Thursday, 30 December 2010


Year: 1968
Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish
Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, James Hagan, Robert Duvall
Running Time: 113 minutes
Genre: Crime, thriller, police, action

Summary: Tough San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is requested by ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Vaughn) to safeguard a witness over a weekend so that he can give a deposition to a Senate sub-committee about Organized Crime. However, the witness (Felice Orlandi) has stolen $2,000,000 from the Mob in Chicago and the gangsters are hot on his trail and will stop at nothing to get him.

Opinions: This film has become something of a classic now, with it's smooth jazzy theme music by Lalo Schifrin (surely a favourite of cocktail parties the world over), ice-cool central performance by Steve McQueen and now legendary car chase sequence it's almost a template of late sixties cool. The storyline is fairly predictable and contains few surprises. There are also several times where the pace lags severely, and the movie as a whole has not aged partcularly well, but there is much to enjoy. First of all the car chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco which is one of the most famous and influential car chases in the history of movies and is still stunning today. Then there are the performances, most notably Steve McQueen in one of his most iconic roles as the tough, cool and charismatic Bullitt. However, Robert Vaughn, best known as the suave secret agent Napoleon Solo in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), is impressive as the ambitious, slippery politician who involves Bullitt in his machinations.
While not the instant classic it's sometimes seen as, this is a good crime thriller with plenty of memorable action scenes, and not just the car chase, and features one of the most iconic actors of the 20th Century, Steve McQueen, in one of his best roles.

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Blood of a Poet

Year: 1930
Director: Jean Cocteau
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller, Pauline Carton, Odette Talazacuez, Feral Benga, Enrique Rivero, Jean Desbordes
Running Time: 55 minutes
Genre: Surreal, experimental, fantasy

Summary: An artist (Rivero) paints a picture of a face and is startled when the painting's mouth starts moving, and frantically erases it. He is shocked when the mouth appears on the palm of his hand and begins moving. On the advice of a talking statue (Miller), the artist enters a mirror and finds himself in the "Hotel of Dramatic Lunacies" where he is forced to crawl along a gravity-defying, dreamlike corridor and peer through the keyholes of the doors that he passes at various bizarre tableaux.

Opinions: This was the debut film from French poet, artist, writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau and forms the first part of a trilogy loosely based on the Greek legend of Orpheus which continued with Orphee (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960). This is very much an experimental film and has very little in the way of a plot, instead it's a succession of various strange and surreal images and scenes which are sometimes striking, but how you feel about it will definitely depend on whether or not you can get onto Cocteau's wavelength. Although if you are interested in surrealist art and cinema, then you will probably want to check this out. It is not an enjoyable movie, but it is a powerful one and quite fascinating. It's pretty much as close as cinema could ever get to filming a dream. Due to rumours about an anti-Christian message in the film, and the furore over the Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali film L'Age d'Or the movie was hugely controversial in France and it's release was delayed for over a year.
This is strange, powerful, sometimes boring and frequently intriguing.

A typically strange image from The Blood of a Poet

Sunday, 26 December 2010


Written by: Brian Wood, illustrated by Ryan Kelly
Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 376 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, coming of age, drama,

Summary: Megan McKeenan is a young woman who drifts from place to place across North America, searching for herself and for a place in the world. The book consists of twelve inter-connected stories each set in a different location in North America with Megan as the linking character. The stories are slice of life vignettes concerning themes of home, belonging, family, memory, friendship and loneliness.

Opinion: Local was originally published as a twelve part limited series comic book between 2005 and 2008. Originally it was intended to be a series of one off stories each taking place in a different North American location and each linked by the recurring character of Megan who would appear in each story, sometimes as the lead character and sometimes as a background character. As the series progressed though, it began to focus increasingly on Megan's story. The book is powerful and emotional, sometimes funny, often shocking and frequently heartbreaking. It's intelligently written, with Megan coming across as a genuinely believable and engaging character, even when she is not particularly likeable. As is only fitting, given the concept of the book, it has a very strong sense of place, with each location becoming almost another character in the story. The detailed artwork complements the stories perfectly. Even if you don't like comics, this is strongly recommended.

The locations featured in Local are:
Portland, Oregon
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Richmond, Virginia
Missoula, Montana
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Brooklyn, New York
Tempe, Arizona
Wicker Park, Chicago
Norman, Oklahoma
Austin, Texas
Toronto, Ontario

The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean
Year of Publication: 2006
Number of Pages: 96 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, horror, fantasy, mystery

Summary: A man remembers when, as a young boy, he stayed with his grandparents in an English seaside town. His grandfather, who would later go mad, and his hunchback great-uncle own an unsuccessful amusements. While he is there he meets a mysterious Punch and Judy Show operator (or "professor") and begins to uncover the secrets of the "oldest and wisest play", as well as the dark secrets at the heart of his personal and family history.

Opinions: Acclaimed author Neil Gaiman is probably best known in the comics world for his ground-breaking series The Sandman (1989-1996) but he has done many limited series and one-off gaphic novels. This book is a disquieting and compex meditation on memory and childhood. Told almost entirely through the fragmented memories of the unnamed narrator the story deals with a child confronting the bizarre and often disturbing world of adults intermixed with the fantasy of the Punch and Judy shows, which were bizarre and frequently quite violent puppet shows for children which at one time were hugely popular. The story hints at a lot, but very little is actually revealed. Gaiman's text is superbly complemented by McKean's artwork, which blends detailed paintings, with text, photography, models and other objects. Reading this is a genuinely disturbing and powerful experience.

"Shoedog" by George Pelecanos

Year of Publication: 1994
Number of Pages: 200 pages
Genre: Crime, thriller, action, noir

Summary: Constantine is a drifter who has spent seventeen years travelling around going from one job to the next. He hitches a ride with an elderly man named Polk who is heading to Washington DC, Constantine's home town. Constantine reluctantly agrees to accompany Polk to DC after being promised money. However Polk is there to see a powerful gangster named Grimes and he and Constantine agree to join five other men in a dual liquor store hold-up that Grimes is planning. However, it turns out that each of the criminals involved in the planned robbery have their own agenda and Constantine finds himself caught in a web of violence and betrayal.

Opinions: This early book from acclaimed crime writer George Pelecanos is a tense and violent action thriller. It wears it's pulp credentials proudly on it's sleeve and comes across like one of the tough film noir crime thrillers from the 1940s and 1970s. The book is short and punchy and empty of any unessentials. Several typical Pelecanos themes feature in the book such as 1970s soul and funk music, old cars, and detailed descriptions of the workplace (the title character works in a shoe store from where he gets the nickname "Shoedog"). The plot constantly moves forward and is always entertaining. It's ideal for reading on a plane or train or a long dull afternoon. It's surprising it hasn't been filmed yet, actually, because it really is crying out for a movie adaptation.

Batman: Year One

Written by: Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, with Richmond Lewis and Todd Klein.
Year of Publication: 1987
Number of Pages: 143 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, action, superhero, adventure

Summary: Jim Gordon, a cop with a chequered past, moves to the crime ridden town of Gotham City with his pregnant wife Barbara to join the police department. However he soon finds out that the police department is completely corrupt, and that the corruption reaches to the highest levels of the city authorities. As one of the few honest cops on the force, Gordon soon finds himself a target of not only the criminals but also his fellow officers. Meanwhile, Gotham's wealhtiest resident, playboy Bruce Wayne, returns to the city after twelve years abroad. Shortly afterwards, Gordon finds himself investigating a powerful new vigilante on the scene. A mysterious costumed figure known as Batman.

Opinions: In the 1980s DC Comics decided to revamp many of their long-running superhero titles, by going back to basics and reinventing or expanding upon their origin stories. This book, which was originally published as a four part story in the Batman comic, details not only Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman, but also the future Comissioner Gordon's first year in the Gotham City Police. The book doesn't radically change the origin story of Batman, but it does expand on it, and provided a huge influence on the future development of the character. A year previously Frank Miller had written the acclaimed and controversial Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which returned the character to the dark, gritty, ambiguous character he had been in the beginning, and this book keeps the gritty feel of Dark Knight Returns. The story is fast moving and energatic and provides a refreshing take on a familiar tale, and the dynamic artwork complements it well. This is a must-read for Batman fans and especially for fans of the movies Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) bith of which, while not being direct adatations, borrowed many elements from Year One.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Fahrenheit 451

Year: 1966
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Jean-Louis Ricard and Francois Truffaut, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
Starring: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring
Running Time: 112 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, satire, drama

Summary: In the near future, reading is highly illegal and all books are banned, on the grounds that they "make people unhappy", and firemen are employed not to fight fires (all homes are fireproofed) but to find and burn illicit stashes of literature. The populace are kept docile by pills and endless bland, interactive television, as well as magazines containing dull pictures and no words. Montag (Werner) is a fireman who lives with his wife Linda (Christie), who wants nothing more than a second wall-mounted TV screen. One day, Montag meets a strange young woman named Clarisse (Christie again) who asks him whether he has actually read any of the books that he burns. Out of curiosity, Montag smuggles a novel home and begins to read, soon finding himself hooked on the joys of literature, and questioning all the ideals and convictions by which he has lived his life.

Opinions: The idea of Francois Truffaut, one of the leading lights of the New Wave movement in French cinema, filiming one of the works of science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury is an intriguing one, and Fahrenheit 451 is arguably Ray Bradbury's best novel and is definitely a modern classic. However this is not one of Truffaut's best films. Bradbury is not an easy author to adapt to another medium, his poetic turn of phrase while reading well on the page tends to sound unconvincing when spoken. Also this was Truffaut's first and only English language movie, and he claimed it was his "saddest and most difficult" film-making experience. This was mainly due to his antagonistic relationship with Austrian leading man Oskar Werner, with whom Truffaut had previously worked with on Jules and Jim (1962). Originally Terence Stamp was cast in the lead, but he dropped out because he thought that Julie Christie's dual roles would overshadow him. Werner wanted to play his part as more conventionally heroic, while Truffaut wanted a more hesitant performance. Truffaut thought that Werner's performance was "robotic" and wanted him to play it as if he was just discovering the books for the first time, sniffing at them and wondering what they were, but Werner commented that since it was a science-fiction film he should play it as a robot. Werner gives a very stiff performance and it's very obvious that he is uncomfortable with the English-language dialogue. By the end of shooting Truffaut and Werner were not speaking to each other, and Werner had his hair cut before shooting his final scenes in order to create a deliberate continuity error. Julie Christie does fairly well with her two roles, having long hair as the sedated Linda Montag and sporting a fetching pixie cut as Clarisse, who provides much of the film's heart. Cyril Cusack also does well as the slimy Fire Chief, Montag's boss.
The future world of the film was shot on location in Britain, which viewed today makes it look a very old-fashioned future. The production is very much a product of it's time, and does look and feel inescapably late sixites. The director of photography, incidentally, was Nicolas Roeg who went on to become a noted director in his own right. However the film has many evocative images and some elements work very well. For example the opening credits are spoken rather than appearing as on-screen text, helping to introduce a world without the written word.
Look out for copies of the novel Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and an issue of Cahiers du Cinema, the influential magazine which Truffaut used to write for, among the burning books.
The adaptation is fairly faithful, although Truffaut was unhappy with what he felt was the stilted and unnatural English dialogue and preferred the French dubbed version. However most of the film's dialogue problems are more to do with the source material. It's no masterpiece but contaisn enough interesting stuff to make it worth checking out.
The title, incidentally, refers to the temperature at which apparently book paper catches fire and burns, although in reality it is 340 degrees Centigrade (842 degrees Fahrenheit).

Cyril Cusack and Oskar Werner in Fahrenheit 451

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Quai des Orfevres

Year: 1947
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean Ferry, based on the novel Self-Defense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman
Starring: Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Simone Renant
Running Time: 106 minutes
Genre: Crime, thriller, police procedural, film noir

Summary: Paris, December 1946: Jenny Lamour (Delair) is a flirtatious nightclub singer and is married to piano player Maurice Martineau (Blier), who is very jealous of her. Believing that she is having an affair with Brignon (Charles Dullin), a lecherous old producer who Jenny wants to help advance her career, Maurice threatens to kill him. Later, Maurice discovers that Jenny has arranged a secret rendezvous with Brignon and so he takes his gun and goes to confront them. However, when he arrives Jenny is not there and Brignon is dead. Cynical Inspector Antoine (Jouvet) is put in charge of the police investigation into Brignon's death and Maurice is his prime suspect.

Opinions: This film marked Heri-Georges Clouzot's return to film after four years absence, after he was banned from film-making as a result of his controversial 1943 film Le corbeau (which was accused of being anti-French propaganda) and his involvment with German-owned Continental Films. Clouzot had read the Belgian murder-mystery novel Self-Defense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman during the Occupation, but had forgotten most of it when the time came to write the script and found that the novel was out of print, so he wrote to Steeman to obtain a copy of the book, and proceeded to write the script based on co-writer Jean Ferry's memory of the story. By the time the book arrived, the script had been written and was very different to the book. On it's release in France, the film was a huge hit with both audiences and critics. It is a well-paced and involving thriller, with plenty of surprises. For the first half hour or so it plays as a kind of backstage comedy-drama and darkens several shades once the mystery elements take hold. The film really comes into it's own when the hapless Maurice finds himself drawn into a Kafkaesque nightmare as he becomes the prime suspect. The acting is great, especially from Louis Jouvet as the dryly-humourous Inspector with a grim view of human nature. It's also stylishly photographed in crisp black and white and depicts a world teeming with life and incident.
The title refers to the address of the police headquarters in Paris.
If you get the chance it is definitely worth checking out for fans crime stories and thrillers.

Simone Renant is under investigation from Louis Jouvet in Quai des Orfevres

House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

Written by: Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham, illustrated by Luca Rossi
Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 128 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, horror, fantasy

Summary: Welcome to the House of Mystery, which stands at the crossroads between many realities. Anyone who can find it is welcome to stay and the first drink is always on the House. However, to pay for any further food or drink the customer has to tell a story, which is the only currency accepted in this realm. Sometimes when people find the House they cannot leave, unless they are selected by a mysterious coachman. The latest person to find the House is architecture student Bethany "Fig" Keeler, who has been seeing the House in her dreams for years. She escapes there after being chased by a mysterious ghostly pair and finds herself the latest one to be trapped there.

Opinion: House of Mystery is a horror anthology comic book series that was first published in 1951 until 1983 and has been sporadically revived since. In 2008, Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics which specialises in publishing comics aimed at more adult audiences, revived the House of Mystery as an ongoing series, the first five issues of which are reprinted in this graphic novel. Most of the book concerns itself with the central story of Bethany Keele trying to escape from the House, but it also features some of the stories told by the House's customers (each of which is illustrated by a different artist which gives them a unique look). The book is entertaining with some refreshing dark humour and some striking artwork. The graphic novel also contains a short prose story and some draft character designs.

Friday, 17 December 2010

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson

Year of Publication: 2006
Number of Pages: 569 pages
Genre: Crime, thriller,

Summary: When a young journalist comes to Millennium magazine with an expose about prostitution in which a number of very high-profile men will be named and shamed, celebrated crusading journalist and Millennium publisher Mikael Blomkvist jumps at the chance to help him. However the journalist and his student girlfriend (who is writing a thesis on prostitution) are found murdered in their home. The evidence points to enigmatic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. Given Salander's propensity for violence and apparent anti-social tendencies, she immediately becomes the target of a nationwide police search and media frenzy. Blomkvist, however, believes that she is innocent and is determined to track her down first. Salander is also being sought by some highly dangerous indiviuals who will stop at nothing to silence her for good.

Opinions: This book is the second part of the celebrated Millennium Trilogy from Swedish journalist and author Stieg Larsson (the trilogy began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and concluded with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007)), all of which were poublished after Larsson's death. The novel picks up about a year after the events of the first book and it carries on and explores many of the themes and plotlines of the previous book. However, while the first novel was pretty much a detective story this one widens it's scope into police procedural and conspiracy thriller. Many of Larsson's themes from the first book resurface, in particular male violence against women and institutional corruption. As with the first book there are times when Larsson's determination to deliver his message seems to get in the way of the story, but mostly it is a pacy thriller, despite it's length. Larsson was good at documenting the intricacies of an investigation whether by police or journalists without it seeming dull, and he could also deliver some great action scenes, although one of the book's villains, a giant who is immune to pain, could have stepped whole and breathing from a James Bond book.
The book was turned into a film in Sweden in 2009.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

Year: 1994
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenplay: Anne Rice, based on her novel Interview with the Vampire
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater, Stephen Rea
Running Time: 122 minutes
Genre: Horror, drama, epic, supernatural

Summary: San Francisco, present day: Malloy (Slater) conducts an interview with Louis (Pitt), who claims to be a vampire. Louis narrates the story of his existence as one of the Undead, beginning in Louisiana, 1791, when, suicidal after the death of his wife in childbirth, Louis is attacked by a powerful vampire, Lestat (Cruise). Lestat teaches Louis how to survive and hunt for blood, while the conscience-stricken Louis turns to feeding on animals in order prevent having to take human life. Fearing that Louis will leave him, Lestat turns a young orphaned girl, Claudia (Dunst), into a vampire, believing that their new "daughter" will encourage him to stay. However, as time passes, resentments between the three grow stronger, with Claudia in particular growing to hate Lestat for trapping her eternally in the body of a child, while Louis becomes pre-occupied by the search for other vampires that might explain their condition.

Opinions: This film is one of the most visually lavish horror films ever made. A full-blown gothic film it revels in the sumptiousness and decay of 18th and 19th Century New Orleans and Paris. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series of books, which currently totals ten novels in the main sequence and two in the linked but sepearate New Tales of the Vampires series, have been bestsellers worldwide, and the novel Interview With the Vampire, first published in 1976, was the first in the series. The film mostly follows the book very closely, and manages to eep the novel's strong homoerotic undertones largely intact.
Initially Anne Rice was very vocal in her objection to Tom Cruise playing Lestat (claiming that he was "no more my vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler"). Her choice for the role was Julian Sands, but the studios wanted a bigger star for the role. After seeing the film, however, she was happy with Cruise's performance, and apparently wrote him a letter of apology. The original choice to play the interviewer, whose name is never mentioned on screen but who is referred to in the credits and in the books as Malloy, was River Phoenix who tragically died four weeks before filming began. Christian Slater, who replaced Phoenix, donated his fee for the film to Phoenix's favourite charities, and there is a dedication to Phoenix at the end of the film. Brad Pitt has the lead role of the tortured Louis and although he never manages to convey Louis constant inner torment, he is suitably melancholy throughout (apparently he hated making the film). The big revelation in the film is Kirsten Dunst, who was twelve years old when the film came out, as the vampire child Claudia. She gives a great performance with a difficult role of a character who, while physically a child has the mind and feelings of an adult.
The movie is slickly directed and has enormous style. The thing is that while it is beautiful to look at and has plenty of gory thrills it is rarely particularly scary. it also moves at a fairly sedate pace. However it is powerful and involving enough to keep the interest of viewers, and not just horror fans. It also has a strong seam of welcome humour.
The film, in keeping with the book, depicts the vampires as dangerous but also glamorous and seductive and not necessarily evil. The main conflict in the story is Louis reluctance to feed on and kill humans versus Lestat's whole-hearted embrace of the vampire state. The Vampire Chronicles really popularised the concept of the darkly romantic, ambiguous and tormented vampires which have become so familiar from Stephenie Meyers' Twilight series and Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries (which were the basis for the TV series True Blood).

Kirsten Dunst, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire

Friday, 10 December 2010

Disturbing Behavior

Year: 1998
Director: David Nutter
Screenplay: Scott Rosenberg
Starring: James Marsden, Katie Holmes, Nick Stahl, Bruce Greenwood, William Sadler
Running Time: 80 minutes
Genre: Thriller, horror, science-fiction

Summary: Shortly after the death of his brother, teenager Steve Clark (Marsden) moves from Chicago to the pictureque coastal town of Cradle Bay with his parents and younger sister (Katherine Isabelle). Shortly after enrolling at the local High School, Steve befriends intelligent outsiders Gavin Strick (Stahl), U.V. (Chad E. Donella) and Rachel Wagner (Holmes). Steve also notices the elite group of attractive, preppy, high-achieving students known as the "Blue Ribbons". It turns out that the Blue Ribbon members have been brainwashed into losing their individuality and becoming model students, and a side-effect of their conditioning triggers homicidal rages should they become sexually aroused. Before long, the Blue Ribbons set their sights on removing Steve and friend's rebellious tendencies.

Opinions: This film is pretty much typical of late '90s teenage horror fare with it's attractive cast and wise-cracking script the film turns out almost as a blend of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the TV series Dawson's Creek (1998-2003) (of course the film stars Katie Holmes who was a regular on Dawson's Creek). It also bears a very strong similarity to the 1999 film The Faculty which also dealt with mind control and high school. The film's director, David Nutter, is probably best known for directing episodes of moody horror/science-fiction shows such as The X-Files and Millennium, and he incorporates some of those show's trademark gloomy visuals here.
The cast are efficient and engaging enough, if not particularly impressive, and events move at a quick pace and rarely get dull. Despite this however, the film still feels like a TV show episode expanded to feature length. It also has a number of minor but distracting little continuity errors throughout, stuff like someone will have a hand on someone else's shoulder but the shoulder that the hand is on will keep switching from shot to shot. Granted these aren't exactly show-stopping errors, but they are slightly distracting.
The movie makes for a fun enough distraction for an hour and a half though.
Several scenes were cut from the film, apparently against the director's wishes, including a love scene between James Marsden and Katie Holmes (which was present in the film's theatrical release) and an alternate ending.

Katie Homes and Nick Stahl in Disturbing Behavior

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A Serious Man

Year: 2009
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
Genre: Black comedy, drama, period
Running Time: 106 minutes

Summary: Minnesota, 1967: Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish professor of physics. He lives with his wife, Judith (Lennik) who is having an affair with a widower (Melamed), his teenage son, Danny (Wolff) who owes $20 dollars for marijuana to an intimidating classmate at his Hebrew school, but the money is hidden in a transistor radio that has been confiscated by a teacher. Also in the house are Larry and Judith's teenage daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who is always doing her hair, and Larry's brother Arthur (Kind) who fills notebooks with bizarre and extravagant mathematical theories which he believes tie together the laws of the universe and which he uses for illegal gambling. When Judith confronts Larry about her affair and demands a "get" (a religious divorce) and shortly afterwards he finds himself threatened by a student (David Kang) to whom he gave a failing grade, Larry finds himself at the centre of a string of misfortunes and disasters which challenge all his beliefs about the way the univere should work.

Opinion: The film opens with a bizarre prologue set in early 20th Century Poland in which a woman kills a rabbi that her husband has invited into their home, because she believes that the rabbi is a "dybbuk" (a kind of possessing spirit in Jewish folklore). The Coens have claimed that the prologue has no connection with the rest of the film other than to set the tone.
In their career, the Coen Brothers have garnered huge international acclaim for their stylish and often strange films, but this is probably the strangest one that they have made yet. The Coen brothers also grew up in an academic Jewish household in Minnesota and the film feels like a very personal project. The movie is visually impressive, with stylish and often surreal scenes and images. There is also the Coen's usual strain of dark humour which if anything is even crueller than usual here as the hapless Larry is stricken by a seemingly endless stream of misfortune. It is certainly an unconventional movie and, despite not being exactly entertaining, it is quite haunting and fascinating in it's own way. Although some viewers may find the strong element of misanthropy off-putting.
The film features strong performances from a relatively unknown cast allthough comedy fans may recognise Simon Helberg (who plays Howard Wolowitz on the hit television series The Big Bang Theory) as a junior rabbi.
It is a memorably unique movie, but it won't appeal to all tastes.

Michael Stuhlbarg is A Serious Man

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Color of Money

Year: 1986
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Richard Price, based on the novel by Walter Tevis
Starring: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, John Turturro
Running Time: 119 minutes
Genre: Sports, drama

Summary: New York City. "Fast" Eddie Felson (Newman) was once a successful professional pool hustler (basically a player who pretends to be less skilled then they actually are for the purpose of luring a less skilled player into playing against them for money), but he now sells liquor, although he still misses the excitement of his former career, and sometimes puts up some of the stake money for other hustlers. One night he meets Vincent (Cruise), a volatile but very talented pool player, and Vincent's shrewd girlfriend Carmen (Mastrantonio). Eddie sees a chance both to make some money and also to recapture some of his glory days and takes Vincent under his wing, becoming his mentor as well as putting up some of the stake money for Vincent. However, Eddie's increasing frustration with Vincent's impetuousness and Carmen's scheming soon causes tension.

Opinions: This movie is a sequel to the classic 1959 movie The Hustler, which was also based on a Walter Tevis novel, with Paul Newman reprising his role as "Fast" Eddie Felson. However, the film only makes occasional very brief references to the events in the earlier movie. This movie marked Martin Scorsese's first foray into mainstream commercial film-making after a couple of financial flops, namely The King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985). The commercial success of this film gave Scorsese the clout to make his long-cherished pet project The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Despite being a very mainstream film, it still features many of Scorsese's trademark stylisic flourishes and is very much a Martin Scorsese movie. The movie features impressive performances notably Paul Newman who is effortlessly cool as "Fast" Eddie and Tom Cruise's energetic performance as the wild Vincent. There are also appearances by rock star Iggy Pop, Forest Whitaker and Charles Scorsese (Martin Scorsese's dad). Martin Scorsese provides a brief voice-over at the start of the film explaining the rules of nine-ball pool. It also features a snappy screenplay from novelist and screenwriter Richard Price and a typically cool and eclectic soundtrack.
While the film is not the classic that The Hustler it is still a good film in it's own right and a worthy sequel.

Pool hall blues: Tom Cruise and Paul Newman in The Color of Money

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Night of the Demon

Year: 1957
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester, based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural

Summary: American scientist Dr. John Holden (Andrews) arrives in England to work with Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was planning to expose a notorious Satanic cult led by Dr. Julian Karswell (MacGinnis) at a convention. However, when Holden arrives he is told that Harrington died the previous night in strange circumstances. Harrington's neice, Joanna (Cummins), believes that Karswell summoned a demon to kill Harrington, but the sceptical Holden laughs this off. As Holden continues the investigation into Karswell, he discovers that he has been slipped a paper covered with runic symbols, and is informed that he is in for three days of increasing supernatural terror before the demon comes for him.

Opinions: This British film (which was released under the title Curse of the Demon in the USA) is often acclaimed as one of the great horror films. In his previous films, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), Tourneur developed a reputation for hinting at the horror without explicitly showing it, the idea being that often what you don't see is scarier than what you do see. This film uses a lot of his trademark style, such as deep shadows surrounding the characters, odd camera angles and the use of sound more than visuals to hint at the horror. However, the film's producers decided to show the demon itself right at the beginning of the movie, against the director's wishes (Tourneur later stated that "the audience should never have been completely certain of seeing the demon"), although, despite the common belief that the demon shots were inserted after the principal shooting was finished, some have said that showing the demon was planned early on in the production. The addition of the demon has long been divisive among fans of the movie. I think the film would have been stronger if the creature was implied rather than explicitly shown, and, certainly when seen today, the rubbery looking monster is almost more comical than scary.
The film's producer Hal E. Chester did not endear himself either to the film's star, Dana Andrews (who said that he would walk off the set if Chester did not stop interfering with Tourneur's work) or to screenwriter Charles Bennett (who, unhappy at changes to the script made by Chester, said that if Chester "walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead").
However, despite the production problems, the film remains a powerful and genuinely chilling film, with some great performances, in particular from Niall MacGinnis, as the avuncular but evil Karswell, complete with the most diabolic beard in cinema history.
Incidentally M. R. James, who wrote the original story, "Casting the Runes", is one of the greatest horror writers Britain ever produced. His stories, while not particularly gruesome, are genuinely creepy and very well worth checking out.
Similar territory to "Casting the Runes" and Night of the Demon was explored more recently in the Sam Raimi film Drag Me to Hell (2009), the basic storyline of which is quite similar to this one.

The controversial monster from Night of the Demon

Thursday, 25 November 2010

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

Year of Publication: 2005
Number of Pages: 533 pages
Genre: Crime, thriller

Summary: Henrik Vanger is a very wealthy businessman and the elderly patriarch of the large and powerful Vanger family. However he is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a sixteen year old relative 37 years earlier.
Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist and co-editor of the crusading, political Millennium magazine. However his career and the magazine's future are in serious jeopardy after he loses a very high profile libel case against a billionaire indutrialist. Vanger offers Blomkvist a job writing a history of the Vanger family, while in reality he is to investigate the disapperance.
As Blomkvist finds himself drawn into the dark secrets of the family he enlists the help of Lisabeth Salander, an enigmatic and dangerous investigator and genius computer hacker.

Opinions: This book is the first part of the Millennium Trilogy (the others being The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007)), which journalist Steig Larsson wrote in his spare time after work, and the manuscripts of which were delivered to the publisher shortly before Larsson's death in November 2004. The books have all been massive international bestsellers and, certainly on the strength of this first book, the hype is justified. The book is a complex and dark detective thriller, which weaves together various storylines and many characters. The original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women and one of the key elements of the book is Larsson's abhorrance of violence against women, as well as corruption in politics and big business. It does have very strong messages, which occasionally threaten to overrun the story, but usually it succeeds in being able to deliver it's message while still delivering a consistently entertaining story.
There are plenty of memorable characters, especially the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, tough antiheroine Lisbeth Salander, as well as the idealistic ladies man Mikael Blomkvist.
An absorbing and genuinely powerful and at times shocking thriller. For the most part it is well paced but the story does drag a bit in places, also the plot has a few too many coincidences, but the complaints are pretty minor.
The novel, along with it's sequels, was adapted as a film in it's native Sweden, starring Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander. An English language remake is due for release in 2011 directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Salander.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson
Running Time: 146 minutes
Genre: Fantasy, adventure, action, epic

Summary: The evil Dark Lord Voldermort (Fiennes) and his army of Death Eaters have gained control of the Ministry of Magic and the whole wizarding world is in the grip of fear, especially those born of muggle (non-magical) parents and are particular targets of the Death Eaters. The only hope appears to lie with Harry Potter (Radcliffe) who knows that, in order to gain immortality, Voldermort has split his own soul and hidden it in several disguised and hidden objects known as "Horcruxes", and that only when they are all destroyed can he be defeated. Now the principal target of Voldermort and his Death Eaters, and with friends and safe places rapidly disappearing, Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) find themselves on the run and on a dangerous quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes.

Opinions: If you have never seen any of the Harry Potter films or read any of the books then this is not the best place to start. The first of a two part film adaptation of the seventh and final book in the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series, this makes no concessions to newcomers. As with the previous films, this is a very faithful adaptation of the book, and features spectacular special effects as well as appearances from numerous well-known British actors. However, as with the book, this is a major departure from the rest of the Harry Potter series. It's frequently commented on how each movie is darker than the one before, and this is certainly the darkest of the series so far. There are no Quidditch matches, or amusing hi-jinks at the Hogwarts School here. In fact the school, the prinicpal setting for the series, doesn't feature at all in this film and, for the first time, Harry and his friends are out in the wilderness, completely on their own. There is a surprisingly bleak atmosphere in this film, a tone set early on in a scene where Hermione erases herself from her parent's memories and also deletes herself from photographs and documents. All three of the lead chracters have their own demons to deal with: Harry has to deal with his status as the "Chosen One" and his guilt at the fact that anyone close to him is in danger, Ron has to deal with his jealousy of Harry and his attraction to Hermione, while Hermione struggles with what is effectively the loss of her parents. With each film the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have got better and better and in this one, where their roles are more complex than ever before, they really do great work.
This is a very good movie which still delivers plenty of action and spectacle, and there is still plenty of humour, if not as much as in previous installments. It also features a very impressive animated sequence. Certainly, Harry Potter fans should be more than happy. The second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is due for release in July 2011.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Thursday, 18 November 2010

"Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut

Year of Publication: 1973
Number of Pages: 295 pages
Genre: Satire

Summary: Midland City, USA: Car salesman Dwayne Hoover is the wealthiest man in town. Charismatic, successful and a pillar of the community, Dwayne is pretty much a model citizen except for the fact that he is slowly going completely insane. After reading a book by obscure but prolific science-fiction novelist Kilgore Trout, which he takes for the literal truth, Dwayne loses his mind completely. Meanwhile, Kilgore Trout himself is hitch-hiking across America on his way to Midland City for an Arts Festival.

Opinions: This novel constantly moves between the daily routine of the increasingly unbalanced Hoover and Trout's cross-country journey, while finidng time for numerous digressions, diversions, jokes, factoids and pot shots at almost anything that comes to mind. The ostensible plot of the novel is really nothing more than an excuse for Vonnegut to unleash savage and at times hilarious satirical attacks at life in general and American life in particular. The book is written in a faux-naive style almost as if the narrator is trying to explain life on Earth to a group of alien schoolchildren. Vonnegut doesn't pull any punches and the satire is frequently harsh and cruel, but there is also a strong vein of compassion. Vonnegut's voice in the book comes across as that of a man who deeply loves humanity but is always disappointed by it. The novel is consistently entertaining and frequently very funny. The prose is punchy and conversational making it easy to get into, and is enlivened by Vonnegut's peppering the novel with numerous line drawings. The book may not be as good as some of Vonnegut's other works (such as Slaughterhouse 5), the author himself gave it a "C" grade, and it's cynicism may be off-putting to some readers, but this is still well worth checking it out.
It will make you laugh a lot and it will also make you think a lot.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

"Handling the Undead" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication: 2005
Number of Pages: 364 pages
Genre: Horror, supernatural, zombie

Summary: Stockholm, August 2002: The city swelters under a severe heatwave, everyone in the city suffers from a splitting headache and no electrical device can be turned off once it is switched on. Then the city's dead return to life.
David is a stand-up comedian who is happily married to children's book author Eva, and the couple have a ten year old son, Magnus. The night that the dead come back, Eva's car hits an elk and she is killed. When David goes to identify her body, he notices it start moving.
Gustav Mahler is a freelance journalist who is still grieving for the death of his grandson, Elias, a month previously. Mahler's daughter, Anna, the dead boy's mother, is so grief-stricken she barely ever leaves her home, and he cares for her despite their mutual resentment. When he learns of the resurrection, Mahler has a glimmer of hope that the family can be reunited.
Rebellious teenage goth Flora shares a deep psychic bond with her devoutly religious mother, Elvy. When they are visited by Elvy's recently deceased husband, the two have very different ideas as to what the events mean.
Meanwhile scientists, city officials, newspaper pundits and the Government try to discover what is happening in Stockholm, and what can be done about it.

Opinions: From the title you could be forgiven for thinking that this is 364 pages of gore-drenched, flesh chomping zombie action when, in fact, John Lindqvist's follow up to the best-selling Let the Right One In is a dark and moving meditation on grief, love, loss and hate. That's not to say that there isn't plenty of gruesome horror, but mostly it's about the reactions of people to the return of their loved ones. The book moves between four storylines, and the frequent cross-cutting means the book never really gets dull. Unlike most zombie stories, the living dead in this novel are not essentially aggressive, although they do have limited mind-reading abilities and react to "negative" emotions such as hate, fear and anger, while any living human who is around them for too long also develops mind-reading abilities. The book takes it's time getting going, and the frankly bizarre climax is a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory. However, for the most part, this is a strong, well-written book. Lindqvist has an eye for the details of everyday life and, as with Let the Right One In, this book benefits enormously from his ability to ground the supernatural elements in a recognisable urban reality. Lindqvist also has a good feel for character and makes the book at times a genuinely moving experience, which is as much about intolerance and family relationships as it is about shambling zombies. Also, while not being particularly scary, the book does have enough action and suspense to satisfy genre fans.

Monday, 15 November 2010


Written by: Mark Millar, illustrated by John Romita, Jr.
Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 216 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, superhero, action

Summary: Have you ever wanted to be a superhero? David Lizewski did and makes his dream a reality. A bored, nerdy New York teenager, David's main interests in life are comic books and classmate Katie Deauxma, until he buys a scuba wetsuit off e-bay and, naming himself "Kick-Ass", sets out onto New York's mean streets to fight crime, despite having no powers and no special training. Needless to say, his first attempts are an abysmal failure and he is very badly beaten up. Following months of operations, therapy and three steel plates in his head, Kick-Ass is out once more and, after footage of him foiling a mugging is uploaded onto YouTube, finds himself a sudden celebrity. However, after meeting murderous ten year old vigilante Hit Girl and her father Big Daddy, David soon finds himself seriously out of his depth.

Opinions: This book started life as an eight issue comic book series based on Scottish writer Millar's own teenage dreams of being a superhero. The book is hugely entertaining with frequently hilarious foul-mouthed dialogue and complemented with great artwork. It won't be too everyone's taste since it is full of graphic, over the top violence. More than likely the book's main audience will be fans of the movie which was based on it and, while the film follows the storyline of the comic very closely, the comic is several shades darker than the film. David Lizewski is a likeable and sympathetic main character, but the most memorable character is the good natured but extremely violent Hit-Girl.
If you're a fan you'll also want to get down to your friendly neighbourhood comic book store to pick up Kick-Ass 2 the first issue of which is currently on sale.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Prophecy

Year: 1995
Director: Gregory Widen
Screenplay: Gregory Widen
Starring: Christopher Walken, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, Viggo Mortensen
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller, supernatural, religion

Summary: Just before he is to be ordained as a priest, Thomas Dagget (Koteas) experiences a nightmarish vision and loses his faith. Years later he is a homicide detective and assigned to the bizarre case of a corpse seemingly born with no eyes, and a hermaphrodite, he also has an ancient hand-written Bible with an extra chapter in the Book of Revelations. Translating the chapter, Dagget learns of a second war in Heaven due to some angels who were jealous of God elevating humanity over them. Dagget discovers that the leader of the rebel angels, the archangel Gabriel (Walken), who has an extreme disgust for humans - he refers to as "talking monkeys" - has arrived in a small Arizona town in search of an evil soul to use as a devestating weapon.

Opinions: This movie, which was also released as God's Army, is a striking mix of action, horror and theology. It benefits enormously from a very strong cast full of familiar faces from independent films, with Christopher Walken being a particular standout as the charismatic and malevolent archangel. It also provides a lead role for Elias Koteas, a talented and prolific actor who tends to be quite underrated. The film is well-written with the complex storyline unfolding with enough twists and turns to sustain interest and keep the viewer guessing without being unecessarily convoluted. It also has a strong thread of dark humour. Packed with originality and invention, it is certainly the best religious themed horror movie of recent years. The film's main problems are mainly down to it's low-budget, the special effects are at best adequate, although the film is wisely sparing in it's use of special effects, and it lacks a distinctive visual style, although some image are very effective - most notably a brief glimpse of Hell. Although the film was not a huge success on it's original release, it's reputation has grown and it has become something of a cult hit, and to date has been followed by four sequels.

Christopher Walken in The Prophecy

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Year: 2010
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic-book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
Running Time: 117 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, comedy

Summary: New York City, the present: Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is a teenage comic-book fan, who dreams of becoming a superhero. Despite having no training and no superpowers, he decides to turn his dreams into reality and, with a costume fashioned from a scuba diving suit, he dubs himself "Kick-Ass" and sets out to become a real-life superhero. However, his first attempts just result in him getting badly beaten up. However, one night his successful intervention in an assault is filmed and put on the YouTube site. Dave discovers that Kick-Ass is an internet celebrity. Then he meets fellow costumed hero Big Daddy (Cage) who, with the help of his violent, foul-mouthed eleven year old daughter, Hit Girl (Moretz), is fighting to bring down the city's most powerful organised crime ring.

Opinions: This movie is a lot of fun. It is packed with action and humour, and there are plenty of references to the world of comic-books and superheroes. The film, which is almost a parody of Batman and Spider-Man is very sympathetic with the costumed vigilantes but also features the dark and dangerous side as Kick-Ass very quickly finds himself way over his head. The film's storyline is not particularly unique with the idea of untrained superhero wannabes having been done several times before, but the film is stylish and entertaining enough that this doesn't matter. The film features some great performances in particular from Chloe Moretz turning in a startling performance as the ruthless Hit Girl who manages to be both likeable and terrifying. In the film's lead Johnson delivers a great comic peformance. The film is full of exagerrated comic-book style violence, which won't be to everyone's taste. The film knows it's target audience and fans of comic-book movies and action films are sure t find something to entertain them. As an unashamed comic book fan myself, I loved it.

Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Paranormal Activity

Year: 2009
Director: Oren Peli
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, mockumentary

Summary: In San Diego, California, in 2006, a young couple Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) are troubled by an unseen supernatural force. Micah buys advanced cameras and audio-visual equipment in order to document the phenomenon. As the bizarre events escalate the couple's relationship begins to break down.

Opinions: This film is basically a "found footage" film. The entire movie purports to be the footage shot by Micah's cameras, similar in style to The Blair Witch Project (1999). Much of the film is taken up by static shots of the couple's bedroom at night, the camera positioned in such a way that the shot takes in both the bed and the open door directly beside it. The suspense comes from knowing something is about to happen but not when, and also having sudden loud noises in long, silent scenes. For the most part, the events are very subtle building up slowly from the comparative mildness of the early happenings. Due to the domestic setting, the film probably works better as home viewing than it does in the cinema. It also focuses on the reactions of the couple to the events, Katie just wants to leave it alone and doesn't want to antagonise the force, while Micah wants to contact it and fight it. The movie's main problems are to do with it's style more than anything else, mainly the fact that you wonder whether the couple would film so many of their conversations and arguements, and also the fact that even when they are supposed to be really scared they always remeber to bring the camera with them. However, the film does work well, and is genuinely chilling at times. It was followed by a sequel which was released in 2010.

Sleepless nights in Paranormal Activity

Let Me In

Year: 2010
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Matt Reeves, based on the novel and screenplay Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono
Running Time: 116 minutes
Genre: Horror, drama

Summary: In March, 1983, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, twelve year old Owen (Smit-McPhee) lives with his religious, alcoholic mother (Buono), who largely ignores him, on a depressing housing estate. He is also frequenty bullied at school. One night he meets a new neighbour, Abby (Moretz), a seemingly ordinary twelve year old girl, who lives with an elderly man (Jenkins) assumed to be her father. A strong friendship soon blossoms between Owen and Abby until he learns that Abby is, in fact, a vampire, and her "father" is behind a brutal series of ritualistic killings in the local area which he has done to provide her with the blood she needs.

Opinions: The 2004 novel Let the Right One In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist has previously been adapted as a critically acclaimed and successful Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson, and now an English-language version has been made. It's hard not to feel cynical when a successful foreign language film is given an English-language remake, especially when it's only been a couple of years since the release of the Swedish film. In fact, Alfredson was, understandably, very angry at the news that his film was being remade on the grounds that he thought a film should only be remade if there was something wrong with the original and he didn't think that there was anything wrong ith his film, and he is perfectly correct that there is nothing wrong with the earlier film.
However, leaving that aside, Let Me In is a very good film in it's own right. For the most part it sticks very closely to the earlier film and fairly faithful to the original novel (both movie versions excise the novel's gruesome zombie sub-plot). The film has a good sense of time and place with striking visuals of the snow-bathed housing estate. Director Reeves, best known for the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, delivers some striking scenes, in particular a sequence where the camera is in the back seat of a crashing car. He also has some of the more traditional horror movie scares happening in the background of scenes, and although there are computer generated special effects used, they are mostly fairly subtle. The movie's main strengths are in superb performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz in the lead roles who make their characters if anything even more engaging and sympathetic then their Swedish counterparts.
While sticking a little bit too close to the original to really become it's own thing, this is a fine, well-made movie that deserves a wider audience than traditional horror audiences and should appeal to fans of the original as well as newcomers.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz in Let Me In

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Land of the Dead

Year: 2005
Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Horror, action, survival

Summary: The dead have risen up and are attacking and eating the living. Anyone who dies becomes one of them, and anyone left alive after being botten by one will also shortly become one of them. The only way to destroy them is by destroying the brain, usually by shooting or stabbing in the head. The Earth has been pretty much completely overrun by these zombies. However, a community of survivors exist in a fortified enclve in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The community is ruled by the vicious and corrupt Kaufman (Hopper) who lives, along with the rest of the wealthy and elite in a luxurious high-rise apartment complex, while the rest of the people live in abject poverty, kept docile by the many vices that Kaufman lays on for the purpose. Frequently a team led by Riley Denbo (Baker) make forays into the outside world in a heavily equipped armoured vehicle known as "Dead Reckoning" in order to get urgently needed food and medical supplies. However, Riley is determined that this will be his last run. However, shortly after they return from their most recent expedition, Riley and his sidekick Charlie (Joy) are arrested after they break up an event involving two zombies fighting over a woman, Slack (Argento). Meanwhile Riley's second in command, Cholo DeMora (Leguizamo), whose dreams have been shattered when Kaufman denied him a place in the Fiddler's Green complex, has stolen Dead Reckoning and is threatening to open fire on the comples. However, in the city outside, one of the zombies (Clark) is beginning to show signs of regaining some of his human intelligence and is starting to organise the others.

Opinions: This film is the fourth in writer-director George A. Romero's Dead series and was preceded by Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1986), and it has so far been followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010). It's fair to say that Romero's films have pretty much created the popular image of the movie zombie: a shambling mindless walking corpse forever chomping on the flesh of the living, which has now become one of the most popular horror movie tropes. The film, which was produced on a higher budget than any of the other Romero zombie films, is a fast-moving, action packed affair full of impressive special effects and well-designed action scenes. It is also full of gruesome set-pieces and the zombie make-up is suitably gross. However, as with the others in the series this movie is also quite satirical and full of quite savage social commentary, in particular the community's division between rich and poor, with the wealthy living in luxury more or less as if nothing has changed, while the poor live scrabbling for existence by any means necessary. In fact, the question could be who is worse: The zombies who are just acting on instincts and their own need for survival or the likes of Kaufman who casually exploit and destroy people for profit. The acting is good, with Dennis Hopper being particularly effective as the evil, but soft-spoken, Kaufman and Eugene Clark giving an affecting performance as the lead zombie. The movie's female lead is well played by Italian actress Asia Argento, whose father, legendary horror director Dario Argento, helped finance Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Despite the amount of gore and violence in the film, there is a strong vein of playfulness and humour running through it, and there are a number of in-jokes and references. Watch out for a cameo appearance by actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, whose Shaun of the Dead (2004) was heavily influenced by the Romero series.

Eugene Clark (centre) and friends in Land of the Dead

Burke & Hare

Year: 2010
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes
Running Time: 100 minutes
Genre: Comedy, horror, period

Summary: It is the year 1828 and the city of Edinburgh is famous as a centre for science and medicine, and is home to two prestigious medical schools, one run by Doctor Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and the other by his arch-rival Doctor Monroe (Tim Curry). In order to keep these schools supplied with corpses to use as teaching aids, most of which are provided by the bodies of executed criminals. However, Monroe uses his political influence to have all the bodies of the recently executed automatically turned over to him. Deprived of the only legal means of obtaining fresh cadavers, Knox finds himself having to turn to the body-snatchers (also known as "resurrectionists") who steal bodies from graves and sell them, a potentially lucrative but also highly illegal profession. William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) are two Irish immigrants who attempt to make a living as con-men but without success, their only regular source of income being a boarding-house run by Hare's wife, Lucky (Hynes). When one of their lodgers dies, Burke and Hare realise that they can sell the body to Knox for a good price. Add to this is the fact that Knox always needs more bodies. The problem is that the cropses need to be as fresh and as intact as possible. The only solution is for them to provide the corpses themselves.

Opinions: This film is based on a true story which is still something of a legend in Edinburgh, although the film is very far from being historically accurate (one scene for example features another Edinburgh legend, Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog who spent fourteen years guarding the grave of his owner, depsite the fact that the dog wasn't born until 1855 - 16 years after the events of the film). However it is an entertaining film which manages to be funny throughout. The humour is mostly pretty broad and slapstick. The film is also very gory, which may put off some viewers, and some horror fans might be put off by the comedy element. The production design and sets are impressive creating an impressive vision of 1820s Edinburgh. It is also very well performed by a talented cast which is filled out by numerous cameos from well-known British actors and comedians. Focusing mostly on Burke and Hare themselves the movie makes them genuinely likeable and sympathetic characters, despite their murderous activities, and give Burke a moving romantic story with aspiring actress Ginny (Isla Fisher).
While far from being perfect, this film is both funny and dark.

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in Burke & Hare

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

Year: 1990
Director: Jeff Burr
Screenplay: David J. Schow, based on characters created by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Starring: Kate Hodge, Viggo Mortensen, William Butler, Ken Foree, Joe Unger, Tom Everett, Toni Hudson, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, R.A. Mihailoff
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror, sequel, survival

Summary: A young Californian couple, Michelle (Hodge) and Ryan (Butler), are driving through Texas on their way cross country to Florida. Along the way, they pass an excavation of a large number of butchered corpses. Stopping at a small service station, Michelle has an unpleasant encounter with the station's sleazy owner, Alfredo (Everett), but the couple are helped by a seemingly friendly cowboy, Tex (Mortensen) who informs them of a short-cut along a small little used road. However, that night they find themselves under attack from a chanisaw wielding maniac known as Leatherface (Mihailoff) and his sadistic, cannibal "family".

Opinions: This film is the second sequel to the notorious horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and it attracted a lot of controversy prior to it's release due to a battle between the film's studio, New Line Cinema, and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), which initially gave the film an "X" certificate due to graphic violence. In the end, the studio relented and a cut version was released with an "R" rating. However, both versions of the film are available on DVD. The movie is neither particularly bad or particularly good. It's very predictable and moves along with few surprises, and also a lot of the film takes place at night and is shot so darkly that it is really difficult to make out what is going on. However there are enough gruesome special effects to satisfy gore fans, and it is really too short to ever get boring. The cast all give spirited perfomances with Ken Foree a particular standout as the tough survivalist hero. Today, the most notable aspect of the film is an early appearance by Viggo Mortensen as the charismatic, but sadistic, cowboy. Incidentally, one of the studio's first choices to direct this film was Peter Jackson, who would later work with Mortensen on The Lord of the Rings films.
Basically, this is a very average, fairly gory, horror movie sequel, no better then many others.

Viggo Mortensen in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Brides of Dracula

Year: 1960
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds (uncredited)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur and David Peel
Running Time: 85 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, Hammer Horror

Summary: Transylvania, the late 19th century: Marianne Danielle (Monlaur), a young French schoolteacher, is on her way to take up a job at a girl's school. However, she ends up starnded in a small village. With nowhere else to go she accepts an offer to stay the night at the large castle of the sinister Baroness Meinster (Hunt). During the night Marianne discovers that the Baroness' son (Peel) is chained up in his room, and helps him escape. However, it turns out that the son has a dark secret, as during the following night a young woman in the village is found dead, drained of blood. The locals immediately recognise that a vampire is on the loose and send for the aid of Dr. Van Helsing (Cushing), the only man who was able to defeat the most powerful vampire of all - Count Dracula.

Opinions: This is the first official sequel to Hammer Studios Dracula (1958) which was also directed by Terence Fisher and starred Peter Cushing with a script by Jimmy Sangster. However this lacks one crucial ingredient from the original, and that is Christopher Lee as the Count himself. Dracula does not appear at all in the film, and is only mentioned twice. Lee wouldn't reprise the role of Dracula until Dracula: Prince of Drakness (1966). In this film the role of principal villain is taken by David Peel, who doesn't really make much of an impression. He's kind of bland, and doesn't really have a lot to do until the end. It doesn't help that he looks like a sixties pop star. It's hard to the bloodsucking undead seriously when it looks like he's going to break into "You Were Made for Me" at any moment. However, Peter Cushing was rarely better as Van Helsing than here bringing a strong sense of dignity and gravitas to the part as well as a welcome physicality in the action scenes. Yvonne Monlaur makes for an engaging and attractive lead. As often with the Hammer films the production values are strong, and the film effectively blends action with humour. However some of the techniques haven't aged well, notably the use of "day for night" filming (in which a scene is shot during the day but with a special filter to make it look as if it is taking place at night). Incidentally there is a very brief cameo by Christopher Lee: During the close up of the vampire's eyes towards the end of the film, the eyes are actually Lee's in a clip from Dracula.
This is an enjoyable slice of Hammer Horror and should appeal to fans and newcomers alike.

Filming The Brides of Dracula proved a real pain in the neck for Peter Cushing.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Sweet Smell of Success

Year: 1957
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on a novelette by Ernest Lehman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner and Sam Levene
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Drama, show business, film noir

Summary: New York City in the late 1950s, and public life is dominated by the influential gossip column penned by J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) feeds Hunsecker gossip in return for Hunsecker mentioning his clients in his column. However, Falco has not been able to get any of his clients mentioned in Hunsecker's column due to his failure to break up the romance between Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Milner). With his business suffering, Falco finds himself willing to go to any lengths to obey Hunsecker's will.

Opinions: The title of this film is ironic in that the smell of success is far from sweet, it's rancid and bitter, corrupt to the core. It features career best performances from both Burt Lancaster as the monsterous columnist J.J. Hunsecker who cheerfully destroys lives and careers with a single phone call and Tony Curtis as the hustling press agent Sidney Falco who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. It has an intelligent and sharp script which is full of memorable lines and crisp black and white photography from James Wong Howe. It also benefits from stylish direction from director Alexander Mackendrick, who at the time was best known as a director of Ealing comedies in Britain.
The movie was shot under difficult conditions on location in New York City, with Mackendrick apparently scared the entire time due to the production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (part owned by Burt Lancaster), and their reputation for firing directors for little or no reason at all. To add to their problems they were shooting in one of the busiest sections of New York City without a completed script. Tony Curtis had to fight for his part, because the studio with which he was under contract, Universal, were scared that the film would ruin his career. However, Curtis was tired of the pretty-boy roles which he had been playing up to that point and was desperate to prove that he could actually act. Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of Hunsecker, but Mackendrick wanted to cast Hume Cronyn who, he felt, looked a lot like Walter Winchell, the real life gossip columnist, on who Lehman based J.J. Hunsecker in his original story. However the studio insisted on Burt Lancaster due to his box office appeal. The film was not a box office success, with a lot of audiences very unhappy at seeing movie heroes Curtis and Lancaster cast against type.
The movie is now an acknowledged cinema classics and remains one of the few perfect films which, in it's depiction of a cruel and morally bankrupt media, is just as relevant now as it was when it was made, perhaps even more so. There are also a lot of even darker themes running underneath the surface, such as Hunsecker's twisted relationship with his sister. This is 1950s film-making at it's finest with very element in the film note perfect from direction to performance, featuring some of the best dialogue ever penned.

"I love this dirty town"
- J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

"Match me, Sidney": Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Fourth Kind

Year: 2009
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi
Screenplay: Paul Brooks and Joe Carnahan
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Will Patton and Charlotte Milchard
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror, alien, mockumentary

Summary: In October 2000, psychologist Dr. Abigail "Abbey" Tyler (Jovovich), whose husband was brutally murdered in mysterious circumstances right in front of her a couple of months previously an event which left her so traumatised that she has blocked out all memory of the actual killer, returns to her home city of Nome in Alaska with her two children determined to finish the work that her husband started.
Abbey starts conducting extensive therapy sessions with three Nome residents who all suffer from severe sleep disorders. Abbey is struck by the strong similarities between each case, in particular the presence of a white owl in each account. When she tries hypnosis on one of the patients, Tommy (Corey Johnson), he starts screaming, terrified of some presence which is trying to take him away.
As inexplicable and violent events seem to happen all around her, Abbey becomes convinced that she is dealing with genuine cases of alien abduction, and that she herself may also be a target.

Opinions: This film purports to be a drama-documentary telling the story of a real-life case, with the drama interspersed with interviews and genuine archive footage and tape recordings. In reality, it is an entirely fictional film and is not based on any actual cases. Also, in contrary to what is stated in the film, Nome is not some kind of alien abduction centre. Although Nome and other Alaskan towns have their fair share of disappearances, the FBI have stated that the specific disappearances that are discussed in the film are down to a combination of alcohol and freezing temperatures. Also the interviewees in the film are actors. This approach lead to a lot of controversy when the film was released due to the fact that the film is marketed and presented as being based on "actual case studies" studio produced fake on-line news reports and obituaries to make the film appear more genuine.
What about the film itself though? It features some good performances but otherwise doesn't really work. It's overloaded with flashy little flourishes, such as split screen, which just serve to take you out of the movie. Most of the shock scenes are telegraphed in advance by having the screen go blank and silent for a couple of seconds before something loud and sudden happens. There are a couple of effective jolts, but not many. The movie would have made a good 45 minute episode of The X-Files but feels stretched at 98 minutes. That is another thing about the movie, it actually feels quite dated now because the whole alien abduction thing has been so quiet in the last few years from it's hey-day in the mid to late 1990s. Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from an expansion of J. Allen Hyneck's "Close Encounters" classification of UFO sightings - a "close encounter of the fourth kind" referring to alien abduction.
Horror fans will probably be disappointed at the lack of real scares and those interested in alien abductions are not likely to find here that they have not seen before.

Milla Jovovich in The Fourth Kind

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Bride of Frankenstein

Year: 1935
Director: James Whale
Screenplay: William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester and Una O'Connor
Running Time: 73 minutes
Genre: Horror, monster, science-fiction

Summary: On a dark and stormy night, the poets Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) persuade Shelley's wife, Mary (Lanchester) to continue the story of Frankenstein and his Creature.
The story takes up from the end of the first film, with the Creature (Karloff) missing, presumed dead, in the blazing inferno and his creator, Henry Frankenstein (Clive) injured and traumatised but very much alive. However, the Creature has survived the fire and escaped, soon attracting the attention of the local villagers who persue him with pitchforks, blazing torches and shotguns.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein wants nothing more than to abandon his work and build a life with his fiancee, Elizabeth (Hobson). However, Frankenstein is approached by the sinister Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Thesiger), who has been experimenting with creating homunculi (and has successfully created a miniature king, queen, archbishop, devil, ballerina and mermaid). He blackmails Frankenstein into helping him create a woman: The "Bride of Frankenstein" (Lanchester)

Opinions: This movie, the first sequel to Frankenstein (1931) is widely regarded as not only one of the best horror movies ever made, but as one of the best movies ever made. It is also one of the very few sequels which is better than the original. The idea of a sequel was mooted as early as the first previews of Frankenstein and the plot hearkens back to a subplot in the original novel where the Creature demands that Frankenstein builds him a female companion, which he does but, envisioning a world overrun by the monsterous children of his two creations, destroys the unfinished woman before the Creature's horrified eyes (apparently it never occured to Mary Shelley that, for someone who could create a living being out of scraps of corpses, it would probably be pretty easy for him to create a woman without the ability to reproduce, then again it was written in 1818).
The original film's director, James Whale, was persuaded to return to direct the sequel with the promise of complete creative control, and many people today see a very strong gay subtext to the film (Whale himself was openly gay). Colin Clive returns as the tormented Henry Frankenstein and gives a great performance. Also memorable is Ernest Thesiger as the vain and highly camp but sinister Doctor Pretorius. Most memorable though is Boris Karloff as the Creature, under the iconic makeup from Jack Pierce. The Creature is portrayed as a sympathetic victim, and is largely non-violent except when provoked. One of the movies most memorable scenes is where the Creature finds short-lived peace with a blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) who teaches him to speak and smoke cigars. Elsa Lanchester, who has a dual role as Mary Shelley in the prologue and the titular Bride, has one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history as she comes to life, resplendent in white with the conical hairstyle complete with twin white lightning like streaks, jerkily rising among the sparking laboratory machines as wedding bells play on the soundtrack.
The film is full of memorable scenes, some comical (Doctor Pretorius eating his packed lunch in a mausoleum, resting his sandwiches on a tomb and cracking jokes with a skull) some surprisingly heartbreaking (the Creature's speech "Yes... Dead... I love... Dead... Hate... Living").
Inevitably the movie has dated and it is fair to say that it really isn't very scary by modern standards but it is a must see for anyone who has even the slightest interest in films.

"To a new world of gods and monsters!"
-Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in Bride of Frankenstein

Aw, they make such a cute couple: Elsa Lanchester realises Boris Karloff has forgotten the ring in Bride of Frankenstein