Monday, 21 July 2014

Transformers - Age Of Extinction

Basic Extinct

Transformers - Age Of Extinction
2014 USA/China
Directed by Michael Bay
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Transformers weren’t even invented yet when I was a kid... so I missed out on the whole toys and comics thing with them. However, after being grudgingly dragged along to the first movie in this series, I was more than delighted that the original was such a great film. Pretty much a modern classic.

It’s been painful and frustrating, therefore, to have to watch movie after movie of, frankly, badly written and badly paced sequels to that original bright light of an opening shot. Considering it’s the same director all the way through the series, I find it difficult to believe that these sequels can be so atrocious. And, I am very sad to report, that I believe that extends to this latest venture, Transformers: Age Of Extinction when, in direct opposition to my hopes and well wishes for the movie (which it doesn’t need anyway, it’s made a ton of money ensuring further dire exploits in our collective near future), I found myself constantly looking at the time and wishing the damn thing would be over soon.

The problem is not necessarily the story, I think... it is what it is.

Neither is all of the dialogue that ropey either and, even if it wasn’t quite up to scratch, you have a bunch of actors like Mark Wahlburg and Sophia Myles (the original Girl In The Fireplace... wasted in this but shining briefly) giving it their all and so it never sounds too bad. I think what we have here that screws things up a little is break neck direction and action choreography that is practically wall to wall, once it starts... and, in the odd moment when it does give you time to breath, which is barely, doesn’t give enough of a space in the onslaught to actually allow you to invest in the characters and the stakes enough to care about what happens next... and that’s really a shame because the director is more than capable of giving us a well put together, heartfelt film when he wants to.

When a movie written by the likes of Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone is made, it becomes clear that the pauses and, really quite long stretches of character establishment, character build up and dramatic tension, are all a very important part of a movie. You need it there so when you contrast it with a well placed action sequence, that sequence becomes more vibrant and dynamic in contrast to anything else that directly surrounds it. Tension and release. It’s all part of the game.

Or... put it another way.

My daytime job is as a graphic designer. Occasionally you’ll get a really clueless client who insists on one or both of the following classic design mistakes.

Number one is they’ll try to fill every gap or piece of negative (or white) space with some kind of textual or design element. Absolutely the wrong thing to do with a design, people. You need the space there to help lead the eye in to where you want it to focus. If you fill the page the eye will just take it’s natural (and standard to all human beings as far as I know) journey across the page/screen without being particularly caught by anything in particular.

Secondly, another thing they’ll do is try to make three or more bits of information stand out and be more important from everything else by asking for this, that and the other to be in bold type, usually quite close to each other. Of course, all that achieves is all the emboldened words dilute each other’s strength and basically cancel each other out. Instead of one clear message you're scatter-shotting a plethora of them and they all fight against each other causing chaos to the eye. Most people, unless they already have a specific agenda that they have to wade through the content of the design for, will not bother to read something like this. The client has just lost the potential customer by ignoring the key message and bombarding the eye with fighting headers.

And I think that’s why Transformers: Age Of Extinction kind of loses it’s way in much the same way as the previous two sequels did. Instead of highlighting things with the occasional action scene, it’s just non-stop action. The kinetic equivalent of overcrowding the page with too many headers and not allowing any white space to lead you to where you need to be. Relentless and pounding set pieces are the order of the day in this movie and, while there are admittedly rest room breaks to ease the monotony, they needed to have a lot more of an emotional hook to them (and they do try, the scripting isn’t completely terrible... clichéd but not terrible) and be a lot longer so the action scenes felt like something when they kick back in gear here. There’s no real sense of that tension and release I was talking about in this one... just noisy motion and explosions. Which personally I find pretty dull, to be honest.

One of the tings that gets me coming back for these disappointments time and time again is that Steve Jablonsky’s score for the first movie is one of the great movie scores of all time. At least, it is to me. Unfortunately, although all the films have been scored by this composer, the sequels never really come close to recapturing the genius of that first score and, sad to say, that I include the score to this movie in that statement. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some nice music in it, what I could hear of it above the explosions, and it all seems appropriate but, again, it’s not got nearly the “hairs raising on the arms” beauty of the original score and that’s a bit of a pity. It does it’s job but, for the most part, you aren’t tapping your toes in time to the music as you are watching this one.

A big change with this one is that none of the human characters from the previous films are back in this one. That’s understandable given some of the politics and comments that have been made around the previous films in the series, but there were one or two I missed. The real loss in all that, though, is that of John Turturro, who always seems to traditionally turn up in the movies when you least expect him to. Alas... he’s not here.

The actors who are in this one, as I said, do a fine job but another reason they’re hampered is that of the regular characters that do make an appearance in this one, and I’m talking about the autobots themselves. They’re really not that sympathetic this time around. Bumblebee is underused, Optimus Prime is a lot more judgemental of humans than we’re used to and as for the other transformers... I just didn’t like them, period. These are not the robots I was looking for... and I really wanted to move on out of the cinema very quickly.

So that’s all I’ve got for you on that one. Special effects are all spectacular but somebody on the payroll really needs to realise that the biggest special effect is when you slow the pacing down and let the spell of the characters overtake you. That’s when you have a film. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is more of a big budget, travelling carny show. Alright as a curiosity but not somewhere you’d want to explore very often. It seems to have made a lot of cash already in the USA though, so “Yay!” and “good for them” to the people reaping those rewards. However, the downside for me to that is that this probably means there’ll be another sequel at some point. I really don’t want one.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Gorillas In Our Midst

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
2014 USA
Directed by Matt Reeves
Playing at UK cinemas now.

I’ve always quite liked the Planet Of The Apes franchise. I remember, when I was a lad of about five years of age, going to the Florida cinema in Enfield Town (long since redeveloped and ultimately demolished) and seeing a double bill of a sci-fi submarine movie, the name of which escapes me, and the fifth and final entry in the original run of films, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes... which was pretty cool to a five year old (although that fifth one doesn't stand the test of time, from what I recall). Caesar yelling “Fight like apes!” stuck in my mind for a very long time as a child.

Then, of course, there was the TV series, followed by the cartoon series, and the Mego action figures of various characters in the TV show, some of which I used to have. I remember the girl ape action figure, Zira, had very visible plastic breasts under her tunic which became a fascination for me when I entered my teens. I’d never had a female action figure before and was consistently amazed by her impressively rendered boobage... so Planet Of The Apes also provided me with some of my earliest sexual exploratory enquiries too... in a strange way. Yeah, I know... don’t think about it too much, it’s cool.

The original five films were a bit hit and miss, especially when compared to the original novel, but my favourites were definitely the first, third and fourth movies. When Tim Burton put his own spin on the series, it was different and very watchable but, ultimately, a less satisfying experience than I was hoping  for. Then, a couple of years ago, Fox released Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here), which featured the early years, albeit with a slightly different origin, of Caesar, the ape character who featured in the last three films of the original franchise entries (as played by Roddy McDowell in the fourth and fifth movies... an actor who also played Caesar’s father in the first and third installments). Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was actually a pretty good movie and hit all the right spots. It’s right up there with the best in the original franchise and I was pretty much impressed with it on many levels.

So I recently saw the new sequel to that opening shot, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and I have to say that I am equally impressed with this one. The story, such as it is, kind of treads a middle ground tonally in terms of comparison to the original franchise, being a kind of midway mark between the last two movies in that sequence, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. This film is a direct sequel to Rise but none of the human characters in that movie make it into this sequel... which is a shame because that means the only connection to James Franco’s character in Rise is through the main ape protagonist here, and again it’s Caesar, who looks at a photograph and video footage during the course of this movie.

The last film left a couple of decent threads dangling in case it was popular enough to warrant a sequel and, for this one, the writers have ignored the space mission mentioned in a news report in the background of a scene in Rise and have instead chosen to take up the, perhaps more obvious, thread of the so called “simian flu” which was accidentally created in the lab in the last movie. So Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes starts off with a sequence which is basically a moving infographic showing the human population of Earth mostly dying from either flu or the violent conflict brought on by that situation, and lets us know that there are only a few surviving pockets of humanity left in this world, which has moved on a full ten years since Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. From there on we see some images of the intelligent apes in the home in the forest that they have built from themselves. There’s a lovely little moment in these opening sequences from composer Michael Giacchino when the apes are glimpsed in silhouette and gently introduced, which is a nod to some of the György Ligeti compositions “acquired” for Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Oddysey. I think the tone of these opening shots is deliberate and Giacchino adds to the joke musically for people who are already reminded of the Dawn Of Man opening in 2001 during this sequence. So that was pretty cool.

Then we have the plot started which I won’t say too much about, other than it brings man and ape into both conflict and mutual trust and puts them in a position where a few of the apes and humans can learn to co-exist but are hampered by the bigger picture of xenophobic treachery within both their own ranks. It’s a nice idea and it works very well... pulling you into the story emotionally and taking its time to make the points it wants without jamming everything down your throat in a hurry... while still cramming in various action scenes and intrigues along the way. Which is one of the definitions of a pretty good night out at the movies, if you ask me.

There’ also some nice little nods again to the original apes franchise... my favourite being that the intelligent and philosophical orangutan is called Maurice... which is a nod towards Maurice Evans, who played the intelligent orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original 1968 movie. That was a nice touch.

The film is well acted and the “actors” and special effects team do an excellent job of giving the apes emotional subtleties and nuances which allow the audience to fully empathise with the plight of some of them, in the same way that not all the human characters are as easy to empathise with at certain points. We have a would-be human villain in Gary Oldman who we can totally sympathise with and ultimately is just seen as being a person making the wrong choices for the right reasons... and nowhere near as much of a villain as one of the humans who causes so much trouble for his colleagues when they are staying with the apes in their forest village. Similarly, we have the heroic Caesar in this movie contrasted against the “villain” ape Koba, who you will learn to hate more intensely than any of the human characters in the film by the end of this one.

This is all wrapped up in a neat bundle by Giacchino’s great scoring, which also has a few nods to the scoring of the original franchise movies, and which matches the action and pacing of the movie perfectly. I was lucky enough to see the last two Star Trek movies projected to the live soundtracks earlier in the year and, at the encores from both of these concerts, Giacchino got up on the stage and conducted suites of music from his up and coming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes score... so I already had the soundtrack on pre-order just on the strength of what I heard in those concerts. I’m looking forward to the disc arriving even more now that I’ve heard what he’s done throughout the course of the running time. So I’m hoping it’ll be good as a stand alone listen too.

If I had one criticism of the movie, it would simply be that the story here seems mostly superfluous, in all honesty. It feels like a bridge between one part of a story and the next and, to boot, it feels like this whole narrative could be cut out of the timeline and we could have gone straight to the next destination in the saga without bothering to explore the incidents and events pictured in this movie. But, having said that... honestly? Who cares? It’s entertaining as hell and I, for one, am really glad they made this movie. It stands head and shoulders with some of the best movies in the franchise and, considering that you’re looking at a bunch of hairy, animated individuals for a lot of the time, that says a lot.

If you like the ape movies then you certainly won’t be disappointed with this one. It’s a mini epic, rather than a major journey, for sure... but it’s a brilliant one which will pull you in and won’t let you go until the end credits start rolling. A film which plays around with family values, politics, racism and the ability to see past the status quo and follow paths which may lead to sacrifice and regret (as they do in this movie). Definitely take a look at this one... you’ll go ape for it.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Cat Girl

Lost That Loving Feline

Cat Girl
1957 UK
Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy
Insignia Films
Network DVD Region 2 

Okay. So Cat Girl is a movie I’d not heard of before it came up in one of Network’s regular DVD sales. I wanted this one because, for all intents and purposes, it looked like a 1950s British remake of Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s Cat People (a very tiny “pocket review” of which can be found here). Also, it starred Barbara Shelley, who is an actress I loved, mainly due to her role as the extremely strong female character she played as an assistant to the two male protagonists in Hammer Films' movie adaptation of Quatermass And The Pit (which is a film you can find reviewed here and, if you so desire, you can see my small visual tribute to Barbara Shelley in that role included in my 800th Blog illustration here).

As it turns out, even though it emphasises that the film is an update of Cat People on the back cover notes of the DVD, Cat Girl is really not, in any way, a translation of the aforementioned feline themed adventure. It may well have started off to be so, for all I know, but if it was... well, so much was changed in the writing, which is not credited as being based on anything in the opening titles, that the result really is unrecognisable as anything but the very vaguest of conceptual descendants of the 1940s RKO classic.

The films both have large cats in them... that’s it. They’re not even the same cat as far as I can recall. I’m pretty sure the species in question in Cat People is a black panther where, in Cat Girl, the large cat is a standard leopard.

In Cat People, the character Irene is the victim of a Serbian family curse which threatens to transform her into a hostile panther when she loses her virginity. A large chunk of the opening is taken up with the courtship of Irene, followed by her marriage and the breakdown of that marriage for fear that her character cannot consummate said marriage without turning into a wild, jungle beast. The rest of the film then deals with her psychotherapy and her husband's affair with another woman which, after a film which is totally psychological in tone (as opposed to the actual “make-up monsters” of rival studio Universal, who RKO were competing with in their most budget conscious, creative fashion), sees Irene finally transforming into one of the titular Cat People and, when her life is taken, reverting to the corpse of the woman she once was.

Cat Girl, on the other hand, features none of the sexual hang ups of the main character in Cat People. Barbara Shelley’s character Leonora Johnson is already married at the start of the movie and her virginity a long lost feature of her past. Instead, this film deals with her inheritance, where a family curse is passed onto her and she becomes, for want of a better word, psychologically linked with the family’s pet, killer leopard. The cat comes out at night and, when it does so, some shot cuts and reveals are used to show a distinct change in Shelley’s make up... but in no time does she ever actually transform into a cat herself... although she shares the same final fate as the leopard in this film due to her psychic bond. Naturally everyone thinks she’s totally crazy because... well, you know... she thinks she’s channeling a leopard... and so she is placed in a sanitarium and, in some of the worst and hilarious movie psychiatry I’ve ever seen, released to spend time with the object of her sexual jealousy and hate, the wife of her psychologist, who was himself once her childhood crush.

So... nothing like Cat People. 

Quite the opposite, in fact, when you consider that the sexual subtext of the first film is not present in this one other than as a complete reversal. Indeed, the sexuality in Cat Girl is pretty blatant and strong, especially in a scene where we see Leonora’s shadow undressing against the wall and, certainly, given the “costume” she wears in the final act of the film... a shiny, black leather coat which seems to be her solitary piece of clothing in this section and which seems to be almost deliberately encoded as a sexual fetish. I’m guessing it was a deliberate choice in terms of the designers of the look of the film too... although there’s always a chance the actors and actresses didn’t realise it at the time.

The lighting is beautiful throughout, often creating a halo around the hair of the central characters and showing off the black and white cinematography nicely... which is lucky since there’s very little camera movement in the majority of the shots in the film and most of the movie is assembled as edits from static set ups. So the lighting does help to offset the often lack of dynamic visual motion. Thankfully, the editing is not too uninteresting in places and everything keeps ticking along at a fairly solid rate. Having said that, the film came out just a few months after Hammer’s colourful The Curse Of Frankenstein, so I’m guessing that the success of the former and the expectations it created for horror films in its wake possibly meant this particular gem had a more lukewarm reception in the year of its release, both here in the UK and stateside.

But I say “gem” because it really is.

Cat Girl is a film which is definitely “of its time” but it’s quite charming in its own way and, frankly, Barbara Shelley’s performance in this is brilliant in both its intensity and, perhaps, its bravery at the time. This is definitely another strong female role for this actress and I suspect she probably relished this part when she won it. Whether she did or didn’t, though, she certainly sank her teeth into the part, so to speak, and although a lot of the on screen shenanigans by her and the rest of the cast isn’t exactly subtle, it is passionate and, more importantly, interesting to watch. Shelley certainly has a lot of presence in this role.

The one area where I think this movie does slip up big time, however, is in the musical scoring. I was wondering who was murdering the film with all the heavy handed compositions while I was watching but, as it turns out, it’s not the work of one composer but a range of different composers’ stock music tracked in and used here. All I can say is that, though these pieces may have been useful in their own right and in certain situations, as a score for this movie they are a fair degree less than subtle and it’s such a shame because, with some more appropriate cues, or even some of the same ones knocked down a little bit in the mix, they might well have given the film a little more lift and support in certain scenes. So that’s a pity.

Other than that, though, I would well recommend this movie for audiences who have a taste for old school British horror curios and I’m well pleased that Network have put this little beauty out in a digital format. Not one for all modern horror audiences, for sure, especially as there are no real scares to be had, but certainly something which does its own thing and, perhaps, even pushes the sexual envelope a little for its time, at least in terms of the overt references you could get away with in a commercial release of the period, I suspect. Definitely a movie I plan to be returning to at some point.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Upstream Colour

The Pig Sleep

Upstream Colour
2013 USA
Directed by Shane Carruth
Metrodome Blu Ray Zone B 

Sort of Warning: This review may or may not contain spoilers... probably not because I suspect everyone is going to have their own interpretation and relation to the events that take place on screen... but still, putting this warning here just in case.

Upstream Colour is the second feature directed by Shane Carruth, who also writes, produces, does the cinematography, co-edits, stars in and composes the soundtrack for the film. Like his absolutely brilliant first movie Primer, it takes a science fiction base but grounds it absolutely in a very matter-of-fact contemporary setting, exploring a very basic premise but in the most clever, non-linear and almost impenetrable way.

The editing choices in this movie allow for some almost random placements which don’t adhere to a strictly linear presentation of the narrative (if you’re happy to call it a narrative) and which is best received by an audience member as a jumble of puzzle pieces which are there to decode but which will not necessarily lead to an ultimate rendering of a specifically correct conclusion. So while Primer shares a certain style and atmosphere with this movie, the place the content leads you to in this one is more along the lines of something like, for instance, Ben Wheatley’s brilliant Kill List (reviewed here), in terms of it not taking where you think the destination might be or, if you did get there first, taking you there for no specific reason.

However, I think in the case of Kill List, the clues and provocative moments are deliberately inserted to lead you to a place which has no real solution to it (and if I’m wrong about that, please tell me so) whereas I’m pretty sure this film has a very specific linear narrative hiding behind the frames, as it were, and which still holds up solidly, no matter what the common or popular interpretation of it is. For instance, I didn’t feel I was totally getting it so I read a synopsis of the film on Wikipedia afterwards and I have to say that, after reading that quite detailed synopsis... I ended up thinking, “Hey, they didn’t get it.” Like in the case where a dream sequence is mentioned to explain the presence of a specific character (played in the most passively haunting but somehow sinister way by Andrew Sensenig) who can be quite often seen watching other characters in the movie. I don’t think these were supposed to be dream sequences at all, to be honest. More like visual metaphors to define the presence of a person watching his pigs/experiments... if that makes any sense and, unless you’ve seen the movie, it almost certainly won’t.

Here’s what I could piece together.

A woman’s life is completely destroyed by a man who uses a specific kind of maggot, which he hides in a pill capsule and gives her as drugs. It has already been demonstrated that the maggot can form a very strong bond between minds which even allows two people to synchronise their movements via their thoughts. This maggot gets into Amy Seimetz character Kris and, once it’s in her system, the man has total hypnotic dominance over her mind. In the aftermath of her lengthy encounter as his slave, for all intents and purposes, she is left without money, a job and brutally scarred from when she was trying to get the maggot out of herself. In the middle of this all she is lured to a man to remove them who actually pulls it from her body and implants it into a pig. She then forgets everything and has to rebuild her ruined life with no knowledge of how she got like this.

A year later, Kris meets a man who seems to share a common empathy, even though they seem to have no interest in each other initially. The man is called Jeff and is played by Shane Carruth. As their relationship develops, certain things slowly come to light, as much as the editing style and placement of the narrative allows it to do so in your mind, and it becomes very clear that Kris is not the only person who has been through this devastating experience. What’s more, Jeff is also a victim of this process and it appears that maybe this is why the two of them seem so dependent on each other... something that gets more acute as they begin to share the same thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and even perceive childhood anecdotes of each other as their own. Things come to a head and, with the help of their shared identity with various pigs, orchids (I think, don’t ask) and the published musical compositions/sound scapes of the pig man, they end up taking their personal thread, joining it up with many other individuals (who presuambly form a connective identity), and basically take over the pig farming business by giving them a much better life.

If that sounds kinda skewed and unlikely then... yeah, it probably is. That’s my interpretation of the movie at my level (it’s true, I may be stupid) and I suspect everyone is going to come up with something different. Is the pig farmer genuinely observing the plight of the various victims of the process started by the man with the maggots, for instance? I don’t know but I’m willing to assume he’s tapping into their heads somehow and maybe shares a link from the same process as them... maybe that’s how Kris comes to get the upper hand near the end of the film and, in some ways, take over the process while bringing an end to the potential ruin and devastation of people’s lives.

What I can tell you for sure is that Upstream Colour is absolutely gripping throughout, just like Primer was, and it seems to me to be artistically successful in all that it tries to do. The performances are electrical and about as naturalistic as you can imagine. The cinematography is superb, giving us drab and neutral tones pitched against some beautiful, almost luminous colouring for certain sequences. The editing is both easy to follow... even if it does feel like Nicholas Roeg on acid, but without the fanfare... and that editing serves to provoke an atmosphere of puzzle solving which leads to your full engagement with the material on offer. The soundtrack, while a little clichéd, perhaps, for a film of this nature, serves the onslaught of images very well and never once outstays its welcome.

If I’d have seen this film at a cinema last year as I’d wanted to (Seriously UK film distributors... what happened to it? It didn’t play in my local Cineworld once!) then it would easily have made my top five movies from last year. As it happens, I’ll have to be content with saying that this movie is a very definite and hard recommend from me. Shane Carruth is an artistic force to be reckoned with (he’s even pretty watchable as an actor, as it happens) and this movie is a great work of art all lovers of cinema should see at least once in their lives. Very much a blu-ray I suspect I’ll be lending to a lot of people who wouldn’t normally see a movie like this and it’ll likely get a return visit from me sometime in the near future too. Take a look when you get the chance.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

London Film and Comic Con 2014

The Geek Shall 
Inherit The Earth*

London Film and Comic Con 2014

It was about four years ago, not long after I started writing this blog of reviews, that I first mentioned my affection for the annual London Film and Comic Convention (and you can read that review here). Although I’m sure many of you will call me sad for saying so... it’s basically the highlight of my year. The one Saturday out of the 52 per annum which I plan my summer holidays around so I can make sure I am in London to attend. I’ve been going to this one for something like 8 - 10 years and, without fail, I always manage to do it.

Not this year though, although it wasn’t for want of trying.

Every year I get to the venue about an hour early (the show opens for regular “on the door” tickets at 11am) and either start or join the queue to buy tickets. Usually there’s around 3 - 50 people in front of me and, once they open the doors at 11am, I’m usually in and looking around my favourite stalls of knick knacks. And that’s another point I want to mention, by the way, before I go on to describe what a total fiasco this was this year... I’m not there for the celebrities. The queues for them, once you’ve bought a ticket for their own specific queue, are usually fairly lengthy and take a long time to get through... much too much time for me to be wasting queueing when there are such interesting fantasy themed goods on offer such as replica samurai swords or Buffy The Vampire Slayer knickers. In fact, the only time I queued for a celebrity at the London Film And Comic Con was the first year I started attending the event more regularly... so 8 - 10 years ago... and that was for Elvira herself, Cassandra Peterson. But that was in a time when the individual queues moved pretty fast and I was only waiting for her for about a quarter of an hour.

Last year was no exception to my usual routine but I did notice, after an hour or so, that it was getting very difficult to move around in there. I took a photo from a lounge above the cafe last year and I remember tweeting something along the lines that the organisers really did need to address the fact that the event had kind of outgrown it’s venue. It was never as popular as it was last year and it made the show less enjoyable because the geeks, who shall inherit the earth, no doubt, were out in force. You couldn’t count the number of fezzes, stormtroopers and superheroes on the fingers of any number of hands you and your friends brought with you. The sheer number of people coming to this thing and being crammed into an increasingly inadequate space, in costume or just in civvies like me, was a real problem.

This year, I did my usual thing and got up at a time best left unmentioned to arrive for the queue at Earls Court at 10am. I wasn’t expecting to have literally thousands of people in front of me. The queue, usually a relatively small number of people at best, went right around the building and also did about eight zig zags around the front area... before even getting to the back of the buildings where the main entrance to Earls Court 2 is. It was staggering. The last two times I’d seen anything like this was when I was a young boy in the early 1970s. I remember queuing for many hours to see both a Salvador Dali exhibition at the Tate Gallery (when there was only one Tate Gallery and not a whole fistful ilke there is today) and the Treasures Of Tutankhamen at the British Museum (the real ones, not the replicas which were on show over here lesss than a decade ago).

But, it was still only ten o’clock so I figured I’d still be able to get in by 11am, right? How wrong I was. To say the queue was slow moving would be an understatement. And it only got bigger and bigger after I arrived... snaking back on itself so many times that it was soon literally cascading out into the High Street. This was not good. As the day wore on, many queue companions, people I’d met there that day, had dropped out. Things were getting pretty ugly by 1pm. There was one guy dressed up as Doctor Who and he was shouting at the top of his voice to anyone that would listen that his day had been ruined. Well yeah, we were all victims here, actually, mate. All our days had been ruined and none of us, it would seem, are going to be offered any compensation by the organisers for the £6 - £30 travel costs, depending on where you were coming from, to basically go and stand in a queue all day.

The various queue stewards were bearing the brunt of the complaints quite admirably and they were clearly not to blame for the lack of organisation from the people running the show... but they were really left in the dark, it seems to me, on how to handle the sheer numbers of people out in force this year and, I can hardly blame them for not having an organised response.

I blame the organisers.

If I could see this coming last year... why couldn’t they?

After a while the building became over capacity... that is to say, it was pretty much illegal to let any more people into the place until various people had left. So they just kept closing the doors. Things were getting ugly. It was looking like it would be an unruly but immaculately costumed mob bearing pitchforks and lightsabres at some point. I chatted with various people, some of them cosplayers, some of whom you can see in the photos at the top of this post, and many of them were very patient people and, like me, most of them gave up at some point in the day.

Now the day wasn’t a total loss for me in that I usually get one of the guys who runs a stall at the Camden and Westminster Film Fairs to order in a load of fairly unusual stuff for me, so it’s worth my while going. Halfway through the day he managed to get a break and brought the stuff he’d got in for me out to the queue so I could buy it from him there... so that was really good of him. However, the reports of what was going on in the building were less than encouraging. Apparently, the place was packed to bursting with nobody being able to really get to look at the stalls they wanted to because everywhere it was all at something of a standstill... human traffic jams were all over the place, it seemed. And, when I inquired if business for that day was fairly good for his stall, he basically said that it was terrible. Everyone was there, it would seem, for the celebrities and those that could manage to claw their ways through to the stalls were not buying, by the sound of it. They were blowing all their money on the celebrity photo shoots. Not too encouraging.

So there we all were. An angry bunch of, mostly, humans. To paraphrase a popular sci-fi TV show of the 1970s, we were “a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest... searching for the entry tills of London Film & Comic Con."

I stuck it out for as long as I felt I was able to in that queue. I’ve had a terrible cold all week and, on top of that, I’ve been getting some problems with my feet which means I can’t be on them for too many hours without getting some chronic pain. So I had someone save my place and I scoped out the rest of the queue. Well it looked like there was at least another couple of hours to go and I wasn’t going to be getting in any time soon... let alone the thousands behind me, poor things. My heart went out to an old lady with a walking stick who must have been in her sixties at the very least. She was on her own and must have been in the queue longer than I had been. Ditto for a blind guy in the queue who only had his guide dog to keep him company... I couldn’t believe they were letting these people queue. These people needed to be fast tracked inside somehow, I think. That was just plain wrong.

At 2.30pm, after I had been queueing for around four and a half hours, I called it a day. Things weren’t getting any better and the human bladder can only last so long in the sweltering heat. I’d not eaten since my breakfast at about 6am and my stomach felt like it was folding in on itself. So I left the queue and gave up this year. I was not best pleased about wasting my entire day on this exercise with no real updates or organisational set up to be able to cope with these numbers. This was a really bad idea.

When I got home I jumped on the message board for the London Film & Comic Con to see what people were saying. It wasn’t exactly a love fest on there and there were some echoes about the bad organisation of the event which pretty much mirrored what I’d been hearing from people in the queue all day. One person on the board tried to defend various issues by saying that people who were in the queue should have planned to bring water with them etc but, seriously, if we knew that it was going to be packed out with at least ten to fifteen times the amount of people who usually show up for these things, then we certainly would have.

Frankly, to end this post with the kind of sentiments that I was hearing from everyone’s mouth in the queues.... the organisation of this event and the lack of a viable, or at least visible, “reflex action” contingency plan to what was, from very early on in the day, a big problem with overcrowding, was a complete joke. This is not how you react to an event like this if more people turn up than you were expecting. It was a travesty and I bet half of the geeks in the queues could have done a much better job at identifying these kinds of problems months before they happened. I’m not at all happy about the way things were handled here... and this definitely wasn’t the highlight of my year in 2014. Which is a real shame.

*I use the term geek in the modern accepted parlance, which I personally don’t accept but am doing so because it suits my title pun. Please remember that the term geek is actually a reference to a carny act of a particular style of performer who would bite the heads off of live chickens. That’s what geek really means. But I’ll let it slide for this post only.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)

De Palma, Sans Cheese

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)
1973 USA 
Directed by Brian De Palma
Arrow BluRay Region B/DVD Region 2 Dual Edition

Warning: Spoilers stabbing you 
repeatedly as you bleed out on the floor...

The early part of the 1970s was the last big hurrah for American movies. You had Brian DePalma’s contemporaries, The New Hollywood Mavericks (as I think they were labelled back then) making their important, breakthrough films around this kind of time, give or take a few years. Directors such as Scorcese (Mean Streets), Spielberg (Jaws), Lucas (American Graffiti) and Coppola (The Godfather)... this was a big creative push which ushered in a brief but potent renaissance in American film making with lots of works by these directors having a lasting impact and influence on both American and International film. A legacy which is still being plundered to this day.

DePalma was no exception, of course, making great movies like this and Dressed To Kill, both of which owe a huge debt to Hitchcock’s Psycho and, of course, De Palma’s Obsession (a film which is quite reminiscent of Vertigo in some ways). Sisters is pretty much my favourite Brian De Palma movie. It comes from that great point in his career when he was experimenting with recycling Hitchcock tropes and motifs and then mixing them in with the kind of visual sensibility found in Italian giallo movies of that era.

Sisters tells the story of Dominique and Danielle (one living, one dead and both played by Margot Kidder) and it’s very much like Psycho in the fact that it starts out with a main protagonist, Philip (played by Lisle Wilson) who, like Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s seminal slasher, disappears from the narrative in a very sudden and brutal manner, once he’s been established for a while as the main lead. Philip is introduced, along with Danielle, as an unknowing participant in a TV game show called Peeping Toms. De Palma has always been considered a bit of a voyeuristic director due, I suspect, to the laid back and casual observational style of the kind of camerawork he employs in his movies. Slow, static or sometimes swooping along a track, it takes in everything and doesn’t necessarily stay with any one character for the bulk of his movies and Sisters is certainly no exception. So when we start off with a scene which is a “set up” for a voyeuristic dilemma, followed by the audience in the studio watching that, followed by us, the audience, watching that TV show presenting that footage... we get a whole voyeurism within voyeurism within voyeurism thing in the very first few minutes of this movie... just in case anybody was maybe missing one of De Palma’s key preoccupations at this point.

So let’s talk about blood and death.

The infamous “Birthday Cake” stab scene, where Philip has brought a cake back to Danielle’s apartment for her and her “sister”, who he heard talking through the wall earlier (not realising that Margot Kidder’s character was, without her even knowing it, talking to herself), is both shocking in its sudden opening slash (even if you are savvy enough to be expecting it on your first viewing) and, even by today’s standards, quite shockingly intense in both its brutality and its duration. After Philip is initially stabbed twice in a crossing blow at the top of one of his legs, near the groin, this is followed by a stab through the mouth which takes most of his left cheek out. As Dominique, brought into play in Danielle’s mind from the trauma of her sexual encounter with Philip from the night before,  drops the knife, which is sent spinning... she is clearly suffering from some kind of schizophrenic fit. All the while, Philip is very slowly crawling across the apartment floor towards the knife, expending all his energy on just trying to stay alive and not “bleed out” without a fight. When Dominique/Danielle notices this, though, she flings herself on him and starts stabbing him repeatedly in the back before spinning the knife away again. The twitching Phillip finally dies trying to write help on the window in his own blood... a murder which is witnessed, Rear Window style, by Jennifer Salt playing Grace Collier, the person who will take over the rest of the movie as the lead protagonist.

As we see the end and then aftermath and clean up of the murder from both her point of view and from the viewpoint of Danielle and her ex-husband, Emil, played by William Finley, we are introduced to what is a very early example of De Palma’s split screen technique. Of course, split screen was nothing new, but DePalma does use it a lot in his films to do things like, in this case, totally set up the character of Grace Collier via a feed of her newspaper columns, summing up her stance on life, while also getting the murder clean up out of the way simultaneously. He also uses it to build suspense, such as when Grace and the police narrowly miss Emil in a series of corridors, shown from two angles, as he escapes with the murder weapon and the bloody rags. Even at this early stage of his career, De Palma showed himself to be a master at this kind of thing.

Actually, the use of the split screen technique in this movie is very apt to push the concept of “doubling” and schizophrenia here and De Palma makes full use of this throughout. For instance, in one shot during this sequence, Danielle is looking at herself in a bathroom cabinet mirror on the left hand half of the screen... but the cabinet is made up of two doors and there is a split right down the centre of her face, which is a big visual clue thrown in the face of the audience about what is really going on here... the two characters inhabiting the mind of one body. Also, this means you basically have a split screen (the double doors) within a split screen, which is also visually interesting... this is all good stuff.

The other notable thing about the first murder sequence and, indeed, the whole movie, is Bernard Herrmanns absolute powerhouse scoring. The stab scene has already been visually pre-empted when Philip is getting the writing on the cake iced in a bakery and the angle at which the hands doing the icing makes it look very much like a knife stabbing downwards, as the lady behind the counter oozes the pinky red icing onto the white surface. It’s a phenomenal shot and Herrmann scores this with a child like motif which is reused in the immediate prelude to Margot Kidders stab-frenzy freak out, just before Herrmann segues into full on, in yer face, stab music mixed with weird moog synthesiser sounds, rivalling his earlier, more famous stab music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. I remember musicologist Royal S. Brown noting in an interview once, on a documentary about Herrmann, that the child like melody of the cake theme is replaced with an antagonistic childrens game melody “Nyah nyah nah, nyah nyah!” and this becomes very clear when you think about it. And, of course, this links in perfectly with the tone of the naive and child-like Danielle as compared to the aggressive mindset of the Dominique half of her brain.

There’s a lot going on in this movie and there are some great scenes which all involve the fact that Dominique and Danielle were siamese twins... until something happened and they had to be separated. There’s a very potentially confusing flashback scene which echoes the history of Margot Kidder’s role but it also doubles as a dream sequence for the Grace Collier character, who projects herself into the sequence by being Dominique in the shots. This is because Collier’s mind has, by this point, been rendered easy to manipulate and also provides De Palma with a great sequence, as well as a good conclusion for the camera in that she carries a certain memento of her experiences locked in her brain once the film is concluded. After the flashback/dream sequence plays out, we are then treated to a scene where Emil explains verbally the real history of the characters, in case there’s any confusion with the fact that Daniellle was indeed becoming Dominique at certain parts of the movie. This helps things considerably if you are still wondering how she can’t be two people and how she changed from one set of clothes from another and back again without changing her original “laying on the floor” position during the transition. I’m wondering if Emil’s explanation was either added on after the preview (or at studio insistence) or, maybe if the script originally concluded differently from the version presented in the final cut.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The film kind of has three end scenes which give closure and conclusion to Emil, Danielle and Dominique but which also leaves things quite potently inconclusive in terms of both Grace Collier and the private detective she hired, who has “followed the sofa” in which Philip’s body has been stashed. It’s one of De Palma’s better endings, I feel, and Herrmann’s music is a considerable aid to getting the sinister sense of things “not quite at rest” across to the audience by this point.

There’s another story I remember about Herrmann’s score for this film, again from a documentary of some kind, or possibly a biography, and it revolves around his amazing Main Title cue, which is a variation of the stab music which later surfaces in the movie. I think I recall hearing that De Palma had originally asked for a quieter prelude rather than the blood and thunder that Herrmann delivered here. Herrmann said to him something along the lines of... “Hitchcock can get away with nothing really happening in the first half an hour or so because the audience knows something terrible is going to happen. You are not yet as famous as Hitchcock, so they need to know something terrible is going to happen from the opening title music.” That’s not the exact words, I couldn’t find it on the internet... but that’s the gist of it and, for that particular stage of De Palma’s career... I reckon Herrmann was right. The opening titles/stab music in Sisters is one of the most blistering score cues in the history of film music. It’s kinda funny because I use it for the ring tone on my iPhone and my dog always barks when he hears a phone ringing... the upshot of that in terms of watching this excellent new blu-ray version from Arrow was that, every time someone gets stabbed in Sisters, my dog barks at me. Oh well.

There was apparently a remake of this film a few years ago but I can’t bring myself to watch a retread of something which holds such a high place of esteem in my celluloid loving heart. The original Sisters is an absolutely classic example of one of the best American thrillers, before the hack and slash craze had quite got going in the US and, certainly, far more superior to some of the slashers that came after it. If you like this period in American cinema history and you want to see a really entertaining movie with some smart camerawork and some really excellent music, then you probably should add this new dual blu-ray/dvd edition from Arrow to your list. I haven’t watched any of the extras yet but, like the Criterion edition before it, it looks like it’s got some nice stuff on there and it’s not all just recycled from the Criterion DVD, from what I could tell. Definitely have a stab at this one, if you have the inclination.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Star Trek - Series One

Where No Man 
Has Gorn Before

Star Trek Series One
1966 USA
Produced by Gene Roddenberry
Paramount BluRay Region A/B


The Final Frontier.

It was back in 1973, I think, when I first started watching the voyages of the Starship Enterprise on BBC1 via my parents old TV set. I was five years old. The year is pretty easy to place for me, actually, because I must have liked the show so much that, at the end of that year, my folks got me the Star Trek Annual 1973, one of many hardcover annual editions put out in the UK with full colour reprints culled from the US Star Trek comic put out by Gold Key. I remember, I used to read that and subsequent annuals a lot until well into my teens.

I loved the show but I was never, at the time, able to appreciate it in colour and it was not until the mid 1980s that I was finally able to see the full spectrum of the show in some much later re-runs. By then, I was a fully fledged Star Trek fan. Merchandise and toy manufacture was not quite as gung ho in those days when it came to tie-ins with film and TV as it became post Star Wars (around about 1978) but there were a few Star Trek items I had in the early to mid 1970s, in addition to the annuals, that I was proud to be the owner of.

My first item was the old Mego action figure of Captain Kirk which I took home with me after my parents spotted it at an early 1970s Ideal Home Exhibition. Mr. Spock was added to my horde within a year. I also grabbed a very handy, paperback reference book from either Dark They Were And Golden Eyed or Forbidden Planet (my two favourite shops at the time) called The Star Trek Catalogue, which probably would seem quite primitive in style to fans today but, back in the 70s, it was the essential guide to the show and included a handy episode guide to the series. I also had another episode guide to the show in a book called Fantastic Television, another essential 1970s book purchase for the discerning sci-fi fan. As were The Star Trek Blueprints and the Dinky die-cast Starship Enterprise (mine broke in a way far more devastating than any found in the original series... but I'm not going to disclose on how that happened).

Then came the 12 famous Star Trek fotonovels which were released by Bantam (and a couple by Corgi too), which were a great way to catch up with the show in an age when re-runs were still fairly scarce and the concept of easy to purchase and watch video tapes were something the majority of the nation couldn’t even begin to comprehend back then. They just hadn’t quite been invented yet. I guess people from later generations must find it difficult to imagine that the planet was stuck in a time when you couldn’t just decide to sit down and watch something you wanted to watch. If there was a film you wanted to revisit, you’d scour the TV listings for years, since there was usually a good two to four year gap between the same film being shown again. It really was a different world we were living in back then and home entertainment systems were pretty much a needle dropped onto a vinyl surface or a bunch of printed pages bound together. That was it, unless you got something like the Scalextric or a train set out. Or played with your Action Man.

I’ve been meaning to revisit this show for some time now but I had been steadily avoiding the recent DVD issues because of either re-tracked in music in the odd episode where license fees were not paid or, in the current re-issues, a lack of being able to see the episodes in their original state at all. A few years ago, Paramount got all “George Lucas” on the show and reshot all the special effects sequences of these things and inserted them into the episodes, along with creating a new title sequence and, even worse, rerecording the opening theme on those titles. However, when I read that on the new Blu-Ray issues, unlike the DVDs, you had the choice to watch them with their original and, sometimes dodgy looking, effects sequences etc. back in place, I knew that these would be the versions to watch.

So here I am.

And I have to say, it was absolutely great watching this first season again.

When you think of classic and groundbreaking television of the era, shows which really dared to go where no man had gone before, Star Trek was very much ahead of its time. While I was watching these it very much put me in mind of an earlier show from the late 1950s and early 1960s which explored similar territory... that is, the territory of ideas... The Twilight Zone (which I am also currently rewatching on Blu Ray, my first series review is here). Science fiction has always been a style of prose where, because of the fantastic realms you can get away with in that genre, you could explore the ideas related to the human condition in such a way that you could push further and take it to extremes you couldn’t get away with in other formats like, say, a hospital soap opera. You can’t examine the idea of the good part of the psyche and the bad part of your psyche and how they would react independent of each other in regular fiction, for example. However, if you have the concept of a transporter beam malfunction which then splits a person into the two separate beings, as it does with Kirk in the season one episode The Enemy Within, you can explore not just the possibility that your id is stronger and more confident than the other part, but also the fact that on their own, those two parts couldn’t exist without certain aspects of the other. Even Robert Louis Stevenson had to use a science fiction base for his own celebrated study of a not dissimilar concept.

This is where shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek really win out, of course, and it’s a stroke of genius that Roddenberry conceived of a format for his show, basically a clipper exploring the stars, that would allow you to be able to bring a whole load of different ideas to the table, just like you could in The Twilight Zone, but with a single, regular cast and a setting that gave enough of an anchor for viewers to see a familiar face each week but be flexible enough to allow for the diverse nature of the stories on offer. And, just like The Twilight Zone, many of those stories were written by gifted science fiction writers who would be very well remembered in years to come.

It was also quite gutsy. When I was watching it again, I was struck how different this series would be if it was made now. There are rarely any punches pulled in the way these stories are told, ideas conveyed. Even when the sequel series, Star Trek The Next Generation, was airing decades later, it was a softer, somewhat watered down and more politically correct version, in some ways, than the good ol’ knock ‘em down, “to the death” days of Kirk and his crew back in the sixties. Blood is spilled, people’s minds are played with and moral stances challenged in the least wishy washy ways you could imagine.

There are many key episodes in this first season which deal with interesting themes. Mudd’s Women, for example, deals with drug addiction fuelled by women who are concerned with their fading beauty as age hits them. Not an idea that would be tackled too easily in our sensitive times today, perhaps, but it even manages to do it with a sense of humour which doesn’t once undercut the pathos of the three ladies in question. Or The Galileo Seven, which is all about the prejudice against Spock and the will to survive and protect the people around you in extreme circumstances when they are almost against you as much as your collective odds of survival. Racial intolerance is also highlighted in this season quite overtly.

Another good one is Miri, which treats adolescence in a similar fashion to William F. Nolan’s novel Logan’s Run, and which guest stars Kim Darby and Michael J. Pollard. And there’s the original story of Khan, as played by Ricardo Montalban in the episode Space Seed, a role he would reprise in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and which Benedict Cumberbatch would help reboot in the recent feature film Star Trek: Into Darkness. Then there’s Arena, where instead of waging a long and bloody war, Kirk has to fight the alien Gorn on a planet, re-invents gunpowder projectiles and shows mercy, thus saving the day.

And, of course, no one can forget the brilliant, award winning time travel story City On The Edge Of Forever by Harlan Ellison, where Leonard Nimoy’s Spock has to convince William Shatner’s Kirk that his new sweetheart from the 1930s, played by young Joan Collins, has to die in order for history to be restored.

This season also includes my two absolute favourite Star Trek episodes ever...

Shore Leave, in which the crew are endangered (and some of them seemingly killed) by events and situations pulled directly from their imagination. The look on De Forrest Kelley’s face as his character, Dr. McCoy, is confronted with the man-size white rabbit from Alice In Wonderland, asking him the time, is absolutely priceless and the whole episode in general shows off the comic capabilities of the ensemble of actors very well. Devil In The Dark, a chase and shoot creature feature, is another one which becomes high concept when it transforms into being about something completely different by the end of the episode... a mother guarding her eggs. The concept was so good, in fact, that the story was pretty much rewritten and reused for the final episode of the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV show in the early 1970s.

This show has brilliant colour and camerawork throughout, throwing bright greens against a wall, for example, even when there is no way that kind of lighting could be naturally occurring in that particular environment. In this way, actually, the show is very Bavaesque in its mise-en-scene.

Another big plus is the level of detail. For a mid-1960s TV show, everything is well thought out and concepts like beacons, sub-space recorders, disc storage and a whole host of things which wouldn’t necessarily be thought of today, are included in the chemical make up of the show. Admittedly, things like uniform colours to show rank or department are a little inconsistent at first, but it all gets worked out by the end of season one. Lieutenant Uhura, for example, looks even more gorgeous wearing the gold variation of her uniform, but eventually the red variant became her regular garb.

The music in the show is phenomenal. There’s lots of original stuff, as the limited edition 15 disc CD boxed set from La La Land showed a couple of years ago, and this is often used in a needle drop capacity throughout many episodes and gives a lot of familiar tunes and textures you can identify with on an episode to episode basis. This is all good stuff (and that CD set is well recommended, by the way).

All in all, Star Trek - Series One is a great start to a show which was cancelled way too early but which came back with a vengeance in the wake of the first feature film. It’s a show which is all about ideas and not necessarily action... although with Kirk and crew in the mix, you can be sure there’s plenty of fist fights and explosions thrown in for good measure. After seeing this series again, I can’t recommend it enough. It has everything a science fiction fan could want... and I can’t wait to start on the next box with series two in it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Under The Moons Of Mars

Dejah View

Under The Moons Of Mars: New Adventures On Barsoom
Edited by John Joseph Adams 
Simon And Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4424-2029-8

It’s been a while, over two decades in fact, since I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tales of life on the planet Mars/Barsoom and its various inhabitants both native (Dejah Thoris, Ras Thavas) and alien (John Carter, Ulysses Paxton). Even so, while I was thrilled at the idea of a collection of short stories by various writers utilising characters found in Burroughs’ tales, I’d have to say that I found this book to be a little less than a worthy addition to the original body of work and more of a parody in homage, rather than something comparable to the real thing.

To be fair, most of the writers, asides from Joe R. Lansdale and Chris Claremont, were unknown to me and so I don’t know how much these people have had to bend their natural style to get something which is closer in flavour to the Burroughsian charm and sentence construction but... I think the stories in here gel less with the original material than I would personally have liked. I think Lansdale’s opening story, The Metal Men Of Mars, probably comes to the closest to the spirit of the source tales.

Not all the stories focus on John Carter and, to be fair, not all of them are deliberately trying to ape the style (or even great white ape the style for that matter... sorry) of the originals. A Sidekick Of Mars by Garth Nix, for example, is very much a satire of the stories in that it gives John Carter an assistant who doesn’t appear in the original tales and, told from that character’s point of view, you can make up your own mind as to whether the character is telling a fictional truth or whether his recollection of events leaves you in any doubt as to his credibility as a person. So that one was kind of fun.

Other characters such as John Carter and Dejah Thoris’ daughter, son and grandson also take up some stories and the fluctuating character focus from tale to tale might be somewhat off putting to some readers, as they probably were when Burroughs was writing his original series, I suspect. In fact, one of my all time favourites of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, The Master Mind Of Mars, focuses on another earth man, Ulysses Paxton, and his arch nemesis, the evil scientist Ras Thavas... with Carter and co only making a brief cameo near the end. Thavas also makes an appearance in these new tales but, like I said, I did find most of the stories in this volume underwhelming and less than copacetic with the style of the original narrative structure, although some obvious attempt has been made by the writers.

Having said that, some of the writers have gone out of their way to either satirise or make critical judgments which allow you to question the basic tenets of the viewpoints and attitudes of the original characters being portrayed. This is very much a double edged sword, however. For example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Ape-Man Of Mars, in which Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other famous character, Tarzan Of The Apes, is transported to Barsoom and stays as a guest of John Carter and Dejah Thoris in Helium, gives the Carter character an almost xenophobic attitude towards Greystoke’s British inheritance. While it’s true a certain amount of wariness on Carter’s part may possibly be understandable in terms of the apparent lack of English involvement in the American Civil War... an interesting idea... the John Carter character is very much portrayed as the villain of the piece, so to speak, and even his incomparable Dejah Thoris’ affiliations are called into question at one point. This, for me, was pushing things a bit too far. Carter is very much a hero of all ages and portraying him with a duplicitous and villanous brush is something I found hard to accept.

On the other hand, a story about the treacherous Thark called Sarkoja, who was in Burroughs’ first martian tale, A Princess Of Mars (originally published as Under The Moons Of Mars, the title of this volume), is an interesting take on the consequences of “things left unfinished” and a tale told from the point of view of John Carter’s pet hound, Woola’s Song, is a welcome break from some of the other ideas in the book. There are also some nice illustrations included, one for each story, by a variety of artists and many of these, I think, are more succesful... perhaps partially because there is nothing too valid in terms of authenticity, due to the nature of illustration, with which to draw a comparison to.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t personally recommend these additional Barsoomian tales to many folks. I think if you are a fan of the original works and have a relationship to those, then you will probably raise the same kinds of mental barriers that I probably did when I read these. If, on the other hand, you have no emotional investment in the original stories and have never read them, then taken in their own right you’ll probably get a lot more out of them and, who knows, it might encourage you to seek out the real goldmine of Burroughs own works set in the Barsoomian landscape... which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Or you could just bypass this volume altogether and read the original tales. The choice is yours.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Anomaly

I’ve Got Anomaly Bunch O' Slow-Mo Cuts

The Anomaly
2014 UK
Directed by Noel Clarke
Playing at UK cinemas now.

My more regular readers may remember that I’ve got a soft spot for the work of Noel Clarke - both as an actor, since watching him as a regular character in Doctor Who, and as a writer director, since seeing his movie 4, 3, 2, 1... which I still think is one of the slickest made British movies of the decade (you can read my review here).

The Anomaly is a science fiction picture with a big emphasis on action but with also enough intrigue in the central premise to keep you rooted to your seat as the story unfolds. The concept is to have a character, played by Clarke himself, who randomly inhabits the consciousness of his own body for ten minute periods at random moments in time. Why this is happening I’m not going to reveal but, his body doesn’t stop being “driven”, if you like, while he is not there so we are left with a character who wakes up in himself and who has to quickly play “catch up” to find out what’s been going on in the days, weeks or months since he was last... well... since he was last himself, so to speak.

Now this is not just an interesting idea for a story... it’s also an interesting idea for the medium of cinema because it gives you the highlights of the story arc and trims out the slow crawl of the mechanics of the story, instead leaving both the character and the audience in the position of having to catch up on all the exposition in what is often an action scenario (the character is not happy with what his body is being used for while he’s not inhabiting it). In other words, it makes the pacing of this particular story arc very fast and punchy and you are thrust right into the action with the character as you try to decipher things with him.

It’s a slick bit of writing and, right from the outset, the character is placed in a danger situation which allows the main components of the plot to be laid in as foundation so that the rest of the globe hopping locations this character finds himself in all add little pieces to the solution of the puzzle. It’s low budget sci-fi, actually, but it’s also very shrewdly put together because the breadth of the locations and sets give it an almost epic feel but, when you get into the second half of the movie, the same locations are revisited at different stages of the scenario and, although this looks like it’s done purely for budgetary reasons (well of course, you work the sets and save the pennies if you need to) the cleverness of Clarke’s script ensures that the reasons for the reoccurrence of various sets make perfect sense within the continuity of the piece and I never felt cheated on this idea once.

The performances by the main leads Clarke and Ian Somerhalder are great plus, the main female co-star Dana, played by someone called Alexis Knapp, is a beautiful stand out performance too... initially leading the camera on with an eye candy scene but really shining in her role as a prostitute with a heart of gold (hey, clichés can work, okay?) and giving the main character, and the audience, some kind of golden relationship chalice as a goal for what the characters are going through in the movie. There are also a few brief appearances by Brian Cox, although he doesn’t get to do a lot in this one, to be honest.

There’s some nice CGI work here and I was particular charmed by an early portion of the movie where the London skyline is augmented with the buildings of the future setting of this story. You often see this kind of thing done with other major cities (which you also see in this, of course) but rarely with London, it seems to me.

The camera work is mainly of the shaky, “brief shot and cut” variety but this is a natural decision due to the blistering pace of the movie and it does get intercut with some slower, more fluid work to give the brain time to pause at various intervals and take a break. There are some slower sequences and the balance of these, mixed in with the action, seemed just about right.

As always, I have a few criticisms and I’ll deal with those here.

The fight scenes are excellent but... somehow they felt kinda cheap. Pretty much all the action sequences run at slow motion and the more positive side of me tells me that this is to highlight the fact that a) the actors are doing their own fighting and b) the chorography of those fights is pretty cool. So there’s that. However, the cynical side of me is suggesting that maybe the actors couldn’t do all the action fast enough to keep up with some of the great action fist fights in modern movies (I’m thinking of films like The Bourne Identity now) and so the shots were slowed down to give the impression that everything is going much faster than it actually was, if that makes sense? Having said that, I did love these fistfight scenes and it was interesting looking at the actor’s faces during these slow-mo moments to see the sneers and scowls which they contorted their faces into during the sequences... that was pretty fun.

The only other comment on the action content is that there weren’t enough chases to mix things up. Only foot chases but, I’m guessing, the budget didn’t allow for the odd vehicular chase to lend variety when it was needed and that’s a shame because, at one point, I did find myself thinking... “What? Another fist fight?” However they were great scenes, as I said above, and they were expertly scored, as it happens, by a composer called Tom Linden. He’s a composer I’d not heard of before but, frankly, after hearing this, I do want to hear more of his work in film. The action sequences have a kind of Tron Legacy feel to them (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those Daft Punk cues were used on the temp track in the early cuts) and, although electronic music is something I know little about, I think this score really holds its own with some of the great electronics augmented film scores of the past. It doesn’t look like the score is going to be made available commercially anytime soon though, which is annoying since it would have been an instant purchase for this reviewer.

My only other minor problem with the movie is the viewer’s perception of time. We know that the central protagonist has only ten minutes a pop (asides from a few certain scenes... don’t want to put any spoilers in here and tell you why) but it felt to me that in some of those sequences, the character seemed to be cramming in an awful lot of activity for ten minutes worth of “story time”. I guess if you sped the fights back up then this may have fixed it in most cases but... a couple of those sequences did seem a bit content heavy to be fitting into their allocated sequence. Personally I would have maybe been tempted to double the amount of time the main character had each “visitation” but I’m guessing doing this would have created other problems at the writing stage so, if this was the director’s best compromise then, hey, I trust this guy.

But these minor gripes aside, and they are minor, I think what we have here is a really great example of a low budget, British made science-fiction movie that weaves a cleverly thought out concept and does so in a way that is fresh and pacey and which certainly doesn’t get dull at any point in its running time. A very satisfying movie, again, from Clarke and one which takes on the US sci-fi action film and shows that you can do something which is often far more entertaining with far less money. It seems to be playing in only limited performances at my local and all I can say is that, if you’re a fan of science fiction movies, then you certainly might want to give this one a chance. Definitely recommended viewing as far as I’m concerned and I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel to 4, 3, 2, 1 at some point. Someone needs to give this writing, directing and acting phenomenon of a geezah a much bigger budget to play with, methinks.

Thursday, 3 July 2014


No Good Speed Goes Unpunished

2013 UK/Germany
Directed by Ron Howard
Studio Canal   Blu Ray Zone B 

You know, I really never expected to be reviewing a movie like Rush for this blog. It’s not that I don’t like Ron Howard because, even with the spectre of Richie Cunningham from Happy Days hanging over him, I actually think he’s a pretty great director. He makes popular films for Hollywood (although this one is actually a British/German co-production, I was surprised to learn) in a very professional and competent way. Films which always have a sense of emotional engagement inherent within them. In fact, when you take my favourite of his movies, Angels and Demons, the sequel to his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (and which you can find reviewed here), I have to give him credit for taking what is basically a not too subtly dressed up version of the tired old “run the policeman around key points in a city looking for the bomb before it goes off” plot and turning it into a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.

The reason I am surprised to find myself reviewing this particular movie is because, my fondness for John Frankenheimer’s movie Grand Prix aside, I have no real interest in either motor sports or, really, cars in general unless they happen to be associated with a film or TV series. I remember having a small Corgi or Dinky toy of Emmerson Fitipaldi’s black John Player Special when I was a kid and a basic Scalextric track but... that’s where the interest started and ended I’m afraid.

My dad, however, is a different kettle of fish. Over the years, especially the last decade or so, it’s become very clear to me that the man loves watching motor racing and follows it with a kind of “passion hidden behind a veneer of indifference” which I’d never really noticed before that period. So, when it came time for the bizarrely conceived, commercial celebration known as Father’s Day, I slipped a copy of Rush, a film I knew he’d not seen (neither had I), in with his ritual bottle of Port. And, of course, since it was Father’s Day... well... I had to watch it with him, didn’t I?

The film deals with the rivalry between two racing drivers, James Hunt (played by The Mighty Thor... um... I mean Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl, who was so good in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) in the six years prior to and culminating in the 1976 Grand Prix. Now I kinda remember Hunt and Lauda after the fact, but only as names looking back from this end of the historical telescope... although I think Hunt may have appeared on television shows during my childhood. The thing is, when Niki Lauda had his famous “near death” crash in 1976, I was dealing with a car crash problem of my own. I was eight years old and I had been standing with my mum, talking to some friends on the pavement at a crossroads in Edmonton (firmly off the road and far back from the kerb, I’ll have you know) when two cars from the opposite sides of the crossroads hit each other at speed and both ploughed up the pavement and into us all. I probably had the most serious injury out of everyone involved in that my jaw got broken (I was wearing a thick duffle coat with a hood up and it would have been my head rolling if I hadn’t been wearing that, the doctors told me) and because it was broken in such a way that the doctors couldn’t wire it, I had to spend a couple of years off of school. Unlike Lauda I wasn’t permanently scarred, at least not in any way which is visible to the naked eye, but obviously James Hunt and Niki Lauda were the furthest people from my mind at the time... which means I knew relatively little about what qualifies as story content in this film before going in full throttle and watching it.

Howard’s film is something of a more intimate look at the characters in play in this real life drama. It  feels epic because, compressing the six years into a couple of hours means you have to make a lot of broad strokes and then skip to the next important thing... but the film really gives you a sense of who these people were (Niki Lauda claims the film is totally accurate, although insists people used to make more of the rivalry between the two than was actually there... which figures, knowing the way the press and publicity machine works) in a more up close and personal way than you might expect from a film looking as slick and Hollywoodified as this. So the characters and the relationships they make with other people is the focus of the movie and a camaraderie between the two main characters is often felt lurking behind their words. The director and the two lead actors do really well to capture this quality in the performance. Both are likeable characters and, even though it’s played up that nobody really liked Lauda, you can feel where each of the protagonists is coming from in their quest to win the world championship and I felt really pulled into the movie.

The racing scenes are another matter in that, for a film with a back drop of Formula One motor racing, they are few and far between and over very quickly. They’re good... don’t get me wrong. Shot and edited in a way that both conveys the speed and danger while giving you a feeling of excitement and anticipation, thanks in part to Hans Zimmer’s appropriately propulsive scoring. They’re no match for graphic designer Saul Bass’ wonderful racing montage sequences in the aforementioned Grand Prix (sorry, I can’t help but compare the two here) but they are great pieces of “speed on film” machismo... however, they just don’t go on for long enough and there’s not enough of them... at least that’s the impression I got.

Now I’m not saying this is wrong for the film, far from it. It may be that editing in longer race sequences would have harmed the drama and the flow of the film and Howard has probably made a shrewd decision here... but just go onto this one forewarned not to expect too much of the “vroom, vroom” in this movie. I read recently that the original draft of the script had been written without being commissioned and, because the writer assumed that anybody picking it up would not have much budget at their disposal, deliberately excluded any racing scenes throughout the whole of that first draft. Of course, when you get someone like Ron Howard on board, you’re going to get a hefty budget, I should think. It might have been that the insertion of racing scenes was a bit of a tightrope walk for balance with the dramatic writing so I’m guessing not a whole heap was done to change that in later drafts... relatively speaking.

And anyone who thinks Howard is going to take a big huggy feely approach to all the aspects of the story can think again. The scenes where the burnt beyond recognition Niki Lauda, barely surviving the human inferno he became for over sixty seconds, is having his lungs repeatedly vacuumed out in intensive care, really gives you a sense of the downside of the risk involved in this kind of “profession” and, also, the quite nasty way in which James Hunt beats up a reporter for his verbal attack on the post-crash Lauda after a press conference is also quite brutal in its intensity. Howard of course, being that he’s Howard, still manages to make these sequences also look really nice but... not to the point where they are too glossed over.

I was really taken with Rush and, by the end of it, felt that the two main protagonists were both honourable and likeable people who had both been dealt slightly unfortunate blows by life. I was educated a little by the dramatised “on screen history lesson” of the film but, more than that, entertained and enthralled by a picture about a subject I’m not much interested in... aka, all and any sports (except for maybe Rollerball, that’s a cool sport). If you’re into motor racing you’ll probably really like this movie and, if like me it’s not your thing, well... I reckon this movie is still worth some of your time. Sail on past that chequered flag as a fan of movies rather than anything else and I reckon this film will end up qualifying for you for sure. One to watch.