Tuesday, 13 November 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Death Race 2050 (G. J. Echternkamp, 2017)

In the year 2050, the United Corporations of America keep the masses placated with the Death Race, a trans-continental race in which coming first is only part of the fun.

Veteran racer Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) is looking forward to retirement. His competition, includes musical superstar Minerva (Folake Olowofoyeku), fundamentalist Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey), a genetically-engineered superman (Burt Grinstead) and a sentient car (voiced by D. C. Douglas).

Complicating his task, a group of freedom fighters have declared war on the Death Race and all its participants.

Frankenstein will need to use all his skills to win the race, and avoid being retired... from life.

Produced by b-movie luminary Roger Corman, this sequel/remake to his 1975 cheapie Death Race 2000 (directed by Paul Bartel) is exactly what you think it is.
The movie looks cheap, but it feels like a financial constraint rather than an ironic aesthetic choice. The style is really cool - the movie was shot in Peru, and the filmmakers make good use of the exterior locations.  

The thing that really clicks are the characters - the racers are all distinctive and interesting, and the comedy feels like an organic extension of the characters: Perfectus is incredibly insecure; Tammi is a con artist who exploits her followers to rack up points; AI Abe ends questioning his own existence and taking a road trip of self-discovery.

While the production values are threadbare, the performances are really good - everyone knows what the tone of the movie is, and commit. No one is winking at the audience, and that sincerity helps excuse the production values, and ends up making the movie funnier. 

The plot is fairly rote and predictable, and the leads are a bit dull, but the bizarre world and supporting characters are the movie's MVP. It's too bad the movie is so short, because I could have used a couple more vignettes with Minerva, Tammy and Perfectus.

Perfect for a drinking game, Death Race 2050 may not be great 'cinema' is a good time.


Death Race

Saturday, 10 November 2018

LP1 (FKA Twigs, 2014)

It is not often that I start an album sight unseen and let it play straight to the end. While it does not seem fast (it is basically the opposite), LP1 does have a distinct sense of pace and tension that hooks you in.

LP1 is the definition of a slow-burn.

It is also generically diffuse - there are elements which feel like RnB, EDM, even gregorian chants - part of the album's tension are the sudden shifts in style and aesthetic.

'Preface' begins with the unsettling, multi-tracked line "I love another/And thus I hate myself". Repeated over an increasingly aggressive bed of electronica, it feels like passing through a gateway to another world.

'Lights On' shows things down, but remains unnerving (the chorus particularly so). It sounds like a slow jam for an alien mating ritual - and that is a compliment. Thinking back, I really should have put this review out October.  It's not Halloween-related, but LP1 is definitely spine-tingling.

At first I thought 'Two Weeks' was about a woman telling a man to pleasure her. Because it is so forthright, and the vocal is occasionally hard to make out, I thought it was about a woman's sexual agency, and how she focuses on her own sexual pleasure. After reading the lyrics, I was a little less taken with it.

It is still a great song that I have listened to repeatedly, but the lyrics feel slightly conventional in theme (a woman seducing a man away from his significant other). The gender inversion is interesting, although with this song, I began to really notice the divergence between the lyrics and the tone of the production.

What is frustrating and intriguing about LP1 is that these components are so unified and distinct that by the middle of the album, I find myself giving into it, and letting the words and sounds congeal around my brain. The album feels like a series of seismic movements, with little breathers in-between.

Twigs started as a dancer, and there is something very body-centric about the music on LP1. If you watch her music videos, or the choreography in her live shows, it all syncs. I even found this myself - when I listened to the album seated, it feels discordant and unsettling. When I went for a walk, suddenly it began to make sense. The rhythms, the odd beats, the moments of silence - I could feel the pace of my walking and breathing shifting in time with the flow of the music. It was exhilarating, and the music began to feel more organic and - perversely - empathetic.

Back to misunderstanding the album.

'Hours' is produced by the great Dev Hynes (Blood Orange; Solange's Free EP; and the resurrected Sugababes' unreleased comeback album) but the sound of all the songs is so cohesive I only figured it while I was looking at his credits.

'Video Girl' feels like one half of an argument where you don't really get what it's about: infidelity in the pop music world? A look at the superficiality and ignominy of video vixens?

Maybe. Whatever the intent of the lyrics, the slowed-down trap soundtrack underscore the spare lyric with menace. Combining naiveté the birth of youthful dreams and a smidge of narcissism, the song builds to a near-martial beat.

Backed by what sounds like a processed bell (A warning? For the subject of the lyric? Or the narrator?), 'Numbers' is even more unsettling. Good sequencing can add new meaning to songs, and having this song follow 'Video Girl' made it feel like a spiritual sequel, building on that track's theme of lost innocence, from the reductive image of the 'video girl' to a notch on some guy's bedpost.

Starting with multi-tracked, echoing chorus, 'Closer' sounds like the Alien Queen covering Enya. That being said, the choral effect of the voices make this track feel more intimate and warm than the chilly electronica around it. Coming after so much darkness, lyrically and sonically, 'Closer' feels like a turning point in the record. When listened to in sequence, there is something weirdly euphoric and uplifting about 'Closer', like the narrator has finally overcome fear and distrust to open themselves to the world and new relationships.

Buoyed by a more assertive vocal, 'Give Up' is an imperative. The conflict of previous songs is replaced with commands and assertions. The previous songs have been from point of view of someone who wants to please, to be malleable to the desires of someone who never articulates what those desires are. In 'Give Up', the narrator directly confronts this unseen spectator, demanding they respond.

With a slightly more overt trap influence and a catchy chorus, 'Kicks' feels the closest thing to a pop song on the album. It is still weird as hell, but there is the spine of a torch song here. The narrator mourns a lack of purpose outside of a relationship - ironically, her solution is to emulate his behaviour.

And then the album ends, as mysteriously as it began. As Keanu would say, "Whoa".

In the last couple years, I have been a fan of this new futurist pop/RnB. Of the artists I have listened to (Tinashe, Kelela, KING etc), Twigs is the most extreme. Trying to frame her work in a digestible way has been ridiculously difficult. I consider myself a music fan, but I am no expert. I usually try to focus on broader concepts of what the artist is trying to accomplish, and try to offer analysis based on what history and context I know about the artist and their influences. Due to my relative illiteracy in musical terminology, I tend to focus on lyrical content.

With LP1, I found my usual approach completely inadequate. I still don't know what the hell is going on here. Every time I think I have a handle on what she is doing, it feels inadequate, or off-base. The music is unquantifiable, in the best way possible.

Listening to FKA Twigs, it feels like I have stumbled into the future of something. Of what, I am not exactly sure. But I am looking forward to learning more about it.

Tangentially related (?)

Tinashe's Aquarius

Friday, 9 November 2018


A few days before the Normandy invasion in 1944, a group of American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to knock out a radio tower in a small French village church. 

Their mission is difficult, but what they discover under the church could be of even greater consequence to both the incoming forces, and the rest of the world...

Rumoured to be the next Cloverfield movie, Overlord is thankfully free of any tangential universe-building. If you ever played the Wolfenstein games or enjoyed the Dead Snow movies (or, if you really obscure, are a fan of the 1977 horror movie Shock Waves), this might be a little familiar. A fun blend of men-on-a-mission film and zombie thriller, Overlord feels like an idea that should have been made 10 times already.

While it is a studio release, Overlord feels rather contained - in a good way. The lack of a big budget is a benefit - director Julius Avery shoots the action close, with the invasion force glimpsed through windows. Boyce's fall to earth is accomplished in a series of tight mid-shots, with the camera anchored to his POV as he struggles to pull his chute. And once the paratroopers are on the ground, the action is more limited - most of the major scenes are set in the attic of a house in the village, where the paratroopers plan their next move while SS patrol the streets outside.

While the movie is exactly as advertised, it is also more understated, and not as much of a roller-coaster as the trailers make out. Overlord's forte is really slow-building dread and claustrophobia, rather than jump scares.
And while the characters are pretty stock, the performances are decent. In the lead, Jovan Adepo plays Boyce, a green paratrooper who has to step up after he stumbles upon what the Nazis are up to. One interesting wrinkle to his character is how no reference is made to the fact that he is black. Considering the state of the US military at the time (President Truman desegregated the military by executive order after the war was over), it feels bizarre to ignore it completely.

Wyatt Russell plays Ford, the veteran of the team, and is chiefly notable for looking and sounding exactly like his dad (Kurt). Watching him gruffly emphasise the importance of the mission, it is hard not to think of The Thing, Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China.

My big gripe with the movie is that it's not more than what it is. It's a horror-action movie with Nazis in WWII, and that's about it.

None of the characters are that interesting, and the action - while staged well - is not that exciting.

The big problem with Overlord is that the supernatural threat is not that scary. An army of immortal killers is cool, but we don't get a real grasp of what they are, and the examples we do see are pretty bland (and are stopped fairly easily). Contemporary movie monsters are really lacking, both visually and in terms of characterisation.

By contrast, the Nazi soldiers are terrifying. It probably helps that they come with a real historical context that does not require much explanation, but the movie is at its best when it is about four exhausted paratroopers hiding from the Germans in the attic while they interrogate its owners in the living room below. By comparison, the zombies just fall flat.

Indeed, because the architecture of the movie is so familiar, you could take out the un-dead super soldiers and it would still work.

The zombie threat only really connects when the main Nazi villain (Pilou Asbæk) injects himself with the agent that creates the un-dead, and turns into an unstoppable killing machine. This finale is undermined by the fact that it ends up being another fight scene between two immortal characters who cannot die. 

In the end, Overlord is a solid programmer - nothing more, nothing less. The colourless monsters and neutral approach to race are just the most obvious aspects of a movie that should be more than a cool logline.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Marine - Battleground (James Nunn, 2017)

When the president of a biker gang is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, the gang head off in pursuit of his killers.

Meanwhile, former marine Jake Carter (WWE wrestler The Miz) is now working as a paramedic. After he responds to an emergency in an underground parking lot, he finds one of the shooters with a bullet wound.

Complicating matters, the gang quickly figure out where their targets are and lay siege to the parking structure.

Cut off from the outside world, Carter will have to draw on his marine-ing skills to defend his patient from the bad guys.

DTV action movies have a bad wrap that they do not deserve. There are some genuinely good filmmakers working in the genre, but because they don't come out in theatres, they still carry the retina of being lo-rent. Rather like how dramas have moved to TV, 'traditional' urban-set action flicks featuring people shooting guns, explosions, martial arts, profanity and nudity (basically everything from Dirty Harry through Rambo, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) have left the multiplex in favour of streaming and Redbox.

Scott Adkins is basically a non-entity on the big screen, but on DTV he is the equivalent of an 80s action star - check out the Undisputed movies, or the Ninja flicks, or Savage Dog. Even veterans like Jean Claude Van Damme have found a second wind in the DTV genre.

If you bemoan the overabundance of CGI and superheroes on the big screen - and you have not checked out the DTV scene, you are missing out. . 

I had heard some good things about this movie, and I liked the idea that it was basically a Die hard variant set at an underground parking lot at a closed theme park. It also (apparently) cost two million dollars to make.

I did not have high expectations going in, but this movie is a lot of fun.

The story is clean and simple - the characters are well-established and have understandable motivations. The dialogue is snappy, and not as cheesy as I thought it would be - the way Jake Carter is introduced manages to wedge in his background without feeling like an info dump.

The performers are also well-cast: The Miz may not have great emotional range, but he is well-cast as the super-professional with a conscience. He's got a reputation as one of the best heels (bad guys) in the WWE, and it is a testament to his talents that he is convincing as the reserved ex-soldier. Bo Dallas is terrific as the psychotic villain, while Naomi - a great wrestler who has never been that great on the mike - is not exposed. The same goes for Curtis Axel, who plays the chief muscle of the gang, and gets in a  brutal hand-to-axe fight with the Miz.

Bo Dallas as Alonzo

One of the key elements of a Die Hard-type film is establishing the location. Every level of the  parking structure looks the same (considering the movie's budget, it's possible they just re-dressed the same location), but the filmmakers find ways to define each level with different action set pieces, and aesthetic choices (on Level 6, Carter breaks all the lights so it is in near-total darkness).
Technically, the movie is great example of solid genre craftsmanship - the editing is tight and director James Nunn displays a talent for extended, unobtrusive takes as our heroes try to escape the biker gang. They are used judiciously, to show off choreography and also build tension in-frame, without hyperactive editing or jerky camerawork.

The fight choreography is also great, and Nunn shoots it wide and long so the performers can really show off what they can do. One of the best examples of this is Naomi - a former dancer-turned-wrestler, she is famous for her acrobatic persona, and brings the same agility to her big fight with the Miz.

The script is clever enough to give these fights a little story, with a couple of dramatic reversals - Naomi pulls a gun; the Miz zaps her with the defibrillator paddles; Naomi recovers and jumps him. And so on, until the Miz gains the upper-hand. There is a fun back-and-forth to the fights that prevent them from feeling rote, and - more importantly - making the Miz into a superhero.

Despite being a one-man-army, Jake Carter feels like an underdog - giving him a supporting character who he has to keep alive really adds a sense of stakes to the movie, and makes his predicament (leaving a parking lot) more daunting than it sounds.

There's not much more to it. The Marine 5 is a really fun flick. Even if you don't like pro-wrestling, you will find plenty to like here.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Bond 25 speculation: Into the black

It has been a while since I put out one of these.

So a lot has changed!

First, frequent screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (scribes of all the movies between 1999-2015) were off script duties. And then they were writing a treatment. And then Danny Boyle was in as director, with frequent collaborator John Hodge as screenwriter (Bye Purvis and Wade!).

And then in August, Boyle and Hodge were gone (Hello Purvis and Wade!).

For a moment, it looked like Bond 25 was up in smoke, or in danger of being extremely pedestrian  (Hello Purvis and Wade!).

And then there was a news update: Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, was onboard as director, and the movie's release date had been pushed back to Valentine's Day, 2020.

What does this mean?

I don't know. And I like it.

Here we are suspended between victory and defeat, greatness and Die Another Day.

The real fact is that all the behind-the-scenes, pre-production nonsense does not matter (apart from the people who are employed on the project). What matters is the final product.

So unplug, enjoy your life and come back to this blog in just over a year when you can hear my thoughts on whatever Bond 25 turns out to be.


A new episode of the THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR will be dropping on Saturday.

I will also be putting out a Bond-related review at the end of November.

There are more good things inbound, so keep following the blog - there are some very cool things coming.


Monday, 29 October 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Jones, 1982)

Alone for the weekend, teenager Trish (Michelle Michaels) invites her friends over for a slumber party. What they don't know is that serial murderer Russ Thorne (Michael Villella) is in the neighbourhood, looking to increase his bodycount...

There is nothing subtle about this movie. If you have seen the poster, you know exactly what it is.
A latecomer to the first slasher wave, The Slumber Party Massacre has an interesting pedigree - produced by Roger Corman, the movie was written by feminist academic Rita Mae Brown and directed by former editor Amy Jones, who would go on to direct the drama Love Letters with former scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis
I watched this movie about a decade ago, after reading Corman's autobiography How I Made a 100 Movies in Hollywood and never lost a Dime. Corman is famous for giving budding filmmakers opportunities, and one of the stories he related was about this movie - editor Amy Jones was keen to get a shot directing and so she put together a skeleton crew and shot the first 10 minutes of the movie without Corman realising it. When she presented the completed footage to the producer, he was so impressed he gave her the budget to finish the rest of the movie.

The book was filled with stories like this, with Corman offering tips and examples of how to get a genre picture made for very little money. At the time I read Corman's book, I was studying film production, and was hungry for stories like Jones's.

While I recognise its flaws, I have always had a fondness for this movie. It's working from a familiar template, but because it is so small in scope, and it is not as technically strong as something like Halloween, there was something weirdly aspirational about it.  
If you are looking for an introduction to the basic tenets of the teen horror movie, watching only the best movies won't get you that far. You can learn something from watching ideas executed brilliantly (Halloween), but I guarantee you will learn more from watching a movie like Slumber Party Massacre, where the mechanics of these movies are exposed. Not only is the shakiness of the movie's use of familiar clichés and formal conventions part of its charm, SPM serves as a great example of how these things are supposed to work.

Structurally, SPM is a re-run of Halloween - an evil killer escapes from prison to continue killing people and stumbles into a group of randy teenagers.

Now from what I have gathered, Rita Mae Brown's script was intended as a comedy, but the filmmakers did not get the satirical bent and turned it into a cookie cutter slasher movie. There are a couple of jokes which make it through - the phallic symbolism of the killer's drill; the creepy-but-well-intentioned neighbour; the zodiac signs in the newspaper. My personal favourite is the reveal (to the audience) of a body in the fridge, that the rest of the cast remain completely oblivious of.
I chalk it up to Brown and Jones that the movie does not really echo the implications of the poster. There is only one scene of brief nudity, and the violence is underplayed (probably due to the low budget).
The acting by the unknown cast is a bit wooden, although the core group of slumber paty-ers(?) have an easy rapport that adds a couple notes of humanity that they lack by themselves. There is a long, slightly dull subplot involving a new girl (Robin Stille) in the neighbourhood who has been ostracised from the group at school, and winds up coming to the rescue at the end. With a more sure hand at the directing tiller, and a more experienced cast, The Slumber Party Massacre might have been a dry run for Scream. As is, it is a generic slasher.

But if you take it as an instruction manual on how to do a genre film on the cheap, The Slumber Party Massacre gains another layer of entertainment value. It features a clear concept, a small cast, and a few key locations. And as a rip-off of a better-known movie, it offers a good primer in how to pull off low budget thrills. It's far from perfect, but in its imperfection, The Slumber Party Massacre brings visibility to the human endeavour of trying to scare an audience.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: See No Evil (Richard Fleischer, 1971)

After losing her sight in an accident, Sarah (Mia Farrow) is spending time with her uncle's family while she works through the transition.

One day Sarah returns home to discover her family have been murdered by an unknown psychopath. The only clue to his identity is a bracelet engraved with the name 'Jacko'.

After discovering the bracelet is missing, the killer returns to the house. Sarah flees into the countryside on a horse.

Will she be able to escape the killer?

I have a soft spot for director Richard Fleischer. He directed one of the movies of my childhood, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and one of my favourite films noir, The Narrow Margin. He also directed some solid true crime dramas, including The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place

Extremely prolific, he made a variety of different movies of varying quality, and has gained a reputation as something of a hack. That may be true, but the guy knew what he was doing when it are to thrillers. 

I caught this movie about a decade ago, after I had seen the similar (and far superior) Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn. This was the wrong entry point for this movie - compared with the 1967 potboiler, See No Evil comes off a bit weightless.

The best scene in the movie is Sarah's return to the house. As she walks upstairs, we see the signs of struggle, culminating in the reveal that everyone in the house is dead. It is a terrific scene, made more so by the lack of score (a rare dud from Elmer Bernstein).

Fleischer shoots the killer with torso out of frame, with his distinctive cowboy boots as the most recognisable feature. It's a neat shorthand, although some of the hand-held shots undermine the effect.  I could not help wondering what Fleischer could have accomplished if he had made this film a few years later with a Steadicam. After 'Cowboy Boots's first appearance, you can feel the filmmakers straining not to repeat themselves with new compositions that keep his identity a secret.

The movie is aiming for the same 'daytime nightmare' vibe as And Soon The Darkness (both films were co-scripted by Brian Clemens), but See No Evil loses momentum as soon as Sarah flees the house.

The story becomes a collection of ideas that kill the suspense. Sarah becomes entangled with a local clan of Roma who are afraid that one of their family may be blamed for the killings. This subplot is interesting but it means the main catalyst for the movie's suspense - 'Jacko' - is out of the picture right until the very end.

Basing the movie around a maligned minority who are blamed for a crime they had nothing to do with is a good idea for a thriller. In this movie, this subplot kills any sense of momentum. There is an element of danger in that the Roma do not want her to reach the police, but there is never any sense that Sarah is in actual danger. If the killer was hunting her for the course of her escape, and the Roma inadvertently made his job easier by imprisoning her, it would have worked. As is, it's just an overlong sequence that stretches the running time to feature-length.

 If you enjoyed Wait Until Dark, See No Evil is a fun variant. But be prepared for some judicious fast-forwarding.