Saturday, 15 June 2013
Zeal Before Nod
Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
Playing at cinemas now.
Warning: Some big Kryptonite nugget sized
spoilers lurking in here later...
You know, in some ways, I owe Superman a lot.
When I was two or three years old, I was encouraged to read via Superman and Batman comics which my dad or my uncle would pick up from the stand, long gone I imagine, at the Angel, Edmonton in the very early seventies (1970 in fact, I suspect). These comics, along with Green Arrow/Green Lantern, World’s Finest, Shazam!, Justice League Of America, Daredevil and The Amazing Spider-Man and also the annual Christmas time reprints in such tomes as The Batman Bumper Book, The Superman Bumper Book and, wait for it, The Superman and Batman Bumper Book, were pretty much how I learned to read and by the time I got to junior school I was already out-reading all the other kids in the class (and writing epic length tales of imaginary spaceway heroes in some lessons too, from what I can recall). I particularly remember the cover to one specific Superman comic I read which, unfortunately, was the only comic which didn’t survive my childhood because I just read it too much and it finally fell apart. But the cover was so good to a kid my age... Superman VS The Electronic Ghost of Metropolis. It would probably cost an inappropriate amount of money these days if I were to track it down in the chance I could read it again but that cover will always live on in my memory.
So Superman meant a lot to me and I remember how thrilled I was when I used to watch the reruns of the old George Reeves The Adventures Of Superman show when I was a kid... and even the old Superfriends cartoon show. And I still have my Superman reels for my old 3D viewmaster somewhere about, I’m sure. When the first of the Christopher Reeves movies came out at the cinema, many years later, it was an event almost as big as the Star Wars movie of the previous year. All the kids loved both that and the sequel and I even got on well with the third in the series at the time... barring one scene which totally enraged me... but that’s another story.
Years later I discovered the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 40s and was absolutely blown away by the visual sophistication of these which, I believe, are the most expensive cartoon shorts ever made. I remember when a film some years ago called Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was released into cinemas and I also loved that for being able to so perfectly invoke the spirit and visual feel of those Fleischer animations.
As the years have gone by I’ve rewatched all the old George Reeves shows on DVD and, more importantly for this fan of the last son of Krypton... about seven or eight years ago I now acquired and watched on DVD the very first live action Superman theatrical serials from 1948 and 1950, starring Kirk Alyn in the title role, who will now always be my favourite live action Superman, I think.
Now, as far as the new Man Of Steel movie goes, it has to be acknowledged that I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Two reasons for this, actually... one was the fact that every trailer I’ve seen for this movie was... well... a bit rubbish. Two was the fact that, in their wisdom, the producers decided to get rid of Superman’s red pants. To explain to all my international readers (and thank you all so much for coming on here and reading, you’re all very much appreciated), I am English. In the UK the term pants is not what we call trousers as it is in the US, apparently. Over here it means underpants, or Y-fronts or... um... I dunno... men’s knickers. It’s long been a jokey but undeniable fact that Superman wears his underpants, the wrong way around, over his trousers. Funny or not, though, it’s always been an integral part of his costume and, along with one or two other minor but equally unwelcome tweaks to the uniform, these basic “no brainer, you don’t change these things” elements have been unnecessarily tinkered with in this movie. So even going into the screening I knew this was not going to be a proper Superman movie. No red knickers... no Superman!
But... I trusted Zack Snyder as a director and he’d not let me down in even the most challenging movie properties before this. He took liberties with Watchmen, to be sure, but certainly not as many as with Man Of Steel and I thought, even though it didn’t have the fake alien squid monster (which it really should have) it still kinda worked as a movie. Dawn Of The Dead, a reboot of one of the classic zombie movies, was also really cool (and works better when you realise it’s really not a remake of the original in anything but name and location similarities). I even thought Sucker Punch, a much maligned movie on its initial cinema release (don’t worry, a film that good will be rediscovered and lionised to classic status in approximately 23 years time) was a brilliant and highly cinematic experience (reviewed here). So on the strength of these I went along to see Man Of Steel anyway.
Besides... I wanted to hear what Hans Zimmer was going to do with the score.
Now, I took my folks out to see this and frankly, the cross section family assessment of this movie is as follows...
Dad: That was a terrible, terrible, atrociously bad movie.
Mum: It was a bit long winded and could have done with being a lot shorter. Not very good.
Me: It wasn’t completely terrible. It was way too noisy. There were no red underpants.
So... well there you have it. But let me give you a little more about what I thought of this noble intentioned monstrosity.
Well, firstly, it’s like no Superman movie you’ve seen before, even though it’s practically a remake of the opening half hour of Superman The Movie and most of Superman II. After a spectacularly realised set piece that shows the rebel General Zod and his cohorts defeated and Jor El (Superman’s father) himself becoming a fugitive on his own planet before the baby (Kal El) is finally launched towards Earth and Krypton destroyed... we are propelled immediately into a series of early “adult Superman” adventure sequences with him performing various, low profile, super-powered rescues. It would be fair to say that the director hits the ground running but, frankly, as spectacular and as enjoyable as the early Krypton scenes are on a purely cinematic level, they really are inappropriate to the subject matter, I felt, and would have been much better off in a Flash Gordon movie (for the record, I would love to see Zack Snyder direct a Flash Gordon movie, especially if it’s done in the proper time period). There’s an element of adaptation to this movie, whether you like that or not, and this “interpretation” of Krypton was beautiful but just not what was needed, I feel.
Also, another problem for some will be the eliptical way in which Snyder tells his tale of Superman. It’s, quite appropriately, much more like a comic strip, jumping backwards and forwards in time so we can get to the action as well as seeing his defining years on Earth at the same time without slowing down the high level of energy on the screen (this film is nothing if not pacey). It’s another example of Hollywood wanting to have its cake and eat it at the same time but, for the majority of the film it really kind of works and I was certainly buying into this technique for a while. However, if you’re a complete novice to the legend of Superman and unfamiliar with any of the previous versions (and there are many who are these days, I promise you) then you may have a hard time following the back story is my guess. The crash landing of young Kal El’s space capsule on Earth, for example, is never even shown... we just have to take the implication which, if you don’t know the story, may be a bit of a leap, is my guess.
There are some good things about the movie, though...
Superman could never fly in the early comics... he could leap tall buildings in a single bound though and this later developed in the strip into the kind of high flying ariel stunts we are used to associating with the character post-1930s. This new version pays homage to this in its “first flight” sequence and it’s a really nice nod to those origins. It reminded me of a similarly successful scene in the much maligned John Carter movie, when the title character in that film (and Edgar Rice Burroughs original source novel) has to learn to cope with extra muscular activity in a gravity a lot lighter than on his home world (review here). So this was all good when it comes to Man Of Steel. Although, he didn’t have red pants on, of course, so... it wasn’t really Superman.
The performances are all superb, although many of the characterisations are quite off. It’s not the fault of the actors, presumably, if they’re being written like that in the script. Larry Fishburne makes a surprisingly cool version of Perry White and Ma Kent is brilliantly played by Judge Hershey herself, actress Diane Lane. The title character, played by some guy I’d not heard of called Henry Cavill, really looks and acts the part as far as he’s allowed, although he does look extremely worried all through the movie. Also, losing the kiss curl (and that’s been done before many times too) is a big mistake. It’s not just a kiss curl you guys, it’s the "S" symbol. It’s as much a part of the Superman costume as his red underpants... oh, wait.
Hans Zimmer’s percussion heavy score, too, is excellent but quite noisy. Not as memorable as some of the Superman scores in the past but certainly he’s had a good go at it and I look forward to hearing the score CDs when they finally arrive in the post.
Anyway, yeah, there are some nice things about the movie but... the number of bad things happening maybe outweighs all that.
The plotting is atrocious, for example and completely relies on a ridiculous piece of “deus ex machina” towards the end of the picture which really is just a piece of technical sounding mumbo jumbo and which seems to make mockery of physics. I know I’ve bandied the “deus ex machina” term around a lot just lately in my reviews but, honestly, if Hollywood stops doing it then I’ll stop calling them on it. Sheesh! And for your information, I suspect deliberately creating a black hole over a big city on the planet Earth may actually do even more damage to the planet than Superman, Zod and his crew do. Not just disappear and... oh, don’t get me started.
It’s kind of fitting that a modern incarnation (minus red knickers) of a classic character who made his debut in a 1938 issue of Action Comics should be part of a film where the emphasis is solely on action... unfortunately, and this really surprised me from this particular director, the action sequences are edited together really badly. I couldn’t work out what was going on half the time, I have to admit. It was all going by super-fast and mostly super-incomprehensibly and I so won’t be taking my hard earned super-cash to another screening of this movie if I can help it. Although I’ll probably buy a reference copy on DVD when it hits later in the year (or when it goes in the sales). Seriously, all that over zealous energy was pretty much non-stop caving my brain in on a Friday night and making me go all sleepy. It really is a case of “zeal before nod” as far as this film is concerned.
Which reminds me... I was quite disappointed that Snyder didn’t use the famous line “Kneel before Zod” in this film. Unfortunately,he didn’t succumb to the same kind of post modern referencing temptation that J. J. Abrams did in his latest Star Trek movie, it would seem (Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!).
There are a few more things that I think this movie could have done without changing. The “mild mannered reporter” incarnation of Clark Kent, for example, is saved for a reveal right at the end of the movie... which bothered me quite a lot actually. It’s also kind of annoying that Lois Lane is right in on the identity of Superman pretty much right from the start of the movie, when she accidentally gets embroiled in an incident in this version's equivalent of The Fortress Of Solitude and then uses all her reporter’s know how to track down her alien rescuer to the Kent’s home in Smallville. I suspect that, at DC, this might also be known as “pulling a Mary Jane/Gwen Stacey” in terms of watching what does and does not work at the box office. Although it seemed to fail on them as a ploy in the much panned but quite good Green Lantern movie from a few years ago (and reviewed here).
The one thing which really killed the movie quite a bit for me, though, was the death of gazillions of millions of bystanders. In Superman movies, innocents tend to not get killed, even during the big street battles with Zod and his crew in Superman II from what I can recall. Kal El would simply not tolerate not being able to rescue someone. It’s just not on and would do a lot of psychological damage to him, I think. During this movie there is a reign of destruction against the Earth which sees literally millions of innocent people dying. In the old Superman The Movie version from 1978, the character even breaks the director’s vision of “verisimilitude” (and annoyed us Superman fans no end) by having the man of steel magically take time backwards and heal the world rather than suffer anyone dying. In this movie the gloves, and the red pants too, apparently, are off. Millions die and quite often due to the last son of Krypton himself doing as much structural damage as the main “villains” of the piece. Superman loses his innocence and then compounds that by committing an act of murder at the end of the film when he chooses to end Zod’s reign of terror the only way left open to him. Superman makes the decision to kill and loses his “big boy scout” label in the process.
I think this was all very wrong and, frankly, if they wanted to make another Batman movie then they should have done just that. Superman is a different kind of hero to Batman... this is why they always work so well with each other. They possess strengths of character which fill in each other’s weaknesses. It’s a mistake to make one too much like the other... especially over the simple box office knowledge that bleak and vicious plays better than strength of morality in the cinema these days. It’s a shame but... there it is.
Okay, I’ve said a lot of negative stuff here but I don’t want to come down too hard on this movie. Lots of it was throughly entertaining and I don’t think a younger audience is going to be too concerned over the morality issues of the tale (even if there was a direct biblical analogy thrown into the mix in one scene). If you’re a fan of big budget action films then Man Of Steel might be right up your alley but if you, like me, have a big soft spot for the character, then you might want to have another think at whether you want to see this one. If you do though, and you find yourself wondering how Superman got into such a sorry state of affairs, just keep reminding yourself of one thing... “If he’s not wearing red pants, he’s not Superman."
Thursday, 13 June 2013
The Woman From The Sea
(Kaitei Kara Kita Onna)
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
Seen at a screening at the National Film Theatre
Warning: Slight spoilers swimming around the depths this review...
This is a movie which I had a bit of a strange reaction to when I finally saw it. I went to an NFT screening with JamesDevereaux of The Great Acting Blog and after the film was done he asked me what I thought of it and, in all honesty, I felt little disappointed but ultimately wanting to take another look at it... which is unlikely at the moment since the movie has never been made available on video in a country which would necessitate a subtitled print of a relatively (for Western audiences) obscure film. I said I’d need to sleep on it and, after a few fitful attempts at sleep (my personal life at the moment is a wreck) I have come to the conclusion that it’s a film I’d very much like to rewatch and let grow on me. Which must mean I kinda liked it, right? My feelings will probably be more apparent to me as I finish writing this review.
The film was screening as part of a season of old Nikkatsu studio films at the National Film Theatre and the curator of the event, Jasper Sharp, came out and did a little intro to the movie. Now bearing in mind the NFT staff always give out fact sheets containing an article about the movie you’re about to watch before the screening, I have to say that the gentleman in question was, for the most part, just underlining what I’d already only just read on the programme notes. However, I am grateful to this guy because he mentioned one insightful scrap of information in his opening spiel which, although I would probably have arrived at the same conclusion myself after watching the film, I have to give credit to him for because he pointed it out first and maybe I was looking out for it. That information was a comparison of this film and others like it to... Scooby Doo... and I’ll explain just why I agree with that proposition in a little while.
So the first thing I have to say is that it’s very much of its time, but for an American or British picture, in terms of cutting and editing. Even the shot set ups, although there were a couple of stand outs, were not what I was expecting from a Nikkatsu studio picture from this specific era (Nikkatsu are, of course, Japan’s oldest film studio). Most, not all but most, of the shots are a little less stylised and the space less artificially populated than I would suspect from some of the giants of Nikkatsu... people like Seijun Suzuki and his ilk. Instead, the movie relies on a more charming and comfortable feeling of community injected into the scripting and acting. The acting, by the way, was pretty matter of fact but stronger for it in this one, with special mention going to whoever the lady was who played the main male protagonist’s aunt.
The film took me by surprise because I was expecting something more serious and less lightweight for a picture that essentially contains supernatural elements mostly associated with the horror genre and, indeed, you can certainly see strong elements of that genre in this film but in a more “gee whiz” kind of presentation. Dealing with a beautiful (and HIsako Tsukuba really does have a searing presence in this role) fish-woman who attaches herself to our main protagonist Toshio (played by Tamio Kawachi) early on in the film, I was expecting something a little more haunting and poetic like a watery version of Kaneto Shindô’s excellent film about cat spirits, Kuroneko. Instead, we had a similar idea but with a lady who is a shark and who has been poaching and eating fish, not to mention feasting down on some of the locals as part of her diet too.
The strange bit is that the whole movie has been cross-pollinated with what I can only assume are the Japanese equivalent of the American beach culture movies of the time (you know, stuff like the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicelli vehicle Beach Blanket Bingo). These were apparently (and again thanks to Jasper Sharp for this) known as “sun tribe” movies and this makes for a rather uneasy, if spectacularly interesting, blend to watch on screen because, on the one hand you have a threat to the community in the form of a hostile, aggressive fish-woman who lures her victims to their death and eats them and it’s all mixed in with the same fish-woman and Toshio getting all teenage romantic and starry eyed. It’s quite a stark contrast at times too, because the villagers who seek to slay this beautiful monster are really quite viscous in their intent and even Toshio’s brother is killed off by the titular monster.
And while all this is going on, the great Japanese composer Masaru Sato’s score is enhancing the shenanigans even further and this is where the Scooby Doo analogy really takes hold because one of the methods the filmmakers use to give the audience the message that this is a wholesome movie about a bunch of kids investigating groovy mysteries is to have Sato deliver a score full of weird jazz and percussion hits and, annoyingly, Hawaiian guitar stingers... all dropped in almost without structure, or at least quite randomly, within the underlying music. And thinking of it, although it’s been many decades since I watched an episode of Scooby Doo, an extremely similar method of scoring was taking place in those early cartoons and this does give the picture a very strong message that it’s all just a heady, teenage romp.
Except it’s not. People are dying in brutal fashion and even Toshio is in line to be the next meal of the young “fish themed maiden”. So it’s all very interesting actually.
At the end of the day... I was fairly entertained by this film and I would certainly pay out for a DVD or Blu Ray of this movie if it was available (I’m looking at you Criterion Eclipse!) An interesting experience and one that people who are into exploring different movies should all strive to seek out... or at least a movie in a similar vein. Time and money well spent.
Wednesday, 12 June 2013
Treasure Of The
Mission Impossible II
Directed by John Woo
DVD Region 2
Okay, so on to the next review as I watch the Mission Impossible films for the first time, courtesy of my dad (see my review of the first one here).
So four years after DePalma’s first movie hit cinemas, famous Chinese action director John Woo was called in to direct the second in the ongoing series and, as you would expect, delivered a much different film to the first one. I actually remember the trailer which ran for this in cinemas at the time, of Tom Cruise getting all ‘Kirked up’ and climbing a mountain and a nice quote from Anthony Hopkins along the lines of “Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible.” I must say, the trailer looked quite good but there was no way I would be going to the cinema to see it because I hadn’t seen the first one. 13 years later... I’ve now fixed that issue.
Now, I’ll be honest with you, I‘ve not seen that much Woo... but I know he makes some of the most respected ‘kinetic action ballet’ style of movies out there. I’d seen only four of his other films before this and I remember three of those - The Killer, Hard Boiled and Paycheck - being pretty good... unfortunately this man also made a terrible movie called Face Off which, to paraphrase a great writer once again, I only managed to survive the tedium of by gnawing one of my own legs off.
He seems to have a couple of trademark features to his films that I can make out... one is a white dove which always seems to get in there somewhere (a little like director John Glen’s pigeon obsession), this film being no exception and the other being that there’s usually a fair amount of slow motion footage during action sequences which, in all honesty, I do find kind of dull. Woo uses these to highlight certain details of a sequence he wants to stick in your mind... much like Eisenstein would take an isolated shot of an individual in close up, isolated away from the crowd he or she is in, to emphasise the emotion or detail of a scene... that is, if Eisenstein had been filming people driving high speed vehicles and shooting about a gazilllion rounds of ammunition a second at each other.
Well there’s plenty of his slow motion stuff in here too... especially in the end fist fight between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character and the main villain of the piece, played by Dougray Scott (who I previously saw in the Doctor Who episode Hide, reviewed here...). However, there is one use of slow motion right near the opening of the picture, which introduces Thandie Newton’s “lovable thief” romantic interest character and throws her into the mix of things as Tom Cruise first catches her eye while they are both observing some Spanish flamenco dancing... and the flamenco steps are slowed down. This "dance" of these characters’ opening encounter is something which does catch the imagination somewhat and it’s also something which the director takes great pains to emphasise as an echo within the body of the rest of the movie... and which I think is a good thing because I’m guessing that emphasis wouldn’t eccessarily have been something which was actually written into the script. It’s done almost subliminally during key moments, by the use of Hans Zimmer’s fairly interesting scoring, which every now and again will reference back to that flamenco music to remind us that Cruise and his new leading lady definitely have... “a thing” for each other. And this works really well.
I say it’s a different kind of film from the first one and certainly there’s a lot more sweeping elegance to the shooting style but, although John Woo had the script written around the action scenes he already wanted to include as set pieces (and not the other way around as most traditional directors would do), the film is not exactly an action fest in terms of content and I’m afraid to say that, while I prefer good writing over high speed action pieces any day, this second outing suffers from exactly the same problem tht the first film did. That is to say, the story and events depicted are really obvious and predictable all the way through.
It’s very obvious, given the parameters of the Mission Impossible branding, that various twist scenes are just not going to work. The whole plot being centred around a sample of a deadly virus called Chimera, for example, almost screams out for one of the Mission Impossible team to get infected, causing a 20 hour time limit to that person expiring unless the virus can be obtained. Of course, way before the time this actually happens in the movie, you will have figured out who, how and certainly why this happens... which is a shame because I suspect that could have been rewritten as a really strong and dynamic part of the plot.
Similarly, a good five minutes before we see the leading actor ostensibly shot by one of the bad guys (so “bad” he went on to play Dracula in Stephen Sommer’s Van Helsing), it’s pretty obvious by the way the scene is shot, even before either of the characters are through the door in a particular scene, that Cruise has switched their identity with the aid of the “not very convincing” face masks people use to steal each others personae with in these films.
But, as the first entry in the series, there is some good stuff going on here too, with a great "bath/robbery" scene between Cruise and Newton near the start of the movie and a truly poetic, wire work fist fight at the end which isn’t anything new (even for the time) but is certainly more than watchable, especially when pitched with Zimmer’s effective choral and percussion music which does a lot to elevate a fair few of the action scenes to a certain level of quality... much like Elfman’s did in the first movie although, to be fair to Mr. Elfman and in hindsight, having now heard the music as a stand alone experience, Elfman’s score did suffer a lot more in the mix than Zimmer’s does here, where it gets a fair amount of highlighting against the inevitable bullets, bikes and bangs.
A lot of people have said to me that the second and third movies in the four to date are a lot worse than the original. I don’t think the second movie, at any rate, is any worse than De Palma’s opening salvo... I just think it’s a similar film done differently. So, honestly, if you liked the first one and haven’t seen this one, I’m guessing this will be a far from intolerable experience for you. Check it out sometime.
Monday, 10 June 2013
Nell To Pay
The Last Exorcism Part 2
Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly
Playing at cinemas now.
Warning: Very light spoilers possessing
the soul of this review as you read...
Well this movie came as a bit of a surprise when I finally saw it.
A number of years ago now there was a “found footage” horror movie called The Blair Witch Project which was made on a shoestring budget and which went on to conquer the box office and scare people silly. While the iron was hot, a sequel was commissioned by the studio but this dispensed with the dodgy 1st person camera eye view that had so impressed people in the first movie (although this film far from pioneered that style of directing, it certainly repopularised it and the aftermath of that is still with us today) and instead was presented as a straight, linear movie narrative. The seeming touch of brilliance, though, was the fact that it was the so-called found footage from the first movie which inspired the characters in the sequel to proceed into similar territory and get themselves into so much trouble.
Unfortunately, for everyone involved, the second Blair Witch movie turned into “just another teen horror movie” which was dull and uninteresting and it seemed that the filmmakers had been so intent on reaching that easy pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that they had forgotten to make sure that the film turned out to be any good.
Cut to a couple of years ago and a similar “documentary style” footage movie called The Last Exorcism that some people didn’t really go for but which I’d really loved opened in cinemas (my review of it can be found here). When somebody other than the original creative team announced that they would be doing a sequel (so what would that be... The Laster Exorcism?) and that they would be dispensing with the first person camera style in this one also, I was getting a strong sense of deja vu that this was going to be going the same way as the Blair Witch sequel... especially as it comes to pass that “found footage” from the first movie turns up as a youtube video in the second film.
However, where The Last Exorcism Part 2 scores over the Blair Witch Project sequel big time is that, this time, the new creative team actually put together a pretty entertaining movie. I know I’m probably going to be in the minority on this one but, I have to say, I really liked this installment.
Ashley Bell returns to this film in the same role which she played so dazzlingly well in the first movie and this one indeed picks up pretty soon after the last film ended in what I can only call a “blaze of Wheatley”. Only this time she’s not doing hardly any of the “twisted body” thing she did so well in the first movie... this film is not like that. It does its own thing.
Her character, Nell, is “discovered” in the pre-credits sequence, which is another little exercise in jump scare horror, and this pretty much sets the tone for the whole movie and her adventures in a girls orphanage in New Orleans is all about becoming a normal girl who is gradually feeling her recent past catching up with her.
Nell is a name which echoes deep for me in the legacy of cinematic horror. It’s the name which Shirley Jackson gave to her heroine (short for Eleanor but written ghostly on a wall as Nell) in her novel The Haunting Of Hill House which became, and still remains, my favourite movie in the genre when Robert Wise made it into a film in the early sixties, The Haunting (so much so that I’ve never been able to contemplate seeing the remake). Nell in this and the previous movie in The Last Exorcism franchise has fair hair and an innocent to the point of blindingly naive demeanour, just like Jackson’s original heroine, played so well in the sixties movie by Julie Harris and maybe that’s why I have such an affinity with the Nell character in this franchise. More likely, however, it’s probably more because Ashley Bell is such a fantastic actor who really knows how to use her body language to put her character across when the character’s voice leaves her words often unspoken. She’s a really interesting actress who tends to hold your attention whenever she’s on screen.
There’s also another actor back from the previous movie but... I really shouldn’t tell you who. It might spoil the sequences that character is in a little too much for you.
To be honest, the movie proceeds throughout most of its running length to be a series of cheap scares piled on top of yet another sequence of cheap clichéd scares which I can sometimes be critical of as a technique in modern horror... except this movie executes these fright moments so well. It had me jumping at everything... dogs barking and hurling themselves at fences, radios doing spooky volume tricks, birds flying into windows... it’s all there but the director knows how to time it so, even though in most cases you know exactly when and how the scare will be coming, it still manages to give your heart a little rush when it comes. At least, it did that for me.
Nell’s gradual maturation from an innocent little girl through to a point when she is anything but an innocent little girl is both touching and satisfying to watch. There’s a scene in Sam Raimi’s excellent M.R. James retread Drag Me To Hell (reviewed here) where an attempt is made to trap a demon in a goat and then kill the goat before it gets loose again and a similar kind of sequence (in a slightly differently presented way) is played out towards the end of this movie but, where Raimi tends to play his scenes for laughs, this one is played for keeps and the shift in strategy by the exorcist and his secret society in here... their kind of end game last resort... is something which makes you think, oh yeah, this was the devils plan all along, to force this battle right here and now. I don’t want to spoil the final outcome for you but I really loved the last sequence of the movie (as i had the movie before) and, without giving too much away, I would have loved it if somehow a time machine could have been invented to let Bernard Herrmann score the last shot as a backwards xylophone hit over a jump cut. If you know the film I’m referring to here well... when it comes up in this one you’ll know it when you see it.
There is prominent use of CGI in this little end sequence but I just loved it and although there will probably be a lot of detractors to this movie, because it doesn’t do exactly what the first movie did and for a heap of all kinds of other reasons, I know a skillfully put together motion picture when I see one and the performances and standard, but astonishingly effective, horror score straying into the realms of sound design by composer Michael Wandmacher mark this movie out as a much worthy successor to the original film than, say, Damien: Omen 2 was to The Omen (and there’s a good reason I refer to that film series in particular here).
All I can say is, if you liked the first movie and were as astonished by Ashley Bell as I was, here you get to see a less physical but equally enchanting side to her characterisation of Nell and I think you might want to go along and leave your expectations at the door. I know I did and I’m very pleased at that.
Sunday, 9 June 2013
Pussy And Vijay
Directed by John Glen
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C
I don’t even know how to start on this one... so I guess I’ll just start off with a reminder that 1983 was the time we had two James Bond movies at the cinema in the same year. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself here.
Okay, so I was 15 and, four days before Octopussy came out in the UK, my country saw the release of what was probably the most anticipated movie sequel since the days of the cliff hangers. Star Wars Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi is the film that was on everybody’s minds at this point and so, maybe this contributed to my general disappointment with that year’s Bond movie at the time... but I can hardly use the same excuse when, on subsequent viewings, my verdict of the movie really hasn’t changed all that much.
And it’s not like there wasn’t enough hype and publicity surrounding the film either. I even remember working my way through my Shredded Wheat so I could finish the box off and move onto the next one and get another in their series of Octopussy stickers. Oh yes, I remember them well... those stickers. James Bond dressed as a clown... was this meant to be a joke? James Bond’s head peeking out of a one man submarine disguised to look like a crocodile. Well that looks silly. And, yes, it’s in the movie too... and what do you know? It is silly. Granted, Sean Connery swum into a shot disguised as a duck once in Goldfinger, but that was a quick, cheap gimmick... a fake crocodile with a grown man inside it is... well it’s campy and rubbish and that’s just exactly what Octopussy was/is. Campy rubbish of the worst kind... because it’s campy inappropriate rubbish.
I remember coming out the cinema with my mum and she’d quite liked it and I was thinking that maybe something was wrong with me. That wasn’t a Bond movie we just watched, it was a travesty. When the rival Bond production came out at the end of the year, the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again starring Sean Connery as Bond, well it was obvious that the Connery flick had much more edge and ‘entertainment weight’ to it than the EON produced flick. I was sick to death of Moore in the role and completely fed up with the direction that the films were heading in... so as a consequence, I never even bothered to go to the cinema to see A View To A Kill when it finally came out. No more Moore for me, I’d decided... purely on the lousiness of this film.
Again, I’ve nothing against director John Glen. He got the best he could out of an aging Bond and the raw materials he had to work with... it just all falls rather flat for me. I remember at the time thinking that Octopussy was the worst James Bond movie to ever be released into cinemas and it wasn’t until decades later when two equally bad Bond films hit our screens, Die Another Day and Quantum Of Solace, that I was able to make good on my new comparison/insult of... “all in all I’d rather be watching Octopussy”. Even the much lamentable License To Kill has more edge to it than Octopussy.
So, what is there of note in this movie? Well, it sees Maude Adams returning to the franchise in the title role after playing Scaramanga’s girlfriend in The Man With The Golden Gun. It also had a joyful but possibly somewhat embarrassing performance by professional tennis player Vijay Amitraj playing... well he’s playing himself, using professional tennis playing as his cover for being in the secret service. Which is all well and good and certainly is no different from, say, Peter Falk playing himself who was also actually an angel who returned to Earth from heaven and became an actor called Peter Falk in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire and Faraway, So Close! However, the fact that the Vijay character in this film is bloodlessly killed with a highly impractical ‘spinning buzzsaw yo-yo’ but, in fact, didn’t get killed in real life, was a source of profound puzzlement to me at the time. Nowadays I can just shake it off as needless twaddle in a film which is just too awful to worry or care about... but at the time I found that concept kinda mind bending.
So what else? Well the recurring character of General Gogol has a much more active role in this movie... as does Desmond Llewellyn’s Q, who takes more of an integral part in Bond’s on screen shenanigans here than he does in most of the films. And we also have respected actor Steven Berkoff playing a thuggish Russian military villain, hamming it up good and proper and once again proving that, for a serious thespian, he’ll do anything for money (hopefully, he does this in the same spirit that John Cassavetes used to... use the process of acting in bobbins to fund his own artistic projects).
None of these things really make the movie worth actually watching, however.
The one redeeming element, I think, that Octopussy does have going for it is, despite an absolutely awful “all time low” of a title song, is John Barry’s amazing score. How he could get inspired enough by this movie to turn in what is almost an old school young-Barry Bond score is beyond me but this one certainly goes in the right direction and, as a stand alone listen away from the context of the movie, it’s really not a bad score. Such a shame it’s just attached to such a yawn fest of a movie. This is one of the worst three films in Bond history, as far as I’m concerned. Even Skyfall was better than Octopussy.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. Not James Bond’s finest hour, I have to say.
Friday, 7 June 2013
Like A Purging
Directed by James DeMonaco
Playing at cinemas now.
Warning: There will be spoilers purging themselves
randomly in this review. You have been warned.
I really like Ethan Hawke but there aren’t that many movies I actually get to see with him in these days. All his best ones are directed by Richard Linklater and the horror movie Sinister, which he toplined last year, kinda disappointed me somewhat (my review here). However, I’d seen some people on twitter talking about a new movie called The Purge which, somehow, I was completely unaware of. I checked out the trailer online after this and thought I’d give it a go.
Now there have been a lot of negative reviews on this one over the last week or so, which makes me kinda grateful that the two people on twitter who had the conversation I was watching were among the few people who'd taken a relatively positive experience away from this movie... otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered to pursue this one, if I’m being truthful. As it stands, I did have a fair few problems with this movie myself but I do think it’s being unfairly criticised at the moment by people maybe expecting something different from what it delivers and although there was some not great stuff going on with it, it also had some really strong points to it as well so... I think this is really going to be a little bit of a defence of the movie too, to an extent.
The appeal for me on this one for example, apart from Ethan Hawke being a cool dude in most of the films I’d seen him in, was that the basic idea for the movie, of having an “all crime including murder goes legal” for 12 hours a year event, was exactly the kind of gritty conceptual science-fiction concept that Hollywood used to make so well back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You know the kinds of movies I mean. I’m talking stuff like Planet Of The Apes, Rollerball, The Omega Man, The Ultimate Warrior, Soylent Green, Westworld, Demon Seed... stuff like that. Often they’d have someone like Chuck Heston or Yul Brinner running around in them... but not always.
Well I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that this movie managed to maintain that kind of high concept, early 70s atmosphere for a lot of the movie. It’s not just a mindless bunch of action scenes thrown together... it does throw out questions about this near future society who choose to have an annual purge of savagery to keep the crime rate down and forces you, very simply, to question the moral dilemma of the main protagonists of this movie in a speculative setting which you wouldn’t be able to realistically explore in the confines of real life to this degree. And, of course, this is one of the main tenets of the best kind of science fiction... to explore basic questions, problems and dilemmas of the human condition in just this kind of speculative setting which allows you to scratch deeper into the surface of an idea than mere real life could.
So I was really happy that this film does confront certain questions of basic right and wrong and, frankly, very respectful of the decision of the writers/filmmakers to not take sides and draw their own conclusions for you. There’s no judgement held here, except for maybe the US constitution’s right to bear arms and, though this is firmly encapsulated into various character’s ways of life here, it rightly pails before the bigger questions like... is it right to sacrifice one human life in order to save your own and that of your loved ones? Happily, as I said, the film does not spoon feed you anything and lets the various visual calms between action sequences wash these kinds of ideas over you in a way that forces you to confront them yourself.
The downside of this is that like many high concept science fiction films where that simple idea is the driving force around the narrative, there’s not a heck of a lot else in the way of storyline to get to. The main meal is the concept and some people in today’s audiences, I suspect, are going to find it just a little too simplistic in comparison to what they’ve come to expect from a modern screen entertainment. It’s actually got a lot more meat to it than most celluloid dished these days but, because it just goes from A to B in a straightforward, linear fashion with no real surprises... I think a lot of people might switch off to this movie. I thought the basic plotting was fine though, precisely because it allowed the moral dilemmas to come to the fore and force you to think on your feet.
However, I did have massive problems with this movie too.
The first problem was predictability. There’s a character introduced very early on in the film and you just know that she and the local neighbours are going to come back towards the end of the movie and wind up trying to kill the main protagonists. She gives the wife, played by Lena Headey, a tin of home made cookies right at the start of the picture and already I was thinking... “Are those cookies going to turn out to be poisoned or something?” because you could tell by the way these characters were highlighted for just a little too much screen time that there was going to be some clash between them later on in the movie. This was a really obvious set up and I’d rather they would have introduced the concept of the neighbourhood second hand from the main protagonists and slowly revealed the jealousy and hate that was lurking there through the eyes of the family, rather than hit you on the head with it at the start of the picture.
The other two obvious things were that you knew Ethan Hawke’s daughter’s “forbidden boyfriend” would try to kill Hawke at some point and the fact that Hawke's young son had a mobile camera on tracks that he’d just upgraded to be equipped with night vision, meant that this gadget would also come back at some point as some kind of heroic rescue component in the latter stages of the film. And yeah, bingo, it did. It was like they wanted to be really obvious about spelling out all the traps and aids which the main family could ether fall into or use to their advantage later in the film and get it out of the way within the first 20 minutes of the running time. It all seemed so obvious and fake.
But, even with all that telegraphing in the earlier scenes, the film still went along and tried to “have its deus ex machina and eat it too” because there’s a sequence, a really intense sequence actually, where the home invasion battle of the movie begins proper, and there was a kind of repeat motif going on about building up expectations of death and then swooping in to save the day. I honestly couldn’t count the number of times, but it was maybe four or five, when a family member got within an inch of death before somebody else walked into a room and instantly removed the danger with a few spare rounds of plentiful ammunition. Seriously people? I mean, yeah, you can maybe get away with it once if you’re going for that kind of “on-the-edge-of-your-seat” bluff but not four or five times a row in quick succession. After time number two, you stop getting worried... either something will happen to stop character Y killing character X or it wont... and it doesn’t matter anymore because it just feels like one big repetitive cheat. Which is a shame because a lot of the film is quite strong.
The cast are terrific, firstly... with special shout out going to some guy I’d not heard of before called Rhys Wakefield who played the main, lead villain as a kind of well spoken yuppie who you really want to see killed off as quickly as possible. Known in the cast as only “polite stranger” the juxtaposition of rich, well mannered breeding and unconcealed blood lust leaves a nasty taste on the tongue and this guy is obviously someone to watch out for in future movies... as long as he doesn’t manage to get himself typecast as playing villains all the time.
Asides from Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, there’s also a “bloody stranger” who is played by a guy called Edwin Hodge... unfortunately his character is merely there as a catalyst for the problem our main protagonists are in and it’s so very obvious that he is going to end up shrugging off the treatment he suffers at the hands of these people (which is where the movie really starts to wallow in its shades of grey, quite successfully and mostly unflinchingly) and living up to his own moral code and turning up again like the cavalry in the last act. I wish the character hadn’t done that, in fact, because again it was so predictable but, predictable or not, he played the character well and made him someone likable to the audience... so you can at least emotionally invest in him when you need to. Job done on that count by a great little actor.
What I will say about the last half an hour or so, which is for me when the film really loses its moral edge for a little while (but makes up for it in bloody carnage), is that the stealth action sequences which mostly make up the climax of the movie are quite effective in their actual shooting and intensity... asides from the fistful of miracle rescue moments I was talking about earlier. There was one little sequence where Ethan Hawke ends up in hand to hand combat with about five of the “bad guys”, for example, which reminded me of that first, intense fight sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1... the editing and sound design made it all quite brutal and in your face... well until the inevitable “quick save” moment.
The music, too, was pretty interesting. I remember it being fairly minimal and it blended nicely with that “final days of old Hollywood” sci-fi ambience which I believe it was half trying to emulate. I don’t think it’s going to be getting a stand alone release on CD which is a shame because I’d quite like to have a listen to this one properly, away from the movie. It serves it very well though and resists the temptation, in most places, to overstate the on-screen action too much.
The Purge is, frankly, not as great as it could have been but certainly not deserving of the flack it’s been getting from some quarters. If you are going there because it’s being sold almost as a horror film (from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Sinister, as the UK poster screams) then you’re probably going to be a little disappointed... but if you’re looking for a simple but strong conceptual sci-fi film and you don’t mind about the obligatory modern mass carnage element which the film inevitably builds up to, then it might be worth a smidgeon of your time to check this one out and purge a little.
Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Snatch Of The Day
The Flesh And The Fiends
Directed by John Gilling
Burke And Hare
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Both movies shown as part of the Classic Horror Campaign
to bring horror double bills back to BBC2 television.
Warning: Very slight spoilers snatched from their last resting
place and scattered throughout the following paragraphs.
Now this was an interesting proposition. I’d already seen an “inspired by” version of the real life tale of body snatchers Burke and Hare in Val Lewton’s classic production The Body Snatcher, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which changed the names and played even harder and looser with the established facts than either The Flesh And The Fiends or Burke And Hare did, to be honest. Here, however, the current Classic Horror Campaign team of @cyberschizoid and @DrKarenOughton gave us all the chance to see two movies inspired by these events in one sitting and the contrast between the two productions couldn’t have been more telling about the times in which they were made.
To be honest, though, it wasn’t this that got me to brave the very depths of darkest London on a Saturday afternoon. The main pull for me was the fact that one of the stars of Burke And Hare, the lovely Francoise Pascale (@Fpascal) would be in attendance to talk a bit about the movie and to sign copies of her new autobiography, which can be found at her website here. Now I’d accidentally met Francoise at a signing session at the Westminster Film Fair earlier in the year and had been bowled over by the lady’s charm and enthusiasm, so to be honest it was more in mind with the thought of buying a copy of her book and seeing one of her more prominent film roles that I attended the said event than for anything else.
That being said, the Classic Horror Campaign’s screening was another corker of a double bill and I shall certainly be going back for more of those when I can claw back some time to attend. The two films I saw this time are both items I actually hadn’t seen before, and I have to say the presentation was both fascinating and entertaining... especially in light of the second of the two, Burke And Hare.
The Flesh And The Fiends was shot in black and white by director John Gilling, a man who would go on to direct some classic Hammer Horror movies but, it has to be said, I was not particularly impressed with the majority of the look and feel of the movie, if truth be told. The design of the shots and the way in which they were edited left me pretty uninspired on this one, to be honest but the one thing you really couldn’t fault it for were the performances.
Peter Cushing plays Doctor Knox crisply, without emotion for the most part... and with an eyelid that hangs down over one of his eyes... giving him a slightly creepy look, to be sure. Burke and Hare themselves are played in this one by George Rose and Donald Pleasance and they do it so well that you really wouldn’t want to fall afoul of either of these gentlemen on a dark night. Between them they emit a potent blend of brutish force and calculated ruthlessness, which certainly gives the characters the kind of gravitas they needed to live up to the real life villains the actors were trying to portray.
The second movie of this double feature, Burke And Hare, is a big, multicoloured confection of a film which could only have come out of that late 1960s/early 1970s period, I reckon. Derren Nesbitt, who I knew primarily for his portrayal of Number Two in The Prisoner episode It’s Your Funeral, plays Burke and Minder regular Glynn Edwards does the honours for Hare. The way that they are played is dictated very much by the tone of the film which seems to me to have been a direct attempt to turn the story into a light and fluffy comedy and sex it up for a cinema-going audience who were more interested in laughs and thrills than any serious attempt at portraying the facts of the case... which is okay by me, I love this kind of stuff.
British character actor Harry Andrews plays Dr. Knox in this one and plays him with a similar sense of authority as Peter Cushing did in The Flesh And The Fiends, but with a little more emotion. Unlike Cushing, though, he elects to play his role (or someone elected it for him) with a black lens on one of his eye glasses, as opposed to the downturned eyelid of Cushing’s incarnation of the role. It was also good to see James Hayter again for a brief scene. He always gives a good performance. And Yootha Joyce as Hare’s wife was also brilliant and helped give the movie another comical support.
And then, of course, there was the stunningly lovely (and still absolutely gorgeous as she is now, as it happens) Francoise Pascal, playing the romantic interest in the form of a prostitute in this version of the tale... in a role which was very much the equivalent of the one Billie Whitelaw played in The Flesh And The Fiends. Both were good in their respective roles but Pascal really knocks it out of the park in this one. And it wasn’t just because she runs around a lot of the film in various states of undress either... although that was also more than worth the price of admission, to be sure. During her interview session between the two films which made up this double bill, she said that she didn’t think she was all that good in this. Well I have to beg to differ on that verdict I’m afraid. She is definitely the only person you are watching whenever she lights up the screen on this one and really does give the film an enormous lift. Her acting is more than fine! She signed her book at the end of the film for me and I have to say, I look forward to reading this as part of my “holiday reading” in July. A review, I’m sure, will be forthcoming.
An in yer face comedy song called Burke And Hare by the popular band Scaffold (remember their big hits Lilly The Pink and Thank You Very Much... I remember Pinky And Perky singing that one at the end of their show every week) sets the tone to not take this movie too seriously right from the outset. The producers must have really liked this song, actually, because it’s included in the film three times... once at the start, once at the end and also for a “body snatching is fun” kind of montage sequence somewhere in the middle. Strange stuff.
In fact, the musical score by Roger Webb is quite odd all the way through. It’s like they are trying to inject even more fun into it by giving it something which almost sounded like a Carry On film soundtrack but with the added odd moment of B-movie terror stinger at certain points. In fact, one of my bestest friends who I was with at the time, @cultofthecinema, leant over during the film and whispered that the music was making him expect Sid James to pop out from behind a door at any moment. I’d have to agree with him that the scoring was maybe a little too strong at times... perhaps in an attempt to lift parts of the movie that the producers possibly didn’t have confidence in. Still, it’s of its time and I certainly enjoyed it as much as almost any other element in the movie.
In real life, after Hare was released due to turning King’s evidence, there were a lot of stories about what happened to him. Some say “the mob” got him, some say he was thrown into a lime pit and the no less credible accounts say he went to live with an in-law for the rest of his days. Each of the films here take a different ending... with the ending of Burke And Hare being a little rushed and more abrupt than I was expecting, to be honest. Burke And Hare has one of those “this is what happened to the characters next” kind of voice over narratives at the end of the film... before crashing into that Scaffold song again. This second movie goes with the lime pit story while The Flesh And The Fiends shows Donald Pleasance being horribly blinded with a lighted torch. More interesting than the fates of the two victims is the fate of Doctor Knox. He fares pretty well by the end of the first one than the second but in each of the adaptations he’s certainly portrayed as a misguided good guy, paying for questionably supplied corpses in the hopes of pioneering the cause for good, future doctors. In real life, of course, his reputation by association with Burke and Hare was a little less palatable and more than a little tarnished... but, of course, was not the career destroyer one would expect from a similar chain of events if something like this ever went down today.
Of the two films, I found Burke And Hare to be absolute brilliant (and something I ordered the next day on BluRay as it happens) and The Flesh And The Fiends to be more interesting in terms of studying the performances, especially that of Cushing, who was already being associated with and exploited for, certainly with some of the posters, his recurring role of Baron Frankenstein for Hammer.
All in all, this was another sure fire winner from the Classic Horror Campaign team. I’ll definitely be going back for more! Check out their web page here http://www.classichorrorcampaign.com/ and sign their petition!
And for more details about the charming Francoise Pascal, and to grab a copy of her autobiography, go to her website here... http://francoisepascal.co.uk/
Monday, 3 June 2013
UK/USA/Ireland 2012 (released 2013)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Playing at cinemas now.
I don’t know much about director Neil Jordan, truth be told. I think I saw The Company Of Wolves once, many years/decades ago, but that was it. But I have seen a fair amount of vampire movies and I remember that last year I saw a really good one from Germany called We Are The Night (reviewed here). Since vampire films have become so clichéd again at this particular point in cinema history, I thought the odds of finding a really decent new one like that were pretty astronomical if I’m being honest with you. To discover two such films in such close proximity would, in all fairness, be fairly unlikely.
But, I’m happy to report that Byzantium is just such a film. A truly great vampire movie that people who are interested in this genre will want to see. We also have the invention of a new term for vampires which is pretty cool if you don’t want to just come out with "the V word" and keep a certain distance to a little of the previous genre baggage. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s “inspired by” movie “adaptation” of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Scott coined the term replicant to give what became his artificial humans an air of gravitas that the term android just didn’t carry anymore. Similarly, the screenplay to this film by Moira Buffini, based on her own play, comes up with the term “sucreant”... which I really like the sound of, to be honest. It sounds quite filthy, to be sure, and almost instantly conjures up the dark sexuality implicit in the kiss of a vampire.
The film seems to me to concern itself with three main themes, one of which is very typical of a vampire movie.
The first of these is, of course, the question of survival. Vampires survive, and make themselves villains in the eyes of the living, by drinking the blood of the living. Byzantium’s two main female protagonists are vampires sharing a certain relationship (I won’t spoil it by telling you right from the ‘bat’ what that relationship actually is) and managing to survive over the millennia by being ruthless and moving on from place to place when the going gets tough. These two central characters have been running for a long time... but I won’t tell you why, because it will become apparent as you watch.
The second of the themes this movie concerns itself with, it seems to me, is temporal displacement. The movie works on revelations through flashback and sometimes, often in fact, those flashbacks are cross cut with the “present” of the character’s timelines, mixed up in a ghostly fashion through both editing and shots where characters share screen time with other versions of themselves. It sounds clumsy, I know, but actually this director does this with a very nimble touch and the results are pure visual and audio poetry in the mode of some of the great European directors over the years, as opposed to what might have been less confidently handled scenes in the hands of another director.
On the first time I thought I was watching a flashback, for example, which was cross cut with one of the two protagonists talking about the past life of the other... it turned out I wasn’t watching a flashback at all but two separate incidents from the same story happening simultaneously. So the director not only dislocates the characters in time due to the way the narrative leads us in to expecting the possibility of flashback, he also dislocates the very audience who are watching the film. So when the film does go into flashback territory, very soon after, he has already set up the feeling that time is not something which vampires worry about or neccessarily perceive in the same way that we do, despite Gemma Arterton’s alpha female Clara constantly telling her companion not to “look back”. This is a brilliant approach to the telling of the story and it carries all the way through the movie until we get to a certain point near the films beautiful climax.
The third theme this movie is about is... the telling of a story. Now a lot of directors (more than I care for) hold dear the idea that their function as filmmakers is to tell a story. It’s always a statement which causes me to groan loudly because it denies the possibility of cinema to exist without narrative structure... which it clearly can. However, unlike many films, this one isn’t just about the telling of the main protagonist’s story... it’s also about the telling of that story and the consequences of its revelation. And that’s a very interesting thing and, because we have this kind of narrative displacement already in the way that this tale is approached... what could have been a very simple storyline is revealed in tiny pieces and it’s only right near the end that we get the whole truth of the history of the two characters. And it’s even much before then that the discovery and telling of that history becomes a prominent point in the story in and of itself.
And again, because of the juxtaposition of two linear timelines, with one going from A - Z but with the back story scrambled and scattered into a different order and then pitched against it, our sense of temporal structure is shifted in exactly the way that the younger of the two female vampires, Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan (perhaps best known for her superb portrayal of the title character in Hanna) experiences it. Time is turned somewhat topsy turvy in a sucreant’s world and this is implicit in the creation process of the species as shown in the place of each vampire’s creation. The very act of becoming a vampire is portrayed as a kind of temporal trick... so this temporal misalignment also becomes part of the narrative thrust which surrounds the world of our main characters. And, of course, because of the way the back story develops as one displaced fragment at a time, it’s sort of like watching a film directed by Nicholas Roeg in some ways, but slowed down to a more relaxed pace which lets itself unfold like the slow opening of a piece of paper with an important word of revelation on it.
The performances are incredible.
I would expect no less of Gemma Arterton now, to be honest. She’s proven herself to be one of the powerhouse actresses of her generation and I look forward to being completely immersed in her character whenever I see her plying her trade on screen. Absolutely amazing.
Brilliant, too, is Saoirse Ronan as the younger of the two vampires. She was brilliant in Hanna and proves here that the performance was no flash in the pan, playing a vulnerable but courageous soul who’s voice-over narrative helps imbibe the already beautiful visual imagery with a deeply poetic feel... and this film is truly a study in the cinema of poetry made flesh. Not quite in the same way as Andrei Tarkovsky or Ingmar Bergman might have achieved that kind of feel but certainly Jordan’s treatment of the text and his faith in his cast and crew delivers a beautiful piece of art that could have easily turned into true exploitation cinema if he and his dark practitioners in the art of collaborative cinema had proven to have a less deft touch. Add in cast members like the always watchable Daniel Mays and the ever changing chameleon actor Caleb Landry Jones and you have a movie which is, in fact, a true masterpiece.
It also, having said all that, doesn’t steer away from the graphic violence or the action set pieces either. A lot of the film is shot with beautifully slow moving camera which slowly reveals the way the actors are related to the space around them and changes your perceptions of that sometimes over the duration of the shot. But when an action piece is called for, Jordan has no problem adjusting the tempo and the editing style to hook us into the hard edged action mode and, similarly, when a piece of vampiric violence is called for, made novelty with a nice little substitute for fangs (which, again, I won’t spoil here) then he really delivers. There’s a decapitation scene at one point which really goes for it and treads the fine line between the poetry of violence and all out unpleasantness which really works well.
The film is not that predictable either, possibly due to the narrative structure, and that’s really something rare these days too. It will have you guessing right up until the end which heads are going to roll, so to speak, and you’ll definitely be rooting for people who may have been portrayed as less sympathetic in anyone else’s retelling of the story.
There’s some nice little shout out’s for vampire fans too, such as Clara going under the assumed name of Carmilla, in reference to Sheridan La Fanu’s short story of the Karnsteins (much filmed in many variations by various directors over the years) and the scene where Eleanour is watching Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness in the hotel she is staying in. Alas, the hotel Byzantium in no way, it seems to me, parallels the hotel in Daughters Of Darkness... but one wonders if that was in the writer’s mind.
It’s also interesting in that, like a lot of modern vampire movies, it plays hard and fast with the “established” rules of the game and picks and chooses just which parts of the myth it wants to retain for the sake of convenience. So, for instance, the vampires in this story are fine hanging around in the sunlight (although they “prefer” the night) but they still need an invitation into somebody’s house to be able to gain entry. It’s always interesting to see which parts modern filmmakers will retain and which they will leave by the wayside... the choices made in this one are all pretty intelligent ones and don’t really hinder the story and it’s telling in any way. Nor set it apart from the established mythology too much either. It invents, adds and enriches without alienating itself too much from its cinematic and literary legacy.
What more can I say? Byzantium is just absolutely bloody brilliant... and I do mean bloody, at times. It’s an absolute must for all true lovers of the vampire genre (and is probably not for Twilight fans, I would guess) and even if you are not a follower of that particular vein of cinema, it’s certainly an intelligently crafted piece of celluloidal delight (as much as that can mean in the digital age) and would still be worth taking a look at whether you’re a fan of these kinds of films or not. An absolute full on recommendation from me. Miss it at your peril.
Sunday, 2 June 2013
The Bite Club
Higanjima - Escape From Vampire Island
2009 South Korea/Japan
Directed by Tae-gyun Kim
Manga Films Blu Ray B
Warning: Slight spoilers in a jugular vein!
Okay. So this is something I found in the HMV closing down sale. It’s not a film I’d heard of but it had vampires in the title and it was only £3... so I figured I’d take the risk, expecting it to be rather silly but, hopefully, a lot of fun... and by that I mean, less plausible than a vampire flick usually gets these days, especially when it’s been based on a manga as this one was... they all seem to get pretty silly via modern directors.
Well, I have to say that, rather than another variant of Tokyo Gore Police or RoboGeisha (reviewed here) or Vampire Girl VS Frankenstein Girl (reviewed here), what I got instead was a film that did not seem to have its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek, or given the subject mater, firmly through its cheek and penetrating someone else’s carotid artery. Instead we have here a film which, although dealing with a fantastic subject - that of a group of teenagers going to an island that doesn’t appear on any maps to find a missing brother who is busy fighting vampires and such like on said island - is actually happy to take itself seriously enough to be able to get some actual drama on screen, in between the fight-chase-fight scenes.
That being said, though, while the acting is all pretty sound, I did find one of the main leads (who plays Akira) to be a bit hopeless and prone to histrionics about various elements of his life when, in truth, he should have already developed that warriors bloodlust that some of the other characters had easily acquired and maybe have been a bit less irritating in places. Having said that, though, most of the bunch of main protagonists who go to the island with rescue on their minds are fairly likeable, or at least more than tolerable and the film certainly makes up for things like this in other areas.
The design and colouring of some of the shots is absolutely exquisite, working extremely well when there are any reds to be highlighted (usually red flowers or blood, to be honest) but the way in which certain scenes are shot and the way the acting styles follow through is a bit off kilter. There are a few scenes in the first half an hour, for example, which are more or less static camera or steady fluid shots and show the characters in a very relaxed and naturalistic mode with an acting style that very much reminded me of early seventies Hollywood. However, the director seems to be keeping you guessing as to the mood of the piece because these kinds of little interludes are scattered in between more kinetic chase or action scenes and, in the case of the lead character Akira, will sometimes switch to an unnecessarily jerky, hand held style of shot even if it’s just the reverse of a conversation scene with the other person being shot with a static shot. I’m not sure what kind of intent the director was trying to tag the lead character with by doing this but it just came out as confusing to me. But that did certainly make it interesting in places too.
The second two thirds of the film were, for me, a little less enjoyable because there are less and less moments of calm between storms. When the kids get to the island, it more or less becomes vampire mayhem all the way. The film is, fortunately, not afraid to step up on the goriness front but, while many of the scenes of bloody carnage hold a quiet beauty all their own, other sequences are less effective, especially when the blood and explosions are so obviously CGI in a lot of the set pieces. I think, with a film which runs just a couple of minutes shy of two hours, it could have done with cutting back quite a bit, although, I have to say that I suspect there was a longer cut in there trying to get out at some point.
One character, Yuki, for instance, is shown during the opening sequence to be an expert archer, casually hitting a bulls eye with seemingly no effort. The film then takes pains, when this character joins our little gang to get onto the boat ready to take them to the island, to show that she has got her trusty bow and arrows with her on the journey. However, when the small group of friends are captured by vampires almost as soon as they arrive on the titular island, she hasn’t even got her arrows out and let loose with them yet and, as far as I can remember, never regains possession of her weapons of choice at any time throughout the rest of the film. This seems to me to be a little sloppy but, what do I know?
What is really good is the chief vampire villain, whose name escapes me and, frankly, the IMDB seems to be absolutely rubbish at highlighting too. But, either way, they’ve gone for one of these laid back and charmingly eloquent villains who is happy to slouch around quoting half relevant philosophical poetry and the like before finally going up against someone with his teeth or his sword and showing how much of a threat he really is. This guy is pretty much a white haired pseudo-albino with blood red eyes and it has to be said he’s a bit of a scene stealer, although his monologues do wear a little thin after a while.
One missed opportunity was with one of his main henchmen, who can slide his half a severed arm off the front and make use of a retractable/telescopic sword implant. This character seems tragically underused and, since there were no other real gimmicks scattered throughout the movie in the way usually associated with the less serious kinds of films in this vein (saw one where a woman had a flame thrower vagina last year, for example) it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb against the general tone of the movie. Since you never really see it used, it felt unnecessary and gave the film a sense of being uneven. It also lends credibility that there was a longer story to be told here... possibly by a longer cut or, just as likely, because the original manga source may have been a lot richer than can be accommodated into the alloted running time.
On a happier note, though, the movie did have flying vampire women in it and, more awesomely, what was referred to as a “gargoyle” in the final battle. This gargoyle was a big CGI beastie which resembled nothing less than a cross between the rancor that Luke Skywalker battles in Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi and the alien queen from James Cameron’s ALIENS. It was, kinda alright and, to be truthful, did break up the monotony a little.
This gargoyle creature, a gazillion decapitations and a few impressive “head squished by small, hand held tree trunk” moments are enough to keep the entertainment level at a certain pitch and although I’ve seen a lot better out there, this was certainly a pleasing diversion and not something I regret buying for the price (if it had been into double figures I would have been less than happy). Not the worst film you could pick up if swordplay and gory vampirism are you’re thing but, similarly, not necessarily worth going out of your way for. All in all I’m glad I saw it though.
Wednesday, 29 May 2013
Aiming To Tease
Take Aim At The Police Van
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Nikkatsu/Criterion Eclipse DVD Region 1
(as part of the Nikkatsu Noir boxed edition).
Warning: Yeah, this one’s going to have spoilers.
Wow. Another great Seijun Suzuki film.
Very much a man who I would call the Sam Fuller of Japan, with one big difference. Sam Fuller was a great American B-picture director who would churn out projects under a studio system. However, because he was working on lower budgets, he wasn’t attracting A-List attention too much... and that was the very reason Fuller could make films more or less the way he wanted... which was usually with a quirky and interesting artistic sensibility all of his own. Similarly, Suzuki was making films pretty much exclusively for Nikkatsu studios in, more or less, a similar kind of set up I would guess. This let him experiment in interesting ways with the art of film technique but, unlike Fuller, Suzuki began to attract too much interest with what he was doing and this ended up with his dismissal and blacklisting after his work on what is probably his most famous film in terms of broad recognition in the west, Branded To Kill.
His works were getting more and more surreal and less comprehensible to a lot of audiences, although people of a certain sensibility cherished and loved them probably as much then as when they were rediscovered years later. It took around ten years for Suzuki to work on feature films again after he made the decision to sue Nikkatsu studios (rightly so, in my opinion... I’ll take art over the risk of offending people or financial concerns, any day thank you very much) and even then it was sporadically.
Take Aim At The Police Van comes from very early on in Suzuki’s career but, even so, he was so prolific that even though he made this at the start of the fifth year of his career, this was already his fourteenth feature film. And it’s a film I’m really glad to have added to my little library of Suzuki classics because it’s easily one of the better examples of his work I’ve seen.
Now I know, from doing a quick little bit of research (no, honestly, very occasionally I do the odd five minutes or so of research before I write a review here, believe it or not) that this film is generally not thought to be as good as his mid to late sixties output but, frankly, I think that’s a bit of a wrong call and I’m here to tell you different. This is a nice little masterpiece... not exactly “noir” as the Criterion Eclipse box proclaims it to be (although you could argue that the plotting has a certain, noirish tendency, I suppose) and much more like the hip, action kind of movies that would make his work stand out against various other directors churning out similar films at the same time.
Even the story is a little bit unusual in that it deals with a middle aged hero and not a young teenager or 20 something protagonist. The character in question, Tamon (played very well by Michitaro Mizushima) is a likable prison guard who is transporting a load of prisoners in a van when a sniper crashes a driverless truck into the van and shoots two of the prisoners dead. Because Tamon is in charge of the prisoners at the time and is therefore technically responsible, he is suspended from his job for 6 months. However, he needs to know just why the events at the start of the film happened and so he does his own investigation into matters which, of course, mixes his character in with all sorts of underworld types and also the cops.
Right from the outset the film shows a visual flare which is typical of Suzuki’s work for Nikkatsu. The pre-credits shows an unknown sniper at night attaching a piece of chewing gum to the top of his sight before we are treated to a camera eye view of just what the sniper is seeing. He slowly pans down an empty road and focuses on a series of five or so signs which each make up part of a single message, warning about the danger of accidents in the area. It all looks very cool (and is replayed but, I think, with slightly different footage, later on in the film) and it really sets up the whole “predator laying in wait” vibe which, quite recently, the opening sequence of Jack Reacher (reviewed here) also managed to do very well... but this movie does it in a fraction of the time. It then goes into the opening credits where a song plays against a view from the front of the titular police van’s windscreen, split into two by the vertical middle-section as credits play out against the beam of the headlights hitting the road while the van is in motion.
Suzuki really is on form with this one and although he didn’t write it, and it’s adapted from an existing novel, he really does let loose with what would become some of his very definitive stylistic traits later on in his career. Such as the way the screen can be split with verticals and horizontals to allow actors and actresses to be separated by those artificial planes, sometimes at a different size due to the way perspective seems almost flattened against the foreground elements. Or a flashback sequence where various incidents from the film (including a naked girl clutching her breast where she has been shot with an arrow) are replayed almost exactly as they were in the earlier sequences... but against a black backdrop and sometimes from a different angle. It’s almost like the early Soviet montage of Sergei Eisenstein where he would pull a person artifically from long shot and intercut a more perfectly composed version of that person in contrast, instead of dollying in on them. This gives the flashback sequence, as Tamon tries to piece together all the clues he is thinking of, a surreal and almost nightmarish quality which is a good way of expressing the world in which Tamon has accidentally landed, perhaps.
Another, surreal sequence is where Tamon and a woman who he is investigating are tied up in the front seats of an oil truck which is sent down a long slope with a blaze of fire chasing the leaking oil tap... it seems strange that a bunch of not very imaginative gangsters would be responsible for such a long, drawn out method of executing their enemies but then, hey... welcome to the world of Seijun Suzuki.
The performances are all really fine in this and the music by Koichi Kawabe is really energetic, jazzy and addictive. It’s the kind of thing I would love to turn up on CD one day, although I suspect I won’t be in luck. The photography, also, is of a particularly crisp black and white quality... almost but not quite foreshadowing Branded To Kill in its intensity and the compositions, as noted earlier, are all very interesting and ensure you won’t have a dull time as you wait for Tamon to survive various perils and gun battles in order to finally solve the problem of why two of his prisoners were targeted and how it affects everything else in the story. But then again, it’s a rare occasion when a Suzuki film is actually dull, to be sure.
Another winner, then, for the Criterion Eclipse Nikkatsu Noir set although, as I pointed out earlier, I wouldn’t say that labelling it as noir is really doing it much of a service. Definitely one to check out, though, if you’re a suzuki fan and, even if you’re not, there’s enough of his stylistic flourishes in this movie to make it a fair enough jumping on point if you’ve never seen one of his movies before... although I would probably point you in the direction of Youth Of The Beast or Branded To Kill if you wanted to hook yourself right from the first viewing.