Sunday, 30 September 2012

Looper

Year: 2012

Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
Running Time: 118 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, thriller, time travel
In the year 2044 time travel is still thirty years aways from being a reality. However, mobsters in the future use the technology to send their victims back in time to 2044 where they are immediately executed by hit-men known as "Loopers". If a Looper survives long enough he too is sent back in time to 2044 to be killed by his younger self, this is called "closing the loop", and if a Looper fails to kill his future self for whatever reason then the consequences for both of them are severe. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper and a drug addict who has ambitions for a better life in France. However, one day Joe discovers that it is his turn to close the loop when his future self (Willis) is sent back for him to kill. However the older Joe escapes and soon younger Joe is on his trail desperate to kill him and make things right. Joe's boss, Abe (Daniels), a gangster from the future living in the past, sends every man he has to dispose of both versions of Joe.
This is an intriguing time travel film which has a fascinating take on the idea of the the temporal paradox which has been a mainstay of time travel stories right from the start. There are obvious influences of The Terminator (1984) and 12 Monkeys (1996), which also starred Bruce Willis. The future Joe hopes to change the past to influence the future. There is also the intesting concept of how you would react if you came face to face with either your younger self or your older self. One of the key scenes in the film being a discussion between the future and the present versions of Joe in a diner, where the older Joe refuses to discuss the complexities of time travel on the grounds that it makes your head hurt. Another key scene occurs when another Looper doesn't kill his future self and ends up being captured and tortured. The torture is depicted as the future version runs, old scars start appearing, his facial features become increasingly disigured and limbs start disappearing and his personality starts changing as the memories of the torture begin to assert themselves.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with prosthetics to make him more convincing as a young Bruce Willis, carries the film with a great performance marrying toughness, cockiness and emerging sensitivity, while Bruce Willis is as lost and confused as he was in 12 Monkeys but this time with a horrible moral dilemma to contend with. Emily Blunt is also impressive as the young single mother on whose farm young Joe takes refuge.

This is a dark film with a shocking twist that probably very few mainstream film-makers would have the courage to pull off. It also features an impressive depiction of a depressing, post-economic crash, noirish world. With recent films such as Moon (2009), Inception (2010) and Source Code (2011), intelligent science-fiction is in great shape at the moment and this is one of the best examples of the genre.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in Looper

Friday, 28 September 2012

Bizarre

Year: 1970

Director: Antony Balch
Screenplay: Antony Balch, John Eliot, Martin Locke, Maureen Owen, Alfred Mazure and Elliott Stein
Starring: Valentine Dyall, Maria Frost, Sue Bond and Yvonne Quenet
Running Time: 91 minutes
Genre: Comedy, fantasy, sex
This film definitely lives up to it's title. Basically it is seven short stories dealing with various aspects of sex narrated by an Egyptian mummy (Dyall). The stories include a photographer who goes to extreme lengths to make sure that her models really capture pain, an elderly man who is preparing for his young wife's first child only to discover that the baby is not what he expected, a strange man who really loves lizards and the adventures of a glamorous secret agent in a spoof of 1960s spy movies.
Antony Balch was kind of a curious figure on the British cultural scene in the 1960s who is probably best known for his experimental short films that he made with Beat writer William S. Burroughs, Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1967). This was his feature debut. The film is very much a product of it's time and sometimes feels like a time capsule of the late sixties (it was filmed in 1969). It is worth bearing in mind that by modern standards the film is horribly politically incorrect and if it wasn't so ineptly made it would probably be extremely offensive. The acting is pretty bad, most of the cast being primarily models instead of actors. The script is bad and the film is full of nonsensical interludes and weird visuals. For the most part it falls into the "so bad it is actually hilarious", however there are moments where Balch shows genuine cinematic talent, and the film deserves points for being genuinely unpredictable, and it is a real oddity.
It was a huge success in it's day and ran on the grindhouse cinema circuit in London pretty much constantly throughout the 1970s in variously edited versions. The film was also released as Secrets of Sex.



Fifty shades of blue:  Bizarre


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Judo Saga

Year:  1943
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay:  Akira Kurosawa and Tomita Tsuneo, based on the novel Sanshiro Sugata by Tomita Tsuneo
Starring:  Denjiro Okochi,  Susumu Fujita, Yukiko Todoroki, Takashi Shimura
Running Time:  79 minutes (cut from 97 minutes)
Genre:  Martial arts, period drama,

This film is probably most notable as being the directorial debut of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  Set in 1882, the film tells the story of headstrong, young Sanshiro Sugata (Fujita) who heads out to study martial arts but finds himself caught between two rival schools, one teaching the traditional jujitsu and the other teaching the more modern judo.

The film is stylish and well made, if slow-moving.  It features many themes and techniques that would recur time and again over Kurosawa's career, such as the relationship between pupil and master, and between tradition and modernism, and techniques such as wipes, changing camera speeds and the use of weather patterns to reveal character moods.  It was a huge success in it's day and spawned a sequel, also directed by Kurosawa, which was released in 1945.  The film has been remade five times.  It was cut by seventeen minutes by the Japanese censors for "failing to comply with the Government's wartime entertainment policies".  The missing footage has never been recovered.

The film is not among Kurosawa's best, but it still has much to recommend it.  Certainly his mastery of cinema was evident right from the start.

Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is holding on in Judo Saga  

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Caravaggio

Year:  1986
Director:  Derek Jarman
Screenplay:  Derek Jarman and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, from a story by Nicholas Ward-Jackson
Starring:  Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton, Spencer Leigh, Michael Gough
Running Time:  93 minutes
Genre:  Biography, drama

Towards the end of his life, celebrated Seventeenth Century painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio (Terry) reflects on his eventful life, from his youth as a violent hustler and street artist to his rise to fame under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte (Gough).  Caravaggio becomes known for his skill as an artist and notorious for his habit of using people from the street as models for his mostly religious paintings, as well as his habit of sleeping with many of his models, both men and women.  His reflections focus on his relationships with thuggish street fighter Ranuccio (Bean) and Ranuccio's girlfriend Lena (Swinton), who both become his models and his muse. 

Acclaimed British director Derek Jarman worked for seven years to make a film of the life of the legendary painter Caravaggio, and the original idea was something much closer to the conventional movie biopic to be shot on location in Italy with a fairly large budget.  However, the budget fell through at the last minute and Jarman was forced to scale back his plans quite considerably.  The film ended up being shot entirely in a studio in London.  Possibly as a result of this, the film never aims at an authentic recreation of 17th Century Italy.  Instead it kind of exists in a surreal twilight zone somewhere between the world of Caravaggio and the world of 1980s London.  There are numorous deliberate anachronisms in the film: characters wear items of modern dress, merchants do their accounts on pocket calculators, an art critic writes venomous reviews on a portable typewriter and Ranuccio works on a motorbike among others.  However the film is visually startling.  The look of the film attempts to replicate the look and feel of Caravggio's paintings with striking success.  It creates it's own world that is both dreamlike and strongly vibrant and physical.  The performances are very good, if occasionally overly theatrical.  This film marks the movie debut of Tilda Swinton, who went on to do several more films with Jarman, as did Sean Bean.  Derek Jarman was a painter himself and the film presents a striking account of the art world.  Rarely do biopics of an artist focus so strongly on the actual painting of the works themselves.  This film is probably Derak Jarman's finest film and certainly his most accessible.  It's well worth checking out.

Nigel Terry and Sean Bean fight it out in Caravaggio      

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Possession

Year:  2012
Director:  Ole Bornedal
Screenplay:  Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, based on the Los Angeles Times article "Jinx in a Box" by Leslie Gornstein
Starring:  Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport
Running Time:  91 minutes
Genre:  Horror, supernatural

This film is based on the allegedly true story of the so-called "Dybbuk box" which is an old wine-chest which is said to be haunted.  Basketball coach Clyde Brenek (Morgan) and jewellery designer Stephanie Brenek (Sedgwick) are in the process of getting divorced.  The couple have two young children, Em (Calis) and Hannah (Davenport).  During a weekend with their father, Em asks him to buy her a strangely carved wooden box.  That night she manages to open the box, with difficulty and finds that it is full of strange old objects.  Before long Em starts hearing voices and manifesting disturbing changes in personality and violent behaviour, as well as bizarre supernatural phenomenon.  Clyde soon becomes convinced that there is a force in the box that is trying to take control of his daughter.

This is a decent slice of supernatural possession horror.  There isn't much here that will surprise fans of the genre, and the film is very obviously influenced by The Exorcist (1973) but there are a few good jolts and the film creates a creepy, downbeat atmosphere, anchoring the supernatural events among the all too real horrors of divorce.  It also manages to be fairly subtle for the most part which makes it all the more effective.  The performances are good throughout, particularly from Natasha Calis as the tormented Em.  While, as I said, there is nothing particularly new here there is still enough to make it worth watching, just don't expect anything spectacularly amazing.



What's in the box?  Natasha Calis in The Possession      

Dredd

Year:  2012
Director: Pete Travis
Screenplay:  Alex Garland, based on the comic book character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra
Starring:  Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Heady
Running Tme:  95 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, horror

In a post-apocalyptic world, much of the planet Earth is an irradiated wasteland dubbed "Cursed Earth", the majority of the population live in vast, overcrowded Mega-Cities.  The law is enforced by an urban police force known as "Judges" who have the authority to act as judge, jury and instant executioner.  The largest of the Mega-Cities is Mega-City One which covers most of the eastern part of North America, and the toughest Judge in Mega-City One is Judge Dredd (Urban).  Dredd is assigned to instruct and assess a rookie Judge named Cassandra Anderson (Thirlby) who has powerful psychic abilities.  Their first case involves a gruesome triple homicide at one of the most crime-ridden towerblocks in the city.  Dredd and Anderson quickly connect the murders to the thriving trade in an illegal new drug called "Slo-Mo" which causes it's users to experience time at a fraction of normal speed.  It turns out that the entire towerblock is controlled by the psychotic gang leader Ma-Ma (Heady).  Before long Dredd and Anderson find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival when they become sealed in the towerblock with an entire army of heavily armed criminals set against them.

Judge Dredd first appeared in the pages of British science-fiction comic book 2000 AD in 1977.  The character first appeared on screen in the 1995 in the movie Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone in the title role.  The movie had a fairly mixed reception from critics and fans, with a lot of the criticism being about how the movie deviated from the comics.  For example, one of the distinctive elements of the character in the comics is that he is never shown without his helment on obscuring most of his face.  In the Stallone movie, the helmet is taken off within the first twenty minutes and stays off.  In Dredd, the helmet stays on for the entire movie.  For reasons other than an obscured face, Dredd is a difficult character to translate to film.  In the comics he is fascistic, humourless, dour and completely fixated on enforcing the law.  It's to the film's credit that Dredd is transferred pretty much wholesale from the page to the screen, with no backstory or clever witticisms.  Urban turns in a great performance, having to deliver a performance with only the lower half of his face visible, and a great, growling voice.  As a result most of the character development and emotional heart of the movie is given to the tough yet sympathetic trainee Judge Anderson, and Olivia Thirlby does a great job.  Also memorable is Lena Heady as the brutal ganglord Ma-Ma.  The film was made with a comparatively tiny budget for a comic book movie and so confines most of it's action to the interior of the towerblock, which provides an element of claustrophobia as well as great running gun battles through the corridors.  Mega-City One itself is contemporary Johannesburg with a few CGI additions.  The film includes a number of beautifully surreal slow-motion sequences with heightened colour to represent to effects of the Slo-Mo drug, which work beautifully in 3D.  However nothing gets in the way of the film's bone-crunching, brain-frying violence, and this film is extremely violent.

The film brought to mind the excessive, graphically violent science-fiction action movies of the early 1990s such as the original Total Recall, RoboCop 2 and Predator 2, and that really is no bad thing.    

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) lays down the law in Dredd


Thursday, 10 May 2012

"Diaries" by Franz Kafka

Year of Publication:  1948
Number of Pages:  519 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction, diaries, autobiography

This book collects the diaries kept by Czech writer Franz Kafka from 1910 until 1923, the year before his death at the age of 40.  The entries deal with Kafka's daily life in Prague, his complex relationship with hsi domineering father, and his feelings for the woman he loved but could not bring himself to marry.  Also there are accounts of his dreams, his struggles to write and his feelings of loneliness, guilt and alienation.

The book is a heart-rending read at times and fiercely intense.  Kafka comes out of the pages as a senstive, deeply troubled artist, however the editor, and Kafka's friend and literary executor, Max Brod points out in his afterword that Kafka revealed only one side of himself in his diaries, partly because they seemed to have been a kind of therapy for him.  What isn't revealed is the friendly, fun-loving person who enjoyed a joke and was well-liked by most of the peole who knew him.  

It is important to rememebr that the book was never intended for publication.  Although, Brod stated later in interviews that Kafka, a keen reader of published diaries, would probably have been pleased to see his journal in print.  The book at times is quite hard to read.  Kafka frequently used his diaries for wrtiting exercises  and they, along with his accounts of his dreams, blend confusingly with his discriptions of his daily life.

The book also includes several travel diaries which record Kafka's journies through Switzerland, Paris and Germany.  These travel diaries are generally more light-hearted and matter of fact than the bulk of the diaries.

This book is a must read for anyone, not just Kafka fans, and provides an invaluable look into the inner world of one of the greatest writers of world literature.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Monk

Year:  2011
Director:  Dominik Moll
Screenplay:  Dominik Moll and Anne-Louise Trividic, based on the novel The Monk:  A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Starring:  Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy, Catherine Mouchet, Geraldine Chaplin
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  Gothic, period drama, religion, thriller, romance, horror

This French film is an adaptation of the famous Gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, which was first published in 1796.  The story is set in a Spanish monastery in the 17th Century and concerns the deeply pious and moralistic Brother Ambrosio (Cassel), who was found abandoned at the monastery as a baby.  The power, eloquence and force of his sermons and the strength of his piety, which is deep even by the standards of the monks, have made Ambrosio famous and people come from miles around to hear him.  He is also merciless in his idea of morality and sin.  However, his ordered life is disrupted when he encounters a mysterious novice, Valerio (Francois), whose face is always concealed by a mask, and who appears to have a very strong interest in Ambrosio.  The monk also finds himself falling further into temptation when he meets the beautiful and virtuous Antonia (Japy).

Okay, judging by the poster and the marketing for the film, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Monk is a horror film, when it really isn't.  It is more of a religious drama dealing with temptation, guilt, sin and redemption.  It is a proper Gothic film so there are plenty of dark passages, illegitimate heirs to great fortunes, persecuted women in flowing gowns and a strong supernatural element, but none of it is really scary, although it is atmospheric and pretty creepy.  The film is slow and has quite a meandering storyline, and times goes off on complete tangents which have nothing to do with the main storyline, such as a sub-plot about a pregnant nun which has no real conclusion or real point.
However, I did like this film.  It is beautifully shot with some stunning locations.  It is one of those films where it feels like every frame you could pin on your wall, because the images are so stunning.  It has an interesting style, including a lot of old-fashioned tricks, such as irising in and out to open and close scenes.  In it's own way it is also genuinely hypnotic and if you allow yourself to get into the film's own rhythm, then there is a lot of pleasure to be had from it.
Vincent Cassel gives a spellbinding central performance as The Monk, making the character magnetic and charismatic, so that you can fully understand why he casts such a spell upon his listeners, and also making an, at times, pretty monsterous character engaging and weirdly sympathetic.  Next to Cassel, no-one else really stands a chance, but the rest of the cast do their best with fairly cliched characters.  However Deborah Francois does well, but Josephine Japy's Antonia is just too sickly sweet to be believable. 
It is worth seeing for the visuals and Cassel's performance and fans of gothic literature are sure to find it intriguing. 


Josephine Japy and Vincent Cassel in The Monk

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Mangler

Year:  1995
Director:  Tobe Hooper
Screenplay:  Tobe Hooper, Stephen Brooks, Peter Welbeck, based on the short story "The Mangler" by Stephen King
Starring:  Ted Levine, Robert Englund, Daniel Matmor, Jeremy Crutchley, Vanessa Pike
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This gruesome horror film is based on a 1972 short story by Stephen King.  In the small town of Riker's Mills, Maine, police detective John Hutton (Levine) is called to investigate a series of bizarre fatal accident at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, where a woman where a woman was pulled into an automated laundry press and folding machine called "The Mangler".  Hutton is immediatley suspicious, especially of the laundry's sinister owner Bill Gartley (Englund).  Further accidents occur, all of which result in seriosu injury or death and all seem to be connected to the Mangler.  Hutton's brother in law, Mark (Matmor) becomes convinced that the Mangler is possessed by a demon. 

In the bizarre world of horror movies, this offers the unique, at least as far as I know, site of the central monster being an item of laundry equipment, with it's sidekick apparently being a demonic refridgerator.  Ted Levine at least tries to give his part of the troubled but dedicated police officer witha  past some gravitas, while Robert Englund, whose face is encased in old-age makeup, with one bad eye and both legs encased in stylised metal leg braces doesn't so much chew the scenery as rip off great bleeding chunks with his teeth.  His dememnted performance is actually the only really entertaining part of the movie.  Otherwise your saddled with a movie where the main monster is a vast piece of metal, gears, chains and wheels which can't go anywhere.  This means that it depends on the victims actually going to it and climbing or falling into it, rather than it being able to do much itself. 
The film obvioulsy had a relatively large budget and the production values are pretty good, but it is surprisingly badly made.  The script desperately tries to pad out Stepehn King's slim story , and the usually reliable Tobe Hooper never manages to conjure up any suspense or scares, and for some reason lights the whole thing like a disco with smoke billowing almost constantly.  The special effects are pretty average.
A major box office flop on it's original release, this has become something of a cult film.  However, if you want my advice, don't waste your time.  Somehow this nonsense spawned two sequels to date.



Robert Englund in The Mangler              

Heathers

Year:  1989
Director:  Michael Lehmann
Screenplay:  Daniel Waters
Starring:  Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix
Running Time:  102 minutes
Genre:  High school, dark comedy, teen

This surreal, dark comedy is one of the best teen movies of the 1980s.  In the small town of Sherwood, Ohio, Westerberg High School is run by a clique of three popular girls who are all named Heather:  the malicious and bitchy leader of the group Heather Chandler (Walker), the bookish and bulimic Heather Duke (Doherty) and the weak-willed cheerleader Heather McNamara (Falk).  Despite being envied and lusted after, the "Heathers" are pretty much despised by the student population. The newest member of the group is Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) who hates the "Heathers" as much as anyone else, and, sick of "swatchdogs and diet cokeheads", longs to return to her old life and geeky friends.  Everything changes when she meets new student, the rebellious and charismatic Jason Dean (Slater) otherwise known as "J.D.".  Veronica and J.D. soon start dating and together plot to overthrow Heather Chandler's domination.  However, when a prank intended to humiliate Heather Chandler winds up being lethal, Veronica is quickly forced to deal with J.D.'s murderous true nature, as the body count swiftly increases.

Daniel Waters wrote the script hoping that Stanley Kubrick would direct it.  However several attempts to get the script to Kubrick failed and it wound up being given to director Michael Lehmann.  A number of actors were approached for the film, including Jennifer Connelly who turned it down due to the film's dark subject matter and a then 17 year old Heather Graham, whose mother refused to let her do the film.  Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of J.D. but was turned down due to the producers thinking he came across as "Too nice" and would not be credible in the role.  
The film is stylish and witty with a genuinely funny script which has a strong feel for teen-speak.  However it does deal with some very serious subjects including teen suicide, the pressures to conform, and adults who are either oblivious to or completely misunderstand teenagers.  The film also deals with the callousness of teenagers and adults.  In one scene, Veronica is at a funeral and is shocked by the only display of genuine grief there, form a young child. 
Winona Ryder does a great job as Veronica and Christian Slater does really well as the wild and crazy J.D., a performance obviously inspired by James Dean with shades of the sociopathic Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Funny, dark, and thoughtful the film is very berry.




Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker and Winona Ryder in Heathers


Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Avengers

Year:  2012
Director:  Joss Whedon
Screenplay:  Joss Whedon, based on the Marvel comic book series The Avengers created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring:  Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders
Running Time:  143 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, action, superhero, comic books

This is the long-awaited film uniting several of Marvel Comics most popular superhero characters.  When the exiled Norse god Loki (Hiddleston) steals a mysterious object called the Tesseracht, which has vast but unknown powers, Nick Fury (Jackson), head of shadowy US Government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., decides to activate the "Avengers Initiative".  He contacts billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) who fights crime as "Iron Man" using an advanced suit of armour; super-soldier Steve Rogers (Evans), aka "Captain America", who has recently woken after being in suspended animation since the 1940s; Doctor Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) who, after being exposed to gamma radiation, involuntarily transforms into a giant, green-skinned, super strong creature called "The Hulk" when he becomes angry; Norse god of thunder Thor (Hemsworth) who happens to be Loki's adopted brother; and Russian assassin Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), aka "the Black Widow".  Their mission is to find the Tesseracht and stop Loki, however tensions among the group threaten the mission, and Loki's army of Chitauri aliens threaten the entire world.

I had had my doubts about this movie for a long time because with having four main characters each of whom has had at least one entire feature film devoted to them leading into this one, I thought it would be overbalanced with trying too much material for each of them, however the balance works right.  The main focus of the film is the wise-cracking Tony Stark and the serious straight-laced Captain America, and the two bounce off each other well.  Stark's wise-cracks also manage to anchor the pure fantasy element of Thor (2011) in the high-tech science-fiction world of Iron Man (2008).  The film features great performances from the whole cast who have genuine chemistry as an ensemble.

There are some spectacular visual effects and the film features some superb action set-pieces.  It's a witty and hugely entertaining piece of action fantasy film-making which really captures the feel of the source comic books.

In the UK the film was retitled Avengers Assemble in order to avoid confusion with the British television series The Avengers (1961 - 1969) and the 1998 movie version of the show.


Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Doweney, Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers
       

Friday, 27 April 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Year:  1981
Director:   Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:  Lawrence Kasdan, from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman
Starring:  Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott
Running Time:  115 minutes
Genre:  Adventure, action,

This film is one of the most successful and best-loved movies in modern cinema, and introduced one of it's most popular icons.  The film is set in 1936.  After a dangerous mission to Peru to retrieve a golden idol from a booby-trap laden tomb ends in failure at the hands of his arch-rival Rene Bellocq (Freeman), archeologist and adventurer Doctor Indiana Jones (Ford) returns to his day job of teaching archeology in an American college.  Jones is contacted by Army Intelligence who have received reports that the Nazis are conducting a large scale archological dig in Egypt, and that a noted American archeologist and one-time friend of Jones is involved.  Immediately Jones and his friend and mentor Marcus Brody (Elliott) realise that the Nazis are searching for the fabled lost Ark of the Covenant, the chest in which Moses stored the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments.  The Ark is reputed to contain devestating supernatural power and an army which marches with it would be completely unstoppable.  Jones sets off on a  perilous, globe-trotting quest to find the Ark before the Nazis.  He is aided by his ex-girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood (Allen), who posesses an old medallion, which can be used to locate a clue which can reveal the Ark's whereabouts.  The Nazis are being aided by Bellocq, the only archeologist who is Jones' match.

The film was originally conceived by film-maker George Lucas as a tribute to the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s.  It rolls along with action, exotic locations, high adventure and wit to create a fantastically entertaining film, that still holds up brilliantly after 30 years.  It was the first film to feature the roguish, charismatic adventurer Indiana Jones.  Lucas was originally reluctant to cast Harrison Ford due to the fact that he had already appeared in a number of Lucas's films and he did not want Ford to become his "Bobby DeNiro" (a reference to Martin Scorsese who made a number of films with Robert DeNiro).  In the end Tom Selleck was cast as Indiana Jones but was unable to get out of his commitment to the TV series Magnum P.I. (1980 - 1988).  In the end the producers and Spielberg were impressed by Ford's performance in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)  and persuaded Lucas to cast him with three weeks left until the start of filming.  Ford gives a brilliant performance delivering humour and charisma as well as the action.  The film is full of memorable moments, from the giant boulder chasing Jones in the opening of the film, to the closing images which references Citizen Kane (1941).  Karen Allen also impresses as the sharp-tongued Marion and her verbal sparring with Jones provides many humourous moments.  The film is surprisingly violent and gruesome in many ways for a family film, it has quite a high body count and there are numorous rotting corpses and skeletons, as well as the memorable climax which provided nightmares for many an 80s kid.  This is an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment which carries it's viewers along on a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills, shocks and laughs.

Harrison Ford returned to the chracter of Indiana Jones in three sequels to date:  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  There was also a television prequel called The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992 - 1996).


Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark


    

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

"Skagboys" by Irvine Welsh

Year of Publication:  2012
Number of Pages:  548 pages
Genre:  Fiction, drugs, social realism, dark comedy

Scottish writer Irvine Welsh made a big impact on the literary scene with his debut novel Trainspotting in 1993, which soon became a sizeable cult success.  The book was adapted as a hugely successful film, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor which was released in 1996.  Welsh later said that he had ambivalent feelings about the immense success of Trainspotting, feeling that it had prevented him from doing other things.  However in 2002 he published a sequel to Trainspotting called Porno which catches up on the characters some ten years after the events of the first book.  Now he has returned to the well once more with a prequel set about four to five years before the events of Trainspotting.

Edinburgh, Scotland, 1984.  Mark Renton is charismatic, intelligent, head over heels in love with his beautiful grilfriend, and is the first member of his solidly working-class family to go to university.  All the indications are that he has a bright future ahead of him.  He spends his weekends hanging out with his friends:  Ruthless and manipulative Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson who is obsessed with women and will stop at nothing to indulge his urges; sweet, gentle and naive Danny "Spud" Murphy; violent psychopath Frank Begbie; athletic, health concious Tommy Lawrence; sleazy Matty and compassionate but troubled Alison.
However, this is Britain under Margaret Thatcher, unemployment is rising, social unrest is everywhere and the traditional working class communities which Renton and his friends grew up in are rapidly disappearing.  Beset by family tensions and boredom, as well as a growing sense of nihilism, Renton joins Sick Boy and Spud as they start indulging in the heroin that is flooding Edinburgh.  Before long, their youthful experiments have blossomed into a full-blown habit, and the group enter the nightmarish, twilight world of addiction, as their lives become dominated by scheming and scamming any way to get their next fix.  There is also a new threat surfacing as the AIDS epidemic takes hold in Edinburgh's addict community.

This is a worthy prequel to Trainspotting, and in many ways improves on the original.  Whereas the first novel was more like a string of short stories linked by recurring characters and themes, this has a plot line and a narrative thread.  There is also a strong sense of anger in Skagboys ("skag" is a Scottish slang term for heroin) as it explores the political and social conditions which created the situation which the characters find themselves in.  As usual with Irvine Welsh books the story is told through a number of point of view charcaters frequently in a first person stream-of-conciousness style in phonetically rendered Scottish dialect (although occasionally it adopts a third person point of view written in Standard English).  The story is brutal, violent, bleak and angry but it is also frequently hilarious and at times unexpectedly moving and tender.  This is a fantastic book which is pretty much unputdownable, even if you have never read Trainspotting.  It is definitely Irvine Welsh's best book in years. 




   

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

"EmiTown: Volume 2" by Emi Lenox

Year of Publication:  2012
Number of Pages:   408 pages
Genre:  Autobiography, diary, comics, graphic novel

For the past couple of years Portland, Oregon resident Emi Lenox  has been chronicling her life in a daily "sketch diary".  This second volume covers 1 May 2010 to 30 April 2011, and marks a slight change from the first volume as it deals with both Emi's relationship with a new boyfriend and the loss of her job, as well as burgeoning success in her career as a comics artist (including a guest artist spot in an issue of Sweet Tooth, whose creator Jeff Lemire contributes a short comic strip as an afterword).

One of the big problems for diary comics often face is how much to share and how much should remain private.  Lenox deals with this by disguising some of the more personal episodes with fantasy strips involving tin-hat wearing soldier cats and superheroes.  These tend to be obscure but the reader can get enough of the gist of what is happening without feeling too intrusive.

This book is darker than the first book and a little more complex, as Lenox endures some pretty tough times, however there are still plenty of the incidental pleasures of life, which made the first volume such a delight and even the darker elements are shot through with a strong vein of humour.  There is a page for every day of the year, some are done like traditional comic strips, some are illustrations with notes, others are a single full page drawing.  There are also random song lyrics interspersed throughout.  Each month is prefaced by a list of the songs referenced that month.

Emi Lenox is a very talented artist and she started EmiTown initially as a private exercise in developing her art, before putting it out in the world initially as a website (http://www.emitown.com/) and reading through both published volumes you can see how she becomes more skilled and confident in both her writing and art as it progresses.  Lenox is an effortlessly likeable and engaging narrator whose cartooning is some of the most adorable around.  

You won't regret a visit to the world of Emi Lenox and EmiTown is a place you will want to visit again and again.


         

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse

Year:  2005
Director:  Steve Bendelack
Screenplay:  Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton
Starring:  Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Michael Sheen, Emily Woof, David Warner
Running Time:  91 minutes
Genre:  Comedy

This is the feature-film spin off of the popular British comedy television series The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002), which starred Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton and was created and written by Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton with Jeremy Dyson.  The show was very much a  dark comedy and  had a very strong horror influence.  It involved the various grotesque inhabitants of the weird little town of Royston Vasey in the north of England. 

In this feature film version, Royston Vasey is threatened with destruction by a bizarre series of natural disasters.  The local vicar, Bernice (Shearsmith), discovers that they exist in a fictional world and that their creators have decided to abandon them, thereby erasing their existence.  Teams have been sent from Royston Vasey to try to contact their creators, however the first team consisting of some of the more bizarre characters, only succeeded in accidentally causing Jeremy Dyson (Sheen) to fall off a cliff.  A second team, consisting of muderous butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss), outrageously camp German schoolteacher Herr Lipp (Pemberton), and bitter, failed office worker Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) are brought into the "real" world and ordered to contact the rest of their creators (Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton playing versions of themselves).  They succeed in kidnapping Pemberton and stealing his computer where Hilary and Geoff discover that the League are writing a new historical comedy horror film called The King's Evil, while Herr Lipp poses as Pemberton.  The situation for the Royston Vasey characters soon becomes even more complex as they are forced to deal with the fact that they are little more than one note puns and gags in a fictional universe. 

The film is imaginative and will certainly appeal to fans of the series, although newcomers to the world of Rooyston Vasey may find themselves bewildered by the whole thing.  The film takes in three different worlds:  The world of the Royston Vasey characters, the "real" world of the creators of the show and the world of the King's Evil script (which is very much in the spirit of old style Hammer Horror).  Although the film focuses on two of the lesser known League of Gentlemen characters, most of the best known ones appear in small cameos.  The members of the League do well perfoming a multitude of chracters, including deeply unpleasant verisons of themselves (the one exception is the non-acting Jeremy Dyson who is played by Michael Sheen).  Fans of British comedy will also recognise well-known faces such as Victoria Wood, Simon Pegg and Peter Kay in cameo roles.  The film features a number of fun, retro style special-effects, including a number of stop-motion animated creatures.

A must see for fans of the series, this may be a little too bizarre and macabre for those unfamiliar with the world of the League of Gentlemen, and the humour is very much an acquired taste, but it is inventive and entertaining enough to hold the attention.


Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss enter a strange world in The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse



       

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Kaboom

Year:  2010
Director:  Gregg Araki
Screenplay:  Gregg Araki
Starring:  Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Juno Temple, Roxane Mesquida, Brennan Mejida, James Duval
Running Time:  83 minutes
Genre:   Science-fiction, comedy, surreal

This bizarre science-fiction comedy centres on 18 year old sexually "undeclared" college student Smith (Dekker) who, when he is not lusting after guys and girls, spends his time hanging out with his best friend Stella (Bennett) who is involved in a difficult relationship with the beautiful but unstable Lorelei (Mesquida) who has bizarre psychic powers.  Smith strikes up a friendship with British student, London (Temple).  He also finds himself plagued by bizarre dreams, and becomes preoccupied with a mysterious red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte) who appears to be threatened by mysterious figures wearing animal masks.  Smith becomes convinced that the masked figures are also targeting him.  However Smith, Stella and London soon find out that there is far more going on then they could ever have imagined.

Gregg Araki's films tend to be very much love them or hate them.  He is a good director with a strong visual sense and a distinctive take on the world.  This film treads very familiar Araki territory being a surreal, teenage sex comedy.  It has a very distinctive visual style of lurid, bright colours and  bizarre transition effects between scenes.  The attractive, and never knowingly over-dressed, cast are engaging and seem to be having a great time throughout.  Coming across at times like an episode of Dawson's Creek if it was written by Bret Easton Ellis, if you can tune into Araki's wavelength and enjoy his particular brand of sexy, camp surreal take on teen angst you can have a great time with this movie. 

It is entertaining and frequently very funny, however it does have the problem of trying too hard to be hip.  However even if you don't like it, it is too startling and strange to get dull.  

Juno Temple, Thomas Dekker and Haley Bennett in Kaboom           

An American Werewolf in London

Year:  1981
Director:  John Landis
Screenplay:  John Landis
Starring:  David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine
Running Time:  97 minutes
Genre:  Horror, comedy, monster, werewolf

This blend of comedy and horror has become one of the best-loved cult films of the 1980s.  Two Amercian backpackers, David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Dunne), are travelling through the Yorkshire moors when they stop off at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb.  There they are disturbed by the strange and unwelcoming attitude of the locals, and quickly set back on their way after stern warnings to stay on the road and stay off the moors.  However, before long they do wander off the road and are attacked by a savage wolf-like creature which kills Jack and wounds David.  Three weeks later and David is recuperating in a hospital in London where he is disturbed by strange and violent dreams as well as visits from his progressively decomposing friend, Jack who informs David that they were attacked by a werewolf and that he, Jack, is one of the "undead" and must remain in limbo until the werewolf's bloodline is severed which means that David must kill himself before the next full moon or he too will become a wolf and kill others.

This was one of a number of werewolf movies that were released during the early to mid 1980s when there seemed to be something of a boom in werewolf films.  The other popular cult werewolf picture that was released in 1981 was The Howling.   The film benefits from a strong and engaging cast, with Jenny Agutter particularly memorable as the nurse who falls for the inured David.  The dialogue is witty and frequently laugh out loud funny.  The film is probably best known for it's, at the time, ground-breaking special effects which won an Oscar for makeup artist Rick Baker.  Most memorable is the film's centrepiece transformation sequence which even today, and even while it is inevitably showing it's age, still looks bone-crunchingly painful.  Part of what makes the film so successful is that in the midst of all the supernatural shenanigans there is a real feel for the reality of life in London in the early 1980s:  Punks on buses, only three channels on television and budget cuts.  However, the problem that the film has is that, as gruesome and as funny as it is, it really isn't very scary, although there are some impressive jumps and shocks.

Fans of British comedy may recognise a young Rik Mayall (star of The Young Ones (1982-1984) and Bottom (1991-1995)) as one of the chess players in the pub at the beginning of the film. 

A sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris was released in 1997 to very poor reviews. 


David Naughton finds himself in need of a good shave and a really good dentist in An American Werewolf in London   

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

Year:  1974
Director:  Jorge Grau
Screenplay:  Jorge Grau
Starring:  Ray Lovelock, Cristina Galbo, Arthur Kennedy
Running Time:  95 minutes
Genre:  Horror, zombie

This film is set in England and begins when an antiques store owner from the city, George (Lovelock), goes to the countryside to work on a new house whith some of his friends.  While refueling, his motorcycle is accidentally damaged when Edna (Galbo) reverses her Mini Cooper into it.  George forces her to give him a lift, but Edna is there to visit her troubled, drug addict sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre) and she manages to convince George to let her visit Katie first.  Having trouble finding the place, they eventually arrive in the dead of night to find Katie in hysterics and her husband, Martin (Jose Lifante), brutally murdered.  Katie claims Martin was killed by a mysterious stranger, but the aggressive police sergeant (Kennedy) doesn't believe her, and also believes that Edna and George were somehow involved.  Meanwhile in the countryside, some scientists are experimenting with a new type of pest control which uses radiation to kill insects and other pests.  However George and Edna begin to suspect that it may have unforeseen side effects, such as reanimating the dead and turning them into violent, flesh eating zombies.  However, they have to convince the hostile locals and sceptical police before it's too late and while there are still some of them left.

Despite being set entirely in Britain, this was an Italian/Spanish co-production and was mostly shot in Italy, with a few scenes shot on location in Britain.  The film deals with some of the ecological and social concerns of the time.  The opening montage shows city streets covered with rotting garbage and the film's lead character wants to escape the pollution in the city for what he believes is the good life in the country.  The situation in the film is triggered by people messing around with the environment.  Also the police sergeant is ferevently against the "permissive society" of which he believes George and Edna to be typical representations.

The film is fairly slow moving in places but there are a number of entertaining set pieces.  The storyline contains little that will be unfamiliar to fans of the zombie movie sub-genre of horror but the film is refreshingly dark and bleak.  The gore and special effects haven't aged particularly well but they are still satisfyingly gruesome.  Also the dubbing isn't as bad as it often is in these types of movies. 

It is available under a number of alternate titles including The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Don't Open the Window.     

Katie (Jeannine Mestre) learns that it is best to just Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Alice

Year:  1988
Director:  Jan Svankmajer
Screenplay:   Jan Svankmajer, based on the novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Starring:  Kristyna Kohoutova
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, surrealism

The famous children's story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been filmed many times including as a Disney animation and a 3D blockbuster version directed by Tim Burton in 2010.  However, it is fair to say that you have never seen a version of Alice like this one. 

One day, a young girl, Alice (Kohoutova), follows a stuffed white rabbit into a desk drawer and into the nightmarish "Wonderland", depicted as an endless number of drab, decaying household rooms full of disturbing and bizarre creatures.

The film marks the feature debut of Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer after a couple of decades of short films.  He stated that he felt that previous adaptations of Alice in Wonderland had misunderstood the story by depicting it as a straight-forward fairy tale instead of a kind of dream.  As a result this film depicts Alice's experiences as a kind of surrealist nightmare, which seems to owe more to Svankmajer's imagination than Carroll's.  He also wanted to abandon the traditional fairy-tale aspect of good over evil, and thus his Alice is much more amoral and violent than viewer's may be used to.  Svankmajer's interests lay in stop-motion and puppet animation.  Svankmajer's interest in puppetry was very much rooted in Czech culture where, instead of being seen as minor entertainment for children, puppetry has always been considered a perfectly legitimate art form for adults as well as kids.  Wonderland is depicted as a series of bleak, cluttered rooms in a seemingly endless house where space itself seems to be elastic.  The rooms are populated by bizarre and disturbing creatures which range from bizarre hybrids of everyday objects to traditional marionettes.  In this world, the White Rabbit is a taxidermically stuffed rabbit who begins by removing nails from his paws and keeps his pocket watch inside his sawdust filled chest.  The Caterpillar is a sock with eyes and teeth, who sleeps by sewing his eyelids together.  Alongside this bread rolls sprout nails, slabs of raw meat crawl along the floor, and Alice shrinks by turning into a porcelain doll.

The only human character in the film, aside from an adult woman (presumably Alice's mother) who only appears briefly in the opening scene of the film, is Alice herself who also provides the ony speech in the film.  All the dialogue scenes are depicted as if being read by Alice from the book, complete with close-ups of her mouth reciting the words.

This is a startling and bleak film which removes all the sweetness and cuteness from the story, and makes the darkness central.  It might not be the best version of Alice in Wonderland to show the little kids, because they would probably end up with nightmares for weeks.  Even adult viewers might find it a little too much in places, if only for the sheer strangeness of the whole thing.  If you are familiar with Jan Svankmajer's short films than you will have some idea of what to expect.  Svankmajer has a sensibilty and an imagination which is like nothing else in modern cinema.  It is an unforgettable experience, which will creep into your dreams.

Go Ask Alice:  Kristyna Kohoutova makes new friends in Alice          

Monday, 2 April 2012

Faust

Year:  1926
Director:  F. W. Murnau
Screenplay:  Hans Kyser
Starring:  Gosta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn
Running Time:  110 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, horror

This is a frustrating film in many ways because at it's best it is one of the best movies of it's period and deserves to be acknowledged as one of the great fantasy films, if it weren't for the fact that it is severely hampered by an overlong mid-section which verges between ludicrously melodramatic love scens and knockabout farce.

The film tells the familiar story of the devil, Mephisto (Jannings) who makes a wager with an angel that he can corrupt the soul of the scholarly and pious Faust (Ekman).  If Mephisto is successful then he wins dominion of the Earth.  Mephisto sends a plague to decimate Faust's hometown.  When all his prayers and medical learning are proved useless, Faust sinks into despair and cynicism.  He eventually raises up Mephisto who makes a bargain with him, that he will return Faust's lost youth and will do whatever he demands.  Faust soon decides to make up for lost time and basically sets out on a worldwide bender, with Mephisto enthusiatically helping him becomes some kind of 18th century Russell Brand.  Howver things soon swing out of control when Faust falls in love with the innocent Gretchen (Horn).

This silent film is subtitled "A German Folk Tale" and that is the best way to see it.  It is like a folk tale put on screen.  The script draws on the famous versions of the Faust legend by Johann Goethe and Christopher Marlowe as well as some older sources.  Modern audiences may have trouble with some of the exagerrated acting styles which were very common in silent cinema and were a perfectly legitamate style of performance at the time.  Murnaus, who is probably best known for Nosferatu (1922), was a superb visual stylist and the film still looks beautiful with many stand out scenes, particularly Faust and Mephisto's round the world flight on Mephisto's Satanic cloak, and the demonic figure looming over the town.  It's prevented from being a truly great film however by an overly melodramatic mid-section which concentrates more on a love story and adopts a much more pedestrian visual style than the earlier third of the film and the final scenes. 

However for the visuals alone this is a must-see for any fans of fantasy or horror cinema. 

Gosta Ekman in Faust.    



 

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Blue Velvet

Year:  1986
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch
Starring:  Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, George Dickerson, Dean Stockwell
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Mystery, thriller, crime

This was the film with which David Lynch finally found his niche after the bizarre Eraserhead (1977), the striking success of The Elephant Man (1980) and the disasterous critical and commercial flop that was Dune (1984).

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) returns to his home town of Lumberton after his father collapses in the back garden.  Taking  a walk trhough a patch of waste ground near his house, Jeffrey discovers a mouldering, ant infested human ear on the ground which he takes to the police.  The detective's daughter, Sandy (Dern), reveals to Jeffrey that the ear may be connected with an ongoing case involving a singer, Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini).  Hiding in Dorothy's apartment, Jeffrey soon discovers that she is being brutally tormented by the violent and deranged Frank Booth (Hopper).  Before long Jeffrey is drawn into their nightmarish underworld of sadomasochistic sex and violence.

This film opens with the credits, elegantly written in copperplate writing, over undulating blue velvet curtains.  We then see a succession of stylised images of a perfect all-American small town while Bobby Vinton sings the song "Blue Velvet" on the soundtrack, then the camera moves deeper into the neatly manicured lawn to reveal a seething netherworld of insects tearing each other apart.  This sequence encapsulates the principal theme of the film, that just below the perfect facade of small-town life, lurk violent undercurrents. 

Jeffrey Beaumont, the clean-cut all-American boy, has to choose between the nice, normal surface world, represented by wholesome, squeaky-clean Sandy, and the dark, violent, sexual underworld, represented by sultry, tormented Dorothy.  Jeffrey has a pretty big dark side right from the start ("Are you a detective or a pervert?" Sandy asks him fairly early on.  "That's for you to find out," he replies), however for the most part he prefers to watch from a closet until he is drawn in against his will. 

The film's most memorable character is Dennis Hopper's completely unhinged Frank, sucking in some unidentified gas through a mask, bellowing obscenities and threats, he manages to be both horrific and hilarious often at the same time.  Reportedly, Hopper rang up David Lynch, who he had never met, exclaiming "I have to play Frank!  I am Frank!"  Which apparently quite frightened Lynch.  Isabella Rossellini gives a powerful performance as the seductive and troubled singer.  After the film she and Lynch dated for a while.

Resonances from the film recur throught Lynch's subsequent work, most notably in the television series Twin Peaks (1989-1991) and the resulting film Twin Peaks:  Fire Walk With Me (1992) which also deal with the dark underbelly of American small town life.   

Blue Velvet is a funny, dark, horrifying, erotic and deeply powerful film.  It is one of the most impressive American films of the 1980s and is the quintessential David Lynch movie.

"It's a strange world."
- It certainly is for Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan)

Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) sings the blues in Blue Velvet

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Woman in Black

Year:  2012
Director:  James Watkins
Screenplay:  Jane Goldman, based on the novel The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Starring:  Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Sophie Stuckey, Misha Handley, Liz White,
Running Time:  95 minutes
Genre:  Horror, thriller, supernatural

This film is basically a good old-fashioned ghost story.  Based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which has already been adapted as a long-running stage play, a made-for-television movie and two radio plays, the story is set in England, sometime at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century, and tells the story of young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who has a four year old son, Joseph (Handley), and is still grieving for his wife Stella (Stuckey), who died in childbirth.  Arthur's firm sends him to a remote village called Crythin Gifford to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned a nearby manor house called Eel Marsh House.  The locals are very unwelcoming, but Arthur does beforend wealthy landowner Sam Daily (Hinds) and his wife, Elizabeth (McTeer).  At the cluttered, decaying mansion, Arthur soon finds himself haunted by the ghostly figure of a woman clad head to to in black.  He also quickly discovers that whoever sees the Woman in Black summons a dreadful curse.

This genuinely creepy film relies on chills rather than shocks to scare it's audience.  There is no real blood or gore here, but the film has a powerfully oppressive doom-laden atmosphere, with washed out colour and the bleak, featureless countryside where it's set.  It also features a superb performance from Daniel Radcliffe as the grief-stricken young lawyer, who hints at rivers of pain beneath his straight-laced, quiet exterior.  The rest of the cast are good, but don't really get much of a chance to register as this is very much Radcliffe's show, with the film focusing entirely on his character.  The story sticks fairly closely to the traditional ghost story and the script effectively builds up the atmosphere.  The whole thing is played very seriously and is all the better for it.  It deals with some very serious subjects aside from the supernatural elements.  Ultimately the theme of the movie is grief and how it can dominate or destroy people's lives.  Sticking to the traditional spook story formula does mean that there is little that will really surprise fans of the genre, and, despite being admirably restrained for the most part, the film-maker's can't resist a few over the top CGI moments.  Also some viewers may be put off by the film's slow-burning, chilly approach and lack of conventional horror movie shocks.  However, this is a welcome example of traditional ghostly chills and might provide a few restless nights.


                                       Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black
 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Year:  1992
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch and Robert Engels, based on the television series Twin Peaks created by David Lynch and Mark Frost
Starring:  Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Moira Kelly, Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, Kyle MacLachlan
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Drama, horror, crime, surreal

The television series Twin Peaks ran to thirty episodes between 1989 and 1991, and at it's height was pretty much a cultural phenomenon with buckets of merchandise and endless references, parodies and homages throughout popular media.  The show centred on the investigation into the murder of small town high-school girl Laura Palmer (Lee) and the dark underbelly of American small town life which is stirred up by the murder.  With it's blend of crime drama, soap opera, comedy, surrealism and horror it was groundbreaking TV.  However the show suffered from steeply declining ratings and a drop in quality during it's second season, and was cancelled.  The show had been officially cancelled for less than a month when co-creator David Lynch announced the feature film.

The film serves as a prequel to the series.  The movie opens with the investigation into the murder of seventeen year old Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) by FBI agents Chester Desmond (Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Sutherland).  The murder is not solved and during the investigation Desmond mysteriously disappears.  The strange circumstances surrounding the case, including the bizarre reappearance of eccentric agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie) and subsequent disappearance, lead Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) to believe that the killer will strike again.  The film moves forward a year to the small rural town of Twin Peaks, and focuses on Laura Palmer during her last seven days alive.  On the surface Laura is the all-American Homecoming Queen, but in reality she has a severe drug habit, occasionally works as a prostitute and is threatened by an evil, abusive entity called "BOB" (Frank Silvera) who she fears has some link with her father, Leland (Wise).

The film was  ahuge commercial failure on it's original release, except, interestingly enough, in Japan where it was a box office hit playing to packed cinemas of mostly female audiences.  With it's complex narrative constantly referencing the series and obscure aspects of the show's mythology, it is very difficult for those unfamiliar with Twin Peaks to understand the movie, the film even has some references to the show's bizarre ending.  However, many fans of the series were very upset by the film, partly because many of the characters from the show were either barely glimpsed or completely absent from the film, and partly because the film lacks the series trademark warmth and humour which was always a counterbalance to the horror and darkness.  In this film, the horror and darkness is central and it plunges into areas of bleakness which the TV series could only hint at.  The original cut of the film was about five hours, and Lynch understandably had to cut a lot of material, and most of what was cut was the humour and warmth, and characters which Lynch felt were extraneous to the Laura Palmer story.  Also a number of the actors from the TV series did not want to appear in the film, due to the fact that many of them felt abandoned during the show's second season when Lynch's commitment to Wild at Heart (1990) meant that he had to take a much less hands-on role in the series.  As a result Lara Flynn Boyle declined to return as Donna Hayward, Laura's best friend, and her part was played by Moira Kelly in the film.  The series' star Kyle MacLachlan originally declined to take part in the film, but changed his mind on condition that his role was substantially reduced, as a result, Dale Cooper, who was the lead character in the show, only appears briefly in a few scenes.

Watching the film, you get the feeling, that this is Twin Peaks, as David Lynch would have liked it to have been.  Despite working in the confines of a prequel and thereby having to stick to the series continuity and mythology, the film is pure David Lynch.  The film is a dark and savage look at the heart of darkness in the neatly manicured lawns and white picket fences of small town America.  It also deserves points for turning the feature film spin-off of a TV show into an experimental, surrealistic nightmare which makes little concession to viewer's expectations.  This is a powerful and gruelling film, even though it does bear scars from the heavy editing - hopefully at some point an extended cut will be released.  Whatever, this is one of David Lynch's best.  The first time I saw it I had never seen any of the TV series, and so a lot of it completely went over my head, however I still loved it because it is so powerful and disturbing and so deeply strange.  By the way, David Lynch does make an acting appearance in the film as hard of hearing FBI chief Gordon Cole.

"Faster and faster... until after a while you wouldn't feel anything... and then your body would just burst into fire. And the angels wouldn't help you, 'cause they've all gone away..."
- Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) speculates on falling into space


Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) sees the light in Twin Peaks:  Fire Walk with Me          

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Dangerous Method

Year:  2011
Director:  David Cronenberg
Screenplay:  Christopher Hampton, based on the stage play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr
Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Period drama, 

This is another departure from Canadian director David Cronenberg, after moving away from the blood drenched science-fiction/horror movies that made his name (such as Shivers (1974), Videodrome (1982) and The Fly (1986)), to violent crime and gangster movies (such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007)), to the restrained genre of the period drama (a genre which he had approached before with M. Butterfly (1992)).  Set in the early 1900s, the film opens when Carl Jung (Fassbender) treats a hysterical patient, Sabrina Spielrien (Knightley), using the controversial theories of psychoanalysis devised by Sigmund Freud (Mortensen).  The treatment appears to be successful, and Spielrien goes on to train as a psychiatrist herself.  Learning of Jung's success, Freud quickly befirends him seeing Jung as a potential disciple.  However Jung's interest in spirituality and the paranormal against Freud's stringent pragmatism and rationality, as well as Jung's interest in the beautiful but volatile Spielrien soon threatens their professional and personal lives. 

This elegant film is artfully directed by Cronenberg who photographs his characters in long, lingering shots, alsmost as if they are the subjects of his scientific study.  At first glance there is very little typically "Cronenbergian" about the film, no killer parasites, or exploding heads, no killer TV networks, or mutant insect creatures, or even people getting their kicks from car wrecks.  However, the ambivalent depiction of sex and sexuality as forces both essential and dangerous is very Cronenberg.  The film is slow and deliberately paced.  The cast are excellent, especially Keira Knightley who provides an astonishing depiction of a hysterical attack at the beginning of the film.  Vincent Cassel also gives a striking performance in a small role as an "unconventional" psychiatrist who advocates the therapeautic value of sleeping with the female patients.  The script is intelligent but also accessible to those viewers unfamiliar with Jung and Freud and their theories, and the period design is immaculate.

The film might be a little too slow-moving for some and it certainly demands a lot of attention from the viewer.  Also it might alienate fans of Cronenberg's more traditional movies.  In a way it is a pity that he seems to have abandoned his horror/science-fiction subjects, but every artist needs to progress and develop, and Cronenberg is one of the most consistently interesting directors working.  In the end this film is worth checking out for anyone interested in a little more intellectual drama.

It's all in the mind:  Keira Knightley and Michale Fassbender use A Dangerous Method

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Year:  2012
Director:   Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Screenplay:  Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David Goyer, from a story by David Goyer, based on the comic book character Ghost Rider created by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog
Starring:  Nicolas Cage, Fergus Riordan, Ciaran Hinds, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Idris Elba, Christopher Lambert
Running Time:  95 minutes
Genre:  Horror, fantasy, action, supernatural, superhero

Here we go with the not so eagerly awaited sequel to the superhero clunker Ghost Rider (2007), based on the Marvel Comics character.  The film tells the story of Johnny Blaze (Cage) a motorcycle stunt rider who makes a deal with the Devil (Hinds) in order to save the life of his father.  However, the deal means that whenever Blaze is in the presence of any kind of wrongdoer he transforms into the "Ghost Rider", a demonic creature with a flaming skull for a head riding a tricked out motorcycle (anything that he happens to be riding on when he transforms is transformed as well).  In order to escape the curse, Blaze moves to a remote area somewhere in Eastern Europe, where he is found by alcoholic monk Moreau (Elba).  Apparently, the Devil has sent his minons out after a mother, Nadya (Placido), and her thirteen year old son, Danny (Riordan).  The Devil, it soon turns out, is the boy's father.  If Blaze can foil the Devil and keep Nadya and Danny safe, Moreau promises to lift the Ghost Rider curse.  Blaze reluctantly agrees and they soon set off on a run around through Eastern Europe, pursued by the Devil's henchman Carrigan (Whitworth).

This film, which is released in 3D, is a mess.  It never seems to know how seriously to take itself and the cast seem to come from different movies.  Placido and Riordan play it as a drama, Elba plays it as a alight-hearted action movie, Hinds plays the Devil like a gangster, and Nicolas Cage is so over the top he appears to have gone off over the Moon somewhere.  This provides for some hysterical scenes.  In one scene Cage is interrogating a bad guy while trying to keep his Ghost Rider side repressed bellowing that the demon is "ScratchIINNNGG... at... the... DOOORRRR!!!"  There are also irritating comic interludes which distract  from the story (the scene with the Ghost Rider peeing fire while nodding at the camera and chuckling does a lot to rob the character of any mystique or tension he might have once had).  The 3D is serviceable and does provide some entertainment when they are barrelling along the roads.  The computer effects are serviceable but little more, which isn't really good enough for a movie with such a heavy reliance on visual effects.  There are also bizarre animated interludes in order to explain the plot and provide some exposition.  The story itself, with it's liberal borrowings from other religious themed movies, is nothing that has not been done before and done better.

Fans of the original, if any, might enjoy the film, but otherwise it just provides still more proof that Nicolas Cage's career is on a sad downward trajectory, which is a real pity because he has done such great work in the past. 



The dangers of smoking in Ghost Rider:  Spirit of Vengeance


            

In the Dust of the Stars

Year:  1976
Director:  Gottfried Kolditz
Screenplay:  Gottfried Kolditz
Starring:  Jana Brejchova, Alfred Struwe, Ekkehard Schall, Milan Beli
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction

This East German science-fiction film opens when a spaceship from the planet Cyrno makes an emergency landing on the planet Tem-4.  They have come to Tem-4 in answer to a distress call, however the Temians claim that the distress call was nothing but an accidental test signal and that there's nothing wrong, sorry to have called you out on a six year rescue mission, but you can just go off home now.  Ostensibly to make it up to the visitors, the Temians throw them a party.  However, the one astronaut who stays behind to guard the ship, Suko (Struwe), notices that his crewmates are all acting strangely on their return.  Investigating, he discovers that the Temians are in fact invading aliens, and have forced the planet's native inhabitants into slavery.

This movie comes across as a bizarre cross between Star Trek (1966-1969) and psychadelic comedy show The Mighty Boosh (2003-2007).     For the most part the film is extremely dull, but it is livened up by odd moments of hilarity, and the film is so colourful and cheap looking it's hard to not to feel a bit of affection for it.  It is very much a product of it's time (apparently flares were popular all over the universe, who knew?)  The spaceships look like plastic model kits and the aliens not only all speak perfect German they all look fully human (not even a Star Trek style weird alien forehead or a cute puppet, if you don't see one of these in a movie like this than clearly the film-makers aren't trying hard enough).  Instead the aliens seemed to consist of dancing girls and guys in red uniforms with the main boss (Ekkard Schall) lounging around guarded by men in leather skirts holding massive guns, dyeing his hair and dancing around to electro-pop.  Oh yeah, the dancing in this movie.  It's not a musical, but random dance sequences seem to break out throughout the film.  The main villain even breaks out into a dance on his own when he becomes quite upset by something.  He also, as mentioned before, constantly dyes his hair strange colours and wears a variety of bizarre costumes, no matter how serious the situation, it seems like there's always time for a costume change.  Also his main enforcer (Milan Belli) looks like one of the Bee-Gees.  The main villain also has a penchant for picking out tunes on his alien synthesizer.  Presumably a sequel could involve the aliens abducting Kraftwerk.  The heroes are a fairly bland bunch, who get bogged down in an underdeveloped romantic sub-plot.

There are a couple of moments of random, pointless nudity in the film, which are kind of bizarre because, without these, it could almost be a kiddie sci-fi adventure, of the kind that were everywhere in the 70s and 80s.  At one point one of the female crew members breaks out into a completely nude dance, which is completely in  silhouette and looks like an x-rated outtake from a James Bond title sequence.  There are some interesting elements though.  Most notably the film has quite a strong Communist sub-text (the opressed proletariat enslaved by evil, decadent capitalists). 

If you're in the mood for a slice of bad, cheesy sf camp, then you'll be able to have some fun with this, but otherwise your life will not be notably worst off for giving it a miss.


Jana Brejchova and Ekkehard Schall have a close encounter of the funky kind in In the Dust of the Stars 



Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Wild at Heart

Year:  1990
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch, based on the novel Wild at Heart:  The Story of Sailor and Lula by Barry Gifford
Starring:  Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton, J.E. Freeman, Isabella Rossellini
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Road movie, drama, comedy, romance

This startling film plays like a surreal homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Elvis Presley.  Sailor Ripley (Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Dern) are a young couple deeply in love.  However Lula's deranged mother, Marietta (Ladd), is determined to keep them apart.  After Sailor is released following a prison sentence for killing a man in self-defense, he and Lula decide to run off to California.  However, Marietta is determined to get Lula back and sends her private detective boyfriend, Johnnie Farrgut (Stanton), to track the couple down.  To make sure that Sailor is kept away permanently, Marietta contacts her other boyfriend, the murderous gangster Marcello Santos (Freeman), to send a hitman after the couple.  Meanwhile, Sailor and Lula find themselves trapped in a dangerous and very strange world, as they travel through a twisted, nightmarish version of the southern US.

The film opens with a match striking and then billowing clouds of flame filling the screen, and it doesn't let up from there.  There is never a dull moment in this hilarious, romantic, shockingly violent and deeply weird movie.  One of director David Lynch's trademarks is his mixing of extreme violence, disturbing surrealism, with often genuinely touching sentiment.  Lynch described this film as being "about finding love in Hell".  A long time fan of The Wizard of Oz, Lynch made the film one of the touchstones for the Wild at Heart script, and the film's sense of hope comes from Sailor and Lula's conviction that there is something better over the rainbow and at the end of the yellow brick road.  Lynch also saw Sailor as an Elvis Presley figure and Lula as Marilyn Monroe, and Nicolas Cage does perform two Elvis songs in the film.   Nicolas Cage turns in a superb perfomance as the snakeskin jacket clad Sailor (which in the film he claims "represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom"), and is perfectly complemented by Laura Dern as the tough and sexy Lula.  The love story between the two is genuinely affecting.  They make love, dance and have long rambling conversations about pretty much anything that happens to cross their minds.  Laura Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd is memorable as the insane Marietta, for which she was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

The film is very different from Barry Gifford's mostly dialogue driven novel.  Although the film is far more graphically violent than the book, the book is in it's own way darker, with quite a bleak conclusion.  Despite winning the Palme d'Or for Best Film at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, the movie was heavily criticised on it's release for the violence and weirdness, but in my opinion, the fact that this tender love story is set amongst all this horror, darkness and violence makes it shine all the more brighter.  Personally I love this film, it's sexy, romantic, violent, tender, funny and bizarre, and is probably David Lynch's most thoroughly entertaining movie.  The film's ultimate message appears to be that in an insane, twisted, nightmare world, the only hope for survival is love.


"This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top."
- It's hard to disagree with Lula (Laura Dern)


Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage hit the road in Wild at Heart