Friday 31 December 2010

Top 20 Film Music Releases on CD of 2010

Ok... here I am writing my very own End of Year List column because if it’s one thing that TV, radio and the internet has taught me over the years... it’s that people like to have a nice, juicy, opinionated list to read and then vehemently disagree with and argue about. So here’s mine.

Now, what I probably should be doing on here is giving you my top 10 or 20 movies of the year but, seriously, since I’ve started blogging I’m just not watching anything like the same amount of movies that I used to. A year ago a good 120 of the 300 - 400 films I would have seen would have been first run new releases... this year I’d be surprised if I’d been to the cinema more than about 50 times. And most of the movies I’ve seen this year have been US made releases... no point in trying to do a credible list from that lot is there.

But I did want to do some kind of End of Year List thingy so I’ve plumped for my top twenty favourite CD score releases of the year. And again... please understand that these are new CD releases (some of which are long awaited, limited and expanded re-releases of scores from years gone by) and not just releases for scores that were written this year. If I limited myself to just freshly written score releases then... well you’ll see from my list that I’ve only deemed five of those worthy of inclusion in my twenty.

Also... you may notice that, quite puzzlingly, there are no “golden age” scores on this, my inaugural film score list. This is not because I dislike them... it just means that out of this years golden age releases, none of them happened to take my fancy.

Anyway... about time I stopped waffling on my chosen parameters... here’s the list.

20. Jack The Giant Killer by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter
Intrada 2 disc edition. Limited to 1000 copies. Sold out.
Sawtell and Shefter’s score for the 1962 Kerwin Mathews starrer was an unexpected bombshell of a surprise for the soundtrack community in general. It’s not a film I’ve seen myself but I ordered a copy assuming it would be trying to capture the same musical landscapes as Herrmann’s scores for the Ray Harryhausen flicks whose bandwagon this movie was so obviously trying to ride. Although nothing like what Herrmann would have composed for the same material, this score has a magical tone and dense, golden age style orchestration. I’m glad I didn’t let this one pass me by. The album sold out quick!

19. Alien Resurrection by John Frizzell
La La Land. 2 disc Expanded Edition.
Limited to 3,500 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
I’ve always liked John Frizzell since buying his score for an obscure TV show which was promptly cancelled after a few episodes (just after I’d bought it) called VR5. I’ve been following this composer for a while now and some of his stuff has been great... especially the score he provided last year for Whiteout. I remember the score for Alien Resurrection being met with a less than enthusiastic reception on its first time around. I always loved it though... it felt to me, and still does, like the Alien music mixed together with John Barry’s You Only Live Twice era Bond music. I was thrilled by this release.

18. Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier by Jerry Goldsmith
La La Land. 2 disc Expanded Edition - Limited to 5000 units.
Still available at time of blog publication.
Finally a proper release for Jerry Goldsmiths quite incredible and rousing score for one of Trekdom’s least loved movies. The expansion and development of his Star Trek: The Motion Picture Klingon sub-theme alone makes this album worthy of a spin or two. There are still some copies available but I am expecting them to go fairly quickly now. If you want this one... don’t delay.

17. Earth VS The Spider by Albert Glasser
Kritzerland. Limited to 1000 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
What? This was released very early in the year and I still can’t believe the measly 1000 units has not sold out yet. Admittedly I‘d never heard of the composer or even seen the film but, to me, this one was a no brainer for a fast pick up. It’s a 50s sci-fi B movie about a giant spider! You know what that means? Yep! Lots of big, bold, less than subtle statements of blaring clusters of notes and gallons of wailing theremin! And it’s still available! What are you waiting for?

16. The Andromeda Strain by Gil Melle
Intrada. Limited to 1500 copies. Sold out.
Ooh yeah! Experimental, avant garde film music to one of the more famous sci-fi films by the composer of the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV show. It’s a short album but one you can quickly lose yourself in.

15. Let Me In by Michael Giacchino
Varese Sarabande
Let Me In was a "not very good" movie when compared with the Swedish original but the soundtrack where composer Michael Giacchino channels that Big Barry Bond Sound is another matter altogether. Slow mounting repetition coupled with dustbin lid orchestration. A great but totally different listening experience to the original movie's score.

14. Tamara Drewe by Alexandre Desplat
Silva Screen
Alexandre Desplat is one of the best of the upcoming heirs to the soundtrack composing kingdom - I remember Jerry Goldsmith remarking just how good his score to Girl With A Pearl Earring was just before he passed away. Tamara Drewe is classic Desplat. Simplistic melody line used as a hook to build the rest of the score on. A classical way of doing things perhaps... but he does it so well.

13. Alice In Wonderland by Danny Elfman
Yeah, okay. I’ll be the first to agree that hit n’ miss celluloid genius Tim Burton’s take on Alice In Wonderland was, admittedly... a bit rubbish. But this is the funny thing about listening to soundtracks... the music can often be truly beautiful, regardless of how much of a mess the final film is. This is one of Elfman’s greatest scores and its catchy title theme is sheer brilliance. You won’t want to miss out on this one.

12. Manhunter by Various Artists
Oh, alright. This album is here mostly for the songs which are amazingly fantastic... but there’s some interesting scoring here too. This long overdue CD release is amazing and one of the best things about the movie which in itself is the ONLY decent version of a Hannibal Lektor novel adapted for the screen. Although you might want to replace the cut-down 8 minutes 20 second version of the Iron Butterfly song with the proper 17 minutes and 3 seconds version!

11. Batman Returns by Danny Elfman
La La Land. 2 disc Expanded Version.
Limited to 3500 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
Another Elfman classic which does away with the poor sound levels on the original, cut down release. This album is absolutely worth it for the Christmassy choral Birth Of A Penguin track and the brilliantly catty Selina Transforms sequence. La La Land also released a 2 disc expanded edition of Elfman’s original Batman album this year (and it was a near miss for inclusion here) but this sequel score is the real masterpiece.

10. Black Sunday by John Williams
Film Score Monthly. Limited edition of 10,000 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
Not to be confused with Mario Bava’s excellent movie Black Sunday, this Black Sunday is the one based on the Thomas Harris novel (yeah, that Thomas Harris). Just when I thought I'd had enough of John William’s scores, this little gem pops up on my radar. Not seen the movie but this has a really nice sound to it. Worth a listen.

9. The Organisation by Gil Melle
Intrada. Limited to 1000 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
Gil Melle’s jazzy little score for the third of the Sydney Poitier Virgil Tibbs movies doesn’t let the side down in regards to Quincy Jones’ scores for the first two movies in the trilogy - In The Heat Of The Night and They Call Me Mister Tibbs. A great, albeit short for the money, slice of pumped up jazz scoring. This has been out of its cage for a few months now and is still available for some reason. That won’t last!

8. Drammi Gottici by Ennio Morricone
GDM Club. Remastered and Expanded (kind of, see below).
Limited Edition - number of copies unknown.
This GDM Club edition release of Morricone’s score for the Italian TV show Gothic Dramas is a curious beast in that it contains several rare tracks that have never before been released... but still has a shorter running time than that of the original album. Nevertheless... if you like scary, atonal loudness that will drive your inner soul insane with terror... then this one is worth a purchase.

7. L’Umanoide by Ennio Morricone
GDM Club Limited Edition - number of copies unknown.
Long awaited CD release for Morricone’s score the Richard Kiel/Barbara Bach sci fi bandwagon movie The Humanoid. Don’t remember much about this movie since seeing it at the cinema in the 70s... but expect it was pretty rubbish. Nice bit of Morricone, however.

6. A Step Out Of Line/
The Brotherhood of the Bell by Jerry Goldsmith
Intrada. Limited to 2,500 copies.
Still available at time of blog publication.
Wow. Two Jerry Goldsmith scores I’d not heard of before on one disc. Both of them really excellent - comprising rhythmic jazz figures and masculine atonal noodlings. A great listening experience for the bus via ipod on the way home from work.

5. Outland by Jerry Goldsmith.
Film Score Monthly. 2 disc Remastered and Expanded.
Limited to 5000 copies. Still available at time of blog publication.
One of my favourite Goldsmith scores gets the expanded and remastered treatment. Music to listen to as your spacesuit is compromised, your head explodes and your blood boils off into the depths of space.

4. 2 + 5 Missione Hydra by Nico Fidenco
Digitmovies. Limited to 500 copies. Still available at time of blog publication.
Digitmovies is one of the most important soundtrack labels to have sprung up over the past few years. They are doing a huge service to fans of Italian movie music and it’s really unusual that only one of their releases from this year made it into my list. But it’s a good one. Science fiction go-go music with smooth Hammond organ and harpsichords in space. Groove your way past gravity with this future-tempo music!

3. Battlestar Galactica: Razor/The Plan by Bear McCreary.
La La Land
Bear McCreary’s Galactica scores are some of the great releases of recent years and this one for the two one-off specials is no exception. Ethnic wailing and percussion done as well as it ever could be. This album literally rocks!

2. Doctor Who Series Five by Murray Gold
Silva Screen
Murray Gold’s double album for Matt Smith’s first series playing The Doctor is definitely one of the strongest of Gold’s Doctor Who releases. A great, great listen. This one’s rarely off my ipod!

1. Cleopatra Jones by J. J. Johnson & Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold by Dominic Frontiere
Film Score Monthly. Limited to 3000 copies. Still available at time of blog publication.
Album release of the year! Not only does this double CD contain a really kick-ass expanded edition of Johnson’s original Cleopatra Jones score but it also includes the equally kick ass Dominic Frontiere score for the appalling sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. What can I say? They couldn’t have come up with a funkier, funked up album if they had a special CD funkyfying pressing plant on the most funkiest day of the year. Get funked with these truly fun scores!

And that’s my end of year list done and dusted. Come back at the end of next year and I’ll try to sort out another one for you!

My thanks to Film Score Monthly once again for allowing me to use images of their CD covers on my blog.

Check out the following great sites for soundtracks...

Thursday 30 December 2010

A Winter’s Tale

The Chinese Ring 1947 US
Directed by William Beaudine
Monogram DVD Region 1

Well this was an... experience, shall we say?

The Chinese Ring is the 42nd of the 47 initial Charlie Chan movies and was the first to star Roland Winters as Charlie. It’s also the first time I’ve seen him in the role and, although I was expecting to be disappointed by the performance after all those “beyond excellent” portrayals by Warner Oland and the “more than competent” performances by Sidney Toler... I wasn’t expecting to be quite this disappointed. Although some (but not all) of that disappointment might well be shouldered by the less than perfect script which has been absconded with by... oh, wait, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

So... to smooth in the transition from Toler to Winters, Monogram have retained the services of Mantan Moreland “funny comic black stereotype” Birmingham Brown and “Number Two Son” Victor Sen Young (who has, for some bizarre reason, had his first name changed from Jimmy to that of number three son Tommy... WHAT?). However, they don’t get much to do on this show because... oh well... time to get to it then...

The Chinese Ring is a not very clever re-make (it even uses the same writer’s ever so slightly altered screenplay... and I mean “slightly”) of Mr. Wong in Chinatown from 8 years previous. My review of that little classic is right here. The thing is... this is really using the same script with just a few minor adjustments to get Moreland and Young in it... the original version’s equivalent characters of “bumbling police Captain” and “plucky but irritating female screwball comedy reporter” are still in place in this version and still doing all the things they did the first time around... so Moreland and Young really don’t have much to do in this one and their screen presence is kept to a minimum.

Winter’s Chan is somewhat less charming than the two previous actors. He is a consummate professional and you can see him “in character”, hanging on every word and deed of all the other characters in a scene... but the fact that you notice just how intently concentrated he is, when you know the real Chan would have had all that info sluicing into the back of his head while his real mental processes were hard at work trying to solve the crime, is enough to single this guy out as a “fake Chan”. At least in this one. Now it might not be his fault of course... this feels like a really hastily assembled rush-adaptation of the earlier script and as such, the different personality of Karloff’s Mr. Wong character may be what Winters is inadvertently channelling in this performance... I just don’t know. I’d have to see more of the Roland Winters Chan films and, as far as I know, this is the only one which is commercially available on DVD.

Added to this we have a script from one of the better Wong films which is not a shadow of its former self. Sloppily brought to the screen from a studio which is more than living up to its cheap-ass reputation on this one. There are some nice chiaroscuro effects with the lights and darks in some of the shots but mostly the camera work is uninteresting and pedestrian on this one and in no way saves or even helps the film. This is my least favourite Charlie Chan film so far... at least all the others I’ve seen had Oland or Toler in them to lighten the weight of some of the other performers. Winters might well have grown into the role for subsequent adventures and made it his own in some way but until I can get to see those... I’ll just have to reserve judgement on his competency to play Charlie Chan.

Move along folks, move along. Nothing to see here!

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Doctor Scrooge

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
Airdate: December 25th 2010. UK. BBC1

There’s some things, over the years, which have become part and parcel of the whole “Christmas Phenomenon”. You need the big iconic stuff to ensure things go smoothly and usher in the real spirit of Christmas. Turkey... check. Tree... check. Crackers... check. Socks... oh yes. And then, of course, there’s the new annual event that seems to have become almost as equal in stature over the last few years as those traditional stalwarts and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. I am of course referring to the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special. Something I always look forward to.

Now my track record of enjoyment with the Christmas specials has been a bit hit and miss over the years with, perhaps, my absolute favourite one being the Victorian Cybermen story, The Next Doctor. That, to me, is everything I wanted in a Doctor Who Christmas story... but the following year I had rather a time of it. Not only did my favourite Doctor, next to Patrick Troughton, regenerate (in part two of the special) but I thought the last two Tennant episodes, broadcast over the holiday period last year, were easily the worst episodes of Tennant’s wonderful reign as the Doctor. I’m telling you this so you can put my comments on this years offering in perspective... since so many people loved those last two episodes of the Tennant era, this may mean I am not to be trusted as a reviewer of these kinds of things.

However, if you’re still with me... lets take a look at this years offering, which came with all the ballyhoo of a “star cast”. The star cast being the wonderful actor Michael Gambon, who I at least knew, and the singer Katherine Jenkins... who seems to have slipped off my radar completely because I had no idea who she was until reading the pre-publicity articles on this years Chrimbo show.

The premise of the episode was Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, but instead of using three ghosts to influence the way the Scrooge character thinks, The Doctor goes back in time and befriends the scrooged up Kazran Sardick earlier in his life and as Gambon watches from a very-tricky-to-explain “live-feed”, his memories of his life change and his cold heart thaws... which is what it needs to do if The Doctor is going to be able to stop Amy and Rory and a host of other passengers from crashing into the planet. However, of course, the changing of Sardick means the parameters of the original solution to the problem also change and after all this happens, a new and last minute means needs to be discovered to save our heroe's companions. This comes in the form of Katherine Jenkins who sings a bit and this somehow allows the starship to land safely (oh, look, I was never much good at paying attention to the scientifiction gobbledy gook that passes for physics in these situations... just go with it). It’s by no means a happy ending because the Jenkins character has been thawed out to live her last day to do this... but her death scene is kept off camera so we can all go out feeling Christmassy anyway... kind of Stephen Moffett’s bitter pill of consequence snuck in and left dangling at the final curtain.

So did I like it? No, but it wasn’t too terrible and I really enjoyed the first half. The trouble with setting up such a strong premise from the offset (and then bloody hyping it to all and sundry before it airs) is that it’s already stuck firmly in your mind and you can imagine all kinds of exciting ways of doing this stuff which are in all likelihood, not going to happen. As it got nearer to the end it kinda got a bit, I dunno, locked in and predictable but as always with Moffett’s writing, it’s getting there in style that counts.

Moffett does an admirable job as does Matt Smith. With Amy’s strong personality absent for most of the episode (which is a shame since she’s my favourite character of late), the brilliant Matt Smith comes into his own and shines and lights up the screen - and he even holds his own with consummate professional Michael Gambon, which is no mean feat. Jenkins does well too and there are some amazing images of flying fish, flying shark and a Christmas sleigh pulled by dolphins which are great little Whovian moments. And it was lovely to see the BBC attempt to stir up some trouble again by having Amy Pond back in her kissogram police uniform for her... um... honeymoon activities (with Rory back in Roman Soldier costume).

Murray Gold’s music, too, was great. Lots of nods to the Matt Smith sub-theme and lots of musical Christmassy cliches to give it that special lift but I do question Silva Screen records wisdom in their scheduling the album release of this score for February. Honestly people... who wants to listen to a Christmas album in February? Why not schedule the release for November when everyone’s going to be back in the mood?

All in all, not my favourite Who Christmas special but certainly not the disaster that some members of my household were portraying it as (that’d be everyone but the dog and me then). I think a lot of people will like this one because, whether you think the episode lacked the necessary oomph or not to lift it onto another level, it certainly went a long way to capturing the spirit of Christmas without compromising Who continuity... and that’s really all it needed to do, I think.

Monday 27 December 2010

Tron Voyage

Tron 1982 US
Directed by Steven Lisberger
Disney Region 2

Tron was a well hyped movie when I was a teen. I remember all the furore over the “ground-breaking” computer animation effects which, way before the movie even opened, had ushered in expectations from people all over the world that any movies which were dealing with “cutting edge” themes like computer games would, from now on, look “exactly like Tron.” No! Really! In the early 80s computer games really were thought of as cutting edge! This was only four years after the birth of Space Invaders don’t forget... and people’s jaws were dropping and their eyes were popping out of their heads at just seeing little pixilated blobs invading your lone defender of the earth at the bottom of the screen. Tron was like the ultimate that special effects movies could achieve or ever could achieve as far as pretty much everyone on the planet was concerned. This was way beyond what most people had even dreamt of.

And it was a movie that seemed to be on everyone’s lips in the media. I even remember much loved Radio and Video DJ/comedian Kenny Everett giving it a good review and admitting he’d liked it so much on pirate video the year before, that he was even going to go and see it again at the cinema when it was released - can you imagine the kind of stony silence that would follow a comment like that on British TV today? But these were the days when all the local kids in the UK had seen E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial on video almost a year before it was released in the cinemas over here. So it was a comment very much of its time... just like Tron was and is, very much a movie of its time.

And of course, in all this hype you can bet that not too much mention was made of the plot or, more obviously, the narrow skeleton of one on which to hang state-of-the-art special effects. Nor was the premise of a man being sucked into a computer and interacting with the “little men inside who are programs and run the computer” considered as any way näive. Back then, computers were still very much of a mystery and, even though most kids had started getting ZX Spectrums, BBC Micros or Commodore 64s in their homes, the adults who were not at school attending the quaintly named Computer Studies lessons had no idea what was in these little black and white boxes... as their kids used the latest technology to make a little animated miner jump around bizarre little platforms grabbing keys while trying hard not to get captured by a penguin or some other, less obvious animated nemesis of the main character.

So nobody thought much about the plot when we all finally went to see Tron at the cinema. I watched it again the other week in preparation for the new one and I have to say that... um... certain parts of it haven’t aged all that well. The acting is very uneven with most of the cast such as David Warner and Bruce Boxleitner (in the title role) acting very wooden and, supposedly, what high tech programmers would presumably act like in the eyes of the post-Asteroids public. Contrasted against this is Jeff Bridges acting style which is, in this one and to be fair and polite to the man who has turned out to be one of the great actors of his generation, a little over exuberant to say the least. But this is what "hackers" were supposed to be like, right? All Han Solo with a modem instead of a blaster.

All in all, there’s not much plot to spoil here, hence the lack of my usual warning. Bridges’ character Flynn goes into the computer and with the aid of Tron, they ride light cycles and battle to save the computer world from an evil programme who wants to control all computers in the “real” world and subvert humanity to its binary-encoded will. Sparkly special effects showcasing the latest Disney animated effects are what the story is all about and, even in the publicity leading up to its first screenings, this was in no way played down or even thought of to be an inherently bad thing for a movie like this to aspire to... and nobody really minded at all to be honest.

So how does it hold up today? Well lets just say that it’s not worn too badly... but it has aged and parts of it are very clunky. Some of those “new computer age of mankind” effects still look great... and some of them actually look surprisingly ropy and very much in the style of standard Disney animation - but that’s not something which would have been noticed at the time because even that animation was pretty good for contemporary expectations of the other stuff and the subtle differences are just not something we were, as a collective audience, sophisticated enough to notice at the time. Films do change over the years because of the way we, as a society, bring ourselves to the experience of viewing a movie (hence the phenomenon of nostalgia) and when you look at Tron today you have to remember it in the context of the film’s original audience if you are going to find anything worthwhile in it. I watched it again the other week with the memories of being a part of that original audience who experienced it in cinemas and even I was disappointed by a few sequences in the movie which just don’t hold up to closer scrutiny these days.

Also, the film has a kick ass score by composer Wendy Carlos (who pioneered the use of electronic music as a classical instrument in the days when s/he was Walter Carlos and churning out ground breaking albums like Switched on Bach... readers here might best remember her for her contributions to Stanley Kubrik’s films A Clockwork Orange and the powerful and terrifying music from the opening sequence of The Shining). It’s a shame that the studio hasn’t tapped her to provide the score for the sequel... I’ve got nothing against Daft Punk (don’t know their music) but it would have been nice if some of the leitmotifs from the first movie were retained for the new one.

All in all though, Tron is a big, dumb effects movie from a time when Star Wars had inadvertently created a celluloid environment where special effects were reason enough to go and see a movie, regardless or plotting, pacing, acting or editing. It does pretty much what it’s supposed to and if you're retro enough to appreciate it in spite of its more obvious flaws then you’ll probably have a blast with it.

As for the new sequel... well I’m looking forward to it. I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be a big, dumb effects movie with a silly plot and some irrational leaps of faith required of the audience but... so what! This kind of movie has it’s place. I’ll be going to see it soonest I can.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Western Promise

The Warrior's Way 2010 New Zealand
Directed by Sngmoo Lee
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning! The path of the true swordsmen is filled with many spoilers. Tread with caution

I’d not heard of this movie until the day before I actually ventured out to my local cinema to take a look at it. I think that pretty much says everything about how bad the marketing has been on this one. Some movies just aren’t given the push they need to get them to the audience’s attention. I was lucky enough to see it listed locally and sought out a trailer on the internet... People! It’s about an Asian assassin swordsman who relocates to the Wild West! This is, frankly, a marketing no brainer. All you need to do is mention Shaws Bros style swordplay and The Wild West and pretty much everybody who’s even vaguely interesting in the trappings of the genre of either of these two movie styles will come and see it! Sort yer Marketing out!

Ok... rant aside, Eastern Swordsman movies and Western films have been feeding off each other in a cannibalistic but nurturing way like Ouroborous eating its own tail, almost since the two genres co-existed together. Well, ok, I can’t speak from the early days of cinema because Japanese cinema was really not put onto the international map until Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion (almost by accident) at the Venice Film Festival back in 1951. Certainly, some of Kurosawa’s movies were “adapted” into remakes (some may say that Sergio Leone “absconded” with his remake) as various westerns over the years - Rashomon as The Outrage, Seven Samurai as The Magnificaent Seven and Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars - but Kurosawa was the first to admit that he was, in himself, inspired by the movies of John Ford (one of his directing heroes) and certainly his films seem to be seen more in his home country as having a more distinctly Western rather than Eastern flavouring to them.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the two, in their broadest terms, Eastern Martial Arts/Japanese Samurai and Hollywood/Spaghetti Western genres started to cross over in movies such as The Stranger and the Gunfighter and Red Sun. Their have been a fair few of these over the years and it’s about time we had another one I guess. The Warrior’s Way is really no different from any of these in the one key ingredient that a lot of these kinds of films have in abundance... it’s a fun movie.

That being said though... the way the mixed genres blend together in this one are, certainly until you get used to the idea of the fluctuating, deathly morbid tone mixed up with sequences of high comedy, more a little “oil and water” rather than “milk and cornflakes”. That is to say, the uneven kind of tone is something that I think a lot of people will find a little uncomfortable to deal with on this one and perhaps the audience a little less accepting. Not me though. I thrive for unusual combinations of elements in movies so this one was a joy to watch because it was handled quite competently despite the mash-up (in the parlance of our times) of emotional tones.

The movie opens with the lone swordsmen slicing up the “worlds greatest swordsmen” and thus inheriting this title but then refusing to kill the last surviving member of his clan's enemy clan, a small toddler. Instead, he “adopts” said small toddler and “boats it” to settle in a small, almost deserted Wild West town where a circus troupe are building a big wheel to try to attract interest back to the dying town.

And it’s at that point that the film takes it’s main departure from all that preceded it because, although some of the intertitling in the opening sequence has got a humerous bent in it’s use of repitition, the tone is, for the most part, deadly serious. When our hero reaches cowboyland, however, we end up in heavily cliched Western comedy time for a bit as he becomes the local laundryman and a larger than life cowgirl played by Kate Bosworth hams it up in a “funny cowgirl” routine that’s so over the top that you’ve not seen anything like it since Doris Day played Calamity Jane. Once you can get past this clash of sensibilities, however, it’s very easy to kick back and enjoy the on-screen action for what it is... until the revenge motives from “funny cowgirl” are brought in to give the movie a more darker edge in the form of the incomparable Danny Huston playing one of his typically nasty, and he is really nasty here, villains. When his character returns and is marginally defeated but gets away from our heroic townsfolk, he has fully taken on the mantle of this movie’s Eli-Wallach-coming-back-to-terrorise-the-small-Mexican-village-protected-by-the-Seven character. Which he, of course does, but not before our “worlds greatest swordsman” and “funny cowgirl” have the chance to develop a romantic attachment and for our hero to teach Kate Hudsons character how to throw her knives properly and a few “knife someone up good” skills along the way (knifing up someone good skills being a classic requisite of every hate-filled, vengeance hearted cowgirl, of course).

As the final battle commences though, the inevitable happens and our hero’s clan of ninja trained assassins turn up to join in the fight and battle both warring factions in an effort to kill our hero and the toddler surivor of the enemy clan. The film almost finishes as you’d expect it to but instead of settling down with “our vengeance satisfied heroine”, "our hero" leaves the toddler with her (this is not Lone Wolf and Cub territory we're in here by a longshot) and goes to travel the four corners of the globe because he knows his clan will always be after him... which is illustrated in an almost jarring scene at the end of the film where a load of his clan members turn up to destroy him again... an unresolved scene reminiscent of the final scene in the movie adaption of the classic Dead or Alive beat-em-up computer game series (I think I was the only person on te planet to like the stupidity of that movie).

All in all, though, it’s a nice, gentle little film that deserves a lot more audience attention than it’s getting. I’d read some bad word of mouth on the movie via the internet but I thoroughly enjoyed it and although the audience in the cinema with me at the time wasn’t exactly a large one, they seemed to be really lapping it up too (“four stars out of five” screeched an over zealous martial arts enthusiast on leaving the cinema)... if I was personally enamoured of the horrible, horrible star rating system which reviewers sometimes use as a kind of permission not to read their whole review these days... I’d maybe give it a 6 out of 10. Worth a watch if you’re into either of the styles of cinema being portrayed here.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Winded With The Gone

The Gone Away World 2008.
Written by Nick Harkaway.
Windmill Books.
ISBN: 9780099519973

Nick Harkaway’s first novel (so far), The Gone Away World is not the kind of book I would normally pick up these days. Sure I’m a big fan of science fiction and fantasy (among other genres) but if I’m going to read those kinds of things I usually read stuff which was either written between Victorian times and the 1960s or which is new but contains characters created within that time peroid. However, The Gone Away World was a “hard recommendation” from a person who I follow on Twitter (@flaysomewench) and since she’s such a charming poster I decided to actually listen to her and go buy a contemporary novel which didn’t feature, as their main characters, aging female morticians with their lesbian computer genius nieces, French Canadian bone experts and their Texan boyfriends or abused Swedish computer hackers with dragons adorning their body (as is my usual mainstay).

And so I read The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway and, I have to say, I’m really glad I did as it’s a really great read. The plot is a little less convoluted than I would expect from somebody who is, after all, the son of John Le Carre... but it really doesn’t matter if the basic plot and denoument are fairly simplistic because this book is absolutely oozing an absolutely joyful, playful and exuberent writing style which... even at it’s most darkest parts, grabs the attention of the reader and slowly but surely weaves a seductive spell over them.

The story is about the narrator (who doesn’t really have a name but I won’t go into that here) and his best friend Gonzo, his wife and his childhood sweetheart. The earth has suffered an apocalyptic disaster which, again, I really don’t want to spoil for you here... and it is up to our hero and Gonzo to save the world with the help of their ex-army buddy truck drivers. Once this set up has been established the story switches to flashback mode (just like a 1970s Marvel comic would do) and tells the story of our two heros as they grow up, fall in love, join the army and do all kinds of stuff which eventually leads you back to the “saving the earth” narrative thrust which started the tale... before splitting off again on a darker and more serious track where the stakes have been significantly raised (on the personal front) and the danger is ratcheted up to “what-the-fuck” level.

In tone, the book is somewhat a kind of a literary equivalent of Sergio Leone’s last movie Once Upon A Time In America (can’t speak for the novel that Leone’s masterpiece was “adapted” from as I haven’t read it)... except it’s more like Once Upon A Time In America with kung fu, ninjas, the art of dangerous driving and deadly mimes all mixed together with the horrors of war. And as postmodern and confusing as that sounds, it’s really no bad thing.

For a lot of the first couple of thirds of the novel I was getting kind of worried because the “twist” of one of the characters is actually quite well telegraphed in that the character’s origins seem very deliberately buried behind the writing style... I was expecting a major dissapointment when a certain twist was finally revealed. But here, Nick Harkaway has proven himself quite sure footed in his timing of this twist... he knows that a large section of his readers are going to figure out the true nature of the novel’s narrator... so instead of leaving it until the end where most writers would put it, he actually reveals that twist about two thirds, maybe three quarters, of the way through and then uses the reaction of that twist by all and sundry as the springboard for the last sections of the book. So even though I’d figured out that twist and had it listed as an option since the very early chapters of the book, I wasn’t that dissapointed as he’s using it to go somewhere with the story.

At some point towards the end, the story may get, perhaps, a little formulaic in its wrap up, but frankly the writing style is so friendly and quirky and readable that it doesn’t matter that the end game maybe owes more to mid-70s Saturday prime-time action TV than it does to any nobler influence. And I must stress that aspect because if you were to do a movie of this novel it would probably turn out as something quite pedestrian and boring at 24 frames per second because even a voice-over narrative wouldn’t have the time to give even a close impression of the densely packed in wit and intelligence which is the bedrock of the novel.

So I am, seriously, glad I decided to give this novel a go because it turns out that, in the way he tells the story rather than the actual content of that story perhaps, Nick Harkaway is a bit of a writing genius. And I’m grateful to have a new writer who’s books I can look forward to whenever they come out. Hope the next one doesn’t take too long to arrive!

Monday 13 December 2010

Cthulhu Dawn?

Monsters 2010 UK
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning! Monstrous spoilers will ensue.

Monsters is an unbelievably low budget movie of something like $10,000 and as such, should be applauded by all fans of cinema in general for making something that has elements which feel like they belong in a bigger budget effects movie. It has a certain beauty and proclivity towards heightened suspense, however, that in some places makes it feel a little like the writing and cinematography is trying hard to hold the knowledge of that budget from its audience.

These are the facts.

A meteor or something landed on Earth and set up an “infected” zone which is placed in military quarantine from the rest of the world. There is an extraterrestrial presence (and these things are very Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos in appearance) being contained as much as possible in that zone... and so right away you can see the set up is very similar to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s brilliant sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic (and the subsequent movie adaptation, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker).

The similarity pretty much ends their though as a reporter has to get his bosses daughter, who has received an injured arm in an unspecified manner by a monster attack during the opening of the film, across the borders out of Mexico (where the "infected zone" is) and back to the US before the exits are closed in the next day or so. Unfortunately, after bonding to a certain extent and with all their money gone on unusable tickets due to the daughters passport being stolen, they are forced to pawn her engagement ring to get passage on boat and then foot across the “alien monster infested zone” to get back to the US.

And that’s the basic set up... and it’s a really nicely shot and competently acted movie but... for me it also has its problems... or rather one major problem... which is the ending. But I’ll get to that soon.

The movie is pretty much a road movie through a jungle and as such, it reminded me of no less than one of Werner Herzog’s old classic “travelogue” movies like Agguire, Wrath of God. Especially on the first leg of the trip by boat. At one point on that trip we even see a boat that’s been tossed up into a tree (presumably by a creature) which seemed to me to be an almost deliberate echo of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Is Edwards referencing Herzog here? My guess is yes.

There are a couple of little set pieces involving an aircraft being tossed about from below a river by a monster and another where our two main protagonists are being escorted by a military like unit of armed men across the forbidden zone and they all get “monstered up” and only our two heroes survive. And everything leads to the point when they get to the wall that marks the end of the “infected” zone and re-enter America. You’ll get there way ahead of them in realising that, by the time they get to the suburban town on the other side of the wall it’s totally deserted (apart from a crazy shopping trolley lady who delivers perhaps the only genuine “jump” of the movie).

There are a few ways this film could have ended. All the way through the movie, the bosses daughter who you know survived an alien attack at the start has been checking out her arm. This coupled with the talk of the alien fungus spreading and growing and the talk of the infected zone made me assume that the girl would at some point pop free from her skin and become a raving alien monster... infected by an alien bite received during the credits sequence... sadly this doesn’t happen.

What is really needed though, in a film which has been truly competent at making you fairly edgy and cautious of these beasts... is some kind of extended fight/chase sequence lasting 10-15 minutes where the movie makes good on it’s threat, so to speak. You can maybe blame my Western outlook on the need for a horror/action punchline at the end of the film but, frankly, you’d be barking up the wrong tree with me on that one ‘cause I love movies which lead you to an understated place you’re not expecting. However, with the way monsters has been set up with all the graffiti on the walls and the news reports to remind the audience of the threat of their existence to humanity... I think they really needed to deliver some big set piece at the end. What we get instead is a vaguely suspenseful sequence with a tentacle groping blindly around our heroine in a shop (a scene which has been done to death in dozens of movies and which was taken to the extended, height of boredom in Spielberg’s tepid take on The War of the Worlds) followed by a sequence where we get to see two alien Cthulhu look-alikes having sex. Yeah, I get that we’re supposed to go away thinking...oh that’s really great... I really liked the ending of Encounter at Farpoint the first time around so I’m happy to see a rerun of it at the cinema... but not me I’m afraid. They really needed a run, jump and scare sequence to live up to audience expectations on this one I think... and it really doesn’t go there.

That aside though... it really is a beautifully shot film... so if you have a hankering for seeing something like one of those old Herzog pseudo-travelogue movies or maybe something a little similar to Apocalypse Now... but with no action set pieces and something perhaps a little less alien than Marlon Brando... check out the Monsters. You may just find yourself having a really good time!

Thursday 9 December 2010

Machete Junction

Machete 2010 US
Directed by
Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez
Screening at UK cinemas

Travel in your mind with me to the dim and distant past... back to those heady and pre-recession days of 2007 when life was good. That year, stateside only, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino decided to unleash on the, fairly, suspecting public their new combined movie with trailers... Grindhouse!

The concept was simple... to make two trashy movies (one each) in the style of the old 70s American exploitation films of the 70s and in between their would be some equally retro-trailers (made specifically for the movie) by other guest directors. The idea being that a knowing post-modernistic audience would lap it up!

Unfortunately the reality of the situation was that Grindhouse did badly... really badly. So badly, in fact, that it didn’t get a proper release here in the UK! Instead, Miramax decided to just release the two separate movies with a few additional scenes and only leave on a couple of the trailers. Tarantino’s second half, Death Proof, was released first as he is a bigger name to tag your marketing on. Rodriguez half, Planet Terror, was released a month or two later to much less fanfare. Unfortunately, I don’t think the producers realised what they had in these two films. I was lucky enough to see the full version of Grindhouse on DVD way before it even got a release in cinemas in the US... hey, the offer was there and I took it since there was umming and ahhing over any release at all at the time.

Rodriguez' half was brilliant and that’s because he kinda exceeded his brief, in my opinion. He didn’t make a Grindhouse movie, he made a movie that tipped its hat to the Grindhouse style while at the same time playing with it and looking back on it with affectionate nostalgia... and it really worked as a fun experience at the movies. The normally wonderful Tarantino fulfilled his brief perfectly. He made a perfect, fake US exploitation movie exactly as it would have been made at the time. Unfortunately, what people failed to remember is that a lot of these movies were just plain dull affairs with an unsatisfying conclusion. And, in my humble opinion, on this occasion this is exactly what Tarantino made... a dull movie with an unsatisfying conclusion.

However, a silver lining to join the brilliance that was Planet Terror. One of the trailers on Grindhouse was for Machete... a made up film starring Danny Trejo as a machete wielding avenger of justice to help the Mexican people and free them from the oppression of the government. Three years on, Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez have made that movie... again in the retro-rose-tinted, nostalgic Grindhouse style and... frankly... it’s a really great time at the cinema.

Trejo’s ex-cop Machete is deadpan, supermacho and funny all at the same time “Machete Don’t Text!”. The movie contains unparalleled levels of goriness and mayhem and deserves to be seen by anyone who has an inkling of the kind of movies that this film is trying to ape. And that powerful cocktail of humour and violence makes you kind of giddy while you’re watching it. For example, a deliberately obvious set up line about a man's intestines being 60ft long gets a wonderful pay off a few minutes later in a spectacular escape from a hospital where Danny Trejo... well, I don’t want to give too much away... let’s just say that if you combine internal organs with Douglas Fairbanks style stunts you get a guaranteed laugh!

This film has a lot on offer too: a topless Lindsay Lohan who has sex with the title character and her own mother at the same time for her web page and then gets into a whole shotgun wielding nun kick. A gun toting priest played by Cheech Marin (this film offers you the crucifixion of Cheech people) and the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba and Steven Seagal all sharing considerable amounts of screentime together. And then, to top it off, Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of an underground Mexican resistance, SHE! As opposed to Che I guess.

All I can say is... if you liked what Rodriguez did on Planet Terror, Machete ups the ante somewhat and frenetically delivers the kind of thrills and chills that people would very much have liked to see as the second half of the Grindhouse experience from 2007. If you’re going to go and take a look at this bloody eye candy, do it quick as it already seems to be on its way out at the cinema. Oh, and if you do, make sure you stay for the announcement of the next two movies in the series after the “rides off into the sunset” shot has faded.

This reviewer will review these movies too in Machete Junction Kills and Machete Junction Kills Again!

One last thing... make sure you check out @filmforagers art piece inspired by the movie. You can also buy it on etsy right here...!

Also... check out @filmforagers own review of Machete here...

Sunday 5 December 2010

Russian Around Sweden

The Sacrifice 1986 Sweden
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye Region 2

You know... I have hundreds, maybe thousands, of favourite movies and a fair few favourite directors. I look at all kinds of movies which run the gamut of styles of what some people might like to consider “high art” films right down to what some people might say is the trashiest of trash movies. And there’s certainly no argument that all those different kinds of films exist and emit a certain aesthetic sensibility which allow for such mind-numbingly obvious categorising to take place.

As for me though... I don’t discriminate. Any movie from Fellini to the lowliest porn movie is an artistic experience. Any movie where even the most basic artistic decisions like “where do I put the camera?”, “which direction do I point the camera?”, “do I turn some lighting on?” etc are demonstrating at least a very basic artistic sensibility in their creation and therefore, to this raggedy old viewer anyway, they are a piece of art.

You may argue, if you like, that some demonstrate the difference between good and bad art - and I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that as long as you will also be as good as to remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we all respond to things differently. But I don’t negotiate with terrorists who insist that any one kind of movie is inherently better than another. They can try to argue that stuff with me if they like but I’ll firmly stand my ground, restate my argument and happily leave them to play those games with more gullible viewers than I.

I’m happy to play favourites, however. And so I can unhesitatingly say that there are two directors, both sadly no longer with us, whose work I prize more than any others and if I was somehow forced to stick my neck out on the subject then I’d happily argue that these two have probably produced only what could be described as the greatest cinematic art of our time. The two film-makers who pretty much make a “masterpiece” with every film they turned their hand to. Those two directors are Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky and, again, if I was in the neck-sticking game then I’d really have to say that Kurosawa is my personal favourite... but Andrei Tarkovsky, the poet of the cinema, is certainly a very close second on my list of the greatest celluloid artists.

Now Tarkovsky had a troubled life. He struggled to make films in the Soviet Union with many films taking him ages to complete because of the oppressive system of making movies in Russia at that time. In fact, in his lifetime he made only seven feature length films (8 if you count his final major student film The Steamroller and the Violin which is really worth a look) and there was a lot of artistic struggle and turmoil going on pretty much for all of those as far as I can make out. His last two movies were not made in Russia. The excellent Nostalgia was shot in Italy and completed with money from Italy after Mosfilm withdrew from the project. By the time he had finished preparing his last film ready to begin shooting in Sweden, he had decided he was defecting and he never went back to Russia again. His son was not allowed to join him but he was released from the country to visit him in hospital in Paris after his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer... his son also had to pick up some of the many awards which this last film won. Tarkovsky shot The Sacrifice in 1985 but died at the age of 54 on December 29th 1986... the same year The Sacrifice was released in the cinema.

Now it’s been a couple of decades since I last/first saw The Sacrifice. It was never my favourite Tarkovsky film... which is my roundabout way of saying that it’s my least favourite Tarkovsky film and certainly the one which I’d never rewatched at least a few times, unlike all his other “masterpieces”. I think I may have just been OD’d on Tarkovsky at the time because I remember seeing this and at least two others, Mirror and Nostalgia, within the same week. Mirror and Nostalgia both left an impression on me at the time but The Sacrifice left the wrong kind of impression in gentle comparison with those two.

Due to the wonderful modern English phenomenon known as “the HMV sale” I decided that the price was finally right... err... I mean I decided the time had finally come to give The Sacrifice another chance and I’m so glad I did.

It’s a long film, most of Tarkovsky’s are, and nothing much really happens (as only Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Wim Wenders do best) but, like most of his films, it’s a reflective and meditative piece of visual poetry that poses questions and inundates the viewer with little truths (not facts, truths... see Raiders of the Lost Ark for a more forceful stated distinction between the two) and allows you to gradually feel the burden and consequences of the characters as they meet the quiet challenges which permeate the depths of their being.

In The Sacrifice, a retired actor who has become a writer is celebrating his birthday. Some of his family are there for his celebration and so too is the local postman who is a good friend and who turns out to be the shrewdest and most intelligent character of the movie... like a Shakespearean jester, you know he’s the one who really has his finger on the pulse of life. During the Birthday announcements a TV newsflash announces World War Three. It’s likely that everyone will be bombed to bits very soon and that the safest thing anyone can do is just stay at home. The TV then goes dead and the reality of the situation is forcefully punctuated by the sound of jets as they fly overhead and shake the house in their wake.

The writer prays to God, for the first time in his life to reverse this war and in return he will renounce his life and never talk to his family again, his sacrifice to avert disaster (the concept of a gift always being a sacrifice is referenced earlier by the postman character). Meanwhile, the postman tells the man he can divert disaster by sleeping with one of his cleaners... who also happens to be the local witch (in one of those wonderful and astonishing Tarkovsky magical moments, you see the writer and the witch sleeping together, levitating in the air above the bed). And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about what happens to this one because if movies like this float your boat... you won’t want to know what the writer does the next morning.

What I will say is that all of Tarkovsky’s work is visually astonishing and, on this one, he has Sven Nykvist, Bergmans cinematographer on the movie. So you can be sure the movie looks stunning.He also has a couple of Bergman’s regular actors... but in some ways that’s neither here nor there as Tarkovsky was never a slouch for getting the absolute best out of his raw materials on set. And you’d have to be a pretty amazing actor or crew member anyway to keep up with Tarkovsky’s style of shooting and editing. Like his other films the movie is put together mostly with takes/shots lasting between 5 and 15 minutes long. You have to be very rehearsed and very skilled to be able to pull this kind of stuff off I would imagine, especially when you are following characters who start off in one location at the beginning of a shot and end up somewhere completely different by the end of the shot.

There’s no Criterion edition of this one available as yet so I went for the excellent Artificial Eye DVD which is a two disc edition. I haven’t watched the second disc yet but it’s a movie about the making of the movie and of the harrowing rebuild and reshoot of the final sequence (which I shall not spoil here and leave you to discover for yourselves). I would also heartily recommend Artifical Eye’s excellent two disc edition - The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, I wouldn’t flinch at recommending his final movie to most serious film enthusiasts. I would say, however, that if you’re not used to Tarkovsky’s directorial style, you may want to start off your journey into the poetry of celluloid with one of his more accessible films like Solaris, Stalker or Mirror. Whatever you decide to do... don’t miss out on Tarkovsky... he’s one of the greats.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Wrestle Martian Mania

Santo VS The Martians aka
Santo The Silver Mask VS
The Invasion of the Martians
1967 Mexico
Directed by Alfredo B. Crevenna
Kit Parker Films/VCI Entertainment Region 0

One of the great things about watching poorly made movies which you know are going to be bad is that your viewing choice for the next couple of hours could go either way. It could be boring, unentertaining drivel which will barely hold your interest enough to stop your eyelids from perpetually fluttering at half mast as your body struggles to stay conscious during the ordeal... or it could be so cheesy and stupid that you will just be smiling from ear to ear as the onscreen antics get more and more wild and unhinged. I’ve now seen 10 of the 52 Santo films made in Mexico between 1958 and 1982 (11 if you count the unofficial Turkish entry into the series, Captain America and Santo VS Spiderman) and I have to say that in my experiences with the movies, this entry not only falls into the latter category... it’s also my favourite Santo movie to date.

Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta aka Santo (or El Santo to give him his proper name) was a Mexican luchidor (wrestler), folk hero and actor and he plays the Santo character in all those films... although continuity between the films can sometimes be a bit disconcerting. For instance, while he is a professional wrestler in most if not allof these, he can sometimes be also a brainy scientist while at other times his wits are a little duller and he’ll have a scientist friend (as in this movie, in the form of Professor Ordorica). He usually has a romantic (and very pure in heart ) leading lady as a girl friend and they usually survive to the end of the movie where its implied that they will be marrying Santo very soon. However, they’re more often than not replaced in the movie and another future marriage proposition has usually taken their place at the opening of the next one. Little things like this mean you can never really watch the films in one continuity... unless the ones I’ve managed to get hold of are all really badly placed from one another... but I don’t think that’s the case in respect to this.

You never see Santo without his mask and he will even wear it out to dinner with his girlfriend in a posh restaurant. In the movies where you do see him unmasked, he usually is wearing an exact replica of that mask underneath to further protect his identity (likes in this one as it happens). He is usually pitted against various nefarious villains such as Dracula, the Frankenstein monster or the Mummy and he often goes it alone but sometimes shares the action and billing with a similarly masked wrestelr friend, the most prominent of whom is Blue Demon (in titles such as Santo and Blue Demon VS Dracula and the Wolfman and Santo and Blue Demon in the World of the Dead).

And they almost always feature a load of professional wrestling matches in them somehow. Most of the movies start and finish on one and then have at least one contained within the narrative. One set in Western times (one of Santo’s scientist friends does invite a time travel machine in the series but this is not mentioned in that particular movie if I recall correctly, leaving the viewer to wonder why Santo is running around in the Wild West) where Santo goes up against a desperado group of outlaw lepers, had a wrestlling ring set up in the middle of town so they could still get the wrestling scenes in (I kid you not).

This adventure is not quite as run of the mill as some of the other entries in the series as it doesn’t try to jam a leading lady into the plotline... figuring, I guess, that Santo won’t be having any ideas in the romanticising department when he has to singlehandedly fight a menacing horde of Martian invaders... and when I say horde I mean maybe 11 or 12. Also, the professional wrestling in a ring and training sequences aren’t as blatant or completely incoherent in their relationship to the plot in this one (well, at least they tried) and nor are there as many of them... although they are quite lengthy and protracted when they do crop up... as usual.

The film starts with the Martians riding to earth in their flying saucer. In this sequence it has been explained that although they are about to talk to the entire world, they have decided to speak Spanish because it is the native language of Mexico which they realise would be the best place to spearhead their “peaceful” mission with humanity (I promise you... watch it for yourself if you don’t believe me). All of the martians are blonde. Their men (except maybe the oriental actor) have big Olympian costumes and they all wear a big blond wig. They are the warrior class and, basically, they all look the dead spit of the Marvel comics character The Mighty Thor (except maybe that oriental guy). I wonder if they were not perhaps modelled on this character. The women also all have blond wigs and also some improbably sized and shaped bosoms... seriously, the word “torpedo-boat” may pass through your mind here when you see some of these gals in profile. You just want to shout at the screen and warn them in case they have someones eye out when they turn around. The girl’s role is to seduce the earthling menfolk so they can be enslaved and returned to the Martian homeworld (which is completely out of keeping with the plot but I’ll ignore that for now).

The Martians take over the world's TV sets and tell the people of earth (in Spanish), pretty much a variation of Michael Rennie’s speech in The Day The Earth Stood Still. We have so many hours to disarm ourselves of our nuclear weapons otherwise we are too dangerous to continue with our scientific progress left unchecked and the Martians will be forced to disintegrate us all. The Martians await our response.

The trouble with this, and this is really interesting for this kind of movie actually, is that nobody on the planet (as represented by reactions of various families in Mexico) takes the message of world destruction seriously and assume this is some new kind of sit-com popping up on their TV sets. The martians note this and make another broadcast, which is taken with similar humour on the earth’s part.

So the Martians visit a local soccer match, where our hero, El Santo, is training up young boys to grow into good wrestlers, and start disintegrating people with their all seeing third eye disintegrator machines on their Martian helmets. Santo fights one of them off and with this their mission changes to disintegrate the humans but first capture unharmed this magnificent specimin of humanity, The Silver Masked One, so he can return with them to Mars and be dissected.

Also, the Martian leader feels their Thor-like appearance is just too different and menacing for the people of earth to interact with and so they all get into the transformation machine to make them look more like the earth dwellers and in the hope of being less mistaken as stars of various impromptu situation comedies. After some smoke and light effects, the Martains emerge from their transformation machine looking a darn sight less transformed than I expected them to be. They’ve basically just lost the blond wigs (they’re nearly all brunette now) and changed into Greek God-like robes (indeed, they then are all renamed by the commander with famous “Greek God” names) which are just as conspicuos as the first set of costumes... but they don’t really seem to notice this.

The men are all given the job of capturing Santo. This includes a later fight scene at a church where a priest is also captured and taken back to the saucer and some bizarre religious visual metaphors involving Christ on the cross are obliquely made - and during that fight I was half expecting Santo to “tag” the priest and let him in on the fight too! The women go to seduce and lure various scientists to take prisoner for the mothership (although I couldn’t work out why).

Meanwhile, Santo and his science-genius buddy Professor Ordorica are trying to work out who all these strange people who are disintegrating humans are and what they could possibly want. This is after the Martians have already appeared on TV twice and stated their malevolent intentions... these poor aliens are just not being taken seriously at all. But don’t worry... Professor Ordorica has a theory that these attackers might be here “from another world” (finally!) and luckily enough, he has just been tinkering around with a new portable invention which can be set to home in on the brain waves of non-humans. With another day of tinkering, he can set it to read Martian brain waves and Santo can use it to track the illegal aliens to the saucer.

The rest of the movie comprises of the Martian women succesfully capturing scientists, women, children and sci-fi novelists (they said what now?) and slinging them in pokey inside their mothership. Meanwhile, the Martian manhunters themselves keep trying (and failing) to out-wrestle Santo and capture him. Instead he captures one of their teleportation belts and teleports to their saucer to rescue the prisoners... which is a bit of a waste of time really, considering the Martians plan all along was to capture him and teleport him to their flying saucer... but what the hey, more non-ring wrestling action was probably needed to pad out the love interest-less script.

In a failed jailbreak attempt in the movie, the sci-fi novelist pulls a big solitary lever at the front of the control room. “No! Stop him!” says the Martian leader. “If that lever is pulled down, the saucer will explode.” If you’re getting the feeling that this subtle scene was trying to get across a vague plot point then you may be right... although why the extra-terrestrials would have a big lever which when pulled explodes their method of transport displayed prominently in their control room is anybody’s guess.

Sue enough, when Santo gets on board the mothership, he rescues the prisoners and then pulls the lever, jumping and running from the saucer just in time to get clear of the explosion which destroys all the Martians. The end is all rather understated and downplayed which lends it a certain gravitas to underline the fact that Santo had to destory these Martians ambasadors of peace (who wanted to kill us for having nuclear weapons) rather than be free to negotiate with them.

Not much I can say after all that. Out of all the Santo movies I’ve seen so far, this was the least typical but also the most enjoyable. There’s some really stupid stuff on offer in this one and if you’ve never seen a Mexican wrestling movie and have a hankering to do so then Santo Vs The Martians is a really good place to start. Tag a copy today!

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Ornella Day's Work

Oasis of Fear aka Dirty Pictures aka An Ideal Place To Kill
1971 Italy/France Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Shameless Screen Entertainment Region 0

Please note: An oasis of spoilers await you in this review.

Umberto Lenzi’s a bit of a legend as Italian directors go. Perhaps more notoriously remembered for a couple of his ventures into the puzzling (to this reviewer) genre of cannibal movies with such dubious classics as Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox, he’s actually a bit of an all rounder. Whether you take that to mean he’s a skilled director at whatever he’s turned his hand to or whether you take that to mean he’d try his hand at anything is up for you to decide. All I know is in that some of the movies I’ve personally seen of his (such as Violent Naples, Seven Blood Stained Orchids or Spasmo) have all got that certain high quality look to the shot composition which I’ve come to associate with Lenzi and shout them out as movies to take a look at... if just on a purely visual level.

Oasis of Fear is a quite entertaining entry into what I call the “almost-a-giallo” genre of film making. Here, you won’t see corpses piled high or violent and gory deaths (that makes a change then), but there is a murder at this film's manipulative core and, if you’ve never seen the film before, you might even find yourself surprised at the direction this one takes.

This one has Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Murder Rock) and Ornella Muti (Princess Aura herself from the 80s version of Flash Gordon, Chronicle of a Death Foretold) as young teen lovers, Dick and Ingrid, who seem to be stripping off and single-handedly shoving their newly found, sign of the times sexual freedom into the faces of their fellow men at every chance they get. After making loads of money for their holiday by reselling pornographic magazines and then spending it all again, they go into the home-made market and start selling nude photos of Ingrid herself to keep them going on their road trip across countries and out of the path of “the law”. They come across an “oasis” (actually just a big house with some grounds) when they run out of petrol and the woman who lives their is at first hostile to their absconding with some of her petrol but things take a curious turn when she invites them to stay on with her for the night.

The movie continues with scenes of debauched revelry, nakedness (Ornella Muti guys!) and quite harshly comical 70s dancing (mind you, I tend to find most dancing highly comical, I’ll confess). If you’re an astute viewer then alarm bells will probably be going off in your head around about now as the proud home-owner Barbara (played by Zorba The Greek’s Irene Papas) attempts to divide our young lovers by sleeping with Ray Lovelock but also doing some dodgy things like making sure his fingerprints are all over the revolver in her husbands car... a man who she says she has been expecting to return home all evening.

After all these shenanigans, our two heroes of the sexual revolution finally twig that the husband isn’t just late in the time keeping sense, this little lightbulb popping up after they find his dead body in the boot of his car. They realise that Barbara has been setting the two of them up to take the fall for the murder of her husband and after some elaborate cat and mouse with her, they eventually get away with their car repainted and as much of the evidence destroyed as they can. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t stop Barbara from using these “undesirables” to take the blame for her and, in the last ten minutes of the film, the police are once again hot on the trail of our two young love birds in flight.

Surprisingly for a movie of this era, the murderess actually does get away with her crime... no last minute mistake or clever flash of inspiration from the police to moralistically pin the blame on the real culprit (I wonder if this film ever got a cinema release in the UK back in the 70s... my guess is probably no).

What is, perhaps, a little more typical of the time is the final minute or so of the film where Dick and Ingrid, being chased by the cops, see a stray dog in the road and swerve to avoid it. Being as this is a 1970s film that road happens, obviously, to be at the top of a cliff and our two protagonists lose control of the car and end up dead in the wreck of their MG! Just to milk the poignancy of the conclusion, the final shots of their corpses and lead out is punctuated by the same cheesy pop song which has been following our heroes around all over the film... but, you know, it kinda gets its message across.

So is this movie worth a watch? Well, as long as you don’t expect any deep messages to be imparted from its quirky moral centre, this film is definitely a fun ride from the start right through to the end credits. It’s got funky, 70s Italian music, Ray Lovelock in a Union Jack shirt (or should that be Union Flag considering he’s not on a boat), Ornella Muti in a distinct lack of shirt and some wildly entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) dancing. Add to this some mostly likable characters and some pretty amazing cinematography (as I’d suspect from an Umberto Lenzi movie) and I’d have to say that there are a lot worse ways of spending your money than on this peculiar thriller.

Just don’t go into it expecting high art.

As usual, Shameless have rebuilt this print from various elements to give you the longest possible, uncut version of the film (I’d previously seen a bootleg of this in its “Dirty Pictures” print and even that version was not quite as complete as this). There’s also an irreverent trivia subtitle track to watch with it if you like that kinda thing (which is something I’ll definitely be turning on next time I take this movie out for a spin). Once again, Shameless prove themselves to be a label to watch out for in this particular niche of the market. So definitely worth an upgrade if you’ve already got a version of this and you’re a fan of this particular movie.

Check out their website at

Images used with permission of Shameless Screen Entertainment.

Monday 29 November 2010

Acid Stomach

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 11 & 12: Good Bye, Sarah Jane
Airdate: November 15th and 16th 2010. UK. BBC1

Please note... danger of spoiler ingestion beyond this point.

Another year nearly over, another series of The Sarah Jane Adventures ends. Although not as good as the last few stories I didn’t mind this one so much, especially since those last few have been quite exceptional. This one did have some problems with it though.... not least of which are some loose ends in terms of character exploration which it would have been nice to have had tidied up. I suspect the shows creators might well have ended up with more footage than their alloted time on this one... either that or perhaps they’ve just elected to tug at those particular ends a little more in the next series.

So this one starts off with Sarah Jane starting to “lose it” with symptons which look mightily like accelerated alzheimers while, simultaneously a new “Defender of the Earth” is in town known as Ruby White (played by that brilliant TV actress Julie Graham who seems to be turning up in everything these days... you may remember her from the failed TV show Bonekickers, the remake series of Survivors and, on closer inspection of the IMDB, from one of my favourite TV shows of years gone by, Brond).

The set up fo this episode, backed up by a pretty blatant title, is that the BBC obviously want you to think that Elisabeth Sladen is going to be leaving the show sometime very soon and that this is some kind of handover story. This might well have worked and provided the necessary tension except that the writers kind of overplayed their hand just a little bit on this one. For example Sarah Jane’s mental deterioration was way too quick for the audience to really assume that anything other than some kind of alien, “mental facuties sucking device” was being used. I think the producers may have agreed because instead of using Sarah Jane’s tearful farewell and handing over of all her alien-busting gadgetry to Ruby White as a real cliffhanger to the end of the episode, they kept going and revealed Ruby to be a “soul sucking” evil alien who traps the heavily weakened Sarah Jane in her cellar with only her soul-eating, alien, giant sized acidic-gurgling stomach (it looks ust like The Blob) for company, while she monologues on her plans to... well, you know, destroy the world again.

The second part picks up straight after with Clyde getting marooned in an orbiting prison ship with hardly any air left in it and it’s up to Rani to save the day... which she does by calling in Luke and K-9 to help change the course of events, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow (figure of speech) and all go out for a night on the town at the end of the day... but not before setting up Ruby White as a probable returning super-villain for a future series (I’m guessing we’ll be seeing her next year).

All in all, not the best of stories but, like I said, certainly by no means the worst one to round the series off with. This fourth series has mostly been a real blast and there’s a reason why it’s now the highest rated children’s TV show not just currently... but ever (I’m guessing the Doctor Who ratings must be classed as “family” rather than “children’s” viewing to magic up those figures for this show).

Looking forward to series five next year and, hopefully, by then we will have seen the new series of the other two shows in this particular family, Doctor Who and the US continuation of Torchwood.