Thursday 30 September 2021

The Dynamite Brothers

TNT Smacks On

The Dynamite Brothers
aka Stud Brown

USA 1974 Directed by Al Adamson
IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Warning: This one’s got some major spoilerage in it.
There is a genuinely cool twist in the tail of this
movie which I didn’t see coming.

Well this Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection really is a rollercoaster ride in terms of just how good or, typically, how terrible some of the films in this collection are going to be. Because I’m watching and writing these films up in the order they’ve been packaged into the box, as opposed to the release or production dates (both of which are completely different things anyway), my previous review of an Adamson film was Black Heat (reviewed here), which utilised one of the same leading men as in this one, in a shot at catching some cash from the blaxploitation market. You’ll also remember I didn’t think much of it.

This film, however, is absolutely marvellous. It’s a greatly entertaining flick that I could happily rewatch every seven years or so. The Dynamite Brothers is basically a mash up of two genres which were still just about a big thing at the time this was released... blaxploitation and kung fu movies. It made some money and Adamson was able to re-release the film targeted at just the blaxploitation market a year later, by excising the kung-fu part of the trailer and re-christening it Stud Brown.

After a kung fu training session to show how lethal some of the bad guy’s henchmen are, we meet the main antagonist of the film himself and... it’s James Hong! I love the fact that James Hong turns up in an Adamson movie. He plays ‘over the top but sophisticated Asian villain’ really well, it has to be said. That’s the pre-credits sequence of the movie out of the way, leading to an animated title sequence featuring the two leads, Alan Tang and Timothy Brown... and a load of kung fu people, with Charles Earland’s kick ass score playing out over the titles. Actually, this is the only Al Adamson film I’ve found to date, other than his Dracula VS Frankenstein (reviewed here), which has had a CD soundtrack release so, that’s something.

After this, film starts off proper... with martial arts star Alan Tang as Larry Chin. He is illegally entering the country on a boat but, as he jumps off the ship, a bunch of Hong’s henchmen are waiting for him to persuade him to go back to Japan (under the watchful eye of ‘bent copper in the pay of the bad guys’ Burke, played by Aldo Ray). So straight away we have a big chase/kung fu fight on the harbour which establishes how outclassed the bad guys are compared to Larry, who leaves a trail of unconscious bodies in his wake as he runs off to... to what? Well, it turns out he’s come to America to find his lost brother. There are also hints of a back story in some, it has to be said, shoddily timed little flashbacks to a dead woman at various moments in the film. I'll get to that later.

Meanwhile, Burke is escorting the newly arrested Stud Brown (Timothy Brown) in a police car, to be charged for ‘unimportant and never really made clear’ crimes. However, he also finds Larry Chin and so he handcuffs him together with Stud. Of course, the two of them together are presumably spiritually sympathetic so, you know, in a daring escape they presumably become... The Dynamite Brothers... of the title. Anyway, there must be some spiritual connection because, after freeing themselves from handcuffs, the two stay together for absolutely no reason at all. Larry is headed to San Fransisco and Stud takes him to work for his boss, a mobster called Smilin’ Man, played by Don Oliver, so he can support himself while he looks for his brother.

And, of course, this is a blaxploitation movie of the 1970s... so there are evil, bad mobsters like James Hong’s kung fu crew... contrasted with ‘good mobsters’ like Smilin’ Man’s mob, who don’t want any drugs coming into their territory because ‘drugs are bad’ and people shouldn’t do them. Right on brother! It’s here that, in another ‘character with a strange quirk in a 1970s movie moment’, Stud meets a mute lady on Similin’ Man’s payroll called Sarah, played by the title role actress from black exorcist movie Abby... Carol Speed. She becomes Stud’s gal. There’s also a potential girlfriend for Larry when he meets an Asian lady who helps him find a lead to his brother but, she kinda just drops out of the movie once Larry is told that his brother is dead.

So the rest of the movie is about both how Larry’s missing brother and the mob war is all connected and there are various shoot outs and kung fu fights and... the whole thing is a pretty entertaining and surprisingly coherent movie (for Al Adamson) which entertains a lot. Although, it’s a shame that Carol Speed’s character is killed by having her face horribly slashed up by the bad guys to give Stud even extra motivation to end the violent mob reign of her killers.

It all leads to a big fight in Hong’s mansion where we finally find out that those flashbacks were him remembering his wife, who was killed by Hong for rejecting his lustful advances before fleeing to America. Not only that but, in a twist I didn’t see coming, somehow, it turns out that not only is Larry’s brother not dead... but James Hong’s character is also his brother. So, anyway, all the good guys and bad guys converge on the house and a big battle royale ensues while the Hongster makes a break for it in his open topped car, with Larry pursuing on a motor bike. As soon as I saw it was an open topped car I realised that I was once again going to have to watch, possibly from a different angle, that same scene of the open topped car rolling off a cliff edge and killing the driver that I’ve seen now in, it has to be said, a fair few of Adamson’s movies. I honestly can’t be watching this footage again in another movie... but saying that, it’ll probably be coming back to haunt me again before this boxed set is finished, I would imagine. There’s also a stunt fall in this movie, during a gun battle on the streets (surprisingly, there were no Adamson rooftop chases in this picture, he must have had a bigger budget) which I’m pretty sure he recycled into Black Heat but, it certainly packs more power here.

And it’s a fairly joyful film to watch, it has to be said. There are some great fights which use some hand held stuff and some frenetic pacing... but not so much so that you can’t see that Alan Tang can actually do all the stunt fighting himself (unlike a lot of modern American movies where they sometimes have to cut around the actors to hide the fact that they can’t really do the physical stuff that well). Actually, I noticed that in some of the fight scenes, Alan Tang seems to be mouthing a lot of words that are just not coming out on the soundtrack at all. I can only conclude that, like Bruce Lee in the fight scenes in Enter The Dragon, he was probably making a lot of silly, whoop and wahaaah noises but, on hearing the results, the producers decided to cut that audio element for whatever reason (like it sounded totally silly, perhaps).

Added to this we have a good cast of actors doing their thing with a script that really isn’t all that bad and, also, the good guys and gals all have good on-screen chemistry and are pretty likeable. There are even some nicely creative shots in here, where Adamson and the cinematographer use the negative shapes created by various elements of the environment overhanging the foreground of the camera to shoot the action through, which gives the film a more creative edge than a fair few of the films I’ve reviewed from this boxed set here. Add to this a totally redundant snake scene and a silly but underwhelming ‘death by acupuncture’ moment and The Dynamite Brothers comes up trumps when it comes to excelling in explosive excitement. Definitely something I’d recommend for lovers of blaxploitation, kung fu movies and, you know, those rare times both elements come together in the same film. One of Adamson’s best movies, I think.

Wednesday 29 September 2021

Gamera VS Deep-Sea Monster Zigra

Zigra Follies

Gamera VS
Deep-Sea Monster Zigra
aka Gamera tai Shinkai kaijû Jigura
aka Gamera VS Zigra

Japan 1971 Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Gamera Complete Collection Blu Ray Zone B

Okay... so I’ve watched the six previous films in the Gamera series so far, all twelve of which are part of the fantastic Gamera - The Complete Collection Blu Ray boxed edition from Arrow Films. And up until now I’ve been pretty impressed by them all. Well, it was bound to happen but, I have to say that Gamera VS Deep-Sea Monster Zigra is an absolutely terrible film. But, as I found out after I watched it (and pretty much suspected all the way through, since it’s pretty obvious what the main issue with this movie is), there’s a very good reason as to why this one’s so terrible and, in some ways, we should maybe be grateful that this at least finished up with a comprehensible story.

It starts off with a pre-credits sequence establishing to the audience that by now the Japanese are so advanced with their technology that they have set up a base on the moon. We then see a spaceship from another planet blow up that moonbase and ‘displace’ a moon buggy... which really just looks like it’s been disintegrated but, amazingly, this moment does make some sense in terms of the plotting much later in the picture.

So, after the credits with the main Gamera song being sung again, we meet two dads and their respective son and daughter, who have stowed away on their little fishing boat. They then see the spacecraft that does so much damage at the start of the movie and it displaces their fishing boat to bring it inside the spacecraft. They meet Zigra’s human envoy as she shows them how powerful Zigra’s ‘completely unseen throughout the entire movie apart from one big monster fish’ alien race are. They’re here to conquer the Earth because they live in the sea and have polluted their own planet. So, in a theme shared with the fashion at the time (and again now, as it happens) and reflected in the same year’s other big kaiju eiga, Godzilla Vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla VS The Smog Monster, review coming soon), they come to Earth to stop us polluting our seas and to use them for themselves, while keeping the humans alive so they can eat them to survive.

Somehow the kids manage to lead their ‘fathers in a coma’ out of there and get their boat clear in a completely implausible and ‘against any credibility or logic’ manner, so that they can warn Earth’s military defence force, who are based in the local Marineworld for the rest of the movie because... well, that’s the thing...

We are already ten or twenty minutes into the movie and still no giant monster battles or anything. This is a slow movie and I honestly thought, after a while, that the opening ‘Gerry Anderson style’ exploding miniature moon base set was purely there to put a bit of action into the film before this long lead in. However, as the movie progressed and there were very few monster battles, I realised that the budget must have been miniscule. Indeed, when the human envoy of Zigra is sent to Marineworld to kill the kids, there’s a long and drawn out, somewhat comical (not entirely sure it was supposed to be) chase scene and, it was at this point that I was absolutely sure that this had been put in merely to pad the running time because they couldn’t afford the money to get more monsters fights into the mix (nor the time, as I later found out).

And, yeah, I was right. The director was now a hired gun, no longer on the payroll of Daeie studios... and was expected to put in all the overtime that a film like this required to make deadline for free, along with the crew. The budget was slashed right down on this one and not because the last movie wasn’t a success... it absolutely was... but because the studio was out of money and time. Hundreds of people had been made redundant prior to this and a crew member had even died from the stress of working for Daeie on this film. The studio filed for bankruptcy soon after so, the next Gamera film was also cancelled but, frankly, the lack of budget and adequate resources of people and time really show on this production.

So when we do get the first of two fights, where Gamera is beaten by Zigra and left for dead (which is beginning to become a formula for the dramatic impetus of these films now), it just looks cheap and almost like the battling monsters (Zigra has turned into a Goblin-shark style metal creature after Gamera destroys the spaceship) are just standing around waving their arms about and being unnecessarily vocal. It’s just kind of dull and, frankly, although the design of Zigra looks okay and on a level with previous foes, well... I just don’t see how you can make a giant monster battle feel so uninteresting, to be honest.

The key to freeing the people left comatose in the human envoy’s path is to interfere with their sonic harmony by yelling into a microphone thingy which translates it into the exact same sound waves which had rendered them into their helpless state. The same trick is tried on the space lady and, after a guy yells ‘Ha Ha Ha’ into the mike, she drops down on the floor and reverts to a moon geologist who was apparently in the moon buggy at the start of the picture. Gosh, this begs the question of just what one verse of Little Brown Jug might have done to Zigra’s alien control.

And the special effects, which had been going downhill since the absolutely stunning work on the second movie, Great Monster Duel: Gamera VS Barugon (reviewed here), are really not of a standard I would have expected a studio to let out of the gate to be honest. I mean, these films rely on stuff like back projecting the monsters behind the characters in some shots, to wed the humans and the effects work. Here, however, the back projection screen showing the giant shark fin coming towards the boat in the water, or Gamera’s head as he carries the boat to safety, is actually made up of highly visible, vertical slats which you can clearly see breaking up the image all over the screen. I mean, what were they thinking?

The only thing in this film which is of note, is a cute moment after Gamera has defeated Zigra. The antagonist is lying on the ground with his five big shark fins standing up. Gamera hits one with a rock and notices that if he hits each one in turn they produce different tones. So he then proceeds to play the Gamera theme on Zigras back as if it was a xylophone. But, honestly, this is the only cool bit in the entire movie. And it’s a shame that, after such a successful run of really groovy, giant flying turtle movies, this last one for nine years is such a terrible swan song for the original version of the character.

And that’s me done with Gamera VS Deep-Sea Monster Zigra. Its not a movie I can recommend in any way, shape or form and, it’s not one I’d choose to go back to unless I was watching the entire series of movies again. However, as we will see... this was not the end of Gamera. And I just hope the next one is better than this because, I can’t see how it could be much worse.

Tuesday 28 September 2021

The Marvels Project

Timely Interventions

The Marvels Project
Written by Ed Brubaker,
Art by Steve Epting
Marvel Comics - Eight Issues
USA October 2009 - May 2010

Warning: Very mild spoilers.

The Marvels Project is not a title I was expecting to get much out of, to be honest. It was obviously yet another attempt by Marvel to cash in on their huge nostalgia fest Marvels (reviewed here) but when they’d released one shots and limited editions in the past attempting to capture the same readers, well their efforts were a bit hit and miss, to be honest... I reviewed these in a collected edition, Marvels Companion, right here.

However, I thought I should give it a go and, as it happens, this is one of the better written of the Marvels spin offs I’ve seen, although my knowledge of some of the heroes featured here and their modern day counterparts is not all that great so, I didn’t always understand everything.

The comic starts off with a bit of a false lead, to be honest, which got my expectations up that this was going to be covering a whole load of decades of Marvel characters. As it happens, though, all the adventures covered here are set from around the creation of The Human Torch and the first appearance of Namor, The Sub Mariner in 1939... and more or less finished with the formation of The Invaders, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour which forced America into the Second World War.

This is because the comic is not dealing with the Marvel comics characters as we know them today but the original versions of those characters as published in Timely Comics at that time, which is the company which eventually transformed itself in the more familiar Marvel in the 1960s. Like the earlier Marvels, the comic is told from the point of view of one specific character although, it has to be said, it follows multiple character arcs in different countries so the narrator is giving you ‘second hand knowledge’, so to speak, throughout the story. That narrator is the original hero detective character The Angel.... and I find that interesting because, if memory serves, this character only had a small, non-speaking cameo in one panel of the first issue of Marvels.

What makes this interesting is it starts off with an account of this character, a psychiatric ward doctor, being given a ‘heads up’ of the impending Age of Heroes by an old man everybody thinks is crazy. It turns out this old man is the Western hero the Two Gun Kid who, in some stories, went time travelling to his future and helped The Avengers at one point. Here, that character’s death and his leaving his guns to the hospital worker who is so interested in his ‘wild stories’ is the impetus needed for Tom Halloway to become The Angel and, from then on, the eight issues tell of the plot to foil nazi spies and the tale of The Torch, Namor, Toro, Captain America, Nick Fury and Bucky Barnes... plus another interesting bulletproof human (I never did figure out which super powered character he was meant to be)... as backdrop to these shenanigans.

Once I’d shaken the idea that the publishers wouldn’t be setting any of his tale in the modern world I really began to enjoy the simplistic but somehow poetically dark story line as I watched each character’s progress as told by someone who was, after all, a low level detective character with a Batman-like penchant for masked vigilante shenanigans.

I have to admit I didn’t completely understand the time travelling aspects, or the fact that one of the later characters can be supplied a similar set of guns by a younger version of the same Two Gun Kid... if I’m reading this right.

Anyhow, the art is good, the story hits most of the right buttons and some of the colour palette choices are amazing. Most of the wartime stuff is given dingy and washed out colours which is, obviously, a good idea to give things contrast when it comes to the sudden, vivid stabs of primary colour whenever one of the costumed heroes lets rip or, in the case of The Human Torch and Toro, catch fire and light up the skies as they cut a burning path towards their enemies.

Not much more to say about this one. I preferred it to some other attempts to dip into this period in Marvel Comics history but, at the same time, it felt a little short at eight issues and so didn’t exactly feel like I was reading an epic. What it is, at the end of the day, is one of the more entertaining but light weight comics and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with taking this approach to a book. There were probably some more clever things going on which I wasn’t really aware of and a more extensive knowledge of a couple of the characters might have given me a more enriched viewpoint through the narrative but I did at least spot the two big, infamous smack-downs between The Torch and Namor which really did happen in those early comics... so not everything here went over my head, I think.

Either way, if you are an expert on characters like the original incarnation of The Angel or the Two Gun Kid or are just a novice at some of them, like me, The Marvels Project is still an entertaining little yarn and fans of the Timely period of Marvel should get a kick out of it. Definitely one to have a crack at some time. 

Monday 27 September 2021

Brand New Cherry Flavour

Once Kitten, Twice Shy

Brand New Cherry Flavour
Season 1 August 2021 - 8 episodes

Warning: Very minor spoilers to give a flavour.

Okay, so Brand New Cherry Flavour is a series based on a novel of the same name by Todd Grimson. Once again, I have to forewarn you that I haven’t read the novel in question... yet, so I don’t know how good of an adaptation it is... I suspect there might have been some elements which were toned down for TV but that’s just a gut feeling.

The story set up is of main protagonist Lisa Nova, played here by the wonderful Rose Salazar... who also co-produced this show. It’s the early 1990s and she returns to Los Angeles to crash at her ex-boyfriends place while she tries to pitch her first feature film, based on the short movie she’s just made of horrific things going on in the woods. Erik Lange plays film producer Lou, who buys her movie, with her agreeing to that on the condition she gets to direct it. However, after she refuses to let Lou sleaze his way into her panties as part of the deal, he steals her movie and employs another person to direct. Lisa is so infuriated that she hires the services of a local witch, Boro, played by Catherine Keener, to put a curse on him to ‘set his life on fire’ and get her movie back. However, there’s more to things than meets the eye and it’s a long and twisted road until the end game is in sight.

And it’s a fairly okay TV show to be honest. It’s not as weird, dark or sexy as I’d been informed when I got interested in it but it is fairly entertaining. There are a lot of different ingredients to the show which includes the main witch, a faceless lady who may or may not be related to someone in Lisa’s past, the bitter ‘actress with one eye’ who starred in the original short, more traditional zombies, hired assassins, a trail of bloody corpses, sex spells, blood spells and a heck of a lot of vomiting up kittens... Lisa’s price for Boro’s services.

However, with all these elements which go into the show, it manages to not go through any tonal shifts throughout the eight episodes and that’s a double edged sword. It’s great that the show is so focused but the story arc gets a little over explored by about episode five and, although Salazar and a whole bunch of other actors... such as Jeff Ward and Siena Werber... are really great in this, it does get a bit monotone on occasion. Not to say it gets dull but, yeah, the odd tonal shift or two might well have been a way of ramping it up a little towards the end, to be honest.

However, coupled with the great acting are some good special effects (there’s a fair amount of blood and gore on display here), some nice shot designs with some bright washes of Mario Bava style lightning on occasion (especially in the early episodes) and a fair few surprises here and there. I especially liked episode four, which delves deeply into the world of David Cronenberg at one point, even pushing the sexuality in that one a little further than Cronenberg might have gotten away with in his day (there’s some fairly unusual fisting going on in a sex scene but I don’t want to say too much about why it’s unique here because it would be a spoiler) and, for me, this was the high point of the series. Although, on the down side, who the heck takes a bath wearing their knickers?

There’s some great dialogue in here too. I didn’t think of this thing as a horror show to begin with but, after I’d watched the first six episodes, I was describing the plot to somebody and, yeah, they’re right, it absolutely is part of the horror genre. There’s even a scene where you can glimpse George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead playing on a TV set in the corner of a room. And there are also some very fan pleasing genre references such as, when Lisa is trying to coax a good performance out of her lead actress when making the short (something we see later in flashback), telling her, “I need you full on Isabelle Adjani Possession level!”... which is going to bring smiles to a lot of faces of people who remember the ‘milk scene’ from that movie, I suspect. And, also, there are some unusual, epically quotable lines scattered throughout the show such as, “That bitch just puked a cat!”

The series is actually left a little open ended, in a way, although I’m not sure you’d really want to see a sequel to this and I can’t believe there’s a heck of a lot of the book left to adapt, to be honest. That being said, I would be curious as to seeing what the few surviving characters get up to next. There’s also the odd plot point left unresolved which, I suspect, might well have been something shot (and it’s too late to work it in now even if it was, because the specific plot point I’m thinking of had an expiry date in terms of the continuing mortality of one of the characters) but I guess that’s one we’re not going to see cleared up anytime soon. Either way, Brand New Cherry Flavour, while not as ‘out there’ as I’d been set up to expect, is still a fun watch and Rose Salazar, who I’d loved in Alita: Battle Angel (reviewed here) is definitely someone to keep an eye on. This one is worth checking out for Keener’s sense of Baba Yaga too, for sure.

Sunday 26 September 2021

Free Guy

Ready NPC One

Free Guy
USA/Canada 2021
Directed by M. Shawn Levy
Walt Disney

Warning: Plot spoilers so, if you didn’t see the trailer,
probably don’t read the paragraphs here dealing with the story.

Okay, so Free Guy is one of those nicely made action fantasy movies with a lot of heart. It’s not exactly original but it’s presented in a way slightly differently to most movies that take on this kind of theme and, I’d say it more or less does it’s own thing so, I’m not going to criticise it on the ‘originality’ stakes.

After explaining to the audience the difference between the Heroes who wear sunglasses and those who don’t, Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds), wakes up every morning in Free City, grabs his blue shirt from the cupboard and heads off over to the coffee shop for his morning drink before going to work as a bank teller. A bank that’s robbed every day, one of a series of largely violent incidents barely blinked at by Guy and his friends because this stuff is happening all the time. Then he becomes somewhat aware of a girl, Molotov, who inadvertently inspires him to break out of his established routine and he steals a pair of sunglasses. The glasses help him see the world for what it is... a game in which he can evolve and raise his character level in order for Molotov, who is really Millie (played by Jodie Comer), to take him seriously.

And when I say she’s really Millie, Free City is just a big, global online video game but Guy, without any forehand knowledge of this, is an NPC (which, to those of you who don’t play video games, stands for Non Player Character). So the non-evolving, collateral damage characters who are there to interact with players and get punched, blown up or otherwise injured before re-spawning for another glorious day in Free City (much like the characters played by movie extras, I guess). However, Millie and her ex-partner Keys (played by Joe Keery) are trying to find the evidence inside the game that proves that Key’s boss, who distributes the game and who is played by director Taika Waititi, has illegally used their game engine as the basis for Free City. And once she realises what’s going on with Guy, she needs the assistance of the first evolving AI character, which itself is a remnant of that original software, to help her locate it before the sequel game is released to the public and the original version is overwritten... effectively ending all the NPC’s lives in the game (as far as Guy is concerned).

And I won’t say anymore than that but it’s a really nice action comedy with a side helping of romance and a big heart. It does, honestly, resemble Ready Player One (reviewed here) a lot. Actually, the film shares a screenwriter with Ready Player One so, perhaps that’s not so surprising. And the plot also has similarities to Disney’s earlier 1982 hit Tron in some ways... although the way in which it’s presented here is certainly a lot different.  

Reynolds is absolutely perfect in the role of the up beat NPC Guy and Jodie Comer is... well I’ve only seen her be brilliant in everything she’s in so far and she has good on-screen chemistry with Reynolds, for sure. There are also a heck of a lot of cameo appearances in the movie, too many to mention here... some quite overt like Channing Tatum and Chris Evans, others more hidden like Hugh Jackman. Also, there are loads of video game references (most of which went completely over my head because I’m not a big game player, although I did pick up that Free City was based a little on Liberty City from some of the Grand Theft Auto games) and a load of pop culture shout outs too... fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and a couple of their scores are in for a treat too, it has to be said.

The film hurtles along at a rapid pace but there’s still time to pack in a ‘double love story’ (kind of) and even a nice, very welcome reference to the problematic and insane lack of gun control laws in America, it has to be said. It’s a morally uplifting film in a lot of ways and it’s all packaged up in a world filled with hot cars, health power ups, exploding buildings and all the things you might expect from a modern, action oriented video game. However, it also pushes the idea that playing games with a violent content is not necessarily the way to go and there’s a nice moment when it’s shown that everybody around in the ‘real world’ has come to love the main NPC, known globally as Blue Shirt Guy, because he goes around trying to save people and promote the idea that everyone should be nice to each other... which is also a sensibility which has grown in him from the original source code of the unreleased game hidden somewhere in the world of Free City. It’s a nice concept and the brisk pacing and non-stop comedy shenanigans of the main characters means the idea never outstays it welcome.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about Free Guy. This film is another hit for Reynolds, as far as I’m concerned and Comer proves she has what it takes to be able to help carry a huge studio tent pole movie too. Absolutely brilliant fun and this is one I’ll definitely be picking up on Blu Ray to show my nearest and dearest. Definitely worth catching this one.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Black Heat


Route Kicksty Kicks

Black Heat
aka The Murder Gang

USA 1976 Directed by Al Adamson
IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Warning: Spoilers I guess... c’mon, it’s Adamson.

Okay, so the next title up for me to watch in Severin’s pretty thorough Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection is one of his attempts to ‘cut it’ in the popular Blaxploitation market, albeit it’s kinda late in the cycle. Black Heat gives us lead actor Timothy Brown as... drumroll please... Kicks Carter! There’s a character name for you. Along with his partner Tony, he makes up a two man army of streetwise cops as they keep their ear to the ground (okay, not literally) and get the ‘dope on the streets’ and, you know, all that stuff.

Now, this really isn’t one of Adamson’s best pictures by a long chalk (but hey it’s more watchable than movies like the truly diabolical Brain Of Blood, reviewed here and Nurses For Sale, reviewed here) and the plot on this one almost, but not quite, made sense.

So... bad guys make a deal to trade weapons in the desert (because, Al Adamson, of course he’s shooting in the desert as much as possible) for high grade drugs for the main bad guys that ‘bad guy number one’ is working for... namely psycho Ziggy played by Russ Tamblyn and his boss lady, who owns a nightclub. A nightclub where various ladies employed there have been connected to a series of crimes. With me so far? Okay, so the deal is set but Ziggy needs to blackmail Tony’s girlfriend Terry, played by Jana Bellan, to get them the movements of a security guy from the firm she’s working in, so they know when he’s carrying some money in a suitcase strapped to his wrist. This is after they get rid of suspicious cop Tony and our main man Kicks has to go it, more or less, alone... apart from some other guy who’s next to useless and his sexy news journalist lady Stephanie, played by Tanya Boyd, along for the ride.

Okay, after some shenanigans where it’s revealed that Kicks’ good guy informant, who has a lot more of a vibrant personality than him anyway, is supplying arms (keeping Kicks informed so he can nab them all in the desert) while the bad guys get the money by killing the security guy and cutting his hand off for the case. More shenanigans ensue and there’s a big showdown at the nightclub where Tamblyn gets killed... and then another showdown in the desert where Kicks’ informant gets blown away and the last of the villains takes off with the weapons in a private plane, only to be blown up when a rogue shot from Kicks starts a fire near all that ammunition... in a shot of ‘something’ exploding hastily cut in next to footage of the plane, which looks suspiciously like the same footage from The Fakers (reviewed here)... which I suspect was also tracked in footage back then.

What else? Well... Adamson turns up as a gambling customer in one scene. There’s nudity and rape and it’s mostly unpleasantly handled because... well... I think it’s supposed to be edgy. Actually, the scene where Adamson’s wife, Regina Carrol as Valerie... a friend of Kicks, Tony, Terry and Stephanie... gets interrogated by Tamblyn and co with a brutal beating, has some good make-up so it actually does look like she’s having a rough time there. Carrol wasn’t such a bad actress and she comes through in scenes like this. That being said, Adamson’s also given her a long scene where she’s at a piano singing a song for the nightclub customers which... well, it’s not a great tune and it goes on for too long so, it does kind of stop any impetus the movie was trying to build on stone dead at that point. Also, I can’t work out what her character is doing in the movie in the first place. She seems to be way surplus to requirements and, the one time at the end when I thought the bad guys were going to use her as a hostage and thus give a dramatic purpose to her inclusion... they didn’t. In fact, all the way through the picture, the bad guys just seemed to be really stupid... not even realising the cops were onto them before they were already, more or less, knocking down their door.

And there’s not much that’s remarkable in this movie, to be fair. The action scenes are okayish but almost all of them take place in either the desert or on rooftops and, I’m only just realising that when his characters are in an urban environment in these kinds of movies, Adamson generally tends to shoot a chase or two on the rooftops because, well I suppose it’s easier to deal with no crowds and I suspect you can film these low key without paying any licenses. That’s just my best guess though.

Actually, there is one scene which stands out, not because it’s particularly well executed but because it has an unusual outcome. It’s when Kicks is trying to hostage negotiate a guy down from a building and into a getaway car without getting the woman that the guy's taken taken, who is wired up as a human bomb, blown up. Well, that’s a complete failure because, once the psycho packs his hostage into the car he gets in beside her ready to drive off, his wires have got caught in the car door and when he shuts it the car goes up with them in it anyway (I think this may be the sequence that Adamson recut into the end of Doctor Dracula, reviewed here). Which is kind of unusual but I think it matches the slightly bleak attitude Adamson gave to some of his projects.

And there’s not much more for me to say on this one. I didn’t mind it but Black Heat is probably the worst example of the genre I’ve seen (so far, I think he made some more of these kinds of movies) and it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone, to be honest. A bit lukewarm rather than the temperature expectations implied in its title, I would say.

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Dark Mission

Major Matt Freemason

Dark Mission
The Secret History Of NASA

Revised & Expanded Edition
by Richard C. Hoagland & Mike Bara
Feral House
ISBN: 9781932595482

First things first. This is a review blog so, don’t expect a blow by blow account of the many ridiculous but, ultimately, seemingly flawless deductions and conclusions that make up this astonishing book... Dark Mission - The Secret History Of NASA by once NASA/TV company envoy Richard C. Hoagland (he covered the moon landing for television in 1969, among other things) and his friend and sometime actor/director Mike Bara. For one thing, I didn’t understand it all because, as has been mentioned in a lot of Amazon reviews actually, it is quite technical in places. Thankfully, that accusation could only be levelled at a couple of chapters relating the science behind the explanation of just what has (and is) going on with mankind’s relationship with moons and planets in outer space... where my grasp of physics failed me somewhat. For another thing, trying to compress that all into a short review would do the opposite of how I’d like to portray the book, by showing just how madcap the theories are, even in light of some very compelling evidence as far as I’m concerned... and I’ll get on to why it’s compelling a little later.

However, for the sake of getting you interested in this remarkable tome I will say that it deals with... some would say ‘quite obvious’ truths from the many photographs reprinted here from various sources... artificially made structures on both the Moon and also the surface of Mars (yep, this is all about Cydonia here, too), the Freemasons along with their symbology and rituals, the Nazis and the secret cults and societies which guided NASA and who JFK was reacting to when he started up the space programme, the death of said Kennedy, the numbers 33 and 19.5 (which is a Masonic thing which some of you will be familiar with and others, like me, would be ignorant of until they’ve read this book), ancient deities like Isis, Horus and Osiris... and an overlooked but very real branch of very early physics hundreds of years old dealing with a parallel hyperspace dimension which, if we’d have stuck with it, is very useful to explain some planetary anomalies which we can see exist... and even including topics like the scientist brother of director Brian De Palma, who was doing experiments on phenomena attached to that realm before his untimely death.

There... that certainly doesn’t cover it all (it’s a chunky book) but it does give you an idea.

Okay, now another thing I’ll throw in to the mix is that I’ve always been interested, from a distance, in conspiracy theories and Hoagland and Bara are certainly self confessed conspiracy theorists but, that doesn’t mean they are wrong and, as this book got more and more ludicrous as it went on... and I was trying very hard to not believe them... well, like I said, I found it compelling. Now when I was a kid I kind of believed in conspiracies and now, as an older kid in my fifties (yeah, like I’m ever going to be an adult), I try my best to disbelieve them and see if my mind can be changed. Let me tell you now, to a great extent, Hoagland and Bara changed my mind.

About twenty five years ago I got interested in alien abduction and UFO theory again. I researched by reading various books and websites and even used to know someone who worked in a civilian flight control tower who... well, he had some stories... and in the end it got too much for me. I really started to see the chains of evidence, mostly circumstantial, taking on a certain weight from the way the evidence was blocked and hidden rather than just being allowed to peter out and collapse on its own, as it would if it really wasn’t evidence at all. And I have to say that, asides from the quite compelling photos and other things which paint a story and which all cross reference each other here... even though times, dates and sources all differed from each other... exactly the same thing I used to find convinces me even more about what the two authors are talking about here. I’m not saying they’ve got everything right and I think they’d be the first to admit that. But a lot of what they’re saying and describing makes me think they are certainly in the same ‘ball park’ as ‘the truth’ for sure... whereas NASA would have you booked into a totally different ball park where a game wasn’t even taking place. Oh, yeah, by the way, as much as I never trusted NASA from little news items that used to filter through to the UK over the decades... I trust them even less having read this book.

Okay, so the thing is, NASA have done their best to quash, push back, hide and disappear the evidence of what was really going on with the Moon landings and the Mars probes. And there’s good evidence, it seems to me, that various experts have uncovered a whole lot of ways in which the officially released photos of various areas of the Moon and Mars which have been let out to the public (and there are many) have been manipulated, degraded and altered via image software (and even at the camera stage some major compromises were even ‘built in’ to the system). However, I’m a graphic designer and I know how, for example, at the very basic level, a black photograph taken outside of anything with no light which looks totally dark, can be quickly enhanced via Photoshop to provide all kinds of real life details of the image which the naked eye has missed. Now that’s probably a fairly simplistic analogy to what Hoagland and his expert associates were doing but they definitely seem to be doing the right things and doing an awful lot of detective work on the image evidence shown in this book. Why detective work? Well, because if you can get cross referenced evidence to discover exactly what things were done to manipulate a photo in the first place... then you can do a lot of good work undoing a fair amount of that manipulation. At a very basic, low end level which is nothing like a lot of what was done here but, by way of simple demonstration to you to explain the concept... sometimes if a picture is too pixilated and grainy but is really wanted in a print project, I might blur it and then resharpen it to eliminate the pixilation and therefore get a clearer shot. Hopefully, that makes some sense to you.

Anyway, the book is compelling because it shows just how much trouble NASA and various other agencies working with them have gone to hide and disprove the various bits of evidence. And when people go to those lengths, like the old “what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” quote, they manage to contradict themselves and catch themselves out publicly. So enough of that then, suffice to say that Hoagland and Bara have these things more than covered in this book too.

Perhaps the most disturbing and saddest swaying factor though, is what has happened to all the people who visited the Moon since they returned to Earth. I’m talking about Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and a whole host of others. There are certain things these astronauts won’t talk about, it would seem and also, a lot they can’t remember (and quite possibly are programmed to not remember or, at the very least, are ordered not to reveal) and this can hit them quite hard psychologically sometimes, by all accounts. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that some of them are almost deliberately prodding the public in statements made to try and unearth things they’re not allowed to talk about. I think there’s a lot of cloak and dagger stuff going on behind the scenes and, frankly, I worry for the safety and well being of both them and their nearest and dearest if certain things ever started to come to light. That last half a sentence is my own speculation leaking through now though... so I apologise for that.

Ultimately, there is a lot of red hot stuff in Dark Mission - The Secret History Of NASA which, unfortunately for my state of mind, makes a hell of a lot of sense (and I wish it didn’t). And I suspect that Hoagland and Bara have a lot of other stuff which didn’t make it into the book too... although they certainly don’t suggest that. What they do shy away from, however, is making a lot of speculation as to the implications of all that’s been discovered in the decades of research which have gone into this book. They include only what they see as facts... you will get hints as to where their minds may take them but it’s not down here in black and white. Deduction rather than projection, for the most part, seems to be the order of the day here and, if nothing else, I admire them for that. And of course, if you read about them on places like Wikipedia, they are painted within a stones throw of being crackpots but, again, so would a lot of people trying to find out the truth about a whole variety of issues over the years and, obviously, sometimes those people turn out to be dead right and the only sane ones in the room, so to speak.

Hopefully now I haven’t come off as a crackpot myself for supporting this book here (although I probably have). At the end of the day, I found Dark Mission - The Secret History Of NASA to be an absolutely ‘unputdownable’ and, sometimes, quite disturbing book and, despite how it might make me look, I’d have to say that this is one best seller which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the history of man’s encounters with space. And I’m hoping, since it is a best seller, which means it must be a popular book, that not too many people will judge me too harshly for doing so. So there you have it. Go read this damn book, it’s quite remarkable... but more than a little worrying too, I think. 

Tuesday 21 September 2021


Life’s A Beach

USA 2021
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Universal Pictures

Warning: Very minor spoilers which are probably in the trailer.

I usually don’t get on all that well with the films of M. Night Shyamalan. He’s obviously very talented but I find the majority of his films (I curiously have actually seen the majority of them) either way too obvious from the start or just with lousy endings. It’s been said he makes extended The Twilight Zone episodes and that’s not a bad analogy... but without the punch of some of the old TV show, I think. However, that being said, I really liked three of his previous movies... Unbreakable, Lady In The Water (which it seems nobody except me liked) and Devil (which he wrote but didn’t direct). Well, finally, we can add another movie I really responded to with his new film, Old.

Old is based on a graphic novel called Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. I’ll do my usual here and say that I can’t tell you how good or respectful of an adaptation it is because I’ve not read it... but, love him or hate him, Shyamalan is such a powerful artist that I’m guessing there’s a lot of his personal stamp on this.

The film starts off with a husband and wife, Guy and Prisca, played by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps, who are taking their son and daughter for a three day holiday in a luxury resort before breaking the news to them that Prisca wants to separate from her husband and, also, that she has a tumor growing which may threaten her life. Then, on the second day, they along with a few other couples and families are offered a day on the special, secret beach by the resort manager. However, when they enter the beach, they find they can’t leave it without blacking out and that... everybody has started ageing at an accelerated rate. Their new mission is to find a way off the beach before they die or succumb to various illnesses (which amounts to the same thing). It’s said the director was also inspired by Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and that kinda makes sense, although there’s a very real reason why the people here can’t leave the beach, rather than the social politeness which strands them in a place for weeks because they don’t want to be the first to leave, like in the Buñuel movie.

That’s the set up and, although that’s really all I will tell of the story, there’s actually not much I could reveal anyway in the way of spoilers. This one’s strength is that there’s no big twist to the plot. Everything is in the opening pitch, so the film doesn’t set itself up for a disappointment. However, if you are watching attentively, you will get wind of the other, side mystery fairly quickly. As soon as the family arrive at the resort and are given special cocktails and food based on their requirements, you probably know something’s up. Then, when the ‘driver’, played by the director of the movie in yet another one of his extended cameos at the start and end of the picture, gives them all too much food to take with them and refuses to actually take them onto the beach himself, you will know that something sinister is afoot. I’m glad to say though, even despite recent world events which should have tipped me off, that this minor mystery side helping of “Why?” was a surprise but made perfect sense when you get to the end of the movie. And at no point is the actual mystery of the beach explained as anything other than a naturally occurring phenomenon that just ‘is’... which is nice.

The film is slowly paced and it’s just right for this kind of material, as the characters gradually struggle to make sense of their situation. The director also makes some nice choices by choosing to highlight the artificiality of the resort hotel when the actors inhabit that space, as a counterpoint to the majority of the story being set on a stretch of open beach. For example, there’s a wonderful shot near the start where we are looking in at the main characters from outside the windows of the hotel room and the windows consist of vertical slats making big rectangles in which Shyamalan can compartmentalise the mother, father and the children. The camera slowly tracks back and forth outside these windows and then, on the third pass, we have Vicky Krieps head in close up suddenly looming into the shot as she has moved out onto the balcony when the camera was busy tracking the other way. It’s a really nice moment and a wonderful use of space and camera movement. I was very impressed with this shot, probably more than anything else in the film and I don’t mean that to the detriment of the remainder of the movie at all.

The film starts off as the usual 'family flung into a situation they need to overcome' but, as more people give in to various afflictions and consequences of the unnatural ageing of their bodies, the film takes on the sinister aspect of a horror film and, due to the seemingly supernatural properties of the beach, I am certainly tempted to call this one a horror movie. There are two spectacular ‘kills’ towards the end of the movie which certainly pack a punch... one involving the breaking and healing of limbs while the other involves a rusty knife. It’s all good stuff and certainly gives the film an edge to it.

Also, the actors in this are all great and there are some good people here other than the main leads... including the likes of Rufus Sewell, Emun Elliott, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Clint, it turns out). And one of the strengths of the movie is that, for the most part, the characters they play are mostly likeable so, when the horror element starts to creep in, you are really hoping these people will survive.

The film also has an effective score by Trevor Gureckis which starts off pretty minimally at first but kicks in at the appropriate times later in the film when called for. Alas, there’s been no proper CD release so I guess I won’t be hearing that score separate from the movie any time soon.

My first real criticism is that one of the people on the beach who has been on there a lot longer than the others seems to show no real sign of ageing (which makes you think something else may be happening) and the relative ages of various characters can be hard to keep in your head because, as in real life, people age at different rates. The explanation about the lack of growth of hair and fingernails is gotten out of the way fairly early on though (or I might have been worrying about that issue for a bit). The other problem I had was that the ‘justice is served’ style conclusion to the movie seemed a trifle optimistic in terms of expecting authority figures like the police buying into the concept behind the film but, well, sometimes you have to go the ‘shorthand’ route rather than waste another ten minutes of film to make a point, I would guess. And that really isn’t a spoiler about the conclusion of the movie, by the way... but I just can’t say why.

Other than that, though, I’m absolutely delighted that, with Old, I’m finally able to get behind an M. Night Shyamalan movie again. This is one I will actually be grabbing on Blu Ray at some point because I think my parents might like this one... despite the fact that it does tend towards the very grim by the end of the film. There’s a lot to like in this and the director does a really good job with it. I may read the graphic novel at some point, I think. 

Monday 20 September 2021

Prisoners Of The Ghostland

Testicular Prancer

Prisoners Of
The Ghostland

USA/Japan 2021
Directed by Sion Sono
XYZ Films

Prisoners Of The Ghostland is a new movie directed by Sion Sono... my first time with this director, as it happens. I can’t believe I’ve gone this far without stumbling into any movies on his lengthy CV. The film has a bizarre aesthetic to it and, I have to say, I’m not quite sure what the setting of the movie is but... I think that’s just more gasoline on the fire of the almost hallucinogenic momentum of the story as it hits various points along the through line. For example, one of the settings is a kind of ‘backlot’ set of a Western town, populated almost exclusively with Japanese actors... called Samurai Town.

Now, the production was originally supposed to have shot in Mexico and that possibly explains the strong Western overtones to the movie to an extent... heck, there’s even a scene towards the end of the movie where the music is pitched in homage to Ennio Morricone’s famous spaghetti western sound. However, before the movie started shooting, Sion Sono suffered a heart attack. The film’s main lead, Nicolas Cage, then decided that it would be easier for the director if the shoot moved from Mexico to Japan. When this happened, some of the main cast dropped out and that leaves just four main non-Japanese stars in the roster (there are a few more but the main ones are as follows...). We have Nicolas Cage himself, adding to his resume of crazy roles (I’ve gained a lot more respect for him as an actor over the last ten years) as Hero. Then we have the always amazing Sofia Boutella as Bernice, Nick Cassavetes as Psycho and Bill Mosely as the villainous Governor.

The story is that notorious bank robber Hero is in jail after his friend Psycho caused a heist to go very wrong. However, after Bernice tries to escape the town run by the governor, she ends up in the scratch town on the other side of an area known as the ghostland... where apocalypse demons of some sort (there’s a slight twist in the story line later which I won’t reveal here) stop people from returning to the other town. So the governor springs Hero to go and bring her back. However, Hero is fitted with a suit with explosives around the neck, arms and testicles. Two of these devices go off in the course of the film due to certain conditions such as striking a woman or feeling desire towards Bernice but, I’ll leave you to find out which ones for yourself... this one goes places other movies tend not to, it has to be said.

And that’s all the specific story beats I think I’ll mention. I will say that the film is quite surreal in places and while the main flow of the plot is fairly simple, the absence of a lot of logic to both the setting and the way people who populate these two places behave is less easy to get a handle on... for example, both towns seem to be holding an opposite relationship with the mechanics of time which seems like a complete nonsense and adds the fragmented feel of the plot in places. And there are some weird dialogue choices too. Cage is at his most ‘stylised over the top’ in this one (more so than on something like Willy’s Wonderland, reviewed here) and in one scene, where people are crowding around him, I’m pretty sure he repeats the dialogue that Jesus says to the lepers in the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. The film is also peppered with what can best be described as ‘allegorical reappearances’ of dead characters at key points, which possibly happens more in a non-Western culture product, I’m guessing.

The strangeness of the film is coupled with some gorgeous cinematography, it has to be said. For example, the colours in the first three scenes of the movie are like watching one of McG’s Charlie’s Angels epics. Starting off with as much of the opening bank heist as they want to show before a full reveal later in the story, the heist has a small shot of colour but is mostly done with cold, clinical white. Then we cut to a scene of Bernice getting some sex workers out of town and the whole thing is done with bright reds, yellows and oranges. This is followed by another scene where she wakes up in the ghostland town and it’s all teal and orange for a little while.

There’s lot of action and the film is never once dull, it has to be said. And some of the violence is very much 1960s chambara action but every now and again the director will punctuate this with something a little special in terms of artistic expression. For example, there’s a lovely, beautiful piece of expressive, violent choreography where a swordsman gets run into one of those big paper lanterns and his head goes inside. The lantern is in the foreground of the shot so we can’t see his head but when a guy comes up behind and stabs him in the head or neck, the explosion of arterial spray is shown to be filling the inside of the lamp. So stuff like that, where something old is presented in a new way, keeps you watching.

I was thinking about the aesthetic of the film once it had finished and... it’s like the kind of ‘straight to video’ movies you’d see on the rental shelves of a local video store in the 1980s. Such as those low budget, post-apocalyptic science fiction action films where the cast and crew try their best to make the most out of a tiny budget and so it looks a little disjointed in places and doesn’t always quite follow through on all the plot elements... but it would have its own feel and a certain kind of appeal to it. This movie is like if a director had been given a much larger budget but still tried to stick to that kind of stylistic impetus to deliver something slightly out of kilter with what an audience is expecting to see these days. Which is kind of nice and, for all I know, the setting of this movie is indeed supposed to be post-apocalyptic... so there’s that.

Prisoners Of The Ghostland is a fun slice of action cinema which is a little over the top in places and is quite surreal to boot but, also quite gorgeous looking. A place where the tropes of genres such as post-apocalyptic sci-fi, chambara and spaghetti western are blended to give the audience something which feels both familiar but also a little alien. If you’re a fan of the kind of roles Nicolas Cage has been taking on over the last ten years or so, you’ll probably love this one. Certainly something which would play well in an all-nighter screening of movies, for sure.

Sunday 19 September 2021

Gunpowder Milkshake


Gunpowder Milkshake
France/Germany/USA 2021
Directed by Navot Papushado

Warning: Some light spoilers here.

Wow, what a great action movie. I’ve been a huge admirer of Karen Gillan ever since she charmed our hearts and minds as Amy Pond in Doctor Who. She’s finally making some success of it in Hollywoodland now, with roles like Nebula in multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe films and, okay, the odd thing like the Jumanji reboot (a film for which I’ve still not had the heart to publish my review and, I will one day but, to sum up my thoughts on that one... bloody awful... but she was still good in it, even if she couldn’t save the picture). Since I saw her in the opening of Stuber (reviewed here) and she played the all action cop partner who was fridged right at the start of the film to motivate the main character, I’d been wondering when the fine folks in Hollywood were finally going to let her head up an action vehicle and, yeah, Gunpowder Milkshake is an almost perfect film with which to do it.

The plot is very simplistic, which means there are no ‘I saw that coming an hour ago’ reveals and it really is just a string of big action set pieces strung together with the bare bones of a story. Here, she plays a very successful hit woman working for ‘The Firm’. Her mother, played by the equally wonderful Lena Heady, kinda ran out on her when she was young and she was subsequently brought up by one of the higher ups in The Firm to be... well... just like her mother. The film opens with a mostly absent action sequence which is continually referred back to throughout the film in which, due to bad instructions, she kills the son of the head of a criminal organisation. She then compounds the mistake by not recovering some stolen money but also by rescuing a young girl, aged 8 and three quarters and played by Chloe Coleman, whose father she also mistakenly killed.

And then, both the heads of rival criminal organisations want her out of the way and so she goes to borrow weaponry from three former associates (I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity here) at a library which specialises in firepower... played by another three big action names, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett and Carla Gugino. Along the way, while protecting the newly orphaned child, she also reunites with her mother and, long story short, the six women fight back against the huge groups of assassins coming for them.

And it’s just a wonderful movie. Giving us a diner where people have to check their guns in, a library where people can check guns out and, eventually, leading us back to the diner... where many people get checked out. The chemistry between the actors and the wonderful dialogue they perform is top notch (even Michael Smiley gets a look in and, as for the representative for 'The Firm', it’s Paul Giamatti, ‘nuff said!) but even that pales in comparison to the absolutely wonderful mise en scène of the thing. It’s like a colourful, poppy comic book tapping into a vague noir thriller sensibility and then mixed liberally with a fair few spaghetti western tropes into the bargain. I knew I was in good hands when Gillan returns home at the start of the movie, opens the fridge and there’s a wonderful shot looking at her from inside the fridge which then tracks down from one shelve to the one below it in a smooth camera movement. Another great shot, which acts by way of an establishing shot, is when we are caught up with the aftermath scene of her character’s unfilmed mistake and the room full of carnage is viewed through the vertical rectangle of an open doorway surrounded by blackness at the centre of the wide screen ratio, the rectangle widening out slowly as the camera zooms in.

There’s some beautiful use of colour too, with a very bright palette of combined primaries which occasionally gives way to a frame which is purely infused with just one colour, such as red washing over the shot. This film goes for a full on eye candy approach which, when coupled with the rich sound design and beautifully choreographed action sequences, makes for a very seductive viewing experience.

There are some nice things I hadn’t seen here before too, including a scene where the kid has to help Gillan’s character because both her hands have been numbed but she has to get into a big fight and, similarly, because of the same reason, she has to help the child drive her car in a cat and mouse car chase in an interior car park. It’s good, inventive stuff and well worth a look, even for the most jaded action fans... and it doesn’t hurt that it has a warm heart beating at the story’s centre either.

And as for Frank Ilfman’s incredible score... well. It starts off really well with a theme made of five note melodic segments played on, what sounds to me, like a cimbalom (or something near to that). It’s used quite a lot in the early part of the movie but then, starting with a scene which itself has big ‘showdown eye’ moments reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, there's what sounds like either a sample or rerecording of the ‘we can fight’ chorus from Morricone’s score for that director’s A Fistful Of Dollars... as we are presented with a beautiful action cue that acts as an ‘homage with a beat’ to various Morricone scores, including a chime which has the same orchestral punctuation of the pocket watch chimes in For A Few Dollars More and some spots which glue the music together in the style of Edda Dell'Orso’s kick ass vocals for films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s a wonderful cue which scores a fight in Gutterballs Bowling Alley (a reference to The Big Lebowski, perhaps) and, although two of the major action scenes use needle dropped songs to back them up, there is a lot of the Morricone influenced stuff in it and while the song which scores the slow motion fight at the diner is fine, it’s heavily preluded by a typical Morricone-esque showdown opener which Ilfman manages to pull off with a certain amount of style. I’ve heard other composers try to do this on occasion and, sometimes fail to keep the spirit without overly copying from the late, great Italian maestro.

And if that wasn’t enough, in a shootout scene about halfway through the movie, the four bad guys are wearing latex masks of the ‘big four’ Universal monsters... Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolfman... culminating in a scene where Gillan violently despatches the 'Dracula dude' in the exact manner befitting his original counterpart (perhaps more in line with the way Hammer would do it, in terms of graphic violence). It’s not a subtle movie for sure but... it is very welcome.

And that’s all I’ve got to say right now about Gunpowder Milkshake. If you are a fan of action movies which have beautiful cinematography, great actors, a nice bit of scripting and some wonderful music, then you really can’t go wrong with this one. I just hope this one makes it onto Blu Ray at some point because I’m chomping at the bit to grab this one as soon as it comes out. A highly recommended, explosive beverage of a movie, for sure. 

Thursday 16 September 2021

House Of Frankenstein

The Man
With Niemann

House Of Frankenstein
USA 1944 Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so after hitting on the idea of having two monsters for the price of one in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (reviewed here), what could be a more natural progression than to fashion a movie which would star all four of Universal’s main, flagship monsters? Alas, the budget proved too much for their original line up so, despite originally planning another continuity busting component of this film when it was originally to be titled, The Devil’s Brew, the studio ditched the idea of having Kharis The Mummy getting in on the fun here too.

But we do have, in House Of Frankenstein, the first film to feature Dracula (as played by John Carradine), the Wolfman (as played once again by Lon Chaney Jr) and the Frankenstein monster (played once again by Glenn Strange). Bela Lugosi was originally scheduled to return as Dracula but some scheduling difficulties arose when Boris Karloff, who is also in this film, had to be released from a stage contract... so the studio went with Carradine in Bela's role due to the delay.

Yes, that’s right, Boris Karloff returns to this film as Dr. Niemann, a murderous mad scientist who along with a fellow cell mate, a hunchback lab assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, escape from their prison in order to find the secrets of the Frankenstein monster and seek revenge on the village people who put Niemann in jail (not the ones who sing YMCA). So, yeah, it’s kind of strange to have Karloff in a Frankenstein movie in which he’s not actually playing the monster but, honestly, he’s very good in this. His wonderful line delivery and the way he interacts with the other characters really lifts the film.

There are also a few other names from previous Universal horror movies who people will recognise, all pretty much playing different characters to their previous one... such as Anne Gwynne, Lionel Atwill and George Zucco.

Now, the thing about this movie is that it’s not really a proper monster mash at all. In terms of the story connecting up the three monsters... well, it really doesn’t. Niemann and his assistant are the only connecting tissue in a story that is definitely a game of two halves. The film plays for 1 hour and 10 mins but Dracula is only in the first half an hour and the other two monsters don’t come into the story until after he has made his last bow. Again.

So Karloff and Nash take over a travelling side show trailer, Professor Lampini’s Chamber Of Horrors on the way to the village of Frankenstein. The trailer comes complete with a specialist exhibit in the form of the actual skeleton of Dracula, with a stake pinning it in its coffin. When Karloff pulls out the stake in anger in one scene, not even he would have believed it but we are treated to the skeleton transforming into John Carradine, who kills one of Lampini’s foes (played by Sig Ruman from A Night At The Opera) in return for Niemman’s help... a favour which doesn’t get returned because, while he is being pursued for his crime, Dracula gets caught in the daylight and returns back to skeletal form (until the next film... yeah, we’ll get that one in another review). Of course, this whole back story about the skeleton being unearthed in Castle Dracula in Transylvania makes absolutely no sense in terms of continuity with any of the previous Dracula films but, hey, that seems to become the rule rather than the exception by this stage in the series of Universal horror films.

The other half of the film deals with Niemann not fulfilling his promises to either his assistant or to Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, who he thaws out along with the Frankenstein monster as, it turns out, the flood which engulfed the castle at the end of Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman merely washed them into a cave system under the castle where they were frozen solid for many years. Niemann has promised Larry a brand new brain for his help which, frankly, makes a lot less sense to me than just putting his current brain into a new body but, yeah, I’m not a scientist so what do I know about such things?

Anyway, as usual, things go wrong but, astonishingly, even though the Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney in his human form share a couple of shots, the Wolfman incarnation doesn’t share screen time with the monster... so there’s not even a big showdown between these two like there was in a the previous installment. So, at the end of this one we have Dracula back as a skeleton, the Wolfman dead by a silver bullet (again, it’s only a temporary fix) and the Frankenstein monster engulfed by quicksand in much the same way that Kharis the mummy had sunk into a swamp the same year in The Mummy’s Ghost (reviewed here).

But, despite all this, the movie is rather well made and quite entertaining. Kenton seems to have an eye for the design and lighting of these things and there are some nice compositions which lead the eye into the centre of the frame quite a lot. Also some great scenes shot through vertical bars of windows and fences (and sometimes both) which make an impression... not to mention the placement of people at different heights to balance out the shots. And, of course, Hans J. Salter’s score does the usual thing and gives it the kind of music one always associates with these Universal monster pictures.

Admittedly, it’s a disappointment that at least two of the monsters don’t actually meet up properly in this one but these characters would all share the screen two more times for this era of Universal horrors and so, their time would come. House Of Frankenstein is one of the better B-movies of this era and a pleasure to watch every now and again... even if it features neither Frankenstein (it just features his more famous monster) nor, you know, his house. Essential viewing for admirers of these franchises, though, for sure.

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Snake Eyes - GI Joe Origins

The Snake’s Progress

Snake Eyes
GI Joe Origins
Paramount Can
ada/USA 2021
Directed by Robert Schwentke

So once again, after a very long time, we have a third GI Joe film, Snake Eyes - GI Joe Origins. This one is not a sequel type of reboot (like the second movie) but a fresh reboot. I could kinda tell that because the main characters, Snake Eyes (played by played by Henry Golding) and Storm Shadow (played by Andrew Koji), are not played by the same actors from the previous films. That being said, it’s all very confusing if you try and shoehorn it into the previous movies and, frankly, they were already confusing enough.

Um... okay, the film deals with Snake Eyes, who spends his life trying to find the man who killed his father when he was a boy. Flash forward to the present and he gets himself involved with a ninja clan of ‘good guys’ who are allies of the GI Joes (represented in this movie by Samara Weaving as Scarlett) and enemies of COBRA (represented by Úrsula Corberó as The Baroness). It’s mostly about his training and moral ambiguity about who he’s really working for... and the way that question gets ultimately resolved by the end of the film.

And it’s a big, dumb blockbuster film with lots of action, not terribly credible characters and actors who look like they are trying to do their best with dialogue which, frankly, is riddled with clichés but without the requisite sense of self awareness behind the writing to allow the actors to elevate things beyond that, it seems to me. What this means is that you don’t really relate all that much to the characters either way (the moral ambiguity of the two leads really doesn’t help this) and, while there’s a lot of fun to the various action pieces... it all feels kinda flat at the same time with nothing much really at stake.

There’s another problem too, to my mind.

In one sequence, Snake Eyes slices open a cut on his hand and pushes it into a similar one from Storm Shadow, so they become blood brothers of sorts. Now, there is another motive for the title character in this scene which you’ll see very quickly after this but, the point is this... this is the only time you will see any blood spilled in the movie. Which is totally unrealistic because, the body count on this one is high and the primary fighting sequences here mostly play out with samurai swords. People getting sliced but not diced and, honestly, loads of people dying without seeming to spill a drop of blood. I mean come on... this really pushes the boundaries of credibility and is a cynical play on behalf of the filmmakers to get a lower cinema rating. And, yes, I know this film is meant to appeal to children as a huge part of the target audience but it really hurts the piece if everyone is dying by sword cuts and there’s no bleeding in sight. If you want to make a credible film for children then it’s very easy... don’t use a weapon of death which, by its very nature, raises the expectations of splashing body fluids as a direct consequence of the actions of the characters. This is too much to swallow.

Okay... this is a short review but I will say one positive in that some of the characters, including Snake Eyes, are likeable enough. That being said, I did notice a lot of the characters played by some famous actors seemed to have very flat delivery of their lines and almost no emotional content. It’s like somebody got a bunch of GI Joe action figures and breathed a semblance of life into these lumps of plastic and, as a result, their on screen presence was not much more than it would have been if we were watching said lump of plastic. For the record, due to the skill of some of these actors and actresses, I can only assume this was a deliberate piece of direction to inhabit the roles as flatly as possible so they do, in fact, more resemble the toys that they are based on. At least I hope that was the case.

However, some of the camera movements are nice, the colour schemes are good and the action choreography, bloodless as it is, is pretty exciting for a while. It’s also edited in a way which doesn’t lose you during the more fast paced scenes so, yeah, all competent movie making... just not necessarily great movie making, in this case. Oh... and believe it or not, Iko Uwais who played the lead character in both of The Raid movies has a big part in this and, considering we all know just how brilliant this guy can be, it’s sad to say that he is likeable but completely wasted in the movie. Like a lot of the cast, it has to be said.

The one thing I did think was okay was the score by Martin Todsharow... which was handy in my case because the only reason I bothered to watch this thing was because of the limited edition CD release of the score in the US. If it hadn’t got a proper CD release, I’d have to say I wouldn’t have bothered watching this one in the first place. So good on the company for at least cutting a CD deal and not giving us that compressed digital download rubbish that a lot of disrespectful companies seem to be peddling these days.

And yeah, that really is me done with Snake Eyes - GI Joe origins. It’s got action, adventure and is an okay watch... but I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone over the age of 12, it has to be said. Now if someone would like to make a proper Action Man movie, along with an actor who can ‘do’ the eagle eyes, that would be a much more interesting proposition.

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Arabella The Traitor Of Mars

Consider Phobos

Arabella The Traitor Of Mars
Written by David D. Levine
Tor Books ISBN: 978-0765382832

David D. Levine’s Arabella The Traitor Of Mars is, once again, an extraordinary and very special novel, being the third and, hopefully not final, tome rounding off the trilogy begun with Arabella Of Mars (reviewed here) and Arabella And The Battle Of Venus (reviewed here). And if you’re new to the truly wonderful fantasy world build by Levine, the novels tell of great Naval battles fought and explorations made in galleons sailing the air currents around the various planets in the Victorian era. They read, I’ll say again for any newcomers to the series, like a sly mixture of C. S. Forester, Jane Austen and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary novels all rolled into one astounding science fiction package. And pardon me for gushing but it’s extremely rare I find a contemporary writer I actually like and, given the tragic circumstances under which this third tale was written (which I won’t go into here but you can read yourself in the afterword of the book), it seems like almost a miracle that this wonderful confection was ever written at all.

The novel is split into three main sections starting off with Section One - Earth 1816. Following the Battle Of Venus in the last book, where Arabella Ashby and her husband, Captain Singh and their latest companion Captain Fox were instrumental in helping Nelson defeat Napoleon in the air battle off Venus, Arabella finds herself back on Earth, getting along very well with the aid of her new clockwork foot, replacing the limb she lost at the end of her previous adventure. And the novel opens with a wonderfully atmospheric, icebound jubilee fair, on one of those rare occasions from olden days when the Thames used to freeze over and various stalls and games were introduced onto the frozen river. This is the first time that Arabella and her spouse have ever seen snow...

The scene then shifts to Brighton Pavilion, modelled after Venusian decor of course, when Arabella and her noble spouse are invited there by the Prince Of Wales. It is here, also, that Arabella is first introduced to a rare and decidedly overlooked gadget which turns out to be an early form of bicycle, which she helps improve and comes up with the idea of using pedals to increase its efficiency. However, a difficult and hard to decline offer from the Prince sees Arabella escaping Brighton to gain passage with Captain Fox to make the long journey to Mars, in order to warn them of the Prince’s plans to conquer and subjugate her home planet (she is human but was born and raised in the lighter gravity of Mars), with a fleet headed up by her newly promoted husband. She is thus, a traitor to her sovereign (as the English see it) and not a traitor to Mars, as was my initial concern when first reading the title of the book... but a traitor of Mars, as it more literally says.

Section Two - In Transit 1816, tells of the long journey to Mars and also of the arrival of a very welcome and unexpected ally. There’s also a battle with a giant space squid off of Mercury (the planet which Arabella is using to slingshot the crew of Fox’s ship into an air current to conduct them in a more efficacious manner towards Mars) and the discovery that the English intend to use underhanded tactics using a Venusian drug called Ulka, to subjugate the will of the Martians.

Section Three - Mars 1817 - 1819, tells of the long, harrowing and anxious preparations to equip various sympathetic concerns on Mars (not everyone wants to help maintain the independence of Arabella’s home-from-home planet, including a member of her own family who meant a lot to her in her past but who is now somewhat estranged and painted in villainous disposition), enabling them to at least attempt to hold their own against the mighty ships of the English. Much drama is wrought from the situation including more use of bicycles, a night time raid on drug smugglers to steal one of the Venusian animals which make the Helium gas needed to hold their own in their battles and, of course, a fleet (of sorts) with which to combat the menace. This all leads to two very exciting battles around the atmosphere of Phobos (a moon of Mars not discovered on Earth until much later than the setting of these stories in real life but, of course, in this alternate version of reality, the first human settlers on Mars would have discovered it for themselves straight away) and much damage is done to both sides, especially to the small Martian resistance hoping to turn the tide of battle. And of course I’m not going to tell you how all that goes, you need to read these books yourself but, I have to say, this one is probably even better than the last one as far as ‘edge of your seat suspense’ goes. Levine’s style of writing these tales, a kind of modernised appropriation of the stylistic writing of Jules Verne (I mean that as a compliment, for sure) is at once engaging and allows for a real empathy with the various characters and situations, breathing life into a tale of imagination which already has a lot going for it and which is only enhanced further by the fact that it’s incredibly well written and extremely entertaining.

And that’s me done with this saga for now... I can only hope the writer decides to come back to these characters at some point. There is a small, epilogue section set on Mars in 1828, where we see how the survivors of the last battle of the book have moved on nine years after and, frankly, a sequel could easily continue on from this point in time. It’s also a charming epilogue and a reminder of the sometime human characteristics of a certain automaton, whose inclusion in the novels is absolutely vital to the success of the campaigns and adventures related in the trilogy. I can only recommend Arabella The Traitor Of Mars as being another full-on and quite colourful entertainment, which I’m sure all great lovers of science fiction (and Naval warfare, for that matter) would embrace with an enthusiasm equalling my own. My one caveat is that, if you are entirely new to the series, don’t use this one as a jumping on point, go back to the first two novels and read the trilogy as a whole to get the best emotional investment from it. A truly splendid and joyous sequence of tales from start to finish.