Thursday, 23 May 2019

Frankenstein



Strickfadenmageddon!

Frankenstein
USA 1931 Directed by James Whale
Universal Blu Ray Zone B


Okay so... next up on my Universal Horror rewatch list is James Whale’s Frankenstein, which would eclipse even Tod Browning’s Dracula from the same year and re-enforce the idea that these brand new motion picture spectacles focusing on the, as yet unnamed, genre of ‘horror’ can really bring in a lot of box office take for the studio. So this one was rushed into production with Robert Florey originally scheduled to direct, along with new Dracula star Bela Lugosi as the monster. After some twenty minutes of, sadly lost, test footage of Lugosi in a quite different make up as the monster, the actor turned the job down which, considering what shape the script was in at the time, wasn’t necessarily something you can blame him for but it was certainly a missed opportunity and rocketed Boris Karloff to fame when the final choice of director for the film, James Whale, was brought in and spotted Karloff in the canteen.

After some gruelling evenings of various make up tests with studio monster make up genius Jack Pearce, Karloff was ready. One of Karloff’s contributions to the make-up came by way of a dental bridge in one of his cheeks, which he was able to take out to leave a hollowed out side to his face, something which Pearce accentuated with his brushes. That being said... the haunting make up from this film never looked the same on Karloff in the sequels and one of the contributing factors to that is that, due to his new found fame, popularity and success that this role and others subsequently brought him (in his mid 40s, after already having made over 80 films in Hollywood in minor roles), he was able to afford to get his teeth fixed up properly and so he couldn’t repeat the same trick twice for his subsequent roles as the monster in The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) and Son Of Frankenstein (1939). Indeed, Karloff’s name wasn’t even included in the opening credits of the first movie as he was just left with a question mark where his name should be as “The Monster........?”, just as Elsa Lanchester would have the same treatment in the opening credits of the first sequel. His name was, however, obviously restored for the end credits... ‘a good cast is worth repeating’ as Universal pictures of that period often used to say at the end. Although the typeface they chose for certain words here use these terrible, sideways versions of the letter ‘s’ which I can never get used to.

The film begins with a mirror of something from another film which people haven’t been able to see for about 88 years and which is now deemed lost to time, alas. I’m talking about the lost footage from the 1931 film Dracula (which I reviewed here) in which Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing, came out and gave little monologue to calm the audience down after the picture had finished. It’s a shame that this footage that has never turned up since the first release but Whale, or his studio bosses, chose to open Frankenstein in exactly the same way. This gives it some continuity in terms of Universal trying to create some horror branding in a way... although they possibly didn’t know it yet. So we once more have Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Waldman in this production, come out from behind some curtains and do a little pre-credits speech to warn the ‘feint of heart’ and sensitive souls in the audience of what they are about to see. Of course, by now and after the roaring success of Dracula, this is as much about showmanship as it is about anything else but it’s a nice moment before we go into some opening titles (where Mary Shelley is billed, unbelievably, as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley) and the film starts proper.

The film opens with the end of a funeral with Henry Frankenstein (not Victor as in the original novel) played by Colin Clive and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz played by Dwight Frye, who was so brilliant as Renfield in Dracula, looking on from behind cover and ready to rob the grave in the aftermath for Henry’s experiments. Clive was, in fact, a direct descendent of Clive of India and even acted in a film four years later about his ancestor although, bizarrely, Ronald Coleman actually played the famous Clive. Colin Clive, however, had his own problems and struggled with alcoholism which would lead to complications and help kill him just six years after he filmed Frankenstein (and two years after he reprised his role for the sequel).

Once the mourners are gone we have Frankenstein and Fritz digging up the body and the whole sequence from the funeral to the finish of the scene is a strangely long and protracted affair, taking time to build the atmosphere over many minutes where the later Universal Horrors of the 1940s, which were admittedly more B movies, were as likely to do this kind of set up with visual shorthand. Thanks to film historian Rudy Behlmer on one of the wonderful commentary tracks provided on this latet Blu Ray Legacy Edition (the other is by Sir Christopher Frayling) for pointing out that, with a statue of death present in the background, we have Henry Frankenstein literally shovelling the soil from the grave (amplified with a microphone hidden below) and, literally, throwing dirt in the face of death, via this tombstone statue. It’s a nice comment on Frankenstein’s target of facing down death and bringing life, albeit in monstrous fashion, into the world and, given the placing of the statue and the obvious choice to literally fling the dirt in this particular direction, I think it’s more than likely that Whale or one of the actors probably introduced this concept on the day of shooting and were more than aware of this visual metaphor they were creating.

Following this scene, as Frankenstein and Fritz are wheeling the corpse home, they come across an executed man (or dummy) on a gibbet and Fritz is told to cut him down to add to the good professor’s stock of cadavers and Frye deliberately plays Fritz as nervous and jumpy in the face of all things to do with death... presumably so that in one of the following sequences, when he drops the jar containing the ‘normal brain’, we believe he really is startled and jumping at his own shadow as a bumping sound causes him to lose grip on the jar.

So we come to that scene and here we meet, for the second time, Edward Van Sloan teaching students in his medical college about human biology and specifically about the difference between a ‘normal’ and ‘criminal’ brain and, this is exactly how his jars containing the two brains are, hilariously, labelled up... ‘Normal Brain’ and ‘Criminal Brain’. After the class has finished, Fritz goes down to take the ‘Normal Brain’ but is startled, smashes it and instead absconds with the ‘Criminal Brain’ as a replacement... thus robbing the obvious innocence of the resulting creature and rendering his actions somewhat more fateful in the final analysis. It should perhaps be pointed out that this scene was not in the original novel and neither was Fritz, who was a character invented for some of the many stage versions of the play, one of which this film, like Dracula before it, was based on as opposed to the first version of the source material. That being said, and again thanks to Behlmer for this piece of info, the distinction between the ‘normal’ and ‘criminal’ brain is not made in the stage plays and is therefore a completely new invention for the film. Which is kind of interesting, I think, given its implications.

Okay, so after this we meet Mae Clark as the future Mrs. Frankenstein and her bizarre love triangle person Victor, played by John Boles, a relationship which is almost completely forgotten about for most of the rest of the movie (there’s a reason for this, I suspect and I’ll get back to it later). They decide, along with Frankenstein’s father played by Frederick Kerr and Edward Van Sloan as young Frankenstein’s former teacher, to go out to Henry’s forbidden lab which Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, refers to as being in a windmill. This is kinda interesting because it’s not.. its a big watchtower but it was originally meant to have been a windmill and, when the monster ‘returns home’ with Henry at the end of the movie, it is actually to a windmill. So this was possibly overlooked and left in the script at this point in the filming. It’s also mentioned about Henry Frankenstein’s “insane desire to create life” and it says something, I think, about him and the long line of ‘creation mad’ scientists who came after him because, as I always say, they could have a lot more fun creating life in the old fashioned way.

So the various sets in the watchtower look, to me, like they were recycled from Dracula, including the big staircase that Dracula flung Renfield down at the end and, I think, must have been used and recycled from production to production a lot at Universal. As were the wonderful electric gizmos invented by electrician/hobbyist/tinkerer Kenneth Strickfaden, who would build these things as a hobby and, before he knew it, was doing a lucrative business hiring them out to organisations like Universal for their ‘crazy and sparkly lab equipment’ sets. Certainly they are reused, probably along with half the sets, in the Flash Gordon serials which I so love and cherish. The watchtower interiors also seem to have learned somewhat of a lesson from German Expressionism too, with distorted angles to windows and walls and twisted shadows drawn in with light. It doesn’t get to ‘the full Caligari’ as it were in terms of dominating the screen like it does, quite wonderfully, in Son Of Frankenstein in 1939 but... there’s more than a suggestion of it here and it surely works well to building the almost gothic atmosphere of some of the scenes.

During the creation scene we have lines like “Now I know what it feels like to be God” which were cut in some states and completely removed on later re-releases by the more organised censorship board due to being blasphemous. I'll get onto a consequence of one of the cuts made to this film a little later on.

Karloff’s cadaver, which reanimates at the end of the sequence, has a bandaged up head so the audience are unable to see what the creature looks like yet. When he does enter in another scene shortly after, it’s a really unusual entrance and, though it possibly looks a little clunky by today's standards, it must have been something in terms of an audience in 1931 watching it without having seen much in this newly created genre in the ‘talkies’ before. We hear the sound of Karloff’s footsteps and then cut to a shot of the door frame with Karloff pushing open the door as he walks in backwards. He then slowly turns to camera and we finally get a look at that iconic make-up. Then we have two closer shots of his face cut together in quick succession, getting closer and really putting that visage ‘in the face’ of the audience. And the film is full of interesting staging and editing like this. For example, in an earlier scene where Henry asks his three guests if they really want to go into his laboratory, instead of a long shot of them responding, we get three separate close ups of each one looking to the right of the camera and nodding. A very long and drawn out way of doing things which I don’t think you’d catch being done in the same way nowadays.

Okay so I’m not going through the whole movie blow by blow here and you probably almost certainly know the story but there are some nice shot set ups and ways of doing things like the above dotted throughout the movie. Whale’s fondness for dollying from one room to the next via a cutaway section is in evidence at certain points and there’s a wonderful 'two shot' where Karloff is chasing Frankenstein around the rotating inner mechanism of the windmill and you see both of the actors framed in the little rotating rectangles made by the path of said mechanism, one after the other... almost like the director was trying to remind us of the look of an old Zoetrope.

The chase scenes at the end, around mountains which are definitely shot in an interior set, are both magnificent looking but, alas, also unfortunate in that the cyclorama which depicts the clouds in the sky has a lot of wrinkles on it and these are very noticeable... as if the sky was just wallpaper stuck on and it had dried out and started to peel. Which it kinda was, I guess. Of course, various high definition DVDs and now this Blu Ray have made that more apparent to viewers as the years go on and as our technology gets, in some ways, more refined. Still, if you like the film enough I’m sure you can turn a blind eye to this kind of thing.

What the censors for the subsequent re-release versions a few years later couldn’t turn a blind eye too... in addition to the religious iconigraphy and the blasphemy mentioned earlier, was the shot of Frankenstein’s monster running out of daisies to throw in the lake... so he innocently picks up the young girl he’s playing with and throws her in, accidentally drowning her. And this is a nice thing to show just how stupid censorship is because, sometimes, what you cut out makes things worse. I’ve mentioned this before about when they used to slice out the protracted eye gouging scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (reviewed here) in this country. It’s such a rubbish effect that when you see the splinter of wood slowly poke the eye out, it really doesn’t look real but, when the actual special effect is cut out, what you imagine is much worse than the actual reality. Well the same thing happened with Frankenstein. When the little girl’s demise is cut after the daisy throwing scene and she turns up shown dead later, what the audience imagines could have happened to her is far worse and, of course, is something else which takes away from the childish naivete of the central creature. Did he rape her? Strangle her? What happened? Thankfully we now have a fully restored print of the movie we can enjoy at home.

And that’s about all I have to say about Frankenstein other than, perhaps, two more quick points...

One, that secondary love interest. It’s made even more apparent when Henry leaves his fiance in the ‘care’ of her friend Victor. Frankenstein was meant to die but the studio changed their mind later and an epilogue was shot with a stand in for Colin Clive who is glimpsed in the next room recovering from his wounds. So that’s this additional Victor character done with and he doesn’t turn up, as far as I remember, even once in the sequel.

The other thing I wanted to say was that, when I said Karloff’s make-up was iconic... I meant just that. There were three previous movie productions of the story before this but it’s this one with Karloff in Jack Pearce’s make-up that is the most imitated and best remembered... it’s influence is beyond measure but, think about what the first thing that comes into your head when you hear the name Frankenstein (who was, indeed, named after his creator in the stage version on which this was based). It’s something you don’t forget and also, although the creature was fully articulate in speech in the original novel, it wasn’t until the second movie that the creature got some, basic, speech and intellect shown. Something which was jettisoned again by the time of the next film.

Frankenstein, like the unforgettable monster with its exaggerated walk (half created by built up boots and boards incapacitating joints), is a classic of its kind and if you’ve never seen this movie and some of its sequels then you are missing out. Personally, I think the next two films in the series are even better than this one but it doesn’t diminish the sheer brilliance of this first film and if you’ve not imbibed you should maybe take a look. There’s a reason why we’re all still talking about these classic Universal monsters after all this time.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

High Life



Semen Meringue

High Life
2018 UK/France/Germany/Poland/USA
Directed by Claire Denis
UK cinema release print.


If I’d had seen High Life when I was ten to twelve years old, it would have been an absolutely classic movie to me.

However, I’m not ten and... it’s not.

I’ll explain that comment by the time I get to the end of this little review, I’m sure but, I think in all honesty I’d have to call this as being a fairly interesting failure of a film. I’ve wanted to watch a film directed by Claire Denis for quite some time now and... I just wish it hadn’t been this one.

Certainly part... but only a small part... of the problem, for me, is lead actor Robert Pattinson. I just can’t get the hang of him and while he, kind of, holds his own in this one... it really is centred around his character and, apart from a toddler, it’s only him on his own for the first twenty minutes or so. Then, once he starts flashing backwards (and other ways) to moments in the story, what there is of it, we get to meet some of the other characters. Two of them are played by actresses I really like too... the always brilliant Juliette Binoche and the, relatively, new to the scene but already very interesting actress Mia Goth. However, Pattinson is kinda okay in this but, even with some great co-stars for some of the scenes, the wonderfully sombre and memory driven tone of the movie is kinda wrecked by a lack of follow through on the part of the story, I felt.

Also, it does feel like a bizarrely, over eclectic, post modern pop video in terms of it seeming like an empty knock off of other great films which the director maybe admired along the way.

Okay, so the story set up is quite good. Death row convicts are given the opportunity to instead go into space to try and create life in the wombs of the females and get that life to survive... via sperm donations from the male crew. Bearing in mind the preciousness of their fluid since the ship’s doctor, played by Binoche, is not having very good results at keeping the fetuses and sometimes their mothers alive, one wonders why the crew also have a recreational “fuck box” which is, pretty much, this film’s version of the ‘orgasmatron’ in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Or maybe it was just another way of harvesting fluid... I’m not sure. And, of course, it’s a ship full of convicts... including the authority figure played by Binoche... so what could possibly go wrong then?

The film is slowly paced, which is fine... I prefer that to the fast paced, cause and effect headlong rush of a lot of American movies but... I dunno, it feels like there’s a lot of work going on for so little reward. There’s a nice point, to be fair, where the identity of one of the characters is revealed and you realise the structure of the film was a little more convoluted than perhaps one first realised. There’s also an extraordinarily nice visual moment, also included in the trailer and as the title card goes up, of corpses floating in space but perhaps this sequence and the general structure of the film is one of the reasons I was less engaged than I should be with the movie. Since you already know the majority of the crew die, seeing their back story, including Mia Goth’s bizarrely crazy character, didn’t let me invest any time or let me empathise with the cast. Not that I was going to root for a bunch of characters who are at the extreme criminal end of the spectrum anyway. So maybe that’s why I just wasn’t that into it.

Also, this is a film that really wears its influences on its sleeve and becomes almost like a humourless echo of Carpenter’s Dark Star mixed with Silent Running and re-filtered through Tarkovsky’s humbling adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. It seems obvious that the creative team here are more than just a little fond of these movies and, certainly, the way Pattinson keeps remembering flashes of his childhood as his crimes become revealed seem like they were lifted straight from the cinema of Tarkovsky. Alas, it also feels like a cheap facsimile and even the corridor sets seem a bit more do-it-yourself and less ‘space worthy’ than you might want. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. And this is why I suspect very young audiences will respond to this film a lot more enthusiastically than people out of their early teens... because they probably haven’t got around to watching the key inspirational source movies to know that this is almost a second hand experience as portrayed in this film.

The one saving grace is maybe the music, which I really liked and which is, thankfully, available from Milan as a CD. Although, to be honest, I really didn’t need to hear Pattinson singing on the end credits song. The score seems pretty good and appropriate to the pacing of the film though and I will definitely be picking this one up at some point.

Other than that, though... not really impressed with High Life, to be honest, although, as I said, I reckon the kids will love it. Worth going for the music and some of the key performances but not something I could get attached to at either an emotional or technical level, it has to be said. What is on the screen is good and, mostly, competently executed but... it feels less rewarding than the films it seems artistically descended from. I still want to see some of this director’s other work though which, judging from the word of mouth on this one, are possibly more original than High Life.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum



John Voyage

John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum
2019 USA Directed by Chad Stahelski
UK cinema release print.


I have to say up front that I really like the John Wick movies, the previous two installments of which I reviewed here and here. Stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski brings a certain flair to these films which contain large, balletic flights of violent carnage as lead actor Keanu Reeves uses bullets, knives and his fists to defend himself from a number of opponents over the course of the running time. After an astonishing second installment which kind of left things on a very worrying cliff hanger for the lead character, I would have to say I was pretty much desperate to see how things would be progressed in the next movie and I have to say that, while I was a tad disappointed with this new film, John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum, it certainly lived up to its predecessors and didn’t drop those all important story beats which are, in the first two movies at least, used as punctuation between violent set pieces as opposed to the other way around.

This third movie kind of does the opposite of that and though there are the usual swathes of extended bloodshed, I got the feeling it was there in service of a film more interested in both story and character development this time, which is perhaps jettisoning a little of what made those first two films a little different from most of the other movies that are similar in style. That being said, this is very much a worthy sequel and I did enjoy it a lot.

The film continues within 20 mins or so of the last installment, with John having been driven to committing one of the greatest sins in the almost surreal ‘international assassin’ world in which he operates... spilling blood on the grounds of his local branch of The Continental, the hotel way stations which are a temporary home for assassins about their business. At the end of John Wick 2, Winston - the manager of this particular branch of The Continental, played by Ian McShane - had been forced to declare John Wick ‘ex communicado’ but generously gave him an hour long head start as this means that every assassin in the world will be after him. This film explores how John Wick gets himself out and, of course, back into danger as he and his loyal dog try to survive this latest blow but, also, shows the consequences of the actions of those who have helped him when an ‘Adjudicator’ sent from The High Table (who run this ridiculous underworld), played by Asia Kate Dillon, is sent to various people to ‘adjudicate’... including both Winston and the Bowery King, played once again by Laurence Fishburne. This sets in motion events that will change this corner of the assassin’s world considerably. A chain reaction of Russian Dolls which keep being opened and layered on since John Wick’s puppy was killed in the first movie.

Helping her to... ‘adjudicate’ is Zero, an assassin with considerable, deadly skill played here by Mark Dacascos, who I loved in a truly great and unusual movie from years ago called Brotherhood Of The Wolf. Here he also plays a fan of the title character but, along with his ‘students’, is not going to shirk his duty to help the adjudicator conduct her business... as various characters in the movie find out to their cost. Actually, since there are so many deaths in public places happening with alarming frequency here... I was wondering why the police never seem to show up at any time in these films.

Meanwhile, John Wick is calling in a lot of old markers and goes to get the help of an assassin he once helped called Sofia, played really well here by Halle Berry, of all people... perhaps finally fulfilling the idea that she could be an action hero after her turn as the wonderful character Jingo Jinx in the otherwise truly terrible Bond movie Die Another Day, when she didn’t get the spin-off movies that this character was earmarked for originally.

So, yes, we have a slightly more convoluted story in this one and you even find out a little more about John Wick’s past... and real name... as the film progresses. And yes, there is a fair amount of action but not, as far as I can recall, as much as the previous movies and although one relatively early fight scene in it is even more graphic than what we’ve seen in past installments, I felt that it never really matched up to the previous film’s set pieces. Although, I have to say, one of the ways John Wick uses a horse in this film... and I’m not talking about when he rides one... was a fresh twist I didn’t see coming. In fact, the films creators seemed as impressed with their ‘action horse’ cleverness here that they did the same stunt twice in quick succession... which was fine by me.

In terms of that action, the director’s ‘Wickian’ trademark fingerprints are all over this movie... the style of fighting, bashing knives and swords repeatedly into bodies, up close head shots to punctuate the hand to hand combat and a sequence which, in many ways, resembled the art installation mirror room from the last episode, are all present and correct. I also like the way Wick’s lines are kept to a minimum again and this allows Keanu Reeves, who is really a great actor and a much loved (deservedly so) personality, to be able to play with these and time them for maximum comic effect in some places. I won’t be spoiling it here because it’s out of context but really simple lines like... “I get it” got a big laugh from the audience I saw it with but you need to go and see the movie to find out why that line is funny (and also a big shout out to the short history of the franchise). Like Arnold Schwarzenneger, Reeves proves himself really remarkable with minimal dialogue and shows, once again, that he can be as much of a visual performer as anything else. A true, all rounder cinematic artist, for my money.

My biggest disappointment with this movie, though, was the cinematography. I loved what Dan Laustsen did with the second film and the way he pitched primary colours against each other on the screen in a truly Bavaesque fashion. Astonishingly, it’s the same cinematographer here and yes, especially in the final fight of the film in ‘deconsecrated ground’ (no, I’m not going to explain that reference, go see the movie), you can see he is going for the same kind of lighting style but, it has to be said, I found the greens, reds and purples to all be looking a bit wishy washy in this one... whereas before they had been rich and violent gialloesque hues befitting the kind of kinetic bullet ballet that these films do so well.

That being said, John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum is still a joy to watch and with wonderful little cameo characters played by the likes of Anjelica Huston and Saïd Taghmaoui (who was so good in Wonder Woman, reviewed by me here), the audience is surely never likely to get bored in this one. I’d certainly recommend this to any fan of the franchise, with the caveat that it’s not a jumping on point by any means. I’m hoping a fourth installment will be forthcoming too because... well, you’ll see why if you see this movie. Keeping my fingers crossed that certain actors and actresses can be persuaded to come back for another chapter at some point soon. I didn’t think the ending of this one was all that satisfactory in terms of finishing off the story arc, to be honest.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Prince Valiant



Val Toupee

Prince Valiant
USA 1954 Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox/Eureka Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Spoilers here regarding the secret identity of one of the characters... although, frankly, it really isn’t hard to figure out.

Back in 1999, I purchased a copy of the newly released FSM (Film Score Monthly) restoration CD score of Prince Valiant and it turned out to be one of my wiser decisions as far as blind buys go. It’s a gorgeous score and I’ll get back to it soon but the point is, it made me want to watch the film at some point to see how the music matched up in context. A number of years ago, the Eureka label in the UK released a new Blu Ray transfer of the movie and, of course, I snapped one up. It’s been languishing in my ‘to watch’ pile throughout the years and months but it finally floated to somewhere near the surface so... at last, I have now watched this thing.

Now Prince Valiant is based on the long running King Features syndicated newspaper strip Prince Valiant In The Days Of King Arthur (more commonly known as simply Prince Valiant), created by Hal Foster in 1937. And when I say long running I mean just that... it’s still running in newspapers in the US to this day (although obviously no longer written by its original creator, who died in 1982). My understanding is the film has taken a fair few liberties with the original material because, from what I read, when Foster returned a severely ‘red penned’ version of the script back to Fox, the studio responded in the same manner in which a lot of Hollywoodland studios have done over the years... they ignored the ‘corrections’ and just continued to do their own thing. To be fair, it had run out of its lease from another studio who had been unable to crack the script due to the severely long and unmanageable (in a pocket sized movie version) story arc and so I expect the studio was not that willing to start playing around too much once they had a halfway decent script down on the page.

And it’s kind of a fun movie, actually. It’s a bit slow moving, perhaps, for modern teenage audiences but the splendour of what was a ‘Cinemascope’ picture is all present. Actually, since composer Alfred Newman’s Cinemascope extension to the 20th Century Fox fanfare also dates to around a year of this time, I suppose this makes it one of the first pictures to benefit from the added bars.

Now, don’t get me wrong... for a swashbuckler this isn’t half the picture that, say, The Adventures Of Robin Hood was but that’s almost like comparing apples to oranges and Prince Valiant has a lot going for it. It also has a lot of silly stuff too, which I’ll get to fairly soon.

Okay, so we have both Janet Leigh and Debra Paget playing the love interest of various characters in this movie. The costumes are lovely and, it has to be said, that while Leigh’s performance is pretty good, her bosoms do threaten to steal the scenes from various actors and actresses throughout the course of the movie. But not as much as the hair piece sported by the leading actor, Robert Wagner, who plays Valiant, the viking prince trying to be accepted into the Knight’s Of The Round Table so he can lead his exiled father back to his own country to regain his rightful throne. Okay, the story just about makes sense and maybe you have to ‘be there’ watching the film to be fully appreciative of it.

After a run in with The Black Knight, where Valiant barely escapes with his life, he gets taken under the wing by Sir Gawain, played by a young but gruff Sterling Hayden and tries to help find The Black Knight who is terrorising half of King Arthur’s kingdom. Much to the dismay of Sir Brack, played here by James Mason who, as soon as he opened his mouth and started to speak, tipped me off that he was almost certainly The Black Knight that everyone was looking for. After various misunderstandings and trials, Valiant helps free his father, mother and the fair Princess Aleta (played by Leigh) from the clutches of the usurper who has taken the throne of his father’s kingdom in Scandinavia. He also has that great character actor Victor McLaglen to help him. Then, after this we get what amounts to, after all these story beats... a second, lesser climax where Valiant has to battle Brack in Camelot to prove the veracity of his own accusations against the dark knight (and luckily run him through with his broadsword so the guy can’t make a decent defence anyway, it should be noted).

And it’s a nicely done romp with some lovely location photography of England (I’ll get back to that in just a sec) and some beautifully designed shot set ups. One interior scene, for instance, has a series of wall textures and depths running across the full cinemascope screen, splitting it into three vertical sections and housing two of the characters who are facing each other in conversation, Janet Leigh and Debra Paget, in the left and middle segments. There’s nothing jarring about any of the transitions in this one either and you can tell the director and cinematographer knew just what they were doing to design the look of the various shots and their flow into the next one in such a competent and creative manner.

That being said the film is also quite camp and ridiculous a lot of the time.

Robert Wagner has said himself that he was miscast but the look of the character in the comic has a very specific hairstyle and, it has to be said, Wagner’s huge and hilarious wig is a scene stealer in its own right, even distracting from Janet Leigh’s bounteous bosoms on occasion. Apparently, he was mistaken for Jane Wyman by a visiting actor to the set one day in this wig but, to me, it’s like you’re watching a movie where the star of the show is a masculine version of Louise Brooks. This is definitely a Lulu bob Wagner is sporting and... yeah... it does take some getting used to. I guess in terms of the make up and costume tests it was a question of “toupee or not toupee?” and I guess the wig won out. That being said, it’s not the most ridiculous hairpiece in this movie, believe it or not. The ‘other’ Prince Valiant in the film has an even more enormous looking and unwieldy wig. And when I say ‘the other’ I mean... whoever the guy was who was doing the long shots of the characters when they were running around the English landscape with their backs to the camera. I figured they were using badly disguised doubles and the IMDB confirmed my suspicions that all the long shots, involving actual locations, were shot in England while the close ups and mid shots were of the main cast in the US, presumably using some dodgy back projection which I think I spotted in a few sequences. Apparently Janet Leigh’s double for these location shots was Shirley Eaton, who would go on to claim her 15 minutes of fame ten years later in the James Bond film Goldfinger (reviewed by me here).

Other things which amused me greatly is the fact that Valiant rarely walks or runs to his destination when a series of more acrobatic but less accessible routes are somehow available. Why run up a perfectly good set of steps and along a corridor, for example, when you can just jump over there, jump up there, grab a flag, swing over there and get to where you were going a few more seconds earlier but, presumably, with a lot less breath still left in your lungs. Honestly, it’s like Robert Wagner invented the sport of ‘free running’ way ahead of his time just for this movie. I can just imagine the director yelling... “Okay, Wagner, now run over there but try and find the least obvious route to arrive at your destination.” It’s like Prince Valiant’s brain is the ultimate Sat Nav, taking you miles out of you way just to travel a few seconds across to the other side of the set. Entertaining though, to be sure.

And another thing... he’s really bad in a fight. Asides from escaping, by fluke, from The Black Night and his men near the start of the picture, he rarely ever wins a fight. Every time he tries to fight someone he gets knocked unconscious. The same thing when he offers a challenge in a jousting competition. Heck, he can’t even escape more rogues in the forest without getting an arrow in his back and having to be rescued and stop off for a long recovery period in a nearby castle... it’s embarrassing. How he manages to lose any battles at all when he has such a magnificently distracting hair piece on his noggin is beyond me. If I was an opponent of his I’d be well put off from my sword skills with this big mass of hair in front of my face. Actually, now I think of it, maybe that’s why he’s so bad in a fight... because his hair keeps getting in the way of his vision. How he wins the final duel against James Mason’s Sir Brack is not something I can figure out. There must be hell toupee if he’s put off his sword stroke I guess. it’s ridiculous.

I’ll tell you what isn’t ridiculous though... Franz Waxman’s truly gorgeous, playfully Korngoldian score. There is a lot of nice stuff in this although, I have to say, I did notice it was definitely overcompensating for some pretty boring shot sequences in some places... trying to increase the speed at which they are perceived in exactly the same way that Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven lifts the tempo of that film. There are loads of wonderful leitmotif melodies and there’s even something special that Waxman pulls out at the last minute for when Prince Valiant is finally united with his father’s legendary sword...

A sword that’s been talked up big throughout the movie, as it happens, which is only reserved for those worthy enough to wield it... a bit like Thor’s hammer, I guess. Except, when it’s finally brought into action at the end its... well, it’s pretty much just a sword, to be honest. Although... wait... even though it does nothing except split wood and counter Sir Brack’s blows, Waxman adds, possibly for the first time in cinema (?), an electric violin into the mix on a slow variant of Prince Valiant’s main theme to show just how special his sword is. And it’s pretty cool and sounds just a little like it should be used in a Universal monster movie rather than here but it sure is a nice touch. It’s a shame, then, that for the FSM restoration of the score, the violin layer to the music could not be located, so we are left without a stand alone version of this magical moment in the film. Still, great score from Waxman and it works really well away from the movie too.

And that’s me about done with Prince Valiant. Anyone who loves an enjoyable period swashbuckler with some robust scripting and a groovy score... not to mention an abundance of bosoms and wigs... should get a rush out of this movie. Definitely recommended for die hard and casual cinephiles alike. Although I did find it curious that Merlin didn’t show up as a character in the film but, then again, Valiant’s strong pursuit of an over zealous Christianity might have possibly clashed with the dark arts of a magician added into the mix, perhaps.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Wild Cards - Low Chicago



Temporal Temptations

Wild Cards - Low Chicago
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765390561


Warning: Slight spoilers on character appearances in this one if you’re a regular Wild Cards reader.

Low Chicago is the 25th of the long running Wild Cards mosaic novels which have been going, on and off, since the 1980s. If you’ve not read these before they map out a complete alternate history of the world since the Wild Card Virus was released in the Earths atmosphere in the 1940s, dividing the survivors into either Aces (with different superpowers), Jokers (deformed creatures, some of whom can still access superpowers) and the Nats (those somehow unaffected). The virus is passed down from generation to generation throughout history and these novels are seen through the eyes of multiple characters by multiple writers, often given a section of a novel each involving their character with one writer weaving all the bits together to make a coherent whole. George R. R. Martin used to be one of the many contributing writers (and it was his project from day one in the 1980s, from what I remember) but these days he’s usually just listed as editor (not that this isn’t a significant job).

The last decade or so has seen the series divided up and reclassified into trilogies and other sized sections which kinda makes sense when you look back on things. This book is apparently the middle section of one such trilogy, following on directly from the last novel Mississipi Roll (which I reviewed here) but, honestly, I can’t work out what that last one has to do with this one. That being said, the previous 'trilogy' did exactly the same thing to me until I realised how everything was tying together in the third part so... I’m keeping an open mind until I can see how they are going to link this in down the line in the near future. If it hadn’t been for that I would have said that this is a good jumping on point for people who haven't read one of these before but... yeah... I have no idea how this is going to link in later.

The book itself is the usual blend of well written, attention grabbing short stories held together by an overall arc. That arc being a high stakes card game in Chicago played out by rich people with a number of Ace bodyguards in tow. Fans who have been with the series since it’s inception will possibly be interested to know that Jack Braun, aka Golden Boy, is one of those players. I’d never thought about it before but I guess he doesn’t age so much and still looks pretty much the same since we first met him in the 1940/50s. That being said, a few old faces return in this volume because, for the first time that I can remember in Wild Cards history, this book is all about time travel. One of the players, or bodyguards actually, is fan favourite Croyd, who was originally created by the late, great Roger Zelazny from what I can remember but the character has been turning up, off and on, since the first volume. Like certain other characters, he doesn’t get old and die, due to the nature of his ace. Croyd Crenson is also known in the novels as The Sleeper and that’s because he tries to keep himself awake for as many weeks/months possible (getting more and more paranoid the longer he is awake due to the large quantities of pills he pops to keep him alert) before crashing out big time and sleeping for months at a time. The reason he does this is... well... because he never knows who he’s going to wake up as next. His ace is that he draws a new Wild Card every time he goes to sleep... so he knows he’ll either be an ace or a joker (or a combination of both) and he always dreads waking as a joker (at which point he just sleeps it off as quickly as he can).

Anyway, Croyd is at the table, along with many others including another long lived Ace born before the Wild Card extended his life, Nighthawk. And the linking story which pulls all the shorts here together is of Croyd and Nighthawk working together to rescue various people in the room since tragedy struck. A kerfuffle in the room in a hotel meant that Croyd accidentally, by reflex, defended himself with his new powers which he’s still trying to get to grips with... the power to travel in time. He accidentally transports a large number of people and they are all thrown into separate parts of history before the card game... some even before the Wild Card virus infected the Earth in the first place (and some of those by several million years). It’s up to Croyd and Nighthawk to keep dipping back to other times to re-teleport each one out of there before they change history which, given the time storm that starts to occur outside the hotel in the present, may well be a huge problem. And although this sounds like a good starting point to revisit some of the long dead characters from Wild Cards history... the book doesn’t do this as a main agenda and a surprising amount of the stories are, in fact, free of old characters at all. Although, the sequence where Croyd and Nighthawk meet the P. G. Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster seems a bit odd as one would assume they are also fictional characters in the Wild Cards universe?

Anyway, the book uses the various characters stranded for weeks, months or years in another time before Croyd can find them to explore their personal histories in detail and also to craft some entertaining stories where the main character of each story can at least, if they know their history, predict certain events before they happen. Some of the writers also, quite cleverly, do leave history changed at the end of their stories, only to have Croyd and Nighthawk arrive in the next chapter of the linking story and go back to before that character had changed history too. And sometimes not. There’s a wonderful argument in the book about who wrote the famous science fiction story where treading on a butterfly in the past changed all of future history and this gives the novel its basis in terms of where everything is going... not to mention a nice punchline to the perpetual argument in the closing sentence of the novel.

That being said, there is also a lot for long term fans of the series regarding appearances and interaction. For instance, we are reminded that in the Wild Cards universe, Kennedy was still assassinated but Marilyn Monroe went on to live a full and healthy life. That being said, there’s a wonderful set up in this book, in a story which takes place in the Playboy Mansion over the week the magazine was officially launched, that gives us a perfect ‘future character’ if these novels are still being written in 20 or so years time. Asides from this return to the plot threads of an old storyline, we have appearances by fan pleasing characters like The Great And Powerful Turtle, Fortunato and there’s even an appearance by the Joker Brigade Army Sergeant who went on to become the Jokertown priest Father Squid in later years (a character who, when we last left him, was seemingly killed by being turned into a pew by Baba Yaga a couple of novels ago). There’s also a brilliant story set at the dawn of time where one of the characters bumps into an alien who she thinks is Jube, the news vendor in her street. Jube is a walrus looking character disguised as a Joker who is really an alien from the same species as this new character and who has been on Earth a long time (and is presumably named after The Beatles song I Am The Walrus... you know, "goo goo ga joob"). New possibilities for a future story arc are presented when this alien is also teleported back to the present day by accident so... I’m sure one of the writers will start to pull on some alien invasion threads in a few year’s time (it wouldn’t be the first time in Wild Cards history).

Low Chicago is yet another great set of Wild Cards stories and fans of the series should eat this one up. I’m quite looking forward to reading the next installment which was published in the US in October but, before then, there is already another trilogy started in the form of a British series of Wild Cards books involving British characters... so I’m really not sure of which one to read first, to be honest.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Piercing



Giallo Jukebox

Piercing
USA 2018 Directed by  Nicolas Pesce
Vertigo DVD Region 2


Okay, so let me start off by saying that, despite the title of this review, Piercing is not in any way, shape or form, a giallo. However, what it does do, like a fair few modern movies just lately since the resurgence of the giallo movie as a popular genre of home entertainment, is take certain aspects of the cinematic language of the genre to use on a film which, in this case, certainly isn’t an example of that particular form. This is often a successful choice with movies like Amer (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here) successfully mining certain aspects of this cinematic legacy to enrich the experience.

Now I didn’t realise that Piercing would be going down this route when I bought it. I was basically laying to rest a ghost because it clashed with something else I wanted to see at last year’s FrightFest and I was awaiting a local cinema release only to find it didn’t get any kind of general theatrical release over here at all... which is a shame because at least then I would have known not to bother with this DVD release (oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here, aren’t I?).

The other reason I wanted to see this is because it’s based on a novel by Ryû Murakami (no relation, as far as I can tell, to the other famous, literary Murakami) and I was curious because I’d read his book In The Miso Soup and also I kinda found interesting (though ultimately not great) another film I’d seen based on one of his books, Tokyo Decadence (reviewed by me here). So, yeah, this plus the promise of sexualised BDSM play invoked by the title and the film’s limited marketing combined with one of the lead protagonist’s/antagonist’s being played by Mia Wasikowska, who seems intent on picking very interesting roles and bringing something unusual to them, had me wanting to see this one.

So I popped this into the smart drive hooked up to my Mac (the one advantage of not being able to get an easily accessible Blu Ray release in the UK of this film) and the first thing that surprised me was the menu of this bare bones release. The main theme of one of my favourite Bruno Nicolai giallo scores, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, is used for both the menu and, bizarrely, various cues from this and other gialli and exploitation films are also used liberally throughout. So that’s one of the two main gialloistic elements used in this movie and I’ll get right back to the music shortly.

Preceding the opening logos we have one of those old style, distressed film stock “Feature Presentation” graphics to announce the film. This seems to have caught on with a few film-makers since Quentin Tarantino did something similar on Kill Bill. This is followed by all the company logos being on a distressed film stock and... it’s a pretty mixed message to be honest because as soon as the actual film starts, we are into pin sharp, high definition images in direct contrast to the style of those opening graphics. So I don’t know what’s going on there because the film is definitely not the kind of grindhouse experience you would expect from something introduced like that.

Now, I’m pretty sure the opening titles are a beautiful pan over what I suspect is a model of a big city skyline, with various scenes showing through the windows. And this is scored by what I believe to be Stelvio Cipriani’s score for What Have They Done To Your Daughters? Which got a big shout out on the soundtrack to the aforementioned Amer, too. That being said, although there is a long list of music credits at the rear end of the movie, I didn’t catch this one listed so... maybe I’m confused. Can anyone else confirm that this is definitely this soundtrack used in this and one other sequence on the movie... it definitely sounds like it to me. Back to the music again soon.

The film starts with Christopher Abbott as Reed, who is clearly a little psychotic as he obviously wants to kill his baby and nearly does that until the mother of his child interrupts him. He soon goes off to rent a hotel room and hire a prostitute, Jackie played by Mia Wasikowska, with the intention of murdering her and cutting up her body before putting it all in a bag for disposal. And when he is in the hotel room there’s a nice scene where we see him rehearsing the whole murder with certain sounds of what the murder should sound like... the slicing of flesh, the splashing of blood, the tying of the bag etc... thrown into the scene. Now, I didn’t have a shred of empathy with Reed’s character here, who seems to be the Walter Mitty of serial killers... neither with that of Wasikowska when you finally get a taste of her true character, but I have to say both actors did well with their roles and Reed comes off as a somewhat driven but reluctant psycho... which just made me dislike him even more to be honest but you can’t deny that Abbott does a good job here.

When Jackie arrives at Reed’s hotel room, to the strains of Goblin’s main them for Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red), you assume nothing will go as planned because, why else show us a rehearsal scene showing what should happen? And, yes, it doesn’t and once Jackie goes to have a shower, when Reed goes in to see what’s taking her so long, you’ll get your first real surprise of the movie. I won’t ruin this for you but I will say that, after Reed has taken Jackie to the hospital and waits for her outside, he has a conversation with his wife on a phone about the murder. Except, you know she knows nothing about it in real life so the conversation is obviously in his head. Things like the ‘talking baby’ telling him that he knows what he has to do at the start of the movie are pretty much a dead giveaway about Reed’s mental state through all of this.  This kind of takes the punch out of pretty much anything else that happens after this point where Jackie takes Reed back to her ‘red room’ and starts to turn the tables on him... in really obvious, unsurprising ways, it has to be said.

Okay, you’re probably getting a sense that I didn’t really like this movie now and... well... I did and I didn’t. The stylistic mise en scène and framing of those old giallo movies, the second element that this film borrows from that particular strand of cinematic heritage, is beautiful. People are sectioned off in sometimes overly tidy and crisp shot designs and even a split screen sequence recalling the early ‘American gialli’ of Brian De Palma is in evidence and goes a long way towards making up for the film’s short falls. The colours are beautiful too and I love those old scores being used... especially for the end titles, a lot of which uses a truncated version of the main theme from Argento’s Tenebre and I assume the accompanying pan through those same models (I’m still convinced they are models) of the cityscape is an homage to Argento’s ‘moving camera over architecture’ moments from films like that. Even if it’s not... it works for me. Of course, the cynical amongst us (I’m waiting for a comment from one of my friends after he reads this review) would say that the director has just got a bunch of old giallo tunes and thrown it at the film in the usual needle-drop manner and... I’d have to say I wouldn’t disagree with that either.

Actually, one of the big stumbling blocks about using music like this is the game the audience is suddenly playing about ‘what film does that come from’ as they are watching. However, I don’t mind this aspect but I do believe that the director really makes a bad call in a couple of instances in this movie because, sometimes, music can also have strong emotional baggage attached to it and such is the case here, in a couple of scenes where he’s used Piero Piccioni’s wonderful score to Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (reviewed by me here) which immediately brings up the sympathies of young lovers, tragically doomed which... well I may be wrong but I don’t really think that’s the emotion he’s going for in the scenes where he uses one of Piccioni’s most poignant themes, to be honest. Still, he’s not the first contemporary director to needle drop excerpts from this score into his film but... I think it could have been done with a more appropriate deference to the on screen images here.

So, summing up then... this film has beautiful performances by the two leads, stylish camera work and shot design, wonderful stolen music and... those are its main pluses. Alas, I can only assume this is a pretty good adaptation of the novel because, as a film exploring the kind of subject area touched upon here, it completely disappoints and never really goes far enough. The fetishistic sexuality and violence are never really pushed into the kinds of extreme territory you would hope they would go into to give a more accurate and less whimsical approach to this kind of exploration and, ultimately, I don’t think I could completely recommend this one to people unless you are purely in it for the music and cinematography. Ultimately, despite the strength and vibrance of those elements, it still manages to be fairly bland and unambitious as a film and I really was expecting a little more from it than what we got here. Even with Mia Wasikowska's customary off-kilter take on her character, this film really didn’t feel edgy in any way and I felt that, as someone who quite enjoys the odd film exploring extreme sensations and situations, I probably wasn’t the more virginal, vanilla target audience that I suspect this one was designed for. So not my cup of tea despite the spot on stylistic sensibilities inherent in the film’s DNA, to be honest. Piercing could have done with some boundary pushing, I think.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Batman The Golden Age Vol 1



Bat Out Of Hell

Batman The Golden Age Vol 1
by Bob Kane, Bill Finger + Various
DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1401263331


Okay, so I enjoyed my little jaunt into the Golden Age tales of Wonder Woman so much recently (reviewed here) that I decided to maybe start familiarising myself (and refamiliarising, to a certain extent) with some of the early strips of other characters in the DC universe. So it’s onto Batman and, though I’d read a fair few tales of the early Batman comics as part of one of the expensive The Batman Archives collections, the big stumbling block of those old, very pricey editions was that they were fixated on just one title... in that case the Batman stories that appeared chronologically in Detective Comics. However, when various superheroes became popular, fairly quickly at the dawn of the phenomenon (Batman is kind of an honourary superhero because, in fact, he has no super powers at all), there was often a second title brought out dedicated solely to the title character and also the odd special issue of something else. So, for example, Wonder Woman would have self contained stories running concurrently in Sensation Comics and, later, Wonder Woman.

When I read The Batman Archives Volume 1 around a decade ago, this really foxed me because when The Joker popped up in the Detective Comics reprints, it was clear that he’d already had at least one (it turns out a fair few) appearance against Batman before, which weren't part of that same reprint tome. What these new Golden Age reprints do is to republish the stories involving the title character from all the comics which carried them in a chronological order... so if something refers back to a previous story (as I know it will here in a specific story in volume 2 or 3 when they get to it), you’ve definitely already read that one. So Batman - The Golden Age includes chronological reprints from Detective Comics, Batman and, in this case, a story featured in a promotional comic of collected stories to tie in with the 1940 New York Worlds Fair showcasing various DC heroes. Batman - The Golden Age reprints all the Batman stories from roughly the first year of his appearance, spanning 1939 - 1940.

Now, a few years ago people on Twitter were getting kinda irked that the version of Batman at the cinema was not a kid friendly version... that he was a darker character. Well, kid friendly these days is a very relative term and I got quite annoyed by people saying this stuff on Twitter (they didn’t feel they could take their kids to see movies like Batman Vs Superman - Dawn Of Justice... reviewed here) because my memory of Batman was that he always was the dark, vigilante of the DC universe and it was people like Frank Miller in the 1980s (with his much celebrated The Dark Knight Returns) who were merely trying to return him to his roots.

Now let me make something clear here. The other day I was thinking about all the stuff which used to be pitched to general family audiences on 1970s TV and I realised there’s no way on Earth half of the stuff I watched as a youngster would get passed by the censors these days, when everything at the moment seems to be veering towards a much more prudish, dreadfully PC and somewhat Victorian set of values (underground reaction and alternatives to those values, also, it seems). And it strikes me when I read something like pulp novels written in the 1930s or, indeed, these old Batman comics from the 1940s, that kids back then were even less bothered by, or mollycoddled to, the bleak, violent realities of life... which were obviously plundered for their entertainment value and reflected back in the art form. So these comics were more than kid friendly enough... they were just very grim and violent (for a while, there’s a big sea change within the first year here) and... maybe that’s the way things should be today. Who knows? However, somebody obviously didn’t think these were good reading for youngsters (in more than a decade before the comic book witch hunts of the 1950s which would lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority) as you’ll see when I get to the introduction of a certain character. It all makes for very interesting ‘in between the lines’ reading though...

In Batman's very first appearance in Detective Comics Issue 27, we have a somewhat different looking character from the one most audiences are more familiar with these days. The masked head is more rounded with longer ears and a generally more sinister, edgy and well defined look to him. This look would remain for around half a year or more and it’s easily my favourite version of the character. This isn’t an ‘origin’ story in any way, shape or form... with the writer wisely deciding to hit the ground running to see if the character was successful before going into the more convoluted origins, I would expect. Actually, I wish this practice of eschewing where the character came from was something more modern movies did with these kinds of figures. After all... nobody seems to have much trouble accepting antagonists with no explanation in zombie movies.

It’s not until his seventh appearance in November 1939, The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible Of Doom, that we get the first crack at his origin story... which doesn’t really differ much from modern retellings (as it does with some famous comic book characters) although he definitely had no Alfred The Butler around to help him in this instance. That character doesn’t appear at all in this first year.

And, in his first story, his secret identity is kept a complete secret from the reader for a while, building up the mystery until, on the very last panel of the last page, he is revealed as Bruce Wayne. And, for some reason, it’s very rare in the stories that, once Batman is knocked unconscious (as he often is), anyone thinks to take his mask off and see who he really is. It just doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind at this point. But there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on with this ‘dark’ character in this and subsequent stories...

In the first issue, for example, the villain accidentally falls backwards into a vat of acid and, while The Batman is not exactly responsible for his death this time around, he does make the comment that it was... “A fitting end for his crime.” In his second story, he casually summersaults an attacking villain off a rooftop to his death. In another adventure he deliberately throws one heavy onto another bad guy’s sword to kill him. In yet another story, he is feigning unconsciousness and is left with a guard while the main villain brings a disintegrator gun to melt him. When he is alone with the guard, he knocks him out, changes costumes with him and deliberately allows the guard to be melted to death in his place. So, yes, this is a much darker avenger than even people like Frank Miller in the 1980s were getting away with for a while.

As you would expect, various elements of the Batman mythos we recognise today are either not present or are not yet fully formed. It takes a fair few issues, for instance, to name the police chief as Commissioner Gordon. Another missing component is the Batmobile, as it came to evolve into. Here, he seems to sport a number of different cars, over the first year, of differing colours... often alternating between red and black. In Batman’s fourth appearance, the red car is drawn a little longer and is referred to as... “his specially built, high-powered auto.” So they were getting there.

Oddly enough, he had a batplane from very early on but, directly contradicting the accompanying text, the plane was more often than not a helicopter or autogyro. It took a little while over this first year for the Batplane to be rendered as... well... a plane. That being said, the way he uses his helicopter is somewhat questionable in regards to the story dynamics. For example, in a completely cloudless sky, he sets his ‘plane’ to hover above the villain’s lair and ‘disguises’ it by billowing a big black cloud of smoke to hide it. Conspicuous much? The villains react thusly... Villain 1: “A black cloud.” Villain 2: “Yeah, looks like rain.” Oh... so that’s alright then.

There’s also a Metropolis Insane Asylum rather than Arkham Asylum and the city is not once referred to as Gotham City as yet. Given the name of the asylum, one wonders if these early stories were meant to be set in the same city as Superman or whether that was merely a coincidence and the writers were just looking at an alternative term for a city.

Even from fairly early on, the art and practice of the early comic book industry, where I guess they thought people really weren’t paying that much attention and throwing them out after reading them, is in evidence. They’re already recycling exact poses copied from earlier issues several times in that first year, and placing them in panels in new stories. Also, the first two pages of Batman Issue 1 is a complete steel, being a straight reprint of the origin story already run in Detective Comics but with different colours used.

Another take away from this first year is that the earlier stories were full of non-scientific phenomena. For instance, we have a monk who keeps a giant gorilla and pet werewolves. We have a shape shifting vampire villain. We have a man with literally no face at one point and, when Batman enters the gardens of the villains who have stolen this man’s face, he sees flowers with living human faces on them. So I think it’s fair to say that these stories were not written with a worry about straying from a good, scientific foundation... which is something Batman was more known as in later decades... something of a ‘science detective’ like Doc Savage.

And then, in Batman’s 12th appearance, we have the first story featuring Robin The Boy Wonder and the tone of Batman comics are completely changed. Someone must have thought these things were getting too mean spirited because, once Robin becomes a regular feature of the strip, it’s not just the look of the Batman character which changes into something more like the Batman we know today. This is a Batman and Robin team with a big commitment to not taking life where possible... so a complete sea change for the character, it seems to me (although, to be fair, Robin does kick a guy off a metal girder to his death at one point, in self defence). Sometimes the violence still does happen and Batman seems somewhat contradictory in his responses. After happily letting two asylum patients maul each other two death earlier in the same issue, he later states at one point... “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary.” What the heck? This is from a story where Batman is gunning down a giant man with a very strong cultural reference to the ending of King Kong. Interestingly, this is a solo Batman story which had been advertised a few issues before but was delayed for publication until after the addition of Robin, by the looks of things. It’s one of the few post-Robin stories here without The Boy Wonder in it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that bizarre character contradiction comes from adding different text in the speech bubble to what had originally been in there for the original scheduled publication.

I hate to use the language of the Batman’s foes here but this newer, conscientious version of the Batman really was a boy scout. In Batman Issue 1, he breaks the fourth wall to deliver to the readers this message... “Well, kids. There’s your proof. Crooks are yellow without their guns! Don’t go around admiring them. Rather, do your best in fighting them and all their kind.”  Which is definitely a comic with a strong moral message methinks. I also found it very interesting how the writers keep pushing the idea of building gyms and other community centres for youths to keep them occupied and stop them getting into crime. This is exactly the same kind of thing I’m hearing now in London as the crime rate rises over here due to various issues... spend more money on keeping the kids occupied and focused (not that there’s any money left to be able to do that with over here).

Actually, the breaking the fourth wall thing becomes more of a thing too, on occasion. For example, at the end of the story in the 1940 New York Worlds Fair Comics issue, Bruce and Dick talk directly to their readers to urge them to visit the New York World’s Fair. The power of 'in-panel' advertising.

Funnily enough, one of Batman’s most vicious villains also makes his debut in Batman Issue 1. The Joker is, by my count, the third regularly occurring villain in these comics, after Hugo Strange and Catwoman. Actually, Catwoman is known only as 'The Cat' in early issues and she hasn’t yet acquired the name of Selina Kyle (or any fixed identity, it has to be said). Funnily enough, even from The Cat’s first appearance, Batman was already ‘accidentally’ letting her escape and making his sexual attraction to her known to the readers. Which is much earlier than I’d expected. In her second appearance she also manages to make an enemy of The Joker, which is kinda interesting.

One of the great things about reading these early comics is trying to catch the cultural references of the time and how they influenced the strip or were cherry picked to be a part of them. I’ve already mentioned the King Kong homage in one issue but when a character called Boss Zulch is introduced, he seems to finish almost every sentence he utters with the word “see?” which is obviously picked up from Edward G. Robinson’s character in the film Little Caesar. Also, one reaction to a pirate radio broadcast by The Joker goes thusly... ““Haw! That’s just a gag - like that fellow who scared everybody with that story about Mars the last time. Ha! Ha! Pay no attention to it dear.” So Orson Welles’ ground breaking documentary style radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, which panicked half of America, was obviously still very much on everybody’s minds at the time.

Also in regard to influences, you can see just how one of my favourite pulp characters, Doc Savage, directly impacted on and influenced the Batman character by this point, as the supernatural stuff is mostly dropped and scientific stuff starts. Mention of brain surgery to cure criminal ways, for instance, or using an infra red lamp to read invisible markers left on a villain’s footprints to trail him. This would eventually lead to Batman’s later title as The World’s Greatest Detective, at some point, I guess... was that the 1970s or before then? I can’t remember.

Anyway, that’s the first year or so of Batman encapsulated in Batman - The Golden Age Vol 1 and, honestly, if you’re a Batman fan and want to know more about the character’s roots and how he evolved and changed, even in his first 12 months, then this is a really good place to start. Essential reading for me and I shall definitely be picking up the second volume at some point to re-read one of my favourite Batman stories from that era (which I have reprinted in an old 1970s Detective Comics Giant)... The Case Of The Carbon Copy Crimes.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Dave Made A Maze



Labyrinth Intensive

Dave Made A Maze
USA 2017 Directed by Bill Watterson
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


When Arrow Films first started pushing Dave Made A Maze into my face via my twitter timeline last year to promote their upcoming Blu Ray release, I could not have been less interested. Why? Well because, somehow, I’d got it into my brain that they were promoting some kind of TV show and, as a writer of blog reviews, I don’t usually have a lot of time to invest in watching multi-part TV shows instead of films, apart from a few fairly, obvious, ‘exceptional exceptions’. It would slow down my output so much to invest that kind of time on it. Of course, it turns out that Dave Made A Maze is in no way a TV show and I’m not quite sure why I thought anything otherwise. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of tweets in my timeline the first instance I saw it hit my feed, maybe it was something in the way they’d phrased their promotion or maybe it’s because it’s just not the kind of film I would have expected Arrow to release. I tend to, rightly or wrongly, associate this label with a lot of exploitation movies from various genres.

So, anyway, happy ending to that story because, at some point, I accidentally saw a trailer for this thing and... fell in love with the concept straight away. Also, it has James Urbaniak who played Simon Grimm in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy and Robert Crumb in American Splendour. This moved right near the top of my ‘purchase fairly soon’ list and so I finally saw what is, frankly, one of the better movies I’ll see this year (although the lack of high profile cinema release in the UK here makes it ineligible for my end of year list, which is a shame).

Okay so, the movie starts off with Dave’s girlfriend Annie, played by the excellent Meera Rohit Kumbhani (I’ll have to watch out for more stuff with her in it) coming back to Dave’s apartment and finding a room sized mini maze, technically a labyrinth, there. This is a kind of art installation maze that Dave, played here by Nick Thune, has made out of cardboard and, although he can talk to Annie through the thin walls, he is trapped in there because, as you’ll see (and know from the trailer if you’ve seen it), the inside of the maze is a bit like the TARDIS from Doctor Who... that is to say, dimensionally transcendental. In other words, huge and labyrinthine on the inside as opposed to the outside.

So, after a while, many people have gathered in the apartment to figure out how to extract Dave from the maze, including his best friend Gordon played with brilliant comic timing by Adam Busch and the aforementioned James Urbaniak as Harry, who has his sound and camera crew with him so he can make a documentary of Dave’s rescue attempt. And then loads of people enter ‘the maze’ and... some don’t make it out again. The maze has a life of it’s own and, asides from being tricked out with lethal booby traps, it also has a genuine Minotaur in there to give chase as well.

And, honestly, the film is a joy to watch from start to finish. I like quirky films anyway and this is just one of the best. There are some beautiful things happening here such as any bloodshed having almost equal gravitas as it would in any other film but, once in the maze, it manifests itself quite differently. For instance, if you see the right trailer, you’ll see a wonderful decapitation sequence from this where, after an actress loses her head, red party streamers cascade out of her neck in a kind of fake, paper craft approximation of arterial spray. There’s another death where a guy is impaled on a trap where the spikes are just flimsy toilet rolls but he’s made up to look like the toilet rolls have impaled him and then his guts behave in exactly the same way as the former ‘decapitation lady’s’ head. It’s really nice, ridiculous stuff that I couldn’t get enough of. 

But it’s not just that... there’s so much clever stuff going on in this movie and it’s not just the cool sets which were pretty much put together from cardboard found ‘dumpster diving’.. as is my understanding. It has some very witty dialogue in this movie and, with a bunch of performers like this, it makes for a wonderfully comic time. And also, it sticks to its guns and each time I thought the movie couldn’t get any stranger... which is already a good thing... it managed to up the ‘totally oddball’ stakes time and time again. I don’t want to say too much but there are some scenes where actors are monochromatic against a colour background, scenes where they turn into animated puppets for a while and some really nice, trompe l'oeil effects which fool the eye and turn the sets into things you didn’t realise they were (think similar to the final bridge Indy has to cross at the end of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade). All this plus a scene where two of the actors are continually changing their attire from cut to cut which kinda reminded me of a 1960s incarnation of a Jean Luc Godard movie plus a sequence which I will only refer to here as... ‘the lady parts trap’.

Honestly, it’s been a while since I had this much fun with a movie and, refreshingly enough, once all is said and done, there’s no magic reset button to tell you everything you watched is now undone. The consequences of spending time in this labyrinth, as seen especially on its creator (I don’t want to spoil this) and various deaths, are not just undone at the end. Also, the reaction acting of Meera Rohit Kumbhani is amazing because, at the start of the film, you kinda know there is something wrong between her and Dave without anyone ever saying anything once throughout the course of the story. However, there’s real character development here and, as the horrors and wonders of the maze become gradually revealed over the course of the movie, you can see her falling back in love with Dave as things progress, just from her demeanour. Which is much more than I would expect from a quirky, independent movie which is trying to juggle a fair few visual balls in the air.

So yeah, that’s me done on this one. Dave Made A Maze is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and it’s just a shame it wasn’t at the cinema. The film is available for 'streaming people' (so that’s definitely not the likes of me) and also via this Arrow Blu Ray. I don’t know why there’s been no DVD release over here for people who only have access to that technology but hopefully someone will rectify that oversight at some point because this is such a great movie. I believe Arrow rent it out over YouTube though so, definitely worth a watch. If you are into cinema and love the language of film and, heck, even just want a good time from a movie, Dave Made A Maze is a truly brilliant picture to sit down and spend some quality time with. Some very cool and self aware movie making going on here.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Vox Lux



A Vox Of Delights

Vox Lux
2018 USA
Directed by Brady Corbet
UK cinema release print.


Vox Lux is a film I wanted to see, primarily, because I’ve been following Natalie Portman’s career since I first saw her at the cinema back in 1994 in Luc Besson’s Leon (aka The Professional in the US). I remember singling her out as an astounding actress at the time, although I didn’t expect to see her in anything else because... you know... child actors. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw, years later, that she was given the part of Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace (one of the best of the Star Wars films made outside of the original trilogy) and its subsequent sequels and, since then I’ve seen her in a fair few things. And she tends to knock things out of the park as an actress and you only have to see her in films like Closer, V For Vendetta and Jackie to realise just how brilliant she is. Her role in Vox Lux as pop music diva Celeste is another of those roles that gives her an opportunity to shine and her performance in this has received a lot of praise and, rightly so.

The other reason I was keen to see this, originally, is that I’d heard a lot of word of mouth on Twitter saying that Vox Lux is the Citizen Kane of this generation and singling out writer/director Brady Corbet as ‘the new Orson Welles’ in some respects. However, since this was only showing in a very few cinemas in London I was beginning to doubt the veracity of that claim especially when I got to the cinema and found myself almost but, not quite, alone in the auditorium. By the time the film began to play there was maybe 8 people in the cinema but, still, not the size of audience I would expect from an opening weekend... especially not with ‘review buzz’ like that.

As it happens, the film is utterly brilliant and, although I do have some problems with parts of it, which I’ll get to in a minute, I have to say I’m very glad I took some time out of my usual routine to track this down and see it on a large screen at a cinema because, frankly, it’s got a kind of power to it which I suspect may be diminished on various home viewing media. That being said, it’s no Citizen Kane either, although I can see how people might want to draw on that comparison on a purely superficial level.

The films tells the story of a meteoric rise to pop stardom of the central character Celeste and of her relationship with her sister, played by Stacy Martin and manager, played by Jude Law. However, it’s split into four sections (or three sections and a prelude) and Natalie Portman plays the Celeste character in her 30s. Celeste in her teenage years, as covered in the first two segments and taking up a sizeable part of the film, is Raffey Cassidy (who you might remember as the robot girl from Tomorrowland, reviewed here). Now, as bright as Natalie Portman is in this film... and that’s very bright... I’d have to say that Raffey Cassidy absolutely steals the movie, in a dual role too since, when she’s not playing young Celeste, she’s playing Celeste’s daughter Albertine for the final two chapters.

Another fantastic performance is Willem Dafoe as the off screen narrator of the piece, lending the film a documentary aspect and giving the story a sense of foreshadowing in a similar manner to the way Wes Anderson might use a narrator to comment on what you are about to see. Added to his performance, though, is a mixture of different styles of camerawork, movement, film speeds and aspect ratios which, coupled with a foreboding and quite striking score by Scott Walker (sadly only available as a stupid download as opposed to a proper CD, so I am doomed never to hear it away from the images) lends the film a certain sense of both gravitas and a very sinister quality. After the prelude, which I’ll get to in a moment, this narrative and mise en scene takes away any form of comfort blanket from the audience, who is now primed that absolutely anything could happen. So it would be true to say that, in the words of a young Martin Scorcese, the film is ‘fraught with peril’.

Okay, so, the prelude. Something happens here which was somehow telegraphed, I feel. I suspect I wasn’t supposed to be expecting anything from it and the naturalistic style of the acting and lack of scoring at these points maintains the sense of cinéma vérité. However, I kind of knew what was coming a good minute or three before it happened and, well, I hope it’s not giving anything away by saying that part of the exploration of this Celeste character is a way of looking at how violence and tragedy can affect the course of a life and pull and tear at it from different directions (including as a catalyst for success and inspiration) as that life plays out.

However, just because I was expecting certain things to happen doesn’t mean to say that the prelude isn’t effective. It is and, even though we’ve seen these kinds of scenes played out before (no, really, I’m not going to tell you what happens here, go see it yourself) the director manages to render it in such a way that you still feel a certain amount of tension and suspense as to how things are going to play out. The opening credits sequence which leads us out of the scene after this also, in a single moving camera shot with a little twist in the middle, somehow, seems to exert a certain pressure on the audience that similar sequences in other movies have not been able to achieve. It also starts a series of almost morbid obsessions from the director with point of view camera shots speeding down tunnels and, I have to say, even though they’re nothing like as long or daring, I can’t help but wonder if Corbet was somehow influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris and also whether these shots are standing in for something else... perhaps a metaphor for growth points in Celeste’s life? Possibly not but... I can wonder.

The pop songs in this film are not too shabby either... which helps maintain a sense of artistry behind the main character. The songs are actually provided by pop music artist Sia, who I only really know from her end credits song on the Wonder Woman soundtrack (that movie is reviewed by me here) and, again, they’d be pretty good as a stand alone listen if only they would release this thing on CD instead of their cheaply mixed electronic shenanigans (see my review of The New Analog here for more details on modern practices in regard to finance over quality of the art in terms of sound mixing for downloads).

Now, I did have one problem with what was, it has to be said, a very powerful and gripping movie and it was this... it doesn’t have an ending. It just kind of stops. Now, I’m pretty sure I know how this was supposed to end or, rather, how I would have ended it. I have to say I felt the whole film had been building to a certain point and that this expected conclusion, and narrative aftermath, would have been the best way to end the film and use that final moment as a call of judgement of the main protagonist. In fact, if I was to bet money on it, I’d say that the film may have had a different ending which was probably even shot but, out of sheer bloody mindedness, Corbet deliberately went for a lack of closure and culmination of the story arc, probably because he didn’t want audiences second guessing him. However, I did feel like this was a kind of ‘cop out’ in this respect and that it does damage the picture somewhat and make everything we’ve seen come before feel a little hollow.

So, no, it’s no modern Citizen Kane, that’s for sure. Having said that, though... I would urge anyone with a love of film to go and seek this out while it’s playing on a big screen because, frankly, slightly flawed as it might at first appear, it is a bit of a masterpiece and it does feel like one is watching something put together by a cinematic genius. Whether this label is maintained throughout this writer/director’s career (he’s already acted in a number of films too) is something which remains to be seen but I can’t wait until we can get a Blu Ray release of this thing so I can study just why the film, in an entirely unrelated genre, unsettled me a lot more than most modern horror films do. Make no mistake, Vox Lux is a great work of art with some truly arresting sequences and a sense of ‘reading between the frames’ level mystery which makes you want to come back to it again. Absolutely spectacular and something which I think a lot of budding young film makers might find themselves quite inspired by.