Friday 30 August 2013

Die Hard With A Vengeance

A Vengeance Assembled

Die Hard With A Vengeance
1995 USA
Directed by John McTiernan
20th Century Fox Blu Ray B

Warning: Spoilers with a vengeance.

Right. I finally get around to following up my Die Hard Christmas Double Bill (the first two movies reviewed here) with a look at the third, and my favourite, in the series, Die Hard With A Vengeance. Yeah, the titles don’t get any better from hereon but the script on this one is pretty cool.

There’s so much good stuff in here I almost don’t know where to start but... let’s start with Bruce Willis. The studio took the risky move of having him separated from the character of his wife from the first two films and portrayed as a washed up cop in the middle of suspension from active duties. But he is pulled back in when Simon Gruber, played absolutely brilliantly by Jeremy Irons, asks the police to get hold of John McClane...after he has first blown up a department store to "get their attention". He then proceeds to play an elaborate game of cat and mouse with both McClane and an electrician called Zeus, played by the then up and coming Samuel L. Jackson, who accidentally gets embroiled in the first installment of the “Simon says” game that Gruber has cooked up.

If the name Gruber is ringing any bells, that’s because this film’s lead villain is the brother of Alan Rickman’s lead villain from the first movie, Hans Gruber... which is a nice tip of the hat for the writers to throw in here. Especially since this script was not originally intended to be a Die Hard movie and that, at one point, it was going to be a Lethal Weapon movie.

The cat and mouse game that Gruber plays with McClane and Zeus is, of course, an elaborate distraction to allow Gruber to tie up the police with various shenanigans as a distraction while he robs the Wall Street equivalent of Fort Knox, in a plan which he hides under a terrorist act, in much the same way that his brother did in the first film. But it’s actually all about money, of course.

Now, anybody who’s seen a number of 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s TV shows will recognise this old plot at once. It’s the episode of “fill in your blank TV title here” where the main hero is run around from phone box to phone box in a city and has to try to figure out a way to outsmart the main villain while still staying on time with the various phone calls and tasks set him. It’s a cliché but it works a treat if it’s written well and it certainly is written well here. It’s also a cliché which is still being used these days, believe it or not. Take a look at The Da Vinci Code sequel Angels And Demons (reviewed here) and you’ll realise that it’s pretty much the same thing.

This movie has great dialogue, great chemistry between not just the lead actors but by all their supporting players and some great and sometimes bloody action sequences which manage to tread a thin line between brutally disturbing and outright fun all the way through the film.

And in Micheal Kamen’s last score for the series (he had tragically died very young before the fourth one was filmed) he really knocks it out of the park. The musical pieces, built around the tune When Johnny Comes Marching Home, are amazing, although curiously they are mostly used during the bank raid when John McClane isn’t present (but still, the audience gets the idea). These are an absolute stroke of genius and really make this film. Now I understand Kamen wasn’t necessarily happy with the inclusion/intrusion of this melody into his score and he had to write new pieces to incorporate it where he’d already scored them with something else, but I have to say it works an absolute treat and has you rivetted. I remember buying the original soundtrack album when it came out and being absolutely gobsmacked that none of these cues were represented on the album in any way. I had to wait up until last year with the posthumous release of a 2 disc expansion to finally get these beautiful Kamen arrangements of Johnny Comes Marching Home. Still... all I can say is it was worth the wait.

The film, it has to be said, isn’t as tightly shot as the first movie. It’s not quite as smart in the way things are achieved but it’s still got enough oomph in it to totally dwarf, in my very humble opinion, the first two movies before it. Absolutely spot on and it’s a shame Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t tapped to take part in any of the other follow ups to this movie because his contribution here is equal to Willis’ McClane character in impact and they complement each other so well throughout the running time.

If you’re a fan of the series then you’ll certainly love this entry. If you’ve seen any of the others and not thought too much of them, still see this one as it’s one of the best written action thrillers of its decade. And Bruce Willis still has hair!

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Kick-Ass 2

Assed & The Furious

Kick-Ass 2
2013 USA/UK
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Very slight spoilers.

I quite liked the first Kick-Ass movie (my short review here) but for some reason I never really liked it enough to get around to taking another look at it. Sure, it was cute and quirky and the Hit Girl character alone was worth the price of admission... but it wasn’t the same kind of phenomenon to me as it was to some of my friends. So having said that, it would be true to say I didn’t exactly rush back to the cinema to see the sequel and, instead, I waited for a week before finally making it along there.

Although the visceral use of violence has been somewhat toned down for this sequel (although I don’t think that was a deliberate move on the part of the producers), the film still manages to pack a punch... but there’s no “shock value” or real surprises this time around. Now normally I would feel this is a sign of a sequel which doesn’t live up to the quirky promise of the first movie but, in the case of Kick-Ass 2,  I’m going to have to call it as an exception to the rule...

Although there are certain triggers and trappings which connect very heavily with the first movie (including the title character’s all important and heart-felt voice over narrative), this film does things a little differently and, it seems to me, has actually gained somewhat by having a more formal, Hollywood style structure (and that’s really something, by the way, for me to say that about a movie)... with the story cross-cutting between the three main characters Kick-Ass (played by future Quicksilver Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Hit Girl (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) and the ‘super-villain’ The M*therf*cker (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

It’s not totally a film about kicking the stuffing out of a bunch of evil people but a look behind the hearts and moral concerns of those people. Yeah, I’m sure, from what I can remember, the first film also covered this area, but Kick-Ass 2 seems to tackle the issues that arise from the lifestyle its main protagonists choose in a more head on and mature manner than the first... and I really appreciated this. It also seems to take the consequences of all the negatives in this arena and highlight them in a more serious manner, rather than just throw them off as another joke. Not that the movie isn’t a laugh riot, of course.

I also liked the action scenes which, while the violence is less shocking and ‘matter of fact’ than the first movie, are still choreographed quite well. My three favourite action scenes being a scene where Kick-Ass is dressed as a pimp on his first re-training mission with Hit Girl coming to the rescue, the scene where Hit Girl in her civilian identity has to show off her dance moves (which she achieves by intercutting a four villain battle in her head) and the sequence with Hit Girl, right after the funeral of a major character, where she rescues Kick-Ass from a speeding van by climbing all over it, avoiding hails of bullets and getting up close and personal with the driver and the gang... with her fists. These sequences are all shot and, fortunatley, edited in a way which won’t leave you scratching your head about what’s going on while still giving you an action high... if that’s your kind of thing. All glued together with a brilliant, consistent piece of action scoring by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. Hot stuff!

There’s some nice stuff too where the movie gives a stylish nod to it’s comic book origins. For example, a scene in which a group of gangsters are talking in a foreign language is not translated with traditional subtitles. Instead, the characters all have comic book talk bubbles coming out of their mouths which translate what they are saying. This is followed up with a nice sucker punch near the end of the movie where Hit Girl gets one final insult in after she’s done killing arch villainess hench-woman Mother Russia... which she delivers in perfect Russain with another speech bubble translation. Nice touch that.

The film tries to have its cake and eat it at the end of the movie. It’s set up that Kick-Ass and his ‘superhero’ chums can’t go back to the lifestyle they were living and Hit Girl, too, has got some additonal problems by the close of the story... but it also seems to be just crying out for a third part and, I have to say, after spending some time with this one, I am hoping the powers that be will find it in their wallet motivated hearts to bring on a third version. I’m ready for it and... if you see this movie... maybe you will be too.

Monday 26 August 2013

Silip (aka Daughters Of Eve)

Silip Sliding Away

Silip (aka Daughters Of Eve)
1985 Philippines
Directed by Elwood Perez
Mondo Macabro DVD Region 0

Well this is interesting.

It’s one of those movies that I just don’t know what to make of. I know I’m glad I saw it... I’m just not sure if I liked it. I admired it in a certain sense but, alas, I also got very angry at the director during the opening sequence.

Source of my anger? Well on the DVD case I saw a little warning that, and I quote, “This film contains scenes of sex and violence that may disturb some viewers”.

Which in and of itself is probably fine and a standard thing for some video companies to add to their packaging. But this is Mondo Macabro. A label that specialises in treading the backwaters of way out, provocative and often violent cinema. They know their audience so why does this one DVD out of many warrant a warning?

Well, I suspect it’s all to do with the opening scenes and it certainly upset me when I saw it. In the movie Apocalypse Now we see a live cow being butchered alive with a couple of strokes of a machete or some similar implement and it’s a nasty scene. I don’t believe or support censorship but I’ve always wondered why the BBFC have always allowed those shots in the UK release prints when they won’t even let horse falls in on anything else. Either way, as a carnivore, it challenges my ability to survive pitched against my love of animals in a way I don’t really want to think about...

But the opening of Silip is far worse. Over the first five minutes or so we see a buffalo repeatedly hit over the head, then while still conscious, have its throat slit to kill it completely. Then we see it gutted and finally the head severed. All done for real... no special effects here man. And, yeah, I’m sorry... it may be a hypocritical stance seeing as I’m not a vegetarian, but who likes seeing animals slaughtered... in an inhumane way too? So that kind of upset me.

What it didn’t do, surprisingly, is taint my critical eye of the next two hours which tell a simple tale... or really no tale at all. We have an isolated village of huts with a small population, the adults of said village tending to spend a lot of their time having sex... because it’s not like there’s much else to do here. Living here, also, is the local teacher Tonya, played by former Miss Philippines Maria Isabel Lopez and her “returning from the big city” sister Seida, played by Sarsi Emmanuelle.

The two are like chalk and cheese. Tonya, a virgin, has suppressed her sexuality and tied it up in the realm of religion and the devil and shoves it down everyone’s throat at every chance. Naturally, this doesn’t make her popular with a lot of the parents who have children attending her “school”. Seida is a sex crazed city girl who, like many of the local villagers actually, is happy to have sex again with her childhood fling Simon. Simon’s girlfriend is not too happy about this. Neither is Tonya, who also wants Simon... although instead of telling him and letting him have his wicked way with her, she prefers to demonise the emotion and spend time having naked washing sessions or rubbing salt into her crotch.

There’s not a hell of a lot of a story but it’s more about sexuality, the repressing of sexuality and gossip, the primary weapon of female kind. Hey, don’t moan at me for that seemingly sexist comment... there was an article about it in New Scientist covering how gossip traditionally, since communication began, has been used as a weapon by the female of the species. Actually, this film would make a good case study for some of that science malarkey, to be honest.

The whole atmosphere of the film is one of tension and the nearest movie I could relate it to that I’ve seen, in terms of repressed sexuality, would be Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and, in this way I think, the film could almost be a spiritual cousin to that one. Except without the... you know... the murdered samurai warriors and the Japanese demon mask.

It’s not a hard film to watch in terms of visuals. Although the print seems a bit faded (but it might have been the quality of the light in the original photography), many of the shot set ups are quite beautiful and there’s strangely not much moving camera that I could detect in the majority of the movie. Just static master shots and cuts to other viewpoints (but not edited badly like it would be in a TV show). There’s also a lot of female flesh (and the odd male erection if you’re into that kind of thing... another reason why this movie might have trouble getting a UK release) and a lot of misery and suffering as the main characters quibble and philosophise about their lot in life. So in other words, if you’re cool and groovy about seeing a lot of naked females moaning a lot and getting angry, then this film is probably for you.

By the end of the movie, everything gets a little bit "pitchforks and lighted torches"(metaphorically) as bad things happen and innocents are blamed and punished for their perceived sins, once the mob mentality takes over. There’s really a lot of exploitational material in this movie but not necessarily shot in an exploitational manner. There’s a calmness in the attitude of the camera to the wanton acts of lust and violence which are often greater and harder hitting than you would get in an exploitation movie, but which you may not realise as such at the time of viewing.

I can’t say Silip is a movie I’d necessarily recommend... but I certainly felt I’d watched something more than a piece of fluff by the time it was over. So that’s probably not a bad thing. It kinda reminds me of the sort of film which would play at a UK arthouse cinema in the mid 80s - early 90s in all honesty and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this was shown on occasion at the Scala back in the day. If you want a sexy, violent movie which has all the ingredients of such but without really feeling that sexy or gratuitous, then you might just want to settle down and give this one a spin some time. If not, then probably leave it well alone.

Sunday 25 August 2013

The Stone Tape

The Stone Ranger

The Stone Tape
Airdate: 25th December 1972 UK
Directed by Peter Sasdy
BBC DVD Region 2

Okay, so I’m really not that happy about having to write this review. It’s not going to be what people want to hear from me on this particular TV drama and I can’t tell you how dissapointed I feel about this.

The Stone Tape is a very highly thought of phenomena in terms of classic British horror TV and, honestly, I can see why. It’s got a good script and the acting is mostly not too bad... definitely of its time (“Alright, luv?”). Why does 70s TV acting seem to date more than any other decade, I wonder? I am more shocked and surprised that I didn’t personally think a little more of the show given its pedigree and the fact that I absolutely love things like this normally.

This aired when I was four years old and I don’t believe I saw it at the time. But I wish I had done because, when I was four, it would have frightened me silly and given me nightmares (just like other shows and movies by this writer did) and I would probably have very fond memories of this indeed. It comes from the pen of one of my all time favourite genre writers, Nigel Kneale, responsible for terrifying me with the Quatermass films and serials (without which, frankly, there would be no shows like Doctor Who on the air today... at least not in the way we are familiar with) and also such landmarks as the Peter Cushing TV adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 and various other, quirkier things, like a comedy show called Kinvig I used to watch (goodness knows what that looks like these days).

Also, it’s very much kin to two TV shows which used to terrify us kids in the late 70s and which were always the ‘talk of the playground’ the next day at school - The Omega Factor and Sapphire and Steel.

So it really surprises me that The Stone Tape felt just a little less than my expectations of it had allowed for, but I can’t really put a finger on just why it didn’t quite jell for me.

I thought some of the acting was good but Jane Asher, although she was definitely locked into a specific and fairly intense performance, was a bit misplaced with her acting choices, I thought. She seemed to be a touch too over the top in the portrayal of the sensitive nature of her empathic condition and while this might have been the best way to go with the character, I felt the style of the performance didn’t really fit in with a lot of the other actors around her. And its strange because she’s doing brilliant and not very easy things in the role and congratulations to her in some ways (because I think the problem lays a bit more in the editing and pacing, rather than her talent) but it feels like it should have maybe been toned down a little in relation to the claustrophobic, in your face feel of the “haunted room” atmosphere which so fascinates the many characters crammed into their new research facility.

The Stone Tape tells of a group of researchers trying to discover the next big recording technology device and, when they relocate to larger premises, the stumble across a ‘haunted’ room. After experienceing a few audio and visual hallucinations which can’t be picked up on their equipment, they try to find out what makes this phenomena tick so they can harvest the results in their race to find the next best recording medium. This is after they realise the stones in the room have obviously recorded the death of a maid from another century in the very material of their walls... The Stone Tape of the title.

Now, I’ve had a bit of a think about this and I have concluded that maybe the writing on this is a little bit ambitious for the hour and a half running time. Certain sections and jumps seemed a little too rushed for my liking.  I’m very much a fan of slow creeping dread as opposed to other kinds of horror but I do like a less speedy appointment with tales dealing with a “haunting menace” and The Stone Tape just felt a little too pacy for me. Although, some of the scenes were quite eeire I just felt... well, let me put it this way. I’m fairly squeemish and quite easy to scare when it comes to ghost stories and I watched The Stone Tape on my own in the dark one evening, and I didn’t feel scared or chilled once. Didn’t look around in the dark to see if anything “against nature” was creeping around the house with me as a direct result of my viewing experience. It just didn’t make much impact on me.

Which I do feel is really strange. The 1963 version of The Haunting, for example, never fails to chill me no matter how many times I see it... and nothing much actually happens in that.

My other problem is that The Stone Tape not only has a very predictable fate for its main female protagonist, but even the final little ‘twist” is so obvious that you are kind of waiting for it to happen from very early on in the programme. Which is a shame because I’m used to Nigel Kneale being a lot more mind blowing than that, to be honest. This ending was just so expected, even used as a way of haunting a character, brilliantly played by Michael Bryant, who has progressed into more of a villain by the end of the play (indeed, the subtle ruthlessness of the character’s driven obsession reminded me of the way Brian Donlevy used to mis-play Quatermass in the first two Hammer adaptations from Kneale’s original serials... but in The Stone Tape that’s the right tone to go with for that character, I think).

All in all I’m glad I saw the play finally. It’s not without its charm and its certainly a time piece which will remind older viewers of the British attitude towards life back in the 70s and, possibly, provide comical amusement for less older viewers. I will even be watching it with the commentary included on the DVD at some point so I can try to decode why it’s held in such high regard. Alas, on this viewing, my body temperature only dropped to lukewarm and was, it has to be said, far from chilly.

Saturday 24 August 2013


The Magnificent Heaven

2013 USA
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Possible slight spoilers.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Neill Blomkamp’s last movie, his debut feature District 9, although I can acknowledge it was certainly quite an impressive film for all the right kinds of reasons and it’s no surprise to me that he’s got a couple of big names like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in his follow up feature. Not to mention including the “seen him everywhere lately” character actor William Fichtner in the line up. So in terms of the acting he’s in safe hands here and, as you would expect, everyone in here more than pulls their weight, especially the actor who played the anti-hero main protagonist in District 9, Sharlto Copley, who here plays a very unpleasant villain.

And I have to say that I liked Elysium a lot more than that previous movie although, for sure, it can be almost seen as a companion piece. The worlds inhabited by both sets of characters on Earth is something of a dystopian vision and this also shows up in the style in which the movie is shot. However, since there’s not a great deal to criticise in Elysium and since this would be a real short review if I just said... “Elysium. Okay movie. Wouldn’t watch it again but good for a night out.”... then I’ll elaborate a little more, I think.

You’ve got some really good things going on here because we’re plonked down right into a future society with an established background for both Matt Damon’s Max character and his childhood sweetheart Frey, played charmingly by Alice Braga. Elysium, a space station world where the rich live in their perfect paradise (a metaphor for the world where those chosen favourites by the Gods go to in their afterlife, in certain ancient cultures) is already well established before these two characters are even born and being thrown together again in the mix of a storyline after having been apart from so long is quite poignant when you understand that their dream was always to go and live on Elysium.

However, they are not the chosen elite, they are part of the trodden masses who the rich and powerful look down on... not even that really. People are just things that live and die with no empathic response from the population “up there”. But things now come to a head because, once Max is accidentally exposed to a high dose of radiation, he embarks on a criminal data robbery from his old gang leader in order to get illegal passage to Elysium. Since he can barely stand, he is fitted with an exo-suit to make him stronger and has a data terminal spliced into him, in to which he has to steal and synch with the contents hidden in William Fitchner’s head. I don’t want to completely spoil the story for you but, when everything goes pear shaped, Max, Frey and the others find themselves heading to Elysium in... well... not the best company.

All the scenes on earth are shot with that same kind of gritty and jerky “reality viewpoint” which made District 9 a notable film to watch and the establishing footage initially shown of Elysium has a much more steady-cam, cleaner look to it... and this works really well. My one complaint being that the jerky camera work and editing style is also employed when our main characters are indulging in action sequences on Elysium too... which kinda annoyed me, it has to be said. It’s like the gritty realism is not really a harbinger of the duality of the environments portrayed in the movie... it’s more like a leitmotif for the inner chaos brought by the inhabitants of Earth and the way this bleeds out in to the world as they experience it. Which is a fair enough approach, I guess. I just maybe would have liked a more simplistic idea in terms of environmental rather than social expression.

Another gripe I have is the fact that the exo-skeleton suit that both Max, and later Sharlto Copley’s Kruger character, wear is really low tech. It looks like a pair of crutches and it’s not really believable that this would give our hero super strength. Yes, I understand it’s an Earth-tech, patched up version but that’s no excuse for the identical “frame” that Kruger wears, which he gets fitted on Elysium. So this kinda killed the mood for me a little.

That being said, the film has a certain gritty, brutality all its own and I suspect that this is why people will cotton on to this one so much. It’s easy to get sucked in and be inhabited by a movie when it’s hitting all your comfort zones with a big stick, I’m guessing. So, to be fair, it’s one of those movies where you really feel what’s going on (judging from the audience I saw it with the other night), rather than sit back comfortably and look at the way in which it is framed. It succeeds on this level really well.

One of the reasons it does succeed in this, of course, is because of the editing. Although the action sequences are chopped about quite aggressively, at a fast pace and with lots of changes of scale, it actually manages to capture what’s going on very well and although you may be numbed by the intensity of the various fight and chase sequences in the movie, you certainly shouldn’t have any problem with following what’s going on in them. It’s very carefully edited to produce a raw, in your face aesthetic while still preserving the sense of the overall scheme of things... Blomkamp really seems to know what he’s doing here.

There’s also a great and almost, at times, hypnotic score by first timer Ryan Amon, which is muscular and not unlike a solid Brian Tyler score... who is who I’d guessed had scored it until I saw Amon’s name in the end credits. The current retro trend of using short musical motif’s like Bernard Herrmann or Philip Glass is in full swing here but, who cares, it works and I happen to like those composers anyway. It’s a score I’ll probably get around to picking up sometime soon, I expect.

All in all, Elysium is over-the-top brutal fun for a certain kind of audience. The story is old and clichéd 1950s style science-fiction again, to be sure, but at least it’s treated with a certain degree of respect for its influences and Blomkamp certainly pulls no punches when it comes to manipulating the emotions of the audience. As a piece of hard hitting sci-fi, admittedly ramming its personal philosophies down your throat quite a lot, then it’s still a pretty impressive exercise in movie making and, while I probably wouldn’t watch it again, I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it the once at the cinema. Good work done here.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Ghosting The Machine

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol 
2011 USA/United Arab Emirate/ Czech Republic
Directed by Brad Bird
Paramount DVD Region 2

Warning: Spoiler protocol enabled.

Well this is interesting. I’ve only ever seen one other Brad Bird movie (which also happened to have an excellent Michael Giachinno score) and that was The Incredibles. Turns out, the fourth in the Mission Impossible franchise is actually his first stab at directing a “live action” movie and I have to say that I found this one to be the most entertaining in the series so far. Maybe it’s because espionage movies like these and others like the Bond movies are all just big live action cartoons anyway that makes Bird a natural for this kind of assignment. Or maybe I’m being a little less charitable than I could be and should just swallow the fact that Bird can obviously direct live action fine and does the animated stuff because that’s what he’s more interested in. Either way, this one is certainly the best of a sometimes lukewarm bunch of movies so I’m glad this guy stepped up to the bat.

Starting off with a jailbreak sequence as two agents, including Simon Pegg in a much less annoying incarnation of the character he played in the previous movie, get Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character out of a prison... but with him obstructing their plans just a little because he won’t go without bringing someone  else out with him... the opening titles jump start from Cruise telling Paula Patton’s Agent Carter to “light the fuse”. After a rousing titles sequence wherein we see key scenes from this film picked out and excerpted as part of the design, we go into standard Mission Impossible territory with a caper to get inside the Kremlin but, the team is piggy-backed by someone else after the same thing as they are and Ethan and his team are basically framed for blowing up the aforementioned building.

So the team is disavowed and gone ‘rogue’ (yet again... they’re always going off to do their own thing, it seems to me) and it’s up to Cruise, Pegg, Patton and their new bestest buddy, the always excellent Jeremy Renner, to stop the bad guys from nuking the world.

This film has a lot going for it. Simon Pegg loses his fake American accent (for some unexplained reason) and provides some excellent comic relief while still being a very credible part of the team. Renner and Patton are very good support and Renner even takes over from Cruise and does the ‘iconic’ dangling into space moment in this entry... seriously though, do we really need these sequences? And Michael Nyqvist, the original Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (reviewed here), The Girl Who Played With Fire (reviewed here) and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (reviewed here) makes for a credible and pleasantly non-theatrical bad guy, for a change. This is all good stuff.

As is the nice gadgetry and little quirky things that Bird and co have put in for this little outing. The movable video corridor that Cruise and Pegg use to infiltrate part of the Kremlin, for example, is absolutely brilliant, funny and recalls the days when Wiley Coyote would order a new gadget from the Acme Company to help him try and catch Road Runner. Given Bird’s track record with animated storytelling, I’m wondering if he had some major input into that part of the writing.

Also cool was Cruise’s return to a public telephone to give his mission briefing a little helping thump to self destruct and a scene where the mask making equipment goes completely wrong and the team has to improvise. It’s all pretty good stuff.

More importantly, for the first time in a Mission Impossible film that I can see... you don’t know what’s going to happen way in advance of it happening. It doesn’t rely on a “oh, it was you all along” series of twists, which are usually easy to figure out because the studios get nervous about the audience and telegraph them too quickly, and instead we are left with a storyline where everything is up front and laid out with no surprises.

Having said that, however, there were two little things I did see coming a long way off... they were Ving Rhames and Michelle Monaghan and, I’m afraid, I was kinda expecting them to show up at some point. Rhames due solely to his past association with the film series in that he is now, along with Cruise, the only person to have appeared in all four films in the franchise to date.

With Monaghan’s character, Ethan Hunt’s wife, she is referred to all the way through the film as either having left him or having died. The fact that the writers didn’t just come up with a way to leave behind such an important narrative point very early on in the picture in a very clear manner practically writes up in mile high letters that she will be appearing at some point in the movie... I just don’t know where they’ll go with this character if they make a fifth one. Would be silly to leave her behind I think... especially since Monaghan is such a good actress and star personality.

Giacchino’s score is good too... and not just because this one is especially rich in reorchestrations of Schifrin’s original theme (which it is, the most Schifrin heavy score of all four movies I think). Proving himself one of the most versatile composers working in Hollywoodland right now, while still being humble enough to amalgamate or mimic other composers works for the good of whatever franchise he’s working on, I think Michael Giachinno will be around for a very long time and be the composer of choice for a lot of future film-makers who haven’t even started out yet. Only time will tell if he’s the Jerry Goldsmith of his time, but he’s certainly up there with the likes of Alexandre Desplat and Brian Tyler as far as I’m concerned. We shall see what we shall see... and hear what we will hear, I guess.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a really cool entry in the franchise for fans of the previous films and probably a good enough jumping on point if you’re not. Definitely will be on my “one to watch again in ten years” list. Worth a look.

Mission Impossible at NUTS4R2
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to click on one of the titles below to take you to my review.

Mission Impossible
Mission Impossible 2
Mission Impossible 3
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 
Mission Impossible: Fallout

Monday 19 August 2013

Noirish Project Design Process

Noirish Campaign 

Clarification Disclaimer: Please note that, while I freely gave my time and costs to Noirish Project, I produced three campaigns (60s UK/US, Italian 70s and modern) and a couple of early teaser pieces only... comprising around 30 finished designs (and generating hundreds of files). I also designed one set of title cards and a “video on demand” header. Since my work on the project, other factors have come into play and, as far as  know, my artwork is now not being used. I don’t know whether my title cards are still in the film but I would guess/hope not since that would, obviously, further dilute the brand strength of the movie in relation to the poster campaigns. I am clarifying this here, not so much as to distance myself from the project but to firmly establish to any future collaborators who require my expertise in design matters that some of the stuff surrounding the project has not been produced by me and therefore the quality and consistency of the layout and typography on certain pieces should not be mistaken for my own. I actually have a degree in graphic design and over a quarter of a century in the field, so I’m not in the habit of making any typographic mistakes or poor judgemental decisions within the realm of my work unless insisted on by a client. So please don’t judge me by some of the  stuff you may have seen surrounding this project as I may well not be guilty. I wish James Devereaux every success with this and future projects and, as always, I hope you enjoy his unique spin in his work.   

When actor/writer/director James Devereaux contacted me privately to find out what was the best software to acquire to tag stills from his debut feature Noirish Project as “a bit of fun”, I was pretty up front that I thought his work was better than for him to just tag the odd photo with a snippet of type as a promo. I talked to him about the idea of letting me work on a full campaign for the film and he liked the idea so, after a little while, I volunteered my services and was ‘in’.

Now as a graphic designer for over 20 years, my normal approach to doing something like this would be to ask James a lot of questions regarding details about the film and maybe badger him to see the script... and that’s what I almost got into with him. But something held me back. I remembered a couple of things which made me think that, maybe for this one project, the results I produced might be better off if I went in a little more blind on this one. I know, for example, that James welcomes improvisation and the opportunity for serendipity in his work... so a locked in script might be only a guide as to what really gets up on the screen in the final cut of the movie anyway. Added to that was the fact that the window between completion of the final version and the release probably wouldn’t have been enough time for me to come up with anything useful anyway... not with my regular day job hogging all my time and with film reviews to write most evenings.

Also, I know that some of the best campaigns, especially from one of my design heroes in the fifties and sixties, were much more effective by not selling the actual content of the film but by selling the “idea” of the event and attraction of the film. This was something I wanted to try but, keeping with James’ idea that whatever I did, it had to be fun for me to do (a work ethic I gather he instills, or at least expects, from all his collaborators), I also suggested something which, frankly, meant a lot more work for me but which I thought would be ultimately more rewarding for the audience, for James and for myself.

So I suggested that I made not one but three campaigns for the movie... campaigns that would be, like Billy Pilgrim, the main protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, “unstuck in time.” With this in mind I suggested I work on the following...

1. A set of black and white (as the movie is shot in monochrome) lobby cards in the style of something you might see in the UK in the 70s and then topped off with a colour, 1970s style montage poster.

2. A set of Italian fotobusta, in the style of something from the 1950s/60s with bright, hand coloured looking shots combined in a dynamic layout and then followed up with a locandina of some sort.

3. A modern character teaser campaign depicting primary characters and followed by a poster or two as the film might be advertised today (which is fair enough, it is after all, a contemporary film). This actually ended up as two sets but I’ll get to that later.

4.  I also threw in some quick teasers which were not aligned to the other campaigns as a fast response to some other things James was doing, but I won’t cover those here.

James liked the idea so I ran with it quick, before he changed his mind. I asked him for the credits, the four main character names, and a choice of quotes from the movie that each character says so I could build the character teasers around the phrases... as well as loads of high resolution stills from the shoots. As many as he could get me.  But first things first, the project needed a logo...

The Logo
Saul Bass is my design hero so I asked myself what Saul would have done for this.

James produced the first of what ended up as two short ‘preludes’ to his film and, like a few of his other shorts, I noticed the prominence of a phone conversation as a catalyst to get things moving. Everything always starts with a phone call so I figured I would use that as an icon to encapsulate that everything in the narrative has that starting point. I knew (or hope I know) that James will be screening both of his preludes with the main feature, so it kinda made sense. I came up with something very fifties and Saul-like and which, despite appearances, gave me a few problems to wrestle with but eventually got to something which looked defined enough and didn’t camouflage itself in various coloured backgrounds too badly.

The 70s Campaign
The lobby cards were the easy bit, once I’d discovered the more common sizes and ratios used. In the end, for the sake of memory size and storage space, the final poster was just done as an A size to make printing easier, if that’s required... but the lobby cards and fotobusta are all in the correct aspect ratios.

The lobby cards are just the black and white stills where I’ve fiddled about with the levels and contrasts etc and then just applied into a template. Pretty much as the ones I was looking at when I was researching these things.

The poster was a montage of elements I’d cut out from the stills... which I then heavily filtered the f**** out of to make it resemble one of those very impressionistic poster artworks you would sometimes see back then. I remembered as a kid realising that some of the people in the backgrounds of these posters were just a head and an odd squiggle for a feature or two and that’s the kind of distancing I was going for with what I did here.

Fotobustas and Locandina
This is where I really had fun. My initial mock up visual to James was something where I’d converted the colour still he gave me to a black and white image, removed all the white and then coloured up the background layers with a paintbrush tool behind the blacks of the main image. It was okay and James liked it but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it so I tried to do something else. I experimented and in the end came up with something which gave me just the look I was trying so hard to match for this kind of material.

What I did in the end was take each shot and make a duplicate version of it on two separate layers. The bottom layer retained the colour and I increased the saturation to absolutely outrageous levels, something which would make anyone looking at it recoil at the vibrance of it but not to the extent that the original hues were completely lost (although definitely getting near that territory, for sure). This was then covered with a top layer of the shot in exactly the same place, which I then turned into a mono image. Then I played around with the levels a little bit before posterising the mono image to just two channels... like a sixties photographer might do for a screen print. This meant that all the whites to mid greys and just above were turned into white space, and all the mid to dark greys and above were turned into black. So far so good...

Then I started playing with the opacity of the top layer and quickly saw my idea had worked. The oversaturated colours from the layer below shone through the white in a muted state which brought them down to something which mirrored the real, brightly hand coloured locandina of the 50s and 60s very well. The bonus, of course, was that the dark areas over the blacks already in the bottom layer were also magnified, but in the other direction... they became darker in certain tonal areas and helped define the shapes of the people in the photos even more.

This all looked pretty "dead on" to me and, after redesigning the logo into an Italian version with a longer top leading in, I created a template I could drop the flattened versions of these new “alternate” shots into and was very pleased with the results.

For the locandina, I tried to pick elements which I thought the Italians would use to sell the film in their own country. These would not necessarily be important elements of the film, of course... just the bits they would expect their target audience to latch on to. I used a similar (although not quite the same) process as the earlier seventies poster to assemble the final locandina and was pretty pleased with this one.

The Modern Campaign
For the modern campaign I used isolated shots of the characters and played around with colour level saturation before sharpening up the shot and just posterising certain parts of the features. I wanted something stark but colourful and I then used the phrases I chose from the ones I’d been given and cut them up into little chunks to emphasise them and make them something more as isolated features than they would probably be when experienced as lines in the main film. This was okay though, that’s what advertising is all about... trickery and persuasion.

I wanted a background that was colourful, ragged and textural to contrast the things going over the top of it. In the end I took a shot of the palm of my hand and did all kinds of things to it (including multilayering in different positions) to get to the state you see in the teasers and final posters. I really liked what I achieved here. I also did versions where the actual characters were in mono and, since neither James or myself could figure out which ones we liked best, we used both as the US and UK equivalents of the same campaign (I’m pretty sure I’ve actually seen this done before but can’t remember which films did this with the colour in the US version and the black and white in the UK versions).

The final posters were an amalgamation of the four character posters and the added element of Alfie holding his sign. I did both portrait and landscape versions and got something I was pleased with in the end. I used the elements from this campaign when James asked me to come up with some opening title cards for the film... but I pushed them all in a slightly different way because of their context.

And that’s an insight, as James has asked, into my approach for the multiple campaigns for Noirish Project. Now, like you, I’m just waiting to see what he came up with in his final movie... so no pressure James!

Sunday 18 August 2013

Check To The Queen (Scacco Alla Regina)

Ain’t Miss Be Slaving?

Check To The Queen (Scacco Alla Regina)
1969 Italy/West Germany
Directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile
Earls Court Collection DVD Region 0

Right. I think this is going to be one of my shorter reviews, I’m afraid.

Check To The Queen (Scacco Alla Regina) is a film of which I’d never heard of until a stall holder at a major London Film Convention recommended it to me. However, I’m pretty sure this is one of those films where the music has haunted me for quite a while now.

When I got the movie home I noticed a quite striking and what I would say is a fairly historically iconic visual image on the back cover of the front of a woman’s head projecting from a flat surface (actually a hole cut in a mirror, in the film proper). This is one of the more interesting shots from early on in this movie (although the more famous version is obviously a publicity shot) and I recognised it immediately as being the cover image for a current “best of” album for Ennio Morricone’s famous singer Edda Dell’Orso. It's also used these days as the cover of the soundtrack album. The compilation it's used on is actually called Edda Dell’Orso “Voice” and it contains a number of tracks by Morricone and other composers, including Piero Piccioni who scored this film. Check To The Queen is represented by no less than three tracks on that particular compilation. And I immediately knew from this that I was probably familiar with a lot of the music in this film already, since I have a number of Italian movie music compilations and, yeah, this film seems to get picked on a lot for those kinds of albums... and rightly so.

So, before I’d even got around to watching the movie, I put a request in to my major supplier of Italian scores and he sorted me out the expanded edition of the soundtrack, when I saw him at another film fair. I was advised that the score on this one was “really good” and, after having listened to the album a few times... I’d have to agree with that conclusion. It was also, obviously, very familiar.

But what’s the film like.

Well, there’s hardly any story and it’s the tale of a BDSM ‘D/s’ relationship between a Countess, Sylvia, who goes to work as one of the slaves of a famous film actress, Margaret. She goes there because she has strange and psychedelically lit fantasies of being whipped and humiliated by the lady in question and, once she accepts the ‘position’ given to her, most of her desires come true.

It’s fairly far ahead in terms of it’s time and the content being explored in a commercial venue such as cinema. Various forms of objectification play are indulged by the mistress before Sylvia starts to go along a path of almost topping from the bottom (in modern parlance) and as a result is auctioned off in a non-binding but ultimately worrying auction due to the tone of the film depicting the mindset of a submissive in such situations as suffering a form of mental illness which needs to be cured. Not the domination part, mind, just the submissive. I guess it was either a censorship issue or a bit of naivete at the time that any discussion of mental health rears its head at all in terms of this kind of relationship or lifestyle choice. Certain aspects of it wouldn’t be for all people in that kind of scene, I know, but it’s wrong not to be vocal about the lack of right one person or body of people has to question another person's sexual or power triggers and so forth, in that ‘closed to the general public’ lack of freedom. I thought the sixties were supposed to be a little more liberated than that. I always was, growing up in the late 60s to late 70s.

Of course, we’re not living in that kind of situation these days... oh wait... checks the clock and state of the British government and politics... oh no, the times we’re living in are much worse under a series of judgmental ruling parties who think that they know best. Thankfully, the modern BDSM community seems less judgmental about such relationships than the majority of governments... so there’s still hope that people are allowed to have any kind of Safe, Sane and Consensual relationship they want... for now.

So okay, sexual politics and power games out of the way... the film is shot really nicely. The psychedelic fantasy sequences I mentioned are heavy on the filters (to the point where some of the action is obscured or uncomfortable to look at) and there are some nice shot set ups which utilise the overemphasised vertical shapes of the mansion house in which nearly all of the movie is set. There’s a nice scene where Margaret rides a mechanical white horse (not dissimilar to the one in Korda’s The Thief Of Baghdad) which leads to some pony play fantasies in Sylvia’s head and there’s even some living statue play... Yeah. Whatever. I’m with Hot Fuzz on this one... the blight of the living statue.

And, of course, there’s Piccioni’s wonderful lounge score with Edda Dell’Orso’s amazing voice coming at you... you’re probably familiar with her from a load of Italian scores already such as A Fistful Of Dynamite and Once Upon A Time In The West and she is just as spellbinding working with Piccioni here as she is with some of the other famous composers she’s collaborated with in the past. Any film scored using her incredible vocal talents is going to elevate itself and the score glues everything together in this movie and makes it work. Even stops it becoming boring at times, which it threatens to do on a few occasions... like I said, not much happens.

I don’t think I’d recommend this film to many people, even less so to those who I know who are in the BDSM scene and who, like me, might become just a little enraged at the lack of intelligence and conscience applied to the subject matter in this particular area... which is pretty much what the movie is all about. On the other hand, the movie has some spectacular shots, competent editing, beautiful naked women and a truly classic lounge score which is obviously, due to its prominence on various compilation selections, considered very highly in the industry. So if you’re into all that stuff... yeah, give it a go.

Friday 16 August 2013

Mystics In Bali (Leák)

Bali Sugar

Mystics In Bali (Leák)
1981 Indonesia
Directed by H. Tjut Djalil
Mondo Macabro DVD Region 0

Warning: Seriously, if this review didn’t have spoilers here you probably wouldn’t be interested in seeing the movie. You need to know this kind of stuff exists.

A leák (or leyak) is a powerful Balinese shape-changing spirit demon, from what I can make out. Often they will take the form of pig spirits or flying balls of fire (as happens in a couple of scenes in this movie) and they prey on blood, especially the blood of new born, in a vampiric way. So... in summary... a powerful, vampiric, black magic demon of some description.

I don’t actually think I’d heard of a leák before watching this movie as, I think, my only other encounter with the films of Indonesia was the female biker/prison movie Virgins From Hell. My interest in tracking down this title came from a trailer excerpt I’d seen on two other Mondo Macabro releases, Countess Perverse (reviewed here) and Gravida (reviewed here) What I saw in this trailer excerpt, or what I thought I saw, was a woman’s head and spinal column detaching from her body and then floating off to deliver cunnilingus to a woman somewhere else. However, as it turns out, from the way the trailer was cut and the way I interpreted the juxtaposition of the visuals... what happens in the movie itself is even a little more warped than that. I’ll get to that soon.

Okay, so, with flying heads and lightning shooting out of levitating people’s hands, I figured I really couldn’t miss out on this movie and I finally ordered one of the remaining copies from US Amazon.

Now Mondo Macabro are a label I like and support a lot (seriously, who else would try to get a release for stuff like this) and they present the film here in a mostly crisp print (apart from some of the special effects transition scenes, probably because of the way the stock was originally treated for the FX... seen that kind of thing before) in a nice 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. About my only real grumble is that the movie is dubbed in this instance, which I was a bit annoyed about. Surely it would have been cheaper to carry the original Indonesian soundtrack and put some subtitles over the top?

Anyway, that quibble aside, I have to say that for me, as someone who likes to have “adventures in cinema”, I was truly pleased to be able to see this one. It’s quite terrible and unintentionally funny pretty much throughout... but it also has a certain charm of it’s own and some nice little make up effects.

The credits sequence is amazing and transports you to a place where a masked leák is dancing around for you, followed by shots of various different and interesting demonic masks being jangled about the screen in front of you while exciting and, in some ways, unbearable music is played at you. It reminded me of something from Live And Let Die (reviewed here) in that respect. The credits also include that OMFG moment when you discover this stuff is actually based on someone’s novel. Seriously, there was a source novel? With flying heads?

Okay, so the film starts off pretty well where the main male and female protagonists, who don’t seem to be very good actors (in fact, the leading lady was apparently a German tourist who did it for a few weeks added on to her holiday for free), meet and we are “expositioned” to death about the girls book she’s writing on voodoo and black magic and her wish to study under the apprenticeship of a leák. Our main man, who is a complete good guy and therefore completely familiar with the concept that you should not go messing with evil spirits (we later find out), contradicts his character completely and offers to hook her up with one.

There’s some interesting and not uncreative framing throughout the movie... especially in the non-effects sequences like this. There’s a beautifully wild transition where we are following the conversation between these two people, walking towards camera through an arch, where we suddenly pan up to an integral set of carvings on the arch culminating with a demonic gargoyle amidst an explosion of wild music, which continues playing through the next scene as source music. This is all good stuff.

Another tactic the director seems to use in the quieter scenes is to remove the camera from the main action to focus on establishing the location within the same shot. For example, a conversation taking place carries on in the soundtrack while the camera pans away and around the surroundings before eventually cutting back to the people having the conversation, now having placed them in the environment. It’s an interesting way of doing things and something I rarely see done outside European cinema (except for maybe in some of the films of Woody Allen or Martin Scorcese).

When the two meet the leák for the first time, we are introduced to her incessant, cackling laughter which seems to be her trademark. It’s seriously persistent and makes Cesar Romero’s turn as The Joker in the 60s Batman TV show seem positively sombre. She also shows her sense of humour when offering to shake hands with Catherine (our foolish and mostly wooden heroine) in the traditional American way... but leaving here arm behind in Catherine’s hand when she leaves... it crawls off on its own later.

This is all good stuff of course and she agrees to take on Catherine as her disciple for “payment”... which, of course, Catherine never bothers to ask about. The deal is sealed the next evening when Cathering brings the leák jewels and several bottles of blood to drink... although where she got the bottles of blood from is anyone’s guess. The leák is pretty much unseen, hiding in the bushes, for this sequence but she asks Catherine to remove her skirt so her extra long tongue can lick her inner thigh and tattoo a demon symbol on it with what I can only describe as, her electrified taste buds. Don’t worry... it sounds much better than it actually is. Most of the special effects are more than a little ropey, it has to be said, although the leák’s long nails in certain scenes are marvellous and put me in mind of early German Expressionism cinema and, also, the annhilants (Walking Bombs) from Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe.

The next night, Catherine is back and trying to copy the demon ladies laugh in a scene so prolonged and stupid that I even had time to think of that Cesar Romero crack I hit you with a couple of paragraphs ago. But, sad to say, being a demon woman’s disciple is not all it’s cracked up to be and Catherine doesn’t really remember the times the leák takes over her head. And I mean literally...

We come to the first of a few occurrences of what I’d seen on the trailer. Catherine’s head and bloody spinal column rip from her body under the spell of the leák and fly at high speed to visit a pregnant lady and suck at her vagina... not for the joy of f*cked up voodoo sex as I’d naively imagined from the trailer, but in order to suck out and consume the baby in the mother’s womb before it’s born. Nice people these leák!

And I know Catherine is not really herself after these little kinds of jaunts because she doesn’t really understand the after effects when she awakens the next day. For example, after spending her night as a giant snake, she goes to kiss her new sweetheart but instead runs to vomit green bile and three live mice. Obviously her snake self hadn’t got around to digesting these poor little guys yet but, regardless of the fact that there are live mice jumping out of her throat, Catherine proves her general naivete by assuming she must have eaten something that disagreed with her at a banquet the night before.

A further example of how being an apprentice to the dark arts can increase your stupidity ten fold occurs when she awakens one morning to find blood dripping from her mouth. She concludes that the events of the night before must have been a dream and that she seems to have bitten her lip. Blimey. Well maybe she was into some lip biting the night before but, if she was, they certainly weren’t her lips! Stupid, stupid girl!

Meanwhile, the cavalry, in the form of Catherine’s new lover, his uncle, and various other people who work for the forces of light... a team of “leák-busters” in fact, totally fail in some of their intents but rush in anyway for the final half hour to do battle with the leák and Catherine in a scene which includes an almost but not quite good re-assembling pig transformation, bad levitation effects, cartoon lightning forces, cartoon flames and a few bloody incidents. It’s not a great climax to the movie (which has the most abrupt, non-informative, lack of closure ending I’ve seen in a long time) but the film is what it is and I am, I have to say, happy to have seen it.

This film, as I’m sure you may have guessed by now, isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and, I can’t in all honesty, say it was even any good. But it was entertaining and if, like myself, you are on a mission to seek out different cinematic experiences from around the world, you may just appreciate this film even from the scene where, after the heroes have seen Catherines head flying around and attempt to get back into her body, one of the characters comes to the calmly and wildly inappropriately delivered conclusion that... “Maybe Catherine’s being used by supernatural forces.” Oh yeah. Gee. Ya think?

Honestly, if you are into preposterous movies, then Mystics In Bali should probably be on your “see this rubbish before you die” list. It’s not pretty but it is notable, for many dubious reasons. Proceed with caution followed by a contradictory air of wild abandon.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Lone Ranger

Hard Mask-Tasker

The Lone Ranger
2012 USA
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Playing at UK cinemas now.

The Lone Ranger started out his life in a radio series in 1933. He then rode into novels and a couple of serials (now sadly lost, at least in their original serial format) and then the famous Clayton Moore TV show... followed by a few mis-fires of movies along the way. The latest mis-fire of a movie is by Gore Verbinski and it’s simply called... The Lone Ranger.

I wasn’t the biggest Lone Ranger fan as a kid, but I did quite like watching episodes of that old Clayton Moore show and I also had those brilliant Lone Ranger action men which weren’t quite as big as a regular action man but were certainly about 10 inches tall. They even had a flexible grip on them to hold their six shooters if memory serves me correctly. For the record, I had the three basic figures they released... The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Bush Cavendish. I didn’t have Silver... that would have been too extravagant. Bush Cavendish was, of course, modelled after the actor who played him in multiple episodes in the TV show, Glenn Strange, who had played the Frankenstein monster for Universal three times in House Of Frankenstein, House Of Dracula and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I didn’t know that as a kid though and I was probably unlikely to make the connection... my Frankenstein monster action figure was firmly modelled on the Karloff portrayal so there was really no resemblance between that and my Butch Cavendish toy.

Most people seem to forget the lineage of The Lone Ranger character in terms of his relationship with another radio, film and TV sensation who was created by the same writers... The Green Hornet. Because of rights issues with various companies exploiting the two properties, it’s rarely if ever referenced except on the Radio shows but The Lone Ranger’s secret identity is John Reid and he is the great uncle of Britt Reid. It’s the silver mine that The Lone Ranger uses to make his silver bullets from that ensures the wealth of Britt Reid’s family in The Green Hornet but, like I said, it’s more of a family secret now due to legal obstructions.

Now I’m not the biggest Gore Verbinski fan, I have to say. I loved the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie but that was about it. I think they all went downhill from there and you can see how unmoved I was by Rango right here. The Lone Ranger is a film that has had really bad word of mouth and is being hailed as this year’s John Carter in terms of the capacity to lose money... although I have to say that, asides from a few problems I had with the writing of the titular character in John Carter and the penchant to give a rational scientific spin to the supernatural aspect of the main protagonist finding himself a stranger in a strange land, I actually thought quite a lot of that particular movie. So I wasn’t completely convinced by the bad word of mouth on The Lone Ranger and just see it as a symptom of the lack of willingness in modern audiences to embrace the old fashioned pulp heroes that I love. So I went in with a fairly open mind I have to say and the early signs, once the film began to play out the first few scenes, were encouraging.

Yeah, that’s right. The new version of The Lone Ranger has a perfect set up. An unexpected time period setting with an elderly Tonto to relate the story of the film to a young masked boy in a cowboy suit, followed by the collision of the two main characters in a heady action sequence which immediately brings their chemistry out and makes for some thrilling and humorous watching. Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly after this strong an opening, I have to say, the film begins to falter and spiral down the more it plays out after this initial set up.

It doesn’t immediately fizzle and the characters are written and played with a certain amount of wit, which certainly keeps things bobbing along (just to confirm, Johnny Depp is excellent as always), it just doesn’t really seem to pick up the pace for any great length of time as things continue and there’s very little action to speak of in the rest of the movie until you get to the end sequence. It doesn’t get boring exactly... it just gets, kinda, less than it could have been as opposed to ones expectations... or mine at any rate. Which is a shame, really. I think a few more action scenes, or at least extensions to the smattering of “almost but not quite going for it” action throughout the rest of the movie (up until the end sequence, which it gets back to its hell bent for leather pacing) would have served to punctuate the movie with more emotional investment in the characters and might have made it a great film.

As it is, it doesn’t quite make good, let alone great. And that’s not what I was hoping to be writing today.

On the other hand, it is full of some great things. Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the title character is, perhaps, written a little too pure for an adult but he does it well and Depp has a ball with Tonto and, helpfully, the two actors bounce off each other well. Ditto to William Fichtner’s turn as a rather more disturbing Butch Cavendish than I remember and more shout outs for Tom Wilkinson and Helena Bonham Carter, who is maybe a bit larger than life in the role of the madam of a brothel but certainly fits the mood and shines whenever her and her “special leg” are on screen. Extra special praise to Ruth Wilson as Rebecca Reid, who actually manages to add a real touch of down-to-earth emotion to her character in direct contrast to the hammy but enjoyable theatrics around her, without clashing with the style of the picture. I was really impressed with her in this and next to Johnny Depp, she was the best thing in it.

At least in acting terms. The rolling western scenery and beautiful cinematography also get a big hug from me. Many references to locations used by Sergio Leone (which I’m sure were probably all postmodern references to John Ford anyway) are included which provide the... “that was where Harmonica in Once Upon A Time In The West was made to...” moments in the movie. There are a fair few of these.

The score is fantastic in many ways, too. I find Zimmer a bit hit and miss still but I have preferred his last five years or so to most anything in his earlier back catalogue. I did get annoyed at the obvious references to the Leone film I just mentioned, though. In the third Pirates Of The Caribbean movie there’s a cue called Parlay, and it’s a dead rip off in structure and orchestration to The Grand Massacre scene from Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In The West score... well there’s nothing quite so drastic in The Lone Ranger but there is certainly a lot of music which takes its tone from this cue and it did keep popping me out of the movie at frequent intervals, I have to say. However, it’s a great score and though Zimmer hits you with The Lone Ranger’s key signature music, The William Tell Overture by Rossini, which has been accompanying the character in most of his adventures starting with his original radio appearances, he only plays it for a minute or two near the start of the movie. What he does is cleverly hold back on galloping into the full overture until the spectacular end action sequence, where he plays it to death and throws his own variations in on it too in a stunning, musical tour de force which should make the hair of most fans of this well worn character stand on end.

What the music can’t do, unfortunately, is make the final train chase sequence make more sense when it’s all edited together. I just got lost very quickly and found it harder to follow than I was comfortable with. I think it’s because the sequence is a little more complex than usual as opposed to bad editing. Which is a shame because the music really whipped up the mood for this final hoorah of the movie.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say at this stage, I think. The Lone Ranger is not a terrible movie and I liked bits of it so much that I’ll probably grab the BluRay of this when it hits the sales for a repeat watch. If you are into westerns, and this character especially, then you will probably want to see this take on it. It brings some nice originality to certain parts of “the legend” that are interesting tweaks.

If you’re going for Johnny Depp... he, too, is a good reason to see this. His turn as the older version of Tonto was so good it took me a while to even work out it was him... although the younger version of him seen in the majority of the movie is definitely easy to spot as Depp and, dare I say it, there are definitely some sly nods to his Jack Sparrow persona in a couple of sequences.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a fan of westerns and don’t know your Lone Ranger from... well... from your Green Hornet, then this is probably not going to be a good movie for you. It does lack a certain oomph in some places and even with some decidedly vicious, cannibalistic bunnies and a certain uneasy lack of balance about whether it’s trying to be a family film or something more horrific, it probably won’t do much for you. A sequel might be a nice idea but I suspect it stands little chance of getting one now. Oh well. Hey ho, Silver.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound And Fury

Killer Serials

The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound And Fury
by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut
Woburn Press
ISBN: 071300097X

When I find a bargain of a second hand book I’m not usually accustomed to paying a tenner for it. But I could tell from the image of Jean Rogers as Dale Arden peering at me from the spine on the shelf, about a year ago, that this one was something special and “of its time”. And that time, according to this first edition (of probably only one pressing I’m guessing, from its rarity), published in Great Britain by Woburn Books... was 1973. And therein lies both the deep joy and slight weakness, in contemporary terms, of this particular volume.

Next to the £10 marked up price, written in pencil on the first interior page, there is also an ink penned inscription written, presumably, by the previous owner of this adventuresome tome. Christmas 1973, is what it reads and I wonder if, perhaps, this book was sold on as a result of the death of the last reader. Whoever he or she was, I’d have to say to any ghostly, lingering spirit of that person, their Christmas present came to find itself in good hands again. Re-bought by someone who will value and cherish it for what it is. Even its imperfections.

When I was a young un, my mum and dad would take me to the local library in what was then known as Lower Edmonton but is now, more politically correctly called, Edmonton Green. My dad would sometimes take me up to the reference library and sit with me so we could flick through books with pictures in and he could describe to me, with their aid, all of the science fiction and fantasy films of bygone decades that I’d never seen and probably never would, unless one of the television channels decided to show one some time. Don’t forget, this is in the time before home video was even a wink in the consumer’s eye and movies were rarely shown more than once every three years or so (if the channel happened to have the rights to show it at the time). We had a small black and white television set with, in those days, three channels (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV) and that was as good as it got.

Many an hour was spent looking at the pictures in these books of B-movie monsters and robots of whom my dad would tell me stories from his personal experiences of watching them cavort and cut a path of celluloid destruction on the silver screen. Now I have most of these things on DVD I suspect but then, the unobtainable nature and the secret knowledge gained from the wisdom of books with the black and white photographic stills of these things was a very special thing and it was the way me and my father bonded (this is the same library from which my father borrowed a long playing record of the Orson Welles radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds... but that’s another story). I’m pretty sure that one of the books we used to look through was this one I’m reviewing here. It only has two small runs of black and white photos in it near the centre but that would have been enough for my father to show me images from the Flash Gordon, Batman and Superman serials etc. This was the stuff of legends but it was a reference library so these books weren’t really things we could take home with us and read. And once my mum had done with obliterating the Agatha Christie shelves in the downstairs library, it was usually time to go home.

1973 was a good year for me. Or it might have been 1974 actually. Can’t quite recall the year but I was five or six years old... and the BBC did something wonderful (asides from showing the original King Kong late one night which was... oh wait... that really is another story). Anyway, the BBC had a special afternoon on, probably BBC2 actually, of something they were showing to see if it would be popular. They were showing the original 1936 serial of Flash Gordon squashed together with the episode tops and tails taken out and split into two big parts, sandwiching a Hoppalong Cassidy movie in the middle. This turned out to be my equivalent of heaven and my father and I watched every drop. I was instantly a Flash Gordon fan.

The serials must have proved popular for the BBC I guess, or at least were cheaply obtained, because for the next ten years or so after that, they started showing the actual serial episode versions of this and other good serials at regular time slots. At first they would be shown during the Christmas holidays, then they would move to every weeknight at a 5.40pm time slot (followed by either a Charlie Chan, Saint or Falcon movie) and also during the summer and Easter holidays in the mornings, right after the French TV serial The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe and before Why Don’t You? I watched them all and, when they were on in the evenings (pre video recorders, remember?) my dad would watch them with me. We would watch Flash Gordon, carry on with him on Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, watch him victorious in Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, and then watch as Buster Crabbe would change his hair colour for Buck Rogers. Then we would thrill to King Of The Rocket Men, Hawk Of The Wilderness and Daredevils Of The Red Circle. Those were the days.

This book remembers all of these too but, it has to be said, not as vividly. That’s because, as the authors say in the book, a lot of these serials just couldn’t be seen to be reviewed. What could be gleaned mostly came from childhood memories, American television showings, interviews with some of the major players and readings of the original scripts. So that’s one thing... because I live in a time where I have a lot of these serials (commercially available or from other sources) I actually am able to see the things being reviewed, in some cases, when the writers (at the time) might not have had a chance to see some of them at all.

And like I said, the book is of its time.

Because these things weren’t easy to see, a lot of the book, more than a book dealing with the same subject matter would do today, it taken up with almost blow by blow accounts of what happened in a particular serial. Which is interesting and still, in some cases, quite valuable in a way but, even so, the talk about various tropes or quirks of these startling chapter plays is buried under the descriptions of the episodes themselves. Which in 1973 must have been fantastic (I wish I’d had this book as a kid) but nowadays can drag a bit when the serial being described is something you only watched a few years back.

Still, that’s not to detract from just how good a book it is and, more importantly, just how enthusiastic the two writers are (George Lucas must have thought so too because I seem to remember that Donald F. Glut was the guy who wrote the commercially released novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980... which is pretty much as close to a modern cinema serial you’re going to get). You will want to watch all these serials again, once you read about them, which is a shame because some of them really are still lost to time, never to be seen again. Okay, so maybe I live more in hope now that I live in an era which has managed to restore to us a complete print of Metropolis (reviewed here) but I suspect a lot less effort would be made these days to locate an old Lone Ranger serial as opposed to a masterwork of early German Expressionism. But still... I can live in hope.

The thing is, though, I could disagree quite violently with the authors opinions on some serials... but I don’t know if they’ve actually seen them or not. They make a point about just how bad the two Batman serials were but actually, I’d like to go on record saying that, although I agree with their appraisal of Batman and Robin from 1949, I actually really enjoyed the original Batman serial from 1943. That was a class act (in serial terms) and I don’t care who knows about it. There’s also the fact, and the authors warn you about this up front, to be fair, that the book deals almost exclusively with the talkies and the silent era serials are mostly left unexplored in any great detail.

That being said, its also a book that holds great treasures and is certainly a thing of value and wonder. For instance, among the many footnotes in the book, I came across this little gem...

“Comic relief characters were very much a part of serials of the talkie era. Syd Saylor’s particular trademark was the manipulation of his bow tie due to a large and manoeuvrable Adam’s apple.”

Now come on... that’s something you don’t read in books that often these days, is it? I showed that passage to my dad and he said... “You know... I think I remember him and that act.” It doesn’t get any better than this.

There’s also a little insight into stuff like the way actors in serials were cast due to their resemblance to the various companies’ main stunt men and if one or two of them had a checkered history, it’s touched upon here, if you can sort out the wheat from the chaff. It’s always interesting to know which A-listers died in the war or which matinee idol went to prison for 40 years after murdering someone. All good knowledge to be in possession of... hidden in among the jokes and asides about topical issues like the comments levelled at the then Governor Ronald Reagan. If only they’d known!

At a basic level, though, this is what you need to know if you decide you want to make an investment in purchasing what is now a harder to obtain and considerably more expensive item than what I payed out for it last year, according to Amazon. If you are after a book that covers the stylistic traits of these serials and looks at how they came into being and evolved during their “relatively” short cinematic lifetime, then this book may be less than what you are looking for. Some of this stuff is covered, for sure, but not in any academic detail, it has to be said. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something which, for it’s day, was probably the most knowledgable god-send of a book and is something written with a real enthusiasm and love of the genre, then you could do a lot worse than read this joyous celebration of a slice of cinematic history that a lot of the younger kiddies seem to have forgotten about (or not had the opportunity to see) these days. If you’re a true fan of these old action adventure romps with cliffhanger endings and, quite often, cheated or ludicrous solutions to those cliffhangers at the opening of the next episode, then this book is surely written for you.