Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Marshole & other APOD wonders

An intriguing skylight on Mars.
Polar storm on TitanJupiter and her moons in the lee of our own Moon. Apparently not 'shopped.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Cashing In & Out

Ridley Scott's much anticipated return to science fiction and the Alien universe with Prometheus turns out to be a revealingly awful hodge podge of previous tropes and slabs of cheese. A couple of archaeologists uncover evidence of our extraterrestrial origins and jaunt through the stars on a billionaire's dime in an effort to meet the parents but it all rather inevitably ends up in a sticky mess. It looks lovely but the plot is so muddled, so riddled with plot holes and idiotic characters that any enjoyment is short lived and I ended up feeling a little sorry for the talented actors involved but few of them made much effort anyway and I'm not sure if it's worth making any to watch it either and I'm sadly left wondering whether Scott is a decent director at all and not just a glossy hack like his brother.

Rebooting Spiderman so soon after the successful trilogy was always going to be a tricky, if not redundant, exercise but The Amazing Spiderman turns out to be mildly entertaining superhero fluff that will no doubt rake in the cash. Managing to cram the always tedious origin portion into a tidy 20 mins it gets to the action swiftly as Parker finds himself battling with a mad scientist turned Croc monster. There's nothing at all here that justifies the reboot but at least it's competent film making with an occasionally wry script, some decent effects and two solid performances from Rhys Ifans and Andrew Garfield.

Prize Anglo Shorts

The Ebony Tower is an excellent collection of five short stories from the masterful pen of John Fowles. With ambiguous little tales featuring retired artists, missing mp's, criminals and strained families Fowles' playful style has ample, fertile ground to explore but as you might expect he still finds plenty of time for his usual ruminations about art, life and philosophy and of course the pages reek with the heady scent of desires, satisfied or otherwise. If you've never read any Fowles I'd say this is definitely the place to start as it most of the themes and symbolism evident here are explored deeper, more intensely in his more famous works like The Collector or The French Lieutenant's Woman.

I've never read any Daphne du Maurier before but I'm already looking for more after thoroughly enjoying Don't Look Now and Other Stories, another quintet of short stories. In comparison to Fowles this collection has a decidedly darker, almost sinister atmosphere spread thick over the assorted tales of psychics, mysterious Greek artifacts, pilgrims and deranged scientists and though they may be a little dated there's a marvellous tension within most of the characters with unexpressed emotions, longings and churning undercurrents all bubbling to the surface. It's no wonder Hitchcock was attracted to her work, adapting 3 of her works, but it's quite surprising there hasn't been more recent efforts to bring her work to the screen.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Wordsmith Protagonisms

John Cusack grumbles and stumbles around as the famous author and drunkard Edgar Allan Poe in serial killer thriller The Raven. When a couple of corpses turn up murdered in circumstances similar to Poe's stories the police reluctantly recruit him to help solve the case and he finds himself and his paramour in grave danger. Cusack is decent enough as the lead but his Poe is more convivial drunk that incurable souse and there's not much life in the script nor much ambition in the plotting so it all plays out as a fairly bog standard thriller. A shame that an author of such grisly, macabre horrors should receive such timid and unimaginative treatment.

H.G. Wells gets a shot as a hero in the romantic thriller Time After Time when one of his chums escapes to the 1970's after being exposed as Jack the Ripper. Acclimatising themselves to their new temporal surroundings both men indulge in their proclivities, ie free love and knifey slaughter, before continuing their clash of wit and will. Malcolm McDowell and David Warner add some heft to the charming script and though most of the film is spent on Wells' romancing of a bank clerk there's some genuine menace to the cold calculating Ripper which evens it all out nicely.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Looping WW2

Despite the cumbersome title, Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is an amusing, light footed Czech scifi comedy from 1977. A bunch of aging, wistful Nazis decide to hijack a time travel tour and gift Adolf a suitcase nuke so he can win the war but their plans are stymied by the unfortunate death of the pilot and the whims of his twin brother who decides to take his place. This is low budget stuff but there's a decent plot with some nice paradoxes, a smorgasboard of satire, slapstick and farce and a brilliant performance from the lead who handles his double role with aplomb. It's not going to entertain everyone and isn't as accomplished as Kin Dza Dza but it's definitely worth a look.

The second World War provides the backdrop to another low budget time travelling tale, Enter Nowhere. Events bring an apparently disparate group of people together to a remote shack in the woods and as they figure out a way to continue their journeys a curious connection arises between them. It's a modest little mystery so the titchy budget doesn't matter matter much but the acting is a bit sub par with none of the 3 particularly convincing, still it has quite an interesting premise and that was enough to keep me watching.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Double 68 Bubble Gum

George Hamilton, before the indelible bronzing, stars, smugly, as a scientist researching human endurance for NASA but soon becomes the target of an insanely, improbably powerful psychic in The Power from 1968. Hamilton isn't much of an actor and this is mostly bog standard thriller nonsense with most of the scifi, other than the vaguely sketched paranormal powers, restricted to flashing dials and some expensive (now quaint) looking equipment and it isn't helped that there's more holes than actual plot but it has a kind of retro charm to it, particularly the party scene and the staring contest finale, so I guess at a push it'd keep you, like me, mildly entertained on a Sunday afternoon.

While The Power suffered from a lack of scifi, Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell probably suffers from a glut. A flight is forced into a emergency landing after a bomb threat/UFO flyby but the survivors are further endangered when a shape shifting, alien vampire thing stalks the crash site. Now this is a better reflection of 1968 with a crazed lurid palette, political sloganeering and dubious sexual politics all decorating a peculiar, quite barmy Japanese mish mash of scifi tropes. It's a decent enough watch with plenty of style but the acting is fairly ropey and it doesn't really make much sense.

Insistent Funk Array

Nolte in Ninety Six

Nick Nolte's a fairly patchy actor but he puts in an excellent turn in Mother Night, based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel of the same name. Nolte plays an aging American playwright arrested for his Nazi past and when tasked with writing his memoirs, reveals he was actually a spy recruited by the Americans who secreted coded information into his WW2 radio broadcasts. This is a bittersweet, intelligent meta fiction about the perils of patriotism and group identity and has a script and cast that nicely flesh out the nuances and consequences of the character's various deceptions.

A different Nick Nolte turns up in the crushingly formulaic thriller Mulholland Falls also released in 1996. Set in 40's L.A. Nolte leads the infamous 'Hat Squad' who keep the city clean of organised crime but get into some hot water while investigating the murder of a nuclear scientist's lover. I'm not sure why the hackneyed plot and factory floor script attracted such a bevy of famous faces but they growl, mumble, over and underact their way through the 90 or so mins of predictable. A year later and this attempt at neo noir was outclassed in every department by L.A. Confidential.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Mavericks Monographed

Wilhelm Reich, a colleague of Freud & Jung's, was an unusual, grandiose thinker whose theories of sexuality and political freedom have largely been ignored by the scientific community, eclipsed as they were by his later more er, esoteric work but they did find a resonance in the counter culture movement of the 60's and 70's. In 1971 Serbian director Makavejev created W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, a chaotic, kaleidoscopic view of Reich's theories interspersing various documentary pieces with fairly insane narrative sections all mashed lovingly together with a LSD fervour and revolutionary zeal. If you're unaware of Reich I wouldn't start here as it's more of a dialogue about his work than an exposition (and it's 70's styling probably an acquired taste) but it's a surprisingly entertaining watch with a bravado and intellectual ambition seldom seen these days. It's a shame there's not a 'straight' examination of Reich's work but this film succeeds at the very least in matching it's subject's idiosyncrasy.

R Buckminster Fuller, another unique intellect, was successful in a number of scientific fields and is probably most famous for his Geodesic Dome design, however his theorising went well beyond normal disciplines and still seems startling groundbreaking today. The World of Buckminster Fuller initially seems to take a more traditional approach, with Bucky himself explaining his theories straight to camera but 10 mins in and it becomes apparent that the film makers thought a cut and paste approach to the editing equalled style and it suffers badly without a coherent progression to the segments. This scattergun effect combined with the aging Fuller's slightly eccentric manner and speech, made me think, occasionally, of Rowley Birkin from The Fast Show which is a bit of a shame as though it lacks the panache of W.R, if you stick with it, it does offer an interesting, more comprehensive look at another neglected thinker's work.

Musical Mustering

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Spooks Vs Skeptics

Rebecca Hall stars as a sceptical paranormal investigator in the classical ghost story The Awakening. Fresh from debunking a conniving spirit medium she's approached by a stammering Dominic West to visit a boys boarding school that's a touch haunted but her confidence in reason is soon shaken by the peculiar happenings. The strong cast and still, clean cinematography somehow offset the desperately unoriginal plot and it musters a reasonable amount of creepy but that's sadly mostly dissipated by the too obvious finale and the fumbled attempt at ambiguity in the final scenes. A decent film, just too derivative to be particularly effective.

A more modern bunch of ghostbusters set up shop in a family home in Apartment 143 another addition to the found footage subgenre. Already traumatised by death, the family are besieged by a poltergeist and seem to be on the verge of mental collapse when the cool headed boffins roll up with a truck full of equipment. As their investigation proceeds they're witness to a number of anomalous phenomena but they cling to rational explanations almost to the very end. It's quite a modest little film with some reasonable performances but like Awakening it's achingly predictable and any atmosphere is squandered by the clunky denouement.

Funk Redux & Blues Reflux

Thunder Soul is a documentary charting the career of the highly successful Kashmere High School Stage Band and their funkalicious musical output. The predominant focus is on the band leader/teacher, Conrad Johnson, and his influence in changing their performance from the usual standards to cover versions of James Brown and their own compositions and the culminates with the inevitable reunion performance held in his honour. I think the film would've benefited from some more of the music given I imagine most people are unfamiliar with their work but it's still a lovely watch with some genuinely touching moments and laughs as the band gather again and dust off their mojo but in the end a little bittersweet as Johnson's health deteriorates throughout the filming.

I've never been a huge fan of post-Cream Clapton but the documentary Eric Clapton & His Rolling Hotel is quite interesting for it's unguarded frankness, with Clapton appearing drunk and/or high throughout and coming across, mostly, as a bit of a tit. Filmed while on a train-based European tour there's some nice performances scattered throughout the film but it's the one on one interview segments with Clapton which are most revealing, particularly the discussion of Hendrix's death and the writing of Layla. It's not bad, a nice look at the life of a megastar on tour but I can't say it's worth watching unless you're somewhat interested in the career of Clapton. In this era of media management I can't help but suspect it's appealing candour is what's impeded a DVD release but if you are interested a VHSrip is out there.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Hypnotic Malefactors

A series of random murders in Tokyo trouble a worn down detective in the brilliantly opaque thriller The Cure. Already distracted by his wife's mental illness our protagonist is baffled by the grisly, mysterious crimes but once he encounters the peculiar catalyst of these horrors, a seemingly amnesiac young man with a gift for hypnosis, his grip on reality slips and the subsequent battle of wits changes everything. Impeccably shot with two excellent, understated performances at it's core the initial fugue like atmosphere is slowly suffused with a menace and dread that's deeply unsettling and which culminates in a profoundly disturbing final scene. Possibly one of the best psychological thrillers I've seen.

The hypnotic gifts of another miscreant, Count Cagliostro, propel events in 1949's melodrama Black Magic starring Orson Welles. I've never read Dumas' novel but am familiar with the story of the mystic/charlatan extraordinaire Balsamo and it makes for good entertainment in this sumptuous period piece stuffed as it is with intrigue, indiscretions and mesmerisations. Orson has a field day as the ambitious main character who achieved great fame for his healing powers but over reaches once invited into the presence of Marie Atoinette. Almost a direct opposite to The Cure, this is a light, mildly amusing historical romp with little to say but plenty of charm.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Adapted Selves

It's been a long time since I read H G Wells' The Invisible Man but the 1984 BBC adaptation seems faithful to a fault. Obsessed with optics the antihero almost ruins himself in his pursuit of a technique to induce invisibility but his irascible nature drifts into murderous megalomania after he succeeds in his experiments. Though the characters and setting seem amusingly quaint by today's standards the menace and tremulous rage of Pip Donaghy's performance as Griffin provide the dark heart to this production. Originally shown as 6 25 min episodes I was happy to gulp the whole lot down in one go but be warned if you're unfamiliar with the original novel you'll probably be surprised by the decidedly modest, almost low key adventuring.

Herman Hesse's beautiful, lyrical novel Siddhartha got the big screen treatment back in 1972 and like Invisible Man it's a remarkably faithful version but inevitably fails to muster the same spiritual potency of the original. A young brahmin leaves his luxurious home to wander the forest with some rishis and during his spiritual journey encounters the traditional obstacles to the path of enlightenment. It's well acted and has a musing Indian score but somehow it feels a little rushed and the cinematography is surprisingly humdrum. A good film but with a little more care this could have been something special.

Sloppy Seconds

Sequels are always tricky and seldom successful but given my fondness for the original anime I was quite looking forward to the second Gantz film, Perfect Answer. If you haven't seen the first film there's a mysterious black ball that's resurrecting citizens of Toyko to battle aliens in gory, tech assisted, head popping combat, some die and some survive but no-one's really sure what's actually going on. The sequel rejoins the squad as they endeavour to cash in their accumulated points to bring their chums back to life and although it still looks great and the acting is reasonable enough the insane fight scenes have been toned down and most of the (overlong) film is frittered away on exposition and explanation. Maybe if they'd decided on a trilogy of live action films they could've done the source material justice rather than cram the remaining plot into this uneven, fumbled finale.

More glossy action festoons Wrath of the Titans the follow up to the mediocre Clash. The wooden Worthington returns as Perseus who has to rescue Neeson's Zeus from the clutches of his demented brother Hades and his own snotty son Aries. Like before the shiny sfx and monster bashing action are supposed to distract from the papery plot and the by-the-numbers script but it's so crushingly formulaic and just plain dull I had to try hard to get the end. Given the richness of Greek myths it's quite depressing that instead of continuing Perseus' story post Kraken or even adapting the story of another hero like Bellerophon or Cadmus they thought they'd should cobble something together.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Growth & Decay

Murakami's Norwegian Wood is a delicate reminiscence of the life and loves of a young man, Toro, in late Sixties Tokyo and, despite not being autobiographical, is devoid of the author's trademark peculiarity. While at University after Toro's friend commits suicide a tentative romance blossoms with his girlfriend Naoko but events and their fledgling adulthood causes much confusion. As you'd expect from Murakami it's beautifully written but the two main characters are so fragile and melancholic I struggled to relate to them and without the usual fantastical elements the whole thing seemed a little insubstantial. It seems harsh to criticise such a wonderfully written novel and it is an achingly poignant vista of the pressures of maturation but I think I prefer Murakami's wilder side.

No Blade of Grass is a quirky slice of British post apocalyptic cinema and I was lucky enough to be lent a copy of the original novel The Death of Grass by a friend. Written in 1956 there's a grass chomping virus spreading across the globe and gaggle of suburbanites take the initiative and head for the hills, just not quick enough to avoid the expected social disintegration; roaming rapey gangs, looters and lunatics. It's a nicely drawn examination of middle class sensibility and it's weak points as the journey takes it's psychological as well as physical toll and although the plot seems hackneyed it's worth keeping in mind it's over 50 years old. John Christopher went on to write scifi mainly for adolescents, most memorably The Tripods, but I might dig around and see if I can find something as bleak and kitchen sink as this.


Brilliant gallery of traditional style woodcuts with a video game slant. Reddit.

Equally awesome gallery of film flavoured Ottoman style miniatures. Neatorama.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Hairless Homicides and a Hoary Haunt

Zalman King stars in the cult horror/thriller Blue Sunshine. Turning bald and then foamingly homicidal appears to be the fate of people who took the eponymous acid back in the day and our protagonist rumbles around the city trying to trace the other trippers while evading the police who suspect him of the murders. This is mostly ridiculous nonsense but there's some enjoyment to be had what with the comically overwrought acting, 70's era cheese and acid fuelled rampages. It's certainly not worth searching for but if you stumble across it, don't dismiss it out of hand.

Oliver Reed heads a cast including Burgess Meredith, Karen Black and Bette Davis in a fairly standard 70's haunted house flick called Burnt Offerings. Renting a house for the summer Reed drags his family into a bit of a pickle when the mansion slowly exerts an unnatural influence over his wife and they find it harder and harder to leave. Despite it's 70's cheese, maybe because of the quality of the actors, it builds quite the creepy atmosphere and at it's crescendo the secret behind the mysterious house is finally revealed. An odd little film that's been unfairly neglected.

Monday, 2 July 2012

A Futurological Congress

Nacho Vilagondo's first film, Timecrimes, was an excellent, darkly comic, time-travel thriller and with his sophomore feature, Extraterrestrial, he provides another entertaining, low fi spin on a classic scifi trope, this time with an alien invasion. Waking up after a wild night, a couple who can't remember each other's names, awkwardly shuffle about before it dawns on them that the city has been emptied, all communications are down and there's a ginormous UFO parked in the sky above. As the pair try and survive amidst the confusion, suspicion and idiocy of their fellow survivors a gentle, tentative romance blossoms and things get a little complicated. The sharp, witty script fosters some brilliant, dead pan performances from the small cast and there's plenty of laughs throughout, more of a scifi-flavoured bedroom farce than anything else but still one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in a while.

Luc Besson's latest foray into scifi sees Guy Pearce channel Snake Pliskin in a rescue the presidents daughter from orbital prison romp called Lockout. Pearce does an reasonable job as the one liner spewing action hero who, after being framed for killing his boss, is given the choice of 20 years in stasis or infiltrating a space station stuffed with criminals under the command of some Scottish bampots. There's a tonne of action and some natty sfx that kinda offset the plethora of plot holes and the hackneyed set up but it never manages to distinguish itself as anything other than a fairly average B-movie. With modest expectations it'll still keep you entertained for it's 90 mins.

Sunday, 1 July 2012