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


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      


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