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 ( 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


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


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


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.