Monday, 23 May 2022

Shaolin Kung Fu




Shaolin Alley

Shaolin Kung Fu
aka Shao Lin gong fu
Taiwan 1974
Directed by Joseph Kuo
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Some small spoilers.

Well this is an interesting one from Kuo. I think this is possibly the earliest of the eight movies directed by him which are presented in Eureka’s Cinematic Vengeance box set and, it’s also one of the bleaker entries. On the surface, Shaolin Kung Fu is a tale about young Lin Fung, played by Chiang-Lung Wen, who earns his living as one of many rickshaw drivers in a small village to support him and his blind wife. However, a new, rival rickshaw company is taking away their trade by not playing fair and using bullying tactics to drive the underdogs out of business. Lin Fung, who also has two other female characters looking on him with admiration, in addition to his wife, has vowed to not fight after his wife was blinded and her father destroyed in a flashback sequence, by the vengeance of a violent kung fu grudge. Alas, when he sees first his uncle and then a young boy being beaten by the bad guy rickshaw drivers, he goes nuts, breaks his vow and violence begets violence until he reaches a final showdown with the rival boss.

Now, you could say this is a morality tale showing that violence and vengeance never pays but, no, it’s actually far bleaker than that. If Lin Fung does nothing then many lives are ruined, so he’s pretty much got to stand up and do something... as he’s clearly the most skilled kung fu fighter amongst the firm of ‘good guy rickshaw drivers’. So, it just spirals out of control with various people getting killed and, in turn, being sacrificed as each successive layer of bad guys, hierarchical leading up to the main villain of the piece (the owner of the ‘bad guy’ rickshaw drivers) is in his sights. On that journey, we are certainly shown how violence welcomes one dose of bad fortune after another, as all three lead females who were Lin Fung’s friends are killed due to his efforts to equalise the situation... to no avail. Impressively, his blind wife head butts herself to death rather than see Lin Fung get hurt... which obviously just leads to more conflict.

And this film really is an example of the best of both worlds, in terms of what I’ve seen by this director. I’ve seen a number of films where story takes a back seat to excellent kung fu sequences... to the point where the story is almost non-existent and confusing at best (I’m looking at you The 36 Deadly Styles... reviewed here) and I’ve seen films where he’s tried to inject a strong story element and spend time developing the characters and their relationships with each other, at the expense of totally losing any real interest in the spectacular fighting scenes which are the main draw for the target audience. Here, however, we have a very strong story and build up with characters peppered with just enough fight scenes, as the tension escalates, before finally kicking into high gear in the second half of the movie where, after the death of his wife, Lin Fung escapes a dungeon but then loses two more female friends before going on, as Beatrix Kiddo might put it, a roaring rampage of revenge.

The fight scenes are maybe not quite as sophisticated as in the director’s later pictures but they make up for it with lots of energy, astounding and unbelievable leaping and, in two instances, a demonstration of Lin Fung’s ability to stop the heart of his enemy by just jabbing it with his finger on the correct pressure point. So yeah, good stuff.

There’s some nice cinematography in various scenes, such as when the director will use internal window frames between rooms to frame an actor or use the verticals in a room to further compartmentalise and split the characters. Also, there’s a pretty good looking fight on various parts of a cliff which make for some interesting shots, where the opponents leap to and from various parts of the rocky cliff side. It’s almost enough to make me forget that certain sections of the movie are needle dropped with bits of Lalo Schifrin’s score to Enter The Dragon from the year before. Well, almost but, you know... not quite.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about Shaolin Kung Fu. It’s a nice movie which shows a final, hollow victory for the hero as he saves the reputation and business of his rickshaw company at the expense of losing his wife and two other admiring young women. Is it worth it for the hero of the film? Well probably not but it’s certainly fun to watch and a solid kung fu mini opus from director Kuo. Plus, you know, we get to see the fabulous finger of death move, too!

Sunday, 22 May 2022

The Northman










May The Norse
Be With You


The Northman
UK 2022
Directed by Robert Eggers
Universal


The Northman is director Robert Eggers third full length feature film and, as a big studio release, is also around ten times more the budget of his previous two movies put together (at least). Now, I really liked his feature debut The VVitch (reviewed here) but I had some problems appreciating his follow up feature, The Lighthouse, truth be told (reviewed here). Having now seen The Northman, which has been receiving a lot of good word of mouth as being this generation’s equivalent of Conan The Barbarian (no, it really isn’t), I can say that for me, this one pretty much lays somewhere in the middle of both of those. Like many Hollywood released movies of recent months, I’d have to say it isn’t a great movie and, again, it’s not a bad one either. It feels a little compromised somehow (which fits with some things the director himself has said about it) and it doesn’t feel quite epic enough in scope to be counted among many of the big fantasy films which have gone before (and it’s certainly a fantasy version of a tale rather than a straight historical one, for sure, despite much authenticity to certain scenes depicting historical customs).

Another thing I’d heard about it was that it has a very complex story... um... really? No it hasn’t. It’s a very basic revenge movie where a son witnesses his father’s death (in this case, the father is a king played by Ethan Hawke) and escapes to a distant land so he can return to avenge his father many years later.  And, yes, you’ve seen the story done a hundred times before by now on screen, I should think. The grown up son is played by Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, his mother is played by Nicole Kidman, his favourite seer is played by Willem Dafoe (from Eggers previous film), his father’s killer is played by Claes Bang and Skarsgård’s quirky love interest is played by the always incredible Anya Taylor-Joy (another Eggers collaborator). They’re all very good, the story is very simple... in that Amleth has to track down a legendary sword with semi-mystical properties (think of it as a lightweight, Stormbringer wannabe from Moorcock’s Elric Of Melnibone stories) and slay his father’s killer. So he brands himself as a slave and makes himself useful in his enemy’s community, to hide himself in plain sight and keep close to his target.

There’s literally nothing much to say about the plot but the comments that it has similarities to Conan The Barbarian, are not completely unfounded in terms of some of the content and the occasional (I believe, deliberate) nod. For example, the son living a hard life away from his slaughtered kin to return to avenge his father is pretty much the same as the first movie version of Robert E Howard’s literary creation. The scene where Amleth comes across his magical sword is very much reminiscent of the short Conan story The Thing In The Crypt, written by  L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, it seems to me. Also, the pre-credits sequence starts off with the similar, low percussion element on the music followed by the growly tones of voice over narrative introducing the character, which is again very similar to the first Conan movie... although, stylistically and in most ways, this is where the similarity ends.

It’s an entertaining enough yarn, though and it looks very good. Eggers has used something almost black and white for many of the shots set in the moonlight (which is the only time the sword can be properly used to feed on opponents blood... in darkness). So some shots will be completely monotone while others, midst the grayness, will have things like coloured torch flames, very much reminiscent of the style of pitching the colour and monotone together as seen in the Sin City movies.

So, yeah, the film looks pretty spectacular, rattles along at a hasty pace and, you are pretty much rooting for Amleth the whole way through the movie. It doesn’t, as I said earlier, feel really epic but this is more to do with the scope of the story, I think... as I said, it looks pretty spectacular.

Despite the opening bars of the score, this doesn’t go the full on, rich epic Hollywood sound of the Basil Poledouris music for Conan The Barbarian either. If anything, it’s much more stripped back and ‘of its time’ in terms of the way the music is functioning in the film (and when I say ‘of it’s time’... I don’t necessarily mean that literally, I mean that it’s more transparent, uncomplicated writing with simple orchestration). So it surprised me somewhat... since it sounds just the kind of score Eggers’ previous collaborator on his first two features, Mark Korven, would have written for this... that it’s actually composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough. I need to hear this one again and, at time of writing, it’s been announced that there will be a CD release of this coming soon, so I may just get a chance if they stick to their guns on that.

And I’m sorry this is such a short review for this film but that’s me pretty much done with The Northman. Like The Lighthouse, I doubt I’ll be revisiting this one for a second watch but fans of this kind of stuff should have a strong liking for it, I would have thought. It’s an entertaining, bloody depiction of a familiar trope which people should lap up. I’ve certainly not given up on this director... and I’m happy to see what he comes up with next (I think the big studio experience has somewhat him soured to taking on something like this again, by the sound of it).

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Invasion




Space Invaders

Invasion
USA October - December 2021
Series 1 Ten episodes


Warning: This one has spoilers invading the reading space.

Okay, so ignoring the many other films and TV shows with the exact same title, Invasion is a new episodic serial which was broadcast at the end of last year. Now, I can’t quite remember how I first heard of it, it may have been a semi-recommendation on the All The Colours Of The Dark podcast but, truth be told, I wasn’t going to bother with it. Then, however, I found out that there had been a CD release of some of Max Richter’s score for the show. Well, okay then, now I had to watch it (the CD should also be joining me through my letterbox at some point today, as I type these words, too).

And I’m glad I did because it’s a phenomenally intense show about an apparently hostile alien invasion of planet Earth, told through the lens of four different characters in different parts of the world. Well, okay, five different characters initially, but one drops out of the narrative in the first episode (the expensive one), which comprises the openings (and in one case closing) of three of the simultaneous running stories of people trying to survive the next week, with two more characters in different time zones on the planet starting up from the second episode onwards.

So we have Sam Neil as a small town sheriff in the US. If you can believe it, he’s on his last day of work before retirement and the writers totally run with that cliché and take it to its more than obvious conclusion at the end of the first episode. Then we have Mitsuki, played by Shioli Kutsuna. She works for the Japanese space agency JASA as a technician and, in the first episode, her astronaut girlfriend blasts off into space but encounters something deadly there. Mitsuki needs to know what happened to her and how her spacecraft was damaged, at whatever cost.

Next up is Aneesha, played by Golshifteh Farahani. She is the mother of two children living happily with her husband until the day she finds out he’s been having an affair with another woman and is about to leave her... right as the world finds itself under attack and the two of them have to put their new differences aside to try and ensure their kids’ survival. Then we have Shamier Anderson as Trevante, a soldier in the Middle East whose entire troop (and more) is taken out during an ‘alien encounter’. Alone, wounded and confused, he just needs to get out of the country and back home to America to make peace with his wronged wife.

And lastly there’s Caspar, played brilliantly by Billy Barratt. He’s one of a group of school children who find themselves stranded in the country and trapped in a huge crater after an alien attack, where it all gets a bit Lord Of The Flies for a while. I’d have to say that he’s, for me, the best thing in the show and totally carries it... along with his schoolgirl love interest played strongly by India Brown and an equally brilliant performance from Paddy Holland as the hateful school bully, who we find is more than just a two dimensional presence and a much more complex, fragile character himself.

And it’s all kinda great. The four story strands never really threaten to come together as they’re supposed to be four different viewpoints on the slowly emerging picture of the attacking aliens although, it has to be said, two of the least likely threads you would expect to join up do overlap and characters ‘team up’, so to speak, in London in the penultimate episode of the first season. And this way of looking at four simultaneous storylines throughout kept me absolutely hooked, as it makes for an intriguing, slow reveal on everything, not unwrapping its secrets too early and allowing the intensity of the mystery and strong (sometimes even brutal in terms of emotional punchiness) events and encounters to build and create almost unbearable suspense. I couldn’t stop watching this thing and binged the whole thing in a couple of evenings.

There are odd things about it too but, that just adds to the freshness, for the most part. For instance, there’s a change to the format in one, shorter episode which focuses on only one of the sets of characters I mentioned earlier and, it’s very much in the vein of the old War Of The Worlds moment where everyone is trying to stay out of reach of an alien invader which is loose in a house, trying not to alert it to their presence as they know that if they do, the end would be relatively swift. Also, there’s an odd subplot involving this same set of characters towards the end of the run where they are being hunted by a splinter group of humans for, honestly, no good reason that I could fathom. Not sure what was going on there, to be honest. It’s taut and one, long suffering character, cashes in their chips at this point but, yeah, no idea why.

My biggest surprise and delight, though, was when we first meet the schoolchildren in episode two at, as the caption says, London, England, United Kingdom, Earth (which does suggest that, at some point in a future season, we might not necessarily be on Earth anymore). The thing is, the kids start off in my small home town of Enfield. There’s the market place with the band stand five minutes from where I live, a reverse shot of a bus going past Pearsons of Enfield, before they go into the Grammar School I used to attend and get on a school bus (which inexplicably goes over Tower Bridge a minute later). I had no idea this was being shot here and, judging by how crowded the streets are, I can only assume the scenes were taken with small cameras hidden from the public. I can’t see how they would have managed to lock down the area here in Enfield Town for shooting without a lot of people knowing about it. But it was great to see my home town on screen, in a big budget US sci-fi/horror show, no less.

There’s also the odd thing where the wrap up comes in the ninth of the ten episodes (where another major character dies although, it would seem, that also isn’t the last we’ll hear of that character, perhaps, since there’s still obviously some brain activity in there, even if this person isn't breathing anymore). Everything seems concluded in the ninth and, mostly episode ten just deals with the aftermath but, because of the way events have unfolded (and the insistence of one character that things aren’t necessarily over, plus her sinister kid who obviously knows something), you kinda know they’re building to something else and, sure enough, something happens at the conclusion of the last episode that sets up the next season of Invasion.

Which, I’m delighted to say, has been commissioned and is currently scheduled to release in the Autumn. I wasn’t sure it would because, when I saw a load of reviews of this, I was absolutely gobsmacked to find that most people seemed to hate the show. Furthermore, they seemed to hate it for all the reasons that I loved it. So that’s a bit strange.

And that’s me done with Invasion until the second series comes along... I’d recommend it to anyone. Looking at some of the criticisms the show has received, they all seem to centre on the fragmentary nature of the story but, for me, this is what kept the show alive. Admittedly, the ditching of a main story arc from the first episode seems a little strange and one wonders if there was some production trouble at some point, which necessitated a change to the script. Also, there are a heck of a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions within the show so, yeah, I think it’s perfectly credible to assume the writers have more to say on this one. I hope the second season doesn’t spoil the excellent work done here and, yeah, I can’t wait to see it.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes


 

Time Before Time

Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes
aka Droste no hate de bokura
Japan 2020 Directed by Junta Yamaguchi
Third Window Films Blu Ray Zone B


The reason I picked Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes up was because people were kind of connecting it with the brilliant movie One Cut Of The Dead (reviewed by me here) to the point where I was under the impression that this film was written and directed by the same person. It’s actually not and, as far as I can tell, other than an endorsement it has nothing to do with him.

However, while this ‘filmed in one take’ movie is nothing to do with that, it’s still quite an accomplished but... and this is saying something... even more of a small scale production than One Cut Of The Dead. And I’m going to stop mentioning that other film now other than to say... the two films are worlds apart and it’s like comparing apples to oranges. It was just a marketing ploy.

What we have with Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes is a movie which is more of a light hearted look at a thought exercise. The basic plot set up is that a small cafe owner goes to his flat above the shop to find himself talking to him on his monitor from the other monitor downstairs, from two minutes in the future. So he then goes downstairs to see if its true and has the same conversation with himself from two minutes in the past upstairs. And then more people get involved with the two monitors... one which projects from two minutes in the future and one which receives from two minutes in the past, to the point where some bright spark has the bright idea of bringing the upstairs monitor down to look at the other (on its impossibly long electrical cable), setting up a Droste effect or infinity loop where the two monitors reflecting each other set up an infinite set of levels of time which the central protagonists can then visit at different points because, time passes and then they are suddenly at a later point in the chain etc. At some point a couple of violent criminals and two agents from a ‘time police’ bureau turn up but the film has a fairly short running time so not a whole lot has too much time to develop past the kind of novelty factor which, I have to say, is nice but wears thin fairly quickly.

It’s actually not that confusing although, a couple of times it does threaten to be but, the practical demonstrations of proposed theories illustrate things fairly well so you’re never too lost in the temporal dynamics of the situation. A simple love story almost has time to blossom and this keeps the interest up when things continue to be repetitive and escalate at different levels and angles.

It’s not a bad little movie to demonstrate and explore the idea and, certainly, on a technical level it’s absolute genius. I’m pretty sure the very first message from the main protagonist is a video recording but, after that I suspect the footage from each monitor (presumably being picked up from a hidden cam on each) is being looped back at two minute intervals and the cast have to be rehearsed enough to hit the correct places and perform their scenes at the right times. It must have been a nightmare of concentration and, I suspect, false starts and spoiled takes to get right. The film is only 70 minutes long but, even so, you could get a long way into a take before it gets screwed up and everybody has to start again, I would think (unless the film has only a semblance of being a single shot and was using traveling matte cuts etc to create the illusion of one cut but, I haven’t heard anything about that being the case here).

The actors are all good and the majority of the characters are all sympathetic. Also, there’s a budget friendly commitment to keeping everything fairly low tech, so the two ‘time police’ have these futuristic guns which really do look like somebody raided the local toy shop for them. The low key nature also extends to Koji Takimoto’s score which only comes in very occasionally as a very light hearted attempt to highlight certain points but, for a lot of the time, the score is absent.

That being said, I completely understand why some people have been bored by it. I kinda liked Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes but, throughout the whole movie, I kept waiting for something ‘more’ to happen and, when the ending of the film did come, it just felt very low key and abrupt for something which has such a high concept at its centre. I’m glad I saw this one but am now a bit annoyed I didn’t wait a few months for it to come down in price in the sales as, yeah, it’s not the hilarious mind blower I had been led to believe. Worth checking out if you’re a fan of the concept but don’t go in expecting a look and feel as lofty as its own central premise, for sure.

Monday, 16 May 2022

The Obama Biden Mysteries




Biden His Time

Hope Never Dies
by Andrew Shaffer
Quirk Books
ISBN:  9781432858414

Hope Rides Again
by Andrew Shaffer
Quirk Books
ISBN:  9781683691228


Anybody who knows me or who has read this blog for a substantial amount of time will know I know nothing about politics and don’t care for it one way or another. Whoever is in power is just as bad as the last lot it seems to me... with a little added caveat here acknowledging that the current UK government is perhaps the worst, stupid and possibly downright evil bunch we’ve ever had in this country. Same thing goes for US politics although, I have to say, I did have a soft spot for Obama... although I don’t know anything much about him, nor about his former vice president Joe Biden (outside the memes I saw on Twitter, once the Trump monster had been voted in). The point is, I wouldn’t know a Republican from whatever the opposing teams are called. Over here people refer to right wing and left wing but, honestly, I’ve got no idea what the difference is between the two and have never had enough interest in the subject to try and seek some understanding when people have tried to explain it to me, using other words equally shrouded in political mystery which seem completely useless unless you are in some kind of special club.

But I wanted to give a short shout out to a couple of books which I received for my birthday but which, actually, were already on my ‘to buy sometime soon’ list. Hope Never Dies and its sequel, Hope Rides Again, are two novels by Anthony Shaffer which tell, in much humourous detail, the fictional adventures of ex-President Barack Obama and ex-Vice President Joe Biden, after their terms in office came to a close. And they’re action packed, murder mysteries where the two, inadvertently find themselves trying to stay one step ahead of a bullet, while solving crimes together à la Scooby Doo. And who couldn’t resist a proposition like that, right? But, of course, given my previous paragraph, I have to warn the reader here that a good three quarters of the jokes probably went over my head. I have no point of reference for a lot of this stuff.

But the novels are kinda cool anyway and, certainly, a fun read. They are both told in first person by Joe Biden, in a kind of deliberately ham fisted, hard boiled inner monologue style. In the first one called Hope Never Dies, Amtrack Joe, as he’s often known, finds that one of his old conductor friends has been killed and left to be squished by an upcoming train... it’s up to him and his somewhat estranged, former friend Obama, to investigate when the police fail to realise just what’s going on. In the second book, Hope Rides Again, after Obama’s blackberry is stolen, a possible young suspect is shot up and recovering in hospital with a potential killer lurking in the background. Biden and Obama only have about a day to investigate the case before other commitments bring their time in Chicago, on the night before St. Patrick’s Day, to an end.

And it’s great stuff. I’m never quite sure, as I’m reading, whether it’s supposed to be pro or con Biden and Obama but it pitches up as something with its tongue stuck so firmly in its cheek you have to wonder when the blood will start flowing from the tasty organ’s awkward penetration. Biden is very much the main man of the narrative thrust and, obviously, the prose always follows him on his side of the adventures. Obama is very much depicted as ‘the cool president’ personae, with athletic qualities and brains to match. For example, when “An impossibly long speedboat entered the frame, cutting through the surf like a buttered bullet.”, Obama is depicted waterskiing behind. Biden on the other hand... well, Biden bends down in a field looking for a piece of evidence and his knee pops, causing him to flail around on his back like a stranded turtle.

The books are a joy to read, actually, with passages like... “That didn’t mean I wasn’t game for some Hardy Boys hijinx.” and, when the two are in disguise at one point and Obama corrects Biden about how they look saying, “We’re not dressed like idiots, we’re dressed like teenagers?”, Biden responds with, “There’s a difference?” And there’s a wonderful clichéd moment when Biden’s life is saved when a bullet hits the pocketed Medal Of Freedom which Obama gave him, instead of going through his heart.

There are some cool pop culture references throughout the stories too, concerning the ‘Democratic Duo’. For example, a moment where Obama uses his top secret information about what really happened at Roswell as a bargaining chip for the next lead from an informant. And, honestly, I had no idea the Americans knew who Tony The Tiger was and that they had Frosties over there but, yeah, the various references... they’re gr-r-r-reat! Perhaps my favourite joke, though, comes as a nice little nod to everyone’s favourite timelord, or more specifically his TARDIS. When Obama and Joe go to a speakeasy, they have to enter through an entrance in an imitation doorway of a British Police Telephone Box (which is what the TARDIS also appears as, due to a faulty ‘chameleon circuit’). As Joe goes in and down through this entrance he makes the comment to the reader... “It was bigger in the inside than it looked...”, which any follower of Doctor Who would know is, more or less what every companion says in some form or another when they enter the dimensionally transcendental space and time machine.

And that’s me just about done on Hope Never Dies and Hope Rides Again. A lot of Joe’s time in the second novel, set a few years ago, is about him trying to make up his mind whether he should run for office and, now he’s actually the president in real life, I’m guessing the writer may hold off on writing anymore in this series for now but... yeah, I kinda hope not. I found these books hugely entertaining and would love to read another. Definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of comedy mystery novels, for sure.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness




Stephen Things

Doctor Strange And
The Multiverse Of Madness

USA  2022 Directed by San Raimi
UK Cinema Release Print.


Warning: Yeah, this’ll have some spoilers.

Okay... this is going to be a fairly brief review, I think. It’s not that I didn’t like Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness... I did (and it might still grow on me some more). It’s a fine film and certainly an example of what is, currently, a typical Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. With more in the same vein teased in the first of the mid and post credits scenes. But I wasn’t exactly bowled over by it either... which is a shame because I think Sam Raimi can be a good director (I don’t think it’s his fault, for the record, as to why I had a less positive reaction to it than I'd expected) and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marvel character of Doctor Stephen Strange.

The plot in this one deals... not with fall out from Spiderman No Way Home (reviewed here) as you would expect (although Spidey does get a quick mention)...in fact, it turns out that this film was originally supposed to have been released before that one. Nope, this one has a definite plot device of its own to cause alarm in one of the facets of the multiverse that Strange travels to. I said there would be spoilers in this review and so, if you want to avoid them, stop reading now...

It’s not a secret that joining regulars returning from the original Doctor Strange MCU film (reviewed here)... including  Benedict Cumberbatch (as Doctor Strange), Benedict Wong (as Wong), Rachel McAdams as Dr. Palmer and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo... is Elizabeth Olsen, reprising her role as Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch. Well, this film is pretty much kick started from fallout from her TV show WandaVision (reviewed here) but, instead of being a heroic character as she became after a brief stint as a villain at the end of Avengers Age Of Ultron (reviewed here), she actually reveals herself from very early on to be the main villain of the piece. It is she who is trying to get hold of new MCU character America Chavaz (played really nicely here by Xochitl Gomez). Chavez can travel through the multiverse but Wanda wants to kill her and take her powers to travel to a variant universe where she has children instead... which actually makes less sense than you might think, since she can piggy back into other versions of herself anyway.

It all gets a bit fraught and we get to see some guest character appearances, in different versions of their previous Marvel selves, along with new actors playing other variants. So Patrick Stewart enters the MCU as yet another version of Professor X (this film apparently marks the character’s fourth death on screen as played by Stewart), Hayley Atwell as Captain Peggy Carter (but a new superhero variant where she’s a kind of Captain Britain character who was in the What If? cartoon series) and John Krasinski as Reed Richards (yep, a multiverse variant of Mr. Fantastic also gets his MCU debut here)... plus a few others. And all of them die pretty horrible deaths at the hands of Wanda, it has to be said, although this is in no way a horror film, as some delicate parents have suggested (it’s a 12A certificate over here, for goodness sake and probably could have gotten away as a PG). True, there’s a person whose head implodes and another cut in half but, yeah, it’s all pretty bloodless for the most part (including those specific scenes), it has to be said.

It was fairly entertaining but the text was extremely dense and, on the way home from the cinema I was reflecting on why it mostly failed to connect with me. Well, despite a couple of scenes featuring Bruce Campbell (it’s a Raimi movie, so of course), there’s really not much humour in it. I mean, sure, some of the characters act in a humourous manner sometimes but, yeah, the script is not loaded with amusing dialogue and one liners like, say, the recent Spider-Man and Avengers movies. The film has a lot of gravitas and sometimes I felt like the writers were beating the audience over the head with the weight of the emotional consequences for various characters when they maybe should have injected a little more fun into things.

Raimi regular Danny Elfman was trying his best with the score here but, while he does include Michael Giacchino’s excellent leitmotif for the Stephen Strange character, it’s mostly very subtly done when, honestly, we needed that familiar theme to pop up way more often in the film, I think. It’s an okay score but, again, not much chance of me really finding out just how good or bad it is because, at time of writing, Hollywood Records have only released it on a useless electronic download and not on a physical CD... so this is another modern movie score I won’t be able to listen to properly, alas.

The first of the post-credits scenes, technically a mid credits scene, sets up another movie as a woman confronts Strange on a New York street and opens a portal to take him, once again, into another part of the multiverse. Well, this scene disappointed me because, when I saw the woman I was thinking to myself... “... please don’t be Clea, please don’t be Clea”. But then I checked the IMDB and, sure enough, this character is supposed to be the first appearance of Clea in the MCU. Frankly, she has none of the look and gothic impact of Doctor Strange’s future wife (and niece of the Dread Dormammu, if memory serves) and, yeah, she looks just like every other Marvel superhero clone (in fact, she looks more like the original version of Valkyrie in the comics). So I felt a bit deflated after that.

And that’s me done on Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness... which really does feel like a sequel to WandaVision more than anything else, truth be told. If you like the usual Marvel movies you will probably like this and, I certainly didn’t hate this one. However, all I will say is that, for residents of the UK, this is not the best of the multiverse movies at cinemas at present. For a much more entertaining look at alternate realities, check out my review of this one here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once




Happily
Evelyn
After


Everything,
Everywhere,
All At Once

USA  2022
Directed by Dan Kwan
& Daniel Scheinert
(aka Daniels)
UK cinema Unlimited
cardholder preview.


Warning: Some inevitable spoilers.

Wow. It’s ‘the morning after’ and I’m hoping that my brain has managed to process enough information for me to try and write something half intelligent about this confusing but, ultimately very fun experience at the movies.

Well... okay, in a nutshell, the plot of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once involves an infinite number of alternate multiverses and a team of ‘good guys’ who have come to our universe because they believe a character called Evelyn can help fight against a villain known as Jobu Tupaki, who is threatening to destroy all the different multiverses by sucking them all in as part of the ‘everything’ of a giant black bagel with ‘everything’ on it. So Evelyn is taught how to jump into different versions of herself in different worlds to acquire the memory of the skills she needs in order to slingshot back into her current universe and try and fight a battle, of sorts, in her own reality. That’s my best take away from this as a plot so, if I got it slightly wrong, forgive me but, it’s a very dense film of different layers and, well, everything kind of happens all at once in it, as the title suggests.

But, as I implied, asides from not being 100% on how the physics and rules of the ‘jumping’ from incarnation to incarnation works... it kinda doesn’t matter. Once you can relax into this film and just take it for what it is, which is a bombardment of rich and, frankly, crazy ideas, then you should have a lot of fun with it. There are endless pop culture references in here from 2001 A Space Odyssey through Ratatouille (which I’ve not seen myself but, even so, I totally got the long running Racacoonie joke in this) and even Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love.

But this is only one level of the fun as we are transported along with Evelyn, rapid fire, into alternate realities where, for instance, Evelyn is a rock with googly eyes (like a pet rock... and the googly eyes are kind of an inverse black bagel in terms of their significance in the movie) or caught in a lesbian love affair in a universe where everyone has hot dogs for hands (and ooze mustard and ketchup from their mouths when having sex). So there’s stuff going on all the time at, trust me on this one, a fair lick of a pace... love it or hate it, you at least won’t get bored during this film, which is split up into three parts... 1. Everything, 2. Everywhere and 3. All At Once.

So you need a cast who are experienced to be able to handle all this stuff credibly (and also handle some of the quite intense action choreography which is sometimes needed for many of the scenes). And that’s exactly what we have here...

Evelyn is played by Michelle Yeoh who, frankly, I’ve always had a soft spot for and she really demonstrates that at 60 years of age (looking pretty much like she's 30) she’s still not too old to really carry a movie on her back. She’s always had brilliant fighting skills from her pre-Bond (and after) days of making kung fu action movies and, while that certainly stands her in good stead for this role (which was apparently at first conceived for her old Supercop co-star Jackie Chan), her brilliant way of putting over the emotions and complexities of her character are absolutely wonderful. What a fantastic actress.

I’ll get to Evelyn’s husband in a little while. Her daughter is played by Stephanie Hsu, who I don’t think I’ve seen before but, once her different multiversal personalities start snapping to and fro, it’s a quite dazzling performance as she captures multiple different states of mind at the flip of a switch. Again, a very strong actress who really shines in the second half of the film.

As Evelyn’s father we have the living legend that is James Wong. He just turned 93 a couple of days ago and has finally been given a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (with over 600 roles to his credit... it’s about time) but he was certainly spry and nimble enough to do some sequences you would expect from a much younger actor in this.

Joining these three as a villanous henchman... or rather henchwoman (and sometime hot dog fingered lover) is the equally legendary Jamie Lee Curtis. She’s certainly come a long way in her career and does a great job with one of many complex roles in the film, which must have been far from her comfort zone. Trust me when I say that all the actors in this movie look and act totally ridiculous for a lot of the time... which has always been the case with actors but, in this movie, more so.

And then there’s the big surprise (for me at least, I went into this one relatively blind), of just who is playing the key role of Evelyn’s husband Waymond. He gives a very good, supporting, warm hearted performance but also, in an incredible fight sequence where he uses his belt bag as a pair of nunchucks in a tax office, acquits himself way more than adequately in the fighting skills department. All the way through the movie he looked somewhat familiar but I just couldn’t place him. All the candidates I thought he might be would have been a lot older than he is here. So, when I saw in the credits that he’s played by Ke Huy Quan, I blinked somewhat, said to myself, “Wait... really? Is that...?” and then confirmed what I suddenly realised with the IMDB app on my phone. Yep, it’s the guy who, as a boy, played Short Round in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (and who was also in The Goonies, which is a movie I haven’t seen, actually). All I can say is wow. He’s just fantastic in this and, I can tell you, has great chemistry with Michelle Yeoh. They should put these two in more movies together, I think.

And that’s all I’m going to say about this one. Especially since it’s almost impossible to describe most of the scenes in any credible way... you kind of have to experience it to know it, I think. Suffice to say, I found Everything, Everywhere, All At Once to be a highly entertaining and extremely impressive cinematic experience and I’ll definitely be importing the Blu Ray release of this very soon (I have a feeling it won’t get one in the UK... I believe it’s reserved for TV channel exclusivity aka ‘the death of the art of film’ over here). It’s not showing in a lot of UK cinemas... or certainly a lot less than, say, other multiverse movies currently at the cinema (which I will catch up on soon for the blog, I promise)... so I would definitely try and catch this one on the big screen if you have the opportunity.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

The Falcon And The Co-Eds




Educating Danger

The Falcon
And The Co-Eds

USA 1943
Directed by William Clemens
RKO/Warner Archive DVD Region 1


And so onto the next in the popular series of films based on The Falcon character of the 1940s, The Falcon And The Co-Eds. This one has a kind of different atmosphere to the preceding films but then, the series does seem to keep reinventing itself in both big and small ways as it progresses. For instance, Tom Lawrence has no real assistants in the mystery solving department in this one and not much in the way of romantic interest either (not a single fiancé in sight and I think the young ladies in the film, who are college students at Bluecliff Seminary, are supposed to be slightly underage for anything intimate for the most part but, again for the most part, I would say the actresses playing them are not).

Now, I had no idea what a co-ed is because we don’t have the term in England but, apparently it’s some sort of slang for a woman studying at a mixed boys/girls school or, as in this case, college. I’ve also still no idea why the term is applied in this title because, well... it’s an all female school (apart from one of the teachers... two if you count the first murder victim, who is dead before the story even starts) and so the term seems to be complete nonsense if you ask me. Still, it may mean something more to an American audience perhaps but... I’m not getting any help from the definitions found on the internet, it has to be said.

Okay, so Tom Lawrence, alias The Falcon (played once again by Tom Conway), is called in by the student daughter of a friend when it’s common knowledge, due to the psychic prophecies of one of the girls, Marguerita (played by Rita Corday), that one of the teachers has been murdered rather than, as one of the resident doctors who teaches psychology there has signed on the death certificate, suicide. In fact, Lawrence is pretty much compelled to be there, actually, when the gal steals his car to get him to the seminary to retrieve it. The so called suicide is hushed up because the head mistress doesn’t want to bring any hint of scandal to the college but, it’s not all that far into the proceedings before she herself is run through and killed with a fencing sword by a person unknown.

So The Falcon, posing as an insurance investigator, is roaming the campus trying to solve the mystery and, somehow, the police end up on the grounds pretty soon too. Actually, the two police who are the regular guys, Cliff Clark as Inspector Donovan and Edward Gargan as his sidekick Detective Bates, are pretty important here to help remind audiences that they are watching a Falcon film, in some ways because, as I said, this isn’t the usual milieu inhabited by the central character. I’m happy to say that the running joke dialogue between Donovan and Bates has been reinstated for this movie, after a curious absence from their regular repartee in the previous film.

Of course, there’s no question that The Falcon will eventually find the real culprit behind the murders but he comes to it pretty late and, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised that the solution this time around wasn’t at all easy to work out. I only had my suspicions about the same time Lawrence figures it out near the end. I think part of the reason for this is that it's put together just like one of those typical Italian gialli films in terms of the amount of characters who could have done the deeds. There’s an abundance of suspects and, like a giallo, one of the prime ones is suddenly bumped off half way through the film, eliminating her from the long list of possible suspects.

It’s fast paced enough with some humorous dialogue and even some natty song and dance numbers thrown in. For some reason, because of the fact that some cliffs factor in to the story at some point, the director chooses to not only have the dreary credits sequence filled with a picture of the rolling waves of the nearby sea but also seems to use it at least four times throughout the film as some kind of transition shot... although it establishes really nothing in terms of connecting the scenes in any useful manner, it has to be said. Also, though it’s quite clear that much of the film is shot on location, including many of the cliff scenes, there are also some quite ham fisted examples of visual effects which do tend to get in the way of total immersion into the movie. Such as a few shots of Conway and some other actors walking along the cliff with it clearly being a back projection and the cast walking on a treadmill. Or some worse shots where two of the characters are clearly superimposed quite badly when standing on a cliff’s edge.

It’s also very much of its time too... as shown by a scene where The Falcon picks up one of the college girls (the actress was 20 at the time) and giving her ‘a good spanking’. Which is something that many young audiences watching these days would make a fuss about but, honestly, even in the 1970s when I first saw this film, it wasn’t really anything anybody would bat and eyelid at. So, yes, this film probably wouldn’t win any awards with the fashionably woke brigade but, The Falcon And The Co-Eds is still an enjoyable romp and, just a little bit different from the atmosphere of the preceding stories, as I said earlier. As usual, the film ends with the title character being cliff hangered onto another case and, I believe for once the dangling plot line left here as a punchline might actually get picked up in the next film in the series. So I’ll report back on that one when I revisit it again.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Death Curse Of Tartu




Tartu Detour

Death Curse
Of Tartu

USA 1966
Directed by William Grefé
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: I guess this has spoilers.

Death Curse Of Tartu was shot in just seven days and came about because director William Grefé could only sell his recently shot film, Sting Of Death (reviewed by me here), to a distributor if it was double billed with another horror picture. And I’m finding this one kind of bizarre because, although in a lot of ways it’s just as awful, possibly more so, than the aforementioned jellyfish-man movie, I actually kinda liked this one.

Okay... so the film involves an isolated island in the sub-tropical wilderness of the Everglades in Florida. An explorer finds a cave on a burial mound and a mummy gets out of a tomb and kills him. Then, in probably the only really interestingly done part of the film, the mummy drops some papyrus scripts on the floor and the camera jump cuts to them and we find the opening credits on them with the title music, such as it is, playing in the background as the mummy’s hand slowly removes each piece of paper from the top of the pile to reveal the next credit. The film has a credit for two song writers but no scoring credit and the over the top nature of some of the score used against the images (especially at the start of the movie) and the repeating of only a couple of tracks over and over, later in the film, leads me to believe the music for this movie is either plundered from another production or, more than likely, just needle dropped in from a music library.

Now, apparently, a lot of Seminole Indians lived in this territory and the character of Billy, who’s in a couple of scenes in the first half an hour as a kind of Indian guide to the local region, is one of these. He takes another professor out to the place where the burial mound can be found a long walk away on the island but will go no further. He tells the professor, as he tells the professor’s friends the next day when he gives them a map to get to the island, that the place is haunted by the spirit of an old witch doctor named Tartu, who comes to life as a mummy and transforms into various creatures to kill those who trespass on his land. Native drums and indian cries are heard in the air whenever he is near, as they are perpetually throughout the movie, due to the repeated use of some audio library track or other.

The guy is left there exploring and finds a rock. Now, the key theme of this film is given away right from here... and it’s padding. This is a movie where we see both this professor... who is soon crushed to death by Tartu in snake form... and also the next bunch to pitch up here... taking forever to walk or airboat in and then every stage of the journey, literally of people just walking around, takes up the majority of the running time. That’s maybe why I found the movie so comforting and reassuring to watch, to be honest. There is a heck of a lot of unnecessary footage here. I’d detected a certain amount of that in Sting of Death but Death Curse Of Tartu really excels at showing you levels of superfluous detail which is of little or no interest (although, like I said, I kind of didn’t mind it in this one, myself).

However, to my shame, there is an early jump scare which actually made me jump. It’s the exact same scare as was used in the first 10 minutes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and here, involves the professor pulling aside a tree branch to reveal a rubbishy, plastic looking skull on a stick while an over the top musical stinger plays. And it’s really useless and non-threatening but, like I said, it actually worked for me. All I can say in my defence here is that I really wasn’t expecting any kind of jump scare in a 1966 swamp movie and that the various, slow paced shots of the professor walking around maybe lulled me into a certain stupor.. which was the exact state of mind needed for this cheap trick to actually work on me. So a big thumbs up to Grefé here for actually getting me good. I was most appreciative of the jolt, for sure. Although I’d defy anyone else to be scared by this... especially since you can see the skull before it’s revealed.

Okay, so the professor is killed and then his friends, Professor Tison (played by Fred Pinero), his wife Julie (played by Babette Sherrill) and two young archaeology student couples...  Cindy (Mayra Gómez Kemp), Johnny (Sherman Hayes), Joanne (Maurice Stewart) and Tommy (Gary Holtz)... all get their airboats through to the island to find their friend and carry on exploring... but all they can find is the strange rock which the professor has dug up. When Tison translates it, we get to hear the back story of the Witch Doctor Tartu for yet a third time. Yay!

The kids go to make out by a lake while the professor stays behind in camp to finish the translation and... also makes out with his wife. Because of all this obvious work and discovery going on, the kids have a radio with them and the director manages to shoehorn a ‘wild and crazy’ teen dance scene into the picture where, once again, he shows a propensity for focusing his lens on the shaking derrieres of the teenage gals as they ‘swing their pants’. However, the punchline to this scene comes when Joanne and Tommy go for a swim in the water. Oh no, you may exclaim. Will a water snake or a crocodile get them? No because... and believe me, I was as surprised as the main cast at this... Joanne and Tommy get attacked and eaten by a shark! Which is preposterous! However, even Professor Tison reminds the audience that sharks don’t live in fresh water* and so it’s by now obvious, of course, that the mummy of Tartu has risen from his crypt and hit upon the good idea of temporarily transforming himself into an out of place shark to kill these two kids. At this point, Professor Tison, who has been downright aggressive in the film when anyone even mentions the possibility of anything supernatural occurring in real life, suddenly says, sweepingly, that “There are things on this planet that scientists have no answer to.” Blimey, he sure stopped being Mr. Cynical on the turn of a penny.

They decide to get off the island and go back to the nearest civilisation but, just like in Sting Of Death when the boat full of kids trying to get help all get killed before that can happen, when Johnny is sent back to wade through the swamp he soon gets ‘snaked up’ by Tartu. When Cindy tells the others the bad news because she saw it in a dream (don’t even ask!), the survivors decide to find Tartu’s mummified form and kill it before it eats or cuddles anyone else. However, the professor and his wife get trapped in the cave while Cindy gets her arm bitten up by Tartu in crocodile form. The bleeding arm doesn’t explain why, in the next shot when the freed Professor is holding her dying body in his arms, she also has blood coming out of her mouth but... I’m suspending my disbelief as much as possible at this point.

The professor and his wife go to confront Tartu in the form of a virile, aggressive native American Indian and manage to finally dunk him into the nearby quicksand. And before you can say Tartu Barado Nickto, the villainous witch doctor re-takes his mummified form... just before his head goes under and he’s then sucked into the murky waters. This is apparently because the guy playing the Indian didn’t want his head under the quicksand so they came up the idea that Tartu would revert back into another actor just before dying. As the professor and his wife walk off with the bitter sting of a sad victory, they seem to have forgotten that they don’t have any boats to get them home. Let’s hope they don’t get eaten by crocodiles on the long journey back then.

I’ve not much more to say about Death Curse Of Tartu and I have to say that, while it’s not a film I could in all conscience recommend to anyone, I did find this one extremely enjoyable and somewhat comforting when it came to observing all the dull, plodding around in the undergrowth scenes. I’d watch this one again for sure. Looking forward to what’s up next in Arrow’s lovely He Came From The Swamp - The William Grefé Collection Blu Ray set and you can bet I’ll report back here soon.

*It’s come to my attention since writing this review that,
certain conditions have allowed this to happen in real life
on occasion, a shark in fresh water... but still.
Whether this information was available when this
was made (considering what the character
in the movie says) is not something I am sure about.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Doctor Who - Frontier In Space




Master Plan

Doctor Who -
Frontier In Space

UK Air date: February - March 1973
Six Episodes
BBC Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Slight spoilers.

So Frontier In Space is the third story of the tenth series of Doctor Who, as reissued in the nice Blu Ray set of that season from the BBC. I was five years old when this story aired but I only seem to have hazy recollections of this one. Whereas, the next two stories in the box, I have a lot of childhood memories of terror. Looking back on it now, though, I have to say that it’s easily one of the best of the John Pertwee Doctor Who stories I’ve seen.

This one’s a six parter and involves The Doctor and Jo Grant (played by the always brilliant Katy Manning) getting involved with a cold war climate powder keg in the far future between the people of Earth and the people of Draconia (who are kind of a short hand version of ancient Japanese style lizard people, in terms of their manner and codes). The TARDIS is taken away from our two heroes more or less from the start of the tale and the majority of the first three episodes sees them being imprisoned by various people and spending a lot of time in jail cells, as the plot moves along without them in some areas. It sounds boring and padded but, well okay it possibly is padded but it’s nothing short of interesting and exciting since, you know there’s going to be some jail break or other set piece in each episode.

The plot is kickstarted by an outside party committing hostile acts of space piracy on the two species and using a sound based, hallucinogenic gadget to make the victims believe they are seeing the other race, humans or Draconians, committing these crimes, in order to start an intergalactic war. Fairly soon it turns out that the actual people committing these acts are the Ogrons, a race of quite dumb mercenaries for hire which were on a lot of merchandising such as jigsaw puzzles when I was a kid but were only actually in two stories in the Pertwee era (I’m not counting their cameo in Carnival Of Monsters, reviewed here and nor am I counting the 1990s Eastenders charity crossover, Dimensions In Time). The Ogrons, of course, are being directed by a higher power and it soon becomes evident that this is a master plan of... um... The Master, kind of. In the last episode it is revealed that he is working (although he plans to double cross them) with the Daleks, who only turn up in that final episode.

The story is absolutely superb and it has a great script. Katy Manning’s always watchable Jo Grant is given more to do here and there’s a wonderful scene where she is holding up a very long, one sided conversation with The Doctor to hide the fact from a security camera that he’s already escaped the cell... demonstrating that Jo Grant can talk the hind legs off a donkey with ease when she has to.

The Master is, once again, played absolutely brilliantly by Roger Delgado (aka Roger Caesar Marius Bernard de Delgado Torres Castillo Roberto) who, alas, died quite violently while shooting a television show in Turkey when the car he and two other crewmen were in plunged into a ravine, just a few months after Frontier In Space aired on television. It was a real loss and I think it’s probably why Jon Pertwee opted to leave the show a year later. Delgado’s last scene in this story is of him shooting The Doctor down, before Jo helps the wounded Doctor into the TARDIS at the end of the last episode. The Master would not return again until he was pictured as a kind of melted looking monster in the Tom Baker story The Deadly Assassin in 1976. He’s been played a few times by different actors since then and, in at least two of the incarnations of this time lord, the actors have somewhat resembled the look of Delgado in the role.

The special effects in this one aren’t great as the story calls for things like space walks and so on but, it never really bothered us as kids. Even then, I’m sure, we could see those big cables holding the actors up but, you know, how else do you tell a story like this on a TV budget in the early 1970s. I look on them now as a kind of comforting presence in these things and count myself lucky that, unlike some other films and shows put out in high definition, the copyright owners haven’t tried to tart up the special effects and turn them into something they never were (although they have in some of these Blu Ray sets, it’s true.... but there's always the option to watch the original version). I like that the cell holding the prisoners here wobbles when they bash it and stuff like this should always be left in. It’s not just entertainment... it’s art and, as importantly, a historical document of its time. So leave it alone is always my view on the decision to intervene too much with modern technology.

The Target novelisation of the story, always a big winner with kids... I guess they were the Harry Potter novels of their day to some extent, when it came to promoting children’s reading... was one of the few of their adaptations not to use the name of the story for the book title. Instead of going on the shelves as Frontier In Space, the book version was called Doctor Who And The Space War. I probably enjoyed this one along with all the others... I certainly had a copy of this shelved with around 60 others at one point, I’m sure.

The next story in the series and on this Blu Ray set is Planet Of The Daleks, which I assume follows on directly from this story. I only remember a few things from it which haunted my nightmares but I also remember being disappointed with it when I watched this one again on a VHS tape in the late 1980s so... yeah, we’ll see how that one goes. Frontier In Space, though, is an absolute corker of a story and probably, it turns out and much to my surprise, the real jewel in the crown of this boxed set.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Diabolik




Kant Buy
Me Love


Diabolik
Italy 2021
Directed by Antonio & Marco Manetti
RAI Italian Ltd Edition
Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2 set


Warning: Very light spoilers.

So, after both the 1968 Mario Bava movie known in the UK as Danger Diabolik and an animated series, Diabolik returned to Italian cinema screens at the end of last year. Alas, it’s still not found an English distributor for either a UK cinema or home video release (or possibly even streaming, at time of writing) but I wanted to do this right so, rather than just watch a free HD copy online, I managed to acquire the new limited edition Italian Blu Ray/DVD set, which also comes with a replica copy of the third issue of the original fumetti, The Arrest Of Diabolik (on which this film is based, along with also taking material from a 2012 remake comic book of the same story) but, since I can’t read Italian to get the one detail about a certain jewel I wanted to know, I can’t work out whether a specific reference was put there by the Manetti Bros or if it was in the original version of the comic... or, indeed, if it’s just a coincidence (I’ll get to that possible reference in a minute).

The new film starts off with a very similar style opening to the Mario Bava version (reviewed by me here), to which the first time viewer will obviously compare it to, at least for a while. So the film is set in the late 1960s and we have Diabolik in his black Jaguar evading the police after a heist. It’s one of very few action sequences in the movie, actually and, I suspect, those who are not intrigued by the story and the absolutely wonderful performances of Luca Marinelli as Diabolik, Miriam Leone as Eva Kant and Valerio Mastandrea as Inspector Ginko... may find the lack of stunts and explosions etc a little disappointing. However, because the story is so strong... it’s an origin tale, of sorts, for the way that Diabolik and his future girlfriend Eve Kant first met... I found it absolutely absorbing from start to finish and didn’t notice the 2 hour 15 minute running time.

Okay, so I won’t say all that much about the plot but two things that caught my attention were the diamond and a section of the story involving an execution by guillotine. Okay, so the jewel that Diabolik is after from Eva Kant, which brings him to her door, is a very special pink diamond. So my first thought was obviously the specific diamond named The Pink Panther, which was the plot device of the 1963 film and which birthed the animated title sequence using a literal pink panther, thus giving kids all over the world a new hero when the title sequence character got his own cartoon show (which used to feature an Inspector Clouseau cartoon as its second half each week, if I remember correctly, both segments utilising Henry Mancini’s themes from The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark respectively). It’s a nice touch but I’ve no idea now if it was a deliberate reference or not, due to the dates being fairly close (if it did appear in that original fumetti).

The other thing I noticed which, judging from my look at the replica fumetti... since the first two thirds of this movie seem to follow it fairly closely (and so don’t blame the Manetti Brothers for eschewing action sequences, it looks like they are trying to do it fairly straight to the source material)... deals with the mistaken execution by guillotine of one of the characters who has been switched out at the eleventh hour, allowing Diabolik to escape justice. Now, I’ve read the first Fantomas novel from 1911, years ago and, honestly, it’s an absolute steal from that inaugural story but, of course, it’s not rocket science to figure out that the original character of Diabolik was blatantly inspired by the French master criminal.

So, okay, I had two slight problems with the movie. One is.... and I suspect this is endemic of the current state of Italian film production in general... that, although I’m sure a lot of money was spent on this new movie, there’s something about it that makes it look really cheap. Like it’s a TV movie or something. It all looks like it’s just been shot on a high res video camera and so doesn’t have that cinematic feel I was expecting from it (and no, I didn’t have the stupid motion smoothing setting on, thanks very much). However, once I got  used to it I managed to forget about it.

The other thing is... there are no real surprises in the film. Even though the narrative structure is deliberately built to hide information until certain things happen, I could pretty much second guess the entire movie. For example, during the first meeting between Ginko and Eva Kant, I realised that this was probably not Ginko at all... in which case, the same kind of fictionally heightened style masks used in the Mission: Impossible series and films was probably being used here and, yep, indeed it was.

However, when a film is put together this well, the lack of unpredictability is not that distracting... there are lot of other good things to grab your attention. Some of the frame designs, for example, are nicely done with the directors sometimes emphasising vertical patterns to echo the frames of a comic book... something which they do big time in the last third of the movie, which is basically a heist, much of which is made of dynamic, split screen compositions. I found it odd that they saved the use of split screen for only the last third of the movie but it works effectively for the sequence and was as good a solution as any other. There are also some sets of camera movements that are a little reminiscent of some modern horror movies, in that they’re designed to conceal rather than reveal elements of a scene before a particular story point is reached.

The comic strip style is further enhanced by details which you wouldn’t necessarily get away with in other forms of fiction in a credible manner. For example, the fact that Diabolik has managed to have a raising ramp built right into the middle of a street so he can take that route to evade the police, after making sure he gets boxed into the correct location. Hmm... yeah... don’t know how he would have managed to install that one without being seen. Also, the ears of the character protruding from either side of his mask (either that or his ears are also very tightly covered in latex) which would look really silly if not for the fact that they’re lit so well to hide any colour or texture change in the scenes where they are prominent. Also, Diabolik has a very strong widows peak, which echoes the open eyes section of his mask to remind you who he is when he’s not wearing his criminal costume (Ginko has a widow’s peak too).

The structure of the piece is good also. Like I said, no real surprises but there are a few sequences where conversations are cross cut with other conversations (often with one of the same characters) so the present of a character can be at counterpoint with a reveal needed to make more sense of a scene when it comes up later. Again, even though I’d figured out most of those reveals on this one way before they happen... mostly due to just thinking logically about the way what I was watching was unfolding... it’s a nice way of presenting the information and the two or three times where this is done in the movie adds to an overall ‘corporate style’ to the film.

I really liked the sexual chemistry between Marinelli  and Leone as Diabolik and Eva too. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nowhere near as evident or blatantly expressive as the version of the relationship between John Philip Law and Marissa Mell’s versions of the characters in Bava’s movie but, the camera does still linger on the strength of their attraction to each other here as the glue which holds their relationship together... so that’s nice. I was worried they were going to shy away from that element here.

So it’s a shame, then, that due to the film’s release schedule being delayed by the Coronavirus pandemic, Marinelli is unable to reprise his role as the title character for the two sequels which are just winding up back to back production in Italy as I write this review. I hope the new guy they’ve got is able to at least match his, mostly emotionless and chilled performance here.

And that’s me done with the new Diabolik. I hope this one manages to find someone to give it a UK and US release because, frankly, our cinemas need more ‘shades of grey’ characters like this. This is a pretty good adaptation of the comics is my best guess, not to be compared to the Bava movie (which will always have the number one spot in terms of this character) but still doing something of its own with the material. And also... I love it whenever Diabolik throws his knife and the camera follows it at the same speed by keeping it in centre frame before we see who it killed (and, yes, I know it probably wasn’t captured like that but, that’s the impression it’s trying to create and it works really well, I think). Diabolik doesn’t need ‘bullet time’ when he has ‘dynamic dagger duration’ moments like this.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Danger Diabolik




Kant Get Enough

Danger Diabolik
aka Diabolik
Italy 1968
Directed by Mario Bava  
Paramount Blu Ray Zone A

 
Warning: Light spoilers.

I thought, in light of the reboot movie released in Italy recently, I’d revisit one of my favourite comic book movies, Danger Diabolik, based on the famous, long running fumetti Diabolik by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani which, as far as I know, has not been translated for an English audience. The comic book followed in a long  line of lionised fictional super-criminals which seemed more abundant in countries like France, Germany and Italy than they did over here in the UK or in the US. I suspect the character was more than a little inspired by the original Fantomas, for example and there were a few attempts to get Diabolik started as a film by producer Dino De Laurentiis, with actors like Jean Sorel and Catherine Deneuve in the roles of Diabolik and his super sexy girlfriend Eva Kant, before he finally got the great Mario Bava to direct the movie.

So this version stars John Philip Law as the master criminal (who was also working on Barbarella for the same producer at the time), the marvellous Marisa Mell as Eva Kant, the great Michel Piccoli as Diabolik’s nemesis police Inspector Ginko, Adolfo Celli (who played Bond villain Largo in Thunderball) as mob boss Valmont and, in a few scenes scattered throughout the film in what is more or less an extended cameo, comical British actor Terry Thomas (who was so much in demand at the time that he shot all his scenes in one day).

Although Diabolik does not come over as ruthless, perhaps, as he did in the early comic books, he’s still going around killing innocent people who get in the way of his headline grabbing crimes and, although you’re always on his side as much as Ginko’s, he does tend to do some typical Robin Hood style acts of terrorism along the way. For instance, when a new police commissioner puts out a one million dollar reward for his capture, he sends him a note saying that he does not believe using this sum of money as an enticement to his capture is in the interests of the regular taxpayer... and then proceeds to blow up all the tax offices in the district so that people no longer have to pay any income tax, since the government has no records left to figure out what anybody owes to anyone.

The film is beautifully directed and, because Dino chose Bava to direct it, looks stunning. Bava uses some of his standard modi operandi to split the shots with foreground objects such as book cases, windows and bars to compartmentalise his actors and uses ‘natural inserts’ such as reflections in a rear view mirror in a car to add interest to the shots (and possibly as a wink to the comic book origins of the character, almost as if he’s presenting the audience with a bunch of comic book panels on the page). Although his colouring in the film isn’t as bright as the neon primary hues he uses in a lot of his films, it’s still a pretty colourful affair with the odd Bava trademark colour collision thrown in, such as a psychedelic night club party sequence, enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s swinging score or, in the pre-credits sequence where Diabolik uses a smokescreen to steal a car carrying a large amount of money, using three jets of orange, purple and green smoke injected into the mix. And when Diabolik has to climb up a pale castle tower in the moonlight, he changes from a black catsuit to a white one to better blend in with the environment.

Bava also uses his lens to really build an iconic status around the characters of Diabolik and Eva, with everything they do in their ‘larger than life’ sets and locations (including a super-villain’s lair which would make Bruce Wayne green with envy) enhanced to the point where almost every shot they are in becomes an artificial, attention grabbing statement of the importance of their respective characters. For instance, Diabolik is not introduced as a person initially, but as his two seat Jaguar car, which invades the proceedings in the pre-credits with a Morricone musical stinger and which becomes almost an apex predator to the poor, bumbling policemen who are trying to protect the money... and when Diabolik’s masked, iconic visage is seen, he is giving a proper super-villain laugh before he dives into the sea, along with the money, as the brilliant title song ‘Deep Down’, sung by Christy, cuts in with swirling credits before we rejoin him racing off in his speedboat, hotly pursued by police helicopter.

Now, there are a lot of wonderful, jokey comic book style sequences in the movie, such as when Valmont promises to cross a character’s name off the human register and then later, indeed, making an X shape with the path of his machine gun as he guns the victim down. And there’s that sumptuous villain’s lair with it’s huge, pipe organ alarm system and, of course, everything is enhanced with Bava’s miniatures and matte paintings to make everything look much bigger than it really is. He even adds in a couple of animated sequences to bring the comic book comparison closer in a couple of scenes.

The film has often been called campy but, with the hard edge of various characters, not forgetting the dark criminal heart of Diabolik himself, it really isn’t. There are, however, a couple of similarities, it could be said, to the landmark Batman TV show and film from a couple of years earlier. Most notably when Diabolik and Eve, disguised as press photographers, use laughing gas dispersed by their flash bulbs to infect a police press conference with a very lively atmosphere. So... in very much the Batman style... the gas is actually labelled up as Exhilarating Gas and the pills which Diabolik and Eva take to protect themselves, are similarly labelled up as Anti Exhilarating Gas Capsules.

If I had to pick a favourite moment, in a film which is full of little ingenious and light hearted gags, it would be when the title character places himself under a security camera, takes a shot of the room with a polaroid camera and them places the photo in front of the camera so the room looks empty. Preposterous, of course, since it would probably be completely out of focus but, in the setting of a comic book milieu which is further heightened by the visual genius of Mario Bava, it works really well.

And I suppose that’s me done with Danger Diabolik, for now, although I am hoping to watch the new version over the next week or so and so, I will review that one for the blog soon (yeah... I did just that, review coming tomorrow, stay tuned). Meanwhile, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Danger Diabolik is a movie I’m always going to recommend to any lover of cinema and well worth your time.

Monday, 2 May 2022

When Dracula Met Frankenstein




Sherman Fountain

When Dracula Met Frankenstein:
My Years Making Drive-In
Movies With Al Adamson

by Sam Sherman
Murania Press ISBN: 9798530794858


What a great book!

Just a quick shout out to something which will be a nice addition, I’m sure, to many a film enthusiast’s book shelves. You may remember when, a couple of years ago, Severin films put out a very pricey but, as it turned out, worth every penny boxed edition of 32 Al Adamson films, as part of a package to accompany the documentary movie Blood And Flesh - The Reel Life And Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson (which I reviewed here). Well, I went through that boxed edition of Adamson films and, though I found some titles to be terrible, I found others to be pretty good and sometimes beyond that but, whatever I thought about them (and I reviewed every one of them for this blog), going through that wonderful set reminded me of just how great an art form cinema could be and it revitalised my slowly waning interest in the medium.

Now, as I said, you can find my reviews of those on this blog and you can check for a title in the second ‘movie’ section of my site index (link at top left) or, if you want to go a more direct way, I also wrote an article specifically about the box, Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection, as a bookmark section, from which all my reviews are linked... and you can access that here.

As I waded into the set, two things bacame apparent and impressed me. One was that Adamson’s films were more often than not produced by Sam Sherman, who seemed a really sweet guy and came across in all the interviews as someone very knowledgable about the world of film, demonstrating a genuine love and affection for movies in general. He seemed like someone you would want to hang out with in a bar and buy drinks for so he won’t stop telling fascinating, illuminating stories about his decades in the business.

The other thing which came across to me was that, heck, I really needed to read a decent biography, or at least an enthusiastic book, on the films of Al Adamson and so I looked for one on Amazon and various online book stores but couldn’t find anything in print at the time. There was apparently one published in 1998 called Schlock-o-Rama: Films of Al Adamson but, yeah, good luck even finding a copy now, even at the ludicrous price I’m sure it would go for if anyone had a copy to sell. Well, that was a year ago so, imagine my surprise when I’d found out that, not only had a book which was much of what I wanted been published since I’d last looked but, it took the form of a memoir by Sam Sherman, about the films he’d produced with Adamson (and others) at Independent International Pictures.

When Dracula Met Frankenstein, subtitled My Years Making Drive-In Movies With Al Adamson, is a valuable, well written tome from somebody who’s about as no nonsense and as fair a person running a business as you can get. Going out of his way to help people along in the process of his career and championing the art form while still managing to make tonnes of money from... well, if you ask me... from some unlikely pictures. Sherman managed to make something out of both his own productions and others peoples (as I’ve talked about in some of my reviews of... let’s call them ‘rescued films’) and is a genuine success story, capturing various niche markets as and when required.

The various forewords to the book tell it all in terms of Sam’s character, with the people writing those intros singling him out as a nice, honest human being (which really comes across in both this book and various interviews on the Severin set, not to mention his little audio section on the Dracula VS Frankenstein soundtrack CD). And cinephiles will have a ball with many of the anecdotes on offer here.

The book is split into two sections. The first half being a look at his personal history with ‘the age of celluloid’ with tales of Al’s dad, cowboy star/director/producer Denver Dixon, how Sam himself got started on the road to producer by re-releasing an old 1930s Hollywood production of The Scarlet Letter in the 1960s, how he hired out equipment from the late great Kenneth Strickfadden (there’s a book about him I reviewed right here), how he worked with the infamous Hemisphere Pictures and so on. And really great stories I’d never heard before such as how he managed to generate income for the old Hammer films adaptation of the TV serial The Abominable Snowman (reviewed by me here) and, of course, how some of those Adamson flicks like Brain Of Blood and Nurse Sherri turned out like they did (and just why they did too... which was an eye opener). He even had famous artists like Neal Adams (who passed away last week) and Basil Gogos designing and painting promotional posters, sleeves and whatever else was needed to give a movie a first run lift or, often, a new lease of life when required. In fact, there’s a very interesting section which explains the early days of the sudden, burgeoning Home Video market and just how he was able to ‘more than stay afloat’ with some of his old titles.

The second section of the book is a rundown of chapters devoted, alphabetically, to various films he’s been involved with (mostly but not limited to, working with Adamson) and, as you would expect, he has quite a few stories to tell of just what happened on those productions. Blazing Stewardesses which, I’m sorry Sam, I really didn’t like compared to their original The Naughty Stewardesses, certainly makes more sense now in terms of just why the heck it ended up being the film it is now, for sure. Also, the inside story on just what happened with the ending of Girls For Rent is kinda interesting.

There’s also more than a hint in the book that Sam is working on a second book of memoirs (which I’ll be first in line for if it’s publicised better than this one was... I need to know about it before I can buy it) of all the other things which he’s been involved with outside of IIP. Frankly, there’s an unexplained photograph of Sam in the book (it’s also loaded with plenty of photos relating to the various stories, if that’s your thing) where he’s standing with the one and only Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe and, yeah, I really want to hear about that meeting, for sure.

As you can see, I had a real blast with When Dracula Met Frankenstein and I’m sure glad Sam’s still around to share his stories. This is another of those essential film books every cineaste shouldn’t be without, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps Tom Weaver, a film historian whose name I tend to associate with his expert knowledge on the classic Universal horror movies of the 30s - 50s, says it best when he shares an anonymous quote that... “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” That’s a really nice way of putting things and I couldn’t agree more. When Dracula Meets Frankenstein is available now from Amazon and, as the saying goes, all reputable book stores and... I sure hope Sam gets his skates on writing that second book. I want to read it sooner, rather than later.