Tuesday 26 September 2023

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

Fine Chess

Sherlock Holmes
Faces Death

USA 1943
Directed by Roy William Neill
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, the sixth of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films comprising the series of movies about the fictional detective -  continued by Universal after the initial two by Fox - was based loosely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure Of The Musgrave Ritual and, like the previous five in the series, features Basil Rathbone as Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson and Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson.

This one takes place in a manor house, Musgrave Hall, which has been turned into a convalescence home for patients suffering from mental afflictions, due to their experiences in World War Two. As such, we find Doctor Watson on the scene before the first crime is even committed, as he is a consulting physician who visits the home on his rounds. However, when one of the family members is wounded by a stab in the neck, he calls in Holmes and, when the two arrive at the place, before Holmes even gets through the door, the two of them discover a dead body (the first of a few corpses) under a pile of leaves. It isn’t long before Holmes, Watson and a returning Denis Hoey as the even more obstinate and bumble headed Inspector Lestrade, are trying to piece together the words of the traditionally recited family ritual... the Musgrave Ritual... and trying to follow the clues using such methods as a human chess board on the checkered floors of the house, to find out what is really behind the string of murders.

And, as usual, it’s a delightful romp with a few interesting things of note as the film wears on.

For example, in an early and mostly superfluous scene which is a bit of dramatic window dressing (or padding if you like), a man in one of two pub scenes accidentally puts his hand through some glass. For a black and white movie of the 1940s, I found it odd but refreshing that we were allowed to see a mass of blood covering his hand... not a phenomenon I would associate too much with pre-1960s, Hollywood movie making. Incidentally, the eagle eyed among you may notice that, in one of the two pub scenes, the young sailor saying “Blimey!” is none other than a very young Peter Lawford.

Dennis Hoey is great as yet another comic foil for Holmes and he actually says two ‘very Lestrade’ like things which would become almost an amalgamated catchphrase for him in the series, if memory serves. In this one he exclaims both “Why, if it ain’t Mr. ‘Olmes!” and also “Why, if it isn’t Dr. Watson!” literally within ten seconds of the first utterance. Which definitely brought a smile to my face. Also, when reconstructing the steps of an unconscious victim, Holmes pronounces... “We must search her mind!” which I thought was a pretty striking turn of phrase.

Another striking turn of phrase, for me at any rate, was Nigel Bruce’s wonderful delivery, dismissing various silly speculations about the various ghostly legends at Musgrave as an expression to rival one of my favourites, Shilly Shally, as... “Hokey Pokey Penny A Lump.” The complete meaning of the phrase is now, it would seem, lost to obscurity but certainly popped up in a song in the 1920s referring to the slogan shouted for the selling of honeycomb ice cream... perhaps meaning cheap. Although, how this becomes a derisory term for the naming of nonsense is beyond me. What isn’t beyond me is that I think this phrase should definitely be brought back into the common parlance and I shall try and sneak it into as many conversations as I can for now. It’s a good ‘un!

The acting in this one is superb, as usual and a special shout out to Halliwell Hobbes as the dipsomaniac butler Brunton. He has a lovely scene where Rathbone’s Holmes is trying to interrogate him and he’s convincingly blotto during the sequence. He does it so well and against Rathbone’s blank expression that I suspect that both the actors had real trouble keeping a straight face through the scene. I’m sure that when the director called “Cut” they must both have been in peels of laughter.

One last thing... when the first victim tells Dr. Watson of how he was stabbed in the neck by a perpetrator unknown, the camera eye flashes back to the scene and we see him attacked for the benefit of the audience. However, when he is later revealed himself as the murderer and his story of how the wound was inflicted proves to be fabricated to throw suspicion from himself, it becomes clear should any of the audience remember by this point, that the camera POV shot from earlier was certainly lying and showing the audience something that never happened. Certainly not the first or last time this trick has been invested in to divert attention but, I have to wonder if this was, indeed, one of the earliest?

And that’s me done with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. Another brilliant and entertaining entry into the series from a franchise of films I’ll continue to watch into my old age. A wonderful sequence of films, for sure.

Monday 25 September 2023

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Daft Vader

Obi-Wan Kenobi
Airdate: May - June 2022

Warning: Spoilers but, who cares? It’s hard to spoil rubbish.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was originally scheduled to be a new Star Wars prequel movie... you know, one of those “A Star Wars Tale” movies like Rogue One (reviewed here) or Solo (reviewed here). However, due to Solo failing at the box office, the film was rewritten and reworked as a TV show (is my understanding). In regards to Solo, one of the better Star Wars movies to be made since the Disney buy out, it seemed pretty clear to everyone except Disney, surely, that the quality of the film was not at fault for it’s failure at the box office. Just bad Marketing/scheduling. The Star Wars films had been released one a year for a few years but, following on from one of the worst Star Wars movies ever made, aka The Last Jedi (reviewed here), audience enthusiasm was at an all time low so, yeah, I would have thought common sense might have told you not to release another Star Wars movie just a short five months after that one. I think anything in the brand released then would have met with the same financial ambivalence, to be honest.

But, anyway, instead we have the new TV show which, I wasn’t that fussed about but, since the high quality of the first four episodes of The Book Of Boba Fett (reviewed here), I was actually slightly hopeful for it. Well, let me tell you that this series sees a return to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi by none other than Obi Junior, Ewan McGregor himself, still trying to do an accent which gets close to Alec Guiness at times. So, yay, we have Ewan back and... that’s it really. His inclusion and acting in this is literally the only good thing about this show.

We also have Hayden Christensen back as Annakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader, giving the myth a bit of spin about how he feels he did kill himself (just to make the lie told by Alec Guiness in the original Star Wars - before it was even A New Hope - just that much lighter). We could have done without him, to be honest. A flashback to a training fight we never saw actually has Hayden looking much older than he did years after that fight would even have taken place and about the only good bit he did have was when he’s peeking out from behind Vader’s half shattered helmet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Obi-Wan Kenobi has the title character being hunted by Sith-style inquisitors, highlighted by actress Moses Ingram as the one surviving ‘youngling’ from the retro fitted slaughter of all the kids by Annakin in Revenge Of The Sith (reviewed here) and, to do this, she kidnaps young Princess Leia as bate. So Obi-Wan has to leave Tatooine and relinquish his watchful eye on ‘young Skywalker’, left with the Lars family, to go and rescue her in six episodes of mayhem which almost threaten to contradict the already told future continuity of the franchise and, as my friend correctly identified, it really didn’t need to be made. It’s just a piece of padding to get viewers to Disney+ at this point. I mean, to be fair, most things don’t need to be made but this one is just another exercise of filling in gaps that nobody needed filled and, to boot, doing it in such a careful way to not try and change too much about the final destination that, it doesn’t actually add anything to the canon. It’s like it’s redundant even before it gets out of the starting gate.

I started off quite intrigued because Kenobi’s life on Tatooine, as we see how he’s been living, is actually quite interesting... but he’s soon off on an adventure and all the good work done in the opening half an hour or so is immediately blown out of the water. He’s off on his space romp but, somehow, manages to bring none of the gleeful optimism of the Kenobi character as seen in the prequel trilogy. You can kinda understand why, perhaps but, then think of the carefree but confident character as portrayed by Guiness, which only takes place around ten years after this story... and you can see the mismatch.

And, while I’m on the subject, yeah McGregor is totally the right age to play this character at this point but... one wonders how he gets from looking like someone who still looks in his 30s here... to 60+ Alec Guiness in just ten short years. Blimey, those Tatooine summers must be really hard on the body.

There are also some token cameos thrown in, such as the return of Emperor Palpatine and, bizarrely, a really unnecessary and ‘definitely looking like it was just tagged on with no thought of actually meaning anything’, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Liam Neeson as the force ghost of Qui-Gon.

Despite all this, though, the show does have a few interesting moments such as the brief humanising of Darth Vader (which completely compromises his effectiveness as a villain in the later films, to be honest) but they struggle to find a solution to the biggest problem with the show and the beautiful legacy that Star Wars once was. Namely that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a really dull, ineffective and, I dunno, almost ‘by the numbers’ attempt to cash in on a series of films which were very special and inspirational to people both in the 1970s and the 1990s. The light seems to have faded much faster from the franchise than even I expected it to do when Lucas sold it on to Disney and, to be honest, I really wasn’t expecting Disney to be able to handle what they’d acquired that well but... yeah, the Star Wars brand no longer sparks an ‘Ooh’ of anticipation when I hear that something new is in the works. Now I just shake my fist at the moon and yell for Disney to let it die a more dignified death, to be honest. Can’t recommend this one but, you know, Ewan McGregor is always pretty watchable.

Saturday 23 September 2023


Expend Thy Foibles
While Ye May

aka The Expendables 4
Directed by Scott Waugh
USA Millennium Films 2023
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I’ve tried to write this with no spoilers but the way I try to dance around a certain scene might give things away when you see the movie... although you’ll probably figure that one out long before it’s revealed anyway.

Well now... I was really looking forward to seeing the fourth in The Expendables franchise, known at present by the silly title Expend4bles although, I notice on the IMDB they’ve already changed the listing to The Expendables 4 so, maybe the not-so-hidden numeral in the title is just for us audiences in the UK. However, the film has had a lot of bad word of mouth on Twitter and one of my favourite critics, Mark Kermode (the only person I know who, like me, loved Meg 2 - The Trench, reviewed here) really shredded it, citing a bad script and some terrible and confusing action editing... I’ll address all that in a minute but, well, let me say just this up front...

I loved Expend4bles right from the start and kept waiting and waiting for it to go sour on me... and kept waiting... and kept waiting. Heck... I waited until the very end for the movie to start becoming unwatchable and it never did. I had a blast with this movie.

Now, I quite liked the previous films in The Expendables franchise, it has to be said. I thought the first one was great and I liked the second one even more. The third movie would have topped them all except, the violence was deliberately watered down and, well, it was brilliant apart from having the edge taken off of it. Well the producers of this one took note of the audience reaction to the toned down viscera of the third and have brought it back for this fourth installment. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking Rambo IV levels of violence here but it’s not backing away from it either... to the point where the marketing for the film, at least in one of the US trailers, has used it as a selling point about how the filmmakers have listened to the audience and have loaded this one with the expected levels of violence. It’s maybe less than I was expecting but it’s appropriate to the kinds of violence depicted so, I’m certainly not complaining.

Okay, we have some of the old gang here who are now in all four films to date... Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture, all doing their thing and acting the heck out of this. It’s broad acting but, it’s just right for the kind of film it is and I didn’t see anything in here which differed from the level of the performances in the previous movies. They’re doing what they do best and, guess what? They’re doing it well.

They’re joined by a bunch of newcomers, of varying ages and generations, most notably Megan Fox (who maybe seems a little too glamorous even in her fighty/stabby scenes but, again, I’m not complaining), Levy Tran (I could have done with more of her character in this), the brilliant Iko Uwais (from The Raid movies), the amazing Tony Jaa (who was maybe a little wasted, there should have been more action scenes with him in this, I think), 50 Cent, Andy Garcia and, in a strange role in terms of... let’s call it meta-continuity... Jacob Scipio. Now I’m pretty sure Antonio Banderas was probably asked to come back from his stint on the third movie and that this script probably had his character written in on an earlier draft. Instead, we have Scipio playing, unless I misheard, the son of Banderas’ character in the third movie... playing this character in exactly the same way as that original character would and serving exactly the same function in the group so... yeah, sometimes I believe you can see the history of the origin of a film hidden within its final release print and, I suspect this is one such occasion.

Okay, so the film starts off with a double bang... with an attack on an army of bad guys from a different army of bad guys headed up by Iko Uwais... followed by another scene featuring Stallone and Statham doing their ‘banter and action’ thing back in their home town (following Megan Fox dumping Statham’s character but, don’t worry, she’ll be back). We then, post titles, we get the group sent on a mission colliding with the first part of the pre-credits and, somewhat in Expendables fashion, the mission ends in failure and... well, something happens which affects the course of the rest of the movie. Kinda. I’ll try and address that without spoiling it soon. The rest of the film is about finding out the identity of an old enemy of Stallone’s Barney character, who seems to be tied up in the ongoing plot about stealing detonators to nuke part of Russia and make it look like the US has done it. It’s also a revenge mission... kinda.

Anyway, let me address the main criticisms of the film first. No, it isn’t terribly written. Some of the dialogue is, indeed, not to my taste but it’s all fairly appropriate to the characters saying some of these lines and, generally, I had no real problems with it.

Now, about that action editing. Yes, it’s fast and furious in its cutting but, surprisingly, it in no way gets confusing and I found I could follow the flow of it perfectly. And I say that as someone who can get easily confused by modern action editing. Frankly, there’s a lot worse out there. I could think of several slices of Michael Bayhem and various other action movies where these kinds of sequences... which are, after all, the bread and butter of such films... are just completely incomprehensible. Not so on this movie, for sure... again, I followed it fine.

My only slight problem was that there are no surprises in the movie. That ‘thing’ they do at the start of the film which I’m trying very hard not to spoil here was questionable in the first place... especially when you see the state that the ‘thing’ is left in. After a while, because the movie plays that sequence very close to its chest... I was almost convinced that they had done... ‘the thing’ after all but, no, I was right to trust my instincts. The thing is redacted by the end of the movie in no uncertain terms and is timed as a reveal in exactly the kind of deus ex machina way you would expect. Secondly, the other so called twist of the movie, the identity of a certain person... well, let’s just say that this person was very easy to unmask as soon as a certain character was introduced. So no surprises there either.

So, yeah, the one weakness of the film is that the audience can see the so called twists coming from a long way off but, luckily, in this kind of film that makes no difference as it’s what the audience is kinda wanting to see, to be honest. So I’ll say it again... I had a great time with Expend4bles and will certainly be grabbing the Blu Ray when it comes out. While also looking for news of when Expend5bles goes into production... one can hope.

Tuesday 19 September 2023


Trail At The
End Of The World

Spain/Ethiopia/Finland 2015
Directed by Miguel Llansó
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Second disc in Arrow’s Blu Ray set
of Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway

Warning: Very mild spoilers, of a sort, kind of...

Well this is a strange movie, I’m glad to say. I realised that Crumbs, the first feature by Miguel Llansó, was included on the second disc in Arrow’s presentation of Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway (the same director’s second movie). Being as I suspect that any reissue they do of this one will probably not include the Crumbs disc, I decided to watch the trailers for both movies to see if they were my kind of thing. Those two trailers were ticking all the right boxes and so I bought this limited edition version of the release while I still could. So glad I did.

The film starts off with the information that we are in a post-apocalyptic, future version of our world. A devastating war has left the remaining humans interested in surviving only for any kind of future generations. The population has dwindled to almost nothing and a few people are scattered in this landscape, trying to just enjoy their days and maybe find some meaning.

Not that meaning is in any way forthcoming in this surrealist melange of broken people and the lionisation of ancient artefacts. The back story, which is in itself a quote from something else, seems to be a frame to hang together some almost logical story beats into something which, in all honesty, defines categorisation and takes you to a point, perhaps, where the attempt to find something more clearly defined in the story content might leave you clutching at straws... or at the very least clutching at various pop culture objects in an attempt to make sense of it all.

We have two main protagonists in this movie, which is almost a surrealist road movie in some ways, although the quest which seems somewhat central to the future of the two is cross cut with the incidents which make up the days of one of the two who is left behind, waiting for her man to return. These two are Candy, a hunchbacked person of small stature played by Daniel Tadesse and Birdy, played by Selam Tesfayie. Candy spends his days scavenging the wasteland for artefacts which Birdy can use in her found sculptural art works.

However, the spaceship left over, apparently, from the war... which hovers in the skies all day and night and has a large arm with a giant hand coming out of the top of it... has started to show signs of activity. Candy notices that a version of Santa Claus is living in the underside of the machine in the bowling alley (which keeps activating by itself) so he goes on a journey to track down Santa so he can get his wish for him and Birdy, reserving a seat on the spaceship before it takes off. On his way he encounters a mouse masked Nazi, a horse backed bandit, a train driver and various other people and objects such as the local witch, played by Shitaye Abraha, who gives him a clue as to where to find Santa. Of course, when he finds Santa and confronts him in his deserted, lion decorated theme park, Candy has to peel off his clothes and reveal that he is really Superman... but this doesn’t prevent Santa Claus from hitting him with a bicycle. Of course, this encounter is watched by Birdy as she looks through the mechanism of the bowling alley.

And it’s an interesting and certainly entertaining movie. The pacing is very slow and the ponderous establishing shots of the colourful landscapes and locations in deep focus are absolutely beautiful. There are some amazing little sequences too. For instance, a local ‘fence’ character buys the ancient artefacts found by various scavengers, as they have become valuable currency in this dwindling world. Artefacts such as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle amulet, a plastic Max Steel sword (which Birdy gives to Candy to protect him) or a vinyl copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. A little while after such artefacts are found or lost, there is a beautiful sequence of each artefact spinning in slow motion in space, as the fence mis-identifies and mis-explains the history of the object in question.

If you do want to impose some meaning on the film then a sequence of ‘mistaken identity’ when Candy goes into a deserted cinema which has been showing the same movie non-stop for the last 40 years (it’s the so terrible it's good Turkish Superman, which I have seen and own and, yeah, perhaps one day I’ll review it for this blog). In a scene a little later, he is seen throwing away his Superman suit and it gives you pause for thought on the true history of the character, who has been telling everyone he is an alien trying to get back to the spaceship with his lover.

And that’s that. Crumbs is a wonderful surrealist movie with a certain level of emotional atmosphere to it, in spite of the way the ideas and scenes are threaded together in an almost throw away but mesmerising fashion. Recommended for anyone who is interested in the art of cinema, for sure. Oh... and if you want to find out the final fate of the spaceship, stick around until about half way through the end credits.

Monday 18 September 2023

Doctor Who - The Crusades

Saladin Days

Doctor Who - The Crusades
Airdate: 27th March - 17th April 1965
BBC 1 - Region B Blu Ray
Four Episodes including two reconstructions

Oh dear... well, there was a reason why the BBC chose Series 2 for the debut Blu Ray collection of William Hartnell’s Doctor (hopefully it won’t be the last). The sixth story of the nine serials which comprise series 2, The Crusades, has two episodes ‘missing presumed wiped’ (as the saying goes), making this season the most complete of this era’s Doctor Who stories. And this one, for me, was a hard watch for various reasons.

Notable things include a famous actor and actress in key roles. So joining the crew of the TARDIS... Bill Hartnell as The Doctor, William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki... are Julian Glover as Richard The Lionheart and Jean Marsh as his sister Joanna. The whole tale takes place in Palestine during Richard’s crusades and it’s actually quite boring... at least it was for me... playing around with political intrigue and cowtowing to regal entitlement (I really have no love of positions of authority, it has to be said).

Another interesting thing was, once again, seeing William Hartnell getting in on the action for a little bit of the first episode. Indeed, he knocks a Saracen Warrior unconscious and even attempts to indulge in some swordplay. Then we get what seems to have become a standard formula for the show, the TARDIS crew get divided with Barbara captured by Saladin, Ian (or Sir Ian as he is to become after King Richard knights him) going after her and getting into his own trouble... while The Doctor and Vicki keep themselves close to the King to try and assure things go smoothly for everyone. Which it decidedly doesn’t and the four travellers barely escape with their lives at the end of the fourth episode, which itself cliffhangers into the next story arc.

And, yeah, the overly talkie script, definitely took on the original mission statement of the show, to teach kids about history, is a hard slog but it’s proven even harder by the BBC’s decision to not do what they’ve been doing a lot of recently, for missing episodes... in that they have not commissioned new animations to go with the surviving soundtracks. Instead, they’ve fallen back on something they used to do which is to have the sound of the episode play while still photographs from the production are manipulated, to give a sense of what the accompanying visuals would have been.

Now, I’m not knocking that their is a certain amount of creative thought gone into the way the still photographs are manipulated. For example, different characters will be highlighted in close ups as they speak to mimic the cinematic syntax of cross cutting between two or more people in a conversation. However, it would, I think, be true to say that this does nothing to lift the story and, since it’s a relatively dull story anyway, the decision not to add animation is a poor one. Especially since, I suspect, it all boiled down to the BBC being too cheap to commission the animation of a mere two episodes. So, yeah, it certainly doesn’t do it any favours.

And I really don’t have much else to say about this one, I’m afraid. The novelisation, Doctor Who And The Crusaders by David Whitaker (who added a fair amount of stuff not seen in his serial from the same year) was the second novel to be released (after Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks) and also the last to be released until Target rereleased these first two, with this as their third, in 1973 (immediately following their first original release, Doctor Who And The Zarbi, based on the previous serial The Web Planet, reviewed here). I don’t remember much about it but I would certainly have enjoyed reading this one a lot more than the experience of finally watching it, I can tell you that. I suspect this is the one real weak link in this Blu Ray set and it’s telling that the BBC didn’t subject any of their special guests to have to slog their way through this one... it’s one of the few discs in the set which doesn’t have a Behind The Sofa extra. So, yeah, that probably says it all and I certainly wouldn’t recommend this story to anyone I know but, still, I’m very glad to have it and have the opportunity to finally see it, that’s for sure. Just wish they’d at least coughed up a little cash to animate episodes 2 and 4. And so onto The Space Museum... which I confess I’m looking forward to much more.

Sunday 17 September 2023

Play Misty For Me

Fatal Distraction

Play Misty For Me
USA 1971 Directed by Clint Eastwood
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

You know, I hadn’t seen this movie since I watched it on TV in the late 1970s. I don’t know why I never revisited before now because my impressions of it as a 9 or 10 year old were that it was a well made movie, despite my young reservations that it wouldn’t be because it was being directed by the main lead. So I remembered liking this one, even though I find Eastwood a bit hit and miss in terms of movies he appears in and also as a director. So it was a no brainer when I saw the Blu Ray going for £4 a few years back in Fopp records, for me to pick this one up and add it to the ‘to be watched’ pile.

Play Misty For Me was Eastwood’s directorial debut. He’s helmed a fair few movies now as opposed to just starring in them (and staring in them), although obviously not as many as he’s acted in for sure. This one starts off very strongly with an overhead, helicopter tracking shot which was something which became a cliché in 1970s and 80s cinema but this one is a little different because it starts out at the sea and creeps up on some cliffs to set up an establishing shot of Eastwood outside a cliff-side apartment. We join him briefly looking for someone who isn’t around and then he gets into his open top car and shots of him driving are intercut with the return of the overhead helicopter shot tracking his progress into the small town of Carmel-By-The-Sea (where Eastwood, many years later, would become Mayor). The music is jazzy and cool and there’s a wonderful looking font in bright green which really gives the titles a distinctive ‘old Hollywood’ feel... more on that atmosphere later.

He then turns up and takes over from his friend and co-worker as the local radio DJ. It’s established from early on that one of his callers is known for ringing up and asking him to “Play Misty for me”, at which point he obliges by playing Errol Garner’s recording. So the source of all his troubles in the movie is set up quite early on. Very soon after, he goes to his local bar, which features director Don Siegel (who, directed Eastwood in various movies including Dirty Harry and who also helmed the classic, original version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which I reviewed here) as the bar tender. A girl is waiting at the bar who Dave, that’s Eastwood’s character, is told is impossible to pick up. So Dave and the bartender play this wonderful, completely made up, ridiculous game which is intended to spark interest in those watching. The rules of the game are that when an onlooking girl has joined Dave for a drink, he wins. It’s a fun sequence but the character needn’t have bothered because, as it transpires later, the woman waiting is the ‘Misty’ girl and she was there specifically to meet him and try to win his heart and attention. The overbearing fan is called Evelyn and she’s played here extremely well by Jessica Walter. After Eastwood’s character sleeps with her in a ‘casual’ manner, she suddenly becomes his clutching, stifling, true love... which is awkward for Eastwood, he is trying to reignite the flames with his recent ex-girlfriend Tobie, played here by Donna Mills.

From here on things get dark, as Dave can’t shake Evelyn’s persistent attentions and people get injured or killed, not to mention a scene where Evelyn deliberately slits both her own wrists so Dave won’t send her away and make good on his date with Tobie. If you’re wondering if this feels a little familiar then, yes, I remember going to see a 1980s movie called Fatal Attraction which was, pretty much, the same movie in different clothes. I think a few films have used this as a template now but I think this is probably the strongest version of this kind of tale I’ve seen. At least from the United States.

Eastwood does really well in this, I have to say. Not just as an actor, which you kind of expect by this point and he’s got a large, screen presence... but as a director. This is not in any way a stumbling effort, this is a very strong directorial piece and I can see why he was able to carry on directing stuff. Although there’s no one or two things which are absolutely stand out on this, it isn’t shabbily done and all the compositions are cleanly framed with people meticulously placed within the design. Because of this and combined with the jazzy soundtrack, the film almost feels like a throwback to a more ‘classic Hollywood’ time. I already mentioned the font used on the opening credits and that just provides another layer to the veneer of 1950s style to the proceedings. This one almost feels like what Hitchcock might have done with the same material ten or fifteen years prior to the release of this movie. Also, Eastwood shot the whole thing in a month and considerably under budget, is my understanding.

While Eastwood is pretty good in the role of DJ Dave, Jessica Walter’s performance in this is just amazing. She manages to ‘play crazy’ really well, coming off as normal a lot of the time at first but giving tell tale moments of psychopathic behaviour from very early on which blossom into full scale ‘murder maven’ by about three quarters of the way through. I’d say a lot of the movie is hinging on this performance work and she really is pitch perfect through this. The audience learns to be wary of her a lot quicker than Eastwood’s character does, I would say. She makes a fine nutter (sorry, meant to say she makes a fine sufferer of Borderline Personality Disorder).

If I had one negative thing I could possibly say that there’s a part of the movie, about three quarters of the way through when Evelyn has been arrested and taken into custody for psychiatric treatment, where the movie just kinda stops dead for a while. This involves a long, poetic love scene of Eastwood and Donna Mills making love in the forest (nowadays we’d call it dogging) set to a Roberta Flack recording of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face which, is okay... but then the film goes ito an extended sequence of various bands playing their sets at the Monterey Jazz Festival where Dave and his fellow DJ take their gals, which leaves a little clue as to the twist awaiting Eastwood’s character towards the end of the movie but, it’s mostly just people watching and enjoying the music as the camera explores the crowd.

Now, I was puzzled as to why this extended ‘break’ from the movie was here to be honest and I realise, on reflection, that this scene does serve an important purpose and I also suspect it might have been added at some stage as a ‘rescue’ moment. You see, the scenes after Evelyn has been arrested make up the denouement of the movie and can only take place once Evelyn has been discharged from psychiatric observation. If that had followed in sequence directly after her arrest or even after the love scene, the audience would possibly think the pacing of the movie was a little too fast to get there, is my guess. I think this long pause in the story is a deliberate thing to give the audience a feeling of some considerable time having passed, to make the final set pieces arrive at a more natural point in the narrative. So keeping the right tone almost by stealth, as it were. It might even have been added after a rough cut of the rushes highlighted this problem for all I know. And I don’t know... that’s for sure. But looking back on it, it really works for the film so... yeah, Eastwood really seemed to know what he was doing here.

And that’s my main take away from the movie I think. With Play Misty For Me, Eastwood proved, in no uncertain terms, that he was just as good behind a camera as he is in front of it. It’s a brilliant movie and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone into the technical art of film. I possibly prefer his movie The Eiger Sanction to this one but Play Misty For Me is phenomenal and I hope they show this one in film school. It’s a neatly put together movie and I think the various imitations of it over the years, like the aforementioned Fatal Attraction, are a testament to the power of this one. Definitely a highlight of Eastwood’s long career, as far as I’m concerned.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Challenge Of The Masters

One Kick Pony

Challenge Of The Masters
aka Liu A-Cai yu Huang Fei-Hong
Hong Kong 1976
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so the sixth entry in the wonderful Arrow Blu Ray box set ShawScope Volume One is Challenge Of The Masters and it’s a pretty good, fairly simple movie. It starts off with a quite striking opening title sequence with Kuan Tai Chen as Master Lu Ah Tsai and a young Chia-Hui Liu (aka Gordon Liu) as the teenaged version of famous Chinese martial artist Huang Fei Hung... going through various training routines on a white background with each other. Liu’s various poses of energetic kung fu are used as movements to herald in the on-screen credits as the two dance around against big Chinese letter forms, the meaning of which are sadly untranslated on the subtitles... perhaps they make up the title of the movie.

Gordon Liu, of course, has had a very long career and, to the person on the street in the Western world he would perhaps be best known (though not by name, I suspect) as the person who played both Johnny Mo, the bald headed leader of The Crazy 88 in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume One and Pai Mei in Kill Bill Volume Two (a character he’d fought against a few times, I believe, in various films over the years). The person he’s playing here, Huang Fei Hung, in a film which starts off at the Pai Competition in the Year Of The Wood Rat, before he learned martial arts (that’s what this story is about) has possibly been played on film more than any other character. Indeed, Kwan Tak-hing apparently played him at least 77 times in the years between 1949 and 1981. Even some of the music needle dropped into this Shaw Brothers production is a theme associated with the character from some of these films and it was apparently written into the score of one of Jet Li’s versions of the character in Once Upon A Time In China (which I guess I need to grab hold of and watch at some point now).

The film itself is, as I said, very simple in its plot. It revolves around a martial arts competition where people scrabble for Pai’s (which  in this film take the form of a bunch of scrolls) fired out from fireworks and whoever’s team take one or more home, shows that they are good at martial arts (if I’m understanding this rugger scrum of a tournament correctly). Hung’s dad will not teach him martial arts but, after he accidentally causes one of his fellow pupils to be injured ,saving him from a villanous kung fu school who pick fights with them and don’t want them to have any Pai’s, his father’s former master, Lu Ah Tsai, takes him on and trains him up for a couple of years. 

Meanwhile, another friend of the family, a police officer who has come to the town to find a murderous thief, finds said thief being sheltered by the rival gang. The thief is a master of the ‘sharp kick’ deadly kung fu technique and, with the assistance of his lethal, metal toe caps, he kung fu kicks the officer to death. Thus more motivation is built for Hung to finish his training so he can take on the villain (who is played here by the film’s director Chia-Liang Liu) and then compete for Pai’s in the next tournament. All goes to plan and things play out the way you would expect them to, with Hung mastering the fighting arts but also the arts of diplomacy and compassion, to end up with the two fighting schools reaching a peaceful co-existence together.

And, yeah, it’s the usual thing of watching human dynamo’s leaping, punching and kicking on screen at a fairly fast pace and its all good fun. Interestingly, the master teaches Hung using the style of The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (which is another film I need to get hold of at some point), with the old ‘tracing a circle around increasingly diminishing sizes of easily breakable China to develop the reflexes’ ploy and, at one point, uses one of the Wooden Men of Shaolin Alley fighting pole swinging machines, which he names as such as coming from the Shaolin Temple (indeed, this is presumably one of the same props from the 1976 film Shaolin Temple from Shaw Brothers, reviewed by me here).

As usual, asides from the obvious needle drop issues, the film has fairly high production values and the quick shooting schedules and restraints are not in evidence in the film on a visual level for the audience to notice... it looks great. Of interest to me was the fact that one of the characters uses a transparent Sesame Seed oil to make himself slippery in a bid to be able to squelch out from the grasp of his opponents in the Pai contest. I can only assume that this may be the origin/inspiration behind the oiled up fight featuring Jason Statham in the first of The Transporter movies.

So yeah, Challenge Of The Masters is pretty much business as usual for the Shaw Brothers in that it’s a tightly paced mix of kung fu action, humbling training exercises and Eastern philosophy leading to forgiveness and peace over violence. In other words, an entertaining production which is nicely put together. Another winner in my book.

Monday 11 September 2023

The Bone Hacker

Hacking Restraint

The Bone Hacker
by Kathy Reichs
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781398510838

Warning: Some spoilers in here for sure.

So the latest thriller by Kathy Reichs... my once regular Christmas read, now my regular August holiday read... is The Bone Hacker, the latest in a long line of novels featuring her forensic anthropologist and general bone expert Dr. Temperance Brennan. The version of the character to not be confused with the other incarnation of Temperance Brennan on the TV show Bones, who is based as much on Reichs herself as the Tempe in the books, with the two characters seeming to me to be like chalk and cheese.

In this one, everyone’s favourite bone lady finds herself away from her boyfriend Andrew Ryan and investigating some skeletons ‘as a favour’, which possibly connects to a case she is working on, in the Turks & Caicos Islands. But when the lady detective who asks for her help is found murdered halfway through the investigation, she finds herself working with another detective on the case which, at the end of the day, leads to something else again. All I will say in that regard is that I hope this is not the last time we see the character, nicknamed by his colleagues as... The Monk.

This one is another roaring thriller which travels at a rate of knots and was over and done with very quickly. As in, the gaps between the few times I could actually put it down were few and far between. And I think part of that ease of read and heavy pacing is because, like the best of the stories in the classic pulp tradition... of which I count pretty much all contemporary genre fiction... is because the books have become a little formulaic but, this is in no way a bad thing and its just a symptom, I would guess, of Reichs using the techniques that work for her to tell her stories in as quick and exciting a way as possible.

For example, she is still very much using that 1930s pulp magazine style mini-cliff hanger at the end of each chapter to move you speedily into the next to find out... what just happened. Usually it’s a statement of devastation or exclamation at some detail of the case which won’t be revealed to the reader until sometime within the next chapter... such as “His next statement shocked me.” And occasionally it’s a heavy piece of foreshadowing, perhaps the most extreme example would be the chapter that ends... “Musgrove didn’t make that meeting. By Saturday she was dead.” But, you know, it works so... no complaints here.

One thing I didn’t expect was a whole disaster movie style action sequence at the start of the novel, acting much like a pre-credits sequence in a movie, where Tempe, Ryan and a couple of their friends are very much in peril, in a boat caught in a mini hurricane with no life jackets and facing possible death. Yeah, okay, that had my attention and worked pretty well, I would say.

Other notes on this one would be... I was surprised that Tempe didn’t get The Monk’s reference to Rin Tin Tin at one point... Reichs obviously does because she came up with it but it always gives me pause for thought when the character deviates in knowledge from the writer. Another thing that kept me reading is the humour, such as the name of a boat being Cod Bless Us although, it has to be said, there was considerably less eye rolling on Tempe’s part in this book (maybe only three or four times as opposed to gazillions).

Either way though, when a writer uses quality sentences like, “The reprimand sent my molars reaching for each other.” then I’m always going to be hooked by the cleverness and confidence of the writer in charge of the story, for sure. And, I was surprised by the lack of reference to the other stories... I always say start off with the first book in a series and work your way up but, as far as The Bone Hacker goes, if you really wanted to, you could probably jump on board with this one without needing to know the background history of the characters, for sure.

Either way, if you’re an old pro at Temperance Brennan or a newcomer alike, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this one, with my only caveat being that I recognised a certain cyber attack on one of the main characters around halfway through, a very long time before it was revealed as such at the end of the novel. But she took me by surprise in other areas so, all good as far as I’m concerned. Another great Tempe mystery and I’m already looking forward to next year’s novel. Keep ‘em coming.

Sunday 10 September 2023

The Nun II

Nuns Upon
A Time

The Nun II
Directed by Michael Chaves
UK/USA Warner Bros
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some spoilerish territory covered.

I liked The Nun (reviewed here) and thought critics were way too harsh about that movie. It played like a horror romp rather than an unsettling or creepy movie... I think at the time I compared to it a late 1960s/early 1970s Hammer horror movie but with added jump scares and, yeah, I found it to be a lot of fun. So, I was looking forward to The Nun II until I heard a review by one of the more likeable UK critics on a podcast and... he kind of slated it. So, ultimately, I was going in with low expectations.

So I was pleased that, once again, I really liked this sequel and would love to see more from this set of characters. And, being as it’s part of The Conjuring Universe, I think there could well be chance of that happening at some point. Although, in terms of surprises, that’s also a double edged sword... yeah, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Set four years after the events in the first Nun film, in the 1950s, his one deals with the two human survivors from the first one... Sister Irene (played again by Taissa Farmiga, real life younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren in the main strand of Conjuring films)... and Jonas Bloquet returns as Maurice, who has ‘the nun’ inside him still as a demonic possession (not a spoiler if you remember some of the opening scenes in the first Conjuring movie). And then, of course, there’s Bonnie Aarons as the demonic nun herself, reprising her role from The Conjuring 2 - the Devil Made Me Do it (reviewed here), Annabelle: Creation (reviewed by me here) and, of course, The Nun.

This one see Sister Irene sent on a mission by the church who are trying to track the nun as she starts killing people off in certain countries and Irene, along with her new sidekick Sister Debra (payed by Storm Reid), has to figure out how to catch up with ‘the nun’ until they finally twig that Maurice is taking odd jobs at certain places where gruesome, demonic deaths are now occurring... not that Maurice is even aware he’s brought ‘the nun’ with him, of course.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I can understand why certain critics got bored with The Nun II because it has a very steady pacing of nundemonium set pieces with very little pause between each new set of scares. And it is still very much a ‘jump scare’ kind of movie, for sure. And, it’s not subtle... the demon goes straight for the throat each time, so to speak, wasting no time in killing off ‘persons of interest’ to it in no uncertain terms. Which, actually, in a way I found quite refreshing. There aren’t that many ‘you got a fright and I’m coming back to do that again to you later’ scenes... well, okay there are but there are a lot of ‘nun goes kill crazy and finish her enemies off quick’ scenes intermingled with them so, you really don’t know which, if any, of the characters is going to be picked on for a solid kill from one scene to the next. Although it does keep key characters alive for this one.

And, midst all the ‘camera keeping the audience focused on dead areas of the screen so it can frighten them from somewhere else’ mentality of the movie, which to be fair is standard for modern horror movies, there are also some nice ideas in here such as the demon nun casting her image in things. Two notable examples of this are... firstly, when she manifests as a dirty patch in some wallpaper. Despite grumbling critics, it doesn’t go on forever and, if anything, it maybe is a nice shout back to the original 1963 version of The Haunting (reviewed here) in terms of ‘haunted wallpaper’ but, let’s face it, it’s never going to be as unsettling as that highlight moment of the Robert Wise movie.

Secondly, there’s an absolutely amazing sequence when Irene finds herself in a back alley confronted by a big magazine stand rack. The pages on all the magazines keep turning in unison (at least fifty of them, I reckon) showing disturbing faces until finally, when all the pages come to rest, they make up a big image of the demonic nun. Now, admittedly, the scene then goes on to an attempt to misdirect the audience really poorly and obviously to get the jump scare but, that’s okay because, even though I could figure out exactly where the scare would be coming from and when, I still jumped at it so, yeah, it’s well done.

The one downside to the movie is that, if you remember the scene in the original Conjuring movie, you’ll know a specific character definitely can’t be killed off in this one... so it means there’s less surprise by the point when, without that baggage, you would expect them to die. So, yeah, a bit of a shame but, continuity should always win with this kind of thing, for sure. Incidentally, fans of that first movie may want to stick around for a mid-post credits scene in this one which features a nice cameo appearance.

All said and done, however, the film does what the first one did and throws a lot of demonic mayhem at the audience, literally including a few scenes with a terrifying goat demon representation of the devil chasing... well, galloping loudly... after everyone. And it’s a really good bit of creature design, I would say. It put me in mind of one of the demons manifested in the wonderful Hammer film The Devil Rides Out (review coming soonish) and one wonders how good a modern day adapation of that particular book would be.  

And on hand, through it all, we have Marco Beltrami’s excellent score helping lift the ‘action horror’ element and contributing to, what for me is, a pretty fun time at the cinema. So, yeah, don’t use this as a jump on movie, for sure but, my verdict on The Nun II would be... a worthy successor to the first movie and one I would recommend to horror fans especially. I had a great time with this one and will hopefully be picking up the Blu Ray when it hits the retail shelves, for sure. 

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Bloody Pit Of Horror

The Pit And
The Pendulous

Bloody Pit Of Horror
aka Il boia scarlatto
Italy 1965 Directed by Massimo Pupillo
Severin Films US Blu Ray

Warning: Bloody pit of spoilers below.

You know, I’ve been hearing about Bloody Pit Of Horror (which was rejected for a UK cinema release back in 1967) for a number of decades now. I’d not seen it and kinda wanted to because of its somewhat vague reputation and, since Severin just brought out* a restoration of this thing on Blu Ray, I figured now was the time.

Of course, the Italian title, which translates as The Scarlet Executioner, makes more sense than the English language title because the film deals with the legend of a 17th Century psychopathic, vigilante torturer known as, in the English dub, The Crimson Executioner. No real pit to be seen in this movie, it would seem. Of course, I knew of the central antagonist from his appearance 24 years ago**, when I read the first edition release of Kim Newman’s third Anno Dracula novel, Dracula-Cha-Cha-Cha (not sure if it’s still called that because, even then I remember the novel had a couple of titles). The film was not known to me at the time though and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was able to put two and two together.

The film certainly lives up to some kind of reputation, that’s for sure. It starts off in the year 1648 on the 5th of December (not sure if that makes this a Christmas movie or not) when the villanous Crimson Executioner is put to death in an iron maiden, threatening his captors with a curse in pretty much a retread of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (reviewed here), except the iron maiden in question looks like it’s been made of ply wood, badly painted and, well, the nine or so spikes that they could manage (in a central section which obviously pulls out so it can be used in a similar prop later in the movie)... look pretty rubbery, it seemed to me. And, yeah, the cabinet he’s killed and then sealed within looks like it might collapse just from the weight of him inside it, it has to be said.

Cue credits and dreamy music which, alas, has only ever been released on a vinyl 45rpm single, back in the day (and if you don’t know what rpm means, ask someone who’s a lot older than you). It’s typical Italian brass, bongos and voice with, in the later sinister scenes, the occasional touch of what sounds like a Hammond organ in places. Anyway, we cut to the present day... well, 1965... and a whole bunch of magazine staff have arrived with a group of models to shoot stuff in the castle. They break in because they find it’s empty and, when the owner, aided by his sinister, stripy shirted henchmen, finds out about this... he tells them to leave, before he spots an ex-girlfriend among the group and changes his mind. The kind of material they are shooting is dubious. It looks like they are shooting horror themed book covers, which would make sense because the lead protagonist Rick (played by Walter Brandi) is a horror writer... except the publisher mentions the shots are for a magazine and one of the male models is clearly wearing a Killing or Kilink outfit (which he name checks as a Skeletrix suit), which implies to me that they may be shooting shots for one of those horror photonovel/fotonovel magazines popular in places like Italy, Germany and Istanbul at the time.

We are then subjected to comical scenes of the flimsy photographer setting up shots and then taking snaps which freeze on the screen and shrink and twist slightly within it so we can see the final shot on a coloured background. The problem with this little montage is that the slapstick humour used really isn’t very funny at all and the overly comical, clownish music which accompanies these scenes is actually quite irritating (I still wish someone would release this score on CD though). And then, of course, one of the models has an ‘accident’ in the torture dungeon, just after another character accidentally knocks the seal off the Crimson Executioner’s iron maiden of a coffin. And that’s a bit of a red herring, it turns out because, although the various staff start being picked off one by one by... The Crimson Executioner... it’s really the current owner of the castle doing the torturing and killings.

Recognising his ex, Edith (played by Luisa Baratto) sends him over the top. But he’s already over the top if you ask me. He’s played by strongman Mickey Hargitay, who was married to Jayne Mansfield at the time this movie was made. He is so obsessed with his perfect, strongman’s body, that he left Edith in case her love tainted the purity of his sculpted muscles and, now that the intruders have disturbed his daily contemplation of his own muscles, he must become The Crimson Executioner and torture them all to death in various contraptions. Most of which aren’t all that creative although, it has to be said, the spider web deathtrap has to be seen to be believed.

How do we know what’s going on in his mind? Well he tells his whole plan to Edith, as he oils his chest for an interminably long time, reflected ad infinitum by two strategically placed mirrors multiplying the squelchy rubbing of his physique as he soliloquizes his insane and, frankly very campy rationale.

And, yeah, the film carries on in this vein until all the bad guys and most of the good guys are dead... leaving Rick and the heavily tortured Edith as the only ones to survive the ordeal... such as it is. It’s totally silly and the only real entertainment value, apart from the skimpy costumes of the female models of course, is Hargitay’s amazingly histrionic performance, as he leaps around like Spider-Man, arms akimbo, telling people he is torturing them to death because he is... The... Crimson... Executioner. Honestly, it’s like watching and listening to an insane version of William Shatner dialled up to eleven.

So yeah, of course I loved it.

The film does have some other things going for it in terms of cinematography. In one shot the model on the floor on the left of the screen is separated from her photographer and Edith by the central vertical pole of the lighting rig, splitting the screen like its two comic book frames. Another interesting thing is the slow, ponderous, moving camera which almost feels like it’s roaming around looking for the focus of the shot... a technique used quite often these days in a lot of TV shows (the modern Battlestar Galactica used it a lot, for instance) but here, instead of the handheld aesthetics we see now, the shots are very steady and deliberate in terms of their exploration of the scenes in question.

And, yeah, the small groups of people sharing shots are also quite nicely composed and it’s clear that the cinematographer and director knew what they were doing here. However, it’s the central, bizarrely over-the-top performance by Mickey Hargitay that really makes this film a truly silly but, classic slice of mid-sixties goodness. The lighthearted tone of the movie too, coupled with the various tortures and deaths going on, seem somewhat gloriously mismatched but, that too adds to the whole charm of the thing, I reckon.

So, if you like watching movies which are not exactly high art (in a way, the visuals are) but are certainly energetic and a joy to watch then you might find, contrary to what you might expect, that Bloody Pit Of Horror is right up your street. This is one of those films which would be perfect as something hilarious to show in an allnighter screening for friends, for example. And I’m sure there are a few drinking games you could play with this one... such as every time Mickey Hargitay mention’s he’s The Crimson Executioner you take a swig, for example. And lets not mention the fake bats.

*Nearer to the time I wrote this, rather than when I published the review.
** Again, at time of writing.

Monday 4 September 2023

Silver Nitrate

The Spell
Tale Heart

Silver Nitrate
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books
ISBN: 9781529418040

Silver Nitrate is the latest book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Now I’d vaguely seen her name connected with a couple of books which floated through my timeline on Twitter, mainly Mexican Gothic and The Daughter Of Dr. Moreau but, it wasn’t until I caught a review of this book by RunAlongWomble in my follow lists that I realised that this was a book which should be right up my alley. And, thankfully, I was totally right to take a chance on someone who, for me, is a ‘new author’ because, yeah, it’s a truly wonderful novel.

The book starts off with a humdinger of an opening quote, from M. R. James’ famous story Casting The Runes, about being cautious how you should manipulate or emulate a cursed media. Now, of course, the character who is the ‘villain’ of that story was slightly based on the real life Aleister Crowley and, while this novel certainly name checks the famous occult figure, a certain character in this book has a slightly different origin in his point of reference (the author cites some of her influences in an afterword).

But let me set the scene for you. Set in three sections... Opening Title Sequence MCMXCIII, Feature Film and Fade To Black, the book, set in 1993 (aka MCMXCIII), deals with a couple of central protagonists. One is a sound editor for hire, Monserrat, who is trapped in a dead end job at the production offices she works in and who is a huge fan of horror movies. And then there’s her lifelong friend Tristran, who is a former, incredibly successful soap opera star who has had a run of bad luck and who currently does voice work at the same production company, living on the embers of his former celebrity. The two have a long history and are inseparable companions but, are also highly critical of each other’s lifestyles... the writer capturing the characters and giving them wonderful collisions of dialogue as she makes them credible people right off the bat.

Then, one day, Tristran moves into an apartment block downstairs from a famous Mexican director, who had a run of good horror movies in the 1950s, along with a rumoured ‘lost film’ which was never completed. Due to Monserrat’s love of Mexican horror, she gets pulled into a three way friendship with the director who reveals that he has a scene still from the cursed, ‘destroyed in mysterious circumstances’, lost film... the part which was intended, through the medium of the silver nitrate stock (silver being a good carrier for magic), to give birth to a powerful spell when shown in cinemas. He proposes that, due to Monserrat’s skills and access to editing and dubbing equipment, the three of them finish the sound to recreate the spell, so they can reverse a curse which has been associated with the film. Before long, though, Monserrat and Tristran find themselves embroiled in a sinister world of black magic cults, murders, magical death traps and counter spells... not to mention human sacrifice and unlikely allies.

And, yeah, it’s a great read. Monserrat especially is a great creation and the writer has imbued her character with a knowledge for all things horror and especially alludes to certain key points in Mexican horror and exploitation cinema along the way (causing me to once more unfold my poor wallet to get what I can in terms of Blu Ray releases I might have otherwise left alone... yeah, thanks lady).

I noticed, in the first section of chapters especially, that the writer has a shifting viewpoint of third person narrative, which focuses on each of the two main protagonists in turn... although this method of delivery, while still holding true, seems to relax a little in its distribution as the book continues. So that’s kinda interesting.

And there are some great shout outs for horror fans, as I said. For instance, Monserrat owns a lot of bootleg horror stuff and lives in an apartment featuring posters of Suspiria and Hasta El Viento Miedo. And, though I’ve never seen the remake of The Blob myself (don’t worry, it’s on my ‘to acquire’  list), it’s obviously Monserrat’s preferred version of that particular gelatinous threat. Also, there’s a lovely moment where she off handedly mentions that she once knew a person who wanted to trade her his pages photocopied from the ‘real’ Necronomicon for her VHS copy of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, so yeah, there’s a lot of humour in the book too.

By the time of the final reel, so to speak, the book ramps up full tilt on spellcasting and magic battles but, because of the way the writer has grounded her central characters in the earlier parts of the narrative, there’s not too much suspension of disbelief required in the more fantastical... and somewhat deadly... parts of the novel. Which I appreciated... it takes its time and, well, the build up is pretty good foreplay as far as I’m concerned.

And that’s me done with Silver Nitrate, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed from cover to cover and something I’d already recommended to a few people before I’d even finished it. And now, sometime next year I suspect, I will have to start looking and reading through this lady’s back catalogue of novels to see what else she’s done. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.

Sunday 3 September 2023

Blue Beetle

Scarab Days

Blue Beetle
Directed by Angel Manuel Soto
USA/Mexico 2023 Warner Bros/DC
UK cinema release print

I wasn’t expecting much from the new DC franchise movie Blue Beetle, to be honest. Since learning of James Gunn’s negation of all the good stuff which would have been coming in the current DC cinematic universe, scheduled to reach a premature end with the second Aquaman movie, I’ve kinda lost faith in the franchise. That being said, it’s been a good year for DC movies with the only ‘not so hot’ one in the bunch this year being The Flash (reviewed here). But Black Adam (reviewed here) and Shazam! Fury Of The Gods (reviewed here) were both great and so, yeah, I’m not a fan of Gunn’s new direction for DC, truth be told (even though he made the fifth best movie in the modern DC universe with his pseudo-sequel The Suicide Squad, reviewed here).

Now, I put off seeing this new movie by a couple of weeks. Firstly, it wasn’t showing in a straight 2D showing unless you wanted to go in a lunch hour for the first couple of weeks (and even with a Cineworld card, they now make you pay extra for seeing it on an IMAX or SuperScreen) and, I was thinking of giving it a miss altogether because... oh yeah... I’d seen the trailer. Probably one of the worst trailers for a movie I’ve seen in a long time and, even though it does capture some of the spirit of the film, it redirects the story beats to something which is going to appeal specifically to a teenage market and, while it’s partially true of the movie too, there’s a lot more going on in this one than just that.

And, to be honest, this is not the Blue Beetle I was looking for, from the trailer at least. For starters, for all this talk of it being a DC character... well... it wasn’t always. Fox Comics, Holyoke Publishing and even the prestigious Charlton Comics had the rights to various versions of the character over the decades before DC bought it in 1983. But the character’s first appearance was in issue one of Mystery Men Comics from late 1939... and that’s the version I would have preferred to see. A proper superhero movie set in the 1930s or 40s. Instead, this latest version of the character is based on one of the ‘pass the torch’ legacy inheritors of the character which DC created much later. That being said, the story does incorporate one of the earlier versions of the Blue Beetle character in its DNA and the first of two post credits scenes certainly follows up on that idea for future movies. Such a pity then that none of the epilogue scenes in any of the DC movies from the last couple of years are going to get picked up for future releases and come to any kind of fruition. We’re almost at the end of the line with this iteration of the DCU now, it’s sad to say.

So it makes it even more of a sting, then, that I’d have to report that, despite all the odds, Blue Beetle is one heck of a great movie. Yeah, it does all the origin and ultra-stylised comic book violence that they all do but, you know what, it really takes its time getting to all of that stuff and even then, the focus of the film is not so much on the inevitable action set pieces which are peppered throughout the movie... it’s about characters. Specifically the family of the title character Jaime, played by Xolo Maridueña. He’s the one who gets bitten by the bug or, rather, chosen by an alien tech scarab to be a human host for a symbiotic relationship between this struggling teenager and a lethal doomsday device. But it's as much about his father (Damián Alcázar), mother (Elpidia Carrillo), sister (Belissa Escobedo), nan (Adriana Barraza... who steals the show during the third act) and uncle (George Lopez.. who similarly enhances every scene he’s in)... not to mention Jaime’s new love interest, rich white kid Jenny (Bruna Marquezine) who plays the daughter of Susan Sarandon’s lead villain.

It’s a film which is totally driven to building up the characters and letting the audience see into their family values. A group of Mexicans who are used to the hardships in the world and who are willing to do what it takes to go and rescue their kid when he eventually falls into the clutches of the evil tech firm who has been searching for the scarab for years... with the grandmother drawing on her former adventures as a Mexican revolutionary and wielding a high tech chaingun against the enemy with sheer delight.

And, although the lead character is singularly uninteresting in terms of how he’s been written, he’s competently performed and, fortunately, everyone else around him is interesting enough to lift the movie from being the mess it could have been to, something far more interesting, entertaining and... I almost hate to say it... but incredibly moving too. This film hits emotional highs and lows which not a lot of superhero movies seem to aspire to these days... or at least, if they do, it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether they pull those elements off well or not.

So, yeah, not much else to say about this one other than, the music is okay. It’s a curious electronic/orchestral fused concoction which manages to hold its own against the more action paced scenes and doesn’t feel like its getting in the way. But, yeah, not much else of any note.

Blue Beetle is a surprisingly good superhero movie in a year when the genre has seen a fair few good examples released, with the lowest box office you would expect from any of them. I think we’re finally beginning to see superhero fatigue set in with audiences and, that’s not a bad thing to be honest... as long as the films don’t totally dissappear like the American Western did at some point when the audience grew tired of them (or at least didn’t contribute to the box office). In terms of other DC characters appearing... none of them make it into this film but a few of them get some textual and visual references (for instance, Jaime wears a Gotham University t-shirt at one point). But, yeah, not a bad film I would say and certainly don’t be put off by the trailer. It is that film they are selling... but it’s something else too.