Monday, 28 November 2011

LoFi SciFi FlyBys

Earthling is an ambitious low-budget scifi movie about a bunch of people bound together by a strange reaction to an anomalous event in Earth's orbit. The main character loses her unborn child in a car accident and struggles to put her life and mind together, it doesn't help that she's hallucinating and seems to be stalked by strangers suffering similar problems. Nicely acted and with the confidence to tease out the plot gradually there's some Cronenberg-esque body horror and some dreamy Lynchian influences throughout. It's not without it's flaws but it's a nice quiet, examination of alienation and the human experience and with a bigger budget and maybe with some extra polish this could have been brilliant. An assured debut.

Love, is another low budget/large ambition feature debut only this time set in orbit. It's the tale of a lonely astronaut stranded on ISS Mk 2 struggling to maintain his sanity after an unspecified calamity separates all contact with Earth. Despite the titchy budget there's plenty of nice looking effects, some decent set pieces and few wisps of atmosphere along the way. The film is interestingly framed by a Civil War era tale but it's woefully underused and the director prefers to punctuate both with wholly unnecessary talking head snippets discussing the nature of human relationships, life etc. I dunno it's a nice, if derivative, little film with an excellent central performance it's just shamefully squandered by the uneasy mishmash of styles, a limp 2001 inspired end and a foolish, pretentious final few frames.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Thompson Double Barrell

A husband and wife bank robbing double act jettison their psychotic partner and go on the lam with the cash in Jim Thompson's callous thriller The Getaway. The screen version starring McQueen and McGraw can't hold a candle to the casual violence and quick wit that Thompson has soaked into these 160 pages with it's snare drum tight plot and it's devastating, surreal conclusion in El Rey. It's a tribute to Thompson's writing that despite his spartan style and his amoral, calculating characters that when the duo eventually reach their end you actually feel sorry for them. A thrilling masterclass in cynicism.

The Grifters is not quite up to the previous couple of Thompson noirs I've read but it's still a thrilling, nasty read about a low-key con artist and his possessive mobster linked mother. After perfecting numerous short cons our protagonist suffers a serious assault and finds himself at a career crossroads. The sudden reappearance of his mother and her subsequent feud with his girlfriend muddy the waters and he finds his life slipping from his iron grip and spiralling towards violence. Thompson's lean, mean prose keeps the pace clipping along but the denouement misfires a little with a stuttering series of events that was fairly disappointing, maybe with another couple of chapters things could have improved.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Sights with Sounds

Human Highway is a psychedelic slice of nonsense directed by Neil Young & Dean Stockwell. Set in a failing diner/garage a cast of weirdos bumble along with their lives unaware that their unfulfilled dreams are about to get steamrolled by a planet devouring dose of radiation. Dennis Hopper joins in the fun as they all goof about in between musical numbers which are handled by Young himself and some band called Devo who also play an amusing, glowing work crew from the nearby nuclear power plant. I certainly couldn't recommend this as it's mostly rubbish with some patchy acting & so-so script and the plot makes the Beatles Mystery Tour seem coherent. Still it's certainly got something - there's a few genuine laughs, some lovely lurid colouring and a great musical/dream sequence towards the end that caps this surreal romp off nicely.

Animated Latin Jazz romantic dramas don't come along very often so I was eager to see what Chico & Rita had to offer. Told mostly in flashback in pre-revolutionary Cuba it follows the stormy relationship of a pianist and a sultry vocalist trying to crack the big time and find fame and riches in America. The music is brilliant with some exuberant, joyous set pieces and the animation is stylish though a little uneven - the landscaping is excellent but occasionally the characters awkward and under drawn. It's main failing however is the trite plot, a fairly basic hackneyed romantic arc with simplistically drawn lovers who meet, part, reunite and part again & finally it their last reunion I found particularly unlikely and simplistic. Still if you let the music sweep you away it's an enjoyable 100mins.

Lovely Lapses

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Firmament Foci

Cassini snaps a monstrous storm on the surface of Saturn. ScienceDaily.

That faster than light Neutrino result still stands despite a couple of weeks of further observation. New Scientist.

Shackleton Energy are planning to be the first company to mine the Moon. Wired.

Cygnus X-1 is the first Black Hole to have it's 'history' charted from it's inception 6 million years ago thanks to VLBA. ScienceDaily

Bad Astronomy has a splendid explanation of the optical/cosmological effects behind this stunning pic of the Moon taken from the ISS.
Seems like Europa's peculiar domes/depressions are where liquid water has approached the surface. New Scientist. And there's some new evidence for giant lakes of water under it's surface, Wired.

China's Shenzhou probe successfully returns to Earth after docking with it's minilab, another step towards the goal of an orbiting manned space station. BBC

While Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt probe is, according to scientists, due to fall into our atmosphere sometime in January. It's payload of toxic fuel is still a concern apparently. New Scientist.

The problem of orphan supernovae may just be because their surrounding galaxies are not visible. Physorg.

NASA have released their most accurate relief map of the Moon yet. BBC

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Historical Histrionics

Perfume by Peter Suskind is a dark, squalid tale set during 18th century Paris. Highly acclaimed and subsequently adapted for the screen the book follows the life of an odorless psychotic born into abject poverty whose blessed with a preternatural sense of smell. His gift lifts him from destitution and cultivating his skill in the perfume trade and he begins to plan his own nefarious apotheosis. Suskind's prose is quite light, almost flippant at times but he brings a life and a surprising richness to the olfactory world of Grenouille and his dark, cold hearted character. It's a decent read, if occasionally a little florid, but it spins along to a rather unexpected climax

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf, like Perfume, follows the life of a wretched, poverty born child from birth to his eventual ascent to great power. Peppe, the diminutive central character is the son of a hawker of gut rot wine in Florence in the 17th century but a chance encounter brings him under the spell of beautiful Gnostic and his life is forever changed. His subsequent education, arrest, circus indenture and eventual escape are all just preludes to his position as adjunct to Pope Leo X and a life of power and luxury. While Perfume hinted at the filth and debauchery of the past the author David Madsen isn't nearly so circumspect with orgies, burnings, prostitution, assasination, torture and rape drawn with such zeal and vigour it's occasionally quite nauseating. Despite all the depravity its a surprisingly touching and humourous novel, with a nice description of the gnostic faith and a swirling, thrilling examination of the decadence that surrounded the Catholic church at the time of the reformation. Well worth your time if you can find it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Zombie Lovers & Near Dead Haters

An Italian cemetery whose inhabitants rise from their graves requires a special sort of caretaker and in this peculiar little film it's Rupert Everett that's tasked with dispatching the returners. Directed by Argento protege Michele Soavi and based on a novel from Italian comic book artist Scalvi, Cemetery Man, is a melange of comedy, horror and romance quite unlike anything I've seen before. Everett & his monosyllabic sidekick hammer away with shovels & pistols at the unliving during the night watch but both fall madly in love during the day & after Everett's love dies, returns and is dispatched again he begins to lose his mind and a series of encounters with two doppelgangers finally tip him over the edge. Despite it's disparate elements and the modest budget it's a really enjoyable little oddity with a twisted sense of humour, bags of style and a surprisingly affective plot.

Patrick is a coma patient with a evil streak of psychic juju in the schlocky 70's Aussie horror directed by Richard Franklin. When a new nurse gets a job in a barmy hospital she slowly realises her new ward is behind some of the peculiar happenings around her and it's not long before the men in her life feel the wrath of Patrick's strange abilities. The acting and script are pretty shoddy and I'm not sure it's wise for any film to have it's antagonist in a coma but there's some choice period laughs throughout and enough Australian strangeness to keep this B-movie entertaining-ish.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Dramedy & Rudd-ery

Cherry follows a young man who joins an Ivy league University and finds himself alienated from his more worldly peers but he soon falls into a friendship/romance/love triangle with an attractive mature student and her precocious daughter. There's decent performances throughout and the faux indie sensibility keeps the plot 'real' but it's just not that funny for a film billed as a comedy and ends up little more than your average coming-of-age drama. Maybe I'm being harsh, as there are some nice touches and it's certainly possesses a sensitivity absent from the usual American Pie type crap, but there was nothing for me, that justifies the plaudits it's already garnered.

Our Idiot Brother stars Paul Rudd has a hapless but loveable hippy forced back into the bosom of his family after selling weed to a uniformed police officer. Not long after his arrival however and his naivete and simple mindedness begin to unravel his 3 sister's complicated city lives. Rudd is probably one of the better actors to fall from the Anchorman tree and he's supported with an excellent cast and it's brief run time keeps things tight. Overall a pretty decent, endearing little film but like Cherry it eschews some of the laugh potential for heartwarming and handwringing. Still both films, given they've strayed from the vulgar & crass path of most Hollywood efforts, are worth a look.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Low Key Thrills

Bill Nighy's quiet, mumbly charm underpins Page Eight, a modest little spy thriller about intelligence sharing and a deceitful Prime Minister. Approaching retirement, Nighy finds himself under suspicion after a ultra sensitive document stirs up trouble and after an unlikely May-Dec flirtation with his gorgeous neighbour, played by Rachel Weisz, he soon becomes unsure who he can trust. With some decent acting and a wry, cynical script this was far more enjoyable than I'd expected and the paucity of action is outweighed by a (sadly all too rare) realism and intelligence.

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion also relies on it's realism to create the tension with a new, enigmatic disease spreading round the globe in this multistrand narrative. Structured much like his Traffic this thriller follows victims, health professionals, investigators and journalists from the onset of the epidemic to the inevitable, disastrous consequences. With a cast including Damon, Fishbourne,Paltrow and Winslet this has plenty of talent and a strong script that keeps the medical mumbo jumbo to a minimum. After it's torpid start it really picks up the pace and becomes a fairly chilling evocation of our perilous, interconnected world.

Dapper Video Mappery

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Great Antidote

A brain parasite found in 10-20% of the UK population has been shown to effect dopamine levels. ScienceDaily.

Hubble has snapped the disc of gas & dirt being slurped down by a Black Hole. Wired.

The multitude of the brain's subconscious activity is addressed in this DiscoverMagazine article.

There's an area of sunspots roughly the size of Jupiter now facing in our direction. Discovery.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission launches this week and hopefully will return with a bucketful of the Martian moon's soil. ScientificAmerican.

Scientists have discovered a strange spiral structure Sun in the Lupus constellation. Gizmodo

Interesting article about the influence of our physicality on consciousness. ScientificAmerican.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Southern Delights

Directed by Tony Richardson's madcap satire The Loved One is a 60's gem. A young British poet lands in LA and moves in with his Uncle who works as a vocal coach to the stars, after he passes away the nephew must arrange a tinseltown funeral at a guady, opulent cemetary staffed with some rather curious characters, one of whom attracts his eye. Based on a Evelyn Waugh novel and adapted by the brilliant Terry Southern this pacy nonsense has plenty of laughs as it's rolls around poking fun at everyone and everything with gusto. Sporting a fantastic ensemble of actors including Gielgud, Liberace, Coburn, McDowall and Steiger this is a sadly forgotten 60's masterpiece.

Terry Southern's satirical novel Candy, an updated version of Voltaire's Candide, follows the sexy exploits of a high school ingenue as she attempts to share her love on an epic journey across America. Like The Loved One the film sports a ridiculously talented cast with Burton, Brando, Matthau, Coburn and Ringo all appearing as Candy's lovers in a never ending series of comic vignettes but sadly it's not nearly as amusing. Sure there's laughs but it's a patchy and uneven, with some of the sequences overstaying their welcome and by the end it's tiresomely predictable however despite all it's flaws it's a fine example of psychedelic 60's nonsense and there's nowhere else you're likely to witness Ringo Starr portray a Mexican who ravishes a schoolgirl in front of Richard Burton & Sugar Ray Robinson.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Workings For a Weird Muse

Nice gallery of Mike Mitchell's popculture work over at Buzzfeed.

Plenty of amazing/shit sculpture in some Norwegian park. Reddit

And a tonne of taste bending paintings here.

Egocentricity & Ectoplasm

Ian McEwan's Saturday is a provocative novel about a single day in the life of an affluent neurosurgeon, Henry, who lives & works in central London. From early morning, the reader becomes an intimate witness to Henry's river of thoughts, fears and remembrances as well as the mundane activities of a typical weekend but a car accident at the fringes of an Iraq War march has consequences for his whole family. It's testament to McEwan's skills that the main character and side players survive this cauldron of microscopic attention unscathed and the everyday detail never seems burdensome in fact McEwan's clear, crisp prose lends a necessary briskness to the narrative. This well written, close study is an excellent read, but for me at least, a little disappointing; given the focus on one protagonist's interior life and character it was a pity I didn't really like Henry very much, he's diffident, pompous and shallow, one of those tedious, ossified professionals that tend to live half-lives despite their privileges. Nevertheless McEwan continues to impress.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel concerns a rotund psychic working the circuit while coping with a foul, truculent, uncouth spirit guide who is unwilling to reveal the truth about his mistress's mysterious, tragic past. After hiring an assistant business booms but the effort to cash in with a biographical book brings increasingly dark memories to the surface. There's plenty of funny swipes at the psychic biz with some great oddbod characters, hucksters and credulous, desperate punters (most familiar from my own days as a book hawker/kook enabler) and there's plenty of brilliant dialogue but the biting cynicism slowly reveals a pitch black plot riven with delusion, deception, abuse, murder and prostitution all rearing very ugly heads along the way. It's very well written, with a nicely drawn afterworld but it's maybe a little flabby in the midsection and I'd have preferred a firmer resolution after all that grim but still it's definitely worth a look.


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

McEwan's 80 & 90

Jonathan Pryce and Tim Rice star in the 1983 TV movie The Ploughman's Lunch penned by Ian McEwan. A callow journalist in his selfish pursuit of the affections of a toothsome lovely neglects his own ailing mother to further his aims, spending time with the academic mother of his intended, hoping to seal the deal and gaining insights for his novel about Suez. As to be expected from McEwan this is an achingly middle class love triangle with a certain intellectualism restraining the lust and blinding the characters to their respective, mostly unpleasant, selves. Events finally spin out of the protagonist's control and come to a head during Thatcher's speechifying at a Tory Party conference. Nicely acted with a strong script this cold little film is a little uneven and though the politics have dated badly the nexus of conflict between self interest, desire and family duty hasn't.

Christopher Walken's smooth, reptilian performance dominates The Comfort of Strangers adapted from one of McEwan's novellas. A young English couple try to reignite their romance by revisiting Venice but accidentally find themselves under the sway of a peculiar older couple played by Walken and Mirren. Harold Pinter's script and Paul Shrader's close direction create a strange, unsettling atmosphere as the young pair lose themselves, literally, into the narrow streets of Venice and find themselves sexually invigorated by their experience. There's a delicate, ambiguous subtext running behind the events and script that culminates in a shattering final scene but it's maybe lost some of it's nuance in translation, however it's still a fine film with excellent performance and some stunning cinematography.

Block of Rocking Beats

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Lady Flavoured Enigmatic Escapisms

Memoirs of a Survivor is a dystopia about a future Britain brought to it's knees by perpetual war with poverty, hunger and lawlessness rending society apart. Based on a novel by Doris Lessing this curious, melancholic film follows the experiences of a lonely women who discovers, weirdly, that she can move in time/space through her living room wall. After a petulant teenager gets billeted with her she's exposed to the more desperate elements in society, the futility of their predicament becomes apparent and she considers an escape to the other side of the wall. Julie Christie's understated performance holds the film together and underpins the strange atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades throughout. Not without it's flaws this is still an interesting, curious film but one that's probably not for everyone.

Another Earth intertwines the discovery of an Earth like planet wandering into our solar system and the tragic tale of a young woman, on the cusp of attending MIT, who causes a fatal car accident. After her release from prison she takes up as a janitor and seeks an escape by entering the contest to make a trip to the other planet but the tentative relationship she's built with the only other survivor gives her second thoughts. Despite the myriad of plot holes and it's slightly self-consciously downbeat atmosphere it's quite a decent watch with good performances, a mature script and the mysterious appearance of our mirror planet is carefully worked and tastefully unexplained. Made me think of Monsters a little and that's no bad thing but, as above, I doubt it'll be to everyone's tastes.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Forties Fear Mongering

Based on a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is an exquisite fable about the consequences of avarice. An impoverished Russian officer buys a book which reveals the occult secret behind an aging Countess' wealth and embarks on a convoluted plan to gain the power for himself and unsurprisingly things don't go smoothly. Lavishly staged, beautifully shot and with a carefully paced script the film's success is sealed by an impressively intense central performance by Anton Walbrook whose portrayal of the character's descent from desperation to obsession and finally into madness give the film it's emotional punch.

The Beast with Five Fingers is not quite as successful as Spades but is still an entertaining slice of vintage horror. A famous pianist, retired in a plush Italian villa, carks it and strange, ghostly antics follow and soon enough his house guests, hanging around for the will to be read, start turning up dead too. When the local policeman rolls up his investigation leads him to conclude the pianist's paw, now missing from the corpse, is the only possible culprit. Though it's a bit creaky on the script front and the cinematography is a workmanlike it does have a brilliantly demented performance by Peter Lorre as an astrology researcher at it's core and it's more than enough to keep things ticking along.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dark Dreams

A Lizard in a Women's Skin is a psychedelic horror/thriller giallo from Lucio Fulci. The daughter of a powerful politician finds herself plagued with disturbing, sexy hallucinations about her partying neighbour but the waters and her sanity are further muddied when the neighbour turns up stabbed to death. Quite barmy throughout and filled with lovely psychedelic imagery as well as cliche this rumbles along quite enjoyably, building an atmosphere of ambiguity that only really becomes resolved in the final scene. Though the script and acting are pretty ropey it's the startling cinematography and visual, er, decadence that make this worth watching.

The Paranormal Activity franchise rolls on with the release of a prequel feature designed to add more meat to the bones of the original story. Set in the 80's the film shows the sisters' first encounter with the evil presence that later claims their lives and provides a semi-coherent narrative to it's purpose. Despite it's tawdry, low budget shocks I found it moderately entertaining and somewhat chilling however I can't imagine the camera-trickery trope can take much more mileage. If you enjoyed the previous films you'll probably get something out of this but it'll be a guilty, low brow pleasure, the equivalent of haunted house fairground ride.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Some Things Wicked

Hammer Time

Hammer's House of Horror magazine ran a series of excellent comic-book adaptations of the studio's movies. Here's a little selection....Cinebeats provide The Curse of The Werewolf and
Hairy Green Eyeball has a stunning Brian Bolland penned Vampire Circus and The Reptile.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Psycho Pulps

The Killer Inside Me is surely as dark as noir can get, author Jim Thompson throws us headlong into the mind of a psychotic sex killer in this chilling thriller set in small town Texas. Deputy Lou Ford struggles to keep his 'sickness' at bay as he pootles about town spouting cliches and lending a friendly hand to the locals, succumbing finally to his instincts for murder and violence after meeting a beuatiful whore. This is a brutally effective novel and Thompson's cold, disturbing protagonist is carefully, cleverly drawn and his journey from plain mad to full blown psychosis is quite terrifying - think Highsmith's Ripley on PCP and you might get the idea. Thompson's writing and pacing are excellent and it's a deeply disturbing but brilliant work that burns towards it's incendiary finale. I must start digging around for more of his Thompson's work, especially after finding out he'd written on of my favourite Kubrick films The Killing as well as Frears' The Grifters.

Ira Levin's novel The Boys From Brazil is a fine thriller about Nazis and mad genetic experiments. It doesn't quite match A Kiss Before Dying in drama and plot twists but then it's not terribly long ago that I rewatched the film. Anyways an aging Nazi hunter is tipped off about an enclave of Nazi's hiding out in South America and their plans to assassinate 80 or so fathers and despite his ailing health he's soon hot on their heels and heading towards a confrontation with medical monster Josef Mengele. Dunno it's an easy read, well written but not quite as taut as it shouldn't have been and it's simplicity means the original novel didn't have much more to offer than the film but that's hardly Levin's fault.

The Great Antidote

4 moons of Saturn caught in this very lovely image by Cassini. APOD

Evidence for the link between DNA activity & early childhood environmental conditions. Scienceblog.

Hong Kong researchers Kwok & Zhang have discovered complex organic compounds in space created without the presence of "life". Reddit.

The long disputed reality of hypnosis may be finally coming to an end with some interesting eye-movement research which seems to support the existence of a distinct hypnotic modality of consciousness. MedicalXpress.

New evidence shows there's little between ourselves and chimps but our so called "junk", DNA that is. DailyG.

Another study, this time of Orangutan societies, demonstrates that "culture" isn't exclusive to humans. SciDaily.

Linguists have cracked the Copiale code - turns out the mysterious manuscript details the rituals of a German ophthalmology cult. NYT

Has the worm finally turned? Psychologists line up to object to the forthcoming publication of DSM5, which is bound to be another example of idiocy and psychiatric propaganda. PsychToday.

Evidence has been uncovered for the earliest oxygen breathing lifeform - a mineral chomping bacteria about 2.5 billion years old. LiveSci.

Stunning pic of a N Atlantic giant Octopus. Via NS