Sunday, 17 June 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Zombi 2 AKA Zombie (Lucio Fulci, 1979)

After an abandoned sailboat drifts into New York City Harbour, and its un-dead passenger kills a cop, the daughter of the boat's owner, Anne (Tisa Farrow), and a reporter, Peter (Ian McCulloch), head to the ship's last port of call: the Caribbean island of Matul.

On the island, they find a doctor (Richard Johnson) trying to cure a mysterious illness, corpses who won't stay dead, and a mysterious drumbeat that has no clear source...


This movie feels like a nightmare.

Right from the opening scene, in which a corpse in a body bag slowly rises off its bed and gets shot in the head, it feels like a threshold has been crossed. There are going to be no cutaways or happy endings - the dead are coming back to life and there is nothing you can do to stop them from turning you into breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There is never any sense that the cavalry will sweep in to save the day. Before our heroes head to the island, there is a brief scene in the city morgue, where a dead cop rises from his slab. We never see what happens to that zombie,  but we don't need to. This is not a movie about preventing the apocalypse, or even about surviving it - it is simply about the experience of being in the middle of a world in meltdown.

The thing that I really enjoy this movie, and the dividing line for why I prefer this one over Fulci's later films in this vein (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond) is how straightforward it is. Those movies are appreciated for their lack of clear narrative and dreamlike violence, but it never really struck me as particularly effective in mounting and building a sense of real dread.

The quality about Zombie that I really like is how pre-ordained the story feels. Before the action moves to Matul, there is a scene at the morgue where a zombified cop comes back to life. There is never any sense that the cavalry will sweep in to save the day. Before our heroes head to the island, there is a brief scene in the city morgue, where a dead cop begins to rises from his slab. We never see what happens to that zombie,  but we don't need to. This is not a movie about preventing the apocalypse, or even about surviving it - it is simply about the experience of being in the middle of a world in meltdown.


Fulci excels at creating an apocalyptic sense of dread. Every set piece feels like another nail in the coffin for our heroes and the 'real' world - a lonely housewife dragged out of her house to be consumed by zombies; our heroes crash their car and rest in a clearing that turns out to be a grave yard for the conquistadores who colonised the island, and proceed to rise from the dead; flaming zombies marching through a hospital ward; and the film's iconic climax, showing zombies shuffling across the Brooklyn bridge into Manhattan.

Even the film's most ridiculous sequence - a zombie fighting a shark - adds to the unrelenting sense of doom: if these things can fight Jaws, then we are really screwed.


It is a testament to Fulci's talents as a filmmaker that the movie's cheesier elements - the acting and the exposition (the history lesson about the island feels like it's been dictated from a primary school history book) - don't undermine the atmosphere.

He is assisted by two great collaborators:

Gianetto De Rossi's makeup for the undead is incredible - with their withered skin, old wounds filled with dirt and worms, these undead feel queasily real. I have little stomach for gore, but with this movie it is absolutely necessary and (literally) eye-popping.

The movie is infamous for featuring a scene in which a character's eye is gauged out, but I was always more disturbed by the aftermath , when our heroes arrive at the scene to discover the zombies gorging  on the corpse while the dead woman stares wide-eyed at them, her final terror frozen on her face. It is chiseled into my retinas.

The other key creative is composer Fabio Frizzi, whose synth score works in the same way that the movie does: the main theme is built on a simple, repeating beat - like a beating heart, or a clock ticking down to the apocalypse.


Overshadowed somewhat by being tied to George A. Romero's Dawn of the DeadZombi 2 does not share Romero's thematic heft, but as a visceral punch to the gut it works perfectly. If you are in the mood for a zombie movie that pulls no punches, Fulci's blood-soaked vision is it.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

PODCAST NEWS: Update on the James Bond Cocktail Hour

A couple of months ago, I released the first news about the James Bond Cocktail Hour, the new podcast I will be co-hosting. Here's a brief update.  


The big news is that you can now follow us @007CocktailHr on Twitter and jbchpod on Instagram.

We have been recording episodes, and are now in the middle of mixing and editing them. We have also been building a website and other infrastructure so that you can fully enjoy the experience.

We shall be releasing more details as we get closer to the release.

In the meantime, you can peruse my Bond-related musings, and imagine what my voice sounds like!

Den of Geek articles



Bond reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Aquarius (Tinashe, 2014)

Sometimes you hear a specific song, and you are hooked.

I had heard good things about Tinashe's debut album, and so I added the album to my rotation and promptly forgot about it. Sometime later, I was out food shopping, bored of listening to my usual stuff, when I finally remembered Aquarius and put it on. I distinctly remember wandering through the frozen food section as 'Bet' started, and it just sucked me in.

Head to tail, this album is a genuine surprise. A few songs flirt with dance ('2 On', 'All Hands On Deck') but the overall vibe of the record is dark, slow, and disquieting. I was immediately hooked by how atmospheric it was. There are familiar tropes scattered throughout, but the songs are more haunting and tense.

At the time, I had not heard the Weeknd, Kelela or FKA twigs, so I had no antecedents to compare it to (the closest thing I could think of was James Blake, but without his austere delivery and with a more dynamic, varied sound). Tinashe's sound felt completely different, in the best way possible. I walked home without ever hitting pause or replaying. It was just so engrossing - I have not had an experience with an album like that since... I cannot remember.

Listening to Aquarius is the equivalent to sinking slowly to the bottom of a body of water. Starting with the muted sounds of a party and finger snaps, 'Aquarius' immediately submerges the listener in the slowed-down grooves and dark atmospherics which define Tinashe's aesthetic and tone.

'Bet' (feat. Devonte Hynes) is even better - to use the sinking metaphor, it feels a few feet deeper. Darker in tone, and packed with apocalyptic visuals, it is one of the most effective tracks on the album. Ending with a wailing guitar solo, and processed backing vocals, it is hair-raising stuff.

'Cold Sweat' is a slow jam for people who have partied too hard but are still going through the motions. The tempo feels like RnB, and there is a discernible groove, but the tone and otherworldly synth textures push it to another place. The lyrics are a paranoid look at hook-up culture, with references to 'friends with agendas' and 'eyes on your back'. There is a world-weariness to the words, as though the  narrator is aware of the dangers but is still willing to seek out a new partner, even if he leaves in the morning (which sounds like the best case scenario).

Buffered by an interlude, '2 On' is the first recognisably RnB track, with a faster beat and a guest verse (by Schoolboy Q). It was the big hit off the record and makes for a nice break from the disenchantment and hollow eroticism of the early tracks.

Compared to the (relative) power surge of '2 On', 'How Many Times' (featuring Future) feels like a go-between, marrying 'Cold Sweat's' slow-burn to a catchy chorus. Maybe because of this it is one of my favourite tracks off the album. It is so good that even the spoken word intro (in French) adds to the ambience, rather than detracting from it.

Bracketed by another interlude, in which Tinashe briefly interrogates the concept of truth, 'Pretend' (with a guest spot from A$AP Rocky) is one of the most unsettling 'love songs' I have heard in awhile - over a (relatively) upbeat melody, the narrator tries to convince a former paramour to pretend they are in love just for one night. Completely undermining the sentiment of the sonics, the singer highlights their superficiality. The song almost feels like a dare for listeners - are they paying attention to the lyrics, or the beat? it is the ultimate 'last rites' song: She knows this guy's MO, and needs one night where all the cards are on the table they are both on the same page.
  
'All Hands on Deck' is more straightforward: it is about a woman wronged too many times.  Now she is only out for hook-ups. It's the first song that feels a little outside the singer's grasp - it is catchy, but the synths are so high in the mix her voice blends into the background. There is also a very obtrusive pan flute that feels totally out of place - it sounds like it was added after the fact.

'Indigo Child (Interlude)' is less than two minutes long, but hits all the aesthetic touchstones of the album. concluding in a crash of electronics reminiscent of FKA twigs.

A ballad about a woman running away from love, 'Far Side of the Moon' continues the album's preoccupation with mendacious lovers and the difficulty of figuring out what a person's real motives are. Sonically, the percussion provides a martial beat that adds an edge of aggression to the bitter musings of the lyrics.

Reducing love to the cheapest signifier of erotic pleasure, 'Feels Like Vegas' is either an ode to dance floor romance, or a deeply cynical extension of the previous tracks, with a narrator taking what she can from the only attraction she can be sure of - the lust of men she meets in the 'flashing lights' of the club.

If 'Thug Cry' were placed earlier in the trackless, its central boost might have come off slightly ridiculous - coming on the heels of all the heartbreak and meditation on bad men, instead it feels like a reassertion of personal power, and a confident blow against displays of machismo. Whereas previous songs dealt with the narrator's insecurities about men, this song flips the script to highlight how she is not the only person affected by her relationships - and their weakness is the inability to express their emotions. It's a clever lyric, and the music is one of the most ear wormy tracks on the album. It's great.

I have not really mentioned the interludes, but snippets like 'Deep in the Night (Interlude)' are great buffers between the more traditional pop RnB and uber-slow jams - this one is a creepy, muffled piano concerto that sounds like audio from an old video of a child's recital.

'Bated Breath' is a return to the haunted slow jams of the first half of the record. The synths and piano are well-judged, but I particularly love how it all dies away to let Tinashe's voice carry it. This track really hits home how Tinashe uses space, silence, as part of her aesthetic. She knows how to let a specific atmosphere and pathos breath and build, rather than smothering everything in a lot of production.

In a completely different vein, 'Wildfire' is a great, funky little number that feels like a break from all the conflict and cynicism of the previous songs. Not to say it is more positive lyrically (she equates her lover's magnetism as a poison in her veins), but at least sonically it feels like the narrator has an opportunity to escape her predicament. Coming after so many tracks dealing with deceit and betrayal, it feels like a narrative cliff hanger - is she going to break away, or will she be lured back toward heartbreak? Instead of closure, we get an ellipses. The song ends as it began, on the precipice of her choice. While we contemplate that, 'The Storm (Outro)' ends the album the way it began, with atoms and the tinkle of ivories fading into silence...

I really enjoy Aquarius. It is well-produced, feels sonically and thematically unified, and is extremely well-sequenced. A lot of albums feel like a bunch of tracks thrown together - every song on Aquarius feels like it is in the right place, and feeds into the vibe of the song which follows it. There is a sense of cumulative effect which is very intoxicating.

I don't really have criticisms. The rap verses have become a familiar component of a lot of songs, but they all feel a little out of place here. Even though '2 On', 'Pretend' and 'How Many Times' are conducive backdrops, the traditional party cliches and macho posturing feel a little odd within the context of the album's overall tone and themes. Not that they detract - amid the album's slow-burn, they are reassuring signposts of something familiar.

While the album is filled with great individual songs, Aquarius is best listened to in one go. So if you  are planning on taking a long road trip, it's the ideal aural backdrop.

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Sunday, 10 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Ocean's 8

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has spent the last five years and change in jail coming up with the perfect heist. Once released, she puts her plan into action. First, she needs a team...


I saw this movie a couple of days ago and I have really had a hard time trying to come up with anything to write about.

This movie is fine. There is nothing about it that sticks out as especially memorable or bad. It has a good cast in cookie-cutter roles, with a scene or moment to give them some personality based on their respective places on the call sheet:

Bullock is the boss with the plan; Cate Blanchett is the second-in-command (although if there is anything else that's interesting about the character it's not in this movie); Helena Bonham Carter is the quirky one; Rihanna is the hacker; Awkwafina is the pick pocket; Mindy Kaling is the fence for the merchandise; Sarah Paulson is the... other one.  

As far as standouts, Bonham Carter has some nice little moments as a quirky designer who is roped into the scheme, and Ann Hathaway is great as the narcissistic socialite that the team needs to facilitate their caper. Following an eye-catching supporting part in last year's Valerian and the Cavalcade of Inanities, Rihanna adds another neat little part as the mysterious hacker who is obsessed with her own privacy. Ala wrestler-turned-thespian Dave Bautista, she has avoided jumping into lead roles, instead taking small but memorable parts that do not require a lot of dramatic heavy lifting. This may sound like an insult but she fits in with the veteran ensemble, which is pretty good for a relative newcomer.

I know this sounds silly, but I am having a really hard time picking out who these people were. Usually with these kinds of movies, either it is more about the characters than the heist or the other way around. With this movie, both heist and characters are just functional - neither part stands out.

This movie's aggressive okay-ness is a bit of a disappointment considering the pedigree and the fact that it is a part of the Ocean's franchise. While the latter movies have their admirers, Ocean's 11 remains a terrific example of the kind of star ensemble caper that this movie is tapping into.

Maybe it is the lack of a Steven Soderbergh? Gary Ross is a solid filmmaker, but Ocean's 8 lacks a certain panache, a certain degree of sophistication and wit to really make it sing. The movie feels like ingredients for a great meal that has not been prepared yet.

Go take your mum. She'll like it.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Other May viewing/reading

The Gilded Age (book; Karin Tanaba, 2016)
Inspired by the true story of Anita Hemmings, an African American woman who passed as white to attend Vassar University, The Gilded Age is a combination of 19th Century romance and thriller. It takes a bit of time to get going, but once Anita begins to be accepted by her friends' upper-class world, it becomes really suspenseful. Sadly relevant.

Seduction of the Innocent (book; Max Allan Collins, 2013)
A murder mystery set in the world of American comic books during the 50s, this is a fun little page turner. It's a throwaway book in the best sense of the word - Collins has a solid grasp of the idiom and cultural context, which gives the book a sense of colour.

Lovesick: Season 3 (Netflix)
An interesting impasse for the characters (and the creatives?).

The main focus has shifted to Luke, as he attempts a redemption tour of all the women he has been with. The big moment is Jonesy defending her choice to not be involved in a relationship. It's a POV you do not see enough of. Sadly the season ends with Jonesy throwing that away to give it a go with Luke. It's the one time the series feels really contrived - here's hoping it pays off.

Booty Call (Jeff Pollack, 1997)
One night, two pairs of friends go on a double date. Hijinx ensue.

I had heard about this movie years ago, but never had a chance (or the inclination) to check it out.

The movie is based on a fun concept that we have seen before: over the course of the night, the male  characters are forced to go on a journey through the city to find some condoms. Ala After Hours, during their quest they stumble into strange incidents and weird characters. 

Despite a good cast (Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, Vivica A. Fox and Tamala Jones), the movie is not that good. My main problem with the movie is that the guys are creeps, the women clock onto this, but then thanks to a series of contrivances, they end up together by the end. It's not terrible, but it just was not that funny.
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1962; Tom Shadyac, 1996)
After watching these two back-to-back, while the original is a better movie, I think I prefer Eddie Murphy's version of Buddy Love to Jerry Lewis's - he feels more antagonistic. The standouts in both movies are the university president, played by Del Moore in the 1962 version and Larry Miller in the 1996 version.

Zero Minus Ten (book; Raymond Benson, 1997
Re-reading for a secret project.

Colonel Sun (book; Kingsley Amis, 1968)
Re-reading for a secret project.

Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)
Re-watching for a secret project.

Fast Girls (Regan Hall, 2012)
A fun little sports movie about a runner from the wrong side of the tracks who learns to be part of a team. I caught this movie within a few days of starting The Expanse and The Girl With All The Gifts. All three feature Dominique Tipper in supporting roles - it was kind of unsettling to see her pop up three times in completely unrelated things

The Expanse (Netflix; Season One)
This is right in my wheelhouse - political intrigue, detective work and an interesting conspiracy involving three different societies. I think I might write something about this in the future. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

IN THEATRES: Upgrade

After a brutal attack leaves him disabled and his wife murdered, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) has nothing to live for - that is, until a reclusive tech genius offers him a chance to regain the use of his limbs. After the operation, Grey soon realises that the tech in his neck can do more than help him walk - it has given him the ability to hunt down the men who killed his wife... whether he wants to or not.




A contemporary version of the cheap-n-cheerful b-movies of yesteryear, Upgrade is an unpretentious action thriller that has a lot of fun with its premise. We have seen versions of this story before, where a man is horrifically injured or killed, is rebuilt as a robot/supernatural creature/superhero, and goes on to destroy his enemies (Robocop, The Crow, Spawn etc). What makes Upgrade stand out is the relationship between Grey and STEM, the computer chip controlling his body.


There is a cliché to these kinds of narratives that Upgrade thankfully avoids - usually the main character only needs the confidence of his new abilities to turn into an action hero. Grey, on the other hand, is always portrayed as an ordinary guy who is in over his head. Initially, he is content to use STEM's abilities to identify the culprits and give the info to the police. And when that investigation leads to a confrontation with one of the killers, he freezes.


It makes for a bigger distinction when STEM takes over and vanquishes his enemies. There is something blackly comic about these action sequences, as Marshall-Green's brutal actions are juxtaposed with his horrified reactions - the movie begins to feel like a buddy cop movie where the average joe and the bad ass are played by one person.


As said person Logan Marshall-Green is really good. There is never a point where it feels like he turns into a straight action hero - he always feels completely at odds with his actions. The rest of the cast are fine - this movie is really just a programmer, so there are no real flashy parts for actors to bite into. Betty Gabriel (Get Out) plays the cop on Grey's tail - she's good, but the role does not give her much to do. Considering how many movies she has done for Blumhouse lately, I'm surprised they have not given Gabriel her own vehicle.


Since the movie is based around a quadriplegic character, I was interested to see how this aspect of the character played out. To its credit, the filmmakers do not make Grey's disability the focus of his despair. His goal is always to get back at the people who took his wife away.


While it is not on the level of Blumhouse's more high profile offerings, Upgrade is a fun little movie that once again proves that you do not need hundreds of millions of dollars to put out an entertaining genre flick.




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Tuesday, 29 May 2018

NOIR WATCH 2018: Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)

When drifter Gino (Massimo Girotti) arrives on the doorstep of innkeeper Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), he expects a drink and a meal. Instead, he meets Giovanna (Clara Calamai), Giuseppe's younger wife. Soon they are involved in a torrid affair and dreaming of running away together.
Desperate to be together, the lovers kill Giuseppe. But once he is out of the picture, the pair's romantic fantasies are soon undermined by their guilt and paranoia.

Regarded as a precursor to Italian neorealism, Ossessione (or Obsession) is the first unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Visconti's adaptation is pretty faithful to the broad strokes of the story and themes, with some interesting additions that expand on Cain's story in interesting ways.

There is Gino's friendship with a traveling salesman who acts as a reminder of his past life, offering him an alternative to his relationship with Giovanna. There is a hint of a homoerotic subtext to their rapport - at one point, Gino refuses to share a bed with the salesman - which adds another layer to his dissatisfaction with Giovanna. With this addition, it reframes his obsession with Giovanna - is his love based on shame at his own repressed desires? This is left unstated, but adds a nice air of ambiguity to the character that does not exist in any other version.

It is easy to take the movie's title for granted, but it underlies every creative choice in the movie. In Cain's version, the husband's murder is pre-planned. In Ossessione, Visconti plays the murder of Giuseppe as a crime of passion - catalysed by their sudden reunion, the pair decide to kill the drunk man while driving back home.

The actual murder is left off-screen, and followed by a sequence of Gino awkwardly walking through the crime scene while he explains the 'accident' to sceptical police. This narrative ellipsis foils expectations, and re-cnetres the viewers' focus on the impact the event has on the perpetrators - it feels like an approximation of death. One second, Giuseppe was alive, and the lovers were innocent; now he is dead, and they have been transformed into different people.

The filmmakers intensify the focus on the lovers' emotional disintegration by excising the court case which takes up the middle of the novel, with greater attention paid to the breakdown of the central couple's relationship. Without the (relative) reprieve of the court case, we watch as Gino drifts about in a daze. Haunted by what he has done, he wants nothing to do with a dead man's business, and is
eventually drawn to another woman, Anita, whose purity an honesty appeals to his guilty conscience.

Aesthetically, the movie is stripped down and lacks the overt stylings of traditional Hollywood noir. Though Visconti employs chiaroscuro, the sources feel naturalistic to the settings. The lack of Hollywood gloss works for the story - the MGM version has always left me cold because of the house style (the lighting especially is so high-key that it kills any attempt at atmosphere).

Unlike the novel, which is from the drifter's POV, Visconti maintains an objective view of his characters, focusing on showing the mundane reality of the characters' predicament, and that directorial distance helps to highlight their growing disenchantment (the scene of Giovanna wandering through the deserted bar, surrounded by empty bottles, is quite haunting).

The two leads deliver naturalistic performances. I was particularly impressed by Girotti. He gives the role a youthful cockiness that cast the drifter of the novel in a new light - he comes off as a young and impetuous. He is never on-board with killing Giuseppe, and seems to recognise that he can never go back, reacting violently like a caged animal. Calamai comes off as an old soul, used to having life hit her in the face. While Girotti's Gino is impetuous and virile, Calamai's Giovanna is more melancholy. Her love for Gino is an externalisation of her deeper desire to escape her life.

The one element that does not work is the score by Giuseppe Rosati. It is so melodramatic and on-the-nose in hitting the emotional undercurrents of scenes that it always feels like an intrusion. Thankfully, there is not a lot of it, and Visconti does not use the soundtrack as an emotional crutch, which (thankfully) lessens its impact.

A fascinating example of a familiar story made without the aesthetic or cultural context it is associated with, Ossessione is a terrific adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice that is far better than the official Hollywood version people are familiar with.

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