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           


Sunday, 12 February 2012

Demons 2

Year:  1987
Director:  Lamberto Bava
Screenplay:  Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Franco Ferrini, from a story by Dardano Sacchetti
Starring:  David Edwin Knight, Nancy Brilli, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Asia Argento
Running Time:  91 minutes
Genre:  Horror, supernatural, zombies

In the original Demons film, the audience at a preview screening of a horror movie are attacked by toothy monsters.  This time round, the events are set largely within the confines of a luxury high-rise apartment complex in an unnamed German city over the course of a single night.  As the residents prepare for their various evening activities, a horror movie plays on TV, apparently set in the aftermath of the original film, about a group of dim-witted teenagers investigating a walled off section of the city for remnants of "demons" (kind of zombie-like creatures), and accidentally reanimate one.  The reanimated creature then literally emerges from the TV set of spolit rich birthday girl Sally (Cataldi-Tassoni), and attacks her.  Of course anyone who is injured by a demon in any way, sooner or later becomes one themselves.  Sally turns all of her party guests into blood-crazed zombies, and they soon turn their attention to killing or infecting the rest of the building's population.

The film was co-written and produced by horror legend Dario Argento and features his then ten year old daughter, Asia Argento (who has since gone on to become an acclaimed actress and director), in her film debut.  The movie starts off well, but falls apart once the demons are really on the rampage, when it basically becomes a typical zombie monster mash full of increasingly shoddy special effects.  The film within a film provides an interesting dimension but it's not really explored, and becomes one of  a number of sub-plots which are raised only to be completely forgotten.  The acting is pretty dire (although this is an Italian film, and it is fairly obvious at least in the version that I saw, that most of the dialogue was dubbed - badly - into English) throughout and the film lacks any real conclusion, it is also full of plot holes large enough for you to throw a flesh eating zombie demon through.  Also the zombies with their green faces, bad teeth, long fingernails and wildly bulging, glowing eyes (who can not only run but turn somersaults) are more funny than anything, and when a more conventional demonic creature bursts out of someone's chest, it looks more like the puppet monster sidekick from a kid's TV show. 

However the film does have it's plus points.  There are plenty of creepy moments, when the characters are picking their way through the deserted, ruined apartments, and the opening, with it's slow character development is strong.  The soundtrack, which features mainly British New Wave bands such as The Smiths and The Cult, is good (although sometimes the pounding music coupled with the frequent billowing smoke and backlighting makes the film look like a music video).  Also the sequence where the demon initially emerges from the television set, which seems to be a homage to the David Cronenberg film Videodrome (1983), is very effective with some good special effects.  Speaking of David Cronenberg, the film with it's high-rise setting is reminiscent of Cronenberg's Shivers (1976).   

Full of unintentional humour and buckets of gloopy gore there is some fun to be had with this film, but there is plenty of better stuff out there.  It's probably best viewed late at night, when you've got your friends around, and you're all drunk and fancy a bad, gruesome movie to laugh at.

Revealed:  What TV show hosts look like without their make-up in Demons 2

Saturday, 11 February 2012


Year:  1977
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch
Starring:  Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Allen Joseph
Running Time:   89 minutes
Genre:  Surreal, horror, science-fiction

This film, which was produced over a period of five years, marked the feature debut of director David Lynch, and is now an acknowledged cult classic due to it finding an audience on the midnight movie circuit int he late 70s and 80s.  It's difficult to describe the film's plot, because there really isn't much of one, and that which there is doesn't really make a lot of sense.  Set largely in a run-down, industrial area of a nameless city, the film reolves around Henry Spencer (Nance), a quiet young man with very big hair, who is invited out to dinner at the home of his girlfriend, Mary X (Stewart), and her parents.  During the nightmarish evening, Henry is informed that Mary has given birth to a child ("Mom!  They're not even sure that it's a baby!" Mary wails).  The baby is a bizarre creature with no limbs, a long pencil-thin neck, and a head shaped like a embryonic sheep's head.  It's body is perpetually swathed in bandages and it cries constantly, refusing to feed.  With the small unhappy family lving in Henry's tiny, one-room apartment, Mary is driven to destraction by the baby's crying.  Eventually she storms out and returns to her parent's, claiming she just needs one good night's sleep.  Left with the baby, Henry experiences a variety of surreal events which may or may not be really happening.  Among other things he dreams that his head is being turned into pencil erasers, and he becomes fascinated by a female singer, with huge cheeks, performing on a stage behind his radiator.  Meanwhile, on a desolate planet, a badly scarred man wrestles with heavy levers.

Lynch had a grant from the American Film Institute to make the film, howeve the grant was not enough to complete the project and so Lynch worked on the movie intermittently using whatever money he could scrape together from various odd jobs and family and friends (including actress Sissy Spacek whose husband, Jack Fisk, was a childhood friend of Lynch's and appeared in the film as "The Man in the Planet").  The film is beautifully shot in black-and-white, and really has not dated at all partly because it seems to take place in a weird "no-time" and "no-space".  The sound design is also striking, with strange rumbling sounds constantly being heard in the background as well as strains of fairground style organ music (by Fats Waller).

I have to say that I love Eraserhead, and I have seen it many times before.  I think it is one of the most startling films ever made and there are images from it that will haunt you for the rest of your life.  However, as many people hate it as love it, and I can very easily understand that.  The film is so bizarre, with no real storyline to it, and no explanation for any of the events that occur.  It is also very slow-moving, and as such alienates many audiences and critics.  A friend of mine once told me that he fell asleep once with the TV on and when he woke up Eraserhead was playing, and he thought that he was still asleep and dreaming.  That is the perfect recommendation for me for the film.  It is one of the closest that cinema has ever got to recreating a genuine nightmare.  Nightmare in it's truest sense of those strange inexplicable images that flicker through the brain in the dead watches of the night, like broken transmissions broadcast from another planet.

You might love it.  You might hate it.  You will never forget it.

"We've got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They're man-made. Little damn things, smaller than my fist - but they're new!"
- Bleeding, moving roast chicken, it's what's for dinner at the X house.

Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) has a hair-raising experience in Eraserhead


Colossus: The Forbin Project

Year:  1969
Director:  Joseph Sargent
Screenplay:  James Bridges, based on the novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones
Starring:  Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert
Running Time:  100 minutes
Genre:  Drama, thriller, science-fiction

This film is an adaptation of a 1966 techno-thriller novel called Colossus by Dennis Felthan Jones.  The story revolves around Doctor Charles Forbin (Braeden) who creates a giant super-computer, named "Colossus", in a fortified bunker beneath the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  The purpose of Colossus is to take complete control of the entire United States defence network, ostensibly to eliminate the possibility of human error, but seemingly it's because it's just too much darn hassle for the President (Pinsent).  You don't need me to tell you that it all goes horribly wrong.  As soon as it's switched on, Colossus detects a similar computer in the Soviet Union, and they start communicating.  Before long, Colossus develops so much that it achieves independent thought, and decides that the best thing for humanity would be to accept it as the complete and unquestioned master of the world.  Or else.

This is a strong, slow-burning thriller which has a memorably bleak and ambiguous ending.  It's notable for films of it's time in showing the United States and the Soviet Union co-operating as equals (remember this was the period of the Cold War).  Obviously the film hasn't aged well in some aspects, but that is inevitable.  In many respects this is representative of the paranoid conspiracy thriller style that was so popular at the time, as the humans race around trying desperately to outwit the omniscient computer.  There are also some moments of humour.  The whole thing is played admirably straight and the film benefits enormously from a measured low-key style. 

Thje special effects are effective, and the production design is good (the futuristic exterior of the Colossus control centre was in reality the Lawrence Hall of Science Museum at the University of California, Berkeley).  As with a lot of computer centred movies of the period there is a lot of whirring reel-to-reel tape players, flashing lights, clattering ticker-tape and glowing circuit boards, which all looks a lot more dramatic than a modern laptop. 

This is a fun movie that provides plenty of thrills and some genuine chills.  Well worth checking out and a definite cut above the usual computer on the rampage movie.

"I bring you peace.  It may be the Peace of Plenty and Content or the Peace of Unburied Death."
- The fine art of diplomacy according to Colossus    

Eric Braeden and Susan Clark in Colossus:  The Forbin Project

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Social Network

Year:  2010
Director:  David Fincher
Screenplay:  Aaron Sorkin, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Starring:  Jesse Eiseberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  Drama

This film charts the rise of the social networking site Facebook.  At Harvard University in 2003, student Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) is dumped by his girlfirend Erica Albright (Mara).  Drunk, depressed and bitter, Zuckerberg takes revenge by bad-mouthing Erica on his blog and setting up a site called Facemash, for which he steals the photographs of female undergraduates from the university's "facebooks" (on-line directories of the students photographs and details) and allows users to vote on which girl they think is the hottest.  The site is so instantly popular that it crashes Harvard's servers and makes Zuckerberg notorious on campus, while doing nothing to improve his popularity with the femalle students.  The site brings him to the attention of identical twin rowing champions Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Armie Hammer) and their friend and business partner Divya Narender (Minghella) who are planning to set up a  social networking site called "The Harvard Connection".  Zuckerberg does not think much of either the Winkelvoss twins and Narender or their site, but he is intrigued by the idea of a social network and so he and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Garfield) set up their own site called "The Facebook" which soon becomes a Harvard sensation.  However as the site goes from strength to strength, friendships and partnerships go sour and implode and Zuckerberg finds himself mired in litigation.

At first glance a movie about a guy who sets up a web site may seem like the most boring idea for a movie ever.  Who really wants to see a guy typing on a computer for two hours?  (Coming Soon:  Permanently Weird:  The Movie.  Five hours long, in black and white).  However the film is fascinating because it is not really a film about Facebook but about the people who developed it.  It's about how, despite all the money and fame, the success of the site left a legacy of destroyed friendships and lawsuits.  Mark Zuckerberg does not come across as a particularly likeable character at all however, it is to the credit of the film-makers and Eisenberg's performance in particular, that Zuckerberg is never entirely unsympathetic.  He treats people really badly in the movie, but he often doesn't seem to realise how what he's doing affects people, and seems genuinely bewildered when people react badly to his scheming and ruthlessness.

The film is full of great performances from Eisenberg onwards, with Armie Hammer being particularly notable in the dual role of the Winklevoss twins, and also singer Justin Timberlake who ironically is cast as Sean Parker, the founder of free music sharing site Napster.  The film is elegantly made, from the stately dimly lit corridors of Harvard to the cold, bright law firm offices, and the script is compelling and shot through with plenty of unexpected humour.

There are many opinions about Facebook and similar sites, some people love them while others hate everything about them.  Personally I think that the internet has changed human social interaction for the better.  The importance of sites like Facebook is huge and, I think, only being glimpsed.  Whether you love or hate Facebook, or even if you don't know the first thing about it, this is a fascinating and powerful film.  However it is important to remember, as with all films that are "based on a true story", this is just a work of fiction.  It is a drama, intended to entertain, based on someone's idea of what happened, and not a historical document.

"You have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount.  The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook where my colleagues and I are doing things that no-one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capapable of doing.  Did I adequately answer your condescending question?"
- Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) shows how not to win friends in court.

Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network         

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A History of Violence

Year:  2005
Director:  David Cronenberg
Screenplay:  Josh Olsen, based on the graphic novel A History of Violence by John Wagner and Vince Locke
Starring:  Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  Crime, action, drama, gangsters

Canadian director David Cronenberg is probably most familiar to audiences as the "King of Venereal Horror" with films such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988) and the hugely controversial Crash (1996).  Here he makes his first entry into the crime thriller genre, with largely successful results.

In the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, Tom Stall (Mortnesen) owns the local restaurant and is a well-liked family man.  After he is forced to kill two gunmen in self-defense, when they attempt to rob his reatuarant, Tom is hailed as a national hero.  However, before long he is is visited by a group of mobsters led by the sinister Fogarty (Harris), who threaten him and his family.  Fogarty insists that Stall is not who he claims to be, and Tom is forced to confront his own dark history of violence.

On one level this is a gripping crime thriller, full of action and suspense, and on another level it is a meditation on how violence affects those who commit it, and the way it both attracts and repels, frequently at the same time.  Maria Bello puts in a strong performance as Tom's initially loving wife, who is terrified by the changes in her husband, but is at the same time aroused by the previously latent savagery that she glimpses in him, while their bullied son (Ashton Holmes) shows that his father's potential for violence is also within him enabling him to strike back against his high school tormentors. 

The film is well made effectively depicted cluttered small town domesticity, and the cast give strong perfomances throughout, with Viggo Mortnesen being a particular stand out in the lead.  As fun as the gangster thriller scenes are, the film is strongest when it deals with the Stall family.  The climax is too abrupt but the film ends with a powerful and ambiguous scene.

As you might expect from the title and the plot there is a fair amount of violence here and Cronenberg has never been known to back away from the depiction of violence, but as usual in his films, the violence is not glamorised or particularly dwelt upon. 

Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello confront A History of Violence

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Brighton Rock (2010)

Year: 2010
Director:  Rowan Joffe
Screenplay:  Rowan Joffe, based on the novel Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Starring:  Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Andy Serkis
Running Time:  111 minutes
Genre:  Crime, drama, gangsters

This film is an adaptation of a novel by Graham Greene, which was previously made into a critically acclaimed film in 1947, directed by John Boulting and starring Richard Attenborough.  In this film the setting is updated from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Brighton, England, 1964.  Violent gangs of warring Mods and Rockers are tearing up the coastal town of Britain, and young gangster Pinkie Brown (Riley) murders rival Fred Hale (Sean Harris) against the express wishes of his gang.  Brown hastily seduces and marries young waitress Rose (Riseborough), who is the only person who can tie him to the murder.  However Rose's boss, Ida (Mirren), was a close friend of Hale's and suspects that Rose can tie Pinkie to the crime and is determined to make her testify.  With the threat of the police, and powerful and wealthy local crime boss Colleoni (Serkis), as well as his own gang increasingly turning against him, the already psychotic Pinkie becomes increasingly unhinged and it is only a matter of time before he decides to silence Rose permanently.

This is a powerful and intriguing gangster movie, which plays more like a doom-laden tragedy.  The main focus of the film is the corruption of the innocent waitress Rose by the sadistic gangster Pinkie.  Despite a memorable riot scene between the Mods and the Rockers, it is difficult to see what difference it made, updating the story to the 1960s.  Also the film suffers at times from being too heavily symbolic, with Catholic symbolism (well, it is an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel) and at times almost apocalyptic portents of doom being layered on with a trowel. 

However, despite the flaws, the film looks good and is stylishly made.  It memorably depicts a bleak and savage world where there is little light or hope.  In the process, it manages to make the seaside town of  Brighton make Dante's Inferno look like an ideal holiday destination.  Sam Riley, who previously made an impression as Joy Divison frontman Ian Curtis in musical misery-fest Control (2007), gives a great perfomance as the monsterous Pinkie Brown, and Andrea Riseborough gives a star-making perfomance as the tortured Rose.  

This is a slow-burning but endlessly fascinating film, which provides enough thrills and suspense to keep fans of gangster movies happy, but adds a bracing layer of darkness and grit to the genre. 

Oh, they do like to be beside the seaside: Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough in Brighton Rock 

The H-Man

Year:  1958
Director:  Ishiro Honda
Screenplay:  Takeshi Kimura, from a story by Hideo Unugami
Starring:  Yumi Shirakawa, Kenji Sahara, Akihiro Hirata, Koreya Senda, Makoto Sato
Running Time:  87 minutes, cut to 79 minutes in the US version.
Genre:  Science-fiction, crime, horror, gangster

This film is from the same team behind the legendary Godzilla (1954), here abandoning the "kaiju" (giant monster) genre for a new type of screen monster.  The result is a bizarre blend of film noir style gangster movie and science-fiction.

In Tokyo, a police investigation of a gang-land drug deal takes a strange turn when one of the gangsters, Misake (Hisaya Itou), apparently vanishes in the middle of a street, leaving all his clothes and posessions behind.  The police, Misake's gang, who believe he has betrayed them, and a rival gang, who believe Misake's gang has betrayed them, all target his girlfriend, nightclub singer Chikako Arai (Shirakawa), who they all believe is hiding Misake or at least knows where he is.  Only assistant University professor Masada (Sahara) knows the truth, radioactive fallout from hydrogen bomb tests is causing people to dissolve into living slime, anyone who the slime creatures (or "H-Men") touch similarly melt into living slime.

Mostly the film doesn't work.  Neither the science-fiction or the gangster elements are really developed well, and they don't really mix well.  The creature effects are mostly slow-moving slime, with the dissolving effects mainly being achieved by what appear to be deflating body-shaped balloons covered in gunk and bubbles, and the occasional appearance of blurry, green, out of focus figures who don't do anything except stand around.  Also the amount of characters being covered in slime is way too reminiscent of those kid's TV shows where the losers end up being dunked in brightly coloured gunge.  The film deserves some points for at least trying something new, and if you're in the right frame of mind you can have fun with it, because there is quite a lot of unintentional humour.

As with many Japanese science-fiction films of the period, this has a strong anti-nuclear bomb message, which is understandable given that it was only thirteen years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.        

Kenji Sahara and Yuki Shirakawa investigate The H-Man.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Thing (1982)

Year:  1982
Director:  John Carpenter
Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Starring:  Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis
Running Time:  109 minutes
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, action

The crew of an American research base in Antarctica rescue a huskey from being shot by a Norwegian helicopter.  However they quickly discover that the huskey is not the cute dog it looks, instead it is a shape-shifting alien life-form which can infect and perfectly imitate any other organism which it comes into contact with.  Soon the rapidly dwindling crew are forced to fight against an enemy which could literally be any of them. 

This is probably one of the great horror movies of the 1980s.  It is pretty much a streamlined fear machine, empty of any non-essentials, dedicated to scaring the audience witless.  It is most famous for it's (at the time) ground-breaking special effects, which are only slightly showing their age, and are more convincing and effective than the average computer generated effects used in the recent prequel.

John Carpenter has referred to the movie as being the first part of his "Apocalypse Trilogy" (the other two being Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995)) due to the fact that, although the three films are completely unrelated to each other, they each present a potentially apocalyptic scenario.  The film is nominally a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby-directed The Thing from Another World, which was produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  However, Carpenter forgoes the 1951 Cold War invasion by carrots from outer space (in that film the Thing is a plant creature and not a shape-shifter) and returns to the 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" which the 1951 movie was based on, and the original premise of the Thing being a shape-shifter which could be posing as any of the team.  This is where the 1982 film really works, aside from the stomach-churning special effects which feature a cavalcade of grotesque creatures which to my knowledge have never been equalled let alone bettered.  The whole idea of a small number of people being trapped together in a situation which they can't get away from (here it's winter in Antarctica and they are completely cut off from any hope of rescue or escape until spring) and anyone of your companions potentially turning against you and trying to kill you.  In fact, the humans in the film are as dangerous to each other as the creature.

The film is unusual in having a completely male cast, which Carpenter thought would make it "more intense", and right from the start you have the pressure-cooker atmosphere of guys stuck together in a hostile environment, and there are hints of tension bubbling away long before the creature presents itself.

The cast are effective and bounce off each other well, especially Kurt Russell as the whiskey-giuzzling leader of the group, MacReady, and bears a striking resemblance to late period Jim Morrison.  Mostly the dialogue isn't particularly memorable, but there are a few great lines.  Another important element to the film is Ennio Morricone's pulsating score, which resonates in the brain for a long time afterwards.

The film was not a success on it's original release, Carpenter and co blaming that on the fact that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) with it's far more benign vision of an alien encounter was released two weeks earlier, and the movie-going public preferred their aliens sweet rather than sour.  Also many reviewers were put off by the levels of gore (influential critic Roger Ebert described it as "a great barf-bag movie").  However The Thing went on to find a strong cult audience on video and has since been re-evaluated as a key horror work. 

From the moments the opening title burns itself on to the screen to the memorably bleak and ambiguous ending, the film is a perfectly orchestrated ghost-train ride with tension so powerful you could shatter your teeth on it.

The film was followed by a prequel, also called The Thing, which was released in 2011.

It's tough work defrosting the fridge:  Kurt Russell in The Thing.