Rhythm Circus http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk Newest online source for anything Film, Game and Music! Sat, 07 May 2016 15:02:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.3.11 Miles Ahead http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/film/miles-ahead/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/film/miles-ahead/#comments Wed, 04 May 2016 10:03:45 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20664

 

Miles Ahead

‘Man, knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery.’ Miles Davis, from Miles: The Autobiography.

The musical legend biopic has always been a tough nut to crack. Through cinematic history there have been a number of greats, with Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story and Kurt Russell as ‘The King’ in John Carpenter’s Elvis through to Gary Busey’s star turn in The Buddy Holly Story. The genre then hit a high watermark in 2005 with director James Mangold’s Oscar-winning Johnny Cash flick Walk the Line. Such was the success of the Joaquin Phoenix-starrer, however, that we have had to suffer a very similar treatment on every musician film since, with a linear narrative duly taking us on a drearily familiar ‘rags-to-riches-to-breakdown-to-redemption-to-comeback’ journey. James Brown story Get On Up is a notable culprit. It is therefore extremely refreshing to see acclaimed actor and debut director Don Cheadle hit an unconventional beat with his blistering account of ageing ‘social music’ genius Miles Davis, himself the epitome of convention-defying grit.
The film opens with a jerky camera lensing up on a late 1970’s, flamboyantly-dressed Davis (Cheadle), talking in his renowned husky tones about his attitude to life and music, before he criticizes an unseen interviewer for laying on a phoney intro to proceedings. The audience is then taken on a wild ride in his bid to get paid the $20,000 he is owed for a new recording made for label Columbia Records, which involves a gun, a car chase, some serious drug abuse, an up-and-coming musician and his gangster of a manager. This is all expertly intercut with flashes of Davis’ back story, as Cheadle the director incorporates some lovely filmic touches often achieved in-camera with dizzying editing, which help get the viewer into the mindset of a man hopelessly hooked on cocaine reflecting on his glory days.
You get the impression the notoriously private and enigmatic Davis would have hated this exploration into his personal life just as much as his screen incarnation. But what a personal life. As chaotic, exhilarating, unpredictable, spontaneous and wildly emotional as much of the man’s famous musical musings, it’s irresistible and fascinating viewing for anyone interested in life lived on the edge.
Cheadle is mesmerizing in the role. It’s a near impossible task to portray someone with so many demons and flaws in his life, yet possessed with artistic genius and mind-boggling talent, and get it right. But instead of allowing himself to get weighed down with such a heavy burden, he soars, jumping from Davis’ famously arrogant and self-righteous attitude to a more sympathetic side he so richly delivered over the years  in films as wide-ranging as Boogie Nights and Hotel Rwanda. It’s a towering portrayal, that slyly allows the audience into an extremely complex headspace, and even feel sympathy for a man who objects to everyone he meets, dooms the great relationship of his life (to wife Francis Taylor, sensitively portrayed by Emayatzy Corinealdi), and whose pursuit of his next narcotic fix takes priority over every other aspect of his being.
The audience find their way into Davis’ life via the device of (sadly) fictional Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill, played with typical exuberance by Ewan McGregor. Brill’s is the voice we hear interviewing Davis in the opening scene, although we later learn he has bluffed his way into getting access to the ailing star. McGregor provides a welcome counterpoint to Cheadle’s performance. His character is in way over his head, yet offers a voice of reason to the increasingly outlandish events and makes the material feel more accessible. The film may not reach a wide audience; the limited number of characters and locations are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s made-for-TV Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, and the fictional aspects prevent us from getting too close to the real story. However, Cheadle’s assured direction will satisfy those missing Scorsese and De Palma’s 70’s-set outings, and of course the jazz-fuelled soundtrack is excellent.
Words> Roy Swansborough
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High-Rise http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/film/high-rise/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/film/high-rise/#comments Fri, 18 Mar 2016 17:30:14 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20655 Ben Wheatley’s anarchic monument to JG Ballard’s satire is pupose-built to startle, but its towering ambition comes with a few floors

In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third volume of Douglas AdamsHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the congenitally hapless Arthur Dent – who has just become a shade less hapless by learning how to fly – collides mid-flight with a “large and extremely disreputable cocktail party”. As he enters the floating soiree, Dent learns that it has been self-sustaining for many years: after the building was made airborne by the physics contingent of the guest list, its revellers began to conduct air raids on surrounding cities for booze and nibbles, which were piped in from hovering tankers to placate the unruly throng.

One wonders whether Adams’ casual inclusion of this social gathering gone to pot (or off to a tee, depending on whether or not you’re one of the guests), was a subtle confession that he’d stumbled upon JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise – a tale of cosseted, middle-class civilisation in bubbling, boiling meltdown throughout a skyscraper built to have a far more pacifying effect on its residents than the one achieved. If Adams did, indeed, encounter the book, his little detour would suggest that he couldn’t help but see a knees-up amid the chaos.

The same applies, by the truckload, to Ben Wheatley.

In his adaptation of Ballard’s book, the director of Down Terrace, Kill List and A Field in England blends all the disturbing themes that dominated those works with an amped-up version of the social satire that featured so prominently in his middle film, Sightseers. The result is a savage – and savagely funny – fever dream of late-capitalist systemic failure that has all the brass neck and pit-bull presence to make David Cronenberg’s glacial take on Ballard’s thematically similar Crash look a wee bit polite and restrained.

It’s an important comparison, and one unlikely to be restricted to just this review of Wheatley’s film. Lest we forget, in the UK, Cronenberg’s Crash marked the apex of a battle of wits between cinephiles and the Right-wing press that dominated celluloid debate in the 1990s – a war sparked by the early works of Tarantino, inflamed by Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (derived from a Tarantino script), then propelled into merry overdrive by Cronenberg’s 1996 ram-raid on Cannes, where Crash was honoured with a Special Jury Prize for Audacity and Daring. As a result of that giddy profile, it was subsequently honoured with a bone-headed and interminable campaign to prevent it from being shown in UK cinemas, spearheaded by that timeless standard bearer of truth and justice, The Daily Mail – whose film critic, Christopher Tookey, had launched a personal crusade to run Crash off the road.

God knows what he’d make of High-Rise.

While Cronenberg’s “sex-and-wrecks” opus thrived on the libidinous writhings of urban sophisticates who are aroused in various ways by automobile prangs, Wheatley’s film rummages through a giant, concrete filing cabinet full of homemaking, young professionals and shuffles the contents to pit a host of character flaws against each other. Away from the rarefied and chilly kink-philosophising that fuelled Crash, it is at once a more relatable and more challenging concept – that the getting of comfort should prove so combustible – and Wheatley stops at nothing to attack the façade of consumerist decorum, tucking into his banquet of disorder and disarray with the gusto of a drooling voyeur.

Following a swift, “begin at the end” prologue, which offers a sneak peek at the tower block’s cumulative degeneration, we go back to how the all the fun started by retracing the steps of physiology lecturer Dr Robert Laing (a typically crisp Tom Hiddleston, recently mired in an altogether different case of sick-building syndrome in Crimson Peak). Outwardly confident, possessed of an urbane wit and apparently on top of his profession, Laing shunts himself and a host of cardboard boxes into his self-congratulatory, 25th-floor apartment – quarters that are so awkwardly subdivided by angular, slate-grey walls as to scarcely differ from the interior of an office. Exactly as in Ballard’s book, the mayhem to come is heralded by the crashing of a wine bottle from the balcony above, the vessel shattering across Laing’s patio while he’s soaking rays in his birthday suit.

Barely in charge of the nudging elbow that noisily toasted Laing’s repose is Charlotte Melville (an outstanding Sienna Miller, delivering a performance that almost matches her turn as Tippi Hedren in the 2012 BBC film The Girl). Awoken to his surroundings, Laing baby-steps out of his splendid isolation and begins quite heavily to mingle with Charlotte’s tipsy circle – a petri-dish of viral insecurities masquerading as a trophy room of fulfilled aspirations. Leering after Charlotte is beefy, Rugby-mad documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), ensnared in a wobbly, 2.8-children union with Helen (Elizabeth Moss), an exasperated woman bursting at the seams with the child to the right of the decimal point. Hovering around each gathering like an inquisitive hummingbird is Nathan Steele (Reece Shearsmith) – a man whose gripes with the block’s engineering are equalled only by his zeal for one-upmanship – and bearing low-level witness to the group’s frequent flashes of improper conduct is Charlotte’s young but insatiably curious son, Toby (Louis Suc).

Seduced by each other’s dodgy company, the residents of the block’s lower half slide gently, then not so gently, into excess. People start staying up too late, partying too hard and taking too many drugs, all while drowsily attempting to maintain their robotic, professional routines. Laing’s reputation spreads, and he is soon summoned to the block’s countrified, otherworldly penthouse as physio to live-in architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). In that detached and contemptuous orbit, he awkwardly rubs shoulders with Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), her pulchritudinous friend Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and loathsome hanger-on Pangbourne (James Purefoy), sparking a fractious association between the lofty, in-house aristocrats and the hoi polloi below.

Grudges take hold and fester. Before long, the Royal Set and the Average Crowd are jabbing at each other with acts of vandalism and kidnap, all against the backdrop of the building’s rapidly faltering infrastructure. If you picture those scenes in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where Sam Lowry arrives home only to find that the workmen who’ve come to fix up his flat have actually quadrupled the mess, well… that’s what the rest of High-Rise is like. Forced out of the block’s school, the residents’ children continue their lessons in the rubble-strewn, burnt-out basement. Supplies run dry in the huge, built-in supermarket, plunging it into anarchy. The swimming pool reddens with the blood of casual violence. Events seem to culminate in Jane’s ringing entreaty during an orgy at the Royal Suite, “All right, you lot – which one of you is gonna fuck me up the arse?” But amazingly, the film still has about half an hour to go.

Amid the huge enjoyment to be had from Wheatley’s febrile energy and cheerful heedlessness of rules, there is also considerable untidiness to tread around. From about two-thirds of the way through, when Richard embarks upon a gung-ho documentary of the block’s deterioration, the narrative itself becomes increasingly unstable – as does the film’s overall sense of geography. The choppiness stems from Wheatley’s blatant urge to mimic the skittish editing style of Nicholas Roeg (a major influence), rather than honour the pin-sharp clarity of Ballard’s prose. An unfortunate casualty of this is the relationship between Laing and Royal, which was core to the book, and an early example of Ballard’s facility for placing a young, middle-class drone under the wing of a worldly Svengali who harbours a radical but risky vision for reshaping modern life: an arc that recurred so often in the author’s work that some critics accused him of writing the same book over and over again. Here, though, Laing and Royal lose each other in the crowd, and their acquaintance never achieves the piercing, focal intensity that Crash endowed to the bond between the naïve James Ballard (James Spader) and the brutal psychopath Vaughan (Elias Koteas).

Serious questions must also to be asked of Wheatley’s bold, but ultimately fruitless, decision to set the film in a heightened version of the 1970s – the decade in which the book was published – rather than the present day. While it’s amusing to behold such throwback visions as a smorgasbord of period vehicles sprawled across the building’s impossibly vast car park like an army of Dinky Toys, that sheen of hyperreal design carries the unmistakeable scent of nerve failure. In a modern Britain where the class war has returned with a vengeance, where the erosion of civil liberties is putting us under ever-more crushing pressure to conform and behave, where social media has reinforced our vanity and envy, and where every new flat development in one of our urban centres is kitted out with its own, big-brand supermarket, wouldn’t it have been far more terrifying to show us how the insights of Ballard’s book apply so readily to the here and now?

That said, High-Rise is easily Wheatley’s most ambitious and accomplished film to date, and lays on a flurry of jaw-slackening, “Did they really just do that?” moments, the like of which are hard to imagine finding elsewhere for quite a while. Indeed, High-Rise seems predestined to collapse into a loving, cult embrace, and even though it self-consciously echoes other, high-impact portrayals of thuggish tendencies flourishing in urban environments (such as A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club), it still stacks up as a distinctly defiant edifice of alternative thought – albeit with some dicey structural defects.

Words> Matt Packer

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Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion Live http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/ginger-bakers-jazz-confusion-live/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/ginger-bakers-jazz-confusion-live/#comments Mon, 28 Sep 2015 21:01:19 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20558 Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.40.53 PMFew musicians have lived the rock & roll lifestyle to the level of Ginger Baker and survived to tell the tale. The profile of the uber-talented jazz drummer from the early 60’s went interstellar when he formed supergroup Cream with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton in 1966, and the famously drug-taking musician got to indulge every aspect to the rock lifestyle available – which he did to the hilt. The stories are spectacular, as his candid autobiography Hellraiser testifies, as well as Jay Bulger’s blistering 2013 documentary feature Beware of Mr Baker. The man had an exhilarating ride through fame and fortune, taking in a friendship with Jimi Hendrix, joining Steve Winwood and Clapton’s band Blind Faith, an extended expedition to Africa to learn the roots of his beloved percussive sounds and even an attempt at a Hollywood acting career, before getting back to what he does best with a triumphant Cream reunion at the Royal Albert Hall in 2005. In this time, his vast wealth has come and gone, and while he has left a lot of personal chaos in his wake, his rep as the world’s greatest drummer has rarely been questioned amongst his peers.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.38.23 PMTo see the man live in 2015 is to see a living legend – but it’s fair to say the rock days are in the past and it’s an accomplished jazz set you will see these days.  His current band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, consists of a seasoned quartet with himself on skins, a brilliant saxophone player, a gregarious African bongo player and a great bass player. Ginger himself introduces the tunes, but at 76, his voice is frail and he needs a little help getting on the stage these days. But what he does when he’s up there is still very impressive. His band round out the sound nicely and for jazz fans, the African influence on the music they make together is intriguing and atmospheric. Given the energy levels required for the elongated pieces, the man will play an 80 minute set with a break, himself acknowledging  that he needs one after the frenetic first set. When they return to the stage, they hit a seriously impressive jazz mode, and after a long wait for the encore, they end on a crowd-pleasing, self-composed tune about all the woes in his life, appropriately titled ‘Why?’

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.37.16 PMThe band played before a very receptive crowd at the sold out event at Nell’s Jazz and Blues in West London recently and, much like their appearance at Ronnie Scott’s 2 years ago, the stories in the crowd at the intermission were rife with what they’ve all heard of his personal antics.  It’s as if they were cheering him on as much in celebration of his being one of rock’s bad men (and yet still touring into old age) as for the performance itself, if not more so. If you read about his personal life, you get the impression he’s still touring more as he needs the money than for the love of the music. At the time the film was made 2 years ago, he admitted that despite living in a fortified compound in Africa and owning a stable of thoroughbred horses (he loves polo), that he is completely broke. It will perhaps take a lot of gigs of this nature to pay for the upkeep of such a lifestyle, but it was a privilege to see a man who’s lived such a full life, still making a great sound once those sticks are in his hands.

Words> Roy Swansborough

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/the-man-from-u-n-c-l-e/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/the-man-from-u-n-c-l-e/#comments Wed, 16 Sep 2015 18:54:51 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20549 The Man from U.N.C.L.EEarly into his career, the jury was out on Guy Ritchie. He delivered the double smash hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch at the end of the 90’s and was hailed as the UK’s answer to Quentin Tarantino. But he quickly became typecast as a gangster film director and then, when he married Madonna, his off-screen escapades started to overshadow those on-screen. The two parts of his life collided when he directed his wife in the much-derided Swept Away, then when he retreated back into familiar territory with Revolver it was met with indifference. It took a move into the mainstream to save his career and reputation with the two very successful Sherlock Holmes films. Both were stylish and entertaining, yet retained some of his independent film spirit and feel, and helped establish his name across the pond.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E - Cavill and HammerAll of this primed him very nicely to tackle a big screen version of hit 60’s TV series The Man from U.NC.L.E; a famous American show with an English sensibility and two warring heroes who are diametrically opposed in their techniques, much like Holmes and Watson. Intriguingly, and unlike its nearest blockbuster season competitor Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ritchie decided to set the film in the era the TV series was made. It’s a move that worked very well for Ritchie’s friend and former producer Matthew Vaughan when he made X Men: First Class a few years ago and pays dividends here. So what we get is a very slick, stylish celebration of retro cool that fizzes off the screen with incredible production design throughout. The opening titles with their old school take on the famous Warner Bros logo are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s work with the Ocean’s Eleven series, while we are brought up to date with a montage of stock newsreel that takes us from the end of WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This clearly announces that we’re in a time where Kennedy is still in the White House, the Cold War is in full swing and people know how to dress well. Really well.

The opening sequence perfectly sets up the tone and characters with whom we’ll spend the next two hours. An immense car chase through a wall-divided Berlin manages to thrill with sharp direction and editing, and generate laughs with a witty script and performances. Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill plays suave and completely unflappable U.S. agent Napoleon Solo, who is assigned to track down the daughter of a German nuclear physicist called Gaby Teller – a sassy Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)- and smuggle her from East into West Germany. The Social Network and The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hamer plays KJB operative Illya Kuryakin, who pursues them relentlessly but ultimately unsuccessfully during their escape. In the very next scene, both their commanding officers introduce them and instruct them to work together for an inter-governmental agency that will help keep the peace, and this is where the real fun begins.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. VikanderThe mismatched trio embark on a fun and breezy traipse through familiar setups as Gaby and Illya pose as a couple while Solo woos the wife of the chief baddie to get closer to foiling their plot. The team put the wheels in motion in a fancy hotel, where much of the action takes place, and take in impressive period locales such as a great racetrack party (filmed at our very own Goodwood).  At this point in the plot, we become introduced to Hugh Grant’s small but perfectly formed role as their boss. It’s a revelation from the man doomed to appear in every romantic comedy ever made, and with a slight twist of his regular screen persona, with added greying locks and period specs it’s a wonder he hasn’t done more of this kind of work before.  The kinetic style of the film doesn’t let up here, and there’s an almost dizzying amount of cool music on the soundtrack that punctuate every single scene. It must be the most track-laden film since Scorsese’s Casino 20 years ago but it fits the mood of the film nicely. The three leads spark off each other well and there’s a strong chemistry between them, even if Cavill does sound like The Matrix’s one-note Agent Smith throughout. He speaks. Very. Deliberately. The. Whole. Time.

A standout sequence has the spies wage a battle in the middle of a closed dockyard (filmed in Kent’s Chatham), evading the goons with machine guns in a speedboat. Within the scene there ‘s a sublime moment where Solo literally pops out of the action for a spot of supper he has salvaged. Now that’s class. There’s also a fantastic scene where the tables are turned on a former Nazi torturer, that the most liberal viewer will find hard not to see as the merits of the eye for an eye response. All nimbly made and, while fairly unoriginal, all turned in on a spit an polish by its director and production team with a smart throwaway closing moment that explains the title – just when you thought you were going to walk out clueless. We’d like to see more of these in the future if possible please geezer.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is out now in UK cinemas.

Words>Roy Swansborogh

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/mission-impossible-rogue-nation/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/mission-impossible-rogue-nation/#comments Mon, 14 Sep 2015 20:00:02 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20538 Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation MotorcycleIt’s a sign of the times in Hollywood that the number of films in each franchise is creeping up way beyond the old trilogy formula. We have four Indiana Jones, Mad Max and Jurassic Park films, seven Star Wars, and five Die Hards, Terminators and, now, Mission Impossibles. All have had weaker series entries in their later additions (with the notable exception of Mad Max), as the stories have come to run out of steam. Paramount’s M:I franchise has remained a solid entity throughout, for, aside from John Woo’s stylistic departure with M:I 2, the films are the cinematic equivalent of your favourite fast food; trashy and throwaway, yet satisfying, enjoyable and consistent. They are also Tinseltown’s answer to 007, and the latest installment should tide the legion of Bond fans over nicely in the run up to Sam Mendes’ hotly anticipated Spectre.

Mission Impossible - Rogue NationIt’s full credit to star and producer Tom Cruise that the series has remained as successful as it has. Regardless of your thoughts of the man’s personal life, on screen as Ethan Hunt he has remained as engaging, physically fit, focused and impressive at handling the big stunts as he was in the original almost 2 decades ago. No Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through A Good Day to Die Hard here.  Behind the camera, he has continued to attract strong directing talent to the series, from DePalma’s Hitchcock-referencing original, to Abrams’ feature directorial debut, to Oscar winner Brad Baird (The Incredibles) to Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie. Mission Impossible has also seen some formidable acting talent line up to play alongside the man, and the series has now seemingly happily settled into an IMF team Hunt picked up along the way, consisting of Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner.

Rogue Nation feels like a greatest hits of the franchise, with the finest ingredients from the previous films thrown into a blender to create great a heady cocktail that rarely lets up. This means none of it feels particularly new but it’s still a fun ride. Hunt, in typical style, dynamically jumps into the action to save the day in the pre opening credits scene. Much was made in the film’s pre-release publicity about Cruise genuinely hanging from the side of a huge military plane during takeoff, but when you see it on the big screen in the context of the plot it’s riveting stuff that you can tell creates a surge of excitement in the audience. Once we get into the main plot, we learn that the IMF has been disbanded and the agents are left out in the cold, with no plots to to use their immense skills on. While Renner’s Agent Brandt acts as a diplomat to Alec Baldwin’s CIA head, Hunt stays off the grid, intent on proving the existence of an underground ‘rouge nation’ known as The Syndicate. His search takes him from Cuba to London to Vienna, swiftly enlisting Pegg’s tech expert Benji for help.  Rebecca Ferguson also makes a welcome addition as an agile double agent.

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation Baldwin, PeggMcQuarrie handles the premise and action very capably, and his flare for dodgy dealings and menacing heavies so evident in The Usual Suspects come very much into play here; he clearly learned a lot from Bryan Singer’s impeccable handling of his script years ago.  The action sequences are as spectacular as we’ve come to expect from the series too.  Hunt goes from a thrilling Viennese opera house fight during an assassination attempt on a government official, to a daring raid on an underwater security system (rivaling the great disk theft in the original), to a knock-out backwards car chase in Morocco. It’s testament to McQuarrie’s direction that the one or two serious dialogue scenes give the viewer some needed breathing space before the frenetic chase continues.

On the downside, many of the above scenarios have been seen before elsewhere in the series. It feels intentional that the producers have stopped adding a number to the title of each film so that the audience will hopefully lose track of the number of times we’ve been here before. A bike chase in M:I 2 was shot very similarly to the one here. There’s often a lead female role whose loyalties are unclear throughout, but is likely to wind up romantically linked to Hunt. The macguffin is often a disk of some sort (here it’s a USB stick).  The IMF agency is always on the verge of being closed down and there’s often someone in the organisation you either don’t trust or don’t like.  Subsequently, Hunt is often on his own mission, operating outside of his own agency. Just once in five films, it might have been fun to see multiple teams interact and the full extent of the agency’s headquarters involved, and perhaps a nuclear bomb fall into the wrong hands rather than information in danger of being leaked. For these reasons it loses half a star in this review, but it’s a small niggle about an otherwise cracking summer blockbuster.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is out now in UK cinemas

Words>Roy Swansborough

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The Krays reunited at BFI Southbank http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/the-krays-reunited-at-bfi-southbank/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/the-krays-reunited-at-bfi-southbank/#comments Fri, 28 Aug 2015 18:30:01 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20504  

KraysFilmicWe soak up a bloody – and timely – reminder of when the Spandau Brothers smashed through the barricades of law and order

As we approach the 9 September release of hotly anticipated Tom Hardy double-helping Legend, in which the actor plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the BFI Southbank last night treated a packed house to the film that got there first: Peter Medak’s dark and disturbing gangland opus The Krays.

Unleashed upon an unsuspecting public a quarter of a century ago, Medak’s film memorably featured Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp as London’s lordly, evil twins – Ronnie and Reggie, respectively – along with Billie Whitelaw as their mother Violet, and Kate Hardie as the doomed Frances, who married Reg in 1965 and took her own life as the role of moll took its toll.

This much is true: the Kemps themselves attended the screening, along with Hardie, Medak and screenwriter Philip Ridley – whose personal take on the Krays’ life story set the ball rolling on a true-crime drama that marched biopic and thriller conventions at knifepoint down an unusual, and grimly poetic, alley.

The film

Shown on a gorgeously preserved, 35mm print that crackled only during the reel changes, The Krays effortlessly confirmed its credentials as a masterpiece – one that stands shoulder to shoulder with the imposing likes of Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986) in the UK’s pantheon of top-notch, post-war crime epics.

Yet importantly, while it shares a quality benchmark with those films, it is also at one remove – coming across far more as a horror movie in its oppressive and often claustrophobic tone. From the lengthy and austere, white-on-black opening credits (not unlike those at the beginning of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser), to the late, great Michael Kamen’s morbid score, to the casting of Whitelaw – best known for playing the antichrist’s nanny, Mrs Blaylock, in The Omen (1976) – The Krays is vividly in thrall to horror traits and tropes, which conspire to detach it from literal reality.

KraysStraightOuttaIn just one of many sinister quirks, Ridley brackets the film with a soliloquy from Violet relating a dream she once had, in which she was a swan that could soar higher and higher with no limits or boundaries. In that dream, she says, she had an egg, and heard noises coming from inside it – noises that proved to be the sounds of children’s voices. “I looked after this egg and kept it safe,” she goes on, “until one day there was a hatching sound. And out came two boys, and they were mine… and they were wonderful… and they were perfect.”

The first mention of Violet’s dream feeds into the twins’ symbiotic boyhood. Born in the early 1930s and destined to grow up amid the terror of the Second World War, the young Krays are often shown finishing each other’s sentences, speaking in unison and – chiming with Violet’s vision – saying that they’ve had the same dreams, and experienced them together. This angle on the material has far more in common with the eerie cloud that coalesced around Jeremy Irons and, um, Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s 1988 tour de force Dead Ringers, than the more directly thuggish attitude conveyed by Bob Hoskins’ garrulous Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday – although thuggishness inevitably becomes a key ingredient later on.

We also have the lurking spectre of “The Scottish Play”, with the twins’ grandmother Helen (Avis Bunnage), and their aunts Rose (Susan Fleetwood) and May (Charlotte Cornwell), comprising a coven-like trio that presides over every family gathering. In parallel, Violet and Frances share various characteristics of Lady Macbeth, while the Kemps express the paranoid Thane as one person, stretched between two, separate bodies. The influence of female figures on the twins’ lives and shared outlook is the barbed, iron spine and central nervous system of Ridley’s drumhead-tight script.

Gary Kemp Billie Whitelaw Krays movieClaret splashes in abundance in the film’s violent set pieces, adding a guignol grandeur to proceedings that by turns burnishes the twins’ mythic status and yet unseats any notions of glamourisation. It is impossible to walk away from the film with any feeling other than that the Krays were nasty, vicious bastards who made as much of themselves as they could through the folkloric grapevine, but whose egos ultimately wrote scores of cheques that their business empire could never quite cash. Fear and intimidation filled in the gaps, and the tall stories fed themselves.

Impressively, Ridley and Medak situate the audience firmly in the Krays’ camp, without cutting to parallel narratives of how their enemies-to-be made their names in the London underworld. As a result, when the twins’ disproportionate feuds with small-time irritants George Cornell (Steven Berkoff) and Jack “The Hat” McVitie (Tom Bell) arise, they come from out of nowhere – almost like that horrible, uneasy feeling you may have in a pub when someone standing nearby suddenly seems to have a problem with you for no apparent reason. There is never any attempt to trace the roots of the disagreements, and their unaccountability – coupled with their pettiness – offers chilling insights into the frightening snap judgments of the psychopathic mind.

Amid this charnel house dressed up as a classy nightclub, there’s Hardie’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Frances, who rushes into a marriage with Reggie after meeting him at one of the twins’ clubs (in reality, they started dating when she was 16 and married several years later), then succumbs to detachment and depression as her spouse campaigns to destroy her individuality. Only in a single scene, where Frances and Reggie are on their honeymoon, does she enjoy a chink of happiness – but that is cut all-too short as a messenger from London arrives to tell Reg of Aunt Rose’s death. When Frances slips off to oblivion on the back of an overdose, even the honeymoon imagery is nightmarishly repurposed to give a sense of the numbing fear in which she ended her life.

A film that has aged like one of Ron’s favourite single malts, The Krays is a high watermark of UK-based production, and a troubling comment on the kind of forces that post-war desperation compelled Londoners to latch on to and sweep to undeserved fame.

The panel

The Krays, it emerged, had more than just two rock stars in the driving seat. As Gary explained, the rights to the twins’ life story were actually held by The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, who had already tried to convert those assets into a film. Aware of Daltrey’s struggle, Spandau’s appropriately named manager, Steve Dagger, set up a rumour in the late 80s that Gary and Martin were going to play the Krays. Before long, a rock-video production house that the band worked with got in on the act – and so, in turn, did Daltrey. At last, the nucleus of the film was in place.

KraysPosterHowever, there was one particularly vital step to cover before pre-production could begin in earnest. “We got the blessing of the family – which was what the insurers really wanted,” Gary only half-joked. The clincher, he recalled, was “when we went to see [Ronnie and Reggie’s elder sibling] Charlie, and he did a double-take and said, ‘I thought it was me own, two brothers there.’”

In an aside, Martin let the audience in on the family’s approach to grudges. “We went round to Aunt May’s house,” he said, “and lots of the pictures on her walls had people’s faces cut out of them. She told me: ‘They’re the ones that turned evidence.’

When it came to the writing process, Ridley – who had penned short stories, children’s books and radio plays and was known to Spandau’s bohemian circle – had only to tap into his own experience of growing up in Bethnal Green: the twins’ wellspring, and a place where they exerted a powerful hold upon local imaginations. An urban folk tale about the Krays mercilessly driving a car back and forth over some luckless foe’s head, said Ridley with a wink, “really delighted a seven-year-old boy”, and promptly lodged in his mind.

He also confirmed that he “grew up with horror films – that’s my whole language”, and said that, for him, the most important line in the film is “England is a dream” – spoken by a visiting US gangster as he toasts a deal with the twins. “Whether or not you did or didn’t do something,” Ridley mused, “people will believe it.” On that basis, he revealed, the poetic approach he wanted to take with the script was a hard sell for everybody on the financial end of the equation. “Everyone had in their mind an idea of what a film about the Krays should be – as in, opening in Bethnal Green with someone getting their head smashed into the road,” he said. “I just wasn’t interested in that.”

KraysKnifeRidley also imposed a “no police” rule to prevent the screenplay from turning into a rote, cause-and-effect procedural, and then bunkered down to produce for the backers an outline of what he considered to be the most effective approach to the script. That included beginning with Violet’s swan dream, which had stemmed from a viral anecdote, then going into the first chunk of the twins’ childhood, before plunging into what he freely admitted was “a rejigging of factual events” that he slotted together “like a jigsaw puzzle”. Once Ridley had decided which episodes he wanted to focus on, he said, “I could mould them into an order that made for a satisfying narrative.”

That led to a few contentious clashes with reality, such as positioning Frances’ death as a trigger for the murders of Cornell and McVitie – which wasn’t actually the case – and depicting the murders as though they had taken place on the same night, when in fact they had occurred years apart. Convinced by the strength of Ridley’s personal vision, the backers farmed out the script, and Medak – who had known the Krays in the early stages of his filmmaking career – gradually overcame his distaste for the subject matter and came onboard as director.

With the Kemps already in the frame, Medak reminded them during the talk, “I did a lot of looking into both of your hearts and wondering whether you could really do it”. But their chemistry before the cameras was undeniable, especially during the film’s standout boxing scene, which – according to Gary – found the twins in both fictional and personal modes “beating the shit out of each other”. Martin confirmed: “The fights went on and on – there were lots of old scores to settle,” adding that production staff who were meant to get them ready for Medak’s setups just ended up leaving them to it until they ran out of batteries.

However, away from such testosterone-fuelled tales, perhaps the most penetrating insight into the film came from Hardie, who said that, as she’d rewatched the film alongside the evening’s audience, what had struck her the most was that Ridley’s script “was really amazing for women”, in terms of the prominence it had given to the twins’ mother, grandmother and aunts – together with Frances’ tragic arc. Sight unseen of Legend, Hardie nonetheless said it was “depressing” that, if the film were made today, “most of the women would be standing on the sidelines with just a line, and it would be all about the blokes”. Hardie went on to mourn the passing of an era in which a film could blend action with an intensely female perspective, and successfully attract funding.

As for whether Legend will confirm Hardie’s suspicions, there’s less than a fortnight to go before we can all find out. But it is a film that will walk in a pair of very long, and very dark, shadows.

Over to you, Mr Hardy. And, um, Mr Hardy.

Words> Matt Packer

Below pic: the panel, L-R – Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp, Kate Hardie, Peter Medak, Philip Ridley, and compere Danny Leigh

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Hard to Be a God http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/hard-to-be-a-god/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/hard-to-be-a-god/#comments Wed, 19 Aug 2015 17:57:56 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20482 Hard to be a God headerDon’t believe the baying praise from the hardcore arthouse crowd – this God-awful mess makes it hard to be a viewer

Science fiction cinema and medievalism have been unlikely spirit twins for decades. Almost every post-apocalypse since the original Planet of the Apes has hinged on a society gone back to feudal basics, filled with scattered, rusty remnants of a once-bright future that we badly screwed up… the precise details of our fatal mistake often long forgotten. Christian Bale vehicle Reign of Fire extended the link to the realm of myth, positing a race of dragons as the scourge that brought late capitalism to its knees, leaving us to scratch a living in a disused power station – a de facto castle for Bale’s paranoid, aspiring dragonslayer.

On significantly more poetic turf, Vincent Ward – a director seemingly obsessed with all things Dark Ages – tapped SF tropes in his 1988 monochrome gem The Navigator to bring a group of medieval questers into the modern world via an underground time warp, with the resulting culture clash kindling moments of quiet power (the film’s central idea was parodied five years later in hit French comedy Les Visiteurs). Memorably, Ward’s dual attraction to SF and our chain-mailed past also motivated one of genre film’s great, near misses – his version of Alien 3 – which came tantalisingly close to shifting the franchise to the radical locale of a wooden space station, where Luddite monks squabble over how to handle a technology-rich, evil-bringing and, worst of all, female intruder by the name of Ellen Ripley.

Hard to be a God 1But no film fan’s giddiest vision of what Ward might have achieved had 20th Century Fox allowed him could be anything like as outré as Hard to Be a God – and that overdetermined aesthetic is what ultimately kills the film from within.

Celebrated Russian director Aleksi German – who died in 2013, leaving his wife and son to finish the film he’d started shooting as far back as 2000 – strands us on the planet Arkanar: a mud-swathed world stuck around 800 years behind Earth in its technological evolution. According to a cursory voiceover that purrs away in a velvety baritone, a group of scientists has been living on the planet for several years, conducting an anthropological field study under a vow of non-interference.

Unfortunately, when we first clap eyes on the nominal hero, Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik) – a senior member of the Earthling team – he is living in a pit of squalor masquerading as the height of luxury in the assumed, noble role of Don Rumata, victim of his own success amid an infiltration project that has led him to swallow his own cover story, much in the same way that Justin Bieber believes his own publicity. Despite the trappings of an opulent castle, Rumata is surrounded by a filth that oozes inescapably from the outdoors, as well as the heaped-up, rotten leftovers of daily decadence and a host of sycophantic acolytes who prove that the scientists’ policy of strict observation has gone monumentally to pot.

Over the course of the film, we drunkenly stagger after Rumata as he strives to forge alliances with neighbouring chieftains in efforts to resist self-styled militarian Colonel Kusis’ fascistic crackdown on purveyors of culture and thought – the very malaise that has kept Arkanar on the lower rungs of progress. It is a conflict that not merely ends bloodily, but egresses a great deal of blood during the beginning and middle, together with snot, shit, sputum and pretty much any other bodily fluid you may care to mention – all of which are inevitably stirred into the giant mudbath that is Arkanar on an average day: an environment that makes Donington Park on a rainy festival weekend look like a freshly manicured bowling green at the back of a Surrey old folks’ home.

Now, here’s the thing:

Hard to be a God 2The only reason I have been able to convey that synopsis is because, since watching the film, I have read several descriptions of the narrative drawn from official press notes – each of which has plugged gaps that should really have been covered by the substance of German’s material. Fair play for dumping us in at the deep end and all that, but the film he spent half a century trying to bring to fruition (if you count its original development phase) militates so aggressively against comprehension that whole, 20-minute chunks could be excised and it would have little to no effect on the overall meaning.

While I would stop well short of saying that the defining characteristic of great art is that it should “make sense”, the film asks for three hours of our time, at the end of which many viewers could be forgiven for thinking that their intellectual nourishment had been nudged into the red. There is, to be clear, no sense of purpose to any aspect of the enterprise, save for its photography, design and makeup effects, which are stunning. Other than that, we’re all at sea in a film with just one, stumbling pace, and one dour tone.

It doesn’t matter whether Rumata is attempting to woo potential allies or confront lurking foes; everyone is always hawking phlegm up over each other, running their fingers through each other’s shit, picking insects off each other’s scalps or punching each other in the face. None of which is remotely as much fun as it might sound. There are no dramatic dynamics of any sort that distinguish various affiliations, and the performers behave so similarly that – with the exception of Yarmolnik, who throws his weight around in almost every shot – there are no standout characters to lock onto. It is even impossible to tell which of the faces on show were among the original team of scientific explorers: the film’s whole, narrative springboard is hopelessly lost.

Neither is it to the film’s advantage that the dialogue is comprised almost entirely of non-sequiturs, leading to a complete vacuum where cause and effect should be. What follows is not an exchange from Hard to Be a God, but a send-up that should give you a pretty good idea of the film’s stridently elliptical take on the art of conversation:

Character A: Butter is nicer than margarine.

Character B: I saw a pelican last Thursday.

Character A: Mud is solid consciousness.

Character B: Someone guzzle my piss.

Character A: Where is my broadsword?

Character B: The turtle is eating mice in my pants.

(Actually, that last line does appear in the film.)

Hard to be a God 3The real tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. The novel that the film is based on, by Russian SF legends Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is a wine-soaked adventure romp in the vein of Dumas – one that subjected chivalric fantasy to the same type of knowing deconstruction that readers (and viewers) are currently experiencing from the works of George RR Martin. In other words, the book is nothing like the obscurant’s paradise that the film has turned out to be. Famously, another Strugatsky book, Roadside Picnic, made a journey to celluloid as Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker. It seems as though German was far less interested in engaging with the book in front of him than launching a suicide mission to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky – although he appears to have missed the point that Stalker is considerably more lucid than what he has managed to deliver with Hard to Be a God.

Perhaps the closest point of comparison for what German thought he was up to here is the 1969 eyeful Fellini Satyricon, of which Fellini once stated, “I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.” However, even in all its glorious excess and anarchy, his film still traces groups of identifiable characters through its procession of outrageous, gaudy vignettes (the same, by the way, can be said of Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain). And when it comes to literary adaptations that wildly betray their source texts, only to arrive at far more poignant truths about them than straighter readings would have afforded, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a far more successful venture than Hard to Be a God: one that acknowledges – even at the height of its bizarre imagery and narrative abstraction – that there’s an audience out there.

Hard to be a god 4German’s film has been hailed as a masterpiece in the more academic quarters of film criticism (including, predictably, Sight & Sound), and in time will no doubt be used as a stick with which to beat pictures from Hollywood – as have so many arthouse causes célèbres of the past. But in terms of meaning, there is absolutely no difference between Hard to Be a God and any six-pack of generic, US action films that have been edited with lawnmowers to become little more than flurries of sequences with scant narrative linkage.

There was a great, and potentially powerful, tale to be told here about how a continuous onslaught of barbarity can unseat even the most rational mind – a reversal, if you will, of The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which the intellect of David Bowie’s stranded alien was destroyed by the vapid compulsions of Earthly consumerism. It’s just a shame that German wasn’t interested in telling it.

Words> Matt Packer

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Ant-Man http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/ant-man/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/featured/ant-man/#comments Mon, 03 Aug 2015 19:08:17 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20473 Ant-Man HeaderEver since Marvel opened its own studio doors for business with Iron Man in 2008, their winning formula has largely centred on assembling the line-up for The Avengers. Whilst Ant-Man pays lip service to the franchise at large, it’s otherwise a refreshingly stand-alone story with a more comical bent than those before it, and is a lot of fun from start to finish.

The film hasn’t had an easy journey to the big screen. A long gestation period ensued from the outset with Brits Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish having written the script with Wright slated to direct, but following “creative differences” between Wright and the studio, they parted company. Both are given screenwriting credits with a hat tipped to Wright as a producer, but this clearly switched tracks to a more studio-friendly approach and was designed to fit in with the Marvel model previously established.

Ant-Man with suitTroubled history aside, this film has a freeing sense of fun that hasn’t been felt in the studio’s output since Thor and Avengers Assemble. It’s refreshing to see a new superhero, perhaps one less known by the wider audience, and to see him simply sent on one mission, pitted against one bad guy. It was an inspired idea to offer lead action hero duties to Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. Largely known for his supporting roles in the likes of comedies such as Clueless and Anchorman, he relishes the opportunity to take centre stage and brings to the role an easygoing charm and sense of humour reminiscent of a young Harrison Ford. It was also a nice touch to cast Michael Douglas in his first fully-fledged elder statesman franchise role as Hank Pym; if his star has faded somewhat in the last few years since his Wall Street heyday, he re-emerges here nicely as a twinkly-eyed, grey haired mentor that on more than one occasion proves he still has plenty of lead in his pencil.  Rounding out this unique set of heroes is Lost and The Hobbit trilogy’s Evangeline Lilly as Pym’s daughter Hope – a smart and agile force to be reckoned with that you know will become a love interest for the lead character, and Michael Pena in likeable comedy support mode as Scott’s friend Luis.

Yellowjacket-and-TrainThe plot is simple; notorious career burglar Scott gets out after a stretch in lock-up to find the only way he can make money is to head back into the life that put him behind bars in the first place. When Luis hooks him up with a heist – a big old mansion with a big old safe – he is dismayed to find nothing but a simple old suit and mask. However, curiosity gets the better of him and before long he is strapped in and hits the buttons in the gloves which makes him instantly shrink to the size of an ant. This cues the first of many dizzying action scenes that use current advances in CGI to superb effect. Scott’s bathtub becomes a vast alien landscape and his friend unwittingly turning on the tap quickly creates a tidal wave that flushes him down the drain and into a vast nocturnal world.  The use of 3D also stands out from the glut of stereoscopically transferred big franchise films of late, and the world of minute everyday items becoming dangerous threats to the hero and his army of trained ants (yes really) playfully continues the Hollywood tradition of the sub genre that previously included the likes of The Incredible Shrinking Man, Innerspace and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

There is nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but the film takes an age-old premise, dresses it up with some impressive effects, throws a cool cast together and watches it go. The only real weakness is a one-dimensional and tepid villain,  now a relatively regular trope of the Marvel cannon (a few notable exceptions aside). The other aspect which slightly lets down the film is the supposedly unrelated Avengers cropping up in any aspect, which is the kind of thing they did in the beginning but has SURELY been done to death by now. The added post-credits sequences are starting to feel so disconnected from the main action that they feel laboured, like a cheap marketing ploy rather than a clever and enticing element. Still, if you like your heroes less than pint-sized please step up and grab a ticket, and enjoy rooting for the little critters.

Ant-Man is out now in UK cinemas

Words> Roy Swansborough

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The Scarlet Gospels, by Clive Barker http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/the-scarlet-gospels-by-clive-barker/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/the-scarlet-gospels-by-clive-barker/#comments Thu, 30 Jul 2015 21:14:08 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20463 The Scarlet GospelsRhythm Circus attends a resurrection of the Liverpudlian polymath’s “different side”. It’s about goddamn time

“Barely had the flow of sounds come to a halt than the power in the words rose up, creating a stench, the stink of life and death rolled into one monstrous river of sentient grease, where the secrets of the world’s beginning and, no doubt, the secrets of its end were circling together in the same irresistible liqueur.”

PHEW! Welcome back, Nasty Clive Barker – how we have missed you.

In The Scarlet Gospels (or ScarGo, as hardly any of its fans will call it), the Liverpool-born, Hollywood-dwelling writer/artist/filmmaker breaks a host of personal covenants with such glee it’s hard to believe he ever made them. This is the man who once said in a DVD extra for his directing debut Hellraiser that it would be the last time he’d ever talk about that film. The man who has defied his publishers’ efforts to nudge his fiction on to more commercial avenues. And the man who, outside his film work, has shown every sign of turning his back on horror altogether – devoting himself for the past 13 years to young-adult fantasy saga Abarat. But in the course of The Scarlet Gospels’ 360 blood-spurting pages, Barker has managed to plunge deeper into the Hellraiser universe than ever before, romp up the bestseller charts with a strategically aimed crowd pleaser and put an ocean of clear, red water between himself and the gentler, if no less vivid, voice he has preferred to write in for more than a decade.

PinheadOur action opens with the blackest of black masses. Several magicians are resurrecting a fallen comrade to ask his advice for combating the Hell Priest: a demon who has been crushing the ranks of the world’s foremost conjurors and stealing their arcane knowledge. With their dregs rounded up all in one mausoleum, the Priest enters and lays on a banquet of torture and humiliation so exquisite it makes for one of the most bracing prologues Barker has ever penned. His scalp bearing a grid of scars interspersed with nails, the Hell Priest can only be “Pinhead”: the saturnine, sadistic Cenobite who first appeared in Barker’s 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart – adapted by the author the following year as the landmark Hellraiser. What could this creature, absent from Barker’s fiction for so long, be up to?

Cut to New Orleans, and detective Harry D’Amour – a recurring character in Barker’s work and, as played by Scott Bakula, central to his film Lord of Illusions – is in the middle of an unusual housebreaking case… unusual in the sense that Harry is the one doing the housebreaking. Within the property, he comes across evidence linking the owner to the magical community’s plague of losses. But of far greater significance, he also stumbles upon a certain antique puzzle box – known to Hellraiser fans for its dangerous ability to open unseen doors. Before Harry can grasp what he’s doing, he trips the trap, comes face to face with the Hell Priest and barely escapes with his life. As Harry limps to New York to make sense of the encounter with the help of his dear friend Norma Paine – a blind medium – we venture far below to Hell itself for further insights into the Priest’s plan. Page by eye-popping page, we discover that he has stored up his reserves of magical know-how as an arsenal against his masters – a raising of the stakes that transforms the book from a slice of urban, supernatural pulp to a kind of sprawling, metaphysical heist thriller.

Harry D'AmourAfter Pinhead goes rogue and commits a seriously inventive mass murder against Hell’s bureaucrats, he sets his sights on kidnapping Harry, who has suffered demonic run-ins for most of his adult life. Pinhead’s motive? To turn the bedevilled gumshoe into a Witness who will chart his triumphant trek to the throne of Hell. However, amid a struggle on the streets of New York, Pinhead drags away Norma instead – leaving it to Harry and a ragtag bunch of spiritually tuned outsiders to track her and the Priest into Hell on a daring rescue mission.

Ahead of them, the Priest lays waste to all and sundry as he creeps ever further towards a vast, dark cathedral thought to house Lucifer himself. Here, the book transforms once again, becoming an incredibly twisted remake of The Wizard of Oz – the travellers following a bleak and bitter Scarlet Brick Road to Lucifer’s own menacing Emerald City. As in Baum’s classic, it turns out that the man behind the curtain isn’t quite what he’s cracked up to be…

If The Scarlet Gospels were laid out on a mattress with three other horror novels like the baggies of dope in Pulp Fiction, a longhaired Eric Stoltz would definitely describe it as the “Madman” of the bunch. There’s massive, mind-stretching stuff going on here, and the scope of the book ramps up time and again as we are lured towards the Hell Priest’s nihilistic endgame. Long-term Barker fans will know that Gospels had a troubled, 20-year gestation, beginning as a short story and then climbing to almost a quarter of a million words. Following an editing spree at the hands of Mark Miller, vice president of Barker’s LA film outfit Seraphim, the word count has plummeted – but the result still contains more eye-wideningly baroque concepts than a book twice the size. Gospels also upholds a key motif of Barker’s writing, whereby the descriptions become looser the more florid they get: a technique that forces your imagination to aim high in order to solve the book’s maze of complex visual puzzles.

There are caveats aplenty:

  • For a book that has its roots in detective tales, the plot becomes steadily more diffuse, and never really clinches the sense of “lock-tight” completion that distinguishes the best crime writing – or fiction that stems from it.
  • The scale of the challenge that faces Harry & Co is often surprisingly lower than what you’d expect from the hordes of Hell, and what should have been a classic exercise in whittling down the gang’s numbers one by one never gets underway. Indeed, one scene in which our friends are cornered in the streets of Hell’s capital by a mass of shape-shifting demons is almost laughable in the ease with which they get away. What begins as a moment of stark terror ends up feeling like a videogame cutscene where Our Heroes scuttle off without having had a decent fight – like there’s been an erratic jump in the gameplay or something.
  • Frustratingly, Barker never attempts to square Gospels’ mythology with that of the other, major tomes where Harry appears, namely The Great and Secret Show and Everville. Known as The Books of The Art, both novels took great pains to explain that the Judeo-Christian belief system that swathes of mankind follow is actually a mask for a far more daunting spiritual landscape that lurks right on the edge of consciousness. In Gospels, though, Harry emphatically goes to Hell – even its inhabitants call it by that name – and amid Barker’s quirky reimagining (Hell has bicycles!), the detective still often finds himself surrounded by archetypal imagery that would sit comfortably in The Book of Revelations. So are we following a parallel version of Harry, for whom Judeo-Christian mythology is a more solid edifice? It is never said, and Harry’s brushes with The Art are scarcely mentioned.
  • Despite Barker and Miller’s best efforts, there are often inconsistencies in the prose style that reveal the book had significant input from a writer other than the one emblazoned on the cover. This is obviously the kind of remark that begs the question, “Would you have picked that up if you didn’t already know about it?” To which my answer, I’m afraid, would be a resounding “Yes.” Aside from that occasional shakiness, there is also a maddening overuse of the horrible, clunky phrase “In point of fact”. Urgh.

With all that in mind, does The Scarlet Gospels stand a chance of being considered anything like as momentous as Barker classics such as Weaveworld or Imajica – books that urged horror, fantasy and philosophy to join hands and dance? Good grief, no. But, lest that verdict be perceived as a damnation game with faint praise, the book is still awash in Clive Barker hallmarks, with oodles of Big Ideas swirling through the mist of sprayed blood. It is also one of the most nakedly entertaining novels he has ever put his name to, with far shorter and punchier chapters than in most of his other books, all bound by a thread of wry – sometimes gonzo – humour. Best of all, Pinhead is a total, utter bastard, and every line he speaks drips with poetic arrogance.

GospelsCoverIronically, after spending 13 years writing an ambitious body of children’s fiction that occasionally baffles with its tangled complexity, Barker has produced a novel of savagely adult visions that reads as compulsively as the best children’s fiction.

For those of us who feel as though the 14 years since Coldheart Canyon emerged have been achingly short on the flavour of Barker we most enjoy – a pang relieved only by the slim volume of Mister B GoneThe Scarlet Gospels is a welcome, full-throated blast of his operatic register. At long last, a patience-taxing thirst has been slaked, and scarlet-brimming glasses can be raised to toast the author’s reconciliation with his applecart-demolishing, younger self.

For a long time, Barker has seemed like an author who’d rather saw off his writing hand at the wrist than give the public what they want. Flaws aside, The Scarlet Gospels is a mad and grandiloquent exercise in fan service – a veritable smorgasbord – and on this evidence, one can only hope that whatever Barker himself may be afraid of, his squeamishness about that process has been firmly laid to rest.

Buy The Scarlet Gospels and listen to a clip of the audiobook version
Click here to read Barker’s first-ever Harry D’Amour short story, Lost Souls

Words> Matt Packer

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Why Terminator Genisys is Better than its Press http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/why-terminator-genisys-is-better-than-its-press/ http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/uncategorized/why-terminator-genisys-is-better-than-its-press/#comments Wed, 22 Jul 2015 18:40:04 +0000 http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/?p=20445 Terminator Genisys - ArnieArnie’s latest action opus has suffered a horrific reception and hasn’t even crossed $100m domestically. Our resident Terminator nut thinks critics have overlooked a playful narrative remix – even if James Cameron’s touch is missed

Left for dead by the garbled, unloved and all-round ironically named Terminator: Salvation, the franchise that made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name seemed, to all intents and purposes, about as shot as Dick Miller’s gun-store clerk in that scene from the first film. Surely, after squandering the talents of Christian Bale by making him the dullest John Connor ever, and failing to capitalise on Sam Worthington’s post-Avatar ascendancy (now itself stalled, presumably until the Avatar sequels burst out of their moon-sized server room), there couldn’t have been a shred of hope for this fictional realm – let alone the post-nuclear dregs of mankind that loom over it.

But as the Terminator duly informed Dick Miller’s gun-store clerk: “Wrong.” Well… sorta.

TERMINATOR GENISYSGenisys wisely handwaves Salvation and begins with its own take on the “future war” setting beloved of Terminator head geeks. In this latest look at the series’ post-apocalyptic world, John Connor – managing director of what’s left of the human race – is imbued with inspiring, tough, yet everyman-ish qualities by Jason Clarke, most famously seen as a far less appealing handler of military intel in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Flanked by right-hand man and bestie Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), Connor is on the brink of the Great Victory against the machines that have ruled over us in the years since Judgment Day – the date in 1997 when US supercomputer Skynet decided we were all wrong ‘uns and consigned us to a planet-wide furnace.

After Connor’s troops crack the compound housing Skynet, the digital nemesis grabs a T-800 Terminator out of its fridge and lobs it back to 1984, on a mission to eradicate the human commander’s mother, Sarah. Finally, the franchise treats us to a full visualisation of that Fateful Moment when Reese – spurred on by his infatuation with a Polaroid snap of mankind’s matriarch – gets nekkid and goes on the assassin’s trail as Sarah’s devoted protector. But there’s a glitch: Something That Would Be Spoilery To Discuss Here interrupts the time-displacement process and, on his way to ’84, Reese sees a flurry of visions – perhaps memories, perhaps glimpses of a parallel world, some of which show himself as a child speaking of a thing called “Genisys”.

Once Reese arrives at his destination, director Alan Taylor goes all “Gus Van Sant’s Psycho” on us and clearly has a ball mounting shot-for-shot re-enactments of entire scenes from The Terminator, James Cameron’s mighty original. But almost as soon as those echoes emerge, Taylor spins them anew with the introduction of major changes: one of the cops who pursues Reese as he takes his first lungfuls of ‘80s air turns out to be a liquid-metal T-1000 – far more dangerous than the quarry Reese volunteered to take on. Meanwhile, the soldier’s primary target – the cyborg we know and love from the first film – also runs into unexpected flak in the shape of a doppelganger (Schwarzenegger) who has lain in wait for years. That’s not all: this older T-800 has effectively brought Sarah Connor up after scuppering a Skynet bid to kill her as a child – and the woman herself (Emilia Clarke) is in tow, destroying with an explosive shell the very Terminator that, in Linda Hamilton’s version of events, she’d spend a whole film struggling to get rid of.

Teminator Genisys - T-800It is in these scenes and their immediate aftermath that Terminator Genisys is at its most confident – playing out as nothing so much as the franchise’s equivalent of Back to the Future Part II, whereby moments from a debut film we’ve watched countless times are revisited and repurposed, while preserving some of the original resonances: yes, we do see the wrecked Film One Terminator come back for more – but not in the computer factory where the first film ends. We do see it stripped of flesh by a fireball – but not because it’s at the wheel of an exploding fuel tanker. While the results are similar, the whys and wherefores have been dramatically altered.

Throw in a few elements from Terminator 2 – such as the T-1000, and the fact that Clarke plays Sarah as a younger version of the hardened character she became in that landmark sequel – and Genisys’ opening salvo amounts to a briskly witty feast of narrative remixing. It also retains the first two films’ taste for eye-popping grotesquerie, with one incident involving a T-1000 and a torrent of acid rain primed to pump up the horror crowd as much as the Terminator’s self-surgery in Film One and Robert Patrick’s mimetic cyborg rising from a chessboard floor in Film Two.

Crucially, though, the dynamic between Sarah and Reese is twisted 180 degrees in the opposite direction from how it worked in The Terminator – with Sarah armed to the teeth as a long-forewarned doomsday prepper, and Reese struggling to keep up as the would-be saviour whose mission brief and romantic intentions have been crushed in the hydraulic press of timeline sabotage.

Terminator Genisys - Sarah ConnorIt also turns out that Sarah has her own time machine, built with the help of her paternal T-800, and as the device sparks to life, Genisys plunges into yet another round of inter-franchise burglary. Acting on info from his time-travel visions, Reese persuades Sarah to join him on a trip to 2017 – potential site of a reset Judgment Day – and the pair land in the buff on a busy freeway: a moment nicked from the pilot episode of TV spinoff The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In this era, tech giant Cyberdyne is gearing up for the launch of Genisys – an operating system designed to rule the Internet of Things, but which also contains the seeds of Skynet: an idea nicked from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where the lethal AI quashed in T2 resurfaces as an online virus. Once Reese and Sarah are there, well – who should they run into, but their offspring John Connor. On the basis of details revealed in the trailer, it’s not giving much away to say that his appearance is far from a blessing.

Terminator Genisys has had not merely the worst reviews of the franchise so far, but some of the most savage to have bitten into any big-budget Hollywood product of recent times and certainly the most negative of Arnie’s career. After almost three weeks on release, it has failed to cross the $100 million mark domestically, sitting at the time of writing just above $81m with its takings on a daily slide. By contrast, Salvation managed to rustle up a US gross of $125m before shuffling on to disc – and that film was hardly embraced with open arms. Sure, Genisys has its problems. Not unlike a shape-shifting T-1000, its 2017 section begins to feel more and more like it’s blending in with the tone of the superhero flicks that have come to hog the mainstream since Salvation shilled its last tub of popcorn. That gradual Marvelisation of the film is especially prominent in some increasingly cartoonish action set-pieces – not to mention the inclusion of a mid-credits teaser – and ensures that Genisys, despite having all the required weaponry at its disposal, never stands a chance of hitting the heady heights of the new Planet of the Apes franchise: films that have mulled the apocalypse with an altogether straighter face.

The TerminatorDespite tipping a sea of hats to Cameron’s Terminators, Genisys could arguably have gone even further. It’s a pity, for example, that Brad Fiedel wasn’t re-hired to scoring duties, as his iconic washes of sinister synth are sorely missed in the ’84 section. That goes double for the thumping pop-rock of Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz, whose anthems ‘Photoplay’ and ‘Burnin’ in the Third Degree’ provided Film One with some of its most memorable cues. All told, though, Genisys proves far more adept at remodelling ideas from earlier on in the franchise than coming up with compelling thoughts of its own – and it’s clear that the absence of Cameron’s titanic IQ, which empowered his entries with such eerie menace, is the main reason why Rise, Salvation and, to a lesser degree, Genisys have wavered. Amid the sunny glare of the annual summer blockbuster race, it’s easy to forget what a harsh, nasty and genuinely shocking film The Terminator was, and still is, largely because it was an indie made for just $6m at a time when the concept of the “sleeper hit” was a touchstone for US directors who didn’t have access to studio funds. In that sense, none of the Terminator sequels – including Cameron’s lighter T2 (budget: $94m) – have truly captured the spirit of the first, which revelled in close-up, execution-style murders, callously mowed down an entire precinct of cops and featured an explicit sex scene between Sarah and Reese.

It’s on that last point that Genisys is at its wobbliest, unable to square the circle of the time-crossed couple’s disrupted relationship arc and leaving them by the end like a pair of heavily armed bounty hunters who might kind of fancy each other – bedroom grappling a distant prospect. Their cause isn’t exactly helped by Courtney – likeable enough, but devoid of bite, and not even remotely a match for the raw desperation of Michael Biehn, who played Reese to the hilt as a sufferer of chronic PTSD. Indeed, when you ponder the reams of frantic exposition Biehn had to rant through in the first film, it’s clear that his performance did as much as Schwarzenegger’s – perhaps even more – to sell the Terminator’s whopping threat level to the audience. Anton Yelchin’s respectful take on Reese in Salvation, which was the best thing about that film, leaves Courtney’s version standing.

That said, Terminator Genisys is still an entertaining 125 minutes, driven by a playful approach to Cameron’s material that could only be the product of writers who are enjoying their own mischief. In Reese’s interactions with his childhood self, there are even some pleasing touches of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. While Genisys may be hamstrung in key areas, the near-universal slating it has received is wildly over the top, and risks obscuring the film’s marked superiority over Rise and Salvation. As the franchise often reminds us, the future is not set – so with any luck the Terminator brand will be back sometime, hopefully with some powerful, new things to say.

Terminator Genisys is out now in UK cinemas

Words>Matt Packer

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