movement which has also been called ‘cinéma du corps’ - cinema of the body.

As the film wades through many films I haven’t seen, as well as some of my genre favourites such as In My Skin, Inside and Martyrs (reviewed here), various points are made which tie the films into an exploration of the troublesome country of origin and, while some of the films explored are certainly defended more fervently than I myself would bother with - I personally found High Tension, for example, to be overly obvious right from the start and problematic to the point that I really couldn’t enjoy the film - the comments of West are never trite and, even when I don’t agree with them, always have value, even if that’s just as a starting point to lead to further discussion/exploration of the subject. Something which I think Colin Geddes, programmer for the Toronto Midnight Madness festival, who is interviewed in this volume's appendix, might approve of.

The book finishes with an examination of the various ‘American remakes’ of famous horror films that some of these French directors have perpetrated on an unsuspecting public in recent years... like The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D (reviewed here) and The Eye but... yeah, I’m not really into these commercially hopeful remakes so, while I found this chapter interesting, I wouldn’t have necessarily grouped them into this collective, to be truthful.

The one thing I really don’t agree with is the discussion of this movement as something which is already done and dusted. I think this particular style of French cinematic history, if one does choose to define it as such, is really still only getting started. After all, another film which left me bitterly disappointed and underwhelmed last year, Raw (reviewed here) is surely deserving of being grouped collectively with the other films mentioned here and I suspect there’s more to come soon (hopefully with a lot more bite to them, so to speak).

That being said though, Films Of The New French Extremity - Visceral Horror and National Identity is a big winner with me and I certainly welcome it onto the shelf of film books worth taking time to delve into (I’ll get around to actually physically putting them on a shelf one day). A very interesting tome and I hope the writer has some more like this up her sleeve.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Rampage



Ape ‘n’ Stance

Rampage
2018 USA Directed by  Brad Peyton
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Very slight spoliers.

I never played the 1980s classic arcade game that Rampage is based on... in fact, quite strangely, I don’t even remember it. So in terms of how good this is as an adaptation of that property, I can’t really say with much authority. That being said, since the ape, wolf and crocodile in the original game were apparently formerly humans in the back story... my guess is that this is more of a new story with some name checks rater than a faithful adaptation.

I wanted to see Rampage because I somehow really liked San Andreas by the same team of Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) and director Brad Peyton (and you can read my review of that one here). Also... I saw the trailer and any movie with an intelligent, giant ape in it... you can bet I’m up for that.

So Rampage starts off with a very strong opening which might, almost, make you think the cinema was showing the wrong movie. It’s like watching ten minutes of Gravity (reviewed here) as we start off in a space station which has been trashed by a giant rat from an escaped experiment and the one surviving member of the crew who is frantically floating around trying to survive... but she’s unable to release the escape capsule. In one fell swoop we are introduced to how evil the main antagonists of the movie are when they won’t release the locks on the capsule remotely from earth until she recovers the component parts of the experiment. But... you know... floating giant space rat! Things all come to a head when the lady in question finally manages to escape but then ends up dying anyway with the samples crashing to Earth in little mini cannisters. When various wildlife comes into contact with the gas excreted by the samples - a wolf, a crocodile and an albino ape in this case - it alters their DNA, grows them huge (and gives one or two of them some other impressive biological changes) and also makes them more aggressive.

Now the ape, known as George, has an impressive relationship with Davis Okoye, played by Dwayne Johnson. They can talk through sign language and George can also, pretty much, understand what Davis says to him. However, things get worse when the bad gal in charge of the organisation, who were doing their experiments in space because they would be banned on Earth, turns on a beacon which means the three, steadily growing behemoths all head towards Chicago to destroy said beacon.... which is also making them more aggressive. The evil plan being that the military will kill the beasts and the company can get DNA samples back from the bodies to continue their, potentially very lucrative, mad scientist ways. However, these beasts are pretty unbeatable and it’s up to The Rock, the always watchable Naomie Harris (as an ex-employee professor of the evil company) and OGA (other government agency) trouble shooter Harvey Russel, played by the brilliant Jeffrey Dean Morgan, to form an uneasy alliance and attempt to stop the destruction and, if possible, get George to calm down a bit.

And it all works really well. Yeah, it’s nonsense but it’s immensely entertaining nonsense and there’s never a dull moment. Midst all the action set pieces you have three great performances by the leads and there’s even some really nice shot compositions thrown into the movie...

One which particularly impressed me is fairly early on in the film where George has been caged in a lab in the wildlife place where Davis works. The room has a large window and we see Davis looking on in close up from the other side of the window. So we have The Rock’s head in deep focus filling the left of the screen and then, the focus shifts so his head blurs and we get the reflection of George the giant ape filling the right of the screen in sharp focus. Which is a nice touch but then it took me a moment to realise how great a shot it was because, the reflection must have all been a CGI effect which was then inserted. That’s a great way to use it rather than just cut back to the same CGI of the ape in the environment and it’s touches like this which show up the creative directors (regardless of the nature of the projects they choose to work on) from the merely competent ones. This was a really nice moment.

Now the other thing I really want to say about this movie is... it’s actually quite gory. The opening sequence has a dead guy floating around with his eye socket eaten out by the giant rat (presumably) and a floating, severed hand dripping blood... for example and there are some similarly grisly (and fun) scenes throughout the movie (when someone gets stepped on at one point they pretty much explode in a shower of blood). And there’s nothing wrong with that. However... the film is a 12A and there was a five or six year old child in the audience I was with. Now I don’t believe in most forms of censorship at all other than the obvious self censorship (if you don’t like it, don’t watch it) but the one thing I do think should be in place is a form of censorship for children. Because some can completely handle it (as, luckily, the child in the audience could... although he was scared by the IMAX logo animation) and some can’t, so I reckon 11 or 12 years of age might be the best place where the only age restriction might be. So a 12 would have been fine for this but I suspect some (by no means all) children would have a hard time with it. Heck, I remember the amount of crying kiddies there were in the audience for Raiders Of The Lost Ark back in 1981 when the nazis melted at the end so, yeah, maybe a stark '12-minus-the-A' rating is the only certification needed for any film. Something to think about.

For pretend adults like me, though, this stuff was all fine and throw in an Andrew Lockington score (which I hope gets a proper CD release at some point rather than the stupid electronic download shenanigans which should be made illegal until a proper physical copy comes out) and you have a recipe for a great action movie. I wasn’t expecting anything great from Rampage but what we have is a blockbuster type movie which is more than competent with some great chemistry between the actors (they really need to put The Rock and Morgan in a few more films together), a strong female co-star who isn’t just there to be rescued and some nice looking carnage which isn’t over edited and which you can follow fairly easily. A great night out at the cinema if you want to see something which is just plain fun.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Truth Or Dare



The Dare Essentials

Truth Or Dare
2018 UK Directed by Jeff Wadlow 
UK cinema release print.


So, yeah, okay... I’ll admit I was expecting the latest horror movie from the Blumhouse studios to be a generic, teenage slasher movie and so, it would be true to say, I wasn’t expecting much from this one. However, I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that... not only is it not really a slasher movie (although people are still somehow trying to call it that despite, in some instances, having already seen it themselves) but it’s also not technically a teen movie in that, although all the main protagonists are college aged teens, the majority of the actors playing them are a lot older than that.

Truth Or Dare is, in fact, a properly full blown horror movie but with the emphasis on fun rather than all out horror. I mean, sure, there is a body count element to this but the overall emphasis on this one is an overwhelming sense of suspense as the audience waits to see where the next supernatural attack will be coming from and if anybody will die as a result.

The film starts off on one last ditch spring break vacation by a group of student friends to Mexico before they all go their separate ways and the opening credits montage is, it has to be said, sickeningly ‘teenage selfie and fun times’ style shenanigans to emphasise the point that these are best friends. However, this is preceeded by a pre-credits sequence which is actually quite strong... where a random teenager, who we will obviously meet again later in the film, is compelled to set a lady on fire in a grocery store, against her best intentions.

After the opening montage, the group of friends hook up with an ‘outsider’ character and are compelled to play a game of Truth Or Dare in an old, creepy mission. However, the end of the game does not go as planned and, days later, once our friends are back from their summer vacation, the game follows them back. And by that I mean, they are haunted by the game and the next challenge could come from anywhere, quite often from one of their friends, as a character's face will suddenly distort into a rictus grin that looks like a demented snapchat filter and compel them to take a truth or dare. The rules are simple... if they don’t tell the truth or fail the, often quite lethal, dare... they will be suddenly compelled to take their own life and, once the body count starts to build and the friends realise that this is a) really happening and b) not going to stop even though it is tearing their relationships apart and setting them at each other’s throats... the film carries on from there as they try to unravel the clues to, hopefully, help them stop the game in its tracks.

Now I saw a comment on here that the writers kept changing the goalposts of the film as it goes along when it comes to the internal logic of the rules of the game but, as far as I could tell, that really isn’t true. The filmmakers obviously knew that they had to somehow write themselves out of the obvious character reaction where everyone will take a truth rather than a dare and... well I think they got around that problem quite smartly, giving the tweaked rules a proper background later on in the story, as our protagonists find out, along with the audience, certain things about the accidental creation of a new variant of the game.

Now, as I was speeding towards the ending in this fast paced, fun filled movie, I realised that it was an old horror trope going under a new coat of paint and that, the brilliance of the title and plot set up is that it’s a little bit of misdirection. Without going into spoiler territory I will just say that this is yet another version, in essence, of M. R. James’ famous tale Casting The Runes... which was adapted in various forms as a TV play (reviewed here) and a great movie called Night Of The Demon (or Curse Of The Demon depending on which print you see... a short review of that one can be found here). Of course, there have been many other ‘reboots’ of this main ‘pass the curse on/viral curse’ movie over the years, many of which don’t usually admit (as this one kind of doesn’t) that they are inspired from a very specific source... such as the Ringu films (or the Ring films in the US versions), Drag Me To Hell and It Follows (reviewed here). The premise usually makes for some interesting horror movies and this one is certainly no exception.

The film is nicely shot although it is, it seems to me, a little over reliant on hand held camera to give it that specific, ‘enquiring third person’ feel. It’s pretty much sustained throughout the movie but, I have to say, they really make it work well here so not really too much of a complaint from me, I guess. The other thing this has got going for it, which goes hand in hand with the strong cast of main protagonists such as Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Nolan Gerard Funk and Hayden Szeto... all of whom give great performances... is something it shares with one of my favourite horror films of recent years, The Conjuring (reviewed here). That quality being that most of the main protagonists are actually genuinely nice people. You really wouldn’t mind hanging out with this group and so, of course, you actually do begin to care about them when they start dropping like flies.

Now, the film had maybe one missed opportunity that I could see. This is when a mute character gives the surviving characters a potential ‘magic bullet’ solution to their problems. As she scribbled various notes to the lead actress I was just waiting for one of the notes to say ‘Truth Or Dare’ but, alas, it didn’t go there... which I feel is kind of a shame, actually.

However, the other great thing this one has going for it is, it has to be said, a fantastic ending. I actually didn’t see this one coming and I was really pleased with how things were wound up here. I think it’s been commented that this ending sets it up for a sequel but, honestly, I don’t see how the potential follow up with the consequences implied here could possibly or credibly be returned to in a gripping or properly character focused story. It is, however, a really nice conclusion to the film and... well, let’s just say that, sometimes, magic bullet plans don’t always go the way you think they’re going to go.

And that’s me done on this one. Truth Or Dare is definitely recommended for horror fans, for sure... especially those who like ‘viral curse’ movies. I really loved this one and it helped that the teenage characters weren’t all brats. One to go to the cinema and see for sure. Go on... I dare you.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Twin Peaks Series 2



Bob’s Your Uncle

Twin Peaks Series 2
Produced by David Lynch & Mark Frost
1991 USA Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: This has some small spoilers.

Okay, so we’d waited long enough but we weren’t that far into the start of the New Year, as I recall, before we were finally able to see how the bunch of cliffhangers we were left with at the end of the first series of Twin Peaks (which I reviewed here), were to be... somewhat resolved. Most things were sorted out fairly quickly but the one thing which everyone remembers is the long, slow and painfully drawn out sequences where Dale Cooper is lying on the floor bleeding out with gunshot wounds and being as polite as he can to this elderly figure who is talking to him and not cottoning on that the prone Special Agent needs help... as he lingers and moves around the place at a snails pace.

Eventually, of course, Coop is found by somebody else and, after a fairly quick recovery in the hospital, things are back on track again in this run of 21 more episodes which comprise the second series (the first series being only eight shows). We have an abundance of varied things happening over the weeks such as Laura Palmer’s doppelganger cousin, played by the same actress, being murdered by the same person who killed Laura and left wrapped in plastic in similar circumstances. We also have the resolution, of sorts, to who killed Laura Palmer about a third of the way into the season, which kinda left Lynch and co with nowhere else left to go with that story line but, it’s my understanding that the producers wanted some kind of resolution to that set up while Lynch was quite happy to never let people find out. I suspect his third series, made last year and which I haven’t had the opportunity to see yet (at time of writing), is a lot less compromising than what was happening back then. I understand Lynch even walked on it before production commenced until the company putting out the new one tempted him back with complete control over the new show.

So with Laura Palmer’s killer caught and, as it happens, dead (although it’s not the last time you see him in the show)... we have a load of other plot lines developing and the effect it has on the show, with lots of different characters and stories suddenly just showing up to the party, gives the whole thing even more of the soap opera feel that Lynch was originally looking for (Lynch himself also plays Dale Cooper’s deaf boss Gordon Cole in some episodes, where he absolutely delights). The various new elements weave in and out of a thread which is ultimately leading to a surreal place called The Black Lodge which was also, we are told, of special interest to the team on Project Blue Book (when that was an active thing in the... what... 1950s and 60s?).

We also have a lot more of Killer Bob - who is the being who inhabits various people when they are doing the killing, David Duchovny as an FBI agent in drag (I believe this is the role which brought him to the attention of Chris Carter and paved the way to him being cast as one of the two principle characters on The X Files) and, in the last few episodes, a new love interest for Agent Cooper in the form of Annie, played by the then relatively unknown, Heather Graham... who charmed the pants off of everyone in Twin Peaks and certainly the audience watching. Which makes the last episode in this series, which also leaves things on a kind of cliffhanger, in some ways, even more gut wrenching to watch a second time around. I won't say why, however.

It’s funny but I seem to remember the iconic dancing dwarf man in the room in the White/Black Lodge being in a fair few episodes of the second series but, in truth, he’s hardly in it at all, although he does feature prominently in the last episode. One thing which did send a shiver down my spine in a... ‘Oh.  Real life did almost imitate art with just one year out.’ kind of way was a moment towards the end of the last episode where the dead but ethereal form of Laura Palmer looks Agent Cooper in the eye and says... “The next time you see me will be in 25 years time.” Wow, talk about being prophetic. Lynch almost couldn’t have engineered that coincidence properly if he had been trying (and who’s to know... maybe he was).

The death toll in this series is a lot higher than the first with regular and semi regular characters being killed off, many of the most loved ones in the last episode. The whole thing about this series seems to feel incomplete somehow... like there was more to come but things didn’t happen the way Lynch wanted them too, maybe. Certainly, the potential romance between Audrey Horn and Dale Cooper didn’t flourish the way it was intended due, from what I can understand, to tension on the set with Kyle MacLachlan’s real life girlfriend of the time, Lara Flynn Boyle (who played Donna). Instead, we have a young Billy Zane taking up romance duties with Audrey and, as you might expect from this great but somehow under celebrated actor, he does a damn fine job here.

Also, there’s an absolutely stand out episode where... not too much happens... but it’s absolutely brilliantly directed by actress Diane Keaton. It’s the only one on the series that I can remember which has such a stylised approach with some gorgeous shot design and, as I was the first time around, I was completely mesmerised by some of the stuff she gets up to here... such as using the square windows in two constantly swinging doors to highlight two actors talking on either side of, and behind them, to punctuate the conversation. Or using the placement of a giant ice cream cone on the chequered floor of the local cafe to carry on the chess analogy brought to the series by Dale Cooper’s arch villain, former FBI Agent Windom Earle, played by Kenneth Welsh. Seriously, Keaton should be better known as being as formidable a director as she is an actress, if this episode is anything to go by.

And that’s all I have to say right now about series two. Still a joy to watch and, as always, the villains in this are terrifying. Not everything actually makes sense but, I expect it makes a lot more sense than what we get in the new series, judging from comments I’ve seen and heard by other people on twitter. Hope to acquire a copy of that one soon. My next stop before that, however, has to be the prequel movie, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Ghost in the Shell (1995)



Shell Be Back

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Japan/UK 1995
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Manga Entertainment Blu Ray Zone B


So here we go again. I loved the live action US ‘adaptation’ of Ghost In The Shell, from last year (and reviewed by me here) so much that I wanted to give the original anime adaptation a go. Luckily for me, the Blu Ray has been released and it’s fairly cheap at the moment although, if I’d have known it contains absolutely no extras on it at all, then I would probably have waited a while longer for the price to drop even more. I’m going to be comparing this one to the live action version quite a bit here because, in all honesty, I was a little disappointed with this movie when the two are looked at in close proximity to each other. It just proved to me that I find most of the few anime I have watched vaguely unsatisfying, for the most part.

The film starts off with a title sequence of ‘computer code’ from which the voice cast and crew emerge and it’s very much a product of the period in which this cartoon was made or, in all honesty, a decade or two before it was made... which seems a little strange for a movie set in the year 2029. Intercut with this, we follow the process of the shell with the title ‘ghost’ in it being manufactured... or at least re-shelled, maybe... and it’s at this point I noticed the first big difference between the movie and  the anime/manga (presumably it’s based on one) which came before it. That difference being that the shell actually has nipples on it and the body is airbrushed in all the right colours (nipples included) to make it less easier to identify it as a shell. So, really, I am now extremely annoyed that the Scarlett Johansson version didn’t have her going through the film naked and executing all those killer combat moves... it makes me very angry that the new version didn’t even try to get this right (just as it made me angry when the characters in the John Carter movie from a few years ago were all wearing clothes, for some reason... that’s not how things were in the books).

However, on the whole, there’s not a lot of things that the anime does better than the live action version, I reckon. For instance, the opening sequence where Major drops from the top of the building etc is still more or less, there as it was in the recent movie but... it’s not the prelude to a long and drawn out action sequence like the new version and neither does it include those amazingly scary geisha killbots that were so brilliantly unsettling in that last one.

And that seems to be the modus operandi for a lot of the film, to be honest... the latest one seems to do so much more than this original. Now one of the reasons for that, I am told, is that the new movie takes stuff from later Ghost In The Shell productions and uses those too... like those geisha killbots, for example. That means the whole quest for Major to find out about her previous identity and those moving scenes of her meeting her mother are themes not present in this version of the story and certain other elements are missing here too. There’s also, amazingly, less action in this version... which was a surprise considering that it doesn’t cost any extra for a cartoon. There is some gory violence and it’s way more over-the-top than the recent version but, that being said, there’s hardly any of it in it.

The story line is a slow build and it does have a certain atmosphere to it. I can see why this must have been popular in its day. That being said, many of the scenes that do originate here... like the fight in the water, the diving into another shell scene, the boat scene and so on... seem to be a lot less emotional or lack the gravitas of the live action edition and I was truly stunned to find this to be the case. Even the external architecture of Tokyo here misses the exquisite detail and chaotic hustle bustle of the lived in, “Blade Runner on steroids” sensibility which seems to have informed the later work.

I have to admit here, my reaction to this ‘template’ is very much tainted by my seeing the new version first and I wonder how much of the stylistic look of this anime evolved into something more graceful for later anime movies and TV shows in the Ghost In The Shell franchise... which may, in turn, have informed the latest incarnation more than this particular version, at least stylistically. I’m usually very good at distancing myself from other versions of a work and judging something within the confines of its historical context but, in the case of this series, I’m having a lot of trouble doing that, it has to be said.

It’s not a complete write off as an anime, though, and it’s better than what I remember of, say, Akira, for example. It’s also nice to see the vision of ‘the net’ that this film projects and the way that our interpretation of cyberspace has not really altered over the years as we, presumably, have begun to understand that it’s a slightly less baffling beast. However, for me, this was a bit of a dull movie in comparison to last year’s release.

Certainly a good movie to watch if you’re into animation and anime in general, though, I would have thought. The cartoon seems to be made of much stronger stuff, like the violence and sexual content but, because there’s so little of it in comparison to the new film, it just doesn’t seem to be able to match the perceived excesses of the newest beast on the block and... well... that’s all there is to it.

I don’t know the history of this original film in terms of how the project got started but something which did seem a little strange was the fact that, after I’d watched the first ten minutes or so in Japanese with English subtitles, as I had imagined the best case scenario to be, I realised that the lip movements in the film in no way match up to the Japanese vocal track. So I started the film off again, this time with the English dub and... well the result was certainly interesting because the English vocal track perfectly lip synched to the cartoon. So I wonder if this movie was maybe made for an English speaking audience first and foremost, perhaps?

Either way, Ghost In The Shell, or at least this 1995 version, didn’t really do all that much for me, I’m afraid. However, it is one of the better anime that I’ve seen over the years so I suspect this one must be fairly well loved by those fans around the world and, as such, would recommend this to anyone who is into this kind of animated style. Other than that, though, I’d still heavily recommend the new Hollywood version of Ghost In The Shell over this one... even if Scarlett’s nipples aren’t properly visible like the original character’s.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Ghost Stories



The Fear Hunter

Ghost Stories
2017 UK Directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman 
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Some slight spoilerage.

Well... I really wanted to like this one but, unfortunately, it was not to be.

I’d wanted to see this in one of its earlier incarnations as a stage play in the West End of London a few years back but, alas, the truly scary ticket prices had put me off seeing it. Something which I’m now thinking may have been a blessing in disguise, to be honest.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I was so disappointed by this one because, frankly, the movie is very well put together. I doubt it’s because I saw another brand new and quite intensely scary movie earlier in the week (the frighteningly brilliant A Quiet Place, which I reviewed here) because one scare fest does not necessarily cancel out the other. I suppose it could be, as mentioned by me in another review recently, that I have become somewhat jaded by the format of ghost stories of late.... although, having said that, I can think of several horror movies with ghostly themes which have been fairly successful in their intent over the past five or ten years (although none of them can hold a candle to Robert Wise’s original version of The Haunting, of course).

Let’s see if I can figure out what this one didn’t deliver as I start writing about it. 

Ghost Stories stars Andy Nyman as a mildly famous, professional debunker called Professor Philip Goodman. The film is also co-directed and co-written by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson and it takes the form of one of those old portmanteau style horror movies of years gone by... the kinds of things pushed out by Amicus and AIP back in the day (and even Ealing, in one notable case). I can only assume it’s an homage to these kinds of films and, thinking about it, I suspect this is where my main gripe with the movie lays. I’ll come back to that.

Nyman’s Professor Goodman is contacted by his childhood hero, another professional debunker, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades before. He challenges Goodman with investigating three cases which he, himself, couldn’t disprove and the film takes the format of Goodman going to each of the troubled individuals who have had ‘supernatural experiences’ in turn... played by Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman.

Contrary to the blurb on the trailer, that the various cases are each more terrifying than the last, I personally found it to be the exact opposite of this, with the scariest one being the first segment. In this, the director’s skillfully shoot a more or less static interview between Nyman and Whitehouse for the first half of the segment, cutting between various angles and distances and it is in this sequence especially that I found them to be absolute masters of their craft. I was especially enamoured of the way they designed the composition of their frames to keep the audience fixated on specific things and not jump them out of it... something which is almost a necessity since the widescreen format started being commonly used in the 1950s and it’s a skill which, it seems to me, a lot of directors and cinematographers seem to forget these days.

For instance, they’ll have Whitehouse’s head large on the right hand side of the screen and, when they cut back to Nyman, his head is also filling the same area of the screen so there’s no jolt or excessive eye movement on the part of the audience. This was pretty good and especially effective in this first sequence (which is pretty much the only one which employs static shots in abundance in the interview part of the mini chapter) because when we go into Whitehouse’s flashback of the events that took place... the camera movement is a contrast and drags you into a scarier journey where, like in all the other segments, the camera can be wandering around and allowing the audience to anticipate and keep vigil on various corners and reflective surfaces on the screen... to build tension as to where the next threat is coming from.

After the denouement of this first scene, however, with an all important finger hooking into the protagonist’s mouth which was made notable enough to kind of give away an echo of a specific piece of ‘master imagery’ at the end, we immediately go into Nyman interviewing someone else without going back to Whitehouse’s character. This immediately got my back up and my ‘Spidey sense’ tingling because there’s no way of telling whether, as implied, Whitehouse survived his encounter and it immediately made me think that the main threat and punchline of this film would revolve around the character of Goodman himself, far more than the set up of the sequences as is first implied.

Sure enough, the second segment, which is a bit of a romp and involves a truly excellent performance by Alex Lawther, takes us a little closer to the uncertainties of Goodman in the set up for the interview. Actually, Lather looks very much like a demented ventriloquist’s dummy in some ways and I was totally expecting him to actually turn out to be one by the end of the segment but that was not the case. One wonders, though, if the look of the character was a nod to the 1945 movie Dead Of Night, in terms of referencing the lineage of this type of horror format.

This whole sequence involves a car in the forest coming a cropper with a creature that is probably the devil (or a vertically walking goat person, you decide) and, my one take away from this was I quite liked Haim Frank Ilfman’s score in this section, although I suspect the particular Cineworld screen I was looking at this in had one of the speaker channels down and so none of the music seemed particularly well mixed, even in the horrible and much hated product adverts before movie played.

Again, this second story sequence left things hanging in terms of the interview by the end of the story and you were never really sure whether the main protagonist really got out alive or not... at least that’s how it felt to me.

By the end of the third segment, which starts off promisingly enough, things start to get significantly mixed into the personal history of Goodman himself and it’s only a short hop away from being the kind of ending you would expect from this type of multistory linking device but, alas, not really any different from such tales we’ve seen or read in the past. Which I think is my main problem with it. It’s not that the specific ending is obvious... it’s not really. It’s just the style of ending which seems quite weak, to me and, coupled with my feeling that the individual segments all came to a stop just when they were starting to actually get scary... well, it really left me spectacularly unimpressed and shoulder shrugging by the end of the movie.

Which is a shame because, apart from the actual structure of the writing, everything else is good. Even the written dialogue is well put together. The performances are all sound and the direction and cinematography all pretty amazing. So I really am surprised that I was so underwhelmed by this production and I’m now wondering if it’s just because I’m ‘an oldie who’s seen it all before’. I don’t think I could really recommend this one to my friends and I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again (although I do want to pick up a CD of the score, if it’s released) but I suspect teenage viewers who may be less familiar with the dark and delightful legacy of horror cinema this is so obviously trying to tap into may get a lot more out of Ghost Stories than people like me. I’m not saying more movies like this shouldn’t be made... I just wish they were a little less obvious than this as to the nature of their end game and, maybe, just a little scarier on the journey to their final destination. This one’s not quite my brand of tea, I’m sad to say.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

A Quiet Place



Womb Of The Blind Dead

A Quiet Place
2018 USA Directed by John Krasinski
UK cinema release print.


Okay, so this one’s pretty amazing.

I’ve said this before on here but... remember how David Lynch’s Wild At Heart starts with Sailor Ripley repeatedly bashing in the skull of someone on a brass railing and the sound and fury of that moment sets up just how dangerous and spontaneous he is (even though he’s pretty much the hero of the film)? Similarly, remember how Steven Spielberg starts off Jurassic Park with a sequence which really shows you just how dangerous a velociraptor can be? These are two scenes which set up the potential of certain elements of a movie to teach the audience to be afraid and to make them anxious that there’s a possibility the film-makers are not going to be pulling any punches here. Anything bad could easily happen.

Well, this is what the new post apocalyptic sci-fi/horror movie A Quiet Place does within the first ten minutes or so of its running time. The film is directed by John Krasinski and stars both him and his real life wife, the always incredible Emily Blunt, as Lee and Evelyn, the parents of a family of survivors after ‘something bad’ has happened to the planet. And, if they don’t want something equally bad happening to them they have to be, as Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon would say... “.... vewy, vewy quiet!”. And, like those two classic examples I just gave, the writers here find a similar way to let the audience know just how dangerous the threat to these people is.

The film is given a deliberate, documentary style ‘validation’ by setting the scenes on screen in typography as Day Number ‘x’. So we’re given the number of days since the family have been struggling to survive (along with other survivors in nearby places) since things went wrong. What went wrong, is something you pick up quite quickly, in some ways, from early on in the film. At some point, starting when people started mysteriously going missing but then escalating... big insect-like creatures have wiped out most of the population of the planet. Are they mutations of some sort? Are they aliens? Well, just like the traditional stance of something like a post-Romero zombie film, we never actually find out. The film-makers do just the right thing here and never explain the threat. They just set it up as the thing which makes this thriller work and... well, it really does work.

Okay, so these big, fast insect things are basically blind but they hunt by sound and, physically, their whole head is, more or less, one giant ear. You understand this even though hardly a word is spoken throughout the movie. Most of the dialogue, such as it is, being done through subtitled sign language. This, of course, re-enforces the necessity throughout for almost total silence and this also, naturally, gives the filmmakers ample ammunition to scare the audience silly with sound. For example, there’s a scene fairly early on in the film where somebody accidentally overturns a lighted lamp and, frankly, the noise of this scared the life out of me. So it’s certainly an effective tactic.

Now, I’ve said before that horror movies can still work well when they’re following the genre rules and clichés associated with them, as long as they’re executed competently and... A Quiet Place is no exception. The film is fraught with peril and it’s also so well timed and constructed that, even though there aren’t really any surprises here, it’s done just right and I don’t mind saying my heart was in my mouth for most of the film. The suspense in the movie is almost unbearable and intense and I was so pleased with this movie that I didn’t mind the clichés set up to build the foundations for the scares straight from the start.

So... okay, let’s look at those clichés then.

Well, number one is that we have one of the children, the daughter of Evelyn and Lee, called Regan, who, it turns out, is totally deaf. It’s a testament to just how good the movie makers are that they can set that up very early on in the first sequence just with the sound design (you'll know what I mean when you hear it, if you see this in a half decent cinema). Big shout out to the young actress Millicent Simmonds, by the way, who is absolutely phenomenal in this role. So, yeah, we have a deaf character which the audience immediately understands can be a danger in this situation... she can’t hear if anyone, including herself, is making any noise to attract the creatures. So you know the director is going to milk that for all its worth.

Cliché number two, which you will see from the trailer, is the ticking time bomb in Evelyn’s womb. Evelyn is pregnant and is due very soon... babies are noisy things and so you can pretty much figure out that the baby is going to be coming along at the absolute worst time possible for our characters. There will be consequences.

And the third cliché is the potential ‘magic bullet’ solution to all the troubles the characters find themselves in. There’s a point where someone is given something... and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here... and you just know that this is going to turn out to be the possible salvation/turning point away from mankind’s extinction. And I have to say, in hindsight, once you figure out just how these creatures work, you might wonder why the heck nobody thought of this earlier, before humanity got into this situation in the first place. It’s a pretty obvious thing but, heck... since we don’t know enough about how things happened at the beginning of the catastrophic events that kickstart this whole plot, who’s to say if there was any time for the population of the planet to sort this out? Lets humour the writers here and say there wasn’t.

So, yeah, full of obvious things, this movie but, like I said, so perfectly put together and executed that I really don’t think anyone is going to mind too much. The film is so scary I was really glad I took my blood pressure pill before going to the cinema, I can tell you. It’s also wise in the way it’s been edited and especially in what’s been omitted, I suspect. I know the trailer has a fair few things in it which don’t quite make it into the movie and, given my slight criticisms, some of those cuts were probably quite wise... it’s best not to know too much of what has gone on before to get the characters into this situation in the first place.

Added to all this, we have a Marco Beltrami score which is typical of his excellent horror work and which really drums the scares into you... playing on the nerves in exactly the right moments to elicit the most adrenalin rushes as you watch. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming CD release of this so I can hear those grating, atonal, nerve shredding tones away from the movie.

So, yeah... I saw this on a day of preview screenings of the film at my local cinema on Easter Monday but it should be on general release in cinemas tomorrow and I would heartily recommend this to anyone who is either into horror movies or who doesn’t mind balancing on the edge of the cinema seat for an hour and a half. This is one of the scariest, well made genre pieces I’ve seen for a while and I’m really pleased I got to see this one on the big screen. Do not miss A Quiet Place... you’ll be holding your breath.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Isle Of Dogs



I Love Dogs

Isle Of Dogs
2018 USA/Germany
Directed by Wes Anderson
UK cinema release print.


So it’s only April and here we have what may well turn out to be the absolutely best film of the year. Isle Of Dogs is yet another corker from one of the two greatest, living American directors Wes Anderson (the other being Hal Hartley, of course). Now, though I’ve seen almost all of Wes Anderson’s movies, I’d not seen his earlier stop-motion movie Fantastic Mr. Fox (I don’t remember being that impressed with the original Roald Dahl source material as a kid) but I’m now quite keen to see this as I realised, while watching this, that the medium in which Anderson has chosen to work with on this thing in no way compromises or marginalises his artistic signature.

To the contrary, despite the fact that none of this film is live action, it looks and feels unmistakably like a Wes Anderson movie right from the get go. All the usual markers are there including the labelling, the setting out of parameters and the linear, clean shots that mark his work out with a unique fingerprint. In fact, as I was watching the film, I started to wonder if the reason that absolutely no compromise in this director’s style is in evidence here was in fact because his regular, live actions films themselves, in some way, resemble neatly organised, animated works. It’s something I’ll need to ponder on further.

Isle Of Dogs starts with a metaphorical fable (in terms of its relation to the main body of the story) of a boy samurai and his defeat of an enemy that wanted to rid Japan of all dogs. The story then flashes forward to the main setting of the film... a Japan of the future in which the mayor has ordered all dogs, which have pretty much contracted a contagious dog flu, to be dumped on a trash island. It is here that the main human protagonist’s dog ‘Spots’ has been dumped first (also known as Dog Zero) and it’s here that Akira, the boy pilot, flies to rescue him. The film shows how, when he teams up with a pack of ferocious dogs, he goes to find Spots and right the wrongs of the mayor, who is about to poison the entire island and wipe out all the canines.

And it’s great. Just great.

The dogs all speak English and are voiced by various film stars, many of them Wes Anderson regulars. So people like Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Liev Shreiber, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gehrig, Frances McDormand, Scarlet Johansson and, seriously, Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, various Japanese human characters, played by a variety of actors and actresses, only talk in their own language and it’s completely raw in the film except where it’s deliberately translated by various people or by electronic gubbins (as pointed out to the audience in the typical Anderson way). So, in some ways, the Japanese humans have the same kind of effect on proceedings as the nonsensical, abstract ‘waaah, waaah, waah’ voices of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Well... unless you happen to speak Japanese, I guess.

The film breezes along and it has all the usual, inventive, witty and sometimes quite moving dialogue moments you'd expect from Anderson, as Atari and an angry stray dog called Chief form an unlikely bond in an attempt to find Spots. The animation is just perfect and some of the expressions the dogs make to the audience where they break the fourth wall like Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy might do in one of their shorts when they look to the audience for some kind of understanding or validation is great. It’s also got its own visual short-hand going on too, as any filmed footage shown on a TV or screen of the characters is done as a traditional line drawing style cartoon whereas the body of the work is done in a stop-motion style animation. So that was a nice touch.

The music is great too... as you would expect when the great Alexandre Desplat is working with this director. I believe this is their third collaboration and, like the previous two - Moonrise Kingdom (reviewed here) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here) it’s absolutely brilliant and quite possibly this will also be the best score of the year too.

Like pretty much all of Anderson’s films, there’s usually a substantial amount of needle-dropped music in his work and although this has kind of calmed down a little since he started working with Desplat, there are still a few places her and there where he goes the needle dropped route in this. One of his listed influences on this film is my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa and there are a few pieces from Kurosawa scores in the movie. The one which made me jump off my seat was in a scene where the theme from Seven Samurai starts playing... a tune which is never far from my mind anyway. There’s also, amongst the odd, assorted songs, a nice and extremely unusual ‘cover version’ of Prokofiev’s Troika thrown into the mix... so, yeah, you can bet I’ll be ordering this CD as soon as I stop typing up this review.

And there’s probably not too much more I can say about this convoluted yet ultimately simply rendered and inventive film. The problem when someone makes such a perfect movie is that there’s not always as much you could say about it as there are no flaws to pick up on. Isle Of Dogs is easily one of the best animated movies I’ve seen for quite some time but it’s also, quite unmistakably, an ‘on brand’ Wes Anderson film and this director just seems to be getting consistently better with every piece of motion picture art he makes. I can’t recommend this film enough to anyone who will listen and, honestly, you’d be really missing out if you don’t see this one at cinemas. Such a great ride.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ready Player One



Refer Madness

Ready Player One
2018 USA Directed by Steven Spielberg
UK cinema release print.


Ready Player One is the second new Spielberg film I’ve seen at cinemas this year... the first being The Post released back in January in the UK (you can read my review here). I’ve always quite liked Spielberg’s cinema with the odd few exceptions and this one is... well it’s neither bad nor great. It’s also got a lot of information crowding out almost every frame so I’m not sure if one viewing is enough to process it all. That being said, I’m not sure I’d care to sit through it all for a second viewing so I’m currently locked in kind of a Mexican stand off with this film.

It’s based on the best selling and highly recommended novel of the same title (that title being a general call to arms for those of us who remember it on all those arcade games of the late 1970s and 1980s) by Ernest Cline, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Well, I say highly recommended... one of my friends recommended I read this a few years ago and I just never got the ‘to be read’ pile low enough to add it. So I’m not exactly ‘in the know’ about how faithful an adaptation it is... all I knew before going in was that it heavily references lots of pop culture of the 1980s and 1990s (and a few other eras too, as it turned out). However, as it happens, my friend Teresa, who was the one who recommended it to me, also saw this the same night I did and she messaged me the next morning saying that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the book. So... there you go. Maybe I will get around to reading it at some point.

The film stars Tye Sheridan as main protagonist Wade Watts, the brilliant Olivia Cooke (so good in The Limehouse Golem, which I reviewed here) and the wonderful Mark Rylance as Halliday, the inventor of the virtual reality world The Oasis, where most of the film takes place. It also stars Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former partner and Rogue One’s bad guy Ben Mendelsohn as the main antagonist here.

The plot is fairly simplistic...

In the relatively near future, people are plugged in most of the time to their computer simulated VR world The Oasis, where anything can happen. I’m not sure how the economy of this world works... I suspect it’s all much better explained in the novel... but Wade lives in the equivalent of a slum and he, like many others, are looking for three keys hidden by the creator of the games after his death. This ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory-like’ incentive to inherit and control The Oasis is a world wide obsession but the puzzles to finding the keys are not so easy to work out unless you really get inside the mind of the creator. Wade and his virtual friends are among those looking but the stakes are high as the underhanded IOI corporation has hundreds of people on their payroll  looking for the same clues in order to inherit The Oasis and monetised it, turning it into an advertisers delight. They will stop at nothing to get the prize and... that’s the plot in a nutshell.

And along the way you’ll meet and not have nearly have enough time to spot all of the gazillions of cultural references scattered around the film in small or sometimes very large cameos. You’ll see Batman, the Back To The Future Delorean, the 1960s TV Batmobile, King Kong, The Iron Giant and so much more. Including a starring sequence from... Mechagodzilla... and this was my favourite surprise of the film even though it wasn’t a man in a suit but a much more flexibly moving CGI equivalent.

There are many nice touches but I’m a little bit puzzled as to why Alan Silvestri’s score is being touted as totally original and non-referential musically when, frankly, there are a number of famous musical moments which refer back to stuff as much as the movie does visually. For example, a nice idea of a ‘Zemeckis cube’ which reverses time for a period has a moment from Silvestri’s own Back To The Future scores and at one point during the sequence where The Iron Giant fights Mechagodzilla, we hear Akira Ifikube’s famous Godzilla march woven into the score. I’m actually not the biggest fan of Silvestri to be honest (although I did love his score for The Mummy Returns) but it’s nicely done and, though referential, it’s not nearly as overcooked as it might have been and it holds its own with the images and gives them the required lift.

In all honesty, this movie does play out pretty much, in terms of the plot goals too, like you’re watching a fast speed, live action version of The Lego Movie (reviewed here) but it has a little less charm, perhaps. There are quite a few dull moments in terms of the action choreography too but there are also some great sequences worth going to see it for.

The first run through of ‘the race’ near the start of the movie, for instance, deserves all the enthusiastic film reviewer roller coaster analogies it might get because it really does feel powerful and big (and just about followable, in terms of the way it’s edited). Another favourite sequence is where the characters have to go into the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s famous adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. This was really well done and, in terms of the music, does have some of Wendy Carlos’ score from the movie (frustratingly still unreleased commercially on CD... although a ‘promotional’ boot does exist). This sequence is nice and also was one of the best for making me think I did, indeed, spot a key Spielbergian signature when I saw The Post earlier in the year...

To explain, I realised that sometimes, instead of following the main protagonist, the camera will suddenly split away and start following one of the other characters instead for a sequence before returning to the rest of the plot. Kind of like a little detour but one which helps highlight the next story thread/motive for the main characters to pick up on later and this is exactly what happens in The Shining sequence here (and in a few other places too, I might hasten to add). We take a bit of a ride with one of the other characters as they’re subjected to some of the famous set pieces of Kubrick’s masterpiece and, frankly, it left me wondering how Spielberg could get away with showing all this stuff from The Shining here in a film which has a 12A rating when I’m pretty sure it’s these same sequences that would have earned Kubrick’s film an X certificate back in the day. Hmmm... not sure what’s happening here.

All in all, Ready Player One is not a bad movie and it does have some lovely moments. It’s also a bit lumbering and, frankly, could have done with being trimmed by a good half an hour or more, I reckon. However, it’s quite possibly something which might grow on me a little more at a later date so I’m not ruling out a revisit at some point in the next few years. It’s certainly nowhere near to being one of Spielberg’s best films, as far as I’m concerned but it’s still a heck of a lot better than stuff like ET and AI, that’s for sure. I suspect I’m a little too old for a lot of the references but it will be a nice nostalgia rush for people in their late 30s is my guess. Give it a go if there’s nothing else going on, is my advice.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Unsane



The Unsaneable
Frightless of Seeing


Unsane
2017 USA
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
UK cinema release print.


Warning: A slight spoiler in that I tell 
you what doesn’t happen at the end.

Okay... so here we have a new Soderbergh movie. I quite like Soderbergh, for the most part. Been following him off and on since he hit big with Sex, Lies and Videotape back in 1989 and I still think his great masterpiece was The Limey. However, he does do some stupid stuff on occasion... I’ve not seen his version of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, for example (although I am getting more curious about it as the years go by) but I honestly don’t know why anyone would think they could make a better film than the great Andre Tarkovsky’s ‘beyond brilliant’ adaptation of it. Still, whenever I can stop seeing red about that artistic choice, I have to admit that Soderbergh is one of the more interesting and chameleon like of modern Hollywood directors.

Unsane is somehow being touted as Soderbergh’s first horror movie and I’m really glad I didn’t know that before going to see it because, frankly, it would have made me angry as it’s in absolutely no way, shape or form a horror movie. People seem to have forgotten what the words ‘psychological thriller’ mean these days but that’s exactly what this is... with he emphasis on psychological.

Now, Unsane is a bit of a hard one for me to talk about because, on the one hand, it’s brilliantly put together by the director, has great performances by the likes of Claire Foy as main protagonist Valentine Sawyer and Amy Irving as her mum but... well... it’s a bit of a let down in some ways. It’s like the whole movie comes together so well but the writers forgot to create an engaging or noteworthy story.

The plot set up as it is, is of a woman who is being stalked long term by an unwanted suitor and who accidentally ends up voluntarily committing herself to a mental hospital, only to find her stalker has followed her and gotten a job there to be close to her. All the way through this I was pretty sure I knew what the end twist of the film was going to be. Even when I first saw the trailer I was convinced that Claire Foy was going to turn out to be the man she thinks is stalking her and that s/he was sitting in a sanatarium projecting his own fantasies onto his immediate reality. Well... one of the most positive things I can say about this movie is that this is not the twist that happens at the end of this film. Instead though... there is no twist. Which is a bit of a let down.

For the most part, everything you see in the film is pretty much to be taken at face value. The only slight sting in the tale, if you want to call it that, is a quick epilogue where the long term effects of the story content on the central character are shown. However, as it happens, that was one of my favourite moments in the film so, although the disappointment that there was no clever spin at the end of the film was palpable, it was tempered by the fact that I did quite like the closing moments because it was stylistically very close to the kind of mood I felt the director was trying to portray in the rest of the film.

And by that I mean that, even though this movie is firmly set in the present... with cell phones, modern TVs etc... the style of this movie is definitely projecting back about 45 years in the past.

The whole thing was shot on an iPhone but it doesn’t look like it has been and the actual framing on it seems closer to a 4:3 ratio than anything else (at least as they showed it at my cinema). However, the whole thing is cut together as if it’s a Brian De Palma or David Cronenberg movie... if they had been shooting something to go on North Canadian TV in the early 1970s. That’s the kind of vibe I’m guessing Soderbergh was after here and, therefore, it certainly made sense that he would cast someone like Amy Irving in a role here.

Since the film is set in a mental hospital and is filled with the kind of stereotypes you meet there, it makes sense that the director chose this ratio and he seems to be deliberately using a lot of close-ups of people in those frames because it helps give it a claustrophobic look to things. Walls and people crowd in and loom large on the giant screen in front of you and you often get a feeling that the rooms are closing in on you. It’s also a natural symptom of framing two or more people within the same small space so... like I said, the choice of aspect ratio made a lot of sense.

He also tends to add a lot of layers of depth to the shots. In addition to a lot of verticals, you often get set ups where information from other levels of the shot are also clamouring for attention... through a window behind the main action, for eample, or through a doorway off to the right somewhere. This kind of opens up the screen space in an unusual arrangement, rather than make use of a widescreen canvass and it serves him well in giving the film an unusual visual identity.

There’s also an especially nice sequence in the film where Sawyer is slipped a psychotropic drug which completely interferes with her head and Soderbergh presents this as a kind of double exposure POV shot of both her face and the back of her head as she runs around an empty room while the faces of the other inmates look on at her through a window. It’s nice stuff like this that keeps the movie alive and interesting to watch.

As is the writer’s tactic of withholding key information until later in the film...

At the start of the movie we are 'filled in' by Sawyer that she is being stalked and that she tends to see her antagonist everywhere. We even have an ‘almost’ sexual encounter with a random stranger to highlight the full effect of this unseen presence but nothing tangible is really given to the audience and so, when the character ‘accidentally’ has herself committed, there is a lot of uncertainty in the minds of the audience as to whether she does actually deserve to be in this institution or not. The director uses this vibe to coast through the first part of the movie before we are filled in, during a flashback sequence, on the identity and history of her stalker. At which point, in some ways, it becomes a much less interesting story arc, to be honest.

Ultimately, Unsane never fails to grab attention and the final shot perfectly sums up 1970s TV in a way... while still, almost blatantly recalling the last shot of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, to some extent. Then we get some end credits music playing while some extremely fast rolling titles are superimposed on the final shot of the film and the combination captures the mood wonderfully. However, as I said before, the ending is also a real let down when it comes to showing us something we haven’t seen before and it’s almost like the director was exceeding some kind of brief to seem somehow much duller than the time period films he was, in some sense, imitating. So, a good time at the cinema if you are into looking at the whole way the thing was put together but, in terms of an exciting storyline... no, it didn’t quite make it for this particular cinema goer I’m afraid. Probably not one I’d recommend.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Proud Mary



A Mary’d Woman

Proud Mary
2018 USA Directed by Babak Najafi
UK cinema release print.


Okay, so this film seems to have had no publicity to speak of... at least over here in the UK. In fact, the first I’d heard of it was when it showed up in the listings at my local cinema last week. A quick look at the trailer showed that it seemed to be going for a stylistic flashback to those great female-centric blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. You know... those really cool pics like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones. However, a hasty scan of the user reviews on the IMDB showed that this was not a well liked movie, for the most part. In the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this one a go anyway and, you know what? I’m glad I did because I’m here to tell you now that it’s actually a nice little shoot ‘em up movie.

The plot of Proud Mary is a very slight twist on an old storyline. It’s basically John Cassavete’s Gloria in sheeps clothing, so to speak. That doesn’t make it any less valid as being worth an hour and a half of your time, though and the plot goes something like this. Mary, played absolutely brilliantly by an actress I’m not all that familiar with called Taraji P. Henson, is a ‘hit-woman’ for an organised crime family run by Benny (as played by Danny Glover) and his son, her ex squeeze, Tommy (played by Billy Brown). After an opening credits sequence, which I’ll get to in a minute, she carries out a ‘contract’ on a small time bookmaker but, when she investigates who else is in the house after shooting him, she sees (without him knowing it), the bookie’s young son Danny (played extremely well by Jahi Di'Allo Winston). She doesn't kill kids so she leaves him be but keeps tabs on him and, one year later, finds he is enslaved, badly beaten and doing drug runs for an arm of the same organisation she works for. She ‘rescues him’, bumps off his abusers and takes Danny in, without letting on to her boss what’s going on. However, this incident, which she doesn’t own up to, is the touch paper for a gang territory war and it’s a film about the lengths Mary goes to keeping her and Danny safe from, mostly, her own people.

So yeah, a clichéd plot but it’s done with a certain sense of style and a lot of competent film making so I really can’t see why a lot of people didn’t click with this one. There’s plenty of action and a nice look to it which is consistent all the way through. The suspense level is high throughout... although that may be because I personally find gangster films very uncomfortable to watch and, unless they were shot in the 1930s, I try to avoid them whenever I can. I think that goes back to my grammar school education as a kid because, frankly, I found school to be a training ground for hoodlums, thugs and crooks and I find the people walking the planet in real life these days much more threatening than anything you’d find in a horror movie (which, ironically, I find much more comfortable to watch).

I think the problem on this one for a certain section of the audience may be the tone of the piece. The trailer definitely has an early 1970s blaxploitation vibe and, when you get to the film itself, it also pushes that comparison when it comes to the wonderful opening credits sequence. It’s a basic ‘hot lady gets tooled up for an assignment’ style scene but with blazing seventies typography and an opening needle dropped song that practically screams the style of those bold pictures in no uncertain terms. However, after the opening titles, that kind of vibe only comes back with a few, well placed songs and it’s pretty much absent for the rest of the movie. Fil Eisler’s score is actually pretty good but it never really tries to catch those kinds of tones and I suspect that kind of musical doorway into the past was not part of the scoring brief, so to speak. Unfortunately, the score is only available on download as a stand alone listen... not as a proper CD... so it’s not something I’m likely to get to appraise properly in the near future.

That being said, the film is, mostly, not trying to be a 1970s homage but, perhaps, it is trying to re-establish that ‘strong black female lead’ style film for a modern marketplace and I’m all for that. Henson absolutely kills it as Mary and she has the kind of on screen personality and star quality to make this movie shine. She’s not trying to be Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson or anyone else in that kind of genre canon... but she is quite naturally wearing the mantle of their cinematic legacy without even trying. The result is an anti-hero you can root for and a character you can really believe in. Her chemistry with the kid is especially engaging and neither her nor the young feller in question have any problems with getting into some seriously emotional scenes during the course of the movie.

The film does pretty much all you could ask for and it has some great stuff going on visually here too (well... okay... I would like to have seen a little more of the main lead in a more sexploitative way but... yeah... ignore I said that, it would be politically incorrect of me to highlight that element of its visual heritage, surely?). It is a little less realistic in its portrayal of the ‘mob style’ shenanigans, however, in that it seems to be taking place in some kind of Hollywood la-la-land where no matter how much noisy shooting and bodies a character leaves behind, there is never any police presence in the film whatsoever. I mean, although a lot of the kills in this film are shown with various gunmen using silencers, a fair proportion of them also aren’t but, strangely, you never once hear so much as a siren throughout the course of the movie. So... yeah, that was a little weird.

Ultimately though, Proud Mary isn’t trying to be a close match to reality and the film exists in that special place where so many action thrillers like to dwell. It’s no big deal and the film is way more entertaining than some of the IMDB reviewers seem to be saying. Definitely a good time at the cinema if you’ve got nothing else on this week and probably something which would do quite well on the Blu Ray and DVD market too. Check this one out because, although I didn’t understand the title and its relevance to the character, it’s a well made action thriller when so many these days aren’t quite up to scratch. 

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Pacific Rim Uprising



The Jaeger Sanction

Pacific Rim Uprising
2018 China/USA
Directed by  Steven S. DeKnight
UK cinema release print.


Well this one took me by surprise.

I kinda half liked the first Pacific Rim film (reviewed here) but found it a bit strange when the basic premise... robots vs monsters... was a bit dull in places. I quite like Guillermo Del Toro, have a good time with about two thirds of his films and the fact that he wasn’t directing this one was kinda turning me off from the idea that this could actually be an entertaining sequel to the first.

I’m happy to say that, in no way did this film turn out like I thought it would. Pacific Rim Uprising is an extremely entertaining film and, if anything, the way it builds on the first film and eschews some of the admittedly interesting creative ideas and instead, goes full on for the action flick route is to its advantage, I think. In other words... I reckon this sequel is a much stronger film than the first one.

The film headlines John Boyega, who also jumped on board as one of the producers and... well I think this actor is just a great talent and, a likeable person away from the camera too. Although he’s still quite young and newish to movies, he really shows he can carry a big movie on his shoulders.

He’s joined by the equally likeable Scott Eastwood. Yep, I’m going to say it and I hope Mr. Eastwood doesn’t mind this comparison himself as, I’m sure he must get it all the time but... it’s just like watching his famous father, Clint Eastwood, as if a younger Clint had been ‘time scooped’ up from whatever movie he was making in the 1960s and then plonked down in front of the camera for this. Scott walks, talks and acts like his father but... he does it so well and his chemistry with Boyega in this is really quite nice.

The third of the big three in the film who carry the brunt of the story on their shoulders is newcomer Cailee Spaeny, doing a truly excellent job playing a young girl who, ten years in the wake of the last movie, illegally builds a mini Jaeger (the name of the human designed robots piloted by humans) and, for reasons you’ll see in the first ten or so minutes of the movie, is recruited, along with Boyega playing the son of the Idris Elba character from the last one, onto the government payroll to learn how to pilot a proper Jaeger (with Boyega as one of her instructors).

After a brief voice-over montage of Boyega as he gives narration on the current state of the world and what’s happened in the intervening years since his father ‘cancelled the apocalypse’, the film opens really strongly when he and Spaeny are thrust into each other lives, culminating with them inside Spaeny’s small ‘junker’ Jaeger, facing off against a huge government model.

I was expecting the film to kind of just dilute itself down after this opening but, I have to say, it doesn’t let up the pace and I was truly having a good time with it. There are only three characters returning from the last film and one of them, who was my favourite from the last one as it happens, doesn’t last very long in the movie before being killed off. Which is really a shame. Of the other two remaining characters... well one of these is used here as the reason for all the events that occur in the film but... I don’t want to give anything away because, although the storyline is kind of basic and clichéd, the first reveal that something is a bit ‘off’ about this character is still a bit of a surprise.

One of my few regrets about this one is that Ron Perlman’s character, shown to have actually survived being eaten by a Kaiju in a post credits scene of the last installment, didn’t make it into this movie. Oh well, maybe in the third one, if they get around to doing it... which I hope they do because the final, post end title scene (before the credits properly start) with John Boyega’s final line, has got me pumped to see where they take this one.

Like I said, the story on this one is more than a little clichéd but, you know, things become so because they work and the various elements of the film are so well handled here that I couldn’t have cared less if things got a little predictable. The action sequences aren’t over edited to death so you can easily figure out what’s going on and all the characters are used well... with Scott Eastwood’s exit from his Jaeger towards the end being well followed up by a scene where he comes back unexpectedly and... oh, right, this is a non-spoiler review. Can’t tell you where they go with that one.

A couple of things that I thought were a little weak in some ways are the score and the final battle.

Lorne Balfe is a marvellous composer and he does a pretty good and appropriate job in scoring for this film. That being said, Ramin Djawadi’s heroic main theme from the first film, which was all over the trailer for this one, is sadly missing from the majority of the movie and when Balfe does decide to employ it, about two thirds of the way through when ‘a new hope’ is about to be constructed to give mankind a shot at... erm... re-cancelling the apocalypse, it’s in a much changed variation which lacks the punch of the original. The theme turns up again better realised over the end titles but it’s been sadly missed up until then.

The other thing is that I was waiting for the big, final showdown and didn’t realise I had already seen it. The film felt like it needed one of these typical, modern Hollywood “oh, you thought it was over... check this even bigger threat to your depleted resources” style denouement thrown into the mix and, just when it was hinted that it was going to do just that, one of the characters you’d forgotten about negates that moment with a single punch to someone’s jaw. So... a really nice character moment, in all honesty but, at the same time, a real dampener because the film actually felt like it needed a double climax at that point.

However, the film is hugely entertaining, nicely scored, brilliantly acted and has some truly nice shot compositions to boot. Watch out for a scene in the first 20 minutes of the movie when Boyega and Spaeny are in a  prison cell talking and the long shot has each of their heads framed by different vertical sets of bars. Lovely stuff.

So... not much else to say about Pacific Rim Uprising, I guess. If you liked the original Pacific Rim but thought it could have maybe held together a little better then I think you’ll genuinely have a better time with this one. A worthy successor that more than lives up to its roots and which, I hope, makes enough money to greenlight another sequel which makes good on the promise of a certain scene in this one. And for Scott Walker’s next trick, I’d like to see him in a reboot of the Dirty Harry franchise with John Boyega playing against type as a psychotic villain. Probably won’t happen but that could be nice.