Sunday, 31 May 2015

the hound of the baskervilles (1959)

the 1959 hammer production of the hound of the baskervilles is notable for being the first sherlock holmes adaptation since the basil rathbone/nigel bruce series, and the first to be filmed in colour. it stars hammer regulars peter cushing, andre morell and christopher lee playing against type as a romantic lead. it also takes a few liberties with the story to give it more of a gothic horror vibe, and as a result stands out as a really unique adaptation of one of the more famous holmes mysteries.
so the story follows a nobleman, sir henry baskerville, who returns home when his father dies. sherlock holmes is alerted to the case by a friend of sir henry who tasks him with unravelling the mystery of the baskerville curse and protecting the last surviving member of the family.

i'll be honest, i'm not the biggest holmes fan in the world, although i do have a soft spot for the basil rathbone movies. i also prefer jonny lee miller to benedict cumberbatch and i've never made it to the end of one of the jeremy brett episodes. that said, i am a huge hammer fan and ultimately that's why i loved this adaptation.

putting holmes aside, from the blood-thirsty opening scene in which an insidious aristocrat chases down and kills an innocent woman only to be killed himself, it's clear that this is hammer at the top of their game. the setting is appropriately gothic, three of hammer's biggest stars are playing off each other on screen and director terence fisher makes sure every scene drips with gothic atmosphere. the story moves along at a good pace and it gives each of the three main players a good chunk of that story to themselves so it never feels like you're just waiting for holmes to figure it all out. there's also an amazing set-piece at the end of the film and a great twist. 

peter cushing does an amazing job playing holmes. cushing was apparently a huge fan of the character himself and threw in a few improvised lines and details that really make the character work. there's a great moment where he arranges a meeting with another character and as the scene continues cushing takes a pen and notes the time of the meeting down on his shirt cuff. it's a tiny detail, but cushing does something like this a number of times in every scene and it gives the impression of someone whose mind is always racing in search of the next solution.

andre morell, star of my personal favourite hammer title, plague of the zombies, is also on fine form here as dr. watson. morell is on record as saying that his portrayal of watson was intended as a direct response to the bumbling comic-relief interpretation created by nigel bruce in the rathbone movies. morell's watson is quite clearly an ex-military man (like morell himself) with a sharp mind and a determined curiosity that almost rivals that of his companion. that said, when the two of them are together it's clear they make a great team. my favourite moment of the two of them is in a scene where holmes is bedridden and is asks watson to check whether the drawers in his room have been tampered with. cushing and morell play this like a bickering married couple and it speaks volumes about the relationship between the two characters.

added to this is christopher lee as sir henry baskerville, who in this film is given a romantic subplot that seems to have been created specifically for this adaptation. it's remarkable to see lee playing so much against type, but at the same time you can never quite shake the idea that there's something darker going on behind his eyes and that actually works really well for the character.

as well as the film looking great, the blu-ray also comes with a number of fantastic extras, including a new 30-minute documentary featuring mark gatiss and kim newman as well as members of the original crew. there's also an interesting documentary about andre morell presented by his son and a 1986 documentary about the different portrayals of holmes over the years.

the hound of the baskervilles is a true classic of british cinema and if you haven't seen it then the blu-ray release is the perfect opportunity to check it out. if you're a hammer fan then this is an essential part of your collection.

the hound of the baskervilles will be released on blu-ray on 1st june by arrow films

Friday, 22 May 2015

a mouse's tale

a mouse's tale is a peruvian-argentinian animated feature with an impressive voice cast that includes cary elwes, jon heder and jon lovitz.

the film follows a young mouse called sebastian who wants to be a wizard but isn’t very good at magic. while exploring the woods with his friend samantha, the two mice stumble across the dark rodent’s secret rat army and uncover a plot to take over the mouse kingdom. on reporting it to the mouse king, sebastian is declared the chosen one and is tasked with taking an ancient treasure to the kingdom of the giants where he will exchange it for a magic crystal that can save the kingdom.

it’s hard to describe what makes a mouse tale good and interesting without ruining the plot, but i’m going to try. the film starts like a typical fantasy adventure for kids, and reminded me of things like sword in the stone and black cauldron. sebastian is your average hapless hero character and from the opening scene it seems pretty obvious where the film is going to go. there is some added value from the character of his friend, samantha, whose courage and heroism make her much more than the token female character. sebastian’s other two travelling companions, sir jonas and sir thaddeus, add some humour and jon heder and cary elwes have some fun with the voices for these characters. the film takes a while to really get going, but once the four adventurers set off on their quest it’s a fun romp, if one that we’ve seen before.

about two thirds of the way through something happens that i didn’t see coming and it completely changed my opinion of the film. again, really trying not to spoil it, but it reminded me of a really brilliant 80s australian film called the navigator, which has a similar premise. if you liked that film, this is kind of like the kid’s version and it manages to do something similar with the story and where it takes its characters.

it’s difficult to comment on the quality of the adaptation of something like this as i have no idea what the original argentinian/peruvian script was like, but the writers have definitely done a good job. there are some really funny moments and the characters are more developed than you would expect in something like this. the voice cast all do a fantastic job as well – heder and elwes make an unlikely double act, and there’s particularly great support from tom arnold as the king’s wizard.

if i had a criticism i’d say the animation is perhaps not as slick or textured as say a pixar film and visually the film looks a little dated, but that’s a minor issue in a film that really thrives on its characters and story. i would say that there are some darker moments that could be a little scary for young kids, but then what do i know about what kids are into. for my part i found this to be an enjoyable, exciting and ultimately really interesting film and i would definitely check it out if you’re interested in some light-hearted entertainment.

a mouse's tale is released on dvd on 25th may from lionsgate home entertainment

Thursday, 21 May 2015

life of riley

life of riley is a french film based on an alan ayckbourn play set in yorkshire. if that sounds odd, it’s actually only the first of a number of unique and interesting things about this film.

the film follows two middle-aged couples in the process of rehearsing a play for their amateur theatre group. everything changes when they discover their friend, george riley, is dying from a terminal illness and only has six months to live. to help take his mind off the situation they invite george to be in the play but his presence soon starts to tear their relationships and friendships apart.

director alain resnais employs a number of interesting stylistic techniques to tell the story in what would unfortunately become his final film. the film opens with the camera moving through real yorkshire locations, and he uses this device to link the scenes together throughout the film. however, when we actually go into the scenes the locations are marked by a cartoon drawing of whichever house we’re going into. the locations themselves are deliberately made to appear like stage sets, with the backdrops made to look like curtains that the actors move in and out of when they enter or exit the scene. as you would expect from a film that has taken so many elements from theatre, many of the scenes are filmed in long takes, and resnais does some really interesting things with the camera during these takes. however, when one of the characters has a monologue or a particularly emotional moment resnais not only cuts to a close-up, he replaces the background with a monochrome, cross-hatched backdrop that takes us out of the scene but really emphasises the actor’s performance at the same time.

with so many alienating and sometimes distracting techniques at play, you would expect life of riley to be a confusing mess. however, resnais’ methods are all suggested by the playful nature of the source material. ayckbourn’s play has it’s own stylistic touches, such as the fact that the title character never appears onstage, or the fact that the play the characters are rehearsing is another ayckbourn play. resnais’ interpretation of the play seems like a perfect extension of the themes and ideas ayckbourn established, because resnais seems to have been really inspired by the source material rather than restricted by it.

somehow, all these disparate and distracting elements come together to form a story that really works. despite the actors being french and the locations looking like stage sets, i never doubted that we were in rural yorkshire. the characters really come to life, mostly thanks to some excellent performances from the veteran cast, and it’s impossible not to become engaged in the story, even when it seems like resnais is doing all he can to distance you from it. this is a film that takes some real risks, but for the most part, those risks pay off.

the only thing i’m not sure about is the animatronic mole. i didn’t quite get that part.

ultimately what holds this film together is the story of four people who need their lives to be shaken up, and that shake up comes in the form of the imminent death of their friend. relationships are tested, secrets are revealed but in the end, and as is fitting for a film structured around the performance of a play, the show must go on.

i’ve seen a few films based on stage plays, and usually my criticism is that they felt too much like plays, in that not enough has been done to adapt the material. resnais avoids this by embracing the medium and making use of the best of both worlds. somehow this works, and it’s worth seeing the film just to see how resnais pulls this off.

eureka entertainment will be releasing life of riley on blu-ray and dvd in a dual format edition as part of the masters of cinema series on 25th may 2015

Friday, 15 May 2015

blackwood - soundtrack review

blackwood is a traditional english ghost story about a college professor played by ed stoppard who suffers an emotional breakdown and retreats to the countryside with his wife and son in the hope of making a fresh start. this seems to be going okay at first, but then he starts to witness strange things in the house his family have moved into and he finds himself unravelling a local mystery that could put the lives of his family in danger.

the score is by lorne balfe, a diverse composer who seems equally at home scoring action thrillers such as ironclad and the upcoming terminator: genisys as he is composing the music for animated features like home and the penguins of madagascar. as a producer he has worked on some truly iconic scores, including sherlock holmes and inception for hans zimmer. balfe is a composer with an impressive filmography and who doesn’t appear to be restricted to a particular tone or genre. the music for blackwood shows that he certainly knows what he’s doing with a supernatural-themed score.

the blackwood score opens with a philip glass-esque organ piece that recurs on a number of tracks. aside from the recurring, repeating organ motif most of the tracks here are slow-build, atmospheric pieces that really build tension as well as suggesting the emotional state of the characters. balfe emphasises the dramatic moments with string and choral arrangements and occasionally uses some interesting techniques to represent a descent into madness, but aside from a few standout moments he mostly plays it safe with a genre-appropriate if uninspired score.

there are a number of really interesting tracks on the album, particularly cadenza which uses a disjointed violin melody that fades in and out and increases and decreases pace at odd intervals to show the main character’s struggle with madness. first night in blackwood really sets the tone of the story, and makes it clear this is about the characters and their journey more than it is about scares. balfe also does a great job hinting at a mystery with this track. six chimes is a fast-paced track that at times feels like philip glass on a duet with john carpenter. the final track, blackwood, does a great job uniting the various themes into something almost triumphant, with a hint of sadness and ever-present mystery.

overall, this is a really effective but at times workmanlike score that does exactly what it needs to do, although it does have some really standout moments. scores like this are tricky to review in isolation, because in a lot of ways it has a subtlety to it that makes it perfect for film. that subtlety doesn’t necessarily make it a great listen on its own, but what’s clear is that balfe is certainly a talented composer who, with the right project, could rival the giants in the field. if you are interested in horror soundtracks then this is definitely worth considering for your collection.

blackwood – original motion picture score is available digitally right now and will be on cd may 19th, 2015.

Monday, 11 May 2015

paper moon

peter bogdanovich started out as a film critic who learned filmmaking the fast way through working with roger corman, most notably on the boris karloff classic, targets (if you haven't seen targets, you should seriously check it out). bogdanovich went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation. paper moon was made at the height of that acclaim and is considered by many to be his best work.

the story follows travelling con man moses pray (ryan o’neal) who visits the graveside of a former lover only to find himself agreeing to take the woman’s orphaned nine-year-old daughter, addie (played by o’neal’s real life daughter tatum o’neal) cross country to stay with her aunt. it’s not long before addie has not only worked out how moses makes his money but also decides to help him. as they near their destination the usually cautious moses is pushed into bigger and more risky cons by his young protégé.

paper moon is a fascinating film about family, loyalty and greed and the depression-era setting perfectly captures an america on the brink of disaster. moses pray’s america feels almost like the wild west, as he drifts from town to town always on the lookout for the next mark. the roads he and addie travel seem almost as empty as the towns they find along the way and there is a real sense that something has failed; that the american dream didn’t work out and now everyone has to do whatever they can to get by. addie takes this idea to a new level.

in the opening minutes, it appears as though paper moon will be a story of innocence corrupted. addie is a girl who has no one, and now she’s stuck with a con man for a father figure. however, the balance of power soon shifts when moses tries to put addie on a train to make the journey alone and she practically blackmails him into taking her with him. as their relationship develops, moses begins to learn more from addie than she learns from him, although for her it is clearly a game in which she never has to face the consequences. for moses, there is much more at stake and in the end he is more likely rediscover his own lost innocence than addie is to lose her's.

there is a key scene in the film around the mid-point that neatly summarises the themes of the story. moses becomes enamoured with a carnival dancer named trixie delight and decides to bring trixie and her 15-year-old black maid imogene along with them. addie isn’t particularly happy with this arrangement and she and imogene work out a plan to separate moses and trixie. when the plan works, moses tells addie they’re leaving and she waves to imogene as she skips along the hotel hallway to be with her surrogate father. the camera follows addie, but never loses focus on imogene standing alone behind her. this is a story about people who do what is best for them and only them, and addie is sometimes just as guilty of that as moses is. this adds more tension to the film’s central dramatic question – will moses take addie with him in the end, or will he abandon her with her aunt?

paper poon is also an incredibly well-crafted film and is a great example of a talented directed working at the height of his power. the black-and-white cinematography, by famed cinematographer laszlo kovacs, seems to somehow add a vibrancy to the story rather than simply emphasising the bleakness of the period. the contrast of the setting and the photography next to the sentimental and seemingly light-hearted plot is an interesting juxtaposition and one that produces an unsettling feeling that things are about to go horribly wrong at any moment. ryan and tatum o’neal give career-defining performances in the lead roles, and tatum actually went on to become the youngest winner of an academy award at the time.

this is one of those rare titles that manages to tell a great story without compromising on emotional depth or complexity. the story on the surface of a young girl being taken in by a con man is an entertaining and at times funny and heart-warming romp that moves at a satisfying pace. at the same time there is so much more complexity and nuance under the surface that it is easy to imagine watching this film over and over again. in summary, paper moon is a genuine classic and definitely worth revisiting.

paper moon is released on blu-ray in a dual format edition as part of the masters of cinema series on 18th may 2015

Friday, 8 May 2015

child 44 - soundtrack review

child 44 is a mystery/thriller set in the soviet union in the 1950s. the film follows a disgraced security agent played by tom hardy who uncovers a serial killer plot involving the brutal murder of children but has to struggle to prove the killer’s existence in a society that doesn't believe in serial killers. To do so he must join forces with his wife played by noomi rapace and together they tackle a cover-up with national implications.

the score is by swedish composer jon ekstrand who has previously worked on a number of notable swedish and danish productions and regularly collaborates with child 44 director daniel espinosa. one of those projects was the swedish thriller easy money, starring joel kinnaman and currently being remade with zac efron. ekstand also has a background in sound design, which comes across in this unobtrusive yet effective score.

looking at ekstrand’s filmography he is clearly no stranger to the crime/thriller genre, and this comes through in the child 44 score. unlike some of ekstrand’s previous work, particularly the synth-based score for easy money, the child 44 score uses only acoustic instruments. as well as setting a grim tone, the acoustic soundtrack also does a great job invoking the period. there is also a huge amount of tension and mystery suggested by the music.

the score opens with a track that is both haunting and mysterious at first, but at the same time the cello part is tinged with sadness. the way the different string elements compete for attention on this track really tells the story of someone struggling against a power beyond their control. there are more subtle moments, such as the track ‘orphaned’, which starts with an ominous piano theme over a light string background and then transforms into something more tragic. many of the early tracks mirror this structure and really invoke the tragedy of what is happening in the story as well as the thriller element. later tracks, such as ‘the usual process’, really foreground the detective elements of the story and this track in particular really injects a sense of urgency into the score. there are also much darker moments, such as the track ‘meet the malevichs’, which almost sounds like something from a horror film. the final track, ‘leo & raisa demidov’ is a melancholic love theme that really tells the story of a couple that have been through a great struggle.

overall, the child 44 score is an effective piece of music that manages to remain emotionally charged whilst also injecting the required amount of tension and urgency when required. it is also incredibly dark and brooding in places, which really helps set the mood of the film. at it’s best moments it reminded me of jo yeong-wook’s score for oldboy, with it’s perfect balance of tragedy and tension. that said, for the most part this is a very safe soundtrack and does exactly what you would expect it to do. ekstrand may not take any real risks here, but then that’s not always a bad thing and the score works very well for the sensitive subject matter of the film.

the child 44 – original motion picture soundtrack is available digitally right now and will be released on cd on 12th May, 2015