Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Legends of the Superheroes

Just-less League

Legends of the Superheroes
1978 USA
Directed by Bill Carruthers & Chris Darley
Warner Archives Region 1

Holy Catastrophe, Batman!

You know, on paper, Legends Of The Superheroes must have sounded like it might just have worked and, frankly, the line up for this live action superhero-fest is enough to get any comic book fan clamouring to see this... that was my first mistake.

Ten years after the last episode of the 1960s Batman TV show aired, Adam West and Burt Ward reprised their roles of Batman and Robin in the only two episodes of this show ever produced. Joining West and Ward are Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman, Black Canary and The Huntress. Frank Gorshin reprises his iconic TV role of The Riddler for the first episode but, it looks like he had enough sense to bail out in time before the second episode was shot. He joins up with such super villains as Dr. Silvana, Sinestro and Solomon Grundy to blow up the world unless the Justice Leaguers (never referred to as such, this is more or less a remake of an episode of the old Superfriends cartoon show) can work together, follow The Riddler’s clues and save the day... like you know they are going to.

I got really excited about this show a few months back when I found out about it, but there are two things that should have tipped me off as to just how unbelievable a mess of a TV show this is. These are the fact that it doesn’t seem to have ever aired in this country (having now seen it... I’m so not surprised) and the other obvious thing is that I’d never even heard of this one until a short while ago. Seriously... how does that happen? I was ten years old at the time and superheroes were “it”. How does this one manage to get shown anywhere without various people of my age group even finding out about it. Ahh... I guess the days before the internet had their advantages and disadvantages. But even so, to stay off my radar for this long? It’s almost like they tried to bury it (understandable)... until Warner Archives resurrected it on DVD. And I don’t really blame them to be honest... with all these superheroes in it, it’s bound to be a good seller.

To the unsuspecting public at large, that is.

Legends Of the Supeheroes is easily one of the worst, boring, only survive it by gnawing one of your own legs off* chapters in live action TV superhero shenanigans that was ever picked up on a cathode ray tube. No, worse than that... scrub out “one of”. It’s basically an excuse for various supervillains and other characters to mock the DC superheroes and for the DC heroes to go along with it and show just how stupid they are. All this to fake audience applause and horrible canned laughter. It’s unremarkably shot, has terrible acting (although West and Ward seem to be true to form, just a little more ridiculous but enjoyable when they're in their “zone”), has dire music and the cheapest special effects ever (The Flash just dematerialises and reappears somewhere else to signify that he must have run there at super speed). It’s sexist (the women seem to be deferred to in a derogatory manner quite often and chosen for their ability to look like they’re about to burst out of the top of their costume at any second), racist (don’t even get me started on “ghetto-man”) and, worse than all this, simply unfunny... although it’s definitely being played for laughs.

And as bad as you think this first episode is... the second episode manages to run this even further into the ground by being even lamer than the previous edition. The second takes the form of a “roast” where various supervillains and acquaintances run our heroes down, as hosted by Ed McMahon. Seriously, this show is so badly written and disrespectful of the characters that I’m really grateful we didn’t have this in the UK when I was a kid. It would have sullied the reputations of these characters so much that my brain would have melted and I would have never been able to read of their exploits again. Just to give you a taste of how bad this is... when Hawkman’s mother comes around and starts taking cheap pot-shots at her son, she asks him to phone when he’s next visiting home so she knows to put some clean newspapers on his bed. That’s the level and quality of humour on this one I’m afraid folks and, combined with an awful and thunderous rendition of That’s Entertainment by a supervillain called Mordru and an interview segment where The Atom and his new fiance Giganta are quizzed about the difficulties of their sex life... it has to be said that this show ran for two episodes too long.

This is the first Warner Archives disc that I’ve seen that comes with any extras... and it’s the first time I’ve not wanted one of their discs to have any. If you can handle it, and I braved it I’m afraid, there is a deleted scene and a couple of outtakes on here, including a bit where you are invited to watch the entire finale song of episode 2 again, but with slightly different sound on it. This really isn’t for the feint hearted, folks.

There’s no way I can recommend anyone, superhero fan or not, to watch Legends Of The Superheroes. Luckily for Warner Archives, unless you know just how awful and unfunny the content of these episodes actually are, then you will be drawn in by the promise of seeing the live action versions of all these superheroes teamed together... so I really have no way of warning you. Still, I have to admire the label in question because they have been responsible for some terrific releases and even this... um... curio is something which should see the light of day at some point, I guess. But it’s a hard watch and a far cry even from the original Batman TV show in terms of the camp content that made that show so brilliant. It really doesn’t take itself seriously and, although that’s not an absolute necessity and could have worked really well for them... well, it didn’t! And I almost wished I hadn’t known about this one.

Holy wasted opportunity!

*with thanks and apologies to Douglas Adams

Saturday, 24 November 2012

We Are The Night (Wir Sind Die Nacht)

Nacht Fever!

We Are The Night (Wir Sind Die Nacht)
2010 Germany
Directed by Dennis Gansel
Momentum Region 2

What a great little discovery. Sometimes, twitter can be a good place to learn about things, as is the case here because, if it wasn’t for @filmforager’s review of this movie on her site a couple of months back, this film wouldn’t have even been a blip on my radar. As it is, I feel like I’ve been allowed to unearth a small movie gem I might not have ever known was buried in the celluloid history of the vampire film... although I might have discovered it in ten years or so down the line when all the books documenting the great vampire masterpieces of our era make mention of this flawed classic... as they will.

Flawed classic? Well yes, there are a couple of minor things about this which, on reflection, could have been attended to a little better. But these things in no way diminish the strong, stylishly made movie that is We Are The Night.

The movie opens strongly with a montage of old photographs and then paintings with three of the four female leads of this movie montaged into them to demonstrate that these ladies have obviously been around, in the case of one of them, for gazillions of years... well, hundreds anyway. This is followed by an even stronger opening which seems quite fresh but is actually a main staple of certain classics of the genre... just updated a little.

In the 1922 movie Nosferatu, for instance, which was loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the tradition of the vampire chartering passage on a long journey and feeding off the crew and passengers and arriving at the destination with all the living inhabitants dead, was already being established. The secondary opening of We Are The Night sees us with the three vampire women on a plane in which they’ve slaughtered all the crew and passengers. There is some chatting and posturing for a while until the three bail out of the aircraft (without any parachutes, of course, these are vampires after all) and the plane is left to crash. Of course, the fact that airline journeys are not exactly long journeys these days and so the ladies do not need the blood of the passengers to survive, tells you everything you need to know about the casual attitude these vamps have to the humans with whom they share the world.

After this we meet Lena, who is a small time thug living on her animal cunning in the streets of Berlin. It doesn’t take long, though, before her “special potential” is realised by Louise who has a lesbian crush on her and vamps her up to immortal status quicker than you can say “Mina Harker needs an arm full”. The iconic looking Louise, played brilliantly by an actress called Nina Hoss, is the matriarchal leader of this particular group of vampires, and recalls in some ways the opulence of Delphine Seyrig’s Countess Bathory from Daughters Of Darkness, perhaps filtered through Catherine Deneuve’s character in Tony Scott’s The Hunger.

Actually, the performance of all the four main “vampire chicks” in this one is rivetting. Each one has a kind of implied past, with one of the girls who was a silent film actress when she got vamped up by Louise (there’s a lovely line about her not being able to survive the transition to talkies anyway, in this) who has a really moving scene with an old lady in hospital who... well I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll get there ahead of the scene but it’s still lovely and emotionally tragic.

I love the world these gals live in too. The entire race of vampires now on the planet are female, apparently. All the male vampires were too stupid to not be caught and killed (there’s a lovely reference to Dracula right there) and the female vampires took care of the rest because they were dangerous in their stupidity. I like this concept. However, it also presents us with the two problems I have with the film.

One is... for a movie which is so into lesbian/bisexual vampirising and hedonistic living, there’s no actual overt nudity in the film and, though it’s certainly not necessary and doesn’t in any way spoil the experience as a whole, I think a couple of scenes of unbridled nakedness would have raised the picture up another level and given the characters a certain sense of casual adulthood as opposed to being, in some cases, just perpetual teens out for a good time.

The other problem I had with this was the fact that it doesn’t take long for things in this movie to fall apart big time and the girls are just trying (and mostly failing) to stay alive by the end of the picture. One of the characters does make a reference in deference to their habit of slaughtering people willy-nilly in which she states that, “we were never much good with clearing up after ourselves”, but this really is no excuse. These women have been surviving for an incredibly long time, especially Louise, so it’s a bit much to believe that a mere police raid on their hotel lair due to some sloppy, post-slaughter tidying up, is the beginning of the end for them. This doesn’t quite add up in my book when it comes to story logic.

However, this small error in judgement, and it’s only my opinion, in no way diminishes just how good this movie is. it’s so crisply shot with some nice, long and slow takes (this is definitely not MTV style editing here folks) with some smooth flowing tracking shots of some wonderful sets and locations which are beautifully lit. The hotel lobby wouldn’t look out of place in the aforementioned Daughters Of Darkness, for example, and the dinosaur park where the nightclub sequences near the start of the movie take place is just gorgeous.

There are little details about the characters as well which pay off if you’re paying close attention. It’s nice to see one of the girls watching Frits Lang’s Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler (reviewed here) for example and you get the sense that the character watching may even have been one of the stars, forever immortalised as a vampire. Well, maybe not forever but... well, if you watch the movie you’ll see. There’s seriously a lot of nice little character quirks going on in this film and some wonderful little death scenes too. One, which involves a page torn from a book is a nice little visual moment, for example.

In conclusion, a wonderful little movie, beautifully shot with some gorgeous colours, expert performances from the actors, a haunting score by a composer I’ve not heard of called Heiko Maile (criminally unreleased commercially, it seems, although the haunting main title song, Self Fulfilling Prophecy by Scala and Kolacny Brothers, is available on itunes for 99 pence) and tons of high fashion, vampire-cool posturing. If you’re are any kind of fan of vampire movies in general, then this is one you’re definitely going to want to catch up with at some point. A definite recommendation from me and don’t forget to check out filmforager’s review of the film here. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Silurians

The Cave And The Bold

The Silurians
UK Airdate: 31st January to 14th March 1970
BBC Region 2

Well... today marks the 49th anniversary of the broadcast of the first ever episode of Doctor Who, so I thought I’d better watch a story and write a review of it. Here we have Jon Pertwee’s second story as the Doctor and I’ve not seen this since I maybe glimpsed bits of it from wherever I was playing or laying when it was on when I was two years old, on a black and white TV set... until I revisited it now. I honestly don’t know if I saw any of this as a kid or not, but little flashes of imagery did keep coming back to me as I was watching it.

I wasn’t expecting much more than a clunky piece of whimsy out of this but, once again, the serial surprised me by being fairly well written, pretty well shot and really well acted. The key UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) team of The Doctor, Liz Shaw and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart actually does have a lot of chemistry... even though it was not long, after only four stories, that Caroline John (who played Liz) left the show because of pregnancy, although I understand the shows producer wasn’t looking at renewing her contract anyway. Which is a shame actually. I mean, I like Katy Manning as Jo Grant as much as the next feller, but I thought Liz was a pretty good companion too. Although she continued with the character in later decades in Who related video and audio productions, she was only seen once again in the show itself in a tiny guest spot in The Five Doctors... which is a pity. The last I heard of her was when she was reading the audio version of Elizabeth Sladen’s autobiography, as Sladen was no longer around to do that herself. Ironically, it wasn’t long before Caroline sadly passed away herself, earlier this year.

Anyway... back to The Silurians. The writing in this story, about a race of cave dwellers who are awoken and want to reclaim their planet, touches on some really interesting themes and moral questions and, in seven episodes, covers slightly different but ultimately the same ground as the Matt Smith two part Silurian story, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood... which I realise now was more or less a rewrite of this original story but with some short cuts taken for brevity. Although, when you compare the two stories, I’d have to say I prefer the Pertwee original a lot more than the 2010 version.

There’s a whole group of familiar actors who turn up if you like playing “spot the future famous person”, including a young Geoffrey Palmer and a slightly younger than I remember him Fulton Mackay, who took me all of the first episode to place without that white hair I used to remember him for in Porridge. Also on hand, as UNIT-Captain-who-slinks-around-in-the-background-firing-off-shots and, amazingly, surviving all the way through the whole serial without being killed, is a young Paul Darrow, who many UK TV watchers will mostly remember from his turn as Avon in the much loved British sci-fi TV show Blake’s 7. It was nice to see all these kinds of people on hand to give quality performances to a show which really made use of them.

Also, Who fans take note, this story marks the first appearance of Jon Pertwee’s (and later Tom Baker’s) old faithful yellow roadster Bessie. I remember everyone used to like seeing pictures and doing jigsaw puzzles of Bessie back in the day.

The special effects are, as you would expect, a bit iffy (although not as iffy as they got a decade or more later) but the silurian costumes themselves are really top notch designs and so much better than the almost fake “pass-for-silurians” costumes which we have in the show nowadays. The design features of these suits really do look “non-human” as opposed to the “people wearing make up and a touch of prosthetics” which producers of all modern TV shows seem to think is the way to go, and which gives the aliens on most TV shows produced today a homogenous, similar look. The lack of flexibility in these old costumes still triumphs, I think, over the advantages of a lighter application of make-up, although there is a very bad performance issue with one of the Silurians on this. The more militant silurian (pretty much the same kind of character as one in the Matt Smith two parter) is faced with the problem, which his fellow silurians also have, of needing to add some movement to himself when he is speaking to show that it is, indeed, he who is speaking. Unfortunately, the actor playing this part seems to go over the top and his silurian seems to have a permanent, jittery movement whenever he’s on screen, like he’s got Parkinson’s disease or something. This really isn’t a good look for the character and it’s such a shame that the story in general is cursed with, effectively, a “mad silurian on acid” performance when the rest of the race are portrayed much more sensibly by his colleagues. Of course, he might have been told to act this way because of the nature of that particular silurian’s character, I don’t know, but I was surprised the entire performance on this one is like it is.

That issue aside, though, it’s a great little story and doesn’t shy away from showing things happening on a much larger scale than I‘m used to seeing in the modern incarnation of the series. When the silurians release a plague on mankind, for example, they actually show it happening all over London in various location shots such as a busy station. I’m guessing a lot of the “extras” in some of these shots weren’t aware that they were being extras in a TV show at all, and I’m not sure you could get away with that approach today, but it certainly pays off in here, especially in a crudely edited but brave attempt at a montage sequence showing The Doctor attempting to discover an antidote and UNIT working “crowd control”, superimposed over scenes of people collapsing in various UK locations. Great stuff.

Not one of my favourite classic Doctor Who stories by a long shot but definitely an enjoyable romp with a very serious edge to it (even if Jon Pertwee keeps doing his “funny face” look from Worzel Gummidge whenever he’s zapped by the third eye of a silurian). Definitely recommended and a nice reminder of the origins of the creatures who are still with us in the show today (and I am looking forward to seeing the return of my favourite of the “modern silurians” in this year’s upcoming Christmas special). Next stop for this Doctor Who fan will be me revisiting a story that definitely had something of a terrifying effect on me as a nipper, although I can’t remember any of it except the iconic look of the monsters. Join me again with my Doctor Who head on soon as I delve into the classic story of... The Sea Devils... string vests n’ all!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The New York Trilogy

Austerity Savings

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
Penguin Classics ISBN: 0143039830

When an old friend of over 20 years, who lives in New York, noticed me tweeting last year that it’s been too long since I’d read Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, she sent me an absolutely beautiful paperback edition of said tome over to me for Christmas. Said edition has wonderfully illustrated covers, fashionably pseudo worn with grindhouse-poster style creases, including dust flaps and also “cover illustrations” of each of the three stories inside, all done by the remarkable comics guru Art Spiegelman, who is still, perhaps, best known for his graphic novel holocaust masterworks Maus and Maus 2 (where the Jewish people are drawn as mice and the Nazis drawn as cats). The pages are cut beautifully ragged at the edges (not smooth like a typical novel), which I love, and, to top it off, the inside bears an inscription made out to me from Paul Auster himself (my friend had been lucky enough to catch him for me at a reading). It was a thrilling Christmas present and I can’t believe it’s taken this long to get around in the “read me right now” queue.

Comprising three ‘stories’ - City Of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room - The New York Trilogy was a popular work when I was studying my graphic design degree at college over 20 years ago, which is probably the last time I read it. My memories of it were vague, although I remembered I’d liked it a great deal, but this is hardly that surprising. I’ve read a few of Auster’s works over the intervening years and a common trait in his work, at least the way I see it, is one of incomplete information, lack of any attempt at closure and an almost celebratory dwelling on a kind of spiritual ennui in his characters.

The way the short novellas which were later collected into this tome work together is very strange. There is an implication of connection between the stories which never really identifies itself. The character of Quinn, for example, who spends the majority of City Of Glass following a crazy, obsessed old man through the streets of New York, day in and day out, as he slowly realises that his wanderings are spelling out giant letterforms, is mentioned again in The Locked Room but, since the ending (if you want to call it that, since Auster’s endings never really seem to be anything other than a selection of ideas and questions) of City Of Glass leaves Quinn in a state where his involvement in the back story of The Locked Room seems all but impossible, one wonders in the end if this is the same Quinn or if there are a number of Quinn variations that could be equally as valid (or invalid) as others.

Similarly, when Quinn, who is a writer, is mistaken for somebody named Paul Auster and goes to meet the writer himself, one wonders if the Paul Auster that Quinn meets is the same Paul Auster who is writing the book you are reading, or if he is a totally fictional construct version of Auster. When the ‘narrator’ of The Locked Room suddenly starts talking in a more implicit way to the reader by specifically mentioning City Of Glass and Ghosts as experiments in writing, one wonders if the character narrator of the story is supposed to be Paul Auster and, if he is, is he the same Paul Auster who is a character in City Of Glass or is he a second fictional variant of Paul Auster... or is the writer perhaps writing as himself, which seems unlikely given the events described in the third story.

This kind of thing may drive some readers mad, I would imagine, as Auster doesn’t just break “the fourth wall”, but drives a truck through it repeatedly until the bricks and mortar are a fine, white powder blowing away in the wind. But it’s something I’ve always kind of liked about works of art myself.

There’s kind of an artificial frisson of possible relationships between the three segments set up by placing these three “stories” together and calling them a trilogy but, like other novels I’ve read by Auster, nothing really that you can quite put your finger on. And that almost seems to be the point in some ways. What the writer does is to leave the reader with a series of ideas and a number of questions which he then refuses to answer with any kind of clarity or satisfaction. Instead, we have a series of clues, or more properly, ideas of clues, dotted about the text as little chunks that can be latched onto but which won’t help the reader reach any set conclusion as to the fate or, indeed, purpose of any of the characters. Somewhat like real life in that respect.

For example, the fact that Quinn writes detective fiction under the name of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary creation William Wilson could be considered a sign post to something vital to the understanding of the text and the nature of the characters... or it might not. When the Peter Stillman that Quinn is following in City Of Glass suddenly becomes two Peter Stillmans and he follows one and not the other, is the other Peter Stillman the same as the Peter Stillman who turns up as an entirely, seemingly, different character in The Locked Room? One doesn’t know and Auster is certainly not going out of his way to give the reader any kid of explanation for his trouble. But then again, with such a fantastic set of... erm... set ups, would the reader really want to be spoon fed with cheap summations of one of several explanations and endings for these stories, or would the reader rather be left to be haunted with the endless possibilities of closure that may or may not arise from each of the parts that make up the whole of this novel? Paul Auster presumably favours the latter state of affairs and, as one of his readers, I have to say I don’t disagree with his decision.

The three stories kept me both fascinated and hungry for more revelations which would never come as I read further into the prose and it’s been a true pleasure to read this ‘mighty’ work of fiction once more. I’m going to have to plug back into Auster again sometime and catch up with his later work as it progresses. This one comes with a strong recommendation from me as long as you’re a reader who doesn’t mind not reading stories that have a beginning, a middle or an end... Auster tends to write about just the middles, I think, and leaves the rest for the reader to bring to the table. Film fans may also want to check out the brilliant movie Smoke, from 1995, which he wrote and which he also, uncredited, helped direct.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Skull

Amicus Gives Good Head

The Skull 
1965 UK
Directed by Freddie Francis
Amicus/Paramount Region 1

Well this was a bit of a surprise to me.

I’ve not seen very many Amicus films and, I’m pretty sure, none of their horror movies before now. I think the only ones I’ve actually sampled of theirs are the two Doctor Who movies and the three movies they did in the seventies based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve had a bit more exposure to their nearest rivals of the time, Hammer Films, which based on this viewing, I have to say, seem to be a lot less subtle and effective in comparison to this minor masterpiece.

Written by Robert Bloch, writer of Psycho, and directed by Hammer/Amicus alumni Freddie Francis, The Skull starts off with a gentleman in a graveyard who digs up a coffin, removes the head and takes it back home to boil the skin off to be left with just the skull. However, the skull has extraordinary powers and when his mistress comes to see him, concerned about the unnatural smoke coming beneath the door of the bathroom, she finds something and screams into the camera to usher in the opening title music.

Following this, at an auction of macabre rarities, hosted by Michael Gough, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are trying to outbid each other on various items for their collection. Both collectors of bizarre and unusual items, the friends also have a mutual acquaintance who supplies them with rare, black market goods and it is this guy who tries to sell Cushing the skull of the Marquis De Sade (Bloch’s source story for this movie was called The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade) but is initially turned down due to the high asking price. However, Cushing's mistake is he changes his mind and it’s here that his troubles begin...

The Skull is an absolutely beautiful horror film, I have to say. Right from the outset, the design of the shots, the clean framing, the use of various unnatural coloured lighting schemes which subtly recall the hallucinogenic colour palette of Mario Bava and foreshadow Dario Argento’s work and the way the camera moves through the shot set ups really make this film stand out. The principal actor in the pre-credits graveyard sequence can even be seen crouching down a little as he walks towards the camera and leaves the graveyard, you might notice, so that the director can keep him cleanly framed in the shot (wonder how many times they made him shoot that before he could adjust his height correctly?). Either that or he’s got a very funny walk.

The editing is good too. Nicely cutting on closer shots at key times to pull you into the movie and, it has to be said, this film is also filled with some great close-ups to allow the actors to really just use their facial expressions to the utmost, but in a way that takes you by stealth because of the well timed editing. And, of course, when you have such great actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, not to mention the likes of Nigel Green and Patrick McGee, then you know you have some of the best people making use of those close-ups.

It’s really great, also, because it’s very nearly a silent movie in many ways. Lots of the film plays out with very litttle dialogue and, for the last 20 minutes or so, there is almost none. A nightmare sequence in the centre of the film involving Peter Cushing, when things get decidedly real and Kafkaesque on him, involving an enforced game of Russian roulette where he is the sole player, is quite amazing to watch because everything is done with body language and it makes for a really effective sequence. Especially since each time he pulls the trigger the shots cut to a more close up version of the act, until eventually you are just left with Cushing’s head filling the frame, reminiscent of some of the scenes in the westerns shot by Sergio Leone.

And because of the long periods of dialogue free stretches, the film relies quite heavily on an amazing score by avant garde, concert hall composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who also provided scores for such films as Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors and, of course, the astonishing British B-movie The Earth Dies Screaming. It’s a really strong score full of eerie atonalities and definitely supports and lifts the visuals when required. This, like many of her works, definitely needs a proper CD release.

Christopher Lee’s scenes are sparse but very effective... this is one of his most interesting performances, it seems to me. There are a few, quite startling compositions where he and Peter Cushing are arranged so that they are in conversation but with their backs to each other and, lovely though the design of these shots are, I couldn’t help thinking of Vincent Price’s story of The Return Of The Fly where he and another actor had to be shot back to back to avoid them looking each other so they wouldn’t keep cracking up at their ridiculous lines. One wonders if there’s an element of that, too, in these sequences.

It matters not, though. The Skull is a wonderful antidote to some of the work these two British stars were doing with Hammer and I have a feeling I’m going to be dipping a lot more into the back catalogue of Amicus horror titles in the coming months. If you like your horror lurid and gory then, alas, The Skull is probably not for you... if you want something a bit more subtle then this movie might be worth giving a go. And when I say subtle I should probably point out that this film has a flying skull mentally controlling people to commit murder, so maybe not the best use of the word but certainly it doesn’t bathe itself in blood and nudity just for the sake of it (although I’m personally not ruling out either of those elements as fine ingredients to any horror movie). Certainly, if you’re a fan of Christopher Lee and want to see him in fine form in what is ostensibly a small series of cameo appearances to lend context to the narrative, then this one should definitely be on your ‘to watch’ pile. So definitely check this one out, if you are so inclined.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Man Without A Past

Aki Breaky Heart

The Man Without A Past (Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä) 
2002 Finland/Germany/France
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
ICA Projects Region 2

It would be untrue to say that not much happens in an Aki Kaurismäki movie... it just seems like nothing happens because it’s all so laid back.

This is not exactly my first experience of movies by this incredible film-maker... but I haven’t seen too much of his work and it was all such a long time ago, so I can’t claim to be able to comment wisely about his particular stylistic traits. Back in the 80s or possibly the early 90s, I saw Hamlet Goes Business and Leningrad Cowboys Go America on TV. I think I saw either Ariel or The Match Factory Girl too... but I just can’t remember which one it was.

What I do remember of these is that they seemed fairly minimalist in nature, were usually quite bleak in outlook and had a good amount of heart to them. The same could be said, in some ways, about The Man Without A Past... apart from the fact that, although it still carries a certain bleak attitude, soaking through the celluloidal pores, directly from Kurasmaki’s brain to your eyes and ears... in many ways, this film is a bit of a ‘feel good’ movie. I think Kurasmaki might well say the same thing too... but I’d have to look into his work a little more. I do remember reading an interview with him, and possibly seeing one too, back in the 80s/90s and his miserable outlook seemed heavily promoted by him to the interviewers, almost like it was part of his branding.

The Man Without A Past tells the story of a man who comes to town looking for work, only to be badly beaten up and left for dead by three young thugs who take his suitcase and money. He is wrapped in bandages but then promptly dies in hospital and is pronounced dead by the staff, who exit the hospital room.  He then, of course, revives and wanders out of hospital, still in bandages, to collapse by a river. In a sequence which seems to be fairly like what I remember of Kurasmaki’s ability to pile one misfortune on after another, rather like waiting for that extra last brick to fall on Ollie’s head in a Laurel and Hardy short, a passerby then steals his boots and replaces them with what he is wearing.

He is then found by a family who live in an impoverished community that inhabit metal containers (which they rent) and the rest of the film is pretty much about how he faces up against his plight, as the mugging has left him with no memory of who he is and what his former life might have been. He slowly turns himself around and even gets a girlfriend, who works with the Salvation Army and gets him some clothes and a job with them until he gets on his feet. He does get on his feet fairly quickly, growing a crop of potatoes by his rented container, inspiring the Salvation Army band by exposing them to rock n’ roll on his juke box (which he gets for his container) and then managing them, and also getting a job as a welder while the band is taking off.

Everything is done with an absolutely straight face and penchant for an acceptance of the inevitable misery of life which is an endearing feature of Kurasmaki’s work (what I’ve seen of it) and which is a trait shard by pretty much all the characters in his films. Everyone is truthful and honest about their lot in life, weighing up their words before every response and pretty much relating on a fairly minimal but honest and up front level with each other. This is not how the majority of the universe tends to work, especially in Western culture, but this is how the ‘kurasmakiverse’ works and we’re left to accept and get on with it or leave the movie.

In the meantime, there’s a dog, a bank robbery, police harassment and a confrontation with the former life the main protagonist had when it finally catches up to him, but everything works out fairly upbeat for everybody in the end... muffled, but upbeat.

The pacing is beautiful and relentlessly casual, which makes everything feel a bit less hectic than it actually sounds. The movie is crammed full of incident but you kind of let it wash over you because of the way the shots are framed and edited, and even by the way the camera moves through these shots, in easily digestible, long, slow takes which derail any clutter implied by the narrative incident. This then leaves you in a head space, dictated by the pacing, where you can absorb the details of the characters and their reactions to each other in a way that gives you time to assess the situation and appreciate the emotions underlying them, in contrast to their stoic exteriors. Hollywood filmmakers could possibly learn a thing or two from this kind of conflict between incident and pace but, then again, their target audience is probably perceived differently and until they rethink the tolerance of their audience, they won’t benefit from this kind of approach to film-making, is my guess.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it’s fairly clichéd. It’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the characters from one scene to the next and I don’t think this is specifically because the pacing is leisurely enough to give you time to do so... I think it’s more a problem with the writing than anything to do with direction. I didn’t feel too let down by that, though, except maybe right at the end, because the film is such a nice experience to sit through. It’s basically a love story at heart... and I’m always a sucker for a well made love story (and there are so few good ones made that are worth watching... the US seems to have lost the art of making them somewhere around the tail end of the fifties, it seems to me).

All said and done, The Man Without A Past is a cracking, well paced, easily absorbed movie which will slowly sink into you as you watch. It’s maybe a little too predictable and upbeat for its own good at times but, ultimately, it’s not doing anything you really don’t want it to do and it leaves the characters at a place where you’d want to leave them. A nice little movie to watch on your own on a quiet evening. Give it a look some time.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema

Terror Firma

Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema 
by Jonathan Rigby
Signum Books ISBN: 0956653448

I don’t often review the books I read. Mostly because there’s always “the next film” to write about and sometimes I just don’t have time to do absolutely everything. However, I just wanted to give a little shout out to this book, Studies In Terror: Landmarks Of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby because, although I have my usual reservations about this kind of tome, I did find it very helpful and had a few good times off of the back of it.

To explain...

I did a seven day countdown to Halloween back in October with a different horror movie reviewed every night. Quite unusually, for me, I actually liked pretty much every movie I reviewed for that week and I’d seen none of them before (also a bit unusual). Three of those titles were watched and included from among a fistful of movies that I’d not heard of before reading this book... so if it hadn’t been for this invaluable volume, I wouldn’t have been able to include Pontypool (reviewed here), Outcast (reviewed here) and Splinter (reviewed here) in my Halloween week reviews.

Now this book does have some large gaps in that the author is more into “favourite moments” from his favourite horror films... as opposed to what many would regard as essential. The original Universal incarnations of Dracula and The Bride Of Frankenstein, for instance, aren’t even included. Horror purists are really going to be driven crazy by many such omissions like these. To be fair to the author, though, he does at least try to tackle these omissions in his opening salvo and his insistence that the book is a collection of “moments of terror” is, at least, a token response to the obvious one that you also have gialli or common or garden thrillers highlighted over some of the more ‘classic’, actual horror films he could have included.

I confess, I wasn’t happy, but...

He kinda won me over. This is an excellent book and whatever you may think of Mr. Rigby’s skills in the ‘list compiling’ department, he does have a very good eye for digging out some really great movie experiences which, so far, have all turned out to be well worth my time. I was also secretly pleased he was happy to include a couple of movies which I personally would consider classics of the genre, but which writers of such compendiums seem to be largely ignoring so far... namely Werewolf Of London and The Descent.

The design of the book is very pleasing to somebody like myself who likes a simple, functional structure to the reading material on offer. Each decade from the early 20th Century up until present is represented, with a little introduction on the decade in question. This is followed by a load of movies, each of which take up exactly two pages of description of his favourite moments of that movie, along with a small overview on what else was going on simultaneous to this movie (including any influences it may have had), an incomplete set of statistics of the film (director, some of the main actors, composer etc.) and then a tiny sampling of extracts from reviews of the film, almost all of which are cotemporary to the time in which the film was released. This last little section from each movie is something to particularly relish as it does include a lot of very bad, ill tempered reviews of movies which have outraged various reviewers... many of which have gone on to become the classics of today. Wonderful stuff.

Once I’d accepted the inclusion of such ‘totally non-horror” movies as Les Diaboliques and Psycho 3, I was able to allow myself to enjoy reading the work of someone who has especially good taste in movies and the way in which they get under your skin. Using the option of ‘buying stuff really cheap for a couple of quid each’ at Amazon, in combination with some of the films in this book, I ordered not only the three I mentioned above, but also The Skull, Anatomie, The Tenant and Left Bank, and am greatly looking forward to watching and reviewing those ones for you also.

All in all, a very different kind of book than I was expecting, and not just your run of the mill ‘book of lists’ that have passed for expensive paperweights in recent years. Once you can get past the worrisome and always problematic issue of the author’s twisted view of what defines a horror movie, you will find this book well worth your time and a much more helpful book than some others you may have resting eruditely on your shelves of late. One word of warning though... because of the nature of the main thrust of this book in finding the best, unsettling moments, this one does kind of weigh in as a massive book of spoilers. While I was grateful for the discovery of Pontypool, for example, I knew what was going to happen to one of the characters long before it actually does. This is a shame but it is a kind of double edged sword so, I guess its “caveat emptor” time as to whether you want to risk the trade off. I’m glad I did... and can only recommend this book heartily to any fans of horror movies out there.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Iguana With The Tongue of Fire

Fiery Tongue In Cheek

The Iguana With The Tongue of Fire 
aka Lizard With A Tongue Of Fire 
aka L'iguana Dalla Lingua Di Fuoco 
Italy/France/West Germany 1971
Directed by Riccardo Freda
New Entertainment World Region 0

Wow. The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire, eh?

People who know me or know my reviews should know by now that I adore the form of, predominantly Italian, cinema known as the ‘giallo’. I’ve mentioned my passion for the beautiful camerawork, overwrought shot design and fantastic music at the expense of bad acting and scripting on numerous occasions but, if you want to familiarise yourself with my summation of the giallo as a worthwhile, collective cinematic achievement, then please see my article on just that subject here. So what I want you to realise is that it’s quite a rare thing for me to say, or type, the statement that follows...

The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire has got to be the most unintentionally, hilariously bad giallo movies I have ever seen.

Like most gialli, I wanted to see this one because of the gorgeous score to the movie, courtesy here of the wonderful, popular Italian composer Stelvio Cipriani. However, it has to be said that this is pretty much the only really decent thing going for it.

The film stars Anton Diffring (everybody and their pet iguana's first choice of multi-national, intimidating German), giallo favourite Dagmar Lassander and, as the main protagonist (although he doesn’t turn up for about 20 minutes or so into the flick), the one and only Luigi Pistilli. Pistilli is seen here in a rare portrayal of a hero figure, rather than a villain of some description. I’d have to say that, although he turns up in tonnes of stuff before his tragic real life suicide, this film really shows that he had what it takes to be a major star of a movie, rather than just the lead villain or a supporting role.

Now then, it has to be said that the version of this movie I was watching wasn’t, from the outset, being screened in the best conditions. Although not a bootleg copy, the official German release of this movie I was watching had one of the worst and faded prints I’d seen of an official release. Honestly, some of the establishing location shots at the start of the movie, and near the end, looked almost as yellow as the word this genre takes it’s terminology from... literally a yellow giallo! I can’t really comment on the transfer of the print because I just can’t tell how much of the picture is the transfer and how much is the print.  After having seen the film though... I would have to say I can understand why nobody has bothered to pay out for a new print from the negative as yet.

Dealing with a set of murders in, of all places, Dublin... the story involves a German diplomat (yeah, that’d be Diffring then) who gets involved in some acid in the face/throat slash murders while staying in Dublin with his family in the German embassy.

Did I just say acid in the face and throat slash murders?

Yes I did. Starting off with a sequence where a woman has her throat cut after acid has been splashed on her, making her face all red... just to make doubly sure. One has to assume that the motives of the murderer on this one are “better dead than red.” Now this all sounds quite ghastly, I’m sure, but I have to tell you that the special effects on this, and other sequences like it, are absolutely awful. Remember that taylors dummy which scrapes down the side of the cliff edge taking off its face at the start of Lucio Fulci’s Seven Notes In Black? Well this same kind of terrible dummy is used for close ups of the acid in the face in this one. Fortunate for me because, lets face it, I really don’t want to be subjected to a woman getting acid thrown in her face but, simultaneously, unfortunate for the film because the lameness of the technical effects makes you laugh out loud at the silliness of the problem solving going on here.

So there’s that.

Then there’s some other crazy and mostly laughable stuff going on. Like the killer wearing sunglasses at the start of the movie means that every time during the movie that any of the characters decide to pull out a pair of sunglasses, and they do, frequently, whether you are expecting them to or not, there is this highly charged and ever so over dramatic musical sting to accompany a close-up shot of said sunglasses. Honestly, this is so funny you’ll be wishing every character in the movie has a pair of sunglasses to pull out so the sound guys can whack you over the ears with another musical sting.

And there’s the accents. Most gialli are shot in several languages with the predominate language usually being English to help lip synch any of the UK or US actors in the film. The sound, is then, very badly dubbed with no regard to lip synch in any language you happen to watch it in. You will never, I would guess, see an Italian giallo where the spoken word matches up to what you are seeing. This particular film is dubbed into English for the print I was watching, which would be the correct way to view it but... it’s a terrible and highly comical Irish accent that everyone in the movie, apart from Anton Diffring, has been dubbed with. Seriously. Even Luigi Pistilli is talking in this highly fruity Irish accent all the way through and I’m sorry but I was not always able to contain my mirth at this viewing.

And little details that the production design slipped in didn’t help matters either. When questioned if the chauffer of the German family was going to get some laundry done, he is asked to confirm the receipts when shown them by the investigating police. Noticing, in the top right hand corner that the washing was done by a company called “Swastika Laundry Ltd” did nothing to relinquish the sense of accidental comedy on display in this one.

To be fair to it, the story was actually quite a good one for a giallo and it even had Luigi Pistilli living with his mother and his daughter, with the mother referencing both Agatha Christie and Miss Marple as she gives her son pointers as to who the killer is. It also takes a quite nasty turn near the end when the killer is revealed, with Pistilli’s mother being severely battered (possibly to death) and his young daughter having acid thrown in her face. This is quite sobering in the face of the unintentional comedy on display throughout the movie, but utterly wasted as, days or a week after this scene in terms of movie time passing, Pistilli doesn’t see fit to reference or comment on this turn of events, not rushing back to hospital by his daughters bed but instead going off with his boss for a cheery pint down the pub... presumably a nice, clichéd pint of Guinness.

If the film had been in the hands of a better director, is my guess, then this would have seriously been a giallo to contend with. But it’s just limply and half heartedly put together... although the acting in this one is mostly pretty good. Pistilli really was a great actor and this should be better recognised, I feel.

I looked at the director’s biography on the IMDB and it was very revealing. I noticed two of his films were I Vampiri and Caltiki - Il Mostro Immortale... two films I know Mario Bava had to unofficially finish off directing due to problems with the director on the set. Similarly, his last entry on the IMDB is for La Fille De D'Artagnan, a film I really love, from which it says he was “fired” and “uncredited”. I’m guessing this particular director may have been a little highly strung to say the least. I notice that one of the gialli I have in my “to watch” pile, Murder Obsession, is also directed by this guy... so I’m not really looking forward to watching that one so much now.

The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire is a well plotted and well acted (for once) giallo that is in every way terrible to watch... in all but the musical score, which is excellent, as you’d expect from composer Cipriani. The score is free on a separate feature on the German DVD release although I’d personally recommend getting the limited edition Digitmovies CD release if you like the music as it has more of the score on there (plus, you know, it’s a CD).

Cipriani and Pistilli fans will definitely get something out of this movie and some people will also, like myself, get a good laugh. But to most people I would say... “stay away from this one”. There are much better gialli out there and very few that are as badly put together as this one.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Detective

Die Hard Zero Issue

The Detective
USA 1968
Directed by Gordon Douglas
20th Century Fox Region 2

Warning: Routine spoilers will be pursued and outed.

There are two reasons why I wanted to watch the Frank Sinatra movie The Detective. One is because the score is by Jerry Goldsmith... and it’s always worth seeing how his musical cues which you’ve lived with for a while match up to the images in context.

The other reason is that I could remember loving the Tony Rome films when I was a kid and when it came to eventually catching up to the movies on DVD I found that it was actually cheaper, at around the £8 mark, to buy the two films in a box set with The Detective than it was to buy the two films individually. If there’s a concept I like best with my movie purchases then it’s “value for money”.

Now then... there’s something very spooky about my choice of viewing when I sat down to watch this film because I found out something about it just before I wrote this review that I didn’t know before, to my knowledge, and therefore didn’t trigger my choice subconsciously. I was going to watch the first four Die Hard movies, more or less back to back, for one of those longish “film series in one gulp” reviews I occasionally do. For some reason, though, I reached for the Sinatra box instead and watched this. Which is very interesting because...

The Detective stars Frank Sinatra as policeman Joe Leland, the character in the book of the same name on which this film was based, written by  Roderick Thorp. So far, so good. However, the writer also wrote a sequel about this character called Nothing Lasts Forever and, Frank Sinatra was contracted to have first refusal on the part although, when they finally got around to making it, Sinatra was 76 years old and turned it down. The book apparently tells the story of what happens when Leland’s daughter gets trapped in the Claxxon Oil Corporation skyscraper because it is taken over by German terrorists and... yeah, you guessed it. They offered the part in the sequel to Bruce Willis, changed Joe Leland to John McClane, changed his daughter to his wife, changed the corporation name to Nakatomi and renamed the story Die Hard... and pretty much launched the career of Willis in film after he’d had such a successful time on television.

So there’s that... but I didn’t know any of that when I came to watch it.

The Detective is a very unusual movie in that, and this is especially true of the time in which it was made, the narrative is a little disjointed and spans a few years before wrapping up things which look like they don’t match up and adding a certain amount of downbeat closure to things.

Even the opening is unusual in that it starts with the standard shots of a US city skyline, but it’s all upside down. Now I saw the same thing done in the excellent horror movie, Devil, a few years back, but Devil didn’t seem to have any rationale to shooting this in this manner. The Detective is really neat because, about halfway through the upside down title shots, the camera suddenly pans up and you get the lower half of the screen still upside down with the city the right way up in the top half of the screen. This is because the camera has panned up to show you that what you’ve actually been looking at is the buildings reflected in the roof of Frank Sinatra’s car as he drives to the scene of the murder which kick starts the movie. This is pretty good and I was pleased that I’d seen this movie already, just from the titles.

It then goes straight into police procedure and it’s Sinatra and his team at the 19th Precinct working a horrendous murder case where a guy has been bashed in the head and his penis cut off and flung across the room. The sequence lasts for a good quarter of an hour or so and it seems everyone and their dog are in this movie... Sinatra, Ralph Meeker, Robert Duvall, Tom Atkins (his debut), Jack Clugman... heck, even boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson is in here. Alongside loads of “oh, it’s him/her” actors and actresses who will, no doubt, catch your attention.

However, after this scene, Joe goes to see his wife (from whom he has split up) and, as he leaves her to her friends at a party, the film then goes into an extended flashback set of sequences, lasting at least as long as the opening scenes, telling the story of Joe and his wife Karen, portrayed by the wonderful Lee Remick, and how they got together.

Then, after a while, the film goes back to the case which involves Joe's pursuit of a murderer in the gay community and this too is cut up with further flashbacks of Joe and Karen as they get married and have problems which can probably only be summed up as Karen suffering from a kind of extended nymphomania. Then Joe finds ‘the killer’, played brilliantly by Tony Musante, who some of my readers may know best from films like the spaghetti western Il Mercenario, Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and The Last Run. I‘ve never had a great deal of time for the actor, to be honest, but he really gives a deranged and sympathetic, if short, performance here. Short because Joe presses him for a fast confession (because he’s eyeing a promotion) and he gets dealt with in the electric chair. Case closed... and we’re only halfway through the movie so far.

Then comes more flashbacks and non-flashbacks with Karen and then a second case, years later, which will end up bringing some interesting things to light, including some downbeat conclusions about the first case and a possible romantic attachment to another character played by Jacqueline Bisset.

The film is directed by Gordon Douglas who did such great work on films like THEM! and In Like Flint but who was never much one for making any elaborately attractive shots (except maybe with his work on Rio Conchos, reviewed here), or at least that’s how I’ve always thought of him. As I would expect, the mise-en-scene is adequate and the editing more than competent... nothing too special but very work-a-day and, in that sense at least, quite accomplished. You’re in the good hands of somebody who knows how to put a picture together.

There’s not a lot of action in this film... two small sequences, one involving a chase and another involving a brief but intense shoot out in an indoor car park, when Joe is targeted by people who don’t want him involved in the second case... but it’s not meant to be an action film, I suspect. It’s more of a character study of Joe and Karen’s relationship which uses the backdrop of Joes detective work and the politics of it, to further explore the way his mind works and the way that affects his home life.

Goldsmiths score is, at times, a bit bluesy and, in the action and suspense scenes, dynamic and propulsive in much the same kind of vein he used for his score to Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, only three years later, and maybe also foreshadowing his score to Chinatown too, in places. There’s not much of it in the movie. I’d guess less than 20 minutes of music scattered throughout the whole thing, but US filmmaking was a lot different in those days, and directors trusted that a lot of their movies didn’t have to be wall-to-wall score and only needed the enhancement of some good musical accompaniment at certain points. Goldsmith was a master of this talent of working out when to have music in the final cut of a film (called ‘spotting’ in the industry) and more than once argued for there to be a lot less music in a movie than was originally intended by the director. The music works pretty well here, although at certain places it gets a bit like it’s Mickey Mousing things a bit too much (Mickey Mousing is the practice of using sequences of musical notes and ‘stingers’ to directly reflect the actions taking place on screen) but at the end of the day underlines certain tensions and emotions in just the right way... not always an easy tightrope to walk.

So there you have it. Frank Sinatra in The Detective. All the performances by the cast are top notch, it’s gritty to the point of brutal in some places (for the time) and it’s a fine film. Now I need to go and watch the sequel, Die Hard, again sometime soon.

Sunday, 4 November 2012



UK/USA 2012
Directed by Sam Mendes
Playing at cinemas now


But not at the first hurdle.

I think I should probably state here and now that the latest EON Bond movie is actually not a terrible movie. There are some good things in it and I think, well I know actually, that a lot of people will like it. I’m putting this statement up front because I didn’t think that the movie was anywhere near as great as people have been saying and I don’t want people, Bond fans in general, to get the impression that it’s not worth their while seeing. If you’re a fan of the Daniel Craig Bond films then this is probably the best of those to date. Also, I’m pretty sure a Bond movie is fairly review proof when it comes down to whether you’re going to see it so I’m pretty confident that I can give my honest opinion here without worrying anybody isn’t going to see it of the back of this review. I’m getting a fair number of readers on this blog site nowadays but, from the comments some of you leave, you seem to be fairly intelligent readers... so no worries about putting anybody off I reckon.

My personal relationship to James Bond starts very young. In 1973, when I was 5 years old, my parents took me to see Roger Moore’s debut Bond movie, Live And Let Die, at the cinema and I loved it. Even today, while I still think Roger Moore is the least Bond-like of the Bonds, I can still find time to enjoy this one from his era. Since I’d loved this one so much, in between the releases of Live And Let Die and Moore’s second golden shot at the role, The Man With The Golden Gun in 1974, my parents started taking me to various James Bond double bills which were re-released around UK cinemas at this time. So I caught up with the Connery stuff and much preferred it. Roger Moore was already on the decline for me (when I was only a six year old, even I could predict the ending of The Man With The Golden Gun from that stupidly obvious opening set up) and although The Spy Who Loved Me had a cool car and an even cooler Caroline Munro in it, as the Moore Bonds carried on I lost faith in the character and backed off from them. Octopussy had been diabolical and a benchmark for me of Bond awfulness (until I’d seen both Die Another Day and A Quantum Of Solace, which were equally as bad) and I didn’t even bother with A View To A Kill when it first came out (to date, the only Bond film I’ve not seen at the cinema, I believe).

I rediscovered Bond with Timothy Dalton’s excellent debut, The Living Daylights but after the abysmal License To Kill hit the screens I assumed the franchise was dead. I honestly didn’t know anything about the legal wranglings... I just assumed that, even though I loved Dalton in the role, if you make a movie as bad as License To Kill was, even if you’re Bond, your movies wouldn’t be invited back to cinemas anytime soon.

Yeah, okay. I’m naïve.

Somewhere around this time I read all the novels too. They were mostly hit rather than miss (with the odd exception towards the end of Ian Fleming’s career) and so I gained a new layer of respect for just how those first movies were.

When Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role I was really pleased because he was who I’d kept telling people should play James Bond before Dalton got the role. He reminded me of Connery and that was good because, even though my favourite James Bond movie is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starring the inimitable ‘Big Fry’ George Lazenby in the role... Connery was a pretty good role model for the part and something the Bond actors had to live up to, in my eyes.

Even Brosnan’s Bond was a little hit and miss. Goldeneye was fantastic, Tomorrow Never Dies was just too action oriented and humorous (and too Roger Moore-like in its execution for me, I think), The World Is Not Enough was almost as cool as Goldeneye and Die Another Day... well that last one was just dead on arrival as far as I’m concerned. An awful movie.

Now I was never okay with the choice of Daniel Craig in the role of Bond. Don’t get me wrong, Craig is a fantastic actor, but something about it wasnt quite Bond for me. Casino Royale was, I guess, kinda okay for a general action movie... just not really hitting the marks for a Bond movie and certainly not as straight to the novel as the original 50s TV adaptation of the book (although a little more faithful than the David Niven version, to be sure). A Quantum Of Solace was... quite bad. The action editing was just completely obscuring whatever the hell was going on and the story seemed to somehow fall short and was, perhaps, overly simplistic (which is saying a lot for a Bond film which generally pride themselves on having simplistic plots as an advantage). So I have to admit to have been not looking forward to seeing Skyfall very much, it has to be said. I waited a week or so after its release and got dragged to the cinema by two people who wanted to go see this one... namely my parents.

Now Skyfall has a lot going for it, it has to be said... but I think that, overall, it falls in the camp of being one of the weaker Bond films to date. The opening sequence (from which I still miss the absence of the gun barrel openings) is pretty good in itself but you will know, just from watching the trailer campaign, that it will leave Bond for dead at the end of it. That being said, the action in general in the whole movie is edited with a certain amount of respect to actually being able to follow it this time around (unlike the last film) and an especially nice touch was the contrast between the sunny location where the action is taking place and the cold offices in London with the rain hammering down.

Actually, the rain gets a special mention here for a nice capper to that last sequence because it does two things rather nicely. One is that it signals the death of Bond, although nobody is going ot believe that, of course, and this wouldn’t be the first time the character ‘died’ in the pre-credits sequence of a movie, they’ve done that a few times now. The other thing it does, though, is to show just how hard it is for operatives who aren’t in the field. As M looks out through rain drenched windows, the contrast between the agents who are ‘out there’ getting death or glory with the bureaucrats who are left behind comes, literally, pounding home. Great use is made of that rain in the early scenes of the film and I was really greatful for it. Is this the first time it’s rained in a Bond film? No, I’m thinking back and my memory is latching onto another rain filled moment from the 80s, but certainly I think it’s never been more effectively utilised here.

Unfortunately, we have a problem right after the pre-credits sequence... it’s called the credits sequence.

They’ve got a not great credits sequence which they’ve managed to prop up ineffectively with what I can only call a pseudo-Bond song. The tragedy of this particular Bond song is that it’s almost, almost there... it’s got a strong voiced singer (someone I’ve not heard of, naturally) but the song’s writers, unfortunately, forgot to write in a strong melody line (not the biggest fan of melody as an element of music but I think a Bond song does need a strong tune) and whats left is a weak foundation, being sung with conviction. Ironically, the last note, literally the very last note, ends exactly as a Bond song should end... but by then it’s too late.

But from that point the movie seems to recover itself for the long haul and becomes a pretty competent action movie. There are less twists than I’d have liked in it. I was waiting for one particular lady to reveal herself as the ‘real villain’ at some point near the finish but the producers have a very different fate in store for her at the end of the movie and I look forward to seeing this actress continue in this role in future movies. A whole host of ‘A Listers’ join Judy Dench and co for this film and all the performances are pretty great from such household names as Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Javier Bardem, and the screenplay isn’t too bad either (not what I’d expect from these writers) in that the title of the movie does have an emotional significance to Bond’s life and, when the title is explained, you realise how clever the psychiatrist near the start of the movie is being. The new head of Q branch is pretty good too, although I would have liked to have seen less damning of the old gadgets from him. Luckily, a surprise gadget reappears in the latter quarter of the movie and is used to the best effect it’s been used in the series since it’s debut in 1964.

The music is kinda worrying. Because director Sam Mendes has a working relationship with composer Thomas Newman, David Arnold, the series’ most regular composer since John Barry’s last score for the series on The Living Daylights, has had to sit this one out, although I understand some of his score from Casino Royale was licensed to track into this one in places to help bolster the music up (not the first time these kinds of shenanigans have occurred in a Bond film) and I have to confess I was a little worried when Newman scores a sequence right at the start where a pocket of light shines on Bonds face with a musical stinger. The age of ‘mickey mousing’ the music to illustrate every on-screen action is alive and well folks... and I have to say it popped me out of the picture straight away. The rest of the score seems competent enough although it’s hard to judge because a lot of it is buried way back in the sound mix. I’ve always referred to Thomas Newman as “the pots and pans man” to my friends because his music seems to me to be very ‘percussion lead’ and there’s a lot of that trademark percussion coming out in the scoring in this one. I’d have to listen to it away from the movie to make a proper call on it but, from what I did hear, I wouldn’t call it a “great Bond score” like I would one of Barry’s scores, or even Arnold's first two scores for the series (he kinda lost it a bit from Die Another Day onwards, it seems to me).

All in all, though, I would have to say that, for me , this Bond film isn’t quite as globe hopping as I’d expect (although I do appreciate the fact that the majority of the film is set in the UK) and while the set piece climax to the movie is quite acceptable, I was kinda hoping for a little more bang for my buck at the end. I was expecting a whole action epilogue but didn’t actually get it, I have to confess.

It seems to me that Skyfall is trying really hard to retain the spirit of Bond while giving it a bit of a jump start so it can go on for a bit longer. It doesn’t really do it for me though... it’s very Bondian in places and in others, not so. Oh, and by the way, there’s still a shaken Martini in it... so everyone can relax on that one. They were drumming up publicity.

Still, it is a fairly decent action film and some Bond fans would possibly be quite correct in saying that this is all that matters. Perhaps they’re right. For myself, I wouldn’t recommend this as a great movie with the kind of vigour that a lot of people seem to be doing right now... but equally, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off if action movies are their thing. But like I said at the start, it doesn’t really matter what I think, these movies are pretty much ‘review proof’, so I’ll leave it at that and say don’t expect too much from it and you can’t be all that disappointed.

Saturday, 3 November 2012


The Fandom Menace

USA 2009
Directed by Kyle Newman
Anchor Bay Region 2

Well this is probably going to be a short review but maybe my expectations were too high.

14 years ago I saw what amounted to a UK TV premiere of a new movie which didn’t get a cinema release over here, as far as I’m aware, called Free Enterprise. It was a comedy, which is a genre I rarely like outside a few select artists, but this one was actually quite funny and spoke volumes to me. I very quickly upgraded to a DVD copy and showed it to all my mates because, basically, this was a movie about me and my friends.

No question.

It’s lke the writer and director of Free Enterprise followed me and my mates around and absolutely captured our spirits, our behaviour, our way of communicating through sentences constructed from film quotes... and spat it back up on screen for all to see. It was amazing and as I’m typing this I realise it’s almost become a forgotten classic and so I need to start telling people about it again. So I’ll save that for a review next year maybe.

Anyway... what this meant was that when I finally got caught up to Fanboys the other month, I was expecting the same degree of wit and sophistication that was on show in Free Enterprise to somehow shine between the frames and make me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, what I got was something with a half clever script that didn’t come anywhere close to giving me either the sense of identification naturally inherent in the earlier film or, for that matter, anything I felt I could laugh at.

But like I said... maybe I was expecting too much from the premise of the movie.

Set in 1999, Fanboys tells the story of five friends who grew up on Star Wars reuniting to go on a road trip because one of them has terminal cancer and they want to break into George Lucas’ ranch and screen the work print of the upcoming Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (reviewed here) so he can see it before he dies. And, of course, they have ludicrous adventures on the way, two of the friends who were estranged re-bond with each other and lots of Star Wars, Star Trek and various other franchise references abound.

With a warm hearted tale like this, I was really gagging at the bit to see this one and, truth be told, some of the cameos by people like Danny Trejo, Ray Park, Carrie Fisher, Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes and William Shatner, coupled with some fairly tongue in cheek references to various bits of genre culture mixed in with some fairly sophisticated homage in some parts, is not a totally unpleasant way to spend the lengtth of a feature film. It’s not badly shot, the editing and pacing are all fine... but for me it wasn’t quite working.

For me,  think, the main problems I had with it were:

a) I could only really sympathise with one or two of the five friends, to a certain extent, in this... and even then not fully. This movie was nowhere near any of my life experiences.

b) It really wasn’t funny. At least not to me anyway.

There was some stuff that should have made me laugh, for sure. Like Ethan Suplee playing the part of Aint-It-Cool-News founder Harry Knowles and beating up our heroes before subjecting them to a nerdy Star Wars quiz. Or Kevin Smith pimping out Jason Mewes to the guy who played the donkey-shagger in Clerks 2... but strangely, I felt nothing. Sounds better as I write it now than it was actually experiencing it, truth be told. But I really can’t find anything too much at fault here either. The acting was all great and everything seemed set to be a fine collection of Star Wars themed shenanigans and it should have been just great.

There were two moments that made me sit up and take notice. One was a bit which genuinely made me laugh and was a tiny sequence where, after the Fanboys have smashed up a statue of Captain Kirk fighting Khan, one of the trekkies in the movie picks up Khan’s head and does the famous... Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan yell! Halfway through the yell, however, he stops to take a puff of his inhaler before continuing. That one gag just tickled me for some reason. I thought the film was about to kick into high gear... it didn’t.

The other thing was right near the end when, after the adventure has been more or less concluded, the dying friend sits on a rock in the distance and watches his friends interacting with each other around a camp fire at night. This little scene genuinely had some heart in it and made me feel some emotion, finally.

At the end of the day, I can’t honestly give a good recomendation to this movie as, although I’m glad I saw it, I really wasn’t happy about purchasing it (even for the very cheap price I got it for) and expected a lot more from it. However, neither can I, in all fairness, tell people not to watch this. I’m sure there will be loads of people out there who would find this a really funny movie. Personally I prefer Kevin Smith, Woody Allen and The Marx Brothers for my main suppliers of cinematic laughing gas, but this is just a taste thing and probably has no place in this review. So can’t really say there’s no point in trying his one out either.

View or view not, there is no try.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation

A History Of Silents

Silent Hill Revelation
France/USA/Canada 2012
Directed by Michael J. Bassett
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: From early on there will be at least one big spoiler lurking in the fog of this review to allow me to discuss the movie properly. You have been duly warned!

The original Silent Hill game was always a dark and scary experience, but just too subtle in terms of game play (not mood) for someone like me to be able to stick with for any length of time (that goes double these days... I can’t remember the last year that I played a console or computer game, too busy writing this blog). I was never a one for survival horror games like this or Resident Evil because they involved stealth and subtlety and, in all honesty, just not enough damn ammo to do what I wanted. I wanted to shoot things in a gory hail of steel tipped ballistic carnage, not sneak around quietly when a zombie (Resident Evil) or newborn baby with a carving knife (Silent Hill in its original pre-censored version) wasn’t looking in my direction. This is why I stuck to first person shooters like Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem. Or platformers like Tomb Raider, Lego Star Wars and Lego indiana Jones... the other stuff just wasn’t my cup of freshly ground pixels.

Ironically though, I quite like the movies which are based on these games.

The first Silent Hill movie came out in 2006 and it was actually pretty good. It managed to capture the surreal... oh heck... just ‘plain bugnuts crazy’ atmosphere of the most imaginative evil coming your way to take you to a fate far worse than death, which is consistent with the source material. It starred Sean Bean and Radha Mitchell and ended on a pretty big down note... with Radha Mitchell and the daughter of her character trapped in the alternate reality of Silent Hill while Sean Bean is left in the real, physical world.

And then everyone waited for a sequel...

And they waited...

And they waited...

And then recently there came news of another movie based on the game, this time called Silent Hill: Revelation and I have to say that the publicity that I saw from this made it look like a reboot. Although Sean Bean was touted as being in it, it certainly didn’t look like it was, in any way, a sequel to the first shot at it and even Bean’s character name on the IMDB is different (there’s a fairly good reason for that, which is sorted out within the first ten minutes or so). Since I know this will make a difference to whether people will bother with the new one or not, let me just say that Silent Hill: Revelation is definitely a direct sequel to the 2006 movie... but I would add that, if I hadn’t played the game a little or seen the first movie in the series... I probably would have been a bit lost or at least, would have been less understanding of what was going on in this one.

Silent Hill: Revelation is a film which, because the marketing campaign seems to be a little dishonest, to say the least, doesn’t go out of its way to explain the various elements which make up the town of Silent Hill. It’s got a fairly basic plot, which relies on what is presumably the ‘revelation’ of the title as to the true identity of one of the characters from the first film (although it’s less a revelation and more a “ho-hum, whatever” kind of moment, it seems to me), and you won’t need to be doing much thinking about what’s happening on screen... unless, of course, you are unfamiliar with the dark and twisted territory which is Silent Hill. If anything, the plot kind of resembles the first Transformers movie, but with a mystical symbol replacing the ‘all spark’ of those films.

It’s good that you don’t have to think too much about the plot, though, because Silent Hill almost lives up to its name in that the majority of the running time is almost treated like a silent movie... but, you know, with “scary as ****” sound design. That is to say, once the basic set up is out of the way, the film becomes one long series of extended horror explorations/set pieces folding into each other like a set of Russian dolls. There’s very little let up as you are asked to pay witness to one dark, surrealistic vision after the other and, in some ways, this is the movie’s main flaw. A lot of horror or action directors will realise that to enhance the emotional weight of the action/horror sequences... you need fairly frequent breaks between these kinds of set pieces with which to contrast against. There are a few short breaks between horrors, especially near the start of this movie, but mostly it’s just 'eerie' followed directly by 'spooky', 'bloody' and “what the buggery ****” all piled on top of one another.

There’s no question the film makes you anxious and dread filled for the majority of its running time, and after all that’s what a good horror film tries to do, but I felt that a lot of the scares in this one could have benefitted by a few more scenes of ‘down time’ to make them seem even more potent when they happened. Still, it’s hard to argue that too much when the pacing in this one is so blistering.

The acting is kinda bizarre and wooden in places. I can’t work out if it’s a deliberate ploy by the film makers to echo the typical style of a standard computer game ‘cut scene’, or whether it’s just badly written dialogue in places. There are actually some real, animated sections typical of 'in game' footage shown interacting with the live action at a couple of points in the movie, so maybe that’s why. It’s kind of strange but seems to work in its own way. I just hope the animated sections weren't dropped in because the director didn't have all the footage he needed to make sense of the edit, though.

The girl playing the grown up ‘daughter’ from the first movie, played by an excessively cute actress called Adelaide Clemens, is especially likeable in the role and someone you can easily cheer for when it comes to it. Major acting talents such as Martin Donovan and Malcolm McDowell turn up in what amount to extended cameos and Sean bean has a little more to do in this one. Not loads, but he comes out better than he did in the first movie. Radha Mitchell and Deborah Kara Unger are also back in cameo scenes, reprising their roles from the first film... so you are in good hands most of the way.

The dark twistedness that is a trademark of the series is handled pretty well, including an amazing chase through a stockroom full of dolls where a tremendous CGI’d ‘pseudo-stop-motion’ animation chases the main protagonist around for a bit... although the ‘scary but sexy’ nurses from the first one are neither as sexy or scary as they were the last time around. The big knife guy seems to be treated as a less important player in this one too, although he is still quite intimidating at times. He’s pretty much similar to the big knife guy in the last two Resident Evil movies... so it’s not as effective as it could have been perhaps. I don't know which of these two games used that kind of character first.

The 3D works well in this one, the cinematography is clean (even while roaming designer grunge and decay) and the score by Jeff Danna is as effective as his score for the last one was, again drawing on themes and elements from the series of games on which the films are based. There’s also still the odd nods to sci-fi and horror genre buffs in terms of names used for places which aren’t as blatant as the last film but are still there to bring a smile to the face.

If you want a scary night out at the pictures and you were a fan of the first movie, or if you’ve played some of the games, then Silent Hill: Revelation probably won’t disappoint you too much... if however, you’re not in familiar territory walking those foggy streets, you may want to rent or buy the first movie from 2006 first in order to get a better understanding of the underlying plot references. A good little entry into the series, however, and I hope we don’t have to wait as long for the sequel to appear this time around.