Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Directed by Joachim Trier
Thunderbird Releasing Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Very marginal spoilers.
This is the first film I’ve seen by Joachim Trier and one I desperately wanted to catch at the 2017 London Film Festival (probably the best year they’ve had for that festival in quite some time). Alas, the scheduling combined with my personal budget for tickets meant that I had to forego seeing this one and, barring a proper cinema release over here in the UK, I’m finally having to catch up to it on Blu Ray.
Thelma is a great little movie which is, in some ways, bound to promote comparisons to the early cinema of David Cronenberg but actually, apart from the themes involved and a certain penchant for using muted colours and whites a lot in the palette, there isn’t all that much similarity there, truth be told.
The film tells the story of the titular character and when we first meet her, in one of a few flashbacks over the movie that fill in gaps about the character which she herself is either oblivious to or has been suppressing until each flashback comes, she is a little girl of maybe six years old. The film starts off with her and her father (played by Henrik Rafaelsen) walking on some snowy terrain and we at first approach them in almost an extreme long shot. The father takes the girl into the forest to help him to hunt deer, or so it seems but, as she stands slightly to the side and in front of her father as he lines his sights up on the deer, she is completely unaware that her father has turned the rifle to aim it directly at her head. After a while he gives up on his idea of shooting his child and the deer is startled and scampers away, making Thelma turn to her father but still completely oblivious as to what he almost just did. This introduction to her father and his, as it turns out, deeply religious relationship with his daughter, immediately alerts the audience to the fact that there’s something very wrong, or at least different, with Thelma.
Cut to 12 or so years later and Thelma (played brilliantly by Eili Harboe) has just moved out from living with her parents and is studying biology at University. We have all the usual teen angst of trying to fit in and it becomes aware that she develops an attraction to one of the other girls there, Anja (played by Kaya Wilkins). The relationship between these two is what drives the rest of the movie as we begin to find out that Thelma has fits which are explained away as psychogenic, non-epileptic seizures but which are really, as it becomes clear to the audience right from the outset, psychokinetic outbursts which are extremely dangerous (for basically anyone close to Thelma). This usually manifests itself as either a full on seizure or some kind of dream world immersion which usually ends with Thelma vomiting... in one flashback she is shown vomiting out a snake and in another, memorable moment, she is shown vomiting out a blackbird which she has accidentally brought back with her from another dimension (as you do).
And it’s a truly beautiful looking film with some wonderful performances by the central characters that really sell the fact that these are just regular people reacting to the pressures of every day life around them.
I said the film starts off in extreme long shot and that’s something Trier seems to keep up a lot throughout the movie, especially in establishing shots. He likes to look at people and places slowly, from afar, before he gradually zooms in on them and brings us into their situation. Sometimes it’s a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom that he uses and other times, the characters will walk off the sides of the screen but he will still be zooming in on the background previously inhabited by those characters... which gives the film and almost fly on the wall, voyeuristic feel to it. Especially when he sometimes eschews the long, slow, smooth character movements for the occasional hand held shot buried within the edit. It’s nice stuff and he really manipulates the mood of his scenes and what the actors help create in a masterful manner. There’s also a great moment when the leisurely shot tranquil whites and pale colours and the subdued score suddenly change at a party scene with full on Mario Bava style saturation and much heavier music... which shows that the director isn’t completely locked into one way of doing things but I really need to watch something else he’s done to see if there’s any visual correlation between what he’s doing here and his modus operandi in other movies.
As the film goes on, it becomes painfully apparent that Thelma is reacting as much to the strict Christian, religious upbringing that her family has inflicted on her through the years as anything else going on in her life and also that, about certain things, her mum and dad have been lying to her. This becomes painfully apparent in three scenes where she a) finds out something hidden from her about her medical history, b) finds out that her long dead grandmother is actually still alive and being kept heavily medicated by the family and c) when her parents drug her tea. What she... and the audience, discover after that happens explains, in some ways, what has been going on and gives the character enough ammunition to either accept herself as she is and leave future experience behind or to take matters into her own hands and... well, I don’t want to spoil things and I’ve been very guarded about the way things play out in the movie but, let’s just say that Thelma is a big girl and more than capable of taking things 'into her own hands'.
Thelma has, in some ways, been marketed as some kind of horror/art movie but, in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of the film. What it really is, I think, is a truly beautifully shot, science fiction mystery thriller with a kind of leisurely, European sensibility to it. Horror fans will certainly, I think, find a lot to like in this one but I also think non-genre fans and, basically just all embracing cinephiles will also enjoy this one for what it is. It almost feels like what might have happened if Krzysztof Kieslowski had decided to write and shoot an X-Men movie and... yeah... that’s the best analogy I’ve got for this one, actually. Really glad I finally got to see this beautiful movie and looking forward to watching it again sometime in the near future.
Tuesday, 26 February 2019
Splitting Head Fakes
Directed by Robert Altman
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B
It’s been a week between me first seeing Images and writing this review and I’m still, I’m happy to say, thinking about it.
I’ve always found Robert Altman a bit hit and miss as a director but I’ve been wanting to see a decent print of his film Images since I first became aware of it in early 1980. It was in that year that the BBC showed their wonderful documentary (which I don’t think has ever been repeated or made available commercially) called Star Wars - Music By John Williams.
Now although this documentary was using the hook of the Star Wars films and the upcoming ‘second episode’, The Empire Strikes Back (some of which you see Williams conducting as he records against the images), as a hook for audiences, this is much more a long film about John Williams and his music and not, as you might first think, just his Star Wars scores. It’s an excellent documentary and one of the film clips they showed in this piece, along with films like Jaws, The Guide For The Married Man, Jayne Eyre and The Towering Inferno, was a brilliant sequence from Altman’s Images.
Now, that first vague impression of the film and the score stuck with me for many years until, a couple of decades later (at least), a CD replicating the original vinyl soundtrack release of Williams score was made available for a short time. It only took me one play to realise that, although the atonalism on display here was somehow a little sweet and syrupy compared to some other composers working in that style, it was easily the great composer’s best work. And now, finally, after a wait of 38 years* since seeing that clip, I have finally seen the movie. And it’s easily one of Altman’s best creations.
The film is about... well that’s kind of hard to pair down. Susannah York plays a character who is somewhat fragmented in her mind. After a series of unsettling but minor incidents she gets her husband to take her back to her childhood home (in a location unspecified, although the film itself was shot in the beautiful landscape of Ireland) where she continues to have more ‘episodes of a disturbing nature’ building to a point where she finds herself guilty of something she has had no knowledge of knowing about (and probably the audience doesn’t either, until it’s revealed at the end).
From the outset, the director uses lots of different visual ploys to start slowly disorienting the audience as to the trustworthiness of both the sound and images York is seeing and hearing. Asides from William’s quite striking and deliberately nerve jangling score, the director will do things like using zooms (yeah, he’s not afraid to use zooms like a lot of directors and DPs seem to be today) cut against static shots and then highlighting various objects which hang down from something... such as wind chimes, chandelier fittings, glass beads etc. Meanwhile, Susannah York starts quoting from a children’s book, In Search Of Unicorns, which the actress was writing at the time and which Altman found out about and incorporated into the script. I could find little significance on first watch with either Altman’s visual fetishes or with the narrative sections, other than as fragments of unrelated and persistent things which he could rub together to continue to keep the audience on their toes.
For me this all came to a head the first time her husband, played by a young Rene Auberjonois, returns to the room seemingly played by another actor, Marcel Bozzuffi. This scares the life out of her and happens more than once in the narrative and the transformation is less than clear when it’s ‘explained’ that he is, in fact, the visual and audio echo of York’s dead, ex lover. In fact, at various points, actors appear in the place of others and you are never 100% sure if the crossovers, which I assumed were inspired by the works of Bunuel but which Altman credits to Bergman, are split into two or more identities or are themselves a visual echo of a single identity at any one time. The difference between the two seems to change at various points of the film and it doesn’t make matters any easier when the actors are on screen in two different personae at the same time.
When York is driven out to her ‘other’ home, we watch her sleeping in the car from different perspectives (including shots of her reflecting in the rear view mirror) while we still hear her narrating the book she is reading (although a lot of the film is dialogue free). This sequence is wonderful enough but then Altman tops it by having her waking up because the car has stopped. She walks up a hill to find her husband who has got out because he wants to hunt some quail and tells her to drive on to the house without him before pursuing said birds. She looks down from the hill at the house which is her destination only to see the car she is standing in front of arriving at the house in the distance. She watches as she sees herself getting out of the car and then we finish off the sequence from the other version of her exiting the vehicle and looking up to see a distant figure watching her... the figure we know to be herself. We carry on with the ‘arrived’ version of her but we still sometimes catch glances of the previous version on the hill, watching her as she looks out the window. This is great stuff and I love the way that a director could have cleverly handled this as a visual transition to York’s arrival but Altman seems to indicate, “No, it’s not just a scene transition. Now you figure out what’s going on.”
The director continues to throw the audience off guard and this includes the use of some beautiful shot set ups where he uses verticals and natural splits in the interior of the house to separate people and environments. So you can see an accidental fire started in one room while watching an oblivious York working in the kitchen in the room beyond in the other two thirds of the screen. Or he’ll have York and her husband doing a jigsaw which is obviously a metaphor for the fragmentary nature of the main protagonist’s mind (the last piece of which contains an image you might well figure out before the end of the movie) but they are shot from afar, looking through some stair bannisters which are in the foreground. He also makes use of mirrors to double and triple up the actors and actresses throughout, to further wrong-foot the audience.
Things get harder for York’s clearly suffering character as she comes face to face with fragments of her past when out walking in a forest, such as a long dead dog she used to own and, at more than one point, the other version of herself who we started off the film with.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me is that Altman’s signature of using overlapping dialogue on screen is present but, when he uses it in this movie which is itself visually confusing, he does it not to obfuscate the clarity of that narrative but to make sense of a particular scene, as York’s inner narrative is pitched against another person’s recollections. So Altman manages, by the point at which he employs this technique, to maintain the confusion of just what it is the audience is seeing while he is actually using this trademark element to clarify a specific situation. So deliberately going against what could be, even at this point in his career, a reasonable expectation of the way in which he shoots and presents a film.
Another thing he does, though, and this is definitely helped by Johnny Williams’ truly gorgeous score, is use the language of the horror film to tell his tale... perhaps suggesting that the visual ghosts that York is seeing are just that, although I think it’s pretty clear that they aren’t and this is not, in fact, a horror film. I could see the temptation for certain kinds of audience members to grasp onto that as a way of making sense of the narrative issues, however, which are deliberately kept anything but neat and tidy.
Ultimately, Images loses traction after a while and I thought it got a bit flat in the final third. However, it maybe because I found the earlier scenes in the movie so overwhelmingly brilliant that I was expecting all sort of shenanigans to lead on from it. I think it’s fair to say, though, that on the whole I really enjoyed this movie and can see myself revisiting it a few more times in my lifetime, if able to find the time. Definitely it’s a film for lovers of the art of the cinema and a very strong recommendation from me. Easily one of Altman’s best movies, without question.
*At time of writing the first draft of this review sometime early last year.
Sunday, 24 February 2019
The New Analog -
Listening and Reconnecting
in a Digital World
by Damon Krukowski
The MIT Press ISBN: 978-0-262-03791-4
Damon Krukowski is, so the inside of the dust jacket tells me (beautifully designed and spot varnished to look like an old standard, non-picture sleeve housing a 7” 45RPM single), a former member of the indie rock band Galaxie 500 and currently one half of the folk rock duo Damon and Naomi (the second member being Naomi Yang, who designed said dust jacket and took the photo of the author located inside). And I had never heard of him at all until I flicked through this book on the shelves of the Institute of Contemporary Arts last year and was lucky enough to receive it from a family member this Christmas.
What I do know about him now, of course, is that he’s an absolutely fantastic writer, able to both enlighten and entertain with a breezy and easy to digest writing style... for which I am grateful. And I’m certainly better off for having read it.
The New Analog - Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World is not just a book about the way the transitioning from analog to the digital realm has robbed us of certain irreplaceable elements in the world of sound... although, to be fair, the book does concentrate on audio which, given the author’s background, is to be expected. However, he is also able to demonstrate a load of other realms in which the loss of analog processes, both physically and metaphorically in some cases, is less than beneficial in some ways... although he does point out that he’s not necessarily anti-digital in that gung ho manner that some of us may be. He does though, point out that people have been throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, quite a lot and, in a modern society where businesses in control of the means of access to the digital world are more interested in profit margins, how this is sometimes done quite deliberately.
After a lovely opening where he gleefully expounds the many positive properties of the 'printed on paper format' you are reading the book on (I don’t know how this chapter works on the MP3 version you can buy but it certainly makes sense to me that there is no kindle edition of this book at time of writing this review), he then goes on to explain about Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is a phenomenon which started in the 1960s and refers to the rapid development of integrated circuits (which are a component of most of the things the average human being uses on a day to day basis) and the pattern of them doubling in power and capacity (while everything gets smaller) roughly every eighteen months. This is a law which he applies to quite a lot of the things which he talks about in this book and I now wonder why I hadn’t come across such an important term before.
He then goes on to talk, not necessarily in a totally chronological fashion, about the history of the world in terms of analog to digital development and progress, carefully mapping out the things which are lost as much as gained and, frankly, giving a journey to the reader which is definitely something you can learn a lot of new things from (well I did anyway). For instance, he starts off highlighting how the hot metal presses of printing gave way to the ‘cold type’ of computer made letters which sped up the process and cheapened it greatly but at the expense of sometimes unreliable, distorted and broken letters. This loss of consistency and clarity reminded me of the number of different photocopiers I’ve seen come and go at work over the last quarter of a century and how they seem to increase greatly in the amount of different and new things they can do while, almost always, churning out a lot less quality prints and problematic colours than each previous model of a machine. This kind of quality versus scope problem can be seen in a lot of modern devices of course, from televisions to the mobile phone (and he talks quite a lot about phone technology in at least one of the chapters).
He therefore talks about MP3s and why they sound much worse than physical media, for example... and that they were actually designed that way. And this is where conspiracy theorists or just people who are not fans of huge corporations will start to get the little spidey sense going in the back of their brain... we’re very much into that profit versus quality way of life here again.
He also talks about concepts like the way in which headphones have changed over the years... not technology wise (although I’m sure they have... he highlights just how bad the popular Beats headphones are) but in the way they are used by people. He reminded me of the times when I too used to use them and that they tethered you to one place by a wire... they were not meant to take you out into the streets but into a different headspace where you could experience the journey of what you were listening too without distraction. It seems he came to this realisation when he saw a woman have an minor accident because of the inner journey she was having on her headphones while riding her bicycle. So yeah, even just this reminder of the way in which we were free in a different way with a pair of headphones was worth the price of admission for this book to me (which was even more worth it when the book was a present, of course). Heck, even the discovery of the late 19th Century device known as the Théâtrophone, which let subscribers listen to the performance at the opera house in stereo as it was being performed... from a distance... was worth it to me. I’d never heard of this thing nor imagined it was possible in the 1890s, to be honest.
And this quality versus progress theme is one of the things he talks about all the way through. Such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys making great advances in the recording studio but, again, not without sacrifice. So, yes, he talks about multi-track tape freeing artists in recording studios and making albums like Revolver (one of my favourites) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band possible. He also talks about terrible modern day sound engineering and the difference between, for example, loudness and clarity. There’s a lovely little story about pop group KISS and something they used to do with a big bank of speakers on stage but, I won’t spoil it for you here. He also goes on to talk about Napster, iTunes and the death of CD (which I really hope is a premature prediction, to be honest, although it seems to be dying now and, frankly, what we have to replace it... just like all those new photocopier models we’ve had over the years... is frankly just not good enough).
One of the things I learned from this, as it’s quite a prominent feature of a lot the things the writer talks about, is the difference between ‘signal’ and ‘noise’ and how the constant reduction of noise versus signal is resultant in a catastrophic loss, in some cases. One of the things which really sparked a ‘me too’ moment was his description of the way an iPhone works. I never knew they had three different microphones in different places but that two of them are used to gauge the ‘noise’ which it then uses to counteract and discard from the ‘signal’ which is being transmitted. He talks about the way old analog phone systems used to give you a sense of distance from the person by noise and volume on the line and how that has been completely obliterated. So, how many times have you thought the person at the other end of the 'line' these days had vanished or been cut off? Indeed, Krukowski says that one of the most common phrases in the age of the mobile phone is “Are you there?” This is because the noise cancellation has been totally successful and you can no longer pick up any ambient sound whatsoever from the other end of the phone... just a dry silence until that person speaks.
Other ways he highlights the things we’ve lost is to highlight that Spotify and iTunes etc completely throw out all the information that you would get from, say, sleeve notes. So you might have the name of a group but you won’t be given the individual names of the members, the song writers, the composers etc... they are left off. And the royalty cheques are an issue too now, obviously.
He also talks about how the time lag between, say, radio and digital TV are so great that, if you are listening to a live broadcast of a ball game on the radio and simultaneously watching it on TV... the radio broadcaster will describe things to you that haven’t happened yet because your ‘live’ digital signal is quite delayed and, also, they have quite different delays even if you are comparing exactly the same brand and models of devices. I know myself, from when various family members have TVs on in two different rooms showing the same channel, how out of phase like an old Steve Reich recording they are. This is, perhaps, somewhat troubling too.
But not as troubling as to how advertisers, despite being legally required now to not turn the noise up on television advertisements, are able to use the digital technology used to measure such things... which isn’t as accurate as analog (surprise, surprise) or, at least, not functioning in the same way... to get around the legal requirements and present a mix of the sound much more booming and present than the TV programmes themselves. This is something I noticed decades ago... before I stopped watching adverts and allowing them on my airwaves. And don’t get me started on the difference between ‘analog time’ and ‘digital time’ (other than it makes me more confident of my realisation, some many years ago, that time doesn’t actually exist).
So... that’s all I’m going to share about this particular book, I think because, out of the many books I read a year, The New Analog - Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World is something I think that everybody should read or, at least, be interested in. There are lessons to be learned from this and, though I’m not naive enough to think that anything which this brilliant writer illuminates by way of this book is ever going to change how things are moving forwards (and simultaneously backwards), I think people should educate themselves on some of the concepts and realities contained herein. This is an absolutely wonderful tome, it’s easy (and fairly quick) to read and it also has some nice photographs coupled with a nice, clean design. What more could you want form a lovely, analog book? Give this one a go.
Thursday, 21 February 2019
Hugh Goes There
The Saint's Vacation
UK/USA 1941 Directed by Leslie Fenton
Warner Archive Blu Ray Zone A
The Saint's Vacation is the first of two films that continued the RKO run of The Saint movies, after George Sanders had left the role, that starred Hugh Sinclair as the new Simon Templar. After the last few films I’d begun to warm to Sanders (who still wasn’t a patch on Louis Hayward in The Saint In New York, which I reviewed here) but I certainly hadn’t expected to miss his presence in the role after he’d jumped ship for the first of The Falcon movies for the same company. More on those when I rewatch them at some point in the future but, I have to say, Hugh Sinclair in this one doesn’t come close to having the screen presence that Sanders utilised in the role and I was expecting to like this guy more than I did.
One of the biggest problems with this one though, at least as I see it, is the script or, more precisely, the dialogue. Bearing in mind that this was based on one of Leslie Charteris’ original novels and that he actually helped write the screenplay to this one, I would have thought the dialogue would have been much more on the nose and a little bit more sparkly than it is here. Alas, the speech seems to be mostly dry and functional in a lot of it and as much as some of that can be blamed on the performance, you really do need better things to say than this if you’re going to get away with these kinds of movies. The Sanders films practically sang their words like lyrics (as did the books) but here the notes of the lines seem somewhat flat.
One positive thing is that there seems to be a lot more variety in the locations or, more accurately, types of locations since, I’m sure, most of this was studio bound and I believe some of the train stock footage was pilfered from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. But we have the usual resort with hotel rooms (although this is not like most resorts you’ve ever seen and the room locations are definitely ‘built for a movie’, it seemed to me, rather than what you would find in real life), a set of train carriages, a police station with jail cells and even a chateau... so they cram a lot into the small, just over an hour, running time.
This may be because RKO formed a British company to make this one, as part of frozen funds to help out the British in time of war, from what I can make out. So it does have a slightly different flavour to it than the previous movies. Not necessarily worse, just different... although the film is certainly not one of my favourites of the run, that’s for sure.
Now Hugh Sinclair does kind of warm up in the role later on, towards the end of the movie but... I dunno... I just can’t get used to the idea of Simon Templar having a moustache, to be honest with you. He is as much abetted as aided by Arthur Macrae as his friend Monty Hayward, who is there more for comic relief as anything else although... I couldn’t get into his brand of shenanigans myself.
Of much more interest was Sally Gray as Mary Langdon. She played a different character in an earlier film in the series and here she kind of replaces The Saint’s girlfriend from the book. She is quite amazing to watch though and her performance is a lot more larger than life in a “What the heck is going on with this woman?” kind of way than anyone else in the movie. That being said, this may be because Hugh Sinclair’s performance seems somewhat minimalistic even when he’s standing next to a tree for a lot of the time but seriously check out what Sally does with her role here. It’s not what she is saying but, more, what she does when she doesn’t have anything to say. Her reactions and facial expressions when you are supposed to be looking at whoever else is talking on screeen are absolutely bemusing and delightfully hilarious at certain parts of the story. It’s almost like somebody was playing the role in an alien costume and decided they needed to move their head around to emote more to make up for not seeing their face... except you can see her face just fine and marvel at the stupendous looks of surprise and eyebrow twitches which she throws into her art. Just wonderful.
Another plus for this movie is that the punch ups are at least a little more energetic and entertaining than some of the ones in the George Sanders movies. Although, it has to be said, the stunt doubles in this are just as good as they were in the preceeding movies... by which I mean they look nothing like the actors they’re doubling for. However, at least the action is somewhat more credible so that’s a big plus on this one.
The score on this one is by Bretton Byrd, who I’ve never heard of and remains uncredited. He does, however, utilise Roy Webb’s (or Leslie Charteris’, depending on whose story you believe) jingle for the Simon Templar character, not just in the opening and closing titles but also in some of the underscore too. Well, I’m assuming he does anyway but it could, I suppose, just be tracked in from one or two of the earlier films.
And that’s me done on this, admittedly short, review of The Saint's Vacation. There was one more film in The Saint series which starred Hugh Sinclair (neither of which I’d seen before) but, although shot the same year, the film’s release was delayed by a couple of years... and I’ll probably talk about why when I watch and review that next one sometime soon. Hope you join me for it.
Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Rack 'N’ Roll
Elvira Mistress Of The Dark
USA 1998 Directed by James Signorelli
New World Pictures/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Well this is interesting. I was given this newly restored Arrow Blu Ray of Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark for Christmas and when I looked it up on the IMDB to see when I first saw it here in the UK (late 1988 or whether the UK release wasn’t until the following year) it’s not listed as being released in UK cinemas at all. Well... I can tell you now that this information is false. I saw this movie at what was my local cinema at the time although, I suspect, it probably wasn’t until sometime into 1989 as I seem to remember drooling over the adverts for this in American comics for quite a while before I got the opportunity to see this one for myself. So... surprise, surprise... sometimes the IMDB gets it wrong.
Now I actually met Elvira, aka Cassandra Peterson, maybe around twenty years ago. It was at the London Film And Comic Con they have every summer but that was in the days before it was the heavily attended, joy-killing event it is in its present incarnation. In those days you bought entry tickets on the door and, if you were there half an hour early, you’d more than likely be the first in the queue. And as for seeing the stars themselves... well it must have been slow business for these guests, I guess. There was none of this pre-buying a slot to see the celebrity... you’d just get on the end of the line of... maybe three people... and wait your turn. Nowadays, if Elvira were to return to this country, she’d have her whole day booked out, I’m sure but, those were simpler times. She wasn’t wearing her Elvira make up and I remember her as being a thoughtful and pleasant woman. I asked her if she’d make out the photo she sold to sign to me with the phrase “Revenge is better than Christmas!” and she asked me why. I reminded her that it was a line from her movie (at the time she’d only made one feature film as Elvira... but been in others as a different character and occasionally guested as Elvira in various movies and TV shows like CHIPS and The Fall Guy). I reminded her where in the movie the line was from and her response was something like... “Oh yeah, I remember now.” before dutifully signing the photo and leaving me as star struck as I’m sure I would be today if I ever met her again.
So, a pointless story perhaps but I tell it here to let you know that, despite Elvira not really being a big thing in the UK in terms of actual TV coverage like she was in the US back then... where she was pretty much a cultural phenomenon and still is as far as I’m concerned (just check out her Twitter feed)... I was certainly someone who knew who she was and I was very much aware that there was some kind of hardcore group of die hard fans for her here in the UK too. I used to buy her vinyl records of Halloween horror song collections and I especially liked the odd tracks where she sang on them herself). And I did know some other people who saw this movie in cinemas back in the day and... yeah... it was a very well liked film.
Anyway, getting back to my rewatch of the movie... this thing is still great. It’s not the hard edged horror version of Elvira that you might have been expecting from the figure who is probably one of the most recognised icons of modern American popular culture. This is due to certain studio concessions which, if you watch the fine and quite long, expanded documentary included by Arrow with this release, you’ll find out more about. That being said though, at the risk of making this sound like an American version of a Carry On film (which it kinda is, actually), the film is filled with a lot of sexual jokes and, while not exactly hard edged horror, it does have witches, a haunted house (of sorts), a magical dog and a grotesque and very unfriendly pot monster. And although it’s not a very gory film due to the ratings, there is a scene where the main supernatural villain, played wonderfully by William Morgan Sheppard (who sadly died a few weeks after my friend gave me this Blu Ray), has his forehead caved in with one of Elvira’s thrown high heels before having his hand chopped off. Of course, the hand starts crawling around after Elvira too but... that’s pretty standard stuff.
And, sexy jokes or not, the level of humour in this movie is totally the kind I love. As in they are real groaners.
For example, when Elvira learns that her recently deceased Great Aunt has left her something in her will, she comes out with the clichéd, throwaway but oh so brilliant line... “I didn’t know I had a good aunt, much less a great one.” And this film is just filled with stuff like this coming at you at a rate almost but, not quite, as fast as a Marx Brothers sketch. So when a policeman asks her, “Do you know you were doing 50 in a 25 mile per hour zone?”, her reply of “No but, if you hum it I can fake it.” is all I need to keep me smiling. Or, after hearing an insult from one of the town’s folk on her arrival in their little part of the US, the much quoted line... “Listen sister, if I want your opinion I’ll beat it out of you.”
And, of course, the expected amount of jokes about her shapely figure are very much all over the film and, frankly, I really don’t mind this stuff in this movie because Cassandra Peterson writes or approves a lot of that material herself, so she’s really not being exploited. So, naturally, I love the line where, after accidentally dropping a cinema sign letter on her head, the romantic lead played by Daniel Greene asks her... “How’s your head?” To which Elvira replies in her quick fire fashion, “Well I haven’t had any complaints yet.”... which has got to be one of my favourite one liners in any movie and, again, if you watch the accompanying documentary, you’ll see there was a lot of talk about whether they should be letting that line into the film or not due to the potential teenage audience.
So what we have here is a fun romp of a movie with a sexually aware undercurrent and the kind of ‘horror’ atmosphere which brings to mind more the old 1960s Roger Corman does Edgar Allan Poe style pictures and, frankly, this works for me. Indeed, I believe they were trying to get Vincent Price for the role of the main villain at one point but, I don’t think they could afford him at the time.
However, the main attraction here is Elvira, aka Cassandra Peterson herself. This horror hostess character she created for television, fending off a bit of an unfair copyright law suit by Maila Nurmi aka Vampira (read my review of a book about her here), is someone who will, I’m sure, be remembered long after she has departed this mortal plain and it’s an absolute pleasure to see her starring in a vehicle made especially for her. She doesn’t break the fourth wall as much as you might think she would (although she does do it a few times) and, asides from the action, cutting dialogue and beautiful performances, the film still has a great deal going for it.
For example, there are some nice fantasy sequences and, after the opening of the movie, a cool moment where the non-diegetic rock song soundtrack accompanying Elvira on her road trip turns back into source music as she joins in with the music which has been playing throughout the montage. So yeah, the director and editors really knew what they were doing and I’m stumped as to why this one did so badly at the box office (although it did extremely well on the highly priced, lucrative rental video circuit when it was released on VHS tape a little later). I would have liked to see her do a few more movies in this series but it was not to be. She did make another Elvira movie, of course.... Elvira’s Haunted Hills... but this was over a decade after this one and it seemed to have an even more lukewarm reception as far as I remember (although, once again, I managed to see it at the cinema and... yeah... I liked this one too).
And there’s not much else for me to say about this one. If you haven’t seen Elvira - Mistress of the Dark but you know who she is and you like the jokes and sexual innuendo coming in thick and fast then this is definitely a nice little film which probably wouldn’t get made in quite the same, almost innocent in some ways, way these days. The new Arrow Blu Ray restoration looks fantastic and the documentary and the odd nice extra rounds off a great package. This one’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of horror tinged comedy and this particular presentation of it by Arrow is absolutely the best version to get. An invaluable addition to anyone’s library of films.
Sunday, 17 February 2019
Bury My Heart
At Wounded Tree
Happy Death Day 2U
2019 USA Directed by Christopher Landon
UK cinema release print.
Well this was an unexpected surprise.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first Happy Death Day movie (which I reviewed here), especially since I only really went to hear Bear McCreary’s score and found myself caught up in what I personally think is a bit of a modern phenomenon of a teenage slasher movie... the premise of which was that it was another version of Groundhog Day but with the central character, Tree Gelbman, having to relive the same day over and over until she can figure out who it is who’s killing her at the end of the day so she can kill them and reset her life back to normal. It was such a nice idea with a great cast and some neat directorial and writing flourishes that I really didn’t see how they could go anywhere on a sequel which wasn’t just a rehash of the first movie and, yeah... I wasn’t expecting too much from this follow up, truth be told.
Which why it’s such a pleasure to be taken by surprise here because, yep, despite the central concept and the slightly clichéd but nicely handled expansion of that idea of a narrative being based on a repeat loop structure... Happy Death Day 2U is one of those rare film sequels which, while maybe not being quite as good as the first film, certainly lives up to any expectations of what a second part should look and feel like. So yeah, this movie in no way lets the first movie down and is a thoroughly entertaining ride.
Once again the insanely talented and charismatic Jessica Rothe plays Tree and back for the ride are pretty much all the main actors from the first film (and I do mean all) such as Israel Broussard, Phi Vu and Ruby Modine... but the fun doesn’t stop there because the writer/director manages to bring in a new bunch of characters and throws them into the mix too, played by people like Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin. Frankly, it’s a testament to Landon that none of these characters feel like unnecessary add ons and they have a proper place in the continuing story of Tree and her ‘time looping’ dilemma.
And, like I said, the concept is expanded just a little so that we’re following some of the same stuff, in a way but... with different elements thrown into the mix.
So, for example, the film starts off focusing on Phi Vu’s character and as you twig right away, he is obviously going to start off in a loop because, right from the outset, you can see the director putting those little memorable incidents into his walk to his room mate’s bedroom on campus so the audience can pick up on these anchor points for the next time around... which is obviously why they’re there. However, rather than just run with that, Landon very quickly moves you into the next phase of the movie where some other freaky stuff starts happening and... yeah, the beauty of this movie is that, while it still very much uses a repeat structure to tell its story, it doesn’t do it in as static a way as the first and every time you think you’ve got the hang of how the movie is going to go for the rest of the running time, he manages to pull in another slightly different element and this keeps things fresh throughout the whole of picture, I’m glad to say. He even, at one point, manages to bring an audio element in from the first film, just for a second or two, which acts as a kind of sound flashback to remind the audience of what the next part of a specific cycle should be, without having to add in a visual element to go with it... which impressed me greatly, I must say.
So I don’t want to give away too much here but, yes, you will find out exactly how (if not yet why) the incident in the first film took place and, although in some ways it would have been nice not to have to peek behind that curtain, the catalyst for all this stuff is a story element which has a lot of use to trigger different outcomes throughout the film so... I guess what I’m saying is, if they had to do a sequel, well this one is definitely a good way of solving certain problems. Also, it’s nice to see actors playing very specific character stereotypes in the first movie being given a chance to play their same characters in a different way at certain points. So there’s a lot on offer if you liked the first one and are happy that this isn’t just a repeat. And that includes the opening Univeral logo too... which was in a repeat loop at the opneing of the first movie but for this one... yeah, I'm not giving that away here either.
The film is pure fun from start to end and, surprisingly perhaps, manages to also be quite moving in certain moments. There were tears in my eyes during a specific scene and that’s just not the kind of emotional level that you would normally expect from something that, on the surface, masquerades as just another teenage Hollywood slasher movie. Like the first one, this movie has a lot of heart with the kind of strong, moral centre you’d not necessarily expect to be witness to in this kind of cinematic territory. And once again we have Bear McCreary picking up on the themes and ideas he used on the score to the first movie and expanding on them, enhancing the emotions just as you would hope. He does another great job here and I just wish this sequel score was put out on a proper CD instead of a low quality electronic download (at time of writing this article... I’ve still got my fingers crossed for some kind of physical release in the near future).
So, yeah, I managed to get through this review completely spoiler free, it looks like but, if you are reading this and are thinking of seeing the movie, please make sure you stay through the first part of the end credits. There’s a mid-post credits scene here and it’s fairly lengthy, explains the not so common sensical ending a little better (although I’m still a little baffled by the mechanics of the resolution scene... need to see it again). This sequence also sets up a much bigger picture for the third movie which, given the identity of a character unmasked early on in the film and which at first I thought might be a loose end the writer had forgotten about, might mean that the third film in the series (which I’m very much hoping is inevitable now) will have a much bigger scope to the first two. We shall see.
In the meantime, if you’ve not seen the first film then don’t see this one yet (and in fact don’t even watch the trailer) as it reveals the end of the first movie in a handy recap sequence. So go watch that once first because... well... it’s kind of brilliant. If, however, you’re already an admirer of the first film then Happy Death Day 2U definitely doesn’t fall too short of what your best idea of a version of a continuation of the story could be, I suspect and, frankly, it’s a fun ride all the way through. So go see it.
Thursday, 14 February 2019
Deeley Mouthed Reporter
Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off -
My Life In Cult Movies
by Michael Deeley with Matthew Field
The History Press
This is another great book which was a Christmas present and, I have to say that, of the many non-fiction books about the film industry I’ve read in the last 10 years or so, this one has got the least amount of factual errors in it that I’ve seen. I couldn’t find a one in here which, frankly, make’s a change for the modern market of people writing about the movies. Admittedly, the book is a little bit of a blur of projects in places and doesn’t really take the time and stop for all the little details you might like (what book on a similar subject does?) but two big thumbs up to Mr. Deeley for being a straight talking guy with his words here.
Now, I don’t know too much about Michael Deeley (still don’t, in a way, his personal life barely comes up in this account) and neither do I know too much about the art of producing movies (although I learned some good stuff from this book). However, since he’s responsible for being the main producer of my favourite film ever (Blade Runner) I thought it was about time I found out what I could about the craft of what is, basically, putting together deals and creating the environment for a specific motion picture project to flourish while enabling the director to be able to do what’s required in any way you can. And it seems Deeley is the person to listen to here because he’s produced some of the best of them... although it’s interesting to note that many of them were less than big successes when they first opened.
Perhaps this is why Mr. Deeley has chosen to use the horrible term ‘cult movies’ in his title, although it’s quite honestly clear in a certain passage in his text that he really knows the uselessness, changeability and ultimate redundancy of the term when applied to cinema... I suspect he just threw it into the title due to the fact that it’s mere utterance can produce an almost orgasmic reaction from the more naive of film fans and thus increase sales. That being said, many of the films he has on his books such as The Italian Job, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Man Who Fell To Earth and, of course, Blade Runner, do have a very loyal following of admirers, although nowadays in much higher numbers than could ever justify anyone calling them cult films, it has to be said.
Deeley seems, from the way he writes, to be a fairly pleasant man with a lot of stories to tell which, I suspect, didn’t all make it into the book for various reasons. He speaks well of most people he’s worked with but always says things straight... so you won’t read much of a good word for his experiences wrangling Sam Pekinpah on his production of Convoy, for instance. And as for Michael Cimino and his time producing the spiralling production of what eventually became The Deer Hunter... well lets just say that he goes to great length, in the most pleasant manner possible, to point out what a terrible human being that director is... repeatedly and at length, whether he’s meant to be talking about him or not. So that says something about the kind of man he is, I think. I don’t know this but I got the feeling that he was being legally pulled back on saying much of what he wanted to say about certain people but still managed to find a way of getting it out there anyway... which is to his credit, I think. He also has a word or two to say about Julia Ormond as a presence on set but... yeah... you need to read this book yourself if you want to find this stuff out.
As can be expected, the book is full of stories from his times on films with the likes of Michael Caine and Ridley Scott and... also people who were partnered up with him to produce movies, notably Stanley Baker. He tells of the way their producing relationship finished and the tragedy of how Baker actually died, somewhat prematurely. As well as, throughout the book, little stories about other less than fortunate people in the business... such as the stuntman who damaged his leg on a shoot and, when taken to hospital, had the misfortune of having the wrong leg accidentally amputated.
The book has a good lead in and starts off with Mr. Deeley describing both the sheer boredom and tension inherent in having to go to an Oscar ceremony because you have been nominated for something. From there on the book takes a mostly chronological path from his early, post army days to his first jobs within the film industry and beyond. And on the way he drops various names and anecdotes of his adventures in the film trade, from refusing to give in to Warren Beatty’s requests to remove Julie Christie’s sex scene from Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now to defending his cuts to The Wicker Man with the, frankly very reasonable explanation, that if he hadn’t cut it like that to the demands of the people who were distributing it, then the film would never had found its way on to screens at all. In fact, nobody would distribute it in the US at all until Roger Corman allowed it to screen as a double bill with Don’t Look Now (when similar cuts were required to The Wicker Man to secure the deal).
Perhaps my favourite anecdote is of a disasterous private screening in the 1960s or early 1970s of a new film by Joseph Losey. I’m not going to tell you what happened here because that would spoil it but... Michael Caine certainly saved the day on that one. And, of course, I was ravenous for any more information I could find on Blade Runner and, although I knew much of this stuff before when it comes to this movie, it’s interesting to read of how it developed and just which concepts were there and, well, which were not there during the production of the film. It’s clear Deeley also knows how important this film is (and I think he calls it his favourite project at one point) because he takes a few chapters to talk about it which is, roughly, two and a half chapters more than he takes to talk about any of the other productions, it seemed to me.
I also like that he taylored his writing to that movie by the end of the novel too. In his last section, which I believe must be a new addition to this hardback edition because he’s talking about things from 2016, including his thoughts on Ridley Scott's Alien sequel and the, then, upcoming Blade Runner sequel, he uses a few adapted key phrases including the lovely paraphrase... “I don’t know how many years celluloid has left? Who does?” Actually, come to think of it, if you don’t know the original cut of Blade Runner which was released back in cinemas in 1982, before the advent of the various, so called director’s cuts of the movie, then the average modern reader might not pick up on some of those little writing flourishes either. Which is a shame because he’s shown a lot of love for the project here.
And that’s me done on the great Micheal Deeley’s Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off... one of the most British of movie books I’ve read but also one of the most enlightening. Definitely check this one out if you are interested in any of the directors or movies mentioned here... Michael has a story about most of them.
Tuesday, 12 February 2019
One Brick Pony
The Lego Movie 2 -
The Second Part
Directed by Mike Mitchell
UK cinema release print.
Well... here Lego again.
The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part is a sequel to both The Lego Movie (reviewed here) and The Lego Batman Movie (reviewed here) and I have to admit my expectations were pretty high because I thought both those movies were really good. Alas, this new movie comes off as just another brick in the box office wall and gives us a somewhat dull and lifeless sequel, it has to be said.
Now, I realise I’m not really the target audience but the first film was able to deliver a mostly solid storyline with a lot of stuff going on and a humorous script that worked at both a child and adult level. The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part doesn’t quite perform the same kind of entertainment, I thought. While there are certainly the odd throwaway sexual innuendos tossed into the script, this feels much more like a kids movie than a family film and, I have to say, I did find myself clock watching on this one, to a certain extent.
Now the film does a lot of good stuff and, don’t get me wrong, there’s still some nice surprises in here. It helps that you have a group of characters who are genuinely likeable, reprised from the original installment. And, sure, it’s got a certain amount of wit and charm along with some inventive ideas but... I dunno, it just doesn’t seem as prolifically inventive as the first part and although there was undoubtedly a lot going on in each frame... it really didn’t feel like it was really worth studying too closely by going back for a second watch. Also, it’s interesting that no characters from Star Wars or Marvel Comics made it into the movie this time around. I think the Lego Marvel characters were absent from the first film too due to some rights issues with Disney but at least the Marvel thing is discussed on screen here.
There are a couple of things here though which were real problems for the way I viewed the movie and one of them has to be the amount of songs in here. It’s not quite a musical but it is close and there are some cute but ‘not so clever as they think they are’ songs in this one featuring as breaks in a narrative which really doesn’t need them. I grew up in the 1970s watching various comedy sketch shows of the period which insisted adding in atrocious comedy songs each week and what that taught me was that, no matter how witty the people writing the lyrics on those things thought they were, they just weren’t funny and dragged to the point that you really didn’t want to watch any more of the show.... and I got that feeling here too. The songs just weren’t that good... some of the lyrics were okay but, yeah, the lyrics didn’t get 'stuck in my head', even as they’d promised they would and I was basically just wishing for them to end for the most part.
The other problem I had with this film was with something which was set up in the first movie but which, thankfully, The Lego Batman Movie safely ignored... having characters cross over into the real world. Like a Toy Story movie, a few of the characters manage to ‘get out’ of their own reality and there were a number of scenes where the narrative kept jumping back to the real world with Will Ferrell and Maya Rudolph. The original sequence in the first movie was a real pace killer and, similar moments in this film provide exactly the same problems. I could really have done without this stuff.
Mark Mothersbaugh returns as the score composer on this and he does a nice job once again (asides from the songs, which would have been better absent). I might grab the score album at some point but I can live without it for now.
A big cheer goes to the scriptwriters for starting straight up from the ‘Duplo’ ending of the first movie but, continuing on with a plot that seems half stolen from Zathura (which I’ve not seen but even I could see the similarities) and a general, vague feeling that nobody really had anything clever to add in to the somewhat ‘by the numbers’ script kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the opening set up, in all honesty.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about this one. I don’t think this will be going on anybody’s top ten lists and I just felt the film was a bit lifeless in comparison to the previous two. The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part is in cinemas now and if you’ve got kids who like Lego then you can’t really go wrong with taking them to see this one... just don’t expect too much out of it when you’ve got your ‘adult head’ on. Everything’s not awesome in this one.
Sunday, 10 February 2019
Alita Shade Of Pale
Alita - Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
UK cinema release print.
So the latest film by director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron is a live action adaptation of a manga (and, later, an anime) called Gunnm (and also known as Battle Angel Alita). Now I’ll do my usual disclaimer here and state up front that I have neither read any of the volumes of the manga nor seen any of the adapted anime episodes of this so, the one thing I can’t do here is tell you how this is as an actual adaptation of the source material.
I can tell you some other stuff though including the fact that I was kinda conflicted about going to see this one because... well I’m not the biggest fan of James Cameron, although I quite liked his first film in The Terminator series, ALIENS and The Abyss. When you get to stuff like Avatar though... count me out. Rodriguez, however, is a director I’ve always quite liked.... especially his Sin City films, his Planet Terror contribution to the Grindhouse movie (especially the extended, stand alone version) and his Machete movies. However, when I saw the trailer, it didn’t really look like a Rodriguez movie... but it did look spectacular. I also found the enlarged eyes of the main Alita character kinda interesting.
The film tells the story of Alita, played by Rosa Salazar as a full CGI version (so I guess she does the voice and possibly motion capture), who is a cyborg found by Dr. Dyson (played by Christoph Waltz) on a garbage heap dumped from the last surviving sky city and left unwanted in Iron City (which is presumably on Earth). She has a human brain inside her head and when the doctor revives her, no memory of her former life although, as the movie throws her character into violent conflicts, she tends to have flashes of memory as to what she really was in her former life 300 years before.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because, contrary to my worries that this film would be a special effects laden spectacular with no story... it does actually have a good tale to tell with the central mystery of the past held in Alita’s head and, frankly, a lot more heart than I was expecting from a film like this.
Yep... I really loved this movie and that kinda took me by surprise.
In addition to Salazar and Waltz... who are both utterly brilliant in their roles... we have Jennifer Connelly playing a sinister character and, also, Ed Skrein, who also plays a good villain (such as in Deadpool, reviewed by me here) but who also deserves to be given more heroic roles such as the surprisingly decent job he did jumping into Jason Statham’s shoes for The Transporter Refuelled (which I reviewed here). However, here he’s back to being a villain again and, as you would expect, he does a good job of it.
The set designs and art direction are first class and you can see how you would never have got to movies like this without a direct legacy back to the 1982 movie Blade Runner (reviewed here) and some of the other films influenced by it over the years such as The Fifth Element and Ghost In The Shell (reviewed here). But more than that, the title character has such charm and a kind of essential innocence to her character (in spite of some of the things she has obviously been trained to do in her former life) that you never lose sight of the story and it’s warm, beating human heart as we watch her eat chocolate for the first time, fall in love and learn how to play a violent roller skate sport which is obviously based on Rollerball and which takes up a lot of the screen time here in terms of the action sequences.
Now, I know there are some people out there who may find the story structure a bit disappointing. I think it was about half way through the movie when I realised there were going to be no main story resolutions here and you can kind of see where the potential sequels are going to pick up the ball. In fact, the director and producer (and writers, I guess) have been criticised with spending too long setting up the sequels but, frankly, I thought it was more a natural ebb and flow of the dramatic narrative and I think this is one of the few movies I’ve seen of recent years which manages to completely pull this off and still leave a certain amount of dramatic closure for the viewer.
Talking about narrative structure... there are a few scenes where things are implied rather than directly spelled out but that’s cool, I’m always down with not spoon feeding the audience too much on these things. I was also happy that the big eyes of Alita were not nearly as distracting as I thought they would be. You kind of get used to them really quickly and I found myself wondering, at one point, were they actually any bigger than a normal person’s eyes or was I imagining it? It really doesn’t take long for your brain to adapt.
So... shorter review I guess because I didn’t really have any grumbles with Alita - Battle Angel and was both thoroughly entertained and, surprisingly, quite moved by it in some places. Adding to the whole ambience of the movie was some nice action scoring by Junkie XL which really held things together and once more confirmed my suspicions that he’s one of the more promising composers working in film scoring these days. But there you have it... once again, sorry for the shorter review for this one but when you get a film as pitch perfect as Alita - Battle Angel then there’s not too much else to say until you’ve studied it on multiple viewings. Other than I’m hoping that this does really well at the box office so we can see the next installments sooner rather than later (or not at all, in the worst case scenario). My one bit of advice would be to make the journey to your local cinema to see this one because... yes it’s got heart and soul but, as you might suspect from the trailer, it also looks pretty darn spectacular. So don’t miss it in the venue it was designed for. After all, Alita bit of what you fancy does you good.
Thursday, 7 February 2019
The Yeager Sanction
The Notorious Bettie Page
Directed by Mary Harron
USA 2005 Picturehouse Films
Blu Ray Zone B
I remember wanting to catch this movie at cinemas when it came out but, if memory serves, a combination of being ill and it not playing at my local meant I missed my opportunity. Luckily, I managed to pick up a DVD of this in Fopp records in one of those “if you spend over £X you get the opportunity to buy this for £Y” kinds of deals a year or two ago. And now, here I am finally getting around to watching the thing.
Bettie Page, of course, was the famous and certainly iconic model who, in the 1940s and 1950s was shooting saucy poses, nudes and also lots of fetish and bondage stuff (including short movies of similar material) for famous photographers such as Irving Klaw, his sister Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager. She also appeared in a small number of feature length burlesque movies as a performer, along with the likes of Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr and Cherry Knight, in such movies as Striporama, Varietease and Teaserama. Curiously, those movies aren’t actually mentioned in this film, although the dance on the end credits could well be lifted from one of them... or it’s performed by Gretchen Mole, the actress playing The Notorious Bettie Page, copying one of them as, frankly, there are a few times in this movie when it’s very hard to tell them apart. Mole does that good a job with the role.
Now, it has to be said that the film, like most biopics, paints a slightly different version of events in some areas than real life. For instance, Jared Harris plays the creator of the famous Adventures Of Gwendoline bondage comic strip but, in real life, I believe the two never met. Now, Bettie Page was still alive and ‘rediscovered’ when this film came out (she died at the age of 85 back in 2008) and, contrary to reports at the time, she didn’t think the film necessarily portrayed things as they were precisely and didn’t quite click with it, although it’s noted she liked Gretchen Mole in the part. My understanding is the story of Bettie Page in real life, if you can filter out any tall tales, contains even more interesting and sometimes alarming material than is portrayed in this movie and so, it seems, I’ll need to try and pick up the equivalent of a decent biography at some point.
Now, I have to say that this must have been an intimidating part for Mole to play. I’m certainly not joking when I say Bettie Page is an iconic figure. I have a little bookmark with a painting of her at work which is ‘blu tacked’ to the inside of my doorframe and it’s clear that, even people who don’t know her, somehow recognise her and her famous haircut (the origin of which we see in this movie). I remember seeing the movie version of the comic book The Rocketeer back in 1991 and thinking how the character Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly, seemed a fairly obvious, especially from the dialogue, homage to Bettie Page. When you look at the original comic book, which is very different due to the film not licensing half of the characters who are in the original (I think the most important absence in the movie, for me, is Doc Savage, who invented the rocket pack in the comic book... not Howard Hughes as the movie shows) the character is called Bettie and has a modelling career where she shoots risque material and is drawn to look exactly like Bettie Page so... yeah... an influential figure who, I suspect, was never fully or adequately paid for the cultural impact of her modelling work.
The film itself starts off in New York in 1955 where a porn store is raided and we go on to see David Strathairn playing Estes Kefauver, a prosecutor in a public prosecution case against ‘The Klaws’ in a real ‘McArthy witch hunt looking' trial against pornographic material, which put me in mind of the same kinds of footage one sees of the hearings against the comic book industry in the 1950s. The film uses this point of time, with Bettie waiting in the lobby to be called to answer questions... and from there we dart backwards in time to different places to look at her back story and how she got from a girl growing up in 1936 and 1942, before going on to her modelling career.
And the film is pretty accomplished. In the 1942 sequence, director Harron takes us... and Betty... from early courtship to marriage, domestic abuse and divorce all in the space of a few minutes which doesn’t even feel like a regular montage sequence. That being said, the director really knows how to do that kind of sequence and there’s one beautiful section of film where we are taken through various covers which feature Gretchen as Bettie, moving and doing the photoshoot live in giant mock ups of the covers (or it’s possibly CGI’d). These moments actually reminded me of the scenes where Gene Kelly is talking about Leslie Caron and we see vignettes of her dancing in different moods in On The Town and, to be honest, of similar scenes in the late 1940s/1950s MGM musicals in particular, it has to be said. So, yeah, some really nice stuff here from this director. That being said, the film is mostly shot in a very crisp black and white but various sequences such as this wonderful cover montage or the photoshoots by Bunny Yeager in Miami, suddenly burst into colour (reminiscent of the colour films of the era) and bring a lovely sense of contrast and richness to the film as a whole.
When Bettie moves out of her abusive marriage she is picked up on the street one night on the promise of an evening of dancing and driven to a remote spot to be gang raped. I never realised she had this kind of trauma in her life but the early bleakness of the story is offset by some really happy times when we get to her modelling career. This incident compels her to leave for New York in 1949 where she gets into the modelling scene almost by accident. There are also some spots of actual footage, I suspect (or just incredibly well done, visually aged stock thrown in to confuse), from a similar period such as a the bus ride to New York which looks quite authentic at times... so I’m just assuming it is actually lifted from library stock.
And it’s a brilliant film which takes a look at the central character with, perhaps, just a little too much religious overtone if my reading of the reaction of the real Bettie Page is something I’m interpreting correctly.
Gretchen Mole is perfect in this, capturing the facial expressions, mannerisms and cute, exaggerated poses of the subject absolutely pitch perfectly. Now, it has to be said that I thought her nipples were just slightly different to the real life Bettie’s and I was somewhat torn for a few minutes in terms of the authenticity of the character but... I figured you can’t get everything right and, frankly, CGI nipples would not have been a good choice, methinks. Mole is joined by a whole load of brilliant actors to help highlight her central performance. I’ve already mentioned Strathairn and Harris but we also have on hand Lili Taylor as Paula Claw, Sarah Paulson (who played an important role recently in the M. Night Shyamalan film Glass, reviewed here) in an almost but not quite scene stealing turn as Bunny Yeager and a brilliant and nicely comical performance by Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw.
So, add up all these beautiful performances, some lovely black and white cinematography, a nice soundtrack including some good needle drop song choices by the likes of Julie London and an energy and pacing which makes for never a dull moment... and you have this fine film, The Notorious Bettie Page, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any cinephiles I know of and especially those interested in a slice of American history which isn’t often touched upon that often in the movies (although the absolute masterpiece from a couple of years ago, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which I reviewed here, did a pretty good job of certain aspects of it too). This is definitely due another watch at some point and now I wish I’d have grabbed a Blu Ray copy of it instead of this DVD version. A truly gorgeous piece of movie making and I’m going to have to watch out for this director in the future, I believe.
Tuesday, 5 February 2019
Rigellian Hot Shot
The Mighty One:
My Life Inside The Nerve Centre
by Steve MacManus
So... it turns out this is a really great book.
Regular readers may remember that the main comic I grew up on as a kid was the classic title which brought regular readers their weekly dose of thrill power, 2000AD. I finally ditched this title after, from the first issue, buying the first 1,500 or so installments due to what I thought was a steady decline in the publication which had been going on since the late 1980s. At least I still have all my back issues though.
The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre is an autobiographical ramble by writer Steve MacManus about his various jobs in the British comics scene. What seems to be his longest and, arguably, his most influential job is what the title of this bright and breezy account is referring to. Any kid worth his salt knew that The Nerve Centre was where their weekly issue of 2000AD took on life and The Mighty One refers, in a way, to MacManus himself. Actually, it refers to Tharg, the fictional alien who ran The Nerve Centre and, although MacManus wasn’t working on the comic right from the outset, for a large chunk of time he was working on the title and running the show and, yes, he did don the familiar (to us kids) Tharg The Mighty costume on occasion. Just as, if I remember correctly, comic artist Dave Gibbons, who provides the foreword to this tome, used to wear the costume of The Big E for one of 2000AD’s failed sister publications Tornado... a title which, like Starlord before it, got merged with 2000AD and swallowed by it... although, in the case of Starlord, a couple of the strips, notably RoBusters and Strontium Dog, did at least continue on with a life of their own in the pages of the elder sister. I don’t remember much about Tornado, to be honest... other than I stopped reading it after maybe the first issue.
But, of course, this mighty tome is not just about the glory days of 2000AD. It’s about the young MacManus going through various stages of his career starting on the popular (at the time) British comic Battle, where his first job was to make up the letters page for the first edition. Now, when I was a kid I always used to wonder why so many comics had a letter page in their first issue. After all, how could anyone have read it to make a comment before it was even out? I always used to assume that some lucky blighters had been sent free advanced copies of the comics and asked to give their opinion but my dad, always the cynic, said “Knickers! They make them up themselves.”* Well, the truth is revealed here as being something between the two. MacManus and others would make up letters for various logic defying first issues’ letter pages, which completely goes against the grain and makes the 9 year old in me fairly angry but, at least they weren’t writing them for every issue, as my dad insisted they did. After the first issue, the mail bag for a title would begin to fill and so it was only the first week where mailbag fantasies were concocted. Still, it’s nice to be able to finally get to the bottom of that mystery, I can tell you.
The writer goes on to give various fascinating insights about the rewriting and editing of scripts for these comics and how long it would all take. He also mentions the new work ethos inherited from the Scottish teams poached and brought down to old London town to help launch Battle. It would be true to say that the title was very successful and he does mention the creation of rival comic Action, which MacManus also contributed the odd story to. Now, he doesn’t go into the ins and outs of just why Action was publicly denounced and talked about in Parliament and, ultimately, banned before being sanitised and then just fizzling out, but it is at least mentioned and there are some fond recollections to be had when talking about certain characters... the giant shark Hookjaw comes to mind. I remember first reading an issue when I was in hospital, recovering from having been hit by two cars that collided with each other before mounting the pavement and nearly killing me. It wasn’t a comic I read a lot of though and, given the state I was in both mentally and physically at the time, that’s perhaps not too surprising. He also reveals how he was the guy photographed for Action doing crazy stunts under the name of Mr. Action on a weekly basis... and there’s some entertaining stories to be had there too.
Then he talks about his time on the creator of Action’s next... and somewhat very secret project, 2000AD... first as a similar job to what he’d climbed to on Battle and then, ultimately, inheriting the chief editor position by default. And it’s absolutely great to read that the gentleman acknowledges the problem with the Biotronic Stickers given away in Issue 2. I remember these things vividly, not because they were obviously inspired by the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man and showed cut outs of machinery to give the illusion that you were some kind of cybernetic being with mechanical workings showing in handy portals on your body but, like a lot of kids, because of the near traumatising experience of getting the damn things off. MacManus admits the glue used on this classic gift was a little overpowering and that even when taking a bath with them on, many kids could still not get the enhanced cosmetics off. Oh yeah, I remember the pain involved on that fateful Saturday I decided to wear my biotronic gift... a pain now slightly offset by MacManus’ accounts of the number of complaining phone calls the offices received from across the land from angry parents with many kids in similar situations. Those were the days, eh?
And, frankly, this whole book is a joy to read, not because it’s always entirely factually accurate, it isn’t... but because it gives a real insight in the art of running a top selling weekly comic and it does so in a thoroughly entertaining manner. I loved that even MacManus identified strips like Rick Random and Angel as being absolutely terrible (and in the case of Rick Random, thrust on them by the publishers). I similarly love his echoing of my thoughts (aka my angry rant to people and film studios who misuse the term) when he said Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were marketed to an uneducated British public as graphic novels. He knows they aren’t graphic novels, they’re comic book reprints so... yeah, wish the film studios purporting their comic book movies are based on graphic novels, to make them sound more legitimate in their eyes, would learn the difference.
As I said before, there are inaccuracies. For example, he says that Ridley Scott’s movie ALIEN was rated 15 by the British Board of Film Censors... it wasn’t. That rating wasn’t even created when ALIEN was released... it was an X certificate, pure and simple. Similarly, citing an event that happened to him reminding him at the time of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption is, I think, more convenient in terms of an entertaining sentence rather than reflecting accuracy... since the film wasn’t released for another seven years after the incident referred to happened. Unless, of course, he was referring to the original novella but then... it doesn’t have that title and it wasn’t known at the time that Stephen King wrote it (it was originally released under a pen name).
But, honestly, you can forgive the odd inaccuracy or two when you are being entertained by a writer who comes up with golden lines like... “I fell asleep during 2001: A Space Odyssey and awoke with a Hal of a hangover.” And his embarrassing story about making a point in a powerful meeting hinging on the lyrics of Enya’s Orinoco Flow as “Save a whale, save a whale, save a whale” is priceless. Especially when he realises later that he’d misheard the lyrics and they were “Sail away, sail away, sail away...”.
This is easily one of the most interesting and easy to read biographical sketches I’ve read and, when he includes stories about the creation and reception of such classics as the Judge Dredd tale The Cursed Earth, The Ballad Of Halo Jones (a 2000AD cover from The Ballad Of Halo Jones Book Three is included on the front of this tome), Strontium Dog, Robohunter, Ace Trucking, Rogue Trooper, The ABC Warriors, Nemesis The Warlock and also throws in stories about his involvement with the creation of Crisis and Revolver, you have a heck of a nice little book brimming over with what, in the old days, The Mighty Tharg would call thrill power. If you have any interest or remembrance of some of the comics mentioned her then you’ll definitely have a good time reading The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre. A definite recommendation from me and just a genuinely fun package. Miss this at your peril (and be ready to receive a Rigellian Hot Shot for your trouble).
*Please note, my dad was using this expression as an expletive long before Rojaws in Robusters took it as his catchphrase.
Sunday, 3 February 2019
Directed by Vera Chytilová
Second Run Blu Ray Zone B
Daisies is another film which I’d not heard of before seeing it drifting by with high praise on my Twitter feed, advertising the new Blu Ray transfer released over here in the UK by Second Run. Of course, the terms Czechoslovakia and surrealism in such close juxtaposition put me in mind of those abstract, five minute Czechoslovakia cartoon fillers that used to get shown on BBC television in the 1960s and 1970s and, to be fair, there is a certain amount of just that kind of animated experimentation within this movie. The fact that it had been banned on release in it’s home country for, and I quote, ‘depicting the wanton’ and the director forbidden to work again for six years only added fuel to the fire of me wanting to see this excessive amount of ‘wanton’ and I was grateful, therefore, to receive a copy of this on the occasion of my birthday this year.
The film proceeds with an almost sinister opening credits sequence depicting some kind of mechanical contrivance of three big cogs which are intercut to genuine war footage. To describe the plot of the film is, in some ways, redundant due to the fact that it doesn’t really have one but once the credits are done with the audience is treated to a shot of the two main protagonists, both called Marie and played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, sitting side by side in crisp, black and white photography. Perhaps my first few minutes of the film as I experienced them in synopsis can give you a flavour of what sitting down to watch Daisies is like...
As the two girls decide between them that the world has gone bad and, therefore, they can be bad too, their movements are deliberately wooden and jerky, accompanied by the sound of creaking wood on the soundtrack. Then, when one of the Marias slaps the other, she is propelled by the magic of editing out of that scene to wake up in a field of daisies as the screen explodes into full colour (a tactic redeployed again later by the director as she cuts on one of the girls tugging the others leg and they both end up in a different sequence at the end of the tug). Both girls jump up and down and do some kind of joyful and somewhat hypnotic bunny dance to the upbeat soundtrack.
And there you have the basic attitude of the film. It’s very much, in my opinion, embracing the sixties spirit of the young rebelling against the older generation and their various wars... and had somewhat prophetic timing, in a way, given the tensions of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 (some of the events of which were depicted in the much praised, an deservedly so, film of Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness Of Being).
Now, it’s tempting to throw interpretation on some of the scenes here, which consist of the two Maries going around exploiting older men for big meals, abandoning them and then contemplating this or that idea in surrealistic and often non-sequitur sequences which, in general, depict a joyfully chaotic nature reminiscent of something you would have seen depicted in a Marx Brothers movie 30 years before. Indeed, I would be very much surprised if the scene where one Marie is cutting up food with a pair of scissors was not directly influenced by certain Harpo Marx routines. That being said, interpretations which you bring yourself to a film can be especially valid, I think, when the structure is rendered somewhat deliberately elliptical in intent. So, my take on the opening would be the act of rebellion to expected society norms depicted as puppets freeing themselves from their wooden appearance and bursting forth into the real world.
And there’s a lot going on visually with this movie, it has to be said. There are a lot of colour changes, sometimes even within the same shot. I’d say about two fifths of the film was shot in full colour, two fifths in black and white and the remaining fifth set in a variety of colour tinted black and white frames which change seemingly randomly. So you have a green tinted screen which cuts away and then back and then suddenly everything is tinted yellow for no apparent reason. This also, however, occasionally helps out with the way the visual syntax is used in certain scenes.... for instance, a dinner montage where the tints are continually changing on a cut every few seconds helps the director convey a sense of passing time and thus serves a very useful purpose. Other times, those stock treatments may even change on the rhythm of a ticking clock. In one shot of one Marie drinking wine and then crossing her eyes, the colour changes smoothly to another tint as she does so with no cut.
Similarly, another dinner sequence (the girls seem to be obsessed with food for pretty much the whole course of the film) has a moment where a shot zooms out in stages, triggered by words spoken from one of the characters. And the film is riddled with this kind of experimental approach to the visual boundaries throughout, in an almost constant bombardment on the audiences, hijacking the pre-conditioned way of decoding images placed in a sequence before them. For instance, another scene where the girls go scissor crazy and cut off each other limbs and head (all still quite active body parts such as a floating head which looks around and sticks out her tongue) lead into the cinematic frame itself being cut into constantly moving tiny pieces. Of course, in the very next sequence, both girls are back to normal and off on their next escapade.
Some of it is a challenge visually but in terms of the way the mind receives the information... following the main protagonists who are really beautifully played by Cerhová and Karbanová, with the charming Barbara Windsor-esque giggle of one of the characters softening the severity of some of their blase and callous attitudes to every other living creature they come in contact with (the youth of today, eh?)... is all very positive and makes for a fun watch. It’s also very difficult to decode sometimes but then, that’s what makes it so fun... Is the journey in the industrial dumb waiter a metaphorical ascent to heaven as the girls are delivered to a banquet where more chaos ensues or should we just take it at face value? Indeed, should we even take the girls at face value when they are bored and annoyed by the lack of attention they are receiving? When one of the Marias takes the other back to the aftermath of an earlier scene to prove a point she says to the other Maria... ‘There you are! We do exist.” Frankly, I’m not so sure but I was having too much fun by this point to care whether the central protagonists were real characters or only shadows of the puppet people they at first appeared to be.
The use of music is quite good in some places and the needle drop stuff is very well chosen throughout... especially the placement of Siegfried's Funeral March from Gotterdämmerung by Richard Wagner, a piece of music I recognised from its inclusion in Excalibur (reviewed by me here)... used here to create a sinister overtone to upcoming events where it’s not necessarily visually loaded as projecting that particular ambience. I also loved the musical accompaniment to a couple of dancers in my favourite scene where they are upstaged by the increasingly drunken girls whose behaviour at this point leaves a lot to be desired.
And that’s my take on Daisies... a film I’d not heard of until a few months ago but definitely one I’d recommend to fans of movies depicting a celebration of the attitudes of the emerging youth of the period. There’s rarely a dull moment and the pace of the piece is such that it rockets... well, if not forward then certainly sideways... at a furious pace. Definitely one to watch if you are a lover of cinema and you like films like, say, Head starring The Monkees or, indeed, Duck Soup. A definite treat and much thanks to Second Run for releasing this gem.