Friday, 30 July 2010

Luzhin it at the movies

The Luzhin Defence 2000 UK/France
Directed by Marleen Gorris
Entertainment in Video DVD Region 2

The Luzhin Defence is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s (Lola) novel The Defense but I have to come clean and let you know up front here that I’ve not read this novel so one of the things I can’t tell you in this mini review is how it measures up to the source material. Apologies on that one.

That being said... it’s a wonderful period movie about a Russian chess player, brilliantly played by John Turturro and his relationship both to chess and to a woman, played by the always excellent Emily Watson (who I absolutely adored in Alan Rudolph’s Trixie).

Turturro is playing very much against type in this one... when I usually think of John Turturro I usually think of him as a villain... or crazy... or quite often both. Here he plays an absolute genius who is completely out of touch with real life and wanders around in a daze without really knowing what is going on outside of his chess-addled brain. Kind of an amalgam of what you might get if you crossed Cary Grant’s character from Bringing Up Baby with Roy Scheider’s Brody character in Jaws. A kind of absent-minded, distracted rock of a guy.

As far as the chess goes, the mise-en-scene never really lets up, constantly presenting statues and other verticals to remind you of the vertical pieces standing on a chess board.

As far as the woman goes... Emily Watson plays Natalia who Luzhin actually accidentally talks to one day and then the next day proposes marriage to her on the strength of it. Since this self-assured young lady is looking for someone different from the normal crowd, she lets herself become fascinated with Luzhin, accepts his proposal (much to the dismay of her mother) and starts to slip herself heartily into Luzhin’s life. A montage of chess cross cut with sex soon pops up before you, complete with strong, thrusting movements of the castle and the sound of Shostakovich’s famous Waltz No. 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2. This is great stuff.

All, however, is not well in the Luzhin camp and dark and dodgy “fixing” is going on at the chess championships in the form of Luzhin’s ex-chess tutor who is trying to use his harsh former master/pupil relationship with him to put him at a psychological disadvantage so he loses the game. And the trouble with Luzhin is, he’s both too innocent and too distracted to be able to defend himself against such “chess intrigue” shenanigans.

I don’t want to give too much away about the movie but... well things get pretty dark and although there is a brief moment of displaced victory at the end of the film... this is not nearly enough recompense for the deadly consequences of living your life with a head full of chess.

If you like tortured genius mixed in with your chess-mongery then this little known gem is definitely worth looking out for.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Date's For Your Diary!

Midnight Media's
"London Film Collectors Fair"

Saturday 31st July 10am - 4pm
Electric Ballroom, Camden High Street
Admission £2

Ed Mason's "Collectors Film Convention"
Saturday 11th September 10am - 4pm
Central Hall, Westminster, Storey's Gate
Admission £4

The Cinema Museum
Film & Movie Memorabilia Bazaar

Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th September 10am - 5pm
The Master's House, 2 Dugard Way,
Kennington, London, SE11 4TH
Admission £5
A short word on this one. I don't know who these people are and I wasn't aware that we had this Cinema Museum in London, but a quick look at their website tells me they are in trouble. This venue is endangered and they need all the financial help they can get. I think this is worth taking note of. They need your support!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Is all that we see or seem...

Inception 2010 US
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screening now

I really don’t know where to begin with this one. If you’re reading this and you’ve been following me on Twitter you’ll know that I’ve been putting off writing this review since seeing the movie on Saturday. Why? Because I don’t want to annoy the bizarrely large number of people who actually liked this film.

I could warn you of possible spoilers which come up as I’m writing this but, to be honest, the opening title at the top of this page is a spoiler if you know your Edgar Allan Poe... and if you don’t know Edgar Allan Poe and you want to know a spoiler which, to be fair to me, is pretty obvious from the start of the movie, then don’t look to the right and down of this page where the rest of that verse is always prominently displayed near my user profile.

I’m not a big Christopher Nolan fan. The only movie I really enjoyed by him was the second of his Batman movies (The Dark Knight)... while nowhere near as dark or sophisticated as key issues of the Batman comics... it’s certainly the closest anyone’s come yet to capturing something close to Batman in a feature length film.

Another one of his I found entertaining but mostly dissapointing (every twist was telegraphed to you way before hand... sometimes over an hour beforehand) was The Prestige. In fact, I’m going to have to read the source novel on that one because I understand there’s an extra layer of revelation which didn't make it into the movie and maybe the exclusion of that last reveal is what could have given that movie some edge (still, it’s got David Bowie playing Tesla... so it’s not all bad).

Oh rats... you can tell I’m stalling here can’t you.

Ok. Let me give it to you straight. I don't have a clue why so many people liked Inception because, frankly, it was very much a dumbed down attempt at doing something which was probably ransacked from an old 50s sci-fi short story and would probably have best been served as a ten minute short... not a two and a half hour movie which, in the end, says “Hey! Make your mind up audience. Is he dreaming or isn’t he? You decide.” I knew he was going to truncate the last, all important shot of the movie like that... it’s similar to the serendipity moment Hal Hartley had in the editing room when he was working on Henry Fool and realised that by cuting a shot down early he could leave a completely ambiguous ending. In Inception’s case though... doesn’t work if you can see it coming. To be fair to Nolan though, he's effectively written himself into a corner at this point and a reveal to either one of the two possible endings would have divided the audience.

What more to say?

The special effects were nice... or perhaps that would be better phrased as... the imagination behind some of the efffects was okay. I especially liked the part where the dream architect is folding up bits of the city as she walks about it.

And the acting was okay too. I’m really not that familiar with DiCaprio (seen very few of his movies although I liked him in Shutter Island) but he seemed competent enough. Ditto Ellen Page who was absolutely amazing in both Hard Candy and Juno. And, of course, Marion Cottilard and the rest of them were all fine too.

And a servicable score by Hans Zimmer although I liked the last three albums I bought of his a lot more than this one.

So... nice effects, great performances, not so bad score... but to me it really means nothing unless you have a good solid idea which hasn’t been done to death before (in many ways this is almost a remake of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ... but instead of having virtual layers of reality within a game you have them within dreams). And although I believe that a movie is at least trying if it shows you something you’ve never seen on screen before (as this one does in a few places) I’m afraid that the most this one was doing was trying my patience.

I guess for me the true test of a film is whether it's got repeat viewing potential. I can repeat watch films like Blade Runner and The Third Man forever. I certainly don't think I could sit through Inception ever again.

Should you go and see it though? Yes. Absolutely. I’m one dissenting voice where thousands of others are shouting the absolute opposite. Go see it for yourself and make your own mind up. I didn’t like Avatar either... so what do I know?

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Doomed To Die 1940 US
Directed by Hugh Wiley
Monogram/VCI Home Entertainment
DVD Region 1

This was the fifth in the series of six Mr. Wong movies put out by Monogram but the last one to star Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong.

I was a little disappointed at first with this movie because the credits showed a steam cruiser and I was expecting this to be one of those 1940s detective movies where a murder happens on a ship and the detective has to gather up clues as all the suspects sight-see at different destinations around the world (I especially like those ones ;-) but it turns out that the only time you will actually see a ship in this movie is when you see a picture of it in somebody’s office as set dressing.

The background of the characters are from the shipping industry but this is definitely a landlocked Mr. Wong adventure. Still, it's actually pretty entertaining. Especially if you’re into 1930s and 1940s character actor spotting. King of the Rocketmen himself, Tristram Coffin, turns up for a minute or two in an uncredited part so that was fun. And one of the main suspects in the movie is played by Henry Brandon... who never seems to have stopped doing supporting roles in his long career. He had a significant onscreen role as Captain Laska in the 1939 serial Buck Rogers and modern genre fans might recognise the name, if not the face, from his small role in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Which means, this film has not one, but two Doctor Fu Manchus in it. Karloff had already played that role in the 1932 movie The Mask of Fu Manchu and Brandon played him the same year that this movie was made, 1940, in the Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu.

The plot is very thin in this one and the main thrust of the story comes from the dumb police captain and plucky, screwball reporter heroine who were regulars in the series. A nod to the “science” of detection is again made, this time by Mr. Wong using an infra-red camera to expose the message on a burnt up piece of paper. Karloff seems to just breeze along again in this one without really trying and it’s a pleasant enough watch. One thing which amazed me is that they’d spliced a dialogue scene in from an earlier Mr. Wong movie to save cost and just changed and replaced some of the lines with close up inserts so they didn't have to spend money on a new scene. I’d pull up Monogram for this if I hadn’t already witnessed Fox doing the same thing in their Mr. Moto series.

All in all, an enjoyable diversion of a movie and I’m really looking forward to the next one where the considerably younger Keye Luke tried out the role.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Splice Mines of Kessell*

Splice 2010 US
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Screening at cinemas now

Woohoo! Another corker genre movie from one of the more interesting artists working in film... Vince Natali.

I first became aware of this guy’s work about ten years ago when I was sitting on my own in the old Metro cinema in Rupert Street (before it became The Other Cinema and died), watching his amazing film Cube (couldn’t get any of my friends to go with me to see this thing so from that day I was forced to become the Harbinger of Natali for a while). I didn’t know much about it at the time but, frankly, any movie which just puts a number of actors in the same single cramped set (doubling as different chambers with the occasional lighting change) was going to get me into the cinema. What I saw that day was both an “actors” film and a directorial tour de force. The subsequent appearance of a not very good sequel and an appallingly “missing the point” prequel, studio lead by other directors, is perhaps a testament to just how influential (the first Resident Evil movie has a very blatant homage to it) and provocative this movie was... it got people’s attention.

The next movie I saw by Natali was his lesser known (for some bizarre reason) and bigger budget sci-fi thriller Cypher. This time he had a couple of “known” actors in it (Jeremy Northam doing his usual and very welcome Cary Grant homage and Lucy Liu) and the film zipped along in a very Philip K. Dickian way and, although it was very easy to see each twist along the way long before it actually happened (a problem in Splice too), it was nevertheless a fine, entertaining, moody piece of film-making... with perhaps a touch of cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. Also a film I’d recommend... just on the basis that more people should know about this movie.

And now we come to Splice. This is the third film I’ve seen by this director and, to be honest, it played out pretty much as I was expecting it too... which is handy, actually, because I was expecting it to be quite good. Not great but... not too shabby, either.

Again, this time around we have two known actors taking the joint leads.

Adrien Brody is in here, who seems to turn up in almost every other genre thriller, fantasy, sci-fi or horror going just lately... King Kong, The Jacket, The Village, Giallo, Predators. He’s pretty solid in this.

And then you have the one and only Sarah Polley! Yeah, I could mention her track record includes absolutely mesmerising performances in films like Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing, Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me or Zack Snyder’s brilliant remake of Dawn of the Dead. I might even mention the critical waves she’s made as a director in her own right (Away From Her). But let’s really knock your socks off with just how good this gal Polley is with a little bit of movie trivia everybody seems to conveniently forget these days... so I’ll start this back from the top. You should all go and see Splice because it has Sarah Polley in it... the little girl from The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen all grown up! There... hopefully that got ya.

Ok. So Splice. I saw a trailer and read some pre-release hype on it somewhere (not something I’m usually apt to do but you couldn’t escape it these last few months) and it certainly looked like Natali was poaching on Cronenberg territory here... which is pretty much the way it is. Splice is, very much Cronenbergian in its basic concerns (which is not unfamiliar territory to Polley either, who may also be remembered for her supporting role in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ). It’s very much a biomechanical take on the age old Frankenstein story and this is very much giving a nod in Brody and Polley’s character names of Clive (after Colin Clive, direct descendant of Clive of India, who played “Henry” Frankenstein in both Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein) and Elsa (after Elsa Lanchester who played both the title role and Mary Shelley in The Bride of Frankenstein).

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the two lead characters “gather the stuff of life around them”, to lazily paraphrase Shelley, and create a spliced something/human lifeform... but they forget, obviously, to heed good old Uncle Ben’s advice, “with great power comes great responsibility”... oh, hang on, wrong movie/comic... good advice though. Somebody should have said it to them.

One great thing about Splice is that it really isn’t a horror movie until right near the end when.... oh wait a minute... lets not get ahead of myself. It isn’t really a horror movie but Natali must have known that this is how the pitch would be received and perceived by its potential audience so although it’s really not about big scares... it does tend to play around with the cinematic language of horror movies for a lot of it.

There’s a scene near the start of the movie, for instance, involving two slug-like creatures created by our “dashing scientist heroes” where everybody on screen is acting all “wow” and isn’t everything all fluffy bunnies and baby kittens and Natali paces it so you are expecting the absolute worst thing to happen and the suspense is slowly dissipated and you unwind as the scene turns out to be a fluffy bunny moment after all... but then of course, when a similar scene happens later in the movie, the worst does happen... which is kinda inevitable by this point as it’s the worst thing that can happen to the company putting up the money for the scientists so you just know what’s going to transpire... which is a shame because I really would have liked to have been taken by surprise at some stage in the proceedings.

The real star of the movie is the creature itself... starting as, presumably, CGI and then at some point “growing” into a real actress (one of whom is pictured above). This is a really strong performance, both from the effects crew and from the two actresses who play her. It’s a bit E.T-like at times but always with a threat hanging overhead.

And then we have some real problems with what seems to me like an overtly Hollywood ending for he last 20 minutes and I really can’t blame Natali for doing this... he needs to get his movie funded. But it’s a real shame because there is a point in the narrative where I feel things reached a natural ending. It didn’t peak and I’m sure a lot of the audience would have left disappointed but for me... that’s where things should perhaps have been left... at a point which is, after all, a very natural ending (without giving anything away I hope)... but then... well, for the last quarter of an hour/20 mins or so, the movie turns into an action/horror romp with chases and bloodletting and, well stuff I won’t bother telling you about but you’ve seen it all in umpteen teenage horror flicks (if you’re unlucky). This, for me, was the one big disappointing thing about this movie... and then, to pour salt on the wounds it has a little, 5 minute concluding scene put in which is obviously supposed to be some kind of twist ending but... really... after what just happened 5 minutes before... there’s no way the audience havent already worked this one out... apart from the three girls in the row in front of me who actually gasped when Sarah Polley stands up at the end... oh, really? You honestly didn’t see that coming?

But you know what? Never mind the possibly flawed ending... Splice is worth a watch as a taut little weird-science film for the current generation. If you like Vince Natali’s other movies and you’re into early Cronenberg... then Splice is well worth the price of the ticket!

And... you know... the little girl from The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen is in it! ;-)

*Okay... anybody who actually gets that reference in the title is seriously as sad as I am and you need to get out more!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Shameless Designation

The Designated Victim 1971 Italy
Directed by
Maurizio Lucidi
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

It was recently brought to my attention that Shameless Screen Entertainment (a label I shall be keeping my eye on in future) have restored and issued a definitive print of the 1971 Italian Thriller La Vittima Designata aka The Designated Victim.

Now this is not one I’d heard of before now but I decided to give this Italian reworking of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train a spin because, while it’s certainly not a giallo, it is definitely made at the right time and place to be easily confused with one... which is good enough for me. True enough, closer inspection soon revealed a movie incredibly infused with that specific, haunting style of film-making. Stylistically, this one definitely skirts around at "the giallo’s edge", so to speak.

This movie stars the one and only Tomas Milian (cuchillo in The Big Gundown and Run, Man, Run) as Stefano, a man who is having troubles with his career ambitions (in the form of his wife). When he is out with his mistress they bump into a strange man, Matteo, in a series of chance encounters. Matteo is played by Pierre Clementi, not an actor I really know but who appears to have a very interesting, on screen charismatic personality and who isn’t, quite surprisingly, overshadowed and upstaged by the on screen “method” antics of Milian. Clementi looks, it has to be said, a bit like a willowy version of Russel Brand and plays the part with the kind of mannerisms that Johnny Depp does so well to get onto screen, and if they were to remake this film today you’d definitely need to get Depp to take on this role.

Ok... back to the plot. Matteo offers to kill Stefano’s wife if Stefano kills Matteo’s brother. Stefano obviously doesn’t really agree to this, although you can see he is tempted. Alas, the inevitable eventually happens and soon Stefano’s wife is found strangled in their apartment, murdered by Matteo. And Matteo, of course, has gathered and fabricated enough circumstantial evidence to blow big holes in Stefano’s own alibi for the murder. There are some slight twists and turns which most people, especially those familiar with various gialli, will see coming long before they happen and before long you’re at a fairly predictable ending to the film... but what fun getting there.

A pseudo-Bach chamber score by Luis Bacalov (of Django fame) lends the film a certain vitality and pacing in some sequences where it's needed and some of the shots in this movie are amazing (as to be expected in most of the gialli I’ve seen... even though this isn’t one in the strictest sense). There was one moment in the movie where a high up camera angle takes in a whole living room which is blue with orange furniture and with two doors open, one leading into a pink room, that positively had me bouncing up and down in my seat. The wonderful balance of eye-joggling colours framed perfectly on the screen was like eating an extra helping of dessert!

Shameless, the label behind this and some other vital, uncut UK releases have painstakingly rebuilt this movie and issued it in something which is probably the best print to hit the streets since the movies initial release (I’d go out on a limb here and say it’s probably in a more complete form than many countries ever had the privilege to see it in). This label is doing a great deal for fans of the giallo film and its nearest celluloid cousins and if you are at all interested in this kind of movie then you owe it to yourself to pick up armfuls of their releases and keep this label in business. They’re doing some sterling work.

If you are a fan of Tomas Milian you are in for an extra treat... he sings the song “Shadow in the Dark” in this movie! Add this movie to your backlog pile today!

This and other titles can be found at

Monday, 19 July 2010

London Film and Comic Con

Earls Court - 17 & 18th July 2010

So... got up bright and early this Saturday to go to what is, I’m sad to say, becoming my most interesting social event of the year (I don’t get out too much), the London Film and Comic Con. This is a good one for me... I even arrange my holidays around it. Why? Because of all the London based fairs (and I’m looking at you Camden and Westminster) this is the biggest, brightest and most buzzing geek event in the social calendar. And I’m not even a geek (and no, you can’t disprove that).

Got off the train at Earls Court and did the long walk around the exhibition centre to the other side (after trying to find the right exit again after the atrocious use of signage on this particular station... it catches me out every year! I learn slow.) and found that my friend was already in the queue and that, much to my surprise, even though I got there only three quarters of an hour before the doors opened this year as opposed to getting there really early, that it wasn’t really that crowded as yet. Was expecting to be greeted by the sight of several storm troopers and giant furry Japanimals warming up the crowd but there weren’t that many costumes in amongst the people in the queue this year.

I did see, while waiting, “look-and-dressalikes” of: one Matt Smith, two David Tennants, one Patrick Troughton (at least I recognised him when others didn’t) and a giant sized Mickey Mouse in Jedi costume... kept getting his light sabre out. I like to think of him as Darth Maus!

I did also see a young lady dressed as a St. Trinians school girl... at least I thought she was at first. Given that she was hanging around a “facsimile” Tom Baker I was forced to change my guess to the Lalla Ward incarnation of Romana... I think. Possibly. Sure she wore that outfit in one episode.

Not so many representatives of starfleet this year as in previous years... although there was one woman dressed as an old red shirted yeoman from the Kirk days who I really just wanted to hug to my bosom! Would possibly have got arrested though. She was sexy!

So there I was in the queue talking to my friend about... well what does one talk about these days in queues... aspect ratios, length of prints, availability of prints which inevitably leads into the "my print's longer than yours" pissing contest... when the guy in front of me in the queue turned out to be a Star Wars stormtrooper... and no, I’m not blind before you start writing Zatoichi comments at the bottom of this page, this guy was an undercover stormtrooper... out of uniform. I'd been talking about going to see Inception at some point... because everybody keeps tweeting at me that I should... and the guy in front of me started raving... well okay then... discreetly laying his opinion of it on the line and making me want to see it even more (if you do look in on this blog and read this Mr. Stormtrooper... I promise I’ll get out and see it soonest!). That’s when I found out that when stormtroopers are out of costume, they go and hang out with their stormtrooper mates who are going around in white fibreglass uniforms and doing all that stuff with the marching and stalking and killing.

Now I was going to do a whole paragraph of conjecture here, while I tried to work out just what it is that stormtroopers get up to at their “meets”. I was going to ask the guy but some military looking guys pulled him out of the queue and got him in without paying before I had a chance to ask. I will probably practice the typing equivalent of biting my tongue here too since, frankly, I might get a little unforgiving about groups inspired by Star Wars characters going around and interrogating people, drinking heavily and going on “book burning” binges.

I will say one thing though... when I saw the guy inside he had an adoring lady on each arm... so he must have been doing something right here! I wanna be a stormtrooper too! Do they do those uniforms in black with white piping? And how many times would I have to endure the "These aren't the droids you're looking for" line if I joined up?

So anyway... got into the Film Fair finally and I have to say that both the layout and the amount of interesting stalls was quite a bit less than other years. At least that’s my perception. As I entered I was greeted by the sight of the Batmobile from the last two Batman movies but as I moved around to the right most of the stalls seemed to be dedicated to Manga and Anime. It turned out all the more interesting (to me) knick knack stalls were to the left... which is annoying because I’m pretty fixed when I go to these things and tend to work my way up and down the aisles in a strict, right to left, up and down linear fashion. So it was an hour before I got to see anything really interesting... but there was a lot of stuff worth seeing still. Much better than the Camden and Westminster gigs.

Was very tempted to buy a replica of Deckard’s gun from Blade Runner, for example, but they wanted £80 for it. And they wanted £300 for a rather good model of Robbie The Robot. All in all though there weren’t as many fantasy weaponry stalls or pin badge stalls or press book stalls or Japanese miniature model stalls as previous years... which is a shame because I usually pick up one or two models to add to the decor in my office. Very disappointing.

There was a guy selling cool mugs though so that was alright. And somebody was selling steam punk jewellery which would have looked rather fetching on one of my blog/twitter followers (hey there fleysomewench!).

I didn’t see any of the big stars because there were the usual hordes of people queuing up to pay them money (gosh, there was no queue for Elvira when I got her to sign a photo for me there a few years back) but I did see Brian Murphy (if anyone remembers Geoge and Mildred) so now I know that he’s still alive... so that’s okay.

Although it wasn’t as good as the previous 5 or so years, it’s definitely something I’d recommend everyone go to at least once... just to see the diverse collection of customers that you get at these things... I was queuing up in the toilets by a big bear of a man dressed as Fred Flintstone... you don’t get many weekend experiences like that.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Samurai Bikini Babe VS Zombie Hordes!

Chanbara Beauty 2008 Japan
Directed by
Yôhei Fukuda
Jolly Roger
DVD Region 2

I’d never heard of this movie but something moved me to an instant purchase a month or so ago, when I noticed it in the HMV sale. Perhaps it was the tagline that so subtly captured my imagination and inspired a quest for the beauty and visual poetry promised by its delicately written copy... so here’s the tagline for the movie which runs across the top of the cover...

“Babes, Blades and Bikinis - What more do you want?”

After I’d let the soulful melody of these words wash over my consciousness like laying down in a field of poppies... I had to admit to finding myself in exact agreement with the sentiments expressed in this exquisite one liner.

Then there was the picture on the cover which was, not too surprisingly, a bikini clad babe with her blades out. Okay... so the tag line obviously didn’t lie to me so far. Even if she was wearing a cowboy hat.

Then a quick read of the synopsis on the back of the box imparted to me the important message that these particular bikini clad babes with their blades are in the business of chopping up and generally re-killing hordes of marauding zombies. In fact this movie, which is a remake of a popular video game apparently, has the title in the US of “Onechambara - Zombie Bikini Squad” - wow, they get all the unique selling points wrapped neatly into their title over there then. So all of this was, of course, another big plus sign for the inevitable purchase.

But the thing that really swung it for me... the one thing which really tugged at my reason and appealed deeply to my intellect, was the fact that, in the HMV sale, this movie was going for only a fiver!

So there you have it. I bought myself a copy of Chanbara Beauty (along with a copy of the Kiezlowski Three Colours Box Set which was also in the sale) and I’ve now watched it in all its glory.

So where does that leave me exactly?

Well first up... remember that tag line which ended up with the tempting and seemingly rhetorical question - “What more do you want?” Well, I have to in all fairness answer, having now seen the thing, that I would really have liked a fuller and more plausible story to hang the ridiculous set pieces onto, please!

Ok, then. Chanbara Beauty is set in a post-apocalyptic George R. Romero-ish world where zombie hordes infest the planet and the Chanbara Beauty of the title does her best to help people out by wandering the country with her fat, blonde, comic relief guy (come on, you can’t resist a big, fat, comic relief Japanese guy with blonde hair) and killing as many zombies as she can.

Ok so far. The plot is a little less intricate than I’d have liked until we find that her sister was kidnapped by the films generic mad scientist villain who uses her unique clan's blood for zombification experiments (it’s his experiments which have caused the abundance of infectious zombie hordes) and who makes her sister “strong” so she can kill their father who didn’t love her as much as the other and be the babe-villain this film so obviously needs so a big fight can happen at the end.

On the way in their zombie killing quest, our two heroes (the beauty and big fat geezah) come across a babe gymnastically toting a sawn-off shot gun (think Gun-Fu, Equilibrium style) which can shoot an insane number of shots before ever running out of ammunition and who has a common quest of vengeance for the cold despatch of the evil scientist... so they all join forces and kill zombies together.

Which all sounds fine until you realise the Chanbara Beauty of the title also has some kind of magical clan sword which uses the properties of her blood and looks a bit like a light sabre when she gets really gung ho about things (like killing zombies). Her midichlorian blood count must be way off the scale!

Her arch-nemesis, being as she is her sister from the same clan, can also do this stuff with her sword, so when the final showdown comes at the end of the film, the two girls are teleporting all over the place and hurling bolts of bloody, psychic energy at each other. I think if the film would have at least, by this point, tried to give some explanation as to what the heck was going on by the time you see the swords in action, I would have let the film off the hook a little with regards to a lot of the stuff on show here... but at no point does the movie try to explain any of this stuff or even comment on its existence. It just takes the track that, “of course any bikini-clad babe with her blades out is going to be able to magic those blades up using the power of here mind and the bizarre “blood-light” from her body. Isn’t that how the world works normally, after all?”

No it really isn’t. This makes no sense at all. I suspect an explanation for it might exist in the Instructions Booklet for the original console game but, if it did, then the director of the movie has not seen fit to share that with us.

There are some nice things about this movie - for example, during a moment of zombie slaughter towards the end we get a chance to see Chanbara Beauty in action with a birds eye shot as she is hacking up zombies and a whole load of zombie arms get hurled upwards at us and into the camera. At no time in this movie does anyone show even the remotest interest in obeying those pesky laws of physics.

All the blood is CGI, as a lot of that thing seems to be going these days (more’s the pity), but the movie tries to go better with the whole camera eye thing by having that CGI blood quite frequently splashing all over the camera lens. It gets a bit tiresome and repetitive after a while though.

Red blooded males all over will find the main character frustrating because she has giant novelty fur trim on the tops of her bikini... this has the annoying quality of both highlighting her ample cleavage while at the same time hiding it completely from view... forever. This feels a bit of a sly and underhanded way of diluting the pleasures promised by the tag line on the box!

At the end of the day, Chanbara Beauty is an ok film... for £5 in an HMV sale. If I’d have payed any more for it I would not be as amused as I was by the movie!

Coca Dali - It Surreal Thing

The Surreal House
10 June 2010 - 12 September 2010
Barbican Art Gallery

I recently went, with much trepidation, to The Surreal House at the Barbican Art Gallery. While it’s not exactly the best gallery show I’ve been to it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been lead to believe and I actually found myself really enjoying the experience.

Despite the pretensions implied by the title, there is no real sense of “journey/concept” as you wander lazily through “The Surreal House”. It’s just gallery space but they’ve got some really nice stuff here. They have a couple of nice Dali’s, a couple of nice Magritte’s, some film and some architectural projects.

A stand-out for me was the inclusion of no less than three original copies, open at various pages, of the original pressing of Max Ernst’s “Une semaine de bonté”, a book which I’ve gifted people with for many years for now (chances are if you know me for a while, sooner or later, one of your Birthday or Christmas presents is going to be a reprint edition of Une semaine de bonté).

Another standout was the piano hanging from the ceiling. It looks kinda ominous and you wonder if the cable will hold the weight. But you have to go more or less under it (or very near to under it) to get into one of the many screens showing movies in the gallery. And of course, as I passed under it, there was a clash of strings and wood and the piano drops and bits fly noisily open (my timing was serendipitous)... I leapt out of my skin at that point. After a while the dropping piano reassembles itself, accompanied by the sound of the strings plucking... to lay in wait for some other unsuspecting soul.

Oooh... and another stand out was a tiny pile of junk/dust/rubble to the side of one of the rooms. A spotlight is being shone across it and the shadow it leaves on the wall is one of two rats copulating which does nothing to suggest the precise nature of the debris that is being “shadowed”. Absolutely brilliant.

If I had one objection to the show it is this... quite a bit of the stuff in it doesn’t really fall under the orb “surrealism”. For example, two of the films being projected are Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris and Andre Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (my least favourite Tarkovsky film as it happens). Now neither of these two filmmakers are in anyway surrealists I think... and perhaps more importantly, neither of them I’m sure would want to be considered as such (I can imagine Godard giving you the verbal equivalent of a punch on the nose if you were to suggest such a thing and I suspect Tarkovsky would be less than happy to be saddled with that kind of label). And if you wanted to perhaps push the point that certain elements of these directors works are at least a little surreal in execution, then I would certainly not have picked those two films. I think I’d have picked Week End and Nostalgia for a more obvious comparison (although I will go away and watch the DVD of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice again sometime soon).

Another thing which niggled me, and this is nothing to do with the show really, is that one of the paintings by Dali included the depiction a large spike passing through a woman’s breast. Now, I’m sorry, but since the passing of the really stupid “dangerous pictures” act and the hypocrisy and open endedness (or if you like, sloppy writing) of it, then this painting would not pass muster and you would be facing jail time for owning it... so why is it allowable in an artistic context? I don’t want to go into this to much here because under these new laws, even a horror movie at your local cinema is illegal to watch (seriously, read the damn thing, I’m not making this up) but this kind of exhibit (which I really liked by the way, Dali is one of my heroes) holds a candle up to the horror and nonsense involved in the creation of these knee jerk reaction laws.

All in all though, I wouldn’t let any of this deter you from going to see a quite good exhibition in a fairly large gallery space (I had the luxury of seeing this on a weekday morning mind you so it wasn’t exactly crowded) and it even has a little gift shop at the end.

I like a little shop.

The Wolf Man VS The Wolfman

The Wolf Man 1941 US
Directed by George Waggner
Universal DVD Region 1


The Wolfman 2010 US
Directed by Joe Johnston
Universal DVD Region 2

There’s been a lot of disappointing reaction and bad stuff said about the new “reimagining” of The Wolfman over the last few months since its initial cinema release. I wasn’t disappointed with it at all at the cinema but I suspect one of the main factors in the generally negative reception, at least when it comes to the original cut shown at the cinemas, is because people were expecting it to be a “scary” horror movie. I (and also one of my friends so I know it’s not just me) really enjoyed it because it seemed to me about being more of a movie trying to catch that pseudo-gothic atmosphere that Universal were so good at catching with their classic 30s and 40s Horror cycles, of which the original version of this movie was one.

I thought therefore that before rewatching and reviewing the new version, I would put the 1941 version on for another spin so I could compare the “ramped up” new version to the original... what I wasn’t expecting, however, when I rewatched the new version, was the way that they’ve screwed up this new version on its DVD release.

The Wolf Man, was made in 1941 and starred Lon Chaney Jr as the titular character Lawrence Talbot. Chaney Jr was certainly the most universal of Universal’s monster actors in that, not only was he the sole person to play The Wolf Man in this and its sequels - Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (the new movie is the first time another actor has played Talbot) - but he was also the actor to play, at some point in the 40s, the other big three monster characters on the studio books... Dracula (arguably) in Son of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster in Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse - but The Wolf Man was his first stint under Jack Pearce’s painstaking and pain inducing make-up.

This original film, it has to be said, did not plunder exclusively from myths and previous writings on lycanthrope (as it implies it does within the body of the film)... a lot of these so-called myths were created by Universal but it’s amazing how, once Universal had created some of these trappings, they became part of the "Legend" of these kinds of pictures for years to come.

This movie, set in Wales, has Lawrence Talbot returning home to “bond” with his father (played really well by Claude Reins) and look into running the grounds and estate of his inheritance. However he gets bitten by a werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi in a very brief role) who he kills with his new silver wolfs-headed cane - referred to at one point early in the proceedings as “a stick with an ‘orses head handle” but I can’t imagine many of the American audience at the time of the films release picking up on this reference to one of Stanley Holloway’s more famous monologues. This particularly iconic Universal cane is brought back for the new movie and also makes a welcome cameo appearance in Wes Craven’s Cursed.

After being bitten, Chaney is the epitome of self-tortured looks and he transforms a couple of times and kills people, although the gypsy Maleva played by the incomparable Maria Ouspenskaya tries to help him as best she can (Geraldine Chaplin was okay in the role in the new one but she’s no substitute for Ouspenskaya). Eventually he tries to kill his love interest (played by Evelyn Ankers who was paired off with Chaney Jr a couple of times after this although they couldn’t stand each other) but his father beats him to death with the same cane before he is able to “wolf her up”.

I love this movie... the atmosphere is wonderful, the lightness of the dialogue, the stand out performance by Claude Reins, it all adds up to an entertaining 70 minute movie and was popular enough that the Talbot character would be resurrected for the movies I listed above.

It has to be said, though, that this is only my second favourite werewolf movie... my absolute favourite would be Universal's first (and bizarrely failed) attempt to create a popular werewolf character, as played by Henry Hull in the 1935 movie Werewolf of London.

Ok... flash forward to the new The Wolfman. I saw this at the cinema and wasn’t expecting it to be any good... but I loved it. Benicio Del Toro is not an actor I like but in this one he won me over because he seems to have been able to perfectly mimic that perpetual worried look that Chaney Jr brought to the original. In fact, his performance is great as is those of his co-stars although it has to be said, while Anthony Hopkins as Talbot’s father was excellent... he’s no match for Claude Reins... but then he plays it differently so it’s not really fair to compare those two performances.

I wasn’t expecting a scary movie, so I wasn’t disappointed on those grounds, and the addition of Hugo Weaving (another actor I don’t usually like) as Inspector Abberline did not attract unnecessary comparisons to the way other actors have portrayed him over the years (Johnny Depp’s spellbinding performance in From Hell being foremost in my mind as I write this). I even didn’t mind the changes to the characters and plot which I accept are a necessary evil to bring this yarn more up to date - Talbot is now an “actor” and Hopkins is now a werewolf (a twist which will take you all of 30 seconds into the character to figure out) - even though the credits do give a shout out to Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original.

One of my favourite things about the new movie is how they’ve got the new CGI Wolfman to walk. Up on it’s toeses just like the horrendous built up overshoes (overpaws?) that Chaney Jr had to endure. This does a lot to endear us Universal Monster Maniacs to the new movie right there...


And this is where it gets bad people...

This film has a very troubled history and was a long time in development. I believe a few directors went through this project, some of them possibly after having already shot some of it. Then a bunch of reshoots where it now becomes pretty obvious to me that they were shooting from different versions of the story (I’ll come to that in a minute). I remember score guru Danny Elfman getting fired off the project after his score had gone on it (this is not uncommon, you get a bad test screening and by that stage the cheapest thing to change is the music) only to see his replacement fired after his shot at it and then being brought back to the project to either rewrite a new score or tweak his old one (I’m not sure which). And a release date which kept shifting six months or more either side of its original release date as various elements of the film were... “corrected”.

Now all well and good in the end I thought because I really liked the movie in its cinema version and it felt like whatever they did really worked (loved the rampage in the streets of London with those moody shots of Tower Bridge)... but when it came time to release the DVD they got really silly.

Due to the negative reviews and presumably low box office, owing I suspect to it being marketed as some kind of “scary movie”, the powers that be have decided to “add” 17 minutes into the cut for its home video release resulting in what is called the “extended cut” over here in the UK and “Unrated Director’s Cut” in the US (although I can’t believe that what they’ve done to it here can be in any way anything like what the director would have wanted released). Now I’m a bit ambivalent to Extended Cuts, Director’s Cuts, Expanded Editions and what have you. I think sometimes they can work really well (Brotherhood of the Wolf) and sometimes they can really screw a movie up (Ridley Scott’s “adrenalised” recut of A L I E N).

In the case of The Wolfman, well, they’ve really turned it into a mess of a movie. Despite the US tag of being “unrated” I really didn’t notice any extra scenes of violence or gore in this newer version. Nor did I, sadly, find any added “erotic naughty bits”.

What I did see was a whole lot of extra background and exposition which the film doesn’t need and which turns it into a plodding nightmare. But worse than that, some of this new footage (like the stuff where Emily Blunt goes to see Benicio Del Toro in London where he’s “treading the boards”) is in direct contradiction to what is still made implicitly clear a little later in the movie - like the fact that these two characters have never met before Lawrence comes home. Oh sure, they’ve tried their best to muffle the most obvious references to stuff like this... by removing previous footage as readily as they put the alternate stuff in, but the contradictions are still quite implicit in the script if you’ve got your ears half open. Guys! Go back to Sergei Eisenstein and learn how to edit a movie!

This is a classic example of a movie that worked pretty well on one level at the cinema being “improved” by unnecessary tinkering and being left in a state which is far more dreadful than the version they originally released. So I can’t really recommend this new version to anyone except the most obsessive of Universal Monster watchers... who are the only ones who are really going to find anything of value in this cut.

And now I’m left in the terrible position of... having been punished for buying a legitimate version of the movie with a terrible cut... I now have to try and seek out a poor bootleg copy if I want to ever see the proper version of this movie again. Not a good position to be in.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Most Dangerous Game

Predators 2010 US
Directed by Nimród Antal
Screening at cinemas now

Ok then. Grit my teeth and get on with it. This is another one of those reviews I wasn’t looking forward to writing. Minor spoilers... here we go then...

Predator 5 is actually called Predators, presumably in an attempt to make people forget the last three sequels and give the movie a kind of tie in feel to James Cameron’s successful ALIENS... although why the marketing people would want to emulate one of the least interesting of the Alien films is beyond my understanding (yeah, ALIENS is an okay movie, especially in its longer cut, but it’s still the least watchable of the first four Alien movies).

I have to go on record straight away and say that I didn’t really care too much for the previous four Predator movies. I remember seeing the first one back in the cinema when it came out and not having a good time with it. Thought it was a hackneyed old movie even then and at the point where Arnold Schwarzenneger kinda outruns a small nuclear explosion... that’s when I lost interest about ever watching this one again. I thought the take on the idea with Danny Glover in Predator 2 was marginally better... but again, once I’d seen it at the cinema, it’s not something I’d been tempted to revisit in the time since its first release. I thought the first Aliens VS Predator movie was okay and by far the most repeat-watchable, in spite of having an absolutely unforgivable continuity error which screws up its place as part of the Alien films. I thought the second Aliens VS Predator was nothing but the worst, unthinking, disrespectful side swipe to both franchises where the two alien races have been marginalised to playing “the monster” in some kind of irritating kind of teenage slasher movie... the lowest point that either of these franchises could possibly reach.

So bearing that in mind, I accompanied a friend to see the new one thinking... well it can’t be as bad as the last one!

And you know what? I was right! It wasn’t as bad as the last one... in fact it looks a little like a masterpiece in comparison to the last one... it’s just that it’s decidedly unimpressive and another movie that starts with an okay premise but then drops the ball with lukewarm scripting and execution.

And the premise is almost as old as the history of celluloid.

For Predators is no less than yet another remake of 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game (aka Hounds of Zaroff). The only difference being that it drops you straight into the action from the word go and doesn’t have the shipwreck or the dinner party small talk at the start of the movie (which, to be honest, it could have really done with).

So... a bunch of humans being hunted on a big alien planet (instead of an island) and all the obvious twists and turns (and they are really obvious) that come hand in hand with negotiating that kind of celluloid terrain without bothering to do much fresh or new with it.

Robert Rodriguez script for this movie is said to have been hanging around Hollywood for ten years or so. Now my friend loved the movie (and has already seen it twice) but his take on the cliched and obvious scripting was because a) it’s an old script (um... I reckon they would have given it another polish or preferably an overhaul before they shot it) and b) that it’s an homage to old, early nineties action movies when such bad scripting was part and parcel of the fun of watching. Hmm... no... I can’t see that myself. I think it’s just another victim of a screenplay which looked good on paper and sounded good when read... and possibly even had great rushes... but when it’s all cobbled together they ended up with something like the finished product and they either liked it or they didn’t but... hey... it’s a lot better than the last movie.

And as I said, I have nothing personally against the movie... just wish it would have ended up as something more than... well, unremarkable... which is the way a lot of modern movies seem to be getting released these days.

If you’re a big fan of the Predator franchise then you’re almost certainly going to have a good time at the cinema with this one... if you’re on the fence or just plain indifferent to our dreadlocked alien friends then you’re probably less likely to get anything much out of the experience.

John Debney’s workable, does what it says on the tin kind of score references Alan Silvestri’s score from the first film quite a lot, which was also an okayish score. Worth a listen though, again, if you’re a fan of the first score in the series.

My final verdict... okay score... not so terrible a movie. Lots of room for improvement.

Daring Eagles

Where Eagles Dare 1968 US
Directed by Richard G. Hutton
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2

I should have probably seen this movie already but I’m really not big on War films and when I was a kid it seemed to be playing every other week on TV back then... so I sort of avoided it like the plague. My curiosity was piqued, however, when I bought the limited edition Film Score Monthly soundtrack release a few years back. I was quite impressed with Goodwin’s score and the write up of the film in the always excellent liner notes that FSM put out really made me want to give the movie a watch.

Fast forward to my holiday this year and it turns out the house I’d rented had, not only two DVD players, but also a copy of Where Eagles Dare. So made some time on my holiday to sit down and watch what I’d assumed would be a 90 minute movie... only to find the beast was at least two and a half hours long. And it really didn’t need to be.

For the few people other than me who have never bothered to watch this movie, Where Eagles Dare stars Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and assorted other high profile character actors in the story of a unit that go on a rescue mission to a snowbound German castle behind enemy lines to pull out a British soldier who’s supposedly been shot down by the Nazi’s. But really, this film gets so convoluted and twisty-turny that by the end of the film I had no idea who to trust and who not to. Almost everyone in the film other than Clint Eastwood seems to be not what they seem and I almost lost track of the double agents who turned out to be treble agents etc. Ha! Shot down plane my ass!

Though impressive in intent and scope, I did find this epic movie a bit of a drag and quite unnecessary in some of its ponderous action and suspense sequences, especially towards the last half hour.

The acting by Burton and Eastwood was good (although Eastwood had a deliberately minimalist kind of role, more in keeping with the image he’d recently cultivated in his films for Sergio Leone) but I didn’t really think much of the silliness of some of the things happening. This reached it’s apex for me quite early in the film when Burton and Eastwood decide to get rid of their crashed jeep by pushing it off a cliff edge. Even before the guys have finished pushing it almost, the thing caught fire and burst into flames. Why? For what reason do things burst into flames in these 70s movies? There’s really no need and it defies physics!

I think, at the end of the day, my verdict on Where Eagles Dare is that it’s an overlong but not unentertaining movie which could have used some judicious pruning.

Oh... and it’s got a great score!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Paranormal Persuasion

Paranormal Activity 2009
US Directed by Oren Peli
Icon DVD Region 2

This has those spoiler things in it again... gosh, I think I must be mellowing out to spoiler warnings in my old age. If you haven’t seen this movie you are duly warned!

Now that the time has come when this movie has done all the rounds and has hit the sales and can be picked up in places like Tescos pretty cheaply, I thought it was obviously time for me to re-watch and hopefully re-evaluate Paranormal Activity because my wallet kindly told me that the time was right to do so.

I remember seeing this a couple of weeks before it came out on general release at the cinema where it played as a preview, bizarrely, at my local cinema (although given that my local is a crappy multiplex then it must have been playing in preview at something like the Frightfest way before I saw it is my guess). Anyway, I digress. When I say, I remember seeing it - blah di blah di blah - what I really mean to say is... I remember three specific things about it that stick in my mind... and two of those three were fairly negative.

This is what I remember about it from the first time around...

1. I’d seen the trailer telling me it was the scariest movie since the scariest scarifying things in movies since the dawn of time were scaring up publicity, and I remember sitting in the audience ten minutes before the movie started thinking... Hmmm... this movie is mostly only about two people and it’s mostly limited to their bedroom for most of the action, which is in itself recorded on a video camera as the main plot crutch - not that I have a problem about movies which feature two people in a bedroom shot on video camera... I've seen plenty of those kinds of movies in my time :-). However, there are really not very many ways in which a movie with those parameters could possibly end when you come to think of it, are there? So, I figured rationally to myself, the girl will get “taken over” by the ghost/poltergeist/or demon or whatever this is at the end and probably kill her lover and then, since this is the 21st Century now and the filmmakers will feel necessary to give the less subtle, dumbed down teeny horror demographic of the audience (which to be fair to them is who they’re aiming at anyway) an extra jolt, they’ll probably have her/it coming for the camera as the last part of the last shot.

2. My “scariest” horror movie is the old 1963 Robert Wise adaptation of The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s excellent novel, The Haunting of Hill House) and so, frankly, Paranormal Activity was not the least bit scary to me and I was quite surprised that all those old, formulaic and cliched things they were doing in it was being not only accepted but was actually doing its job on the audience in question.

3. I remember the audience I was with, which was packed with groups of teenagers, getting really frightened and yelling helpful tips to the characters at the screen. And that’s where I got my entertainment from Paranormal Activity the first time around... incredulously watching the audience reaction going on around me. About three quarters of the way through the movie, one young lady, and I have never seen such a violent reaction to a movie in my life before this, actually ran from near the front of the audience, literally screaming loudly out of her mind in terror as she fled for the exit. And I mean ran. I couldn’t move that fast if I wanted to!

But for all that negative stuff, it didn’t fail to impress me. Why? Because if you can juggle all those cliched, stock horror tricks around and still scare an audience to that level... then you know what you are doing with film, to a certain extent (in much the same way that the original version of The Descent used all those same old cheap tricks... but that one actually did scare me too. Just not as much as The Haunting in its 1963 incarnation.).

Looking at it on DVD was a much more serene experience in terms of audience reaction... the two people I was with didn’t find this one scary either... but then neither are they likely to see their teenage years again.

I think the thing that disappointed me most about the movie was that I was absolutely right about the way the film was going to end. You could see it coming a mile off (in my case just from watching the trailer and thinking about the limitations of the crew) and it will be interesting to see if the upcoming sequel will be able to give us a different kind of ending to the one we’ve already seen in the first one... in much the same way as that other fairly recent “first person shooter camera eye” movie [REC 2] was able to successfully build on the first movie and give us a hopeful set up for a third installment.

I probably shouldn’t be so harsh about the ending of the movie... the DVD also has the option of watching it with an alternative ending and it’s clear that, while in the alternate version the movie has a more definitive ending and sense of closure for the film, it wasn’t as sequel friendly as the ending it was released with and I suspect, once the film was cut together and tested with an audience, the producers could already feel that sense of “ker-ching” in the air and wanted a franchise possibility.

Either way, it makes no difference to me why they did it because, as obvious as the end of the movie is... I think they chose the right one to finish their film with.

Would I recommend picking up Paranormal Activity as a DVD purchase? Well probably not unless you have a lot of friends dropping by all at once. This is a film where you need to be part of a larger audience if you want the frights and creepy overtures of the characters to take full effect on you. Paranormal Activity is definitely an activity which is best undertaken as a collective experience.

Monday, 12 July 2010

It's a crazy idea but it might just work!

Mad, Bad and Dangerous?
The Scientist and the Cinema
2005. By Sir Christopher Frayling.
Reaktion Books. ISBN: 1861892853

Another winner from Sir Christopher Frayling!

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema is not a book I’d heard of until a few weeks ago when I was trawling the london shops looking for “a fistful of folios” to take with me on my summer holidays. This book immediately leapt out at me because it was face-on in the display rack and had a picture of Rotwang (the inventor from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) on the cover. I had a quick flick through it and was persuaded to instant purchase by both the promise of a book covering the image of “the scientist” throughout the history of the cinema and also because it had some pictures in it from some of my favourite Universal Monster Movies!

I didn’t even notice it was by Christopher Frayling until I’d got it home. This is the third book I’ve read by him and although I wasn’t quite as gripped by it as his two excellent books on Sergio Leone and his book on Spaghetti Westerns, I still steamed through this one at a fast rate of knots because... well this guy knows a good deal about what he’s talking about (which is a good deal more than I’ve discovered a lot of the other writers of critical analysis of films seem to know about their subjects in recent years - do some research guys!) and also because his enthusiasm for his subject is always plonked right there on the page and you will invariably be caught up in it.

The other good thing about his books are, and this one is no exception, that you will always be sure to learn a thing or two you didn’t know yourself when you go in and read these things. Some of the personal anecdotes and factoids from Mr. Frayling, such as attending a Cambridge dinner with Barnes Wallace in the 60s and asking him about the portrayal of him in The Damn Busters, are real nuggets which you’re not going to find anywhere else.

If I had one grumble... and my readers will know me well enough by now that I’m never happy reviewing something unless I find “something” to grumble about... is that, although a good deal of emphasis was placed on the scientist in cinema up until the late forties/early fifties... the last forty years were rushed through in maybe the last 50 or so pages. I would have liked to have seen the scientists in the films of people like, say, Cronenberg or Ridley Scott given a little more ink on the page. But I think I’m probably reacting more to the fact that this was such an interesting (and frankly, fairly unique) read that I would have liked to have read a greatly expanded edition. This book could have been three times as thick and I would still have gobbled it down with much pleasure (especially in comparison to that Corman book I reviewed the other day). Or to put it another way... forgive me if I suddenly come over all Dickensian and say... “Please sir, can I have some more?”

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema is in your bookshops now and is definitely worth your time and money if you like rocket science, pipe wielding inventors and people who should not be meddling in affairs that man was not meant to meddle in. Have a good read!

P.S. When Lightning Strikes Twice...
Back in December my parents bought me a copy of Mr. Frayling’s key text on Spaghetti Westerns which I was reading on the train earlier in the year on my way to one of the more prominent Film Fairs in London. At the fair I went to see my regular supplier of "the finest Italian soundtrack albums in the country" and was delighted to see Mr. Frayling shopping at the same stall as I. He was very gracious to me and was good enough to personalise and inscribe said tome for me. By a strange twist of fate, I happened to be finishing off Mad, Bad and Dangerous on the way to the Film Fair last weekend and blow me down if I didn’t run into Mr. Frayling again. Once more I had the good luck to get this book personalised too (and this time I managed to slip him one of my cards advertising this blog). Mr. Frayling, if you ever get around to reading this review on your busy schedule, please leave a comment below. And best of luck with the new book you were telling me about!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Rouletabille Rendezvous

The Mystery of the Yellow Room 1907.
By Gaston Leroux.
Wordsworth Editions.
ISBN: 9781840226478

Three years before he wrote his more famous (in this country) The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux wrote The Mystery of the Yellow Room, being the first in the series of novels to feature his youthful detective Joseph Rouletabille.

Now I’ve been wanting to read some of the original adventures of Rouletabille for some time because I’ve recently been inadvertently reading a lot of modern-written short stories which have pitted Leroux’s detective against other famous literary creations (see Blackcoat Press’ “Tales of the Shadowmen” series), so I was absolutely delighted to find that one of my favourite publishers (Wordsworth Editions) have made the first novel available at their usual modest price of £2.99

It will come as no surprise to readers of such tales that Rouletabille was conceived as Leroux’s answer to Arthur Conan Doyles great literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant detective creation C. Auguste Dupin. It may, however, surprise some readers that this character is easily the equal of these other two creations and I was pleased to find that The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a truly excellent read.

It’s basically a locked room style mystery, with all the unfortunate pitfalls that the years since when this was written have brought to this particular sub-genre of detective fiction. So straight away the structure of the story wears on its sleeve Leroux’s debt/homage to Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue but I’m telling you now... there are no convenient monkeys involved at the solution to this particular problem at the end of the game (actually, the best “Locked Room” story I’ve read in years would be Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo... where a whole island becomes the “locked room”!).

I found the novel in general to be a fascinating and entertaining page turner and, surprisingly, not nearly as pulpy and as exploitative of lurid detail as his later novel, The Phantom of the Opera. This one really did feel like a “classic” as opposed to a cheap yarn! There is much to recommend in this one with the one caveat that I might make being that, given that modern audiences have been exposed to this style of literature a lot, you will probably find yourself arriving at the exact nature of the solution a lot quicker than the characters in the novel do. This is not to say that you will be able to unravel the specifics of the answer to the problem presented here in any great detail... but you will probably be able to fairly quickly “eliminate the impossible” and arrive at the nature of the specifics of the crime... if not the specific details of the crime itself.

A great novel and, if detective fiction is your thing, then certainly a necessary purchase if you haven’t already read this one.

For other great Wordsworth Editions... check out their website here...

Corman Get It!

Roger Corman: An Unauthorised Life
2004. By Beverly Gray.
Thunder’s Mouth Press.
ISBN: 1560255552

Hmmm... there’s something about this unauthorised poster-paint sketch of Roger Corman’s life that leaves a feintly bitter aftertaste in the mouth. And I’m not wholly convinced that the entire blame for that one can be laid at the door of the writer.

To her credit, Beverly Gray lets you know right up front that she’s twice worked for Roger Corman and that on her second stint for him, after a fair number of years, she was let go so that an old friend of Corman’s could have some income and also, since he wasn’t paying the other person anything like her wages, so he could save the difference between the two salaries. So right up front you kinda have the warning that this book is maybe written from the viewpoint of a disgruntled ex-employee and, furthermore, she comes clean about not having interviewed Corman specifically for this volume... all her first hand stories of him come from the time she spent with him before her unexpected dismissal.

However, it comes quite clear over the course of the book that she has had a lot of dialogue with other Corman colleagues, employees (ex or otherwise) and admirers/detractors and I think what she’s done here is to make a point of giving all angles of the man without necessarily making any uncalled for judgements about the man herself, other than conclusions that can be directly drawn from the feedback she has received from her interviews with various people.

Certainly, if you want a book which lionises the man and plays into the “myth of Corman” then you are not going to get it here. This one portrays him as being all about the mighty dollar at the expense of his art and, though some mention is made of his artistic tendencies with some of his early films (the Poe films comes to mind) any artistic side to the man is not really touched upon. I was certainly disappointed that there was no great coverage given to any of his movies but at the same time, I was certainly getting a feeling from reading this that Corman’s motivation to save as much money as possible all the time kinda leaves him out of the loop a little as an artist in his own right.

Which is a same I think. I remember seeing his Poe films as a kid in terrible pan and scan versions shown on television and not thinking much of them... but I also remember rediscovering them on DVD in brilliant transfers in their proper aspect ratios and having a revelation that these films actually are really well made pieces of cinematic art. So it’s a shame to have it implied that since those days Corman has been kinda chasing those days but always chooses the quick and cheap option over anything that will necessarily bring him any critical acclaim or artistic credibility. At least that’s what I took away from this book.

His days of promoting and releasing World Cinema Classics for an American market are praised here but his talent for fostering great, future artistic talent is less favourably viewed. I get the impression that the Francis Ford Copplas, Martin Scorceses, James Camerons etc would have flourished and gone on to greater things whether they passed through the Corman-factory or not. The point being that these kinds of strong-willed and tenacious artists have “survived” the Roger Corman experience rather than been born from it.

All through this tome, Ms. Gray has been very careful to show all the different flattering and unflattering viewpoints of Corman’s life but at the end of the day I still got the impression that Corman is a tired, depressed producer who wishes his artistic life might have turned out a lot differently.

So, as I said, if you want a book that treats Corman as a great artist and genuine humanitarian... this is probably not the book for you. If you want a book that possibly provides some insight into the man and you’re prepared to read between the lines and use your own judgement as to how many Dutch-angles have been used when viewing the man... then you might want to give this one a try.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Sherlock Holmes VS The Martians

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Homes:
The War of the Worlds. 1975, 2009.
By Manly W. Wellman and Wade Wellman.
Titan Books. ISBN: 9781848564916

Okay. I was really looking forward to this. I’m not the most knowledgable fan of Sherlock Holmes... I’ve read about a third of the original stories, read a few modern takes on him, own all the Basil Rathbone movies and that’s about it. Nevertheless... I was definitely chomping at the bit to read this entry into the recent series of Titan Books reprints, and in this case expansion, of old Holmes crossover stories.

I was even more anxious to start my Holmsian adventure when I found out that another starring character in this novel is my favourite Arthur Conan Doyle hero, Professor Challenger.

Yes... that’s right... this novel pits Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Watson (absent from most the novel) and his “old friend” Professor Challenger against H. G. Wells' martians... being as it is an alternative “viewpoint” of the events that take place in Well’s famous novel The War of the Worlds.

I have to say, however, that I was very quickly disappointed with the whole affair. Holmes is much less the analytical and observant hero of the original stories in this one... he’s much more a common sense hero... and this doesn’t really sit very well with me given that I’m used to Holmes displaying almost superhuman powers of deduction in his quest to find the solution to whatever challenge stands in his way.

But worse than this was the really stupid change that the authors have chosen to make to the character. Everyone knows that Mrs. Hudson is Holmes and Watsons long suffering landlady... what everyone doesn’t know until they’ve read this book, the authors would have us believe, is that Holmes and Mrs. Hudson are lovers and are conducting their sexual affairs right under the nose, so to speak, of Watson without him even noticing. Why this terrible idea to humanise Holmes in this ridiculous manner? It’s completely unnecessary and if anything, further diminishes this “incarnation” of the character even more. They even go so far as to have Holmes and Mrs. Hudson’s husband “stand off” in a pub only for Mr. Hudson to be captured by a martian! You know, last year I read a really great novel where one of the central premises was that, since his “death” at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes had been replaced with the Indian “Hiawatha” who has been successfully masquerading as Holmes for reasons I can’t quite remember. And I’ll tell you now... that doesn’t grate nearly as much as Holmes and Mrs. Hudson full throng in a sordid love affair. And Watson really was never a stupid character right? I mean, I love the old Nigel Bruce version of Watson (who doesn’t?) but he was never like the Watson in the original stories. Watson would have noticed all this going on... in this novel he’s made out to be more like a buffoon.

The saving grace of this novel is that the events of Wells' original novel are followed quite well (for the most part and any indescrepancies are dealt with in the conclusion of the novel... a nasty letter from Watson to the sensationalist reporter H. G. Wells). Also... to be fair... they’ve got the character of Professor Challenger pretty well... although he’s a bit of a broader character to begin with methinks and so he’s therefore a little harder to muck up.

I’d seriously love to recommend this book but I just can’t. It’s so much less than the brilliant premise promised. Fans of The War of the Worlds would do better reading the old 1970’s Marvel comic book series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds if they want something which builds on Wells' Martian tripods in at least a more entertaining way than this. The novel, for this reader anyway, fails to deliver.

The Argento Syndrome

Dario Argento. 2010.
By James Gracey.
Kamera Books.
ISBN: 9781842433188

Wow. I really wasn’t expecting to give this book a good review. James Gracey’s new book on one of my favourite directors was for me a lot like having an extended sense of deja vu.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about movies before where the reviewer seems to be totally in synch with my own views on a given subject. And not just “in synch”... this is the scary bit... if I didn’t know I didn’t just write this book myself and was making money off it... I could have sworn it was written by me. The writing style employed by Mr. Gracey, the opinions and views expressed... well it could have been me. Right down to the way he phrases things. I can literally pluck sentences out of his book and compare them to some of the sentences in my earlier Giallo Fever article and they are practically identical.

Since I know there’s no way Mr. Gracey could have, in any way, seen my Giallo Fever article before he wrote this book... all I can say is it’s nice to know there is actually somebody out there who thinks like me.

While this isn’t as enjoyable an analysis as earlier books on Argento... the two standout ones for me are Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds by Maitland McDonagh (which I believe has just been reissued again) and Alan Jones’ Profondo Argento... this is still an excellent read. And since it so echos my own feelings about the director I can only recommend it to as many people as possible.

If I had any grumbles... and I feel I must try to find something to grumble about in this otherwise excellent book... it would be one of two things.

Thing Number 1: Although he does mention early on the influence of the late, great Mario Bava, by the time he gets to writing about Suspiria I feel that Mr. Gracey should have left no uncertainty as to the very great debt in the lighting style of his films that Mr. Argento owes to Mr. Bava.

Thing Number 2: It’s a very formulaic selection of review hitting the same, highlighted common factors for each film/TV episode reviewed so it gets a bit kiddie-ish. I lay the probable blame for that one in the design requirements of the Kamera Books series rather than at the hands of the author. I suspect they are very much trying to appeal to a dumbed down, less cineliterate (and I might be so moved to suggest what I mean is just plain old “less literate”) audience and so in some ways it is very lazily written (see... just like my stuff ;-). The particular casualty to this kind of imposed structure is that there is no actual summing up or conclusion to give the selection of reviews a sense of closure. It just stops after the last review.

Still, an especially good book to read if you are one of the dying number of Argento novices in the world... so much to recommend.