Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Saint’s Return (aka The Saint's Girl Friday)

Saint Louis' Blues

The Saint’s Return
(aka The Saint's Girl Friday)
Hammer/RKO UK 1953
Directed by Seymour Friedman

I’ve remarked more than once that my favourite actor to embody the famous Leslie Charteris character The Saint has always been Louis Hayward. Now that’s alway been on the strength of his performance in the RKO entry The Saint In New York (reviewed by me here). He stopped after one movie and George Sanders took over for a while before Hugh Sinclair pretty much finished the series off (although he was starting to grow into the role I think).  Hayward did, however, return to the character 15 years later in a movie made in England by Hammer Studios, who would soon become quite famous for their horror movie output. Now I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen The Saint’s Return before, which does try to be a continuation of that original film series and, indeed, the film was briefly distributed by RKO for Hammer in the US, under the title The Saint’s Girl Friday.

The film starts off with a high speed car chase as a woman is killed when her car is forced of the road by nefarious bad guys. And when I say high speed car chase I mean a ‘not that fast’ car chase with some obviously sped up footage, in this case. We then find The Saint flying back from the US and Inspector Teal, played here by Charles Victor, receiving a telegram from his American counterpart Inspector Fernack (sadly unseen in this film) to warn him of that fact. When we catch up with Louis Hayward’s soft spoken version of The Saint, he has his valet Hoppy with him (played by Thomas Gallagher) and from him hears the news that his old lady friend who had contacted him to come to England to help her has died, courtesy of the car chase at the opening of the picture.

This news obviously fires up Simon Templar but the brilliance, still, of Hayward’s performance is that this anger at the death of a friend is conveyed mostly by body language only. Hayward remains soft spoken throughout the picture and his rage is a smouldering undercurrent, punctuating the actions of his adventures while he offers opinions and advice to his enemies. This adventure is a pretty standard plot involving gambling IOUs and revenge against the people who killed the lady who brought him to London in the first place. I’ll say no more of the plot here other than it has a kind of neat twist reveal on the secret identity of the ringleader of the mob of gamblers which I actually didn’t see coming. So I should be happy about this, right?

Alas, I wish I could say this is a good movie but it’s actually quite a bad one. And it really shouldn’t be. Hayward seems to just stroll through his performance because, frankly, the script just isn’t as clever or witty as those earlier Saint movies and the action choreography on the few fist fights there are is quite lethargic and neither looks, nor feels, like anyone here is in any danger. Now there are a lot of great British actors and actresses who turn up in minor roles here including such notables as Sydney Tafler, Sam Kydd and the glamourous (as she was then) Diana Dors and this should all be enough to save the day as far as this film is concerned but... it just doesn’t. Doctor Who fans might like to note that there’s even a smallish role for William Russell in the film, going by his real name of Russell Enoch, ten years before his famous role as Ian Chesterton, the first Doctor’s companion, made him a household name for a short while.

Ivor Slaney’s score does it’s best to feel like it’s a ‘proper’ Saint movie and he incorporates the much disputed Webb/Charteris melody which was still in use for Ian Ogilvey’s run on the character in the 1970s but... yeah, the music really doesn’t lift the picture as much as one might like. The film is as short as the more recent of The Saint films prior to this but it still somehow feels somewhat padded and, in some ways, just like watching a TV episode. Indeed, the director of this would go on to work with Hayward again the following year on a TV incarnation of the US Lone Wolf character... I’ve never had the opportunity to see any of the Lone Wolf films or TV shows over here in the UK (no, not the Japanese manga character) but, from what I understand, he’s pretty much another variation on Simon Templar anyway (much like The Falcon was, if memory serves).

This film made me think of Timothy Dalton a bit and the two James Bond films he made. I think Hayward is in the same position as him. Timothy Dalton made only two James Bond films... The Living Daylights (reviewed here) and Licence To Kill (reviewed here). The first of these two was absolutely spectacular and got me back into appreciating the Bond character again... the second of these two was a terrible, terrible movie which actually put me off watching the Bond films for a long time until the wonderful Goldeneye. The point is, although Licence To Kill was an awful film and hard to watch, Dalton was still giving an absolutely solid performance as Bond, he just had a useless script to work with. I think the same thing could be said of Louis Hayward and his two movies for The Saint series. He jump started the franchise with an absolutely brilliant film, The Saint In New York but when he finally came back and did a second one, well, the script and direction just seems to have let him down. I can kinda see why Hammer or RKO have never made this one available on DVD or Blu Ray but, as awful as it is, one of those companies really should have a think about doing a commercial release of this one. It needs to be out there for people to see.

As for me and The Saint... well, I don’t plan on revisiting any of the TV shows anytime soon but I am curious to see what Val Kilmer did with the role in the most recent cinematic version of the character. Before that, though, I’d really like to see the two French movies made in the 1960s so, if anyone knows where I can track down copies of these with English subtitles, please let me know. As for The Saint’s Return... there are much better places to start on in the series than to try and sit through this one.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Worlds Unknown (Marvel)

Adept Adaptations

Worlds Unknown (Marvel)
Eight Issues USA May 1973 - August 1974

My first and only previous encounter with the eight issue run of Worlds Unknown was when I was six years old. I remember standing on Queensway tube station with my parents, gazing down with wonder at the comic they’d bought me. It was issue eight which, I didn’t know for many years, was the final issue of this title. This contained the second of a two part adaptation of Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and, just as I did when I’d seen the movie itself, earlier that year, I didn’t make the connection at the time between the big posters on the tube of Caroline Munro as the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl and her starring part in said movie. In terms of the Navy Rum temptress... well let’s just say that even at the age of six I knew a fine looking young lady when I saw one.

So it’s taken me many years to catch up to the rest of the issues and read them all, finishing with the issue I first read 45 years ago, with the outstanding cover of the giant sized statue of Kali (under a different name for some reason) menacing Sinbad. I’ll get to the Sinbad stuff in a minute but... and again, I wasn’t to know this at the age of six... the two part adaptation marked a real turning point in terms of the original intention of the comic and, in a way, it’s no wonder this last thing sounded the death knell. However, with a bit of logical deduction, I can see that the comic and material ear marked for it was reborn a year or so down the line, albeit doomed to another short run. That’s another thing I’ll get to in a minute.

Now the mission statement, so to speak, as set out in the first issue, was for the comic to be a science fiction publication which would be full of new adaptations of short stories by leading science fiction writers. Plus, a few reprints of old ‘twist stories’ shoehorned in to fill space from older publications by comic companies which Marvel now found themselves in ownership of. But the main focus was one or sometimes two short story adaptations by the likes of people like Frederick Pohl, whose anti-racist story The Day After The Martians Came is actually pretty good at setting a tone but low on action. The artwork in this and other issues is all great too and I’d have to say that, from my point of view, Worlds Unknown was a good little comic which should have lasted a long time... especially since some of the stories the editors were bringing to the table to adapt were quite landmark and the Marvel versions were not always the first crack at adapting them.

For example, issue three has an adaptation of the Harry Bates short story Farewell The Master. This is, in actual fact, the short story on which the original 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still was based. Now, in the editor’s column inside this issue, they mention that they have done just a few very minor tweaks to the story but more or less left it intact and what that means is... if you remember the film, then you don’t know the story. Turns out the original (and presumably the remake of the original) took huge liberties with the source material so that, most of the time, there’s not much synchronicity between the two. For example, the alien Klatuu, played by Michael Rennie in the film (or Keanu Reeves I guess, take your pick) manages to get out half a sentence before he is shot dead... and not by the army but by a lone gunman assassin watching events (and he’s not getting up from that, either). And as for the ending... well, the ending I’m still not quite sure I understand. Gort the robot, who is named Gnut as in the original here, can talk and at the end he reveals that ‘he is the master’, not Klatuu, before taking his space/time capsule away from the Earth. I am guessing my lack of clarity here may be a generational thing... perhaps the original writer was trying to make some point about the autonomy of mechanical life forms, I dunno. But it’s certainly an interesting read and adaptation, even if I do prefer the original movie’s ‘peace for all mankind’ message.

As the run of the comic goes on, actually, I see more clues that they were trying to tie it in to TV and film because, I’m guessing, sales were maybe fairly poor. They do say in the pages that science fiction is not a popular seller (and indeed, I remember the 1970s and 1980s... if you read science fiction or fantasy you were a bit of an outcast), regardless of the fact that the superhero comics which were performing so well for them were completely science fiction anyway... just not marketed like that. So yeah, on the cover of Issue 5 for the adaptation of A. E. Van Vogt’s Black Destroyer, the cover exclaims... “A monster stalks this spaceship! A marvel masterwork in the tradition of TV’s Star Trek.”

Indeed, the previous issue was an adaptation of the Fredric Brown classic Arena, which had been adapted into an outstanding episode of the same name for the original run of Star Trek on TV the decade before. Again, many liberties were taken by the writers of Star Trek and this is a completely different story using the same premise of a human and alien forced to duel to the death on an alien planet. I have to say, again, that I preferred the outcome of the Star Trek episode with its clever ‘gunpowder plot’ and the hesitancy to open hostilities but the original, or at least this comic book of it, is worth a read.

Now, there was a column inside, sometimes grouped with the letters page, where the editors would talk to the readers, tell them what they were up to and what to expect and, in the fifth issue, they definitely said Issue 6 would start off an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids scripted by Gerry Conway (which would also tie in with the idea of pushing stories connected to TV or film adaptations). However, instead of the triffids, the sixth issue brought us an adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer... proclaiming on the cover, “As seen on TV”. Now this might have been because the TV movie based on this, which I remember loving as a six year old, watching alongside my equally impressed dad, aired that same year and this was another exercise in changing the content to suit current trends and, maybe, extending a deadline if Triffids wasn’t finished yet. I can’t remember the movie Killdozer now, to say if it was very different to the short story as depicted here but, it’s an okay issue and, again, like nothing else Marvel was doing at the time.

And then comes the final two issues adapting The Golden Voyage of Sinbad which, to be fair, it says is “Freely adapted from the screenplay by Brian Clemens.” Now, these two issues have characters that, for the most part, look nothing like the likenesses of their on screen counterparts... John Philips Law’s Sinbad is passable but the drawings of actors like Martin Shaw, Caroline Munro and Tom Baker are all... no, I don’t think they were even trying. However, although the story is quite truncated here and certain scenes are merged into others for brevity, this is actually almost a much more dynamic rendering than perhaps the film was. Marvel were used to doing sword and sorcery epics by now, what with best sellers like Conan The Barbarian (based on Robert E. Howard’s famous character) and it really shows here. The language is decidedly more interesting and flowery in the context of a much more verbose sort of dialogue than found in the movie and the artwork is quite stunning in places (and those covers are awesome).

Okay though... by this point I’m chomping at the bit to read their Triffids adaptation... and I still am but at least I know where it is now. In the letters page of issue eight the person replying to the letters alludes to some boxed out news from one of the editors or writers of the comics but, alas, I’ve scoured the issue repeatedly and can find no sign of it. This was presumably to tell the people who had been writing in and saying really nice things about the comic that this was the last issue and it had been cancelled. And maybe they thought they had a reprieve just before printing it and decided not to run it at the last minute. Either way, the concluding part of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad was, indeed, the last issue. Which is a shame... however...

Remember those brilliant old black and white magazine format comics that Marvel were so good at? The artwork was astonishing and it showed some of their regular characters rendered in a much more expressive and interesting way... magazines like The Savage Sword Of Conan, Dracula Lives, The Rampaging Hulk and, my favourite, Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze. Well, around four to five months after Worlds Unknown was cancelled, a new comic magazine started up with the not so distant title, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction. Now I’ve not read this yet but included in the first two issues is an adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids, scripted by Gerry Conway and various other stories also graced the pages, many of which I believe were touted in the first issue of Worlds Unknown as up and coming adaptations. So the stories did have a second life after all and, although it only lasted for six issues plus one annual this time, maybe it was thought that the audience reading the less expensive, shorter colour comics would be tempted to part with more of their hard earned cash if they gave the stories their due in loving greyscale... kind of a win/win situation for both the customer and the company, is my guess. Or at least, it should have been. Like I said, it ran for an even shorter period than Worlds Unknown did.

So, in conclusion, I would say if you are a fan of science fiction and want to see the way it was tackled head on in the early 1970s by writers and artists who were so obviously loving fans of the material they were working on, then a read through of the issues of Worlds Unknown is definitely something you should consider. As for Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction? Well let’s just say that it’s ‘on the pile’ now and I hope to be reviewing that run on my blog sometime in the new year.

Monday, 9 December 2019


Each Spawn I Die

USA 1972 Directed by George McCowan
American International Pictures/
88 Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: There are spoilers in here but the real thing I’m warning you about is ever attempting to watch this movie.

Wow. So I’d seen Frogs popping up quite a lot over the last few years on Twitter and when I saw the UK Blu Ray release at a ‘bargain basement’ price sporting a cover depicting a giant frog with a human hand in it’s mouth, hovering over a woman drowning in quicksand, I was pretty sure that this would be the kind of ‘so bad it’s good’ movie that I like to look at every now and again. Alas, having now seen it and finding it to be, so bad it’s nearly unwatchable in its dullness, I can’t help but think that the company putting this one out should be paying their customers to watch this one.

Okay, so first things first... it’s kind of a curio in that it features two legendary actors, one nearing the end of his big screen release career and another who had only been acting for around five years when this thing was made. So on the one hand we have Ray Milland playing Jason Crockett as the head of a rich family who gather for a couple of weeks every year for his birthday in his island mansion in Florida... and on the other hand we have a young Sam Elliot, playing a freelance eco photographer with the unlikely name of Pickett Smith. It’s Smith who we trail through an extended credits sequence as he rides his canoe around the swamps and waters of the island as he takes photographs depicting the evils of human pollution and its effects on the local ecology. Little does he know that the local ecosystem is about to bite back hard on human kind... oh wait... let me be straight about this in a way that the people who marketed this film aren’t... Little does he know that the local ecosystem is about to mostly mind its own business while people seem to just die around it in completely avoidable and preventable ways.

This is the truth you need to know before delving into the almost unwatchable dullness that is Frogs... there are absolutely no deadly frogs in this movie. Oh, sure, there are hundreds of frogs here, most of whom apparently fled their captivity for good and went off to do their own thing while making this movie, escaping their handler and returning to the wild. Yeah, gazillions of frogs... there’s just no frog death or, really, any kind of death remotely connected to our amphibious friends. And, bearing in mind how it’s been promoted, the film-makers must have felt pretty guilty about this I reckon because, right at the end of the closing credits, there’s a quick animation of a frog swallowing a human hand, just like on the poster. A kind of token afterthought to at least attempt to somehow tie it in to the sales pitch, I would guess

Instead, what we have are snakes, crocodiles (or possibly alligators, I can never tell), surprisingly deadly spiders, lizards, birds, a token scorpion, poisonous fumes and... in one notable case... a half decent sized turtle. There are no special effects with any of these creatures, they are just normal sized versions you can find in real life and with a lot of edits and placements to try and convince us that they are purposefully interacting with the various members of the Crocket family, who inexplicably wander off on their own to do something and then run afoul of the ‘pollution mad’ beasts. Plus a lot of frogs are just thrown into shot every scene so we don’t forget the movie is called Frogs, even though said frogs seem to have absolutely no input on the course of the story although, it has to be said, that in most cases they are better actors than a lot of the human performers in the film.

So, yeah, people will just run about the swamp, get scared by a snake, run off somewhere else and then fall, stumble around a bit and then get bitten. Or, as in the case of a greenhouse victim, some lizards will knock over various bottles labelled with words like ‘poison’ and then, when the somewhat naive guy goes to investigate what’s going on with all that toxic smoke, he coughs a bit and dies from... I dunno... slightly lizard related injury I guess. One of the ladies was supposed to fall in quick sand and die and you can actually see this death in the trailer (not to mention the poster) but it was then deemed too tame so, instead, she runs through the swamp, stumbles around a bit and then gets bitten and, because she has been bitten by something, her face turns somewhat green (in some of the shots).

Other deaths include a woman who succumbs to being in the water while... I think... we are supposed to surmise a turtle has somehow bit her to death but, perhaps the most ridiculous way a person ‘croaks it’ here (and it’s a film filled with ridiculous excuses for death scenes, as you can see) is when a guy stumbles and falls in the general vicinity of a few tarantulas (or other venomous breed of spider). Somehow, these tree dwelling creatures manage to cover said, quite unnecessarily squirming figure... just get up man!... with a web in less than 30 seconds. An apparently strong web which looks, really, just like somebody got some clumps of dried, non threatening grass and thrown them on the guy. Hang on... I think I might have just discovered the secret of the not so special effects in this movie. This looks so unconvincing and when the spiders are dropped onto the guy, he takes a long time yelling in an effort, I think, for the film makers to have something to pad the already dull running time out.

And in between every scene or transition, shots of watching frogs are inserted to continue to remind the audience of the title of the film, although I can’t imagine why they would call it that in the first place when there are no killer frogs anywhere in the picture.

Another completely pointless death is the protracted... “oh wait, we forgot to tie that bit up so lets go back to it after we’ve already had the concluding scene of the movie” moment where Ray Milland’s character, left alone in his mansion, is killed by... um... I dunno. I think he has a heart attack maybe just from being in the presence of a whole host of lizards and snakes. He’s wheelchair bound but you’d think this would just make him faster but, no, he somehow seems to die of complete startlement anyway. Well, I say he dies but apparently, Milland was so sick to death of the production by this point that he stormed off the set three days earlier than he was supposed to and a double had to be used for some of the shots in that final sequence. So there you go... not sure if it was a happy set or not but, I guess, for Ray Milland it certainly wasn’t.

And, there’s not much else to say about Frogs. Apart from a nicely over the top Les Baxter stinger when the first, harmless frog comes on the screen and a J&B sighting which just made me think I would have been better off watching something Italian, Sam Elliot as a young actor is about the only interesting thing in this movie and even his smile can’t stop this film from being a deathly dull watch. I wouldn’t, I have to say, wish the movie Frogs on anyone, even connoisseurs of B-movies... it’s that boring and energy sapping. Sure I’m glad I saw it because, with a stupid poster like that it would have been a lifelong regret if I hadn’t. That being said, I’m not sure if that outweighs the regret of having to shell out £6 for this thing in the first place. This was not the fun movie I was expecting it to be... avoid at all costs.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Knives Out

Old Knives Tale

Knives Out
2019 USA Directed by Rian Johnson
UK cinema release print.

I really enjoyed the earlier films of Rian Johnson and absolutely adored his 'high school mystery told in the vernacular of hard boiled detective fiction' movie Brick. I also thought Looper was quite good. When I’d heard he was on board with a Star Wars movie I was kinda nervous because, from the evidence of these two works, I really didn’t think he was a good match for he project. Turns out I was right too. Although not completely unwatchable (no Star Wars film has been so far), it made the mistake of having a few nicely done and appropriate set pieces kinda grafted on to a story that was possibly one of the least ‘Star Warsy’ we’ve seen to date. So, as far as I’m concerned at least, The Last Jedi kinda ranks right at the bottom of the pile with Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith.

However, I was really looking forward to seeing what he was going to do next and was delighted when another mystery story... this time in the vein of those old Agatha Christie ‘Whodunnits’... called Knives Out, was announced. I was also pleased to see it getting a very positive response on the internet too. Alas, the first warning I had that the film might not be ‘all that’ was when two of my real life friends, both who had seen the film at different times in different towns, both told me it was... well... kinda disappointing. That being said, I was still looking forward to the film enough so that, when I saw it, I was indeed disappointed with the end result.

So... good things first.

Johnson has assembled a pretty impressive cast with the likes of Daniel Craig (good actor, bad Bond), Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Frank Oz and Christopher Plumber. There’s also a brilliant young actress who I’ve not seen before called Ana de Armas playing the lead character, as becomes clear as the movie progresses. I was always going to be a sucker for whoever was going to be playing this character, to be honest, because she’s written as one of those people who truly are ‘pure in heart’.

The style of the film takes exactly the form that one of those old, ‘gather up all the guests’ whodunnits would have taken and the story, it has to be said, emits a strange and, perhaps, ‘welcome to some’ air of snooziness as it plays out in front of the eyeballs. There’s nothing really offensive or in your face about the movie at any point in the proceedings and, if this floats your boat, then it’s definitely like a Christmas movie that you can fall asleep to after dinner.

And that’s pretty much the only good stuff I can think to say about it.

The real problem for me was that... the film feels kinda uneventful and a little bit like the cast and crew were having a far better time with the material than the audience were ever going to. There are no real surprises in this movie either and though it’s certainly a little twisty-turny as the film continues on its merry way, there aren’t really any revelations in store for anyone either. So even though the story line seems quite fluid for a lot of the time, it still, I’m sad to say, manages to telegraph itself a lot as we follow Ana De Armas trying to dodge an explosive situation which she has, it seems, partially created.

The other thing which I was disappointed by, in all honesty, was the brilliant cast. I mean, you have all these truly wonderful actors and actresses and most of them seem to be just wasted in their roles. It was nice to see people like Chris Evans and Michael Shannon playing against type but, mostly, some really famous people seem like they’re a little relegated to the sidelines and I couldn’t help but think that a lot of these 'A List' performers could have been replaced with relatively unknown people and the studio could have saved themselves some money.

Nathan Johnson provides a score for the movie which is a throwback to those 1960s and 1970s genre films that the director is trying to emulate and is completely appropriate to the on screen visuals. That being said, it didn’t really do a lot for me and I did find it a step down from his absolutely amazing work on Brick. The score for Knives Out doesn’t really stay with you after the movie and, even though I am writing this less than 24 hours after seeing it, I can’t remember much about it, to be honest. It fits the film and probably elevates it but I can’t imagine trying to listen to this one as a stand alone musical experience.

And... yeah... sorry for the short review here but I really don’t have much to say about this one. Knives Out is a competent and unobtrusive little movie which kinda strolls along at its own sleepy pace but never really, as far as I’m concerned (and I know I’m in a minority here), strays into the great or even ‘wildly entertaining’ category. If you like old style whodunnits and want a movie you can relax to without needing to worry you’ll be caught off guard, then Knives Out is probably just for you. As for me... I’m just grateful I don’t have to ever sit through it again.

Friday, 6 December 2019

1700th Post - Lost Cinemas Of My Youth

My 1700th Post

Lost Cinemas Of My Youth

Well, my next hundredth post has come around again and, as usual, I couldn’t figure out what to write for my 1700th. And then I thought back on the incredibly sad post I had to write a few weeks ago. Regular readers might remember my memoriam piece for my best friend Kerry (you can read this here). This got me to thinking about some of the cinemas I used to frequent in my youth and how the majority of them have disappeared over time... or in the case of the Everyman, Hampstead... become a shell of its former self, lacking the charm and appeal of its previous incarnation.

So here then, for those interested in such things, is a brief rundown of some of my more pleasantly remembered haunts which, I dunno, some of my readers based in these areas might remember.

Lumiere - St. Martin’s Lane, London.
Okay, so the Lumiere cinema was the favourite film watching location for both me and my friend Kerry. The cinema of choice for an all round quality experience. This was a huge screen, the kind usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters and showed only first run Foreign movies, intermingled with the occasional British movie (like Truly, Madly, Deeply... before it was ever screened on TV) and the occasional American independent movie (I think I saw Hal Hartley’s Amateur there about four times). It was a quality establishment with a box office on the ground floor including the odd merchandise too, plus VHS video cassettes of films by the likes of Palace Pictures and Artifical Eye. I bought a BodyMap branded long sleeved sweat-shirt of a very unusual design based on Luc Besson’s Nikita there when we saw the film on its first run (many times over... if you were going to see a movie like Nikita, this was the place to see it). As you moved downstairs to the lobby outside the auditorium, there were big framed posters of important, previous films shown there such as Andre Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. And outside the cinema, on the columns where in the old days they might have put lobby cards, were big blow ups of reviews of the film which was currently showing, taken from a number of different newspapers and magazines. So you could read up on the film to figure out if you wanted to buy a ticket or not. More often than not, the reviews were nearly all good because of the high quality of the films they chose to show there. I think it’s a gymnasium now... I really miss this place.

Metro - Rupert Street, London.
Formerly ‘The Other Cinema’, as they were again briefly before they finally closed their doors for good, the Metro near Piccadilly was the next best favourite for Kerry and I. They showed exactly the same kinds of films at the Lumiere on, perhaps, a slightly smaller screen. If there was a big French or German film out at the cinema, for example, which was playing at the Lumiere and which happened to coincide with another big Foreign Language release (we were lucky in those days, not everything that played in cinemas was exclusively big budget Americana), then the Metro would probably be showing the other one instead. So I remember seeing multiple screenings of The Hairdressers Husband at the Lumiere while, during the same period, having to see repeat screenings of Merci La Vie at the Metro (although I think they swapped out the two movies at one point). The last film I saw there was In My Skin and I was wondering why there were only a few people there for it on a Saturday afternoon. I guess it closed through diminishing audiences but we used to love it.

Odeon - Swiss Centre, Wardour Street, London.
Ahh. The little cinema built up the top of the Swiss Centre in London (now demolished to make way for... an M&Ms sweetie experience?)... was our last resort stop in London. There were some other cinemas which we used to go to as well but, more often than not, this one usually had some good Foreign movies playing which just weren’t screening anywhere else. I remember it was tiny and not worth the money but... it kinda actually was worth it because, where else were you going to see the movie if none of the other cinemas in London were showing it?

ABC Cinema - Savoy Parade, Enfield.
This was the nearest cinema to Kerry and I. Formerly the Savoy Cinema and then, after the ABC, a Canon cinema, most of the films I watched as a kid and teenager were shown here. I think the first time I visited it (a few years before we moved house and lived just around the corner from it... which we still do although it’s now a TESCO) was to see one of the all time greatest movies of my life, Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze. I remember the last film playing there while it was still a single screen was Star Wars (from early 1978... I’d seen it at the tail end of 1977 at the Dominion in London). I remember it literally played on the one screen there for months and months... possibly three quarters of a year, before they closed for a little while and converted it into one of the first multiscreens (presumably with the profits from Star Wars, which was attracting the most repeat performances anyone had ever seen at the time). After this, many posters used to adorn the special frames outside including a lot of British and American sex movies, often on double bills. Scanning these as I walked past the cinema on the way to school each morning was an eduction in itself. In later years I became friendly with the people working in the cinema and my cousin and I used to join the staff in the projection room for a chat. I might have had the odd dalliance with more than a couple of the usherettes at various times too, over the years.

Everyman - Hampstead
Once known as ‘the oldest repertory cinema in England’, the Everyman Hampstead is the only cinema I cover here which hasn’t been demolished or converted to something else. It is, in fact, still a cinema. This was a brilliant place showing loads of old films from all over the world every week. I saw some real crackers here, including a screening of Blade Runner with Rutger Hauer in attendance. Alas, although the cinema is still there as a cinema, it’s added at least one more screen and is mostly just showing the latest US releases. This establishment is no longer the cornucopia of international cinema it once was and I’m really upset they’ve let it fall into this sorry state.

ABC Piccadilly - London
During the 1970s this little cinema, which had many names over the years, where you had to walk downstairs to get to the screens, was situated right near Tower Records (as it came to be in the 1980s for a brief but happy decade or so). For a long time this mostly used to show sex movies but I went there as a kid to see a double bill of Creature From The Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space in 3D, with the proper, old-style red and green glasses. In later years it started showing things like first run foreign movies so it was always worth a look at what was playing.

Regal - Angel, Edmonton
I think I saw my first cinema Bond here, Live And Let Die, back in 1973 (about a year before this fine cinema closed its doors for good). I liked it so much (despite biting all my nails off when I watched it) that my parents took me to all the Sean Connery Bond double bills which started doing the rounds shortly after... most of them screening here. Even at this age I could tell because of these screenings, when films like Thunderball finally made it onto UK TV, that they had been mercilessly cut by the channel showing them (and still are to this day).

Florida - Enfield Town
I used to go here as a very young kid and it was a really nice place. Don’t remember too much about it but I remember seeing a double bill here where I fell asleep during the first movie, The Neptune Factor... but woke up for the second movie, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. I think I may have seen one or two of those early James Bond double bills here too.

And that’s my brief look at some of the cinemas that me... and sometimes Kerry... would call our own. I hope you enjoyed this little summary of my mis-spent youth and hope you to continue reading this blog after its 1700th post. As always, I appreciate my readers.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The War Of The Worlds - BBC

War Of The Wells

The War Of The Worlds - BBC
2019 UK Directed by Craig Viveiros
Three episodes. Airdate: 17th November 1st December

Just a heads up that there have been two TV series based on H. G. Wells’ famous novel The War Of The Worlds in 2019. One is produced by Fox/Canal, runs for eight episodes and, as far as I can tell, has not yet been screened in the UK (although it has aired in a lot of other countries, by the looks of it). The subject of this review, however, is the recent BBC, three episode mini-series. I was originally going to write three reviews, one for every episode but, after I saw the first installment and knowing I really don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, I decided to just do one piece encapsulating the whole series. Why post three miserable reviews when one could suffice?

Now, I‘ve had my problems with both The War Of The Worlds as it’s been adapted for the screen over the years and the current state of BBC created science fiction. Let’s briefly mention the previous adaptations first...

I’ve not seen all of the screen versions of the novel but I have seen many of them. The George Pal movie of the 1950s is something I would probably enjoy watching again but the last time I saw this, when I was a kid, I remember being disappointed with the lack of the tripods from the book in it and, obviously, the change to the time period. I remember seeing a couple of episodes, too, of the semi-popular TV series in the 1980s which, if memory serves, used pretty much the 1950s George Pal version of the martian machines and, again, it seemed to have not too much to do with the book. Even Spielberg had a go with it but his contemporary version with, again, some pretty hefty changes to the concerns of the book, was somehow closer than the other versions out there. In fact, in all cases I’ve seen so far, the closest to Wells’ original novel would have to be the rock concept album produced by Jeff Wayne in the 1970s... which really is a work of earworm perfection if you listen to it in its original form.

The new BBC series, despite claims of period authenticity (which is dubious but close) is somehow even further removed from the source material than even Spielberg’s version, it has to be said. The science fiction of the BBC always used to be a wonderful thing. They had the Quatermass serials, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven and a whole host of other hot and interesting sci-fi shows done with creative flair and panache which helped make them a leading representative in the field of televisual science fiction. Alas, standards have slipped over the years and there seems to be a lot of ‘not up to it’ productions going on lately. For instance, the state of Doctor Who over the last seven or so years in terms of the quality of the writing (nothing wrong with the way the Doctors are played at all, which has been consistently brilliant) has been pretty ‘Bleah!’ and you only have to compare the BBCs vibrant and exciting, ‘definitive’ adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids back in 1981 to their ‘dire to the point of being almost unwatchable’ 2009 adaptation of the same novel to see how far standards have fallen.

And I have to say, the trend continues with this new adaptation of The War Of The Worlds. This is pretty much nothing to do with Wells’ original story other than it a) has martians on it... looking nothing like the original martians, b) has tripods in it which have somehow been designed to look as bland as possible instead of the robust, steampunk creations which might have served the spectacle of the story better, c) has something similar but really not right in terms of the way of ending the martian conquest was inadvertently thwarted in the books and d) has token references to the red weed.

Now, the writer here has obviously decided he can write something different and more relevant than H. G. Wells here and you can even see where he’s been trying to do something different with the material to set it apart from what we’ve seen before. Well, my big argument with that would be... we’ve never had a faithful adaptation as far as I know. You’re trying to run before you’ve proven you can walk and people wanted to finally see a straight adaptation of the original rather then some half baked, non-linear depiction of something barely inspired by the events of the novel in a way that’s deliberately structured to take away any surprise whatsoever from anyone not familiar with the source... which, bearing in mind it has never been properly adapted, is probably less well known than the writer here thought.

So yeah, we have the death by disease coming up in the flash forwards to years after the initial invasion and giving away the real ending before it’s barely begun. It’s also not a common cold virus that knocks the martians out in this either... it’s a carefully worked at and cultivated mish mash of viral ingredients that, in this version, spells the end of the red weed. So even Wells’ brilliant punchline of the deadly foe being taken out by accident, by something as relatively docile as the ‘common cold’, is revealed way too early and has had its real sting removed. So yeah, not happy and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in regards to this version.

Then there’s the acting. It’s bad but I’m not blaming the various cast for their performances here... I’m blaming the writing and direction. Some of the lines are bad enough... not to mention the introduction of a subplot about divorce coupled with an extra marital affair culled from H. G. Wells’ own life and a ridiculous, bizarre guilt trip about the achievements of the British Empire. However, the way the physical performances are often left as dangling, visual non-sequiturs was, perhaps, the editor having nothing to cut to in the next shot or, I dunno, just some strange decisions on the part of the director.

Seriously, the main cast consisting of Rafe Spall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle are all brilliant enough but, apart from having to deliver some ridiculous lines at times, they all seem to have a penchant for looking away or staring at something out of shot, sometimes at amusingly inappropriate times. Such as when Tomlinson might be asked by the director to ‘look up and out past that line of trees there’, perhaps... I was waiting for something to maybe materialise or at least show us what she was looking at but, nope. Just staring into space, I guess. And Spall seems to often pause in thought and pull faces without letting us know what’s precisely on his mind at regular intervals, for example. And, honestly, I’m happy with visual storytelling where characters can think and convey their inner turmoil without having to vocalise it and often enjoy these kinds of movies but, yeah, I really didn’t feel like playing guessing games for a show which, somehow, manages to skirt around the real heart of the source material it is busy ignoring and ends up as just, I have to say it, a deadly dull affair.

That being said, the second episode picks up the pace a little, only to jettison it by the time the third episode rolls around, with its unimaginative creatures and its slew of unnecessary, wholly preventable deaths of various characters, In fact, bearing in mind the ending of the original novel is kinda revealed and slightly side-stepped early in the story, I have to say I found the last shot of the last episode particularly confusing. Here we have the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson staring up at the sky and I’m left thinking... okay, what’s she looking at? Is it the... wait... is she patiently awaiting the approaching, inevitable end credits of this monstrosity to turn up at some point? Yep. Pretty much. I didn’t get anything else out of that last sequence which, considering it’s supposed to be The War Of The Worlds, left me a little disappointed.

Added to all this is the fact that, honestly, the special effects and the design of the martians isn’t all that great. I did find myself clock watching at a number of places in the narrative and overall, I can’t help but think that overly ambitious substitutes for a decent, working version of ‘the heat ray’ would have been a lot more satisfying than this dull carnival ride of a weapon that they’ve presumably spent a lot of time and money on dreaming up for this version.

So there you have it. I’ve always quite liked The War Of The Worlds but this is pretty far removed from anything H. G. Wells wrote, to be honest. Yeah, it’s time to do a proper, big budget version of this but, seriously, let’s not try to deviate so far from the story that it’s got so little in common with the original text that it’s almost unrecognisable. I’d been looking forward to seeing this production for a long time and I suspect I know why it’s had a fair bit of a delay in its release to the general public now. This one definitely wasn’t my cup of tea and I’d perhaps suggest going back to the musical album if you want a more palatable version of Wells’ original classic.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Le Viol Du Vampire (aka The Rape Of The Vampire)

Lady And The Vamp

Le Viol Du Vampire
(aka The Rape Of The Vampire)
France 1968 Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A

There were already riots happening in Paris when Le Viol Du Vampire, Jean Rollin’s first feature length film, was released in pretty much the only cinema left showing anything in town. Like the critical reception of Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andelou, the film was met with taunts, jeers, death threats and a generally negative and incredibly violent reaction from the public. Rollin says that there was a riot in one of the screenings but whether this was due to the overall atmosphere in France at the time or because of the perceived incomprehensibility of this film is anyone’s guess. I suspect it’s a combination of the two, to be honest.

The film is the one I come back to the most, every decade or so, out of this amazing director’s oeuvre of astonishing, vampiric motion picture art and I suspect the audiences at the time, who were presumably being fed on an diet of imported British Hammer Horror films and their nearest equivalent, were just not ready for something as uncompromisingly surreal (to an extent) and, frankly, as badly acted as what they were shown.

It’s funny, no matter how many times I’ve watched this over the years on varying different prints on various different ‘this is the best one yet’ transfers of those prints, I’ve always thought the film as completely incomprehensible. However, I can’t think why now because, when I rewatched this recently for this review, the whole thing really made a lot of sense to me, to be honest.

The film is split into two parts comprising a short film about two guys and a girl wanting to cure four local women of the delusion that they are centuries old vampires. However, Rollin realised that this could be expanded into a feature and so he use the idea of a second chapter, like the various serials he adored, to shoot a another part with more or less the same cast later. When everyone in is dead in that first part, the second chapter (where most of these characters return from their dead status), which is much longer, picks up the story and introduces the striking features of Jacqueline Sieger as The Vampire Queen who is experimenting on bringing dead people back to life but, unbeknownst to her, her human surgeon who wants to marry one of her underlings is working on his own cure for vampirism.

The film is, I think, the only one of Rollin’s features (at least that I’ve seen) which was shot in black and white. He usually has some interesting colours in his movies but even in this, you can see how his eye for 'the perfect shot' is never lacking. This is a beautiful looking film full of sublime and surreal imagery (if not as surreal in plotting, as is often vocalised). Rollin employed no actual actors in this and, like it does in a lot of his other films... this really shows. Honestly, the acting in this is worse than you can possibly imagine but, the thing about Rollin is, it’s about the beauty of the imagery and the way those actors interact with each other and their environment that’s the reason for watching these. They really are like exquisitely composed paintings brought to life... the acting may be dire but, like some of the films of Dario Argento, it really can’t ruin the overall artistry on display here. This is one of my favourite Rollin films and for good reason.

Right from the start we encounter the rich and provocative imagery that Rollin is known for. A woman in a diaphanous white dress is standing against a tree while a bat sucks the blood from the top of her bosom. And Rollin starts as he means to go on with various interesting compositions showing, in this case, a heck of a lot of vertical shapes splitting off sections. So frames will be filled with an abundance of graveyard crosses, candlesticks and a load of skittles on the grass. Even the locations he films are full of uprights, like the groynes of the beach which was to feature in many of his future movies... or the poles and trees along the road which threaten to split up the perspective of the shot as cars and people roam from one rectangular section to another.

And, of course there’s the vampire queen herself and that wonderful shot of her licking the blood off the big curved knife she has just used on someone, like a cat with cream. For some reason, the ladies in these pictures never seem to wear many clothes and in this one, there’s always a breast or two popping loose from the thinly fastened or draped veils they wear. It seems impractical some of the time, such as when the vampire queen rides around the countryside with her breasts on show from the back of an open top car but it looks fantastic and so I think it’s fair to say that Rollin is always more than happy to abandon the practical elements of a tale in favour of the visual poetry of a shot.

Another thing he does... and I’ve seen this done in a few Japanese things too over the years, as a way of highlighting an important emotional beat of a story, is this. He will cut to the same kind of action in a different location or situation, sometimes three or four at once, to give weight to their place in the scheme of things. So when a vampire girl knocks over a skittle on some grass in long shot, we cut to a close up of the skittle being knocked over on the beach. Or when a vampire girl is flogged and subjected to sunlight (which seems to not make a jot of a difference to some of the vampires in the film), we see her undergoing things simultaneously as if they are happening all at once, which, to be fair given the timescale being explored, they probably are. These aren’t montages to shorthand a specific passing time shift like you see in most American movies... these are shifting in space and highlighting a less practical intertextuality, where moments of cinematic time are given more weight through the exploration of a different way of looking at things simultaneous to actual events. I’ve seen this happen in a few anime or anime inspired films over the last couple of decades.

One thing that I only twigged this time around, though, is that one of the actors in the first section... and I’ve no idea which as he’s just listed as one of the villagers... is played by Philippe Druillet. Druillet, of course, is a key French comic book and graphic novel artist and writer (and inker and colourer) whose work I used to occasionally catch in the Heavy Metal comic magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s (which was the American edition of Métal Hurlant). So that’s new to me and I wonder, since Rollin would often take to writing novels and comic books when he couldn’t get his films produced, if they were good friends and colleagues in those kinds of professions too.

Not much else to say on this one for me, I think. Le Viol Du Vampire is an absolutely brilliant movie and it just gets better and, sadly, more comprehensible the more I watch it. The sometimes cool and sometimes grating jazz atonalism aesthetic of the soundtrack by  Yvon Géraud and François Tusques sometimes helps and sometimes almost hinders the atmosphere that Rollin is trying for but, like the acting, it doesn’t really manage to sabotage the general aesthetic too much. Despite this film not being in colour, this movie is an excellent jumping on point for the cinema of Jean Rollin as it demonstrates quite clearly the way he manages to mix some horrendously awful, performances from the actors with some truly breathtaking, gorgeously surreal and sometimes erotic imagery on screen. About the only key thing missing in this one is his obsession with having twin vampire girls as the main protagonists but... that would come fairly soon. If you’re looking for a typical Rollin film to see, if you are able to juggle the negative and tremendously positive factors of his creations, then this is the one to go for. I must return to it quicker next time.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Charlie's Angels 2019

Charlie-vous Fancy?

Charlie's Angels 2019
2019 USA Directed by Elizabeth Banks
UK cinema release print.

Wow... before I say anything else, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is not without some minor problems but, honestly, it’s a great movie and I can’t understand why it’s got so many negative reviews from people. It’s frankly a little weird that there are just so many one and two star reviews on the IMDB, for example. Seriously, enough people hated this thing so much that they decided to take the time to vent negatively about it? Well... it almost seems like there’s some kind of bizarre secret agenda against the movie but I’m here to say that the naysayers are dead wrong about this one. I had a blast with it but... now I’ve got that out of the way, like I said, there are a few problems, albeit minor problems... so I’m going to go right in here and tell you about the issues I had with it. But first, a little emotional context...

I remember when the original Charlie’s Angels TV show came out in the UK around about 1976. I would have been twelve and I think I was one of the few boys who watched it. I don’t know why... I already wanted to sleep with some of the Angels at that age so I couldn’t quite figure out why the other kids at school of my sex weren’t all over this one too but, well, it was just mainly a girl thing, somehow. Pretty bizarre. I watched odd episodes here and there, didn’t follow it religiously but I did like the shows I saw.

Cut to the 21st century and McG’s two Charlie’s Angels movies. I loved these and think they’re absolute masterpieces of cinematic magic. The beautiful and constant colour palette changes from scene to scene, the sense of fun and the chemistry between the girls was all absolutely brilliant and I’ve never been able to figure out why we didn’t get another three or four of these.

So, I would have to say my expectations were a little low on this new one because a) I knew it couldn’t top the sheer artistry and perfection of the McG movies and b) the word of mouth on this one was awful. The one thing which did give me hope is that one of the, relatively, younger generation of Hollywood composers who I like a lot... Brian Tyler (see my review of his first concert here) has done the score for this. Indeed, I had the CD in my hands before the movie even opened over here... so I at least knew the music was probably going to be pretty good. I’ll get to that later.

So there I was, hopeful that the film could be okay but really not expecting much from it. And, for the first ten minutes of the film at least, that expectation was sadly on the nose. The opening scene which is the usual ‘conclusion of an adventure’ sequence that the Bond films pioneered and popularised back in the 1960s is here as expected and, although it gets the male chauvinist stuff out in the open fairly on, the action in this lead-in looks like it’s either been too aggressively edited so you can’t see what’s going on or it's maybe cutting around performers who can’t fight in the hopes it may look like they’re kicking ass (which is something a fair few Hollywood movies have done in recent years, unfortunately). Then, when I was expecting a revamped old school homage to the Charlie’s Angels TV show opening like in the McG movies, I instead got a terrible dose of imagery which, may, have been origins of the leading characters... or maybe not. It was going way to fast for me to process and there was some terrible, blary, loud pop singing going on behind the visuals. I was pretty fed up by this point.

However, against all the odds, the film then proceeded to win me over fairly hastily. The three main girls in this... Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska are all pretty amazing and have some really good chemistry. They are ably supported by various people playing ‘Bosleys’... among them Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and the writer/director Elizabeth Banks as the ‘main Bosley’ of the movie. And a special shout out to Luis Gerardo Méndez playing a ridiculously cool guy named Saint. For every comment I see that the film is trying to make men look stupid all the way through... well, yeah, maybe that’s a bad agenda but, honestly, this character more than makes up for any of the bizarre, ‘man demoting’ sexism perpetrated by the writers here so... yeah, not a problem.

Okay, so the film by this point is stepping up the pace with some really cool action sequences and some nice humour in the right places. Once again the film purposes itself as being a sequel to all incarnations that have gone before it and not a stand alone reboot. In fact, there’s some terrible and obviously 'deliberately tacky' photoshopping of Patrick Stewart with various incarnations of the Angels through the years, which is a nice touch.

Let me sort out some of the bad now.

The action editing in some scenes still looks like it’s trying to hide a lack of fight training... unless, as I said earlier, it’s a deliberately choppy style which doesn’t quite come off. This is unfortunate but it’s not evident in all of the action scenes and they’re still quite exhilarating to watch, nonetheless. Like the previous incarnations, there’s a big emphasis on fun in this movie, even without the ‘colouring book’ cinematography. There were other sequences in the movie which didn’t quite make sense in the edit to me... however. I felt I was being asked to make certain leaps in understanding which I could have done without in simple things of the ‘how did that person suddenly wind up in that vehicle?’ variety. It did look like the editing was trying to make up for some accidentally un-filmed footage now and again but, thankfully, these moments were few and far between.

The only other problem I had was the horrible and ‘mixed in way too loud’ pop songs which punctuate the film at quite a steady lick. They seemed to be the driving force behind some of the montage sequences when, frankly, it should have been the other way around (I mean, McG’s sometimes terrible needle drop music choices were at least supporting the scenes they were being used in, I thought). Again, though, this is countered with... oh , wait, I’ll save the genius of Brian Tyler for a little later.

One thing which, briefly annoyed me was a stupid plot twist which was revealed halfway through the film. I knew it was coming, the audience knew it was coming and... it was so obvious that it enraged me when it happened. Except... turns out the audience are being ‘played’ at this point. Not going to say anymore about that because it would constitute a spoiler but lets just say I so fell for the writer/director’s art of distraction that I was pleasantly surprised (yes, I know, I was surprised... it happens now and again) when the truth of the situation was finally brought to the foreground.

And all this with... oh yeah... Tyler’s score. He’s great at creating the soundscapes for these kinds of films and, though I was hoping for more of the original 70s Charlie’s Angels theme in it... it only makes a brief appearance in an ‘homage’ closet scene... I have to say that the score for this one really knocks it out of the park. It’s got a strong melody line and it mutates into good solid action scoring on a dime. To hell with Brian Tyler, though, for giving me a score which wouldn’t leave my head after the film had finished and wouldn’t let me sleep that night because my brain kept playing it back while I tossed and turned under the sheets. In fact, I’m still humming it as I type. Absolutely first class work from this composer and I can tell this is going to get a lot of spins on the CD player this month. Nice composing from someone who has fast become one of the ‘greats’ of Hollywood scoring.

So, there you go. Not much more to say on this one. Brilliant cast, good chemistry, fast pacing, some mostly good action and a brilliant score... if you can get through the opening ten minutes without turning off, I think you’ll find the new incarnation of Charlie’s Angels is a cinematic delight. And if you want to see a cameo from an old character from the original show, not to mention various other cameos, stick around for the six mini scenes which play out during the end credits. This is a definite Blu Ray purchase for me when it comes out and... well... I just wish I had time to fit in another cinema screening of this one but it’s the wrong time of year for that. Go see it if you can though. With a few tweaks it could have been a masterpiece... instead it's just a really fun, entertaining movie. And who can argue with that?

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Giraffes On Horseback Salad

Dali Soup

Giraffes On Horseback Salad
by Josh Frank, Tim Heidecker and Manuela Pertega
Quirk Books ISBN: 978-1594749230

Well this is certainly an interesting book and one I was completely foaming at the mouth for as soon as I found out about it on Twitter which, fortunately, was a Friday night. That meant I was able to get into London and get my hands on a copy within about 12 hours of discovering the existence of this thing (then didn’t get around to reading it for many months after but, hey, it was something less to worry about picking up later). Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a graphic novel which tries, almost, to do the impossible and both succeeds and fails in equal measure but, in this case, the nature of it’s failure is so consistent with an authentic feel for the material, that it’s partial failure is just another sign of its success, so to speak. Yeah, okay, I’ll unravel that one for you in a minute, after this short lead in...

Back in 1980, it turns out, when I was 12 (I always thought it was a lot earlier), the Tate Gallery in London (there was only one in those days) briefly displayed a huge retrospective of the work of Salvador Dali. I remember queuing up for hours with my parents to get in (in the days before timed entry and bookings) and eventually getting through the door and being absolutely blown away by it. This definitely made me want to have some kind of job in art and my ultimate career destination in graphic design is not so far off base, I feel. Dali was my painting hero.

Flash forward to sometime in the mid-1980s and my family got their first video cassette player. It was big, silver, had huge diving board buttons and a cassette tray that popped out the top. On the day we got this, I bought some blank tapes and decided to do a test ‘off the air’ recording of something on television that night. The BBC were showing the first of a small season of late night Marx Brothers movies... I think it was just Animal Crackers, Monkey Business (my favourite), Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’d never seen one of their films properly before and so I recorded Monkey Business and, when I watched it the next morning, I was absolutely hooked on the Marx Brothers and decided to try and watch all of their movies as soon as I could (and I would, often multiple times when it came to their first eight films... with their first five made for Paramount being their absolute best).

Also, of course, over the next few years I was reading all I could about my various interests and somewhere, while reading various biographies, autobiographies (such as the brilliant Harpo Speaks) and celebrity correspondence, I got wind of a ‘collaboration’ between Harpo Marx and Salvador Dali. Somewhere in the mid to late 1930s they were trying to collaborate on a film which Dali was writing and which would be an extremely surreal Marx Brothers movie (well, aren’t they all). Now, it has to be said, while I was intrigued and excited by the prospect that something like this could have happened at some point, I was pretty sure the resulting movie would probably have made for some hard viewing. The Marx Brothers, if you’ve never seen one of their films, are already extremely surrealist in nature... not just visually, as evidenced by Harpo’s shenanigans but also in terms of the flexible, pun-like nature of the outrageously funny dialogue written for Groucho and Chico. To put them with the world’s premiere surrealist (even though he’d been excommunicated by the movement naming themselves as such at some point earlier) seemed like taking things a bit too far because, Dali’s form of surrealism was of a completely different kettle of lobsters than the brand exhibited by Minnie’s boys (Minnie was the Marx Brothers mother, manager and driving force in their early years). It didn’t seem to me like it could be a good or even halfway watchable ‘fit’ but it was great to imagine just what might have been.

Well, Josh Frank has taken things a whole lot further than ‘just’ imagining’... although, to be fair, he’s done a lot of that too. Basically gathering and unearthing some rare documents including a 40 page treatment of the handwritten ‘script’, such as it was, by Dali... he has made a graphic novel adaptation of the film that ‘might’ have been. Now, it would be terrible to think that this thing is completely unlike the collaboration that ‘almost’ emerged between Dali and ‘team Marx’ but, there is a basic skeleton apparently, in which Frank has filled in the blanks as best as he could imagine them and made the thing ‘play’ quite well... something Groucho Marx didn’t even think was possible of the material. There are 45 pages of text introduction here recounting, among other things, the approach and breakthroughs made by Frank to get this story told and it’s extremely impressive. You can’t, alas, say this is anything like what the original movie might have been, I think it’s fair to say... but, with the help of Quirk Books (who I’ve mentioned on here before as being an interesting publisher), he has done his best, along with fellow writer Tim Heidecker and the extraordinary illustrator Manuela Pertega, to give us an entertaining and very interesting ‘What If...’ version of how the collaboration might have turned out.

Some creative decisions I agree with and some I don’t but I’m not the artist so that’s all beside the point. Frank says he resurrected the spirit of wonderboy genius Irving Thalberg, who loved the Marx Brothers and took them in at MGM when they needed him most, to help him in his collaboration and, while that’s a nice thought... I can’t help but think that even Thalberg, had he been alive (he died very young), would not have green lighted that pitch.

However, what we have here is an amazing collaboration between the writers and artist involved. The text and images combine to weave a spell, mostly in greyscale but with the odd dashes of colour, which... as mind-bendingly surreal and ill-fitting the spirit of the original collaboration is... roots it in 1930s America and allows it to sit well with the movies that the brothers would be making at the time. It’s tastefully and sympathetically done and although the book doesn’t really come alive until Groucho and Chico arrive in the main narrative... and maybe flags towards the end... this adventure of Jimmy (played by Harpo out of costume and with a large talking role which, from what I know of the sound of his real voice... would never have been allowed to happen) and his love affair with ‘The Surreal Woman’ which causes chaos in the world, is a truly beautiful work which I would be proud to have on my bookshelves, if I had any free bookshelves. As it is, I’m proud to have it stacked up on a huge, precarious pile of other books which I can put my hand out to steady as I pass it by.

The quality of the dialogue and the appropriate nature of it is easy to demonstrate...

Groucho: “Oh, and only pocket the spoons this time. Last time I nearly impaled myself on a fork in an overcoat.”
Chico: “Ah, you crazy. Forks don’t wear overcoats.”

Or how about...

Groucho: “You know what a paradox is?”
Chico: “Why, sure. Everyone knows what that is. I shot two pair-a ducks and cooked them in a nice soup.”

And it certainly delivers on the throwaway Groucho lines too... “Next time let’s take something more seaworthy. Like Esther Williams.” Other times, intriguingly, there are some obvious set ups and, though you know exactly how Groucho or Chico would have responded to it... and, in fact, did respond to these same set ups in various movie adventures, the writers drop the more Marxian response and sail off in another direction. I’m assuming that’s deliberate, by the way, because I’m sure these guys must know the Marx Brother’s work inside out. And probably the right way round, too!

My biggest grumble here is that there’s barely any Harpo in it. The Jimmy character played by Harpo is pretty much any one of many ‘straight romantic leads’ who found themselves coupled with the brothers. So this is like the Allan Jones or Zeppo Marx characters which would sometimes pop up and Jimmy only very vaguely and, not very often strays, into ‘Harpo’ territory. I’d like to say this is probably as Dali intended but I noticed, when some of the original script pages were reprinted in the back (along with Dali’s handwritten notes and sketches for some of these things) he has scenes assigned to Groucho and Harpo which, in the graphic novel version... have been switched to Groucho and Chico. So I’m not 100% sure why this decision in adaptation was made unless... as is more than possible... various treatments and script fragments by Dali were in complete contradiction to each other. I’m guessing that may be the case.

The illustrations are wonderful and, despite the chaos of the content of these drawings, the panels are easy to follow and there are some nice layouts including some wonderful double page spreads where words and images snake away between the two pages without, I’m glad to say, confusing the reader.

Ultimately, this was both more and less of what I wanted from this book but, like I said, its failure I suspect is more coming from the way the original movie might well have failed in its intent, with such a mixture of ‘brands’ being compromised with Dali and the Marx Brothers seeming to be just a slightly ‘out of kilter’ fit. I think lovers of both the artist and the comedians will take to this book like a duck to soup though and, honestly, the interior artwork is just wonderful and worth the price of admission alone. Giraffes On Horseback Salad is a brave and exciting labour of love which, at the very least, will keep you interested and intrigued as you make your journey through it’s alluring pages. I’m certainly glad I bought this one and it definitely a solid recommendation from me. Don’t miss out.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Judy And Punch

A Stoning For Your Sins

Judy And Punch
2019 Australia Directed by Mirrah Foulkes
UK cinema release print.

Judy And Punch is one of those rare movies that look really interesting when you see the trailer and then, when you see the film itself, turns out to be exactly that... a real corker of a movie.

The film is not, as you may possibly be expecting, a true history of the story behind the much loved Punch & Judy shows still performed to this day... instead, it’s a fictional portrayal of two people who have invented the concept for this reality... a reality which really is as pleasingly tenuous, I would have to conclude by the conclusion of the story, as the little vignettes which play out in their puppet show.

Set in the 17h Century in a little village called Seaside (which, the inter-title explains, is nowhere near the sea), this stars the always incredible and talented Mia Wasikowska as Judy, puppeteer extraordinaire and her ‘domestic abuse prone’ husband and writer/puppeteer Punch, played by Damon Herriman (who recently played Charlie Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood although, it has to be said, he’s far more effectively an unintentional villain as Mr. Punch). These two actors, more than ably supported by their co-stars, pretty much carry the film and it has to be said their performances here are astonishing. Wasikowska as the persevering wife and mother of Punch’s child who turns into a ‘not quite classic’ version of the female revenge figure by the end of the film is totally believable and this character is just the kind of role she thrives on. Herriman was surprisingly good as Punch, playing a drunk and short tempered, abusive man in a way which lets you understand where he is coming from in his pursuit of his basest instincts while still coming off as totally unsympathetic... and also he somehow manages to look and feel very much like the puppet he is named after too, with not a swazzle in sight.

The film opens strongly with a performance given by Judy and Punch of their puppet show which is followed the next day by a public stoning of three female victims in the village which everyone attends.... Mr. Punch is given the honour of casting the first stone. This immediately sets up the period with its echoes of witchcraft and the ruthless violence punctuating the times and, although the film is shot through with a very dark humour, the grimness of the situations throughout are very sobering and the bleakness tends to dispel the underlying comedy before it can take hold. This is not to say the film isn’t entertaining... it is and I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen but... expect to be in for a dark time with this one.

Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes, who is perhaps best known as an actress herself (appearing in things like The Crown), smartly plays with your expectations of the basic anchor points of a famous Punch and Judy tale, bringing in key elements like the dog, the sausages and, of course, their baby. However, she does manage to play with these expectations so that, although the tent poles of this popular entertainment show are met, they don’t necessarily come in the obvious manner. For instance... and I don’t think this is really a spoiler because it’s made implicit in the trailer... everyone pretty much knows that ‘something’ is going to happen to the baby, so Foulkes teases the audience with the threat of an open fire and toys with the elements she’s set up in, actually, much the same way a horror movie might set up a fake scare before bringing on the actual jump moment shortly after. When something does, indeed, happen to the baby it’s perhaps not that surprising but still... it’s an effective (perhaps even visually poetic) moment which leaves a lasting impression.

Okay.. so lets talk about the violence because I’m seeing people saying its a violent movie and... well it’s not actually violent at all... at least not in terms of what you actually see on screen. Asides from a long shot during the stoning near the start of the film, for instance, every act of violence as far as I could tell is kept just out of the view of the camera. Instead, this film uses a more the impressionistic version of violence which is, probably, much more potent in that your imagination fills in the blanks just at the moment where, say, a Dario Argento movie would not cut away (I’m thinking about a specific scene in Tenebrae now, reviewed here... but I’m not going to say what because I’m trying to make this review spoiler free). Instead, we are left with the camera looking closely at the aftermath of the violence in most cases, which is again very grim and shows exactly what has taken place. The method of justice that Judy metes out at the end of the movie, for example, is something which you can guess is coming but the aftermath of this moment is still quite disturbing and in no way blunts or cushions the moment for the audience. It has a nice little epilogue in terms of the birth of the traditional Punch & Judy show too. So, in some ways the film actually is quite violent but it’s less about what you actually see and more about how the examination of the crimes sit with you on a gut level... although I’m sure some people will believe they saw much more than they actually did in the film and, of course, that’s a great compliment to the director, cast and crew if they do.

Also, I have to say that the biggest crime committed in the film is that the absolutely jaw droppingly brilliant score from composer François Tétaz is not available to buy commercially. It’s so good and really helps elevate the visuals. When it first started, I actually thought it was Alexandre Desplat in full on Wes Anderson movie mode and was surprised when the end credits came up and found it’s Tétaz. This is meant truly in a complimentary way and, honestly, I wish they’d put a CD of this one out because it could very well be a contender for best score of the year. Quite dazzlingly brilliant on the ear throughout.

Okay, so that’s me done other than to mention that there are moments in this film, especially when Judy is ‘resurrected’ and joins up with a secret community of... well lets call them witches for the sake of this review but they’re absolutely not... where Foulkes uses the visual and acoustic syntax of a horror film to good effect. This film isn’t in any way a horror film, for sure but... she effectively mines elements of that genre to tell her tale and with some set design which feels pretty authentic, bolstered by an exceptionally fine cast and crew... well, I’d have to say that Judy And Punch gets a solid recommendation from me, especially for those readers who absolutely love the art of cinema and all that it’s about. Easily one of the year’s best and I would urge you to catch this one at your local venue while you can.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The Comic

Look Before You Sheep

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
The Comic - Boom Studios
24 issues 2009-2010
Art by Tony Parker, Adapted from Philip K. Dick

Wow. It’s not that often I get on board with comic book adaptations but this one is absolutely amazing in the ways it’s both faithful and unfaithful to the original source material. Hopefully when I elaborate on the various qualities of the comic, that comment will become clearer.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is probably my favourite novel. I read it maybe ten times over the decade after I first discovered it which was, I’m sure to nobody’s surprise, the week after the movie adaptation, Blade Runner (which is my favourite movie and which I reviewed here) was released in cinemas here in the UK, back in 1982. The first time I read it I had a hard time with it, in some ways (although I loved Dick’s way of expressing himself in words right off the bat). My biggest criticism of the film after first reading it was that it was nothing like the original novel. It wasn’t too long, however... and after a couple more read throughs... that I realised that, actually, the novel was only different in specific sequences of what is actually going on in a scene from moment to moment. There are literally, if you take adaptation as purely that, only two scenes from the novel translated in the movie.

However, by the time I’d finished my degree course in Graphic Design and wrote (and completed a year before deadline... I was that into it) my final major thesis on the specific ways in which the movie actually was, in spirit, a very faithful adaptation to many of the concepts inherent in the original novel, I was completely sold on both the film and the source and how well they complemented each other.

Of course, that still left me with the concept I found the hardest thing to fathom the very first time I read the book... Mercerism.

The empathic religious union which is one of the main concerns of the novel, where people grip the twin handles of their ‘empathy box’ and ‘merge with Mercer’... an old man who rises from the ‘tomb- world’ and tries to reach the top of a mountain while stones are lobbed at him... was nowhere to be found in the movie. Or was it? I think it could be argued that the Voight-Kampff test based on both empathy and the other driving force of the novel - the responsibility to look after the last surviving animals on the planet or, if you can’t afford one, then to pretend you have one by buying a cheap, electronic simulacrum of one so you don’t seem like an uncaring individual - is as much about the point of Mercerism as anything else.

I’m not going to get in to that argument here though because I’m not talking about the movie version... I’m talking about this comic book version which is, I have to say, pretty much on the nose in terms of capturing the spirit and style of the novel. Of course, half the battle is using a lot of the writer’s original words in both the speech bubbles and in the long stretches of narrative used in the comic but... this rendition really is the closest you can get to reading the original novel if, for some reason, you’ve never read it.

Now the look of some of the characters is interesting here. Many of the those in the movie are not quite the same as in the novel but what the artist, Tony Parker, has done here is to give some (by no means all) equivalent characters a very similar look to what they had in the film. So, for example, even though Deckard is married and a slightly different kind of person in the story, he’s made him look very much like the Harrison Ford version in terms of his dress and hair style etc. Similarly, although genetic designer J. F. Sebastian was originally J. R. Isidore, the low IQ ‘chickenhead’ character and humble employee of the maintenance team who service the electric animals under the disguise of a veterinarian hospital... he looks quite similar here to his movie counterpart. Other characters like Roy Batty look considerably less like those in the film but the artist has definitely gone out of his way to cross pollinate the two worlds - the world of the novel and the world of the film - as much as he possibly can, at least in terms of the visual look of the piece.

And the text is really faithful (just basically taking Dick’s words) with layouts that are simply brilliant. The way vast numbers of narrative panels will butt up against each other and also overlap with speech bubbles is ingenious and he uses the shapes created by these overlapping elements as a way of giving the reader a visual pathway to the order in which to read and decode the page, so to speak. Despite some quite cluttered and beautifully artwork which is quite complex in itself, you never really find yourself getting confused in the narrative space of the thing, even in the specific sections dealing with Mercerism.

In fact, the Mercerism stuff as the artist has chosen to render it here is, if anything, even clearer in terms of how the fusion works because you can see it happening as characters are superimposed or half drawn as Wilbur Mercer in those sequences. And this is what I mean when I say that even where the artist has been unfaithful to the concept, it still ends up retaining the spiritual levity of the original. For example, when I first read the novel back in 1982, the empathy box I visualised was some kind of large cabinet and, to be fair, there were only so many ways to imagine it in those days. In this comic book, Parker has used a TV screen to project the image of Mercer and... a stroke of genius this... where the characters go to ‘grip the twin handles’ of the empathy box, here he’s reimagined it as a kind of modern gaming controller like something you’d find connected to a Playstation console... with the twin handles being the two obvious bits you grip on those controllers. This isn’t something Dick in his time (nor I when I first read it) would have been able to predict or confidentally guess (they didn’t even have the first computer or arcade games when this was written) but it really updates the concept visually so it’s easier for audiences to buy into it. This is complementary, visual storytelling done right.

Similarly, there’s a lot of imagination in the way the worlds, characters and situations are rendered. For example, when the androids in the book are talking about the thriving, black market trade, off-world for pre-colonial fiction, you could only really guess at the kind of thing this could be. Here though, it’s lovingly rendered in allusions to science fiction tales across a range of media from our own past in close parodies showing, for instance, the stratosled rockets from the Flash Gordon serials, a scene from the movie version of The Day The Earth Stood Still and a typical pin-up illustration inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars novels. Which is a really nice touch and the whole comic is full of these lovely little shout outs.

The artist also comes to a certain kind of compromise as to the make up of the androids. They are kind of a cross between the flesh and blood of the movie versions of the replicants but, again, cross-pollinated with the hard, synthetically wired mechanical Andys of the novel. At first I was a little annoyed about this but then I realised that, while Dick was talking about some quite specific machines here... he was also talking about having to give them bone marrow tests as an alternative way to tell if they were androids so, if anything, the artist has tried to clarify Dick’s thoughts into one, stylistic vision. So, in reflection, I don’t really have a problem with it here.

All in all, then, an absolutely brilliant comic book adaptation and a reading experience which was, almost, as moving as the original novel. Okay, so the other bounty hunter from the completely unknown police department, Phil Resch, was envisaged much harder nosed than I recall him from the book but that’s fine... the points he makes and the ideas that he or Deckard or both may actually be androids (something which is definitively disproven in the novel and this comic because, after all it’s about empathising with them, not becoming them) are all here and the androids, unlike the film, never ultimately come off as superior in their ability to empathise with other beings (or rather, their inability). Arguably, this is one of the elements that makes the film great, the fact that the replicants seem to be morally superior to the majority of the humans that populate the movie but Dick’s original intent... the 'absence of appropriate affect' which he was inspired to write about as this novel after reading an excerpt of a journal of a Nazi prison officer complaining that the noisy screams of the people in his concentration camp were keeping him up nights... is equally as powerful and it’s been faithfully adhered to here.

If you like the original novel, you won’t be disappointed with the comic book version of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? If you’ve never read it and are only familiar with the movie version, I think you’ll find this is a fascinating read which will probably make you want to explore the concept further in the book. Either way, this is an excellent attempt at depicting the world of a novel with some pretty hard to adapt sections. Give it a go if you have some time.