Saturday, 30 September 2017

Flatliners

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay:  Ben Ripley, based on Flatliners written by Peter Filardi
Starring:  Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, Kiefer Sutherland
Running Time:  110 minutes
Genre:  Horror

Medical student Courtney Holmes (Page) convinces her reluctant friends to take part in an experiment during which she will be clinically dead before they resuscitate her, so that she can learn first hand what happens after death.  After the experiment Courtney finds herself with a new lease on life and astonishing powers of memory.  After seeing the effects, Courtney's friends all want to undergo the experience.  However, it soon turns out that flatlining has some much darker side effects, as the students begin to be haunted by bizarre and disturbing visions.

Although referred to as a sequel to the 1990 film Flatliners, this 2017 film is really a remake.  Keifer Sutherland, who starred in the original, does appear in this, although as a different character.  This is a fun film, with a good cast.  Despite being a horror film, it's really not scary at all, and suffers from being too long.  The characters aren't particularly explored and are more or less cliched.  It also suffers from having too pat a conclusion.  There is plenty of humour, the characters manage to rise above the material, and it is exciting, and the flatlining sequences are well executed.
I can't really say how fans of the original Flatliners will take to the remake, because I've not seen the original in years, and can't remember much about it. 

Ellen Page in Flatliners

Friday, 29 September 2017

"The City & The City" by China Mieville

Year of Publication: 2009
Number of Pages: 373
Genre: Fantasy, crime, detective

The city is Beszel and the city is Ul Qoma, two cities in two different countries, but each occupying the same geographic space. The cities are built in and around each other, however anyone in one city (resident or visitor) is forbidden to take any notice of anyone or anything in the other city. Any failure to do so incurs the wrath of the mysterious and all-powerful "Breach". When the body of a murdered student is found in Beszel, it seems like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad, but the investigation proves more complex and dangerous than Borlu could have imagined, leading him from one city to another and to the even more mysterious places in between.

This 2009 novel from British author China Mieville works as a complex and intriguing fantasy tale in a well-realised world, the rules by which the two cities exist together and function are well worked out and believable, but this also works as an exciting detective novel, and it delivers anything you might want from a crime novel. A gruesome murder, investigation, no shortage of suspects, action, chases, and a likeable and troubled protagonist. It also makes a point about how people deliberately ignore the more troubling aspects of where they live.



Sunday, 24 September 2017

Desperado

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay:  Robert Rodriguez
Starring:  Antonio Banderas, Joaquim de Almeida, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Action

This film is a sequel to Robert Rodriguez ultra-low-budget debut El Mariachi (1992), but is also kind of a remake with a much bigger budget, because, although it follows directly on from El Mariachi, and events from that film are referenced, it follows the plot of the first very closely, and several set-pieces form the original are recreated on a much grander scale.  The unnamed Mariachi (Bandreas, replacing Carlos Gallardo from the first film) is seeking revenge on crime boss, Bucho (de Almeida), for the death of his one true love.  With the help of his American pal (Buscemi), the Mariachi wanders from town to town with a guitar case full of guns pursuing Bucho.

Full of stylish action and violence, which is graphic enough to be appealing to action fans, but not too graphic to be too disturbing.  Antonio Banderas makes for a great action hero, and Salma Hayek, who made her breakthrough performance with this film, is good as the bookstore owner who helps the Mariachi.  There is also a fun cameo from Quentin Tarantino.  This is the kind of movie that is just a fun action packed romp.        


Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas in Desperado

El Mariachi

Year of Release:  1992
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay:  Robert Rodriguez
Starring:  Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, Peter Marquardt, Reinol Martinez
Running Time:  82 minutes
Genre:  Action  

This 1992 movie is the debut film from writer/director Robert Rodriguez.  An unnamed musician (Gallardo) travels from town to town with his guitar to pursue his dream of becoming a mariachi like his father and grandfather.  Arriving in a small town, the Mariachi is mistaken for a criminal, Azul (Martinez), who has broken out of jail and is being hunted by the local crime boss, Moco (Marquardt).  Like the Mariachi, Azul dresses in black and carries a guitar case, only Azul's is full of guns.

Reputedly produced for a budget of only $7000, which Rodriguez raised mainly by taking part in medical tests, this is funnier and more exciting than many bigger and more expensive action films.  Carlos Gallardo is winning as the Mariachi, and Consuelo Gomez is affecting as the bar owner who he falls in love with.  Some of the acting can be politely described as  overly enthusiastic, the low budget is obvious in many scenes, and also there are several scenes that seem to be there just to pad out the run time, but by and large this is a fun, stylish movie, with well choreographed action.  It was followed by two sequels:  Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).      

By the way, Robert Rodriguez's book on the making of the film, Rebel Without a Crew (1995), is worth tracking down for anyone interested in low-budget film-making.

Carlos Gallardo is El Mariachi

Performance

Year of Release:  1970
Director:  Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay:  Donald Cammell
Starring: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Crime, drama, fantasy   

This film was produced in 1968 but not released until 1970.  In London, Chas Devlin (Fox) is a brutal gangland enforcer, who genuinely enjoys his work.  When he disobeys direct orders from his boss and kills a rival for personal, rather than business reasons, Devlin becomes targeted by his own gang.  He decides to hide out in the vast mansion of reclusive rock star, Turner (Jagger), who lives with Pherber (Pallenberg) and Lucy (Breton).  In Turner's surreal, erotic, decadent world of drugs, sex and mysticism, Devlin finds the boundaries of reality and fantasy collapsing.

This is a film that, if you see it once, you will never forget it.  It's very much a film of two halves.  The first half is, in terms of plot, a great if conventional gangster film (in terms of style and technique it is a million miles away from an ordinary gangster film), and in the second it becomes a surreal fantasy of sex, drugs and identity.  It utilises a fragmented, stream of conscience style, using almost every cinematic trick in the book.  James Fox is perfect as Chas Devlin, someone who is, in British criminal slang, a "performer" (a gangster with a special talent for violence and intimidation), he frequently tells people "I know who I am", he lives in a pristine apartment, and is always immaculately groomed and dressed in sharp suits, and is always in control.  Mick Jagger's Turner is another type of performer, a rock star who has retired because, as he says "I lost my demon".  Devlin, a man who needs to be in control, suddenly finds himself, in Turner's house, in a situation where he has no control, where all the old rules just don't apply.  Very much a product of it's time, and full of references to Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs, this is still genuinely shocking and disturbing.

Mick Jagger in Performance

White Heat

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Raoul Walsh
Screenplay:  Ivan Goff and Ben Robert, based on the story White Heat by Virginia Kellogg
Starring:  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochrane,
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  Crime, thriller, film noir  

This is one of the quintessential Hollywood gangster movies.  Tracing the violent life of psychotic robber Cody Jarrett (Cagney) who despite being married to Verna (Mayo),  has a deeply unhealthy bond with his equally ruthless mother (Wycherly) who is the only person that he seems to have any real feelings for.

This is an exciting, influential film and is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made.  It has aged well, and the almost documentary style film-making is still in evidence today.  The ending of the film has become one of the iconic scenes in movie history, and the prison cafeteria sequence is startling.  James Cagney turns in a gripping performance as the savage, but strangely sympathetic Jarrett, and Virginia Mayo is impressive as Verna, who Jarrett cruelly ignores, but has her own capacity for extreme ruthlessness.   Edmond O'Brien makes less of an impression, however, as the square-jawed hero.  This is a must see for thriller fans.

James Cagney in White Heat

Saturday, 23 September 2017

"I Am Behind You" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  405
Genre:  Horror

This horror novel is the sixth book from Swedish stand-up comedian turned author John Ajvide Lindqvist to be translated into English.  Four families on caravan holidays wake up one morning to find the rest of their campsite has vanished. In fact everything has vanished, they are totally alone in the middle of a seemingly endless blank, flat field, where, despite clear bright blue summer skies, there is no sun, and the grass is the exact same height.  Where are they?  How did they get there? Why are they there? and, more importantly, how can they get back?  Running low on food and supplies, their situation is desperate, but there is something else out there.  Something that knows their worst mistakes and deepest desires, and will confront them with their darkest dreams and worst fears, and something even worse.

Lindqvist is still probably best known for his debut novel, Let the Right One In (2004) which was  adapted as an acclaimed Swedish film in 2008 and a successful US remake, Let Me In (2010).  With Let the Right One In and his subsequent books, there can be little doubt that John Ajvide Lindqvist is one of the most interesting modern writers working in horror.  The characters in this book start off wondering where they are and how they got there, and are little the wiser by the end of it.  For every question that is answered, another is posed, and it really seems to just stop dead.  However, this is the first volume in a planned trilogy, so presumably we'll find out what happens later.  The ending, though is a fairly minor issue when this is such a chilling, gripping novel and genuinely disturbing.  It's full of dark humour and often graphic gore.  The frequently surreal happenings in the book work because the  characters are interesting and well-drawn, with their past lives depicted in flashback.  Lindqvist is frequently compared to Stephen King, and this has a lot of King-like elements to it, with the disparate collection of ordinary people having to band together against horrific adversaries, although it's more like if Stephen King had ever collaborated with Ingmar Bergman, because it has a very strong philosophical element to it.  Lindqvist his a particular gift for writing about children and one of the child characters, six year old Molly is one of the most terrifying characters you're likely to read about this year.  This is definitely recommended.


Monday, 18 September 2017

"A Legacy of Spies" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  264
Genre:  Thriller, espionage

Moving between past and present, the novel follows Peter Guillam, retired British spy and former right-hand man of legendary spymaster George Smiley, living peacefully on his family farm in Brittany, until he is summoned back to London by the Secret Service who are investigating an operation Guillam was involved in over fifty years ago.  Forced to rake over his murky past in Cold War espionage, Guillam is forced to reckon with the consequences of a life of personal and professional betrayal.

This fine novel returns to the world of Cold War spying that made John le Carre's name and features the return of his best-loved character, tubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken, but ruthless spymaster George Smiley.  The novel is a kind of follow-up to le Carre's 1962 breakthrough novel The Spy Who came in From the Cold, and also calls back to his other best known book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1973).  Written in spare terse prose, this is nevertheless complex and emotionally devastating.  As with many le Carre novels, this deals with the psychology of a spy, and the moral and psychological consequences of that lifestyle.  This is John le Carre at his best.   


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Mother!

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay:  Darren Aronofsky
Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama,

A young woman (Lawrence), referred to as "Mother" in the credits, although nine of the characters are named in the film, is married to a successful poet (Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block.  They live together in a rambling country house which she is renovating after a severe fire.  One night a strange couple (Harris and Pfeiffer) arrive and insinuate themselves into the lives of the homeowners.  It then gets progressively darker and weirder as more and more people invade the couple's home.

This film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky is frankly bizarre.  It's full of striking, memorable images and sequences, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a fantastic, tortured performance.  Some of it though is frankly tedious, and almost the whole thing makes very little sense.  It's probably best to see the film as an allegory, not to be taken literally, and there is likely to be a lot of discussion about what it actually means.  My take on it is that Jennifer Lawrence just wants to be left in piece with her family, but it's impossible to escape from the demands and intrusion of the world outside.  It's worth watching for it's sheer ambition.  You'll likely not see much like this, certainly not from a mainstream Hollywood release.  Personally I didn't enjoy the film, but I'm glad that I saw it, and I*'m still trying to decode what the hell it's all about.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year of Release:  1984
Director:  Wes Craven
Screenplay:  Wes Craven
Starring:  Heather Langenkemp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  Horror

 A group of teenage friends in a small American town find themselves pursued in their dreams by a horrifically burned figure armed with a glove which has razor-sharp blades attached to the fingers.  If they are killed in their dreams, they die in reality too.  As the friends are killed off one by one, the survivors have to stay awake long enough to figure out a way to fight their dreams.

This film is one of the most influential horror films of the 1980s and possibly one of the most influential horror movies of all time, introducing the iconic movie villain Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund), and spawning six direct sequels, a TV series (Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990)), a crossover with the Friday the 13th franchise (Freddy vs. Jason (2003)) and a remake in 2010.  By and large the film sticks to the well-established slasher movie formula, but given a supernatural twist.  The death scenes are, by and large, imaginative and well-staged.  Another reason why the film works so well is the simple fact that everyone sleeps and dreams, and our dreams are always beyond our control, and it plays with the idea that is we are harmed in a dream we could be harmed in real-life as well (the idea that dying in a dream equals dying in real life is a very old one, and it used to be believed that this is why we wake up at the very last minute, a kind of psychological escape hatch so we don't snuff it in our sleep because we happened to have a midnight snack).  Writer-director Wes Craven was inspired by a series of disturbing real-lifer incidents from the 1970s where refugees from Southeast Asia refused to sleep after suffering terrifying nightmares, some of them subsequently died in their sleep.
The film creates a believably cluttered suburban setting, and is elevated by Craven's obvious affection for his teenage characters, who are played by a talented cast headed by Heather Langenkemp who gives a great performance mixing vulnerability and strength as the strong-minded Nancy, and a very young Johnny Depp as her boyfriend Glen.  Of course, the standout performance is Freddy Krueger who, coupled with his memorable appearance, gives Freddy a gleefully cruel wit, before the character became a pop culture joke.
This is one of the purely fun horror movies.  Full of shocks and scares and a few jokes, and nasty enough to raise a gasp, but not nasty enough to be too disturbing for non-horror fans.

Heather Langenkemp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street           

Saturday, 9 September 2017

It

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Andy Muschietti
Screenplay:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; based on the novel It by Stephen King
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Bill Skarsgard
Running Time:  135 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is an adaptation of the 1986 novel by Stephen King.  Set in 1989 (as opposed to the novel's 1958 setting) in the small town of Derry, Maine, which has been terrorised by a spate of mysterious disappearances of children.  Seven young outcasts, who call themselves "The Loser's Club" decide to put a stop to it:  Bill Denbrough (Lieberher) has a bad stutter and his younger brother, Georgie, is among the missing; Ben Hanscom (Taylor) is picked on because he is overweight; Beverley Marsh (Lillis) is abused by her father and is the subject of cruel rumours; Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is the group clown, often getting in trouble due to his loud mouth and foul language; Stan Uris (Oleff) is picked on because he is Jewish; Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is subjected to racist bullying; and Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac due to his over-protective mother.  They discover that the culprit is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Skarsgard), who is in reality an evil, shapeshifting entity which feeds on fear, particularly children's fear.

Previously adapted as a two part TV miniseries in 1990 which was re-edited into a feature film; It is one of Stephen King's best known books.  The film lacks the richness of the book, but is an effective horror film, although, like many horror films, it relies too much on sudden jump scares and CGI trickery, and  there is less of the idea that was depicted so well in the book, of It mining the deepest subconscious fears of it's victims.  It is well acted, and the film really shines in  the quieter character moments.

Clowing around:  Bill Skarsgard is It

Thursday, 7 September 2017

"The Girl with All the Gifts" by M. R. Carey

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  460
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, thriller  


This 2014 novel from writer M. R. Carey (the pen-name of British writer Mike Carey, whose probably best known as a comics writer probably best known for his runs on X-MenJohn Constantine: HellblazerLucifer and his own series The Unwritten), is a striking post-apocalyptic science-fiction / horror tale.  Set in a near future Britain, ten year old Melanie is a bright, intelligent, friendly girl who loves school, particularly her favourite teacher Miss Justineau.  She lives in a cell on a military base.  Every day soldiers strap her to a wheelchair at gunpoint, muzzle her and take her to her classes with the other children on the base, similarly strapped and muzzled.  Occasionally there are new faces.  More often children disappear and are never seen again.  Outside the  world is gone, most of the population has become infected by a fungus that turns humans into cannibalistic zombies known as "Hungries".

This a deeply affecting, exciting, thrilling, and occasionally surprisingly tender story.  The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with interesting and engaging characters.  The are some plot contrivances, with characters often being rescued from certain death at the very last moment, and it's full of stuff that you will probably have seen before in many other zombie apocalypse stories (of which there have been a lot!).


Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Juan Carlos Medina
Screenplay:  Jane Goldman, based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd
Starring:  Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins, Eddie Marsan
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Horror, crime, period drama, mystery, thriller

Limehouse is one of the poorest and roughest areas of Victorian London where every kind of crime, degradation and vice is rampant, and now it is targeted by a brutal serial killer, the so-called "Limehouse Golem" which strikes seemingly at random, targeting the young, the old, men and women.  World weary Police Inspector John Kildare (Nighy), who has been passed over for promotion due to rumours about his private life, is put in charge of the case and during the investigation finds himself drawn to troubled music hall actress Elizabeth Cree (Cooke), who is on trial for the poisoning of her husband, one of several suspects in the Golem case.

This is a lurid, full-blooded Victorian melodrama, rich with atmosphere and period detail.  It's full of gore and horror, but also works as an intriguing mystery.  The film uses historical figures as characters, such as Karl Marx (Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Watkins) and comedian Dan Leno (Booth).  Bill Nighy is great as the sensitive, troubled police inspector and the connection he forms with  Elizabeth is genuinely touching.  The film explores themes of social inequality and the pursuit of fame.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem