Saturday, 30 April 2011

Withnail & I

Year: 1987
Director: Bruce Robinson
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick
Running Time: 108 minutes
Genre: Comedy

Summary: London, 1969: Withnail (Grant) and Marwood (McGann) are a pair of unemployed actors who share a squalid flat. Withnail is a flamboyant alcoholic with a penchant for long, venomous rants where he bemoans his fate, humanity and the world in general while proclaiming himself as an undiscovered genius. Marwood is more level-headed and anxiety prone.
Deciding they need a break, they go off for a holiday in the country in a cottage owned by Withnail's Uncle Monty (Griffiths). However, the holiday does not go to plan, as they are hampered by terrible weather, and a complete lack of food, fuel and common sense. As Withnail manages to antagonise every local person they encounter, including a threatening poacher (Elphick), and Marwood does his best to avoid the sexual advances of Uncle Monty.

Opinions: Note: Paul McGann's character name is never spoken in the movie and in the credits he is just referred to as "I", but he is named Marwood in the screenplay and I have used that name in this review for the sake of convenience.
This scathing dark comedy is one of the greatest British films of the 1980s and remains one of the best cult films Britain ever produced. The film is full of memorable scenes and quotable dialogue. Blending elements of tragedy with the comedy it is at once sad and hilarious. Grant made his name with his portrayal of the vicious Withnail who barely shuts up long enough to down prodigious quantities of alcohol. Incidentally, in real life Grant is a teetotaller and had never been drunk prior to signing on for the film. Robinson felt that he could not play an alcoholic like Withnail unless he knew what it was like to be drunk, and so forced Grant to go on a drinking binge. Grant has said that he found the experience deeply unpleasant. McGann and Griffith are impressive in their roles, but Ralph Brown as permanently stoned drug dealer Danny walks away with every scene he appears in.
The film is largely autobiographical with Marwood being based on Robinson and Withnail being based on actor Vivian MacKerrell, with whom Robinson shared a house in the 1960s. The scene where Withnail drinks lighter fluid was taken from an incident where MacKerrell drank lighter fluid and, according to Robinson, was unable to see again for several days. In the film, unbeknownst to Grant, Robinson subsituted the water, that was originally going to be drank in the lighter fluid scene with vinegar. The subsequent vomiting was scripted, but the look of complete shock and disgust on Grant's face was entirely genuine.
There is a real sense in the movie of the end of an era. The wild carnival of the swinging sixites giving way to the long hangover of the seventies.

"We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!"
-Withnail (Richard E. Grant) places his order in a quiet country tea shop in Withanil & I

Marwood (Paul McGann) and Withnail (Richard E. Grant) pause for reflection in Withnail & I

Friday, 29 April 2011

Brief Encounter

Year: 1945
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame based on the stage play Still Life by Noel Coward
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Drama, romance

Summary: Laura Jesson (Johnson) has a conventional life and a dull, if affectionate, marriage to Fred Jesson (Raymond). By chance, she meets an idealistic doctor, Alec Harvey (Howard) in a railway station. Alec is also married. The two strike up a friendship and are soon meeting up every week. Eventually they come to realise that they have fallen in love, but because they are both married, and the scandal that their relationship would create, they are unable to act on their feelings.

Opinions: This is one of the classic films about "forbidden love" which remains popular to this day, and is screened frequently on television. The movie is very much a product of it's time and place, and the attitudes and values that the two lead characters have, which were very common at the time, could be seen as odd by many people today.
Not much really happens in the movie, much of which consists of the characters having awkward conversations on the street and in railway cafes. The performances are very good from the two leads, who create a strong impression of powerful emotions barely repressed. It's one of the classic evocations of the traditional British "stiff upper lip".
The screenplay, based on a one-act stage play by Noel Coward, is impressive even if some of the dialogue is slightly stilted at times, and some of the humour comes across as forced. The movie is very well-crafted and visually impressive, with crisp black and white photography, and much of it being shot on location in a busy railway station.
The film is powerfully dramatic and is definitely worth watching for it's evocation of another time and place.

"We're neither of us free to love each other. There's too much in the way. There's still time, if we control ourselves and behave like sensible human beings. There's still time."
- Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) in Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter

The Night of the Hunter

Year: 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Screenplay: James Agee, based on the novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller

Summary: 1930s West Virginia, during the Great Depression: Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a serial killer, con man and self appointed preacher, who has the word "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand, and the word "HATE" tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand. He marries lonely widows for their money and then kills them with the switchblade he constantly carries with him.
Arrested for a traffic violation, Powell is sentenced to thirty days in prison where he shares a cell with convicted bank robber Ben Harper (Graves) who has been sentenced to death. Before he was arrested, Harper hid the money from the robbery in a doll belonging to his young daughter Pearl (Bruce) and made her older brother John (Chapin) promise never to reveal to anyone, not even thir mother, where the money is hidden.
Due to Harper talking in his sleep, Powell deduces that the money is hidden at his home and that his children know where it is. Upon his release, Powell arrives at the small town where the Harper family live, and begins to romance Harper's widow, Willa (Winters). Willa soon succumbs to Powell's charms, but John remains suspicious.
After Powell and Willa get married, the children find themselves drawn into an endless nightmare as they are targeted by their relentless, murderous stepfather, who will stop at nothing to discover their secret.

Opinions: This is the only film to be directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton, but the film had such a negative reception on it's original release that he never got the chance to direct again. Now, the film is accepted as a classic.
It is probably one of the most striking horror films ever made, featuring startling imagery, which was inspired by the German expressionist movies of the 1920s. The sequence where the children escape down the river, pursued by the preacher on horseback becomes almost surreal, with it's heavily symbolic, dreamlike visions of nature, and the sequence where the preacher leads the children down to the cellar is genuinely terrifying. There is also a disturbingly beautiful image of a corpse at the bottom of a lake, with her long hair drifting gently in the water, matching the seaweed. The scene where the preacher leads the children down to the cellar is genuinely terrifying.
Despite the almost complete absence of on-screen violence, the movie is extremely suspenseful. It also features in Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell, one of the great screen villains of time, charismatic, sadistic and relentless. Mitchum gives a startling perfomance. Apparently when he was being cast, Laughton said "We're looking for a detestable shit" and Mitchum replied "Present".
The soundtrack blends traditional hymns with it's orchestral score.
The movie is kind of like a Grimm fairy-tale for adults, and an American folk tale. It is truly unforgettable.

"Have I ever told you the story of the left hand and the right hand, the story of Good and Evil?"
- Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

Monday, 25 April 2011


Year: 2011
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, based on the comic-book series Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins
Running Time: 114 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, fantasy

Summary: Thor (Hemsworth), God of Thunder, is banished from Asgard to Earth by his father Odin (Hopkins), King of the Gods, for attacking the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, long standing enemies of the Gods.
Arriving in present-day New Mexico, Thor is discovered by scientist Jane Foster (Portman), her assistant Darcy Lewis (Dennings) and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard). Stripped of his powers and ability to use his magical hammer Mjolnir, Thor has to come to terms with his new mortal existence, as well as a sinister agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. who are taking a strong interest in him.
Meanwhile, in Asgard, the plotting of Thor's treacherous brother Loki (Hiddelston) threatens more than one world with complete destruction.

Opinions: This movie is based on the popular Marvel comic-book series and differs from a lot of the more recent superhero movies by throwing in some sword-and-sorcery action into the mix.
Thor was the God of Thunder in Norse mythology, whose name is referenced in, among other things, the day of the week Thursday ("Thor's Day"). Needless to say, the film has very little connection to Norse legend.
Kenneth Branagh is best known as a director for his Shakesperean adaptations, and is certainly not a name that springs to mind in connection with a massive multi million dollar special effects 3-D superhero movie, but he does very well. A fan of the comic, Branagh obviously has a lot of understanding of the material. He balances the drama and humour very well and also handles the special effects and action scenes brilliantly, making the action scenes tight and effective so that they are exciting and comprehensible rather than being an explosion of confusing pyrotechnics that just ends up being dull. The film is released in 3-D, and I personally am not a fan of 3-D in general (although there are exceptions), but it is done well here and it helps to invest both the golden city of Asgard and the frozen wastes of Jotunheim with a genuine sense of wonder. The special effects are really spectacular throughout.
The cast do well with their roles. In the lead Chris Hemsworth is charismatic, if too clean-cut to be a Norse warrior-god. Natalie Portman provides the film with it's emotional heart. Stellan Skarsgard is also very impressive as the skeptical scientist. The comic's co-creator Stan Lee has his customary cameo as a truck driver.
Blending culture-clash comedy, family drama and intrigue and comic-book superheroics this is a pretty packed film. In contrast with many recent superhero movies, such as The Dark Knight (2008), this doesn't try to make the material dark or gritty, it is unashamedly action-packed, fantasy adventure, and none the worse for that.
By the way, keep watching until the end of the closing credits for an additional scene.

Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins in Thor

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Raising Arizona

Year: 1987
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (uncredited)
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand, Randall "Tex" Cobb
Running Time: 94 minutes
Genre: Comedy, action,

Summary: H. I. "Hi" McDunnough (Cage) is a career criminal, with a penchant for robbing convenience stores, however he is so bad at it that he constantly gets caught. As time goes on he falls for the officer who processes him each time, Edwina "Ed" (Hunter), and they get married. Vowing to go straight, Hi embraces married life. However Ed is desperate to have a baby, but she is infertile and they are unable to adopt due to Hi's criminal past.
When they learn that local businessman Nathan Arizona (Wilson) has just become a father to quintuplets, Hi and Ed decide to steal one of the five babies to raise as their own.
They successfully kidnap one of the babies, but their new found family life is thrown into jeopardy when two of Hi's old friends from prison (Goodman and Forsythe) break out of jail and arrive at the McDunnough's home, as well as a deranged biker bounty hunter (Cobb) who is determined to find the missing baby.

Opinions: Child abduction is not exactly the most obvious theme for a light hearted knockabout comedy, especially one in which the abductors are actually the heroes, but the Coen brothers make it work.
The film is hyper-stylised and almost cartoonish, featuring sweeping camera movements, surreal moments and plenty of the Coens' trademark dialogue.
Nicolas Cage does some great work in the film. He is an actor who can be really good when he is in the right film and has a character that fits his over-the-top, manic style. He fits right in to the frenetic, bizarre world of this movie. However the film belongs to Holly Hunter who provides the film with it's heart. Genuinely well-meaning, if misguided, her character, which was written specifically for Hunter, anchors the whole movie.
The film is visually impressive, consistently entertaining, and very funny. The darker aspects of the premise are hinted at, but not really explored. Despite not being particularly successful when it was first released it has become something of a cult movie now.
The film gets a lot of comedy mileage out of the character's dialect (which was written as a blending of the local dialect and the character's assumed reading material - namely the Bible and magazines). As happens a lot with Coen brothers films, it's difficult to tell if they are celebrating or mocking the South, or maybe both at the same time.
The movie runs the risk at times of being too quirky for it's own good, but it gets by on sheer energy and the fact that it is always enjoyable and frequently genuinely charming. This was the Coens' second film and was written deliberately to be the polar opposite of their debut, the hard-edged, stripped down noir thriller Blood Simple (1984), and fans will be able to spot many of their tradmarks.
Over the top, exuberant fun, but with genuine heart, this is worth checking out.

Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona

Saturday, 23 April 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

Year: 1930
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews and C. Gardner Sullivan, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander
Running Time: 138 minutes
Genre: War, drama

Summary: Germany, 1914: World War One has just begun and people are swept up with patriotic fervour, believing that the war will be over within a few months. Among those caught up in the excitement are a class in a boy's High School who, egged on by their teacher (Lucy), decide to enlist in the Army en masse. After surviving basic training under the sadistic Sergeant Himmelstross (Wray), the boys are sent to the front line in France. Once there, their patriotic fervour and enthusiasm for warfare is quickly crushed by the brutal realities of trench warfare.

Opinions: This film is a powerful anti-war statement and has influenced war films ever since from Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The film is a real epic following a large number of characters over a long period of time. At a time when sound cinema was in it's infancy, many early "talkies" were noted for being very static, due to the problems of recording sound, but this film uses a highly mobile camera. The battle scenes which proved to be hugely influential are still powerful, intense and genuinely shocking, even if some of the techniques used in them, such as speeded up film don't really work.
The film also depicts the hardships, drudgery and sheer boredom and stress of the soldier's lives in between the battles. Enlivened only by grim humour and the occasional periods of rest and recreation, they live in miserable, rat filled conditions usually with nothing to eat.
The acting is good from all involved, even if it is jarring at times to hear the German characters speaking with American accents. Milestone direction is impressive, with the battle scenes in particular handiled with great skill and sensitivity, however he was also as sure with the quieter scenes
The movie was hugely acclaimed on its inital release and was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning two (Outstanding Production and Best Director). On it's release in Germany the film was heavily criticised by the Nazi Party who disrupted screenings by releasing rats and throwing stink bombs into cinemas. When they came to power they banned the film outright and it wasn't released in Germany again until 1956.
This remains one of the great anti-war films and a classic of the genre and it has lost none of it's power to move and shock.

Lew Ayres and Raymond Griffith in All Quiet on the Western Front

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Scream 4

Year: 2011
Director: Wes Craven
Screenplay: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Anthony Anderson, Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Rory Culkin
Running Time: 111 minutes
Genre: Horror, slasher

Summary: It's been ten years since the notorious "Woodsboro Massacre", and Stab, the film based on the murders, has spawned six successful sequels. The small town of Woodsboro has put the murders behind it, to the point where the massacre have become something of a joke to the town's high school students until, on the tenth anniversry of the killings, two high school students (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson) are brutally stabbed to death by a killer wearing the same "Ghostface" costume and mask that the original "Woodsboro Massacre" killer wore.
The following day Sidney Prescott (Campbell), who has survived three previous massacres perpetrated by "Ghostface" killers, returns to Woodsboro to promote her book Out of the Darkness but almost immediately becomes caught up in the murders. Especially since her teenage cousin, Jill Roberts (Roberts), and her friends Kirby (Panettiere), Charlie (Culkin) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) are among those targeted by taunting telephone calls from the killer.
As Sheriff Dewey Riley (Arquette) leads the investigation, his wife one-time journalist Gale Weathers (Cox) (on whose books the Stab movies were based) determines to solve the killings, and it soon becomes apparent that this horror movie obsessed killer is planning a "remake" of the original massacre: with everything bigger and better than before.

Opinions: The original Scream (1996) was a massive hit with it's blend of scares, mystery, humour and movie references. It assumed that audiences were familiar with horror movies and so it had it's characters being equally familiar with the genre. The sequel, Scream 2 (1997), targeted it's jokes and references at horror movie sequels, while Scream 3 (2000), which was intended to be the final film in the series, referenced trilogies. This film, coming out eleven years after the previous one, deals with endless, and increaingly bad, sequels and the recent popular trend to remake older horror movies.
It opens with kind of a clever sequence in which two teenagers are savagely murdered in what appears to be an over the top self-parody, but is revealed to be the opening sequence to Stab 7 (the latest in the film-within-a-film series based on the events of the first Scream). It pretty much sets the tone for what follows.
Scream 4 (or if you prefer it's on-screen title SCRE4M) is not a bad movie at all. It's funny, it's clever, it has suspense and a few good shocks and pretty much delivers what anyone could expect from a Scream movie. The cast perform well, and Wes Craven directs with his usual sure hand. It benefits enormously from Kevin Williamson, who wrote the first two Scream films, returning for this.
The problem is that Scream was such an influential film in it's time. For about six years afterwards horror was full of jokey self-referential slasher films, none of which managed to get as good a balance between jokes and scares as Scream. Watching Scream 4 it's hard not too feel as if it's been done before, although that tends to always be the way with sequels. At least this makes an effort to stay fresh.
Scream 4 is an entertaining and enjoyable movie, which fans will certainly enjoy, and is in fact an improvement on it's predecessor.

Neve Campbell in Scream 4

Friday, 15 April 2011

Comics Round-Up # 4


Written by S. Steven Struble

Art by Sina Grace

Published by Image Comics

You're No Rock N' Roll Fun. The Li'l Depressed Boy faces his greatest challenge: Jazmin's birthday party, where he doesn't know anyone. At least he doesn't have to fight trolls.

This is one of the best new comic series around. The Li'l Depressed Boy, whose name is not revealed (the other characters usually call him "L.D.B.") and is drawn as a living human-sized rag doll who all the other (human) characters treat as entirely normal. The on-going story revolves around L.D.B.'s romance with hip, lively girl Jazmin. The artwork is stylish and impressive and the script is sweet, funny, charming and effortlessly cool. In it's feel, it's reminiscent of the Scott Pilgrim comics. If you're not reading this yet, it is definitely worth checking out. This issue features an appearance by real-life Los Angeles rock band The Like.


Written by Brian Wood

Illustrated by Simon Gane

Published by Vertigo

The Siege of Paris, Part 3. In a conclusion of a three part story based on the real-life Viking Siege of Paris which lasted between 885 to 886, the Parisian defences have been breached and the Vikings prepare to sack the city while Mads is left to ponder the price of peace.

Northlanders is a series of comics telling fictional stories based around historical events during the Viking Age. It doesn't have a running central cast instead the main characters change with each storyline. The comic is very gruesome but beautifully illustrated with art that effectively captures the look of the paintings of the period (another hallmark with Northlanders is that the principal artists change with each storyline. The script is intelligent and witty. Mixing action wih an intelligent, historically based script, this is well worth checking out


Written by Chris Roberson

Illustrated by Shawn McManus

Published by Vertigo

Super-spy Cinderella has confronted the ruthless Dorothy Gale on three occasions, each time narrowly managing to escape with her life. This time Cinderella has to protect a defector from a rumoured shadow Fabletown. However Dorothy is after him as well and she isn't working alone.

This is a six issue spin-off from the Fables comics series. This story is a spy story set in the Fables universe. The title being a play on the 1956 James Bond novel Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming. It works well actually, having a James Bond style spy narrative set in the world of magic and fairy-tales. There is plenty of humour and action, and Cinderella is an appealing lead. This is worth checking out.


Written by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Illustrated by Mike Carey, Bill Gross and Al Davison

Published by Vertigo

Stairway to Heaven. A selection of talking animals from all levels of story climb an infinite stairwell at the top of which they believe is a Golden Door, behind which may be Heaven. One night they encounter the vicious, foul-mouthed rabbit Mr. Bun who is determined to lead the group to the top for his own reasons, and heaven help anyone who tries to top him - or tries to help him.

This comic is a new one on me, but from this single issue story I'll certainly be checking out the others. Grotesque, surreal, violent and genuinely disturbing, this features some memorable artwork and characters.


Written by Mike Mignola

Illustrated by Kevin Nowlan

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Kansas, 1985: A farm is troubled by a bizarre series of cattle mutilations which could be attributed to a coven of teenage Satanists. When red-skinned, stone-handed demon Hellboy, of the Bureau of Paranormal Research, investigates, he quickly discovers that there is another reason for the mutilations.

This one off story is really strange, featuring impressive artwork and an entertaining script, which has a fun X-Files feel. Hellboy is an enjoyable character, and this story is pretty strange even by Hellboy standards. It should appeal to both fans and newcomers.


Written by Dennis O'Neil, Alan Grant and Paul Grist

Illustrated by Chris Swan, John Dell, Kevin Somers, Dave Taylor, Frank Teran, Carl Critchlow, Chris Chuckry, Coy Turnbull, Dan Davis, Kurt Hathaway and Gloria Vasquez

Published by DC Comics

This contains four stories revolving around the notorious Arkham Asylum in Gothan City. It opens with a very short piece illustrating the dark history of Gotham City. Then a guard becomes the prize in a macabre story contest involving the Joker, Killer Croc, the Riddler, Vox, the Scarecrow and Witch. Next a man is sentenced to Arkham following a brutal murder, but he protests his innocence, however he has to survive not only his fellow inmates but also the brutal treatments. Finally Batman recruits the Joker and friends to the Justice League of Arkham.

This is a great collection featuring some bizarre and genuinely disturbing tales. The two central stories in particular are definitely impressive. The "DC Presents" and "Vertigo Resurrected" lines are a really good way of reprinting older stories that don't fit into conventional grpahic novels or trade paperbacks.



Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Seventh Seal

Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot, Inga Landgre
Running Time: 92 minutes
Genre: Drama, period, religion, allegory

Summary: A medieval knight, Antonius Block (von Sydow), and his cynical squire, Jons (Bjornstrand), return home to Sweden from the Crusades. Disillusioned and suffering a crisis of faith after what he has experienced and witnessed, Block encounters Death (Ekerot) on the shore. Death says that he has come for Block. However Block does not want to go until he has found some kind of meaning to life and concrete evidence of the existence of God, and so he challenges Death to a game of Chess. As the game progresses, Block and Jons travel through a country ravaged by the Black Death (the bubonic plague) and in the grip of religious fervor. Along the way Block meets, among others, a family of actors one of whom, Jof (Poppe), has mystical visions and a witch (Maud Hansson) who is condemned to death, as he searches for answers to his questions.

Opinions: This film is arguably the best known work from celebrated Swedish writer and director Ingmar Bergman. It has been referenced and parodied endlessly over the years, and has become seen as something of the archetypal high-brow "art" film. The film is deservedly a modern classic. Bergman grew up in an intensely Christian household. His father was a rector in the Church and as a child Ingmar Bergman would frequently accompany him on his visits to remote, rural churches where he saw medieval paintings and wood carvings which were among the chief inspirations for the film (in fact the screenplay for the film was based on a student play Ingmar Bergman wrote called Wood Painting). The film is a deeply personal one and deals with religious questions which concerned Bergman throughout his life, and some of the themes of the film, such as the "silence of God", were major preoccupations throughout his life.
The film is stunningly shot in crisp black-and-white, and some images from the film have become icons of world cinema particularly the image of the knight playing Chess with Death on the rocky shore as the sun rises. The film deals with weighty philosophical themes but it is also at times very funny. There is a strong element of bawdy comedy running through it, even Death gets a couple of one-liners. Comedy was not one of Bergman's strenghts admittedly, and he lacks the lightness of touch to make the humour work as well as it could, but it still gets some laughs. There is also plenty of suspense and drama.
The acting is good, with many of the actors being regular Bergman players. Max von Sydow is a particular standout as the anguished, searching knight knight
Powerful, complex, intriguing and entertaining, this is a masterpiece of world cinema and well worth checking out. Ultimately the film concerns itself with one of the major questions, the search for some kind of meaning to life.

Death: "Do you never stop asking questions?"
Block: "No, never"
Death: "But you get no answers."

Death (Bengt Everot) and the Knight (Max von Sydow) start their game in The Seventh Seal

Friday, 8 April 2011

Comics Round-Up # 3


Written by Matthew Sturges

Art by Luca Rossi, Jose Marzan Jr. and Darwyn Cooke

Published by Vertigo

Desolation: Part One A psychopathic waiter celebrates killing off his restaurant's clientele with a drink at the House of Mystery, a bizarre house in a borderland between many different dimensions where the first drink is free, but all the others have to be paid for by telling a story. There the waiter confronts the new bartender, Lotus Blossom who can magically make weapons appear out of thin air. Meanwhile a lonely astronaut tells a story of love, rockets and Martians, while series regulars Fig Keele and Harry Bailey are in unexpected places.

This issue starts a new storyline, and is a pretty good jumping-on point for new readers. It opens with a detailed summary of the main storyline to date, and introduces a number of new characters. As always with House of Mystery it features a main storyline and also a short mini-story, illustrated in a completely different style (in this issue it's a science-fiction story which takes a dark look at a pulp staple and is illustrated in a style that strongly hearkens to those comics of the '50s and early '60s). The comic is always a hugely entertaining mix of horror-fantasy, surrealism comedy and even soap-opera elements.


Written by Ben McCool

Illustrated by Nikki Cook

Published by Image Comics

This is the third of a six issue comic telling the story of a cynical journalist who arrives at a small town to investigate reports that the residents have all lost their memory. Arriving, the journalist begins to receive strange e-mails, and finds himself being pursued by strange shadow-creatures. Added to that is the discovery of a recent mass grave outside of the town, and the arrival of a mysterious and hostile agency who will stop at nothing to discover the town's secrets.

This has been a really involving series, with a genuinely intriguing plot, and some brilliantly moody black and white artwork, which makes great use of shadow (as befits the plot). If you're not reading this yet it is definitely worth checking it out when it is released in a collected form. It is a really good supernatural mystery thriller.


Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti

Illustrated by Travis Moore and Trevor Scott

Published by DC Comics

American Nightmare, Part Eight. The Freedom Fighters are a group of superheroes (or "meta-humans") who led by Uncle Sam, the spirit of the nation, are employed by the US Government to keep the country safe from super-human threats. In this story they are pitted against a ruthless terrorist known as The Jester who believes that America has grown weak and decadent, and has kidnapped the Vice President in order to force the Freedom Fighters to collect components for an ancient, powerful secret weapon, as well as the inmates of a prison full of super-villains.

This series tends not to get a lot of attention and the best issue apparently will be the last. It has an intriguing concept with the way it marries contemporary political concerns with super-hero action, but it doesn't always work. Mostly it comes across as fervently patriotic, but there is a welcome strain of cynicism. The artwork is good, of conventional and the script suffers from trying to cram too much into too short a space but in the end it has been quietly impressive in it's own way.


Written by Marc Andreyko

Illustrated by Patric Reynolds and Dave Stewart

Published by Dark Horse Comics

In a remote small town in Indiana, a serial killing property developer is determined to free up the home and land of a reclusive elderly man, named Thomas, by any means necessary. However he reckons without Thomas' twelve year old "daughter", Abby, a girl who has been twelve for a very, very long time.

This is the final issue of the four part prelude to the 2010 movie Let Me In, which in turn was an English language remake of the 2008 Swedish film called Let the Right One In which itself was an adaptation of a 2004 Swedish novel by John Ajvide Linqvist, about a lonely boy who befriends a 12 year old girl who turns out to be a vampire. The comic series is set immediately preceding the events of the Let Me In film which becomes something of a problem, as it tends to do with prequels because the outcome is never really in doubt. Aside from the two main characters, and some faint story elements, the comic has very little connection to the film, and it can easily be enjoyed if you've never seen the film. Also, if you've seen the film you're not really missing any of the story if you don't check out the comic. There are no origin stories, and none of Abby's secrets are revealed. The art is good and quite evocative. Wisely they don't go for photo-realistic depictions of the movie's stars Chloe Grace Moretz and Richard Jenkins for the look of the characters, although their look is very much based on the actors, instead the art is given kind of a rough look that makes it feel very much like an American gothic piece. It's not bad at all and fans of the film will probably enjoy it.


Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Jeff Lemire and Jose Villarrubia

Published by Vertigo

Endangered Species, Part One. This comic is set in a post-apocalyptic near future where most of the human race has been wiped out by a plague and some have become human-animal hybrids, including the series main character Gus, nicknamed "Sweet Tooth", a nine-year old boy who has antlers and deer like ears, and is travelling with his tough protector, Jepperd, among others to find sanctuary. Three of Gus and Jepperd's companions, Lucy, Beck and Wendy (another hybrid who has a pig-like snout) have been caught in a trap, but are rescued by a seemingly kindly man who offers to take them to his home. Jepperd and Gus set out to find them, but the tension between the two of them hampers their efforts.

This is an interesting and offbeat piece that features some great artwork and an involving story. The wintery landscapes are very well realised and the comic mixes likeable and engaging characters, an involving plot, and a sense of pervasive bleakness. It's certainly recommended.

iZOMBIE # 12

Written by Chris Roberson

Illustrated by Gilbert Henrandez and Laura Allred

Published by Vertigo

Ghost Stories. This series revolves around Gwen, a pleasant, intelligent, attractive young woman, who also happens to be a zombie. In order to keep from becoming a mindless monster she needs to eat a regular supply of human brains. This one-shot story revolves around Gwen's best friend Eleanor, the ghost of a twenty year old woman who died in 1968. In fact the story is set slightly before the rest of the series and Gwen only appears at the end. Eleanor is bored in the cemetary, and spends her time listening to the other ghosts tell their stories: Native American legends of a man who became a fish, a comwboys tales of fighting subterranean zombies in Portland Oregon and Eleanor's own account of how she died among them.

This is a consitently enjoyable series which is notable for a horror title in that it is almost entirely focussed on the female characters. The comic is funny, frequently moving, endlessly inventive and surprising as well as featuring some impressive artwork. It deserves points as well for doing something different with the endlessly overdone zombie genre.


Written by Geoff Johns

Illustrated by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, Mark Irwin and Tom Nguyen

Published by DC Comics

War of the Green Lanterns, Part One. Former test pilot, Captain Hal "Highball" Jordan, is chosen to join an interglactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps, created by the oldest beings in existence - the Guardians of the Universe. However, the Guardians are becoming deeply concerned about Jordan's reckless ways and potential instability. Particularly since he has apparently allied himself with other unsanctioned members of Lantern Corps, strictly against orders. Jordan and his allies are trying to find a rogue Guardian named Krona who is in posession of seven of the most powerful cosmic parasitic forces in existence - the Entities. However the Guardians order the rest of the Green Lantern Corps to arrest Jordan and stop him by any means necessary.

This is a pretty entertaining blend of science-fiction superhero action, even if the amount of characters and their allegiances and backstory isn't particularly welcoming for new readers. The artwork is very good and there is plenty of exciitng action. You can expect to be hearing a lot more about Green Lantern in the coming months as there is a major film version due for release in July 2011.


Written by Jamie Delano

Illustrated by Philip Bond and Warren Pleece

Published by Vertigo

New London in the year 2025 "the Modern Republic of Love". Britain is a totalitarian country controlled by a puritanical President. The Royal family having died off from a mysterious succession of "accidents". The poor live in slum areas known as "No-Gos". The main religion is worship of Princess Diana, and most people are obsessed by endless soap operas and sadistic reality shows on TV. However, it may be that the Royal lineage has not died out after all. The fate of the heir to the throne rests in the unlikely hands of seventy-something occultist John Constantine.

This bizarre mini-series was first published in 2000 but has been reprinted as part of the Vertigo Resurrected strand which has been reprinting various short storylines which don't really fit into ordinary graphic novels or trade paperbacks. This story is possibly one of the strangest Hellblazer stories ever published, and that really is saying something! It ditches the usual urban-horror setting for a dystopian science-fiction story. Also this is an out and out comedy, or more accurately satire, and it is very much a product of it's time, feeling slightly out of date now, even though some aspects seem all too plausible. To get all the references you really need to have some knowledge of British life in 2000, but even it's not a major problem for readers who don't. It's not one of the best Hellblazer stories and is so atypical of the rest of the series that it is really not recommended for newcomers. It is still enjoyable enough though, once you get used to it.


iZOMBIE # 12

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Year: 1989
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Starring: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff, Alida Valli, Veronica Lazar
Running Time: 107 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural

Summary: New York City: poet Rose Elliot (Miracle) is fascinated by a book called The Three Mothers by alchemist and architect Varelli. Varelli's book tells of three evil forces living in three houses in three different countries: Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) lives in Germany, Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears) lives in Italy and Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) lives in the USA. Rose becomes convinced that the old building she is living in is the home of Mater Tenebrarum.
She writes a letter to her brother Mark, a music student living in Rome. Mark's friend, Sarah (Giorgi) becomes fascinated by Rose's letter and decides to investigate the book The Three Mothers for herself. A decision she very quickly regrets.
Mark travels to New York and discovers that his sister has gone missing. As he investigates her disappearance he soon learns that the legend of the Three Mothers is far more than just a legend.

Opinions: This film was concieved as the middle part of a trilogy about the "Three Mothers", the first part was Suspiria (1977) and the trilogy concludes with Mother of Tears (2007), although Argento has stated that he has not ruled out making a fourth film in the series. The idea of the Three Mothers comes from a piece called "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" from a book called Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey, published in 1845.
As with Suspiria this film is more of a fairy tale for adults. It has a striking visual style, with swooping, mobile camera movements, bizarre angles and luridly coloured lighting. It also features many of Argento's trademark elaborately choreographed and gruesomely violent set-pieces. The production design is very impressive with the interiors of the old New York building a mix of bright red and gold walls and polished black wood. Despite being filmed mostly on studio sets in Rome, there are some location scenes filmed in New York.
The sheer strangeness of the film's look and frequent sudden bursts of violence and gore, along with the loud score which combines weird electronic music from Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) with music from a Guiseppe Verdi opera, makes for a very disconcerting experience and for the most part the film is genuinely scary, particularly if you are frightened at all of either cats or rats. It certainly delivers plenty of shocks. Some scenes are also genuinely beautiful, for example during a memorable underwater sequence featuring Irene Miracle ina submerged ballroom.
The movie suffers from stilted performances at times, in particular from Leigh McCloskey, and sometimes the special effects aren't equal to Argento's ambition. As with many other Argento films, the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but then that doesn't really matter. It's not about the story, it's about the mood conjured up by sounds and images.
The film was shot under difficult circumstances. Daria Nicolodi came up with the basic story, but decided not to seek credit due to her miserable experience trying to get a writing credit for Suspiria. Argento was severely ill most of the time they were filming. Also the film was made for the major Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox who were so unhappy with the finished film that they did not release it in the USA until 1985, five years after it was made, and then direct to video. It did have a limited theatrical release in the US the following year though.
In recent years, though the film has been reassessed and has become something of a cult classic. In 2005 Britain's Total Film listed it as 35 in their list of the 50 greatest horror films of all time.
This is a startling and nightmarish movie that is definitely worth checking out.

Sacha Pitoeff and Irene Miracle in Inferno

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Source Code

Year: 2011
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, thriller, action

Summary: Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), a decorated US airman deployed in Afghanistan, wakes up to find himself on a morning commuter train heading towards Chicago with no memory of how he got there. Also the woman sitting opposite him, Christina (Monaghan), despite him having no memory of her, seems to be convinced that he is a friend of hers, a teacher named Sean Fentress. When Stevens looks in the mirror he sees a completely different face staring back at him. Eight minutes after he wakes up the train is destroyed by a bomb.
Stevens awakes to find himself strapped into a pod-like capsule. A military woman, Colleen Goodwin (Farmiga), informs him that he is part of an exerimental program called "Source Code", which allows the participant the ability to take over someone else's body in the final eight minutes of that person's life. The train that Stevens awoke on was destroyed in a terrorist attack earlier this morning. His mission is to keep going back into the Source Code to find out as much information as possible about the bomb and who planted it within the eight minute period, in order to prevent a nuclear device being detonated in downtown Chicago, causing the deaths of millions.
As he keeps going back in to the Source Code, Stevens begins to fall in love with Christina, however he has been told that, since it is technically only a simulation and not actual time travel, it is impossible to use Source Code to change the past. However, while Stevens frantically tries to influence the past, the secretive nature of Goodwin and the other military officers make him feel increasingly concerned about what is happening with his present.

Opinions: This film kind of plays as a blend of Groundhog Day (1993), Inception (2010) and the television series Quantum Leap (1989 - 1993), the influence of the show is acknowledged in the film by a key voice cameo being given to Scott Bakula, the star of Quantum Leap. The film is also similar in some respects to the film Deja Vu (2006), which also dealt with a person being sent back in time to prevent a bomb attack.
The film works on a number of different levels. The first level being the thriller element of trying to discover the bomb and the identity of the bomber on a crowded train within the eight minute "window". The second level being Stevens' present, strapped into an unpleasantly claustrophobic, dimly lit, locked capsule, all whining motors, faulty electronics and malfunctioning temperature controls. He frequently demands explanations and answers from his superiors but they constantly either dimiss him or just try to fob him off. The third level is Stevens' burgeoning love for Christina, even though he knows that she is dead and he has to relive her death over and over again.
Director Duncan Jones, who made his name with the critically acclaimed film Moon (2009), has a good feel for science-fiction and handles the action very well. The cast are brilliant with Jake Gyllenhaal providing a strong lead, and Michelle Monaghan engaging as Christina. Vera Farmiga also does great work with the very difficult role of Goodwin. Appearing mostly on a monitor screen in Stevens' capsule, she appears initially as a stiff, buttoned down antagonist whose role is mainly to argue with Gyllenhaal and to explain the plot. However, as the film goes on she becomes increasingly affecting and sympathetic.
The script is well-written and manages to be complex while still being comprehensible. There are plot holes and there are elements that don't make sense, but these won't really matter until well after the film is over. The film maintains interest and delivers frequent surprises. It's an above average science-fiction thriller.

Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code

Friday, 1 April 2011

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

Year: 1998
Director: Steve Miner
Screenplay: Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg, from a story by Robert Zappia and Kevin Williamson (uncredited), based on characters created by John carpenter and Debra Hill
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, LL Cool J, Janet Leigh
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror, slasher

Summary: In 1978 seventeen year old Laurie Strode (Curtis) narrowly escaped the murderous rampage of her psychopathic brother Michael Myers (Chris Durand).
In 1998, Laurie is now living under the name "Keri Tate" with her seventeen year old son John (Hartnett), and is working as Headmistress of the prestigious Hillcrest Academy High School private boarding school, which her son attends. She is also dating the school's guidance counsellor Will (Arkin). However Laurie is a recovering alcoholic, still haunted by the memory of her experience and suffers from horrible nightmares, especially when Halloween rolls around. Despite most people believeing that Michael Myers is dead, Laurie is convinced that he is still out there somehwere. Angry at his mother's overprotectiveness, John and his girlfriend Molly (Williams) decide to team up with their friends Charlie (Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (O'Keefe) and take advantage of the rest of the school taking a camping trip to Yosemite National Park over the Halloween holiday in order to have the school to themselves. However, it turns out that Laurie's fears are correct. Michael Myers has tracked her down and, on Halloween night, he arrives at Hillcrest Academy to finish what he started.

Opinions: This film is the sixth sequel to the classic horror film Halloween (1978). The film only really ties in to the original Halloween and Halloween II (1981), completely ignoring the other films as if they never happened, which is probably for the best. The film is also very heavily influenced by the hugely successful Scream (1996) and it's first sequel (themselves very heavily influenced by Halloween). Kevin Williamson, who wrote the first two Scream movies, did uncredited rewrites on the script to Halloween H20, and has an executive producer credit, it was also made by the same studio that made Scream, features some of the same music, and even features a brief clip from Scream 2 (1997). They also feature a very similar style as Halloween H20 also mixes scares, jokes and pop culture references, it also includes Michelle Williams who starred in the hugely successful television series Dawson's Creek (1998-2003) which was created by Kevin Williamson. Which all means that the film belongs squarely in the typical style of late 1990s teen horror films.
The film concentrates more on the "stalk" and less on the "slash" than many of the previous installments, which hearkens back to the first film. It means that the viewer spends time with the characters and gets to like them before they get turned into sushi. Directed by Steve Miner, who also directed Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and Friday the 13 Part III (1982), there is extensive use of a mobile floating camera which constantly gives the impression of the characters being stalked or tracked by the camera itself. The film also recognises that Michael Myers, who is a kind of limited villain, being more like a supernatural version of the Terminator, works much better when he is kept largely off-screen, frequently glimpsed briefly in the background or through open doors. In fact when Laurie Strode first encounters Myers in the film, she has to pause for a few seconds to convince herself that it is not one of her nightmare or hallucinations.
The scares are mostly effective and there are several good shock moments, even if the gore is probably too limited to appeal to the gorehounds.
The acting in the film is good, and the cast are engaging. Janet Leigh (in real life the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis), and who has also had previous experience of knife-weilding maniacs in the film Psycho (1960), appears briefly as a schoolteacher. It also has an appearance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hockey mask wearing teen.
Aside from the original film, this is definitely the best in the series, and is a good slice of entertaining horror, featuring good performances, some decent shocks and plenty of humour.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) faces up to Michael Myers (Chris Durand) in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later