Thursday 30 July 2015

Vampira - Dark Goddess Of Horror

Nurmi The Rose

Vampira - Dark Goddess Of Horror
by W. Scott Poole
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593765439

I'm not terribly familiar with Maila Nurmi or her more famous alter ego Vampira. Just snatches from my childhood acknowledging that she was in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space and associated references to that shaky collaboration over the years. I also knew she was one of the earliest TV horror hosts... quite possibly the first. I further knew that she unsuccessfully tried to sue one of my favourite ladies of horror, Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark) for essentially stealing her act... something I really don't think is true, for a few reasons.

So when I saw, via Twitter, that a guy named W. Scott Poole had written a book about her, Vampira - Dark Goddess Of Horror, my interest was piqued. I enjoy a good biography and a peak at the insides of the mind of a dark, gothic creation riding the airwaves of the 1950s seemed like something that was definitely going to plug a gap in my horror education from that period. As it is, this is one of those few books I occasionally read where I'm just really not too sure about how I stand with it. My first instinct, therefore, was to leave off writing a review of it for a week or so and let the whole experience percolate in my mind for a while. Thing is, I've done this with books and movies before and what tends to happen is I forget bits and then never got around to writing the review... but I think this highly entertaining book is worth more than that so... here you go.

It would be quite true to say that, after reading this volume, I now know a little more about Vampira and, by extension, a little more about Maila Nurmi. The trouble is, however, that's pretty much all I know about her... a little. I don't think this is the writers fault, by the way, he is pretty up front about the lack of accessible material about the lady in question. He does, however, put together a fairly good if, by necessity, sketchy timeline about the key moments in Nurmi's life... most of it leading up to a one year blaze of glory when she created her iconic character and screamed, performed in and hosted horror movies on her weekly show Dig Me Later, Vampira. It's a show of which not even a few seconds survive so the signature moments of the show and style of the lady in question are very much coming from the memories of people who were alive at the time.

The book also discusses a certainly interesting friendship with James Dean and some unfortunate timing and insinuations surrounding the star's untimely death via correspondence from the lady in question. It also tells of the way the show was deliberately killed off, Nurmi's last ditch attempts at success in movies and TV, including stooping to working with Edward D. Wood Jr (somebody she wasn't exactly impressed with) and her many years as a partial recluse, scrimping a living in various ways and becoming a mascot, of sorts, for the West Hollywood punk scene.

However, like I said, the biographical content is fairly slim due to just how much is known about her.

However, what Poole does do, quite brilliantly, is look at the cultural context of Nurmi and her Vampira persona, where it came from and what the zeitgeist was that ushered in her birth. With Vampira borrowing elements from both the original cartoons that later became famous as The Addams Family and elements like the burgeoning 1950s fetish/bondage scene... back in the days when it was good ol' S&M (that's BDSM to all you modern cool cats). By placing Nurmi's creation within the political and social trends of her time, Poole demonstrates just how important and empowering in terms of feminist issues Vampira was and, though she was on air for only a year, just how influential her creation is even to this day. Poole explores things like the gay scene, the fetish scene, the American political fight against feminism and various other eye opening issues that modern audiences may well be unaware of.

The author also takes a look at all of these issues and demonstrates, systematically, just how the existence of Vampira challenged what was considered to be right and normal at the time. He even explains where the concept of ‘normal’ came from, how the word's popular usage was a phenomenon of the mid 20th Century and how much of a pointed and manipulative construct the idea of ‘normal’ really was/is.

Furthermore, Poole's writing style is quite punchy and throwaway in its construction... and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It's easy to read and it reminded me of nothing less than a hopped up James Ellroy, at around the time his prose was becoming just a little bit more abstracted and frenetic, when he was churning out stuff like White Jazz. It's not necessarily the kind of style you would expect from something purporting to be a biography but, bearing in mind the difficulty of gathering and corroborating any material on Maila Nurmi, it's an understandable route to take because he is weaving more of an impression of what constituted this somewhat phenomenal lady's life and it brings you closer, in some ways, to the subject matter while still acknowledging that you really aren't able to get that close at all.

One of the book’s more controversial points is always going to be the events which lead up to the Maila Nurmi Vs Cassandra Peterson (Vampira Vs Elvira) lawsuit and I'm very pleased to say he covers it pretty fairly and uses a lot of common sense and diplomacy as he draws his own conclusions about the issue. He is also quick to make the point that, while Elvira may have some visual echoes in her personae, to a certain extent, they weren't necessarily 'first hand' echoes, so to speak, and the general attitudes and concerns of each creation are, in fact, worlds apart... which obviously doesn't help Nurmi's case but, at the same time, he's also quick to point out just why it was that Nurmi must have felt compelled to pursue this course of action in the first place.

All in all, this is probably not the most thorough biography of Vampira the casually interested party, such as myself, might expect. That being said, the writer has obviously gone to a lot of trouble researching the culture from which Vampira rose to challenge the collective consciousness of a nation and he not only does a damn good job of explaining it, he also shows us why there was actually a lot at stake in terms of the cultural impact of Vampira's huge popularity in the year she was on TV and he does it in an extremely entertaining manner. If you're already a big fan of Vampira and know a fair bit about her, then you might not find this book to be the most helpful in filling in any of the blanks, although the way it is written is fresh and gives an insight into the mindset that created her. If you know nothing about her, like me, then you may find this book to be a valuable pointer and something to whet your appetite. This probably isn't the ultimate biography of Vampira, but it's probably the best one we're going to get until anything else about her surfaces sometime... which is looking less and less likely as the years go by. Either way, I'm pleased I read it and I found bits of it actually quite educational... so I think this one’s definitely worth hooking up with, if you've got the time and inclination.    

Monday 27 July 2015


Maggie Trousers

2015 USA/Switzerland
Directed by Henry Hobson
UK cinema release print.

This is an amazing film.

I've probably made it abundantly clear in a few of my past reviews that I've long been a fan of Arnold Schwarzenneger. Not all of his films, for sure... he's made a fair few clunkers in his time and his choices of roles haven't always been something I'd want to see... but as a solid actor it’s hard not to appreciate him. I first saw him at the cinema in a film called Cactus Jack opposite Kirk Douglas, on a double bill with one of the Nicholas Hammond TV to movie versions of The Amazing Spider-Man. But it was when I went to the cinema a few years later to see him in the first release of Conan The Barbarian that I really took notice of who he was.

Now, to be fair, Schwarzenneger is probably best known as a personality... and I mean that in the best sense. He's a star and one of the few internationally recognised, larger than life actors who are famous for his on screen image. In this sense, he's the closest thing we've got to a modern John Wayne type, old Hollywood style actor. That being said, I think his likeable tough guy personae tends to overwhelm people’s perceptions of him and he's rarely given credit for what he actually is... a damn good actor. It helps to be a major star but his thespian skills are a heck of a lot better than people realise, I think.

Which is why I was so desperate to see his new film Maggie. Okay, so it's a zombie movie, granted, but it's a low budget zombie movie with a distinct lack of action... a genre Schwarzenneger is best known for, although there is a little action or implied action thrown into a couple of the sequences. There’s also not as much emphasis on horror as you might think... although there are a few very suspenseful moments where you will be in fear on behalf of either Schwarzenegger’s character Wade or his wife Caroline, played by Joely Richardson. However, this is more of an exploration of the dynamics of a family who know they are going to lose their daughter to the slowly decaying caress of a terminal and dangerous-to-others disease which is gradually turning her into a killer zombie, more than anything else.

The plot set up, such as it is, is really simple and certainly doesn't get any more complex as it continues... but this is not a bad thing especially and works pretty well for a small scale movie like this one. It shows us, right from the start, a world plunged into the middle of a zombie virus... although the zombies are not labelled with the 'Z' word here. To give them a little more credibility, perhaps, the victims of the virus are referred to as ‘necroambulists’, possibly as a nod to the most famous cinematic somnambulist of all time, Cesare, the sole occupant of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Like the variants in 28 Days Later and its sequel, these are not monsters who have come back from the dead but people who have succumbed to infection, via the bite of a another infected person. In all other ways, though, the human victims of the disease are being slowly reduced to the shambling counterparts popularised by George A Romero's early Living Dead movies.

In a way, the film could be likened to a drawn out version of the scene in Romero's original Dawn Of The Dead, where the friend who was bitten falls sick and then slowly dies... before popping back up as a zombie. The difference being that there's no death to zombie moment here... the victim becomes slowly more zombie-like and there's a slightly different kind of pay off at the end of this movie too.

Like the majority of zombie movies, the virus and its origins are a mystery and everyone just goes about their daily business living with, and adapting to, a world which imposes curfews on the streets and where you wait with your infected loved ones until the police come to take them to quarantine. In quarantine, they are thrown in with a load of similar, unfortunate people until they start eating each other and their 'wardens' can see that all trace of their former humanity is gone. Then they are given a drug to kill them which, for the dramatic purposes of this movie, is an extremely painful poison for your zombie stricken relatives to have to struggle through.

Schwarzenegger’s character, Wade, is first seen driving to a hospital compound to take Maggie away with him to his relatively isolated farm. The film becomes about making the most of the last days with his daughter and how to make the choice between letting the cops take his kin into quarantine, giving her the illegally acquired drug himself or, the more humane but difficult option, a swift bullet to the head to end her suffering so that she can't harm others. It’s a pretty bleak film, in many ways.

Schwarzenneger really shines in his heartfelt and dramatic performance here. I've heard some people say that this is his best performance in a movie and they might be right. Like I said, though, I've always thought of him as a good actor and I think what we're seeing here is a very small scale film (the lowest budget he's had since the first of The Terminator movies, which was pretty much a B-movie when it came out) and it allows his natural acting abilities to show through. He's not punching someone or driving at high speed through explosions and, as a consequence of that, some people are maybe just waking up to the fact that he's a very expressive actor and, even when he doesn't have a lot of lines, he can give a lot of emotion and inner monologue rendered as subtle facial expression. I'm hoping this movie will maybe stop straight jacketing him to mostly action roles. He's extremely good in this and people need to see it.

The other star of the show is, of course, the title character herself, played by Abigail Breslin. She does an a absolutely fantastic job in this and although a lot of that is supporting Schwarzenegger’s performance as her tragedy bound father, she is also amazing in the scenes she shares with fellow teenagers or with Joely Richardson as her cautious mother. The writer sets up the rules of the zombies particular to this film anecdotally from a couple of sources and some of the later, two hander scenes between Maggie and her mother or father are actually extremely suspenseful because the audience knows what signs to look out for. You will be on the edge of your seat to find out who she's going to take a bite out of first. It all gets very taut at certain points in the running time before heading towards what is actually a really charming ending to the movie, exploring the idea that sometimes, even if a person becomes a ravenous, flesh eating zombie, its possible for that creature to retain a certain sense of its essential humanity.

The film is shot with a kind of constantly moving, reactive camera which tends to focus on scenes where there is not a great deal of movement. Little jiggles to the camera with micro-movements to keep the image slightly shifting is what seems to be going on here. Almost like a found footage movie but on a much more subtle scale. I'm not the biggest fan of this technique but it does give the camera a slight feel of reacting to the characters and events on screen “as it happens” and I guess it's one way of building up a level of credibility with your key players. It's fashionable at the moment and I've seen it used a lot on TV in recent decades on shows such as Firefly and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. It works really well here, though, and I didn't find it that distracting, I’m glad to say.

Director Hobson also tends to cut away to little details of the acting and away from the main action and I thought this technique worked pretty well the way he managed to pull it off here. So he will cut away to a close up shot of Schwarzenneger turning a key on his petrol tank, for example, or cut to his hand picking up a photograph and recording the detail there. It's good stuff and it certainly helps enhance/capture the subtleties of the wonderful cast in this film, all of whom are absolutely excellent, whether they are in a major or minor supporting role. And it's similarly enhanced by a fairly low key but incredibly moving score by David Wingo, which really does deserve to get a proper CD release rather than the stupid digital download it's currently been lumbered with.

And that's about it. A different film for some Schwarzenegger fans to have to adjust to and I really don't think it's been very well marketed, to be honest. In this country at least. I went to the opening evening showing at my local and they put it in the smallest screen they had. That was arguably a wise move on the part of the cinema I guess because, including me, there were a total of eleven people in the screening and around three of those walked out half way through. So not living up to people's expectations of an ‘Arnold Schwarzenneger movie’ for sure but, honestly, one of the most impressive films he's been involved with and I hope this movie will help potential directors and producers in Hollywoodland realise that he's capable of doing far more than what people have been used to seeing him do over the decades. Whether you're a fan of the actor or not, if you want to see a serious dramatic film about issues and emotions raised by the implications of a fictional zombie virus... this film is it. Maggie is a triumphant movie for all involved and, if you are a fan of the genre, then you certainly won't want to miss this one. Catch it soon, before it disappears as quickly as it came.

Friday 24 July 2015

London Film and Comic Con 2015

Con Voyage

London Film and Comic Con 2015
Saturday 18th July - Olympia

This year’s London Film and Comic Con was a more successful one than last years abominable experience (read my review here) but there was still a feel that the organisers maybe didn’t learn enough from the previous years and haven’t been paying attention to the obvious problem that has grown around this show.

However, like I said, overall it was a lot more improved than last year’s shenanigans and, though I missed seeing the various stormtroopers and Mega City law enforcement officers parading the queue (which was mostly all barriered up and stopped you from reserving a place in the queue for your late arriving friends, for example), it was a heck of a lot better than spending the whole day waiting in a line, only to be told you wouldn’t be able to get in after all.

That being said, my biggest complaint was the decision that Showmasters, the organisers of the event, made to not sell tickets “on the door” this year. Which I can kinda understand as it was a technically smaller venue and after last years numbers... I guess that’s one solution to the overcrowding problem. However, it’s a double edged sword. I was alright because, after last year, I decided to buy a ticket in April. However, one of my friends went to buy a ticket, after I’d advised him to, only to find they were all sold out and that he couldn’t queue on the door. The thing is... I’ve been going to this event (and a lot more of this kind of event by other organisers) for as long as it’s been going... they’re now in their tenth year. It’s only last year that I started looking on the website... just would always turn up word of mouth and get in no problem. Last year the issue with the swelling numbers at the show I had been talking about for so long bit me, and many others, in the backside. However, just because I look on the website now... many people don’t.  A lot of people will just turn up to an event, possibly with kids in tow, to just buy tickets on the door. Blocking ticket sales is not the best alternative but... hey ho... from what I understand from the Showmasters forums (read them before they’re censored or taken down like last year’s threads) it was as easy to get in without a ticket as it was with. So that’s a bit strange.

I got there at 7.30am for a 9am opening. I wanted to get there earlier but the first train out of my snoozy town of Enfield was not until the late time of 6.22am... so it was pretty much the earliest I could be there. As such, there were maybe 400 - 500 people ahead of me in the queue. It was a queue that kept moving because the organisers, who were much better equipped to deal with crowd control this year (it has to be said), kept having to expand and relocate parts of the queue because, by the time of the event. it was actually snaking around past the long edge of Kensington Olympia station and track... I’m really glad I wasn’t at that end of the queue, I can tell you. My friend turned up ten minutes after me and he was 500 or more people behind me in the line. That being said, when the doors did open at 9am (doors which weren’t visible from the side of the building I was queuing from) the people did move unbelievably quickly and I was in within ten minutes.

The day started out well with a lot of friendly cosplayers (such as the stormtroopers I’d missed seeing outside) who were only too happy to pose for photos when I asked them but, as the day wore on, the crowds really did start making it almost impossible to move around. One of the stall holders who orders stuff in for me told me that various of my favourite stalls had got to the point after last year where they just refused to come anymore. Apparently, a lot of the people there to see the celebrity guests or wear costumes are less than profitable customers when it comes to buying goods from various stalls and, I have to say, the uniqueness of the stalls at this particular event is the only thing that keeps me coming back. I did notice, this year, that while their was still a unique range of interesting knick knacks for sale, a lot of the stalls could have passed for each other and a lot of the kinds of things I was looking for just weren’t there. How many stalls selling Star Wars Lego minifigures can there be? I actually left the halls with a lot of the hard earned stash of cash I’d been saving up for the event still in my wallet.

At the end of the day I guess I can’t complain about that but... would have been nice to see a wider range of things there, like some of the previous years, and I would have liked a little more product knowledge from some of the stall holders, to be honest. Both me and my friend @cultofthecinema asked various people questions and it was clear that a few of the stallholders either didn’t know their stock, took their customers for fools who didn’t know their business as well as they did (one comic stall-holder really showed his ignorance on the storage of comics while implying that he actually knew what he was talking about) or just obviously made up outrageous prices on the spot for some of their “treasures”... while trying to gauge what you would be willing to pay for an item based on the perceived enthusiasm for one of their products. This coupled with outrageous prices double or triple the rate of what you would pay on Amazon for stock in better condition than that brought to the show made me back off a bit from some of my purchasing options, it has to be said. It’s no good, for example, charging £12 for a new DVD which is easy to get brand new, for a fiver, online. Similarly, a book which is always available in shops and on Amazon brand new in the same edition for £5 should surely not be marked up as £25?

Anyway, it was an experience in itself though, not always the most positive one it has often been in years gone by. This event really has outgrown itself now. Much appreciation to Showmasters for building an extra temporary staircase to get people from level to level... this had queues going up and down it all day and made it easier for the rest of us to just use the side staircases, which were mostly “people free” and easily assailable in less than a minute. I do believe that the organisers should reconsider selling tickets on the door while going to a much larger venue like the O2. Also, integrating the trade, cosplay and celebrity areas so it’s all a bit more broken up and not all in sections (there was a little of this going on this year, but not enough) would, I think, help to keep the people flow much more manageable. Just a thought... I doubt anyone’s going to read this and factor any of those suggestions in. As for me... I think, like a fair few people I know or talk to on twitter, that I’ve maybe had enough of this show for now if the crowd sizes aren’t controlled a little better and in a more user friendly manner. There’s not much there now at the show that I can’t pick up online or from other places and I think I may give next year’s show a miss and wait and hear if it improves substantially.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Gallows

Happy Ever Rafter

The Gallows
2015 USA
Directed by Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing
UK cinema release print.

Okay... I really didn’t know what to expect from The Gallows before I went in and all I really knew for sure was that it was a found footage horror movie, which immediately gives one certain expectations as to the style of filmmaking on offer. The only other things I had to go on were the trailer... which is more of a teaser and is therefore quite effective... and a very short review from a newspaper which was tweeted online and which pretty much condemned it as a boring concoction with extra loud sound design.

Well all I can say to that is... loud sound design, perhaps. Boring... perhaps not.

It’s certainly as clichéd as you would expect a movie in the ‘found footage’ sub-genre of horror to be these days. However, like I’ve said in the past, when it comes to fulfilling one of the main goals of the modern horror film, namely scaring the pants off of the audience (as opposed to a porn movie, which is more about slowly getting the audience to pull their own pants off), then running with clichés can really work well... either as a fulfillment of the that cliché or as a way of setting up certain expectations before pulling the rug out from under said audience.

I’m delighted to say that, while The Gallows resorts to all of the tricks you would expect that this kind of movie would run with, it redeems itself somewhat by setting up a certain amount of suspense/tension with the camera work which allows the directors to make you jump loads and get the blood pumping. This is achieved by having a camera eye that constantly swoops around rooms as any of the four main characters take the primary recording device for the majority of the action to use it as both a light source and a way of trying to see around corners while, obviously, deliberately making other areas of the frame where you would want to see what’s going on... shadowy and somewhat impenetrable.

The plot is a little reminiscent of Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (aka Stagefright: Aquarius) in that it’s prime locations are theatrical in nature and revolve around the future performance of a play. However, where Soavi’s film is a giallo and is therefore about a human killer - and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything that you won’t find out in the set up to this movie - this one is much more of a horror film in its ingredients. The story focuses on a play performed in a high school theatre which went wrong when the lead actor was accidentally hung for real, instead of just faking it for the play. 20 years later a girl called Pfeifer, played by Pfeifer Brown, is attempting to restage the play, titled The Gallows, to honour its past and the man who lost his life performing in it. However, the new lead actor Reese, played by Reese Mishler, is terrible in the role and is only appearing in it to impress Pfeifer. So the night before the performance takes place Reese, along with his friend Ryan (played by Ryan Shoos) and his girlfriend Cassidy (played by Cassidy Gifford), sneak into the building via a “broken door which is always unlocked” to vandalise the set, anonymously, so the play can’t go through and Reese is spared the very strong possibility of being ridiculed by his peers. When they get in the building and make a start on this less than brilliant plan, they are startled by Pfeifer herself who has been lurking in a back room. Then, as you would expect in a film of this nature... all the doors are locked, there’s no way out and... something is stalking them.

Okay, so once again we have a horror film where the majority of the teenage characters are... well they’re just not very nice. Ryan is particularly obnoxious and certainly not someone you’d want to have hanging around. His girlfriend Cassidy is equally less than charming and, while Reese is a little more sympathetic than these two, he’s still not so great in making certain decisions. Pfeifer is probably the most sympathetic character of the lot and that’s a good thing when you eventually see how this film goes down. When you think this movie is over... make sure you stay for the final coda just before the credits start to roll... it’s an interesting ending which enforces the denouement you just saw and makes another connection to the origins of the spooky hijinks in the locked theatrical department.

Now, I’m pretty sure a lot of people are going to switch off in this movie due to the overabundance of these kinds of films on the marketplace in recent years. I think if this had been released back when The Blair Witch Project repopularised the found footage horror genre for a new generation, then this film would have been an all round smash hit. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to go under most people’s radar and that’s a shame because, midst all the clichés, there are some nice things going on here. A scene with a cell phone is something I never expected... it’s not overwhelmingly brilliant or earth shattering in its conception but it was slightly unexpected and, in this kind of movie, that’s always a good thing. There’s also a nice “moment of choice” for one of the characters which both allows that character to redeem themselves a little in the eyes of the audience while also condemning themselves to a nasty death. Actually, there’s a twist of irony in this moment as will be revealed at one point as that death is happening but... I really don’t want to reveal that here. I suspected it at a moment much earlier in the film and then dismissed the notion, so it’s good that the directors still snuck it in at the end.

Another cool thing is that two of the characters end up as an echo of a rehearsal of the play, The Gallows, as seen earlier in the film. They are saying the same dialogue but, due to the way the characters have bonded throughout the course of the story, the stakes involved by this pont in the movie ensure that we actually get to see a part of the play performed properly, for once, as an update of a scene from near the start of the film. There’s a pretty nice moment of realisation at this point.

Other than that, there’s not a heck of a lot I can say about The Gallows. There are a few genuinely spooky moments and lots of jumps and scares because of the deliberate lack of adequate camerawork... rather like a person on a roller coaster might tilt his head to anticipate where the next plunge might be coming from. I found it almost unbearably jumpy in places but I know a lot of people are immune to those kinds of cheap tricks so I think this one will have a split audience. It’s not as scary or as well put together as some recent found footage horror movies but it’s a heck of a lot better than a fair few of them, it has to be said. It’s not one I’d go out of my way to watch again straight away although, after seeing the end of the movie, there’s an added dimension to the proceedings which might reward second time viewers, I suspect (or would hope). It’s a bag of horror tricks but it’s certainly a competent bag of horror tricks and I think a fair amount of scary movie enthusiasts won’t come away too disappointed. I’m pretty sure there are going to be some people out there who will really love this one. Possibly one to check out at Halloween, if you don’t fancy a cinema trip now.

Monday 20 July 2015


Little Bug Man

2015  USA
Directed by Peyton Reed
UK cinema release print.

Warning: The spoilers in this review are mostly small.

Okay, so I’ll freely admit to not knowing much about the Ant-Man character... but I do know that once again this ‘adaptation’ of a character I used to read, starting off with his 1962 appearance in Tales To Astonish Issue 27, has been seriously meddled with for the movie version. I also remember him when he was Henry Pym, a solid part of The Avengers as various characters such as Ant-Man, Yellow Jacket and Giant Man (and I think a couple more I can’t quite remember) alongside his wife Janet Pym, who was also a superhero called The Wasp. I remember her quite clearly, in fact, getting together with some of the other ladies in the Marvel Universe and tackling the issue of male sexism in a story from The Avengers Issue 83 called The Revolution’s Fine, which I read as a colour reprint in a British annual.

Now this movie has had some fairly high profile trouble in that the wonderful comedy writer and director Edgar Wright was attached to this for a while, before having his script rewritten and leaving the production due to creative differences with Disney, who bought out what I call the ‘Marvel’s Own’ brand a couple of years ago... already successful in their incredibly good run of Phase One and Phase Two movies. This film, in fact, finishes Phase Two before we go into the next movie, Captain America: Civil Wars which will start off Phase Three. People who want a quick lead in to that film will need to stay for the second of two post-credits sequences in Ant-Man. I believe Joss Whedon, who successfully wrote and directed the two massively successful Avengers movies for Marvel, was quite overt in his praise of Wright’s original script and, from what I can gather, thinks Marvel/Disney made a mistake letting it go.

While I was saddened to hear of Wright’s departure from the project, I loved the idea of the film being directed by Peyton Reed, as he had directed one of my favourite romantic comedies, a deliberate throwback to the old Doris Day/Rock Hudson films called Down With Love. However, with a rewritten script and the messing around with the old 1960s and 1970s version of the Ant-Man character, the film is not without it’s problems... but it’s also not a terrible mess and it certainly doesn’t let the side down in terms of the new ‘Marvel’s own’ movies... it’s a damn sight better than Guardians Of The Galaxy (reviewed here), The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 (reviewed here), for example.

In the movie, the Hank Pym character, played by acting legend Michael Douglas (son of Kirk) takes more of a mentor role to Scott Lang... a character from comic books from much later, when I wasn’t reading them, played by Paul Rudd. Pym’s wife Janet is missing presumed dead in a realm of the microverse which fans of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man are left to ponder at the end of that story, which is also actually shown in a nice scene towards the end of this one. Instead, we have someone called Hope Van Dyne, played by Evangeline Lilly, actually Hank Pym’s daughter but who really looks the absolute dead spit of Janet Pym as she was portrayed in the 1960s/70s comics I used to read. So much so, in fact, that when I saw the trailers for the movie, I just assumed she was playing The Wasp... which is something she might well be doing, in future Marvel movies, it’s hinted at here. My one hope is that, eventually, Marvel will take it into their heads to explore the Microverse a little closer and do an adaptation of their 1980s comics The Micronauts... I would love to see Commander Arcturus Rand, Biotron, Baron Karza, Bug and all the others brought to the big screen. But I digress...

This film is mostly okay although, its obvious I have some problems with it. I’ll get to those soon enough but there’s good stuff too. I actually started to get interested in the way that some of the earlier scenes of Scott Lang were shot from slightly above the level of his height... giving him a somewhat diminished feel in certain shots. So, for example, we’d watch him from the camera viewpoint of a hill above a level that he is walking towards. Alas, this tactic doesn’t stay with the film for long but it would have been nice if they’d have kept that up throughout the whole movie, I think.

There’s a couple of wonderful montage sequences where one of Lang’s friends is telling him a long “he said, she said and then this guy said” structured kind of story involving many characters and as the shots progress, including the usual cameo by Stan Lee in one of them, the lines the various characters are saying are replaced and lip synched to the character telling the story. It’s quite inventive and exactly the kind of thing I would expect from this director following his inventive visual approach to Down With Love. I don’t know how well those scenes will play in foreign dub versions but in the English versions, they certainly give the two sequences a little push.

The actors are all pretty fabulous, including Michael Douglas who does an absolutely brilliant job as Pym, the guy with the brains behind “the suit” and former Ant-Man himself, which is nicely acknowledged in the movie. And he looks so young in this too... how does he do that? And they’ve got the great acting genius Martin Donovan in here in a minor bad guy role. Sadly wasted in terms of screen time but he makes a truly unsympathetic villain and, if you like him in this, you should definitely check out the work he’s done in various Hal Hartley movies over the years. He’s a legend.

There’s also a nice thematic edge in this in that everyone’s character seems to grow a little as they learn more from each other. This is a really neat touch and it even applies, to some extent, to the main villain of the piece, Corey Stoll as Yellow Jacket... hey wait? Wasn’t Yellow Jacket just another heroic incarnation of Henry Pym... oh, okay. Whatever, Marvel. You destroy your legacy as much as you like, it still all kind of works in the movie to some extent so I’m not too much bothered by it at this stage of the game, after seeing so much that was good in various Marvel comics thrown away in their dumbed down screen versions.

What I was bothered about was the science. Yeah, it’s okay to have a completely incredible science breakthrough that lets you put a man in a suit and shrink and enlarge him without doing harm to him because of the way the suit houses you. However, it’s then necessary to have a certain amount of logic to your ‘crazy science’ and not have it contradict itself, otherwise it loses the ‘fantasy credibility’ you have fought so hard to have the audience suspend its disbelief for. So, if you then introduce discs which are little bombs which can safely shrink and enlarge people and objects without causing any harm... then why the heck did you need the suit to begin with? This is kinda lame, it has to be said. However, if you don’t think about it while you’re watching it, it kinda almost makes sense at the time and it’s good to see the various visual gags that this rogue shrink/enlarge effect brings to the movie... despite totally losing any respect for the writing in the process.

Also, another little real world feature as a tip to the people who put these movies together. We’re not living in the 1940s anymore. If you shoot someone in the arm, for instance, there’s going to at least be a modicom of blood. I know, blood means more likelihood of a higher certification but, the fact that you are completely ignoring the consequences of violence to get something past the censors is... well, it’s not good for the young and impressionable audience is it? They need to understand that violence is ugly and bad. Now, you can get away with this kind of stuff, maybe, if we are talking about a character in the back of a shot just falling down and playing dead. However, when you go in for lengthy close up shots and there’s no blood... not even a hole in the material of the clothes the bullet was supposed to have torn through... your realism just took a serious nose dive and is hurting the film. Seriously... if you can’t show it, then alllude to it in a creative way... please don’t fudge it like this.

I think people’s biggest problem with the movie will be that there is so much time dedicated to the story arc and characters to set the Ant-Man up as a bona fide Marvel superhero, that the film feels a bit ‘ant’iclimactic at the end. There’s a bit of a battle scene which you see a fair amount of in the trailers and when that’s played out in the movie you are left thinking you’ve seen a small battle which is going to lead on to the real spectacular set piece of the movie... it takes a little while to process/realise that you actually just saw the film’s big, final battle and that the main villain is already out of the picture. That being said, though, it’s more than made up for by smaller set pieces in the movie including a guest appearance by a character who I won’t reveal here... but lets just say that there’s a sequence in here which allows composer Christophe Beck to bring in Alan Sivestri’s Avengers theme at one point. There are actually a fair number of cameos or comic book fan pleasing moments throughout the film, such as a nice little line about Tales To Astonish... but I won’t start listing them here.

Ultimately, Ant-Man is a fun movie and it’s not going to disappoint too many fans of the Marvel franchise, I suspect. Inventive but a little uneven in places in terms of its pacing, is the way I perceived it. Possibly, like Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) it’s a film which will grow on me a lot more with subsequent viewings (I ended up seeing the aforementioned movie four times and got more out of it on later re-watches... so maybe Ant-Man will get better the more familiar I get with it). Definitely something which needs to be seen before the new Captain America movie is released, that’s for sure, and something which is a relatively good time at the cinema. It may be a film about a small hero but I’m pretty sure the box office on it won’t be that minimal. Ant-Man is definitely a character I think we’ll be seeing more off as the on-screen Marvel universe continues to expand and interpenetrate with itself. This is possibly a small film leading to bigger things.

Friday 17 July 2015

Terminator Genisys

Pie In The Skynet

Terminator Genisys
2015  USA
Directed by Alan Taylor
UK cinema release print.

Well, I have to admit, I was expecting this movie to be a huge train wreck. Colour me surprised that, while it has some problems, Terminator Genisys was a really entertaining time at the movies and I’m really pleased about that.

I saw the original 1984 James Cameron film, The Terminator, between one and two years after it was released at cinemas, courtesy of a rental VHS tape from my local off-licence. I got to see it again on a big screen and in the right aspect ratio years later and, as such, it’s the only one of this series of movies, at time of writing this article, that I’ve seen twice. Although I’m thinking of getting a blu ray set if they release them all uncut towards the end of the year.

I loved that first movie at the time. It was obviously low budget and it was the kind of midnight movie style offering that made you wonder why they ever bothered to release it into cinemas in the first place. A B-movie exploitation film but a cool one... as far as I was concerned. When we all queued up a number of years later to see Cameron’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I was really disappointed with it and just didn’t have much good to say about it, in comparison to the origuinal. I preferred Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines because it had a sexy lady Terminator and it had a Schwarzenegger tribute to the original Django movie in it... really enjoyed that aspect of it. The one I really liked was the fourth one, Terminator: Salvation, for some reason, which I enjoyed almost as much as the first movie.

This fifth movie is really starting off from a point which is, frankly, a load of nonsense. None of the same actors apart from Schwarzenegger are back and it’s something I criticised some of the other films for... if the same actors don’t want to come back... don’t make another movie. Simple. So right away you know it’s a ridiculous load of tosh and the story seems to be full of so many mistakes in the temporal logic of the thing, similar to the stupid errors in films like Back To The Future Part 2 and X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here), that you have to completely ignore any grounding in trying to make this a valid sequel to anything... so the main thing is to not take this movie in any way seriously and you should have a good time with it.

Yeah, I understand if I say it’s a “switch your brain off movie” it’s just validating the lack of attempt of film studios to make more robust and logical movies but, heck, I can only respond to what’s in front of me here. And I fully understand that my lack of remembrance of pretty much anything of the previous movies makes me unable to properly comment on any possible continuity problems in this chapter of the series. That being said, if something is changed in the past, you can’t just go back and sort it out from a future point because the future point of what you just changed no longer exists... that’s pretty much a no brainer. There’s lots of that kind of anti-logic in this one but, you know what, I’m just going to let it slide because it’s so self evident that I can’t imagine anyone not having a problem with it and you certainly don’t need me to point this stuff out.

However, what this film is... is a non-stop action movie. And it’s a well oiled machine of an action movie, at that. It isn’t confusing, keeps up the pacing (which is pretty much action crescendo all the way through... like the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, reviewed by me here) and has a great set of actors. In addition to the always underrated and always brilliant Arnold Schwarzenegger, we have Jason Clarke as John Connor, Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese, Byung-Hun Lee as the Jason Patrick version of The Terminator (?), J. K. Simmons (playing slightly against type compared to what I’ve seen him do, though no less brilliantly) and the wonderful Matt Smith (in a not so visible but highly effective role). All more than capable actors, all doing a bang up job. So that’s all good, then.

The film is really well directed and Taylor keeps the camera moving a lot of the time. The rhythm of the editing is pretty neat (a scene where Schwarzenegger and Courtney are competing at ammunition loading springs to mind) and the lighting and colour palette seems to be pretty cool throughout and also helps stop things flagging on a visual level. There are some really cool sequences in terms of shot design and the way the editing works too...

For instance, there’s an amazing scene where we follow Jason Clark in profile as he walks through a load of vertical machinery like pipes, at speed, with the verticals rushing past to the right of shot as his character is walking towards the left of the screen... while he is kept in the middle of the shot via the moving camera viewpoint. Then the shot suddenly cuts to a pan of the same character continuing his walking... however, we see him from the front and we are panning in to him from the right... at exactly the same speed as the previous shot... which means the verticals rushing to the right are just continuing at the same pace, making it a completely seamless transition despite showing a completely different angle, because of the “visual glue” of the camera movement in relation to the foreground elements. Unbelievably cool and, although the two shots put together probably last less than 5 to 6 seconds, it just blew me away. The director completely won me over with these couple of shots.

Another great thing is the music. Now, apart from a couple of moments where literally just a few notes of the original Terminator theme are referenced, before being properly brought into play in the end credits suite (which plays like a new version of Brad Fiedel’s original) there aren't a lot of similarities to the thematic elements that have come before. However, Lorne Balfe’s score is robust and, like his score to The Sweeney (reviewed here) is an absolutely awesome and appropriate set of musical cues to accompany and enhance the emotions and dynamics of the movie. I felt myself admiring the music more and more as I got further into the film, which managed to thankfully hold its own in the sound mix during some of the fast and furious bullet ballets which the movie has on offer. This composer is definitely one of the "new guard" to watch out for, as far as I'm concerned... Taking his place among such modern soundtrack maestros as Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giachhino, Bear McCreary and Brian Tyler, as far as I'm concerned.

Ultimately, although there are some really big flaws in the thinking of certain elements - such as being able to grow new flesh which is designed to age and have it all blending in somehow - the film gets a lot of things right. True, there is a, presumably deliberately left, loose end in terms of just who or what sent the Schwarzenegger version of the Terminator nicknamed "pops" back to Sarah Connor’s childhood and there's a certain amount of predictability in terms of the ultimate fate of that version of the character (which will become obvious to you as soon as you see the interior of a certain interior set about half way through the movie) but the lack of logic and surprise doesn't mean an awful lot, bearing in mind that they throw it all away right from the start anyway. This film won't explain or fix any timeline issues of the previous movies but, at least, the audience can have some fun with the competency and creative flourishes inherent in the visual side. And, hey, there are some nice one liners in there too, which may make you smile. So, yeah, if you're into science fiction movies in general, Terminator Genisys is a flawed but fun picture to put on your "to watch" list. Not as good as the first or fourth installments but, yeah, it's definitely worth a watch and, I'm pretty sure after this one, Schwarzenegger will be back.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze

Savage Patch

Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze 1-8 + 2014 Annual
by Chris Roberson
Dynamite Publishing
ISBN: 978-1606905838

Regular readers of this site will know of my absolute devotion to Doc Savage - a character I first stumbled upon back in 1975 via the release of the George Pal produced movie Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze... starring Ron Ely, the guy I used to watch as Tarzan on TV, in the titular role. A lot of people didn't like the movie, for some reason... possibly because the old style, tongue-in-cheek bow to the cliffhanger serials of days gone by were not that popular at the time. Fans of the original 182 stories were particularly outspoken in terms of the attitudes explored in the film but, really, there's a big difference between being gently playful with a genre while still showing respect to the things that make it work... and out and out ridicule.... and it was very clear to me that the movie was actually put together with a lot of love for the character.

As for myself, I loved the film and, because of it, I started reading through as many of the Kenneth Robeson novels as I could possibly find. Since they are so hard to get hold of, and since he wrote one a month for a 16 year period, I am getting to the age now where I have to come to terms with the fact that it's probably an endeavour I'll never get to finish before I die. There were also new novels written over the years by Philip Jose Farmer and Will Murray and I've tried to read each of these within a year of publication. If you look in the book section of the index, you'll find a fair few of the Murray ones have been reviewed by me here.

And then there were the comics. Various companies have tried doing Doc Savage over the years and I've usually been there to read them. Very recently I acquired, through ebay, one of my Doc Savage grails, the one off comic that Gold Key put out in 1966 based on an ultimately unfilmed screenplay which was supposed to star Chuck Connors as Doc. Marvel put out two very impressive runs in the early to mid seventies and these are probably my favourites. It's sad that both runs only lasted eight issues a piece. There was the full colour run which adapted four of the original Robeson novels, two issues a piece, and then there was a truly amazing set of magazine sized, black and white stories of brand new adventures, following the trend set by Marvel with similar "magazines" such as Savage Sword Of Conan - the stories were an appropriate combination of the fantastical and the scientific and the artwork was, frankly, some of the best I’ve seen in comic books.

Lots of other comic companies have had a crack at Doc and his crew over the years. DC had a go in the 1980s where they tried to do something different with the character but the results were ultimately not great. Millennium did a great run of miniseries which were pretty cool. DC tried again, teaming up Doc with other of his contemporaries, including Batman, a couple of years ago. I read that one while
on holiday last year and the results were so bad I just couldn't bring myself to write a review of the disaster - I was pretty upset.

This latest eight issue miniseries from Dynamite is one I missed out on but which I discovered reprinted in this trade paperback, along with the ‘annual’ issue. After the recent disaster from DC, I have to admit I was expecting the worst. Now there are good things and bad things about this series but, ultimately, it's certainly not terrible and at least remains true to the spirit of the idea behind the central character. There are, perhaps, one or two mistakes but I've seen other writers make them too and I'll go into one of those in a little more detail later.

Over the years, a number of comic book writers have attempted to contemporise the Man of Bronze, taking him out of his true home in the 1930s and 1940s and bringing him up to date for the time the comic is written. It's definitely a mistake and I believe the character certainly needs his particular period of history to be able to function in the same way. To their credit, various writers usually find a way to physically displace Doc in time somehow... and it often involves the loss of his companions, The Amazing Five, somewhere along the line as a sacrifice to this updating process.

Another common tactic is to find a potential weak point in the character's past and pitch it into modern times and criticise it on the values of our age... and it's usually Doc's "crime college"' where he operates on the brains of captured criminals, erases their memories, rehabilitates them and gives them an honest trade which is the bone of contention picked out by modern writers. The moral dilemma, which is easy to identify from a contemporary viewpoint, is usually used to exploit the drama of Doc having to cope with the attitudes found in a brave new world.

This new version makes use of both of these strategies but, where other writers have failed to maintain the vitality and integrity of the central character, this series just about... only just... manages to make it work to some extent. Narrated from our time by a character we don't actually meet until near the end of the run, each issue takes place in a different time zone... starting off from the first issue set in the early 1930s and continuing in a different decade until we are brought bang up to date. It's a slow burn strategy which introduces the challenges faced by Doc over the advancing decades and it's an interesting spin on the character which, to be fair, humanises Doc a little more than usual but certainly does so in a way that seems appropriate to the obstacles in each new decade that Doc has to react to. However, it's not without emotional consequences for the die hard Doc Savage fan...

In this story, the writer uses the device of having a substance that can prolong life for everybody. Unfortunately... and as it would have to be in a fictional plot of this nature... the substance is lost in a scheme which I won't spoil by retelling here, but not before Doc and his cousin Pat Savage have imbibed themselves. Hence, Doc and Pat barely age throughout the series but, alas, The Amazing Five are not so fortunate and, consequently, only last a couple of issues before they are replaced by an ever expanding crew of helpers which sees Savage become, pretty much, a global corporation. This is a huge loss, of course, to fans of the original characters (as I am) but, fortunately, the credibility of the way in which the pressures to Doc are handled and come together as an almost single story arc spanning the eight decades, are enough to just about distract from and temper that loss.

There are a couple of things that I wasn't so admiring of. One of these is that certain elements of the plot seem almost ripped right out of the recent Kingsman - The Secret Service movie (reviewed here) - itself based on a comic book, although I haven't read that one myself so don't know if the things I'm thinking of are in the original source comic or not. I'm not saying either this version of Doc Savage or Kingsman stole some of their central ideas from each other, I believe it was probably just a coincidence... but the similarities are quite strong and definitely there.

The one thing I do find hard to forgive is a mistake based on either the writers not being familiar with the history of the character or, also a possibility, being something Chris Roberson chose to ignore for the sake of convenience... which is also something I didn't appreciate. In the first issue, set in 1933, presumably just before or after the very first Doc Savage story, and also compounded by Shannon Eric Denton in the annual, set three years even before that, Doc and his crew are seen using the famous mercy bullets designed to merely pierce the skin and leave the recipient unconscious from the drug that invades the bloodstream. However, as far as I remember, Doc's writer Lester Dent (working under the Street & Smith house name of Kenneth Robeson) didn't introduce that element into the series until he had a few stories under his belt. So Doc didn't invent the supermachine pistol with it’s famous bull-fiddle roar... or at least the mercy shells... until a little later. Now a case could be made, I suppose, that Chris Roberson is specifically trying to place this part of the story as being the first time the firearms were used but... there's absolutely no way we can excuse Denton's use of them in a story set in 1930. So I was a bit annoyed about that... to be honest.

These are, though, mild criticisms of this short run of comics and I'm pretty sure most fans of Clark Savage Jr will be able to jump on board with this series and appreciate the slightly darker shades of the character which were rarely touched upon in the original stories. The artwork is more than serviceable and the colours used throughout are subtle, sedate and keeping in tone with the ideas of the bronze adventurer and his journey through the years. There's also a nice reference to the Maxwell Grant character, The Shadow, at one point that brought a smile to my face. Not the best comic book version of the character we've seen over the decades but certainly not the worst of the “four colour incarnations” either and, as I said earlier, it doesn't stray too far from the spirit of the source and it explores areas you just couldn't easily work into the setting if it was still mired in the 1930s... although, personally, I would have preferred a tale set in the times of the original stories. Still, really not a bad crack at Doc and worth taking a look at if you are a fan of the originals. Have no fear... the man of bronze is still here.

Monday 13 July 2015

Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell

Raven Mad

Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell
UK Airdate: 17th May - 28th June 2015

It's been a number of years since I first read Susanna Clarke's literary debut, the masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell... a couple of years after it was first published in 2004, I believe. I had a girlfriend living in Ipswich at the time and so my Friday and Sunday evenings were all about devouring books to pass the long train journeys to and from my ultimate destination.

I remember, at the time, marvelling at the blend of fact and fiction in a tale where the author had veiled her characters, the narrowly focussed Mr. Norrell and the younger, heroic Jonathan Strange (whose name I took at the time, and still do believe to be, a less than veiled reference to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s 1960s super hero sorcerer Dr. Strange), with an air of realism by cloaking their fantastic deeds with four very vital ingredients that helped to give them an air of credibility...

Firstly there was the almost archaic tinge to the language. While not nearly as "old worlde" in style as the writings of one of my favourite writers, Jules Verne (and he certainly had an excuse), there was still a lack of haste in the writing style and a clarity of detail which I appreciated from the writer.

Secondly, and possibly as a natural offshoot of the decision to go with this writing style, perhaps, there was a certain amount of slowed pacing. There is no rush, especially at the opening of the book, to tumble quickly into constant feats of fantastical magic in an attempt to entice the reader in at speed. Instead she skillfully used her storytelling talents to treat the incidents of magic with a certain gravitas that pulls the reader in slowly and surely, rendering each magical act a little narrative event at first, building speed slowly from zero to a hundred until, in time, the acts of magic are accepted by the reader as background incidents to the fiction, while still somehow not losing the sense of magnificence as they occur.

Thirdly, she quietly mixes her fiction with the historical fact of the times the tale takes place in, with the Duke Of Wellington leading his armies into victory, giving her characters a context and then using them and their magnificent deeds to remould and retell history. This gives the story the context of an alternate universe which, once the reader can relate to it through the comparison of the historical basis (or our best approximation of that), helps to give the characters a weight of their own in their interaction with the events of their time... again rendering a very believable reality for the reader.

And fourthly, of course, their was the constant amount of footnotes which the writer used to add "fact" (or perhaps a better word for it would be "fict?”) to the circumstances and history of the magic in the books. There are over a hundred and fifty of them throughout the novel, providing little annotations regarding the legacy from which the use and existence of the magic practiced by both of the title characters begins. As any reader who has read this wonderfully enchanting tale will remember, the footnotes are of varied lengths but there is a lot of detail in them... some of them going on for a few pages of small text at a time, if memory serves.

I was completely blown away and delighted by the book at the time and knew that, someday, somebody would want the film rights (something which has already happened, by all accounts). I, however, was always keen to insist to anyone who would listen, most of whom had not read the novel, that the sheer size of the volume would surely lend itself better to a TV miniseries, given the breadth of the story and the amount of detail in it.

Imagine my surprise when I learned, towards the end of last year, that the BBC were co-producing a short series, totalling seven episodes of an hour each, of an adaptation of this much loved tale. Perhaps something that allowed for that much screen time would actually be able to do some justice to the source material? My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when I saw the two actors who had been cast in the lead roles. Eddie Marsan is a great actor and I've seen him in a number of things over the years... but he seemed just a little young to be playing Mr. Norrell, in all honesty. Similarly, I seem to remember Jonathan Strange as being the dashing young hero type and the, unknown to me, actor they had cast, Bertie Carvel, seemed to me to be just a little too old for the part. I must admit that, until recently, the only person I would have thought absolutely perfect for doing justice to the role of Strange would have been Johnny Depp... someone who is, admittedly, probably out of the reach of a BBC budget. So, despite the obvious fact that the BBC tends to populate its dramas with brilliant performers, I was quite worried about the casting.

As it happens, my concerns were unfounded and I was soon to learn that even if the casting doesn't at first seem right, great actors who are more concerned with breathing life into their characters as opposed to letting their own personality dominate to the extent that it harms the production, are just as good as the serendipity of perfect casting, when it happens. Both Marsan and Carvel are brilliant in their respective roles, as are all the other actors and actresses in this version. These include Alice Englert as Lady Pole, Charlotte Riley as Strange's wife Arabella, Enzo Cilenti as Childermass and Marc Warren in the role of ‘Thistledown’, who is kinda the villain of the piece here (referred to as the gentleman).

Now I suspect, and I can't quite remember because I must have read at least a couple of hundred books since this one, that the writer of this adaptation has changed the order of certain events... or at least altered the structure a little to make it easier to digest for a TV audience. I seem to remember Jonathan Strange being around more in the early parts of the book for instance... but the character doesn’t have a great deal of screen time in the first episode. Also, a character who is a prophet, of a kind (and without giving you any spoilers) for an important but rarely glimpsed character called The Raven King, seems to be more prominent in this version. And again, ‘Thistledown’, who is admittedly an important character, also seems to be much more prominent in this version of the tale. Now, as I say, my memory may be at fault here or, perhaps, the art of the adaptation to naturally render the more visual aspects of the story and cut away at the various judgements and dalliances of the wordage automatically brings more prominence to parts of the novel which were less overt, in contrast, in the original format. I certainly can't, with any confidence, say either way... but that's a good thing, actually, as it gives me an excuse to go back and re-read it sometime in the future.

Another thought was that the production brings a very personal interpretation to some of the magical events in the tale and throw their own versions of enchanting spells into the mix from time to time. However, as I've said many times on this site in the past, good adaptation is not necessarily about doggedly sticking to all the details of the source material... it's more about creating something which follows the intent, spirit and style of the original work and, I have to say, the BBC have come up with an amazing version here which does credit to Clarke's original work and will hopefully inspire more people to go out and read it. It's easily the best contemporarily written book I've read in a very long time.

I was also somewhat impressed and pleased that the production doesn't shy away from some of the darker passages in the book... and this includes the fact that they didn't try and give the tale a more optimistic or audience mollifying ending. The way the characters are left in the book is a little bleaker than readers might, at first, hope for and with a little less positive closure than is comfortable for an audience who has grown to love and empathise with these creations over the course of the novel. The adaptation as it stands leaves the ending as it is in the novel and, because we go through so much with Strange and Norrell, it's not the most crowd pleasing conclusion in the world... but it is a totally appropriate one and well done to all involved for not tampering too much with Clarke's original ending.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a good example of what British television does best... producing a strong period drama to a very high standard. That they've also picked on source material that reshapes that period and remakes it from the viewpoint of an England where magic returns to the kingdom to deliver the twists and turns of the more fantastical aspects with all the enthusiasm and invention that they lavish on their flagship show, Doctor Who, is to be applauded and encouraged.  A truly entertaining adaptation which retains the spirit of the original work with the deft touch of a cast and crew that know exactly how to make the illusion work. I hope that the BBC will seek out more material of this nature to bring us in future. Might I humbly suggest that a serial based on Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters may be a good place to start?

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Planet Of The Apes (2001 version)

The Apening

Planet Of The Apes
USA 2001
Directed by Tim Burton
20th Century Fox Zone B Blu Ray

Warning: There are spoilers in this one folks.

I think I might be right in saying that this was the first mainstream Hollywood film to use and publicise the word “reimagining”... a term we all pretty much hated at the time and that, I think, has finally died down. Burton was apparently insistent that the term be used due to the fact that he didn’t consider what he was doing to be a remake of the original film (reviewed here) and, also, because it still didn’t follow the course of the original novel, Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet.

In actual fact, the film is further away from the way the premise is presented in the original novel than the previous version but, although it's less to do with evolution and more to do with either inadvertently or deliberately manipulating time, the end of the movie is closer to the novel, in some ways, than Rod Serling’s much celebrated and deservedly more popular Twilight Zone style ending involving the Statue Of Liberty.*

That being said, I was always somewhat disappointed in this version, especially on this rewatch and considering it’s by an artist of Burton’s pedigree... mainly because it just generally seems to get a bit dull from around the mid-way point. But there are also a lot of really good things about the movie too so... let’s take a look at this thing.

The film abandons the original premise of a long trip with suspended animation and instead gives us a group of scientists in a space station sending out trained monkeys to pilot little capsules and bring back data from an anomaly they are parked near. Indeed, Burton manages a nice little piece of “rug pullery” when we realise that the pilot at the start of the movie is a) in a simulator and b) a chimpanzee.

Mark Wahlburg plays Leo, the equivalent of Heston’s Taylor in the first movie, but he’s a different kind of hero and although he’s a sensible chap, because the apes are made out to be so powerful and physically dextrous in this version, there’s no way he’s ever gonna really beat one in a fair fight. I think this may be one of the reasons this movie didn’t quite hit the right note with audiences when it was first released... because the main protagonist is constantly having to be rescued and always seems so vulnerable... he just doesn’t seem to hit the right “hero” notes that Heston did in the original. This is not necessarily Marky Mark’s fault, though, and he’s always seemed to me to be a fine actor... I just don’t think the character works as well as written, given the intense environment into which he is plunged.

Anyway, the space station is hit with all kinds of disruption coming through the anomaly and Leo’s favourite monkey is sent out in a pod to investigate. When he disappears into the anomaly, Leo disobeys orders and goes out in another capsule after him... also disappearing in the process. I should probably note here that it’s fairly well established in these opening moments that the capsules presumably don’t retain oxygen because both the monkey and Leo have to wear a space suit and helmet to go out in the pod. Plant that away in your memory for a short while... I’ll come back to it later.

When Leo crash lands on the Planet Of The Apes, the realisation of the new environment he finds himself in is not as gradually or intensely done as in the original movie. I’m assuming Burton jettisoned certain things because of the audience already knowing exactly what the plot of the original is and so, this movie’s variation of the hunt sequence is done and dusted within minutes of Leo’s arrival and it’s not long before he is escaping from his captors... including Tim Roth as main bad guy General Thade. He fleas in the company of a group of humans including a half hearted but sexy attempt at love interest for Mark Wahlburg’s totally disinterested character, Daena, as played by Estella Warren, plus three apes including Helena Bonham-Carter’s amazing turn as Ari and the always astonishing Paul Giamatti as Limbo.

One of the main problems with this film is that all the humans can speak and are pretty articulate... which is a very definite deviation from the original movie and which, I think, doesn’t help things in terms of the logic of the movie. I can understand that Burton might not have wanted to take the time to set up a way of communicating with the humans due to the dense amount of material to get through (this movie is actually slightly longer than the original as it is) but the established fact in this version that the humans outnumber the ape population and are all quite articulate begs the question as to why they’ve remained in captivity all these years... even with the apes’ greater strength. And there are other curiosities which this state of affairs brings into question... like the scarecrows seen at one point, used to try and discourage the humans from straying into places the apes don’t want them to. It’s the humans that explain why the scarecrows are there to Leo... so it’s quite obvious this is an absolute nonsense attempt as a long established deterrent on the part of the apes... doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, does it?

After this, we have a bunch of humans converging on the source of the signal which Leo is tracking, leading him into the basic conundrum of the movie... the fact that the world here has been created by his colleagues and their trained monkeys going through the anomaly and crash landing at a point many centuries before he even got here... thus leading to the rise of the apes. There’s also a point when an army of humans gather to help Leo and he becomes an almost Christ-like figure to them... which is interesting but remains unexplored mostly... I think one of the problems with this movie is that there’s too much subtext getting in the way of the direct route from A to B.

Then we have a real problem after Leo’s monkey arrives days after him... which makes perfect sense within the logic of the anomaly but, hell, makes a lot less sense when Leo uses the pod to return home without actually needing a space suit or helmet at this point. Pardon? It was shown twice in the first quarter of an hour of the film that a spacesuit and helmet were needed when piloting one of these things through space... so why have the laws of physics changed by this end sequence?

So let’s get to that ending then. Now, readers of the novel will know that, while both adaptations of this novel change a lot of stuff... Burton’s ending is a lot closer to the original. There’s a piece of design of the crashed spaceship Leo finds in the desert that makes it look like the head piece of the Statue of Liberty when viewed from certain angles. Now I think that was both a visual homage to the original movie and also, I would guess, since some photos of this were released well before the movie came out, something to deter the speculation on sites like Ain’t It Cool News that this movie would have a radically different ending to the first. As soon as we all saw those first photos we all thought... hey, there’s the Statue Of Liberty. However, this really is just a design thing and in this version, just like in the book, the Earth really isn’t the Planet Of The Apes at all...

In the novel, when the main protagonist makes the long, suspended animation return trip to Earth, he finds himself returned to another planet with the apes as the dominant culture and the penny drops that, contrary to popular belief, apes actually evolved from man and, in the time it’s taken him to get back, the same thing has happened on the planet Earth in his absence. Burton jettisons the evolutionary aspect and has Mark Wahlburg’s character return to an ape infested Earth, but in this one it’s made pretty clear that this is because the ape villain General Thade has arrived on Earth before Leo did and altered the course of human history.

Now a lot of people didn’t understand this when the movie first came out but, frankly, I’ll say what I said then, again, now... it makes perfect sense. In the movie we saw that the later you go through the temporal anomaly, the earlier you arrive. The monkey went through a few seconds before Leo and took a few days to arrive after him. Leo’s colleagues went through a number of hours, perhaps even days after he did, and arrived hundreds of years before him. So, assuming the exact same rules apply for a trip back through the anomaly, rather than a reversal of the rules, if Thade somehow managed to learn the secrets of the wrecked technology years after Leo left and went through the same anomaly, then he would have arrived many centuries before Leo and that is obviously what must have happened here. Makes perfect sense... one of the few things that does in this movie.

Despite all the drops in logic, the movie is a fairly a solid and diverting entertainment, for the most part... but it’s also a bit flat. The story itself is less than well written, I believe, but the dialogue is top notch with some beautiful rivalry between the two female leads as they play off against each other for Leo’s attention. Searing lines like “He’s the canary, that’s the coalmine.” when talking about launching the monkey into the heart of the distortion is very sharp and there are a lot of lines which are witty and economical, cutting to the heart of the matter, throughout.

There are also a lot of jokes such as an ape organ grinder with a little performing human, which is exactly the kind of humour I would expect from Tim Burton, who mostly does a good job with this movie. Not too mention quite a few sly references for fans of both the Apes series of films and of science fiction in general. For example, the first time you hear an ape talk it says, “Take you hands off me you damn dirty human” in direct parody of Charlton Heston’s famous line in the first movie. Heston himself, playing an ape for the first time in the form of General Thade’s dad, gets to parody his own last line in the original movie as he dies in this one... “Damn them. Damn them all to hell.” There’s also a bit of a humorous irony which I’m sure, given Heston’s personal politics, Burton took great relish in exploiting, by having Heston’s character the only ape in the movie to possess a firearm. And there’s even a quick excerpt from the original (and best) version of The Day The Earth Stood Still in an incoming transmission of anomaly distortion seen in the opening sequences of the movie.

One of the best things about this movie is the score. Jerry Goldsmith’s music to the original was an extremely important and groundbreaking score in it’s orchestration and when I heard about this version being made I thought it was a pretty thankless task because, whoever landed the gig was going to find themselves compared to the classic Goldsmith and they would find that a particularly hard shadow to escape. Being that it’s a Tim Burton film I assumed he would try and get his regular collaborator Danny Elfman but I just couldn’t see Elfman wanting to do it. The original score is such a colossal work. As it happens, Elman’s score here is completely different and, although he does go in for highlighting the percussion in some sections, as you would expect from an Apes score, he does it in a totally different way to any of the previous Apes composers and it holds up as a really appropriate and way more than competent piece in its own right. Which surprised the hell out of me, I can tell you. It’s truly not nearly as important or experimental as Goldsmith’s offering but it’s a real asset to the movie and an equally important score in Elfman’s own body of work, I believe.

All in all, and for the reasons I’ve described above, Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes is not the most successful “reimagining” in film history, but it is as inventive as you would expect from an artist of Burton’s capabilities and has some great performances in it which really lift it a bit more than some of the previous efforts. It’s certainly better than Battle For The Planet of The Apes and at least as good, perhaps a little better, than Beneath The Planet of The Apes. A fascinating science fiction/fantasy film which might have built a second franchise on it if it had been a little more critically well received and, presumably, did a little better at the box office. Not exactly the best out of the films but certainly not the worst either and it at least helped pave the way for general audience acceptance that there could, once again, be more Apes movies. So far it’s been up hill for the franchise again, since this stand alone movie.

It has come to light since I wrote this review that Serling did not come up with the idea for the famous Statue Of Liberty reveal. Click on my review link below of the book Simians and Serialism for more details.