Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Manji



Internal Affairs

Manji
Japan 1964
Directed by Yasuzô Masumura
Region 2 DVD


Warning: Spoilers in here.

Manji is not a film I’d heard of but I was drawn to the promise of the cover of the DVD, the most obviously outstanding thing being, asides from the promise of some hot girl on girl action, the extremely cheap £3 asking price... this being a quality that I always find the most attractive point of my movie purchasing escapades.

It turns out this is the first of four movies which were made of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s novel, Quicksand, which I haven’t read myself. This particular version boasts a screenplay by writer and director Kaneto Shindo, who wrote two of my favourite Japanese movies, Kuroneko and Onibaba. This version is also known in some countries as Swastika, in reference to the Buddhist symbol (later appropriated by the Nazi party) as a metaphor for the four lovers in this movie.

The film starts with a rich woman, financially independent, who has helped her husband set up his business through family money. She is telling an author her story with the suggestion that he will do a better job of committing it to paper than she. Although we occasionally come back to this framing device throughout the movie, the majority of the film is seen as a series of flashbacks as she charts the various delights and anxieties of her relationship with another woman and, ultimately, the two men in their lives.

The story starts off when the lady in question, Sonoko (played by Kyôko Kishida) takes some art classes to relieve the boredom of her life. She becomes obsessed with another woman at the school to the point that she puts her face in place of the model's on the painting she is currently doing. The other woman, Mitsuko (played by Ayako Wakao) is delighted and, as we find out later in the film, is possibly already manipulating the situation as she allows herself to slowly be seduced by Sonoko... in a scene which is almost too uncomfortable to watch as Sonoko rips away her clothes on the excuse of doing a more accurate painting. Things go on from here and it’s not long before Mitsiuko’s male lover and, eventually, Sonoko’s husband, get in on the act. Before you know it, we are in a story where all four are somehow involved with at least... at the very least... one of the others.

Sonoko’s story begins to spiral out of control as she is manipulated by both Mitsuko and her male lover and, quite unexpectedly, her husband also ends up sleeping with Mitsuko while Sonoko is recovering from a sleeping potion both she and Mitsuko take to make their respective male lovers think they’ve tried to commit suicide. Pretty soon everybody is sharing their love with everybody and the edges around who is manipulating who get very blurry. There seems to be an over reliance on people making blood pacts with each other and signing contracts... I don’t know if this is a very Japanese way of dealing with issues at the time or not but it seems to be a dominant feature in the lives of the four central protagonists/antagonists so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a cultural marker.

In many ways the film made me think of the fairly recent movie Side Effects (reviewed here) and its legacy such as the big screen adaptations of the two James M. Cain novels of the 1930s, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Everything seems deeply conspiratorial in tone, like it would be in a 1940s Hollywood film noir thriller adapation of those novels and, although this film is quite colourful in its overall visual composition, it certainly felt like I was watching an old film noir, in some ways. I wouldnt be surprised if various modern directors of noirish themed films have looked at this movie for inspiration at some point, as much as they have the chiaroscuro masterpieces of the post-German Expressionist invasion of wartime Hollywood.

Now I have to say that I wasn’t completely taken by the film in this first watch, to be fair. That being said, there was a strong element in this which kept me intrigued and entertained on a visually aesthetic level throughout the length of the piece. There’s some nice stuff here and the director quite often places large, foreground focused faces looking one way while a smaller figure to their right or left will be seen in perspective looking in another direction... conjuring up the cinematic spectre of Ingmar Bergman in my mind as I was watching. The director also likes to leave big patches of texture or colour on the screen and then separate this from a very small part of the screen where the action is taking place. He often does this using vertical splits but also, he does use quite a lot of diagonal splits to separate the different visual areas too. In a shot very early on in the film, for example, as Sonoko and Mitsuko wander off for a stroll through a forest, the establishing shot is just one big diagonal of the texture of the forest floor and roots covering somewhere between 70% - 80% of the frame, while the two ladies are walking and talking in the small triangle left in the top left hand corner of the shot. And it’s amazing, beautifully captured and designed sequences like this which kept me riveted in certain places, it has to be said.

Another thing the director does in one sequence, which is a nice cinematic flourish and which helps establish the visual syntax of the film for later on in similar scenes where contracts are being contemplated and read, is when Sonoko gives the love letters that she and Mitsuko sent to each other to the ‘writer’ she is narrating the story to. The letters are then depicted flat out and overlapping each other in a nice composition as the camera wanders over them and the voices of the two actresses are heard reading certain sections as the camera brings each particular letter into the prominent part of the shot. It’s pretty cool stuff and keeps what, for me, is a fairly slow burn of what might be seen by some as a suicidal thriller, a little fresher than it might have been in the hands of another director.

Ultimately, for me, this is not a classic Japanese movie that I will watch frequently, purely because the subject matter is not 100% to my taste and I always find it hard to believe that people will get themselves into, quite, these intricate messes without solving them in a more logical manner. That being said, if you’re interested in composition and the way various, quite bold shot designs can be used and edited together without disturbing the viewers flow of the material, then Manji is probably one you’re going to want to see at least once in your life. Certainly not the most entertaining for myself but I absolutely don’t regret buying this one and I’m glad I’ve seen it. I suspect if you are into doomed love affairs which go against the suppression of what society suspects of people, then you will probably get a lot more out of this one and, like I said, the visual design of it is fantastic. Maybe give this one a spin while it can still be picked up so cheaply, would be my advice.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Independence Day - Resurgence



Resurge Gainsbourg

Independence Day - Resurgence
2016 USA Directed by Roland Emmerich
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Technically a slight spoiler for
the original movie, if you’ve never seen it.


Hmmm... okay. I guess we all remember the trailer campaign for the original Independence Day in 1996, right? Those of us who are old enough to remember... which it turns out wasn’t the case with the girl selling me my ticket to this screening, when I asked her about how this one was.

It was kind of a ‘wearing you down’ campaign for a hugely budgeted movie about Americans saving the planet from alien invaders by hacking into their alien technology with an Apple computer. This was in the days when Apple were truly great, of course, and not the huge, greedy, corporate money trap they’ve become in just the last few years. We all kinda half trusted Roland Emmerich in those days because he’d caught the current zeitgeist... or more like recreated it... when he brought out a movie before this called Stargate. So when we all sat down to watch the original Independence Day in cinemas, in spite of the gruelling trailer campaign, most of us kinda liked it. Which was okay and lasted about as long as until we got the home video version when, I suspect, a good deal of us realised that we would never want to watch this rubbish ever again.

So here we have a sequel that nobody wanted... or at least I didn’t... taking place 20 years after the original movie in both reality and fictional terms and calling itself Independence Day - Resurgence. I didn’t really want to see this one at all, to be honest, but I’d rather see it on my Cineworld Unlimited card for free (more or less) to find out if it’s any good rather than risk buying a cheap blu ray in a sale at a later point. So I went down to my local on its first Saturday morning and was astonished to find, just like the screening of Gods Of Egypt the week before (reviewed here), that there were only five people, including myself, in the screening for the 3D showing. So, yeah... wondering what that will mean for the box office.

Now, as it turns out, I quite enjoyed this sequel and found it to be a lot more engaging than the first movie. What surprised me, though, is that it felt like a different kind of film. Although the budget for this was somewhere around 165 million dollars... which is just silly... I would be lying if I were to say the money was easy to see on the screen and, despite an abundance of relatively impressive special effects shots, it actually felt more like a small, chamber piece of a sequel, rather than a full blown affair. The original movie back in 1996 maybe suffered from feeling too much like it was trying to be an epic movie. This time around, it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be too splashy and, surprisingly, that really helps it, I think.

Anyone hoping to see Will Smith reprise his character will have to make do with the substitute of that character’s son, played by Jessie T. Usher. He doesn’t get a heck of a lot of screen time to be honest but it’s okay because, like the first film, he’s joined by some great actors, a fair few who were veterans of the first movie. So we have newcomers Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Angelababy and the always watchable William Fichtner, mixing it up with the likes of the charismatic Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, the brilliant Bill Pullman and, playing a slightly less irritating version of the character he played in the first movie... Brent Spiner. And the icing on the cake is the amazingly brilliant actress Charlotte Gainsbourg playing the love interest/female professor element to the film, Catherine Marceaux .

Okay, so a bunch of cool cast members does not a cool movie make but, like I said, we’re in luck because this feels a little different to the kind of movie the first one was. I mentioned above that it’s not just been made twenty years later... it’s set twenty years after the first film too. What that means in terms of the world that survived the alien invasion in that first one is that man has evolved into a species where every nation is at peace and where the technology has advanced to a level far removed by where we are in the real world. This is pure science fiction in that we have a weapons defence system around the Earth, a moonbase and... yeah, it’s definitely a highly futuristic version of 2016 presented here. So it feels less like it’s trying to be a disaster movie and maybe that’s why, in general, this sequel is a lot more pacier and entertaining than the first outing. It doesn’t hurt that it doesn’t have the humongous running time of the first one either. It’s a straight two hours but, this time around, it doesn’t get dull and it flies by real fast, I have to say.

The film is quite clichéd, as you would expect it to be, but that doesn’t rip the teeth out of those old tried and tested movie conventions and helps build drama in a way that you can tell the director is an old hand at manipulating people’s emotion through moving image... which is no bad thing when you are directing a sequel that nobody really wants, I guess. For instance, the writers spend a good deal of time setting up just how powerful the Earth’s defence against any returning invasion forces are and, when they start doing this, you just know they’re setting you up so that they can quickly rip them out from under you and bring you back to the equivalent of bows and arrows against the Gods and... yeah, that pretty much happens and exactly when you’d expect it to, to be honest. But, in a way, you kind of know that has to happen in order to move the story on so it’s not so much of a disappointment and, like I said... it’s an entertaining movie.

The writers also, however, add another factor to this movie which I don’t want to spoil too much but... lets just say, there’s a lot of scope for a future sequel and if that happens, it’s probably not going to be going in a direction that someone who hasn’t seen this particular movie would expect it to go in. I don’t want to spoil the surprises here but, suffice it to say, man shouldn’t always be arrogant enough to think he’s the most important species in the Universe and that’s kinda highlighted here, no doubt about that.

Now, I would have loved it if David Arnold could have returned to score this sequel to one of his big movie hits but, alas, this time the scoring duties go to Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker (the latter being credited as Thomas Wander on this one, for some reason). Now, it’s really not a bad bit of scoring and I am going to see what it plays like on its own (assuming a proper, physical CD gets released) but I did feel it sounded a little inappropriate and over-the-top in its thematic exuberance at certain points. However, this probably just means I’ll enjoy it a hell of a lot more as a stand alone album so... yeah, that’ll happen for me at some point, I think. It mostly seems to work though so... would’ve been nice to reunite Arnold with the franchise but this isn’t too bad either.

And that’s me done for this movie. I kinda liked this one and I really wasn’t expecting to. The script isn’t terrible, the line delivery is good and it doesn’t quite throw the USA patriotic thing down your throat constantly like the original movie seemed to do... which is always a good thing.  If you liked the first Independence Day movie, then you probably won’t have too much of a problem with this one. If you didn’t think the first one was all that great then.. you might be pleasantly surprised because Independence Day: Resurgence is a much smaller affair compared to the large sprawl of the first film. There’s a good chance you won’t be bored here at all, in fact. I was quite glad I gave it a go, even though the trailer looked terrible, so... yeah, maybe give this one a chance.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Star Trek - Insurrection



Insurrection Shuffle

Star Trek - Insurrection
USA 1998 Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Paramount Blu Ray


It’s a shame that this film wasn’t better received when it came out. Frankly, Star Trek - Insurrection seems, to me, to be a much maligned film and, though it’s not up to the calibre of the previous Star Trek movie, also directed by Frakes, it deserves a better reputation than it’s got. It’s actually the second best of the four movies in the series utilising the crew members from the TV show Star Trek - The Next Generation and, to be honest, Star Trek - First Contact (reviewed by me here), was always going to be a hard film to follow.

I think one of the problems is that the emphasis of the film is less on action and more about moral dilemmas, with the film revolving around the Federation, who are traditionally seen as the good guys, taking a morally wrong stance, as they try to covertly relocate the population of a planet, the Ba’ku, to be able to harvest the particles in the planets atmosphere and use them to prolong the life of various people. So, yeah, it the old, ‘fountain of youth’ plot but with the added frustration of the establishment which ‘the good guys’ are supposed to be representing being, in themselves, a part of the problem and not a solution to it.

Now, I’m not going to defend this movie to the hilt here... there are some things wrong with it, to be sure, and I think some of the earlier script and story ideas, such as Picard being courtmartialed for his actions throughout the movie, may have been a lot more satisfying, dramatically, than the final version of the movie we are left with. However, I don’t think it’s fair to compare Insurrection to the dazzling brilliance of First Contact, which admittedly raised everyones expectations for this one, and there are some really nice scenes in here.

One of the things it does really well is play up the romantic aspect of the characters. Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis reprise their on screen roles as Commander Riker and Deanna Troi but, this time, they are allowed to rekindle the long lost romance which was already in their past before the timeline of the first ever episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation. This back story was briefly touched upon in the series but in this movie we see the two characters reunited romantically, and this includes seeing Troi in a bathtub as she shaves off Riker’s beard... making this the first time the character has been beardless since the first season of the show. Frankly, I think there should be more movies where Marina Sirtis is seen in a bathtub but, hey, that’s another story. Both Frakes and Sirtis play the scenes with a certain amount of charm and teasing enthusiasm that really makes their screen time whiz along nicely.

Similarly, Picard also starts up a romance, of sorts, with one of the planet dwellers, Anij, played so wonderfully well by actress Donna Murphy... always a pleasure to watch her on screen. Picard also has some good, comic moments in this and the movie itself starts off very strongly with a rebelling Commander Data taking on all his superiors in the quadrant, in an effort to protect the inhabitants of the planet. The disappointing part of that is the punchline that he has been damaged when shot at and so everything is wiped out in his android brain other than the difference to tell right from wrong. I would have much preferred him to have made this decision to fight the Federation on his own terms but I guess the end result amounts to the same thing... more or less.

This film also sees the restoration, due to the planet’s atmosphere, of Geordi La Forge’s eyesight, without any kind of electronic aid and, as he watches a sunset with his Captain for the first time, it’s another scene in a movie full of such scenes where the emphasis seems to be about how great it would be if everyone just learned to slow down and look at what’s going on around them. Which is great and something I can really get into... although bringing this aspect into the structural make-up of the movie does seem to kill the pacing, somewhat, I would say. But isn’t that kind of the point?

It’s actually quite a nice looking film and that goes for some of the special effects, too. There’s a sequence near the end of the movie where Riker in the Enterprise is playing a deadly game of hide and seek with the new ‘allies’ of the Federation (who want the planet for themselves, for reasons I won’t spoil here), in a sector of space known as ‘the briar patch’. It’s actually an echo of a similar set of scenes, to my mind, between Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here) but these are some of the most beautiful and colourful shots of the Enterprise in this section of the film than any we’ve seen before or since. Some really great stuff.

There’s a downside to this too in that, unlike the original Star Trek series from the 1960s and the subsequent film versions, the Star Trek - The Next Generation episodes were always much more about being ensemble pieces which would explore aspect of all the characters, with everyone getting great chunks of screen time, sometimes a whole episode, to shine and explore their roles. In the movie versions, although the majority of the characters do have some nice scenes, the movies are much more focussed on Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard and Brent Spiner as Data... which is fine and, in some ways, tends to make the movies more focused, but ultimately does mean that everyone else gets considerably less time in the spotlight. Which is a bit of a shame, to be honest.

Once again, Jerry Goldsmith returns to provide another, very beautiful score although, like the movie itself, I think it’s also been underrated, somewhat, by people who listen to such things. After the standard Alexander Courage intro, rather than go into another version of his sweeping main title theme from Star Trek - The Motion Picture (reviewed here), which by this time was completely synonymous with the crew of The Next Generation, he does something completely different but appropriate to the opening title sequence of the peaceful Ba’ku and the observation of their culture. It’s a lovely them which I suspect is overlooked by some fans of Goldsmith’s work because it’s not particularly action oriented. However, there is also some good and very typical Goldsmith action moments during the film and, as a nice crowd pleaser, he also requotes the Klingon theme he used for the first film... and again in Star Trek V - The Final Frontier (reviewed here) and Star Trek - First Contact, this being the second time it’s been used as a heroic theme to underline Worf’s character at a certain moment.

All said and done, however, it’s certainly not among the greatest of the Star Trek movies, to be sure, but equally, it is one of the two greatest Star Trek - The Next Generation movies. I think regular fans of the show may find themselves having a much better time of it with this movie, now that some years have passed, than they did when it was first released into cinemas. Certainly, I suspect, it will be much better remembered than the last of the Next Generation movies, which was soon to follow... but I’ll get around to watching Star Trek - Nemesis sometime soon and hopefully get a little more out of it than the terrible experience I had at the cinema with that one. We shall see.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tigon - Blood On A Budget



The Tigon Empire

Tigon - Blood on a Budget
by John Hamilton Hemlock Books
ISBN: 978-0993054198


John Hamilton’s Tigon - Blood On A  Budget, for Hemlock, is an addition to their library which I personally find fascinating because it tells the story of a studio who I’ve never really taken all that seriously or known much about. Tigon were, of course, the third of the three British studios who were especially known for producing movies in the horror genre, being perhaps the second best competition to the absolute masters in the business of churning out commercially successful product for a longish period of time... the Hammer studios, who became 'Hammer Horror' in a lot of people's minds (and still, to this day, remain so). Of course, Hammer’s main rivals in the terror trade were Amicus studios (you can read my review of the book about their anthology films here) but Tigon also put out some classic rival movies in their time and so, a tome on them was about due, I think.

Now, there’s good and bad with this particular volume and the main problem is the quantity of text. This book is, surprisingly, an extremely thin volume, totalling just 128 pages in length. So, less than the size of certain thick magazines and, while it’s a little oversize in that it takes the form of a square shaped aspect ratio, the design inside the book, which includes a lot of photographs from the various productions, both in full colour and mono, also eats into the amount of room that could have been used for more text. That being said, I suspect the text of this thing was about as much as one could get out of the miniscule amount of information and documentation still left about the studio... so I don’t feel short changed in any way (and especially since it was a birthday present from my cousin). Studios like Hammer and even, to a certain extent, Amicus were probably bound to have more documentation available and so I suspect this isn’t simply a case of not enough time and research being put in.

The writer does a pretty good job on it, in fact... starting with a brief history of the early careers of the people involved in either forming or working with the company and then, once each mini biography is done, moving on to highlight the films they worked on in turn. Of course, as is customary in these kinds of ‘review and making of’ volumes, the writer stops at strategic points to meander a little into the backgrounds of writers, directors, actors and actresses along the way, as and when they come up for the first time in the chronology. Included are some useful snippets of information which I’ve only ever heard made passing reference to in documentaries over the years. For example, the intent and approach of the tragically short-lived director Michael Reeves, whose films I have mostly steered clear of since seeing a version of his much applauded film for Tigon, Witchfinder General.

I have, however, seen one of Reeves other films for Tigon back in my dim and distant past (on late night 1970s BBC television, if memory serves) called The Sorcerers, which starred Boris Karloff and, like Witchfinder General, Ian Ogilvy... who I best remembered as Roger Moore's Simon Templar replacement in the TV show, Return Of The Saint. There are little stories of the ‘behind the scenes’ progress on him and various other directors including a couple of films that I’ve only seen fairly recently from the Tigon catalogue... The Blood On Satans Claw (reviewed by me here) and The Curse Of The Crimson Altar (reviewed by me here). I was very interested to learn some of the things Hamilton has either dug up or confirmed about these and other films such as, in the case of The Blood On Satan’s Claw, the fact that it started off life in script form as an anthology of horror stories and these were later compressed or combined to make up the one tale which we are now familiar with.

The design of the book is quite lively, colourful and more like I would expect a lot of these kinds of books to be presented in the current market place. It’s way more interesting than various others in this niche genre where the designers have maybe gone a little over the top with their aesthetic decisions at the expense of clarity or, as is more often the case, not pushed the boat out enough in terms of making an exciting and attractive package which serves to communicate the content. That being said, there are at least two pages where the designers slip up a little to my mind. One is the standard error of 'first time designers for print' in that the back tone underneath some text has had the usual dot gain on the printing process, whereby the tint used is just a little too strong to be able to easily read the text over it.

The other problem lies on a page where the designer has tried to wrap the text around a complex shape and opted to have the lines split vertically by a cut out object but, rather than running the text down either side in columns, has left the split so the reader has the mighty hard task of reading the text from left to right over the two lines split horizontally, forcing the eye to constantly jump in the middle of each line of type. Sometimes designers forget that their number one job on such projects is to make the communication easier, I think. In these two instances I’ve highlighted above, it makes it a heck of a lot harder to read. However, these two pages are in a minority and, for the most part, it’s a well and excitingly designed book which serves the text very well.

My biggest gripe about the actual content is that there is not really much mention of the scores for these things and their composers. I have the music to The Blood On Satan’s Claw on a CD, for instance, and although it's currently out of print, I understand that it’s a well thought of score. Although that, of all the films covered n this book, does get a mention in the main text, it really is just a passing name check and so some composer-centric observations really wouldn’t have gone amiss in the book as a whole, I think.

Still... assuming you’ve got the inclination to read something about Tigon and the money to justifiably buy such a slim tome, the book won’t let you down if you want a taste of what the only other credible UK rival to Hammer and Amicus was. I would hope that, somewhere down the line, more material will be unearthed and a more encyclopaedic volume can be written about the rise and fall of the Tigon studios. However, until such a time comes, Tigon - Blood On A Budget is certainly the best book of its kind on the subject and I’m pleased I got the chance to read this one. While it didn’t, unlike the Amicus anthology book, furnish me with a list of movies from the studio that I need to add to my 'to watch' list, I think it’s a nicely written and informative book that people who have an interest in horror films will be able to treasure for years to come. So if you find yourself matching that description... miss it at your peril.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Gods Of Egypt



‘Bigs’ by the ‘Bek’

Gods Of Egypt
2016 USA Directed by Alex Proyas
UK cinema release print.


Back in 1973, when I was five years old, my parents took me into London to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, starring John Philip Law, Tom Baker (before he had won his most famous role) and the ‘truly wonderful’ Caroline Munro. It was another in a small but growing list of films, containing magical beasts devised and animated by Ray Harryhausen, that I’d seen so far on television but this was the first time I’d seen one of Harryhausen's works at the cinema. So, in addition to the charms of Caroline Munro (I was even enchanted by her as a five year old), there was an absolutely jaw dropping scene where a large statue of the Goddess Kali came to life and fought Sinbad, swords in all six of her hands. It was absolutely fantastic to this young ‘un watching in wide eyed wonder as hero fought statue to the strains of Miklos Rozsa’s wonderful score. It wasn’t until a couple of decades later that I got to fight that statue myself in my sometimes guise as Lara Croft, when I took the controls of my old Playstation console in a level of one of the Tomb Raider games which was obviously inspired by the 1973 movie. It was still a great look back to that sense of wonder I had as a child.

So I have to ask, 43 years later.. where has all the thirst for magic and wonder gone that people can vastly ignore a movie like Gods Of Egypt in their droves. This movie is filled with exactly the kind of humour, spectacle and sense of fun that all those films that Harryhausen used to crank out would aspire to and, more often than not, succeed in delivering in spades. I must admit the promise of Gerard Butler in another mythical period piece kinda gave me pause for thought... just before the bad reviews, incredibly bad box office and delayed release date in this country (by almost four months) put me off going to see it. That being said, when I finally saw the trailer a few weeks ago, I realised that this film did at least have the potential to be a modern Harryhausen type fantasy and was helmed a director whose films I actually quite like, in the form of Alex Proyas who directed such great movies as Dark City, I Robot and Knowing. And then, of course, the final decider for me was that I heard some of the samples of Marco Beltrami’s score for the movie, which I promptly ordered on CD and, thanks to the old school style delayed release date, was able to listen to before seeing the film in the cinema.

So I went. And all I can say is, this film certainly doesn’t deserve the terrible reputation it seems to have garnered. I went to see this thing on the only IMAX screen in Enfield Town on a Sunday afternoon and, believe it or not, I was one of only five people in the audience. Such a big screening room to find itself unfilled. And a great shame too because, in terms of sheer 1970s style escapism, it’s a great little movie.

The film is filled with a load of actors, most of whom I had seen before but, also, nearly none of whom I could identify by name or in what movie I’d seen them. It starts of with an enthralling depiction of life in Ancient Egypt when the Gods walked the Earth with mortal men (an Earth which is depicted as flat at one point, which was a nice little touch). The Gods take the form of man only they’re much bigger... so if you think of the style of the reduction of the Hobbits in the Lord Of The Rings films, the mortal heroes are all quite little and the God heroes dwarf them in scale, to a certain extent. At will, however, the Gods can transform themselves into big, Egyptian beasts the likes of which you only see on hieroglyphics.

Gerard Butler is the main villain in this one, playing Set, who wrests the future king's crown for himself on the day of Horus’ scheduled coronation, killing his father and taking ownership of Egypt so he can rule with an iron fist. He rips Horus’ all seeing eyes out from him and Horus, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, fleas and hides where he hopes Horus can’t find him. Set takes Horus’ future queen Hathor, played wonderfully intoxicatingly by Elodie Yung, for himself and starts hunting down all the Gods so he can take their individual, speciality God-bits, and turn himself into some kind of super-God.

Yes, it’s all about 'the joy of Set' but, luckily for Horus, there’s a young thief called Bek, played by Brenton Thwaites, who is in love with a girl called Zaya, played by Courtney Eaton, who tells him how to get into Set’s treasury. So he breaks in, all Indiana Jones-like, avoiding various clever traps, and steals back one of Horus’ eyes. Alas, when he is en route with Zara to reunite it with Horus, Zara is killed and, after a fight scene where Bek and the blind Horus are arguing the stakes, Horus delivers her to Anubis who takes her on the first part of the journey to the afterlife. I won’t go into the whole thing here but Horus promises Bek that he can bring her back once he is made King of Egypt. So, reunited with his right eye and looking a lot, for most of the rest of the movie, like he just escaped from New York, Horus forms an unlikely and argumentative alliance with Bek as they go on a quest to meet various deities and arm themselves with the tools and wisdom to defeat Set. It’s a twisty turny road but, even though the plot is simplistic, it’s actually a little more layered than those old Harryhausen movies, giving it a little weight in places where it's not strictly necessary but it certainly doesn’t detract from the sense of fun in the movie... actually giving it the kind of depth modern cinema-goers might feel they need mixed in with their escapism these days.

I’ve always, for some reason, had a passion for Ancient Egyptian iconography. Never really studied their culture much but always loved going to the British Museum and hanging out with the mummies and definitely enjoyed movies or TV shows that plundered this culture for their settings. This film uses it and takes it to levels we’ve not seen before. The Gods themselves, who bleed gold and who, when they change into their big golden CGI counterparts, are a little like watching a Transformers movie, are very impressive and the film is all about the spectacle of these Gods. There are some cool compositions and landscapes to take in and I found myself really enjoying this movie as every new plot twist and beast was revealed throughout the course of the running time.

Some of the editing is interesting too. There’s a particular battle scene where Horus is battling five, um... I guess they’re ‘cow-gods’... where the shots don’t necessarily follow on from each other. Normally I'd find this confusing but in the case of this sequence, it’s like a visual shorthand for only showing the audience the key points of the battle and I was quite impressed by this fight, actually. It’s not exactly the splashiest of the sequences in the movie but the way in which the length and choice of each shot in this minor skirmish was put together to form a credible whole was something I was conscious enough to notice as it was happening... which makes for an interesting viewing experience.

The film is full of great action, impressive set design, wonderful costumes, great actors (who also include Geoffrey Rush as Ra and the new Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, as Thoth, in their number), some interesting but surprisingly rewarding editing choices and a kick-ass score by the aforementioned Marco Beltrami. On the score front I think he maybe could have used a little more of the silver screen’s legacy of the pseudo-Egyptian tint that composers like Dimitri Tiomkin invented for Land Of The Pharaohs but, even so, it’s appropriate support for the picture and great as a stand alone listen too, if you’re of the mind.

My one small criticism of the movie was that I was left a little unimpressed by the visualisation of the personification of the Sphinx here. I think it could have been maybe a little more like the ruins of the one we now know and I do think that was the idea... I just didn't think it worked so well. However, it’s a very minor grumble and he still got a big smile from me when he utters the line “Oh, bother.” at one point.

All in all, this is a great movie for lovers of fantastic cinema. I said it when I first saw the movie The Big Liebowski and I’ll say it again for this movie too... this is exactly the kind of film that cinema was invented to show. Big, larger than life visions made celluloid flesh (alas, now poorer quality digital flesh) and projected onto a big screen. If you loved all those old movies like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Jason And The Argonauts then Gods Of Egypt is the very successful, at least in my book, modernisation of these kinds of things. So don’t miss out just because of bad reviews and poor box office... this is a really great homage to those clashes of titans from yesteryear. So when you see those bad reviews... just tut and come in, anyway.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Conjuring 2



Warren Piece

The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case
2016 USA Directed by James Wan
UK cinema release print.


With special thanks to my good friend Doctor Rob Wilson for providing the exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ pictures while The Conjuring 2 was filming last year, three of which are pictured above.

When I reviewed The Conjuring, also directed by James Wan, a few years ago... I proclaimed that it was essentially one of the all time great, classic horror films (you can read that review here). There was a spin off film about the spooky doll who featured in that film, Annabelle (review here) but this was not exactly the classic that The Conjuring was, to be fair. As far as the original film goes, though, I still believe that it’s going to be even more well thought of in, say, 40 years time, than it is now. Definitely it will be hailed and remembered as one of the all time greats of the genre... I'm pretty sure about that.

Now The Conjuring 2, which has the subtitle The Enfield Case, at least for the British public, is also not quite the classic that the first movie was and, frankly, how could it be? That being said, it certainly doesn’t stop lightening from striking twice in that it’s still a beautifully put together horror movie and it lives up to the high standards of that first outing pretty well. If you go and see this next adventure from the real life files of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s case books, played charmingly again by the wonderful duo of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, it really won’t leave any bitter taste in your mouth and it’s a true, spiritual sequel to that first, opening movie a couple of years ago.

I had an extra reason for wanting to catch this sequel as soon as possible and so I went on the Monday night it opened in my local cinema, which is an unusual day to release a movie on over here in the UK. That reason being that the main narrative of the movie is actually set (and also shot) not very far from where I’ve been living the last 40 years. I moved to the Enfield of the story back in 1976, after surviving a mind bogglingly strange car accident, which I won’t go into here. The stuff which was happening in this film started happening a year later in 1977 and it was a bit of a local myth around town at the time. I personally didn’t hear quite so much about it because I spent two years being home schooled due to the accident I had but it was featured on a lot of TV shows at the time... the late 1970s in Enfield was the zeitgeist of the poltergeist, I guess.

The movie starts off completely differently to how I thought it would... actually picking back up with the Warrens’ not long after we left them in the last movie, when they were going to investigate a certain, extremely famous haunting which was also one of their cases. So things pick up here with a seance style session within that investigation around what many people now know as... The Amityville Horror. In fact, the set designers choose to pick up on the architectural design of the 1970s movie but, instead of seeing those big ‘eye’-conic windows from the outside, we see them from inside the house. This opening sequence which has Lorraine leaving her body and going through some disturbing visions isn’t just to remind us who the characters are, either... but I’m trying to do this without spoilers so I won’t go into too much detail here.

Once again, James Wan and his crew prove themselves to be absolute masters of this kind of genre horror movie, with long lingering shots that dwell at places where you can either see or imagine details which may or may not be important. Everything is timed pretty perfectly, which anyone who has seen some of the horror movies coming out over the last few years knows isn’t a given, and the movement of the camera combined with the slow discovery by the actors or the frantic mad dashes for escape or engagement with various evil forces, does a lot to help the director ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels at some points.

And, of course, one of the best ingredients of the first film is carried over into this one... in that all the human characters are really nice people who you would not wish to see any of this stuff happening to. Farmiga and Wilson excel at playing these two characters and their level of charm is completely off the scale. They portray the couple as so ‘in love’ and that really helps ground the horror film and also, of course, increases the emotional stakes. The scene where Wilson plays the guitar and imitates Elvis is such a great scene which might have slowed down the whole film in the hands of another director and editor... but presented as it is here, it does wonders for the movie. The two leads are coupled with a bunch of actors and actresses who are absolutely faultless, with special shout outs to Madison Wolfe and Frances O’ Connor, as the main troubled daughter and her mother. In fact, the whole cast manage to accurately bring to life the stresses and camaraderie that living in this particular town at this particular time was like and it really rang true for me. I remember people like this from my childhood. They even got Franka Potente in there as a sceptical researcher and it was good seeing her on screen again.

So, of course, you totally fear for them all.

Especially when the writers fling further tension at the audience in an earlyish part of the picture involving Lorraine’s vision of Ed’s death in a specific manner which you are just waiting to half happen all the way through the movie. You know there’s going to be a high stress moment coming at some point in the movie and... well... yeah, the iconography from the vision certainly comes into play at one point in the running time.

There’s one thing which I did find silly in that the girls are reported here as going to Enfield Grammar School, and it seems to have been shot there too. I know because that’s my old school and I recognised quite a lot of it. However, I should probably point out that, in real life, the girls didn’t go there because, well... it was an all boys school. So I did find that kinda curious but I guess it was done to give something with more recognition value for audiences, in terms of the name of the school and reminding the audience where the majority of the movie is set when transitioning between countries at certain points for establishing shots.

However, this is really the only thing I noticed as maybe not ringing true, well, apart from all the ridiculous, over the top stuff which is part and parcel of these kinds of films. And the movie does, of course, benefit from having another of Joseph Bishara’s marvellously effective horror scores. It’s got a slightly different tone from most of his other horror work, as did the score to the previous Conjuring movie he worked on and he really does quality and supportive work in this field. I just wish somebody would give him some other genres to work in so we can hear what else his compositional voice is capable of. Great score though and you can bet I’ll be snagging a CD when that’s released (in fact, it turns out it's only available on a proper physical format from US amazon so... head over to their website if you want a credible version of the music).

And that’s all I’ve got for this one. A generally spooky film which, although not quite as great as the first one in the series, certainly lives up to the former film’s reputation and it deserves the success it’s already garnering at the box office. Hopefully a rich box office will mean we can see Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles as Ed and Lorraine sooner rather than later. It’s like they were born to play these characters and I certainly want to see more of them. If you liked the first movie or even you didn’t see that one, The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case is well worth some of your time if you’re a horror movie afficionado. A masterful approach to the subject material and I hope James Wan also comes back for a third go with these characters.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Topps Star Wars Cards - The Books



Topps N’ Swappers

Star Wars:
The Original Topps Trading Card
Series, Volume One

By Gary Gerani  ISBN: 978-1419711725

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back:
The Original Topps Trading Card
Series, Volume Two

By Gary Gerani ISBN: 978-1419719141

Star Wars Galaxy:
The Original Topps
Trading Card Series.

By Gary Gerani ISBN: 1419719130


“Got. Got. Need. Got. Need. Need. Got. Got.”

This was a familiar kind of dialogue between kids in the playground on our breaks at school in the late 1970s to the early 1980s. By that time, we kids weren’t running around playing ‘tag’ or ‘vigilantes’ anymore. Anyone my age and in an English speaking school is going to know exactly what that opening line is all about. It’s about trading cards or, as they were known back then when the moniker actually made more sense than it would today, bubble gum cards.

For my 1138th blog entry I thought I’d better at least cover something which is associated with Lucasfilm in some way and these last three books released by Topps were an obvious choice. The company started releasing these overviews of some of their old sets of trading cards a few years back and they were an instant hit... at least with me and, I suspect, more than a few people of my generation. The books are not coffee table volumes, more a paperback size, but they are hardbacks and their design is impressive. The book covers sport dust jackets of the packet design for the original cards made out of exactly the same wax paper that those cards came wrapped in, almost guaranteeing an immediate rush of Proustian nostalgia  for anyone of a certain age who handles the books. This emotional connection to an object via touch is not something that the digital world can recreate, I might add... it’s something which can only be found when handling printed material.

When I heard that Topps were similarly covering their early Star Wars cards, I got very emotional about that... and here’s why.

As a kid in the mid-1970s, I’d started buying packets of Topps Bubble Gum cards called Shock Theatre. These cards contained a, 'usually quite inappropriately gory for the target audience', photograph from a Hammer Studios horror movie, supported by a funny caption and, on the back, facts about the scene the photo was taken from, coupled with some truly corny jokes. And, of course, the thin, brittle stick of bubble gum that Topps bundled with all their trading cards, the gum actually being the supporting feature rather than the main event with the freebie that such cards were originally invented to be, for various reasons which I won’t go into here. Alas, I only managed to acquire about half of the run of these cards because it wasn’t long before various kids’ censorious parents (not mine, I’m happy to say) and the schools in the local area pretty much banned us young 'uns from buying them or bringing them to school. I think a quiet word was had with the various newsagents too as they seemed to suddenly disappear from the shelves at the same time.  Not a happy period because... I loved those cards.

However, I’d seen the movie Star Wars pretty much the week it was released over here in the UK, in the very last week of 1977, and in 1978 the Topps Bubble Gum cards were in our country and doing great business with the kids. Star Wars was already a pretty much unstoppable force and the teachers didn’t even try to put a blockade up against these. So it was “Got. Got. Need. Need. Got.” that was the order of the day as kids would arrange their doubles into piles that other kids needed, and then calculate how many cards they could swap and how closer to a full set that would get them (in the case of the kids with the richer parents, some were completing their second or third sets). I’m happy to say I completed my one set and still have them all to this day... the blue borders filled with white stars a typically 1970s design feature of that first run which remains a sight that I’ll always treasure.

As the next few years rolled by I bought and swapped and put together all the card sets that Topps deigned to release in our snoozy little country... the second red border set of Star Wars, the two sets of Superman The Movie cards (white border and red border), the Battlestar Galactica cards (which had a white border and was 132 cards in total, double the size of  the standard 66 card sets we’d had up until then), The Black Hole cards and the Star Trek The Motion Picture cards. After that, Figurini Panini took over the market with their much less well designed stickers and that was pretty much the Topps phenomenon in the UK over for maybe a decade... but I saved all my sets and have kept them to this day.

What we kids over here didn’t know at the time was that we were only getting a fraction of the movie card releases that our American counterparts were getting. What’s more, some of the sets were slightly different. The sticker cards that came as an extra with the original US packets were not included in the UK versions, for example. The Star Wars cards actually went on for five sets in the US... third set with yellow borders, fourth set with green borders and a fifth set with orange borders. What’s more... our UK second set of Star Wars cards, while still containing the same design and photos, had the photos in a completely different order to the US cards and, also, numbered the cards 1A to 66A instead of 67 - 132.

I always wanted these US sets and, who knows, if I manage to keep my day job for a while longer, I might be able to track them down at a price not too expensive at some not too distant point in the future. For now, though, these Topps volumes are an absolute necessity for people like me and I can finally see the content of those other cards and also know some of the thoughts that went into creating them as the book is written by the man who was responsible for picking the photos, overseeing the art studio, captioning the fronts and writing the back copy on those things. Furthermore, it turns out that this same guy, Gary Gerani, is a very accomplished writer in various fields (I think he co-wrote the movie Pumpkinhead, which I’ll now have to try and get hold of at some point) and, more importantly to me and kids growing up in the 1970s everywhere, he wrote an old tome called Fantastic Television.

Now Fantastic Television was an absolute bible for us young ‘uns in the 1970s because books about any sci fi or fantasy TV or movies were very hard to come by and this thing was filled with anecdotes and episode guides (the first time the concept of an episode guide was ever a thing we’d heard of here in the UK) to shows such as Star Trek, Batman, The Adventures of Superman and Lost In Space (among many others). I think I bought mine at an early specialist comic/book shop called Dark They Were And Golden Eyed which is a name people of a certain generation may also remember. So this Gary Gerani guy is a writer who I absolutely trust and, honestly, these Topps books are great.

Mind you... there are some not so great things about these books too but, you know, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The cute thing about these volumes is that, if you peak at the front and back covers underneath the dust jackets, you’ll see a photo cover of an enlarged stick of Topps gum. It’s a shame they couldn’t scent the pages of these with that lovely bubble gum smell too but, either way, the little burst of emotion on finding this is rare... a lot of thought and love has been put in to these books.

The author starts off with an introduction to the card series, how they came about and how he worked with Lucasfilm to choose the images. He also provides little commentaries about a lot of the cards under the reproduction of each picture and the best part is that he’s very truthful about the pitfalls and weaknesses of some of the cards and sets they put out. He also gives it some great context as to how some of them were arranged. Some of that stuff was clearly random in terms of trying to follow the storyline order in some of the sets but, for example, little things like the way the opening sequence of the first set introduced the characters as inspired by the opening credits sequences of those same old theatrical serials like Flash Gordon that influenced George Lucas to make the films in the first place, are really interesting. Definitely buying into the spirit of the movies by a team of people who obviously had as much love and respect for their product as the people who would be buying the cards.

The first and best (for me) volume in the series shows all five sets of the original Star Wars cards, fronts and backs, and one little niggle is that, since the reprints are slightly larger than the original cards, some of the print quality issues of scanning from an image that is already put together from a raster, dots-per-inch screen are shown up fairly badly. But, honestly, this is really only a minor grumble. There are many points of interest the author points out in this thick, little volume, which is attractively designed and has a unique page numbering system where both of each spread’s page numbers are only shown on the left hand page. For example, he proves he really knows his stuff when, on a card depicting the heroes of the first film popping their heads out of the Millennium Falcon cargo bay, he points out the similarities between John Williams’ music in this moment and the three note madness theme composed by Bernard Herrmann and used, possibly inadvertently, a few times in movies such as Psycho and Taxi Driver.

Other fascinating bits of trivia extend to the fact that the majority of stills used were taken by the on-set photographer, and not lifted from the movie itself, which explains the impoverished nature of the special effects moments in the earlier sets and also explains such things as why the day for night sequence of Artoo snatched by Jawas on Tatooine is brightly lit... because the photographer was not using the same filters on the scene that the cameras recording the film were. He also addresses the dynamic green tint to some of the backgrounds on the rebel blockade runner interior shots (I actually always loved those green tints as a kid, truth be told) and how shots from deleted scenes made their way into the card sets too.

On the fourth series he points out that, by that time, the title to the sequel to the first movie had already been announced, moving him to caption one of the Star Wars cards with “The empire strikes back!”... which is a cheeky but seemingly precognitive moment for fans who weren’t, in those days of no internet and less global connection, in the know. He also addresses a fourth series problem which I’d certainly never heard about until now... but obviously a lot of American kids were certainly aware of it. That being the problem of C3PO’s penis on card 207. Apparently the crew had strapped a golden, robotic cock onto Threepio as a prank on set and one of the photos had seemingly made its way into the Lucasfilm archives. Nobody noticed that he was sporting a very prominent erection until many customers... or more likely parents of customers... wrote in and complained. This meant that, in light of this cock up, the set was recalled, the photos reprinted with the most visible parts of the opulent member airbrushed out, and then re-released into shops. However, this was after some time and so, Gerani points out, the airbrushed version of the card is actually the rarer of the two. Both cards are reprinted here side by side, so the differences can be compared and studied for anyone who’s into pondering the reproductive systems of androids in a galaxy far, far away. This prank may also be why Han Solo goes on to refer to Threepio as ‘golden rod’ in one scene of The Empire Strikes Back I suspect but... who knows?

My second grumble about the first book is that the backs of the cards are shown as a running series, rather than with the fronts, leaving you without a clue as to which B Sides and A Sides matched up unless you have the original set lying around. So that’s something I think could maybe had been done better but I suspect I know why this decision was made and, again, it’s only a minor grumble.

The first book finishes with the original run of Star Wars Wonder Bread cards, which were great little designs themselves. We obviously didn’t have those in the UK either but I picked up a set for a very cheap price in the early 1980s at a very occasional event we were calling, in those days, a comic mart. I remember it was in Central Hall Westminster, where many Film Conventions are still held to this day.

The second book (the third published) shows all the sets for The Empire Strikes Back, including the oversize novelty cards that made up the final series. This also reveals how the various companies were duped when handed out scripts of the second film, and how the movie makers managed to keep the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father a secret so that even the people involved in making the various commercial tie-ins for the movie were in the dark about this moment until they actually went to see it for themselves. It also goes a great deal to explain why the cards were captioned less effectively in those scenes as a result but, you know, it’s up to you to decide whether the hold back was worth the trade off, I guess.

Alas, this book also suffers from a kind of reverse problem to the first in the series, in that all of the card reprints are slightly smaller than the original cards, this time around. That being said, the backs and front are shown next to each other for context this time... so that’s good.

The third book, which is not linked to these first two and was released second in order, is a much thinner book devoted to the first three sets of the Star Wars Galaxy series from the 1990s. Now this seemed like a good buy for me, since I only have the first two sets in my personal library. However, as I read on, it was clear to me that there may have been some licensing issues with various artists who worked on these sets of exciting new visions of the Star Wars universe. Only a limited number of the cards from each set are reproduced... possibly only half. There are also no backs. So anyone expecting a complete overview of those three sets should be warned, I think, that not everything is in here. Also... I don’t know why only the first three sets were picked on when, honestly, I think their have been at least seven sets of Star Wars Galaxy since they started. Still, this volume does contain some interesting facts about the artists and the scenes they created for this series so... if you are into reading up on your bubble gum/trading card history... then this book is probably something you should also check out.

These books are a solid recommendation from me for any fans of trading cards and pop culture throughout the years, young or old. And the absolute icing on the cake on these well designed, well written volumes is that each one contains a little, clear envelope containing four, exclusive to these books, Topps trading cards. So they are definitely worth having if you are into card collecting or even, like me, into casual card acquiring.

All in all, an enchanting set of volumes which will delight fans of these miniature slices of a cultural phenomenon in no uncertain terms. A fourth volume, Star Wars - Return Of The Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume Three is due out this August so, if you are a fan of these books, get your pre-orders in now. These are absolute future classics that I think people will speak highly of for years to come. Collect ‘em all!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Tenebre (aka Tenebrae)



Giallo Dolly

Tenebre (aka Tenebrae)
Italy 1982 Directed by Dario Argento
Synapse Dual Blu Ray DVD Zone A/Region 1 Steelbook


1982 was a really great year for movies. We got Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here), John Milius’ original Conan The Barbarian, John Carpenter’s The Thing adaptation and, my personal all-time favourite, Blade Runner (reviewed here). We also got what I think is one of director Dario Argento’s absolutely best movies... Tenebre (aka Tenebrae).

It’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie but it’s one of the two Argento films I saw back to back on TV a couple of decades ago and, notably, Tenebrae was still stupidly censored in our country. I’ll get to the ridiculousness of that particular cut a little later on but what it did, of course, was made me pursue all of Argento’s films on DVD, with the release of various uncut, good quality releases in their correct aspect ratios available in different countries and easily playable once I was armed with a low priced multi-region player from my local Tesco (the fact that you could also buy the original Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials on US DVD at the time was another big incentive to get myself multi-regioned up).

Now, with the appearance of Blu Ray, I can’t really re-buy all the 3000 plus movies I have on DVD again... especially when there are so many other previously unreleased movies still being unearthed around the globe. Argento, however, is one of the directors whose films I would at least be happy to upgrade ten or more of. So I leapt at the chance when I heard of this new US Synapse three disc dual format version of one of my favourites... primarily because the third disc is a remastered edition of Goblin’s classic score for the movie. That being said, they’re not allowed to be credited as Goblin on this film because the line up had slightly changed and there were some legal issues, I believe... so, to this day, the music is still credited to Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli. It’s one of their greatest, however, and if you want to know what a “disco slasher” sounds like... this score is it. I’ll always remember those old vinyl soundtrack adverts on the back of Starlog magazine as a kid in the 1980s, with the lurid Tenebre cover of the girl’s head hanging down and the broken glass panel going through the back of her neck. It pretty much became an iconic image... once seen, never forgotten.

The film starts off with the fictional thriller novel of the title being read from (by Argento himself, if you choose to watch it with the Italian language track on) and the book is then thrown on a fire to be devoured by flames as Goblin’s (sorry... pseudo Goblin’s) score kicks in. We then follow a shoplifter played by Ania Pieroni, who had made an unforgettable appearance in a cameo as the third mother (The Mother Of Tears) in Argento’s previous film, the Suspiria sequel Inferno. Here she is pursued by her killer, represented voyeuristically with a following camera eye which is, possibly, overused as a visual prop in this movie but, frankly, is so stylishly done that I really don’t mind it here. There’s some absolutely beautiful moments in this early sequence with the camera stalking her with Argento’s keen eye watching her from behind a rack of goods in a shop, stopping and starting the movement in time as she is framed perfectly at every stop by a gap in the display shelf packaging. It’s just these kinds of sequences which keep me interested in Argento and the giallo format in general.

After getting herself into various bits of trouble with antagonistic forces of one kind or another, Pieroni is attacked by the black gloved killer, force fed pages of the fictional book Tenebrae (written by the lead character, Peter Neal) and then slashed to death with a straight razor. When we finally meet Peter Neal, played by Anthony Franciosa, who is visiting Italy to do a tour for his book, he is already being included in the investigation of this and other similar murders. Heading up the investigation is Detective Germani, played by the extraordinary Spaghetti Western star Giuliano Gemma and, in typical giallo fashion, he checks back in with the main protagonist, in this case Neal, who starts to get involved with his own investigation. As you would expect from this genre, the bodies start piling up and it’s not long before everyone you expected to be the killer is gradually murdered, leaving us with few people left in the cast who the antagonist could be.

Tenebre is somewhat overshadowed, I think, by the Bava drenched colours of the two Argento films that came before this one (Suspiria and Inferno) but I think it’s a much maligned movie in that respect, in that it’s easily one of the greatest of the gialli ever committed to celluloid. Contrary to the title of the piece, the film is all bright light with shiny, reflective surfaces and architectural details. Although the big city landscapes are quite blatantly modernistic, I think it’s often forgotten, or mostly completely overlooked, that the film was intended to be set in the near future. But whether people take that away from this or not... one thing for sure is that it’s one of the most hyper-real and typically outstanding giallo movies that Argento ever made.

For example, on a visual level, similar to the sequence I described with the tracking camera in the shop, Argento uses a lot of vertical lines to split up and separate different people into specific, multi-layered spaces... challenging or creating perspective as he captures his performers doing their thing. There’s a brilliant shot, for example, towards the end of the movie with Anthony Franciosa and Argento’s early muse Daria Nicolodi (the mother of their daughter, the actress and director Asia Argento) standing back to back, with Nicolodi in the foreground and Franciosa a little further away, where the two planes are artificially split by the vertical of the middle of the frame of a set of windows they are standing in front of. Absolutely incredible stuff.

Another celebrated shot is the one which starts off outside the window of a lady's apartment looking in, travels in close up around the building a bit, enters her lover’s room upstairs through another window, comes back out again and goes “around the houses”, so to speak, before ending up back down in the original woman’s room. This is a prelude to a brilliant double murder, committed against the two lesbian lovers, with some breathtaking shots including a razor blade slicing a big hole in a t-shirt to reveal the face of the girl who is in the process of putting it on... and the celebrated ‘head through the glass panel’ shot I mentioned from the old vinyl album cover earlier on. And there’s an exceptional shot of a straight razor striking the side of a lightbulb to shatter and extinguish it which really does stick in your mind long after the film is over.

There's a truly great visual flourish at the end of the movie which certainly shows Argento's influence on his contemporaries and the rich visual legacy the next generation of film-makers have in their arsenal. A character in the centre of the shot bends down to inspect a possible clue and the killer is revealed behind him taking up the exact same visual space. When the character stands up again, his head replaces the head of the kiler in the shot exactly, once more. I think you'll find that this exact same shot set up is recreated by Brian De Palma in, I think, Raising Cain, if my memory is working properly.  So clearly an influential director... of that there can be no doubt.

In typical genre fashion, any number of characters are built up as possibly being the murderer but, like all good gialli, your suspicions are shifted constantly the more you watch (and, as I said before, the more your suspects end up as just another gory death for the killer’s roving, camera eye). However, Argento also does something quite clever in terms of the final solution of the puzzle of just who the killer is in this one but... I really don’t want to spoil the chance that you might figure it out for yourself, if you’ve never seen this movie before. But, yeah, it’s a typical example of the genre in that Argento manages to subtly, and often not so subtly, set up pretty much almost everyone in the film to possibly be the killer.

It’s also a film where Argento gets to poke fun at his critics too, which is kinda nice. He took a lot of flack in the 70s and 80s for being a misogynistic director but the arguments for that have always seemed quite false to me. For instance, there are almost as many men being killed off in imaginatively gory ways in his films as their are women. Also, giallo movies are abundant with both female killers and strong women who survive to the end of the movie as the ‘final girl’ trope of many horror movies. I don’t think you can call that particularly disempowering or hateful, to be honest.

This also has, as far as I’m concerned, the best script of any of Argento’s movies in terms of credible dialogue and Argento uses it quite well in one particular line, where he argues exactly in opposition to the myth that somebody who makes violent art is a violent person. The line comes from the Peter Neal character in the movie, whose books are being used by the killer as a justification for his own actions... at least in the first half of the film. Frankly, we are all living in a real life world where a notorious serial killer was inspired in his killing by the George Lucas movie Star Wars Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi... so any argument that giallo or horror films are a catalyst due to their content dies with that reality, as far as I’m concerned. The line itself, spoken to the police inspector is “If you find someone killed with a Smith and Wesson revolver, do you go and interview the president of Smith and Wesson?” This is a fair point, I think, and definitely raises the question of whether the manufacturer, or the artist in this analogy, should be held responsible for the way people choose to respond or react to their product or art.

There’s also a particularly comical moment in this one where John Saxon, who has hilariously demonstrated in an earlier scene that his new hat doesn’t fall off, finally gets caught up in a particular incident where his headwear heads to the floor and this involves the death of one of the male characters (I’m being cagey here about the identity of that character because I really don’t want to give anything away to people who haven’t seen this movie yet). But these kinds of little details and clues in the script are what help make Tenebre one of the absolutely greatest and credible of the films made in the giallo genre and for me. It stands the test of time with other classic Argento gialli such as Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, reviewed here), The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies On Grey Velvet.

The film is presented uncut and the UK version is also uncut, nowadays. This main censored scene in previous UK versions featured the actress Veronica Lario, who went on to notoriously marry Silvio Berlusconi at one point in her life. Here, she is waiting with a gun in her hand when an axe comes through the window and severs her arm halfway up, above the wrist. She then gets up and paints the clinically white walls red with the arterial spray of her blood. The comical thing about some of the previous, censored versions, is that the BBFC in our country (for example) decided that the actual axe going down into the arm, which is relatively tame compared to the aftermath, was excised from prints but... the truly ostentatious goriness of the moments following, were always left completely in tact. How insane is that? Just another odd thing to show that censors were really bizarre when it came to doing what they saw as their job.

The disc itself sports a lovely transfer of the film and includes several extras including a feature length documentary on the history of the screen giallo, with maybe just a little over emphasis on Argento’s huge contribution towards popularising the format himself. The documentary includes comments from a number of genre experts (one of whom I wish wasn’t included in this film as an expert of this particular subject, for reasons I won’t go into here) and it’s great to see such brilliant testimony from such cool people as Alan Jones, Maitland McDonagh, Kim Newman and a variety of writers and directors of these kinds of films too. I do wish, though, that people would stop holding up Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up as an example of a giallo film in order to somehow legitimise the genre to people unfamiliar with it, to be honest. I really can’t see how Blow Up, wonderful as it is, could ever be considered a giallo, bearing in mind how many of the genres tropes and intents it fails to demonstrate. Also, the music that plays throughout the majority of the documentary is also from the main feature presented here. Not particularly surprising, given the expense of music rights, but still something which might have been better served with a decent mixture of Morricone and Cipriani mixed in with the Goblin, methinks. But this is a minor criticism of a great little US Blu Ray set of this film.

If you’ve never seen Tenebre and you are a fan of the genre then this is a near perfect giallo and, also, an absolutely brilliant jumping on point if you’ve never seen one of these movies before. An incredibly beautiful film to look at with traditionally clunky but ‘still much more credible dialogue than most gialli and with some just jaw droppingly stunning set pieces in places. Definitely something everyone into Italian film should see at some point. No wonder Dario Argento is still thought, rightly so, as the master of his craft.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Horsehead



I Love Lucid

Horsehead
France 2014 Directed by Romain Basset
Paramount Blu Ray


Well this is certainly an interesting little movie experience. It’s not the most entertaining film I’ve seen this week but it does have moments that hold the interest and visual images which turn the head. That being said, there’s good and bad as far as Horsehead goes and ultimately I feel that, by the journey’s end, the film doesn’t really add up to the sum of its parts.

So, the good hits you right from the start where the snorts of the ‘character’ from which the film takes it’s title, is first glimpsed. A girl who we identify as the films main protagonist, Jessica, played with a certain amount of presence by Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, is unable to move on a bed while the twisted fingers and head of an upright standing horse creature in a suit peaks around the curtains at her before impaling her with metal... we then come to understand that this is a dream that Jessica is having, followed swiftly but the news that her grandmother has passed away and that she is urged by her mother to return home for a while, as a result of this.

We see her take a train and it’s here that I first noticed how well the film was shot. The main protagonist is always dreaming in this movie... quite deliberately... as her experiments in lucid dreaming are something she uses to get her closer to the truth of a situation. Even when the main character is not experiencing a dream state, however, the photography manages to both capture a dream-like quality  to the reality around her while at the same time bringing everything into sharp contrast... on this blu ray I could literally focus on the texture of the knitwear of the top she is wearing in this opening sequence, for instance.

When she gets home she is ambivalently greeted by her mother, played by Catriona MacColl (who some of my regular readers may recognise for her association with some of Lucio Fulci’s better movies) and happily welcomed by her step-dad Murray Head. The same Murray Head who played/sang Judas on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original concept album Jesus Christ Superstar... which was, of course, turned into a stage musical very soon after. In her room next to her dead grandmother, and also when she’s in the bath, she goes through a series of dreams coupled with illness in a film that reminded me, just a little bit, of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in some places. There is a certain sense of surrealism present in the dream scenes and the movie becomes, quite quickly, more and more about the pursuit of these sections as Jessica tries to unravel the mysteries of her family’s past while ascertaining her own place in the chain of events that has guided her to this point.

Unfortunately, there’s bad stuff in this movie too in that things are set up without necessarily giving you any answers or, as in the case of this script in places, clumsily. For instance the writer/director feels the need to point out in the script that the lights in the upstairs “keep going”... so that the main protagonist can carry around a torch while exploring the dark areas conducive to a sense of lurking dread found in cinema such as this. The line when her step father gives her the torch is quite literally “... you’re going to need this... a lot of the light bulbs have gone up there.” Why not just replace them, then? It seems a cliché which was best left unsaid rather tham raising it to a level at which the viewer would be conscious of it, it seems to me.

There is also a bad moment, very soon after this line is uttered, when the torch comes into play and we are unfortunately treated to a bounce back reflection of the light glancing back from the camera lens. However, the clumsy line and the technical error do at least add as a distraction because, immediately following the bounceback, there is a moment where Jessica switches on the light in a room and it fails about half a second later. In that brief burst of light we are able to make out her dead grandmother standing directly behind her. It’s a nice moment but, alas, while the surprise is total because you are still reeling from the technical error, the impact of that moment is perhaps a little diminished. Still... nice try, I think.

The film is beautifully shot and the night time sequences especially, which make up the majority of the movie, are nicely put together in rich reds and warm oranges pitched against the obligatory darkness of each frame. Other visual tropes and clichés of the horror film abound such as ‘the creepy childhood teddy bear’, mini rocking horses and a metronome which Jessica uses as an aid (along with some ether in some scenes) to enter a dream state. Of course, the director also uses this to highlight the difference between dreaming and wakefulness at one point because the way the film is put together, it does get kinda hard to distinguish between the two as the running time drifts on.

The film is ultimately a surreal trip through a dreamland with those sleeping fantasies seeming to have some connection to the main protagonist’s past. However, while strong hints are given as to what might be going on, the film doesn’t resolve that much for the audience and, although it has a brilliant last, haunting shot to leave you with, it really doesn’t give much guidance as to everything that’s been going on. A lot of it is ‘fill in the blanks’ and, although I could do that fairly easily, I suspect that each audience member might walk away with a slightly different interpretation of what those blanks might be.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and it’s the kind of ambiguity I usually like to embrace in movie making but, for all its rich visuals, slick editing, exciting mise en scene and engaging performances, I did find the film just a little dull in places. Also, the insistence and perseverance that the main character has that her dreams can solve the riddle of her birth and the physical and supernaturally tangible manifestation of the things that go bump in her id do kind of set the film up for a bit of a fail at the end of the movie, when the personal quest takes a strange turn, I feel. Ultimately, it’s a nice little film that has some truly gorgeous sequences but, alas, promises more than it delivers, not least of which is the identity or symbolism of the horse headed title character. I got bored during this one, which is kind of rare for me. I would still recommend Horsehead to fellow fans of horror and surrealism because some of the images are quite odd and worthy of a quick look. I probably won’t be rewatching this anytime soon, however.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow



Lurks In The Hearts Of Bronze

Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow
by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
ISBN: 978-1618271983


Warning: Very marginal spoilers here.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? 
The Shadow Knows!

Okay, so I’ve been a big admirer of both the original Doc Savage novels (since I started reading them in 1975, when the movie came out) and also Will Murray’s continuation novels, including his new batch under the collective term “The Wild Adventures Of Doc Savage”. All of the Wild Adventures are being reviewed here in the order of their release and, if you look them up in the Index By Title at the top right of this page (the book section is at the start of the index), you’ll see there are only a few of Murray’s magnificent tomes that I found wanting. Unfortunately, this is one of them but I don’t think that’s necessarily Murray’s fault in this case... it’s more my reaction to the literary style of Maxwell Grant. I’ll explain that a little more in a minute.

The Shadow started life as a radio show character to promote Street And Smith’s pulp magazines in 1930. He became more and more his own thing and it wasn’t long before people were asking the news stand sellers for magazines of pulps specifically based on the character. Eager to feed that market, the publishers commissioned Walter Gibson to start writing his literary adventures in The Shadow magazine and I understand he wrote the bulk of them, under the Street And Smith pen name of Maxwell Grant. Orson Welles played him on the radio, the magazine sales were astonishing and several films and serials, not to mention comics, were sold of the adventures of... The Shadow. In the UK he’s not so well known as a character but in the US he was a really big phenomenon in the 1930s. Characters like Batman may never have been invented if it wasn’t for The Shadow. I have a wonderful Batman comic somewhere from the seventies used as a reintroduction to the character, to usher in DCs revival of The Shadow in his own comic, which pretty much underscores that fact.

While not directly influenced stylistically by The Shadow, when a young Lester Dent was asked by Street And Smith to have a go at writing for the character, it was more as an audition for another character the publishers were thinking of bringing to life and, in terms of the newer character, Dent was given the job... three years after The Shadow had debuted on the radio and about two years after the character’s pulps commenced publication. That character was, of course, Doc Savage and Dent wrote the majority of the Doc Savage novels under the Street And Smith house name of Kenneth Robeson (although I don’t think he wrote any of The Avenger novels also written under that same publisher pen name... I may be wrong). Doc Savage was extremely popular, too, but he was always somewhat eclipsed by the popularity of The Shadow, I feel. There were no serials or even a movie about Doc until 1975 (although writer/director Shane Black is apparently trying hard to get a new version to the screen at some point, it would appear).

This novel is, as far as I know, the first full length novel to ‘team up’ the two characters... although the idea of Doc Savage and The Shadow getting together is not a new thing, of course. Various comic book companies over the years have tried it and... well the results are never that good and I’d have to say the same here, to a certain extent, although Murray certainly does a good job with The Shadow. Which is possibly why I didn’t like this one so much.

One of the major problems with crossing over these two characters is that they are so different in tone. The Shadow is the ‘ninja of noir’, lurking in the shadows, secreting himself and his investigations and ultimately dealing out leaden death to his enemies. Doc Savage on the other hand, while still possessing some hefty secrets, goes about his work openly as a global adventurer and he would never, knowingly, take away anyone’s life. Even the special guns he invented for his five aides are loaded with drums of ‘mercy bullets’, which explode on impact and just knock the person on the receiving end unconscious. So we have a very clear light versus dark tone on any stories that try to match up the heroes and... well that difference rarely comes across without one or the other of the characters being somewhat compromised, it seems to me and, in the case of Doc Savage’s side of the story, that’s exactly what happens in this novel, to some extent.

While I quite like the idea of The Shadow and loved some of his comics, film serials and radio shows, I’ve never really gotten on with his literary incarnation. And that’s not just because I can never pin a handle on who his real alter ego is... such as Kent Allard, Lamont Cranston or possibly, in this one, George Clarendon... in fact I believe the real identity of The Shadow became more obscured and involved over the decades. The real reason I’ve never gotten along with the character in the pulps is because he just seems so much less engaging and because he always seems so less well written than my constant literary companion, Doc Savage. The books just seem a bit ‘deadly dull’ in the way the action is expressed and... well, all I can say about that is that Murray must be doing a fine job here because... he’s really caught that deadly dull style and used it throughout the novel.

The majority of the action in The Sinister Shadow involves both The Shadow and his network of operatives. Doc Savage and co seem to have much less to do in this one and, consequently, the writing style for much of the novel, including many of the scenes involving Doc and his crew, seems to be very much in the style of the fictional Maxwell Grant than of the fictional Kenneth Robeson.

I don’t know enough about The Shadow to be able to really judge just how great a job Murray has done on him here but it did feel like it was very much in keeping with the few volumes I’ve read. There is a certain, overwrought sense of poetry to the prose as the writer finds ways to express The Shadow as he slips from sight and becomes ‘a living shadow’, so to speak. I do, however, think of myself a fair judge of Doc Savage and there are a few things I think were somewhat overlooked in this tome, regarding Doc and his crew, due to the bulk of the story feeling tailored to get as much time spent with The Shadow and his operators as possible.

For instance, early in the book, Doc and Monk accept a ‘lift’ from the police, rather than ride to the scene of the crime in something faster and more independent. I’m sure Doc wouldn’t have taken that offer in a normal situation without a hidden agenda because it leaves him somewhere where he’s possibly going to get involved with trouble, without any means of giving chase. So it seemed somehow wrong.

Secondly, the two heroes penetrate each other’s secrets, to a certain extent. The Shadow learns the location and existence of both the Hidalgo Trading Company vehicle hanger that Doc has set up and, even more damagingly, his Crime College, where he secretly cures criminals of their bad deeds, removes their memories, and teaches them an honest trade. For his part, Doc discovers and invades The Shadow’s Inner Sanctum but, frankly, there’s no way Doc would have let The Shadow escape him or fall into an unlikely alliance with him for the last act of the book. Doc would have never let him go, I’m sure. He would have chased him down to the ends of the earth to rehabilitate him, rather than tolerate a vigilante dealing out death in his city. So none of that really felt ‘true’ to me.

Lastly, Doc’s aide Ham is kidnapped early on in the book (along with Lamont Cranston) and is absent for quite a lot of it. Monk, however, doesn’t seem that unduly upset about this turn of developments through most of the adventure. Which seems kinda odd. The Monk Mayfair I know would have been going frantic throughout the whole of the story, I’m sure. Here it seems like it’s just business as usual for the apish chemist... so, again, it just didn’t ring true to the characters for me.

Other than this, though, the book is entertaining enough and full of action. It just seemed a little less interesting to me. Well done to Murray, though, for finally fooling me for a minute or two when Doc disguises himself as... ahem... a prominent character in the story. I usually spot these things a mile off and this is such an obvious thing to have happen here that I was amazed that I didn’t see that one coming. So that was good although, by the time in the novel this actually happens, I was kinda counting the pages until the end.

All in all, then, a remarkable facsimile in style and content to the original pulps of The Shadow and I think fans of the character will love this one. As a Doc Savage fan, however, I was less enamoured of Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow, than I thought I would be... which is a shame but 'them’s the breaks', I guess. Still... looking forward to the wonderful Will Murray’s next Doc Savage adventure... which I already have sitting in the ‘to read’ pile.