Monday 31 May 2021

Justice League (The Snyder Cut)

Just Ace League

Justice League (The Snyder Cut)
aka Zack Snyder’s Justice League

USA 2021 Directed by Zack Snyder
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers here.

I’ve already reviewed Justice League once,  back in 2017 when the theatrical cut, which was mostly reshot and retooled by Joss Whedon after Zack Snyder had to drop out for tragic reasons, was released. However, this new version released, due to fan pressure and with a lot of money spent on it, allowing Snyder to reintroduce something approximating his original cut, runs over four hours long and, although the reshoots weren’t extensive, Whedon cut out and reshot so much footage for his ‘rescue version’ (which I reviewed here and didn’t like all that much... it was okay), that there was a lot of original material both left out or existing in alternate forms and that’s why the film deserves both another look and a new, if shorter, review.

So what have we got here? Visually the film looks very different. For starters it’s in a 4:3 classic, old school movie and TV ratio which, frankly, didn’t take long for me to get used to. I suspect the film may even have been shot in this ratio for reducing optically for an original widescreen release as opposed to cropping the footage down here. It looks pretty good, in fact. I don’t know why the director has done this though. I mean, I guess I can see a point for it if he wants to say he was approximating Golden Age comic book panels but, if that was the case, why weren’t his previous two DC Universe films... Man Of Steel (reviewed here)  and Batman VS Superman: Dawn Of Justice (reviewed here) also in that aspect ratio?

Secondly, the colours in this version are quite dark and muted. Not as muted and dark as they possibly are in Snyder’s alternative black and white version of this movie (which I think is only available on the UHD release) but still pretty near to as greyscale as you can get it and still have colour in it for many of the scenes.

There are pluses and minuses here too. Because of Whedon scenes which have been excised, there’s much more continuity with the previous and following films in the DC Universe. Granted, some of my favourite dialogue exchanges and action moments are gone completely but there’s a much more organic feel to the final product and its connective tissue with the other movies. That being said, a lot of the scenes which have changed are put into a completely different order. Early scenes from the first version might turn up three quarters of the way through the film and vice versa. There’s also a really problematic continuity error in this too which I can only suspect comes from the way the story now plays out. It comes when, near the final set piece of the movie, Alfred The Butler (played once again by Jeremy Irons) is introduced by Ben Affleck’s Batman to Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa)... regardless of the fact that, in the way the film plays out here, he has already met at least two of the team by this point. It felt like a bit of a jarring mis-step, to be honest. When he meets Henry Cavill as Superman, it plays out far more naturally.

The story has been enhanced by not only featuring Steppenwolf but also Darkseid in the film as ‘the big bad super villain’ behind the scenes (much like Thanos was to Phases One and Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This all works really well though and, for the most part, the whole storyline involving all the previously unseen elements and the new, enhanced CGI on pretty much everything, is actually a heck of a lot better than the studio cut, I have to say. This version makes a lot more sense and is much more attention grabbing, I thought.

Other things of note are as follows...

Well, it was nice to see more action from one of the Green Lantern Corps but I think the first appearance here of J’onn J’onzz aka Martian Manhunter was problematic at best. Why in heck would he be checking out Lois Lane? His appearance at the end of the film is not something which solves this conundrum either and I think his first transformation to show he was posing as Martha Kent really undermined the scene where Martha and Lois Lane are bonding in grief over Superman’s death.

The scene where the newly formed Justice League bring Superman back from the dead is by an entirely different method and makes much more sense, integrated into the Motherbox plot line in a much more believable way... although it has pretty much the same outcome as it did in the theatrical cut, it has to be said.

The replacement music by Junkie XL is interesting. The director jettison’s Danny Elfman’s original score which had recycled John William’s Superman The Movie theme and Elfman’s  own Batman theme from the Tim Burton films and uses the established leitmotif of the current DC Universe, like Zimmer’s Man Of Steel and Wonder Woman themes, in a much more appropriate manner. Again, the music seems more integrated into the DCU movies as a whole. Alas, it’s only been released as a compromised, electronic download rather than as a proper CD so, I guess I won’t get to hear it as a stand alone listen anytime soon. Which is a shame.

All this adds up to a much more dynamic and satisfying version of Justice League, I have to admit... which was a little surprising. Also, although some of my favourite Wonder Woman/Diana Prince scenes have been excised, there are other scenes with her in and even the ones which did make their way into the theatrical cut, such as her rescue of the school kids in the Old Bailey in London, are much more interestingly handled here and seem like light years away from the Whedon cut. And Snyder even manages to restore the London skyline to something more resembling the real London, in that shot where Gal Gadot is standing by the Scales of Justice, as opposed to the more pastiched caricature of a US guess at the London skyline from the theatrical release... which is kind of nice, actually.

The last ten minutes or so are Snyder laying down the threads for what would come in what was to be his proposed continuation of the series. It’s got a lot of stuff going on and seems pretty bleak, it has to be said. It’s also there, I’m sure, just to get the fans ramped up again so he can get to make the next one but, well, it remains to be seen, I think, whether the suits at Warner Brothers are ready to indulge him or not. As it is though, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a much better movie than its predecessor and I certainly found it entertaining. It’s certainly nowhere near the best of the DC superhero movies by a long chalk but it’s pretty good and worth catching up with if superhero movies are your thing. Definitely worth another, augmented glance, for sure.

Sunday 30 May 2021

A Quiet Place Part 2

Silence Running

A Quiet Place Part 2
2020 USA Directed by John Krasinski
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Spoilers for the first movie, if you’ve not seen that one.

A Quiet Place Part 2 is, obviously, the sequel to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place from a few years ago (reviewed here) and, like Krasinski, I was somewhat sceptical of the idea of a sequel. The first film is such a brilliant, modern version of an old 1950s style sci-fi horror movie, with well timed scares galore, that a sequel involving the giant, grasshopper like aliens (and they do seem to be aliens, it’s visually confirmed at the start of this movie) who have the weakness of sounds in a certain tonal range seems a bit of a one trick pony in terms of what you could do for a follow up and, in truth, it kind of is. However, when the trick is repeated in variations equally as convincingly and as potently as this one... well I’m glad Krasinski was finally convinced to write and direct the sequel because, frankly, he’s made another one of the best of these sci-fi horror movies and the two work together so well as an organic whole that, well, I don’t have enough words to say how brilliant this sequel is.

Once again he directs his real life wife, the always amazing Emily Blunt as Evelyn, Noah Jupe as her son Marcus and last, but by no means least, the remarkable Millicent Simmonds playing the deaf daughter Regan. Blunt and Jupe are absolutely brilliant in this but, like the first one, Simmonds is just so impressive here that her screen presence just sets the film ablaze whenever she’s on.

Now, the cynic in me would ask why we’d also need the acting presence of John Krasinski in the movie. After all, the father had died, sacrificing himself for his children’s survival at the end of the last film. However, he’s found a way to really make it work in an extended pre-credits flashback sequence which is anything but redundant. It’s a look at Day 1 of the giant bug invasion and we see it all starting, leading into some elements from the last film and with some nice call backs... such as his other young toddler son who we saw killed brutally in the first sequence of the last movie. This pre-credits section does two important things...

One, it reminds the audience just how lethal these creatures are, who have no sight but hunt by sound, re-enforcing the idea that people should all be very quiet when they’re around. So the tension is set up straight away and you remember to fear the presence of these monsters all over again. Secondly, though, it introduces a new character called Emmett, played by the wonderful Cillian Murphy. It’s a chance to see how his character was before the invasion and what his relationship with the central family is, so we can later witness how his character has become slowly devastated and desensitised by the act of his own survival. It’s a nice touch and really sets up things emotionally for the audience.

After this it’s a simple story but shot in a slightly convoluted way, taking on a  few dark turns as it weaves its way from the closing day of the last film into a progression towards two objectives, one of which is just to find other people, the other of which is... something which should be obvious but which is given as a big dose of hope to ensure that one of the characters ‘swallows the pill’, so to speak... and accepts the mission. Like any good horror movie director, Krasinski manages to divide the new group of five... the original family minus the dad but plus the youngster born towards the end of the last film and Cillian Murphy’s new character... so that we have three terrifying story elements going on at once in extended set pieces cross cutting with each other. These include some beautiful transitional shots and edits such as the swing of a rifle and torch to the right of screen becoming a door in another location being opened at the same speed and direction. It’s deft and wonderful stuff, to be sure.

 At some point Krasinski merges two of the groups back together for more horror while Millicent Simmonds and Cillian Murphy are off facing both the big bugs and new dangers I won’t go into... while also meeting up with Djimon Hounsou and accidentally bringing horror to a colony of survivors before their mission is accomplished, such as it is. And while both remaining pieces of action are still crosscutting, we have the lovely moment where the actions of one character in one strand of this adventure, due to an acceptable contrivance, saves three other characters in a totally different location two days journey from themselves. It also is a nice moment which shows the children in both segments as the hope of the future as much as anything else and the shot of a hearing aid next to a broadcast microphone probably says something much more clever than the likes of myself could understand as some kind of a metaphor for the hearing impaired saving the world... in some ways.

And all this with Marco Beltrami’s wonderful follow up score too, which is suitably terrifying and moving when called for and which, I’m happy to say, has been released as a limited edition CD from La La Land records... I’ve got mine on order from the US and I’m looking forward to appreciating the score away from the images it helps support.

And I don’t have much more to say on this one, I guess. John Krasinski has once again managed to fashion a truly stellar horror movie which works on pretty much all levels and which is, surprisingly, the equal of the first. I’d recommend A Quiet Place Part 2 to pretty much anyone who likes these kinds of movies (as I would the first) and I can’t wait to grab a Blu Ray when it’s released. But, honestly, go see it at the cinema because, once again, the sound design is superb and Krasinski plays with it to enhance the fear and also throw in a few audio red herrings here and there. A prefect cinema film and that’s where it initially needs to be seen. Go tell your friends!

Thursday 27 May 2021

The Fakers/Smashing The Crime Syndicate/Hell's Bloody Devils


Double Fake

The Fakers/
Smashing The Crime Syndicate

USA 1968 Directed by Al Adamson

Hell's Bloody Devils
USA 1970 Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

As part of Severin’s Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray set

Okay, so this is another movie which shows just how badly the IMDB is able to cope with the marketing mind of director Al Adamson. If you look up any of the titles of this movie on the IMDB, you’ll come back to the same entry for the film under its Smashing The Crime Syndicate title but the film it’s describing is not that version of the film, instead it’s talking about the Hell’s Bloody Devils version of the movie only and the original version of this film, lovingly restored along with a whole host of others on Severin’s Blu Ray boxed edition, is not listed properly on the IMDB at all. I’ve really come to distrust the popular film database a whole lot more over the last few months.

Once more, this is one of those films which Adamson tried to release in its original form and then shot some extra footage in an attempt to turn it into a completely different kind of movie. If you look at the trailer for Hell’s Bloody Devils you’ll find a biker movie lensed by ‘the man who shot Easy Rider”. And, I’ll get into that on the second part of this review.

So the print of the first film that Severin have managed to assemble for this set has the same title sequence for Smashing The Crime Syndicate but it’s the full version of the movie (the version released to television under that title was, originally, slightly trimmed). The film starts off with a simple animated title sequence of blocky line drawings of a dancing naked woman, swastikas, the star of David, a hammer & sickle and a US banknote... while all the while, a lady named Debbie Stuart sings an absolute belter of a song composed by Nelson Riddle called The Fakers. And, don’t ask me how Adamson convinced Riddle to do the title song because... I just don’t know. The rest of the score is by Don McGinnis but, it’s not really a full score, as such, rather than an absolutely kick-ass musical cue which wouldn’t sound amiss in many a James Bond spoof or spin off (which is what the film is really trying to be, truth be told). It’s played over and over again throughout the film and it’s got an absolutely addictive melody, it has to be said (I’m going to be humming this thing for weeks). All in all, the whole film comes across as kind of a ‘fifth Matt Helm’ film in vibes, although it’s way more serious in tone, more like one of the Donald Hamilton novels from which that series took its ‘inspiration’.

The film starts with the hero of the piece, Mark Adams played by John Gabriel, who is being driven to his death by two hired goons. He manages to throw the car off course and roll free, sending it over the edge of a cliff with the two goons inside (I’m not one hundred percent certain that this is the same footage as the exploding car from Blood Of Dracula’s Castle, reviewed here, but I’m not sure it isn’t either, if you see what I mean). When he wakes up in hospital, he starts telling us in voice over how ‘it all began’ and how he got into this mess. Mark has been working for a ‘crime syndicate’ in Florida for the past five years and his boss asks him to investigate a fake money scheme, under the pretense of buying some counterfeit plates belonging to the New Nazi Order and there are various action shenanigans as various parties try to get possession of the plates, controlled by the film’s main bad guy Count Otto Von Delberg, played by Kent Taylor. Various ladies and henchmen are thrown into the mix including Adamson regular Vicki Volante as Delberg’s girlfriend, who it turns out is really an undercover Israeli secret agent trying to track down a Nazi war criminal who killed her family in a concentration camp (of course, surprising nobody in the audience, it later turns out that the Count is, in fact, the person she’s after).

And talking of undercover, this appears to be a theme because, although Mark tells the audience he’s a mob guy, right until the last 20 minutes of the movie when the narrative catches up to the opening sequence, he’s in fact a CIA man who has been in deep undercover with the mob and is really trying to find the plates for his real boss, the film’s big named star, played by Broderick Crawford.

And there’s lots of action, a funny sequence or two with John Carradine turning up as a pet store owner who’s really an information funnel to Mark’s CIA friends and, later, the character even has an exploding pen which really helps tip the audience off that this film is definitely going for that James Bond box office (as if we didn’t know it already). I’ve no doubt that, had the film found any kind of success, this would have been the first in a number of Mark Adams adventures and, frankly, that would have been alright by me. John Gabriel makes a fine, dashing lead and the film is... well it’s not great and looks cheap (and once again in an Adamson movie, has a whole chase sequence shot in Florida’s Marineland, without the knowledge of all the visitors that day, by the looks of it) but I rather quite enjoyed it and could probably watch it again as part of an all nighter without complaint.

A special highlight of the film is when the suave, sophisticated Mark Adams takes one of his lady friends out to dinner and, frankly, he’s obviously the victim of some ‘fast buck’ product placement because, oh yes, he takes her to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Quality. And guess who turns up as their ‘waiter’? Colonel Sanders. That’s right, the founder of KFC, Harland Sanders, turns up in this movie looking exactly like his brand logo and reminding the characters how delicious his chicken is. I’m really pleased that stuff like this just pops up to surprise me in the movies and I’m sure whatever he was paying helped pay for somebody’s wages here. I’m not sure how he would have felt about also turning up in a biker movie (I’m coming to it, give me a minute or two) but, yeah, anyway, he’s in here.

Another nice moment... and I had to watch out for it again when I watched Hell’s Bloody Devils to make sure I saw it, is when a fly lands on the jacket of one of the actors and scuttles into his breast pocket, never to be seen again. I don’t know what he was keeping down there but it was obviously a very attractive proposition for the insect. I’d like to liken this moment to the ‘fly in Belloq’s mouth’ scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark or one of those shooting stars Spielberg sometimes manages to luckily catch in his movies but... yeah... I’m not going to risk my credibility as a card carrying movie watcher here by doing that, eh?

Once again, every now and again there’s a really nice shot or two which shows a real flair for how the frame looks (if only Adamson had some money to chuck at it). There’s a really wonderful shot inside an indoor car park where the left and right of a screen is dominated by three big vertical columns and the action, where Mark gets beaten up by one of the factions looking for the plates, takes place in the vertical slash between two of the columns. Alas, this master shot isn’t held and it cuts to closer but it’s a nice bit of cinematography while it lasts. There’s also a nice shot of a woman’s face in profile seen through the spinning reel of a projector in one scene and, once again for the director, a few nice things done with mirrors and the use of vertical blocks chopped up to frame people in, on occasion. Actually, some of this stuff seems to be a signature of the director and, since he has a young, not yet famous László Kovács as one of the cinematographers on this picture, I have to ask myself how much of this is down to Adamson and how much to Kovács. That being said, some of these visual tropes were also present in some of the films I’ve seen by him where he used the, again not yet famous, Vilmos Zsigmond as the cameraman so, yeah, maybe it was Adamson after all.

Anyway, by the end of the picture, almost every regular character is dead and Mark saves the day with an exploding pen hidden in a briefcase full of money, which the villains take on board their helicopter. All’s well, film’s over, job done.

Except... that’s not always the case with Adamson, is it?

 I don’t think he could get cinematic distribution on this thing and so, the film was released two years later in a typical Adamson patch job version. Oh yes, it’s now Hell’s Bloody Devils and it’s a motorbike gang movie. At least, that’s what you would be expecting if you went to see this film after seeing the trailer. And so the film starts off with one of a few ‘all new’ insert scenes of a motorcycle gang being busted for drugs in a garage. And, it’s authentic too because, reportedly, the extras he hired to make up the bulk of the gang were pretty much what they were playing on screen and Adamson just kept the cameras rolling as the cops busted the gang for real on the shoot. Which kinda rings true because, oh yes, this scene has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. But then again, the other scenes where another Adamson regular, Robert Dix, is playing the leader of the gang, have barely any glue in them to link them to any other scene of the movie either, which is basically The Fakers/Smashing The Crime Syndicate, with about 20 minutes removed to make way for the 15 minutes or so of biker gang ‘sub plot’ (and I use that term loosely). We then see them chain whipping two guys to death for ‘messing with their buddies’ and, yeah, none of this is really ringing true to anything like a conceivable plot thread.

We then get in to the titles which, is pretty much recycled, animated naked woman pieces from the original sequence but with the absence of the swastikas, star of David and communist symbols... these have been replaced by jarring inserts of motorbikes. Except, we’ve still got Debbie Stuart singing The Fakers on the credits and the film still uses the same music... with some of the added and mostly slight motorcycle scenes including the ‘main spy theme’ too. Great and inappropriate stuff.

To try and give it all some cohesion, Adamson has got Vicki Volante back to be meeting the motorcycle gang to give them their regular pay offs since, it turns out, they’re working for the Count. However, at no time could I catch what they actually do for him other than ride around on their motorcycles and picking up the occasional biker chicks for a soft focus, barely censorable sex scene. I mean, yeah, some of the shots of them in the brief ‘bikes on a road going fast’ scenes are nice but, um, pretty pointless in the context of the film as a whole.

Similarly, there’s a scene where Mark Adams leaves his apartment and, from out of nowhere, we have a very short insert moment where the back of an actor in a suit, who we are supposed to assume is Adams, is beaten up by the bike gang leader because... well, for no apparent reason to the plot that I could work out, Although it certainly serves a purpose in a way because this was obviously spliced in to try to explain to the audience why Adam’s face is covered in bruises in the next scene... the real reason being that an extended fight scene on a boat between Adams and another member of the mob has taken place but was cut out for this version of the film. Incidentally, Adams uses an exploding pen gadget on the other guy when he drops him in the water to finish him off in that cut scene and that’s important because...

Well, because, in another insert scene where Vicki Volante goes to meet a CIA member who is not in any other part of the movie, she is given an electronic bug and a red, exploding pen to give to Mark when she sees him next. Which is, of course, a less than subtle and blatantly ridiculous way to try and explain the ending sequence away but which, at the same time, really screws things up because, in the next insert scene, where Vicki is trying to escape from the biker gang who Adamson now needs to have exit the film so he can punch through to the original ending, she uses it on them and they are caught in the exploding blast. So, honestly, the scene which was put in to mask the cut scene of the speedboat fight and keep continuity with the end game is actually now contradicting itself because, how in heck does Adams get the pen he uses at the end of the picture if it’s already been exploded? In the original version he obviously had a supply of them. What is going on here? I’d be more vocal but there are already scenes in this now where actors in scenes from the original cut refer to scenes which have already been removed from this version and, therefore, already make no sense to a viewer who’s not seen the earlier cut (which, up until this Blu Ray release, would probably have been very few people). But, you know, he does keep the Colonel Sanders cameo in this version of the movie too, in case you were worrying about that. It’s ‘finger licking good’ that he somehow made his way into a pseudo-biker movie, if you ask me.

And that’s me just about done for on The Fakers... er... Smashing The Crime Syndicate... er... Hell’s Bloody Devils. I think the latter version of the movie is absolutely terrible and a much worse version of the movie than the one Adamson couldn’t get cinema distribution for... so I may well revisit Smashing The Crime Syndicate but I’m not sure I could ever go for Hell’s Bloody Devils again. That’s not really a recommendation there folks... unless you have the kind of curiosity of one of those people who stop to look at a road accident, of course. Either way... I really liked the original cut of the movie, for sure. Next up in the set is a new transfer of Adamson’s Dracula VS Frankenstein which I shall enjoy, no doubt but which I’ve already reviewed in a DVD version from Cheezy Flicks around 11 years ago. You can read my review of that one here before I get onto more Al Adamson goodness sometime soon.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

The Conjuring - The Devil Made Me Do It

Occult Friction

The Conjuring -
The Devil Made Me Do It

2021 USA Directed by Michael Chaves
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very mild spoilers.

If there was a film that was going to get me back into cinemas for a screening during our unwise pseudo-release from corona lockdown, then a film in the Conjuring franchise was definitely going to be one of the few to do it. Alas, I found out too late that the film was censored over here by a couple of seconds to hide the fact that, if you want to slit your wrists then the most effective way to do it is with a vertical, rather than horizontal, slash. In fairness, the studio was offered an 18 certificate to keep the footage in but unwisely chose to pre-cut it for UK shores. So shame on them and also the BBFC for insisting that this common practice was only eligible for an 18 rating. Frankly, I think they should drop the ratings system now for good. So, I’ll make sure to remember to buy the American release when this thing comes out on Blu Ray, which will presumably be the uncut version. I wish Cineworld had pre-warned its potential ticket buyers of this cut because, frankly, I could have stayed at home and watched an uncut, HD version for free on one of many internet channels rather than pay to see a cut version. Yeah, I’m pretty angry about this... angrier even than the atrocious excuse for ‘social distancing’ that Cineworld seem to be hoodwinking their customers into thinking is taking place. Yes, I’m sure they’re doing it under strict government guidance... but we all know how useless, untrustworthy and just plain stupid our government is so, I thought a little common sense should be kicking in right now.

Anyway, back to the movie.

I’m happy to report that, despite the change of director and writers, The Conjuring - The Devil Made Me Do It, is every bit as good as the previous two Conjuring movies (or, you know, the previous seven Conjuring movies if you count all the spin offs so far... more of which are said to be coming). It also sticks to that tried and true formula which studios like to insist makes for a good sequel (but rarely does) and somehow manages to get away with it and make it work here. That being the principal that people want to see exactly the same thing... but different.

And yeah, there is a lot of the same stuff going on here and, frankly, it wouldn’t be a Conjuring movie if it didn’t do this stuff. As you probably know, the main ‘name’ movies in the Conjuring universe are all true (if highly augmented) stories coming from the case files of real life ‘demon busters’ Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed’s been gone a while now but Lorraine finally passed back in 2019. At the end of the movie, during the credits, you’ll see footage of Ed and Lorraine being interviewed about this case, along with photographs, recordings and press clippings of some of the other real life people portrayed in this story. Please note, however, that once these scenes have finished by about midway through the end titles, there’s no subsequent post credits scene on this movie... you can get up and go home.

So, in terms of familiarity with the previous films, yeah... the plot will often deliberately split the attentions of both Ed and Lorraine and you will, as always, have the intense moments where Lorraine has to go into a tiny, claustrophobic space with hardly any light to find a clue and, also, the scenes (more than one) where she is projecting herself into an earlier incident to find out what really happened. They also do the thing where Ed is made somehow vulnerable again. In this case, the film starts off with the exorcism of a young boy which, actually... fails. Ed is attacked by the demon and it nearly stops his heart and it takes Ed a while to recover in hospital from the heart attack. So all the way through you are fearful as you wonder if his heart can take the strain, if he’s remembered to bring his heart pills with him and also, he’s given a walking stick to help him get around. And, of course, sound design is everything in these movies so the clack of the stick hitting whatever ground Ed is walking on gives the foley guys something to use to set up rhythms which can be interrupted to build tension and also change tone as he hits on different material. It’s nicely done (as are most things in the franchise).

Meanwhile, the exorcism at the start is what drives the plot in some ways because another member of the family saves the boy by taking the demon into him... or does he? Either way, the guy who takes on board the victim role, Arne (played by Ruairi O'Connor), is forced to kill someone in a gruesome multi-stabbing murder and the governor is going for the death penalty. It’s up to Ed and Lorraine Warren to somehow prove he was possessed by a demon at the time to save his life... but Arne is not released from the demon’s grip just yet... although he’s not strictly possessed by one either.

Okay, so this is where the slightly different element of this movie comes in. In the previous films it’s nearly always just a demon which is the antagonist element. The strength of the films comes in how everyone is really nice and the actors always do a really good job. Once again we have the brilliant Patrick Wilson and the amazing Vera Farmiga reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren and they are surrounded by some pretty good performers, all playing nice people. Except... aha, in this one there’s also a human antagonist and it’s that person who is responsible for all that’s going on here, in the form of a demonic occultist who is bringing all this pain onto the family.

So rather than have Ed and Lorraine staying with the victim of all this supernatural malarky, instead they are wandering around the neighbouring counties playing detective to try and find out who this person is and to break the curse they have brought, by destroying their altar. In the process we also have a nice sequence where Lorraine helps another county’s police force by finding a body for them... which, as it turns out, is completely connected to their own current case.

And, yeah, like I said, a nice movie. Some of the jump scares maybe don’t quite work but what it loses in some areas it more than makes up for in managing to perpetuate a genuinely suspenseful and creepy atmosphere throughout. The gruesome special effects are great plus the ‘supernatural point of view’ roving camera shots inserted at random intervals to tip the hand and create anxiety all work pretty well. Also, there’s a lovely moment near the start when the production team totally go for an homage of the classic poster to The Exorcist, when a priest turns up outside a house (minus the street lamp... they do their own thing with it).

Then there’s the score. I’m not holding out much hope that Watertower Records will actually release Joseph Bishara’s effective music on a proper CD (so I can listen to it as a stand alone) but I’m keeping my fingers crossed they don’t just release a dodgy download version. However, I did notice on the end credits that they’d taken a fair few pieces of music from other scores and used them in the film, such as Daredevil and Christopher Young’s haunting score for The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. I don’t know why they did this but it’s an interesting approach I guess... although I don’t think needle drop is necessarily the way to go with movies like this these days.

All in all, though, The Conjuring - The Devil Made Me Do It is another, terrific entry in a horror series which, for the most part, has been of an extremely high quality. This one definitely gets a big thumbs up from me (if I were prone to make such silly gestures) and horror fans who are worried that the quality is going to drop can go into this one knowing it should probably live up to their expectations. I can’t wait for them to make another.

The Conjuring Universe Films at NUTS4R2
The Conjuring
The Conjuring 2 - The Enfield Case
Annabelle Creation
The Nun
The Curse Of La Llorona
Annabelle Comes Home
The Conjuring - The Devil Made Me Do It

Tuesday 25 May 2021

what purpose did I serve in your life




No Eroteme Tome

what purpose did
i serve in your life

by Marie Calloway
Tyrant Books ISBN: 9780985023584

I’d never heard of this novel when I ordered it and even then, I had to find a cheap, second hand edition because this thing seems almost impossible to get now for a reasonable price, even though it was only first published 8 years ago and apparently “sent shockwaves through the publishing industry”. I found out about it by way of a death. Back in March, a guy I’d never heard of called Giancarlo DiTrapano died, aged 47. It was reported that he’d founded a publishing label called Tyrant Books which, again, I’d never heard of but was reported to handle literature that no other publishing companies wanted to touch. Ahhh... now that did sound up my street. So much so that I had a quick look through the titles his publishing company had handled and saw one which has a very striking and somewhat haunting photograph of the author on the cover... what purpose did I serve in your life by Marie Calloway.

The title had no question mark or upper case lettering... hmm, edgy? Or just pretentious. I wasn’t sure and, after having read this, I’m still not although there is often a healthy disregard for punctuation rules in the book and, although it annoys the heck out of me now (what have I become?) I used to be similar in the way I used to like to set text as a graphic designer in my early days, a quarter of a century or so ago, I can at least empathise with what is, like it or not, a conscious decision.

The thing is though, the book was supposed to account the authors sexual antics in an obscene and frank manner, by all accounts so, I figured that this one might be something to take a look at and can be my one (or who knows, possibly even my starting point) book put out by this publisher.

It arrived in a much larger format than a standard paperback and, it has to be said, does recount almost exclusively the sexual experiences of the writer. It’s not particularly erotic and the acts described within are really not all that shocking, unless you almost really want to be offended with whatever is in here, if it’s out of your comfort zone. I’m not sure why it sent those literary shock waves out though because, it doesn’t really look at anything that other books haven’t already explored, it seemed to me.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have value or points of interest though.

The book is split up in chapters with the first chapter, Portland, Oregon 2008, detailing how the writer lost her virginity (if that’s still a concept of something you can actually lose). It then goes on in chapters which are often tagged in parenthesis in the contents by Marie’s age at the time (either 21 or, in one case, 22) and details her sex work experiences, her sexually hooking up with various literary writers and also fans of her work (a lot of this book was previously published on line in blogs or magazines etc). One of the married writers, who she refers to only as Adrien Brody, was apparently recognisable to anyone who knew him and I believe this is another reason why the book was such a sensation when it came out. Although, why it seems to now be a footnote is something I can’t fathom or find out about yet.

I kind of empathised with the writer fairly early on because, when in London, she makes derogatory comments about the airhead conversations between groups of English schoolgirls and, well, I’m sure this is something we can all sympathise with, yeah? There’s also some nice chapters which are more about the way the text is presented rather than the actual message carried by the words. So big collages of multi-sized fonts on a page bringing scattered sentences and half statements or pictures from her phone with half legible writing covering them or even a presentation of various social media or chat posts.

There’s nothing new about breaking up the page in this manner of course. Even if you think back to the days of Blast magazine over 100 years ago and then forward on from there in various literary assaults, there has been a lot of typographic experimentation going on. However, it’s also not a common phenomena in modern day literature so it’s kinda refreshing or, I don’t know, maybe just relieving that this kind of word presentation is not yet dead. There was one section where I think the writer let herself down a little... not even in that particular section actually but, in a follow up on it.

To explain, one chapter is various black and white, not brilliantly reproduced pictures of the author with various, quite harsh and brutal criticisms of her work written over the tops of them. Quite often they are reversed out text and, occasionally, there will be areas of hard white on the photo but the text is still written in white so it disappears and becomes totally unreadable or even illegible in those areas. Similarly, a few of the photos have black type going over very dark areas to produce the same effect and I love the way that this is presented as both a ‘weight’ of negative criticism but also an erosion of it to express exactly how reductive, redundant and pointless it is. And just what the writer actually thinks of it...

I thought it kind of brave and ‘right on’ that portions of the text were left unreadable but, alas, one of the later chapters actually reproduces the text of those criticisms as is, as part of the main flow of the account so... yeah, it kinda felt like the artist that is Marie Calloway had a sudden worry about just leaving it in that form and went about undoing the wonderful obfuscation of the critical data she’d so boldly introduced in the earlier chapter. Oh well... we all have days where we doubt ourselves, I guess.

Still, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a seemingly authentic account of someone who seems to be a little naive about certain things and somewhat less than confident in certain areas. Which I suspect is a complete fabrication since she’s managed to pursue and win both a publication and divided opinion which, by its existence, places her as someone who is at least thought of as a serious writer. Which is kinda cool.

This book has been called by some as an embodiment of the ‘great American novel’ but, yeah, I’m not so sure and I suspect that the fact it seems to almost have disappeared without trace maybe means it’s not quite got that status... although, having read the dictionary definition of what makes a great American novel, I can kinda see how some people might want to champion this as an example of one, just as I can see how other readers might be terrified if this work earned that reputation. Similarly, I’ve heard it said that this is a book from a strongly feminist viewpoint but, okay so I’m a guy and possibly not in the best position to judge but, it doesn’t seem to be all that feminist and neither does it seem to be whatever the opposite of that term is, to me. It just seems to be an honest account of a young person’s sexual, somewhat masochistic and often narcissistic experiences in the wild and... there’s not a great deal to be said about that.

And there’s not much I can add to that either. what purpose did I serve in your life is a breezy read which takes the reader on a sketchy tour of sexual ideas and writerly musings, written by a person who you possibly feel you need to protect from some of the harsh realities of the world and which, as a work, you may or may not have an affinity with. I really don’t want to judge it as anything other than that because a lot of my expectations of it were merely from the baggage I bring to this myself as a reader and I feel a book like this almost excludes itself from criticism by the phrasing and presentation of its content. Other people can do that and opinion seems divided. I would happily read another book by this gal but, well... there seems to be nothing out there so the one thing I would take away from this would be that this girl needs to write something else and get it published very soon, or people will stop taking notice.

Monday 24 May 2021



Get Me O2 Here

France/USA  2021
Directed by Alexandre Aja

Okay, I’m going to try and do this without spoilers... although, by about 20 mins into the film, most people would have figured it all out anyway. One day I’m pretty sure Alexandre Aja is going to make a film which I actually like and which doesn’t let me down somewhat in the last act. Alas, Oxygen is still not that film but it comes close in terms of, if it wasn’t so darned obvious what’s going on and if it had a much better solution to the initial hook of the film, then it might have got there. But, well, yeah, as it stands it’s almost like an exercise in finishing up a film even though you know the audience got there an hour or more before so... hmm.

Okay, Oxygen is basically a one woman show apart from the odd other characters who turn up as either visual memories or voices on a ‘telephone’ call but the central lead is Mélanie Laurent, who I loved in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, playing Liz. Liz wakes up in a... well, let’s call it a chamber for the sake of this review... a small chamber on some kind of life support but with only about 36% of her air left. She can’t get out of the capsule and she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s there... although, as I said, the audience will have figured out the main plot ‘twists’, such as they are, by about 20 minutes in. Her only companion is the chamber’s computer MILO, voiced by Mathieu Amalric.

So the majority of the action in the film is all set in this small chamber with the occasional cut to what’s outside the chamber and the odd, wordless memory. From the outset, the film becomes about how Liz is to survive both the oxygen running out and how she can escape the inevitable while also trying to remember just who she is and what she’s doing there... her memories being a process that becomes part of the solution to the movie, as well as her personal downfall, in some ways. Along the way she also has to battle with various protocols and dangers from MILO, negotiating certain things and battling automated processes which will lessen her chances of survival.

And there’s not much else I can really tell you about the story itself because, it is very simplistic and also revealing anything else will just spell out what’s happening to you right away without you needing to even see a frame of film. So, yeah, in terms of the story and the follow up to the compelling hook, the film sucks in that department, it has to be said.

However, let’s not focus on the negatives because, aside from the story, Aja does a really quite good and interesting job with the materials that he does have to work with (and, out of all the ones I’ve seen by him, this one is still my favourite of his films).

For example, the film opens strongly with a lab rat in a maze leading into a pull back revealing a bigger maze, while the title of the film comes up over the top of it in very clinical whites and, while the metaphor being pushed this early in the film is somewhat sloppy in tipping the hand on certain elements of the later 'twists', it looks great. Then, in a series of shots that introduce the character waking, we get flashes of her in a red lit environment (for a while) in a kind of stroboscopic reveal of her situation, with odd memories of her life also cross cut and crashing in on the action in the same manner. So, yeah, a nice pulse theme going on there.

Later on, the idea of a pulse is revisited when, as we hear Liz’ heartbeat on the audio to increase suspense as she loses more oxygen, the camera does little mini zooms in and out in time with the rhythm... which really pushes the intensity of her plight and her state of mind.

Another big plus is the acting from Laurent which is, admittedly a bit histrionic in places but, ultimately, pretty good. She manages to engage the viewer and carry the film on her shoulders very well. I mean, it’s a bit of a ‘one note’ character in terms of how she develops (or doesn’t, more accurately) during the course of the movie but there’s an obvious, limiting reason for this which is bound to her identity and which the audience will figure out maybe an hour before she does, so it’s certainly not the acting at fault. Like I said, she does a great job... it’s just the story which is the weakest link here.

The other good thing is the score by ROB, which is something I would immediately rush to purchase on CD as a stand alone listen except, nope, it’s only available as a stupid, electronic download (which really doesn’t count as a great representation of music as far as I’m concerned). It seems that the once reliable Milan record label have now joined the ranks of Watertower and such like as ‘the bad guys’ of their field... the enemies of music in its proper form on CD. Which is a shame... so they won’t be getting my money while only this rough facsimile is available, for sure. I would have liked to hear it as a stand alone.

All in all, Oxygen looks spectacular, is well acted, is well told by the director and has a terrific, if unavailable score... it’s just the obviousness of the story which annoys me. Don’t get me wrong, if I’d seen this film when I was six years old or had managed to grow up having never seen any movies my whole life, then I probably would have been blown away by it but, alas, I think it’s one of those works that, on a story level at least, will only appeal to the young or less cine-literate and I find it a bit sad that a director such as Aja, who certainly seems to know how to get the best out of a production, is choosing to shoot material which seems somewhat beneath him in terms of contributing something new or personal to the cinematic landscape. And I can’t find anything more to say about this one. Ten out of ten for style, three out of ten for story content.

Sunday 23 May 2021


Killy Jeans
At My Door

Canada 2021
Directed by Elza Kephart
EMA Films

Warning: Yes, there will be much spoilerage.

Just a fairly quick, short review to highlight a wonderful new movie I saw called Slaxx. This one is pretty much a horror comedy and it’s got one of those novelty concepts at its heart which ensure people like me are going to want to look at it, just out of curiosity. Films like that are always so much better if they’re well made and entertaining and, hey, those two elements pretty much summarise Slaxx.

The film starts with a wonderfully long tracking shot over the opening credits of the length of a cotton field with the people in India picking the cotton out of focus, while the plants are in extra sharp focus and you can see the detail of the flora. We are then introduced to a young, 13 year old cotton picker working in Experimental Field 357 for the big money clothing corporation, Canadian Cotton Clothiers. At this point, we don’t see what happens to the girl (who is called Keerat) but, as we focus in on the CCC label on the sign, there’s a transition to a box of their new, experimental denim jeans being delivered to a store in the USA. It’s here we meet the film’s main protagonist Libby (played by Romane Denis), the gung ho manager Craig (played by Brett Donahue) and a whole bunch of other workers including Shruti (played by Sehar Bhojani).

Libby is the new girl, just starting her employment on this Sunday evening, as the shop goes into a 12 hour lock down with all the workers inside getting ready for Monday Madness, when they will be launching, exclusively at this particular branch, the new CCC self-body shape fitting jeans. That being said, they will be unlocked for one hour during the night so a social media fashion queen can record her next, promotional v-log of the new product. But, of course, things start to go wrong when one pair of jeans starts to move around by itself, as one lady wearing an advance pair has her legs crushed by the jeans and her intestines sucked out of her bottom. Of course, the nice thing about this pair of jeans is it can wipe the blood off the floor after a kill and hide the body until the next victim comes along.

Things, of course, escalate and it’s not long before it’s just Libby, Craig and Shruti trying to survive the denim onslaught. They do find a few useful things along the way, however... such as the jeans having a weakness for Bollywood music and there’s a nice scene where a pair is distracted from its potential victim as it dances to the tunes.

And, as you can guess from the description above, the film is a lot of fun. The director has some nice things going on such as the sterile white of the main sales floor contrasting with the pastel greens, dingy yellows and washed out blues of the lower levels, where the killing initially takes place before stepping up a notch into wholesale slaughter in the main shopping area. She’s also got some great actors in the cast who really knock it out of the park.

Talking of which, there’s a real split to the acting here. Almost all the characters are completely over the top in their ‘corporate love’, seemingly worshipping the outrageous company they work for with a certain, ‘not quite but almost’ hidden cynical disrespect of everybody else. They are nearly all wannabe corporate climbers except for... well, Libby and Shruti. Libby is genuinely coming to work for CCC because she loves the company ethos... an ethos she finds is completely false by the end of the movie. She’s not over the top and is the character who is the more down to earth one, who reacts to situations and thinks things out. Shruti is much more cynical and less naive about things but she’s also one of the more laid back and less wide eyed people in the store and so, due to the acting styles here, they seem much more sympathetic to the audience... which I suspect was a request from the director. Craig, however, is the epitome of all that’s bad about the company and there is a crossover point where he suddenly takes the ‘human villain’ role in the story. But, like I said, Libby is the driving force here and there’s a wonderful scene where she figures out a pair of jeans which is controlling a mannequin must speak Hindi and the girls are able to communicate with it. It’s here we learn just why, not one pair of jeans but, all of the new pairs in the jeans in the shop, are coming to life to kill people and the director seems to be pushing a bit of a message about giant corporations who employ child labour etc to make their products.

And it’s hugely entertaining, I have to say. It’s also very gory and there’s a lot of blood from various different styles of ‘jeans kills’ in this one. It’s also very funny too and, clocking in at 77 minutes, it doesn’t get dull or old at any point. In fact, I would have been happy if it had gone on for longer.

So, yeah, that’s my take on the wonderfully violent, funny and utterly charming movie Slaxx. I would recommend this to pretty much anyone into horror, comedy or that long historic union between the two genres which usually tends to work well and, if you give it a go, please note that after the various out-takes from the film that are scattered throughout the end credits, there’s also a post credits sequence. Not a particularly good or relevant one, it has to be said (yeah, I’m not going to tell you how the film ends but there’s not much coming back from this one) but it’s there if you want it. I was really pleased I found out about this release and, you never know, we may even get a Blu Ray release if we keep our fingers crossed. I know that’s one I’ll be picking up, for sure.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Maverick (1994)


Place Your Brets

USA 1994 Directed by Richard Donner
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: This review contains a big
spoiler about a character from the outset.

Maverick was a big budget reboot, by director Richard Donner and actor Mel Gibson (the director/actor team of Lethal Weapon fame) of the classic James Garner small screen character of Bret Maverick, who had been in many iterations of the show (you can read my reviews of the various variants of Maverick here). And it’s kind of open to interpretation to just who Gibson is playing in this one as he’s called Bret Maverick and, just like Garner used to, provides a voice over narrative as he goes along on his adventure... although I could have honestly done without the added swearing here because it didn’t seem quite right sitting in the Maverick universe but, hey ho, I guess the writers maybe imagined it was edgy or something.

The thing is, though, James Garner also plays a major role in the movie, as a Marshall called Zane Cooper, which I’m assuming is an homage to the two Western writers Zane Grey and James Fenimore Cooper. However, at the end of the film he is revealed to also be a Maverick, running an elaborate con with his son, Bret. Now, you can either take that as he’s playing Pappy (as he did once in the original show where he played both father and son in one episode) and Gibson is the original Bret or, like me, despite the lack of timing continuity between pretty much every iteration of the show in various forms, you can interpret it as he’s still playing Bret Maverick and also called his son the same name. Either way, this is a fairly affectionate nod to the original show (asides from the swearing) and is a nice addition to the original stories.

It has a stellar cast such as Jodie Foster as the main romantic lead (another con woman and this is not unusual for what would have been an episode of Maverick), Alfred Molina as a villain and James Coburn in another prominent role in the last third of the movie. There are also a lot of old time cowboy show (and Maverick show) cameo appearances by various actors such as Leo Gordon (Big Mike in the original show and also one of the original series' writers) and Doug McLure, not to mention lots of uncredited cameos too, including Garner’s brother turning up once again, plus some country and western singers too, for some reason.

One cameo moment is wonderful when Danny Glover, Gibson’s co-star from the Lethal Weapon movies, comes face to face with Gibson while robbing a bank... and the music suddenly goes into a dead-on parody of Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton’s score for the Lethal Weapon films. That’s very nicely done.

Another great uncredited cameo, larger but still short, is the inclusion of a character played by Margot Kidder. Of course, Kidder also played James Garner’s regular love interest in his post-Maverick TV show Nichols (which I reviewed here) and it’s nice to see the two sharing the screen together again (come to think of it, she also worked for this particular director in her most famous role as Lois Lane in Superman The Movie and its sequels).

And, getting back to the musical cameos... Randy Newman’s score for the film incorporates a heroic melody line for Gibson’s Bret character that is almost, but not quite, an instrumental version of the shows original theme and song. It’s like he’s been asked to do it straight but delete one note and change two others and I can’t quite understand why because, well, Warners would surely have owned the rights to the music from the original show. Maybe, going with the idea that this was actually the original Bret Maverick’s son, the composer decided to make it a variant, possibly intending to bring the full version of Garner’s theme back later for... the big reveal. That doesn’t happen but, it’s quite close and fans of the old show will certainly hear the old theme in it when Gibson does anything heroic here.

And it’s a nice film with some interesting scenes, nice action and a real suspenseful finish to the big poker game near the end of the movie. It’s also very humorous, in exactly the way the original show was although, certainly Gibson’s young Bret is more willing to pull his guns out, it seems, than the original character was. There’s a big problem with the film though... and I’m not just talking about the waterwheel on the ferry changing speeds between long shot and close up in one scene either...

I’m sure the various plot twists... Jodie Foster actually after Maverick’s money whenever she can thieve it, the James Garner reveal, the Indian who turns out to be an old pal of Bret... would have seemed fresh or at least unpredictable to the younger segment of the audience who were unfamiliar with any of the various versions of the show over the years. Old hands at Bret’s game though, through Garner’s always pitch perfect and immensely entertaining portrayal, will see a lot of the reveals coming way before they happen because they’ve become almost cliché by this point in the franchise. So, yeah, I think this movie appeals to two different audiences but, luckily, it holds it own quite well and at least meets the expectations of an older and more familiar crowd.

Maverick, the movie version, is a real hoot, to be sure and definitely one to watch. It doesn’t come close, it has to be said, to many of the earlier versions of the character but, that’s okay, Gibson does well in the part, as does Foster and they’re both helped out tremendously, in my opinion, by the presence of James Garner returning, effectively, to his roots here. A lovely, romantic Western flavoured with just a favourable dash of its powerful legacy of ingredients. One to watch.

Tuesday 18 May 2021



Sans Sheriff

Airdate: September 1971 - April 1972
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD 24 Episodes

Warning: Some last episode spoilers.

Nichols was a one season TV series featuring James Garner as, arguably, the titular character (give me a sec, I’ll get back to that soon). It’s said the show struggled because it wasn’t just some kind of a rehash of his old Maverick character (which, admittedly, was amazing, I review various TV iterations of it here) with some new paint slapped on. Apparently the ratings were bad although, from what I can make out, a lot of people including Garner himself loved the show and, honestly, once it was cancelled, none of the programmes shown on the same channel from the following year did as well as Nichols so, yeah, they should have renewed it, I think.

The series remains a footnote in the annals of television history but it certainly shouldn’t be and perhaps that’s why there’s even a DVD edition of it. The show was certainly an unusual one and a cut above a lot of stuff that was airing at the time (and most stuff airing these days, to be fair).

Nichols is set in that transitionary period in the early 1900s when the Old West was just starting to get modernised and it was half in/half out of the barbaric and violent times of confrontation which delineated the two periods, to a certain extent. So it’s set in a small town where everyone carries their six shooter and goes to the local saloon for a drink but, at the same time, one of the main characters has a car and there are even airplanes featured in two episodes. Garner himself is more often than not on an early Harley Davison motor cycle rather than a traditional horse.

It starred James Garner as Nichols, who was a long serving soldier in the cavalry but who didn’t really like guns all that much and preferred to shy away from them due to the old truth that they tend to place you in more danger if you are carrying one. He was a good soldier but, at the start of the first episode, he sees a demonstration of a new type of Gatling gun which does untold damage to whatever it’s aimed at and, that’s enough for Nichols, he quits being a soldier and finally returns to his home town of... Nichols.

Yeah, okay, so the title of the show could be the character name and could be the name of the town, which is named after Nichol’s family who started the community many years before. However, when he gets back home, he finds his parents dead and his land grabbed. He no longer has ‘legal’ entitlement to his former home and property but, during the course of the first episode, the town’s matriarch Ma Ketcham, played superbly by Neva Patterson, cons Nichols into taking the sheriff’s job for the town. Patterson is one of a few, highly talented cast members who had regular recurring roles on the show.

The pick of the bunch for my money would be a pre-Superman Margot Kidder as the astonishingly beautiful Ruth, Nichol’s sometimes girlfriend and confidant. She actually does an amazing job in this and it’s the most sympathetic character I’ve seen her play. Then we have future The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick co-star Stuart Margolin as the slobby, cowardly deputy Mitch. Margolin would be alongside Garner often in the course of his television career and also went on to become a very good TV director with many Emmy award nominations to his name. And then there’s the local bully and half-villain, half ally character of Ketch, Ma Ketcham’s disappointing son, played by John Beck. Beck is a very under appreciated actor in my book, who readers might best know from his roles as Moonpie in Rollerball (reviewed here) and as one of the rebels in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Beck would also star in two episodes as pilot Orv, who looks no different from Ketch and the only eyebrows raised is when people say he looks like someone back in the town of Nichols. Go figure.

And yeah, it was a really unusual programme, mostly because it’s really well written and the plots don’t go anywhere near where you think they are going at the start of an episode. For the most part these are not the formulaic plots you would know from their appearances in various guises on other shows and quite often the obvious conclusion to the story comes half way through... and then it goes off on another tangent. There’s even, for instance, a story where the majority of it depict how Nichols and a young man are trying to figure out how to get a horse out of a basement they’ve been trapped in after an earthquake in a neighbouring town, without getting shot up by the local ruffians.

The pacing is gentle, a little like Maverick... but no less intriguing and it’s probably the most entertaining show that got aired that year. And it’s a shock somewhat when, presumably due to the pending cancellation, the writers decided to retool the show and make it into something that could be perceived as a more traditional show worth renewing. So something happens in the last episode that changes things slightly but at the same time, serves as a nice ending to the show if it didn’t get picked up again (which it obviously didn’t).

A shock because, in the last episode, before the pre-credits sequence is even done, Nichols is shot dead by a hoodlum in cold blood. After the credits of a smiling James Garner, we are at the wake in the local saloon and in walks... Nichols. Except it’s Nichol’s previously unheard of older brother, played also by James Garner and looking exactly the same apart from a big black moustache. He spends the last episode ensuring his brother’s killers are brought to justice and he’s offered the job of sheriff by Ma Ketcham at the end. He declines but says he might be back (so he could take over if a second series was requested) but... as it is he rides out of town at the end on his brother’s motorbike, passing a street sign reading ‘You are now leaving Nichols.’ It’s a lovely ending but it sure is a shame that the character I grew to love over the previous 23 episodes was buried in a hole in the ground before the opening credits were even rolling. However, it does give the show a sense of closure and that’s admittedly a lot more than most shows get.

Nichols is well worth a watch if you’re an admirer of the great James Garner and the ensemble cast do an amazing job, rising to the high quality of the writing and lifting it somewhat above the average TV fodder of the time. This might possibly rank somewhere in my top twenty best TV shows and it’s certainly something some of you might want to check out, I think.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Maverick (TV shows)

Poker Hunters

Airdate: From September 1957
to  July 1962 (Five series)

The New Maverick
(TV Pilot for Young Maverick)
Airdate: 1978

Young Maverick
Airdate: 1979 (8 episodes)

Bret Maverick
Airdate: 1981 - 1982 (One series)

All on Warner Brothers Region 1 DVDs
and Warner Archives Region 1 DVDRs

Maverick was a show I heard about constantly when I was a kid, as my dad used to often talk about it and how he used to watch it with his dad. In the late 1970s/early 80s, I got a brief taste of the later shows trying to cash in on the success of the original, the role which made James Garner a household name and, as far as I can understand, paved his way to many film roles and a successful Hollywood career. So I was pleased when, a decade or so ago, the originals started being released on US Region 1 DVDs. I got these to watch with my dad which we did, sporadically over the years... and we’ve just finished revisiting them.

Now, I’ll say up front that my dad was only interested in the James Garner episodes so, of the original series, we’ve only watched the first three seasons (which feature James Garner and Jack Kelly alternatively playing one of the Maverick brothers... sometimes they would team up). After Garner walked on the show due to, from what I can gather, being treated poorly and underhandedly by Warner Brothers, one third series episode starring both Garner and Kelly was held over to the fourth season (an episode we also watched). So, in the first three series, James Garner played Bret Maverick and Jack Kelly played Bart Maverick. After Garner left, Kelly stayed on for a while and Roger Moore took over alternate weeks as cousin Beau Maverick. Another brother, Brent Maverick, also jumped into the show, played by Robert Colbert who was presumably chosen for his physical resemblance to Garner. I’ve not, at time of writing, seen any of the Moore or Colbert episodes but I have seen the entirety of the first three seasons.

And it was a great show. Every week, one of the Mavericks would enter one town or another in the old west and make their way as a professional gambler, sometimes in the money but more often than not out of it, sometimes having to rely on the very last 1000 dollar note which they kept pinned to the inside of their jackets as a last ditch stake. The shows were not often about gambling on its own but that would more likely become a sub plot or motivation for one or other of the characters to get involved with some scheme or con or caper or what have you. Bret and Bart would rarely resort to gunplay, rather choosing to back away from a fight (or run quickly in the opposite direction) but they could be handy with the Derringers hidden in their sleeves if things got a little too hairy.

It’s a gentle show and doesn’t push violence at all and, in this way perhaps, it marked itself as something much different to the many other westerns carving a name for themselves on the American airwaves in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It also had a host of both well known guest stars such as John Carradine, Buddy Ebsen and future uber producer Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (popping up every now and again as Dandy Jim Buckley)... not to mention a load of appearances by ‘current nobody/future somebody’ actors such as Joel Gray, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, Adam West and Robert Redford... starting out in their first tentative steps in Hollywoodland.

It was great fun while it lasted and pretty much every episode, while devilishly entertaining, also had a strong moral heart at the centre of the story. And, although my dad wasn’t too keen on him, I even liked the Jack Kelly ones too. He was the more romantic Maverick and also got himself into as much trouble as James Garner’s iteration of the role. Perhaps the show was at its most funniest in the two or three times per series when both Bret and Bart would team up and carry a story together... more often than not having them setting up an elaborate con in the name of justice when the two shared an episode.

After series five (a series which was half repeats of previous Garner episodes plundered from earlier seasons, by all accounts), the show was cancelled and Bret and Bart didn’t return again until the TV movie The New Maverick in 1978. This was an uninspired but quite watchable and entertaining movie which had Garner returning as Bret to work the angles on a new caper and newcomer Charles Frank as Ben Maverick, the son of Roger Moore’s cousin Beau. Since the ‘old west’ didn’t last that long as a period of time, I don’t know how you could have multiple generations of Mavericks but who am I to argue. Frank, who I also saw playing a nazi spy in two episodes of Wonder Woman prior to this, does alright in the role and has a certain charm of his own. Susan Blanchard also appeared in both this pilot and the subsequent spin off series, Young Maverick and, it has to be said, this wide eyed wonder of an actress adds a certain entertainment value playing a kind of broad comedy partner to Frank’s more ‘straight up’ Maverick. The chemistry between them is kinda electrical and this might explain why, in real life, they are also husband and wife. Jack Kelly comes into the movie for the last ten minutes or so and its nice to have Bret and Bart playing opposite each other again.

Young Maverick, continuing on from that TV movie, only ran for eight episodes and, while we saw all eight over here in the UK at the time, only the first six were shown in the US before it was cancelled. This was nowhere near as fun as the original James Garner shows but it certainly has its moments and I honestly don’t know why it was cancelled so quickly. The show used a rearranged version of the old theme tune/song from the original show and that was a nice touch. Garner is said to be, on pretty much every internet reference to the show I can find, in a cameo in the first episode but that information is false. Bret is name checked but never actually turns up in the regular series (although I’m sure there must have been plans for him to cameo if it had turned into a longer show). It also, in its few episodes, gets a number of ‘early career appearances’ from well known actors today such a young James Woods (playing a bad guy and bad poker player, obviously) and a not quite ‘seasoned veteran’ appearance by Harry Dean Stanton as a professional gunfighter in one episode. There’s also a double episode which was obviously meant to start the series off (because of the relationship between Frank and Blanchard’s characters) and act as a second pilot but this is just plonked into the middle of the show with no rhyme or reason. Blanchard’s character is actually unnecessary as a regular and each episode seems to have the two bizarrely just running into each other in a new town by coincidence... yeah, that’s pretty bad writing just there. However, I was sad to see the show just disappear off the airwaves at the time with no warning and remember eagerly awaiting its return.

What we got instead, two years later, was James Garner’s triumphant return to the role of Bret in the one and only season of Bret Maverick. This had Bret winning a saloon in a poker game in the first episode and he decides to settle in the sleepy town of Sweetwater as a silent partner of the saloon (with the ex-sherif of the town) and buys a ranch just out of town. So what we had here for the first time in a Maverick show was a strong cast of continually returning regular characters, which was nice. This was a brilliant iteration of the show (almost as good as the original) and I was sad to see this one end. It had a new title song but, honestly, it was pretty catchy and the show completely captured the strengths and morally upright tone of the original (which, to be fair, all the various iterations of the show managed to retain). The chemistry between the various actors was brilliant and, in a nice (possibly obvious twist), in the last episode, the man who turns up who is supposed to be ‘a mark’ but who is actually trying to con Bret is revealed to be Jack Kelly as Bart. The idea for a second series was for him to alternate with Garner again, with Garner going back on the road for adventures outside of Sweetwater while Kelly would run the saloon and take over things at that end. Alas, a second series never materialised but this was not quite to be Garner’s last stand as Maverick... more on that in a review coming up here in a few days. I believe Jack Kelly turned up again in a cameo as Bart in one of the sequels to Kris Kristofferson’s The Gambler TV movies but, I’ve not seen it myself.

All in all, the original Maverick shows are definitely recommended viewing but the follow up series, while not ‘jumping on’ points to start watching, often lived up to the originals and are also worth checking out. It’s a shame the new attempts were curtailed so quickly but this was definitely Garner’s part (and I’m pretty sure a lot of the plots from various episodes of the originals were just recycled into his later big TV show, The Rockford Files, on a regular basis). Luckily, we have these classic episodes of Maverick now resurrected in DVD form so at least they have been, somewhat, rescued from oblivion.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Horror Of The Blood Monsters

Crusty Asian Crustaceans

Horror Of The Blood Monsters
USA/Philippines 1970
Directed by Al Adamson
(plus various, I guess)
IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Horror Of The Blood Monsters is the next film in the wonderful Severin Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray boxed set I’ve been watching but, to paraphrase a great writer, this must be some strange usage of the word ‘masterpiece’ of which I was previously unaware. This film is easily one of the worst movies I’ve seen and, I can tell you, I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time.

The film stars what seems to be the magic triangle of Al Adamson’s regular cast around this time, John Carradine, Robert Dix and the lovely Vicki Volante and, out of the three of them, Carradine seems to be the only one really doing a good job of it although how, with the dialogue they have here, anybody could attempt to make this work is beyond me. Dix and Volante did a pretty great job in Five Bloody Graves (reviewed here) and you wonder how their acting took such a nose dive that they got to this. The only other member of the cast worth talking about is Joey Benson, who actually does a brilliant acting job despite a script filled with science fiction techno-babble that doesn’t in any way reflect real life. You may remember him from Psycho-A-Go-Go and its subsequent recuts as Fiend With The Electronic Brain and Blood Of Ghastly Horror (all of which I reviewed here) and it’s a shame this guy was only in a few movies because, of all the actors here, he’s the one that most deserved to go on to better things. I think.

The film itself is an Al Adamson patchwork job. He liked an unreleased Filipino movie directed by Rolf Bayer called Tagani from 1956 (goodness knows why) so he bought the rights out of his own pocket and shot a load of new footage (at least half of this movie, maybe a bit more) to add to it, creating a new storyline which is both ridiculous (that is to say, even more ridiculous) than the original and that also doesn’t really hold together that well as a single, focused through line. He also added footage from some other films as well such as Man And His Mate and Unknown Island but, well, if there was ever a case for less is more then maybe this film would go some way towards demonstrating that idea.

Okay, so somebody in distribution must have wanted a horror picture because the first five minutes of Adamson's footage is about vampires on the streets and, although the IMDB seems to have the plot summarised pretty easily, I can’t say I came away with an impression as to why it’s here at all, other than to say the vampires (one of whom is Adamson himself, in a cameo) come from another planet and are bringing their disease of blood drinking to Earth. If they’re meant to resemble any of the creatures in the spliced in footage from other films well... it would be a huge leap of faith, for sure. There are no real vampires on the planet on which our ‘intrepid crew of explorers’ end up journeying to, apart from... no, I’ll save that bit for later.

So John Carradine leads a crew, including Bishop, to another planet to inspect the Spectra Solar System he has discovered. At ‘mission control’, Robert Dix and Vicki Volante communicate with pseudo-scientific babble and keep tabs on the crew. Actually, let me tell you about mission control for a minute because, frankly, most of the time it’s a static photo of the backs of two actors' heads from another film while a television screen image of the one or other of the crew are either superimposed onto or, possibly, just showing through a TV shaped hole in the picture. This then doesn’t match in any way with the single shots of the front of Dix and Volante’s heads as they talk their space race drivel when cut to. They are both seen head and shoulders only with some kind of black drape cloth behind them and, if I said this is worse than anything you can expect to see in an Ed Wood movie then, yeah, maybe you’ll get some idea of what this movie is like. The two are never seen in the same shot at the same time in their mission control setting, which makes me think that there was only a small amount of black backdrop to go around and they both just filmed their scenes sitting on the same stool in a photo studio.

However, when a couple of completely random scenes of Dix and Volante having tame sex are inserted for, from what I can make out, absolutely no reason whatsoever, they do at least share a screen. And a bed. And also this is the one time you might get a sense that this film is supposed to be set in our future as the two have ‘future sex’, which means they roll around kissing but have electrodes fitted to their heads with bright lights and beepy sounds. At one point, one of them confesses to making love in the ‘old way’ but, honestly, I’m past caring by this stage. And if I’m not even interested in the sex scenes in a movie, well... they’ve really lost me.

Meanwhile, the heroes have reached the planet and their footage is intercut and merges seamlessly with footage about two warring tribes on a prehistoric Earth, some of whom have tusks for teeth and look just like the three beast-men Buster Crabbe fights at the end of episode one of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (which I reviewed here). But, you know, a lot worse. And when I say seamlessly, well... there were traces of irony and sarcasm to be found in that sentence I’m afraid because... okay... so did I mention that the footage from Tagami is in black and white. So, when our crew get to the planet they are also in black and white but... drive-ins wanted colour movies for their shows so everybody on the planet (other footage included), are tinted in different colours throughout like an old silent movie... which is somehow explained (or attempted to be explained) by the fact that the atmosphere of the planet emits some kind of chromatic radiation which means everything looks like hand tinted monochrome that constantly changes from red to green to yellow etc. Um... yikes.

Anyway, our crew rescues a slave girl called Lian from one of the warring factions, played here by Jennifer Bishop and, yes, of course her footage doesn’t match up with the Filipino movie she purports to have come from. Of course, she speaks alien but, that’s okay, because John Carradine’s professor character talks in the radio from their spaceship and instructs the away team on how to do a quick bit of minor brain surgery and place a translator device directly into Lian’s head. Lian is none the worse for wear from this invasive procedure (she doesn’t even need any of her hair shaved) and can now, of course, understand and speak perfect English.

And then there’s more shenanigans including some kind of crab men, some flying bat ape men who, well they have to be seen to be believed and kind of bounce rather than fly but, yeah... I’m sorry to say that both these ridiculous beasts, along with some truly pathetic looking men-in-suit tyrannosaurs (worse than you could possibly imagine in their saggy costumes) in no way save the film and turn it into a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of experience. They are highlights in a very weak production it’s true but, no, this film gets beyond saving very quickly and I have to wonder why this was even accepted for distribution (something like 5 years after it was in the can, to boot).

I don’t know how people like uber cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond got work with a regular studio after working on ‘filler’ material like this but, well, I guess nobody must have looked at his CV that closely and, in an age before the internet, I guess it was fairly easy to hide your involvement in projects such as this one. You know, it’s funny but every time I see a touch of promise in the films of Al Adamson like Psycho-A-Go-Go or Five Bloody Graves, he then comes out with something which is some of the most terrible rubbish I’ve ever seen, like Horror Of The Blood Monsters. Once again, though, I am grateful that Severin have made stuff like this available to us and, as usual, they’ve done their best to save this with a great transfer from what must have been a shoddy print. So, yeah, I shall continue my occasional journey through their Al Adamson box set as the weeks go on. The man worked in a lot of different genres, it would seem.