Friday, 29 January 2016

Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan

Khan But Not Forgotten

Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
USA 1982
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Paramount Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilers, I guess.

Okay. So the first sequel to Star Trek The Motion Picture was also a sequel to the original series’ first season episode Space Seed, which starred Ricardo Montalban as Khan, the leader of a group of super-intelligent, genetically enhanced people up to no good. At the end of that week's exciting adventure, Khan and his gang of super soldiers had been marooned on a planet which, in the intervening 15 years between that episode and this movie sequel (in both real time and story time) had shifted orbit and become almost unlivable, killing the majority of Khan’s people, including the love of his life.

That’s the set up and the plot is one of revenge, of course, in the film which really brought the Star Trek franchise back in a big way, after the success of the previous adventure (reviewed here). I think this one was generally well received by most people at the time and it made a huge profit, partially because the cost was around a quarter of the previous film... although to look at it you might assume it had a larger budget than the previous one.

This is the one that brings all the action back into the mix, although a lot of the action is from William Shatner’s Kirk going viewscreen to viewscreen, ship to ship, with the titular villain of the piece. It’s basically a science fiction version of Hornblower with phasers and photon torpedos replacing the ships cannon’s trading shots across the water and it works pretty well. It’s fairly violent and less toned down in terms of grimness than you might expect from something which is generally perceived to be part of a family franchise and I believe both this movie and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (reviewed here) ran into some problems with the American board of censors at the time. Both of those films suffered from enforced cuts, from what I remember (or the choice to cut down or go with a higher rating... which, frankly, amounts to the same thing in my book) and were released in cinemas in significantly compromised versions.

That being said, I also remember reading the fairly fleshed out novelisation by science fiction writer Vonda N. McIntyre at the time and marvelling at just how overly dark and bloody the novel was in comparison to the movie. The pages were pretty much running red with scarlet ooze in terms of scenes where, for example, characters are strung upside down and interrogated while having their throats cut, if I remember correctly (cut me some slack here... it was 32 years ago since I read it) and although the aftermath of scenes like these turn up in the movie, it was the novelisation that portrayed these actual scenes in all their violent glory. Whether any of these scenes were actually shot for the film or not is something I don’t know about.

What I do know is that it’s a pretty entertaining slice of Star Trek we have here. Most of the regular actors are back... William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan and George Takei are all present and correct and we also have a nicely expanded role for Walter Koenig as Chekov... he being the person who discovers Khan on the planet’s surface. Kind of an irritating point for fans of the show when you realise Walter Koenig was never in Season One of Star Trek and therefore technically never met Khan... but that doesn’t really matter here and Koenig does a damn fine job of the material he’s given to work with.

There’s lots of action, some very witty dialogue and although the shot set ups are not really anything to write home about, the way they are edited into a tight and fast paced movie, for the most part, is pretty good. Unlike Robert Wise in the last movie, Meyer doesn’t waste time with his effects shots... directors were finally beginning to treat the post Star Wars effects industry in a way that was less reverent to the actual on screen effect (just as George Lucas had done right from the get go)... which of course made the impact of the effects in the context of the action all the more potent.

And, of course, you had the death of Spock...

Yep. Everyone knew that Spock was going to get killed in this one, way before the movie was released. Leonard Nimoy’s first autobiographical book was famously called I Am Not Spock and it was quite a few years after this movie that his more upbeat titled sequel memoir, I Am Spock, was released into the world. Meyer uses the expectations of Spock’s death in the opening Kobayashi Maru scene, a no-win scenario training test for Starfleet cadets introduced in this film (with many mentions in movies and TV spin offs for years to come) and Spock, along with most of the regulars, are ‘fake killed’ in the opening sequence. This was presumably an attempt to try and have Spock’s real death at the end of the story be a bit of a surprise to some people... but it was perhaps too famously publicised for most of us not to expect it. His ending here is dramatic, moving and it was somewhat parodied a couple of years ago in a reverse version of the same scene in Star Trek: Into Darkness, which also had Khan as the villain... this time played by Benedict Cumberbatch (my review of that one here). We all had tears in our eyes when Spock met his end back in 1982 though.

However, the sharp eyed among us remembered a little non-sequitur moment that the writers put in and, of course, it wasn’t too much to expect that this movie wouldn’t be the last we heard from Spock. Of course, we’d have to wait a couple of years to find out for sure.

The music for this movie is one of James Horner’s greatest but I pretty much ignored it when it first came out. The memory and power of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek The Motion Picture was what I was waiting for and that score is not referenced or tracked in here at all. So I was kind of resentful of somebody else writing the music for this one at the time. I didn’t really discover Horner until ALIENS in 1986, by which time all his truly great scores such as Battle Beyond The Stars, Humanoids From The Deep, Gorky Park and Wolfen were in his past. However, it’s one of Horner’s finest and, despite having the usual Horner plagiarisms and self referencing, not to mention stealing from Prokofiev (well if you’re going to steal, steal from some of the best), it’s a powerful score in its own right and Horner built on this in his score for the next movie in the franchise.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about this one other than I am still angry that the Star Trek II fotonovel was published in black and white. Seriously? Why? However, it’s a truly great film and, although it’s not my personal favourite, it’s pretty high on my list and, for many fans of the series, this is their best one. Of course, we still had to find out if Spock was really dead. When the box office results were in, logic dictated that, you know, reports of his death may have been greatly exaggerated. 

Star Trek @ NUTS4R2
Star Trek Series 1
Star Trek - The Motion Picture 
Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home 
Star Trek V - The Final Frontier 
Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek - Generations (aka Star Trek VII) 
Star Trek - First Contact 
Star Trek - Insurrection 
Star Trek Nemesis 
Star Trek Beyond

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Penny Dreadful Series One


Penny Dreadful Series One
2014 USA

Paramount Home Entertainment
Blu Ray Zone B

I’ve been wanting to see Penny Dreadful for a while now. Been patiently waiting for it to show up on some normal channel on television over here but, alas, none of the proper channels without adverts - aka BBC1 and BBC2 - or even their two advert filled rivals, ITV and Channel 4, have screened it. Forget the other channels too... they also run adverts. Luckily, a Christmas gift in the form of a Blu Ray of Series One turned up... so here we go.

I didn’t know much about this show from the start. Two things really. One was the title, which obviously recalls the one penny priced, blood and guts sensational fiction of the Victorian era, the Penny Dreadfuls being perhaps best defined by famous poster boy yarns such as Varney The Vampire and Sweeny Todd. So I knew it would be a ‘mash up’, in modern parlance, of various gothic horror tropes and tales all thrown in together and, this is indeed what it is... the first series incorporating elements of Dracula, Frankenstein and A Portrait Of Dorian Gray... among others.

The other thing I knew was that it had a bloody good cast, including the four main draws for me... Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper and Josh Hartnett. Their co-stars, who I am less familiar with, also, as it happens, give great performances too. So even if an episode is maybe less enthralling than another... you can always count on the quality of the acting to steer you through.

This first series suffers a little, perhaps, from being a touch uneven in places and I wonder if that’s to do with the direction in each episode. Some are full on gems of horror with blood and sex in equal measure and some are more sedate, toned down and perhaps lacking the more prominent ingredients of their Victorian namesakes, it seems to me. The lengths of the episodes tend to vary a little too... some clocking in around 45 minutes while others seem to run almost ten minutes longer. That being said, the atmosphere in each one is quite startlingly intriguing and even the more tamer episodes can be mightily entertaining... athough I thought the initial set up episode was something less than what was being achieved in certain others of the series.

Unfortunately, the shifting tone also runs to the story elements of this one, too. Some things are really obvious and telegraphed from the get go and one wonders why the writers waited until the last episode in this first series to uncover these revelations which the audience must surely have figured out from very early on in the series. For instance, Billy Piper’s lovable Irish prostitute, introduced in the second episode, hooking up with Josh Hartnett’s character after shooting pornographic photographs with Dorian Gray (played by Reeve Carney), is gradually dying of consumption as a feature of her character as soon as she is introduced. One just assumes from the start that Piper’s character is going to die and end up being fodder for another character caught up in the plot, transforming into what many might see as a key legacy character fairly soon after her death and... indeed, the ‘makings’ of this character do indeed start to play out in the last episode of this first season. So I’ve no doubt she’ll be back in a much changed form for the second series.

Similarly, all the way through since he was introduced in the first episode, Hartnett’s character seems to be a set up for something more to come and it was in the second episode where I finally nailed just who... or rather what.. he is. Again, though, his transformation into a very specific and iconic figure is kept back right until the end of the last episode... following on from the similarly ‘not so surprising’ revelations about Billie Piper. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this character’s ‘hidden’ talent in the next series. It might even be a case, depending on whether they want to go the whole hog with the original character name, that this makes Hartnett only the third person in the history of cinema and television, to play this specific character (a crown which was held as being played by only Lon Chaney Jr until only a few years ago, in fact).

So yeah... there’s that lack of surprise in certain key elements of the script which can’t be gotten away from. I wouldn’t be surprised, also, if something resembling The Mummy comes in to the show at some point soon, either, since there are a lot of references to the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and so on dotted about the early episodes. Something held back for future seasons, alongside some other famous characters, no doubt.

All that being said, the series does still manage to surprise in certain places. The end of the second episode, Séance, for instance, is probably the bloodiest and most shocking in terms of language (when it comes to an amazing scene featuring Eva Green) but the final moments involving Victor Frankenstein (played by Harry Treadaway) and his new creation, who he has been bonding with over the course of the episode, is quite refreshing in terms of completely throwing away what the audience might have thought the purpose of that slow build was and actually caught me off guard. This is a good thing because that hardly ever happens to me and it definitely helped get me hooked from fairly early on in the run of the show.

Another introduction took me completely by surprise too. Most of the established characters from famous fictional sources are introduced in terms of their identity in a fairly sloppy manner, it has to be said, but one of them took me completely unawares. Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray has been promising Frankenstein a consultation with a friend who is an expert on blood and, when David Warner turns up playing this character and his name is revealed... well I didn’t put two and two together until his identity became known. What was even more surprising, given the reverance in which this character is held, is what happens to him a mere episode or two later. I don’t want to spoil the moment if you haven’t seen the show and I don’t neccessarily agree it was the right thing to do, but it certainly came as a slight shock although, in hindsight, the scenes with David Warner directly preceeding these really do kind of spell it out that this ‘incident’ is going to happen soon. I’m just getting old, methinks.

All in all though, the atmosphere and weight of the show, although uneven, is certainly enough to keep me watching. I do find the individual characters interesting and even the Frankenstein monster, played by Rory Kinnear, had my sympathies as the end of the first season drew to a close. It’ll certainly be interesting, though, to see where the main characters, brought together on a quest to find Murray’s daughter, Mina Harker (yeah... that Mina Harker), go from here... since that main plot comes to a close, somewhat, in the last episode. I’m pretty sure some supernatural being, either Egyptian or possibly Indian, may pose a new threat to Dalton’s character and his allies but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. Since I spent some Christmas money on the second series on Blu Ray, I’m hoping to be able to get to watch these in a month or two. As far as the first season goes, however, it’s not the absolute masterpiece of gothic horror I was hoping for but, with stalwarts like Eva Green and Timothy Dalton in there to prove that you really can’t go wrong with them, I think most fans of this kind of literary entertainment should be delightedly and dreadfully surprised. Worth checking out.

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Art Of Robert E McGinnis

Cover Girls

The Art Of Robert E McGinnis
by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott
Titan Books 
ISBN: 978-1781162170

A very good friend bought me this book for Christmas and, I have to say, it’s a pretty amazing find. I first heard of Robert E. McGinnis, or thought I had, from a constant stream of retweets of his work from various people on Twitter over the last six months or so. But, as it turns out, the art of Robert E. McGinnis is something which has never been very far away from me throughout my life... and I suspect the same can be said for a lot of people, even though many of them may never have heard of him.

This book takes a very broad look at the artist’s work, a man who has painted literally 1000s of book covers, movie posters and magazine illustrations (amongst other things) over the years. The book jackets are absolutely fantastic and it was his work with drawing sexy females, something known by afficionados of his work as the ‘McGinnis Women’, that drew my eye initially, most recently. There’s something about some of those pulpy covers featuring a girl and a gun, often eyeing up the potential reader with a look and in a pose which sparks an unspoken dialogue or query, which grabs the audience straight away. Apparently, sales of one particular series of books which were going to be cancelled, sky rocketed when they started utilising McGinnis’ paintings and it’s not hard to see why.

The McGinnis women have a slightly different feel to them too, from series to series. For instance, on the Perry Mason series of covers, which was perceived as being a far more upmarket franchise than some of the other ones the artist worked on, the women are less about obvious sex appeal but still hold the attention, nonetheless and, as this book progresses, you see different sides of the painter expressed in different kinds of projects. It’s also fun to spot influences on his work in terms of likenesses used from time to time too. For instance a series of books about a character called Milo March often included the likeness of Hollywood actor James Coburn on the cover and the painter makes mention to the writer of this handsome tome that he was always anxiously awaiting from a call from Coburn to find out just what was going on with that. I guess those were the days before likeness rights were an issue.

McGinnis was, of course, no stranger to working with the likeness of James Coburn from some of the movie posters he created, such as the iconic one of him riding the motorbike with his arms holding his jacket open and revealing dynamite for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker aka Giu La Testa) and I believe, although it’s not mentioned in this book, that he might have done the first of the two theatrically released Flint movies too. There was a slightly more cartoon style to another strand of his work... like I said, different aspects of the man come out as you read through the book... and there’s a lot of iconic imagery that he’s been responsible for, in terms of colonising the collective subconscious of various generations. Such as the classic painting of Audrey Hepburn with a cat sitting on her shoulder, synonymous with the Breakfast At Tiffany’s advertising. Or many of the classic James Bond posters such as Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die (among others). Or how about Barbarella?

There are a few sides of McGinnis on display in this book which readers might not be as familiar with, of course. The man is coming up for his 90th birthday at some point in the next few weeks and he’s still painting all the time. The way he explains it, it’s almost like an addiction and he does a lot of work now for himself... spanning gorgeous paintings which capture his love of the Old West, including the portrayal of it in his favourite movie ‘oaters’ over the years, and a series of studies of various ladies showing a lot more than he could get away with on most of his covers. He’s even still doing commissions, believe it or not, and I found it ironic that someone who was once the cover artist for Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne novels was asked to paint some fake pulp cover props for the Robert Downey Jr movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang... a film which was itself loosely based on one of Halliday’s old novels.

The writing accompanying the pictures in the various sections which make up this mini journey through the artist's vision is pretty straight forward and simple. Nothing complicated and it’s quite well written... giving you the straight facts and enough details to whet your appetite, as do the paintings of course, that there might hopefully be another Robert E. McGinnis book in the works sometime soon. One can only hope so because, frankly, this is a heck of a great looking book... well, how could it not be when it’s filled with McGinnis paintings, many of which eschew the typography of the original novels and show the paintings in their full glory. Some pages even show the original sketches and preliminary versions, including rejected versions of the artwork, and it’s quite fascinating to get a look at this stuff because it gives you an insight into just how much work, asides from the sheer hard slog and talent which always go into painting a picture (bad or good), the artist has to go through in terms of negotiation and compromise. Being a graphic designer myself, I know all about compromise... which is a polite word for it, when it comes to certain kinds of customers.

All in all, The Art Of Robert E. McGinnis is more than just a sound read... it’s a solid and inspirational look at one of the less sung heroes of 20th and early 21st Century commercial art and it really should be on anyone’s list of priority reads if they are into beautiful, visual work. Easily one of my new favourite art books and an absolute pleasure to sit back and breeze through the pages. A must own and I look forward, in my mind, to the possibility of another volume sometime in the, hopefully near, future.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Ten Best Scores Of 2015

Ten Best Scores Of 2015

Okay then. Back by ‘almost popular demand’, here’s my pick of this year’s best new release scores. This column always goes up a little late while I try to give every score due consideration (aka... when the last of the 'straggler release' shiny discs have all finally finished turning up in the mail).

Strangely enough, for the first time in a very long time, I actually own all five scores nominated for this year’s Oscars on CD. I hate what the modern Oscars (post 1920s) have become and frankly, disagree with the nominations somewhat... so only three of those scores make it into my top ten list this year. A couple of scores which might possibly have been included here, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, didn’t come out in the cinema in the UK until this year and so they are not up for consideration in my list, as far as I’m concerned. They might always make the 2016 list though.

Here we are then... my list in ascending order.

10. The Duke Of Burgundy by Cat’s Eyes
This score as released on CD is short and sweet. I didn’t care too much for the film in comparison to its cinematic legacy but the music by Cat’s Eyes is pretty good and invokes the feeling, perhaps too closely at some points, of Piero Piccioni’s score to Scacco Alla Regina (reviewed here). A nice, laid back listen which harkens back to a more evocative musical past than much music released today. My review of the movie is here.

9. Sicario by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score to this truly depressing yet beautiful movie is, perhaps, not quite as present as a stand alone listen as it is in the movie, due to the way the sound design gives it a certain weight at certain points in its motion picture context... but it’s still pretty amazing. Very much a scoring style which seems to be in fashion now, it reminds me a little of scores like Gravity and I think this is one of those classic scores we’ll be seeing in the racks of our local record shops for years to come... assuming they’ll be any actual physical music shops left standing. I reviewed this movie here.

8. Krampus by Douglas Pipes
Douglas Pipes’ score to Krampus is phenomenally good and not at all what I was expecting from something which is basically a pretty good Christmas horror/exploitation flick. It’s fairly Elfmanesque, actually, and it sounds incredibly large scale for the film it’s supporting. This one should get a lot of spins from me again in December, to set myself up with another dose of the Christmas spirit. My review is here.

7. Mortdecai by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli
Wow. What an unbelievably terrible excuse of a movie. The film itself is just awful and surpasses any expectations of anything well below the realms of past Turkeys like Harlem Nights. My new comparison model for going to see a questionable movie is... “at least it can’t be worse than Mortdecai.” Which is a shame because this dreadful experiment in comedy has a truly amazing, 1960s style spy score by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli that surpasses a lot of what’s been written for the genre in years. This seriously got played and played by me and is a prime example of a truth which Jerry Goldsmith demonstrated to his audience of listeners over many decades... just because it’s a bad movie, it doesn’t have to have a bad score. Even the songs on this one are good and if you are a fan of those 1960s spy caper sounds, this is definitely one to pick up. Your ears will thank you for it. My review of the dire movie is here.

6. Tomorrowland by Michael Giacchino
Well this was a bit of a surprise of a score and movie for me, delivering absolutely nothing like what you could expect from it if you’d seen the somewhat misleading trailers. This film is a romp which, while preachy in places, has a lot of heart in its central message of hope and optimism. Composer Michael Giacchino scored a few movies this year... including the not too shabby music for Jupiter Ascending and the less than cool but somewhat appropriate score for the ‘not too hot’ Jurassic World. However, as far as I’m concerned, this melodic and bouyant score is Giacchino’s masterpiece of 2015 and it got multiple listens from me. I reviewed the movie here.

5. Avengers - Age Of Ultron by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman
It’s strange that this score is even in here because I still, to this day, can’t get the hang of Alan Silvestri’s score to Avengers Assemble (aka The Avengers). This score takes Silvestri’s Avengers theme and runs with it, making reference to other themes in the Marvel franchise along the way but this one, for me, is a much more coherent and listenable album than the score to the first film. The score has a very strange credit on the film... Music by Brian Tyler and then another one which says Music by Danny Elfman. I don’t know where the collaboration between these two composing goliaths starts and ends on this one or, indeed, if there was any real collaboration at all but, however it was created, it’s a hell of a listen. My one grievance about this score is that the one track I wanted... the four or five seconds of music that ensured I sat up in the cinema and took note of it so I could rush out and buy the album later, isn’t actually included on this CD. Hell’s teeth. I thought the soundtrack community was trying to make incomplete releases a thing of the past. Even though it doesn’t have my favourite cue of the movie (perhaps my favourite cue of the year?) on it... I still played the hell out of this one. My review of the film is here.

4. The Man From UNCLE by Daniel Pemberton
If 2015 was anything it was definitely the year of the resurgence of the spy movie in popular cinema. There were so many of them... Mortedai, Kingsman - The Secret Service, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, SPECTRE... and this. This contains no themes from any of the original UNCLE films or TV shows and the movie itself treats the originals with a similar lack of respect. That being said, Daniel Pemberton, who is not a name I would have thought I would have been using in regards to big budget Hollywood scoring, absolutely knocks it out of the park with what is the best spy score and best series of action cues in years. I thought Mortdecai would retain that crown this year... until this one came out. Another of the year’s overplayed albums, my review of the movie itself is here.

3. Carol by Carter Burwell
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again... Carter Burwell’s score for Carol is pretty much the dead spit... in tone, melody, structure and orchestration... of something Philip Glass would have written for it. I don’t understand why this soundtrack isn’t being challenged at some level artistically but, regardless, I love the music of Philip Glass and, consequently, I love this score. A truly infectious and somewhat mono-thematic but wonderous musical experience. Definitely getting a lot of plays out of this one. My film review is here.

2. It Follows by Disasterpeace
This film, and the score by someone who calls himself Disasterpeace, came out early in the year and, until I heard the following entry for this year’s scores, I was convinced this was going to stay at the number one spot as my score of the year. The music has a sound just like the kind of film it supports and highlights... something reminiscent of an early 1980s American horror film. You can almost hear John Carpenter noodling around in the background on keyboards... except it’s not Carpenter, it just sounds like something he might have wrote for one of his own movies. A seriously cool listening experience to support a seriously cool horror film. My review of said movie is right here.

1. Star Wars - The Force Awakens by John Williams
Blimey. This takes me back. After hearing the scores for the Star Wars movies Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith, I was really not expecting too much from Johnny William’s return to the Star Wars saga. However, what we have here is not just a good Star Wars score... it’s a truly great Star Wars score, worthy of being mentioned alongside A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back in terms of its greatness. I don’t know how the director managed to get modern John Williams to be able to sound just like he did in the late 1970s and early 1980s for this one but it’s a truly striking anachronism of a score which achieves instant greatness. Not all of my favourite cues turned up for the album release and I didn’t understand how some of the things Williams has done here fit thematically with things going on in the picture but... it’s just an unbelievable masterpiece of a score and its a real reminder as to why John Williams is probably the most popular film composer of the late 20th Century. I hope the powers that be can get an expanded release of this score out sometime before I die. Truly gorgeous. My review of the movie is here.

And that’s about it for this year. Honourable, almost made it, mentions to this list would be Ex Machina, Kingsman - The Secret Service, Ant-Man, Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation and Fantastic Four. Reviews of all these movie can be found by clicking on the site index at the top right and then scrolling down past the books to the film section. I hope you like some of the scores I’ve listed here... I think they’re all worth having a good listen to.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


Jord Of The Rings

2015 USA
Directed by Ryan Coogler
UK cinema release print.

So here we go again with a film that is very much the seventh entry in the Rocky series and, though fans of the original movies know who the character Apollo Creed was, I think the title here is maybe not quite grabbing the less built-in audience for this film in the most opportune manner. I’ve also seen this film listed on some UK posters as Creed: The Rocky Legacy but... yeah, I think the marketeers behind this one could maybe have gone for another title. Not that I don’t like this one, actually... I just don’t think it markets the film to its best advantage, is all.

I’ve always kind of had a soft spot for Sylvester Stallone and for the Rocky movies too. I’ve only ever seen them all once (something I plan to rectify with rewatches sometime over the next few years) but I remember them being big dramatic pieces which were, contrary to some accounts I’ve heard, not really about boxing. Yeah, that’s right. For the most part, the movies are about the personal journey of the Rocky character with the boxing scenario used to explore his personality, relationships with other people and growth as a person... and the majority of them are not bad movies.

After the exception, the atrocious fifth movie in the series, I was kinda happy with where they took the character in the sixth one, Rocky Balboa. Here was a man nearing the end of his life and certainly the end of his boxing career and... it was a lovely finish to the sequence. I couldn’t see Stallone writing anything more eloquent as a send off for the character and, as it happens, he hasn’t. This movie is actually, for the first time in the series as far as I can recall, not actually written by Stallone himself (his screenplay for the first movie was even nominated for an Oscar).

All that being said... this new movie, which follows the fortunes of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, is actually a pretty good add on. It strays from the series quite a lot... not just because it focuses primarily on the story of the title character rather than Rocky himself... but because it’s not so much about personal growth this time as it is about boxing. Although, that being said, there are really only three official boxing matches in the whole movie. However, the story does also give Stallone a fair amount of time recreating the role which shot him to fame back in the 1970s and this time around he is coaxed into training Creed, taking on the same kind of character mantle that the late, great Burgess Meredith took on as Rocky’s trainer in the original movies. It’s nice to see this happen with Rocky becoming this person for someone else and, although in terms of Stallone it’s probably not a necessary film to make for the character, it certainly doesn’t disrespect the material in any way. It doesn’t add anything to the Rocky series but it certainly doesn’t take anything away from it either.

Michael B. Jordan, an actor who I really liked for his portrayal of a teenage superhero in Chronicle (reviewed here) is absolutely great as young Adonis Creed and he easily keeps up with Stallone in the acting stakes. They’re both pretty cool in this... as is Creed’s love interest Bianca. Played by Tessa Thompson, she’s something a little more three dimensional, and therefore better, than you would expect for this kind of role. That being said, because the character is kinda interesting and Thompson is so good in it, I felt that she could have done with a few more scenes in this movie, to be honest.

The film does a lot of the stuff you’d expect a boxing movie to do and we have lots of little training montages and a few good boxing matches. The second of the three main non-training bouts in the film is absolutely terrific, it has to be said, and you almost feel you are right in the ring trading blows with the two opponents yourself. The fluid camerawork is very slick and, though not a million miles away from the stuff in the early films, gives this new movie a little bit of an edge in the fight choreography department, I think. That being said, the movie is a 12A and it seems to be getting away with a lot less in terms of injury to the main protagonists and antagonists as the movie plays out. Either way though, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to the surrounding story and it works well in the context of the shooting styles used around it.

The music is pretty good too but, since there are so many little references to the previous Rocky movies in the film in general (even I was picking up on a lot of them and I’m not all that familiar with the series), I was surprised that the composer,  Ludwig Göransson, held back on using Bill Conti’s famous Rocky signature theme so often. I only detected different parts of it twice in the whole movie (I’m sure it’s possibly used just a little more) and while I understand the way of thinking that Creed has his own themes and songs as it’s essentially his journey, I felt there was some contradiction towards the end when the Rocky intro leitmotif comes in full blast at the start of the last bout. If you’re going to take the stance that Rocky is standing in the corner and the music takes on some of his heroic theme... then I think that maybe could have been a stronger element throughout the whole movie. Regardless, the score certainly holds its own and elevates the movie the way a good score is supposed to so... no real complaints about it here.

You know, back in the day, those early Rocky movies were never a foregone conclusion as to where they were going to end up. Would Rocky end up victorious in the ring or would he take a fall? Would his winning or losing the final fight mean he achieved personal growth or was something else going on? There was always the possibility of some ambiguity there and the end result of the boxing match was never a foregone conclusion. You would have to wait until maybe even after the last punch was thrown to find out if the hero would win or lose. I don’t want to spoil anything in this review, of course, by telling you what happens in this one but I will say that, in terms of tone, pacing and predictability... this one really doesn’t let the series down. You won’t know what’s going to happen until it’s over.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie kickstarts another entry or two in this series and, if it does, I sincerely hope that the writers and producers bring Sylvester Stallone along for the ride. After all, if there were no Rocky movies, there would be no Creed.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Revenant

May The Horse Be With you

The Revenant
2015 USA
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
UK cinema release print.

I really wasn’t that up for going to see The Revenant, if truth be told. I’ve not been the biggest fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and, even though I recognise him as being a pretty great actor, he tends to pick on playing the kind of personalities who I am less than interested in. For example, I’m sure he does a marvellous job in Tarantino’s Django Unchained but, for me, the second half of that movie is almost unwatchable and DiCaprio’s villain is someone who I just don’t enjoy looking at in that. Yes, I realise it’s the brilliance of his performance that allows me to hate him so much in that movie but... he’s just not an actor I tend to get on with.

Secondly, I saw the advance trailers for The Revenant a number of times with various movies over the last couple of months and, if I wasn’t already put off by DiCaprio’s involvement then I was certainly put off by the trailer.

All that being said, however, I then stumbled upon a review of the film’s score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai (for some reason credited as Alva Noto here) that stated that the score was quite avant garde and unusual in it’s musical make-up. Well, maybe it’s not actually that unusual or different, to be honest, but it did get me into the cinema to have a listen to it and so I’m grateful for that review for kicking me in that direction because, as it happens, The Revenant really is quite a good little movie.

After a brief sequence right at the start of the picture, which uses a compilation of what appears to be both dream and flashback/forward imagery (a recurring motif which slowly, in its use throughout the running time of the story, starts to inform or support the narrative a little more), we are thrust into a slow moving shot of water running through a stream or river in a forest. This won me over straight away because the picking out of a textural detail such as this immediately reminded me of the cinema of one of my favourite directors, Andrei Tarkovsky. More specifically it reminded me of the opening shot of that director’s Solaris to some extent, in terms of its intent, although it has to be said that director Iñárritu is a lot more dynamic than Tarkovsky’s more simplistic, static shooting style on these kinds of things. This certainly doesn’t make Iñárritu’s style any better for sure, and he’s still a million miles away from Tarkovsky, but it is certainly reminiscent of the former director’s spiritual concerns, it seems to me, and so Iñárritu goes up a notch or two already, in my esteem.

It’s interesting, actually, because all through The Revenant, the camera keeps picking up these wonderful textural details of the desolate but beautiful, snowbound landscape that is the film’s natural environment. It’s a free for all in terms of long static shots, long slow sweeping, moving shots and short static shots edited together but... it seems to have a definite pattern to the way the main action of a scene is reached throughout the picture. What the director and cinematographer seem to be doing, I believe, is to move the camera to concentrate on beautiful, rich shots, holding it for a while, before moving the camera up, down, or to the side and into the main action or narrative of a scene. Like a slow sweep from detail into an establishing shot and then cutting to closer moments in the progression of the narrative.

Similarly, the director will also often leave a sequence by moving the camera off and away from the action to come to rest on a similarly breathtaking composition for a while. And it’s often a shot of either water or sometimes looking up into trees, for some reason. I guess we can all thank my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa, for beginning to look up into the sky with his camera in his masterpiece Rashomon for the legacy of that kind of detail... whether people consciously remember that he popularised the freeing of the camera in this way or not. However, I sense a certain practical motive in the way Iñárritu uses this technique too... possibly to cover up some behind-the-scenes elements which need to remain hidden to maintain the illusion.

Interestingly, mixed in with this leading in and out style of detail is another tactic the editor sometimes uses... that of breaking down action into short shots and then editing into tighter shots or further away as an alternate means of leading the audience in or out of a sequence. I don’t recall the film doing this quite as much as the other modus operandi going on but, it certainly happens a number of times and maybe the director does this on occasion to produce a kind of ‘relief’ on the visual cortex when there’s an overabundance on the other kind of entrance/exit to the scenes. Either way, whichever methods the director employs in any given scene, it's all done quite masterfully and it makes for an astonishing piece of cinema.

Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty amazing as the man who, after being attacked by a slighty dodgy looking CGI bear, sees his son killed and is then, himself, left for dead by the villain of the piece... equally excellently played by Tom Hardy. As the trailer perhaps demonstrates... but without showing the real beauty of the film, the story or DiCaprio’s rebirth as the metaphorical revenant (including a perhaps too heavy handed but visually stunning sequence where a Christ metaphor is kinda hammered home to the viewer) and his survival and pursuit of Tom Hardy through a harrowing landscape of hostile indians and heavy snow plays a little like an early Werner Herzog epic on acid... although I have to say that in comparison to Herzog, I actually find this director a lot more interesting to watch. The tale is very simple and is pretty much a small scale, exploitation style revenge movie in its simplicity but, even though it’s very small in content, the director still manages to shoot this in a way that makes it feel extremely epic and gives it a sense of being, somehow, something much more than the sum of its parts. Kinda like the movie is a wet rag and he’s wringing out all the detail out into the frame.

I was also reminded of Tarkovsky again in one of the dream sequences which litter the film. Tarkovsky would make long, slow movies where not much would happen but, every now and then, he’d have a moment where something ‘blink and you miss it’ startling would happen and there’s a beautiful shot of DiCaprio’s character’s former wife levitating above him which is just such a special moment... although that too is frustratingly brief in the edit. Maybe running as little as two seconds and therefore further enhancing the haunting quality of the image on the brain, perhaps.

It’s a truly mesmerising film and the performances, even by Domhnall Gleeson (another actor I’m kinda on the fence about at the moment) are way beyond the realms of competent. If I did have one criticism of the movie, though, it’s the sense of unevenness between the set up and the pay off at the end. DiCaprio survives certain death time after time, even going so far as to do something with a horse that fans of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here) will be more than familiar with when it comes to surviving in an icy wilderness... and it feels very gruelling. By comparison, when DiCaprio rejoins the land of the living, the post survival pursuit and denouement of the movie runs to maybe less than a third of the running time. It’s quite obvious in places, with what looks like a ‘surprise reveal’ at some point being scuppered by the director telegraphing that moment in a scene with DiCaprio’s character cutting down tree branches minutes before it happens, and it’s all over just way to quick. There is a certain poetic sense of ironic justice at the end of the picture, which joins the main narrative to a sub plot involving an Indian warrior’s quest for his missing daughter... in the way in which DiCaprio has a hand in inadvertently helping him on that quest... but ultimately, considering the long haul of the character’s survival as he stumbles and fights his way across the wilderness, it’s just all seems tied together way too hastily for my liking.

That being said though, it’s not an uncommon occurrence in modern cinema and it would be a shame to let that put you off going to see and appreciate what is, frankly, a really great example of modern motion picture art, by anybody’s standards. If you call yourself a fan of cinema then, although you might find certain things in this a little clumsy in places, you should definitely still take a look... and try to see it in a cinema with a big screen if possible, because it looks quite spectacular. Probably not the best film I’ll see this year but it certainly helps get 2016 off to a good start and definitely one which I might even revisit on Blu Ray in years to come. The Revenant is a stunningly good piece of cinema and, if you want to see some good art, then it’s definitely worth some of your time.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Star Trek - The Motion Picture

Slow Motion

Star Trek - The Motion Picture
USA 1979
Directed by Robert wise
Paramount Pictures Region B Blu Ray

So... I got a boxed set of Blu Rays of the first ten Star Trek movies for Christmas 2015 so you can bet I’ll be slowly posting reviews as I watch through them for the next couple of months. I saw all of these movies at the cinema on their initial releases and again on VHS tapes over the years but never got around to getting them again in the DVD age... so it’s been almost two decades since I last watched this one. I remember it being a big deal at the time though.

The original Star Trek TV show was one of the few of its kind where at least some small amount of fan merchandise was available for people to buy in the years before the first Star Wars movie made the secondary spin offs as important as the actual movies. I remember owning the original TV show blue prints pack and the original photonovels... not to mention the old Mego action figures... before then picking up stuff based on this movie such as another photonovel, Weetabix cards, Topps Bubble Gum cards, the Star Trek The Motion Picture blueprint pack and so on. I still have most of this stuff, by the way, although the Mego action figures were a casualty of my past and my Dinky Starship Enterprise exploded when it was thrown at a family member in a fit of rage when I was a young ‘un (not by me, I might add).

Born from the ashes of the original TV show and the aborted Star Trek Phase 2 TV show (reviewed by Tim Pelan at Cinetropolis here), the movie was really only made possible when it was seen as something that could bandwagon off of the popularity of the space opera genre that Star Wars had created two years earlier... although it absolutely wasn't trying to be a close copy of that movie like so many were. I remember first seeing it advertised on an episode of either Tizwas or Multicoloured Swap Shop and I was so struck by the snippets of Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the clips they showed that I even entered a competition for the soundtrack recording on vinyl for one of those shows (I didn’t win so I eventually had to track down a copy for myself a few years later from soundtrack specialist shop, Dean Street Records... but it’s an amazing score and it was well worth it).

The film itself is... well it’s kinda slow. I remember it being a criticism at the time that the long special effects sequences which are dotted throughout the movie drag on interminably and, even then, I guess I kinda agreed with that diagnosis... although to be honest, the scoring in those sequences is so sublime, it really didn’t bother me the way it obviously did some people. Looking back on it now... yeah, it really drags with these long sequences of 5 or 6 minutes of, basically, looking at how good the effects photography is. It’s a bit like the director thought he was making 2001: A Space Odyssey but the gravitas that made viewing the effects work compelling in that one is not present in Star Trek The Motion Picture. Still, it really doesn’t bother me to this day because... well, like I said, the music is so good in this one and I’d be foolish to deny that I’m watching it now with a certain sense of nostalgia. It probably really doesn’t hold up these days for a lot of people but I’m still good with it. I can only imagine what younger generations who are used to seeing special effects handled less reverently than they are here must think of this movie. It probably bores a lot of people silly these days, I suspect.

The story was, and still is, the key to this one, though. Partially based on/inspired by the 1967 Star Trek episode The Changeling... well, I wont spoil the final revelations of the movie here for you but I will say that the threat to mankind in this one is partially of it’s own making, to an extent... although plain random luck completes the rest of that equation. It’s really not an action movie either and I suspect this disappointed a lot of people who went to see it when it came out... although some of the sequels certainly took care of that element, for sure.

The other main strengths of this movie, asides from the story and music, comes from the cast. All of the original regulars from TV were back including William Shatner (in a highly improbable wig), Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Grace Lee Whitney, Majel Barret and even Mark Lenard in a sort of cameo as a Klingon Commander (as opposed to his more familiar Star Trek role as Spock’s father Sarek). The film also stars Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta in new roles and, luckily, their chemistry and the well written dialogue for all the old crew members certainly does a lot to make up for the movie’s rather obvious shortcomings in the pacing department. Something which Goldsmith’s monumental score also does a lot to hide.

Director Robert Wise uses a lot of classic triangular/pyramid style set ups in terms of the height of the actors and their placement in the foreground and background... everything seems to tend to gravitate to the middle of the shot and it pulls your eyes right to the centre of the widescreen frame a lot of the time... but the way the camera moves through these compositions is not very dynamic, it has to be said. There seems... at least this is the way I generally perceived it... to be a lot of static set ups which the camera moves into or out of, rather than centering around moving content and following that for a lot of the time. Not true for all the film, to be sure, but it certainly seems to be the way a lot of it is put together. It certainly is a slow one and I’d have to say that, although I’m personally fine with the movie and will always have some time for it, I have to agree with the detractors on the general sluggishness of the finished result. I find it fascinating that the director of what I consider to be the scariest horror movie ever made, the original 1963 version of The Haunting, not to mention well loved classics such as West Side Story, The Sound Of Music and the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, did a fairly bland job, in some ways, with this assignment. After all, this was the guy who edited Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

What people these days fail to take into account, though, is the general zeitgeist of the era when the very first Star Wars film had just came out. This was one of the better “riding on George Lucas’ coat-tails” movies out there at the time and the financial rewards bore this out. It was successful enough to make a big amount of money and, as a result, they still haven’t stopped making sequel movies and TV shows to this one, still, to this day. So dull or not, in places, it did the numbers and ensured a future for the franchise, forging a steady income stream for the regular actors (who I guess got along just fine with money from various convention appearances over the years).

This is not the greatest Star Trek movie by a long chalk but... it did revive the franchise from the cancelled original TV show over a decade after it had been killed off. It could have remained a much loved but ultimately forgotten footnote if it hadn’t been for this movie rescuing it from TV Hell... so, you know, it deserves some of your time and respect, I think, if you are a fan of Star Trek. It lives long and prospers in the hearts of many, still, I suspect.

Star Trek @ NUTS4R2
Star Trek Series 1
Star Trek - The Motion Picture 
Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home 
Star Trek V - The Final Frontier 
Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek - Generations (aka Star Trek VII) 
Star Trek - First Contact 
Star Trek - Insurrection 
Star Trek Nemesis 
Star Trek Beyond

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Depraved Heart

‘til Death Do Us Heart

Depraved Heart
by Patricia Cornwell
Harper Collins 2015
ISBN: 978-0-00-755246-7

Okay then... another Christmas day, another of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta thrillers, Depraved Heart. Except... not quite. Long term readers will be familiar with my annual tradition of starting the new Cornwell book on Christmas day but this year, due to unforseen circumstances, I actually had to start reading this four days later than usual... so this is actually the second book that I read after Christmas day.

It’s been a while since I was actually critical of Cornwell. I’ve always loved her work but remember a few years, just before I started up this blog, in fact, where I had trouble with her writing on a few of her books. I don’t know what or why the problem occurred, and it’s possibly just my perception of them at the time, maybe. However, for a while now, Cornwell and her central protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, have been back in top, crisp form and this new novel is no exception. It’s a real humdinger of a page turner for sure and I was completely captured right from the get go. That being said... I have one general criticism of this particular tome but... I think I’ll address that at the end of this review.

Depraved Heart is exceptional storytelling. Following on from the previous novel, Flesh And Blood, Cornwell takes the unusual tactic of setting the next book fairly close in terms of time to the events of that last novel. Quite often the characters will have moved on for a year or more but it does kind of make a certain sense, if you remember the events of the last one, that we should be plunged back into the circumstances of that story and, although this is set only two months since the last chapter of Flesh And Blood, I was personally hoping that it would be set within five minutes of that last chapter.

Instead, we are plunged immediately into what seems to be a new investigation, with Kay Scarpetta once more telling the story in first person present tense as the events of the day in which all but the last chapter takes place, once again unfold. As things happen, so we are filled in about events that occurred after the end of the previous story but, straight away, Cornwell begins to keep us on the edge of our seats as, right from the outset, a new element is introduced which immediately rings alarm bells and which also takes the action back to the 1990s, returning to the events surrounding things which were happening in the Scarpetta stories written at that time. Once again, the book involves one of Scarpetta’s old enemies, still presumed dead by the FBI due to some stuff I’m not going to spoil for you here and, right away, you will be feeling the danger lurking in the pages. Of course, now Cornwell is back to writing the books in the present tense, the suspense is palpable because anything, literally anything, could happen and with Cornwell’s early track record for killing off characters... it basically means you will be fearing for all your favourite supporting cast right from the first chapter.

Cornwell also does a thing which she’s been doing for a while now and that is to compress short bursts of time into very long sequences and expanding them out... almost like she’s viewing the events in slow motion. For example, a very disturbing cell phone video which Scarpetta watches while also trying to do her job, goes on for several chapters and almost 50 pages... even though the running time of the video is only about 20 mins. Not that it’s in any way dull because, as little bits of alarming information are spoon fed to the reader about the contents of the video, we are also worried about Scarpetta as she simultaneously tries to work a crime scene without putting herself in any legally questionable situations and, obviously, in any situation which means that death may be visited on her or any of her friends and colleagues at any point in the narrative. And Cornwell, being probably the worlds number one living writer of crime fiction, in my humble opinion, milks the content for all it’s worth and ratchets up the suspense paragraph by paragraph, word by word.

Fans of Benton, Marino, Lucy Farinelli (always my favourite), Lucy’s girlfriend Janet and various other periphery characters will be constantly fearful for both the lives and possible incarceration of some of them by a compromised and possibly criminal investigation undertaken by the FBI. And, of course, the anxiety surrounding the main manipulator of the piece, arch enemy Carrie Grethen, and the fall out from not just the last book but, possibly, a great many years of the various characters’ fictional careers. Which means fans of Cornwell's work will be lapping it up, just like me, and whizzing through the words to the end of the book as fast as possible. It’s hugely entertaining and, as the twists and turns get morbidly darker, you wonder just how the ending could possibly bring any shades of light with it...

Well, it’s an ending I’m certainly not going to spoil for anyone here but I will reveal my one criticism of the book and it’s this. In the last one, Cornwell did a very unusual thing for her. She ended the novel on a one word cliff hanger, a four letter case of onomatopoeia which immediately raises a big question of what lethal thing has just happened. Did somebody close to Scarpetta, even Scarpetta herself, just die? Well, she neatly sidesteps and distracts the reader all the way through this one by using the flashback structure in a way that you get so involved in the current story that, pretty soon, you forget the cliffhanger ending of the last one. However, unless I completely misinterpreted the ending of Flesh And Blood or missed something obvious in Depraved Heart, she never once addresses just what the heck happened at the end of that last book. So I’m kind of at a loss to try and figure out what occurred at that point in the narrative, to be honest. And it seems I'm not the only reader who has had this problem with this novel.

That aside, though, Depraved Heart is an absolutely fantastic thriller in the writer’s inimitable style and, you never know, we might well get the answer to that last cliff hanger coming to light in a future novel in the series. If that happens, I’m personally hoping it will be the next one but, who knows.... we shall have to wait and see. All I know is that I can’t wait for next Christmas to see what Scarpetta and the gang are up to next. Definitely a must read for fans of the character but, be warned, don’t read this one out of sequence before any of the previous novels.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (aka The H8ful Eight)

This Film Has Not
Yet Been Hated

The Hateful Eight (aka The H8ful Eight)
2015 USA
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
70mm Ultra Panavision Roadshow Version.

This was my birthday trip this year.

On the occasion of my 48th Birthday I, and a merry band of six of my friends, met at a pub and then went to see the only 70mm Ultra Panavision Roadshow print in the UK of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, playing at the ODEON in Leicester Square. Apparently, apart from the obvious difference that this version is actually proper film stock rolling through projectors, this Roadshow version has some differences in some sequences which were extended to show off the print in 70mm (I’m guessing this stuff all takes place within the first 30 minutes of the movie), an eight minute intermission and a beautiful overture by Ennio Morricone, part of his original score for the film.

That last being something I thought I’d never hear of when it comes to the scoring of a Tarantino movie, who regularly uses a lot of Morricone’s (and others) old scores to needle drop his films with. Although, having said that, the director does also insert assorted cues from other Morricone scored films here too, such as Reagan’s Theme from Exorcist II - The Heretic and various pieces from his mostly unused but commercially released score to John Carpenter’s The Thing... the former also being a movie which stars Kurt Russel holed up with some people in the middle of a snowy wasteland. I can’t quite place where the Exorcist II track was used in the movie but there is a set of sequences in the second half of the film where Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character looks the dead spit of Linda Blair in certain horrific scenes in the original movie, The Exorcist, which I thought were very blatantly referenced, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was dropped in there at some point. Will have to go back and dig the soundtrack out and re-listen to it... there’s not much good to be said about Exorcist II - The Heretic other than Morricone’s score, though, I reckon.

So anyway, okay, we have a partially new Morricone score which certainly harkens back to his early successes in the Spaghetti Western genre and which sounds incredible but... it doesn’t make this movie a Spaghetti Western and, although the spectacle of the “blood and snow” element of the film combined with Morricone’s score certainly recalls to mind the look and ambience of Sergio Corbucci’s classic movie The Great Silence, I think The Hateful Eight owes a little more to the feel of Altman’s McCabe And Mrs. Miller and perhaps more of a tonal similarity to the Revisionist Western cinema of Sam Pekinpah than anything else. Tarantino himself cites Carpenter’s science fiction/horror remake of The Thing as being why he wanted to write this one and there are certainly big elements of that movie in this in terms of the “locked in to keep the elements out while the paranoia inside runs rife” aspect... indeed, I felt sure towards the end of the movie that he was going to go the whole hog with one of the Jennifer Jason Leigh character’s possible premises of what will happen next and use pretty much the same ending as Carpenter’s ‘let’s wait and see’ style ‘down note’ on this one. He doesn’t but, by that point in the movie, he might as well have done, to be honest.

That being said, the postmodern eclecticism that almost defines the cinema of Tarantino isn’t so overbearing in this one that it becomes anything to detract from the director’s visual and written verbal style and, although in some ways the film almost seems like a remake of his first movie Reservoir Dogs for a lot of the running time, it’s an extremely entertaining run through and his casting is dead on, as usual. Samuel Jackson is perfect channeling, I can only assume quite deliberately, the look and visual mannerisms of Lee Van Cleef’s character Colonel Mortimer from the 1965 western For A Few Dollars More and Tarantino completes the reference by also giving Jackson’s character a military rank. Kurt Russel, in contrast, in terms of his voice and delivery of his lines, seems almost intent on revisiting the vocal talents of John Wayne but it seems to work pretty well and is a standout contrast from some of the other actor’s choices in the movie... as is Tim Roth in an almost dual voice role which, frankly, I’m not going to go into too much for fear of spoilers. But I will say that The Hateful Eight is one of the few films where I’ve really started to appreciate the acting talent of Tim Roth, for sure. I would like to have seen a lot more screen time given over to Bruce Dern in this movie but you can’t have everything, I guess, and he’s always a great actor to have around, anyway.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is absolutely amazing, as I’ve always said about her, but one of the main criticisms levelled at this film, it seems to me, is the amount of brutal, probably misogynistic violence levelled at her character. Well this is true and the film does get quite mean spirited and extremely grisly in the second half. It’s pretty violent and, misogynistic or not, I think it’s mostly justified in that this is the right kind of tone that you would get from the characters as they are portrayed here. I was more concerned with the use of the ‘N’ word during the film, which is excessive to the point when it seems to me that people just wouldn’t use it as much as they do here if any of the characters have a grain of common sense between them, which they mostly do... although, at the end of the day, none of these characters are really, in any way, likeable. This use of the racial term, which is highly sensitive these days, bothered me a little more than the anachronism of the term ‘pen pals’ which the script flaunts at one or two points.

My other main problem with the film stems from the opening of the second half, directly after the interval on this Roadshow version. The film is split into chapters like Kill Bill and Tarantino does use his common modus operandi of releasing one of those chapters in a different order to the way it actually occurs in the chronology of the piece... and that’s fine. It serves a purpose in the order it’s in to build up suspense and allow a surprise moment in the chapter leading up to it. He also does a little time-slip to put in some extra details by way of a semi repeat of the ending of the previous chapter before the interval... which is again fine and although it reminded me of the ‘cheating’ openings of various cliff hanger serials of the 1930s through to the 1950s, again I think it was the right thing to do because it fulfils something cinematically by showing the audience the credibility of not noticing something through distraction (especially when you load the dice and keep the camera completely away from it Quentin). However, Tarantino puts himself in the picture as a voice over narrative giving a recap of sorts at this point and, frankly, it’s totally unnecessary and smacks of spoonfeeding the audience perhaps because he wanted to get himself in there somehow. I really think it would have been better to just replay it without comment and let the visuals do the work on the mind of the spectator at this point but... hey ho... different artist, different ideas. It’s a minor quibble and doesn’t really intrude too much on the action.

Another big niggle with this movie is that it claims to be in Cinerama, running the old Cinerama logo at the start of the picture but it really isn’t... it’s that fake, cheapened down format rebranded as Cinerama a couple of years later in that it isn’t three cameras shooting simultaneously and then giving vertical line joins as the projectors sew them up together again on the presentation. It’s the very nice but ultimately single lens 70mm Ultra Panavision version of the brand. Even the Roadshow programme for The Hateful Eight, which is similarly designed to mimic the style, somewhat, of an old Cinerama programme... doesn’t get as blatant as the movie does in proclaiming it to be Cinerama. It’s as much of a Cinerama movie as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey was... which as far as I’m concerned is not true Cinerama, no matter how much the Marketing people try to label it as such.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about The Hateful Eight. Long but spectacular looking, perfectly performed, outstandingly scored and mostly entertaining. Certainly a lot better than the director’s previous film, Django Unchained (reviewed here), in my opinion. Definitely a must-see if you’re a fan of this guy's work, although anyone who thinks The Hateful Eight is really “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino” as it says on the credits is possibly high on crack or just too lazy to count. If you’re going to see this one, though, I would especially try and seek out this 70mm Ultra Panavision print of the movie if possible. It’s quite spectacular looking and worth paying out for in terms of both fiscal resources and time allocation.

And thanks to Kerry, Teresa, Dave, Chris, Ross and Peter for coming to see this one with me on my birthday. Much appreciated.

Adios amigos.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Bridge Of Spies

Spy Society

Bridge Of Spies
2015 USA
Directed by Steven Spielberg
UK cinema release print.

So once again we have a Steven Spielberg movie which stars someone who I believe is fast becoming a frequent collaborator of his, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare cases, for me, when I actually spotted him as a talent to be watched way before he ever got famous. Back in 1982, which is the last time I saw it (and I wish it wasn’t), I watched a TV movie called Mazes And Monsters which starred young Tom as a man whose Dungeons And Dragons gaming had caused a malfunction in his brain. He started confusing the game for real life... or something like that. Forgive me, it’s been a long time. I remember liking it so much that I read the source novel it was based on and also told my friends to look out for this guy called Tom Hanks because he could really act. Two years later he made Splash and it didn’t take long before his name was synonymous with quality acting and, due to some sound career decisions, quality movies.

I’m not the best lover of some of the material he’s been in but I still, to this day, think Hanks is an incredible performer and, whether I like his films or not, I always find that his presence lifts whatever he’s in. A truly great actor and, to boot, with a public persona that makes him someone you really wouldn’t mind hanging out with at a pub on a Saturday night, perhaps.

Bridge Of Spies is no exception but it also, of course, comes with the seal of competence that Spielberg, again... whether I agree with his choice of subject matter or not... brings to all of his work as a director and producer. He makes films which are so well put together that you know that, whether you are going to have a really great time with his movie or not, that the very least you will get is something compelling in the way it is shot. Something which isn’t dull.

Bridge Of Spies is certainly never dull and, since Spielberg knows how to use his toolbox of cinematic syntax so well, it turns out to be an extremely entertaining movie. It’s not exactly a dynamic movie, although it does start off with a very gripping sequence which is like a toned down version of something you might expect to see in The Quiller Memorandum (reviewed by me here). That is to say, it starts off with a classic set of sequences featuring a spy and the people trailing him before he makes his escape and is then raided at home, quietly destroying as much evidence as he can right under the noses of the people sent to arrest him.

So, yeah. Maybe not dynamic but certainly very interestingok and Spielberg’s use of some amazing compositions, many of which section various characters off into their own little compartments in the way the frames are split by scenery and objects, is brilliant throughout the running time of the movie. The shots are leisurely and slow for the most part but, because Spielberg is so gifted with making things look perfect visually, well... like I implied earlier... you’re certainly not going to get bored with this one. The film is almost two and a half hours long but you probably won’t feel that it is.

This ‘inspired by a true story’ tale is fantastically put together as we see Tom Hanks character defend a real life Russian spy with a Scottish accent (which is apparently as it was in the real circumstances) and also negotiate an exchange for the Russian for two US prisoners or varying interest to the US government. As you would expect, you get as fine a performance from Tom Hanks and his co-stars in this picture as you would expect and special mention must go to Mark Rylance playing the ‘unworried by possible death’, laid back spy whom Tom Hanks develops a friendship with. It’s good stuff and, though it’s not an action movie it's... well, like I said before in reference to Spielberg’s movies... it’s compelling. It also helps that, while it’s a dialogue heavy movie, Spielberg is one of those few directors who understands that silence is golden and will leave a character to contemplate things in a way which almost allows the audience to pick up on their thought processes without having to have it spoon fed in the narrative. It harkens back to the days of silent cinema to an extent and with someone like Hanks at the helm in terms of the acting stakes... you know you are going to get something very crystal clear coming through to your spectators. There’s a wonderful shot near the end of the movie where Hanks sees some kids climbing fences from the train he’s on and you realise just what he’s thinking about due to the visual metaphor of the shot echoing something far more dramatic you see earlier in the movie. No words are used to bolster or spell out this moment... most people will surely ‘get it’ though.

One slight criticism I have with the movie is Thomas Newman’s score. Now this is one of the very few times that Spielberg has not teamed up with John Williams to provide music for his art. My understanding is that Williams was fitted with a pacemaker this year and couldn’t keep up with scoring both this movie and the new Star Wars movie (reviewed by me here) and so was forced to drop this one. Newman’s score is certainly serviceable and kinda appropriate in the places it’s used but... I dunno, maybe I’m just being biased here but I didn’t feel it was anything more than appropriate. It didn’t feel out of place but it didn’t feel to me like it was adding any lift to the movie either. As a stand alone listen it’s probably pretty cool but it just felt a little ‘off’ to me, I would say. There’s actually very little music in the movie, it has to be said. The way the thing is spotted is such that there are lots of long passages, it seemed to me, with no score in it whatsoever... so I wonder if that would have been the case if Williams was involved or not. I guess well never know and Newman certainly doesn’t let the film down too much, I think... I just didn’t experience the emotional pull I was expecting in some scenes... at least not from the music.

All that being said though... Bridge Of Spies is a very fine film. It’s not something I could watch again anytime soon but it’s a quality product and I think it deserves to be seen as much as anything else out there at the moment. Spielberg and Hanks are both masters of their art and this film is absolutely no exception. If you’re a fan of cinema, you really should go and see this one if you get the opportunity. Not the best film from either Hanks or Spielberg but certainly something which will probably linger with you a while after you leave the cinema. Don’t let this one pass you by.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Peanuts Envy

Snoopy and Charlie Brown - The Peanuts Movie
2015 USA
Directed by Steve Martino
UK cinema release print.

Well this movie was an unexpected treat. I don’t know why this has been released over here as Snoopy And Charlie Brown - The Peanuts Movie instead of just The Peanuts Movie... the characters aren’t exactly unknown to us over here in the UK. However, it’s the title I’ve gone for here because I remembered that the original creator, Charles M. Schulz, never really liked the title Peanuts, which was thrust on him in the early days as a name change for the original strip.

I’ve been a fan of good ol’ Charlie Brown and the gang for pretty much my entire life. I used to love watching the TV specials on television, and grooving along to Vince Guaraldi’s amazing soundtracks for them. And for the first 20 or so years of my life, my parents used to get The Observer newspaper and magazine delivered to our door on a Sunday morning. One of the big plusses to that was that it used to run a full colour Peanuts featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown strip in full colour somewhere near the back of the mag. I would, of course, read it every Sunday and later, I started buying old second hand collections and read classic old tomes, some of them dating right back to the earliest strips in the 1950s.

I saw what I think must have been the first teaser trailer for this new movie at least a year ago on the internet. I kinda kept clear of all the later trailers because... well, that first trailer bothered me a lot. It looked like they’d got the tone wrong somehow. Now I can’t remember enough about it to work out if any of the footage from that trailer was dropped from the film but I can say that, having seen the film itself, it’s absolutely spot on in terms of being copacetic with the original strips and TV cartoons. I actually had nothing to worry about and there’s nothing out of character or too modern in this film which would detract from the spirit of the originals, I'd say.

One of the ways it tries to add dynamism to the talking head style of the humour of Schulz’ beloved characters is to have some action pieces thrown in every now and again but, honestly, they aren’t any more obtrusive than similar action pieces thrown into earlier films and these ones are mostly a completely logical extension, if logical is the right word for the inherent surrealism of the characters, of the usual Snoopy fantasy set pieces you used to get in the strip and sometimes thrown into the movies. These are a running series of pieces and concentrate on Snoopy in his familiar World War One Flying Ace guise as he tries to save the sexy Fifi from the clutches of his arch nemesis, The Red Baron.

The main story set all around this centres on Charlie Brown and it involves the long told saga of his crush on ‘the little red haired girl’ who arrives as a new character in this movie. As Charlie goes through the usual humiliating trials and tribulations in his quest to win the eye of the little red haired girl, we are treated to many touches and nods to the original strips and shows and I really can’t imagine fans of my age (and I’m probably not the intended target audience, for sure) not being happy with this. We have stuff like Lucy and her psychiatric booth, Lucy and the football (you need to wait and lurk amidst the end credits for this scene... among others), Snoopy trying to make off with Linus’ blanket, Charlie’s prowess (or lack of prowess thereof) flying a kite and all the things you could possibly want in a full length version. There are even a few scenes where the old style black and white ink drawings are used in loving homage, as Charlie thinks back to days gone by.

Christophe Beck provides a new score for a lot of the film which is often appropriate for the on screen action but, it has to be said, some of the sequences are greatly lifted when the decision is made in certain scenes to track in Vince Guaraldi’s amazing jazz compositions from the original shows... or they might be re-recorded for the movie, I’m not sure if it’s needle dropped in or not, to be honest. But the familiar music does well to set up the opening of the movie and it especially kicks in well when the famous Linus and Lucy theme is used a few times later in the film. It’s not that Beck has done a bad score... far from it... but how do you compete with the brilliance of Vince Guaraldi? The answer is, you don’t but Beck’s score comes off surprisingly well in comparison, too.

Another great thing about the movie is the voice casting. Lots of Peanuts shows and movies over the years have been spot on with their voice casting in such a way that, although it’s often a different set of actors voicing the characters in the many cartoons (kids grow up fast and their voices change accordingly), they almost always manage to get everyone sounding just like the characters did when they appeared in moving image form in that very first Christmas TV special from 1965. This new movie does exactly the same and there’s no jarring reactions to be had... everybody sounds just as they should... including Woodstock and Snoopy. In fact, in terms of these two, it’s still Bill Melendez who provided their voices in most (perhaps all?) of the cartoons. Although he died a while ago, the makers have gone to the trouble to use the old recordings and utilise them in this film... with absolutely no change of credibility in the sound quality either. The samples used match the shininess of all the rest of the sound in the movie, for sure.

My one disappointment in this one was that, although we do get to see Snoopy in his Joe Cool alter ego, we don’t get a rendition of Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying song... which is a shame but, I’m sure if there’s a sequel to this one (which there certainly deserves to be) then they’ll get around to it.

But that’s really my only complaint. If you’re a fan of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Sally, Linus, Lucy, , Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Franklin, Pig Pen and all the rest, then you’re bound to have a good time with this new version of their on screen adventures. And if this is your first time with the Peanuts crowd... well my friends who I went with took their two year old along with us to see it and all I can say is... he seemed to really like it. Pointing at the screen, keeping quiet through most of it and falling asleep at the end credits. Which is a good recommendation itself, I suspect, for all of you who want to keep your little ones entertained/quiet. This is a great little movie and if I’d had seen it at the tail end of last year when it came out, I suspect it would have made its way into my top twenty of 2015 easily enough. Good grief.