Monday, 18 February 2019
Like much 'weird' Japanese cinema, Ring was based on an ancient folk tale, Banchō Sarayashiki,(translated as The Dish Mansion at Banchō). The story, dating from the eighteenth century, centres on Okiku, a maid who resists being tricked into sleeping with her master. After being fatally thrown into a well as punishment (some versions have her killing herself), her ghost rises and seeks revenge.
Nakata's version, which was adapted from a 1991 novel by Kôji Suzuki (an earlier made for TV adaptation, Ring: Kanzenban, was released three years earlier), develops the story, adding touches of MR James into the mix, specifically 'Casting the Runes.'
A reporter, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), investigating a mysterious series of deaths - including that of her niece - is led to a rented cabin, where she finds a video cassette. The tape contains a series of strange images which triggers a revenge curse delivered via a phone call, giving her one week to live. Enlisting the help of her ex husband Ryūji, Reiko searches for the truth behind the tape, which leads to her finding out about Sadako Yamamura, a girl with psychic powers whose rage at her death reaches out from beyond the grave. With Reiko, Ryūji and her son Yoichi in mortal danger (all three who have now watched the tape), it's a race against time to find the body of Sadako and lift the curse, which, it is finally discovered, can only be achieved by copying the tape and passing it on to someone else.
While Nakata's film is to some extent a triumph of mood over logic (why the phone calls? How did Sadako's rage physically manifest itself onto the videotape?) Ring succeeds for a number of reasons. First, it's a great 'daylight' horror film. The trappings of the movie may be gothic, but the stylings are remarkably prosaic. Here a telephone replaces the ouija board and the television is the medium for conveying the haunting; for most of its running time Ring doesn't rely on darkness and shadows for its mood. The look and basic premise of Ring was later borrowed for a number of movies, most notably David Robert Mitchell in his 2014 movie It Follows.
The story plays out in the grand 'onion skin' tradition, gradually unravelling the story, leading to the film's big payoff scene - the appearance of Sadako out of the TV set - only after much exposition and careful character building; even if the premise requires suspension of disbelief, the people in the story feel real.
Also, the film's horror is largely implied. In the source novel the revenge deaths are described explicitly, but in the film it's suggested by the agonised faces of the victims that they may in part have died of fright, and it's this subtlety which connects Ring to the golden age of Japanese horror, and directors like Nobu Nakagawa or Gorô Kadono. In the novel Sadako is hermaphrodite, a fact emphasised in the 1995 version, in which the ghost spends an inordinate amount of time topless. Sadako's appearance in Nakata's version, with her white dress and long, straggly black hair obscuring her face, is straight out of the pages of Japanese folklore; although Nakata has disclosed in interview that the reason he his her features was simply because he had shown too much of the spirit's visage in his earlier Don't Look Up (1996) and been criticised for it.
There's a very good overview of the Ring franchise courtesy of the online version of Empire magazine here. As a postscript, Nakata has returned to Ring for his latest movie, Sadako, due out later this year, wherein the director has promised a ghost for a new generation of fans. Let's hope it's better than the appalling F. Javier Gutiérrez directed 2017 US movie Rings or the 2016 Toho styled face off flick Sadako vs. Kayako, directed by Kôji Shiraishi, which pits the ghost from Ring against the child spirit from Ju-On:The Grudge. Bizarre indeed.
Ring will be re-released in UK cinemas on 1 March 2019.
Saturday, 16 February 2019
On that first day it was reported that the star, Audrey Hepburn, was incredibly nervous, as evidenced by a pile of stubbed out cigarettes seen on set, her state of mind not helped by arriving in Manhattan fresh from her very quiet mountaintop home in Switzerland, where she had lived since 1953 with her bullying husband, Mel Ferrer, called “the frog faced delinquent with the spindly legs,” by Audrey’s mother, with whom no love was lost. Audrey had also recently become a mother herself; the separation from her 10-month-old son, coupled with Ferrer’s feelings that his wife should be a mother first and an actress second, made her anxieties on this first day of shooting quite understandable.
Most people will know that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based on the novella by Truman Capote, published in 1958, and that the inspiration for its subject, Holly Golightly, was as much his mother as it was a conflation of a number of society figures who flocked round the author at parties and openings. Each one of Capote’s ‘swans,’ as the women were later referred to, thought that Ms Golightly was modelled on her, and to some extent they were all right.
In casting Holly Golightly Capote - who subsequently took a deal that would remove him from any further influence in the adaptation - wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part, which would of course have put a very different slant on the movie. The story goes that it was the fear of budget and shooting overruns that affected the decision not to cast her (Marilyn had a reputation for lateness and an inherent difficulty in remembering her lines), but it may also have been because of the spectre of the Motion Picture Association’s dreaded Production Code. This was, after all, an adaptation of a story about a prostitute, a woman who clearly slept with men for money, or to use Capote’s words, an ‘American geisha.’ The movie’s producers, Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd were therefore on the lookout to cast someone who, while still playing an ‘escort,’ could inject a level of innocence to counteract the more risqué elements of the story.
Audrey Hepburn was about as far away from Marilyn Monroe as you could get. She was actually 31 at the start of filming – playing a character who in the novella was around 18 or 19. Since being ‘discovered’ 10 years previously – by the author Colette of all people, who chose her for the lead role in the stage play of Gigi - over the next ten years Hepburn’s star inexorably ascended. She was the right face at the right time, the fifties being the decade when ‘teenagers’ started to be a thing. Up until then the screen role models for girls had either been someone like Doris Day or, at the other end of the scale, Monroe. Hepburn was someone that female cinema-goers of all ages could relate to, someone independent yet stylish, but down to earth.
But when the producers approached Hepburn for Tiffany’s she was very unsure, both about the character she’d be playing, and the range of acting required; previous roles in Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face hadn’t exactly stretched her repertoire, and the script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s required her to laugh, cry and sing!
|Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the opening scene of |
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Hepburn’s influence also came to bear in the choice of director. John Frankenheimer was first mentioned but she vetoed that. Many other names entered the frame - and exited quickly - until George Shepherd suggested Blake Edwards who had, up until that moment, mostly directed TV and frothy comedies; his last movie had been High Times, featuring a 57-year-old Bing Crosby dancing in a pink skirt. Although he was an outside choice he had successfully directed a big star in a movie – Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat - which gave the producers, who thought that Hepburn would require some solid direction, the confidence that he was the man for the job.
Edwards also brought on board his go to composer Henry Mancini, whose increasing move away from classic film orchestration to more jazzy themes was perfect for the film – the score is one of Tiffany’s strongest elements. Blake also cast his mate Mickey Rooney in the part of Mr Yunioshi, but the less said about that the better – if you’ve seen the film you’ll know exactly what I mean, if you haven’t then I’ll apologise now.
Reflecting later on in her career, Hepburn concluded that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the best thing she’d ever done because it was the hardest. But she couldn’t have predicted how prescient her performance was. When we look back now we can see that Breakfast at Tiffany’s acts as a kind of shorthand for what was happening in New York at the time, and particularly for females. It’s one of the first Hollywood films to show a strong, independent woman successful at what she’s doing and - mostly - in charge of herself. Around the time the film was released, Joan Didion neatly summarised Golightly’s character when she wrote that New York City had become the natural home for “girls who want to prolong the period when they can experiment, mess around, make mistakes. In New York there is no gentle pressure for them to marry.” Change was definitely in the air.
Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Mark aka Paddo (Ryan Corr) is 'Vice President' of a motorcycle gang called Copperheads (all the members have their name and job title on their jackets, which probably comes in handy at staff conferences) who, when we first meet him, is trying to save the skin of his mentally incapacitated brother, Adam aka Skink (Josh McConville). Skink has been set up to diddle a rival gang out of a stash of heroin, and they are justifiably annoyed. But Mark thinks he can save the day - and his brother - and maybe rise in the ranks a little, by negotiating a deal with them. The only problem is that Copperheads' president Knuck (Matt Nable) is just about to get out of a three year prison term, probably won't agree to any deal he hasn't brokered, doesn't do deals with anyone anyway, and is still very much in charge.
Knuck's girlfriend Hayley (Simone Kessell) just wants him to get home and settle back into being boss again, but Mark's girlfriend Katrina (Abbey Lee), has other ideas, willing her boyfriend to take over the operation by stealth or murder, whichever's quicker. It's a tense situation all right, as the gang begin to turn on themselves, and everyone is asked to pick a side.
Sons of Anarchy meets Macbeth, claims the movie's admats, but Outlaws doesn't really offer anything new or indeed as satisfying, with its bickering gang members, gritty locations and generally pallid sense of lawlessness. Ryan Corr looks a little too squeaky clean to be a gang member, as does his scheming partner, Abbey Lee. Matt Nable and Simone Kessell look more the part, Nable in particular a snarling bundle of anger that seems hell bent on starting one fight after another. Knuck is all about power - an interesting if exploitative character angle has him sodomising his opponents to assert his absolute authority (including his accountant - giving a whole new meaning to the phrase double entry book-keeping), never being at home to the fact that he might be gay. As Skink Josh McConville only seems to exist to do stupid things which give the plot the chance to advance, making it difficult to sympathise with this rather pathetic individual.
As an example of Ozploitation, Outlaws, while never less than watchable, is incredibly tame against the likes of say, Snowtown (2011) or Killing Ground (2016). The camera often looks away from the violence, which would make sense if the director wanted to focus more on the drama. But the drama here is constructed around characters that are both thinly drawn and profoundly unsympathetic. It scores points for a great and very tough soundtrack which sadly only reminds the audience that what they're watching, while not exactly pleasant, is no way near as gruelling as possibly Stephen Mccallum wanted it to be.
Monday, 11 February 2019
The Unholy opens with the murder of a priest - via a vigorous throat ripping - by a mysterious, beautiful (and naked) woman; the original idea was to have kept the identity of the murderer a secret, setting up the movie's cast of characters as suspects. Cut to three years later and a new priest is appointed to the church, which was closed following the killing. He is Father Michael (Ben Cross). If the new incumbent acts a little stiff, it may be because he was recently thrown out of an apartment window after being attacked by a mysterious being, miraculously escaping with little more than cuts and bruises. Teaming up with waitress Millie (Jill Carroll) Father Michael, as well as building up his congregation, investigates the murder of the priest (and previous similar ecclesiastical slayings). What he uncovers is a web of concealment and demonic activity; he faces a race against time to combat the demon responsible for the deaths, before he and Millie can be added to the body count.
The Unholy wears its influences on its sleeve rather publicly. Its religious themes plunder both The Exorcist and The Omen, but its effects work references any number of rubber monster features from the 1980s. And on that subject Bob Keen's creature suit stuff, complete with kids dressed in mini demon costumes, has all the quality you'd expect from a unit drafted in at the last minute to replace the admittedly not very good effects work of then new kid on the block Macaluso (only one small shot of his monster remains, just as Father Michael is about to be hurled from the apartment window).
The movie includes some heavy hitters in the cast department, which helps to make a fairly lacklustre production just that little bit more gripping. Hal Holbrook and Ned Beatty, respectively a priest and a cop, add a welcome gravitas to the procedural elements of the movie, even if they do sit around chatting for most of their scenes. And veteran Trevor Howard, in his last acting role, is a game sort, his role as blind Father Silva - a guy who clearly knows far more about what's going on than anyone else - requiring him to wear some pretty uncomfortable looking opaque contact lenses.
Ben Cross, on the other hand, an actor who confesses in the extras that he was only in the movie because he was mates with Vila and the casting director, pretty much sleepwalks through the film, even allowing for his return from the dead status. He may, as he confesses, have had a lot of fun making the movie, but it sure doesn't translate to the viewing experience.
And finally a word about the demonic killer, played by Nicole Fortier. My guess is that someone saw Mathilda May in 1985's Lifeforce and decided that the demon would be extra demonic if she were nude, but at least had the decency to add a sheer nightie for reasons of taste, a kindness tot extended to Ms May. Fortier's second and final credit (she was also in the 1987 cobblers Scared Stiff), she and her amazing cheekbones never appeared in a movie again.
The Unholy is released as part of the Vestron Collector's Series on 25th February 2019.
The Blu ray/DVD combo features a number of special features, including a fairly honest audio commentary with Camilo Vila, interviews with composer Roger Bellon, production designer & co-writer Fernando Fonseca, Ben Cross, and a short mini feature on the abandoned creature work produced by Jerry Macaluso, 'Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy.'
Sunday, 10 February 2019
Oh and robot teachers are a thing. Three of 'em. And one smokes a pipe.
Set just before the end of the twentieth century, Lester's rough and ready - but enormously enjoyable - mash up of Escape From New York (1981), Robocop (1987), The Terminator (1984) and any number of 80s post apocalyptic two wheeled renegade movies, focuses on Kennedy High, a beleaguered school in Seattle, closed down because of escalating violence, and surrounded by a lawless 'Free-Fire' zone in which law enforcement fears to tread. However things are about to change, in a deal brokered by school Principal Dr Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell). The appropriately named Department of Education and Defence, responsible for the nation's schools, is about to partner up with the military hardware outfit Megatech in a ground-breaking experiment; courtesy of company head honcho Dr. Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach) Kennedy High will be supplied three 'superteachers,' humanoid battle drones, reconditioned and rewired to perform roles as 'Tactical Education Units', but with the added advantage of super strength to deal with the more forceful students.
As part of the project, some of most violent kids, previously locked up in prison, will be released back in to society and obliged to re-attend school. One of these kids, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), has decided to reform himself and escape the gang culture which got him into pokey in the first place, despite the stick he gets for this approach from brother Angel (Joshua Miller) who like their mother is still addicted to drugs. Befriending the Principal's daughter Christie (Tracy Lind) Cody begins to suspect that the school's new robo-teachers may be pursuing a slightly different agenda to the three 'R's, particularly when their military programme starts to short circuit their scholastic one. Cody and the warring factions must unite against the humanoid terror that threatens the school.
The sci fi elements may for the most part be slightly McGuffinesque - Lester never lets story or context get in the way of a good fight or car chase - but the director efficiently paints a picture of a future Seattle which is for the most part convincing, helped by locating the movie in an actual abandoned town, vacant pending the expansion of an airport - nice find! There's some humour in here too - the teachers' lockers are largely full of cans of WD40 and the neon signs on the school walls read 'Respect, Obey, Learn.' The effects, largely confined to the the movie's last half hour, are doubtless where most of the $7 million budget was expended, and include an unstoppable final cyborg that may take its moves from The Terminator but is a glorious mix of hydraulics and stop frame animation.
But it's the cast that make this, just keeping the right side of tongue in cheek. McDowell and Keach may have small roles but they bring a touch of class to the B pic (Keach in particular looks resplendent with white spiky hair and cats eyes contacts). Pam Grier plays it brilliantly straight as one of the teacherborgs, and Bradley Gregg, Joshua Miller and Tracy Lind are spirited teens who aren't afraid to roll their sleeves up and get with the action.
Class of 1999 is available on Blu-ray as part of the Vestron Collector's Series from 25th February 2019.
Extras include: a slightly lacklustre audio commentary from producer/Director Mark L. Lester; School Safety – interviews with director/producer Mark L. Lester and co-producer Eugene Mazzola; New Rules – an interview with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner; Cyber-Teachers From Hell – interviews with special effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton; Future of Discipline – an interview with director of photography Mark Irwin; theatrical trailer, TV Spots, still gallery and video promo.
Friday, 8 February 2019
Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a snow plough driver in the remote and snowy resort town of Kehoe in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. His job is vital to clear routes for drivers to get through town - the white stuff comes thick and fast in this part of the country - and when we first meet him he's being recognised by the people of Kehoe as "Citizen of the Year." He lives in a lodge on the outskirts of town with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson), a cargo loader at the nearby airport. Kehoe's cosiness, nestled in the bowl of the majestic Rockies, seems idyllic.
But this seemingly happy setup is about to be disrupted. Kyle is abducted and killed by some heavies from a local drug firm for his part in a cocaine boost. Nels and Grace are understandably distraught - although Nels channels his grief into anger and a need to hunt down the people responsible for murdering his son ("Kyle wasn't a druggie," he maintains) which costs him his marriage and, almost, his sanity. His revenge is made more difficult as the drug ring in the town is widespread and complex, frustrating Nels' attempts to work his way to Mr Big, but raising the body count exponentially as he does so.
A sign that we're not in the usual Neeson action movie territory comes about fifteen minutes or so into Moland's film, curiously a sort of remake of the director's own 2014 flick In Order of Disappearance aka Kraftidioten. Nels and Grace are at the mortuary waiting to identify Kyle's body. The slab is gradually raised, manually, the body still out of camera view. The noisy cranking continues, far longer than is expected, as Neeson and Dern stand around awkwardly. It's a moment of comedy which tonally takes Cold Pursuit in a different direction than expected. I wish I could write that this was a good thing.
What follows is part Coen Brothers shtick - but without the warmth and depth of their work - part Elmore Leonard plotting, part Martin McDonagh 'baddies with gags' movie - and all increasingly awful. Characterisation is paper thin here. Drug baron Trevor Calcote aka 'Viking' (Tom Bateman) is a smiling rich boy with an annoying son (who gets 'fathered' by Neeson in the film's climax) and an offensively depicted ex wife straight out of the 'Taming of the Shrew' handbook; Nels' brother, retired drug pusher Brock, seems only to have been included to set up a mistaken identity plot development and to have some scenes with his laughably stereotypical bossy Asian wife Ahn (Elizabeth Thai); and Laura Dern's Grace literally disappears, which is a wise choice for an actress who's worth more than this, leaving Nels to mutter a throwaway line about her leaving him by way of explaining her absence. Neeson himself looks dazed throughout much of the movie, and rather knackered (one character describes him as a "tired old man" and the audience, looking on at an actor who has confirmed that he's to bring an end to this type of role, nods in agreement).
Some plot irrelevance about legal jurisdiction - the drug problem extends between the fictional Kehoe and the real life Denver - allows the introduction of two Colorado police officers Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum) and John Gipsky (John Doman) who don't really seem to do anything much except outline the limits of community policing, and a rival drug gang of first nation American Indians included only to set up a turf war subplot.
Cold Pursuit is a movie that does everything wrong, from the casual misogyny and racism, to the awkward humour and bursts of violence which are neither redemptive or thrilling. It's the the kind of film that soundtracks the murder of a drug runner called Santa (all the baddies have 'amusing' nicknames) with '2000 Miles' by The Pretenders; features two cops who are revealed to be gay in a short scene entirely designed for cheap laughs; an includes a sequence in a cab where an Indian taxi driver changes the radio channel to Aqua's 'Barbie Girl.' Oh my aching sides. Just awful.
Wednesday, 6 February 2019
India Harper (Lois Wilkinson) is a single mother who has moved from a grotty flat with her young daughter into an airy suburban semi, found for her by her mother Karen (Lesley Scoble, who was in Village of the Damned back in 1960 and, with her twin sister Teri, appeared as Siamese Twins in 1980's The Elephant Man) and family friend Laurie (Roger Shepherd). But, rather like the Hammer House of Horror episode 'The House that Bled to Death' (which in look Ouijageist closely resembles) it's not long before things start going wrong. This run of bad luck may possibly have been prompted by India finding a 'Witchboard' game abandoned in the back garden (it's a ouija board to you and I but, in the first of many film references throughout this flick, I'm going to guess that this is a nod to the Witchboard movies of the 1980s). First, after playing with the thing, India's friend Rebecca falls downstairs, sustaining injuries from which she later dies. Then baby Emily (India Raqia-Walker) nearly scalds herself to death in a bath, the bathroom door mysteriously closing behind her.
India strongly suspects that these incidents are more than coincidence, and when her pet dog's head is found (well actually it's thrown at her by an unseen presence) and the window cleaner karks it in a mysterious hose accident, she's convinced of it. Mum decides to employ the services of the cloth; firstly Father West, who gets an Amityville Horror style welcome at the house, then the more pragmatic Bishop Chapman who wants to carry out an exorcism, but, he warns, "don't expect any of those Father Merrin Power of Christ antics!"
And that line kind of sums up most of Ouijageist really. There is horror but it's largely played down, making it for the most part a suburban drama with things that go bump in the night. Things do eventually move to an Evil Dead style climax - presaged by a cafe scene where India's slacker ex breaks out in pentagramic welts and spews bile everywhere - and to be honest these scenes feel like they've strayed in from another movie altogether.
But there's a lot of fun to be had here, despite some occasionally ho hum performances. There is some very impressive camerawork on display from Matthew Hickinbottom; the score is also rather striking, although I'm somewhat confused as the film credits Liam W. Ashcroft whereas imdb lists one Jean Michel Noir (trading as Liam Smith). Anyway, it's good to hear a soundtrack where the string synthesiser isn't the only toy in the box, and Ashcroft/Noir/Smith's tones cover all points Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter very effectively.
Ouijageist is available in the UK on Amazon Prime Video now.