Saturday 30 November 2013

Top Sensation

Das Goat

Top Sensation
aka The Seducers
aka Sklaven Ihrer Triebe
1969 Italy
Directed by Ottavio Alessi
Camera Obscura DVD Region 2

When I went to the Westminster Film Fair to pick up a copy of The Devil’s Wedding Night just recently, I shelled out the extra (for me, a bargain hunter to put it in the politest terms) cash for a limited edition DVD of Top Sensation by a German company who specialise in restorations of what they phrase Italian Genre Cinema... translation: Italian Exploitation Movies. They’ve done some pretty good giallo restorations in the past and I have a few of their movies sitting on my shelves.

I’d never actually heard of this movie before but the guy on the stall was talking to me and one of the other customers and they both recommended this film to me which was, apparently, a hot item of which he’d already sold most of his allocated limited edition stock of the title. I wasn’t sure until I picked it up but then I saw that it had my favourite “giallo babe” Edwige Fenech in it, in a definite state of undress, on the back cover. Not being one to shirk my responsibilites to my favourite female artists, especially if they are not wearing any clothing, I decided to make the transaction and, as I was forking over the hard earned cash, the stall holder furnished me with the wisdom that, I wouldn’t regret this purchase... especially the bit with the goat.

I thought no more of this, thinking perhaps that I had misheard the gentleman and wandered over to my favourite Westminster stall, with the two guys who specialise in Italian soundtracks. I mentioned that I’d just bought a film which I’d never heard of before with Edwige Fenech in it and when I told them the title they both commended me on having made an excellent purchase. Apparently I had a fine, upstanding genre movie in my hands. However, the two stallholders in question then looked at each other and added... “especially the goat scene”. I was kinda worried now but no amount of, well, whatever it is I could imagine with a goat taking place, could keep me from watching another movie with Edwige Fenech in her prime.

And so we come to Top Sensation. 

It may be a genre movie, for sure... but if it is, I’m not entirely sure what genre to put it in. It’s certainly an interesting movie but what’s really interesting about it is what was added into it for various different cuts of international releases. Fortunately, I’m able to see just what the extent of those are because this lovingly restored, albeit full frame (I’m assuming it’s open matte from a respectable company like this?) transfer by a company who I would have to call the German Criterion Collection of Italian trash cinema, is a two disc edition and includes all the alternate and freshly created (for the German  market, I’ll get to that later) footage on the disc.

But the basic cinematic release of the film is what I’ll tell you about first (the Italian TV cut is slightly different but, again, I’ll get to that in a minute). It’s all about seven people and, unlike the German version, only seven people. There are two principle locations... an Island (which is in a couple of scenes) and a boat. The plot invovles the super rich mother of a mentally retarded young man, Tony, and her employees who are hired to help Tony start to develop his mind. The plan is that Ulla, the Edwige Fenech character, will have sex with Tony so he’ll grow up fast. Instead, most of the time the one remaining bloke and three women seem to all be having sex together. Then they run aground on an island for a bit and Tony finds a goat sheperdess that he likes and she and her vengeful husband find themselves on the yacht as they sail off into trouble. There is some death and there are some very slight softcore sex scenes and lots of arguing and shouting... and that’s about it. It is, however, nice to look at and with people like Fenech and Rosalba Neri in the movie, I can’t say I regret buying this one at all. Even if it does have a scene on the island where, indeed, Ms. Fenech accidentally finds herself the (implied by the edit) object of affections of a goat. So those folks at the Film Fair weren’t kidding. About the goat. Kidding... about the goat. Um... yeah.

Anyway... the film ends with the machinations of the three people who are trying to win their fortune from Tony’s mother, foiled by a deed which, by the end of the film, only the audience knows about. The ship sails on into an uncertain future. At least in the Italian cinematic version.

In the TV version some extra resonance is added by use of flashbacks throughout the last couple of shots for the people who want the added depth or justification of why Tony has done what he has done (and I’m not telling you exactly what he has done because there’s not much I can give you in the way of spoilers for a movie like this but this would definitely constitute one). The resonance of the simplicity of the ending on the first version is a little spoiled and overworked for the Italian TV version, though.

The US version is surprisingly raunchier, with added footage to extend the relativley minor scenes of lesbianism, a lesbian threesome and, yes indeed, of the curious and inquisitive nature of the goat. I say surprising because the way the censors usually work in America is that they usually let all the violence through but cut out anything to do with sexuality... not that that makes a lick of sense mind you but that’s what they tend to do. Presumably the American’s would prefer their youngsters to see scenes of blood and carnage to emulate rather than teach them how to love and respect a woman. I really don’t understand this kind of censorship but, refreshingly, the trend is reversed here, from what I can see of the extended scenes from the American cut.

And then we come to the extra footage shot a year later for the German version...

Wow! Loads of new characters and nudity and death aplently as two 1970s police detectives, who are so sexist they make Regan from The Sweeney and Gene Hunt from Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes look like poster boys for feminism, link a series of murders to the people in the yacht. How on earth, I thought as I watched these scenes, are they going to have these two bring the alleged killers to justice since they obviously haven’t got any actors from the original shoot to help them out in that respect. Easy and quite hilariously unconvincingly, as it turns out. As the two investigate the island, they see the boat (off screen) and we then cut to a shot retracked in from earlier in the film where Tony drops a stick of dynamite. Rather than the dynamite being picked up and thrown in the sea like earlier, the detectives then hear an explosion as the ship is presumably destroyed, The two detectives look at each other and say “Let’s go home.”

Blimey. It didn’t take much for a German copper to solve a case in those days, did it?

Anyway, the discs have a few extra features, no expense spared by the always excellent Camera Obscura, and even an audio commentary on the disc... none of which I’ve watched yet. I prefer to review films like this without knowing anyone else’s responses. Would I recommend this movie to other people. Well, it’s kinda interesting and has the same kind of leisurely atmosphere as, say, Mario Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon (which also had Edwige Fenech in it, sans goat) but it’s certainly not the great movie that Bava’s masterpiece was. All in all I’d say that only fans of the naked bodies of Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri really need apply themselves to seeking out this movie. If, on the other hand, you are already a fan of the film, then this German edition from Camera Obscura is definitely the one to get as I doubt you’ll find a better version around at the time of writing this review. And if you do, say hi to the goat for me.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

The Mansion Of The Seven Mummies (La Mansion De Las 7 Momias)

More Superzan You...

The Mansion Of The Seven Mummies 
aka La Mansion De Las 7 Momias
1977 Mexico
Directed by Rafael Lanuza
Olympia Classics DVD Region 0

Blue Demon was a popular masked Mexican wrestler who, although he made nowhere near as many films as his contemporary Santo, still managed a respectable 29 movies playing pretty much himself... and he even partnered up in some with Santo (I’ve seen a few of these but I think I was watching these before I started writing this blog so I suspect I haven’t reviewed them here).

It’s easy to laugh at movies like this, and I often do... it’s over half the fun of tracking them down. However, I have to say that out of all the Mexican masked wrestler movies I’ve seen (and the Turkish knock offs, for that matter), that this one is exceptionally well made, relative to the others, and maintains a certain tone throughout which is genuinely haunting and watchable.

Okay, so we do also have all the atrocious acting and wafer thin plotting you come to expect and love with these kinds of movies, but you do get a real sense that everyone is trying their best and there’s even a twist near the end that I didn’t see coming. Also, although it is typically Scooby Doo in its approach to the material, the idea is better than the usual “find the villains, run up and punch them, repeat” content of the majority of the films I’ve seen in this genre. Having said that, of course, there is lots of punching and fighting in store but one of the things that strengthens this movie, compared to other luchador films, is the lack of spontaneously erupting, ringed wrestling matches interrupting the narrative flow. There’s one near the start which is alluded to but not shown and it seemed strange to me that the whole movie wasn’t filled with these scenes like normal for these affairs.

The story line is a little stranger than I was expecting too, but most of the movies I’ve personally watched in this genre range from the late fifties to late sixties, so it might be endemic to these kinds of entertainments of that particular late seventies time frame, perhaps. What I’m talking about here, though, is the fact that you have a good guy and his girlfriend and, when his girlfriend has to face “three supernatural challenges” to inherit her recently deceased fathers horde of treasure, he calls in his two wrestling hero friends, Blue Demon (played by Blue Demon) and Superzan (played by... um... Superzan), to help her. However, after being grabbed by evil forces, he then becomes one of the villains intent on stopping them and, surprisingly, doesn’t return to the side of the heroes once all the fighting is done. Just goes quietly mad and wanders the streets grabbing his box of charcoal (don’t even ask).

So anyway, the girl who’s name I forget (and the IMDB is absolutely no help with films like this, it seems... shame on them) has to complete three tasks around and about The Mansion Of The Seven Mummies which involve grabbing a sceptre, burying a skull and finally freeing a sparrow. Of course, all her efforts are impeded by the devil, some reanimated ancestors and a bunch of mummies. Luckily, Blue Demon, Superzan and their new companion, a comic-relief postman with all the funny expressions and reactions in the world, are there to fight the mummies.

There’s also a voyeuristic hunchback who stalks the lady in question throughout the movie and gives advice when the skull she is trying to bury starts moving around and trying to bite her in, it has to be said, typically ridiculous, unintentionally funny shenanigans. The hunchback character is kind of interesting because he brings to the ending a genuine twist which I’d not seen coming. Now it’s not exactly a clever twist, and if it had been in any other venue than a late 70s Mexican wrestling movie, I would have seen it coming. I think because I wasn’t expecting this to have any kind of script logic or follow through ensured I was not on the lookout for that kind of thing and, while it’s not as blistering a revelation as it could have been, it’s certainly took me unawares and I think people who enjoy these kinds of movies will probably get a kick out of it.

One of the things which make this so much better than some of the entries I’ve see in this genre is the make up effects on the mummies. They’re quite atmospheric and are similar, in some ways, to the work being done on Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (reviewed here) in terms of quality. There’s no goriness to them, don’t get me wrong, but they do look appropriately dusty and decayed and, although not really a danger to anyone at any point in the narrative (in credibility terms, that is), I was still quite impressed with these and the sinister atmosphere they help create. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say regarding Mansion Of The Seven Mummies. A very slightly less thin plot than others in this genre, lots of punching/romping around with mummies as our masked heroes take on evil and even a slight twist near the end. Not as completely ludicrous as some of the luchador movies I’ve seen but certainly worth a watch and, honestly, not without a little of its own share of side splitting hilarity in the right places for all the wrong reasons. If you’re a fan of these kinds of movies, this one should be hovering near the top of your ‘to watch’ list.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Doctor Who: The Day Of The Doctor

Miss Zygon

Doctor Who: The Day Of The Doctor
UK Airdate: 23rd November 2013

Warning: Spoilers sweetie!

This year, two very famous fictional doctors are celebrating big anniversaries. The first of these was in March when Doctor Clark Savage Jr, aka Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze, celebrated his 80th. To celebrate this, a new Doc Savage novel was written by Will Murray (the current incarnation of the Kenneth Robeson pen name, although this one went out under his own name) in which Doc Savage crossed paths with another fictional character who shares his 80th anniversary year with Doc in 2013. This particular Doc Savage adventure is called Skull Island and the other 80th birthday boy is, of course, King Kong. 

But the other fictional doctor, who is quite young in comparison, a mere 50 years old as the time lord flies, is of course The Doctor from the BBC TV show Doctor Who. And last night I watched the 50th anniversary episode of the series, not in 3D at the cinema (although the temptation was certainly there), but in 2D at my parents home, as a family unit... as I had mostly, off and on, watched Doctor Who for the last 43 of my 45 years of existence.

So did it live up to the hype and incredible amount of fan expectation that preceded it?

No, not really. It couldn’t possibly, could it? But, although I found myself a little underwhelmed at the time, mainly due to my own “what if...” kind of expectations, the episode certainly wasn’t terrible and it was, actually, really jolly good, mostly. Up to a point.

It wasn’t greatness but then again, the other two anniversary specials, The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, weren’t the best stories of their respective contemporary Doctors either and, well, the less said about The Two Doctors (reviewed here) the better, I think (not even “the great Troughton” could save that one).

So it’s probably a little unfair on Moffat to expect multiple Ogron orgasms from the episode so... if anyone did really hate this one... seriously boys and girls... cut him some slack.

Now then, one of the reasons my expectations were raised so high is because, two nights prior to this, I’d just seen Mark Gatiss’ own tribute to the show, the excellent An Adventure In Space And Time (reviewed here) and, frankly, after seeing that, I was prepared to accept miracles from the regular incarnation of the show. At the end of that review I wrote “If the 50th anniversary episode shown on Saturday 23rd November 2013 is even half as good as this one, then we’re in for a good time on that one too” and I did have a good time with The Day Of The Doctor... but there are a fair few negatives with it that didn’t sit too well with me either, I’m afraid. On the other hand, there were a fair few positives too and so I’ll save those for the end of this review because, I do want to go out on a positive note on this one... I hate being a grump when it comes to this show but this is kinda what the show has turned me into over the last few years, it has to be said. It’s a much more “hit and miss” affair than it used to be before David Tennant left the show. And that’s not a pop at Matt Smith, who is briliant in the role also, whether he’s got a good or bad script.

Okay, my first negative is that, apart from not having a sorely missed Christopher Eccleston in it properly, I did think the Zygons were a little underwhelming. Now I don’t remember the Zygons too well. I think at the time of their first appearance opposite Tom Baker in Terror Of The Zygons, I was busy watching a new pretender to the Saturday night science fiction throne which, quite deliberately, aired on ITV at the same time. The show was called Space 1999 and it didn’t take me all that long, it has to be said, for me to lose interest in that and return to Doctor Who but, these were the days before commercially available (let alone affordable) video recorders, remember. So I never got to actually see the original Zygons in their first round with The Doctor but, I did like the make-up/costumes and, thankfully, the BBC haven’t really changed them all that much this time around.

However, the clue was in the title to the original story... Terror Of The Zygons. 

As in terror.

Actual terror.

As in monsters you were supposed to be terrified of... and by all reports of people I know who did tune in for it... they were kinda scary. Which brings me to my main problem with The Day Of The Doctor. The Zygons here were not terrifying and, even when they appeared to have the upper hand (in the most obvious manner where every kind of escape is entirely possible), they really weren’t all that threatening and were mostly played for laughs, really just the straight men... er... straight creatures for Matt Smith and David Tennant to bounce off, for the most part. In fact, the actual Zygon story didn’t even come to a proper conclusion that we were shown. They were just tools used to get a few incarnations of The Doctor together so those three could reminisce about an important moment in their collective past which they were about to undo and so the aliens in question were just kinda jettisoned when they were no longer needed. I really think that monsters such as these could maybe have had a stronger entrance into the modern era version of Doctor Who before Moffat played around with them in this fashion. Even the comic relief Sontarons had a few truly deadly missions in new versions of the show before they became the, admittedly quite entertaining, joke that they are now. Never mind, though. Let’s let Zygons be Zygons and forgive, shall we?

Then there was the fact that bits of it really made no sense. Queen Elizabeth the First would not be able to remain disguised, or is that undisguised, as a Zygon long enough to learn the intricate details of their plan down to the Nth degree to explain it to The Doctor(s) really, would she?

And then there was the Time War.

Great gravitas from John Hurt and I’ll get back to him in a little while but, ultimately, as much as I regretted Russel T. Davies’ decision to make The Doctor the last of the time-lords (with occasional convenient exceptions) and as much as I knew that the only way to keep running forward with this show was to bring them back at some point, I really think this episode unmade that decision very quickly and with no sense of it being a hard thing to accomplish. Bit rubbish. Nice effects, to be sure, but the time war seemed to me to be a bit of an inconsequential battle, and not the war of different aliens and collisions of history the event had been made out to be in numerous episodes. So that was kinda trashy.

The only other negatives I got were that sometimes Smith and Tennant seemed to cancel each other out, almost, in the funny man stakes (which are stakes The Doctor shouldn’t necessarily be playing about with anyway) and also the fact that Billie Piper’s return to the show was not as Rose Tyler, but as an interface based on her and who was unable to interact with any of the incarnations who would actually have known who she was. That felt a bit like a kind of missed opportunity, to be honest, but at least there was a plus side to both these last two negatives... so let’s start getting happy and brightening things up a little.

When they weren’t cancelling each other out, Tennant and Smith did have some wonderful exchanges between them such as the “reversing each other’s polarity” scene and which culminated early for me with the wonderful line that Tennant says to John Hurt’s “true ninth Doctor” character... “I dunno where he picks this stuff up from”, in response to Hurt’s enquiry about the legitimacy of Tennant’s (and Moffat’s) original “timey wimey” phrase which Smith uses. That, for me, was the highlight of the episode, in fact.

And let’s look at that performance by Billie Piper. She may not have been Rose but she was truly stunning as the conscience of the most powerful weapon in the Time Lord arsenal, “The Moment”. And put her in a room with one of the greatest English speaking actors going, aka John Hurt, give them both a script with a particular thorny issue (genocide and the mass murder of billions of children) and you get a truly great set of scenes which, alas, lead up to a conclusion which, as I said earlier, wasn’t won with too much struggle but... you know... what a lead up to it, though. John Hurt was, of course, excellent and I really didn’t expect anything less from the old war horse... now transformed into the “War Doctor” as a means of keeping out fans comments about the hasty renumbering that has to be done now.

Oh, and that reminds me. I’m not finished with the negatives after all. Here’s another couple for you...

It’s unfortunated that, during the end of the Fourth Doctor’s era, it was established that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times (flying in the face of continuity with prior bits of the show’s history actually, but people seem to forget that bit). However, with that bit of established lore, having a line in it from the all powerful “The Moment” which says that The Doctor’s punishment is to carry on living is really a sorry excuse for losing that rule. Really? That’s it? I do hope not but, since future Doctor Peter Capaldi (who made his debut in this episode actually, just like I tweeted I thought he would some weeks ago... otherwise why announce him so early? Gotta get him into the audience consciousness so the cameo has weight.) is actually now Doctor number thirteen, I really hope that Steven Moffat does the right thing and addresses this long standing issue properly at some point.

And then there’s Tom Baker, Who turns up playing “The Curator” but makes jibes about being The Doctor, completely breaking the barrier between verisimilitude and fiction and being completely “meta”, as the kids say... destroying all credibility of the show, once again. He was brilliant and entertaining and, maybe even seeking redemption for not returning for the 20th Anniversary special but, for me anyway, the cost was too high. Further explanation was needed but, alas, none was forthcoming.

Okay, so back to the good stuff.

Lots of Doctor Who references, both visual and audio related. I loved the new character Osgood, played by Ingrid Oliver, and would love to see more of her in the series please... and even didn’t mind the fact that she was wearing Tom Baker’s scarf. The UNIT archives, or whatever they were, had lots of references of course but, for me, the best reference came from David Tennant when he delivered the line “I see you’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.” This was, of course, a quote from Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in the 10th anniversary special The Three Doctors and it was particularly gratifying to hear my second favourite Doctor, Tennant, quoting my all time favourite Doctor, Troughton. So that was a nice bonus.

And that’s about pretty much all I’ve got to say, if I’m honest. I understand why we just saw Peter Capaldi’s face in extreme close up... they want to reveal the true personality and costume of that character in the next series and, truth be told, I reckon they probably didn’t even know what that was going to be yet when they filmed it. And all the archival footage of the various incarnations of the character on the view screen and even the overly cheesy construction of them all standing together at the end was all very entertaining. But I did feel underwhelmed and I think I’ll probably get more out of it when I give it a second watch sometime next year on Blu Ray or DVD (yeah, I know it’s out in a week or two but I’m pretty sure I won’t get around to watching it again for a good few months yet).

However, although I didn’t like the story arc on this one, I did think a lot of the dialogue... not all but a lot... was particularly good and it’s certainly not the let down, nor indeed the triumph, that I could have foreseen. Just a nice little celebration for a nice science fiction hero who deserves to have a nice slice of cake and a cup of tea on his Birthday so... Happy Birthday and Happy Times And Places to you Doctor. And may you have many more.

Friday 22 November 2013

An Adventure In Space And Time

Cinema Verity

An Adventure In Space And Time
UK Airdate: 21st November 2013

Last night I saw one of the best put together pieces of contemporary television I’d seen in a long time. Written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Terry McDonough, An Adventure In Space And Time is a dramatic retelling of the story behind the first three years of Doctor Who and has been made as part of the fifty year anniversary of the show. It’s not, to be fair, all that detailed a look at the process and events that went down, for sure, but it doesn’t have to be and, anyway, it isn’t the intent. It’s a docu-drama with the emphasis on drama and, therefore, a certain amount of dramatic license has been allowed and utilised throughout the running time. This, however, is one of it’s strengths and allows the writer to weave a spell and create an atmosphere something closer to the heart of the matter... a place where mere facts can’t always explore so... well... so truthfully.

There’s one iffy moment near the end that, right since I’d heard they were making this show, I was wondering whether they’d be bold enough to try and was almost hoping that they would. Well they did but I don’t think the moment I have in mind really quite worked as well as it could but... oh, I’ll get to that later. You might want to shy away from the last few paragraphs here if you haven’t yet seen this and want to have a surprise moment still be a surprise.

Now, as I said, it’s not trying to cover everything but what this show does, and does very well, is take some of the triumphant moments from the first three years of Doctor Who and use them as story highlights to reveal the physical events and the beating hearts that birthed the series. It doesn’t harm things, either, when the casting is so good. David Bradley, Hogwarts caretaker from the Harry Potter films, amongst other roles, plays the actor William Hartnell absolutely pitch perfect and the cast he is with all deliver and, miraculously, many of the actors utilised here look very much like the people they’re playing. This helps but, honestly, they are all so fine in their roles that you almost wouldn’t mind if they looked nothing like the people in question (although it obviously assists very well in maintaining the illusion) as they all tackled the roles, or at least the popular perception of who those people were, with absolute charm and vitality. Jessica Raine channelling the strength of character of the show’s “first female producer at the BBC” Verity Lambert, for example, is absolutely compelling and creates a very strong positive role model for aspiring young people everywhere.

The way the story is introduced with a few scenes from the end of the time period under scrutiny is absolutely brilliant too. Starting off with a scene with Hartnell (sorry... Bradley) in a car, gazing at a police box after he’s just been, pretty much, fired from the role of The Doctor, due to various reasons, the narrative jumps forward a little in time to the shooting of his last story, The Tenth Planet, which introduced the Cybermen to the world, is all pretty good... and then the show jumps back via the TARDIS control panel readout to 1963, which is revisited and used as a device to click off each year as it occurs in the drama. I always kinda half like, half disagree with Mark Gatiss’’ writing (which isn’t a bad emotional response to be left with by someone actually... just means he’s a legitimate artist) but I have to say he’s been slowly growing on me over the last few years and, out of the few bits I’ve seen by him, this stands out as his best work to date... at least in my book.

The show also magically captures the spirit of the sixties, or more accurately, captures that distanced, nostalgic feel that passes as a kind of postmodern shorthand these days for the sixties, and this is injected lovingly into every frame and used to bring out the story in the most wonderous ways. Throughout the running time there are various geeky references and in-jokes and I’m certainly not buying into everything here as gospel, but it’s enjoyable stuff. There also seems to be an undercurrent of things which are put there, not for the likes of me, and which are kinda half hidden beneath the surface of the thing... which I could just about detect but which I can’t quite put a finger on because I don’t know the people in question. I was kinda half picking up  on a repression of certain hints of alternate sexual chemistry with some of the characters, for example... never once spelt out in any fashion but certainly simmering somewhere down there in the subtext. I suspect this is done for the sake of subtlety and to touch upon certain issues for the sake of accuracy without bringing it up as any kind of judgement in itself... which is great. Kind of like extras for the people in question who happen to be watching this show.

Some of the recreations of the clips from the episodes are right on the money too and it looks like the people both in front of, and behind, the camera made every effort to make them so... much more than, say, the crew of the film Hollywoodland did when they were inaccurately reproducing episodes of the George Reeves, 1950 TV show The Adventures Of Superman, for example. And I loved the little nods to the shows past with such villains as the Cybermen, The Daleks, The Menoptra (from The Web Planet story) and Marco Polo from... um... yeah I think you get the idea. I'm just thankful they didn't show the Zarbi.

I also found myself very taken with an anachronistic piece of dialogue which was just perfect but which looks forward to the show’s future while referring back to the past of the audience... when Hartnell finds himself “let go” from the show, he uses exactly the same “I don’t want to go” bits of dialogue that David Tennant spoke just before regenerating in his last story. Which is a bit of an amazing temporal anomaly if you think about it but, you know, that’s what Doctor Who does best after all and... who cares? There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Another main “moment” that happened in this whimsical vein, and read no further if you don’t want to spoil the surprise, is something which I thought would be a cool idea for the people behind this to do when they first announced it... I just didn’t think they would be brave enough to do so. Well I was wrong, they did it. Matt Smith is in here, playing himself, playing The Doctor. Or at least the ghost of him from the future, who appears in Hartnell’s mind as he contemplates his last moments on the show. It’s a nice, but cheesy moment, which didn’t quite work for me but Gatiss and the producers were brave to give it a shot and, well, since I also thought it would be a good idea back before they started making this thing, I can’t be too critical of somebody having this idea and running with it. I’m not sure it quite fits and it certainly dates it and anchors future viewings of the show to a 2013 time frame, but it’s quite fun and certainly within the spirit of the show. So I’ll shut up whining about that now and whine about a couple of other things instead.

These things being a few missed opportunities in terms of things covered which I feel might have been good to include and which I suspect were excluded due to factors like running time. The creation of Ron Grainer’s title theme tune, for example. He is credited visually with this but Delia Derbyshire, who was instrumental to the sound of that theme, was kind of short changed here, I felt. Also, a little epilogue with Hartnell’s participation in the ten year anniversary show The Three Doctors might have been nice but it would have maybe have changed the tone the writer wanted from the ending. What I would have liked to have seen, though, since the show was extremely informative to me and showed me a few things I didn’t know (yeah, I know, been watching the show for nearly the whole 45 years of my life and still managed to be informed by this... marvellous) is what Hartnell’s reaction and thoughts at the time were to Peter Cushing playing the big screen version of The Doctor (or actually a character called Doctor Who in the movies, if memory serves me right). It would have been interesting to see how this impacted on him, considering the timing of those movies.

At the end of the day, though, this programme was damn near perfect and, as I emphasised at the start of this review, one of the finest pieces of drama put out on television in years (and easily better than the majority of the episodes from the actual show itself, over the last few years). If you are a lifelong fan of the show, or even if you’re just curious about the early days and Hartnell’s involvement in the show and the gumption of Verity Lambert to get it made, then this one off special is indeed an essential piece of viewing. If the 50th anniversary episode shown on Saturday 23rd November 2013 is even half as good as this one, then we’re in for a good time on that one too.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Doctor Who - Warriors Of The Deep

Fifth Deep Sixed

Doctor Who - Warriors Of The Deep
UK Airdate: 5th to 13th January 1984
BBC Region 2

I really liked Peter Davison, even before he took on the role of the fifth TV incarnation of The Doctor.

I was very much a Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker Doctor Who fan at the time but I’d been familiar with Davison for a while by then, playing the role of Tristran on the James Herriot TV show All Creatures Great And Small, and I was pretty sure he’d make a great version of the role. Which he certainly did, making the pain of the departure of Tom Baker’s domination of the role quite surprisingly palatable at the time. However, after a brilliant first season for Davison, followed by a not quite as good but okay second season, things got very bright and then very dark for Doctor Who. 

The Brightness? Well, of course, that was the November 23rd 1983 broadcast of the shows 20th Anniversary story The Five Doctors. That was truly a good time for all the fans and it brought many good things to the table, including Jon Pertwee’s first (and last) encounter with the cybermen... at the time he was the only one of the five incarnations who had never shared a story with them.

The darkness? Well, I’m not too sure exactly when the rot began to set in but I can tell you that it could perhaps be seen very clearly by taking a look at this truly terrible production. This was supposed to be a special story but politics got in the way and due to Maggie Thatcher’s announcement of a parliamentary election, the show's usually stupidly inadequate deadlines were even further compressed without much warning, due to studio time needed for coverage of that (or some such thing). And the horrible results are here for all to see.

Now, you have to put yourself in the head of the 16 year old teenage version of myself, who was geared up to watch this show. This was the first story of the new season, coming about six weeks after the stupendous The Five Doctors. Also, this story saw the return of, not one, but two foes from The Doctors past. It was only the second appearance of both The Silurians and The Sea Devils and neither of them had been seen after their initial appearances against Jon Pertwee more than 20 years before (read my reviews of both by clicking on the highlighted titles). I still remembered The Sea Devils scaring the life out of me when I was a kid, so this was something I was really looking forward to. Plus, I think this was the first time two villains had been teamed up in the show at the same time, barring that anniversary special which, to be fair, had all the villains working separately. If memory serves me correctly, this wouldn’t happen again until the cybermen and daleks fought each other in the David Tennant era... so this was all good stuff. And much looked forward to.

So imagine my disappointment. You had a brilliant cast including such alumni as Ian McCulloch (see my review of his film Zombie Flesh Eaters here) and Ingrid Pitt (see my review of her movies The Vampire Lovers here  and Countess Dracula here). You also had Mark Strickson as Turlough (who we all hated but that’s okay, I think we were supposed to and certainly it’s a sign of his skill as an actor that we all did) and Janet Fielding, continuing her role as Tegan (who I was besotted by at the time, obviously). And along with Peter Davison as The Doctor, who was always nothing less than excellent in the role, you had an almost perfect recipe for some fine British television.

But it was terrible, it has to be said.

The script has some nice moments but there are also some horrible continuity problems with it, partially because of the monsters the show chose to use, and I really just can’t fathom why, to be honest. The main problem, of course, is that the Silurians (who are nothing of the sort in terms of pre-historical terminology, by the way) and their marine cousins the Sea Devils, were both referring to themselves by those very names when, in fact, this was a name invented by the human race for them and which these two races couldn’t possibly know about unless they’d happened to read something like that handy reference guide, The Doctor Who Monster Book (which presumably the writer had, at least). Even worse than this are things like Peter Davison having a conversation about what to do about the Sea Devils when his character hasn’t in any way been exposed to them in the story for him to know about their reappearance yet. It’s all pretty dire, to be honest.

But not as dire as the “not-so-special” effects and the costumes, to be sure.

The original Sea Devils wore string vests. When they come out of hybernation here they are apparently now wearing warriors armour, presumably to disguise the fact that only their heads have been manufactured. They now look less than frightening and more, I dunno, bewildered or startled than anything else. Certainly not the underwater menace they were back in Pertwee’s era. The Silurians aren’t quite so bad, it has to be said, although the design is a little more stylised and... well... a little more rubbish (but, to be fair, not as bad as the silurian designs introduced in the Steven Moffat era of the show). Both Silurians and Sea Devils alike still suffer from the classic “bob the head around a bit when you are speaking” syndrome too... since their faces are completely immobile and therefore an indication is needed for the viewer to be able to tell which of them is talking at any one time.

Both of these monstrosities, however, pale before the unbelievable rubbishness of the Myrka, a big sea monster that invades the underwater base which The Doctor and his companions find themselves on. Seriously, it looks like a big pantomime horse. It really is that bad a costume with one guy in the front and one in the back. I was going to say it reminds one of the comical pantomime horse which was a regular of that children’s television classic Rentaghost at the time but, when I watched a short documentary on the making of this show, it turned out that it actually was indeed the same two “motion actors” who played the pantomime horse in Rentaghost after all. Wow. Mind blown. The Myrka was truly a let down and, next to this thing which really did look like a pantomime horse and, for all intents and purposes, actually was one, the Sea Devils and Silurians maybe came off looking better than they actually were. But when the Myrka bashed a wobbly polystyrene... um... sorry, steel door which pinned down Tegan, there’s no way you can actually feel that The Doctor and Tegan are in any way in danger, I’m afraid.

So yeah, there’s a definite lack of peril in this episode, and that’s a shame because some aspects of the script, including the very last shot and line, which Davison delivers with far more gravitas than can be expected from a man who’s recently battled a pantomime horse and lived, are actually quite meaty. However, the “in no way special” effects and the lack of decent costumes, direction and editing really let this show down and this definitely contributed to me losing interest in the show to the point where I stopped watching for a bit at some point soon after.

Looking at the documentary on the DVD, I don’t feel too guilty about trashing this one, I have to say. Everybody else seems to be laughing about how bad it was on there too, including the main actors and the special effects department. This was far from Doctor Who’s finest hour and whenever I give the newest incarnation of the show a bad time, I might be well to remember just how bad the show got before its resurrection back in the Russell T. Davies era. Recommended only for people who want to see the Silurians and Sea Devils again. Generally though, best to steer clear of this one.

Monday 18 November 2013

Doctor Who - The Krotons

Kroton Torpedoes

Doctor Who - The Krotons
UK Airdate: 28th December 1968 to 18th January 1969
BBC Region 2

I remember exactly when I first saw The Krotons on television... and it was a really big deal.

My earliest, haziest recollections of Doctor Who as a two year old were of the Autons smashing their way out of shop windows in the Jon Pertwee classic Spearhead From Space (reviewed here) and Jon Pertwee was the Doctor I grew up with... along with, um, Tom Baker and Peter Davison. However, I was aware of all of the Doctors at the time from various publications... the 1973 10 year Radio Times anniversary magazine, The Doctor Who Book Of Monsters and, of course, the numerous Target novelisations of the stories which I started reading when I was fairly young. And my favourite of these last were always the ones with Patrick Troughton’s incarnation of The Doctor in them.

Flash forward a little to November 1981. We were already past the great purge of the BBC's stupid destruction of what was then the majority of their Doctor Who back catalogue and, as a result, they only had the one Patrick Troughton story left in their vaults at the time (a few more have thankfully resurfaced over the years but the majority of them are still lost). The story was The Krotons but, since they rarely showed repeats of Doctor Who related stories on television at the time, barring the odd rerun of The Brain Of Morbius or The Deadly Assassin, it seemed unlikely that I would ever see a Hartnell or Troughton story in my lifetime (or so I thought then and, in the days before commercial video recorders, this was actually a very reasonable conclusion to reach).

Then something wonderful happened. To bridge a gap between series 18 and 19 of the show, the BBC ran a series of repeats, screening old stories in the winter of 1981, before Davison’s first full series as The Doctor. The stories they ran, shown as part of a season called The Five Faces Of Doctor Who, were Hartnell’s first story An Unearthly Child, Troughton’s The Krotons, Pertwee’s The Carnival Of Monsters, Hartnell,Troughton and Pertwee’s The Three Doctors and Baker’s recent swan song, Logopolis.

And so I had occasion to finally see  Troughton in action in, not only a Troughton era story, which had started its original first episode broadcast right towards the end of the first year of my own birth, but also a Pertwee era story which I didn’t really remember from the first time it played back in 1972. And they were great. I really loved Troughton in the role of The Doctor and from pretty much that point in my life he became my favourite actor in the role. Still is to this day.

The Krotons may not have been the one the BBC would have shown if they’d have had any kind of choice in terms of repeating from Troughton’s back catalogue, but it was certainly a good one, depicting the somewhat clichéd Doctor Who story chestnut, the ignorant enslaved by the technologically advanced.

In the case of The Krotons, The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe accidentally stumble on a race of primitive humanoids called The Gonds who are educated by The Kroton’s machines throughout their lives. The brightest and best are picked each year to be “companions” of the unseen Krotons and disappear into the Kroton’s machine, never to be seen again. The Doctor and his companions already know why they’ve not been seen again.. because they are disintegrated by the Krotons as, it turns out, The Krotons convert smart brain energy into something they can use to finally ‘take off’ after centuries in their broken spaceship... the repairs to which are conveniently just reaching completion. It’s up to The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to rally the Gonds against the Krotons and also defeat the superior new faction of Gonds who want to attack the Krotons straight away with no chance of winning. It’s all pretty standard stuff for a Doctor Who story but, since it is a 1960s Doctor Who story, that means it’s still pretty good at what it does where many other shows or movies might fail.

The camerawork is kinda cool and there are some interesting POV shots from the ‘camera-as-Kroton’ vision with some establishing shots, too, which border on the surreal and maintain interest without worrying about not filling the soundtrack with the constant drone of dialogue, like most shows these days try to do.

The score, such as it is, is interesting too. It’s just been released on CD earlier this year by Silva Screen but it’s not a traditional score rooted, or indeed anywhere near, melody. Instead it’s a load of electronic sounds and atmospheres which allowed the BBC Radiophonic Workshop a chance to show off its technical brilliance and imbibe the story with sound tonalities to create the tension and atmosphere required when the villains are, indeed, a robot/crystalline species themselves.

The acting and scripting are all pretty much pitch perfect and you do care about the various characters and the antics they get up to on screen, although some of the cliffhangers are not exactly as worrying as you might want, to be sure. The personalities of both The Doctor and his companions come to the fore, re-enforcing the character types and flitting between the comedy that the Troughton era was best known for and the sense of imminent danger that has always been a big part of the show.

The DVD print fares pretty well for a Troughton era story, not that surprising since they’ve had the original of this one for a while, and the transfer seems as good as you could expect from the BBC at this stage of their admirable contribution to the home video format. Certainly an entertaining time for Troughton fans and, if you’ve never seen a 'Second Doctor' story before, this one would make a great jumping on point, seeing as how the character dynamics are all well on show and it’s all wrapped up in a charmingly entertaining story. Definitely one to watch.

Sunday 17 November 2013

In Fear


In Fear
2013 UK
Directed by Jeremy Lovering
Playing at UK cinemas now.

I’m not really sure that I’m inspired to say too much about this movie, in all honesty. Other than it’s fairly effective for a lot of the running time and that, its does what it does very well... for the most part.

It’s not a horror film and neither, really, is it a slasher film... although some people could probably put together an effective argument for the latter and that’s the kind of the genre film I was expecting it to be. I guess psychological thriller, for want of a more appropriate term, could fit this film to a certain extent and it firmly belongs, I think, in that strange, unspecified genre which could be formed if you lump together films like The Hitcher and Duel.

The one really good thing about it is that it was, despite having seen the trailer, not quite what I was expecting, although it did try to follow certain horror film genre rules at a few points and tripped itself off by tipping its hand too early, for sure.

The film is a three hander and, when I say it’s a three hander, I really mean it. Actually, for most of the first two thirds it’s only a two hander but, certainly, there are only three people in the cast in total and, though I suspect budgetary concerns may have played a part in that decision, it certainly bows down before the basic aesthetic of not showing, for example, a sequence in a pub which the two characters talk about and which seems (although it doesn’t really) to have repercussions for them later in the movie. However, I also think there could have been a couple more people in it at a certain point, and I’ll get to that in a little bit, but I can certainly admire the writer’s decision not to include a cluttered jumble of cast, at any rate.

The set up is simple. Two young “almost lovers” Tom and Lucy, played by Iain De Caestecker (the little Scottish guy from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D) and Alice Englert (who played Rosa in Sally Potter’s Ginger And Rosa... reviewed here) are on their way to a festival and trying to find a hotel that Tom has checked them in to. But with phone and sat nav signals fairly absent they get lost (and deliberately misdirected) on the country roads around their destination and terrorised by the local psycho. That’s the set up and I guess in some ways it’s pretty dreary. What I wasn’t expecting, though, is the fact that the majority of the film is actually set in their car and the director uses this to firmly establish a “please don’t get out of the car” vibe which, of course, he breaks every so often to set alarm bells ringing in the audience and to stretch the tension out like the surface of a drum. And, as I said above, for the most part it’s very effective and the director plays with your concept of what you feel the safety zone is and it’s all supported by very good performances by actors who seem to thrive on making all the stupid and idiotic decisions characters who are IQ challenged tend to make in these situations.

Unfortunately, that last thing is a double edged sword because the characters really are stupid and as you worry about them more, the more you lose respect for them. Any credibility that these characters could really be as lost and misdirected as they seem to be, flies out the window when you wonder what would happen if logic is applied judiciously to the situation... something neither of the main protagonists seem to want to apply and when the main antagonist of the movie turns up, you really would have to be completely switched off to not recognise the character for who he is. Which is a shame.

Now, here’s my thing, with regards to this particular movie. I was, despite all of the above, on a white knuckle ride for about two thirds of the running time and then, like something which is stretched too far and too soon, I suddenly reached a point where all anxiety stopped for me, I stopped caring about the characters and wondering whether they would get killed or not and, frankly, found myself looking for a clock and trying to figure out what I had to do next after the movie had ended. All tension had disappeared because the director had piled too much on too quickly. And I think this is where the movie could have done with a few more characters. I think a pause was needed by about this point. We needed, in my opinion, to see Tom and Lucy get to absolute safety... before seeing all that destroyed and the rug pulled from under us as their comfortable sanctuary was quickly demolished and they were in danger for their lives again. That, I think, would have helped maintain my interest in the movie and helped ratchet the tension back up to the level it had soared to earlier in the film, giving me cause to care again. But this didn’t happen and instead, when the last, dynamic set piece was played out, ending in a kind of semi-denouement (which I personally think was the right call but which I suspect, judging from the loud protestations at the screening I was at, is going to leave a lot of people unsatisfied), I felt no tension or interest in the ending. I was already working through other things in my mind as I watched and that’s kind of a shame.

But there are some good things about the movie, such as the inevitable “survival” betrayal of one of the characters which is a button pushed to serve as an object lesson by the mad psycho villain and I suspect younger, less jaded audiences who aren’t familiar with these kinds of films will probably get a lot more out of it than this old hand, to be sure. And it’s effective enough for a lot of its running time. Certainly, if you have nothing better to do, then it’s not a bad film to give some of your time too, although I do feel certain kinds of people may come out of the screening a touch angrier than they went in.

Saturday 16 November 2013

They Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail

Burning Bright

They Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail 
aka The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail
aka The Men Who Tread On The Tail Of A Tiger
aka Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi
1945 Japan
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Eclipse Region 1

If you’ve been reading this blog/column/haphazard archive of film reviews for any length of time, you’ll already know that I regard Akira Kurosawa as the ultimate force in film directing. A true artist of the cinema if ever there was one. This makes makes me somewhat trepidatious when reviewing his movies because, whenever I see one, I am often humbled by the sheer artistry on display and feel somewhat less than worthy of passing comment on this great man’s works. But, then again... you know me, even if I look foolish passing judgement, I’ll give it a go. ;-)

This was a first time watch of this particular Kurosawa masterpiece. There’s only one of his movies now that I haven’t yet seen but, don’t worry, it’s on the “to watch” pile so I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it here soon... not counting Those Who Make Tomorrow, of course, which is more or less a documentary and very difficult to see, as far as I can make out. I was bowled over by this one though since, quite apart from this being only his fourth film and showing all the signs of self assured greatness that marked pretty much all his work right from his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata, my understanding is that budgetary conditions were not exactly ideal when this was being made.

That being said, everyone was in the same boat in Japan in terms of making movies at this point. There was a little conflict called World War II going on at the time and this was not the film Kurosawa was initially scheduled to be making but, he had to give up on his original project due to the obvious wartime budgetary constraints (the sleeve notes on the Criterion Eclipse edition of this work inform me that the abandoned project eventually mutated into what became Kurosawa’s epic Kagemusha in 1980). So, when faced with these challenging times, Kurosawa wrote this movie, based on an incident from Japan’s past and also on two plays of the events, and he wrote it pretty much over the course of a day, by all accounts. I guess anyone can write fast if they want to.

The film is extremely budget conscious in that the whole of the action pretty much takes place on one set, redressed a couple of times. I find it quite astounding that the set is a forest set and that it still looks quite realistic, although I really shouldn’t be all that surprised at this. After all, think of the final sequences in Jame’s Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein, where the villagers are pursuing Karloff’s monster in the coutryside with raised pitchforks and burning torches... it all looks great and you would believe they were all outside, if it wasn’t for the blatantly visible wrinkles on the backdrop of the sky.

This film is about an incident where a lord is being pursued by his brother, who means to kill him and, with the whole countryside out looking for him, he and six of his men disguise themselves as priests and attempt to reason their way through a roadblock. They also have a porter in tow, and it takes about ten to fiteen minutes of the running time before he, himself, realises the importance of the group he finds himself attached to. All very simple and, indeed, it’s Kurosawa’s shortest film, clocking in at around 59 minutes in length. That being said, the fact that it’s a very short film does nothing to dilute its strength and there are scenes of suspense, as the main protagonists try to pass themselves off as priests to the questioning authorities, which are absolutely riveting.

Susuma Fujita, a Kurosawa regular who played the lead protagonist in the director’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, brings a kind of strange, laid back gravitas to the role of the man responsible for deciding whether to let the group pass the blockade and another regular Kurosawa actor, one of my favourites, Takashi Shimura, also has a small role in this movie. He makes the most of a few lines and facial gestures but, even with so small a role, he still manages to shine and bring the weight of his presence to the screen. The real stand-out actor in this move is Ken'ichi Enomoto, who plays the comical role of the porter just beautifully, going from a character who just can’t shut up over the first ten minutes or so of the movie to some absolutely amazing silent-movie comedy acting later, during the more suspensful parts where the “monks” are trying to lie their way through the barrier. His gestures and facial contortions are quite exaggerated but he uses his reactions to events so naturally that, within the context of the film, they never actually seem to be as over the top as he actually is and, like these kinds of lowly characters often turn out to be, he is the eyes and ears for the audience into the world we are being asked to partake of for the duration of the movie and it is through him that we perceive these events.

Well... through him and the occasional singing on the soundtrack, manifested in male, female and mixed choirs... which comments and explains bits of the story as the film progresses. This is somwehat a throwback to Noh Theatre traditions, is my understanding, and one of the plays used as the inspiration for this movie was done as a Noh version. Of course, being Noh influenced, it has no females in it (in proper Noh I am reliably informed that the female parts would be played by men wearing female masks) but this could just be a coincidence since, at the time Kurosawa was directing this one, all the women and children had been evacuated from the city anyway and so there would have been nobody available to take on a female role, at this point, even if he’d required one.

When the film was finished, it wa a bit of a hot potato, being as it was based on and therefore possibly reinforcing Japanese feudal concepts at a time when the country was losing the war... so it didn’t actually get released over there until the 1950s.  I’m not sure about this but I’m guessing the short running time of the film would have been more about lack of filmstock and other such materials to spare as opposed to any cuts to the work... although that is just a guess and so it may not be the case.

What is the case, though, is the fact that, with only one movie left of his to see, I’ve so far never seen a bad Kurosawa movie and, certainly, They Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail is no exception here. If you are a fan of Kurosawa you will surely love it but, even if you’re not, Kurosawa’s natural cinematic fluidity is as confident and assured in these early pictures as it was later in his life. This film is in the Criterion Eclipse set called The First FIlms Of Akira Kurosawa, which also features Sanshiro Sugata (reviewed here), The Most Beautiful (reviewed here) and Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (reviewed here) and, frankly, anybody remotely interested in cinema should be picking this stuff up.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Alive or Preferably Dead (Vivi O, Preferibilmente, Morti)

Limp Spaghetti

Alive or Preferably Dead 
aka Vivi O, Preferibilmente, Morti
1969 Italy/Spain
Directed by Duccio Tessari
Wild East Region 1

Wow. This is a terrible movie.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the actors, including the legendary Giuliano Gemma (who died earlier this year), are obviously doing their best here with the material, I’d probably just post a one sentence review warning you all to keep away and that would be that. But I think I maybe owe it a little more than that and even the director, whose work I have been okay with when he’s working on various giallo films, has made an effort to do something with this.

Alas, this movie seems to have been cranked out to capitalise on the success of the then recent sub-genre of the Italian western, the “comedy spaghetti western”, which reached its zenith a year later with My Name Is Trinity (Lo chiamavano Trinità...). The comedic element tended to be fairly broad and regularly crossed the line into slapstick on these kinds of films, especially in the Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies, but here the combination of “lots of fighting” and “hilarity” really strains and, although all involved are appearing to make an effort, it really can’t save the film when the editing and pacing seem to be working so much against it.

The plot set-up is fairly simple. The main protagonist, Monty (played by Gemma), owes lots of debts  to the point that his life is under threat. However, when a relative leaves him three hundred thousand dollars to be collected once he and his estranged brother Ted have been living under the same roof for six months, he heads to the “Wild West” to join his brother, who is none too happy about seeing him, or even that interested in the money, for the most part. This is fine to kick things off with but one of the problems the movie has, while the brothers try to pull off various criminal capers in order to pay just the next month’s rent, is that the story is kinda jumpy and although this perhaps could be blamed on the episodic nature of the scripted shenanigans, it did seem to be forgetting what the main plot line was at several points, only to bring it back later when it was at a convenient point to remind the viewer what it was. Honestly? There is a point to all this codswallop?

Even some of the crazier little details seem to be directionless and fly out the window at the first sign of the next distraction, including things which are set up once and then never referred to again. For instance, in the opening sequence in “the big city”, Monty is attacked by a bunch of thugs and he makes a great show of opening his trick cane and pulling out a big test tube. He drinks the mixture in the test tube and then, like Popeye on a spinach rush, he turns into a super-agile, near invincible fighter who can take on all and sundry (although he soon finds himself in trouble again). Lot’s more fist fights ensue over the length of the movie, some involving him and his brother Ted (played quite charmingly by Olympic boxing champion Nino Benvenuti, in one of only three acting roles he had in his career), but the secret potion in the test tube is not once referred to again. It’s like the film’s script and storyline was constantly changing as the actors shot it and, to be honest, with things I’ve heard over the years about the Italian film industry, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case and the actors were following a different storyline every few days, such is the narrative flow, or lack thereof, of this movie. No editing could fix this.

Tessari and his cinematographer introduce some nice shot designs in places, but the way they are spliced together without any real thought in certain places of the way one short sequence may transition into the next, left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Also, I noticed that a rather inventive shot of two people on rocking chairs, where each rocks into shot from left or right to iterate a portion of their conversation, was also included (with one of the same actors even) on the trailer for one of Tessari’s earlier films Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Because of the staginess of the shot, it seems like the director is stealing from himself on this and perusing his back catalogue for ideas. I don’t know what the time limits were for the shooting schedule but I’m guessing it must have been pretty pacey.

Gianni Ferrio provides the score for this movie and usually I like what he does on his scores (I have a few recordings in my selection of CDs by this composer, who died back in October of this year). However, the music in this film is also a complete mess, with a terrible running ballad which kinda recaps the story, such as it is, in ways which stretch the credibility of what one might call “rhyme and rhythm” in both the music and the lyrics. Quite appalling. The one bright moment in the score lasts for just a few notes, where a musical joke is inserted as a direct reference to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars but, for the most part, the music is pretty flat, lifeless and unfunny when it’s so obviously trying hard to be exactly the opposite, presumably because the music is trying to help you not notice the fact that, for a comedy western, this movie just isn’t funny.

I wish I had more to say on this one but I just don’t. Alive or Preferably Dead... watch it at your peril.

Sunday 10 November 2013



2013 USA
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: This will have some big spoilers weighing down the end of the review but I need to talk about certain things leading to the conclusion of the movie so... you have been warned.

About halfway through the movie Gravity, I realised that, in a way, I was watching an old Laurel and Hardy comedy short... but I’m getting ahead of myself again. I’ll circle back to that in a while.

Gravity is the new film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed another science-fiction film I liked called Children Of Men. It’s spectacular and spellbinding and, for sure, all the good things you’ve probably already heard about it. Not only that, it’s technically a great achievement when you look at what you’re presented with in terms of what’s actually up there on the screen as opposed to how much of that could have been achieved in real life instead of being done on a computer. The performances of the actors, of course, are real life but, well, I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that, with the amount of CGI in this movie, it's essentially one big animated movie. In fact, there’s actually a scene a little way in which features another character from the same studio, Warner Brothers... that of Marvin The Martian, from various of their Looney Toons cartoons. A nice nod from the director, perhaps, in acknowledgement of the nature of the beast he’s created for us to watch here.

Marvin The Martian isn’t the only cinematic reference here either. There’s a shock moment involving a dead body that has the same visceral impact as a very similar scene in a moment in Jaws, this one coming fairly early on in the film with a floating body in a space ship. And another nice touch is a scene where Sandra Bullock, as the film's lead protagonist, is stripping out of the first of a few spacesuits she has to wear throughout the movie in zero gravity. I’m pretty sure that Cuaron and the rest of the crew must have at least been thinking about the opening sequence of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella when they filmed this, even if it wasn’t a direct homage to that movie (which, incidentally, I believe it was, it’s quite similar).

All in all, I have to say that I was surprisingly impressed with the film, both by the aforementioned CGI which I didn’t really find myself thinking about as much as I thought I was going to, and by the script, score and performances. But there was one thing I did find myself a little irritated by and that brings me back to my opening remarks.

Back when the BBC used to regularly show Laurel And Hardy comedy shorts on television in this country (alas, those days are long gone and future generations are suffering from the lack of these in their lives) there was often a moment when something would be wrecked with good old Ollie left in the ruins. Then stray bricks would start raining down on his head and Stan and Ollie’s facial expressions would do what they did best, make you laugh from even the thinnest of material. Then the bricks would slowly start falling again. Then they’d stop for a bit. Then another would fall, just to add insult to injury to Ollie’s predicament and fuel to your laughter. Then another one would fall and, eventually, you were always on the edge of your seat just waiting for that last brick to fall.

Cuarón’s Gravity is much the same. It’s not the one trick “something bad happened and now we have to solve that one problem and get back to Earth” pony that I'd expected it to be. In fact, the script is rather clever in managing to have an ongoing problem that constantly... um... cycles back to be a new threat again at regular intervals. And there are other problems our heroes have to face throughout the movie which occur as a “for want of a nail” cascade effect and the smallest of consequences of fall-out from that... and this is where I got just a little irritated at times.

On the edge of my seat, yes, but... well... I was always waiting for that one, last brick to fall. So to speak.

So much so that, in the final sequence when a door is opened and water comes flooding into a space capsule, threatening one of the characters with drowning, I was really finding myself thinking of Jaws again and waiting for the director to “send in the shark”. Possibly complete with an underwater zombie in tow like in Zombie Flesh Eaters but, well... my point is that by the time I’d seen the main protagonist survive so many “piled on” perils in one short movie... I was kinda expecting the absurd at this juncture.

Now then, that spoiler warning is going to drift into full effect right now so, if you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading now.

The film is essentially a two hander between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney but... not for long. Once Clooney’s seasoned astronaut character has done his bit to set Bullock onto a trajectory of survival, he cuts himself loose to save her and drifts back off into space to slowly die. However, there’s been reports that a lot of people have been complaining about the last twenty minutes or so and I’m guessing that it’s the scene where Clooney comes back into the narrative, ghost-like, to a dying Sandra Bullock and tells her how to survive the next bit of her journey back towards Earth that is giving some audience members problems. Some will see this sequence as a supernatural or even religious experience but... it really doesn’t have to be, if you don’t want it to be. Sandra’s character is already drifting out of consciousness by this point and she’s very much in a dream state, near death. Lots of people, myself included, can solve problems in their sleep with solutions which they just wouldn’t have thought of in a conscious state. So there’s the scientific grounding behind that scene if you are so inclined.

Personally, I think that the director, who is also one of the writers, is smarter than that and is fully aware that he’s given us a little scene which will happily fulfil both viewpoints. These narrative ambiguities are the stuff that stories are made of.

Also, there’s a nice scene I have to mention where the heroine is crying and we see a couple of her tears floating around the inside of a spaceship. Don’t think I’d seen that before, that I can remember, and it’s always the mark of a good director if he can show you something on film that you’ve never seen before. Usually it’s these simple ideas, overlooked by most and drifting into the subconscious, which are the most powerful cinematic moments and give the movies some heart. Think of the scene with the vibrating water in the glass in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (parodied quite brilliantly again by Spielberg with tyrannosaur footprints made visible in Jurassic Park) or the scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 where the glass windscreen is slowly cracking under some of the main characters. This stuff is what really lingers in the 24 frames per second, beating heart of cinema... when the jumbled up heads of most of the the audience have forgotten them. This is what art is best at and it’s why Cuarón, in many ways, is very much a great artist.

Whether you agree with that statement, of course, is not important. What is important is that we have here a film that is unbelievably spectacular, quite suspenseful (you’ll be holding your breath like you do in a submarine movie) and, above all, an entertaining night out at the cinema. And seriously don’t wait for DVD or Blu Ray for this one. If you can see it on the big screen then it’s the kind of film you should make that trip for. The 3D is pretty good on this one too and greatly benefits the movie. Gravity has the gravitas of serious drama, the Newtonian weight of great art and the spectacle of popcorn sensibility entertainment... and that’s a good combination for cinema at its best.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Tomorrow Never Dies

Died In The Wool

Tomorrow Never Dies
1997 UK/USA
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode 
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

When I first saw this movie on the weekend of its release, back in 2007, I think I was overly harsh on it. Certainly, after the sheer brilliance of GoldenEye, I saw this as something of a pigeon step back from the full-on Bondness of that first Brosnan movie. At the time I compared GoldenEye with veering off in the direction of the kind of Bond films Sean Connery would have happily gotten away with making whereas, Tomorrow Never Dies feels like it’s trying to channel the look and feel of a Roger Moore era Bond adventure.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the flick, far from it, and I’ve certainly appreciated it more over the intervening years, but I can still acknowledge that my initial comparison, at any rate, still holds true. I think what I was responding to, though, more than anything, is the amount of action the people responsible crammed into this movie. It doesn’t exactly hold back in the spectacle stakes and, frankly, is definitely guilty of that old Roger Moore school of keeping the spy/detection scenes to a minimum and leaving them insultingly simple, and then use them merely as glue to hold all the action sequences together. Guilty as charged, I think.

However, I have to acknowledge also that it’s certainly far above the Moore films in terms of quality and ultimately, if you’re into well choreographed, well scored action sequences, then this is the Bond film for you. There’s loads of them. I think at the time I was lamenting the fact that the studios were up to their old tricks and trying to turn the Bond character into some kind of action hero again, rather than a spy character who has a lot of action thrown at him. The Bond films aren’t Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Rambo or even Jason Bourne films... and there’s no reason why they should be (other than income I guess).

So what do we have here then?

Well, the gunbarrel music takes a different part of the Bond theme to the bit usually played in these sequences prior to this... that’s a bit of a blow really, but considering the outstanding quality of the musical score on this picture, I think I can forgive it that. The opening sequence is, once again, and this seems to be a trend on the first three Brosnan movies, one of the better opening sequences in the series’ history. Opening with Judy Dench’s M doing a double act with her old TV series co-star Geoffrey Palmer (which is something the American audiences may not have appreciated at the time but was a big laugh for British fans) we have Bond in contact with them and Colin Salmon (in his first appearance in the series as Robinson) via headset and video link, as he causes some well timed mayhem and havoc at an arms bazar, getting in and out of trouble and averting nuclear chaos at the same time. Like the film before it, a real humdinger of a pre-credits piece which also, again like GoldenEye, has a very powerful score.

The film has a passable opening title sequence and then goes from action strength to strength as Bond finds himself up against Jonathan Pryce’s Elliot Carver character, encountering actress Teri Hatcher (who was popular for playing Lois Lane in the TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman at the time) and teaming up with famous martial arts star Michelle Yeoh for the rip roaring second half of the movie. It’s all very fast paced and has some especially well made action sequences, including a car park car chase (which was originally shot in Germany but didn’t work and so was then re-shot in Brent Cross Shopping Centre in London a while after) and a bicycle/helicopter chase where Brosnan and Yeoh are chained together (Yeoh was used to doing her own stunts and I’m guessing, like a lot of the Asian action stars used to not worrying about insurance in their own country,  she gets a bit frustrated by not being allowed to do absolutely everything herself when she has to shoot a Western financed movie). The film is certainly not as sedate as GoldenEye... but it does do its own thing and exists at a level which is not a hundred miles away from what Bond is about. It is quite stylish and if the dialogue sounds maybe just a little too polished in places, then I think I can cut it some slack as it’s an enjoyable old romp.

And then there’s the music.

I’d loved Serra’s score for GoldenEye (as you can read in my review here) and I was annoyed that the producers hadn’t recalled him for this one to keep some musical continuity in the Brosnan era. I kept that grudge up until the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack CD was released, slightly ahead of the movie, and heard what composer David Arnold had done with the thing. It’s phenomenal.

It sounds a cliché now, especially because this is what Arnold himself was saying about what he was trying to do with the score when interviewed about it later, but the music in this film really does straddle both the music of its time and the 1960s Bond. It’s definitely a loving tribute to the style of John Barry’s great scores with a heck of a lot of what I can only called ‘Arnoldisms’ thrown in to boot. Bits of it even sound a little old fashioned... and then he’ll hit you with a bit of techno and fuse it all brilliantly.

One of the best moments in the score comes from the very start of Brosnan’s first action moment, where he literally delivers a “punch line” and then starts shooting. We are treated to a little Barry motif comprising two fast sets of 5 notes totalling a quick 10 note melody which, over the years has come to be known as the “Bond Is Back” sub-theme and it’s strange how that small piece of music has become embedded in the public consciousness in this time... possibly not in America, I don’t know, but certainly in Britain and here’s why. Although the only time this particular piece of music (which could almost stake a claim to being “the third Bond theme”... following swiftly behind Monty Norman’s The James Bond Theme and John Barry’s other famous sub-theme, the 007 theme) appeared prior to this was at the start of the opening titles of the 1963 Bond film From Russia With Love, this particular opening 10 note melody was played on nearly every trailer for any Bond film on our ITV channel for at least 20 years I reckon... and usually with a voice over narration declaring that... “Bond Is Back”. The melody makes a few appearances in Tomorrow Never Dies and I’m really pleased that Arnold brought this musical time piece back for the movie. I wish he’d take the time to do the same for Barry’s 007 theme someday.

The song is also a bit of an interesting deal on this movie. There was a kind of song contest for it and Sheryl Crow won. The song is brilliant and works really well and could almost... almost... have been the perfect song for this movie. Unfortunately, there was an even better song written for it by the score’s composer David Arnold, and performed by K. D. Lang which, even though Crow’s song is devastatingly cool, blows the one used at the front of the movie out of the water. Which is unfortunate because, honestly, Crow's song is Bond gold too, but I can only assume the producers went with Crow because she was very much in the public eye at the time. The thing about the song Arnold wrote for Lang, however, is that when he was writing the score to the movie, he used the melody lines from that song and you can hear its powerful brass and rhythmic melody all the way through it. Maybe it’s because the song was just too darned good that the producers let him change the title of it to Surrender (although in the chorus Lang still belts out the words Tomorrow Never Dies) and record it and use it as an end title song on the film. It really works well here too, of course, since the orchestration and melody reiterates phrases from the score you’ve been listening too throughout the length of the movie, but it’s a shame we didn’t get it at the front, with oddly choreographed and stupendously naked silhouetted women dancing around to it, is all I can say.

One other little oddity about the film deserves a mention. I don’t know if many people remember this... but I do remember how things were with this film back when it was being made. The pressure was on for this movie to be a hit, naturally, with the studios. But, bizarrely, after a few worrying stories highlighted by the tabloids in this country, all of a sudden the average British person on the street was worried about the progress of the film. It was really strange. People who had nothing invested in this were getting worried about the director being able to handle a Bond film and, you know, etc. etc. This got so bad that EON even called a press conference a little way into the shooting of the picture and had Pierce Brosnan allay everybody’s fears and calm them all down... saying the shoot was going fine and there was absolutely nothing to worry about. It sounds crazy, I know, but I remember it and it didn’t feel like such a bizarre over-reaction at the time.

The producers needn’t have worried. Even though it wasn’t quite what I wanted from the second Brosnan film, it certainly did the business and, I think, is a bit of a classic in its own right. It even, dare I say it, has one of the very best Desmond Llewellyn as Q briefing scenes in the history of the series. Possibly even the greatest of the lot, actually. Even though you can see Llewellyn is having to read half his lines off a note pad, the timing and laughs (and action) in the gadget briefing scene seriously rivals Goldfinger and maybe even surpasses it.

As I said above, if you love the Bond films and you really like a lot of, maybe too much, action in your movies... Tomorrow Never Dies is still a spectacular and witty movie which you’ll probably enjoy immensely. But the best, and possibly the last, great Bond film, was just around the corner...

EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2