Wednesday 31 August 2016

Mechanic - Resurrection

Kill Life

Mechanic - Resurrection
2016 France/USA Directed by Dennis Gansel
UK cinema release print.

Mechanic Resurrection has less of a useful title than if it had been a sequel to the original Charlie Bronson film The Mechanic, rather than Simon West’s sequel starring Jason Statham. That being said, the title does at least hold some relevance in that an assassin who wishes to retire from the game wants people to think he is dead, I would guess. So there's that.

The footage from the last movie of Statham rolling from his car just as it’s about to explode at the gas station is used as leverage in the early stages of this movie... but not to as good effect as the second bait to lure him in to do a ‘three hit job’ for an 'old acquaintance'. And that’s basically the plot, pretty much all of it, with Jessica Alba as the lure and Michelle Yeoh as the person who falls for that lure, more so, than Statham’s Arthur Bishop character does... thus yanking her friend Bishop into the trap set for him.

This film is a completely different kettle of fish to the first movie, The Mechanic (reviewed here) and the fact that it’s not bound to being a remake from a specific source material, like that first one, is both this movie's strength and weakness. Weakness because the various characters seem a little less detailed and less intricately drawn in this one and, although the script does pay lip service to the Arthur Bishop character by having the lead still be a vinyl junkie, in a brief scene at the start (although the classical music is gone for this second outing), everything seems less ‘set up’ and less credible in terms of back story and that does kind of hurt it a little, I felt.

However, it is also this movie’s strength because, free from the constraints of any source, the film becomes much more explosive and fun in terms of the action and, although many people will possibly see this as a bad thing, it was kind of what I was expecting and what I was hoping for, to be honest. I like Jason Statham as an actor and, also, I believe he’s one of the few modern era performers who can safely be called a genuine movie star in the same way that greats like John Wayne, James Stewart or Cary Grant might be seen as that. True, the actors in question will bring their own fictional baggage with them to the films and Jason Statham is certainly no different in that respect... but it didn't hurt their careers much and neither, I suspect, does it do Statham any harm. So, for me, he joins modern, larger than life movie stars like Stallone, Schwarzenneger and Harrison Ford and, like them, he’s also a pretty darned good actor. So what I’m trying to say here is... without being a remake of something else, the film is free to be a typical Jason Statham action movie and, frankly, that’s just what I wanted to see.

The film starts off strong with a shorthand series of scenes showing us Arthur Bishop’s life direction after the end of the last movie before going into a wonderful and quite intense action sequence with nice little pieces of Mickey Spillane style brutalism, such as  pinning one antagonists hand with a dagger onto the back of another antagonist during a fight. Because of Statham’s experience in these kinds of roles, you believe he can do it and even his ludicrous, unplanned escape route takes on a layer of credibility as the writers and director pull off a stunt sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond movie. It’s all good stuff.

Now, the plot is extremely simplistic, just like the first one, perhaps even more so. Statham is honey trapped into doing three impossible kills and to make them look like accidents, for someone in his past with a grudge against him. The second of these kills is extremely obvious but, like all in this movie, incredibly fun to watch and so I really don’t mind that the film is, in almost every way possible, predictable as hell. There are no surprises from the fate of Tommy Lee Jones character, the third on Bishop’s hit list, for example. In fact, the only surprising things about this movie is that a) Jessica Alba’s character didn’t turn out to be a little more complicated than she at first appears and b) the wonderful Michelle Yeoh doesn’t get in on the action stuff herself... which is a shame because I really like her when she does the action stuff. However, Yeoh brings the plausibility of someone a character like Bishop would trust with her to the proceedings because, heck, who’s not going to believe in someone like Michelle Yeoh. She’s a great actress and although she’s criminally underused here, she does bring a lot to the table in terms of getting certain messages across quickly, so a lot of character building stuff can be waived credibly. Jessica Alba is also great but, again, quite underused since she’s a pretty good actress too.

Now, the movie is directed by Dennis Gansel who, as far as I’m concerned, directed one of the few truly great vampire movies of the last ten years, We Are The Night, which I reviewed here. The film doesn’t look nearly as slick or decorative as that earlier film and he seems to have made a conscious decision to frame the shots and have them edited in a more ‘raw and edgy’ way. In fact, the film completely eschews those nice colour palettes and contrasts from scene to scene that were a deft touch on Simon West’s The Mechanic. So it would be true to say, therefore, that Mechanic Resurrection feels a little more Hollywood in its approach to the product but, honestly, for this kind of movie, that doesn’t hurt it either.

Mark Isham returns to score this sequel , which is less jazzy but equally cool with its emphasis on action music to match the on screen shenanigans of the lead character. I only hope the score gets a proper CD release from Lakeshore Records and doesn’t languish in electronic download hell for people who have the necessary virtual space and matching tin ears to be able to enjoy it compressed into such a package. After all, we got two different CD scores for the first movie so... I just hope this comes out in a proper physical medium sometime and, if it does, hopefully not just the kind of vinyl recording that the film's main protagonist would obsess over. As it is in the movie, though... great bit of scoring. I’ve always had a soft spot for Isham and he certainly provides a nice, action oriented soundtrack which is a succinct and appropriate match to the visual style of the film. Some nice work here.

So there you have it. A nice sequel to what was an okay remake. It’s certainly a film I’d watch more than the first and Statham and his costars certainly don’t let him down... including a slightly different kind of characterisation from Tommy Lee Jones than you may have seen him do before. I can see exactly why he took this part. Without giving too much away, I’m hoping that there will be a third ‘Mechanic’ movie before too long and, if they do go ahead with that, that it’ll have room for some of the characters invented for this second installment to return. If you like Jason Statham action movies then there’s no question you should go check this one out. Also, although it’s a sequel, there’s not too much reference made to the previous movie, so you can probably watch this as a stand alone without needing any info from the first one. Any blanks are quite easy to fill in and are all set up for this movie anyway... meaning that the back stories of every other character in this movie and their relationship to Arthur are not referencing the first one. So seriously give Mechanic: Resurrection a try if you like your stunts and action with a veneer of Stathamesque credibility. This one’s a good ‘un.

Monday 29 August 2016

Sadako VS Kayako

Ringside Grudge Match

Sadako VS Kayako
2016 Japan Directed by Kôji Shiraishi
First European Screening at London FrightFest
6pm 27th August 2016

I’ve been a fan of the Ringu (Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) movies since they first came out in UK cinemas at the tail end of the 1990s. When I first heard of the incredibly silly idea of a movie pitting the two ghostly apparitions from these two J-horror franchises against each other, I was very much into the idea in the same spirit as, say, I love all those old Gojira (aka Godzilla) VS “insert appropriately bizarrely named kaiju eiga monster here” movies. If I was going to see something this ludicrous put on screen then, frankly, it’s the Japanese who I want to see doing this stuff.

What I didn’t realise at the time is just how many Ringu and Ju-On films have been made in the series over the years. I’ve seen maybe five Ringu movies, which includes the Chinese Ring Virus remake and also the actual book based sequel Spiral (which is a bizarre oddity in terms of both timing and cast and I’m really not going to go into an explanation of why that is here... I’ll eventually rewatch all these movies for this blog in the next 30 or so years, I reckon... so I’ll get into it then). I’ve also seen the first two Ju-On movies. What I haven’t seen is the abominable US remakes of these franchises... another of which will be upon us very soon with the movie Rings, apparently.  Nobody, really, does J-Horror like... well, like the Japanese, obviously, so I really am not, at this point, interested in the US remakes (unless somebody would like to jump on here in the comments section and persuade me otherwise).

I also didn’t realise the movies had kept on going with various entries in either cycle coming out over the years (I believe the latest Ringu reboots in Japan were more based on the Sadako character as she appears in the books?). What I do know is, in a nice bit of symmetry, that this is the twelfth movie in each of the franchises’ history. So that’s pretty mind blowing and I really blame the UK and US marketers and distributors of such things for these not being on my radar quicker. Still, a line about uploading the viral movie from the Ringu series onto the internet in this movie makes me realise that this is not a continuation of the last two although, that being said, there are also some differences in the manifestation of Sadako in this that I can only assume are a hangover from the previous few films.

What I will say is that I had an absolute blast with this movie. The idea of two or more monsters from separate horror franchises pitted against each other is at least as old as the 1940s Universal pictures monster mash ups which I loved so much since seeing them as a kid (Frankenstein VS The Wolfman, House Of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein etc), probably older, and it’s a tradition which has continued into many horror franchises to this day and also, just lately of course, superhero movies too. The fact that this ludicrous idea of two of the most terrifying Japanese creations in modern cinematic history having a pop at each other came from fan pressure is interesting too. The company had put out an April Fool’s joke that they would be making a movie about the two characters fighting and... the fan response was so strong that they actually decided to go ahead and make the thing. So that’s really cool.

If you’re not familiar with the basic premise of the two characters, this is it in a nutshell...

In the Ringu films, a cursed video tape is the cause of problems. When you watch the short, surreal movie, a phone call will ring you and Sadako will tell you that you have two days to live. After two days, the movie will then start playing on your TV and this time, after she crawls out of the well and comes towards the camera, she actually crawls out of your TV, fixes you with her evil eye, barely glimpsed out of the profusion of hair which covers her face, and you die of fear. The only way to stop it is to make ‘a copy’ of the tape (something the writers of Sadako VS Kayako seem to have forgotten or are deliberately ignoring) and then pass it onto somebody to watch it before your time is up. Thus spreading the curse like a virus while increasing the number of copies of the tape in existence.

In the Ju-On films, a house is haunted by the ghost of a cat, the little boy and the mother who were horrible murdered by the husband/father. The cat sounds that the little grey boy Toshio make and the death rattle clicking sound the crawling, awkwardly moving mother Kayako emit are eerie and disturbing. Once the ‘grudge’ has touched you, after you enter the house, it will haunt you and beckon you to return to your death.

Now the idea of teaming these two up in a grudge match, if you will, is admittedly kinda cheesy and, to be honest, this film really is a lot of cheesy fun with lines like “My curse must fight with your curse” and the sometimes inappropriately deadpan delivery of various bits of bad news such as “Your parents will not return” (because they both just died horribly), did raise some chuckles from the audience, myself included. However, at the same time, the director manages to balance the laughs by treating the two subjects very seriously and getting a lot of the look and feel of the characters just right. Sadako is still a mess of straight hair and makes an imposing figure on screen when she is unleashed. Kayako and Toshio are, perhaps, even more imposing in their ability to make you feel uneasy and so the really fine line which the director might have crossed to turn this into an out and out comedy is deftly navigated and he really does a service to the fans of both characters.

He’s also added a fair few supporting characters, most notable of which for me are a magically powered exorcist and his blind, pre-teen sidekick, who also happens to be a psychic medium of some kind. Both are quite deadpan in their line delivery, completely ridiculous and help lift the movie when you think it’s shot all of its bullets out in the last third of the movie. There are also some surprises in the film in the number of deaths and just who it is who happens to get killed at any given moment. There’s one character, for example, who you know has two days to live and you assume they will continue to be an ally of the young ladies who have got themselves into so much trouble by watching the cursed video but, in an amazing exorcism sequence, the body count goes off the chart and this character I’m thinking of also has a vaguely comical but surprising death... when you just don’t expect it to be coming yet. So that was cool.

There are some nice compositions and lighting schemes in the movie... and that’s especially true of the first post-title sequence, after the names Sadako and Kayako have appeared in nicely animated type, enhanced with bloody effects and sounds. There is so much vertical segmenting in this early scene of a social worker visiting a house that there is one shot in this beautifully crafted design where there must have been as many as 20 to 30 elongated rectangles in the perspective of the shot from different layers in the background... the social worker beautifully framed in one set of vertically slashed sections. Excellent stuff. This opening sequence is also a bit of a surprise moment because of the environment she’s in, as you are expecting to see the victim of one of the two major entities that give the film its name... only to realise it’s the one you were least expecting to be making an appearance here.

And, yeah, I did have a blast with this movie, even if the writers did make me feel old by having their young protagonists treat VHS video tape as some kind of ancient relic from the dark ages. It’s not exactly a scary movie in any way, shape or form. More of a ‘comfort horror movie’ to be sure. But the strength of the writing and the film’s ability to surprise me, even to the extent of the ending of the movie, which I really didn’t see coming, certainly kept me entertained throughout. All of the actors and actresses in the movie, all of whom I thought I knew from other movies but, almost all of whom I didn’t, are all very strong here too. They are, for the most part, playing typical J-horror stereotypes but that’s fine, it’s just what you need for a movie of this kind and I can only commend the actors, writer, director and everyone else involved with making a really cool and slick product.

And about those surprises. If you get a chance to see this movie, make sure you stick around for a post credit scene at the very end of the film. A lot of people at the screening were out of their chairs and off to the next movie as the credits rolled but there’s a cool Easter egg at the end here. Now, admittedly, if you didn’t sleep through the entire movie, you will have already seen a version of this post credit scene in the last ten minutes of the film. However, the way in which it is reiterated in this last little add on is just how you want to see it and fans of the Ringu franchise, in particular, will want to witness it restated in just this fashion, I’m sure. 

All said and done, Sadako VS Kayako is a huge slice of J-horror fun. It’s fairly Ringcentric, which kinda makes sense as that’s got more potential to riff plot spins on, and if I was being extra critical, I’d say some of the manifestations of Sadako, in terms of both timing and her ability to keep popping up well before the two days are expired, are just a little bit of a cheat to try and get some extra scare scenes in. That being said, there are a number of Ju-On scenes which are pretty great, including a crowd pleasing sequence where some school bullies are lured into the house, and there’s enough respect payed to both the separate franchises that fans of just either one shouldn’t be disappointed.

I saw this movie at this year's FrightFest on the earliest of its two screenings and it was the first time the movie had been seen outside of Japan. In an introduction by one of the organisers, we were told that this movie was, in fact, due to get a commercial release over here later in the year (which, had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops to secure a ticket). However, they also said that was all up in the air now because the movie was being distributed over here by Metrodome. If you’ve had your ear to the ground on film news you will have heard that the firm went bankrupt a week or so ago so... not sure that this film will get a release over here now. We shall see. All I know for sure is, this movie is bound to be in my top ten for the year and, if you’re a fan of either of the two franchises in the title (and more than likely, if you are, then you already love both), then you really shouldn’t miss this great little movie. So much fun.

Friday 26 August 2016

Doctor Who - The Dalek Invasion Of Earth

Hello, Dalek!

Doctor Who -
The Dalek Invasion Of Earth

21 November - 26th December 1964 BBC1

BBC DVD Region 2

“One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”
The Doctor, The Dalek Invasion Of Earth

Well, it’s been a while since I personally watched the original version of the Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth. My previous experience of this classic William Hartnell tale dates back to the days of VHS, when I probably borrowed it off my cousin. Of course, this 1964 adventure was remade two years later by Amicus studios as Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150AD, following the success of their 1965 remake of the 1963 Doctor Who serial The Daleks, entitled Dr. Who and the Daleks, for the big screen.

Now, while I quite like this original version of the story, I have to say I much prefer the big screen version a whole lot better with its crazy music, vibrant colours and more condensed, pacey version of the plot points. However, this version runs for six, 25 minute episodes instead of the 84 minutes of the movie version, and both have good things and bad things to offer the casual watcher of a story like this.

The first episode starts off strong with a slightly disturbing moment as a robo-man’s brains are finally scrambled enough by the device he’s wearing so that he throws himself in the river to drown, his floating body used in this and subsequent shots. Then the TARDIS materialises, not with the sound we know these days but with much less fuss. Interestingly, it’s not a model but a life size prop and... it’s looking a hell of a lot more authentic in this incarnation than it has done on many occasions in the intervening years. It even has two of its windows tilted open... not something I remember seeing before (or should that be since?). The TARDIS is still carrying its original crew who first set off in their adventures the year before, namely William Hartnell as The Doctor,  Carol Ann Ford as his grandaughter Susan, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell... as Coal Hill School teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. Of course, we shall be hearing more about Coal Hill School later in the year when the BBC launch their new Doctor Whoniverse spin off Class.

The four seperate into two groups after Susan sprains her ankle (no, really) and the TARDIS is accidentally buried under a falling bridge. Ian and The Doctor go to a warehouse, where they encounter the robomen while Susan and Barbara are picked up by the resistance. They soon discover that they are in the year 2164... which is 200 years after the episode was broadcast, of course. For some reason unknown to me, the big budget movie remake was set in the year 2150 so... I don’t know, maybe the producers of the movie version just liked rounded numbers.

At the end of the first episode, where Ian and The Doctor are cornered by robomen alongside the Thames, we get treated to the famous, classic reveal, cliffhanger shot. As they turn to hurl themselves into the river Thames and escape, not the best choice anyway if you don't want to get killed by the polution (in any century), we see a ripple on the surface and then a Dalek reveals itself as the main enemy of this story, slowly trundling out of the water and onto the bank of the river. Good stuff. This was only the Daleks second appearance, the first being just under a year before this in the second Doctor Who adventure but... I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to conclude that if series producer Verity Lambert hadn’t broken from her 'educational, history programme’ brief for the show in the second story... the series may not have continued running for too much longer. The Daleks were a huge hit on their first appearance and even more so with the release of more Dalek stories... as Dalekmania shook Britain in much the same way that Beatlemania had a year or two before.

It’s an interesting story and, as the groups of protagonists get further divided and find each other over the course of the six episodes they, independently of each other, all make their way with other characters to a mining operation using human slave labour in Bedford, to uncover the Dalek’s master plan of destroying the Earth’s core so our planet can be piloted around the galaxy like a huge spaceship. Fair enough, I guess.

There are quite a few differences from the film other than the obvious cinematic shorthand used in the later production. For a start, there’s certainly not an abundance of posters in post invasion London which are advertising the popular breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs like there are in the movie... where you can hardly look at any exterior shot without finding a Sugar Puffs poster at some point. The film version is, of course, very much an example of exclusive product placement gone mad and shattering the illusion of reality... unless mankind in the future really are subsisting on a diet of Sugar Puffs like they’re chowing down on Soylent Green.

The robomen are a very different beast here too. In the serial here they’re wearing very cumbersome, top heavy helmets and whatever clothes the human who was converted was wearing at the time. In the movie version it’s a much more military, deliberately Nazi-like affair with black, shiny uniforms and a sleek helmet not entirely unlike a German stormtrooper from the Second World War. It’s safe to say that the movie is pushing a slightly different commentary on the robomen than the no less sensitive but, certainly less demonised, versions in the serial. Also, I know these were being primarily watched on small, fuzzy screens which showed none of the detail you get these days but... it’s kind of hilarious when you realise the actor playing the roboman who throws himself into the river at the start of the first episode plays a roboman in various locations throughout the six episodes... and dies a fair few deaths too. Great stuff.

Other takeaways I got from this show was that, while the Daleks do say their trademark “Exterminate” a few times, it hadn't quite got the status it later achieved and, more often than not, they’ll just talk about people being killed instead. I also noticed one of the resistance fighters talking about striking a blow to give Europe a hope... so I guess by 2164 we must somehow be on very good terms again with our fellow Europeans after all this Brexit fuss... at least according to Doctor Who.

The ending of the final episode is quite dramatic and, surprisingly moving. The Doctor’s grandaughter has fallen in love with one of the resistance fighters but she has to leave him to carry on with her travels. However, The Doctor gets wind of this and locks her out of the TARDIS, abandoning her to a more stable future away from all his time travelling shenanigans. This is where the famous, farewell, ‘no regrets’ speech which I quote at the top of this review comes from. Even if you’ve never seen this episode, you’ve probably seen the speech because it is always used in documentaries about the show and in flashback sequences within the show itself. This was the very first time a companion had left the show but Carol Ann Ford would, of course, briefly return to the role opposite Richard Hurndall (standing in for the long dead Hartnell) in the 20th anniversary show, The Five Doctors.

And that’s that, I think. Doctor Who - The Dalek Invasion of Earth is something of a classic of the Hartnell era and definitely one to contemplate watching if you ever feel a hankering to watch a First Doctor adventure. Dated but kinda fun... but don’t count the movie version out just yet.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

The Mechanic

Gunning Up That Kill

The Mechanic (2011)
USA 2011 Directed by Simon West
Momentum Blu Ray Zone B

I have to throw my hands up in the air with this one and say that I haven’t seen the original 1972 Charles Bronson movie on which this one is based. I will try to take care of that at some point, though. Now, the reason why I find myself watching this version of The Mechanic at this particular time, especially since it’s a movie that I deliberately ignored at the cinema due to its being a remake, is because I saw a bus side advert the other day for a sequel, Mechanic Resurrection, and... well, I like a good Jason Statham action move as much as the next person.

This one actually isn’t bad. Director Simon West is not a director I have had any problems with in the past, unlike some high profile critics who seem to be allergic to him. I’ve only seen a few of his movies but I’ve quite enjoyed them. This one is no different and although I’ve seen at least one movie where Jason Statham wasn’t able to save the picture (that would be War), it’s hard to actually waste an actor of this talent and neither Statham or the director drop the ball here.

The movie tells the story of a professional, elite assassin called Arthur Bishop, played by Statham. He is depicted as a sophisticated killer who tends to take out especially nasty people when called for by his ‘supplier’, Harry, played by Donald Sutherland. We know he’s a cultured man because he listens to vinyl records of classical music and works on his vintage Jaguar in his spare time.

As Statham’s voice-over narrative tells us, among other things, there are various ways to kill people and different kinds of hits required, depending on the kind of message you want to send. This is demonstrated in a somewhat clichéd opening sequence which follows Statham killing a man who the writers have already implied, via visual short hand, is not a nice person. The man drowns in a cleverly baited kill by Arthur and there’s a nice sequence where he swims under the corpse of the man he just killed, using the arms to swim so that it looks to the target’s body guards that he is still alive.

We then have the similarly clichéd moments where Sutherland’s character pays Arthur and we see that the two have cultivated a genuine friendship over the years. All this is just another set up by the writers, of course, because Sutherland becomes the subject of the next hit, which Sutherland’s partner asks Arthur to carry out, showing him how Sutherland sold out his colleagues and had them killed. Arthur doesn’t want to do it but he takes the job before somebody else does and gets Sutherland to ‘escape’ from his own building's security system, thus luring him into the open as a target for Arthur. Sutherland doesn’t try to stop what’s going to happen and says he’d rather it was Arthur than someone else.

Yes, I know it’s all very obvious and you know exactly what’s going to happen next, pretty much all the way through the movie, but Statham is such a charming actor and the movie is packed with enough set pieces, both action led and character led, that you kind of forgive it its faults and let it run through without really questioning it, I think. At least that's the spirit that I watched it in.

However, Sutherland’s death leaves a loose end... his thuggish son Steve, played by Ben Foster. Arthur Bishop grudgingly takes him under his wing and teaches him how to be a professional hitman, although Steve tends to mess things up a lot and almost paints a target on their backs in terms of the way they are being perceived by the rest of the profession. Arthur has a good piece of advice which I’ll share here because, although it seems to not mean much at first, it does push an interesting point in terms of why someone should actually listen to what their mentor tells them... “Good judgement comes from experience... and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.”

The story goes on to then expose the sell out by Donald Sutherland as a faked plot to gain power by the partner who sent Arthur in to kill his boss. So Arthur and Steve have to find a way to take out the man who set Sutherland up but... will Steve find out that it was Arthur who killed his dad? And, if he does, how do you think he’s going to react.

Well... somewhat predictably, it has to be said, although as I mentioned before, this doesn’t matter much when you have an action filled script with the likes of Jason Statham, Donald Sutherland and Ben Foster making it all come to life as skillfully as they can. The director utilises some nice colour schemes in different sections of the movie and he uses the juxtaposition of them to good effect throughout the running time. For instance, a bar that Statham hangs around in is bathed with a yellow light while a parking bay in a multi-story tower block is painted and lit in neutral blues and whites. There’s some really nice lighting in this movie and the director keeps these different colour schemes coming which, in turn, keeps everything relatively fresh and watchable.

At the end of the day, the film is about betrayal and the way it leads to similar betrayals, of a kind. It’s about friendship and the complicated stuff that gets in the way and, although it seems like it should be quite weighty... it really isn’t. It’s a light piece of fluff but, even so, it’s the right kind of light fluff, to be fair and it also has a nicely put together score (released on CD in two different, complimentary versions, apparently) by Mark Isham that is quite listenable away from the film, too, I suspect. It has almost an old, silver age sound to it, which is quite refreshing, while still retaining a modern edge that keeps it relevant and, more importantly, appropriate to the on screen shenanigans of these two, scallywag assassins.

Ultimately, The Mechanic is not as wild or addictive as other Statham action movies like The Transporter and Crank films but it’s not too far off in tone and if you like those, then you will probably have an okay time with this one. As for me, 'mission accomplished' and I’m all geared up to see the sequel, which opens this Friday in the UK. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

Monday 22 August 2016

Lights Out

‘Fraiders Of The Ghost Dark

Lights Out
2016 USA Directed by David F. Sandberg
UK cinema release print.

And so on to Lights Out. I’ve not seen the original three minute short film by the same director, which he has chosen to expand into his first feature film, but this is certainly a horror movie which had an effective trailer and kinda lives up to ones expectations of it, to a certain extent. It’s the old horror cliché of 'things' which can’t be seen doing what they’re doing until it’s too late, which is on display here.. as seen in a gazillion horror movies when the monster lives in the shadows and intrudes on the fractured reality of the protagonists when they, but not the audience (who are already in a heightened state of tension), least expect it.

The ghostly and very real, in terms of the harm it can do, monster in Lights Out is an entity which can only function in the dark. Perhaps the most recent cousin to this creature is the invention, by writer Steven Moffat, of the Weeping Angels in the British science fiction series Doctor Who. In that show, those specific creatures appear as statues and are quantum locked so that they are not able to move if they are being observed. Once a person's attention or line of vision isn’t focussed on them, however, such as when a person blinks or is in a dark room, they move very fast and "come to get you." The creature in Lights Out is pretty much another variant of these creatures in that she, her name is Diana, can only function in places where light, or at least most forms of light (as it happens, without spoiling an obvious moment which a few of you might not see coming), reduces the creature's functionality and, as importantly, visibility, to zero. So... you know... watch out for those shadowy areas of a room... which reminds me of another Doctor Who creation called the Vashta Nerada but I don’t think this is a direct homage or steal... just two different writers finding common ground in the way they approach their, genuinely suspenseful, horror tales.

One of the more impressive ingredients of Lights Out is that the main characters in the movie don’t fall into the old cliché of disbelief until proven otherwise, for the most part. Indeed, it’s shown quite demonstrably that disbelief leaves you ill prepared and ready for a body bag in one sequence where a couple of characters enter the haunted lair of the Diana-monster and don’t return in one piece. So it’s nice that the main characters consisting of Martin, played by Gabriel Bateman, his ‘mentally challenged’ mother Sophie, played by Maria Bello, his step sister Rebecca, played by Teresa Palmer and her boyfriend Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia... are all on each other’s wavelengths from pretty early on in the movie. Asides from a pre-credits sequence which features prominently in the trailer for the movie, people fall into their roles in finding out how to best defeat Diana fairly rapidly in this and, it has to be said, I found this a much more refreshing approach to the ghostly shenanigans on show in this movie.

Of course, one of the biggest clichés going in horror films since they first began, the wandering around a place in the dark, is neatly circumnavigated by the writer and director by turning it into one of the main ‘rules’ of this creation. Indeed, the various protagonists in the movie spend almost their entire time trying to keep the lights on in whatever environment they find themselves in and this, of course, means that the audience doesn’t question the movie so much when they find out that, once again, Diana has found some way of disabling all the lights. So, naturally, the writer and director take full advantage of the way the spooky shadows and shapes, as our heroes and heroines wander around with candles, flash lights and whatever else they can find, are cast against the audience’s collective peripheral vision in an attempt, quite often successful, of wringing the full amount of suspense and fear they can out of them.

If it fails, sometimes, to provoke the necessary reaction, I thinks it’s down to how seasoned some horror film watchers are and their relationship with other recent films of this ilk which are, perhaps, done a little more expertly in some places... although this movie certainly makes up for it with its enthusiasm. Where it falls down a little, though, is with the origins of the character which, while seeming to be all out in the open for the dissection of the main characters and those of us watching them, are actually a little more hazy and shrouded in mystery than you might at first realise. For instance, the science fiction concept which has created Diana is something not entirely unlike what happens to the Dr. Manhattan character in the comic book Watchmen and, of course, the movie counterpart. However, while the movie doesn’t go into specifics about the ‘incident’ which caused the creation of this malevolent apparition, allowing one to infer the rest as something which is best left to the imagination, it does tend to gloss over some pretty essential information surrounding the relationship between Diane and Martin’s mother, Sophie. Since the ending of the movie absolutely hinges on this specific relationship, it has to be said that I quite often found myself questioning the ‘up and down’ status of this ‘ resurrected friendship’ in terms of the credibility of the main premise. Without this central relationship, you can’t have the ending which this film seems to tell us is the solution to everyone’s problems... but it did feel bereft of common sense in terms of the mother, for a lot of the time, so it didn’t quite ring true to me in that regard.

However, this is a really minor grumble and, although it’s not exactly the scariest of this year’s horror movies, it’s certainly a nicely executed one in general and, even though the genre rules are mostly adhered to, it does so in a way that doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you’re covering the same old ground again in terms of movies designed to make you jump out of your seat. I mean, yeah, alright, we absolutely are covering the same old ground again... but it does it in a way that makes it seem less important in terms of the variations of the characters you usually get in this kind of movie. There’s also a nice moment involving an electronic car key and its use as a means of survival at one point that was certainly worth the price of admission, as far as I’m concerned. That and the wholly appropriate and unsettling, at times, score by composer Benjamin Wallfisch, which I thought was pretty good.

So is Lights Out the most terrifying movie you’re going to see this year? Not even close. It will, however, certainly give you an entertaining night out at the cinema and, although I personally don’t need to see it again, I don’t have any qualms about happily recommending it to anyone who is contemplating going to see this one... even if they are already fans of the genre.

Friday 19 August 2016

The Red Dragon

Justice Ink

The Red Dragon
USA 1945 Directed by Phil Rosen
Monogram/Warner Bros DVD Region 1

So it’s been a little while, again, since I reviewed a Charlie Chan film... mostly because of lack of availability of the few movies left in the series that had never been commercially released on a home video platform. Now, a pricey division of Warner Brothers called Warner Archives have finally released the remaining few Chan titles on DVD in a two disc, three movie set... comprising the remaining two Roland Winters titles (don’t worry... I’ll get to those in separate reviews) and this one, The Red Dragon, a missing gap from the Sydney Toler portrayals of the famous detective from Hawaii. Of course, regular readers will probably know my absolute favourite actor to portray Chan was Warner Oland, and there are actually a few of his earliest appearances in the character which are still not available. However, this is because those first few to star him are pretty much missing in action and, unless a bunch of film reels show up in some odd location someday... it looks like they’ll be lost forever. Still, I remember the unbelievable resurrection from the ashes of the, more or less, full original cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years back so... you know... never say never.

The film starts off promisingly with an opening credits painting which is the most expressive and interesting I’ve seen used in the series. Depicting Toler’s head and shoulders in the bottom left and a big dragon taking up the rest of the frame where the credits overlay. It’s pretty great but, alas, even with late series regular Phil Rosen returning to directing duties, the quality of the rest of the movie does little to live up to the magnificence of this title card. However, from a film historian’s perspective, as opposed to just kicking back and enjoying the movie, this has its little bonuses too. I must ask a film historian to verify this, next time I see one.

So, yeah, there’s good and there’s bad and I’ll get to the worst thing first because it’s the very thing that reveals the silver lining in this one...

The acting is really terrible. Seriously, it’s so wooden at times it creeks and although these films don’t always have the best players, they’re usually better than this. Now, it may, to an extent, be something to do with the staging of the action because... well, there’s an awful lot of chance encounters which lead to conversations to drive along the plot. For instance, man comes out of lift, bumps into other man who happens to be waiting for the lift, and the two talk, standing statically, for the next minute or two. This is a really flat and less than dynamic way to fill the audience in on the plot details, it has to be said. But so is the line delivery of the majority of the actors, so I’m not letting them off the hook here, either.

The good thing though, from a historical viewpoint, is that the main regular cast are all very natural and comfortable and run rings around the rest of the players. Take Toler himself, for instance. You really do get a sense of just what a consummate and professional actor he was here. When you see how stilted almost everyone else is in this, you get the chance to compare him and realise just how good he was at bringing the Charlie Chan character to life. I got a real appreciation of Toler above and beyond the usual assumption that he will play the role as best he can, with this one.

Benson Fong returns here as number three son and, although he acquits himself quite well, he’s not given too much more to do than look puzzled and interested at his ‘Pop’s’ conclusions and deductions here. He also has the usual two hander comic relief moments but this time, instead of Mantan Moreland playing his ‘funny black man’ role as chauffer Birmingham Brown, Fong gets to partner up with Willie Best as Birmingham’s cousin Chatanooga Brown, who played in at least three Chan films and played Chatanooga at least twice. The difference between Best and Moreland is not too great, however. He comes across as a maybe slightly younger, slimmer version of Moreland himself, given exactly the same kinds of lines and scaredy cat actions to follow but without the occasional added wit of Mantan Moreland’s two man stand up comedy routine that the writers occasionally drew from and threw into the mix. Best is fine, however and, though his lines are pretty forgettable in this, he doesn’t let the side down when it comes to playing the part of the Chan family chauffer here. Of course, Moreland would return to the series again later.

We also have a lady who was joggling at my memory as I was watching her all the way through the film. She’s not exactly outstanding in this but I knew the face and I somehow managed to miss her name in the credits. Turns out she’s Carol Hughes, who Flash Gordon fans will recognise as being the second of the on-screen Dale Ardens, appearing in the third of the three initial Buster Crabbe serials, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, for Universal. This means that both of the serial actresses who played Dale Arden have appeared in a Charlie Chan film and both opposite Sydney Toler’s version of the character. Jean Rogers, who played Dale in both Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars starred in an earlier picture in the series, Charlie Chan in Panama. I know what you’re thinking... A Chan, A Plan, A Canal, Panama but... no, it doesn’t quite work like that.

The film is kinda hum drum in a lot of ways but it does, at least, have a genuine mystery at it’s heart and Charlie Chan flies to assist a character who has a history of solving cases with him but whom, in terms of actor and character, I could find no trace of within the history of the Chan movies. In this case, the first murder is committed in a room full of witnesses, as the victim gets a bullet for his troubles. It’s quite comical to watch him as he, in his final moments he takes the time to type a dying clue on his nearby typewriter. The trick is, though, that although one shot is heard, two bullets have been fired, on slugs which have never been rifled down to be fired from a firearm. And what is the significance of The Red Dragon Chinese ink at the scene of the first crime, which gives the movie its name? Is it something to do with the papers which tell of the mysterious, newly discovered,  ‘missing element’ that can cause even more widespread atomic damage than the recently exploded atom bomb?

Only Charlie Chan can work out the answers to this Chinese puzzle, which, of course, he does in the short running time of the film. The mystery behind the double shot bullets with no visible firearms is a bit of a dreary one but the idea of that particular challenge is a good one. The only other outstanding thing I noted in this viewing was that, once the killer has been unmasked, so to speak, by Chan on a staircase, he breaks free from the police and has a go at Chan himself. It’s unusual for Chan to get in on the action in these kinds of movies... that’s why he always has either number one, two or three son with him... because they’re young enough to get into fist fights. Here, Toler deftly grabs the leg of the killer and throws him downstairs. So a little unusual but welcome bit of mild action shenanigans for Chan in this one.

And that’s me done here. The Red Dragon is nowhere near one of the greats in terms of the Chan movies but people who like these films will no doubt want to check this one out. I’ve always liked the Charlie Chan movies and so this new Warners set is an unmissable release as far as I’m concerned. If you’re into the Chan then make haste and purchase honourable DVD collection before bird is no longer early enough for worm!

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Justice Inc

Avenger's Ensemble

Justice Inc
Dynamite comics Trade Paperback reprint
ISBN: 1606906623

So here we have another modern comic strip "mash up" of 1930s pulp characters, this time teaming up Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger. Now I read a DC series called First Wave a few years ago which teamed up these characters but, as I recall, I found it so awful a rendition of the original source material, being nothing near these fictional people in either spirit or tone, that I just flat out refused to bother to review it. This one is a little better but... it's still not great and, especially in terms of Clark Savage Jr, still not what I would call a credible portrayal of the character.

The Avenger was a relatively short lived character created by the Smith and Street magazine as another one to try and rival their two aforementioned heroes in popularity but, despite having a radio series too, the magazine folded after a few years. The published pseudonym for the writer of the series was Kenneth Robeson and the publishers promoted it as being written by the creator of the Doc Savage tales but, honestly, I don’t think Lester Dent, the main Doc storywriter and creative force behind the property, ever wrote any of The Avenger stories. The initial novel, Justice Inc, told of how the hero Richard Benson loses his wife and daughter in a villainous plot involving a plane crash. He survives death but the shock of his ordeal causes his skin to go grey and harden like clay. This means he can resculpt his features to resemble anyone and this master of disguise, along with his aides, sets up Justice Inc to avenge the victims of crime. That's pretty much all I can remember of that initial pulp story, to be honest, as it's been over twenty years since I read it.

This first story hit the newsstands in 1939 and it's in this year that the bulk of this new comic book is set. Starting off with their new, present day incarnation of The Man Of Bronze, a time travel element is introduced into the story to allow Doc to travel back to 1939 to meet himself before returning to the present, leaving us readers back in 1939 to continue the story. A story which, as it happens, is almost a retelling of the original Justice Inc version of The Avenger, but interpenetrated with Doc Savage and The Shadow, intersecting the timeline and with Doc's miraculous science being responsible for the clay faced resurrection of Richard Benson as The Avenger. After both Doc and The Shadow train Benson in how to take care of himself, the three go on to work together to try to foil the dastardly plans of The Shadow's villain The Voodoo Master, Doc Savage's two-time nemesis Johnny Sunlight and a mysterious third villain who is another variant on the Lamont Cranston personae... who is neither The Shadow nor, in this version and more in keeping with the later novels, a dupe identity for The Shadow.

And there you have it.

Except the writing isn't brilliant to be honest. I can't speak for The Avenger because I've only ever read the first novel but Doc is engaging in far too much chit chat here and even displaying a
sense of humour and self awareness that just wasn't part and parcel of Doc's almost emotionless, inpenetrable character. Similarly, The Shadow seems way too verbally aggressive and disrespectful of people for me to take him seriously as a credible version of the character. So this didn't sit well with me.

A good point about the comic is the artwork, which gives it a nice, painted, 1930s style pulp sensibility throughout... but the plot is fairly choppy (if this was a movie I'd say it was badly edited) and is a distraction to comprehension at certain points, I found. Furthermore, the geeky fanboy nods to the actual identities of the writers of the original books, like having characters with names like Ernst, Grant and Robeson, felt clumsily done and less enjoyable than a more sly, subtle set of references.

Another element which didn't sit well with me was the lack of the original companions of the characters. Sure, Monk Mayfair and Margo Lane are in there briefly but they don't seem too much like their original, pulp counterparts and, especially in the case of the Doc Savage novels, they were very much ensemble pieces with all of the subsidiary characters carrying a lot of weight and bearing on the feel of the stories. Here, they're pretty much ignored, it has to be said.

Adding insult to injury, they've included Doc's cousin Pat Savage, The Woman Of Bronze, in the story but she's hardly in it. The pretext that Margo Lane uses to recruit her into the escapades sets up a plot development which seems to me, unless I somehow missed it, to be completely superfluous to the main storyline and a complete loose end, not picked up later on in the narrative. Which is a) not so great writing and b) completely pointless and a waste of a great character who has always had a lot of potential. Even Lester Dent himself uses the character a little too sparingly and she only appeared in a small fraction of the more than 180 original Doc Savage novels, as if Dent himself failed to exploit the richness of the character. Modern Doc scribe Will Murray, who writes the latest incarnations of the novels, has probably done more to make use of Pat's personality for dramatic purposes... perhaps even more so than Dent did. Here, though, writer Michael Uslan kinda drops the ball with the character as far as I can see. Of course, on the plus side, with Pat hardly being in this volume, at least she isn't as badly presented as Doc is here. So that's something.

So could I recommend this volume to fans of the characters and of comics in general? Well certainly I would tell Doc fans to steer clear. It's not great, to be sure, although it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than DC’s First Wave interpretation of the character, it has to be said. If you’re a fan of comics in general... well the story is fairly simplistic, as you would expect it to be when dealing with 1930s pulp characters, but if you’re into rip roaring adventures with plenty of action then you might find this one an okay addition to your library. For anyone else, however, I'd say go back to 1970s Marvel for a better comics fix of Doc Savage and 1970s DC for a better comic book version of The Shadow. Much better versions, to be sure, and ultimately more satisfying... especially the black and white Marvel magazine style comic of Doc Savage... that run was an absolute masterpiece of a series.

Monday 15 August 2016


Snitch Of The Def Nerve

2016 USA
Directed by  Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
UK cinema release print.

Okay... so I have many grumbles about this new film Nerve but most of them are unimportant for what, ultimately, turns out to be a fairly entertaining movie.There are a few things which kinda grate though so... if you're interested, read on.

First up... this is something like the fifth movie made in just the last few years with this title. Sure, it’s based on an original novel but perhaps a title change might have helped ensure there’s no confusion in the marketplace as to which movie is which? I’m sick of producers and directors calling their movies, ones which aren’t even a remake, the same title as various others. They really need to sort themselves out.

Secondly... what the heck are the BBFC up to now?

Nerve has, quite bizarrely, been given a 15 certificate by those fiendish moral guardians, so what can this be about? Is it for extended scenes of nudity or sex? Nope, nothing like that here. Is it for excessive violence, perhaps? Nah, not much of anything to be seen here. Excessive swearing perhaps? Nope, not that I can recall, Anything which is said is certainly well within the remit of the ‘young teenage’ audience this has obviously been made for and I certainly hear far stronger stuff from 7 - 8 year olds on the bus on their way back from school. Oh, wait... here’s the clue in the description underneath the certification before the film starts...

This film has been given a 15 rating for... 'Risky Imitable Behaviour.' What the f***? Seriously BBFC? Seriously? Gee... I was watching a Western a while back and in that movie, which could be shown on television during the day, men in funny hats were firing six shooters at each other and killing their enemies. Some of them might even have been smoking. Surely that’s all pretty much even worse imitable behaviour than what you see in this movie? This is just another example of how completely screwed in the head our ratings system is over here. Don’t buy into it folks! Also, if I were to make a guess as to which scenes the BBFC were talking about... well they’re in every trailer for the movie that I’ve seen. Don’t remember getting any warnings about watching the trailer to this thing though.

Okay, so Nerve is not a bad movie but it’s definitely a film aimed specifically at the teenage audience. A teenage audience of whom only half will be allowed to legally watch it in this country because of the insistence of the BBFC. So what we have is a bunch of teenagers talking on their various social media devices and some dizzying fast camerawork and some badly inappropriate songs. All in all, this makes the first 15 - 20 minutes of this movie almost unwatchable. It’s been a long time since I was tempted to walk out of a cinema because of how bad a movie was up to a certain point and, I won’t beat around the bush here... this one did tempt me.

However, once the plot of a secret society and virtually untraceable reality game show called Nerve, which asks their players to risk certain things on dares to win cash, kicks in properly, we have something which does settle down to become a little more watchable and, dare I say it, fairly  suspenseful. It does help that we have an extremely charismatic pair of actors in the lead roles... Emma Roberts from (reviewed very briefly here) as Vee and Dave Franco from the Now You See Me films (reviewed here and here) as Ian. Despite some full on camera movement acrobatics and lots of short shots which make things sometimes hard to follow, these two and their relationship as they team up to play the game, risking it all as they ultimately try to beat the ‘Snitches get stitches’ rule as the game empties your bank account and steals your identity to take you to a death match, is the glue which solidly holds the film in place. You find yourself really caring about these characters because their on screen chemistry is so good. So that’s a surprisingly big positive in the way you may perceive this film, I think. If you can actually get through the breathtakingly shallow, teenage angst of the introductory character set ups, that is.

Another thing that doesn’t harm the movie is the way the technology is used and shown as infographic overlays on the screen. I recently reviewed The Shallows (here) where it really hurt the movie to the point where it was something I found myself focusing on again and again in a negative manner. Here, though, it works really well and part of that is because the context of the story actually means that it makes sense for the directors to be doing this sort of thing. It’s almost essential, actually, and saves a lot of otherwise inane dialogue from being inserted into the movie about ‘how many followers do you have’ and ‘how many watchers are in the area’. To be sure, the dialogue does hit that level too at a couple of points but only when they need to be specifically highlighted in context of advancing the story... otherwise the visual shorthand is handled just right here and it works like a dream, despite the excessive energy of the constantly moving camera operator and the people in the editing suite.

Something that really doesn’t work is the inane musical choices. Don’t get me wrong... Rob Simonsen’s electronica score is actually pretty good and I look forward to picking up a CD when it’s hopefully released in September. However, it does seem to be overshadowed by the sound mix in a lot of places and, worse, the inevitable batch of totally inappropriate, just awful, kiddy pop songs which also seem to pop up to populate the movie and render the sometimes seductive visuals at their most banal. I hate songtracks and this is one of the worst I’ve had to sit through at the cinema, for sure. Yeah, I know I’m far from the target audience to this stuff but... I know bad kid-pop music when I hear it.

Having said all that, though, Nerve does manage to be somewhat intense at certain points... there are a few beyond the edge of your seat moments in this. It’s also, as I said earlier, somewhat entertaining and, although I don’t think I could ever sit through it again, it’s certainly not a bad choice for a movie to see on a Saturday night at your local cinema. I suspect, if you are younger than the actual certification age of this movie, you will probably enjoy it a lot more than anyone else but, you know, if you do watch it... make sure you don’t end up killing yourself due to all that excessively ‘risky imitable behaviour’... or the BBFC might come and arrest you, or something.

Friday 12 August 2016

The Shallows

Fin And Bare It

The Shallows
2016 USA Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild, shallow, mini moment spoilers lurking within.

The Shallows is a new movie about a great white shark and the carnage it wreaks in the shallow waters by a secret beach. As such, it’s bound to invite comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s great white shark opus, Jaws, and frankly, it’s a bit of a big movie to find yourself compared to. Not many movies are going to come out anywhere near as good as Jaws when you play the shark comparison game, including the Jaws’ sequels, and so The Shallows, as predicted, comes nowhere close to the level of that movie.

That being said, it has its own unique spin in that, apart from a few deaths, it is pretty much just a single woman, and a companionable seagull, fighting for life against the shark which has them trapped on a small island, just beyond a beach that hardly anybody knows about. There’s a lot which is good about the film and, it has to be said, a lot of that is to do with the central protagonist Nancy, and the strength of Blake Lively’s performance in this key role. However, I have to point out that it’s not a movie without a fair few problems, at least as I see them, and so I 'll quickly address those here.

The director uses a lot of 'in your face' close ups in this movie and it certainly does help to ratchet up the tension when Nancy finds herself in trouble. However, I don’t think the editing or coverage is all it should be here. Let me try and explain what I mean. There’s a shot early on when the camera is following Nancy fairly tightly... it’s not an extreme close up by any means but it’s certainly setting up the next to be an establishing shot of the beach that she has been driven to for the first five or ten minutes of the movie. Alas, although the next shot is, indeed, an establishing shot of the beach, it’s quite contrary to anything the audience is set up to be expecting... namely a POV shot from roughly where Nancy is standing. Instead, we get a sudden cut from a fairly slow, maybe even static shot of Nancy to a long, hurtling helicopter shot taking in the whole bay from a different direction. It kinda takes you by surprise and maybe that’s the point but, to be honest, I really don’t think it did the tone of the piece any favours in these early stages where you’re trying to con the audience into feeling comfortable within the space and try to get them to relate to the characters. So yeah, little artistic quirks like that can work quite well but here, I feel, it really didn’t.

Another thing in which I think Collet-Sera is maybe trying to push the boundaries of the regular syntax of the visual aspect of cinema too far is with constant shots inserted over the main canvass in order to convey personal information about the characters. For instance, as the movie starts, Nancy is being driven to the beach where she will eventually fight for survival and she’s flicking through her library of photos on her phone, pointing out certain things to the driver which, of course, are laying the foundations of certain sequences later in the film. Every time she flicks through a photo on screen, a third or so of the shot has an inset of what she is seeing on her phone, rotating through as she does this. Similarly, when she’s later skyping on the beach, the inserts of the ‘skype experience’ are inset, at some odd angles, into the picture. It’s very distracting. Especially when the shot cuts to a reverse and the inset is then just continued on a different part of the screen. I found it jarring and contrary to a naturally flowing movie experience, to be honest. As the film progresses, similar shots of Nancy’s watch are shown as inserts in to various parts of the screen. Now the director here is no Godard. He might well have been making a comment designed to pop you out of the movie so you can think about what you are seeing but, to be honest, it didn’t feel like that. It felt more like the director was trying to deliver information and, perhaps, the visual execution of this maybe didn’t work out so well. That’s how I felt about it anyway and, like I said, it's pretty distracting.

Another big problem is the amount of unbelievable, coincidental clichés found in this movie. Okay so... I guess if you’re going to be trapped on a very small piece of rock which is going to disappear under the tide at some point, you’d best make sure that your main protagonist is a trainee doctor so she can look after herself when she gets in trouble. And what are those unbelievably long earings she’s wearing? Who wears those? Could they, in fact, serve a dual survival purpose later on in the film by being that size and shape? Oh yeah... turns out it does come in mighty handily at some point in there so... yeah, all a bit too much of this kind of stuff, I thought.

There is, however, a great central performance in this film, as I said before, by Blake Lively. It’s a pretty intense performance and the actress manages to deliver something quite special here for what is, for most of the film, a one woman performance. Without giving too many spoilers away.... there’s a great scene where a guy on the beach can see that Nancy is trapped but he’s taking advantage of the situation rather than helping. However, when he goes to retrieve Nancy’s surf board from the ocean, he comes a cropper when the shark goes for him. Nancy does shout a warning to the guy as he swims out to her board but... and this is quite an obvious thing to happen at this fairly early stage of the movie... the guy is pretty much pulverised getting back to the beach. However, the camera does not actually show, at this point, what the shark is doing to the gentleman in question. Instead, it resorts to an old cinematic trick which is in no way necessary these days but which is, usually, much more effective. The camera instead decides to concentrate on all of Nancy’s reaction shots as she witnesses whatever our imaginations are believing to be happening and, I’m delighted to say, Lively plays this set of events with absolute believability, shock and nausea... for quite a while, it seems, until the camera deigns to show the gory punchline to the scene with the aftermath of the man in question. So, really, well done for her for being able to carry the weight of this film on her shoulders, despite the possibly deliberate but in no way less unsettling visual flourishes in which the director indulges.

The other star of this movie is the score by composer Marco Beltrami. Now I quite like a lot of Beltrami’s work anyway and although this eschews the classic, John Williams channels Korngold approach that the inevitable Jaws comparison may bring to mind, it’s not quite the modern, sound design meets atonality style of scoring you might expect the producers to plump for here. That being said, there is an ostinato used as a bass line in certain sequences near the end where Nancy and the shark are going head to head, so to speak, which is perhaps reminiscent of William’s famous two note motif for his great white shark score but, I honestly don’t know if that was a deliberate homage to the maestro or just my expectations of such making a connection with anything resembling a two note rhythm that was going to crop up here. Either way, it’s buried within the composition rather than being given its own voice as a dominating tone so, yeah, the music does its own thing and it’s pretty good and very supportive here. So top marks to Beltrami for doing something interesting, once again. Such a shame, then, that there seems to be no CD release for the score to this movie (nor any kind of release, it seems) as I would have liked to have heard this one away from the film it supports.

All in all, The Shallows is not a great film but it is fairly suspenseful and entertaining. Although a lot of the edge your seat thrills do involve the central protagonist pushing herself and doing things which the average human being night not be so stupid to even attempt (aka getting back in the water, while bleeding out and with a shark nearby), the ultimate result is that you may well be leaning forward in your seat at certain points (if you see it on a big enough screen) and holding your breath. Sure, it has its problems and I really wish the director had been less into the visual shenanigans with the various pieces of technology throughout the movie but it’s not a bad little piece if you want a ‘safe thrill’ from your cinema going experience. I wouldn’t go out of my way to either recommend it or warn against it... but if you find yourself circling the idea of the movie for long enough, maybe you might want to go in for a swim and take a bite.  

Tuesday 9 August 2016


Maxted Headroom

Respectable - The Mary Millington Story
UK 2016 Directed by Simon Sheridan
Odeon Films DVD Region 2

When I read on Twitter that Simon Sheridan, the writer responsible for the excellent book about Mary Maxted (aka Mary Millington), Come Play With Me - The Life And Films Of Mary Millington (reviewed by me here) had written, produced and directed a new documentary film about her, I was expecting something like a more seductive, pop culture approach to the lady’s life which would be a kind of abridged version of the book... but in no way a substitute for it. As it turns out, Respectable - The Mary Millington Story is both less and more informative than the tome in question. Which is a bit of a bonus, as far as I’m concerned.

The film starts off with the sound of film... proper film, none of that digital rubbish... running through a projector and, as you can hear the stock threading through on the soundtrack, the screen is dark and we hear the first of many recorded sound bites from Mary herself. We then get a quick rundown of the trajectory of her tragic life as a kind of précis of the film to come, in quick inserts from the various ‘talking head’ interviews which, as always in a film of this nature, fill up the majority of the running time. Which is what you would expect when the writer has obviously gone to the trouble of getting so many interviews with people who either knew her, encountered her or could bear expert witness due to their being in a similar profession (and it was really great seeing Linzi Drew again, to be honest). Anything else and the audience would feel somewhat short changed, to be sure.

Now, if you have read the aforementioned book on Mary’s shenanigans then you might feel that her early life story is somewhat glossed over here, perhaps. What you have to remember though is that you can’t throw all that detail in about a person from a book and expect the documentary, which is not that much shy of two hours anyway, to be either interesting or pacey. I think certain things are said which hit the key points and, if not all the facts and issues which may have gone into the lady’s psychological make up are highlighted here, they are emphasised enough that one can glean the main issues which led to certain behaviour later on in her life, perhaps. Either way, it doesn’t matter because anyone interested in reading more about the subject matter can purchase the aforementioned book and find out for themselves.

That being said, there is also a lot of stuff in this movie which I hadn’t actually heard before, to be honest and, unless I was sleep reading before, wasn’t included in the volume in question. It’s also quite possible that some of the stories and anecdotes which come to light here were either not available or actually not allowed to be printed at the time that the book was first published for various reasons. The first printing was released, after all, about 17 years ago. So, for example, I never realised... or at least it never hit home in my brain before... that Mary’s notorious short porn film Miss Borloch was actually one of the prize winners of what was the first ever porn film awards, The Wet Dreams Festival, at Amsterdam in 1970. Everybody who went to the event had to go naked and the judges included famous feminist writer Germain Greer in their number. Mary Millington was an even bigger star in Europe, it seems, than she was initially as an illegal, ‘under the counter’ star in the United Kingdom, at the time.

Another story new to me involved her, sometimes official, prostitution antics (for want of a better word), where it is alleged that Coleman’s Mustard once hired Mary to sleep with the head of Tesco so they could get their brand of product into the supermarket chain. Which is a bit of an eye opener, if this is true.

Other stories, like a more softened down version of her encounter with prime minister Harold Wilson are also present (if you want more details, buy the book) and her meteoric downfall involving the tax men, a corrupt police force (it would seem... who Mary paid protection money to but still managed to have them constantly raiding her sex shops), her increasing but completely unnecessary kleptomania and various other factors which culminated in her early suicide are all thrown into the mix. There’s also some things that don’t, necessarily, add up when it comes to taking a closer look at that suicide. It’s often noted that, in light of another brush with the law where they threatened her with a prison sentence, she retired to her room without her husband (who slept elsewhere in the house that night and who she was in the process of divorcing), wrote some goodbye notes and then ended her life by taking a large amount of pills washed down with vodka. And that’s indeed the story that the autopsy confirms. However, there is a big question mark in the involvement of certain other people, or a specific person, which is quite pointed in terms of the remembrances of some of the guests on this documentary and it’s interesting that several of them mention that Mary would never drink alcohol. Just being around the smell of beer made her feel sick. So... yeah... interesting stuff, I would say.

The way the film itself is shot and presented is very pacey and the whole thing never flags as the director balances the various interview footage of people such as members of Mary’s friend and family (which are heartbreaking in some cases), various lovers and major celebrities such as François Pascal and actor Dudley Sutton (who worked with her in the film The Playbirds - reviewed here) with excerpts from Mary’s films, recordings of Mary herself and the occasional bit of documentary footage of London in the 1970s... which I personally found most nostalgic since I was a child model at the time, working in my school holidays in various locations around London. Sheridan also adds the nice touch of coming back to new footage of the source of some of the on screen audio and visual excerpts... so he might precede an excerpt of a film with a shot of a projector showing it or go into a sound bite of Mary while showing a tape recorder playing the sample. He doesn’t do this a lot but he does it enough to make an impression and I kinda liked this way of handling it, all of which adds to an interesting watch.

Above all, from the various testimonials caught here, I got the impression that Mary Millington was much more about living a life of moral justice, far above the issues of the legality or illegality of what she was doing at any given time. So, for instance, she would stock illegal, ‘under the counter’ items in her sex shops because she believed it was the right thing to do and shouldn’t be against the law at all. There’s a lovely line from one of the interviewees in the film which, for me, summed up Mary’s brand of enlightened naivety very smartly. It's mentioned that she was a lady who carried "the spirit of the 1960s Summer of Love well into the seventies with her." I kinda like that idea and it’s maybe something we should all think about doing more of, methinks.

So there you have it. Respectable - The Mary Millington Story is a truly great little documentary that’s written, produced and directed by someone who has had an interest in Mary’s life for a very long time and can be considered something of an expert in this field, I suspect. In other words, a truly informative, sometimes thought provoking but always entertaining look at a tragic but very influential, in some ways, lady who also happened to be Great Britain’s first, bona fide porn star. The disc comes with the usual amount of interesting extras that are the normal expectation of an Odeon DVD release of one of Mary Millington’s films and this one gets a big recommendation from me. And if you do take a look at this movie and like it... then you can always go buy the book, too.

Monday 8 August 2016

Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze

Righting Ron

Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze
USA 1975 Directed by Michael Anderson
Produced by George Pal
Warner Brothers iTunes on iPhone6

The Arctic Circle, 1936. An American flag glides along the horizon and, eventually, a snow vehicle ridden by Ron Ely as Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze, comes into view. We know he’s Doc Savage because the name is emblazoned on this and, indeed, on every vehicle that Clark Savage Jr owns in this movie.

Lower Edmonton, UK, 1975. A young boy of only seven years old is watching Chris Kelly’s movie programme Clapperboard on TV and the film, which he’s never heard of until now, is reviewed. He and his mother are watching as a clip is shown where Savage attempts to ward off certain death in the form of flying snakes, composed of green light, who reform themselves back into shape after being blasted with a shotgun shell. It’s pretty exciting stuff and both the boy and his mother urge the father that night to take them into Enfield at the weekend, to see the film at the Savoy cinema. By a strange twist of fate featuring two colliding cars which mount the pavement to wreak havoc on soft bodies just a year later, the family will soon move house to a location less than five minutes walk from that very same cinema.

Of course, the little boy was me and all the family were absolutely enthralled the night of that cinema trip. Doc Savage was, and to this day still remains, one of the greatest movies we’d ever seen. Now, a lot of Doc Savage fans didn’t like the camp humour of the film, which was lost on me at that time in much the same way that the Adam West Batman TV show is also serious business when you are a youngster... but we all thought it was brilliant. We loved the cheering on the soundtrack whenever a blow for justice was dealt. We loved the applause when Doc reminded his aides, The Amazing Five, of their honourable and heroic code. And most of all, we loved the 1930s knockabout theatrical serial atmosphere to the movie, which was perfect for Doc and which fit right in with another amazing thing I’d discovered on BBC TV about a year before this, the original Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe.

I recently found myself with a ‘good friend’ in London and she hadn’t seen the movie before. Due to a lack of options and the fact that I had no DVD player on me, nor my US Region locked disc of the movie, I downloaded it from UK iTunes and we watched it on my phone. It’s a movie I’ve seen dozens of times over the years and all I will say is... it still holds up.

The film was directed by Michael Anderson, who’d directed one of my favourite spy films, The Quiller Memorandum (reviewed here), and who would go on to direct another pre-Star Wars sci-fi classic the year after the release of this film, Logan’s Run. This movie plays up the ridiculousness of the situations found in many of the Doc Savage books without, I feel, poking too much fun at the characters. This was ‘wonder producer’ George Pal’s last movie and, despite reports of a sequel being half filmed while this movie was in production, the box office was so poor on this the second movie never came to be. Which is a shame because, in the days before the internet, news like aborted movie projects never came to light much and me and my father were waiting for the sequel to this to be released for years after.

The film follows, pretty faithfully (despite reports to the contrary), the first of Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage tales, at least for the first half of the book. The stuff about the green, floating snakes is added for the movie and perhaps, for the medium of film at least, gives a more exciting ingredient than seeing Doc running around trying to cure an Ancient Mayan tribe of a man made plague. The characterisations of Doc and his crew, played by Ron Ely (Doc), Michael Miller (Monk), Darrell Zwerling (Ham), William Lucking (Renny), Eldon Quick (Johnny) and Paul Gleason (Long Tom) are pretty much spot on. Even Monk’s porcine companion Habeus Corpus is along for the adventure, just as he was in a lot of the books.

The pacing is terrific and I remember we were all fooled for a few seconds, the first time we saw it, when Doc’s plane is shot down and destroyed with, seemingly, him and his crew in it... before a clever and less than subtle reveal gives the audience the truth behind that incident. We also marvelled at the refractive glass moving everything in Doc’s Empire State Building headquarters exactly 6 inches to the left, thus defeating a sniper’s bullet before it is even fired. And the wonderful fight scene between Doc and the prime antagonist of the movie, Captain Seas (played by Paul Wexler), where different fighting styles such as Sumo and Gung Fu come up on subtitles as the styles are played up, before plain old fisticuffs settles things, is a nice humourous touch used to lift the sometimes dull nature of such action sequences (in other movies) onto another level.

Frank DeVol’s original score for the film is pretty serviceable but everyone will remember it for his adaptations of John Philip SoUSA marches, which give Doc and his crew a strong musical identity during the action sequences. And anyone who says lyricist Don Black’s greatest song is Diamonds Are Forever (reviewed here) doesn’t know what they’re talking about, as far as I’m concerned. His lyrics for the Doc Savage song, which comes into the movie a few times, is easily his greatest work.

The epilogue to the film sets up the cliff hanger, sadly unrealised, for the next Doc Savage adventure, The Arch Enemy Of The World... and I so wish that the box office could have been better for this movie. I had a new idol and the film started me on the path of reading as many of the Bantam reprints of the 180 plus Kenneth Robeson (aka Lester Dent) novels as I could find... not to mention the eight issues of the Marvel comics which adapted four of those novels (such as Brand Of The Werewolf, featuring Doc’s cousin, Pat Savage) and the eight issues of the black and white Marvel magazine of original stories, which had excellent artwork in the style of their similarly produced Savage Sword Of Conan magazine. Some truly phenomenal stuff.

As the years pass, kickstarted by this film, I continue to read Doc Savage publications and buy what merchandise I can... which is not much, alas. I still have my bronze figurine of Ron Ely in the role on my bookshelf and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Shane Black can do with a Doc Savage project, which is currently being developed with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the role... who looks very much like those old James Bama painted covers (which were modelled, incidentallly, by TVs Flash Gordon, Steve Holland) for the Bantam reprints. I regularly review Will Murray’s new Doc Savage publications, still written under the old Street and Smith house name of Kenneth Robeson, and if you go to the book section of the index here, you will find a fair few of those covered.

Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze is, today, what it’s always been. A really fun slice of Boy’s Own adventure with never a dull moment. Heck, it even has Pamela Hensley, who went on to play Princess Ardala in the TV version of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, only four years later. Not to mention that it’s the debut movie of iconic character actor Michael Berryman, who is still working at the time of writing this review. If you haven’t already guessed it, the original Doc Savage movie gets a big recommendation from me to anyone who has a pulse and is breathing. One of the great adventure movies and with lines like... “Have no fear, Doc Savage is here!”... it’s always guaranteed to bring a smile to the face.