Monday 27 February 2012

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

Eye Society

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
aka Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
Germany 1960
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka Masters of Cinema Region 2

And so I finally come to the last of the three Fritz Lang Mabuse films... although the series was “continued” by other directors after this one, including entries by Jess Franco and Claude Chabrol in later decades.

Of course, the original Dr. Mabuse died in the previous of Lang’s Mabuse films, way back in 1933, and rather than bring him back from the dead, so to speak, Lang opts for a more realistic sequel by having a new “super-villain”, also a master of disguise, carry on in his name, this time by controlling his victims from his base in a hotel which is filled with thousands of cameras with which to watch his victims... the “thousand eyes” of the title.

This movie, at least when watching it now, seems to have little to really offer in the way of adding new or exciting elements to the mix. I am assuming that audiences contemporary to it’s initial release must have felt differently because the series really got some legs after this third installment, but there’s not much here which I can’t imagine audiences would have been that unfamiliar with... apart from an automated, revolving... no hold on... I’ll get to that soon. The murder of a man by firing at him silently from the window of another car and then leaving that car stopped at the stop light after his death as a way of hammering a point home visually, for example, had already been done in one or other of the earlier Mabuse films (and would go on to be done again in later films such as The IPCRESS File if memory serves me correctly).

I know a lot of people go nuts for what is, essentially, Fritz Lang’s final film as a director, but I found this one to be easily the least interesting of the Mabuse films I’ve seen so far (although I seem to have blotted the Chabrol version out of my memory... I think I had a severe anti-Chabrol reaction to that one at the time) and mostly I found it a little boring compared to the other two.

What I didn’t find boring, though, was Gert Fröbe’s performance as Inspector Kras, who once again is one of a smarter breed of movie policeman than you may find in other films of this nature... slow to catch the “modern Mabuse” obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t have any film, but less stupid than the way these folk are usually written in these kinds of thrillers and certainly smart enough to deduce the presence of a bomb just before it’s about to explode. Four years before playing Goldfinger in the Bond movie of the same name, Fröbe’s performance shows pretty good acting skills... nothing showy, just a character you can believe in, playing a very “aware of his surroundings” officer of the law. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was one of the movies that lead to his casting in the later Bond film and... no scratch that. I would be very surprised if the producers of Goldfinger hadn't seen this particular entry in the Mabuse series because... well I noticed something which I think might have caught the interest of the writers or producers of that classic Bond flick at the time...

In Ian Fleming's original novel of Goldfinger, the Aston Martin car (obviously not a DB5 at that point) was equipped by Q branch with various gadgets... but one of those gadgets wasn't a set of revolving number plates (with thanks to Tim Pelan aka @johnneyred for the confirmation that this particular item was not in the novel... it’s been decades since I read it). That was invented for the movie version... no wait did I say invented? Maybe I meant inspired... or put in as an homage to or, you know... craftily stolen for use in the Saltzman and Broccoli movie? For, as Mabuse is fleeing from Fröbe’s men and a police dragnet in a car chase at the end of the film, he uses the same style of automated revolving number plates as later turned up in the movie version of Goldfinger, four years later. It’s just a throw away shot and unless you did the maths then you might not think anything of it... but it’s my belief that when the casting people were screening movies of Fröbe so they could see if he was a good candidate for the role in the Bond movie, they saw a little something else they liked and nicked it for their movie too. That’s not gospel, of course, it’s just my supposition as to what happened... but I bet I’m right. I recall from various interviews over the years that a load of the Q sequence in Goldfinger was put in during extra reshoots after the initial filming was completed.

Other than this, though, there’s not a great deal going on in this movie that’s all that interesting, in my opinion and taking into account the historical context of the film. Not to say that there’s anything greatly wrong with this third entry either, of course. It’s well acted, well shot and... well... it’s Fritz Lang after all! I just thought that this movie could have been a little more than just the sum of its parts and I find this easily the weakest of the three in Lang’s trilogy. Don’t let that put you off from watching what is considered a cinematic achievement of some merit, however... and Gert Fröbe is always worth a watch.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Doctor Who - Spearhead From Space

Things I Auton Know

Doctor Who - Spearhead From Space
UK 1970
BBC Region 2

Spearhead From Space is a little landmark of a Doctor Who story because it represents a lot of nice little facts that The Doctor’s audience of obsessive statisticians can collate and attempt to talk about interestingly at parties... and for statisticians I probably mean nerds.

For instance:

1. Spearhead From Space is the very first Doctor Who story to star Jon Pertwee as The Doctor.

2. Spearhead From Space is the first ever Doctor Who story to be shot and broadcast in colour.

3. Spearhead From Space is the first story to feature the alien villain The Nestene Consciousness and their harbingers of death, the plastic Autons!

4. The Autons and the Nestene Intelligence were the first villains to be featured when Russell T. Davies rebooted the show in his first episode, Rose, and have been in stories featuring the following incarnations of the Doctor... Jon Pertwee, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. Indeed, they have become so embedded in recent years, since their initial two stories in the Pertwee era, that even the current companion Rory was turned into an Auton at one point and killed companion Amy Pond with the signature wrist opening “hand-gun” that is their primary attack when in their mannequin form.

The more interesting fact for me personally, though, is that it is also the earliest Doctor Who memory I have stuck in my head. That sequence where the shop window dummies come to life and start randomly killing people is lodged in my brain as a carry over from my 2 year old self. And I can guarantee you that when I saw it, I was watching it in black and white (there was no way we could afford a colour TV set in those days).

Revisiting it now as part of a DVD boxed set I got for Christmas, was something I was worried might be a bit of a let down after all these years. I’d recently rewatched a classic Pertwee era story The Claws Of Axos (reviewed here) and, though it was pretty good, I’d felt just a little less entertained than I’d been hoping for. This one though, I’m happy to report, is just brilliant and I was thoroughly enjoying the comedy element to the story which gave things a bit of a lift (perhaps a hangover from Troughton?) and I even managed to get through Jon Pertwee’s naked shower scene where he shows his tattoos without being too worried about where things were going.

The story is beyond simple and I won’t go into it really here... because the main story is actually secondary in some ways as to what this set of episodes needed to do. The shows makers had to set up a new Doctor, which they manage to do quite successfully by bringing back an old character from the Patrick Troughton days, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (played by the irreplaceable Nicholas Courtney) and his United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (think alien-busters). Asides from The Brigadier, they also had to set up a new regular assistant for The Doctor, Liz Shaw (as played by Caroline John), who didn’t last very long as it happened... and they furthermore had to set up the concept that The Doctor had been robbed by the time lords of his ability to pilot the TARDIS and exiled to earth so the stories could all be made on a more manageable budget by the BBC.

This is, you have to admit, a pretty tall order to do, plus keep the momentum going on a “replace humans with evil plastic clones of death” story, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s a testament once again to those good old Doctor Who writers and directors that the story is nothing but thoroughly entertaining right from the word go. There’s always something sinister about seeing things that are supposed to be inanimate objects suddenly dancing to life and terrorising people that really gets under people’s skins and the fact that the Doctor Who writers of today are still using these creations who first appeared here, over 40 years ago, really says it all about the staying power of some of the top monsters in the Doctor Who canon.

If you’ve never seen a Jon Pertwee story before, and he was The Doctor who I grew up with, then Spearhead From Space is definitely a good show to jump on with. It’s entertaining and witty, slightly sexist but only so that sexism can be challenged by a strong(ish) new female companion and it has an iconic monster in it. All good stuff and the DVD is well worth picking up if you, or your children, are in the mood for a little of the “classic old days” of Doctor Who.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Quatermass And The Pit

The Necropolis Xperiment

Quatermass And The Pit
aka Five Million Years To Earth
1967 UK Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Screening by The Flicker Club at The Vault.

Warning: Spoilers if you’ve never seen this movie but... it’s still worth reading the intro even if spoilers bother you because the location of the screening was just so interesting.

Last weekend I saw one of my favourite movies, featuring one of my favourite fictional characters, screening in what was probably the most unusual but appropriate place that this movie had ever been screened before...

In the Victorian period, getting rid of the dead was such a problem due to overcrowding in cemeterys that people would just dig corpses up, dump or toss them somewhere, and then bury their freshly deceased relative in the leftover plot. This was, to say the least, beyond unhygienic... not to mention deadly dangerous to those who had not yet shuffled of this mortal coil... and so a solution was needed. In 1854, the Victorians built the London Necropolis Railway, building this on big arched bridges to compensate from the fact that they were building this over a swamp. They built two stations in London, right next to each other, on this line: Waterloo Bridge Station (which is now, of course, known as Waterloo Station) and the other was Necropolis Station (or some such, my research here is a little hazy but I’m going by what one of the presenters to Quatermass And The Pit told the audience at the screening).

The dead would be stored (or piled up, if you like) under the arches of Necropolis Station, waiting for the “train of the dead” to whisk them away (in First Class, Second Class and Third Class accommodation for the dead, believe it or not) to the massive Brockwood Cemetery in Surrey. Groovy stuff!

And, of course, it was inside one of these very arches, where the dead would rest in what has to be the ultimate in train station waiting rooms, that we all sat and watched a screening of Quatermass And The Pit as part of The Flicker Club’s season of Hammer at The Vault (The Vault in the Old Vic Tunnels being an entertainment space underneath the former Necropolis Station). After two brilliant introductions by Stephen Jones and a gentleman whose name I can’t appear to find (think it could be Tim Wilson, but whoever it was he was brilliant) the screening began...

Now Quatermass has always been a hero to me. As a kid at the age of 8 or 9, I remember staying awake all night out of fear that Victor Caroon would come and get me after seeing the first movie remake of the first of Nigel Kneale’s four TV Quatermass serials. If you’ve never seen the movies or serials, or even heard of them before for that matter, I should probably give you a little background on them because, as one of the presenters at the screening quite rightly pointed out, without Professor Quatermass paving the way for science fiction/horror that was both truly excellent and immensely popular, you never would have got programmes like Doctor Who on television these days (Quatermass has, in fact, been referenced at least twice in the history of Doctor Who, once in a Sylvester McCoy episode set in the sixties with the daleks and, again, in the David Tennant story Planet Of The Dead, where a scientist is using “Bernards” as a unit of measurement).

I can tell you now that, when I was a little boy, my parents explained to me just how popular Quatermass was in its day. All the kids would be playing in the streets and then... time for Quatermass and the streets would empty and, believe it or not, the pubs would empty out all over Britain and, without exaggeration, the majority of the population of Great Britain would be tuned in to one or other of the three original Quatermass serials... The Quatermass Experiment (changed to The Quatermass Xperiment in its movie remake to exploit the fact that it was one of the first films in the UK to receive the X certificate), Quatermass 2 (the film was quite possibly one of the earliest... but certainly not the earliest, to denote a film by a roman numeral, as is the standard practice nowadays) and Quatermass And The Pit (which is frankly the scariest of the lot)... Kneale wrote a fourth serial which debuted in 1979 and also had a shortened movie version released in foreign cinemas (which included alternate footage and storyline to make sense of the sequences which were cut) but the character was never as popular as it was in the fifties (although the fourth serial, Quatermass aka The Quatermass Conclusion was still damned scary). I even heard that Battersea Power Station ran into trouble keeping Britain alight during at least one of the episodes of the original because so many people were switched on to it. My mum and dad also had a big rubber plant before I was born which they named Victor after the character who turns into an alien plant-like creature at the end of the first movie remake (I think the serial has a more complex ending to it... only two episodes survive of it that I’ve seen... although all the other serials are available)... including a dire remake of the original in 2005 starring Jason Flemyng and David Tennant.

The original serial of Quatermass and the Pit was obviously a lot longer than the subsequent Hammer remake and, therefore, a lot more atmospheric and spookier (in my opinion). It also starred Andre Morrel as the good professor and he did it so wonderfully, in my opinion, that to me he is the one actor who will forever be Quatermass in my mind. The movie version of this one starred Andrew Keir as the professor and Nigel Kneale, who hated Brian Donlevy from the previous two Hammer remakes, has gone on record many times to acknowledge that Keir was his absolute favourite actor in the role... so much so that when he scripted the radio serial The Quatermass Memoirs in 1995, Andrew Keir was brought back to play Quatermass some 28 years after his first time in the role.

Quatermass And The Pit, the movie version, does not, ironically, start off with builders unearthing a skull and then a large spaceship in a builder’s pit (and I have to say that it was a missed opportunity from Hammer to not include Michael Ripper from the original serial in their movie version, since Michael Ripper was in a good number of their movies, of course). Instead, it relocates the action to a tube station where another set of builders, including a blink and you’ll miss him appearance from young Gareth Thomas who would later lead the crew of The Liberator in Blake’s 7, discover the ancient skulls leading to archeologists discovering a “missing link” skeleton in the evolution of man and... well... a spaceship, which has been buried for millions of years. Since the majority of the action takes place in this station, it was particularly appropriate that we should be watching this movie while the odd train would rush noisily overhead as we watched.

The cast is fantastic, including performances by genre favourites and national treasures such as Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover and Sheila Steafal, while the script is... frankly... superb and features what was, at the time, a truly original idea...

You see, the action which takes place at Hobb’s End (Hob being an old name for the devil) has always been associated with scary and supernatural activity when any excavations or earth works have been conducted there in the hundreds and thousands of years that those particular activities have been recorded. This all, I promise, ties into the dead occupants of the spacecraft from Mars (as it turns out) who resemble giant grasshoppers and who have the power to unleash man’s race memory of a time millions of years ago when the martians adapted us genetically and left us to our own devices to interbreed etc. This race memory is still active and will cause us to purge our race, it turns out, once this ancient evil is unleashed. The spooky stuff really gets going when a guy with a specialised kind of drill tries to get into the front chamber of the spaceship with the drill and the sound vibrations start to... unleash something best left... erm... leashed. I should probably point out, at this juncture, that the guy who plays this character, Sladden, in the movie version is the same guy who played the original Victor Caroon in the 1953 TV serial of The Quatermass Experiment... another eerie connection to the past there then ;-)

The movie is very scary and hugely influential, even to this day, as you’ll find references to the Quatermass saga, and to this third story in particular, in a lot of modern movies and novels etc. The idea behind this one, you see, was not that the aliens were coming to get us or, indeed, coming to colonise us or harvest us for food... the premise on this one is much more chilling. It turns out, you see, the aliens were here all along and they were, and still are, us. Something which wows a lot of people when they see the serial or the movie version the first time around.

It’s a beautiful movie to look at too, shot in windscreen format and with some gorgeous colour schemes and camera work. It has to be said though, that in a scene depicting a “martian culling” which has been reconstructed from the brainwaves of one of the central characters, the special effects in the 1967 movie version are, quite surprisingly, not as effective as the ones in the original BBC serial from 1958... no seriously, I know that sounds daft, but they’re just not... they’re laughable, in fact. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the sheer audacity of the yarn on this one and the perfect performances and dialogue make for an absolutely rivetting movie... one which you’ll want to revisit more than once (I know I’ve seen it dozens of times by now). The ending is very deadpan and drab and basically features two shocked and tired characters in the wake of... well, an attack by the devil for all intents and purposes... you’ll have to see it to know more. This ending is very reminiscent in tone to the way quite a few of the Hammer movies from that specific period of their output ended and it suited their MO perfectly that the explanatory “afterword” scene from the original serial is not included (nor is it needed, truth be told) in this remake.

I would heavily recommend this... and indeed all the Quatermass serials and movies... to anyone interested in science fiction and horror as they always manage to be a perfect blending of the genres in an absolutely astonishingly gripping tale. Full marks for The Flicker Club for including this one in their screening.

It’s been rumoured recently that Hammer want to revive the Quatermass character and, while I’m all for doing another version of Quatermass And The Pit, I’m getting mixed feelings about this resurrection process because my understanding is they want to bring the Professor back for some new stories. Now I believe Kneale was very precious about his character when he was alive, and for good reason. I’m not sure if modern producers could pull off original stories featuring the character and, if they did, they would have to have a real humdinger of a story idea and an absolutely first class writer to see it through with anything like the dignity and aplomb that Kneale injected into the character. Still, it might make an interesting Xperiment and it would certainly revive interest in the Professor again, methinks... we shall see what we shall see.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing

Circle Of Death

Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing
aka Nemuri Kyoshiro 3: Engetsugiri Japan 1964
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Anime Eigo Region 1

There are both good and bad elements to this, the third in the Daiei series of Sleepy Eyes Of Death movies, but I certainly didn’t enjoy this one as much as the previous two entries in the series (which is strange since the same director helmed a couple of the better Zatoichi movies in my opinion).

The good elements are a story which is, perhaps, a little too formulaic and over familiar but certainly gets audience sympathies on the right side straight from the outset. Starting with a bastard heir to the shogunate going down to the underside of a bridge where the poor make their homes, simply so he can test one of the new swords in his growing collection to see if it is a good sword. Testing his sword means picking on some innocent, lowly villager and chopping his head off to test the sharpness. The villagers are outraged and scared but the son of the villager who is cut down swears vengeance on the character who will take peoples lives just to test a sword... unfortunately, this one is not only a bad swordsman and a bit of a slob, he’s also low in intelligence... as demonstrated in spades over the course of the film.

Meanwhile, the bastard heir's mother starts having all of the other heirs to the Shogun covertly eliminated so her son can inherit the title himself.

Enter, Nemuri Kyoshiro: The Sleepy Eyes Of Death, who at first seems to be unconcerned but, as you figure out soon enough, wishes to help the son of the slaughtered villager in his vengeance... more so when the despicable dealings of the main villain are apparent and his sword is a wanted collectors piece which this bad guy is trying to obtain by hook or by crook.

It isn't long before the son of the dead villager demonstrates his lack of intellect by kidnapping the little sister of the villain's girlfriend... however, he’s not a very good kidnapper and soon bonds with the girl and grows protective of her. Nemuri Kyoshiro returns the girl to her rightful home and a bond forms between him and the son of the dead villager who once again proves how stupid he is by trying to rescue Nemuri Kyoshiro after Kyoshiro has been drugged and captured by the enemy... thus necessitating Nemuri Kyoshiro to save both their skins in the ensuing chaos of his escape. After this, of course, the stakes are higher and the end game approaches...

This is all good stuff, of course but it has to be said that the storytelling is quite formulaic, variations on a theme of which have been used in many chambara including, of course, the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf And Cub movies... and there’s nothing wrong with this. However, I did find the direction and particularly the cinematography in terms of the framing of the shots and the general way in which the camera moves around the set quite pedestrian in style... more like a good, work-a-day director fulfilling his role rather than an artist fussing over the finer details. There’s one little sequence where the approach is a little more startling and it involves a fight you kind of don’t actually see properly because you’re stuck in the middle of it. It’s a sequence involving some steps... and it’s those steps... you know, THOSE steep steps which seem to be in every other Japanese movie made in the sixties and early seventies? Nemuri Kyoshiro is walking up them while a very large amount of assorted thugs with swords drawing are running down them towards him. Cut to first person and a rolling camera eye is used in a kind of hand held capacity to catch slashes of chaos unfolding... before cutting back to Nemuri Kyoshiro’s continued upwards journey while his antagonists lie dying or defeated below him. This is pretty interesting but I’m sure I’ve seen it before somewhere... maybe this director used it in one of his Zatoichi movies?

However, it has to be said, that other than that brief and intense sequence, the camerawork and general mise-en-scene are less than stunning in this third entry into the series. And I still don’t know anything about Nemuri Kyoshiro. He rarely mentions his past. It’s like you’re supposed to have read the novels before watching the movies.. so not much chance on catching up on those if there are no English translations available (yeah, I already checked... there’s one issue of a manga adaptation available and that seems to be it).

When all is said and done though, it’s still a rip roaring adventure in the Nemuri Kyoshiro series... it’s just not as sleek in the shooting and editing as I might have liked and, as such, it’s definitely my least favourite of the series so far... but still definitely worth a watch as you will be rooting for some of the characters as their plots and conspiracies lead towards a final stand off between Nemuri Kyoshiro and his opponents. Definitely don’t leave this one out if you’re a fan of this series of movies.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The Woman In Black

The Shadows Know...

The Woman In Black 2012
Directed by James Watkins
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: There are some spoilers hidden in
the muddy text of this review, just waiting to be
unearthed from their brown, sludgy resting place...

Okay... there are some pretty heavy caveats before I start on this review properly... and I might as well get the rant over with from the start. I primarily was treating this screening of The Woman In Black as kind of a “window shopping” expedition to see if it’s worth picking up the US Region 1 edition when it comes out. Why? Because Hammer, a company who I have an interest in, have totally copped out and gone for the money on this one in the UK. The BBFC were willing to allow the release of The Woman In Black completely uncut with a 15 rating on it... instead, Hammer have chosen to shear the film of some 6 seconds worth of shots (a huge amount considering I find the slashing of even a single frame an abomination to any piece of finished art) so that they could gain a 12A rating on it and catch the children’s market who are going to go out and see this film for the central star, Daniel Radcliffe (he’s the guy who plays Harry Potter in the movie adaptations of those books).

Now there’s been some criticism of this decision around the net, as the film is quite (well kinda) scary in places and there is a fear that children seeing this kind of old-school ghost story will be traumatised by viewing this. Good for them, I say. This is not the reason why I personally think Hammer’s decision is an appalling move. On the contrary, I remember the Hammer films which used to scare me as a 6 or 7 year old and kept me up all night before school with cold sweats and I see grown men and women now who are just not able to watch a simple horror film out of fear and I realise that seeing really scary movies at a young age very much arms a person to cope with real life horrors should they occur in later life... and also allows them another artistic channel from which to receive art (i.e. the horror movie). So hoorah for a culture that allows kids to be frightened and learn how to face up to their fears... I’m all for that.

However... you should never cut a movie and you should certainly never cut a movie on the flimsy attraction of financial gain. Now I know Hammer have had a long history of cutting their films pre-release due to damnable interference from the censors but in those days it was make the cuts or don’t release the movie... simple as that. Here, though, it’s a different kettle of piranha fish we're dealing with. Hammer stand to make much more money from the childrens market on this one than if they’d have released the film with a 15 rating... it’s that simple and that reprehensible in practice. Since I know I wouldn’t blind buy an uncut Region 1 US edition of the film from overseas given Hammer’s recent track record, this was the only way I could find out if the film was worth picking up on its DVD release overseas (in its hopefully unmolested and unraped original cut)... by going to the shop window/highlights screenings in cinemas over here. Because this really isn’t the film you’re watching in cinemas in the UK, so you know, just a highlights compilation version of it missing 6 whole seconds. That’s 144 frames missing people!

Ok... secondly, I should probably tell you that I am not familiar with Susan Hill’s 1983 novel on which this film is based and nor am I familiar with the various radio, TV and stage adaptations which have done the rounds since then... if I was then I’d probably be much more critical of this new Hammer version because, from what I’ve heard, it messes with the original quite a lot, taking liberties with the material left, right and centre and ultimately completely changing the end to something that, in some people’s interpretation, could be seen as a rainbow sky, happy ending to the story. It’s an ending which solves a couple of plot details and ties them up in a nice bow to make them more palatable for an audience as opposed to leaving things worse and much darker for the main protagonist at the end. I’d particularly like to have seen the TV version though, because it was adapted by Nigel Kneale, creator of one of my fictional heroes Professor Quatermass.

But I digress here... I’m getting ahead of myself and making The Woman In Black sound like it’s a bad movie... it’s really not and I think a lot of the credit for this can be laid at the door of Jane Goldman, the crimson haired, chesty wife of Jonathan Ross who wrote the screenplay to this and a few other films in recent years which have proved to be well written. She’s really on top of things again with the writing of this one and, aided by some not half bad performances, the film shines... in its own way.

Now there’s no getting away from the fact that The Woman In Black is very much an old school ghost story and, as such, it relies on every tired shock and horror trick in the book to frighten you... shadows in corridors, screams and nursery time twinkle tunes, large shifts in sound volumes as innocent creatures or objects become wrought embodiments of living peril for a few seconds before... you know... you get your breath back. However, although this movie does, as I said, make use of every horror movie trick in the book, it does so with impeccable timing and a true sense of how to edit this kind of film exactly right to milk the scares and build tension in the audience. It’s very, very well done and, as such, the director should be applauded for his efforts here. Especially when one of those fright sequences is extended out for what must be twenty minutes... just before you start getting bored of seeing suspenseful supernatural shock after shock as Radcliffe’s character wanders the house and grounds a second night... he finally gives you a breather to start setting up the slow burn tension again for a later, similar sequence.

The performances are all fine too, even from the former Harry Potter star, who I’m sure will develop into a fine and much loved character actor by the time he reaches his twilight years. And there’s some beautiful camerawork throughout with a particularly good series of sequential establishing shots in the early stages of the film involving a car journey which makes strong use on cutting on motion and dovetailing these shots in a way which is risky but is edited skillfully enough to pull off the intent beautifully... as the shots work together to pull the audience into the mindset and proximity of the characters in the car as placed in their surrounding environment.

The end, as I’ve said earlier, is much different from the source material and is largely open to audience interpretation... not for the finality or closure of the main protagonists, you are left in absolutely no doubt as to their final fate, but in terms of whether you would interpret this movie as a happy or sad ending to events. The choice is yours and it’s very much an ending that tries to have its cake and eat it at the same time. If I was being unkind I might call it almost a cop out... but it’s not such a blunt instrument of an ending to a movie and it could have been worse. Fortunately, the movie ends with a small shot which is very much an iconic, classic hammer moment... and I think it’s a moment that’s going to haunt some of the younger audience members for a while.

So should you see it? Well yeah, why not? As long as you realise that this is not the final cut as originally delivered by the director... although I’m sure the subsequent tampering probably has his blessing and he may have even made the cuts himself for all I know. If you like ghost stories then you’ll probably like this one... there’s been a lot of variants of this around at the movie houses over the past few years but this is a more than competent effort in the genre and deserves to be seen by people, like myself, who enjoy a good ghost yarn... or, you know, wait for an uncut version from foreign shores with the DVD release... it’s all good.

Saturday 18 February 2012

A Dangerous Method

Jung At Heart

A Dangerous Method 2011
Directed by David Cronenberg
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: This review will certainly contain some dangerously
heavy spoilers... and probably a few Freudian Gym Slips too!

I’ve mostly enjoyed the movies of David Cronenberg and have followed his work with great interest. Although marginalised, perhaps rightly for a while, as a horror movie director and, on top of that, a “body-horror” director (a marginalisation of a marginalisation), he has come to be a little more well respected over the last few years with releases of movies which are not obsessed with the disintegration, metamorphosis or derangement of the human body but which fall into more “popular” concerns. As this happened, the mainstream audiences and critics seemed to have been happy to have embraced him almost instantly... it’s as if they needed an excuse to let him into their club.

I’ve never thought any less of Cronenberg for being a horror director. Frankly I’ve never thought of him as anything other than an auteur... a man holding a genuine artistic vision which he uses as his goal posts to plug in various talents such as Carol Spier (who’s not with him on this production), Denise Cronenberg and Howard Shore to help him to realise his vision on celluloid (or whatever today’s nasty digital equivalent of celluloid is called). As someone trying to talk about him (or write about him and his work) here, I find it problematic that he’s moved away from horror films because his stylistic traits are much easier to tag on something like eXistenZ or Videodrome where I can lazily just point out the obvious similarities in the amorphous, fleshy environments his characters populate. Take away little “critic crutches” like this and I really need to go back and watch his movies again and dig deeper than what seem to have become merely surface details... or maybe just another phase of his career as an artist. I don’t have time to do that here though so, don’t expect much insight into his leanings from me here on this one.

One thing, however, that I did realise about Cronenberg's output while watching this one in particular, which perhaps should have been obvious to me before now (and perhaps it was and I just forget... I’m in my forties now, I do that) is that, although he certainly has a very sharp eye for the details and look of his movies, he is very focussed on performance. He wants to take the actors away from their own comfort zone and to strip away their body props and trade tricks and force them to explore the depths that his characters are reaching... and his characters do usually go right into the depths of their own dark psyches, more often than not, with the obvious luxury (seeing as he’s done so many horror movies where such conclusions are not necessarily considered box office poison by the producers) of being able to leave his characters wallowing in their own darkness, or often dead from it, at the end of the movie.

A Dangerous Method is a case in point. Keira Knightley’s performance, especially at the start of the film, is phenomenal. Yeah, yeah, okay... it could be considered oscar bait posturing (play a character with a physical or mental impairment and they’ll love you for it and awards will be falling on you out of trees) but, frankly, I found her absolute paroxyms of “out of control” emotional outrages to be really quite naturalistic and, in some instances, almost disturbing to watch... which is all good. I honestly haven’t seen Knightley attempt anything half as hard as this kind of role in the past and I think it’s a credit to both Cronenberg and his actors that they will push themselves and dive into these depths for him.

The film tells the real life story of Jung (Michael Fassbender) and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and also his relationship with Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen). Once Jung has ascertained the true nature of Sabina’s debilitating mental abberation, and pretty much cured her of this, the two embark on a sado-masochistic affair before Jung calls it off due to feelings of guilt about his wife. However, by the end of the movie and after his split with both Sabina and Freud, Jung is left alone and regretting ever leaving the woman he loved to this infinitely passionate degree for the rest of his life. Confronted by a married and pregnant Sabina towards the end of the movie, after having left her twice, he refers to her bump and says that “that should have been mine”. This movie proves without a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to the person you come alive for, whether you are already married or in a relationship or not, you choose to ignore the obvious passion of the person you are destined to be with at your peril.

It’s a very talky movie (which is fair enough since it’s based on both the play called The Talking Cure, as well as the book A Very Dangerous Method) but this is really not a problem... the screenplay is well written and interestingly, indeed, devastatingly (in Keira Knightley’s case) performed and will hold your attention if you are aware of the nature of the subject matter beforehand (I even found Vincent Kassel watchable in this... which is something that never really happens to me... maybe he’s an entertaining actor after all, I’m thinking). Basically, if you like pipes, sex, lots of smouldering (and that’s just in the male leads!) and a bit of “original” BDSM, then you are in for a treat with this one... and Keira Knightley goes topless too which is another good thing (and I’m guessing Mr. Freud might have applauded me for pointing that important fact out). Catch it while you can!

Wednesday 15 February 2012

My 400th Blog Post

You know, I still find it amazing that, a little under two years since I started writing this blog, I’ve already made it to 400 posts and, surprisingly, the majority of the reviews on here are quite sizeable at that. When I began this, I didn’t realise just how many “virtual friends” my blog would bring me, especially on Twitter where I promote each and every post... this means a lot to me. I’m not all that happy in my “day job” and my private life has been a bit shaky of late... but this blog is something I’m fairly invested in and I hope to be able to continue writing it as regularly as I have been doing over the last couple of years.

One of the more incredible things to happen to me over the last year was when I posted some cartoon artwork I did of Caroline Munro for my 300th post and she liked it enough to mention it on the front of her own official fan page for quite a while. That really gave me a lift and cheered me up no end for a long time. I’ve met Caroline in the flesh three times now, at her stall she sometimes sets up to do signings at various film fairs. In fact it wasn’t that long before I started this blog that I met her for the first time and I believe I even mentioned her in my very first post. Her website is here and it’s always worth checking out to see what she’s getting up to next.

The last time I met her was last month at the January Westminster Film Fair and, since she’d been so nice about the artwork I’d posted, I decided to go to a shop with some slightly modified (to suit the required aspect ratio) version of that artwork and get a canvass print done to give to her. I thought, at the very worst, she could hide it in the back of a shed or sell it to some mad crackpot like me and make some cash off of it. Secretly I hoped she’d hang it somewhere but I’m not known for my optimism (the older I get). So I got the artwork sorted and transferred and presented it to her in January and to my amazement, she seemed really happy to receive it... which made me happy (obviously). It’s amazing how little moments like this can sometimes cheer you on and keep you going when life sometimes gets a little harder.

Caroline also signed the page of her as “Miss November” in the recently produced Hammer Glamour calendar I was given by a friend at Christmas... was pretty thrilled by that. There’s a picture of her above holding my artwork... I still marvel at how young the “first lady of fantasy” still looks. I got a shot of myself with her too but... well, you lot won’t want to see my ugly mug plastered on this page, you’ll have to trust me on that one. The cartoon drawing top right is exposure enough. ;-)

I’ve had a few directors, producers, actors and company executives give me a few things to look at over the last couple of years and that’s been very rewarding too. I don’t always get around to doing everything I do in the timescale that I originally tell people I will... but I generally get there in the end and muddle through somehow. Still waiting for somebody to offer me cold, hard cash you can scratch a window with for something I’ve written but, maybe if I’m lucky, that may get thrown onto the table one day too... you never know.

If anyone’s got any “positive” ideas on how I can improve this blog (no, really, I mean positive ones!) then please feel free to either leave me a comment here or jump onto twitter and DM me. I’d like to do more film related design and artwork for the blog but, well I’m a designer in my day job so sometimes it’s a less than relaxing end to my day to carry on making all those tiny, detailed design decisions when my bed is waiting for me... will do my best though. And some more genuine exploratory articles which I have wrapped up in my head, as opposed to just reviews... although, to be fair to myself, I always have too many reviews to write up to ever really get around to sketching any article ideas out these days. I’ll have to se what i can come up with.

Ooh... and T-Shirts. What about T-Shirts? I had a fair amount of people looking at that artwork of Caroline Munro on my blog and was wondering if this is the kind of thing which people would like to buy on a T-Shirt. What do you reckon? Is this something you would like to see produced? Again, let me know... or, you know, head over to Caroline’s site and let her know. Maybe she could sell them from her website.

Anyway... that’s my 400th blog post done then. I seem to be watching a lot less movies these days (and barely repeat watching anything) because it takes me a while to write about each one... but “them’s the breaks” I guess. If you’re still reading this post here at the bitter end I’d like to thank you for your continued support and interest and say that, even though you’re probably an anonymous reader... I appreciate it each and every time you read one of my reviews or articles. Thanks for spending some of your valuable moments here from time to time. It makes doing the thing worthwhile.

All the best,


Tuesday 14 February 2012

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse

Verbal Mabuse

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse
(aka The Testament of Dr. Mabuse)
Germany 1933
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Region 2

Warning: Spoilers beamed directly
into your mind if you read any further!

Fritz Lang made Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse as a sequel to his silent classic, Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler (reviewed here), 11 years after the original film was released. It again “stars” Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Mabuse but to say this actor is the main lead of this second film would be pushing it a bit. I don’t know if the actor was actually incapacitated during filming but he is barely glimpsed and doesn’t really move from his bed in the few shots he’s in.

The character also, kind of, dies not very far into the movie... although he lives on in two guises... one as a ghostly version of himself with a brain that is visible above his grotesque, popping eyes... all done via crude but effective special effects. Thus, anyone who’s ever watched this movie without having had the benefit of seeing the original movie before-hand will be left unimpressed, I suspect, with Klein-Rogge. The absolute masterful power and strength of will of this actor, that pierced the screen of the original movie and pierced the audience with a wake up call burnt directly on to the retina is really not present in this one. Mabuse is just an inmate of an asylum where he was deposited after he went mad at the end of the first movie.

Even though the character dies, Mabuse is not dead in spirit... he uses his ghostly presence after death to invade the mind of the head of the sanitarium and uses his body to continue his crimes which, in this movie, consist of bringing down the entire government by himself...

Or, you could also take the tack that the head of the sanitarium has gone completely mad after reading Mabuse’s crazed and obsessive, compulsive scribblings and the ghostly presence of Mabuse is merely his own mind playing tricks on him... that he has gone completely insane and been inadvertently “inspired” by Mabuse and his writings of how to pull off “perfect” crimes... stepping into his shoes full-time after Mabuse has breathed his last.

There are still lingering shades of the German Expressionist style throughout this movie but, then again, I’m beginning to think it’s partially what defined Lang’s personal style at that particular period of his life. I remember taking a look at the Lang movie Rancho Notorious (1952) a couple o’ decades back and thinking that, although it was shot and released in colour... it all looked wrong or, to repeat my exact comment, it looked like it was a colour movie which had been lit for black and white. Perhaps it was the very striking areas of light and dark that were prevalent when I made that comment. Either way, long after German Expression is thought to have died off (or, in my opinion, fled Nazi Germany to find a new home in the 1940s Hollywood Film Noir style), here is Lang with some very interesting and almost surreal compositions... but supporting a movie which has a more naturalistic acting style and which, in some ways, continues the themes of the film he made directly before it, the Peter Lorre starrer M!

That is to say, that while the notorious criminal deeds and cliffhanger traps, such as two lovers locked in a room waiting for a time bomb to explode in an hour’s time, are reminiscent again and in some ways a toned down version of the antics of such characters as Fantômas and Irma Vep, the interest in police procedures and the science of detection is very much in evidence in this film (as it was in M).

The heroic figure of Inspector Lohmann, as played by Otto Wernicke, is an enjoyable performance but it’s been quite some time (over twenty years maybe) since I last watched M and I didn’t realise until I looked him up that the character of Inspector Lohmann, again as played by Otto Wernicke, is also in M... no wonder both movies look at the science of detection with an almost obsessive (for the time) bent... the film is a sequel to both Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler AND M. So I’m going to have to grab a DVD copy of M now and watch that again. I do, in fact, have a painted comic book mini-series adaptation of M with a free flexi-disc (remember those) of Fritz Lang whistling In The Hall Of The Mountain King on it but... somehow I don’t think that’s going to quite cut it. I guess Criterion must do a decent version of it.... right?

Anyway, I have to say that, although the character of Mabuse himself was a bit of a cop-out in this one, the movie itself is an enjoyable romp through 1930s Germany and I was really quite into it. Definitely looking forward to the final installment of the Lang directed trilogy (other directors have tackled Mabuse since) entitled The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse (aka Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse) which was made 27 years after this one... especially since I know it has a pre-Goldfinger Gert Fröbe in it. I’ll let you know how that one goes down with me as soon as I can. Thanks for reading.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D

Death In Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D
1999-2012 US
Directed by George Lucas
Screening at UK cinemas.

It’d be pretty impossible to relay to you my almost lifelong relationship with the Star Wars saga, which began when I saw the very first movie on its initial cinema run at the age of 9, way back in 1977. I could easily write a series of novel length reviews on the subject... which wouldn’t include the hundreds of drawings and articles I did for fun as a kid, and based on the first three films in the series (which I guess now has become, chronologically within the timelines of the story at least, the second trilogy) and which I collected in ring binders, one (or sometimes two) for each film.

It’s hard to explain how much of a cultural phenomenon Star Wars was back then to youngsters these days. They’ve never experienced it themselves... sure there have been huge blockbuster movies with bigger openings but their shelf life and the way in which they are consumed by the home video marketplace changes the impact of these films. When Star Wars came out it was in the days before home video and there was nothing like it at the cinema! Sure, there was a whole slew of bandwagon rip-off films that we all saw and enjoyed, including films which weren’t rip offs but needed the success of Star Wars to open up the marketplace to be able to make these films possible. So yeah, we had stuff like Battle Beyond The Stars, Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and other similar films which either sought to recreate the thrills found in Lucas’ original movie or do their own thing in the zeitgeist created in its wake. But you have to understand that... until The Empire Strikes Back came out three years later... well, as I said... there was nothing like it.

What that meant to kids at school is... you went out on your playground breaks and lunch hours and you talked about Star Wars. You went home and maybe played in the street with the other kids... and you talked about Star Wars. You went on visits with your parents to family homes dotted around the country... and you talked about Star Wars. And you kept talking about Star Wars for 6 years solid (until the ewoks and the hammy acting in the third movie kind of put a crimp in it). Okay, so maybe some of the girls were talking about Grease but, trust me, when they weren’t talking about Grease they were talking about Star Wars.

When The Phantom Menace first came out in 1999, I remember staying up until four o’clock in the morning the first night the tickets went on sale in London because the demand for tickets was so great that within 5 seconds the computers overloaded and went down at the various box offices for the phone bookings... it took several days for them to get back up and for people to find out if they were successful in getting a ticket or whether they’d have to try and rebook. This was, of course, after Lucas had released those dreadfully dumbed down cuts for the 20th anniversary of the original trilogy... and gutted the heart of that original trilogy as you would a dead fish (I was so happy when the original prints were made available in a limited edition DVD as an “extra” for six months or so... finally the real movies had resurfaced).

So I’ve heard and read a lot of crap about The Phantom Menace over the years... including the criticisms of just the title when that was revealed while it was still being made. Frankly, people who don’t like The Phantom Menace must be half crazed to not realise what a great triumph it was. This was easily the best and the darkest of the prequel trilogy... but I remember a lot of the people who went to see it at the time were just not well versed enough in Star Wars lore to realise just how subtly dark it was. It’s right up their with my favourite Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, a film which I find has a similar tone, and I couldn’t believe the criticisms people were hurling about at the time. Had these people just not seen the original trilogy, I asked myself at the time.

Let me set the record straight because, although George Lucas has let me down a lot over the years with both his treatment of the Star Wars and Young Indiana Jones franchises (the initial masterpiece episodes of which have been similarly recut to buggery), The Phantom Menace was not one of the problems. If you want to level criticism at a movie in the Star Wars canon which did let the side down appallingly it was the next chapter, Attack Of The Clones... but I’ll save that article until the 3D version of that turns up at the cinema (sometime next year I believe?).

Okay... despite the multitude of whining complaints at the time of the announcement, The Phantom Menace is a perfect title for a Star Wars film. Sure, it didn’t sound “cool” at first but, you know what? It’s a perfect title for a movie series which aspires to be the old Universal Flash Gordon serials (something the movies give away in almost every scene)... and if George Lucas had been able to afford to buy the rights to Flash Gordon when he was trying to get them in the mid-70s, there never would have been a Star Wars movie made. Typical Flash Gordon serial chapters include such awesome titling as: The Planet Of Peril, The Tunnel Of Terror, The Destroying Ray, The Black Sapphire Of Kalu, The Symbol Of Death, The Purple Death, Doom Of The Dictator... the list goes on. The Phantom Menace does not look out of place in that context does it? It was a big deal at the time though and I couldn’t figure out why people just couldn’t see the appropriateness of such a title.

Then, when the film came out... I was blown away. It was dark... really dark. Why then, were people coming out of the movie thinking it was an uplifting experience? This is where the bad stuff starts... you know, right from the outset, that Senator Palpatine is the bad guy right? I mean, ever since 1977 every kid who had read an article on the Star Wars stories knew the background story... from Emporer Palpatine (the clue is in the name guys... you know... Palpatine?) to Darth Vader’s fight with Obi Wan against a volcanic back drop where Darth fell in the lava... every kid knew that since 1977. And seriously... any kid who’d read Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter Of A Minds Eye back in 1978 had probably figured out by the time that Empire came out in 1980, that Yoda was referring to Princess Leia when he said... “No, there is another...” Since she had kinda Jedi powers in the 1978 novel (I understand the novel has been rewritten to conform for it’s reprints in later years... but I still have my original knocking about somewhere... can’t fool me!).

The Phantom Menace is all about politics (not a subject I understand myself) and it basically is all just about the way Palpatine (who is already a Sith) brings about the collapse of the Old Republic and manipulates Queen Amidala to move him into a position of power to rule the galaxy by bringing in a vote of no confidence against Terrance Stamp’s character. This was serious stuff and it hurt to watch it! I couldn’t believe some people only suspected Palpatine at the end of this movie. Seriously people? It’s that much of a jump from Senator Palpatine to Emporer Palpatine in people’s eyes? Holy moley. I hope people take time to re-evaluate this dark little corner of the Star Wars saga now it’s back in cinemas. I once saw a Steve Martin sketch where Paul Simon asked Steve Martin if he thought a downbeat song was more effective in an upbeat tempo and arrangement and that’s basically what The Phantom Menace is, to be sure... a very downbeat movie with an upbeat tempo and arrangement. Like I said... it was so dark it was almost painful to watch.

What wasn’t painful was... everything else asides from the politics. Jar Jar was maybe a little too "full on" but basically he performs the same function as someone like Mantan Moreland used to serve in the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan films... you either accept it or you don’t. If you can’t accept it... don’t rant about it and give everybody else a hard time. Not a fan of the character but not a hater of him either... and I do enjoy doing the odd Jar Jar Binks impression still... so bear that in mind if you ever find yourself in the pub with me.

My two favourite things in the movie, and thankfully Lucas has left them in tact, are as follows... Queen Amidala and the way she carries herself when she is in full Naboo Royalty make up really does, in this film, feel like an homage to the princess in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Maybe not in intent... well yeah, certainly not in intent, she’s by no means a spoiled brat... but the way she moves and kinda intones her lines is amazing. Great job.

But the thing that really had me jumping out of my seat the first time I saw it... and it’s still (thankfully) in there... or the tone of this article would be a lot more negative, was the look and sound of the viewscreen communicator with which Amidala talks to the Viceroy on the Trade Federation ship at the start of the movie. It’s basically the dead spit in both visual and audio content of the ones used in at least one of the original Flash Gordon serials (which are also homaged in other ways such as screen wipes... which Kurosawa also used to use... and art deco “ray gun” designs). It absolutely knocked me for six when I first saw the movie and I wanted to leap up and shout at the audience... “Did you see/hear what he just did? Did you? It’s amazing!”... but I didn’t. I’m a shy retiring type of person... and wouldn’t do that in a cinema... possibly.

Okay... seeing this movie in converted 3D for the first time was... okay. It’s pretty much like every other converted for 3D movie you see... it’s just like looking through and old view master toy with moving bits (used to love that toy)... it’s totally unnecessary and, quite surprisingly in the case of this particular movie... really doesn’t add anything to the experience I’m sad (very sad) to say. I was so looking forward to this... and I really wasn’t disappointed because, hey, it’s The Phantom Menace on a bigger screen than usual... but honestly... bits of it are just not working in 3D. I was particularly unimpressed with the pod race, for example, which seemed to me to be playing more like it was just in 2D for pretty much the whole sequence.

Also... purists note... this version is not the same cut as the original theatrical release... it’s closer to the subsequent home video VHS and DVD releases in that it has that 5 or 6 seconds where Annakin stops dead and glares hard at Terrance Stamp. I’d always assumed that bit had been put in on the home video versions because Stamp's character was going to return as a villain in a later episode. The fact that he doesn’t makes this little moment a bit of an oddity and I don’t know why Lucas didn’t just take it back out. It’s become a bit of a red herring and nobody usually remembers it anyway.

And anyway... the audience is all too busy listening to John William’s kick ass score to be noticing subtleties like that. Talking of which... Williams’ style had changed by the time he’d come to write the score for the second trilogy. It didn’t quite sound like the original stuff... fortunately though, the score was still brilliant and does kind of still slot in place with the Star Wars sound... so you won’t hear anything bad about it from me (until we get to Attack Of The Clones and the electric guitar moment... shudder). If memory serves me correctly, Annakin’s theme is an inverted, slowed down version of The Imperial March... so it’s a nice score to get to grips with if you can and it still retains enough Korngoldian homage in it’s make-up to keep the magic going. Oddly enough, his new score to Spielberg’s TinTin movie sounds much more like an “old-school” Star Wars soundtrack than his stuff on the prequel trilogy does... but it’s Wiliams and it’s brilliant and it’s good enough for most Star Wars fans... I’m certainly not complaining.

Well... I’d like to be writing another 6 or 7 pages on this stuff but I really shouldn’t. It’s getting late, I’m getting tired and by now you’ve probably got the general gist of where I’m coming from. But just in case you haven’t... here’s a short summary...

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace 3D... great film, underrated, 3Ds a bit rubbish but at least you get to see it at a cinema... don’t heistate for goodness sake... it’s The Phantom Menace! Go see it today!
Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker

Saturday 11 February 2012

Elisabeth Sladen - The Autobiography

Good Bye Sarah Jane...

Elisabeth Sladen - The Autobiography
Aurum Press. ISBN: 978-1845134884

You know, from when I was a young ‘un, my earliest memories of Doctor Who are from the first Jon Pertwee serial Spearhead From Space. I was two years old.

His assistant in that story was Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John) but it wasn’t too long before Jo Grant (as played by Katy Manning) came into the series and I’d have to say that, with all my earliest memories of Doctor Who, come the ones of getting a Jo Grant badge from Selfridges at the time and assembling jigsaw puzzles with The Doctor, Jo and the Daleks on them. I was very little and this stuff used to keep my mind agog.

I remember when Lis Sladen started in the show during Jon Pertwee’s last haul and I remember her being there when he regenerated into Tom Baker and continuing her adventures and, in some ways, Sarah Jane never really left me over the years as one of those companions you just remember and who sticks in your mind as one the anchor points of the show. One of the things you’d look forward to while having to hear Basil Brush sing that damned Bulldog Basil song for the umpteenth time before the show started.

And when you think about it, it’s really not that surprising that Lis Sladen is one of those companions who endures the most, almost becoming a national treasure in the process. Since leaving the show she’s made loads of returns as the character. First there was the pilot film spin off for a TV show that never got picked up, K9 And Company, which I remember loving and I was always cross that they didn’t make any more of them at the time. This was where The Doctor sent her a new model of the Leeson voiced robotic dog and Sarah Jane and K9 go around solving mysteries together.

Then there was her reappearance opposite Pertwee’s Doctor in the anniversary special The Five Doctors, which carried on the continuity established in K9 And Company and also, briefly, reunited her with Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart from her UNIT days again. There was a long gap after that when anyone who is right and proper in the head would have assumed that this particular assistant would never see the light of day again but, when the new reincarnation of the series had hit its stride, spearheaded by Russel T. Davies, he brought Sarah Jane (and K9) back for the David Tennant episode School Reunion... and it was a big hit with audiences. This paved the way for more appearances in Doctor Who (the last two episodes of Catherine Tate’s regular run on the programme and, of course, a brief scene in the final David Tennant story... but more importantly, it spawned her own regular show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, some of the episodes of which are reviewed on this site (check out the index by title in the top right hand corner and scroll down to the TV section).

This show was a really great childrens TV programme (especially for us so-called adult children) and in some ways was more similar to the way the old Doctor Who stories were put together “back in the day”. It was a roaring success too, so when the news came that Elisabeth Sladen had died from cancer without a heck of a lot of warning during the shooting of Series Five, the fans (including myself) were somewhat shocked to say the least. It was like another link from my childhood had died for me... even though I’d never met her.

When her autobiography came out shortly after her death, it was a chance for me to find out more about the Doctor Who assistant that I’d always just relied on being there without really stopping to catch my breath and take a proper interest in her while she was alive. Having read her book now, I have to say that I wish I’d gotten in line just once at one of those fan signings because, frankly, she seems to have been quite a special lady.

The book is well written and fleshes out little bits of her life without ever really straying too far in the text from Doctor Who. Although her early life before Doctor Who, acting alongside her husband in various “actorly” engagements is certainly recounted, quite a lot of the book is given over to her time in the original TV shows. I guess this is what she thought most people would be interested in reading? But, to be honest, the whole lot will hold your attention once you make a start on it.

The lack of faith, or perhaps that should be financial and creative support, from the BBC in the show in the early days comes through clearly enough and it’s no real surprise (a lot of ex-Doctor’s have shared similar viewpoints), but there’s loads of interesting snippets of information here to keep most fans of her work and her most famous character engrossed. Her working relationship with Jon Pertwee was less bubbly than I’d expected (I have heard a few things about Pertwee over the years) but also not unfair and certainly she had some good times with him and his wife in later years. Her brilliant relationship with Tom Baker is also recounted and there’s some real nuggets of information about her time on the show which I suspect some people at the BBC in the old days may not have expected (or wanted) to come out... but I’m not going to tell you what those things are, you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.

I was glad to hear that she got on so well with Russel T. Davies... enough to email him about choices on what to wear for awards shows and the like... but I was a bit surprised at how little there is of her time working on The Sarah Jane Adventures in the book. I suspect there would have been more to come by way of interesting anecdotes if she’d have lived longer. The end of the book where she speculated as to where the show might be going in the future is poignant and sad to read when one realises that she had no idea she was dying. By the time I read the last little end piece by her husband and daughter, I was pretty much crying too many tears onto the page to be able to read the text properly. I must be getting old.

This was a much more emotional read than I’d expected and Elisabeth Sladen comes off as nothing but an absolute professional when it comes to her working life. An absolute gem of a book and something any longtime fan of Doctor Who, and of Sladen, will not want to miss out on. Definitely pick this one up if you want to be entertained and moved.

Friday 10 February 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure

Sworded Past

Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure
aka Nemuri Kyoshiro 2: Shôbu Japan 1964
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Anime Eigo Region 1

Wow... what a great little film. Kenji Misumi, who is perhaps better known for his work on some of the Zatoichi movies and also for a significant chunk of the original six movie Lone Wolf & Cub film series, takes the reigns for this, the second entry in Daiei’s series of Sleepy Eyes Of Death films... and I have to say that, in many (but perhaps not all) ways this second entry surpasses the first.

Nemuri Kyoshiro may be a self proclaimed nihilist (see my review of the first movie here), but I have to say that the deeds and actions of the character point to a much more honourable outlook on life in this one, as he’s often making choices based on a moral highground rather than letting everything go to hell in a handbasket, so to speak. One character even refers to him as being a “noble” person in this one and it would be hard to disagree with this observation.

For instance, Nemuri starts the film by trying to do a kind deed which backfires when an old man, who turns out to be the wandering fnancial adviser to the shogun, highlights Nemuri’s intention to the young boy he is trying to help. This all leads to a duel with the recent killer of the young boy's father (who now posesses the father’s dojo as an outcome), who Nemuri quickly dispatches, and hence the young lad, who was a poor boy seeking money on the streets, becomes the dojo owner... and all this within the first ten minutes of the movie.

Nemuri’s relationship with the old financial adviser blossoms and deepens as he finds himself defending the adviser against paid assassins seeking to “permanently overturn” the advice the old man has given to his shogun master. The chemistry between Nemuri and the old man is quite electrical, it has to be said... and this really helps the viewer accept the character as much more of a heroic figure as opposed to him just going through the motions somewhat, as I feel he kinda did in the last movie.

Which is strange actually because, no matter how much the audience is in sympathy with the plight of Nemuri in this one, we still learn next to nothing about his origins as a character or see anything (of significance to anything other than this specific story) relating to his past and the burden he carries with him. He patently refuses to answer any questions leading to what can only be described as an orphaned past and although you may feel that this stuff really ought to be getting tackled at this point, this in no way derogatises or makes meaningless the richness of the character or deflects audience sympathies away from him. Which is odd and also highlights the differences in the way in which the same story might be handled if, for instance, a European or American director was making this.

The film is not nearly as colourful as the previous entry in the series and there’s no extra depth designed into the shots... but this is not to say that there isn’t some interesting cinematography happening on this one... there is. A shot where Nemuri lowers himself simultaneous with a camera dolly in, for instance, so his head becomes framed within a smaller frame within the shot is quite interesting (pictured above at the end of the shot). And a scene towards the end of the film where Nemuri faces down a sizeable amount of samurai opponents has a nice moment where everybody is poised for 5 or 10 seconds waiting for the carnage to happen. The sequence takes place in a forest and in this calm before the storm the director has a thin vertical tree trunk splitting the action quite rigidly into two different sections... nice stuff.

I’m really getting into this series now and I can’t wait to kick back and watch the third DVD in the package... I just hope that Anime Eigo see fit to release a boxed set of the 9th to 12th films in the series soon. Talking of which, the subtitling options on these releases are superb. They’re basically following the titling styes of the old UK Artsmagic label... the difference being that the Artsmagic DVDs were really poor and muddy transfers from old video transfers by the looks of it (seriously, if you’ve got their UK Zatoichi editions or their slightly cut Lone Wolf and Cub films... upgrade to the superb Anime Eigo Region 1 editions... the difference is like apples and oranges). So on these ones, for example, you can have yellow or white subtitling for the dialogue, but you can also choose to have subtitling for little explanatory glossary notes which appear at the top of the screen to explain Japanese cultural phenomena as they come up in the conversation. Very cool (although maddeningly hard to follow sometimes as you’re trying to read both sets of subtitles before they clear again). These releases are well worth having for every fan of chambara cinema... grab them now so the sales are such that a third box set is on the cards!

Wednesday 8 February 2012


Class Action

Womble 2011 UK
Directed by Robert Pirouet

Womble, the latest short movie from Organised Chaos TV & FIlm (and produced by Michael Beddoes and Emily Smith) is a ten minute slice of classroom bound cat and mouse taking the form of an interview for a position at the school in which it is set. The film, directed by Robert Pirouet, features Ben Willibond and Will Smith (no, not that one!) as two men in an extended sequence of thrust and riposte as Smith asks a series of increasingly ridiculous questions with the intent of embarrassing and humiliating his interviewee as payback for what the former did to him at school many years before.

I was invited along to see the premiere of this but, at the last minute, had to decline the offer. Thankfully, I was given access to this movie via the internet so I could feed back my reactions to one of the producers.

Well, it’s certainly got a strong sense of humour about it and the writing is very direct and cuts to the jugular... it’s a ten minute short so it really needs to do this. Thankfully, the writing by both John Henry Falle and the director is artful enough in plotting a course through what could be seen as a bit of a tightrope walk between being too rapid for credibility and too slow for the way the short as a whole is paced.

The camera work is very clean and linear and the opening preamble, which is a rapidfire introduction to the general demeanour of Will Smith’s character, is followed by a couple of establishing shots which effectively get you into a position to digest a second and longer round of rapid fire with one or two more pauses to help you to recover your breath... before once again plummeting into a shot/cut/shot/cut rhythm focussing on the two lead actors as they perform a fun-filled battle of wits, Smith pouring on the questions and requests until it gets to a point where things take a refreshingly ridiculous turn.

The performances are all very good (there’s actually a cast of six players although most of the action of the film focusses on these two main players) with the two leads really giving their all to entertain and make credible the premise of the script. It’s not played in a naturalistic manner, to be sure, since it’s a comedy... but nor would you want it to be either. Comic timing is obviously something that these two guys know about and it’s a rare pleasure to see this duet going at it with a ferociousness that leaves the audience hanging on every word... very rare for me, in fact, because I rarely bother with comedies (if it’s not The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen then I’m afraid I’m a bit of an amateur in knowing how best to review this stuff... I wish I’d been able to see it with an audience, in fact).

The score, too, by Stephen Tait, is an extraordinary piece of composition considering its function within the overall scheme of things. Comedy is probably one of the easiest genres to screw up in terms of musical accompaniment, but Tait’s piece here is quite deftly handled... both supporting and lifting the emotional tone when required and then standing back a little and giving the dialogue and performance room to breathe when necessary. Nice job sir!

It has to be said that the “punchline” of the film, or pretty much the last word spoken, is a little obvious and can be seen coming from quite a way. However, this is all fine because, like a lot of films where this is also the case, it’s always a pleasure to see how the script and the performances are going to bring about this kind of ending and it does nothing to detract from the fact that the tone with which the last word is said (and, yeah, I’m so not going to reveal that here) could go either way... or, to put it another way, who out of these two characters is going to finish the movie with the upper hand.

Not totally my cup of tea in regards content and tone, this one but, with that caveat, I’d have to say that I did quite enjoy it and the obvious talent and skill both in front of and behind the camera really shows in such little details as the posters on the wall of the classroom and the design of the end credits. If you’re in to either short films or comedy... and definitely if you’re in to both, then it might be a good idea to check out this little gem if you can get some access to it. Remember the names on the cast list folks... I reckon they’re all going to go far.