Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Knack... And How To Get It

For Knack’s Sake

The Knack... And How To Get It
UK 1965
Directed by Richard Lester
MGM Region 2

Wow. What a great film.

I haven’t seen this in maybe 25 to 30 years and seem to remember thinking it was just, okay, at the time. But I’ve always quite liked the music in this one so, when the opportunity arose to grab the DVD cheap, I thought I’d give it another go. I’m really glad I did because... well, The Knack... And How To Get It is more than just... “okay.”

Seen now, probably correctly, as one of the key films in the British New Wave, Lester shot the film in stark black and white following a similar treatment on the film he made prior to this, A Hard Day’s Night, featuring The Beatles (he would switch to colour for his second film with them, Help!). Based on the successful play by Ann Jellicoe (I’m guessing the fact that it was written from a woman’s point of view can help ward of accusations of rampant sexism and misogyny... at least to an extent), I can’t honestly imagine how this movie could be sourced from a theatrical production, truth be told, since Lester frees the camera from “inside locations” for a good deal of the movie. I’m guessing many things were added but the spirit of the play was kept in tact, which allows Lester to explore a more dynamic environment for the four main characters.

And of course, being as you are immediately entering the surreal and visually witty world which typically characterises this directors early work, when I say a “dynamic environment”, I’m talking about the environment of the editing room and the way the director plays around with the whole syntax of the cinema. It might seem old hat to some nowadays (although I suspect if you leave a teenager in a cinema with this film today they will get a little confused and disorientated) but this was the spirit of the time and you can feel this playfulness of exploration of the form seeping through every frame of celluloid.

The plot is simple. Colin (MIchael Crawford) lives with a lodger, Tolen (played by Ray Brooks) who has many sexual conquests a day... indeed the credits sequence features fifty to a hundred women lining up in a massive queue through Colin’s house, all dressed exactly as Tolen likes them, so Colin can’t even get out of his room a lot of the time (such starlets as Charlotte Rampling, Jane Birkin and Jaqueline Bisset all count The Knack as their first movie appearance). Right after this credit sequence, backed up by John Barry’s superb, jazzy score, Colin finally snaps and rents out another room. A new lodger, Tom (Donal Donnelly), arrives and paints his new room white while Rita Tushingham’s character Nancy Jones wanders around the streets of London for the first half an hour of the movie going through little comic sequences as she looks for the YWCA. She then meets up with Colin and Tom as they are buying a big four poster bed from a scrap yard. The three go on bed related adventures through London as they push, pull, tow and even float the bed back to Colin’s residence, where Nancy has an unfortunate set of experiences with Tolen before she gets her own back on the male chauvinistic attitudes on display by crying “Rape”... but in a delightfully comic way that perhaps only Rita Tushingham could make work.

The film is surreal (Michael Crawford immediately breaks “The Fourth Wall” with his first line to the audience, right after the credits) and the dialogue is beautifully witty. Various montages of public opinion related mostly to on screen incidents are aired on the soundtrack (a lot of the soundtrack, including some of the actors actual lines in some instances, seems added in post production with no lip synch allowance), perhaps echoing the same spiritual function that John Dos Passos used for his newsreel sequences in his series of novels which comprise his USA Trilogy... but perhaps filtered through some of Michael Moorcock’s techniques for his original Jerry Cornelius novels.

The mood is generally light and fluffy throughout and Lester uses unexpected jump cuts, repeat shots, sped up and slowed down film and the like throughout the course of the movie to weave together something not unlike a Marx Brothers comedy, but with less plot and with the medium becoming the jokes just as much as the on-screen action and the written word. Lots of the comedy sequences are pure slapstick, before that became a dirty word, and the joy at which the humour in this film is celebrated through the camera is infectious and addictive. And all throughout, of course, we have long sequences with no music playing suddenly interrupted by John Barry’s audacious and fresh sounding (even by today’s standards) melodic outbursts.

The film won the Palme D’Or the year it played there and, frankly, rightly so. This movie is amazing and I’m surprised I was so on-the-fence about it when I were a “growing lad”. I could watch it again right now, it’s that charming. Absolutely nothing other than a firm recommendation from me here. Go and grab it quick from Amazon or somewhere while it’s so cheap!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Last Caress (aka Glam Gore)

Caress Whisper

Last Caress (aka Glam Gore) 
France 2010
Directed by François Gaillard & Christophe Robin
B Films Region 2

Last Caress is a movie I picked up on DVD as a (fairly) rare blind buy at this year’s London Film & Comic Convention in a truly beautiful and very limited, numbered German edition (only 2000 copies have been pressed for the market, apparently) under the title Glam Gore. I was told by the particluar stallholder, who knows me by now and is pretty knowledgeable about the various niche markets of exploitation cinema, that this was made as a new giallo and was, in his words, “really good.” I had to admit, the book style packaging with the full colour booklet bound into it was very special to look at but I still wasn’t sold on getting this one for what was, frankly, a little higher than I like to pay for my DVDs. But then the stallholder remembered my particular weakness and pointed out to me that the DVD also came with an additional CD of Double Dragon’s music for the movie (a composer or composers of whom I can find no real evidence of, so to speak, on the internet). This pretty much hooked me in because, when the soundtrack CD is included with the DVD, it’s rare for that score to be released as a stand alone, from what I’ve ben able to make out.

True to the stall holder’s word, Last Caress is, indeed, a pretty good movie. It’s got some slight problems for me in terms of an all round film experience but, if you like the giallo form of cinema, you certainly can’t help but be a little impressed by this movie because it really “goes for it” in terms of utilising a giallo format. There are absolutely loads of references, mostly visual and musical, which many fans of the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Luciano Ercoli and Sergio Martino will get a real kick out of. This, generically, comes through in the form of the brighter-than-thou drenched colour splashes of Dario Argento, filtering through from Mario Bava’s influence, which really does push the boat out in terms of lighting and camera movement.

The homage conitinues in that many of the gory murder scenes are also direct references to specific giallo movie murders and, in the case of the “first” murderer, the specific look of the killer... which in the opening of the movie is a direct reference to Bava’s Blood and Black Lace with a touch of Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage thrown in for good measure. The film continues to pile on iconic references at a steady rate of knots, a particular highlight which the director keeps coming back to is a variant of the spiked metal glove which made a brief appearance in Death Walks At Midnight. Even the iconic shot of the womans head and shoulders laying backwards through the broken glass from Tenebrae is dutifully referenced in a similar pose.

The movie doesn’t stop at pure giallo though... while it plays with echoes of the supernatural powers of the first victim in Argento’s Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red), it also comes back to the supernatural themes quite heavily in both an early seance scene and at the movies denouement... so there’s a little bit of worship going on of the Italian horror movie too (which Argento and, to more of an extent, Bava, both indulged in from time to time in their respective bodies of work). If you’re one of those movie watchers who loves playing along with the writers and directors in a movie, and you know your Italian exploitation cinema... then you’ll have a fairly good time with this one I think.

As I touched on earlier, the music by somebody called Double Dragon is also very rooted in the Italian giallo for its tone. Now they (I’m assuming Double Dragon is a they) could have gone one of two routes with this score, or possibly even gone a third route and mixed up different gialli musical styles. As it happens, they’ve jettisoned the Ennio Morricone/Bruno Nicolai approach to scoring this kind of film and gone with the Claudio Simonetti/Goblin approach for their score... with maybe just a dash of Cipriani thrown into the mix. What does this mean in terms of adding to the overall tone of the piece? Simple... this score “rocks” and I’m very grateful to have the "free" soundtrack album which came with it and which I’m listening to as I type these very words.

However, I have to say that, apart from all the positive stuff I’ve mentioned here, I did find something a little amiss... and I’m having some trouble putting my finger on what that something is. The performances, from what looks like a fairly unknown cast... are all pretty good and they seem to be taking their various roles quite seriously. The lighting and colours are all great. The score is pretty good. But I think, there are two things which made it less a great movie and more just an interesting curio for me.

One thing is the fact that, although the plot is as simplistic as its references, it just feels like it needs a little more substance.  Yeah, yeah. I know. Crazy right? The giallo format almost prides itself in having no real substance but I think this expectation came from within me as a response to the context of watching a contemporary movie and this lack of substance, combined with the next thing I’m going to mention, is probably not something I should even worry about in relation to a genre where style plays such an important part at the expense of the other. But I’m going to anyway.

The other thing is... although pretty much all the shots look absolutely beautiful and nicely designed, everything seems to be just a bit too “high definition”. That is to say, even though I know a lot of the shots in this are actual location shots... the sharpness and quality of the picture almost makes everything feel like it’s been shot on a very fake set. It’s just too darned focussed. It needs a little cinematic distancing on the appearance methinks. Smear some vaseline over the lens like they used to do for soft focus shots in the old days maybe. Or perhaps a deliberately degraded look akin to what Rodriguez did on Planet Terror perhaps?

As it is, the whole thing reminded me, as much as the genres they were going for (and they really do go for it in this movie, I assure you) like an exended version of one of those old 90s Redemption Films introductions that used to air on the Bravo cable channel or play before the main feature on the VHS cassettes. Something with Eileen Daly in it dressed as a vampire or a nun... or possibly a vampire nun... rolling around with a half naked lady with a bared and highly unmissable chest partially covered in blood. Remember those? Well I think this movie has some of that kind of vibe to it too... especially in a flashback scene involving accusations of witchery, a naked gal and some prominently placed barbed wire... which I’m sure was cheap at half the price in the middle ages. Nice as it was to pass the time, this style of shooting did kind of pull me out of the whole giallo thing which the directors had spent so much time setting up.

All in all, it’s not nearly as great an homage to the genre as the truly wonderful Amer was a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of 1970s Italian thriller or horror movies and you want a quite beautifully shot, good sounding film to pass the evening with that features naked, bosomy women, lashings of boody violence (probably a lot more than actually featured in a lot of the films this one is aspiring to be, actually) and a hefty dose of the old “guess-the-giallo” game thrown in, then you really can't go wrong with Last Caress/Glam Gore. Grab one of these limited edition copies with the bonus CD soundtrack while you still can.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Not Of This Earth

Earth Every Penny

Not Of This Earth
US 1957
Directed by Roger Corman
Shout Factory Region 2

Warning: A few mild spoilers here 
if you are worried about such things.

The end of an evening for a young couple as a girl is driven to the edge of the park where she lives. Her boyfriend wants to take her to her door but she protests, wanting to do the last bit through the park on her own in case her dad sees them. So the boy drives off and she walks through the park only to be confronted by a large man with a typical 50s “man in black” UFO image... wearing the suit, a trilby, dark glasses and carrying a briefcase. The man takes off his sunglasses as the girl screams and, as we find out later, the man burns her eyes out with his thoughts and turns her brain all gooey. He gets down beside her, opens his briefcase, taps one of her veins with a needle/tube and starts filling the four vials inside with the girls blood. Is this man a vampire? A vampire from space, perhaps?

One thing's for sure, he’s... Not Of This Earth!

And then the opening credits roll and... well actually I really enjoyed this less than stellar slice of 50s sci-fi. I was looking forward to something really quite bad, to be honest, considering that Corman directed this little piece of space vampirism in the same year that he directed his amazing, has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Attack Of The Crab Monsters (see review here). To be fair, it is quite bad but the story concept is quite respectable, 1950s sci-fi novel fodder (and therefore early 21st Century movie fodder, mark my words) and the movie is a lot more competent than what you would expect if you’ve seen that other movie.

After using what I can only call his special “eye-powers” to thought control a doctor, Mr. Johnson, the big, dark glasses wearing guy from the opening sequence, has a new long-term guest in his house in the form of the doctor’s young nurse, who has been sent to give Mr. Johnson his vital daily blood transfusion. Fortunately for the audience, Nadine the nurse is played by Beverly Garland, who is a typical 50s B-movie honey, which means she’s not hard to look at, and who I last saw in The Alligator People (reviewed here). When she gets there, she finds a few things about “Mr. Johnson” a little odd... like his surprise that she doesn’t want to be locked in her room overnight, which to him means she has a secure environment. Or why he hires a petty criminal as his personal assistant. And where do all his dinner guests, like the three homeless men he invited to dinner, suddenly disappear to?

When her boss doesn’t want to discuss certain details of her new patient, it’s down to her, her petty criminal co-worker and her policeman boyfriend to solve the mystery. When it turns out the mystery is killing humans for blood and sending it through matter transport beam to a planet dying from a nuclear war, with plans to subjugate the earth... things seem to be taking a turn for the worse. But things are going bad for “Mr. Johnson” too when a fellow alien lady (with characteristic dark glasses) comes to earth through his basement communication beam and tells him she escaped his dying world. Like him, she needs regular blood transfusions so he breaks into the doctor’s office with her to dose her up... not realising he’s accidentally got the “rabid dog blood” by mistake... I promise I’m not making this up. Chases and sequences of suspenseful B-movie terror ensue.

Yeah, okay, it does sound kinda bad and, truth be told, it’s not the most sophisticated B-movie I’ve seen... but this pulled a lot less clunkers than I was expecting and I could see someone like a very young Philip K. Dick getting into similar kind of territory in his short stories and early novels. The direction and cinematography seems a lot more palatable than the same director’s aforementioned Attack Of The Crab Monsters too and Ronald Stein provides another “broad strokes” sci-fi/horror score which ably supports the on-screen action. And when I say ably supports, I mean over-the-top as hell but, then, that is the perfect musical complement to this kind of movie.

The ending of the movie, too, was something I found pleasing on the eye (as corny as it is) and I have to say I was much more satisfied by this ending than I have been by a lot of other movies of this ilk. Although, the movie did miss a trick after the alien lady was infected by “rabid canine plasma” where they had her just dying rather than have her foaming at the mouth and tearing the sleepy town of Dullsville USA apart in a weird alien rampage. Maybe the budget was as non-existent as a lot of Corman’s other features at the time. I’ve just found out, though, that  it was remade twice more over the years... one version even starred the notorious Traci Lords... so maybe the budgetary constraints were lifted a little on the later versions (probably not, but I’m going to do my best to track these versions down). Maybe they even have a rabid, alien, dog-crazy attack in them... who knows?

If you’re looking for a sophisticated entertainment to challenge your brain for an hour or so then stay away from this one at all costs, you won’t find that kind of stimulation in this movie. If, however, black and white 50s sci-fi movies with “white contact lenses standing in for insidious alien eyes that will burn your brain right out of your head” are the kinds of movies you enjoy... then you’ll probably get a kick out of watching this movie. It’s not as awesome as the sheer rubbishness of Attack Of The Crab Monsters... but the dialogue does weave a certain charm which will take you back to more innocent times. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Flash & Bones

Even Temperanced

Flash And Bones by Kathy Reichs
Random House. ISBN: 9780434015344

Flash And Bones is the 14th novel in Kathy Reichs extremely popular Temperance Brennan (forensic anthropologist) series. Now, I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews on this one with people saying the quality of the writing is going downhill fast of late but I don’t think that’s necessarily the problem here.

Certainly, everyone can go through a bad patch and I remember the other writer I read of these... well, I refer to them by what they are, modern detective pulp fiction... Patricia Cornwell, went through a very bad patch, in my opinion, some years ago where she had quite a few books out that seemed, somehow, much less on-the-ball than I expected from her. And now she’s out of that slump and her Scarpetta novels are as sharp as they ever were, once more. Perhaps that’s what’s happening with Reichs here or... well perhaps not. I’m not swayed so easily by popular opinion.

I sailed through this one, like I always do with Reichs’ novels and I’d have to say that while I didn’t enjoy the conclusion of this novel quite as much as I would have hoped for, it still holds up as an exciting read. Just a touch different than usual because almost all of her regular characters are mostly absent from the book. Her complicated romantic life as personified by Andrew Ryan is mostly left out here and the character only has one phone call in this novel as far as I can remember. Her ex-husband features more but only in the context of Temperance being constantly badgered and irritated by his new fiancee to help with the wedding plans. I can’t remember having met her before so I reckon she’s technically a new character.

The plot seems fairly simplistic, though, and there doesn’t seem to be much to be done to get the case solved. I’m guessing this one was a really difficult novel for Reichs to write, actually, because it’s hard to make something with a run-of-the-mill plot seem so exciting and vibrant but, even without her regular cast of characters (except Tempe’s beloved cat), it’s a tribute to her writing skills that she had me turning the pages to read more.

One of the tricks she uses, which is something a lot of people are doing more of again these days I’ve noticed (including her nearest rival, the aforementioned Cornwell), is to end every chapter on a new cliffhanger... be that a statement that foreshadows things to come or with the revelation of a new piece of information that doesn’t make sense or... well, anything which will make damn sure you want to start that next chapter straight away to find out what’s going on.

This is where my analogy of these kinds of great modern writers being the modern pulp writers of their day comes into its own... and I’ll stress again as I have done before now... I think pulp writers over the years are great literary artists and I don’t use the nomenclature that grew up around being printed on cheap paper stocks in a derogatory manner when it comes to my assessment of their genius and vitality.

Getting back to the chapter endings, this is exactly what a lot of the old pulp writers would do and wriers like Lester Dent (who wrote the bulk of the 180 plus Doc Savage novels under the publisher’s house name Kenneth Robeson) would rigidly adhere to this kind of cliffhanger approach throughout their entire career... albeit in a slightly more extreme example, more often than not. A random sampling of the last lines of, lets say eight, chapters of Flash & Bones will give you a greater understanding of what I’m talking about...

“But that was changing fast.”

“The look on his face told me something was wrong.”

“The goddamn FBI torched our John Doe!”

“When I straightened, the cold steel of a muzzle kissed my left temple.”

“I was about to take a quadruple volley.”

“And couldn’t believe who was walking toward me.”

“And felt the tiny hairs on my neck go upright.”

“The chill spread through my body.”

And so on. Not all of them placing our heroine in mortal peril of her life, to be sure but, given the context of what preceded them, enough to have you reaching for the next chapter in a mad rush. So I’m glad some time honoured traditions are being upheld in modern fiction.

The backdrop to this particular murder investigation is a NASCAR track and the whole story is set around the world of motor racing, something I confess to knowing nothing about. Tempe solves this one by partnering up with two different men, one cop and one ex-cop, at various points in the story and although the prose is as sparkling as ever, I did miss Andy Ryan’s presence a lot more than I thought I would during the course of the novel. I’m wondering though, after fourteen novels in this series, if she’s just had enough of writing about the same people all the time and doesn’t have anything else remotely interesting to say about them. That’d be my guess anyway.

Another added dimension to this is that you have the FBI actually seeming to be working against Brennan and her boss... although you kinda know that it’s all going to turn out okay in the end. But she milks it deftly and you do wonder at some point if the FBI are not just trying to hide murders they’ve committed themselves. Which I think would have made for an interesting conclusion but... who am I to say.

At the end of the day, Flash And Bones, is certainly not one of the best of the Tempe Brennan novels... in fact I’d say it’s easily my least favourite in the series so far. Still, having said that, I don’t agree with a lot of the naysayers on reviews that this is a badly written book. Maybe the intricacies of the plot are a little stale and obvious but I think that the novel in general is written with a great amount of polish and will have you turning the pages at a lightning pace, as per usual with this writer. If you’re a big fan of Reichs the writer (as opposed to Reichs the TV writer where the Temperance Brennan of Bones is but a pale shadow in every way of the “real” Tempe Brennan in the novels) then you’ll certainly not want to miss out on another solid page turner. If you’ve never experienced her brilliant characters before, though, you’d do a lot better starting off with the first novel in the series and working up from there.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

All’s World That Ends World

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World 
2012 USA/Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia 
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Big, big, big spoiler giving away the film’s ending in here. If this is one you definitely want to see... you might want to carefully consider this before reading.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is not the movie I was expecting it to be.

But that’s good, actually. Because, rather than being the nauseating US romantic comedy with a cornball ending I thought it was going to be... it actually turned out, instead, to be more the movie I was hoping it would be. Which is a turn up for the books.

To explain... I had nothing invested in this movie. I like Keira Knightley as an actress, for sure, but I’d only ever seen Steve Carell once in a movie (the latest remake of Get Smart) and I didn’t know the writer/director, Lorene Scafaria’s work either. I just saw the trailer and saw what looked like a fairly gentle movie with a little bit of a bite to it in that, you know, it’s about the end of the world and such. The end of humanity. The death knell for our entire species.

But then I figured... modern US movie. This is going to be a light romantic comedy, which in some ways it actually is, and it won’t exactly have an ending where it “does what it says on the tin”, so to speak. So I decided I wouldn’t go and see it because, frankly, I don’t like modern US romantic comedies all that much. They tend to have no real substance to them. As far as the last ten or twenty years go, I generally tend to prefer romantic movies if they’re made by the French. I don’t know why but they just seem to have more of a real life, up close and personal relation to this kind of subject matter and dare to show love as it truly is... compared to a lot of the US (and even UK) films of this nature which I’ve seen. So I pretty much had stopped going to them.

But then, when I had to meet a friend in London on Saturday and we decided to go to the cinema, there was nothing else really on at the time I was around for (I’d already seen The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, which seem to be dominating a fair amount of screens over here) and so we settled on this movie.

I’m really glad we did because, much to my surprise, it actually does do what it says on the tin.

Steve Carell plays a downbeat insurance salesman whose wife leaves him after the announcement that the final attempt to save the earth from destruction by asteroid collision has failed. This all happens before the title of the film has even come up. The character he plays, Dodge, trundles depressingly on even as those around him are either killing themselves or having apocalyptic end-of-the-world sex with each other. He meets a girl called Penny (played by Knightley who is, as always, excellent), from the apartment downstairs from his... and when the rioting and looting starts in their area they set off on a road journey to try to a) reunite him with his first ever sweetheart and b) to get Penny to his dad who will be able to fly her back to England in his plane to meet up with her family... it’s the last month of life on planet Earth and the airways have stopped flying.

True... over the course of their journey they bond and become romantically entangled, but that’s okay and can be a nice thing if the tone is caught right in a movie... which it is here. But there’s always the dark reminders of the character’s plight of, you know, dying by the end of the month and their adventures on the road are at times violent and at times comical but the low key, laid back approach that the film seems to create around its lead characters is nicely handled and doesn’t once become boring.

I said, before I saw this film, that I was hoping that this would be the American answer to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. And it kinda is in a way. It’s like a more cheerful, less introspective alternative to Von Trier’s masterpiece. Luckily, the two leads are able to more than make up for the lack of comedy bells and whistles set pieces which a lot of films of this nature might have resorted to. And that’s something to be thankful for.

At the end of the day though (or even end of the world), the surprising thing is that it doesn’t cop out and give the planet Earth a reprieve like you are expecting it to. Dodge and Penny have finally figured out that what they want from the world is really just, each other. They lay talking on a bed and their conversation gets interrupted by the boom of the asteroid entering earths atmosphere in the sound mix and I remember I leaned over to my friend at that point and said... “I wish these guys would just roll the credits here, that would be perfect.” And then, about ten seconds later, they did just that. A white out as the characters finally find each other but die at the end of the world... is followed by the end credits. A perfect ending for this movie and I was really grateful that Hollywood didn’t go for the unbearably happy ending on this one.

Written and then directed with a deft touch by Lorene Scafaria and well acted by all the principal cast (including Martin Sheen as Dodge’s estranged father), Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is not, as the quotes on the posters may have you believe, “a feel good movie”... but it’s certainly a nice movie about love and loss and the way the pursuit of something can sometimes lead you to finding something you weren’t looking for, which turns out to be exactly what you need. If you like gentle movies with just a dash of, admittedly lightweight, depth to them, then this movie is highly recommended.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Knight My Fire

The Dark Knight Rises 2012 USA 
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: This warning is pretty simple people... there will be major spoilers in here because I want to talk about my relationship to Batman over the years. You really won’t want to read this if you haven’t seen the movie or are interested in seeing it at some point. It also has some spoilers for The Prestige thrown in for good measure, to make a point. For those of you who are not worried about such stuff... please proceed.

Okay then. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that when I first review a movie or a book with a character who I’ve had a lifelong relationship with over the years, I like to first contextualise the review by explaining my relationship to that character. So, for the record... here’s what the Batman character means to me.

When I was about 2 years old I learned to read by my parents giving me Superman comics. Starting reading by thrilling to the exploits of the four colour superheroes really put me way ahead in terms of reading and writing when it came time for me to start infants school. As well as Superman, I also used to like Spiderman, The Original Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!), The Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Justice League of America and, of course, Batman. Now I can’t pinpoint when I started reading Batman but it was either from an issue of Justice League of America or it was from, and I’ve managed to track it down on-line, Worlds Finest Issue 207 from 1971 (pictured above). On the cover, Superman is dead (yeah, right) through the intervention of magic and Batman is trapped in some netting and about to be machine gunned to death. This was exciting stuff for a... well it would have been a hand-me-down from my uncle so I would have been about three years old by the time I read that issue. After that, the Batman was on my “hit list” for sure, although I didn’t have that many comics and the trips to the comic stall in Silver Street in Edmonton where, if I was lucky, my dad would be able to afford to buy me a new comic, and the trips to my Uncle where I might also require some new reading material, weren’t all that frequent to be honest... at least not in my memory at any rate.

I remember first seeing the Adam West TV show on television repeats (we had a black and white set right until the 1980s so I never even imagined these had been made in colour when I was a kid) and really getting into them and really loving the Batgirl outfit. Batman was a really big deal for me and I also loved the movie version spin off from this TV show. Of course, at that age I didn’t realise they were “camp” classics... to me they were as serious and sombre as the dark strips in the Batman Annual (or sometimes it was called the Batman Bumper Book) that my parents bought me once a year at Christmas. For any readers outside of the UK, unlike the US “annuals” which were just thick comics, UK annuals were actually hard bound books of reprints and accompanying features which would be published every year just in time for Christmas... and they were a big deal to us UK kids.

I used to watch The Super Friends cartoon series specifically because I like Batman and ditto for that other wretched cartoon series, I don’t remember what it was called exactly, but it featured a character called BatMite which really de-clawed the show.

Jumping further on a large number of years, I remember when Tim Burton’s first Batman movie came out in 1989. It was a big event movie. Not nearly as big as the original Star Wars movie had been in 1977 (and its first two sequels in 1980 and 1983 respectively), for sure, but big enough that I remember being in a very long and winding queue for a cold Saturday midnight screening of the movie outside Barnet ODEON. Unlike a lot of overhyped blockbusters these days, that new Batman movie really was a movie you could go back and watch again and again.

The sequel, Batman Returns, was also a big deal and, again, lived up to its promise. The casting of Michael Keaton (which had inflamed the Batman community prior to the first film's release but calmed down instantly once everyone saw how good he was in the role) was already accepted big time in the title role and his on screen chemistry with the new Catwoman, as played by Michelle Pfeiffer, took everything to new heights. Even Danny Elfman managed to top his already amazing score to the first movie with a beautiful, wintry choral feel and a tie in song, which really did subtly tie into the main Batman melody in the movies, performed by Siouxee And The Banshees. I actually preferred this sequel, with it’s less than subtle nods to both German Expressionism and the Max Fleischer studios, to the first one.

And then came Joel Schumacher and the bomb of two, less than mediocre sequels to the Burton films with Val Kilmer donning the cowl for Batman Forever and George Clooney taking over for Batman And Robin. I hated these two movies at the time (it didn’t help that Billy Dee Williams was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent, after he’d done such a good job as the character in Burton’s version) and I couldn’t believe a Batman movie could be this bad... twice over. Seriously, the only good thing about these two movies were the absolutely superb scores by esteemed composer Elliot Goldenthal. They had a completely different feel to Elfman’s scores... like Carl Stalling on acid, and as a stand alone listen away from the horrible movies, they’re good music to get excited about.

There was a break of about 8 years then, before Christopher Nolan’s first attempt to bring the character to life. I think it was in this time that I first got to see the two original Batman theatrical serials from the forties. These were pretty cool as I’ve always been a fan of movie serials from the 30s, 40s and 50s... my childhood was filled with TV repeats of the three Flash Gordon serials, Buck Rogers, King Of The Rocket Men, Undersea Kingdom, Daredevils Of The Red Circle and Hawk Of The Wilderness. The first Batman serial from 1943, only four years after the Batman’s first appearance in a 1939 issue of Detective Comics (which is what the company name DC actually means... which is why referring to them as DC Comics is as silly as referring to AC Current), is actually pretty cool. The villains left for the police are marked with little bats in their foreheads, if memory serves, and it’s a great little serial all round.

Unfortunately the second serial, Batman And Robin from 1949, has a completely different cast and is a bit of a lacklustre affair compared to the first serial. Columbia, who produced these, weren’t exactly known for their vigour and energy in their serials (I much prefer Universal and Republic serials, truth be told) and that first one seems to have been a bit of a flash in the pan. Still, it’s not terrible and a fun watch. Both serials are going to be revisited again in my future, I’m sure.

Oh... and while we’re at it. I was reading a lot of Batman comics in the 80s. My favourites were The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Cult and a whole raft of DC Elseworlds incarnations of Batman (my favourite one being Gotham By Gaslight where a Victorian era Batman tracks Jack The Ripper). These comics were better than any movie version made so far, it has to be said. Non comics readers underestimate just how subtle and how great and “uncensored” (when dealing with edgy issues a movie wouldn't touch for commercial reasons) comics can be. Some of them are truly great literary experiences and, if you know which ones to read, you should certainly check out the whole host of great literature in the comics world (and do yourself a favour and start by reading The Ballad Of Halo Jones).

So, okay. Then came Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins... a movie I went in to, to be fair, with high expectations. It would be fair to say those expectations were not met.

I’d been hoping for a Batman closer to the gritty yet noble splendour of the original 30s and 40s comics. Instead we had... something else with extremely confusingly edited... to my eyes... action sequences. At first I thought it was just me but when, a week later at the regular Camden Film Fair, I asked a bunch of stallholders what they had thought of the movie... it turned out that the general feeling was of disappointment. People, including myself, were likening it to the Schumacher movies. Now, to be fair, when I was in a position when I had to rewatch Batman Begins a few years ago, I actually enjoyed it a whole lot more than I had the previous time... so I’m guessing if I go back and look at it again now (which I intend to do just before this new movie is released on DVD) I will probably wonder why I ever hated it so much. One of the things I hated about the movie was this though. How could you have the Ras Al Ghul character in the storyline without even mentioning his daughter Talia (pictured above), who had meant so much to the Batman in the 70s in the classic storylines by the likes of Neal Adams (I hope I’m remembering the right artist for that era). This really annoyed me at the time but... more on her later. ;-)

Okay, so I wasn’t exactly dragged to the cinema to see Nolan’s sequel, The Dark Knight, when it came out. It’s my business, since he helped me learn to read after all, to watch all of the Batman movies. But I didn’t rush to see it either... leaving it a week or two into its run to muster up the courage to see how Batman was going to let me down this time. What I saw surprised me greatly. Here we had a very long movie which was... frankly... an absolutely fantastic addition to the Batman movie universe. Possibly the best Batman movie to date, I think. It whizzed by and I saw it a few more times before it finished its run. I was really into it. Nolan finally made a good movie (I don’t have a good track record with liking Nolan, especially after Inception - shudder). It’s a movie which, I think, will be one of those truly iconic classics that will be looked back on in fifty years time and still thought of as a great movie. I truly believe this.

But, after the disappointment of the first movie in the sequence, and the fact that the villain touted for the new one was Bane who had appeared as a character just after I stopped reading the comics but who had, I remembered, been one of the terrible villains in Schumacher’s Batman And Robin, well... I think it would be safe to say that I wasn’t exactly expecting anything other than more disappointment from the new movie. I’d heard the reviews of it were all pretty negative in their verdict. Added to that, the day I saw it was on its opening night, and I’d just heard news a few hours before of the awful massacre of innocent cinemagoers by a guy dressed as Bane in Denver. So I was also a bit wary of going to an opening night performance, even in my country, to be sure.

But I went anyway and you know what? Despite what the critics say, and I think some of them do have a point in that there are a few little problems in this one, I’d have to say that The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty good little movie.  Not as great as The Dark Knight, I would have to say, but certainly a worthy sequel which concludes the dramatic arc set up by the first movies in a logical manner.

The plot is dark... Batman has not been seen in 8 years, following the events depicted in the previous movie, and his alter ego Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. But then Bane surfaces and shuts off Gotham from the world with the threat of a nuclear bomb in a city seized and controlled by him. Like an extreme social experiment, he is going to destroy the city anyway, because he is a follower of Ras Al Ghul from the first movie. Like the character did in the original Knightfall story in the comics (which I confess I haven’t read), he breaks Batman's back and, in this version, imprisons him in an inescapable prison (only one person ever escaped before and the movie implies it was Bane who did this... but as you’ll find at the end of the movie, it wasn’t Bane it was the person who he is the real mastermind behind the whole dastardly plot). While fixing his back and building himself up in “the pit”, Bruce Wayne has a ghostly vision of Ras Al Ghul (played again by Liam Neeson) who gives him some more of the back story, but not the whole thing. Then, with the majority of the police force trapped under ground for a month and with only hours remaining before the bomb goes off... the Batman returns to Gotham allied with Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Fox (Morgan Shepherd) and someone called Miranda (Marion Cotillard) who, it turns out, it not what she seems.

It’s a nice piece of moviemaking. Clichéd as hell, to be sure, but exciting and intriguing... which is not bad for a Batman movie where, frankly, Batman is hardly in it. It’s a sleek, powerful tent peg movie and it won’t let the studio down. It should easily make its money back and then some as its easily the best superhero movie of the year (even if Batman has never, technically, been a superhero).

However, like I said... I do have some problems with it.

One of the things about Nolan, and his The Prestige demonstrates this to it’s detriment, is that he always somehow manages to telegraph any twists coming a half an hour, or even over an hour, before they actually happen. This is not a film-maker who knows how to take his audience by surprise... which is a shame because The Prestige could have been a great movie if he’d not given you the solutions to all the twists right at the start of the movie, before it was even apparent there were any twists (for example, showing you the obvious side effect to Tesla’s later invention right at the start of the film and having two Christian Bales together a lot of the time... no use trying to disguise him in the shots, he’s there).

Similarly, it seemed fairly obvious by the time we meet Marion Cotillard’s character a second time in The Dark Knight Rises, quite early in the film, that she’s probably playing a villainess. Nolan tries to throw us off the scent a little by having a blatant female "bad girl" character in the film, Catwoman, to distract us... and to be fair, Anne Hathaway can be quite distracting, she plays it beautifully... but it just doesn’t serve to throw the audience off the scent. And, of course, as soon as the characters start talking about the legacy of Ras Al Ghul and the The League Of Shadows, it doesn’t take much to figure out that Cotillard is actually playing Talia, the character I’d complained about not being in Batman Begins. She is the one who escaped from “the pit” and she is the one who sleeps with Bruce Wayne but then stabs him near the end of the movie. Now I love Cottilard normally. Been keeping an eye on her since the original French Taxi movies (I especially liked her as the vengeful assassin in Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement) but I don’t think she does such an epic character as Talia justice here.

Now it’s probably not her fault, to be fair. The script is such that she is, I suspect, supposed to be some kind of surprise... but the Talia I remember of old was more of a “Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad” exotic type (in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the original drawings were based on her) and this is just not the way Cottilard is presented in this movie. But... it’s a minor criticism since, after all, the Alfred Pennyworth portrayed in the Nolan trilogy (and played brilliantly by Michael Caine as an ex-military butler) is absolutely nothing like the character as he appeared in the comics either... another “in name only” version but, to be fair, Caine’s creation of him is a good addition.

But what about Alfred?

He’s not in this one much because he leaves Bruce Wayne. Quits on him. Alfred would never have done that in the comics but, since it’s not really the same Alfred, I guess I can forgive Nolan the use of the character to give a dramatic twist of the knife and add more gravitas to the proceedings. So well played on that front. And you mustn’t completely give up on Alfred on this one because one of the stories he tells is of the time when Bruce Wayne had left Gotham in the first movie, to find himself and train to become Batman. The story is of Alfred’s holiday/vacations and his fantasies of seeing Bruce Wayne and his girlfriend alive and well and not going back to Gotham... you’ll need that information for the end of the movie.

Another thing I have a problem with is about various characters knowing more than they possibly could. If Ras Al Ghul is merely a hallucination from a recovering invalid, how can he tell him the full backstory (to be fair, he could have got this finally from another prisoner but this little hole is left unexplained). Similarly, when Batman finally returns to Gotham, how does he know how many hours they have left until the bomb explodes. I suppose Bane could have told him... but, really?

And Nolan also resorts to dragging out time in a manner which doesn’t work. Showing a time bomb ticking down intercut with action sequences and then cutting back to find either not many seconds have actually passed during that part of the action or, conversely, too much time has passed. This is an attempt to ramp up suspense while the audience are supposed to be “lost in the action” but it rarely ever works when that kind of tactic is employed in film and it certainly doesn’t here.

It’s small details like this that drag the movie down a little under its own weight. Some of these things may well have been answered in the rough cut and edited out for length (it’s currently almost a 3 hour running time) but it makes the difference sometimes between a great movie, which this is not, and a really good one... which this kinda is, actually.

Having said that though... there’s a lot of positive stuff in this film. The relationship between James Gordon and Blake, the future Robin in this story arc, is really great stuff and even minor characters who start off bad or misguided actually do have a built in progression to them. Mistakes are admitted. Allegiances change. Just like people in real life. This movie, like the previous two, embraces the traits and personalities that live in the grey area... it’s not so much a series about dark and light, good and evil, but shades of grey. That’s what makes the characters matter to the audience. Because even the villains can be empathised with... to a certain extent.

There’s also the nice device of setting up a neat solution to the “saving of the city” only to have that solution snatched away only minutes before it’s too late. This is a nice Nolan trick which really works here.

Make no mistake, this is an exciting and dramatic story, solidly backed up with Hans Zimmer’s excellent score. James Newton Howard did not collaborate with him on this third part and it’s not as good a score as the last one... but it’s still pretty gorgeous sounding to my tin ears. And it all leads up to the point, once battle is done, to the rising foreshadowed in the film’s title. Red herring time again because the Rise of the Dark Knight is not Bruce Wayne climbing his way to freedom from “the pit” and saving Gotham. The rising here is a biblical metaphor.

Because Batman dies.

Except he doesn’t... only to the world.

He tows the atomic bomb which can now not be aborted out into the ocean and saves Gotham and dies in the process... leaving Bruce Wayne’s estate to his former butler, Alfred... who is racked with shame for not fulfilling his promise of taking care of young master Bruce to his dead parents. But by this time, the very inclusion of this scene at the funeral will be enough to tip most people off that the dark knight is, indeed, about to rise.

There’s a little thing about the discovery that the flying batwing actually did get the autopilot fixed six months prior to the events at the end of the film. And evidence suggests that it was Bruce Wayne who figured out how to fix it. Which means he knew he could leave his aircraft on autopilot. To quote Adam West’s incarnation of the character from the 1966 movie... “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” Except, if you fix the autopilot... sometimes you can and stage your own “retirement death” in the process.

Which is where Alfred’s story about his time spent on vacation comes into play... and which he will finally see fulfilled at the end of the movie with Bruce Wayne and his new girlfriend Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman).

And as I said earlier in the article... we also have the set up for Robin. It’s a nice little touch to know that Blake will carry on the fight against the crime in Gotham, but there is also a little tinge of regret in my heart.

This film is almost set up for a sequel. But they’ve said it’s definitely the final installment of this trilogy, which will be a shame. I would like to see what happens to these characters ten years down the line. A new super threat facing Gotham, Robin attempting to put things right and failing... he needs help... enter Batman and Catwoman (now Batgirl) coming out of retirement as the three fight fire and save Gotham once again. I doubt it’s a movie that would ever get made... but it would have been nice to see it.

If you’ve read this far I’m assuming you’ve already seen this movie... so you know by now that you either liked it or didn’t. It would get a fairly positive recommendation from me but, like i said, you’ve already seen it, right? But if you liked it as much as me, of course... there’s no reason why you can’t go and see it again. Same bat time... same bat channel!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Nightmare Movies

Taking A Kim View

Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman
Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408805039

It’s funny. I’ve always had kind of a schizophrenic relationship with the work of Kim Newman.

I’ve always loved his literature, the original Anno Dracula trilogy in particular is a shiny set of works which no lover of pulp fiction should be without. When it comes to his film reviews, however, I’ve never really agreed with a lot of his final verdicts on the various creations concocted by the vast flora and fauna of budget-wise movie makers over the years. In fact, I gave another book he worked on a bit of a bad time, although I believe he only plugged in some small chunks of the contents of the book if I’m not much mistaken (see my review of Horror! 333 Films To Scare You To Death here if you are so inclined).

That being said, I do realise that, whether I agree with Mr. Newman’s final verdict or not, his writing style is excellent and always very readable. Which is the case with his completely revised and re-vamped book Nightmare Movies. I have to say though, that I was a lot more sympathetic with the majority of his views in this book so perhaps my tastes are changing as the passage of time leads me shambling, zombie-like to my final resting place. It’s also an extremely entertaining read... which helps a lot and is another testament to Mr. Newman’s knack at "turning a nice phrase".

I knew what my main complaint with this book was going to be even before I started reading it... pretty much the way in which various people define what is a horror film is not something which can easily be pinned down and agreed upon, and I’ve got very rigid and crotchety in my view of what constitutes a horror film over the years. However, Newman deftly sidesteps my main concern here right from the outset by opening up with a view that this is not a book specifically about horror movies (indeed it isn’t and in spite of the fact that the publishing company have felt the need to subtitle this edition as “Horror On Screen Since The 1960s”) but about “nightmare movies.” That is to say, movies which contain horrific or nightmarish content (I don’t personally buy into the prescription that things which merely horrify a person subjectively are concrete enough to define a genre for the use by the general population) and, for the most part, the writer steers clear of that definition throughout the course of this weighty tome although, to be honest, he did let me down when he started talking about Hannibal Lector... yes, I understand he is an influential presence on the horror genre, but I don’t buy into the fact that a psychotic serial killer is in any way a monster. A serial killer is a human being who has serious issues... he is not the defining inhabitant of a horror film... that’s my personal view anyway and I’m sticking to it.

However, that minor gripe aside, this book is a strange journey of a read and I’m not sure I’m the right chunk of the movie going public that this is levelled at. Rather than spend a lot of time on individual films (there are individual reviews in here for important works but not so many as you might expect), he presents us with a blisteringly entertaining overview of an array of “nightmare movies” many of which I already knew inside out, and which lead me to suspect that this tome was more written for the novice reader. However, having said that, there were, especially towards the end of the book, a lot of movies which I’d equally not heard of. I think this is probably just one of the perils of writing an overview of a particular genre and it must be very hard to try to second guess how much of your subject your readers will be familiar with. Thankfully, Mr. Newman makes no apologies and whizzes through various movies at a rate of knots which, while sometimes frustrating in terms of items I was personally not familiar with, was ultimately, I’m sure, the absolute best way to approach writing something of this nature.

Mr. Newman weaves words as if they were a needle and thread sewing the eyes of a freshly dead corpse and, although it’s quite a long read (nearly 600 pages of main text in a fairly small, compared to many recent release, type size) there’s seriously never a dull moment and you certainly won’t regret picking this one up if you’re a fan of this particular type of movie. I can see why a lot of people consider it to be one of the key texts on its subject and I certainly wish I’d have read this when I was a lot younger and knew less about these kinds of gaudy entertainments. Certainly, readers new to the field will find this book extremely valuable but, as I alluded to earlier, seasoned veterans of the visually macabre and ghoulish celluloid dishes over the years will also find something to discover lurking within the pages of what I now refer to as Newman’s Necronomicon.

This one’s definitely a recommended read from me and, if you like it and you’re a reader of fiction and enjoy catching numerous movie and pulp literature references, I would also suggest you catch the new editions of Newman’s Anno Dracula trilogy (which I’m going to have to buy again myself now they’ve been updated) as there’s a lot in these particular tomes to delight all fans of the genre.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Watch Out We’re Mad (...Altrimenti ci arrabbiamo!)

The Good, The Mad & The Ugly

Watch Out We’re Mad (...Altrimenti ci arrabbiamo!)
Italy/Spain 1974
Directed by Marcello Fondato
Paradiso Region 2

I’ve been searching for this movie for 38 years!

Back in 1974, when I was six years old, I went away on holiday somewhere with my parents to a Butlins Holiday Camp. I don’t remember where it was but I do remember attending a screening of this movie, Watch Out We’re Mad with my mother and father. I also remember that both me and my father both loved it!

There are a few things I recalled about this movie my whole life, even though the details of the on screen antics of the two main protagonists had dimmed to nothing pretty quickly over the first couple of years. But here are the impressions which were left to me before I rewatched this again a couple of weeks ago...

Well, for one thing, it was the first exposure any of us in our family had had, at the time, to the world famous comedy duo of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. These two are a riot when they’re in their own separate films (I especially appreciate Bud Spencer in Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, not that it’s a comedy but he’s still got a lot of good spirited presence in his scenes) but when the two are put side to side in a movie, there’s a special on-screen chemistry which makes them an absolute joy to watch, even if the movies they are in are not always the most special.

Then there’s the action. I remembered there being lots of punch ups in it. Lot’s of sequences where, pretty much, people just hit each other a lot. This kind of stuff is good when you are a six year old, so it’s no wonder that a movie which involved lots of face pounding was a big hit with me.

And then there was the music. For some reason, though I only saw it the once in that Butlins Holiday Camp, that main title music always stuck with me. I used to whistle it all the time as a six/seven year old, play fighting in the back garden (before Doc Savage came out and the music to that was added to my repertory, along with the music from the Flash Gordon serials and, later, Battle Of The Planets and Monkey). It was a favourite piece of mine, although it would be only a few years short of the 38 years it took me to find the movie to be able to find that particular track on a CD compilation of the De Angelis brothers. It always bothered me that I could only ever get one track from the soundtrack of the movie... until I watched it again after all these years. Now I know why... keep reading if you want to find out too ;-)

When the DVD finally came through the mail, one of the things that hadn’t stuck in my mind was that Donald Pleasance is also in the movie... playing the psychiatric adviser to the chief villain, played by the very British “whos-that-I-recognise-him-from-stuff” John Sharp. Sharp plays the character as very stupid, in order to give Donald Pleasance the chance to shout at him and over act, really a lot, in a histrionic, German psychiatrist kinda way. A performance that would seem way over the top even if it were in a mid 1970s Saturday morning cartoon, let alone a live action movie... although, to be fair, that’s almost what Watch Out We’re Mad is... a cartoon with live actors. Watching it again now, it’s quite clear that if I were to call the film somewhat comic-book in its presentation, it would be pretty much understating the obvious.

The plot is quite simplistic. Two heroes, Bud and Terence, win a dune buggy in a stock car race which is tied between them. They spend a day arguing about ownership but in the middle of their hot dog eating/beer drinking contest to settle their dispute, they get inadvertently caught up in a smash raid by the local gang and their new dune buggy goes up in smoke. They then spend the rest of the movie harassing the gang to replace their dune buggy and getting into lots of punch ups and chases in the process. And that’s it.

And the reason I couldn’t find a decent LP or CD album to this movie over the years, it turns out, is because asides from maybe ten minutes of other music in the film, most of which is just diegetic source anyway, the music really just consists of that same main title song, Dune Buggy, played over and over again throughout the movie whenever there’s an action sequence happening. No wonder I remembered it so well when I was a kid, it’s repeated on the soundtrack all the time. Luckily... ‘cause it’s as catchy as hell!

What I got from the experience of looking back on this movie is that... it really hasn’t got much else going for it than what I remembered. The direction and cinematography are all quite competent, which for an Italian movie means it’s more considered and artistically presented than a lot of other countries efforts might have been with the same material to work with... but it still is just a movie about people riding cars and motor bikes and punching each other in the face a lot. I couldn’t say I was disappointed though. Sure I would have liked to have seen more in it but, hey, it’s a nice enough piece and I’ll certainly be watching it again some time in the next few years.

Unlike the dodgy Region 1 edition of the movie which is in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the Region 2 edition is in a 1.85:1 widescreen presentation, which I’m guessing is the way I initially saw it all those years ago. If you’re a Bud Spencer and Terence Hill fan then this is probably one of their better, non-Western movies and you might like to give it a watch. If you’re a parent and you want something with a lot of action in it to watch with the kids, then this would probably fit the bill. If you’re a fan of comedy/action movies and are able to watch things in the context of when they came out instead of comparing them to their modern equivalents, then you might also have a blast with this. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone but, if you fit one of those three categories, then you might like to give it a spin. Either way, it brought back fond memories for both me and my dad, and for that I’m grateful.

Okay. Now I’m pretty sure my memory is not playing tricks on me but I remember going to another Butlins Holiday Camp (no, really, I’m not a red coat fan, honest gov!) a year or two later and seeing the sequel to this which was called, if I remember correctly, We’re Still Mad. This is another movie I would dearly love to see again but after looking for this one in all the usual places, I am being told that this sequel movie never existed in the first place. Except I remember seeing it. Now it may have been “marketed” as a sequel to audiences over here and “smoothed over” in the dub but I’d really like to get a bead on this movie if anyone else can remember it? Would really like to get a copy of this one somehow. Please DM or @ me on Twitter if you know the movie I’m talking about.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The 7x7 Award

The Magnificent 7x7

I must confess I’d never heard of the 7x7 Award before.

Not until last night when a fellow blogger Raghavmodi tweeted me to let me know I was one of his seven recipients of this honour.

As soon as I saw it took the form of a chain, passed on in a widening circle, my back was up because... well, we’ve all seen those silly chain letters and emails. But then I realised I was kinda missing the point on this one because... well it actually is a great honour if you think about it. A fellow blogger has thought my stuff good enough to receive this kind of attention. The award may well spread the same way as a virus but it’s actually a really nice thing...

It’s an antidote to all the cynicism that you see around you and have to wade through on a daily basis both in the real and virtual worlds. Something which says your fellow bloggers are taking notice and giving you a pat on the back and so, it’s in that spirit, that I now accept the award and will do my best to point you in the direction of the seven people who I will do the same favour for.

So big thanks to Raghavmodi for thinking of me in this manner. Please check out his blog at which is one of his many blogs on a range of subjects. This is the one of his I go to the most, obviously, because it’s about movies... my "not so secret" passion.

So, from what I can make out, there are three rules which I have to obey to be able to retain and pass on this beacon of illumination to another seven recipients.

Rule 1. Tell everyone something that nobody else knows about yourself. 
That’s the scary one I guess.

Rule 2. Post a link to one of my posts that I think best fits the following categories:
a. Most Beautiful Piece.
b. Most Helpful Piece.
c. Most Popular Piece.
d. Most Controversial Piece.
e. Most Surprisingly Successful Piece.
f. Most Underrated Piece.
g. Most Pride-Worthy Piece.

Rule 3.  Pass this award on to seven other bloggers.
Again, not so easy to do as I’d first thought.

Okay then. So here goes... I’ll do my bit with thanks.

Rule 1: Tell everyone something that nobody else knows about yourself.
Okay... when I eat dessert or cereal, I prefer to use the big metal spoon with a little teddy bear etched on to it which I’ve been using since I was a toddler... presumably a toddler with a big mouth... or I’ve got a stupidly small mouth now! One of the two.

Rule 2: Post a link to one of the posts that I think best fits the following categories:

a. Most Beautiful Piece
Hmmm... not sure I’ve written anything truly beautiful and the one I might have put in here would probably have to go in Most Pride-Worthy Piece... so instead, I’m linking to My 100th Blog Post because it was created in memory of the late, great Harvey Pekar (who had just died very recently at the time) and I at least used a lot of colours in it. I’m naked in it and that’s not particularly beautiful... but not in all the panels...

You used to be able to make this comic page much bigger but the blogger interface seems to have changed and removed this option... so just copy it into another piece of software if you want to read the panels comfortably, I guess. Like Photoshop maybe?

b. Most Helpful Piece.
Well, although it’s already fairly out of date, my most helpful post to film novices would have been my DVD Couture post here....

It could really do with updating at some point to reflect the fact that labels like Encore, who did some fantastic Jean Rollin boxes, no longer seem to be players in the market and to reflect more recent great labels like Arrow Films and Sazuma.

c. Most Popular Piece
Hmmm... well I don’t know why but this review of the not too terrible remake of 13 Assassins is visited a number of times a day from people all around the world doing google searches. It’s a very rare day indeed that it doesn’t get read at least once... but it’s not one of my favourites. You can read it here...

d. Most Controversial Piece.
Blimey. I dunno. Controversy implies a difference of opinion... so I suppose that means a post where most people would disagree with me? I haven’t had too many disagreeable comments, thankfully, but I did quite like, despite the obvious problems of bad decisions at the adaptation stage, the new movie version of John Carter. and I know a lot of critics and viewers were a lot less impressed with this movie than I was. So maybe I’ll pick that one. Read it here...

e. Most Surprisingly Successful Piece.
Well... technically my most popular post was also my most surprising but, to be fair, I was surprised that my January 2011 review of TinTin And The Golden Fleece, the first of the live-action TinTin movies, has had as many reads as it has. Take a look if you’re into the adventures of the boy reporter...

f. Most Underrated Piece.
Well... I hate to trash movies, to be sure, and I don’t do it that often if I can help it. I usually can find at least some redeeming features in it. But there was one particular film called The Haunting Of Winchester House 3D that was just so awful and incompetent that I couldn’t help but poke fun at it just in order to preserve my sanity. I don’t wish any of the cast and crew on this any hurt and it was probably wrong of me to let rip quite so badly... but I also think it’s one of my more entertaining reviews and, for better or worse, here it is...

g. Most Pride-Worthy Piece.
Actually, My 300th Blog Post - Faces Of Caroline Munro is also one of my most popular postings... but let me tell you why it’s also the one I’m most proud of. The minifigure drawings I did to celebrate my fondness for Caroline Munro were actually spotted by Caroline herself and for a while I had a shout out on her website saying how much she liked them. Then, earlier this year, I had a canvass print made of them and gave it to Caroline when she was doing a signing at the Westminster Film Fair. She seemed to really love it and that made me very happy, I can tell you. So here’s the link to that one...

Rule 3.  Pass this award on to seven other bloggers 
Okay... so here comes the really difficult bit. I have to reciprocate and highlight seven other bloggers to take receipt of this award. I thought this was going to be really easy until I realised there were 10 or 12 people who I actually wanted to include. It wasn’t easy to narrow it down to seven... this was not something I wanted to do, to be honest. But then I realised... hey, at least a couple of those seven are as likely to include the people in their recipient’s list that I haven’t been able to in mine. So I figured... time to make some ruthless decisions. Here then are my final selections for the 7x7 Award.

Alex Kittle - Filmforager
Alex Kittle’s brilliant creation Filmforager is easily the greatest and most consistently diverse batch of film reviews on the internet. And she also does some great artwork based on her viewings, some of which you can purchase in her etsy shop. If you haven’t even seen her site yet and you're a fan of movies, please take a look as soon as possible here...

Pipisnips - Blogging My Dead Dad
This is a blog which isn’t updated as often as I’d like (yeah, I’m greedy for good writing) but Blogging My Dead Dad is, bar none, the most moving set of blog posts I’ve ever read. And it’s bloody well written and intense in its honesty too. You should definitely check Pipisnips blog out if you’re a fan of being alive. Catch it here...

Jim Moon aka Hypnogoria - The Moon Lens
If you like fiction and film based on horror and fantasy then Hypnogoria’s blog is absolutely up your street. I’ve never known such a thoroughly researched blogger and his articles are always immensely entertaining and well written. He also regularly records and deposits a lot of quite lengthy podcasts on here, which you can also subscribe to via itunes. If I want an opinion on something to do with ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, zombies and goodness knows what else... Jim Moon’s The Moon Lens is your best stop off point...

Buckocowboyland - Cowboylands blog
Before I started reading Buckocowboyland’s compelling Cowboylands blog posts, I’d forgotten that I’d quite liked westerns. But the enthusiasm of the cowboy lifestyle coming across from every post made me a regular reader and reminded me that I love Westerns too. If you want to be able to tell your Gene Autrey from your Roy Rogers and your Tom Mix from your William S. Hart, I suggest you saddle up and head over to Bucko’s blog at a gallop here...

James Devereaux - The Great Acting Blog
You know that old Hitchcock quote that actors should be treated like cattle? Well I kinda half used to believe that the actors role is a severely diminished one compared to what it actually is. The sincerity, blinding logic and devotion to the craft by actor James Devereaux put me straight on that rubbish. I now, because of this guy, remember to really consider the performances of everything I watch, whereas before I’d just thought of actors as moving furniture. The performances are a very key component in all performing art and it’s this guy and his weekly posts that made me wake up and smell the Kafka! Check him out here...

Daniel Martin Eckhart - Write, Write, Write
Sometimes we forget that these compelling and much talked about screen entertainments we constantly consume have hard working writers behind them. People like screenwriter Daniel Martin Eckhart who has a blog called Write Write Write which is worth its weight in gold for anybody who is wanting to get into screenwriting and, frankly, anybody who is writing period. I’m just a blogger but even I found a tip of his about leaving off a long project in the middle of a sentence immensely helpful. You should seriously check this guy out...

Amanda Norman - Gothic and Horror Photography
Last, but by no means least, is the weird and wonderful world of Amanda Norman. She has an excellent eye for taking some very atmospheric and eerie photographs, inspired by the kind of environments you find in old ghost stories and 1930s/40s horror movies. She sells these plus also uses some of her shots in her homemade gothic jewellery which she sells on her website, where you can also find her blog here...

So that’s it then. My seven recipients for the 7x7 Award. I hope that you give them all a good look and I hope that they each find seven worthy bloggers to pass the baton to, so to speak.

Again, thanks to Raghavmodi for making me one of his recipients. And thanks to all you readers who look at my posts from time to time. I really do appreciate it. All the best!

Friday, 13 July 2012

One For The Money

Plum’s The Word

One For The Money 
USA 2012
Directed by Julie Anne Robinson
Entertainment In Video Region 2

Okay... so yet again we have a film that I’ve been patiently waiting to come out at the cinema over here, only for it to go straight to the sell-thru market and leap out of the Tesco DVD chart at me. Admittedly, I was only keeping an eye open so I could take my parents, who are huge fans of the books, to see it but, still, it would have been nice to shuffle them into the cinema to check it out rather than get mugged by it in the shops. Pay heed please distributors!

One For The Money is the second of two films (the first was a TV movie in 2002) made of the first of writer Janet Evanovich’s popular series of comical mystery novels about an attitude-gets-you-through-in-the-place-of-competence bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum and her adorable cast of supporting characters. The novels (the 19th in the official Stephanie Plum series comes out this November) are all named after successive numbers... One For The Money, Two For The Dough, Three To Get Deadly etc... and the ones I’ve read (okay then, heard read to me as in-car entertainment as a spoken word CD) have all been pretty well written, solid novels which I’m amazed haven’t been turned into a hit series of films by now.

Well... having seen this latest version, I can kinda see why actually. There’s a little problem here and there’s, absolutely nothing wrong with the movie... I’d recommend it as both a good night in and a brilliant adaptation from the source material, as it happens... but it’s just not an event movie and I’m guessing this is why it had little (possibly none, for all I know) cinema time in this country. It’s a nice, amusing and charmingly comical mystery movie, completely reflective of the source material which has inspired it. Unfortunately, I’m guessing this means it’s not expected to corner the market in teenage ticket sales which, like it or not, is where Hollywoodland have got their sites firmly set these days.

So what can I say... it’s filled with people I’ve never heard of... plus John Leguizamo playing a, typical for him, villainous role (when he would have been better off playing one of the stand up regulars in this one, methinks) and the one and only Debbie Reynolds in the iconic, for the novels, role of grandma. Unfortunately, my one main criticism of this particular adaptation is that grandma, who is obsessed with all things weaponry, is not given enough screen time here. That part needed a lot of expanding, I think, to help the movie along a little more... and it’s a shame if, as I suspect, they stop at just one movie in this series.

The lead character is played by an actress I’ve not seen in anything before called Katherine Heigl... but I can tell you this. She makes an excellent Stephanie Plum and does, indeed, carry the whole production on her shoulders. Not just in terms of being an excellent actress who portrays a likeable character that the audience can identify with but also, as a proper realisation of the character as she is in the book. They seem to have picked the perfect actress for the role. I just hope they give her another shot with a sequel.

Ditto on the screenplay. It’s a well written adaptation with a good ear for Evanovich’s dialogue and any bits where you can guess what’s going to happen next, and I confess there are a fair few moments like this, are not necessarily the fault of the movie as I remember the source novel being a little predictable at times. However, these stories aren’t about their predicability, or lack of... they’re about classic noir-style scripts updated in a modern setting with a cast of characters which raise it above the strengths and weaknesses of the storyline.

I think the main problem in terms of box office potential in this is that there are no real “set pieces” in the movie. It’s not a problem for me because I find that kind of film-making stale, derogatory to the story and obvious anyway, but I think a lot of modern movies do contain “larger than life” sequences and, unfortunately, this seems to be what young audiences have been brain washed into expecting. In stark contrast, One For The Money features a well-rounded script, more than competent (and sometimes excellent) performances, good work-a-day direction and cinematography and it hustles along at a not too slow pace... although a punchier editing style might well have lifted the movie into something a little more marketable or remarkable. In short, a great little movie which isn’t going to start any fires but which certainly isn’t a waste of your time. I’m hoping it will do well on DVD as I do think there’s a fairly sizeable audience for this kind of movie out there... especially when it’s based on such a long running series of books which already have an audience they can bring to it!

I think one of the problems here may also have been the marketing. How many Janet Evanovich or Stephanie Plumb fans are there out there who eve knew there was a movie. Granted, the title of the film is lifted directly from the book, but it’s also a popular expression and you really can’t count on the recognition factor for that specific sector of the market is my guess. What they maybe should have done is called it something like Stephanie Plum: One For The Money and maybe more people would have twigged and turned out for it in the US (where I’m guessing it underperformed, hence the lack of a substantial cinema release over here?).

At the end of the day though, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a nice little movie which is well adapted from the novel and which will appeal to all the kinds of fans of mysteries who would enjoy a little Scooby Doo/Nancy Drew mixed up into smart one liners from a sexy “dame”. And fans of this particular series of novels need not fear that the movie sells the series short... it’s safe to go watch this one people! It does the job. So if you’re looking for something light, breezy and charming... with a little extra sexiness and weaponry thrown in for good measure... Plum’s the one and Stephanie’s your gal!