Sunday, 31 March 2019
Meme Me Up, Scotty
The Hollywood Meme -
In World Cinema
by Iain Robert Smith
Edinburgh University Press ISBN: 9781474441339
This is, once again, another book that caught my eye drifting past in my Twitter timeline and I was lucky enough to be given a copy for my birthday earlier in the year. Now, it would be true to say I had a few problems with The Hollywood Meme - Transnational Adaptations In World Cinema, the first being when I finally cracked it open to read in the Jury Lounge while on Jury Service and finding that, although the cover was correct, an entirely different book had been printed and bound inside - namely Creative Involution - Bergson, Beckett, Deleuze by S. E. Gontarski. Luckily, Amazon were more than happy to change it for me which they did, fairly promptly. So well done to their customer service team for that one.
Now the book focuses on the phenomenon of the meme as a snippet of an idea bringing together a common visual image, for example, which is then spread around such cavernous places as the internet and changed in ways which take the core meaning or notion but re-contextualises it to fit something else... if my understanding of that creative process is correct. So what Smith does here is use the notion of meme as a metaphor for the specific elements of Hollywood product and how different cultures utilise certain things from these to fit in with a specific market place and to bring more recognition and box office gain to the equation. And he does this using a few of the usual suspects by focusing on three large chapters, one each, about the Turkish, Philippines and Indian cinema at specific periods in their respective history (again, different periods) which best demonstrate what he refers to as The Hollywood Meme in evidence at the times selected to best highlight these points.
And he starts off by making a very good point about American product cannibalistically turning in on itself to reconstitute its own successful ideas and therefore reap greater profits from it. In this case, in his introduction, he starts off talking about the universal reaction that Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens was a rip off of the original, first Star Wars movie. Of course, this didn’t stop the film’s key target audience (myself included) from going to back to it for multiple repeat viewings and it’s certainly true, of course, that the very first Star Wars film itself was a potpourri of famous creative influences which owed a debt to various forms of cinema (not to mention Joseph Campbell’s writings) which A New Hope (as it was later retitled) was less than subtle with when it presented various texts combined and regurgitated back in 1977.
He is also keen to point out that the street goes two ways, as it were, in the way that various countries and cultures borrow and exchange ideas, allowing us to distill down from bits of each other’s successes within the context of our own cultural backdrop, so to speak. He makes the point that Hollywood comprises only 6% of global film production so, perhaps its reach and dominance of so much of international culture is a bit of a puzzle. Actually, in the early pages of the book I was just waiting for him to get around to pointing out Wim Wenders famous quote from his 1976 film Kings Of The Road and, sure enough, within a couple more pages he’d gotten around to that “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious” dialogue so, yeah, it’s still a useful quotation to use as a metaphor, I guess.
He also goes onto talk about The Berne Convention For The Protection Of Literary And Artistic Works set up in France in 1886, at the behest of writers such as Victor Hugo and how this was pretty much ignored by the various people making movies at these key times of Turkish, Philippine and India.
Here’s my big problem with the book though... it’s way too academic. And when I say that I mean that the levels and denseness of the academic speak and technique in which the book is written is far more alienating and able to render vasts swards of text almost incomprehensible in the worst way. To myself, at least. I still can’t for instance, work out just what the objective of Mr. Smith’s new model for the study of transnational cinema is... even when he tries to sum everything up in the end. As I’ve said elsewhere (in a review of a book which I’ve so far been too cowardly to publish here for fear of hurting an author’s feelings), I really hate the academic approach of ‘method, text, conclusion’ as I find it a complete waste of everybody’s time but this is exactly the mode of discourse that the writer has chosen to utilise his ideas with here. The first two great chunks of text discuss exactly what he is trying to write about and prove and then, before we get to a similarly redundant conclusion chapter, the book is split up into three main chapters which actually are very interesting when you can cut to the chase, namely Popular Turkish Cinema from 1970 to 1982, Popular Philippines Cinema from 1979 to 1994 and Popular Indian Cinema from 1998 to 2010 (specifically their Bollywood strand of national cinema).
Then, at the start of each chapter he does exactly the same thing... starting off each section with a lengthy summary of what he is going to write about and then following up, at the end of each chapter, with another summary of what he’s just written about. And I suspect, with the overwhelming academic speak that some parts of this text uses, I didn’t always understand all of the points he was trying to make. Especially when the specific samples he picks... of which he chooses three to four films for each chapter to briefly write about... are all examples which are somewhat different in intent to each other and which all use slightly different modus operandi in their respective approaches to the ‘Hollywood Meme’ part of their make-up.
But, like I said, there is some ‘gold in them thar hills’ if you can penetrate the slightly alienating writing style found in many passages and he helpfully includes, near the start of each chapter, a kind of precis of each of these national industries at the period he is writing about and how they came to be at that place within a historical context. He also talks about the lack of enthusiasm or recognition of copyright laws in each respective country as an indication of the relative ease in which films like the famous yesilcam 3 Dev Adam aka Santo And Captain America VS Spider-Man are made.
So, in addition to introducing me to the background behind the ‘yesilcam’ film and the term ‘Turkification’, he explains why Turkish cinema was more Westernised and populist in its execution as opposed to the often more artistically different film produce of other countries. He also demonstrates how many of the films from Turkey and the Philippines are actually not utilising the specific characters from the source material... Batman, Robin, Superman, Captain America, Spider-man etc... but merely using the visual iconography of those famous characters to get people into the cinemas. So the only traits that the villanous Spider-man of 3 Dev Adam shares with his comic book counterpart is, for example, just the costume and the name. And often the text of the movie will point out that the characters are only borrowing these trappings due to a plot point, rather than actually being the same characters (which is kinda interesting, actually). Again, he points out that in Turkish Star Wars, while footage and music from various Hollywood products are spliced in (visually, from Star Wars) the plot and characters are different to the original Lucasfilm classic.
He goes on to look at Turkish Star Trek (this is one of the many films highlighted in this book where I’ve had a ‘DVD’ waiting in the piles to watch for years without getting around to looking at the thing) and how it’s a continuation (indeed conclusion) of a long series of films about a Turkish comedy character and how he is injected into a feature length remake of the early Star Trek episode The Man Trap (the salt vampire one... I believe it was actually the first in the series to air when the show was first transmitted, with the second pilot film following a week later) plus famous scenes from other Star Trek episodes and how this character is used to highlight, metaphorically on screen, the exchange between Turkish and US culture.
He points out, in another film I’ve still yet to get around to watching, Seytan, which is a Turkish remake of The Exorcist, how the Catholic tropes which make the film quite terrifying for audiences of a certain religious persuasion, have been replaced by Islamic ones. So, for example, the infamous, forced crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist is replaced with a Jinn-headed knife masturbation scene in Seytan.
His chapter on Philippines is more of the same but he points out that their cinema is a more postmodern one in terms of its borrowings from American culture, with several sources and genres spliced in so the movies can appeal to a wide range of countries in export. So, for example, Dynamite Johnson is a sequel to both The Bionic Boy and Cleopatra Wong (the Philippines answer to Cleopatra Jones). He also looks at the way their own popular characters such as the comic strip heroine Darna, who is already a little like Wonder Woman, is further enhanced to resemble the US heroine in the long series of films about her, even down to giving Darna a similar costume, tiara and bracelets that ward off the bullets of her enemies.
In the Bollywood chapter, however, Smith is quick to point out that the visual iconography of Hollywood so prevalent in the popular cinema of the Turkish and Philippine cinema of these respective time periods, is absent completely in the popular cinema of India. Instead, it is the characters and plots, scenes and shots which are transplanted wholesale... after being ‘Indianised’ with national traits like the addition of musical sequences... and this gives various Hollywood ‘classics’ the chance to flourish in a national market where penetration of Hollywood product is very low, especially in comparison with most other countries. So a Bollywood remake of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for example, has the narrative unfolding in the correct order but also has a parallel flashback story added and it’s in that romantic back story that the traditional Bollywood musical sequences are inserted.
In his concluding chapter, where the author also tells us what it is he’s just written about, he says some interesting things about the memes taken by these countries being 'memed' themselves and altered to produce a new phoenix form the ashes of what’s gone before... especially in regards to the web. So, for example, a serialised version of 3 Dev Adam has been re-subtitled with a totally different story and dialogue, with much the same attitude that Woody Allen ended up pulling together What’s Up Tiger Lily? from the ashes of the Japanese film Key Of Keys and turning it into something funny with the addition of new dubbing.
It was in this final chapter that the writer did really go down in my estimation, it has to be said, by using the phrase ‘an history’ instead of the totally correct ‘a history’... it’s a hard ‘H’ people! Other than that though... and the somewhat tiring use of academic syntax to render what should be easily understood ideas into fairly less penetrable ones... I’d have to say that The Hollywood Meme - Transnational Adaptations In World Cinema is actually a kind of interesting book and if you’re one of those few people in this ‘bootleg DVD, internet ironic’ world who has somehow not heard about a lot of these manifestations of national cinema, then you might want to give this book a try. If nothing else, it will open your eyes to what’s around for the more jaded of cineastes to whet their appetites on. This probably won’t end up being my favourite book on the subject but, until something better comes along, it’s definitely worth a look.
Thursday, 28 March 2019
Far and OA
By Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling
I’ve talked about actress Brit Marling before on this blog, both in her co-creative role with Zal Batmanglij and in her work with various other people, in some amazing films such as Sound Of My Voice (reviewed here), The East (reviewed here), Another Earth (reviewed here) and I Origins (reviewed here). I’ve quickly become hooked on the kind of work she and the performers/people behind the cameras that she works with does in movies and so, when I heard that she and Zal had co-created a TV series together, I got kind of excited and desperately wanted to see it. Alas, regular readers will know I’m not fan of streaming channel specific media and the kind of exclusivity that comes with it to subscribers so it looked like I wasn’t going to get a chance to see this one. Luckily, a friend gave me a way of seeing this and I was, once again, blown away by the kind of work this actress gets involved with.
Now, this is going to be a very tricky series to write about... partially because Batmanglij and Marling are about promoting the world of ideas and cultivating it in the collective mind of their audience, rather than presenting a standard kind of narrative which quickly crosses t’s, dots i’s and generally explains all there is to be found in a way that’s specific to a creator. Rather, they take some ideas, run with them and have an uncanny knack of getting you to ask questions about what you are being presented with and then leaving things for you to ponder on and draw your own conclusions from. That’s often the most powerful kind of evocative cinematic experience a writer/director can gift you with and, I have to say, The OA is one of the few television series’ I’ve seen which manages to do just that.
The other reason it’s a tricky thing to write about is because I really don’t want to give you any spoilers here. In fact, I’m not even going to tell you what The OA actually means or stands for. You have to find that out for yourself as you go on this, quite compelling journey of a TV show. So, yeah, I’m sorry if this is a short review but I don’t want to say too much about it. What I will do, though, is give you the basic plot set up so you can make your mind up as to whether you want to see this. So, I'm flagging a very slight and small spoiler from the first episode here although, frankly, I think knowing the start of the basic premise is just going to make you want to watch this one even more. So, if you want to know nothing about the plot at all... just skip this next paragraph.
The story starts at a point in the present when a dishevelled Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling) is seen running through traffic on a crowded bridge and jumping into the waters below. She is fished out and she has somehow survived this. Her parents (played by Scott Wilson and Alice Krige) are informed that she is at a hospital, declaring her real name is The OA. Prairie has been missing for around eight years and her parents are anxious to see her. Here’s the kicker though. When they get to the hospital to visit her, Prairie is asking the doctors and nurses surrounding her who these two people are. It’s okay though, explains her father to those assembled, it’s just that she’s never actually seen us before. It turns out, you see, that before Prairie went missing... she was totally blind. Not any more though.
And if that’s not an intriguing start to a story then, I don’t know what is.
Don’t want to say too much more about the narrative other than it tells a lot of things in flashback and then crosscuts to what is happening to Prairie in the present, as she struggles to not tell the FBI too much about what’s happened to her in the last eight years. Instead, she tells what’s happened slowly, night by night as the series progresses, to a bunch of five misfits who are finding a place to belong with her, in some ways. They are played by Patrick Gibson, Phyllis Smith, Brendan Meyer, Brandon Perea and Ian Alexander and, true, some of these characters are a little like walking clichés but I think that’s kind of deliberate because it helps provide something familiar to the audience to help sweeten the pill of some of the truly wild turnings this show goes down as Prairie tells her story. And clichéd or not, they’re very much 3D characters, for the most part and, as you’d expect from this creative team... they’ve picked some really great actors for these parts. Oh... and Jason Isaacs has an important role to play here too but... yeah, can’t really tell you what if I want to remain relatively spoiler free here.
The series, like the films I mentioned above, is not a thrill a minute ride which will have you speeding along with it. Instead it does things at its own pace and takes its time to pull you in while slowly putting little layers of background information in place about the various characters. And as it does so, it pushes you into the slow moving but inexorable creative current that runs through the centre of the story and doesn’t let you go until you’re ejected. Also, it doesn’t, like nearly all formula television, feel bound to a consistent running time from episode to episode. Instead, like the chapters in a book (and I think it might have been Batmanglij who made this point in an interview), each episode finds its own perfect running time for the information it wants to convey. So some episodes may run for over an hour whereas, one particular episode, only lasts little over a half an hour. One episode might have the opening credits near the start... another may not start on them until almost at the end of the show. It feels weird at times but it does the job so I really couldn’t complain about this.
The story does build to a kind of natural conclusion but one which leaves many things unanswered... as you will be expecting by the time you get there... although it also has a brilliant kind of double stance on the way things play out. The last episode does kinda pull the rug out from under the audience (and some of the other characters too) while also giving you something which slips that rug right back under your feet again, depending on how your brain decodes the art in front of you. Something which I suspect will get redefined a little anyway during the second series, which I believe was released last week (don’t know if I’ll get to see it though).
Not much more to say on The OA for now, other than it has some nice musical moments and some truly spectacular special effects sequences at times. One of the best shows on TV of recent years, for sure and that’s something I’d totally expect when I see Britt Marling’s name connected to something. Certainly a hard recommend from me if you are, unlike myself, someone who watches a lot of TV rather than film. And definitely something I’d say hunt out if you’re a film fan too, while I think of it. Don’t miss out on this one.
Tuesday, 26 March 2019
A Q To A Kill
Q The Music...
James Bond Concert Spectacular
17th March 2019 - Adelphi Theatre, London
Regular readers of this blog (and I know from my stats there must be at least a few of you) may remember that I’ve gone on record as being not a big reviewer of music and rarely write up any of the many concerts I’ve been to in my life. Although I absolutely love music, it’s not a medium I feel confident to talk about with any level of expertise, or even competence for that matter but, occasionally I will go out on a limb and try to do something because a concert has either been an exceptionally good experience, such as concerts by Hans Zimmer (reviewed here) and Brian Tyler (reviewed here) or, once, an exceptionally bad experience such as the Star Trek - The Ultimate Voyage concert from 2015 (reviewed here). In fact, as far as concert reviews go, I think those three were the only ones I've put on here so I’m pleased I’ve found another concert which was both fun and exciting enough... not to mention having a certain amount of authenticity where it was needed in relation to the original recordings... to report on here.
Now I’ve seen a lot of the greats of film music composers both conducting and performing over the last four decades, many pf them more than once. Ones I can remember off the top of my head are Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Goblin, Fabio Frizzi, Clint Mansell, Brian Tyler, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, Murray Gold, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Zbigniew Preisner and perhaps more pertinent to this particular concert... John Barry, George Martin and David Arnold. I’ve also seen live performances to movies handled by other conductors but I don’t like those so much because I prefer to hear the music without sound effects when I see such things. And the concerts I really have a problem with is when a random conductor leads ‘cover versions’ of various composers works and does ‘an interpretation’ of a ‘concert arrangement’ of a piece which, frankly, does not sound much like the originals...
The reason I’m making this point is because, when my friend ‘Doctor Rob’ rang me up to see if I wanted to go and see this concert with him my first impulse was... thanks but, no thanks. However, in the end I turned that into a strong yes for two reasons. Reason number one was that the concert was supposed to be compered by Madeline Smith and Caroline Munro and, if you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that Caroline Munro has a special place in my cinematic heart and I wanted to see her performing from a script rather than just meet her at the signings I regularly attend when she does one in London (there’s one this Saturday in Camden Town if anyone is interested). As it turns out, this first plus point didn’t go quite as planned but... I’ll get to that in a minute.
Secondly, I clicked on the video link on the concert promo page and, asides from one of the singers doing some really nice vocals of various Bond tracks (I’ll get back to Kerry in a little while too) I thought the orchestra was getting really close to an authentic ‘John Barry sound’ on the clips... rather more so than pretty much anyone else I’ve heard trying to go for that as, believe me, Mr. Barry’s orchestrations are pretty hard for a group to get right live, in my experience. So, yeah, I thought I’d give them a go and... I’m really glad I did.
So I sat in my seat at the Adelphi Theatre with my friend, flicking through my newly purchased programme (okay, it was an expensive tenner but it’s one of the more substantial programmes I’ve ever bought at a concert, to be honest and well worth the money). Bond music from the various movies was being played on some loud speakers for ambience while we waited for the show to begin. I loved that Caroline Munro had four pages to herself in the programme and... well... it was such a shame that although she was originally billed to be there, she’d been replaced (presumably last minute because there were no slips in the programmes and no announcements that we could hear) by Caroline Bliss, who played Miss Moneypenny in the Timothy Dalton era. However, both Miss Bliss and Miss Smith did an excellent job of compering, as did the mind behind the orchestra Q The Music, Mr. Warren Ringham, who wrote their scripts and plays both Trumpet and Flugelhorn in the show.
And, I have to say, it was a treat from start to finish.
The show has two singers in Matt Walker (who handles the majority of the male vocals, although not all) and the absolutely incredible vocal talent of Kerry Schultz, who also does all of the female vocals and some of the male vocals too. Now, it’s not just songs either. The show was jam packed with Bond stuff and although roughly three quarters of the shows are dedicated to truly awesome versions of various Bond songs (not only the title songs either) there are also instrumental cues listed in the programmes as ‘Special item - To Be Announced’ and these further highlight just how well this ‘band’ are able to nail the James Bond sound. For example, we were treated to some quite meaty and lengthy suites from Goldfinger (Into Miami, Odd Job's Pressing Engagement and Dawn Raid At Fort Knox), A View To A Kill (including a beautiful solo performance by a lady who's name I can't find listed in the programme) and The Living Daylights too.
However, some of the cues scheduled for the evening had to be dropped, from what I understand but, well you certainly can’t complain that this orchestra and vocalists, who were on their feet for the best part of three hours, didn’t give us value for money. And it was an absolute pleasure to hear Miss Schultz belt out tracks like Live And Let Die, GoldenEye and Another Way to Die. I also liked the two accompanying dancers who would come out every now and again, matching Miss Schultz, costume change per costume change and who were especially fetching in their latex and boots combos... but that’s probably something I should comment less on here.
One of the nice things also, about the band, was the way that when featured instruments had a significant contribution to the proceedings, such as on cues like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Bond ‘77, the people playing would step out of the orchestra to the front so you could see them doing their thing. That was pretty good.
As an encore for the show, they did one of my favourite Bond songs, Surrender, from Tomorrow Never Dies and that was a great one to end the evening on. Mr. Ringham did intimate that a version of Backseat Driver was also scheduled for the performance but, alas, they just ran over time and couldn’t squeeze it in. Mr. Ringham also, asides from Caroline Bliss and Madelaine Smith, told some absolutely wonderful stories from both fans of the orchestra (one who found inspiration battling cancer stands out) and also a brilliant anecdote about Sir Roger Moore which I’d never heard before. It really was a good evening.
Now, there were some ommissions that would have made the concert even better for me... if I wanted too much of a good thing. Renditions of 007, Capsule In Space, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Look Of Love, Where Has Everybody Gone (vocal version) and Die Another Day were not included in this performance. However, in all of those cases, they are in their repertoire and you can see them performing these in concert in all the usual places you can find such stuff on the internet (including their web page, which you can find a link to at the end of this article). However, in the case of doing a credible version of a less substantial song such as Die Another Day, well... I can see why they dropped that one.
There was also a double CD and a double DVD of one of their concerts for sale in the foyer... which meant I ended up unintentionally spending a lot of money that evening when I didn’t mean to. These are also available to purchase, along with a few other things, at their website.
My one bugbear of the concert was that they neglected to play what is, frankly, the greatest Bond song ever written... one which I still don’t know why other people don’t acknowledge as the best. But, there you have it, the absolute awesomeness of Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not included. What the heck? Maybe they’ll include it in June when they are playing a night at Piz Gloria in Switzerland but, well, it was a bit of a blow that this one didn’t make it onto their list yet. Would have been better than some of those awful Daniel Craig songs that the band here somehow managed to respin into musical gold, I reckon.
That being said, Q The Music’s James Bond Spectacular was still one of the best concerts I’ve been to in years and I certainly hope to catch them when they make it back to London, for sure. If you are a fan of the world of Bond and the wonderful, musical soundscapes from the films... well this is probably the only way to experience this range of material done in as pleasingly an authentic style that you can possibly get out of a live concert situation. Heartily recommended and you can visit the group on their home page at https://qthemusicshow.com/ to read about them, hire them, watch and listen to them and just generally get involved. I can’t wait for them to head my way again sometime soon. Nobody does it better.
Sunday, 24 March 2019
Directed by Jordan Peele
UK cinema release print.
Let me preface this review by saying there’s a huge problem with Jordan Peele’s Us and it’s something which occurs right from the outset. If you can get through this then you will find that this film is quite an accomplished and professional looking film, in spite of the inherent problem with the initial set up.
Now, this is the second film that Peele has both written and directed, the first one being Get Out (reviewed here), which I really didn’t like... although I’d be the first to admit that the film was also pretty well put together. I think one of my problems with Get Out is that, despite its marketing, it really wasn’t in any way, shape or form a horror movie as I was pumped up to expect from it. I mean, sure, the film was basically steeped in 1950s mad doctor, pulp science fiction but, yeah, more of a cheesy thriller than a horror movie.
Us, on the other hand, is a kind of sci-fi horror movie and much of the film works very well. I have to call it though and say that, frankly, this is the second update of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers that I’ve seen at the cinema in less than a month (the other being Hole In The Ground, reviewed by me here). The film is pretty up front about this though and, what we have here is some wonderfully pulpy, pseudo-science genesis of this movie’s version of the ‘pod people’ but, whereas the doppelgangers which inhabited the original sci-fi classic and its three 'official' remakes were fairly passive and let their ‘victims’ fall asleep to replace them, the doubles in this film (and this is not a spoiler, if you’ve seen the trailer) are much more aggressive, violent versions of their original counterparts.
However, it’s very, very good. From the opening sound of the waves crashing against the Universal studios logo which sets up a subconscious indicator to be on your guard when ‘the beach’ scenes come up at various moments in the film (including the pre-credits sequence) to the wonderful performances by the central protagonists/antagonists played by Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, Peele fashions a well crafted and hugely entertaining horror/thriller.
There are some obvious references to cinematic history in the film, with some especially nice ones during the 1986 opening sequences... although, honestly, we don’t need to be watching an old advert clearly labelled as being from 1986 and then, in the very next scene, be told on the inter-titles that this opening does, indeed, take place in 1986. One of the things I was wondering about, in terms of influences in the film and specifically the ‘look’ of the characters was regarding the red jump suits worn by the various doppelgangers in the movie. Being as I got the feeling the hidden and lurking nature of the ‘other versions’ were possibly inspired by the mutants in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed by me here), I was wondering if the costumes were possibly inspired by Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed by me here). Don’t know if I’ll find out though.
The film is fast paced and the dual performances by the various performers, with a truly stand out turn by Nyong'o, help you to suspend disbelief on some of the more fantastic and pulpy elements of the story (especially those revealed in sequences involving a lot of bunny rabbits). Get a load of good actors together to keep a straight face during some of the more ridiculous moments in a film and you’re onto a winner and that’s exactly what Peele’s managed to do here.
Now, I said the movie has a huge problem and so I might as well get to the obvious elephant in the room here. Even if I hadn’t been primed by the trailer that the film includes doubles of characters (and I wish the trailer hadn’t revealed that, to be honest) the problem is that there’s a point very early in the film, before the credits, which ‘reveals by ommission’ of certain shots, the so called twist at the end of the movie. Honestly, you’d be hard put not to realise the very obvious thing here before Peele chooses to ‘reveal’ it when the movie’s last four survivors are driving away in their car at the end and I was pretty surprised that the director chose to even bother with that ‘sting in the tale/tail’ because it’s such a clumsily handled set up. If he’s not careful, this director will end up being the new M. Night Shyamalan, aka The Master Of The Obvious.
However, apart from the very start of the movie ruining the ending, everything else here is very nicely handled and I’m wondering just how interesting this director is going to be when hosting the new version of The Twilight Zone when it airs. Add in a truly excellent score by a composer I’ve not heard of, Michael Abels... and well done for the company in question putting out a CD in a couple of weeks time... and you have a nice horror/thriller with some possibly future iconic imagery, nice referencing and, although not exactly original, certainly visually interesting with some almost Hitchcockian suspense sequences. So if you don’t mind seeing the ending coming a mile off, ‘get out’ of your armchair and get to your local cinema for a screening of Us. It’s really not bad.
Thursday, 21 March 2019
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.
It is not dying... it is not dying.”
Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolver, Lennon and McCartney
Okay, so that’s nine years today that I’ve been posting up what are mostly film, book and TV reviews to this site.
I’d planned on saying something about streaming content from places like Netflix, Amazon Prime and the upcoming Disney channel because, frankly, it’s still a hot topic on forums like Twitter. However, I looked back at what I talked about in my eight year anniversary blog and it looks like I covered a lot of it there.
That being said, I still want to go over a few basic things about the huge amount of streaming channels because the people who are all for them, as they feel everyone can access them are, it seems to me, somehow missing the point. There’s also a huge plus to some of these content streams but, I suspect, that huge plus point may severely diminish or completely disappear over the next ten years or so.
So, point one... yeah, Steven Spielberg’s absolutely right when he says movies funded and released almost purely on a streaming platform/channel, even if they have a very brief theatrical release, should not be up for Oscar consideration. Oscars are for theatrical release content and anything else is TV movies and not, specifically, a branch of the art that the Academy Awards were invented to honour. Not that I place much stock in the Oscars myself but it’s an award for a specific kind of entertainment route and I don’t think the rest deserve the chance to encroach on that space. There are other awards they can win which aren’t The Oscars.
Point two, if you only have a very limited theatrical release... and I’m talking about a few days of single performances or none at all... then a lot of people really don’t have access without indulging in the strange, almost emotional blackmail of shelling out a subscription charge for each channel. And if they are going to do that then the customer needs to find the time to watch more than a couple of hours per month to make it worth their while (although, same with cinema I suppose... to an extent). A great deal of these exclusive streaming releases don’t even get any kind of home entertainment release on the likes of DVD or Blu Ray (especially not over here in the UK)... so not only can some people not even access them in a justifiable manner, they also can’t own a copy to put on their shelf for viewing whenever they want. I have piles of some 500-1000 Blu Rays/DVDs sitting around from the last ten years waiting to be watched and reviewed for this blog. Do you think I'd be able to hold onto any of that lot for that amount of time on a streaming channel?
Which brings me to point three... people who are subscribing to these are subscribing to a moveable feast. Shows and movies come and go as, bizarrely, the channels remove them from their service at various points in time. So, unlike a DVD or Blu Ray, you can’t just watch what you are paying for any time you want to. These things disappear at the whim of the powers that be so you are stuck without the product you want when you require it and, if you’re using something on there because you want to analyse it for, lets say, a film studies qualification... then you may find yourself stuck without warning and with not much that could be done about it. DVD and Blu Ray purchases prevent that from happening to you.
Now, as I said, there’s a huge benefit, at the moment, to directors and writers working exclusively with companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime and that is... more creative freedom. I think it was Duncan Jones who said his Netflix film Mute (reviewed by me here) would not have been funded or released another way and I’m assuming that’s because a major studio would not indulge his full creative input or be more relaxed about what the artist wants to do as some of these streaming services are apt to be, for the moment. So I can understand the appeal for some directors, even if their product doesn’t make it into cinemas. However... how long is it before these new streaming services get more of an idea of what their core audience want and start imposing tighter creative restrictions on the directors? I’m sure, for example, Disney are being much more precious and controlling about their new Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian in terms of creative control. So I can’t see much, if any, leeway given when it comes to ‘final cut’ on shows like this. I may be wrong but... well, I can only speculate. I suspect we won’t be seeing it on DVD or Blu Ray anytime soon though, since Disney need some kind of carrot to hook their new channel customers with. We shall see how that one plays out, I guess.
Oh...well there you are. Even though I tackled the same subject as last year’s anniversary post, I’ve clarified some of my thoughts on the issue here, I think. The birth of streaming online and on TV has created problems, I think, for the industry and, as importantly, for the end users which we’re only just beginning to grasp. Whether we can turn the phenomenon of streaming content into something which is a more positive, genuinely accessible force for the continuing success of the art form is anyone’s guess at the moment. In the meantime, people can go round their friend’s house to watch something if they don’t have the stream in question or, you know, pick up a free bootleg... which seem to be appearing every now and again at the various places one might expect to see these things. This kind of amounts to the same thing as borrowing a friend’s password and, so far, I’ve not seen any of these discs actually for sale on the black market but, if the content holders continue to withhold from cinemas and home video releases, I’m sure it will become an issue at some point soon for them.
Anyway... those are my thoughts on streaming media providers at the moment and, if some of this seems vague or unclear, please bear in mind that I’m in a lot of pain right now and spaced out on nausea inducing antibiotics as I type this stuff. So cut me a little slack there.
So all it really needs now for me to finish my post off with is this... if you’ve read this far.
Thanks to you all for reading and continuing to read my blog. Each and every one of you, whether you agree with my views or not, is very much appreciated and I hope you continue to come back here when you can. It makes this whole time consuming affair of holding down a day job and then watching and writing about stuff on a regular basis a little lighter, in the end.
Happy reading and please come back soon.
Tuesday, 19 March 2019
The Monster Movies
of Universal Studios
by James L. Neibaur
R & L ISBN: 978-1442278165
It’s a surprising but no belittling a factor that, in his introduction to The Monster Movies of Universal Studios, James L. Neibaur quickly explains that he has eschewed various of what I would personally say are still very much candidates for the title in favour of, purely, going through the various classic monster movies from that studio which have seen numerous releases over the past twenty years on DVD and Blu Ray and which are nowadays known to fans of that particular sub-genre as The Legacy Collection. Nothing wrong with this, of course and it certainly provides a service for those who are discovering these films in this fashion for the first time... what it does mean, however, is that films that I would personally also consider part of that loose canon... films such as The Mole People, It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula and The Monolith Monsters... especially in light of the fact of the inclusion within these pages of the Creature From The Black Lagoon cycle (not to mention three of the Abbot And Costello crossover movies), are not covered by this book. That’s okay though... perhaps we’ll get a companion volume at some point.
The book starts off by briefly reminding the reader of the climate that brought about the enthusiastic pursuit and production, originally by Carl Laemmle Jr, of these horror vehicles that assaulted the public in the early to mid 1930s and then once again throughout the 1940s in various spin offs and sequels. The success of each movie (sometimes saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy) and the downward plummeting budgets of these movies during the 1940s is subsequently recorded as each film is looked at in chronological order of release. What we have here is a chapter for each film in the recently released (and rereleased on Blu Ray) Legacy collections... so the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature From The Black Lagoon characters all have separate entries for each and every movie in their respective cycles lasting maybe 7 or 8 pages per piece. Also included is my personal favourite werewolf movie, Werewolf Of London, along with the somehow non-horror movie She-Wolf Of London (I’ve always puzzled why this psychological thriller is included in these sets since there’s no actual monster in the movie at all) and the three Abbot and Costello films... Meet Frankenstein, Meet The Invisible Man and Meet The Mummy.
Each chapter contains a look at how the cast and crew were selected for the upcoming project, followed by a synopsis of the film and a look at how the film fared both critically and at the box office (often two polar opposites when these things were lurking at the cinema). So, for example, in the section on the first Dracula film, he talks about how it was refined down by various writers from the Balderston reboot of Stokers stage version of the novel (as opposed to the novel, on which hardly any of Dracula’s cinematic excursions have been based on) and also talks about Lugosi’s involvement in acquiring the rights from Stoker’s widow, with his subsequent lobbying and accepting of far less money than his fellow actors to secure the role which he had already made his own on stage. Neibaur goes on to make the point about the way the narrative is focused more on the story of the title character as opposed to adding in more significant back story for some of the supporting characters like Lucy, Mina and Dr. Seward, as a more modern take on the material might pursue.
For each film the author makes comments about the stylistic sensibilities of the movie in regard to placement of camera and general cinematography and, sometimes, brings up some interesting facts or observations that I was unaware of (even though I’ve read and watched a lot of documentary material on these films over the years). For instance, in the case of the original script of Cagliostro, The King Of The Dead, which was revised and evolved until it became The Mummy, I was unaware that in that original script, Cagliostro was a 3000 year old magician who remains alive by injecting himself with nitrates. And it’s also interesting to know just a little more detail in the story behind the original make-up for Werewolf Of London, where make-up artist extraordinaire Jack Pearce and actor Henry Hull clashed on how much the make-up would hide the face of the actor... with Hull going above Pearce in the food chain to get his way via the consequences of the original make up to certain things indicated in the script. It’s also interesting to note that when the studio successfully rebooted a werewolf character via The Wolf Man and its subsequent sequels, Pearce went back to his original make-up designs for Lon Chaney Jrs make-up. By the way, in case you are in any doubt, I most certainly disagree with the author’s insistence that Werewolf Of London is somehow inferior to The Wolf Man... not a bit of it.
Another little gem I don’t think I remembered or, perhaps, didn’t know but which this book brought to light is the fact that Son Of Frankenstein was being written/finished on a day by day basis as it was being shot... so I need to go back to that movie sometime soon and see if I can find any plot points or continuity moments which betray that fact. He also talks about the scene in The Mummy’s Tomb where the couple is ‘making out’ in the car but are disturbed by the sound of the film’s main antagonist going past as being the first time this had happened in the horror genre... I’m not 100% sure on that myself because there are so many films from the silent era which are lost to us but I’m happy to take him at his word until other evidence comes to light. That being said, I suspect that one of the later Mummy movies in this cycle may be the first cinematic instance of a living dead person rising up out of the earth but... I’ll get on to that when I eventually get around to rewatching that movie for this blog.
Another interesting point the author makes is that blending comedy with horror was not a new concept by the time of the 1949 movie Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein and his musings on various of the films traces the decline of the monster series', noting which films had lower budgets than each previous, why that was the case (in some instances... like the special effects budget being slashed because more money for effects were needed for a film being shot simultaneously) and also takes note, I believe, of the declining running times as the various films emerged.
He also highlights a lot of the errors in these films such as the horrible continuity problems with the time placements and, sometimes, location settings for The Mummy movies... and its kind of refreshing to hear someone else acknowledging those. He goes on to point out that the footprints in the snow of the presumably naked Claude Rains in The Invisible Man are of shoes and not feet so... yeah, I can’t believe the studio went with that solution, to be honest.
That being said... I believe the author is not above making a few errors himself. For instance, when he talks about the Frankenstein monster as being... “... a legend that most audiences knew due to the popularity of Mary Shelley’s nineteenth-century novel.”... then surely that implies she merely popularised an already existing character, rather than fashion the whole story from clay as I believe is the case. Also, he notes that the stage version of Frankenstein gave The Monster the same name as his creator. Really? I’ve not heard that before and would have thought that, if that were the case and it such a bone of contention for people who love this character... that he is often confused with the scientist who created him... then this would be better known.
However, a few 'possible' errors do not kill a book and, although I knew a lot of the stuff covered here before, much of it gleaned from documentaries and commentary tracks, this book wins out because it is a handy guide to the ‘Universal Legacy’ monsters where all the information is gathered into one place and, also, because there is some stuff I didn’t know about in here and, yeah, that always makes a book invaluable. If you are a stranger to the movies covered in this book then I would definitely cite this tome as being a great starting place to jump on for a flavour of what these movies are all about... although it is, of course, no substitute for watching the actual films themselves. For die hard fans, though, this book is also a nice thing to have on hand to look up the quick, odd fact for when this kind of subject matter comes up in conversation, for sure. The Monster Movies of Universal Studios is a book which belongs on the shelf of any admirer of the genre and a big thank you to the coolest friend who bought me a copy of this one for my birthday. It was much appreciated.
Sunday, 17 March 2019
The Haunting Of Borley Rectory
UK 2019 Directed by Steven M. Smith
Greenway Entertainment DVD Region 2
A few weeks ago, my mother was 80 years old.
She was born on the same night that Borley Rectory burned down in 1939, before being demolished in 1944.
A couple of weeks ago my dad found this new DVD release, The Haunting Of Borley Rectory, in a local supermarket and because of its commemoration of my mother’s birthday, in some respects, he bought it for us all to watch.
I somehow wish he hadn’t because... well... I guess in some way the film is amazing. Not amazing as it’s anything like a great (or even halfway decent) film but just amazing that this film actually managed to get a professional, commercial release at all. I’d never heard of it and when I checked it out on IMDB I found that it was released this year. So the ‘straight to DVD’ status should have at least warned me but, you know, there are a fair few straight to home video movies which are really quite good.
Alas, this isn’t one of them.
Now when I was a kid, Borley Rectory was (and probably still is) known as 'the most haunted house in England' but, rather than shoot a story prior to 1939, this film is set in 1944, after the Rectory itself had already been half destroyed by the famous fire. Also, if I’m understanding the story here rightly, this actually isn’t set in the Rectory itself but in an undamaged house somewhere in the same grounds. But I guess The Haunting Of Some House and Surrounding Grounds In The Vicinity Of Borley Rectory wouldn’t have made for the best title. Unless I got that totally wrong. It’s kind of hard to tell.
After two extended pre-credits sequences and a kind of draining opening credits sequence, we get a story of a US World War Two soldier stationed at this house because it’s somehow a good place to listen out for Nazi radio signals. Every now and again the caretaker or a woman who brings him food enters the scenes to chat with him and the rest of the time he’s left on his own with both visions of his war experiences... which turn out to be a complete red herring in terms of having any impact on the narrative at all, as far as I could tell... and visions of a creepy nun who sometimes has glowing eyes. He then finds out about the local history and calls on real life paranormal investigator Harry Price who was famed for his populist research on the house (and who died four years later) to help him solve the mystery of the place.
And it’s a truly terrible, unremarkable and completely non-scary film with a bizarre lack of production value (at least it seemed so to these tired eyes) and some awful performances. Almost everyone is wooden in this one except for Rad Brown who plays Harry Price... and even he has his moments but he also has some screen presence, at least... and a supporting role for an actress called Kit Pascoe, who does at least seem like a naturally gifted actress with some talent but who also seems to drop out of the picture without rhyme or reason and who seems not to have any kind of significant story contribution to the narrative at all (as most characters in this don’t). She’s definitely the best thing in this movie though and I hope her career isn’t hampered by appearing in films like this.
Um... what else? Well, I was watching this with people who lived through that time so... the bed heads were modern and certainly not of that 1940s period, the crosses on the windows to stop them from shattering during bombing raids were merely crosses in the centre of the windows rather than going around the edges and completely re-enforcing the panes, as best people could in those times and really, soldiers in the army weren’t allowed beards, as far as I can remember. So, yeah, there seems to be a lot of anachronism and bad historical judgement from what we could see.
Also, most of the ‘played for scares’ part of the movie seemed to be consisting of dreams which the lead protagonist, played by Zach Clifford, would then wake up from. Okay for the first couple of times but I think I must have seen this guy wake up more times in this movie than I’ve eaten hot meals over the past few weeks. This seemed like constant use of an absolutely lazy ploy to get as much attempted scares in the movie... and I use the word ‘attempted’ deliberately.... as possible. And it really doesn’t work.
There was one attempt in one shot where I noticed the director was trying to be creative... where only a top left square of lit up screen, approximately one tenth of the overall image, is used with everything else blacked out but... it wasn’t a long shot and didn’t lead into anything else in a creative manner, it has to be said. And Darren Wonnacott’s synthesiser based score seemed bizarrely wishy washily toothless but somehow also managed to overpower the images with something that seemed a little unsuited to the visuals... although it may (or may not) work as a stand alone listen away from the production (not that I really want to find out and I’m pretty sure I won’t get the chance to do that anyway).
And there you have it. I have nothing further to say about this mess. As a family unit we collectively found The Haunting Of Borley Rectory a somewhat underwhelming attempt at a horror movie and I must admit I was struggling to stay focused, even through the 92 minute running time. It’s been a while since I had this much negative stuff to say about a film and so I apologise to anybody involved in the production for doing so here but, you know, I have to call them as I see them and I really didn’t find all that much to shout out about here. Not one I’d recommend and I’m glad I personally didn’t pay out for this one as it’s something I’ll never need to watch again.
Thursday, 14 March 2019
Pirates Of The Carribbean -
Dead Man’s Chest
USA 2006 Directed by Gore Verbinski
Disney Blu Ray Zone 2
And so I bravely tread into my rewatch of the second of the movies inspired by the long standing Disneyland ride, Pirates Of The Caribbean - Dead Man’s Chest and... you know what... this is not nearly as dreadful as I remember. I recall finding it fairly dull the first (and last) time I saw it, at the cinema back in 2006 and, although that’s probably still an accurate description of it, in all honesty, it’s by no means the complete disaster that I originally perceived this huge, box office burster to be. I think my extra disappointment with the film probably came for the fact that this was, in no way, a worthy sequel to the fantastic debut in the series (reviewed by me here). Yes, that’s true enough, as it is for all the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies but, back then, I actually thought, until I started watching it, that it may give the first film a run for its money. Alas, it’s not nearly an adequate sequel of a movie but, now that enough water has flowed under the hull, I can at least look at it with less expectations than I did on my initial viewing and find that it’s really not that offensive. Bits of it are even watchable.
Okay, so the film opens with a bit of a shock (good... nothing wrong with that to help get the audience interested) as two of the main protagonists of the first film - Elisabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightley and Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom - are arrested and awaiting execution for their part in the escape of Johnny Depp’s scallywag rogue Captain Jack Sparrow at the end of the last movie. However, a deal is struck for Turner to find Sparrow and bring to the new Governor of... wherever the heck the characters in these films are all living... Jack’s magical compass. He goes off and, when Elisabeth escapes, she also goes after him.
Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s opening scene is... well it’s not bad actually. A coffin is thrown into the sea and a bird lands on it and starts knocking on it with it’s beak. After a short while of this a shell flies through the wood of the coffin, fired from inside, eradicating said bird in a quick flurry of black feathers. A hand holding a flintlock pistol pokes through the hole left in the wake of its deadly harbinger and looks around as if it were a periscope. The lid is then lifted from inside, revealing Johnny Depp in his Jack Sparrow form as he then uses the leg of the skeletal corpse he is resting on to start rowing his coffin to his destination. And it really isn’t a bad character intro but... don’t try and compare it to the first film, where Depp’s entrance into the picture was a wake up call to great character entrances the world over. It’s a bit of a shame that this moment here isn’t remotely able to compete with that first intro but, like I said, divorce it from your treasured memories of The Curse Of The Black Pearl and... it’s really not a bad entrance, methinks.
And then everything gets really silly with Depp being struck with ‘the black spot’ (fans of Treasure Island should know that reference) and the main villain of the piece, Davy Jones (Hey, hey!), played by Bill Nighy as a Cthulhu-like squid creature, is after Depp with the similarly mutated crew of the famous Flying Dutchman. He will stop at nothing, including unleashing the fabled Kraken of myth, to track down Jack Sparrow to pay his debt of servitude to him unless, in a new deal, Jack can bring him 100 other souls. Meanwhile, Jack wants to find the key to unlock Davy Jones' chest (I'm guessing that would be Davy Jones locker then?) and free himself from his debt by piercing the living, beating heart of the skipper enclosed within.
And that’s as much of the silly plot that I can remember, to be honest... the rest of the film being one set piece after another while Depp tries to show off his tremendous acting talents with, it has to be said, a script not that worthy of him and with lots of chases played for comedic effect. The fight choreography doesn’t seem quite as good as the first one and, although there is an okayish extended swordfight between three main characters towards the end, it’s really not that swashbuckly and, in what is presumably an attempt by the director to try and top his first installment, the simple pleasures of the cutlasses clashing is mostly abandoned as he tries to find bigger set pieces to make everything seem like it’s delivering a lot more when, as it happens, it’s just delivering more a lot less effectively than the previous time around.
Now there are some nice moments, to be sure, with some great little throwaway jokes which look back to the previous adventure, such as when Jack first realises he is back in the company of Elizabeth Swann and, recalling a certain scene, he whispers to a crewman to “hide the rum”. And the actors are all good in this as they try to work hard and perform wonders with a script that is really not delivering on either the comedy or action in the same way as it did before. There also seem to be some huge story jumps between the two films as we find, for example, what became of Jack Davenport’s character Norrington... which doesn’t really help when it comes to echoing the feel of the original. And then there’s those set pieces...
Gore Verbinski must really like action sequences when everything is out of control and without the heroes able to do too much with the situations they find themselves in. In fact the action feels very repetitive... especially when we have a scene where Jack’s crew are trying to break out of spherical bone cages which they then proceed to roll around without much control when, later on in the film, we have a watermill which comes off its central axle and the three swordfighting characters... Jack, Will and Norrington... are fighting both inside and on top of it as it rolls around the environment, out of control. I was, at one point, wondering when the next inanimate object would somehow break free and start rolling around and causing our heroes more problems.
I also missed the pirate skeletons of the first film. Sure, the writers tried to deliberately hit that same supernatural undercurrent which made the first film a little fresher but, to be honest, fish/squid/what the heck people, while nicely surreal, kind of detracts from the atmosphere in this one, I reckon and I would have much rather they’d taken the supernatural element out of it altogether on this one rather than what they pushed it to here. It just seems very dull, at times.
That being said, the film isn’t all tedious and it still does entertain enough to keep you watching for what is, it has to be said, a monstrously unnecessarily, ginormous two and a half hour running time. One of the things which makes it so watchable, of course, is Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score for the film. Now, I don’t like this score as much as I liked Klaus Badelt’s original but this is still pretty good and it certainly keeps your toes tapping while the action sequences are playing out (and honestly, without the music, the film really would have been pretty much unwatchable). So a big shout out to Hans for this one and, of course, also to the cast of first rate actors who are able to make some of this dialogue sound half credible. This film wouldn’t be a recommendation from me but, of course, since Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man’s Chest was made back to back with the next installment, you need to see this one before you can make sense of the next... especially since this one leaves it on a bit of a cliffhanger. Although, if memory serves, the next one suffers from having a really strong set of opening scenes followed by more of the 'less-than-exciting' shenanigans which marred this one, to an extent. Of course, I’ll only know that for sure by rewatching it so... you know... watch this space.
Tuesday, 12 March 2019
Arabella of Mars
by David D. Levine
TOR Books ISBN: 978-0765394750
Long term readers of this site who are more familiar with my fictional reading tastes may recall that one of my favourite book series is of those detailing the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, from the early 20th Century… so when I saw this book, Arabella Of Mars, floating by on my Twitter timeline sometime last year, it was one that definitely lit up my radar. I quite enjoy female focussed fiction and the cover showed an old style sea ship sailing through the skies, presumably in the atmosphere of either Earth or Mars… so this was definitely something I was going to have to look into at some point. I was, therefore, delighted to receive a copy of this for Christmas and it was a regular companion for my first week of my latest shift of jury service a short time ago.
And, I have to say… it’s absolutely great.
Now, the various reviews located on the back and inside cover of the book are quite keen to let the potential reader know that the story within these nicely illustrated covers is a mixture of the aforementioned Mr. Burroughs, Jules Verne, Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brian. Well, despite the consistency of these different review quotes... I wouldn’t say that’s entirely accurate, although it’s close.
Now I’d have to take these people at their word on the O’Brian references because I’ve never read them or seen anything based on them. I can vouch for the fact that there’s a strong nautical feel to the book however and I would personally invoke the spirit of C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books in this context because, well, I’m getting on a bit in years (although, to be sure, I haven’t read any of those books either but, I realise the similarity of the content to say that this is probably an appropriate call).
Similarly, I’ve not read anything by Jane Austen but my understanding of the subject matter of her books and the concerns and expectations of marital status on behalf of the title character in this very tome do lead me to expect that this is also a good conclusion to draw.
Ditto for Mr. Burroughs and it would be impossible for me to not discern a certain heavy influence when it comes to his martian tales on this book. Although they only have the same number of limbs as human folk in this novel, from what I can tell, the Martian creatures do tend to bear a certain descriptive resemblance to the Tharks in Burrough’s yarns, for sure. Also, mention is made of the effect on the human body in the transition, between Earth and Mars and vice versa, in terms of the side effects of the gravitational pull. More precisely, where Burroughs highlights the superhuman prowess by his heroes such as John Carter and Ulysses Paxton due to the lighter forces of gravity found on Mars, Levine flips it on its head and talks about the devastating effect of humans in terms of gravitationally challenged prowess when returning, or indeed first setting foot, on Earth. Arabella Ashby, the lead heroine of this book, was born on Mars and doesn’t visit England until a number of years have passed.
As far as Jules Verne is concerned; as an admiriing reader of his work I was less convinced that he could be called a direct stylistic influence on this book. Despite being set in Victorian times and having some interesting passages during the narrative concerning the minutia of navigational calculations, the language in which the book is couched is perhaps less Verne and more something another period writer might attempt, in all honesty.
None of this stuff devalues this novel in any way whatsoever, though... so while some of these comparisons may at least serve as a guide to give potential readers a taste of the content of the book, it in no way hamstrings the pace of the narrative or takes away from the fact that Arabella Of Mars is a damned good modern take on the Victorian science fiction pulp novel and fans of all or any of the above listed writers (yeah, alright, even Verne to an extent) should love this sprawling adventure which starts off with a brief section highlighting the spirit and nature of Arabella’s relationship with her family of settlers on Mars - her father, mother, sisters and, most importantly in this case, her brother - and also her knowledge and friendship with the Martians who now share their planet, to an extent, with the English settlers. The novel then, after Arabella, her mother and two sisters find themselves in circumstances where they return to England, jumps from 1812 to 1823 as we find ourselves embroiled in the family politics with distant cousins after the death of one of Arabella’s close family.
During these specifically Austen like passages, the adventure that drives Arabella and the novel gets underway as stakes are raised and it is incumbent on her to find safe passage back to Mars in the most dire of circumstances. Which she does by disguising herself as a male and gaining passage, through her prowess with her hobby of maintaining automatons, on a sailing ship which is to fly to Mars when Earth and that distant red planet are at their most convenient... entering the shipping lanes between these worlds at a time when the journey should only take two months as opposed to the year it could take in less ideal positions. Taking the job of Cabin Boy to a Captain who has invented and uses an automaton to navigate his ship, the Diana, out of danger and on a true course, we are subjected to all the kinds of exciting adventures that one might find on a normal sailing voyage of this period... with the added element of space travel and the navigational aids to progress the course of their ship towards the planet that Miss Ashby must reach in a race to be reunited with a specific family member on the plantation of Mars before the nefarious devices of the main villain of the book can be successfully executed. This of course contains details of rigging and ship’s politics, not to mention pirates, privateers, space storms and, when she finally reaches her destination, a less than welcome reception due to events that have recently taken place on Mars in her absence.
And it’s a truly exciting read and, as I mentioned before, quite definitely infused with at least some of the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs' adventures on Barsoom (aka Mars).
Of course, me being me, I had a few minor criticisms. The first of which being the reference to one of the moons of Mars as being Phobos. Now I know the events of the book obviously take place in a fictional universe far different from our own reality, where sailing ships in the Victorian era can fly to Mars and back through specific atmospheric routes between the worlds but I can’t shake the fact that Phobos wasn’t discovered, in reality, until the year 1877. The majority of this book, however, is set in 1823 and, while I’m quite happy to take on board the fact that things in an alternative reality could be called identical names more than 50 years before they were really discovered, I wondered why the author did this. Burrroughs, of course, retitled the planet Mars as Barsoom, in sympathy with the languages of the inhabitants and it’s a neat trick to name specific things as something 'other worldy' to avoid certain clashes with other realities, should they arise. Alas, the position of the author here is that it’s Phobos and that’s that? But, like I said, a minor point and who am I to say the inhabitants of this alternate reality weren’t taking the same inspirations as the real discoverer of Phobos did in 1877?
Something which really did get on my nerves a few times, however, in an adventure novel which seems to me is not intended solely for children, is the lack of swearing in the book. Or to be more precise, not the actual lack of swearing as there are a fair few times when characters let rip with their vocabulary... but with the refusal to spell the entire word out in the text and use only the first and last letter of the word (thus implying the knowledge of the content of the word in the reader’s vocabulary anyway). So you will have words like f______g turning up or even, bizarrely, g_______d. Now it could be that this is a very specific stylistic flourish which the writer has employed to maintain a certain aesthetic continuity which has somehow flown under my radar but... it does certainly raise the question as to why you would want to use this kind of dialogue but then be unwilling to actually show it.
That being said, these were genuinely the only two, very small, concerns I had with the book and I have to say I absolutely loved this maiden voyage of Miss Arabella Ashby of Mars and I already have the next tome in this series on the way to me here in the UK at some point soon. It’s a shame that a Kindle version of this truly marvellous novel has not been issued in the United kingdom because I’m absolutely sure my father, who is not able to hold books open and turn the pages for any great lengths of time anymore, would absolutely love this book too. Alas, so far the Kindle variant seems to only be available in America so... that’s a bit of a shame as far as I’m concerned.
However, if you are a fan of science fiction pulp adventure and are looking for a new sequence of books to start, you could certainly do a lot worse than entertaining the notion of giving Arabella Of Mars a spin. A truly wonderful novel with a story which I hope to continue with in the next volume, fairly soon. Seriously give this one a go... it’s truly excellent story telling.
Sunday, 10 March 2019
A Brie Variation
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
UK cinema release print.
I’ll only rant about this for a brief paragraph... Captain Marvel was always my favourite superhero but he wasn’t a Marvel comics character. When DC comics sued Fawcett due to similarities to their Superman character, the comic stopped publication and DC eventually published the character in the 1970s, under the title SHAZAM! You can read my review of the original theatrical serial based on this character here. He’s been a staple of the DC Universe ever since. However, the reason they had to call their comic SHAZAM!, although he was still called Captain Marvel on the interior pages, is because Marvel comics successfully got the rights to use the name for their own character in the 1960s.
Their Captain Marvel was a completely different character and it was a huge thing when, in the 1980s, the character died of cancer. However, by then another character called Ms Marvel, with her alter ego Carol Danvers, had been unleashed in the Marvel universe and, it’s my understanding, since I’ve never read any of the Marvel branded comics featuring this character, that she was later renamed Captain Marvel and that a different Ms. Marvel is currently also in existence at the moment. I believe it’s the Captain Marvel version of the female equivalent character (brought out originally in her Ms Marvel form at the same time as Spider-Woman, in a bid to attract more female readers to Marvel, if memory serves) that this film is based on... although I believe she also uses some of her male counterpart’s various costumes through the years during the course of this movie.
Now I will always go and see whichever Marvel movie is out and I will always go to these things thinking that, at the very least, it won’t be as dull as Black Panther (reviewed here) or Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 (reviewed here)... but there were two more reasons why I was particularly looking forward to this one. Firstly, it ties in with the post-credits scene of Avengers Infinity War (reviewed here) and tells the back story of that sequence before going full tilt into the upcoming Avengers End Game movie in one of the two post-credits scenes on this one. The other reason was that the title role in this one is played by Brie Larson, who I’ve not seen in much but, I have to say, I really enjoyed her performance in Kong- Skull Island (reviewed here) opposite Samuel L. Jackson, who returns here as a digitally de-aged, pre-’Avengers Initiative’ Nick Fury. Also joining him is a de-aged Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D regular Agent Coulson, Annette Benign, Ben Mendelsohn and Jude Law.
And... it’s not a terrible movie by any means... although there seems to be some bizarre, online backlash at the moment for reasons I can’t quite discern (and which I’m sure won’t matter once the box office results are in). It’s also not one of the best of the Marvel movies but I did quite enjoy it and I suspect it’s one of those slow burn Marvel flicks like Avengers - Age Of Ultron that get much better on the second viewing. It has nice performances by the central actors and some okay special effects work.
It’s also very confusing.
Not in terms of the deliberately non-linear flashback stuff which is actually quite nice and somewhat brave of Marvel in terms of the normal flow of their superhero films... but actually in explaining what the character is about, what she can do and why she can do it given how, without giving too much away, we see a typical 1960s Marvel comics style ‘transforming accident’ by way of an origins incident. So, yeah, I totally didn’t understand the character, although I did very much enjoy her breezy personality and Larson’s portrayal of her. However, for me, despite having a 'Mar Vell' character in the film (who isn’t Carol Danvers), the real weak point of the movie is... why the heck is this character actually called Captain Marvel? She’s not once referred to as it in the film (nor is anyone) and there’s no reason why she would be, truth be told. We just have the title card at the end of the film, before the big mid-credits scene which I can only assume is directly lifted from Avengers End Game. It makes no sense to me and I’m hoping this is just a cool tactic by Marvel so they can give a reason and character reveal in that next movie (like coming up with a hastily thought out name after meeting Captain America, for example). Fingers crossed they’ve got this all sorted.
Okay, so it was big on action and, although I did find some of the heavily laden special effects scenes a little dull, it was refreshing to have a fully formed hero from the opening of the movie (a few of these kinds of films are beginning to get back into this pre-1950s ‘get them on quick without a long, movie length origin sequence’ aesthetic and I think that’s a good thing) and the way in which the storyline did develop was not as formulaic as many of the superhero movies have been of late... which was refreshing. Also, since the movie is obviously set in 1995, as you’ll see from this film’s Stan Lee cameo which I also won’t spoil, there are some nice pre-millennial jokes and pop culture references here (although some of them seemed to be more like something that would have fit a movie set in the 1970s than the 1990s, to be honest). There’s also a very nice, new Marvel logo animation at the start of the film which I also, really don’t want to spoil for you.
And, there’s a great feline character too which, while not quite looking like a cat all the time because CGI is still not quite good enough to render these things as accurately as we might hope, has some nice moments in the film and sets up a second post credits scene that, while it’s totally predictable, helps tie up another slightly loose thread in the long chain of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and does it in a way which is quite humorous, even if you do see it coming.
So yeah, not much else to say about this one. Pinar Toprak’s score is pretty good with some nice electronica components coming in at key points in the action narrative but, once again, the score is not released on CD so, big shout out to Hollywood Records for only making a rubbish, compressed electronic download file commercially available so that nobody can actually appreciate the music as it should be heard. Honestly people, this throwaway attitude towards the score these days is something which has to stop. This is like constantly insulting the composers on these films.
But, anyway, asides from the shoddy and disrespectful attitude to the music in this film by the record label, Captain Marvel is really not a bad night out at the cinema and certainly not worthy of the bizarre backlash it’s getting on the internet (which I think will disappear soon anyway). A nice debut for Brie Larson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, I have to say, a nice moment for her in the mid-post-credit scene where, I can tell you now, the audience in my cinema let out a big cheer at the last moment of this sequence. Seriously looking forward to Avengers End Game now.
Thursday, 7 March 2019
Blood And Circuses
Hammer House Of Horror
UK Airdate 1980
Carlton Blu Ray Zone B
Hammer House of Horror and its sequel series, Hammer House Of Mystery and Suspense, were pretty much the last hurrah for the once popular Hammer Studios up until they returned ‘under new management’, so to speak, in the 21st Century. I would have been 12 when I first saw these and am delighted to finally be able to catch up with them again now as, even at that young age, by the time I was half way through the series I pretty much gave up on it as a kid. Even then I recognised that the show was much more miss than hit but, rewatching it all these decades later, it kind of makes up in nostalgic value what it still lacks in quality. That being said, there are a few episodes which are actually not bad, towards the last third of the series but, alas, the majority are just... well, they’re okay.
The series has some nice direction from some of the many directors here and some pretty good performances but, I’ll go through it on an episode by episode basis here to give you just a quick taste of what they are like, rather than do a big overview of the show as a whole. The series is a portmanteau format of stand alone horror tales (although some do kind of go more into thriller territory rather than actual horror, it has to be said) and I had just two strong memories from the show which I was hoping I hadn’t imagined but... I’ll make those clear as I come to them.
So the first episode is called Witching Time and, although I didn’t realise it until I was quite a way through rewatching these, it’s actually one of the stronger episodes of the show. Now, there’s a lot of camera movement in this one and, out of all of them, this is one of the more stylistically pleasing of the bunch, with some nice framing showing different layers of rooms through various doorways (which was an old Roger Corman trick to try and add depth and production values to his shots on those old Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he used to work on), with the camera picking up various characters on different planes, or sections, of the shot. The episode stars Jon Finch, who played Jerry Cornelius in the movie adaptation of The Final Programme (reviewed here). Here he is playing a film score composer (not too many films or TV shows who choose that as a career option for their characters... I can only think of a couple off hand) who is haunted both by the concern that his wife is having an affair and, also, by a witch who has come forward to his time from the point where she was almost burned at the stake. The episode includes some nudity which was probably fairly bold for its time on television and this was presumably done because, frankly, the studio probably thought they could get away with these sort of shenanigans easier in the alloted time slot and they may help increase the ratings for the show.
Next comes the episode The Thirteenth Reunion, which has a journalist going undercover at a health farm and eventually uncovering a dark secret which, frankly, becomes very obvious from a very early stage in the proceedings (like 99.9% of these episodes, it has to be said). One of the things it gives us from a nostalgia point of view is a young James Cosmo (billed as James Cosmos on the end credits, for some reason) in a role which primarily has him hurling horrendous insults at a fat woman... which is kind of interesting and I can’t imagine the same actor as he is when I last saw him in The Hole In The Ground (reviewed here) being able to get away with this kind of behaviour today, within the current climate of political correctness. Another thing I thought was nice, considering that a number Hammer films had already started being shown on television at this point, was a sort of cross-promotion in that the episode contains dialogue saying... “I’ll bring some garlic. Dracula might try to turn us into the undead.”
The third episode is called Rude Awakening and the story of this one is very vivid in my head because it contains one of two memories of the show I’ve not forgotten over the years, which is a shot of the star Denholm Elliot being approached by a naked woman and making love to him in a phone box. I remember thinking the scene was fairly raunchy at the time but, alas, the years have not been kind to the scene and it looks fairly unexciting now. The story deals with a man who can’t wake up from a series of dreams which usually end with his dying in some way. Even as a lad I could see how this one would end but it’s nice to see Mr. Elliot in the role (just before his first involvement in the Indiana Jones movies). It also has him using expressions like “Up the apples, darling.” and one has to wonder what a younger audience who are unfamiliar with cockney rhyming slang would make of this these days (I’m pretty sure they would have had no problems back at the time this show was aired).
After a strange episode called Growing Pains, in which a family adopts a weird, ‘you just want to smack him’ kid after the accidental death of their own son, who is quite happy to be influenced by the ghostly instructions of said offspring, we have what is perhaps the most famous episode of the show and the one from which my other strongest memory of Hammer House of Horror comes from... The House That Bled To Death. For some reason I remembered a scene where a children’s birthday party is interrupted by bursting pipes which cover the whole room in Hammer’s trademark Kensington gore. The episode stars Nicholas Ball, who some of my readers may best remember from his turn in the title role of the TV show Hazel and, although I didn’t remember the so-called twist ending from when I was a young ‘un... I have to say it gets quite easy to figure it out fairly quickly and the episode was a bit of a disappointment, it has to be said. As was the sixth episode Charlie Boy, about a cursed voodoo fetish doll in which, pretty much the most creative moment was when the death of an antagonist early on in the proceedings as he is knifed, is crosscut with a lady having an orgasm.
Episode seven, Silent Scream, stars Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing as an ex-Nazi Prisoner of War Camp Officer and tells of his experiments with locking up and training captive animals... an experiment which he takes up a notch when a character played by a relatively young, curly headed Brian Cox is released from prison and ends up under the unwanted care of Mr. Cushing. This episode also demonstrates the relative cheapness of the production when a stray dog follows a character on screen when she is trying to sneak into a building and said dog has nothing obvious to do with the plot and is never seen from again.
The next story, Children Of The Full Moon, stars a husband and wife who end up stranded and stay at a large house which seems to be just populated with kids and a kind of ‘caretaker’ lady who is played by Diana Dors. Unfortunately, despite not being a badly made episode, the title totally gives away where they are going with this one and... yeah... well, with a title like that there’s really no surprise, is there?
Episode nine, Carpathian Eagle is probably my favourite of the episodes of the show... despite both making the similar mistake of revealing just what is going on from very early on in the episode as regards to being the identity of the killer and, also, not actually having a horror element to the episode. This one deals with the descendant of an Elisabeth Bathory type countess who, it is said, can also change into an eagle and who cuts her victims hearts out. Her modern day biographer played by Susanne Danielle is a pretty good character though and I was not used to Danielle being able to play a role as understated as she does it in many of the scenes here. It will come as no surprise to many that the character she plays may be said to be a... well... a method writer but it really didn’t spoil my appreciation of the story. We also have Valentine Dyall (remember him in shows like Callan and Raffles) playing a policeman and there’s even a young, pre-Remington Steele Pierce Brosnan playing one of the briefly seen victims. Another fleeting cameo is made by W. Morgan Sheppard, who would later play the principle villain in Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark (reviewed here).
The next story, Guardians Of The Abyss is also very good and it’s very much in the same vein as a typical Dennis Wheatley supernatural thriller (not that many of Wheatley’s thrillers were of a supernatural bent but the few he did write in that style became very famous and, in terms of Hammer Studios, the source novels for two of their films). The tale features Paul Darrow in the cast (Avon from Blake’s Seven) and one of the actresses who I’ve missed seeing on the screen since I had a crush on her in the 1980s from the first series of C.A.T.S Eyes... Rosalyn Landor.
Visitor From The Grave, the next in the series, also stars a Blake’s Seven actor, this time Blake himself Gareth Thomas. It also stars Manimal actor Simon MacCorkindale in what is so obviously a ‘gaslighting’ tale with an equally obvious ending.
Next up we have The Two Faces Of Evil which is, again, obvious in what its doing but is, I have to say, an exceptionally well shot and designed episode including some very cool compositions and some nicely chilling, paranoid POV shots... it’s easily the most sinister and creepy of all the episodes, despite having yet another end game you can see coming a mile off.
The very last story, The Mark Of Satan, was interesting to me because it includes a man who is being slowly driven insane by sinister events at a hospital and with his unhealthy worry about the number nine. I had a similar revelation about certain properties of factors of the number nine on a bus some years back so, yeah, I can sympathise. It’s really not a great episode, however and it’s not the best way to end the series, in all honesty.
One of the common things about this particular series is in the endings of all the episodes, before the reprise of the distinctive title music. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hammer went through a stage where their moves ended in a certain, similar way. Although good was usually seen to be triumphing over evil, the endings were still quite bleak and suggested that the battle ground of the struggle between good and evil took a heavy toll on the side of the angels. Well, this series does it one better and, it has to be said, not one episode ends up well for any of the main protagonists. Either evil wins outright or both sides of the coin lose out equally... there are no bright rays of hope at the end of any of the episodes in this one. So, if you watch these all in close proximity to each other it is... I would say... a bit of a downer.
Nevertheless, if you want to see some charmingly told chillers with a whole host of easily recognisable, ‘can’t put a name to the face’ British character actors then Hammer House Of Horror is definitely one to watch and, I have to say, I was astonished by just how good this new Blu Ray transfer looks. It’s pretty obvious from this release that the episodes must have been shot on film stock as opposed to video because they look like they were just filmed yesterday. The crisp quality of the images and the deep colours are an absolute joy to look at and, I have to say, I really didn’t expect these things to have survived in such pristine shape. Network have done a really good job here (there are even a number of extras... the intentions of one of which is a little more questionable than the others) and they really deserve a lot of applause for the quality of this release. Definitely one to have for followers of Hammer Studios and lovers of British television in general. This is a very welcome addition to the TV shelf.