Wednesday 30 January 2019

Bond By Design

The Art Of Bondage

Bond By Design -
The Art Of The James Bond Films

Dorling Kindersley
ISBN: 978-0241185995

Bond By Design - The Art Of The James Bond Films is a tome I wanted primarily because I knew it had some of the storyboards from the movies in it, including the beautifully painted acrylic and watercolour storyboards used for the production of From Russia With Love. Indeed, it turns out there are a lot more panels of the speedboat chase from that film included than I actually remembered seeing in real life in the various exhibitions they have turned up in over the years so, if you are into those kinds of things, this is an excellent book. Well, it’s an excellent book all round, to be honest.

When I was given this as a Christmas present I was surprised by the actual large size of it and, it has to be said, it looks really beautiful as a thick, coffee table hardback in a handsome slipcase which details some of those aforementioned speedboat chase storyboards on the front and a Ken Adam set sketch for the volcano lair in You Only Live Twice on the back. When you pull the hardback loose, there’s a lovely contrast with the sleek white covers boasting two more Ken Adam felt tip sketches in all their glory.

The other surprising thing, for me, was finding that the book is published by Dorling Kindersley. Now I’ve never had a bad word to say about DK (as they are now apparently, officially branded?) and they’ve always produced quality books which show off illustrations to their best. However, I’ve always kind of associated them with being publishers of purely children’s books so, the fact that they were involved with this project is going to make me rethink their contribution to the adult marketplace, methinks. But, back to the book...

The volume has no general introductory text, which threw me quite a bit and made me feel like I was going in naked. Instead it jumps straight in at Dr. No with a chapter for each of the productions up to SPECTRE (using the typography associated with the relevant poster design as the chapter title). Each chapter starts as a double page spread and on one of these pages you get a little spiel about the film and the designers working on it, before getting on with the rest of the section with various, almost randomly chosen pieces (it seemed to me) ranging anywhere from set designs (many of the famous Ken Adam ones are covered here, naturally), logo designs, prop designs, costume designs, vehicle designs and, yes, even a smattering of storyboards... all of which have small captions telling you as much information as the publishers could glean.

Now, I don’t want to say anything too negative because, for sure, it’s a lovely book and absolutely essential for someone like me to have perched on a bookshelf but, one of the things I did feel was missing from this was photographs of the finished products. It’s all very well showing us the designs of how a set was supposed to look or how, say, the rocket pack from Thunderball was supposed to look both in that movie and in its reappearance in Die Another Day (a Bond film I’ve tried to blot out of my memory, along with the Daniel Craig movies) but it would be really nice to have seen a reminder of how those designs and sketches finished up in the final film. I don’t think there’s actually a single photograph from any of the Bond movies actually in this book, to be honest. However, most Bond fans will know the movies well enough, I’m sure, that they won’t really need that aide-mémoire to give them the required perspective.

My other complaint might be that this book only covers the EON Productions Bond films... so you won’t find the previous two versions of Casino Royale in here other than the third version with Daniel Craig in it. Neither will you find films like the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again (although that one is at least mentioned in relation to Octopussy) or the second time George Lazenby took on the role of 007 in The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. So... yeah... The Art Of The James Bond Films is a bit of a misleading subtitle, it has to be said.

However, as I said, there are some lovely pages in this book. Alas, there weren’t too many pages devoted to two of my favourite Bond movies... On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights but what there is in the book is mostly gold. So you can see a storyboard of Bond in ‘Little Nellie’, his autogyro from You Only Live Twice and then, a while later, be perusing the diagrams made of ‘wet nellie’, his submarine converting Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. There are also some interesting items here in that you can work out just who had and who hadn’t been cast in some of the films by the time the storyboards were made. It’s sometimes very obvious if an actor or actress was a late arrival or not.

Of the 300+ pages that make up this, truly, excellent book, I’d say I was familiar with at least two thirds of the stuff in here from various exhibitions I’ve been to see in London over the last three decades or more. Similarly, there’s design work I’ve seen at various exhibits and displays which are somewhat absent from this tome but, limiting themselves to just over 300 pages couldn’t have been an easy editorial job, I would guess.

So that’s a short review for a book that doesn’t’ contain a lot of text but which is definitely a feast for the eyes. If you’re into James Bond and you like any of the main production elements such as set design or costumes then you’re in for a treat if you acquire this book. Personally, I could have done without the Craig films because the digital world has taken over from the more interesting and expressive (it seems to me) hand drawn world and... hyper-real digital computer mock ups of what things should look like just don’t seem as interesting to me. That being said, Bond By Design is a nicely designed and presented gem of a book for any Bond film afficionado and you should snap it up instantly while there are still a few new copies left on Amazon. Really pleased with this one.

Monday 28 January 2019


Destroyer Rides Again

2018 USA
Directed by Karyn Kusama
UK cinema release print.

Wow... this is a really great movie.

And, I’m happy to say... it took me unawares.

So Destroyer is a tale about a cop who was working with the FBI, 16 years prior to one of the main story timelines in the film, when the job went south for reasons I won’t reveal here. The cop’s name is Erin Belle and she’s played here by Nicole Kidman in what is a pretty amazing performance. She’s joined here by Toby Kebbell playing the lead villain Silas and Sebastian Stan playing Chris, Belle’s former partner in the back story.

The film is directed by Karyn Kusama, who directed both Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body (reviewed here) and it’s a real gem of a picture. I’m going to have to tread very carefully here to avoid spoilers.

Kidman plays two sides of Erin Belle, one as the bright, young thing who was involved in the original events and one as the current, burnt out cop version of her character who has been sent some evidence that the villain who wrecked things for her 16 years ago is back and up to his old tricks. So we see her piecing together the evidence and information she needs to find this villain while, at the same time, trying to juggle the stress of managing her fraught, alienated relationship with her 16 year old daughter. The film has twists and turns and, I have to say, I was not expecting most of them at all which, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know is a pretty rare occurrence. I almost always see the twists coming.

The film has a nice look to it and there are some great shot set ups with some very rich colour combinations, some of which almost reminded me of old Edward Hopper paintings. The director also uses a less than usual visual syntax throughout the film, especially with her use of establishing shots to give it an edgy, off kilter feel. Or should I say lack of use of establishing shots. That is to say... even her regular establishing shots tend to pull you into a specific location. One of the things I caught her doing was using a high shot of a building as an establishing shot, for example, before tracking down and directly into the eye level of Nicole Kidman sitting in her car, shifting the focus as she highlighted the character and placed her into the frame but also filtering out the peripheral information which is now jettisoned. She then used a sharp cut to take us to a completely different scene in another location.

Most of the time, though, I have to say I was unaware of any strong establishing shots to frame the action for the audience at all and this way of following the character in a relatively close environment a lot of the time makes things somehow more intense and immediate while not giving the collective audience the little breaks and cut aways it’s used to. Which I found both fascinating and sometimes a little disorienting and I am assuming that disorientation was deliberate because...

Okay... this hopefully doesn’t amount to a spoiler but I said it gets twisty and turny and there’s a specific, big story point that’s not revealed until right towards the end of the picture. And the thing is, normally I would have seen this coming right away but, because the structure of the film involves constant flashbacks to linearly tell the back story of the main character, the real structure of the film is hidden from view... hidden in plain sight, in fact... from the audience and I suspect the constant use of close ups and so forth to begin various scenes and lead you to the story in a visually convoluted (or at least less than usual) way helps greatly with the directors very subtle and, timed just right, sleight of hand when she’s not being completely honest with certain elements of the way the story unfolds. And that’s all I’m going to say about this one, because I really don’t want to spoil it for first time viewers... other than to say that the cleverness of the story structure works hand in hand with the mise en scene and almost relies on an aspect of Nicole Kidman’s performance in a specific scene near the start of the film. Well, she totally sold it to me because it’s not something the audience has been primed to watch out for yet and Kidman plays a specific scene just right, so that there’s not even a hint that what we are watching is not always necessarily to be trusted, so to speak.

The other great thing about this movie is the incredible score. It’s absolutely stunning and shame on the powers that be for only giving this an electronic download release instead of the quality CD release this music so richly deserves... and, frankly, since this picture was released into cinemas in America towards the end of last year, I’m practically frothing at the mouth right now that this score wasn’t given an oscar nomination. It’s so striking and, almost subliminally at times, sets the viewer on edge and enhances the drama and, very much I think, the mindset of the film’s central protagonist at any given time. I didn’t know who I was listening to when I watched this but by the final quarter of the movie I had pretty much made my mind up that this thing must have been composed by Mica Levi... the score is that amazing and it seemed a perfect fit for her style. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stayed through some of the end credits to discover the music was composed by Theodore Shapiro (who did quite a good score for the Ghostbusters reboot a few years back). Shame on the Academy for not recognising the sheer power and resonance of this score and shame on the company for not putting out a CD release.

So, what more to say on this one? Brilliant performances all round, fantastic direction, genius editing, an absolute classic and powerful score and a central protagonist, perfectly played by Kidman, who’s mindset throughout the film is wildly unpredictable and who is bound to catch the audience off guard at various points in the unfolding of her story. If you are into thrillers or police procedural movies then, seriously, Destroyer is definitely the film to see this year. Pitch perfect on all levels and, though I wouldn’t normally do repeat viewings, I might have to rewatch this again when it comes out on Blu Ray so I can nitpick my way through the story structure and figure out just how the director managed to fool me on this one. Such a cool film and one which will, I’m sure, feature in many critical essays and articles in the coming decades. A truly great piece of cinema that reminds us just how much this medium is a true form of artistic expression. Go and see this masterpiece soonest.

Sunday 27 January 2019

Escape Room

To Room, It May Concern

Escape Room
2019 USA Directed by Adam Robitel
UK cinema release print.

Warning: A very minor spoiler in this.

Okay, yeah. This is not a bad effort on behalf of the cast and crew to create... well, it’s not actually a horror film but, yeah... a pretty good thriller which takes the old clichéd puzzle solving element of certain serial killer movies and presents it in a way that’s both effective and, it has to be said, quite intense in places.

After a bookend prologue and a preliminary series of sequences, which sets up three of the main protagonists, we have them and a few others invited to play an Escape Room style game with a hefty cash reward if your team makes it out of there alive. These games have, of course, become very popular over the last few years and I've also played two of them in London with some of my friends. I think that this whole idea of a team of contestants trying to solve clues to find their way out of a series of locked rooms all started as an entertaining thing to watch back in the early 1980s with the BBC TV show The Adventure Game (which I was fortunate enough to be able to review in its latest incarnation as a DVD box set here). Various similar things followed in its footsteps and it would be fair to say the modern thriller films like the Saw series, where victims try and escape from various death traps, are a similar cinematic trend.

Escape Room takes the game concept and does exactly this; turns every puzzle room in the suite into a death trap and... there are a couple of slight problems, to my mind, with the movie but they don’t detract from it being an intense and thoroughly entertaining ride of a film, it as to be said. And it cracks along at a fair pace too, with some scenes of almost unbearable suspense.

Surprisingly, for the subject matter, you don’t really see any major gory violence in the film at all and, thankfully, this really doesn’t hamper the movie in any way. Indeed, the director manages to make the whole ‘edge of your seat’ atmosphere of the film fairly bloodless while still keeping you worried about certain characters while knowing, all the while, the situation that one of those characters is going to find themselves in when the film eventually catches up to the opening sequences. It’s a grim proposition, it has to be said, although I wasn’t fooled by certain aspects of that set up and I kinda knew that one of the supposedly dead characters would be returning at some point to act like the cavalry or, at the very least... survive.

However, the film did fool me in that I was pretty sure I knew what the twist ending was going to be but, when we get to that kind of point in the movie, it turned out there was no reveal at all. Everything in the film that’s presented from the start is absolutely all the given facts. So I’m kinda happy about that as I really didn’t need to see a certain solution to the events that take place over the course of the story turn out to be something which has been done to death in recent years on television.

I said there were a couple of weaknesses to the movie and one of those was the fact that we see a set up to three of the main characters. However, when everyone converges on the Escape Room of the title there are a few more characters added into the mix and, while the director does keep giving us little background flashbacks for each character’s back story... it’s pretty obvious that the last three left at one point will be the same three we were ‘briefed’ on by the director at the start of the story. So that was a bit of a telegraphed sequence of moments which I think could have probably been avoidable if the film makers had thought about it.

The other thing I was not so hot on was the last ten minutes of the movie. Once whoever is getting out is out, the director spends an awful long time setting up a very contrived feeling sequence to give the audience a possibility of a sequel, should the time come and this film has sufficient box office clout. Not only that but the last two minutes even shows us... and this is crazy... how the next movie, or at least the next story beats, would play out and so, by this point, I don’t even need to watch the sequel because I already know the plot set up.

That being said though, it didn’t really detract from the sheer intensity of the piece and Escape Room has a lot to recommend it to fans of films like Cube, even with the lack of violence in it. You have some nice sets with some nice puzzles, a whole load of good actors including those main three played by Taylor Russell, Logan Miller and Jay Ellis... not to mention Tyler Labine, who played Dale in Tucker And Dale Versus Evil (which I reviewed here). Added to this we have an interesting score by Brian Tyler and John Carey which... well, there’s a heck of a lot going on in it and I’d need to listen to it divorced from the images to be able to judge it best but it certainly lifts the film a lot. Luckily, Sony Classical have released a CD of it although, sadly, Amazon says it will take two months to ship here for some reason.

However, add this fantastic and orchestrationally dense score to the mix of interesting actors and some quite nicely executed scenarios and, despite those one or two problems I mentioned earlier, you have a pretty good movie in Escape Room. When I went to a Cineworld premiere they had us all walk down a red carpet to receive a small sample of chocolate cake for some reason. I don’t know why they did that because it seemed to have nothing to do with the film and it wasn’t made clear to us just why we should be receiving such a freely given confection but, there you have it. One might think, if one was as suspicious as me, that it was meant to distract one from the quality of the film but, if that was the case, they needn’t have bothered. Escape Room is a solid thriller and I’d certainly recommend this one to people who are fans of piled on suspense in the movies. Just don’t expect a, literal, blood bath. Like I said, it’s not a horror movie... it’s a thriller.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Quatermass And The Pit (TV Serial Version)

Hob’s Your Uncle

Quatermass And The Pit
UK 1958/59
Directed by Rudolph Cartier
BBC Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers here if you really don’t know the story by now.

Note: If you’re looking for my review of the Hammer Films remake of Quatermass And The Pit, it’s right here...

Well, what can you say about Quatermass And The Pit that hasn’t been said already? Not much I suspect but I can at least give you my impression of my recent rewatch of the original TV serial, as it’s just been ‘restored’ on Blu Ray by the BBC. Although, to be honest, since it was recorded off a screen televising the live performance, there’s not an awful lot that could have been done to clean up the visual quality, I suspect. It’s nice to revisit it here though.

Quatermass And The Pit is the third of four Quatermass TV serials written by Nigel Kneale and the last of the three performed as a live broadcast by the BBC (the fourth TV serial didn’t surface until 20 years later on rival TV station ITV). Now I never saw the serials as a kid but always loved the Hammer remake movies, especially the first and third ones. I didn’t catch up to the original serials until the VHS and DVD days. Only the first two live broadcast episodes of the original version of The Quatermass Experiment still exist but both Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit have survived and this Blu Ray is a welcome addition to any science fiction film and TV watcher’s home... although I would have preferred the BBC would have ‘cut to the chase’ and Blu Rayed up their former Quatermaas Collection DVD box set, rather than release this as a stand alone and then, presumably, expecting us to double dip on it a few years down the line.

This is going to be a fairly short review because I’ve probably covered most of the story beats in my previous review of the movie remake (right here) but I will say that I can never really make up my mind if I prefer the original serialised version of Quatermass And The Pit or the Hammer adaptation of it. I think it’s a case of... I like whichever one I’m watching at the time but of all the Quatermass serials which made the transition into the movies, this one has the least changes to the story, I think. The first two Quatermass serials had great chunks of story shorn from them in their movie transitions but for this one, the condensation from the three hours of the serial to the one hour and thirty seven minute movie is quite an achievement and you don’t really miss any important story beats in the latter.

So I think the most useful thing do here is highlight the differences between the two and then, if you want more extended input as to the flavour of the story, visit my review of the Hammer adaptation of this.

Professor Quatermass is played by Andre Morel in this ‘incarnation’ of the main character. He plays him in the most authorative way I’ve seen and, for my money, is probably the best of the many actors to play the role over the years. He was no stranger to Hammer films, of course, and was later asked to come back and reprise the role for their movie version but I believe he didn’t really feel like repeating himself. The movie Quatermass for this one was played by Andrew Keir, who was writer Nigel Kneale’s personal favourite of the Quatermass actors if my memory circuits are firing on all cylinders (Keir was the only actor to ever play Quatermass twice, in the film version of this plus in Kneale’s radio show The Quatermass Memoirs). Brilliant as Kier is in the role, he still seems a little too passive for my liking whereas Morel immediately commands a sort of gravitas in the role and makes it his own.

He is ably supported by some truly great thespians with Dr. Rowney played in this version by Cec Linder (who James Bond fans may remember from his turn as Felix Leiter in Goldfinger), Anthony Bushell playing a somehow even more terrifyingly stupid version of Colonel Breen than the great Julian Glover managed in the movie version and Christine Finn, the voice of Tin Tin in Thunderbirds, as Barbara Judd. Although he was a Hammer regular, we also have Michael Ripper playing the Sergeant in this (he had appeared as a different character in the movie version of Quatermass II). You’ve also got John Stratton as Captain Potter and Richard Shaw as the all important drill operator Sladden. Now, I love the movie version of this and think the actors in it are exemplary but, I have to say, the cast in this original version are even more brilliant and you couldn’t want for a better bunch. I think the only actor who was actually in both the serial and the film was Noel Howlett, who plays the vicar in this and the Abbey librarian in the movie.

Like I said, the action and story are all pretty much the same between the two versions, with the serial obviously taking more time to grip onto the audience (the events in the movie version do seem unnaturally accelerated if you watch this one in close proximity before it, to be sure). However, they both have things which they do better than each other. The special effects on the serial for the great martian purge, plucked from the mind of Barbara Judd as she wears a headpiece which turns her hallucination race memories into something which can be recorded on a primitive video tape (or film, by the looks of it), are much more interesting and credible than the movie version. That’s because a) you can see various martian insects being singled out and killed and b) because the Hammer version of this scene contains truly atrocious special effects work, to be sure.

That being said the Hammer version of the story is much more visual in other ways. For instance, instead of Rowney sacrificing himself by earthing the, mostly unseen on camera, martian manifestation which has emerged from the disintegrated hull of the five million year old space capsule... by running into it and throwing the iron conductor to earth it before being obliterated... the movie version has him riding the top of a crane into it, which is much more interesting to look at. Similarly, the manifestation of the martian with all the colour bleached out of it and almost over-illuminated in the movie suggests exactly why primitive man saw it as Hob, or the Devil in that it’s much more of a horned demon looking thing (and one of the few horror films to give this 6 or 7 year old a complete lack of a good night’s sleep the first time I saw it). So in that way the movie version definitely wins out over this one.

Another big difference is that the movie version has diggers adding an extension to a tube tunnel at Hobb’s Lane first coming across the archeological finds and, eventually the space capsule, as part of the tube works. In this original version it’s already an archeological dig from a find on a building site at Hobb’s Lane... so it really is a big pit that this thing is mostly set around here... I guess Quatermass And The Tube Extension didn’t have the desired ring to it for the movie version.

Another major difference is the ending. The Hammer one stops on a characteristically bleak shot (typical for that period of Hammer film) of Quatermass and Barbara trying to get their heads together after Rowney’s sacrifice. Here, the sequence is followed by a, somewhat clunky, little press conference held by Quatermass to warn humanity that there are probably many more of these capsules spread around the Earth and we should be on the look out for them. It’s kind of the Quatermass version of the “Watch The Skies” monologue at the end of The Thing From Another World and, it gives things a less than exciting or haunting conclusion than the Hammer movie, it has to be said.

However, although it probably looks fairly dated to the youth of today, the TV serial has a lot to offer and the leisurely pacing in which it unfolds all the various incidents and drip feeds it to the audience is very well done. Yes, there are the occasional small mistakes which were part and parcel of live broadcast television, such as a camera operator moving to the other side of the room before his cue, panning back to the original speaker as he’s finishing his line and then having to quickly pan back to where he was going on the first place. This is all part of the fun though and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Some of this third serial, especially the outside locations, was pre-filmed to be slotted in between scenes, such was the ambition of Kneale’s script. Also, the music is quite effective and some of those electronic effects and scoring sections in the original serial mark this out as being the first sci-fi TV show to use electronic music (apparently, I need to check that out and see if that claim is correct). Whatever the case, it’s certainly damned atmospheric and is well used by the serial.

And that’s that for this one. This, like most of the Quatermass serials, was a ground breaking and important event show of its day (you wouldn’t get shows like Doctor Who without the presence of Quatermass changing what was acceptable on television) and the central premise that our world was invaded by martians millions of years ago and the majority of our species is actually descended from genetic experiments created by the martians was pretty much a first at the time. The martians are already here and they’re us... was quite a bit of a scary proposition. Like both the central character and writer Nigel Kneale, Quatermass And The Pit was hugely influential and the legacy has never stopped being plundered... I can’t quite work out why it’s not been remade again for modern audiences. If you’re a fan of science fiction and you’ve never seen the Quatermass serials then... you really should add these to your list. Quatermass And The Pit, no matter which version you watch it in, is sheer genius and an important part of British science fiction. I’m glad the BBC have finally put this out on Blu Ray and, hopefully, the surviving episodes of the first serial and the full second serial won’t be too far behind this one, fingers crossed. Truly stunning.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Past Mortems

Slicing With Death

Past Mortems -
Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors

(aka The Chick And The Dead)
by Carla Valentine
ISBN: 978-0751565348

Past Mortems is a book I saw whizzing by as a retweet on my Twitter feed one day and I thought it looked really interesting. Luckily, a very good friend bought me a copy for Christmas and I am indebted to her because it’s one of those rare books which is as educational as it is entertaining. In the US the book goes by Valentine’s handle of The Chick And The Dead but... I don’t think much of their cover and nor their title, it has to be said. The charmingly understated pun of the UK title is much more palatable to me and I absolutely love the illustrations and the placement of bits of information in these bounding spaces on the back cover on this one too. Also, the writer is British and her experience is mostly... erm... experienced within the UK so, yeah, I much prefer the Past Mortems variation of the book, to be sure.

This is kind of an autobiographic memoir of a young lady, Carla Valentine, who has spent her life doing various jobs working alongside the dead in various mortuaries and hospitals, including some big emergency jobs in temporary headquarters working alongside other professionals, such as the 2005 London bombings. I have to say that, while the book jumps about a bit (there’s a reason for that, I think... I’ll get to it in a minute) the quality of the information given, coupled with a humorous and engaging writing style, will certainly leave you with a grin on your face. Even as you are wading through the brains and entrails with her as she details a lot about, not just a mortician’s job but also the history behind the modern state of various practices of ‘anatomical slicery uppery’, so to speak.

The book starts off with a kind of prologue where Miss. Valentine talks about her childhood experience with the burial of a cat and how she had always wanted to work with, and was fascinated by, dead bodies. We then jump to somewhere in her first couple of weeks on one of her jobs as she makes her very first Y-incision and, along with various cinematic references (clearly another one of her fascinations) she won me over straight away with the following sentence...

“I wasn’t sure what ‘bladder holding’  etiquette was, so I pinched it between thumb and forefinger and held it at arm’s length, as I transported it to the steel bench, just like a disapproving mother with a teenage boy’s dirty sock.”

And from then on I knew I was in good hands as she darts about in a whirlwind of entertaining data from various stages of her life at different jobs and then back to childhood... and then back out again. It did, it has to be said, take me a while to keep up with the constant scenario/time changes but, after a while, I realised (with the handy helper of chapter titles) that she was exploring different aspects of death thematically and so, rather than a chronology of her life, we have a kind of guide through the different aspects of death, in some ways. And it’s fascinating stuff...

For instance, she unearths many historical facts to get us up to speed on various things such as the reason we have mortuaries in the first place. Apparently, before the mid 1800s, dead bodies were left with the families until burial and, since a lot of people could only afford to live in one room, families would spend a fair amount of time with the rotting corpses of their recently deceased loved ones for company. Quite apart from anything else about that, of course, the fact is that this is just not a healthy environment for the people left behind who, in some cases, would soon follow the dead due to illness from being in such close proximity to the decaying family members... leading to a famous quote about ‘the dead killing the living’, I believe. Hence the necessity for and birth of what we now know as ‘the mortuary’ (not a morgue, apparently... as you’ll read within the reasoning behind one of Ms. Valentine’s pet peeves).

Another interesting fact I learned was how jewellery found on an incoming body is catalogued. Instead of gold ring, silver ring, diamond and emerald, for example... it’s yellow metal, white metal, white stone and green stone. This is specifically so that incorrect identification doesn’t lead to them being sued by family members of the desceased if they incorrectly identified the composition of a trinket and the family think they have stolen something of value. Which makes perfect sense in this ‘sue everyone for everything’ world we are currently living in, I guess. I actually learned a lot from this one, including some stuff about body snatchers... or resurrectionists men... and their operations in respect to the laws of the time which was a real eye opener compared to what I thought I knew.

And her adventures aren’t just all to do with the slicing and dicing of the dead. For example, she tells of a period of a month or two where she was in consultation for authentication on a movie set... where she couldn’t do much about the sets already built but she was able, among other things, to make people aware that they needed to change the way a prop body was built due to mortician's not opening up a head in the manner the writers/director had imagined. She also talks a little critically about the ‘strained’ behaviour from the actors on the set and I found it interesting that she never once mentioned the title of the film in question but was happy to mention the odd actor or two. So it quickly became obvious to me that the film she’d been asked to consult on was the set of The Autopsy Of Jane Doe (reviewed by me here) , which is kinda interesting but makes perfect sense as, apart from anything else, Valentine makes it clear that she likes to watch horror movies.

I’m also happy to say that she makes a load of corny old jokes, such as parodying Groucho Marx with her line... ‘Space can be at a premium in mortuary fridges - it’s popular real estate; people are dying to get in there after all...” And she’ll talk about famous anatomists of former times by comparing them to modern movie stars such as Mel Gibson and Ryan Gosling (I’m not going to tell you why... read the damn book!). Also, the culture shock when she moved to London and found the prolific use of the ‘C’ word when she stresses that, back where she came from, it was treated in the same manner as the name Voldemort... a word never to be spoken aloud.

Surprisingly, for a book so humorously written, there’s also a lot of drama to be found in some of the incidents that have made up her journey with the dead to date... and I admire her for giving up on all the mental clogs at one point and just going to live in a convent for a while to reflect on things. However, through it all, you never get a feeling that there’s any disrespect towards the deceased... quite the opposite, in fact. This is a book written by someone who is, somewhat, obsessed with her profession (in the best sense) and loves it but also deeply empathises with both the living and the dead and does her best to help people of both states in their time with her.

Past Mortems is a phenomenally cool and extremely entertaining novel which might make a few readers somewhat queasy in that its fairly graphic... it certainly made me a little uncomfortable about certain things I didn’t realise were done during an autopsy that will have me questioning if I’d want a loved one of mine put through the same treatment... but I can’t do anything else but recommend this book because it sheds light on something which isn’t too often shared and, also, busts some myths about what really goes on, created by various media over the years. Plus, you know, it’s a really fun read. Also... I’m not going to tell you what a Sour Toe Cocktail is but... if you want to find out, read this excellent book. I hope she writes another one sometime soon.

You can visit Carla Valentine’s website and buy her book here...

Sunday 20 January 2019


Glass Action

2019 USA
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
UK cinema release print.

Well this is somewhat disappointing, it has to be said.

I have a kind of love/hate relationship going with the films directed by M. Night Shyamalan. As a director I think he’s brilliant... able to tell his stories with a visual simplicity that communicates his intentions very quickly and easily. Alas... the stories themselves are generally very predictable... ranging to about 10 - 20 minutes into The Sixth Sense before you can easily figure out the ‘twist’, right the way through the ‘obvious scale’ of... at the start of the second camera shot in The Village, which immediately gives away the ending of that movie. I think the only time he ever really caught me out... and it’s a good thing when he does, by the way... was with Unbreakable, where the slight twist of Mr. Glass turning out to be a super villain actually hadn’t occurred to me. Consequently, Unbreakable has always been the film which I have held in the highest regard of his films (that and Devil which, ironically, he only wrote and didn’t direct himself).

Alas, the stealth sequel to Unbreakable released a couple of years ago, Split (reviewed here), which only revealed itself to be such during the cameo of Bruce Willis for the last few seconds of the post-credits scene... while having amazing central performances by Anya-Taylor Joy and James MacAvoy... was somehow pretty mediocre, I thought, in terms of the story. However, at least that one did right by the characters these two played. When both these two return with their characters in Glass, I dunno, it felt like they’d lost something in translation and become more cardboard in their intent as merely ‘story functions’ as opposed to three dimensional characters. And I don’t believe that’s due to the performances, because they are still excellent. I think it’s either due to the writing being somewhat less willing to explore what’s going on in their heads or, just as likely, that a lot of footage was cut, which may well have been character building stuff (I understand the first cut of this, like most movies, was a lot longer that the final release print).

They are joined, of course, by Bruce Willis reprising the central superhero character and Samuel L. Jackson as super-villain Mr. Glass. Both are excellent but Willis’ understated character seems a little too subtle here, I felt. He’s probably the least interesting character in the movie and comes off the worst of the three. Jackson’s Mr. Glass, on the other hand, seems to be the only one in the film who really sticks to his guns, so to speak, and really resembles the character he played in Unbreakable but... yeah, at the end of the day, all these characters are kind of wasted, in my opinion, in an endgame by the director which probably isn’t going to be a crowd pleaser when it comes to fans of the series as a whole, I suspect.

They are also joined by Spencer Treat Clark (still playing Bruce Willis’ son in the 19 years since the first movie), Charlayne Woodard  (reprising her role as Samuel L. Jackson’s mother, even though she is younger than him in real life, I believe) and Sarah Paulson as the psychiatrist who is seen to be trying to cure the three main protagonists/antagonists from what they are supposed to believe is a delusion of their super powers.

Shyamalan also makes a cameo appearance playing the same character he played in Unbreakable and, it turns out, also the same character he played in Split. So that must be an unusual film statistic, to have the director play the same cameo character three times in three different movies. Has anybody else done this? He also puts in flashback scenes from footage that didn’t make it into Unbreakable (much the same way as Coscarelli does in some of his Phantasm films) so that’s kind of a nice thing to do.

Once again, though, the director puts things across very nicely visually but, I think, his strength is also his weakness because the way he positions certain characters in the spotlight means he gives the game away far too soon. In this case, when I saw the trailers for Glass I was pretty sure there was going to be a twist ending (of sorts) and I was pretty sure I could tell from the promotions what that reveal would be. Alas, it’s even more obvious in the movie which, actually, starts out really well but when a certain character shows up very early on, you know something fishy is going on right from the start. Just as you know that, despite appearing to be a vegetable for the first half of the movie, Samuel L. Jackson’s character already has his brain working so he can stay one step ahead of the so called ‘twist’ before it, eventually, happens at the end of the film. And that’s pretty much the main reason, I think, why I’m so down about this movie. I was looking forward to something at least worthy of the original film and, instead, we have something which really isn’t even as good as Split.

The other thing is that the sleight of hand of a big, final showdown of the movie is teased but never used and that’s a deliberate mechanism of the plot... fair enough. However, it also sets the audience up, in an age of very good superhero movies dominating the International Box Office receipts, for a big ‘final fight’ when, in fact, we’ve already witnessed it... we just didn’t know it yet. Glass finishes with a bit of a damp squib of an ending and, although the implications of the very last scene are quite a nice thing to end on in some ways, I just felt like the writer had betrayed the characters in the original movies and pulled the rug from under the audience when, it has to be said, the audience wasn’t even standing there anymore... they’d mostly all figured it all out from either the trailer or from very early on in the movie. So, yeah, a less than satisfying conclusion to a movie which, I feel, drops the ball quite often and says the one or two things it has to say in a fairly lethargic and slightly dull way.

And I’m really sorry I have to say that but, there you have it.

West Dylan Thordson provides a nice score which includes thematic elements from James Newton Howard’s original Unbreakable score and, presumably, his own score for Split (although I wouldn’t know since, like Glass, it didn’t get a proper CD release, just a download thing, so I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to it away from the movie). It’s an appropriate score, though, and serves the film well in a lot of scenes.

And... that’s all I’ve got to say about Glass. I was disappointed and I suspect that I may not be alone in that. Glass is not a big budget looking superhero film and it certainly feels like it belongs to the same universe as Unbreakable but, at the same time, seems like a dumbed down version of it with maybe a little less icing on the cake than may have been required to make this a fun, entertaining, cinematic experience. Which it pains me to say but... well there you are. I hope this film does well at the box office for Shyamalan because I think that, even though some of the movies are a bit dull, he does provide some beautiful visual moments and I would like to see him mature as a writer. Alas, this doesn’t hold up as one of the great Shyamalan movies I’ve seen and I just hope he can go somewhere more interesting from here.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Phantasm OblIVion

Balls To The Wall

Phantasm OblIVion
USA 1998 Directed by Don Coscarelli
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Sorry but there will be spoilers on this one... I want to talk about what Coscarelli does with the ending here.

So... only four years after the previous installment in this film series (you can read my review of Phantasm III - Lord Of The Dead here) we have the fourth and, what I expect many people thought would be the final one in the series... even though the ending is, to a certain extent, left on the usual style of cliffhanger.

The film more or less picks up where it left off, with Reggie Bannister’s character Reggie voicing a recap montage of the events of the previous movies. Then we carry on with the new ‘ballified’ version of Mike, played again by A. Michael Baldwin, driving into the desert on some kind of bleakly surreal quest and with Reggie, still pinned to the wall by the spheres. The action carries on with Reggie and Mike spending most of the movie apart, doing different things. And we have the rematerialising, manifestation of Mike’s brother Jodie, once again played by Bill Thornbury, being much more sinister and perhaps not as helpful as he might at first appear here.

Reggie’s character is pretty much in it to provide the action scenes as he speeds across the desert trying to catch up to wherever Mike is. There’s a nice sequence where he battles a kind of zombie policeman which ends in a vehicle explosion and that provides almost a running gag in the film on this one... there seems to be an abundance of exploding vehicles in this. Including the one that explodes after Reggie breaks the window of a newly rolled over car to drag out the lady trapped inside. When they end up in an old shack for the night, Reggie is back trying to get into the young ladies affections... although not as strongly as he was with the Roxy character in the previous movie.

We then get the scene that I’m sure many Phantasm fans had been waiting a long time to see. As she’s sleeping, Reggie notices the young ladies bosoms are heaving just a little too oddly underneath her nightgown so he quickly undoes the item of clothing to check out what’s going on and, sure enough, her breasts have turned into Phantasm balls which promptly fly around the room chasing Reggie. One even manages to drill through his hand as he tries to stop it gouging its way into his head before he destroys it with a tuning fork. I think it’s nice that Coscarelli has gone back to the tuning fork idea on this as it was a prominent part of the ending of the first movie, if memory serves, although if it was as effective as a weapon as it is here, you have to wonder why our heroes never thought of it before.

Meanwhile, Mike is on something of a philosophical pilgrimage through both the desert and different time zones via the tuning fork gateways. We see a lot of flashbacks throughout the movie but it’s especially clear, in one scene where Mike tries to end his own life and it flashes back to the events of the first movie, that Coscarelli must have shot a lot of unused scenes for that first film which never made it into the final cut. He makes good use of them here though, which is riddled with ‘new footage’ of the four main actors when they were much younger men.

The fourth actor I am referring to, of course, is Angus Scrimm who, once again, takes up his duties in the iconic role of The Tall Man and, also, we find out his real name... Dr. Jebediah Morningside. So the Morningside mausoleum in the first movie was named after him... retrospectively, I guess. As Mike visits Dr. Morningside in his past, we get a little taste of what his back story around the time of the American Civil War was and how, and why, he invented the portals to another world in the first place... so this is nice stuff and we get to see Angus do something a little different with the role in this one.

Of course, by the end of the movie, everything is so surreal and disjointed... deliberately so, I think it’s fair to say... that you have no real idea of what’s going on or why events are being allowed to play out in the order they are. Which is something of a modus operandi for the series, as far as I can see.

I talked about the use of flashbacks and while it’s immensely satisfying to see the same actors at various ages playing the same characters, there’s also one thing which Coscarelli does with them which, on reflection, is simple but it’s also quite special. There’s an element of this in a lot of the flashbacks but what he does very specifically at the ending of the film... after Reggie has jumped into another dimension to try and get help while Mike, the sphere extracted from his brain, lays dying on the desert floor... is finish the film on a flashback. Now I can’t remember if the scene the director chooses to end the film with is an unused scene from the first film or whether it was in there too but, it consists of the younger versions of Mike and Reggie sitting in Reggie’s car and driving. Michael hears an echo of himself from the future where Coscarelli has the sound of Mike saying he’s dying superimposed over the old footage and Reggie asks what the sound was. Now what it was originally supposed to be and why Mike has the wistful expression on his face, I don’t know, but the way Coscarelli remoulds the material to give it a much greater weight than was originally intended when the footage was initially shot nearly twenty years before, is kind of a special thing to do, I think. Making new connections with old scenes and giving them a meaning beyond what they originally had is something I’ve not seen that many film makers try before, to be honest.

And that’s me done with Phantasm - OblIVion for the forseeable future. It’s a film which disappointed me the first time I saw it but, approaching it now with the expectations a little lower allows the film to flourish more in my mind and I think, like the third movie, this stands up much better over the years than I expected it to. As with the previous movies... recommended to fans of the series but not really a good jumping on point if you’re a stranger to the Phantasm universe.

Well, now I’ve got this far I can see the possible jewel in the crown of Arrow's restored, Blu Ray box release... the debut of Phantasm RaVager, a recent film in the series which, with the death of Angus Scrimm back in 2016, I suspect really will be the last of the Phantasm films. At least in the form we know them in... I wouldn’t say a remake is out of the question at some point. So looking forward to reviewing that one here when I’m done. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

A Thousand Cuts

In The Heat Of The Nitrate
A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies
by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph
University Press Of Mississipi
ISBN: 978-1496807731

You know, this book’s subtitle is far more optimistic than you may expect if you’ve already delved under the beautiful dustcover and started reading this collection of interviews with a certain kind of dying breed. A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies is about a bunch of people, some of them very famous, who deal, trade and collect prints of movies... and the quirkiness of the obsessive personality of collectors is, as you would expect, very much in evidence here. However, these are not rose tinted tales of maniacal outcasts restoring the glory of movies past... although, to be fair there is a bit of that in this. More often, however, it’s a sobering account of people measuring what we, as a society, have lost... where prints decay in that phenomenom called vinegar syndrome... and the chilling realisation that this is just the tip of the iceberg and modern movies are in way much more danger for future generations than the gazillions of movies we’ve already lost to the march of time over the years.

While spelling out certain truths in his introduction to the various chapters, each of which highlights one collector (or occasionally more who are tied together by a certain theme), Bartok does highlight that films as an art form are not quite so much at their last knockings in terms of the way they are sometimes welcomed by the younger generation as part of a whole package of different media feeding off each other. He illustrates this with the Harry Potter movies and mentions that many children are eventually led to the movies because they want to find out how to get through the rest of the levels of the video games of these characters... so they look at the movie versions for inspiration and then also, quite possibly, the books. And this is one way that films are not quite a redundant art form as yet. However, what this book is mainly about is film as celluloid or nitrate prints that are literally ticking time bombs and Bartock and Joseph, with the help of testimonies and recollections from fellow collectors, highlight this alarming trend and the current attitude of  a ‘disposable Hollywood’.

To be fair they do highlight that certain good things are happening to try and save ‘film as we know it’. For example, nobody is really making film stock anymore and he mentions that directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have banded together and managed to persuade Hollywood to advance order so much film that the few companies providing it can keep themselves in business for another five years or so. As you find when you’re reading through the anecdotes in this tome, this is not just a nice thing to do but, pretty much, an essential thing to do if directors want to be able to keep and store proper versions of the films they make.

Asides from the heavy stuff, though, the book is a charming gem of first and second hand anecdotes about the people who buy reels of certain films for their collections. The author highlights a number of times in the book... and I’m not 100% sure of why he does this.. that the majority of the people in the world of film collectors (and I mean literally buying prints in cans) are predominantly male, gay and, for the most part, are not able to hold down a steady relationship or family due to the expense and storage space needed for their collections. That being said, there are other collectors in here that don’t fit that description... even a woman collector who is into buying and preserving terrible B-Movies (and thanks to her, I shall now be on the look out for a Blu Ray of APE, a movie I wasn’t that bothered about before reading this). And also some collectors who have turned their personal collections into goldmines for others (at a price), many of them rescuing these films from final oblivion against unbelievable odds, such as the man who specialises in sexploitation and who some of my readers might know as the man who resells DVDs and Blu Rays of his prints as the Something Weird Video label.

And there’s some truly interesting stories both from collectors most people have never heard of to some more famous names on the scene, such as film critic Leonard Maltin, director Joe Dante and, of course, the very high profile story of actor Roddy McDowell, who was caught in an FBI sting in the 1970s, when the FBI were pretty much waging war on private collectors under the crusade of copyright violation (in a campaign as destructive as the Video Nasty era of films in the UK in the 1980s was). In an ‘almost but not quite’ metaphor for the McArthy witch-hunts, McDowell was forced to confess his interests and dealings in film prints and name names so that the FBI could see who to bust next (one of the collectors in this book, who is also one of the co-authors, went to jail for his dealings at one point). Part of McDowell’s ‘confession’ document is reprinted here and it makes for interesting reading when you find McDowell would defend his passion through trying to become a better actor from watching others etc. It’s a heartbreaking document but it’s full of unusual information such as McDowell justifying his ownership of a print of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes due to the fact that it was heavily edited on television screenings.

There are many kinds of stories packed into A Thousand Cuts. Such as the tale of a gay, Nazi collector who was proud of his print of Thoroughly Modern Millie but who also had a small can found next to it labelled ‘Jew outtakes’... because he’d cut out the Jewish wedding scene where Julie Andrews sings that fantastic song so he wouldn’t have to look at that when watching. And thanks to Maltin, I now know the projectionist’s term for an adequate distance between the projector and the screen is referred to as ‘a good throw’. And there are also many stories that highlight how in danger film now is. There are not many of these collectors left (and very few young ones) but, here’s the thing... because nobody in Hollywood is making or looking after any prints (and even less so with the somehow more volatile digital movies), often they will seek out these private collectors to borrow the print for new screenings or to get the best print for a Blu Ray restoration. However, the well is drying up and, with a lot of films made over the last 20 years or so, there is no well to plunder at all when the next release of a specific film is required. And, what’s worse (and I saw this coming from the moment I first heard about film restoration), as Joe Dante points out, most of the films are not being converted to digital and saved in that way. The content is very much cherry picked to just... what will make money or is a big movie or future classic... but there are gazillions more films that the high profile restorers are just not interested in.

There’s a wonderful the tale of one collector in this book which says a lot about the state and worrying future demise of the art of film, actually. It’s a man who loved the classic movie The Day Of The Triffids so much that he spent over thirty years of his life, in all his spare time, going over his print with a needle to take out the hundreds of thousands of white specks on what I am assuming is the only print existing worth talking about. And that’s the only reason, from what I can make out, as to why we have such a nice looking, blemish free print of The Day Of The Triffids on home video now. Without this guy’s battles for copyright and to restore it over the decades, it would probably be a lost film by now. Or at least, a film in a much less watchable condition. And, frankly, I find that prospect to be a grim and frightening one and, it has to be said, a lot of the collectors in this book seem pretty depressed when asked about the future of film. I mean, sure, some of them can agree that the latest Blu Ray restorations, if done correctly, can sometimes look better than the original film print ever did (something I learned myself from a documentary on the first Blu Ray restoration of the Bond films from a few years ago) but, yeah, having access to everything a film lover may want in the future will be.... well, I suspect there will be quite some outrage in 20 or so years time when people start to realise just what we are losing right now... especially in relation to modern films.

So, yeah, that’s my little review of A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World
of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies.
It’s a fabulous tome and one of those books about film that I’m very happy to have on the shelf. This is absolutely recommended to anyone who is in love with the idea of owning little pieces of celluloid history and also for those of us who buy films regularly on DVD and Blu Ray. There’s a lot to learn from this vastly entertaining and well written book. A definite read for all cinephiles, buffs or just casual fans of cinema... a real goldmine of information and trivia awaits.

Sunday 13 January 2019

The Adventure Game

A Fistful of Drogna

The Adventure Game
UK 1980-1986
Simply Media DVD Region 2

I don’t know who Simply Media are but they have my undying gratitude for bringing out on DVD one of the greatest television programmes ever to come out of the UK. The Adventure Game was a kind of game show, with a marked difference to any other kind of competitive show at the time, which ran from 1980 to, roughly 1985/86 ish. It ran for 22 episodes spread out over four series and it’s a big dose of my childhood viewing that I didn’t think I’d ever get back or, indeed, have a chance to watch again. Well... mostly back anyway... two episodes, one from each of the first two series of five episodes each, are missing presumed wiped. Of the remaining 20 episodes, at least two (again from the first two series) are only included in this volume because they existed as ‘off air’ recordings from private collectors on either VHS or Betamax video tape. The quality of those specific episodes does indeed show at times but I am, again, absolutely grateful that Simply Media have managed to track down what they could because, without those off air recordings, we would not have been able to see now how such celebrity guests such as Paul Darrow, Madeline Smith and David Yip got on in their adventures on the fictional planet of Arg.

The show was set on said planet and inhabited by Dragons who could take human form. The plot of the game show each week was that three time or space travellers (depending on which series you are watching, things were pretty fluid on the show) would crash land on the planet Arg and the likeable Argons, who were cursed with ‘an unfortunate sense of humour’ would put them through a series of locked room style puzzles (pretty much the first of their kind on British TV) in order for them to leave the planet with the crystals to power them on their way.

Now I used to love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when it debuted as a radio show back in 1978 and I had no idea that Patrick Dowling, who devised The Adventure Game out of his interest in the game Dungeons And Dragons, wanted to capture some of the spirit of Douglas Adams masterpiece in his show and, indeed, even asked Adams to contribute writing to the show (although Adams was busy at the time with a TV adaptation of his masterwork so had to decline). There is, though, in hindsight, some of the flavour of that universe in this weekly show but, honestly, The Adventure Game was a phenomenon unto itself and, in my opinion, laid the groundwork for other similarly styled shows from later years like Fort Boyard and its UK version The Crystal Maze... although, frankly, those shows couldn’t hold a candle to The Adventure Game.

Every week you’d have three players arriving, comprising of two celebrities plus somebody else who was an expert in their field. Nowadays, of course, the less recognisable experts from the day can sometimes turn out to be modern celebrities too, as I discovered when I realised one of the contestants on one of the shows was Chris Hughes, who is now a regular expert on the TV show Eggheads. When they arrived they would be greeted by the Argons, who would aid and abet them in their puzzle quests and these people were huge personalities to us viewers. There was the sometimes half-deaf butler Gandor, played by Chris Leaver, who was absolutely brilliant and, as far as I can tell, the only regular who was in every series and every episode. I often wonder what has happened to him because I can’t find out anymore information about him and I don’t understand why he was never used by the BBC after this show... at least that I can see.

Other regulars would be the absolute sweetheart Charmian Gradwell as Gnoard, who was in all the episodes of the first three series and who disappeared completely by the fourth. Which is a shame but I assume she’s doing fairly well as the last credit I can find for her is as Cate Blanchett’s dialect coach on Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. She was replaced by Sarah Lam as Dorgan in series four and... she did an okay job but we all missed Charmain when she was gone. If you haven’t figured it out yet, all the names and a lot of other things on Arg were anagrams (or partial anagrams in shorter words) of Dragon. Newsreader Moira Stuart played Darong in series one and she was kind of okay in the role. Also, one of the contestants in one of the shows in the first series was Lesley Judd... who got evaporated and became a series regular as a ‘prisoner of Arg’ in the second series. Basically, the contestants would have to rescue her as part of their tasks in series two, not knowing she was now an Argonian mole who was there to help stop them from winning the game. The contestants were asked at one point to figure out who the mole was and point to their nominee saying ‘Mole, mole, go to your hole.’ However, if they got the wrong one, their nominee would be evaporated in her place... which is what happened in the majority of episodes.

Two other series regulars also captured the imagination of the people who used to watch this thing.

One was his royal highness the Randgo of Arg. Up until the end of the third series he would take the form of a grumpy Aspidistra and the contestants would have to bow and say Gronda Gronda Randgo to appease his grumpiness. In the third series he was more mobile and spurted water when he was very angry, controlled by everyone’s favourite R2 unit controller Kenny Baker. In the fourth series he took the form of a huge teapot that would spurt steam if unhappy with people.

And then, of course, there was Rongad, played as a gum chewing, Australian Argon by Bill Homewood. He really caught the nation’s attention by being able to talk backwards and hold lengthy conversations in backwards speak, much to the consternation of the groups who would visit each week. He would come on singing a backwards version of Waltzing Matilda and even if the contestants finally managed to twig he was saying everything backwards and that he couldn’t understand them unless they were talking backwards... “Nodrap?” he used to say... they usually weren’t quick enough to translate more than a few words to try and help them solve some of their puzzles. Everybody I knew who used to watch it used to copy Rongad’s “Doogy rev!” exclamations to indicate something was “Very good” and I believe the actor in question still uses this exclamation on Twitter to this day.

The puzzles were brilliant too and, although they followed a fairly close pattern for each series, were somewhat different every week. One of the things which struck me as I watched this now, was how lost a modern set of celebrity contestants would be nowadays. How many of them would figure out how to construct an electromagnet or add salt to water to get things to rise in a tube? This is a real timepiece of a show and it’s as much fun watching celebrities of yesteryear such as Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin, Janet Fielding and Johnny Bull trying to figure out some of the devious puzzles devised by the Argons (or the show’s creators, I guess) as it always was. I was expecially impressed with the late Professor Heinz Wolff (he used to appear on the BBC show The Great Egg Race) who managed to pretty much work out almost every puzzle fairly quickly. I think he even managed to survive to the end of the show which was, actually, a fairly rare occurrence.

These DVDs brought it all back to me and, although I guess the show probably shows its age to younger viewers, I have to say I felt like I hadn’t aged a day when I started rewatching these. I even somehow remembered David Yip was going to type his name into the computer wrong and be called Daviod for the rest of the episode. And who can forget the brilliant Drogna game, where all the contestants had to do was work out the not so subtle Richard Of York Gave Battle clue (“In vein, I believe sir!” Gandor would prompt them) to get the combination of shapes and letters that made up the Argon currency, Drogna, that would get them safely across the floor tiles. Or the absolutely brilliant ‘Vortex’ board where the majority of the contestants would meet a sticky end at the conclusion of the show (unless they were intelligent enough to throw a green cheese role onto a nexus point to see if the ‘invisible to human eyes’ vortex was there). And don’t get me started on the Dogran and his Dogran Hole!

The Adventure Game was a show like no other and I have to say I spent most of my Christmas holiday this year reliving this, to much enjoyment. If you’ve never seen this before, slip on a copy, reset your screen ratio to 4:3 and let the absurd surrealist humour coupled with various celebrities and experts in their field generally showing how clueless they are in the face of Argon humour wash over you. If you remember this show from back in the day and you loved it then... pay it another visit. It hasn’t changed a bit.

Friday 11 January 2019

The Greatest Showman

What a P.T.

The Greatest Showman
USA 2017 20th Century Fox
Directed by Michael Gracey
Blu Ray Zone B

Ahh, Christmas time. That magical time of the year when you’re confronted by the ghost of watching films you really didn’t want to see because you bought them for relations who did. Such is the case with the musical motion picture The Greatest Showman, which stars Hugh Jackman as P. T. Barnum in what I can only describe as a somewhat sympathetic, rose tinted humbuggery version of that man’s life. I think the last time I saw a production about Barnum it was also big on sentiment and less enthusiastic about selling a more genuine embodiment of the spirit of the man but, that’s okay, I guess that kind of sensationalist pursuit is, in some ways, doing just that... in a roundabout way.

That previous time I saw a Barnum musical it was in 1981 at the London Palladium in a stage musical which was literally just called Barnum... and it had Michael Crawford in the title role (I think ex-Carry On star Jim Dale did it in America, if memory serves). And, though it’s not completely fair, especially since The Greatest Showman is in no way an adaptation or remake of that production, I shall do the obvious and make my one and only comparison to the stage show and say... I still remember some of the songs from the 1980s show. The songs in The Greatest Showman seem, somehow, a little flat and unmemorable in comparison.

That being said, I’m going to hedge my bets here and remember I gave a disasterous review to another recent musical, La La Land (you can read it here if you like), only to discover that, once the songs were stuck in my head, I absolutely loved the movie from my second showing onwards and would happily screen it for myself every year if there weren’t so many other movies to watch. And, seeing as I didn’t hate the songs in The Greatest Showman, I’m guessing that they will soon grow on me if I heard them again so, although I’m not likely to get to it anytime soon, I suspect that if I’d waited and wrote this review after a second viewing, it would be more favourable than what I’ve got to say about it this first time around. So sorry but... first impressions will just have to do.

Those impressions being that... it’s not a bad film. It has some nice segues from one scene to another and some clever choreography on some of the musical numbers... such as the scene where Jackman’s Barnum is trying to persuade Zac Efron’s character to join forces with him in a dance at a bar with flying glasses and bottles... or a sequence where Efron dances with his love interest, played by Zendaya using the ropes of her profession as a trapese artist.

And the performances are all fine too... especially Hugh Jackman, who I always find is worth the price of admission, so to speak. Michelle Williams is equally sparkling as Barnum’s wife Charity and Rebecca Ferguson fairly twinkles as famous singer Jenny Lind. There’s also an edge to the writing in terms of giving the characters a less predictable nature and by far my favourite character was a critic who seems to have hated Barnum but here, it seems, is given a little more three dimensionality in terms of the way he reacts to situations and he’s wonderfully brought to life in this by some guy called Paul Sparks. So all well and good and... combined with some nice colour palettes and some beautiful sets... part of me thinks I should maybe have gone to the cinema to see this one.

However, my main problem... and I can see how this could always be a problem when cinematic fantasies have one foot in reality such as biographical pictures... is that the plot seems absurdly simple. This film has less twists and turns than a Roman road and, while I should probably be applauding simplicity in modern cinema... I don’t know, it just seemed to me like there was no real drama to get my teeth into here, no matter how good the performances were. And they were very, very good.

I guess that, while I did invest in the main protagonists to some extent, I never felt like there was much at stake for any of the characters and I just didn’t feel the need to root for them enough. Which is a shame because there was obviously a lot of time and care put into this production. However, that being said, I’m one of only three people I know who didn’t think it was all that people had said it was (my two viewing companions were of the same opinion as me on this one) and everywhere else... well, I’ve not heard a bad word said about it and it’s been very successful. So I’m kinda glad about that since there’s obviously no small amount of work gone into bringing this tale to the screen.

And that’s me done, I’m afraid. The Greatest Showman didn’t really inspire me as much as it might and I wouldn’t whole heartedly recommend it to anyone... much less those who don’t like musicals (I love musicals myself). Not, quite, my cuppa tea but I suspect I may get turned around on that if I ever find myself plonked down in front of it again. Sometimes first impressions aren’t always right and, like I said... hedging my bets.

Thursday 10 January 2019

NUTS4R2's Cryptic Movie Quiz 2018 - Solution

Annual Cryptic Movie
Quiz Answers

Thanks, as always, to everyone who took part in this year’s Cryptic Movie quiz. As always, it’s much appreciated.

This year we have a joint effort from a team who are, believe it or not, claiming their third victory out of the seven years I’ve been doing this. The last time they won this was the 2015 edition of the quiz. Not only that but, this year they managed to get it sorted within just a couple of days of it going up and got a full house of correct answers... so I guess I may be making this thing too easy.

The winners are:

Alex Kittle


Miles Donovan

Alex Kittle is an amazing artist and one of my all time favourite bloggers. She writes about mainly art nowadays but she knows a humongous amount about the art of film and somehow juggles her day job to make some some great, often movie based, illustrations and designs which she sells as prints, badges, stickers and bags etc. You can follow her on Twitter here and check out her blog here.

Miles Donovan is an artist/designer/blogger who does amazing things with lots of technically complicated 'stuff', again, while holding down his day job. You can follow him on Twitter here and see some of his wonderful creations at his alter ego The Daily Robot here.

As you can see, above is the correctly filled in grid but this is how you arrive at the solutions.

1. How old is this special elevation in the road to lift your vehicle off the ground?
A special elevation in the road is a Ramp. How old is it? That would be its Age. Put them together and you get Rampage.

2. Tie someone up and then recite the letters of their state in the right order.
Tie someone up and they’re Bound. To recite the letters of that word in the correct order would be to Spell it. So we have Hitchcock’s classic film Spellbound.

3. They sliced and scrambled Reg up and added something to stop him being odd.
Well scrumble the letters R-E-G up. If you want to add something to stop it being odd you can add Even to even it up. Add it in the middle of your scrambled word and you get Revenge.

4. I go with the French green.
The French word for green is Vert. Literally add “I go” onto the end and you get another Hitchcock classic, Vertigo.

5. The fourth guy along in the alphabet.
Another name for a guy is Man. The fourth letter along in the alphabet is D. So... ManD... or rather, Mandy.

6. You just make your way up to the top of that chopping instrument.
To make your way up to the top of something you usually Climb. A chopping instrument is an Axe, so... Climax.

7. Like if a distorted, reduced version of a Woody Allen title character came from a continent bounded by Europe and the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.
Okay, a competely distorted, mangled version of Annie Hall could be Annihill. If she came from a continent bounded by Europe and the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans she’d be Asian. So... Annihilation.

8. Observing a nasty shade of angry and then getting into an argument at the place which is conducive to your good health.
Okay... quite often when you’re angry you use the euphemism ‘see Red’. A place conducive to good health could be a Spa. If you have an argument there you could be having a Row. So... Red Sparrow.

9. Presumably this is where the alphabet lives.
Well, yeah, the Alphabet has to live in Alphaville, right?

10. Raise an unrelated child on the last day of the working week.
To raise an unrelated child is to Foster them. The last day of the working week is generally considered to be Friday so... Friday Foster.

11. Backslang for an Emu to a ‘t’.
Backslang for Emu would be Mue. Add a ‘t’ in it and you get Mute.

12. The final thing needed to hold up the 13th letter of the alphabet.
The final thing would be the Last thing. The 13th letter of the alphabet is M. Something to hold it up could be a Brace so... Last Embrace.

13. A terrible, common serifed font is where it’s at when James, The Black Dahlia writer, drinks a malt beverage containing about 6 percent alcohol by volume.
Okay, this is a mouthful of a title. If something is thought of as terrible it’s Bad. A common serifed font could be Times. Where is it at? Well James Ellroy wrote an incredible novel about The Black Dahlia so... Ellroy. A malt beverage containing about 6 percent of alcohol by volume could be an Ale. So... Bad Times At The Ellroy Ale... or more familiarly... Bad Times At The El Royale.

14. After the sixth we have a pinnipedia.
A pinniped or pinnipedia is another term for a Seal. After the sixth must come the Seventh so we have Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

And there you go. That’s me done for his year. Please register your interest with me on Twitter if you want me to continue putting these together every year. Thank you all for playing.

Sunday 6 January 2019

One Cut Of The Dead

Dead Pan

One Cut Of The Dead
(aka Kamera o tomeru na!)

2017 Japan Directed by Shin'ichirô Ueda
UK cinema release print.

Okay so... more than most films... I’ve got to be really careful reviewing this one if I hope to do so without giving you any spoilers. Some of the film’s set up that I shall describe, which may seem at first like a spoiler, is definitely not and it’s certainly no more than you can glean from the trailer. In fact, it may even be said to be somewhat misleading in my, or any other non-spoiler representation of it but... that’s the exact nature of the beast in the case of this particular movie. So I’m happy to misrepresent slightly in order to preserve the secrets of the film because it actually won’t affect the criticism of it to any real extent and it’s a film deserving of a certain respect, whether you liked it or not.

That being said, I did really enjoy this movie but, it has to be said, I didn’t find it quite as funny as the rest of the audience in the Prince Charles Cinema on the day I saw it (which is the only cinema I could find in London showing this thing, believe it or not). It was a good audience and they were literally roaring with laughter at this movie... a little during the first 40 or so minutes and then, almost continually for the second half of the film. It would be true to say that this is some of the best, positive audience reaction I’ve seen at the cinema in quite some time. That being said, it still doesn’t rival the audience reaction I witnessed with literally hundreds of people jumping in fear and then laughing on the first cinema release of Return Of The Living Dead but, then again, few things do. This screening of One Cut Of The Dead, though, is definitely up there with that sense of full on audience participation.

Okay so... One Cut Of The Dead is a story about a film crew making a zombie film. The acting from the two leads isn’t that great and the director has a fit because, after 42 takes on one shot, his leading actress still can’t get her ‘fear response’ right. So during a break from filming, the director takes advantage of a bit of urban myth concerning the location they are shooting at and performs a magic ritual which unearths real zombies (you know, the George A Romero kind) to terrorise and imperil the cast and crew, so he can get a more authentic motion picture. Now, I loved the cheesy music used during the opening when the film within a film is first being shot... it helped push the idea of ‘too fake’ acting almost as well as the leading actress. However, as I went through the rest of the film, post zombie outbreak, I did notice a couple of things that seemed oddly out of place. Like a person who didn’t seem to belong in a scene or, at the very least, not reacting to the very real threat of zombie carnage. And then I couldn’t figure out if the camera operator was supposed to be one of the characters... after he or she quickly wipes off the front of the camera to rid it of blood splashes... and then some more stuff happens and... well, I’m trying to be spoiler free here so all I will say is that the film all makes perfect sense as long as you stick with it to the end.

The acting on display here is all pretty good with the person playing the director, Takayuki Hamatsu being of special note. In fact, the whole movie is played really well by the entire cast and, when you realise that two or more different styles of acting is called for by some of the principal players, you’ll probably agree that what’s been achieved here is pretty incredible. And there are lots of different tricks used to delineate when that initial film within a film is turned into a ‘real zombie’ outbreak. Such as the style of the music suddenly shifting to something which sounds as much like it’s been influenced by Fabio Frizzi as anything else.

There’s also a lot of handheld camera in this movie... pretty much most of it, in fact and, you’ll discover just why that is as the movie progresses. There’s a lot to be admired in this film but my little exercise in self discipline to not bring spoilers to the table on this one precludes me from mentioning a lot of these things.

So is it funny? Well I was mildly amused all the way through, even when the film was catching me off guard and occasionally making me feel somewhat short changed in regards to certain things... until full realisation kicked in again. And as for the rest of the audience... well, like I said, they were collectively howling in the aisles, which is no bad thing. We all react with laughter when, for example, we are confronted with over the top horror but I always react badly when a director is milking the same joke or sight gag. All I can say, without giving the game away here is... the director finds some good ways to milk the same recurring jokes at different levels and the crowd I was with were certainly laughing at something they saw and, when they saw a similar thing later, were laughing even more appreciatively for different reasons. And that’s really all I can say here about this film except for maybe one thing...

For a film which has you reacting on a more humourous level for 99.9% of the film, there’s an unexpectedly moving scene right in the last minute or so of the picture. There’s a little moment where we get a look at a photograph which has already been seen in the movie once before. When you see it again and you can relate it to... and this will give absolutely nothing away, I promise, unless you’ve already seen the film... relate it to a ‘crane shot’, then you realise just what a nice little touching moment the writer/director has pulled off here... amongst the technical marvel of the exact nature of the film, which won’t dawn on you until you’re maybe two thirds of the way through it.

So... fans of certain types of movies will love One Cut Of The Dead. I’m not going to list any genres or sub-genres because, to do so, will be somewhat spoilerific. However, I will give one bit of advice to those of you who are going in cold because I can see people leaving way too early if they’re not careful. If you are sitting in the auditorium and you felt that the zombie movie you were just watching ended a lot sooner than you were expecting... trust me... stay past the end credits. Things haven’t even really gotten started yet.