Sunday 30 August 2020


The Joy Of Toy

Toy Ventures Issue 1

I’ve been following @Plaidstallions, the creator of the new Toy-Ventures magazine on Twitter, for a short while now... having discovered them by way of retweets by @MegoMuseum and others. Very recently, the gentleman responsible for the account has produced Issue One of what we all hope will be a long running magazine and, since I’m a man wholely in touch with the memories of my childhood possessions (name me one guy who has actually, ever ‘grown up’) and I remember a lot of the stuff coming out over here in the UK too, I thought I’d go ahead and order the thing.

Now, I don’t review magazines that often on here. In fact, outside of magazine format comic books I think I’ve only ever reviewed a magazine one other time on this blog in just over ten years and... that was quite some time ago. However I wanted to flag this one up because it’s a really nice product and, well... how often do print based magazines come out these days?

I’ll get to my slight criticism right away because a) it’s minimal and b) probably unimportant to most people anyway. The thing is, I’m a graphic designer and... just don’t ask a graphic designer about another designer’s work is always a good policy for the most part so... yeah, I’d say the font size is a little too large for comfort in some areas and some of the background washes on the text are just a little too heavy in places for quick legibility. Although, having said that, you never know what ‘dot gain’ is really going to do to a design until you get it back from a printer so that’s always a risky business anyway and it’s certainly worth doing because... well... it’s legible enough. Those kinds of issues are always trial and error anyway.

Okay, that’s my only slight negative on the whole venture.

Everything else about this is quality and, large print or not, there are certainly some nuggets of information to be gleaned from the issue, which works as both an informative guide for collectors of various highlighted toy lines while also being damn fine entertainment. I had a huge wave of nostalgia just hitting me as soon as I got this out of the envelope... not just from the cover but also from the free little ‘trading cards’ of various action figures over the years which accompanied it. Some of the design detailing in the magazine itself is really cool and I especially liked the inclusion of the little price tag in the top right corner on some of the ‘toy branded’ pages in the interior spreads.

This issue of the magazine is an Azrak-Hamway tribute edition and most of the toys featured are made by them so, if you’re wondering why some of your favourites from certain toy lines are not here, I’m sure they’ll be coming in future editions. This one is split into seven main articles which comprise the following:

Set Phasers To Fun is a look at various Star Trek toys such as phaser and U.S.S Enterprise water pistols and character parachute figures. I loved the little ‘pin ball’ sets in this section which, to be honest, took me back while reminding me just how disappointing those little pinball sets really were compared to the real thing.

The Guide To ‘Official World Famous Super Monsters’ does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak and looks at the history of the various and sometimes copyright bending Universal Horror action figures comprising Dracula, Frankenstein (well, the monster at any rate), The Wolfman, The Mummy and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. And most of their many variants, both in body colours, widths, accessories and boxes/card displays are shown here. There were a lot of these for reasons explained in the mag but I found it interesting that the slight variant of the astonishingly beautiful Frankenstein monster I had from one of these moulds was not pictured or included in the many versions listed here. The green hands I had were of a slightly different orientation to the ones displayed in this article. However, if you’re interested in information about how, say, the moulds were inspired by the famous Aurora model kits or which box artworks had bleeds or borders/punch holes etc then this is something you might want to spend some time with.

Now, Skydive Like Apes! This is a look at some of the outrageous and brightly coloured rack toys inspired by the Planet Of The Apes license. These include parachute apes, friction wagons and even a nice Dr. Zaius stunt cycle. It also includes a reproduction of a ‘Notice To Trade’ retraction of a Mego & 20th Century Fox VS Azrak-Hamway legal dispute, accompanied by a photo of some wonderful ‘knock off’ action figures from their range of ‘Action Apeman’ toys. Nice.

I Wanted The Best... KISS mike
is a tale of obsession of trying to find a specific piece of KISS merchandise over the years which is both tragic and moving. Not going to say much about this one but it’s a story with a very unexpected ending.

Rack Toys: 1999 is an absolutely wonderful three page item about various rack toys produced to tie in with the Space 1999 TV show (which I reviewed here). This included the little light up ray gun I used to have as a kid and, honestly, loads of stuff I never knew even existed. I mean, a lot of kids had one of the two versions of Dinky’s Eagle Transporters but, did you know that there were ‘friction’ versions of the Eagles produced for sale?

Realistic Floating Action takes a look at the various Super-Hero themed parachute sculpts that were all over the shops in the 1970s and early 80s. There’s a lovely quote from a former Senior Vice President of AHI/Remco alluding to the fact that the sales dropped when kids started questioning the credibility of flying characters like Superman ever needing a parachute. I can vouch for that... it’s exactly why I didn’t get interested in things like a Superman parachute or Superman car when I was a kid. Who fell for this? As some of the other sections, there are also photos of some versions of these toys which never made it onto the shelves and were only built as prototypes or, in some cases, just didn’t get much distribution. So this is valuable visual info.

Adorable Horror looks at the Universal Monsters inspired Bend-Em toys. I used to like Bend-Ems as a kid... until the wire in the arm or leg broke and you could no longer... you know... bend ‘em. I don’t remember owning any of these horror ones though, so this was a nice surprise.

The magazine finishes off with a couple of double spreads of more photos of the Universal Monsters figures and, although it’s something of a quick read... it’s one I’ll probably keep delving into for weeks and years to come because, as much as some of this stuff can be found online, having actual printed photographs of these things and the ability to quickly flick through them is definitely a more quality experience.

Toy-Ventures Issue One is, for me, an essential purchase and, if you think you had the same kind of childhood as I did, you’ll probably find one or two special things lurking within its pages too. I’m definitely looking forward to Issue Two now, which will hopefully release sometime in December.

Toy Ventures Issue One can be bought from Mego Museum and you can check out the Plaid Stallions website here.

Thursday 27 August 2020

Gamera - The Giant Monster

Turtley Awesome!

Gamera - The Giant Monster
(aka Daikaijû Gamera &
Gammera The Invincible)

Japan 1965 Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Daiei/Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

First there was Nezura! A movie about a deluge of oversized rats attacking Japan.

Or, rather, first there wasn’t Nezura! Because the huge horde of real life rats used on the miniature models not very far into shooting were infested with fleas and maggots and production was apparently shut down by the health and safety people. But there was still money left over from the project and Daiei studios, who were behind the successful series of Zatoichi films at the time, were going to be the first studio to try and take on Toho Studios at their own game... namely, the first studio other than Toho to make a large scale monster movie (kaiju eiga) in the wake of Toho’s 1954 Godzilla and its various sequels or other monster movies. And so, Gamera was born. The first of what would eventually be, over the decades, 12 films featuring this giant, fire breathing, flying turtle to date.

And I’d never seen any one of them but Arrow Films have just come to the rescue here with what is a truly beautiful box set of all the Gamera films restored for Blu Ray in a marketing move made, perhaps, to emulate the successful Criterion edition of the Godzilla - The Showa Era films box set from last year (and packaged in a similar way to their own wonderful Herchell Gordon Lewis boxed edition). This new Gamera - The Complete Collection set is a true behemoth of an oversized box set including a hardback reprint of various Gamera comics too and a fairly interesting, soft bound book about the series of films. If you look carefully at the hardbound book which packages the discs, you’ll also find small artwork cards of each of the films (again, the brightly coloured illustrations are in a similar vein to the ones found in the Criterion Godzilla set) and also a map in a pocket on the inside front cover of ‘Gamera’s Japan’, double sided in English and Japanese versions. It’s a truly lovely package but... what about the films?

Well, I’ve only seen this one so far but I have to say that, as an admirer of the Godzilla films, I was truly impressed with just how brilliant the first movie in this series is. It’s the only one in black and white because, well, the budget wasn’t all that but, the ‘almost novice’ director took on the huge challenge of making the movie when all the other directors at the studio took a pass and went through a chaotic and difficult shoot to make... one of the best kaiju eiga I’ve ever seen, for sure.

The film starts off with researchers in Iceland and three of the main characters, Dr. Hidaka played by Eiji Funakoshi, his assistant and a reporter... spot some mysterious and sleek planes in the sky. In the American recut (which I’ll get to later), they are named as Russian planes but in this, far superior Japanese original version, they are unnamed. This, however, doesn’t stop the Americas from blasting one of them out of the sky and the atomic bomb on board detonates in the ice. Like many an Eastern monster movie, this man-made incident awakens an age old beast from his hibernation and, before you know it, Gamera the giant turtle has cracked out of the ice and goes on a, fairly docile for the most part, rampage when it somehow finds its way to Japan.

These early sequences are amazing and, on some scenes in a ship, the director even swings the camera around to capture the seesaw motion of the vessel (the more creative shots deleted from the American cut, for some reason). Also, apart from one hilariously bad line reading at the end of a scene, the American military as represented in the Japanese cut seem very naturalistic and authentic (the guy introducing the film in the Blu Ray set has a different opinion on that one, for sure). Everything felt quite real to me in those US scenes which were shot by the Japanese.

Once Gamera is out and about of his icy slumber, the opening credits play out on his scaly shell as he walks off towards Japan. We get a foreshadowing of, frankly, much more evil than we think may be coming when the Eskimos tell, in their warning to the Japanese doctor, that Gamera in their legends is ‘the devil’s envoy’.

I have to say the film looks great. Coupled with some very crisp, high contrasting black and white photography which made me think of the early films of Seijun Suzuki, we have some lovely shot designs in some of the movie, where the director might frame people within simultaneous diagonals and verticals made by poles and other foreground objects. Added to this are some really nice special effects works and miniatures. Not all the miniatures are convincing, for sure but, enough of them are well enough done to ensure that Gamera’s rampages look impressive and have consequence.

The film does all the expected Godzilla stuff where Gamera demonstrates his fiery breath and even fails to blink at high charged electricity wires but, he’s also got a little trick he pulls, once he’s been turned over onto his back and the Japanese military think they’ve won their battle. This is where he pulls his arms and head into his shell and fires jets out of the openings to turn it into a kind of flying saucer. A neat trick which, obviously, wasn’t a feature that Godzilla was armoured with. Also, although this is not a deliberate thing, his genetic make up also blocks radio signals in any area in which he is found... so that’s obviously useful to him.

There are also some grim moments here, even though Gamera does seem to be a completely inadvertent and reluctant antagonist. For instance, you do see him breathe his fiery breath onto a whole crowd of people... who we see ‘burn’ via that old ‘turn the image into a negative exposure’ trick that the early Doctor Who stories used to use whenever anyone was shot by a Dalek or some other aggressive enemy. This is something you don’t actually see Godzilla do in any of his early films (although it’s surely implied), to my knowledge, so this one does have a grittier edge to it, for sure.

However, that gritty edge is a little hamstrung by the fact that there’s a turtle obsessed kid called Toshio who thinks his former pet turtle has somehow grown into Gamera and he basically just runs into danger, risking his own life and everyone else’s, throughout the film. I think we’re supposed to be given a shot of hope for the future of humanity with the less than subtle insertion of this character but, honestly, he just seems like a hugely deluded, beyond stupid character presence, if you ask me.

Asides from this ‘meddling kid’, the only other thing which I think is a slight negative is the sound design. Every time something explodes in this film, which is quite often, it’s accompanied by the sound of a bullet ricochet. Seriously, this makes no sense and kind of gives the action sequences a bit of a surreal, possibly humorous quality when they really could do with just some hefty, rumbling bangs instead.

The ending is interesting on this one too. Not making the same mistake as Toho did on their first Godzilla film, Gamera is captured alive at the end and rocketed off to Mars. How this denouement continues in the future of the film series is unknown to me at time of writing this but I’ll let you know soon.

Like Godzilla and many of the other, earlier kaiju eiga, the film was given to the Americans and they cut a load of stuff and added a load of footage to make it into... well, let’s call it a totally different experience. The American version doubles up on the letter M in the title and this version is also made available as a bonus feature on the first of the Arrow Gamera discs, to give it the title of Gammera The Invincible.

The US cut adds lots of unwanted narration, includes a whole bunch of new ‘explanatory’ scenes to include American actors Dick O'Neill  and Brian (Quatermass) Donlevy (in much the same way that Raymond Burr was added into Godzilla - King Of The Monsters), changes just a few musical cues (not the whole lot this time, thankfully) and somehow transforms this slick and brilliant debut of the giant turtle into a slow, dull, lightweight version of the Japanese template. The role of the kid is cut down so he’s a little less prominent but, honestly, that’s the only possible improvement and it generally makes the movie hard to watch. Even the replacement military scenes seem to have less ‘oomph’ to them and it really destroys the icy cold atmosphere of the opening ten minutes of the movie.

Ultimately, though, this has to be one of my best blind buys for a while and this beautiful new boxed edition from Arrow is easily a big competitor with the recent Severin Al Adamson box set as, in my opinion, ‘Blu Ray release of the year’. I can’t wait to watch the other 11 films in the set spanning decades of Gamera films. Gamera The Giant Monster is absolutely an unmissable film if you are a fan of Godzilla and other assorted oversize creatures of Japanese cinematic history... and this turtle-y awesome Blu Ray set is definitely the way to go. I absolutely loved it.

Tuesday 25 August 2020


Parasatellite -
The Sputnik Xperiment

Russia 2020 Directed by Egor Abramenko
Art Pictures Studio

Warning: Some spoilerage herein.

Sputnik is a brand new Russian film which, sort of, slips into the genre mix of sci-fi/horror although, perhaps dramatic thriller might be more useful as a descriptive term rather than horror in the case of the motivations of the ‘creature’ of the movie, in some ways. Make up your own mind on that one but it’s certainly got elements of fantasy in it so... yeah, genre definitions can be hard sometimes.

As I’m sure many people have said about this movie already... there’s nothing new here. You’ve seen it all before but, I think in the case of Sputnik, the difference is that it’s been pulled off very credibly by someone who obviously understands how these things work. I suspect that a lot of people might have realised, also, that the underlying premise of this film is pretty much stolen wholesale from writer Nigel Kneale’s masterpiece of 1950s British Telefantasy, The Quatermass Experiment (and the subsequent Hammer Studios movie adaptation, The Quatermass Xperiment). Which is fine, actually.... I’ve got no problems with using this as a starting point even though it’s certainly not as subtle as the original where, instead of slowly finding out what has happened to the crew of the rocket, here we actually see something bad about to happen to the two man crew of a satellite and then, when the capsule lands on earth, we see one spaceman with his brain half hanging out and the other about to do something which we find out about in more detail... not very much later on.

Like The Quatermass Experiment, one of the astronauts has a host alien attached to him... the difference being that here it’s a lot more overt and leaves his body at a certain hour every night, vomiting itself from his mouth but maintaining a symbiotic relationship with him when it goes out to feed. As a westerner, I’d say that this is why the film is called Sputnik, with the alien parasite as a metaphor for something which orbits something else and then comes home again for a while. However, another meaning for Sputnik in Russia is something like ‘companion’ so... draw your own conclusions.

One of the great things about this movie is that the actors are all spectacularly good at selling the key premise and ensuring a semblance of credibility is kept to the proceedings. Pyotr Fyodorov is brilliant as Konstanin, the host organism who is trying to hide from the military that he’s actually conscious he’s got an organism on board for the ride. And fairly early on we meet a psychiatrist, Tatiana, played brilliantly by Oksana Akinshina, who is kind of baled out by the military guy with the motive for keeping Konstantin under study and, who is here under the pretence of evaluating Konstantin and then, when she is filled in a little more later, to find out how to control the alien inside him.

The film is set in 1983 but it’s pretty much all, apart from the occasional switch to a confusingly unnecessary sub-plot about Konstantin’s offspring in an orphanage, set on the military base so, asides from the lack of mobile phones, I would have never known that this wasn’t set in contemporary times. Having mostly internal studio sets for the military base is, of course, very budget conscious and, if the money spent saving on lots of locations meant spending more money on the effects well... in the case of Sputnik it’s money well spent because the effects are quite good. The creature design is nicely done and the CGI effects of said creature extremely well realised. You never really think of him as less than a character. Also, the goriness of the special effects, if you’re into that kind of thing, works pretty well too. The creature has a tendency to bite the top half of a victim's head off because it’s after the chemical produced by fear so... there’s no holding back on the various scenes where this comes into play.

Added to the fine acting and effects, though, are the nice compositions which litter the film. The majority of this is, as I said before, set in interior sets and the director really likes to use vertical blocks to delineate certain spaces and depths within the frame and he does so to good effect. The colours he seems to use are mostly neutral but, of course, this just means that when a strong colour is used... say, the red blood of someone’s brains leaking onto the floor... it pops out more in contrast to the rest and helps maximise the dramatic effect of those scenes.

Also, Oleg Karpachev’s score is excellent and reminded me, quite a bit, of James Horner’s orchestration for Aliens, in that it mixes the sinister, brooding terror kind of compositions with the rhythmic drumming one associates with the military. It’s a shame the score hasn’t been commercially released anywhere because this is totally one I would snap up. I did try to find a Russian branch of Amazon to see if I could get it there but... yeah... turns out they don’t have one.

The film suffers a little at the end, would be my only criticism. The sacrificial denouement of the main story is an option which most people would see coming and then, perhaps, dismiss as anything worth doing but... yeah... I thought it was a little bit of a cop out. Similarly, the resolution of that orphanage sub-plot really doesn’t work that well, as far as I’m concerned although, there is a repeat line uttered which does give it a possible ‘wait a minute’ moment. It does, perhaps, help to bolster the sentiments of the title but... yeah, honestly, I could have done without it.

That being said, Sputnik is a fantastic little sci-fi movie and definitely worth your time if you like those kinds of films. I absolutely had a good time with this and would recommend it to most fans of both science fiction and, yes, even the horror genre at a push. This is quality work and deserves to be seen. Try to get this one into your orbit when you get a chance.

Sunday 23 August 2020

Batman The Golden Age Vol 2

Dark Knight Rising

Batman The Golden Age Vol 2
by Bob Kane, Bill Finger + Various
DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1401268084

Okay, so following my review of the first year in the career of Gotham’s first knight The Batman and his loyal chum Robin, The Boy Wonder in Batman - The Golden Age Vol 1 (reviewed here), I’ve finally read through the second year from December 1940 through to ‘Fall’ of 1941 in Batman - The Golden Age Vol 2. Now, this one collects the caped crusader’s appearances chronologically in all the issues of Detective Comics (where DC gets its name from), Batman Comic and World’s Finest Comics.

A note on that third title... this issue covers the first three issues of World’s Finest but the first issue was titled World’s Best Comics. Like the title was always known for, it features both Batman and Superman on the cover (and Robin) but, unlike the comic which springs to mind whenever the title is invoked, these weren’t team-up stories between Batman and Superman as they grew to be. Instead, each character set had their own stories within the comic so, yeah, the stories published in this volume are the Batman and Robin stories only, obviously.

Okay, so I talked about, in my last Golden Age Batman review, how Robin and self censorship had brought a more wholesome approach to the stories with the odd slip or pre-Robin appearance re-labelling here and there. This collection continues that approach and there’s not a whole lot to say about it... the stories are quite inconsequential for the most part, asides from the fact that the newly established running villains like The Joker would often return. The tales are short but the majority of them at this point are far less bloodthirsty and certainly far less whimsical than what the strip had quite quickly devolved into towards the end of the first year. That being said, there is still one story where our heroes are transported by a fantastical inventor into the pages of a book of fairy tales to rescue his daughter.

The stories may still be simplistic but the various descriptions and ‘turns of phrases’ employed by the writers at this time are anything but. For example, when Batman and Robin drop some cloth on some bad guys in a warehouse, we are told... “A Niagara of silk engulfs the thieves.” Also, I learned something from the comic in terms of language origins too. I’ve always known of the phrase when something is ‘plummeting’ to the ground but, here in the 1940s, Batman regularly, every other issue, ‘Drops like a plummet’, with plummet as a noun, which obviously extends from the use of ‘plumb bob’, although I’d never put two and two together in my mind before.

Also, the Batman is now, despite the tightrope of atmosphere that the stories tend to walk, commonly being referred to as The Dark Knight on many occasion. That is, when he’s not being described in more flowery language thusly...

“For he, in reality, is that personality known as the ‘eyes of night’... The Batman.”

The artwork is still simplistic and, many times in these early issues, the bat symbol is not always pictured on Batman’s chest in every frame. It’s like the artist just forgets sometimes. It’s also littered with references to contemporary culture but, somehow, they are often somewhat quite guarded and depicted as parodies of the real thing, such as when a cinema is depicted playing “Melody Of 1941” starring Tyrone Taylor and Myrna Rogers.

The Batmobile finally gets defined into the one generally depicted as its earliest incarnation here. For about a half of the year it still normal looking cars in different colours and sometimes open topped, sometimes covered. After a while though, we get that closed top, chunky Batmobile I always liked with the big fins and the Batman mask at the front like a gigantic hood ornament. Still no sign of the Batcave yet, though... Batman has a secret passage to a barn (the Batcave wouldn’t come until 1944, apparently).

Most of the villains are not that memorable and even The Joker is a bit pedestrian in his approach to crime, despite multiple appearances which, at this time, seem mostly saved back for the multi-story Batman issues rather than having him appear in the 'one off' stories in Detective Comics. Hugo Strange is here though and he uses a fear gas completely reminiscent of what the villainous Scarecrow is now famous for. Oddly enough, the Scarecrow’s first appearance, which I think I first read reprinted in a 100 Page Giant of Detective Comics back in the 1970s, is in issue number three of Worlds Finest and in it he absolutely has no ‘fear gas’ at all. It’s obvious by this time, though, that the writers were beginning to think more of recurring villains because he doesn’t meet an untimely demise at the end of the story.

Something else I noticed was, despite having Robin and all the ‘wholesome’ baggage that was ushered into the comic with him... and the fact that it’s quite often stated that “The Batman and Robin do not kill”, I did notice a few deaths here and there that each of these heroes have caused as an immediate consequence of their actions. For example, in Detective Comics Issue 55, Batman quite happily punches enemy agents off the roof of their dirigible to drop to their death below (presumably by dropping like a plummet, as is indicated so many times in the stories this year).

So, yeah, the tales covered in Batman The Golden Age Vol 2 don't make for the most memorable period for Batman and is not often as surreal or dark edged as the interesting ones from his 1939 beginnings... the stories are mostly flat and simplistic and the artwork is... well it’s not as bad as many of the comics at the time but it’s similarly not often anything to write home about. I get the feeling the writers and artists are just coasting on their good sales but I suspect the next couple of volumes of this will make an interesting contrast, as more regular characters and hopefully more convoluted plot lines may surface. We shall see, I guess.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash In The Can

Flash Gordon (1980)
UK/Italy/Netherlands/USA 1980
Directed by Mike Hodges
Studio Canal Blu Ray Zone B

When I was a kid, from the first omnibus TV screening of the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial by the BBC in 1975... which was shown as two long ‘compiled’ episodes with a Hoppalong Cassidy movie playing between the two, I was absolutely hooked on Flash Gordon and that theatrical serial and its two sequels, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, were... and still are... three of my favourite things within the world of film.

Now I’m not going to talk about the serials much here because... well, I intend to watch them again sometime over the course of the next year and write about them for this blog... but I will say that many decades later, when I read some of Alex Raymond’s original Flash Gordon newspaper strips, I was shocked to find that, as far as the first serial goes at any rate, the 1936 Hollywood version with Buster Crabbe, with all its episodic twists and turns and globe-trotting travels on the planet Mongo, was remarkably close to the original source material.

Now, around about the same time as I first saw that original serial, a young director called George Lucas was trying to buy the rights to make a modern, Flash Gordon movie (the rights were optioned with Fellini at the time, I believe, who gets name checked as a character in the 1980 version). He couldn’t afford the asking price so, in the end, he put all his ideas into making his own space opera which borrowed quite a lot from the feel of the original... that film turned out to be Star Wars and, as you undoubtedly know, the rest was movie history, as far as that story goes.

However, the Flash Gordon film then being made by Dino DeLaurentis was floundering and creative differences forced one of the original directors for this movie to part company... so, yeah, we missed out on the great Nicholas Roeg’s vision for Flash (which, given the direction he was going, I’m not sure wasn’t a blessing in disguise) and eventually Mike Hodges went on to direct the new movie.

Ironically, of course, it was the success of the first Star Wars film itself that paved the way for the atmosphere in which a film like Flash Gordon could be taken seriously by studio executives. The bandwagon machine for post Star Wars clones was an immediate rush for anything science fiction to be given a green light and the next ten years saw a lot of films, some bad and others good, coming out to greet the viewing public. Stuff like Star Crash, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Battle Beyond The Stars, The Humanoid... things that might not have made it to the cinema in exactly the same way they might have, if at all, without Lucas’ film hugely changing the cinema going map. Even the popular James Bond franchise was retooled and the next intended film for the series was replaced with a ‘name only but not the original story’ version of Moonraker, to keep up with the general public’s voracious demand for science fiction.

I remember seeing Flash Gordon back in 1980 at my local cinema in Enfield and thinking to myself that, although it was obviously nowhere near as good as those original theatrical serials (nothing to do with Flash Gordon since has ever touched those... but I’m sure there’s a great film series to be realised from these stories yet), this film was still a huge amount of fun and, if it wasn’t anywhere near as close to the original story, it did have some anchor points and some of the spirit of the template was certainly there. So I liked it a lot, in other words... and ended up seeing it three times at the cinema, if memory serves.

The wonderful Arrow films has released a nice new Blu Ray restoration of the movie overseas but, alas, due to rights issues, the new UK version has been released by Studio Canal. I was going to go for the big £50 boxed edition but I thought that was a bit of an expensive option and I had most of the stuff in it anyway... so I saved some money by buying the new, slimmed down 2 disc 40th Anniversary Edition and then augmenting it with the third of the discs in the deluxe edition set, the documentary film Life After Flash, as a separate Blu Ray purchase (I got a nice little handwritten note from the director thanking me when that film came through in the post and I am looking forward to watching and reviewing Life After Flash for this blog at some point in the very near future).

The film is, mostly, nicely presented and the production values are, for the most part, excellent. I hate the first couple of spaceship designs used in this but the final one, War Rocket Ajax, is a nice, spectacular design worthy of the original strip and the whole film is like a bizarre fusion of 1930s eye candy reimagined for the 1980s. It’s so colourful too... like somebody had hired Mario Bava and Dario Argento to do the lighting and then just let them run riot with the thing.

The cast is wonderful... Sam J. Jones as Flash is a lot more of a presence than I believe people gave him credit for. Melody Anderson’s Dale Arden is, perhaps, a little stronger as a character than she was in the 1930s but that’s no bad thing either. Now I always loved the original 1930s cast and especially Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov. Here, Zarkov is played by Chaim Topol and he’s absolutely amazing in the role, if a little over the top. That being said, most of the cast are a little over the top because the movie does almost demand a larger than life delivery of the lines. I mean, Brian Blessed as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, is a completely brilliant bit of casting and Timothy Dalton as Prince Baron is... as written, a little more intimidating and complicated than the original... but still great. And Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, daughter of Ming The Merciless, is who every teenage boy was thinking of at the time. And of course, there’s the great Max Von Sydow as Emperor Ming, playing it to the hilt just as Charles Middleton had done in the 1930s. Plus a load of great character actors in the piece too, of course, such as Richard O’Brien and the late, great William Hootkins. Nothing much can go wrong there.

The films is exciting, fairly pacey, very humorous and has some exciting laser battles towards the end of the picture. There’s maybe too many “that characters dead, they’ve had it now, oh no they’re not... “Gordon’s Alive!” moments in the film but this just, generally, reflects the cliffhanger nature of both the original serials and the newspaper strips so... I’ve got no complaints. It’s also a very sexy film and as far as the costumes and certain comments go, it certainly reflects the first of the three 1930s serials in this respect (the costumes... or lack of them... had to be completely toned down for the second and third serials, is my remembrance).

And then there’s the music. Queen’s hit song is fantastic and some of the other action sequences are exciting too. Alas, they didn’t really do their job is my understanding and, though they got a hit record album out of it, a fair amount of extra music had to be hastily written by Howard Blake using their themes, from what I've read over the years and there’s some nice stuff from him here too (I have a ‘promo’ CD of his parts of the score and it’s a real eye... err... ear opener). Still, the main Queen song, Flash, is great and the pulse which starts it and goes through some of the action scenes certainly makes the hairs on your arms stand up at times. The opening credit sequence accompanying this song, utilising fast montages of the original Alex Raymond newspaper strip, is probably one of the best title sequences in cinema history, as far as I’m concerned.

I have two slight problems with this new Blu Ray restoration. Once is that the highly visible strings on the Hawkmen have been digitally removed and I think I noticed  few other little special effects ‘enhancements’ as I watched this new version. Nobody needs this kind of Lucas-like tinkering. We want to see the strings and the wobbly sets please... they’re part of the history of the film. The other thing I wasn’t too sure about was the scene where the Ming punches through the windscreen of the plane near the start. The saturation seems hugely overblown here and you really can’t see that it’s a facsimile of Ming punching through anymore... just a big red blur. I think that was a bit overdone and another unwelcome bit of ‘restoration’. However, the majority of the film is still beautifully lurid in its design (contradictory as that may sound to some) and hugely entertaining.

And there you have it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a fun film which lovers of cinema should definitely take a look at if they like a good night in with a good movie. A feel good film which doesn’t, alas, live up to the 1930s serials but certainly makes a much more successful go of it than any other versions since then (don’t talk to me about the 1950s German/US TV show starring Bantam paperback Doc Savage cover model Steve Holland as Flash... it was a bad attempt at best). This film is easily one I’ll watch again and again and it’s loaded with extras including a half hour look at the unfilmed Nicholas Roeg version and... and this is a real good one... a commentary track by Brian Blessed. I haven’t listened to that yet but I already know that’s going to be worth the price of purchase alone and it will be going on sometime soon.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Invasion Of The Astro-Monster

Crouching Eiga,
Hidden Dragging

Invasion Of The Astro-Monster
(aka Godzilla VS Monster Zero
aka Kaijû daisensô)

Japan/USA 1965 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers in this one.

So the next in my watch through of the newish Criterion Spine 1000, Godzilla - The Showa Era, is one of my all time favourites of this period... Invasion Of The Astro-Monster. It’s also a direct follow on, in some ways, to the previous film in the series, Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster (reviewed here).

Once again directed by original Godzilla director Ishirô Honda, this film displays one of what I will more often than not describe as one of the strengths of this particular director working on the franchise (although sometimes also a weakness, as I have concluded in another of these reviews previously), that of having the monsters manifesting quite selectively, perhaps even at their most minimalistic in terms of screen time and only used as a way to fulfil the needs of the underlying story, rather than be an all out monster slug fest as many of the later ones could be considered.

So, for example, the film starts off with some absolutely brilliant music by classic Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube, taken from my favourite, secondary march from the very first film in the series, accompanying a sequence of still images from the movie which very much push the ‘astro’ part of the title... so the rocket that the astronauts fly, a flying saucer and shots of a giant radar dish (all of which are models) and absolutely no monsters here at all. Despite the trailer for the movie probably showing off that three of the main monsters from the franchise were back in action in this one, Honda is playing it real cool and not giving away his hand at this point that this is, indeed, a Godzilla movie.

In fact, it takes a while for the monster aspect to emerge as the story follows, like King Kong VS Godzilla, two plots... one involving the main action and one involving an invention which will eventually help save the day.

For the main part of the plot, we have two astronauts flying into space to check out a mysterious new moon of Jupiter named, perhaps demonstrating somewhat less imagination than one might hope for... Planet X. The two space aces are Fuji, played by Akira Takarada (who, like some of his co-stars in this movie, starred in many Godzilla films in different roles as well as films by Akira Kurosawa) and Glenn, the American played by Nick Adams. Presumably named Glenn to give a nod to real life space hero John Glenn, Nick Adams was good friends with both James Dean and Elvis Presley but his downwardly spiralling career in films like this and some of AIP's features (before all this stuff was re-evaluated by modern cineastes and nostalgia driven contemporaries) may well have contributed, among other things, to his probable suicide by drug overdose three years later.

One element about this film which is truly awesome is the special effects created by series regular Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew and, in particular, in the outer space settings. The rocket miniatures are awesome and there’s some really beautiful and very colourful stuff when the rocket lands on the brightly hued, textured surface of Planet X. There, in a plot far more convoluted than any of the previous films in the series, the ‘commandant’ (if the subtitles are to be trusted) of the Xiliens, the alien race native to the planet, offer up our species a cure for cancer in exchange for us allowing them to ‘borrow’ Godzilla and Rodan to fight the scourge of their own planet, Monster Zero... who it turns out, is King Ghidorah, fled there from the last movie (or recalled there, perhaps).

Meanwhile, Fuji’s sister Haruno, played by Keiko Sawai, also works for the Japanese equivalent of NASA... but Fuji doesn’t trust her new fiance. Her new fiance, Tetsu (played by Akira Kubo) is the other part of the ‘good guys’ plot, as he has invented a portable alarm system which nobody wants until a lady called Miss Namikawa (played by Kumi Mizuno), who also winds up as Glenn’s new girlfriend, buys it for her shady organisation.

And then, after a brief but entertaining interlude where Godzilla and Rodan defeat Ghidorah on Planet X (including a little victory dance by The Big G), the convoluted plot twists start to come as it turns out the Xiliens really just wanted to conquer the Earth, with the help of Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, so they can rule us and use our water. But luckily, before we are destroyed by the aliens, Fuji and his scientist friend construct weapons which will nullify the effects of the aliens... sorry, Xiliens... evil, electromagnetic control over Godzilla and Rodan.

Meanwhile, the other plot twist is gradually revealed as it turns out the organisation that bought Tetsu’s new personal alarm invention were just doing so to keep it off the market. The sound it emits completely sends the Xiliens into paroxysms of agony (and also short circuits a lot of their technology, somehow, it seems to me). So Tetsu and Glenn, after escaping from the Xiliens Earth, base, construct a super duper version to broadcast to radios and amplify around the world. You can’t blame them for being captured earlier on in the film though... after all, the aliens usually have a dark strip of a visor in front of their eyes and a radio antenna coming out of their head... which makes them all look a little like Alfalfa from Our Gang/The Little Rascals. When they’re undercover on Earth though, they dress just like us. Not easy to spot when you’re used to their regular look, I suppose.

The film brings in the usual monster showdown at the end, starting with all three kaiju stomping the country until the signals from the saucers are jammed and Godzilla and Rodan then re-team up to defeat King Ghidorah. Godzilla even tries some ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ boxing moves out on the three headed monster. And it’s an entertaining movie with some interesting moments and, given the amount of really good looking effects and beautiful sets, some obvious cost cutting exercises in other areas. Such as the various riots internationally following on from the Xilien’s ‘ultimatum’ announcement taking the form of documentary style black and white stills montaged together to try to hide the fact that... well... this was the cheaper way to do it.

For me, though, Invasion Of The Astro-Monster is one of the very best in the series... part of that is because the sequences on Planet X are quite bright and well composed... and partly because Ifikube’s score for this one is just so much fun that my toes tend to tap along most of the way through it. Not my absolute favourite but, certainly a runner up for me. Criterion’s new Blu Ray transfer is awesome when it can be but there are some fairly blurry moments too (possibly due to some of the stock footage from previous films in a couple of places). Either way, this was always one of the selling points of their new box set and it’s a great addition to any cineaste’s shelves... or even the casual viewer like me.

Sunday 16 August 2020

Come Drink With Me

Golden’s Hours

Come Drink With Me
(aka Da zui xia)

Hong Kong 1966 Directed by King Hu
Shaw Brothers/88 Films/Celestial Pictures
Blu Ray Zone B

Come Drink With Me is one of the best of the many great Shaw Brothers, classic wire-work kung fu style movies and it was probably the first of the really big films to highlight the martial arts star Pei-Pei Cheng. She’d already played a few minor characters in films such as the first of the Monkey films, The Monkey Goes West (she’d also turn up in one of the three Monkey sequels, Princess Iron Fan) but most westerners would probably know her best, these days, as the villainous Jade Dragon in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, made 34 years after this movie.

In this one she plays the somewhat enigmatic Golden Swallow, an infamous agent who is out to get her brother out of his position as hostage/bargaining chip after, in a blood thirsty opening battle, some bandits kidnap him so they can exchange him for their captured boss. For some reason, in her first couple of encounters with various gang members and also her unexpected ally, Drunken Hero, played by Hua Yueh, she seems to be somehow mistaken for a man. Which is kinda strange because she certainly never looks like one and then, all of a sudden, about halfway through the film, everybody just starts talking to her as a female. I suspect I’m missing something subtle in Chinese cultural cinema semiotics here so I’ll just leave you to speculate on that one yourself (and possibly inform me via the comments section below?).

Either way, it’s a great film and there are some lovely set pieces in it. It’s been a good decade or so  since I delved into my old Region 3 DVD of the film but I still remembered the brilliant scene where the Golden Swallow is calmly seated in an inn and somewhere between 12 and 20 bandits reveal themselves to her, completely underestimating her fighting and hand coordination skills as they take a good drubbing from her. There’s some brilliant over the top stuff in here such as when two bandits throw a load of those Chinese coins with the square holes in the centre at her. Still seated, she tosses three chopsticks at the ceiling, spearing all the coins to the roof with the three sticks as she opens her fan to collect all the coins as they roll off again. There’s some nice stuff here including some wire work as everyone seems to be able to leap and change direction mid-air, just a little, with their kung fu skills.

My only real disappointment in the film is, after she’s poisoned and rescued by her new ally, once she escapes from the temple of the bandits in pretty bad shape, the film becomes as much about the Drunken Hero’s character as it does her own and, although she is a force to be reckoned with in terms of marital arts skills and the general jumping around shenanigans that many of this genre of Shaw Brothers films were known for, the drunken character... who also has a song and dance number earlier in the picture... is revealed to be at the absolute top level of his kung fu powers. What that means, folks, is that he can part the stream of a waterfall by emitting sustained force from his hands, catch huge rocks with just one finger and, later on, match his brother wisp by wisp as they fire deadly force smoke from the palms of their hands at each other. I must get the name of their kung fu teacher.

So, yeah, although there’s a big battle at the end of the movie with Golden Swallow leading a team of women in defence against the bandits after they retake the boss of the gang, there’s a second climax to the film which is just the drunken master and his warrior monk brother jumping around and firing smoke at each other to act as the ‘next level’ denouement of the movie. Which is a shame because I love the personality of Golden Swallow and her particular fighting style, using two very short swords in each hand, the right one held as normal and the left one often held in a back-stroke position, in much the same way as Zatoichi used to hold his sword cane (incidentally, there was a crossover production between the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers studio’s One Armed Swordsman and Japanese studio Daiei heroes blind swordsman Zatoichi but, yeah, I’ll get around to re-watching that for this blog in a while, I guess).

Like a lot of the Shaw Brothers movies from this period, the film is very colourful and has some nicely framed sequences... although the camera does seem a little shaky in places (not sure if that’s because of how good the new Blu Ray transfer is when combined with a certain kind of footage or if it’s something else). The music is pretty good and standard fayre for something like this although, in those little pauses they always seem to have every few fighting moves in films like this, the music steps up and builds up tension purely with percussion, in much the same way that an Italian western under the influence of Ennio Morricone would have similarly underscored the showdowns.

Although there’s also a lot of humour in the film, this might be too much for some people to stomach in terms of the suspension of disbelief when people start leaping just a little too high or firing energy around from the palms of their hands but, if you can just go with it, I think you’ll find Come Drink With Me is a fun little gem and there’s a reason why it often turns up in those ‘1001 movies you should see before you die’ lists. Certainly it’s one of my favourite Shaw Brothers movies and it even gave rise to a sequel a few years down the line called Golden Swallow... although I remember being somewhat disappointed in the second one which, although again starring Pei-Pei Cheng in the title role, seemed less like the character from the original film and, if memory serves, she had less to do in it too. Still, the first one is absolutely one of the great martial arts movies and the more adventurous of you might want to give this one a go, especially in the newish, nicely restored Blu Ray version from 88 Films, which also includes a commentary and the trailer (and a booklet and slip case if, like me, you purchase the first edition pressing). It’s chop quality socky!

Thursday 13 August 2020

Foxy - My Life In Three Acts

Only Here For The Grier

Foxy - My Life In Three Acts
by Pam Grier and Andrea Cagan
Springboard ISBN: 978-0446548502

I first became aware of Pam Grier when I saw her in the films Foxy Brown and, my personal favourite of hers, Coffy. I later became aware of her in all kinds of films like Mars Attacks, Ghosts Of Mars and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, loving the ‘strong woman’ type of character she portrayed in the majority of the films I’d seen her in. About a year ago I became aware that she’d written (with the help of Andrea Cagan) an autobiography, Foxy - My Life In Three Acts... so I managed to get a hold of a really good condition, ex-library copy of the now out of print hardback edition of her book.

Now as I’ve said before, some autobiographies are great and fascinating accounts of the writer’s life and, others... well, they aren’t all that. This one, as it happens, is absolutely all that and goes the extra mile too. It seems bizarre that one can find entertainment value in a series of anecdotes about a person’s life experiences, especially since Miss Grier has had her share of tough times over the years but, there you have it. This one blew me away and I couldn’t put the thing down. It’s fast paced, inordinately interesting and has a lot of unexpected surprises tucked within its pages.

I don’t know how easy it must have been for the writer to talk about the two rapes she suffered... once when she was six years old by a bunch of boys and another at the age of 18 in what I can only describe as... a bad date gone wrong... but it shows right from the outset that she’s not one to hide things away and mince words, that’s for sure.

The book is chaptered and then split into three sections (or acts, I guess) entitled The Early Years 1949-1970, ‘Fros and Freaks 1979-1989 and Finding The Balance 1990-present (where ‘the present’ is roughly ten years ago). And it’s filled with fascinating stuff and also demonstrates a good sense of humour when she refers to a car turning over on the motorway with her in it at the age of three as... her first stunt. Everybody in the car was just fine and without a scratch... apart from a goldfish being carried which was presumably thrown from its bowl.

I was surprised to hear that, between the ages roughly of about 6 and 8, because she was the daughter of an airbase father and so would be constantly moved around with the family, she came to live over here in the UK at Swindon for a couple of years. This would have been the early to mid-1950s when London and other places in England were still trying to recover from all the bomb damage of World War II. But she absolutely loved it over here by the sound of it. Where, in America, the whole family was segregated and treated like second class citizens because of the colour of their skin, here they were accepted and Pam’s education in those years is something she really seems to look on as some of the most valuable experiences of her life. Which is nice. I also smiled to myself when I learned her first movie at a cinema was Godzilla (the 1954 one so, my guess is she saw it about 1955 or ‘56 in its US version).

She doesn’t, like a lot of film-makers writing about their lives, give much specific detail about the actual making of her movies and, to be honest, most of them are not even mentioned... but she does have some nice anecdotes from some of them. So her early films with Corman and AIP where she was shipped out to the Philippines are something which, unlike certain other actors and actresses of the time, she viewed as valuable lessons because you couldn’t get that kind of education and experience out of a book. And talking about an education... she kind of fell into acting almost accidentally, it seemed. Her only interest in the opportunities that were thrown her way when she joined up with those AIP, low budget exploitation pictures was about saving the money for her college fund. She wanted to get more educated although, I have to say from her attitude and eloquence talking about how she learned to dissect things like classical music and jazz when she was around 7 years old, I’m not sure she was desperately in need of much extra educating.

The book also shatters some silly myths by revealing, for example, her strong friendship with Tamara Dobson (of the Cleopatra Jones movies), when the media were trying to turn them into rivals (as pretty much the two leading ladies of blaxploitation, is my guess). But even when she was shooting movies, in between jobs you’d find her working in a drug store or some such to just keep the money coming in for her college fund. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, as she gets more and more successful and famous, the talk about the college fund stops although, as the book goes on, you realise she does appreciate the pursuit of a good education and she is always finding new things to learn about and enrich her life with.

The other thing you find out is about her various lovers over the years. In the span of the book, she has about five significant others. I’m not going to mention the last couple but there are some amazing things in the book about her first three, more famous ones.

Her first big love decided to take up the Muslim religion and revealed his new name to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bruce Lee fans and basketball followers will surely know this tall guy). However, after attempting to study the religion in the interest that she could convert and become his wife... well, Pam didn’t exactly take to it and you can certainly see why (and if not she makes it crystal clear).

Second big love was the even more famous stand up comic Freddie Prinz, who I’d only heard of through his dying fairly young but he’s something of a comedy legend. Again, though, there seems to be a pattern of tragedy in the path of Mr. Grier’s love life at the time and they all, in one way or another, treated her quite badly (and certainly not just the famous ones in that respect, either).

Her third big relationship was Richard Pryor. There’s a gripping ‘three strikes and you’re out’ accounting of the final period of their relationship including Pam being diagnosed with some vaginal problems which turned out to be because Pryor had ingested so much cocaine by that point that his semen was impregnated with it. It’s entertaining but tragic when she recounts how performing oral sex on him would make her lips go numb for the amount of drug residue on him. I’m probably explaining that badly but, you know, read the damn book, it’s fantastic.

It tells a little bit about the lead in to working with directors like Tim Burton and the bizarre chance meeting with Quentin Tarantino which helped land her Jackie Brown (completely unexpectedly) and also the big, long period in her life when she was fighting off cancer (and was once again treated quite badly by a boyfriend because of it). Not to mention a good amount of time talking about a show she did for a while which I’ll now need to check out sometime called The L Word. And there’s always lightness mixed in with the darkness, like the time she was thrown out of a nightclub with John Lennon and a few others after Lennon started throwing punches around. There’s even a photo of the apology card he sent her the next day.

Perhaps my favourite story, though, is how her horse started galloping uncontrollably (she’s a pretty good rider) on the set in the Colosseum for the Corman movie The Arena. One of the many places she and the horse went hurtling destructively through was the set of a new Fellini movie being made at the same time. Fellini was delighted by the chance encounter to meet her (and she him, of course, she’s a pretty cool film appreciating lass too, it turns out) and they ended up spending that lunch period together.

Of course, that’s just my personal highlight gleaned from Pam’s rich and wonderful book. Other readers will have their own but, even though she never reaches all her dreams (romantically, at least), her epilogue leaves the reader with a certain sense that she has found some peace, optimism and enlightenment during the course of her life. Which is a good space to be in, I imagine. Honestly, I’ve got nothing bad to say whatsoever about Foxy - My Life In Three Acts. If you like the actress then you’ll surely want to read this as it’s both one of the breeziest but also one of the more substantial, in terms of the content it covers, of the celebrity autobiographies I’ve read over the course of my life. So glad I picked this one up. Absolutely brilliant and it turns out the paperback is still in print. Seriously worth investing some time in, if you haven’t done so already.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Force 10 From Navarone

May The Force
Be With You

Force 10 From Navarone
UK 1978 Directed by Guy Hamilton
Indicator  Blu Ray Zone B

As a rule, I’m not the biggest fan of war films (at least not terrestrial based ones). I’m not particularly worried that a lot of them make light of the war and are usually fun filled shoot ‘em ups which amount to not much more than Boy’s Own stories. Heck, even the serious and more conscientious ones have a certain degree of that to them. I just don’t like them all that much and can probably count on the fingers of one hand the ones I do enjoy (I even have a few I haven’t seen yet in my ‘to watch’ pile, courtesy of director Sam Fuller). That being said, Force 10 From Navarone is one of those films which I like above and beyond my ability to explain why although, when I first saw it on the television back in the 1980s (I don’t remember catching this one at the cinema... but I might be wrong on that count), the main draw would have been the inclusion of Harrison Ford in the cast, whose star was about to rise to meteoric proportions thanks to films like The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here), Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Blade Runner (reviewed by me here).

The film is actually a sequel to a classic war film made 17 years before, The Guns Of Navarone, which I had seen a couple of times in my childhood but it never really struck a chord with me (although, if I watched it now, I’d probably find it’s a masterpiece). This one did though and... now that the fabulous Indicator label have given us a new Blu Ray transfer of, not just the theatrical cut but also the extended edition, nicely packaged with a bound book about the production, some stills from the film and a gazillion extras all in a nice slip case for a surprisingly low cost (in this day of overpriced limited editions)... I couldn’t wait to re-watch it again after all those years. I wasn’t disappointed although, truth be told, there’s not a heck of a lot that special about the movie either.

After an opening recap of the first film’s ending, with the guns of Navarone being destroyed by explosives (and with the original cast kept out of camera), we hitch up with two of the main characters from that film but, instead of being played by Gregory Peck and David Niven, they are replaced by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox. Now, the original plan was to have the cast back from the first movie, which was to be made soon after but, since there was a large gap as pre-production flailed then failed, they were too old to play the roles again by the time the film finally made its way into production and so we have, in some ways, a poor man’s cast replacement... although Shaw and Fox are obviously great actors in their own right. Here they team up with Harrison Ford’s ‘Force 10 Squad’, to get dropped off enroute on his mission in order to identify and kill a traitorous character from the first movie, who is played here by Franco Nero. The film’s main cast are rounded out by Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel, who were both, presumably, relatively fresh off the set of The Spy Who Loved Me (reviewed here) and who would soon be making the Italian sci-fi film The Humanoid together. So three major Bond actors along with a couple of other minor Bond character actors in the cast, not to mention the film being directed by Guy Hamilton... who directed three of the Bond movies too.

Okay, so, as soon as their plane is shot down and their numbers are thinned out, the film becomes a proper adventure romp, with various shoot outs and explosions, as the main players join forces properly to help complete each other’s missions and save the day... which they do but, not necessarily in the way they thought they would.

If anything, the thing that struck me about watching the movie this time around was the way the suspense sequences were milked for every drop, such as the parachuted Edward Fox being rescued by another main member of the team played by Carl Weathers (that’s Appollo Creed to you) as he gets stuck in a tree and dangles above a German soldiers head... you know the kind of thing. This film is full of it and it’s also weighted with a lot of dramatic moments devised to second guess the audience which, over the years, dates it maybe a little. Such as characters revealed that aren’t dead after all and various ‘deus ex machina’ rescues from an unexpected (ish) source just at the last second. That being said, clichéd as the movie is, it’s all done with a tremendous sense of fun and I couldn’t help but be thoroughly entertained by it once again. Especially when you throw in Ron Goodwin, the composer of such famous military scores as 633 Squadron, The Battle Of Britain and Where Eagles Dare (among others), providing a strong march and incidental music which, as far as I’m concerned, is certainly one of his most whistleable scores. This one’s been heard issuing shrilly from my lips on many occasions over the years, I can tell you that.

Indicator’s new release is amazing and includes a number of extras, one of the highlights of which is a 20 minutes plus look at the huge differences between the Theatrical and Extended cuts... both of which contain various things not in the other version. This valuable extra shows you things like the vast differences in the opening narration, the completely different title sequences, the various lines which have been re-dubbed and added or subtracted in each version (I think the extended version is a little more family friendly, too, when it comes to alternate dialogue), the difference in the sound design in certain scenes (details like the sounds of birds and insects either timed differently or absent in one cut or the other) and even the absence of music in certain places in one of the cuts. One of those extras which really is worth having.

Another extra which is worth the cost of admission, although I’ve only watched the first ten minutes or so at time of writing this, is an hour and a half archival interview with the composer from the 1990s, which absolutely transports you back to his time growing up in the 40s and 50s, from what I’ve heard of it so far.

So, yeah, not much more to add on this except, Force 10 From Navarone has absolutely nothing to do with Navarone (Alistair McLean’s original and much different sequel novel may well have more to do with the first one) but it’s certainly an enjoyable movie and this new limited edition Indicator Blu Ray set is absolutely the best way to see it outside of a cinema presentation. One I’ll no doubt be dipping into again at some point in the next ten years or so and certainly value for money. I’m absolutely delighted to be reacquainted with this old friend again, no matter how corny some of the dialogue and situations are. A welcome return to the home video format.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Video Palace

Leader Of The Stack

Video Palace
Created by Nick Braccia and Michael Monello
A Original Podcast 2018 - Ten Episodes

Warning: Some spoilers due to discussion of the structure of the show.

Okay so... I never review podcasts. This is my first time and I’ve even had to create a new section in the index to accommodate it... scroll down on the indexes page and you’ll find it jammed between the TV and the almost empty (and somewhat out of date) Music section. Podcasts aren’t really my kind of thing but this one functions more as a radio or audio drama in the horror category so, in some ways I guess it’s not a traditional podcast although, honestly, I wouldn’t really know.

So there are two reasons why I don’t review podcasts on here. Reason one is because I’m not used to reviewing dramas which are based purely on audio content and I’m not sure if I can talk about one in a relatively interesting manner for more than a paragraph (I’m about to find out I guess). The other reason is... well... who has time to listen to podcasts in this day an age? Life moves too fast and this would just be another distraction to getting my day done. So there’s that too.

Why did I bother with this one then?

Well, all I can say is I was fed up with hearing, for two years on Twitter now, absolutely nothing (almost nothing) but high praise for Video Palace and, since I found that I could download it and listen to it for free on Apple iTunes, I figured I might as well see what all the fuss is about. I’d heard a few people say the ending is not good or, it doesn’t have an ending... well, it does have an ending and, although I feel it has very slight problems in that regard, it certainly is valid as an ending and a natural stopping point for the show. If you wanted to do a follow up using the same kinds of characters, the style and pacing of the audio adventure would have to be totally different from what was explored in this series or more or less a repeat with different characters so... yeah... we’re probably better off without a second season because I’m sure the prospect would have to be a lot less intriguing.

So anyway, I gave it a go and, after finally having to visit Shudder to find out what the running order of the episodes is (because the labelling seems to be completely incorrect on iTunes), I settled down to listen to it. I did two evenings on my headphones in the pitch black of night in bed. Three episodes on the first evening and then I binged the other seven the evening after.

The story is narrated first person by one of the two lead characters for most of the series... Chase Wiliamson playing Mark Cambria, who lives in a New York apartment with is girlfriend Tamra, played by Devin Sidell. It starts off really ‘silly B movie style’ (which is nice and probably intentional) with the sound of Mark sleep talking, which gives the first episode its title, Somniloquy. However, once you’ve heard it a few times in the show it begins to take on a ‘sinister threat’ kind of punctuation as Mark’s investigation into the cause of his strange sleep talking begins.

The cause? Well, Mark is a collector of old VHS video tapes and he buys a job lot where one of them is an unmarked tape in a white clamshell showing TV static footage with shapes and pretty much the exact same chanting that Mark is doing in his sleep. He’d watched what he thought was this bizarre, unmarked experimental film the day before and it was affecting him in this strange way. So he decides to investigate and Shudder, the website putting this podcast out, allow the fictional Mark to publish (if that’s the right word) his podcast on their site as the investigation proceeds. So the narration he gives in each new episode is ‘up to the minute’ from where he was last time.

This, of course, allows the show to ‘have its cake and eat it’ structurally because it’s like reading a book in first person narrative which usually gives the reader the advantage of knowing the narrator can’t die but, if it’s up to the minute in short chunks as this is... and this is kind of also a 'double edged sword' weakness of the show... you know the narrator could possibly be ‘changed’ if he gets in trouble or perish... so the format doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that Mark will die before the end of the last show... although there is music and editing all fully on board in the concept. Something which Mark calls attention to for the listener himself in one of a few charming, fake metatextual moments in the show. Heck, there’s even a fictional composer of the score for the series who helps Mark and Tamra out with certain aspects of their investigation and... oh, wait, I don’t want to spoil it.

Anyhow, Mark finds out about the legend of the ‘white tapes’, spoken in hushed tones among the world of VHS collectors. They seem very rare and people have paid high prices for them but they seemed to originate from a video rental store in another state, called Video Palace, which no longer exists after certain ‘events’ which occurred twenty years prior to this investigation. And, as the mystery deepens, Mark and Tamra are taken deeper into the world of clam-shelled ‘White Tapes’, ‘The Devil’s Tritone’ (or Diabolo as it is also known in musical circles), the eight doorways to ‘The Stack’, the Eyeless Man and various other strange things including dangers and deaths which they weren’t expecting to have a part in. It’s a little bit like John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns mixed with the kind of mystery format of 'M. R. James’ legacy' viral curse movies like Ringu. Which, if you are already familiar with, of course, then you already know that Video Palace is right up your alley.

And as I listened, the series did have some real scares and dramatic moments to it. The second half is a bit of a terrifying climb but, when it came to the last episode... yeah, okay, I can see why some of the audience might have some problems. The format is changed about half way through the episode for reasons which I won’t go into here but which I was fully expecting because of the way the show is presented. The climax of the series seems, to me, to come roughly half way through the final episode and then, the next half seems just to be about explaining and clarifying what the audience saw... or heard in this case. So there’s a lot of explanation posed in the form of questions but much of this just seems like an autopsy of the story because, honestly, the stuff revealed in the final quarter of an hour or so of that last episode seems to be just telling us stuff we already had known or figured out. It’s not really necessary and I can’t really see how you can set up a credible sequel to this thing, to be honest, so... I wonder why the last half of the final episode seems so laboured when compared to the rest of it.

Still, I didn’t feel cheated in any way, that’s for sure and I’ve already recommended Video Palace to a couple of people. Getting to that end point was a lot of fun and, as I said, nicely terrifying if listened to in the right setting (no light source and just letting the darkness work with the audio). It’s certainly intriguing and, although I was expecting to hear a lot more movie talk and to listen to the bizarre minutia of VHS collectors, it tells its tale well and leaves each episode on one kind of cliff hanger or another. Really glad I took the time to listen to this one and, who knows, I might find myself downloading another podcast sometime in the future.

List of Episodes
1. Somniloquy
2. Obsession
3. The Piano Tuner
4. Dissonance
5. Pilgrimage
6. The Hidden Basement
7. The Code
8. Life Support
9. Revok
10. The Stack

Video Palace can be enjoyed via and iTunes and a new collection of short stories inspired by the series, Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man, hits Amazon UK in October.

Thursday 6 August 2020

The Complete Adventures Of Judith Lee

Chocolate Bon Bombs

The Complete Adventures Of Judith Lee
by Richard Marsh Blackcoat Press ISBN: 97816122270715

Warning: Some light spoilers reside within.

Richard Marsh is probably familiar to most people as the author behind the hugely popular supernatural thriller The Beetle, which was published around the same time as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and which outsold it for a while (it’s also a pretty good book if you care to give it a try but, alas, the silent movie version of the novel has been lost to time). That was the only thing I’d read of him until I found myself, as is my habit a couple of times a year, browsing the latest additions to the catalogue at the Blackcoat Press website. I’ve talked about Blackcoat Press before as I make it a point, every Christmas time, to read one of their annual editions of Tales Of The Shadowmen collections (read my reviews here and here) but this time I saw listed, The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee and, as I looked at the brief summary, I realised I would have to read this at some point.

Miss Judith Lee’s adventures were written by Marsh primarily around the second decade of the 20th Century and take the form of short stories, all but two of which are written first person. The first batch which make up the first half of this volume were all published in The Strand Magazine at the time and, of course, this makes her a contemporary of a certain literary detective whose exploits were recorded by Arthur Conan Doyle (or Dr. Watson, if you prefer). Like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Lee solves crimes, the solutions of which seem far outside the realms of mortal man to fathom... although in Miss Lee’s case, her super powers are not so much her extraordinary brain (which it kind of isn’t, truth be told) but something far more novel, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The original Strand magazine stories were collected in a single volume not long after their publication entitled Judith Lee - Some Pages From Her Life, which makes up roughly the first half of this volume. Then, for completeness, a single tale never before reprinted is included at the centre of this tome. This is rounded off with a reprint of a second collection of short stories, The Adventures Of Judith Lee, which were published after the writer’s death and, possibly, with some finishing touches by his wife (the forward isn’t completely clear in this matter and, bearing in mind that the majority of the tales are told first person from the female point of view, I have to wonder just how much input Marsh’s wife had on the original tales and how much ‘finishing’ she had to do... if that is even ‘another story’ then I certainly don’t have the means to research the answer to that question myself). So this edition really is the complete adventures of the titular heroine. 

Now, she’s not exactly low in intelligence but her character does, it has to be said, change and progress somewhat over the course of the stories. Her special skill though, aside from at some point learning Jiu-Jitsu, which she puts to good use in at least two of the stories, is lip reading. She is a teacher of the deaf and dumb and a consultant in teaching her students all manner of talents... which means she can read anyone's lips from across a crowded room or a train carriage and ‘hear’ exactly what is being said, even if spoken as a whisper. She is in no way a private detective but since she is, it would be an understatement to say, inquisitive as to what she accidentally sees people saying, she tends to get involved in all kinds of schemes involving murder, theft, blackmail and, on more than one occasion, ends up herself accused of one crime or another before she sets things right.

Of course, the one limiting factor in the stories is that almost all her cases involve accidentally stumbling on something said and, somehow, being able to recall for the audience huge long conversations as she reads people’s lips. Which, frankly, implies she also has a photographic memory but I don’t think much is ever made of this obvious fact.

The first half of the book is enjoyable but also quite annoying as the earlier version of the character does seem to be totally naive when it comes to the world around her. She will often overhear a clue, the meaning of which is quite obvious from the outset to most readers but, alas, her mental acuity is not such that she often understands just what loaded weapons are being placed in her hands when she lipreads something unintended for her. I guess if the plot was obvious to her the stories would be a good deal shorter but sometimes waiting for the penny to drop can be a bit galling.

Later on though, she becomes a bit more interesting and gets quite witty and ironic in the way she conducts her affairs. The stories often get a bit more exciting too, with stolen goods and heists being replaced by assassination attempts including deadly snakes and, one of my favourite twists, bombs planted in chocolates so that the act of biting into one will cause it to blow one’s head off. There’s also the occasional brawl, people cut into little bits in order to be slowly disposed of in creative ways, an incident with the German military over the murder of an aircraft inventor and even a death which, to her surprise, Miss Lee finds that she herself had been an inadvertent catalyst for, in terms of the behaviour which exacerbated the incident.

It has to be said I enjoyed the second collection contained in this book more than the first but there are also tell tale signs in the book that Marsh couldn’t help projecting a ‘male gaze’ at the character. For instance, she seems to hate the idea that a man would marry her and sometimes seems so smitten with the fairer sex in one of two instances that I think it’s fairly implicit for the time, perhaps, that the character may harbour lesbian tendencies (although it’s never once discussed outright). The one thing which did make me laugh, though, was the criticism of her fellow women to carry something so impractical as a travel bag to keep their valuables in on long journeys. I read that paragraph and thought to myself... only a man could have written that. 

All said and done, though, I have to say that, despite the early... let’s call it ‘innocence’... of the character, I thoroughly enjoyed The Complete Adventures Of Judith Lee and am amazed that the lady hasn’t once made the transition into films or television over the decades. I think the stories as they are might be a little too simplistic to attempt to dramatise in another format but the character and a combination of embellished versions might well be a goldmine for a clever screen writer, I would have thought. I’d love to read more of her adventures in book form too but I can’t see anyone picking up this character out of the relative obscurity of her literary environment and penning any sequels today. Although, with Blackcoat Press and some of the other characters they’ve published over the years, I might get lucky with that proposition at some point.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Johnny Staccato (aka Staccato)

The Piano Player
Shoots Back

Johnny Staccato
(aka Staccato)

Air date: September 1959 - March 1960
27 Episodes. DVD Region 1

Johnny Staccato was TV’s jazz detective. Played by actor/director John Cassavetes, the show initially aired for a good half of the episodes as Staccato. Somewhere in the middle of the series, Elmer Bernstein’s roaring opening theme pitched against a jagged and memorable opening title sequence (which... well, I’ve no idea who designed it but it would have made Saul Bass proud and certainly seems ripped off from/influenced by him) is replaced by a less interesting sequence of Johnny running, then breaking a window to shoot his revolver through it. Annoyingly, the shot of Cassavetes in close up, peering through the glass, reveals a different smash pattern to the long shot, with a piece of glass hanging down in front of Johnny’s face which was absent when he actually crashes through the window initially. It’s at this point that the show is retitled to Johnny Staccato and uses a lighter theme tune... although the original, reminiscent perhaps of Bernstein’s famous opening titles for The Man With The Golden Arm, is retained for the end credits.

That being said, a few episodes using the original opening sequence occur on occasion after the show’s title change so, this probably means that the episodes were originally aired in a different order to when they were completed. Despite critical acclaim, the show was cancelled after one season so I’m wondering if, midway, the show was slightly re-tooled with an eye on a more popular reception, if the show runners got wind of the cancellation way ahead of time (although I didn’t notice any real sea change myself).

The series features Johnny, who works at Waldo’s Jazz Bar (Waldo appears in most episodes and is played by Eduardo Ciannelli) but he also takes big 'side order' jobs as a private detective. There are loads of guest appearances by once or 'soon to be' famous actors such as Martin Landau, Mary Tyler Moore, Dean Stockwell, Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands and, one of my favourites, Elisha Cook Jr... but the show was also noted for the musicians who sometimes appeared in minor, musical roles such as jazz legends like Shelly Manne... as well as the piano guy who sometimes takes over from Johnny when he’s off working a case, the now extremely famous composer John Williams, back when he was also known as Johnny.

The plots are simple and the show only runs for half hour episodes but they are compact stories. Sometimes Johnny will come up with a solution to the crime of the week but, sometimes, things will go wrong and the real criminal is not always revealed. The tone is upbeat but very dark as Johnny starts asking questions and getting himself in trouble as he tries to help out a friend.

Oh yeah, about that... quite a lot of the time he’s out to help a friend and more often than not, he never seems to get paid for a case, often because the person who has hired him to investigate things winds up dead at some point. Which explains why he is always short of cash, although his regular gig as jazz pianist at Waldos certainly pays him enough to give out plenty of ‘flash money’ to grease the wheels of an informant’s mind when he wants to get a jump on things.

There are also five episodes which, even if you didn’t know it from the end credits, are also directed by John Cassavetes and, wow, are they well lit and staged. Those ones must have really popped off of those TV sets and right into the headspace of the viewer back in ‘59/’60. Despite the obviousness of some of the plots (which may not have been all that obvious at the time), there is still an element of surprise to the show. Not because of the plot twists where, say, Johnny’s friend turns out to be the person who did the murder after all... but because the dark tone is just so unrelenting and hard hitting compared to what you expect from a show of the time (and perhaps a lot darker than someone might pitch a show like this today).

The show follows Johnny C playing Johnny S with Cassavetes giving the viewer a hard line in voice over which is usually also quite downbeat and cynical. That being said, not every episode has a downer of an ending. For instance, the 1959 Christmas episode, where future Diamonds Are Forever gangster Marc Lawrence (“I didn’t know there was a pool down there.”) plays an ex-con, brother to a shop Santa who he is pressuring to help commit a robbery... ends with a more cheerful scene at Waldo’s where Cassavetes breaks the fourth wall even more than usual by talking directly into the camera at the audience with a Christmas greeting.

That being said, the darkness of Johnny’s world tends to not stay in the side lines for long and I have to wonder, despite the critical appreciation it got, if the gritty edges of the storytelling helped hasten the show towards cancellation. Did they see it coming? Well, maybe. In the last episode, after failing to protect the new pianist from two guys he himself guns down, leaving the elderly widow of the man by his corpse in the street, Johnny waxes darkly lyrical in ‘voice over’ about the horrors of killing and walks off the show telling the audience... “I’m done!” So, yeah, maybe by that time they knew.

What I do know myself is, Johnny Staccato is a riveting series featuring a very cool central performance by Cassavetes, some brilliant jazz scoring by Elmer Bernstein, punchy stories and is generally as entertaining as hell. Maybe if it had gone on longer it would have ended up a caricature of itself at some point but this is a show I could have certainly have watched a lot more of and I would have loved it if it had transitioned into an hour long format at some point. Still, at least the series has survived the years while many shows contemporary to it haven’t. So I’ll just be thankful for what we’ve got here and say, if you like Cassavetes looking sleek but gritty in clean, black and white photography, you need to check this one out.