Hello there, and welcome to The Stricken Land! Here I indulge my life-long love of genre movies, trash cinema and tv, the product of an 80's childhood inhabiting dingy video shops in the gloom of northern England. I'll be adding reviews, retrospectives and downright opinionated missives on all things cinematic in an irregular and haphazard fashion as and when the vicissitudes of modern life grant me the all too precious commodity of spare time. Enjoy!

The internet currently seems to  be awash with thirty to forty something men (it’s mostly men) pissing and moaning about Justice League, the latest entry in Warner Brothers attempt to exploit their DC Comics properties and rival the MCU juggernaut. Opinion seems divided between those calling it out as a complete stinkbomb, and those reckoning it the greatest piece of cinema since Francis Ford Coppola was handed a film camera and an airport timekiller about the American mafia.

Perspective gentlemen, please. We lived through Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the Schumacher Batman films. Nothing Zack Snyder has done has yet come anywhere close to rivalling those turkeys,  but given that 2016’s Wonder Woman has been the best entry in the DC cycle so far it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see why they don’t just get Patty Jenkins to oversee the whole thing and be done.

Yes millennials, this film happened.

Which brings us to Justice League itself. My initial impression of the movie was that it was enjoyable enough on its own terms, but ultimately played out like a special effects company showreel with a bit of plot edited together as an afterthought out of the endless acrobatics and masonry smashing. Now, this is  a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I’m sure I’ve probably banged on about it in a previous blog, but spectacle is a poor substitute for narrative. Once upon a time directors knew how to balance these elements to drive the story and build characters that the audience could engage with. Then along came the Simpson/Bruckheimer axis and the MTV generation and it all went to shit. Every time we see the slate of new summer blockbusters, we see that we’re still seeing the baleful influence of those ‘high concept’ tosspots, and still they threaten us with Top Gun 2.

Okay, rant over, back to the movie.  Justice League’s story such as it is, follows on directly from Snyder’s expensive mish mash Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman is dead, and Bruce Wayne aided by Diana Prince set about forming a team of ‘metahumans’ to combat an imminent invasion by the clumsily explained god-alien-thing Steppenwolf and his horde of cyber fleshy insectoid warriors (this is all explained in a leaden flashback exposition sequence where it is difficult to hear any of the narrative for all the noise). And that’s about it folks. The rest of the movie’s running time is essentially one long fight punctuated by members of the team asking each other what they should do and explaining what’s left of the plot to each other.

I realise I sound like I’m being really down on the movie here, but don’t get me wrong, I know that ultimately I’m not its target audience. I admit it, I’m jaded by this stuff. Twelve year old boys will see Justice League and probably think it is the greatest thing they have ever seen, and that is just fine, I’d have felt the same at that age (I still feel aggrieved that my  younger self didn’t get to see the awesomeness of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra). If you want dark and gritty ‘’grown up’ comic book adaptations, then watch the mighty fine Marvel Netflix series (Daredevil and The Punisher being the standouts.)

Is Justice League a bad movie? No, but it is an empty vessel if you are looking to be engaged by anything more than a string of explosions. Should you go see it? If you want a popcorn, leave your brain at the door, beat ‘em superhero movie, then yes, it certainly delivers on those terms. To help anyone still wavering here is my pros and cons guide to Justice League:

PROS

  • Ezra Miller. Easily the breakout star of the film. His anxious, on-the-spectrum version of Barry Allen is bang on the money.
  • Jason Momoa has real screen presence. Here he banishes the memory of his Conan the Barbarian misfire and doesn’t waste a minute of his screen time. Bodes well for the solo Aquaman movie.
  • Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. End of story.
  • It’s not Batman vs Superman. It maybe something to do with Joss Whedon’s involvement, but there is definitely a lighter tone on show here, without sacrificing the established darker, more visually textured feel of the DCEU. It is also coherent and doesn’t play out like it’s been edited by a Warner Brothers accountancy intern.
  • Its vastly more entertaining than the dull and turgid Age of Ultron.
  • Superman and The Flash have a race.

CONS

  • Unlike say, Man of Steel, it doesn’t feel like like anything is at stake here. We see very little of the outside world being threatened by Steppenwolf and his hordes. No one ever seems like they are in any real peril.
  • Steppenwolf is a weak villain. This is the central problem with the DCEU so far. With the exception of Michael Shannon’s General Zod, all of the series’ villains so far have either been underwritten CGI ciphers or pantomime turns like Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Darth Vader and Hans Gruber would never have stood for it. Sort it out DC.
  • None of the supporting characters have anything to do. Lois Lane and Jim Gordon are completely superfluous to the film.
  • Henry Cavill’s upper lip. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Just tell him to shave off the bloody moustache and screw Universal.

One last related thing. I read a lot of fanboy commentary either slagging off DC or Marvel and that one is better than the other. This is codswallop. Both have long and ignominious histories when it comes to prostituting their intellectual property in the pursuit of greenbacks. Yes, DC has produced its fair amount of turkeys, but anyone claiming that Marvel’s slate is clean in this respect has never sat through Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1989), or the hilariously bad David Hasselhoff vehicle Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998). Like I said at the beginning, perspective is all.

Bat nipples for Chrissakes. DC fans had it much worse before the DCEU.

I promise that this will be my last superhero movie related post for a while. I’m in the mood to dive right back into watching and writing about a lot of my midnight movie loves, so watch this space for some treats from the underworld of cinema.

Till the next time…

This article originally began as a review of the most recent entry in the long running Alien series, Alien: Covenant. However, in the process of writing it, I ended up straying off the reservation and waxing on at length about my thoughts on the Alien franchise as a whole. This further developed into a related critique of director Ridley Scott’s approach since he returned to the property that first made his name all the way back in 1979.

After a lot of re-reading and subsequent editing I’ve managed to wrestle my original jumble of words and mixed emotions about the series into what I hope is a vaguely coherent form. Read on then pilgrims, and beware, trenchant opinions contained herein…

Alien: Covenant (2017) review
I’ll admit it; I approached Alien: Covenant with some trepidation. I try to keep an open mind when watching new entries in franchises that hold a special place in the hearts of fandom. Alas, Fox seem determined to stretch this goodwill to breaking point when it comes to the Alien series. Ever since the much derided, but actually not bad Alien 3 (1991), those of us who love the Alien universe have been subjected to the risible Alien Resurrection (1997), the trying-a-bit-too-hard Paul WS Anderson effort Aliens vs Predator (2007), and the crime against humanity that is AvP2: Requiem. It really shouldn’t be hard to get right, yet the studio continues to make a complete pig’s ear of one of its most valuable franchises.

Alien: Covenant then, is a direct sequel to the 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, a film that I could expound on enough to fill a whole other article just on its own. For now it’s enough to say that I found Prometheus hugely flawed, and many of those flaws carry over into its sequel. Picking up ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant’s story centres on the eponymous colony ship, travelling to the distant planet of Origae 6 to establish a settlement there. A freak space accident damages the ship, killing the captain (James Franco in a cameo), and waking the crew from hypersleep. Now led by nervy man of faith Oram (the underrated Billy Crudup), the ship picks up a signal sent out from a nearby earth like planet that Oram decides is ripe for settlement, pulling rank over the objections of crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston).

After an initial exploration of their landing area, two of the crew are infected and killed by a mysterious lifeform that nearly wipes out the other members. At this point, David, the android from the earlier film (Michael Fassbender, still doing his spot on impression of Lawrence of Arabia era Peter O’Toole) appears to save the day, although the Covenant’s own android Walter (also played by Fassbender) quickly begins to suspect that David harbours an ulterior motive. I won’t detail any more plot details here, just in case there are some readers who have yet to watch the film, suffice to say that David’s arrival brings with it a ton of Prometheus related exposition and xenomorph related mayhem.

There is no doubt that Alien: Covenant is a visual treat. This is a Ridley Scott film after all, and he has always been a much better production designer than a storyteller in this humble scribe’s opinion. The film also features solid performances from the cast, particularly from Waterston, who is competing for screen time with the intense Fassbender, and also under the long shadow cast by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.

The problem is bigger than that, and it begins with the approach taken in Prometheus and clearly intended to run through the intended prequel trilogy; that is, the intention to explore the origin of the Alien, and to tie this in with both the ‘space jockey’ glimpsed in Alien and an origin of humanity backstory that would make Eric von Daniken blush. It is a classic example of storytellers failing to heed the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. The unknown is scary in itself, and all the unanswered questions concerning the Alien should have been left at just that; unanswered. To explore the origin of the Alien inevitably strips away part of its mystique, and thus its ability to scare the bejeezus out of audiences. Another problem here is that layering ever more detail about the origin of the creatures risks disrupting or outright contradicting the internal logic of the Alien universe. A good example of this is the amount of time between the implanting of an embryo into a host, and the chestburster erupting. It seems to be different in every film. This makes the audience’s suspension of disbelief ( a prerequisite for good storytelling) much harder.

Instead of the lean, tight, menace of Alien, Aliens, and yes, Alien 3, we get a load of philosophical guff from Fassbender’s David, some admittedly decent creature effects and some inventive death scenes (the shower sex death scene has to be the stand out for me.) None of these elements add up to anything more than yet another mediocre offering in the series though. Fassbender handles this hokum like the professional he is, yet making an android with a God complex the centre of the narrative just isn’t as compelling as an everywoman like Ripley dealing with the indescribable. In the end Alien: Covenant just ends up a pale facsimile of the 1979 original.

What might have been…
If only Fox had been bolder with the creative decision making, and gone in the direction of exploring the wider Alien universe, rather than the origin of the Xenomorph. One is reminded here of the original William Gibson screenplay for Alien 3, which saw the introduction of the Union of Progressive Peoples (UPP)  to the background, a power bloc locked in a cold war with the corporate entity of Weyland Yutani, with both seeking to capture a live xenomorph to turn into a bioweapon. Gibson’s script went to two drafts before Fox passed on cost grounds. A lost opportunity, but one of many along the tortuous journey out of development hell that finally resulted in David Fincher’s flawed but still interesting Alien 3.

A more recent attempt to reboot the series came with Neill Blomkamp’s bid to make a direct sequel to Aliens that saw both Hicks and Newt survive along with Ripley. This sounds a lot like the story arc published in the early nineties in the Dark Horse comics license. Sadly Fox weren’t interested, and it looks like Blomkamp’s proposal has bitten the dust. Shame.

Ironically, Alien: Covenant, while not being a flop, hasn’t met Fox’s expectations at the box office, and word around the campfire is that the studio is planning a ‘soft reboot’ of the franchise, which probably means that while previous films will remain canon, any reboot movies will feature an all new cast and setting. In the meantime the studio looks to be still going ahead with the third film  the prequel trilogy, provisionally titled Alien: Awakening, so we have one more installment of this tripe to endure before Fox begins afresh. Although at this rate one wonders if they should bother. Should’ve gone with Blomkamp.

So is Ridley to blame?
“Ridley Scott on terrific form”, exclaims Brian Viner of the the British tabloid the Daily Mail on the Alien: Covenant DVD cover. After reading my review above you can probably surmise that I regard this statement as a brazen lie. Now I like Ridley Scott, and his films always look beautiful regardless of whether they succeed or not. But has he made a truly great film since Blade Runner in 1982?  I would contend not, although I haven’t seen The Martian yet (I’m put off  by anything starring the pompous and preachy Matt Damon). The fact is, Ridley Scott peaked early, and it’s been a gentle downward slope since then. GI Jane anyone?

Before anyone starts shouting ‘Black Hawk Down!’ at me I’ll go on the record that I’m not a fan. Without meaning any disrespect to those men who fought and died in the real life events depicted in the film, the Battle of Mogadishu just doesn’t make for an interesting event from a storytelling point of view. Two hours of explosions and men shouting at each other does not a  good film make, unless Gene Hackman is in it.

I don’t mind Gladiator (1999), and it is probably ego on legs Russell Crowe’s only other good film apart from his stellar turn in the excellent LA Confidential (1997). Still, it is marred by probably one of the most flat, anticlimactic endings ever. I did enjoy Kingdom of Heaven (2005), though a judgement of greatness is snatched away by the inexplicable decision to have Orlando Bloom as the leading man.

Which brings us to the Alien prequels. While it’s probably unfair to lay all the blame at Scott’s door (Damon Lindelof wrote the Prometheus screenplay), it’s inconceivable that he didn’t have some input and creative control over the narrative direction of the prequels. Thus a large portion of the responsibility for the direction the films have gone in must lie with the boy from South Shields. A shame, as there has long been better ideas out there for expanding the Alien mythos without compromising some of the factors which made the series great in the first place.

And finally…

The Stricken Land is now on The Book of Face! Pop over to my dedicated page for genre and b-movie news, facts and trivia. You can also join the page’s group Movie Babylon to join in discussions with like minded movie geeks. Just answer the simple question, and my gatekeepers will let you in. Please feel free to like and follow the page or even leave a review if the mood takes you.

I am also on Twitter under the handle @thestrickenland, and you can also follow me on Instagram where I am the_stricken_land

Spread the Word!

Until the next time Bad Movie Brothers and Sisters!

 

dunelogo

This one is going to be a bit longer than my usual posts, but it’s a subject I’ve been mulling over writing about for a while now, and I’ve built up a head of steam in anticipation of committing my thoughts to paper (sic). I refer to the oft maligned 1984 film adaptation of  Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune. Although fans of the novel remain divided over the film’s merits, personally I consider it to be the most successful attempt to capture the spirit of Herbert’s multi-layered universe on screen. And from the point of view of a film buff, I’m an unapologetic fan of Lynch’s version due to its sheer uniqueness in terms of its visual texture and otherworldly atmosphere.

First then a bit of background. It was either the fag end of 1984 or the beginning of ‘85 when I was taken to see Dune as an excitable sci-fi and fantasy obsessed nine year old. As I sat shrouded in the darkness of the ABC picture house in Leeds, what unfolded on the big screen was  the strangest big screen feature that I’d yet experienced. My vague and fragmentary memories of this time recall that the marketing of the film made it out to be the next Star Wars or Star Trek, so I’d been led to expect  a slew of the usual fast paced space battles and alien menageries. Although I remember feeling much disappointment when this turned out not to be the case, the film did leave a deep impression on me, perhaps because I found the narrative so incomprehensible, but also because the look and feel of the whole thing was so distinctive and esoteric. I’d never really seen anything quite like it, and the experience lodged itself firmly in my youthful memory.

Fast forward a few years, and age, along with several repeat screenings on late night Channel 4 (for any non British readers, this is the UK’s channel for more niche and left field material. Perfect for Dune then!) had caused me to reappraise the film. It’s disappointing box office and portentous tone had relegated it to bargain bin status and critical ridicule by the this point, and opinion among fans of the book still remained divided. Around this time, I got the urge to read the novel, in large part in order to try and fill in the gaps in the film. This happily connected all the dots and made the film adaptation a lot more comprehensible, while also having the fortuitous side effect of introducing me to the literary wonders of the Dune mythos. I’m guessing most readers of this blog are familiar with the novel; a sprawling science fiction epic encompassing themes of politics, religion, ecology and humanity’s evolutionary potential. If not,then a browse on Wikipedia will bring you up to speed, or better still grab a copy and enjoy. It’s the biggest selling science fiction novel ever for a reason (and it’s in my my top five favourite books of all time, but that’s for another blog).

I really did start to reappraise the film at this time and I still think that nothing like it has really been attempted before or since. Dune was a brave attempt to put a fictional universe of astonishing complexity on screen, and attempt to tell the story in just over two hours (Lynch’s original cut was just over three hours, but the studio demanded a shorter running time to make it more commercially viable). This was always going to be an unenviable task, and it’s a tribute to the skills of everyone involved in its production that it happened at all. So yes, Dune was a failure in many ways, but what a glorious failure! For anyone who has not yet seen it (cheap as chips on Amazon Prime), the most succinct way to describe it is as a historical epic set with science fiction trappings with a great dollop of drug induced mysticism thrown in. But given the complexity of the source material, how did the project get to the big screen at all?

The journey of Dune from page to screen was certainly a chequered one. The book’s author Frank Herbert had originally had it published in serial form in Analog magazine in the early sixties and had been turned down by numerous publishers before finally being picked up by Chilton, a publisher of car manuals, in 1965. Like Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, Herbert’s novel  benefitted greatly from the advent of the sixties counter culture, whose adherents identified with the elements of mysticism, environmentalism and trippy space drugs prevalent in the story. Publishing rights in the UK were snapped up by the left wing publisher Gollancz, and Herbert’s achievement was recognised by his peers when Dune won the coveted Hugo award.

The novel’s success inevitably attracted Hollywood, and the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox producer Arthur P. Jacobs, fresh from his success with Planet of the Apes (1968). The project was still in development by the time of Jacob’s untimely death in 1973, and Fox let the rights lapse.They were picked up by a French business consortium that proceeded to hire the avant garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to  direct a feature length adaptation of Dune.

The saga of Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring his vision of Dune to the screen is worth a blog all of its own, and is covered in great detail in the excellent documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). I highly recommend it, and also his later graphic novel series The Metabarons, for anyone searching for visual clues as to how this version might have looked.

After Jodorowsky’s project collapsed due to burgeoning costs, a few years elapsed before the project was handed to the British director Ridley Scott, then enjoying the success of his second feature Alien in 1979. The massive box office returns of Star Wars in 1977 had signalled to the studios that science fiction was a potential goldmine. Paramount studios had been encouraged to reignite its moribund Star Trek property, and the hunt was on for the next big thing. The Dune project was thus resurrected, however Frank Herbert was reportedly unhappy with Scott’s treatment of his novel (several major changes to the story in the script reportedly included an incestuous relationship between the central protagonist Paul Atreides and his mother the Lady Jessica) and Scott struggled to come up with a satisfying adaptation, quickly moving on to the project that would result in Blade Runner (1982).

By this time the rights  to Dune had been acquired by the Italian born movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, a producer of several hits and just as many misses at the box office including a number of collaborations with the director auteur Federico Fellini. De Laurentiis and his daughter Rafaella chose the young American experimental filmmaker David Lynch to adapt a screenplay of Dune with Lynch also attached to direct.

Lynch had previously directed the surrealist nightmare Eraserhead (1977), and his first major studio feature The Elephant Man (1980) had gotten him noticed.  George Lucas had offered Lynch the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), but the director had turned it down in favour of Dune. On December 14th 1984 Dune was released theatrically in the US. It’s budget was $40million, and the North American box office took $30million. The film was considered a massive flop, and Lynch, who had not had final cut stated that the experience nearly caused him to walk away from the film industry. Unsurprisingly Lynch rarely mentions Dune in interviews, but stated years afterwards –

I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in, there was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from [producers] Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little – and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings – little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So it was destined to be a failure, to me.

Despite Lynch’s unhappy experience, I genuinely think that he managed to craft the best adaptation of Dune that was possible at the time, given the twin constraints of technology and interference from above. Frank Herbert was on record at the time as being generally happy with the film, with a few quibbles (the film implies that Paul has developed the powers of a god by the end, whereas in the novel, he is merely a man playing god, still at the mercy of events over which he has little or no control over). One gets the impression that Herbert was just happy to get a half decent version of his story on the silver screen given the amount of development wrangles it had been through since the early seventies, and who could have blamed him?

So why do I love Dune? I‘ve already stated that the film has a unique look to it, a visual texture that evokes the interplanetary feudal society and its fear of technology (specifically artificial intelligence, or ‘thinking machines’ as they are referred to in the narrative.) The production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey) is superb, and does so much to immerse the viewer in the Dune universe. Whenever I read any of the Dune novels, the look of the setting in my mind’s eye is that of the 1984 film.

Likewise with the cast. Every actor and actress is perfectly suited to their role. Even the Harkonnen’s, who are transformed into true Lynchian grotesques in the film as opposed to their more one dimensional baddie personas in the novel don’t feel too out of place, given the sheer weird inventiveness of Lynch’s visuals in the rest of the film.

The synthesiser score by Toto perhaps dates the film for some people, but again, for me it just seems to suit the otherworldliness of the material so well, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s ‘Prophecy’ theme. Although Dune is a human-centric universe, these are humans with very different attitudes and outlooks to our own, so different in fact, that they may as well be aliens from another planet.

In our current world of Netflix and Amazon Originals along with sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas like The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit trilogy’s, not the mention the penchant for ‘extended universe’ franchises, perhaps the tragedy of Lynch’s Dune is that it arrived way ahead of its time. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel produced a three part mini-series adaptation of Dune, which, while a fair effort, and also being a more faithful adaptation of Herbert’s novel, lacked the visual majesty and atmosphere displayed in Lynch’s version.

The mini-series was generally well received though, and at the time, was Sci-Fi’s most profitable production, spawning a sequel;  Children of Dune (2003), that adapted both Dune Messiah, and the eponymously titled story.

With modern audiences now a lot more sophisticated and arguably open to more challenging material, rumours of a Dune remake have been doing the rounds for years on the internet. The project seems to have been stuck in development hell (a familiar story!), but the word around the campfire is that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) is attached as director. Given that Villeneuve has helmed the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, this bodes well if the footage released of this film is anything to go by. Time will tell if the French Canadian director can deliver a version of Dune that can exceed David Lynch’s quirky eighties masterpiece.

I’m a bit late to the show with this review, what with the annoyance of real world responsibilities constantly throwing obstacles in the way of me actually being able to get to the laptop, but such is life. It’s been a few weeks since I parked my bum down the local fleapit for the latest spandex extravaganza, but I’m glad to say that the memories remain fresh enough for me to review the movie for your reading pleasure. Onwards! –

I love comics, and I think it’s fair to say that if you’re reading this blog then you’ve got more than a passing affinity with the medium. But here’s a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of superheroes. Maybe this is because being a Brit, the spandex clad dominant in the US market wasn’t the stuff I grew up with, and as I remember it, neither Marvel nor DC imports were that widely available in the UK during my formative years.

As a kid growing up in t’Grimm North in the early 80’s, comic books were mostly bog paper anthologies concerning WWII era derring do from the likes of Hurricane pilot Johnny Red and German Tiger ace Hellman of Hammer Force. The sort of schlocky pulp action beloved of small boys, whom it makes disappointed that they missed out on the fight against Adolf. But then along came the discovery of 2000AD, and the rest was, well, that’s for another blog…

My first real exposure to the American stuff was Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), starring the late, great Christopher Reeve as the Last Son of Krypton, and for my money still one of the most successful attempts to transfer the spirit and exuberance of the comic book form on the silver screen. At around the same time the Wonder Woman tv show starring Lynda Carter was still enjoying reruns on UK TV. Before the likes of The A-Team and Airwolf drew my attention, and in the pre-VHS era, this was pretty cool stuff. In contrast the Spider Man tv show was short –lived, and in my eyes suffered from the lack of the Green Goblin, whose lurid visage adorned my lunch box locked in mortal battle with Spidey. In the battle for my affections, DC inched it. They’d been first to market cinema and tv wise, and for the time their parent company Warner Bros certainly weren’t parsimonious with the budgets. In contrast, with the exception of The Incredible Hulk tv show, Marvel were the poor cousin on screen, and seemed confined to Saturday morning animated shorts.

Fast forward to now, and how times have changed. After a few faltering steps, Marvel Studios’ IP juggernaut has steamrollered through the box office with a series of competent, if increasingly generic superhero actioners that have at least done visual justice to Marvel’s universe. For a while, DC seemed to have been left in the dust, forever playing catch up (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy aside). Crucially, Marvel replicated its joined up universe on the silver screen with each film either directly joining up with the next or at the very least referencing events in other films in the same stable. Even Netflix’s excellent Daredevil tv show ties in through oblique references to the climactic battle at the end of the first Avengers movie.

DC finally got its act together with 2013’s Man of Steel, I film I liked if not quite loved. Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman mythos certainly divided opinion, but also heralded the beginning of DC’s cinematic universe. Now, instead of a stand alone sequel for Supes, DC have kept faith with Snyder and served up a face-off movie bringing in not only Batman but also a certain Amazon warrior too. And the results are…interesting.

This is a huge, sprawling, incoherent, glorious, flawed over rich pudding of a movie. Visually it’s vintage Snyder: dark, desaturated and rich in the director’s trademark visual texture. Plot and structure wise, Dawn of Justice is all over the place, leaving the suspicious and distinctive whiff of heavy handed interference by the studio brass, leaving me me with the impression that a a awful lot of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor ( Snyder has already promised his own cut for the DVD release.) As ever with such farragos it’s the audience that suffers. The plot kicks off on a simple but flimsy pretext: Bruce Wayne, blaming Superman for the destruction and loss of life visited on Metropolis during the climactic battle in Man of Steel decides that Superman is a loose cannon who needs to be brought down a peg or two (other than dressing up in an armoured batsuit, we’re not quite sure how the Dark Knight is going to defeat Supes and what the consequences for Superman will be if he does). Then a supremely hammy Jesse Eisenberg turns up as Lex Luthor (somehow seeming to have lots of advance knowledge about Kal-El?) with a plan to bring Superman low using that pesky old green kryptonite. And then mixes his blood with the corpse of General Zod, which creates Doomsday, for no other reason that the plot demands a big gribbly for our heroes to have a big scrap with (he’s on screen for about ten minutes at the climax and completely wasted). Wonder Woman gets thrown into the increasingly opaque proceedings followed by several sledgehamer allusions to terrorism and 911 in particular. By this point I’d completely lost my admittedly tenuous grip on what little attempt at narrative there was, but still kept in my seat gazing at Snyder’s visual swirl and wondering how it was possible to make such a dog’s breakfast of such a paper thin plot.

Along the way there are lots of cameos and easter eggs for DC fanboys to get excited over, with sneek peeks at Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. Henry Cavill cruises on through, and Ben Affleck makes an intriguing Batman, on the edge of being burnt out and walking along a moral tightrope that he looks unsure of staying balanced upon. The breakout star of this overcooked celluloid soup has to be Wonder Woman herself, played with enigmatic relish by Gal Gadot. To be honest she was the only thing that was keeping me watching towards the end, and I await next year’s stand alone movie with cautious anticipation.

Compared with Marvel Studio’s more consistent, but formulaic output, DC seem to be much open to taking creative risks with their properties, an approach which has the potential to produce perhaps some memorable movies in the future, but whose down side is a greater risk of producing an expensive misfire. Such is the result with Dawn of Justice. An interesting mess.

11181166_ori

Warning – contains spoilers!

With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).

The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.

After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.

As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?

Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.

Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)

The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).

The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_large

A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the annual Mayhem film festival held at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema for a pre certificate screening of The Witch, an atmospheric little folk horror movie recommended by my esteemed work colleagues Alan and Holly, with whom I share a love of horror cinema, and who tagged in for a very enjoyable post film session of tea, cake and film geek chat.

The trailer had promised what looked to be a bleak and oppressive tale, and the finished article doesn’t disappoint on either score. Coming across like Ken Loach channelling Dario Argento, director Robert Eggers spins us the tale of a puritan family in 17th century New England, cast out of their settlement for being too, er… puritan. No sooner has patriarch William and his nervy wife Katherine set up home in the wild, than their infant son mysteriously disappears while in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. Cue the family’s descent into paranoia and fear as one event after another seems to conspire against them. The crops fail and Thomasin falls under suspicion of witchcraft, but are the family’s travails a manifestation of religious hysteria or does an evil presence truly lurk in the woods that loom against their small holding?

I’ll give away no spoilers here, suffice to say this has to be one of my favourite films of the year. Like all great horror, The Witch conjures up an unsettling atmosphere right from the start, aided by a superbly minimalist score and shot in a relentlessly desaturated palette of browns and greys (no hope, or colour here). In its atmosphere and setting the film evoked, for me at least, comparisons with the excellent Witchfinder General and the less well known Blood on Satan’s Claw (you don’t get films with titles like that nowadays, more’s the pity).

The Witch then, is my kind of horror movie; a much needed change from the numerous’ jump scare’ nonsense that currently infests the supermarket DVD shelves and streaming services. The script has the self-confidence to focus more on the unseen, psychological aspect of the situation the protagonists find themselves in, and director Eggers has the presence of mind to leave the audience’s imagination do its worst (although the film is no slacker in the ketchup stakes either).

A word of caution; The Witch is not forgiving of those with a deficit of patience when it comes to viewing habits. The characters dialogue is in the form of 17th century English vernacular, (no RSC vowels here), and though beautifully acted by the cast, demands the viewers full attention. For me though, details like this put the cherry on the cake that is the production’s splendidly realised period setting, and made me love this movie all the more.

And you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

Berberian-Sound-Studio

An affectionate homage to seventies Italian giallo movies, Berberian Sound Studio stars the always dependable Toby Jones in diffident Englishman mode as Gilderoy, a sound engineer hired by the eponymous film studio to create the sound design for their latest feature The Equestrian Vortex, which the slightly unworldly Gilderoy naively assumes to concern our equine friends, but which, of course, turns out to be exploitation schlock horror of the kind that got the British tabloids all worked up at the dawn of the VHS era in the early 80’s.

This being a film primarily about sound as its title suggests, we get to see nothing of the visual aspects of the fictional movie within a movie, bar its grotesquely lurid title sequence which is cleverly substituted for the credits sequence of the ‘real’ film the audience is watching. Instead we get glimpses of its narrative through the characters dialogue and sound effects (most Italian movies of this kind were usually shot cheaply, without sound, with the dialogue dubbed over the top in several languages, enabling the studios to distribute their productions into numerous European and overseas markets).

Gilderoy, belatedly realising he isn’t making a documentary on equestrian pursuits, but a horror film about undead witches laced with healthy dollops of misogyny and sadistic violence, starts to become ever more estranged from the rest of the production staff, most of whom consist of surly engineers, an ice maiden secretary and a production head with the sexual morals of Attila the Hun. Right from the start we get a feel for the englishman’s sense of alienation and displacement in a foreign clime, exemplified first by the language barrier, then by the byzantine office politics, and treatment of actresses that would make the Taliban blush.

Up to this point, at about two thirds in, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where the film was heading, and the last third veers off into Lynchian surrealism, which judging from a lot of reviews I’ve read definitely isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. My own reaction was one of slight frustration, as it seemed the film lacked the courage of its convictions (is Gilderoy suffering hallucinations due to his isolation, is he going mad?) in taking the story to its ambiguous conclusion. That said, Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps best viewed as an experience, rather than a strict piece of narrative. The last act certainly has the quality of a nightmare, in keeping with a lot of Italian horror movies and giallo of this period (check out Lamberto Bava’s Demons, if you haven’t already, for a great example of this).

Certainly recommended for those with an appreciation of the oevres of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and the underbelly of Italian seventies cinema in general. An interesting curio.

NB -For those interested Berberian Sound Studio’s director Peter Strickland (great name, but sadly no relation) has recently directed a reimagining of Nigel Kneale’s classic 70’s chiller The Stone Tape for Radio 4. At the time of writing, it’s still got a week to go on iPlayer, and is well worth an hour of your time.

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_The_Force_Awakens

Okay, I know it’s perhaps a bit mainstream for this blog, but to hell with it, the Star Wars movies are an indelible part of my cultural hinterland. Besides which every other Tom, Dick and Harry has thrown their two’pennorth in, and the Star Wars universe has cool spaceships, droids, lightsabres, walking carpets and oh god, will someone deliver us from the leaden prequels…

Well, say what you like about JJ Abrams, but the bloke knows how to spin a yarn, and on this showing he might just have saved the Star Wars IP from disappearing up the Trade Federation’s backside. There isn’t an inch of expository lard to be trimmed from the first outing since Disney paid the equivalent of Africa’s GDP to get their hands on the property. You can almost hear the sound of Mickey Mouse mopping his brow with relief.

I have to admit, I went in with low to zero expectations. Perhaps that helped, but my initial reaction is that the galaxy far, far away has got its mojo back. Perhaps the lack of blue screen helped, the deliberate scaling back, less is more approach to the CGI, Abrams decision to film in real locations, making the Star Wars universe feel like a real place again. All these factors edged me towards giving The Force Awakens a favourable nod, yet there is something intangible about Episode VII that makes it feel like a Star Wars movie, a spirit that the prequels failed to capture (although I should add that I think the Clone Wars animated series does).

It’s this impossible to put your finger on ‘x factor’ that swung the movie in a favourable direction for me. Inevitably it already has its detractors, but people my age just need to get over the fact that it’s not going to be like it was when you first watched A New Hope or Empire or Jedi when you were six or seven years old. The cruel world of death and taxes inevitably soils your sense of wonder to some degree. Such is life.

I won’t bother to blather on about the plot here, there are plenty places you can go to for a full throated review of the narrative, spoilers and all. What then does the movie have going for it, I hear you cry? First, the two leads; Daisy Ridley does a hugely impressive job of carrying the weight of the movie on young untested shoulders, with John Boyega putting in a grand turn as comic foil playing a deserting stormtrooper (specialisation – sanitation. Can’t they get droids the clean the traps?) Harrison Ford pretty much phones in his performance, but you get the sense that playing Solo again feels like putting on a comfy old jacket for him. His scenes with Carrie Fisher carry an emotional depth that betrays thirty years of their characters unseen travails with a glance and gesture almost sans dialogue, a masterpiece of small acting and ‘show, don’t tell’ direction. Abrams understands that stories are ultimately, all about characters.

New droid BB8 is endearing rather than irritating, and the already much maligned by fandom Kylo Ren is pitch perfect as the wannabe dark jedi with anger management issues. Yes you want to give him a hiding, but surely that’s a tribute to the Adam Driver’s portrayal of who Ren is as a character. A dislikable sulky little wretch who didn’t get enough cuddles off his mum and now wants to go round blowing up planets because of it.

Plenty of questions are raised along the way, neatly setting up the story arc for episodes VIII and IX, and the ending is a classic cliffhanger; Abrams knows to always leave ‘em wanting more. On this showing I await the next instalment with renewed excitement.

bone-tomahawk-600x888

Kurt Russell? Check. Old West setting? Check. Cannibal troglodyte mountain men? Check.

Well, you had me at hello. A Sunday afternoon trip to favoured cinephile haunt the Broadway with my old partner in crime Alan saw pair of us spend an enjoyable couple of hours viewing this under the radar mash up of two of our favourite genres, namely the western and horror. As you might have guessed from my opener, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with Kurt in (Overboard and Captain Ron are great films, and I’ll take issue with any man who says otherwise.) Apart from that other little Tarantino flick he’s just knocked out, the last film where The Russell has sported such impressive facial hair was the stone cold 90’s classic Tombstone. Clearly I was in for a treat.

I wasn’t disappointed. Okay, the film does have some flaws (a bit more tension in places wouldn’t have gone amiss, along with a ramping up of the grand guignol splatter element), but these are minor quibbles in what turns out to be a solid and respectable, if not quite a classic effort from director S. Craig Zyler.

The opening prologue sees a welcome cameo by genre stalwart Sid Haig, playing drifter Buddy, cutting throats and stealing from a bunch of napping cowhands along with his ne’er do well partner Purvis (a seedy David Arquette). Sure enough they soon stumble into a weird burial ground where natural justice is inevitably soon dispensed, with Buddy quickly dispatched with an arrow to the throat followed by disembowelling by a shadowy assailant, and the terrified Purvis making a desperate run for it.

Cut to the frontier town of Bright Hope where a drunken and nervy Purvis is confronted by Sherriff Hunt (Russell) and town troubleshooter and ladies man Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox). Shot in the leg trying to escape, Purvis is quickly thrown into jail where Hunt calls on the services of town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (True Detective’s Lili Simmons) to patch up the miscreant.

Sure enough Buddy’s mysterious killers have followed Purvis to Bright Hope where they wreak some bloody mayhem before abducting Samantha, Purvis and Deputy Sheriff Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Examining an arrow left behind by the attackers, token Native American Chief Ominous Exposition informs Hunt and Samantha’s distraught husband Arthur O’Dwyer (the excellent Patrick Wilson) that it belongs to a band of ‘trogodytes’, a tribe of devolved cannibal savages, who dwell in the ‘Valley of the Starving Men’ (how did the US Cavalry miss this lot?). Sheriff Hunt and O’Dwyer decide to form a posse with Brooder and back up deputy and comic relief Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to rescue the captives.

From this point the film enters into The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes territory where the macho men of the old west most definitely meet their match in the troglodytes (interestingly, their look evokes that of the cannibals in Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 splatter Cannibal Holocaust and its many imitators) and the wilderness itself begins to take on an ever more threatening mileau.

As with a lot of horror flicks, the theme of masculinity in crisis looms large. Arthur O’Dwyer has been rendered lame, his leg broken in the course of a roof repair, and both Hunt and Brooder mine the classic western trope of violent men outliving their time (The Wild Bunch, The Shootist, Unforgiven.) While this serves to give their characters a certain mythic air, this is splendidly punctured later on when the captive Samantha berates Hunt and Chicory on the ‘stupidity of frontier life’ in them allowing her lame husband to accompany them on the rescue mission against a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals. There’s just no helping some people. One scene of (literally) gut wrenching violence later, and it seems as if the posse’s emasculation is complete (where is Snake Plissken when you need him?).

I won’t give anything more away though, suffice to say it’s not for the squeamish (but then why ever would you come to this blog? Stumbled upon by accident you say? You’ll never leave…), but an interesting and solid attempt to marry together two iconic film genres.

Just a quick drive by blog entry tonight people! As promised in my last post, I’ve managed to track down this all time VHS classic from the 80’s. God bless Youtube is all I can say. I’ll post a more lengthy retrospective on this splendid slice of big haired heavy metal horror when I get chance. In the meantime, enjoy this belated Halloween treat, and if you haven’t witnessed its complete awesomeness, then rectify the situation now!

Over and out.