Friday, 31 August 2012

Total Recall 2012

First Among Recalls

Total Recall 2012 USA 
Directed by Len Wiseman
Playing at UK cinemas now

The year was 1990.

8 years since Blade Runner came out in cinemas.

8 years since I read between 30 to 40 of Philip K. Dick’s second hand novels and short story compilations over the space of a year.

Total Recall, directed by Paul Veerhoven was released into cinemas and I was really looking forward to it because it was alleged to have been based on one of my favourite of Dick’s short stories, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. The title of the new movie bothered me though... after all, with such a great title on the short story, why couldn’t the movie just follow suit (and why call a movie Blade Runner, for that matter, when the original novel’s titles is just so darned cool? Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?).

So there I was, sitting in the cinema in 1990 with my friends and the credits on Total Recall roll and, within about 15 seconds I am absolutely furious! This is ****ing plagiarism right here. This movie is scored by Jerry Goldsmith, one of my all-time favourite composers and I just want to strangle him and never before, or since, have I actually fought this hard to not jump up in front of an audience and knock some sense in to their lack of reaction and lead them in an orderly mob to the projection room with pitchforks and lighted torches.

I look around at my friends and none of them seems particularly worried or as angry as I am and... I just can’t believe it. But I am so enraged I want to spit and stamp my feet. Jerry Goldsmith’s opening title music to Total Recall is, as anybody with half an ear could tell you, a rip off of Basil Poledouris’ opening title music, Anvil Of Crom, from the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger adaptation of Conan The Barbarian. I am restless and fidgety in my seat. How am I supposed to enjoy a film when it’s being all copy-cat on Schwarzenneger’s arse.

Of course, what had happened was that the films producers, or possibly director, or anyway... some idiotic suit who wouldn’t know the difference maybe... had wanted to recapture the glory of the earlier Schwarzenneger movie with this one and asked the great Jerry Goldsmith to ape the style of the Conan The Barbarian main titles... probably by way of creating a sound temp track for the movie, a practice Jerry Goldsmith always hated and never really mellowed to (especially after working with Sir Ridley Scott a couple of times, is my understanding), which included Anvil Of Crom over the rough cut.

So I can’t blame Jerry for doing his job and I’ll forgive him... but I won’t forgive the people in charge of this production for doing that to both Jerry and Basil. How awful for them both!

This major felony of artistic taste-crime was further compounded when the film decided it was only going to take the basic kernel of the idea of Dick’s story and, rather than treating it in an intelligent, witty and, frankly downright funny presentation like the writer did, instead turn it into some kind of horrible action movie with a bunch of, frankly, lame special effects (even for the time), and generally destroy all that was good and enjoyable about the original short by cloaking it in a miasma of boring, couldn’t-care-less, chase fests. It was not good and, so far, I’ve never been that tempted to take another look at it and, the few times I’ve tried to get into the score, I’ve always started seeing red and flying off the handle every time I fire up the opening title music. I just can’t get through it when that red mist of angry musical deja vu pours into my ears.

I found out just recently that one of my favourite living directors, David Cronenberg, was developing that original film for a year, attached as the director, before being dropped from the project by the producers. Apparently, he was fired for attempting to make a movie version which was fairly close and respectful to the original PKD source material... when all that the producers wanted was, and I quote, “Indiana Jones on Mars”. I think David Cronenberg’s extremely “Phildickian” inspired movie eXistenZ, which even contains some specific references to Dick’s The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch in it, if I’m remembering it right, is far superior to what the makers of Total Recall ended up with in every way possible and is a testament to Cronenberg’s ingenuity, skill and ultimately, suitability to this kind of project.

Then I heard they were “remaking” Total Recall.

That’s how they put it. Remaking Total Recall.

Not doing an adaptation of PKD’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Which rankled me somewhat, as you can imagine.

Furthermore, I then heard that Colin Farrell had been picked up for the movie. Now I’ve never quite been able to stand Colin Farrell for very long. He was in a fairly cool movie by Spielberg, inspired by Dick’s story Minority Report, but he wasn’t in it much and that’s about as long as I can handle him for. Which is why I wasn’t all that keen in ever going to see this new incarnation, which hit the cinemas a couple of days ago over here (why are a handful of films now suddenly coming out on a Wednesday or a Monday over here at the moment?). That was until I saw the trailer for it in front of a couple of movies over the last few weeks and liked what I saw in those trailers enough to go and see this on its opening night (in the UK).

I have to be honest... it’s not so much a straight remake of the original movie, thank goodness, but it still significantly “deviates from the brief” so to speak, if that brief was indeed to make a version of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. You still don’t get the humour of the wild, weird and varied scenarios as the company in the story tries to give the central protagonist a new memory... opening like a set of Russian dolls to reveal that the character has had many lives, all of which match the wildest inventions of the scenarios they are trying to create for him (secret agent, superhero etc., it’s been a while since I read this, obviously). However, having said that, I did rather enjoy this movie on a purely “this is a piece of modern action cinema which works quite well” kinda level and I think a lot of people would like this if they gave it half a chance...I understand lots of people in the US stayed away in droves for this. I think it will make some cash when it gets a DVD release, however.

So... there’s a couple of references to the 1990 version, at least a couple I could pick up on given my relative inexperience of the original and this will probably bring a smile to the faces of fans of the first. But, unlike both Dick’s original work and also the Schwarzenneger vehicle, this particular film is taking itself very seriously most of the way through and it lacks any real humour.

Colin Farrell’s performance is quite good and I was able to suspend my disbelief and allergic reaction to him for, just about, the full duration of the film. Can’t really fault him as an actor... just one of those personalities on screen who I personally have trouble with. He’s excellent in this, as are most people in it, and that should be good enough for me.

Jessica Biel, who is another old hand from a Philip K. Dick movie (Next, inspired by PKD’s The Golden Man) is also on hand and she does a great job here but unfortunately she’s kind of overshadowed a bit by the absolute powerhouse villainess performance put in by Kate Beckinsale in this one as Colin Farrel’s wife/baby sitter. I usually find her a bit hit and miss, although I loved her in Van Helsing and Whiteout, but in this one she really outdoes herself. It’s a real “action woman with confidence” tour-de-force and she seems to have inherited that great ability to really look like she actually could do it all in real life (Nobody could but, hey, she looks like she could, okay?).

The editing in this one is fast and furious and the emphasis really is on action. There’s not a heck of a lot of screen time with people standing around talking... it’s pretty much one big long action chase lasting roughly two hours. There’s also not a lot of let-up to the pacing but that’s just the kind of movie it is. Fortunately, although the editing is pushing through the images at a frantic rate, it’s quite competent on this one (they’re pulling back and getting better again in Hollywoodland with this kind of stuff, I think) and it’s pretty clear throughout the stacked-in-a-row action set pieces just what is going on and when. It’s very easy to comprehend the choreography of the crash, the bang and the wallop.

Harry Gregson-Williams, another composer who I find a bit hit and miss, pulls off a techno augmented score which perfectly complements the thrills on screen and hits all the right notes... all the right notes, that is, if the movie was going to be called The Total Bourne Recollection. It has to be said, the score is excellent, but one of the problems with the movie is that it does seem, in a fair few places, to be trying to capture the zeitgeist of the Jason Bourne franchise and there will be a fair few scenes in this one which might take viewers back to The Bourne Identity... which seems to be the mind echoes that this movie is trying to hit quite often. Consequently, although the score doesn’t have that strongly defined set of bass lines and melodies that the Bourne series has, the orchestration and general style of it is definitely, I suspect, trying to remind you of those films on a sub-conscious level. That being said, though, I loved this score and wish the company had chosen to release a CD of it instead of letting it wallow in some “unreleased” list.

The visual aspect of it, though, is very glossy and, for the most part, sterile in it’s big budget portrayal of a bona fide ”sci-fi thriller”. That is to say, it’s grey and white and has the feel of something like the Will Smith vehicle I, Robot or, indeed, the aforementioned Minority Report. I’m not saying this is a bad thing though... I liked it well enough and I think other people might get a kick out of it if only they’d go to the cinema and give it a try.

In summing up I’d say, don’t go expecting a faithful adaptation of either the original movie bearing this name, or indeed, Phil Dick’s original work... it’s dumbed down significantly, for sure. However, if you like futuristic action movies with lots of punching things in it and lots of bad guys who seem to be incapable of accurately aiming their weapons at the main protagonists, then you could do a lot worse than give this one a watch. Give it a gander if you’ve got nothing better to do.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Wild Cards Vol. 21: Fort Freak

Like Them On Acebook

Wild Cards 21: Fort Freak
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Tor Books. ISBN: 9780765325709

There’s something about picking up the latest Wild Cards book that always feels like I’m getting reacquainted with an old friend I’ve not seen in a while. Like just a couple of people I know, I first got into the Wild Cards mosaic novels (lots of writers contributing short stories or sometimes just chapters to talk about one specific story arc or series of events, depending on the tone of the volume in question) when the first in the series arrived back in 1987. Now the publishing history of these books have made them very hard to stick with for most people (I’m the only person I know who still reads them) because it’s been, well, pretty erratic to say the least.

With the original “cycle” finished after the first twelve books, or so we all thought, even the second half of that initial run could only be bought in imported US editions. Then with multiple publishing companies, large gaps between these so-called cycles (which are just all continuations of the same alternate reality anyway) and the next ones and also gaps between individual titles, including an ultra rare volume which only shelved a very, very short time (a week maybe?) and with only 600 copies printed before the publishing house of that one went under (and which had a crucial link between different generations of Wild Cards explained)... it’s no wonder some of the original readers (at least the ones I know) didn’t stick with these (I bought my copy of that particular single-writer volume from the writer himself, his last spare copy, on ebay and he was good enough to personalise it for me).

Still, having said that, they’re now back in the habit of publishing one new mosaic novel a year so there must still be something of an audience for these out there. I’m very glad because the Wild Cards novels never fail to move me and the warmth of the collected writers always shines through.

Set in an alternate reality where the adventure hero Jetboy failed to save the human race from the alien Black Queen virus back in the forties (Jetboy’s famous last words were, “I can't die yet. I haven't seen The Jolson Story”), the stories deal with the lives of the surviving population of the planet who are, since that fateful day, split into three groups: nats (unaffected), Aces (superpowered heroes) and Jokers (deformed mutants, some of whom also have powers). There are also “deuces” and “suicide kings” but I won’t go into details here... discover all this stuff for yourself.

This volume is a collection of interpenetrating stories from the Jokertown police precinct and mostly features brand new characters and the two linking stories in this involve a snake powered joker inadvertently the target of corrupt Jokertown cops and a Ramsheaded police sergeant, Leo, who has a few months left before retirement and he’s delving into an old, unsolved cold case from the 80s in his spare time. This story also features a cameo from Bubbles, one of the new generation aces recruited by the government from the Big Brother style reality show American Heroes (covered in more detail in the last four novels in the series) but readers who have been with the series a long time will be interested in the inclusion of some of the characters from the past.

A part of one of the investigations taking part in the Jokertown museum obviously allows for references to such past characters as Doctor Tachyon, Golden Boy and The Great And Powerful Turtle... but in addition to this there are a couple of very minor appearances from Jube, the walrus bodied joker newsstand guy who takes his name, presumably, from The Beatles’ song I Am The Walrus (you know... goo goo ga jube) but who long in the tusk readers might recall is actually an alien masquerading as a joker. There are also much more meatier and recurring roles throughout the novel from fan favourite Croyd Crenson aka The Sleeper, originally created by classic scifi writer Roger Zelazny for his stories and chapters in the original opening novels and kept alive as a character by the writers long after Zelazny’s death... and some very significant inclusions by two characters which a lot of fans of the series will appreciate.

Father Squid, the squid faced ex-soldier priest who founded the principal Joker cathedral in Jokertown is back and his history has been added to. I won’t say too much but he turns out to be very linked in to Leo’s investigation of his cold case, the slaughter of everyone (almost everyone) in a Jokertown diner decades in the past. You’re going to be heartbroken, but also guessing the extent of Father Squid's involvement in this case until right at the end, long after you think you know the answer. A warning for long time readers though... it’s pretty heavy.

More heartbreaking, though, is a character devoted fans will know as The Oddity. The Oddity used to be three people... one of the three’s “card turned” (a euphemism for the emergence of the previously dormant black queen virus), as the stories always went, when the lady and two guys in question were having a sexual threesome and their bodies and minds fused together to make one, hard to look at and painful to move, abomination and self proclaimed vigilante protector of Jokertown, The Oddity. Only something bad is about to happen... another series regular, the chief medical practitioner of the Jokertown clinic Bradley Finn (who also happens to be a centaur) discovers that the reason The Oddity has been going a bit “haywire” just lately is because one of the three people inside his/her personality has fallen victim to Alzheimers. Something must be done and Finn has the solution... but it’s a painful solution and fans of this character will certainly find one door closing and another opening in what may possibly be the final appearance of this character, at least in the way we’ve known The Oddity over the years.

As with all the Wild Cards novels, this one is incredibly well written and never forgets to inject the little details that make the world that is the background for these stories come alive in your mind’s eye. It also never forgets that all the characters have a warm, beating heart and these books are always a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. You may think the genre format of these things doesn’t allow for the kind of warmth and emotional hit you’d get from novels in other genres but you’d be very wrong and certainly don’t let that put you off delving into the Wild Cards universe.

If you’ve never read a Wild Cards novel before, do the smart thing and seek them out from their very beginnings (a major reprint of the novels is already underway) and read them before some smart TV producer finally realises what an excellent set of mini-series' these novels and characters would make (I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that some day we’ll see a Chrysalis action figure on toy shop shelves). If you’re already a fan of this series, however, then you certainly won’t need my recommendation to tell you to pick this one up in a hurry. It’s another triumphant piece of literature that truly exceeds any genre limitations perceived by people unfamiliar with these kinds of stories. Truly another artistic success.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Saint Strikes Back

Saint George

The Saint Strikes Back
USA 1939
Directed by John Farrow
Warner Archives Edition Region 1

Well I’m happy to say that this second movie of Leslie Charteris’ popular character The Saint, the first of five from the original series in which George Sanders took over the role of Simon Templar from Louis Hayward, was not nearly as hard to watch as I was expecting it to be, bearing in mind the following two factors:

1. I love Louis Hayward’s interpretation of the role in the first of his two films playing the character, The Saint In New York (reviewed here) and believe this is really the one where the character was nailed and played just like the character in the books. They really got it right.

2. I really don’t empathise with George Sanders too much. He wrecked the romance between The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, leaving Mrs. Muir the only option of finding true love after her own death and he was rather indifferent to the fate of Quiller in the movie adaptation of The Quiller Memorandum (aka The Berlin Memorandum) too. Yes, I know I’m totally responding to his on-screen image but until I see evidence to the contrary, this is the way I’ll always continue to see him. This reaction to him is, of course, evidence that he was probably a great actor.

Now I don’t know why Louis Hayward didn’t continue to play The Saint in subsequent films in the series until another single stab at the role in the fifties, but Sanders really isn’t too much of a disaster in the role. Certainly, from what I remember of the novels, his interpretation of the role is a valid one, and the film is done fairly faithfully, from what little I can recall, to the spirit of the story on which it was based (She Was A Lady aka The Saint Meets His Match by Leslie Charteris). However, although the character continues to have all those wonderful one liners, I find Sanders’ delivery of his lines just way too slow and, well, almost lazy. I keep wanting him to spit out what are, in all honesty, supposed to be quick-fire, screwball comedy style one-liners, like the way I read them in the books (yeah, I know, don’t go there... not getting into that argument with you). George is just a little too laid back for my liking... I can’t imagine this guy doing anything fast. However, the plus side to this is, of course, that this characterisation of Templar now seems a lot more confident... if some guys are pointing guns at your chest and you can’t be bothered to do anything that quickly, you must be a confident so-and-so, right?

George Sanders whistles a tune in this film for the first time, which is also worked into Roy (Cat People) Webb’s score for the movie. This is used in some of the subsequent films and scores in the series as a signature tune for The Saint and was even re-used for the character as late as the opening prelude jingle to the start of the theme tune in the 1978 Ian Ogilvy version of the TV show, Return Of The Saint. There seems to be much dispute as to who actually wrote this theme tune, with many saying it was Webb and Leslie Charteris, the author of the novels on which these are based, saying he composed it for George Sanders to whistle on set. Either could be true... I don’t know if Webb would have been involved with providing source music before the film was in the can or not but he certainly used it in the score and Sander’s whistle “could” have been added in post-production or even in pick up shots. I guess it’s something we’ll never know the truth of but it’s an iconic jingle which will live forever in fans of the character.

The film keeps up links to the previous film in the series by a few references and the addition of a recurring actor/character... which is probably a good idea if you’re going to suddenly change the lead actor on everyone, I guess. Of course, there’s a much clever way of changing your lead actor as seen in The Saint copycat movie series toplining, The Falcon... but I’ll get to that on this blog sometime later this year or early next year. Got ‘em lined up in a pile to watch after I’m done with the majority of The Saint series (want to watch them all in chronological order which means The Falcon series starts before the first Hugh Sinclair movie in The Saint series, I think). Anyway, where was I? Recurring character... to this end, Jonathan Hale returns as Inspector Fernack, the US equivalent of Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard (in the books set in England) from the first movie. It would, however, be true to say that the character has changed somewhat. It’s a subtle shift but where the character was a very helping hand to Templar in the first film, and very much a character in his own right, here he has been reduced to the role of bumbling comedy sidekick, very much fulfilling the same function that the excellent Nigel Bruce portrayal of Dr. Watson used to fill in the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes movies. So Hale is great to watch but the comic vignettes with Sander’s Saint pranking him are something I could have done without... I prefered the more dangerous and infinitely more intelligent version of Hales characterisation of Fernack that he used opposite Louis Hayward a heck of a lot more.

Still, it’s really not a bad movie and there are some great little “spot the actor” moments in this one. A young Tristram Coffin (yeah, that’s right, King Of The Rocket Men) can be glimpsed right at the start and a less minimal role is filled by a young Neil Hamilton, who readers may remember best as Comissioner Gordon opposite Adam West’s Batman. There’s also Willie Best, playing Simon’s butler, who used to turn up in films in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series', on hand too. But the big find in this one is an early, sizeable, happy-go-lucky sidekick role for a young (he was never young) actor called Barry Fitzgerald, here playing a thief named Zipper Dyson. I’ll never forget Fitzgerald’s performance opposite John Wayne in The Quiet Man and he’s an absolute pleasure to watch here, too.

Definitely a nice little movie, this one, and I’m sure I’ll warm to Sander’s portrayal as the series continues (and to his role as The Falcon in the first four movies in that film series). Looking forward to them a lot. Give this one a go if you’ve not seen it before but I’d definitely start off with The Saint In New York, which this is technically a sequel to, before seeing this one.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The BFI/Sight And Sound 100

Great Expectations

The BFI/Sight And Sound 100

A few weeks back, when the British Film Institute’s Sight And Sound magazine made public the results of it’s “once every ten years” poll of, and I quote, “The Greatest Films Of All Time”, there was a much greater backlash from people about the choices that were on the list than I remember ever hearing about before in my spell of being a regular, yearly subscriber. My understanding was that the “en masse”  link clicking to the site after the list was officially “released” caused a lot of trouble for the BFI servers and, kind of, broke them for a while (something I read at Ain’t It Cool News before I’d even tried the clickety-link myself). This was followed, from what I saw of the celluloid battlefield that took place digitally on the internet during the aftermath, was a fairly large, almost collective condemnation of the list by a great number of people. Maybe it’s just the crazy kinds of people I follow. ;-)

I first started subscribing to Sight & Sound magazine around about 23 years ago, so I’ve now seen three of these polls published in fresh issues of the magazine over the years... but there’s never been the technology in place to reach these levels of audience figures before. There could, in fact, be various reasons for this “en masse” criticism of this decades list, but I suspect the biggest problem this year is that the reporting and subsequent reaction to this has been so much more easier and all encompassing than it has for previous lists (not that many would see that as a problem, of course). You have the reactions to the list hitting you from all the social media sites and blogs on the internet, which is one factor in the incredible “buzz” on this year’s poll... but there’s also the fact that the list itself was now freely available to anyone with a web connection... and not just confined to us poor, traditional souls who dutifully renew our yearly subscription charges or buy the magazine over-the-counter.

What this meant was that, for a couple of weeks, the internet became full of people running to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress and Blogger to air their opinions and generally make the most silliest comments about the list they could think of which ranged from complaints as to why their favourite films weren’t on the list, accusatory questions as to why the “bunch of academics” who had contributed to the list were watching such “old timey” films like Vertigo and Citizen Kane rather than “newer stuff” and, for me the capper, why isn’t Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000 (reviewed here) at the number one spot. I promise you I’m not making that one up... I saw someone tweeting it.

So I thought I’d like to take a stab at defending the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List from some of the sillier criticisms and maybe get people to think a little bit about why some of those same films are up there on these lists, decade after decade. Also, I’d like to take the opportunity to air my own little criticism of the list because, although I prefer Vertigo as a movie over Citizen Kane (although I’d happily be watching either), it throws up the question of when and why does a personal favourite film suddenly become, in one person’s eyes, a “great” movie. I love Vertigo to bits but there’s no way, I feel, that it should be placed above Citizen Kane. More on that later, though.

If I hate one thing about late 20th and early 21st Century magazine and blog writing it’s the popularisation of the “list article”. When people first started doing them they used to be quaint and addictive and people could have fun with them... but then everyone and their dog started doing them. The downside on these kinds of articles is that they’re damned easy to write and they’ve become, for the most part, just a lazy summation of personal opinion in an easy to swallow format. I even did one myself on here once (see here) and I can’t deny the popularity of these articles and their power to garner more readers (as the BFI web server found out too late, I fear... although I’m sure they’ll benefit greatly from the popularity). It probably won’t be the last one I do because I, too, want readers, just like the next blog waiting in line, but I try not to make a habit of concocting them like some websites seem to do. Lists are pretty impossible to compile honestly anyway... and the fact that they’re based solely on the subjectivity of the writer (in the case of non-voted lists) means that not many people are going to agree with it 100%... which is often the point when a thoughtful list comes to light, to provoke discussion.

Sometime in either the late seventies or early eighties, in my early teens, I decided to do a top 20 favourite films list and I think this demonstrates the intransigent and changeable nature of these kinds of dubious attractions. As I started writing down a list of all my special favourite movies I couldn’t live without, it started growing extremely long. After an hour or so I realised I’d written down over 700 “absolute favourite” films and was still going strong. I gave up on it there and then as a waste of my time and never looked back when it came to making lists... even the list of my top 30 favourite movies on the right hand side of this column and down a bit was questionable as soon as it went live. How could I, I thought to myself, write down all those movies in my top 30 without even putting one of my all time favourites, It’s A Wonderful Life, somewhere on there?

This incident from my formative years serves to demonstrate two things when it comes to compiling lists. One is that a person can keep going on for pages and pages, whittling down to a number of favourites that are always going to be too long a list for people to comfortably look at and consider anyway. Secondly, of course, since this list I made as a kid was a snapshot of my mind at the time, it’s unlikely that all the same titles would come up again... especially with all the fantastic toot that’s being released on DVD and other home video formats since I first tried to compile one. It’s a changing landscape and so not much use to anyone as more than a quick summary of someone’s mind at the time of writing.

Of course, the regular one-poll-per-decade approach adopted by Sight & Sound for its lists means that the editors are, at least, acknowledging the constantly shifting tide which represents the celluloid battlefield, as the tastes and range of the nearly 1000 critics who got their personal top tens to the magazine before their deadline (846 critics, this year, to be precise) is changed by constant exposure to new (to them) celluloid masterpieces. It also, one would hope, means it’s forcing those same critics to distinguish as to what they think a great film is, as opposed to their favourite on-screen entertainments. I think that this is a very important distinction to make and, in my opinion, a critic should not base a review they write solely on whether they like a film or not, but rather on the various technical skills and criteria met or exceeded by a film too. This should help bring a certain amount of balance and credibility to a review and will hopefully instill enough trust in a reader to use the review in the best possible way... whatever that use may be to a specific reader. I personally, for instance, sometimes recommend films on this blog to readers which I didn’t personally enjoy. However, I make it clear if I don’t like a film and try my best to convey, when I am having a good day and am skilled enough to do so, the difference between my gut-reaction to a film and the technical merits of it. Just because I didn’t like, doesn’t mean to say it isn’t worth watching.

So lets have a look at a couple of the backlash complaints I’ve seen about the list and figure out if they have a valid point or not.

Why aren’t “my” favourite films on the list?
Well, to be fair, you weren’t asked to supply a list were you? Well yeah, alright, some of you reading this might have been but ultimately, just because your “personal” favourites aren’t on there... it doesn’t in any way invalidate the films that made it to the top 100. This list wasn’t compiled by voting from a selection of nominations, don’t forget. That would then give you all the problems of a person or a team of people limiting you to a specific selection of movies that they think are worthy. It’s just not the case here, thankfully (or I wouldn’t even be giving this list the time of day, quite frankly). What you have here is various critics (and also directors) sending in their lists and the frequency of films appearing repeatedly generating a score for that film... at least that’s my understanding of it.

Why are all these old-timey films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo on the list?
Seriously? Old timey? The art form of the motion picture has only been  around for a little over 100 years. Some of you might reach that age before dying if you’re lucky (or unfortunate, depending on your view). Criticising the age of a movie is stupid on all kinds of levels, not to mention the fact that the age of a film doesn’t in any way play a factor in the quality of the final product. Unless, perhaps, you just like themes and trends which are fashionable to you right now on the silver screen, and damn anything you’re not personally in tune with. Is that it? Well... if that’s the case then I do feel sorry for you but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because you’re obviously not really into the art of film. Go eat your popcorn.

As far as the people polled for this survey go... nobody has told all these people to put films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo on their list. They love these movies, and rightly so (because they’re damned good movies), but they also (one hopes) admire them on a technical level and feel inspired by them to the point where they believe this makes them among the greatest movies out there. And these people all come from different walks of life here... it’s not like they’re all in the same club or something. People respond to art in a very personal manner (on some levels) and these kinds of movies, the ones that have made it into the poll, are well loved and well watched pinnacles of motion picture history. So the obvious question I’d have to ask any of the people making these kinds of criticisms here are... “Have you actually seen these movies? If not, try watching one before complaining. You’re in for a treat.”

Okay... so now that’s off my chest, I’d like to just like to say something about Citizen Kane, since people seem to be so incredulous and non-understanding as to why it would even be on the list in the first place, let alone dominating the top spot for all but two of those “once a decade polls” (the first poll and the most recent one where Vertigo broke its winning streak and knocked it off the top spot). Citizen Kane is a great film. It might not entertain a certain segment of the population but, even if it doesn’t, it still has to be acknowledged as a great film. The reason for this is that there is so much “hidden ingenuity” to be found lying just beneath the surface, that one can’t help but applaud the technical brilliance of just what is going on here.

For example, there are shots in this where the camera goes places where a camera just couldn’t go... especially when this movie was made. Parts of a set or model were designed to break away once the camera eye had passed them so the operator could keep going past a place where the “real world” would not let him go.

Or, as another example, what about that shot where Welles is sitting in the office typing and in the background, opposite Welles and watching from afar, is Joseph Cotton... and both are in sharp focus. Oh sure. A great example of a deep focus lens being used to keep everything nice and crisp right? Wrong! A deep focus lens wouldn’t be able to handle that shot... at least not then it couldn’t. So what did they do... yeah, they ran a matte split mask and spliced two shots together so it looks like one shot. And the majority of viewers, myself included, wouldn’t even notice it was two seperate bits of footage spliced together. Good grief people! They were inventing stuff just to get the shots in the way they wanted them. And when they weren’t inventing them...

 Well... I’m not saying that every single dash of brilliance in this film was an original, technical innovation. There were some, but a lot of this stuff goes back to the days when D. W. Griffith was inventing (some say stealing) the DNA of cinematic syntax. The visual shorthand which everyone almost immediately picks up from their earliest days of watching films and which is forever branded into the braincells as the absolutely most instinctive way of decoding the moving visual image. You know what I’m talking about... stuff like two people individually framed, saying a line and then cutting to the other saying their line as a visual shorthand for two people having a conversation. It grew very quickly from there in terms of innovative and subtle manipulations of the human brain and a lot of it is to be found all in one place by 1941... and that place is Citizen Kane.

Every technique in the book, it seems like, was used for Citizen Kane and the movie is a summation, a showcase if you will, for all the brilliant ways of depicting a story through film that had ever been seen up until this point. And that’s why it’s so brilliant... it’s a text book of delights from which people can take inspiration and learn. It deserves every accolade it gets.

Which is why I’m kinda upset myself that Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain) didn’t also make it into the top 100... preferably the top ten. Because, like Citizen Kane before it, Amelie also showcases the absolute state-of-the-art of the technical possibilities of its time and I would have thought that for this reason, it would have rated a bit higher in the general critical consciousness (if there is such a thing). Also, like Welles esteemed treasure, Amelie has some very innovative ideas in it which I’m not aware of being done before this film. One of them involves the way sound is used in two sequences a different points of the film which relies on the viewers subconscious memory of the audio sections of one point to make a hidden connection. And the other involves a visual echo of something which isn’t really happening. I don’t want to go into too much detail as I want to review the film on this blog someday, but I will point out that these innovations probably wouldn’t even be noticed by 95% of an audience who are there to be engrossed in a movie. They don’t deliberately draw attention to themselves in any way and are used purely as a way of moving the narrative forward... this is a brilliant way to use film. And, of course, there’s other more standard stuff going on with the CGI effects, of which there are a surprising amount in Amelie... not that many people realise it though. Things such as lamps being added and changed a different colour to balance the tone of a different, dominant colour in the scene. Object and props which could easily have been real, found items for a set but which were added in post production. Stuff like this shows a true mastery of the form and I think Amelie should be somewhere on that list... but that’s just me griping now. Although I’d like to think I’ve backed up my reasons somewhat.

And what of Vertigo? Well, as I said, I love it. It’s my favourite Hitchcock and, yes, it does have some great innovations in it. Like that kiss in Kim Novak’s hotel apartment near the end where they had to build a split set and put the camera on a turntable with the actors so the scene could completely change behind them as they kiss to a completely different environment and return through a full 360 degree pan. Or, of course, the famous shot in Jaws of Brody on the beach where the camera is pulled back from his face while simultaneously zooming in on it at the same speed the camera is being pulled back. That was invented for those wonderful, downward looking shots in the bell tower during the two climbs in Vertigo... actually done with a model set too, no less. So you would never had got that shot in films ike Jaws (and dozens of other movies) if Vertigo hadn’t done it first... I suspect.

So yeah, Vertigo should be on there but, should it be at number one? Well I could watch it all week (something I couldn’t do for Citizen Kane I suspect) but I have to admit that Welles opus is a much greater showcase of innovation and art than Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece... although, as I said earlier... personally I prefer Vertigo, so I can’t be too upset that it’s now number one.

All in all, it’s not a bad list they’ve come up with. I look forward to the next one in the hopes that NIghts Of Cabiria will find a place above the Fellini movies that already appear on it. And it’s good to see, also, that 6 of those movies on the list were all scored by the same composer... my favourite composer, the remarkable Bernard Herrmann. Not only that but the top two films, Vertigo and Citizen Kane were both scored by him... so that’s something to shout out about. But the list also reflects his achievements at both ends of his career. Citizen Kane was the first actual film he scored... he was the regular composer for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio show (including the mentioned conductor on the notorious War Of The Worlds transmission) and Welles brought him with him to Hollywoodland to work on the film with him. Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is also in the list, was Herrmann’s last score. He died within hours of the final, extended recording session on the approach to Christmas 1975.

I’m grateful that Bernard Herrmann has been, quite serendipitously, honoured in this way. It makes the list something very special for me as a die hard Herrmann listener. This is a good list, the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List and, to paraphrase one Mr. Travis Bickle from the 32nd spot... “those were good choices.”

The BFI Sight & Sound Poll can be read here. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Expendables 2

Expend It Like Beckham

The Expendables 2 2012 USA 
Directed by Simon West
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Yeah, they’ll be slight spoilers
popping up as I write this, I guess.

So here we go again.

I quite liked the first movie in this popular franchise (reviewed here) but if you read that review you’ll also know I had some problems with it too. So, for the second time around with this rag-tag unit of high testosterone empowered mercenaries for hire, I was expecting a little less from the concept but still thought it would be an okay movie. I’m happy to report that this wasn’t the case and that this movie was a lot better than the first, delivering everything the initial set up of that debut film promised and doing it with a considerable amount of tongue in cheek fun. 

Starting with a very strong action set piece showing The Expendables, including a young new recruit known affectionately to his colleagues as “Billy The Kid” and played by Liam Hemsworth (yeah, yeah... that’d be Thor’s younger brother then), the movie is set up very nicely as this opening both reminds us of the general toughness of the team in an all out rescue/firefight while showing just how useful and likeable the new guy is to the them. After our heroes have rescued their target, plus liberated his would be saviour in the form of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Trench character (back from the first movie), Jet Li makes a swift exit from the shenanigans, I’m sad to say. Which explains why he’s got a quite nice little hand combat sequence early on in the film for the audience to make the most of.

It’s a shame, but the amount of solid leads in these films mean that not everyone can have a chance to shine for very long... a fact I’d got annoyed with in the first movie when Li’s character wasn’t given a heck of a lot to do. In this one, his screen time is cut to what amounts to The Expendables equivalent of “showing his face” and I did miss his presence during the rest of the movie. However, the rest of the cast do make up for the absence of Li and, although the movie is as clichéd and unsurprising in terms of storyline and character interaction as the first one, there’s a lot more flesh added to the bare bones of the characters as they were in the first movie and I found myself even sympathising and rooting with Dolph Lundgren’s character in this one.

Of course, as soon as the new recruit starts bonding and fixing up when he’s going to leave the group... you pretty much know he’s doomed. His doom comes in a “pay me back for last time” mission from Bruce Willis’ Church character, who gives The Expendables a temporary, new female recruit played by somebody called Nan Yu (who’s brilliant in this, by the way) to help them in the trickier, high tech phase of their mission. When it all goes pear shaped, however, our gang of “little rascals” as Willis affectionately calls them in reference to Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and the gang*, are left humiliated by this movie’s bad ass villain Jean-Claude Van Damme (which works better for me than Eric Roberts, I have to say) and little Billy is left with a karate kicked knife through his heart... leaving Stallone and the gang to bury him and get his last letter home to his patiently waiting girlfriend.

And then The Expendables have a new mission which is put very succinctly by Stallone, as seen in the trailer... 

“Track ‘em. Find ‘em. Kill ‘em.” 

Yes, you guessed it... this time it’s personal!

And then it just keeps delivering... not just on the action front which is pretty strong and, unlike the first movie in a few places, very well edited so you can see exactly what’s going on and where, but also on the ensemble work. As I implied before, the chemistry between all the characters in this one comes off just right... possibly even shifting into The Guns Of Navarone territory in terms of presenting a fighting unit the audience can really care about. Plus it’s got a kick ass action score by a composer I’m beginning to enjoy more and more just lately... Brian Tyler. He tops his score to the first movie and raises the game a whole new level (like he did with films such as Battle: Los Angeles and Stallone’s epic, fourth Rambo movie... amongst others).

There’s some really good work with Schwarzenneger and Willis who have what amount to small cameos at the start, recalling their disappointing screen time in the first movie, but then actually bringing them back for the final balls-to-the-wall, final action sequence. And of course, since these stars, along with Stallone, are such huge, over-the-top personalities... movie stars in every sense of the word by modern standards in much the same way John Wayne was in his time, the humour filled dialogue playing with the baggage they bring with them is pretty welcome too. And of course, the most awesome of these is the inclusion of Chuck Norris to the cast in a few little action cameos. His entrance to the movie already plays on his legendary status in terms of the phenomenal amount of internet jokes citing his toughness, but the script takes this one further and has him delivering one of his own jokes about himself. Everyone in the audience is waiting for this moment and it works really well.

The levels of gory violence are pretty ferocious in this one again, recalling the fourth Rambo movie (reviewed here) and the previous film in this series as to showing just what the effects of various different weapons do to the human body. These films will, hopefully, make viewers very afraid of the devastating power of these weapons... which can only be a good thing in my opinion. It’s fun to watch the characters on screen cause bloody carnage but, like they say on the TV shows, don’t try this at home kids!

When all is said and done, though, it’s great to see all these fantastic action stars of yesteryear (that’d be from my time then) roaring into battle and ripping into their enemies in this one... yep, there’s definitely an emphasis on “rip-roaring” adventure here. And why not. A film doesn’t have to be surprising or clever to keep an audience entertained. True, it helps... but, frankly, the art of a well put together action movie is not to be sniffed at and this is definitely a well put together movie. Personally I would have liked to see a little more of Jason Statham in it, who I feel is a little neglected in places (I love watching “The Stath” in action) but at least his character doesn’t suffer the same fate as Jet Li’s in this... not that it’s much compensation.

All said and done, The Expendables 2 is a solid, more than competent and extremely entertaining, fast paced action thriller and it does exactly what is says on the tin. It’s not big on revelatory surprises, as I said... and don’t expect anything clever from the story. It’s one of those films that works well at it’s own level and the cast, all of the main cast, give absolutely rock solid performances and will doubtless bring a smile to your face in more than one place in the movie.

Formulaic... for sure. Fun... most certainly.

*Our Gang, later syndicated as The Little Rascals.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

My 500th Blog Post

Celluloid Mistress

Been doing this blog for just under two and a half years. Thought I'd give you all a quick peak into my brain for my 500th Blog Post. It's a pen and ink drawing done on a layout pad and then scanned into photoshop for colouring. Click the image to "embiggen." ;-)

Hope you like and thanks to all and any readers who stop by... I really appreciate it.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Moon Zero Two

High Moon

Moon Zero Two
UK 1969
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Warner Archives Edition Region 1

Woohoo! I still love this terrible, terrible movie. I think, next to the Quatermass remakes they did, it’s probably the greatest movie Hammer ever released. I’ve had a bit of a thing going for this one ever since I first watched the promise of the opening credits sequence evaporate into something... well... something “entirely unlike the opening credits sequence” when I was a kid.

Since it starts off with a jazzy, teeny bop pop song pitched against a Pink Panther meets It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World cartoon sequence (someone’s kindly put the opening titles on YouTube here), in which an animated “funny American astronaut” and a “funny Russian cosmonaut” land on the moon and start getting into fights and chases across the lunar surface, you know you’re in for a madcap comedy of epic and inter-stellar portions. Just scan a few of the lyrics here to find out what a wild and swinging treat you’re in for with this movie...

“Ooh, take me soon.... riiiiiiiiiiide me to the Moon” and “We’ll love the world we land on, and love is what we’ll be making, you know the way we’re flying, me and you”...

... and then, of course, you have to start asking yourself how these kinds of sexy lyrics and grooved up arrangements are “in any way” appropriate to two funny spacemen chasing each other with their nation’s respective flags over the lunar surface... but anyway... sometimes you just have to go with it...

So there you are, you’re all set to enter the world of the movie and you’re fully prepared to watch a sexy riot of laughter and heavy humour as the cartoon moon transforms into the “live action” moon of the opening shot and you’re met with... cold, dead, vaccuous, humourless space. Wow. The pacing has definitely dropped here already. After a while a spaceman picks up some debris for his his spaceship, which gives the main protagonist the chance to prove that the delivery of his lines leaves him as dead and humourless (possibly vaccuous, but I kinda like the guy) as the interstellar constellations outside his beaten up old lunar spacecraft.

Billed as the “first space western” (which it ain’t), Moon Zero Two is actually, as far as I’m concerned, an unrecognised gem of british genre cinema. It’s slow and sluggish and that’s as much as it is to do with the editing and general speed of the camera movements as it is to do with the “trying to come off jokey and fun but ending up deadpan anyway” acting by the main leads. This is not exactly a sharp and funny film... even when you’ve got two well known comic actors playing villanous roles... Warren Mitchell as the evil and exploitational mastermind Mr. 100% Hubbard and his heavy/henchman played by Bernard “Well I only arsked” Bresslaw, perhaps as well known to genre fans for his role as an ice warrior in Doctor Who as he was for his comedy shenanigans.

James Olsen plays the deadpan but, in my opinion, quite watchable in a realistic kitchen sink kind of way, Captain Kemp who gets himself hired by the less than legal Mr. 100% Hubbard to ensure an asteroid made of sapphire is kitted out to land on the dark side of the moon. Along with his faithful Russian engineer/copilot, he also gets involved with a young lady played by Catherine Schell, engaged in trying to find her missing brother who was trying to file a claim for a discovery on a piece of the moon’s surface which also just happens to be where Mr. Hubbard wants our hero to control-crash the asteroid, by a strange coincidence... or is it?

And all the while our hero tries to juggle these two tasks while also keeping out of trouble from his casual sex-buddy, space cop lady played by Adrienne Corri. On the way there are dancing girls, a zero gravity saloon brawl, a skeleton in a space suit, a shoot out on the moon's surface and an excuse for Catherine Schell to strip down to her underwear in order to stay alive (I’m so not complaining about this, by the way). It even has a scene with Michael Ripper in it which, if you’re a Hammer fan, counts for a lot. And if you think this sounds like a great plot and a fun time... well, you’re half right, It does have a classic B-movie plot which is kinda wasted on the presentation, if truth be told, and if ever there was a movie ripe for remaking with a modern sensibility then Moon Zero Two would be it!

Is it fun? Well I find it kinda fun to watch but then again, I’m watching it with a certain amount of fondness that most audiences wouldn’t allow it. So I think, for the majority of people the answer would be a resounding “no”. But it tries so hard and I kinda like it.

Within six years of the movie, a live action TV show by Gerry Anderson started airing on British TV. The show, called Space 1999, had a certain look and feel to it which, frankly, is not a million miles away from what’s on screen here. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if some of the props or costumes were later “procured” for the TV show... although I’m just guessing here. It even had Catherine Schell as a regular alien shape-shifter called Maya in the second series... again, whether they saw her in this movie is anybody’s guess.

For a film which is slow as treacle (which I actually like) and has flat delivery of a lot of the smart one liners... the score by jazz guy Don Ellis, who would go on to score The French Connection films for William Friedkin, is particularly interesting. It’s like the producers realised they had a slow movie on their hands and asked the guy to artificially speed the movie up by making the music more up tempo and exciting, in much the same way that Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven functions. So right from the start, a shot of the hero just walking across a room becomes full of musical excitement with jazzy pulses and big musical stings on the soundtrack, playing completely innapropriately against the content of the shots. And don’t get me wrong here... I love this score and wish the damned thing was out on CD already... I just think that, for a lot of the running time, it just doesn’t work in the context of the film itself. Which is a shame because I would love to see the kinds of images that could have gone with the music in this movie... which is often feeling like it’s Mickey Mousing* stuff which just isn’t visually present.

All this makes for a very entertaining film as far as I’m concerned and I could watch it often... I just find it entertaining for reasons other than those intended by the producers, I’m afraid. Although I love it dearly, and lets face it, in what other movie do you see two classic comics playing villains who come to a violent end (yeah , right, as if you didn’t see that was coming... they’re the villains!)? I couldn’t bring myself to recommend it for those readers who are into the fine art of movie watching. If, however, you’re like me and you cherish these kinds of spectacular celluloid disasters as much as I do, then you might want to rocket on and catch Moon Zero Two before people forget about this movie completely. It’s a nicely downbeat remedy to a lot of the other stuff kicking around at the time and you might just find yourself smiling more often than you think.

*Mickey Mousing is the practice, often used by film composers even to this day, of catching specific actions in a film with specific notes and stings to further express the timing of an action or enhance it within the context of the movie.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Strippers VS Werewolves

Stripping Yarns

Strippers VS Werewolves
UK 2012
Directed by Jonathan Glendening
Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment 
Region 2

Warning: A few little spoilers might start
howling at you from in here somewhere.

I have to admit that, judging from the handful of comments I’ve seen bandied about the IMDB on this movie, I’m in somewhat of a minority in having a positive outlook on this lofty work. That is to say... I think I may be the only person who liked it. Oh, well... wouldn’t be the first time I guess.

Strippers VS Werewolves is a very low budget British “horror comedy” which, I suspect, didn’t really make it into a general release at UK cinemas. I use the term “horror comedy” loosely because, frankly, this movie isn’t really going so much for the horror element... it’s definitely going for the jugular in the humour stakes though and using high levels of gore and, um, werewolvery to drive the laughs and very simple story forward.

Starting off, briefly, with a flashback to a strip club in the eighties exploding, the movie starts off proper with a guest appearance by Steven Berkoff, playing a gangland boss, who, with the aid of his hired thugs, is indulging in the “interrogation” of a man tied to a chair. Werewolves come to take the whole gang out, including Berkoff, but when the grateful man in the chair is thanking his perceived rescuers and shouting out their “hero werewolves” stature... he is shown the error of his ways when said beasts eat him too.

Meanwhile, a stripper called Justice (played by someone called Adele Silva?) is giving a private dance in a room to a customer who is getting decidedly hot under the collar. Not just hot, in fact, but positively hairy and as he lunges after Justice, the young lady does what anyone in her position might do in the heat (and hair) of the moment, and stabs the punter through the eye with her pen, killing him. Of course, when the owner of the establishment and the security/bouncer from the place come to investigate, the dead “wolf in punters clothing” has already changed back to his human form.

Now the movie could have easily gone off in the direction of the stripper in question not being believed for the first third or so of the movie, but it doesn’t do that, refreshingly. The owner of the club, Jeanette, who is played by Sarah Douglas (or The Alluring Sarah Douglas as the caption on the old Superman The Movie bubblegum cards used to go), has had experiences of this type of thing before. She asks Justice if it was a silver pen with which she stabbed her howling customer and, when this is confirmed, Jeanette knows enough to suspect trouble... for it was her strip club which exploded in the 80s, when she trapped a large group of werewolves inside.

After some shenanigans as Justice and the bouncer try to discreetly dispose of the body of the dead wolfman, we get to know the rest of “the gals” and the story goes into romantic first date territory for a little while as Justice’s friend gets frisky with the bouncer, but then that subplot is violently curtailed as the pack of werewolves from the start of the movie eat the guy whilst trying to find the people who killed their friend/colleague/pack member. For some reason, these wolves seem to have no source of regular income and are happy just going around murdering people. This could have been “filled in” a bit better I think.

One of the werewolves is Justice’s boyfriend, unbeknownst to her. She is worried about telling the boyfriend, who she thinks is an estate agent, that she’s a stripper. However, when she accidentally bites him in her sleep, she is infected with his accursed wolf’s blood and so this is another potential problem for our canine antagonists. After a brief cameo by Robert Englund (and if you like it, there’s another brief cameo by him after the end credits) the stage is set with a battle royale between the werewolves and the strippers... and also Justice, the new were-stripper, so to speak.

So okay, this is not the best movie in the world but some of the humour is quite good and there’s some light but blatant references to other, famous “wolfed up” movies... such as the prison Robert Englund’s character is residing in being called Chaney prison after the 1941 incarnation of the Universal's The Wolfman. There’s plenty of quite gory violence if you’re into that kind of thing, but there’s definitely a lot less nudity or actual stripping in the movie than you would expect from a film with this kind of title. I’m not complaining myself, but I can see how some people’s expectations would have been built up by the “not quite doing what the packaging on the tin implies” status on this one.

The girls are all lovely characters (thank goodness we have another movie here not frightened to stand up to the negative portrayal of sex workers in mostly anything else... give people some respect and credit for their career choices please) and the chemistry between them is great. All the performances seem more than competent (and in some cases pretty good) to me. On the other hand, the werewolves are quite derogatory, misogynistic f***wits who any self respecting male (or female for that matter) would not want to spend any time hanging out with... but that’s what helps define their characters as the villains, I guess, so I can’t complain about this element really. The characters are, presumably, meant to be abrasive so you cheer when any of them get taken out.

There’s a brilliant character who spends his time on the periphery of the main story... well, on the phone most of the time actually, but also the periphery. The boyfriend of one of the strippers is also a Van Helsing monster hunter type, who speaks of incidents like The Vampires Of Dagenham and such like and who spends most of his time in the film trying not to be killed by two sexy, lady vampires while giving werewolf killing instructions over the phone. He’s pretty cool and has major involvement in the epilogue, which takes the survivors of this tale following on from all out Strippers VS Werewolves war, and gives them a new start on a different career path... let’s just say that the movie sets things up for a sequel which I would love to see but suspect will never get made.

Strippers VS Werewolves won’t be winning any awards for best horror movie of the year, I suspect, and nor is it a fan favourite (obviously, from the bad word of mouth I’ve seen). It doesn’t quite seem as professionally a polished product as other “British comedy horror” movies of recent years... such as Dog Soldiers or Shaun Of The Dead, but you can see there’s more than a spark of an idea and you can tell that the production team were really trying hard on this. And, as a result, I did find the movie quite watchable and entertaining, in a weird kind of Redemption Films prologue meets Troma kind of way... but I can see why it isn’t for everybody.

However, as a nice slice of the genre pie for people who are into low budget gore flicks with a warm heart and which doesn’t take itself too seriously, you can do a lot worse than sitting down of an evening with a warm shandy and a spin of this little movie in your DVD player. I’m glad I picked this one up and may even give it a second spin sometime in the next few years.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

A Franchise Re-Bourne

The Bourne Legacy 2012 USA 
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: You will inherit a legacy 
of spoilers if you read this review.

You know, I really loved that first remake they did of The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon ten years ago. I’d not seen the 1988 Richard Chamberlain version (don’t worry, finally got my “cute derriere” in gear and put it on order after I typed those words... a review will be forthcoming) so I went into the cinema back in 2002 expecting... well... nothing much. I was so pleased and amazed by the quality of that first film. Everything was done perfectly and I loved the fact that Franke Potente was in it and being given a halfway decent role. It didn’t hurt that Ludlum was involved with the production on that one and Doug Liman’s assured direction combined with some powerhouse performances from some very strong actors, glossed over with some very well put together action sequences, meant I saw it multiple times at the cinema and was literally counting the days until the DVD release.

Sometime before the sequel, I read the first two of Robert Ludlum’s original trilogy of novels, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, and saw that they’d deviated quite a bit from the tone and some of the story elements of that original novel in the first movie, but that there were still strong links and similarities to the novel to not get too upset about it. Alas, all that went out of the window with the second movie which went off and did its own thing, suffering the same “buy the title and write something completely different” fate that the later Bond movies did. It’s a shame because the original plot of the novel where Bourne and his very able wife, working with the government to flush out Carlos the Jackal, makes for quite an interesting story. Instead, for the movie bearing that title, the writers and producers decided to kill off Bourne’s wife/girlfriend in the first ten minutes or so and just turn it into a revenge frame up story.

I wouldn’t have minded so much, maybe, if the film had been as addictive as the first one but Paul Greengrass’ direction was a little less than I’d been hoping for on this one and I also found the way the action sequences were edited very hard to follow. It was only Bourne’s confession to the daughter of two people he’d killed for the government at the end of the movie and then the little “whoop” of the end of his conversation with Ann Archer’s character, right at the end, that lifted it above the run-of-the mill action thriller.

The third movie, I suspect, is even more messed up in terms of faithfulness of adaptation because, as I understand it, the novel follows a continuation of the Carlos The Jackal storyline. This is jettisoned in favour of a movie which takes place, for the majority of its running time, sandwiched in between two shots from the end of the last movie, a little like Paranormal Activity 2, which manages to pull off the same trick. The story is intelligible enough, given life more than adequately by actors who could imbue the reading of the back of a cornflake packet with an almost unbearable sense of gravitas, but again the action is confusing and John Powell’s score just seems a little too subtle on that third outing... but the first two scores were such modern masterpieces, perhaps he found it too hard, or frankly, too boring, to pen something more like the first two. There is certainly a progression of thematic material here but it just doesn’t hit the right notes, if you’ll pardon the pun, for me to give it regular spins like I do the first two scores.

With Greengrass and Damon bowing out, the producers still wanted some more of the Bourne cash coming into their coffers, so this time around the story, such as it is, focuses on another agent in the field, Aaron Cross, played by up and coming actor Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in Thor and The Avengers). There’s a lot of sleight of hand going on around this movie to tie it into the original trilogy of movies by setting it at the same time as the last one and editing in shots and sequences from the previous movie to make things feel like you’re watching a bona fide Bourne movie, when in actual fact you are watching what could easily have been a non-franchise action movie.

Even the score by M. Night Shyamalan’s composer of choice, James Newton Howard, starts hitting you with thematic elements from John Powell’s previous three scores for the franchise, even underscoring the famous Universal logo as soon as it starts to appear. Various bits of leitmotif are played with or inverted as a progression in this score, in a much more pleasing way, it seemed to me, than Powell’s own thematic progression in The Bourne Ultimatum. I can’t wait to hear how this one plays on the CD soundtrack.

The movie starts off with Renner on a kind of refresher survival course for the shady government bureau who ran the Treadstone and Black Briar programmes in the first three movies. This is designed to establish two things about this character who, by the way, is never referred to as Jason Bourne... , thankfully (Someone he isn’t... it’s “legacy”, remember?). “Thing one” is that he’s a tough guy... breaking a record time to complete the refresher by two days without even realising there was a record to beat. “Thing two” seems to be to show that he’s a lot more laid back than Damon’s Jason Bourne character was in the first three movies. He may be a lean, mean, killing machine but he’s also a lot more human than a lot of his un-met colleagues.

Also set up is the new premise that this branch of the intelligence agency, at least, have their super soldiers on drugs with a series of coloured pills to enhance both physical abilities (a green pill) and intelligence (a blue pill). The events of the third movie with Jason Bourne on the loose means the decision comes to terminate the majority of the various similar government agents/assassins in the field. For many, this is easily accomplished by instructing their agents to replace their blue and green pills with a yellow pill which will kill them shortly after swallowing. Being as he is in the wilderness, however, Renner is hunted with rocket firing drones instead, until he manages to lose his hip implanted ID chip (the same kind Bourne had cut out of his hip in the first movie in the series).

Meanwhile, a doctor is ordered by the government to take out all the high level scientists researching the drugs and he succeeds in killing the whole team apart from Dr. Marta Shearing, played by the brilliant Rachel Weisz, before turning the gun on himself. When the agency come to rectify her lucky escape at her house a little later, and you will definitely see that coming way before Shearing does, Aaron Cross comes to save the day, as he needs the drugs he thinks Shearing makes to keep him going. The two go on the run to Manilla so science whizz Dr. Shearing can concoct a viral lock to keep Cross off his blues permanently... pursued by the agency, the police and a super assassin the next stage up from the previous government super soldier programmes known about thus far. Yeah, okay. It’s a bit of a convenient and cringeworthy story element I suppose.

And as you can see... the plot on this one is very much a step down and long monologues about the science behind the drugs and intense high security meetings within the intelligence agency don’t quite hide the fact that this is a basic run, jump and chase story with a less complex plot than many other action movies out there at the moment. As such, I suspect, the producers might have been better making this as a stand alone film outside of the Bourne universe.

That being said though...

Just because the story is simplistic, this doesn’t stop the movie from being any good. The acting is top notch, as you’d expect from the cast assembled from this one, and the action/suspense sequences are quite well handled (better than in the last two) with all the run-jump-shoot-drive shenanigans being edited in a much more coherent and pulse-pounding manner. The final chase scene is a little anti-climactic, perhaps... you never do see Cross and the other super soldier go toe-to-toe in anything like a fist fight... but there’s a definite plus in that Rachel Weisz’s character shoulders a lot of the responsibility for the elimination of this threat and I was quite pleased that the final showdown, which I hadn’t even realised was the final showdown until it was over, was handled in a less formulaic manner. The story expectations really needed some kind of a lift.

As to be expected with these kind of tent peg movies, the film ends with the way clear for an inevitable sequel but with enough plot points tied up that it feels like the story could come to a close here if the producers let it. It’s not a bad ending and it leaves you with the slight hint of romantic promise for the characters, should they choose to go down that path.

All in all, if you were a fan of the last three movies and were attracted by the action sequences and the power-build, propulsive string bass and percussion lead, light techno infused scoring then you really shouldn’t have any problem with enjoying this movie at this level. It’s a pretty cool action piece. If, on the other hand, you were more enamoured of the story in the last three outings... well you might find some of the writing in this one a little dull and simplistic in places. I’d still say “give it a go” though. A little well choreographed action cinema can be just what the doctor ordered on occasion.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Ship Of Monsters (La Nave De Los Monstruos)

Monster Mash

The Ship Of Monsters 
(La Nave De Los Monstruos)
Mexico 1960
Directed by Rogelio A. González
The Camden Collection Region 0

Warning: There are spoilers in here but, seriously, 
are you actually going to watch this one anyway?

I finally got around to watching this rarely seen (at least in this country) Mexican sci-fi horror B-movie from 1960 the other day in a subtitled version and all I can say is that two words will always come to mind when I think of this movie in the future. Fantastic and terrible. 

Depending how you use these two words, will determine whether you are interested in ever seeing this movie yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I would have to say that my personal arrangement of these words is not, as some might favour, to report that the film is “terribly fantastic”. Instead I have to confess, and I’m sure some of you would prefer this anyway, that the film is indeed... fantastically terrible.

So Mexican, black and white, released and probably made in 1960... to me this means it’s pretty much a 1950s movie in concept and, indeed, you couldn’t find that many better 50s B-movies which inscribe all the right check marks, if you tried, than this one does. Starting off with a prologue about “the atom” and man’s prowess (or lack of) at harnessing it (yes, 50s B-movie paranoia already in the first minute of the movie), the film then takes us straight to the matriarchy of the planet Venus. Matriarchy, in fact, because all the Venusian males on the planet have died from their own “atomic meddling”... how or why this has left a planet full of only women is not made clear. Two young ladies, Gamma and Beta are given the mission of roaming the galaxy and kidnapping the finest male specimens they can get from different planets to kickstart the Venusians back into shape with their specially devised breeding programme. You can see from the pictures of the aliens at the top of this post that the two Venusian beauties may not really be thinking quite straight... as these are the best they can come up with after the credits sequence which suddenly jumps us, after a few minutes, to the end stages of their mission. 

However... something is wrong with their 1950s cool, rockety shaped spacecraft (I’m sure I’ve seen the interior set of this in at least one of the Santo movies) and they have to land on this strange planet called Earth, so their newly acquired, noisy but extremely intelligent robot can make repairs. The two ladies step out onto the earth’s surface and then conclude that the air and atmosphere are enough like their own that it can sustain life...

What the @$%&*!

Let me just repeat that. The two ladies step out onto the earth’s surface and then conclude that the air and atmosphere are... are these gals stupid or what? A ship full of technologically advanced alien technology and instead of checking the atmosphere’s chemical composition etc... they step outside and see if they choke themselves to death to ascertain whether they can breathe in the Earth’s atmosphere or not. There’s no way these girls are going to be smart enough to succeed in their diabolical yet sexy mission! Anyway... enough of that. Cut to...

A singing cowboy, riding his horse and singing to the camera at what a misunderstood but lovable rogue he is. OMG! Within ten minutes of the movie starting, this has turned into a sci-fi western. This is brilliant. And this guy is satisfying the dual elements of hero and comic relief in this movie! This is great.

It gets greater still, when our melodious young hero bumps into the two women who get interested in him as a potential “male specimen”, ripe for their breeding programme. Obviously the cultural void left on Venus by the dearth of “singing cowboys” is something that has been weighing heavily on their minds. Maybe it’s the fact that this guy doesn’t have a giant brain sticking out of his oversize head, is not covered in stretchable fur, doesn’t have a cyclopean eye that wiggles about overactively on a stalk and isn’t, in fact, an animated animal skeleton, that makes him a more attractive proposition to the ladies in question... if their other "male specimens" are anything to go by. So later on, they go to visit our hero, Lauriano, and his kid brother and Lauriano explains to the ladies... and their big lumbering robot... the meaning of love by singing the lyrics of a bizarrely karaoke instrumental record from his juke box and, also, by giving them a kiss. Once they understand the concept of love, of course, both the Venusian girls want him for herself. Even the robot gets a bit frisky when he admires “the valves” on Lauriano’s “sexy” jukebox.

The gals go back to their ship of monsters to hasten repairs and argue about who gets to “do it” with Lauriano but somehow... and you have to believe I’m not making this up... one of the two wanders off somewhere and when the other (and don’t ask me which is which out of these sexy Italian women.. I kept getting them confused) monitors her on her unfeasibly all-seeing video screen in the ship... she discovers the other’s closely guarded secret. 

Yes, that’s right. You guessed it didn’t you? 

One of the girls is really an undercover, bloodsucking vampire from the planet Uranus. What’s that? You didn’t see that startling juxtaposition coming? Neither did I? What the heck? This movie just turned into a science fiction/western/horror movie for, as far as I can make out, absolutely no apparent reason whatsoever! 

But of course (of course... eh?) bloodsucking vampirism is illegal on Venus and so Gamma, or possibly Beta, makes the other her prisoner so she can execute her later before getting back to the business in hand. However, our fanged and flying vampire escapes and captures the other. She then frees the alien monsters and strikes a deal with them to destroy the earth... promising to marry the big headed geezah with the brains that spill out decoratively from the top of his head. Some of the dialogue in this movie, if not all, is absolutely hilarious.

After all this happens, it’s a matter of intrigue and adventure as the loving Venusian who wants to marry Lauriano is rescued by him. After this, Lauriano manages to distract the Vampire lady, who wants him too, by singing at her and dancing until she is distracted enough to allow him to steal the robot control unit and the tables are turned. This is followed by a massive chase and punch up with all the principle cast until the aliens and vampire are vanquished and the true message of love is broadcast to the doomed female population of Venus. The robot, alone, returns to Venus... accompanied by Lauriano’s juke box, who dances and sings a song with him. True mechanical love is found!

This movie is, frankly, nuts and I enjoyed every minute of it. There is even some not too subtle dig at a famous Italian star of the time. Lauriano has a cow who he says bad things about and who he has named Lollabrigida. ‘nuff said.

There’s also some great special effects amidst the truly terrible ones. The aliens are laughable but the prosthetics on them, such as the cyclops’ overactive eye-on-a-stalk, are really quite good. The furry creature's stretching (like Mr. Fantastic) arms work surprisingly well (better than in Corman’s version of The Fantastic Four, reviewed here, that’s for sure) and the animation in the fight scenes of the animal skeleton creature is truly amazing. You won’t see any operators or strings here!

All in all, then, it’s an absolutely terrible sci-fi/western/horror mash up which has so much tackiness and fun in it that I couldn’t help but be absolutely charmed by it. I’m pretty sure the robot and aliens in this one probably turned up in other movies... either before or after... but I don’t know which ones. If you’re a fan of the absolute tackiest of 1950s and 1960s “atomic age” B-movies though, then you’re in for a treat. Try and get a hold of this one... it’s worth it’s weight in valves.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy

Cloning Around

Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy
UK Airdate: 1st - 22nd October 1979
BBC Region 2

All of us kids were Star Wars’d up, you see?

That is to say, the average younger viewer of Doctor Who back in 1979 was pretty much still primarily discussing the first installment of The Mighty Lucas’ epic sci-fi serial at the time... and many people ended up riding the Star Wars bandwagon. Some people used the opportunity of the public’s obsession with all things “space opera” to resurrect and fund projects which might not otherwise have been green lit in the past, such as Luigi Cozzi’s "Sinbad in space" variant Star Crash or the first of the Star Trek films... while others found themselves having to temporarily scrap planned projects in order to retool their next movie into something with some “full-on” space and laser gun action, such as the Bond film Moonraker, usurping the planned “adaptation” of For Your Eyes Only and putting it on ice for a little longer. The box office clout of Star Wars could not be ignored by the various studios who produced their own attempts at similar space n’ action oriented films such as The Black Hole, The Humanoid, Battlestar Galactica, Battle Beyond The Stars and so on. Everybody was looking at trying to get similar plot elements into their own movies... and the kids all loved it.

Now don’t get me wrong... I’m not (outright) saying that the invention of the robotic dog K9 was a direct result of the droid R2D2 in Star Wars. I understand that the idea to have him become a new companion (aka robotic sidekick) in the show was not decided upon until quite late in the day... but I really think there must have been some of that kind of thinking going on with his creation somewhere down the line.

The Invisible Enemy, starring Tom Baker as The Doctor and Louise Jameson as his primitive assistant/companion Leela, is a story which seems very caught up in the time of the upsurge in science fiction of heroics with laser guns, having already recently seen off a direct competitor scheduled by ITV to battle The Doctor in his very own timeslot (that’d be Space 1999) and now responding to the changing playing field of big budgeted sci-fi movies. Perhaps that’s why there seem to be a fair few “ray gun” style battles in Doctor Who around this time... this four part story being no exception.

However, Bob Baker and David Martin’s script for the story shows not just the influence of the Star Wars crowd in its make-up and, to be fair, the trappings injected into the story to compete at some level with what the younger segment of the audience had come to expect from their recent cinema trips are, after all, only trappings. Laser guns and robotic companions are merely set dressing which can be added or subtracted after the fact to pretty much any story written for the show. What’s also apparent is that the story also shows the tremendous influence of the movie Fantastic Voyage. Written by Jerome Bixby & Otto Klement for the movie and not, as is commonly believed, by Isaac Asimov who actually only wrote a novelisation from the script, which was released a fair bit before the movie premiered... Fantastic Voyage tells the story in which a nuclear submarine crewed by a team of scientists is miniaturised to roam the insides of a patient and clear his blood clot by blasting it with a laser beam (if memory serves).

This Doctor Who story, in particular, suffers from the fact that, although it’s quite intelligent in premise, it’s padded out with a lot of unnecessary fighting and action which is fairly badly choreographed (I mean, I like to see a scantily clad Louise Jameson tumbling about on the floor shooting at people in the hopes that her cleavage won’t always defy physics as much as the next person... but it gets tiresome after a while) and the special effects, while good in a few spots, are mostly quite terrible it has to be said. Normally I wouldn’t expect this to detract from the writing, but it kinda does on this one. I think this story would have been much better served cutting it down to a three parter but there weren’t that many three parters made in the history of the show.

People taken over/infected by an alien virus called the Nucleus battle against the uninfected for control of a facility to breed their swarm of alien creatures and take over the universe. After infecting The Doctor it’s up to Leela, Professor Marius and the good professor’s faithful robot dog, K9, to distract the Nucleuses telepathically linked subordinates while miniaturised clones of The Doctor and Leela are inserted into the brain and walk around The Doctor’s head to eject the alien creature. They do this but the Nucleus uses their escape route (through The Doctor’s tear duct) and so the last episode becomes about even more gun battles as The Doctor and Leela try to blow up the alien and assorted bad guys. At the end of the story, Professor Marius is all set to return to earth but worries about taking his invention, K9, with him so he asks The Doctor to allow K9 to accompany them on their travels... something many a regular Doctor Who actor and film crew would regret over the years. It’s said that an actor should never work with animals and children and K9 proved that the old adage could also be extended to mechanical creatures... since he hardly ever worked and usually screwed up 9 out of 10 takes, by all accounts. Stories that Tom Baker kicked him clear across the set at least once can be well believed, I think.

The Invisible Enemy is not unpleasant to watch but, if truth be told, it is quite dull on the whole. Despite the good chemistry between Baker and Jameson, this particular story doesn’t seem to have the charm of the Pertwee years about it and, while entertaining in places, it’s not something I would call a fun watch and it’s not one I would have normally chosen to part money with to visit again, had it not made up part of the boxed edition of K9 Tales which housed the K9 And Company TV spin off I wanted to revisit. If you’re not used to Doctor Who from this specific period and want to see a good story with both The Doctor and Leela in it, I think I’d have to recommend something like The Talons Of Weng Chiang as a better starting place than this. This one, I feel, is more for completists only... which is something I am not.