Saturday, 22 July 2017

Dunkirk

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Christopher Nolan
Screenplay:  Christopher Nolan
Starring:  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  War

This Second World War film deals with the Dunkirk evacuation where 400,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France in 1940.  It deals with three narratives set over three different time frames.  British soldier, Tommy (Whitehead) is one of those waiting for rescue, constantly under threat from bombs and torpedoes. Civilian sailor Dawson( Rylance), his son and employee make the dangerous crossing across the English channel to help with the evacuation.  Two Spitfire pilots try to fend off enemy bombers.

This is a gritty, visceral, intense experience.  It's more like an experimental film with very little dialogue or even story.  It's all about the viewing experience, and this is a film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.  The cast, which include pop singer Harry Styles in his first major acting role, are impressive with very little to work with.  Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance provide the noble stiff-upper-lip speeches. This is an unusual war film in that the enemy is barely glimpsed, aside from a fighter plane you never see a German soldier, or catch a glimpse of Nazi imagery.  The characters are under threat from an unseen enemy, with attacks coming out of nowhere.  Also the soldiers are not selfless heroes.  In fact, they are often decidedly unheroic and often unlikable.  I couldn't say I enjoyed this film, but I admired it a great deal.            


Chopping Mall

Year of Release:  1986
Director:  Jim Wynorski
Screenplay:  Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell
Starring:  Kelli Maroney, Steve O'Dell, John Terleski, Russell Todd, Karrie Emerson, Barbara Crampton, Suzee Slater, Nick Segal,
Running Time:  77 minutes
Genre:  horror, science-fiction

Park Plaza Mall has installed a state-of-the-art new security system including three brand new Protector robots, designed to incapacitate and apprehend thieves.  However a lightning storm causes the robots to become homicidal and track and kill eight teenagers who are trapped in the mall after a party.    

This is the kind of film that if you watch it late enough, drunk enough and in the company of like-minded friends could be comedy gold.  Otherwise it's terrible.  The dialogue is terrible ("I'm sorry, I'm not used to being chased around a mall at midnight by killer robots", and a guy trying to seduce a woman:  "You smell like pepperoni... I like pepperoni"). The robots look like a combination of Johnny Five (from the Short Circuit films) and a Dalek (from Doctor Who) and about half as threatening as either.  They also move so slowly and so loudly, the characters could probably just keep out of their way.  Much of the script also depends on characters getting into trouble by doing very stupid things.  The acting isn't good, but it is about as good as the material deserves.  There is some fun to be had here with appearances from B-movie favorites such as Barbara Crampton (of Re-Animator fame), Dick Miller (veteran of many Roger Corman productions) and Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising their roles from cult favorite Eating Raoul), alongside many movie jokes and references.

One of the Protector robots from Chopping Mall  

Friday, 14 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Jon Watts
Screenplay:  Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on Spider-Man created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee
Starring:  Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, superhero

Teenager Peter Parker (Holland) has his hands full with schoolwork and maintaining his secret identity as superhero "Spider-Man".  After aiding billionaire Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Parker is taken under Stark's wing and given a new, sophisticated Spider-Man costume.  Soon tiring of the small-scale crimes he has been foiling and good deeds that he has been doing in his neighborhood, Peter sees his chance at the big time coming when he runs across a gang stealing and adapting advanced alien weaponry and Stark technology and selling it to criminals.

Spider-Man first swung on to the world's cinema screens played by Tobey Maguire in the 2002 Sam Raimi film Spider-Man, which was followed by two sequels, and then in the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man and it's sequel, with Andrew Garfield in the role.  Here we have yet another reboot, and, following Tom Holland's debut as everyone's favorite webslinger in Captain America: Civil War, he is firmly part of the ongoing "Marvel Cinematic Universe", the shared universe of various movies and TV shows centered on various superhero characters from Marvel comics.  Here we have the superheroics in the world of a teen movie.  Peter Parker worries about ordinary teenage stuff such as his grades, and his crush on classmate Liz (Harrier).  It's a refreshingly small-scale film, there are no world destroying monsters or maniacs, here the villain (played by Michael Keaton) is quite sympathetic.  He's a man who wants money to look after his family and his employees after they are casually laid off.  He's ruthless and murderous when pushed, however he is kind of likable.  Tom Holland is possibly the best screen Spider-Man yet, returning the character to his teenage roots, his Peter Parker (and Spider-Man) is engagingly awkward and enthusiastic, also the fact that he makes mistakes.  Most of the film's destruction, such as slicing a ferry in half, is his fault (albeit accidental),  he is also surrounded by a fun group of friends and adversaries.  By and large the film is self-contained, although it probably helps if you have seen the other MCU films, it also differs from other Spider-Man films in that it doesn't show Spider-Man's origin story, which is only briefly referred to.   While the action sequences aren't as thrilling as some of the other superhero films, this is still a funny, thoroughly entertaining romp.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

       

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Late Spring

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, based on the novel Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu 
Starring:  Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura
Running Time:  108 minutes
Genre:  Drama

Twenty seven year old Noriko (Hara) lives happily with her widowed father, Professor Shukichi Somaya (Ryu).  Until, that is, a meddling aunt (Sugimura) convinces the Professor that it is high time that Noriko got married.  However, Noriko does not want to get married, particularly as it would mean leaving her father alone.

This is one of the great works of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and, like many of his films, it deals with themes of tradition versus modernity, family life and conflict between the generations, as well as the philosophy of mono no aware (the pathos of things), an awareness of the impermanence of all things.  Nowhere is it better exemplified than in the film's powerful closing scene.  The film also comments on occupied Japan (the film was made at a time when Japan was occupied by the Americans following World War II), contrasting images of Coca-Cola advertising with traditional Japanese pursuits such as a noh play and a rock garden.  It's not a plot driven film, and it moves at a slow, meditative pace.  There is also the theme of duty to others versus the individual needs, Noriko wants to stay and look after her father, her father, while he values Noriko's kindness and companionship, knows that she must set out and lead an independent life, even though it means him being alone.  It demands a lot of patience from the viewer, being largely filmed, like many Ozu films, by static cameras, with beautifully composed shots and characters often seen at a remove from the audience, framed in corridors and doorways.  If you have the patience to go along with the film's gentle rhythms than you will be richly rewarded.

             
Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in Late Spring

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Hot Fuzz

Year of Release:  2007
Director:  Edgar Wright
Screenplay:  Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
Starring:  Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, action

Police Constable Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is one of the best officers in London's Metropolitan Police.  Fed up with Angel constantly outshining the rest of the force, his superiors transfer him to the sleepy, rural village of Sandford.  Angel reluctantly resigns himself to a life of turfing underage drinkers out of the local pub, collaring shoplifters, mediating disputes over garden hedges and occasionally finding lost swans.  However, it soon turns out that Sandford suffers from a disproportionately high number of fatal accidents.  Angel soon suspects that there is something deeply sinister going on in the village, but the only one of Sandford's lazy and incompetent police force who believes him is eager, childish Danny Butterman (Frost), whose idea of policing seems to largely come from American action movies, and who also happens to be the son of the head of the Sandford Police, Inspector Frank Butterman (Broadbent).

This film forms the second of Wright, Pegg and Frost's "Cornetto Trilogy" (the others being Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The World's End (2013)).  It can best be envisioned as being like a big Hollywood action movie plunked down in the middle of a quiet, Miss Marple style English village.  The film constantly references action movies, frequently spoofing the cliche's of the genre.  It's consistently funny, and the jokes keep running thick and fast throughout.  The sometimes graphic violence and over the top action are played as almost slapstick comedy, and Wright is a great visual director, and he choreographs the carnage very well.  Pegg and Frost perform very well together and their bond provides the emotional core of the film.  However the film feels about ten minutes too long and lacks the resonance of Shaun of the Dead and The World's End.  Also female characters barely get a look-in.  The eagle-eyed may spot cameos from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson (as a man dressed as Santa Claus) and Cate Blanchett (as a forensic investigator, with her face alomst completely concealed by a mask).

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost bring the noise in Hot Fuzz 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Shaun of the Dead

Year of Release:  2004
Director:  Edgar Wright
Screenplay:  Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
Starring:  Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Peter Serafinowicz, Jessica Stevenson
Running Time:  99 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, horror

29 year old Shaun (Pegg) is an electronics salesman with little to no ambition or direction in life.  his free time is torn between the two great loves of his life: his girlfriend Liz (Ashfield) who is increasingly frustrated by what she perceives as his laziness and lack of ambition, and his best friend Ed (Frost) an even bigger loser than Shaun, who prefers to spend all his time in the local pub or playing video games.  Finally losing patience with Shaun, Liz dumps him.  Heartbroken, he determines to win her back.  However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Shaun's romantic quest is hampered, not only by the fact that Liz's friends, obnoxious David (Moran) and his dippy aspiring-actress girlfriend Diane (Davis), obviously hate him, but also by the fact that London is overrun with flesh-eating zombies.

Following their success with the cult sitcom Spaced (1999-2001), writer-director Edgar Wright reteamed with writer-actor Simon Pegg and actor Nick Frost, with this lively, dark and hilarious blend of comedy and horror.  The film opens as an almost conventional romantic comedy, with only slight hints initially of what is to come, and the characters are so wrapped up in their own lives, they don't notice the disturbing signs around them until it is too late.  Comedy and horror are two deceptively difficult genres to make work - it's hard to make people laugh, and even harder to scare them.  Combining the two successfully is like catching lighting in a bottle.  However this manages it.  The comedy is genuinely funny, and the horror elements are genuinely disturbing; the zombies are threatening, and when characters die, there is real weight to it.  The film shows off Wright's hyper-kinetic style of film-making, full of pop-culture references.  Fans of British comedy will no doubt recognize cameos from Martin Freeman, Reese Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig, Julia Deakin and Matt Lucas among others.  It is a hugely entertaining film that will appeal to hardcore horror fans, but also to general audiences.  It forms part of the so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" along with Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World's End (2013).

     Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield, Simon Pegg and Lucy Davis prepare to battle the undead hordes in Shaun of the Dead

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Comics Round-Up # 7


SHADE, THE CHANGING GIRL  # 9

Written by: Cecil Castelluci
Illustrated by:  Marley Zarcone
Inked by:  Ande Parks
Coloured by:  Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettered by:  Saida Temofonte
Cover by:  Becky Cloonan
Published by;  Young Animal

In the City, Part Two:  Band on the Run.  16 year old runaway Meghan Boyer, possessed by extraterrestrial entity Loma Shade, is alone in Gotham City, where she decides to take in a show by her favourite band The Sonic Booms, who she came across in a 1960s TV show.  However, when she sees that they are no longer the young, hip band from over fifty years ago, she is forced to confront for the first time human ideas of ageing.

Another fun issue from one of the brightest and most vibrant comics on the stands.  Always inventive, the chaos that Shade, albeit inadvertently, causes is fun to watch, but is shown to have consequence.  This issue in particular deals with ageing and the appeal of nostalgia.


BANE CONQUEST # 2

Written by:  Chuck Dixon
Art by:  Graham Nolan
Coloured by:  Gregory Wright
Lettered by:  Carlos M. Mangual
Cover by:  Graham Nolan and Gregory Wright
Published by: DC

The Sword part two.  Bane has been captured, imprisoned and tortured by a new villain, Damocles.  Bane's only hope lies in fellow prisoner Bruce Wayne.

The character of Bane was created by Chuck Dixon, Doug Moenech and Graham Nolan, and first appeared in 1993 as a Batman villain, and is possibly most recognizable for the iconic image of breaking Batman's back, and was memorably and mumblingly played by Tom Hardy in the movie The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  In Bane Conquest, he is more of an antihero, the leader of a team who maintain order in Gotham City, a place which he seems to regard as his own personal property.  In this issue he forms and uneasy alliance with Bruce Wayne, and curiously seems to be perfectly aware that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and Wayne also seems to know that he knows.  Anyway, this is a fun issue excitingly told with vibrant artwork.

   

PREDATOR: HUNTERS # 2

Written by:  Chris Warner
Art by:  Francisco Ruiz Velasco
Lettered by:  Michael Heisler
Cover by:  Doug Wheatley
Published by:  Dark Horse

For centuries, advanced alien Predators as their personal hunting ground, but now a task force has been formed to fight back, and the Predators are about to become the prey.

There have been many comics spun off from the film Predator (1987), many of which use the plot of a small group being picked off one by one by a mysterious force.  It turns out to be a Predator!  The hero has to stop them before anyone else dies...  This story rings the changes by having a group actively hunting Predators.  The focus in this issue is mainly bringing the band together and detailing their mission, the focus is on exposition and backstory rather than action, but if you are invested after having read the first issue, you won't want to miss it, but it might not be the best to start off with.  The artwork is fantastic:  beautifully detailed and moody.


SAGA # 43

Written by:  Brian K. Vaughan
Art by:  Fiona Staples
Lettered by:  Fonografiks
Cover by:  Fiona Staples
Published by:  Image

In a bizarre galaxy, Alana and Marko, soldiers from opposing sides on an interplanetary war fall in love and have a child named Hazel.  Now all three are targets from both sides and are forced on the run in a hostile universe.

Saga is one of the most acclaimed comics being published, although it has not recently had anything like the amount of attention that it had five years ago.  However, it is as good as it has ever been, and this is the perfect jumping on point for new readers, as it begins a new story arch (also this issue only costs 25 cents, as part of a promotion to mark 25 years of Image Comics).  It manages to be funny, ridiculous, disturbing, endlessly imaginative and genuinely emotional, with some great characters and fantastic artwork.  If you've never read Saga, jump on now.


HAWKEYE # 7

Written by:  Kelly Thompson
Art by:  Leonardo Romero
Colours by:  Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by:  VC's Joe Sabino
Cover by:  Julian Totino Tedesco
Published by:  Marvel

Private Investigator Kate Bishop, a.k.a Hawkeye, is attacked at home, and left with a package, apparently her attackers were sent by her arch-enemy Madame Masque, and inside the package is a pendent that belonged to Kate's mother.  Kate sets off to confront Madame Masque, perfectly aware that she is walking straight into a trap.

A very entertaining issue combining action, jokes and mystery.  It's all very well designed with imaginative page and pane layouts, particularly in the action scenes.  The central mystery, unfolding through extensive use of flashbacks, is tantalisingly constructed, although the conclusion of the issue isn't particularly surprising.


ADVENTURE TIME # 65

Written by:  Mariko Tamaki
Illustrated by:  Ian McGinty
Coloured by:  Maarta Laiho
Lettered by:  Nate Fiorentino
Cover by:  Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb
Published by:  Kaboom!

It's the last round of the Best Princess Ever Competition in the magical, post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo.  The finalists are: Flame Princess, Breakfast Princess, Hot Dog Princess and Lumpy Space Princess, but one of them is not what she seems...

This is a fun one-off story, that should appeal to fans of the TV show Adventure Time (2010 - onwards) as well as newcomers.  It's funny and light and the artwork perfectly matches the style of the TV series.       


PICK OF THE WEEK


SAGA # 43
   

Friday, 9 June 2017

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Year of Release:  1991
Director:  James Cameron
Screenplay:  James Cameron and William Wisher
Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick
Running Time:  137 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action,

In the year 2029, a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is a battlefield in an ongoing war between a small group of human resistance fighters and the machines controlled by the vast computer system known as Skynet.  In a last ditch attempt to destroy the resistance, Skynet sends a liquid metal, shapeshifting T-1000 Terminator (Patrick) back in time to the 1990s  to kill the ten year old John Connor (Furlong), who would grow up lead the resistance.  The resistance, however, is able to send a reprogrammed older model T-800 Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to act as the young Connor's protector.  John, the T-800 and John's mother Sarah (Hamilton) - the target of a failed assassination attempt ten years earlier - are forced into a desperate struggle to survive, and possibly save the future.

Whereas The Terminator (1984) was a modestly budgeted science-fiction chase movie, everything here is bigger including the action, the budget, the length and Schwarzenegger himself who, alongside director James Cameron, really broke through to the action "A" list with The Terminator.  Terminator 2 was groundbreaking in it's day for it's visual effects, particularly it's use of CGI which was really still in it's infancy in 1991, it was also the most expensive movie ever made up to that time (although Cameron himself has broken that record several times since).  It broke box-office records and remains one of the most iconic films of the 1990s.  Although, of course, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, but this really does improve upon the original, building on and expanding the world and the themes of the first.  The tone of the film is surprisingly downbeat and bleak, with the characters not being particularly likable most of the time, although when your chased by an unkillable, shapeshifting robot that exists solely to kill you, and you know for a fact that the world is about to be annihilated in a couple of years, you could probably be forgiven for having a case of the grumpys.  The performances are good, with Schwarzenegger delivering one of his most memorable appearances.  Schwarzenegger is an actor of limited range, but he knows what those limitations are and he plays to his strengths, and what he does well, he does better than anyone.  Linda Hamilton gives an intense performance as the traumatised Sarah Connor, a world away from the cute, fluffy waitress from the beginning  of the first film, she's almost a human Terminator here.  Edward Furlong made his acting debut as the ten year old John Connor and turns in a fine performance.  The action is spectacular, and the special effects, surprisingly, have aged very well and still hold up today.  Full of memorable moments, this is one of the best movies of the 1990s.

He'll be back:  Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgement Day

  
 


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Lights Out

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  David F. Sandberg
Screenplay:  Eric Heisserer, based on the short film Lights Out by David F. Sandberg
Starring:  Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  Supernatural horror

Rebecca (Palmer) worries about her young half-brother Martin (Bateman), who lives alone with her estranged mother Sophie (Bello), who suffers from mental illness.   Rebecca soon finds out that martin and Sophie are both haunted by a powerful supernatural entity known as Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) who only manifests in the dark, a being that Rebecca remembers from her own childhood, and that now seems to be coming after her.

Most good horror films tap into a primal fear, in this case fear of the dark, one of the most universal fears there are.  Starting out as an award winning three minute short film, this isn't a particularly good movie, it relies too much on the same scares, the characters aren't particularly well sketched out, there are few surprises and the entity and the rules by which it operates are shown too early on, which diminishes her effectiveness later on.  Having said this however, there are times when it does work, and some of the scares provide a real jolt, and as a whole there is enough entertainment to pass the time, particularly when they try and find ingenious ways to provide light.  The entity herself, a shadowy, spindly, clawed figure rising out of the darkness, is striking.

Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer in Lights Out          

The Firm (1989)

Year of Release:  1989
Director:  Alan Clarke
Screenplay:  Al Hunter Ashton
Starring:  Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Phil Davis, Charles Lawson
Running Time:  70 minutes
Genre:  Drama

London, 1988:  Clive "Bex" Bissel (Oldman) is a 30 year old estate agent, who lives an apparently comfortable suburban life with his wife, Sue (Manville) and baby son.  However when the weekend comes, Bissel is the leader of the ICC (Inter City Crew), a hooligan "firm" (an organised gang who attach themselves to soccer teams and go to matches with the sole purpose of fighting rival gangs).  Bissel has an ambitious plan to unite the rival firms into one for a European championship, with the aim of causing havoc on an international scale.  However the rivalries are not so easily put aside.

This made-for-TV movie was the final work from acclaimed director Alan Clarke, who died in 1990 at the age of 54.  Like much of his work, this is an examination of male aggression and social commentary, which is as much about Britain at the end of the 1980s as it is about soccer thugs.  Hooliganism was a real hot button topic at the time, and these are not the traditional disaffected young men, they are mostly not "victims of society" but middle-class people with good jobs and plenty of money, who commit the violence for the "buzz".  This is an exciting film, shot with a constantly roving camera a times almost shoving the viewer into the middle of these guys, and the film has a real sense of danger (apparently some of the fighting scenes weren't entirely fake).  Gary Oldman gives a terrifying performance as the mercurial Bex, always well-dressed, charismatic and intelligent, but who can turn on a dime and unleash savage brutality.  This is definitely a film about men, and women don't really get a look in, the only major female character is Sue, and Lesley Manville does not have that much to do, but she does appear in a very disturbing sequence that was cut from the broadcast version of the film, but is available in the "director's cut".  Alan Clarke himself was a committed soccer fan and hated the hooligans for ruining the game, the film makes a point of never actually showing any soccer at only one point are any of them seen at a game, and they aren't watching it.  The film periodically erupts into violence, which is sudden, savage and brutal.  It might be a TV movie but it is definitely not for the faint of heart.  A brutal, confrontational work.

Gary Oldman gets bang out of order as the leader of The Firm  

Monday, 5 June 2017

King of New York

Year of Release:  1990
Director:  Abel Ferrara
Screenplay:  Nicholas St. John
Starring:  Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Janet Julian
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, crime, gangster

Convicted drug lord Frank White (Walken) is released from prison, and immediately returns to New York City and sets about expanding his already vast criminal empire, making a bid for legitimacy by using the profits to help an underfunded inner city hospital.  However, White and his gang ruthlessly proceed to wipe out anyone who stands in their way and, as the body count rises, a group of police officers are determined to stop Frank, by any means necessary.

This is one of the best films from prolific director Abel Ferrara, a gritty, action-packed urban thriller, which rattles along with nary a dull moment.  Christopher Walken is effective in the lead, looking almost more ghostly than usual against his all black clothing and shadowy locations.  His Frank White is an interesting character, calm, cool, reasonable, soft-spoken, who can erupt with sudden, ferocious violence, an absolutely ruthless killer, who nevertheless has a strong social conscience and who claims that he has never killed an innocent person.  The film features several well-known actors in relatively early roles, including David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne (here billed as "Larry"), Wesley Snipes, and Steve Buscemi.  There are few female characters and they are given very little to do, except look pretty.  It contrasts the world of opulent hotel rooms, lavish galas and lunches in top-class restaurants, with the gritty mean streets, dark clubs and back rooms, and the film uses it's locations very effectively.  The film's frequent graphic violence may be off-putting for some viewers, but it is one of the best urban thrillers of the period.

Christopher Walken reflects in King of New York    

Inside Llewyn Davis

Year of Release:  2013
Director:  Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring:  Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garret Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Drama, dark comedy, period, music

Greenwich Village, New York City, the winter of 1961:  The film charts a week in the life of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Isaac), sleeping wherever anyone will give him a couch for the night, constantly hustling for low-paying gigs or session work and always hoping for an elusive big break.

This is a beautifully dark comedy, following one very bad week for Llewyn Davis, virtually plotless, the film moves from incident to incident as Davis' troubles mount up, although many of them are self-inflicted.  Filmed in muted colours it captures a particular moment in American music, of the folk scene just prior to the emergence of Bob Dylan.  It features a fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis who could easily just be a complete prick.  While Davis is not a particularly likable character, his obnoxious personality alienating friends and strangers alike, he is never unsympathetic, with Isaac being able to convey so much despair and frustration with just a look.  Also the fact that Davis is a good singer, and he could possible make it big if he could get the breaks, but he knows that his break probably will never come, and the fact that often it doesn't matter if someone has talent if they can't catch a break.  Isaac is well supported by other great performances, mot notably from Carey Mulligan (as a fellow folk singer who looks like an angel and sings very sweetly but has a lot of anger which she is not shy about expressing) and John Goodman (as an obnoxious drug addicted jazz musician).  There are a lot of Coen Brothers hallmarks here, with characters being defined by repeated phrases and motifs, and recurring plot elements (such as Llewyn's search for a missing cat, which runs through the film), and it feels almost like a companion piece to A Serious Man  (2009), which has a similar theme of life being like a cosmic joke.  The film also has one of the best soundtracks of recent years.      

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Comics Round-Up # 6

This is the return of an old feature from my blog, in which I discuss the comics that I have been buying and reading each week.  It's by no means comprehensive or definitive about what's available, just what I've picked up.


SHADE, THE CHANGING GIRL # 8

Written by: Cecil Castellucci
Illustrated by:  Marley Zarcone
Inked by:  Ande Parks
Coloured by:  Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettered by:  Saida Temofonte
Cover by:  Becky Cloonan
Published by:  Young Animal

Little Runaway, Part 1: In the City.   16 year old Megan Boyer, possessed by the extraterrestrial Loma Shade, and equipped with the reality distorting Madness Coat has run away to Gotham City.  Learning about life in the big city, while inadvertantly causing havoc everywhere she goes.

Shade, the Changing Girl is one of the best comics to come out of the Young Animal strand from DC Comics.  The lost in the big city storyline is amusingly told, mixed with memorably surreal images.  The character of Shade is sympathetic, if not always likeable.  She causes a lot of damage to the people around her, albeit without choosing to.  The comic also has alien characters which look and act... alien. 



SECRET EMPIRE:  UPRISING # 1

Written by:  Derek Landy
Art by:  Joshua Cassara
Colour Art by:  Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettered by:  VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover by:  Meghan Hetrick
Published by:  Marvel

With America dominated by the fascist Hydra, shockingly assisted by Captain America, Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, decides to recruit some younger heroes to infiltrate the Hydra Youth Choir and stop Captain America by any means necessary.

Secret Empire is the current Marvel "event" storyline, and I haven't really been keeping up with it, in fact this is the first of the books that I've read, although I was still able to follow it without any trouble.  It is an entertaining issue, with debate about the ethics of spying, and potential murder, lightened with humour and some fun superheroics.  The artwork is moody and effective with a good feeling for light and shadow.



ALIENS: DEAD ORBIT  # 2

Writing, Art and Lettering by:  James Stokoe
Published by: Dark Horse

The crew of a space station orbiting a remote planet rescue survivors from a derelict spaceship.  Needless to say, the survivors have not come alone...

This is pretty much what you would expect from an Aliens comic, with a lot of running around corridors and some satisfyingly gory chestburster scenes. What really sets it apart is the stunningly detailed artwork from James Stokoe, who also wrote and lettered the comic.  It's perfect if you want a traditional, straight forward Aliens comic.


PICK OF THE WEEK:         


SHADE, THE CHANGING GIRL # 8

Legend

Year of Release:  2015
Director:  Brian Helgeland
Screenplay:  Brian Helgeland, based on the book A Profession of Violence by John Pearson
Starring:  Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri
Taron Egerton
Running Time:  131 minutes
Genre:  biography, drama, crime, gangster

This tells the story of the life and career of the notorious Kray twins, who ruled London organised crime in the 1960s.  Reggie Kray (Hardy) is suave, charismatic, intelligent and volatile, while Ronnie Kray (Hardy again) is a brutal psychopath.  The film mixes the story of the rise of the Krays criminal empire, with Reggie's relationship with Frances Shea (Browning), who narrates the film.

This is a fairly average gangster movie.  It's enjoyable enough, but it feels as if it's trying to pack too much into an, admittedly generous, running time.  Tom Hardy is brilliant as both Reggie and Ronnie, the scene where they have a long fight is a highlight, however there is no way to engage with either of them, and you never really find out anything more about either of them than you do in the opening scene.  Emily Browning gives a good performance, providing the emotional core of the film as the unfortunate Frances Shea, although her breathless, romantic narration seems very out of place.  I don't know enough about the Krays to comment on how accurate or not the film is, but as a gangster film it is entertaining, and never gets dull throughout it's running time, with several scenes of brutal violence punctuating the tale.

      
Ronnie and Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy) in Legend

Wonder Woman

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Patty Jenkins
Screenplay:  Allan Heinberg, from a story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston
Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya
Running Time:  141 minutes
Genre:  Superhero, fantasy, action-adventure, war

The hidden island of Themyscira is the home of the Amazons, warrior women who, according to legend, have been charged by Zeus to guard against the return of the war god Ares.  However the idyllic island life is shattered when American pilot Steve Trevor (Pine) crashes off the coast.  Trevor is rescued by Diana (Gadot), the daughter of the island's ruler, Queen Hippolyta (Wright).  In the world outside, World War I is raging, and Trevor reveals that he is a spy, who is trying to return to London with information about an experimental weapon that brutal General Erich Ludendorff (Huston) and scientist Doctor Maru (Anaya) have developed.  Convinced that Ares is behind the "War to End All Wars", Diana resolves to return with Trevor to find and defeat him, believing that this will end the war and restore world peace.  However she soon learns that things are not that simple.

This film is notable to be the first major superhero film to centre on a female character and the first to be directed by a woman.  Gadot debuted as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and this movie is part of a linked series of films based on DC Comics characters, however aside for a brief framing sequence set in the present day, this isn't really connected to any of the previous films, and so can be enjoyed by people who haven't sat through the other DC movies.  The film mixes fantasy, period war film and some culture clash comedy, and works very well.  Gal Gadot is perfect as Wonder Woman, not only handling the action sequences but also a strong emotional arch, and Chris Pine also does well as the square-jawed Steve Trevor.  The film has an emotional core that is often lacking in superhero films, and, while there is a lot of darkness in the film, it leavens the often Bergmanesque levels of despair in the DC movies with a welcome level of hope and optimism.  Certainly this is one of the best of the recent glut of superhero films.


Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Hitch-Hiker

Year of Release:  1953
Director:  Ida Lupino
Screenplay:  Ida Lupino and Collier Young
Starring:  Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Running Time:  71 minutes
Genre:   film noir, crime, drama, thriller

Two friends (O'Brien and Lovejoy) are on the road heading for a weekend's fishing.  However, they make the mistake of stopping to pick up a hitch-hiker (Talman) who turns out to be a gun-toting psychopath who has already left a string of bodies in his wake as  he tries to avoid the pursuing authorities.

This tense psychological thriller is notable for being apparently the first major American film noir directed by a woman.  Lupino had already had a successful career as an actress, before turning to writing, directing and producing movies, and, by the time of The Hitch-Hiker, had directed a number of social issue dramas, dealing with some controversial topics.  This was a departure from her usual work for being a straight-forward thriller and featuring an almost entirely all-male cast.  Written by Lupino and her then-husband Collier Young, and based on the story of real-life serial killer Billy Cook, this movie does not waste a minute of it's brief run-time.  From the dark, claustrophobic interior of the car, to the sun-drenched, bleak, lonely desert, the movie presents a mesmerising battle of wills.  This is not an action film, it's about masculinity in crisis, the two men held hostage are just ordinary middle-aged guys, who throughout the ordeal are forced to re-examine themselves and each other.  William Talman is well cast as the repulsive, contemptuous killer who never closes his right eye, even when he's asleep.

William Talman, Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy in The Hitch-Hiker

 

      

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Gilda

Year of Release:  1946
Director:  Charles Vidor
Screenplay:  Jo Eisinger, Marion Parsonnet and Ben Hecht
Starring:  Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia
Running Time:  110 minutes
Genre:  film noir, crime, drama, romance,

In Buenos Aires, small time American gambler Johnny Farrell (Ford) manages to get a job with sinister casino owner Ballin Mundson (Macready).  As time passes, Farrell and Mundson form a friendship, however when Mundson introduces Farrell to his glamorous new wife Gilda (Hayworth), it soon becomes apparent that Farrell and Gilda have a past.

This has become one of the classic Hollywood films, with Rita Hayworth being the quintessential femme fatale.  Photographed in glittering silver, her introduction has become iconic, as is her striptease (at least, she takes off her gloves) to the song "Put the Blame on Mame".  However, Hayworth gives Gilda a vulnerability as well as sex appeal.  Glenn Ford is also striking as the thuggish Farrell.  The crime story at the center of the film is always second place to the love triangle, although seen through today's eyes, it's strongly hinted that the love triangle isn't quite what it appears.    

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"The Pigeon Tunnel" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  342 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction, autobiography

In a career that has lasted 55 years, ex-spy turned novelist David Cornwell (who writes under the pseudonym John le Carre) has become one of the greatest living authors.   Initially writing intelligent Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), le Carre has come to use the structure of the espionage thriller to explore human psychology and explore the political and moral climate of modern geopolitics.  This book is not really an autobiography, but it is likely as close to one as we are ever likely to get.  It collects reminiscences and anecdotes of events and people in le Carre's life, that have helped shape his remarkable career.  We are presented with a cast of actors, spies, directors, politicians, journalists, crooks, prisoners and fellow authors.  Beautifully written, and full of interesting stories, by turns funny and dark, and sometime both, particularly in one of the book's best stories where le Carre writes about his complex relationship with his con-man father.  This is a book to treasure.

"I'm a liar... Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.  As an maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists."
- John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel    


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Year of Release:  2017  
Director:  James Gunn
Screenplay:  James Gunn, based on the comic Guardians of the Galaxy created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klemetieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone
Running Time:  136 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, comedy

The Guardians of the Galaxy are: Peter Quill a.k.a "Starlord" (Pratt) from Earth; ex-assassin Gamora (Saldana); warrior Drax (Bautista); wise-cracking thief Rocket (Cooper)  a genetically modified raccoon; and Groot (Diesel), a plant-like humanoid who is still a sapling, after the events of the first film.  After being hired by the arrogant and easily insulted Sovereign race to defeat a huge inter-dimensional monster, the Guardians find themselves being hunted by them due to Rocket stealing some valuable batteries and insulting their leader, Ayesha (Debicki).  Ayesha hires intergalactic pirate Yondu (Rooker) to hunt them down.  Meanwhile, Quill discovers the truth behind his mysterious origins.

When it was originally released in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a huge surprise.  It was a risky film, even from the mighty Marvel Studios because it was so far removed from the rest of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Instead of being a real superhero film, this was an out and out space opera, featuring a talking raccoon, and a walking tree, and the general feeling before release was that it might be too bizarre for general audiences.  However, people loved it.  It was exciting, playful and funny. Director James Gunn does not tamper too much with a winning system in this sequel.  There is all the humour, action, spectacle and '80s tunes that fans could want.  Familiarity may mean that this is not as fresh and surprising as the original, but with the character being more familiar there is more depth to their relationships.  If the first film was about getting the band together, here we see them grow and strengthen.  The performances are good, and there are several welcome additions to the team.  This is a hugely enjoyable film, the pace hardly ever flags despite running well over two hours and it provides solid entertainment.

The Guardians of the Galaxy left to right: Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klemnetieff, Dave Bautista
    

Thursday, 11 May 2017

"The Blade Artist" by Irvine Welsh

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  273 pages
Genre:  Crime

The brutal, violent, alcoholic thug Frank Begbie has terrorized the streets of his native Edinburgh for decades.  However now it appears as if the unthinkable has happened:  Frank Begbie has straightened out and cleaned up.  Having seemingly renounced his violent past, Begbie is now a successful artist, living in California under the name of Jim Francis, with a beautiful wife and two young daughters.  Until he learns that his estranged son, Sean, who Begbie barely knew, has been savagely murdered.  Returning to Scotland for the funeral, Begbie sets out to find his son's killer.  As he finds himself among his old Edinburgh, surrounded by old friends and enemies, Begbie finds his past violently catching up with him.      

First appearing in Irvine Welsh's 1993 debut novel Trainspotting, and memorably played by Robert Carlyle in the 1996 film adaptation and it's sequel T2: Trainspotting, Frank Begbie is one of Welsh's most popular characters, appearing in several other books.  However, this is the first time that he has been the lead character in a novel, and there is the problem of having a hugely popular supporting character becoming the lead, and it does dilute the character's impact.  It's entertaining enough, but there are no real surprises, the central murder mystery is not particularly engaging.  It's funny though and moves along at a good pace.    


Sunday, 7 May 2017

"The Star Diaries" by Stanislaw Lem

Year of Publication:  1971
Number of Pages:  338
Genre:  Science-fiction, satire

This is a collection of linked short stories detailing the adventures of accident-prone astronaut Ijon Tichy as he explores time and space, dealing with time paradoxes, clones, aliens, hostile robots, malfunctioning matter-transmitters, attempts to "fix" human history, and killer potatoes.

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is possibly best known for his 1962 novel Solaris which was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002.  Lem wrote the Ijon Tichy short stories over a period of twenty years, and only some of them are published in The Star Diaries.  Reading them you can see how Lem moved from playful, humorous science-fiction, to deeper, philosophical fiction.  The stories are inventive, absurd, philosophical, heavily satirical and sometimes very funny.  It deals with some serious themes such as the nature of existence.  Some people may be put off by the long philosophical and theological discussions in the book, but there is enough hilarious invention to make it worth while.  


Saturday, 15 April 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Screenplay:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring:  Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marno, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama

In a bleak Iranian city, Arash (Marandi) works hard to take care of his heroin-addicted father (Manesh), and trying to survive the daily grind of crime and misery that surrounds him.  However, the local drug dealers and pimps are being stalked by a mysterious woman (Vand), who is, in fact, a vampire.

The vampire film genre often seems to have been played out, however there are occasional films such as this one that show there is still life in it yet.  A kind of neo-noir, vampire Western, this is an Iranian language film, that is set in Iran, although it is an American film and was shot in California.  It looks gorgeous, filmed in crisp monochrome.  Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour described the film as "the lovechild of Sergio Leone and David Lynch, babysat by Nosferatu", and it certainly has a very Lynchian flavour to it.  The film hasn't much of a plot, it's more about atmosphere, and it does have a strange dreamlike quality, which makes it more haunting than frightening.   It's one of those films where whatever time of the day you watch it, it feels like three in the morning.  Swathed in a black chador, Sheila Vand is great as the unnamed, enigmatic vampire, both terrifying and alluring at the same time, she has a real otherworldly quality.  There is a strong feminist theme, the vampire usually preying upon men she witnesses abusing or disrespecting women.    The events take place against the backdrop of a gritty backdrop of drugs and crime, where vampires are probably far from the worst thing out there.

 Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut

Year of Publication:  1963
Length:  206 pages
Genre:  Satire

An American journalist, John, is working on a book about what prominent Americans were doing on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  He is particularly keen to find out about the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the "fathers" of the atomic bomb, and finds himself fascinated by Hoenikker's three eccentric children.  His investigations lead him to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the strange new religion of Bokononism is covertly practiced.  John becomes involved in the political machinations of the island, and learns of Dr. Hoenikker's last legacy to humanity, a substance called "ice-nine" which can freeze the entire planet within a few days.

One of prolific American novelist Kurt Vonnegut's best known works, Vonnegut rated this and Slaughterhouse 5 as his personal favourites among his own works, this is a clever, funny and frightening little book.  Almost every page is packed with jokes and quotable lines.  It is also a frighteningly believable look at how the world could end.  The book takes swipes at religion, politics, patriotism, science and the foibles of human nature.  However the tone is ultimately compassionate and warm, rather than unrelentingly despairing.  It's the voice of a disappointed father who loves his children despite their many, many flaws.  Read it and you'll find yourself laughing even as your blood chills faster than a glassful of ice-nine.

    

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rogue One

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Gareth Edwards
Screenplay:  Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker,
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, adventure

Jyn Erso (Jones) is a young convict, who is rescued by the Rebel Alliance.  Jyn's father, Galen (Mikkelsen), is a scientist who has been recruited by the evil Galactic Empire to work on a devastating new weapon known as the Death Star, which has the power to destroy an entire planet.  Jyn is partnered with Cassian Andor (Luna) on a mission to find and rescue her father, so that the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star.  However, unbeknownst to her, Andor's orders are to kill Galen.

If you remember the opening text to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) about the Rebel spies stealing the plans for the Death Star, well this is their story, expanding a scant few words into a two hour plus film.  The Star Wars series made a triumphant return to screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, and the current thinking is that there will be a new Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future with a new entry in the ongoing storyline every two years, and in the interim a standalone film set in the Star Wars universe but not part of the ongoing saga.  Rogue One is the first of these standalone films, although it is intrinsically linked to the Star Wars storyline.  This does not open with the Star Wars title, or have the traditional opening text crawl.  It's also darker and grittier, more of a war movie in space.  Set just before the first Star Wars film, it manages the difficult task of combining cutting edge digital special effects, with technology that would not look out of place in that first film back in 1977, for example the Death Star plans are contained in what looks like an old Betamax cassette, which gives it a nice, chunky physical appeal.  It's a film full of adventure, excitement, and entertainment for Star Wars fans old and new, combined with some stunning visuals and real emotional heft at times.   Cutting edge digital effects allow for moving cameos from some favorite characters.  With appealing characters, well-played by the cast, the conclusion of the film has some real weight to it.


Felicity Jones in Rogue One

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Creepy

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda, based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa
Starring:  Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yuko Takeuchi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Haruna Kawaguchi, Masahiro Higashide, Ryoko Fujino
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Psychological thriller, horror,

A year after being stabbed by a suspected serial killer, police profiler Koichi Takakura (Nishijima) has resigned from the force and is now lecturing about serial killers at a university.  He and his wife Yasuko (Takeuchi) move out to a quiet neighbourhood to make a new start.  Yasuko soon becomes suspicious of their weird neighbour Nishino (Kagawa) who apparently lives with a wife who never leaves the house, and their teenage daughter Mio (Fujino), who exhibits disturbing behavior.  Meanwhile, Takakura becomes drawn into an ex-colleague's investigation of the mysterious disappearance of three members of a one family six years ago, which left only one traumatised witness (Kawaguchi).

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa came to recognition with horror films, such as Pulse (2001).  Despite the title, Creepy isn't really a horror film, it's more of a psychological crime drama, although it does have horror elements, particularly in the second half.  It's handsomely made, and well performed (with Teruyuki Kagawa particularly memorable as the sinister neighbour).  The problem is the pace is so sedate it just never grips.  It also feels to meticulous to really be atmospheric.  For most of the film, it's like a mystery drama that feels more like an intellectual puzzle, which probably most viewers will have solved more or less for themselves.  There is a detached feel to most of it.  My attention drifted several times during the film, but it was still interesting enough to stick with it until the end.  Based on a novel, I can see that the story would probably work better as a book than a film.  It's main problem is the length and the pacing, and even at it's two hour plus running time, some plot elements just seem to be abandoned.

                 Yuko Takeuchi and Teryuki Kagawa in Creepy

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Keep

Year of Release:  1983
Director:  Michael Mann
Screenplay:  Michael Mann, based on the novel The Keep by F. Paul Wilson
Starring:  Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  Horror, war, fantasy

The Carpathian Mountains, Romania, 1941, a German Army detachment led by Captain Klaus Woerrmann (Prochnow) take over a remote citadel (or "keep").  Two looting soldiers accidentally unleash a powerful demonic force which starts picking off the soldiers one by one.  A group of SS soldiers, under the command of the sadistic Eric Kaempffer (Byrne) arrive at the keep as reinforcements.  When strange messages appear written on the walls, the Germans force a Jewish historian Professor Theodore Cuza (McKellen) to decipher the messages and find out what is killing them off.

This odd curio from a director best known for glossy crime thrillers (such as Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995))  is a good movie hidden inside a bad one.  The original director's cut ran three and a half hours, but director Michael Mann was contracted to deliver a movie no longer than two hours.  However the studio, Paramount, were unhappy with Mann's two hour cut and took the film out of his hands, cutting it still further to 96 minutes.  This accounts for the many continuity errors and plot holes.  For a film set in 1941, this is a very '80s movie filled with billowing dry ice and a synth-heavy score from Tangerine Dream.  The production design is impressive and there are visually striking moments, however some of the visuals just don't work.  The film's creature is never particularly convincing or impressive.  It never particularly works as a horror film, because it isn't very scary and too confused, but it does have an eerie, dream-like atmosphere in places.  It does have some interesting ideas, and the central story is novel and interesting, and the central theme equating the real-life horror of Nazism with fantasy horror, is interesting if in kind of bad taste.  It's frustrating that so much of the film is never really explained, and the climax is practically incomprehensible.
On it's original release the film was very badly received (including by F. Paul Wilson, the author of the original novel who strongly disliked the film), and flopped commercially, but it has since become something of a cult film.  It's worth seeing because the good bits are good and it deserves points for originality.

         Ian McKellan explores The Keep

Monday, 3 April 2017

Wild Strawberries

Year of Release:  1957
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay:  Ingmar Bergman
Starring:  Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand
Running Time:  91 minutes 
Genre:  Drama

Professor Isak Borg (Sjostrom) is 78 years old and generally disliked by those closest to him, due to his grouchy, stubborn, arrogant nature.  He sets out on a long car journey from his home in Stockholm to his old university in Lund, where he is due to receive an honorary doctorate in recognition of his distinguished fifty year career in medicine.  He is accompanied on his journey by his daughter in law, Marianne (Thulin), who has a troubled relationship with her husband, Evald (Bjornstrand), who is very similar in temperament to his father.  During the course of the long journey (today it would take about six hours to drive between Stockholm and Lund, and it would probably have taken even longer back in 1957), they make various stops and encounter various other travelers.  Through his nostalgic reminiscences of his childhood summers, the encounters with others and strange dreams and nightmares, Borg starts to look at himself and his life.

This is possibly Ingmar Bergman's finest achievement.  It's a portrait of one man's life, and a look at ageing, regret, nostalgia and possibility.  Over the course of a single day, Isak Borg sees where he came from, what shaped him, who he now is and where he is going.  The dreams of his childhood are suffused with the silver glow of nostalgia, even while they deal with the loss of first love, contrasting with the more realistic scenes of the drive, during which he and Marianne encounter three young friends, an argumentative middle-aged married couple, and Borg's aged mother.  There are also surreal dream sequences where Borg is haunted by old age, the fact that his life is running out, and what his legacy will be.  People who see Bergman as the king of existential gloom might be surprised by the lightness of this film.  It doesn't ignore Bergman's predominant theme of the search for meaning in life, and it is very dark in many places, but it is also about the fact that change is possible and that it is never too late.              

Bibi Andersson and Victor Sjostrom in Wild Strawberries

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Rupert Sanders
Screenplay:  Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the manga The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, cyberpunk

In the future, cybernetic enhancements to humans are commonplace.  Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is the first of a new breed, a human brain placed in a synthetic body.  She works for the elite anti-terrorist bureau Section Nine, on the trail of a new type of cyber-criminal who uses people's implants to hack into their minds and souls (or "ghosts") to control them.  As she pursues this mysterious figure, the Major begins to uncover disturbing secrets about her past.

The 1989 manga series The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, has already inspired several animated movies and TV shows in it's native Japan, most notably the groundbreaking 1995 anime classic.  All remakes tend to provoke controversy among fans of the originals, and this was especially true for this film, an American remake of a distinctly Japanese story, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson provoked furore, with accusations of whitewashing.  I am not going to go into the argument here, because I am not best placed to discuss it.
The film is an exciting science-fiction action, that has the feel of a very 1980s or 90s cyberpunk thriller.  The action is exciting and the visual effects are stunning, creating an eye-popping city of the future.  It's the visuals that really impresses here, and it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, if you can, try and see it in IMAX.  For all the criticism, Scarlett Johansson gives a fine performance, as the Major.  Her distinctive statuesque beauty is perfect for a robot.  Fans of the original should be warned that a lot of the plot details are altered, much of the philosophical and spiritual elements have been excised, and a new conspiracy mystery has been added.          
Fans of futuristic action-adventures will probably find plenty to enjoy here, but aside from all the visual wonder, it just feels kind of ordinary, without the depth and richness of the original.


   Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Burning

Year of Release:  1981
Director:  Tony Maylam
Screenplay:  Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence, story by Brad Grey, Tony Maylam and Harvey Weinstein
Starring:  Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua
Running Time:  91 minutes
Genre:  Horror

A bunch of teens at a summer camp play a mean trick on hated caretaker Cropsy (David).  However the prank goes badly wrong and Cropsy almost burns to death.  Five years later, another group of fun-loving teens are at another summer camp, and the hideously scarred Cropsy is lurking in the woods around the camp with large garden shears, and he is not planning on pruning the hedges.

You know the story.  Even if you've never seen The Burning, if you have ever seen any slasher films, than you've pretty much seen it.  It's regarded as a carbon copy of Friday the 13th (1980), although Harvey Weinsten apparently came up with the idea before Friday the 13th was released.  However it is a pretty basic slasher, with maybe a tad more nudity and gore than usual.  Today it is is possibly most important for what the cast and crew would do later on: Jason Alexander (George in Seinfeld) and Fisher Stevens appear in minor roles, and Holly Hunter also has a very small part in the film.  Also writers and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the moguls behind Miramax Films and later The Weinstein Company, would become two of the most important figures in American independent  film.  The Weinstein's commercial instincts are certainly on display here.  They know their audience, they know what that audience wants and they deliver it.  The gory special effects, from Tom Savini, would earn the film some notoriety, particularly in Britain where it was banned as a so-called "video nasty", although it is hard to see why.  It's a film that is not particularly good or particularly bad, it just trundles along delivers the requisite amount of gore and naked breasts, and it works as an undemanding late-night guilty pleasure, but if you want to see a slasher film, than there are better out there.  It has dated though, and probably won't deliver the goods to satisfy modern horror audiences.

Shelley Bruce, George Parry, Kevi Kendall, Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Ame Segull in The Burning      
  

Prison

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay:  Ingmar Bergman
Starring:  Doris Svedlund, Birger Malmsten, Eva Henning
Running Time:  76 minutes
Genre:  Drama

A film director (Hasse Ekman) is visited on set by his old Math teacher (Anders Henrikson) who wants him to make a film about the world under the control of the Devil.  The director tells the story to his journalist friend, Tomas (Malmsten), whose marriage to Sofi (Henning) is strained to begin with, and becomes even more so due to his interest in troubled teenage sex worker Birgitta (Svedlund), who is trapped by her violent, pimp boyfriend (Stig Olin) and her ruthless sister Linnea (Irma Christenson).

This was Bergman's sixth film as director, and it still feels as if he was trying to find his voice.  His early films are not generally considered among his best, but it seems like here he was coming into his own.  Prison is an underrated film, although far from Bergman's best, it is a fascinating, experimental work.  There are ideas and story elements that seem underdeveloped, for example the whole thing with the teacher and the director barely connects with the body of the story.  Shot on a micro budget using sets left over from another film, this still has impressive visuals, and Bergman shows his eye for the interplay of light and shadow.  There is a striking, surreal dream sequence, which almost makes a virtue of it's stark, empty set dressed with a few trees and billowing smoke.  The cast is impressive, in particular Doris Svedlund's haunting performance.  Here we see Bergman his theme of the difficulty of faith and the silence of God, which would pretty much define his career.  It's not exactly a happy, fun film but it's an impressive one and worth seeing, especially for Bergman fans.

Doris Svedlund and Birger Malmsten in Prison
  

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year of Release:  1972
Director:  Werner Herzog
Screenplay:  Werner Herzog
Starring:  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Historical adventure

In the year 1560 a large number of Spanish conquistadors, lead by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), and their captives, descend from the Andes into the Amazon jungle in search of the fabled El Dorado, the City of Gold.  Finding their way blocked by a fast-flowing river, Pizarro sends a scouting party downstream to find supplies.  Struggling through the harsh jungle conditions, flooding, hostile natives and a lack of food and supplies, their morale and sanity break down, as the group's second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) becomes increasingly paranoid and plots a violent rebellion.

This is a mesmerizing film, full of memorable images from the opening shots of the procession in single file descending the mist-shrouded Andes, to the hallucinatory closing frames.  Shot entirely on location with a low budget, the production was beset by problems, not least of which were Herzogs frequent clashes with the famously mercurial Kinski, reports of which have entered cinema lore.  This is an intensely physical film, the muggy, humid atmosphere almost seems to radiate out of the screen.  This is a story of a mad dreamer with an all-consuming obsession (a favourite theme of Herzog's).  At times it takes on the qualities of a fable, even though it sometimes feels almost like a documentary.  Above it all there is the star turn of Klaus Kinski, who appears at the start of the film as a man already close to the edge, with his bulging icy blue eyes and twisted stance, seemingly forever buffeted by winds no-one else can sense, he owns the film, alternately ranting and raging at his men, or tender towards his daughter (Cecilia Rivera), who accompanies the party.  The film is very loosely based on a historical character, although most of the characters and plot details are fictional.            
Everything about the film has a hauntingly strange quality, which sometimes becomes almost surreal, partly due to the film's eerie, dreamlike score from the band Popol Vue.

 Klaus Kinski is Aguirre, the Wrath of God