Sunday 31 May 2020

Snowpiercer


Scenes From
A Carriage


Snowpiercer
South Korea/Czechoslovakia 2013
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Anchor Bay  Blu Ray Zone A


Snowpiercer is another fine movie from Bong Joon Ho, director of the absolutely brilliant, giant monster movie The Host and the ‘so so’ multiple Oscar winner Parasite. It’s based on a comic book I’ve never actually read called Le Transperceneige so, please forgive me that I’m not able to convey whether this is an accurate adaptation of the source material or not... I just don’t know. It’s also the movie that the notorious Harvey Weinstein famously sat on and blocked from release in the US (it’s still not been released over here in the UK*) for many years now due to the director correctly refusing to cut the film down. I got so fed up with not being able to see this, since there’s now also a TV series based on the work, that I finally got around to importing a Blu Ray release of this thing.

And, yeah, it’s not a bad film. It’s a nice 1950s style sci-fi novel concept (as modern sci-fi often is) although the whole thing feels a little bit dated to me in terms of the film reminding me of a lot of stuff I was seeing from places like Korea in the 1990s. That is to say, the film is kinda complex in terms of the amount of detail crammed into the thing... it made me think of some live action manga adaptations from the end of the last millennium.

The plot is of a post-apocalyptic Earth where nobody can survive (after mankind absolutely doomed themselves by bringing in the ‘big freeze’) unless they are in this specific, very long train which keeps moving and circling the planet on one large track over the course of a year... so, for example, you will always know from the wreckage of the place you are passing again when it is New Year’s Day. Stay on the constantly moving and self sufficient train and you live... exit and you freeze to death within minutes.

However, there is a class system established on the train, from the rich folk at the front, down to the lower classes at the rear who are more or less treated like prisoners in Nazi Germany and it’s here where our main protagonists work together to throw off the chains of their oppressors. The story tells of a group of characters played by the likes of Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Jamie Bell, Ko Asung, Octavia Spencer, Ewan Bremner and John Hurt as they finally organise themselves enough to try and fight their way to the front of the train and seize control of their situation. In their path, a whole host of bad guys and henchmen including Tilda Swinton, playing her evil character as kind of a Northern shop steward and the man at the top, Ed Harris.

And so, yeah, if this sounds all very like the original intended version of the late Bruce Lee’s Game Of Death, where his character was supposed to fight his way level by level up the tower... this is exactly what we have here. Except the tower is vertical, moving very fast and much longer. Plus there’s no kung fu action, of course.

As you can imagine from a cast as good as this, all the performances in this are superb (and it’s very grim too, because of it) but it’s the constant changes in interior locations and the inventiveness of different settings which continue to hold the interest as the story progresses. The first three quarters of an hour or more, for example, are really dark and grey and exactly the kind of colour palette you’d imagine for depicting a Jewish ghetto in a film set during the Second World War but, as new sections of the train are unlocked and revealed to the constantly diminishing band of survivors, everything gets more brighter and, of course more decadent as things go on, with the various ruling classes juxtaposed with our ‘low life heroes’ from the back of the train.

There’s a beautiful, breathtaking aquarium environment, for example, where the walls of one carriage are completely lined with aquatic life so the rest of the train can have sushi during certain times of the year. There’s a school room with kids and a somewhat irritating, singing teacher and even some ‘clubbing’ quarters where dancing, drinking and drugs is going on.

There’s lots of fighting going on too and it’s interesting how director Ho manages to get you to feel the emotional weight of some of the deaths when you’ve really only known certain characters for a half an hour. One interesting fight scene is where the incredibly long train is turning around on a huge u-turn of track, allowing a sniper to fire in a gun battle between two carriages while they are in view of each other. This was a nice touch and I have to wonder if this was in the original comic or if someone thought of this visual possibility purely for the film.

Adding to both this emotional weight and the gravitas of some of the action scenes is Marco Beltrami’s excellent score (I need to put this one on order soon). I was especially taken with a ‘call to action’ around halfway through the film where the underlying rhythm of the piece echoes, or actually creates, the sound of the locomotion of the transport. Very nicely done.

Okay, short review then because I’ve not got a whole lot more to say about Snowpiercer other than the fact that there’s a nice kind of twist as to where the narrative is going which you might suspect is coming at some point if you keep your eye on Ho’s regular actor Kang-ho Song... but may not realise is an option until this character starts offering up some science about their situation. It’s an okay ending but doesn’t neccessarily answer anything unless you are able to assume there’s a little more to what you are seeing than you have been shown... at least in terms of the aftermath of the film’s denouement. Not as good as The Host (which also stars Kang-ho Song and Ko Asung) but, at least for me, a solid science fiction vehicle with an interesting premise. 

*Wrote this a few months ago... it’s coming out over here in the on Blu Ray very soon.

Thursday 28 May 2020

The Big Lebowski


Bunny Lebowski Is Missing

The Big Lebowski
USA/UK 1998
Written and Directed by The Coen Brothers
Universal Ltd Edition Blu Ray Book Zone B


I remember the first time I saw The Big Lebowski. It was at the end of April 1998 at the Metro Cinema on Rupert Street in London. The cinema is, sadly, now deceased but I remember I was alone and all through the film I was just in awe of what is, frankly, one of the greatest movie comedies ever committed to celluloid... I just had nobody to talk to about it. When I left I realised that the film was one of those rare beasts that is, as I exclaimed to myself at the time, ‘pure cinema’. This is the kind of amazing spectacle that completely justifies the art of film to anybody who would question the validity of the medium. It blew me away and I pretty much dragged a fair few people to see it over the course of the next month. A truly brilliant piece of magic.

I’ve now just got around to watching a limited edition book set I picked up maybe four or five years ago and, although I haven’t had time to watch the supplementary material (as I rarely do), it is packed to the brim with extras. And, more importantly, the film itself really stands the test of time. From it’s opening narrative from the great Sam Elliot to his address directly to the audience at the end of the picture, the film is a pure joy as we follow the exploits of a week or so in the life of Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, who is set on a mission by his millionaire namesake to be the ‘delivery guy’ for the ransom of The Big Lebowski’s wife Bunny. A job which turns into a convoluted mess of a plot which is an absolute joy to follow as the overly relaxed and accommodating, Fletch-like character becomes inexplicably embroiled in a bizarre double cross of a blackmail plot which is itself exploited by the potential victim of that plot.

I’ve mentioned Fletch above as perhaps being close kin to certain aspects of the character but perhaps only because of the similarity of the tropes of the genre The Coens are following here. This is pure Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammet style, hard boiled detective noir but shot through with a slobby but 'adrenalin rush' jab of broad humour and some nicely surrealistic moments... uniting in a work which is an experience first, a film second.

Played expertly by Jeff Bridges, Lebowski is aided or, frankly, more abetted by his companions Walter and Donnie, played brilliantly by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. During his adventures he meets more and more bizarre characters played by the likes of Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reade (as Bunny, who was also perfect in the remarkable Josie And The Pussycats), Peter Stormare and John Turturro, who reprised his role earlier this year as ‘Jesus’ in his film The Jesus Rolls.

The plot is not something I’m going to dig into here... it’s a standard mystery with various reveals but it’s totally not important... the film is completely character driven and though it certainly needs a story to tie the whole thing together (just as Lebowski needs his rug to tie his room together) it is the brilliance of the characters, the people who perform then and the witty script which really maketh the movie here. Being as it’s by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I still find a bit hit and miss on their projects, the whole thing looks great too... and no wonder when they’ve got cinematographer Roger Deakins on board. I especially liked the very sharp focus, brightly coloured and contrasted stuff he shoots the second dream sequence, the Gutterballs porn parody, with. It looks fantastic and brings that whole sense of ‘epic’ to the silliness of the premise. This is a work of genius here, make no mistake.

I also love the way the dialogue kind of keeps refuelling itself from scene to scene too. I think the first two or three times I saw this it took a while to sink in but, the more you see it, the more you realise that a lot of Jeff Bridges’ dialogue is culled from things he’s heard other people say in a prior sequence. It’s amazing how somebody will say something to him in one scene and he will then say the exact same phrase he’s picked up to somebody else in a later scene. This kind of eclectic approach to the dialogue is fantastic and, though it’s obviously very rigid in the way it evolves in the writing, Bridges makes it feel so off-the-cuff and natural that... well, as I said, you might not even notice it for a while.

There are a lot of little sly references to other pop culture elements in the film but, with the structure of dialogue and the way the piece folds in on itself by building on its own foundations, some of these do kind of get lost in the mix on first or second viewings and, even if you do spot them, like the various overt shout outs to the TV show Branded (The Dude even sings the theme tune when he’s drunk), they are often fictionalised with, in this case, a fake writer and a ‘way off’ episode count.

Probably my favourite reference, though, is the fact that the nihilists fronted by Peter Stormare, who are among those who give The Dude and his friends such a hard time in the film, were also part of a once famous, fictional ‘euro pop’ group who are so obviously a version of the group Kraftwerk. Even their album cover features a nice parody of exactly the style of 70s/80s artwork the band would use as their front jackets and the name of their group is the name of one of the band’s famous hits, Autobahn.

Oh, saying that I also love the Lenin/Lennon confusion moment with Donnie repeatedly saying... “I am the Walrus.”

And I think I’ll leave it there. I could probably go on to say quite a lot about the movie if I had the time but I don’t want to get into a full blown analysis of every minute of the film on here and, frankly, if you’ve never seen it before, I certainly don’t want to spoil it for you. All I will say is that, despite a mainly needle-dropped soundtrack comprising of songs and only a few minutes of Carter Burwell score, The Big Lebowski is still an absolute masterpiece and, probably still, the greatest movie The Coens ever put together. This is one of those films that deserves another look every seven years or so, for sure. Recommended for absolutely anyone who loves cinema.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction


Glass Act

Unknown Worlds
Of Science Fiction

Curtis (Marvel)
6 issues plus one annual
January 1975 - November 1976 1969


Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction was, I’m pretty sure, a failed second attempt to capture a similar market as the earlier Marvel Comic Worlds Unknown (reviewed by me here). This time, however, the stories were allowed to be more maturely themed (for the most part) as they were appearing in Marvel’s magazine arm Curtis. People may remember these various magazines Marvel used to produce, with titles like Savage Sword Of Conan and Doc Savage, as being absolutely superior to their four colour comic counterparts because they were allowed to be more subtle in the writing and they were filled with beautiful black and white artwork on a larger page. They also had a much longer page count... Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction has over 60 pages per issue, for example. It wasn’t until Marvel showed that they could do some great, mature readers colour work in things like their Epic Illustrated comic (obviously inspired by Heavy Metal magazine and definitely worth another look if you dismissed it for that reason) and their Epic label later on, publishing such beautiful works as Blood - A Tale, Stray Toasters and Elektra Assassin, that the black and white magazines started to lose a little traction, methinks.

Roy Thomas introduces the first issue with another enthusiastic but gloomy take on where the world was at in terms of appreciating and marketing science fiction. It’s a similar take on what was said in the opening issue of Worlds Unknown but I think they were hoping the change to a more mature audience would lengthen the life of the comic. Alas, there were actually less issues of this title, albeit with a lot more content. He also talks about famous science fiction writers from past and present and one of the things the comic does is to occasionally have a text interview with either a bastion of science fiction like Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert and others... as well as often having a comic strip adaptation of one of their shorter works housed within the same issue. There’s also the odd article about a specific event or award related to science fiction too. Most of the issues were comic strips, though... either based on works by very famous authors or written by the various Marvel employees like Bruce Jones, who seems to be quite prolific for the magazine.

This is where the comic strip adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids eventually wound up, after it was initially advertised a couple of years before as being an up and coming story for Worlds Unknown (presumably pulled to make way for the slight change in direction of the last two issues, which instead went out with an adaptation of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad). It was obviously intended to run for two issues as it’s presented as a two parter in the first two issues here, taking up the same page count it would have had in the former title. It’s also not a bad adaptation, actually, although I prefer the look and feel of the Triffid guns in the first BBC TV adaptation of the book rather than the way in which they are presented here.

The first issue also adapts, toward the end, the Bob Shaw story about Slow Glass, an other worldly glass that absorbs the light shone into at and plays a person's life back with a huge delay, so past times and places (depending on which point in history you are in) can be viewed through it. The editor here really ran with this concept because, not only is the original story adapted... it’s also used to bookend every one of the regular six issues in the series. Each issue starts off with a new customer coming into the antiquated store which is the only known supplier of Slow Glass and then observing the stories as they appear in the comic you are reading.

During the first issue’s introduction, Roy Thomas gets himself in a little trouble with future letter writers in that he promises the stories in the magazine would never resort to ‘space opera’ tales... which he, quite rightfully in some respects, sees as just space westerns. He even runs a satirical parody of Flash Gordon in this first issue called Smash Gordon. Most of the tales in Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction don’t fall into the much loved (especially by me) space opera category but it’s kinda interesting that in one of the other stories in here, The Savage World, the likenes of Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe is definitely on the head and shoulders of one of the characters in a tale which, really isn’t that far off from the space opera Mr. Thomas seems to have gotten so tired of. I’d just assumed that this was the artist using film and TV stills as models for the characters because I’d seen a lot of that kind of ‘borrowing’ growing up with the great British sci-fi comic 2000AD and, when I showed the pages to my dad, I remarked that I hadn’t realised the American comic books had done this also. As it turns out, though, while researching this review, I found out that this story was, actually, an unused piece of artwork drawn in 1954 for an issue of the Buster Crabbe comic series, with new dialogue lettered in. It just seems a bit of a curious addition in light of the editors comments but I guess if you have space to fill and the deadline is knocking on your door, you use what’s to hand, maybe.

And it’s not a bad comic actually. It kinda falls into the obvious thing about every single story having a ‘Twilight Zone’ style twist ending and, while that does get tiresome after a while, I can’t think of any better format to replace it if you’re doing an anthology comic. Funnily enough, while there are some nice adaptations... such as Michael Moorcock’s Hugo award winning Behold The Man, the content of which, detailing the story of a time traveller who goes back in time to meet Christ and ends up becoming Christ and getting crucified at the end (something which, you can tell from the letters page, the editorial team were expecting to get a huge backlash from)... it’s usually the original stories by staff writers that are the most interesting.

I think my favourite one has to be Bruce Jones’ Preservation Of The Species from the giant sized issue, released a while after the magazine had folded but with a kind of last hurrah attempt to get better sales while finding a single issue venue for a lot of unused stories which had obviously already been written and artworked for the original magazine in, well, slightly more optimistic times.That being said, this last hurrah of an issue also contained a reprint of the Marvel adaptation of Frederic Brown’s Arena from Worlds Unknown so, maybe not a huge amount of material left unpublished. Preservation Of The Species is pretty much the only one of the many stories over the seven issues where I didn’t see the twist coming until after it happened. The writer successfully managed to distract my attention away from the real story by focusing on the peculiar ‘powers’ manifested in the main female protagonist and directing me away from the real trick of the story. So, yeah, I really enjoyed that one and, to be fair, I liked quite a few of the stories in the series but, as I said, those twist ending style reveals do get a little wearing after a while... especially when they are so obviously telegraphed a lot of the time.

And that’s that... like its predecessor, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction didn’t have bad sales exactly... but they weren’t that good either. If only they could have held on for another year or two, they might have found their fortunes reversed by riding the magical Star Wars bandwagon but, alas, it was not to be. Still, a nice set to have a read through and, I have to say, I do kinda miss the days when you could pick up the latest black and white Marvel magazine from the shelves of your local newsagent. A good series for fans of science fiction, despite its reliance on story twists. Some lovely artwork in a variety of styles too. Worth a read if you have the time.

Sunday 24 May 2020

King Kong Vs Godzilla


Crouching Eiga,
Hidden Dragging


King Kong Vs Godzilla

(aka Kingu Kongu tai Gojira)
Japan/USA 1962 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B


So seven years after Godzilla Raids Again (reviewed here) had, presumably, ended Gojira’s onslaught on the Japanese and US box office, there was still a lot of interest in King Kong and Toho Studios wanted to celebrate their own 30th anniversary with a slate of big films including something with the much loved giant ape in it (Kurosawa was also coaxed, grudgingly, into making the second and final sequel movie in his career with Sanjuro, his follow up to Yojimbo). So the Japanese did a rights deal with US studio RKO, who still held the rights to King Kong and... wondered who he could fight in his film. The answer was, of course, Godzilla so... in a way, King Kong saved Godzilla because the Godzilla cycle really took off after this movie and hasn’t really stopped for any great length of time since.

When I took out the next disc of this epic Criterion set, I was dismayed to find that the version of King Kong VS Godzilla was the butchered, re-edited version with loads of stuff missing and some terrible fake TV broadcast news sections inserted all the way through to try and explain the story. It’s a truly awful version of the movie and, until now, the only one I’d ever been able to see, alas. Once the film finished... and the American version truly is a dreadful way to experience this movie... I was all ready to ‘tweet angry’ at Criterion to complain about their bad judgement in only including the stupid US version.

However, just before I did this, I came upon an article which explained that the original Japanese cut of the movie is, indeed on this set... it’s just ‘hidden in plain sight’ on the eighth disc as an extra. It seems weird to me that the one film which is, I suspect, the main draw for a set like this for a lot of people, is kinda tucked away at the back of the set like it’s somehow not the most important movie on here. However, it’s not been treated that well either in that, the scenes on this version of the film that are in the American version are proper Blu Ray quality while the scenes which are unique to the Japanese version are, in a lot of cases, only in DVD quality and, in some instances, the change over from one source to another can be quite jarring. So... yeah, a little disappointed but at least it’s on here (unlike the US version of Godzilla Raids Again... yeah, thanks Criterion).

The film in summary is very simple. Godzilla emerges from the ice in the form of an iceberg... presumably that’s what the island he was frozen on has become in the seven years since the last movie... pulling himself out of his deep freeze due to shear strength of will it seems to me. Meanwhile, two TV reporters go to Faro Island (not Skull Island as in the original Kong movies) to get some unique red berry juice and also look into the local legend of a legendary evil God-like presence living on the island. It is, of course, King Kong who, after fighting a giant octopus, falls asleep while drinking some of the berry juice and so is towed back to Japan in time to fight against Godzilla. There’s also a sub-plot about one of the reporter’s brother, who has invented an unbreakable steel wire which dovetails into the main plot towards the end of the film when the authorities lift Kong by helium balloons attached to this wire to get the slumbering beast closer to Godzilla. It’s all very silly in both cuts of the movie but the US version renders it completely ridiculous with bad dubbing changing the actual dialogue and, also, turning into a bizarre ‘selected highlights’ edition by cutting in and out of scenes for more explanatory exposition by the added American and Japanese news teams. The US version also includes terrible dialogue choices like “King Kong can’t make a monkey out of us.” They leave out a lot of the ‘TV ratings war’ satirical edge that Honda has in his version too, with all the re-dubbing.

Another thing the Americans really overdo on their cut of the movie is keep mentioning the atomic bomb. Every time the authoritarian Japanese scientist turns up and everyone is overdubbed with completely different dialogue, people just keep asking him if they’re going to drop an atomic bomb on The Big G. Really weird and almost a subconscious but punishing reminder of the horrific US triumph over the Japanese during the Second World War. On the Japanese version, the Hydrogen Bomb is only mentioned once and very briefly. This could be so that, as every Japanese person will remember, Gojira was woken and reborn from the atomic bomb tests so... well, it’s not going to do any damage to it at all if they use such devastating force. So it’s a bit of a weird and persistent inclusion on the US cut.

One thing the Japanese version also seems to forget though, especially since it’s the director of the original Gojira movie at the helm here, is that electricity didn’t stop Gojira either. Indeed, in this movie, this actually works on the monster, contrary to everything we already know about it. That being said, the electricity only makes King Kong stronger... he’s seen literally eating it from wires at one point... and, towards the end of the movie, lightning strikes fix it so that Kong can actually channel electricity through his fingers. So, yeah, not a lot of continuity with the original Kong in this one then. Although, to be fair, this idea might have been inspired by a famous, 1930s publicity still montage which pictures Kong with a load of lightning behind him in the sky.

The fights are entertaining in this movie. They are more comical and a bit like a wrestling match... much to the dismay of director Honda, who wanted to keep the monster elements more serious than the rest of the movie... but they are quite watchable and this is pretty much the direction that the majority of the Showa Era films would go when depicting their epic battle sequences. That being said, the fight scenes in the Japanese cut seem just a little bit longer and more consistent somehow than the US version, which seems to chop and change and then leave the action very quickly at the first chance. Not sure why this is, to be honest. They do both include a beautifully silly moment, though, where Kong uproots a tree and shoves it down Godzilla’s/Gojira’s throat... only for The Big G to fire it up and then spit it out at Kong as a flaming projectile. Nice stuff. Also, the effects work on the giant octopus which fights Kong at the start, apart from a comical moment where it sits on Kongs head and engulfs it, is actually pretty realistic and probably the most interesting effect in the whole movie.

Both cuts feature some very colourful scenes on Faro Island with the indigenous population there, although, all the of the islanders appear to be Japanese actors wearing black face so, yeah, they wouldn’t get away with this kind of approach today. They also show the influence of the US producers in some places, like the inclusion of the vinyl album cover of Hollywood Love Themes one of the Japanese characters has on the wall of her house.

A huge difference between the Japanese and American cuts is the score. The Japanese version has a proper score by famous Gojira composer Akira Ifikube, which brings back themes from his first one and is generally appropriate and well spotted. For example, when Godzilla is finally identified emerging from the ice, the famous, ponderous Gojira sub-theme swells up on the soundtrack and has a lot  more impact than the throw away attitude of the American cut of the same scene. The US version’s treatment of the music is just preposterous. Hardly any of Ifikube’s score is retained and there’s generally a lot less music in this version of the movie anyway. Instead, when they feel it is called for, the Americans needle drop old 1950s sci-fi B-movie scores in instead and it can be very jarring, I can tell you, when King Kong takes on either a giant octopus or Godzilla himself when all you can hear on the soundtrack is the famous three note sting based music from Creature From The Black Lagoon (which I reviewed here). It just pulls you out of the movie completely. Of course, Ifikube kinda got his revenge on the US decades later in the first of McG’s Charlie's Angels movies when, all of a sudden on the soundtrack, the Godzilla sub-theme swells up... which caused me and, I assume, many others, into believing there would be some kind of visual Godzilla reference making its way into the shot. It’s kind of disappointing it didn’t and, since it completely pops you out of the movie because the soundtrack is telling you ‘Godzilla is here!’, I have no idea why it turns up in that first Charlie’s Angels movie at all, truth be told.

And there you have it. King Kong VS Godzilla had and, I believe, still has the highest Japanese box office gross of any of the other Gojira films. It’s an important movie and well done to Criterion for including it, no matter how well hidden and only partially restored in terms of quality, on their big Godzilla box set. I was hoping the obvious Blu Rays of Mothra, Rodan and King Kong Escapes would also make their way into this box due to their obvious connections to these films, many of which are sequels or prequels to these three films but, alas, Criterion didn’t quite push the boat out as far as they could when they put this impressive set together.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Black Mountain


A Sense Of Mountain Tension

Black Mountain 
(aka Black Mountain Side)
Canada 2014 Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj
101 Films DVD Region 2

So when I went to FrightFest back in August 2018, I was surprised to find that, unlike other years I’d been, they were actually giving away free DVDs to people... and not just those fortunate individuals who could afford a weekend pass. Standard people like myself who could only afford a finite number of tickets for the weekend were also allowed copies. Now, being as I am a fairly cynical audience member, I figured the DVDs in question were probably excess stocks of things the distributors wanted to get rid of due to poor sales and so this probably meant that the films could be somewhat questionable in their quality. I figured that there was a good chance that many of the films on offer were really terrible movies but, there was also a chance that some of them were hidden gems that just hadn’t found their audience or weren’t properly marketed, resulting in slow sales. Such was my reasoning and so I did what any rational man would when being offered free stuff... I went home with eleven free new horror DVDs that weekend.

So, a few weeks later I got around to watching one of these with the title of Black Mountain (although it looks like in most other countries this was released as Black Mountain Side). Well, whatever it’s called, let me just say that this one is definitely a movie I got lucky with... a true hidden gem. I just hope some of the other freebies I snagged are as good as this one.

The film as described on the box says it’s like “The Thing meets Fortitude” and I really can’t comment on that because I haven’t seen anything called Fortitude. What I will say though is that I would agree with at least half of that statement... to my mind it’s a bit like a cross between John Carpenter’s The Thing and The VVitch (reviewed here). Okay, it actually predates The VVitch by a couple of years but, trust me, there were definitely some scenes in here which made me recall those ‘Black Philip’ moments.

Just like various versions of The Thing From Another World, the film focuses on an isolated group of workers, in this case archaeologists, in a snowy region. Like Carpenter’s iteration of the classic, this film features an all male cast and the way some of the scenes are put together which introduce us to various characters and the way in which they interact are very much Thing-like in nature.  It’s a fine ensemble cast, actually, with very few characters who are the main protagonist for very long. That being said, we do kind of see the film through the eyes of Professor Piers Olsen, played by Michael Dickson, for a lot of the time... in as much as he is arriving at the base the same time as the audience and learning what these people are about in the same way as we do.

The film does the typical thing where we have some pretty nice shots of the base small in a mid shot with a lot of snow around it, plus various other snowbound shots, to give us a sense of isolation. Now, it has to be said that there is a work force of people from a nearby Indian reservation to help the crew out but, as you’ll see when you watch it, they aren’t in the film for long and our ‘heroes’, such as they are, are very quickly abandoned and cut off from their supply shipments in a way that... well it’s kinda credible if you imagine lots of stuff is going on in other places simultaneous to the events in this picture, I guess. Although nothing much is said about it.

In addition to the constant shots of snowy wastelands with man made structures used to punctuate scenes and transitions, another trick the director uses is to throw up black screen with a random, progressive date on it every now and again to lend it an almost documentary kind of credibility. Alfred Hitchcock used the exact same technique (minus black screen) to open his celebrated Psycho and it really serves Nick Szostakiwskyj and his actors well here.

The plot set up is very simple. Olsen has been sent to these snowy wastes as an expert archaeologist because the team have found a half buried structure with various artefacts showing up where and, as importantly, when (once carbon dated) they shouldn’t. It could be a big story and proof that a certain type of culture and people were on the planet much sooner than believed and so the team want to get this thing sorted as soon as possible before getting shipped back home for Christmas. It’s a historical mystery and, of course, as any horror film fan will tell you... historical mystery means big trouble for any of the main cast who might as well be wearing signs around their necks saying ‘kill me now’ for the rest of the movie.

And it’s kinda cool, actually.

There’s no music during a lot of it (I only noticed a bit of a musical cue once but I’m sure there must have been a couple) and this serves the muffled, slow burn atmosphere rather well. In addition to The Thing, there’s also a touch of Cthulhu thrown in for good measure... cephalopods do get a mention, for example and, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the writer/director was a fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s tale At The Mountains Of Madness, at some point in his life.

Now, it does show in places that the movie is low budget. You will see the lack of money needed in a few shots here and there but what the cast and crew manage to achieve for the money is absolutely incredible. It’s a very old, creeping kind of suspense that we have enveloping the majority of the film in its chill shroud and, when it does threaten to go over the top in some places, with the introduction of a ‘presence’ at the base, the director manages to reel it back in sufficiently, at least for this impressed audience member, that he never quite ruins the atmosphere of the piece. Certain factors involved here would be budgetary, of course... you don’t show in close up and detail something which won’t work under the light of intense scrutiny but this is something genre movie makers have been doing for years and, if done right as it is here, it actually helps make the finished product better. Atmosphere is pretty much everything in this movie but it certainly plays that card well.

The ending maybe lets the film down just a little and I suspect it’s a staging issue. I’m not going to  give away anything here but there’s a neat little visual punchline concerning one of the characters which I felt maybe needed to be played up more dramatically to give it some weight, rather than leave it as a long shot. I think that would have given more of a punch to what is, after all, a not bad piece of irony to finish the film with. Little bit of a missed opportunity there, I thought but, it doesn’t detract at all from the high quality of the rest of the film.

And that’s all I’m saying about this one. If you are into horror movies then Black Mountain is definitely something I would recommend to all and sundry. I would like to have seen this one on a big screen but, thanks to FirghtFest freebies, I’m lucky enough to be seeing it at all. It’s very cheap on Amazon right now so maybe give this one a go if snowbound horror is your bag.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Kotoko


Double Vision

Kotoko 
Japan 2011 
Directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Third Window Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Kotoko is a movie both directed by and co-starring Shin'ya Tsukamoto (as a novelist/’love interest’ to the main protagonist), who wrote and directed such movies as the Tetsuo trilogy and A Snake Of June. Usually quite nightmarish and surreal in his brutal visions this movie keeps to that to a certain extent but the surrealistic nature of some of the imagery is a lot more toned down and ‘stealth mode’ than what I would normally associate with him as a writer/director and it also has a reason for being there which is rooted in real world concerns. Sometimes the stripping down of those kinds of elements just makes their hijacking of the narrative thread even more potent and such is the case here.

The film stars somebody called Cocco as the title character and it’s about her and her relationship with her little boy. Or. more precisely, this film is all about her and there’s no doubt that this actress, who also wrote the story that the director wrote the screenplay from, is in a showcase performance.

We learn about her from a collection of visual moments of her life as she goes through the film and its all accompanied by her narrative voice-over throughout the entire movie. Very early on in the story we learn of her ‘special condition’ which means she sometimes sees two of a person simultaneously. Sometimes it’s benign like just seeing two bicyclists instead of one... and not knowing which way to dodge to get clear of them. Most times though it can be two of the same person in different parts of a room or street doing different things. One is almost always antagonistic and will brutally attack her and that’s usually the false one which disappears back inside her head after a while... but not always and the ways in which the ‘double’ can be integrated into certain scenes (like when she drops her baby off the roof of her apartment block) is used quite smartly by the director to disorient the viewer.

However, as the narrative starts to go along and you try to see things from her perspective, you may start to suspect that the things she is telling you may be open to suspicion. Have you ever read The Tin Drum by Günter Grass? Like the film, the original book is told first person by the voice of little Oskar but what’s made explicit in the book (and not at all in the movie) is that he is narrating his adventures from an insane asylum and the reader has to judge whether or not Oskar is indeed what he says and has been locked up by people who don’t recognise his special abilities or whether or not he’s actually insane. Well, very early on, I’d say within the first ten minutes of Kotoko, you probably will find yourself questioning her validity, especially when the authorities take her baby away and place him under the care of her sister.

Oh... she’s also into self harm too, cutting into herself in order to feel something quite often. This escalates when she is courted by a novelist (played by the film’s director) who still wants to date her even though both their first dates end with her stabbing him through one or other of his hands with a fork. Later, when they actually get involved, it’s a shock to see how far gone she is when she ritualistically mutilates his face some nights. The slow build to this revelation is slow in coming though and is down to the skill of the actress as she plays her mental aberration very well, pitching between moods and being just a little off kilter and overenthusiastic around those she needs to put up a front to. I’ve witnessed people similarly overcompensating in an attempt to normalise their appearance before and she seems to have caught this ‘look’ and feel of this particular symptom of failing mental health quite well.

So yeah, she’s not the most stable mother and Tsukamoto uses a lot of hand held camera to catch her in juddery motion which, in some ways, brings a certain much needed realism to the focus of the shots, especially with the characters inhabiting an environment that’s so well lit with bold colours and, sometimes, bright orange washes... like the ugliness of reality is trespassing on the beautiful inner world of the title character.

However, he does also take this technique too far, I thought, in certain shots... like one of the scenes set in the rain where the camera lens is equally pelted with drops of water. It has the same effect as seeing a lens flare in a movie... just pops one out of the picture and brings attention to the artificial nature of the medium. Granted, the film does tightrope the fluidity of the real and unreal with equal fervour and this may be the reason why shots like this creep in but, all it did for me was made me question why an obviously beautiful shot had been spoiled like this in the first place. It does make you seem like you are a fly-on-the-wall to a movie set rather than to the actual story, it seems to me.

Funnily enough, it’s not the bloody, violent or surrealistic nature of the film which I found hard. I mean, there are even shots of a young toddler’s head being blown apart in close up with an assault rifle which don’t particularly shock because, by that point in the movie, the hallucinatory nature of the narrative has been well established and so nothing really means much anymore. The thing which really bothered me was three or four sequences where the title character sings acappella songs (and sometimes does dance moves) which stop the action dead. I didn’t hate these sequences because they upended the flow of the story particularly or because they come at unexpected times. Indeed, the underscore to the movie plays effectively against the action and gives the film a kind of lullaby soap opera counterpoint. No, it was just the fact that these particular sequences seemed so interminably dull and boring in contrast with the rest of the movie which got me annoyed. Once would have been fine but it does get grating towards the end. This immediately made me think... unnecessary songs + actress with one name = pop star using a movie as a vehicle for her talent, possibly hooked up with the director. And, sure enough, turns out she’s a big folk singer in Japan with a successful recording career but with only a couple of films to her credit... which does explain certain things here.

However, the inclusion of the songs are a minor grumble because, pop star or not, she does a remarkable acting job here and she really does help carry the film. It’s a truly amazing performance as she brings this character to life and certainly worth the price of admission. Much more so than the conclusion of the story itself, I would say. So, yeah, that’s me done with this one now. It’s a film which was a little disappointing on some levels but I’m so glad I’ve seen this and it is one of the most incredible acting jobs I’ve seen in recent years.

Kotoko is certainly a film I would recommend to most anybody who is into more than just ‘action movies’ and something I may even revisit at some point. I watched this on a Blu Ray edition I bought in a recent sale from Third Window Films but I understand it’s also part of Arrow’s brand new Blu Ray box set of Tsukamoto films so, yeah, maybe give this one a watch at some point. It’s certainly an... experience.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Werewolf Of London


Mariphasas Set To Stun

Werewolf Of London
USA 1935 Directed by Stuart Walker
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B


Continuing my re-watch of classic Universal Monster movies for my blog, I finally catch up to another of my favourites, Werewolf Of London.

Six years before they hit on a werewolf franchise that was a success for them, with the Lon Chaney Jr picture The Wolfman (which I reviewed along with its remake here), Universal attempted to jump start a werewolf franchise with this wonderful gem, Werewolf Of London. Alas, it was nowhere near as successful as their previous five monster movies... Dracula (reviewed here), Frankenstein (reviewed here), The Mummy (reviewed here), The Invisible Man (reviewed here) and Bride Of Frankenstein (reviewed here). It is one of the ones which is well worth a watch, though... and there are a number of reasons for this.

Number one being that this, like The Wolfman which came after it, pretty much reinvented the modern concept of legends surrounding the werewolf and influenced all that follow in much the same way that Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead helped refashion the zombie movie years later. So things like the titular creature changing at moonlight, which is essential to the plot in this one as the main protagonist/antagonist, Dr. Wilfred Glendon as played by Henry Hull, is involved in experiments with creating artificial moonlight which, in turn, brings him into contact with the other lycanthrope, Dr. Yogami, at the opening of the movie.

Another thing this film sorts out for future generations is the idea that werewolvery can be passed through a bite, such as an infection may pass from person to person. Both these elements were, of course, retained for The Wolfman in 1941 although, curiously, there is no shot of the moon in The Wolfman at all. Also, presumably due to a mixture of limitations of the makeup and perhaps the end result not looking scary enough, this might well have been (according to the IMDB, so take this one with a pinch of salt) the first werewolf tale to depict a man/wolf hybrid creature rather than a straight transformation into a wolf (such as Dracula might utilise).

Six years later and The Wolfman would add elements such as the now cinematically forgotten, it seems, idea of a werewolf seeing a pentagram on the palm of the hand of the next person to be his or her victim. It also added the idea that silver in the form of a weapon such as bullets or, in The Wolfman, the silver head of a cane, can be used to kill a werewolf. This last is an element definitely not set in place by Universal here yet as the titular character has as much to fear from the common lead bullet as any other projectile or weapon in the film.

What Werewolf Of London does have in its freshly created set of rules, which certainly didn’t travel to later productions, was the idea that a rare flower that grows only in Tibet and which only blooms in the moonlight can, when an infected human pricks himself with a fresh thorn, fend off the transformation for one night when the moon is full.

This flower is called the Mariphasa Lupina Lumina and it’s the very reason why Dr. Glendon finds himself in Tibet in the first place... so he can get a sample to bring home with him and prove to himself (and the scientific community at some point in the future) that his new invention is working. And it’s in Tibet that the movie starts.

That is to say... it’s in Tibet where the opening of the movie is supposed to take place. Anybody who loves the old, classic Star Trek show or even the Bill And Ted movies will tell you, of course, that the Tibet depicted here looks remarkably like the Vasquez rocks, famed for their appearance in the Star Trek episode Arena. There’s a wonderful dialogue moment near the start when Glendon is warned by a Tibetan wise man thusly... “You are foolish... but without fools there would be no wisdom”. It almost sounds like something Charlie Chan might say, talking of which...

It’s here in ‘Tibet’ that Dr. Yogami, played by Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu luminary Warner Oland, bites Glendon and curses him with the same affliction as himself. Not speaking in aphorisms... werewolvery. An affliction which causes Yogami to follow Glendon back to London and steal his samples of the Mariphasa Lupina Lumina to stunt his own, hairy murder sprees. Now it’s down to Glendon to try and resist the pull of the moon and stop himself from murdering the one he loves most, which in this case takes the form of his very young wife played by Bride Of Frankenstein’s Valeria Hobson.

In the case of Hull, this was one of the world famous and much in demand stage actor’s big attempts to break into movies... alas, he never did get much of a hold with cinema audiences and, when this was shot, he was 45 years old. Valerie Hobson was only 19 years still and was already playing the wife of 35 year old Colin Clive the same year in Bride Of Frankenstein. In these days of Twitter that’s seen as a big age gap but in those days, when love conquered all, well... what’s a few years between lovers?

A couple of other things worth watching this for... besides the fact that it’s completely entertaining... would be the transition scenes, one of which is both an eye opener and a disappointment at the same time.

There’s a wonderful moment at the end of the Tibetan sequence, where Henry Hull has been fighting the Dr. Yogami incarnation of a werewolf and he’s beaten it off but he’s been bitten on the arm and, for a 1930s movie, there’s quite a lot of visible blood (when you’d expect to see none). As we see a close up of his bloodied arm reaching out for the flower he came for, we transition to the same arm, scarred but not bloody, reaching out for the same flower in his laboratory in London... which is nice stuff.

Now the other transition which I was primarily thinking of is the first time we see Hull transform into a wolfman. These sequences are not nearly done as well as the later ones in The Wolfman even but the first of these is interesting because it’s using what I can only refer to as a travelling matte. Remember, this is 1935 and it may be my own ignorance but I didn’t think they were as adept in those days as we are now at this kind of thing. This involves Hull walking along in mid shot from left to right with the camera moving along with him. However, he passes three columns in the foreground of the shot and, of course, each time he reappears from the right hand side of a column, he has fuller werewolf transformation makeup on his face, courtesy of Jack Pierce. Okay, so it’s clumsy in concept but the moving camera and everything else must surely have made it a stand out shot of it’s era, I suspect.

The other big pull for me in this movie, asides from the wonderful comic relief of the two old landladies in the local pub, Mrs. Moncaster (Zeffie Tilbury) and Mrs. Whack (Ethel Griffies), who each punch the other into unconsciousness when the mood takes them... is the soundtrack by Karl Hajos. It’s never been released commercially, more's the pity, but the whole score was pretty much recycled for the first of the three big budget Universal Flash Gordon serials the following year (with the second and third serials using a lot of the Bride Of Frankenstein score in their musical DNA). And it’s grand hearing anything with this music playing alongside the on screen action... this is just brilliant stuff.

And there you have it. A werewolf movie with a, it has to be said, fairly emotionless actor in the title role but which has a monster who actually welcomes death, wears a flat cap and apologises at the end. It’s not for everyone but Werewolf Of London is certainly my all time favourite werewolf movie and it’s always something I’d recommend to fellow cinema enthusiasts. An essential piece of classic monster cinema, despite the lack of extras on even the latest Blu Ray release.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Mothra


I Larvae Good Movie

Mothra 
Japan 1961 
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Mill Creek Steelbook  Blu Ray Zone A

And so onto Mothra.

Made by the director of the original Gojira (aka Godzilla, reviewed here), Ishirô Honda, Mothra is similar in style to that movie in that it’s a fairly slow burn for the first part of the story. It’s strong on characterisation though, focusing on a scientist, a reporter and the reporter’s photographic assistant, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, Furankî Sakai and  Kyôko Kagawa respectively. We also have screen legend Takashi Shimura turning up as the chief editor of the newspaper where the reporters in question work.

The film starts off with a somewhat overly long opening credits sequence where the typography is superimposed over shifting shots of very colourful rock textures, before we get into a ship crashing on the supposedly irradiated shores of Infant Island in yet another reference, presumably, to the real life radiation accident with a bunch of fishermen that inspired the original Godzilla movie. When the few survivors are rescued it is found that they are not irradiated at all and a group of investigators, including the main scientist and the reporter (who stows away), are sent to Infant Island to investigate. It is there that they find two teeny tiny doll sized ladies played by the Japanese pop duo The Peanuts, who are kind of guardians of the Mothra legend and held in high regard by the group of natives who, just as in King Kong VS Godzilla (review coming very soon), consist of a bunch of Japanese people in black face. Not very politically correct these days, I guess, but fine for anyone over the age of thirty, I would imagine.

It’s in this first section that Honda sets up the necessary human villain who is the spanner in the works regarding the peaceful coalition of islanders and civilisation. This is a ‘single monster’ movie (albeit a dual incarnation monster) and so there has to be an antagonistic element somewhere. This comes in the shape of a philanthropist bad guy and his henchmen who all come from the country Rosilica. In my naiveté, I suspected that Rosilica was a less than subtle stand in for Russia so the writers could have a dig at that country and show them up to be the land of origin for the less than intelligent and evil antagonists. As it turns out, I was only half right... it’s an amalgam supposed to represent both super powers... Russia and the USA, showing them up to be the bad guys as, well, subtly as it can manage I guess.

Anyway. Long story short... the villain kidnaps The Peanuts so he can put on shows with them in Japan and so they sing (regularly) and this, combined with their psychic link to the sacred Mothra egg and the natives doing their ritualistic dance, causes Mothra to hatch as we first see her, in larvae form... which is basically a white grub-like creature which swims across the seas to rescue The Peanuts, causing a wake of destruction in her path. This is because, in the words of the two ‘small beauties’ (as they are referred to in the film), Mothra has no sense of right or wrong... which is possibly at odds with her heroic nature later on in the Godzilla franchise but certainly it’s a step in the right direction to having a film with a ‘good monster’ in it as opposed to the normal perception of them.

From hereon in, the movie is about the cities trying to battle the Mothra larvae while the heroes are trying to track down the film’s prime villain, who has stuffed The Peanuts into a suitcase and is on the run with them. At one point, when the humans think they have destroyed Mothra, all that’s happened is it has cocooned itself, emerging from the cocoon a day later as the full on flying ‘moth’ version of the creature, with it’s voice as distinctive as Godzilla’s roar.

And that’s pretty much everything and the story continues mostly as you’d imagine but, once again, Honda shows a real knack for framing and building characters rather than just concentrating on monstrous action. Indeed, the first half of the movie is devoid of this kind of spectacle asides from a fairly cheaply done blood sucking plant on Infant Island. He also takes time to hone in on little details which other directors might not bother with, such as a view of a ship’s wake through calm water by way of an establishing shot and to add to the atmosphere of the thing.

We also have Yûji Koseki’s score, which seems organ dominated at times and which is, mostly, very different from what Akira Ifikube would do for a film like this. And, of course, there are the songs sung by The Peanuts including the famous Mothra Song. Plus some nice use of leitmotif as the Mothra theme comes back in different arrangements in moments when you’d least expect it to.

All this and some nice but variable special effects. The model work in some of the scenes is still quality stuff and some of those tanks must have been just fronts of lorries for some of the shots because there’s an impressive moment when a human, not a puppet, is riding a motorbike right next to one of those things. And it still makes me laugh when somebody says that they’ve called on the 'Rosilican Heat Ray Brigade', as though those mobile heat ray cannons actually existed... but the model shots of them and the tanks battling the Mothra larvae are still very impressive here.

What’s not so impressive are the matte lines where shots are composited together and, as you might guess, this nice new Blu Ray transfer of the film just makes that dodgy stuff all the more apparent. It’s also really easy to spot the strings holding Mothra up too so... that’s not necessarily a good thing either, to be honest. Although, having said that, I’m glad they didn’t make the heretical decision to digitally remove the strings for the Blu Ray edition.

In terms of the leading villain, I find it curious that a big, elaborate ‘death by Mothra’ scene was planned for him originally but, in the final movie, he never actually meets Mothra. Instead, he just has a ‘super villain mad moment’ towards the end and is gunned down by the authorities for his trouble. Which actually seems quite a lot bleaker, truth be told.

All in all, though, while it possibly drags a little for some people's tastes during the first three quarters, Mothra is a solid entry into the kaiju eiga of Japanese cinematic legacy and it’s easy to see why she was revived for the Godzilla franchise a little while later. Although, due to the way she’s pitched here, she doesn’t die at the end (instead is seen as a rescuer character), it should have made bringing her into the Godzilla franchise an easy task but my memory is kicking in and telling me that it’s not necessarily the ‘same’ Mothra in the later films because, I seem to remember she starts off in her larvae state in the first of her Godzilla appearances too?* I’ll know soon enough because it’s in the Criterion Blu Ray set I’m steadily working my way through so I’ll report back on that sometime soon. If you’re a fan of Japanese monster movies then the original 1961 version of Mothra certainly isn’t the worst of them and it’s well worth a look, especially to see how the human characters are portrayed in these things.

*My memory was faulty, it turns out. There are, in fact, three Mothras
 in that next film and it does follow on from events in this one... kinda. 

Thanks to Charlie Brigden for helping me source a Blu Ray copy of this.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Space 1999


Orbit-uaries

Space 1999
UK/Italy Aired 1975-1977 (differing from region to region)
Two Series Network Blu Ray Zone B


I used to like Space 1999 as a kid but I’d not seen anything near to even half the episodes. Partially this was because the scheduling was absolutely bonkers (the second series was split between two years with a big hiatus in the middle) and partially because it often clashed with the latest episode of Doctor Who. I wasn’t what you would call a ‘follower’ of the show but, although I never had any of the Mego action figures, I did have the smaller, cheaper of the two toy versions of the unique ray guns they used in the series and I also had one of the die cast Dinky Eagle spacecraft. For those who are interested and remember these, I had the green one with the passenger pod as opposed to the blue one with the cargo pod. I could never figure out why they were those colours however, when all the ones in the show were so clearly just white. I also had some of the British branded bubble gum cards but, like other British produced confectionary cards of the time, these were far inferior to the American made Topps cards being much smaller, not very well designed and having an absolutely terrible tasting piece of bubble gum with them. I remember, on occasion, biting into a Space 1999 ice lolly with great delight though.

However, with Network doing a nice Blu Ray combination set of both series on Blu Ray, I thought it was finally time to sit down and look at these things properly. It was certainly an interesting watch...

The show was definitely a show of two halves with famed TV producer and Supermarionation guru Gerry Anderson firing and then divorcing his wife and co-show runner Sylvia at the end of the first season. When Fred Frieberger was brought in to replace her... well, I don’t want to say he totally managed to ruin the show but there was certainly a lot of change in the look and feel of the series and, for the most part, not change for the better. That being said, I can totally understand why some of those changes were made... after all, they were trying to be more popular and capture the American market too... but I certainly don’t agree with most of them.

So the plot is very simple. It was set in the 'far future' of 1999 and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are mortified when an accident with a nuclear explosion blasts the moon out of orbit and sends it hurtling through space like an out of control starship, so the characters could encounter new threats every week, the deeper they got into space... and explore nearby planets when they came into range to see if they could evacuate and colonise a nice looking one. So, yeah, it was a bit like Star Trek but with a moon base and the accompanying Eagle rocket ships housed within, instead.

The main leads, Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell were played by (then) husband and wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. They were supplemented by a crew of around 300, mostly nameless and unseen, characters populating the base which included such Series One regulars as Barry Morse (playing Professor Victor Bergman), Prentis Hancock (playing Paul), Nick Tate (playing Eagle commander Alan Carter) and Zienia Merton (playing Sandra). Now I always liked Barry Morse as the old professor in this but this shows up one of the possible problems of the series... not for the audience but for the producers... in that the top three characters were all in their 40s or 50s... which was unusual for the time. This wasn’t a young show although you did have Nick Tate’s Carter... who seemed to get knocked unconscious more or less every week... and the gorgeous Zienia Merton, who I fancied quite a bit.

But I certainly never noticed the age thing or saw it as a minus. The show was quite off beat though, particularly the first season... it never really got dull in that first fling. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of action in the first series as the shows writers dealt with more philosophical problems and dilemmas which, of course, is what science fiction is all about. There are often unasked questions at the end of the stories and a real cue for the audience to think things over for themselves. It’s also quite bleak and dramatic for the first season and this is not to its detriment at all.

I also like that, for the first season at least, the main hero figure of Commander Koenig can often be seen to falter, change his mind or make wrong decisions. It sometimes leaves a lot to be desired in a lead character but, at the same time, it lends a touch of realism and depth to the performance which is worth the trade off, I reckon. Although, like a lot of TV shows made before the 1980s, it seems to take delight in sending out the most important and irreplaceable characters, such as the base commander, on the most lethal missions. Seriously guys, when a dangerous and probably hostile alien is in the neighbourhood, why would you send the guy in charge, the most irreplaceable person on the base, in to deal with it? I can never understand this.

Depending on who is working on the show there’s also some nice cinematography and shot designs to be found. Some of the special effects are quite good and... some of it quite ropy. I love all the ‘miniatures work’ but 90% of the time you see any of the crew journeying across the lunar surface in a moon buggy, for example, it is obvious they are just tiny, static models. It’s almost as telling as some of the faces on the so-called ‘stunt doubles’ at times.

Actually, some of the worst but highly entertaining moments are when various characters are having a fist fight on the moon and they don’t notice that the visor on their space helmet has just popped up. But, what the heck, they just keep on breathing and hurling fists anyway so, what the heck? I guess they must also notice some of the space backgrounds have creases in the canvass too.

It’s generally nice to look at though and it has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, most of that changed with Series Two.

The first thing you notice here is that half the regular cast are missing. Either fired or walked away while the walking was good. And there’s never any reference made as to why either. Victor Bergman, my favourite character, is nowhere to be seen. Ditto for the back up guy who was always left in charge when Koenig went exploring... Paul is just gone, even though he was Sandra’s potential love interest. Sandra is kinda in it, then not, then back in it again and then... hmm... you never know if Sandra’s going to be around or not but in most of the episodes that she isn’t in for the second season, she is replaced by an actress called Yasuko Nagazumi... who I also fancied.

There were also some new kids on the block. As rival to Nick Tate for ‘young action guy to get beaten up, become an alien host or run about a lot’ you had Tony Anholt as Tony Verdeschi. He was okay although his off and on flirtations with another new character get a bit tiring and hollow after a while.

And you also get the one really good thing about the second season... screen actress Catherine Schell turns up as a new regular called Maya, an alien they pick up in the first episode of Series Two who can morph in to any animal, alien species or person at will, thus becoming the key person to get everyone out of trouble, more or less every week. Schell actually turned up as a different character for one episode in the prior series so she obviously got on well with the cast and crew, I’m guessing. The character was so popular with audiences, in fact, that the producers were going to do a spin off show just about her before the main show was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the second season.

This second series is much more action oriented than the first and it’s like Commander Koenig has had a personality transplant, suddenly becoming the confident, unflappable hero you would expect him to have been in the first series but, losing some of the edge of the character in the process. Out goes the philosophical and more thoughtful questions posed by the stories in the first series and in comes the fist fights, air battles and dodgy aliens to emphasise a show more about action than anything else. Some of this second series is quite dull because of this attitude and rather than leaving viewers with questions about the story mechanics and moral dilemmas of what they had just seen, the second season was more likely to leave them contemplating the loose ends in the plot and wondering what the heck just happened.

If anything, the second ‘year’ is even more like watching an episode of Star Trek... one of the not very well made ones. As well as the deluge of boring action sequences, we have Doctor Helena Russell updating us at the start of each week in a kind of ‘voice over’ log entry... although the dating of this is completely inconsistent and nonsensical, it has to be said. And as far as the episode called The Rules Of Luton goes, it’s literally another remake of the Star Trek episode Arena, based on the much used short story by Fredric Brown.

The music pays a huge part in the reception of both series too, I believe. The first season was scored by Gerry Anderson’s regular musical collaborator Barry Gray and... it’s nice stuff. The opening music is cool and, though a lot of it is retracked in for later episodes quite often, much of the score quotes the main theme in different guises. Derek Wadsworth scored the ‘dynamic’ second season and, though it makes for a really great stand alone listen, in the context of the show it mostly sounds like a mid-1970s porn film and really does nothing to enhance the action... quite the opposite in fact. Which is a shame because the CDs of both these series are pretty great on their own. As is the Ennio Morricone score CD for the Italian dub of the show... would like to hear that in context with the actual visuals sometime.

Still, this Blu Ray set is actually pretty good, despite the inadequacies of the second season and, although possibly a little light on good extras, the show itself more than makes up for it in terms of the amount of guest stars throughout the run of the show. From established ones like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, Shane Rimmer, Brian Blessed, Patrick Troughton, Patrick Mower, Peter Bowles and Julian Glover to some of those who are much more a name now than they were then... such as Ian McShane, for example. There’s even an episode in the second series where a photographic still of young model and actress Caroline Munro is pictured on the view screen in two shots in the last minute of the story. I wonder if she even knows her photo was once used in Space 1999? If there’s an opportunity in a post-Covid 19 world, I shall have to ask her at a signing.

So there you go... Space 1999 was definitely ‘of its time’ but, if you are of a certain age and were growing up with this kind of show in the 1970s, then you’re onto a winner with the Network Blu Ray set. Especially in terms of the first year.

Sunday 10 May 2020

Successive Slidings Of Pleasure


Tether Report

Successive Slidings Of Pleasure
France 1974 Directed by  Alain Robbe-Grillet
BFI DVD Region 2


I’ve already reviewed two films by Alain Robbe-Grillet on this site... Eden And After (here) and Gradiva (here). He also wrote the wonderful movie Last Year In Marienbad but that one didn’t highlight his themes of sexual fetish as much as those two above, at least not as overtly as he does in films like this one.

I do find the films he directs himself a bit wearing on the brain and hard going at times, in spite of his content and this one is similarly hard to penetrate. It’s interesting to note, actually that he’s considered one of the French New Wave these days (as opposed to when I used to read about him) because the tactics he uses in this film to make the viewer aware all the time that he is watching a man made piece of art as opposed to something which one should immerse oneself in absolutely fits in with the aesthetic of the man who I think of as being the absolute father figure of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard. Indeed, the very few pieces of Michel Fano’s score in the movie are mostly used to heighten the viewers awareness in contrast to the images and reminded me of the use of music in Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris).

So the opening credits sequence of Successive Slidings Of Pleasure, where dislocated shots which are, it transpires, excerpted from the main feature are assembled almost hap-hazardly with mismatching sounds such as shattered glass, gun shots and images of actors looking directly into the screen from different situations, cross cut with images of things like spilled egg yolks, really pushes home the fact that, as an audience member, you are not going to be in for a passive time here. Nor indeed a totally coherent one, it has to be said, because there is no real story development or logic to the film, although it hangs around the plot frame of a woman called Nora (played by Olga Georges-Picot) tied to a bed naked by her girlfriend and main protagonist/antagonist Alice (played by Anicée Alvina), who then paints patterns on her. Nora is then found with Alice, with scissors impaling her heart after her death 'in situ' and Alice is then locked in a convent (which includes a handy dungeon) and interrogated by various ‘visitors’ who, as she unfolds events in an almost but, not quite, entirely illogical manner, seduces each of her visitors in one way or another and enacts various sexy things such as painting her own naked body.

What you have to understand though is that the minimalistic, inappropriate sets and the complete non-sequitur responses sometimes of the people who are, on the surface, trying to get to the bottom of the events of this young, alleged murderess are huge indicators that this is just the directors game. No realism is intended. Indeed, the heightened, stylised form of acting (reminiscent sometimes of Hal Hartley’s movies) and the carefree attitude of the two lovers in flashback, as they cut up and bloody a mannequin on the beach when they are not being prostitutes and murdering clients, gives the film a slightly surreal attitude which undermines any attempt to decode the main text in any way other than as a redundant part of the narrative thread, such as it is.

It’s simply not believable as something to be taken that seriously and scenes where, for instance, Alice breaks eggs over Nora’s nude body for a bit before covering her in wine and investigating her crotch with her foot certainly push the film into an almost erotic mood... which is often killed by the absurdity of the responses from various characters... many of whom are taking their ‘story arc’ very seriously. If you want to see Michael Lonsdale, who played Bond villain Hugo Drax in Moonraker, doing something totally different to what you’d expect from him... as his character slowly seems to go insane with obsession to ‘crack the case’ after he’s sucked Alice’s foot 'to remove blood from it'... then you might want to check this one out. Other famous actors in this are Jean-Louis Trintignant and a very young Isabelle Huppert (who, even though I knew she was in it, I still couldn’t recognise).

One thing that is present in the movie is the director’s eye for a good shot. I’ve already said that the majority of the sets are quite simplistic, with barely any set dressing and I believe this is a deliberate play to emphasise the fake nature of the so called plot but he does make things look visually attractive throughout... in addition to the obvious enhancement of several naked women draped over the sets in various scenes of course. So quite often he will be sectioning areas of space for characters to balance against but, in this one, he often has two styles of sectioning combined into the same shot...

So he might have vertical sections on the right part of the screen offset with the chequered frame of a window dominating the left of the screen. or he’ll have different levels of rooms manifesting as open doorways (an old Roger Corman trick) or as an angular look down and across to a spiral stairway adding a different depth to that part of the frame. Indeed, he even has one shot with a curly, iron bed head with Alice peering through different parts of it in front of the camera and constantly shifting so her eyes are perfectly framed in the twirly bits (a technical term). It all looks splendid and, indeed, if it does get just a little pretentious and dull in places, the visual splendour of the shot design often more than makes up for it.

And that’s me done on Successive Slidings Of Pleasure I think. I bought this as one of those ‘add on at the counter’ DVDs when I was in Fopp and got this for just £3. I don’t regret it and I may, I guess, even watch it again some day. It’s not something I would lightly recommend to most casual film viewers but if you have a passion for decoding visual and textual layers which appear to support each other but are really saying contrasting things then you might want to give this one a go. I might try another one of his in another year or two, I think.

Thursday 7 May 2020

The Marvels Trilogy


Heroes In A Half Sheldon

Marvels
by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross - 5 issues 1994

Marvels - Eye Of The Camera
by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern and Jay Anacleto  6 issues 2009 - 2010

Marvels Epilogue
by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross - 1 issue 2019


I can’t remember why I’d stopped reading comics for a while by the time I was studying for my degree but I do remember when I got back into them. It would have been around 1994 and I was off work for a long time with a condition known as Repetitive Strain Injury (or RSI for short). Personally I didn’t really believe in such things until I woke up one day and realised I was unable to move my arms without having searing pain. It took an awful long time to finally get them moving again but, during that time, holding a paperback book open to kill the time while you were supposed to be recuperating was nigh on impossible. Comics, on the other hand, were floppy and almost weightless in comparison so, it wasn’t long before I started back on those again for a fair amount of time. I remember what made me give up comics the second time around but... that’s another story.

So by this time I had already read the ‘new classics’ of the genre back when they first came out... stuff like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Maus etc. However, there was one brand new classic (and we all knew it would be considered as such) which, handily, coincided with my recuperation and that was Marvels. I remember buying my first issue... they were fully painted artworks, just as you might have found in issues of Blood - A Tale, Epic Magazine or Heavy Metal... but the covers had acetate overlays for the typography and so on because they wanted to keep these so you could see the front cover unhindered by all that stuff if you so desired. They looked fantastic and, as it happened, Kurt Busiek’s writing matched the superb art by Alex Ross in every way possible. It was one of those dream comics where everything seemed to synch up perfectly.

There were four issues plus a kind of prologue zero issue which was a teaser that detailed the creation of the original Human Torch in 1939 from his point of view, as a lead in to the actual four part story told from the vantage point of photographer Phil Sheldon. And what it actually was... was a potted history of the Marvel Universe from its beginnings in 1939, right up to the notorious Death Of Gwen Stacy story arc in 1973. The heroes themselves were not the focus of the book... that is to say, they were but they were only seen on the periphery of famous events in their fictional lives as Sheldon takes his pictures and, over a lifetime career, writes a photo journalist book on these ‘Marvels’.

It was a moving comic book and detailed Sheldon’s own personal tragedies and celebrations but always in the context of the bigger picture... a picture that the audience were sometimes much more aware of than a lot of the actual characters, which is something Busiek did really well in his writing. For instance, Sheldon hated a photographer called Peter Parker because he was always selling pictures to J. Jonah Jameson to make Spider-Man look bad. So, yeah, the irony of a lot of the situations is also something which is used to add drama and sometimes suspense to the plot of the comic. There’s also a big exploration of the themes of mutants and how the human race perceives them which makes for a lot of drama.

Lovely references and characters are weaved into the fiction... as in the zero issue which had Professor Horton working on the Human Torch in a laboratory filled with Kenneth Strickfaden style props to bring parallels to Universal’s 1931 version of Frankenstein. And wonderful little cameos who would grow to be slightly bigger characters in future chapters... not to mention in the lives of the Marvels, such as the young reporter friend of Sheldon’s in 1939 who some day wants to run the Daily Bugle. No ‘Marvel No Prize’ for figuring out who that is.

And there are also a lot of non-Marvel characters and references in the book, for those eagle eyed among the readers who are paying attention to just how far the artwork can stray into protected copyright area. Some of it is more apparent on this second read through. For example I always spotted a sailor who looks the dead spit of a real life Popeye and, similarly, the young newsboy Billy Batson (aka SHAZAM... The Original Captain Marvel). It took me until this second go around, though, to recognise Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the various press meetings and events in the first issue. And how I missed Doc Savage I’ll never know (or maybe I didn’t and just forgot about it in the intervening decades).  It’s also nice to spot wedding guests like The Beatles at the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm.

Okay, so what I didn’t know until just recently is that there have been a couple of sequels to the original classic. Both written by Kurt Busiek (and I’m not getting into his alternate universe sideswipe look Ruins here... that will be for a different review) but with the first sequel, Marvels - Eye Of The Camera, being co-written by Roger Stern and artworked, in a similar fashion, by Jay Anacleto.

To be honest, Eye Of The Camera is pretty much a retread of the same story and style. Starting at a point in one of the earlier comics, the first issue catches up to itself later on and carries on from where the previous series ended... after Phil Sheldon’s ‘retirement.’ Although he still does some freelance stuff to help secure his kids’ future, this is about him rushing to get a follow up book to his best selling 'Marvels' finished, once his cynicism is abated after he is rescued from a mugging by Spider-Man. The reason he’s rushing is.... well lets say that fairly early in the book he finds he has cancer and starts hitting the chemo while trying to get the work done in spite of it. The real drama from this one comes when you try and figure out which ways Phil could possibly survive what’s happening to him and the skill of the writer as he presents a small possible hope for the character before... no, you need to read this yourself. The art and writing in this are fine but it seemed, despite its dramatic impact at the end, somewhat ‘less’ in many ways than its predecessor. In other words... Marvels was a classic. Marvels - Eye Of The Camera... isn’t.

And so we come to the latest and, very recent Marvels - Epilogue. It’s very skimpy on page count and presents a little mini chapter from a time which is set somewhere simultaneous to the events in Issue 2 of Marvels - Eye Of The Camera, apparently. There are some classic comic book history homages, once more, painted by Ross but, ultimately, this doesn’t seem like any kind of a prologue to me... and I wouldn’t read it as such. This one slips quietly into the overall scheme of things but I didn’t get much of an emotional hit from this one at all, alas. Given the themes of the previous books about the way humanity treats the special saviors that are the ‘Marvels’ of the titles, this one seems fairly slight and, frankly, not an essential read. I mean, sure, it’s nice to look at... it just doesn’t really have any substance and not much more to add, in terms of commenting about the characters and their drama within the bigger picture. We’ve already seen that story play out in full so it kinda diminishes the impact here. This one almost seems like a pure exercise in grabbing money from the memory of the original, I’m sad to say.

So in conclusion, the original Marvels is well worth anyone’s time to read. It’s one of the greats and if you are into Marvel and the history of the characters, then you will find this an essential purchase. I will be reviewing Marvels Companion which reprints the various painted Marvel comics which were influenced by the look and writing style of Marvels in a forthcoming review (and that will include Phil Sheldon’s alternate timeline as told in the aforementioned Ruins). Until then... ‘nuff said.