Thursday, 28 April 2016

Zombi Holocaust (aka Zombie Holocaust)

The Eat Is On

Zombi Holocaust (aka Zombie Holocaust)
Italy 1980 Directed by Marino Girolami  
88 Films Zone B Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilers in here.

So here we have the problematic “not quite made it onto the Video Nasty list back in the day but we’re going to seize your copy and take you to court for having it anyway” movie Zombi Holocaust... in a Blu Ray transfer from 88 Films. Now my first problem with this is that it’s Region locked... so big bad mark for 88 Films to giving in to the whims of the copyright holders (at a guess) and withholding the accessibility of art from various global markets... something that borders on the political definition of discrimination, as far as I can make out. Not a problem for me as I live in that zone anyway and I was just prompted to switch back to my own region on the player but.... big problem for 88 Films, I would say, due to their initial player rejection screen, which reads as follows...


Really? Are yor sure? Yor blu-ray player?* Really? This statement is quite wrong on a couple of levels but they really ought to at least proof read these for spelling before they just throw them onto the discs like that. Perhaps they think people in multiple zones wouldn’t be trying to play these discs and therefore wouldn’t see the warnings but... honestly? If you’re even remotely into movies and, especially with a title like this where you might have to shop around globally for an uncut version, then why wouldn’t you have a multizone/multiregion player? Movies are for everyone.

Okay, so one of the reasons I wanted to see this is because Ian McCulloch, the British male lead of Zombi (aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters - reviewed here) and Contamination is in this and it’s the only one of his “Italian horror trio” which I hadn’t previously seen. Since those films all date from 1979 and 1980, I’m pretty sure he must have shot these more or less back to back and, certainly, this film seems to share the same locations/sets as the 1979 Zombi. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the scenes shot for this, especially the locations in New York, were filmed on the same days too but... maybe not, since the directors aren’t the same. But I wouldn’t completely rule that out. Dakar from Zombi is also in this one.

The other reason I wanted to see this, naturally, is because I already had the Nico Fidenco score on CD and so I wanted to see, as I usually do, how the music fits the picture. Well, on that count, it’s mostly appropriate... not the most outstanding score I’ve heard but it’s perhaps a little more subtle than you might expect from such movies in places and, although it’s not as cool as the music from those other two I mentioned (by Fabio Frizzi and Goblin respectively), it fits right in with the kind of soundscape you would expect from these kinds of pictures.

The film starts off with a static shot of a New York skyline held for the entire credits followed by an unknown, shadowy figure entering a hospital morgue, performing a hasty amputation on a dead man and then stealing the hand. Another such gory ‘theft’ involves the must be heard to be believed, truly most amazing dubbed fake scream that I’ve come across in a long time, from one of the nurses. This scream must be able to literally raise the dead because, although the innards of the cadaver are all scooped out and stuff, the guy playing said cadaver still manages to blink a couple of times when he imagines the camera has stopped shooting the scene.

Later on, Lori Ridgeway (played by Alexandra Delli Colli), who is an expert on natives in a certain Caribbean island, is suspected by a reporter called Susan Kelly (played by Sherry Buchanan) to be the person behind what has quickly become a whole series of body parts gone missing from the hospital. However, we suddenly learn the culprit is a hospital assistant... who is eating the bits he stole to maintain his homesick cannibal lusts. The doctors and other hospital staff try and corner the guy but he decides it’s better to hurl himself out of the window, many stories up. We then get a shot looking down as he falls but... he seems to have been magically transformed into a plastic dummy. I know this because, when he falls, his arm flies off to the right of the screen due to the impact. All is saved, though, when we get a close up of the actor, post fall, and his arm is once more firmly attached at the shoulder. These cannibals must, indeed, have mystical talents.

Anyway, along comes Ian McCulloch, playing Dr. Peter Chandler, and his assistant, who are some kind of health inspectors with government sanction (and firepower to back it up). After Lori’s house is broken into, to steal a native symbol with some kind of connection to the cannibal thefts which are just one crime in a series of similar cannibal related cases on Chandler’s files, both Lori and Kelly are recruited to accompany Dr. Chandler and his team to find the island of the cannibal tribe and see what’s up... for some reason. I don’t quite know what they think they’re going to do when they get there but... hey, I guess you just have to suspend your sense of logic along with your disbelief when you’re watching this kind of stuff.

When they get to the island, of course, they are met with friendlies who turn out to be not so friendly, cannibals, treachery and... the odd zombie or two. Yeah, there are some creatures who are technical zombies in this, although they’ve actually been “Frankensteined up” to get them into that state... one of the alternate titles of this movie is Doctor Butcher, in reference to the “mad scientist” played by Donald O'Brien. The film is quite gory and, it’s no wonder it nearly made ‘the list’ in the absurd Video Nasty scare of the 1980s... but there’s not a great deal going on with this film, especially in comparison to Fulci’s Zombi, which looks like the absolute classic it’s often lauded as, in comparison to this one.

That being said, they do try their best with some of the camera set ups and the set dressing on Lori’s boudoir in one of the pre-requisite “get yer kit off” scenes has ‘horribly matching everything’ in it... wallpaper, sofa and pillows on the bed all done in exactly the same pattern design... I’m not sure I’d be able to live with that character if that’s her best sense of interior decoration.

The other thing that lifts this film, just a little, is the slightly unexpected nature of the end sequence... when you think everyone is done for. Dr. Chandler is trying to get himself free from the straps on Donald O'Brien’s ‘operating table’ and he does so but gets in a fight and doesn’t look like he’s going to make it to the end of the movie after all. However, in an earlier scene, Lori was snatched by the cannibals and painted up by them... similar to the way Ursula Andress is painted up in Mountain Of The Cannibal God (reviewed here) but with a nicer sense of design as her naked form gets only slightly adorned with graphical flowers. As she is about to have a dagger plunged into her on the sacrificial table, the table shifts weight and the natives see this as a sign that she is to be spared and, presumably, worshipped as some kind of naked, blonde Godess because, when we next see her, she is rushing in to the mad Doctor’s shack with her cannibal allies to rescue Ian McCulloch so he can survive the picture after all. Not much happens after this and the film very quickly comes to an abrupt end... leaving you wondering just what the hell could possibly happen next... but that’s okay, I think I’d spent enough time in the jungle with this one and was happy to come out of it.

This film is watchable but it’s certainly no classic. If you’re into Italian zombie or cannibal films (the latter of which this one seems closer to in terms of content) then this one shouldn’t let you down... but I must say I prefer films like Zombi or even Nightmare City (reviewed here) to the likes of this. Still, an essential watch if this era and genre are your thing... just don’t expect to be as entertained as you would in other, similar movies... there are a few better ones out there, I think.

*Or possibly Yor, The Hunter From The Future

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Friend Request

Antisocial Media

Friend Request
2016 Germany Directed by Simon Verhoeven
UK cinema release print.

Friend Request is another in the recent sub-trend of horror movies produced that are using social technology apps, popular with their core target audience, to drive the plot forward. This is not to be confused with another movie from three years ago with exactly the same title (remind me why they keep doing this again?). It’s also, surprisingly, not quite a repeat of the Skype based, real time movie Unfriended (reviewed here) from last year and, although it’s shot in a much more conventional, narrative mode, it doesn’t harm the material and brings the media into a standard Hollywood style of movie making which allows the director and writers to explore different aspects of this kind of tale.

Now, I kinda liked this movie, for the most part. I could say that this is yet another in a long list of cliché ridden, teen slasher style horror films, where a supernatural presence is causing the deaths of various young characters until it can be either stopped or, back in fashion again, left undefeated to win the day.  This is indeed, as it happens, what this movie is but, I have to say, it’s a pleasant surprise when you find yourself watching one which is put together with a certain amount of competence and panache, so that any clichés it does fall back on are handled in such a way that you don’t really feel let down by them due to their flawless execution. Don’t get me wrong, Friend Request is no It Follows (one of the great teen horror movies of recent years - reviewed here) but it’s certainly no Ouija either... thank goodness (reviewed here).

The film is pretty well acted by all the principal members of the cast, which is not always a given when you get movies like these with a teen ensemble, trying to convince you that their lives are worth living and that you should be rooting for them. In fact, the kind streak in the main protagonist Laura’s heart, as played by Alycia Debnam-Carey, is such that you will actually find yourself sympathising with her and the majority of her friends throughout the movie... which is often half the battle in films of this kind. I’ve seen so many teenage horror flicks over the last few years where, honestly, I’d just much rather the serial killer/monster/witch demon from Hell would just hurry up and kill off all these annoying teenagers so the occasional film like this where the characters have my empathy from the outset really helps lead me into the story at the heart of the film.

This one involves a strange girl at Laura’s High School, Marina (played by Liesl Ahlers), who nobody likes and who tries to befriend Laura, in real life and on facebook. The social media in question never seems to be actually named or identified in the film, unless I missed it, which was kind of odd in some respects although I can see why the company might have had a problem with that, in this case. So Laura befriends Marina who then immediately becomes one of those people who get way ‘over-friendly’, way too quick. So, eventually, she ‘unfriends’ her and Marina hangs herself dead over a fire in response to this... and sends Laura the video. However, because Marina is using ‘supernatural forces’ the video and lots of other stuff, start posting from Laura’s account and this kind of thing keeps happening, as Laura’s friends are killed off one by one by the ghostly apparition, as the demon spirit of the girl tries to get her down to zero followers.

Oh, okay, that sounds really absurd now I type it but, as it happens, the director and writers are skilled enough to make this all work and, as we are kept appraised of Laura’s plummeting follower account, as it’s superimposed onto certain compositions at key moments in the movie.... while Laura’s friends are getting ‘creepy, lethal stuff’ happening to them.

Now, it has to be said, the manner of the creepy, lethal stuff is actually one of the reasons why this film feels a little superior to many of the similarly themed horror pictures at the moment. The artistic animations and imagery which at first appear to be the work of Marina are quite dark and surreal, almost belonging to something like the Silent Hill video games as opposed to something like this, and it really gives the movie a whole other level which will keep you watching. It gets quite creatively bleak at times and certainly a lot of the key audience for this kind of movie will maybe find themselves taken aback by the level of the imagery, I suspect.

There’s one big problem I had with the movie in that, once I understood the motivation of the antagonist element in the picture, say after the first half an hour, I was pretty sure I knew what the last few shots of the movie were going to be, content wise. And, yeah, as it happens, I was right on in this case, in that the ending of the film is completely predictable and it does exactly what you expect it to. However, since I quite liked that kind of ending, I wasn’t too disappointed and there are a couple of reasons why I am quite happy to forgive it this... other than it’s the perfect ending for this kind of material.

One is that, as I said earlier, it’s very well made and well edited into a coherent whole. Even though it certainly consists of a number of set pieces glued together, the cement and story content which does this doesn’t feel shabby or lack the integrity of its starting point, as it does in some films of this ilk.

The other reason. however, is that there’s already a nice moment, bordering on a twist, which I can absolutely kick myself for not seeing coming,  happening maybe 20 minutes before the end of the picture. This is when one of the characters realises there’s an alternative way to play the demon spirit, or whatever it is, at its own game and pulls an unexpected move out of his bag of tricks. I don’t want to spoil this and tell you what that is and, perhaps, the logical point that this character has reached gets a little unnecessarily over-enthusiastic by the end of the movie... but I really appreciated not seeing that little moment coming when it did and I think it says a lot about the directors ability to successfully distract me at that point, to be sure. Where he didn’t distract me was the umpteenth time I’ve seen the ‘open fridge/cupboard door’ routine used to build suspense and then deliberately not pay it off at that moment... that kind of scare seems to have flip flopped around a little in the horror genre just lately, I’ve noticed.

Asides from that, though, a wonderful film with a quite good, not quite to type, score by Gary Go which, unfortunately, is only available at the moment as a download and not as a proper CD... so I’ll have to reluctantly give that potential purchase a miss again until the company in question realise that good music is worth putting out in a good format. Downloads and vinyl just don’t cut it, people.

However, a quite respectable entry into the teenage horror genre with some likeable characters, for once, some great acting and a genuinely eerie atmosphere invoked throughout. If horror movies are your thing then Friend Request is definitely something you should put on your ‘favourites’ list. Don’t unfollow this movie until you’ve taken a peak at its profile.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Bastille Day

Inglorious Bastilles

Bastille Day
2016 France/USA
Directed by James Watkins
UK cinema release print.

I really wanted to like Bastille Day. I’d seen the trailer and, though it felt a little flat in places, it looked like a solid action thriller in the now familiar mode of a cop using a roguish criminal to save the day, despite antagonism from both the criminal underworld and the police department. And that’s more or less what this is, to be honest... except the main lead, played by Idris Elba, is a CIA agent working in Paris, and he uses a pickpocket who has been mistaken for a terrorist to crack open and foil a possible terrorist plot on Bastille Day in France. Trouble is that, like the trailer, it’s an okay action thriller... not a great one.

The fault certainly doesn’t fall in the laps of the actors though. I’ve been a fan of Idris Elba in film (not seen his TV stuff) since I saw him in the second Ghost Rider movie and he does an excellent job here. Tempering his tough guy, rather imposing personae by having an action hero, Briar, that will also get bashed about a bit and doesn’t always clear out of the way of the traps before they happen. So a more realistic, in some sense, version of the kind of kinetic characters you usually get in this kind of movie. Richard Madden plays the pickpocket, Michael, working with Briar to foil the dastardly plot and clear his own name in the process, after he stole a bag and then dumped it before it exploded and killed four people. And they, and all the other supporting actors in here, do a really good job with the movie, creating quick and credible characters that the shorthand of their trade would permit in this kind of punch and chase driven bullet bonanza.

And some of it is nicely done, to be sure. The problem, I think, doesn’t fall into the hands of James Watkins either, since the action sequences and small character moments in the film are all handled simply, allowing you easy access into the heart of the story and without losing you at any point. Indeed, he and his editor also manage to use some surprisingly good labour saving moments where the camera movement and style of shot, such as a zoom, will take you into a later part of the same sequence using a similar style and speed of shot, neatly cutting out unnecessary footage and all without confusing the audience... which is a pretty neat trick and to be applauded, actually. Especially when he does it in the middle of an action sequence and then you find yourself going from mid or close up to a later point in the sequence in long shot of a different view without any transitional glitch at all. Very well done.

Even the score on this one, by Alex Heffes, is quite distinct and holds its own during the noisy shoot outs, ably supporting the action and helping to move things forward. It’s a shame it’s only out on download rather than on CD but, as I’ve said before on here, no CD equals no sale. Downloads are a real turn off for a number of reasons.

However, the film has a huge problem in that it seems to telegraph every twist and turn before it even happens here. Yes, I know we’ve all seen a gazillion other movies like this and so, as an audience, there are a number of permutations of expectations as to what each and every character type is going to do in a movie like this but... shouldn’t the writer be allowing for that and not falling into the clichés created by those kinds of situations? This film really is full of little twists that, honestly, everyone is going to see coming way before they happen. I was going through the whole movie thinking things like... “Oh, this character is going to get ‘shockingly’ shot dead by this ‘friendly’ character in about 30 seconds” or “This character is in no real danger here because the other guy the audience is supposed to have forgotten about is just standing over there, ready to make an appearance”, and so on. There really are no surprises in this movie and that really harms it a lot because there actually isn’t a lot else that these kinds of films have going for them, to be honest.

And, though the main leads are likeable and start building up a relationship, I think there could have been another one or two sequences put in purely to show the developing chemistry between them because, at a certain point in the film towards the end, I was really wondering why Character B was bothering to put himself back into the line of fire for Character A when, really, he was already in the clear. So, yeah, just a little more character development/interaction stuff in this one would have been nice, to be honest.

Other than that, though, all grumbles aside, there are a lot lesser action thrillers than this one out there and if you’re a fan of Idris Elba, you probably won’t want to miss out on this one... although I really think he could do with a better vehicle than Bastille Day, truth be told. Still, an okay and somewhat unchallenging time at the cinema for action fans. I’m positive there are worse ways to while away an hour and a half. So maybe give it a go if you’re not worried about seeing something a little formulaic in the time you have. It’s not the worst film I’ve seen of its kind, for sure.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Lightning Bolt

Most Eisley

Lightning Bolt
(aka Operazione Goldman)

Italy/Mexico 1966
Directed by Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson)
Rare Flix Region 1 DVD

Wow. Are there really any words I can use to describe just how awful this movie turned out to be?

I bought this as a special order a couple of years ago and it’s because I just assumed, from the artwork, that this was one of those awful Italian superhero movies I can have a lot of fun with. The poster shows a red lycra clad, amply endowed blonde lady... judo throwing some kind of masked ninja. I mean. c’mon... who’s not going to go after a film that promises a buxom superheroine meting out justice to an army of masked blokes. A similar poster I’ve recently discovered under another of the film’s release titles, Operazione Goldman, similarly features the red clad blonde lady at rest on the barrel of a gun belonging to the leading actor.

I’d like to say that either of these posters is a good representation of what’s in the movie but, truth be told, there is no blonde, red lycra clad super lady to be found in this one in any shape or form... unless you count the main character’s not so blonde boss, ‘never clad in red lycra’ lady, Captain Patricia Flanagan (played by Diana Lorys), who only seems to be in about of the third movie. And she just seems to be there purely as eye candy for the other characters to look at and act surprised that their government is employing the services of one of the fairer sex. The only other things she does in this movie are get in trouble and be a damsel in distress for the main protagonist, not-so-superspy Harry Sennet (played not so convincingly by Anthony Eisley) and, in one scene, shoot a not so prominent villainess played by Wandisa Guida in the back to stop her from killing Harry with a squirty acid gun. In fact, you could just as easily use this poster and change the title to, say, one of the Star Wars movies and it would still have as much resemblance to the movie it is trying to advertise as it does here. Which is, of course, absolutely nothing.

What can I say about this film? I’ve not seen that many Italian spy movies, yet, but this one... which is presumably called Lightning Bolt to cash in on the previous year’s James Bond title Thunderball... has surely got to be one of the worst of its kind... I hope. There are movies which are so bad they’re good... a pleasure to spend time with as you watch the cast and crew stumble around and try to fashion what they’re doing into a fairly coherent viewing experience but, in the case of this one, I have to say that it’s just bad, period.

The story seems to involve a plot very similar, pretty much stolen in fact, from the movie version of Ian Fleming’s Dr. No... the idea of toppling rockets. The reason that the supervillian here is doing it is because he wants to reach the moon first and control mankind with the threat of his giant, moon based laser rocket. So, you know, he needs to stop everybody else from getting there first so he can get his mad laser of death built in the most effortless way possible. Did I also mention that this man is the owner of his own worldwide beer company? His lair is in one of his factory warehouses and... yeah... so there’s that.

We see two people exploring what could be the underwater cause of the rocket toppling early on as one of them goes down to investigate a giant dome. Two mechanical arms come out of the dome and then they... ‘something’ him to death. I couldn’t quite work out what was supposed to be going on here but the diver was obviously having a hard time as he was reacting to what looks like something that should probably have been added in as a special effect later... I’m guessing. So, whatever it is that the arms held... lethal electricity or strange beams of death defying otherness... they’re pretty much an invisible version of that and I’m sure that must have helped the budget tremendously. Doesn’t help the audience much but... hey... at least it was a cheap death.

The guy left in the boat above is presumed killed when it explodes for some unknown reason. Luckily and inexplicably, he is a very clever scientist that the villain somehow manages to save and who he can use to develop the laser he wants to install on the moon for him. Seriously? What kind of plan is that? Do these guys not go to Supervillain Business College where they can find out about the simple things like not spending a load of their beer profits on building a rocket to the moon before they’ve actually finished developing the laser they’re going to put up there? This makes no sense.

Anyway, red headed Harry Sennet is sent to investigate. He was supposed to be blonde but, from what I can gather,  when they tried to dye Anthony Eisley’s hair that colour it just went red instead. So.... anyway, his voice-over narrative provides clues to what’s going on about 70% of the time (you can try and navigate the logic of the rest yourself) and there are some genuinely corny and puntastic lines, befitting the downmarket Bond character that this guy is trying so hard to be... at least for a while. Bits of dialogue such as when he’s asked by a poolside lady, “Do you like my tan Harry?” to which he answers, “Tan-talising.” Or his unfettered wit when he informs the audience about a possible romantic conquest like this... “She carried around a silencer. Her husband, Archie.” But after a fairly short time the dialogue just pitches down to an even lesser level of banter than this and the voice-over moments become fairly interminable.

One of the real problems with this pun slinging and confident but beyond sexist, bottom swatting special agent is that he never really looks the part. There are some actors... Sean Connery, Charlton Heston, Angelina Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenneger, to name a few... and they look like they can pretty much handle anything the world could throw at them quite credibly... whether they actually could or not. In Eisley’s case he doesn’t, I’ll be honest, look like he is that young or fit enough to hold his own against any kind of henchman or supervillain... of any kind. I’m wondering if the producers of this movie thought so too because, most of the time, he just seems to be walking around trying to talk the villains out of his way. The one time when he does get kinda physical is when he and Captain Patricia enter... one of the most ridiculous and self defeating deathtraps ever put in a movie, I reckon.

So, the two of them get locked into a small but very tall chamber.... a set which is inexplicably re-used as a completely different room with a completely different function at a completely different location later in the movie. And then one of the wealth of completely non-functional looking pipes, which is open at the end for some reason, presumably for just this purpose, starts gushing out water and slowly, oh so slowly, filling the tall chamber. It’s a good job there are lots of pipes jutting out from the wall or Harry wouldn’t have somewhere to leave the good lady sitting while he both climbs and swims to alleviate their diabolical predicament. So how do our heroes escape? They can’t shoot their way out because the old ricochet sound effect on the soundtrack says they can’t, when they try.

Well... the first thing Harry does is climb up to the top of the chamber and plug a hole which he says must be sucking all the water into the room. Um... what? So, yes, he plugs the little hole in the top of the chamber and, indeed, the pipe does suddenly defy logic and stop gushing water. We’re through the looking glass here people! Then, the villain, who can see him and pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world with his science bending, magical view screen... tries to stop Harry tinkering with the locked trap door at the bottom of the chamber. He says to his assistant to open it if he tries to get it open again... because, um, yeah, that’ll teach him. And he does. Presumably his twisted thinking is that Harry will be killed from all the water pressure as the chamber empties him out and washes him into the surrounding landscape. Golly, never saw that completely ludicrous escape coming... as Harry just walks back into the chamber and escapes with his pipe perched lady friend.

And that about sums up the level of the movie, I’m afraid. It sounds like it could be at least entertaining, purely on a comedy level... but it really isn’t.  And when Harry finally despatches the supervillain by having him fall off a gantry to his death before reviving just in time to be rolled over by red hot magma midst all the random explosions... Harry comes out with probably the most completely witless quip in superspy history... “I didn't like your beer, either.” No, seriously. Comedy genius here.

The print is in terrible shape and while I must give a big thank you and well done to Rare Flix for somehow managing to preserve this thing as best they can, including retaining the scope aspect ratio... the print degradation kinda offsets any chance the transfer had of getting this into the realm of quality viewing. But, you know, it’s really good that they’ve made the effort because films like this are a) a useful reminder of some of the most dire films out there and b) means you can find out how much you didn’t want to see it as soon as possible, rather than spending a lifetime trying to track such a terrible disappointment of a movie down. If you like 1960s spy movies, you may just welcome the idea of seeing what Lightning Bolt is like. If you don’t have that much of an interest though... I’d say it’s fairly safe to give this one a miss.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Eye In The Sky

Bird’s Eye View To A Kill

Eye In The Sky
2016 UK Directed by Gavin Hood
UK cinema release print.

Okay then... as I said on Twitter the other day, Eye In The Sky is not to be confused with the famous Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. This production is nothing to do with that. There seems to be so many movies made these days which have exactly the same title as a previously made film or a novel that I wonder why the distributors don’t realise that a lot of the people, on hearing about their product, just assume it’s either a remake or an adaptation of something that has come before.

That being said, I’m glad I mentioned PKD briefly because, as I was watching this movie, I realised that if this had been made even 30 years ago, that it would have been a science fiction story. And by that I mean, it explores themes which, if it had been written a few decades ago, would have been dipping into exactly the same issues of morality and sacrifice in a totally invented setting, which could have been fairly similar to the real life situations being dramatised right here and now in this movie as a reflection of our times.

If an old sci-fi writer of the 1950s had wished to explore the moral dilemma of the one life cut short to prevent the loss of many more, he might well have invented this exact kind of scenario to be able to expand the exploration of that issue to something which he wouldn’t have been able to arrive at in a conventional narrative form at that point in time. The fact that we are now living in an era where we can snoop and kill from a distance, with just the press of a button, means we are able to explore exactly the same themes in much the same way... that is to say, quite intently.... without having to create a whole new fictional world for the characters to live in and ask their questions. Which is kinda scary, actually, if you think about it.

The film is mostly set in rooms with groups of people watching the outside action, some of which we are also pulled into, on multiple screens. Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, who is leading a surveillance and capture operation via military drone, to detain a specific terrorist. However, as the ground zero of the operation shifts and it becomes apparent that two terrorists will soon be leaving a house wearing armed suicide bomb jackets, she needs the clearance to order an airstrike before the terrorists leave the dwelling and kill many innocent people. However, the person on the end of a phone actually firing the drone doesn’t want to kill an innocent young girl selling bread outside by the target. So the film becomes about the ever increasing tension as Mirren has to liaise with her superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson, played in his last film role by the late, great Alan Rickman, and he has to then liaise with his superiors... with each set of people ascending in rank looking to pass the buck up to the next person in charge, leading up to the Prime Minister, because nobody can make a decision to injure and possibly kill the little girl.... among other issues in the complex, shades of grey moral dilemma which the film depicts.

Everyone is good in this. Mirren and Rickman are superb, obviously, but pretty much everyone in this movie is stand up and they keep the atmosphere quite compelling throughout the running time. There are some especially taut scenes with one of the two electronic surveillance people who uses fake birds and flying, ersatz insects as camera eyes... something which the aforementioned Philip K. Dick might certainly have used himself in this kind of scenario... only to him it would still have been speculative science fiction. Anyway, the sequence where the agent in question tries to buy all of the bread to get the little girl out of the area before the air strike happens is quite fraught and suspenseful in its own right and it’s really, almost unbearable to watch some of the sequences with the amount of suspense the writers are pouring on here. Great stuff.

The film takes place mostly in just four or five rooms and also the streets outside the target area... with parts of the interior of the target being relayed via a flying surveillance bug at certain key points in the movie. Therefore, I would have to say that, while it’s not the most cinematic of movies in terms of the way the visual content adds to the understanding of the situation, it would certainly make an excellent stage show, I reckon. All you would need is the pre-recorded video footage... I understand the movie takes place in real time... and the interior sets compartmentalised and lit up when required for the various sets of dialogue. Somebody really should have a go at this sometime.

Nevertheless, whether it’s a stage play or not, the adaptability of it as such and the secondary nature of the visuals doesn’t take away from the fact that this is still good cinema, fraught with tension, which will have you hanging on the edge of your seat. And I’m happy to say that the score by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian, mixing cold and sinister electronic music with occasional ethnic undertones, is doing an absolutely brilliant job throughout the movie. It’s not something I expected to either like or to be so outstanding but it fits the film like a glove, supporting and enhancing the emotions, sometimes informing them, in every way you would hope. I’m looking forward to the CD release in May so I can have a better listen to it away from the movie, I can tell you.

But whether you like the score or not, Eye In The Sky is a movie which points the audience to a moral dilemma and doesn’t glibly try to solve the issue in a simple manner. Each set of actions has their own repercussions as the drama unfolds and the film doesn’t spoon feed you the answers to those problems... mainly because there really aren't any clear cut solutions if you let emotions get in the way. That’s not to say that the film cops out at the end... this one has a very definite finishing point and it won’t leave you hanging. That being said, it won’t go out of its way to make much of a judgement either... these are big issues and the movie is not silly enough to take sides too easily. The point of the drama, I believe, is to make you think about these issues of collateral damage and take the questions home with you. It’s not an easy issue to resolve and it doesn’t want to try. However, what this film may do, if enough people see it, is remind us that these issues exist in real life and maybe help us reflect on how the hell humanity got into this kind of mess in the first place. Not exactly a feel good movie, to be sure, but one which has a certain resonance and I can only recommend this one as something which will certainly keep your brain occupied. Don’t miss out on this one... it’s pretty great.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Hans Zimmer Live On Tour

Hans That Does Wishes
Can Be Soft As Your Bass

Hans Zimmer Live On Tour
6th April - Wembley Arena, London

You know, I’m rarely moved enough by a live concert to give one a review and the last time that happened, I was moved by anger more than anything else (see my review of the Star Trek concert here). However, the recent Hans Zimmer concert, which I saw on the first night of the European tour at the Wembley Arena, was something very special so, on this occasion, I thought I’d give it a little bit of wordage.

Most of my regular readers will know of my passion for film scores, often surpassing my interest in the original movie for which they were written. My stance when it comes to Hans Zimmer is possibly a little unusual in that, when he first started out, I never really rated him that much and I think the only album I owned with him on it at the time, and it was on vinyl, was the brilliant score to Nicholas Roeg’s Insignificance, which had three pretty great cuts by him on it and which, frankly, deserves some kind of CD release. After a while I was also aware of the backlash in some circles to Zimmer establishing a specific style of scoring action movies which became so popular and influential that every composer seemed to be imitateing it for a while (Morricone had the same effect when he started scoring Spaghetti Westerns, of course). Often, though, a backlash against something usually means that the thing being reacted to is pretty unique and special... hence the strong expression of negativity.

Cut to the chase, though.

My ears first pricked up when I heard his score to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. I was interested in his playing around with those good ol' Holstian Bringers of War embodied by Mars (it certainly fit in with the Roman lifestyle) and loved the stuff which Zimmer, and of course Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, had done with this one. Over the years since then, I’ve begun to notice a lot of his scores in certain films and think he’s really contributed significantly and powerfully to the modern motion picture scene... often leaving behind a work which is far more interesting than the actual movie it was composed for. I now have an increasingly sizeable library of his compositions on shiny discs and dip into them fairly frequently. So it would be fair to say I’ve began to harbour an increasing amount of respect for the man over the last 15 years.

However, when my friend last year asked me if I wanted to go to the first night of his European tour I replied that, no... I really didn’t. The two big problems for me were the venue (Wembley is not an easy place to get home from when a concert finishes and you’re struggling to get to the last train of the day) and also, the ticket price on this one was fairly high. However, my friend is celebrating his 50th Birthday this year and so he told me he’d bought me a ticket anyway... as he needed someone to go with. So, yeah, I ended up going to this thing through no fault of my own and... I’m so glad I did. Thanks very much for the ticket Doctor Rob!

Now I’ve seen some of the film composing giants of our time in numerous concerts over the years. And I do mean giants... I’ve seen John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Philip Glass, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman and John Williams conduct their work, to name just a few of those I've seen, and they’ve all been marvellous. However, I can honestly say that, in spite of having seen and enjoyed these absolute legends in concert, often more than once, the Hans Zimmer Live On Tour concert was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. And I say this having seen the full line up of The Monkees play at the same venue years before (and The Kids From Fame as it happens but... yeah, we won’t go into that one).

Hans Zimmer is nothing if not a talented showman and as he and various members of his band walked on, including some very sexy, mini-skirted violinists and a hot electric cello player, and strutting around the stage in time to the music like mini rock Gods and Godessess , giving their strings a work out, the light show started to pick out various musicians and isolate them in time to their rhythm. When I’d been chatting to my friend earlier in the day I mentioned that my biggest wish for the show would be if Hans and co were to do Discombobulate from Sherlock Holmes and 160 BPM from Angels and Demons. And here they were straight away seguing from Driving Miss Daisy into the aforementioned Discombobulate, with the lighting highlighting the wandering string players in red whenever they did the bits in the piece where they are sawing away frenetically at the strings with their bows. It was awesome. Hans was there playing keyboards and guitar (and even drums at one point) and chatting to the audience, regaling us with anecdotes about his time working on various projects (much like Clint Mansell had done when I saw him in concert a couple of weeks earlier).

After the first couple of tracks, another curtain opened behind all the players in Zimmer’s super group and we saw that they had just been augmented by another bank of strings section and the Crouch End Choir. And it wasn’t long before the second of my wishes got taken care of, when the Crouch End Choir joined in on a pretty unusual version of 160 BPM from Angels And Demons. In the middle of the piece, where the drums come into the foreground of the composition for a number of seconds, two drummers spaced fairly apart on the stage on what seemed like raised plinths, and bathed in white spotlights, started an extremely extended and very loud duelling drums routine... which was terrific... before going back into the main stream of the piece. A truly riveting and somewhat deafening time.

And that set the pace for the evening. An evening packed with performances of well known Zimmer  works including the opening battle from Gladiator (with a nice guitar duet in the middle and with the Lisa Gerrard vocals covered by an amazing singer named Czarina Russell), Pirates Of The Caribbean, Man Of Steel, The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight (and although not listed in the programme, The Dark Knight Rises and also Zimmer’s memorial piece on that awful shooting, Aurora), Interstellar and a fair few others. One of the pieces Zimmer and his ‘group’ did was from a movie by Terence Malick called The Thin Red Line and, although neither my friend or I were familiar with the film or the score, we were both blown away by this (so yeah, both the score and the film are on order... looking forward to receiving those sometime soon). And unlike the Star Trek concert I went to last year, the back projected, somewhat abstract but relevant visuals were not a distraction to the music being played... instead, complementing and enhancing the musical performance as it played out. 

For an encore, Zimmer did some music from a film and score I’m really not all that fond of, to be honest... Inception. But heck, they even did a great and memorable version of this so... yeah, I may find myself revisiting that score at some point soon.

All on all, a great time was had by all and, even though my friend and I found the last trains home had been cancelled and got into a tension filled negotiation with various other people who were haggling over the price of a shared taxi ride, the concert was well worth even this aggravation. I came away with a cool pin badge of a Zimmer logo formed as part of a keyboard and speakers and a pricey but pretty attractive programme (with some nice spot varnishing on the front). Five of the programmes had been signed by Zimmer himself and randomly distributed to various vendors throughout the venue but, alas, I wasn’t lucky enough to get a signed version. I did, however, get a free download card with the programme entitling me to the first track of the new live album which was apparently recorded at the venue the night I was there. I just hope that the album isn’t a download only deal and that a proper, shiny CD of this gets released before long, too.

And that’s that. Zimmer is touring live with this show in a number of countries at the moment and all I will say is, although the tickets were somewhat expensive, the concert was worth every penny and if you like the man’s scores and get the opportunity to go to one of the concert dates, definitely take that opportunity. I was absolutely amazed by what a positive response I had to this concert and my only regret is that I didn’t have the time or money to go back and watch him do it again on the second night. My respect for Hans Zimmer, the composer and the showman, has gone up considerably and it was pretty high already. Don’t miss this one... it’s phenomenal.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Hardcore Henry

First Person Standing

Hardcore Henry
2015 Russia/USA
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Extremely slight spoiler in here which gives almost nothing away... just a minor surprise the first time something happens.

I first saw the poster to Hardcore Henry about six weeks ago at my local cinema. I’d never heard of the film before and the title and design of the poster didn’t exactly make me want to go and see this one. I was more than happy to let another dubious action movie pass me by. However, a couple of weeks ago I watched the trailer for the movie and that changed my mind. Sure, it looked like a mindless bullet fest shot on high levels of adrenalin but it also looked completely demented and, furthermore, it looked like it had all been shot from a first person point of view. And by that I mean... imagine if you were playing an old computer game like Doom or Quake or the original Duke Nukem... the whole movie is shot like that, where you are the main character as accessed by the camera’s eye. Something we’re used to seeing in the horror genre to a certain extent but, even then, the character is usually a person armed 'with' the camera... this is slightly different in that the camera viewpoint is supposed to be the eyes of the titular Henry.

So yeah, after seeing that trailer, I was pretty much up for going to see this... although I still had my reservations. Had I registered that Sharlto Copley was in it, I would have probably crossed it off my ‘to watch’ list, to be honest... I’ve not been a fan of Copley in the few films I’ve seen him in. Luckily, I didn’t realise he was in it because, not only is the movie a fairly enjoyable one if you’re into the whole gung ho action thing but... Sharlto Copley is also really good in this. Maybe I just don’t like his native South American accent which the actor usually uses in his films... it’s possible I’ve been reacting to that in the past. Copley ditches that here in favour of... a whole bunch of other accents but... okay, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

As I said, Hardcore Henry is a first person shooter of a movie and, as it starts, we see the memory of Henry as a young boy. At least, that’s what we assume it is at the time. This is then followed by a title sequence that really sets the bar on the level of violence in the movie. Now, I’m not sure if it was just me but in terms of graphic, gory detail, the rest of the movie really doesn’t live up to the quiet ferocity of this opening credits design. I say quiet because the credits are all slow motion shots set against a soundtrack and are almost, in some ways, a spiritual cousin to some of those old Bond title sequences. However, these particular credits concern themselves with close up shots of various areas of the human anatomy as violence with a variety of implements is brutally committed to said body parts. So a slow motion knife entering a person’s neck from one side followed by a shot of it exiting, still in slow motion, from the other side... that kind of thing. I’m not someone who condones violence in real life but in art such as painting, film and fiction I am happy to enjoy it on the level that it occupies and, since I haven’t seen a title sequence quite like this before, I found it all kinda interesting to be honest. The opening credits end with the camera following the trail of a bullet which has just penetrated somebody’s eyeball. Possibly this is all what has happened to Henry before the film starts proper. These credits are pretty much the only part of the movie which are not shot in strict, first person viewpoint, in fact.

We then return to that POV camera angle when we ‘wake up’ as the title character gains consciousness. It’s clear the character is recovering from some violent procedure and that his girlfriend (Estelle, played by Haley Bennett) has rebuilt him/us as some kind of cybernetic killing machine. Now the key here is that, cleverly on the part of the writer, the character has no immediate memory of anything that has happened to get him into this state, including remembering the lady in question. He can’t even speak until she downloads a new voice into him and, just before this is about to happen, the room caves in and we meet the main villain of the piece. So Henry is silent throughout the film. People are killed and Henry has to go on the run to escape certain death at the hands of the deadly Akan (played by Danila Kozlovsky) and his endless army of trained killers. Luckily, every time Henry is on his own, the plot unfolds just a little more and he stumbles onto someone who can help him, to tell him the next bit of his mission, whether that be keeping himself charged up and alive or... something more specific.

The first person to help him is a guy called Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley. He doesn’t last long, though, before his brains are shot out the front of his head but, every time a new development occurs... there’s Jimmy again to help. In one guise or another. Basically, Sharlto Copley plays a number of, lets call them incarnations for the sake of this review, of Jimmy over the course of the film and each Jimmy is a different variation of him... druggie, punk rocker, British army officer... that kind of thing. Copley plays them all really well and I found this constantly, recurring character with numerous South Park style “Oh my God, they killed Kenny” moments to be very entertaining. After a while, as the plot develops, you’ll also get to find out why there are so many ‘Jimmys’ and the gradually emerging picture of the world that Henry has been resurrected into is one of the things that holds the interest throughout the film.

That’s the basic set up and the structure is a bit weak, to be honest, in that if it didn’t have a back story to the situation evolving in the background... well it might be a bit of a dull film after a while. I actually thought, before I went to see this, that an hour and a half of first person style, non-stop action would get a bit boring as it wore on but the director is quite good at keeping the momentum and interest going throughout the whole of the movie... somewhat surprisingly. This includes some ferocious edits to the footage that allows the director to cut to a later moment in a scene without losing the audience in terms of what’s going on... he can eliminate the unnecessary bits without it being a major jolt on the visual cortex and, again surprisingly, the action sequences are really easy to follow, even when they are at their most frantic (which is quite often). Having the odd gimmick like overlapping subtitles to convey a chatter of voices doesn’t harm the movie either... although I wonder how that moment must play out in other markets around the world.

I did have a couple of problems with it, one of which is the structure of the forward momentum of the picture. There will be a mindless but mostly entertaining action sequence... then we’ll get a few minutes of calm where one character explains a little more of what is going on. However, as that situation  carries on it will always suddenly conclude with some kind of violence or explosion or occurrence of extremely aggressive mayhem... which will then lead into the next action sequence before another bit of calm. Stop... repeat. The whole of the movie works in exactly this fashion, one scene after another, even throwing a Frank Sinatra musical number sung by various Jimmys singing alternate lines, at one point, before the violence suddenly erupts out of the blue again... and it’s a shame that this kind of repetitive structure was used all the way to the end, to be honest. It’s just enough of a calm before each storm to hold one’s interest but I can’t help but think what the impact of some of the action sequences would have been if there had been more downtime in between punch, crunch, slice and dice sessions. Probably a lot more potent, is my guess.

The other problem I had was with the main bad guy, Akan. Kozlovsky’s performance is fine but the villain, with his all powerful psychokinetic powers, seems somewhat out of place in the narrative, it seems to me. Perhaps more suited to being plucked out of a Japanese manga and rendered in an anime rather than finding himself grafted onto the narrative here. Still, I can see that when you basically have a title character who slowly finds his feet into being a kick ass killing machine, you have to have a villain who he can’t just knock down in 30 seconds flat and I’m guessing the writers introduced the concept of a villain with superhuman powers precisely because of this. Personally, I found it a little intrusive into the narrative style of the rest of the piece but... yeah, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie too much, it has to be said.

Ultimately, Hardcore Henry does exactly what it says on the tin. If you like considerably over the top action thrills and a fairly proportionate dose of blood and guts in the mix, then chances are you’ll have a blast with this movie. Not exactly the best action film I’ve seen but it certainly has its moments and action fans will not want to miss out on seeing this one at the cinema... so give it a go, maybe.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Midnight Special

Eye Hopes

Midnight Special
2016 USA Directed by Jeff Nichols
UK cinema release print.

I’ve been waiting to take a look at Midnight Special since seeing a clip and then a trailer for it on the internet sometime last year. I’m not familiar with the work of Jeff Nichols because I’ve never really been all that interested in the subject matter of his previous movies but this one looked like it was a kind of Steven Spielberg style sci-fi movie with a darker edge. After now having seen the film, I can confirm that this is exactly what it is... at least that’s what it seemed like to me.

The film is very much one of those stories which relies on the audience and key players trying to figure out just exactly what is going on as the writer/director holds back on the specific details of the mystery at the heart of the movie. That mystery being the enigma of an eight year old boy called Alton Meyer, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who has eyes which light up, like one of the kids who lived in the Village Of The Damned, and has strange stuff happen around him when this occurs.

This one is very much a road movie, in that it focuses on the boy fleeing with his natural birth father Roy, played by Michael Shannon (aka General Zod in Man Of Steel), and Roy’s friend Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton (who some of you may best remember as the younger version of Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels). They hook up with Alton’s natural birth mother Sarah, played by Kirsten Dunst, because they need to get the boy to specific coordinates by a certain time. The film is presumably called Midnight Special because the boy can only stand to be up and about in the hours of darkness... as far as we know at the start of the movie.

However, the four are 'fleeing' to these coordinates because they are being aggressively pursued by two factions who want the boy. One faction is The Ranch... a religious group whose chief, played by Sam Sheppard, uses the boy’s words when he has ‘lighty up eye fits’ for his sermons. The people in The Ranch believe that the boy is the new messiah who will keep them safe if he is with them when Judgement Day comes... which they think is just a few days away.

The other faction who are pursuing, not as aggressively but certainly more effectively, is the FBI. They want the boy because the words he has been blurting out when he ‘goes into one’ and which Sam Sheppard has been using for his sermons, contains top secret information and they want to know just how the young ‘un got the intel and what the heck he is. They’re actually better at their pursuit because a young specialist called Sevier, played by Adam Driver (aka Kylo Ren in Star Wars - The Force Awakens), has joined them and has figured out that part of Alton’s words are coordinates.

And so we have a road movie with a mystery at it’s heart as the family and their friend try to survive and get Alton to where he needs to be in order for... something... to happen. Is it the approaching Religious apocalypse? Is it some alien weirdness? Or is it... something else? Well I’m not going to spoil that for you here but I will say that the writer/director certainly doesn’t cop out on the ending of his film. You will see... stuff. And if you think about it a little afterwords and dwell on the last second or so of the very last shot, it does all make a certain kind of sense, although one or two interpretations could come into play here. I’m still puzzled by one specific aspect of something that happens three quarters of the way into the movie so... maybe I should watch it again at some point.

In terms of performances, the film is terrific, with Shannon, Edgerton, Dunst and Lieberher all doing a terrific job. As does Adam Driver, who I completely hated in Star Wars - The Force Awakens but who does an outstanding job playing an immensely likeable person here. So I feel a lot better about seeing this guy in stuff from here on out. The acting is all very low key too and the cinematography and the way the camera rambles smoothly around the scenes matches this. In fact, it’s so low key that, despite the gripping mystery at the film’s fiery heart, I noticed it was having an almost soporific effect on me in some places. It’s kind of interesting actually because it reminded me of something I saw years ago in a fake Steve Martin documentary. Paul Simon asked him if he thought a sad subject in a song works better in an upbeat tempo, or some such thing. It got me thinking about the relationship between the message and the messenger and how a seemingly inappropriate delivery style can actually enhance the original message. I guess another cinematic equivalent might be the invocation of Singin’ In The Rain in Stanley Kubrik’s version of A Clockwork Orange.

Well I think that’s one of Midnight Special’s strengths... and it’s a very common approach in certain strands of science fiction, although that doesn’t negate it’s impact here... is that the acting and shooting style are quite dialled down in order to give a certain weight or credibility to the extremely fantastical concept it’s trying to sell to the audience. If you want people to suspend disbelief and buy into these kinds of concepts without any irony so the drama of the subject can be brought into play, then downplaying the absolute gobsmacking premise of your story springboard is as good a way as any of doing it. Not the only way but, it’s obviously the way Nichols' has chosen to go here and it works very effectively.

Another thing which contributes effectively to the overall atmosphere of the thing is the score by David Wingo. It’s fairly stripped down and not something which relies on dense orchestration... I would definitely call it transparent writing... but it does have a main theme which hooks you in right from the start and keeps coming back at certain points in the movie to cement everything together. It’s a pretty good score and, although it’s not the kind of score I would normally listen to, I’ll probably be picking up the CD to this one at some point in the future, to be sure.

So that’s about all I’ve got to say about Midnight Special. It’s a short review for a short film but I was surprised by just how effective it was and I certainly didn’t feel cheated by the solution, such as it is, of the mystery of Alton Meyer. There’s even a hint of how the story could possibly carry on contained at the very tail end of the very last shot... although, again, that shot is open to interpretation and I certainly wouldn’t want to see the producers wreck the memory of this movie by making a sequel, at any rate. However, if you’ve got nothing better to do with your time at the moment, I would say that Midnight Special is one of the cooler films playing at your local cinema at the moment. So maybe give it a go if you are at a loose end. After all, with General Zod and Kylo Ren in the movie... anything could happen.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Couple In A Hole

The Hole Truth

Couple In A Hole
2016 UK/Belgium/France
Directed by Tom Geens
UK cinema release print.

When I first saw Kate Dickie retweeting about her new movie, Couple In A Hole, a few weeks ago on Twitter, I pretty much knew I’d have to go see it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t playing at Cineworld, where I have a monthly card, so I had to pay the equivalent of what would be a month’s worth of cinema at my local fleapit to the Curzon Soho in London but... well, there was no way I wasn’t to be seeing a movie with such an evocative title now, was there? In France the film is known as Sauvages but, frankly, that title is not nearly enough to get me into a cinema like the UK release one is.

The film has a very small cast of about six people, only four of whom one could be called anything more than speaking extras, but their talent combined with the evocative situation in which their characters find themselves in, certainly makes for somewhat compelling viewing. The story is basically the aftermath of an incident which is unseen and which happened in the past for the characters involved... John and Karen, the title characters played by Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie, were a Scottish couple living in a village in France but they lost their only son in an incident involving a fire. We don’t know the specifics of the fire but little clues and hints start to appear as the story follows its way.

As a reaction to their sad plight, John and Karen are now living in a big, fallen, hollowed out tree in the nearby forest. Karen is practically unable to come out of her new home, most of the time, because she hates to be outside as a symptom of her experience, although John patiently coaxes her out for a few minutes each day. Meanwhile, he hunts for food and keeps them surviving as best he can. This isn’t always good enough and when a highly poisonous spider bites Karen and he tries to get medicine, somewhat covertly, from the local village, he is aided by Andre, played by Jérôme Kircher. Andre helps out John as best he can although this is something John is quite resistant to at first. However, Andre’s wife Celine, played by Corinne Masiero, isn’t so happy about this and, as the film runs it’s course, we get more than just an inkling of why this might be... as certain details which provoke more questions are revealed about the relationship between the two sets of characters.

Over the film, the uneasy friendship between John and Andre mostly takes centre stage. The two wives, Karen and Celine, are resistant to their husband’s growing friendship... although Karen doesn’t find out about it until near the end of the film. That’s pretty much all I have to say about the plot of this one. Other than it reveals itself in a leisurely fashion, with everything moving forwards to a kind of inevitability in it’s conclusion over the last ten minutes of the movie.

The performances are great... especially those of John, Karen and Andre.

Kate Dickie gives her role a sense of traumatised joy in certain scenes and the facial expressions of her inner monologue are truly something to behold at key moments. She’s truly remarkable as she crawls along the muddy floor of the forest and slowly lifts herself upright. Paul Higgins is a generally likeable individual. Although his situation does push his behaviour to certain extremes throughout the story, you can always see the polite and amiable fellow behind the man (who often carries a small axe with him). Jérôme Kircher’s character might be overlooked by some but the subtle way he carries a sense of guilt about he and his wife throughout the movie and how he expresses this through social trickery to attempt to help John and Karen, almost covertly, is quite remarkable and subtle in places. Corinne Masiero doesn’t have a sizeable enough role to really shine as much as the other three but what little of her performance there is, is also extremely good, as we try and figure out what motivates her actions and her intent towards the... Couple In A Hole.

The photography is fine in this, with the movie obviously set in ‘the great outdoors’ for almost its entirety. The editing is spot on too with shots held for just long enough and nothing too short or obscured in terms of over pruning the various sequences to the point where any of the performances or their context is obscured.

The score, by a band called Beak>; is sparse. It’s not a traditional score but it kinda works in most of the scenes it plays in to heighten tension. However, the majority of the film is left unscored. Now, bearing in mind how much I love film scores and think they really add to the art of film, I think the decision to leave a lot of the performances without musical accompaniment was a good one by the director. In itself, the music is effective but I’m not sure a CD release is anything I would go on to purchase at this time (yeah, I know, famous last words). That being said, it hits the right notes, so to speak, and certain scenes do benefit from the subtle intrusion of music into their visual and aural DNA.

My one real criticism of Couple In A Hole would be the very last minute of running time. There’s a choice to be made by one of the characters and it’s a choice the audience probably doesn’t want him to make, if they’re anything like me. However, the decision is taken out of his hands by a somewhat ‘deus ex machina’ moment at the end and, although there are a couple of sequences in the film where this specific conclusion is foreshadowed poetically, both textually and visually... I didn’t really appreciate the introduction of this kind of moral problem solving at the end of the piece. It’s certainly aesthetically pleasing enough on one level but it didn’t quite ring true with me. However, that’s just my response to the ending, which I obviously won’t reveal here, and it certainly does nothing to mar the beautiful lead up to this moment in terms of a fiercely evocative movie. Not one I wanted to miss (hence my willingness to pay the exorbitant ticket prices of a London West End cinema... which costs probably more than a Blu Ray release of the film will cost later on down the line) and I’m certainly not regretting this decision today. Fans of cinema and of human nature in general should definitely take a look at this gem from director Tom Geens. It’s a terrific little movie and looks great on a big screen.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Come Play With Me

Carry On Up The Millington

Come Play With Me
UK 1977 Directed by George Harrison Marks
Odeon DVD Region 2

Oh dear.

Come Play With Me is one of those almost legendary films which people my age kinda grew up with in the background without ever actually having seen them at the time. I remember walking past the posters to this and other British soft porn movies such as The Playbirds and Rosie Dixon, Night Nurse when I used to go to school, passing by the cinema as I went my merry way. I also read a fair amount recently about this production in the excellent book Come Play With Me: The Life And Films Of Mary Millington by Simon Sheridan, who also does the liner notes on this sparkly Odeon restoration of the movie (Sheridan’s excellent book is reviewed by me here).

However, it has to be said that, although I knew a little bit about the nature of the movie... British softcore, comedy, a few small appearances by Mary Millington, some famous names etc... nothing could prepare me for the absolute joy/horror of watching this thing. It’s unbelievable and, I suspect, very hard to attempt to describe here. It’s hard to believe that this highly successful film still holds the record for the longest non-stop engagement ever in British cinema history... although I can see a little of its appeal, to be sure, and there were other factors playing a part in that final statistic.

The film starts off with an absolutely terrible title song that, in itself, would probably want to make most people switch off whatever device they are playing this thing on and run for the hills... and I say that being an absolute lover of terrible songs in movies. However, as soon as the credits song is done with, the film does something very interesting which immediately caught my attention. That is to say, one of the most unusual pair of establishing shots I’ve seen presented on film. Two simple shots of London are shown in rapid succession, one cutting straight into another but... they’re both at dutch angles (maybe as much as 45 degree angles) and both the opposite orientation of each other. Doesn’t really do it any favours as a lead in to the next scene but it’s certainly eye catching, that’s for sure.

Then, after that, we get a scene where we get the Deputy Prime Minister, played by TV stalwart Henry McGee, briefing his people on a mission in search of a load of forged £20 bank notes. The government are not the only ones looking for the printers of these bank notes, however. So are the local mob, who the two main protagonists of this movie, the note forgers Cornelius Clapworthy and Maurice Kelly, were working for... until they decided to run off with the plates. The mob is headed by Ronald Fraser, who makes his home in a Soho night club. So of course the very next scene is a lovely lady doing a reverse strip on stage and it’s pretty much the closest thing this film comes to eroticism in its entire running time... that is to say, the only time any sexual content is taken with the remotest bit of seriousness. His left hand man, played by Tommy Godfrey (yeah, you’d know him, for sure, if you saw him) reports back that the pair have ‘scarpered’ and he’s ordered to pursue.

Our two heroes, who are in so much trouble with both their own people and with ‘the law’, are played by the director, George Harrison Marks (as Clapworthy) and comedian Alfie Bass (as Kelly). They decide to lay low in a ‘down on its luck’ Health Farm for a couple of weeks while they print enough money to get them someplace else. The Health Farm is run by Irene Handle, who plays Lady Bovington, and her assistant McIvar, played by Cardew Robinson (who I was convinced throughout the whole movie was being played by Rod Hull... he’s a dead spit for him in this in both looks and action).

Meanwhile, a government official meets with a low life contact who is trying to get a handle on where the two are and it’s a sign of the changing times when, at a cafe, the contact buys two cups of tea and a big iced bun and it costs him... 17 pence. Oh yes. I remember the 1970s. The days when we weren’t being completely ripped off left, right and centre. I wish I was still back there. This sub plot of the government official is picked up again later in the story, although it has absolutely no purpose within the plot at all other than to pad out the running time of the movie... it never catches up to the rest of the main cast and I suspect that’s because it was maybe shot later and thrown in after. The two agree to meet later and they meet, of course, at the same ‘Burlesque’ night club owned  by Ronald Fraser’s character... well, I guess you’ve got to keep finding ways to get the naked girlies in somehow.

Talking about girls... it’s not long before we meet a bus load of strippers, including Mary Millington, brought home by the rich, playboy son of the owner of the Health Farm. They are introduced by a song ‘Pretty Girls’ on the soundtrack and... well... just when you thought you’d heard possibly the worst song ever written for a movie on the credits sequence, here comes this song to prove you wrong. When the son hears the sad state of affairs at his mother’s Health Farm, he comes up with the bright and successful idea of employing the young ladies to be sexy Health Farm attendants and... the plot pretty much finishes there and the rest of the film descends into a kind of English farce.

It’s a movie filled with absolutely gazillions of well known comedians and character actors of the time... people who were not normally expected to be in this type of movie... or at least the perception of what this type of movie is from members of the British public who hadn’t actually seen it. The sex scenes are softcore and really not up to much. Mary Millington’s ‘massage and irrigation’ scene is quite funny but that’s mostly due to the absolutely outrageous exclamations from her male victim... err.. patient. She does have an exuberance about her that’s hard to pin down and I’m kinda glad I’ve got her next feature, The Playbirds, to watch sometime soon.

The film is full of silly sped up romps with naked ladies and gentleman who are either naked themselves or in good old, British style, stripy pyjamas. The closest thing I can liken it to would be a Carry On film (not a series of movies I like, to be honest) but with loads of nudity added into the mix. The director, George Harrison Marks, is even more of a British eccentric playing Clapworthy than many of his co-stars here, with his big eyebrows and wig (at least... I really hope that was a wig) and one of the absolute ‘OMG’ highlights of the film is where he and Alfie Bass are trying to escape the less than tender ministrations of the girls and suddenly break out into a musical song and dance routine, with the sexy nurses of the Health Farm providing some inappropriate smiles and trying their best to keep up with the choreography.

There are some real curiosities about the movie, above and beyond all the other unbelievable shenanigans that are worth mentioning here. For instance, some of the scenes contain some bizarre rapid cuts in the middle of conversations and one wonders if these are because somebody just flubbed their lines in certain scenes and the editor is less than successfully trying to cut around it. And another thing which I can only assume is another post-production error is when the government agent is looking at a man singing on Brighton pier accompanied by a pianist. Although the piano player is plonking away heavily at the keys, all you can hear on the soundtrack is the sound of the guy singing. What? I can only presume the pianist was playing a deliberately silent piano and that some accompanying music was supposed to have been dubbed on at a later date... but they just never got around to it and used the ‘wild sound’ instead.

Come Play With Me is, it has to be said, a pretty terrible movie... but it’s also an immensely enjoyable one. It does, for me, fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category and in addition to the ‘how did this thing ever get released’ vibe to it, it’s also nice to see the famous Mary Millington in action. Also nice to see the streets of Soho more or less as I remember them as a kid, when I was a child model working in London back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not a film I could say is particularly a masterpiece of cinema but... well, look. I watched three movies the day I saw this and this one was head and shoulders above the more serious stuff I saw in terms of entertainment value. I am going to show this one to most of my friends at some point because it’s almost impossible to describe and needs to be seen to be believed. And that’s about as good a recommendation as this one’s going to get from me I think. An enjoyable romp which probably shouldn’t be as much fun as it actually is. Looking forward to The Playbirds, now, for sure.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Caroline Munro - First Lady Of Fantasy

Fantasy Fatale

Caroline Munro, First Lady of Fantasy:
A Complete Annotated Record of Film and Television Appearances

by Robert Michael Cotter
McFarland Publishing ISBN: 978-0786468829

If you’ve been reading my blog for a fair old time now, you will probably already know that one of the film and TV personalities I admire most in British cinema is Caroline Munro, often referred to as The First Lady Of Fantasy. I’ve met her a number of times at signings in the major London Film Conventions over the last 6 years or so and she always strikes me as one of the friendliest and, genuinely, nicest people in the world. She even offered me some paracetamol from her handbag once, when it was clear I had a bad cold while queuing for a signed photo. A really great lady.

Of course, Caroline’s rich cinematic legacy speaks for itself with some key roles embedded in the hearts of many admirers, from films such as Dracula Ad 1972 (my favourite of the Hammer Dracula movies), Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, At The Earth’s Core, Star Crash and The Spy Who Loved Me. Fans like me can be a little bit obsessive when it comes to tracking down the films that Caroline’s been in over the years and this is where Robert Michael Cotter’s Caroline Munro - First Lady Of Fantasy: A Complete Annotated Record of Film and Television Appearances comes in dead handy.

Sporting a foreword by the lady herself, Cotter goes on to explain that this particular tome does not provide biographical information on the lady herself because, as some of you may know, Caroline has been hard at work on her own memoirs as the years have gone by... a book I’m chomping at the bit to finally get to read when it gets released at some point in the future. However, what this book does do is to give us a pretty clear and thorough reference work listing all of Caroline’s appearances in various film and TV projects over the years, not to mention appearances in various adverts, interviews, music videos and magazines. Talking of adverts... I was a child model in the early 1970s and will always remember her as the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl on those huge adverts in the London tube tunnels. I still remember, to this day, coming out of a screening of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad in 1973, when I was five years old, and then going onto the tube and noting the similarity of the lady staring back at me from the poster and the lead actress in that film. Those were good days.

The majority of the films and TV appearances have, following a full set of credits for the work in question, a synopsis or light review of that work. This is either lifted from a contemporary review of the original release or a precis provided by Cotter himself. In fact, the review segments are usually a compilation of the two elements, before Cotter then goes on to assess the film on a more critical level and provide any fascinating behind the scenes stories or comments taken from interviews done either at the time or in retrospective. Of course, for any fan of the lady herself, this is a goldmine of information... especially if you want to know whether it’s worth tracking down a rare item on a venue like eBay or whether Caroline is only in something for less than a minute. Die hard fans will, of course, want everything they can get their hands on.

If I were to have any criticisms of the book they would be that the various entries are uneven in their word counts but, I guess, that’s just the nature of the beast. The director spends an awful lot of time on the two Dr. Phibes movies, for instance, when Caroline is hardly in them at all, because they seem to be two of his favourite movies. Another minor criticism is that the insides of this particular tome are in black and white but, seeing as it’s quite a pricey volume, one can understand why the publishers didn’t delve into the realm of full colour photo inserts for this one, although it would certainly have been nice.

These are minor quibbles, however, and I’m certainly glad I got one of these in my Christmas stocking this year (thanks Chris and Ross). Now I know Caroline made appearances in shows like The New Avengers, that's another title I have to track down to go on the list with a few others I’ve got my sights on. This is probably not the definitive book on Caroline... I’m still waiting for her memoirs to come out, but to tide us over, it’s a very good reference work which many fans of horror and fantasy will want on their shelves. Certainly something I’ll be dipping in and out of over the coming years as more stuff by the fabulous lady is, I’m sure, released onto DVD and Blu Ray formats (and the oncoming storm of troublesome digital downloads too, no doubt... don’t get me started). An invaluable resource for fans of Ms. Munro and definitely something you would want to check out if you count yourself among their legion.

Monday, 4 April 2016

On The Road (Zatôichi kenka-tabi)

Ichi Keen

On The Road (Zatôichi kenka-tabi)
Japan 1963 Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Daiei/Criterion Blu Ray Zone A 


So I’ve been inadvertently neglecting my Zatoichi watching and reviewing of late. Hopefully I can get back into the swing of that with this, the fifth of the 26 Zatoichi films starring Shintarô Katsu as the blind swordsman (not including his 100+ episodes of the TV show) and the first of the films to be directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.

The film opens, pre-credits, with Zatoichi rumbling a gambling con. He slices a candle down the middle, extinguishing the light so he can get the upper hand, and deals with the whole roomful of gambling antagonists stating, in a shout out to the subtitle of a much later Zatoichi film in the series, that “Darkness is my ally.” As he finishes with his enemies, the title of the movie comes up and composer extraordinaire Akira Ifikube’s four note Zatoichi theme swells on the soundtrack. As the music and credits play out, we then follow Zatoichi’s progress 'on the road' as he encounters a fellow traveller and stops at the Edo period equivalent of a roadside diner with him to eat as the opening titles finish.

The traveller is on a mission to take Zatoichi to his boss so that said boss can negotiate for Zatoichi to join his side in a stand off against another boss in his town. Alas, it’s not long before this man becomes a casualty as three swordsmen kill him trying to take out Zatoichi. The blind man learns from the widowed wife of one of the men he has just despatched that they were just hired on the spot to get rid of Zatoichi. She seeks vengeance on Zatoichi but is obviously in no position to do anything about it... at least not right now.

We then stumble into another unrelated, at this point, subplot where our hero finds a dying man in a forest. A group of samurai are looking for a lady called Omitsu and have mortally wounded him as he was protecting her. The dying man begs Zatoichi to see Omitsu safely to Edo, just before he passes away. Zatoichi stumbles into her and, eluding the chasing samurai, takes her under his protection.

Like pretty much all of the Zatoichi films starring Katsu in the title role, as far as I can remember, Zatoichi always talks to himself, rendering his inner dialogue as an external monologue. Voice overs are rarely used in the Zatoichi movies, to let you know what he is thinking... Katsu always does it himself, in shot. This always has the trick of making him a much more likeable, easier to identify with character from the audience’s point of view, I suspect. Having these things rendered as such on the surface makes him seem less devious and more friendly... at least that’s how I always interpret these many instances of talking to himself that the character exhibits in the Katsu versions and he’s enough of a great actor to pull this stuff off without the audience, as far as I know, ever once questioning it. Works for me, anyway.

That being said, I think I spotted a rare, slight mistake in this one because, after Zatoichi has killed two of the pursuing samurai, he reaches around for Omitsu’s hand to lead her out of harm’s way. Since she is holding her hands up near her head, one wonders how Zatoichi would know to reach up there rather than drop his hand to where her hand would normally be expected to be. Now one could, of course, argue that the deductive radar system he has set up in his head from having his sight taken from him and which allows him to avoid or block the killing blows of his self-styled enemies could, in fact, easily tell just where someone’s hand is when they are at rest. I don’t know though... I think this is a bit of a stretch and a rare slip in the actor’s concentration which just got by the director at the time. Frankly, who can blame him or begrudge him that. Katsu does such a great job of playing a blind man over the decades that I think you have to cut him a little slack in the odd moment like that.

After this, of course, the two different sub plots become linked and Zatoichi is left to fight both sides of the big fight with one of the bosses, as they both try to gain the girl, who they believe is of some value, to use for either a reward or as a bargaining chip to buy the services of Zatoichi. It all gets integrated with various other plots threads dropped down in the early stages of the film and, of course, the widow of the samurai Zatoichi was forced to dispatch also plays a hand in the unfolding drama.

It’s a nice enough story with big flashes of action and Zatoichi taking out a heck of a lot of opponents towards the end... the majority of both warring factions. However, it’s not as flashy or overt in its cinematography as some of the more visually spectacular episodes in the film series and although there are some nice touches like a dragonfly taking off of a plant and then landing again (in reverse footage), bookending the flash of Zatoichi’s sword as he effortlessly takes out one or two of his enemies... the majority of the direction and camerawork is pedestrian. It doesn’t detract from the pacing and intrigue in any way... although I have to say that the actual through line on the story does seem a little fragmented and jumpy in certain stretches of the film. Almost like there were supposed to be more connecting scenes which never made it into the movie.

That being said, I did notice the occasional interesting shot at certain points. There's a cool shot on a transition where the camera is looking up and around the tops of the trees, almost as if searching for a sense of focus of the shot before meandering down to Zatoichi and Omitsu and then cutting to a tighter frame of them. That’s a pretty wild way of doing an establishing shot and I wonder what the reasoning behind shooting this one like that was. Another interesting visual flourish I noticed or, visual method at any rate, is that a fair few of the external location shots are taken from very low down, like the camera is in a ditch or a specially dug hole, to mask the bottom of frame with the landscape while the action plays out in top fifth sliver of the screen. It’s kinda interesting but it didn’t particularly, to my mind at least, gel with any of the other camerawork used in the movie, which seemed less special or focussed to a particular artistic expression than those sequences I just described.

At the end of the day, though, this is still a solid Zatoichi film and the director went on to helm a fair few more as the series progressed. The performances, as you would expect from this, are all pretty much faultless and Ifikube’s music, one of many scores he did for this series of films, while not particularly inventive or striking as some of the other composers who worked on these, is pretty reliable and packed full of emotion. On The Road is a pretty watchable entry in a truly magnificent series of movies about the blind swordsman. As I’ve noted before, the Criterion Blu Ray/DVD combination box set is the way to go when watching these films. If you haven’t seen these classics of Japanese cinema before, then... it’s definitely worth a purchase.