Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The NUTS4R2 Review of 2014

Okay. I’m not one, much, for looking back at the year gone by. However, I’ve had the usual requests by various people who wanted to know what my picks were this year. So, for those interested in such things, here’s my Top Twenty, in ascending order, of the best new movies this year. Or at least, the best new cinema releases.

Now I have to clear up a couple of things first. There were two movies I saw last year, which made the 2013 list, that would have gone in this year’s list if I’d have had to wait until their official release dates. I’m talking specifically about The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here) and Jodorowsky’s Dune (reviewed here). Similarly, if I’d have been able to get tickets to the various advance screenings last year, one of my picks for this year, Under The Skin, would also have made last year’s list. So, anyway, if you’re wondering why the two amazing movies I’ve mentioned above aren’t included here... that’s why. They were on last year’s list. They would have both been near the top of this year’s list too, I think.

So... I’ll start off with my Top Twenty in Ascending Order, up to the number one spot, followed by a quick list of Honourable Mentions and then a small section of my Most Disappointing films of 2014. Here we go...

Top Twenty 
Movies of 2014

20. Incompresa (Misunderstood)
This brilliant tale of a child “out of groove” with her problematic family, perhaps a semi-autobiographical film in some ways, was directed by Asia Argento, daughter of Dario. True to form, she proves herself at least the equal of her famous father and, in this one, tells a story of childhood incidents with a certain intimacy and deftness of touch. My review of this one is here. 

19. The Quiet Ones
This one’s pretty scary and I’m glad it’s one of the few, in my humble opinion, of the new Hammer branded movies which are any good. True, the end of the movie is a bit over-the-top and cheesy but, hey, isn’t that in keeping with many of the Hammer movies of days gone by. My review is here. 

18. Transcendence
Lots of people hated this tale of Johnny Depp dying and downloading his consciousness into a computer. I quite liked it and I don’t think he specifically lacked emotion in his performance, as many have claimed. He just plays the character in an appropriate way to the personality the script was trying to get across and I actually found his performance very interesting. This film tackles similar issues as those in Luc Besson’s Lucy but does so in a much more interesting manner, for my money. Morgan Freeman actually starred in both those movies... go figure. My review of this one is here. 

17. The Last Days On Mars
This is another movie which people seemed to either really hate or just plain ignore. Frankly, it’s a martian zombie movie. Seriously? What’s to hate? It would be fairly hard to screw that formula up and, as far as I could see, they certainly didn’t drop the ball here. This is a standard, B-movie horror movie and I enjoyed the hell out of it. My review is here. 

16.The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
Jean Pierre Jeunet’s English language movie about a young, boy inventor, based on an equally amazing (from what I can gather) novel. Jeunet is absolutely right for this kind of material and his inventive approach to the source is exactly what it needed to be. My review of this one is found here. 

15. The Babadook
Scaryish horror movie from Australia that is as much about the horrors of trying to be a single parent as it is about things that go bump in the night. Effective and with an ending that not everyone is going to be enthusiastic about, it’s nice to have a horror film with more of an agenda than just to scare you silly throughout the running time. Reviewed by me here. 

14. Blue Ruin
This thriller feels very intense due to the understated acting style and matter of fact, coolly observing camera eye. It packs a punch by showing things as real as it can get them and it doesn’t skim over the issues of why things happen as they do or try to spin any real judgement on the chain of events and the people behind it. My full review is here. 

13. Birdman
Phenomenal experiment in observing a man living on the edge of... himself. Michael Keaton’s character tries to hold it all in as he directs and stars in a play based on a Raymond Carver short... but his alter ego of the successful film hero he used to play is always on hand to criticise his actions. My review of this little gem is here. 

12. The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom
Visually stunning tone poem based on a popular martial arts legend, this film is this year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or, assuming it gets any kind of actual release in 2015, next year’s equivalent. It’s probably a bit of a cliché to say that this movie does everything that you’d expect that a movie like this to do... but that makes it no less potently true. My review is here. 

11. As Above, So Below
Again, and it seems to be something of a theme with me this year, this movie was not universally liked. I loved it though and it hit all the right spots for me... scaring me silly while giving me a lead protagonist who is easy for me to fall in love with. There’s also some clever sound design in this one and I don’t think people are giving this movie enough attention. I review this here. 

10. Captain America The Winter Soldier
Wow. This is so much better than the first Captain America movie in this series. It’s almost like a cold war thriller but with ridiculously costumed super heroes at it’s centre. This is probably my second or third favourite Marvel movie after Iron Man and The Avengers. Reviewed here. 

9. Edge Of Tomorrow
Hey, this is a really nicely put together movie. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day mixed into an alien invasion plot line but... it’s so well put together in the edit that it’s a bit of a mini masterpiece, with a nice analogy to the expectations found in most modern computer gameplay. Also, the logic of the plot mechanics aren’t contradicted at the end of the movie... so it actually all makes sense, for once. My review here. 

8. A Walk Among The Tombstones
Gritty, old school type of private detective thriller which, although set slightly later in period, comes across as a 1970s movie in tone and pacing. Very strong, raw approach to the subject material and I hope we get others from this series of novels brought to us in the same fashion. Review is here. 

7. 3 Coeurs (Three Hearts)
Beautiful French movie which highlights the dangers of having an extra-marital affair with the way it’s edited and scored. It also comments on the nature of how a person’s life can change from one kind of destination to another, just by being late for a rendezvous. This should get a proper release in 2015 and it’s definitely worth a look. A review is here. 

6. Sin City - A Dame To Kill For
I loved the original Sin City movie and I loved the comics. This partial adaptation, partial new story, is just more of the same. While not quite as quirky or interesting as the previous movie, it’s still a solid and vastly entertaining watch, albeit with a slight "casting VS prosthetic" mis-step towards the end of the movie. My review is here.

5. The Raid 2 - Berandal
While this film doesn’t retain the single minded, focussed plot line of the first movie (just get to the top of the damned tower block and then survive), this is still a blisteringly entertaining action movie... again made by a Welsh man living in Indonesia. If you like martial arts movies then you should probably check this one out. Reviewed here.

4. Under The Skin
Scarlett Johanssen’s turn as a predatory alien in Scotland is an extremely interesting watch and will hold your attention throughout. I’ve more of a handle on certain scenes now than when I first saw it and it’s definitely something you can go back to and watch again. It also has an amazing score which is worth flagging up to people. A review here.

3. I Origins
Totally amazing film which starts off as a romantic movie and then evolves into something way cooler. Although the science-babble couched premise is actually quite simple, getting there and sharing in the wonder of discovery with the characters is a very satisfying feeling. Can’t wait to grab this one on blu ray when it’s released and you can read my review of it here.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch is a key director in late 20th/early 21st Century American cinema and this is probably the most accessible movie he’s made since Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a vampire husband and wife, surviving in a time when the world has stopped believing in their kind, is a sheer delight and one which I could watch over and over again. My review of this one is here.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Once again, Wes Anderson gives us one of the greatest movie experiences ever committed to celluloid (or whatever they’re using these days). A star studded cast about a romp with the concierge of a hotel, his bell boy and the deadly trouble they get in revolving around a painting. One of the most mesmerising and enjoyable films I’ve ever seen and a worthy successor to such Anderson masterpieces and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom. Easily the best film of the year in my book... reviewed here. 

Honourable mentions

Actually, there were a surprising amount of good movies out in 2014. There are many more films deserving an honourable mention rather than just these few... but here are some of my other favourites from the year gone by. Click on each title to get to the original review...

The Anomaly 
Deliver Us From Evil 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Canon Films 
Godzilla 2014 
The Grandmaster  
The Guest 
The Keeper Of Lost Causes 
The Monuments Men 
The Purge: Anarchy 
Three Days To Kill 
Yurusarezaru Mono (Unforgiven) 

11 Most Disappointing 
Films of 2014

I should probably throw The Hobbit movie in here somewhere but, to be honest, all the so-called Tolkien-based movies have been pretty dodgy adaptations so far so, films like The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, didn’t exactly disappoint me because I had low expectations anyway. However... here are some of the ones that really did disappoint, in chronological order of their release as opposed to any kind of order...

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
This movie is a terrible addition to a normally very good franchise and I think it’s a shame the movie company in question saw fit to carry on the series in this direction.
Review here.

Devil’s Due
Hot on the heels of the worst of the Paranormal Activity franchise to date, we have another not-so-hot found footage horror movie. At least, it tries to be found footage... the logic of this piece is sadly lacking. Reviewed here.

I, Frankenstein
Despite having the title character portrayed by the wonderful Aaron Eckhart, this film seemed to be trying too hard to make something out of nothing at all. Slick but ultimately there was no logical or emotional core to hang things from. Reviewed here.

The Zero Theorem
Honestly, I love the artist that is Terry Gilliam and he’s working here with one of the most interesting actors of our time, Christoph Waltz. That being said, this film is just an awful slog to get through for me and the obvious creativity on display in the movie falls rather short for the ending. Reviewed here.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
If you divorce the new Spider-Man films from their comic book source then the first one of this latest batch is at least watchable. While there are a few interesting things about this sequel, it’s mostly quite dire. Reviewed here. 

X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Honestly, if you’re going to have a film which is supposed to clear up the awful, awful continuity errors created by the previous films, you need to at least start it off from a point which is not already falling victim to those same errors. Because of where it starts off from and, compounded by the way it tries to reference back to a point where it could never have reached, this film is an absolute waste of time and, on top of that, has a deadly dull second half. This one isn’t even close to being the X-Men movie the paying audience deserved. Reviewed here.

Genuinely disappointed that this Karen Gillan starring horror movie wasn’t actually scary and that the ending was so obvious right from the start. Reviewed here.

Transformers - Age Of Extinction
The first live action Transformers movie was, frankly, surprisingly brilliant and a classic movie. Why then with pretty much the same creative force behind the sequels, are the follow ups so terrible and inconsequential? I’ve no idea why either but my review is here.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
The least you can say about this movie is that it wasn’t too terrible and it didn’t feel out of tone with the other Marvel Phase Two movies. That being said, however, the least I could say about this one is also, sadly, the most I could say about it. Reviewed here. 

I have always been hugely supportive in my appreciation of Luc Besson as a creative force in French cinema and I was excited that he was reteaming with his regular composer from his early films, Eric Serra, on this one. The trailer for Lucy was spectacular but, when the film was released, it seemed to be quite laboured, dumbed down and... well... it was spectacular... spectacularly bad. My review here. 

Before I Go To Sleep
All I can say about this really is that I wish I’d seen this one after I’d gone to sleep. At least then I wouldn’t have had to be conscious through it. Reviewed here. 

And that’s a wrap, as they say, on my picks on the highs and lows of 2014. It’s unlikely many people would agree with my picks... and I suspect some of my most dissapointing movies of 2014 are going to rub some people the wrong way... but if it was a list everybody agreed with then that would just be dull. Anyone wanting to know how they did in this years cryptic quiz, which is still running here, can watch this space sometime on January 2nd, where answers will be revealed and winners announced. All the best to you and... normal reviewing service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Bust Out Keaton

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2014  USA
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu 
UK cinema release print.

Birdman is one of those rare movies that comes along every once in a while that almost surprises you in it’s insistence to not follow any recognised formula. I won’t go as far as saying it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before... it does share it’s tone with certain other films I’ve seen in the past year, for example... but it’s not the kind of movie making you get to see that often and, as such, it’s a bit of a rare treat when it’s put together as well as it is here.

The story depicts a few days in the life of Riggan Thomson, an actor once a household name for his role in three successful Birdman movies, who is trying to regain his stature by directing and starring in a play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film follows the previews two days before and on opening night... or rather, it follows all the stuff around the rehearsals/previews and the various challenges which make Riggan question himself and his decisions in life.

Great casting for this kind of movie would, of course, be having an actor who was once a household name for playing a similar superhero role in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then tailoring the details of the role to that lead actor. And, as it happens, what we have here is not just great casting... it’s perfect casting. The film goes with Michael Keaton for the lead and, frankly, it’s perfect casting for three reasons... at least for this humble audience member.

Reason one is... he played Batman/Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns so the Birdman personae is tweaked to that legacy, in part, for this movie. Secondly, Michael Keaton, as underrated as he is by people sometimes (it seems to me), is a truly great actor... so no problems here. And, last but not least, he’s got to be one of the most likeable personalities on screen so, if you want your audience to be rooting for and feeling with the character you’ve created... Michael Keaton is a very good “go to” guy to be able to fulfil that requirement.

And the movie itself, I have to say, is a bit of a minor masterpiece... if such a thing exists.

We have the actor Keaton supported by an absolutely terrific cast, with Edward Norton playing someone suspiciously like the guy the public assumes Norton to be (I suspect) and loads of great actors and actresses who are just absolutely perfect in this movie. You won’t have any problem believing in this film but it’s the amazing technical gymnastics in terms of the mise en scène, which the actors support by being brilliant themselves, that really gets your attention... if you’ll forgive me for using such a “catch all” expression.

That is to say, the film is shot and edited with almost a schizophrenic eye...

It’s all about the camera following the characters around in what is edited together, with various moving wipes and other trickery, to look like the whole thing is shot in one continuous take as the viewpoint follows one person, then catches somebody else and follows him or her etc. However, this strategy is beautifully undermined by the fact that their are many changes of time and costume... which shows that the director is not, in any way, expecting us to think it’s been shot in one take. He knows we wouldn’t be fooled in this day and age and, since there are big jumps in time, etc, then it makes me wonder what the point is of shooting in this style. Well, my guess is because it makes things go incredibly fast... you are usually in the midst of hubbub and general chaos, apart from the odd downtime with certain characters, and as such, the pacing is incredibly energetic. The other thing with this is, perhaps, because the kind of visual turbulence “caught” on screen maybe gives some indication of the mental state of Keaton’s main protagonist in certain places... so maybe there’s a clever case of visual technique commenting and informing the inner monologue of various characters going on here.

What it does do, however, and I’m guessing this isn’t unique to this movie... although I’d be hard pushed to come up with an alternative right now, is allow for overlapping dialogue from the same characters simultaneously in two different sequences. For instance, we can have Edward Norton trying to have sex with someone while we can also hear him in the next scene the camera is panning to, in part of its “one take” style of presentation. Seriously, it’s like Robert Altman on acid here and it’s one of the things that make this film very interesting from a technical viewpoint. It’s also not thrown in your face but done very subtly (I suspect a lot of people will miss it the first time around) so the execution of the idea is damn near perfect.

Surprising moments are had from the way the camera crosses scenes like this and also from the point of view of Keaton’s internal battle with his Birdman personae. It was good seeing Keaton wearing a costume with the blackened out eyes, as his Batman days, again and it was great hearing the Birdman part of his character talking in his old, gravelly Batman voice. This is really good stuff and a lot of superhero fans are going to love this... as they will love the side swipes taken at films like Iron Man and The Avengers (Avengers Assembled, reviewed here) and also the action sequence near the end of the movie which... I will not spoil for you here.

One of the outstanding things about the film is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez which has just been disqualified for, seemingly, the few very quick instances where classical music is used in the film. I think there’s more of a hidden agenda as to why this, frankly amazing and appropriately quirky underscore, has been taken out of consideration by the Academy... especially since The Artist (reviewed here) won the Oscar for a score which people seem to mostly remember as using Bernard Herrman’s score from Vertigo in it near the end, from my experience of audience reaction. The score in Birdman is nicely integrated in at least three moments of on-screen drumming by, in most cases, a single drummer but also by a band in the street outside the theatre at one point. This is quite amazing because what we have going on here, from a technical point of view, is a lengthy non-diegetic piece of scoring (aka with no onscreen source) suddenly transforming into a diegetic/source piece of music and then transforming back into non-diegetic again. This is frankly tremendous and I was thrilled when this happened a few times throughout the course of the movie.

Another interesting point is the question of Michael Keaton’s “Birdman powers” which, frankly, are really nice touches... the opening shot starts off with Keaton’s character levitating, for example. Is it real or in his head? The nice thing about this is... just when you think you’ve got a handle on the answer to that question, the film pulls you back the other way again. Some people will probably say that the very last shot in the movie answers that question for sure but... frankly, in a film where technical flourishes make the very fabric of the media into something less rigid and more flexible in intent, this last sequence doesn’t really answer the quesiton at all.

Which is... you know... kinda nice, actually.

And that’s about all I’ve got to offer on this movie. It’s a great piece of art and it’s immensely entertaining. At times dark and at other times comic... and very often a mixture of both... the film impresses technically while retaining a huge entertainment factor. It’s definitely worth a watch for any fan of the medium of film and it attacks and challenges a fair few things (like film criticism) along the way, in a very cool and knowledgable manner. One of my top twenty for the year, no doubt and definitely a strong recommendation from me. Miss this one at your peril.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

Frosty, The Snow Man

Doctor Who: Last Christmas
UK Airdate: 25th December 2014

Warning: Some spoilerage, I guess... although it was an extremely predictable episode, so I don’t see how I could really spoil it too much.

This is apparently the tenth Christmas Special since Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005. Now, it has to be said, no matter how good or bad a particular series of the show is, the Christmas specials are usually pretty good... the exceptions being, for me, the last of the David Tennant Christmas transmissions (and his New Year’s Eve one which finished that particular story and brought his reign as The Doctor to a close) and last year’s The Time Of The Doctor (reviewed here).

So, yeah, unfortunately they can’t all be good but, I’d have to say, this years festive offering wasn’t nearly as bad as those two, although it would probably be third from the bottom on my personal list of Doctor Who yuletide treats. In all honesty, last night’s story (which I’ve only just seen an hour or so ago before I started writing this) was not a terrible Doctor Who episode. Alas, it also didn’t tick many of the right boxes either and was maybe a bit more miss than it was hit, for a lot of reasons.

There was, however, some pretty good stuff in the episode in terms of the special effects... which really did kinda hold up this time around. Which was a bit of a surprise because the creature effects and flying sequences (involving Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer) were quite ambitious but, even so, the special effects team managed to pull it off. More importantly, the performances by all the actors in this one, including Nick Frost as Santa Claus, were pretty amazing and they had some good dialogue to burn through as they got on with this rather energetic but, ultimately, pointless story.

Now, to take that further, one of my problems with the Capaldi stories so far is that he’s had some absolutely cracking dialogue to work with, as he and his fellow performers have in this one, but the stories have been mostly weak and predictable at best. Alas, I think Last Christmas just goes to support that view of things because, although the situations the main characters find themselves in are quite justified via the story in their derivation from other, more famous, science fiction phenomenon... the whole basic plot concept is one that you’ve seen done a gazillion and one times before, even on Doctor Who. That is to say...

It’s the old “dream within a dream” plot and when the cutaway to the first rescue by Santa comes, when our hero and his new companions find themselves in extreme danger, it’s pretty obvious by that point what’s really going on. The editing doesn’t lie to us about this... it just tries to blind you with it’s speed when you hopefully don’t notice that the shots didn’t match (which I have to say... I did). To further compound the folly of this course of action, writer Steven Moffat then deliberately tries to misdirect the audience by showing us an all to obvious fabrication of reality (using Danny Pink, of course, lest we forget... and I won’t, I’ll get to him later). The idea being that if we latch onto something which is obviously a fake, it will trick us into thinking the external frame of that literary device is a fake too but, alas, this one wasn’t skillfully enough written (or possibly it was and it was just badly directed or edited... not sure which, if any) to fool pretty much anyone and, by the end of the day, I was wondering why Moffat kept going with this stuff because, frankly, the whole Russian dolls plot within a plot felt like a bit of a waste of time.

The correct response to all this, I guess, is that this episode is supposed to be a festive piece of fluff and I guess, in some ways, if that’s what you choose to do with your Christmas special then that’s your look out. I did feel, though, that the episode was blindingly obvious and that Peter Capaldi (not to mention Jenna Coleman), deserved better than this. The only thing it does is to reunite The Doctor and Clara as main protagonist and companion again, as a quick fix for the appalling end to the last series which, if you think about it, had already begun this particular plot when Santa Claus arrived on the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, while this was all very nice and non-offensive and “safe”, I was a little annoyed that it didn’t, in any way shape or form, try to address the main elephant in the room of the previous series... Danny Pink. Basically, the time line on which The Doctor and Clara are currently travelling is such that they have both met the great, great, however many generations back, grandson of Danny Pink and Clara... since Clara isn’t pregnant with Danny’s child as yet, this still needs to happen. So either Danny Pink has to return, quite spectacularly I should say, from the dead or... and this one wouldn’t surprise me either, to be honest... Steven Moffat has left another big clunker of a plot hole which he can’t go back and resolve in a way that makes any sense within the universe of The Doctor.

And that’s really all I have to say about this particular episode, except to maybe mention that Murray Gold knocked it out of the universe again with a suitably appropriate and exciting orchestral accompaniament to the episode. However, while I kinda enjoyed this installment to a certain degree, I guess, this is really not a very good Doctor Who Christmas Special I’m afraid. For me, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe (reviewed here) is still the greatest of the show’s Christmas themed episodes, for my money. This one is enjoyable enough, if you take it for what it is, but approach with caution because it’s a little like a rerun, in some ways, of the early Matt Smith episode Amy’s Choice (reviewed here) and, since the main “culprit” in that story served a similar function to the “dream crabs” in this episode, I’m surprised the writer didn’t just put Toby Jones' character back into the story. So don’t expect too much from this one, I’m afraid.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas 2014

Well... it’s that time of year again when I say “Thank You Very Much” to my readers on this blog. It’s a bit of a sad one for me this year, due to personal reasons, but the one thing I always like to focus on is my writing when I’m feeling extra low. Christmas can be a lonely time for many people out there but please, if you’re feeling lonely, reach out to someone for some Christmas cheer if you are able.

Also, if you want a pleasant (hopefully) diversion, then please take some time to have a look at, puzzle over and enter my Cryptic Movie Quiz. Click here for that or look at the previous post to see how that one works. Also, keep an eye on the comments section because I’m going to be giving extra clues to the answers in there from time to time.

Now I didn’t get nearly as much of the things I wanted to get reviewed in the last two years done but, fingers crossed, here’s a little of what I’m hoping to get to in the next 12 months or so...

Well, I’d ike to finish off my reviews of The Saint movie series and the Zatoichi films. I have loads of bizarre superhero, super-criminal and exploitation films you might possibly never have heard of before on the slate too. I keep meaning to review more by my favourite director Akira Kurosawa and maybe throw some more Golden Age movies and serials on here too. Not to mention addressing more Westerns and Musicals. Plenty of horror, too, I’m sure... plus a load of new cinema releases will need to be attended and dutifully “written up”. There are some small, low budget movies coming up called things like The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, for example. So I should probably take a look at those.

As for the very near future... well look for a new review either Boxing Day or, possibly, the day after, for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special and, if I get the chance to get into central London again in the next few days, I understand there are some cinemas showing Birdman a week before a wider release, from what I can make out... and that one looks really interesting. Also, my run down of this year’s best new cinema releases should be on the cards, I think.

Anyway, that’s all that I can think of at the moment... I’m sure there will be some surprises for me too, along the line. So thank you once again for tuning in to this blog when you get a hankering for my words. Have a wonderful Christmas time, whatever you’re doing, and hopefully we’ll all have a better New Year... whether the last one was good or not.

More of the same soon... same Nuts time, same Nuts channel.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Annual Movie Quiz for Christmas

Click on image to enlarge.

Cryptic Movie Title 
Quiz for Christmas

Hello and welcome to my annual Movie Quiz for the festive season.

As I've done for the last two years, I've put up this Christmas Quiz based on a movie theme for people who like that kind o’ thing and enjoy a small challenge at this festive time of year.

For 2014, I’ve gone for something a little more net proof. Some of you may find these hard while others, I suspect, may find them a lot easier than previous years.

If you look at the grid above you’ll see spaces for 14 movie titles running across the page from left to right... and below are the cryptic clues to help you work out what the titles are. To help you out further, I’ve filled in a line of letters downwards spelling out Merry Christmas, so you have a letter in its correct position for each of the titles (three of which are from movies released in cinemas just this year).

No prizes up for grabs here, just the honour of getting first place and getting shouted out here on the blog when I put the answers up.

Email your answers to me at nuts4r2@hotmail.com and you have until the end of New Year’s Day (January 1st 2015) to get your entries in. After that, I’ll stick up the name of the winner (or winners if it’s a tie), along with all the answers, here on my blog.

By way of an example, here’s a question followed by the answer.

Example question:
Jazz singer Fitzgerald bleats couple of times like a sheep.

Example working and answer:
Jazz singer Fitzgerald was Ella Fitzgerald. A sheep says Baa. If sheep says it twice that’s Baa Baa. So we have Baa Baa and Ella. The film title I’m looking for must be... Barbarella.

Please note, these are not all one word titles. Some are a few words etc.

Hope you like it and, above all, have fun.

The Questions.

1.  One up on stereoscopic sound for your old gun. 18 letters.

2.  You keep banging on about a third of a dog! 10 letters.

3.  Wolverine beats a hasty retreat. 9 letters.

4. An appendage worth its weight. 10 letters.

5.  It’s just those really passionate about each other that can still lay claim to existence. 19 letters.

6.  It’s a bit of a wreck. 3 letters.

7.  Plasma made fit for a king. 13 letters.

8.  One thousand quid for rooms to rent for that annoying, enlightened soul. 21 letters.

9.  The masculine French takes the applause... and then it’s all downhill in the snow. Just make sure you do it large.  14 letters.

10. Sometimes you need to get away from filing down all that cheese. 14 letters.

11. Common sense replaced by a beer holder in one of three wise men’s gifts. 12 letters.

12. Tripping Homo Sapien reaches Terra Firma. 20 letters.

13. Legal payments for bed and board in Western Asia. 16 letters.

14. Arrived at a correct conjecture about this person without any real evidence. 8 letters.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Sint (aka Saint)

Sint-illating Santa

Sint (aka Saint)
2011 Netherlands 
Directed by Dick Maas
Metrodome UK DVD Region 2

Warning: Very slight spoilers in this one.

It was due to the phenomenon known as Hypnogoria on Twitter that I first heard, maybe a year ago, about Sint. When he tweeted about the movie again this year, I realised this could be my Christmas movie to rival Rare Exports (reviewed here). Well, while it’s not as whimsical or compelling as Rare Exports in certain respects, it’s still a Christmas themed movie with a fairly dark edge to it and I was kinda pleased to be watching it, I have to say.

The plot involves the original St. Nicholas and his motley crew of pirates (?) who were burned in their ship by villagers for horrendous “rape and pillagey” crimes against them. However, there is a curse connected with this event and so, every 42 years, when the moon is full on December 5th, St. Nicholas, his helper Black Pete (a Dutch part of their Santa Claus myth, apparently), and their bunch of friends, return as ghostly/zombie versions of themselves and kill various people while stealing their children... plundering the infants and lugging them away, after their chimney penetrations, in big sacks.

This is exactly what happens in a scene we see set in 1968, when a whole family is wiped out in a gory and violent manner (which is pretty much the tone throughout the whole film) but with the boy in the family escaping through his absence of checking out the pigs in the family barn. We then cut to present day Amsterdam, where the rest of the action of this movie takes place, and the young boy is now an older police inspector, still embittered by his experiences as a child and thought a bit of a loony for his strange beliefs in a St. Nicholas killer.

We are slowly introduced to younger cast members whose job it is, mostly, to die in various violent scenes throughout the course of the film, along with various other, much less zombie fodder, people. The movie is all about a College aged teenager and his dealings with the Santa Claus zombie and how he pitches up in the company of the not-so-deranged Police Inspector, helping him out on his hunt to destroy the zombie St. Nicholas and his merry horde.

Which all sounds fantastic and, though not the most addictively watchable of movies, it does have a certain something to it... I think, especially in the pacing. This film moves incredibly fast. The speed is often because the action cross cuts between various incidents happening at the same time but mostly, I think, due to the enthusiastic rush of the camera work in some sequences. This is not a hand held, jerky shake-fest... which is a route a lot of horror movies seem to be going down just recently. Instead we have some very smooth and fluid camera work which tends to stick with a character and follow him/her for a bit, before cutting to the odd establishing shot which are often taken from an unexpected angle and compositional choice than what you may be expecting. In fact, the shot design gets downright Hitchcockian in some sequences, it has to be said.

It’s probably been noted before but the plot of the film bears more than a passing resemblance to John Carpenter’s beautiful horror movie The Fog (reviewed here) but, alas, the execution and the end game are not anything like that one. It does have a very 1980s feel to it, however, with lots of old school practical gore effects coming into their own as the St. Nicholas reincarnation slices and dices his way through various people... at least, they seemed less CGI orientated to me, at any rate. It also features an interesting car chase where some policemen chase St. Nicholas from ground level as he rides across the various rooftops of Amsterdam. This is almost a parody of the famous car chase sequence in The French Connection but, well, you know... with a zombie version of Santa on horseback, as opposed to the train tracks from the Friedkin classic.

The film is kinda curious in the end in that it doesn’t actually tie up all the loose ends in the story. For starters, we have no idea what has happened to the kids in the film and can only assume they’re gone for good. In addition to this, one of the more important main characters seems to be treated in a more haphazard and unsympathetic way than you would have hoped for by the end of the story. There’s also an issue, which I think a few people have picked up on by the looks of it, that some of the story flow doesn’t quite make sense in an annoying contradictory manner... almost like scenes of dialogue were kept in after other scenes which were referenced by them were deleted or, in some cases, rewritten without thinking about the plot consequences at other parts of the movie. Unfortunately, that is something which tends to happen a lot in modern movies so this is pretty much par for the course for a film of this nature but... still a little bit sloppy, I believe.

This is a short review, I know, but I have nothing much more to say about Sint other than I was really pleased to find a more deranged Christmas movie than the normal fair on offer ot me in my “film archive” and, if anything, this movie is quite a bit of fun which, when all is said an done, is probably as much as you can ask from a Christmas movie in this day and age. I can’t say it’s my favourite seasonal movie by a long chalk but it does entertain in a, kind of, comfortable way and it’s not something you have to think about too much if you just want to switch your brain off after the wine and pudding on Christmas Day. It’s not one I’d go out of my way to recommend but, equally, it’s one that I think a lot of horror afficionados would enjoy to a certain extent so, maybe if you are into festive fantoms and seasonal shocks, it’s something you might like to check out. Come on in... the weather outside is frightful.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

900th Blog - Mega City Kids

900th Blog - Mega City Kids

You know, I’ve been umming and ahhing for a few weeks now about what I was going to do for my 900th blog post. Normally, when I hit each 100 posts, I like to do an entry to mark the moment which is sometimes a picture or design I’ve created, sometimes a reminiscence about some things which have happened to me in the last year or, occasionally, a run down of what I am expecting to do more of over the next few months/year (which is sometimes wildly inaccurate as other things often take priority). This year, my latest 100 is coinciding with the run down to Christmas and I knew I wouldn’t have time to do any new images on top the other stuff I’ve got to get done before the end of the week even (let alone by the 25th)... so I wanted to touch upon something quick and simple.

On the other hand, I didn’t just want to throw the post away on a quickie so I figured... there must be some kind of worthy cause or person out there who is doing something to help people out as best they can and who I can give a shout out to on my blog. So I had a bit of a think about this and I realised the one person who I do have to bring to your attention is Wendy Kravetz of Mega City Comics in Camden Town... and this is why...

My most loyal readers may remember my comments on how I learned to read as a kid. I think I’ve mentioned it a few times but, in case you don’t remember or, more likely, haven’t read it, here’s the introduction to my Man Of Steel review from June 2013...

“When I was two or three years old, I was encouraged to read via Superman and Batman comics which my dad or my uncle would pick up from the stand, long gone I imagine, at the Angel, Edmonton in the very early seventies (1970 in fact, I suspect). These comics, along with Green Arrow/Green Lantern, World’s Finest, Shazam!, Justice League Of America, Daredevil, The Amazing Spider-Man and also the annual “Christmas Time” reprints in such tomes as The Batman Bumper Book, The Superman Bumper Book and, wait for it, The Superman and Batman Bumper Book, were pretty much how I learned to read and by the time I got to junior school I was already out-reading all the other kids in the class (and writing epic length tales of imaginary spaceway heroes in some lessons too, from what I can recall). I particularly remember the cover to one specific Superman comic I read which, unfortunately, was the only comic which didn’t survive my childhood because I just read it too much and it finally fell apart. But the cover was so good to a kid my age... Superman VS The Electronic Ghost of Metropolis. It would probably cost an inappropriate amount of money these days if I were to track it down in the chance I could read it again but that cover will always live on in my memory.”

I think that paragraph there pretty much sums up my thoughts on how I learned to read and how much of an advantage it gave me over all the other kids at the time. The reason for this is quite simple... the characters and situations depicted in the panels of a comic book or, as they tend to sometimes call them these days, a graphic novel (although they often mean trade paperback reprint), tell of wonders and action and places and people that are so compelling that, at a very young age you actually want to read this stuff. It captures your imagination and you find yourself quickly learning how to decode the words and find out what your new found friends and heroes are up to... be it Captain Marvel teaming up with Tawky Tawny The Talking Tiger or Casper The Friendly Ghost trying hard not to scare anybody. It grips the mind of a child (and also an adult’s imagination... but that’s not what I’m here to discuss) and doesn’t let go.

Of course, once the flood gates are open, all kinds of reading materials which were somehow a locked room become fair game. I remember the tales of Enid Blyton’s various creations, the adventures in Richmal Crompton’s William books and, my favourite, Anthony Buckeridge’s mis-adventures of Jennings. And once you’re there... it’s only a very small step to entering the worlds of Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Ian Fleming, Philip K Dick, Kenneth Robeson, William F. Nolan etc. The point is... by reading comics from an early age, you don’t restrict your kids imagination or blinker them in any way... you actually give their thoughts room to soar and the reading skills tend to catch up with that real quick. Why? Simply because you’re giving your kids something that they want to read because, lets face it, whatever their age... the adventures of Janet & John or Peter & Jane just aren’t going to cut it.

And that’s why Wendy Kravetz at Mega City Comics is important to people right now. She hasn’t asked me to write this post... in fact, until it’s actually live it’s probably going to be a surprise that I have... but I wanted to shout her out here because I think she’s doing a terrific job with something that more people ought to cotton on to. She’s recognised the good her comics can do herself and she’s in charge of a scheme/brand called Mega City Kids, which enables her to hand pick suitable comics for various age groups... in an era when “suitable” comics really are something you need to watch out for (it’s very different territory now from when you and I were young whippersnappers). The scheme isn’t a charity, as far as I’m aware, but these people are recognising that the four coloured panels of certain comic books are going to help your kids fly through reading... and not hobble their expectations like, it has to be said, some teachers might.

But don’t take my word for it... check out Wendy and Mega City Kids for yourself if you think you know someone who is struggling with their reading and you want to watch them plough through their lesson materials faster than a speeding bullet and be able to leap tall spelling obstacles in a single bound. Her twitter account is here https://twitter.com/Megacitykids for you to see what she’s up to and the Mega City Kids facebook page is here... https://www.facebook.com/Megacitykids And if, like me, you have a passion for comics and like hanging out in places like Forbidden Planet, Gosh! and Orbital... and you don’t know about Mega City Comics... well add them to your list of favourite wallet torturers. They are based a couple of minutes walk from Camden Town tube station on the London Underground Northern Line and their website can be found here... http://www.megacitycomics.co.uk Look them up next time you’re passing or surfing. Especially at this time of year because, hey, everybody likes to get a good comic at Christmas.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Silent Running

Earth Fiddles
While Bruce Derns

Silent Running
1972 USA
Directed by Douglas Trumbull
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B

Silent Running is a film I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s a film which was always a big hit in the playground chatter at school and I guess I would have been about 7 or 8 years old when it got its first TV screening in the UK. I remember watching it with my dad and lapping it up. I also remember the very sad ending and the “green is good” message that made us all cry back in the day. And the three robots, of course... I’ll come back to them a little later.

Although I’ve always held this movie in very high regard, it wasn’t a movie that I was really expecting to revisit anytime soon until a fellow student from my old graphic design course at the London College Of Printing found me on Twitter and, after reading a few of my reviews and having a few conversations, expressed an interest in hearing what I would have to say about this classic movie these days. So here I am and that’s a big shout out to Jez at Fizog Design (follow him on Twitter here) for getting me back to looking at this film again after so many decades.

Silent Running belongs as a kind of softer option alternative to the big powerful wave of brutal and philosophical sci-fi movies which Hollywood were churning out, such as those top lining actors like Charlton Heston and Yul Brinner, who were getting a new lease of life on the big screen with such classics as Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Westworld and The Ultimate Warrior. The film is directed by Douglas Trumbull, who is perhaps much better known as a special effects wizard and who had just come off of doing the effects work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I mention that he contributed to the effects work for both that film and such classics as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Star Trek The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, not to mention another film he directed called Brainstorm, then you’ll realise that he was quite a giant of a man in his chosen field.

This film is unique because it takes a traditional hippy approach to man’s decimation of our planet and, like all good science fiction, pushes it and filters it through a sci-fi concept to explore it in a more direct way. Man has used up a lot of his natural resources on earth to the extent that the last forests, filled as they are with trees, plants, rabbits, toads, snails and all manner of wildlife, have been bundled off into space, three a piece, on huge freighters under big domes which protect them in the hopes that mankind can one day bring them back to Earth. When a decision is made to destroy the domes and recall all of the crews of the freighters back to Earth, the chief “gardener” of the starship “Valley Forge”, who has been tending and growing the forests for something like 20 years, takes offence at the idea... he murders his three colleagues and manages to keep one of the domes, faking his misdeeds and feigning death by navigating a path through the rings of Saturn... in a special effects sequence that very much calls into mind the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey and which, it may come as no surprise, was originally intended to be included as a sequence in Kubrick’s movie.

The gardner, known as Lowell, is played by a young Bruce Dern and I think this was the first time I’d been aware of him as an actor as far as I can remember, although I would have certainly seen him in various American Westerns over the years before I saw this movie, I suspect. Once he’s killed off his crew in the first third of this story, after all the rules and ideas of the reality in which Lowell lives have been explored and established to build up a picture of the situation in the audience’s mind, the film becomes essentially a one hander showcase for Dern as he plays along side two of three drone robots which he calls Huey and Dewey (with Louis being named posthumously after it fails to survive the earlier sequences of the film).

In my review a short while ago for Interstellar (found here) I likened the robots in that movie to the classic robots of past science fiction films and specifically named the robots in this film, who they most resemble in some ways, in terms of the simplicity of their design. The three drones here are basically walking boxes with two legs and appendages which can come out of the front, robotically, so they can do things like hold cards when Lowell teaches them how to play at poker (a game in which Huey and Dewey cheat, although Lowell never really spots this). The drones are played by multiple amputee actors and it’s a real wonder how these, frankly simplistic designs, can suddenly become imbued with all the emotional warmth of humans as they perform and complete certain tasks, above and beyond their programming. Of course, a lot of this is due to the mental baggage that the audience brings to the table but Dern plays on the perception behind the action and reaction shenanigans to enhance this emotional depth in the robots and it’s a testament to his acting, and to the movements and gestures of those inside the droids themselves, at just how involved you get with them to the point where you are feeling really sorry for them as the film reaches its final solution, when Earth ships have found the Valley Forge and Lowell has to make one final decision to both save the forest and fix it so the forest is not pursued and destroyed.

It’s a tear jerker, to be sure, although I surprised myself by being less emotionally attached to the corker of a “save our forests” message inherent in the main text of the movie this time around. I think some of it has to do with the fact that, despite getting a lot of things absolutely right in this film, it’s getting just a little bit dated, truth be told. However, that being said, I think its the kind of film you have a much better response to when you’re young and can’t necessarily see all the shades of grey lurking around the edges of what is, after all, a very simple and clear message... boosted as it is by a score by composer Peter Schickele (aka P. D. Q. Bach) and with his songs for the movie being performed by Joan Baez. Actually, I can’t believe the soundtrack to this one has still not been issued on CD after all these years... I’m guessing there are some legal issues standing in the way with the publishing of the songs somewhere but I remain hopeful that it’ll someday get a release... preferably before I die (better get your skates on then, assorted record labels).

At the end of the day, though, I still thoroughly enjoyed what has since become, and rightly so, a genuine classic of 1970s science fiction. If you’ve never seen this movie and are a fan of the genre then you really do need to take a look at it, preferably before your heart gets too old and jaded to consider the central message in a less cynical way. The newish limited edition Blu Ray print on Eureka's The Masters Of Cinema label is pretty good and has a variety of extras including a commentary track by Trumbull and Dern which is definitely something I have to give a listen to in the near future. Still a strong movie after all these years and a film that, once seen, you’ll never really forget. It’s one of those movies that stays with you through the years and, if you can inhabit the wide open eyed hope of its central theme, then you’ll have a really great time with it, I think.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Doc Savage: Phantom Lagoon

Savage Creatures

Doc Savage: 
Phantom Lagoon
by Will Murray writing as Kenneth Robeson
Altus Press
ISBN: 978-1618271341

You know, it must be really hard to, not only write a continuation of the exploits of an already famous literary character, but to write it in the style and spirit of the original author. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off and, while I found a few of the latest batch of modern Doc Savage novels to be a little out of kilter with their 20th Century counterparts, I have to hand it to Murray and say that they are definitely more hit than miss and, even on the occasions when they do miss the mark a little in terms of authenticity of the characters and styles of situations in comparison to the original versions, they are nearly always entertaining.

One thing Murray definitely pulls off in his Doc Savage novels is the breakneck pacing which was often an obvious stylistic flourish of the pulps, especially within the work of Lester Dent (the original Kenneth Robeson) and his Doc Savage tales. However, I have to further congratulate Murray in that, with Phantom Lagoon, he also manages to not only get all the ingredients of a classic Doc Savage novel just about absolutely right, he also manages to push the edges a little bit in terms of some of the events which happen in this one (I don’t want to get too spoilery here) and you know that Dent would surely have approved of these exciting dramatic decisions. They are absolutely in the style of what Dent would have done... and he did sometimes stretch his own formula himself, on occasion, just to shake things up.

The events I am talking about in this particular volume are those kinds of incidents which threaten to somehow change the status quo of the tried and true formula of any future Doc Savage novels. They rarely do have any permanent after effects which last them for longer than the opening set up of the next novel, after the events have occurred in the previous story, but they are quite drastic alterations for the duration of the tale. Of course, with a character like Doc Savage, who has an unlimited reserve of money he can call on to fund his work at any time, it’s rare for anything really groundshaking to be irreparable, but certain “big things” often are written in such a way that they certainly seem like massive events at the time... again, without giving away spoilers here, it’s hard to go into.

Suffice it so say that there are some scenes of destruction and devastation which have an effect on the possible future of the narrative and also, of course, add to the dramatic impact and gravitas of the latest caper that Doc and his crew end up investigating. Now, it’s possible Murray may have decided to do what he’s done here to tie into a drop off in certain ingredients in the later World War 2 and post World War Doc Savage tales. I can’t quite remember (or find online now, either) specifics of just where Doc was at with various locations and equipment at certain stages of his crime fighting career, but I trust Murray enough to know that he wouldn’t be one to threaten the continuity of the chronological setting where this novel gets tucked into the original stories. And, like I said, the events portrayed in this novel are, as far as I’m concerned, things Lester Dent would have approved of himself.

For instance, the original Doc Savage story Fortress Of Solitude tale features an outrageous attack on Doc’s arctic retreat which would seem to have long reaching effects on the series (Murray even picks up some threads from this story himself in at least one of his previous Doc novels) but, ultimately, equilibrium is restored. Similarly, when people break out from Doc’s famous Crime College or the Mayans are embroiled in a plot, or even when various devastating attacks on Doc’s skyscraper headquarters have taken place in the past, they are really examples of Dent just having his cake and eating it at the same time. Big, dramatic events that are a threat to the easy, continued lifestyle of Doc and his crew are ultimately reversed and swept under the carpet with a quick sleight of hand... and it always works and makes sense within the realms of the fictional character because, after all... money talks.

So no worries on some of the incidents in this particular novel that might seem a tad overcooked or sensational to some readers. As far as I’m concerned, these are all valid approaches to the drama. No complaints here.

As for the rest of the novel?

Well, it’s a real humdinger of a tale, for sure. Starting out by almost immediately putting Doc and his crew in a reactive stance rather than being in an investigation they have chosen to take part in from the outset. It deals with watery backdrops and sea creatures who won’t rub up any of the traditional Doc Savage fans the wrong way... this novel sticks to the formula of always having a hard, scientific reason for the initial hook of the weird phenomenom that Doc encounters in his adventures. As with all of the writing I’ve read by Will Murray, it moves at a mile a minute, is stupendously well written and, like the majority of his other efforts under the Kenneth Robeson “brand name”... hugely entertaining.

If i had one criticism to make on this one, it’s the transparency of the misdirection Murray uses in a certain scene. A character drops into the narrative about a third of the way into the novel and my initial thoughts were, since I know both Murray and Dent’s plotting fairly well, that a very specific character was adopting a disguise. Then, to muddy the waters, Murray has one of the villains of the piece already wise to these kinds of shenanigans and clearly naming one of The Amazing Five as the person adopting the disguise. This would have maybe thrown first time readers off the track a little but, pretty much any fan of the exploits of Clark Savage Jr would be pretty sure of the real identity of the character in question, I would imagine. It’s not really a problem though... just a personal reaction to what I see as an obvious red herring for the reader.

Doc Savage: Phantom Lagoon is a pretty solid entry into the series of additional “Wild Adventures Of Doc Savage” and the sophisticated degree to which Murray is able to effectively “do a Robeson” never ceases to amaze me. Added to this we have “the war in Europe” which sets up slightly different rules that Doc and his crew can operate under... also an interesting addition to the atmosphere on this one. This is a definite good read for all fans of The Man Of Bronze and I would definitely urge those who have been sitting on the fence with the latest batch of novels to go out and grab a couple... and you could certainly use this one as a jumping on point. Although two of Doc’s crew are missing, you have the counter balance of his cousin Pat added into the mix so that’s a good bonus and, if I remember rightly, Doc’s aides did start slowly disappearing as the novels progressed towards the end of the series, with characters being whittled down until it was just Monk and Ham in on the adventures as the characters came towards the end of their original run... so once again, Murray’s adds another shot of authenticity into his work, by making sure the ingredients he puts into his verbose concoction are more specific to where this one fits into the chronology of the original pulps. Looking forward to catching up to the next two in the series as soon as I can. Hopefully over Christmas if Santa brings the next new volume in his sack.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Pyramid

Anubis-ness Like Showbusiness

The Pyramid
2014  USA
Directed by Grégory Levasseur 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoilers but... 
not really all that spoilery, if truth be told.

Back in 1972, when I was a mere four years of age, my parents took me into London to the British Museum for a special exhibition. I remember queuing up for hours in the cold in the courtyard (as it was then) and it was my first experience of queuing in a line stretching and winding back on itself a seemingly infinite number of times. Queues this long were rarely seen in the 1970s, methinks. After queuing for a few hours, we gained entrance to the touring Treasures Of Tutankahmen exhibition which, it has to be said, was a much more specific and wonderous exhibition than the diluted one which showed up in London about 6 years ago.

It was here that my fascination with Egyptian archaeology first began... as it sparked a casual interest in the mysterious historical culture which I still have, somewhat, to this day. This was further enhanced, at around the same time, by my first TV viewing of the original Boris Karloff version of The Mummy and, later, by both  the Tintin comic album Cigars Of The Pharaohs and a particular issue of the black and white Doc Savage comic which featured characters like Anubis and Horus running around and generally giving The Man Of Bronze a hard time.

Perhaps this is why I responded so well to the new horror movie The Pyramid when, it would seem, it’s been really panned by a lot of critics. However, a lot of the views I’ve seen expressed on it also describe it as a found footage movie... and it so isn’t. I’ll get back to that point in a minute but, first, let me tell you the basic set up of the movie.

The time is 2013. A father and daughter team of archeologists have discovered a new pyramid beneath the sand in an increasingly volatile Egypt. The apex is uncovered and the daughter doesn’t believe it’s the tomb of Akhenaten, which is what they had originally been looking for. Also, curiously, it’s a three sided pyramid, as opposed to the usual four sided pyramids you get in Egypt. So curiouser and curiouser. A two person documentary team are filming these intrepid, historical explorers and we then have the usual thing you often see when anyone opens a pyramid in a horror movie... the person opening it gets hit with toxic, gaseous spray which plays havoc with his nervous system and pretty much kills him. Yeah, this is just one cliché in a phenomenally cliché ridden film, it has to be said... but it does have other things going for it.

The main protagonists and their “documenters” are about to enter the tomb when the American government orders everyone to evacuate the area because of the mounting, violent political situation but, with only a few hours left before their “get out and go” deadline, the team decides to send in the cute robot camera machine of the daughter’s geeky boyfriend, on loan from NASA, to get a little look inside this rare find. This is when you expect things are going to go really wrong and when the camera is smashed and dragged further into the pyramid by what our team of scientific geniuses assume is a dog (yeah, right), they all go in and look for the camera equipment and get trapped inside the pyramid with a bunch of jackal-like, violent creatures and... a big as f*** version of Anubis who is pretty scary and wants to rip everyone’s heart out... before weighing it and devouring their soul.

Now there are some issues here with this film, to be sure, but for all the standard horror clichés which pop up in abundance during the running time, not to mention some of the awful dialogue, the film still manages to retain a certain “edge of your seat” sense of foreboding and, by the end of the flick, it does indeed get downright harrowing and terrifying... at least to this audience member. Which is a good thing, right? It’s like the people behind the direction, editing, lighting, set design, effects work and the level of credibility invoked by the lead actors are all working overtime to try to distract us from the plot and dialogue and a big round of applause is deserved for everyone managing to create something still quite credibly scary while using this screenplay as a starting out point.

The issue surrounding the misconception that the film is one of the many found footage horror films which have been inundating us with much more frequency for the last decade or so is easily understandable, in some ways, for those who really aren’t paying attention to the way in which the film is shot and instead are immersing themselves in the content of the fantasy. However, the opening establishing shots should have been a dead giveaway and, although a lot of the footage in the film is from a specific camera source, such as the documentary film-maker’s camera or the screen of the robot they initially send into the tomb to take a look around, there is a lot of stuff which is third person camerawork and encompasses everyone who could be a credible source in shot. And if all that doesn’t give it away that this is definitely a mixture of both, then Nima Fakhrara's nicely done underscore for the film should probably put paid to any idea that the film-makers are going for a more authentic route in terms of first person shooting.

So, yeah, the director and producers have obviously made the decision, somewhere down the line in pre-production, that they didn’t want to limit themselves to just the usual tools of the trade when it comes to a “found footage” style movie and gone for the best of both worlds. The only fly in the ointment in this particular approach, though, is that even the standard third person view shots are all done on handheld too. There’s a lot of camera shake and so, other than the lack of an identifiable source for those shots, they are almost indistinguishable from the first person footage unless you are really paying attention. Which is fine but, then you wonder, if they were going to make it that indistinguishable in the first place, why bother making parts of it first person at all? The documentary team could easily have fulfilled their “exposition monkey” roles by being students on work experience or some such and then there would be no need for them to be lugging stuff around and paying attention to the minutia of all that it entails, taking up time in the main narrative. So that’s a little puzzling, it has to be said.

Still, asides from these kinds of issues, the film is a real blast when it comes to suspense and even gets into the realms of having a good, strong gore element in it (like, for instance, the zombie movies of the early to mid 1980s) and I really appreciated this. In terms of structure it’s pretty much the same kind of film as the excellent As Above, So Below from a few months ago (and reviewed here) but it trades in the beautiful atmosphere of that film with a more gung ho approach to the horror of the situations. Personally I preferred the atmosphere of As Above, So Below a little more but I did appreciate the differences between them too and The Pyramid is a really nice little horror film as far as I’m concerned.

The performances by the likes of Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O'Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K and Faycal Attougui are all top notch, in spite of some of the terrible dialogue they have to say, with performances somewhat modified in terms of emotional impact of the events in real life to move the story forward and allow for the basic human survival instinct to take over, it seems to me. That is to say, the characters don’t completely fall apart when a real life person faced by the same challenges might just freeze up (and die) under the circumstances and the actors do a credible job of helping you suspend your disbelief in these sequences.

The main star of the thing is Anubis, however, who is absolutely terrifying. It’s funny, but when you see CGI effects combined with a hand held camera, they seem much more credible than the CGI work in films shot with a steadicam (for example) and the version of Anubis created for this film, who does some really nicely violent stuff, is very impressive indeed.

All in all then, despite its shortcomings (and there are a few), director Grégory Levasseur has managed to put together a really credible entry into the horror genre and, although it seems to have been quite brutally rejected by a number of reviewers, I’m proud to stand up to be counted and say that The Pyramid is a slice of B-movie Egyptsploitation that I am happy to recommend to anyone... and I will happily pick up a blu ray of it when the price comes down after its initial release. Now if only someone would release the score to this one on CD, I’d be much happier about it.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Grandmaster (Yi Dai Zong Shi)

The Hand Faster

The Grandmaster (Yi Dai Zong Shi)
2013  Hong Kong/China
Directed by Wong Kar Wai 
UK cinema release print.

So here we have Wong Kar Wai’s new film, The Grandmaster, finally on a UK cinema release but in a heavily (by all reports) truncated version. Perhaps the reason the narrative kinda jumps around a little is because of the various cuts made to it... a film which the director apparently spent a year editing to get it how he wanted it in the first place.

The film tells the story of Ip Man, the Kung Fu Master responsible for popularising the Wing Chun style of fighting and also, of course, known as the man who originally trained the fighting and acting legend we know over here as Bruce Lee. So he’s a pretty important character and Wong Kar Wai obviously wanted to do the person justice... the film has been in various stages of production over the years, to the point that since this project was started, a few other Ip Man movies have already beaten this one out to release by a large chunk of time.

Now I’m already a little familiar with this director’s work on films such as ChungKing Express, 2046 (the sequel to his own I’m In The Mood For Love) and My Blueberry Nights (which I’m actually planning on rewatching and reviewing for the blog sometime next year) and so I was expecting to be watching a movie with absolutely mind blowing cinematography and a heavily saturated colour palette. Well, my expectations were half right... the camera work is really superb in that the slow progress of the camera through the compositions ensures that you get time to appreciate a lot of the beautifully balanced frames the director has concocted for this one. This time around, however, the colours seemed to be quite muted throughout a lot of it... but it really doesn’t matter as the shot design makes it very easy on the eye, in spite of this.

The title character is played by Tony Leung, who is a regular in a number of Wai’s movies and he plays the role here very confidently. However, just like a lot of made up heroic characters do, you really need a few more cracks in the whole “invincible hero” personae to make your characters interesting and, as this is based on real life, it looks like Ip Man didn’t really have any ostentations chinks in his armour so, consequently, the character does seem a tad dull at times.

This isn’t completely helped by the director’s very sedate approach to the mise en scene, it has to be said. Although you do have time to take in the beauty of the sets and landscapes, there are huge amounts of this film where nothing much happens. Now in some ways that’s a good thing because it throws the fastly edited (and sometimes slowed down) fight scenes into sharp relief and makes them more dramatic in contrast... but at the same time I found it to be maybe just a little bit lazy in terms of the scripting. I don’t know why, I usually love this kind of stuff, but the film certainly has a slowed down, almost voyeuristic quality in the way people and scenes are viewed, almost from a distance, without saying much. Normally a quality I embrace a lot more wholeheartedly.

It’s funny, it’s not like it’s a dialogue free movie, far from it. There’s a lot of talk all over it... but in between the talking and the action, the director likes to step back so you can, perhaps, ponder and consider things in your own time and, though I usually am very happy with that style of movie making, something felt a little odd and out of sorts with this one. I didn’t feel like I was getting a complete movie... partially, I guesss, due to the truncated version of the film playing over here and perhaps also because... I’m not sure the amount of material they could have filmed about this guy was interesting enough, maybe? That being said, however, they do start the movie when the central character is already 40 years old. The first four decades of Ip’s life are explained away as a "well off" man living off his family’s wealth and indulging himself in studies of kung fu. It seems very glossed over and I wonder how much of the excised footage included more of the back story for a few of the main protagonists in this one.

Another reason the film has a very voyeuristic feel, a least for me, is that the director treats his extras in a similar way to how Sergei Eisenstein used to do it in the era of Soviet Propaganda films like Battleship Potemkin, October and Strike. That is to say, Eisenstein would pick out a few of the background characters and then (often reshooting them slightly out of the scene in question) highlight them and their reaction to whatever is going on in a particular sequence at a closer distance. This way, the audience feels they are watching events unfold in front of them with a common point of reference as to the effect the main characters and events are having on everyone. Wong Kar Wai does a similar thing here, either by cutting to various bystanders in a crowded bar, for example, or moving the camera so that a “non-character” will suddenly be filling or dominating a composition. We see the smoke rising from a lady's cigarette and the expression on her face as she contemplates the rest of the scene, for instance. There seems to be a lot of that going on which helped create the sense of a silent and laid back space for the actors and stories to breathe in... which is a bit of a trade off in terms of detail versus, as I said earlier, a sense of dullness pervading certain of the scenes.

That being said, you aren’t going to be too bored for long because the shot design is exquisite and a lot of it will hold your interest throughout. The fight scenes alone are well worth the price of admission on this one and the choreographer, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, and director take care to use natural elements and work with them, making the fights more interesting... such as shooting them in the pouring rain or during snowfall where the ground is a bit more beautiful and treacherous. However, the film doesn’t follow a formula of, "the further you go the bigger the fight", as it would do in a Western, formulaic brawl movie... in fact, the climactic fight scene in the film certainly isn’t trumpeted as such and doesn’t even feature the main protagonist the movie is about... Tony Leung is not even present during this sequence. Instead, it’s only after the film has finished during the last quarter of an hour or so, that you realise you were just watching the last big fight sequence of the movie.

The other thing I felt this film lacked to a certain degree was emotion. There is a beautiful fight scene between Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers etc), playing his “almost love interest” Gong Er but, when the pay off to these sequences comes at the end of the movie, the emotional impact that they should have seemed maybe a little muted to me. It didn’t help, of course, that by that point in the movie the director elected to have music from Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon A Time In America playing through the scenes, so I was immediately popped out of the narrative while I was trying to identify the music. Even so, I suspect the toned down emotion of these final sequences maybe comes from a lack of the two characters full investment in each other, for reasons which are not made clear or glossed over in the narrative. Ip Man’s wife, not present for much of the narrative, presumably survived the war (unlike his daughters) and one wonders why he doesn’t try to get back to her at some point... love usually finds a way.

So, yeah, this is not the Wong Kar Wai I’ve known and loved over the years but, with all that being said, you’d be absolutely silly not to invest some time in this one because, frankly, even if he’s not dialled up to eleven here (which is, of course, only my opinion), he’s still delivered a beautifully haunting and, somewhat, melancholic cinematic poem in which many film lovers will find a lot to marvel at. Definitely something you should see before it leaves the cinema... unless, of course, you’re saving yourself for a good transfer of the full cut. The Grandmaster could well be a contender for part of my top 20 films this year and I’ll definitely be seeking out an alternate print of this one sometime soon.