Unnatural Prehistory Museum
Journey To The Beginning Of Time
aka Cesta do praveku
Directed by Karel Zeman
Second Run Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
Wow, this is a really great movie. I remember back in the early to mid 1970s, there was often a ‘mostly animated’ film of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen showing sporadically on channels such as BBC2 at strange times of night and day and, occasionally, I would delve into these and watch for ten minutes or so before running away to do something more active (such as playing with action figures). Well, now it seems it’s time for me to finally catch up with this master of Czechoslovakian animated films although, this first feature is more live action with special effects inserts and doesn’t really look like his later stuff at all.
No matter, though, because it’s a revelation to me and is also a quite charming and whimsical piece, while following and accurately documenting the thinking of the time on the various pre-historic periods of our planet... almost like an educational film for kids. So... a bit like an old Children’s Film Foundation movie but, in this case, actually quite watchable (a big difference to the CFF movies in my opinion), entertaining and educational to boot.
I used to love finding fossils and researching both those and various dinosaurs when I was a kid. If only I’d have had access to this movie back then. The film starts off with one of the four children who, as it happens, make up the entire human cast of the film. He gets out his log book of their recent adventures and starts telling the viewer about the fossilised trilobite one of them found by a cave. I love trilobites so this was definitely a way to get me hooked. One of the party wanted to see what they looked like and, as luck would have it, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, they decided to go on an expedition (somehow taking small backpacks with heaps of clothes and provisions in their little row boat), through the cave they found and, as it happens, they follow the river which starts with the ice age and takes them on a journey back through the aeons to the dawn of time.
And thus we follow the adventures of Petr, Jenda, Tonik and Jirka, played respectively by child actors Josef Lukás, Zdenek Hustak, Petr Herrman and Vladimír Bejval on a wonderous journey where they encounter Pterodactyls, a Styracosaurus, a few Stegosaurus’ and various other creatures and species of both animal, bird and dinosaur. And it’s really advanced stuff with the special effects using layers of live action, puppets, stop motion models, matte paintings and various other things in a truly remarkable, ‘way ahead of it’s time’ fantasy film. It’s pretty ambitious for a 1955 movie, not to mention being a director’s first feature length film (he’d done various shorts before this) and, honestly, it’s absolutely gobsmacking how far ahead this guy was compared to his contemporaries and many others who came after him with this stuff. I mean, sure you can spot some of the matte lines, wires and layers colliding if you’re on the look out for them but it’s not always obvious and it’s decades ahead of what everyone else was doing at the time. I was blown away by this.
Also, a great aspect of this film is the wondrous attitude of the child actors as they experience each new thing. If you’re watching adult characters in a fantasy movie then they’re not, more often than not, taking in their environment or reacting to it in quite the same way. The characters tend to be treating it as part of the world they are in and dealing with the consequences of their situation rather than experiencing ‘the wonder’ and with good reason. It’s something which generally helps sell the fantasy of these films as almost a necessity of attitude, I would imagine. So it’s kind of refreshing and quite charming to see the kids take time to truly appreciate the wonders created by the special effects team here and quenching their thirst for knowledge with creations based on what the current scientific discoveries of the day were.
It’s also got a lot of heart and takes time to make some interesting points, such as when they are investigating an absent caveman’s home and seeing his depictions of animals on his cave’s wall. The kids realise how sensitive and like them their ancestors were, as opposed to the brutish semi-animals they were assuming them to be.
It’s also got a poetic way with words even when it’s at its darkest, with one of the kids comparing the dawn of time, long before life had awakened, as an ominous experience and commenting, “It was like nature had been cursed”. For a family film it gets a little dark, perhaps but it doesn’t go too over the top... although I was impressed with the thick, viscous dinosaur blood flowing in all its stop motion glory after two dinosaurs have the obligatory fight.
The score, by various composers, is pretty interesting too, sometimes adding a deliberate speed to the more sedate moments and sometimes overtly pricking the brain as it hovers just the right side of sinister curiosity before something happens... it’s an interesting set of cues for sure. And it helps the various, somewhat fabricated dramatic moments where one or other of the party of kids gets separated for their own encounter, while the others are busy searching for their friend. There’s a wonderful moment where, after going back for some notebooks to record data of the dead Stegosaurus, the boat is found crushed and splintered beyond repair as a dinosaur has walked over it in their absence. How are they going to get out of this one? Well, I’ll let you find that one out for yourselves but it’s a really great film, although it doesn’t offer any explanations as to how the kids journeyed back and forwards through their path to return to present day. Although, by this point, it doesn’t really matter, for sure.
All in all, I was really pleased with Journey To The Beginning Of Time and you can expect at least one or two more reviews of films by this director on here at some point, I think (this week in fact, keep checking this blog over the next few days). The Second Sight Blu Ray has some nice extras on the film such as breakdowns of how the visual effects were achieved, a demonstration of the restoration of the film with its beautiful, pastel colours and various supplementals provided by the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague which is, frankly, somewhere I’d love to go if I ever got the opportunity to go travelling some time. I’d definitely recommend this to most cinema lovers I know, especially those with a particular liking for the films of Willis O Brien and Ray Harryhaussen, for sure. Absolutely loved this and will certainly watch it again at some point. Can’t wait to watch another.
Sunday, 31 January 2021
Journey To The Beginning Of Time
Thursday, 28 January 2021
Battle In Outer Space
Battle In Outer Space
aka Uchû sai sensô
Japan 1959 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
Battle In Outer Space was directed only a year after Ishirô Honda’s The H Man (reviewed by me here) but, even so, he managed to sandwich directing another six features in between that one and this. This is part of the new double bill of Honda restorations released very recently on the Eureka Masters of Cinema label and, between these and their simultaneous release of a UK edition of Mothra (which I reviewed in its previous Blu Ray edition here), Eureka have basically reissued the old US Toho Icons Of Sci-Fi DVD set of these three films and relaunched it, at a higher price, for the UK market. But it’s still a welcome release and, although I really don’t have much to say about Battle In Outer Space (it’s an okay watch but nothing really special), I’m really glad that The H Man was restored and, frankly, there are still some nice things about this one which are worth noting.
One of those is ‘the Japanese John WIlliams’ Akira Ifukube’s rocking score, which is basically cribbed off one of his sub themes from the first Godzilla and also makes its way back into the Godzilla franchise at various points. What this means is, no matter how bad or ridiculous things get on screen, the viewer can at least tap their toes along to the rocking score as it plays through, sometimes a little less than appropriately, as the story unfolds.
Alas, that story is absurd but at least it’s fun. The film was made in 1959 but it’s actually set in Earth’s far future of... 1965. I’d like to think the Japanese really were that optimistic that, by 1965 they’d have manned space stations and a space force but... yeah, the projection of where they’d be at seems a little absurd, especially considering this was made ten years before man even got to the moon.
Starting with a group of flying saucers who destroy said space station, the plot unfolds as they go to Earth and do dodgy things, causing destruction that makes no sense. For example, we see them levitate a huge (model) railway bridge and so a train plummets to destruction but, then they just put the bridge back and you’re left with the question of... why the heck did they want to do that anyway? Soon, though, the pesky Earthlings plan their counter move, with two rockets sent to the moon for reconnaissance. However, the aliens (who we never get to see out of their spacesuits), have taken over a human in the crew and turned him into a spy, who they force to explode one of the two rockets while the ground crew are skirting around, trying to find the alien moon base. There’s a battle on the moon where the alien base is destroyed, another battle escaping back to their lone standing rocket (which is somehow a much more interesting sequence than the rest of the film) and then, when they return to Earth, the planet is galvanised into action, building a defence force for one big super battle above our planet.
It’s pretty tame stuff and, like always on these films, some of the effects and model work is quite good and... other stuff isn’t (you can clearly see and count all the various strings holding up all those models). Some of the models are nice though, especially the cute little lunar mini-buses which the humans use to journey around to the light side of the moon. They’d make really good Japanese tin toys and, for all I know, they might well have been at the time.
One quite comical moment comes when a crowd of aliens finally encounter two of the Earth people and attempt to stop them. They totally sound like a group of dogs all got a new squeaky toy for Christmas and are squeaking them all together at the same time for a sustained period. This made me smile... as did the various ray guns and lasers in the wonderful sequence where the two moon buses are trying to beat a hasty retreat back to their rockets, not knowing one has already been destroyed.
And, yeah, not much else to say about Battle For Outer Space. This was always going to be a short review because there’s nothing really great or really terrible about it. It’s a solid, late 1950s Japanese sci-fi movie which is probably superior, at least in the ambition of what the writers and director were trying to do compared to the US films of the same ilk but, perhaps because of this, lacking the real gravitas of the situation which is constantly etched into the faces of the various characters (as it should be). Nowhere near my favourite of Honda’s films but I’m looking forward to listening to the new commentary track at some point and I love the colours and clarity of the restoration of the thing. So top marks to the Eureka Masters Of Cinema label, once again. I’m assuming we’ll be getting The Mysterians from them or a similar label again sometime soon.
Tuesday, 26 January 2021
Ennio Morricone In His Own Words
Ennio Morricone In His Own Words
by Ennio Morricone and Alessandro De Rosa
Oxford University Press ISBN: 9780190681012
Just a brief review of a very valuable book in the annals of musical history, which I’m sure I won’t do anything like full justice to but, I hope it will give interested parties enough of a flavour to pursue this magnificent tome themselves.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Ennio Morricone conduct concerts of his works in London around five or six times in my life. They are always a treasured experience and each time I attended it just compelled me to re-explore his back catalogue of music. Alas, the great man died back in July so I won’t again have the pleasure of seeing him live ever again but, I guess I knew that anyway as his last concert tour, from a few years ago, was pretty much promoted as his farewell set of concerts.
This manuscript, Ennio Morricone In His Own words, a 2019 English translation of a 2016 book, is a wonderful exploration of the composer which is a transcription of conversations taking place between Morricone and a young composer/freelance musician named Alessandro De Rosa.
Now, I usually find “In their own words” style books to be either just a tonne of bite sized quotes organised under theme or as much about the author compiling things as it is about the subject. I’m delighted to say that neither case is true in relation to this tome. These are genuinely long transcriptions of conversations between the two men with De Rosa deliberately taking the back seat and asking the right kind of provocative questions to allow Morricone to do the lion’s share of the book... often while the two are playing chess. That’s something I learned from this book for a start... Morricone was a keen and evidently excellent chess player, even subscribing to several magazines and playing in the odd tournament. He mentions very early on in the book (possibly even on the first page) that he sees strong links between music and chess notation.
Now I’ve always found this amazing composer to be somewhat arrogant when I’ve read quotations by him in various programmes or articles over the years but, this book firmly dispels that idea (along with a lot of others). Rather than being arrogant, I gather that Morricone is merely shy (as am I and that’s often perceived as a certain aloofness in other people, although a certain ‘special’ lady friend of mine would not recognise that trait in me, for sure) and genuinely honest about himself and this can sometimes come across as an unfortunate attitude when taken out of context. Which is another reason why this book is so good. I realise that Morricone was a thoughtful man and although, as I said, honest... I sense a reluctance to tackle certain issues due to his respect for the wishes and beliefs of others.
And I learned some really interesting stuff such as, despite often being perceived as not finding value in his work with the great Sergio Leone, he regarded that relationship as very special and cherished their continual friendship both on and off the job. There’s a heartbreaking anecdote in here about when and how he heard that Leone was dead, when they were due to meet up again very soon.
One thing which I’ve been trying to find out for years was just what was the great rift, often alluded to on most writing about his work, that occurred between him and Bruno Nicolai (who made up quite a good team of composers, conducting each others works and also collaborating on compositions in Morricone’s early years). It turns out, if Morricone is to be believed and I’ve no reason not to, that Nicolai was a great friend and they didn’t have any kind of falling out at all, just decided to part ways to retain their own individual styles... or at least retain the public perception of it (if I am understanding correctly). Morricone goes on record that he misses him (Nicolai died in 1991 but he did some remarkable scores in his time).
And, of course, he talks a lot about music. The inspiration, the experimentation and the difference between what he calls applied music (music created to serve another medium such as film, theatre, ballet etc) and what he calls ‘absolute music’, which is technically free of the bounds of certain rules (and equally the special creativity which comes as part and parcel of those restrictions, I would say). I am very glad to see that he doesn’t (like many critics seem to adhere to, as a belief about music they don’t understand or get on with in the arena of film) see his applied music really as any way of lesser value than his other stuff. Indeed, his thorough experimentation with music as heard in both styles of composition and the fact that he imposes his own limits in his writing for both forms anyway, certainly shows the similarity of the DNA in terms of the fact that he was always writing for an audience... even if that audience was himself.
And, yeah, not too much more to say about Ennio Morricone In His Own Words. I said up front that this would be a brief review but the quality and thoroughness of the events, details and periods explored in these conversations is so rich and varied that, frankly, this is the closest thing you can get to a genuine autobiography by the man, I believe. As such, it’s a valuable addition to anybody interested in film music and, towards the end where the conversations get quite technical in terms of the art (it kinda lost me a little in the last fifth of the book because I have no musical training), I think it’s also has a lot of value for modern composers in relation to where Morricone’s own experiments with music took him. This one gets a big, solid recommendation from me and I was certainly as enlightened by the contents as I was entertained. A true window into the mind of one of the greatest composers of the 20th/21st century.
Sunday, 24 January 2021
Der Blaue Engel (aka The Blue Angel)
Der Blaue Engel
(aka The Blue Angel)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Universum Film (UFA)
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Story spoilers reside within.
The Blue Angel is the first of seven films made by the legendary director/actress team of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and it’s the film which finally launched Dietrich’s film career. She’d been around in loads of little film roles since 1919 and, from the sounds of it, had just about given up on movie acting when Sternberg spotted her in a theatrical performance and had her screen test for the role, for which she beat out the likes of Louise Brooks (iconic star of Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl) and Brigitte Helm (similarly iconic star of Metropolis). She soon became Sternberg’s lover, prompting his divorce when the two fled Germany to continue the next six films together in the United States.
And I have to say, it’s nice to finally catch up with it again. Especially in this new Blu Ray edition where the film has never looked better although, I have to say, due to the clarity and detail on the beautiful transfer, Dietrich looks a lot older in this as Lola Lola than she used to. The kind of print quality I’m used to seeing this one on always made her look like a young teenager but the detail of this print means she looks possibly even a little older than her, then, 29 years of age.
The film doesn’t really ‘belong’ to her, as such. It’s based on a Heinrich Mann novel, Professor Unrat and is a starring vehicle for the main protagonist of the novel’s title as played by famous German actor Emil Janning’s, who is perhaps best known over here these days for his star turn in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. There’s no doubt he’s brilliant in it and, although Dietrich completely steals all the scenes she’s in, the film really is a two hander between their two acting styles which, in a way, are at odds with each other. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together on screen (and perhaps partially why Jannings threatened to strangle Dietrich on set, since the same chemistry could not be said for their off-screen relationship).
There’s no doubt though that Jennings plays this part really well and he somehow manages to match the film’s transformation from the broad comedy of his stuffy (though absent minded) professor into the tragic demise of his character’s downward spiral throughout the movie. He gives a truly comical performance which, given that Sternberg elects for not always filling his scenes with dialogue, suits the almost ‘silent film’ acting that Jennings is continuing to use in this talking picture. He does it so well and it’s not unlike many comic performances touted today.
Sternberg matches him with framing, lighting and editorial decisions that make the film stand out from a lot of others I’ve seen of that period. Starting off strongly with a shot of twisted rooftops and, later, streets which are obviously stage bound and match the German Expressionist aesthetic started up by silent films such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, the film is always visually interesting. After a couple of street shots, a cleaner opens the shutters of her store window to reveal a poster drawing of Dietrich as the infamous Lola Lola, throwing water onto the pane to foreshadow the character to the audience. Then, after a while of bumbling, we get some of the professor’s students going crazy over a postcard and constantly blowing on it. It takes maybe a half an hour for the image on the postcard to be revealed... that it’s a shot of Dietrich with a feather attached to the card where her dress would be, the constant blowing revealed to be the trick to lift the feather and reveal her legs in suspenders. A nice touch... not just the novelty of the trick but the way Sternberg teases the constant ‘blowing’ and then keeps the vital information as to why, away from the audience for a while.
There are some interesting things happening here from Sternberg. He seems fascinated by a bell tower style clock with its moving figurines and uses extended shots of this to show the time when the professor is due to begin his class at least twice... the second time its comprised of a montage of the figures moving, superimposed over each other. I’m not sure, in all honesty, why he chooses to reveal the time in this fashion but it certainly makes for an interesting way of ushering it in, for sure.
Another nice thing he does, once the Professor has married Lola Lola and been expelled from his job at the local college, after she has him crowing like a cock and losing his last shreds of dignity while his slow downfall begins, is to introduce the concept of time moving through an unexpectedly unannounced montage. The professor hands Dietrich her curling tongs, after which she hands them back and tells him they’re too hot. He pulls a piece of paper off the calender to burn on them to cool them down, then takes the tongs to the calender to cool them down some more by burning through another date on the calendar. We then cut to the montage of the calendar in close up as the tongs burn through first days and then the years, indicating four years have passed. Never mind the fact that he has already declared that not another postcard will be sold of Lola Lola while he has a penny to his name and he’s shortly, thereafter, the one trying to sell them during her performances at The Blue Angel night club. No, here we catch up to him again on tour with the company as he makes up in the personae of a clown and then, when he is forced to return to his hometown at The Blue Angel and appear in a sold out show in front of his former students and colleagues, his ‘cocks crow’ which brought so much delight at his wedding turns into a continual shriek of despair and anguish as he finally loses it and has to be forcefully restrained from murdering both his wife and her new lover.
When he leaves his profession in an earlier part of the film, Sternberg treats the viewers to a pull back of the empty classroom. In a beautifully shot moment of poetic irony, when the professor is let out of his straightjacket and returns to his old classroom at night, he dies at his desk and the pull back from his corpse matches up to that earlier movement in the same room.
Jannings is brilliant in this but Dietrich, who has a completely naturalistic, less flamboyant style of acting compared to Jannings, more than matches him with her almost hypnotic presence in the scenes she’s in. Her brilliance here is the reaction of the over the top tirades of her fellow actor and, well, like I said, she pretty much steals all the scenes she’s in.
The Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray release gives us a lovely transfer with not only the original German language version (which is the one I elected to watch for this review) but also the English alternate version shot by Sternberg with the same cast, for release in England and the US (although I don’t believe it was actually released in America until after they’d released Sternberg and Dietrich’s Morocco). It also comes with some nice extras including Dietrich’s wonderful 3-4 minute screen test for the role (which really just show you how good she is as an actress) but also a few of her 1970s concert tour numbers as well as a ‘visual essay’ on the film. It also has the contents of this Blu Ray included on two DVDs (it’s a three disc set) and it really is the best introduction you’re going to get if you’ve never seen this movie before. Definitely one to be recommended, for sure. I’ve only seen a few of their follow up films (good old BBC2, back in the day) but I will be catching up with the other six they made together at some point over the next year or two due to a box set I bought around a year ago by Indicator, which has all their Paramount films in one venue. But, honestly, The Blue Angel is the one to watch if you want to see the magic as it first happens and, like I said, Jannings performance is quite remarkable too. A must have for any cinema enthusiast’s shelf, for sure.
Thursday, 21 January 2021
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Goodbye Dragon Inn
Taiwan 2003 Directed by Ming-liang Tsai
Second Sigh Blu Ray Zone B
Okay... now I can only repeat the ‘plot’ synopsis when I say that Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a film about the very last performance at a cinema. I say that under advisement because, at no time while I was watching this sometimes hypnotic movie was it made clear to me, in any shape or form, that this was supposed to be the final night for the venue. For me, it looked like it was just the last showing at a cinema of any given day and I can only assume that, if this is indeed the case, we would have really needed a subtitle to tell the English audience this because, I’m guessing that detail may well be hidden on a poster on the front of the cinema?
I don’t know but, either way, it’s one of those marvellous films where nothing much happens... or, at least, nothing significant would be perceived to happen by certain kinds of audiences, I would guess. Personally, I think plenty happens... you see a cleaning lady pick up bits of rubbish from the floor for instance... or you see a girl munching on peanuts. So things do happen in the film, for sure... no matter how mundane.
There seem to be three ‘plot’ strands to the film... one following the cleaner/ticket taker going about her business in the cinema while the classic movie Dragon Inn (reviewed here) plays out, in something less than real time. Another strand follows someone who seems to be a gay man ‘cruising’ the customers for someone willing to sleep with him but... I don’t know, I didn’t really understand that stuff at all because everyone involved just seemed hesitant to make anything they are after known and it all just seemed really timid to me. The third, lets call it a ‘point of interest’, is of two of the actors from the original film Dragon Inn sitting in the audience watching it. At the end, as they leave the cinema while we watch the cleaning lady do her rounds and clean the toilets while the projectionist shuts up the building for the evening (or perhaps forever, who knows?), they recognise each other and exchange a couple of lines. That’s about half the original dialogue in the movie there... there’s maybe three or four sentences uttered throughout the entire film although, the claims that the movie has hardly any dialogue also seems to me to be a bit off, since we can hear the dialogue from Dragon Inn playing on the screen for at least a third of the shots.
The film is slowly and deliberately paced and, I guess if you’re only used to certain kinds of film-making then you might be of the opinion that it tends to drag on but, honestly, I felt the pacing was fine on it and I can only assume that half the reviews I quickly scanned on the IMDB, which were polar opposites on the spectrum (it’s a Marmite movie, if you will), were written by movie watchers who have only been fed a strict diet of Hollywood action movies over the years.
Gooodbye, Dragon Inn is totally put together with static shots which the director will hold for long periods of time, allowing actors and animals to walk in or out of a frame at their own pace. For instance, once the film being screened finishes, there is a static shot from the front of the auditorium as we watch the cleaning lady slowly go up and down the aisles cleaning up after the customers before exiting stage left... the static shot with no motion in it is then held for another few minutes or so without interruption (yes, I did check my Blu Ray player to see if it had accidentally frozen the picture).
Sometimes Tsai will give a certain sense of adventurousness to a shot by loading it with depth. For instance, in one shot where the limping, cleaning lady walks onto the screen from behind the camera somewhere, she goes to a door in the top right of the frame, opens it and then leaves it open as she carries on walking to the end of the room she just entered, exiting that room by a similar door in that room in the same area of the screen... the depth of the shot opening out as doors are open like a set of Russian dolls.
The director tends to use extreme vertical framing against different planes within a shot, a bit like in a giallo and, also like in that particular genre of predominantly Italian cinema, he creates more verticals by lighting a lot of the shots with big, bold blocks of colour. That boldness is seriously and, presumably quite deliberately, undercut by the subdued and pastel nature of the blues, greens and pinks which are being pitched against each other (I have to wonder what this film would have looked like if this director had chosen to light and shoot it for black and white film stock).
One interesting moment comes from the multiple musical stings I mentioned in my previous review, which were used to highlight the entrance of various fighting opponents in the film Dragon Inn. At this moment in the original film being projected (which is compressed in time compared to the slowed down temporal mechanics implied by the visuals), the cleaning lady is watching from behind the screen. We see the girl in the original film and then, as each musical sting comes, instead of cutting back to each appearing villain and then back to her, we cut to the face of the cleaning lady and back to her. I’m not sure what the director was trying to achieve with this use of metatextual editing here but, it made me smile at least (and perhaps that was the point).
And there you have it. No music is used in Goodbye, Dragon Inn save for the cues on the soundtrack from Dragon Inn itself, often and obviously playing against the slower shots of the housing film, in stark contrast to the shots with which they are visually juxtaposed. And, while nothing significant happens, you get the feeling that all the humans who populate the movie are wretched and cursed, driftwood from a sunken ship in the flow of life that has been discarded or just plain forgotten. It’s a film which says everything about these people while showing absolutely nothing about them so, if you’re interested in the way the content of a shot and the performance alone can influence the senses as opposed to the use of quick edits (which this is mostly bereft of apart from the musical stinger scene I describe above) or dynamic camera movements, then maybe this film is for you. Personally I found it quite mesmerising in places while other things... like showing a full house at the start and then, when we return to the auditorium after a few minutes have elapsed, showing it bereft of all but a few customers... I didn’t quite understand at all. Definitely an interesting meditation piece though and, one I will probably take another look at some day.
Tuesday, 19 January 2021
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage
The Alluring Art of
Margaret Brundage -
Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art
by Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard ISBN: 9781934331507
I remember seeing my first Margaret Brundage cover printed in a large format, hardback anthology book about the early days of science fiction maybe 40 or more years ago. It was for one of the Conan stories, Queen Of The Black Coast in the 1934 issue of Weird Tales. My one big takeaway, at the time, was that no matter how splendid and inviting the female figure in the illustration looked, the guy in the picture didn’t look a heck of a lot like Conan, even for the period it was illustrated when perceptions of body types were much different to what they are today (I now know the model for the picture is Margaret’s once husband ‘Slim’ Brundage). During Autumn of 2020, I re-read the complete run of the Conan stories that were published in Weird Tales again (a review will be forthcoming at some point this year, in a special Robert E. Howard Prose and Movies themed week on this blog) and with it, I rediscovered the beautiful artwork of Brundage once again.
It’s true, to my eyes the male figure still looks nothing like the descriptions of Conan in the stories (I think Frank Frazetta probably gave us the truest rendition of Howard’s powerhouse Cimmerian) but the girls are something else and, now I have this book, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art, I find that it was mainly the profusion of scantily clad and often totally naked women rendered lovingly by Brundage in pastels which were the main selling point of Weird Tales... a magazine she started doing covers for in the early 1930s through to the late 30s/early to mid 40s. I was also surprised to learn that, asides from the novelty of a female cover artist plying her trade with such erotically provocative imagery, she was also something of the trendsetter of this style, with most magazine cover art which came before her being of sci-fi style machinery, rockets etc. for these kinds of publications.
Alas, despite the fact that we have this lovely and brilliant book with her illustrations in it, there seems to be a lot of information lacking about her actual life. We do know that she was born in 1900 in Chicago and had a hasty marriage (with a protracted aftermath) to ‘Slim’ Brundage, who she met while working at The Dil Pickle Club, a hotspot of bohemian art and socialism. I know she was a six foot tall chain smoker and that she went for the cover artist job for Weird Tales in order to support her young son and crippled mother. When the owners of Weird Tales were bought out and relocated, various factors including the transportation of delicate, fragile pastel work to those offices of the new publishers meant that she no longer had a job. She clung on to life tenaciously though, leaving her cover artist days behind her and becoming involved in various political organisations, sadly outliving her son by a few years.
There are other details which I won’t summarise here (hey, read the damned book) but what little facts are available, plus a hell of a lot about the political and social background of where Margaret was and who she was seen with at various stages of her life, is lovingly put together for this publication. There’s even a second ‘book within a book’ which organises a lot of this info into more of a chronology and really fleshes things out, which is called The Secret Life Of Margaret Brundage or: Slim & Margaret: A Bohemian Romance of the Chicago Renaissance by J. David Spurlock.
As well as all this stuff though, there are many beautiful full page renditions of her artworks, in their original form without any of the typography plates later seen on the cover versions. There are also page sized reprints of all her magazine covers as they appeared here too and it’s these replicas of well over 60 covers (and not just her ones for Weird Tales) that are the buried treasure compiled within these pages. Along with a few surviving photos of Margaret herself (not many, she was a woman who seemed allmost inadvertently shrouded in mystery) plus the odd photo from the kind of nudie girly magazines that Margaret would be using as reference for her images (I’m glad to see nothing changes in the world of art... I used to do the same thing for fashion drawings when I was at college).
There’s also the odd, fantastic anecdote along the way and the design of the book is such that some of these appear as asides to the main text in some nice, solid layouts. For instance, H. P. Lovecraft seemed somewhat disapproving of how naked girlies could help magazine sales (and I don’t believe she ever illustrated one of his covers) whereas Robert E. Howard seemed totally in love with her illustrations. I also love the fact that, once the writers had cottoned on to her style of content that raised the sales, they would start working scenes with naked damsels into their tales for a better shot at getting the coveted cover spot with their story. There’s a sad anecdote about Brundage calling in at the Weird Tales offices and crying the day away along with the guy running it when they heard of Howard’s tragic suicide in 1936. He was certainly her favourite writer of the whole Weird Tales bunch.
Another thing I took away from this was an insight into her working process. She would be sent a ‘cover story’ for publication due in two months time (she would work on one cover a month) and that would be the one story from the magazine she would read. She’d then send pencil sketches of possible covers for a few scenes and then get the green light as to which one to work up into a cover. Occasionally there would also be changes after the cover was done... by her own admission, she wasn’t that great at hands (they look alright to me but what do I know, to be honest, the hands are not the first thing the eyes are drawn to in a Margaret Brundage illustration).
There’s much more here too, especially about her political leanings but, for me and probably a lot of people, it all plays second fiddle to the wondrous, provocative and truly gorgeous art which is lovingly reproduced on the interior pages of this beautiful book. A book which is adorned with the usual critic quotes on the back which, when you look more closely at them, you realise aren’t what they appear and are, instead, comments about Brundage from her contemporaries such as some of the writers of Weird Tales... another nice touch. I’m really glad to have this one and am especially grateful to the young lady who gifted this to me at Christmas. If you are a lover of either ‘heroic fantasy’ art or the female form (or, you know, that thrilling combination of the two) then you would do well to pick up a copy of The Alluring Art Of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art before it goes out of print. An essential volume as far as I’m concerned.
Sunday, 17 January 2021
King Hu Fighting
aka Long men kezhan
Taiwan/Hong Kong 1967 Directed by King Hu
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
It’s been a good while since I last saw Dragon Inn and the Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray edition seemed an excellent way for me to catch up to it again. I find it strange though that I am only now finding out that it’s not an actual Shaw Brothers movie at all... I’m sure my old Region 3 Hong Kong DVD is actually branded to that company but, maybe they just distributed it in certain territories. This director’s previous film was definitely a Shaw Bros production though, the great Come Drink With Me (which I reviewed right here). Dragon Inn isn’t, for me, as engaging a film but it’s still pretty great and fans of Wuxia in general should really like this although... it’s reputation probably proceeds it these days and I’m sure most Wuxia enthusiasts have probably already seen it.
It’s actually interesting because one of the extras on this Blu Ray mentions that Dragon Inn dates from before the wire work era of martial arts cinema and, indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any on show in this film. However, I find myself having to take that claim with a pinch of salt because, frankly, there was some great wire work in Come Drink With Me so... yeah... I don’t know why the Eureka people are claiming that here. I’ll come back to something else they say in the same extras supplement in a little while.
So what we have here is a film which sets up a basic plot and has a sequence where an absolute load of characters are introduced in voice-over narrative, telling about a group of eunuch overlords running two main factions and... yeah, it all got a bit too complicated for me. People who know me well know I don’t understand political stuff and a lot of the plot set up was passing me by but, what this does do to an extent, is just set up that there are good guys and bad guys and roughly points you in the direction of... a good guy who gets executed has his children sentenced to exile but the bad guys change their mind and go after them anyway. However, various other good guys want to protect the kids but the evil ones pretty much know that they’ll have to pass by the Dragon Inn for a night to stay and pause for refreshment on their journey away from said bad guys. So a small bunch of military types take over the Dragon Inn, perhaps not knowing the absent owner was a General or some such in the good guy army. And, after a few lone maverick style ‘good guy and gal’ characters come to the inn and make themselves known, it becomes a battleground of intense stares, implied conflict and, of course, various bits of action business as the film progresses.
Pretty much the first two thirds of the film are set in the titular establishment before the last act, where various people are fighting outside the inn and in local environs. This film does have some of the action styles associated with the absent wirework such as leaping high via hidden trampolines and also leaping great distances, accomplished with jump cuts from fast moving camera pans from tree to tree, giving the specific character I’m thinking of the appearance of constantly teleporting... so, it’s a curious compromise and it rings truer, to my ears, that the director’s statement that he wanted to steer clear of a lot of trickery to concentrate on the innate skill of the performers is probably the more probable fact of the matter, rather than it actually pre-dating said wire work solutions in the genre.
Also, this movie once again shows the propensity with Chinese films of this period to just needle drop in soundtracks from other films. Although the film has a composer of its own, as credited to Lan-Ping Chow, there are several steals including a Morricone piece from A Fistful Of Dollars which gets tracked in a lot, to give the suspense scenes of ‘are they or aren’t they going to go at it hammer and tongs in a minute or not?’ style tension a bit of a lift. Interestingly, on the extra I mentioned earlier (and I’m really not knocking that extra, I learned a few things from it too), it says the music in these scenes is so close to A Fistful Of Dollars as to be ‘actionable’. Frankly, it sounds so close that, as I said, I think it’s just needle dropped in and I have to wonder if the way it’s expressed on the extra is just a way for the British distributors to avoid their own lawsuit? There are a few recent British Blu Ray releases that have some quite high profile score cuts tracked in now, as various boutique labels start issuing these kinds of films and, well, I’m just grateful that the music used on these films stand as a historical document ‘of their time’ rather than having been tampered with due to legal issues. Wait until they start issuing some of those Turkish films on UK Blu Ray though... it’s surely only a matter of time... and then you’ll really know it. Some of the ‘steals’ on those things are way less subtle than this movie.
Anyway, all in all it’s a rather enjoyable flick, full of action and machismo thrown into the mix equally. There are some lovely sequences where the roaming camera fluidly manages to take in the whole of the environment (such as following... or as I learned from the extras, providing contrary movement)... in respect to the characters in the inn and roaming between both levels of the building. There’s also a nice touch which I can’t help but think, in terms of the genre (if this is, indeed, a genre signature), signals the introduction of various characters in video games of the 1980s and onwards, as various villains in this are sometimes ushered onto the screen with multiple musical stings as each are paraded before the camera. It’s an unexpected but nice touch in places (although I suspect it could get a little irritating if this happens in a lot of movies in one sitting).
If it’s action coupled with great camerawork you’re looking for then Dragon Inn is definitely a good ‘go to’ movie. It’s even better if you like to hear characters constantly goading and criticising their opponents for being eunuchs but, honestly, that element is not really something which did much for me... maybe it’s a Chinese thing. A nicely made film though and with a couple of nice extras from Eureka... one being a short visual essay which I have commented on here and also some really nice newsreel footage from the time showing the Star Wars like queues of the people of Japan queuing up for what was obviously a very lucrative film at the box office. Lucrative enough to get a mention on their local news, at any rate. The Eureka Blu Ray edition is as good as I’ve seen the film looking and it’s definitely the one to go for if you are wanting to take a look at this martial arts gem. Wuxia on, Wuxia off.
Thursday, 14 January 2021
Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time
60 Seconds To What?
Your Brain Is A Time Machine -
The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time
by Dean Buonomano
W. W. Norton & Company ISBN: 9780395355604
About this time of year I read a popular science book on an interesting subject if I can. Almost as a way of proving to myself that I can find interest in something other than films. I usually pick up an idea of what to read by a fleeting glance at a title as it flickers by my daily timeline on Twitter (hmm... timeline... okay, I’m totally not going there) or, more often than not, as an associated suggestion from Amazon based on something else I read from the year before.
So this year it’s the turn of Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time
by Dean Buonomano and, it’s a humdinger of a book. Although, it has to be said, one of my reasons for reading the tome, to challenge my current belief in the non-existence of time, alas ended with my own expectations of the universe we live in sadly re-enforced.
To explain quickly, for decades now I’ve realised there is no such thing as time, only a man made measurement which has been invented (and perfected, if that’s the correct word for movable goal posts) to allow people to synchronise certain actions... or at least to have the illusion that they are able to, for example, to pick a 'time' to meet up with each other etc. I’ve seen no real evidence that we live in anything than a mostly static world and I was, if I’m being honest, hoping this book would show me a light at the end of the tunnel. Alas, the author seems to live in the belief or acceptance of one version of reality while, at the same time, acknowledging the existence of another as a more truthful representation of what is going on... or at least accepting that it’s quite possible.
So let’s get to it... The book is set out into two main sections - Part 1: Brain Time and Part 2: The Physical and Mental Nature Of Time. Each section has six individually titled chapters and, nicely, the chapter numbers throughout are representative of 12 hours expressed in 24 hour clock time (so 1:00 to 12:00). And it’s a well written thing which starts you off gently before taking you (or rather me) into perhaps less comfortable territory... there were a couple of chapters in the middle which I was having trouble keeping up with, truth be told but, in the end, my brain edited it into a whole which makes sense and I had no real problems with it. I now know that’s what my brain did, actually, purely because I read this book and it explains something about the way the brain perceives and edits reality into something more palatable and understandable for a person, rather than present the actual, real world. Hoorah!
So the writer takes us on a tour of all kinds of interesting things starting off with the fact that three of the top five most commonly used nouns in the English language - time, person, year, way, day - are related to time. He also gives us some common sense proofs (I don’t have any common sense myself so this is always appreciated) that although the concept of time is much harder for us to comprehend as a species, it is also easier to locate in our own construct of the universe... pointing out that objects in space need three separate coordinates to locate while the way we position time it needs only one.
It also shows us the way our perceived flow of time is because we have all sorts of different kinds of body clocks which we use all the time to judge different things. He has a sense of humour too, which helps... and so is able to throw in little ‘one liners’ to demonstrate such as... “And whether you realise it or not, on a moment-by-moment basis, your brain is automatically attempting to predict what is about to ______.” He shows us how the different clocks that our brain has learned to govern our waking reality (and our sleeping reality too, presumably) all do different things and the importance that timing plays in our way of understanding the rules. For example, the timing of words when someone speaks in, in this case, English... gives us the difference between ‘Grade A’ as opposed to ‘grey day’. Or ‘great eyes’ as opposed to ‘gray ties’. He also introduces the reader to the idea of the brain using both prospective timing... where we measure as if from a stop watch when something starts... and the idea of retrospective timing, projecting back from an event such as the last grain of sand has run out, so ‘x’ amount of time must have occurred.
Over the course of reading this modestly sized, simply written but quite weighty (in other ways) tome, I found that the way an organ in the body revs up to different kinds of sounds during time means, for example, you can feel as big difference if you hold your throat and feel the vibrations generated by saying ‘ba’ and ‘pa’. So that could be a good party trick, I’m guessing (probably not but, honestly, I don’t go to parties).
Buonomano also humiliated me by getting me to add up a string of numbers incorrectly (but thank goodness it’s a common mistake by most people) and proved to me why credit cards are evil by maintaining the deliberate illusion that our instant purchase decisions are offset in our minds by the fact that we are not actually paying for them until the end of the month and that, in fact, we are more liable to make a spending decision based on this rather than if we were paying out with cash (well that explains a few things). And the fact that the way we generate the illusion of time for ourselves and the way we measure it nearly always favours a language where we are using spatial metaphors almost exclusively for the way in which we talk about it.
And this leads us nicely into Eternalism. The idea that we are living in a block universe and that time is all laid out and has already happened - what we see as past, present and future is already a static truth and our brains are just giving us the illusion of the passing of time. And then he shows us how Einstein kinda already proved this with his two theories of relativity. So...
Everybody knows the observer looking at a train type experiments. Marilyn Monroe (played by Theresa Russel) demonstrated Einstein’s own theory back to him (played by Michael Emil) in a similar experiment in director Nicholas Roeg’s wonderful 1985 movie Insignificance, if you want to have a look at a version of it which immediately springs to mind. Here Buonomano uses bullets being fired by a man standing dead centre of a train carriage from two pistols and hitting the windows at either end simultaneously. Except, when you do this thing at a very high speed, both the mechanics of the way the windows shatter differs and also, importantly, to the observer not on the train, the windows shatter at different times. Which very basically means that, it’s already happened and at least one of the observers are looking at it from a different point in physical space and that changes the angle, so to speak. He uses the idea of two observers looking at a telephone pole in a street from different angles by way of illuminating this idea. Which means that ‘time’ (for want of a better word) is nothing more than a thing in space... it’s a landscape which is already there and which can be viewed at different angles if our brains could access it in a way that perceives this truthfully. I think that’s the point being made here anyway.
Now, I’ve never really liked this idea (or known about any of these theories as it happens, I just arrived at the conclusion myself that there’s no such thing as a passage of time by what little common sense and deductive reasoning that I do happen to grudgingly possess) but I do know that I really don’t like this view of things... because it automatically knocks the idea of a person's ‘free will’ for six and takes no prisoners. So in this universe I didn’t decide to read this book and review it at all. That has always happened and that’s what the universe looks like, I’ve always written this review but it’s just now that my brain, at this moment in what I perceive as a passage of time, is thinking I have come to the decision to do so.
Now, of course, none of these things are presented as facts, just very plausible theories and, while I certainly get the idea that Buonomano also doesn’t want to believe in an eternalist state of things, he does, for me, kind of more or less prove it or, at the very least, make the most convincing case for it yet. He tells us right from the start of the book that the idea that time is a real thing which passes us by is the underdog these days and that most physicists agree that the non-existence of what we see and measure with time is already laid out and we are just accessing it at different points in a way we perceive as linear. And he does give us the caveat, of course, that our brain is limited in our understanding of the laws of physics because of the way we are capable of interpreting and understanding them (something which I always find hobbles my thinking about certain issues, like the concept of infinity, for example). However, this is countered with the last couple of chapters where he explores how we know reality isn’t what we see, instead our brain edits and presents us a pill which is much easier for us to swallow. Such as, for instance, the fact that a person speaks syllables but we don’t hear the syllables, we hear the sense behind the sounds blended in our brains as words... and that’s just one small example of how we edit and highlight what is actually there.
And that’s me done with this one for a while, I think. It’s an excellent book and I’m glad I’ve read it and, unlike most of the popular science books I’ve read over the years, I may just read this one again at some point. Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time is an absolute corker of a read and if you want to delve into the idea that your inner clock (or many inner clocks, actually) are just another form of you making sense of the universe (well, to be fair, what isn’t?) then I would absolutely recommend you give this one a go. It’s simply written (for the most part) and the writer also has a sense of humour (big plus there then). And now, of course, I need to try and forget most of what I’ve read here for a while because, well... because the only way I can stay sane is to constantly pretend that all my actions are my own (even though the author demonstrates they can be detected before we even know we are going to do them ourselves) and that I have a modicum of free will mixed in with my day. But, like I said, I will come back to this at some point.
Tuesday, 12 January 2021
Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz Answers
Movie Quiz Answers
Well it’s that time of year again where I give you the winners and answers to this end of year Cryptic Movie Quiz. Thanks all who had a go. This year we have two separate winners with full marks so congratulations to Nicholas Walker* and Matthew Cunningham. If memory serves, they’ve both won this in the past on different years.
Okay, so time for the answers, which you can also see in the grid above...
1. I’m calm as Godzilla.
So, if Godzilla was calm I guess s/he’d be ‘Calm-illa’... or in this case, the recent vampire movie CARMILLA.
2. More than nine aliens.
A word for aliens would be extra terrestrials... shortened to ET (of course). Nor than nine would be TEN so.... TENET.
3. Miss Te Kanawa and her friend Harry.
Kiri Te Kanawa and Harry expressed another way may be the Japanese classic HARA KIRI.
4. How hard was this aquatic bird?
An aquatic bird... a duck. How would... well... Howard. So HOWARD THE DUCK.
5. Many stories but, not completely cryptic.
Not completely cryptic might be crypt. Many stories could equal Tales so... TALES FROM THE CRYPT.
6. This is the hundredth rash I’ve got from those reversible rats!
One hundred in Roman numerals is C, add it to rash and you get Crash. Rats reversed is Star. So STAR CRASH.
7. I guess that’s what you get to bug you when you scramble to harm!
Unscramble “To Harm’ and you get MOTHRA.
8. Famous Liverpudlian percussionist gets weaponised.
A famous Liverpudlian percussionist could be Ringo star. Give him a gun and you get the Italian western A PISTOL FOR RINGO.
9. Artifical Intelligence gets all backwards with fives.
AI reversed is IA. Add two Roman numeral fives or Vs into the mix and you get VIVA.
10. Sheriff Ross, go back and get your men.
Ross backwards is Ssor. A sheriff’s men are usually called a Posse. So POSSESSOR.
11. Not a very heavy home.
If it’s not a heavy home then it must be a light house. THE LIGHTHOUSE.
12. Oh no! Kim’s red!
Or, ‘Kim Oh No!” Crimson is a form of red so... the Sam Fuller classic THE CRIMSON KIMONO.
13. It’s only half okay. Why Dan?
Half of OK would be K. Put it in front of ‘Why Dan’ and you get the Japanese collection of ghost stories KWAIDAN.
14. Get Frank something to hold his beer in.
Well how about a beer stein? FRANKENSTEIN.
Okay, that’s it. Hope you liked the answers and please let me hear from you if you want me to carry on this tradition next year.
For all those wondering (and for those who have been asking), I wasn’t going to do a Best Movies Of 2020 column. Covid kept us from the cinemas and of the few new releases under my radar this year, frankly there weren’t many qualified to even be on such a list. I might mention The Hunt, Possessor (uncut), Wonder Woman 1984, Jay And Silent Bob Rebooted and Bill And Ted Face The Music as films that would have probably made the cut but, yeah, in all conscience I don’t think it’s right to try and put together a half hearted list from the impoverished choice of cinematic delights which were so heavily curtailed in the times of Coronavirus.
*Nicholas impressed me by having this all in the bag in less than two days and he's also returned the favour and devised a Cryptic Movie Quiz for me. Thanks for this, much appreciated although it may be half a year before I get time to sit down and give it my proper attention... looks quite hard. ;-)
Sunday, 10 January 2021
The H Man
Blob’s Your Uncle
The H Man
aka Bijo to ekitai ningen
Japan 1958 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
It’s been a while since I saw The H Man but I’m really grateful for Eureka putting this out on a really nicely restored Blu Ray (as part of a double bill set with The Battle In Outer Space) because the film hasn’t grown old for me. I still think this is a much more interesting movie than the original version of The Blob, which was released the same year as this one and shares a somewhat common element. The inspiration for this was the real life incident of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 fishing boat which strayed into a nuclear testing zone, the very same thing which inspired the director’s earlier classic, Godzilla (aka Gojira, reviewed by me here).
I’m also delighted to find that the print is subtitled with the actual translation of the real movie title on the Japanese language version here, so it’s Beauty And The Liquid People which is, frankly, a much more accurate title for the film. Although The H Man is also pretty cool, let’s be honest.
The film starts off strongly with some eerie pinging from Masaru Satô’s wonderful score, marking time on the soundtrack as the suspenseful prelude to a rainy night’s narcotics pick up goes wrong for the gang members involved. One gang member starts shooting at the floor and runs into the centre of the road and into the path of an oncoming vehicle and, when his partner gets out of the getaway car to see what’s happened, all that’s left of him are his clothes.
We then get the usual bafflement from the police, headed up by kaiju eiga legend Akihiko Hirata. They go and hassle the disappearing gang member’s girlfriend, the ‘beauty’ of the Japanese title, played by the wonderful Yumi Shirakawa, who is a singer at the local night club. The police obviously mitigate their bafflement by assuming that the gang member, quick as a flash and before anyone could see him, removed his clothing and ran off. Because, yeah, that’s just what a normal person would do in the middle of a rainstorm, right? Well, apparently, according to the police and various members of the gang in question, who also hassle Shirakawa (one of them coming too close and being violently absorbed by The H Man of the UK title).
Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist and new love interest for Shirakawa, played by classic kaiju actor Kenji Sahara, believes a liquid monster, possibly more than one, is absorbing people it doesn’t like, who are getting in the way of its former girlfriend. And, of course, after the police refuse to listen to him multiple times, he’s later proved right.
The whole thing is actually pretty fun and, well, some of the special effects are wonderful and... others not so good but it never once stops being entertaining. Honda brings his usual, wonderful sense of screen composition and injects the thing with a sense of cool more reminiscent of something Seijun Suzuki might have cooked up if he’d have wanted to make a monster movie.
Beautiful frame designs abound with some nice greys and greens plus a really good eye for using natural and, not so natural, vertical slabs of the screen to frame different things in. Indeed, this is so pronounced in some shots that they are literally split into exact thirds by the vertical slats created by doors or boxes etc. There’s a flashback scene on a ship where some sailors discover the bizarre ‘liquid people’ of the Japanese title, when they are going into the belly of the ship with lanterns to light the way... and the director uses these shots to further push his fascination with vertical patterns, using the travelling light source in the actors hand to literally light upright rectangular slabs filled with people while the rest of the screen is left black. It’s a really wonderful use of the ‘Tohoscope’ ratio and exactly the reason why I end up watching these kinds of films in the first place.
Another thing he does, which is something I would more associate with much later films, is to use a cut to a shot meaning one thing before cutting away to reveal a transition to another scene. For instance, when the lead scientist drops the lifebuoy of the irradiated ship onto the floor at police headquarters, we cut to a close up of the shot of the buoy on the floor and then, when we cut away from it again, we are already in the scientist’s crowded lab with the various people also looking at it on their floor. So, yeah, nice stuff like this is what watching these films are mostly about for me. Along with listening to some cool music and seeing outrageously bad monsters, of course. Although, the two night club scenes, where the actress is dubbed with a completely inappropriate voice as she sings to songs in English, had me scratching my head a little... especially as to why Eureka felt they needed to subtitle the song when it was already being sung in English. It’s a little bizarre.
However, when it comes to great colours, great composition, slime monsters and a cool soundtrack, this movie really delivers the goods and, I think, is one of Honda’s better movies (and he made a lot of highly entertaining movies in his time, as watchers of his various kaiju eiga will know. So, yeah, Eureka Masters Of Cinema’s new Blu Ray restoration of The H Man is definitely one I’d recommend for any fans of this period of Japanese cinema’s output. I’m really pleased that I have this version on a beautiful looking Blu Ray.
Thursday, 7 January 2021
Frightfest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema
Fright And Sound
Frightfest - Beneath The
Dark Heart Of Cinema
UK 2018 Directed by Chris Collier
24 Foot Square
FrightFest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema is the story of the much loved, annual festival of horror films put together and programmed by four guys - Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Greg Day and the often comically dour Ian Rattray. The festival is one I’ve been personally going to, on and off in a less than regular capacity, since around 2004... although I have been going more regularly the last few years. I’m not one of those people who can afford to book a whole August Bank Holiday Weekend pass, I’m afraid to say (I have to just pick four or five films I want to see for the first London Weekend of the year) but I have started going to the Halloween all-nighters they do and, I have to say, I’m always very glad to be there. I think the first couple of times I went to the festival was when they showed Dario Argento’s film The Card Player (I think I was possibly the only one there of the small group of people I was with who liked it at the time) and the time they showed a specific surprise movie, which I’d only booked up for because one of the organisers had accidentally let slip to me in The Cinema Store that it would be a preview screening of Sin City.
This documentary is obviously made with love and talks to a few fans of the events, some of whom have since become directors themselves. It also, of course, talks to the four organisers of the festival and even the occasional famous director or two, plus good footage of some of those directors and the occasional actor actually attending the event, which is nice to see. Fans of the festival will see various FrightFest family friends represented here such as Guillermo del Toro, Adam Green and, of course, The Soska Sisters.
Now, one of the things you’ll find stressed here a lot in the documentary is just how nice the people who attend these things are... and it’s quite true, there is a communal spirit at this particular event which you don’t always get at certain other film festivals such as Raindance or the London Film Festival. I can testify to that even though I’m, like, the least sociable and somehow genuinely unapproachable person on the planet. For instance, I’ve never known Alan Jones (who is famous for a lot of things but for me will always be Dario Argento’s biographer) to not sign a copy of one of his books for me whenever I’ve waved it in front of his face. He’s always friendly and, if you’ve ever been to one of his pre-movie intros, a genuinely funny person. And, even though, if you have a lounge full of chatty FrightFesters gabbing it up while waiting for their next film, I am the one person on his own and looking miserable (come and say hello next time you see someone looking accidentally aloof... if you're lucky it might not be me), even I was approached by one of the writers of a film that was screening one year.
I remember that moment well. I was waiting to meet a friend before a screening of Sadako vs. Kayako (reviewed here) the one time they hosted FrightFest at Shepherd’s Bush (a venue I actually quite liked) and a random guy sat down next to me and started asking me about what I was seeing. He was nervous about the screening of his own film and it didn’t appeal to me, I had to admit but, then he told me about another film he’d premiered at a FrightFest a couple of years before and I remember promising I would eventually get to watch and review that film for this blog. Well, it’s been on my ‘to watch’ pile for around four years now (I bought it the day after he’d started chatting to me) and all I can say is, if he’s reading this review at any point is... dude, I promise I will get around to watching Killer Mermaid soon.
So, yeah, my point being that, even if you are somebody who is particularly out of kilter with life... and I am forced to consider myself as such... there’s always going to be a friendly and welcoming face at FrightFest and this certainly comes across in this documentary.
It’s also interesting, I’m sure, for those who have actually attended the festival, to be reminded of things that they themselves experienced. It’s been going quite a while now (around 20 years) and it’s beginning to stake a claim in the magical region known as ‘nostalgia’ to a certain crowd I’m sure. I was watching this and Alan Jones commented about something he’d said at one of the screenings and I could remember that moment well. So, yeah, it’s kind of nice to hear a story about a specific screening of a movie when you were in that audience yourself. Its also nice to see footage from various haunts of old such as the Camden Film Fair and, one which may live in infamy and is especially connected to one of the organisers, The Cinema Store...
The Cinema Store in London, for those who never knew it, was an absolute treasure trove of interesting, sometimes unique film related items which were always so expensive that, after a while, people just used to use it as a place to window shop so they’d know what they were looking for and order it for half the price somewhere else. Thank you Jake West, director of one of my all time favourite vampire movies Razor Blade Smile (why isn’t this on Blu Ray yet?), for pointing out the hugely inflated mark up prices on those Cinema Store items. They were a good looking shop though (at the London locations they had, at least) and if you wanted to get a movie or soundtrack sometimes months ahead of it being legally available in the country from which it originated, let alone in the UK, in its proper pressed edition, then this was the shop to get it.
And, yeah, not much more to say but the fans on here just have that huge outpouring of love of the atmosphere of the event to share and you will, if you watch it, get a little more insight on just how the four organisers interact with each other (or just get in each others faces on occasion), from taking in this this wonderful documentary. Not the full skinny, of course, but certainly a flavour of that. This is a nice little film and even if you’ve never been to one before, FrightFest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema will give you a little bit of an idea of just what this particular ‘horror movie’ community is all about. And, who knows, you might want to go to one yourself at some point... once we are all living in less Covid heavy times.
Tuesday, 5 January 2021
There Are Worse Things I Could Do
Stevie Wayne’s World
There Are Worse
Things I Could Do
by Adrienne Barbeau
Carroll & Graff
My first big memory of actress Adrienne Barbeau was when I was absolutely terrified, alone in the dark on my own as a young teenager, while I watched the late night, debut TV screening in the UK of John Carpenter’s The Fog (reviewed by me here). It was an absolutely wonderful experience and Barbeau in particular, with her sexy voice as she played DJ Stevie Wayne, broadcasting from her lighthouse at Spivey Point (I think it was Spivey Point, right?) certainly stuck in my mind. I didn’t put two and two together until later that it was Barbeau who had impressed me so much a few years earlier as the busty, vengeful 'Maggie' when I’d gone to see the AA rated screening of Carpenter’s Escape From New York at my local cinema. She was always an actress I looked out for but she wasn’t often in the kind of films I would go and see, to be honest so, when the earlier ‘made for TV’ movie Someone’s Watching Me also came on television at some point, I saw that one too... not realising at the time that Carpenter had also directed it. The only other thing I consciously remember seeing her in again was in her segment of George A. Romero and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes.
So I was delighted when, sometime last year, I found out that she’d written and published an autobiography back in 2006. I managed to get a second hand copy of the then out of print tome fairly cheaply on Abe Books and was delighted to find that it looked like it had a) never been read and b) had a personalised inscription from Adrienne to someone who, putting two and two together from the message, must have worked with her on one of her film or theatre productions.
So I finally got around to reading it and, I have to say, it’s a really entertaining read. It’s not an incredibly detailed account of her specific film and TV work but it does reveal a lot about her and a lot about the different jobs she took, some of them acting and... some not... to finally get to the actress she’s known as today. She’s also not shy about naming companions and lovers and, telling a few intimate things about herself and her struggles as she stormed through life with one of the best, positive mental attitudes you could ask for in anyone. And, yeah, you’ll get to hear all about people like Burt Reynolds, way before she worked with them on a movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Cannonball Run but I suspect I should ‘put it on the list’, so to speak... and she’s very complimentary and was somewhat star struck by Roger Moore on that movie, it seems to me. Which is no bad thing.
Now, I can’t say I’d seen a lot of the things she talks about... I’ve never seen an episode of Maude, for example (in fact, never even heard of it until I commenced reading this) but I did twig, before I started it, that the title of the book was named after the song from Grease. Yep, turns out she was the original Rizzo on stage. I think I saw Grease in London with Richard Gere at some point but this is going back quite a while before it was a movie, so this was all interesting stuff.
The book is more or less chronological but it does group by themes and contrasting stories too... you’ll find out about her two waitressing jobs where she inadvertently was working for what she politely refers to as ‘The Syndicate’ nights, while taking acting lessons and going to auditions by day, the chain of events that got her some big breaks, some lightly supernatural stuff and the power of positive thinking. You’ll also find the story behind her marriages and her children, the famous Cody Carpenter and the process of having her twins in her fifties. There’s even a great story about her learning to do a snake dance for the show Carnivale (which also sounds like something I should make a point of catching up with) and, one or two absolute film disaster areas where she’s good enough to not name the actual films by title but, you know, amazing and frankly horrifying tales of film set perils.
And it’s all contrasted and punctuated by various diary inserts. She’s been keeping a journal religiously from a young age wherein, as she says, you won’t find information about her film and theatre experiences but, you will find a lot about what was going on about her various lovers at the different times in which she recorded her observations. There are also some interesting points made which reflect ‘things to come’... so to speak and these were obviously sifted out with a deft eye to accommodate the themes and stories as she tells them.
And... yeah... nothing much more to say about Adrienne Barbeau’s magnificent tome, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, other than I’m glad I read it and she has a nice work ethic, which is to be admired. She writes about things with good grace and a lot of humour. I also suspect she’s a really good person to have around a film set because, as you’ll see if you read this one, she seems pretty calm and tolerant in situations where others might not be so generous with their support and presence. I believe there are still, as I review this, a few reasonable priced copies available on a few of the obvious online marketplaces (the hardbacks tend to go for cheaper than the paperbacks, for some reason but, that’s okay for me, at any rate... at my age I much prefer hardbacks of these things anyway). So, yeah, a definite recommendation for me and if you want to see what else she’s been doing, check out her website https://abarbeau.com
Sunday, 3 January 2021
Doctor Who - Revolution Of The Daleks
Clone and Dusted
Revolution Of The Daleks
Airdate: 1st January 2020 BBC 1
Oh well. I had ridiculously high hopes for this year’s pseudo-Christmas special of Doctor Who but Revolution Of The Daleks (which doesn’t actually have a proper revolution in it anyway, by the way) turned out to be a somewhat uninspired rendition of the show, it seemed to me. It wasn’t, by a long shot, what the people I live with thought of the episode... which was that it was the worst ever episode of Doctor Who. Hey, they’ve obviously forgotten the Colin Baker era and, you know, it’s certainly nowhere near the worst episode we’ve had in even the last two years of the show, even. But I think it’s time the people at the BBC started to realise that if you just throw a load of Daleks at an episode and hope they’ll stick, it just doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe in the height of Dalekmania in the mid-1960s that might work but, ironically, the 60s stories would stand up with or without the Daleks in them, something which no longer seems to be the case.
I had high hopes for Jodie Whitaker when she started this show. She’s a brilliant actor and actually plays The Doctor really well. Alas, she’s just not getting the scripts to match her wonderful interpretation of the role and I really feel for her. Capaldi had the same problem in his first couple of seasons but I think they started writing more to his character’s strengths and he did some good stuff towards the end. I wish they’d think about writing up to Jodie’s version rather than treat her as a magic wand or accessory half the time, which is what it feels to me like they’re doing now.
Okay, so I thought the first ten minutes of the show, the set up, were actually very good. They didn’t feature The Doctor at all and instead looked to set up the story idea and then follow it up by showing how her companions had coped while she’s been in space jail. Bradley Walsh was brilliant as always, Tosin Cole seemed to be playing a more mature version of his original character and, frankly, Mandip Gill absolutely took her performance to a new level here and was, possibly, the best thing about the episode. And even the way it was presented was good for a while. There was an excellent moment somewhere during the first ten minutes where the entire screen was out of focus apart from a tiny flask taking up a very small portion of the bottom left of the shot. I thought it was a really brave moment and wrongly imagined I was in for a good ride.
Alas, this didn’t prove to be the case and the last good thing in the show, John Barrowman returning as Captain Jack Harkness to break The Doctor out of space jail, came way to early in the episode to have any real impact (although it was a nice scene taken out of context) and that kind of set the pace from thereon in, as the show just kept going downhill from there.
It was nice seeing Chris Noth back as the slimy, evil politician type from the spider story from last year but... yeah, well, I guess he’ll be back in a future episode, for sure. Mostly though it felt like the episode was needlessly padded and downright ham-fisted in some areas. For example, we already know that a Kaled grown from the tissue of the one from last year’s New Year’s Day special has taken over various high tech systems, acquired humans to build a clone army of Kaleds and then melted the humans down to use for food. We were then presented with a shot of them all in their little jars in a big warehouse so the full impact can be taken in. Why then, in the scene not ten minutes later, when Captain Jack and Yaz discover this fact, is the whole thing treated like another reveal with a big, pull back of the same Kaleds and a big musical flourish to hammer things home? Old information. We already knew that from a previous scene, thank you and, frankly, it didn’t seem all that worrying then. So, yeah, the whole thing just seemed like a big bag of air being puffed up while we watched it for what was, these days, quite a lengthy episode.
Also... it’s quite established in current continuity that the Daleks have invaded and conquered the Earth in recent history in the show. Indeed, I believe they were even sending humans to concentration camps at some point? Why then, does nobody, including the Prime Minister, recognise them or have even heard of a Dalek? I’m sorry, this just makes no sense now.
And even the good-bye scene, where the much loved Bradley Walsh and the ‘just getting to be an interesting character’ Tosin Cole leave the TARDIS for good didn’t actually trigger any emotion, I felt. And it really should have when we’ve come this far with the characters. So, yeah, sorry, I was just underwhelmed. And then to follow it up with the news, after the end credits, that some stand up comic I’d never even heard of until this moment would be joining the TARDIS crew this year seemed, well, pretty underwhelming to be honest.
So there you have it. Sorry to be so negative about Revolution Of The Daleks but... yeah... they can’t go on like this. I think this show needs a long rest now. Not a cancellation... just a rest and then to have someone comparable to Russel T. Davies to take it into a more dynamic direction. This just isn’t doing it for me at all. Jodie Whittaker is cool though so... yeah, the level of the show needs to rise to meet her, I think.
Friday, 1 January 2021
Barry In Haste
Directed by Ford Beebe
and Alan James
VCI DVD Region 1
Well this one’s a bit of a clunker, I’m sad to report.
Of the five Buster Crabbe serials I’ve reviewed here this week, Red Barry was the only one I’d not seen before or was familiar with. Nor am I familiar with the newspaper strip on which it was based so, yeah, I don’t know if this is an accurate fit or not.
Apparently it took fifty or so years for this to get any airplay on television, which would explain why I had to wait for a DVD release to get a look at it. Now I’ve seen it I can almost understand why. People get used to seeing continuity mistakes on the old serials, most commonly it’s rare that the stuntmen doing the fistfights look anything like the people they are doubling for. However, in this one, there are some really stupid things happening and, frankly, I can see how the people responsible for this high spirited mess may have been embarrassed if this serial was ever seen again.
Okay, so the main protagonists are police detective Red Barry played by Buster Crabbe, newspaper reporter Mississipi played by Frances Robinson, Russian ballet dance Natacha played by Edna Sedgewick, Red’s boss Inspector Scott played by Wade Boteler and... well there are way too many principle characters to list here but, also from Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here) is Philip Ahn as Hong Kong Cholly (who was Prince Talon from Saturn) and William Gould as the Police Commisioner, who would go on to play the leader of the Hidden City in Buck Rogers (reviewed here).
Okay... so the serial is at least well paced, a little like the ones Republic used to make but, this one seems much sloppier. The two best things about it, apart from Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe’s absolute conviction in the role are 1) the opening episode recaps which are of a similar idea to the ones used in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, where comic strip artwork is flicked through from a police cabinet of files (instead of a televiewer) and 2) a really great looking, fire breathing Chinese Dragon on the post cliff-hanger, ‘Coming next week to this theatre’ cards (theatre spelled correctly, for some reason, which is unusual for an American serial). This dragon never appears in the serial in anything other than these end cards but it’s so well done for the time... it’s rumoured to have been created for another production, possibly an earlier Flash Gordon serial, but was left unused.
Okay, those are the only nice things I’ve got to say about this one, unfortunately. Lets look at the negatives...
The plot is convoluted, revolving around 2 million dollars worth of stolen bonds which at least four different parties, five if you count the police, are after (although one of those parties doesn’t reveal themselves as a bad guy until episode 11 of the 13 ‘exciting’ chapters (you'll see it coming though). So it gets a bit complicated to try and pin down the real villains of the piece, especially since one of the characters disguises himself as a Chinese gang head but is really some other guy when he takes the make-up off, even though it’s clear that the same actor is not being utilised for both parts. It’s interesting also that Philip Ahn’s character speaks fluent English, as he does later as Prince Talon in Buck Rogers, except for when he’s around his American friends when he speaks some kind of fake, pigeon-English attempt at sounding ‘properly Chinese’ so they don’t feel threatened by him. There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on in the serial... with some of the Chinese people also clearly being played by Western actors in ‘yellow face’ (or black and white face, I guess) and I can imagine that this would be difficult for younger, politically correct audiences to find acceptable in this day and age (I just think everybody should calm down and appreciate entertainments within their historical context but, to each his own I guess). This may be another reason why this one doesn’t get a lot of airplay, I suspect.
I knew I was going to have trouble with this one when, in the first episode, a diver is sent into the sea to fetch the bonds which have been thrown overboard from a ship in a waterproof container. Except... the guy in the big diving suit is clearly just being lowered into a standard set with a fish tank (with oversized gold fish) being placed between him and the camera to give the, not very good, impression that he is underwater. Oh dear. And then, in the second episode recap, there’s an important plot point shown in a drawing of... a scene which never happened. I’m guessing they forgot to shoot it or had to cut it for whatever reason and were just relying on audiences to not remember exactly what occured the week before. Can’t think of any real reason for this other than that kind of scenario.
But this is nothing to the blatant issue which plagues pretty much every single car chase in the entire serial. In fact, it’s almost difficult to believe that this wasn’t done deliberately but then again, why would you let prints go out to cinemas in this shape... I’m talking about the close ups of various characters in their cars. They car interior shots are obviously done in a studio with the landscape whizzing by the windows in back projection... and nothing wrong with that, that’s how it was in those days (David Cronenberg uses this particular effect in a brilliant, metatextual way in his movie eXistenZ). However, fully half of the shots of characters, mainly Buster Crabbe, have no back projection at all. It’s just a grey background with the screen turned off behind the character... with the car being pursued usually having the characters with the proper rear projection so... yeah, there are a lot of car chases utilising these kinds of shots throughout and it makes absolutely no sense. Did they just use rehearsal footage because the money ran out? Was the machine broken but they needed to hit deadlines anyway? I guess we’ll never know but, wow, how did it get released at all in this state?
And I don’t have much more to say on this one, I reckon. Which is a dampener considering the other four serials I’ve reviewed this week are all worth your time if you are a fan of cinema history and any one of them could be a good jumping on point if you’ve not seen anything like them before. Red Barry, however, I would say would be more likely to turn you off before you’ve even given other serials a chance so... yeah, if you’re a die hard Buster Crabbe fan (and why wouldn’t you be?) then maybe give this one a go just to see what he looks like in a regular suit and hat but, honestly, approach with caution.
If you’ve liked this week’s look at the old 1930s/40s theatrically released chapter plays then, I’m hoping to watch some more of these for the blog before the end of next year so, yeah, more serials forthcoming at some point. Meanwhile, back to normal schedule for a bit.
Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2
Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)