Saturday, 16 December 2017

Needful Things

Year of Release:  1993
Director:  Fraser C. Heston
Screenplay:  W. D. Richter, based on the novel Needful Things by Stephen King
Starring:  Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia, J. T. Walsh, Amanda Plummer
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Horror

A mysterious stranger named Leland Gaunt (von Sydow) arrives in the small Maine town on Castle Rock, where he sets up a strange antiques/curiosity shop called Needful Things.  Gaunt appears to have an uncanny knack of finding the one thing that every customer most desires, and each is priced to just what the customer can easily afford, but there is a catch:  The cash price is only half of the payment, the rest comes in the form of a deed, usually a cruel prank played on someone else in town, and all designed to point to someone other than the prankster.  Before long, the nice little town becomes torn apart with suspicion, paranoia, hate and misplaced revenge. 

While this is far from the worst movie to be based on one of Stephen King's works, it's also far from the best.  Although it really does as well as it could do at compressing King's sprawling, episodic doorstop of a novel into a coherent film.  It's well cast with solid character actors, and the story is interesting.  The problem is that the film doesn't have much of a consistent tone, the mixture of supernatural horror, dark comedy and small town soap opera worked a lot better on the page, where there was more space to go into the characters and their relationships.  The performances are good, especially Max von Sydow as the devilish Leland Gaunt, and the story is interesting enough to carry it along, but it's neither scary or funny, and the climax is ridiculous.

Max von Sydow in Needful Things         

Saturday, 25 November 2017

"Strange Weather" by Joe Hill

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  432
Genre:  Horror, fantasy, suspense

In the last ten years Joe Hill has established himself as one of the most original and striking writers working in the field of horror and fantasy.  This collects four short novels, written in longhand over a period of four years.  In "Snapshot", a boy and an elderly woman are stalked by a mysterious tattooed thug who owns a Polaroid camera which has the power to steal memories.  In "Loaded" a mall security guard is hailed as a hero for stopping a mass shooting, but a young journalist suspects there is more to the story than meets the eye, and as she investigates the guard begins to find it increasingly difficult to maintain control.  In "Aloft" a young musician attempts skydiving for the first time, only to find himself marooned on a bizarre floating island in the clouds.  An island that seems to have a strange life of it's own.  In the apocalyptic "Rain" a lethal rain of nails spreads across America and the world.

In the afterword to this book, Hill discusses the appeal of the short novel form (the longest story in the book is 140 pages, and the shortest is about 90 pages), describing them as combining the narrative drive of a short story, with the additional character depth of a novel, and tells us that the best are "All killer, no filler".  By and large he is right when it comes to the stories here.  The stories are full of tension and zip along at a good pace.  The characters are well drawn and believable.  Hill has always been very skilled at putting often quite surreal horror elements cheek by jowl with the mundane details of everyday life, making the horror seem almost more bizarre.  There is also a strong vein of humour and social satire here, with "Loaded", in particular, critiquing American gun culture.  "Snapshot" becomes a metaphor for ageing and resultant memory loss, which kind of gives the story a strange feel in it's final pages, and doesn't really fit with the fantasy elements.  However, this is a hugely entertaining , gruesome and funny collection.

       

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dracula

Year of Release:  1931
Director:  Tod Browning and Karl Freund (uncredited)
Screenplay:  Garrett Fort, based on the stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Starring:  Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Running Time:  75 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is one of the most influential horror films ever made.  an English solicitor, Renfield (Frye) arrives in Transylvania to finalise the purchase of an old abbey by mysterious nobleman Count Dracula (Lugosi).  Renfield soon learns that Dracula is, in reality, a vampire.  Driven insane by his experiences and enslaved to Dracula, Renfield helps the Count travel to England.  Once in Britain, Dracula sets his sights on Mina (Chandler), the daughter of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) who runs the lunatic asylum next to his abbey.

There have been many screen adaptations of Dracula, and this is neither the first or the best of them, but it is still the most influential.  The film bears little resemblance to Bram Stoker's original novel of 1897, being largely based on a hugely successful 1924 stage adaptation which turned the novel into effectively a drawing room mystery.  The film has some extremely atmospheric scenes, particularly early on, capturing a real sense of decay and mystery.  As it comes along the film becomes increasingly flat, it's stage-bound origins very much in evidence.  A lot of the important sequences take place off-screen, including the film's climax, which is hugely disappointing.  There are also plot elements and characters that appear and are dropped without explanation, and it doesn't really flow.  However, Bela Lugosi is the definitive Dracula, even though he bears little resemblance to the character as described by Stoker he is still what comes to mind when you think of "Dracula", and to this day his portrayal is parodied, copied and referenced.  With his slow, fractured, heavily accented speech (Lugosi couldn't speak English at the time and learned his lines phonetically), along with his icy hypnotic stare, he has an otherworldly sense about him that dominates the screen.

This is not a good film, and it really hasn't aged well, but there are some great things in here and it is a key film in the canon of American film and the evolution of the horror film, which make it worth watching, and it is a must-see if only for Bela Lugosi's performance.

Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Dracula
  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Taika Waititi
Screenplay:  Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, based on the comic-book character Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum. Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, science-fiction, action, adventure, superhero, comedy

Two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Asgardian Thunder God Thor (Hemsworth) is hunting, unsuccessfully, for the powerful Infinity Stones, but is tormented by dreams of Ragnarok, the end of Asgard.  Returning home to Asgard, he finds his trickster half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) in charge and his father, Odin (Hopkins), missing.  With Loki's aid, Thor manages to track Odin down to Earth, where he reveals that he is dying and that his death will allow his first-born child, the Death Goddess Hela (Blanchett), to escape her imprisonment and seize control of Asgard. 

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the shared universe centered on movies based on Marvel Comics characters.  This film is very light in tone, and often very funny, playing more as a comedy than a straightforward action adventure superhero film.  The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are both very good comic actors and they bounce off each other very well, Cate Blanchett goes full on panto villain as the evil Hela, and Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the intergalactic warlord, who rules a planet where Thor and Loki find themselves trapped on.  To add to the fun, Mark Ruffalo reprises his rule as the Hulk , and Benedict Cumberbatch has a brief appearance as Doctor Strange.  The film manages to balance the humour with enough drama to give scenes some emotional heft if needed, and sometimes comedy makes drama all the more affecting. The film is definitely too long,and the humour doesn't always land, but this is still a fun and funny comedy adventure.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok   

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Good Morning

Year of Release:  1959
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Starring:  Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugamura, Shitara Koji, Masahiko Shimazu
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, drama

Set in a Tokyo suburb, the film focuses on two young brothers: Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), who are desperate for a TV set, but their parents refuse to buy one for them, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the boy's father (Ryu) believes that television turns people into idiots.  Angered by their parent's refusal, and sick of being told to keep quiet all the time when adults indulge in pointless small talk and conversational niceties that don't really mean anything (such as "Good morning", "How are you?", "Good evening" etc.), the boys resolve to stop talking altogether, a decision which causes tension and misunderstandings in their gossipy, close-knit neighborhood. 

This is a gentle, sweet-natured comedy from legendary film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, and is a loose remake of his own 1932 film I Was Born, But....  As always with Ozu, this is beautifully shot film, in vibrant Technicolor.  Every shot is perfectly composed and designed, largely filmed in low-angles with the action framed in doorways or corridors, and sometimes taking place in the distance.  It's also sedate, moving at a very slow pace, with very little actually happening.  However, it is funny and joyful, although it is hardly a laugh-riot.  It is also a deceptively simple film, it has weight, dealing with traditional Ozu themes such as the generation gap, and the changing of Japanese society.  It also pokes fun at small talk and everyday conversational pleasantries, while also acknowledging that they are kind of a necessity. 

Silence is golden for Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Shitara Koji) in Good Morning

   

Friday, 17 November 2017

Justice League

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Zack Snyder
Screenplay:  Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, from a story by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book series Justice League created by Gardner Fox
Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, fantasy, action,

While the world mourns the death of Superman, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, (Affleck) becomes aware of strange, flying cybernetic alien creatures who are behind a string of abductions in Gotham City and Metropolis.  Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, (Gadot)  recognises them as Parademons, the army of the evil multi-dimensional entity Steppenwolf who wants to fid three powerful devices that will enable him to take over the world.  Recognising that Steppenwolf is far too powerful for them on their own, Bruce and Diana decide to recruit a team of superheroes:  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, (Momoa), from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis; Barry Allen, aka The Flash, (Miller), who suffered an accident that gave him the ability to move at superhuman speeds, and Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Fisher), who was cybernetically reconstructed with alien technology following a near-fatal accident.

This is the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series, based on characters appearing in DC Comics.  Here they seem to be following the Marvel mold, with more humour than usual and also two post-credit sequences.  The DC movies tend to be criticised for being too dark, and while this is still pretty bleak, it is still much lighter than usual.  The first half of the film is putting the team together, and introducing the characters of The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman into the film universe, previously having only been seen in brief cameos in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), although of course The Flash is likely to be familiar to viewers through the TV series The Flash (2014- ).  The putting the team together scenes are too long, and Steppenwolf and his plan are all revealed too early and feel like kind of an afterthought and the action scenes don't have the sense of danger necessary to really be thrilling.  The performances are fine, Gal Gadot in particular is fantastic as Wonder Woman, and Ezra Miller is very funny as The Flash.  However, when the team are together and interacting and joking that is when the film really takes off.  The added warmth and humanity in the film is welcome, and point to a very promising future for the franchise.  A truly great movie is waiting to be made with these characters.  This isn't it, but gives cause for hope.

Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) are ready for action in  Justice League.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Strange Days

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay:  James Cameron and Jay Cocks, from a story by James Cameron
Starring:  Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Wincott
Running Time:  145 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, thriller

Set during the last two days of 1999, in a nightmarish Los Angeles on the verge of all-out war, the film tells the story of Lenny (Fiennes), an ex-cop turned black market distributor of illegal virtual reality recordings (known as "SQUIDS") which allow the user to relive the memories and experiences of the recorder.  When Lenny stumbles upon a recording of a murder, he and his friend Mace (Bassett) find themselves the targets of a high-level conspiracy.

Watched now, this film feels like a dry-run for Bigleow's Detroit (2017), dealing with similar themes of racial tension and police corruption albeit in a science-fiction setting.  The film is visually stylish, and Bigelow is an excellent action director ensuring that the set-pieces are well-staged, and she creates a real apocalyptic feel to the whole thing.  However the film feels stretched and strangely dated, inevitably due to the setting and the technology, and it never quite escapes it's mid 1990s roots, also Fiennes is too clean-cut for the scuzzy Lenny.  Angela Bassett is impressive, though, as the ass-kicking limo driver, Mace.        

To be fair, it's not really a bad film, and cyberpunk fans should enjoy it, but it's certainly not spectacular. 

Ralph Fiennes and Angel Bassett in Strange Days