Friday, 30 December 2011

"Damned" by Chuck Palahniuk

Year of Publication:  2011
Number of Pages:  247 pages
Genre:  Comedy, horror

This is the story of thirteen year old Madison Spencer, the daughter of a world famous movie star and a billionaire, who dies and finds herself condemned to Hell, a place where  the newly dead are locked into filthy cages, there are mountians of toenail clippings and used razor blades, along with lakes consisting of insects and seas of various bodily fluids.  Grotesque demons munch on damned souls, the only currency is candy and the only jobs are internet porn or telemarketing.  Also the only entertainment on offer are endless showings of The English Patient.  However, Madison is not sure why she is there and so she, along with some new friends that she meets along the way, travels towards the centre of Hell in order to find her answers.

This book basically mixes the Dante Alighieri's Inferno with The Breakfast Club and Judy Blume novels.  It's told in the first person by Madison and moves between her adventures in Hell with her life on Earth.  Frequently very funny, it is highly readable and very imaginative.  It might not rank as one of the best of Palahniuk's works, but it is entertaining, and his familiar style is very much in evidence.  The book pokes fun at the lifestyles of the super rich and famous, as well as teenage fiction and Hell itself.  The lead character of Madison Spencer is engaging and likeable, even if few of the secondary characters really register.  Even if you are not a Palahniuk fan, this is enjoyable enough to make it worth checking out.   

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Year:  2011
Director:  David Fincher
Screenplay:  Steven Zaillian, based on the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Starring:  Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joley Richardson
Running Time:  158 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, crime, drama, mystery

This is the English language film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Steig Larsson, which was first published in 2005, and was already the subject of a 2009 Swedish film.

Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) is hired by Henrik Vanger (Plummer) the wealthy, elderly patriarch of a large and powerful family, ostensibly to write his biography, but in reality to investigate the murder of his beloved neice, who disappeared almost forty years previously.  Vanger is convinced that one of the family killed her.  As he investigates, Blomkvist enlists the help of troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara).  Together the two begin to discover some shocking secrets about the Vanger family.  Secrets that some would kill to keep hidden.

This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel.  Visually it is very impressive, with the bleak, wintery landscapes giving the film an almost dreamlike atmosphere.  The cast are uniformly brilliant, with Rooney Mara exceptional in the difficult role of Lisbeth Salander, who is already one of the most memorable characters in modern popular fiction.  The film also manages to condense a complex and long novel into a coherent film.  The film retains the Swedish setting of the original novel, but all the dialogue is English language, with the cast basically speaking in Swedish accents, which seems slightly bizarre.  Also the film moves at a fairly sedate pace, although there are sudden bursts of violence, a couple of which are genuinely shocking and disturbing.  

However, it is a fierce and powerful piece of work, with a superb visual sense and would be worth watching just for Rooney Mara's performance alone.


Rooney Mara is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Year:  2011
Director:  Brad Bird
Screenplay:  Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, based on the television series Mission:  Impossible created by Bruce Geller
Starring:  Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Running Time:  133 minutes
Genre:  Spy, thriller, action

After escaping from a Russian prison, secret agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), a member of the top secret Impossible Mission Force, finds himself pitted against a ruthless terrorist (Michale Nyqvist) who has stolen the codes to launch Russian nuclear missiles and plans to use them to start an all out nuclear war.  However Hunt has the aid of Jane Carter (Patton) who has her own personal reasons for targeting the terrorist group, computer specialist Benji Dunn (Pegg), and IMF chief analyst William Brandt (Renner).  However Hunt and his team have been set up to take the blame for an attack on the Kremlin, and the US Government have instituted a "Ghost Protocol", which effectively means that they have disavowed all knowledge of Hunt and his team's existence.

This film is the fourth movie to be spun off from the popular Mission:  Impossible TV series which ran from 1966 to 1973, and is best enjoyed as a ride.  Shown in the IMAX format it is a delirious range of spectacular action set pieces, however it does get bogged down in the dialogue scenes.  It's full of narrow escapes and miraculous survival, however while the film is running it's too entertaining to really bother with plot details.  The movie is like a James Bond film.  It sets out to give the audience an entertaining ride with plenty of action and stunts and special effects and it succeeds in that.  The cast are engaging enough, especially Simon Pegg who injects warmth and humour into his part as newly minted agent Benji Dunn.  The main problem is that the storyline plays a little too much like a video game, and the villains never really make much of an impression.
It's an entertaining, enjoyable movie and it's a lot of fun.


Tom Cruise wishes he had taken the stairs in Mission:  Impossible - Ghost Protocol.


Friday, 16 December 2011

"The Cut" by George Pelecanos

Year of Publication:  2011
Number of Pages:  292 pages
Genre:  Crime, thriller

Since his debut in 1992, American novelist George Pelecanos has carved out a niche for himself chronicling the dark side of life in Washington D.C., as well as writing for such acclaimed television series as The Wire (2002-2008) and Treme (2010 - ongoing).

The Cut tells the story of Spero Lucas, who has recently returned to his hometown of Washington D.C. after serving a tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq, and now works as a private investigator for a defence attorney.  Lucas' speciality is recovering stolen property, no questions asked, for which he receives a fee ("the cut" of the title) of forty percent of the property's value.  Hearing of his speciality, Lucas is contacted by a high profile crime boss in prison who wants Lucas to find out who is stealing valuable packages of drugs from his operation.  Despite his qualms about working for the man, the fee is too great for Lucas to resist.  However, Lucas is soon pitted against a group whose ruthlessness and taste for violence leave him shocked and he soon realises that his investigation could have deadly consequences.

This is the first of a proposed new series, but it is very much in the vein of Pelecanos' previous work.  His work benefits enormously from his extensive local knowledge of Washington D.C.,  and is enriched by the frequent references to soul music, food, movies, as well as Greek-American culture (all of which are typical Pelecanos trademarks).  His books are well written and his stories are well plotted, exciting and engaging.  Driven more by dialogue than action, Pelecanos builds a number of interesting character here, most notably the flawed but consistently likeable Spero Lucas, even if the main villain of the novel does not seem to have much depth.  There are certain themes in the novel about the problems faced by returning soldiers, violent crime, drugs, race, family and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a dangerous and complex world, which often aren't really developed, but don't really interfere with the story. 

There is plenty here to appeal to fans of Pelecanos and it's an entertaining, exciting and quick read.  George Pelecanos is a talented and distinctive crime writer and well worth checking out.




        

Saturday, 10 December 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Year:  1946
Director:  Frank Capra
Screenplay:  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Farank Capra, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy

Christmas time again:  The decorations go up, enough food is bought to feed a small army, parents fight with other desperate hollow eyed shoppers for the chance to get their hands on the latest must-have toy, Cliff Richard and Slade dominate the radio for weeks on end, forgotten comedy shows wheel out special extended episodes, office workers jeapordise their careers in drunken rampages after the work parties, and It's a Wonderful Life makes it's annual appearance.

The film revolves around George Bailey (Stewart), who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls, and has dreams of becoming a famous architect and travelling the world.  However, because of his innate drive to help his family and friends he stays to take over the family Buildings and Loan association, eventually giving up on his dreams entirely to stay in town and marry girl next door Mary Hatch (Reed).  As he comes into conflict with the wealthy and evil Henry Potter (Barrymore), George's life begins to unravel.  Eventually, on Christmas Eve he decides to commit suicide and a strange angel, Clarence (Travers), is sent to help him, by showing him what the world would be like if he had never existed.

This film has a reputation for being the very epitome of schmaltzy, feel-good sentiment.  However there is more to it than that.  The film, for the most part at least, is actually very dark.  Don't forget, it is about a man who is driven to the very brink of suicidal despair.  However, in a way the darkness makes the light shine more brightly.  It features some superb performances, especially from James Stewart, who plays the everyman role that he was so famous for, and yet provides layers of self-doubt, despair and rage balanced against the essential decency of George's personality.

Not a great success on it's original release, the film became an acknowledged classic through being a staple of Christmas TV schedules.   The film is occasionally a little too pious, but not too much.  It is essentially a fable.  Ultimately though the title comes across as being somewhat ironic.  How wonderful is George Bailey's life, really?  And, more importantly, how wonderful will it remain?  The film itself has developed a life of it's own and hangs in the movie firmanent somewhere beyond criticism.  It's very easy to be cynical about it, but it still packs a powerful punch and is probably the best Christmas movie of all time and is likely to be still viewed for as long as the holidays are celebrated.


It's a Wonderful Life for Donna Reed and James Stewart

      

  

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Exterminating Angel

Year:  1962
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Screenplay:  Luis Bunuel
Starring:  Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Claudio Brook
Running Time:  93 minutes
Genre:  Drama, comedy, surrealism

Have you ever been at a party where all you want to do is leave, but for whatever reason, you have to stay? If so, then spare a thought for the characters in this classic surrealist satire from Spanish director Luis Bunuel. 

Following a night at the theatre, a group of wealthy friends return to the palatial mansion of Edmundo Nobile (Rambal) for a dinner party.  The servants have all made their excises and left for reasons, even they can't properly explain.  During dinner, sheep and a bear run around the hallways of the mansion.  Eventually all the guests find themselves inexplicably trapped in the mansion's music room.  There is nothing physically stopping them from leaving, and it's not that they don't want to leave, it's just that for some reason they can't.  Days drag on, food and water become increasingly scarce, the group become increasingly hostile amongst themselves and irrational.  Slowly they begin to suffer from hysteria, disease and hallucinations.  Rescue attempts from the outside world fail due to the same strange phenomenon that is preventing the guests from leaving the music room is apparently preventing anyone from getting into the house.  There is nothing physically stopping the rescuers and they want to get in, but for some reason they just can't.

This bizarre movie does not offer any explanations, and is filled with strange and disturbing imagery.  It is however unforgettable.  Here Bunuel attacks his favourite targets of the wealthy middle and upper classes and organised religion.  However he also broadens his satiricial scope to take in the ritualised nature of modern life.  As always with Bunuel the darkness is alleviated somewhat by comedy, albeit very black comedy, and some sympathy with his characters, even if they are not particularly likeable.  Shot in Mexico, on a very low budget this is still a very stylishly made film.  The idea of the film being largely set in one room, might seem dull and uncinematic but Bunuel and his cast and crew milk every drop of tension and humour from the nightmarish scenario.  

There's a direct reference to this film in the 2011 Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris in a scene where the time-travelling writer (played by Owen Wilson) describes the idea of the film to a bemused Luis Bunuel (played by Adrien de Van) who resonds:  "But why can't they leave?  I don't understand."

Still powerful, still troubling and still relevant, this will make the next party you go to seem not quite as bad.  In a weird way, the movie does end up making some kind of weird sense once you've seen it.  Even the sheep and crawling hand.  


      The partying never stops in The Exterminating Angel 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Year:  1998
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Screenplay:  Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies, based on the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson 
Starring:  Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro
Running Time:  119 minutes
Genre:  Drama, comedy,

This film is a screen adaptation of the cult 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson.  In 1971, journalist Raoul Duke (Depp) and his friend and attorney Doctor Gonzo (del Toro) travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas because Duke has an assignment to cover a prestigious motorcycle race, however they have equipped themselves with an astonishing arsenal of alcohol and illegal drugs, and manage to turn a simple sportswriting assignment into a prolonged binge of drug and alcohol fueled madness, as they tear Las Vegas apart and glimpse the dark side of the American Dream.

The film uses a barrage of visual and auditory techniques to recreate the experiences of Duke and Gonzo.  Director Terry Gilliam has a strong visual sense and the frequent use of TV screens showing footage from the Vietnam war and the anti-war protests give a sense of the wider world at the time. 

The development of the film was protracted and troubled.  Both Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone at various times tried and failed to get film versions of the book off the ground, and Ralph Bakshi at one time tried to do it as an animated film.  Eventually British director Alex Cox was hired as a director for the film, until he fell out with Thompson and was dropped, although he is still credited as co-writer on the film.

The film features impressive performances.  Benicio del Toro put on 45 pounds in nine weeks for his role and extensively researched the life of the real life attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (upon whom the character of Doctor Gonzo was based)  and Johnny Depp lived in Hunter Thompson's home for four months and formed a strong friendship with the writer which lasted until Thompson's death in 2005.  Raoul Duke is pretty obviously Hunter Thompson (at one point the name Raoul Duke is referred to as an assumed name, and in another scene he recieves a telegram addressed to "Thompson").  There are also a number of well-known actors in small roles, including Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin and Gary Busey. 

The tone of the film veers from wild comedy to genuinely disturbing sequences and creates a powerful and memorable viewing experience.        


Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp take a trip in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Thing (2011)

Year:  2011
Director:  Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Screenplay:  Eric Heisserer, based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Starring:  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, Trond Espen Seim
Running Time:  102 minutes
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, action

Okay, first things first, despite it's title this is not a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing which itself was inspired by the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, which were both adapted from the 1938 story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.  Instead this is a prequel to the 1982 film.

 Antarctica, 1982, a Norwegian research expedition discovers an alien spacecraft frozen for thousands of years in the ice and, a short distance away, the frozen body of it's occupant.  A young American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Winstead), is sent in to help analyse the frozen body, which is sealed in a solid block of ice.  However, when the officious lead scientist (Thomsen) orders a tissue sample taken from the creature, aganst Kate's advice, the Thing begins to reawaken.  Before long it has burst out of the ice and is on the loose around the station, attacking the occupants until it is burned to death.  However, that is only the beginning, because Kate soon realises that the shape-shifting alien has the ability to infect it's victims at the cellular level, and to transform their cells into it's cells, and thusly perfectly imitate any life form, hiding unitl it is ready to attack.  She soon discovers that any one of the expedition may be The Thing.

This is a fun, tense blend of science-fiction and horror, which creates a strong sense of claustrophobia and suspense.  It also deserves points for not being  a remake.  The problem is that we have been here before.  It doesn't offer much that was not there in it's predecessor.  There are plenty of the nightmarish transformations and flesh tearing mutations that were such a hallmark of the 1982 version, but this time round they have kind of lost their shock value.  Certainly there is nothing to compare with the legendary stomach suddenly growing teeth or the severed head scuttling around on spider legs in the earlier film, although both of them are referenced.  It also has several nods to the 1951 film most notably in the alien defrosting from ice and also from the depiction of sinister and/or cowardly scientists who need to be kept in line by tough, pragmatic macho men, the exception being tough, pragmatic scientist Kate, whose character bears a very strong resemblance to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien movies.  The film does well, though in the depiction of the paranoia and claustrophobia of the characters, who if anyhtng are even more distrustful of each other than in the earlier film.  In the 1982 version a kind of blood test was used to check who was human and who wasn't, in this movie the only thing they can do is check people's fillings (which the alien cannot absorb and so spits out).  Which is bad news for anyone with clean teeth or porcelain fillings.

This is a fun suspenseful action film which comes nowhere close to eclipsing it's predecessor, but does at least complement it.   


Mary Elizabeth Winstead warms up in The Thing

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Moonraker

Year:  1979
Director:  Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay:  Christopher Wood, based on the novel Moonraker by Ian Fleming
Starring:  Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel
Running Time:  126 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, action, science-fiction

This is the film where James Bond goes into space.  Aside from the title and a couple of character names, the film abandons pretty much everything from Ian Fleming's excellent novel, in favour of an overblown attempt to tie-in with the science-fiction boom after the success of  Star Wars (1977).

When a new space shuttle named "Moonraker" is stolen in mid-air, British secret agent James Bond (Moore) is ordered to find out what happened to it.  Following the trail to California and the home of the shuttle's sinister manufacturer, billionaire Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), Bond makes the acquaintence of alluring scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead  (Chiles), as well as his old enemy, hulking killer Jaws (Kiel), who has stainless steel teeth.   As Bond travels from California to Venice, to Rio de Janeiro, to outer space, he begins to realise that there is something far more dangerous than a missing shuttle at work.

For my money, this is probably the worst of the James Bond movies.  The plot is virtually non-existant, and what there is is impossible to take seriously because it is all played for campy laughs (for example the scene where the giant Jaws falls in love with a diminutive blonde girl while the soundtrack plays "Love is a Many Splendoured Thing", and the scene where Bond drives an inflatable gondola through the streets of Venice).  The special effects range from the serviceable to the terrible.  Roger Moore appears on autopilot throughout the whole movie, smirking his way through the endless quips and fights and Michael Lonsdale as Drax makes for a very flat villain.  However the sets are impressive, and even the very worst Bond films still have their share of entertaining moments.  The quip at the end is genuinely funny and some of the action scenes are exciting. 


  Lois Chiles and Roger Moore investigate Moonraker

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

We Need to Talk about Kevin

Year:  2011
Director:  Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay:  Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Starring:  Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rocky Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich
Running Time:  112 minutes
Genre:  Drama, crime, family

Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel We Need to Talk about Kevin has been a mainstay of book groups and commuters on buses and trains throughout the world since it's first publication in 2003, and this film adaptation has been in development since 2005.

The story deals with a Columbine style high school massacre from the perspective of the mother of the perpetrator.  Eva Katchadourian (Swinton) is a successful New York based travel writer and photographer until she is forced into domesticity in a bland New England town when she falls pregnant.  The film moves back and forth through time from the aftermath of the massacre, where the shattered, isolated Eva has become the town hate figure, to her tortured relationship with teenage son Kevin (Miller), who she resents right from the get-go, and who regards her with little more than open contempt and hatred.  All the time her amiable husband, Franklin (Reilly), doesn't see anything wrong with Kevin and can't understand why his wife is seemingly unable to bond with her child.

The film opens with Eva as one of a writhing mass of bodies at the Spanish La Tomatina festival in which participants hurl tomatoes at each other for fun.  The colour red becomes an important element in the film, from the mass of people covered in pulped tomatoes at La Tomatina to the vivid splashes of red paint that her neighbours throw at her house after the massacre and the red and glow of the police car and ambulance lights.  The tomato festival serves as a reminder of the free, exciting lifestyle which Eva loses when she falls pregnant.  In a key later scene Eva hides from the mother of one of her son's victims, by hiding behind a wall of cans of tomato soup. 

The film features a superb performance by Tilda Swinton in the lead role, her face a mask of savage, barely restrained emotion, and in the scenes set after the massacre, she becomes haggard, dead-eyed and almost ghost-like.  Ezra Miller is also impressive as the sociopathic Kevin, full of sneering contempt and hatred.  The movie poses the question of how much Eva herself is responsible for her son's actions.  However Kevin would probably test the patience of even the most loving, easy-going mother.  However, the film suggests that Eva and Kevin are not that dissimilar, they even look a lot like each other, to the extent of wearing very similar shirts.

Kevin remains an enigma throughout the film.  It's never revealed why he does what he does, and it is one of the film's strengths that it does not provide answers where there are none.  This is a striking, dark and powerful film boasting great perfomances and a powerful visual style from acclaimed Scottish director Lynne Ramsay.  Although it's probably not the best pick for family movie night.



Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in We Need to Talk about Kevin

     

Monday, 24 October 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Year:  2010
Directors:  Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Screenplay:  Christopher D. Landon
Starring:  Lauren Bittner, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Horror, supernatural, mockumentary

This movie has already broken records.  It holds records for the highest ever midnight opening for a film ($8 million), the best opening day for a horror movie in the United States ($26.2 million) and the highest opening for any film in October.

Essentially it is a prequel to the two previous Paranormal Activity films.  It opens in 2005 with the discovery of a box of videotapes.  The rest of the movie consists, allegedly, of the footage on the tapes.  In 1988, Dennis (Smith) decides to set up video cameras to record the strange events occuring in the house he shares with his girlfriend, Julie (Bittner) and Julie's two young daughters, Katie (Csengery) and Kristie (Brown).  The events appear to centre on the two girls, in particular Kristie who holds long conversations with her invisible friend "Tony".  Over the subsequent nights the severity of the events quickly escalate and Dennis comes to realise that he and his family are in serious danger.

The set up of the scares in the Paranormal Activity movies mostly consist of long periods of silence and inactivity as the cameras record the characters sleeping, and then a sudden SHOCK as a door SLAMS SHUT or something FALLS or is THROWN.  It is very simple, but it is quite effective, because it is startling to have a sudden loud noise after a long period of total silence.  This is of course a trick that horror film-makers have known for years.  The cameras are set up in a way to give the widest possible field of vision, so I found myself scanning the image constantly on edge for something to happen.  it is the fact that you are constantly expecting something.  The horror events when they do come are quite subtle, for example a figure draped in a white sheet appears behind the babysitter late at night.  You might think it's one of the two girls.  Suddenly the sheet falls to the floor, as if whatever was inside it has vanished into thin air. 

These "fake documentary" films really divide audiences, because a lot of people find them terrifying, whereas a lot of others don't find them scary at all.  I think if they are done well they can be very effective.  Personally I quite enjoyed Paranormal Activity 3, and there were a couple of really effective scares.  One sequence in particular drew a lot of gasps and screams from the audience I saw it with, which very rarely happens with horror movies.  However, it does suffer from a few long patches of dullness.  Also there is not much of a story here and what there is is hardly original.  However, there are just enough jolts to make it worthwhile checking out. 



Sleepless nights in Paranormal Activity 3                

Friday, 21 October 2011

"Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle

Year of Publication:  1963
Number of Pages:  200 pages
Genre:  Science-fiction

This French novel has become a modern classic of science-fiction.  In the year 2500, journalist Ulysse Merou joins two scientists on a voyage from Earth to the star Betelgeuse.  Due to the effects of time dilation, the journey takes only two years for the travellers, but approximately 800 years pass in "real time".  Arriving at their destination, the astronauts set down on an Earth-type planet which they dub "Soror".  They also discover human inhabitants, however here the humans are savage and animalistic, lacking even the most rudimentary intelligence.  Instead the apes are the dominant species (namely gorillas, chimpanzees and ourang-outans) and posess an advanced, technological civilization.  What's more, they see humans as little more than a dangerous, if occasionally useful, species to be hunted down for sport and to be experimented upon.  Trapped in a research facility, Ulysse desperately attempts to prove his intelligence to the ape scientists.  However, there is a very real danger that if he is successful the apes will view him as even more of a threat.  A threat to be studied and destroyed.

This is an enjoyable science-fiction adventure story, but also serves as a witty and thought-provoking satire.  The ape civilization is roughly equivalent to human civilization in the early sixties, with the same level of technology.  The book deals with the relationship between humans and animals, for example the humans are at the same level of development as apes are on Earth, and the experiments which strike Ulysse as so barbaric are really no different from the experiments that were carried out on ape subjects at the time the book was written.  It also examines science, society and evolution and the way intelligence can either be developed or degraded.  Boulle was involved with the French Resistance during the Second World War, and there are themes dealing with surrender and collaboration in the novel.  Despite some heavy thematic material, the book is always fast-paced, frequently exciting and often very funny.

The novel was adapted to a hugely successful movie in 1968, starring Charlton Heston (much to the surprise of Boulle himself who regarded the novel as unfilmable).  The 1968 film spawned five sequels, comics, books and a short-lived television series.  In 2001 the book was filmed again, this time with Tim Burton directing, and with much less success.  The 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, serves as a prequel to the story.  The films are only very loosely based on the novel.  In the novel the apes are much more technologically advance than they are in the films.  Also the satire is toned down quite considerably in favour of science-fiction action thrills.  Another difference, is that in the novel Ulysse, initially at least, tries to be accepted by the ape society, while in the 1968 movie Charlton Heston introduces himself to his primate friends by famously yelling:  "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty apes!"







Sunday, 16 October 2011

Horror Movie Marathon

Last night I was at an All-Night Horror Movie Marathon in a local movie theatre. With these events the experience itself is nearly as important as the movies themselves and so I decided to do a post encompassing all four of the films on offer. It kicked off at about 11:30PM with


BLUE SUNSHINE



Year: 1978

Director: Jeff Lieberman

Screenplay: Jeff Lieberman

Starring: Zalman King, Deborah Winters


This movie blends horror and action thriller elements. "Blue Sunshine" is a lethal strain of homemade LSD which was popular among Stranford college students in the late 1960s. However, it has an unexpected side-effect in that ten years later, users lose all their hair and go on a murderous rampage killing anyone in sight.

The film is pretty badly made and loaded with unintentional humour (for example one bald maniac is subdued by 1970s disco music which does briefly cause him to try to bust a move Travolta-style and a key clue is provided by a pet parrot). Zalman King (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Sean Penn) gives an earnest performance in the lead role. There is an interesting subtext here about respectable yuppies finding their youthful indiscretions catching up with them, but it's not really developed. The production values are fairly strong and some of the action scenes are well-handled.



At 1:30AM it was time for:



HALLOWEEN



Year: 1978

Director: John Carpenter

Screenplay: John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis



This film is one of the most influential horror movies ever made as well as being one of the most profitable independent films of all time. In 1963, in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois, six year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) brutally stabs his teenage sister to death on Halloween night. Fifteen years later, Myers (now played by Nick Castle), escapes from the asylum and returns home to Haddonfield for some more Halloween fun. Myers' doctor, Loomis (Pleasance), who has come to believe that Myers is pure evil incarnate follows him to Haddonfield determined to stop him by any means necessary. Meanwhile Myers takes to stalking a group of teenage babysitters, including Laurie Strode (Curtis).

Even if you would sooner have your eyes gouged out (by a maniac in a mask, natch) than sit down and watch a "stalk and slash" movie, Halloween is still worth checking out. Here, gore and violence are kept to the bare minimum while suspense is tuned up to the max. Billed as "The Shape" in the credits, Michael Myers with his blank white mask (in reality a painted Star Trek Captain Kirk mask) became a horror icon. Pleasance adds class and dignity to proceedings as the terrified but determined doctor, and Curtis makes a strong and affecting heroine. Interestingly, the film works much better at the cinema than it does on TV, due to Carpenter electing to shoot in widescreen, creating plenty of empty spaces around his characters for evil to lurk. In the early part of the film, before things really kick off, Myers appears as a half glimpsed figure standing watching in the distance or driving cars and trucks, making it feel like he could literally be anywhere.

Another important element to the film's success is it's creepy, memorable score which was composed by Carpenter.



At 3:30AM everything went to



PIECES



Year: 1981

Director: Juan Piquer Simon

Screenplay: Joe D'Amato and Dick Randall

Starring: Christopher George, Edmund Purdom, Lynda Day George, Frank Brana, Paul L. Smith

In Boston, 1942, a young boy messily dismembers his domineering mother when she tries to throw out his pornographic jigsaw puzzle. Forty years later, a Boston college campus is plagued by a spate of gruesome murders in which female students are found cut to pieces with portions of the body missing. The police officer in charge of the investigation, Lieutenant Bracken (George), decides to send in a female police officer, Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George), undercover in the college to catch the killer.
This film, which has become something of a cult classic now, is basically "Z" Grade trash which if it was better made, would be shockingly offensive on just about every level in the end it is impossible to take seriously. The movie is extremely gruesome with limbs being lopped off left, right and centre and it is loaded with unintentional laughs. Watched on it's own, and judged soberly on it's own merits this is pretty much unwatchable, but seen in the early hours of morning in a cinema packed with braying horror fans it becomes unmissable.

To be honest I probably laughed more at Pieces than I have at any other movie I have seen in theatres this year, with the possible exception of The Inbetweeners Movie.



Finally, at 5:30AM we came to



THE EVIL DEAD



Year: 1983

Director: Sam Raimi

Screenplay: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Sarah York

This is one of the all-time classic cult movies. When Ash (Campbell) and his four friends decide to take a vacation in an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods, they discover a copy of the legendary Sumerian Book of the Dead along with tapes of various incantations from the book. When the kids play the tapes they inadvertently summon demonic forces lurking in the woods, which proceed to violently attack and possess the visitors, changing them into giggling, gruesome, murderous ghouls.

On it’s original release, the film was heavily criticised for it’s violence and gore. In Britain it fell afoul of the “Video Nasties” witch-hunt of the early 1980s. Seen today, the violence and gore are still extreme but also played for laughs. This has it’s severed tongue lodged firmly in it’s rotting cheek, although the film’s two sequels played the material more directly for laughs. Here, the square-jawed Bruce Campbell plays the role that would make him a cult movie icon and director Raimi works wonders with a low-budget. The film is loaded with energy and Raimi displays the talent that would go into his more mainstream work such as Spider-Man (2002) and it’s sequels.

It is a must-see for all horror fans.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Somewhere

Year:  2010
Director:  Sofia Coppola
Screenplay:  Sofia Coppola
Starring:  Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Simona Ventura
Running Time:  98 minutes
Genre:  Drama, comedy, Hollywood

This film is a slow moving but engrossing character piece.  Johnny Marco (Dorff) is a Hollywood actor who has recently become famous and now lives at the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, drinking too much and indulging in random sexual encounters with various women.  He is also getting a series of abusive anonymous text messages.  One morning his estranged, eleven year old daughter, Cleo (Fanning), turns up for an unexpected, extended stay.  With Cleo around, Johnny is forced to rexamine his feckless, empty life.

As with all of Sofia Coppola's previous films, this movie deals with lonely, wealthy people.  However while her previous films (The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Transtlation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006)) deal with these subjects from a largely female perspective, this one deals with her usual themes from a male point of view.  Stephen Dorff gives a good perfomance as the outwardly successful but deeply unhappy Marco, and manages to make a potentially unsympathetic character engaging.  Elle Fanning is also striking as the intelligent, grounded daughter.  Sofia Coppola is the daughter of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola and she has said that some apsects of the film, notably the sequence where Cleo accompanies Marco to a film festival in Italy and awards ceremonies, were partially inspired by her own childhood, although she has denied that the film is autobiographical.  It's obvious that Sofia Coppola knows the Hollywood lifestyle, and she herself has stayed at the Chateau Marmont, and the film critiques the lifestyle while also understanding it's appeal.  The character of Johnny Marco is treated sympathetically.  Often shot in a way that emphasises his isolation, his unhappiness is obvious on his face.  he knows that his life is empty and that he is in many ways just going through the motions, but he is trapped in a sense.  Cleo understands the pitfalls of her father's lifestyle and while she obviously adores and worships him, she is not blind to his faults and frequently finds herself taking care of him instead of the other way around.  She makes his breakfast and so on.  For his part, as much as he loves her, Marco cannot be the father that Cleo needs and he knows it.  At times the film feels a little bit like a Bret Easton Ellis story, although there is much less sex and violence and much more warmth and heart than you would find in Ellis' work.

A lot of the humour in the film comes from the depiction of the show-biz world.  This is not a behind the scenes drama.  Instead it follows Marco on the publicity trail as he tries to promote his latest movie doing photo-shoots with an actress (Michelle Monaghan) who clearly hates him, answering inane questions at press conferences and interviews and sitting in a make-up chair with his head and face completely plastered in gunk having clearly been forgotten about.

As with Sofia Coppola's other films, some people, particularly these days, may find it kind of difficult to be sympathetic to the self-examination of wealthy people trying to find meaning in a small, enclosed world.  The thing is that she is depicting the world that she knows about and lives in.  She grow up in a family that was practically Hollywood royalty, so the lives she depicts are ones that she knows about, even her one period film, Marie Antoinette, is still very much a Sofia Coppola film.  The thing is that there is a genuine warmth and heart to the film, as there is in all her work.  Ultimately the search for meaning, fulfillment and happiness is a key human concern that we can all relate to.       

      
Elle Fanning and Stephen Dorff in Somewhere

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Man with the Golden Gun

Year:  1974
Director:  Guy Hamilton
Screenplay:  Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz, based on the novel The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
Starring:  Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Maud Adams, Herve Villechaize, Richard Loo, Soon-Tek Oh
Running Time:  125 minutes
Genre:  Action, thriller, spy

This film is the ninth in the official series based on the "James Bond" novels by Ian Fleming, and the second to star Roger Moore as the British super-spy.  In this entry, Bond receives information that he is the latest target of legendary hit-man Francisco Scaramanga (Lee), who charges a million dollars a kill and always uses a trademark golden gun.  Bond decides to kill Scaramanga first, and so sets off on a hunt through Beirut, Hong Kong and Bangkok only to discover that Scarmanga's real plot threatens far more than just him.

This film is not the best in the series by any reach and is pretty much average for a 1970s James Bond film.  I have to say I have always enjoyed a James Bond film.  They are pretty much the cinematic equivalent of , not really a Big Mac and fries, something more British than that, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.  Fun at the time, not particularly nutritious at all and you couldn't really sit through too much at one time, but enjoyable, even if there's not much to trouble the memory after you've seen it.  Although, more recently with Daniel Craig in the lead role, the films have been taking on a more complex, darker and contemporary quality.

This film features the usual Bond film mixture of glamour, guns, girls and gags, with some wonderful exotic picture postcard locations.  It's very much a product of it's time with the 1973 energy crisis being a major theme in the plot, as well as using several elements from the martial arts films that were hugely popular at the time.  1970s daredevil Evel Knievel even gets a namecheck at one point when Bond jumps a river in a car, a sequence which is ruined by a ludicrously comical sound effect.  As with many of the 1970s Bond films the humour doesn't really gel very well with ther action.  One of the problems was that Roger Moore was better at the comedy than he was at being an action man.

Christopher Lee, who was a stepcousin to Ian Fleming and knew him fairly well, steals the film as the urbane villain Scaramanga and Herve Villechaize, as Scaramanga's diminutive assistant Nick Nack, also makes an impression.  One of the film's main problems is the female characters.  Britt Ekland appears as the main "Bond Girl" who is portrayed as the stereotypical "dumb blonde" and is there mainly to get kidnapped, cause chaos and look good in a bikini.  She is also the target of what is probably the most sexist scene in the whole of the James Bond series, and if you know the Bond films then you'll know that is really saying something, when she is angry at Bond's liaison with femme fatale Maud Adams and Bond cheerfully replies "Don't worry, darling, your turn will come."  Probably to most people that line would come across as a slightly coded request for a smack in the mouth, but surprisingly she doesn't hit him.  The film also features an irritating racist redneck stereotype sheriff (Clifton James) who appeared in the previous Bond film Live and Let Die (1973).  Intended to be comedic, he serves no purpose here except to be annoying.  The theme song, perfomed by Lulu, marks one of the low points for the Bond theme songs.  The lyrics are just so full of innuendo it becomes quite funny.

The film is too long, and the storyline could have done with tightening up, but then the important thing with Bond movies is not their stories.  This is watchable enough for fans though, and when the film tries to be serious and deliver a few thrills it can be quite good, and a couple of the set-pieces are genuinely impressive.  It also features at least one genuinely great line from Bond' boss "M" (Bernard Lee).  Whne Bond asks who could possibly want to kill him, "M" snaps back:  "Jealous husbands, humiliated chefs, outraged tailors.  The list is endless."





Christopher Lee and Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun           

Monday, 10 October 2011

"Rosemary's Baby" by Ira Levin

Year of Publication:  1967
Number of Pages:  229 pages
Genre:  Horror

This book is an interesting and entertaining slice of urban horror.  Rosemary Woodhouse and her actor husband, Guy, move into a New York apartment building with a long and sinister history.  Before long, however, they have settled in and befriended the nice elderly couple next door, Minnie and Roman Castevet.  Rosemary is ecstatic when she falls pregnant.  However her pregnancy is a particularly difficult one, as she finds herself crippled with agonising pains and also noticing that her husband is acting very strangely, and her neighbours are taking a very strong interest in her and her baby.  Rosemary quickly comes to suspect that she is at the centre of a bizarre and powerful occult conspiracy.

With this book, Satanic horror and the occult moved out of English mansions and mouldering castles and moved into modern day Manhattan.  The fantasy elements take place among an immediately recognisable contemporary backdrop.  The book was written and set in the mid-sixties and there are numerous references to the culture and events of the time.  This was very new at the time, before authors such as Stephen King anchored their ghostly imaginings with pop culture references and brand names.  The novel was a major best-seller in it's day, in no doubt helped by it's modern day references.  However, reading it now nearly 45 years later, it feels quite dated.  The book is very much a product of it's time, and some of the attitudes and language are quite un-PC  by modern standards.

The book is well written and well paced.  The horror elements are mostly downplayed for the majority of the book, with hints and insinuations cropping up here and there.  It's a novel of urban paranoia, pretty early on the reader comes to believe that pretty much everyone is against Rosemary, and nine times out of ten they are.  Here you have every reason to be suspicious of your neighbours, your husband and your friendly neighbourhood doctor, who comes so highly recommended.  One of the central set-pieces in the book is a memorable and skillfully written sequence where Rosemary believes that she is dreaming about being raped by the Devil (or is she dreaming), which collides with other dreams and memories to create a powerfully disturbing sequence.  There is also a lot of humour in the book, a lot of which does read like a weird kind of Woody Allen style New York comedy.  There's not a million miles between humour and horror, and both are very difficult to pull off well, and even more difficult to blend as well as the book does.  Another major theme in the book is religion.  Guy describes himself as an atheist and Rosemary describes herself as an agnostic, but the novel makes it clear that deep down she is a good small town Catholic girl.  There are a couple of references to the "God is Dead" controversy that was going on in the late sixties.  That may be so, the book says, but his opposite number is just getting started. 

Many people will know Rosemary's Baby best from the acclaimed 1968 movie version, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow as Rosemary and John Cassevetes as Guy.  The movie is remarkably faithful to the book, and fans of the movie will probably enjoy the novel and vice versa.  Ira Levin once stated that at one point in the book Guy makes a reference to buying a shirt after seeing it advertised in The New Yorker magazine and Polanski rang him up and asked Levin what issue of the magazine the shirt had been advertised in, and Levin had to admit that he had just made it up.

Ira Levin published a sequel, Son of Rosemary, in 1997.      

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

Year:  2011
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen
Running Time:  100 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, fantasy, romance, time-travel

Have you ever wished that you could escape from the present day and live in an earlier time?  This is the question dealt with in writer/director Woody Allen's 41st film.  Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Wilson) takes a holiday to Paris with his fiancee Inez (McAdams).  Gil falls in love with Paris while Inez is much more resistant to it's charms.  In particular Gil imagines what the city would have been like in the Golden Age of the 1920s.  While Inez is distracted by her friend Paul (Sheen), a pedantic pseudo-intellectual who she idolizes, Gil takes to wandering the city streets at night, until one night, at the stroke of midnight, he is picked up by a vintage car and finds himself whisked back to the Paris of the 1920s.  Soon Gil is spending every night partying with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Bates), Salvador Dali (Brody), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).  He quickly finds himself becoming increasingly disenchanted with both the 21st Century and Inez, especially when he meets the alluring Adriana (Cotillard).  However Adriana herself is in love with the idea of her own Golden Age:  Paris in the 19th century Belle Epoque.

This is Woody Allen's best movie in recent years and probably one of the best movies that he is made.  An engaging and effortlessly charming film, which is genuinely funny and directed with a light touch.  The performances are uniformly brilliant and there is a genuine sense of magic .  Despite a brief, half-hearted discussion of contemporary politics (Inez's father (Kurt Fuller) is a fervent Republican and not a fan of the French) this is timeless.  It both celebrates and critiques the yearning for some nostalgic, long departed Golden Age.  Woody Allen's earlier films are often seen as being love letters to his native New York, and this is an unashamed love letter to Paris and is more affecting and beautiful than any of his earlier New York celebrations.  There is a sense here also of Woody Allen rediscovering the magic of cinema itself.  

Entertaining and funny, this is a perfect romantic movie and will appeal to more than just Woody Allen fans.  This film is going to do wonders for the Parisian tourist industry.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson spend Midnight in Paris 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Melancholia

Year:  2011
Director:  Lars von Trier
Screenplay:  Lars von Trier
Starring:  Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Keifer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Udo Kier
Running Time:  135 minutes
Genre:  Drama, science-fiction, apocalyptic

It's the end of the world as we know it in the latest laugh filled romp from controversial Danish director Lars von Trier.  Justine (Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) turn up two hours late to their own wedding reception, held at the lavish country house owned by Justine's sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and her wealthy astronomer husband John (Sutherland).  At the reception, Justine, who suffers from manic depression, alienates her friends, family and her employer with her increasingly erratic behaviour.  In addition, a large rogue planet called Melancholia, which had been hidden behind the Sun is scheduled to pass by (or more likely to collide with) Earth in fve days time.

The film is told in two parts, the first, "Justine", deals with the disasterous wedding reception and plays like a savage dark comedy, while the second, "Claire", deals with the characters preparing for the approach of Melancholia and is an intense chamber drama.  It's fair to say, that while the film belongs squarely in the field of apocalyptic science-fiction and the main plot of an object about to collide with and destroy the Earth has been done many times before, this is very far removed from the action-adventure thrills of conventional science-fiction cinema.  This slow-moving, somber movie even pulls the rug out from the audience by denying us even the suspense of wondering whether or not the planet is going to collide with Earth.  It opens with a series of surreally beautiful slow-motion images depicting Earth's destruction by Melancholia (von Trier said that he did not want the audience in suspense for the wrong reasons)   

Lars von Trier is one of the most controversial directors working today and tends to strongly polarise his audience.  In the press conference for Melancholia at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival he managed to alienate almost everyone by saying that he admired Hitler and the Nazis.  However he later apologised and claimed that he didn't mean it and it was just a joke.  Aside from his idiotic comments at the press conference, it's harder to ignore the fact that in Lars von Trier films the women, his lead characters are usually women, tend to have misery upon misery heaped upon them until they achieve some kind of transcendence at the end.  However, he is a talented film-maker and this movie is probably the most stunning and visually impressive of his career.  There is more than a hint here of the influence of the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky who did his own apocalypse film with The Sacrifice (1986).

The acting, as usual with von Trier films, is spectacular with Kirsten Dunst giving a career best perfomance as the unhappy Justine, a character who is never particularly likeable but is never entirely unsympathetic and she gets good support from Charlotte Gainsbourg as the stressed, but level-headed, Claire.  Also the unrelenting misery is leavened by a streak of welcome dark humour.  

Fans of slow and depressing science-fiction drama won't want to miss it.

Kirsten Dunst is electric in Melancholia

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Double Life of Veronique

Year:  1991
Director:  Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay:  Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring:  Irene Jacob, Philippe Volter, Jerzy Gudjeko, Halina Gryglaszewska
Running Time:  98 minutes
Genre:  Drama

This fascinating film from acclaimed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski tells the story of two physically identical young women:  Weronika (Jacob) lives in Poland and Veronique (Jacob again) lives in France.  Despite the difference in their backgrounds, the two women despite having no knowledge of each other, lead remarkably similar lives.  They share similar personalities, the same likes and dislikes, the same strengths and weaknesses, as well as the same great talent for music.  If one feels ill, the other shares her pain, and if one makes mistakes, the other seems to know not to make the same mistake.

It's almost impossible to really narrate the plot of this film, and there isn't really much point in doing so, because the story isn't important.  This film is strange, mysterious and enigmatic.  It offers many possibilities but gives no conclusions.  It tackles themes such as free will, predestination and the role that chance plays in human lives.  There is a strong supernatural element in the film (the story echoes the old superstition of the doppleganger - a person's exact double which, according to the legend, foretells death or at least dire misfortune for anyone unlucky enough to encounter their own doppleganger).  However the supernatural element is never explained or even discussed.

Visually, the movie is staggeringly beautiful.  Kieslowski bathes his images in green, red and yellow light, and every frame of the film is expertly composed.  The film uses fluid camera movements, and features many scenes shot through windows, mirrors, and distorting glass, creating many bizarre and surreal images.  The reflections also work for the film's themes of duality.  The look of the film, and the haunting, memorable score by Zbigniew Preisner, which is also an important element in the film's plot, create an ethereal atmosphere of heart-breaking beauty.

Key to the success of the film is the performance of Irene Jacob who is on screen almost constantly throughout the film.  She does great work with a difficult double role, Kieslowski's camera seems almost infatuated with her classical and almost fragile beauty, constantly shot in almost luminous light and framed to accentuate her features. 

This is a mesmerising, powerful movie, although it's virtually plotless nature, lack of explanations and constant mysterious and enigmatic nature will likely turn off many viewers.  However if you give it a chance, and go with it's rhythms, you'll find it haunting you for days afterwards.


Irene Jacob reflects on The Double Life of Veronique        

Monday, 3 October 2011

Red State

Year:  2011
Director:  Kevin Smith
Screenplay:  Kevin Smith
Starring:  Michael Parks, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun
Running Time:  88 minutes
Genre:  Horror, action

This film is a real departure from writer/director Kevin Smith who has made his name with foul-mouthed, but ultimately warm hearted, slacker comedies such as Clerks. (1994), Chasing Amy (1997) and Dogma  (1999). 

This film is pretty much a straight out action/horror movie.  Three high school students:  Travis (Angarano), Jared (Gallner) and Billy Ray (Braun) respond to an on-line advert from Sarah (Leo) promising no-strings attached sex.  Travelling to the remote town of Cooper's Dell, the three teens meet Sarah, but find themselves drugged and imprisoned by the fundamentalist Five Points Church headed by the merciless pastor Albin Cooper (Parks), who has moved from picketing the funerals of gay people to killing them, and plans to murder the three teenagers.  Meanwhile a heavily-armed division of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), headed by Agent Joseph Keenan (Goodman), moves in towards the Five Points Church compound with direct orders to break in to the place and leave no-one alive;  guilty or innocent.

While featuring  a number of funny lines ("Come out and you will not be harmed.  Repeat.  You will not be harmed"  "I think it's the use of the word 'repeat' there that makes this work every time") this is most definitely not a comedy.  Inspired by Fred Phelps and his controversial Westboro Baptist Church, and echoing the infamous seige of the Branch Davidian compund in Waco, Texas in 1993, this is a bleak, hard-edged and violent movie featuring very few sympathetic characters.  Probbaly the most likeable character, and at least one of the few who is not completely self-serving, is Cheyenne (Kerry Bishe) a young church member who tries to persuade the Government men to arrest them rather than just kill them so that the children in the church will have a chance to survive.

One of the consistent criticisms of Kevin Smith is that he is not a good visual director.  Here he proves the critics wrong with some teeth-grindingly intense action scenes.  While it may disappoint some of those looking for a more traditional Kevin Smith comedy, this does deliver one of the most diturbing and brutal action movies of recent years.  Full of suspense and genuinely exciting action and drenched with genuinely disturbing darkness this is probably Kevin Smith's most impressive work since  Chasing Amy.


Kerry Bishe in Red State  

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Wake Wood

Year: 2009
Director: David Keating
Screenplay: David Keating and Brendan McCarthy, from a story by Brendan McCarthy
Starring: Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall, Ella Connolly, Peggy O'Shea
Running Time: 90 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural

This movie has the distinction of being the first home-grown feature film from legendary horror studio Hammer in thirty years since they, as in most of their best known films, rose from the grave.
Set in Ireland, the story revolves around grieving couple, Patrick (Gillen) and Louise (Birthistle), who move to the small town of Wakewood to get over the tragic death of their young daughter Alice (Connolly), who was killed by a dog. While Patrick works as the local vet and Louise gets a job in the village pharmacy, they learn about a pagan ritual performed in the village that could bring Alice back from the dead. However, if they agree to the ritual none of them will ever be able to leave the village, and Alice will only be resurrected for three days. You don't need me to tell you that it all goes badly and gruesomely wrong.

This is often a genuinely disturbing and eerie horror movie. The basic theme is disturbing enough, but the film also creates a powerful sense of disquiet through the sombre and sedate pace. It also features many evocative and beautifully shot images of the Irish countryside which really put the movie into the sub-genre that Mark Gatiss referred to as "folk horror", in which the horror arises from the British (or, in this case, Irish) countryside and the old traditions of the inhabitants. The movie deals with some very heavy themes of love, loss and death.

However the film doesn't neglect the gore fans and pretty much ladels on the blood and guts, particularly in the final half where it moves from a dark exploration of love and grief into full-blown supernatural gross-out horror. It also suffers from the irritating but seemingly inevitable horror movie habit of referencing other movies (in particular Pet Sematary (1989), The Wicker Man (1973) and Don't Look Now (1973)).

The film features some great performances especially from Aidan Gillen (who is probably best known as sleazy politician Carcetti in The Wire (2002-2008)) and Eva Birthistle as the tormented couple. They get good support from the always reliable Timothy Spall as the creepy head of the village.

While some might be put off by the unrelentingly bleak tone and gore, this is a powerful and atmospheric horror movie which, while it doesn't really deliver any big scares, is creepy and atmospheric enough and lingers in the mind after the credits have rolled.

Although, to be honest, how many variations on the "creepy small town with a dark secret" theme can horror movie makers and writers come up with?



Eva Birthistle, Ella Connolly, Aidan Gillen in Wake Wood

Demo by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 364 pages
Publisher: Vertigo

A girl stops taking the medication she needs to keep her devestating mental abilities under control. A unhappy girl can make anyone do whatever she wants. A brother and sister discover a shocking family secret. A man with superhuman strength finds himself torn between his family and his friends. A young woman appears to everyone as who they most want her to be until someone sees her for the first time as she truly is. A newly married man returns to the quiet suburban neighbourhood where as a child he dealt out violent revenge. You'll meet all these and more in Demo a graphic novel collection of twelve short stories written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Becky Cloonan.

Originally published as twelve monthly comic-books, the stories deal with young people (ranging from teenagers to people in their twenties or thirties) faced with a life altering decision to make. Many, but not all, of the subjects of the stories have superpowers but none of them are superheroes, and their powers are rarely much of a help to them (in most cases quite the reverse).
The characters are alienated, unhappy people faced with recognisable problems, trying to find some kind of place in the world. The strength of the book is that it is a collection of stories about people who, superpowers or no, are searching for what we all want: happiness, acceptance and, ultimately, love.
The stories are well-told and evocative and accompanied by stunning black-and-white artwork in a range of styles. Coming across like a quiet but striking indie film, or that one song that comes across the radio late at night that breaks your heart, this is a book that will stay with you for a long time.

If you've read any of Demo before then you know what I'm talking about. If not, then cognratulations. You've just found your new favourite comic.

Monday, 29 August 2011

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 312 pages
Genre: Fantasy, horror

Summary: While his family are murdered by a mysterious man named Jack, a baby crawls into a nearby graveyard where he is adopted by the ghosts that dwell there and named Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short).
Living among the ghosts in the graveyard, and guided by his mysterious guardian Silas, who belongs neither to the worlds of the living or the dead, Bod learns the ways and the secrets of the graveyard. He discovers the gateway to the nightmare desert city of the ghouls, and encounters the Sleer a powerful and dangerous spirit, guarding ancient treasure.
However the real dangers lurk in the world outside, for Jack is still out there, still hunting for Bod and will stop at nothing to finish what he started.

Opinions: As with the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, this multi-award winning, international bestselling novel has appealed to both children and adults alike. This is a genuinely magical and enchanting modern fairy-tale, which moves at a great pace. Packed with invention and imagination, this is a pretty dark book and there is a lot of scary stuff in it, but there is a lot of warmth and tenderness in there as well. I absolutely loved reading the book and found it one of the most striking and enjoyable reading experiences I have had in a very long time.
Neil Gaiman is one of the most acclaimed and successful of modern fantasy writers and has penned short stories, comic-books, scripts for film and television as well as bestselling novels for both adults and children. He has a unique touch, which is hard to pin down, both contemporary and timeless, and it is very much in evidence here. His fans, both young and old, will find plenty to enjoy here.
This novel deserves to become a classic of both children's and fantasy literature, and is bound to become a much-loved addition to countless bookshelves worldwide for many years to come.



Sunday, 28 August 2011

"Our Kind of Traitor" by John le Carre

Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 306 pages
Genre: Thriller, espionage, crime

Summary: Young English couple Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins are taking an off-peak holiday on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where they intend to spend their time relaxing and playing tennis. They meet an eccentric, wealthy Russian man named Dima and his large family. Dima challenges Perry to a game of tennis, and the couple end up becoming unwillingly attached to the family.
It turns out that Dima is a reknowned money launderer and is very high up in the Russian underworld. He is part of an extensive and complex multi-national criminal plot, but has become disillusioned following the suspicious death of his closest friend and associate. Knowing that time is running out for him, Dima plans to defect to Britain using his knowledge of the criminal syndicate and their plot as leverage. He wants Perry to broker the deal for him with the British intelligence services. Soon Perry and Gail find themselves drawn into a deadly game played between ruthless spies and a vast and murderous crime empire.

Opinions: British thriller author John le Carre first made his name with powerful and intelligent depictions of Cold War espionage such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1962) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (1974) in which the realism was in part due to the fact that le Carre himself was a spy for several years. More recently he has turned his gaze to more topical global problems and, with this novel, he focuses in on the banking and financial crisis.
There is plenty of anger here and, as usual, great sympathy towards the unfortunate individuals left twisting in the wind, at the mercy of ruthless and brutal powers on both sides.
The story moves well and there is plenty of suspense and action. Le Carre also has a natural ear for dialogue and a gift for characterisation, as well as a strong eye for detail. Powerful, disturbing and thrilling, this is a must read for thriller fans.



Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Near Dark

Year: 1987
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Janette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Joshua Miller, Marcie Leeds
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre: Horror, action, supernatural

Summary: Oklahoma: One night Caleb Cotton (Pasdar) meets Mae (Wright), an attractive young drifter. There is a real attraction between them and, after some flirting, he tries to kiss her, but instead she bites his neck and runs off. Caleb starts to feel severely sick, and the sun causes his flesh to smoke and burn. As he heads home to his vetinerian father, Loy (Thomerson) and young sister Sarah (Leeds), Caleb is abducted by Mae's "family" who turn out to be a nomadic band of vampires who travel around in stolen cars and mobile homes searching for blood and trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the law and the daylight. The group is led by the charismatic Jessie Hooker (Henriksen) and his "wife" Diamondback (Goldstein), and is also made up of the callous psychopath Severen (Paxton), and Homer (Miller), who is forver trapped in the body of a child, at odds with his adult mind and drives.
Caleb tries to fit in with the group, who give him a week to prove that he deserves to be among them, or they will kill him, while Loy and Sarah travel the South in a desperate bid to rescue him.

Opinions: This film is a very effective blend of action and vampire horror. The film was originally intended by Bigelow to be a revisionist Western, but she found it diffcult to get financing for a Western movie (at that time the genre, unlike vampires, was calmly resting in peace), however, mixing it with a more commerical genre made it a far more palatable prospect for investors.
The movie, however, was a commercial failure. It was released in summer 1987 at the same time as the more comedy oriented The Lost Boys, which was far more successful and has a very similar plot.
However, reviews were strong, and this has grown into quite a major cult film. The film is beautifully shot with some impressive panoramas of the desert landscapes and glittering night-time images that evoke the romance of the vampire lifestyle. The vampires themselves are well handled. Far from the glamorous, sexy vampires that have always been so popular, these ones are grimy, dirty and perpetual outsiders. Despite some of the horrible things that they do, the vampires become weirdly likeable and almost sympathetic. Their murderous ways are more or less enforced on them by their condition, and they also genuinely care about each other. Ultimately the film is about family, the conflict between the "bad" family (the vampires) and the "good" family (Caleb's sister and father) for Caleb's soul.
Kathryn Bigelow is a brilliant action movie director and she handles the action sequences here expertly, giving them a genuine sense of excitement. The film is also well-paced. It moves fast and is empty of all unessentials. Exciting, tense and, at times, genuinely scary, this is one of the best vampire movies of the 1980s.
In one scene Caleb walks past a cinema marquee advertising Aliens (1986). Lance Henriksen, Janette Goldstein and Bill Paxton all appeared in Aliens and Kathryn Bigelow was later married to the film's director James Cameron.

"Howdy. I'm gonna seperate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don't mind none."
- Severen (Bill Paxton) makes new friends in Near Dark



Bill Paxton and Adrian Pasdar stop for a drink in Near Dark

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Quatermass 2

Year: 1957
Director: Val Guest
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale and Val Guest, from a story by Nigel Kneale
Starring: Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sydney James, Bryan Forbes, William Frankly, Vera Day
Running Time: 85 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror

Summary: Professor Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy), head of the British Rocket Group, is frustrated that the Government are threatening to shut down his project to send manned spacecraft to the Moon in order to build a lunar colony. They believe that Quatermass' experimental rocket is too dangerous.
However, Quatermass is distracted by reports of large numbers strange, symmetrically shaped meteorites landing in a small remote area of the country. Heading off to investigate, Quatermass, and his assistant Marsh (Forbes), are shocked to find a mysterious refinery facility which seems to be designed exactly like Quatermass' lunar colony, they are also disturbed by the secretive and violent nature of the guards surrounding the plant.
Examining the meteorites, it turns out that they are hollow and filled with ammonia gas and an alien parasite which infects and controls the mind of the nearest human host.
Quatermass discovers that the plant is ostensibly making processed foodstuff, but he suspects a more sinister purpose and as he tries to uncover the truth, discovers a sinister alien conspiracy that reaches to the top levels of Government.

Opinions: Following the huge success of their film of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hammer Films were keen to adapt the second of Nigel Kneale's highly popular and hugely influential Quatermass TV serials, and bought the rights before the series had even begun transmission.
Kneale was unhappy with The Quatermass Xperiment film, partly due to the changes made to his original television script. With this one he made sure that he had much greater input and wrote the first draft of the script himself, but director Val Guest, much to Kneale's displeasure, rewrote it to shorten it and make it more cinematic.
The finished film is pretty faithful to the Quatermass II TV serial, although heavily condensed (the original six part TV serial is about twice the length of the film). It tells an interesting and involving story of alien possession, and paranoid conspiracy. It utilises an almost documentary style feel and gets a lot of milage from the pipes, domes and canister's of it's refinery setting.
Hollywood actor Brian Donlevy, reprising his role from The Quatermass Xperiment film, makes an effective Quatermass, giving the role a hard-boiled film noir quality, although his perfomance was heavily criticised by Kneale, and future Carry On star Sydney James appears as an alcoholic reporter.
It is an effective and entertaining piece of work and, if not exactly a classic, is an above average slice of 1950s British science-fiction. It was released in the USA as Enemy From Space.



Sydney James, Brian Donlevy and John Longden in Quatermass 2

Saturday, 13 August 2011

"Harbour" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 650 pages
Genre: Horror, supernatural, drama

Summary: Every year Anders and his wife Cecilia and six year old daughter Maja go on holiday to the island of Dommaro off the coast of Sweden, where Anders and Cecilia spent summers as children. However tragedy strikes when Maja vanishes in plain sight and in broad daylight. No trace of her is found and there is nowhere she could have fallen or hidden, it is simply as if she disappeared.
Two years later, Anders' life has fallen apart. Divorced from his wife and drinking heavily, he is lost in guilt and self-pity. Finally realising that he has hit rock bottom, he returns to Dommaro where his grandfather Simon, a one-time magician, still lives.
Returning to his old holiday home, Anders attempts to find out once and for all what happened to his daughter. However, he quickly comes to believe that Maja's still there and trying to communicate with him. However, Dommaro, which has a long and disturbing history of strange occurances and disappearances, is plagued by bizarre happenings as malevolent ghostly figures cruise around on mopeds, mysterious acts of arson flare up all over the island, and the residents begin to act in increasingly strange and violent ways.
Anders and Simon soon find themselves pitted against a powerful and ancient force lurking in the waters around the island. A force which demands sacrifice.

Summary: This is the third novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist to be translated into English following Let the Right One In (2004) and Handling the Undead (2006). After dealing with vampires and zombies in his previous works, Lindqvist here deals with old superstitions and traditions dealing with the sea, as well as ghosts and spirits.
The main narrative of the book covers a number of weeks but is full of flashbacks, and digressions. It has a pretty epic scope and covers a large number of events and characters. The main flaw with the novel is that not all of the digressions and sub plots work and some of it take away from the pace of the novel. Mostly however it works well and the novel is a tense and at times genuinely chilling piece of work. Many of Lindqvist's characters and events are pretty memorable, with the ghosts riding mopeds and talking in quotes from The Smiths being a special standout (Lindqvist himself is a huge Morrissey fan).
Lindqvist has been described as "the Swedish Stephen King" which isn't really very fair, because his style and plots are very much his own. What he does share with King though is a real feel for the rhythms of daily life and an understanding of character.
Delivering traditional gothic horror thrills, with a uniquely contemporary Scandinavian flavour, Lindqvist is one of the most important new writers to emerge in the field of horror in the past decade and is well worth checking out, if you haven't already.