Wednesday, 26 February 2020
UK BBC2 & Amazon Prime Six Episodes
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Airdate: Amazon Prime 2019 and
BBC2 January 15th - February 19th 2020
Well this is a fun romp if ever I watched one.
I’m not that into Terry Pratchett but I quite like the work of his co-writer on the original source novel of Good Omens, Neil Gaiman (seriously folks... read The Sandman comics or, even better, his first Death mini series, The High Cost Of Living). As it turns out, Gaiman also wrote the script to this TV mini series, a final request from Terry Pratchett before he died after several people had tried to turn it into a movie... not least of whom was Terry Gilliam, who would have had Robin Williams and Johnny Depp in the two lead roles of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley (yeah, that’s right, named after Aleister Crowley... I don’t think this is the first time that Mr. Gaiman has referenced Mr. C in his work). So, yeah, this thing has been adapted very well, from what I understand.
Even so, I might have given this a miss if it hadn’t been for the guy who sometimes sells me tickets at Enfield Town train station recommending this show to me. So special thanks to Lee... much appreciated.
Now the show opens less strongly than I’d expected after all the rave reviews on Twitter last year, with a sequence narrated, as is the entire six episodes, by the always watchable (or should that be listenable in this case?) actress Frances McDormand as the Voice of God. The problem for me at just the start of this was that the way the opening was put together made it sound like it was an episode of Douglas Adam’s excellent The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and, if anyone was going to do that right it was certainly the BBC but, for a little while there, I was missing Peter Jones as ‘The Book’. However, after a little while, everything settles down and we are plummeted headlong into a fairly dense narrative involving switching the anti-Christ for a baby in an evil nunnery to hasten along the apocalypse eight or nine years later.
The narrative starts many centuries in the past and tells this tale of the human race hurtling towards an oblivion which all the angels and demons are anxiously awaiting so they can battle each other in some kind of Holy War. In this version we have Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley and, to be honest, it’s these two fine actors, surrounded by many more famous and fine actors, who make the brilliant words of the writers sing and hold the interest. Everybody is good in this but Sheen and Tennant are on fire as unlikely ‘friends’ posted on Earth for many hundreds of years to keep an eye on everything. It’s their relationship with each other that really keeps you watching as it soon becomes clear that neither of these two want their home on Earth ruined by some coming Apocalypse and they bungle their way, for the most part, into ultimately doing their bit... along with Adria Arjona as Anathema Device, Jack Whitehall as Newton Pulsifer, Michael McKean as Shadwell, Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracy and the anti-Christ himself, Sam Taylor Buck as Adam... trying to prevent the potential Holy War on their doorstep. Helped out or hindered by numerous special guest stars who pop up now and again like Brian Cox, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josie Lawrence, Derek Jacobi and Bill Paterson... who are among a cast that give some amazing performances along the way.
I said the narrative was dense and that’s because it takes its time, focusing on little details and the backgrounds of various characters which are an absolute joy to watch. You might think this means that the audience won’t be able to see the wood for the trees but Gaiman’s script and the confident direction of Douglas Mackinnon allows you to see both... and lets you rub yourselves up close and personal on the bark and branches as you journey your way through six riveting episodes.
It’s not a predictable story for the most part either. I didn’t quite see what the ending would be (although I came close to figuring out the nature of the denouement, just not the long term consequences) and there are things which happen that keep the mind engaged as each story thread unravels.
All this and with a good score too by the great British composer David Arnold, who has a nice theme tune and a score which I’ll need to become better acquainted with once I give the generous double CD of the soundtrack from Silva Screen a spin. Heck, it even has a cover of the song A Nightingale Sings in Berkeley Square by pop music Goddess Tori Amos, who is a friend of Neil Gaiman and who ‘inspired’ the character of Delirium in The Sandman comics (aka, the character is loosely based on her).
The series is charming with likeable central characters and some clever things happening throughout. I especially liked the younger version of Shadwell working for Crowley in Soho in the 1960s and how he thinks the Crowley in the present day is that character’s son (the two lead protagonists obviously don’t age over the years but the people around them do). There are a fair few Doctor Who references hidden in the run too (as well as a fair few ex-Who actors and actresses), if you’re into that kind of reference spotting mindset.
Not much more to say other than, it’s very funny in places, very moving in others and also, bearing in mind this is a joint BBC production, has some fairly competent special effects thrown into the mix too. Not so much Good Omens but Great Omens, as far as I’m concerned and it even has a nicely thought out ending. Definitely one to take a look at even if, like me, you’re not really that into Pratchett. I might even give the book a go at some point, I think.
Tuesday, 25 February 2020
Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year
Battle Between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Sphere ISBN: 978-0751568974
Well, this is certainly a book I didn’t know I needed. The title says it all... Slugfest - Inside The Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC. I didn’t even know there was an ‘epic battle’ and both companies have been going, in one form or another, since the 1930s so... maybe the title is a little misleading in terms of the timeframe (although I’ll get to that in a little while).
I was always a bit of a DC kid when it came to comics but then again, I also used to love both Harvey Comics and Marvel Comics too, growing up in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In fact, I learned from this very tome that Marvel, who pretty much always used to copy other people’s products, at least until the early 1960s (although a big case could be made for after too) had tried their own version of the Casper, The Friendly Ghost comic called Homer, The Happy Ghost. I’d love to see one of those. So I read more Superman, Batman, SHAZAM! and Casper than most other titles but I was always there for Marvel’s Spider-Man, Captain Britain and various others of their comics too. What did it matter who was publishing the things... isn’t there room for all the publishers in the marketplace?
As I got older and went to College, I got my first inkling that, quite ridiculously, there are people... many of them... who are either for one or the other. They lived in a world of exclusivity which meant that if they enjoyed DC, then they wouldn’t buy or support Marvel (Marvel and DC have always, until maybe very recently in terms of actually selling comics, been the dominant two of the four-colour comic book publishers on the block). And there was a wild rivalry between the fans of each... a bit like that bizarre split in fandom nowadays which means a lot of people are either Star Wars or Star Trek people. I mean, c’mon folks, really?
The thing is, I’d always assumed that this rivalry between the companies was only existent in the heads of the readers themselves. After all, grown adults working for these companies wouldn’t stoop to such shenanigans, would they? Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes and that’s why I needed this book to come along and make me realise that the constant, perceived rivalry between Marvel and DC was and, very much still is, a very real thing... and this details quite a lot of the interesting stories from 1962 onwards, when Marvel started launching their very different superheroes such as Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Almost immediately they became a serious threat to the huge market share that DC had a grip on prior to those early days, as Stan Lee at Marvel finally hit on a winning set of ingredients for the comics that Marvel were putting out. So yeah, Marvel have been around almost as long as DC but this really looks at the early 1960s onwards.
Now, it has to be said, while writer Reed Tucker does a truly fantastic job of researching this with some of the key players and their colleagues, getting this stuff down in as entertaining a way as possible, he owns up right from the start of the book that he was pretty much a Marvel kid. Nothing wrong with that of course, one of my best friends is similarly blinkered in that respect but... I did feel that the book is definitely written with a not so hard to detect bias towards Marvel comics. So what we have, for the most part here, is a catalogue of errors as DC start to slide and continue to lose more of their place in the market, with the occasional period of upturn every now and again where they are holding their own against Marvel. Now, I’m pretty sure it’s all true and that, from the stories indicated here, DC weren’t always doing things right... and a lot of that came from the head people who were, quite often, fairly distanced from the product they turned out. They are the classy, distinguished, ‘olde worlde’ comic book company (not that Marvel were any less old) who ran their line of comics like a well oiled machine... Marvel were the upstart pranksters who were mixing it up and outselling them (proportionately, based on the sale or return model of comic book distribution... so they were selling less comics but pretty much most of their print run as opposed to DC who were putting out loads of comics with huge print runs, technically outselling Marvel but with a huge amount of their comics returned unsold).
It’s a fascinating story and there are lots of hugely serious Marketing mistakes made along the way in a desperate bid to gain dominance of the four colour market, many of them by DC but occasionally by Marvel also. So you get the industrial spies, the defection of major creative names to one side or the other and a lot of grim stuff happening... like the time Marvel were printing special versions of their issues which they knew their distributors could charge higher prices for in return for pulling 10 covers off the DC product for each copy and sending it to them so they knew the competition’s comics were not getting to the shop floor. So yeah, underhanded stuff like that.
A favourite story detailed here is where there was a big board meeting held at DC in the early sixties, with a big stack of Marvel comics on the table, so that everybody could figure out why Marvel had gained such a significant share of the market and work out how to combat it. The ‘kids’ in the room knew exactly why Marvel were winning but the executives and managers would not ever deign to actually read one of their competitors comics. They saw the art as crude and bad compared to theirs and they focused on things like... well Marvel have been using ‘more red on the covers’ or using ‘more speech balloons on the covers’, so that’s what needs to be done. They didn’t once think to stoop to reading what was actually between those covers and twigging just why the Marvel superheroes were so different from theirs. And this was going on for a huge amount of years.
And when they did manage to score a major, famous Marvel talent to defect to DC, such as the time they got Jack ‘King’ Kirby, who was pretty much the co-creator, along with Stan Lee, of the Marvel Universe (which was always a more coherent universe than the Distinguished Competition’s comics), the people at the top didn’t know why they needed him, thought he was a terrible artist and treated him badly. For instance, the young executive who managed to get him hired gave him Superman to work on but, the people at the top didn’t like the way Kirby drew him (which was the reason you would hire Kirby in the first place, frankly)... and so they ordered other artists to retouch the artwork by drawing new faces and hands on the character. Seriously? This is not how you treat a legend like Jack Kirby!
There’s a lot of stuff not covered in this book obviously... probably because it showed nothing of the rivalry between the two companies... such as highlighting the coming of the brilliant Jeanette Khan to DC without actually talking about, or perhaps even mentioning, the DC Vertigo line.
It does, however, cover some amazing stuff such as how some of the company crossovers like the original Superman VS Spider-Man Treasury from the mid-1970s (yep, still got mine) came to be. One of the things I either learned from this or had probably just forgotten was that the first crossover project between the two companies was another Treasury Adaptation of the 1970s, The Wizard Of Oz... so there’s a lot of these things covered in this tome. Not to mention... secret company crossovers that even the editors didn’t know about... but I won’t spoil that for you here, read the book. I especially liked the inclusion of the whole Captain Marvel/SHAZAM! legal issues which have dogged the original Fawcett Comics character since he was owned by DC too.
And yeah, not going to say much more about this book because the writer does manage to cover a lot of stuff and he does so in a very entertaining manner... even if Marvel almost consistently come acrosss as ‘the winners’ from decade to decade. Especially when it comes to the chapter talking about the movies and TV shows of the two companies. This book, however, came out before the release of Wonder Woman in cinemas and so the author didn’t know yet that, despite the Justice League movie, DC have made three truly great movies that are easily as good as the Marvel films... since this book was written we’ve had the aforementioned Wonder Woman (easily better than anything Marvel has ever done, cinematically speaking), the pretty great Aquaman movie and, of course, the truly brilliant Captain Marvel movie which DC were forced to call SHAZAM! due to the legal wranglings you’ll find detailed in this book. So maybe the author will update those chapters and give DC a better time in the movie section in future years, assuming they can keep up their winning streak at the cinema and it’s not short lived.
Either way, Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC is an interesting and satisfying read, not just for fans of comic books but also, I suspect, for people who want to see how Marketing can just go wrong and backfire on companies (Can I hear you say Variant Enhanced Cover?). Much to be recommended in this book and I’m certainly glad I have this one on my shelf.
Monday, 24 February 2020
Ascend Of Space
Ascension Of The Cybermen
UK BBC1 Airdate: 23rd February 2020
Warning: Here be spoilers.
Okay, first things first. Let me once again apologise that this is probably going to be yet another short review. If a work of art is either really great or really terrible, then it makes it much easier to identify just why that is and you have something you can write about. If it’s got strong elements of both in it then there’s usually something to be said. This series of Doctor Who, though, has been more bland or wishy washy, with the odd exception so... not a huge amount to say about last night’s episode but, again, I’ll try to publish an extra review this week to make up for it. Okay?
One person in my Twitter timeline (thanks Mr. Craig), tweeting about Ascension Of The Cybermen said it best last night... and I’m paraphrasing here... this is the kind of episode that lives or dies by the next part and, yeah, as was pointed out, this seems to be like more of a chess game, where key players are moved into position so all the puzzle bits can come in at a later date. And it’s also got a lot of padding in it, some good things, some bad things but... nothing which is really going to blow anyone away too much.
Okay, so good things... apart from the usual excellent performances by the key cast of Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole... were the flashbacks to what looks like 1930s-1990s Ireland, with the adoption by a family, of a baby boy left in a basket. The boy’s name is Brendan and we keep flashing back to him growing up, joining the police, surviving a miraculous point blank gunshot wound and then retiring as an old man, before being escorted back into the police station by his new father and the guy who took his application... except neither of those has aged a day. This was nicely done and though the show has been pretty blatant in letting us assume the boy is the main cyberman villain in a half mask throughout this and last week’s episode (and presumably next week’s series finale)... there is still some room for surprise here.
Bad thing... the conversation between The Doctor and the Cyberleader through the communicator on the spaceship (again, presumably Brendan but, maybe not) was way too long and basically a lot of posturing waffle. I could have done with that whole, seemingly superfluous sequence gone. It stopped the episode dead for a while there.
Bland thing... the ‘big reveal’ that the sanctuary that the last humans left alive on planet Earth are seeking was a portal to the now dead and burning Gallifrey was hardly a surprise was it? Not like the proper twist with Brendan when he retired. We were all expecting to see both Gallifrey and The Master in this episode and that’s exactly what we got. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this week’s thrizzling installment was the fact that none of the regular characters were killed off... although I wouldn’t be too surprised if that happens next episode. Or, at least, a companion or maybe all of them, might leave. We shall see I guess.
Other than that.... very much Doctor Who business as usual. The show had, very much, a Daleks Invasion Of Earth vibe to it... in either its TV form (reviewed by me here) or the movie version with Peter Cushing (I mention this story because I'm still keen for The Doctor's 'granddaughter, Susan, to make a comeback of some kind). Just the last few humans scrabbling around Earth trying to survive the current occupiers of the planet... we’ve been there before. And, like that earlier tale, The Doctor and her companions were separated into groups to have different adventures cross cutting back and forth to keep things interesting (ish).
Not too much more to say on this one... the cyberman thematic music was okay. I am hoping that the next episode will really knock my socks off... in which case I’ll probably look at this episode in a more favourable light. What I’m half expecting, though, is either the kind of disappointment I’ve been set up to expect in Doctor Who over the last 6 or so years or, possibly, lots of anger if the writers decide to screw with the show's history without thinking it through and have The Timelords descended from either humans or cybermen... which makes no sense and, frankly, if that were to be the case, nobody has even invoked the names of Rassilon or Omega as yet. So, I think that might be somewhat ill advised... if they could pull it off credibly then power to them but... not really holding out any hope from that.
So anyway, that’s me done with Ascension Of The Cybermen. Bit of a bland mish mash and I could do with an upturn in next week’s episode. Glad the show is finishing in a week because I’m tired of writing reviews based on mediocre iterations of what was once a good science fiction show. Fingers crossed though.
Sunday, 23 February 2020
In Brahms Way
Brahms - The Boy II
2020 USA Directed by William Brent Bell
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Okay, this one has spoilers.
When I was watching pre-movie trailers at the cinema a few weeks ago, one came on and, after a little while of my brain not really believing what it was seeing, I nearly got out of my seat and shouted in exasperation... but in the end just muttered loudly to myself... about somebody actually making a sequel to one of the absolutely worst horror movies of the last few years, The Boy (reviewed here). In fact, that first one wasn’t even technically a horror movie because the promising set up of a haunted doll that wants you to obey all its rules suffered a terrible plot twist where it turned out to be a serial killer looney living in the secret crawlspace of the house and moving the doll around when nobody was looking. It was a huge disappointment and made for a terrible cinema experience.
So I was hugely curious as to a) how anybody could make an effective sequel to what was essentially a one trick pony when it comes to the ‘big twist’ but also b) why in heck would anybody want to make a sequel to it. Since I own a Cineworld card it would cost me nothing extra to find out and I was kinda gleefully expecting the worst. Especially since the one element which made the first movie worth seeing, a new score by Bear McCreary, was absent in this one. I’ll say a word about the score to this one a little later.
So Brahms - The Boy II has no characters left over from the first film other than the titular doll itself and, instead, deals with a family who move to a smaller house on the same grounds as the mansion in England where the events of the first film took place, after the mother (played by Katie Holmes) and son (played by Christopher Convery) have been traumatised and nearly killed by a violent burglary attempt in their own home. The boy is left effectively mute by this experience but, soon after moving there, he finds the buried Brahms doll and it begins to dominate his actions and take over his mind.
That’s the basic set-up and, it has to be said that, although the jump scares and sinister atmosphere from the first three quarters of the first film are largely absent in this one, I’d have to say that this one is marginally better than the first. Not to say that this is an especially good film... it’s not... but it is better than the first and one of the things this one does get right is... like the recent Star Wars movie... to redact or rewrite the denouement of the previous film and have it so that the reason the guy was running around in the crawlspace killing people was because Brahms was making him. And, for sure, in this movie there’s no getting around that the doll in question is a lot more active than in the original. He regularly moves his eyes and head and, when you’re not looking, runs about the place causing mischief. This, of course, puts this movie right back into the genre of horror which the first film managed to throw out with it’s awful ‘reveal’.
Of course, once that cat is firmly out of the bag, the whole film becomes a lot more predictable too, especially in terms of one of the other characters and their dog. Not to mention a heck of a lot more ridiculous by the end when we find that Brahms can levitate people too and do all kinds of things he wasn’t doing in the first one. We also see what’s ‘behind the mask’, so to speak and the little zombiefied homunculus living inside the doll is certainly a lot more interesting, if ultimately a little bit more schlocky, than the anything found in the original movie. Alas, although the film is by the same director, this one is just not scary in the way it does things and the epilogue at the end of the movie, where we are given a glimpse into where a possible sequel might go... well lets just say that a sequel to this movie is the last thing we may want.
There are some nice things about it too... the shot design makes use of various spaces partitioned off into clearly defined rectangular frames and there’s a nice moment where the foreground arch in the interior of a house, from where the camera is shooting the movie with the action taking place in the next room, is mirrored by a smaller arch, in terms of perspective, behind the actors... which is a neat touch.
Also, that score on this one by a guy called Brett Detar is actually quite good... probably the best thing about the movie, actually. A shame, then, that Lakeshore Records, in their lack of good judgement, have decided not to issue the score on CD but instead just go for an electronic download. So I guess I won’t get to hear it as a proper stand alone listen now. I would have happily plunked down £15 - £20 on a shiny disc of uncompressed music but, as they say on a certain soundtrack message board, ‘no CD, no sale’.
And that’s me done with Brahms - The Boy II... not a film I’d especially go out of my way to recommend to anyone but not nearly as bad as the first film at any rate. I really hope they don’t try and make anymore sequels to this one though... I don’t think I could handle the disappointment.
Wednesday, 19 February 2020
Duck To The Future
Howard The Duck
(aka Howard - A New Breed Of Hero)
USA 1986 Directed by Willard Huyck
101 Films Blu Ray Zone B
I didn’t see Howard The Duck at the cinema when it was first released back in 1986. I probably should have, given some of the similar big budget franchise movies of a certain style I saw that were biting into the box office at the time but the character was not one I was all that familiar with. I’d never read a Howard The Duck comic (still haven’t that I can remember but, you know, that will change) and for some reason this just didn’t appeal to me. It was no tragedy for me at the time when I realised it had disappeared from cinemas, even though the main driving force behind the picture was über director George Lucas, who the world was about to find out ‘could’ bankroll a bad movie after all. Well, it’s not that bad but I’m sure most people reading this will know the reputation of this flick as being right up there with Plan 9 From Outer Space as being one of the worst movies ever made.
The reason I wanted to see this movie was because of the score or, rather, the partially rejected score. I already had a bootleg CD of the original LP release backed up with a bootleg of The Black Hole (both scores have now been commercially released in expanded and properly mastered versions... hooray!) but was happy to replace it towards the end of last year when music label Intrada released a definitive three CD set of, not just John Barry’s full score (including the stuff which never made it into the movie) but also the parts of the score rewritten by the likes of Sylvester Levay, who used Barry’s themes for the other parts to make everything in the final cut of the movie sound pretty seamless. And it’s a nice Barry score, typical of the decade in which he wrote it, sounding like the lush writing of the more romantic side of the composer juxtaposed with that hard hitting, heroic action scoring that the composer used in his scores for the James Bond films. It also sounded like it should be a total mismatch of a composer for that specific kind of project to me... so I wanted to see the film to experience how it was all meant to fit together. And, yeah, I was right... it is a bit of a mismatch in terms of the tone of the film, I think. Barry plays it dead straight a lot of the time when perhaps a more overtly comical score may have suited the material better.
Even so, I’d have to say that the score is absolutely much better than the movie it was composed for... but having seen the movie now I’m here to tell you that, you know, perhaps it really doesn’t live up to its reputation. Or rather, down to its reputation. I’m here to say quite positively, its not even close to being one of the worst movies ever made (I think I’ve seen lots of others which could perhaps hold that title) and it’s actually not all that different from many of the blockbusters which were doing the rounds at the time.
What it has got is an extra ‘adult’ sensibility which is presumably part of the original comics on which it was based but, since it was being released as a family film, the elements of sleaziness and adult humour have been toned down quite a bit. Instead, we have this weird alliance of kiddy flick and sex references that certainly make some sequences rather questionable... at least in terms of today's watered down, 'don’t be offending anyone with your art dude', silliness attitudes to practically everything going on in the world. Honestly, I take a stroll down my Twitter timeline these days and I’m almost convinced I’m living in Victorian times.
So when Howard finds himself a fish... er... duck out of water on the planet Earth, he goes to the employment agency and they give him a job working on maintenance in a local brothel. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. There’s also a scene where the lead female actress, Lea Thompson, finds a condom in Howard’s wallet and a long scene where she tries to seduce Howard in her lingerie. Except, it’s really weird because Howard is fighting her off in this scene and that goes against everything we’ve been told about the titular duck so far in the story. There’s not a lot of character continuity in this film folks, for sure.
I have to give a huge shout out to Lea Thompson in this, though. I’ve not seen her in much and never really thought that much of her but seeing her here where she’s practically carrying the movie and also looking very beautiful too (which is another word I might not have used about her in something like, for instance, her presence in Back To The Future), she really does an absolutely fantastic job. Maybe I should check her out in some other things... if anyone has any recommendations, drop them in the comments box below.
She’s also ably supported by Jeffrey Jones, playing a good guy mad scientist accidentally responsible for bringing Howard The Duck to our dimension, who halfway through the film becomes the host body to the film’s primary antagonist... and also a very young Tim Robbins, who really goes out of his way doing truly silly and embarrassing stuff so, power to him for going with it, I guess.
The film is a bunch of action set pieces, often kinda forced into scenes almost as padding, in between attempts at adult humour (without being allowed to show anything truly adult but getting real close to it on occasion and, when it comes to things like topless duck centre spreads in Howard’s issue of Playduck, I think it’s very much a matter of personal opinion as to whether this film was given the right rating), gazillions of duck puns and... not much else, it has to be said.
And I honestly didn’t hate it. Sure, there are some sequences with scientifically questionable moments filled with silliness that will make you cringe but, honestly, that’s most big budget 1980s movies isn’t it? It’s obviously not as good as, say, Back To The Future or the first Gremlins movie (although Howard walks all over Gremlins 2 - The Next batch, I reckon) but the style and presentation of the content really isn’t all that different from films like these and I have to wonder why this one bombed so badly at the box office. Like I said, it isn’t exactly the worst film ever made.
101 Films have done an amazing job bringing this to us in a new Blu Ray transfer (but why?) and there are a fair few extras on here too, not least of which is a second commentary track by soundtrack guru Charlie Brigden and Dan Whitehead, which is well worth a listen. I discovered from this commentary that, if you don’t count the ‘repackaged for cinema’ TV shows that Marvel had occasionally released overseas, that this was Marvel’s first live action film of one of their comic books. It’s fitting then that the duck in question has been getting a few cameos of late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
All in all, I can’t say I’d recommend or even wish the movie version of Howard The Duck on anyone I know but if you do end up watching it, I don’t think you’ll actually hate it. You might question its values somewhat but it certainly won’t hurt you either, I think. I might even watch it again someday but, certainly, not for a long time.
Monday, 17 February 2020
Last Night Of The Prometheus
Doctor Who -
The Haunting of Villa Diodati
UK BBC1 Airdate: 16th February 2020
Warning: Minor spoilers right from the start.
As soon as I saw a trailer for The Haunting of Villa Diodati and picked up that it was set in the same night in Geneva that Mary Shelley dreamed up the plot of Frankenstein, I kinda expected the Cybermen to be involved in the story somehow. After all, what better way to inspire the writings of a person into the creation of the Frankenstein legend than a symbiosis of flesh and machine restitched together?
As it happens, though, despite there being no surprises from that quarter, this was a pretty good episode, especially for this ‘seemingly on our last legs to be any good’ series we have here. I was impressed by the writing on this, by someone called Maxine Alderton and the acting was superb. The usual suspects in terms of performance and holding it all together were good too... Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh were all kinds of great but Jodie Whittaker was especially burning bright in this episode... and that’s because she had great dialogue. She really took charge in this one in terms of just where she stood above her three companions and the responsibility resting on her shoulders and it really made for one of her more interesting monologues.
The tale itself was one of ghosts and hauntings with a house which became, from room to room and for each of four sets of people, a giant set of recursive occlusions, trapping them all where they were in much the same way as happened with the fifth Doctor in his debut story Castrovalva back in the early 1980s. Luckily it didn’t, quite, get as old as I thought it was going to in terms of novelty value and it had various ghosts running about in the house too, to spice things up a bit. These were unexplained for the most part and I’d like to think that’s just its own special punchline for Bradley Walsh’s character but I was concerned, in terms of plotting, as to why the skeleton’s hands were running around on their own?
Nevertheless it was a pretty great episode with a lot of dark in it... I mean physically dark (as well as tonally, such as when the Cyberman tells Mary Shelly how he slit the throats of his own children after he’d been converted) and the Cyberman itself seemed like an old design and definitely only half completed... with half the victim’s face still poking out from behind the mask (which helped as a creative echo by way of showing the stitching, especially on his wrist, to lead the way into the imagination for Frankenstein... I would guess that was the point of that anyway).
So, nicely performed and acted... and definitely pretty well written. We didn’t have long to wait until The Doctor and her crew met ‘The Lone Cyberman’ that Captain Jack Harkness had warned about a few episodes ago... and, as I’m sure everyone was expecting, when she met it The Doctor gave it exactly what it wanted, just as she was warned not to (the trade off being that this particular pocket of Earth history wasn’t changed forever).
My only other real complaint was when The Doctor was poking around in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s head. Unlike every other time we’ve seen a Timelord do this in the show (from what I can remember) we’ve had the information come at us as a crash of impressions in an almost surreal collage of mashed together imagery. Instead, this time around, it’s presented as a clear sequence with voice over narrative from Shelley as if he’s recalling it. My guess would be, since this seems to really break with Doctor Who continuity somewhat, that the scene was originally meant to include Shelley recollecting events and they added the ‘Gallfireyan mind meld’, as I would like to refer to it, as an almost afterthought to the scene when they were shooting the interior shots. Which is... a bit meh.
All in all though, this was one of the few really strong entries in this year’s series and it will be interesting to see how this leads into the next two episodes, which will present some kind of two part season finale featuring the Cybermen and, I would guess, also The Master (unless they’re holding him back until next series now to keep that particular story arc going... we shall see). I just hope the end of show spectacular can live up to the few good episodes we’ve already seen and not, like so often back in the Steven Moffat era of the show, be unable to live up to the tantalising tease of the initial set up.
Sunday, 16 February 2020
2019 USA Directed by Bong Joon Ho
UK cinema release print.
I really loved Bong Joon Ho’s giant monster movie The Host back in 2006 but that’s the only movie I’ve previously seen by this director (okay, I have a Blu Ray of his post-apolcalyptic sci fi thriller Snowpiercer on order so expect a review of that one sometime this year). I was therefore initially very interested in seeing his new movie with the title Parasite, which I assumed from the title was returning to similar territory as The Host. So when I went to see this at the cinema I went in totally blind. I didn’t catch a trailer and knew pretty much nothing about it.
My first rumblings that this possibly might be a disappointment was when it won both the the Best Foreign Picture and Best Picture double at the Oscars. I really hate awards ceremonies, especially the Oscars but, they have had a few decent picks in the last ten years, occasionally awarding, perhaps more by luck than anything like effective critical judgement, some truly deserving films such as The Shape Of Water, Spotlight and Birdman. For the most part, though, the Oscars tend to award well made pieces of mediocrity with not much thinking required from the audience. When my friend Chris phoned me and told me Parasite was not half as clever as it thinks it is... it kinda set me up for there to be some kind of twist ending... he obviously didn’t like the film all that much and he’s usually all into the kinds of films that win those kinds of awards.
Alas, Parasite falls well into the “well made pieces of mediocrity with not much thinking required” category of movie. That’s not to say it’s a bad film... just kinda unremarkable which, for me, can sometimes be worse (because I can enjoy the odd bad movie more than a bland one). Also, I don’t know where the idea that it has any kind of surprises or twist endings comes from because, frankly, there are absolutely no surprises or even dramatic reveals that I could find in this film. It pretty much telegraphs itself from the start and almost, with the music in certain sections, announces itself long before something is going to happen.
But lets concentrate on the good stuff. Great acting from a cast of people with familiar faces, some of them who have worked with the director previously on films like as The Host, such as the ‘poor family father’ played by Kim Ki-taek and some really great direction. This is a well made movie, no doubt about it... just as The Host was. There are some beautiful shot designs too and I especially liked when the ‘poor family son’ approached the gate of his future employer’s house for the first time... the door and all the surrounding areas are made up of a plethora of vertical strips which he places the actor in and then, when the gate opens for him, he is framed against yet another vertical strip. So stuff like this is nice.
On the down side, the parasites in the movie... which are actually pretty much all the adults in the film, rich and poor alike (especially the rich)... are unable to recognise the difference in each other’s situations and this film is pretty much just about the class divides and the antagonism this creates. Which to me was just baffling as something worthy of exploration to this degree these days. It’s a given that there are horrible, unending divides created by affluence and poverty and nobody likes it but... I dunno, why are we still talking about this? It exists and honestly is not something we’ll be able to change unless we reach a proper money-less (not the same as cashless) society. So I found it kinda disappointing that someone who is obviously a highly skilled and artistically creative director such as Bong Joon Ho is making light weight Oscar-bait such as this.
Now, I did recognise a couple of strong similarities to The Host but, since I’ve only seen that one film other than this by this writer/director, I’m not sure if these are signatures or just coincidences.
‘Thing one’ was the introduction of archery into the story. Only minor in this but the bows and arrows of the ‘rich son’ were definitely something the director chose to focus on... and archery was, of course, a major character set up for a finale piece in The Host.
The other thing is the writer’s clear penchant for showing us the strength of the family unit. It was the underlying and certainly not subtle strength of the family in The Host and it’s certainly a dominant theme which comes across in all the families depicted in this movie. The way the family unit will work together in total harmony to achieve their goals is something which is a definite theme in these two movies and I am interested in seeing if this idea is pushed in any of the director’s other works.
And that’s me just about done on Parasite. This is a well oiled machine that is ultimately an elevated piece of fluff which doesn’t require you to think at all... just like the Oscar voters tend to like, it seems to me. Strong acting, direction throughout and I even liked the soundtrack, even if it is complicit in taking away any surprise from the story... it’s just overall never really a great movie, just a nicely put together one. In fact, it gets a bit dull at times, it has to be said. Not something I’d ever need to see again (whereas I could probably watch The Host every ten years or so). If you want to go see a well made film at the cinema then this is certainly something you should consider... just don’t go expecting to be surprised.
Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Flash, Bang, Wallop!
2020 USA Directed by William Eubank
UK cinema release print.
Warning: A big spoiler on the ending
in here, which I’ll flag when it comes up.
Okay, so by far my favourite movie I saw this weekend was Underwater, which... was absolutely less interesting and arguably less original than the other two (The Lighthouse, reviewed here and Birds Of Prey - The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn, reviewed here) but made up for in sheer entertainment value what those other two lacked. And yeah, this movie was shot three years ago and has been languishing at the studio it was made, Twentieth Century Fox (the last film to bear that name) due to, among other things, the company’s acquisition by Disney.
Yeah, so let out a big groan, perhaps, as I tell you that Underwater is, not so much like The Abyss (as you might suspect it to be) but much more like a seafaring version of an Alien movie (not quite Aliens and the one with the tightest analogy to this would perhaps be the fourth, Alien Resurrection, I think) cross pollinated with The Poseidon Adventure. I wasn’t expecting much from this and it did have a little problem with the ending, I felt but, yeah, like I said it was my favourite of the three I saw this weekend and I had a lot of fun with it.
The film’s main protagonist, Norah, is played by Kristen Stewart... an actress who I’ve only recently discovered (after seeing her a year or so ago in Personal Shopper, reviewed here). She is pretty cool as a technical expert on the crew of a deep sea, submarine station diving rig, one of a family of such stationery vessels situated between 5 and 7 miles beneath the sea. The film starts off with her monologue on the soundtrack, reliving the experiences of her tale to the audience and it’s this specific viewpoint where my one big problem with the film starts up... but I’ll come back to that later. So...
Norah tells us the story from a first person viewpoint and it has a really strong opening... all that stuff you see in the trailer where the water bursts through the vessel and everyone is just trying to survive it all takes place within the first five minutes of the film. That’s just the set up. Two survivors, including Norah, try to get to a less damaged part of the vessel to safety, picking up a few of the crew as they work their way through wrecked areas that they shouldn’t even be able to fit in and while the audience is all holding their breath (I’m assuming everybody else watching movies with scenes underwater do this, it’s not just me right?). The various actors and actresses include T. J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr. (who you may remember from 10 Cloverfield Lane, reviewed here) and, frankly, there’s not a bad one among them. Sure they go through all the clichés you’d expect as they try to plot a course going down to the ocean bed so they can walk many miles to the next base and also figure out what kind of earthquake activity has wrecked their, now less than airtight, submersible home... but that’s okay.
Of course, it’s not long before they realise they are being stalked by the real culprit behind the damage and destruction of, not just their vessel but all the others. Yes, that’s right, a bunch of aggressively violent, sea creature predators who want to eat the human contents of said vessel for breakfast.
And it’s about everything you’d expect from this kind of thrill a minute horror movie but the point is, it accomplishes the little it sets out to do really well. I don’t know who William Eubank is but the direction and whole feel of the film is that someone’s taken an old, much used template and replicated it in a really competent and watchable manner. And you really can’t complain about that with the kind of movie it is, I think.
So yeah, good acting, some nice photography and a score by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts which is good enough to make me lament that there’s been no proper CD release of the thing, just a stupid electronic download. So I guess I won’t be listening to that one as a stand alone then.
Okay, big spoiler warning right now.
Now, normally at this point I would tell you that the film has no surprises but, unfortunately, by the end of the movie is does pull out one surprise but... yeah, it’s not the best thought through surprise as far as I’m concerned. All the way through we’ve been following Kirsten Stewart’s character as she rescues various colleagues from death in various states of undress, finishing in something which is basically just a bikini (did I mention this movie had some spectacular visuals?) but at the end, she pulls a fast one on the last two of her surviving colleagues who she’s finally managed to get into escape pods, surface bound and then sacrifices herself to save their lives. Um... no... what? Yeah, so the person who has been telling us her story on the soundtrack, I think even in past tense for a lot of the film, dies at the end. Frankly, that makes no sense unless you believe she’s telling her tall tale from somewhere ethereal like heaven so, yeah, no marks for the writers here. This isn't Sunset Boulevard.
End of spoiler.
However, regardless of the ‘quite possibly accidental’ trick ending, Underwater is a solid ‘monsters in the wet’ movie and if you are into those kinds of horror/action pieces, well I think you’ll probably have a good time with it. It has it’s moments and with her ‘shaved head and not much else look’ in a lot of the scenes, Kristen Stewart manages to carry the movie along with her obvious enthusiasm for the role. This is never going to be anybody’s favourite horror movie and it’s not even that jumpy most of the time but it’s a highly competently put together survival horror yarn and I’ve got no problems recommending this to people. Water way to go.
Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Directed by Robert Eggers
UK cinema release print.
Wow, okay. I really liked Robert Eggers debut feature, The VVitch (reviewed by me here) although, it has to be said, the film had the most kinetically violent audience reaction I’d ever been witness too (and the same thing happened to my cousin in Australia with the screening he went to, from what he’s told me). Eggers’ follow up feature, The Lighthouse, was certainly more sedate in terms of audience reaction but I did find it to be a little less scrutable and engaging than his first film.
What the film does have going for it, however, is two fairly strong lead performances from Willem Dafoe (always watchable) and Robert Pattinson (who I don’t usually get on well with as a performer but he holds his own against Dafoe fairly well here). More than that, though, is the extraordinary cinematography which is the one real thing which continues to hold the interest of the eye in a film which doesn’t give any easy answers as to what it’s actually about, even though the story is certainly pretty simplistic. If this movie is up for any awards then it certainly deserves to win for its astonishing camerawork and shot design. The film is shot in a very contrasty form of black and white (don’t ask me about the stock or the technology involved, I have no idea) and in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is vertically thinner even than the old TV 4:3 ratio from decades gone past, making the full frame of this barely much wider than a square.
However, what Eggers does with this ‘almost square’ ratio is quite phenomenal in terms of the way the shots are composed and it’s a sobering reminder that, yes, while the widescreen format can make for some really interesting and dynamic compositions, you can also get some great results with older visual formats and, this is indeed a truly beautiful film to look at. For instance, there are quite a few shots where he’s run a big vertical split made from part of the set or people themselves, straight down the middle of the screen, splitting it in half to echo what a shot of the exterior of the lighthouse itself would do. Other times he’ll make use of the birds-eye view (or should that be gulls-eye view) to echo the circle of the exterior by making use of things like a spiral staircase. It’s a rich feast which is easy on the eye, for sure.
Which is just as well because the content is not completely interesting on its own.
The tale of two lighthouse people, or wickies (a term that originated for people who’s job it was to trim the wick in a lighthouse), who are purportedly waiting for a relief boat that never comes is one of those old style ‘cabin fever’ type films where they bond, turn on each other intermittently and you’re never really sure how any scene is going to go down. On the surface there’s not really much going on if you count certain sequences and moments as hallucinogenic or as hypnagogic but if you do so, as I did, then you probably won’t find the film as rewarding as if you were reading the barrage of images on a different level. Alas, my classical training isn’t good so the fact that the film is a metaphor of certain classical mythologies makes sense but was lost on me... although I did actually think of the thing I was supposed to be thinking when it comes to the final shot of the movie, it turns out. Alas, I was also thinking a lot of other things, mostly questions, during this final scene so, for me, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, so to speak.
But the film does look gorgeous and that was enough for me.
There’s an interesting thing going on in this. I’ve mentioned it before on here but in some Japanese movies, especially anime, I find the fight scenes between two major characters sometimes extremely problematic because they seem to take place in several locations at the same time. Like one minute somebody will punch someone in a cavern under the ocean and the other character might recoil from that punch while they’re both standing on top of the Eiffel Tower... that kind of thing. Over the years, since these fights seem to have no bearing in logic or the way in which they operate in these worlds, I’ve been forced to conclude that these kinds of conflicts are specific to Japanese cinema and are best seen as a metaphor, where the storytellers are trying to convey the ‘epic-ness’ of their battles by making them larger than life and spanning the globe in their importance in the plot. And that’s as far as I can decode those kinds of shenanigans... if anyone knows of anything that’s been written about this phenomenon, however, then please tag it in the comments section below or hit me up on Twitter... I’d like to know if I’m interpreting things correctly or not.
Anyway, the reason why I bring this up is that a couple of the ‘battles’ between Dafoe and Pattinson here do a very similar thing... but instead of changing location it’s the people themselves who seem to change or transform from shot to shot. I guess this dynamic kind of aggressive editing of the visuals in these action scenes should have tipped me off to the metaphorical nature of the film and lead me into decoding the rest of the narrative in less literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get terms but I obviously didn’t and I was getting really sleepy at this point (although not as sleepy as the guy sitting next to me, it has to be said, who managed to spend three quarters of the movie soundly asleep... at least he didn’t snore).
The other thing which the director does here... and this is very similar to his previous film... is to use non-human actors to add a ‘layer of sinister’ to the proceedings. So in The VVitch we had the goat, Black Philip, who provided that feeling of the animal kingdom watching the world of humans... in The Lighthouse it’s a one eyed seagull and the gulls in general, who bring this malevolence into the film. It adds a little more interest to things and stops things from getting overly dull when added to the fine performances and the scintillating visual element.
Mark Korven’s score, because of the huge delay in releasing the film in the UK as opposed to other territories, is now extremely difficult for me to find on a proper CD so I can’t really add much here other than it works in the film but I’m not going to stoop to vinyl or even a crappy electronic approximation of the music in order to hear it away from the film. If I can somehow find someone who will ship the CD to the UK for me then all well and good... if not then I guess I won’t get to hear it away from the confines of the tale in which it is showcased (actually, in the few days since writing the first draft of this, I’ve ordered one to be sent to a friend who lives in New York as she’s paying me a visit in a few weeks... so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the right thing is sent to her address).
Other than that... nothing more to report on The Lighthouse. I left the cinema feeling a little disappointed by the film and I much preferred The VVitch out of the two films so far by this director... although The Lighthouse hands down wins out on a visual level, that’s for sure. Not something I would recommend to most of my friends other than those who are perhaps happy to feast purely on the shot compositions or those who are, perhaps, more in touch with Greek mythology and can recall the tales of Proteus and Prometheus but, yeah, this one probably won’t make my best movies of the year list, to be honest.
Monday, 10 February 2020
Doctor Who - Can You Hear Me?
UK BBC1 Airdate: 9th February 2020
Warning: Spoilers but, you’ll get there way before the characters in the episode do anyway.
Okay so... many apologies but once again I suspect this is going to be a very short Doctor Who review. I’ll try and make it up to regular readers by updating the blog twice more this week. Sorry but, I’m afraid this current series isn’t giving me very much to work with and last night’s episode, Can You Hear Me?, was a good indication of why.
The thing is.. there wasn’t much really going on and it was a set of ideas we’ve seen done again and again in many things, including this show. And not all that long ago in slightly different clothing if memory serves. But possibly I think my standards are slipping because I was much more forgiving of this episode compared to what I’ve seen of some other people’s reactions (people I know in real life, not just people on Twitter).
My first reaction, you see, is that it wasn’t terrible. And nor was it very special. You still have some great turns by Jodie Whitaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole and a story that, just about, holds itself together without ripping apart at the seams (okay, so maybe it kinda did but I’m trying to be nice here). The point is, if this thing had been shown as part of one of the David Tennant era stories, for example, I would have singled it out as being one of the worst episodes in a very long time. As it is though, with the era it’s currently in, my initial thoughts are... yeah, that wasn’t too terrible.
We had a good, sinister looking villain in the form of Ian Gelder playing an immortal called Zelin. He even made a few fan pleasing references too, including mentions for the Celestial Toymaker from the 1960s and the Guardians from the 1980s. It’s just that it’s an episode full of old ideas and not a very tight presentation, it seemed to me. And as such, there were absolutely no surprises here...
For instance, it was pretty obvious the monsters at the start were leaking from the head of the character who is alerting everyone that they are coming. And, yeah, there was a genuinely nice monster moment where a big, clawed hand slowly closes around the head of one of the characters but... alas... the director wasn’t smart enough to keep the monsters to the shadows because, when you see the monsters in full CGI mode, they looked a bit shoddy, to be honest. Also, it’s pretty obvious The Doctor has been manipulated/tricked to get open a lock that needs picking so another immortal can escape confinement. I don’t know why she’s supposed to be so smart when she didn’t even see that one coming a mile off. So that was kinda... bleah.
And, by the end of the show, the resolution seemed really rushed and unimportant... just whisking out a bit of machinery and suddenly conjuring immortals to where you want them seems particularly old now and it’s not exactly the first time the writers have done this, is it? So much ‘deux ex machina’ going on in the show these days. Also, when The Doctor is tied up, she manages to somehow magic up her sonic screwdriver from her pocket into her hand above her head as though she’s suddenly got Jedi skills. What the heck? Where did that come from? That was so implausible.
There were a couple of nice things I liked about the character of The Doctor though and one of these things she’s done a few times this series...
The first thing is... she’d not noticed at all when all her companions wander off and got themselves into trouble. Of course, it’s also lazy writing because it means you can put them into any threat situation you like to be the next thing The Doctor has to solve but... I do like this aspect to her character.
Secondly, when Graham (Bradley Walsh) took her aside for a conversation about the fears his cancer will return, she didn’t say anything particularly reassuring (or even bother to check him out with one of the instruments in the TARDIS)... which was a nice reminder that The Doctor isn’t actually human and so doesn’t completely know what to say in candid moments. Which is fine and I’m sure this was introduced as a running sub-plot thing anyway so I’m sure she’ll either come through or fail Graham spectacularly when the time comes. I’m more and more getting the feeling that Graham is not a character who is meant to survive his tenure on the TARDIS. So that’s the first rumblings of that plot thread, I reckon.
Okay so, yeah, that’s it... I said this one would turn out short. Sorry about that but I’m hoping to have two more cinema reviews up by the end of the week so, you know, keep checking back here. The next episode of Doctor Who looks like it will be all based on the events that prompted Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein so, you know, that does have the potential to be fun, at least.
Sunday, 9 February 2020
The Riled Bunch
Birds Of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
2020 USA Directed by Cathy Yan
UK cinema release print.
Well, this film may not be the greatest action movie that’s been out there in recent times but it’s certainly distracting enough in that it never stops moving and really doesn’t give you any time to disengage from it before the next thing happens. Part of this is due to the flash backwards and forwards structure of the first half of the movie (the better half) and if this seems deliberately entangled to the point of a lack of clarity on the timeline at one point (yeah, I got just a little confused until I realised it wasn’t actually the police that picked up Harley Quinn in the earlier part of the film), I suspect the film would have been somewhat less potent if cut together in a more linear fashion. This structure also allows Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (reprising her role from the earlier Suicide Squad movie, reviewed here) a chance to strengthen her character’s relationship with the audience by seeming to control how the movie plays out and also giving her some ‘Deadpool-like’ ‘breaking the fourth wall’ moments.
Now, we have a fine dramatis personae of strong female characters played by some exceptionally good actresses here... in addition to Robbie we have Rosie Perez playing Renee Montoya, Jurnee Smollett-Bell playing a totally different version of Black Canary to the blonde, fishnet tight wearing version of the heroine I used to read in the 1970s (who was romantically linked to Green Arrow), the always watchable Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain (who I think is running around as a new version of Batgirl in the comics these days?) and the always reliable Ewan McGregor letting his hair down as the main villain, Black Mask.
Now, my only real problem with the movie is that... well, I’ve never read any of the Birds Of Prey comics but the main attraction for me reading one would be the main character Barbara Gordon as team leader Oracle. Now I remember purchasing the excellent one shot/graphic novella The Killing Joke back in the 1980s where former Batgirl and daughter of Commissioner Gordon was shot in the spine by The Joker before he presumably raped her and took naked photos of her writhing on the ground. Unlike many of the more adult and experimental one shots of the day though, this one was firmly placed in Batman continuity so, instead of getting up and walking away, in the comics that came after, Barbara Gordon was confined to a wheelchair but became the eyes and ears of the team which eventually was known as the Birds Of Prey, Oracle. A pretty important character if you ask me but she’s nowhere in the movie and, since Black Canary is also absolutely nothing like the character I used to read back in the day, I think I can safely say that this new movie is about as close to the source material as... insert an engaging metaphor for something being completely far away from the source material as you can get right here folks. Which kinda sucks for fans of the comics but, since comic book continuity for me doesn’t really count for much after the 1980s (it’s just the way I am), then I’m not all that bothered about it either and what that does for me is allows me to look at a film like Birds Of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (a character who isn’t really in the Birds Of Prey comics as a team character at all) with no pre-judgement on how poor an adaptation it is.
That being said, while the film is certainly clever... I’m not sure I’d agree with everyone who is saying it’s a really fun movie. It might be that some of the jokes weren’t to my taste (I think I only laughed once about two thirds of the way through and I can’t remember what it was I laughed at now) but it certainly wasn’t a dull movie and, if I really wanted to resort to the critical cliché lurking like an elephant in the room then I may even call it a rollercoaster of a movie... I won’t though so I’ll trust the reader to insert their own rollercoaster analogy in here too please.
Okay, let me dispel another bizarre rumour that I’ve read on Twitter over the last few days... this movie is, despite popular opinion on the matter, absolutely nothing like the 1966 Batman movie in tone, editing style or... well, really anything. I don’t know why people are saying that but, seriously, if you are going to go to the cinema expecting something that tonally similar to the good old days of Adam West then, well, I think you’re going to be disappointed. And, yes, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed in the movie but I really didn’t have time to dwell on that because the whole thing moves so fast, to be honest.
So... in a way I feel like this movie is a bit like the new, female Ghostbusters attempt of a few years ago... nicely put together with some nice chemistry between the actors but the humour falls really short of target. Also, I was surprised about the rating the movie has. Over here in the UK it’s a 15 certificate but I think it could maybe have been a 12A. I’m guessing it’s not scenes like cutting people’s faces off and throwing them on the floor in front of their loved ones before doing the same to them which got this film a higher rating because, frankly, as nasty as that sounds (and it’s certainly supposed to be to give Ewan McGregor’s villain a certain threat level), it’s handled in a fairly bloodless manner. I think it’s probably the amount of profanity in the movie that’s got the rating up there somewhere where very few superhero movies have been before.... or masked vigilante movies anyway (since this version of Black Canary has that silly canary scream which they added to the character fairly recently in 1969, I guess it’s almost a superhero movie, to some small extent).
Daniel Pemberton’s score is... I dunno, I couldn’t hear it through the sheer noise of the sound effects foley for the most part. He’s a great composer though and luckily for me they are releasing his score on a proper CD in a few weeks so I’ll be able to hear what is probably another in a long line of works of great musical art from this guy away from the punches, gunshots, revving motors and explosions of the film. Yeah, that’s one thing I will say, this movie is a really noisy experience... I kinda wish I hadn’t seen it in IMAX now but the time that performance was on was the more convenient for me.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn. This is a good movie to distract you from the troubles of the outside world and that’s a good deal of what certain kinds of cinematic art are supposed to do, for sure. That being said, it’s nice if certain stand out moments from a movie stay with you and lurk in the mind for a while afterwards and, frankly, I got out from this just a few hours ago and have forgotten an awful lot. The best thing in this movie for me was Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing Huntress for laughs... so I’m glad the original character was nobody I knew about or was invested in. If you liked Suicide Squad and even DC movies like the recent Joker (reviewed here), then you’ll probably be okay with this one. I don’t know if these will continue to tie up with the DC universe the way it’s going at the moment but... well... time will tell I guess.
Wednesday, 5 February 2020
How Would He Duck?
A Fistful Of Dynamite
aka Duck You Sucker
aka Giù La Testa
aka Once Upon A Time... The Revolution
Italy/Spain 1971 Directed by Sergio Leone
Eureka - The Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Slight spoilers if you’ve never seen this one.
Okay, so let’s talk about Duck You Sucker or, these days perhaps it’s better known by one of its other many names, A Fistful Of Dynamite. This is a beautiful new Blu Ray release from Eureka which my friend and I both got for each other at Christmas. A two disc special edition of what is, essentially, my favourite ever Western movie (occasionally alternating with this director’s previous film) and the last Western ‘officially’ directed by Sergio Leone... the next film directed under his own name, after a long interval, would be his swan song, the absolutely brilliant Once Upon A Time In America.
The plot is very simple but told in an entertainingly convoluted way. A Mexican bandit name Juan, played by Rod Steiger as an almost parody of the director (who I seem to remember he didn’t get along with during production) inadvertently teams up with an IRA terrorist named John, played by James Coburn, during the 1913 revolution in Mexico. The two start off kinda hating each other but do the whole male bonding over violence and adventures thing and, inexplicably and regretfully in the case of Juan, end up becoming heroes of the revolution.
The film looks beautiful and, although there are only a few incidents told in its lengthy running time, everything is stretched out in the way that only Leone can do it (and leave you wanting more) so that it feels like an absolute epic. Which, of course, it is.
The film has a lot of comedy in it, with one of my favourite scenes being the bank raid at Mesa Verde when Juan has been talking John, ‘the firecracker’ who is so good with explosives, into doing the bank job only to find, when he goes through with it, that it is he who has been manipulated by John all along as there is no longer any money in the bank. Instead, he finds himself freeing a hundred or so political prisoners. The look on Steigers face each time he opens a bank vault and instead finds prisoners is priceless in a montage scene beautifully backed for comic effect by Ennio Morricone’s truly awesome score.
The film is also very moving, with a wonderful, protracted sequence after Juan and John have stopped the bad guys in government from crossing the bridge and following the rebels where they go rejoin all the people they have saved, only to find they’ve all been slaughtered in a cave by another military troop. The scene is just Rod Steiger’s face for pretty much most of it as he looks around and talks to Coburn and you begin to realise what has happened and that Juan has lost his father plus all six of his children in the massacre. When he goes outside in a suicidal bid for revenge (only to be caught in time to be rescued later), it’s only then we are left with John and we see the many bodies piled up, with the machine gun bullets of Juan’s bid for vengeance outside the cave on the soundtrack co-opted by the visuals of the dead bodies of the rebels as a metaphor of the way they died. It’s a wonderful moment of sound juxtaposed with on-screen visuals to make a comment on what you are seeing and add a layer of dynamic context.
There’s also a moving scene earlier in the movie and, for my money, Steiger’s monologue from this scene is probably one of the best, if not the best, in cinema history. Now I don’t acknowledge politics or the necessity of them myself and I usually don’t understand them anyway but, twice in Spaghetti Westerns they’ve simplified thing so that even I can comprehend them and one of them is this speech, which I’ll quote here (the other is probably the end moments of A Bullet For The General, if I’m not confusing politics with morality that is)...
“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about revolutions! The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, "We have to have a change." So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That's your revolution! Sh... so, please... don't tell me about revolutions... And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”
The photography in this is absolutely beautiful, of course and, it’s very easy to recognise that the meticulously designed shot compositions are by Sergio Leone. You have action scenes through horizontal slats in the foreground or mid-ground and the screen split up into sections with holes to view other things going on... not to mention an abundance on close ups of eyes and, in a brilliant part at the start where Juan is riding in the carriage with the rich people, their mouths full of food to show the way the ‘other half’ lives and how evil they are in this situation (one of them a priest, of course).
And as far as the composition goes... there’s that wonderful moment where a poster with a face on it is suddenly torn out from behind in a slat on the train carriage it has been plastered over to reveal Rod Steiger’s eyes looking out from inside and into the camera in close up... a shot which must surely have inspired the scene where Gromit does more or less the same thing hiding inside a box of dog food in The Wrong Trousers.
One particularly favourite moment of composition is near the start of the movie, when the camera is placed behind the guy riding shotgun on a stage coach and is looking down past him at the action. The brim of the guys hat fills the right third of the widescreen frame while we see Juan and the driver interacting on the ground in the left two thirds of the screen below... really nice stuff.
And then there’s Ennio Morricone’s score adding to every scene of course. This is one of my all time favourite scores too and one of my ex-girlfriends used to get so tired of me bringing it to play in the car every time we went out. At times jaunty but ultimately containing some of the most moving melodies he ever wrote... especially for the scenes where John is remembering his IRA past, which we see more of as his back story is revealed over the course of the movie.
Actually, if you go with the title Once Upon A Time... The Revolution and realise it is sandwiched between the director’s other epic movies Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America, we see the director’s obsession, as I see it, with memory and how important it is to the characters who inhabit these three films (and also his earlier film, For A Few Dollars More). Like it is in some of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, memory seems to be almost an added character to the story and the events of the present time in the film are always affected by what has gone on in the past of the character’s lives. I won’t spoil James Coburn’s full character arc for you here if you’ve never seen it but, it’s a sad and tragic one and explains, to a certain extent, why he sees the actions of one specific character in the film as a betrayal of sorts... although he doesn’t, as we at first think, do anything about this betrayal. He does inadvertently pave the way for redemption for that character towards the end of the film though.
Eureka’s wonderful two disc set of A Fistful Of Dynamite, including both the American version of the film and the much longer Italian cut (which is the one to watch but maybe choose the English dialogue track option on the audio because that’s what the two main American actors are speaking throughout) is loaded with extras (none of which I’ve yet had a chance to watch) including separate commentary tracks from both Sir Christopher Frayling and Alex Cox plus a beautiful slipcase housing a book of essays about the film. If you call yourself a film buff (I wouldn’t), a cineaste, a movie goer or any variant of a lover of cinema then this is a film which you should always have a version of on your shelves. One of the great movies of cinema and another that I’ll always try and revisit every five years or so. Get this version before it sells out.
Monday, 3 February 2020
A Praxeus To Grind
Doctor Who - Praxeus
Airdate: 2nd February 2020
Okay, so this weeks episode of Doctor Who, Praxeus, didn’t bother picking up any of the threads dangled in last weeks episode (nor from earlier in the series) but this one wasn’t a bad romp. There were good things and bad things. Asides from the usual brilliant performances by Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh and this weeks co-stars, it had a nice structure to it and, even though the plot itself was slow burn, the multiple repeat location hopping (very much in keeping with the style of an old 1930s - 1950s US theatrical serial) made sure that things never got boring and gave the pleasant illusion of an episode being, perhaps, a little pacier than it actually was.
Which is all fine, of course.
I also liked the, admittedly totally illogical but, ultimately, good looking make-up job (some of which was also CGI, I think) of this episodes ‘special guest virus’. Doctor Who is, once again, pulling no punches by being a family show in which, on a number of occasions in this episode, death strikes in a spectacular fashion. In this case, the final stage of the virus when it overwhelms its humanoid host causes said host to explode. Admittedly, it’s a completely bloodless explosion but it still looked suitably ostentatious as a form of death and one of the things I’ve liked about Doctor Who over the years is its willingness to go down this kind of route.
So... good acting, speedy pacing and a nice structure to it, where various companions in different places around the planet Earth were working on different and, at first, seemingly disconnected sides of the same problem. All great fun and certainly a nicely done episode. There were, however, some bad things too.
Bad thing one and, it has to be said, this goes for most episodes in the last two series... it was way too preachy about making its points again. I don’t know what’s going on but previously on Doctor Who the writers were quite able to put in a lot of relevant and topical subtext without dumbing it down so much that it hovers right on the surface and threatens to engulf the story. A big long monologue from The Doctor about the harm humans are doing by poisoning the environment and themselves with plastic was really... well... it was a bit embarrassing actually. Also, these kinds of messages are always better off going into the subconscious so the audience can come to the realisation themselves... it somehow seems more effective when that’s the case. You don’t for example, see someone climbing up onto a balcony in George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead to tell the audience it’s all about the evils of consumerism and retail therapy. There’ a brief mention of it by one of the characters and then, that’s it... you pick it up for yourself later on. So, yeah, I didn’t need all this stuff shoved down my throat, thank you very much.
The other really bad thing in this one, I thought, was the credibility of one of the characters... and this wasn’t the actresses fault, for sure. There are two female bloggers travelling the globe together in this and one of them explodes fairly early on in the show. Her best friend who is desperate to find her, after seeing her death, only reacts a little. Yeah, I know the emotional stuff on these kinds of shows and also in cinema are such that nobody stays upset for very long otherwise you don’t have time to, you know, actually progress the plot but the lack of reaction written into the character throughout the show... for instance as the character goes off smiling about her experiences at the end of the episode, only a few hours after seeing her friend die a very violent death, just felt really wrong here. I understand there’s a fine line but I think the writing could have been a little more solid, perhaps alluding to the process of grief in off screen moments to maintain an illusion of emotional torment. Instead we more or less got an attitude of ‘Oh, she’s dead. Oh dear. Moving along now... next?” Again, I don’t think it was the actress portraying the character who brought this, almost absence of appropriate affect, with her. I think it was the writing not giving her enough time and dialogue to express it. maybe it’s just me but I did get a feeling of the writers painting themselves into a corner and then running through the wet paint quickly in the hopes nobody would notice when it comes to this kind of stuff. And it isn’t the first time I’ve picked up on this over the last couple of years of Doctor Who, for sure.
And that’s me done on that one. Short review again but, ultimately, the bad stuff didn’t really outweigh the good stuff... just popped you out of the experience a few times. Fingers crossed that next week it’s not back to ‘business as usual’ for the show though because, just lately, business hasn’t been booming.
Sunday, 2 February 2020
The Lost Movies
by John Walsh
Titan Books ISBN: 978-1789091106
Many viewers of fantasy cinema love the stop motion worlds created for the screen by the late, great Ray Harryhausen in films such as The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (reviewed here). However, do you remember Ray Harryhausen’s 1959 movie version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars... in Cinerama, no less? Or how about his 1969 version of Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian character?
If you’re scratching your head and thinking quizzically about that then don’t worry, you’re not losing your mind and tripping into some fantastic alternative reality. These are film projects that were planned at the time and never came to pass and, fascinating as they are, this is just scratching the surface of John Walsh’s new book Harryhausen - The Lost Movies.
Written by the current gatekeeper, so to speak, of the legacy of this remarkable stop motion animator and film maker extraordinaire, this book is a nicely illustrated look at the many different projects which are the fabulous “what if?” periods of Ray Harryhausen’s life... mostly but, not always, coupled with his producing partner Charles H. Schneer, of course. And as you can imagine, it’s a treasure trove of lost projects that, in some cases most regrettably, never came to pass. It’s also a source of some quite surprising things, when you look at some of the cinematic treasures which were possibly ‘in the mix’ for Harryhausen’s attention.
Starting off with quote testimonies about the frequency of lost projects the average film maker has to regrettably turn his back on by five famous movie directors... Guillermo Del Toro, John Landis, John Boorman, Mike Hodges and Nicholas Meyer... the book goes through the life’s work of missed or passed on opportunities of the great man chronologically and with chapters set into periods of his work.
The book takes the works of three categories of ‘lost film’(and occasional TV show or series of short films like the proposed 1950 Baron Munchausen shorts) as it goes along with the different types designated thusly:
Projects turned down by Ray - these are ones which, for some reason or another, Ray either wasn’t interested in or saw some huge problems which might scupper the project and so didn’t spend too much time on them. For the Conan movie, for example, Ray knew he wanted to do it ‘straight’ to the tone of the original pulps and was pushing to go for a violent, gory approach for the subject matter... something he didn’t usually entertain as a good route with his work but, for this project, he thought that would be the right choice. Regrettably, various producers didn’t think a fantasy film with that level of violence would be deemed commercial enough for the cinema on the expected release year of 1973 (once all the animated creature sequences were done) so the project didn’t go ahead.
And it’s an impressive and surprising list of projects that Ray turned down, many of them which you could see would have benefitted from Ray’s golden touch and would have made sense if he’d taken them on. They include among them, such famous titles as The Giant Claw, Night/Curse Of The Demon, King Kong Vs Frankenstein, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, The Land That Time Forgot, The Hobbit (in 1974), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (although that lovely shot of him standing next to the stop motion version of the Tauntaun at ILM is reproduced in this book), The Princess Bride, an early version of the X-Men and David Lynch’s version of Dune. An impressive list of projects to pass on to be sure but there are many others mentioned in this book and in some cases it also talks about who approached him for which project and the reasons why Ray turned them down.
Projects that Ray was developing - these were propositions to make into a film project but which didn’t get finished for one reason or another and they run the gamut from the book being able to show just a single surviving sketch such as a proposed 1948 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher to having a load of surviving artwork plus assembled models ready to be animated and, in the case of some of the projects (and I guess you’ll need to scour YouTube to see some of these), actual test footage of the models in preparation for filming.
Alas, for some of these projects such as a proposed 1954 version of H. G Wells’ The Time Machine, no preliminary sketches have survived.For others of these though, you can get a real glimpse, sometimes more than a glimpse, of what might have been. For instance, Ray’s version of War Of The Worlds would have included the proper tripods from the book and not what George Pal ended up doing with his movie version. Or the much mooted Sinbad Goes To Mars project.
And then there’s a third category of films, where the movie was made by Ray and is another jewel in his filmography but sequences were either developed but not shot for these or just left on the cutting room floor. So a sequence where two Cyclopses fight each other in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad was storyboarded out (the book is full of Harryhausen’s illustrations and models of these kinds of things, by the way) but never made it into the final version. Also, scenes with snakes (and also in the case of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad... rats) were cut out from most of the films where they were originally to be included, purely because Charles H. Schneer had a phobia about them and so he always eliminated those scenes first. One has to wonder how the Medusa in Clash Of The Titans got past him. Interestingly, a decade after the film came out, a young 17 year old fan sent a homemade mask of the Cyclops from that film to Harryhausen and Ray responded with an encouraging letter. Ladies and gentlemen, that young fan grew up to be the famous Hollywood creature creator Rick Baker.
And some of the commentary on these existing films contain their own surprises...
So sure, the scene in The Three Worlds of Gulliver where the title character fights a devil homunculus never made it to the cameras but, apparently neither did Danny Kaye, who was wanted for Gulliver but couldn’t get Sam Goldwyn to release him from his contract to shoot the movie.
Or the fact that for The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, Christopher Lee was originally wanted for the main villain of the movie, a part that went to the then unknown Tom Baker (and which brought him to the attention of the producers of the show that shot him to international fame). Also from this movie, Orson Welles was apparently wanted for the role of The Oracle but an uncredited and completely unrecognisable Robert Shaw plays the role in the final film. As for the Valley Of The Vipers scene originally slated for the movie... well, you can bet Schneer got rid of that one too.
Also, I have to say that, judging from the storyboards in this book, the unused Shadow Men who created the Minoton from Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger would have been a really scary thing for children to view and, perhaps, should have stayed in the movie.
Fans of Hammer movies will also find much of interest in here with the unmade projects like When The Earth Cracked Open (one of the famous 'pre-posters' for that film is reprinted in this tome) and their attempt to make their own King Kong movie.
As for Clash Of The Titans, one of my least favourites of Harryhausen’s ouevre, it explains why the death of Medusa in the film is so different from the one in the Look-In graphic novel sold at the time of the film’s release. However, regarding this motion picture, the most interesting but, also, the most frustrating revelation of this book is the discovery made by the writer when researching this. That is the discovery of a TDK blank cassette on which is recorded John Barry’s rejected demo score for the film. I would love to hear this... as would a lot of people but, I’ve no idea what condition the tape is in or if it could be preserved for a commercial release. It must be a fascinating listening experience though.
And that’s me done with this book for now. There are a heck of a lot of dead movies covered here and there’s many more you can read about in Harryhausen - The Lost movies. John Walsh has conceived and written a really fascinating book which gives a real insight into what some of these productions might have had going for them, with plenty of the original illustrations and models reproduced here too. A real dream of a book for certain readers, I’m sure and something most cinephiles of a certain kind will want to immerse themselves in. Definitely worth a read.