Monday, 29 February 2016

The Forest

Bark Toccata

The Forest
2016 USA
Directed by Jason Zada 
UK cinema release print.

Okay, I have to confess that, while I haven’t actually listened to my copy of Bear McCreary’s score to this movie yet (it’s still stuck in shrink wrap while it was waiting for me to hear it in its context within the movie before I get around to cracking it open and spinning it), the composer’s involvement in this movie is the primary reason for me going to see it in the first place. Sure, it’s true I like horror movies and the trailer was good enough that I might have gone and seen this one anyway but, frankly, it leapt into ‘must see/must hear’ status when I found out about McCreary’s involvement. He’s a composer I’ve really liked since first hearing his work on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV show but, alas, he rarely scores anything else that I’m likely to get the opportunity (and possibly inclination) to see. So I basically know him solely from all of his Battlestar Galactica releases, plus his work on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The film is, in some ways, a fairly standard horror yarn, not unlike something you might find dropped into an old 1950's EC comic, but the basic premise was enough to keep me interested and, although it's not, by any means, an innovative or really original film... it’s got enough going for it in terms of execution of the concept that it ends up being quite an effectively chilling little movie. A haunting piece where the darkness of the human spirit becomes intertwined with the supernatural and, thus, it’s what I would call a ‘proper’ horror movie.

The film stars Natalie Dormer in a dual role as Sara and Jess. Nothing fancy here in terms of technical ways of showing this... it’s a low budget film and it sticks to standard reverse shots in conversations to show us the twins interacting but, in all honesty, that’s all that’s needed here, It serves the story when required and it really doesn’t need to head into Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers territory for this one. Jess, who teaches English in Japan (a job my cousin once did, as it happens), has gone to the famous ‘Suicide Forest’... a real place in Japan where people go to die and which is associated very much with evil spirits and demonic presences. So much so, in fact, that when actress Natalie Dormer went to the real forest herself as research for the film, her guide wouldn’t step off the path even a couple of feet, mirroring the concerns of her guide in the film, Michi, played by Yukiyoshi Ozawa and also her new journalist acquaintance Aiden, played by Taylor Kinney. Being as she is one of twins, Sara shares a bond with her sister and knows she must still alive and so the three go into The Forest to find her.

And then, of course, the obvious happens and Sara is fighting for her life in there from all kinds of supernatural attacks as she tries to find Jess and/or find her way out of The Forest alive. Now, yes, it is completely predictable in terms of the plotting and, very much so, in the final outcome of the movie. You’re given all the ingredients to figure out very early on in the piece just how it’s going to end up. However, all that being said, The Forest is an extremely technically competent horror movie and, sometimes, you don’t need to be dazzling on the conceptual genetic make up of your story, especially in this genre. Sometimes it's just enough to do it with a little style. What we have here is a horror movie which takes all those clichéd ingredients you would expect to come up in a film of this nature and... do them just right. Nothing about this movie is overcooked on the scares and jump shocks and, quite honestly, it was a pleasure to be in the hands of such a competent film-maker as Jason Zada turns out to be in this, his debut feature (after having directed a few shorts).

The acting is not exactly shabby either. I hadn’t heard of any one of the people who are in this movie, to be honest, but they all did a terrific job and the two leads provide excellent portrayals of people who you really wouldn’t mind hanging out with to pass the time of day. Of course, this makes it all the more scary when the inevitable paranoia starts to set in and The Forest starts toying with it’s prey, as you know it’s going to.

There aren’t any real stand out set pieces apart from a nice homage to the old ViewMaster phenomenon of the late 1930s through to the present day... I didn’t realise they were still making them, to be honest but, yeah, I still have mine. There’s a scene in this movie where Sara finds a ViewMaster in a cavern she’s fallen into and... well, yeah, like a lot of the movie the scene is predictable but, also like the majority of the movie, it’s done well and shows impeccable timing. It’s a nice moment in that it links the present shenanigans to the back story of the death of the twins' parents and, later on, this scenario is revisited again in a sequence where... oh no. That’s right. I said to myself I wouldn’t post any spoilers for this one on here so... I can’t tell you. Although you’ll almost certainly get there yourself.

The other big thing this movie has going for it is the impeccable score by Bear McCreary which was so significant in me bothering to go out to the cinema to see this thing for. It’s a great horror score, really not a million miles away from his work on Battlestar Galactica, in that the tone and dominance of the percussion and unusual orchestration is quite similar. It also doesn’t do what a lot of even the best composers for horror films sometimes do with their scores either... it doesn’t pre-empt or give away any of the jump scares. In fact, it pretty much lures you in and keeps the flow going until the sting comes... and it’s good that McCreary knows not to do this and that the director hasn’t made him deviate into a less subtle, more full-on, over cranked score to accompany what is, after all, a scary movie intended to make you jump. McCreary’s music is a real support to this movie and I absolutely can’t wait to get the CD out of its shrink wrap.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about this one. A nicely put together movie that really doesn’t outstay its welcome for it hour and a half running time and which doesn’t have time to get dull. The sinister ghosts in the movie are quite intimidating, in their way, too and so if you’re a fan of the genre, you really might want to take some time and wander along to the cinema to check this one out. I really thought it was a shiny gem of a movie, despite being easy to predict, and I think a lot of the audience for this kind of picture will get a kick out of it. Certainly, if you’re a horror fan, you’d be barking mad not to check out The Forest.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Mermaid (aka Mei Ren Yu) 3D

The Chow Sea Girls

Mermaid (aka Mei Ren Yu) 3D
2016 China
Directed by Stephen Chow
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Mild Spoilers

I’ve loved Stephen Chow’s movies ever since I first saw his absolute masterpiece of comedy action, Shaolin Soccer, years ago. I also quite liked his Kung Fu Hustle too, though not quite as much as the former movie. So when I found out that a brand new Stephen Chow movie I’d not heard of was, astonishingly, playing at my local multiplex in Mandarin with English subtitles and that they were, furthermore, showing it in 3D, I knew I’d have to rush to see it as it wouldn’t be there long. So I was glad I at least found out on the Wednesday as I was able to get to the last performance of it on the Thursday.

Mermaid is, frankly, not quite as brilliant as either of the other two movies I mentioned but it is an extremely entertaining and fun movie with engaging characters who you will want to stay with even when, at times, some of the jokes wear a bit thin.

The film details the two main protagonists, a rich and spoiled brat of a philanthropist Liu, played so well by Chao Deng, and the mermaid of the English title Shanshan (or Jelly in the subs?)... played by newcomer Yun Lin, who also does an excellent job. Because of the extreme damage Liu and his new business partner/potential girlfriend Ruolan, played with icy relish by Yuqi Zhang, are doing to the oceans, Shanshan is sent by her king, the Octopus (played hysterically well by Show Luo), to assassinate Liu on behalf of her surviving mermaid friends. Of course, things don’t go smoothly once Liu and Shanshan fall in love and it’s a nice canvass for Chow, who doesn’t act in this one, to put in a load of quite 'over the top' jokes and get maximum comedy out of this set up.

Now, I would be lying if I said that this movie was a non-stop laugh fest... it does mostly try to be but it doesn’t always succeed. However, it is very amusing for a lot of the movie and Chow hasn’t lost any of his timing when the sudden bursts of comic absurdities come and go with that amazing deadpan speed which Chow injected into his earlier films. Yes, sometimes the comic scenes can outstay their welcome in places but they do, continually, surprise and even when they may be considered a little overdone to some audiences, they sometimes manage to leave with a surprise too, which then perks things up and leaves you smiling again.

For instance, there’s a scene where the character Octopus, who has the upper body of a human and the lower body of an octopus (I guess that makes him a mer-octopus then?) is trying to kill Liu but when he finds he’s surrounded by bodyguards, he instead finds himself posing as a cook. He then, to hide his non-human nature and put a stop to the question about the abundance of tentacles laying around the place, has to pretend he was going to cook them octopus by frying, mincing and burning his own tentacles while we watch his comically pained expressions of increasing ferociousness. Alas, this sequence really does go on a little too long but the visual punchline is great... when he’s had enough he sprays the room with black ink and then hurtles backwards through a breaking widow. The extra punchline is that, with completely impossible comic timing, Liu and Shanshan are the only people in the room not covered in black ink, due to being protected by umbrellas which have suddenly materialised from all the bodyguards who happened to be conveniently carrying... um... umbrellas. It’s the extra smile on top of an overlong joke like this which saves the picture in a few places.

There are some points of the picture which are a little too predictable and the jokes fall flat very fast, like the comical jet pack gone wrong scene early in the film... but because the narrative and the little sequences are so quick-fire in their arrival and departure, Chow manages to make a lot of this stuff work very well and if you are especially enamoured of slapstick comedy, you’ll almost certainly be a lot more appreciative of this movie than I... and I liked it fairly well, I think. There are as many jokes that work as don’t and the running time is certainly packed full of bizarre and unexpected scenes, such as the impromptu singing duet between Liu and Shanshan.

The other thing about this movie is that it also has a lot of heart. It’s a film that’s definitely going for a strong statement about man’s harm to the environment, especially to marine life, and it certainly pulls no punches in this subject. Added to real life footage of man’s inhumanity to sea creatures, we have an amazing downer of a scene in the last third of the movie when the real villain of the piece and her henchmen slaughter or beat to a bloody pulp, many of Shanshan’s mermaid friends. Indeed, there’s a beautiful shot of Shanshan, all bloody and beached, near the end that’s absolutely heartrending.

This extra dimension turns the film from being a quick-fire comedy into something which has a little more substance and that, in turn, gives it a little more edge. It makes it more enjoyable and Chow’s constantly roving and cutting camerawork and editing style is a huge bonus... I can’t imagine anybody else getting away with this kind of script and wringing as much cinematic richness from it as Chow does here.

Ultimately, Mermaid isn’t my favourite Stephen Chow movie but it is a pretty interesting one and if you are into Chinese films like this, you should definitely make a point of catching this one while you still can. I’m really glad I saw it and I’ve been haunted by some of the imagery enough since last night to know I’ll try and track down a blu ray of it, if it becomes available with subtitles at some point. A fresh and sometimes funny take on a clichéd but timeless tale, Mermaid is not a film many who are in love with the art of cinema will want to miss. Catch it and reel it in if you can.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books The Government Didn’t Want You To Read

EC Reader

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books
The Government Didn’t Want You To Read
by Jim Trombetta
Includes Bonus DVD
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0810955950

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books The Government Didn’t Want You To Read is a wonderful book for all people interested in the history of censorship (and not just of comics... because the insidious grasp of the censors is felt in all media). It’s also a great look at some of the thematic trends which gave, primarily, the horror and crime comics a certain something which brought down the wrath of authority to the point where the majority of the material was banned. Of course, the terrible backlash against these things also gave rise to the famous Comics Code Authority stamp which any comic book fan reading between 1954 and the early 21st Century would be able to identify.

In terms of the creation of the code and the big scare in comic books at the time, the book is fairly light in terms of having too much detail but, frankly, most comic readers with any sense of history would already know what happened. When the Senate investigated the comics that kids were reading, inspired primarily of the quite questionable testimony of Fredric Wertham and his very skewed book about them, Seduction Of The Innocent, it was very nearly the death of comic books and, certainly, many people found themselves out of work and switching to other material following the consequences of this.

That being said, the writer does cover these issues here... well you’d need to because of the very significance of the event in relation to the subject covered... and well done to him for not painting Wertham in quite such the black hue that he might have. To his credit, along with the usual and fairly easy identification of why Wertham’s ‘testimony’ and ‘body of evidence’ that these things were having a nightmarish effect on the kids who were reading them is not worth the paper or devices it was recorded on, Jim Trombetta has been quite fair to the man, pointing out that all Wertham was really interested in was getting some kind of ratings system in place. Which isn’t a terrible idea actually... some of the covers and content of these things might be hard to get away with today, to be honest. Of course, once the wheels were set in motion, the Government cracked down big time and the comics were banned. The Comics Code was drawn up, to be enforced and adhered to by the industry itself.

Following on from Stan Lee’s request by the Government to do a story detailing the horror of drug addiction in Spider-Man in the late 1960s, and the Comics Code refusal to allow it despite the origins of why the three issue run was there in the first place. Marvel Comics ran it without the code and it certainly didn’t hurt sales. This paved the way for one of many relaxations of the code and I’m pretty sure that the famous, early 1970s run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics, where the two heroes teamed up and went on the road in stories tackling social issues of contemporary America, would never have come to light without Lee and Marvel standing up against the code like they did. I didn’t realise this until very recently but the last comic company to still be using the code dropped it in 2011 as new phrases like “suggested for mature readers” began to creep in over the past few decades. So without me even realising it, that little white stamp in the corner of a comic book which has been with me my whole life, has disappeared forever for all future publications.

However, this book is worth its weight in gold because, although it does cover some of that stuff, what it’s really about is looking at the various ‘unsavoury’ themes and iconic visuals which would crop up time and time again in various Horror, Crime and even Science Fiction comics. So there are lots of mini chapters on, say, the theme of Werewolvery or Eye Injury, for example, and the writer will then talk about occurrences of these things in various issues of the time period and also discuss variations of them. So he might start off the chapter on eye injury with references to people’s eyeballs coming under threat from all manner of horror such as red hot pokers. However, he will also look at situations where the eyes themselves, whether attached to a human or floating around of their own accord, would be the elements causing the threat or injury, such as shooting laser beams out of them and so forth. The gentleman writing has an interesting approach to the material and a writing style which will keep you ploughing through the text.

The really great thing, though, is that each chapter of this book, which is full colour on every page, after containing just one to three pages of standard text, will then have a number of pages devoted to full colour reproductions of some of the covers and also some full reprints of the stories themselves. Now this is outstanding at the best of times but what makes this volume so enticing to collectors, in addition to the casual readers like myself, is that a lot of the stuff in this book is reprinted for the first time since it was originally published... located and restored to the best of the ability of the writer and with as much information about the artists and writers (often unknown) that he could find out.

Although the notorious EC Comics with their famous titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear are certainly mentioned, the majority of this volume is made up from other competitors’ comic books, which have not been substantially reprinted like the EC material has been over the years. There’s some wonderful stuff in here which I’ve certainly never seen before and the very last story reprinted in the book has a final twist which... I really should have seen coming (because I kept noticing that damned monkey in the early panels) but I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, that scores big brownie points with me.

Accompanying this excellent book is a 25 minute bonus DVD which is the full episode of the 1950s TV show Confidential Report, which in this one dealt with comic books and helped popularise the alarmist... and frankly absurdist, when you look at the way the material is shot and presented.... notion that comic books were doing people harm. You’ve probably seen excerpts from this TV special many times in documentaries about comic books over the years but this is the full thing and there was a lot of stuff in here I’d not seen before. I loved the way the soundtrack music makes the ‘fly on the wall’ footage of the ‘film within the documentary’ so alarmingly manipulative, pushing the agenda that comics are an evil force and a danger to your kids!

All in all, it’s a very attractive book with some beautiful reproductions of some wonderfully lurid covers and stories which were obviously part of a format that was brimming over with some nice ideas. The icing on the cake is that it’s well written and lovingly restored by Jim Trombetta, a Shakespearian scholar, no less, and he’s someone who obviously loves the material every bit as much as his intended audience. I have to say that this is a tome I’m proud to have on the book shelf and I would urge all fans of those specific 1950s comics to check this one out... especially since a lot of the stuff in this volume has never been reprinted before. Don’t miss out on this one... or it may slither up from whence it came and haunt you in the night.

Monday, 22 February 2016


Rebooted And Suited

USA 1966
Directed by  John Frankenheimer
Eureka The Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray B/DVD R2 Dual Format Edition

This is a film I’ve been wanting to see for years now and I kept meaning to pick up the US Criterion Edition for a while. However, there are a couple of DVD/Blu Ray labels here in the UK that have come into their own in recent years as a credible and, only very slightly, less expensive alternative to Criterion editions and I thought it would be better getting this new edition from The Masters Of Cinema, who seem to have improved considerably over the space of the last ten years in their excellence at acquiring or restoring decent prints and transfers of the titles they put out.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of Rock Hudson and nor am I much familiar with his work. I must have seen a couple of his films with Doris Day when I was a kid and my mother used to avidly watch him on TV in MacMillan And Wife during the 1970s. However, to me he will always be linked in my mind to the production I saw him in as a 12 year old, the 1980 TV mini-series adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. So even though he’s not exactly done much science fiction like some of his contemporaries were doing around the same era (such as Charlton Heston and Yul Brinner), it’s primarily in this kind of speculative story that I know him as a performer.

Now Seconds is a film which, I have to say I find a bit hit and miss during its almost two hours of running time. When it misses, though, it’s still vaguely watchable and when it hits... well it's really astonishing. I have to say that, for me, the opening of the picture and the first 40 minutes or so of set up, in which Rock Hudson isn’t seen at all, is quite honestly an unbelievably cool and manipulative slice of cinema. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Hudson’s performance throughout the film... in fact it’s incredible. However, when his character, or I should say his version of the character, comes into the picture, I did find some of the sequences a bit dull. Still intense but dull... if that’s not too much of a contradiction.

So the film won me over right from the start with a combination of two powerful forces... Saul Bass and Jerry Goldsmith.

Bass’ opening title design is absolutely spooky, as parts of the human face are distorted and stretched in a similar fashion to the way one might perceive one’s own image in a crazy, fun house mirror. It’s all very big, surreal and in your face and I can only imagine how powerful it must have been sitting in front of a huge cinema screen (as they mostly were in those days... huge compared to the majority of those we have now) and being confronted with this. Probably both amazing and seriously disconcerting in equal measure. As the credits progress, different sections of distorted face or head are pitched together in split screens, thus confronting any viewers with an even more unsettling attack on the collective windows of the audience’s soul.

Hand in hand with this is Jerry Goldsmith doing a big sinister piece which starts off gently with violins and small statements, like a chamber concerto, using phrases and orchestration which I personally would associate with generally evil music.... although I’m not nearly enough of a technical expert when it comes to music to know whether the composer used the ‘devil’s interval’ in this sequence. However, to add the complete sense of sinister doom, he then starts bringing in organ tones which certainly did the trick with my dog, who decided it was time to leave the living room at this point. All I know is Goldsmith’s score is a powerhouse along with the Saul Bass titles and, although the film is sparsely but effectively spotted (a Goldsmith trait when the studio allowed for that), it’s an amazing and less than restful score that really heightens the sense of paranoia and tension which I believe the director was probably going for.

Goldsmith’s score continues in the opening scenes of a man being followed by another in a busy train station... although since it’s obviously the beginning of the line, it’s surprising that the passengers chose to sit next to each other in rush hour and were kind enough to leave the main protagonist, as played by John Randolph at this point in the film, a double window seat. However, the sequence astounded me and I was getting very excited because the director was using all kinds of different angles on various moving shots edited rapidly together including... that thing they do where they strap a camera to either the front or back of an actor (both in this case) and film so that the actor’s head or body is kept centre and everything else appears to be moving around him as he walks. Seriously? This seemed out of place and amazing because I thought this was a relatively new approach to shooting, within the last 20 years or so... but here you have John Frankenheimer using it in 1966. So I’m wondering just when this technique started to be used... presumably when industry standard cameras were actually small enough to be able to do this with... and in which film it was first used. Any readers who know the answer to this, please let me know via the comments section for this post.

The film itself concerns a very rich section of the population who want to fake their own death in an elabourate way using a body and major plastic surgery and organ modification (including the vocal chords etc) and our main protagonist is one such person. However, he is drugged and in a wonderfully surreally staged ‘dream sequence’ he is forced to ‘pseudo-rape’ a woman (a company employee) and filmed as insurance that he won’t back out of the deal at some point. The black market but highly successful company which do all this are very thorough in their methods and there’s another wonderfully inventive moment when we see Randolph’s character sign on the dotted line and when we cut to the pen signing it, it’s actually the surgeon’s hand marking up his flesh on the operating table. This is a truly great film for inventive camera work and editing. Although it’s sometimes obtrusive to the illusion of immersion, I found the film to be worth sitting through some of the slightly duller moments for, than I would normally be.

There’s another thing Frankenheimer does early on which is use static cuts of the same character but from longer distances each time, rather than just zoom out. My guess is he does it because he wants to capture the sheer anxiety of the character and slam it home quickly, rather than allow the audience to pull back from the intensity slowly. Whatever the reason he does this though, it’s a pretty fantastic and effective way of conveying the emotions of the actor without diluting it with camera movement. The edit slams you around instead.

When Rock Hudson’s ‘reborn’ version of the character comes into the story as one of the ‘Seconds’ of the title, it begins to come to light that maybe he didn’t make the right decision after all and he’s either a grumpy, unsmiling character or he gets into situations where he goes totally over the top in the other direction. Hudson’s performance is, as I said, flawless but the two party scenes, one in his new home and another outside where he and many others go naked and get in a big tub to crush wine grapes, are actually a little over long and draggy, as far as I’m concerned. And, yeah, I really didn’t expect myself to be saying a sequence which has so many lovely ladies shedding their clothing and inhibitions is a little on the dull side but... I guess every person’s viewing experience is different and that was mine.

Now, there’s an end twist and I thought I knew what it was after about halfway through the movie due to a sequence where Hudson is greeted by an ‘old friend’ at the airport. However, the actual twist, when it comes at the end of the movie, is a lot more pedestrian than I’d hoped for but it doesn’t completely let the movie down and it’s not a bad ending... just a little less than I’d expected from the powerful and claustrophobic set up. Also, I’m not sure but I think the final moments of the movie reveal a flaw in that the person who greets Hudson at the airport in the earlier sequence of the movie now seems to be a bit more of a puzzle than I’d originally thought... but I don’t want to go into why too much, on here, because I want to avoid going into spoiler territory with this one.

So that’s that. At the end of the day, I think Seconds is a movie that genre fans might be interested in. It’s a bit of a flawed masterpiece, it has to be said, but it’s got some really interested visual devices used throughout, has a title sequence by the grand master of title sequence design (not to mention graphic design in general) and a low key but ultimately threatening and powerful score by one of the greatest composers of his generation. So film enthusiasts really should take a look at this one if they haven’t already. Inventive, bleak and with naturalistic performances... a nice little movie, for sure.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home

Brutish Whale Rays

Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home
USA 1986
Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Paramount Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilers here for Star Trek virgins.

And so on to the fourth and what is, in actual fact, my personal favourite of all of the Star Trek movies.

Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home has a lot going for it with a brilliant script, mostly played for laughs, the usual solid performances from both the regular and guest cast and even Leonard Nimoy’s direction seems more confident in this one. The camera movement, shot set ups and editing seem a lot less ‘quick and dirty’ and more graceful. Some of the sets, effects and even alien make-up still seems a little less than special in this one... although nowhere near as ropey as some of the stuff in Star Trek III - The Search For Spock (reviewed here).

The story is a continuation and conclusion to the events depicted in the last two movies, with Kirk and his shipmates still fugitives from justice and on their voyage home from Vulcan to the planet Earth, ready to turn themselves in for their breaches of Federation law in the last installment. The scenes from Vulcan don’t look all that realistic in places, it has to be said, and the opening of the movie features the third and final appearance of Saavik, played for the second time by Robin Curtis. Again cut from the film, as it was cut from being mentioned in the last one, the reason Saavik stays behind on Vulcan (appearing in only a couple of brief scenes), is the detail that she is pregnant with Mr. Spock’s child, after helping him out through his ‘pon farr’ phases in the last cinematic installment.

This is also the only film in the franchise to feature both Spock’s father and mother as played by the original actor and actress returning from their TV appearance in the Star Trek episode Journey To Babel, in the same film... although they never actually appear on screen together. This was Jane Wyatt’s last performance before she died but Mark Lennard would, of course, play Sarek at least four more times... twice in the next two Star Trek movies and twice in episodes of Star Trek - The Next Generation. I always find Sarek a reassuring presence in these moves as he seems to lend an instant sense of gravitas to any given situation.

The plot of the film is very simple... the scriptwriters needed to devise a way of having the crew of the now destroyed Enterprise redeem themselves and be able to continue serving in starfleet. Nimoy also throws in a very clear and present plea to “save the whales” and although some people might find this absolutely noble message a bit preachy... well, it may be but it’s a welcome message for a Star Trek movie to deliver and its obviously pursued and presented with a lot of passion.

And so we have an alien vessel beaming down sound rays to the oceans of planet Earth and almost destroying our planet in the process. Kirk and his chums make it back to Earth in time to witness this near ‘destruction by accident’ but Mr. Spock realises the probe is trying to communicate with hump backed whales, a species now extinct in this future era. So the crew of the H.M.S Bounty, as McCoy christens our heroes’ ‘acquired’ Klingon Bird Of Prey (which was never supposed to be a Klingon ship but that’s another story) realise they have to go back to Earth’s ancient history and bring back some whales to the future... which they do. By calculating a time warp (something they’d done before in the TV series and which would be done again in a later Star Trek productions) and landing in San Francisco in 1986.

And , of course, like the various episodes of the original TV show where the crew of the starship Enterprise found themselves either back in Earth’s history, or on a planet mimicking Earth’s history, the script writers have a field day using various ‘fish out of water’, future versus the ‘present day of the contemporary audience’ jokes... making this movie a very light hearted affair and that’s possibly why I like this one so much. The writers, quite frankly, seem to be having a whale of a time with this one and the humour is infectious.

Another thing that’s infectious is the music but it’s also problematic. Rather than keep musical continuity with the previous two films in the franchise, which form an unofficial trilogy within the movie series, Nimoy wanted to use his friend Leonard Rosenman to do the score. This means that, once again, the only musical continuity with the other movies is a few quotes from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek TV series theme... but the tone of the rest of the score is completely different, once again, from any of the previous films in the series.

Now some of my regular readers might remember I have some personal problems with Leonard Rosenman’s music which, I have to say, is absolutely nothing to do with his ego and more about his use of those damn, irritating ‘tone pyramids’ which have always sounded so dated and clichéd to me. Rosenman is, of course, noted for being a composer who uses a lot of atonality in his work and this is a style which I love, although for some reason I always seem to be less than inspired by this composers own explorations of that style of music. That being said, there are also some great melodies in this one including two truly great pieces of music for when Chekhov is being chased by the navy and a second when he is being rescued from a hospital.

Rosenman’s main titles are also great but they’re similarly problematic in that they’re very close, in some sections, to the main titles for his score to the 1978 version of Lord Of The Rings. I know some people who can’t even tell the difference although they aren’t that used to listening to ‘scores’ and any similarities are usually picked up on. But, yeah, play them both together and some sections do sound almost identical... which is unfortunate because it’s really not a bad piece of music. I do enjoy certain sections of Rosenman’s score for this film, tone pyramids aside, but I do think the choice to use him was possibly a bad decision in the case of this one and its ‘shared story’ with the previous two installments, both of which were scored by James Horner using the same themes (not necessarily all his themes but the less I say about that the less I’m going to get in trouble, methinks).

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. A greatly entertaining movie which even has a cool trick ending...

After saving the Earth from certain doom, all charges are dropped against our heroes apart from one remaining charge for Kirk. However, as his punishment, he is demoted in rank back to Captain and once more given a starship to command... something he’s been trying to get back to in his rank of Admiral since the first movie. He even gets given a new Starship Enterprise, the first of the ships to end with a letter in its serial number... NCC 1701-A (the one Captain Pickard commands in Star Trek - The Next Generation is NCC 1701-D). So a crowd pleasing end all round in a Star Trek movie that pretty much gives the audience everything they could want from it and, as it turns out, was the highest grossing of all ten of the first wave of movies... something which was finally toppled with J. J. Abrams reboot of the movie series a few years back. Regardless of the back story being somewhat essential in terms of picking up the constant references, if you see only one Star Trek movie in your life and you are looking for something to give you a way in, then Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home is the one to go for.

Star Trek @ NUTS4R2
Star Trek Series 1
Star Trek - The Motion Picture 
Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home 
Star Trek V - The Final Frontier 
Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek - Generations (aka Star Trek VII) 
Star Trek - First Contact 
Star Trek - Insurrection 
Star Trek Nemesis 
Star Trek Beyond

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Mind Change

Neuro Fiddles, Brain Turns

Mind Change
by Susan Greenfield
Rider Books
ISBN: 978-1-84604-431-1

I first became aware of Baroness Susan Greenfield’s 2014 book Mind Change by, ironically (given its primary focus), seeing it mentioned in a tweet on Twitter. The book's subtitle, or catch line, of “How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains” promised to be a compelling read and, indeed, it was. However, I had one of my own personal hang ups to get past first...

In the mini biography on the first page of the book, before I’d even got started on the actual tome itself, it mentions that she is a member of the House Of Lords. Now this, I have to say, nearly made me give up reading it there and then. Politicians and their ilk are generally a breed of parasite I usually have no time for. In this country alone they have completely managed to destroy everything and, just even in the last ten years, things are getting worse and worse on these shores to the point where I can see civil war possibly brewing in the background. Government, as far as I can see, is about a number of privileged few who are only intent on taking backhanders and feathering their own nest at the expense of their fellow man. The naivete and absolute lack of compassion combined with the constantly demonstrated expression that power corrupts absolutely has never been on better show as it is in the UK today. Regardless of this, one of my take aways from having to live under this Government is that they barely seem to have a brain between them... so who are they to write books on such things.

That being said I persevered because I, myself, have begun to see a diminishing return in my own cognitive functions on a daily basis for a few years now and am working in a job which proves to me, irrefutably, that people are becoming less thinking and functional than they were even just 15 years ago. Also, the quote on the front cover, coming from The Grauniad, called the author in question “Britain’s best known neuroscientist”. I hadn’t heard of her myself... or so I thought. It did, however, shortly come to light that she had ‘hit it big’ with me in my dim and distant past.

I was right to continue with the book in spite of it being written by someone who is in the House Of Lords because Mind Change, along with many others by the same author, I’m sure, proves to me that... not only does this lady know her stuff, she is also fully aware that the answers to a lot of the things she questions here are not able to be proven one way or another at this stage of the research. However, there is evidence to suggest the way things are going... I’ve already demonstrated my own need to read this book based on my perceptions of myself and the majority of the people I come into contact with every day. There are concerns to be wary of and we need to start asking the questions and doing more rigorous research into these things very soon otherwise we, as a nation and a planet, may find ourselves in a very sticky situation before we even realise it (or possibly before we are any longer capable of realisiing it).

As I was reading the book, something seemed very familiar and it struck me that I had somehow come across this writer before. I played a hunch and googled her image, something she would probably not have absolutely  approved of given the subject at hand although, in my defence, I was coming to google to discover if I was right as to her identity based on my own inner reasoning... rather than just surfing their on a whim. I found myself looking, not at the person I was expecting to see but someone who might well have been that person if she’d aged... just a little. So I did more research to see if I was right. Back in 1994, at Christmas on the BBC, I’d actually taken note to watch their annual broadcast of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. That year’s edition was entitled, presumably in reference to Jules Verne, Journey To The Centre Of The Brain and the woman giving the lecture held me mesmerised and spellbound and made me begin to question the wisdom, or lack of in my case, stored in the human brain. One story about a man who survived having a railway spike unexpectedly and accidentally splitting his brain and the way in which his behaviour changed as a result, was one which particularly stayed with me. Even to this day I can remember the funny face the lady in question pulled as she related that story (assuming my mind hasn’t made that bit up for me). And that woman who delivered this wonderful lecture was, it turns out, Susan Greenfield, the writer of Mind Change. So, of course, I immediately then trusted her and threw my last seeds of caution to the wind.

Mind Change doesn’t set out to prove anything specific, I think. Or at least that’s my understanding of it. Like Freud and his ilk, Greenfield merely tries, and in my case certainly succeeds, in asking some tough questions about how digital technology and our reliance and interaction with it on many levels is changing the way our brain functions... so we can start talking about it. She asks these questions because, I think, she believes that we are perilously close to producing a generation of people who just can’t think the way we need to do. And having read this book... I now have the same concerns... or at the very least, my own concerns and anxieties surrounding these issues magnified.

It’s become something of a known fact, at least in my everyday conversations with people, that our reliance to reach for a search engine has stunted our brains' capacity to recall details we used to be able to conjure up for ourselves to a great degree. We don’t stretch our grey cells anymore, we just look it up on our phone or computer or whatever digital device is the most handy. And this, among many other things, it would seem, are cause for concern.

Now, I’d never really thought about this before but Greenfield points out something that I guess I should have thought of but never really had cause to contemplate before... our thoughts, or for the oldest of us now in this increasingly digital world, are linear expressions across a space of time... tiny though that space of time might be. That is to say they traditionally have a beginning, a middle and an end and, honestly, I really had never even thought about that concept before. It staggers me in the way that it might not stagger many, I concur, but also it then highlights what happens when somebody is on social media a lot, or getting a load of emails, or receiving a load of texts or whatsapp messages... or many of these things all at the same time. Yes, our pace of life has changed greatly and the acceleration of the way new bits of information or requests take up our time means we are programming ourselves to think purely on a reactive basis to what’s coming in. We may start to have a thought about something but we’re just not getting to the end of it before the next thing is already hitting us and to which we will also quickly respond before our thought process is quite finished. I may be saying this wrong but that seems to fundamentally be happening.

Lots of things are covered in Mrs. Greenfield’s book and I have to say, though I can’t go into them all in the space of my average review length, I was fairly impressed about how intricate and broad the spectrum for concern is. She gives all the data she can and also highlights arguments for and against her own, treating other views fairly and, quite often, pointing out why they could be flawed due to the way in which the research on various phenomena have been handled. She’s also quick to point out, and I also found this concept quite refreshing, that we can’t just isolate the brain reacting to something as a cause and effect piece of evidence. For example, we can show quite demonstrably that playing action video games demonstrates a low level but abundant amount of hostility or aggression in a lot of people playing them. However, are we highlighting that the video game is causing that or are we highlighting that people who already have those characteristics are drawn to play these things in the first place. It’s a concept of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, and this comes up again and again in many guises throughout the book. If Susan Greenfield is one thing, it’s definitely that she’s very fair and open to the possibilities that nothing is really, at the moment, being proven at all.

One thing which rang true to me, for reasons I won’t go into here, is that it seems that learning on electronic devices such as iPads, computers or whatever other kind of tablet device is given, is not helping students of various ages but, in fact, hindering them. By encouraging people to be 'digital natives', as she puts it, we are discouraging them to make associations in a narrative context, which is where meaning and therefore knowledge comes from... yeah, the value of fiction over non-fiction as the best experience to learn from is supported quite highly by the writer and explains, to me, the popularity and value placed on various forms of narrative in modern culture. It seems people’s brains are all over the place when it comes to the digital world and although they are becoming exceptionally good at finding the answers to things, they are not arriving at the questions themselves and therefore not making the kind of connections required to take any real meaning from those answers. Their IQs are raising but their knowledge and the wisdom needed to make that knowledge a potent force for good, is absolutely a lot worse than it was before. So much so, she informs us, that some states in America have now got institutions in which electronic devices are banned as an aid to teaching because the results from the students are so poor when reliant on digital stimulation. We are living in, she says, a question poor/answer rich society... which is a complete 180 degree turn from what we used to be, although when we were in a question rich/answer poor access society, we used to take more away from asking the right questions, rather than being bombarded with too many fascinating and seductive but ultimately ‘off the point’ answers.

A conversation I had last week with a lady at work corroborates this. Over the years, she told me when I raised this subject, that she’s had three children. Two of them were not ‘digital natives’ and when they were growing up, they were a lot further ahead than her latest child, who has had all the so called benefits of digital learning but behaves a lot more poorly because of the way teachers have used it in the process of... well... teaching this person. It sent a shudder down my spine because I know a lot of higher education establishments in this country are poised to go the same way in terms of investment into a much more aggressive push into ‘virtual education’ and I know that results are declining rapidly in this country over the last ten years. I firmly believe the ‘distractions’ of the digital age, among other factors, may well have had some large part to play in that.

Of course, it raises the question of whether current concerns are going to be dismissed in future generations as quaint and antiquated notions and Greenfield is quick to point that out too. However, her speculative summing up in the final chapter of where we may be in just fifty years time, which certainly falls into the realms of science fiction but which seems more probable than some other future outcomes, is quite sobering and certainly gives pause to thought that we should really be taking this phenomenon, some of the negative effects which are certainly with us already, as something serious and maybe find a way to take a step back and investigate our approach to the digital world, rather than just jumping in and seeing whether the waters are infested with hidden sharks after we’ve already started swimming.

I do have one criticism of the book... and you knew I had to have one, right? The design of the book is such that rather than have conveniently placed footnotes at the bottom of the page, all the notes are shoved in to a quite large section at the back of the book. This of course means you have to actively leave the main text for a while as you flit around finding the right note and then come back to the main text, distracting you from the flow of the original message. For the author, who quite convincingly details the perils of the allure of hypertext links on the internet, this seems just a little ironic to me, it has to be said.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Susan Greenfield’s non conclusive but certainly provocative and excellent book Mind Change. Other than the fact a complete laymen like myself was able to understand it because it’s so well written and understandable. She also uses, in some chapters, little passages which may be deemed page turner cliffhangers, were they in a work of fiction, whereby she finishes off a section by asking a question which leads us in to the next chapter. Proof, I suspect, that her grasp and use of fictional narrative devices, and what she’s learned from them, are serving her in life more than many younger authors might be able to make appropriate use of. A truly riveting book and one which I think deserves to be read by as many people as possible because, if you agree with her thoughts on the subject or not, the questions she raises are something we all should be more aware of and mulling over, to do the right thing by future generations, I think.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Gored On Bennet

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
2015 USA
Directed by Burr Steers
UK cinema release print.

It is a truth perhaps less than universally acknowledged, that a Hollywood made horror parody in possession of a good budget must be in want of a good review. You will, of course, have to read on to find if a review of that passion and temperature is to be found in this humble blog.

Alas, by way of apology, in terms of my qualification to deliver a fair and less 'prejudiced' review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I must hasten to add that, having read neither Jane Austen’s original tome, Pride and Prejudice, nor the Quirk books bestseller of less than a decade ago - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith - I am in no way in a position to point out the merits, either good or bad, of the movie in question in terms of its adaptive qualities. The transformation of a work of written literature into a celluloid or, alas, digital medium can, at times, be a transformative process where either the baby or the bathwater can be found to be cast out and not survive the process which brings forth such hybrid creations, Frankenstein-like into this world.

However, in my defence, I will say that this also gives me a stronger viewpoint to judge the creation of the writers, directors and actors who have blessed us with their talents here on the strength of the primary intent of the final result that such a pot pourri of ingredients may bring to light in full view of the public. That is to say, my judgement is unclouded by the long road and legacy of the creation of the final product and, though this may mean I may not pick up on all the subtleties inherent in the narrative by the writers, I can in fact ensure that I am reviewing the film unhindered by the troublesome baggage that comes with a relationship to past variations of the theme, now made flesh on the cinematograph screens of the world.

It is pleasing for me to therefore report that, contrary to my expectations that such a woven concoction could not necessarily provide sufficient entertainment for the current generation of artistically impoverished souls who queue outside the picture houses up and down the country, myself included in this sometimes less than noble group, the artistic creation in question... that being the motion picture called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... is indeed a thrilling and most entertaining yarn including extremely exciting scenes and visual depictions of romance and action. Both qualities rendered in equal measure upon a backdrop of atrocities of reanimated zombie horror that, despite being the sum of scenes which, essentially, all hang on the status bestowed upon it of being a ‘one-joke-wonder’ or ‘one-trick-pony’, so to speak, is both a cracking good piece of storytelling and also quite creative, at the very least, in the many ways in which the rendition of said, single, jape can be supported in terms of the comically inventive sequences. For example, the prejudice shown between the origins of a young lady’s skill at martial arts training, hinging upon whether one was trained in the Japanese or Chinese fighting styles, provoked smiles and noises of approval from this jaded cinema goer.

The actors in the movie are all very strong and bold and positively sterling in their upright depictions of the characters ‘borrowed’, or should I say ‘plundered’ from Miss. Austen’s original source novel. Lily James, so magnificent in both her beauty and her poise, soulfully renders the character of Miss Elizabeth Bennet animate with a grace and skill which positively brings one up into the narrative along with her. Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy is as subtle in expression and deed as Ms James and his face is perfectly suited to that darkness and sense of haunted unease which plagues the character and paints him an ogre to the uninformed outsider. Former Doctor Who actor Matt Smith is also astonishing, playing a truly annoying and unsympathetic character, so much so that I was finding it hard to watch him to the point where his consummate skills as a thespian were painfully obvious in my inability to find anything likable about this charmless bore... I’ve always said Mr. Smith is a great actor and I think this film may not do him any favours in some ways because he is just so good and enthusiastic at his flawless portrayal.

All the performers in this are good and the cinematography more than adequate... incorporating long flowing shots and static tableaux which are a constant pleasure to behold and which lead the eye in to the plot with the other senses following obediently and without regret in their wake. I especially enjoyed the director's power to surprise the audience with the sudden bursting apart of a zombie’s head from a musket shell in mid conversation and also his audacity to then repeat this particular surprise joke again at a slightly later stage of the film while still managing to retain the veracity of its grizzly punchline without recourse to boring the audience or, indeed, popping them out of the narrative structure for any great length of time.

Similarly, the spectacle of the film, where the counties of London and Hertfordshire are rendered in their sheer and filthy zombie ridden beauty, is utterly that to which one must withstand a good and abundant smacking to one’s gob in reaction to the charming aesthetic which is followed through, from scene to scene, with a visual fervor which doesn’t stray from the continuity of the style of the opening sequences of the movie. Some directors can sometimes lose themselves with their incapacity to maintain a sense of kindred spirit between scenes as they flit around different ideas which sometimes burst apart the visual paste designed to cement them together into a single whole but Burr Steers shows not one jot of endangering his finely crafted entertainment with distractions to which an audience may find themselves suddenly left to their own devices.

Even the opening credits, with the back story of this twisted alternate history of the realm, is quite clever, employing a Pollock’s toy theatre illustrative style of the period to quickly keep the audience up to the fast pace of a stirring and noble steed in its expedient and entertaining delivery of the information required to maintain the steady course promised by the thoroughly thrilling pre-credits section. And, of course, the whole of the cinematograph sensation is also much sturdily bound with a score composed by the increasingly potent Fernando Velázquez which is pleasing to the ear, heightening the tenacity of the drama on screen without being untruthful or placing one outside of one’s attentions with any inappropriate or redundant musical atrocities. I have sent off to the Amazonians for a cylinder recording of said musical refinement to assail my ears with its lyrical charm and heart poundingly atonal, horrifying effects at the first opportunity.

And that, dear readers, is my summation of the newest entertainment of the screen, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is showing in limited engagements around the country’s capital and many of the provinces local to yourselves. My best advice would be to take the opportunity to see such a merriment of mesmerising and humourous yet bloodthirsty shenanigans when the occasion first arises as it would be a shame for you to miss it at the cinema, although I understand some kind of home viewing apparatus may mean that many of you can enjoy the subtleties and juicy delicacies the film has on offer in another environment in a few months time. I would certainly urge you to do one or the other, or perhaps like myself, both, since this is truly a much better viewing experience than I had expected from the material and should be seen by many people to ensure it reaps the financial reward and encouragement for the producers that it does, in fact, deserve.  

Thursday, 11 February 2016


Metatext Tool

2015 USA/Canada
Directed by Tim Miller
UK cinema release print.

I have absolutely no idea who Deadpool is.

That is to say, he’s an early 1990s comic book creation... a time when I’d mostly given up on superhero comic books for... any other comic books that were more interesting. What I’m saying here is... I can’t judge this thing in terms of it being a good or bad adaptation.

I didn’t like the trailer for this movie much either... but the only time my friend, who actually did like the trailer, could go and see this was the first night it opened. So it was pretty much sold out for most of the screenings but we managed to get in. I’m really glad we did, as it happens.

Now I was going to be all sure of myself and say this is the third comic book movie I’d seen with Ryan Reynolds in it (an actor who I quite like)... but a quick check on IMDB reveals a slightly different picture. This is, in fact, his fifth comic book movie. He was in one of the Blade movies... which I’ve not seen but my dad is a big fan of those. He was in RIPD, which I kinda liked and my review is here. He was also Green Lantern, which I loved and reviewed here.  Yeah, I was that guy who liked that movie, so you might want to take anything I say with a pinch of salt from hereon in. The other comic book movie Reynolds was in was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, again another movie which I liked despite its general reception. I reviewed it here but... here’s the thing about that movie. I don’t actually even remember him in it but Ryan Reynolds played Deadpool in that movie too. Something which I just can’t recall but which I’m sure I’ll more than notice next time I pop that movie into the player.

This current variant of Deadpool has a slightly different origin, apparently due to the timeline set up from Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past, which I reviewed here and which I absolutely hated because of the total lack of logic of the starting point from where that movie told its tale. It completely broke continuity with previous films in the series. However, this apparently explains why both Deadpool and Colossus both have some differences to their characters... with Colossus even being played by a different actor.

However, with all this stuff out of the way, is Deadpool a good movie?

Oh yeah.

Like I said, I wasn’t that enamoured of the trailer but the movie itself is an absolute gem. After a quite funny opening title sequence which looks like it could have really been enhanced even more in some kind of 3D release, the film starts off with a battle scene between Deadpool and a load of bad guys which is filled with violence. A lot of the scenes in those trailers were made up from parts of this sequence. Then, just as the old Marvel comics used to do back in the good old days, we get the main character telling you the story of how he arrived at this point and, as the battle continues on, he keeps coming back to it at different points until about two thirds of the way through the narrative, when you’re about caught up on the back story and just why the title character is like he is. This style of getting you hooked on the action and playing ‘catch up’ afterwords is typical of the difference between the way rival companies DC and Marvel used to operate, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, actually. DC were always more linear... Marvel comics made you shift your mindset just a little to accommodate the sequencing.

Now, I said Deadpool, played brilliantly by Ryan Reynolds as some kind of ultra-violent Groucho Marx by way of Bugs Bunny character, tells the audience the story of how he got to this point. Well, he does this by breaking the fourth wall and I believe this is also something that is part of his character in the comics... similar to what John Byrne used to do with his run on The Sensational She-Hulk, I would guess. But when I say he breaks the fourth wall, I don’t mean he does it from time to time... I mean he does it constantly. In fact, he doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as rip it apart with a bulldozer, stamp on it, reassemble it and then kick it some more until he starts bleeding all over the audience... you might want to duck if you’re in the first few rows. And he doesn’t stop at just catching you up with the story... he is talking to the audience constantly, all the way through the movie, and making metatextual references, sometimes at the expense of other characters who are rooted in the narrative.

Slight spoiler in this paragraph: For example, he goes toe to toe with Colossus (played by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (played brilliantly by someone called Brianna Hildebrand) and, when he goes to the X-Men Mansion for help later in the movie and it’s only the two of them at home, he makes a crack to the audience about the producers only being able to afford these two X-Men for the movie. He does this kind of thing constantly (no, I’m really not going to spoil all the jokes for you here) and you’d really think that this would get kind of old real fast but... it really doesn’t. The movie doesn’t become just one terrible metatextual joke and it’s still able to function as what it’s supposed to be... which is a really fun movie with adult themes. Parents should probably not be trying to sneak their kids into this one, though, I think.

The editing and structural fragmentation keeps everything moving forward in a really breezy and exciting, fast paced way and, once again, Ryan Reynolds proves that he can hold this kind of movie together pretty well when required. Of course, he has absolutely great support from the likes of the aforementioned X-Men, T. J Miller as his buddy, a treacherous Ed Skrein as the main villain (who did so well trying to fill Jason Statham’s shoes in the fourth of The Transporter movies... reviewed here) and the absolutely extraordinary Morena Baccarin as Deadpool’s sexy girlfriend Vanessa. Yeah, that’s right, Inara from Firefly/Serenity is in this and the chemistry between her and Reynolds is just electric.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say on Deadpool, I think. Absolutely brilliant movie which I, surprisingly, enjoyed way more than I thought I would, given my response to the trailers for this one. Definite recommendation from me for anyone who likes seeing characters from the Marvel universe done in a truly entertaining fashion and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do for a sequel to this one, which has already been green lit in Hollywood, it would seem. Looking forward to the ‘harder’ cut on Blu Ray, which is apparently in the works, even more, I would say. Oh, word to the wise, there are a couple of extra scenes right at the end of the credits... well, more like an extra scene and then an extension of that scene hot on the heels of it. So you Marvel fans might want to stick around for that one. Anyway, what the heck? Go see this movie. I had a real blast with it and I hope you do too.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Doc Savage - The Ice Genius

The Ice Is Right

Doc Savage - The Ice Genius
by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
Altus Press
ISBN: 978-1618271723

Warning: Some slight spoilers.

Will Murray certainly has become the Kenneth Robeson of the 21st Century, tapping into the writing style of Lester Dent, the original Robeson, pretty well and, although the recent rush of adventures aren’t all perfect, certainly more than filling his shoes when it comes to continuing the yarns of Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze just lately. Having said that, of all the recent written Doc Savage novels of the last few years, this one is definitely not the humour filled romp you might come to expect from these current adventures. The stakes are high in this one and, as you read the novel, you will feel a sense of urgency and doom which is sometimes missing from some of the other exploits of Savage and his Amazing Five.

The story starts this time with Doc’s aid William Harper Littlejohn (aka Johnny), the bony archeologist with a penchant for using long words who, while warding off an attack to his current dig by a mongol horde, accidentally unearths the tomb of Tamerlaine, an evil conqueror who makes Ghengis Khan look like polite company by comparison. The aforementioned figure is frozen in a cave of ice with an inscription reading “If I still lived, mankind would tremble”. Of course, when the Mongol hordes get there it’s up to Doc and his friends to try and stop the ice from thawing because... yeah you know what’s going to happen next right?

No sooner does the ice thaw than it turns out that the cold temperature has somehow kept Tamerlaine in a state of suspended animation for the last 500 years and he is ready to lead his new army in the conquest of China. This is obviously good science right here, I reckon. After all... it must be otherwise they’d never put it into books right? Doc Savage is all about pushing the science and in hindsight this may be a little tough to take right now but... if you actually had been reading this in the 1940s, it may well have seemed more plausible. I’m okay with it.

For a lot of the time, Tamerlaine and his gang prove almost a match for Doc and his crew. Matters are not improved when a former enemy of Doc, thought half cured in his Institute for rehabilitating criminal minds, stows away on their plane and joins them in their adventures, quickly remembering just who he is and causing a whole mess of trouble of his own.

The story is gripping. It’s not particularly epic in scope in terms of travelling the length and breadth of the globe like many of Doc’s adventures are but it certainly makes up for it in terms of action, fast paced thrills, narrow escapes and a number of grim reminders of the bloodlust that villains like Tamerlaine and his crew were capable of. The book is not particularly well suited for children, it has to be said, with various tortures described and, for a Doc Savage novel, an almost uncharacteristic amount of limbs and heads lopped off in the process of the adventure.

Uncharacteristic, yes... but the novel and writing style still contains the spiritual essence of the famous adventurer’s exploits of days gone by and there have been some grim goings on in Doc Savage pulps over the decades. Especially in the early tales when the formula wasn’t quite etched in stone yet (or perhaps that should be etched in bronze). Some were even grimmer than this volume, truth be told, so it’s not really a problem for me when it comes to the tone of the story Murray has chosen to tell.

The historical backdrop of this particular adventure is pretty interesting too, with the Japanese destruction at Pearl Harbour happening around about half way through the book. This leaves Doc and his crew defeated and knee deep in a bloody exploit, having to try and find a way to seeing the current adventure through to a more palatable ending, even though they have been ordered home by the American Government to join in with the war effort. A dilemma for them because, if Tamerlaine is left unchecked, it’s pretty clear the world may well tremble in his wake after the trouble he gives Doc.

Mostly it’s a truly great Doc Savage adventure but there were a couple of things I took issue with in this one. For instance, Doc’s trick disguises really aren’t likely to fool the reading public anymore, I reckon. The insistence of trying it on twice by having the reader listening to the wrong conclusions jumped to by trusted characters is in no way fooling anyone, anymore. Also, the fact that Johnny actually disobeys Doc’s instructions a number of times, intent on setting the events that he unwittingly unleashed right at any cost, did seem a little out of character for him. I can understand Monk or even Renny engaging in such shenanigans but not Johnny. Of course, the good side to this is that the tension is ratcheted up even further than usual and I thought, for a minute that Will Murray was going to use the story to explain something which made some of the regular characters very scarce towards the end run of the original series of tales. I’m kinda relieved he didn’t do what I think he was going to do but, now I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea for ‘the modern Kenneth Robeson’ to address some of these issues at some point. If somebody is going to do it with a certain amount of style and plausibility then Murray is definitely the person to sort that out.

One thing which really did irk me, though, was the contradictory choice of words in a certain passage in the book. Tamerlaine and his blood thirsty warriors are trying to stop a train and, since they lack the tools to properly rip up the rails, we are told that they find rocks and boulders to put on the track. However, around about a page later, when the train arrives, it pushes its way through the heaped up debris because, we are told, these “rocks were no boulders”. Say what? I’m sorry but we were just told that the Mongols were, in fact, specifically including boulders in their train stopping tools of choice. That statement totally threw me off track and popped me out of the story in a hurry, I can tell you. I found that slip up a bit problematic to say the least.

This really isn’t anything more than nitpicking in the face of what turns out to be a slightly different but ultimately compelling Doc Savage tale, however. Fans of the bronzed super science detective will love this tale of bloodthirsty bandits falling en masse to the bullfiddle roar of our heroes emptying anaesthetic ‘mercy bullets’ from their rapid firers in the middle of battle and some of them will surely appreciate that relying on various tricks of his scientific arsenal like this aren’t always going to be enough to get the results Doc desires. It’s a very hard slog, this one, for Doc and the gang and by the end of what I can only call a bizarrely bloodthirsty slaughter of a novel, things end up pretty grim for at least one of the characters and things don’t necessarily go quite the way that The Man Of Bronze would have best liked.

Pat Savage fans will be disappointed to know that The Woman Of Bronze only turns up in the final chapter of the novel but, when I tell you that final chapter is called Aftermath, I guess you can probably tell that this one is well worth a read and that you will be rushing towards the end to find out what happens next. Not the best of the recent Doc Savage revival novels but certainly a heck of a memorable one, at the very least. Once again, Doc Savage - The Ice Genius comes in as highly recommended by me. If Savage fans don’t like this one, I’ll be superamalgamated!

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Jekyll Finger Of Fate

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(aka Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes)
France/West Germany 1981
Directed by  Walerian Borowczyk
Arrow Blu Ray/DVD Dual Format Edition

I’m still not sure where I stand with Walerian Borowczyk. His cinema is rich and sumptuous in terms of its visual manifestation and, sometimes like here, its audio presentation. However, I find I react very differently to his movies... sometimes they’re a bit of a miss with me, other times a big hit. Or, like this one, the film is a combination of both with the sheer brilliance of some of the visual and aural distractions not always quite enough to keep me entertained for the full running time.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is the film which won Borowczyk the 'Best Feature Film Director' prize at the Sitges Film Festival for 1981 but I, myself, found the first half an hour or so of the movie, which is the set up for the shenanigans which occur throughout the rest of the story, much more enthralling and generally noteworthy than the rest of the feature. I was given this movie by a couple of friends as a Birthday present in January and it came with the cautionary tale that, back in the 1980s, the father of one of the two who gave it to me had bought this in the UK in an early VHS tape edition. However, the gentleman in question was so unimpressed by the content of the film that he took it back for a refund. I can kind of understand where he was coming from in some ways... especially if the film frame was chopped up into a 4 by 3 aspect ratio, as was the norm for video tapes back then. I can kinda sympathise.

What is in no doubt, however, is that the people behind the scenes at Arrow have done a beautiful job at the restoration and transfer of this print, even making the Blu Ray and DVD multiregion, something which the company has not done in the past (see my review of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales here) but which I personally see as a huge step forward for fans of art versus commerce, no matter what the copyright holder sees as the overruling factor in such situations. So good for them, is all I can say.

After a brief but striking title sequence which mixes bursts of credits appearing and disappearing at speed and mixed with sketches of old London in blue, each accompanied by eerie stabs of electronic, musical tone provided by composer Bernard Parmegiani (possibly needle dropped), we are hit up with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before going into the film properly. The story then starts with the night time streets of London shot in a similar blue lighting which seems to indicate the outside world of the house in which the majority of the movie is set. Here we witness the near murder of a child which interpenetrates the story later on as one of the principal characters is a police investigator.

The setting of the film is an engagement party for Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne and the majority of the interiors seem to be made up of the absolute opposite of the exterior scenes in terms of colour, with lots of warm yellows and oranges seen in contrast to the treacherous night time settings of old London Town. There are also some great flash forwards during the main narrative in the early part of the film which come with similar stabs of atonal electronic music as we heard in the main title sequence and which are similar, in fashion, to the sudden blink and you’ll miss them rushes forwards and backwards in a lot of director Nicholas Roeg’s work. The way Borowczyk handles this is enhanced not only by the intrusive contrast of the score onto the previously musical bereft scene but also, of course, by using scenes often bathed in the blue lighting scheme of the earliest sequences of the movie in stark juxtaposition... so much so, in fact, that for a little while I actually thought one or two of the characters were flashing back to a back story element, rather than flashing forward to incidents seen later in the film.

Early shots within the house are particularly interesting as the guests such as Jess Franco favourite Howard Vernon and the always delightfully over the top Patrick Magee are welcomed into the home of Dr. Jekyll, played by the always watchable Udo Kier, and his beautiful fiancee, Miss Osbourne, played by the truly stunning Marina Pierro. What he does is to use the natural framing of a house with a lot of vertical interiors and then uses certain areas which also have a strong horizontal dominance... splitting the shots up into squares and rectangles and pitching the characters into these sections to add a certain dynamism to the frame. At one point it gets so predominant I kept being reminded of a checkerboard. Later in the movie, the horizontal splits aren’t so prominent but the verticals still dominate the action and make for an interesting look to the frames as they are edited together.

Many of the shots, especially in the second half of the movie, seem to be smaller frames surrounded by contrasting darkness or black at the extremes of the screen... giving one a sense, almost, that various sequences have been sculpted out of light and whittled away by a master craftsmen until they are teased out of the surroundings. Of course, since we’re talking about Walerian Borowczyk here, I don’t think the metaphor is inappropriate for a true artist of cinema such as he.

Alas, that’s all the enthusiasm I can muster for this because once Hyde makes an appearance, played with a real sense of chaos by actor Gérard Zalcberg, the film becomes a chase/romp around the house in a situation where anyone else would have maybe got the police properly involved and sharpish. Hyde is threatening and totally unsympathetic but his actions and movements seem choreographed in such a way that he seems more like one of Borowczyk’s early cartoon characters in his shorts (reviewed by me here) rather than a manifestation of the evils of the id out of control. This kind of takes away from the feel for him as a flesh and blood human character and, for me, eked out any sense of caring what happened for the remainder of the film... which seemed a little dull in comparison to the strong opening of the movie.

That being said, there are lots of good things about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne and my brain certainly didn’t come away from this empty headed, so to speak, not withstanding the decreasing mental acuity of your less than humble reviewer. Arrow have done a bang up job of getting lesser known works by major artists released in as uncut a form as our stupid moral guardians will allow and are to be congratulated on this and many others of their releases, which it is a privilege to own in such wonderful prints and transfers. Not exactly my favourite Borowczyk movie, for sure, but certainly a interesting gem, boosted by a number of those little extras which Arrow tend to adorn these unmissable releases with. So if you're a Borowczyk fan, this is another essential purchase, I think. Probably the best international release this film has ever received and certainly a long way away from those days of early and considerably overpriced VHS tapes of yesteryear.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Star Trek III - The Search For Spock

Spock It To Me

Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
USA 1984
Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Paramount Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilers here if you’ve never seen the Star Trek movies, I guess.

So Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan was a big success (read my review here) and everyone was suitably moved by the ‘death of Spock’ scenes. However, Nimoy himself had actually started to get into the character again when he was making that film and was now wondering how he could return... at least that’s my understanding of it. I suspect he also kept that to himself when negotiations for this next movie were under way.

Certainly the fans of the original show wanted him back and, since the fans were the ones paying the dollars which made the previous movies such a success, the brass at Paramount were presumably happy to swerve on the side of caution, if they could somehow convince Nimoy to return. There was that little, non-sequitur moment in the last movie where Spock quickly mind melded with McCoy before going into the radiation flooded chamber to save the ship which didn’t make much sense and which could be utilised in the storyline at a later date if needed. The writers didn’t waste much time in doing just that when Nimoy agreed to return to the role of Spock. Using his return as a bargaining chip and parlaying the deal into the opportunity to direct his first feature length movie (although he’d done a few TV shows in the past).

The result was Star Trek III - The Search For Spock, which is rather a sombre affair on many levels and which uses the death of everyone’s favourite Vulcan protagonist from the previous movie as the full plot driver in this one. You also have Kirk going up against a pre-Back To The Future Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon bad guy Commander Kruge. In addition to the main, regular returning cast (including a very brief cameo from Grace Lee-Whitney as Yeoman Rand but with the character unnamed in the credits) we have Merrit Butrick returning as Captain Kirk’s son, David. We also have a returning Saavik, with Robin Curtis replacing Kirstie Alley in the role, as Alley was apparently holding out for more money.

Although Mark Lenard returns after playing a Klingon in the first movie, this is the first time he reprised his role from an episode of the TV show... that of Spock’s father, Sarek. It wouldn’t be the last time he played the role on film nor, indeed, on TV (he also continued the character in a further two more movies and in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation). He’s pretty good here and lends the utter tomfoolery of the ridiculous plot line a certain gravitas which I’m not sure William Shatner and De Forrest Kelly could have necessarily compensated for on their own. He performs this role pretty well and he’s had the privilege of playing a Romulan, a Vulcan and a Klingon between the TV series and the films... a pretty good track record, I guess.

The film and the miracle of Spock’s rebirth involves the placing of his spiritual soul in Doctor McCoy’s head from the end of the last film and the joining of it with a reborn Spock. As you may recall, Spock’s lifeless body was fired onto the newly created Genesis planet in a photon tube as a makeshift coffin at the end of the last movie. It turns out that Kirk’s son had used dangerously unpredictable ‘proto-matter’ in the making of the Genesis torpedo and therefore it’s highly unstable but, conveniently, also has the properties of regenerating whatever organic material is already on the planet. So we watch many versions of Spock as he grows rapidly from child to Leonard Nimoy within the space of a day, as the planet begins to break down. The tricky idea of the old Vulcan sex drive during their “once every seven years after adolescence” state of Pon Farr is also invoked, a condition that was established in the 1960s TV episode Amok Time. Luckily, young Spock has Saavik to help get him over this. That being said, the fact that this involves having groovy Vulcan sex with him every condensed version of the seven years cycle is kinda glossed over on-screen and symbolised with something which looks more like futuristic hand sex straight out of Barbarella than anything else. Apparently, Saavik falling pregnant with young Spock’s child was cut from an earlier version of the script.

With some fairly fake looking sets and a storyline which brings up convenient plot elements just to reach the end goal of rebirthing a major character, it’s not the best of the Star Trek films, for sure. That being said, Nimoy’s direction is, at the very least, highly competent and this must have proved a good training ground for him when it came to his absolute masterpiece... the very next film in the franchise. Kirk’s reaction to the cold blooded murder of his son is dramatic but, as in a lot of Hollywood movies, the grieving process one might expect from this is forgotten about fairly quickly in the name of ticking off the next box in the ongoing plot line.

One of the big things this movie had going for it back in the day, possibly to compete with killing off Spock in the previous movie, was the destruction of the famous Starship Enterprise. To paraphrase another character, Kirk “turns death into a fighting chance to live” by evacuating the small crew of the Enterprise and destroying the majority of his enemy in the process. This is the last time an Enterprise would bear the markings NCC-1701 without the addition of a letter after the last digit. It was actually quite a spectacle when this was released and it still looks good today. Alas, the destruction of the Enterprise has become a bit of a dramatic crutch/cliché in the franchise over the years since but, people should remember that this was the first time the unthinkable act was first executed on film (or TV for that matter). It had some impact.

Although, as a whole, the movie hasn’t necessarily stood the test of time, there are some really great scenes in here for some of the ‘second tier’ regular actors such as Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei and Walter Koenig and, for a couple of them, quite possibly the best moments their characters have had over the years. It’s also nice that this movie turns the crew into fugitives from the Federation... something that would have long term effects on the characters but would be resolved in terms of their allies/enemies of the Federation status at the very end of the next movie in the cycle, which forms a kind of unofficial trilogy with this and the previous movie.

James Horner returns to score this movie and, barring a few bars of Alexander Courage’s original TV show theme in the first three, this is the first film in the franchise to maintain a sense of musical continuity with the previous one, with Horner reusing his themes (and possibly a few other composers’ too, maybe) and delivering a beautiful but, perhaps, more sluggish score than he did on The Wrath Of Khan. Some people mistakenly call the score to The Search For Spock a basic retread of the music he provided for the previous movie but I think there’s a little more to it than that, to be honest. It’s not a bad score but, at the time, I was still reeling from it not being anywhere near as cool as Goldsmith’s score for the first movie. To be fair though, that first one is a masterpiece of music that would be hard for even Goldsmith to top when he returned to the movies for the fifth, eighth, ninth and tenth films.

And that’s that for me and Star Trek III for at least another 5 or 10 years I reckon. It’s a film which hasn’t really aged all that well but which is certainly a crucial watch because it’s the less satisfying filling in the sandwich created by the two much more interesting films on either side of it. Not one you can miss if you’re a fan of the show and movies, for sure, but not the most exciting time committed to celluloid in the name of Starfleet and which leads on directly into, arguably, the highlight of the entire series... so I’ll be reviewing that one soon I guess.

Star Trek @ NUTS4R2
Star Trek Series 1
Star Trek - The Motion Picture 
Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III - The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home 
Star Trek V - The Final Frontier 
Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek - Generations (aka Star Trek VII) 
Star Trek - First Contact 
Star Trek - Insurrection 
Star Trek Nemesis 
Star Trek Beyond