Friday, 24 April 2015

Avengers - Age Of Ultron

Stark They Were 
And Golden Eyed

Avengers - Age Of Ultron
2015  USA
Directed by Joss Whedon
UK cinema release print

Warning: Really quite huge spoilers implied in the text here... 
don’t read before watching if you really don’t want to know.

Okay. Where to start on this big beast of a movie?

There’s been a lot of pre-hype to this next Avengers movie, as can be expected. Clips started being released maybe a year ago? I think in the case of this movie that was maybe a bit of a mistake because, honestly, the clips released are probably some of the best parts of the film and I could have done with, especially the Hulk-Buster armour, being a bit more of a surprise. Maybe I would have responded to the film a little better if it had been.

Now, I have to say that this is certainly not a bad film and neither, despite first impressions, is it a mess of a movie. It’s actually quite a good, solid little entertainment. However, it’s also not a great movie and, if I totted up some kind of personal ranking for the Marvel Phase 1 and Phase 2 movies, I guess, for me, it would come about halfway down the list.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, I actually gave the original Avengers movie a not so hot review (read it here) and I have to say I was kinda disappointed with that one at the time. However, I rewatched it on Blu Ray about a year later and, it has to be said, it grew on me quite a bit and I really enjoyed it a lot more the second time around. This new film isn’t half as good, in my opinion, and it’s certainly not up to the standards of, say, more recent Marvel movies like Iron Man 3 (reviewed here) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here)... although I liked it a hell of a lot more than the Marvel Universe Phase 2 movie that preceded it (and you can read that review here).

But, like I’ve said before, this particular set of Marvel universe films have been put together by producers who have an uncanny knack of both getting perfect casting (there’s not a bad or inappropriate performance in this film) and picking just the right directors for the job. Following up on this we have writer/director Joss Whedon, who directed the first Avengers movie and was presumably chosen, at least partially, because of his proven ability to work wonders with films and TV shows which require a strong, unifying story arc involving interaction with a large ensemble of characters... such as Firefly, Serenity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Once again he manages to skillfully wield this army of ever increasing characters that the producers are throwing at him to get something that, while not always gold, is at least very serviceable and satisfying in parts.

The movie once again features Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk), Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth as Thor (you know... The Mighty), Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and an impressive roster of other regular characters from the Phase Marvel Universe popping up in places where you’d like to see them... the only noticeable absences being Downey Jr’s and Chris Hemsworth’s leading ladies from their stand alone films. Added to this cast are four new characters including the titular character Ultron, a bad guy voiced and motion captured by James Spader. We also have the Iron Man series regular Paul Bettany back as both his usual “voice of Jarvis” and the first live action movie incarnation of “The Vision”, although this character’s origins are terribly messed around with. One good thing about that, though, is the fact that the actor having also voiced Jarvis is absolutely accounted for in the course of the story at an almost metatextual level.

Two other new characters on board are “the twins” Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch as played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson respectively. Now this is an interesting thing because, as I mentioned in my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Pietro is also in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise now, played by a different actor and with different origins. In the original comics he was a mutant (as he presumably is in X-Men: Days Of Future Past - reviewed here) and both he and The Scarlet Witch started out as villains in the 1960s, part of Magneto’s mutant army, before switching sides and joining The Avengers. In Avengers: Age Of Ultron they are, instead, genetically enhanced humans who have been modified by agents of H.Y.D.R.A. So it will be interesting to see if audiences get confused with Quicksilver’s inclusion, in two completely different guises, in both franchises.

Asides from the company politics which allowed for stuff like this to happen, however, I’m happy to report that Spader, Bettany, Taylor-Johnson and Olson all do a great job and more than hold their own against the regular cast members in this movie... which can’t be an easy task when there’s so much talent in the room, so to speak.

So there’s bad things and there’s good with this movie.

For starters, while Banner/Hulk is more integrated into the plot in this one, not to mention a romantic sub-plot with one of the other characters, he also has less impact. In the first movie, they held back on Hulk a little and when he did get a couple of moments, they really counted and were extremely funny. The humour of all the characters is still in here but, especially with Hulk, its quite toned down.

Another problem for me is the structure. This kind of tent peg movie usually builds to a spectacular climax and, though it certainly has a lot of money up there on the screen and has an epic feel to the way it’s been shot and edited... it still feels like there’s a heck of a lot less going on than in the previous collective outing. I think one of the reasons for that is that there’s no real surprise in terms of opposition at the end. In the first film, Loki was the bad guy and it wasn’t until the last hour that he brought on thousands of aliens and even some bigger alien flying slug thingies... the stakes kept getting bigger, at least on a visual level. In this one, although the stakes get bigger in terms of what’s actually going on, on an eye candy level with the antagonist it’s just... more of the same. We have loads of multiple variants of Ultron and he’s everywhere at once. When he’s killed or seems near defeat he brings on... more Ultrons. Yeah, okay, we’ve seen that trick more than once throughout the movie... we didn’t really need to see it again. Now my regular readers know I’m not one for going with a standard, cause and effect, build to a big finale structure and usually revel in films which are brave enough to take a less obvious approach... but in the case of this film I think it does kinda hurt the picture a little, if I’m being honest. I also don’t think it’s anyones fault because, until you get this stuff in an editing room, you’re kind of rolling the dice as to how what you’ve captured and created digitally comes across and so... I think it’s just one of those things. Saying that, I think most people will be more than satisfied with the structure and spectacle in this one... so I’m probably in a minority on this point.

There are some truly nice moments in this too, though.

For instance, there’s an extended version of the pre-release clip Hammer scene, where The Avengers are having a party and everybody, or almost everybody, tries to lift Thor’s hammer off the table. It’s quite fun but... Joss Whedon’s genius doesn’t stop there... it’s actually a really nice set up for a punch line which comes into play for the last act of the movie. So if you do get fed up with this early sequence, remember that it’s all an elaborate set up for a great and humorous moment later on in the movie which also, I should add, tells you everything you need to know about the calibre of one of the new characters and is pretty great movie shorthand for getting a feeling of trust and bonding with the core group of Avengers going. It’s a really nice moment when it happens and, judging from the gasps of glee from the audience I was with... you’ll probably know just what I’m talking about if you’ve seen this film.

Another great thing here is that none of the new characters are skimped on. Sure we get less coverage than maybe most of the regulars do but, the new characters aren’t just treated like add ons here... they have a sense of history and identity, even The Vision, and because of this there’s a great moment towards the end of the film where... oh wait... that really would be a spoiler too far but... well... lets just say, I didn’t see that coming. So that was kinda unexpected which, with modern movies, can only be a good thing.

Another great moment is where we realise that, as much as we think we know these characters from the previous films, there’s always something new up their sleeve. Take Hawkeye, for example. Not only does he very quickly and efficiently, temporarily take care of a character who has pretty much knocked out the entire team at one point, but when the chips are down he fleas with his team to his safe house where we, and most of the team (only Natasha Romanoff knows this fact about Hawkeye which, given their history, is no surprise), get to meet Hawkeye's best kept secret... his wife and kids. So this is all good stuff and it’s in moments like this that we see Joss Whedon’s beating heart breathing life into these four colour creations and bringing the humanity, along with his cast and crew, to these famous creations.

And then there’s the music...

I’ve commented before on the dire lack of musical continuity within the Marvel Phase One and Two movies and have tried to justify it to myself by comparing it to a comic drawn by the same artist but with different inkers each issue. However, this film has two music credits which, surprisingly, come up separately... Music by Brian Tyler and Music by Danny Elfman. The credits don’t share the same screen and, with an album release towards the end of next month which seems to have different cues by each of the two artists, I’m guessing this was not a collaboration. So what happened here? Was Brian Tyler busy because his time on the project over ran and Elfman was called in to score the rest? Or did the producers just reject part of Tyler’s score and instead of having Elfman replace it all, just had him rewrite the bits they didn’t like. I’m sure it’ll be a while before the truth of that situation is revealed to enquiring minds but, it has to be said, the real surprise here is how well this patchwork approach works in the final movie. Both composers seem to have made themselves subservient to certain films in the history of some of the characters and are happily quoting from various themes throughout the series. This gives it a nice musical continuity which really, and puzzlingly, seems to be quite successful...although it has to be said that it’s a noisy movie and a lot still gets lost in the sound design.

So there’s that.

There’s only a mid credits end scene in this one and, if truth be told, it really feels like a retread of an end credits scene from one of the previous movies. However, the film leaves the movie in a spot where it’s quite clear where the characters can go from here and this thing seems to be leading directly into the next Thor and Captain America/Iron Man movies. It’s also getting clearer how the second Guardians Of The Galaxy movie, when it gets made, will jigsaw nicely into proceedings when it comes time for the big two part Avengers Infinity War movies which will signal the end of Phase Three... as this one signals the end of what the Marvel people call Phase Two. Meanwhile, we’ve got the first Phase Three movie, Ant Man, being released in a few months and, since that character and his many later incarnations also has such a strong history with The Avengers in the 1960s and 1970s comics, it will be interesting to see just how many characters they can try and cram into Infinity Wars when it finally hits our screens a few years from now.

But for now we have this film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and, though I was a little disappointed in places, it’s really not a bad movie and I reckon if I take another look at it at some point soon, I might enjoy it better. My experience with films of a certain type is that sometimes my brain doesn't enjoy the movie too much the first go around because it’s too busy processing all the information some directors like to cram in. So there’s no need for me to recommend this one... if you are into superhero movies which, in the mightly Marvel manner, are pretty much modern morality plays dealing with broad stroke issues then this one’s right up your street. Like I said at the start of the review, it’s certainly not a mess and it’s worth taking a look.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Death Fallls Lightly

Giallo Go Lightly

Death Falls Lightly (La Morte Scende Leggera)
Italy 1972 
Directed by Leopoldo Savona
Westminster Films DVD Region 0

I’m told that Death Falls Lightly is quite a rare giallo to get hold of but it’s one I especially wanted to take a look at because, as regular readers of this blog might have already guessed, I absolutely love Lallo Gori’s score to this movie and I really wanted to see how the music fit the picture in this one.

The films starts with a longish, guitar dominant song which is a particular favourite of mine, accompanying a point of view camera shot of someone as they stand in the hallway of a house and look around. There’s a fair bit of moving camera in this one. We are then, via the camera eye, taken into a bedroom and there is the shape of a person under a pillow...

Cut to our unsympathetic protagonist Giorgio Darika, played by Stelio Candelli, an actor I’ve apparently seen in quite a few things such as Planet Of The Vampires, Nude For Satan and Demons... although I didn’t actually recognise him, I have to say. He leaves the house, jumps in his car and we continue with the theme of the camera eye looking through the windscreen of his car as we drive the streets with him... while the rest of that gorgeous opening song and the credits sequence play out.

He visits his ‘judge friend’ and tells him that he has found his own wife dead with her throat slashed open in his house. He has absolutely no alibi or witnesses as to where he has been apart from the fact that all his friends in high places, like the judge, know he’s been on a trip running drugs to fund their political careers. So it’s up to his high powered friends to help him lay low and find a way out for him while the police are "making their enquiries". After a brief stop to pick up his lover (played by Patrizia Viotti, and not to be confused with his wife, obviously), the district attorney drives him to a deserted hotel... although how such a big place is completely devoid of customers is beyond me... and the two are left there to wait out the manhunt until something can be done.

Now, it’s not a bad giallo at heart. The director manages to make the most of his location and it feels quite claustrophobic at times. When the two in the hotel realise that, actually, they are not totally alone there after all, things get going with a lot of wordless sequences where Darika is wandering around the hotel uncomprehending as he meets various “inhabitants” like the owner of the establishment who he sees has murdered his own wife in the exact same way that Darika’s wife was killed. After he helps the owner bury the body, things start to get a little bit more off kilter as various little incidents accumulate to gradually wear down Darika’s mental health and place a strain on his grasp of reality.

What’s really interesting, though, and something I applaud, is the fact that there are loads of little things in this that seem completely superfluous to the plot and which are never followed up on. For instance, on the way to the hotel, Darika and co come across a road accident with two men who have been thrown from their car and who lay bleeding on the street. I guess it’s maybe there to show that Darika, who has to be persuaded to not go and help, isn’t completely heartless but, if that’s the case, it certainly doesn’t work... at least not for me. He’s certainly not a hero figure that I could recognise as such. Another little throw away scene has the detectives working Darika’s case, searching around his house and not being able to get into a locked room which they decide needs to be opened. We never once come back to the detectives or the house again in the movie, as far as I can see. Now, it may be these are hangovers of a script which changed after those scenes were shot, perhaps, and I know that some people would be put off by the insertion of story elements that don’t go anywhere but, honestly, I prefer this kind of inclusion of material over the standard Hollywood cause and effect approach any day, although that can also work very well for certain kinds of films.

Now there’s a trick ending to this movie which I have to say, I did see coming. I also, it has to be said, guessed the identity of the killer in this movie from very early on in the running time but, being as it’s a giallo and they always defy logic and throw in every kind of red herring in the book, I wasn’t too upset by my easy identification of what the writers and director were trying to hide. What bothers me more is the sheer loopyness of the way everything is revealed. The killer, for example, and there’s no way I’m going to spoil it for you here and tell you who it is, could have gotten away with things scott free if they hadn’t made the mistake of blindly lashing out at someone with a razor blade for no apparent reason at the end of the movie. Not only does it defy credibility when that single swipe leaves three... yes, three... deep gashes in a victim’s throat and face... it also makes no sense whatsoever. I knew it was this person behind the original killing in the movie but why the heck give yourself away like that? It makes no sense. I dunno. The mind of a killer, eh?

At the end of the day, the music was still the best thing about this movie, although it seemed a little overscored for the imagery in a few places, I felt. Sequences best left unscored had exciting music thrown over the top of them and vice versa but, honestly, this may not have been the composer’s decision and these things happen a lot more after the score has been recorded than you might hope. It contains a lot of Jews Harp in the latter half f the score which fans might expect to be more appropriate for one of Gori’s spaghetti western scores than in a giallo but it seems to work out okay and it’s not as out of place as some of the other stuff in this film.

Death Falls Lightly is not the best giallo I’ve seen, for sure, but it does have a nice atmosphere all its own and fans of the genre who are already familiar with classic works in the form by directors such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento. Sergio Martino etc may do well to take a look at this one sometime. It may not be one of the greats but it certainly isn’t one of the worst and, despite its deeply implausible plot mechanics, there are a lot more nonsensical films than this on the market. One to watch, then, if you are a fan of the genre, rather than to use as an entry point into this kind of movie making.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Planet Of The Apes

Heston, Blooming Tall

Planet Of The Apes
USA 1968 
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone A,B,C

Warning: There’s the obvious spoiler in here so, if you really don’t already know the famous trick ending of this film, then steer clear of this review until you’ve had a chance to watch it for yourself.

I’ve been a fan of Planet Of The Apes for almost as long as I can remember. One of my early cinema memories (although by no means the earliest) was of seeing Battle For The Planet Of The Apes as a five year old in 1973, as part of a double bill with an obscure underwater adventure movie called The Neptune Factor* (I think I slept through a lot of the other movie). The one thing which I remember from that film was... oh, no, wait... I’ll save that memory for when I come to rewatch and review that fifth installment.

I remember it wasn't just the movies I loved as a kid. I also used to watch the live action TV series, the cartoon series, had the novelisations, had some of the comics (not many, some of the British black and white Marvels carrying reprints), had a few of the TV show bubble gum cards (again, not many but at least I still have them), got the Mego action figures and also had a Planet Of The Apes board game. A game in which, if you were caught, your cardboard human had to stand on a cardboard cage while you had to twiddle and then press a button and, if you were unlucky, you would be plunged to the depths of the cage. That was a pretty cool game, actually.

Years later, in the 1980s sometime, I read the original source novel, Monkey Planet, by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the original novel The Bridge on the River Kwai) and loved it, although I was amazed by how different the novel was to the way the movie turned out. The ape society in the novel, for instance, is much more technologically advanced than the one depicted in the movie version, if memory serves, and it’s far less aggressive to the central astronaut protagonist. Also, in the novel, the central character really does land on a different planet and the ending to the story, while the same outcome in principal, is actually reaching the same kind of point by a different means.

In fact, I remember when reading the novel, thinking how much it was like reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs original John Carter novels in the way it explored the aspects of the central culture at the story’s heart. I also loved the explanation, not apparent in the film, of the reason for the length of the journey taking hundreds of years and necessitating putting the crew into suspended animation for the majority of the time... the trick to it was that the actual main part of the journey, gazillions of light years, actually only took a few seconds. However, the engines running themselves and the ship through space to reach the speed to enable that main part of the journey took many years... which I thought was kinda clever.

The movie starts with a prologue monologue of Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, as he is about to go into suspended animation. As he puts himself under we go into the opening titles and Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score, which won him an oscar nomination and should certainly have snagged him the prize, but didn’t. He lost out to John Barry’s, admittedly, fantastic score to The Lion In Winter but, I think in this case the Apes should have probably taken it. It’s such a unique and influential score.

After this we have my favourite part of the movie... the first half hour. No apes and just three astronauts trying to survive in the harsh terrain of what they think is an alien planet. We have philosophical discussions and frightening scarecrows and a bunch of mute, human savages who our heroes encounter after a much needed swim when they find water (I don’t know why they are so pleased to find water at this point because, after all, they already crash-landed in a body of water at the start of the movie). And we have Jerry Goldsmith’s score, wonderfully spotted as certain scenes are wisely left without music to heighten the dramatic effect in specific sections.... although he did actually write some music for the spaceship crash landing which was left out of the finished film.

It’s a beautiful score and many people assume, when hearing it for the first time, that it employs a lot of electronics. It doesn’t. It’s got some great orchestration as Goldsmith gets his musicians to play their instruments in unusual ways that they weren’t designed for, some of the time. He even, at one point, grabbed the big steel mixing bowls from the studio canteen and used these for percussion effects in some of the earlier scenes. And then we have The Hunt. A piece of music which is an action cue when we finally, after a half an hour, see the apes... it’s all fantastic scoring and I was privileged to, at least twice in different years, see Goldsmith reconstruct the 15 minutes or so of music leading into and including the hunt music live in a couple of the concerts I went to see him conduct when he was alive (must have seen him about six or seven times throughout my life, I reckon). It was absolutely incredible. He also uses horns and rhythms to emulate the grunting of the apes as a musical effect in the score too. Outstanding stuff.

As an aside to the music, I see that on the IMDB it says that Planet Of The Apes is the first fully atonal score to grace a movie. Well, in my opinion that’s pretty wrong on a couple of counts. One, because it’s not, in any way, totally atonal... it’s full of rhythm and melody and it’s very hummable, believe me. Secondly because, as far as I know, the first atonal, indeed the first twelve tone serial score, was Leonard Rosenman’s music for the 1955 Vincent Minelli movie The Cobweb... so I don’t know why there are so many incorrect “facts” to be found on the IMDB. It simply isn’t true. Planet Of The Apes is the second, I think, of a long collaboration Goldsmith had with director Franklin J. Schaffner and, like most of the others, it garnered a brilliant musical response from the composer.

Back to the movie, though. Schaffner employs a lot of Dutch angles to keep everything off kilter in these early sequences, to echo the disorientation of the astronauts and incite that kind of empathy in the audience. When the apes finally make their appearance, things are less angled but there are still some striking compositions and designs found throughout the movie and I think, although it’s now back to being a strong and healthy franchise, this first movie is still a little underrated by some. It’s a brilliant film with some unique visuals to match the groundbreaking musical identity, with deft little visual flourishes like the, improvised on the day, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose that the orangutans in the courtroom scene mimic. There are a lot of these kinds of things occurring, both scripted and improvised, throughout the movie and it adds to an already rich, visual and aural feast. It’s no wonder that the movie spawned four sequels, TV shows and two reboots.

And when you think about the story mechanics involved in the first 35 or so minutes... it’s pretty impressive. The writers have to find a way of leaving the astronauts without their clothes and Taylor without a voice to speak (for a while) and Schaffner and the actors have to sell it without alerting the audience as to why it’s necessary to have to do that... otherwise the next half hour or so just won’t work. The way the cast and crew pull this off is... quite astonishing when one considers it. Not to mention the amazing make up which is another major feat and without which the movie might not have been green lit. Without the screen tests involving Edward G. Robinson (who was sadly not up to filming his role as the original choice for Dr. Zaius) then we may not have the franchise we have today.

It’s the ending though, that really gets everybody when they first see the film and, although it’s different from the book, it’s obvious from the strength and twistiness of it, I think, that one of the major writers on this was Rod Serling. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the notorious, half buried Statue Of Liberty reveal at the end of the movie is from the creator and chief writer of the television series The Twilight Zone (first season reviewed by me here) when it’s an ending worthy of the best of those episodes. It certainly puts his stamp on this movie and the ending to Tim Burton’s later, 2001 reboot of the movie, while being a little closer to the novel in essence (if not in tone), is a bit of a let down in a way, in terms of the strength of this original ending.

Any way you look at it though, this film is superbly directed and edited (some of those shots really shouldn’t work together as well as they do but... Schaffner manages to pull it off pretty well), has brilliant performances from the actors (not least from the likes of Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans, who had to act behind all that make-up) and a classic Jerry Goldsmith score which pulls you in and doesn’t let go. One of the great movie treasures that any cineaste (or even one of us more common and garden variety of movie lovers) should definitely take a look at. Outstanding.

*With thanks to Twitter friend Andrew Elias for correctly identifying the movie I saw on a double bill with Battle For The Planet Of The Apes back in 1973 as The Neptune Factor.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Mad Max

Far From The Mad “In Crowd”

Mad Max
Australia 1979
Directed by George Miller
MGM Blu Ray Region B

Warning: Some Mad plot spoilers in this.

Up until this week, this is the only one of the Mad Max franchise that I’d ever seen and, truth be told, the other time I saw this, in the very early 1980s, I really didn’t think much of it. But I should add here that, in those days, the odds were stacked against anyone into films really responding too much in terms of video releases because you probably weren’t going to be getting any idea of what the film was actually like from the home video version anyway. I remember renting this, at the time, from the Off Licence situated the next road along from me... the Off Licence is still doing a roaring trade to this day, in fact, but I think he ditched the video rental part of the business sometime in the early 1990s.

I must have been about 14 or 15 when I first saw this but I was already familiar with the adverts for the vinyl soundtrack album to this one on the back of old Starlog magazine covers... so I was quite looking forward to it but, like I said, the odds were stacked against me. Quite apart from being a typical, low quality video picture, the film had been dubbed into American English, I believe, and so I’m guessing the UK home video version was probably the one with the bizarre, alternate Amercian sound to it rather than the original Australian English language version.

Worse than even that though, and this is something that a generation of movie watchers below me may not realise, the majority of home video releases back in those days were pan and scanned from the original ratio and dumped into, what was then, a standard 4:3 aspect ratio. This causes havoc to the way you perceive films because, quite apart from the obvious problem, you also have the presence of shots where a camera is moving over either a static or already moving shot, changing the way you perceive the image and the speed at which you are supposed to be “reading” that image. You also have single shots cut into two or more shots, if the person doctoring the video to fit the standard 4:3 television sets of the day decided that the information on both sides of the screen was worthy of inclusion. This also, obviously, completely messes up the way your brain receives the film in question. I hate to sound like an old fogey but, seriously, kids these days with their widescreen TVs and perfect transfers don’t know how good they have it. That being said, certain companies like Warners, I’m told, have started chopping the tops and bottoms off of old TV shows in order to make them fit perfectly on widescreen TVs so... seriously people? Have they learned nothing?

Anyway, I wanted to check out the Mad Max films for a couple of reasons, even though I avoided the sequels back in the day due to my first, less than ideal, home viewing of this one. Reason number one is that a fourth installment in the series is coming to our cinema screens in less than a month and people have been getting quite excited about it, for some reason. I have to say that, when I watched a trailer for this in a cinema the other day, in front of John Wick (reviewed here), I thought I was watching an advert for a cartoon or animated feature for the first 30 seconds or so... the CGI was, well, less than realistic looking. To these eyes anyway. Still, it would be nice to take a look at it and if I’m going to do that then... I have watch the original trilogy.

The other reason I thought I should finally give these films another chance was that, for many decades, people have been asking me to check out the sequel, The Road Warrior. People have always told me it’s a much better movie and some folk even say that it’s inspired by a Judge Dredd story I read and loved, week by week, in the late 1970s: The Cursed Earth... which in itself is a good reason to give the second film a go (although The Cursed Earth was obviously inspired by the Roger Zelazny novel Damnation Alley... which was itself made into a movie).

So I guess all this meant giving the films a proper go at some point before the new one comes out and so, arming myself with a cheap boxed set of the trilogy in a nice Blu Ray transfer, this is exactly what I’ve done.

I have to say, now I am able to properly appreciate the way the film is photographed and edited without the whole 4:3 thing getting in the way, that it’s a much more interesting film than I’d originally given it credit for when I saw it back in the early 1980s. There’s certainly a raw, low budget edge to the look of the shots and, considering the subject matter of a group of motor bike riding thugs causing mayhem in a rundown landscape, it doesn’t detract from the movie in any way and it all feels about right for it.

Future star Mel Gibson’s Mad Max character is set up with a very long and spectacular, in terms of stunts, car chase with several police vehicles pursuing a gang member who has stolen a car with his lady friend. During the various hijinks of this opening chase, we get glimpses of Max monitoring the progress of the chase on his police waveband as he takes care of his well oiled machine (his car, okay?) and instead, we get shots of his boots, his coat and sun glasses from behind. Character details like that start to gradually build as he begins to “tool up” but we never see his face... the information of what he actually looks like (which to be fair, is nothing special) is withheld to give the audience a suspenseful introduction to the character so that when we finally get to the moment of being able to look him in the eye, it’s coupled with a heroic and violent resolution to the criminal problem, thus subconsciously identifying him as a hero figure in the collective, audience mind through release of tension. When Max makes that first kill he whips off the glasses and the music finally kicks in and swells up to further enhance the psychological manipulation. Simple and effective.

Now the film is a revenge movie but it takes until, literally, the last 20 minutes or so to prepare us for this character’s vector. Although his friend Goose is killed off viciously about two thirds of the way through, it’s not until right near the end that the real motivator of his sudden, vigilante (if you read it that way) crusade is put into place. After that initial chase, the director starts hitting the emotion pedal by showing us an idyllic lifestyle when Max is not on duty. A simple man at peace with his girlfriend and young son. It’s revisited again after Max tries to quit the force following the death of Goose but, instead, is given some time off to think it over. It’s at the end of this last part where things go really wrong and the gang in question wait for Max to leave before visiting their own twisted revenge on him (for the events that take place in that opening chase sequence, right at the start of the movie) and run over his girlfriend and kid. When it comes time to switch the life support off on his dead family... Max goes on his rampage.

However, unless I missed something or it wasn’t made clear enough, he never actually gets the villain of the piece, just one of the guys responsible for the vendetta against Goose... so it’s kind of a strange movie in that the thing doesn’t actually get resolved*. I know there’s The Road Warrior up next, and I haven’t watched that one as yet, but I’m guessing, from checking the cast list of that one, that this revenge spree is left curiously unresolved in the scheme of things. So I did find that kinda strange, to be honest.

Now this is quite a gritty film, dealing with adult issues and done so in the grubby syntax of the period it’s shot... which seems to my mind to possibly be a little post apocalyptic, which would explain the lack of police helicopters and dilapidated, unkempt look of the police headquarters in this film. That being said, my cousin now lives in Australia and he said the place where they filmed this movie... always looks like that. So not really sure whether it’s supposed to be post-apocalyptic or not but... my guess is yes.

I also find it quite interesting that, for such a grimy film, the director shies away most of the time from actually showing the audience anything too graphic. I think we see the burnt hand of Goose but we never see his burnt face, for example, just Gibson’s reaction to it. And this kind of modus operandi is employed throughout the duration of the film. When a man is terrorised and his woman raped, for instance, we cut away from them being dragged away from their car to some nice, artistic shots of a crow flapping its wings etc. Instead of showing Max’s girlfriend and young son killed, we are just shown the aftermath of a shoe and a ball as a metaphor for what just happened. Now while it’s good that the director realised that a lot of the really horrible stuff would be made even worse if it was left to the imagination, it means that the actual graphic content of the film is surprisingly small and I do find that this particular visual cocktail film comes up a little short in a couple of places where showing just a little bit more (definitely not the whole hog, so to speak) would maybe have been a little more effective.

That being said... what do I know? It’s obviously an influential film, especially in terms of the spate of American and Italian post apocalyptic, gangs of thugs movies which came after it. I was thinking about this while I watched it and, honestly, I think even the villainous characters in a movie like Paul Veerhoven’s Robocop would be hard to imagine if Mad Max hadn’t come along first. They all seem to be very close cousins. And obviously, Neil Marshall’s own tribute to those films, Doomsday, also owes a tremendous debt to this film and, probably, The Road Warrior too (I’ll know soon enough, I guess).

Of course, Mad Max also has its own share of influences and with its motorbike drag scenes and Django-like scene towards the end, where Max has one of his hands run over and broken just like Franco Nero had decades before. It all points to the director being a fan of Westerns, if I’m not much mistaken. Mad Max and all those later derivatives seem to be about cowboys fending off against the marauding Indians... with the cowboys being the forces of law and order and the Indian tribes being renegade bike gangs soaring across their own desert land... their four legged friends replaced by two wheels and a big engine.

All in all, the film is a lot better than I was expecting and it has some nice photography to boot. Brian May’s score is a little bit overdone in places, I think, but overall it’s of its time and, although I can’t imagine a score like this being written for that kind of picture today, it gets away with it here I think. Not a great film but probably, in some insane B-movie parlour sense, a bona fide classic and, hopefully, the best is yet to come. Check back here soon for my review of... The Road Warrior.

*Since publishing this review, Grindhouse Dave has made clear to me that the villain of the piece does, indeed, get his come uppance... although before Max sorts out the guy who kills Goose. I've watched the clip and realised that it wasn't obvious, to me, that this death scene was indeed supposed to depict Toe Cutter, the gang leader, and personally I don't think it's very clearly presented but, it does seem to be in there. So thanks to the Twitter realm for clearing that up for me.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Saint's Double Trouble

Templar Nights

The Saint's Double Trouble
USA 1940
Directed by Jack Hively
RKO DVD1 Region 1

So, finally, I am continuing with my catch up on the series of The Saint movies I started rewatching and reviewing a couple of years ago, after an unscheduled break. The Saint’s Double Trouble is the fourth in the series, and the third with George Sanders in the title role. Although this one, for some strange reason not known to me, is not directly based on any of the original Leslie Charteris novels, he apparently did have a hand in developing this one for the screen... which is a shame in some ways, due to the gimmicky nature of the plot. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, if the title doesn’t already give it all away to you.

The film starts off with a coffin being taken to a postal service in Cairo, being mailed, allegedly, by Simon Templar to his old Egyptologist friend Professor Bitts in the US (played here by Thomas W. Ross). And who do you think would walk into a post office with a coffin in his arms? Yep, here we have what can only be called a “guest role” for the original “authorised” screen Dracula, Bela Lugosi. After this scene, he drops out of the film until somewhere about two thirds of the way through the picture and it’s a shame that his inability to learn the English language, and having to learn his scripts phonetically, had already reduced him to these kinds of minor roles. In this film he plays a character called “The Partner”, who is really just a human clue for Simon Templar to pick up on in his fight against the real villain of the piece.

Now, after having watched this for 15 minutes, I started getting confused. By this time, you see, I had forgotten what the title of the movie was and when Simon Templar went back to his hideout to consult with his gang of criminals... um. What? Yeah, it’s the old doubles plot. These days it’s one of the sure signs that a movie or TV show has gotten to the point where it’s “jumped the shark”, in modern parlance... and that’s one of the reasons why I was surprised Charteris was involved in this one. Even in those days it was getting to be a bit of a cliché, I suspect, and certainly a sign that the scriptwriters were running out of ideas. As it happens, though, it did manage to fool me... so it was either done incredibly subtly or... I didn’t anticipate the complete lack of realism in the way the characters were pitched.

By that last comment I mean to say that, although George Sanders is obviously playing both roles, his voice and characterisation of the “double” are exactly the same as each other. Seriously people? They’d even have the same voice? Furthermore... how the heck does the double know enough about Simon Templar’s personal life to be able to frame him for a string of murders? Anyone could fake up a Saint calling card, sure... but they wouldn’t, for instance, have a knowledge of the history between Simon Templar and Professor Bitts or, as it turns out, Professor Bitt’s daughter, played by Helene Whitney. So there’s that.

Still, it doesn’t really matter because the cast are all pretty good, although the locations being used all seem to be limited to the same three or four settings, with characters going back and forth between the specific areas laid out in the first 20 minutes of the movie... with the exception of a jail scene near the end of the film (and that’s giving away nothing in terms of plotting, by the way). Jonathan Hale is back on hand as Inspector Fernack, the Inspector Teale equivalent of The Saint’s American set adventures... and I’m happy to say he’s playing the character a little smarter than he did in the last entry. Still not as sharp as he was in the original Louis Hayward opener, The Saint In New York (reviewed here), but certainly no longer a completely helpless buffoon, at least.

The pacing is not as speedy as the blistering third film in the series (reviewed here) and, in all honesty, the dialogue is not as sharp or as singing as it was in that one either. However, the characters are all fairly charming (even the villains) and it whiles away its short running time fairly pleasantly. Sanders impressed me a little by actually being quite ruthless and tough when it came to risking the lives of the people who are playing against him... and still manages to come out of it as less of a thug and more of a righteous person who is, nevertheless, also a Robin Hood style criminal. I was also pleased that the writers were not afraid of killing off one of the more likeable, good guy characters in the film... and stuff like that is always a bonus to add a touch of weight to the drama and ensure that to Simon Templar in this one, just like a 1980s action hero... this time it’s personal!

Now, to be fair, there were gaping plot holes in this and not too much done in terms of actual detecting and problem solving as Simon Templar tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s very much late 1970s Roger Moore as James Bond territory when it comes to any actual investigative techniques being used. That being said, the lack of logic and realism in terms of the plot mechanics in no way detract from this being a pretty entertaining experience and Sanders is surprisingly capable in a role which has him leaping undetected onto the running boards of cars or being tied up in a sinking row boat... this is all good stuff.

Once again, the trademark tune which Sanders whistles and which is claimed by Charteris himself as his invention (although my money is still on musical director Roy Webb, who continues duties on this entry) is heard and, certainly, it’s something that fans of later incarnations of The Saint in film and television, especially Ian Ogilvy’s turn as Templar in the TV show Return Of The Saint, will be very familiar with. So it’s good that at least some films were going for a certain amount of musical continuity... much more than the powers that be in Hollywood seem to be attempting these days, at any rate.

The ending is a short and sweet affair. I’m pretty sure these shorter movies would have been made to be the supporting feature to larger budgeted productions in most cases, but it certainly ensures that the film doesn’t outstay it’s welcome and I have to say, despite my objections to Sanders in the role in comparison to Louis Hayward, who I think played the character perfectly to the version in the books, I am still having a blast with this series of films and am enjoying these just as much as I did in my early teens, in the 1980s. So you can be sure there’ll be another Saint review on here soon and I need to get my skates on in that respect so I can start catching up to The Falcon films again. Watch this space.

Monday, 13 April 2015

John Wick

Wicked Game

John Wick
2014  USA
Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch (uncredited) 
UK cinema release print.

Okay. So I find it kinda strange and irritating that a relatively high profile action movie like John Wick has had such a delayed release in this country, especially when the language it’s been shot in is a derivative of the language we speak here in the UK. My cousin lives in Australia and I remember him recommending this film to me when we had a Skype conversation in early November. Why did we have to wait so long for it in this country? Especially since, as is my understanding, there were no censorship issues with it. Note to studios: If I really had wanted to see this film badly enough, I would have just legally bought the US DVD or Blu Ray edition which came out a little while ago over there and had it shipped... pretty much anyone who is a lover of film in the UK has to have at least one multi-region player of some kind laying around because there is so much trouble with censorship and availability in the UK. People less scrupulous than I would, and I’m sure many did, just download it illegally from the internet... personally I don’t do that, for a variety of reasons, but many people do. So you are really hurting your box office take by not releasing these movies more or less simultaneously.

John Wick is a pretty good, broad stroke revenge movie, fuelled very much by comic book style attitude towards the action and violence but shot with a certain amount of care and detail to the point that it is like the close kin of another movie I saw at the cinema recently, the Liam Neeson action flick Run All Night (reviewed by me here). Of course, in every other country, John Wick was the first horse to bolt out of the stable door but, obviously, I’ve had to wait until after the Neeson flick had already been playing for a while before I had an opportunity to see this one.

The similarities between both are quite marked.

Both films start off by showing a central protagonist in a very bad way and then flashback to how he got into this state for the majority of the running time. They are both films which involve an anti-hero ex-killer (Wick’s nickname is Baba Yaga in this) who has a history with the villain of the piece. Wick, by the way, is played by the highly competent actor Keanu Reeves and his ex-villainous connection is played by Michael Nyqvist, who most UK audiences will recognise best from his role as Mikael Blomkvist in the original adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its subsequent sequels, collectively known as The Millennium Trilogy. Both John Wick and Run All Night have a central protagonist who is forced to go on a rampage of some kind due to the misguided exploits of the young, hot-head son of the film’s principal antagonist and, in each case, that antagonist is only going after the protagonist, very reluctantly, because he has been backed into a corner due to the consequences of those actions of his offspring.

Both films also feature very long action and chase sequences but the way both films go about trying to achieve their adrenalin fuelled, emotional goals are very different. The two have nicely composed and designed shots but, where Run All Night has a kind of modus operandi to the sequences which keeps them cut like an MTV pop generation video on acid - extremely short shots making up all the scenes - Wick uses much longer, fluid shots with a lot of moving camera to capture the more flamboyant scenes of violence. Both films have their pros and cons and are trying to be gritty but with Run All Night, the speed of the shots slightly detracts somewhat. John Wick, on the other hand, is a little more light in tone when it comes to the raw edge of the character and, as I said, much more comic book in its treatment of the choreography of the action sequences. It prefers to use moving master shots to keep you pulled in and focused.

Neither film is wrong in their approach but I find the idea of two films with similar themes being the flip side of the coin to each other, when it comes to the technique used to illustrate those themes, extremely interesting. The fight choreography in John Wick is certainly impressive and it does look like Keanu Reeves is doing a lot of his own “rough n’ tumble” in this one... quite convincingly, I might add. In terms of comparing the two films... I’d consider watching John Wick again because the action sequences seem to be a lot more entertaining, it has to be said.

The main difference to this movie is that John Wick is very much a revenge thriller and it takes a fair bit of the early screen time pulling very hard at the audience’s emotions to establish the connection between Wick and his new puppy dog, sent from his recently deceased wife to bond with Wick after her death. Everyone loves a puppy and so the inevitable scene where John is beaten up, his dog killed* (which is in the trailer, so I’m not spoiling anything here, people) and car stolen, is very calculated but, obviously, it works pretty well and you'll get quite fuelled up to see Keanu Reeves’ character leap into action and punish the bad guys. Strangely though, and this is where the art of film comes into play, the amount of time between John Wick losing his wife, gaining a puppy and then having it killed, forcing him out of his self-imposed “kill them all” retirement, can actually be only a week in terms of the events in the character’s chronology. However, the director is skilled, or at least tricksy enough, to give those elements a sense of gravitas even though they take up a pretty insignificantly small amount of time in the principal character’s life. And, of course, Keanu Reeves’ on screen performance is sturdy and assured enough to convince the audience that his personal stake in this is enough motivation for his actions throughout the rest of the film. So, as usual, good work from him.

He’s ably supported by some great actors and actresses in this too, with some good little turns from Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki and Bridget Moynahan (although, seriously people, 8 seconds of screen time is really not enough for this wonderful actress). He’s also well supported by some striking shots, cool lighting changes (there’s a scene where he goes from neutral whites and beiges to a “full on Bava” of greens and reds at one point), neat editing and... a nice enough score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard. Although regarding this last element it seems, on first listen in the context of the movie, to be a killer baseline missing a central theme which might have given the film a little more lift in places, I felt. Great action coupled with a strong sense of a, kind of, moral heart for the character (despite killing 77 people on screen, most of whom are innocent of any crime against him other than trying to stop him from killing someone else) round out a movie which is actually quite entertaining.

Talk of good box office and a sequel is something which surprises me in the case of John Wick, given that it took so long to get the film out over here. However, it deserves a shot at a franchise, I think... although I’m not sure where they can go with the character after this since the motivation for his misadventures seems to be all used up by the time he’s done with his rampage in this one. Time will tell I guess but, in the meantime, if you like well oiled action movies with lots of loud noise and all the usual punching, shooting and chasing in them, then John Wick should probably satisfy your appetite for destruction for a while. Locked, loaded and ready for traction.

*Just a thought but, if you’re going to take a car ride with your dog and then spin the car around in some death defying, high speed spins and such like, your dog will seriously be looking half dead, at the very least, way before the villains of the piece come into play. That sequence is not very plausible.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Car

Hob Gear

The Car
USA 1977
Directed by Elliot Silverstein
Arrow/Universal Blu Ray Region 2

Well this was a jaw droppingly amazing and unexpectedly well made film. Given the subject matter and the fact that it’s been around for nearly four decades, I’m amazed I didn’t cross paths with this movie on television anytime sooner.

This film first properly came onto my radar when a limited edition of Leonard Rosenman’s score was released about a month ago. Now I always find Leonard Rosenman’s work a bit hit and miss, perhaps more miss than hit if I were being honest. This is not because he tends to write mostly either atonal music or full on 12 tone serial music (both of which I love) but because I mostly find his writing in these kinds of styles a bit dull compared to, say, masters like Schoenberg and Ligeti.

Another reason I am less enthusiastic about him is because he always... always... uses a particular musical phrase in pretty much every score recording I own by him and, in this last respect at least, the score to The Car is no exception. It’s a kind of musical progression, almost a mini fugue, which I’ve heard him slip in on scores like Beneath/Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, Fantastic Voyage, Lord Of The Rings (the proper movie version), Star Trek IV and so on. The liner notes by Jeff Bond on this score release refer to this “signature effect” as a “brass tone pyramid” and so I guess that’s the technical name for it... and I understand that Rosenman probably just saw this as another weapon in his arsenal for creating mood and atmosphere... but I still spend my time listening to any of his soundtracks waiting for him to drop the damn thing in and then gritting my teeth.

However, I listened to the sound samples put up by Intrada Records and the score sounded pretty good and to my liking... especially as it has lots of quotes of the musical phrase known throughout musical history as the Dies Irae, one of my favourite quotations. So yeah, I ordered the CD and I had a listen and then, of course, well... I had to see the movie it came from, didn’t I? Luckily, Arrow have put out a truly sumptuous Blu Ray transfer of the movie which is not costing the earth and so, as usual, the music was my primary path to seeing a film.

And what a film it is.

The premise pitched to the director was that Universal wanted another gi-normous hit of a movie in the style of their big Spielberg success Jaws... but they didn’t want to run to the expense of filming on the ocean and in big water tanks again so they decided to replace the shark with the titular vehicle and set it in a small, desert community town. And as silly as that sounds... due largely to the seriousness and gravitas given by an extraordinarily creative director and a cast consisting of great character actors such as James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley and Ronny Cox, to name a few... the movie really does work at much more than the level of the absurd but satisfying B-movie premise that is its main DNA. That DNA consisting of a driverless, demonically possessed Black 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III car with a customised lowered frame... giving it a black, lean, animalistic feel which works really well for it.

The film opens up with the credits set against a long static shot of desert landscape in blue. Not sure if the eventual change to... um... less blue... is meant to signify “sun up” but it doesn’t matter because, coupled with Rosenman’s score, the screen was filled with vibrant colour and I was hooked. Then, after the credits roll, we see a trail of sand rising up in the far distance, almost like Michael Bentine was puffing out smoke on one of his old Potty Time models (for anyone as old as me who remembers that show) and this kicking up of the sand and dust is our visual approach to The Car sorted out. It’s something the director actually does quite a lot during the film, bearing in mind most of it is set during daylight... start off with an extremely long shot and then show a symptom indicator that “the car is coming” such as clouds of dust or bright flashes of light from the windscreen to help us focus in on the little spec of the screen which will eventually grow in size to the horse-powered horror as it gets closer to the camera. It’s quite a brilliant way of doing it actually and the director has a lot of this kind of slow approach happening while things are going on in the foreground too... which gives you a kind of “the car is watching and ever present” feeling to certain sequences of the movie.

Then we see our first victims of the film... two teenage cyclists... and the speed of the car is coupled with shots from inside the windscreen, which is blacked out in front but which gives us a kind of yellow saturated filter view of the external environment that the director employs extensively to give us a “car’s eye view” of things as it roars past the world. It’s one of a few things the director does to kind of imbue the car with a certain calculating intelligence and organic presence.

Another such trick is a beautiful shot where the camera is on some kind of rig and is going along deep focused on one of the speeding wheels in profile. When victim number three insults the car as it goes by... we stop with it and almost feel it considering its next action... before circling back to commit its third homicide of the movie.

This is all great stuff and the director uses a lot of these kinds of personalising shenanigans to both build up The Car as an intelligent, thinking manifestation and also to really start gripping you with the suspense when he starts to pour it on. Scenes with the actual car for the first half of the film are few and far between, once we’re done with the three murder set up, that is. It’s a very smart approach because it then becomes a character piece with the main lead (Brolin), his girlfriend (Lloyd) and the police force who start to become aware that they’ve got a problem on their hands. And so it becomes a “how to stop the car” kind of movie and everybody is talking and focussing on it so that, in the scenes where the car does actually appear, usually from the corner of a screen or as some kind of reveal (there’s a beautifully done and terrifying surprise “up close and personal” reveal of the car just before the final chase sequence which I won’t spoil for you here), it’s all the more effective because its presence has been long heralded by the human population of the movie.

Now, it has to be said that, although it’s extremely well done and I will definitely be watching this at least a few more times in my life (if I live that long), there are some really unintentionally funny parts to the movie, too. Like the constant, silent male bonding which seems to be going on at the drop of a hat whenever any of the police are worried. Seriously, if there’s anything wrong, the central characters show that there’s never anything so wrong that a gruff, silent nod and a pat on the back or shoulder won’t put right. Seriously, I’d hate to work for this community’s police force. I’d ask if anyone would want a coffee or maybe just drop a pencil and I’d be greeted with a barrage of manly nods and my back and shoulders would be red raw with reassuring body blows within the space of a day. So this was getting just a little too much for me to watch in some places but, that being said, the acting in this is fantastic so I wasn’t too concerned.

What did concern me is that everybody seems to be driving those unbelievably dangerous, 1970s movie cars. Seriously, these things the police department issue over there are truly lethal, it would seem. All it takes is for a car to have one or two of it’s wheels leave the ground or slightly scrape something and the whole thing goes up in a ball of flame. Woah. I’d be frightened to get in one and sit down hard. Turn on the ignition too quickly and the whole thing might go up. No wonder the police are not able to hold their own against The Car when they’re sent out in these death traps. I can imagine it now. “Hi boss, my turn to drive... although I’ve got a dreadful cough today.” “No! Don’t cough!” Cough... Booom!

So yeah, seriously, never perform an emergency stop in one of these things.

But, other than these two overused clichés of male bonding and sub-standard 1970s motor vehicle manufacturing, the movie is truly unique. Even when it shows a trail of blood going up the side of a fence and a lone, spinning wheel belonging to one of the cyclists at the start... it never really crosses the line over into absurd and it keeps the tension pretty well. Scenes such as the car coming up on a parade practice where these huge banners are up on the road and you can only see it by its wheels whizzing underneath the level of the banners are really effective and shots like this will stay with you after the end of the movie.

Also, the character arcs do not go where you’d quite expect them to go in this thing... sometimes it’s the good guys and gals who don’t survive the picture while other, shall we say less than sympathetic characters, go unpunished for their sins and without any real moral judgement from the camera eye... it has to be said. But that’s kind of refreshing, to tell you the truth. Less predictability in a movie can only be a good thing, methinks. Although, I have to say that Ronny Cox, on realising The Car wouldn’t cross through the gates of a cemetery and on to consecrated ground, makes a pretty wild leap to the assumption that... oh yeah... it must be a demonically possessed vehicle they are dealing with. He said what now? Oh wait... that’s actually the case here. Oh well... bit of a leap for a conclusion but, whatever, it works for me I guess.

Truthfully, even though it should probably be considered a B-movie, I have to say that this is one of the most solid and well made B-movies I’ve seen in quite some time. And, for the record, Rosenman’s score to this movie is superb. Irritating at certain “signature” areas, for sure, but one of his more accessible and enjoyable works as far as I’m concerned. So I’m really pleased I picked up the soundtrack album when I did. Definitely a movie I’ll be revisiting and recommending to people and certainly a score which will be getting a fair few spins on the CD player over the next few months. I’m guessing this movie was probably a lot of the inspiration behind Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine, so it’s also interesting to watch on that level too. Either way, if you like completely loopy horror concepts and you don’t mind that they’re occasionally done well, instead of just being something you can laugh at, then you should probably shift your DVD or Blu Ray player into high gear and get yourself a ride with... The Car.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine

Gold-Footing The Bill

Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine
Directed by Norman Taurog
DVD Region 1

Wow. I’ve been wanting to see Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine and, more importantly because of its director, the sequel (Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs) for a while now and... well... it’s certainly a corker. Not sure if I enjoyed it in quite the same way as the director, producer and writers would have wanted me to but... well, I certainly did appreciate the movie, to some extent and it was more than once during the running time when I thought to myself... they just don’t make movies like this anymore. Although, what I was really thinking, truth be told, was... yeah, they really couldn’t get away with making movies like this anymore.

So hot on the heels of the previous year’s hit British film, Goldfinger, the American International Pictures studio goldfooted the bill for a movie which could hopefully ride the same box office take by making the title slightly reminiscent of that film (and they were certainly not the only studio doing stuff like this... anyone remember Due Mafiosi Contro Goldginger nowadays?). Of course, if you’re going to have a film trying to ride the same kind of bandwagon then you need a title song with the same power right? Well yeah... kinda. The opening credit sequence, featuring bizarre claymation, stop motion animated models of the main cast driving around in Goldfoot’s trademark aladdin-style shoes (well not really, he only wears them in one scene that I could spot) is set against a song performed by The Supremes... yeah, as in Diana Ross and The Supremes... and it’s... hmm. Well it’s fun. In the absence of availability of an album containing Les Baxter’s score you can download the opening title song, at least, for 99p on iTunes. So there’s that.

After the credits close, the song still seems to be going on. It’s almost as if the opening credits sequence animators got bored or ran out of money (On an AIP picture? Well fancy that.) or, perhaps more likely, it was put together independently of the music. Either way, since the producers obviously didn’t want to waste any bang for their buck with The Supremes, the song continues on and we’re introduced to footage of the crazy streets of San Francisco as seen through a car windscreen as it makes its topsy turvy way around fast corners and eventually into a tram tunnel. I’m pretty certain that some of this footage must have originally been shot to be incorporated into the uproariously un-hilarious final chase scene, but didn’t make the cut so the film-makers just decided to edit it all together at the end of the title sequence. Other than that, it doesn’t seem to tie up to anything else in the movie either footage wise or, more expectedly, theme wise to any events that happen. Certainly, the next title card reading San Francisco - The Day After Tomorrow and the following scenes don’t even attempt to match the shots from the windscreen section.

Okay, after this the film has a fairly strong opening, with the beautiful Susan Hart playing Number 11, as she walks down the city streets wearing a fetching hat and grey raincoat. After she is shot at for accidentally interrupting an armed bank robbery, it becomes clear to the audience that she is not what she seems. When she enters a restaurant and inserts herself into the life of secret agent Craig Gamble, played by teenage, singing heart throb Frankie Avalon, she does the old sight gag of drinking a glass of milk and having the milk run out of all the bullet holes she took a hit with in the previous scene. After this, she whizzes Frankie back to his apartment until she finds out, from the ever watching Dr. Goldfoot and his assistant Egor, that she has the wrong man and leaves in search of her real intended victim Tod Armstrong, played by Dwayne Hickman.

Of course, the reason evil super-villain and mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot, played with a certain amount of hamminess by the irrepressible Vincent Price, and his assistant Egor, played by Jack Mullaney, can see what’s going on wherever they like is through that old 1950s -1970s super-villain trick of having some kind of magical camera which must fly around undetected to any spot in the world they choose to view on their viewing screen...

Honestly people! So many movies rely on these unlikely, alchemical devices with absolutely nobody in the audience... NOBODY!... questioning how the villains of the piece always seem to have a camera which can show them the exact view of the world at large at the flick of a switch. Blimey! What the heck were we on that we could be spoon fed this kind of utterly unconvincing claptrap and, more importantly, why have we stopped doing it now. Seriously, we are now living in a period where a bad guy could literally hack into all the many security cameras around the world and see pretty much any view of anything he liked once he’d sorted out a nefarious computer hack of some sorts... but you never see any main antagonists using this time honoured technique of the “unquestioned cam view” now when we’re actually, for once, living in a point in time where this could actually be feasible. But, hey, whatever... back then, these movies were doing it all the time. Were the audiences just filled up to the eyeballs with drugs all the way through these things? Don’t answer that.

Now, Dr, Goldfoot’s plan is to get his many robot girls he made with his titular Bikini Machine, all who wear gold bikinis for some reason, to marry various billionaires around the world and get them to sign off their property over to his mechanical ladies, making him into the sole beneficiary and a very wealthy man. Presumably so wealthy that he can afford to equip his evil lair with expensive camera feeds that can see every part of the world at the flick of a switch... oh wait, That’s right. He already has that, doesn’t he? What the-?

So, anyway, I was waiting for a long while to see if Dr. Goldfoot’s plan got any bigger or more ambitious than this... rubbing my hands in glee at the prospect of a more sophisticated and ingenious plot befitting the time and attention of a super-villain but, after a while it dawned on me that nothing further would be forthcoming. Instead, I had to watch the blatantly unfunny comic antics of Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman as they attempted to solve the mystery of this questionably ingenious plot. And, frankly, it felt like I was watching a Walt Disney Herbie film for adults but without the sophistication or charm that a "grown up" might likely expect for the price of a cinema ticket.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are entertainments and distractions in this movie galore. What with cameos by various other actors who, like this one, share credits on the Beach Blanket style films AIP was putting out at the time. People like Annette Funicelli, for instance, popping up in one of the dungeon sets used by AIP for the famous Roger Corman Poe films starring Vincent Price. Or other kinds of cameos such as some of the portraits of Price as Dr. Goldfoot’s “ancestors”, which are also from films like Fall Of The House Of Usher and Tomb Of Ligeia too. There are some nice little jokes from the time as well, such as Price and a talking skeleton doing the old Señor Wences “S’alright?” “S’alright.” catchphrase routine.

That being said, though, this film is not exactly a laugh a minute... no matter how much it’s trying to be in some places. Frankie Avalon’s character is Agent Double Oh and a Half. He’s not allowed to carry a gun around until he becomes a digit, not a fraction. If you find these kinds of lines funny then you’ve got a more tolerant sense of humour than I have, I think.

There is, though, a lot of inventive stuff going on including a disintegrating beam lipstick, a briefcase with an arm with a boxing glove that pops up when opened (due to the miracle of movie magic) and the entrance to Goldfoot’s lair via a slide at the bottom of a coffin in his mortuary. There’s even an appearance of the binoculars which, when you turn the dials to change the focus, have deadly spikes which pop out and into your eyes. Actually, this is the third film I know of to contain this concept. The first being the 1959 Horrors Of The Black Museum which, I sadly haven’t seen yet (don’t worry... it’s on the other side of the room as I type, in one of my “to watch” piles) and the other one being the 1996 version of the exploits of the comic book character The Phantom. 

And then, just so we don’t forget who the producers snagged for their title song, they repeat it again over an end credits sequence of Dr. Goldfoot’s go-go dancing girl-bots. Which is at least entertaining in some ways.

However. for all the inventiveness and hard work on display here, the cleanly designed but not interesting enough to hold the attention style shots don't amount to a heck of a lot and it never feels like there’s anything truly remarkable or noteworthy going on in this one. I certainly wasn’t bored but, I think, my attitude throughout most of this one was of interest rather than enjoyment... although, that being said, I think it’s true to say that I’d watch it again. I would strongly suspect though, that this was definitely, with its constant slapstick routines and knowing winks to the target audience, a movie which was probably far more fun for the actors to be involved with than it is for an audience to actually have to endure. On the other hand... what do I know? They did make a sequel, after all. Talking of which, the sequel is directed by one of my favourite directors, Mario Bava... so I am really looking forward to seeing what he did with the title character. Frankly, with Bava in charge, the one thing I’m pretty sure of is that it will certainly be colourful.

When all is said and done, I can’t really recommend Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine to anyone unless they’re very much into that era of cinema and would be as interested in this kind of “only in the sixties” movie as I am. I can't quite bring myself to write it off either, though. Vincent Price once commented that the film would have been a lot better if the original song and dance numbers had been left in. Whaaaaaaat? The mind boggles but... that’s a version I’d definitely like to see. At the end of the day, I think you’d know if this kind of movie is going ot appeal to you or not and, if you decide to give it a go, then I wish you luck and hope you enjoy it just a little better than I did. And you can be sure, I’ll be reporting on just how good or bad the sequel is, at my earliest opportunity (it’s on the pile).

Monday, 6 April 2015


Exit Peru, By A Bear

UK/France 2014 
Directed by Paul King
Studio Canal Blu Ray B

I never got to see this one when it came out in the cinema in the UK at the tail end of last year. I kinda wanted to get to it but, as usual, the lead in of the “Christmas rush” meant a lot of movies I wanted to catch had to be sacrificed to the annual present buying marathon. However, my mother also wanted to see it and so I grabbed her a copy of the Blu Ray for Easter. Thus, there I was on Easter Sunday drinking cups of tea with my parents and watching the latest version of Michael Bond’s, almost timeless, classic... tears crawling absurdly down my face because, well... the older I get, the more the sentimentality of these things gets to me, I’m afraid.

I was not the biggest Paddington fan as a kid. I never had a version of the bear, for example. I did, however, own the first book, beautifully illustrated and, of course, like most other kids growing up in the 1970s, watched the stop-motion animated TV show from time to time. My most vivid memory of which is, of course, the episode where they reconstructed the title song’s dance routine from Singin’ In The Rain. I believe Gene Kelly was a big fan of that episode.

I didn’t, I have to admit, expect great things from this movie. I assumed that the writers and director would want to modernise things a bit... I was just hoping they wouldn’t be disrespectful of the character and the spirit of the original tales. I needn’t have worried about any of that, actually. I was quite surprised by just how well the film holds up and I’d have to say that the whole thing is absolutely... magical.

The film starts off with black & white 4:3 aspect ratio, pseudo archival newsreel footage of Tim Downie* playing the excessively British Montgomery Clyde, in true eccentric fashion, as he discovers a colony of intelligent bears in Darkest Peru and befriends the future Paddington Bear’s grandparents. Decades then whiz by and an “incident” in Darkest Peru means that Paddington has to journey to London and throw himself on the kindness of Londoners with the old “Please look after this bear, thank you” tag hanging around his neck, while his Aunt Lucy goes to live in the home for retired bears. When he is taken in, temporarily, by the Brown family, the film opens up showing all the expected, yet nicely done, incidents about being a fish... um... bear out of water, while bringing in a mystery plot as Paddington and the Browns try to locate Tim Downie’s character in the present day. And that’s really as much as I’m going to tell you about the story line, such as it is... I really don’t want to spoil this one for you.

Now, it would be true to say that the film isn’t totally original in the way it’s put together. Both the techniques used and the references made are definitely pointing to Paddington being a distinctly postmodern bear in this instance, to be sure. But, the thing is, it’s all done so well and it’s beautifully crafted and edited together, that the various stock in trade tricks, and I can assure you it steals from the best, end up giving the film a unique identity of its own in terms of any borrowed components becoming just well handled instruments in a very sophisticated tool box.

Lovely stuff like the photos on a wall taking on a life of their own, very much like the photos in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, are in here, for example. There’s even, towards the end of the movie, a very much re-used but charming visual reference to the Indiana Jones films which certainly hasn’t outstayed its welcome in terms of it appearing in this movie. There were also some nice things I hadn’t seen before like the leaves on painted tress on the walls of the Brown household being used as an expression of the emotional health of the family, for instance. Or the floors depicted in a doll’s house or the windows of the carriage in a toy train set taking you into other worlds and clueing the audience in on more information. These were all genuinely refreshing little touches and I appreciated them, as I watched the story stealthily unfold, quite a lot. The writers even decided to have Paddington entering the old movie footage, used in the opening sequence, later on in the film to have a brief, day dream visitation with the spirit of the younger versions of his grand parents... which is just one of many heart warming scenes throughout the course of the film designed to hit you hard in the tear ducts.

Added to this, of course, there are some great jokes scattered throughout the well written script, some of which will appeal perhaps more to adults. Such as the trophy heads in the main villain’s Natural History Museum lair, and what’s going on in the room behind the walls they are “mounted” on. Others of which will also ensnare the kids as much as any ‘young at heart’ adults watching... such as Paddington trying to figure out the use of the ‘facilities’ in the Brown household and using two toothbrushes to clean out his ears. This is all good stuff and should, mostly, bring a smile to the face of most people in the audience, I suspect.

But it’s not just well lit sets and a beautiful melding of Nick Urata’s wonderful score with songs performed by D Lime and Tabago Crusoe as little ‘on screen’ visual inserts that make this film the masterpiece it’s turned out to be. It also has some of the finest actors and actresses of our generation in this, including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, the voice of Ben Whishaw as Paddington himself and... well the list, including some wonderful cameo appearances, goes on. It’s well performed by people who know just what they’re doing, is what I’m trying to say... so it would be hard to see how a film full of such wonderful professionals could be in a bad movie. That being said, I’ve seen it happen before but, I’m happy to say, they are supported by such a wonderful script, fantastic misé en scene (some of the colours used are gorgeous in certain scenes), surprisingly well done CGI (seriously groovy fur people!), great scoring and some inventive editing... amongst other good stuff... that this film is a marvellous success as both a children’s entertainment and a movie which can be appreciated by infants of all ages, myself included.

Not a film I was particularly expecting to come away with such a positive opinion of, to be honest, but there you are... sometimes these things happen. A truly enchanting movie experience that is a definite, solid, sure fire recommend from me. If there is a softer side to your movie going heart, you might want to take Paddington in off out of the cold and give him a place on your DVD or Blu Ray shelf. And always remember to keep a marmalade sandwich under your hat... just in case of emergencies.

*The gentleman in question tweeted me on the twitter machine yesterday and assured me that his correct mode of address is “the devilishly handsome and witty Tim Downie". Well, who am I to argue with that?

Sunday, 5 April 2015

It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown

Where Beagles Dare

It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
USA 1974 
Directed by Phil Roman
Firefly Entertainment DVD Region 2

This review is almost self defeating in a way because... well what can you say about one of the classic cartoon shorts of the 20th Century? This is another in a number of “Charlie Brown Specials” which came out over the years, following on from the totally amazing A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown is definitely one of my all time favourites and, probably, the one I know the best, I think... since I try to watch it every Easter, if I can.

Sure, it’s not particularly opulent in terms of its animation, with a lot of static characters on screen sometimes while there is movement on only one person and maybe a bit of background detail coming to life... but they’re definitely not as bad as a lot of cheap 1970s TV animation and you can tell that there’s a lot of love gone into these ones. Stylistically, too, I think the static nature of some of the frames matches the genesis of the original Peanuts - featuring Good O’l Charlie Brown strip and I’ve always thought these have something over a lot of the other cartoons which were being produced in this period of television history. Also, it’s hard to get Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang wrong when they’re all based on the original writings of Charles M. Schulz, who clearly must have had a lot to do with these cartoon specials, I think.

Bearing in mind that the cartoon is only around 25 mins in length, you’ve got to admire the amount of different running jokes and follow on scenes inherent in the episode and the structure of this one is perfect. You have the main “Easter Beagle is coming” plot which is set up by Linus telling everybody about it, tying in to the famous, annual Great Pumpkin debacle of Halloween. This runs through the whole show... which is quite clever because the actual machinations to get to this event actually taking place are only revealed, and indeed only actually happen, in the scene before the actual resolution of it. That is to say, we see ‘the Easter Beagle’ acquiring his painted eggs in the scene before he makes his grand entrance and distributes them.

But, quite apart from that main narrative point, we have so many little sub stories to get through, running parallel to the main plot, that it’s a wonder the running time is so short. We have the whole thing with Woodstock’s inadequate nest and the acquisition of, not one but two, new homes for him. We have various scenes of Peppermint Patty failing, quite spectacularly in some cases, to show her friend Marcie how to boil and paint eggs for Easter. We have assorted character building with a shopping expedition to buy Sally some new shoes for Easter and a wealth of scenes not designed to move the plot forward in any way but which are absolutely fun and... it all works rather well.

Sequences like the bunny dance scene, the hat scene, the music box dance scene and so on. Really great little sketches which are inserted into the main plot strands and which mesh perfectly, establish the relationships between the characters, entertain, demonstrate the “good heart” at the centre of the whole Charlie Brown universe and, ultimately, make us laugh and smile.

And, of course, there’s Snoopy.

Snoopy is, absolutely, the Harpo Marx of the Peanuts world. His flights of fancy and various shenanigans are probably half of what keeps people watching. You know things are usually going to get very surreal when the beagle’s about and, in this era when Woodstock was also now a character, it’s the animals which give Peanuts the edge...

Little sequences like when Charlie Brown, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Snoopy go to the local store, for example, are absolute gold. Being as it’s Easter, of course, the satire of the store already having all the Christmas goods on sale (yep, even in the 1970s and before, the shops were taking the mickey and putting on the commercial pressure to spend at the earliest opportunity) is pitch perfect but it’s when Snoopy takes the ‘down’ escalator while everybody else takes the ‘up’ escalator that the tradition of surreal sight-gag comedy takes over... with Snoopy passing the rest of the gang going down opposite on each progressive floor as Charlie and the others keep climbing up a floor at a time. This is wonderful and it’s little touches like this and Woodstock imagining he's using an invisible elevator, supported by the noise of it in the sound effects, that really make these things worth watching periodically... at least for me.

I think my favourite moment comes as much from the observations of the director/animators on this one as it does from the mind of Charlie Schulz, it might be safe to conclude. When Snoopy looks into a peep hole in an elaborate egg in the store and spies some bunnies, we enter Snoopy’s imagination with him as the bunnies come to life and he jumps right into the scene and starts dancing with them. But it’s the end of the scene which is so special, as we cut back to our main beagle still looking into the egg and see that, indeed, Snoopy is not really dancing with bunnies anywhere except in his mind’s eye... but he is so into his dream like state that his little legs are dancing along still as he looks into the egg. Anyone who’s ever owned a dog and watched them while they dream will know exactly what that little reaction is all about and it’s just so beautifully observed that it never fails to get a big grin from me every time I watch this one.

And to top it all off, we have another of jazz composer Vince Guaraldi’s awesome Charlie Brown scores. I never get tired of hearing the consistently styled musical world he creates for these things and, although it’s not my favourite of his works, there’s some really cool stuff going on in this one still, including some very casually ‘hidden’ classical music covers, rearranged in a jazz idiom and standing up as another cohesive element which make these early TV specials such a pleasure to watch and hear.

So there you have it. It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown is one of the unmissable events of any Easter and it belongs on everyone’s choice of festive television programmes to fit in between their chocolate eggs and countless viewings of Ben Hur (reviewed here). If you’ve never seen any of the original, classic Charlie Brown specials before then, well.... you really should do and this is certainly one of the better shows to start on. A simplistic surface masking an incredibly sophisticated and underrated piece of late 20th Century art, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t let the Easter Beagle pass you by.