Friday, 16 August 2019

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood



Bruise Lee

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
UK/USA/China 2019 Directed Quentin Tarantino
UK cinema release print


Warning: Even the presence of a spoiler warning for this movie would constitute a spoiler so you can see the kind of Catch 22 situation I am in with this... so let’s just say that, yes, there is a spoiler here.

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is the... well, since I don’t seem to be as mathematically challenged as the Hollywood marketing machine, let’s just call it the ‘latest’ movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, who also wrote it. It’s a film I had been looking forward to for a while since, although I find the director a bit hit and miss, when he’s on form he does create absolute masterpieces of cinema (such as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds) and a film doing the ‘Manson murders’ and set in Hollywood in 1969 seems like a match made in heaven.

And, as a film it’s kinda entertaining but it’s also somewhat less than I was expecting from it, although I do reserve the right to change my mind on this one because, like some of the best Marvel movies of recent years, it might be that my brain needs to have longer to process it and it’s quite possible that if I ever do see this one a second time, I might like it a lot better than I did before.

Saying that, I still had a fairly good time with this movie... after all, one of the chief pleasures of watching a movie by Tarantino is spotting all the visual and audio references to other peoples movies and, as you can imagine, this film is filled to the brim with them in a much more overt manner (if such a thing is possible when it comes to Mr. T) than any of his other works.

The film follows fictional movie star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his stuntman/driver/best friend Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt. It also follows real life Sharon Tate played here by Margot Robbie, who was of course the most noted of the victims of the slaughter by the hippy followers of Charlie Manson on that grim August night in 1969.

Now, while I loved both all the references to various movies which the film is littered with and, frankly, loved the film and TV shows created to slot into this era by Tarantino for the Rick Dalton character (I especially loved the authenticity of his Italian secret agent movie although, on reflection, it maybe looked a little more like a ‘polizei’ movie than the specific strand of Italian spy movies it was emulating). However, it has to be said that there was practically no story on this one and its all over the place in terms of the way elements of the characters are revealed...

Now I’ve got no trouble with this usually, especially coming from Tarantino. As he’s demonstrated in a few of his movies, he can do this kind of slowly developing story image put together out of myriad scenes which tell something intrinsic about the characters very well and he usually does it in an effective manner which is a joy to watch. However, this particular hodge podge of scenes involving the various main characters and people such as Bruce Lee or Steve McQueen are... well, they’re all still a joy to watch individually but for some reason they never really forward the story that much. At least that’s how it seemed to me. The reason being, I think, is as I said in the paragraph above, there is no story, as such. And everyone knows the outcome of the Manson murders, right?

Okay... spoiler coming up.

I had a couple of conversations with different friends on the lead up to the release of this film about what I thought was going to happen because people keep telling people not to ‘spoil’ the movie and, frankly, it’s hard to spoil a movie when you know how historic events play out. So, this led me to believe that, just as he completely rewrote the end of World War Two in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino would change the outcome of events as they happened in real life and create a ‘new ending’ for Sharon Tate and Manson’s followers. Indeed, asides from the obvious tribute to Sergio Leone in the title, it would also suggest a certain fairy-tale quality to the narrative being presented here and suggests that there will be a certain amount of, shall we say, ‘deviation’ in terms of how things are left. And... yeah. I totally called it, this film left things exactly as I thought they would leave them when I heard about this project so... the film’s two main male protagonists are injected into history and, of course, change it in the way that very few people other than Tarantino would do without some kind of logical alternate to the ending, or lack of, of certain characters... such as in the movies From Hell or The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot (which I reviewed here).

And yes, it’s kind of a double edged sword in terms of the education of young movie goers everywhere when you present fiction as implied facts like this. I work at a college and know a lot of the kids think the war ended when Hitler was machine gunned down in a cinema and... I'm pretty sure that a lot of those same teenagers will be checking the IMDB after this to see what films Sharon Tate has been in recently too. It’s not fair that ignorance of history should block cinematic art like these Tarantino flicks and it’s no reason to censor the art in any way but... a disclaimer at the end might help clarify things to a certain section of the audience maybe. You know... like a statement saying that in real life Sharon Tate, her friends and unborn child were brutally slaughtered by the followers of Charlie Manson... something like that.

Anyway, other than this and despite the kind of directionless, almost spectator sport of 'picking out little details on the screen' kind of nature of the film, there are still some sequences which demonstrate Tarantino’s absolute mastery of the art. Two scenes spring to mind, both featuring Brad Pitt where, frankly, even though I’d worked out exactly how they were going to play out before they finished, were nevertheless almost excruciatingly suspenseful to watch and this is where the director really shows why we go and see his films time and time again. One is where Brad Pitt goes to check out an old friend on a ranch (I won’t say more) and the other is when a bunch of hippies invade a house towards the end of the picture. I’d liken them to the scenes with Alfred Molina in them from Boogie Nights in terms of just how insanely intense they are here and, as always, Tarantino has a way of taking things which we take for granted as fetishised instruments of death and reminding us that they are, truly, very dangerous.

And that’s me about done on this one. The common Tarantino needle-drop approach to the music was less appealing to me this time around (and it really shouldn’t have been since I love that period in music) and, although there is the obvious Manson reference to The Beatles White Album in the dialogue, you don’t actually get to hear any of it in the movie. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is probably not a film I would recommend to anyone but the most cine-literate of my friends, truth be told but I expect it will grow on me in time and might even be worth a Blu Ray purchase at some point in the next few years. Nothing more to say except... stay on for the end credits.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Rabid



Value Rabid Attacks

Rabid
Canada 1977
Directed by David Cronenberg
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2


As I said in my review of Cronenberg’s Shivers the other day (you can read that review here), I’ve been wanting to rewatch Rabid because I have a ticket to the world premiere of the new remake by the Soskia Sisters in just under two weeks and wanted this to be fresh in my mind. Having rewatched it now on a nice Arrow Blu Ray (although, I understand there’s a brand new, even more super duper restoration out later this month from 101 Films) it’s easy to see why I always get Shivers and Rabid confused. They’re both concerned with the spreading of a virus... by parasites in Shivers and, arguably, a kind of parasite in Rabid... and they both have the juxtaposition of hard violence and sex appeal to them. I’ll expand on that statement a little down the page.

The very first shot of the film introduces us to the person who is both the main protagonist and antagonist in the film, Rose, played by the late, great Marilyn Chambers. I’ll get back to her in a little while too but the opening credits start as she is waiting for the film’s other main protagonist... her boyfriend Hart, played by Frank Moore... her impressive figure leaning against his motorcycle. Hart soon picks her up and a lot of the titles pay out to various dynamic shots of the two of them on his motorcycle, whizzing around on a road trip...

Then, right bang smack in the middle of these credits, the cycle zooms past a building and instead of following the vehicle as we have in all the shots prior to this, we stay with the shot of the exterior of the building, The Keloid Clinic... because the director is now using this held moment as an establishing shot... followed by the interior of one of the offices where Dr. Keloid, his wife and his business partner Murray Cypher, played by Joe Silver (who also has a similar kind of role in Shivers) are discussing the future of his business, which is a cosmetic hospital specialising in modern techniques of plastic surgery. This is a great way of quickly filling in the audience about the hospital prior to the next series of shots which, when the titles resume, show a vehicle in the road blocking it after a man has an argument about directions with his wife and the motorcycle swerving to miss it but going up and over the edge of the highway. Hart is thrown clear but Rose lands underneath the motorcycle which then explodes on top of her.

However, this action has been witnessed by one of the cosmetic patients at the clinic through their binoculars and it’s not long before Dr. Keloid is racing to the scene of the accident with an ambulance and rushing the two patients back to his hospital where he has to perform an emergency operation on Rose which is an experimental form of surgery he is trying out, to do with using internal skin grafts. As he explains to his team while he cuts some skin from Rose’s thigh, he is going to be using “unusual skin grafts treated so they become morphogenetically neutral.’ Neutral field grafts which grow with the patient like an embryo. Now, I don’t pretend to completely understand the scientific lingo here but it’s the only explanation we get to a possible reason as to what happens next in the film... which truly continues Cronenberg’s obsession with ‘body horror’ that he was responsible for popularising around this time.

What does happen next is that, Rose wakes up and, mostly using her natural sexual attraction, starts drinking people’s blood by biting them with a kind of proboscis which retracts from a new orifice in her armpit. When she tries the same trick on a cow or tries to eat normal food, it just makes her throw up so very quickly the ‘half Rose-half beast’ she has become learns that she needs to drink the blood of humans to survive. Unfortunately, this also gives her victims a kind of untreatable super-rabies which causes them to attack others and spread the virus before dying themselves. Soon after Rose ‘escapes’ from the hospital, the new rabies spreads like wildfire and it’s not long before Canada is under martial law. And so the plot of the movie becomes Rose trying to find safe haven in between sexually enticing various human snacks while both Hart and Murray are out on the streets looking for her.

It’s business as usual for Cronenberg then... or at least what would become business as usual during this cycle of the writer/director’s career and I have to say, he has the added bonus of having more money (it seems to me) to make his wonderful shot compositions sparkle... he tends to gravitate to the centre or just slightly off-centre of the screen with some of his designs in this one, as he sets up vertical blocks of colour and texture to compartmentalise the screen.

There’s also the fact that many of the performances seem somehow more professional than some of those in his previous feature, not least of all Marilyn Chambers’ turn which really does stand out here in comparison to the expectations of her more famous career. And if you don’t know who Chambers is... or rather was, she died ten years ago.... she was the wholesome face of the Ivory Snow commercials in America. Yep, the famous Ivory Soap girl with her “99 & 44/100% pure” catch line. Well, she was the Ivory Soap girl until she started appearing, simultaneous to her advertising career with Ivory Soap, as the leading porn star in such, perhaps fondly remembered, pornographic films as the notorious Behind The Green Door, Resurrection Of Eve and Insatiable. This caused a scandal within the advertising industry at the time but, in the very rare crossovers she did, she really showed that she was more than up to the task of doing some good (and in this case somewhat ‘out there’... in the best Cronenbergian sense) performances and could hold her own with much more experienced commercial actors. I think this also shows how good porn actresses can be in general and that they shouldn’t necessarily be typecast in the genre of films with which they are most famously associated. An argument for a different article perhaps but, one wonders if Brian DePalma’s pursuit of porn actress Annette Haven for the lead in his film Body Double (which she ended up not starring in after all) was inspired by the casting of Marilyn Chambers in this.

It’s interesting that, although the method of viral contamination in Rabid is not a sex based one like it is in Shivers, the film seems somewhat more sexualised because there are a fair few nude shots of Chambers, who would have been totally comfortable doing those kinds of scenes anyway. It gives the film possibly a little more of an erotic edge to proceedings than in the previous movie where the theme of sexuality was more pushed to the foreground while remaining discretely in the background at the same time.

As well as the usual horror effects... which are done quite well with the proboscis that lurks within a sphincter under the armpit being particular well done, as sophisticated as anything in Cronenberg’s later ‘body horror’ movies... he also injects a more overt, almost slapstick sense of humour, into things at times. The moment in the shopping mall, for instance, where a policeman armed with a machine gun sprays a rabid attacker with lead and inadvertently also kills the Santa Claus in the Christmas Grotto is a particularly humorous swipe at establishment values, it seems to me.

Also... and perhaps I’m being a little unkind here but... whoever picked out the needle-dropped cues from a music library on this one (it may have been Cronenberg himself) did not do nearly as good a job as was done in Shivers. The over the top 1950s B-music style stings are lovely but totally out of place with the scenes they are scored with here and certainly give an unintentional humour vibe in places when it’s more than likely that the opposite effect is probably what was required.

Asides from that minor gripe though, Rabid is another early winner from the mind of David Cronenberg and I can’t really decide which, between Rabid and Shivers, I like more. I’d certainly recommend the movie as another good jumping on point to this writer/director’s cinema for those who haven’t seen his work before and now, all that’s left for me to do, is to go and see the new Soskia Sisters reboot at the London Frighfest this coming Bank Holiday Monday, so I can watch it with the original template in mind. And, hopefully, unless anything happens to me, a review will follow soon.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Shivers



Parasite Lost

Shivers
aka The Parasite Murders
aka They Came From Within

Canada 1975
Directed by David Cronenberg
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2


I’ve been meaning to re-watch some of the old Cronenberg classics for some time now and have, over the last few years, bought some shiny new Blu Ray restorations to do just that. The reason I’m watching Shivers now is because I’ve got tickets to the premiere of the Soskia Sisters remake of Rabid and I wanted to watch the original again before seeing the new one. However, since I always get Shivers and Rabid confused in my mind, I wanted to refamiliarise myself with Shivers first... especially since it comes directly before Rabid in terms of when it was made.

Looking at this now, it’s strange to try and process the reaction to this movie when it was first released in Canada. There was a bit of a scandal about this being made with funding from the taxpayers and most people seemed to condemn this film as being a terrible movie. I’ve never thought it was a terrible movie, to be honest. I always kind of quite liked it although, it has to be said, some of the acting may be a bit questionable... I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The film’s opening credits sequence takes the form of a slideshow advertisement, where a voice tells us of all the promise of buying an apartment in the new, modern Starliner Apartment Block which houses a community of people on Starliner Island. It introduces us to the fact that the people who live in the block have their own shops and facilities like an indoor swimming pool (which plays prominently in the last act of the film) and it’s a nice idea for Cronenberg to give the audience a kind of a map to the environment in which the film they are about to watch will take place.

We then have a sequence with a new couple visiting the apartment block for the first time to get a sales tour but this is intercut with the film’s first scene of ‘ body horror’ running simultaneously with their dialogue with the guy in charge of the buildings. A man... a doctor/research scientist as it turns out... is trying to stop a schoolgirl from leaving his apartment, violently and eventually manages to strangle her. He then tapes up her mouth... to stop something we’ll see later from leaving her body and then puts her down on a table, slices open her stomach with a scalpel and then pours acid into the open cavity. After he’s done this he slices his own throat open with a scalpel and dies.

A lot of the early part of the film also concentrates on Nicholas, played by Allan Kolman, who is very sick with constant, surprise stomach cramps and who is trying to just survive his day. His wife Janine, played by Susan Petrie, is worried about him so she goes to see the doctor who has a practice in the Starliner apartment block. Here we meet the two people who act, for the most part of the movie, as the real protagonists of the film... Doctor Roger St. Luc, played by Paul Hampton and Nurse Forsythe, played by the lovely Lynn Lowry, with whom he is romantically involved. He promises to stop by and have a look at Janine’s husband later that evening but, as he gets more patients exhibiting similar symptoms... things moving around inside them and pushing on the skin... it’s an appointment he never gets to make. 

As he gets deeper into his day, Roger finds that the doctor who killed himself has been experimenting on people under the guise of an organisation who are breeding parasitic slug thingies to replace failing human organs like kidneys. However, as his fellow researcher soon finds out and then reveals to Roger, he was actually on a mad scientist trip to create a parasite that's “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.” And that’s exactly what the parasites do... get inside people and then ‘sexy them up’ so that they attack other people and pass more sluggy looking parasites on to them...  transforming them into a growing number of infected, sexed up, somewhat aggressive and ultimately doomed human beings. So there’s your plot set up and the rest of the film is about Roger and his nurse trying to get out of the apartment complex and warn the rest of the world before becoming infected themselves. People who are familiar with the work of David Cronenberg will know him as one of the main geniuses of the modern horror scene, not to mention the man who... well he didn’t exactly invent but certainly he popularised the sub-genre of ‘body horror’ with films like this, Rabid, Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome, the remake of The Fly, eXistenZ and probably a few others I’m forgetting. So if you’re familiar with the inevitability of the situations he creates in these films, which might seem to some as pessimistic and bleak in their outlook, then you can probably guess how this all ends.

Meanwhile, Nicholas has been vomiting up parasites which escape into the complex and attack other people, including the most famous member of the cast, to genre fans at least, Barbara Steele as Janine’s friend Betts. Now let me say something about the almost amateurish acting vibe coming from some of the cast. I think the real problem here... at least in how the film may have been perceived by some at the time... is in the somewhat lacklustre and minimalistic performance by Allan Kolman as Nicholas. However, you have to remember that right from the outset, this character has several parasites swimming around in his body affecting the way he acts and talks so, I suspect, this somewhat less than engaging performance is a result of him really nailing the part and giving Cronenberg exactly what he wanted, rather than anything lacking in his performance skills. That’s my guess anyway since the actor seems to have gone on to a successful career in small roles in film and television over the years.

Let’s talk about Barbara Steele for a moment here too. This iconic actress from such fan favourites as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Roger Corman’s Pit And The Pendulum, Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Federico Fellini’s Eight And A Half, Michael Reeves’ The She Beast plus The Curse Of The Crimson Alter, Nightmare Castle and The Long Hair Of Death, amongst many others, has a nude scene here which is both supposed to be an obvious ‘exploitation’ moment but which also manages to not show any of Steele’s sexualised body parts such as breasts or backside. It’s a scene where Steele is attacked by a parasite in the bath and it swims into her vagina (is the implication) but there’s no real nudity on display in any overt way here. Which is odd considering there’s a scene with Steele and Susan Petrie naked and doing the back stroke in the pool towards the end of the movie.

However, the reason I’m highlighting this scene is not to complain about it but to show how Cronenberg, who clearly wants us to get a ‘sex vibe’ from the sequence, manages to give us a ‘sexual surrogate’ to create the illusion in the audience's head that they are watching a proper nude scene. It’s simply done by just crosscutting this scene constantly with a sequence in which Doctor St. Luc is on his phone talking to someone but, as he talks, he watches (as do we) his nurse lover strip down out of her uniform to finish up for the day... under which she is not wearing any underwear of course. So, simply but brilliantly, the director manages to add the sexualised thrill missing from the simultaneous scene of Steele’s bathtime encounter... which ends really strongly with a close up shot of her walking bare foot on broken glass long before Bruce Willis did exactly the same thing in Die Hard... while not showing anything of Steele herself.

As a quick shout out to the lack of underwear on the nurse, I will say that, for a film about a sexual parasite, there is very little nudity in the movie as a whole but there is a definitive lack of underwear in it. None of the female characters seem to have ever heard of a bra (maybe people in Canada don’t wear them) and so everyone’s nipples seem to be covered but fairly prominent throughout... which I’m not going to complain about either. That Susan Petrie is a dish, though. Sorry, I just had to make that pun here or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

There are some nice shot compositions in this movie too... which you kinda expect from Cronenberg these days, it has to be said. Especially in some of the few, rare scenes shot externally to the apartment block at night. There’s a lovely shot of actor Joe Silver, for example, leaving a big office block via the front entrance and the whole atrium area is lit up in subdued greens right in the centre of the frame as he leaves and walks towards camera, with the rest of the shot around that atrium all very dark (practically pitch black) to highlight the action... very nice. It’s somewhat echoed in a similar shot in Rabid but it’s much more striking here.

Looking at the film now, it doesn’t seem that much dated but seems to give off that 1970s vibe of laid back, voyeuristic naturalism (for want of a better term) which puts it as a spiritual cousin to other contemporary movies such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (reviewed by me here) or Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets. Which is good company to be in, as far as I’m concerned. There are a few silly mistakes in the movie too, it has to be said but my biggest criticism would be the scene where Doctor St. Luc rescues his girlfriend by repeatedly shooting the guy who is trying to rape and ‘parasite her up’ in the car on top of her. Honestly people, a doctor should know that the human body is usually not resistant enough to bullets that said projectiles at that close range would as likely travel through the body and into the person below. However, James Bond makes a similar mistake in Thunderball (reviewed here), if memory serves, so I’ll just let that one pass for now.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about Shivers at the moment. Some of the music is nicely effective in some sequences but I’m pretty sure it’s all been needle-dropped in from a music library from varying, contributing composers so it’s not likely at present that I can find any of them on CD. They are, for the most part, well utilised and all in all help contribute to some of the stronger performances in the film and give the whole bunch of viral shenanigans a certain sense of menace and inevitability. Not my favourite of Cronenberg’s oeuvre but certainly one of his best and most fondly remembered (as much as I mix it up with his next film). Definitely a recommendation from me, especially if you’re not familiar with this director’s work and aren’t worried about the lack of visual sophistication in some of the effects shots. This is a film I’ll continue to come back to when I can.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom



Up And Atom

Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom
(The Gold Key and Whitman Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 27 USA 1962 - 1969
Whitman Issues 28 - 31 1981 - 1982


Written and drawn, initially and without credit, by Paul S Newman and Bob Fujitani, Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom was not a comic I read when I was a kid. I always loved the beautiful covers of those old, Gold Key comics, which were the biggest rival to Marvel and DC then back in the 1960s and 1970s but there were not that many of them around over here in comparison to the sheer volume of their competitor’s comics and they never had the issue number printed on the front other than a kind of code number that the publishers used. I had a couple of their Star Trek issues (and a load of the strips reprinted in the British annuals), a big black and white reprint album/colouring book of some of their Boris Karloff Presents... series and, I think a Scooby Doo comic I have might be from Gold Key too (or else that one was published by Dell, like the Alvin comic I had). But those covers were always much more stunning than the Marvel and DC covers of the time and featured some nice painted artwork.

Doctor Solar was published for eight years in the 1960s, which is a fair run until you realise that Gold Key comics were never published that often and the frequency at which they were published varied form year to year. Doctor Solar was published anything from between twice a year up to maybe four or five times a year. He’s a nice character though and, having now read this Gold Key run, I found it very interesting that the style of the character changed/progressed over the stories as, one can conclude, the Marvel superhero comics which became incredibly popular from 1962 onwards, had an influential impact on the contemporary comics scene.

Doctor Raymond Solar was the real name of a scientist who worked in ‘Atom Valley’ with his colleagues Doctor Gail Sanders and Doctor Clarkson. However, while trying to stop an atomic accident which kills one of his other colleagues, Solar doesn’t die as you might expect but, like many comic book characters of the time, finds himself transformed into an ‘super powered man’ who can change his body into various forms of atomic energy to stop the forces of evil from trying to obtain the secrets of Atom Valley. Dr. Clarkson is in on his ‘secret identity’ from day one (as the president of the USA soon is, too) since Solar has to live, confined in his lab/office so others won’t have much exposure to his level of radioactivity for long stints and, also, so he can be recharged. Gail, the ‘almost love interest’ of the comic, also is let in on the secret after a few issues. Already, though, you can see the influence of Marvel since the character sometimes turns green when using his atomic powers (actually, the green colouring is a bit random in the first few issues but gets a half baked explanation for this phenomena as the series progresses).

The stories are fine and all based on scientific principles which often generated a lot of letters for the letters page where various kids would write in about continuity glitches or factual errors which the publishers would then have to try and write off with elabourate scientific explanations. He also had his own Blowfeld-like super-villain, who you would only see from behind or with his features partially hidden behind a speech balloon with just his prominent bald head to indicate he was responsible for the latest evil plot (he also appears in almost all the issues and the letters pages are full of people complaining that it’s almost always the same villain).

The early issues would contain two Doctor Solar stories per issue with a short back up strip, Professor Harbinger, sandwiched between the two. As the series progressed, the two Solar stories would be two parts of the same story but, for the 27 Gold Key issues, the Professor Harbinger stories were always in there because he was popular with the readers and I can certainly see why. These are great little stories where Gold Key’s very own Harbinger of doom would highlight a scientific achievement or miracle of nature and then start imagining/speculating/explaining to the reader what could happen if things naturally progressed on this theme in the future and how humanity might perish from the result of the seed sown from this scientific nugget. The strip would then end with an indication that Harbinger’s prophecies were already under way, which would make the Professor jump or nearly pass out until it turns out that, say, a giant bug was really just a projected shadow or a creature flying outside the window was really just a shaped helium balloon. I must say, I really enjoyed these little flights of fancy as much as I enjoyed the main Solar strip so I can see why they didn’t stop running them.

Now Doctor Solar was pretty unique for the first four issues... he didn’t even have a costume and I must say I did like that fact. However, those pesky Marvel and, to an extent, DC heroes were leading the way in sales and so various concessions can be seen coming in as the stories progressed. In Issue 5, Solar finally gets a costume to help protect his secret identity. It uses the radiation symbol on a red costume and is very similar to the costume used by the creators of The Simpsons (who were obviously paying tribute here) for their Radioactive Man character. However, he also has a visor (and glasses when he’s just plain old Ray Solar) to protect others from his unhealthy, radioactive glare and I can’t help but think this might have been ‘acquired’ from Cyclops of Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men, who made a debut earlier in the same year. Similarly, stories where Ray demonstrates that he can cool down his body to freezing temperatures, heat it up etc might well be borrowed from X-Men’s Iceman and the newer version of The Human Torch, who would have gained popularity in Fantastic Four comics at the time. It’s all a bit tell tale when, for the first time ever in Issue 7, Doctor Solar is referred to in the narrative as a radioactive ‘mutant’... a word which was fully popularised right from the outset in the X-Men comics, if I recall correctly. Although, to be fair, the term doesn’t have the same satirical message that it did in the Marvel comic.

Again, as Ray demonstrates in later stories that he can shrink his body to tiny size or, indeed (and accidentally at first) grow to a huge, giant-sized version of himself, you have to wonder if the Ant-Man (and later Giant-Man incarnation of that character) was a huge hit with the kids at the time. And it could have been any number of Marvel villains who served as a template when, in the later comics, Nuro transplanted his brain into his robot helper Orun and became a more active, mechanical threat to his super powered nemesis.

When the strip first started, as with the Doc Savage Gold Key comic I reviewed here, the page layouts were all five panels per page operating out of a six panel grid, two by three, with one or other of the panels being stretched vertically or horizontally to break up the page. However, as Marvel and DC presumably grew more adventurous and the artists influenced other people in the same field, the layouts grow more relaxed and dynamic as the comic progresses.

And then, in 1969 and without warning, the comic just stops. Doctor Solar does have at least one later crossover appearance in an issue of Gold Key’s The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor but I haven’t read that one yet... and I’ll save it for when I read those for another review for this blog (hopefully fairly soon). After this, the character was put on ice until the same publishers, under the name of Whitman Publishing, brought the character back for four issues running sporadically from 1981 to 1982. The art is not much different but the story content seems a lot less interesting and, by this time, the character of Doctor Solar is a lot more haunted by his fate. Also, in an age after Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and a whole host of other, popular science fiction films and shows, he also seems to have two ‘cute and funny’ robot helpers lending a hand in Atom Valley... which really sets it apart from the earlier stories where the writers did, at least, try to keep the majority of the tales less fantastical where they could (with only the odd alien or energy monster unleashed in the strip very rarely). These issues dropped Professor Harbinger and, instead, had another popular Gold Key character making a return in the pages, Magnus Robot Fighter (again, another run I have to read for this blog). Probably the worst thing about Whitman’s brief resurrection of the character, however, was the awful, drawn covers. These things look quite childish and are a far cry from the traditional Gold Key covers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Again, there’s no warning of cancellation on this brief reappearance of the character but this wasn’t Solar’s last hurrah, by a long shot. In the 1990s and still, I think, to this day, there are new versions of the character, although none of them are actually Phil Solar. I believe the first ‘rebirth’ of the character actually took his inspiration from being a fan of the old Gold Key comics and so, when he is transformed into a similar being, pays homage to them. I’ll probably get around to catching up with these at some point in the next ten years though, I suspect. Meanwhile, I would thoroughly recommend the original Gold Key run of Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom as they are quite nice commentaries of a certain section of society who were reading them (I found a young Paul Gambaccini had written in on one of the 1960s letter pages) and, despite their growing similarities to the comics of ‘the opposition’ on the racks at the time, they were also their own unique thing, to an extent. Quite a change of pace from the amount of teenage angst which made the Marvel tales so popular during the same period (and which became more prominent in the Doctor Solar comics in their short Whitman incarnation).

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Yesterday



Star Gent’s Better Lone Key,
Part Dub, Fanned


Yesterday
UK/Russia/China
2019 Directed Danny Boyle
UK cinema release print


I should have seen this movie a lot sooner than I did, catching it now just on the last week or so of its cinema run. I’ve been listening to songs by The Beatles for most of my life now (well, around three quarters of it) and since their music plays such a huge part in this movie, I really should have got there sooner. Truth be told, I was kinda put off by the idea that this film was a romantic comedy... nothing against them, just not too many modern ones (post 1950s) done right. You get the odd couple per decade or two that are something special and, luckily for me this time around, this one is pretty good. Also, I had a slight accident recently so the day I had scheduled to go and see this was a day when, frankly, I wouldn’t have recovered enough to be able to walk to the cinema anyway.

But I got there in the end and this film was worth the wait. I find Danny Boyle a bit hit and miss as a director so I don’t go and see everything he does but this does have an almost unique premise so it was always going to make my ‘to see’ list at some point.

If you don’t already know the plot, Yesterday tells the story of main protagonist Jack, played by Himesh Patel, who is a struggling song writer/performer who, in spite of his brilliantly optimistic manager Ellie, played so well here by Lily James who kind of steals every scene she’s in, can’t make it big performing his own songs enough to get any interest and give up his job at a local supermarket and nor can he see the thing dangling right in front of his face... that he and Ellie are obviously attracted to each other but that he’s very late to the party in this regard. Then, one night when he has decided to call it quits and is riding home on his bike, the world experiences a phenomenon which causes all of the electricity everywhere to black out for about a minute. Because of this, a double decker bus hits Jack on his bike and he is knocked unconscious, waking in hospital with two big front teeth gone and lots of injuries which eventually heal. Now, the interpretation of what’s just happened here is left to the audience... did something happen to the world or did something just happen to him? Is there a religious intervention happening or did physics just slam the door. Did he even survive the bus? That’s all left up to you but, not long after he’s integrated back into his everyday life, he discovers that things have changed.

And the most prominent change to drive the plot is, nobody has heard of The Beatles or any of their songs. So, after some thinking, Jack starts ‘writing’ the hits of The Beatles and it’s not too long before he is on the road to what promises to be phenomenal world success. However, The Beatles aren’t the only things missing from the world as Jack remembers it and, it turns out, things which were once missing from our world are also now back in place... in a kind of changed way (no, don’t want to elaborate on that because it’s a bit of a spoiler).

And the film is brilliant, with some nice performances in addition to the two leads supplied by such wonderful character actors as Joel Fry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kate McKinnon  and some guy I saw in a Bridget Jones’ movie called Ed Sheeran who... well, frankly, I had no idea who he was when I saw that one and I still don’t really know but I’m guessing he’s some kind of modern pop star or some such. I’ve seen his face around somewhere.

Boyle keeps things nicely paced and there are some great comic moments which work in spite of the straight-laced delivery of Patel in the lead... or more than likely, work because of it. There are also some really nice little shout outs to The Beatles and I gave a chuckle when, for instance, one of the ‘post it’ notes with the titles to the songs that Jack is trying to remember, in a blink and you’ll miss it quick shot, is Revolution 9. Anybody who knows The White Album would tell you that this is an impossible track to cover. Not to mention the moment when Jack decides to launch his new album with a rooftop concert. There’s also a nice use of Beatles needle-drop, when the worldwide phenomenon that, effectively and depending on your interpretation, resets the world is just taking place... here the director uses the end build up from the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track A Day In The Life to heighten the tension. I just wish Boyle had stuck with it because he really could have done with that sustained piano chord once Jack is hit by the bus.

There’s also a kind of sub plot in the movie when you worry just what is going to happen to Jack’s plan when two sinister looking people start following him around the world with the lurking realisation that... Jack might not be the only one who remembers The Beatles. The pay off to this build up is absolutely brilliant, it has to be said... the film was moving so fast that I actually didn’t see things coming. Which is always a good thing because movies are mostly so predictable these days.

My one minor criticism, if I had to have one, is Jack’s ‘final solution’ to the problem of the guilt he is suffering for finding fame from the back of the songs of The Beatles. It makes no sense whatsoever because nobody in the version of the world he has suddenly found himself in is getting hurt by his deception. On the contrary, people’s lives are richer for having these songs in their life. So, yeah... there’s no real logic to the end of the movie here but, hey, at least it made a heck of a lot more sense than Avengers - Endgame (reviewed here) so there’s that.

The other possible problem, for me, is that the songs that the film makers chose to use from The Beatles’ huge play list are, with the exception of All You Need Is Love, tracks I normally skip. All the truly great Beatles tracks (again, with the exception of the brilliant All You Need Is Love) such as Strawberry Fields Forever (mentioned but not used), Eleanor Rigby (almost used but alas, unremembered in terms of the lyrics by Jack), I Am The Walrus, Tomorrow Never Knows, I’m Only Sleeping, Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite, Magical Mystery Tour etc, from the 1966 - 1967 period where the group were at their absolute best, seem strangely absent.

Still, even so, Yesterday is a really great little movie and, frankly, Himesh Patel plays the role in such an interesting, throw away manor, while Lily James is... just wow... that I really didn’t worry too much that many of my favourites weren’t included. Lily James needs to be in more stuff, methinks. It’s a good little movie about a surreal premise where, as it should in real life (and hopefully always does), love wins the day and makes things right again. I’d grab this one again on Blu Ray, for sure.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Holiday



Living Moll

Holiday
Denmark/Netherlands/Sweden
2018 Directed Isabella Eklöf
UK cinema release print


Warning: A few of the sequences described her could technically be classed as spoilers by some, although they have no bearing on the plot of the film.

I didn’t know what Holiday was about before I saw it in, it has to be said, a less than packed screening at the ICA. The trailer looked interesting but in no way did I get a vibe that this one involved gangsters... or I wouldn’t have bothered with it. Real life hoodlums are pretty scary and it’s very rare that I enjoy any cinema about them (except for The Roaring Twenties... that was great).

This film is no exception to my ‘gangster movie’ rule... I didn’t really enjoy it on a personal level. However, I suspect people who are into this kind of material should get a lot out of this and, though I personally found it gruelling in terms of a ‘boss’ ruling the roost plot’, there is a heck of a lot to be admired in the way this film is put together technically.

The movie is made interesting... quite apart from the female perspective of it being written by two women, one of whom also directed this... in that it focuses on the main protagonist Sascha, played by Victoria Carmen Sonne, who is the new ‘girlfriend’ of the main kingpin of the area, Michael, played here by Lai Yde. And when I say girlfriend I mean she’s basically a ‘gangster’s moll’ and the events of the film are all seen through her eyes in the first week or so of her employment as she joins Michael and his extended ‘family’ as they go on holiday. What it’s really about, from what I could tell, is the integration of Sascha into her new way of life and how quickly she learns how things are going to have to be from now on.

Okay so, first of all, the performances are all pretty good, as I would expect from this kind of movie... these are not special effects extravaganzas and they can’t rely on much other than solid performances. So all is good with the cast. There’s one ‘real sex’ scene of non-consensual assault which I’m surprised got through UK censorship in which Michael sticks his erect member down Sascha’s throat before pulling out and ejaculating all over her face which I wasn’t expecting and I was amazed that the actor in question could ‘finish up’ in the short amount of time it takes him to do this on screen (it’s all done in a one take shot). Not sure I’m exactly envious of this actors ‘speed’ but it was somewhat impressive in some ways (although I wasn’t overstruck on the content of the scene and, after waiting all movie for the scene of ‘sexual violence’ noted at the start on the opening certification card, I eventually had to conclude that the BBFC must have meant this sequence).

There were three elements for me which made this film, at least, interesting to watch. The first would be the camera work. There are some nice compositions in here using screens split by verticals.... there’s a wonderful shot near the start which is the first of the ‘reflective surfaces’ shots (I’ll get to that in a second) where the screen is literally split up into six or seven vertical planes (maybe more) as we see Sascha looking at herself in a changing room with her reflections bouncing off various mirrors. There are also a lot of shots where the camera stays in more or less one position but swings around and sometimes away from the main action to reveal the content from a different angle as, say, it swings around Sascha when she approaches the camera when arriving at the airport so it can catch her again as she moves off in another direction. There are a few moments like this in Holiday.

Now then, ‘thing two’ is the contemplation of reflective surfaces. There are a lot of moments where Sascha is seen in reflection and quite often there is some distortion captured in the glass which is probably a visual metaphor for something... although I possibly am missing what that is. When Michael has drugged Sascha in a scene and is playing with her unconscious body, there’s a similar ‘mirror’ shot where the two are totally distorted in the glass and I’m wondering why the director was doing this kind of thing at certain points. All very interesting though and it gives the film a level of something to look out for that I wasn’t expecting.

The third interesting element is the arc of the film. From very early on Sascha makes friends with a ‘civilian’ called Thomas, played by Thijs Römer and, all the way through the film I was waiting for something bad to happen to him at the hands of the criminal gang. So there’s an underlying tension cutting through the whole movie that things just aren’t happening in a safe environment and I kept wondering why Sascha kept doing stupid things which no ordinary person would do, to put both him and herself in the danger zone. The reason was revealed, for me, in a moment just before Sascha has a motorcycle accident she's been warned about, where her badly cut and buggered up knee amazingly has no scarring tissue or bruising on any subsequent scenes (blimey, I’ve still got pain and bruises weeks after I bashed up both my knees). It’s at this point things finally began to dawn on me and I realised that, the reason Sascha is courting this kind of provocation is simply because... she is really stupid. This film is about a really idiotic person trying to learn the ropes in the underworld and, the surprising thing about it is... when a scene of violence does come towards the end of the movie, it’s an entry into acceptance and the scene you are expecting doesn’t go down in the way you thought it would. And the way a certain character acts afterwards rams it home about the real headspace in which Sascha is leading her life. So this took me completely by surprise and, for that at least, I am grateful to the director, who is obviously someone who knows the craft of movie making well and is able to play with accepted clichés and turn them on their head confidently.

The film ends with two shots from two different scenes but which have a nice symmetry about them because they are both truncated down the middle by a vertical made up of either a piece of architecture or a person and, as such, one echoes the other and makes a natural, visual conclusion. It’s good that there are still some directors out there who know how to construct a sequence of shots after some of the stuff I’ve seen recently.

So there you go... due to the gangster content of this movie, I didn’t so much enjoy Holiday as much as I admired it on a technical level. Most people do not have my squeamish personality, though, when it comes to these kinds of movies so I would recommend it both as a good film for most and also, for cineastes or whatever these people are calling themselves these days, from the stance of observing a director who is very much at the height of her art already. Try and see this one if this is your kind of subject matter.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Dracula Was A Woman



Bath Awry

Dracula Was A Woman - In Search Of The Blood Countess Of Transylvania
by Raymond T. McNally
Book Club Associates (No obvious ISBN)


Dracula Was A Woman - In Search Of The Blood Countess Of Transylvania is one of the earlier books, published in 1983, about the famous Countess known as Elisabeth Bathóry (or Báthory Erzsébet, as it is in Hungarian). And, a fair amount of research has gone into it so, for that reason alone, the volume is worth some consideration. This one was a Twitter recommendation I saw flying by in my timeline and, after procuring a very cheap, second hand hardback copy from Amazon, I was all set to read about a pretty legendary... in terms of being infamous... person who has been exploited as a character in many a movie over the last six or so decades (and probably in a lot of other media too, such as literature) and has become, of late, something of a pop culture phenomenon.

Now there’s good and bad about this book and, mostly, I’d have to say that this one gets an A for effort but a C minus in terms of being a focussed, coherent and ‘on topic’ read.

Now, I’ve not read any of Mr. McNally’s books before but the four books he both wrote and co-wrote before this one have all been about Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the inspirations behind it so... this is definitely the kind of thing he's a bit of a specialist on. And, to be fair, the first chapter is set out in diary fashion and captures the imagination a little because, in this way of writing and only for that opening after his introduction to the book, he is deliberately echoing the diary style narrative of the content of Stoker’s novel itself. So we witness the author and his wife have a bit of a ‘research holiday’ in Munich, Vienna and Bratislava and find that ‘Transylvania’ certainly exists in these parts as a place because, as he explains, it’s an expression that comes from the latin for “the land beyond the forest’. Which is quite interesting and not something I knew before reading this so, while I was a little disappointed in certain sections of the tome, I was at least learning things as I went so you really can’t judge a book too harshly if you’re being educated on the journey from cover to cover.

After McNally finishes his research tour, in which he makes friends with various people ‘in the know’ in the relevant countries, he finds himself in possession of a fair amount of knowledge gleaned from ‘new documentation’ that has been found in order to aid his trip. And when I say new documentation, I mean newly discovered documentation, as various people have dusted away the cobwebs and presumably opened boxes and drawers they’d never bothered to open before.

This all flows very nicely for the author to build up a picture of Bathóry over the next few chapters and help give at least a little... well not so much ‘evidence’ but an unearthing of the possibility that Stoker took the myths (not facts, as it turns out) about the lady in question and used them in Dracula. And by this we are, of course, talking about Bathóry’s spoken legacy that she bathed in the blood of freshly killed virgins in order to keep herself young and healthy. Indeed, there is a passage in Stoker’s novel where the grey old man who is Stoker’s original version of the famous Count, becomes visibly younger after drinking the fresh blood of one of his victims. So, yeah, I’m sure the idea for this may well have kickstarted the brain of Stoker and it’s possible Elisabeth Bathóry was an influence on his creation. Or... not, we just don’t really know. Or at least, we didn’t back when this book was written. It may be that one of the other volumes written about the subject in the intervening decades were able to throw light via even more newly discovered documentation but, since I’ve not read any of them, I can’t offer up any kind of confirmation of that.

Certainly here, apart from one tale about Bathóry accidentally cleaning some blood off her cheek and finding the tissue under where the blood splashed had become somewhat rejuvenated, there’s no evidence to support the famous blood bathing claims which have arisen in numerous films based on the legends such as, for example, Hammer’s Countess Dracula (reviewed by me here back in the early days of this blog). However, as McNally suggests, there is no real evidence to support the claim that this was part of the Countess’ practices.

What is pretty clear though, from the more historical and very dry first half of the book, is that Bathóry and her accomplices tortured and killed possibly over 650 young women and that a trial was held in an effort to punish these people not because the powers that be were all that bothered about somebody killing the peasants in fairly harsh and brutal ways... but because they wanted to get hold of the land and so on that the Countess owned (if I’ve been reading this account correctly).

So far so good but, then we have the second half of the book where the writer seems to somehow use the excuse of all his further, elliptical research... perhaps because he’d be in trouble with his wife if he wasn't looking at all this stuff in order to write a book, I somehow suspect... to write about all manner of things which really do seem to be tangentially related to the subject at hand.

Some of it, such as random accounts of the various rituals and practices of drinking blood throughout history and the demonisation of women due to various cultures rejecting the concept of menstruation, seems somewhat relevant. As does, at a stretch, the stuff about vampires. However, when he starts going into werewolfery and justifies this examination of lycanthropy (which actually doesn’t mean quite what a lot of people think it means, it seems to me) just because Bathóry tended to rend the flesh of many of her victims with her teeth... well, the whole thing loses a fair bit of credibility for me.

So yeah, as interesting as it is to learn about things like the female undead Eskimos devouring their victims with their vaginas and various blood deficiencies leading to ‘living vampires’ in real life, so to speak... well, the stuff all comes seemingly randomly with no real focus, it seemed to me... let alone being relevant to the title and subject of the book a lot of the time. What finally wrecked this book for me, though, was when the author tried to talk about films at various points...

As far as I know, for example, 2001 - A Space Odyssey is not based on Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. I mean, sure, the movie has a piece of music in it based on that but... you know... that’s just the music. Also, there certainly wasn’t two seasons of Kolchack - The Night Stalker ever made... sadly (and this was written decades before the stillborn attempt at a remake of that property too). And what the hell have films like Halloween, The Haunting or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got to do with Elisabeth Bathóry? The straw that broke the camel’s back for me with this book, though was when he was talking about my favourite werewolf movie, Werewolf Of London and said that a werewolf played by Warner Hand bites Henry Hull’s character at the start of the movie. Um... nope... that would be the great Charlie Chan actor himself, Warner Oland, in this role. Honestly, how can you get your facts so wrong. It’s like he was writing it in long hand and the person typing it up couldn’t read Oland properly and put Hand instead. Seriously?

And that for me, alas, is where the book unravels a little bit for me because... look, I know the man is a historian and not touting himself as an expert on film but these are basic mistakes and incorrect assertions and the worrying thing for someone like me who is a complete novice on the subject of Bathóry is... if he gets really obvious stuff like  this wrong, then who’s to say he’s not also making some terribly obvious mistakes in all the other stuff he’s purporting to be ‘fact’ here?

Now, I don’t really like conclusions in academic(ish) works but I was kinda looking forward to one here because I was really rooting for the author to somehow tie all these marvellously ‘off point’, randomly appearing anecdotes together and say ... "Aha! You thought this was irrelevant but here’s why it isn’t!" Alas, although there is a conclusion section to the book, it doesn’t seem to shed anymore light on the subject and so I have to say that I can’t really recommend this book to many people, although to be sure it does have some interesting content and it’s certainly whet my appetite to find out some more about the subject in more modern tomes at some point... especially since Bathóry’s such a well referenced, somewhat inspirational (if you know what I mean) figure in the arts these days. Following the conclusion there are a couple of short documents translated into English regarding the findings of the original trial and the very grim punishments put to the lady’s accomplices which is kinda interesting but isn’t enough really, to my mind, to save Dracula Was A Woman. However, applause to the writer for at least attempting this book when, frankly, not many people of the time were writing too much about it, it seems to me (despite film culture having already gone into overdrive on this particular person by a good two or three decades before this was written). So, enter the lady’s chamber if you will but, in terms of actual factual accuracy of the subject matter... enter at your own risk.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Doctor Who - Robot



First Of The Fourth

Doctor Who - Robot
Airdate: 28th December 1974 - 18 January 1975
BBC 1 - Region 0 Blu Ray Four Episodes


I would have been two years old when I first started watching Doctor Who. I know this because I remember being laid on a table, for whatever reason... and watching television as the Autons crashed through the shop windows in Jon Pertwee’s debut story Spearhead From Space. So when, in 1974, Pertwee had left the show in a situation which was mostly of his own making (and which I believe he regretted), Tom Baker wrote the BBC a letter and was soon employed, somehow, as the new incarnation of The Doctor. Now I had no idea, at the age of 6, that the character could regenerate and I had to have it explained to me when, at the end of the previous series, Pertwee dropped down effectively dead and regenerated into the new guy. All I knew was that I’d been watching Pertwee’s Doctor and been frightened by such creatures as The Sea Devils and Giant Maggots for, what was then, most of my life. Not to mention reading magazines about the character and doing jigsaw puzzles. So it seemed a bit strange but, I kinda warmed to Tom Baker from very early on. Even had the action figure and accompanying TARDIS (although, unfortunately, the budget didn’t stretch to buying any of the monsters for him to battle... I had to make do with using my Dalek shaped bubble bath). My dad hated him until, of course, he came to love him in the role but... he’s always like that with every new Doctor. He’s going through exactly the same thing with Jodie Whitaker now but, trust me, he’ll really miss her when she’s gone.

Baker’s debut story, Robot, is actually quite good and although he maybe seems a little arrogant at first (as perhaps every incarnation of The Doctor is to some degree) he is also confident and self assured and, I think it comes across very well that the little group of regulars working with him... Elisabeth Sladen as the legendary Sarah Jane Smith (in her second season in the role), newcomer Ian Marter as Dr. Harry Sullivan and, of course, Nicholas Courtney continuing as UNIT Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart... all loved doing the show and it does inject the series with a certain joy which, dare I say it, was somehow a little bit lacking on Pertwee’s last series (after Roger Delgado who had played arch nemesis The Master, had died in grim circumstances while filming in Turkey when his car went off a ravine, leaving all his colleagues heartbroken).

Baker is brilliant and, it has to be said, channeling Harpo Marx just a little bit as, being the youngest actor to play The Doctor at the time, he brings some much needed humour back to the role. Pertwee was , of course, very humourous but he was somewhat drier by the later episodes and Baker’s Doctor is much more harkening back to the days of Patrick Troughton, it seems to me.

The story here is not bad either, if unoriginal. It’s the tale of a political group of scientists who want to take over the world and, by using a big robot,  they steal plans to build a disintegrator gun and eventually take Sarah Jane hostage... the only one who’s been really kind to the robot previously... while they almost succeed in blowing up the world with nukes. And, although, as I said, it’s not exactly original, it does work in a nice tight manner with all the different plot elements and characters all doing things which enlighten certain story elements to the audience while advancing the plot in a way which... I dunno, just doesn’t seem as well done these days.

Of course, you’ve also got some really rubbish stuff too. The Robot itself looks pretty good for a ‘man in suit’ creation but when it finally grows to giant size (the Target novelisation of this one was called Doctor Who and the Giant Robot) the amount of bad, unmatted video screen backgrounds in the thing are really an eyesore. Then there’s the hilarious moment where The Brigadier says he’s got something that he thinks will stop it and the BBC attempt a ‘forced perspective’ shot as they wheel in what I’m pretty sure is an old Action Man tank, into the foreground of the shot. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous, plush puppet which we’re supposed to believe is Elisabeth Sladen, with it’s overly comical dangly legs wibbly wobblying all over the place when the robot supposedly picks the actress up in its giant hand. This looks pretty bad but Doctor Who has always had this home grown, ‘make do and mend’ approach to the special effects on the show and it’s one of the things that makes it so charming (even today, it’s not that state of the art, as regular readers will know I’ve pointed out on more than one occasion over the last decade).

Also, another good ‘I did not see that coming and certainly didn’t remember it from seeing it in 1974/5’ moment is the revelation that one of the ‘good guy’ characters is in league with the villains of the piece. It took me by surprise which, these days, is honestly hard to do. So in that way, at least, the writing is better than it is these days and, since this is Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor, the almost surreal, almost slapstick writing is in abundance and there’s some nice comic interaction going on with all four regular characters (and even with John Levene’s ongoing portrayal of Sergeant Benton of UNIT, too, who does a fine job here).

There is an attempt to inject a little King Kong style sympathy towards the robot at the end, when The Doctor finishes its ‘living metal’ body off with a metal eating virus and I’m not entirely sure this is successful but they do really go for it here and lead up to it throughout the series from the second episode onwards. The music is still very much what you’d expect from the Pertwee era too... which is not a bad thing, I guess.

All in all, Robot is not a bad attempt as the debut of a new and, after not very long, much loved incarnation of The Doctor. I think it would be fair to say that David Tennant is the only Doctor Who actor who has ever come close to enjoying Tom Baker’s popularity in the role and, to this day, Baker is the person most people will think of when they hear the words... Doctor Who. The already, blink and you’ll miss it, out of print Blu Ray set is loaded with extras too and the transfer is actually pretty good for a Blu Ray of a show which never really looked all that great to begin with. Really looking forward to watching the other stories in the season soon. If memory serves, the TARDIS is somewhat jettisoned for a bit and the remaining stories have a kind of thematic link to them after the next story... The Ark In Space. And also, a very budget conscious reason for that link in terms of two of the stories, if memory serves. I’ll get to it all soon. In the meantime... Doctor Who - Series 12 Story 1, Robot, is a good place to jump on if you’ve never seen any before.

For many more Doctor Who reviews, classic and modern, go to the index link top right and then scroll down to the TV section.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Ghoul (2016)



Möebius Trip

The Ghoul (2016)
UK 2016 Directed by Gareth Tunley
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2


The Ghoul, not to be confused with any of the other famous films of the exact same name (why do directors keep doing this?), is the feature length debut of writer/director Gareth Tunley. It’s somewhat gritty in the atmosphere it tries to create and this is in no small way because of the earthy portrayal of the leading protagonist Chris, played by Tom Meeten. The film starts off with the old chestnut of roads and highways observed through the front windscreen of a car... a staple of many movie opening sequences, especially gialli and polizia... and at first this film does kind of dupe the audience into the idea that this is a British polizia in nature.

After Chris has journeyed from Manchester to London, by way of these opening credits, we find out that he’s a police detective and he turns up to investigate a bizarre shooting. He’s given the facts as they are presumably witnessed (something which didn’t quite sit right with me from the start), of an investigation sparked off from the deaths of a man and a woman in a house. The murder itself as described conjures up those wonderful black and white monster movies from the 1940s (and through all the way through the decades to their contemporary counterparts) of the Frankenstein/Mummy/Zombie/Vampire/insert any other likely candidate here... as it shambles towards the hero who puts various bullets through said scoundrel’s body while the thing keeps on staggering towards its target. How, in real life, can this be? Chris has to go and find out and with the advice of his once girlfriend Kathleen (played by the wonderful Alice Lowe), he has to discover just what is going on so he goes undercover to see the therapist of the estate agent who let the police in, who is under suspicion and from here on in the stage is set for a film which, for the first twenty minutes or so, does successfully disorient the viewer as to whether all that prelude actually is the real set up to the story or not.

So, yeah, the first twenty minutes in and the main narrative starts to quite overtly suggest that Chris’ role as a detective is just something he’s made up in the personae of his depression ridden patient... or is it the other way around? For the first twenty minutes or so the writer/director successfully makes you doubt your own perceptions of what is going on and this is the puzzle which is boldly put in front of the audience. Actually, it turns out it’s quite an easy puzzle to solve, as all the clues are put before you and quite clearly underlined so my main problem with this whole scenario was... why would a psychoanalyst take on someone who doesn’t work for a living and presumably can’t pay the bills. I guess it’s possible he could have spent some years on an NHS waiting list but, they are very long waiting lists from what I understand and that doesn’t really help the case if you are supposed to believe that this character is possibly an undercover cop.

The film looks good and it has a certain dreamlike quality to it. The central character inhabits a world which is pretty much a land of confusion and some of the compositions are particularly nice in expressing this, such as a shot looking through the windscreen of a car at Chris and with the car presumably circling because the tops of the surrounding buildings and sky are looping around the reflection like a ferris wheel... which is another clue for the way in which the story progresses, as it happens. I also noticed the director kind of favours highlighting things at the centre of the wide aspect ratio frame and he gets some nice shot designs out of this. For example, when Chris goes to covertly rifle through a filing cabinet, we have the open doorway into the room holding said filing cabinet through which we watch Chris, with a blank wall on the left and another, unopened door filling the right of screen, firmly focusing your attention on the antics of the central character.

The soundtrack helps too, with Waen Shepherd’s score feeling like it’s been heavily influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, one of a set of dialogue free sequences where Chris is following a ‘possible suspect’ feels almost like the long, pursuit and observation scene where Jimmy Stewart stalks Kim Novak in the early stages of Vertigo (another film which starts off using images portraying loops... I’ll get onto this loop idea in just a second).

Chris gets through two psychologists through the course of the movie and, if you close your eyes when the second one, Morland, is introduced, you might recognise the voice of the original Ford Prefect from the radio show The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy as this important character in the film’s narrative is played by none other than Geoffrey McGivern.

Now, the thing is, this film really does give away all the clues and the solution to the puzzle of the central narrative when Morland starts talking about the Klein bottle on this shelf, leading into him demonstrating a simple Möebius Strip and then talking about the worm Ouroboros symbol and, by this point, you’ll probably be in no doubt as to how the movie is going to end and who, in fact, are the people killed in that shoot out we hear about at the start of the story. Which is a pity because, for the first twenty minutes to half an hour, at least, the director really had me questioning things.

Ultimately, this movie is technically a thriller, in that it uses the language of the genre to present its central narrative but, if you’re expecting a straight up example of that then you might be in for a bit of a disappointment. That being said, apart form the ease with which one can unwind the central narrative, once you know the trick (and the literal translation of it would not seem out of place in an old Amicus horror piece from the 1960s), it’s not a bad movie and one which I’m sure many people will find kind of interesting, if a little laboured in some places. Not bad for a piece of British cinema with a very English stamp to it. Not the worst I’ve seen in this kind of area and worth a watch for the actors and expression of the central idea alone. So maybe give The Ghoul a go when you have a wet afternoon in the house.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Doc Savage (Gold Key)



Bronzed Gold

Doc Savage
Gold Key USA 1966


Back in 1966, movie history was almost about to be made…

If things had gone to plan, a certain pulp character favourite of mine may well have been a lot better known internationally than he is these days. The film was Doc Savage and it was to star TV western actor Chuck Connors in the title role and to be based on Lester Dent’s Doc Savage novel, The Thousand Headed Man. Alas, an error about certain kinds of rights residing with Dent’s widow and not solely by the company who thought they owned them meant that the producers couldn’t start shooting the film, which was already scripted, on the date they wanted. So, at the eleventh hour, they retained the cast and crew and instead rushed out a western, Ride Beyond Vengeance, instead. Looking over the cast that they ported over into this other production, you can kinda see who some of the actors might have been intended to play in the Doc Savage movie and, I have to say, there are some good facial ‘types’ that showed that the people doing the casting were actually taking their job very seriously.

Chuck Connors, for example, was a good match in looks for the James Bama version of Doc Savage. Bama was the artist who had recently been doing all those wonderful cover paintings for the 1960s Bantam reprints of the novels which were very popular at the time. Although the style of Savage’s look via Bama was very different to that of the paintings which had appeared on the original pulp printings of the novels in the Doc Savage magazine of the 1930s and 40s, they’ve pretty much defined the look of the character ever since and are still imitated in books and comics to this day. Bama’s original model for his covers was Steve Holland, who played Flash Gordon on a dreadful German/American coproduction on TV in the 1950s show of Alex Raymond's much loved character so, if you want to see what the ‘real’ Doc Savage from this period was supposed to look like, take a look at an episode of that. Connors, though, had the same kind of weathered look to him and would have been a good version, physically at least. One can also deduce from the cast that made it into the western that Claude Akins would have been, again at least in terms of facial recognition, a perfect match for Monk Mayfair (one of Doc’s five aides) and, likewise, Michael Rennie would have been a solid choice for Ham Brooks, the lawyer (someone who the film company could have used in real life if they’d wanted a quick legal fix to their problem).

Alas the movie was never made and we shall never know if it would have been a better, more well loved fit to the original material than the George Pal produced Doc Savage movie of 1975 (which I reviewed here) and how much recognition it might have brought the character. What we do have left for us though, is the Gold Key comic from the same year which was almost certainly adapted from the script of that movie (different kinds of rights issues for comics than for movies) and which may or may not have strayed from the script. Certainly it would have been a fairly condensed version of the script to fit into one tiny comic and it really isn’t a thoroughly good job of adapting the novel, for sure. But what is it like as a comic?

Well, I finally bit the bullet on this thing a few years ago on eBay when I found an issue in not bad condition for a, relatively, reasonable price. I’d always wanted to read it and, well, now I have.

The cover is magnificent, being a blown up detail of Bama’s Doc fighting a large snake lifted from the cover of the Bantam reprint of Doc Savage - The Thousand Headed Man… which is, please note, a completely different cover than was used on the UK Corgi edition of the story, where a doctored reprint of a James Bama cover painting from an entirely different Doc Savage novel in the series was used, for reasons completely unknown to me. However, whoever was responsible for the writing of the adaptation and the interior art is completely unknown. It looks to me like Gold Key, even at that time, were not crediting the writers and artists like DC and Marvel were.

What I can tell you about the interior art, however, is that it doesn't really look like the actors from the ‘movie that never was’ and more like the renditions that Bama used to characterise Doc and his crew on the back covers of those Bantam reprints. This makes sense. Many comics are made from film adaptations and usually all the writers and artists have to go on is the working script and a few stills of the characters. Think back to the original Marvel comics adaptation of the first Star Wars film for example… there were loads of scenes in that which didn’t make it into the movie and, decades later in the era of ‘extras’ like deleted scenes, it became apparent that the majority of those sequences were shot but had not made it into the final cut of the film. These things happen but at least the likenesses of the characters, in some cases, looked as they appear in the film (Don’t get me started on Jabba, okay?) so there’s that. Alas, when it came to the Doc Savage movie, the team at Gold Key obviously didn't have any stills to work with so I’m guessing that production went ahead after they knew the film project was cancelled and the rights holders, by now Conde Naste, wanted to recoup some money by letting the comic go ahead. That’s what I suspect, anyway.

And… it’s not a brilliant comic in terms of action, it has to be said. And the writing is not all that dramatic either.. For example, comic  book shorthand to introduce the characters is used and so Ham is much maligned by being referred to as ‘the toff’. Worse still, given that Clark Savage Jr, The Man Of Bronze himself is not exactly noted for an abundance of verbal commentary and, given this is a comic book and even more of a purely visual art form than a film would be, it’s amazing how verbose he is in this. Talking to himself often and using phrases completely out of character for him such as ‘I’ll bet my shirt…’. Sure, that kind of outburst might be fine coming from a few of Doc’s crew but not the man himself, I would say. I think they might have been better using descriptive boxes more on the case of the scenes where Savage is ‘flying solo’, so to speak, rather than put explanations in his mouth when he famously never explains his actions to those around him.

In addition to this, the drama is fairly flat and, though I last read the original novel back in 1975, I remember the mystery of the thing and the unusual keys that drive the story being fairly suspenseful… in other words, fairly standard brilliance that you would expect from Lester Dent writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. Here it’s virtually non existent and, while I concur that the whole story in just 32 four colour pages is a pretty tall order, everything here just seems a bit rushed and really doesn’t allow for any of the characters to shine through, least of all Doc, who almost seems like a guest star in his own comic at times.

The art is, fairly nice but there’s nothing too experimental or wildly interesting here. I’d say it’s pretty competent but there purely to illustrate the text, rather then enhance it. The same can be said of the design of the panels too. There’s a pretty rigid layout of mostly five panels per page (asides from the ones I’ve pictured above, obviously). The majority of pages consist of a basic, vertical two by three panel page but with one panel of each page extended either vertically or horizontally to try and break it up just a little. Looking at some other Gold Key comics from the time and others from about eight years later, this is fairly common for the company at the time and they would later on get a little more dynamic with their layouts by the time they were putting out titles like The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor.

And… that’s about all I have to say about the Gold Key, Doc Savage one-shot based on Doc Savage - The Thousand Headed Man other than to say that, if the film had happened with that script, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have set cinema screens ablaze but, frankly, we’ll never know how closely it would have followed that script and just how much better it may have been on screen. Still, despite the comic not being all that special, I am really pleased to finally own a copy and, it has to be said, I did learn that Croydon used to have an airport, so there’s that (although, by the time this comic was published, there hadn’t been one there for a while but, still, it’s a 1930s period piece so that’s not really an issue). This one is probably not going to appeal to casual readers, for sure but, for long standing Doc Savage readers like myself, this is pure gold and, dull as this adaptation is, it’s a little piece of both comic book and movie history regarding this character and it’s an essential piece of ephemera, as far as I’m concerned. One for the ages.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Shaft



Shaftermath

Shaft
USA 2019
Directed by Tim Story


So... earlier this year my best friend unexpectedly died. He was only a few weeks older than me and we had a whole host of things already earmarked to see in the coming months but one of the two most anticipated things was to go to the cinema to see the new Shaft movie, since we’d both been talking about the Shaft films together since we first met. As it turns out, this didn’t get a cinema release in this country but I’ve managed to find a way to watch it anyway and, although I have mixed feelings about the final product, I’m pretty sure that my friend would probably... mostly... have liked this one.

Shaft is the fifth film of a franchise which started with the original movie, Shaft, back in 1971 and which was followed by two direct sequels in 1972 and 1973, Shaft’s Big Score (my favourite) and Shaft In Africa with Richard Roundtree playing the titular role based on Ernest Tidyman’s novels. This was followed by Roundtree continuing the character for a TV series and then, decades later, a fourth film starring Samuel L. Jackson was made in 2000, originally to be called Shaft Returns but eventually just called Shaft, also... which was confusing enough at the time. That one had Richard Roundtree back as the original John Shaft in what amounted to a couple of long cameos and with Jackson playing his nephew. It was a quite good movie. Now we have a fifth installment in the franchise where the Shaft family tree has been convincingly retconned to make Jackson the son of Roundtree’s character, even though in real life he’s only 6 years younger than the actor himself.

And, yes, if you can believe this stuff... they’ve called this fifth film Shaft. Which is totally ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever. At least the Star Wars films have subtitles but why have a franchise where over half the movies have the exact same name as the other ones. That’s not going to get confusing at all in years to come, is it?

So, anyway, this movie deals with the next generation of Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher and is a humourously intentioned script dealing with his problematic relationship with his dad, his potential girlfriend Sasha, played by Alexandra Shipp.... and his mother Maya, played by Regina Hall.

So this starts off with a set up of Jackson’s Shaft and Maya and their baby son in a scene set over a decade before the events in the previous movie, where some motivation for barely seen villain of this film is provided and the film then gives us a montage catch up of the intervening years which briefly replays some scenes from Shaft (2000) and maps out Usher’s Shaft’s troubled non-relationship with his father. Then, when the latest family member’s best friend gets mixed up with drugs and is murdered, Shaft Jr, who works for the FBI but doesn’t exactly have much clout, gets his father involved with the case and the two bond as they try and catch the ruthless killers and even, in the last 20 minutes of the movie, have some nice scenes where the original ‘grandad’ Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, gets involved in all the action.

So... okay. There’s good and there’s bad. The good being that there’s some nice and cleverly  handled shot transitions throughout the movie and even a split screen section at the beginning of the film. It’s also a blast seeing both Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree doing their thing throughout and, even though he’s mostly played as a joke, Shaft Jr is also not terrible in this either although, to be fair, he does get irritating quite quickly. Especially where a perfect reference to the very first Shaft movie... the scene where Roundtree crashes through the window on a rope, is payed homage to but, alas, in a very jokey way because Jr can’t get through his window.

There’s a lot of bad in this too though.

For instance, despite some nice shot set ups, there’s a scene fairly early on where Shaft Jr is talking to a teenager on the street  and the shot design, or lack of it in terms of consideration as to how the scene would be edited, is just all over the place and completely popped me out of the movie. I couldn’t believe how amateur this series of shots was in terms of cutting back and forth between characters on completely different and seemingly random areas of the screen. It didn’t make any sense and it’s like the scene wasn’t filmed to be cut that way at all.

Another problem... despite not being that funny, which is an objective thing anyway... is the fact that it was trying to be a comedy of sorts. The previous Shaft movies all took themselves very seriously in terms of the way the characters, for the most part, interacted and this just feels like it belongs in a different world, despite an attempt at least to give certain elements of the plot some social context. It just felt wrong. And don’t get me started on the running gag of three generations of jay-walkers who will almost get hit by a passing car whenever they walk into the road. This is just a mockery of the title sequence of the very first film.

Also, the pacing on the movie in terms of the actual story and the way it’s being driven is way too slow to fit in with the others (even the 2009 movie). I was at a point maybe 20 minutes or half an hour into the movie and I thought to myself... if this had been made in the 1970s you would have got all those story beats over and done with in the first 5 minutes. It really needed to movie faster than this and, again, this didn’t do anything to make it feel close to the franchise.

And then there’s the music.

I’m not all that familiar with Christopher Lennertz outside of his score for the TV remake of Humanoids From The Deep but he has done his best here. The music feels, for at least some of the time, like it belongs in a Shaft movie. There are some nice references to Isaac Hayes’ original Theme From Shaft although, tragically and inappropriately, the lyrics aren’t heard and the only vocal version, at the end of the movie, is just as part of some weak, sampled up rap version which, great idea as that could have been... just leaves a bad taste in the mouth (and ears, I guess). However, I was pleasantly surprised, when the two younger Shaft’s first go and revisit the original Shaft in his apartment, that he used part of Isaac Hayes original Shaft score which wasn’t part of the main theme and, I suspect, this is the first time this has been done in the franchise since its appearance in the first movie (with this particular cue... there are a few instances of similar Hayes’ references in the TV show).

Ultimately, I think fans of the original films are going to be less happy about what they’ve done with this than people who are coming into the franchise cold. True, there are some great one liners and gags scattered throughout but this honestly feels nothing like a continuation of the films although Roundtree is worth watching this for, if you do like the originals. Not the sequel I was hoping for and it took long enough getting made. I didn’t think I’d end up saying this but I kinda hope they leave this alone now. I think they’ve proven they can’t recapture the original magic which made the 1970s movies... and even the 2000 movie... such great pieces of cinema. Shut yo’ mouth!